Authors: Kathryn Thomas
It did not happen. The next morning, when they sat down for breakfast, something about Erik Schneider still put Holly on edge. Things didn’t change the morning after either, or the one after that. Now, three weeks in, things still had not changed. No matter how much Holly tried to tell herself that she was being paranoid and that there must be one hell of a good reason why Matt loved and trusted this man, she still found herself walking on eggshells around him.
The same, of course, could not be said about Matt’s attitude. To say that he was overjoyed would have been an understatement. Erik had offered him a job in his vineyard, which counted few but competent and trusted personnel. Since then, Matt seemed to be reborn. There was something about working outside all day that agreed with him to the point that he seemed to walk about with a perpetual aura of radiance around him.
Matt was walking on air, and as a result, they were not walking anywhere at all. Three weeks in, they had barely looked at two places in the city, and it didn’t look like the search for their own place would intensify anytime soon. Holly knew why that was. Matt was stuck in a happy rut, one that would be very hard to get him out of. Holly tried to be as lenient as possible. She knew they would have to go sooner or later, but she had never seen Matt this happy, and she was reluctant to break the spell for him based on some irrational bad feelings she had about his friend.
So she tried to focus on her painting. There was one art school in particular in San Francisco that she wanted to apply to, and they of course required samples. For the time being, Holly decided to focus on creating the best ones she could and on her search for a job. She had been unable to find anything yet, but she was hopeful that something would turn up soon enough.
All in all, if she put aside her feelings towards their host, she had to admit that life in the California hills wasn’t so bad at all. It was quite out here. For the first time in a very long time, she felt like she could hear herself think. When the breeze blew in from the Pacific Ocean, she could smell the salty waters on it, and it always had a rejuvenating effect on her.
The nights were hotter too—not so much in terms of weather, but in what Matt did to her behind the privacy of their closed door. His renewed energy and passion made for fireworks beneath the sheets. He took her pretty much every other night, which Holly was most definitely
complaining about. He took her with his customary sweetness, but also with a rekindled love for life that she had never seen in him before. It was beautiful, and it unfailingly left her happily spent and fully sated, like there was nothing else in the world she could possibly want or need.
It was after one of these intense, fiery sessions that Holly slid out of bed one night and padded downstairs to the kitchen. Matt had been explosive as a supernova that night, and her whole body was still tingling with electricity—there was simply no way she could go to sleep now. To her surprise, when she got downstairs, she saw that the kitchen’s light was already on. She briefly debated going back to their room, but she knew Erik must have heard her approach; ex-military men tended to have very keen senses.
Holly took a deep breath, tightened the belt of her robe, and walked on. Erik was sitting at the kitchen’s table, reading a book and nursing a cup of tea. Holly blinked. There was something about seeing the man lounging about in his pajamas that suddenly made him seem a lot less threatening. Then he looked up with his razor-sharp blue eyes, and that annoying feeling of foreboding came to squeeze her stomach again.
“I don’t mean to intrude,” she said. “I didn’t think anyone else was up.”
“You’re not intruding at all.” Erik flashed her that smile of his that would have been quite pleasant if only it didn’t give her the creeps for some unknown reason. “Please, join me.”
Holly hesitated, then she walked over to the cupboard and took out a mug for herself. She poured the water, which was still hot in the kettle, and chose a bag of herbal tea to dip in. She took the steaming mug and walked over to the table, choosing a seat that was far enough from Erik to grant her personal space, but not enough to suggest that she didn’t want to be around him.
“Can’t sleep?” Erik asked.
Holly shrugged. “Not really, no.”
A smirk appeared on his haggard face. “The boy keeps you up?”
Holly felt herself blush furiously, and she hated herself for not being able to contain that reaction in front of him.
Erik laughed. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. It’s just…I’m very happy for Matt. I thought about him often over these past few years. I wondered if he had finally outrun his demons.”
“He’s well on his way,” Holly said. And really, he was. Over the past few months, Matt had made enormous progress—and, she had to admit, much of it was made over the past few weeks.
Erik nodded. “I can tell. You’re good for him, Holly.”
Holly had to smile at that. “I try to be.”
Silence descended upon them, and Holly was surprised to realize that it wasn’t entirely uncomfortable…at least, until Erik began to watch her closely. She fought the urge to squirm under the intense scrutiny of his razor-sharp blue eyes.
“What?” She eventually asked, trying to keep the exasperation out of her voice.
“You don’t like me very much, do you?” He didn’t seem offended. He seemed to just be stating a fact.
Still, Holly felt guilty. After all, this man was giving them some huge help. In fact, Erik Schneider was the first helping hand that they had encountered in over six months. Holly suddenly felt very ashamed of her resentful feelings towards the man.
“It’s not that,” she tried to amend. “I don’t really know you, that’s all. The past few months have taught me not to trust the kindness of strangers.”
As she spoke, Holly realized just how true that was, and she wondered if perhaps that was really all that her mistrust of Erik’s good intentions was about.
Erik nodded. “I think I can relate. But you should know, I don’t mean you any harm, if only for the fact that I would never do anything to hurt Matt.”
“He said you saved his life.”
Matt had not gone into details, but the gratitude was palpable in his words as he told her. There was also a dark light in his green eyes, which Holly recognized as survivor’s guilt. In that moment, she realized that she could now read Matt like a book. For some reason, that knowledge filled her with a renewed surge of affection towards the man she loved.
“I did,” Erik admitted.
“What happened?” Holly asked, intrigued.
Erik was shaking his head even before she had finished the question. “I don’t share war stories, Holly.”
Holly swallowed. Erik’s blue eyes had gone very dark, very fast. That abrupt change in his demeanor scared her. “Sorry,” she said quickly.
He shrugged, dismissing the incident. Holly, however, knew she would carry that feeling of fright in the pit of her stomach for a while. She finished her tea as quickly as she could without burning her tongue and then set her mug down.
“I think I’d better try to get some sleep now.”
“I made you uncomfortable,” Erik said. It wasn’t a question.
Holly cringed inwardly. “Yes,” she finally admitted. There was no point in lying to him.
“You know, we should probably try to get along. For Matt’s sake. Perhaps we could spend some time together, get to know each other.”
Holly stared at him. It sounded like a thoughtful suggestion, but for some reason the prospect of hanging out alone with this man chilled her to the bone. “Perhaps,” she conceded warily.
“We could go to the art museum.”
Holly watched him in surprise. She was being ridiculous, she decided. This was Matt’s friend. This man had saved the life of the man she loved. Surely he deserved a chance? She gave him the first genuine smile since she had met him.
“I would like that,” she said sincerely. “Good night, Erik.”
Holly rinsed out her mug at the sink and left the room. Maybe the trouble really was that she didn’t know Erik all that well—or at all, for that matter. Maybe the key to get rid of her feeling of uneasiness towards the man was really to spend some alone time with him.
Yes, she decided as she climbed back under the covers next to Matt’s sleeping form. She would give Erik Schneider a chance. After all, he had given her one by offering her a place to stay. It was only fair that she returned the favor.
Holly had visited the San Francisco Museum of Art twice since coming to the city. This was the third visit for her, and it was just as magical. Erik, she discovered, was almost as passionate about art as she was, although he admittedly knew a lot less about it than she did. Still, he was eager to listen and learn, and Holly was happy to explain to him what it was that they were seeing.
As the day progressed, Holly felt her feelings of uneasiness towards the man slowly dissipate. Erik Schneider was pleasant, courteous, and kind. His wit and tongue were as sharp as his blue eyes, and Holly often found herself laughing at some remark or another. It was refreshing to find out that she had been wrong about him.
Currently they were sitting in the patio of the museum’s cafeteria, enjoying two lattes and the evening breeze. Holly couldn’t wait to go back to the house and tell Matt everything about the day. She couldn’t wait to tell him that she, too, was rapidly growing quite fond of his friend.
“Thank you for today,” she said as she took a hearty sip of her mocha cappuccino. “It was lovely.” And she was surprised to realized that she meant every word.
Erik smiled brightly at her. Underneath his scruff and the haunted look in his blue eyes, he was an attractive man. “I had a great time too.”
“I was thinking we could stop and pick up some Chinese food for dinner,” Holly suggested after a moment. “Matt loves it.”
“Sounds good to me.”
A far-off, distant expression had suddenly appeared on Erik’s features. Over the day, Holly had grown accustomed to his slight mood swings. He was prone to pensive moods, she had noticed. But this was different. This was dark and brooding, and it made her slightly uncomfortable.
“Are you okay?” She eventually asked when minutes passed by without his saying a word.
Erik looked away from the view of the luscious green garden and turned to stare at her. There was a haunted look in his blue eyes that tore at her heart. He sighed heavily.
“I guess I might as well tell you.”
Holly frowned, worried. “Tell me what?”
“I’m moving away.”
Holly blinked. Surely she’d heard him wrong? “Excuse me?”
“You heard me,” Erik said. “I can’t stay here anymore. I can’t take it.”
“What are you talking about? What about your parents’ vineyard?”
“That’s just it,” Erik said. “I can’t…I don’t…” He took a deep, shaky breath. “I can’t stand to take care of it anymore. Everywhere I look I see a reminder of their dying thinking their son had died at war. They died thinking I had died some horrible death. Hell, maybe that’s what killed them too. Pain can do that to a person.”
Holly took in Erik’s sorrow as if it were her own. He ached deeply, she could see that.
“I really thought I could do it, you know,” Erik continued after a moment. “I thought I could take care of their house and their vineyards and keep the place that had meant so much to them alive and thriving. I thought I could do at least that for them. But I can’t. I can’t take it anymore. It’s too painful.”
Holly bit her lip. She could see his point, but she also couldn’t imagine that abandoning his parents’ place in the hands of strangers was going to make Erik feel any better. “So you’re just going to sell it?” she asked. “I don’t mean to judge,” she added quickly when his eyes flashed. “Really, I don’t. But are you sure that turning your back on the place is going to help you?”