"Steve and I are no longer on speaking terms."
"But I thought the two of you had never gotten along better."
"That was before," Aimee explained, grinding the cigarette butt in the ashtray.
"Are you sure you’re not misinterpreting the situation?" Erin didn’t know Steve well, but she would have thought he was more fair-minded than that.
"That’s not the half of it." The more Aimee talked, the faster her leg swung. Erin didn’t dare focus her attention on the moving foot, lest it hypnotize her.
"You mean there’s more?"
"Someone’s moved into the duplex with him."
The pain was alive in Aimee’s eyes. "A woman?" Erin asked softly.
"I… I don’t know, but I imagine it must be. I know my husband – he enjoys regular bouts of sex."
"How’d you know someone moved in with him?" Erin couldn’t help being curious. She strongly suspected that her friend was doing a bit of amateur detective work and coming up with all the wrong conclusions.
"I happened to be in the neighborhood and decided it wouldn’t do any harm to drive by his place and see what Steve was up to. I’m glad I did, too, because there was a white convertible parked in his driveway." She blew a cloud of smoke at the ceiling, and when she set the cigarette down Erin noted that her hands were trembling.
"A white convertible?"
"Come on, Erin," Aimee said with a heavy note of sarcasm. "I’m not stupid. It was after midnight."
"That explains everything?"
"You and I both know a woman’s more likely to drive a white car. Men like theirs black or red. The way I figure it, either Steve’s got some cupcake shacked up with him or else he’s having himself a little fun on the side. My guess is he’s been into side dishes for a good long time."
"Aimee, that’s ridiculous."
"Not according to my attorney."
"What makes him suggest anything like that? Honestly, I think this whole thing’s gotten out of hand. Not so long ago you claimed Steve wasn’t the type to mess around." The picture of the man who’d come to their table to correct a wrong impression the night they were in the Mexican restaurant played in Erin’s mind.
"I called my lawyer first thing the following morning and gave him the license plate number. If Steve’s fooling around, and I’m confident he is, then he’s going to hear about it in court. If he wants another relationship, then the least he could do was wait for the ink to dry on the divorce decree."
Erin couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Then again, it shouldn’t shock her. Through the class she taught at the community college, she’d seen the emotional trauma, the bitterness and the pain of divorce cripple even the strongest women.
What surprised Erin was that this was Aimee. Calm, unruffled Aimee. In the time they’d worked together, Erin had seen her friend handle one explosive situation after another, competently, without accusation or blame.
"Anyway," Aimee said, reaching for the Nordstrom bag at her side, "I wanted you to see the new dress I got for the court date. God knows I can’t afford it, but I bought it anyway." She carefully unwrapped the tissue from around the silk blouse and skirt that was a bright shade of turquoise.
"Oh, Aimee, it’s gorgeous."
"I thought so, too. I’ll look stunning, won’t I?"
Erin nodded. She wouldn’t be able to go inside the judge’s chambers with her friend. According to court rules, Erin would have to wait in the hallway, but then, all Aimee really needed was emotional support before and after.
"By the way, what were you doing in Canada this weekend?" Aimee asked, waving the cigarette smoke away from Erin’s face. She glanced at the tip and extinguished it with a force that nearly pushed the ashtray from the table.
Erin hesitated, then decided that the truth was the best policy. "I needed to get away."
"I might remind you, you just spent the last week away."
"I know." In the five days since her return, Erin had spoken to Brand twice. Once, briefly, shortly after she’d arrived home. Then, later in the week, he’d contacted her again. He’d sounded tired and out of sorts. Although they’d spoken for several minutes, Erin had come away from the conversation feeling lonely and depressed.
As much as she tried to avoid doing so, Erin dwelt a good deal on what she’d suggested to Brand about him and Catherine. It hurt to think of Brand with another woman. Hurt, she decided, was too mild a word to describe the fiery pain that cut a wide path through her heart when she considered the situation. It would solve everything if the two of them were to fall in love. They had so much in common, including an appreciation of the many exciting aspects of navy life. Exciting to everyone, that is, who could accept the policies and the programs of a military lifestyle.
Someone who wasn’t a navy brat. Someone who didn’t know any better.
"Erin?" Aimee said softly. "Are you all right?"
"Oh, sure. I’m sorry," she said, forcefully bringing herself back to the present. "Were you saying something I missed?"
"No." But the other woman regarded her closely. "You never did tell me much about Hawaii. How was your time with Brand?"
"Wonderful." If anything, it had been too wonderful. She’d cherished each minute, greedy for time alone with him. They’d both been selfish, not wanting to share their precious days with others.
No one had seemed to mind. In fact, it had been as if Brand’s friends were going out of their way to arrange it so.
"I hear Hawaii is really beautiful," Aimee continued. "At one time, Steve and I were planning a trip there for our tenth wedding anniversary."
"It is beautiful."
"But you wouldn’t want to live there?"
The question took her by surprise. Erin blinked, not knowing how to answer. Could she live in Hawaii? Of course. The question didn’t even need consideration. Anyone would enjoy paradise. If Brand were to own a business there, she’d marry him in a minute and plan on settling down and building an empire with him. But Brand was part of the military, and if she were to link her life with his, then she’d have to be willing to wholeheartedly embrace that lifestyle, and she didn’t know if she could.
"Well?" Aimee pressed.
"No," Erin said automatically. "I don’t think I could live in Hawaii."
"Me either," her friend muttered, and reached for a cigarette. "At least not now. Someplace cold and isolated interests me more at the minute."
"Greenland," Aimee echoed. "That would be perfect." She averted her eyes and pretended to remove a piece of lint from the leg of her slacks. "So," she said, -expelling a breath sharply. "You’ll meet me at the courthouse Monday morning?"
"I’ll be there."
"Thanks. I knew I could count on you."
The phone rang just then, and Erin leaned toward the wall to reach for it.
"Hello," she said automatically.
There was no response for a couple of seconds, long enough for Erin to believe it was a crank call.
"Erin MacNamera?" Her name sounded as though it came from a long way off, but not long-distance. The telltale hum was decidedly missing.
"Yes, this is Erin MacNamera." The female voice was vaguely familiar, but Erin couldn’t place it.
"This is Marilyn… from class. I’m really sorry to trouble you," she said, clearly trying to disguise the fact that she was weeping.
"It’s no trouble, Marilyn. It’s good to hear from you. How are you? I haven’t talked to you in weeks."
"I’m fine." She paused and then gave a short, abrupt laugh. "No, I’m not…all right. In fact, I thought I should call someone. Do you have time to talk right now?"
That night, after Aimee’s settlement hearing, Erin woke from a sound sleep with tears in her eyes. She lay for several moments, trying to remember what she’d been dreaming that had been so bitterly sad. Whatever it was had escaped her. She rolled over and glanced at her clock, then sighed. It would be several hours yet before the alarm sounded.
Snuggling up with her pillow, she intended to go back to sleep, and was somewhat surprised to discover she couldn’t. The tears returned, rolling down her cheek at an alarming pace.
Sitting up, she reached for a tissue, blowing her nose hard. She couldn’t understand what was happening to her or why she would find it so necessary to weep. A parade of possible reasons marched through her mind. Hormones. She was missing Brand. Her experience with Aimee that morning. Marilyn. There were any number of excuses why she would wake up weeping. But none that she could readily understand.
She drew the covers over her shoulders and lay staring into space. How she wished Brand were with her then. He’d take her in his arms and comfort her in a soft and reassuring way. He’d kiss away her doubts and her fears. Then he’d touch her in all the ways he knew would please her and gently coax the tears away with his warmth and his wit.
Erin missed him more in that moment than she had in the six months he’d been away at sea.
She closed her eyes, and faces and tension crowded her mind. They were the faces of the men and women she’d seen in court that morning. The eerie silence that had nearly stifled her as she’d waited for Aimee and Steve to come out of the judge’s chambers.
The silence had been like nothing she’d ever experienced. Long rows of mahogany benches had lined the hallway. It was ironic that they should resemble church pews. Lawyers conferred with their clients while waiting their turn with the judge. Aimee must have crossed and uncrossed her legs a hundred times, she’d been so nervous. Then she’d started swinging her foot fast enough to cause a draft.
Later, when she and Steve had gone before the judge, Erin had been surrounded by the silence. The wounded, eerie silence of pain.
Erin was worried about Marilyn, too. The older woman had phoned needing to talk. The pain and the anger of her circumstances had gotten so oppressive she couldn’t tolerate it another minute. Reaching out for help was something they’d discussed in class. Erin had spent almost an hour on the phone with Marilyn, listening while she talked out her pain.
Marilyn was just beginning to draw upon that well of inner strength. Erin had every confidence that the older woman would come away strong and secure. She wasn’t so sure about the young woman she’d seen in the courthouse earlier that day, however.
The desperate look on the woman’s face returned to haunt her now. She’d been weeping softly and trying to disguise her tears. Trembling. Shaken. She looked as if she’d been knocked off balance.
Erin’s heart throbbed anew at the anguish she’d viewed in the young mother’s eyes. She knew nothing of her circumstances, only what she’d overheard while waiting for Aimee. Yet the woman’s red eyes and haunting look returned to torment Erin hours later.