"There isn’t anything more to say then, is there?" he said, his back as stiff as a flagpole as he walked over to the closet and removed his suitcase.

"You’re leaving?" It wasn’t her most brilliant deduction in the past year.

"There isn’t any reason to stay."

No, she admitted miserably to herself. There wasn’t. Reluctantly, she stood, her heart aching as it never had. Before she left him, before she walked out of his life, she had to say one last thing. When she spoke, her voice wavered slightly, then leveled out. "You probably hate me now---I wouldn’t blame you if you did. But please, in the future, when you can, try to think kindly of me. Please know that more than anything I want you to be happy."

"I will be happy," he said forcefully. "Damn happy."

She nodded, although she didn’t believe it would be true for a good long while for either of them.

"Go ahead and marry your stockbroker, or attorney, or whoever it is who interests you," he continued. "Settle down in your four-bedroom colonial with your two point five children and live the good life." Brand’s words were biting and sharp. Forcefully he shoved his clothes inside the suitcase, not taking the time to fold them properly. "Plant those roots so deep they’ll reach all the way to China."

Erin blinked back tears. He was so bitter, and there was nothing she could say to make it better. She stiffened, knowing he needed to vent his frustration and his pain.

"By all means, marry your stockbroker," he repeated forcefully. "Security is everything. Tell yourself that often, because I have the feeling you’re going to need to remember it."

Erin knotted her fists at her side. The lump in her throat had grown to gargantuan proportions.

"Goodbye, Erin," he whispered as he eased the lid of the suitcase closed. He looked toward the door, silently asking that she walk out of his room as willingly as she was walking out of his life.

"I know it hurts, but it’s better this way," she whispered, her voice low and choppy.

He paused and grudgingly smiled at her. "Far better," he agreed.

Chapter Fourteen

"Come on, Erin," Aimee urged. "It’s December. Liven up a little, would you?"

"I’m alive." Which was stretching the truth. Oh, she functioned day to day and had for the past several weeks, since she’d last seen Brand. The emotional pain had been intolerable in the beginning, but, as expected, the intensity had lessened. She’d counted on being much better by now, however.

Severing the relationship with Brand was what she wanted, she reminded herself. Marrying Brand would have been the biggest mistake of her life. It was amazing how many times a day she was forced to remind herself of that.

"How about doing some Christmas shopping after work?" Aimee suggested.

"Thanks anyway, but I finished mine last week." Erin appreciated the offer, but try as she would, she couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for the holidays. The crowds irritated her, and she hated being impatient and grumpy when everyone around her was filled with good cheer.

Bah, humbug! Erin had always loved the holidays.

As hard as she tried not to, she couldn’t help wondering about Brand. Was he still in Hawaii? Had he started dating? Was he happy?

By force of will, Erin managed to avoid thoughts of him during the day. Every time her mind turned to the Hawaii-based lieutenant, she immediately focussed on another subject. World peace. Jalapeno jelly. Scissors. Anything and everything but Brand.

It was later, when she was about to slip into the welcome void of sleep, that she found herself most vulnerable. She’d be wandering between the two worlds when Brand would casually stroll into her mind.

He didn’t speak; not once had he uttered a word. He just stood there, straight and tall, dressed in his uniform. Proud. Strong. Earnest.

Erin tried to make his image disappear. More than once she’d sat bolt upright in bed and demanded that he clear out of her mind. He always did, without question, but when she lay back down, she always regretted that he was gone.

There had been one improvement, if she could call it that. The episodes when she woke in the middle of the night weeping for no apparent reason had passed. But it was damn little comfort for all the lonely days and nights those unexplained bouts had spawned.

Erin and Aimee walked out of the office together. The air was filled with a joyous holiday flavor. Bells chimed at every street corner. Storefronts were decorated with large swags of evergreen draped above doorways, stretching from one business to the other. Huge red plastic bells adorned streetlights. Erin walked past it all, barely noticing.

"Call me if you change your mind," Aimee said before heading in the opposite direction.

"I will, thanks." But Erin already had her plans for the evening. She was going home, cuddling up in front of the television and mindlessly viewing situation comedies until it was bedtime. It wasn’t exciting, nor was it inspiring, but a quiet dinner and television were the only things she could effectively deal with that night. After months of teaching sessions on self-acceptance and being kind to oneself, Erin was determined to follow her own advice.

Erin’s mail contained three Christmas cards. The first was from Terry, an old college friend. Terry had married the previous year, and her printed Christmas letter shared the happy news of her pregnancy.

"Terry with a baby," Erin mused aloud, remembering distinctly how they’d both been certain they were destined to remain single the rest of their natural lives.

The second card was from Marilyn. Erin read her brief note with interest. The older woman was forming friendships and had attended a dance with a woman friend who had been widowed several years earlier. Marilyn’s note ended with the happy news that she’d danced three times. She claimed she felt more like a wallflower than like Cinderella, but she was ready to attend another dance the following week.

The third Christmas card was from her parents. Erin read over the greeting and was pleased to note that her father had included a short typed sheet along with her mother’s much thicker letter. She read her father’s letter first.

Dear Erin,

Happy holidays. Your mother and I mailed off a package to you this afternoon, which should arrive in plenty of time for Christmas. I wish we could be together, but that’s what happens when kids grow up and leave home. Your mother and I are going to miss being with you this year.

I don’t have much news. Your mother will tell you everything that’s up with your brother and sister. They’re well and happy, and that’s all that counts.

Now what’s this I hear about you putting your house up for sale? I remember when you bought it you claimed you were going to live there for the next thirty years. You’ve only been there two years. I’m afraid you’ve got more navy blood in you than you realize.

The last bit of information may come as something of a shock. I thought about letting you hear it from someone else but decided that would be cruel. I heard through the grapevine Brand Davis is engaged to Catherine Fredrickson. Apparently they’ve been friends for a long time. I’m sorry if this news hurts you, baby, but I thought you’d want to know.

Have a good time opening up that box of goodies your mother and I mailed.

Love, Dad

Erin didn’t feel anything. Nothing whatsoever. So Brand was marrying Catherine. It was what Erin herself had suggested months earlier. He certainly hadn’t allowed any grass to grow under his feet, she mused somewhat bitterly.

A numbing pain took hold and, deciding to ignore it, Erin set aside the mail and fixed herself a dinner consisting of soup and a turkey sandwich. When she finished, she stared at the bowl and plate and decided she couldn’t force herself to eat it. Watching television had lost its appeal, too.

Being alone felt intolerable, and she decided to go for a drive. Mingling with other people seemed important all of a sudden. She wandered through a small shopping complex close to her house, bought a couple of cards at the Hallmark store and strolled back to the parking lot.

"Brand is marrying Catherine," she said aloud in the confines of her car as she drove home. "More than anything, I want him to be happy." She had to say it aloud to remind herself that it was true.

Erin drove past the street where she should have turned off, but for some unknown reason she continued driving, her destination unclear.

An hour passed, and when she found herself close to Aimee’s she decided her subconscious was telling her she needed to talk over Brand’s engagement with her best friend.

Although Aimee’s car was parked in front of her house, she didn’t answer the doorbell for several minutes. When she did appear, she was dressed in her housecoat and slippers.

"Erin?" she cried after opening the door. "What are you doing here? Good grief, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. Come on in." She skillfully steered her through the living room and into the kitchen.

It seemed to Erin that Aimee didn’t want her in the living room, which was preposterous, but in case she was arriving at a bad time she asked, "Should I come back later?"

"Of course not," Aimee returned quickly.

A little too quickly, Erin thought. "You look like you were taking a bath."

"No… no."

Erin’s gaze narrowed suspiciously. "Then why are you wearing a robe?" It wasn’t anywhere near time for bed.

Aimee glanced down at the purple velvet as if she’d never seen it before. "Ah…"

"Aimee," Erin whispered heatedly. A sinking feeling attacked the pit of her stomach, and she looked around. "Have you got a man in your bedroom?"

The dedicated social worker squeezed her eyes closed and nodded several times.

"Why didn’t you say something?" Erin felt like a complete idiot. She wanted to crawl under the carpet and hide.

"I couldn’t say anything," Aimee protested at length. "You wouldn’t drop by unexpectedly like this unless it was something important. One look at you, and I knew you were upset."

"I’m more upset now than I was before I arrived. It would have been better if you hadn’t answered the door."

"May I remind you that you’re my best friend," Aimee countered heatedly, although they both continued to whisper in an effort not to be overheard by the mystery man in Aimee’s bedroom.

Erin couldn’t be more surprised by her friend’s actions had she announced she was considering entering a convent. To the best of Erin’s knowledge, Aimee had never fooled around. She’d been asked out on a date once or twice but had always declined, claiming she wasn’t ready for the singles scene just yet.

It wouldn’t be the first time Aimee had surprised her, but until now the surprises had all been pleasant ones.

Her friend’s divorce was only days from being finalized. Perhaps the pain of what was happening between her and Steve had led her friend into an act completely out of character.

For some time now, Erin had sensed that something was developing in Aimee’s life, but she wouldn’t have suspected for the world that it was another man. Aimee had given up smoking and was calmer than she had been a few months earlier. Erin had attributed the changes to part of the healing process.

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