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Eric Armstrong had come home on leave to surprise his online dream woman instead, she was the one who'd surprised him.
He sat on his cot in the base barracks, staring at the name scribbled on a slip of paper he held in his hands. Much as he had in the days since he'd accepted the real name of "Samantha" from Tommy "The Tech" Onassis. After she'd pulled a cyber disappearing act about a month ago, he'd suspected Samantha had been an alias. But there was no way he could have known he was already familiar with the real woman.
"Are you sure this is it?" he'd asked the stocky Greek-American, whose finesse with a computer equaled that which most men put to use seducing a woman. Not that Tech seemed to have any trouble in that area. He used that overloaded, giga-pumped laptop of his to make sure he had women waiting for himand whichever fellow marine won the lottery he held to go out on a double dateat each port of call.
Tech had stared at him "You so didn't just ask me that."
And they'd left it at that.
Eric had walked around the base in a daze ever since, trying to decide what to do. If he were running on all cylinders, he'd walk away, go home to spend his leave in Texas, and forget all about "Samantha" and the deep impression she'd left on him.
But he was having trouble wrapping his brain around the truth.
His cell phone rang, earning him looks from a couple of his bunkmates. He picked up.
"Hey, where are you? We were expecting you home two days ago."
Eric stuffed the piece of paper into his pocket and smiled at the sound of his younger brother's voice.
"Hey, yourself, Trace."
"Are you going to answer my question, or just leave me hanging on the vinelike an overripe tomato?"
Eric drew in a breath and exhaled. "I have some things I need to clean up here in Virginia first," he lied.
"The guys had a whole welcome-home barbecue planned. Killed the cow and everything. They're going to be awfully disappointed."
"I'm sure they'll enjoy the food without me," Eric said absently.
The line was quiet for a moment or two. Then his younger brother asked, "When do you think you will be home?"
Eric straightened, causing the cot to squeak. "Wish I could tell you, bro. Wish I could tell you."
"Is everything all right? You haven't gotten yourself into trouble or anything, have you?"
He thought of his fellow marine and supervising officer Brian Justice and the court-martial he was facing. Following quickly on the heels came the dark incident that had brought it about. A scene he feared was forever etched into the backs of his eyelids. "No, no. Nothing like that. Nothing I can't handle."
"Well, then, you make sure you give me a heads-up when you know, ya hear? The guys will want to do something to commemorate your return." He chuckled. "Or at least be ready for it."
Eric grinned. It was nice to know he was missed.
He talked to his brother for a couple more minutes and then hung up, exchanging the phone for the slip of paper again.
He remembered when he'd first hooked up online with the mysterious woman named Samantha. He'd been in a chat room, just shooting the breeze, doing the cyber equivalent of flexing his muscles, and she'd popped up, calling him out on some of the false details he'd supplied.
"Me and the guys went into Bahrain last night and tied one on," he'd written.
"No, you didn't. You're anchored off the coast of Kuwait and there was no shore leave," Samantha had replied.
She'd been right. And he'd been smitten. A woman who withstood his bragging and not only managed to wittily defuse it, but stuck around to enjoy real conversations.
And then, six months in, their daily missives had ventured into sexier territory.
"What are you wearing?" he'd asked her, much as he had every other time within five seconds of logging on.
Her usual response was "a ratty old sweatshirt and jeans."
But not that day. That day she'd described, in sultry detail, the delicate lace of the new thong she'd just bought at Victoria's Secret. The red silk nightie that just brushed the top of her thighs. How her smooth legs and waxed delicates felt against her Egyptian cotton bed sheets.
Eric had instantly entered a period he described as being like a fully loaded M-16 with nothing to shoot at.
From then on, all he could seem to think of was Samantha. The fact that she'd never sent him a picture of herself, merely gave him general stats like five-six, one hundred and twenty pounds, combination of Denise Richards, Scarlett Johansson and Angelina Jolie, hadn't hindered his fantasies. If anything, not knowing what she looked like seemed to feed them. He'd lie in his cot at night thinking about the woman a half a world away, sleeping alone in her own bed. He'd go into a port of call with the guys and not really see the female sailors or locals hitting on him, his only goal to get to a cyber café where he could see if Samantha was available to chat.
He'd never considered that her name wasn't really Samantha at the time. He'd figured that since she'd refused to share her last name, the first had to be real.
He stared at the piece of paper in his hands and knew that wasn't the case. And that everything he'd believed in both his fantasy and real life had come crashing down around his ears.
"Samantha" was in truth Sara Harris and Eric had been best friend to her late husband; a man who had saved Eric's life, giving up his own in the process.
"So I was thinking that you and I could go to the symphony together," Sara's mother-in-law Gertrude Harris was saying. "You know how Howard hates the symphony and none of my friends Well, they wouldn't enjoy the production as much as I know you will."
Sara took a bite of her chicken salad. She hated the symphony. Not that she'd ever tell her mother-in-law that. It would break Gertrude's heart to think that she'd been faking an interest all this time. Five years to be exact, when Sara had married Howard and Gertrude's only child, Andrew. She'd wanted so desperately to belong that she'd done a lot of nodding and smiling and not nearly enough speaking up.
"Just tell her, Sara," Andy had told her after the first time she'd sat through a production of Beethoven's First Symphony with his mother. "She'll understand."
"Yeah, she'll understand that I'm a liar and a fraud and the absolute worst daughter-in-law in the world."
Andy had chuckled and set about giving her a shoulder rub to make her feel better. And had progressed to rubbing other areas of her anatomy, making her feel much, much better.
But Andy wasn't here to make her feel better about anything anymore. And he hadn't been for a year and a half.
How young she'd been then, when she'd married Andy. Nineteen going on forty. And her top priorities were, first, to make her new husband happy. Second, to make her in-laws not only like her, but love her.
How much older she felt now. Much older than the five years that had passed.
She looked up into Gertrude's face.
"Is everything all right?"
She forced herself to sit straighter and smiled. "Of course. What would make you ask?"
"I don't know you seem a little distracted lately. Not like yourself."
If only she knew who she was anymore.
So much of her life lately seemed to be about going through the motions. After the two marines in full uniform had appeared at her front door to deliver the news that her husband had been killed in action, it had been hard enough to drag herself out of bed every morning, take a shower, and go to the small graphics design company where she worked. Simple things like eating became a chore, but she did it. Partly because she didn't know what else to do. Mostly because Gertrude and Howard had needed her to help see them through the sad ordeal.
Then came the day six months after the military funeral at Arlington when she woke up to discover that she hadn't allowed her heart to grieve the loss of the only man she'd ever loved. And her soul rebelled.
She'd spent a week shut off from the world, wishing she had been the one to go instead of Andy. After all, he'd had his family to live for. What did she have?
She'd had him. And now
Sara looked at Gertrude. Now she had his family. And no matter how much she hated going to the symphony, or helping Gertrude organize Saturday luncheon and afternoons out with "The girls" Well, putting herself out there, even as someone she feared she wasn't, it was all she had. And she would never, ever do anything to risk that.
Her cheeks felt hot. Liar, a little horned devil sitting on her right shoulder whispered.
She had done something to upset the status quo. The good thing was, no one but her knew that.
Well, no one but her and her late husband's best friend and fellow marine Eric Armstrong.
No. She was wrong on that account. She was the only one. Because there was no way Eric would ever know that her online identity of Samantha was really her. Would never know that she had been the one to reach out to him as an anonymous friend during that weeklong isolation, or that he had been her salvation, the sole reason for her to finally end her seclusion and continue an existence that sometimes loomed unbearable without Andy.
Then came the time six months ago when she'd given in to the feminine yearnings pulsing inside her, parts of her as neglected as her heart clamoring for attention. And she'd finally returned Eric's desire to take their online connection a little further. To venture into unknown territory with racy e-mails and instant messages. But rather than satisfy the sexual ache, their online flirtation had merely amplified it.
Until Eric told her he would be returning stateside for leave and needed to meet her .
Sara hadn't hesitated to erase Samantha's entire identity. The risk was too great for her to take. No matter how much it had hurt at the time to do so, no one could know what she'd done. Ever. She would never betray her husband's memory in that way. Never put his parents through the pain of knowing she'd indulged in provocative behavior with the man who had been her husband's best friend.
Never again allow herself to love a man whose job it was to put his life on the line for his country. She'd already lost one. Losing another would destroy her.
Gertrude was looking at her oddly again. Sara forced a smile. "I was thinking that I'd like for you and Howard to come over for dinner this Sunday," she said. "I could make that pot roast he likes so much."
"Andy's favorite." Gertrude immediately relaxed. "We'd like that. It's when we're at your house that Well, that both of us feel the most like Andy might walk through the door any moment."
And therein lay the rub .
It was one of those rare winter days when the sun slanted in just such a way that it was easy to be lured into believing it might be July instead of January. Temperatures were mild, the scent of the Atlantic Ocean permeated the air, and Sara's small house in Virginia Beach looked welcoming rather than foreboding.
She let herself into the one-story, two-bedroom bungalow she and Andy had bought five years ago and accepted the excited welcome and face wash she received from Truman, her four-year-old golden retriever.
"Oh, yes, you missed me, didn't you, boy? Yes, you did."
She let Tru out into the backyard to do his business, then put food out for him in the kitchen before going into her bedroom to change into sneakers and a sweatshirt so she might take Truman to the beach and enjoy the early sunset. It was only five o'clock and the rest of the dark night stretched in front of her like a black wall she couldn't figure out how to scale. As she slipped out of her low-heeled shoes and knee-highs, she reached out with her right hand to boot up her laptop, as was her normal routine. She took off her blouse and put on a T-shirt, then pulled the sweatshirt on over it, shaking out her shoulder-length brown hair before clicking to check for e-mail.
Her hand hovered over the mouse as she realized what she was doing. She was looking for a message from Eric.
How much she'd come to rely on those daily exchanges. It had been over a week since she'd been in contact with him. Worse, ten days since she'd deleted the e-mail account she'd used to communicate with him and, in essence, erased a part of herself.
She moved her hand from the mouse to the top of the screen and closed the laptop.
A moment later she had Truman on his leash, had filled a bottle of water, and left the house for the brisk, quarter of a mile walk to the beach, determined to forget that there would be no more e-mails from Eric waiting for her.
Eric had his hand on the door handle. He'd watched Sara pull her eight-year-old compact car into the driveway of the small house he'd visited on countless occasions, then go inside. It was the first time he'd seen her since before Andy's death. And the reality hit him full force, like the forceful butt of a weapon to the stomach.
He had the hots for his best friend's girl .
It was the first thought that went through his mind. A thought he'd never expected to have. Sure, Sara had always been attractive, but she'd always been Andy's girl. Off-limits. It had never even crossed his mind to think of the possibility of anything more. Partly because marines didn't go screwing around with other marines' women. (Well, good marines didn't, anyway.) Mostly because Andy and Sara had been so much in love that it had sometimes been awkward to be around them.
He hadn't gone to Andy's funeral. The Corps had offered to fly him back for the event, but he'd refused. He'd lost his best friend, but he still had friends in his unit that depended on him. And the enemy that had taken Andy's life was still a threat to the others. He couldn't leave them behind.
Eric closed his eyes and bounced the back of his head against the seat. Who was he shitting? He hadn't had the guts to face Sara or Andy's parents. Had been too big of a coward to admit that despite everything he'd done, he had been unable to save Andy.