Waiting for You

CHAPTER ONE

Erin Shaw felt like she was in high school again. She was sitting at a table with her friend Beth, staring at Jake Landry from across the room and hoping she wasn’t being too obvious about it.

Of course back then it would have been the cafeteria, and Jake’s sister Allison would have been with them as they munched on sandwiches from home or worked their way through the school’s macaroni and cheese. Now they were in an elegant hotel ballroom in Des Moines, drinking champagne at Allison’s wedding.

A double wedding, in fact. Allison and her sister Jenna had both gotten married today, each of them looking so radiant—and their respective grooms so completely besotted—that it had been a little overwhelming to look at them up there at the altar. It wasn’t often that you got to see so much love and joy concentrated in one spot like that.

Allison’s marriage wasn’t the only change since their high school days. Beth was married, too, and living in California. Erin was a successful web designer with her own business. And Jake, who’d just gotten out of the Army a few months ago, had spent most of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But one thing was exactly the same. From the first moment she’d spotted Jake tonight, Erin’s whole body had taken notice.

Her heart was beating faster. Her cheeks felt warm. She was aware of every inch of her skin, of the air that touched her bare arms and the brush of her silk dress against her legs.

You’d think that eleven years would have knocked the stuffing out of her teenage crush, but apparently not. Her knees felt weak every time she caught a glimpse of his face.

“So are you going to go talk to him, or what?”

Erin tore her gaze from Jake with a guilty flush. “Talk to who?”

“Whoever you’ve been staring at,” Beth answered with a grin.

So much for not being obvious. Apparently her covert crush skills had gotten a little rusty over the years.

“Beth! Erin!”

She was saved from answering by Allison, who was descending on them in a cloud of ivory tulle and hugging them hard enough to crack ribs.

“I haven’t seen you two all night. Are you having a good time?”

“Yes,” Beth said, hugging her back. “Your first dance was amazing. Just like Fred and Ginger. And the ceremony was beautiful.”

Allison grabbed an empty chair from the next table and sat down, fluffing her short brown hair with her fingers. “I’m glad to hear it, because I don’t remember a thing. Seriously. It’s all a big blur until the moment I said I do.”

“Maybe Rick can fill you in on the rest,” Erin suggested with a smile. “He seemed pretty happy about the whole thing. It looked like he was paying attention, anyway.”

“I tried to pay attention, but I was in this sort of glow. A happy glow, but still. Beth, do you remember your wedding?”

“Yes, but I eloped to Vegas. It’s hard to forget being married by an Elvis impersonator.”

Allison laughed. “I’ll take your word for it.” Then she grinned at Erin. “First Beth took the plunge, and now me. I guess that means you’re next.”

Erin shook her head. “Don’t do that whole you’re next thing. I refuse to succumb to peer pressure. I’m very happy that you and Beth have found true love, but I have no intention of jumping on the marriage bandwagon.”

Beth looked at her skeptically. “Ever? You’re going to stay single for the rest of your life?”

“I wouldn’t mind. My mother’s on husband number six, did you know that? She’s had enough marriages for both of us. And I like being single,” she added, even as she remembered the twinge of wistfulness she’d felt watching Rick and Allison declare their love.

Beth rolled her eyes. “You haven’t seen your mother in years. You haven’t talked to her in years. Why is she any kind of factor in your life plans?”

“She’s not a factor. She’s just a cautionary tale.”

Allison shook her head. “You don’t need a cautionary tale, Erin. You’re nothing like your mother and you never will be. You’re loyal and kind and smart and hard-working—”

“You’ve just described a border collie.”

“—and you deserve a man who will worship the ground you walk on. We can start by finding you a dance partner,” she added, glancing around the room. “Does anyone here catch your eye?”

“No,” Erin said, even as her gaze strayed back to Jake.

He didn’t catch her eye—he captured it. He captured her, the way he always had…even after eleven years.

She’d wondered so often what it would be like to see him again. Would she find she’d outgrown her schoolgirl crush? That the mere sight of Jake Landry no longer had the power to set her heart racing and her bones quivering?

The answer was no. Seeing him, being in the same room with him, affected her just as much as it always had—even though she knew they weren’t the same people anymore.

She could see that Jake had changed. He had the same blue eyes and firm jaw, the same tall, broad-shouldered physique. But there was a new reserve in the way he carried himself, and a new hardness in his expression.

At nineteen, Jake had been dashing and optimistic, with a kind of clear-eyed confidence about the future. He’d been up for any challenge, ready to face any danger.

Now he looked like a man who’d met those challenges and faced those dangers, but not without loss. He looked like a man who could make tough decisions in no-win situations. A man who’d exchanged optimism for realism.

He was also the man you’d turn to in an emergency. The one you’d trust with your life, because he’d put himself in harm’s way to protect others.

Which was exactly what he’d been doing for the last ten years.

Rick came up behind Allison and put his hands on her shoulders. “Good evening, Mrs. Hunter.”

Allison’s face glowed as she turned to face her new husband. “Good evening, Mr. Hunter.”

He bent down to kiss her on the cheek. “I came to find a dance partner. Would one of you lovely ladies do me the honor?”

“Erin will,” Allison said immediately.

Erin raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were looking for a man who might someday worship the ground I walk on. Isn’t your new husband off-limits?”

“Yes, but he does this thing where he makes his partner look like the best dancer in the room. And that will lead to other men asking you to dance.”

“I see.”

Rick grinned at her as he held out his hand. “I can’t promise a line of suitors as a result of dancing with me, but they’re playing Cole Porter and that always leads to good things.”

Erin let him help her up and lead her towards the parquet floor. “You know I can’t do all that ballroom stuff, right?”

“We’ll keep it simple,” he assured her.

Her efforts to not step on Rick as they danced and chatted should have taken all of her attention, but she still had some left over to glance at Jake now and then.

He was renting a place in Willow Springs, but Erin hadn’t run into him yet. She’d thought she might see him at his parents’ farm on one of her visits—she’d stayed close with Allison’s mother over the years, and dropped in for coffee once or twice a month. But Jake was never there when she stopped by.

Of course she could have gotten his number and given him a call. But whenever she thought about doing that, she’d flash back to the last time they’d seen each other. They’d shared an unexpected kiss the night of her sixteenth birthday, and the memory of that encounter was enough to melt her courage like butter in the sun.

So she decided to wait until the wedding, where she’d be sure to see him. She could blend into the background with the other guests and say a casual hello at the reception.

It was a perfectly good plan, and if she had any guts at all she would have carried it out by now. Jake had spent the last ten years on the front lines of two wars. The least she could do was pull herself together and welcome him home.

She glanced over at the head table again. Almost everyone had gotten up to dance, and Jake was sitting alone for the moment.

It would have been the perfect opportunity to talk to him. But catching sight of those piercing blue eyes, her stomach muscles tightened and her heart went staccato.

She didn’t feel like the calm, cool, and collected woman she hoped to be when she met Jake Landry again. She wanted him to see that she’d changed, too. That she wasn’t an awkward teenager anymore.

And until she felt that confidence flowing through her, she had no intention of going near him.

***

If this had been any other wedding, Jake would have blown it off without a second thought.

But it was Allison’s and Jenna’s. Love had turned his practical sisters into starry-eyed romantics, and they’d decided to enter the bonds of matrimony in a double ceremony. And in spite of the fact that both of them had been driving him crazy for the last few months, he wouldn’t have missed this day for anything.

Still, he wasn’t sorry the end was in sight. He’d sat through dinner and all the toasts and the wedding cake thing, and the band had been in full swing for at least an hour. His sisters and his parents were on the dance floor, along with most of the other people at the table, which meant he was sitting alone for the first time tonight.

He drank his scotch and watched the dancers without really seeing them. A few more songs went by before Allison left the dance floor and came to sit beside him.

“Hey there, big brother.”

Her eyes were sparkling and her short hair was mussed up, and she looked happier than he’d ever seen her.

He reached out to ruffle her hair. “I wouldn’t have guessed my kid sister could clean up so good.”

She laughed and swiped at him. “Thanks…I think. Do you feel like dancing? I haven’t seen you up there yet.”

He shook his head. “I’m going to stay parked here for a while.”

Disappointment and something else clouded her blue eyes.

“Are you sure you—”

“I’m fine.” The words came out more gruffly than he’d intended, and he took a deep breath. “Sorry. But don’t worry about me, okay? This is your wedding. You shouldn’t worry about anything but having a good time.”

Allison sighed. “All right. I just…” she trailed off, shaking her head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m glad you’re here, Jake.”

“So am I. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

And it was true, even though he felt strangely disconnected from all the joy and happiness around him.

“Any luck?”

It was Jenna, coming up on the other side of him.

“Nope. You’re welcome to try if you want, but I’m going to give up gracefully.”

Allison kissed him on the cheek before she went back towards the dance floor.

Jenna punched him lightly on the shoulder. “I didn’t think people were allowed to say no to a bride on her wedding day. Much less two of them. The combined force of our awesome bridal powers should bring you to your knees.”

He smiled. “I’m happy as hell for both of you, but I’m not going on the dance floor to prove it.”

His twin sighed. “All right, fine. You don’t have to dance. But you could at least talk to some people instead of sitting here drinking all night.” She spoke lightly, but Jake could hear the same thing in her voice he’d been hearing from his family for the last two months.

Worry.

He took another swallow of scotch, relishing the burn as it trickled down his throat. “I talked with people during dinner. I talked to Claire—who’s great, by the way.”

Claire was Jenna’s new stepdaughter, and they’d spent half an hour talking about music and movies and videogames. Or at least Claire had talked, and he had listened. The perfect conversation as far as he was concerned.

“I think she’s pretty great myself. But you haven’t talked to anyone outside the family. Ben and Linda are here, and I know they’d love to catch up. Mindy’s here, too.”

Mindy Nelson was an old girlfriend, and he’d already talked to her tonight. He’d had to let her down easy after she made it clear she wouldn’t mind repeating some history with him.

“I don’t need a cruise director, Jenna.”

“Okay, okay. But you should at least say hi to Erin.”

His mind was a blank. “Erin?”

Jenna stared at him. “Erin Shaw. Allison’s friend? She was at the house all the time when we were kids. And she worked on the farm every summer.”

An image flashed before his eyes—pale gold hair hidden under an ancient baseball cap, and serious gray eyes behind thick glasses.

“Yeah, I remember her. I’ll say hello if I see her. Okay? Now go do the bride thing.”

He kissed her on the cheek and felt a surge of relief when she left him. He tossed off the rest of his scotch and signaled the waiter for another one.

As he waited for it to come he found himself thinking about Erin. His memories of her seemed to belong to a different era, as if a hundred years instead of ten had gone by since he’d seen her.

She’d started coming to the house when he was in high school. He’d barely noticed her at first—she was just another of Allison’s friends, and quieter than most. But she’d fallen in love with the Landry farm, and so she’d been around a lot.

She worked long hours with the family every summer. She was so small and fragile-looking that they’d worried about her at first, but Erin always insisted on toughing things out.

She nearly killed herself stacking hay one year. The bales were heavier than usual that summer—some kind of calibration problem with the baler. Allison called it quits after half an hour but Erin refused to be beaten, working beside him and Jenna until she was almost shaking with exhaustion.

He’d never seen a girl her age so fierce and determined. From that day on, Jake had been curious about Erin Shaw.

His curiosity had never been satisfied. Unlike every other teenager on the planet, she didn’t like to talk about herself. He’d learned that her parents were divorced and that she lived with her dad, and that was about it.

But he always enjoyed her company. She was so shy and serious most of the time that it was a real pleasure to make her laugh, and he did it as often as he could. The biggest surprise of all was finding out that underneath her quiet exterior lurked a sense of humor…and that she could give as good as she got.

He smiled suddenly, remembering the day he’d taught her and Allison to play pool. Erin had approached the game with her usual determination and some pretty inventive trash talking, making Allison laugh so hard at one point she’d snorted milk through her nose.

He’d seen less of Erin as the end of high school approached. He was getting ready to enlist in the Army, something he’d wanted to do from the time he was twelve. In seventh grade he’d done a school report about his grandfather, a World War II veteran, and the idea of military service had gotten under his skin.

Six years later, his goal hadn’t changed. He enlisted after graduation and went to basic training, and forgot all about his sister’s friend until he was home on leave the next summer.

That was the summer Allison and Erin turned sixteen. Their birthdays were just ten days apart, and his parents had decided to throw the girls a joint party.

The memory of that night brought an unexpected rush of feeling.

His hand tightened around his glass as he remembered the kiss in his parents’ kitchen. The kiss that shouldn’t have happened. He’d stayed up half the night thinking about it, and then stayed away from Erin for the rest of his leave, to make sure it didn’t happen again.

Jake shook his head slowly. It had been a long time since he’d thought about that kiss. God knows enough had happened in the months afterward to drive anything else out of his head. His youngest sister, Megan, had been diagnosed with cancer that summer. Then came 9/11, and his first tour of duty to Afghanistan. Other deployments had followed—three to Iraq and one more to Afghanistan.

So, yeah, it had been a while since he’d thought about Erin. His job had always kept him focused on the here and now, on the mission in front of him…and she’d been Allison’s friend, not his.

But now, for some reason, he found himself looking for her.

She’d be twenty-seven now. Would he even recognize her if he saw her again? Would she recognize him?

He only scanned the dance floor a few seconds before he spotted her.

He knew immediately that it was Erin, even though she looked very different from the girl he remembered.

She was still small, although her high heels gave her a few extra inches. Her pale gold hair was twisted up into a knot. She was wearing a strapless dress that started just above her breasts and ended just below her knees, and hugged every curve in between.

She was stunning.

Her transformation wasn’t a total surprise. He’d seen a hint of what was to come the night of her sixteenth birthday. But he’d been remembering Erin as a teenager, and the woman he was looking at now was all grown up.

He didn’t make a conscious decision to move. He was out of his chair and making his way towards her before he had time to think about it.

The song ended with a flourish and everyone paused to clap for the band, including Erin and the guy she was dancing with.

He reached out and put a hand on her bare shoulder.

He must have startled her, because she spun around to face him. Her gray eyes widened and her cheeks turned pink, and she looked so damn pretty it was hard not to stare.

“Jake,” she said blankly, as if she couldn’t believe he was there.

“Hi, Erin. It’s nice to see you again.” He glanced at her partner, wondering if this was her husband or boyfriend. “I’m Jake Landry,” he said, holding out his hand.

The guy nodded. “I remember you from high school,” he said, shaking hands. “I’m Seth Irving. I was in Allison’s class, so you were a couple of years ahead of me.” He turned to Erin with a smile. “Thanks for the dance,” he said. “Are you going to the reunion this year?”

She nodded. “I’ll be there. I’m trying to talk Beth into coming, too.”

“I’ll see you in a few months, then. Have a good night, Erin.”

“You, too.” Seth disappeared into the crowd as couples parted and regrouped, getting ready for the next dance.

Not her husband or boyfriend, then.

Erin looked back at him, her cheeks still pink. Jake was concentrating on keeping his eyes on her face and not letting his gaze dip down to all the bare, creamy skin revealed by her dress. It was silver gray, the color of moonlight, and matched her eyes exactly.

Erin was the first to speak. “It’s good to see you, Jake. I’m sure you hear this a lot, but…I’m glad you’re home safe. Everyone is.”

“It’s good to see you, too.”

And it was true. He’d run into plenty of old friends and acquaintances since coming back to Iowa, but this was one of the few times he’d felt honestly happy to see someone again.

“How have you been?” he asked after a moment.

“Fine,” she answered. “And you?”

“Fine.”

The band had started up again, this time playing an R&B song. It was something slow and sexy, the kind of music it was hard to dance to unless you were with someone you wanted to hold close.

Erin looked uncomfortable. She glanced at the couples near them and then back at him. “We don’t have to dance,” she said. She tucked a loose curl of golden hair behind her ear, and he followed the movement of her fingers.

“I don’t mind,” he said.

She smiled faintly. “No, it’s okay.”

It occurred to him that I don’t mind probably wasn’t on the list of things women dreamed of hearing on the dance floor.

“It really was nice to see you,” she said, taking a step back.

He knew an exit line when he heard one. In another moment she’d be gone.

Once again he acted without thinking, reaching for her hand.

“One dance,” he said, even as he wondered what the hell he was doing. He didn’t like to dance, he wasn’t interested in starting something with a woman, and he’d been avoiding social interactions for the last four months.

But as his hand closed over Erin’s, he realized that the numbness that had become a part of him had given way, just for a moment, to something else.

A spark of curiosity. Erin Shaw had been an unusual teenager, and he wondered what kind of woman she’d become.

And he wondered what it would feel like to hold her in his arms.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Abigail Strom