Excerpt: Brannigan’s War

Mitch watched her adjust the books in the stack. He couldn’t keep his eyes off her. If there were, in truth, angels in this world, Emily Billings was one. She started down the steps and seemed to float weightless on her way down. Mrs. Billings spoke, forcing him to look away.

“No, I insist that you stay,” she reassured.

His peripheral vision caught intermittent glimpses of the younger woman.

“Really ma’am. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m in transition of assignments and don’t know how long I’m going to be here, so I just got a motel. It’s a pay by-the-week kind-a-thing and I’ve already paid this week.” In Mitch’s mind, what he told her was the truth. He was in-between assignments, actually two weeks before his next appointment, but the specifics weren’t important.

Finally, Emily had noticed Mitch standing at the foot of the stairs. She was almost near the bottom when she abruptly stopped at the last two steps. There was sudden hesitation as if stepping on that final step might bring her to the edge where she might fall several thousand feet down. The stack of books shored up against her wasn’t a problem until one slid off, causing a domino effect with the others. They all landed on the floor.

Mitch was already down at her feet retrieving the books when her eyes met his. Her eyes widened and abruptly narrowed exerting a guarded glare. She bent down to pick up her books before giving him a disgusted once-over. Mitch might have been wrong about the expression but when she reached over and snatched the books from his hand, he knew his first surmise was probably pretty damn close.

Obviously she didn’t need his help, so Mitch rose up letting her finish. Her icy stare stayed on him through the menial task. Mrs. Billings quickly interjected with an introduction.

“Emily, this is Cpl. Mitch Brannigan. He was a friend of your brother’s,” she stated clearly as if to smooth out any misgivings, whatever they were.

Mitch observed Emily Billings rise up with an overly erect posture. Silently, Mitch cursed and now he could actually say that he knew exactly how the cattle on his ranch felt before slaughter. From her cutting stares, he was being primed for butchering.

“Ummm,” she sounded through a restrained tone. Another steady and lengthened gaze drifted along his large frame and back down again.

Mitch would never have taken Emily to be the same woman from the photograph who wore a free-flowing white dress and appeared to be heaven-sent. Sure the same haunting beauty portrayed in the picture that he memorized night after night while in National Navy Medical was there, but the loving free-spirit captured in the photograph was completely gone. Now, her lips were terse with abhorrence and she resembled some demonic banshee about to tell him of his impending death.

“So tell me, Mr. Brannigan…” she said, pausing with a skeptical brow in his direction, “Exactly where do you know Rich from?”

“Basic training, Twentynine Palms, California, ma’am.”

“And that makes you close enough to come to my parent’s house and…” she began until her mother promptly arbitrated.

“Emily!” her mother gasped. She glanced to Mitch in apology and back to Emily.

“Its okay, ma’am, I can understand how it would make her feel uncomfortable that I’m here. I should have called,” Mitch stated, hoping that might be the problem. He glimpsed at Emily and back to Mrs. Billings but he already had a feeling it wasn’t. “And just to answer Emily’s question: I feel that knowing Rich and the man that he was…well, I’d like to think he would have agreed with me coming to visit,” he stated, never setting his eyes on Emily. He wasn’t going to give the little lady any satisfaction of knowing that she was getting to him.

Hmph. Air escaped her lips, and she blew a strand of hair from her face.

“I take it you’re just visiting and aren’t in town for very long,” Emily said sharply, as if it was a statement instead of a question.

“Most likely.”

She huffed again, upholding an icy glare.

Enough was enough and her spearing looks were critically barbing his ego. Mitch spoke. “While I’m staying in Houston, your parents have been nice enough to invite me to stop in whenever I’d like. Your parents have been great, so I might stay in town a bit longer than planned,” he said glancing to Mrs. Billings for her blessing and then back at Emily’s perturbed face that didn’t offer an ounce of receptiveness. His eyes settled on her. “Dinner does really sound great. I’ll take you up on the offer, Mrs. Billings,” Mitch felt it necessary to bring down Ms. Emily Billings a notch or two. Mr. and Mrs. Billings smiled seeing Mitch was handling things well.

“Please, its Margaret,” Mrs. Billings offered.

“Well, we don’t need your kind here and your presence will just disrupt things,” Emily snapped, stepping toward him.

Mitch’s head reared back. “My ‘kind’?”

Before Margaret could speak on Mitch’s behalf, Emily broke in.

“Yes, kind. Clearly you’re the type of man who does what he wants, when he wants it, whether it bothers us or not.”

Mitch glanced at her parents to see whether this was a mutual sentiment, but they seemed as open to him as when he first arrived.

“Don’t you mean classification, then, Ms. Billings—a Marine?” Mitch knew what she meant and he didn’t like what she meant by “kind”—inferring that he is a stereotypical leatherneck without knowing the actual man he might be.

“No, I meant kind, Cpl. Brannigan,” Emily replied in a sharp, calloused tone.

Obviously, her assessment of him wasn’t changing anytime soon. The emphasis on kind and corporal made his jaw tick, but he held his tongue.

“Emily, that’s enough from you,” her father reprimanded, saving Mitch from any further aggravation.

She expelled another exasperated breath before turning around to head for the front door. They all shuddered as the door slammed behind her.

Mitch was dead wrong about Emily Billings. But he had made a promise to Rich, and he wasn’t going to be run off by some overzealous, snooty brat.

He noticed Margaret’s hands twisting nervously in front of her.

“Mitch, I apologize for Emily’s behavior. She’s usually not like that, but ever since…well you know, Rich’s…”

Mitch stopped her. “I understand, Mrs. Billings. I’m sure Rich has been heavy on everyone’s mind,” he assured. Mitch knew that Rich would be on his mind for as long as he held a breath in his body.

“Margaret. Call me Margaret,” she reminded.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mitch glanced at the front door one last time before he was directed into the kitchen. The damn promise to Rich wasn’t going to be so easy, but this Marine was on a mission—and he wasn’t leaving until Emily Billings was a-okay.

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