"I thought the receptionist looked envious. He’s probably downstairs waiting for you right now."
"Ah…" That thought didn’t bear contemplating.
"For heaven’s sake," Aimee said eagerly, "don’t just sit there, open it."
Erin did, with an enthusiasm she didn’t dare question. Her gaze scanned the short message before she looked up to her friend. "He wants to give me a tour of Sand Point before the opportunity is gone. You know there’s a distinct possibility the navy may close down the base. He says I should have a look at it for nostalgia’s sake."
"Tomorrow…You’re right, he’s downstairs waiting for my answer."
"Are you going to do it?" Aimee’s question hung in mid-air like a dangling spider.
Erin didn’t know. Then she did know. Longing welled deep within her, not a physical longing, but an emotional stirring that left her feeling empty inside. She didn’t want to have anything to do with this lieutenant j.g. didn’t want to be trapped in the whirlpool of his strong, sensual appeal. Nevertheless, she had been from the first moment they’d kissed, despite her best efforts.
He paralyzed her; he challenged her. He was everything she claimed she didn’t want in a man, and everything she’d ever hope to find.
"Well?" Aimee probed. "What are you going to do?"
"1… I’m going to take that tour."
Aimee let lose with a loud cheer that attracted the attention of nearly everyone in the huge open room. Several people stuck their heads out from behind office doors to discover what was causing all the excitement.
Shaking on the inside, but outwardly composed, Erin took the elevator to the ground floor. Brand was waiting in the foyer. He had his back to her and was standing in front of the directory. He wore his dress uniform, and his hands were joined behind his back, holding his garrison cap.
He must have sensed her presence, because he turned around.
"Hello," she said, her heart as heavy as the humid air of the rainy Seattle morning.
"Hi," he responded, his own voice low and throaty.
She dropped her gaze, unexpectedly nervous. "I got your note."
"You look surprised to hear from me."
"After the way I behaved the other night, I didn’t expect to… I can’t understand why you want anything to do with me."
"You weren’t so bad." His lazy grin took a long time coming, but when it did it contradicted every word he’d spoken.
She found his smile infectious and doubted any woman could resist this man when he put his mind to it – and his mind was definitely to it!
"Are you free tomorrow?"
"And if I said I wasn’t?" She answered him with a question of her own, thinking that was safer than admitting how pleased she was to see him.
"I’d ask you out again later."
"Why?" Erin couldn’t understand why he’d continue to risk rejection from her. Especially when she was quite ordinary. Erin wasn’t selling herself short. She was a warm, generous person, but she hadn’t been with him. Yet he’d returned twice now, enduring her disdain, and she had yet to understand why.
Gradually she raised her eyes to his. And what she viewed confused her even more. Brand was thinking and feeling the same things she was, the same bewilderment, the same confusion. The same everything.
The smile faded, and his face tightened slightly, as if this were a question he’d often asked himself. "Why do I keep coming back?" He leveled his gaze on her. "I wish the hell I knew. Will you come to Sand Point tomorrow?"
Erin nodded, then emphasized her response by saying, "Yes. At ten?"
"Perfect." Then he added with a slight smile, "There’ll be a pass waiting for you at the gate."
"Good," she said, taking a step back, feeling nervous and not knowing how to explain it. "I’ll see you tomorrow, then."
It wasn’t until Erin was inside the elevator, a smile trembling on her lips, that she remembered Marilyn’s parting words from the night before.
Don’t ever fall in love, Marilyn had warned her, It hurts too damn much. Erin felt somewhat comforted to realize she was a long way from falling in love with Brand Davis. But she would definitely have to be careful.
"Well, is it the way you remembered?" Brand asked after a two-hour tour of Naval Station Puget Sound at Sand Point. He’d given her a history lesson, too. Sand Point had originally been acquired by King County back in 1920 as an airport and later leased to the navy as a re- serve. Brand had explained that only a few hundred men were based there now, support personnel for the base at Everett. Brand was assigned to the admiral’s staff – SINCPAC, out of Hawaii – and sent to do an independent study in preparation for the possible closure of the base.
Erin had been on the base itself only a handful of times as a child. It amazed her how familiar the base felt to her, even though it had been sixteen years since she’d moved away from the area.
"It hasn’t changed all that much over the years."
"That surprises you?"
"Not really." What did catch her unawares was the feeling of homecoming. There had never been one single base her family had been assigned to through the years that gave Erin this sort of abstract feeling of home. From the time she could remember, her life had belonged to the navy. Her father would receive shipping orders, and without a pause her family would pack up everything they owned and head wherever her father’s commanding officer decreed. Erin had hated it with a fierceness that went beyond description. Nothing was ever her own, there was no sense of permanency in her life, no sense of security. What she had one day – her friends, her school, her neighbors – could be taken from her the next.
Brand’s fingers reached for hers and squeezed tightly. "You look sad."
"I do?" She forced a note of cheerfulness into her voice, needing to define her feelings. Brand had brought her here. For the first time since she’d left her family, she’d returned to a navy base. She’d agreed to Brand’s suggestion of a tour with flippant disregard for any emotions she might experience.
The wounds of her youth, although she knew she was being somewhat melodramatic to refer to them that way, had been properly bandaged with time. She’d set the course of her life and hadn’t looked back since. Then, out of the blue, Brand Davis had popped in, determined, it seemed, to untie the compress so carefully wrapped around her heart.
As she stood outside the Sand Point grounds, she could almost feel the bandages slackening. Her first instinct was to tug them back into place, but she couldn’t do that with the memories. Happy memories, carefree memories, came at her from every angle. The longer she stood there, the longer she soaked in the feelings, the more likely the bandage was to drop to her feet. Erin couldn’t allow that to happen.
"I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed living in Seattle," she whispered, barely aware she was speaking.
"Where were you stationed afterward?"
Erin had to think about it. "Guam, as I recall – No, we went to Alaska first."
"You hated it there?"
"Not exactly. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t my favorite place in the world, but it was tolerable – We weren’t there long." The sun actually did shine at midnight, and the mosquito was teasingly referred to as the Alaska state bird. Actually, Erin had loved Alaska, but they’d been there such a short while.
"Four months, I’d guess. There was some screwup, and almost overnight we were given orders and shipped to Guam. Now that was one place I really did enjoy."
"Did you ever take picnics on Guam?"
Erin had to think that one over, and she couldn’t actually remember one way or the other. "I suppose we did."
"And how did you enjoy those?"
Erin glanced in Brand’s direction and studied him through narrowed eyes. "Why do I have the funny feeling this is a leading question?"
"Because it is." Brand grinned at her, and the sun broke through whatever clouds there were that day. "I packed us a lunch, and I was hoping to persuade you to go on a picnic with me."
"Where?" Not that it mattered. The question was a delaying tactic to give her time to sort through her scattered feelings. A tour of Sand Point was one thing, but lying down on the grass feeding each other grapes was another.
"Anywhere you want."
"Ah?" Her mind scurried as she tried to come up with the names of parks, but for the life of her Erin couldn’t remove the picture of Brand pressing a grape to her lips and then bending over to kiss her and share the juicy flavor.
"How about Woodland Park? If you haven’t visited the zoo, you should. Seattle has one of the country’s best." That way she could feed the animals and take her mind off Brand. The choice was a good one for another reason, as well. Woodland Park was sure to be crowded on a day as bright and sunny as this one.
Erin was right. They were fortunate to find parking. Brand frowned as he glanced around them, and she could almost hear his thoughts. He’d been hoping she’d lead him to a secluded hideaway, and she’d greatly disappointed him. He might as well become accustomed to it.
Erin had agreed to see him again, but she absolutely refused to become romantically involved.
"Just who do you think you’re kidding?" she muttered under her breath. Her stomach had been tied up in knots for the last hour while she’d replayed over and over again in her mind this ridiculous scene about them sharing grapes. For all she knew, he might have brought along apples, or oranges, or omitted fruit altogether.
"You said something?" Brand asked, giving her an odd look.
"I thought you did."
She was going to have to examine this need to talk out loud to herself. As far as she could see, the best tactic was to change the subject. "I’m starved."
"Me too." But when he glanced her way, his gaze rested squarely on her mouth, as if to say he was eager to eat all right, but his need wasn’t for food.
Her beautiful Irish eyes were moody, Brand decided. Moody and guarded. Brand didn’t know what he’d done – or hadn’t done – that disturbed Erin so much. From the moment they’d driven away from the naval station, he’d toyed with the idea of asking her what was wrong. He hadn’t, simply because he knew she’d deny that anything was troubling her.
Brand wasn’t pleased with her choice of parks for their picnic. The zoo was a place for family and kids. He’d be lucky if they found five minutes alone together. But then, that was exactly the reason Erin had chosen it.
Brand, on the other hand, wanted seclusion and privacy. He wanted to kiss Erin again. Hell, he needed to kiss Erin again. The thought had dominated his mind for days. She was so incredibly soft and sweet. He swore he’d never kissed another woman who tasted of honey the way she did. The sample she’d given him hadn’t been nearly enough to satisfy his need. For days he’d been telling himself he’d blown the kiss up in his mind, way out of proportion. Nothing could have been that good.