"I love you, darling."

His words were met with silence.

"Come on, Erin, don’t be so cruel. Tell me what you feel. I need to hear it."

"I think we should both go back to bed and forget we ever had this conversation."

Brand groaned. "Come on, sweetheart. I never realized how stingy you are with your affections."


"All right, all right, if you insist, I’ll tell you why I phoned. Only – Hold on a minute, will you?" He set the phone down on the table, then climbed down on one knee. It took some doing, because the floor insisted upon buckling under his feet. He didn’t drink often, and a few shots of good Irish whiskey had affected him far more than he’d realized.

"Brand, what the hell are you doing?"

"I’m ready now," he whispered. Drawing in a deep breath, he started speaking once more. "Can you hear me?"

"Of course I can hear you."

"Good." Now that it had come time, Brand discovered he was shaking like a leaf caught in a whirlwind. His heart was pounding like an automatic hammer. "Erin MacNamera, I love you, and I’m asking you on bended knee to become my wife."

Chapter Eight

Standing on the bridge, a pair of binoculars clenched tightly in his hands, Brand stared at mile upon mile of open sea. The horizon was marked by an endless expanse of blue, cloudless sky. The wind was brisk, carrying with it the scent of salt and sea. Taking in deep breaths, Brand dragged several lungfuls of the fresh air through his chest.

This was his second week sailing the waters of the Pacific. Generally Brand relished sea duty. There was a special part of his soul that found solace while at sea. He felt removed from the frantic activity of life on the land, set apart in a time and place for reconciliation with himself and his world.

Brand was grateful for sea duty, especially now, with the way matters had worked out with Erin. These next few months would give him the necessary time to heal.

"Hannah… Oh, God. I’d hoped you’d come," he whispered between kisses. "But I didn’t expect it."

"I’m sorry, so sorry for everything," she sobbed.

His mouth covered hers, halting her words. "Shh," he pleaded, kissing her face, her neck, bouncing his lips off hers as though he weren’t certain even now that she was there with him and that she was actually in his arms.

Hannah had to pinch herself to know it was real. Nothing could have prepared her for the kaleidoscope of wild emotions that burst to life within her. It was as if she’d lain dormant the entire time Riley had been to sea. Only upon his return could she feel again, and feel she did: warm and loved and needed. Tears splashed down the side of her face.

"We’ll talk later," Riley promised. "But for now let me kiss you."

"Yes," she cried, "yes." She slipped her arms around his neck, standing on her tiptoes as she nestled her face in the curve of his neck. For now there was no mired past, only the present, which felt incredibly right, incredibly good.

Several minutes sped past. It might have been hours, for all Hannah knew. Riley gently eased her away from him as he carefully studied her. His eyes widened when he noticed how nicely round her stomach had become. Silence stretched into silence.

Hannah pushed the knotted emotion from her throat enough to be able to speak normally. "As you can see, I’ve been eating well."

His gaze rested on the strained buttons of her coat, and a gloating, happy smile curved up the corners of his mouth. "How are you feeling?"

She grinned. "Never better."

"And Junior?"

"He’s growing like a weed. I…1 think we might have a soccer champion on our hands."

Riley laughed outright. "So he’s doing his share of kicking these days?"

Hannah nodded. "You’ll be able to feel him now."

"Good. I’ll look forward to doing exactly that." He reached for his duffel bag, tossing it over his shoulder with familiar ease. "Shall we go home, my love?" he asked, draping his free arm over her shoulders.

Hannah agreed with a quick nod of her head. Home. Their home. It was where she belonged. Where Riley belonged. The two of them together.

Erin was out of his life. But he still loved her. He probably always would feel something very special for her. He’d analyzed his feelings a thousand times, hoping to gain perspective. He’d discovered that the depth, the strength, of his love wasn’t logical or even reasonable. She’d made her views plain from the day they met, yet he’d egotistically disregarded everything she’d claimed and fallen for her anyway. Now he had to work like hell to get her out of his mind.

She’d flatly turned down his proposal of marriage. At first, after he’d asked her on bended knee, she’d tried to make light of it, claiming it was the liquor talking. Brand had assured her otherwise. He loved her enough to want to spend the rest of his life with her. He wanted her to be the mother of his children and to grow old with him. She’d gotten serious then and started to weep softly. At least Brand chose to believe those were tears, although Erin had tried hard to make him believe she was actually laughing at the implausibility of them ever finding happiness together.

She claimed his proposal was a last-ditch effort on his part, and on that account Erin might have been right. The fear of losing her had consumed him from the moment he’d received his orders. Rightly so, as it had worked out.

So Erin was out of his life. He’d given it his best shot, been willing to do almost anything to keep her, but it hadn’t worked. In retrospect, he could be pragmatic about their relationship. It was time to move on. Heal. Grow. Internalize what he’d learned from loving her.

One thing was sure. Brand wasn’t going to fall in love again any time soon. It hurt too damn much.

The breeze picked up, and the wind whipped around his face. He squinted into the sun, more determined than ever to set Erin from his mind.

Erin’s philosophy in life was relatively simple. Take one day at a time and treat others as she expected to be treated herself. The part about not dating anyone in the military and not overcharging her credit cards was an uncomplicated down-to-earth approach to knowing herself.

Then why had she bought a grand piano?

Erin had asked herself that question ten times over the past several days. She’d been innocently walking through the mall one Saturday afternoon, browsing. She certainly hadn’t intended to make a major purchase. Innocently she’d happened into a music store, looking for a cassette tape by one of her favorite artists, and paused in front of the polished mahogany piano.

There must have been something about her that caught the salesman’s attention, because he’d sauntered over and casually asked her if she played.

Erin didn’t, but she’d always wanted to learn. From that point until the moment the piano was scheduled to be delivered to the house, Erin had repeatedly asked herself what she was doing purchasing an ultraexpensive grand piano.

"How many credit cards did it take?" Aimee had asked her, aghast, when she heard what Erin had done.

"Three. I’d purposely kept the amount I could borrow low on all my cards. I never dreamed I’d spend that much money at one time."

Running her hand over the keyboard, Aimee slowly shook her head. "It’s a beautiful piece of furniture."

"The salesman gave me the name of a lady who teaches piano lessons, and before you know it I’ll be another Van Cliburn." Erin forced a note of enthusiasm into her voice, but it fell short of any real excitement.

"That sounds great." Aimee’s own level of zeal was decidedly low.

In retrospect, Erin understood why she’d done something so crazy as to buy an expensive musical instrument on her credit cards. The two men who’d delivered the piano had explained it to her without even knowing her psychological makeup.

"I hope you don’t intend to move for a long time, lady," the short, round-faced man had said once they’d maneuvered the piano up her front steps.

Getting the piano into the house had been even more of a problem. Her living room was compact as it was, and the deliverymen had been forced to remove the desk and rearrange the furniture before they found space enough for the overly large piano.

"If you do decide to move, I’d include the piano in the sale of the house," the second man had said to her as he used his kerchief to wipe the sweat from his brow. His face had been red, and his face had glistened with perspiration.

"I don’t plan on moving," she’d been quick to assure them both.

"It’s a damn good thing," the first had muttered on his way out the door.

"If you do plan on moving out of the area, don’t call us," the second had joked.

Brand had been gone one month, and Erin had maxed out three credit cards with the purchase of one grand piano. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t have located middle C on the keyboard to save her soul. Nor did it concern her that she’d be making payments for three years at interest rates that made the local banks giddy with glee. What did matter, Erin discovered, was that she was making a statement to herself and to Brand.

She had no intention of ever leaving Seattle. And she certainly wasn’t going to allow a little thing like the United States Navy stand in the way of finding happiness. Not if it meant leaving the only roots she’d ever planted!

If Erin was actually in love with Brand – and that it was as tall as the World Trade Center – then she was going to force herself to fall out of love with him.

The piano was symbolic of that. Her first move had been to reject his marriage proposal. Her second had been to purchase the piano.

Friday night Erin and Aimee met at a Mexican restaurant and ordered nachos. They’d decided earlier in the day to make an effort to have fun, drown their sorrows in good Mexican beer, and if they happened to stumble across a couple of decent-looking men, then it wouldn’t hurt anyone if they were to flirt a little. For fun, Aimee had promised to give Erin lessons in attracting the opposite sex.

"We can have a good time without Steve and Brand," she insisted.

"You’re absolutely right," Erin agreed. But the two of them had looked and acted so forlorn that they’d had trouble attracting a waiter’s attention, let alone any good-looking, eligible men.

"You know what our problem is?" Aimee asked before stuffing a nacho in her mouth.

Erin couldn’t help being flippant. "Too many jalapenos and not enough cheese?"

Aimee was quick to reply. "No. We re not trying hard enough. Then again, maybe we’re trying too hard. I’m out of touch… I don’t know what we’re doing wrong."

For her part, if Erin tried any harder, the bank was going to confiscate her credit cards. As it was, she was in debt up to her eyebrows for a piano she couldn’t play.

"We’re trying," Erin insisted. She scanned the restaurant and frowned. It seemed every man there was sitting with a woman. Aimee was the one who claimed this place was great for meeting men, but then, her friend had been out of the singles’ world for over a decade. Apparently everyone who’d met there had married and returned as couples.

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