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When August Ends / (by Penelope Ward, 2019) -

When August Ends /    (by Penelope Ward, 2019) -

When August Ends / (by Penelope Ward, 2019) -

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When August Ends / (by Penelope Ward, 2019) -
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2019
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Penelope Ward
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Sebastian York, Andi Arndt
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upper-intermediate
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07:02:31
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128 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

When August Ends / :

.doc (Word) penelope_ward_-_when_august_ends.doc [656 Kb] (c: 18) .
.pdf penelope_ward_-_when_august_ends.pdf [1.54 Mb] (c: 18) .
audiobook (MP3) .


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CHAPTER ONE HEATHER Have you met the guy who moved into the boathouse yet? Id just returned home to our lakehouse after accompanying my mother to a doctors appointment this morning. My friend Chrissy had done me the favor of meeting our new tenant to give him the keys while I was out. I shook my head. No. Chrissy was grinning from ear to ear. Whats that look for? I asked. Hesinteresting. I lifted my brow. In what way? She snickered. I think you should discover it for yourself. That could only mean one of two things: either he was extremely good-looking, or maybe we had a psycho living among us. For the past several years, my family had rented out our converted boathouse on Lake WinnipesaukeeNew Hampshires largest body of water. Located at the foothills of the White Mountains, its a popular destination for tourists looking to escape the city. As the locals say, When youre here, youre on lake time. It was just my mother and me at home now, and Mom didnt work, so the income from the boathouse was a necessity to keep up with our bills. While it sometimes remained vacant in the winter, it was booked pretty consistently in the warmer months and even into the early fall. Sometimes people would rent it for a week and other times longer. It wasnt really that big, so it was usually single people who stayed there, rather than families. This latest guy had booked it for nearly three months, until the end of Augustthe entire summer. That had never happened before. So everything is all set with him? I asked. Yup. Seems like a decent guy overall. Didnt say much, but he was polite. He was wearing sunglasses, so I couldnt get a feel for his eyes. They usually tell a lot about a person, you know? I knew his name was Noah, since Id taken down his credit card information and run a quick background check. But otherwise, I didnt know much about himNoah Cavallari from Pennsylvania with a Visa card and a clear record. I never really mingled with our guests. When I was younger, my mother had strictly forbidden me from interacting with anyone staying in the boathouseyou know, just in case they werent good people. So even as an adult, I tended to keep my distance out of habit. As part of the deal in renting the boathouse, tenants got housekeeping servicescourtesy of me. Id go in, usually in the afternoons, make the bed and provide fresh towels, much like in a hotel. Guests also got access to the washing machine and dryer in the basement of the main house, which they could access with a key to the laundry rooms external door. So they never had to come inside our place at all. The inside of the boathouse featured a small kitchenette, allowing tenants to cook their own meals. The space was one room, plus the bathroom. There were several windows on all sides, though, which let in lots of light and a view of the surrounding lake. Hows Alice doing today? Chrissy asked. The doctor is going to adjust her meds again. Overall, not her best, not her worst day. That was as good as could be expected when it came to my mother, whod been in and out of mental hospitals for years, depending on the severity of her episodes. Mom suffered from clinical depression. Shed struggled with it throughout her life, but it had been particularly bad since my older sisters death more than five years ago. Opal had been a decade older than me. She was mentally unstable and had run away from home. During the years wed been out of touch with her, shed gotten deeper into her own mind and eventually took her own life. Losing my sister was by far the hardest thing I had ever experienced. Mom was never the same after that. Until Opals death, my mother had been able to keep her depression in check enough to be functional. Not anymore. Chrissy left for her nursing shift, leaving me alone in my bedroom. I looked out the window over at the boathouse. While the structure was on our property, it was set back from the main residence, closer to the lake. You had to walk down a gravel driveway to get there. Aside from his shiny, black truck parked outside in the distance, I hadnt seen evidence of our new guest at all. And that was fine by me. I would wait until tomorrow afternoon to venture over there for housekeeping. Usually occupants left in the afternoons. During the day, I took care of everything around here. Then, five nights a week, I waitressed at a local pub called Jack Foleys. That was the extent of my mundane life as it had existed since my mothers depression got really bad. Someone had to run things, and I was the winner of that responsibility by default. The lakehouseour main residenceand the smaller boathouse had been in my mothers family for years. After my grandfather died, hed left everything to Mom, his only child. Since everything was paid off, there was no mortgage. That was a good thing, given the fact that I was the only one with a job. As it was, I could just manage to keep the house running, and there were a lot of things waiting to be fixed. I dont mean to be a downer when it comes to my life. I have a lot to be grateful for. Living on the lake is one of those things. Even though some days I feel like Cinderella, minus the evil stepsisters, the serene beauty of this place often makes up for it. *** The following day, it looked like the coast was clear. The tenants truck was gone, making it the perfect time to grab some fresh towels and visit the boathouse to clean. My Saint Bernard, Teddy, thought I was taking him for a walk, so he followed me out the door. I figured I would let him come with me. The afternoon air was sticky. Hazy sunlight partially blinded me as I made my way over with three towels of varying sizes tucked under my arm and a bucket of chemical supplies hung over my wrist. Upon entering the house, I immediately smelled his cologne. Masculinity hung in the air. A black mens jacket was draped over the desk chair, and a large, unpacked suitcase was open on the floor. An expensive-looking watch lay on top of a laptop. His bed was already made. Perhaps he hadnt seen the part of my confirmation email that explained our courtesy housekeeping service, or maybe he was just a neat person and couldnt wait. The dog jumped up on the bed. Get down, Teddy! The next thing I knew, the door to the bathroom burst open. Everything after happened so fast. My bucket fell to the floor as I took in the Herculean man standing there wrapped in nothing but a small white towel. My jaw dropped. Teddy started barking. Noahs deep voice sliced through me. What the hell is going on here? His hair was wet. I swallowed as my eyes trailed down the length of his body, then up again. Im not quite sure why I lost my ability to think. I was just completely shocked to see him, let alone like this: mostly bare with water dripping down his sculpted torso. He isnt supposed to be home. He broke me out of my trance. Is there a reason youre staring at me instead of leaving? Umbecause youre hot as fuck? I abruptly turned around to face the door. I just came to clean. Im so sorry. Ill come back later. Stumbling, I ran out so fast I left the cleaning supplies behind that Id dropped all over his floor. I thought Id left Teddy behind, too, but thankfully hed followed me out the door. Id seen the man for only a matter of seconds, but I now knew why Chrissy had been snickering yesterday. He was drop-dead gorgeous with classic, chiseled features and perfect facial hair. He was really tall, too, and probably the most manly man Id come across in a long time. Hes also rude. That was very clear. But hot. Dark hair, ripped bodyhe looked like he was maybe in his early thirties. My mother was in the kitchen making herself a sandwich when I returned to the house. Whats going on? she asked. You seem flustered. I was panting a little. I just made an ass of myself in front of the new tenant. His truck wasnt there, so I thought it was safe to clean. Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath to calm down. He came out of the bathroom half-naked. I scared the shit out of him. And instead of leaving, I froze, stood there staring at him. He wasnt happy. Teddys tongue hung out as if he, too, was reeling from this experience. My mother stopped buttering her bread and started laughingthe first time Id heard her laugh in a long time. Even if it was at my expense, that made me smile. It almost made what had happened worth it. Almost. Later that night, I opened my front door to walk Teddy, only to find the bucket Id left behind in the boathouse on the steps outside. All of the cleaning supplies were back inside. Noah was a bit of an assholebut apparently he was a courteous one. *** I had no further run-ins with Noah for the next few days. I knocked loudly on his door each afternoon to confirm he wasnt home before entering the house to clean. On my nights off from work, one of my favorite things was a dip in the lake at sundown. I probably loved that most about having waterfront property. There was no better place to clear my head than in the water. The lake was also where I exercised. I could never get into things like running or fitness classes. But in the water, it felt like I was weightless, like I could do anything. So, Id developed my own little water aerobics regimen. Exercises included things like jumping up and down into squats under the water or dancing like a maniac while waving my arms around. There was no rhyme or reason. I just did what I wanted. Anything to get my endorphins going. This evening I was off, so I was in the lake. I had my headphones on, rocking out to old-school hip-hop while bouncing around doing my thing, when I noticed something charging toward me. Before I knew it, his hands were on my shoulders. My heart raced. It took me a few seconds to realize it was Noah. CHAPTER TWO HEATHER What are you doing? I shouted, my heart beating out of my chest. He let go of me abruptly. His breaths were heavy as he said, Youre not drowning I took out my earbuds. No! Why would you think that? You were flailing your arms around like a lunatic. From my damn porch, I thought you needed help. My pulse was racing. I wasnt drowning. I was dancing. He gritted his teeth. Dancing Yes. For fucks sake he muttered. He then turned around and trudged back through the water, headed to land. I stood in shock, gazing at his large frame as he slogged away. Id encountered this guy twice and managed to piss him off within seconds each time. Then it dawned on me: hed thought I was drowning and ran in to save me. Hed jumped in with his clothes on. Oh my God. I hadnt been in any real danger, but I still needed to thank him. Wait up! I yelled. Noah didnt stop for one second as he continued toward the boathouse. Hes really mad. Things were bad between us before this. Ive really done it now. How was I supposed to know this was going to happen? Id been doing my water aerobics for months, and no one had ever come around thinking I needed help. In fact, no one had ever come around at all. When I finally caught up to Noah, he was sitting on the boathouses wooden porch. I stopped just short of the front steps. Brooding and pissed, hed leaned his back against the house. His broad shoulders rose and fell. His black T-shirt was plastered against his chest. His jeans were also wet, and his feet were bare. He was painfully hotmore so than any guy whod come around these parts in a very long time. Likely ever. He might have been a little old for me, but that didnt stop my entire body from buzzing as I took him in. His agehis maturitywas a major turn-on. My reaction to this man was both exhilarating and terrifying all at once. He acted as if I wasnt standing there. I watched as he turned around and reached through the open window to grab something inside the housea cigar. He rolled it between his fingers before lighting up. Id never liked cigar smoke, but there was something sexy about the way he held it in his hands. Speaking of his hands, they were big and veiny, powerfulhands that could harm just as easily as they could protect. He wrapped his lips around the cigar, and the tip glowed as he inhaled. I continued staring at his hands. Calloused and rough, they had seen their share of work. I sighed. Noah Cavallari was a man in every sense of the word. He continued to ignore me, and for some reason that made me even more determined to talk to himprobably opposite of the effect hed intended to have. Nice try but no cigar, Noah. I cleared my throat. Im really sorry about that misunderstanding. He took a long puff of the stogie and blew the smoke out. He then whipped his head in my direction so fast it startled me. Who dances by herself in a lake? It was water aerobics, I said. He closed his eyes, then surprised me with a long, hearty laugh; it vibrated throughout my body. Well, at least he has a sense of humor in there somewhere. What were you listening to when I interrupted your little routine? I dont know, I lied. I think you do. Alright, I do. But I dont want to tell you. Why not? Im curious as to what kind of music makes someone flail around like that. Can I listen? This day probably couldnt get any worse. Figuring I owed it to him, I handed him my headphones, bracing for his reaction. He bent his head back and started to laugh even harder than before. Id been listening to Jump by Kris Kross. I snatched the headphones off of his ears. Happy now? I needed that. Thank you. I havent heard that song since I was likeseven. Certainly well before your time. He chuckled. Yeah, well, its a good song. It makes me want to Jump? He snickered. I bit my lip, then couldnt help but laugh along with him. He held his hands up and offered a snide grin. No judgment. I swear. Im glad I could add some humor to your life, I said. Clearly, based on your unreasonable reaction to my being in your room the other day, its much needed. His light expression faded as he looked at me with daggers in his eyes. I came out of the shower half-naked to find a teenage girl standing there. What other reaction would have been appropriate? Teenage girl? Oh, hell no. Im not a teenager, so youre wrong there. And the answer is any other reaction besides the one you gave me. It was a misunderstanding, and your snapping at me was unwarranted. Still miffed, I let out a breath, looking over at the lake and then back at him. Im Heather, by the way. We never formally met. After a pause, he offered, Noah. Even the way his name rolled off his tongue sounded sexy. I know your namefrom your reservation. In fact, I ran an entire background check on you, but that didnt cover personality problems, unfortunately. Its nice to meet you. Right. Not a murderer, just a prick who overreacts, apparently. They dont have filters for that. I took a few steps forward. Im truly sorry about what happened just now. Thank you for coming to save me. If I had really been drowning, that would have been heroic. What choice did I have? From where I was standing, you looked like you were waving your arms for help. Id have to be a real dick not to do anything. He turned away from me. Speaking of you being a dick That got his attention back. I thought you were gone the other day. That was the only reason I went into your space to clean. Your truck wasnt there. Noah blew out some smoke. My truck needed a new tire. Didnt feel like waiting the hour at the shop, so I walked a mile back here and decided to take a relaxing shower. We all know how that went. Our eyes locked for a moment before his mouth curved into a slight smile. I breathed a sigh of relief. Im sorry for snapping at you, he finally said. I actually regretted it after. I was just taken aback. Its okay. I fidgeted, not knowing what to do with my body. Being around him made me very antsy. Im twenty, by the way. So, again, not a teenager. How old are you? Too old to be hanging out with a twenty-year-old whose tits are falling out. I looked down at myself. Shit. He was right. My tits were practically out of my bikini. I was so into him I hadnt even noticed. I covered my breasts with my arms. It wasnt like Id planned this whole thing, but nevertheless, that was indecent. Instead of feeling shy, though, the fact that hed pointed it out filled me with heat. On some level he was noticing me in a sexual way. And I liked ittoo much, maybe. An excitement I hadnt felt in forever ran through me. Why do you do all the work around here? It seems to be just you manning everything. Why? No one had ever asked me that before. Its my responsibility. Why is that so strange? At your age, shouldnt you be in college or something? Why are you cleaning and shit? His question offended me a little, but it made me happy that someone had taken notice. Its not exactly my preference. My mother isnt doing wellmentally. So, Ive taken on most of the duties around the house and with the rental. I work over at Jack Foleys Pub when Im not tending to things here. You dont need to clean my room anymore. But I have to. Its part of the No more cleaning the boathouse while Im here, he barked. I dont like people invading my space anyway. And Im sure you have better things to do than clean up a grown mans mess. Well, if you dont want me to, I wont. I dont. God, hes so grumpy. And sexy. Okay. I shivered. It was getting cool out, but I wasnt ready to leave. This porch was probably the last place I belonged, but it was where I wanted to be. This was the most invigorated I had felt in a long time. My teeth chattered. What brought you to Lake Winnipesaukee for the summer? Rather than answer me, Noah got up and walked into the house. The door slammed behind him. No, he didnt. Did he really just do that? I guess I cant ask him personal questions. Just as I was about to turn around and head home, the creak of the door startled me. He returned to the porch holding a buffalo plaid flannel shirt. He threw it at me, not so gently. Put that on. Cover yourself. Thanks. I slid my sleeves through the shirt and buttoned it up. It smelled like him, all manly and woodsyas if someone had bottled the scent of testosterone and sold it. I was already planning to sleep in this shirt. To my surprise, he returned to my earlier question. I needed to get away for a while. Picked this place randomly. Didnt run a background check to make sure it didnt come with a prying little innkeeper who doubles as a Fly Girl. He winked. Whats a Fly Girl? Shit. He sighed and looked down at his feet. That was before you were born. Well, what is it? A Fly Girl? Some kind of superhero comic strip? He laughed that hearty laugh I felt between my legs. There was this comedy show in the ninetiesIn Living Color. Jamie Foxx and Jim Carrey used to be on it. These dancers called Fly Girls would perform in between the comedy sketches before the commercials. Anyway, I was just making fun of your little hip-hop routine. Ill have to look it up online. Im kind of disappointed in myself for not knowing. Normally, Im pretty well-versed in nineties pop culture. I could feel myself blushing, and I didnt even know why. Clearing my throat, I asked, Do you work? He puffed on the cigar and smoke billowed out of his mouth as he said, Im taking a break at the moment. What do you do? He didnt answer right away. It seemed like he wasnt sure if he wanted to answer my questions. Im a photographer. Really? Thats so cool. Ive always wanted to learn photography. What kind of photos do you take? Everything from nature to portraits. You name it, Ive probably shot it. I used to work freelance for newspapers some years back. A wide variety. So you work for yourself now? Thats why you have the freedom to take time off? Yeah. I kept prodding. There are some really pretty shots you could get on the lake, particularly when the sun sets. Is that why you chose to come here? Photographic inspiration? No. Im not here to shoot anything. Im taking a break from that. Like I said, I chose this place randomly. It was far enough away but not too far from home. The main requirement was that it was quiet and peaceful, some place I could think. So, I guess Im interrupting your peace, then. Nahbotched water rescues are extremely relaxing. He smiled, and I returned it. God. I noticed his eyelashes. It seemed unfair for a man to have lashes that long. There was a bit of silence before I asked, You think Im a dork, dont you? Yes. I laughed at how quickly he answered. He didnt even have to think about it. He cracked another smile. Every time he smiled at me, I felt my insides stir. I felt like a damn fool, actually. I needed to slap my face to rid myself of this giddy feeling. I looked out into the distance to try to clear my head. Ive never seen the lake at night from this angle. Why not? You live here, right? I dont spend much time at the boathouse. Since childhood, Ive been conditioned to avoid the people renting it. My mother always made me stay away. Things are different now, of course, since the responsibility of this place has changed hands, but Im only ever here to take care of business. I dont spend quality time on this side of the property. Thats actually a good thing, he said. Because I wont be around to bother you? Well, that, too. But I was referring to the fact that growing up your mother made you stay away from the guests. There are a lot of bad people in this world. Having a business where strange people are coming and going cant be easy when you have kids. That reminded me of a time when it hadnt been just me. Whenever anything made me think of Opal, I felt incredibly sad. No way I was going to subject him to that right now, so I kept my thoughts to myself. He interrupted my rumination. Itll be getting dark out soon. Youd better go back to your house so your mother doesnt think something happened to you. She didnt even see me leave, probably doesnt realize Im gone. My mother stays in her room most of the timebecause of her depression. He seemed to process what Id just divulged. Im sorry to hear that. Its okay. Things were silent for a while. He looked around. You think youll keep this place forever? Its got to be expensive to keep up. Thats not counting all of the work you have to handle. It is a lot. And I really want to sell the whole property. Why cant you? It makes me sad to think about it, for one. The lakehouse and boathouse have been in my family for years, and I love living here. But I think selling is inevitable. The main house is too big for just my mother and me, and its too much land to maintain. My mother is open to the idea of selling. But theres a lot wed need to fix up before putting it on the market. Thats really the holdup. He held the cigar between his teeth and looked at me before inhaling. You have a lot on your plate. Its no wonder you dance around like a goon in the water. Whatever gets it out, you know? Thats right. Dancing is a stress-reliever. Noah stood up and walked off the porch to put his cigar out on the cement. When he returned, he remained standing across from me. I was reminded of just how tall he was as he towered over me. A breeze blew his scenta mix of cigar and colognein my direction. The same smell saturated the shirt I was wearing. I couldve breathed it in all night. His nearness was doing things to my body I hadnt ever felt. Noah looked around. You mentioned some stuff around here needs to be repaired. What specifically? I blew out a breath. Even thinking about it was exhausting. So much. Id have to make a list. Why dont you do that? Make a list. Im pretty good with my hands. Ill see if theres anything I can help with while Im here. Hed lost me at pretty good with my hands. My imagination was running wild. Shit. I imagined those hands doing a lot of thingsmostly to me. I cant let you do that. Youd be stupid not to take me up on it. I came for a change of pace, but the truth is, too much quiet isnt good. I like to keep busy. Biting my bottom lip, I shook my head. I dont know Make the list, he insisted. Noah was right. It would be dumb not to take him up on his offer. It wasnt like there was anyone else knocking down our door to help. I tilted my head. What would be in it for you? His expression turned dark. People dont always have to have ulterior motives. Suddenly feeling bold, I said, I thought maybe you would want me to go out with you in exchange. Did you hear that? It was a record screeching. I admit, that was ballsy, but being around him brought out my flirtatious side. Maybe his cologne and cigar smoke were going to my head. Youre joking, right? Okay. I shouldnt have asked. Actually, I Im practically old enough to be your father. Really? Thats how he saw me? I knew he was older than mebut he didnt seem that old. No way. Id pegged him as early thirties, though I truly had no idea how old he was. I shook my head. No, youre not. Thats a lie. An older brother, maybe. How old are you? Instead of answering, he took two steps forward. Let me make something clear. Okay I was not insinuating anything by offering to help. And I will not be asking you out, propositioning you, or going anywhere near you, for that matter. We clear on that? Okay, then. I swallowed. Disappointment washed over me as I cleared my throat. Yes. Good. He made his way toward the door, turning around one last time. Youd better go. It was nice chatting. Get me the list tomorrow. He disappeared into the house, leaving me on the porch to wallow in his lingering smell and feeling like a complete and utter idiot. *** Back in my room that night, I replayed his words. I will not be asking you out, propositioning you, or going anywhere near you, for that matter. We clear on that? God. His firm stance only made me more drawn to him. Its funny how that works. He treated me as if I were twelve. At twenty, Im old enough to date anyone I want. I dont care if theyre forty or eighty. A hundred years ago, the average lifespan of a woman was something like fifty. Id be almost halfway done with life by now. Once you hit eighteen, age is just a number. But apparently, that wasnt how Noah felt. Or maybe he was just using the age thing as an excuse. But heres the real issue: I was kidding around! (Sort of.) And he had to go and make it into a serious thing, make it known there was no way in hell anything would be happening between us. What was it about rejection that made me want him even more? My need to know more about him was pretty intense. I opened my laptop and typed into Google: Noah Cavallari photographer Pennsylvania. His website popped right up. It was the very first search result. Noah Cavallari Photography. Yup. That had to be him. I clicked on it. With a sleek black background, the main page of the site featured a slideshow of breathtaking images. From photos taken on African safaris to a presidential inauguration, Noahs career had run the gamut. According to his bio, he was born outside of Philadelphia and began taking photos at a young age. After majoring in photojournalism in college, hed spent most of his twenties working in construction for his father while taking photos on the side. Hed eventually been able to turn photography into a flourishing, full-time business. His career had taken him all over the world, but in more recent years, hed opened a studio and focused on private event photography and headshots. There were no photos of him on the site aside from the bio picture, where his face was covered by a gigantic camera lens. It showed just enough, though, to confirm that this was the Noah Cavallari living in my boathouse. Well, color me intrigued. He seemed to have a fabulous careerseemed to have it all. So that begged the question: Why is he here? I began to theorize. Oh my God. Is he dying? No. He seems too healthy, too virile. Running from the law? Nope. I did that background check. Came out clean. Why would he want to come here for three whole months? I didnt get it. A week or two, maybe. But why so long? What are you escaping from, Noah Cavallari? I was determined to find out. CHAPTER THREE HEATHER Two days later, a text came in from an unknown number. At Home Depot. What color exterior paint for the boathouse? Based on the question, I knew exactly who it was. Id forgotten Noah had my number. But I gave my number to all tenants in my welcome email in case they needed anything. The day after our talk at the lake, hed reminded me to make him the list and prioritize what needed to be done. Since the exterior of the boathouse was in shambles with the paint flaking off, Id listed that job as the top priority. I still couldnt believe he wanted to help. He certainly wasnt wasting any time getting started. Heather: How about a gray? The little dots danced as he typed. Noah: There are several shades of gray. I decided to be a wiseass. Heather: Fifty? ;-) Noah: Very funny. Heather: Thank you. Noah then sent a photo of a paint card with five gray options. Noah: Do you like any of these? Heather: So youre familiar with that book? Noah: Cut the shit, Heather. Heather: LOL. The second gray is perfect. There were no more texts after that. *** An hour later, I spotted Noah outside the boathouse, getting straight to work. I squinted at his shirtless physique as he rolled primer onto the wood. He was way too far away for my liking. If he was going to be working outside like this all summer, Id need to invest in a set of binoculars. My mother snuck up behind me. What are you looking at? Huh? I jumped, closing the curtain. Nothing. You were struggling to see something. Whats so interesting? I sighed. I was watching Noah paint the boathouse. Id told my mother about his offer to help. She was extremely skeptical, to say the least. I dont understand why hes doing that. Whats in it for him? He seems to want to help. He says he likes to keep busy. My mothers eyes narrowed. Youd better be careful. He might want something in return. I laughed. Believe me, I wish he did. But hes made it very clear he doesnt. Unfortunately, I believe him. She seemed concerned. It was strange to get any real emotion out of her lately. But the idea of something happening between the new tenant and me hit all the right buttons. You say that like youve offered something to him. I teased him about having an ulterior motive for helping, and he didnt take it very well. He snapped at me. He cant take a joke. Hes all business. He thinks Im jailbait and wants nothing to do with me. He thought I was a teenager when we first met. He treats me like one, too. You seem disappointed. Laughing under my breath, I said, I sort of am. Thats crazy, Heather. The last person you should get involved with is someone just passing through town. You dont know anything about this guy. Hes also too old for you. I dont know. He wont tell me his age. I chuckled. Well, I dont care what he claims, no man does what hes doing right now without an ulterior motive. You cant expect me to believe my beautiful, blond daughter has nothing to do with it. She was getting on my nerves now. I could see why she might think that. But she hadnt experienced what I had with Noah. I truly believed he wanted nothing to do with me, nor did I believe his intentions were anything but good. I know youre conditioned to think all men are bad. Based on your personal experience of Dad abandoning us, I cant even blame you. But thats not the case all the time. Her expression darkened. Ive already lost one daughter. I cant stand to lose another. She couldnt be serious. How is Noah painting the boathouse going to put my life in jeopardy? Think about what youre saying. I didnt mean hed harm you physically. But I cant afford to have you take off with some man. Dont be ridiculous. Youre taking this too far. He came here to get away from the daily grind for a while. He likes to keep busy and knows we could use the help. Theres nothing more to it than that. She wouldnt drop it. Im afraid there is. I might not be thinking clearly half of the time, but Im not blind. Youre my daughter. I know you. I can see that look in your eyes. Youre smitten. Women do crazy things for men theyre smitten with. And men? They may tell you one thing, but theyre weak. If you keep throwing yourself at him, he will give in. I shrugged. One can only hope. She rolled her eyes, none too pleased with my humor. Just be careful. *** That evening, I was just about dressed and ready to leave for my shift at the restaurant when I noticed someone over at the boathouse talking to Noah while he worked. My heart dropped. It was Kira Shaw, our closest neighbor. Kira was in her early thirties and divorced. With long red hair and killer curves, she was very attractive. She also always seemed to be dating a different guy. In fact, I used to babysit her boys while she went out on some of her escapades. She was perpetually on the prowl and had no issue with bringing different men into her bedroom while her sons were home. I knew right away she was making a play for Noah. And I didnt like it one bit. My pulse began to race. Sure, this jealousy was unfounded. I had no business getting involved, but I couldnt help myself. I didnt know much about Noah, but I knew he was intelligent, respectful, and seemed to be a decent human being. That was enough for me to know he deserved more than that washed-up skank in her ridiculously short shorts. She knew how to turn on the charm and could easily trick him. He wouldnt know to stay away from her unless I warned him. Like my mother said, men are weak. I knew Kira was going to act fast, so I needed to do the same. Under the guise of bringing him a cold drinksomething I probably should have done hours agoI filled a glass with ice water and marched over to the boathouse. Perspiring, I interrupted them. Thought you might be thirsty. Noah looked down at me from the ladder and wiped some sweat off his forehead before stepping down. He took the glass. Well, Im perfectly capable of walking into the house to get a drink, so you didnt have to do that, but thanks. I shrugged. Youre welcome. Its the least I can do. I turned to stare at Kira, trying to give her a hint that her presence wasnt welcome. She couldnt have cared less about me. Her eyes were fixed on Noahs ass as he climbed back up the ladder. Youve hit the tenant jackpot with Noah here, Heather. I shot daggers at her. I know, right? Are you heading to work? she asked. Yeah. But Im not in a rush. Dont have to be there for another hour. I crossed my arms. I was totally late for work, but no way was I leaving until skankface was gone. She suddenly seemed to pick up on my vibe. She turned to Noah. Well, think about dinner, Noah. Id love to have you, and I know the boys would love to meet you, too. Any night thats good for you works for me. You know where to find me for a hot meal and a cold beer. Sure. Thats all shes offering. Noah barely looked over at her as he continued to paint. Thanks. I was happy that he seemed noncommittal and uninterested about the whole thing. But the summer was long, and like my mother saidif a woman throws herself at a man enough, hell eventually give in. It wasnt like there were a ton of options around here. The mere thought of them together made my stomach sick. She nodded once. Good seeing you, Heather. You, too. After she was out of earshot, I said, Shes making a play for you with that dinner invitation. Noah continued painting and didnt look at me. You dont say Shes trouble. You dont want to get involved with her. How is it any of your business? Its not. But consider it a friendly warning. I know her. Shes with a different guy every week. Shes only out for one thing. He stopped for a moment, looked down, and smirked. Perfect, then. A rush of adrenaline coursed through my veins. You dont mean that. Waving the roller at me, he said, Is that why you came over here pretending to care about my thirst? Because you saw her talking to me? No, I lied. Come on, Heather. Ive been out here all day. If you were concerned about my hydration, you wouldve come a lot sooner. You came out here to stick your nose where it doesnt belong. Im just looking out for you. Why? You dont even know me. I attempted to answer. Because I had no good reason to give. There was no way I could admit the truththat I was jealous because she might have a chance with him because she was older and less emotionally high maintenance than me. Id better go. ImIm late for work. Id started to walk away when he called out from behind me. Thought you said you didnt have to work for another hour. I turned around and glared at him. He shook his head, laughing. Hes laughing at me. Again. Great. It seemed Noah was either scolding me or laughing at me. There was no middle ground. The only way to handle this and keep my pride in check was to continue walking away, which was exactly what I did. *** Jack Foleys Pub is known for its burgers, local beer selections, and pool tables. While not the fanciest of places, its a popular joint around the lake. Especially in the summer, Jack Foleys is a happening place any night of the week. Despite its brisk pace, my shift this evening had been uneventful until about 9PM when I looked toward the corner of the room and spotted him. Whats Noah doing here? Looking all broody and mad, he stared right at me. Still ticked off that hed called me out on my behavior earlier, I refused to acknowledge him. No way was I going to serve him. Can you handle table nine in the corner? I asked my friend and co-waitress Marlene. Why? That guy is my tenant, and I dont want to talk to him right now. She turned around to look at him. Jesus. I know. Why the heck are you avoiding him? I made a fool of myself earlier. Its a long story. Hes hot as hell, Heather. She bit her lip. Id be glad to service him. I asked if you would serve him, not service him. I watched as she waltzed over to Noah and said a few words, only to return a minute later. He asked if you could take his order. Shit. When I glanced over, he was looking straight at me. With a sigh, I walked over and made sure to match his cold demeanor. What can I get you? Shouldnt you be a little more cordial to your customers? Not when I know the customer is here to chastise me. His expression softened. Im not here to chastise you. No? Then why did you come here of all places? You know this is where I work. I came here intentionally, yesbut not to make trouble. I came to apologize. I inhaled and calmed down a bit. Really Yes. I was hard on you earlier. You were looking out for me. I snapped at you for no good reason. Im sorry. I can be an insensitive asshole sometimes. Its who I am. I dont hide it very well. Well, Im glad you see that. Not that youre an assholewhich, yes, you can be sometimesbut that I was only trying to look out for you. We stared at each other in silence before he spoke. Look, not that I owe you an explanation, but I didnt come to Lake Winnipesaukee to fuck around with women or complicate my life. I came to get away from stuff like that. So you dont need to worry about me and whats her name. I dont even remember what her name was, to be fair. All I want is to be left alonesome peace. Thats the truth. I seriously feel like you think Im this crazy buttinski. A what? Buttinski. Youve never heard that term? No. Is that a New Hampshire thing? No. I laughed. It means someone who meddles in other peoples business. Oh. Well, then, youre definitely that. He smiled. I felt goosebumps all over my body. This guy had the strangest effect on me. One minute I was dreading talking to him, and the next all I wanted to do was get lost in his big brown eyes. I cleared my throat and grabbed the pad of paper out of my apron. What can I get you? Ill take whatever you recommend. I didnt even look at the menu. I just came to say sorry, actually. But since Im here, I might as well eat. Ill hook you up. He cocked a brow. Should I be concerned? No. Im not gonna spike your food or anything, although maybe I should after the way you spoke to me today. I winked so he didnt think I was still hung up on that whole thing. I ended up asking the chef to make Noah one of his specialty burgers with mushrooms, Swiss, and fried onions. I handed Noah the plate with a heaping portion of garlic parmesan fries and watched as he devoured his meal. It gave me a strange pleasure to be feeding him, which was not something I could say Id ever felt before. Look at the way hes inhaling that food. Poor guy must have been starving after slaving away all day. I imagined what other things he might do with such vigor. I shook my head and forced myself back to work. Later, when he tried to give me his credit card, I held up my hand. Its on me. I cant let you do that. Seriouslyits on the house. Told the chef you were a friend. He insists. I paid for his meal with my own money. It was the least I could do after everything he was doing around the property. Well, thank you. It was really good. He put his card back in his wallet before throwing down a twenty, which defeated the purpose of my treating him. You okay getting home later? he asked. Yeah. I have my car. That clunker I see parked in front of your house? Yeah. It runs well enough, at least to get me here and back. Well, be careful driving home. He stood. Ill see you around. He wasnt even gone yet, and immediately my brain began plotting my next opportunity to see him. Without knowing exactly what I was going to say, I called after him. Noah He turned. Yeah? What now? I had nothing to say. I just didnt want him to leave. After a pause, I fabricated a story. My mother wants to meet youto thank you for your help with the house painting. She asked me to invite you over for dinner this weekon Thursday, my night off. Ill do the cooking, of course, because she isnt capable of making more than a sandwich lately. I told her you would probably say no, but I promised her Id ask. Noah chewed his bottom lip and seemed hesitant. He finally shrugged. Okay. Really? Youll come? Its just dinner, right? Why not? Thank you for the offer. I smiled wide. Great. Say seven? Yeah. Okay. He nodded. Goodnight. Night. I watched as he walked away and disappeared out the door. I was still in a haze when Marlene crept up behind me. Spill. Are you fucking that guy or something? I shook my head, eyes still on the door. No. Then why are you grinning like a fool right now? I am? Yes. So why arent you fucking him? Because he wont go near me with a ten-foot pole for starters. He treats me like a kid. I sighed. God, hesI dont knowdifferent. I cant figure him out Well, except for the fact that he doesnt seem interested. That part is pretty clear to me. You should figure out how to change that. Hes hot! I know. Hes really amazing looking, isnt he? But you know, Marlene, its not just that. Theres so much to him. Hes a talented photographer, like really creative. And hes handy as all hell. Hes been painting the boathouse to help us. No one asked him to. Hes doing it because he knows we need the help. Not to mention, he also tried to save my life. Tried to save your life? Long story. But things have definitely been more exciting since he moved in. The admiration is one-sided, though. Well, heck, anything to spice up your life. I think you need a change of pace with all the shit you have to go through with your mother. You deserve a little excitement. If only I could contain this giddiness. I had a feeling it was going to be a very long summer in that regard. I already felt myself spiraling out of control. CHAPTER FOUR NOAH I dont know why I agreed to dinner at Heathers. Something told me I was going to regret it. I guess I was curious as to what the deal was with her mother. I hadnt seen the woman once since moving in. She never came out of the damn house. It was fucked-up. Yeah. Thats the reason you agreed to dinner. Evidently, I was pretty good at bullshitting myself if I believed meeting Heathers mother was the reason Id said yes. Heather had batted her lashes at me at the restaurant, and I forgot my age for a minute when I stupidly agreed. It was hard to not feel like a goddamn horny college student around her. And that was dangerous. She was dangerousparticularly because she made no secret of her attraction to me. From the moment I saw her standing in my bedroom, Id noticed the way she gawked at me. She had no business looking at me like that, and I didnt like it one bit. Or maybe I didnt like that I liked it. As I strolled through the market, I stopped abruptly and looked down at what I was holding in my hand. You dumbass. Id selected a bottle of red wine to take to dinner tonight, completely forgetting that my gracious hostess was under the drinking age. I walked back over and returned the bottle to the shelf. What the hell else could I bring? The smell of fresh bread lured me to the bakery. With little time left, I grabbed a loaf of warm garlic bread before heading to the cash register. That would have to do. Hopefully she wasnt gluten-free or some shit. *** I took my time walking over to the main house. Still unsure whether Id made the right decision in agreeing to this dinner, I told myself I could always change my mind and cancel. Yet despite having the freedom to do that, I found myself in front of her door, knocking with that gigantic loaf of bread in my other hand. Someone I didnt expect opened the door. It wasnt Heather or her mother, but rather a guy who looked around Heathers age. Who are you? I asked, looking him up and down. Eric. Who are you? Before I had a chance to answer, Heathers dog came running toward me and rubbed his gigantic head all over my legs. He had the biggest freaking head Id ever seen on a dog. The guy repeated his question. So, who are you? I finally gave in and scratched the dogs head. Im renting the boathouse. Wheres Heather? What do you need from Heather? he asked, seeming defensive. Who the hell is this guy? I ignored his question. Where is she? Her mom isnt feeling well. Shes in the bedroom with her. I should probably just get the fuck out of here. Tell her I stopped b Wait! Heather suddenly appeared. Noah, dont go. The dog barked as if to echo her request. Whats going on? I asked. Heather seemed flustered. My mother doesnt want to come out of her room. This is typical of her. She looked over at the guy. I see youve met Eric. He was just leaving. He stared at her for a few seconds. Think about what I said, okay? Yeah, sure. She answered dismissively, without even looking at him. I mean it, Heather, he insisted. Goodbye, Eric. After he slammed the door, there was a bit of awkward silence. The dog walked over to the corner and planted himself on the floor now that the drama was over. Looking down at my shoes, I noticed they were pretty dirty. It had rained earlier, and Id stepped in some mud. I couldnt walk through the house like that. You mind if I kick these off? I asked. Theyre all muddy. I dont want to dirty your floor. Go for it. Heather said. She watched me remove my shoes. Your feet are huge. Thanks for the notification. In case you didnt know. She laughed. I changed the subject. So, who was that guy? I asked, taking a few steps into the living room, still overly conscious of my damn feet. Its a long story. Well, we dont have anything else to talk about at the moment. She let out a deep breath. Hes my ex. I wasnt expecting him to show up tonight. I didnt even know he was in town for the summer. He doesnt live here? No. He moved to Boston. We broke up shortly after he left for Boston University a couple of years ago. We were supposed to go to BU together, actually. And then things got really bad with my mother, so I never went. He went without me. We thought we could make it work long-distance, but he decided he didnt want to be tied down. Shit. You were supposed to go away to school? Yeah. I was enrolled in their nursing program. I shook my head. This girl had given up the most important time in her life to be a full-time caretaker at twenty years old. I thought about where Id been at her age: away at college with all of the freedom in the world. Id taken it all for granted. Im sorry to hear thatthat you couldnt go. Its okay. Ive gotten used to the idea. Anyway, I really wasnt prepared for him to show up here tonight. Listen, I know youre too polite to suggest this, but we can do this another time if your mom isnt feeling well. I can jus No! I invited you over. This is my night off. I dont want to waste it. Besides She looked down at my hands. You broughtbread. Id practically forgotten. Yeah. UghI didnt have much time to decide what to bring. I had a bottle of wine but then remembered you cant drink. Well, legally I cant, but I can certainly drink if I No, you cant. Not with me giving you the alcohol. She looked up at the ceiling. Okay, then. Waving her hand, she said, Please, come into my kitchen, grumpy. She took the bread. Can I get you something to drink? I stuck my thumbs in the loops of my jeans, feeling uneasy about this so-called dinner for two. Sure. Anything is fine. Seltzer okay? Yeah. Thanks. She popped open a can of cranberry-lime sparkling water from the fridge and handed it to me. She stood across from me and watched me take my first sip. Thank you for the bread. Her face looked flushed. God, you make me nervous, Noah, she added. And the fact that this night has turned into a clusterfuck is really not helping. On top of that, you wont even let me have a drink to calm down. No one could ever accuse this girl of not saying what was on her mind. She was honest to a fault. I didnt say you couldnt have a drink. I said I wasnt going to be the one to give it to you. Okay. She smiled. I was half-joking anyway. But I could use one right about now. Ironic that she claimed I made her nervous, because she made me downright uncomfortable. She stood across from me in a tight black shirt with her tits squeezed together. Her long, blond hair, which she typically wore up, was loose and cascading down her back, and her legs were on full display in a tiny denim skirt. I most definitely wasnt supposed to be noticing those thingsthus, the discomfort. Why do I make you nervous? I asked. You shouldnt let anyone have power over you like that. Theres no reason I should be making you nervous. Im just standing here. Its not what youre doing. Its who you are. From the moment we met, youve intimidated me. This dinner was supposed to be an attempt to get over that, but so far no luck. I didnt know what to say. I didnt like that I made her nervous, but maybe it was better this way. The alternativeme being overly nice to her and leading her onwouldnt be good, either. You know. I said. You shouldnt let people see you sweat. It doesnt matter what I think about you. My opinion is meaningless in the scope of your life. Oh, I know that. But I want to get to know you, and it would be nice to do that without constantly fucking things up. She looked back toward the bedroom. Im gonna go in and ask my mother to come out one more time, okay? You dont need to do that. Let her be. She wouldnt listen to me. Hang on. Ill be right back. After Heather disappeared upstairs, I wandered around the living room, expecting to find some photos to look at. There werent any, not a single one. Fatheadthat was the name Id made up for the dogstared at me. There was a large collection of figurines on a shelf, mostly children. Her voice startled me. I see youve found my Hummels. Is that what theyre called? Yes. I collect them. I was wrong about you, I teased. Youre not a teenager. Youre eighty. She chuckled. Dont make fun of my Hummels. Im joking. She moved closer to me. Theres a cool story behind them, actually. Yeah? There was this nunSister Maria Innocentia Hummel. Thats where they get their name. Anyway, she studied the arts before she gave up her life to join the convent. But even amidst that sacrifice, she never lost her identity. She continued her art, and shed draw these little people. Someone discovered her and made an agreement with her to make them into figurines. After World War Two, US soldiers stationed in Germany sent these to their families. I loved hearing that. To me, they represent nostalgia and innocencehope. They make me happy. Or, at least, at one time they did. Interesting. But not anymore? How long have you been collecting them? Since I was about eight. Id ask for them for birthdays and stuff. I stopped collecting them some years back, though. Why? Its a long story. She didnt elaborate. AnywayIm really sorry, but my mother doesnt want to join us. Shes having a bad day. This is very embarrassing. Theres no reason to be embarrassed about things that arent your fault. It hit me that this entire invitation was likely bullshit. She didnt really want to meet me, did she? You said that was the reason you invited me over. Once again, it didnt take much to get her to tell the truth. No, she admitted. I just wanted to have dinner with you. I sighed. I couldnt even be mad at her. So, lets have dinner, then. A look of panic flashed over her face. Dinnershit! She raced to the kitchen and opened the oven to remove a burned lasagna. I meant to take this out before Eric came by. He totally screwed me up, and until you said the word dinner, I didnt even remember I was baking it. She threw the potholder down in frustration. I dont do the cooking thing all that often, but I normally know how to make lasagna. She muttered, Shit. Its okay. Its just lasagna. No. It was supposed be a nice dinner. And I messed it up. Eric showing up really fucked with me. She almost looked ready to cry. Suddenly, all I cared about was making it better. Heyfuck the lasagna, okay? Its a beautiful night. And we have bread. We can eat it outside. She managed a smile. And salad. At least I couldnt burn the salad. Stepping into action, I headed for her cabinets. Heather followed. What are you doing? Im seeing what else you have that we can make real quick. I turned to her. Do you have canned tomatoes and pasta? Umyeahin the pantry. Perfect. Ill make pasta and a quick sauce to go with the bread. You dont have to do that. Its fine. I actually like to cook. Its therapeutic after a long day. You should do it more often then, because youre kind of wound up half the time. As nervous as she claimed I made her, that didnt stop her from being a little ball buster. Well, thats why I came to the lake, isnt it? To unwind? I cant help it if a certain someone keeps intercepting. She fetched me a large can of tomatoes. Do you really think Im a pain in the ass? I looked back at her as I filled a pot with water. You want to know the truth? She nodded. Yes. I shut off the water and placed the pot on the stove. She leaned against the wall, smiling and waiting for my answer. Im tough on you, but I dont think youre a pain in the ass. I actually admire you. Her eyes widened. Really? Youve made some pretty big sacrifices for your mother. Not just thatI see how hard you work, even saw you getting groceries for the old lady down the road, too. Youre a good person, and you find time for others even though you have a lot on your plate. Youve been stalking me? she teased. No. I was driving by when you were unloading your car and helping Mrs. Benson bring the stuff in. You didnt notice me. I still think you were stalking me. She winked and popped open a can of seltzer for herself. Hey, how did you know her name? Youve met Mrs. Benson? Oh, Ive met Mrs. Benson. Uh-oh. What did she do? I was driving by her house one day and noticed some wind had taken her mailbox down. I knocked on her door to give her the mail that had fallen out and let her know Id fixed it. And? Before I had the chance to tell her why Id knocked, she informed me that I was much better looking than the guys they normally sent her. Heather laughed out some of her seltzer. Oh no. You know where Im going with this, then. Yes. I accidentally found out one day when I went to check on her. Definitely not something Ill ever forgetlearning first hand that Mrs. B spends her Social Security check on male escorts. How old is she? I asked. Ninety. Damn. Well, she knows what she wants, I guess. She must have been pissed when she realized you werent on the menu. As I stirred the pasta into the pot, I changed the subject. So, what did Eric want? He told you to think about what he said Heather crossed her arms and blew a breath up into her hair. He wants me to agree to go out with him one night while hes home. He says he wants to talk about what happened between us. I dont know if thats a good idea. Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twiceyou know that saying. He hurt you pretty badly, huh? Well, we were together for a long time, throughout high school. I always knew there was a risk in him going away to college without me. I just didnt think hed call me drunk and in tears, confessing that hed messed up and slept with some girl at a campus party. Shit. Im sorry. She shook her head as if to dismiss my sympathy. You know what, though? He did me a favor. At least I didnt waste more time with him. You should never settle for someone like that. I dont care what he has to say to convince you otherwise. She continued to watch me cook until I plated two dishes of angel hair pasta and poured the red sauce over them. You okay with eating outside? I asked. Yeah, its a nice night. We took the food out to the back patio. The sun was halfway down. Scooting her chair in, she said, This is a real treat. I should be ashamed at the way this dinner turned out, but I have to say, its kind of nice being served by you. It might even be worth burning the lasagna. She grinned, and it took everything in me not to smile back. I pointed to her plate. Stop smiling and eat. Heather twirled her noodles around her fork. Cant stop smiling, but okay. I needed a lock for my jaw, because I was smiling now, too. It was contagious. We ate in silence for a while. Wiping my mouth with a napkin, I said, What would you want to be doing if this situation werent holding you back? Heather put her fork down and pondered my question. Well, I would be in college, probably halfway through. I think later Id want to get my masters to become a psychiatric nurse. But then Id also want to find some other things Im passionate aboutlike you have with your photography. Your photos are amazing, Noah. Truly. Ive been meaning to tell you that. Id never shown her my work. You Googled me, I take it. Yeah. Hope you dont mind. Your photos from Havana were breathtaking. Ive visited that page on your site several times. How did those pictures come about? What made you choose Cuba? It impressed me that out of everything on the site, shed taken notice of that piece. The photos werent easy to look at, but they were real with a powerful message. Those particular shots were all in black and white. It was an assignment for a newspaper five years ago. You could say it chose me. I was working freelance at the time and traveled there with a reporter for a feature on the current state of Cuba and its people. It was one of my longest times away from home, actually. Only the photos are on my site, not the accompanying story. Well, thats the beauty of it. The photos tell the story even without the full explanation, which proves your talent. Im not just saying that. Believe me, Im a terrible liar. Your work is really amazing. I was never good at accepting compliments, especially about my work. But I tried. Thank you. Will you tell me more about it? The Cuba trip specifically? She leaned in, her eyes full of wonder. Yeah. For some reason, I felt like obliging. I dont know if you noticed the shots of the teenagers with tattoos. Theres this underground punk culture of young people there. Many of them were high on amphetamines when we were taking those photos. Have you ever heard of Los Frikis? she asked. I nodded, surprised. Yeah. Actually, I learned about them when I was there. Those kids reminded me of a modern-day version of that. Hopefully things are better for the people you photographed than they were for their predecessors. I remember reading about Los Frikis and being totally blown away that some of them intentionally injected themselves with HIV to escape their own government. Imagine being forced to do manual labor or imprisoned just because you look different? So you make yourself sick to escape danger by being put in a quarantined sanitarium? That tells you how bad things had to be. It breaks my heart. I knew my eyes were wide. Where did you learn about that? I read an article about it some time ago. Some things you just never forget. Youre right. What about the photos of the little kids? That was an orphanage. Oh, thats sad. I stared down into my plate, thinking back to one kid in particular who still had a little piece of my heart. There was this one little boy. His name was Daniel. He was only five. He had mitochondrial disease. Ive heard of that. What is it exactly? Its an inherited condition that affects various parts of the body, like the cells of the brain, nerves, muscles, kidneys, heart. His speech was impaired, and he was confined to a wheelchair. For some reason, he really took to me, kept reaching for me during the week we were there. The first time I met him, I was snacking on a clementine. He grabbed it from me and started eating it. The woman at the orphanage said he never did stuff like that, never interacted so easily with someone. My connection to him was strange but profound. I ended up bringing him clementines every day. I really wished I could have done something more for him. Like taken him home? It crossed my mind, believe it or not. I never stopped thinking about himto the point that I contacted the orphanage a year later. What happened? It was hard to talk about. They had closed down. I have no idea where any of those kids are now. It haunts me to this day. Oh no. What were you planning to dowhen you called them? I dont know. I honestly cant tell you. I just wanted to make sure he was okaymaybe find out how I could help him financially. I made some calls, but no one could tell me what happened to the kids who were there. Thats scary, but you know, the fact that you were still thinking about him after you left and wanted to help speaks to your character. It had been a long time since anyone looked at me with admiration in their eyes. If only I deserved it. Over the next half-hour, Heather listened as I told her more stories from my travels. She was more interested in the people Id met along the way than the places Id visited, which I found to be telling about the kind of person she was. As a cool summer breeze came in from the lake, Heathers mother appeared at the sliding door. Heather took notice and said, Mom, come join us. No. I just came out to take my pill. Im going back to my room. Its a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Chadwick, I said. Call me Alice. I got up and extended my hand. Noah Cavallari. She took it. I guess this is my opportunity to thank you for your help. As I sat back down, I said, No thanks needed. Like I told Heather, I actually enjoy physical labor. My daughter insists that you have no ulterior motive, but Im not entirely sure I believe that. Great. Fuck. I can assure you I dont. How old are you, sir? Shit. I hadnt wanted to divulge my age, mainly because I knew Heather was so damn intent on knowing it. But I couldnt lie. Thirty-four. Heather looked at me, and I knew exactly what she was thinking: that thirty-four wasnt that old. Id told her I was old enough to be her father because a part of me wanted her to believe I was older than I am, so she wouldnt get any ideas. Well, thats too old for Heather, but she seems quite smitten with you. Heather looked mortified. Mom.please. But Alice kept going. The last thing she needs is to be taken for a ride and used by a man passing through town. Shes vulnerable and wears her heart on her sleeve. Unless you plan to stay here in Lake Winnipesaukee, which I highly doubt, I suggest you proceed with caution. Heather gritted her teeth. Stop. I needed to nip this in the bud. I dont know how many ways I can say it, Mrs. ChadwickAlicebut I dont have any romantic intentions toward your daughter. Shes far too young for me. I didnt come here to make my life more complicated, just the opposite. So your worries are futile. She looked at me skeptically for a few seconds. Well, thats good, then. I needed to get out of here now. Not only was this woman making me completely uncomfortable, but Heather looked ready to cry or explode. The longer I stayed, the worse this situation would get. On that note, I want to thank you, Heather, for a very nice dinner. Im going to take my plate inside to the kitchen and let myself out. Uncharacteristically, Heather didnt protest. In fact, she didnt say a word. That told me how upset she really was. As I exited the kitchen and headed toward the door to put my shoes on, I noticed one of them was missing. What the hell? From the corner of my eye, I felt Fathead staring at me. Not only that, my shoe was in his mouth. Buddy, I need that. He growled as I approached. When I held out my hand, he booked it upstairs. Are you kidding me? I wasnt going to chase him, so I decided to leave with one damn shoe on. As I walked down the driveway, a strange feeling followed me back to the boathouse. And it wasnt my foot in a muddy, wet sock, either. It was anger. I was mad that Heather lived as a virtual prisoner to her mothers needs. She deserved to live her life, go to college, travel, and do whatever she damn well pleased. This had been going on for a whilesince she was a teenager. But more than that, I was mad at myself. As much as I didnt want to admit it, Id enjoyed sitting outside and talking to her more than Id enjoyed anything in a really long time. And that wasnt part of the freaking plan. CHAPTER FIVE HEATHER How could you do that to me? I scolded. Im just trying to protect you, my mother said. By embarrassing the living hell out of me? That man has been nothing but respectful. First, you bail on dinner. Then you scare him away with bullshit. Every word that came out of my mouth is the truth. What does he want with you if hes leaving at the end of the summer? Now I was screaming. He wants nothing! I already told you he isnt interested in me that way. Why cant you understand that? He hasnt tried a damn thing, and you just made a fool of yourself and me. Youre acting as though Im a child. I am almost twenty-one years oldan adult. I dont understand what part of that you dont get. I took my plate. I cant do this. I need to go to my room. HeatherIm sorry. I was just I cant! I yelled as I walked away. My mother was a lot to handle, but I loved her and knew she meant well. She truly believed she was somehow protecting me. But I still couldnt stand to look at her for the rest of the night. After I took a shower to calm down, I texted Noah. Heather: Im sorry. Im totally mortified. A few seconds later, he responded. Noah: Dont be. Heather: Im embarrassed about how she treated you. Noah: You have nothing to be embarrassed about. You didnt do anything. There was something I really wanted to get off my chest. Heather: You dont have to feel sorry for mefor my situation. I can tell you do. I have a choice, you know. I couldve left home. I made the choice to stay. I could see he was typing a response. Noah: I know that. Heather: So34, huh? Noah: Yes. Heather: Thats not that old. Noah: Still old enough to be your father. Heather: Yeah, if you were 14 when you had me! Noah: Technically possible. Heather: You had me thinking you were in your forties, though I never thought you looked it. This makes more sense. Noah: Theres a world of difference between 34 and 20. The only thing standing between thirty-four and twenty right now was the short walk to the boathouse. I couldnt contain what I was feeling. Wed been connecting out there tonight. I could feel it. I wanted to see him again. Heather: Can I come over? After a minute, he finally texted back. Noah: I dont think thats a good idea. Id been bracing for that response, but it was still a bummer. Heather: Ok. I felt so defeated. Even if he wasnt interested in me romantically, I wasnt ready to say goodnight to him. Okaymaybe part of me still hoped he would change his mind about me. Several minutes later, the last thing I expected was for my phone to chime again. Noah: Unless My heart skipped a beat as I typed. Heather: Unless what? Noah: Unless theres leftover bread. We never touched it. Did you throw it out? Ive been jonesing for it. Heather: No! I forgot about it. Its still sitting on the counter. Noah: Well, it would be a shame to let it go stale. You should bring it over and Ill throw it in the toaster oven. Breadand a side of youwould be great. I couldnt stop smiling as I responded. Heather: Be there in five. *** I shouldve known he had no plans to invite me inside. Noah was out smoking a cigar on the porch when I arrived. I guess I couldnt blame him. Aside from a small table, the entire boathouse was pretty much a bedroom. There wasnt even a couch, just the bed and a kitchenette. We would have had to sit on the bed, and I knew he wasnt having that. So I said. Teddy brought me this as I was walking out the door. Noahs big shoe landed with a thud after I tossed it to the ground. Is that his name? I call him Fathead in my mind. He chuckled. He does have a really big head. Biggest one Ive ever seen on a dog. Id have to agree with you on that. Yeah, he had my shoe in his mouth when I was leaving, then took off with it. I didnt feel like chasing him upstairs, so I let him have it. I think taking your shoe was him trying to get you to stay. Why didnt you come get me instead of walking home with one shoe? Sometimes you have to know when to walk away, even if its without your shoe. You know what Im saying? Yeah. Unfortunately, in this case, I do. I dont blame you for booking it out of there. I sighed. Your mother is just looking out for you. I wouldnt trust me, either. Why did I trust Noah so implicitly? It was a gut feeling, I guess. Ill put the bread inside, I said, squeezing past him and making my way into the house. After placing the loaf next to the toaster oven, I returned to the porch. I sat right next to him, and he automatically moved a few inches away. He seemed very conscious of my closeness, and I could tell it made him uncomfortable. I just didnt know the reason whywhether he didnt like it, or he liked it but didnt think he should like it. Noah blew out a couple of smoke rings. His hair was wet from the shower. Thinking about him taking a shower made my nipples hard as I imagined the water streaming down that carved back to his muscular ass. He had changed into a fitted white T-shirt that hugged his chest. I looked down at his forearms and imagined him using them to lift me. I loved the way the veins protruded. Since Id also taken a shower, I chose my words carefully to gauge his reaction. Looks like we both had the same idea. We showered together tonight. His Adams apple moved as he swallowed. Had my comment created a visual? Theres definitely something there. He remained quiet, so I said, I dont know why, but I have this feeling theres more to you being here than youve said, that theres a reason you ran away from your life. Its none of my business, and it doesnt matter. Im just glad youre here. Youre right about that. That youre hiding something? That its none of your business. He blew out some smoke and ignored my quest for more information. I assume you didnt tell your mother you were coming over. No, but it doesnt matter. Im an adult. She can state her opinion, but she cant tell me how to live my life. Ive given up enough by staying home with her and running things around here. Im not letting her tell me who to spend time with on top of that. I gestured to his cigar. Can I try it? No. Come on. You dont buy me wine. The least you could do is let me have a puff. Ive never tried a cigar before. He flicked some of the ashes and let out a frustrated breath before handing it to me. I wrapped my lips around it, noticing the wetness from his mouth. It made me long to feel his actual mouth on mine. His eyes were glued to my lips as I inhaled and coughed. Handing it back to him, I coughed again. Thank you. Noah was amused. What did you think? Not for me. He chuckled. We were silent for a bit and then he asked, Why are you looking at me like that? I hadnt realized Id been looking at him funny. But I knew the answer. Because theres so much I want to know about you, but Im afraid youll chew my head off if I start prying. Youre probably right. He stared down at the cigar in his hand before he turned to me. What do you want to know, buttinski? Everything. Too much. I sighed. But for starters, why is a catch like you not married at thirty-four? Youre assuming I havent been down that road already. My heart nearly stopped. You were married? He looked down at his cigar, then up at me. Yes, I was. Wow. What happened? He blew out some smoke as he gathered his thoughts. Well, I could lie and tell you we grew apart because we got married young or some shit, but that wouldnt be the only reason. The truth isI was a selfish bastard who put myself first. I chose to travel half of the time instead of being home, and I didnt give her the attention she deserved. She found what she needed in someone else. So, if thats your definition of a catch, maybe you should reassess. Holy crap. Noah had been married. I was still trying to wrap my head around it. Youre formally divorced? As of three years ago, yeah. Do you regret how it ended? I regret how I acted, that I was a shitty husband, but Im not sure I regret that it ended. The experience made me realize Im not really cut out for marriage, and she found someone who is. So it worked out in the end. Do you still speak to her? Do you ever stop with the questions? No. I grinned sheepishly. He sighed. Yeah, I just spoke to her today. Really? Were friends. Shes remarried now. But she still checks in on me from time to time. Well, thats nice, at least, that youre on good terms. Weve known each other a long time, since we were kids. We started out as friends. I suppose were ending that way, too. Wow, I said, soaking in everything hed told me. We sat in silence for a bit, and then I realized something. Were both in the same situation now. He lifted his brow. Youre divorced, too? No, what I mean isyou like to point out that I havent lived, that youve gone to college, traveled the world, and now, come to find out, youve been married. Our lives couldnt have been more differentup until this point. Yet, here we are in the very same place looking at the same moon by the lake, both single and uncertain of the future. Dont ask me how I know that about youthat youre in some kind of limboI just do. Were both in the very same place in life despite our past experiences and the years between us. Am I right? Were not so different, Noah. Were not. Maybe you were meant to meet me. He just looked at me and mocked, So deep, you are. I laughed. Asshole. I see I dont make you nervous anymore. Im not nervous at this point in time, no. Good. Noah stared into my eyes. Maybe what Id said about us crossing paths had resonated with him. He seemed to be pondering something. What happened to your mother? he finally asked. Not that depression needs a reason, but how long has she been that way? Do I tell him? My sister killed herself. It felt strange to utter those words aloud. This was the first time Id spoken about it with someone other than my therapist. A dark cloud crossed Noahs face. Im sorry, Heather. She was only twenty-five. Her name was Opal. She had some mental problems. She would act out when she wasnt taking her meds. Sometimes she was okay, and other times not. She ran away from home when she was my age. I looked up at the night sky. My sister was gorgeous, so it was scary to think she was out there on her own. We couldnt stop her from leaving. We tried. But she was an adult. She originally left with a boyfriend, but they broke up. Then she just wandered from city to city, taking odd jobs when she was on her meds and could hold one down. Wed beg her to tell us where she was, but all shed do was call from time to time to let us know she was okay. We didnt realize how bad things had gotten until we received a call that shed overdosed on pills at a motel off the highway in Connecticut. That was the worst night of my life. And my mother has blamed herself ever since for not doing more to make Opal come home. Its why shes so terrified of losing me. The whole situation just sucks. Noah closed his eyes momentarily. He seemed very affected by my story. It made me wonder if hed experienced loss, too. Im so sorry, he repeated. That had to have been hard. Feeling emotional, I wanted nothing more than to distract from the sad thoughts. At the same time, thinking about my sister reminded me how short life is. Yes. Life is short. Tomorrow isnt guaranteed. All we have is today. If you have something to say, say it. Im very attracted to you, I blurted. The words escaped my mouth before I could think about what saying them would mean. Noah looked as if he didnt quite know how to respond, but he shot me down. Dont Despite his warning, I kept going like a runaway train. I know you think Im too young for you. But Im just gonna be honest. I dont live a very exciting life. I do what I have to do, then wake up to another sunrise on the lake each day. I go to work and take care of my responsibilities. But for some inexplicable reason, since you moved in, something has awakened inside of me. I wake up excited. Im very drawn to youand very attracted to you. I dont know if you feel the same way, or if maybe youre trying not to because you think my age automatically makes me immature. I can assure you Im not. Never in my life have I admitted my attraction to someone like Im doing right now. Ive never done anything like this. I I cant, Heather. He lowered his voice and repeated, I cant. A brisk evening wind suddenly blew things around. It was as if Mother Nature was trying to help distract from my embarrassment. We sat through a few seconds of awkward silence until he said, Im flattered that you feel that way about me. I really am. And I think youre beautifulinside and out. But nothing can happen between us. I felt nauseous. Oh my God. Why did I just do that? I knew why. I wanted him so badly I was willing to risk looking like an idiot for the chance to experience being with him. And it backfired. Big time. One thing about me, though? I didnt need to be told twice. Okay, maybe this was the second time hed made his lack of intentions toward me clear. But I didnt need to be told a third time, and I vowed never to make an ass of myself in front of Noah Cavallari again. WellI guess Ill chalk this experience up to practice in putting myself out there and accepting rejection. I stood. Today has not been my day. I think Im gonna turn in. You dont have to go. Noah stood up, too. Stay. I really need to call it a night. He didnt fight me on it. Alright Disappointed in my impulsive behavior, I swore at myself under my breath the entire walk home. And I was still feeling self-destructive when I got there, because when I returned to my room, I did the one thing I knew I would end up regretting. Taking out my phone, I scrolled down to Erics name. Heather: I can meet you tomorrow night. CHAPTER SIX NOAH With hard strokes, I took out my frustration on the house as I painted the next morning. Heathers words from last night kept playing in my head as I rolled the paint over the wood of the boathouse. Im very drawn to youand very attracted to you. Id felt like a piece of shit after she left. Shed taken my rejection personally, when that was the last thing I wanted. I still had no clue if I was going to tell her why Id left Pennsylvania to come here. But I knew I needed time without complications. And my twisted feelings for Heather were starting to become a complication. Shit, if theres anything sexier than a woman who isnt afraid to ask for what she wants. But Heather wasnt exactly a woman. She had a lot of growing up to do. While she was old enough to know what she wanted sexually, she wasnt old enough to know what was good for her. That would only come with time and years of experience. I wasnt going to be the one to teach her about the kind of guy not to get involved with. She needed someone grounded, who would make a good husband to her someday, not someone messed up in the head whod already proven incapable of marriage. More than anything, she didnt know the truth. I could never take advantage of her advancesno matter how hard it was to resist. It didnt matter that she was drop-dead gorgeous, that I was horny as fuck, or that she seemed to be the only person capable of making me smile. Though I continued to ruminate while painting, at one point, the sound of music playing registered. I got down from the ladder and took a little walk to see where it was coming from. MMMBop by Hanson. Sure enough, it came from Heathers room. It was like the nineties threw up in there. I was tempted to yell up to her window and tease her, but after last night, I didnt think shed appreciate it. So I bit my tongue, shook my head, and walked back to the boathouse. *** Later that afternoon, I was back up on the ladder when my heart nearly dropped to my stomach. I looked over to see someone standing on the roof of the main house. The structure was three stories high, so anyone who fell off was going to be seriously injured. It didnt take long for me to figure out it was Heather. What the hell is she doing on the roof? She was looking down as if she waspondering jumping? I found it hard to believe she would ever do that. Why then? Adrenaline pumped through me as I climbed down and ran toward the house. With my heart pounding, I called up to her, Heather! What are you doing? She put her hand on her chest. Oh my God. You scared the shit out of me. I held my hand over my forehead to block the sunlight. I scared you? Get down! Are you crazy? Why? Because you could fall. Why are you up there? I swallowed, terrified of her answer. Its an exposure exercise, she said. What? What the hell are you talking about? I have a massive fear of heights. Ive been listening to this podcast on facing your fears, and the doctor says to overcome any fear, you have to challenge yourself, expose yourself to it. I decided to climb up here and experience the fear for a bit, to habituate to it. My mouth hung open. Thats the craziest thing Ive ever heard, especially when you can fall and break your neck in the process. She crossed her arms and looked down at me. What did you think I was doing up here? After a moment, her face changed. Oh my God, Noah. You didnt think I was going to jump? I let out a long breath as my heartbeat started to return to normal. I dont know what I thought. But what in Gods name else would someone be doing up on the roof, standing there and looking down at the ground? I cant believe you thought I was going to off myself. Whatdid you think your rejection last night put me over the edge? She started to laugh. As sick as it was under the circumstances, I was happy to hear her joking about last night. Id been worried Id hurt her. You do realize this is the second botched attempt at saving my life youve had since your arrival, right? she shouted down. I shook my head and couldnt help but laugh. She climbed carefully down the ladder and walked over to stand in front of me. Youre insane, you know that? I said. You scared me. Im not gonna lie. But now I see how ridiculous the whole thing is. Her face turned serious. Do you really think I could do that to my mother after what happened to my sister? That question hurt my chest. I wasnt thinking. I saw you up there, and I freaked out for a second. I had no idea what you were doing. She reached out to pinch my cheek, letting her hand rest a bit on my face. Its cute that you cared. My body went rigid at her touch. I was way too aware of the fact that it was the first time Id felt her hands on me. You headed into work? I asked, trying to shake off this weird experience. Nough, I actually took the night off. Good. You deserve a break. Going anywhere? She looked down at her feet for a moment. Eric is picking me up. My stomach sank. The asshole ex is taking her out? Oh. Yeah, I decided to have dinner with him, to at least hear him out. I knew I should stay out of it, but. You really think he deserves that? She shrugged. I dont know. Youre allegedly the more mature one here. You tell me. Doesnt everyone deserve a second chance? A man who fucks around on his woman doesnt deserve jack shit. Hes a coward. Did you cheat on your wife? This girl did not hold back. No, not physically. But there are other ways to hurt someone. Like how? Give me an example. Well, you can want something else. Thats not quite the same as cheating, but in a sense, its a form of betrayal. So you emotionally cheated on your wife? I didnt say that. But the mere desire for something outside of your marriagewhether that be another person or another life altogetherthat can be like a betrayal. You have to know how to walk away when it gets to that pointbefore you hurt the person. And thats what you did. I hesitated. Yes. Basically. How did we go from you trying to save me from jumping off the roof to talking about your personal life? This seems to be the way with you. One second Im getting involved in your asinine shit, the next youre sticking your nose where it doesnt belong. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. She laughed. Then it ends with me running home with my tail between my legs. That made me chuckle. Sounds about right. Ill take your advice on Eric into consideration, she said as she suddenly headed back toward the house. I forced my eyes to the ground when I caught them lingering on her ass as she walked away. Stay safe, I called out. *** It was past midnight, and she hadnt come home yet. I knew I shouldve just gone to bed and minded my own damn business, but my butt seemed glued to the porch. I told myself I needed to make sure she got home safely, and then Id call it a night. But with each passing minute, I became more convinced shed decided to spend the night with him. Could I really blame her? It wasnt like I was giving her horny little ass what shed asked me for. That meant she was going to get it from somewhere else, whether I liked it or not. I just wished it wasnt with an undeserving asshole whod already hurt her. A flash of light appeared from down the gravel road leading to Heathers house. I stood up to get a look and realized it was the same red Civic that had picked her up earlier. I watched as he let her out. When the car took off, she hadnt moved from the front steps. I struggled to see in the darkness, but thanks to an overhead light on her porch, I could make out her shoulders rising and falling. Her head was in her hands as she sank to sit on the step. She was crying. Fuck. What did he do to her? My blood was pumping. Against my better judgment, I felt my feet moving, one in front of the other, as if they were going with or without my approval to the main house. Hey, I called. Are you alright? She jumped. You scared me. Second time today I did that. She wiped her eyes. I know. I was out on my porch having a smoke, and I saw you with your head down. Im fine. You dont look fine. Its not what you think. What happened? She shook her head. Im not crying because he hurt me. Im crying because I found the strength to turn him down when I was feeling weak. In the midst of my vulnerability, I found my self-worth. And it feels really good. These arent sad tears. She sniffled. You were right. Once a cheater, always a cheater. Even if he never cheated on me again, I wouldnt be able to look him in the eyes and fully trust him. Ever. I deserve better. Damn. Good girl. Im proud of you. I took a seat next to her on the steps. She turned to look at me. Im sorry for putting you in an uncomfortable position last night. I dont know what came over me. I hadnt expected her to bring that up. Dont even think about apologizing. Theres nothing to apologize for. You were being forthright, and I admire your honesty. Thats why I owe you the very same. This was my opportunity to explain myself, so I took a deep breath in. I need you to know that my turning you down has nothing to do with you. Im wrong for you in so many ways, and knowing that, I cant take advantage of the situationno matter how tempting it might be. Rejection stings, she said. But I dont regret saying those things because I would never know how you feel otherwise. Now I do. You dont have to worry about me doing something like that again. I only have to be told onceor twice. The bottom line is, I heard it loud and clear. I wont be coming onto you again. I dont knoware sure you can resist? I winked. I can manage. She laughed and wiped the remnants of her tears. Can we be friends? I smiled. Yeah. The tension in the air was thick, but at least she didnt seem mad. She looked up at the sky and yawned. Im tired, but Im totally wired at the same time. I wont be able to sleep. Will you stay up with me for a little bit? Considering everything shed just told me, that seemed innocent enough. Sure. I liked hanging out with Heather. Did you end up eating the bread? she asked. I laughed. Nobut Im pretty sure its stale by now. Not if you toast it, she said. Want to try? I stood up. Sure. Lets do it. Our shoes scraped along the gravel as we walked together back to the boathouse. Crickets chirped. It was another beautiful night on the lake with the moon casting a glow over the property. Heather waited on the porch while I went inside to toast the garlic bread. She seemed to know the drill; I never invited her inside, so she didnt bother to try to follow me. After I brought the bread out, I sliced a piece and handed it to her. Heather moaned as she took it into her mouth. My traitorous dick twitched at the sound, and I did my best to ignore that. She spoke with her mouth full. Who knew day-old bread could taste so good? It is pretty damn good, I agreed, taking a big bite. Its mmmbop. MMMBop. I cracked myself up. Heather stopped chewing. That song wasumit was just playing on the On your iPhone. It was playing on your phone because you put it there, because you like cheesy nineties music. Nothing to be ashamed of. Hey, its the decade I was born into. I have a special appreciation for it. I missed a lot of good stuff when I was too young to remember, apparently. So maybe I do enjoy the occasional unique song. I have a feeling its more than occasional. In fact, Id love to see what else is on that phone. She bit into more bread. Youre never gonna find out. I hoped she knew I was teasing. I mean, her taste in music wasdifferent. But so was shein a good way. She leaned her head against the side of the house and closed her eyes, almost looking ready to fall asleep, but then she opened them and stared out toward the lake. It hit me in this moment how comfortable she made me feel. (Well, she made me feel comfortable, and that made me uncomfortable.) Heather was the type of person you could just hang out with in silence. She gave the impression that you could tell her anything and she wouldnt judge. At the same time, it was okay to say absolutely nothing at all and just be. Before coming to the lake, I hadnt known what to expect from this place. I sure as hell wasnt planning to feel so at peace here. It had crossed my mind that I could live this simple life forever. That wasnt an option, but it was a nice thought. As if she could read my mind, Heather asked, So, whats your next step? Next step? What will you do when August ends? Return to Pennsylvania, get back to work? Yeah. I cant leave my business for too long. Or my father. Is your father ill? No, but hes the only family I have there. My mom and my brother whos married with three children all live in Minnesota. She grinned. Uncle Noah. Yeah. I smiled, thinking about my two nephews and niece. My mother moved there to be closer to my brother and his kids. Your parents are divorced, then. Yeah. Ever since I was about your age. Well, Id say sorry, but sometimes divorce can be a good thing if the situation that preceded it was unbearable. Thats very true. In my parents case, though, it was amicable. I paused a moment. What about your parents? You havent mentioned your father at all. My father remarried when my sister and I were young. He has two daughters with his new wife, and I barely see him. They live in western Massachusetts. He returns to the lake once a year, stays at a hotel, and comes over for dinner. He mostly criticizes my mother and me, then leaves. I dread that visit because my mother is always a wreck the entire week before, during, and after. Well, even more of a wreck than she already is. Shit. That couldnt have been easy for herthat her dad had another two daughters he spent all of his time with. Overall, he sounded like an ass. That must be hard for you Yes, but I cant change it, so I try to accept it. Aside from his yearly visit, I go to visit them a couple of times a year. I was always more accepting of the situation than Opal, but she had other issues affecting her reactions to things. She saw my father leaving as pure abandonment. Ive tried to see it differentlythat sometimes people dont get things right the first time around in life. He seems happy now. I know he regrets leaving us the way he did. Hes told me so. Even though knowing that doesnt make it any easier, I forgive him. I admire how you handle what youve been dealt, I said. All I can do is my best. I try not to dwell on the sad stuff, and I try to find some happiness in every day, even if its only one thing. What was your happiness today? She looked me straight in the eyes. Thishanging out with you. I cut her another piece of bread to deflect how that made me feel, which was all sorts of fucked-up inside. If she asked me that question, my answer would be the same. I watched her chew on the bread. It was oddly sensual, giving her food piece by piece and watching her eat it. Or maybe that was my depraved mind wishing I could give her something more. Maybe in a different time, a different world, that would have been possible. But in this reality, Heather was too good for me, too innocent and pure. Though Id tried to convince myself I wasnt supposed to view her sexually, my body didnt agree. It thought Heather was fantastically beautiful. With her long, silky blond hair and laid-back attitude, she was sort of like Barbies down-to-Earth cousin. She had an understated beauty and a personality to matcha great sense of humor. Her body, while athletic, had subtle curves in all the right places. As she stretched her long legs out on the porch, I had the urge to rub my hand along the blond fuzz on her thighs. She kicked her shoes off, displaying dainty feet. My attraction to her would have to stay my dirty little secret, because I wouldnt be laying a hand on her. She licked her lips. SoEric thinks somethings going on between us. Oh yeah? And I sort oflet him believe it. Good. Serves him right. I was hoping youd be okay with that. Fuck yes, I am. If Id known what hed done to you when I met him that night at your house, I would have played it up, made him feel like the little shit he is. I appreciate that you would do that for me. My feelings for Heather were complicated, but more than anything, I felt protective of her. I would do anything to make the prick whod cheated on her jealous. We stayed on the porch talking for a couple more hours. After she left, I lay in my bed, staring out at the moon as my mind raced. It felt like I had a mission, and I was running out of time. I needed to help her get out of this place. I could only do so much while I was in New Hampshire, but I needed a plan. I would fix as much around here as possible so she could put the property on the market. Maybe she could get her mother into some kind of retirement community where people could help look after her. Getting Alice into a different situation was gonna be the toughest part. But if that could happen somehow, then Heather could go to college and follow her dreams. CHAPTER SEVEN HEATHER About a year ago, Id decided I really needed to talk to a professional. Remote therapy seemed like a good option since there werent a ton of qualified therapists near me who took my insurance. Id found a woman based out of New York who did. In the beginning, wed talked a lot about how Opals suicide and my mothers depression were impacting me, but as of late, we were focused on my general well-being. Dr. Vaughan popped up on the screen. Hi, Heather. Can you hear and see me okay? Yes. Crystal clear. Good. How have you been? Pretty good, actually. Okay. Great. She looked down at her notes. Lets seethe last time we spoke, you told me about a man whod moved onto your property. It was nice to hear you excited about something. How are things going with that situation? When wed spoken a month ago, Noah had just moved in. Id described my attraction to him and admitted I was holding out hope that something might happen between us over the course of the summer. Things had changed. Well, unfortunately, my excitement was a bit premature. Noah has turned out to be a great friend and a huge help around the property, but he made it clear hes not interested in me romantically or sexually. She took some notes, then asked, How did he explain that to you exactly? Isort of took a chance and made an advance toward him one night, let him know I was attracted to him. That was very brave. Yeah, well, he was quick to explain that he doesnt see it happening. He thinks, among other things, that hes too old for me, even though I dont think thirty-four is too old at all. How do you feel about his rejection? Ive learned to accept it. Like I said, weve become friends. Im still attracted to him and wish things were different, but it is what it is. I cant force him to want me that way. You seem to be taking it as well as could be expected. I dont have a choice. I still really like being around him. Hes listened to me vent about a lot of stuff and is very encouraging. He wants me to find a way to go to college, and hes been fixing things around the property to help us get it into a condition where we can put it on the market. What are your mothers thoughts on thatpotentially moving? She doesnt want to sell, but she agrees we probably have to. Since the house is paid off, we could buy something smaller and use the money for the future. The fact that the property comes with the boathouse for rental income is a huge selling point. Im hoping we can get a good deal for it. How does your mother feel about Noah helping out? Well, she was very suspect of his intentions at first, but shes calmed down about thatespecially after she got a look at the freshly painted boathouse. I chuckled. Hes started fixing things on the main property nowinstalled a new hot water heater, replaced a couple of windows, things like that. Hes really a jack of all trades, used to work in construction. Mom still stays in her room most of the day, but shes come out once or twice to say hello to him, and she even apologized for being rude to him early on. It sounds like Noahs being there has turned out to be a really great thing. Yeah. Almost like he was sent from above. My feelings for Noah had only grown over the past couple of weeks. I felt so safe with him around. Wed hung out a lot, talked a lot. The front porch of the boathouse had become our place. Id watch him smoke his one cigarnever twoand wed sit and talk about anything and everything, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. Things had stayed platonic, and I was more convinced than ever about that not changing. But it still hurt a little. I wanted him more each day and couldnt imagine how I was going to feel after he left. I knew for sure he was someone I would never forget. After I got off the phone with Dr. Vaughan, I opened my journal as I often did after clearing my head in therapy. While I typically wrote down my thoughts and feelings, today my head was in a totally different space. Maybe it was all that talk about Noah not wanting me, but all I could seem to focus on was how much I wanted him and ridding myself of some of this pent-up frustration. If I couldnt actually have him, I would let it all out on the pages of my journal. No holds barred, I wrote out my greatest sexual fantasy, including all the things I wished he would do to me. *** Noah: Its 10PM. Do you know where your dog is? Thats a strange question. Heather: Downstairs. I think? Noah: Pretty sure thats not the case, considering I cant get him off my bed right now. Oh my God. What? Heather: Really? Thats scary! How did he get out? Noah: Well, Id ask him but Heather: How long has he been there? Noah: He showed up at my door fifteen minutes ago. Heather: Be right there. As terrifying as it was that Teddy had escaped, given his destination, I couldnt help but laugh as I ran to the boathouse. Noah opened the door before I had a chance to knock. Just as hed said, Teddy had completely taken over the bed. He looked so comfortable. Im sorry about this. Noah shrugged. I dont mind. He must have remembered the time I brought him here when you first moved in. He knew exactly where to find you. He was sitting on the porch when I went out to have a cigarlike he was waiting for me. Thats so cute. Im glad he had the good sense to come here and not run away. I patted my thighs. Come on, Teddy. Lets go. He can stay. Noah took a sip of his wine. There was an open bottle on the counter. I wished I could join him, but I knew how he felt about offering me alcohol. I figured you wanted me to come get him. He waved his hand. Nah. Hes fine. Well, he doesnt exactly look ready to go anyway, I suppose. I looked around, then removed my shoes. It was strange to be inside the boathouse with Noah for once. I could thank Teddy for this opportunity. I hopped up on the bed and rubbed my dog while Noah took a seat across from us and kicked his legs up on the foot of the bed. With his big feet facing me, I was tempted to press the bottoms of mine against his. But I refrained, of course. Teddy was the perfect buffer to keep my hanging out on the bed from being awkward. The scent of Noah emanating from his sheets surrounded me. Teddy definitely had the right idea. Noah looked particularly hot tonight. He wore these gray sweatpants that hugged his crotch in a way that left little to the imagination. It was hard not to gawk at his amazing body. Dont look down. Hes going to catch you. If not mewhat was Noahs type? I often wondered about the woman hed been married to. Do you have any photos of your ex-wife? He squinted. Random much? Where did that come from? Do you expect anything less from me? I laughed. It just came to mind. Ive always been curious as to what she looks like. Yeah. Hang on. Noah pulled out his phone and scrolled through his photos. My heart sped up in anticipation. He handed it to me. His ex had dark hair and dark eyes. She looked Greek or Italian. It came as no shock that she was absolutely gorgeous. Her Mediterranean features were the total opposite of my Scandinavian looks. Wow. Im not sure you ever told me her name. Olivia. Olivia. Though I knew they werent together anymore, I still envied her. Shed gotten to make love to him and experience everything with him, even if it wasnt forever. Shes really pretty, but I didnt expect anything less. I handed him back the phone. Shes a good person, too. He looked a little down. Do you feel like you failed her? I asked. For a while I did feel like my marriage was my biggest failure. But shes happy now, so thats all that matters. The idea of failure is subjective. Our marriage failed, but she ended up with something better in the end. So it was hardly a failure for her. It made me sad that he felt that way. Why do you sell yourself short? I told you beforeI wasnt a good husband. Yeah, but youve learned from your mistakes. Maybe shes missing out on the person you are now, and that might have been better than what she has with the other guy. Youre older and wiser. Definitely older. I dont know about wiser. He chuckled. After some silence, he asked, So, what about you? What do you consider your biggest failure? Im pretty sure Ive yet to have it, but I bet itll be a doozy. I cant wait to find out what it is, for you to get it over with. I expect a phone call when it happens. The thought of calling him sometime in the future kind of bummed me out, knowing he would be far away. I wondered if we would even keep in touch. I can definitely do that. By then, youll be likeWait, Heather who? He pretended to be holding a phone to his ear and talking to me in the future. Ohthat crazy blond chick from New Hampshire? Yeah, yeah, yeah. I remember you. How the hell are ya? I held my hand up to my ear. Yup, thats me! The loony one who dances in the lake and pretends to be getting ready to jump off the roof while listening to Hanson. That one. Yeah. The one who made me smile. He looked over at me. That one. *** An hour or so later, Teddy was finally ready to go. I went down to the basement to do laundry when I got home and noticed a full load of Noahs clothes still in the dryer. He must have put them in this afternoon and forgotten to come get them. It wasnt often that I had the opportunity to do something for him, so I was happy to be able to fold his wash. I fluffed the load for a few minutes before taking it out. Smelling each warm article of clothing, I closely examined them all. His shirts were size large. His boxer briefs were a mixture of Calvin Klein and Armani Exchange. Id always found folding laundry to be relaxing, but folding the clothes of the man I was obsessed with was particularly enjoyable. I was so turned on tonight. My body was in a constant state of alert whenever I was around Noah, and the feeling typically lasted long after Id left him. Handling his clothing like this only made it worse. After everything was neatly placed in the basket, I started to walk out of the laundry area. Then I stopped and turned back around. Feeling impulsive, I reached under my skirt and pulled my black lace panties down my legs. Holding them in my hands, I paused, wondering if this was a good idea. Who was I kidding? I knew it was a very bad idea. After all, Id vowed not to make any more advances toward him. This would be crossing the line. But I wanted to mess with him, wanted to push boundaries and have some fun again. Id been really good. Technically, this wouldnt be anything like a proposition. I could pretend Id been folding my clothes and accidentally mixed up the pilesif he ever called me out on it, that is. I folded the panties and tucked them in the middle of his laundry, running out before I could change my mind. CHAPTER EIGHT NOAH Id started doing some landscaping work around the property, and Heather would often come outside during the day to help pull weeds or throw down mulch. Wed joke around and bust each others balls while working together. These were my favorite days. One such afternoon, Heather was particularly chatty while we worked. Did I ever tell you the story of how I got my name? she asked. No, I dont think so. I was named after an actress. Locklear? No. You know the horror movie Poltergeist? Yeah. The little girl who played Carol Annher name in real life was Heather ORourke. She died at the age of twelve. Anyway, my mom loved that film, so she named me after her. Wow. Thats pretty cool and creepy at the same time. Yeah, especially since I looked a lot like her when I was littlewith my light blond hair and the bangs I used to have. When I was younger, I was totally obsessed with that movie. I liked to pretend I was her. I would turn the TV to a snowy channel, put my palms on the screen, and play Poltergeist. To this day, I love horror movies. Its one way I take after my mother. Well, if I didnt think you were strange already, that pretty much seals the deal, I teased. Do you have any strange habits, Noah? Nothing comes to mind. You want to know something else I do thats strange? I think youre gonna tell me either way. I talk in my sleep. No shit? How do you even know that, if youre sleeping? Ive been told by various people. My motherEricmy sister. Her expression dampened upon the mention of her sister. I tried to snap her out of it. So, what kinds of things do you say? Funny shit? Weird things that dont make sense sometimes. Other times, embarrassing truths. I can only go by what they tell me I said. I have no recollection of it. I remembered there was something I needed from my truck. She looked up from where she was planting flowers when she noticed me walking away. Where are you going? Gotta get something from the truck. Be right back. When I returned with what Id purchased, she took one look at it and said, Oh my God. What did you do? What or whooo, I joked. I dug the stick into the ground. Attached to the top was a fake owl that looked quite lifelike. Heather had told me a story one night about her father planting a cherry tree shortly before he took off. Each year, the birds got to the cherries before anyone could pick them. Heather had always somehow related that to her dad leaving nothing for them. That made me angry, so I wanted to do something. I bought the owl hoping maybe it would save some of the cherries. Maybe Heather could finally have some for what could possibly be her last summer at the lakehouse. This guy here is supposed to scare away the birds. Might as well give him a try. Maybe we can salvage some of the cherries that are coming in. You said theyre almost ready to pick around now. I cant believe you thought to do that. She flashed a gorgeous smile. Thank you. She kept staring at the owl, seeming deeply moved by my gesture. It didnt take much to make her happy. That was one of the things I loved about her. Whoa. Calm the fuck down. Ill tell you what, she said. If this works, Ill make you the biggest and best cherry pie to celebrate. I dont have a clue how to do that, Noah, but Ill learn. I will. I started singing the Warrant song, Cherry Pie. Whats that song? she asked. Youve never heard that song? I thought you knew all the old songs from the nineties! No. I must be slipping. It dawned on me that I was in elementary school when that song came out, which meant Heather hadnt been born yet. Damn, that made me feel old. I pulled the song up on my phone and cranked the volume. Heather started shaking her ass around in her short little shorts, and I pretended not to love every second of it. The music stopped, and we went back to work on the gardening and landscaping. After a long while, she dropped a bomb. I have to tell you something. Its important. Well, two things. I might need you to stop working for a minute. Her tone made me uneasy. Yeahlet me put my hoe down. Dont talk to her like that, she joked. Very funny, I said, digging the hoe into the dirt to stand it up. Whats up? Heather licked her lips. Im going to talk to a realtor tomorrow, to get the process started, find out what things I need to do to put this place on the market. My heart beat faster. I wasnt sure why. I was the one encouraging her to sell this place, but something about her really going through with it put me on edge. I knew she would miss it here and would probably never be ready to leave it behind. Heck, I would miss it here, and I hadnt grown up here. I think thats a good idea, I said, ignoring all my conflicted thoughts. The other thing isIve been thinking a lot about some of the stuff weve been talking abouthow precious these years are. Theres something I havent mentioned, but I didnt think I could make it a reality until recently Okay I applied to the University of Vermont. I got into their nursing program, but it would be for the spring semester. I applied knowing I might not be able to go, but I got accepted anyway. I think Im going to do it. Wow. As much as Id hoped for this outcome for her, I wasnt expecting it to happen so soon. Heather, thats awesome. Truly. Im so happy youre gonna finally do it. Why does my chest hurt so badly, then? I just have to figure out the situation with my mother. I dont want her living alone. I want to talk to my aunt who lives outside of Boston to see if she would be willing to move here, or take Mom in, or at least look out for her. Theres a lot to figure out before I can make this happen. Does Alice know about Vermont? Not yet. I havent told her, because I want to be completely sure its going to happen first. Part of that is seeing what the realtor has to say about how easily she thinks we can sell the property. Summer is a good time to put it on the market, and Ill need that money to fund school. So, if she doesnt think it will sell, then Dont let that stop you. What do you mean? I meanIll lend you the money to start school. Offering Heather help was a no-brainer. Id always been smart with my funds, even when I was traveling. Id often stay in hostels instead of fancy hotels. The bottom line was, I could easily afford to lend it to her. I cant let you do that. I have a good amount of savings. It wouldnt be an issue to lend you whatever you need to get started. You could always pay me back when the sale goes through. Its not a big deal. What if the house doesnt sell? It will. Her mouth hung open. Well, I dont even know what to say. Im not too proud to accept your generosity if it comes to that, and Im completely blown away that you would offer. Seriously, thank you. Its no skin off my back. The money is just sitting in the bank doing nothing. I hope I dont have to take advantage of it, but I really appreciate it. Youre welcome. A mix of emotions ran through me. I was so incredibly proud of her for taking this step. I was envious of all of the people who had yet to meet her, envious of the lucky bastard she would choose to spend her time with there. Most of all, I knew I would miss her. Id miss her smile. Id miss talking to her. Id miss everything about her and this place. After her news, things were quiet for a while as we returned to work. Then Heather snapped me out of my thoughts. Hey, can we take a quick ride? she asked, checking her phone for the time. I didnt realize how late it was, and I need your truck for something. You need to pick something up? Yes. I need you to take me to the pet store. I dont have room in my car for everything. Everything? Im sort of rescuing a couple of guinea pigs. They come with a lot of baggage. Chuckling, I said, Guinea pigs have baggage? Well, their cage is really big. Youre seriously bringing them back here? Yes. Do you think thats a good idea if youre gonna be leaving for school at some point? We dont have a choice. The pet store is closing tomorrow for good, and my friend Trish says if no one takes them, they could end up being euthanized. Ill figure something out. But this will buy them more time. Theres no one else who can take them in? She said she cant find anyone. Trish already has three of them at home. Heathers life was about to be in limbo. She needed this like a hole in the head, but she had a heart of gold, and I knew there would be no talking her out of this. Brushing the dirt off my hands, I said, Okay, lets go rescue some guinea pigs. *** An hour later, I was thinking I needed my head examined for agreeing to this. Those pigs took up way more space than Id ever imagined. Id helped her bring the animals upstairs and set up their massive cage in the corner of her room. It was my first time inside Heathers bedroom, and it was just as soft and feminine as Id imagined it to be. I was as tense being in here as Id imagined Id be, too. My eyes wandered to the top shelf in her closet. There were bags upon bags of stacked candy corn packages. I take it you like candy corn? Well, you have to stock up, otherwise you cant find them all year. I cant live without them. So I hit the sales at the end of Halloween. And buy out the whole store? Pretty much. She laughed. I never told you Halloween was my favorite holiday? No. Although based on your penchant for horror movies, I shouldve known. She was clicking away on her laptop, trying to find information about caring for her new pets. Neither one of us knew a thing about guinea pigs. Theres so much I have to learn. Its overwhelming. Like what? Well, for oneI dont think we have enough hay. This says if they dont have enough of it, it can lead to malocclusion. Malo-what? Its a misalignment of their teeth. Without hay, their digestive tract also shuts down. They could die. She buried her head in her hands. Holy crap. What did I get myself into? She seemed to be panicking. They eat lettuce and kale? I dont have any of that in the house. I assumed the pellets she gave us were their food. These guys are supposed to be eating good stuff. She went back to the screen for a moment. Crap. It says you need a lid for the cage if you have other pets. What if Teddy tries something? What if he accidentally murders them? As if on cue, the dog entered the room and began barking at the cage. The guinea pigs trembled. This wasnt good. No, Teddy! Heather shouted, steering the dog away from the cage. I cant believe I never thought this through. You didnt know how Fathead was going to react. She shook her head. This was a mistake. I wont be able to sleep tonight. Heather led the dog downstairs before returning to the room and sitting down on the bed. She continued scrolling for information. Their toenails have to be trimmed from time to time. It says here you could break a blood vessel doing it. She kept reading, seeming unable to look away. I must have been out of my mind, but I said, Tell you what, Ill take them over to the boathouse for tonight. That will solve the dog issue until we can get a top for the cage. I think I have a little romaine lettuce, too, that I use for my sandwiches. I feel awful making you do that. We just set everything up here and Its really no problem. Ill move everything over. Tomorrow we can get more hay and buy some greens and stuff. Theyll be fine. Heather looked like Id lifted a huge load off of her chest. SeriouslyI dont know what I would do without you this summer. Youve done more for me in the six weeks youve been here than my father has in my entire life. I feel like you keep saving my ass. I owe you so much. Saving her ass wasnt exactly where my mind had been lately. She stood up, walked over, and wrapped her arms around my neck. It caught me off guard, and my body stiffened. But rather than continue to tense up, I closed my eyes and let myself experience the comfort that holding her brought me. Nothing had felt this damn good in a long time. With my nose buried in her hair, I took a deep breath in. She smelled so good it was almost too much to bear. I knew she had to have felt my heart beating. Christ. Now I could feel my cock stiffening. This wasnt good. I pulled back. Id better get everything packed up. *** After I returned to the boathouse and got the guinea pigs settled in their cage on my floor, I decided to wash up after the long day of working outside. I jerked off in the shower and came in a matter of seconds, proving how much I really needed to get laid. If that was going to happen, it sure as fuck couldnt be with Heather, so Id better figure out a plan B. Holding her tonight had felt way better than it should have. I almost wished shed never touched me. I hated that my mind wouldnt focus on anything besides her beautiful face and body while I beat myself off. The guinea pigswho had yet to be namedstared at me as I walked out of the bathroom. If I didnt know better, I would have thought they were judging me. What are you looking at? I chuckled. Their little mouths moved in sync as they chomped on some hay. It seemed I now had an audience. Dont be so judgey. After I got dressed, I realized I still had a basket of laundry to put away from, like, a week ago. Heather had surprised me by folding it, and Id forgotten to thank her for doing that. As I put things away in my drawers, I stopped short when my fingers landed on black lace. Well, this definitely isnt mine. The shock of realizing I was holding Heathers panties caused my fingers to spring open. Like a hot potato, the underwear fell to the ground. I bent down to pick it up, holding it in my hands while my dick swelled against my jeans. My fists closed over the material as I willed myself to throw them back into the basket. Dont do it. Against my better judgment, I gave in to the need to smell them. Bringing them to my nose, I breathed in the hint of her scent that remained. Im so fucked. CHAPTER NINE HEATHER It was set to be a busy day, so I got up earlier than usual to get things done before I had to go to the realtors office later in the morning. As I sat by my bedroom window, sipping my coffee, I noticed someone walking onto the porch of the boathouse. It was my slutty neighbor, Kira Shaw. My heart nearly stopped. Then she disappeared inside. It felt like all of the blood in my body rushed to my head. No. He never let anyone in the boathouse. Unless I paced for a while, unsure of what to do. You cant control what he does, Heather. Youre just friends. He can fuck anyone he wants. He can do whatever he wants with his life, and its none of your business. What part of that dont you understand? Hes a man. He has needs. What do you expect? Like Mom said, men are weak. My imagination ran wild. I pictured him pulling her inside before they started going at it on his bed. Did you really expect him to be celibate the entire summer? Oh my God. I was going to be sick. I had to know. I had to know if it was true. No way could I go about my day like I hadnt seen her enter the boathouse. My heart raced as I threw on some clothes. I wouldnt do anything, but I needed to confirm. I vowed not to embarrass myself or him by making my presence known. Those days were over. But I would see if I could tell what was going on. Then I would leave. I wouldnt subject myself to watching anything more than necessary to get my answer. I could just peek inside the window and be on my merry way. Yeah right, as if it would be that easy to get over Noah fucking Kira Shawor anyone, for that matter. But especially her. This is devastating. A cool mist in the air and light morning fog greeted me as I stepped outside. My stomach churned as I approached the boathouse. What if hed drawn the shades and I couldnt see inside? Then what? As I stepped onto the porch, I made sure they wouldnt hear me. To my surprise, when I peeked in the window, the bed was empty. Where are they? The only other room was the bathroom, and there was only one thing they could be doing together in there. That made me feel even sicker. Now things were almost certainly not going to go in my favor. My legs felt wobbly as I walked around to the bathroom window on the other side of the house. It was slightly open, and the shade was only lowered halfway, so I was able to peek inside. The water was running, and the shower curtain was closed. Theyre showering together. Holy shit. I wanted to cry. But I wouldnt. I needed to be strong. Maybe this was just the thing I needed to help me get over him. I wasnt going to want him after hed been with her. This was going to change everything. My heart palpitated as I stared at the embroidered butterflies on the white shower curtain and listened to the sound of the water. Then, as if the situation couldnt get any worse, the sound of Noahs groaning echoed through the bathroom. That should have been my cue to leave, but I stayed frozen at the window, consumed by curiosity. My shock had paralyzed me. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the shower curtain whipped open. The sight of a stark-naked Noah flashed before my eyes. A very nakedbut aloneNoah. His body glistened, and lets just say everything Id imagined about his anatomy was all that and more. He was freaking huge. I gasped. I hadnt meant to make a sound. It just came out. Then I ran as fast as I could back to the house. Had he seen me? I was certain he must have heard me, but maybe he didnt know it was me. And who was he, Houdini? Where the hell was Kira? Id seen her enter the boathouse. He was groaning! Yet he was alone in the shower. Back in my bedroom, I prayed Id dodged a bullet, that by some miracle he hadnt seen me running away. When my phone chimed a few minutes later, I got my answer. Noah: Something you want to tell me? Heather: It wasnt what it looked like. Noah: Oh good. What a relief. Because it looked like you were spying on me in the shower. Damn it! Heather: I can explain. Noah: Im just putting some coffee on. This outta be good. I took this as a hint that he wanted me to get my ass over there and explain myself, perhaps while he sat back and sipped coffee, enjoying the show of my humiliation. Swallowing my pride, I walked back over to the boathouse to face the music. As usual, he opened the door before I had the chance to knock. Noahs hair was wet. Hed put on a gray T-shirt that stretched against his muscles. He wore jeans, and his feet were bare. He was silent. All you could hear was the sound of coffee percolating. What struck me was the lack of amusement on his face. He looked seriously concerned for my mental health. I couldnt blame him. I wanted to run for the hills, but instead, I came right out with it. I saw Kira Shaw here. I was looking out my window, and I saw you open the door and let her in. His brow lifted. You did, huh? Yes, I swear. You sure you saw me open the door? Yes. At least, I think I did, but now Im wondering if I was hallucinating. The coffee made that loud bubbling sound it always does when its finished brewing. Noah sauntered over to the pot and poured some into a mug. Cream and sugar? Im good. I already had some. Ive had my fill. Apparently, in your wild imagination, so have I this morning. Jesus. I was truly doubting my sanity. Want some quiche? he asked. Quiche? What? Quiche. Its this egg pie with I know what it is, but no, Im not hungry. Oh, thats too bad Because unbeknownst to me, Kira entered my place while I was in the shower and left me an entire quiche. My eyes followed as he walked over to the quiche on the other side of the counter. I hadnt noticed it until now. There was a little note on top of the pie dish. He handed it to me. Noah, I knocked and there was no answer. Your door was open. Thought Id catch you, but youre in the shower. I considered waiting but didnt want to startle you. I made you a spinach, tomato, and feta quiche. Figured since you havent taken me up on dinner, Id bring breakfast to you. I hope you enjoy. The dinner offer still stands. Or anything else you might desire. xoxo Kira Noah stared at me as I looked up at him. Handing him the note, I said, Okay. So, I overreacted. You think? It just seemed so real. I meanI saw her come in. I could have sworn you let her in. I know its not any of my business, but I just had to know. And then I heard the shower. Then I heard youmaking sounds. He closed his eyes and spoke under his breath. Fuck. It occurred to me all of a sudden that the sound was himmasturbating. Id been obsessed with the idea that he was having sex with Kira. And now Id just admitted that Id listened intently while he jerked off in the shower. Great. This morning just kept getting better and better. I assumed she was in there with you. Im sorry. Theres no excuse. I guess old habits die hard. I feel like such an idiot. Noah looked at me for the longest time. I expected him to scold me, but he didnt. Tell you whathow about you stop beating yourself up about this, and we pretend it never happened? Youre gonna let me off that easy? No ridicule? No scolding about how its none of my damn business? Well, thats true. But youve got a lot on your plate. Im not gonna add to it. Lets just forget about it. I blew out a sigh of relief. That sounds really good to me. Noah nodded and kept staring at me in silence. I felt like I needed to leave while I was ahead. Pointing behind me toward the door, I said, Id better go. I have an appointment with the realtor this morning. He nodded. Good. Keep me posted. I will. When I was almost out the door, he called to me. Hey. I turned around. Yeah? Noah stepped forward until he was right in front of me. My pulse quickened, and to my shock, he placed his hand on my cheek. It was the first time hed ever touched me like this, and my nipples stood at attention as I closed my eyes and savored every second. Whats happening? I told you I wasnt interested in her, he finally said. Too flustered to speak, I simply nodded. He slid his hand down my face, and his fingers grazed my neck. And that was the end of it. He walked over to his coffee and sipped it as if he hadnt just rocked my world. I somehow made it out the door and floated all the way home, unsure what to think. *** Later that day, on my way home from the realtors office, I was still thinking about the way Noahs hand felt on my face, about his need to assure me he wasnt interested in Kira. It felt different than just a simple admission for some reason. My body tingled at the memory of his touch and his words. Now that Id spoken to the real estate agent, I felt more confident about putting the house on the market. The next step was to break the news to my mother that this sale was happening. I wasnt sure if I was ready to tackle the Vermont conversation yet, so I decided to play it by ear. Mom was in her room when I got home. I sat at the corner of the bed and squeezed her feet through the floral bedspread. The shades were down, and it was dark. She sat up against the headboard. How did it go? She says she thinks we should list it soon. The middle of the summer season will be the best time to show it because of the weather. She also thinks we should list it for between 800 and 900 grand. My mother blinked a few times as she processed the information. Thats more than I thought. I know. Me, too. But she seems confident we can get close to asking. It all sounds too good to be true. You mean the listing price? What arent you telling me, Heather? Youve been acting strange. Does it have to do with Noah? No. Nothing has changed with Noah. Except for the fact that he touched my face and made me forget my own name for half the day. But there is something she said. I sighed. Yes. What is it? It was now or never. I needed to tell her. So, umremember I was telling you about the nursing program at the University of Vermont, and we talked about how nice Burlington is and all that? Yes. Well, some time ago, I decided to bite the bullet and apply. I hesitated. I got in. Its for the spring semester, though. So it wouldnt be right away. She clutched her chest as if that news physically pained her. Are you alright? I asked. I knew this was coming. I just I hope you know how hard this is for me. I promise not to go unless youre settled. You wont be alone. I will make sure of it. Ive been talking to Aunt Katy Katy? Youre gonna pawn me off on my flighty sister? Katy may be flighty, but she loves you. She seems willing to move out here. She can do her art from anywhere. She said she wants to do this for me. Its a sacrifice for her, but shes willing to do it, and Im extremely grateful. You have to be open to it. My mothers sister, Katy, had been going through a messy divorce for the past few years. Now that everything was finally settled, she had the option to move. Katy was an oil painter who sold her work to small galleries across New England. I can live on my own, my mother said. Weve already had this discussion. Its not that I dont think you could live on your own most days, but you need to be around people. You need to have someone looking out for you even on days when you dont need it. And theres no way I would leave you alone, because some days you do need it, so theres that. I cant stop you from going. I know that. Ive kept you here long enough. My eyes began to water. Its really hard for me to think about leaving. She reached her hand out to me. I know. Youre a good girlmy angel. We still have plenty of time. And thanks to Noah, its looking like we might actually be able to sell this place. So everything is going according to plan. We were quiet for a bit. Then she said, Noah really has turned out to be a godsend, hasnt he? Im glad youve learned to trust him, Mom. I might trust him, but I still think he has feelings for you. Im not sure what youre basing that on. Actually, today was the first day Id thought she could be right. But I wasnt a hundred-percent convinced I wasnt reading into things too much. Hed touched my cheek, not my clit, for heavens sake. Maybe hed just seen that I was upset with myself and was trying to make me feel better. Still, my gut told me there was something to the electricity I felt when he touched me, even if it was just my face. You do know you two have been gardening right outside my bedroom window, right? Ive listened to your conversations. He genuinely likes you. He likes me, yes, but not in that way. He likes me like a little sister. No way Im buying that, Heather. He might have chosen not to act on it, and in many ways, I commend him for that. But he most definitely has feelings for you. What was wrong with me that hearing her say that gave me goosebumps? Am I delusional? Was this entire day one big hallucination? Even if Noah were developing feelings for me and somehow made it known today, he was leaving, and now so was I. Besides, I still didnt think Noah would ever cross that line. You knowhes divorced, I said. Really? Some stupid woman let that man go? I know, right? I chuckled. He takes a lot of the blame for their marriage ending. He said he put his career first a lot in his twenties and neglected their relationship. He recognizes his mistakes, though, and I have a feeling the lucky woman who nabs him next is going to reap the benefits of that. *** That evening at Jack Foleys Pub, I was busy obsessing over Noah when an old, familiar face turned up in my section. He seemed happy to see me. Heather? It was a guy Id gone to high school with, one I hadnt seen in a few years. He was one year ahead of me. Oh my GodJared! I hugged him. Jared Mackenzie had always been smart, and everyone was super impressed when hed gotten into Harvard. Its so good to see you, he said. You, too. You dont usually come home for the summer, do you? I havent seen you since you graduated. He frowned. My father is sick, so Im not working the usual summer job I keep in Cambridge. Im sorry to hear that. Yeah, lung cancer. My stomach dropped. Thats tough. Im really sorry. That reminded me things could always be worse. My mother was severely depressed, but at least she was physically healthy. Its been a rough summer, but running into you tonight is a nice surprise. Likewise. I smiled. So, whats it like to be almost finished with school? One more year, right? Yeah. Its surreal how fast time flies. I hope to stay in Boston for grad school. So, itll be a while before I have to face the real world and find a job. Whats your major again? Neuroscience. Id like to become a medical researcher. Right. I remember it being something easy. I winked and caught myself twirling my hair, which I often did when I was feeling flirtatious. Jared laughed. Listen, Ive pretty much been sitting by my dads bedside every day, and at night I just need a breather. I havent wanted to hang out with the people from school or go drinking. But I would love to go somewhere and talkhave a good conversation and a good meal. Would you want to hang out sometime? I was surprised, but I couldnt find one reason to say no. That would be great. Can I admit something? he asked. Sure. When I heard you and Eric broke up, I might have done a little fist pump. I covered my mouth. Really? I also might have had a pretty intense crush on you in high school, but you were always taken. My heart fluttered. I wouldve never known that. You were always so busy playing lacrosse or with your nose buried in books. I never sensed anything. You didnt have me pegged as a nerd, did you? No. Just the opposite. I think intelligence is amazingly sexy. Pipe down. After I took his order, we exchanged numbers. Maybe a date with Jared would be exactly what I needed. Hed be going back to Cambridge, so there wouldnt be any obligation to continue things beyond the summer. And Lord knows, I needed a distraction from Noah. It would do me good to redirect my focus toward someone else. CHAPTER TEN NOAH Later that week, I was working outside Heathers house when a man I didnt recognize approached me. He was probably in his early fifties. My guard immediately went up. Can I help you? I asked. Im here to see my daughter. Who are you? This is Heathers father? Im Noah Cavallari. Ive been renting the boathouse. He held out his hand. Rick Chadwick. I wiped the dirt off my palms and shook his hand. Good to meet you. Rick was stocky and wearing an oversized, brown Members Only-type jacket. If I werent a big guy myself, I might have been intimidated by the way he was looking at me. At that moment, Heather opened the door. Hey, Dad. Hi, darling. She looked between us. I see youve met Noah. Briefly, yes. Heather turned to me. My father is in town for a couple of days. I remembered shed said her dad did a yearly visit. It wouldve been nice if shed given me some warning. Would you want to join us for dinner tonight, Noah? What am I supposed to say? I dont want to intrude. Rick intervened. No intrusion at all. Id prefer to get to know the man spending so much time on the property. Great. See you at seven, Heather said before disappearing inside the house with him. Had I missed the part where Id said yes? As I continued to work outside, my phone vibrated. Heather: Im sorry I didnt say anything about him coming. I didnt know until this morning. He wasnt supposed to visit until the fall. He sprung this on me. I think its because he heard were selling the house. Hes against it. This was going to be a real fun fucking dinner. A hoot. Noah: Im not sure I should be joining you. Heather: I would appreciate your company. I feel like I need a buffer tonight. How could I refuse that? Noah: Okay. Can I bring something? Heather: Do you even have to ask what to bring? ;-) Noah: Ill pick up some garlic bread. Anything else you need? Heather: New parents? LOL Noah: They dont sell those at Stop and Shop. Heather: See you at 7. I smiled. Noah: K. *** The fact that Heathers father stayed at a hotel when they had this huge house with a couple of guest rooms really spoke volumes about the nature of his relationship with Heather and Alice. When I arrived for dinner, it surprised me to see Alice out and about in the kitchen with Heather. It was as if she knew her daughter needed her. Somehow, shed been able to get her shit together tonight. Rick and I sat at the kitchen table as Heather and her mother chopped vegetables for the salad. Hed brought a six-pack of Corona and offered me one. I gladly partook. Anything to take the edge off this situation. Heather and Alice refused my numerous offers to help, and I noticed Rick hadnt even offered once. So far, the only good thing about this guy seemed to be the striking blue eyes hed passed on to Heather. His voice startled me. Noah, what is it exactly that you do? Im a photographer. Heather looked over at us. Noah is amazing. Hes traveled the world and covered a lot of big events. You should see his website. Rick didnt seem like he was buying what Heather was selling. If you have such a great life, why would you want to spend the summer on Lake Winnipesaukee? His question pissed me off. I didnt like the way hed said that, as if there was nothing of value here. Just looking for a change of pace. Actually, Noahs handiwork is the reason were able to put the house on the market. Hes been a big help, Heather said. Rick gave me the stink eye. Is that so I couldnt figure out why he wasnt in favor of the sale. Dinner was finally served. Heather had made a meatloaf that was really tasty. The way the ketchup cooked into the top of the meat reminded me of the way my mother used to make it. She sat next to me, seeming really tense. I leaned into her. Good job on the meatloaf. Its delicious. She smiled. Thank you. For the longest time, it was a quiet and awkward meal with clanking silverware the only sound. Her damn father hadnt said a thing as he scarfed down the food. I kept sane by sneaking bits of my meal to Fathead, who was hanging out by my feet. Alice also looked very stressed. I had to say, I was kind of proud of her. I knew it couldnt have been easy. Heather had told me she still had a lot of hang-ups about the divorce. We hadnt even gotten halfway through dinner when Rick said, So, we need to talk about this plan to sell the house. Heather set her fork down and wiped her mouth. What is there to talk about? You know how I feel about this. Its not the right time. The market hasnt hit its peak, and I think youre going to be losing a shit ton of money if you dont wait. The realtor doesnt seem to think its a bad time. What does she know? She wants to make a quick buck. You cant trust what she says. It doesnt matter if its not the perfect time. We need to sell. I cant handle the upkeep anymore. I need the money for school. Why cant you take out loans like everyone else? Well, I plan to continue working to help pay my tuition, but I dont want to have loans hanging over my head for the rest of my life. Plus, Mom has always said when the house sold, I could use some of the money for school. When did you even decide on school? I was going to mention it. I got into the University of Vermonts nursing program. I plan to start in the spring semester. I knew Heather didnt see her father often, but it was also becoming clear he was the last to know anything going on with her. When were you planning to tell me? The next time I saw you, which is now. Its only recently become a possibility. Do you really think its a good idea to abandon your mother? My fists curled into balls. I wanted to punch him. He was pushing this guilt on her when he was the one whod abandoned them? Im fine, Alice insisted. You dont look fine. You seem worse than you were the last time I saw you. Aunt Katy is moving here, Heather announced. Katy? Shes gonna look after your mother? She cant even take care of herself. Youre gonna leave so you can study how to take care of sick people when your mother is sicker than them all? Alice trembled. Stop! Heather clenched her jaw. Why do you even care about anything that happens here? I couldnt take it anymore. I had to speak up. With all due respect, Rick, I dont think youre being fair. Heather has done nothing but take good care of her mother for several years. Its time for her to have some freedom. With all due respect to you, I dont need to sit here and listen to someone who literally blew in like the wind five minutes ago. You dont know anything about this family. As of late? I guarantee I know more than you do. You have no right to an opinion here. Heather intervened, Well, you lost your right to an opinion the day you walked out on us. This house is half mine, he said. I do have an opinion. What are you talking about? This house is Moms. Alice? You want to break the news to our daughter? Heather looked confused as she turned to her mother. Whats going on? Alice was shaking as she looked at Rick. You bastard. You promised you wouldnt go after that money. Heather looked between them. What are you talking about? After your grandfather died, he left the house to your mother, Rick said. But during our divorce proceedings, it was determined that when the property sold, I would get half of the money. My heart sank. Heather turned toward her mother. Is this true? Alice looked like she wanted to disappear. Technically, it is, but your father assured me some years back that he would sign over his rights to us if we ever had to sell, that he wouldnt take any of that money because he didnt feel he was entitled to it. This is the first Im hearing that he seems to think he has a right to half of my fathers house. Things have changed, he said. My financial situation isnt what it used to be. My company is going under, and Im going to need that money after all. It wasnt my intention to have to take advantage of it, but Im afraid I do. Although, as Ive said, I think waiting for the market to strengthen in a couple more years would be wise. Are you kidding me right now? Heather cried. Youve made plenty of money, and youre so cheap, I bet you have a heap of savings. The money from this house is the only future we have. This house belonged to her father. Her name is on the deed, not yours. You abandoned us years ago. What right do you have to anything you left behind? Well, you may not believe I deserve it, but the fact remains that I do have the legal right to half. My blood boiled. Id never wanted to annihilate anyone so much in my life. Heather looked ready to collapse, and Alices face was turning white. Without thinking it through, I reached for Heathers hand under the table. I wanted her to know I had her back, that everything would be okay despite what her father was trying to pull. Heather squeezed my hand as she spoke to him. We thought we lost everything when you left. But that was nothing compared to losing Opal. All weve been trying to do is get back on our feet ever since, to rise up from the guilt and pain. Weve survived thus far, and we can handle anything else life throws at us. So if you want half the house, take it. Well survive without it. The room went quiet. I broke the silence when I couldnt hold my words in any longer. Ive spent more quality time here in the past several weeks than you have in years. I see how hard your daughter works, not only to take care of her mother, but to make sure everything else gets done around here. You couldnt possibly understand what their life is like if you only come around once a year. A lot of bad shit has happened, but she still gets up every day and does the best that she can, keeps her mother alive and well and keeps this house running. Shes your daughter, and shes never asked you for one goddamn thing, least of all your love. All shes asking is that you keep out of whats not rightfully yours, so she can live her life. If youre legally entitled to something, I suppose you can take it. But you can never get back your daughters trust. I looked over at Heather and she mouthed, Thank you. I grasped her hand tighter. I just wanted to protect her. She let go of me and stood up. I need to be by myself for a while. She took off up the stairs, and Teddy followed her, leaving me alone with her parents. I needed to get out of here. Thank you for dinner, Alice, I said as I got up, refusing to even look at Rick. I made my way out the door, getting angrier by the second as I walked back to the boathouse. CHAPTER ELEVEN HEATHER It took me a few hours before I had the energy to come out of my room. My father had gone back to western Massachusetts. Hed texted to let me know. His leaving didnt surprise me. After what hed pulled, I didnt want to see him, and he was smart enough to figure that out. I wondered if he planned to take that money or if it was an empty threat to keep us from selling now. I suspected he had every intention of taking it. My mother was back in bed, probably totally mentally exhausted, just as I was. I needed to check in on her before I went over to Noahs to thank him for standing up for me. When hed reached for my hand under the table, Id grabbed it like a lifeline. Mom sat up in her bed when she noticed me at the doorway. Im so sorry I never told you about the divorce settlement. He assured me he wouldnt come after that money. Its not your fault, I said, rubbing her legs. Even if he takes half, theres still plenty for your schooling. It will be tight, but we can manage. Promise me you wont let this stop you. I nodded. I have to rethink things. Maybe Ill take out some loans. Her eyes flitted back and forth as she seemed to search for a solution. I have lots of jewelry from your grandmother. Ill sell it. I just cant believe hes putting us in this position. I never thought hed do something like this. Your father has always been a selfish man. Ive tried not to badmouth him too much over the years or taint your view of himbut this doesnt really surprise me at all. His actions have always proven his selfishness, I said. Id forgiven him for abandoning us. Im not sure I can forgive him for this, though. Its one thing to not give us anything. Its another to take from us. Im so sorry, honey. Picking some lint off her bedspread, I asked, How long did Noah stay after I went upstairs? He left right after you went to your room. I couldnt blame him. Id left him alone in the middle of a shit storm. I cant believe how he stood up to Dad. Hes very fond of you. I need to go thank him. Bring him the dessert we never ate. Its the least we can do. Id love to give him more than that tonight. *** Carrying the chocolate cake, I walked carefully over to the boathouse. As I approached, a flicker of a flame caught my eye; Noah was on the porch smoking a cigar. When he spotted me, he stood. Are you okay? I am. Sit. Im just gonna grab two forks so we can have some cake. I entered his kitchen and grabbed the utensils. When I returned, he said, Its a no-plates-needed kind of night, huh? Yes. I spoke with my mouth full. Have some. Dont make me feel like a pig. Fine. You twisted my arm. Noah dug in. Did he leave? I guess he left shortly after you did. He went back to Massachusetts. Good. I stuck my fork in the cake. Thank you for standing up for me. Please tell me what he pulled isnt going to deter you. No. It wont. I dont care what I have to do. Ill make it work. He stopped eating for a moment. I hope you dont take offense to this, but I wanted to kill your father tonight. I sighed. I can relate. Looking up at the starry sky, I said, You know, Opal used to ask me how I could forgive him so easily for leaving us. I never could come up with an answer that pleased her. But the truth was, for me, it wasnt that complicated. Hes my father, and therefore Ive always loved himmaybe when I shouldnt have. All I ever wanted was his love and support. He never gave us anything but the bare minimum required by law. That didnt matter to me, because I just craved his attention. Its not the money, you know? Its the message that his wanting to take it sends. Its the realization that I dont mean as much to him as I thought I did. A tear fell from my eye. Noah reached out and wiped it with his thumb. Hes a fool. You deserve so much better than that. He doesnt even know you. That much was clear to me. Well, I never really let him in. Dont make excuses for him. Its not your fault. Hes the parent. Youre the child. Its his responsibility to make you feel safe and loved, and hes doing a damn shitty job. He doesnt realize how lucky he is to have you. My father wouldve killed to have a daughter like you. I rubbed my eyes and smiled. Really? Yeah. He ended up with two cruddy sons, but he always wanted a little girl. He can adopt me. I laughed. Nah. Then Id have an awkward crush on my stepbrother. That would be weird. He closed his eyes for a moment. Im kidding, I said. I wasnt. Noah dipped his finger in the chocolate frosting and dabbed it on the tip of my nose. Once again, a point in time with him had become my happiest moment of the day. CHAPTER TWELVE NOAH I was becoming more cognizant of the fact that my time at the lake was limited. The property was officially on the market, and today the very first potential buyers were taking a tour. I ended up clearing the entire kitchen table so I could get the guinea pig cage off the floor. Their cage was a little unsightly for visitors, but they were damn cute. I never had brought them back to Heathers. I was probably crazy for taking them in permanently, but I was growing attached to their little rodent asses. Id told Heather to let me know when someone was coming to see the property, that I could leave the boathouse during the showings. So when shed called me earlier to tell me someone had made an appointment, I took a ride to a local discount furniture store to kill time. One of the things missing from the boathouse was a place for people to sit. I thought it might look nice for potential buyers if there was a small sofa theresomething other than just the bed to make the space seem like a home, rather than a glorified bedroom. There was barely space for anything else, but there was just enough room to make it work if I moved the bed a certain way. It also crossed my mind that one of the main reasons I never invited Heather inside was because there was no comfortable place for us to sit together except for the bed. By adding a piece of furniture, I could invite her inside without it feeling awkward. I picked up a small loveseat from the furniture store and loaded it in the back of my truck. By the time I returned to the boathouse, the showing was over. I could tell they had already been inside because a chair was misplaced. How did it go? I asked the guinea pigs. I grabbed some chopped cucumbers from the fridge and fed my furry friends with chopsticks. That was always calming for me. Afterward, I went back out to the truck and set the loveseat up in the corner of the room, right across from the television. Plopping myself down on it, I remembered it was Heathers night off. I wondered if I should ask her if she wanted to come over and watch a movie. Why does the thought of that make my pulse race? Ever since the morning Id caught her snooping on me, I hadnt been able to shake it. As crazy and inappropriate as the whole thing was, her little voyeur act had made it into my fantasies several times since. I couldnt step into the shower anymore without imagining her outside that window, listening in or even watching while I took care of business. The whole thing was kind of freaky to begin with, because while she had thought I was screwing Kira in the shower that morning, Id actually been getting off to thoughts of her. Pretty freaking ironic. Id almost messed up that day, too. Though I wasnt going to act on my impulses, I somehow needed her to understand she didnt need to worry about me and Kira. As fucked-up as it may sound, even if I had an interest in Kirawhich I didntI would never do anything to hurt Heather while I was here. I had needed her to know that, and in the process, Id lost control of my feelings when I touched hera poor judgment call that likely confused her. Id been trying lately to act as normal as possible to reverse whatever mixed signals Id sent her that day. Part of that meant not avoiding her or acting any differently. So I suppose that could be an argument in favor of inviting her over for a movie tonight. After a half-hour of going back and forth about it, I picked up the phone and dialed her. Hey, Noah, she answered. You around tonight? Yeah. Whats up? Why am I sweating? You feel like watching a movie? Thats strange she said. Whats strange? Youre inviting me inside the boathouse. You never do that. No shit. Well, I have a spot we can sit now. What do you mean? Rubbing my temple, I said, I bought a small couch. I intentionally refrained from using the word loveseat. You did? I figured it would be nice to have one. You knowfor the showings. Right. For the showings. There was one reason and one reason alone why Id bought this damn couch, and it had nothing to do with comfort. I wanted more time with her before we went our separate ways. Some nights, it was too muggy to sit outside with all the mosquitos. Even if we couldnt have more than this platonic friendship, I wanted to be around her for the short amount of time we had left. She made me happy. You didnt have to do that. Its fine. I got it for a steal. Well, yeah, a movie sounds great. Can Teddy come? Hes been standing by the door wagging his tail. I think he wants to see you. Yeah, Fathead can come, too. The dog had been to the boathouse a couple of times since the guinea pigs arrival. It seemed he no longer cared about them because the barking had ceased. Okay. Well be right there, she said. The moment I opened the door, I regretted asking her over. Heather looked beautifultoo beautiful to be merely watching a movie. She wore a pink dress with spaghetti straps that left little to the imagination; her nipples pointed through the fabric. Christ. This is a bad idea. Why are you all dressed up? I asked as the dog jumped all over me. Its my first formal invitation inside the boathouse. I figured it was a special occasion. She laughed. No. I was at a baby shower for one of the waitresses earlier. They held it in the back room at Jack Foleys. Relieved, I nodded. I see. She ran over to the new sofa and sat down. I love it. Its so plush and comfy! Her dress rode up a little as she lay her willowy legs across the length of the loveseat. She was graceful even when casually lounging around. Yeah. Not sure what I was smoking, thinking having her here like this was going to be okay. Fathead raced over to join her. Teddy approves, too, she said as she sat up to make room for him. What are you in the mood for? Going down on you. I swallowed. What do you mean? What do you want to watch? Ohhavent really thought about it. What about you? Something light and funny without sex so I dont blush watching it with you. She laughed. Damn good idea. Alright. But as she sat there enjoying the new piece of furniture, I couldnt take my eyes off her. Those nipples piercing through her dress taunted me. How I wanted to bite into them, taste her skin. Whats wrong with me? I normally had better control over my thoughtsmaybe not in the shower, but at least in her presence. Tonight, though, I couldnt seem to stop them. Maybe holding everything in for so long had finally made me crazy. I imagined her spread eagle beneath me, screaming in pleasure as I rammed into her tight, little pussy. I imagined my cock down her throat. I imagined my tongue in her asshole while I rubbed her clit and brought her to orgasm over and over. Licking my lips, I could feel myself getting hard. I needed to refocus my brain before she noticed. When she seemed to catch me staring, I pulled a question out of my ass. Is that your natural hair color? What the heck did I just say? Yeah. My father had blond hair before he lost it all. I get it from him. Her eyes narrowed. Why do you ask? No reason. Its nice. Thanks. We ended up choosing some Reese Witherspoon movie. Even though Heather was looking at the screen, she seemed preoccupied. I knew that, of course, because I still couldnt take my damn eyes off her. She nearly caught me again when she suddenly turned to me. Are you sure Im doing the right thing? I sat up straighter and lowered the volume a little. About selling the house? Yeah. Now that people are starting to look, its getting so real. You dont have to sell if you really dont want to, but I do think its best for your future. Well never get it back. You know? Youll always have the memories. Happiness shouldnt be about a particular place anyway. It should be something you take with you everywhere you gotransferable. If you really miss it, you can always visit the lake. Itll always be here. You wont be here. My eyes widened. No, I wont. She stared long and hard into my eyes before asking, Are you happy, Noah? Heather had been trying to figure out my deal since the moment I moved in. Maybe I could afford to open up to her a little. Im working on it. Being here has been good for that. Its been exactly what I needed. You needed to work your ass off for no pay? she teased. Ive gotten plenty out of it. Believe me. She turned her body toward me and rested her head on her hand. Are you ever gonna tell me what youre running from? Heather had really good intuition. But she was wrong in thinking I was running away from something. Whenever we spent time together, I was tempted to tell her the truth, but I was never quite sure it was the right thing to do. Why do you assume Im running? Maybe I needed to run toward something else. I was looking for a change of pace, something differentand I found it here. You were looking for something profound, and you got me instead? She smiled. She had no clue how much shed changed me. It wasnt until I got here that I realized why I was here. Something outside of myself sent me here to help you. I truly believe that. I feel like once I leave, my job will be done. Ive helped set you on the right path. Im a better person when Im around you. Heather didnt seem satisfied with my answers. What about you? I sell the house, go away to college, start my new life. What happens to you? I blew out a breath. I go back to my life in Pennsylvania. Taking photo assignments. Looking after my father. I dont really know whats next for me. But Ill go back home feeling more fulfilled because I was here. She nodded slowly. I really like you, Noah. Her face turned red. I dont mean that in the way I did when we first met, so dont worry. I really like you. You try to remain a mystery, but I can see right through youto your heart. You show people with your actions what kind of a person you are. You live your life with purpose, just like I try to. I think thats probably the biggest thing we have in common. I can agree with that. I can also tell you live with a lot of regret. I can sense it. Whatever guilt youre carrying aroundabout who you were in the past, the mistakes you made with your ex-wife, whatever it may belet it go, because you deserve better than to live like that. Her words both healed me and amped up the guilt inside of me all at once. She doesnt know everything. Ill try. Thank you. She looked over at the television and joked, Well, this was a good movie. It was for the first five minutes when I was paying attention. I chuckled. Heather looked back at me. I like talking to you better. I like talking to you, too. Were definitely good at that. Were good together. That realization stung, because being together wasnt a possibility. Our eyes lingered. Fuck, if I didnt want to kiss her. Her skin was so soft and flushed. I wished I could have bit into it and watched it change color some more. It felt like she could see right through me. I wondered if my feelings for her were obvious. She looked down at the sofa and rubbed her hands along the fabric. This was a really nice gesture. Thank you. Ill take it back to Pennsylvania with me, so you dont have to worry about moving it. I rubbed the dogs head. Fathead seems to really like it. Teddy was out like a light. Either that or hes asleep because we bored him to death. When the feelings creeping up inside of me felt like they were becoming too transparent, I stood up and said, I almost forgot, I bought some bread. Want me to heat it up? That sounds yummy. Yeah. I couldnt go past the bakery in the supermarket anymore without buying a loaf of garlic bread. Slicing some pieces, I said, Bonnie and Clyde always look pissed when Im making real food. Heather looked perplexed. Bonnie and Clyde? The guinea pigs. I finally named them. Aw, thats so cute. Yeah, but they get angry when they see me eatingespecially meat. Theyre bitter vegans. She laughed. We ate the bread in comfortable silence as Fathead continued to sleep. For a moment, I considered asking her why shed left her panties in my damn laundry a couple of weeks ago. But then Id have to admit what I did with them and why shed never get them back. *** The following afternoon, while Heather was at work, Alice let me into the main house to fix a few things. The last window that needed to be replaced was the one in Heathers room. I hadnt told her I would be coming in to do this work today, so I hoped she wouldnt be mad when she found out Id been in her bedroom. It took me about an hour to put the window in. After I finished cleaning up, I was headed out when I tripped over her bedside table, knocking a notebook to the ground. When I picked it up, I noticed my name written amongst a bunch of other words. I couldnt stop thinking about Noah all day. It was hot out, so I decided to sneak over to the boathouse to use the outdoor shower. After taking off my clothes, I let the water stream down on me. My backside was fully exposed. When I heard footsteps, I covered my chest and turned around to find Noah standing there. I expected him to yell at me for sneaking into his outdoor shower. Instead, he said nothing, just flipped me around so my ass was facing him. I could feel how hard he was as he Noah? I dropped the notebook at the sound of Alices voice coming down the hall. I was panting. Yes? I moved quickly to the window. I had to hide the erection I was sporting thanks to Heathers little porn diary. I hadnt even gotten to the good part, and I was hard as a rock. Are you finished in here? she asked from the doorway. I pretended to be trying the window out, opening and closing it, as I turned only my head toward her. Just finishing up now. I need to talk to you about something important when youre done. Sure. Ill meet you downstairs? Yes. Thats fine. After I heard her at the bottom of the stairs, I picked up the notebook and put it back on the table. Despite how curious I was about the rest of the story, I was clearly never meant to see it. It was better that I didnt read any more. Anyway, I was pretty sure how it was going to end. And that would torment me all night. Fuck, Heather. Seriously? Youre trying to kill me. After visiting the bathroom to talk down my hard-on, I went downstairs to find out what Alice wanted. Still flustered as all hell, I found her in the kitchen. Whats up? I asked. Her expression made me a little uneasy. Its about Heather. Shit. What about Heather? Tomorrow is her twenty-first birthday. Oh. Wow. Wasnt expecting that. Really? She never mentioned it. She doesnt talk about her birthday. She tries to forget it. Why? She looked away. Its also the day her sister died. No. My heart broke in two. Anywaythis is a big birthday for her, Alice said. I wish I felt up to doing something, but I dont know how to celebrate it without upsetting her. Shes been particularly off since her fathers visit, too. I wanted you to know in case you can think of anything that might brighten her day. I know she wont tell you. Heather stopped celebrating her birthday whenyou know. Thank you for telling me. Ill definitely try to come up with something. After Alice thanked me for my work and went back to her room, I went home, but I couldnt stop thinking about what shed said. The fact that Heathers sister had died on her birthday haunted me. If Heather didnt want to celebrate her birthday, I couldnt make her. At the same time, her twenty-first would only come around once. Shed never get it back. I had to try. CHAPTER THIRTEEN HEATHER Noah: Meet me in the lake. I had to look twice to make sure it was actually Noah sending me this message. Heather: IN the lake? Noah: Yes. IN the lake. Wear a bathing suit and meet me in the lake across from the boathouse. Did he really mean in the water, or was I misinterpreting? I hadnt seen Noah Cavallari so much as dip his toes in the lake since the day he thought I was drowning. In any case, I needed to know what this was all about, so I did as he asked. Rummaging through my drawers, I couldnt decide which bikini to wear. I normally didnt overthink such things, but the man I had a massive crush on had just demanded that I get into a bathing suit. I couldnt lose this opportunity to make him sweat. Today was a sucky dayas all my birthdays had been since Opal died. Id stayed in my room most of the morning, sipping tea and reading. This message definitely changed my outlook. After slipping on my favorite black bikini, I flew out the front door and ran toward the lake, still wondering why Noah wanted me to meet him there. When I saw him, he waved frantically to me from the waist-deep water. Then he started dancing. What the? He swayed his hips and pumped his fists, and it was the most ridiculous yet adorable thing Id ever seen a man of his size do. He was totally mocking my water aerobics, but it was hysterical. As I approached, I noticed he was holding a bottle of champagne. Why are you dancing? I shouted. He stopped moving and lifted the bottle into the air. Were celebrating your birthday. What? How does he know? Who told you? Never mind. I have my ways. He waved. Get over here. His demanding tone made my pulse speed up as I trudged through the water to get to him. I cant believe you didnt tell me you were turning twenty-one today, he said. Theres a reason I dont I know. He knows? Did my mother tell you? Yeah. She did. So you dont need to explain any of it. Today is not gonna be about sad stuff. He handed me the two glasses hed been holding. Take these. He unwrapped the foil covering on the bottle. I smiled when he stuck the trash in the waistband of his shorts rather than litter. Its your twenty-first fucking birthday, Heather. Its not okay to let this day pass you by. You only have one twenty-first birthday in your entire life. Without further ado, Noah popped open the bottle of champagne, which sort of exploded onto his bare chest. Well, that didnt exactly go as planned. We both got a good laugh, and then he licked some off of his arm. He looked so sexy as he flashed a crooked smile with champagne dripping down his body. I so badly wanted to lick that champagne off of his chest and abs. And that was just for starters He took the flutes back and poured me a glass, then poured himself one as well. This feels surreal. Youre serving me alcohol. Well, youre legal now. He winked. Wow. I really am, arent I? Cheers. He smiled. We clinked our glasses together, and I took a sip of the bubbly. It was ice cold and delicious. I looked over at a boat in the distance, and when I turned back to Noah, he moved his eyes quickly away. Id caught him red-handed looking down at my breasts. That made me feel damn good. Nice work, black bikini. Were you really gonna pretend this was just another day? he asked. Yes. I was, I said. I specifically didnt make plans, specifically didnt want to celebrate my life when my sister had lost hers on this day. Well, not anymore. Not this year. Is this what I have to do to get you in the water? Turn another year older? Pretty much. Otherwise I only jump in when I have to save people from their own bad dancing. You were so mad at me that day. Talk about getting off on the wrong foot. Im glad that happened, though. His brow lifted. Yeah? Yes, because if it wasnt for that, we might never have had that conversation. It might have taken weeks before we interacted, if ever. Life is made up of little moments that dont seem that important at the time, but in retrospect theyre what get you to where you are. So we can thank Kris Kross for the fact that were standing in this water drinking champagne. Yeah. I smiled. Timing is everything. At that moment, the sky opened up, dropping rain on us. Speaking of timing Noah laughed. You okay with staying out here, or do you want to go inside? Im not gonna let a little rain ruin my very first surprise birthday champagne party. Good. Noah smiled at me, but more than that, his eyes were smiling. It was genuine happiness that made me realize he was just as glad to be hanging out here with me as I was to be with him. It was the kind of smile that gave me a false hope about where things stood with us. We stayed in the lake for a while, sipping champagne in the rain. After a few minutes, the sun peeked out again while it was still raining. Sun showers were always so cool, so rare. So were moments like this. The alcohol was definitely going to my head. Id better slow down. Im starting to feel it. Thats the point. Yeahbut I have to work tonight. He emptied his glass and shook his head. Huh-uh. No, you dont. Yes, I do. What do you mean? I had lunch over at Jack Foleys Pub today. Spoke to your friend thereMarlene, is it? Shes gonna get someone to cover for you tonight. Are you serious? Yes. What are we doing? Dont worry about it. Just go home and get dressed. Nothing too fancy. Ill pick you up in a couple of hours. *** Noah wouldnt tell me where we were going. We rode with the windows down, and the warm summer evening air blew my hair around. It felt amazing to be next to him in his truck. I stole glances over at his profile and wondered if this feeling of wanting him would ever subside. I wished he would touch me again, even just my face. There wasnt much I wouldnt give for a taste of something more with him. Finally, we pulled up to Titos Cantina, a popular Mexican place. Noah had taken a roundabout way to get here. It was almost like hed driven in a circle. Titos! How did you know I love this place? You told me once Mexican is your favorite. This is supposed to be the best place in town, so Youre good. You listen. I grinned. As we walked into the restaurant, he placed his hand on the small of my back, which practically lit my insides on fire. The feeling was quickly replaced by shock, which then transformed into pure joy. My heart filled up fast as I spotted my mother, Chrissy, and Marlene sitting at a table surrounded by balloons. My mother is here? They were all wearing sombreros. Surprise! Chrissy shouted. The real surprise was seeing my mother out and about. I couldnt remember the last time shed left the house other than to go to a doctors appointment. Mom? She smiled. Hi, honey. Happy birthday. I turned to Noah. Now I know why you drove around for a while. How on Earth did you get her out of the house? She loves you. It didnt take much. Happy birthday, my beautiful daughter. I bent down to kiss my mother before moving over to hug Chrissy. You took tonight off? I asked. Nurse Chrissy was supposed to be working a twelve-hour shift starting at seven. Yup. Got someone to cover for me. I couldnt miss your birthday. And whos covering for me? I asked Marlene. Are you kidding? When they found out it was your twenty-first birthday, Kel and Leah were fighting over who got to fill in. I cant believe I didnt know. Thanks to Noah, I can celebrate with you. After we sat down, I leaned into him. I cant believe you pulled this off. Noah winked and grabbed a sombrero, placing it on my head. Happy birthday, beautiful. A rush of heat ran through me. I wouldnt read into it, but it felt damn good to hear him say that. Dinner was everything I could have wanted. My mother laughed at Marlenes stories. Noah was by my side. As far as I was concerned, everyone at this table was family to meNoah included. I didnt know how else to characterize him. He was a friend, for sure, but also a big brother figure, and someone I still had a massive crush on no matter how hard I tried to deny it. It was very emotional to be sitting here with the four people who mattered most to me, especially knowing how many changes were on the horizon. I shook those thoughts from my mind, because tonight wasnt supposed to be about that. I needed to enjoy this moment with the people I cared about. We all stuffed ourselves. And after polishing off two margaritas, I felt completely tipsy. Chrissy ended up taking Mom home early, and after Marlene left, it was just Noah and me at the table. His eyes lingered on my lips as I licked the remaining salt off the rim of my glass. I took my hat off and placed it on his head. Its a good thing youre driving, se?or. That was always part of the plan. Moving my straw around, I smiled. Thank you again for doing this. Noah grinned mischievously. I might have one more surprise up my sleeve. Youre just full of them tonight, huh? My cheeks hurt from smiling. What is it? Its back at the boathouse. Wanna get going? I nodded. Sure. *** He led me inside. You need to close your eyes for a little bit, so I can get something set up. I laughed. Okay. Making myself comfortable on the loveseat, I covered my eyes with my hands. Okay, you can open them now. Noah had lit two candles that formed the number twenty-one. This wasnt just any cake. Holy shit, I said. You like it? Who made that? You know Evies Cakes in the center? I told her what I wanted, and she did it. The top of the cake was a little girl with her hands on a snowy television seta replica of the famous scene from Poltergeist, the one Id told him I was obsessed with as a child. This is the most awesome cake I have ever seen in my entire life. I think we should try it. Are you kidding? I dont even want to touch it. We cant ruin it. We can cut around the bottom, leave the top intact. But eventually youre probably going to have to destroy that, too. No way! Im freezing it. Youre gonna leave a Poltergeist cake in your moms freezer while you go away to school? Yes. Im keeping it forever and ever. Someday, when Im old and gray, I will still have that thing in my freezer. You think Im joking, but Im not. Thats crazy. I hope you know that. Well, so am Ia little. This is true. He winked. Well, then Id better not accidentally destroy it. Noah sliced us two pieces of cake from the bottom part, being careful not to touch the top. I almost brought it to the restaurant, he said. But I was afraid something would happen to it. Plus, it wouldve ruined the surprise of everyone being there if you saw me carrying a cake. You really did surprise me, and Im kind of glad its just us now. I knew that comment was a bit too honest, that it bordered on crossing the line. But it was the truth. I wanted him all to myself. This is the best birthday Ive had in a long time, I said. I know my mother told you my sister died on my birthday. This was the first one Ive had since then where I didnt think of her all day. Im not sure how I feel about that. You shouldnt feel guilty. Ive always felt I dont deserve to celebrate my birthday if she cant have them anymore. The day you were born is something to be acknowledged. Your sister would want you to celebrate your birthday. I know that rationally. But you cant always help how you feel. I took a bite of cake, which was chocolate with a pudding filling. Yum. I just wish I could have done something to help her. I was young and never thought things were as bad as they were. He nodded to himself as if hed just figured something out. Thats why you want to become a psychiatric nurse, isnt it? Because of your sister. Yeah. I want to help people feel better. He licked frosting off the corner of his mouth. You know, sometimes thats not possible, right? Not everyone can be saved. I do realize that. But I can try. Yes. You absolutely can, but you cant blame yourself for not being able to succeed every timenot for anything that happened with your sister or anything that may happen in the future to someone else. We dont have control over others actions, no matter how hard we try. Of course. I know that. And I have a long way to go, right? Before anyone can trust me with their mental health? Youre a strong person, and you have a lot of personal experience dealing with mental health issues from the people around you. So Id say thats a huge advantage over most people going into the field. Wish that werent the case, but its true. I stared off. Im sorrythis night has taken a dark turn, hasnt it? Were eating a Poltergeist cake. It fits the mood, he said. Thats true. Hey, have you ever considered becoming a writer? Not as a career, but Ive dabbled in it. Why do you ask? No reason. I just have a feeling you might be good at it. Hmm. Strange. Noah looked down at his plate and played with the remnants of his frosting. It seemed like he had something on his mind. Finally, he said, I found out today that Olivias pregnant. Wow. His ex-wife is having a baby. Thats pretty big news Yeah. How do you feel about that? She and her husband had been trying for a while. Im happy for her. I wasnt sure I believed him. Really? Yeahreally. But it must be weird. Its a little surreal, but not in a way that takes away my happiness for her. Its a lesson that life moves on with or without you, a reminder that I should probably figure out my own life at some point. Do you want kids? Noah sighed. I wasnt a very good husband, not sure Id be any better as a father. I shook my head. I knew in my heart he was wrong. You know how sometimes you can see things in other people that they cant see in themselves? I absolutely beg to differ, I told him. Oh, yeah? Yes. Youve taught me so much about believing in myself and about the world. Youve lived a diverse life, and you have a lot to offer a child from your experiences. And youre protective. Plus, you know how I really know youd be a good dad? How? Its how you treat the guinea pigs, feeding them with chopsticks and always making sure they have enough water and hay. You make sure they each get an equal amount of food. Also, how you treat Teddy. He can be really overbearing sometimes, not to mention hes super big. Yet you let him climb all over you, slobber on you, because you know it makes him happy. He chuckled. I dont do anything. I dont know why he likes me so damn much. I can relate to how he feels. Shit. Noah stared at me, eyes wide. Quick. Say something to distract. I cleared my throat. SoI sort of have a date next weekend. CHAPTER FOURTEEN NOAH My mood went from hot to cold in an instant. Oh, yeah? I said, trying to seem calm about it even as I felt sick to my stomach. With who? It didnt matter what I told myselfmy feelings, my reactions when it came to her didnt lie. I wondered which shade of green I was turning. This guy Jared I went to high school with. Hes in town for the summer because his father is sick. He goes to Harvard. Harvardpretty impressive. Yeah. Neuroscience major. So clearly we have a lot in common. She rolled her eyes. It was getting hotter in here by the second. You like him? I braced for her answer. Well, hes attractive and nice. But I dont know him too well. We werent really in the same crowd in high school. I was always with Ericwho wouldnt have liked me hanging out with Jared. I swallowed. Hes picking you up here? Yes. Why? I might want to check him out, make sure hes legit. No. Youll scare him away. Either that or Ill have to explain you to him, which wont be easy. That is easy. You tell him, this is my friend and bodyguard, Noah. Hell kick your ass if you do anything to hurt me. She laughed. Bodyguard? Sure, why not? I dont think saying that will go over real well. Is he a big dude? Not as big as you. Perfect, then. I chuckled. Im kidding. I wont embarrass you in front of your little friend. This whole thing felt like a test. It was the first time shed be going out on a date since the time shed gone out with her ex. I didnt remember feeling like this, like I wanted to kill someone. Anyway, this was my problem, not hers. Then, I pulled something I had no right to pull. For completely selfish reasons, I asked, You sure you should be getting involved with someone whos gonna be leaving soon? Youre a dick, Noah. Well, actually, I was thinking it might be perfectno stringssince I cant do anything serious right now, either. She shrugged. Im leaving, too, so And thats what you get, assholea nice visual of Heather spreading her legs for a no-strings-attached relationship with some guy whos not you. That came back to bite you in the ass, didnt it? I see, I said. Im sure you had lots of those after the divorce? Sex-with-no-strings relationships? Is she fucking with me? Or is she seriously considering boning this guy? A couple, I answered. But I dont prefer them. In my experience, if a woman likes you and tells you she doesnt want anything more than a hookup, shes lying. Even those relationships eventually turn into something else. Ive had so-called no-strings relationships that turned out to be hardly that. Its a bit of a catch-22, though, because any woman I dont want more than sex with is probably not worth my time anyway. Maybe it comes with age, but I need to feel something more than just physical attraction to truly enjoy being with someone. Her face turned red. Have you been with anyone since youve been here? I think you know the answer to that. Youve seen me almost every night. I guess thats true. And I intercepted the one whore who wanted to change that. There was nothing to intercept, because as Ive told you before, shes not my type. She cocked her head. So, what is your type, then? I wanted to tell her the truth, that lately I only had one type, and that was Heather Chadwickbeautiful, young, wide-eyed, honest Heather Chadwick, whom I wanted to protect with every ounce of my soul as much as I wanted to taint her. I dont have a type. You just said Kira wasnt your type. That means you have a type. Shit. I did say that, didnt I? I was losing my mind, and I knew exactly why. I dont know what my type isbut I know what my type is not. Her. Okay, fair enough. Id thought she was done with her inquisition, but then she asked, So, you havent been with anyone in a while? Thats an interesting way of asking me the last time I had sex. Her cheeks pinked. You dont have to tell me. Shes fucking adorable. And nosy. It felt like forever. I actually had to think about it. May. So the month before you came here. Yes. Who was she? It wasnt anything serious. Just someone Someone you fuck. Jesus Christ. Hearing her say that word made my dick go rigid. I hoped to God she didnt say it again. At the same time, I wanted her to say it again. I havent had a serious relationship since the divorce. She was someone I thought I had an understanding with, but like I said, in my experience, thats a slippery slope. She started to expect more from me. Its hard to find someone whos not interested in something more. Because the women end up falling for you. Or just wanting more, yeah. They fall in love with you, Noah, she said matter-of-factly. She could see right through me. I needed to change the subject, but I was curious about her, too. This might be my only opportunity to bring it up. Fuck it. Since youve given me the third degree, I think its only fair I return the favor. What about you? Ive only had sex with Eric. Wow. Given how sexually charged she was, that kind of surprised me. But I suspected she wasnt the type of girl who gave it up to anyone if her heart wasnt in itwhich was why I wasnt sure I believed her little sex-with-no-strings act at all. So its been a long time. She smiled. Are you thinking the drought explains some of my behavior earlier this summer? Because that wouldnt be entirely true. Ive never acted like that before, never asserted myself like that with anyone. That made me happy inside, which was messed-up. Whatever I was feeling, I had to get over it. I couldnt be anything more than a friend and mentor to this girl, especially now that she was finally on the right path. She looked up to me, believed in me. She didnt need a grown man who couldnt control his feelings or his dick messing with her emotions right now. Id be leaving at the end of the month, and regardless of how strong my feelings had grown toward her, I had to stick it out, not get carried away, and stand my ground, even if I felt that ground crumbling beneath me. Oh! I hadnt given her the present Id bought for her. Presenting it now would be a good way to escape this conversation about sex. After our talk earlier, Id worried it might make her sad if it reminded her of her sister. But ultimately, I needed to give it to her. I walked over to a drawer and took out the box. I got you something. You didnt have to do that. I handed it to her, and my heart raced as she opened it. Id searched a long time for the right one. When she took the figurine out of the packaging, she covered her mouth. Oh my God. I know you said you stopped collecting them some years back. I assumed it was because whatever hope they gave you disappeared after your sister died. Am I right? Seeming a little choked up, she nodded. Yes. This one is called Merry Wanderer. Heather ran her fingers along the ceramic. Oh, I know. Its famous. Ive always wanted it. I smiled. Really? Yes. This particular Hummel featured a little boy with a suitcase and umbrella, headed out on an adventure. I figured he could remind you of me, the wanderer who passed through town that one summer. So my choosing it was a little selfish. This is so perfect. She hugged it to her chest. Dont ever feel guilty about being happy. Your sister would want you to be happy. Collect the Hummels. Live your life. Tears sprung to her eyes as she leaned in and wrapped her arms around me. Just like the last time shed done this, my heart hammered against my chest. I was completely aware of her soft breasts pressed against me, completely aware of my body reacting in a way that was absolutely opposite of what should have been happening. I prayed my erection would subside. Heather was too damn astute. She would notice that shit. She pulled back to look in my eyes. This really means a lot. Thank you for this entire night. Ill never forget it as long as I live. Id never wanted to kiss anyone so badly in my life. Youre welcome, I told her. She suddenly yawned, and small beads of spit sprayed out of her mouth. Oh my gosh! I just squirted. The moment she realized what shed said, her entire face froze before it turned beet red. It was like time stopped for a few seconds. I sure as fuck wasnt going to touch her squirting with a ten-foot pole, although I couldnt say I totally minded the visual it brought on. Can I use your bathroom? Ah. Shes going to escape the embarrassment. You dont even have to ask. Thanks. After a few minutes, she emerged. I think all of the alcohol and sugar did me in. Im not feeling so great. Do you mind if I lie down for a bit? No. Of course not. Heather made her way over to my bed and sank her head into the pillow. My chest tightened at the sight of her. I longed to curl up behind her. Instead of dwelling on it, I lifted my ass off the loveseat and forced myself to clean up the paper plates wed left out. I carefully lifted the remaining cake into the refrigerator so it wouldnt melt. After cleaning everything up, I returned to the loveseat and put the TV on very low volume. Heather was completely out. It was late. Not wanting to disrupt her if she didnt wake up tonight, Id just sleep on the loveseat with my legs dangling over the end. At one point, Heather moaned. Noah I sat up. You okay? She didnt respond, so I walked over to her and saw that her eyes were still closed. Id almost walked away again when she repeated, Noah It was more like a whisper. Whats up, Heather? I murmured. She didnt respond. I realized she was probably talking in her sleep. Shed mentioned she did that from time to time. Noah I stayed standing, a foot away from the bed, and looked at her for a while. Just as Id turned around to return to the couch, I heard her again. Noahfuck me. Pleasefuck me. Oh. Shit. I froze, unsure what to do. This felt like a violation, because I wasnt supposed to hear her say those words. Yet theyd exited her mouth and were meant for me, in a sense. Do I wake her up? Her voice shook me yet again. Fuck me, Noah. Jesus. She did it again. I want you so bad. Please fuck me. This time I spoke back. I want to. Believe me. My words came out louder than Id intended. I didnt want to wake her up. I want to tickle your ass. Hold up. Say what? Did she just say she wanted to tickle my ass? Or was itdick in my ass? I couldnt be sure. Maybe I was just hearing things. I want to tickle your ass, Noah. Nope. Not hearing things. Tickle. Thats exactly what she said. Unable to help it, I lost it and started laughing. God, girl, youre something else. My laughter must have woken her, because she stirred. Then she opened her eyes. She stared at me, looking dazed and confused. She scrubbed her hand over her face. Hey. My heart pounded. Hi. Heather blinked. Wow, I dozed off, huh? As she sat up against the headboard, she didnt seem to have any knowledge of what shed been mutteringor what Id said. Yeah. You sure did. Did I miss anything exciting? I bit my bottom lip. Nope. CHAPTER FIFTEEN HEATHER Even though I knew it was a possibility, I never expected to get an offer on the property so soon. When I got off the phone with the realtor on Friday afternoon, my mouth hung open. A man who had come to see the houses yesterday offered five thousand over asking. It was just a matter of us accepting, and then the realtor said hed likely schedule an inspection. If all went well, it would be a done deal. Wed told prospective buyers we wouldnt be able to vacate until September. But now that this was becoming a reality, I felt a little panic. I needed to calm down before I told my mother the news. I needed to talk to Noah. I raced over to the boathouse, only to find he wasnt home. Sadness washed over me. I knew he wasnt gone yet, but his not being home in this moment when I really needed him reminded me that soon he would be gone. Soon, my world as I knew it would be different. I sat on the porch of the boathouse and called him. He answered, Hey. Where are you? Im picking up some supplies from Home Depot. Whats up? Im sort of freaking out. Why? We got an offer on the property. He went silent for a few seconds. No shit. Already? Really? Yes. Wow. Congratulations. Thanks. I was getting teary eyed. Thats fantastic. Are you going to accept? I sniffled. I think I should. It was a little over asking. He paused. Are you crying? Yeah. Its stupid. I know. Its okay to be emotional about it. ShitIm feeling emotional about it, and I didnt grow up here. Well still have until the beginning of September to figure things out, but I feel really overwhelmed all of a sudden. Not sure I was expecting this to happen so quickly. Thats understandable. Its getting very real. He sighed into the phone. Heather, listen. Take a deep breath, okay? We can start looking for a new place tomorrow. Is the thing with your mothers sister a done deal? His using the word we made me even more emotional. There was no way I could have done any of this without him. My Aunt Katy assures me shes moving here, yes. Maybe you should see if she can come up here soon, so she can look, too. If shes going to be living there, she should have a say. Thats a good point. Ill get on that. Fear still bubbled inside me. What are we gonna do with all of our stuff? I thought Id have time to go through everything. My mother has so much crap. Well, maybe we can hold a yard sale. Some of it might have to go into storage for a while. When I went quiet, he seemed to realize I was back in freak-out mode. His voice snapped me out of my thoughts. Things are working out as theyre supposed to. Its totally normal to feel overwhelmed. It would be odd if you didnt. Change is scary, but its the only way to get to the next step. I let out a shaky breath. Yeah. There are big things ahead for you. I just know it. Closing my eyes, I said, Thank you. What are you doing tonight? We can celebrate. My brief excitement over that was squelched when I remembered I had plans. Ohum, tonight is my date with Jared. He was silent for a bit. I didnt realize that. I thought it was tomorrow. Yeah. We were originally going out Saturday, but he asked if we could switch it. Hes picking me up at eight. He paused. Gotcha. Well, maybe another night. Things suddenly felt awkward. Yes. Definitely. You want anything from McDonalds? I shouldnt be eating that stuff, but Im driving through on the way home. I smiled. It was nice of him to ask. He was always so considerate. No. I just had an early lunch, but thank you. Ill come by and say hello before I leave tonight. YeahokayIll be home. Home. A part of me loved this life so much, living here on the lake and having Noah nearby. I wasnt ready for that to change. Thanks for listening. Dont worry, Heather. Everythings gonna be okay. *** Later that afternoon, Chrissy sat on my bed as I got dressed for my date with Jared. Damn. You look hot in that dress, she said, bouncing a little. Jared said to wear something nice, so I figured Id go all out. I didnt think we were going anywhere dressy until he said that. What else would you expect from a Harvard boy? She narrowed her eyes as she took a look at my face. Is everything okay? Are you feeling weird about the offer on the house? Actually, all I could think about today was Noah. Can I tell you something in confidence? Yeah, of course. Its about Noah. She nodded. I shouldve known. Shouldve known what? That something was up there. Nothing is actually up there. I mean, not reallyother than in my head. You have feelings for him. I could have told you that. So, its obvious, then? I picked up on something the night of your party at Titos. You did? Oh, yeah. I just couldnt figure out if it was my imagination or if it was real. Like, I wanted it to be real, you know? You two are both insanely attractive people, and even though hes older, I dont think thats a big deal. Youd make a great couple. Hes clearly very fond of you. I can tell from the way he looks at you. And the way he treats you. Hes fond of mebut not in that way. You know that for a fact? When he first moved in, he treated me like a kid. I think now that hes gotten to know me, he doesnt see me as so young anymore. Ive earned his respect. But he still says nothing can happen between us. Althoughlately, Ive been feeling a shift. Im getting this vibe I didnt get in the beginning. Ive been feeling like maybe he does like me as more than a friend, but hes afraid to do anything. Maybe its just wishful thinking. Anyway, its a moot point. He wouldnt try anything, even if he did feel something for me. Hes been the biggest supporter of my going away to school, and he wouldnt do anything to interfere with that. She bit the corner of her mouth. But you wish he wouldinterfere. I cant seem to shake these feelings for him no matter how hard I try. Regardless of whats about to happen in my life, I justwant him. And the feeling is getting worse the closer we come to the end of his time here. Wow. How come you didnt talk to me about this before? Ive been hoping to get over it. Thus, the date with Jared. Well, yeah, I mean, Jareds a great guy. But NoahNoah takes my breath awayalways has from almost the very beginning. Now that Ive gotten to know him, it feels so much stronger than physical attraction. We undoubtedly have a connection. Ive come to depend on him, to trust him. Im justreally gonna miss him. Chrissy offered a sympathetic smile. If something is meant to happen there, it will. If not now, then maybe someday. Like what do you mean? Years down the line? Sure, why not? Maybe you go away to school, get settled in your career, and reconnect with him somehow when the time is right. You dont know what life has in store. Or he could be married with kids by then. Well, thats true. She seemed at a loss for what to say. Have you hinted at how you feel? Ive more than hinted. I flat-out told him I was attracted to him a while back. He shot me down. So theres that. Ouch. You did? Yeah, shortly after he moved in. I vowed that would be it. Ill never make the first move again. I havent dropped any more hints, aside from not-so-accidentally dropping my panties in his laundry. Other than that, I havent done anything else. Holy crap. You didnt I put on my earrings. I did. And he hasnt even acknowledged it. Its the most bizarre thing. Its like my undies disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle. Wow. She laughed. Thats so nuts. AnywayI just have to get over this. Trust in fate. Whats meant to happen will. In the meantime, have some fun with Jared. You deserve it. *** As much as I appreciated Chrissys advice about enjoying my date with Jared, deep down, I knew who I had really dressed up for tonight. As I walked over to the boathouse, my heart thundered in my chest. Id told Noah I would stop in before my date. As I knocked on the door, I took a deep breath in, then exhaled. I knocked a second time. He wasnt home. Feeling disappointed, I wondered if I wouldnt get to see him before I left. Then his deep voice vibrated through me. Quit knockin. Im not buyin what youre sellin. I turned around. You scared me. My nipples stiffened at the sight of him. Noah had grease on his face and his T-shirt. A shimmer of sweat glistened over his forehead. He was dirty, but for some reason hed never looked hotter to me. And my bodys immediate reaction never ceased to amaze me. He swallowed hard as he looked me over. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he liked what he saw. His eyes landed on the cleavage Id very intentionally created by adding extra padding to my bra. My breasts were already pretty big for my framea full Cbut I wanted to show them off tonight. Why are you so dirty? I asked. That was a dumb question, but I didnt know what else to say as his eyes continued to wander over me. I had to do some work on my truck. He didnt look happy right now. Is it all set? Instead of answering, he looked me up and down. Youre not going out like that, are you? I was going to, yes. Its too much. I dont look good? I didnt say that. Its justtoo much. He moved past me and entered the boathouse. I followed him inside. To my surprise, Noah went straight to the cabinet and took out a shot glass. He poured himself a scotch and drank it down before slamming it on the counter. He was angry. Something about that was damn sexy. Can I have one? I asked. No. Why not? Because you shouldnt be going out on a date impaired. You need to be alert. One shot is not going to impair me. Itll relax me. He repeated, No. Are you forgetting that Im not underage anymore? His eyes traced over my body. Thats painfully obvious right now. He grabbed the bottle and put it away. You dont want to drink that shit anyway. Its good enough for you but not me? Its too strong. Can I taste it? No. Why did you drink it if its too strong? He spoke through gritted teeth. Because I need to take the edge off tonight. Why? He refused to answer me, but his eyes told me everything I needed to know: Noah Cavallari was jealous, and he was finally coming undone. CHAPTER SIXTEEN NOAH Heather had painted on bright, fire engine red lipstick. It felt like a knife to the heart for some reason. That look just wasnt her. She was sexy as hell in that dress, but something about the lipstick bugged me, like she was trying to be something she wasnt. That lipstick invited trouble. She didnt need a drop of makeup; she was so incredibly beautiful without it. I was doing a terrible job of hiding my feelings tonight. But it was either take that shot of scotch or swallow her whole. Taking the shot was the right thing to do. She stared at me now with her beautiful blue eyes, her hair draped over her cleavage in waves. Her body looked too damn good in that dress, and I had the urge to kiss off all of that red paint on her mouth. Come to think of it, maybe another shot was in order. I took the bottle out of the cabinet and poured myself a second but didnt drink it. I needed to know it was there if I needed it. Ive never seen you wearing lipstick that bright. Chrissy lent it to me. Does it look stupid? It doesnt look stupid. It just isnt you. It kind of hides your lips. Why would you want to do that? All I want right now is to suck on themlipstick or not. Id been in a funk all day, and this moment was the culmination. The offer on the property had put me in a strange mood. Id been once again second-guessing whether Id made the best decision in steering her to sell. It had to be the right thing, but anything that made her sad at this point really got to me. And now, watching her get ready to go out with some guy who was likely just looking for a summer lay had put me in a really shitty mood. I was acting like a jealous prick. Youd think I was, well, her agenot mine. Her voice barely registered. Should I take it off? I was in a daze. What? Take off what? The lipstick. Oh, the lipstick. What the fuck else would she be taking off? Does it make me look like a clown? she asked. Instead of answering her, I walked over to the kitchen sink and ran some water over a paper towel. I squeezed out all of the moisture and came to where she was standing. I began to wipe the lipstick off of her lips. She remained still, seeming shocked. I could relate to the feeling. I had no right to do this. I didnt own her, even though at times I wanted to. When most of it was off, I dumped the paper towel in the trash. Much better. She licked her lips, and I could feel my dick twitch. You think so? she asked. Yes. You have beautiful lips. You shouldnt hide them. But I dont want them on anyone else. Her cheeks turned pink. Thanks. Hang on. I walked over to my bed and reached under it for the camera bag. I thought you said you didnt bring your camera here. No, I said I didnt come here to take photos, but I never leave home without my camera. You never know when youre gonna need it. The sun is setting now. Its the perfect lighting. Lets go outside. Ill take a few shots of you in that dress. The famous Noah Cavallari is going to photograph me? I feel so special, she teased. Seriously, this is cool. Seeing the smile on her face made me wonder why I hadnt thought of this sooner. Once outside, I showed her where to stand but didnt have to tell her what to do. She was a natural in front of the camera, smiling organically and laughing as I snapped away. The remaining sunlight cast a glow around her blond locks. At one point, her hair was in her face, so I reached out to move it to the side and noticed my hand fucking shaking. I was seriously losing my marbles. After Id stopped taking photos, Heather asked, Will you send them to me? My mind was still in a haze. What? The photos. Will you email me some? Nodding, I said, Yeah, of course. Are you alright, Noah? You seem out of it. Im fine. She looked back toward the main house. I have to go. Hes gonna be here any minute. What are you doing letting her go out with this guy? Ill see you later, she said. Thank you for taking the photos. She lingered even though shed said she had to go. She was waiting for me to say something. But I couldnt find the words. We stood there on the porch facing each other until she stammered, Have a nice night. Despite how much I wanted to stop her, I let her walk away. The farther she got from me, the more I just feltsick. Suddenly, it seemed like the switch that had been controlling my sanity flipped. Hey! I shouted. She turned around. Yeah? Come here. She walked back until she was in front of me again. Why did you put your panties in my laundry? I asked. Her face turned as red as her dress. At a loss for words, she muttered, Iuh Taking a few steps forward, I stopped just inches from her. If you knew how much it affected me, you wouldnt have done it. She leaned in, just a hair away from my face. I wanted to get a rise out of you. I wanted to send you a message without having to say it. I could feel her breath on my face. Placing my hand on her cheek, I said, Youre so fucking honest. She closed her eyes briefly. I cant help it. I looped a piece of her hair around my finger. You could have just said they accidentally fell in. Her breath was shaky. Yeah, but that would have defeated the purpose. I wanted you to have them. And I wanted you to think of me in them. My breath hitched as I pulled on her hair. Christ, Heather. You dont think I feel the same things you do? You think Im superhuman, that its easy to resist you? Im just trying to do the right thing. I wish you would stop trying. The scotch must have gone to my head, because I asked, You want to know what I did with those panties? Yes, she whispered. I put them over my face to smell you. I couldnt get enough. Then I wrapped them around my cock while I jerked off and came all over them. I got so angry at myself for doing it, that I ripped them to shreds. Thats how crazy you make me. Her chest rose and fell. I knew you wanted me. I gritted my teeth. I never said I didnt want you. Did I? Not once. I wish I didnt want to fuck you. Her breathing was heavy. Let me taste the scotch. I said you cant have any. I dont want you to pour me one. I want to taste it on your tongue. Fuck. Me. That sentence obliterated the last resistance I had. I gripped her waist and pulled her into me, giving her exactly what we both wanted. My lips smashed against hers before my tongue sought entry. Her hot, hungry mouth was everything Id ever imagined it to be, the moans emanating from it making me so rock hard that my dick physically hurt, aching for more. I kissed her harder as she worked to keep up with the pace. Neither of us broke away long enough to even breathe. Heathers fingers raked through my hair as I devoured her mouth. I didnt even recognize the damn sounds I was making, the sounds of a long starvation finally satisfied. Anyone who drove by would have seen me practically attacking her, and I didnt care. Her lips, her mouth, her tongue tasted so good I thought I might never come up for air. I ran my hands through her soft, silky hair. It felt surreal. But this was wrong. So damn wrong. I was stealing something I had no right to, but fuck if I knew how to stop. Nothing had ever felt this good. It took everything in me not to carry her inside the boathouse and take everything else, too. I knew shed give me whatever I wanted. And that scared the hell out of me. As if shed read my mind, she spoke over my lips, I want to feel you inside of me, Noah. Her words were like a slap in the face, a reality check. You have no right to do this. I pried myself off of her. It felt unnaturaldownright painfulto pull away when all I wanted was to disappear into her. But nevertheless, I somehow managed to do it. Licking my lips to salvage what was left of her taste, I closed my eyes and caught my breath, intentionally looking away from her. I knew if I looked into her eyes, this would be too difficult. But it had to be done. I could ruin her life with one bad decision. I wasnt going to be responsible for that. I wanted to own her body, but I cared about the soul within it a hell of a lot moremore than anything. I needed to get myself in check before I ruined everything for her. When I finally met her stare, she looked distraught, with glistening eyes. Why did you stop? she asked. I have to, Heather. You have no idea how badly I want you, but I have to stop this before we go too far. Tears formed in her eyes. I dont understand you. I never will. At that moment, a car pulled up to the front of the main house in the distance. She glanced over to look at it. Shit. Hes here. She wiped her eyes. Tell me not to go with him, Noah, and Ill stay. I want to be with you. I dont want anyone but you, dont want anything but you. Im so crazy about you. I You should go. That sentence might have been the hardest thing Id ever had to push out of myself. Her pupils darkened. Now she looked pissed. Really? You want me to go? My mind was in turmoil. The words were right there but wouldnt come. Dont go. Stay with me. Be with me. I wouldnt let them out. Go, I barked. Id never seen her face so red with anger as she turned away and headed toward her house. As her date exited the black beemer to open the door for her, I couldnt even bear to look at him. I went inside and slammed the door. I sat on the edge of my bed with my head in my hands. My ears were ringing. Its the right thing to do. You need to ignore these feelings. This is not what you came here for. Maybe you should go back to Pennsylvania. Bouncing my legs up and down, I needed a reality check. There was only one person I could trust enough to talk to about this. While my father knew why Id come here and knew about Heather, he didnt know about my feelings toward her. I needed to confide in someone who had enough sense to talk me out of a huge mistake. I needed someone to talk me out of doing what I wanted to, which was to run after her and stop her damn date. Dad sounded surprised to hear from me. Noah? Hey. Is something wrong? Yes. I need your advice. Thats not something I hear very often. I got right to it. I fucked up. Are you in some kind of trouble? Depends on how you define trouble. Im not in danger, but Im pretty sure Im in trouble. Whats happened? Running my fingers through my hair, I said, Things here have gotten out of hand. I spent the better part of the next ten minutes admitting my feelings for Heather to my fatherwithout going into the specifics of what Id said to her tonight. I prayed hed be able to knock some sense into me. You kissed her, and now shes out with some kid? Yes. A kid her own age. You do realize that when I met your mother, I was thirty-five, and she was twenty-three? That didnt exactly work out, did it? It worked out plenty for a very long time, wiseass. Got two great sons out of it. For the record, Id take that woman back in a heartbeat. Shes the love of my life, and I dont regret a thing. But I digressthe age difference never mattered. Youre beating yourself up for something that has happened to men throughout the ages. You fell for a beautiful young womanwhos of legal age. Thats not a crime. Pulling on my hair, I said, This wasnt supposed to happen. Youre not supposed to be encouraging it. Its not enough to believe youre not supposed to fall for someone. It doesnt matter what you believe is wrong or right. Its already happened. Youve already fallen. Am I right? Its not a crime to care about someone or to covet them. I was supposed to help her, not complicate her life even more. This trip was supposed to be about hernot me. No matter what I say, its not gonna change how you feel. Stop trying to change something thats out of your control. Maybe I should just leave. Youre going to walk away now? Never look back? Never see her again? My chest hurt just thinking about leaving any earlier than I was supposed to. Leaving was inevitable, but I wasnt ready to say goodbye. Im so damn confused. Tell me what to do. How about be honest with her? Theres a novel idea! And I mean really honest. Tell her everything. Stop carrying this burden around with you. You think I should tell her everything? Its gonna shatter her, particularly the fact that Ive been hiding it in the first place. She trusts me. I think thats part of the problem. Youre walking around with all of this guilt, trying to be some kind of saint. Youre only human. Tell her the truth. Then once youve let that go, just let life happen naturally without trying to manipulate everything. What if she hates me? From everything youve told me, she seems like shes a pretty smart girland tough, too. Hopefully, she can handle it. That was true. Heather was tough. But she wasnt prepared for this. My father was right, though. My biggest problem was that I didnt feel I deserved how she felt about me because she didnt know why I was here. I hung up with him, still torn over how to handle things. As the night wore on, I felt more and more like telling Heather the truth. As much as I was tempted to find out where she was and go to her, I didnt want to be a dick and interrupt her date. I had no right to do that after Id kicked her out. I just needed to let her know one thingthe one thing I was certain of. So I sent her a text. Noah: I made a mistake. I shouldnt have let you go. She didnt respond, and I couldnt blame her. I had behaved like an erratic teenager tonight. I was a grown man and needed to start acting like one. I owed her the truth. I owed her brutal honestynot only about why I was here, but also about my feelings for her. But the latter couldnt come without full disclosure first. A long while after Id texted her, a response finally came in. Heather: Well, I could have told you that. I couldnt help but crack a smile, relieved that she was even responding. Noah: Are you okay? Her answer was immediate. Heather: Let me in and Ill tell you. My heart pumped as I rushed to the door. Heather stood there getting drenched, her red dress stuck to her body. Id been so preoccupied, I hadnt even realized it was raining. One look at her, and I was done for again. I couldnt stop thinking about you all night, she said. I owe you a huge apology for the way I acted. Her hair was dripping. I dont want to want you either, you know. The thought of you leaving and possibly never seeing you again is so scary. I wish I didnt feel this way. She smelled even better wet from the rain. I really tried not to kiss her again, but the need was even more intense now that I knew what it felt like. I needed to taste her one last time before what would be one of the toughest conversations of my life. Wrapping my hands around her cheeks, I brought her face into mine and devoured her lips. This kiss was different than the last. While the first had been frenzied and desperate, this time I kissed her slowly and passionately, my tongue stroking hers gently. Her fingers tangled in my hair as she pulled, seeming desperate for more. My eyes closed as I cherished every second, every little moan that escaped her. After several minutes, I gently bit her bottom lip before forcing myself back. Please dont stop. I have to. Why? Taking both of her hands in mine, I led her over to the spot next to me on the sofa. I have to talk to you. I dont want to put it off anymore. Its something I wasnt necessarily going to tell you, because I wasnt expecting to be in this deep. Now that I am, I feel like I owe you an explanation for why Im here. Why youre here? Youre scaring me. Whats going on? Please dont be scared. What is it? Are you sick? Ive always had this scary feeling that maybe No. Nothing like that. Im fine. Healthy as a horse. Heather sighed in relief. Okay Ive been keeping something from you. While you may not fully understand why I didnt say anything, I need you to know that I came here with the best of intentions. Intentions? My choosing this place wasnt a coincidence. Her eyes narrowed. What are you talking about? There was no easy way to say it. Heather I took a deep breath and braced myself. I knew your sister. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN HEATHER My eyes wouldnt stop blinking. Did he just say he knew my sister? The only thing that would come out of me was, What? I knew Opal. A rush of panic hit me. Noahand my sister? Did youdid you and my sister No! he said adamantly, seeming to realize where I was coming from. NoGod, I need you to know that. Nothing ever happened between us. We were not romantically involved in any way, shape, or form. So please dont think that. But I did meet her, and I need to tell you the story. The room felt like it was spinning. I cant believe this. What Your sister, she was living in Pennsylvania for a while. She walked into my studio one day, wanting a portrait shoot. Okay. That made some sense. Noah squeezed my hand. As confused as I was, his touch calmed the shock a bit. I looked at him, waiting for more. She said she was trying to get into modeling and needed a full portfolio. He paused. Anyway, we scheduled it. She came back about a week later, and we did the shoot. You took photos of my sister Yes. They were all tasteful, a mix of headshots and simple poses. She was fully clothed. It wasnt anything crazy. My studio at the time was attached to my house. I have a different space now. Anyway, she met Olivia and everything. I was still married then. He took a deep breath, seeming to gear up for more. Despite knowing that fact, your sister started to message me after our business had concluded. You have to believe me when I tell you we never had any contact besides that one shoot. But in her messages, she said really inappropriate things. Oh no. Like what? Like she couldnt stop thinking about me and she felt we had some kind of cosmic connectionalso some sexual things. She just kept contacting me through my business email, professing her feelings for me and suggesting we meet up. The first couple of times I responded very simply and dismissively, and after a while, I stopped responding at all. Her messages kept coming anyway. I didnt know what to do. It was bizarre and unlike anything Id experienced before. Even after I asked her to please stop contacting me, she kept doing it. It was all very Fatal Attraction. I think she was delusional. Holy shit. My sister was without a doubt not well. But when she was taking her medication, she would have good patches. The problem was, you never knew when she would randomly stop taking care of herself. As much as I didnt want to believe it, this story sounded like her. I let him go on. Olivia saw some of the messages, and it really tested us. She knew I was telling the truth, that nothing had happened with Opal, but it was hard for her to accept that a woman was sending me sexually explicit messages and professing her love. It agitated an already bad situation. So Opal kept emailing you? Then what? He nodded. Then one day it juststopped. There were no more messages. At the time I was really relieved, because I never knew if she would eventually try something crazy. That was it? It stopped, and you never heard from her again? Not exactly. He squeezed my hand harder. That was it for a while. I thought it was over. But one day several months later, I received a call from an investigator in Connecticut. It wasafter theyd found her. Shed left a letter at the motel. It was addressed to me. Covering my mouth, I gasped and whispered into my hand, Oh my God. I had managed to keep my composure up until this point, but now my tears fell. Noah wiped them away with his thumb and went over to the counter to grab a tissue for me. I sniffled. What did it say? In the letter, she wrote how sorry she was for upsetting me. But that wasnt the purpose of her writing. She was reaching out to me for my help. Your help? She listed your address here on Lake Winnipesaukee and asked me to look after her sisteryouwhen she was gone. Even in her state of mind, she was worried about you. My heart felt ready to shatter. My lip trembled. Thats all she said? Pretty much. She explained that she couldnt handle life anymore and needed me to help look after you. It wasnt very long. I have the letter, if you ever want to see it. I didnt bring it because I wasnt planning to tell you why I came. But I can easily get it. Still in shock, I shook my head. It was hard to believe, but I knew it was true. I have no idea why she chose me, Heather. I hadnt heard from her in months, but for some reason, she chose to write to me in those last moments and ask for my help, and its haunted me more than you know. Maybe it was part of her same delusional idea that Id played some important role in her life. I will never know the reason she picked me. I stared out at the rain pelting the window. Im still confused. Ask me anything. She died six years ago. I turned to him. Why now? Why did you come now? Noah let out a long breath. Thats the question, isnt it? He looked down at my hand in his for a moment. Ive lived with a lot of guilt over not getting her help. Despite how crazy it was that she messaged me like that, I never dreamed her issues were as serious as they were. I never thought to try to find her family or get her to a doctor. I had just wanted it to stop. In retrospect, I absolutely should have done something. When I found out she had taken her own life, it fucked me up. I became even more withdrawn from my marriage and fell into a depression. I could relate to that guilt. So often Id blamed myself for not doing something more to find my sister and help her. Id never imagined she would take her own life, and that was a very na?ve way of thinking. Im sorry you had to go through that, I said. I learned a lot from it. He threaded his fingers with mine and looked down again at our hands. Anyway, to answer your question, despite the fact that in her letter she asked me to look after you, I never considered doing it, because it didnt make any sensesome strange guy youve never met showing up at your door, asking if youre okay? You didnt even know me. I didnt see how that would help you. So I decided against it. What changed? As the years went on, I still couldnt shake what happened. I couldnt change anything about the past. One day I woke up and realized maybe the only way to rid myself of the guilt was to do what shed asked. It felt like the least I could do for her. So, I looked you up more than a year ago and found out about this rental situation. I planned carefully so I could book my stay far enough in advance to get a spot this summer. I was pretty shocked when I was able to reserve it for the whole summer, but I decided to go for it. I couldnt make my brain work. So, you came here on a mission to what? Make sure I wasnt a mess? To save me? Honestly, Heather, I didnt know what I was going to do when I got here. I just came because I felt I owed it to Opal. I felt like my lack of action in getting her help had contributed to her death somehow. And I couldnt live with that. The time was right for me. I had no real commitments anymore. So I bit the bullet. Finally, I nodded. Now it makes senseall the work around the house, helping me get it on the market, encouraging me to go away to school Well, thats the part that makes sense to you, but so much of this doesnt make sense to me anymore. What I didnt expect was that almost immediately, I felt very connected to this placeto you. Despite that, I was adamant that I wouldnt get emotionally involved. Thats why I was so standoffish with you in the beginning. From the second I got here, I felt more invested than I ever imagined, and Ive tried to fight that. I never meant to interfere with your life, to insert myself into it. My goal was to honor your sisters wishes, to make sure you were okay, and to set you on the right path before I left. I figured three months was enough time to make that happen. But I never expected to connect with you the way we have, to feel what Im feeling. And I certainly never planned to tell you the real reason I came. My God. I still had so many questions. Was this the reason for your divorce? No. All of the mistakes I told you I made happened before Opal. My relationship with Olivia was already in shambles by the time I received the letter. But my depression really kicked in after that. So it certainly didnt help, but it wasnt the main reason. We wouldnt have lasted anyway. Does Olivia know why youre here? Yeah. Thats partly why weve been in touch a lot lately. Shes been checking on me because she knows everything. My father, too. Theyre the only ones who know why I came here. Did they encourage it? Olivia thought I was crazy. My father got it, though. He didnt see the harm in it, if it alleviated some of my guilt. He searched my eyes. Tell me what youre thinking. Feeling numb, I told him the truth. I dont know how to feel right now. Im in shock. Total shock. I was so worried youd be angry at me. Anger wasnt the right word. As much as this floored me, I couldnt be angry at him when his intentions were good. As bizarre as this story was, I could understand how it happened. I cant be mad at you for this. None of it is your fault. Youve always told me not to blame myself for anything when it came to Opals death. Well, the same goes for you. You couldnt have known what would happen. I didnt realize Opal was capable of taking her own life, and I was her sister. I knew her a lot better than you did. We tried to help her, but she wasnt letting us. Ill never know if I could have stopped her death if I had tried something different. I paused to take a breath. The point is, if her own family couldnt help her, theres likely nothing she would have allowed you to do to help her, either. He took a moment, seeming to let those words sink in. Are you mad that I kept my reason for coming here from you? he asked. Well, what were you supposed to do? Announce it when you got here? I get why you kept it to yourself, why you didnt come right out and tell me. I probably wouldve wanted to send you packing. Its better that I got to know you first before you laid this on me. He placed his head on my shoulder. Fuck, Heather. You have no idea how relieved I am to hear you say that. I seriously doubted my decision. I just wish you didnt see me as a charity case. He sat up to look me in the eyes. Listen, I had my reasons for coming here, but this experience has been nothing like what I expected. Youre not a charity case. Youre strong, confidentamazing. Youve taught me just as much as I could ever teach you. Im drawn to you and finding it damn hard not to show it. My actions are scaring the hell out of mebecause the last thing I meant to do was complicate your life. I sat back on the couch and rested my head. The story hed told me played through my head from start to finish like a movie as I tried to imagine how everything had gone down. Do you have the photos you took of her? He pursed his lips for a moment to think about it. Theyre on my laptop, yeah. Can I see them? Of course. Now? If you dont mind, yes. Just give me a minute to pull them up. I keep everything Ive ever shot on a special drive. I watched as Noah logged in. It took him about three minutes to locate the file containing the photos. When he placed the computer on my lap, nothing could have prepared me for the emotions I felt looking at image after image of my beautiful, smiling sister. We looked more alike than I remembered. Now that I was getting closer to the age shed been in these photos, I could really see the resemblance. Wiping a tear, I asked, Did she seem off the day you took the photos? Noah moved closer to me. Not at all. Thats why it was so strange when the messages started coming in. That was typical. She was like two different people in many ways, depending on whether she was taking care of herself. Yeah. None of it made sense. Not taking my eyes off the images, I said, I really want to see the letter, too. I have it at home. I know where it is and will have my dad scan it. I shouldve brought it with me. I just really wasnt anticipating telling you. The questions kept coming to me in waves. Why did you decide to tell me tonight? Because I couldnt hold it in any more, couldnt stand the thought of keeping anything from you. A lot has changed between us, and I dont know how to handle it. I just know I never want to be anything less than completely honest with you. That goes for my feelings about you, too. A part of me wanted him to elaborate on thathis feelings for mebut I knew I couldnt handle anything more tonight. I needed to absorb this. Can you download these photos for me? Of course. Ill buy a thumb drive tomorrow. Thanks. I continued sifting through the photographs, starting again from the beginning. I dont think Im gonna tell Mom about this. I dont know how shed handle it. I dont want her to view you differentlynot that I think theres any reason to feel differently about you, but I dont want to upset her. Thats up to you. I get it. Im okay with anything you decide, but I think thats a good call. Theres too much going on right now as it is. I stared at the screen. Im still in shock. It would be strange if you werent. I needed to be alone to process this. Getting up off the couch, I wiped my eyes and announced, Im gonna go home. I just need to be alone for a while. He stood. Yeah. Of course. I handed him the laptop and headed for the door. Noah looked concerned. Are you sure youre okay? I nodded, then walked home in a daze. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN NOAH Heather hadnt come by since my revelation. An entire day had passed. Even though I was tempted to go over to the main house, I tried to give her space. My news was a lot to take in. I couldnt help but text her, though, to ask if she was okay. She assured me she was, but I didnt entirely believe her, because it wasnt like her to stay away. Id told her I made her a thumb drive of the photos shed requested and asked if she wanted me to bring it over. She said no. Id also had my father scan the letter from Opal and added it to the memory stick. The fact that she didnt even want to see me long enough to receive it confirmed that she was still processing. At least I hoped that was it. Id done nothing all day but pace and drink coffee in between feeding the guinea pigs. As the afternoon turned into evening, I decided to call my father and fill him in on what happened. After I told him the story of my conversation with Heather last night, he tried to convince me Id done the right thing in telling her. She said she wasnt mad, but its going to hit her lateror maybe thats whats happening now, why shes staying away. What does she have to be mad about? he asked. Is he serious? Oh, I dont knowthe fact that I came here under false pretenses? The fact that I couldve potentially done something to save her sisters life if Id gotten her help? She has a number of options. No one knew what was going to happen, Noah. You were a married man getting explicit messages from a strange woman. You had no idea what it was. A lot of delusional people arent suicidal. You didnt know her, God rest her soul. Stop blaming yourself for something thats not your fault. I wanted to believe his words, especially since they echoed Heathers, but I still struggled. I still wondered if removing myself from the situation might be best all around. I feel like the right thing to do now might be to go home early. Youre gonna be able to walk away from her? The longer I stay, the harder its gonna be. Leaving is inevitable. Why prolong it? The thought of leaving now made me sick to my stomach, but maybe it was best for both of us. The property was under contract. Heather was enrolled in college, and shed have the money for it even if her father took half the real estate proceeds. There was nothing stopping her. Id be leaving in a few weeks anyway. Staying would cause nothing but more confusion for both of us. By the same token, Dad added, you could look at it a different way. Its only a few more weeks. Why rush to say goodbye? Whats the real reason you want out of there so fast? I knew the truth. Because I cant control my feelings for her anymore. I know if I stay, theyre gonna explode. I need to go home so she can leave and live her life without any complications. You think thats gonna make her feel better? To see you drive away when shes upset and clearly cares for you? She doesnt know whats good for her, and honestly, shes been avoiding me today. She hasnt wanted to see me. This is probably the best time to make a clean break. I cant force you to stick it out if youre intent on leaving. But I dont get the sense thats what you want. It wasnt what I wanted at all. Id never been happier than these past couple of months. But sometimes, doing whats better for others trumps what makes you happy. It felt like the responsible decision. I think Im gonna do it. Im gonna pack up and tell her after everything is loaded, to make it easier. You sure about this? It was gonna happen anyway. This will be like ripping the Band-Aid off. I looked over at the cage on my table. Jesus. I have to figure out how to travel with guinea pigs. The only complication is the guinea pigs. My father was rightfully confused. Guinea pigs? Yeah. Bonnie and Clyde. Long story. Lets just say Im not coming home alone. After we hung up, I started packing my things. I didnt have a lot of stuff, so it only took me about a half-hour. Then I Googled how to take a road trip with guinea pigs and realized Id have to stop somewhere in the morning to get two, soft-sided animal carriers. Even with that, packing was the easy part. The hard part was going to be telling Heather I planned to leave in the morning. Maybe after last nights bombshell, she wouldnt fight me on it. Maybe shed see why this was best for both of us. Even though Id been cutting back on the cigars lately, I needed to calm down, so I decided to light one up on the porch. As I gazed out at the lake, I thought about how much this summer had changed me. Most of my life, Id wanted to be any place I wasnt. The grass was always greener. But not here. At the lake, I was content. I didnt feel so alone anymore. I was happy justbeing. Id heard about the practice of mindfulness but had never been able to implement it until recently. Here, I listened to the rain, tasted my food, and felt so many things going on inside of me, especially whenever Heather was around. Being able to enjoy the present moment was a blessing, one made easier by being somewhere that made me happy. I wasnt kidding when I said I could have lived here the rest of my life. I wondered how much of that had to do with the lake and how much of it had to do with a certain girl whod infiltrated my soul. That question scared the shit out of me, making me even more sure I needed to leave tomorrow. I looked out over the water and chuckled to myself, thinking about the first time Id interacted with Heather. Id learned that day what a spirited firecracker she was. Thrown off by how alive shed made me feel, Id tried everything to scare her away. But it hadnt worked. Thank God for that, because I never would have gotten the time I had with her, never would have learned I have the capability to be happy after all. For years, Id thought I was a lost cause. But Heathers believing in me, and all her kind words about second chances, had resonated. Darkness eclipsed the daylight, which was fitting as my thoughts turned from happy to sad. It was time to break the news to her. I was just about to go inside and call her when I noticed her walking toward me in the distance. My body stilled. She was holding something. As she got closer, I realized it was a pie. My heart squeezed at the sight of her. I lost my ability to speak, let alone the courage to tell her my plans. She looked at me for several seconds before she finally spoke. So, I know Ive been quiet. I needed to ride it out for a day. Ive been processing everything you told me, but Im okay. I need you to know that. I didnt quite know how to express my feelings, how to convey everything to you, so I decided to bake that cherry pie I promised you. The cherries from the tree werent good, and there werent even enough of them anyway, so I had to go to the store and buy some. It took me all afternoon to figure out the best recipeone I couldnt screw up. I think I actually did it. Youll have to be the judge. The candy corn smiley face on top is my personal touch. Her smile was killing me. My mouth wouldnt move. Its okay, Noah. I want you to know its okay. I need you to believe me when I say I dont hold anything against you. How could I? Her assurance gave me the comfort I desperately needed. It also complicated my plans. I no longer had any clue how to tell her I planned to leave in the morning. Before I could think any further, she brushed past me into the boathouse. I cringed when she stopped to look around. What the hell is going on? I was gonna come over and talk to you tonight. I Youre leaving? Her voice cracked. She held her hand over her chest. Oh my God. Let me put this pie down before I drop it. I tried to find words to articulate my decision. The effort was futile. Heather, I I cant believe you were just going to drop this on me. I thought it would be easier this way. Easier? Do you have any idea what you mean to me? It couldnt have hurt more if shed ripped out my heart. Seeing her tears brought home how much she cared about me. It made me doubt everything again. This was gonna be happening in three weeks anyway, I said, although it seemed like a sad excuse right now. I know. And I was going to cherish the fuck out of the time you had left here. The next three weeks mean everything to me. Youre just going to throw them away? I dont think it makes sense to prolong it, I said weakly. Her voice grew louder. Youre a coward. Dont think I dont know what this is really about. Youre starting to feel something for me, so youre going to run away. I laughed angrily. Starting? Ive been feeling it for so fucking long its not even funny. You have an odd way of showing it. I upset you last night. It isnt going to be any easier to walk away from here in a few weeks. It seemed like the right time. I was upset. But not at you. The more I thought about what you did in coming here, your intentions, the more I admire you. Sure, I was sad earlier, but now? Seeing you ready to walk out of here? Now Im devastated. I swore under my breath. Its not my intention to hurt you. Thats not what leaving early is aboutits just the opposite. Its to avoid doing something to hurt you. Youve kept your cool with me, kept your hands off me all summer with the exception of yesterday. Suddenly you dont think you can last another three weeks? She didnt get it. Another three weeks? I cant last another second. She looked stunned. That made two of us. Heather took a step toward me. Nothing has ever hurt as badly as the pain of wanting you and not getting to have you, trying to hide my feelings from you. I dont want to hurt like this anymore. I dont care about next week or three weeks or next year. All I care about is now. I know damn well what will happen between us if you stay. Thats exactly why I dont want you to leave. Fuck. So many thoughts swirled through my brain. I took a moment to see her, this beautiful young woman who wanted to experience being with me. And I wanted nothing but to be with her. If I turned away now, would I look back at this moment for the rest of my life with regret? Would it haunt methe moment I had an opportunity for something I wanted but threw it away? The moment I stopped us both from experiencing what we so badly wanted? My head battled my heart and bodytwo against one. I knew with every ounce of my soul that if I moved toward her right now, it would be over. And it wouldnt be my head that won. The pain in her eyes was like nothing Id ever seen, not even when her father had pulled the rug out from under her. For the first time, I realized I might be hurting her more by denying her. Or maybe thats just what I wanted to believe. Maybe its what I had to believe, because there was no turning back. My mind went blank as physical need overtook it. I no longer knew wrong from right. I no longer had a sense of time. I just needed her. Come here. Are you gonna send me away? No. Not gonna do that. She walked to me and fell into my arms. I held her tightly. For the first time, I let myself breathe her in, hold her the way I wanted to without resisting. I was a goner. CHAPTER NINETEEN HEATHER When he lifted me into his arms and placed his lips on mine, I thought about how many times Id imagined him doing this very thing. Feeling weightless, I wrapped my legs around his body, holding on to him for dear life. Dont leave. Please dont leave. Id been with one other person in my life, and hed been a boy in every sensementally and physically. Noah was a man, larger than life in both body and mind. Getting to be with him like this incited unprecedented sensations within me. His sheer size rendered me powerless, and Id never been so happy. I wanted him to own every inch of me. I hoped I wasnt embarrassing myself with how eagerly I was kissing him, tasting himbasically humping him. It felt so good to be swept up by this man and kissed with everything he had in him, to feel the warmth of his breath filling me. I felt out of controllike a feral cat. Moving my hips, I rubbed against the massive bulge in his jeans, his heat resonating between my legs. Knowing Id made him hard like that gave me immense satisfaction. I needed him to enter me. Dont hate me for my weakness, he groaned through our kiss. Ill hate you if you stop. He smiled over my lips. Thank God were on the same page. Ive never wanted anything like I want you, Heather. You make me so fucking crazy. I couldnt even wait for him to undress me. I broke away from our kiss long enough to lift my shirt over my head and throw it on the ground. Staring into his eyes, I unsnapped my bra and let it fall to our feet. His breathing was labored as he took in the sight of my bare breasts for a few seconds before bearing down on them with his mouth. The wetness of his tongue and the heat of his breath on my nipples practically caused me to orgasm. I could feel my clit throbbing as Noah sucked so hard I wanted to scream. It hurt so good. He used to treat me like a little girl, but he was handling me like a woman tonight; I was grateful for that. I may not have been that experienced, but I knew I could take whatever he had to give. My body was ready. It had been gearing up for this moment from the first time Id laid eyes on him. He took my nipple gently between his teeth. So, so beautiful I pressed his head deeper into me, raking through his hair with my fingernails as he sucked on my neck. I knew there would be marks on me tomorrow, and I didnt care. Starving to taste him again, I guided him back up to my mouth. I kept expecting him to be bossy, tell me to slow down, scold me for my eagerness. But he never did. Noah was just as lost in this as I was. He walked us over toward the wall and propped me against it. He had no idea how many times Id fantasized about this very thing. Our kiss grew even more intense, and I wanted him to lift my skirt and fuck me right here. Instead, he suddenly put me down. Worried hed changed his mind, I grabbed his shirt and pulled him back to me. He resisted. He could see the fear in my eyes. Dont worry, baby. Im not going anywhere, okay? But I need to stop for a second. My heart pounded. Why is he stopping? I need to lock the door, he said before cupping his hands around my face and pulling me in for a reassuring kiss. We cant take a chance on someone coming in. Relief washed over me. I leaned against the wall as he went to the front door and turned the deadbolt. He drew the shades. Then he walked over to his backpack and took something outa strip of condoms. He threw it on the nightstand and returned to me. I want to look at you, he rasped, sliding his hand down my chest to my stomach. He pulled at the button of my denim skirt and undid it. He nudged it down until it fell. I kicked off my shoes. Left in nothing but my thong, I watched as he gawked at me with glassy eyes. Youre so fucking hot. You have no idea how long Ive dreamed about this. Im so hard just looking at you. What do you want to do to me? He let out a long breath and caressed my cheek. Everything you can imagine. I needed to touch him, to feel how much he wanted me. I reached out to rub my palm over his cock, which was bursting through his pants. Its heat penetrated his jeans. His breathing became erratic as he closed his eyes and bent his head back to enjoy my touch. Fuuuckstop. He placed his hand on mine. Turn around. Doing as he said, I placed my hands on the wall. Holy shit, I heard him whisper as he got a look at my ass. His hand felt rough as he slid it down slowly, caressing my back. I felt his fingers looping though my G-string. He pulled on it and brought me toward him. Showering the back of my neck with slow, firm kisses, he spoke against my skin, Its almost too much. I felt the air between us for a moment. When I looked over my shoulder, he was taking off his shirt. I leaned back against his bare, muscular chest, his erection right up against the crack of my ass. Wetness seeped through the material of my thong as I squeezed the muscles between my legs to curb the intense need building there. He wrapped his arms around me, my entire body enveloped in his. The skin-to-skin contact felt so good. His heart beat against my back, and I wanted to weep for all the nights wed wasted not doing this very thing. He flipped me around and gazed at my body. Placing his hands on my waist, he lowered my thong. Completely naked before him, I felt goosebumps cover my body. He knelt down and took my pussy into his mouth, lapping at my clit with his tongue before inserting it all the way inside of me. He kept at it for a few minutes as I bent my head back. The pleasure felt like shockwaves of electricity pulsing through my core. You taste so good. He spoke over my skin. I cant decide how I want to take you first. Just take me, I breathed, desperate to feel him inside of me. Noah stood and brought me to his chest. I feel like the luckiest man alive right now. I dont deserve you. He swept me off my feet as he carried me over to the bed and laid me down. I watched as he pulled his boxer briefs down. When his cock sprang forward, I marveled at how long and thick he was. In my experience from watching the occasional porn, you typically got one or the other. But Noahs cock was perfect. The tip was wet, and I had the urge to lick the precum off of it. He lowered himself over me and began to rub his slick shaft across my taut stomach, sliding it up and down, over my belly button as he looked into my eyes. It was so erotic. Feeling his hot arousal on my skin turned me on to no end. I couldnt take it anymore, though. I reached over to the nightstand and grabbed the strip of condoms, breaking one off and handing it to him. You trying to tell me something? he teased. I want you so bad, I breathed. Easy, beautiful girl. Youre gonna get me. Im trying to take it slow, so I dont come all over you right now. Im sorry if Im too eager. Dont apologize for that. Ive never been wanted by anyone so beautiful, so precious, in my entire life. I love how you want me. It makes me insane. You make me insane, Noah. He ripped the condom package open with his teeth. My heart raced with anticipation. Spread for me wide, he said as he rolled the rubber onto his engorged shaft. He lowered himself over me. The weight of his body was overwhelming. I stretched my legs apart to make room for him. As he kissed me, I could feel his cock teasing my entrance. My legs quivered. I can feel how wet you are, and Im not even inside of you yet. Holy shit. Without warning, he pushed inside in one thrust. It burned in the best way. I hadnt had sex in over two years, so it was more painful than Id expected. But after a few times of him moving in and out, the pain turned to pure ecstasy. Holy shit. Noah is inside of me. What started out as gentle soon transformed into raw fucking. My fingernails dug into his back as he pounded into me rhythmically. With every movement in and out, I felt like I could orgasm if I let myself. Heatheryouoh myfuckyou feel so good. So good, baby. The headboard banged against the wall, and I was pretty sure the guinea pigs were having heart attacks. With every creak of the bed, I felt more grateful that the boathouse was set so far back from the main house. Talk about being properly fucked. I held on to his muscular ass and bucked my hips to meet his thrusts, desperate to stop myself from coming, because I didnt want this to be over. Look at me, Heather. The intensity in his eyes was all it took for me to lose it. When my legs started to shake, he knew I was climaxing. I shrieked louder than Id intended when my orgasm pummeled through me. His body trembled seconds after, and his mouth fell agape as he came hard, pounding even deeper into me as he emptied his load into the condom. He kept moving inside of me long after there was nothing left. So fucking good. Noah collapsed onto me. Ill never be the same again. Hed taken the words out of my mouth. He was still inside of me, and already I had no idea how any other man could measure up. I didnt want to find out. CHAPTER TWENTY NOAH I couldnt remember the last time Id woken up feeling so completely at peace, yet in turmoil at the same time. In the present moment, I was more content than Id probably ever been. But as soon as my mind wandered into the future, dread crept in to ruin it. Heather was still sleeping. Her beautiful bare ass faced me, and her gorgeous blond hair was a mess of spun gold falling down her back. I had no idea how Id gotten so lucky. Shed surrendered her body to me last nightseveral times. I should have been exhausted from the amount of sex wed had. It was, bar none, the most incredible night of my life. On a physical level, we fit together perfectly. But even with her eagerness, even as I felt her orgasm pulsate against my cockmultiple times as I fucked every hole in her bodyI still didnt feel I deserved her. The guilt would set in as soon as this high was over. For now, I was still blinded by euphoria. I was living the moment Id always feared: knowing what it was like to have her and still feeling as though I needed to let her go. That wasnt going to be happening today, though. I knew that for sure. I needed her again and againand wondered if shed be up for another round. Kissing the back of her neck, I hoped shed wake up. Her body stirred, and she pushed against my cock. Good morning, she said as she teased me with her ass. The urge to slip inside her raw was intense. I grabbed the last condom from my nightstand and sheathed myself before I could give in and do something reckless. I sank into her slowly until I was balls deep. Being inside of her already felt like home to me. She was so wet despite the fact that shed just woken up. Seeing her ass from this angle as I fucked her totally did me in. After only a minute of pumping into her hard and deep, I lost control and came. Youd think I would have built up some resistance over the past twelve hours. Instead, this was the first time in my life Id ever prematurely blown my load. Shit. Im sorry. This angleit was too much for me. Dont pull out yet, she said. She started to play with her clit, and my dick actually began to gear up for another round. Within seconds, she was bucking her hips and coming against her hand with me still inside of her. If that wasnt the hottest thing Id ever witnessed I pulled out of her slowly and got up to discard the condom. Heather gawked at my naked body as I returned to the bed. My eyebrows lifted. Keep looking at me like that, and Im gonna have to find another condom. I lay facing her and planted a kiss on her beautiful lips. After a few minutes, the plethora of worrisome thoughts returned. She noticed my change in expression. Do you regret what weve done? Not one bit. I can see worry on your face. It has nothing to do with regret. I wouldnt change last night or this morning for the world. But you are worried. I caressed her face, not wanting to ruin this time together. We dont need to talk about this now. Heather moved back a little bit, and suddenly it felt cold in the bed. Just last night, you were about to walk out of my life. I feel like talking about this now. I want to know what youre thinking. She was right. Things had gone from one extreme to the other. Even though I wanted to stay in this sexual fog, that wasnt fair. She deserved honesty, even if I didnt have all the answers. Theres so much going on in my head right now that Im not even sure how to express it. Try. I pulled her in closer to me. Im confused, I finally said. About your feelings toward me? My feelings toward you are the only thing Im sure of. You make me happier than anyone or anything has in a very long time. And last night was the best sex of my life. Why do I feel like theres a but in there somewhere Tightening my squeeze on her waist, I said, Im scared shitless to hold you back, Heather. You already know that. Youre getting attached to me. Instead, you should be focusing on going away to school and starting your life. Im afraid to interfere and derail everything. Why does it have to be a choice? Why cant I have both? That was a fair questionwithout a simple answer. You can. But whether youll still want that in six months or a year is very dependent on what you find when you get there, how you feel when youre on your own for the first time. Im not sure you can know how youre gonna feel right now. I beg to differ But let me ask you a question. What would you want if my schooling wasnt in the way? I didnt have to think about that. Id want to be around you every day. You wouldnt consider a long-distance relationship? With you? Id consider anything. Id have to know you were fully ready for that, though. And I dont know if you can determine that now. This is a very emotional time in your life. Youve relied on me a lot to get through it, and Im so happy I could be here for you. But you might feel differently when you move away, when theres distance between us. Summer will turn to winter. You might not want to be tied down in a relationship with a thirty-five-year-old divorc?. You might want your freedom. She seemed desperate to get her point across. I want you. Youre all I want. I cant imagine ever not wanting to be with you. I dont care if Im here or in Timbuktu. I know you mean that with all of your heart right now. But you dont think Ill still feel that way when I get to school? You think I can just switch my feelings off that easily? We were blinded by infatuation. Id experienced enough already to know what I wanted. I wanted her. But she was still evolving. How could I make her understand that if she didnt want to hear it? Heather, youre so damn young. Youve never even lived away from home on your own. You have this amazing opportunity to go away to school and to have your freedom, and I think its best for you not to be tied down before you even get there. She started to cry. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. What you just said feels like youre breaking up with me, but thats silly because were not even together. In reality, we only fucked. My tone grew angry. It wasnt only fucking, and you know it. Then what does it mean if we cant be together? It then becomesjust fucking. I didnt say we cant be together. I just I just had the best night of my life, and now youre pushing me away. Please dont think that. Im not pushing you away. You asked me what was on my mind. Im trying to be honest with you. It felt like my heart had suddenly burst open as my voice grew louder. Im scared, okay? What we haveits intense. In some ways, its the most intense thing Ive ever experienced. Theres no halfway with you. When you were out with that guy the other night, I felt physically ill. I realized Id never heard anything about how her date went. Whatever happened with him anyway? I was so preoccupied after leaving you, I barely heard a word he said all night. I apologized for seeming out of it and asked him to take me home early. Good. Well, I was a basket case the whole time you were gone. Ive never felt that possessive over anyone in my entire life, not even the woman I was married to. But that reaction is very telling. It means I need to make sure my feelings toward you arent impeding your freedom, that Im not steering you in a certain direction for selfish reasons. The thought of losing you hurts. But what hurts me even more is the thought of you ever regretting choosing me. I dont want you to have any regrets. I dont want you to resent me. I finally seemed to be getting through to her a little. Her eyes softened. I understand what youre saying. I just dont know what it means for us. Are you telling me to forget about you and date other people when I go away to school? That made my stomach turn. Honestly? I have to think about what it means. We took things to a different level last night, one I wasnt mentally ready for and one we cant easily come back from, either. You asked me to open up. Thats what Im doing. I just dont have all of the answers yet. Right now, these feelings are very raw. Im still so fucking high off of you I cant think straight. She just kept blinking and nodding. She didnt know what to make of this conversation any more than I did. Suddenly, she got out of bed. I think I should go back to the house for a bit. Dont leave yet. Lets keep talking. Heather started putting her clothes back on. I cant think straight around you, either. Plus, my mother is probably wondering where I am. She knows Ive fallen asleep here before. But Im pretty sure shell take one look at my face and figure out what happened this time. Im not a very good liar. The thought of Alice finding out about this made me panic a little. Are you gonna tell her the truth if she calls you on it? Im not sure. Well, if you dont plan to, youd better cover your neck. I left marks all over you. The thought of that made me want to fuck her again. What was wrong with me? Even after all of the concerns Id just shared, I wanted nothing more than to carry her back to bed, bury my head between her legs, and make her scream again. Forget about everything else. Let me get you something to put on. I threw on my pants and zipped them up. Opening the suitcase Id packed, I took out a turtleneck, cable knit sweater. Dont ask me why Id brought that with me in the middle of summer, but I was thankful I had. She pulled it over her head. Thanks. Practically swimming in my sweater, Heather lingered at the door. I cupped her face. Last night was incredible. Im not going anywhere. Im staying until you tell me its okay to leave or until Im kicked out of here by the new owneror by you. And Im here all day when youre ready to talk more. Okay. She leaned in and placed a chaste kiss on my lips. I watched her walk back to her house. Well, Noah, youve finally done it. Youve gone and fucked things up real good. CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE HEATHER She knows. My mother isnt stupid. Shed seen me leave with that pie last night and knew where I was going. So it didnt take a genius to figure out why I hadnt come home until now. She was sitting in the dimly lit kitchen waiting for me when I arrived. The fact that shed come out of her room to sit there and wait meant she was definitely looking for a confrontation. She crossed her arms. Where have you been? You know the answer to that. Tilting her head, she said, I assume thats his sweater I fell asleep there. He let me borrow it. Its a little chilly this morning. Right. I tried my best not to look at her as I fumbled in search of a K-cup to make some coffee. I understand, you know, she said. I froze. I turned around to face her and was now one-hundred percent sure she knew Id fucked Noah. As much as I didnt want to admit what had happened last night, a part of me needed my mother right now. I needed to talk to someone I trusted. I was used to being the one looking after her, but sometimes a girl needs to be taken care of by her parent. And it was really rare to have her attention like this. I resumed making the coffee and finally coughed out the words. I only went over to give him that pie. Things just.it was a mistake. There are no mistakes in life. Everything you do is a choice. Some of them are good, and others contribute to our personal growth, teach us lessons. Choices lead us to things we were meant to experience. I may be depressed, but Im still your mother, and Ive still garnered some wisdom over the years. Youre not disappointed in me, then? Why would I be? Noah is a great man. My trepidation about him early on had nothing to do with him and everything to do with me. I was afraid to lose you. Ive since come to terms with the fact that youre leaving, so my feelings toward Noah have evolved, too. Ive always sensed the attraction between the two of you. You know that. So, no, this isnt a surprise, and Im not disappointed. I just dont want you to get hurt. Wow. I took a sip of my coffee and sighed. I was expecting you to give me hell. Do I think hes too old for you? Yes. But the fact is, youre an adult. Ive tried hard over the past couple of months to learn how to let you go. That means not questioning your decisions anymore. It hasnt been easy. Im pretty sure I might be in love with him, but I would never tell him that. That would freak him out. My mother didnt seem all that surprised to hear me say that either. I know he cares about you, too. He cares about me, yes, and because of that, he didnt want to cross the line. But Ive made it very difficult for him to resist me. Ive practically thrown myself at him all summer. So, eventually he gave in. Butnow I sort of regret my actions. I was careless, thinking I could handle anything. Maybe I cant. What is he telling you? He doesnt want to tie me down right now. Hes afraid Ill regret it. Which means Im pretty sure his plan is to go back to Pennsylvania and go on with his life without me. My mother looked pensive as she stared out the window toward the boathouse. I do believe he has your best interests at heart. And I do believe hes right in some ways. But I also believe that if two people are truly meant to be together, theyll find a way to make it work. Sometimes you have to be apart first to figure that out. *** Throughout the afternoon, I could still feel Noah between my legs. The harsh reality of our last conversation, though, clashed with the post-coital haze. As confused as I was, my body craved him. I thought a lot about what my mother had said, about people sometimes needing to be apart to figure things out. There was a reason for that old saying about setting someone free if you love them. If they dont come back, they never belonged to you in the first place. In my heart, I knew Noah wasnt going to let me cancel my plans to go to Vermont. It was important to him that I experience living independently. So I had to figure out how I was going to handle these remaining days with him, considering that moving ahead with my plans was inevitable. Hed texted a few times to check on me. Id avoided going over there long enough. I forced myself to shower and get dressed. The weather was overcast and drizzly as I made my way back to the boathouse. Noah opened the door right away, looking concerned, like he was already anticipating that my mood would be off. Hey, he said, his tone sullen. Hey. There was an awkwardness in the air, like we didnt know whether to argue, kiss each other, start fucking again, or what. The smell of something cooking invaded my senses as I entered. Walking over to the stove, I asked, What are you making? Its cooler out today. I made this stew. Will you have some with me? Yeah. That sounds great. I peeked into the pot. Whats in it? The steam hit my face. Carrots, beef, onions, spicesa lot of things. A mish-mash, kind of like my brain today. I can relate. Our eyes locked. His stare fell to my lips. He looked like he wanted to kiss me. I wanted him to, but at the same time, I prayed he didnt. He stirred the pot. My dad used to make this stew, actually. Its one of the only things he knows how to cook. One day I asked him to teach me how to make it. We call it man stew. Thats funny. I chuckled. Well, Id love to try some of your man stew. That most certainly sounded sexual. Noah set two bowls out and poured some of the concoction into each. He carried them over to where I was sitting at the table. I blew on it and took a bite. Mmmits good. Hits the spot. Jesus. Everything that came out of my mouth reminded me of sex. He licked some of the stew off his lips. Tell me what happened when you got back to the house. I paused and put my spoon down. My mother knows. She knew right away. I didnt even have to spell it out. He froze for a moment. Great. Okay. Thanks for the heads up. Expelling a long breath, he said, I need to stay far away from the house. No. Shes okay. We talked a lot. I dont want to get into all of what was said, but the bottom line is she accepts whatever decisions I make and doesnt blame you for anything. She wont treat you any differently. He looked skeptical. Ive fucked her daughter. Youd better believe shell be looking at me differently. Shes not going to make your life miserable. Well, thats good to know. He muttered, Jesus. Id want to kill me if I was her. I looked her in the eyes and vowed to never touch you. A long moment of silence ensued. Then we both started to talk at the same time. You first, Noah said. I tried to gather my thoughts. The entire day Ive been thinking about our talk this morning. My mind has been alternating between that and fantasizing about last night. His eyes seared into mine. I cant stop thinking about last night, either. This was the part where I really needed to swallow my pride. Im sorry for overreacting to your concerns. I know you have my best interests in mind. I think youre rightabout everything, even if I dont want to accept it. Even if I tell you my feelings wont change when I go away, you wont believe me until thats proven. As much as I feel like hanging everything up and chasing you back to Pennsylvania, I know you would never let me make such a rash decision. So, I am still going to Vermont, and youre still leaving. Last night isnt going to change that, but it still breaks my heart. He rested his head in his hands for a moment before looking up at me. Dont think for one second that last night didnt have a profound effect on me. Its made things ten times harder, which was always what I was trying to avoid. I know. Thats why as hard as it isand I cant believe Im saying thisI dont think we should do it again. I dont think we should have sex any more while youre here. His face told me he wasnt expecting that. Perhaps he figured me for a weaker person? YeahokayI agree, he said. I dont regret what we did and wouldnt change it, but I feel so much more attached to you. Given everything thats going to happen, I cant afford to make that worse. Ill never be able to let you go. Noah stared down into his stew a moment. For the record, I dont regret it, either. I grinned. Maybe we should go back to just hanging out on the porch. That made him laugh. Sadly, I dont think youre kidding. No, Im not. We can do that. Whatever will make it easier. I exhaled. Is this what its like to be an adult? Making mature decisions, even if they dont feel right? Bonus points if it feels like your heart is being ripped out, yeah. It pained me to ask, Have you decided when youre leaving? No. I dont have a set date, aside from the thirty-first being the last day Im paid for. Would you consider staying a little bit beyond that? Ill stay as long as you need me. Thank you. Thats a huge relief. I have so much to do. Its overwhelming. Take a deep breath. Well get it done. His eyes lingered on the marks hed left on my neck. Fuck. It hasnt even been a full day, and this is already hard. Need burned within me just from the way he looked at me. Maybe this would get easier as the days went on, but right now I just wanted to leap into his arms. I totally chickened out when that feeling got to be too strong. Pushing my chair out, I said, Thank you for the stew. Im gonna head back to the house and start putting some stuff aside for the yard sale. I was thinking of having one next weekend. Are you sure you dont want to stay for some pie? We never touched it last night. No. Thats okay. You enjoy it. You can tell me how it came out. Okay. He stood. Let me know if you need help with anything. I will. My aunt Katy is coming next weekend. I was going to ask you if youd come with us to see some properties. Id love your input. Anything you need, he said as he walked me to the door. But what I needed, I couldnt have. CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO NOAH The next Sunday afternoon, Heathers aunt Katy had come up from Boston, and wed made appointments to see five different houses in nearby towns that were close, but not exactly on the lake. Alice had opted to stay home. Too overwhelmed by the idea of moving, shed decided to let Heather and Katy make the decision. Debbie, the realtor, opened the door to the last property of the day: a modest but newly renovated one-level home. Her heels echoed on the hardwood floor. Theyre asking two-seventy-five. Its priced to sell. I think we can get them down a tad because the owners are eager to be done with it. Theyre already down in Florida. The good thing about this one is it was recently updated, so its pretty move-in ready. We were exhausted. The day before wed held a massive yard sale outside the main house, which Heather had spent the entire week preparing for. Wed sold about half the stuff. Id packed my truck with the rest and took it to a donation facility. It would probably take more than a month to empty out the main house completely, so it was a good thing they had until mid-September to vacate. Heather wanted to go out to Vermont early, find an apartment and job, and get settled before the spring semester started. Once Alice was in her new place, Heather would be able to leave anytime to get a head start out there. I knew this whole process was difficult on her, from parting with sentimental belongings to the stress of packing. But it had to be done. Since Alice was virtually useless a lot of the timeaside from slowly packing up some small thingsthe responsibility of this transition, as usual, fell on Heathers shoulders. She was a trooper, spending every waking moment that she wasnt at work doing something to prepare for the move. The realtor led us to a back room that had been added onto the house. Katy, I think this space would be perfect for your art room. The windows let a lot of sun in. Katy brushed her fingers along the wall. Its a little small, but it might work. Heather had been giving her aunt first choice on a place. I think she was just so grateful Katy had agreed to look after her mother. She wanted Katy to be as happy and comfortable as possible here. It was a pretty damn good deal for Katy, since she wouldnt even be paying rent, although I supposed having to keep an eye on Alice would make up for that. While Katy and Debbie ventured out to the backyard, Heather and I found ourselves heading to the other side of the house. We ended up in the master bedroom, which was pretty small. How are you holding up? I asked. Im tired. I wanted so badly to hold her. I know. But at least its been a productive weekend. Yeah. I just want her to pick from these choices so we can be done with it. The sooner we can start moving stuff in, the better. Id hoped my feelings for Heather would wane since our vow of celibacy. Wed been careful not to put ourselves in a position where we could end up losing control. But all the time wed spent working this past week was only a reminder of how good we were together, how happy I was by her side. Nothing was getting any easier. Not to mention, holding myself back from touching her was slowly killing me. She went to look out the window. The sunlight shone on her hair, bringing out the platinum highlights. I wished I had my camera to capture it. I knew she was still mixed up about a lot of things, including where we stood. I gave in and placed my hands on her shoulders, resting my chin on the back of her head. I immediately felt her breathing change. Dont let go, she whispered. Squeezing her shoulders, I kissed her head and spoke into her hair. This is not easy. She turned around to face me, and I almost leaned in to kiss her. Our moment was interrupted when we heard Katy and Debbies footsteps. We pushed back from each other, my heart going a mile a minute. I see youve found the master, Debbie said as she entered the room. Yeah. Its really cute, Heather answered, although I could tell her mind was elsewhere. Katy looked between us suspiciously. I think this one has a lot of potential. Its my favorite by far, Katy said. Debbies face lit up. Enough of a favorite to make an offer? Well, thats up to my beautiful niece, but yes, I think this may be the one. Heather looked around the room. I think we should do it. Debbie clapped her hands together. Fantastic! Lets go pick up your mother and head back to my office to draw something up. *** Later that evening, we returned to Heathers house to await the sellers decision on the offer, which was three thousand under the asking price. Heather was prepared to go up if they turned it down, though. Katy and Alice left us alone downstairs. Heathers eyes widened when she finally spotted the empty shelf in her living room. Where are my Hummels? This morning, when she was out running some errands with her aunt, Id come to the house to do some packing. She hadnt been back here since. You mentioned that the idea of moving the Hummels was stressing you out. So I snuck in here earlier and wrapped themeach one has tons of bubble wrap. Theyre safely in that box in the corner. She walked over and knelt down to inspect them. That was incredibly thoughtful of you. I figured it was one less thing youd have to worry about. It really is. That project was daunting. Heather stood up and came over to me, her eyes filled with emotion. I wouldnt have gotten through any of this without you. I reached out to touch her cheek. Happy to help. She briefly closed her eyes. Will you stay and have dinner? Maybe we can watch a movie? I just want to unwind tonight, eat some bad food and have a drink. We both knew it was dangerous to be completely alone, so Id been spending more time here; Alices presence ensured we wouldnt slip. Yeah, that sounds good. Im getting pretty hungry. You want to make something together or order out? I bought stuff to make enchiladas the other day. I have a rotisserie chicken we can use for the meat. My stomach growled. Id been ravenous lately, eating more to compensate for my other hunger, which wasnt being satisfied. That sounds good, I said. Lets do it. I placed my cellphone and keys on the kitchen counter. Be right back. I need to take a leak. I returned from the bathroom to a noticeable change in energy. When I looked over at Heathers face, all the color had drained from it. Are you okay? She didnt answer me. Instead, looking like she was about to hyperventilate, she leaned against the counter. She handed me my phone. You got a text. I looked down. It wasnt just any text, but a photo of a womans bare breasts, along with a message. It was from Lindsey, the woman Id been with before leaving Pennsylvania. This was the first time shed contacted me since. Oh fuck. Lindsey: I miss you. Thought Id send you this reminder. Wouldnt want you to forget me. Hope youre enjoying your vacation. I would love to see you when you get back. My heart sank and words vomited out of my mouth. Im sorry you had to see that. Shes not anyone important. This is She seems to think shes important enough that youd be interested in a photo of her tits. How could I explain this? It didnt look good no matter how you cut it. I took a breath in. Okay, remember when I told you there was someone last May, who I thought I had an understanding with? She folded her arms. Yeah. This is her. I havent spoken to her since I left. I dont know what possessed her to send this photo to me tonight, but I sure as hell have no interest in it. I take it you didnt exactly end things? There was nothing to end. Heathers face had gone from white to red. Thats right. Shes just your fuck toy. Shes clearly expecting to take up where you guys left off when you get back. God, this sucked. The future of our relationship may not have been clear, but as long as I was here, I needed to respect Heather. This was nothing but disrespectful, and the worst possible timing. She was already under an enormous amount of stress. We were both exhausted. But there was no good time for her to see something like that. Suddenly, she covered her face. At first I thought she was crying, but then she shook her head and did a total one-eighty. God, whats wrong with me? Im sorry. I cant blame you for this. Hell, Im not even sure I have any right to be mad. I looked at her a moment, trying to keep up. You have every right to be mad. I wouldve lost my shit if the roles were reversed. I swiped my finger along the text and deleted it. Its gonewhere it belongs. Im sorry for overreacting. I took a breath in. The guy she thinks she sent this text to? He doesnt exist anymore. That man was empty. Ill never be the same after this summer. Im grateful for that. Before she had a chance to respond, her phone rang. I watched as she picked it up and spoke to someone I assumed was Debbie, the realtor. They did? She looked at me and smiled. She got the house. I gave her a thumbs up. That sounds great. Okaythank you for letting me know. She hung up and beamed. They took the offer. Fuck, yeah! When she hugged me, I lifted her and spun her around. I heard the phone ring. Katys voice startled us, and I put Heather down. Was that the realtor? she asked. Heather ran to her aunt and embraced her. Yes! Weve got a house. Such great news! Katy beamed. Wanna join us for a celebratory dinner? Heather asked. Katy looked over at me. I dont want to intrude. You two should be alone. Heather insisted, Its no intrusion. Im not too hungry, Katy said. You two go ahead, and if there are leftovers later, Ill partake if I get my appetite back. Okay. Ill go tell Alice the good news, she said before disappearing upstairs. That news shifted the mood to a better place. Heather and I spent the next hour making the enchiladas. Things lightened even more once we opened a bottle of wine. We enjoyed each others company, and the drama over the text I received faded considerably. After dinner, we retreated to the living room to watch a Melissa McCarthy movie. Teddy curled up on one side of me, and Heather was on the other. This was so much better than going back to the boathouse alone. She lay down and put her feet on my lap. I took them into my hands and massaged them. Look how little my feet are in your big hands. This feels so good after standing up all day. You do have tiny feet. I wanted to kiss them but refrained. Have I ever told you that you have huge feet? She winked. You might have mentioned that once or twice, yeah. She chuckled. Her attention turned to the movie, but I remained preoccupied, thinking about what had happened earlier tonight. I wondered if she was really as understanding about the text from Lindsey as she claimed to be. Heather was strong and had the ability to catch herself when she got upset before things got out of hand. It was like shed trained herself to brush things off. She never held grudges or let an argument go on for too long. I considered it a positive trait most of the time, but I wondered if that was good for her in the long run. Maybe she needed to let it all out sometimes, get angry before she had a breakdown. I stared down at her feet and pressed on each of her toes. You know, its okay to be mad at me. She sat up a little. You want me to be mad? No, of course not. But if you ever feel like you need to let it all out, its okay. For example, that text earlierit clearly upset you. You were angry, but just when you were about to lose it on me, you stopped. It was like you told yourself you shouldnt be mad, so you suppressed it. I just wonder if you deny your feelings sometimes as a protective mechanism. She pondered my theory. Maybe I do that without realizing it because I dont want conflict. Its okay to let out your frustration. I can handle it. If youre mad about something, I want you to know you can take it out on me. Only after I spoke did I realize what that sounded like. She lifted her brow. You want me to take it out on youin what way exactly? I should have known she wasnt going to let that one slide. And that was most definitely what I wanted. I squeezed her feet even harder. *** When Katy joined us in the living room a little while later, I went back to the boathouse to give her and Heather some alone time. I knew they had a lot to discuss about the new living arrangements and the logistics of Katys move from Boston to New Hampshire. Just before midnight, I was just about to turn in when there was a knock on my door. When I opened it, Heather stood there in a thin, white nightgown. I could pretty much see right through it. She scooted past me into the house, leaving a wave of her delicious scent. I wasnt expecting a visit from you this late. She started to pace. I couldnt stop thinking about what you said. I wanted to let you know that I am really mad. The floodgates were about to burst open, and that was fine. This needed to happen. Talk to me, Heather. She unleashed everything. Im mad at my father for making me sweat over that damn money. I still dont know if hes serious or not. But more than that, Im so angry that I spent half my life trying to convince myself he loved me as much as his other kids. Deep down I never believed it was true. And that hurts. When she started to cry, I took her in my arms. Tell me more. Let it all out, baby. She stayed like that for a while. After I let her go, she continued to pace. Im mad that no matter what I try, I cant make my mother happy. It has to come from within herself and the right dose of medication. She wiped her tears. Im angry that my sister is dead, and I never had the opportunity to have a normal relationship with her. But Im not angry that she brought you into my life. And while Im not mad at you for the reason you came here, I have been keeping some of my feelings inside about it. It hurts to think about what Opal did and the fact that you knew her at all. The truth is, I do block out thoughts about my sister as a habit. Theyre just too painful. I nodded. Keep going. Heather spoke through gritted teeth, her voice growing louder. Im mad about that text you got from Lindseynot at you, though. Im mad because it made me worry that I wont be there when you need a warm body. Im extremely jealous. While were on the topic, Im jealous of your ex-wife, toothat you still talk to her and confide in her when I want you to confide in me. Her tone softened. Im mad about a lot of things, but most of all Im sad, so fucking sad, Noah. Because I dont want to lose you. Her last statement was like a punch to the gut. I could relate to that fear. Placing my hands on her shoulders, I looked into her eyes. No matter what happens in our lives, no matter where I am, if you ever need me, I will always be here for you. I can promise you that. Her eyes glistened. Shed heard me. I wanted to hold her again, but I was afraid to lose control. I wanted to rip that nightgown right off of her. Heather wiped her eyes. Thank you for listening, and thank you for encouraging me to let it out. Youre welcome. I Before I could even finish my sentence, she ran to the door and disappeared into the night. I didnt stop her, because then what? I did, however, stand on the porch to ensure she got home. Five minutes later, while I was lying in bed, a text came in. My heart raced as I realized what it was. A photo of the most beautiful set of tits lit up the screenbreasts I wished more than anything I could taste just one more time. Heather: I figured I owed you one after all that. My head sank into the pillow as I typed. Noah: Youve just made things ten times harder. Heather: I hope so. ;-) Youve been too good. Plus, Im not there, so I can be bold without getting into trouble, right? Noah: Did you see how much I ate tonight? Ive been eating like crazy to make up for the fact that I cant touch you. Dont think Im not dreaming about your body 24-7. And dreaming about that thing you do. Heather: Thats a good song. Noah: What? Heather: That Thing You Do, one-hit wonder from the 90s. Noah: Ah. Figures youd know that. I bet its on your iPhone. Heather: No comment. I laughed. Pretty sure I woke the guinea pigs up. Noah: LOL Heather: What actual thing do I do, though? Noah: I dont want to even think about it right now. Itll put me over the edge. Heather: Come on. I need to know. This conversation was veering into territory Id been trying to stay away from. But she wasnt physically here, so how much trouble could I get myself into? Noah: I thought it was a one-time deal, but by the third time you did it, I knew it was a thing. Heather: What is it? Just thinking about it made me harder. Noah: When you know Im about to come, you squeeze your pussy around my cock. It feels fucking amazing. Drives me crazy. Heather: Well, I can assure you the song isnt about that. Noah: Probably not. Heather: And I know I do that thing. Its on purpose. Noah: So, you WERE trying to kill me. Heather: Yup. Death by pussy spasm. Noah: Not a bad way to die. Heather: LOL. Ill let you go to sleep. Noah: You think I can fall asleep after this talk and that photo you sent? Heather: Well, if you dodream of me. Noah: You can bet on that. CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE HEATHER ONE MONTH LATER August endedand Noah was still here. Hed agreed to stay an extra two weeks to help get us settled. I greatly appreciated that. It was now the middle of September. Wed made it completely out of our house just in time for the new owners to move in. Noah had rented a huge truck and took our remaining stuff to a storage facility. Crisp fall air had replaced the summer heat in New Hampshire. We were living in our new house surrounded by stacks of boxes. It would take several more weeks to get fully organized. Since the new place had only two bedrooms, Noah had spent the past few nights sleeping on the couch while I slept in bed with my mother. Between Teddy, our boxes, and the guinea pigs, it was mass chaos. However, today I was too preoccupied to care about any of it, because tomorrow was the day Id been dreading since June. Noah would be going back to Pennsylvania. It was completely surreal, and my heart was broken. All the unpacking was going to have to wait, because I didnt plan to do anything today but spend time with him. I woke up super early to make coffee for us before my mother and aunt woke up. As I entered the kitchen, I realized Noah had beaten me to it. Good morning, I said, breathing the nutty scent of the java. Good morning, beautiful. Noah pulled me into an embrace and held me so tightly I could barely breathe. Speaking into his chest, I said, I cant believe this day is finally here. I dont feel ready. Ill never feel ready. Things were still unclear between us. Noah refused to put a label on what we were or make any promises aside from his general vow to always be there for me if I needed him. That didnt define whether or not we were in a relationship. Hed be there if I really needed him someday, but whether hed be there for me during all the days in between was still unknown. The lack of definition was intentional; I knew that. And I didnt want to waste our last day pushing the issue or analyzing things. I just wanted to be with him and cherish every second. So I was thinking we could take a drive today, he said. Where to? Wherever the wind takes us as long as Im with my favorite girl. I felt on the verge of crying. It wasnt going to take much. Id probably be losing it on and off throughout the day. Something Id forgotten about popped into my head. Katy wants to take you to dinner to thank you for all your help. I didnt give her an answer because I wasnt sure how you wanted to spend your last night. Thats nice of her. Yeah. But we dont have to do that if you dont want to. As long as youre there, Im good with it. Pretty much gonna be stuck to you like glue today. That made me warm inside but sad, too. Okay, Ill tell her its a go. We dont have to stay long. Well be out all day, so we can meet her somewhere on our way back. Is your mom going, too? I have a feeling shes going to try. She keeps telling me how much shes gonna miss you. My eyes suddenly filled with tears. The random crying had commenced. Noah surprised me by placing his hand on my chin and bringing my mouth into his. Well, thats one way to stop me from crying. It was the first time hed kissed me since the one night wed spent together. Apparently, on his last day he had no fucks left to give. I was thankful, because his kiss was my oxygen right now. Id forgotten how damn good it felt. His warm lips covered mine, and I immediately went in search of his tongue. With his taste and smell flooding my senses, I felt my body go limp. With every push of his tongue against mine, my panties got wetter. If wed been a smoldering fire the past several weeks, hed just poured on the gasoline. After forcing himself back, he cradled my face. Fuck, I missed kissing you, he rasped before planting one more on my lips. Smacking his chest playfully, I said, That didnt make this any easier, you know. But by all means, keep making my day more difficult. *** We ended up at a place Id never considered. Noah drove us to an amusement park about an hour away. We spent the car ride reminiscing about the summer as he held my hand. He introduced me to some of his favorite music, bands like Cake and Audioslave. Id never been more uncertain about the future, but I cared more about this man than Id ever cared about anyone or anything. That was scary. No matter what happened after tomorrow, at the very least, I hoped to God I would see him again. I was crazy about him, and if hed told me to hang everything up, run away to Vegas and marry him, I probably would have said yes. That insane thinking was precisely why hed say I needed to go away for a while, that I didnt know what I really wanted. I guess time would tell, but my money was on my feelings getting stronger with distance between us. The afternoon at the park was a blast. We rode all of the big rides and ate some greasy food. Our time on the roller coaster reminded me of our very relationship, all of the ups and downs, twists and turns. It was the first time since Noahs arrival in New Hampshire that wed truly let loose away from home like this. It was a shame we didnt have time to visit more places together. My favorite parts of the day, though, were the moments when we walked through the park holding hands. He must have known I needed his touch today. Toward the end of the afternoon, we passed a little house where psychic readings were offered. Id never been into visiting a fortune teller, but if there was ever a time in my life that I hoped for some answers about the future, it was now. I nudged Noahs arm. Will you do this with me? You into that stuff? Not normally, but Im kind of curious. He stared into the window for a bit, then shrugged. Okay. There was no one inside when we entered. Then, from behind a beaded curtain, a woman appeared. Hello. Reading for two? She had a nose ring and wore a head scarf. I looked at Noah then back at her. Can you do that? Read two people at once? Yes, but the information I receive is very much out of my control, so it may not be balanced. The spirits decide whom theyd like to message. Sowhen you say spirits, are you a medium or a clairvoyant? A little bit of bothdepends on the day and what gifts Ive been blessed with. After we paid her, she sat us at a small circular table with a red tablecloth. She lit some tealight candles and stared at us for a moment. I am Iliana, by the way. Nice to meet you. Im Heather, and hes Noah. Noah remained quiet, with a skeptical look on his face. Suddenly, Iliana squinted in confusion. Okay. This is going to sound really strange. I dont even know why this question is coming to me. But I am going to ask it anyway. Whos the ass tickler? Ass tickler? Did you say ass tickler? I asked. What is that? I have no idea, she said. But thats what Im getting. I looked at Noah. I thought hed be laughing, but instead he looked shocked. His eyes seemed frozen open. Do you know what shes talking about? I asked. He scratched his head. Uhhh Noah? The color drained from his face. Okay, Im really freaked out right now, he finally said. Does that have meaning to you? I laughed a little. Ass tickler? Noah let out a long breath. The night of your twenty-first birthday, you fell asleep on my bed. Do you remember that? Yeah. I never told you, but you were talking in your sleep. I covered my mouth. Oh no. And you said the weirdest thingthat you wanted to tickle my ass, among other things. What? I yelled. I said that? And what other things? We can talk about that later. Nothing bad, but the ass tickling was funny. I just dont understand how shed know about that. I said I wanted to tickle your ass? Yes. What the hell was I thinking? I dont know, but Im freaked out. Iliana raised her brow. Freaked out? Surely you didnt doubt my abilities? I thought this was a bunch of bullshit. But you have my attention now. The introduction of that term is an indication to direct my attention toward Heather for the moment. Iliana closed her eyes for a while. Okay. Wow. What? I asked impatiently. You have some changes on the horizon. Is there a big move coming up? Yes. Im moving to Vermont for school. Okay. Yes. Im sensing this looming transition. The next year will be life-changing for you in many ways. In good ways? In many ways. My stomach sank. Does that mean something bad is going to happen? Why did I decide to do this? I cant tell you that. All Im getting is that this year is going to change your entire life, and you should be ready for whatever comes. I swallowed. Okay. Iliana closed her eyes again before turning her attention to Noah. Youre in love with heram I right? Oh my God. Time seemed to stand still as both of us looked at Noah. Dont answer that, I insisted. Its not fair for you to be put on the spot. Please dont answer. I couldnt bear to hear him say no. The longer he said nothing, the more excruciating this was. Noah just blinked. Iliana placed both hands on her head. Is everything okay with your head? Depends on who you ask, he said. As far as I know. Why? I cant be sure. Im feeling some pressure in my head, and I dont know what it means. It could be literal or figurative. What do you mean by that? It could represent a lot on your mind or actual physical head pain. Just be cautious. Noah seemed totally weirded out. Okay. Illiana concluded her reading, and we left her feeling more confused than when wed walked in. Noah grabbed my hand. I suddenly have a headache. And Im mortified because Im apparently an ass tickler. Im still freaked out that she knew that. What else did I say to you that night? You really want to know? Yes. He stopped and leaned into my ear. You begged me to fuck you. What? Youre lying! I wouldnt lie about that. Begged. He laughed. That night was the beginning of the end of my resistance. I cant believe you never said anything. Pointing my finger at his chest, I said, I need to be aware of these things. What if I do that shit at school? Im going to have to get a roommate. What if I say something to them in my sleep? You might want to warn them ahead of time, clarify that you cant be responsible for what you say. Tell them not to believe any of iteven if that shit is true half of the time. *** On the way home, we stopped at a restaurant near our house that Katy had selected. As predicted, my mother had forced herself out in honor of Noah. It was amazing how much shed grown to like and trust him compared to the beginning of summer. Katy pulled a piece of bread from the basket in the middle of the table. So what will be first on the agenda when you get home, Noah? Ive booked some assignments starting in October, so Ill have a little time to get my studio in order again before I get back to work. My father has also been building a laundry list of things he needs me to do, stuff that needs to be fixed. Hes in his early seventies, lives alone, and relies on me a lot. She grinned. Hell be happy to have you back. Yeah. Noah glanced over at me and offered a sympathetic smile. He knew exactly what I was thinking: his fathers gain would be my loss. Well, I hope the long break was just what you needed, my mother said. Although you certainly didnt do much relaxing while you were here. I cant thank you enough for everything you did for us. You know it was my pleasure, Alice. My mother reached for my hand across the table. I know youre sad about Noah leaving. But I have what I hope is some news that will brighten your night. What? Your father called me today while you were out. Hes changed his mind and has officially informed us that he does not intend to take any money from the sale of the house. Of course, its not final until the paperwork is signed, but he says he plans to relinquish those rights. The breath rushed out of my lungs. Wow, okay. Noah squeezed my leg under the table. Thats great. It was a weird feeling. I knew I should have been happy, but the whole stress of my father threatening us had been unnecessary in the first place. Katy smiled. Im glad you wont have to deal with that complication. This dinner was nice, but I was antsy to have Noah to myself again. It was only a matter of hours now before hed be gone. I knew he was feeling it, too, wishing we could stop time. Id felt his eyes on me all throughout dinner and could feel an unspoken intensity in the air. When my mother went to the bathroom, Katy busied herself with handling the check. Shed refused to let Noah give her money. Without an audience for a moment, Noah turned to me and mouthed, Youre so beautiful. It was as if hed been dying to say it. I want you, I whispered. So badly it hurt. I couldnt let him go back to Pennsylvania without having him one more time. Even if I had to beg for it. CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR NOAH My insides twisted as we drove home from the restaurant. I wasnt ready. I wasnt ready to say goodbye to this place, to say goodbye to Heather. Earlier when that psychic had put me on the spot about my feelings, Id wanted to tell her the truth: that shed guessed correctlythat I was in love with Heather. In my heart, I knew she was right. It wasnt something I wanted to admit now, not with Heathers future on the line. But that woman was fucking good. I drove past the exit we normally took to get to the new house. Heather didnt question where we were going. A few minutes later, we pulled into a desolate parking area that overlooked Lake Winnipesaukee. I turned the car off and leaned my head back against the headrest before turning to her. I wanted to look at the stars with you one last time. Her voice was breathy. Is that all you want? Fuck no, it isnt. I rubbed my hand over her thigh, feeling my erection growing by the second. I need you one more time before you go, Noah. Please. No way could I stop this; I was feeling too weak. Id been a Boy Scout these past several weeks, but Id run out of whatever had kept me in control. I knew damn well why Id taken her here. It wasnt only to look at the stars. I had to have her, too. She reached over and placed her hand on my crotch, and I knew I was done. Her eyes brimmed with desire. I drew in a ragged breath as I leaned over to devour her lips, letting out weeks of pent-up frustration. She moaned into my mouth as our kiss grew frantic. She climbed over to the drivers seat to straddle me. Desperate to be inside of her, I unbuckled my belt and unzipped my jeans. There was one major problem, though. I didnt have a condom. I stopped the kiss long enough to say, I dont have anything with meno condoms. Its okay. Im on the pill. I have been this whole time. Are you sure? Yes, as long as youre Im good. Got a clean bill of health before I left Pennsylvania, and Ive always been safe. She kissed me ravenously as she reached under her skirt and worked her panties down her legs. I was rock hard as I took my dick out of my jeans and guided her body onto mine. Sinking into her warm pussy felt even more incredible than Id remembered. Id only had unprotected sex when I was married; Id never trusted any other woman enough to do it without a condom. Id forgotten what it even felt like. But it had never felt this amazing. Nothing had. Fuck, Heather. You feel too damn good like this. I thrust into her harder. Our eyes locked. She dug her fingernails into my hair. The truck shook as we were completely lost in each other. It was terrifying to be inside of her with thoughts of tomorrow looming. She felt like mine in every way right now, and I didnt want that to change. But I needed to let her go to know whether she really was mine. It didnt take long for our starving bodies to lose control. We gasped for air as I quaked beneath her, emptying my cum as she squeezed her pussy around my cock. That thing. I was so freaking grateful to have felt it again, so freaking grateful for every second we had left. *** The sound of birds chirping woke me. Heather was still asleep in my arms in the backseat of the truck. I had only dozed off for a little bit. Wed been up most of the night. Heather had fallen asleep before I did. In the middle of the night, Id reached into my glove compartment for a notepad I kept there and had written her a letter. I would probably be too overwhelmed later to articulate my feelings, so I wanted to get them down while they were fresh. Being intimate with her again had brought out everything Id been suppressing. Id lost count of the number of times wed had sex last night. It seemed like enough to undo all those days of celibacy, though. And made what was set to happen today even harder. Heather stirred before she looked up at me. What time is it? she asked. Im not sure. But it doesnt matter. Im in no rush. I didnt think Id be able to fall asleep. She yawned. Figured wed just stay up all night. Well, we definitely used a lot of energy. Its no wonder you crashed. She curled into me. I kissed the top of her head as we stared out at the morning sun over the lake, a virtual clock ticking in my brain. There were no words. *** The rest of that day was one big blur. Suddenly, I was standing in front of my packed truck with nothing left to do but say goodbye to Heather. I wished for something to delay mea mishap or flat tire, maybe. But everything was in place, even Bonnie and Clyde, loaded up with tons of hay and situated in their carriers in the backseat. I felt sick. When I took her in my arms, Heathers cry was so intense it was silent. She buried her face in my chest. This doesnt feel right. I felt my own tears close to the surface. I fought them with all my might. I couldnt let her see my sadness right now. I needed to be strong for both of us. Heather, look at me. I swiped my finger beneath her eye. Look at me, baby. There was so much I wanted to tell her, but I needed to be careful. If I admitted I was in love with her, she might take that as a sign she shouldnt go away. I still felt she needed the experience that lay ahead of her more than anything. Holding on to her face and looking into her eyes, I said, This isnt goodbye. Her voice trembled. Why does it feel so much like it, then? Well take it day by day, okay? She sniffled and played with the buttons of my shirt. I know you say you came here to help me, to set me on a good path. You did so much more than that. Youre the first man in my life to make me feel safe, who truly believed in me enough to make a difference. Ill always be grateful for you and for this summer, even though Im nowhere ready to let you go. Tell her you love her. I just didnt know if that was the right thing to do. So I kept it in, even though I felt those words so strongly in my heart they were practically bursting from my chest. She wiped her nose with her sleeve and sort of laughed. Is it weird that Im jealous of Bonnie and Clyde because they get to be with you? I forced myself to crack a smile. Spoiled rodents Reaching into my pocket, I took out the letter. I wrote you something while you were sleeping last night. I was wired because of all of the thoughts in my head. Read it after I leave, sometime tonight when youre feeling lonely and sad. The paper crinkled as she clutched it to her chest. Thank you. I will. I looked around one last time. Id better go. If I dont force myself, Ill never leave. Her eyes filled with tears again, but she nodded. It killed me to see her this broken up, but she looked the way I felt inside. There was no easy way to do this. She gripped my shirt as if to keep me from leaving. When she finally let go, I forced myself into the truck. If I waited for the moment when leaving felt right, it would never happen. Heather hugged herself and backed up a couple of feet to watch me drive away. I managed to start the truck but couldnt put it into drive yet. After I mustered the courage to shift into gear, I pressed down on the gas and started to drive away. From the rearview mirror, I could see her bury her head in her hands. That broke my heart. I couldnt do it. I couldnt drive off and leave her crying in the driveway. Rather than put the truck in reverse, I parked it on the side of the street and ran back toward her. She looked up in surprise as I lifted her into my arms and held her tightly. This was what Id been holding back in an attempt to avoid losing it. But escaping into my truck the way I had wasnt right. Id been trying to avoid this pain, but she needed this. I needed this. We needed to hold each otherfor as long as necessaryone last time before I disappeared. CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE HEATHER SEVEN MONTHS LATER Heather, As I write this, Im watching you sleep. You look so peaceful, and thats very ironic because I know theres a lot of confusion swirling around in that beautiful head of yoursmainly confusion about us, where things stand, what the future holds. Youre probably wondering how I could possibly let you go after last night, how I could walk away from something that feels so incredibly right. Please dont mistake my leaving for uncertainty about you. When I first came out here, it was to help you in any way I could. Because of my guilt, I felt I needed to atone for my past mistakes. But you have helped me more than I could ever help you. You helped me to see the good in myself, to see myself the way YOU see me. You brought me joy I wasnt expecting. My life is happier with you in it. At the same time, I recognize that Im flawed. I made a lot of mistakes when it came to my marriage, and while I feel like I learned from them, I still cant be one-hundred percent sure I would make the best long-term partner for you, that I wouldnt fuck up again. Despite those fears, I want to try to be the type of man you deserve. I want to give it a year. You know how I feel about you getting to be on your own, with nothing holding you back. Its a rite of passage and one I think you need to experience. One year, Heather. Go to Vermont. Conquer the fuck out of it. Enjoy your freedom. Focus on school. If after a years time, you still want to be with me and still feel the way you do today, Ill be here. Well figure out a way to make it workwhatever it takeswhether long-distance or otherwise. I dont want you to feel you have to choose between me and the freedom youve damn well earned. This letter is me telling you if you want me to wait for you, I will. What are you reading? I jumped. My roommate, Ming, startled me. I hadnt even noticed her standing in the doorway. I carefully folded the piece of paper and placed it back in the drawer. Nothing. Id pulled out the letter Noah had written me the night before he left New Hampshire because I was really missing him tonight. Occasionally, I liked to reread it and think back to the summer, to that time in his truck when wed made love all night long. I would have given anything for just one night back at the lake, sitting on the porch and chatting with him under the moonlight like we used to. Id tried to call him tonight but got no answer. It was earlier than the time we normally spoke on the phone, so it didnt surprise me that he hadnt picked up. Id had a long day and just wanted to hear his voice. His voice was everything now, since I hadnt seen him in so long. Whats on that paper? Ming asked. You can tell me. Its personaljust something Noah wrote me a long time ago. Well, what feels like a long time ago. Seven months had felt like an eternity. Mings friendship had made the passage of that time a little easier. I was grateful for her. On my very first day of apartment hunting in Vermont, tired and really homesick, Id stopped at a Chinese restaurant in the late afternoon. It was a cold, raw day. The place had been totally empty, but so warm inside, and the most enchanting Chinese meditation music had played on the overhead. It felt like Id walked into a dream. Ming had appeared and walked me to a table where she later waited on me. Absolutely starving, Id ordered a huge pu pu platter. Shed gotten a kick out of the fact that Id ordered all that food just for myself. Id explained that Id had a very long, stressful day and planned to eat the entire thing. Since the place was empty, Ming had sat across from me and watched with great interest while I devoured everything in front of me. She and I got to talking, and I learned her father owned the restaurant as well as some apartments upstairs in the building. It happened to be just around the corner from campus. Ming lived in one of the apartments and was also a student at the university. When Id told her Id been searching for apartments all day, she mentioned she had an extra bedroom. The rest was history. Id snagged a place to live on day one, along with an instant friendone with quite the sense of humor. It was no surprise that my fortune cookie that afternoon had read: You just ate cat. Ming was in charge of ordering the fortune cookies and made it her mission to put the funniest stuff inside. She sat on the edge of my bed. How is Mountain Man doing? Id shown her a photo of Noahunshaven and wearing one of his flannel shirts while working outside the lakehouseand shed instantly given him a nickname. I havent spoken to him today. I think he might have a late shoot. I sighed. It always gives me anxiety when I cant reach him. I really needed to hear his voice. Today sucked. Nothing tea and dumplings wont solve. She winked. My dad just made some fresh ones. That sounds awesome. Ming and I retreated to the kitchen and devoured the dumplings shed brought upstairs. Id probably gained five pounds since moving in with her. Ming blew on her hot green tea. So, what happened today that was so bad? I think I screwed up my microbiology examlike really badly. Then at work, I spilled an entire tray of food on a customer. Ouch. Id taken a job at a restaurant right off campus that was always crowded with college students. It was far more hectic than my old gig at Jack Foleys. I sighed. How was your day? I think I stooped to my lowest point today. I sniffed a baby diaper while babysitting. I bent my head back in laughter. Oh man. I think you did. Shortly after I moved in, Id caught Ming in the bathroom sniffing a white powdery substance. Id nearly had a heart attack thinking Id moved in with a drug addict. Sweet little Ming is a cokehead? Well, it turned out to be baby powder. Shed sat me down and told me all about this strange addiction shed had since she was a kid. She liked to sniff baby powder and sometimes eat it. Shed even been featured in a documentary about strange addictions. Shed played it for me on YouTube as I sat there flabbergasted. Between my sleep talking and her obsession with baby powder, we made quite the team. We didnt judge each other, though, and we appreciated our strange habits as things that made us unique. Aside from Chrissy and Marlene, whom I spoke to only occasionally now, I didnt have too many close girlfriends, so I valued Mings friendship. You know I love you, right? she said. Like, more than Johnson

  • The Universe in a Nutshell /     (by Stephen Hawking, 2001) -   The Universe in a Nutshell /
  • Pale Horse Coming /      (by Stephen Hunter, 2001) -   Pale Horse Coming /
  • A Christmas Carol /    (by Charles Dickens, 1997) -    A Christmas Carol /
  • 200       .  .. (2014, 336 + mp3) 200 2014,
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