Authors: Kathryn Thomas
Holly jumped, surprised to having been called into it. “Oh, that’s all right,” she said quickly. “I don’t want to intrude.” She had absolutely no clue who this man was, but it was all too clear that he and Matt had history that they needed to discuss. If there was one thing she had learned over the past six months, it was to be very discreet whenever it came to Matt’s private life.
“Nonsense,” the stranger said, flashing her a pearly-white smile. “I would love to get to know the woman who was able to snatch this one up.”
“You should come, Holly,” Matt said. “This guy saved my life. I would love for you to get to know him.”
Holly stared between the two of them in surprise. It seemed she was going to be introduced to one of Matt’s military pals.
“Then I’d be happy to come along,” she said, smiling politely.
Matt wrapped one arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “Lead the way, Erik,” he said.
Erik nodded, beaming. They followed him as he walked back the way they had come and led them to a nearby parking lot.
“I’ll just have to feed the meter,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
Matt watched him go. He still sported an awed expression on his face.
“So…you guys went to war together?” Holly asked. It sounded like too much of a real question to ask. It sounded raw. It sounded brutal. Just like war.
“Yes,” Matt said. His eyes followed his friend’s figure. “I thought…” He trailed off again.
Holly wrapped an arm around his waist in support. “You thought what?” she prompted gently.
Matt swallowed visibly. “I thought he was dead.”
Erik Schneider’s house was in fact a lovely cottage in the hilly area just outside the city. It stood on top of a hill overlooking the ocean, allowing for the most breathtaking view Holly had ever seen—and she had seen some special views since her journey with Matt had started. There was a small vineyard behind the house, which even in the dark revealed itself to be thriving.
Inside, the cottage was just as lovely as from the outside. Spacious rooms, large windows, hardwood floors, and wooden furniture. Presently, Erik made way for them to enter the kitchen, a triumphant room with exposed brick walls painted white and marble surfaces pretty much everywhere. The whole house was exquisitely furnished, and yet it was all done in great taste.
They sat at the round white wooden table in the kitchen while Erik busied himself preparing coffee.
“So let me get this straight,” Matt began as he looked around with a kind of dazed expression on his face. “All this time I thought you were dead, and instead you were playing winemaker in the Californian countryside?”
While his surprise was genuine, there was a grin on his face that indicated that he wasn’t really resentful.
Erik flashed him a matching smirk over his shoulder as he fussed with the coffee maker. “This was my parents’ place. They bought it when they retired, in order to fulfil the dream of a lifetime. The vineyard is small, but the wine that comes from it does pretty well in the local area. They died while I was imprisoned.” He had his back to him, but Holly could see his shoulders tense up and his whole body stiffen. “I took over when I got back. I couldn’t stand the idea of this place being sold.”
“I’m sorry, Erik,” Matt said quietly. “So they never knew you were alive?”
“No,” Erik said. “It’s my biggest regret, not having been able to let them know I was okay.”
Holly’s stomach twisted. She could only imagine what Erik must have gone through.
happen, Erik?” Matt asked after a few minutes of silence. “We all thought we’d lost you in the explosion.”
“You almost did.” Erik finished pouring the coffee and brought a tray over. On it, he had placed the steaming mugs, along with cream and sugar.
“Thank you,” Holly said.
Erik nodded. He took his seat and a long sip of coffee, which he drank black, before he spoke again. “I nearly bled out, but I was alive. Some Iraqi soldiers found me and brought me back to their camp. They nursed me back to health and then kept me as a prisoner. It was another three years before a Marine squad swarmed the place. I got lucky.”
Holly almost choked on her coffee. “Lucky” wasn’t the word that had sprung to her mind.
“I’m so sorry, Erik,” Matt said, his features having gone impossibly dark. “If only we had known…”
“You couldn’t have known,” Erik said. “I remember the operation, it was a mess. You guys had to get out of there fast, otherwise you would have all been killed.”
“We really thought you were dead,” Matt said again. “We would’ve come back for you if only we’d known…” Once again, he was unable to finish the sentence.
Erik reached out to squeeze his arm reassuringly. “I know, Matt,” he said. He caught Matt’s gaze and held it, making sure his words sunk in. “I
Matt nodded, but the dark look did not leave his green eyes. “How long have you been back?” he asked.
“A couple of years. I’ve tried to reach you, but the letter I sent to the address the Army had for you bounced back.”
“Yeah, I…uh…I moved around for a bit before settling in with my sister in Texas. I didn’t stay too long there, either.”
“Running, huh?” Erik gave the bitter smile of the knowing. “It never works out well, Mattie.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Seems to have worked out well enough for me.” Matt smiled at Holly.
She did her best not to blush in front of this stranger, but her stomach did a somersault. Six months in, Matt still gave her butterflies.
Erik’s sharp blue eyes gazed between the two of them. “What’s the story here?”
Matt told him. Holly filled in the blanks and tossed in a few anecdotes here and there, but for the most part she remained silent and just observed these two. There was a bond there, she could tell—and a strong one at that. And yet, for some reason, she found herself being wary of Erik. He was being very courteous, and it was clear that he cared deeply about Matt, but she still couldn’t shake the feeling that she should not let her guard down around him.
“…San Francisco has won us over,” Matt was saying. “We want to start anew from here.”
“Really?” Erik was smiling from ear to ear. He seemed genuinely happy for them. “Have you found a place yet?”
“Not yet,” Matt admitted. “We’re staying at a motel for now, while we look.”
“Nonsense,” Erik said immediately. “You can stay here.”
Holly looked at him in surprise. “Here?”
“Of course. The cottage is big enough, I’ve got two spare bedrooms, one of which has a king-size bed in it.”
“Are you sure we wouldn’t be imposing?” Matt asked, uncertain.
“Are you kidding? Look, it’s a win-win for everybody. You could use a place to stay, and I could use some company.”
“You don’t even know me,” Holly said. “Are you sure you want me to stay at your house?”
Erik smiled kindly at her. “I can tell you make Matt happy. You are most welcome in my house.”
Despite her best efforts and her reservations towards the man, Holly blushed.
“We’ll be happy to stay with you then,” Matt said, after exchanging a look with Holly to make sure that she was on the same page. “We’ll be out of your hair as soon as possible.”
Erik was already waving the words away before Matt could finish the sentence. “You can stay as long as you like. I mean it. In fact, why don’t you stay tonight? I think I have some spare toothbrushes somewhere.”
Holly was about to protest, but she caught the way Matt lit up at the proposal, and she didn’t have the heart to take him away from his long lost friend.
“It’s very kind of you, Erik,” she said, because it really was. “Thank you.”
“It’s my pleasure.”
He smiled again, and Holly’s stomach clenched in a very unpleasant way.
Eventually, Holly left the two men to their much-needed catching up and went to bed. The spare bedroom they had been assigned was just as gorgeous and yet cozy as the rest of the house. There was something soothing to the way Erik’s parents had furnished their home—it was impeccably stylish, yes, but also warm and welcoming. When Holly imagined furnishing the place she would share with Matt, she imagined something like this.
Despite the peace exuding from inside and outside the house—the hill was quiet, the only sound that of night cicadas and birds—Holly didn’t fall asleep. Two hours and half later (according to the alarm clock on the nightstand), she was still staring up at the darkened ceiling. Everything seemed to be working out perfectly. For once, all seemed to be going in the same direction of hers and Matt’s plans, as if the universe itself was trying to tell them they had made the right call by deciding to stay in San Francisco.
They were in love. They wanted the same things. They had found a gorgeous, comfortable place to rest while they searched for a house of their own. Matt had found a brother in arms he had thought was lost to him forever, and that same man had revealed himself to be willing to be a friend to them both.
Everything indicated that the wheel was finally turning and luck would finally be on their side for a change. So why couldn’t Holly be happy? Why couldn’t she bask in the brightness of the situation? Why couldn’t she sink into the embrace of those clean sheet and that snug bed and close her eyes?
Every time she thought about Eric, that pang in the pit of her stomach returned. She didn’t trust him, Holly realized. No matter how warmly he smiled at her or how welcoming he appeared to be, alarm bells kept going off in Holly’s head. She couldn’t explain it. After all, the man had given her no reason to justify her mistrust of him; in fact, he had done quite the opposite. Then why couldn’t she shake this awful feeling of foreboding?
She was right in the middle of yet another dead-end string of thoughts when the door opened and Matt walked in. For a moment, she debated feigning sleep, but she quickly discarded the idea; he would see right through it.
“Had a good talk with your friend?”
Matt froze in surprise in the dark. “You’re awake.”
“Yeah.” Holly sat up in bed and leaned over to turn on the lamp on the nightstand. The room was instantly flooded with warm light.
She watched as Matt stripped—it was always a glorious sight. Her gaze ran over his muscular figure, but this time it also lingered on the military plates he wore around his neck.
“It must have been quite a shock for you, finding out that he’s alive and well,” she ventured carefully. She wasn’t sure how much Matt would want to talk about it.
To her surprise, he was smiling happily and looked quite open as he walked up to the bed and slid under the covers next to her.
“I’m still reeling from it,” he admitted.
“This whole thing, about us staying here…” Holly said after a moment, biting her lip nervously. “Are you sure it’s a good idea?”
Matt arched a dark eyebrow at her. “What do you mean?”
“Well, he doesn’t know me…”
“So?” Matt leaned in to press a swift, reassuring kiss to her lips. “He can tell how much you mean to me. He’s happy to help us both.”
Holly hesitated. Should she voice her doubts about Erik? She quickly discarded the thought. After all, what could she say? She didn’t have any actual reasons to be wary of the guy; hers was just a hunch, and Matt would not understand it—she barely understood it herself.
“This is a good thing, Holly. For once, things are working out for us,” Matt said, unknowingly echoing her earlier thoughts.
Holly nodded. She forced out a smile and tried her best to push all of her doubts out of her mind. This
a good thing. Perhaps she would be doing them all a favor if she ignored her paranoia and just tried to enjoy the fact that for once life was dealing them a friendly hand.
She leaned in and kissed Matt thoroughly, but oddly chastely—it wasn’t a sexual kiss; it was a sweet kiss, a connection kiss. When she pulled back, she cupped his cheek with one hand.
“I’m glad your friend is okay,” she said sincerely.
Matt relaxed instantly. “Me too,” he said.
Holly turned off the light again, and a minute later they were nestled together under the covers, Matt’s arm around her shoulders and her head on his chest. She listened to the sound of him falling asleep, and she had to wonder at just how fast that process was. Usually, even at his most relaxed, it took Matt a very long time to finally drift off into slumber. This time, he was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.
Could it be Erik’s influence, Holly wondered? Could that man really mean so much to Matt that finding him again had finally brought some peace to his troubled soul? If that were the case, maybe she had best reconsider her first impression of Erik Schneider. After all, no one who had that effect on Matt could be bad.
She snuggled a little closer to Matt and tried to close her eyes and go to sleep. It didn’t quite work. It had been a very exciting evening, and no matter what she did, Holly couldn’t unplug her brain. Eventually, she gave up. She gently disentangled herself from Matt’s embrace. He didn’t stir, which was one more testament to just how peaceful he was.
Holly walked out onto the room’s balcony. The view was breathtaking. This side of the house faced away from the ocean and towards the hills, which were tranquil and glorious with a full moon shining overhead. The moon was big and yellow, and Holly could look at it forever. The air was even chillier here than it was in the city, and she burrowed deeper into the robe that had been Erik’s mother’s, along with the white T-shirt and pajama pants she was wearing. It felt weird to be wearing the clothes of a dead woman. Then again, she figured it was still better than to sleep in her jeans and shirt.
This place was really something else, Holly mused. She tried to picture getting a house in the countryside. It was a nice picture. To her surprise, there were children and a dog involved. She shook her head. What was she doing, thinking about kids? She wasn’t even sure Matt wanted to get married; it was a topic they had never discussed.
Holly smirked as she imagined the look of utter horror on her father’s face if he were to find out that she was engaged to a jobless lost soul—at least, that’s how her father would certainly see Matt. As for Holly, all she saw was a young man with a heart of gold, smoldering looks, and far more potential that he himself even realized.
She wondered if Erik had a dog. The property certainly seemed big enough to have one. She shook her head as she realized that her thoughts were rambling. She breathed in the night air for a few more minutes before she finally resorted to going back to bed. She climbed back under the covers and found Matt’s eyes watching her in the dark.
“Are you okay?” he asked in a whisper. Matt always whispered whenever he spoke in the darkness, even if it was just the two of them. Holly wondered if it came from his military training and years of night stakeouts in war zones.
“I’m fine,” Holly said. “Just having some trouble sleeping. It was an exciting night.”
“Yeah, it was,” Matt agreed easily. He kissed her briefly. “But you should really try to get some sleep. We begin our search tomorrow, and you need to be sharp.” There was a smile in his voice, and Holly couldn’t help returning it.
“All right,” she said. She kissed his cheek and turned on her side.
Matt wrapped both arms around her and pressed close to her, spooning her from behind. Holly sighed in contentment, relaxing instantly; it always put her at peace with the whole wide world, Matt holding her like that. Before long, sleep was tugging at her.
Perhaps she was overreacting, she reflected as she began to drift off. She didn’t know Erik, and if facts were worth more than words, he certainly had already showed her that he could be a very loyal friend indeed, someone they could truly rely upon. And was it really any wonder that he would come off as somewhat cold and brittle? The man had spent three years in an Iraqi prison; he probably could be forgiven a few quirks.
Holly burrowed closer to Matt and sighed. Tomorrow, she was sure, Erik Schneider would appear to her as the kindest, most trustworthy person on the planet.