She dragged in a deep breath, savoring the scent of warm musk that was uniquely his. Brand groaned and deepened the kiss, and Erin welcomed the intimacy of his tongue stroking hers. Unable to remain still, she started to move against him. Her nipples had hardened and were tingling, and the only way to relieve that shocking pleasure was to rotate the upper half of her body against him.
A low, rough sound rumbled through his throat as he gripped her by the hips and pressed her flush against him, adjusting her stance to graphically demonstrate his powerful need for her.
It felt familiar and so very good. Erin locked her arms around his neck and moved with him, her grinding hips contrasting the action of his own, enhancing the pleasure a hundredfold. Erin felt as though she were on fire, hot and aching, wanting everything at once.
"Oh, baby," he whispered in a voice that was guttural.
The noise from behind was as unexpected as it was unwelcome. Brand jerked his head back and ground his teeth in wretched frustration.
"Hello," Bobby greeted enthusiastically, closing the sliding glass door as he casually strolled into the kitchen. "Dad sent me in here to ask what was taking you two so long."
Brand’s gaze narrowed menacingly. "Tell your dad…"
"We’ll be right out," Erin completed for him.
"When are we going to have the ice cream?" the youngster wanted to know, walking over to the freezer, opening the door and staring inside. "It’s time we had dessert, don’t you think?"
Erin nodded. "If you want, I’ll dish it up now and you can help me carry it out to everyone."
The boy eagerly nodded his head. Then, glancing at Brand, he seemed to change his mind. "Only don’t let Uncle Brand help you. He might kiss you again and then you’d both forget."
"I won’t let him kiss me," Erin promised.
"Wanna bet?" Brand teased under his breath.
Bobby studied the two of them quizzically. "Uncle Brand?"
"Are you going to marry Erin?"
"I think you should, and so does my dad."
A moment of tense silence filled the room. Erin swallowed the lump that threatened to choke her. Her eyes were locked with Brand’s, and she struggled to look away, but his gaze refused to release her.
"I… Let’s get that ice cream," Erin suggested, hoping she sounded carefree and enthusiastic when she felt neither.
Erin’s suitcases were packed and ready for her flight as she walked through Alex and Ginger’s home one last time before Brand arrived to drive her to the airport. She’d woken that morning with a heavy feeling in her chest that had only grown worse as the day progressed. She dared not question its origin or what she needed to do to relieve it.
She knew the answer as clearly as if a doctor had given her a written diagnosis. Leaving Brand was far more difficult than she’d ever dreamed it would be.
He hadn’t pressured her to marry him. Not once. In fact, she was the one who’d brought up the subject, when she’d suggested he consider Catherine for his wife. That idea had all too quickly backfired in her face. And rightly so, She’d been an utter fool to suggest Brand romantically involve himself with another woman. Even now, just musing over the thought brought with it an instant flash of regret and pain.
Erin liked Catherine, enjoyed her company and wished her well, but when it came to Brand, Erin had discovered she was far more territorial than she ever realized. The awareness came as something of a shock.
Brand arrived and loaded Erin’s suitcases into the trunk of his car. If he was unusually quiet on the drive to Honolulu International, she didn’t notice, since she didn’t seem to have much she wanted to say, either.
They sat next to each other in the crowded gate area, tightly holding hands while waiting for her flight number to be called. Erin’s throat was so tight, she couldn’t have carried on a conversation had the fate of world peace depended on it.
Each second that ticked away seemed to suck the energy right out of the room. Apparently no one else noticed except Brand.
When her flight was called, those gathered around her stood and reached for their personal items and brought out their tickets.
The first few rows had boarded when Brand stood. "You’ll need to go on board now." He stated it matter-of-factly, as if her going was of little importance to him.
She nodded and reluctantly came to her feet.
"You’ll call once you arrive back in Seattle?"
Once again she nodded.
Brand smoothed his hands over her shoulders, and his gaze just managed to avoid hers. "I’m pulling as many strings as I can to transfer to one of the bases in Washington state."
He hadn’t mentioned that earlier, and Erin’s hopes soared. If Brand lived on any of the navy bases near Seattle, even if it was one across Puget Sound, it would help ease the impossible situation between them. Then they would have the luxury of allowing their relationship to develop naturally without thousands of miles stretching between them like a giant, unyielding void.
"You didn’t say anything about that earlier," she said, hating the way the eagerness crept into her voice. That he was prepared to leave the admiral’s staff to be closer to her spoke volumes about his commitment to her.
"I didn’t mention it before because it isn’t the least bit probable."
"Oh." Her hope and excitement quickly diminished.
The final boarding call for her flight was announced. Erin glanced over her shoulder, wanting more than she’d ever wanted anything to remain with Brand. Yet she knew she had to leave.
"I don’t suppose…" Brand began enthusiastically, then stopped abruptly.
"You don’t suppose what?"
"Never mind? Obviously you had something you wanted to say."
"That won’t work, either."
"What won’t work?" she demanded impatiently.
"Have you ever considered moving to Hawaii?" he asked, without revealing the least bit of emotion either way.
She was so stunned by the suggestion that it left her breathless. "Moving to Hawaii?" she gasped.
As crazy as it seemed, the first thought that filtered into her brain was that she’d be forced to sell her grand piano with the house, and frankly, not that many folks would be interested in something that large, especially when it dominated a good portion of the living room.
"Never mind," Brand said irritably. "I already said that wouldn’t work."
She stared up at him, wondering why he was so quick to downplay his own suggestion until she realized how unfeasible the idea actually was. She had her job and her home and her sturdy, hard-to-move furniture. What about the roots she was so carefully planting in the Seattle area? Her friends? The Women In Transition classes she taught evenings?
"I can’t move."
Brand frowned and nodded. "I know. It was a stupid idea. Forget I suggested it."
The way their courtship was progressing, she’d leave behind everything that was important to her for Brand and move to Hawaii just in time for him to be transferred to Alaska. Knowing the way the navy worked, she could count on something like that happening.
The attendant’s voice announcing the last call for her flight was an intrusion Erin didn’t want or need.
"Why didn’t you say something sooner?" she demanded. At least they could have discussed it without the pressure of her being forced to board the plane. As it was, they’d sat, holding hands, for an hour without uttering more than a few words.
"I shouldn’t have said anything now." His gaze gentled, and he brushed the tips of his fingers across her cheek, his touch light and unbelievably tender. His eyes momentarily left hers. "You have to go," he told her in a voice that was low and gravelly.
"Yes… I know." But now that the time had arrived, Erin wasn’t sure she could turn and walk away from Brand and manage to keep her dignity intact. Oh, hell, she didn’t know what she was going to do. He was everything she ever dreamed she’d find in a man, and, at the same moment, her greatest fear.
He hugged her all too briefly, then dropped his arms and stepped away from her. Wanting more than anything to wear a smile when she left him, she beamed him one broad enough to challenge Miss America. Then, with a dignified turn, she headed for the jetway.
"Erin." Her name was issued in a low growl. He was at her side so fast it made her dizzy. He hauled her into his arms and kissed her with a hunger that left her weak and clinging.
"I’m sorry," the flight attendant said, standing at the gate. "You’ll have to board now. The flight’s ready to depart."
"Go ahead," Brand whispered, stepping away from her.
"Oh, Brand." Erin hated the way her eyes filled with ready tears. Mascara running down her cheeks ruined the image she was working so hard to leave in his mind.
"Go back to Seattle," Brand said harshly, "go ahead and go, before I end up pleading with you to stay."
"Where have you been all weekend?" Aimee demanded, walking directly past Erin and into her living room, carting a large paper sack in one hand and a cigarette in the other. "I must have called twenty times."
"I took a ride up to Vancouver."
"All by yourself?" She sounded incredulous. "Good grief, you just got back from a week’s vacation in Hawaii. Don’t tell me you needed to get away." She whirled around her, searching for some unknown object. "Where do you keep your ashtrays?"
Erin followed her friend into the kitchen while Aimee searched through a row of four drawers. She dragged the first one open, briefly scanning the contents, only to slam it closed.
Removing a small glass ashtray from the cupboard, Erin held it out in the palm of her hand to her co-worker. "When did you start smoking?" She couldn’t remember seeing Aimee with a cigarette before.
"I smoked years ago, when I was young and stupid. It’s really a filthy habit. Trust me, whatever you do, don’t start." Even as she was speaking, she opened her purse and brought out a pack. It was a brand designed especially for women, and the smokes were thin and long.
"Aimee!" Erin cried. "What’s happened to you?"
As if she suddenly needed to talk, Aimee pulled out a chair and collapsed into it, automatically crossing her legs. Her foot started to swing like a precision timepiece, moving so fast she was creating a brisk breeze.
"I stopped off to show you my new outfit," Aimee announced. "I bought it to wear for the settlement hearing. If Steve’s going to divorce me, I want to look my absolute best."
"In other words, you want him to regret it."
"Exactly." For the first time, a smile cracked the tight line of her mouth.
"Why don’t you just come right out and tell him that?"
"I’m not," Erin assured her. She’d been away seven days, and upon her return she’d barely recognized her best friend. Aimee had lost a noticeable amount of weight and was so uptight she should be on tranquilizers. The fact she’d taken up smoking was a symptom of a much deeper problem.