Luck, however, hadn’t exactly been tossing charms his way lately, he was quick to note.
"You’re acting like a lovesick fool," he told himself as he exited from the freeway and climbed the twisting roadway that led to West Seattle.’ "Why the hell shouldn’t you?" He asked himself next. "You’ve been a lovesick fool from the moment you met Erin MacNamera."
By the time he was on the side street that led to her house, Brand was having third and fourth thoughts. They vanished the minute he saw the For Sale sign.
He waited until the blazing anger that raged through him had dissipated enough for him to think clearly. When it had, he stepped out of the car and marched to her front door and rapped hard against the wooden structure.
She took her sweet time answering. Her complexion went pale when she saw him, and his name was only a voiceless movement of her lips.
"What’s that For Sale sign doing on the front lawn?" he demanded.
Erin looked up at him as if she were sorely tempted to reach out and touch him to be sure he wasn’t a figment of her imagination.
"The For Sale sign," he repeated harshly, pointing to it in case she wasn’t aware it was there.
"I’m selling the house," she whispered, then blinked twice. "What are you doing here?"
"I’m on assignment. I want to know why the hell you’re moving."
"It’s… well, it’s not easy to explain."
She stepped aside for him to come into the house. Brand had no intention of doing so. He was walking a fine line as it was. His anger had carried him all the way to her front door, but being this close to Erin, loving her as much as he did and loathing her for the hell she’d put him through, wasn’t exactly conducive to them being alone together. He’d forgotten how beautiful she was, with her rich auburn hair and her expressive dark eyes. They registered a multitude of emotions.
"I can’t… explain it out here," she said when he doggedly remained where he was. "Come inside. There’s coffee."
"If you don’t mind, I’d prefer not to. Just kindly tell me why you’re moving?"
"You don’t want to come inside?" Erin sounded hurt and incredulous.
"No." Once again he pointed to the sign.
"I have to sell," she explained haltingly. "Well, I don’t exactly have to… Actually, if you want the truth, I’m sick of the grand piano. It takes up the entire living room, I don’t have the time for lessons, and I lack talent."
"That isn’t any reason to sell. A few months ago a bulldozer was the only thing that would get you out of this house."
"It isn’t the house that was so important to me."
"Then what the hell was it?"
"Roots," she shouted back, just as angry and impatient with him as he was with her.
Brand wasn’t buying that for one minute. "Now we both know, don’t we, Erin? All this business about needing security was bull. You don’t have any more roots in Seattle than you did anyplace else. You can pretend all you want after today, sweetheart, but for right now, you’re going to admit the truth."
She frowned as if she hadn’t a clue what he was saying.
"You’re bored and restless," he elaborated.
She denied that with a hard shake of her head. "That’s not true."
"Sorry, sweetheart, I should have recognized the symptoms, but I was so damn much in love with you, a battleship would have escaped me."
A lone tear ran down the side of her face, but Brand was in no mood to react to her anguish. Perhaps deep down he was pleased to see her crying, although he didn’t like to think that was true. She’d put him through hell, and if she was suffering a little, then so much the better.
"You thrive on change, you always have, only you refused to admit it. You’re looking for a challenge, because it’s the only thing you’ve ever known. You grew up learning how to adjust to situations, and now all of a sudden there’s nothing new. Everything is the same, one day after the next, and you’re looking for a way out, only you’re sugarcoating it with the idea that you don’t have enough room in your living room. Did it ever occur to you that you might sell the piano?"
"No," she whispered in a tight, strained voice.
"I didn’t think it would." She thought more like a navy wife than Brand had ever realized.
Neither of them spoke for several tense moments. Brand knew he should turn and walk away from her. He’d said everything he wanted to and more. Erin stood before him as pale as a canvas sail bleached by the sun, holding herself proud, her head high and regal.
He started to move, but every step felt as if he were dragging an anchor with him. Part of him yearned to shout back at her, tell her she’d never find a man who loved her as much as he did, but she’d rejected his love once, and he was too damn proud to hand her the power to injure him again.
He was halfway to his car when she called out to him. "Brand…"
He twisted around and discovered that she’d walked down the steps toward him. "What?" he demanded brusquely.
She shook her head. Then, using the back of her hands, she wiped the moisture from her face. "I’m so – "
"Don’t apologize," he said, in as cutting a voice as he could manage. He could take anything but that. She didn’t want him, didn’t love him enough. By God, he wasn’t about to let her water down her regrets by telling him how sorry she was.
"I wasn’t," she whispered brokenly. "Just be happy."
Something broke within Brand, something deep and fundamental that had been wounded that afternoon in the Seattle hotel. "Be happy," he shouted, marching up to her. He gripped her hard by the shoulders. The power of the emotion had a stranglehold on all his good intentions to turn and aloofly walk away from her. He had damn little pride left when it came to Erin, but for once he was determined to close himself off from her. After all the times she’d hurt him, it felt good to be the one in control. He struggled to remain indifferent and detached.
He ruined everything by announcing the truth. "Do you honestly believe I can be happy without you in my life?" he demanded. "Fat chance, sweetheart."
She blinked up at him, her eyes stricken and wide. "But you’re marrying Catherine."
He snickered loudly. "Your father should know by now not to trust everything he hears."
"You mean you’re not?"
"Not anytime soon," he bit out caustically.
Indescribable joy crowded Erin’s face before she gave a hoarse shriek. She tossed her arms around his neck and shocked him by spreading madcap kisses all over his face. Her hands were splayed over his ears as her sweet mouth bestowed a fleeting succession of kisses wherever her lips happened to land. Tears mingled with those first kisses and mumbled, unintelligible words.
"Erin, stop," he demanded. At the first touch of her mouth, the hard protective shell he’d erected around his heart cracked. He’d worked like a madman to fortify it from the moment he’d knocked on her front door. He didn’t know how much longer he could hold out with her touching him like this.
Her lips found his, and he opened to her, hungry and eager and too battle-weary to fight her any longer. He took control of the kiss, plowing his hands into her hair and slanting his mouth over hers. She sighed and locked her arms around his neck and kissed him back with a need that made Brand bitterly regret the fact they were outside her house.
"You’re going to marry me," he told her forcefully.
"Yes…yes," she answered, as if there had never been any question about it. "Only let’s make the wedding soon."
Brand frowned. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. "I’m probably going to get transferred."
"In the next twenty years I may be stationed from here to kingdom come. We’ll move any number of times."
"No doubt we will, but I’m used to that."
The rigid control he’d maintained early on had melted and puddled at his feet, but Brand wasn’t completely convinced this was for real. He wasn’t leaving anything to speculation. "There are going to be children."
"I certainly hope so."
"You wanted roots, remember?"
"I’ve got them, only they’re wound around you."
Brand felt dizzy with relief and a profound sense of completeness. "Why?"
She laughed softly, and he heard the pain mingled with the joy. "You’re right… you were right all along, only I was too blind to realize it. For months I’ve been restless and bored, just like you said. I wanted to blame that feeling on you, but it started long before we met. Nearly every weekend I was taking long drives. Last month I put the house on the market, thinking once it sold I’d put in my notice at the office and move to Oregon."
"I was wrong about so many things. Aimee was right – I hadn’t been with the Community Action Program long enough to realize some marriages do work. People can stay in love forever. I’d forgotten that and so many other things. Did you know I attended four different universities? Can you believe that? All along I kept claiming I wanted roots, but I was too blind to see how bored I get in one place. When I did realize that, it was too late – I’d heard about you and Catherine. Oh, Brand, I’m so ready to be your wife. So ready to settle down."
"The only place you’re going to settle is with me."
"Aye, aye, Lieutenant," she whispered. Her mouth claimed his for a lengthy series of delicate, nibbling kisses.
"Here we are again," a smiling Ginger Romano commented to Erin as they stood on the crowded pier. The two were part of a large gathering of family members waiting for the crew of the Blue Ridge to disembark after a lengthy cruise. The ship was returning from monitoring sea trials and had been gone nearly five months.
Erin was eager for Brand’s return for more than the usual reasons. She’d missed her husband the way she always missed him when he was away for any length of time. They’d been blissfully happy in the two years since their marriage. Becoming Brand’s wife had taught Erin several valuable lessons about herself. She loved navy life. Thrived on it, just the way he’d claimed she would. She was home, where she’d always meant to be. The navy was in her blood, the same way it was in her father’s and in Brand’s. She might not have a whole lot to do with national defense, but she, and the other wives like her, were as important to the navy as the entire Pacific fleet.
"There’s Daddy," Ginger shrieked, pointing to Alex as he walked down the gangplank. Bobby and the two little ones went racing toward their father.
Brand was directly behind Alex. He paused and searched the crowd for Erin. Her heart sped as she started toward him at a dignified gait. Soon, however, she broke into a run as Brand started rushing toward her. He caught her by the waist and lifted her high above his head; their mouths found and clung to each other in a love feast of longing and need.