"Anyplace around here will do," she said.
He followed her into the park, his gaze scanning the rolling green landscape and falling on a large pond. The space under the trees near the shore looked the most promising. He suggested there.
"Sure," she responded, but she sounded uncertain.
Brand smoothed out the gray navy-issue blanket on the lawn and set the wicker basket in the center of it.
"If you’d said something earlier, I would have baked brownies," Erin said, striving, Brand thought, to sound conversational.
"You can next time." The implication was there, as blatant as he could make it. He would be seeing her again. Often. As frequently as their schedules allowed. He planned on it, and he wanted her to do the same.
"What did you pack for us?" Her voice sounded hollow, as if it were coming from an abandoned well.
"Nothing all that fabulous." Kneeling on the blanket, he opened the basket and set out sandwiches, a couple of cans of cold pop, potato chips and two oranges.
Erin’s gaze rested on the oranges for the longest moment. They were the large Florida variety, juicy, she suspected, and sweet.
"Do you want the turkey on white or the corned beef on wholewheat?"
"The turkey," she answered.
Next Brand opened the chips and handed her the bag. She grabbed a handful and set them on top of a napkin.
For all her claims about being famished, Brand noted, she barely touched her food.
He sat, leaning his back against the base of the tree, and stretched his long legs out in front of him, crossing his ankles. "You’re looking thoughtful."
Her responding smile was weak. "I…I was just thinking about something one of the women in my class told me."
"What was that?"
Her head came up, and her gaze collided with his. "Ah… it’s difficult to explain."
"This class means a lot to you, doesn’t it?"
Erin nodded. "One of the women has been on my mind the last couple of days. She hasn’t centered herself yet, and – "
"It’s a counseling term. Basically, what it means is that she hasn’t come to grips with who and what she is and needs to brace herself for whatever comes her way. Right now she’s suffering from shock and emotional pain, and the smallest problem overpowers her. Frankly, I’m worried."
"Tell me about her." Brand held out his arm, wanting Erin to scoot close and rest her head on his chest. He’d been looking for a subtle, natural way of doing so without putting Erin on red alert.
He was almost surprised when she did move toward him. She didn’t exactly cuddle up in his arms, but she braced her back against his chest and stretched her legs out in front of her. His arm reached across her shoulder blades.
"She’s taking my class because after thirty-odd years of marriage her husband is leaving her. From what I understand there’s another woman involved."
"I didn’t know people would divorce after staying married for so many years. Frankly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense."
"It happens," Erin explained softly, "more than you’d guess."
"Go on, I didn’t mean to interrupt you. Tell me about…"
"I’ll call her Margo. That isn’t her name, of course."
Brand nodded. It felt so good to have Erin in his arms. He’d been fantasizing about it for days. The hold wasn’t as intimate as he would have liked, but with this sweet Irish miss he’d need to go slowly.
"She’s in her early fifties and never worked outside the home. All she knows how to be is a homemaker and a wife. I’d venture to guess that she’s never written a check. I know for a fact she doesn’t drive. At a time in her life when she was looking forward to retirement, she needs to find a career and make a home for herself."
"What about children? Surely, they’d stick by their mother at a time like this."
"Two daughters. They’re both married and live outside the state. From what I can remember, one lives in California and the other someplace in Texas. Margo’s completely alone, probably for the first time in her life."
"How’s she handling it?"
"It’s hard to tell. We’re only two classes into the course, but as I said before, she’s shaky and fragile. Time will help."
"My parents were divorced." Brand seldom spoke of his family, and even more rarely of the trauma that had ripped his life apart at such a tender age. "I was just a kid at the time."
"Was it bad?"
He answered her with a short nod. Without a doubt, it was the worst ordeal Brand could ever remember happening to him. His whole world had been shattered. He’d become a weapon to be used against one parent or the other. And he’d only been eleven at the time. Far too young to understand, far too old to cry.
"I rarely saw my father afterward. Every time he and my mother were in the same room together, they’d start arguing. My guess is that it was easier for him to move as far away as possible than to deal with her."
"So when he divorced your mother, he divorced you, too?"
Once again, Brand responded with a short nod. His life had been filled with one trauma after another after his father had moved out of the state. A year or two later, when his mother had remarried, all communication and child support had stopped. Brand had been made to feel guilty for every bit of food he ate or each pair of shoes he outgrew. While attending college, he’d become involved in the officers’ training program offered by the navy. His life had changed from that moment forward. For the better.
Brand found security and acceptance in the navy. What the military had given him, it had taken away from Erin. He understood her complaints well. She hated moving, never planting roots or building lasting relationships. Brand thrived on the security. The navy was his home. The navy was his life. No one would ever take that away from him. There would always be a navy. Budget cuts hurt, bases were being closed down all across the country and military spending was being decreased, but he was secure, more secure than he had been since childhood.
"But I have a feeling about Margo," Erin continued. "She’s far stronger than she realizes. That knowledge will come in time, but she may travel some rough waters before this ordeal is finished."
"You’re strong, too."
Erin leaned her head to examine his face, and Brand took advantage of the moment to press his hands gently to her rosy cheeks. Her eyes found his, and he read her confusion as clearly as he viewed her eagerness. She wanted this kiss as much as he wanted to kiss her.
Gently he pressed his mouth to hers. The kiss was deep and thorough, his lips sliding across hers with unhurried ease and a familiarity that belied their experience. Slowly he lifted his head and drew in a deep, stabilizing breath. A bolt of sizzling electricity arched between them.
"Oh, damn," Erin whispered, sounding very much as if she were about to weep. Her eyes remained closed, and Brand was tempted to kiss her moist lips a second time. In fact, he had to restrain himself from doing so.
"I was afraid of this." Her words were hoarse, as if she were having trouble speaking. Her eyes fluttered open, and she gazed up longingly at him. Irish eyes. Sweet Irish eyes.
"Don’t be afraid," he whispered, just before he kissed her a second time. And a third. A fourth. His hands were in her hair, loving the silky feel of it as he ran his fingers through the lengthy curls.
Gradually he felt her opening up to him, like the satin petals of a rosebud. Either she’d had poor teachers or she was inexperienced in the art of kissing. Brand didn’t know which, didn’t care.
Positioned as they were against the tree, he couldn’t get close enough to her. The need to cradle her softness grew until every part of his body ached. He wanted her beneath him, warm and willing. Open and sweet.
With their mouths joined, he rolled away from the tree, taking her with him. Erin gave a small cry of alarm, and when she opened her mouth he groaned and thrust his tongue deep into the moist warmth.
She rebelled for a moment, not having expected this new intimacy. It took her a second to adjust before she responded, meekly at first, by giving him her tongue. They touched, stroked and played against each other in an erotic game until Brand deepened the kiss to a level neither of them would be able to tolerate for long.
Her hands clenched his shirt, and Brand wondered if she could feel how hard and fiercely his heart was beating. He could feel hers, excited and chaotic, pounding against his chest. Her pulse wasn’t the only thing he could feel. Her nipples had pearled and stood out. The need to slip his hand under her sweater and fill his palm with her breast ate at him like lye. He couldn’t… not here.
He longed to feel her and taste her. Sweet heaven, if he didn’t stop now he’d end up really frightening her. He probably had already. He was as hard as concrete against her thigh. The way they were lying, there wasn’t any way he could hide what she was doing to him. Only years of training and self-discipline kept him still. He longed to rotate his hips to help ease the terrible ache in his loins.
He kissed Erin again, struggling within himself to take it slow and easy. His mouth gentled over hers, in sharp contrast to the wild, uncontrolled kisses they’d shared seconds earlier. She groaned and moved against him, causing Brand to moan himself. His innocent Irish miss hadn’t a clue of the torment she was putting him through. Dear heaven, she was sweet. So warm and moist.
Brand had fully intended to cool their lovemaking, but he made a single tactical error that was nearly his undoing. Just because a kiss was gentle, it didn’t make it any less sensual, or any less devastating.
By the time Brand lifted his head, he was weak, depleted, yet at the same time exhilarated. Shocked eyes stared up at him. He smiled and noted how the edges of her delectable mouth quivered slightly.
She raised her hand, and her fingertips grazed his face. Her touch was as smooth and light as a velvet glove. Unable to resist, Brand kissed her again.
"Are you going to say damn again?" he teased.
Her grin widened. "No."
"But you should?"
She nodded, then closed her eyes and slowly expelled her breath. "I don’t know how this happened."
He pressed a finger across her lips. "I know what you hoped! You couldn’t have picked a more public place and for obvious reasons, which I fear have backfired on us both. As it is, I may have to lie on my belly the rest of the afternoon."
"You will?" As the meaning of his words sank into her brain, Erin’s cheeks blossomed with color. "I…I shouldn’t have said anything." As if she needed something to occupy her hands, she reached for one of the oranges, peeling it open. She held out a dripping slice to him. "Want one?"
Sitting Indian-fashion, with his legs folded in front of him, Brand nodded. He thought Erin meant to hand it to him, but instead she leaned forward to feed him personally. Her eyes were locked with his. A second slice followed the first, but when the juice flowed from the edge of his mouth she bent toward him and licked it away.