When Erin replaced the telephone receiver, there were tears glistening in her eyes. She hated being weak, hated the emotion that clogged her throat and knotted her fists at her side.

So Brand would be spending the next six months sailing between Hong Kong, the Philippines and several other exotic ports. Great. She was pleased for him. Happy, even.

It was the end for them. It was over. Done. Finished.

At first, when she’d answered the phone, the excitement she felt hearing Brand’s voice had taken the sting from his words. He must have known how she would react to his news and been worried about telling her, because he’d barely answered her greeting before launching into the dreary details of this six-month assignment. To be fair, he hadn’t sounded any too pleased about going out to sea himself, but that didn’t change anything.

He’d leave without a qualm and without question. Why? Because the navy owned him the way it did her father and everyone else she’d grown up with, and she hated it.

But the United States Navy would never own her again. Never!

Brand had paused after telling her – waiting, it seemed, for some response from her. Her reaction had been immediate, but she’d shared damn little of it with Brand. When reality had begun to sink in, a deep sense of anger, loss, resentment and fear had crowded in around her like teenagers against the stage at a rock concert.

It was the same indescribable sensation that had come over her every time her father had announced he’d received a new assignment and they’d be moving.

Those identical emotions stormed at her once again. She felt like a casualty of a major disaster. Homeless. Lost emotionally and physically. Wandering around in the blue haze of insecurities that came when everything familiar, everything comfortable, had been pulled out from under her feet.

Erin had thought to escape that feeling for the rest of her life. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, allow Brand to drag her back into that crazy lifestyle.

"I’m going to miss loving you," she spoke into the stillness of the room.

She would miss Brand. As silly as it seemed, she’d miss the loneliness of waiting for his calls. The joy of his coming and the pain of his leaving. All those were part of the man she had to learn to stop loving.

The following morning, Erin called in sick. Unfortunately, it was Aimee who answered the phone.

"You don’t sound sick," her friend announced first thing. "In fact, you sound as if you’ve sat up all night crying. I can hear it in your voice."

"I… Just write me down as sick, would you? Tell Eve I’ve got the flu, or make up some other excuse." She finished by hiccuping on a sob.

"Aha! So I was right, you have been crying. What’s wrong, sweetie?"


"You think you’re fooling me? Think again, girl!"

"Come on, Aimee," Erin mumbled. "Be nice. I don’t want to talk about it."

"It must be Brand. What did he do that was so terrible this time? Send you roses? Tell you you’re beautiful?"

"He’s going out to sea for six months," she blurted out, as though someone should arrest him for even considering leaving her feeling the way she did. "He hasn’t had sea duty in two years. He met me, and wham – the navy puts the kiss of death on anything developing between us. I… couldn’t be more pleased---It couldn’t have come at a better time."

"You don’t mean a word of that. Listen, I’ve got a light schedule this morning. How about if I drop in and we have one of our heart-to-heart talks. It sounds like you could use one."

"All right," Erin agreed, "only…hurry, would you?"

Aimee arrived around ten. Erin was dressed in her housecoat and her fuzzy pink slippers with the open toes. Her mother had sent her the shoes the Christmas before last, and just then Erin needed something from home.

She carried the tissue box with her to the door, blew her nose and then carelessly tossed the used Kleenex on the carpet.

Aimee walked into the house and followed the trail of discarded tissues into the kitchen. "Good grief, it looks like you held a wake in here."

"The funny part is," Erin said, sobbing and laughing both at the same time, "I don’t even know why I’m crying. So Brand’s going off to sea. Big deal. It isn’t like I didn’t anticipate he would. He’s navy."

"You’re in love with him is why." Standing on tiptoe, Aimee reached inside Erin’s tallest cupboard and brought down a teapot. "Sit down," she said, pointing toward the table. "I’ll brew us some tea."

"There’s coffee made."

"You need tea."

Erin wasn’t sure she understood, but she wasn’t in any mood to question her friend’s illogical wisdom. If Aimee wanted to brew her a strong cup of tea, then far be it from her to argue.

"I’ve learned something important," Erin announced once Aimee had joined her.

"Oh?" Her co-worker reached across the table for the sugar bowl and added a liberal amount to Erin’s cup. "Tell me."

"I’ve decided falling in love is the most wonderful, most… creative, most incredible feeling in the world."

"Yes," Aimee agreed with some reluctance. "It can be."

"But at the same time it’s the most destructive, painful, distressing emotion I’ve ever experienced."

"Welcome to the real world. If it were only the first part, we’d all make a point of falling in love regularly. Unfortunately, it involves a whole lot more."

"I always thought it was roses and sunshine and sharing a glass of expensive wine while sitting in front of a brick fireplace. I had no idea it was so… so painful."

"It can be." Aimee held the delicate china cup with both hands. "Trust me, I know exactly what you’re going through."

"You do?"

Her friend nodded. "Steve moved out of the house last weekend. We’ve decided to contact our respective lawyers. It’s going to be a challenge to see which one of us can file for the divorce first."

Erin couldn’t hold back her gasp of surprise. "You didn’t say anything earlier in the week."

"What’s there to say? It isn’t something I want to announce to the office, not that you’d spread the word. The way I figure it, everyone’s going to find out sooner or later anyway, and personally, I prefer later."

"How are you feeling?"

Aimee gave an inelegant shrug. "AH right, I guess. It isn’t like this mess happened overnight. Steve and I haven’t been getting along for the last couple of years. Frankly, it’s something of a relief that he’s gone."

Erin could understand what her friend was saying. The break with Brand had been inevitable. She’d delayed it too long as it was, hoping they’d come up with a solution, a means of compromise, anything that would make what they shared work.

"What we need is a plan of action," Aimee announced with characteristic enthusiasm. "Something that’s going to get us both through this with our minds intact."

"Shopping?" Erin suggested.

"You’re joking? 1 can’t afford panty hose until payday, and on the advice of my attorney I dare not use the credit cards."

"What, then?" Everything Erin could think of involved money.

Gnawing at the corner of her mouth, Aimee mulled over their dilemma. "I think we should start dating again."

"Dating?" Erin sounded doubtful. "But you’re still married, and I’m not interested right now… Maybe later."

"You’re right. Dating is a bit drastic. It sounds simple enough, but where the hell would we find men? The bowling alley?"

"But I don’t think we should rule out casual relationships," Erin qualified. "Nothing serious, of course."

"Next month, then. We’ll give ourselves a few weeks to mentally prepare for reentering the dating scene. We’ll diet and change our hair and get beautiful all over again and wow ‘em."

In a month Erin might consider the idea, but for now it left her cold. "What about now? How are we going to get through… today?"

"Well…" Aimee paused. "I think we’re both going to have to learn to survive," she said, and her small voice quavered.

Erin handed her a fresh tissue. They hugged each other, promising to support one another.

"Love is hell," Erin blubbered.

"So is being alone," Aimee whispered.

Brand stood in front of the telephone and stared at the numbers for a long while. He’d had a couple of drinks, and although his mind was crystal-clear, he wasn’t sure contacting Erin was the thing to do, especially now.

Damn it all, the woman had him tied up in knots a sailor couldn’t undo. He was due to ship out in a few days, but if he didn’t clear up this matter with Erin, it would hang over his head for the entire six months. He couldn’t go to sea with matters unsettled between them the way they were.

More than likely she’d slam the phone down in his ear.

What the hell? It was either phone her or regret the fact he hadn’t. Brand had learned early in his career that it wasn’t the things he’d done that he regretted, it was the things he hadn’t done.

"What’s the worst that can happen?" he asked himself aloud, amused that he’d picked up Erin’s habit of talking to herself.

He answered himself. "She can say no."

"She’s as good as turned you down before," his other self argued.

"Quit talking and just do it."

Following his own advice, Brand punched out the numbers that would connect him with his beautiful Irish rose. The phone rang seven times before she answered.

"Hello." She sounded groggy, as if he’d gotten her out of bed. The picture of her standing there in her kitchen, her hair mussed and her body warm and supple, was enough to tighten his loins.

"Erin? It’s Brand."

"Brand?" She elevated her voice with what Brand felt certain must be happiness. She loved him. She might try to convince herself otherwise, but she was crazy about him.

"Hello, darling."

"Do you have any idea what time it is?" she demanded.

"Nope. Is it late?"

"You’ve been drinking."

Now that sounded like an accusation, one he didn’t take kindly to. "I’ve had a couple of drinks. I was celebrating."

"Why’d you call me? You sound three sheets to the wind, Lieutenant."

Brand closed his eyes and leaned his shoulder against the wall. If he tried hard enough, he might be able to pretend Erin was in the same room with him. He needed her. He loved her, and, damn it all, he wanted her with him, especially when he wasn’t going to be able to hold or kiss her for six long months.

"Brand," she repeated. "I’m standing here in my stocking feet, shivering. I’d bet cold cash you didn’t phone because you were looking for a way to waste your hard-earned money, now did you?"

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