Navy Husband (Navy #6)

Chapter 24

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The other lingered a moment, obviously concerned about leaving Ali in the company of the ogre patient. But at Ali’s nod, she rejoined the first woman.

“How can I help you, Commander?” Ali asked. Her shoulders were back as if she expected another ugly confrontation.

Frank wasn’t good at apologizing. It wasn’t something he’d had much practice at. He began to speak, and then paused to clear his throat before he could get out even one short sentence. “I want to apologize for last week.”

Her eyes flared briefly, but she didn’t respond.

“I have no excuse for my rude and arrogant behavior,” he went on, repeating the very words she’d used to describe him. He despised humiliation in any form, but in this instance he deserved it.

“Apology accepted, Commander. No one likes being sick and helpless.”

“That’s true,” he agreed, willing to accept her explanation.

His remark was followed by silence. Frank usually didn’t have problems expressing his views, but just then, standing in a crowded market in the middle of a South Pacific island—standing there with Ali—he couldn’t think of a single intelligent thing to say.

“I appreciate everything you did to make my stay as comfortable as possible,” he muttered.

“You’re welcome,” she said abruptly. She seemed eager to leave.

Frank didn’t blame her.

“Is there anything else?” she prodded when he didn’t resume the conversation.

“No,” he said without inflection, but he wanted to scream that there was. He just didn’t know how to say it. Had they been anyplace else, he might have found the courage to let her know he admired her.

Without another word, she turned and walked toward her friends who stood at a booth, ignoring the proprietor and focusing their attention on him and Ali. Both women seemed to have plenty of opinions, because their heads were close together and they talked rapidly. Frank hated being the object of their scrutiny, but there was no help for it. He’d done what he could; now he had to leave things as they were.

“Lieutenant Commander Karas,” he called out sharply, stopping her.

Alison glanced over her shoulder.

“I heard—I’m sorry about your husband.”

For the briefest of moments, in the second or two it took her to blink, Alison’s eyes went liquid with grief. She quickly regained control of her emotions. “Thank you, Commander. Like you, Peter dedicated his life to the Navy.”

He nodded and felt properly put in his place.

That said, Ali joined her friends. The three of them left and were swallowed up by the crowd.

If searching for Ali was out of character, what he did next was even more so. He returned to the silk merchant and purchased the entire bolt of fabric Alison had so recently examined. The hell if he knew what to do with fifteen yards of red silk.

Chapter Eighteen

“I’d like to talk to you when you’ve got a free moment,” Catherine said as soon as Shana showed up for work Monday morning.

Dread instantly filled her. It was said bad news came in threes. Adam had left for Hawaii, Brad wanted her back—or so he’d claimed—and now she feared the worst calamity of all. Her most valued employee was about to quit. Shana could deal with just about anything except that.

“N-now is convenient,” she managed to stutter. It wasn’t, but she’d have an ulcer if she put this off.

Catherine joined her in the kitchen but kept an eye on the ice-cream counter in case a customer came in.

“You aren’t going to quit, are you?” Shana asked point-blank. Catherine had quickly become her friend and confidante. “Because if you do, I’m throwing in the towel right now.”

Catherine brushed aside her concern with a wave of her hand. “Of course I’m not quitting. I love my job.”

Relief washed over her, and Shana reached out to hug the other woman. “I’m so grateful…I don’t think I could take much more.”

“That’s one of the reasons I thought we should talk,” Catherine said. “I don’t mean to put my nose where it doesn’t belong, but like I said when you interviewed me, I worked in the school cafeteria for almost fifteen years. We were a close-knit group and were able to discuss everything with one another.”

“I want you to feel free to do the same here,” Shana assured her.

A smile relaxed the older woman’s features, and Shana could see that she’d been worried. “Okay. I have a couple of ideas I’d like to try out, so we can take ice-cream requests in a more orderly fashion,” Catherine said, “but I understand this is your business and I won’t take offense if you don’t think they’ll work.”

“Anything you can suggest would be appreciated,” Shana told her. “You’re my most important asset, and I want you to know that.”

“I wrote everything out for you to read at your leisure,” Catherine said, handing her an envelope.

Shana tucked it inside her apron pocket. “Please feel free to share any ideas you have with me,” she said. “I’m interested in all your suggestions.”

Catherine positively beamed at the praise. “Now, I don’t want you to get the notion that I’m taking over the shop or being dictatorial,” she said.

That notion was laughable. “I’d never have survived the last couple of weekends without you and your husband.”

Catherine’s eyes brightened at the mention of her husband. “Louis had the time of his life.”

They’d been wonderful with the customers and reminded Shana of the Olsens, who’d owned the shop for all those years. Catherine and Louis were so natural with children and treated everyone like family. Shana envied their ability, and knew this kind of friendliness was a big reason her customers returned over and over again. She’d been fortunate to hire Catherine, and Louis was a bonus…and a darling.

“You know who to call if you want another day off.” Catherine smiled. “In fact, Louis said if you’re ever looking to sell, we’d like the right of first refusal, but I told him you’d just bought the business and it wasn’t likely you’d be interested in selling.”

“No, but I’ll certainly keep that in mind.” Shana had invested her entire financial future in this shop. So far, she was meeting payroll and keeping her head above water, but this was her busy season. The Olsens had warned her that the winter months could be a fiscal challenge. Shana hoped to find ways to stay afloat when the weather was dreary. Ice-cream sales would decrease in winter, but she hoped the pizza part of the business would continue to flourish. Thankfully, Lincoln Park was much-used year round.

“Also,” Catherine added, sounding hesitant. “I know this isn’t any of my concern, but it seems to me you haven’t been yourself the last few days.”

So it was that obvious.

“Is there a problem?” the other woman asked gently, in the same way Ali might have done had she been there. Trading e-mails was better than nothing but they weren’t a substitute for face-to-face communication.

Shana slumped against the wall and automatically shook her head. For three nights straight, she hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours. When she did manage to drift off, she dreamed of Adam and then woke tired and depressed.

“Man troubles?” Catherine asked. “You don’t need to tell me, not unless you want. But sometimes just talking things out with someone else can help.”

Shana nodded, reflecting that the school district had lost a wonderful employee. In Shana’s opinion, Catherine was much too young to retire.

“It’s just that, well…this is complicated.” Shana wasn’t sure how to explain without going into more detail than necessary.

“Does this have to do with Brad or Adam?” Catherine prompted.

Shana’s mouth fell open. “How do you know about Brad?” Her eyes narrowed and she answered her own question. It could only be her niece. “Jazmine.”

Catherine nodded, folding her hands. She looked about as guilty as a woman can. “Jazmine and I are friends, and the truth of it is, she confided in me because she’s worried about you.”

“She is, is she?” Shana couldn’t wait to ask Jazmine about this.

“Jazmine is a dear girl and she meant well,” Catherine said immediately.

“Who else has she told?” Shana demanded. Apparently her heart-to-heart with her niece hadn’t been as effective as she’d hoped. Jazmine seemed intent on spreading Shana’s problems throughout the entire neighborhood.

“I don’t think she’s mentioned it to anyone else,” Catherine was quick to reassure her. “Certainly not Charles. I can’t be positive, of course, but…” Her voice trailed off.

“Of course,” Shana echoed. Jazmine was a handful. Spending her days at the park with friends or in the ice-cream parlor with Shana wasn’t the ideal situation, but it was the best that could be done for now. Unless Shana looked into some kind of summer camp for her…

“The only reason Jazmine said anything was because I asked her if she knew what was bothering you. So if anyone’s to blame, it’s me,” Catherine insisted, her face reddening. “I apologize, Shana.”

“Don’t worry about it.” But Shana decided she’d still ask Jazmine later.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Catherine offered. “Like I said, I’m a good listener.”

After several sleepless nights, Shana could use some advice. “All right,” she agreed with a deep sigh. “My life’s a bit of a mess at the moment,” she said, then proceeded to tell Catherine about her five-year relationship with Brad and how it had ended. She described how he’d been an important part of her life, and then he was gone; just after that, Jazmine had arrived and on the heels of her niece Adam Kennedy showed up.

Catherine nodded often during the course of their lengthy one-sided discussion.

“Are you in love with Adam?” she asked when Shana had finished.

“Yes. No. How can I be?” She paused. “Good grief, I’m the last person who’d know.”

“You love Brad, though?” Catherine continued.

“No.” This came without the slightest hesitation. “Although I loved him at one time. At least, I believed I did.”

“I don’t think breaking off a relationship is ever as easy as we want it to be,” Catherine said thoughtfully. “We invest our hopes and dreams in a particular relationship, and when that doesn’t work out, we sometimes have difficulty admitting it.”

“That’s true.” Shana nodded, remembering the years she’d devoted to Brad with such hope for a future together.

“I wonder if what you really want is for Brad to recognize how much he wronged you.”

Shana grinned. That was so true, it was almost painful.

“It gives women a sense of vindication,” Catherine pronounced solemnly, “when a man realizes the error of his ways.”

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