FORTY-NINE

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Five months later . . . .

Claire saw the FOR SALE sign by the curb just before turning into the driveway. She braked and reached for the slip of paper with his address, checking to make sure she was in the right place before driving past the open gate. "This is it," she breathed, staring wide-eyed at the mansion in the distance. Wow. Following the long driveway, she passed a number of cars parked along its side and wondered if they were having an open house.

After lucking out and finding a spot at the top, she stepped out of the car, a loaner from the Long Beach naval base, and glanced down at the United States Navy emblem on the door. "Very discreet," she muttered as she attempted to straighten some of the driving wrinkles out of her sleeveless wrap dress.

She was grateful to be in the civilian clothes, one of only two dresses she owned. The red with white polka-dot material was soft, flowing, and tied tight at the hip, showing off her curves for a change. It was a nice length too—not too short, but not matronly either—and the V-neck gave a teasing hint of cleavage while still maintaining a well-pressed appearance.

The real guilty pleasure, however, came from the Louboutins she had dug out of storage. They gave her legs some sexy definition, and so they should, given the six hundred dollars they had cost. Since the day she had started working, she put ten dollars a week into a shoe fund. She didn't shop for them often, but when she did, she always bought the best.

Yes, she was a closet shoe freak.

And she was going to pay for it later—it had been a long time since wearing high heels. But seeing as she rarely had the opportunity to get out of the Navy gear, why not go for it? Leg cramps were a small price to pay for style.

It had nothing to do with seeing him again. Nothing.

She did a quick scan of her surroundings. There was crispness to the October afternoon air, but not a cloud could be seen in the sky. It was the kind of day where those who erred on the side of caution would carry a sweater with them, just in case. Claire had one hanging over her handbag.

A gust of wind caught her hair, sweeping long strands across her face. With a click of her tongue she gathered it all into a thick handful and pulled it over one shoulder to give it a twist, hoping that would contain it. As her eyes drifted over the house, she noticed the two large white canopies next to the garage being puffed taller by the breeze while balloons and streamers floated away from them on ribbon tethers. Something was being celebrated. A birthday? Or . . . maybe a wedding? Ignoring the twinge in her stomach, she headed over there.

Caterers rushed around, putting final touches on the meal that was about to be served. Steam trickled up from the warming trays lining the super-stretch version of a buffet table under the first tent. A giant cake sat at the far end and Claire started toward it, hoping to solve the mystery.

"Behind you," a female voice called.

Claire glanced over her shoulder to see a young woman approaching with a tray full of stacked glasses.

"Sorry," Claire muttered, stepping out of her way.

"It'll be about ten more minutes," the woman informed her as she hustled by.

"Oh . . . I wasn't . . ." Never mind. Leaving them to their work, Claire about-faced and headed for the drone of voices, the stone pathway leading her around the corner and into the backyard. Where she came to an abrupt halt. There had to be at least fifty guests she could see, even more inside the house from the sounds of it. Not the private meeting she'd been hoping for.

Her eyes searched the crowd. His hair was longer, but she recognized him from the back immediately—that was how well she knew him, or perhaps it was just from how many times she had thought about him over the last five months.

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