Almost Summer (Page 5)

“There they are,” Paige said pointing. “The one in front is Athena. Oh, look at the ribbons! She’s so beautiful.”

Alistair saw a perfectly ordinary goat with ribbons around her neck. Ribbons Athena was busy trying to eat. But in Paige’s mind, the goat was beautiful. Because that’s how Paige would see everything. Her worldview allowed her to see what could be rather than what was. She’d truly been given a gift in that regard.

He put his arm around her and drew her close. She leaned into him, then raised her head and smiled at him. As he stared into her hazel eyes, he knew she had given him a gift. A second chance. He owed her and he needed to make sure that, before he left, he did something for her as well.

* * *

“You don’t mind?” Paige asked.

The parade had been spectacular, as always. Animals and antique cars, although her favorite part was the kids on bikes. She loved watching them ride past—so excited to be a part of the day.

“I’m honored you’ve asked me to accompany you,” Alistair told her.

“It won’t take long.”

“I have nowhere else I’d rather be.”

The words, along with his yummy accent, made her insides get all twisty. “You’re too kind.”

“I’m not, but I’m glad you think I am.”

He took her hand as they crossed the street. They each held a bouquet of colorful tulips in the other hand. Once they reached the park, they walked around to the far side and the small cemetery by the church.

Alistair offered her the flowers he carried and waited by the gate as she went inside. Sophia’s grave, marked by a small, modest headstone, stood at the edge of a beautiful garden. She’d picked the space and the marker herself. Because she took care of Paige, even after she was gone.

Paige placed the flowers on the grass, then knelt down. As always, she felt the loving presence of the woman who had raised her. But this time, there was a difference. An urging, as if a message were being communicated.

Paige wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but, after a while, strong hands settled on her shoulders. Alistair drew her to her feet and then wiped the tears from her eyes.

“I can’t go,” she whispered, her mouth trembling. “I promised her I would follow my dreams. That I would travel. I stayed because she was old and I wanted to be here for her and now that she’s gone, I can’t leave.”

She pressed her hands together. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. She wouldn’t want this. She wouldn’t want me living such a small life. We had dreams together and I swore I would make them happen.”

“You will.”

“You don’t know that. I haven’t yet.”

“You’re afraid.”

She nodded slowly, knowing he’d found the truth on his first try. “As I said, Aunt Sophia would be very disappointed in me.”

He lightly kissed her forehead. “You couldn’t be more wrong.”

Alistair led her back through town. Paige let herself be taken to the house where she’d grown up. He settled her in the backyard, and brought her a glass of iced tea, then sat next to her and held her hand.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I’m supposed to be taking care of you.”

“I’m all better now.”

She smiled. “It’s a casserole miracle.”

He leaned toward her. “Paige, you’ll get there. Losing someone you love is difficult. You’ve been through a lot. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

She nodded, knowing he was right and it would do her well to listen. She was about to tell him that when his cell phone rang.

He pulled it out of his pocket and took the call.

“Woodbury.” He paused, then smiled. “Hello, Simon. Yes, the doctor was here.” His smile faded and his gaze settled on her. “Ah, of course. You’re right. It’s been too long already.”

There was more, but Paige wasn’t listening. Simon wanted Alistair to move in with him and Montana. It made sense. They were the people he’d come to see in the first place. It wasn’t as if he were going to live with her forever. Still, she’d thought…hoped…they would have more time together.

When he hung up, she forced herself to smile. “Simon finally believes it’s OK for you to be around Montana?”

He nodded. “I have been pronounced measles-free. He suggested I return to his place. I have imposed on your hospitality long enough.”

“You’ve been a good guest.”

“Speaking in my sleep while recovering from a fever?”

“It was refreshing to play nurse. Plus, I got that mac and cheese. That made everything worth it.”

She spoke lightly, not wanting him to know how much she was going to miss him. Alistair was the first man she’d been attracted to in a very long time. The first man she’d imagined she might be able to fall in love with. When he talked about all the places he’d been, he made her dreams seem possible.

She stood. “You’d better get to your packing.”

He rose and looked at her. “Paige,” he began, then shook his head. “I haven’t the words to thank you.”

“No words are necessary.”

A kiss would be nice, she thought. Not that he was offering. But she wouldn’t say no if he did.

Alistair nodded and headed for the house. Paige watched him go. Rather than wasting her time on what might be, she needed to remember what was. All this time she’d been worrying about disappointing her aunt Sophia. Perhaps it was time to start thinking about how she’d also disappointed herself. Alistair had reminded her of what was important to her. Now it was her turn to act on that information and to make some changes.

Chapter Six

Paige spent the afternoon catching up on her laundry and sorting through the food left in her refrigerator. She’d sent most of the casseroles with Alistair when Simon had come to pick him up. She looked through what was left and froze most of it. With luck, she wouldn’t have to cook for a couple of weeks. Around four, she headed for the fire station, ready to catch up on any paperwork that had accumulated since she’d been busy with her houseguest. While someone else filled in to answer the phone, she was the one who took care of writing letters and making sure all the bills were forwarded to the municipal accounting office.

She was done by seven and started the short walk back to her place.

The evening was clear and cooling off rapidly. The Spring Festival would continue the next day, so the vendors had left their booths in the center of town. A band played in the square and Paige listened to the music as she walked.

She was both restless and confused. Confused because she usually loved her life and suddenly nothing felt right. It was as if her skin no longer fit. She breathed in the scent of flowers and cut grass and knew that most of her problem came from Alistair being gone. In a few short days, she’d grown used to having him around. She looked forward to their conversations and spending time with him. Without him, she didn’t know what to do with herself.

“Ridiculous,” she murmured aloud. All she had to do was remember what she’d done with herself two weeks ago. How hard could that be?

She rounded the corner of her street and started toward her house. As she walked closer, something moved on the porch. A man stood, as if he’d been waiting.

Her heart fluttered, her breathing quickened and it was all she could do to keep from flying the last few feet.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, aware that she sounded breathless.

“Montana tires easily,” Alistair told her. “Simon and I have caught up and I thought I would leave the two of them alone for a few hours.” He paused and stared into her eyes. “Plus, I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you, too.”

“When I arrived here and you were gone, I wondered if you were out on a date.”

“I put in a couple of hours at work at the fire station.”

Relief eased the tension in his face. “Good to know.” He held up the computer case he held. “I have a plan.”

“I can’t wait to hear what it is.”

Fifteen minutes later, his computer was sitting on the dining room table. Next to it was a large map of Europe and a pad of paper. Paige had poured them each a glass of wine. She handed him one and then looked at everything he’d brought.

“I don’t understand.”

“All you have to do is take the first step,” he told her. “Plan the first trip. The rest will follow.”

She knew he was right, yet instead of agreeing, she set down her wine and tucked her hands behind her back. “I can’t.”

He put his glass next to hers and put his hands on her shoulders. “We’ll do this together. You don’t have to be afraid.”

She didn’t deny the obvious. That she was afraid. What was the point? But for all his claims of their doing anything together, the truth was she would leave on the trip by herself.

What had seemed so glamorous in theory was suddenly lonely. Looking into Alistair’s eyes, she realized that she’d always assumed there would be someone with her when she traveled the world. Sophia, or a nameless, faceless friend.

Alistair pulled two chairs close together and urged her to sit in one. He took the other, then typed into his computer’s browser. A picture of Paris appeared on the screen.

“I suggest you start with a more traditional destination,” he began. “Paris, or London. With a Eurail Pass, you can explore the rest of Europe at your own pace. You have to see Rome. Now I’ve taken the liberty of suggesting a few itineraries.”

He clicked a couple of keys and a list came up. The title was Paris, followed by a list of places to go, including several walking tours.

“This is a museum most people overlook,” he told her. “Yes, the Louvre is important, but I think you’ll enjoy this one as well.”

He continued talking, explaining about a Saturday morning market he favored and how she could be in Italy in time for the grape harvest. His voice washed over her, making her see the journey he had planned. Finally, he turned to her.

“I know this is what you want,” he told her. “What Sophia wanted for you. You’ve been missing her, which shows how much you loved her. Now it’s time to take a step forward.”

He took her hand in his. “I know what I’m talking about. I’ve spent the last few years beating myself up for being gone when I lost my family. I’ve been unable to release the past and move on. You’ve helped me get unstuck. I want to return the favor.”

His eyes were the most remarkable color of blue, she thought hazily. She could stare into them forever. If only he would come with her. If only…

There it was again, she thought. A reason to delay. A reason to say, “Not today.” She was twenty-six. Would she find excuses until she was thirty? Forty? Would she reach sixty and then say she was too old?

Her heart told her Alistair might be the one. That she could easily fall in love with him. But he wasn’t offering anything beyond travel advice and if she didn’t act now, she would be stuck for who knows how long.

“Do you think if I fly out of San Francisco, I could get a direct flight?” she asked.

Alistair laughed and squeezed her fingers. “I knew you’d understand. Let’s see what flights are available.”

Over the next couple of hours, they looked at airlines and itineraries. Paige knew she had to give her employers some notice before flying off to Europe for several months. Finding someone to rent her house while she was gone would help with expenses as well. But by the time she walked Alistair to the door, she had a plan and a list of inexpensive hotels where she could stay. She was giving herself four weeks to pull it all together and then she was leaving. No matter what.

Alistair reached for the door, then paused. He cupped her face in his hand and bent down to kiss her. The soft touch healed and aroused in equal measure, leaving her breathless. She wanted more, she thought, letting her eyes drift closed. She wanted more than a few hours with the man who pressed his lips to hers.

What was it Aunt Sophia had always said? If wishes were horses then beggars would ride. If…

She wrapped her arms around his neck and gave herself over to the kiss. If this wasn’t to be, then she would store memories and take them out to savor later on. Like her first trip to Europe. When she was old, she would sit in the sun with her friends and talk about the handsome, charming viscount she’d once known.

He moved his mouth against hers. He tasted of the wine they’d shared and something slightly more tempting. His body was strong and hard against hers. She leaned into him, letting her br**sts nestle against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her close.

When his tongue touched her bottom lip, she parted her lips for him. The kiss deepened, grew more intimate. Need pulsed in time with her heartbeat and she felt herself growing weak with longing. But before she could decide if she wanted to take Alistair upstairs, he drew back.

He pressed his mouth to her cheeks and her nose, then lightly touched his lips to hers.

“Good night, Paige,” he whispered, and then he was gone.

* * *

“You’re not listening.” Simon made the statement conversationally.

Alistair shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said automatically. “I was thinking.”

“Not about work.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m not sure,” his friend admitted. “I’ve seen you when you’re thinking about where you’re going next and you didn’t have that look.”