"It’s not what you’re thinking," Aimee muttered, chastising Erin with a single look. She glanced over her shoulder. "Steve, kindly come out here and save my reputation."

"Steve?" Erin repeated, stunned. "You and Steve? You’re divorcing him, remember?"

"Yes, me and Steve," Aimee confirmed. "Steve," she called a second time.

"Honey, if I come out now, I may save your reputation, but it sure as hell will ruin mine."

Aimee actually blushed. Erin couldn’t believe it. Her best friend’s cheeks went a bright shade of pink.

"Steve?" Erin repeated Aimee’s husband’s name, still unable to believe what she was hearing.

Aimee nodded, then walked over to the kitchen counter and assembled a pot of coffee.

"You and Steve are…" Erin motioned with her hand, as if that would complete the sentence for her. A tardy smile quivered at the corners of her mouth. "When did all this get started?"

"Will you kindly quit looking at me like you’re going to burst out laughing?"

"I can’t help it. The last time you mentioned Steve’s name it was to claim he was involved with another woman. What about the white car parked outside his apartment? You were convinced he wore that ugly green tie to the settlement hearing to irritate you, and – "

"That was before," Aimee reminded her. "That car belonged to his brother, and hell, I should have known better. I was eager to leap to all the wrong conclusions."

"As I recall, you two were finished, and you couldn’t wait to sign the final papers."

"We still might."

"What?" Aimee was certainly full of shocking surprises this evening.

"We were talking about it earlier. It might be wise to start on fresh ground – bury the past, so to speak. We haven’t decided yet, but we’re leaning toward staying married for… for a couple of reasons."

"But what happened to change everything?"

A slow, almost silly smile lit up Aimee’s eyes. "About a month ago – "

"A month?" Erin echoed in strained disbelief. It was hard to imagine that she hadn’t suspected something earlier. The two were best friends, and Erin felt she really knew Aimee. "You two have been chummy for a month?"

"Longer, actually," Aimee admitted, keeping her voice low. "Steve called about six weeks ago, needing to come over to the house and pick up some things. The atmosphere was cool between us then, to say the least. We arranged a time suitable to us both. I wasn’t keen on being here alone with him, but someone had to be here. I didn’t trust him not to take more than what he’d come for, and so I gritted my teeth and met him myself."

"You should have asked me." As matters had turned out, Erin was grateful her friend hadn’t.

"I know," Aimee agreed, "but it was shortly after Brand left, and you were still so raw. I didn’t want to burden you with my problems."

"We’ve been burdening each other for a good long time. But go on. I’m dying to find out what happened."

Aimee smiled. It was the same silly smile as before. "It got worse before it got better. Actually, it got a whole lot worse. Steve arrived, and we got in this huge fight about a light fixture, of all things. I told him he could have the stupid thing. He claimed he didn’t want it, but I refused to let that pass. He was still arguing with me when I dragged out the chair and started to remove it from the wall."


"I know, I know. My expertise doesn’t involve anything electrical, which Steve took delight in reminding me. At the moment, I think, he was hoping I’d electrocute myself. Fortunately, I fell before that happened."

"You fell?"

"Conveniently into Steve’s arms, and we both went crashing to the floor. I was furious and outraged and blamed him. I started listing his legion of faults, and he kissed me just to shut me up so he could see if I’d been hurt."

The picture that formed in Erin’s mind was a wildly romantic one. Aimee hopping mad, and Steve more interested in making sure she hadn’t been hurt in the fall than in listening to her tirade.

"One thing led to another, and before we knew it we were in bed together."

"Oh, Aimee that’s so romantic."

"Romantic, nothing. I was furious, claiming he’d seduced me. Steve adamantly denied it and said I was the one who’d seduced him. Before the night was over, we’d seduced each other a second time. Both of us were more than a little chagrined over what happened. Steve left the following morning without taking any of the things he claimed he needed so badly. I called him the next day, and he returned for the items… only he ended up spending the night again."

"But what about everything that led up to the divorce? You were miserable together. Remember?"

"Nothing’s really changed," Aimee explained. "Only our attitude has. We’re committed to working out our problems. Steve’s willing to see a counselor. In fact, he’s the one who suggested it."

"So you’ve talked everything out?"

"We talked, among other things," Steve inserted as he walked into the kitchen. Standing behind Aimee, he slipped his arms around her waist and cuddled her close. "Should we tell her?" he asked his wife.

"Nothing’s for sure yet," Aimee said, twisting her head around to look up at him.

"I’m sure of it."

Erin hadn’t a clue what the two were discussing. "Tell me what?"

"Aimee’s pregnant. At least we think she is."

"Steve, I haven’t been to the doctor yet. You can’t go around announcing it until I’ve been in to see Dr. Larson."

"All those pregnancy test kits you bought claim you are. That’s good enough for me." He broke away from his wife and strutted around the kitchen in a walk that would have done a rooster proud.

Delight brightened Aimee’s eyes as she held out her hands to Erin. "After ten years. I can’t believe it. We tried so hard and for so long." Her face broke into an eager smile. "Oh, Erin, I’m going to have a baby."

The two gripped hands, and Erin felt tears of shared happiness fill her eyes.

"Hey, you two, kindly give credit where credit is due." A light shone in Steven’s eyes, one that had been decidedly missing the other times Erin had seen him.

"I couldn’t be happier for the two of you," Erin said, sincerely meaning every word, but at the same time the pain she felt knowing Brand was marrying Catherine felt like a heavy chain tightening around her heart. First Terry, and now Aimee.

"You didn’t come over here because you suspected anything was developing between Steve and me," Aimee reminded her, scooting out a chair at the table. By now the coffee had brewed, and Aimee automatically brought down mugs.

Steve kissed his wife’s cheek. "I’ll leave you two to talk," he said, and smiled warmly at Erin before returning to the living room.

"Brand’s engaged," Erin announced, her voice trembling slightly. "My dad wrote and told me. He claimed it was better I hear the news from him than someone else."

"Oh, Erin, I’m so sorry."

"What’s to be sorry about?" she asked with a shaky laugh. "If marrying Catherine is what it takes to make Brand happy, then why should I feel bad?"

"You love him."

"I know."

Aimee was quiet for a moment. "Have you given any more thought to what I said all those weeks ago about having our jobs taint our views on marriage?"

Erin hadn’t. She’d been sifting through so much emotion and pain that she’d filed her friend’s thoughts away in the farthest corner of her mind. "Not really."

"Then do. Not all marriages end in misery and heartache."

"It sometimes seems that way."

"I know," Aimee was quick to agree. "Think about it, Erin. You haven’t been at this job long enough to gain perspective yet. That comes with time. I fell into that same trap myself."

"There are plenty of good marriages out there that work because the two people involved are prepared to do whatever they have to, to see that it does."

Erin drew in a deep breath. "It’s too late now for Brand and me."

"That’s what I thought," Aimee reminded her.

"I want Brand to marry Catherine," Erin murmured, telling the biggest lie of her life. "They’re perfect together… I said so from the first."

A Christmas card to Brand wouldn’t hurt, Erin decided later. One with a brief note of congratulations. It took her nearly three days to compose the few lines –

Dear Brand,

Merry Christmas. I always claimed you and Catherine were perfect together. Now Dad tells me he heard through the grapevine that the two of you have set the big date. Congratulations.

I honestly mean that. I wish you only the best. You deserve it.


P.S. Neal and I are getting along famously.

Neal, Brand mused, reading over the short message a second time. He didn’t know what tricks Erin was up to now, but he wasn’t in the mood for it. He’d put her out of his life, and he was managing nicely.

"Who the hell are you kidding?" he asked out loud.

"You say something?" Romano asked.

"Nothing that concerns you," Brand barked. "Who the hell leaked out information about me and Catherine?"

"What kind of information?"

"That we’re marrying."

"Hell, I don’t know who’d say anything. Is it true?"

Brand answered that with a single intense look.

"Hey, don’t get mad at me. I was just asking." Alex scooted away from his desk. "What’s with you today, anyway?"

Brand debated on whether he’d let his friend know or not, then decided he owed everyone around him an explanation. He hadn’t been the best company the past few weeks. "I got a Christmas card from Erin."

Romano responded with a low whistle. "No wonder you’ve been acting like a wounded bear all day. What’d she have to say?"

"Congratulations to me and Cath," he answered with a low snicker.

"You going to write and let her know the truth?"

"No," Brand answered without hesitating. If Erin wanted to believe he was marrying Catherine, he’d let her.

"I take it you don’t plan on looking her up next week, either?"

"Hell, no." Brand had cursed the assignment that was taking him into Seattle. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Two months, and he was only now getting to the point that he could go a small portion of the day without dwelling on the situation between him and Erin. He wasn’t about to set himself up for more pain. He’d had all he could take.

Brand altered that decision, however, shortly after he checked into the Seattle hotel. He had a rental car, and with time to kill he decided it wouldn’t hurt to swing past Erin’s house. If luck was with him, he might catch a glimpse of her.

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