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"Hey, Sam, how about joining us for a drink at the officers' club?"
Major Sam Griffin, United States Air Force, glanced at the young lieutenant lounging in his office doorway, arched an eyebrow at the familiarity of his address, then smiled in spite of himself. Billy Fonteneaux was one of the more promising young fighter pilots under his command, and his southern Louisiana charm made it all too easy to forgive the lack of decorum he tended to exhibit during his off-duty hours.
"I might just do that," Sam replied, then turned back to the stack of mail he had been sorting. "Are you heading over there now?"
"We were on our way when I noticed your light was still on. Figured it couldn't hurt to ask, but if you have other plans already…"
"Actually, I don't," Sam admitted with a rueful twist of his lips.
Returning alone to his bachelor quarters to nuke a frozen dinner in the microwave wasn't exactly the kind of plan Lieutenant Fonteneaux's teasing tone had implied.
"So what do you say, Major? Have a beer with us, why don't you?"
"I can't make any promises," Sam hedged after a few moment's consideration. While the prospect of sharing a little lighthearted camaraderie with his junior officers was tempting, he preferred not to commit himself completely. "I have to clear up a few things around here first, then I'll see how I feel."
"Good enough, sir." Satisfied, Billy sketched a jaunty salute, then turned away.
As the lieutenant's footsteps faded down the hallway, Sam sat back in his chair, the stack of mail he had received that afternoon temporarily forgotten.
There had been a time when he wouldn't have thought twice about accepting Billy Fonteneaux's invitation. A time when he'd had a reputation for being the life of the party wherever he happened to be stationed. But that hadn't been the case for years now—almost four years, to be exact.
At thirty-five, he was still a relatively young man, and he wasn't tied down by a wife and children. But his younger brother's death had changed him in ways that were undeniable. Something had died inside him on that late June day as he'd sat on the roadside, cradling Teddy's lifeless body in his arms.
Don't go there, Sam warned himself.
There was nothing to be gained by resurrecting the past. What was done was done, and no matter how long he wallowed in his bitter, painful memories, that would never change.
Forcing his thoughts back to the task at hand, Sam sorted through the few remaining envelopes addressed to him. Nothing of any real importance, he noted. Bills from a couple of credit-card companies along with statements for his bank and brokerage accounts that he trusted would assure him he was still financially solvent.
He had hoped there would be a letter from his mother, but he'd quickly seen that there wasn't. Aside from the postcard she had sent over a month ago while visiting friends in Seattle, he hadn't heard from her in almost six weeks. Not all that unusual, really, and certainly nothing to be concerned about. Mail from the States to the air base in Italy could sometimes take awhile. And since she'd been away recently, she probably had quite a bit of catching up to do around the house.
Sam supposed he could call, but he was never quite sure what to say to her. Though he had never had reason to doubt his mother's love for him—quite the contrary, in fact—they had never been close. At least not as close as she and Teddy had been.
Sam had bonded more deeply with his father, perhaps because he and Caleb Griffin had been a lot alike— physically, as well as emotionally. Sam, too, had felt suffocated by life in small-town Serenity, Texas. And he, too, had found a way to leave, although not quite as dramatically or as devastatingly as his father had.
Once again, Sam caught himself venturing into a place he would rather not go. Forcing his thoughts away from the tragedy of his father's suicide twenty-five years ago, he vowed to write to his mother later that evening. By putting pen to paper, he could maintain the distance he needed and delay calling—
Tossing aside an application for yet another credit card, Sam frowned, then sat back in his chair, his gaze locked on the last envelope in his stack. The handwriting hadn't been familiar, so his attention hadn't been caught by it when he'd first glanced through his mail. But now, finally registering the return address, he experienced a sudden sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach.
"Emma Dalton, 1209 Bay Leaf Lane, Serenity, Texas."
Emma…shy, sweet Emma with her wild red curls, her bright green eyes and her lovely, lilting laugh.
She was the last person on the face of the earth Sam Griffin would have ever expected to send him a letter.
For years, she had been his brother's best friend. And sadly, secretly—for the most part—the only woman Sam had ever wanted. The one woman he could never have. All through high school and college, she had been Teddy's girl, then his blushing bride-to-be. And then, after he had taken Teddy from her—
I hate you, Sam Griffin. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you….
Reflexively, Sam crushed the envelope in his hand as he saw again the anger and pain flashing in her eyes, heard again the heartrending sobs shaking her slender body as she sank to the floor of the hospital waiting room, her cream silk wedding dress puddling around her.
Why had she chosen to contact him now of all times? The anniversary of Teddy's death was only a few weeks away. Was it something to do with that? But then, what could she possibly have to say to him after four long years of silence?
Sam wasn't sure he wanted to know.
Emma Dalton was a part of his past—one of the most devastating parts, to be exact. Surely he would be better off if that was what she remained.
What good could possibly come of allowing her to reenter his world? For years, he had done his damnedest to avoid even the mere thought of her. More and more often lately, he'd actually succeeded. Now…this…
He wasn't fool enough to think Emma's opinion of him had changed. And he certainly wasn't masochistic enough to feel he had to endure another round of her reproach. There was nothing she could say to him that he hadn't already said to himself a thousand times or more.
He would never forget what had happened to Teddy, nor would he ever forgive himself for it. He knew that he deserved Emma Dalton's animosity. He deserved it in spades. Of that he had never needed a reminder.
But he had finally come to realize all the mea culpas in the world wouldn't bring his brother back. That understanding, accompanied by acceptance, had gradually eased his anguish.
For one very long, very lonely moment, Sam fought the temptation to toss the unopened envelope into the trash can, grab his jacket, head for the officers' club and start working his way through a bottle of Scotch. By the end of the evening, he would be lucky to remember his name, much less all that had occurred four years ago. Unfortunately, that respite would be temporary at best, and with it would also come the possibility of grave repercussions.
Once already, he had come close to destroying his career as a fighter pilot by seeking solace in a bottle of booze. He wasn't about to risk doing it again. The air force was all he had left now. Which was only just, since the air force, with its promise of adventure, had been all he'd wanted from the moment he applied for an appointment to the academy in Colorado Springs.
Of course, that had been long before Teddy first introduced him to Emma. Then he had begun to realize the freedom he'd craved wasn't quite as satisfying as he had thought it would be….
Cursing under his breath, Sam shifted in his chair and smoothed the crumpled envelope.
How long had it been since he'd last thought of Emma—really thought of her? Months, he admitted. Yet, in a few minutes' time, and with nothing more than a plain white envelope addressed in her hand, she had slid under his skin all over again. And there she would stay, giving him no peace, if he threw her letter away without reading it.
He had no intention of suffering through any more sleepless nights than absolutely necessary. And there could be any number of reasons why she had written to him. Reasons that had more to do with the present than the past, he acknowledged. Reasons he had been too egocentric to consider initially.
Surely Emma Dalton had better things to do than send him a venomous letter four years after the fact. Yet he would lay odds she wasn't the type to seek out, impulsively, a man she had once claimed to despise, either.
Thanks to his mother, who had taken Emma under her wing after Teddy's death and mentioned her occasionally in her letters, Sam knew she still lived in Serenity and still worked at the town's library, where she'd recently been promoted to head librarian. She was still single, as well, but lived quietly in the small house she'd bought a couple of years ago.
A steady, responsible young woman making a decent, respectable life for herself despite the tragedy she had suffered. A woman who should, by all accounts, want nothing to do with the likes of him.
So why had she written to him out of the blue?
Realizing there was only one way to find out, Sam slit the sealed flap on the envelope and slowly withdrew the single sheet of stationery. He unfolded it reluctantly and saw that she had been brief—very brief—and almost painfully to the point.
Once again, Sam experienced a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as he read the two short paragraphs rigidly written in her precise hand.
May 23 Dear Sam:
I am writing to advise you that your mother is ill. Specifically, she was diagnosed with a chronic form of leukemia several months ago. Since the initial treatment she received seemed to bring about a remission, she thought it best not to tell you. At that time she didn't want to worry you unnecessarily. She still doesn't. However, she recently suffered a relapse, and since the current prognosis is not good, I thought you should know.
I have been staying at the house with her and will continue to do so as long as necessary, so you don't have to be concerned that she's receiving proper care. But seeing you again would mean a lot to her. Since I realize you might not be able to get away on such short notice, I haven't told her that I've contacted you. She isn't expecting you, so she won't be disappointed if you can't make it. But please try to come home, Sam—for a few days, at least. Sincerely, Emma Dalton
Sam read through the letter a second time, wishing he could ignore the one thing Emma had left unsaid, yet knowing in his heart that he couldn't. Though she had refrained from spelling it out in so many words, he realized there was a very good chance that his mother was dying. And while she hadn't reached out to him herself—perhaps out of fear that she would be rebuffed by her wild, wayward son—he also knew that she needed him.
Unlike Emma, Margaret Griffin had never held him accountable for his brother's death. Instead, she had let him know time and time again that her faith in him was as strong as ever. And she had told him more times than he could count that she would always be there for him, just a phone call away—that if he needed her for any reason, she would come to him. As she had, traveling at least once a year to wherever he happened to be stationed.
She had understood how difficult returning to Serenity would be for him, and she had never expected it of him. Even now, faced with a life-threatening illness—her only remaining family half a world away—she hadn't asked him to come home. Not because she didn't want him there, but because she hoped to spare him what she knew as well as he would be a painful journey.
The mere thought of returning to Serenity with the anniversary of Teddy's death looming less than a month away filled Sam with trepidation. The sick feeling in the pit of his stomach increased, and his hands shook ever so slightly. Reactions more suited to the moments preceding a dog fight with enemy aircraft high above Earth. Reactions he had overcome when much more than his emotional well-being was at stake.
Drawing a deep, steadying breath, he set aside Emma's letter, then opened the center drawer of his desk and pulled out a calendar. His current tour of duty would be ending the following week. Though he'd had no specific plans, he had intended to take several weeks of leave before returning stateside.
Barring any unforeseen difficulties, he could be on a flight to San Antonio Thursday, Friday at the latest. Depending on the connections he was able to make, that ought to put him in Serenity sometime Saturday. He would also have time to request an assignment at one of the air bases in Texas so he would be reasonably close by when his leave was over.
Sam reached for the phone on his desk and began to dial his mother's number, easily calling it up from memory despite the length of time since he'd last used it. Halfway through, however, he stopped, then slowly cradled the receiver.
He didn't want to give his mother the chance to talk him out of coming, and he had no doubt that was exactly what she would try to do if he advised her of his plans. She wouldn't want to burden him, and in his present frame of mind, he would find it awfully hard to argue with her. In fact, allowing her to dissuade him would be too damned easy. Especially if she set her mind to it as he knew she would.
He couldn't let himself be drawn off course. Not if he had any hope of living with himself in the future. He owed his mother more than he could ever repay. Going back to Serenity wouldn't begin to cancel that debt, but it would be better than burying his head in the sand and pretending all would be well.
There was Emma to consider, too. Apparently, she had already assumed a great deal of responsibility where his mother was concerned. Responsibility he had no intention of letting her continue to shoulder alone despite her all too obvious unwillingness to count on him.
She isn't expecting you…won't be disappointed if you can't make it…