Almost Summer (Page 6)
They were in Simon’s study. It was late and Montana had gone to bed hours ago. She was due in a few short weeks and her body needed the rest.
“We aren’t nearly as brave as the women in our lives,” Alistair said. “What they do for us. Bearing children. I doubt that I could.”
Simon grinned. “Excluding the biological issues.”
Alistair laughed. “Yes. Of course. It’s a huge commitment of resources. And yet they do it cheerfully, again and again.”
Sara had been thrilled when she’d discovered that she was pregnant. He had been happy as well, but unable to stay in England. He’d had commitments. He’d wanted her to go with him, but she’d needed to be near her family and her doctor. Perhaps when the baby was older, she’d said, but he’d known even then that she had no intention of ever leaving the quiet village where she’d always lived.
He’d gone without her. He’d returned in time for the birth and then had left again. Months later, mother and daughter had been killed. He’d had no idea. No psychic sense of loss. Just a phone call in the middle of the day. He hadn’t even been in surgery.
He’d flown home immediately. His parents and in-laws had handled the details, leaving him to mourn. Shock had settled in. He’d barely known his darling little girl. Had planned on spending more time with her. But he’d never had the chance. The fault was his.
“Do you miss it?” he asked, shaking off the memories. “The travel? The going from place to place?”
“No,” Simon said easily. “I thought I would, but I’m happy here. I’ve found where I belong.” He shrugged. “I have the best of all worlds. My patients come to me. I’m with the woman I love in a town where I feel welcome.” He glanced at his friend. “I’m not like you, Alistair. I’ve never had a place to call home before now. Fool’s Gold gives me that and more.”
He put his brandy on the table by his chair and leaned forward. “The hospital has joined a network that stretches around the globe. They’re raising money together and will bring the neediest of patients here for surgery. I’m doing extraordinary work.” He paused. “I can always use another pair of hands.”
“You might like it.”
Alistair hadn’t considered settling in one place. Not recently. Before Sara’s death, he’d always assumed one day he’d return to England and live in the village where he’d been born. But that day had never come. To stop traveling now felt like a dismissal of the woman he’d married. A rejection of the only thing she’d asked of him.
He recognized the fallacy of the argument. His desire to continue his work had nothing to do with his affection for his late wife and not finding a place to call home wouldn’t bring her or his daughter back. But telling himself that and believing it weren’t the same thing.
“I’m not ready,” he admitted, recognizing that eventually he would like to be in one place. Put down roots. Not in England, he thought. That would be uncomfortable. His young brothers were more connected to the title and the community there than he had ever been. Let one of them deal with all that went with being an earl.
“When you are, call me,” Simon told him. “I want the first shot at convincing you to move here.” He picked up his brandy. “Where are you off to next?”
“Australia. Sydney, then Melbourne. I’m giving several seminars in each location. From there, I’ll spend three months in Thailand. I haven’t decided where to go after that.”
Paige would enjoy Australia, he thought. While he was lecturing, she could explore the area. He would have days off where they could go places together.
He shook off the idea nearly as soon as it crossed his mind. Paige barely knew him. She had her own to destiny to fulfill. She wouldn’t want to be tied to someone like him when she could be free. Or was that just an excuse? A reason not have to face the bone-crushing guilt he carried with him?
Because the truth was that while he’d loved Sara, he’d never been in love with her.
He’d known how she had felt for years, had known she was waiting patiently for him to return. She had always been there. A part of his life in England. In truth, he’d secretly been pleased when she wouldn’t travel with him. He’d been able to go off and do what he wanted. Oh, there hadn’t been other women. He had no interest in cheating on her and had believed in the importance of honoring his wedding vows. Instead, he’d been able to take the dangerous assignments to the most interesting places. He’d often said he didn’t have a choice, but he did. He’d been gone more than he needed to be.
He could have been home when she died.
He’d taken on the extra work, had stayed longer than necessary. Because he hadn’t been ready to go back to the quiet village. Chatting with neighbors and setting up a home had seemed boring and unimportant. Now that he’d lost both, he knew he’d been wrong.
“You’re gone again,” Simon said quietly.
“I’m thinking about Sara.”
Alistair stared at his friend. “How do you know?”
“I know you. You blame yourself for not being there. What you’re forgetting is that you couldn’t have stopped her from crossing that street.”
“I might have.”
“I doubt that. It was her time, Alistair.”
“An acceptance of fate?”
Simon shrugged. “Perhaps.” He raised his arm, the one covered with scars left by an abusive and destructive mother who had deliberately pushed her only child into a fire. “I believe things happen for a reason. Had I not been injured, I would never have studied medicine, never have become a surgeon. I wouldn’t have found my destiny.”
He smiled. “That sounds dramatic and I don’t mean it to.”
“It sounds honest,” Alistair told him. “I knew what I was supposed to do with my life as well. At an early age. Sara never understood how important my work was to me. She was content with the tiny sphere in which she lived.”
“You never were.”
“No.” He sipped his brandy. “The fault is mine. I shouldn’t have taken the easy way out, marrying her.”
“She was in love with you.”
“I took advantage of that.”
“You gave her what she wanted. She was happy.”
Alistair wasn’t so sure. “I could have done better. Been there for her more.”
“Then you wouldn’t have been the man she loved. Your remoteness was part of your appeal.”
Alistair raised his eyebrows. “Have you been reading women’s magazines, old man? Your insight is disconcerting.”
Simon laughed. “I have been blessed with the love of a woman who exceeds me at every turn. She surprises me and delights me.” He raised his glass. “I could never leave her.”
Alistair wasn’t surprised. While Simon had always been a caring individual, he’d kept that side of himself locked away. Few had known the gentle soul trapped behind the scarred and gruff exterior. He’d held himself apart from those around him—choosing a solitary existence over ever belonging.
Somehow Montana had changed that. She’d drawn him in and allowed him to express his true self. He was a different man now. Much like the infamous Ebenezer Scrooge, Simon had discovered the joy of loving life.
“You didn’t love Sara enough,” Simon said bluntly. “That is the crime for which you feel punishment is necessary. If you had loved her enough, you wouldn’t have left her behind. Or gone away yourself. Therefore, your lack of love is the reason she died.”
Alistair stared into his glass. “I preferred you before you could articulate what you were thinking.”
“That doesn’t change the truth.”
“I suppose not.”
Simon leaned toward him. “You don’t have as much power as you think. She still would have died. As there is no way to undo the past, what it comes down to is what will you do with the information now that you have it? Learn from it or continue to punish yourself?”
“Probably the latter.”
“Then you’re a fool.”
“I think we can both agree on that,” Alistair told him.
Knowing and accepting were not the same thing. He wanted to move on, but didn’t believe he had the right.
“How did you know about Montana?” he asked quietly.
Simon smiled. The scarred half of his face barely moved, but the rest of it curved into a happy, knowing grin.
“She allowed me to feel again,” he said simply. “She gave herself so fully, I couldn’t resist responding in kind. I wanted her from the first second I saw her, but what I didn’t realize was that I also loved her from that first moment. It took me a while to figure it all out. I nearly left her. What a mistake that would have been. Without her, there is nothing.”
A raw truth, Alistair thought, almost uncomfortable with his friend’s honesty. What would it be like to have someone like that? A woman he loved so much he couldn’t leave her?
The face that came into sharp relief wasn’t Sara’s. It was the face of the beautiful angel who had saved him.
On the surface, Paige was perfect. She wanted to travel, she was open and giving. He knew immediately what she had to offer any man lucky enough to steal her heart. But what about what she deserved? Could he forgive himself enough to give her all she needed? Or was the kindest act to simply walk away?
Paige listened to the soft-spoken woman on the CD, then turned and stared. “Seriously? What?”
The recording repeated the statement, which sounded more like a blur of sound than anything that made sense.
“Dove é il ristorante,” the recording obliged.
“Is that a statement or a question?” she asked. “Isn’t it supposed to be a question? Where is the restaurant? Shouldn’t your voice go up at the end? Is that regional?”
She flipped over the steaks she’d been marinating, then stuck the dish back into the refrigerator. A quick glance at the clock told her that Alistair would be arriving shortly. They were having dinner together. Their last dinner. He was leaving in the morning.
She told herself not to be sad. That knowing him had allowed her to remember her dreams and follow them. She would always be grateful. The fact that she might have fallen a little in love with him was an issue she would deal with later.
She replaced her “ Italian1” CD with something more appropriate for dinner, then raced upstairs to change her clothes. Thirty minutes later she was in a sundress, with her hair curled. She’d put on a bit of makeup and slipped into cute flats. As they were going to eat outside, heels would be silly, but she still wanted to look nice.
While she’d settled on their dinner menu, she hadn’t chosen dessert. There were a couple of cupcakes in a pink box on the counter, but she was considering something else entirely. Inviting Alistair into her bed.
She didn’t usually take relationships to that level. With him leaving and the real possibility that she would never see him again, sharing cupcakes made a lot more sense than giving him her body. But while her head could make the argument, her heart knew that showing how much she cared was important, too. Not for him, but for herself. What she hadn’t decided was if she was willing to risk it all, knowing there wasn’t the promise of a happy ending.
She still hadn’t decided when he knocked on her door.
She raced to the front of the house and let him in. When they were standing in her living room, she faced him.
“Hi,” she said. “I’ve been busy. Everything is coming together, as it’s meant to be. I’m learning Italian, which isn’t going very well. But that’s okay. Montana’s sister, Nevada, works at the big construction site on the edge of town. They’ve hired a new manager and he has a wife and a little boy and they’re looking to rent a house for six months. They’ve been by and they love the place and they want to start the lease on the first. Which is exactly the amount of time I need to get ready.”
She paused for breath. Part of her was aware of him watching her, of how his dark blue eyes seemed to see all the way to the very heart of her, but not in a scary way. Instead, she felt cared for and, well, adored.
She told herself she was being silly, but the feeling wouldn’t go away.
“I haven’t bought my tickets yet,” she went on. “I have told everyone I was going and they’re being so supportive. My banker reminded me about two CDs I have that will mature on the fifteenth, so as soon as that happens, I’ll have the money for the plane and the hotel deposits. I already have my passport, so I’m really doing it.”
“You are,” he murmured, lightly touching her face. “Good for you.”
She liked the feel of his fingers on her skin. The soft contact made her want to lean in and kiss him. There was need, she realized, but also something more. Something deeper. The hunger to connect with this man. To know all of him intimately.
“You’re the reason, Alistair. You reminded me that I would always love Aunt Sophia. That I didn’t have to stay stuck to prove it. Thank you for that.” She smiled. “You gave me the kick in the rear I needed.”
“You would have gotten there on your own.”
She was less sure about that, but it was oddly difficult to speak. Her breath quickened and her clothes were uncomfortable. Need grew, traveling through her body on heated blood.
She wanted to tell him about the steaks she had marinating and the salad she’d prepared earlier. But instead of mentioning that, she stepped forward and put her hands on his shoulders.