"Oh, my – " Aimee gave a small cry and scooted down so far in the crescent-shaped booth that she nearly slid under the table.
"What is it?"
"Where?" Erin demanded, frantically looking around. She didn’t see him in any of the booths.
"He just walked in, and… he’s with a woman."
Erin had never met Aimee’s husband, but she’d seen several pictures of him. She picked him out immediately. He was standing against the white stucco wall with a tall, thin blonde at his side. Tall and thin. Every woman’s nightmare.
"You can’t stay under the table the rest of the night," Erin insisted in a low whisper. "Why should you? You don’t have anything to hide."
A tense moment passed before Aimee righted herself. "You’re absolutely right. I’m not the one out with a floozy." Riffling her fingers through her hair, Aimee squared her shoulders and nonchalantly reached for a nacho. She did a good job of masquerading her pain, but it was apparent, at least to Erin, that her friend was far more ruffled than she let on.
As luck would have it, Steve and his blonde strolled directly past their booth. Aimee stared straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge her husband. Erin, however, glared at him with eyes hot enough to form glass figurines.
Steve, tall and muscular, glanced over his shoulder and nearly faltered when he saw Aimee. His gaze quickly moved to Erin, and although she could have been imagining it, Erin thought he looked relieved to discover that his wife wasn’t with a man.
His mouth opened, and he hesitated, apparently at a loss for words. After whispering something to his companion, he returned to Aimee and Erin’s table.
"Hello," she answered calmly, smiling serenely in his direction. Erin nearly did a double take. Her co-worker had been hiding under the table only a few seconds earlier.
"I… You look well."
"So do you. You remember me mentioning Erin MacNamera, don’t you?"
"Of course." Steve briefly nodded in Erin’s direction, but it was clear he was far more interested in talking to his wife than in exchanging pleasantries with Erin. "I… thought I should explain about Danielle," he said, rushing the words. "This isn’t actually a date, and – "
"Steve, please, you don’t owe me an explanation. Remember, you’re divorcing me. It doesn’t matter if you’re seeing someone else. Truly it doesn’t."
"I thought you were the one divorcing me."
"Are we going to squabble over every single detail? It seems a bit ridiculous, don’t you think? But technically I suppose you’re right. I am the one filing, so that does mean I am the one divorcing you."
"I don’t want you to have the wrong impression about me and Danielle. We – "
"Don’t worry about it. I’m dating again myself."
"You are?" Steve asked the question before Erin could. He straightened and frowned before continuing. "I didn’t know… I’m sorry to have troubled you."
"It was no trouble." Once more she leveled a serene smile at him, and then she intentionally looked away, casually dismissing him. Steve returned to the blond bombshell, and Erin stared curiously at Aimee.
"You’re dating yourself?" Erin muttered under her breath. "I never expected you’d lie."
"I fully intend to date again," Aimee countered sharply. "Someday. I’m just not ready for it yet, but I will be soon enough and – " Her voice faltered, and she bit mercilessly into her lower lip. "Actually, I’ve lost my appetite. Would you mind terribly if we called it an evening?"
"Of course I don’t mind," Erin said, glaring heatedly at Steve, who was sitting several booths down from them. But when it came right down to it, Erin didn’t know who she was angriest with – Aimee, for pretending Steve didn’t have the power to hurt her any longer, or Steve, who appeared equally afraid to let his wife know how much he cared. As a casual observer, Erin had to resist the urge to slap the pair of them.
The dreams returned that night. The ones where Brand climbed into bed with Erin, slipping his arms around her and nestling close to her side. There was little that was sexual about these romantic encounters, although he kissed her several times and promised to make love to her soon.
Erin woke with tears in her eyes. She didn’t understand how a man who was several thousand miles away could make her feel so cherished and appreciated. Especially when she’d let it be known she didn’t want anything more to do with him.
It got so that Erin welcomed the nights, praying as she drifted off to sleep that Brand would come to her as he often did.
Reality returned each morning, but it didn’t seem to matter, because there were always the nights, and they were filled with such wonderful fantasies.
The letter from her father arrived a couple of weeks later.
"I received word from Brand," her father wrote in his sharply slanted scrawl. "He claims there’s nothing between the two of you any longer and that’s the way you want it. He was frank enough to admit he loves you, but must abide by your wishes. I couldn’t believe my own eyes. Brand Davis is more man than you’re likely to find in five lifetimes, and you refused his proposal? I feel I’m the one to blame for all this. I should have kept my nose out of your business. Your mother would have my hide if she knew I’d asked Brand to check up on you when he was in Seattle. To be honest, I was hoping the two of you would hit it off. If I were to handpick a husband for you, Erin, I couldn’t find a better man than Brand Davis. All right, I’m a meddling old man. Your mother’s right, who you date isn’t any of my damn business."
"You’re my daughter, Erin," he continued, "and I’ll love you no matter what you decide to do in this life, but I’m telling you right now, lass, I’m downright disappointed in you."
"I’ve disappointed you before, Dad, and I’m likely to do so again," Erin said aloud when she’d finished the letter.
Tears smarted her eyes, but she managed to blink them back. Her father rarely spoke harshly to her, but it was apparent he’d thought long and hard about writing her this letter. It wasn’t what he’d said, Erin realized, but what he’d left unsaid, that cut so deep.
Feeling restless and melancholy, Erin went for a drive that afternoon. Before she knew it, she was halfway to Oregon. Taking a side route, she drove on a twisting, narrow road that led down the Washington coast.
For a long time she sat on the beach, facing the roaring sea. The breeze whipped her hair around her face and chilled her to the bone, yet she stayed, conscious every second that somewhere out in the vast stretch of water sailed Brand, the man she was dangerously close to loving. She could pretend otherwise, buy out every store in Seattle and act as foolish as Aimee and her husband, and it wouldn’t alter the fact that she loved Brand Davis.
Wrapping her arms around her bent legs, Erin rested her chin on her knees and mulled over her thoughts. The waves clamored and roared, putting up a fuss, before relinquishing and gently caressing the smooth, sandy shore. Again and again, in abject protest, the waves raged with fury and temper before ebbing. Then, tranquilly, like velvet-gloved fingers, the waves stroked the beach, leaving only a thin line of foam as a memory.
For hours, Erin sat watching the sea. In the end, before she headed back to Seattle, she hadn’t reached any conclusions. She was beginning to doubt her doubts and suffer second thoughts about her second thoughts. Why, oh, why did life have to be so complicated? And why did she find the grand piano an eyesore when she walked in her front door?
Brand found order in life at sea. Internally his world felt chaotic as he struggled with his feelings for Erin. Each day that passed he grew stronger, more confident in himself.
Gradually the routine of military life gave him a strong sense of order, something to hold on to while time progressed.
Admittedly, the first weeks were rough. He found himself short-tempered, impatient and generally bad company. He worked hard and fell into his bunk at night, too tired to dream. When he did, his nights were full of Erin.
Erin at the zoo. Erin standing in the doorway of her kitchen dressed in a sexless flannel nightgown. Erin with eyes dark enough to trap a man’s soul.
He had to forget her, get her out of his system, get on with his life.
"You still hung up on MacNamera’s daughter?" Brand’s friend Alex Romano demanded a couple of days before they were due to dock in Hong Kong.
"Not in the least," Brand snapped, instantly regretting his short-fused temper. He smiled an apology. "Maybe I am," he admitted with some reluctance.
Alex answered with a short laugh. "I never thought I’d see the great Brand Davis go soft over a woman. It warms my heart, if you want to know the truth."
"Why’s that?" Brand wasn’t in the mood to play word games with his friend, but talking about Erin, even with someone who’d never met her, seemed to help. She’d dominated his thoughts for so long, he was beginning to question his own sanity.
"For one thing, it points out the fact you’re human like the rest of us. We’ve all had women problems one time or another. But never you. At least until now. Generally women fight between themselves to fall at your feet. Personally, I never could understand it, but then I’m not much of a ladies’ man."
"Ginger will be glad to hear that." Alex and Ginger had been married for ten years and had three toddlers. Brand was godfather to the oldest boy. Although Brand was sure Alex didn’t know it, in a lot of ways he was envious of his friend, of the happiness he’d found with Ginger, of the fact that there was someone waiting for him at the end of his sea duty. There was a lot to covet.
"So?" Alex pressed. "What you gonna do about MacNamera’s daughter?"
Brand expelled his breath in a slow, drawn-out exercise. He’d asked Erin to marry him, offered her his heart on a silver platter, and she’d turned him down. She hadn’t even needed time to think about it.
"Not a damn thing," he answered flippantly.
"Oh, dear," Alex said, and chuckled, apparently amused. "It’s worse than I thought."
Maybe it was, only Brand was too stupid to admit it.
Hong Kong didn’t help. During three days of shore leave, all he could do was think of Erin. He sat in a bar, nursing a glass of good Irish whisky and thinking he should take up drinking something else, because Erin was Irish. Damn little good that would do. Everything reminded Brand of Erin. He walked through the crowded streets, and when a merchant proudly brought out a piece of silk, the only thing he could picture was Erin wearing a suit made in that precise color.
The sooner they returned to sea, the better it would be.
He was wrong.
They’d sailed out of Hong Kong when her letter arrived. Brand held it in his hand for a long moment before tucking it in his shirt pocket to read later. He felt almost light-headed by the time he made it to his cabin, where a little privacy was afforded him.