Author's Note: So I finally got this epic saga of a chapter done. I expect there will be one more chapter of "More Than Friends," but I'm going to focus on SEAL Team Week for a bit, so it may be a little while before I get that last one published.


Emma marched down the hallway to Clay's apartment, the door keys clenched in her fist. Muttering imprecations to herself, she stabbed the key at the lock, missing the opening on her first try. Growling under her breath, she forced it in on her second, opening the door with so much power it flew back and banged against the wall inside.

Clay glanced up in surprise from the book he was reading. "Whoa, what did that door ever do to you?"

Her eyes narrowed as she studied Clay where he sat on the couch, feet propped on the coffee table. She was in no mood for joking around. She dropped her bag on the floor and slammed her purse and keys down on the counter between the kitchen and living room.

Marking his page with his bookmark, Clay closed the book and placed it on the end table. "I thought you were having lunch with Hannah and that guy, her sort of boyfriend."

"They may be having lunch, but I didn't stay to enjoy the meal." Emma snorted and threw herself down on the other end of the couch. "And the sort of boyfriend's name is Tyler, although asshole would work fine too."

Clay's eyebrows shot up at Emma's comment. "What happened?"

She huffed out an annoyed breath. "I met them at Lobstertails on the beach—"

"Isn't that the place where the waitresses wear cutoffs and bikini tops?" Clay cut in. "Doesn't seem like the type of restaurant you should take your girlfriend when you're meeting her best friend."

"Yeah, well, I don't think Tyler considers Hannah his girlfriend, and even if he did, I doubt he'd worry too much about her feelings. The minute we walked in he started checking out every woman there." Unable to sit still, Emma sprang up from the couch and began pacing the room. Her hands squeezed into fists as she moved. "He was all over our waitress when we were ordering. Then when Hannah had to leave the table to take a phone call outside, he started hitting on me!"

Clay dropped his feet to the floor and sat up. "He hit on you?"

"Yes! I tried to laugh him off at first, but he wouldn't drop it."

"Did you tell him you have a boyfriend?" Clay asked.

"Of course, but his type doesn't care. The worst part was when Hannah came back, she overheard us and—"

"He didn't touch you, did he?" Clay leaned forward and caught Emma's hand as she stomped by him on her way across the room.

Clay's hand stopping her forward motion, she turned to glare at him. "No, but he convinced Hannah that I was flirting with him. And she believed him! She actually thought I—"

"I can't believe this bastard thought it was okay to make a move on you." Shaking his head, Clay tugged Emma closer.

"Oh my God, Clay! Get over it! If you get annoyed every time some random guy hits on me, you'll be spending a lot of your time upset." She shook off his hand and stalked away.

He scrubbed his hands in his hair. "I shouldn't be bothered that this jerk thought it was okay to make a pass at you?"

"I'm not your possession."

"I know you're not, but—"

"But nothing! You're not even listening to me. I'm trying to tell you about how my best friend believes I hit on her so-called boyfriend. That she thinks I would do something like that to her, and all you care about is someone trying to move in on your territory!" She turned and grabbed her purse and keys from the counter.

"Emma, you're not being fair! That's not all I care about." He stood and moved towards her.

"That's what it feels like." She went to pick up her bag from the floor. "I think I should go."

"No! Don't." He reached out and caught her arm again. "You're upset."

As she swung the straps of her bag over her other shoulder, Emma gave him a pointed stare.

"Okay, we're both upset, but you shouldn't drive right now. You're angry and it isn't safe. I don't want you to be in an accident."

Once Clay said that, all Emma's righteous anger dissipated. He hit on the one reason she couldn't argue. After what had happened to her mother, she would never be cavalier about careless driving.

"Fine, but I need some space. I'm going to take a shower." Placing her purse and keys back on the counter and still carrying her overnight bag, Emma disappeared into the bathroom. She found she needed a large amount of self-control to keep herself from slamming the door behind herself.

Before he could say another word, Clay watched the bathroom door shut firmly behind Emma. He stood frozen for a moment, not sure what just happened. Then he sank back down on the couch as he went over their conversation in his head. Maybe conversation wasn't the best word; perhaps argument would be a better choice.

As he thought through what they each had said, he realized he had ignored what Emma was trying to tell him. She had been upset about what happened with Hannah, and he steamrolled over that and became caught up in the idea of this asshole hitting on his girl. Why did he do that?

He didn't think of Emma as his possession. He knew guys were going to hit on her. Of course they would. She was beautiful and smart and funny. But he trusted her. Why did it bother him so much this time?

The sound of the shower running started up, distracting him from his internal debate. Now images of Emma naked and wet under the spray of water drifted into his head. He did his best to push those visions aside. There was no way she would be open to him joining her. He wasn't completely stupid.

Sighing, he let his head drop back against the couch. Maybe he was that dumb. He should have been better at listening to what Emma had been trying to tell him. That thought brought him back to the question of why did this guy hitting on her, at this time disturb him so much.

As he sat there lulled by the rhythmic sound of the shower, Clay let his mind wander. And then he knew exactly what his issue was. In a few short weeks, Emma would be heading back to school in New York. He had been trying hard not to think about her leaving, immediately shutting down any thought of her departure before it could take root in his brain. But not thinking about her going wouldn't stop it from happening.

Soon she would be back in the City with her friends and in her music program. There would be plenty of guys around, sitting by her in class, eating with her in the cafeteria, and going to the same parties. He knew Emma would never cheat on him, but maybe she'd get tired of the whole long-distance thing and decide being with one of those guys would be easier. She'd break up with him and start spending her time with someone who could enjoy the same things at NYU.

And this, Clay knew, was why he became so hung up today on this jerk making a move on her. Deep down he was afraid Emma would go back to school and dump him for some college boy.

The sound of the shower cut off, breaking him out of his reverie. Now he knew what his problem was, but he wasn't sure there was any way to solve it. The only thing he could do was apologize to Emma for being an ass and believe what they had was enough.

He sat there and formulated different ways to say he was sorry. Every one sucked. Before he was ready with a solid apology, the bathroom door opened, and Emma appeared, hesitating in the doorway. With her wet hair twisted up on her head, she wore a pair of cutoffs and one of his t-shirts knotted at her waist. He took the t-shirt as a positive sign.

Their eyes met across the room, and they both spoke.

"I'm sorry. You were—"

"I shouldn't have—"

Then they both stopped, wanting to let the other speak. Neither said anything for a moment, and Clay gave Emma a self-conscious smile. She darted across the room and threw herself into his arms.

"Oh, Em, I'm sorry. You were right. I wasn't listening to you. I shouldn't have gotten so upset about that jerk."

She lifted her head from his chest to look at him. "Yeah, but I was mad at Hannah, and I shouldn't have taken it out on you."

"You were trying to tell me something important, and I should have paid better attention." Clay pushed a strand of damp hair away from Emma's face and tucked it behind her ear.

She took a deep breath and released it. "Why didn't you?"

He let his eyes close for a moment and then opened them, looking into her solemn face. "I… maybe because you're heading back to school soon and…" His voice faded away as he wavered on telling her what he had realized earlier.

A wistful smile flickered across her face. "It doesn't matter where I am. I love you."

"I love you too." He gave her a soft kiss and pulled back to meet her gaze. "But my spin ups make having a relationship challenging. And once we're apart, it will be more difficult. And when we deploy…"

Emma nodded. "I know, but difficult or not, I would never cheat on you."

"I know." Clay squeezed her hand lying on his chest. "But maybe there will be someone at school that will fit into your life better than me."

"If that's what I wanted, I could have started dating any of them before this, but I didn't want them then and I don't want them now. I want you." She turned her hand in his and laced their fingers together. "Besides, what about all those women on the base during your deployment? I've heard Uncle Sonny talking. They think you SEALs are rock stars. They'll be throwing themselves at you."

"Em, I would never cheat on you either."

"I know, but they probably understand your life better, and they're more experienced than me." Self-conscious, she dropped her head down, letting her gaze fall from his and studying their intertwined fingers.

"Hey, hey, you understand my life just fine, and you have nothing to worry about in the experience department, okay?" With his free hand, he used a finger under her chin to tilt her head back up to look at him. "Okay?"

"Okay."

Clay leaned forward and kissed Emma. "There's no one who understands my life better than you."

Smiling at his words, she returned his kiss and snuggled into his chest. "I don't like fighting with you."

"I don't like it either." He gently stroked her hair, and they lay together on the couch quietly, enjoying each other's presence.

Clay dozed, and he assumed Emma did the same, but he came awake with a start when he noticed her shoulders shaking on his chest. Once the haze of sleepiness faded, he realized she was crying. Was she still upset from their fight?

Emma wasn't a big crier. In fact, in the entire time they had been dating she hadn't cried at all, not even when she was upset about her mother being mentioned in all the talk about them being together.

"Em, baby, what's wrong?" He softly rubbed her back.

Lifting her tear-stained face to look at him, she scrubbed the wetness from her eyes with the back of her hand. "Hannah and I have been best friends since we were five years old. How can she think I would do something like that to her? Even if I weren't with you, I would never try to steal her boyfriend."

"I'm sure she knows. It's hard realizing the person you have feelings for doesn't return them, and it's probably easier for her right now to be angry at you than him. Give her a day or two to deal with it, and then she'll be ready to make-up with you." Using his thumb, Clay wiped another tear away from Emma's face.

"I guess." She didn't look totally convinced.

"I'm sorry. I suppose it still hurts though."

"Yeah," Emma said, her voice hoarse from crying.

Wanting to comfort her, he held her close and gave her a gentle kiss. Pulling back, he looked down at her forlorn expression. A sad smile slipped across her face, and she kissed him back. At first hers was as affectionate as his had been, but then she pressed closer, desire growing between them. Soon she moved to kissing his neck and nibbling on his earlobe.

Groaning, he pulled back and examined her closely. "Em, are you sure?"

Although her voice was still husky from her tears, a teasing glint returned to her eyes. "Yeah, besides isn't this the part where we have make-up sex?"

He grinned. "Definitely. I don't think we can call it a fight if we don't have make-up sex."

"Well, then…" Settling on his lap, she went back to kissing his neck.


For the rest of the weekend, Emma concentrated on enjoying her time with Clay. They spent Sunday together at Crystal Lake, which had become one of their special places to hang out. That evening when she returned to her room at the hotel, she tried texting Hannah but received no reply. Emma had hoped to hear back as she wanted to work out her problems with Hannah and because Cathy Porter was coming back to Virginia Beach to visit them. They needed to make up for Cathy's visit.

Now on her own, there was nothing to distract Emma from dwelling on the situation with her friend. While going through her closet to make sure she had a clean hotel shirt for the morning, Emma debated if she should try to catch Hannah after her job at the day camp tomorrow. The hurt Emma still felt at Hannah's lack of trust was sharp, and she thought it was her friend's place to make the first move. But Cathy didn't deserve to have her trip to Virginia Beach ruined by drama between Hannah and Emma.

This trip would be the first time Cathy returned to Virginia Beach since her mom moved their family after Cathy's father died. Emma had been looking forward to this visit for a while, as she, Cathy, and Hannah would finally be together after almost two years. For the last month they had been talking and texting about everything they wanted to do. They thought Cathy should split her time between staying with Emma at the hotel and Hannah at her house. But then, Tyler called Hannah and told her he was coming to town with some of his fraternity brothers. His stay would overlap with Cathy's, and Hannah started acting vague about all the plans the friends had made.

As far as Emma could tell, Hannah planned on doing nothing but wait around for Tyler to call to do things with her while he was in town. Having met Tyler, Emma was surprised the meetup for lunch yesterday even happened. She hated that Hannah was willing to let this jerk treat her so poorly. She deserved so much better, and Emma couldn't understand why her best friend didn't realize it.

Satisfied she had everything ready for the morning, Emma began getting ready to go to sleep. After washing up and changing, she settled into bed and picked up her phone to text Clay goodnight.


A couple days later, Clay sipped from his beer and observed Ray and Sonny battle it out at the dart board at the Bulkhead. The entire team was out having a few drinks after the completion of two days of training ops in preparation for their deployment. They were always training, but these ops were specific to the types of missions the team would most likely carry out on their upcoming trip to Afghanistan.

Jason sat down on the stool next to Clay. "Who's winning?"

"Ray is leading, just barely."

Nodding, Jason studied the bottom of his beer glass. "Do you know what's going on between Emma and Hannah?"

Clay frowned. This was one of those times when dating his boss's daughter was challenging. What was okay to tell Jason? There was a thin line sometimes between common knowledge about Emma and privileged information Clay was in possession of. Sometimes he found it difficult to navigate where the line was when speaking to Jason.

"I ran into Victoria at the grocery story on Sunday night. She mentioned Hannah was upset with Emma. Something to do with a guy?" Jason's confusion at why his daughter and her friend would have an issue over a guy when Emma was in a relationship with Clay was obvious.

Sighing, Clay caught the attention of the waitress, so they could order another round. "This jerk, that's the politest thing I can call him, Hannah was seeing when she was still at school, is visiting Virginia Beach. Emma met them for lunch on Saturday, and he hit on her."

"Who hit on Emma?" Sonny cut into their conversation as he and Ray returned to the table.

"This guy Hannah is at UVA with." Wanting to be ready for the next round, Clay gulped down the rest of the beer in his glass.

"I hope you shut this guy down."

Trent and Brock joined them at the table and looked to Clay as they waited to hear his response to Sonny's comment.

"I wasn't there. I only heard about it after." Turning to Jason, Clay continued. "Hannah was angry with Emma over it, and they haven't spoken since."

As Clay finished giving Jason, and the rest of the team, the details, the waitress arrived at the table. She took their order for fresh drinks and headed to the bar.

Running a hand through his hair, Jason frowned. "This is the asshole that's been stringing Hannah along since she was at school this winter."

"Yeah." Clay sighed. "And Emma's pretty upset about the situation. She's hurt Hannah would believe she'd flirt with a friend's boyfriend."

Before any of the guys could comment, the waitress returned with their drinks.

Ray took a sip of his new beer and shook his head thoughtfully. "My advice is don't get in the middle of their disagreement. You may think you're being supportive by agreeing with whatever she says while angry, but once they make-up you're the one who thought bad things about her friend."

"Uh huh."

"Oh yeah."

Both Jason and Trent chimed in, agreeing with Ray's statement.

"I'll remember." Clay thought Ray's advice was definitely worth keeping in mind.

Setting his glass down on the table with a loud click, Sonny gazed at his teammates in frustration. "That's all well and good, but what are we goin' to do about this bastard who's been treatin' Hannah so poor and hittin' on Emma?"

"Sonny, he's a twenty-year-old frat boy, and as much as I'd like to give him a beating, it'd be our careers if we touched him." Looking frustrated, Jason took a long drink of his beer.

"So that's it? We do nothin'?" Sonny scrutinized each of his teammates around the table. His gaze finally landed on Clay. "What about you, Blondie? He hit on your girl. You just gonna do nothin'?"

"Oh no, Emma already chewed me out for being angry about this guy making a move on her." Clay shook his head at Sonny. "The last thing I need is you dragging me back into it."

Brock raised an eyebrow. "She chewed you out, huh?

"Sounds like trouble in paradise," Trent said with a grin.

Scrubbing his hands through his hair, Clay sighed. He probably shouldn't have mentioned Emma being upset with him to the team, but he didn't want Sonny pulling him into some half-baked plan to deal with this asshole. "She told me if I got mad every time some random guy hit on her I'd be spending a lot of my time upset."

Jason laughed. "That's my girl."

"Who are these random guys hitting on Emma? I don't like the sound of that." Frowning, Sonny turned to Clay for an explanation.

Ray offered his own opinion. "Emma's a beautiful young woman. You think guys don't notice?"

"Don't mean they should be makin' a move on her." Shaking his head, Sonny picked up his half-full glass.

Smiling, Ray shrugged. "Right, because you never hit on women you find attractive.

Sonny had been about to take a drink but stopped to protest. "That's not the same at all."

The guys all laughed until Ray interjected. "Uh huh, not at all the same."

"It's not!"

The rest of the team stared at Sonny in disbelief.

"It's not. Because I'm just interested in those ladies for some company, and nobody should be thinkin' 'bout Emma like that." Realizing he was still holding his beer, Sonny tilted it up and drained the glass.

At his friend's words, Clay looked down into his drink and pretended a deep interest in the bottom of the mug. This was another one of those difficult times. He loved Emma, and he wasn't with her because he only wanted her company, as Sonny had phrased it. But he was attracted to Emma, and he enjoyed the times they were intimate together. Sometimes when he saw her, being with her physically was exactly what he thought about. Figuring the best thing he could do was avoid catching the eyes of his teammates, particularly Jason's, he continued to stare into his beer.

Ray shook his head. "Sonny, as a father, I understand what you're saying, but the fact is there are guys who are thinking about Emma like that when they see her, BUT she's with Clay, and she's not going to go off with one of them."

"I guess." Sonny didn't look convinced. "I still say we need to do somethin' 'bout this punk hurtin' Hannah though. I don't like it, and Adam wouldn't either."

A sting of guilt hit Clay when he heard Sonny's comment about Adam. He knew the Texan was right. Adam wouldn't like Hannah being hurt by this loser. But as much as Clay wanted to handle the situation, Jason had made a good point too. Unless this kid did something overt to hurt Hannah, or Emma, their hands were tied.

"Sonny, you're right. Adam wouldn't be happy about the situation, but he also wouldn't be happy if any of us ruined our careers. I'm not saying we ignore what's happening, but we can't go off with some irrational plan to deal with the kid." Jason rubbed his hand over his beard, then turned to Clay. "You're going to have to be our eyes in this situation, assuming Emma and Hannah straighten things out."

Clay nodded. "I think they'll have to work things out. Cathy Porter arrived in Virginia Beach today for a visit, and Emma mentioned a bunch of plans the three of them have made. But I'm not spying on Emma. She's my girlfriend, and I'm not going to use that."

"It wouldn't be spyin' exactly, just makin' sure we know what's goin' on." Sonny nodded, looking satisfied his explanation would convince Clay.

Shaking his head, Clay gave Sonny a skeptical glance. "And how is that not spying?"

"Weeell—"

Before Sonny could answer, Ray cut him off. "It would be spying to Emma, and she wouldn't be happy about it. That's a good way to ruin a relationship."

Jason held up a hand. "Hold on, hold on. I don't mean you should be spying on Emma. Tell her we're concerned about Hannah and want to step in if it gets to be a problem. She may not be thrilled with us, especially me, but I'm not asking you to go behind her back."

"Okay, I guess." Clay glanced around the table at his teammates. "But if this gets Emma upset with me, I am sending her after all of you."

"Maybe you could buy her flowers and take her out for a fancy dinner before you tell her. Then she won't get so mad." Sonny nodded thoughtfully as he laid out his plan to Clay.

"Right, because trying to bribe her before telling her I'm working with her dad and all of you to butt into her life, will help win her over." This was one of those times Clay wished Emma was not his team leader's daughter.

"That's good advice right there, Blondie. I know what I'm talkin' about." Sonny poked Clay in the chest to emphasize his point.

Snorting, Clay stepped out of Sonny's reach. "Thanks, but I'll stick with Ray's advice. He's the one who's in a successful relationship."

"Hey, the rest of us can give good dating advice too." Sonny grumbled at Clay's words.

"Right. Trent's been dating someone for a while, so I'd listen to him too, but no one else." Then seeing a way to take the focus off himself in this conversation and to razz Jason at the same time, Clay threw out a teasing comment. "Although, I'd probably listen to Jason's advice as well, since he can still attract the younger ladies."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Jason raised an eyebrow at Clay.

Grinning at them all, Clay paused a moment before answering. "I mean you being named the hottest dad in Emma's dorm this past year."

"What?" The shock on Jason's face was priceless, and the expressions on the other guys' faces were pretty good too.

"Yeah, I guess when you were up there to see Emma perform some of her friends saw you, and it was decided in the dorm you were the hottest dad. You've still got it, Jase." Clay chuckled, while the rest of team began teasing their leader.

Once the ribbing died down, Jason pointed a finger at Clay. "You, and my daughter, are going to regret sharing that piece of information. Believe me, there will be consequences." His eyes swept around the table, putting a stop to the last few chuckles. "I need something stronger than a beer."

Jason stalked off to the bar.

Turning to follow, Ray laughed at Clay. "I think he's serious." He then included the others in his gaze. "Anyone else need another drink?"

"I'll come with." Sonny headed after their 2IC.

Brock snorted under his breath. "You've been saving that one for a while, haven't you?"

Clay flashed him a grin. "Oh yeah, so long, just waiting for the right moment."

Chuckling, Trent shook his head. "He's not kidding about the consequences, but that look on his face was worth it."

"So worth it."

Trent held up his fist, and Clay bumped it. There weren't many occasions when he was able to get one over on Jason.


People crowded into the restaurants along the Virginia Beach strip, but Emma and Cathy Porter were able to snag a table on the deck of one of the more popular places. The two friends enjoyed the view of the beach along with some appetizers and drinks while they caught up with each other's lives.

"I wish Hannah was here too. I'm sorry our drama is affecting your visit." Emma swirled the straw in her drink as she spoke. She had hoped Hannah would soften, and they would make-up before Cathy's arrival.

"It's okay, Em. I know it's not your fault. I spoke to Hannah this morning, and you're not the one being stubborn." Cathy took a soft pretzel stick from the basket in front of them and dipped it into the cheese sauce.

"Thanks for understanding. I wish I understood why she's being so stubborn about this." Emma sighed and comforted herself with some cheese fries they had on the table.

Cathy pointed her pretzel at Emma. "I have some ideas, but I want to see Hannah in person and meet this guy before I say for sure."

"Okay." Emma missed Cathy's matter-of-fact common sense. Her friend had always been the one in high school to straighten out everyone's drama.

"Now, let's talk about something more interesting. When is this boyfriend of yours getting here? I need to give him the once over."

Emma gave Cathy a shy smile. "He should be here in about twenty minutes. He went out with the team after work for drinks."

"Oh no, not the team drinking night!"

"Don't worry, he'll be here." Taking a sip of her drink, Emma continued. "Are you sure you're okay with him joining us? I don't want to be one of those people who forces her boyfriend on her friends all the time because she can't socialize on her own."

"It's one dinner, Emma. If you make him come everywhere with us while I'm here, that'll be another story." Grinning, Cathy raised an eyebrow at Emma. "Besides, like I said, I need to check him out. Make sure he's good enough for you."

"He is. I promise."

Cathy's expression became somber. "I know I probably met him around the time my Dad died, but I don't remember."

"You had a lot going on." Emma reached over and squeezed Cathy's hand resting on the table. "I met him when he joined Bravo back then, and I remember thinking he was handsome, but just one of my Dad's guys."

Cathy laughed. "That's because you were too busy chasing that guy, what was his name? You know, from Hudson State."

"Julian." Emma rolled her eyes as she thought of the boy she liked when she was in high school. With hindsight, she realized how immature he was.

"Right! Julian."

"He was kind of a jerk, huh?"

Nodding, Cathy gave Emma a teasing grin. "Yeah, kind of, but he did have great hair."

"He did, didn't he? But I think he spent more time doing his hair than a model." Emma shook her head. "There should be a rule about not dating guys that take more time to do their hair than you do."

"Agreed. So does Clay have great hair?" Cathy asked in a playful tone.

Smiling, Emma pictured Clay in her mind. "Yeah, he does. When it gets a little long, the ends become curly, and it's really blond right now because of the sun. And—"

"Emma Hayes! You are so lovesick over him!"

Emma hid her face behind her hands. "Oh God, I am. I totally am."

"It's a good thing. Really." Gently pulling Emma's hands from her face, Cathy smiled. "You've sounded so happy whenever I've spoken to you this summer. This is the happiest I've seen you since your Mom."

"Yeah, I am happy. You will be too," Emma said with conviction.

Cathy smiled at Emma's words. "I'm getting there. I'll never be completely over my Dad, you know? But, I'm ready to be happy now. I'm looking forward to starting at JMU. Taking a year off after high school to help my Mom and little brother was the right thing to do. I don't think I would have handled college very well last year, but I'm ready now."

The both sat quietly for a minute, thinking about everything that had happened in the last few years. Then Emma glanced at the time on her phone. "Okay, if Clay doesn't get here in the next ten minutes, we should order our dinners without him."

Cathy grabbed a menu. "Works for me, but the waitress seems to be pointing a guy in our direction. Is that Clay?"

Turning to see, a big smile broke out on Emma's face. "Yes, that's him." She waved to catch his attention.

"Emma, he is even hotter in person! Way better than Julian and his hair any day."

Emma giggled and gave Cathy a knowing smile. "Way better."

Arriving at the table, Clay gave Emma a light kiss. She introduced Cathy to Clay, and he sat down. The waitress came by, and they ordered. Then they settled into general conversation about a variety of things, what Clay had been up to today, Cathy's plans for classes this fall, crazy things that happened at the hotel, and what Emma and Cathy planned on doing together during her visit. The conversation flowed, and Emma was pleased to see her boyfriend and her friend getting along so well.

Dinner flew by, and soon they paid the check and headed out of the restaurant. Clay offered to give Emma and Cathy a ride back to the hotel since they had walked over. As they went to where Clay had parked, they chatted about Emma and Cathy's plans to go to the beach the next day. Upon reaching Clay's truck, he opened the door and Emma climbed in to sit in the middle and then Cathy to sit by the door.

Traffic on the strip was slow, making the drive to the hotel take longer than walking the distance. Flipping through the radio channels, Emma found a good song and turned it up. She and Cathy started to sing along, and for the first time since her fight with Hannah on Saturday, Emma felt everything would work out. Cathy being here would help.

Emma turned to Clay and their gazes met as he glanced away from the road while they were stopped at a red light. Wanting to share her cheerful mood, she gave him a huge smile and leaned in to kiss him. When she sat back, Clay smiled in return and squeezed her leg before turning his attention to the road again.

They arrived back at the hotel, and Clay parked the truck. Hopping out, Cathy smiled at Clay and Emma. "Thanks for the ride, Clay. It was great meeting you. I'm going to admire the view of the ocean over here in case anyone wants to say goodnight or anything." She walked away from them to look out at the water. "Not paying attention to anything else."

Clay pulled Emma close in his arms as they both chuckled at Cathy's comments. "So you're at the beach tomorrow. Are you two going out in the evening too?"

"No, Cathy's meeting Hannah, and Tyler supposedly, for dinner." Emma slipped her arms around Clay's neck and leaned into him.

"Then I'll be in touch when I know what time I'll be done on base. Maybe we can have dinner." Clay's hands rubbed her back.

"We could get takeout at your place." She pressed her lips to his for a kiss goodnight.

His lips nibbled at hers as his hands slid down and brought her hips closer to his. He broke off the kiss to speak. "Takeout sounds good."

"Perfect." Emma sighed, tightening her arms around his neck to bring his face closer again.

They stood kissing, and desire rippled through Emma. She wished he didn't have to leave, but she had company. Pushing her craving for more aside, she broke off their kiss and stepped away. Staying in Clay's arms was too tempting. "I'll see you tomorrow?"

Taking a deep breath, he nodded. "As long as we don't run late with training." He stepped forward to give her another kiss goodbye.

She quickly stepped back. "Oh no, if you do that, we'll be here all night."

Laughing, Clay reached out and stroked her cheek. "Okay, love you. See you tomorrow."

Catching his hand as it dropped from her face, she gave it a squeeze. "Love you too." She let go of his hand and turned to get Cathy. "Done admiring the scenery?"

Cathy laughed and moved forward to hook her arm through Emma's. "All done. Night, Clay."

Both Cathy and Emma waved to Clay as he waited for them go safely into the hotel employee entrance.

As soon as they were through the door and out of Clay's hearing, Cathy turned to Emma. "Emma! He is fantastic, and I don't mean because he's so gorgeous."

Emma gave her a delighted smile. "He is, isn't he? I know I'm biased, but he's so terrific."

"And, I'd say from that goodnight kiss, he's talented in other areas too." Cathy laughed as her words made Emma's cheeks heat with a blush.

"Cathy!"

"Just sayin'. Are you going to tell me that's not the case?"

Emma's blush turned an even deeper red, and she glanced down in embarrassment. "No." Then she looked up at Cathy again and gave her a sly smile. "That's not the case at all."

Together they giggled as they headed down the hall towards Emma's room.

"Wait, I thought you were admiring the view. How would you know what our kiss was like?" Emma tilted her head at Cathy.

Cathy let out a snicker. "I may have peeked just a little."

Both girls grinned at each other as they reached Emma's door and went inside.


The next day Emma and Cathy spent a fun time at the beach. They worked on their tans, cooled off in the water, and admired a group of cute guys playing volleyball. As much as she enjoyed the day with Cathy, Emma wished Hannah could have been there as well. Not having her best friend with them felt wrong.

In the late afternoon, they headed back to Emma's room at the hotel to shower and prepare for their evenings. Clay had texted Emma earlier, and they made plans to meet at his place for dinner. Cathy was meeting Hannah and Tyler at another restaurant on the boardwalk.

The two friends laughed and joked as they chose outfits and got dressed. Cathy borrowed a skirt and helped pick the best sundress for Emma to wear. The two finally decided on a casual, blue one that would, in Cathy's words, make Clay crazy.

Emma offered to give her friend a ride to the restaurant, but Cathy declined, deciding instead to walk. The two separated for their evening plans, Cathy heading towards the strip and Emma getting in her car to drive to Clay's apartment.

Happy to be seeing Clay this evening, Emma sang along with the radio as she drove. She was very aware of the summer winding down, and as much as she enjoyed Cathy being here, she wanted to spend as much time as possible with her boyfriend.

Once she arrived at Clay's apartment complex, she parked the car and hopped out. Entering the building, she went up the stairs, meeting the pizza delivery guy on his way down. Emma had agreed to pizza for dinner this evening because she didn't care what they ate, and she knew Clay really wanted a meat lovers pie.

"I'm here!" Emma called out as she opened the apartment door.

Clay came out of the bedroom pulling on a t-shirt. "Perfect timing. The pizza arrived. It's on the counter."

Emma was sidetracked as she watched Clay's abs disappear under his shirt as he tugged it down. His skin and hair were still damp from the shower he must have taken when he arrived home, and she contemplated how much she wanted to start kissing his damp skin and lick away any droplets of water that were remaining.

"Emma. Hey, Emma." Clay's voice broke into her study of his skin.

Blinking, she met his gaze. "Sorry, I was a little distracted."

"And what was distracting you?" He grinned as he stepped closer to her.

"Um, well, I just…" Emma found it difficult, and embarrassing, to put what she had been thinking and feeling into words.

He moved even closer and slid his arms around her waist, leaning down to murmur in her ear. "You distract me too. Particularly when you wear things like this." He slipped a finger under one of the thin straps of her sundress and gave it a tweak.

"Yeah?" Emma breathed out her question on a sigh.

"Yeah," Clay replied, lifting his head to see her face again.

Their eyes met, and Emma pressed her lips to Clay's.


Clay caught his weight on his arm and rolled to Emma's side to avoid crushing her. She turned with him and rested against his side. They relaxed together, waiting for the thundering of their hearts to slow.

Finally, getting his breath back, Clay spoke. "Em, wow…that was…incredible."

"Yeah." She lifted her head from his shoulder, meeting his gaze, and gave him a self-conscious smile.

He tilted his head up and kissed her firmly. "I didn't expect that at all."

"Me neither." She rested her head on his chest as she thought about what had just passed between them. "I…when you left last night, I wished we could be together then. And, I guess, all day today it was there in the back of my mind we'd have time together tonight. And when I got here, you came in the room practically right out of the shower, and I…" Emma's voice faded away as she tried to understand what happened to her earlier.

"You?" Clay's hand rubbed her back as he waited for her answer.

She turned pink as she remembered the moment. "I needed you then, right away. Nothing else mattered."

"Em, don't be self-conscious about it. There are times when I feel the same way about you."

She locked eyes with him again. "Really?"

"Really."

Hearing Clay's answer reassured her and increased her confidence in herself and his attraction to her. She tilted her head up and kissed him softly. "I'm glad."

They smiled at each other, but then Emma realized she had forgotten all about their dinner. "I think our pizza's cold though."

He gave her a wide grin. "Completely worth it. Besides I like cold pizza."

"Of course you do." Emma sat up and looked down at her sundress crumpled up around her waist. "Ugh, I guess I'll be doing the walk of shame in this later."

"Take it off, and we'll hang it up. That might help." He climbed off the bed and found his discarded t-shirt on the floor, passing it to her to wear. Then he located his boxers and pulled them back on. Opening his closet door, he grabbed a hanger and left it on the bed for her to use. "I'll go get the pizza."

She stood and finished unfastening the dress and removing it. She also took off her ruined thong and dropped it on the bed. Pulling on Clay's t-shirt, she put the dress on the hanger and hung it on the closet door.

Clay returned with the pizza box, a roll of paper towels, and drinks. He put everything down and propped the pillows up against the headboard. Once he was satisfied with the arrangement, he settled down there, patting the space next to him for Emma. She sat down and tucked into his side. Opening the box, he took out a piece of pizza for each of them.

Smiling, Emma accepted her slice. Slowly nibbling on it, she watched Clay inhale three. "All that exercise make you hungry?"

He grinned at her teasing. "Maybe a little."

Emma laughed. At this moment she was truly happy. She never would have thought sitting in bed and eating pizza would make her this content, but it did. She couldn't imagine any place she'd rather be or anyone she'd rather be with. Turning her head, she kissed Clay softly on the cheek.

Clay smiled at her. "What was that for?"

She shrugged a shoulder. "Just because you make me happy."

"You make me happy too."

They smiled at each other for a moment, then Clay frowned. "I need to tell you something. You might not be so happy once I do."

"What?" Sitting back against the pillows, Emma detached herself from Clay's side, waiting to hear what he had to say.

He rubbed his hands over his face. "Yesterday when I was out with the Team, your Dad asked me about what's going on with you and Hannah."

She opened her mouth to ask how her father even knew anything was happening with her and Hannah, but before she could speak, Clay continued.

"I guess he ran into Hannah's Mom, and she told him something was going on because of some guy. He was confused about why you two would be fighting over a guy since you're with me, so I had to explain what was happening."

Sighing, Emma nodded. "Yeah, I guess I can see where he'd wonder what it was about, but why would that make me unhappy?"

Clay avoided Emma's gaze by busying himself with closing up the pizza box and putting it aside. "The guys were all there, and they were angry about how this guy Tyler has been treating Hannah."

Emma snorted. "They can join the club."

"If it were up to Sonny, we'd be grabbing Tyler and giving him a beating."

"If only you could." She sighed.

"Yeah, Jason put a stop to the idea, but he did say we should keep an eye on the situation in case it gets worse. And this is the part you won't like, they thought I should monitor what was going on through you."

She gave him a probing look. "Oh, like spying on me?"

"That is exactly what I said it would be. And I said I wouldn't do that to you."

She patted his leg. "Good."

"But Em, I think they're legitimately worried about Hannah, and the whole team feels an obligation to Adam, so if things become worse, you'll tell me, won't you?"

Emma considered Clay's request. She knew Clay still held some guilt about Hannah's father's death, and he, and the rest of the team, would feel strongly they needed to take care of this for Adam. She also had to admit she liked not being the only one who worried about this situation with Hannah. "I will, but I don't know that his behavior will be anything you all could do anything about. I mean, he's just being a…douche. He treats her like crap, but as far as I know, he's not hurting her physically."

"I know, but if it changes, please tell me." Clay gave her serious look as he made his request.

She nodded. "Okay, since you were so good about telling Bravo you wouldn't spy on me." She leaned over and gave him another kiss.

"Uh, so there's something else I should tell you too."

Frowning, Emma tilted her head inquisitively.

"I may have mentioned to Jason, in front of the guys, that your dorm called him the hottest dad." Clay winced as he waited for her response.

"You may have?" She did her best to be stern.

"Okay, I did mention it." He made an apologetic face.

"Clay!" Emma suspected he wasn't very sorry. "What did he say?"

Clay gave her a huge grin. "The look on his face was hilarious. The guys thought it was great too. They gave him shit for it."

"But what did Dad say?"

"Uh, so he kind of said there would be consequences for me, uh and you, for sharing that information." Clay couldn't quite meet Emma's eyes as he told her.

"Clay, you know I only told you because I was so grossed out by my friends thinking my father is a DILF." She let her exasperation show in her tone of voice.

"I do, but it was too good not to use." He gave her puppy dog eyes in the hope she would forgive him. "I'm sorry."

"Hmmm." She supposed she could understand how hard it would be for Clay to not use the info. She knew how much the guys all liked to harass each other. "Was he really embarrassed?"

A mischievous glint in his eye, Clay smiled playfully. "Oh yeah."

Emma giggled. Pulling her closer into his side, Clay joined in with Emma's laughter. Eventually their laughter ebbed, and they sat together catching their breath.

Clay turned and kissed the top of Emma's head. "Are you sure you can't stay tonight?"

Sighing, Emma shook her head. "No, I need to get back for Cathy." She glanced at the time. "I should probably take a quick shower and get dressed."

She got up and headed for the drawer she kept some underwear in, while Clay gathered up the pizza box and paper towels. He turned to see her grab the ruined thong off the end of bed.

Balling the torn lace in her hand, she smiled impishly. "I guess I won't be using these again."

Clay grimaced. "Em, I'm sorry. I should have been more careful."

A bashful smile slipped across her face as she remembered how the panties were torn. "I didn't want you to be careful."

"I'll buy you new ones, okay?"

She let out a small laugh. "On your own?"

An offended look crossed his face. "Are you saying I won't be able to choose something you'll like?"

"Not at all. I'll be interested to see what you pick." Emma smirked.

"I have good taste, and experience buying gifts for, well, buying gifts." Clay started out sounding offended, but when he realized what he was saying, he backtracked to apologetic again.

Tilting her head, Emma teased him. "So you have experience buying women's lingerie?"

His face turned red. "Uh, I should put this leftover pizza in the fridge."

Laughing, Emma watched him leave the bedroom. Once he was gone, she grabbed the hanger with her dress on it and went into the bathroom to take her shower. She hoped the steam would get rid of some wrinkles.


Emma arrived back at the hotel to see Cathy and Hannah sitting at the semi-circle of benches overlooking the ocean. Parking her car, she got out and quickly walked over to join them. "You're back already? I didn't expect you until much later. I'm so sorry for making you wait. You should have texted me."

Cathy turned to smile at Emma. "That's okay. We finished earlier than we thought, and I didn't want to make you cut your evening short."

"Yeah, we didn't want to interrupt your booty call." Hannah waved her hand carelessly at Emma's wrinkled dress.

At Hannah's dig, Emma experienced an intense flash of temper. Her fists clenched at her sides. Any patience or understanding she had for Hannah's situation with Tyler was instantly erased, and the only thing remaining was her anger at what Hannah was implying about Clay and Emma's evening and their relationship. Forcing her voice to sound casual, she spoke. "Well, you're the expert on booty calls."

Hannah gasped. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I'm not the one always waiting around for some guy to call me when he has nothing better to do." Emma narrowed her eyes and added, "Or no one better."

Hannah looked as if she had been slapped, and for a moment Emma felt bad for what she said. But then she remembered how hurt she had been when Hannah accused her of hitting on Tyler.

"Okay you two. That's enough! I can't believe how childish you're both acting." Cathy stood up and pointed to one of the benches. "You sit!" She waited for Emma to take a seat. "Now we're going to figure out what the hell is going on."

Both Emma and Hannah spoke in an effort to defend themselves.

Raising her hand, Cathy cut them off. "Quiet! I'm speaking right now. You each will talk when I let you. You first." She pointed at Hannah. "Tell me how you could think Emma would hit on your boyfriend."

"He's not even—"

Cathy raised a finger. "Shut it! You are not speaking, Emma Hayes. Hannah, talk."

"I…" Dropping her head, Hannah stared down at her french pedicure. "I didn't really think that. It's just when I came back and heard Tyler talking to Emma like that, I got so mad."

"Mad at Tyler, or mad at Emma?" Resting a hand on her hip, Cathy gave Hannah a probing stare.

Hannah shrugged. "A little at Tyler, but, um…mostly at Emma."

"But I didn't DO anything! I kept trying to stop him." Emma's frustration with Hannah was obvious in the tone of her voice.

"Why would you be mad at Emma?" In comparison, Cathy sounded more curious.

Sighing, Hannah studied the ocean. People walked down the beach along the breaking tide, and her eyes tracked their progress. Her two friends waited for her reply. Cathy watched her patiently while Emma jiggled her foot.

"Because it was one more thing." Hannah looked back to Cathy with sad eyes. "One more thing Emma had that I didn't."

Emma opened her mouth to speak, but Cathy motioned to her to be quiet. Sitting next to Hannah, Cathy squeezed her friend's hand. "What do you mean?"

"Ever since we started college it's been so hard, and Emma was living this wonderful life with new friends and music and New York." Hannah turned to look at Emma. "You didn't even come home at Christmas, like you had better things to do."

Hannah's accusation surprised Emma. "I didn't come home because it was too hard without my Mom. It hurt too much."

Hannah shook her head. "You didn't say that. Every time I talked to you it was all about what a fun time you were having with all your new friends and how much you loved Tisch and everything you were doing there."

Unsure what her response should be, Emma didn't speak. She had no idea Hannah wasn't enjoying school. Worried she was a bad friend, Emma tried to remember their conversations during the school year. Had she spent too much time talking about herself instead of listening to Hannah?

But Hannah wasn't looking for Emma to respond. Instead, she continued her litany of unhappiness. "And then you ran into Clay, and all you could talk about was him. So then you had the perfect boyfriend too, to go with your perfect life. It is too much to ask that you don't have my boyfriend all over you too?"

Hannah's last question was too much for Emma though. She felt guilty she didn't realize Hannah wasn't enjoying college, but she would not be a scapegoat for this jerk's inability to control himself around the female sex. "Again, I didn't do anything to make him be all over me. That's all on him. And, how can you even call him your boyfriend? It's pretty obvious he's interested in anyone with boobs."

Expression tightening, Hannah raked Emma with an angry glance. "Oh so you're the expert on guys now because you have a steady boyfriend? Of course, that'll only be until he gets killed on a mission."

"Hannah!" Cathy's appalled cry stopped Hannah from saying anymore. "How could you even say something like that?"

Frozen in shock, Emma couldn't speak. Hannah had put into words the one thing Emma had purposely been avoiding when thinking about her relationship with Clay. He could die. Immediately she pushed that thought out of her mind. She couldn't think about it. Instead, she tuned back into the conversation still going on around her. The only evidence Hannah's words had affected her was her hands clenched together in her lap.

Cathy shook her head. "That's just mean."

"Are you saying it isn't true? I think we both know better than anyone it is." Hannah raised her chin defiantly.

"You don't know it's true, and even if you did, it's still a cruel thing to say." Cathy looked over to Emma, who was sitting rigidly on the bench. "You should apologize to Emma."

Hannah was silent.

The quiet moment lengthened and became tense. Finally, Emma stood. "It's fine, Cathy. I don't need an apology. I doubt it would be sincere anyway. I guess I know now what kind of friend Hannah really is."

Taking a deep breath, Emma stiffened her spine and began walking back towards the hotel's employee entrance. She forced herself to move at a normal pace and not run back to her room. All she wanted was to make it to her bed and crawl under the covers, hiding from the world. A part of her also wanted to hop in her car and go to Clay. She knew he would be there to offer her comfort. But if she went to him, she would have to face the truth in Hannah's words. She could lose Clay, and she wasn't ready to think about that.

Halfway across the parking lot, Emma heard a voice calling her.

"Emma, wait! Come back!" Hannah followed Emma, trying to attract her friend's attention.

Emma turned back. "What now? You've already accused me of trying to steal your boyfriend, implied I'm a slut, and said my boyfriend is going to die. What else is there?"

"I just…" Hannah's voice faded out, and Emma couldn't decide if her possibly former friend didn't know what to say or was afraid to say what she wanted.

Then the words poured out of her mouth. "It's not fair! We both went away to school. We both went to classes and tried to meet people. And you made all kinds of friends and have this great life and now a guy that loves you, and I… it was all so hard!"

"That's not my fault. I didn't do it to hurt you." Emma would have been more sympathetic, but the hurt Hannah caused made it difficult for her to be anything other than upset.

While Hannah unloaded on Emma, Cathy walked over to join them. Resting her hand on Hannah's arm while Emma responded, Cathy waited to break into their argument. "Why don't we go sit down again instead of sharing our problems with everyone in the parking lot?"

Neither Hannah nor Emma moved.

Cathy gave Hannah's arm a gentle tug. "Come on."

Reluctant to be insulted and blamed for Hannah's issues again, Emma hesitated in going along with Cathy's request. Cathy glanced back at Emma. "It's okay, Emma. Come on."

Walking slowly, Emma followed them back to the benches. Cathy settled next to Hannah, and Emma chose a seat opposite them. For a minute no one spoke. The sound of the waves breaking on the shore soothed Emma. She kept silent though as she didn't think there was anything she could say to help.

Finally, Cathy broke the silence. "Hannah, why didn't you tell us you were having such a hard time?"

"I don't know. It seemed so pathetic. Everyone else was having a great time, and I didn't want anyone's pity." Hannah was quiet for a moment. "I had enough of that when my Dad died."

Both Emma and Cathy nodded in understanding. Emma remembered too well the pitying stares she received after her Mom passed away.

"But we wouldn't have been like that." Cathy wrapped an arm around Hannah's slumped shoulders. "We would have tried to help."

Emma nodded in agreement with Cathy. She wasn't sure what they could have done to help Hannah, but perhaps her friend wouldn't have been so miserable if she had been able to share her pain with her friends.

"There's nothing you could have done to help anyway. It was me that needed to figure it out." Hannah pushed her curls off her face as she spoke.

"We could have called more or come to visit you. Or, you could have come to visit us. Something." Emma leaned toward her friends on the opposite bench.

Hannah shrugged at Emma's words. "Maybe."

"Hannah, do you not like UVA? Do you think you want to transfer to some other school?" Cathy asked what Emma had been wondering.

"I don't think it's UVA. I think it's me." Hannah frowned as she thought a moment. "I liked my classes. I mean, they were only intro ones for my major, but studying was the thing that got me through."

Remembering how overwhelmed she had been at the beginning of her time at NYU, Emma tried to think of ways she had made friends. "Didn't your Resident Assistant organize events in your dorm at the beginning of the year? That's how I met people at first."

"She did, but I ended up living with a roommate and on a hallway of girls who all pledged sororities. That is so not me." Hannah sighed. "And once they realized I wasn't pledging, and I didn't care about the Greek system, they all ignored me. They weren't mean or anything, but they had no interest in me at all. It made me feel invisible."

"Oh Hannah, I'm sorry that happened." Cathy wrapped her arms around Hannah and hugged her. "I wish you told us."

"I guess I should have, but the more they ignored me, the more invisible I felt. And then it was like it affected everything. I thought nobody else would be interested in me either, people in my classes or anybody from home." Hannah dashed her hand under her eyes to stop her tears from falling.

"Don't ever think that. We always want to know what's going on with you." Moving to sit on her friend's other side, Emma put her arm around Hannah's shoulders.

At Emma's words, Hannah began to cry in earnest. Her shoulders shook as she tried to hold back her sobs. She started to speak, but her weeping made her words unintelligible. Cathy and Emma did their best to comfort her, waiting to hear what she was trying to tell them.

Finally, Hannah regained control of her emotions. Taking a shuddering breath, she turned to look at Emma. "God, how can you be so kind to me after I was so terrible to you?"

"It's okay. I understand." Emma rubbed Hannah's shoulder.

Sitting up straighter, Hannah shook her head. "No, it's not okay. I'm really sorry. I was so…" She hesitated before taking a deep breath and continuing. "I was jealous. At least, I was at first. Every time I talked to you, it sounded like you were loving school. And I know you weren't doing it on purpose to hurt me, but it hurt anyway. So I held it against you, and I shouldn't have."

"I get it, really." Emma hugged Hannah into her side. "Apology accepted."

"You said at first it was you were jealous, but what was it after that?" Cathy asked the question Emma hadn't considered.

"I…" Dropping her gaze to her lap, Hannah slipped from under Emma's arm. "Then I was angry."

"Why?" Emma wanted to hear the specifics.

"You ran into Clay and started flirting or whatever it was in the Spring." Hannah

"I don't get it." Cathy wrinkled her brow. "Why would that make you angry?"

Hannah frowned at Cathy. "What did we always say we would never do?"

While Cathy tried to figure out what Hannah was talking about, the answer occurred to Emma immediately. "We said we'd never date a SEAL."

Cathy's eyes widened. "Really? That's what made you so mad at Emma? We were kids when we talked about that. We had never even dated yet."

"And considering everything that's happened, do you think we were wrong?" Hannah raised an eyebrow at Cathy.

Snorting quietly to herself, Emma shook her head. "I didn't do it on purpose. You're acting like I went looking for a SEAL like some kind of groupie."

"I know you didn't plan it, but you didn't stop it either."

"Stop it? Hannah, I fell in love. And yeah, he's a SEAL, and sure it would be easier if he weren't, but he wouldn't be the Clay I love if he did something else." Emma's gaze was challenging as she looked at Hannah.

But before she could speak, Cathy answered Hannah's question. "I do think we were wrong. Seeing how happy Emma is tells me we were wrong."

"Happy?" Looking to Cathy, Hannah's eyes narrowed. "But for how long?"

"Hannah, you can't—"

"No, Cathy," Emma broke in, stopping her friend from chiding Hannah. "Hannah's right. Maybe the worst will happen." Taking a deep breath, Emma worked to keep her voice steady. "But if it does, as hard as that would be, I would still know what it's like to be truly loved."

Hannah glanced away, crossing her arms, her disbelief evident.

"You don't think that's important?" Emma stared at Hannah in surprise.

Shrugging, Hannah let her arms drop. "I don't see what the big deal is."

"If you really loved Tyler, and he loved you, you'd understand."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Hannah's voice took on a higher pitch.

Emma tried her best to explain so Hannah would understand. "Just that, being with Clay, loving him, has been the best thing that's happened to me. And having that experience, no matter what happens in the future, has made my life better. And, if you ever felt that you'd know what a big deal it is. That's all."

"If you say so." Hannah's reply lacked the offended tone of her earlier words

"I do." The quiet confidence in Emma's reply put a stop to any more questions.

They sat silently, then Cathy spoke. "Hannah, even if you don't believe what Emma's saying, why are you with Tyler? He treats you so bad. Tonight, he came by our table for about five minutes and then blew us off. We saw him hitting on those other girls. Why do you want to be with someone like him?"

Hannah bit her lip. "I… he… I don't know. We were in a class together, and one day he asked to borrow my notes, so I loaned them to him. To thank me, he took me to a coffee shop on campus, and it was like he saw me. And after months of being ignored, it felt good. So when he'd call or text, I'd meet up with him. For once, I felt like everybody else in college with a guy who was into me."

"Okay, I can see why it started." Cathy squeezed Hannah's hand. "But why are you still letting him treat you this way? Tell him no the next time he calls or texts."

"I always mean to say no, but when I hear from him, I have no willpower." Hannah's shoulders sagged again as she spoke.

"But Hannie, you deserve better." Cathy released Hannah's hand and wrapped her arm around her friend's shoulders.

"What's better? I mean, isn't this the way it is for most girls we know?" Hannah's next words were barely a whisper. "And I don't want to be alone."

Shocked, Cathy said nothing, but Emma let her anger at Tyler for making Hannah feel this way come out in her words. "No, it isn't this way for most of us. I KNOW it isn't. Hannah, look at me." Waiting until Hannah lifted her head, Emma met her friend's gaze. "There are guys out there who don't use women, who treat us with respect."

Hannah huffed out a soft breath. "You were just lucky."

"It's true. I was lucky with Clay, but that doesn't mean there aren't other guys out there who are like him. I know you don't want to be alone, and what happened at school made things even harder, but you need to wait for someone who's right for you. You have to believe you deserve that."

"Emma's right. And maybe you could, um, you know, wait before you got physical with him." Cathy blushed as she spoke.

Both Emma and Hannah looked at Cathy and burst into laughter. Hannah's glee held a tinge of hysteria, but Emma thought the emotional release was what her friend needed. Finally, their amusement subsided, although Hannah snorted a few times before she had herself under control again.

"What's so funny? I think it makes sense." A puzzled expression crossed Cathy's face.

"It does," Emma agreed. "Clay and I were friends long before anything happened physically between us. It's how you said it."

Hannah giggled again, drawing Emma's attention back to her.

"She's right though. Maybe you could be friends with a guy first next time."

Taking a deep breath, Hannah sat back up. "I know you're both right and sitting here it's easy to say I'll tell Tyler no next time, but I'm not sure I can do it later when I'm on my own."

"Call one of us next time he gets in touch with you. We'll help you." Cathy caught Emma's eye over Hannah's head to make sure they were in agreement.

Emma nodded to Cathy, and then added her own idea. "Yeah, and we'll come up with a plan together for when you go back to school, so you can make new friends and not be so lonely, okay?"

"Okay." Hannah's whole expression brightened as she listened to her friends' suggestions. "Thank you both. I don't think I could do this without you. I'm sorry I was such a bitch about everything." As she spoke, Hannah sounded more confident than she had in quite a while.

"That's what friends are for," Emma reassured Hannah. "Now, why don't we go back to my room and binge on bad TV and ice cream? We can forget about men completely for a while."

"Works for me," Cathy said

Hannah nodded. "That's the best offer I've had in a while."

"They sell pints of Ben & Jerry's in the hotel lobby. I'll go get some and meet you both back at my room. Here's the key." Emma handed the key to Cathy and headed for the hotel lobby while Cathy and Hannah started in the other direction for Emma's room.


Over the next few days, Cathy and Emma came up with ideas for Hannah to meet more people at school. They scoured the online list of clubs and activities at UVA, trying to find ones appealing to Hannah. There were a few she found interesting, and they made a plan for her to check them out when she returned to Charlottesville.

One evening while the three of them were barbecuing by the pool at Hannah's house, Tyler texted, expecting Hannah to drop everything and join him. With Emma and Cathy there, Hannah was able to tell him she was busy with no problem. Emma would have preferred Hannah tell him she wasn't interested… ever, but decided small steps were better than nothing.

Another day, Hannah received a text from Tyler while at her job. Instead of replying, she called Cathy, who was shopping with Emma. Hannah had a harder time turning him down a second time. Although she agreed in theory with Cathy and Emma about not seeing Tyler whenever he summoned her, Hannah realized he might never call again once she turned him down twice in a row. Her friends pointed out if he never got in touch again because she didn't abandon all her own plans to be with him, then he wasn't the right guy for her. She accepted what they were saying, but her confidence about it wasn't as strong as they would have liked. Both of them knew they would need to continue helping Hannah stay firm.

The remaining days of Cathy's visit flew by, and sadly her last evening with them arrived. In the morning, she would fly home, but tonight she, Hannah, and Emma were going out. They planned on having dinner at a restaurant of Cathy's choice then visiting some of her favorite places, the most likely being Blue Cow Ice Cream Company.

When they made their plans for her last evening, Cathy asked for Clay to join them if he could. The request surprised Emma and made her nervous about Hannah's response. Their friendship had been repaired, but the cracks where it had been mended still existed. The relationship between them needed time to fully heal, and Emma didn't want to strain it so soon after their reconciliation. But Cathy insisted, telling Emma in front of Hannah, she thought they needed to really get to know Clay because he was such an important person in Emma's life now.

Emma appreciated Cathy's efforts to develop a true friendship with Clay. When she told Clay about Cathy's request and explained her friend's reasoning, he agreed to accompany them on their farewell evening out. The pleased expression on his face convinced her he liked the idea of getting to know her closest friends better.

Cathy, Emma, and Hannah had spent Cathy's last day together, and then prepared for their evening out at Hannah's house. They arrived at the restaurant and gave Cathy's name to the hostess while they waited for Clay to join them. He entered the restaurant as their pager activated, alerting them their table was ready.

They exchanged greetings, and Emma gave him a quick kiss before they followed the hostess to a table on the upper outdoor deck. They settled in and began chatting. As they talked and laughed, they ordered drinks and appetizers and then their meals, but they hardly paid attention to the food as they enjoyed their conversation.

Initially, Hannah was stiff with Clay, but as time passed, she relaxed and participated freely in the banter. Cathy and Hannah told Clay some funny stories from the three friends' time together growing up, some tales being embarrassing for Emma, much to her chagrin. In the interest of fairness, Clay told them some stories about a few awkward things that happened to him while in the Navy. Emma also convinced him to share the story about how he learned to two-step.

Eventually they finished their meals, and the waitress made multiple passes by their table until they realized she was trying to get them to wrap up their visit and free up the table for other patrons. Paying their bill, they bickered about where they should head next, with Cathy chiming in about how she wished there was place they could go tonight to two-step. This comment triggered a round of boisterous laughter, which Clay joined in on despite his pink cheeks.

As they exited the restaurant, Clay pulled Emma aside, telling her he needed to make a detour to the men's room. She indicated the three of them would wait for him outside on the boardwalk.

Once out in the fresh air, they walked past the restaurant to a spot where they could look out on the beach while they waited. Leaning against the railing, Emma let the wind blow her hair back from her face. Cathy reclined on one side of her, while Hannah stood on the other.

"That was a lot of fun." Hannah sounded surprised.

"We're not done yet." Cathy nudged Emma. "As soon as Clay finishes checking his hair, we're going to get my strawberry shortcake sundae."

Emma laughed, remembering her conversation with Cathy about Clay's hair. "Should be quick then, because Clay doesn't spend a lot of time of his hair."

"He's no Julian, that's for sure." Cathy snickered.

Hannah snorted. "Oh God, remember his man bun that time?"

All three of them started laughing together at Hannah's words. As their hilarity faded, they heard a voice calling Hannah's name.

"Hey, Hannah." Tyler was walking up the boardwalk towards them. "You guys were having so much fun, you didn't see me waving to you."

Hannah's happiness deflated as she turned to face Tyler. "Yeah, I didn't see you."

Both Cathy and Emma sent looks of dislike his way.

"That's okay. I'm glad I ran into you. We can get that drink now." Tyler's voice held the confidence of someone who didn't expect to be turned down.

Hannah pushed her hair behind her ear. "I'm with my friends right now."

"Not a problem. In fact, it's perfect. I'm with some of my friends too." He waved back towards a bar. "You can all come."

"I don't think that's what…" Hannah's voice drifted away as she lost her confidence.

"Come on, Hannah. You know you want to." Tyler stepped forward and grasped Hannah's wrist.

Her temper growing as she watched Tyler crush Hannah's spirit, Emma stepped forward. "She said she didn't want to."

"I don't believe she said that at all." Tyler spoke without even glancing at Emma.

Hannah's eyes flicked to Emma and back to Tyler. "I don't want to."

"You know that's not true." He pulled Hannah forward by her arm, still caught in his hand.

"Don't—"

Cutting Hannah off, Emma reached out and pulled her friend's hand away from Tyler's grip. "She said it now. Get a hint."

Tyler's eyes narrowed as he turned to face Emma. "And who are you? Her keeper?" He moved forward and seized Emma's wrist.

Before he could do anything, Emma twisted her hand upward and brought her other hand under his wrist while rotating her hips. This action freed Emma's arm and turned Tyler's body around, with her holding his arm bent behind him. Emma's quick action surprised him, and when she pushed him away, he lost his balance and landed on his hands and knees.

Shocked, Tyler froze for a second then he quickly stood and lunged for Emma. "You bitch!"

He never reached his goal.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Clay caught the back of Tyler's collar and yanked him away from Emma.

Tyler pulled himself free of Clay's hold and swung around. "What business is it of yours?"

"You're attacking defenseless women on the boardwalk. I'm making it my business."

"If you're thinking they'll be grateful, don't bother. The blonde's an ice queen, and the brunette wasn't that great. I don't know about the third, but considering who's she with, I wouldn't expect much." Tyler dismissed them with a shrug.

"You pig!" Emma dove forward, ready to smack Tyler. Clay caught her around the waist before she could hit her target.

Smirking, Tyler gestured at Emma. "Not so defenseless after all, is she?"

Clay released Emma and gently pushed her back towards Cathy. "Oh yeah, did the big, scary girl hurt you when she shoved you? Did you get a boo boo?"

"Fuck you, asshole!" Pulling his fist back to punch Clay, Tyler sprang forward.

Clay stepped aside, catching Tyler's fist before it could do any damage. Tyler's forward momentum tripped him up, as his fist was still caught in Clay's hand. Once he gained his balance again, he didn't try to free his fist. Instead, he punched out with his other hand and struck a glancing blow to Clay's cheek.

At the end of his patience, Clay clenched his fist and popped Tyler one. Even at half Clay's full strength, the blow was enough to put Tyler on his ass with blood gushing from his nose.

The commotion had drawn a small crowd, including Tyler's buddies. They moved forward to help him up.

"Did you see what that asshole did?" Tyler whined as his pals helped him to his feet.

"Yeah, dumb ass, we saw." One of his friends chastised him. "We saw everything. You want to get kicked out of UVA? You're already on probation. They hear about you harassing women, including another UVA student, and you're out."

Giving Tyler a push forward, his friend turned back to Clay. "Look, we'll take care of him. He won't be a problem."

Clay frowned. "He better not. And if I hear he's bothering her at all when you're back at UVA, I will be dealing with him then." Clay gestured to Hannah as he spoke.

"Got it. We'll make sure he leaves her alone. He's really not a bad guy."

"Right." Clay glanced at the gathering crowd and turned to Emma, Hannah, and Cathy. "Come on. Let's get out of here."

As the four of them began walking down the strip away from the busy restaurants, Clay slipped an arm around Emma. "Are you okay? Did he hurt you?"

"I'm fine, just pissed," she replied.

"I guess you are, slugger." He chuckled. "Nice move breaking his hold."

She gave him a pleased smile. "Uncle Sonny taught me."

"He'd be proud." Clay kissed her temple and looked over to Hannah and Cathy. "Are you both okay? Did he touch either of you?"

"I'm fine too. He didn't bother me." Cathy put an arm around Hannah. "He grabbed Hannah's arm though."

"It's okay. He didn't hurt me." Hannah sighed. "I'm sorry. It's my fault he did all that."

"It's not your fault, Hannah. It's his. He's the asshole." Emma's voice was firm. She wanted Hannah to know they did not blame her for what happened. Cathy and Clay voiced their agreement.

Nodding, Hannah didn't speak again as they continued to walk to Cathy's favorite ice cream place.

As they approached the Blue Cow, people crowded the order windows and packed the picnic tables. Cathy noticed a group about to leave a table and rushed forward to claim it. The others followed in her wake.

"Okay, Hannah, you sit and hold this for us. Do you want to share a Strawberry Shortcake Sundae with me?" Cathy settled Hannah on a bench.

"I'll go to the window with you Cathy, and Clay can stay here with Hannah." Emma gave Clay push in the small of his back towards one of the seats.

Clay's eyes widened as he realized Emma and Cathy were leaving him on his own with Hannah.

Emma stood on her toes and whispered into his ear. "Don't worry. You'll be fine." Settling back on her feet, she spoke louder for the others to hear as well. "Your usual? A vanilla milkshake?"

He nodded as he sat down and watched Emma and Cathy disappear in the crowd around the windows. Neither he nor Hannah spoke, the silence becoming uncomfortable to Clay. He wondered how much longer Emma and Cathy would be.

Hannah sat with her shoulders slumped, her happiness from earlier in the evening gone. She shook her head and broke the silence. "I can't believe I was so stupid. If I hadn't gotten so hung up on Tyler…. Why did I do that?"

"Hannah, don't beat yourself up over it." Clay reached out and touched her arm. "We all do stupid things sometimes when it comes to trying to find the right person."

"Right." Hannah rolled her eyes.

"No, really." Clay made an effort to convince her. "I've been there."

"I appreciate you trying to make me feel better, but you don't have to," Hannah said.

Clay sighed. "Look, before Emma and I got together, I dated someone who I thought understood my job and was interested in me. But it turned out she was only interested in how she could change me and what I do, for her benefit. I ignored all the signs until finally her efforts to change me started to ruin my friendships with my team. That's when I realized, when I nearly lost my brothers. So, I do know how foolish we all can be when it comes to relationships. You have to hang in there and eventually the right person will come along."

A hopeful expression dawned on Hannah's face. "And then you bumped into Emma in New York."

"Yeah." Clay grinned.

"Thanks for telling me." Hannah leaned forward and gave Clay a kiss on the cheek.

Clay shrugged and looked down bashfully.

"Hey, what's going on here?" Emma placed Clay's milkshake in front of him and settled on the bench by his side with her dessert.

"Clay was being nice to me about how dumb I was about Tyler." Hannah reached for the spoon and napkins Cathy offered her.

Cathy sat and put the sundae she and Hannah were sharing on the table between them. "You weren't dumb. You were… taken in for a little while."

"I say we stop talking about stupid things we've done in the past for the opposite sex and enjoy our ice cream." Emma raised her spoon in a toast to the others.

"Agreed." Cathy took a huge bite of strawberries and whipped cream.

Clay and Hannah exchanged a smile and joined the others in enjoying their treats.


Later that night back at Hannah's house, while Cathy used the bathroom to prepare for bed, Hannah settled next to Emma on her bed. "Em, I really am sorry about what I said that night about Clay. I was hurting so much, and I guess I wanted to make everyone else hurt too. But I never should have said it. Clay's really sweet, and you two are great together."

"Thanks, Hannie, I'm sorry I was so mean back to you." Emma leaned over and hugged Hannah.

Returning the hug, Hannah waited until Emma sat back to speak again. "That's okay. I probably deserved it."

Emma smiled. "Maybe a little. But I do understand where you're coming from with the whole SEAL thing. I never planned on it, but he's so special and I love him, so I have to deal with it."

"I suppose there's no such thing as a perfect relationship." Hannah sighed and reclined against the headboard.

"No, I guess not."

Cathy entered the room. "What are you two up to?"

"Oh, we were just saying no relationship is perfect," Hannah replied.

"Except for our friendship, of course." Cathy bounced down onto the bed between Emma and Hannah. "We are most definitely perfect."

Emma laughed. "Well, I am anyway."

"Oh please." Hannah snorted.

Cathy poked Hannah. "You are always such a snorter when you laugh, Hannah Seaver."

"No, I'm not." Hannah pretended to be outraged.

"Excuse me, but you just did."

"Did not."

They continued to bicker and laugh together, happy their friendship had been mended.


P.S. You may have realized there's a missing smut scene in the middle. I have to cut it to keep from having to change the rating of this story on FF. You can read the chapter in its entirety on AO3.