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The maid of honor and the best man were barely speaking. Other than that, the rehearsal of the rehearsal dinner seemed to be a success.
Still, Elizabeth Stone thought, nowhere was it written that as maid of honor she had to like the best man.
"So" her sister, Terry, leaned in close to her and whispered beneath the hum of conversation around them "what do you think of him? Wasn't I right? Isn't he perfect for you?"
The "he" being Harding Casey, best man, career Marine and the source of the jitters rattling around in the pit of Elizabeth's stomach.
She reached for her wineglass, took a slow sip of white Zinfandel, then answered in as low pitched a voice as possible. "I'm trying not to think about him."
"Ooooh," the younger woman said as her eyebrows arched high on her forehead. "Sounds promising."
Frowning slightly, Elizabeth set her wineglass down and told herself that it was useless to argue with her sister over this. For almost a year, Terry had been trying to set her up with Harding Casey, her fiancé Mike's best friend. This little gathering was as close as she had come to succeeding.
"Look," Terry said quietly, "you two are going to be together practically every day for the next week. Wouldn't it make more sense if you at least tried to like him?"
"Now that you bring it up," Elizabeth said, half turning in her seat to face her sister squarely. "I still don't understand why I have to spend all week with the man. You're the one getting married."
"Yeah ." Terry's expression went soft and dreamy, and despite the fact that Elizabeth had no real desire of her own to get married, a small sliver of envy pierced her heart. What would it be like, she wondered, to feel what Terry so obviously felt for Mike?
In the next instant, though, she remembered that she wasn't interested in finding a man. She had her own life. A successful one, thanks very much, and she was already happy. Why should she go out looking for someone who would only require her to make all kinds of changes in what she considered a darn near perfect existence?
With that thought firmly in mind, she prodded her sister. "Terry, you know I'm delighted to be your maid of honor, but"
"No buts" she interrupted. "You promised that you would help out, Lizzie."
"Sure, but why"
"There's no way I can do all of the little things that have to be done this week." Terry leaned forward and clutched her sister's hand. "Come on, Lizzie. You can handle Harding for one little week, can't you?"
There was a challenge if ever she'd heard one. Grimly Elizabeth shot a covert glance at the man across from her. Black hair, cut into a military, "high and tight" haircut, strong jaw, straight nose, well-shaped mouth, and eyes blue enough to make Paul Newman's look a dingy gray. Standing up, he was six-feet-five inches of solid muscle, had a voice deep enough to cause earthquakes and made her stomach pitch with nerves and expectation with a single glance. Sure. She could handle him. No problem.
Lordy, she was in trouble. The only thing that kept her from having some serious fantasies about the man was the uniform he wore so proudly.
Muffling a sigh, she said softly, "Little sister, you should understand better than anyone else why I don't want anything to do with a military type."
Terry did nothing to hide her grumble of frustration. "Honestly, Lizzie, you would think you grew up manacled to a wall."
"Yeah. A wall that was reassigned every two or three years."
Elizabeth, known as "Lizzie" only to her family, had hated growing up as a Marine brat. Shifting from place to place, moving wherever their father's orders had taken them. Never really at home. Making new friends only to leave them behind. The one constant in her life.the one friend she had always been able to count on was Terry. Her sister. Who had grown up to fall in love with a Marine. But at least Terry's soon-to-be husband had left the Corps.
Harding CaseyHard Case to his friends, looked like a lifer to her.
"You just hate the military."
"No, I don't," Elizabeth said. "I've just served my time, that's all. You've got to be relieved that Mike left the Corps. Admit it."
"I told him he didn't have to. It was his decision."
"A good one, too." Elizabeth reached for her wineglass, then rethought it and settled her hand in her lap. "At least you won't be stumping all around >the world like Mom did, trying to make homes out of impersonal barracks buildings."
"Jeez, Lizzie" Terry's voice dropped as she shot a quick look at the other diners to make sure no one could hear them "you make it all sound so ugly. We had a great family. A terrific life. We've seen places most people only dream about."
True, Elizabeth thought. All true. But while they had been traveling around the world like modern-day gypsies, all Elizabeth had ever wanted was a home. A real home. One where she could stay put for more than three years. One where she could paint the walls any color she liked and not even consider who might be moving in after she'd gone.
Apparently, whatever gypsy gene Terry had inherited from their parents had bypassed Elizabeth altogether.
"Yeah," Elizabeth said quietly. "It was terrific."
Terry grinned, obviously not hearing the sarcasm. "Okay, now tell me how right I was about Harding. He is a babe, isn't he?"
Babe? Oh, he was more than a babe. But there was no way she would admit as much to Terry. She shot Harding Casey a covert glance only to find him watching her through those incredible eyes of his. Goose bumps raced up her arms. Her heartbeat quickened, and her palms were suddenly damp. This was no ordinary attraction to a handsome man. It was almost as if something inside her recognized him. As if he was someone she had been waiting for.
Get a grip, she told herself as the ridiculous thought took root.
Grab her, Harding thought. Grab her, kiss her, caress her.he shook his head slightly in a vain attempt to rid himself of the almost-overpowering impulses throbbing inside him. Impulses that had been haunting him since meeting Elizabeth Stone three hours ago.
Her chin length, curly brown hair seemed to tempt him to spear his fingers through it. Those even darker brown eyes of hers mesmerized him, and he wanted to lose himself in their depths, discover her secrets. He called on years of strict military training to hide his reaction to her figure. A body made for lounging beside a fire and quiet, private picnics on moonlit beaches. His gaze slipped lower, and Harding felt something in his chest stagger. The deep vee neckline of her red silk blouse gaped a bit as she leaned in toward her sister. He caught a fleeting glimpse of pale ivory flesh and felt his mouth go dry.
He was in big trouble.
Harding shifted his gaze from Elizabeth's face to the bottle of beer in front of him. He had to quit staring at her. Curling his fingers around the still-cold bottle, he lifted it and took a long drink.
"So, you old Devil Dog," Mike Hall whispered as he leaned in close. "What do you think of our Lizzie?"
A brief smile touched Harding's lips, then faded. Devil Dog. The traditional greeting between Marines. Even though Mike had left the Corps a year ago, after meeting and falling in love with Terry, clearly the Corps hadn't left him.
He risked another quick look at the woman opposite him, reminding himself not to eat her alive with his eyes. No, she was no Lizzie. Definitely an Elizabeth.
Perhaps, he mused, Beth.
"C'mon Hard Case," Mike prodded. "What's the verdict?"
He forced a casual shrug. "She seems nice."
"Nice?" Mike looked at him, astonished. "A solid year I've been telling you about her, and all you can say when you finally meet her is that she seems nice? "
"Yeah, you told me about her." Harding snorted a smothered laugh. "You also told me about how she hated growing up in the Corps. And about all the grief she gave you when she was trying to get Terry to dump you."
Mike frowned. "She was trying to protect her sister."
"Sure, by taking shots at you and the Corps."
"She's changed. She likes me now." Mike shook his head slowly. "Finally figured out that I really do love Terry."
Fine. He could understand defending and protecting a sister. But Elizabeth Stone had made his friend miserable for almost six months. The fact that she was gorgeous didn't make up for that. He took a long swig of his beer. "Great, she likes you," he said slowly. "But she still hates the Corps."
Mike shrugged. "Terry says that Lizzie never liked all of the moving around their folks did while they were growing up. Even I don't think that's an easy way to raise kids.which is why I got out."
"I still can't believe you left."
"Twenty years was long enough for me."
"Not me," Harding said flatly. Why any man would give up the Corps for a woman was simply beyond him. The Marines had given him everything. A home. A family that included every Marine stationed anywhere in the world. A sense of belonging.of doing something for his country.
Nope. He would never give up all that to please a woman who would probably just end up leaving him, anyway.
"You and she would be great together."
Harding scowled. "Butt out, buddy."
"Hell, Hard Case." Mike sat back, shaking his head. "You're in worse shape than I thought."
He snapped his friend an irritated look.
Mike ignored it. "If you don't know a gorgeous, successful woman when you see her, the Corps ought to drum you out on the grounds of failing eyesight."
"Will you let it go?"
"Probably not," Mike admitted.
"What is it with you and your kind?"
Mike laughed easily. He was still the only person Harding had ever known who was unimpressed with the patented Hard Case glare.
"What do you mean, my kind?"
Harding took another swallow of beer, deliberately kept his gaze from sliding toward Elizabeth and concentrated instead on getting his best friend off his back. "You Noah's Ark people."
Mike laughed again, but Harding went right on, warming to his theme.
"The minute you find somebody, you're just not happy until everyone around you is traveling in pairs." He kept his voice low so that only Mike would be able to hear him above the hum of other conversations taking place in the crowded, oceanfront restaurant. As he talked, he saw that Mike's smile faded. "You try every which way to drag the rest of us off, kicking and screaming toward some fairy-tale ending. Some of us are meant to be alone, you know. Not everybody finds happily ever after. Hell, not everyone is looking for it."
Leaning forward, resting his forearms on his thighs, Mike held his beer bottle cupped in both hands and stared at it thoughtfully before saying quietly, "You need more than the Corps, Hard Case."
He snorted. "Look who's talking. You joined up the same time I did. For twenty years, the Corps was enough for you."
"I retired when I found out different."
"Yeah." Harding shook his head. He still couldn't understand how a man walked away from his whole life without a backward glance. As for himself, he was in the Corps for the long haul. He already had twenty years in, and he planned on staying until they threw him out. Bodily.
How did Mike stand it, going from gunnery sergeant of a batallion to head of security for some civilian computer firm?
"There is life off the base," his friend commented as if reading his mind.
"Not so I've noticed."
"You know," Mike said, and this time his voice held a tinge of the old impatience, "they should have named you Hard Head, instead of Hard Case."
Harding swallowed a smile along with the last of his beer, then set the empty bottle down on the table.
"That's it for me," Mike said and stood up. "I know when to quit."
"Never have before," Harding pointed out.
"For tonight, Hard Case. Only for tonight." Mike grinned again and patted his friend's shoulder as he moved around the table. "But for right now, I think I'll steal a dance with your date. I'll even let you borrow my gorgeous, almost bride for a quick spin around the floor."
Mike took Elizabeth's hand and led her onto the shining wooden dance floor. And even when the rest of the wedding party left the table to join the dancers, Harding's gaze never left them.