The passenger door swings open, and David Graham gives a flourishing bow. “Madam!”
I burst out laughing and pretend to roll my eyes. “Oh, here we go again.”
“You better get used to it.” He sticks his elbow toward me. “I’m old school.”
I slide my hand into his arm. “I like old school.”
“Good, ‘cuz I plan to spend a lot more time with you.” He grabs a wicker picnic basket out of the back, tucks a blanket under his arm, and we turn our steps into the State Park.
In the distance, the late summer sun reflects off a wide, spreading lake that touches the far horizon. We traverse several curves and corners of the easy path, but when our way winds around another bend, I stop in my tracks to admire the view.
David draws up alongside me. We stand in silence for a few minutes. Sparkling shimmers ripple on the glassy surface. Not even the faraway sound of cars on the highway disturbs this peaceful scene.
I let out a contented sigh. “This is wonderful. Thank you for bringing me.”
He slips his arm around my shoulders and kisses me on the forehead. “I wouldn’t be here with anyone but you.”
I snuggle into his chest. Pleasure and contentment fill my soul. “I never thought I could be so happy. I never expected, when I left the big city, that it would wind up being so incredibly good, and you’re a big part of that.”
“Cut the flattery,” he teases. “You did that all by yourself. You know that. You took the risk, and it paid off. You built that candy store. You won over everyone in town. I’m just the cherry on the top.”
I have to laugh again. I seem to be doing that a lot nowadays. I laugh more now than I ever would have considered prudent in my past. “You definitely are, but I didn’t win over everyone in town. There are still a few people who don’t think much of me.”
“They don’t count. Now let’s stop waxing poetic and get this picnic eaten. I think I heard a tuna fish sandwich calling my name.”
I can’t stop laughing all the way down the hill. We stroll hand in hand by the lake shore until he finds a grassy bank that suits his taste. He scrutinizes it with his unerring detective eye. “This will do.”
He sets down the basket and shakes out the blanket. We sit down on it, and now there’s nothing to stop me feasting my eyes on the glorious sight spread out before me. A quiet breeze ruffles the surface. The light plays on the waves. The gentle hiss of water seeps through the gravel on the beach.
I can’t remember a time when I felt so happy. Nothing could be more perfect than this. David is right about one thing. Fitting into the community of West End makes all the difference. I know I have a place here and caring people to support me. Just as important, I know I have a place in their lives, too, and they depend on me the same way I depend on them. I wouldn’t want to live without that.
David interrupts my thoughts. “Are you going to eat, because if you aren’t, I’m going to dig in.”
I turn to face him. My cheeks ache from smiling so much. “Okay. What do you have?”
He breaks into the basket with enthusiasm. He passes me a sandwich, and I start eating while he gets busy unpacking fruit salad, ginger ale in two brown bottles, and a plastic container of cake.
I hold up my hand. “Whoa, Trigger! This is way too much.”
He pushes the cake toward me. “Indulge me. It’s our six month anniversary, so you’ll have to forgive me if I want to celebrate.”
“Is it?” I cocked my head. “I didn’t know.”
“You’ve been too busy to count down the days and hours the way I have.”
I look closer at his features. “I didn’t know you were counting them down. You never showed it.”
He slides his hand across the blanket to take mine. “You’re a lovely person, but you don’t have much experience with men, do you? There was your ex—Zack’s dad—and then there was me. Am I right?”
I shrug. “You’re right. What gave it away?”
“If you had more experience with men, you would know we play our cards close to our chests. We don’t ever show it when a woman means as much to us as all that. That would be unmanly.”
I laugh again, but something in his tone tells me we’re discussing serious business right now. “Well, I hope I don’t have to gain any more experience with men. You’re enough for me.”
He squeezes my hand, and the smile fades from his lips. “You’re enough for me, too. I would be glad if I didn’t gain any more experience with women, either, and I just kept carrying on with you forever.”
My cheeks flushed bright red. I looked down at our entwined hands against the plaid blanket. “I would be happy with that, too.”
“Phew! I’m glad we got that out of the way.” He lets go of my hand and grabs the cake. “Now we can celebrate.”
“Were you worried? Did you really think there was a chance I didn’t feel the same way?”
“I wasn’t sure,” he replies. “I wondered if you might be still so ecstatic about your independence that you wouldn’t want to consider it.”
“I am ecstatic about my independence, but you don’t threaten that. That’s what I lo…” I stop myself from saying it. “That’s what I like so much about you. You handle your own life and I handle mine. We don’t step on each other’s toes. We’re still independent, and we can still care about each other and share each other’s lives without sacrificing that.”
He studies me with his head on the side, but he doesn’t laugh or make a joke out of it. His eyes sparkle like he knows exactly what I was about to say but didn’t. “I know. I feel the same way.”
“Thank goodness.” I take a bite of my sandwich to change the subject.
We both turn to admiring the lake again. The tension of our conversation floats away on the current, and we settle into our normal easy relaxation. The next time I glance at him, he’s looking at the scenery without a care in the world.
I lean back on my arms. Everything’s all right. I couldn’t ask to be more comfortable with a man. The romantic notions between us—if you can call them that—never interfere with us just enjoying each other’s company.
He elbows me and pushes the cake box toward me. “Go on. You know you want to.”
“You’re a temptress,” I accuse.
“Temptress!” he scoffs. “That’s a name for a female.”
“Fine. Tempter. Whatever the word for it is, I don’t know. You’re trying to corrupt me.”
“A slice of cake couldn’t corrupt you.” He pops the lid off the container and lifts out a slice. “I can’t think of anything that would corrupt you, least of all a slice of cake.”
“You’ll give me middle-aged spread,” I counter.
His eyes pop. He snorts, and a shower of cake crumbs sprays out of his mouth.
I raise an eyebrow at him. “Take it easy, Sundance. You’ll give yourself an aneurysm.”
He coughs to get his voice working. “Middle-aged spread—you? I think not.”
I blush and lower my eyes. “You know what I mean. I’m not exactly a size six.”
“I wouldn’t like you near so much if you were.” He brushes the stray crumbs off his jacket. “You work in a candy store, for crying out loud. What’s the big deal?”
“All right. Twist my arm.” I reluctantly take a piece of cake. He’s right. I do want to.
Now that I’ve caved to the devil on my shoulder, I relax again. We stay at the lake for the rest of the afternoon. He skips rocks on the surface, and I poke around in the pools watching tadpoles.
Toward evening, the sun slips behind the mountains. David holds out his hand to me. “I better get you home before you know who calls the cops on me.”
I laugh and take his hand gratefully. I hover close to his side on the way back to the car. “I don’t want this day to end. Thank you again for asking me out.”
He tugs me in and kisses me again. “I plan to ask you out a lot more in the future. It’s me who should be thanking you for making my life livable again.”
My cheeks color for the hundredth time. “It was an honor.”
“I didn’t realize how dead I was until I met you. I thought I was happy. I didn’t know what happy was.”
I don’t reply, and we walk the rest of the way back to the parking lot in silence. How many times in the last six months have I thought the same thing? I didn’t realize life could be so good until…. well, until I moved to West End and met him.
He holds the door open for me while I climb into the passenger seat. He starts the motor and drives back to West End. He parks in front of my house, and I lean over the seat to kiss him. This time, we both take our time enjoying the delicious swirl of togetherness and connection.
I stroke his cheek while we kiss. My heart brims with emotion. I don’t want to lose this. I don’t want to release this moment, not even to receive another that might be even better. The poignant transience of life never felt so heartbreakingly precious before.
When I sit back, I gaze into his bottomless blue eyes. I read the same truth in them. He traces his fingertips down my temple to my chin and lifts my lips to his mouth one more time before he lets me go.
“See you tomorrow,” he whispers.
“Okay. Have a good night.”
He kisses me one last time before he gets out and walks around the car to open my door. Every time I drive with him, we follow the same pre-ordained pattern. We both settle into this routine of protocol and formality.
He walks me to the porch where we share another lingering kiss. When he breaks away, he backs down the steps still clinging to my hand. “Go to bed, Ms. Nichols.”
“Yes, Sir, Detective, Sir,” I tease.
He chuckles and lets his fingers slip out of mine. He heads back to his car still shaking his head and snickering under his breath.
I stay on the porch and wave to him as he drives away. I heave a heavy sigh before I enter the house.
I hang my coat on the hook by the door. I’m about to walk up the stairs to my bedroom when I pass the living room. I happen to glance in and stop dead in my tracks.
My son Zack sits in an armchair across the room. That on its own wouldn’t be so strange except that he’s not doing anything. He just sits there and stares at the doorway.
I cast a glance at him. “Is everything okay, sweetheart?”
He cocks his head, and I don’t like the expression on his face. “I don’t know, Mom. You tell me. Is everything okay?”
I swallow hard. Why do things have to become strained between me and my own son? “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Why wouldn’t they be okay? What could be not okay?”
“I’m talking about Detective Graham. Is everything okay between you and him?”
I gasp in relief. “Of course! Everything’s fine between me and David. Why do you ask?”
“I’m just wondering.” He draws himself up in his chair. “You two spend nearly every day together. You’re really getting close to him.”
“Yeah? What’s wrong with that? I thought you liked David. I thought you approved of me seeing him.”
“I do,” he replies. “I don’t say anything against him. He’s the best guy I can imagine for you. I’m just wondering if you aren’t becoming dependent on him. I would hate to see you lose your identity and your autonomy the way you did with Dad. That’s all I’m saying. You worked so hard to build your own life and to break free of an oppressive man. I don’t want to see you throw it away on another one.”
My shoulders slump in relief. I stride toward him and lay my hand on his arm. “You have nothing to worry about, sweetheart. I will never lose my identity or my autonomy to David or any other man again. I can promise you that.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. We just talked about it today. We’re both happy leading independent lives, and neither of us wants to give that up. It doesn’t stop us from caring about each other and enjoying our time together. We both value our own lives, and neither of us wants to threaten that.”
He blinks. “Oh. Okay.”
I bend down to kiss him on the cheek. “Thank you for being concerned about me, but you have nothing to worry about. Good night.”