He turned, gazed down at her. “Learned what?”
She shrugged, unable suddenly to meet his gaze. “I don’t know. How life slips away from you while you’re standing in a grocery line, waiting to pay for a quart of milk . . . how time passes and takes everything in its path—youth, hopes, dreams. Dreams—it takes those most of all.”
She felt his gaze on her again, and she was afraid to meet it, afraid of what she’d see in his eyes.
“Sometimes I don’t even recognize you,” he said, gently tilting her chin up. “You say things like that and I don’t know the woman who is speaking at all.”
She released a laugh that fluttered like a moth into the darkness. “You’re not alone.”
“What happened to you, Annie?”
The question was startling in its intimacy. The night fell silent, awaiting her answer, so quiet that she could hear her own rapid intake of breath. She pushed the poisonous words out in a rush. “My husband is in love with another woman. He wants a divorce.”
“I’m fine, really.” She tried to think of something to say that would make them both laugh, but when she looked in his eyes, she saw a terrible, harrowing compassion, and it was her undoing. The strength she’d been gathering and hoarding for the past weeks fell away from her. A single tear streaked down her cheek. “How does it happen? I loved Blake with all my heart and soul and it wasn’t enough. . . .”
He sighed, and the sadness of the sound bound them together. She watched as he tried to find the words to answer her, saw his frustration when he came up empty.
“The worst thing is you don’t see it coming,” she said. “You don’t even suspect that Monday will be the last time you’ll ever come up behind him and kiss the back of his neck . . . or the last time you’ll sit watching television and rub the soft skin just below his ankle. And you think you’d remember something like the last time you made love, but you can’t. It’s gone.”
She gazed up at him, surprised at how easily the words had come to her. In the weeks since Blake’s confession, she’d trapped the pain inside her heart and kept it there, fanning the hot coal with dreams and nightmares and memories. But now, all at once, the fire of it was gone. In its place was a dull, thudding ache.
She still had the hurt; probably that would never completely heal. Like a broken bone that was badly reset, the wound would always be a place of weakness within her. When the cold weather hit, or she remembered a special time, she would recall the love she had had for Blake, and she would ache. But the raging fire of it had burned down to a cold, gray ember.
Nick didn’t know when it happened exactly, or who moved first. All he knew was that he needed Annie. He reached for her. His hand slipped underneath her flannel collar and curled around the back of her neck, anchoring her in place. Slowly, watching her, he bent down and kissed her. It was gentle at first, a soft mingling of lips and breath. But then she moved toward him, settled into his embrace. He felt her hands, so small and pliant, moving across his back in a soothing, circular motion.
He deepened the kiss. His tongue explored her mouth, tasting, caressing. He kissed her until he was light-headed with longing, and then slowly he drew back.
She stared up at him. He saw sadness in her eyes, but something else, perhaps the same quiet wonder he had felt. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, even though it wasn’t true. “I had no right—”
“Don’t be,” she whispered. “Please . . . don’t be sorry. I wanted you to kiss me. I . . . I’ve wanted it for a long time, I think.”
She opened the door to intimacy, and he couldn’t walk away. He didn’t care if he was being stupid or careless or asking for trouble. He only knew that he wanted her, heart, body, and soul. He curled a hand around her neck and urged her closer, so close he could feel her rapid breathing against his mouth. “I want you, Annie Bourne. It feels like I’ve wanted you all my life.”
A tear slipped down her cheek, and in that glittering bead of moisture, he saw reflections of all the distance that separated them. She still looked amazingly like the sixteen-year-old girl he’d first fallen in love with, but like him, the life she’d led and the choices she’d made lay collected in the tiny network of lines around her beautiful face.
“I know” was all she said in answer, but in the two simple, sadly softened words, he heard the truth: that sometimes, the wanting wasn’t enough.
He reached down and took hold of her hand, lifting it. In the glittering silver moonlight, the diamond ring seemed to be made of cold fire. He stared at the ring a long time, saying nothing. Then he turned from her. “Good night, Annie,” he said softly, walking away from her before he made a fool of himself.
Back in his room, Nick peeled off his clothes and crawled into his unmade bed. He was surprised to realize that he was shaking. And for once, it wasn’t an absence of alcohol that was playing hell with his body. It was a woman.
Don’t think about her . . . think about AA and their advice. No new relationships when you’re getting sober. . . .
Thinking about the Twelve Steps didn’t help. He closed his eyes and pictured Annie. She was probably to town by now. He wondered what song was playing on the Mustang’s radio, what she was thinking.
It had taken every bit of strength and honor he possessed to walk away after that kiss. He’d wanted to pull her into his arms and ravish her on the spot. Lose himself and his past in the sweet darkness of her body. But it wasn’t right, and he didn’t dare . . . for so many reasons. And so here he lay, alone.
It occurred to Annie that if she were smart, she would leave right then. But all she could think about was Nick, and the way he’d kissed her. The way he’d touched and held her had swept her away. And when it was over, when he’d said, I want you, Annie Bourne, she’d known that she was lost.
She glanced up at his bedroom. A shadow passed in front of the glass, then disappeared. He thought she’d gone home—and she knew that she should.
Instead, she glanced down at the wedding ring on her left hand. The diamond glittered with color in the lamp’s glow. The ring she’d worn for years. Blake had placed it on her hand beneath a shower of romantic words on their tenth anniversary.
Gently, she pulled the ring from her finger. “Good-bye, Blake.” It hurt to say the words, even to think them, but there was a surprising freedom in it, too. She felt unfettered, on her own for perhaps the first time in her life. There was no one to guide her choices or determine her path. No one but her.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she hurried back into the house and up the stairs. Outside Nick’s door, she paused. In the time it took to draw a breath, she lost her nerve. All the reasons for being here scurried away, cowards leaving a sinking ship. Suddenly she didn’t feel sexy; she felt vulnerable and alone. A middle-aged woman begging for sex from an old friend . . .
She was just about to turn away when she heard the music. Beyond the door, a radio was playing, a scratchy old rendition of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.”
It soothed her ragged nerves, that song, and even more the fact that he was listening to it. Nick wasn’t some inexperienced teenager; he was a man, her age, and as ravaged by life and love as she was. He would understand why she was here. He would ask nothing of her except the simple, uncomplicated act of sharing.
She rapped sharply on the door.
There was a pause. The music snapped off. “Come on in, Izzy.”
Annie cleared her throat. “It’s me . . . Annie.”
Another pause, a scuffling sound. “Come in.”
She pushed on the door; it opened with a slow, creaking noise.
Nick was in bed.
She swallowed hard and moved toward him. Anxiety was a rattling jangle inside her; she felt as gawky and awkward as a teenager. She thought about the weight she’d gained in the past weeks, and wondered if he’d find her attractive. Blake had always made such cutting remarks when Annie gained a pound. . . .
He looked at her and the intensity of his gaze caused a heat to flutter through her. She shivered.
“Are you sure?” He asked it simply, the only question that mattered.
And she was. Utterly, absolutely, positively sure. She felt herself moving toward him, reaching out. Later, she would never be able to remember who had touched first, or how they had come to be nak*d together on that massive, four-poster bed . . . but she would never forget the soft, singsongy way he whispered her name while he kissed her . . . or the way his arms wrapped around her body, holding her so close that sometimes she couldn’t breathe . . . or the shattering intensity of their lovemaking. All she could remember was that at the jagged peak of her pleasure, it was his name she cried out. Not Blake’s.
Beside the bed, an oil lamp flickered gently; a ribbon of black smoke curled lazily up from the glass mouth.
Annie lay cuddled alongside Nick, her nak*d leg thrown across his thigh. They had been together for hours now, talking softly and laughing, and making love. About midnight, she’d reluctantly called her father and told him that she wouldn’t be home tonight—that Izzy was fighting a cold and needed Annie; but her father hadn’t been fooled. He’d listened to her rambling excuse, then asked the now familiar question: “Are you sure that’s wise, Annie Virginia?”
She’d brushed him off with a schoolgirl’s giggle and told him not to worry. She didn’t want to think about whether this was wise. For the first time in her life, she felt wicked and wild, and wonderfully alive. She’d been a good girl for so damned long. . . .
So much had changed for her tonight. The simple act of removing her wedding ring had transformed her. She’d become younger, braver, more adventurous. She had never known that sex could be so . . . fun. Tonight, in the hours she’d spent in Nick’s arms, she’d discovered a whole new woman.
When it was over—the first time—she’d expected to feel guilty and ashamed. She’d tensed herself for it, quickly devising rationalizations for her wanton behavior; but all it had taken was a word from Nick, a smile, a kiss, and all her explanations had taken flight.
Don’t pull away, he’d said, and that was all it took.
Now, they were tangled in the sheets together. About an hour ago, they’d gone scouting in the kitchen and come up with a plate of cheese and crackers and fruit, which they’d taken back into bed with them. Neither of them wanted to leave the bed and reenter the world that lurked outside this room.
Nick slid an arm around Annie and drew her close. For the first time, there was sadness in his blue eyes. “June fifteenth, huh?”
Annie caught her breath. Their gazes locked, and she felt her smile weaken.
In less than a month, Annie would be going home— such as it was. She would be leaving Nick and Izzy and Mystic, and returning to the brown world of her real life . . . or whatever was left of it.
He touched her face with a tenderness that made her heart ache. “I shouldn’t have said that.”