She leaned casually against the bar as she expertly scanned the room for a familiar face. Finding none, she sighed and took another sip of her apple martini. Her friend and co-worker Lynn had invited her over to this informal gathering with the promise of "exquisite food and excellent conversation". With the latter part of this promise yet to be fulfilled, Kate once again surveyed the scene before her.
Small groups of people chatted animatedly in the elegantly appointed room, with the occasional roar of laughter punctuating the din. The soft clink of glasses and the strains of Mozart's No. 1 in B flat, K. 207 playing softly in the background completed the picture of what should have been a fun and interesting evening.
The sound of his rich laughter drew her attention first. As she tried to pinpoint its source, she noticed him. He was standing in a corner and holding a beer, deep in conversation with another. Perhaps his innately captivating presence caught her eye. Or it could have been the blatantly military crew cut he sported. Kate imagined it would gleam like dark gold if he ever grew it out. He must have sensed her gaze lingering on him because he turned and his face broke into an open, friendly smile. She smiled in return. Glad that she finally had someone to engage in excellent conversation with, she made her way over to his side.
"Hi there," he said as Kate joined their group. "I'm Dan Huffman and this is Casey Shelton." Dan made a slight gesture with his right hand to indicate his friend.
"I'm Kate Lee. It’s nice to meet you both," she replied as she shook their hands in greeting. "Now I'm really curious. Did I actually hear the two of you arguing over jelly donuts?"
Both Dan and Casey chuckled. "I'm trying to persuade Casey here that President John F. Kennedy said he was a jelly donut," he said with a grin.
Kate arched her eyebrow. "Dan, are you sure this isn't some line you use to impress the ladies?"
"I swear it isn't. And he did," Dan said.
"He did not," she replied.
"He did," Dan insisted.
Casey cleared his throat meaningfully. "Well, I see I have someone to champion my side of the debate. I'm going to get another beer. Dan?"
"Sure, sure, get me another Rolling Rock," Dan muttered. Neither of them noticed Casey walk away. "I'm telling you that in 1963 President Kennedy said 'Ich bin ein Berliner'. Berliner was a popular jelly donut back then. Therefore, Kennedy is a jelly donut," Dan continued without missing a beat. He was on a roll.
Kate shook her head. "The correct translation is that he was trying to say that he was a citizen of Berlin. I should know, I minored in Political Science."
"And I speak fluent German and French," Dan countered. "So I should know."
Kate took a step closer to him and looked him straight in the eye. "You are never going to give up until I cry uncle, are you?" she asked sardonically.
"Thus succeeding in your mission to piss me off."
Thus a friendship that alternated between laughter and annoying the hell out of each other was born. The seeds of a romantic love that may have bloomed stayed dormant when Kate began dating Brad. However, the friendship between Kate and Dan deepened into a relationship in which each was a bastion of unwavering support and loyalty to the other, despite the circumstances.
During the months that Dan was away, Kate was busy with her work as a web developer. She missed him so acutely, it was like an ache. An ache she tried to bury with work and the letter and care package campaign she launched that would have impressed the USO.
"Man, do you have enough socks there?" Lynn asked in disbelief as Kate threw in 20 pairs of socks to the latest massive care package she was preparing.
"One can never have enough socks, especially since he is away from home," Kate said primly.
"That's because you are secretly in love with him," Lynn said, trying to get a rise out of Kate. Kate, as usual, took the bait.
"I am not! I am in love with Brad. You know, the man who happens to be my boyfriend?" she said.
"Right," Lynn agreed. She paused for a moment. "But you secretly love Danny."
Kate sighed and didn't answer as she tried to tuck in the pound of peanut brittle in the already overloaded box.
Kate subconsciously counted the days and the minutes until Danny's return. She wasn't sure if she should go meet him. After all, she was only a friend and not really family. Would it be appropriate, she wondered. However the decision was made for her when Dan's mother called and insisted that she join the family in welcome.
And so on the day that First Lieutenant Daniel Huffman was due to arrive home, Kate and Dan's family waited with anticipation at the airfield. The sky was a bright blue with nary a cloud in the sky. After an interminable wait for the plane to land, and an even longer wait for the ramp to be rolled to the plane, the first face appeared out of the airplane. A cheer went up in the crowd as a succession of men and women stepped out of the airplane. People were waving signs and jumping up and down, hoping to catch a glimpse of their own. Finally, she glimpsed Dan's familiar profile step out of the airplane.
"Do you see him, Karen? I think that's him!" Kate said excitedly. Karen, Joe (Dan's father) and Peter (Dan's brother) craned their necks to see if they could spot him. After everyone deplaned, the soldiers gathered in formation. A senior officer addressed the group, but none of the famlies could hear his words from the cordoned off area. Kate could feel the impatience of the crowd. Finally the group was dismissed and both groups surged towards each other. Kate saw Dan striding in quick steps towards them. Karen ran forward and was the first to embrace her son in a hug. Mother and son stood still for a moment, caught in the emotions of welcome and happiness. Joe and Peter moved forward to greet Dan as well. Kate felt slightly uncomfortable at intruding in this private family moment. She stepped back but kept her gaze on Dan. He had lost weight, it seemed, but the leanness was overlaid with sinewy muscle.
Dan shifted his gaze to her as he let go of his mom and walked quietly towards her until they were face to face. For a moment she merely looked at him until they moved towards each other and he swept her into the protective circle of his arms.
"Hi," he said, the warmth of his smile echoing in his voice.
"Hi," she replied, as she put her hand up to his cheek, as if trying to remember the texture of it. His eyes seemed to be full of something, she didn't know what.
"God, I missed you," he whispered hoarsely as he buried his face into her hair. Whatever reply she might have come back with was smothered as his lips came coaxingly down on hers. Kate was surprised and a little embarrassed. Mindful of his family staring bemusedly at them, she tried to push him back, but he wouldn't let her go.
"I missed you too...Mmmph...Dan...your family..." she managed to get in when he finally came up for air.
A discreet cough from his father finally brought Dan back to reality of his smiling parents. His brother, still a young teenager, was making gacking noises in the background. There seemed to be a new possessiveness in Dan towards Kate as he conversed with his family. He refused to let go of her hand, she noted. It was almost as if he were afraid that she would suddenly disappear. When Dan was finally able to get away to spend time with his family, they decided to go out and eat. Kate excused herself, saying she had to finish work, despite the noisy protests of his family.
Dan kept his gaze on her as she said her goodbyes.
"I'll see you at Casey's party?" he asked.
"Yes, I'll see you tonight," she said. The raw joy of seeing Dan after all these months and the shock of their public kiss disconcerted her. She needed time to think.
That evening Casey was throwing a party in honor of Dan's return. The backyard was crowded with people, beer and loud music. Casey and Dan were standing at the bbq, grilling various meats.
"She brought HIM along," Dan grumbled to Casey.
"Don't sweat it...shhh...here she comes..." Casey whispered loudly as Kate approached.
"Hey guys," Kate said in greeting. She glanced at the blackened grill. "Wasn't that a new BBQ grill, Casey?"
"Nothing a gallon of lighter fluid couldn't break in," he replied cheerfully. Casey nudged Dan in the ribs and glared at him pointedly. Talk to her, the look said.
Dan opened his mouth to speak just as Brad walked up behind Kate.
"So hey, Kate," Brad said casually, "I've got two tickets to La Boheme, front and center. How would you like to go?"
"Sounds interesting," she said. "But I'm pretty busy these days trying to plan my parent's thirtieth anniversary party."
Brad continued as if he hadn't heard her. "It’s in French. Although I feel that it would be better if they didn't have that marquis with the translated lines up there. It ruins the effect."
Dan arched an eyebrow. "Why Brad, do you speak fluent French?"
"Yes...yes I do, Dan," Brad replied. There was an air of tension rising. "Comment je t'aime? Laisse moi compter les façons. je m'aime aux plafonds et aux larges hôtels..." he recited smugly.
"Cool, Brad!" Kate said, impressed. "What did you just say?"
Dan spared Brad a withering glance. "If I'm not mistaken, that would be Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Except for the second line you just declared that you love yourself to the ceiling and at large hotels." Dan said acerbically.
"Really?" Brad said.
"It should be, 'Je t'aime aux profondeurs et aux largeurs et hauteurs,'" Dan corrected.
"Who knew the dumbass Jarhead could utter complete sentences?" Brad sneered, then jumped back in alarm as Dan advanced towards him angrily, fists clenched.
The conversation was getting out of hand. Though Kate might tease and abuse Dan, she would tolerate it from no one else. Not even a man she thought she was in love with at one time. Putting a hand on Dan's arm to restrain him, she cooly turned to Brad. The look she gave him could have frozen a pond at ten paces.
"Shut up, Brad. Before you say something you regret," she said icily. Her tone pierced the fog of Brad's drunken stupor enough to let him know she was peeved and working towards seriously pissed. Even he knew not to cross her when she was in such a mood. He held his hands up in mock surrender.
"Okay, okay, we were just joking around," he hedged.
"Right," she said sarcastically. Dan looked at her in amusement for coming to his defense, then his eyes widened in alarm when she turned and directed the full force of her stare on him.
"You," she said, poking her finger into Dan's chest. It didn't matter if he an officer in the Marines, used to commanding troops of his own. Kate on a rampage terrified him. "I want to talk to you."
"What?" he said somewhat defensively. She grabbed his arm and dragged him off to the guest bathroom and shut the door behind them. She crossed her arms and merely stared at him. Sighing, since he knew there was no way to avoid a confrontation, he tried adopting an charming smile. It didn't work.
"I want to know what that was all about."
"Just making conversation," he said in an innocent tone.
"I thought you would be more mature then that, Dan."
"He's an asshole, Kate. You should cut him loose for good."
"That doesn't give you the right to argue like two dogs fighting over the bone. Brad is none of your business, Dan," she said angrily. "And for your information, he invited himself. I couldn't refuse without being impolite." She poked his chest again to emphasize her point. He involuntarily took a step back and found himself bumping against the wall. He couldn't say that he completely disliked this assertiveness in her. In fact he rather liked it, but as she was pissed, wisely decided to say nothing.
"My love life is off-limits to you, understand?"
"The guy had to finish watching a football game before he came to the hospital after you called him. A god dam football game! How long did you wait in the emergency room before he came to your side?" he said impatiently.
Kate paused for a long moment before answering. "That is irrelevant," she said quietly.
"How long?" he insisted.
"An hour and a half," she muttered.
"If it was me, nothing would have stopped me from reaching your side," he told her gruffly.
Kate was suddenly aware of the heat emanating from his body. It was a novel experience to have 200 lbs of aggravated male so close to her. She could smell the spicy scent of his aftershave, one that she would always associate with him. The guest bathroom suddenly seemed too small for the both of them. He let out a long, audible breath. A loud knock on the door made them both jump back. "Aren't you done yet?" A loud, drunken voice asked in disgust. "You've been in there for like a year! I need to use the john!"
Kate moved away from him. "We should go. Everyone will be looking for you," she said softly.
"We're not done yet," he said. Whatever she had been about to say was cut off as he cupped her face and kissed her tenderly. When he pulled back, she had sort of a befuddled look on her face. "We'll talk later, Kate." Satisfied that he had gotten in the last word, he left before she could snap out a caustic retort.
Later that evening after the party, Dan sat on the couch of his darkened apartment. The TV was tuned to ESPN. He sat nursing a beer while watching the sports highlights of the day. The doorbell rang. Perhaps it was Kate, he thought. He nervously ran his fingers through his hair. Wearing only a bright yellow "Semper Fitness" t-shirt and boxers, he hoped he looked presentable. He walked over and opened the door. However, the person standing casually in the doorway wasn't who he expected.
It was Brad. to be continued one final time...*Like this? Read Part 1!
Thanks to Rand_T for the French translation.