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Brett palmer leaned against the door of his vehicle. Visiting had seemed like a great idea before he'd left home, but now he was here turning up unannounced wasn't so easy. Perhaps if he'd planned what he was going to say, had a good reason for not touching base with her before now, but he'd just jumped in the car and decided to chance it.
He sucked back a big breath and forced himself to walk forward. He'd known Jamie Mattheson for years, so it wasn't like she'd get a shock to see him, but still. It wasn't as if he'd ever spent time with her on her own, either.
Brett swallowed the memories, refusing to go back in time, and jogged the last few steps to the front door. He knocked. No one answered. There wasn't even so much as a shuffle from inside. Brett knocked again.
He could either get in his car and leave, or head around back to see if she was there. The sun was already out in full force, typical of Sydney at this time of year, and he had more than a hunch that she could be out in the garden.
Brett stepped back down and walked around the side of the house. It was looking nice, but then he knew Sam had painted the weatherboards before he'd left for their last tour, had made sure he'd done all the maintenance so Jamie had nothing to worry about while he was gone. He'd put money on it that she'd prefer the house to be falling down around her if it meant she could go back in time and have her husband back.
Brett pushed the side gate open and looked around the corner. There she was. Standing with her hands on her hips, like something was really frustrating her. Then he saw the something, sitting in front of her, alert, nose pointed in the air.
Bear. She had Sam's dog. How the hell had she ended up with Bear so soon?
"Jamie," he called out, not wanting to startle her but not wanting to be caught staring at her, either.
The dog had given up sitting patiently and was now barking and thundering toward him. He'd been his best mate's dog, but right now he was protecting his new owner, and Brett wasn't exactly game to take the massive canine on.
"Bear, it's me," he called out, as the black dog hurtled toward him. "Bear! It's okay, boy."
The dog slowed, still looking protective, but Brett was comfortable that he was no longer about to be attacked.
"Brett? What are you doing here?"
Jamie was suddenly rushing across the lawn to him, arms outstretched.
"Hey, sweetheart." He held his own arms out, one eye on the dog, until she threw herself against him.
Brett held her tight, holding on to her like his life depended upon it. He'd been best man at their wedding, vacationed with them, had dinner at their house and now he was comforting a widow.
"It's so good to see you." Jamie stepped back, but she held on to his hands, firmly, like she'd never let go.
Brett looked into her eyes, saw tears there that she was bravely holding in check. This woman had been his best friend's wife, and he'd never, ever wanted to be in this position. He was just grateful that he hadn't been the one to tell her the news when it had happened.
"You've got Bear." He knew he was stating the obvious but he still couldn't believe it.
He turned half his attention back to the dog, who was keeping a close eye on them.
"And I have no idea what to do with him," she admitted, stepping back and letting go of Brett. Jamie had her hands back on her hips as she stared at the dog. "I'm doing my best, but he's, I don't know, smarter than me, I guess. We're not communicating that well."
Brett dropped to his haunches, eye level with the canine. "Hey, Bear. Remember me, bud?" The dog let out a low whine, looking up at Jamie then back to him again. "I know you do. Come here."
Bear slowly walked over to him and sat down on Brett's feet. He gave him a scratch, liking that the dog had accepted him. God only knew they'd spent enough time together when he was serving.
"I'll teach you everything I can, Jamie. He's a pretty special dog, but he's used to certain commands and lots of them."
She laughed. "Yeah, sometimes I wondered if Sam thought he was more special than me. Probably showed off photos of him to everyone and forgot all about his wife."
Brett reached for her, took her hand again as he stood to full height. "You know that's not true. You meant everything to Sam." He chuckled. "To be honest, we all had to tell him to knock it off most of the time. He talked about you way too often."
She laughed, gripping his hand tight. "You always were the charmer."
He put his arm around her, needing to hold her, to show her how much he cared. "I miss him, Jamie. I miss him so bad that I can't " Brett blew out a breath, dropping his chin to the top of her head. "I just needed you to know that I'm here for you. It's taken me a while, but I'm back now."
Jamie looped her arm around his waist and steered them toward the house. "How about we have brunch?"
"Yeah, why not," she said. "Besides, I haven't had anyone to make pancakes for in a while."
Brett signaled to the dog to follow them, and walked behind Jamie as she went into the house. She was dressed in a tiny pair of cutoff denim shorts and a loose-fitting T-shirt, and he wished she were covered up. She was his friend's widow. She was beautiful. Her legs were so long and tanned . He forced his eyes to the sky. Jamie was Sam's wife. Just because he'd loved her from the moment he'd met her, thought she was the most caring, gorgeous woman he'd ever spent time with, didn't mean it was okay to start giving in to his feelings now.
Sam had been gone only a little over six months. He'd been his best friend. And Jamie was his widow, he reminded himself again.
But deep down, Brett knew exactly why he'd put off coming for so long.
Jamie hadn't stopped moving since they'd walked inside. She couldn't. Because if she stopped even for a second, she'd either start crying or throw her arms around Brett and never let him go.
Having him here was unexpected, unusual, and yet exactly what she needed all at the same time. Since Sam had been gone, she'd had an emptiness inside of her that had ached every single day, but seeing Brett.? It was like the pain was finally easing. Because she could talk to Brett about her husband, really talk about him, and he made her feel like Sam could still walk through the front door, hassling Brett for chatting her up like he usually did. Jamie took a deep breath.
"Maple syrup?" she asked.
He laughed. "Yes, ma'am."
Jamie flipped a pancake and turned around to look at the man seated at her counter. He looked like he always did-handsome and tanned-but there was something different about him now. Something she couldn't pinpoint, except for maybe a hint of unhappiness that kept crossing his face, that made his smile never quite reach his eyes like it once had. There was so much she wanted to ask him, but she wanted to wait until the time was right.
"So tell me how you ended up with Bear?" Brett asked.
She smiled at the dog lying near her feet. He might be hard to communicate with, but he sure was loyal and she loved him for that.
"The detection dog unit contacted me, told me that he had to be retired after the accident, and they wanted to offer him to me first." She shook her head, turning her attention back to her pancakes. "Sam loved him so much, so I couldn't say no. And it is kind of nice having the company, even if we haven't quite figured each other out yet. He's only been here a few weeks because he had to be in quarantine for a while."
She knew Brett had lost his dog in the same explosion that had killed her husband, that he probably wasn't ready to go there yet, but
"I know I should have come by sooner, Jamie, it's just " Brett's voice trailed off.
Jamie held up her hand. It seemed like they were both struggling to find the right words. "No apology necessary. We just do what we have to do to cope, right?"
He nodded, looked grateful that he didn't have to explain himself. Instead of asking him anything further, she flipped the last pancake and placed it in front of him, adding it to the stack.
"Looks good enough to eat," he said, grinning as he poured syrup over them.
Jamie sat down beside him, reaching for the coffeepot she'd left just out of reach. It seemed right having Brett here, even if it was just the two of them, because being alone these last six months, she'd started to forget the person she was, the happy, easygoing person she'd always been. Brett was making her remember how nice it had always been to open their home to friends.
She chanced a quick glance at him, wishing she could resist but unable to. When they'd first met, Brett was dating another woman, and then when he was single she'd already been seeing Sam. His best friend. Just because they'd been attracted to one another before didn't mean anything, she knew that, but she had a notion that she should be feeling guilty, shouldn't feel so comfortable in his presence.
"Do you still have your house here?"
Jamie watched as he finished his mouthful before setting his fork back down on the plate. "I decided to put it on the market a while back, and it sold while I was deployed."
"Oh." She hadn't known. "So where are you staying?" She'd been wanting to get in touch with him for months, had presumed he was away again, because he hadn't even been able to make it back for Sam's service.
"I've been at a recuperation clinic. My leg was burned pretty bad when the." His sentence trailed off. "It's kept me away for a while, then I traveled around for a bit to come to grips with everything, and I only just arrived in yesterday."
She swallowed, taking a deep breath before she asked a question that needed to be voiced. "You're staying in a hotel, aren't you? You only came back here to see me."
Brett looked guilty. "You were Sam's wife. I could only stay away for so long. He'd want me to look out for you, Jamie. You know that. He even asked me as much."
Unspoken words hung between them, words that would never be braved by either of them. Because before it had just been flirting. Now that Sam was gone It was too soon for either of them, wasn't something that could ever happen. But it didn't mean she wanted Brett to leave, and it didn't mean that he was here for any other reason than because he loved her for being Sam's wife.
"I want you to know that I'm here, no matter what you need, okay?"
Jamie stared at him, raised one eyebrow as she looked into his eyes. "You really want to be here for me? To help me?"
He nodded. "Of course."
"Then help me with Bear," she said. "Turn me into a worthy owner of the dog who meant the world to my husband."
Brett was playing with his fork, looking at the half-eaten breakfast on his plate.
"You're sure you want me hanging around?" he asked. "I mean, you don't have to say that just because."
Jamie reached for his hand, squeezed it and stared straight into Brett's eyes. "You weren't just his friend, you were mine, too," she confessed. "I've missed you guys-you, Sam and Logan. I miss you all. I didn't just lose my husband, I lost having you two here all the time, too."
Brett grunted. "Bet Logan's been better at staying in touch."
She shook her head. "He's phoned me a couple of times, but I haven't seen him, either. It's been-" Jamie shrugged "-weird. But he did say he was back in town soon, so maybe he's back now?"
Brett looked surprised, but she didn't say anything. He went back to eating his pancakes and so did she.
"Well, if you need help with Bear, I'm here," he said. "How about we start with a few basics today, and I'll come past tomorrow and we can take him out to a park or something."
Jamie stood up to clear their plates. "That sounds like a good plan," she told him.
A niggle in her mind was telling her she should have asked Brett to stay, that her husband would have been horrified that his best buddy was paying to stay at a hotel, but she wasn't ready for that. Wasn't ready for a man to be sleeping in her home, under her roof-a man who wasn't her husband, even if she did hate being on her own at night. Being alone.it took her back to her childhood, brought the ice-cold fear back, and she hated that as much as the reality of waking up without Sam beside her.
And if she were honest with herself, she was feeling nervous about being with Brett too much, just the two of them. They'd always flirted, it was just how he'd always been with her, but back then she'd also been in love with her husband, which meant their joking had always been nothing more than fun. Now?
She just had to take one day at a time. Having Brett here was better than being on her own, and she knew it was what Sam would have wanted. Even if she was having feelings about Brett that he wouldn't approve of.