I deserved no less but some small, aching part of me had clung these past years to the desperate hope that one day, somehow, I would see her again.
And there she was, less than a block away on a crowded city sidewalk.
I realized I couldn't approach her, that it had been a stupid fantasy all along, a hollow dream. Shredded by this proximity to her after all this time I knew I should do the wise thing and turn and walk away. But I couldn't find the strength. My heart throbbed with need and love, in equal, tortured measures. No use pretending otherwise. Millie Jo Gordon only a few dozen steps away, walking hand in hand with a guy I wanted to kill on sight. Violence swelled in my body, curling my hands to hard-knuckled fists. Of course it was an empty threat at best; I could no more confront them in this moment than I could lift my arms and fly.
My last sight of Millie had been that July morning she climbed into Rae's idling truck, begging Rae to drive away before I could reach her. Tangled hair spilling down her back, refusing to look my way, less than an hour after we'd made love for the final time. Did she ever think about that morning or the night before, let alone revisit it obsessively as I had so many times I'd long ago lost count? I was pretty damn sure she did not.
The late-afternoon sun slanted between buildings and spangled the long, dark ripples of her hair, rimming her head with a halo of pure golden light. She was twenty-two now, a college graduate; she had accomplished the first of many goals. Pain annihilated me as I stood frozen in the shadow of an awning, able only to observe. She and the guy paused beside a small storefront, turning to examine something in the window while I studied her profile, destroyed anew.
She wore a white sleeveless blouse, bright green shorts, and sandals with straps that wound halfway up her calves; a delicate silver bracelet decorated her right wrist. As I watched, mute and destroyed, the guy released her hand to skim his along her spine, up beneath her loose curls. He leaned in, saying something to make her laugh, and she tucked momentarily close to him, resting a palm against his stomach. My throat closed off. It was time to go. Now.
It was pure chance, a coincidence, nothing more, but Millie suddenly looked my way, her precious, beautiful face wreathed in laughter, and our eyes met. I felt the impact of her sudden awareness the same way I would have a physical blow to the bridge of my nose. The smile fell from her lips as swiftly as if she'd just witnessed an accident and I turned blindly away, making tracks in the opposite direction. It was cowardly, hypocritical to the extreme, but I knew if I stayed put I would be forced to meet the guy and I couldn't bear it. It hurt too fucking much. It was already terrible enough to be caught in what amounted to stalking her, even if that had not been my intent.
"Wyatt!" I heard her cry and realized she was coming after me. “Wait! Please, wait!”
The sound of her voice broke like glass over me; unconditional need to be close to her stalled my feet. I turned and saw her hurrying in my direction and my entire being jolted as though the switch had been thrown in an electric chair. Speechless, heart thrusting, I stood rooted in place as she reached me, halting two feet away, staring up at me with wide, disbelieving eyes. Her cheeks were flushed, her breasts rising and falling as she drew deep lungfuls of air attempting to catch her breath. Everything I had lost rose to confront me in that moment; it took all my will to keep from reaching for her.
"Wyatt,” she said again, a stunned whisper of my name. We seemed trapped in a dream, a step outside of reality; the bustle of the city faded to gray static. There was only Millie. There had always been only Millie.
I wanted to say her name but words were dust on my tongue.
"What are you doing here?” Stunned, unblinking, she held my gaze. Her hands fluttered toward me before she thought better of it and clasped them tightly together at her waist, a gesture I recognized as one of tension and uncertainty. Creating a shield with which to block potential pain.
"I...I just wanted...” I could have punched my own lights out, I sounded so stupid. Though I stood without moving I was a wreck on the inside, a quaking, all-out wreck. Sweat formed beads down my spine.
"You're here." She couldn't believe it any more than I could. "You're really here."
If she only knew how often I'd dreamed of seeing her again, of being close enough to touch her. The passage of time meant nothing; it might as well have been the morning after our first night together, wrapped around each other in that little orange tint. My eyes tracked her face, devouring the sight. She was more beautiful than ever, the lowering sun accentuating the gold in her irises and casting auburn highlights in her brown hair. I hadn't explained my presence here in the city where she lived, too overcome, and suddenly the guy she'd been walking with joined us, taking his place at Millie's side with what could only be described as a proprietary air.
"Joel Jefferson," he said succinctly, extending a hand.
Millie swallowed hard before releasing a small, pent-up breath as I shook with Mr. Joel Jefferson, unable to ignore the customary gesture without looking like more of an asshole than I already did; the bastard's eyes were on a level with mine and I clearly saw the questions he was restraining. He didn't offer a smile or any additional commentary, and I felt the way he squeezed with just enough pressure to let me know he meant business.
"Joel, this is..." Flustered, her cheeks brighter than ever, Millie stumbled over potential ways to describe our connection to one another.
"Wyatt Rawley," I said, and released his hand.
Joel immediately slung an arm around Millie's waist. He may not have a clue who I was but he was observant enough to sense that something was off.
"My brother is married to Millie's aunt," I said to fill the gaping silence.
Oh, Joel said without sound; his brows drew inward.
Millie had never been able to hide her feelings and I damned myself for doing this to her, for putting her in this terrible and unexpected situation in the first place. All I goddamn did was hurt her. Tucked against Joel's side she continued to stare at me as if I was a ghost, as if I might disappear between one blink and the next. I had to walk away and I knew it; showing up this way was unforgivable. Selfish and stupid beyond compare. But then all at once I saw something in her eyes and my heart thrust with enough force to bruise my insides.
Joel said, "Well, nice to meet you. We're just headed back to my place for dinner." He felt compelled to add this detail and I quelled the vicious desire to deck him straight in the teeth. I briefly imagined the sound of my fist making contact and his subsequent plunge to the sidewalk.
"How long are you in town?" Millie's voice was faint.
"I got here earlier today. I'm driving up to Landon this evening." I kept my tone light, with effort. Of course I was not headed to Landon but the lie rolled off my tongue; I couldn't admit to driving to Minnesota for no other reason than to see her, not now.
Millie, Millie, oh God, my sweet Millie, what would you do if I swept you into my arms and started running?
Do you still somehow care for me or was I just imagining that?
"They're expecting you tonight?" Barely a whisper.
I nodded before mustering a cheerful tone; I couldn't manage a smile. "It was good to see you. I'll tell everyone 'hi' when I get there. And everyone in Jalesville says to tell you the same."
I was about to lose it and so I turned without waiting for them to respond, feeling Millie's gaze beating against the back of my neck as palpably as if she'd thrown a clump of weeds. I ducked my head, fighting tears, and strode away through the crowd. Dying inside. Wishing for things I had right to wish for. And this time, she didn't follow.
Before I knew what was happening, before I could make sense of the insanity of the situation, Wy had turned and walked away, head lowered, hands in the front pockets of his faded jeans. Speechless with shock, totally blindsided by his sudden appearance after five years of total absence, I watched him put distance between us as though standing just outside my physical body. If I'd harbored even the fainest shred of a notion that I was over what had occurred that summer, seeing him just now shattered those notions to dusty bits. Emotions stormed my senses with ruthless disregard – it was as though no time had passed at all and I both welcomed and feared the onslaught of memories. I'd never come close to loving another man the way I'd loved Wy. And therefore I'd never since allowed myself to feel that level of pain.
"Mills, what was that all about?" Joel was asking; his arm remained locked around my waist and I was struck with the sudden urge to duck away from his touch. Clearly concerned, he added, "Are you okay? Who is that guy?"
Joel and I had been dating for a grand total of about two months, not that time had anything to do with it; I'd never discussed Wy with any of the men I'd dated during the course of my undergraduate years at the university. I couldn't bear the agony of remembrance. Rae, Ruthann, and Marshall remained the only other people who knew the whole story. I didn't respond to Joel's nosy questions; Wy was about to disappear from my sight among the throng of people headed out to enjoy the balmy evening.
And sudden anger invigorated my every nerve.
I tore my eyes from Wy to implore Joel. "I'm sorry, but I have to talk to him. I'll be right back."
"Wait, what?" Joel appeared flabbergasted. He complained, "In the middle of our date?"
While I liked Joel, and enjoyed his company for the most part, I knew he really meant 'right before we were about to go have sex in my apartment,' and resentment served to ratchet my anger up another hundred notches. I'd noticed the way Joel had attempted to assert himself, to stake some sort of claim on me, like he had to prove something to Wy.
"I'll call you later!" I promised, and then took off at a jog.
Fury clouded my vision and clogged my lungs, only gaining in mass as I hurried around the elbows and shoulders, my purse bumping along on my hip, all but shoving strangers out of my path. How fucking dare Wy show up this way with no warning, after five years of nothing? Not a word, a phone call, nothing. What did he hope to prove? I could only assume he was actually in town to see me – but how had he possibly imagined the moment playing out? Where was Hannah, or Zane? And then to just walk away like that, with zero explanation.
He's headed to Landon this evening?
What the fuck?
Why didn't someone tell me he was coming to Minnesota?
I hated myself for the deep-seated ache of love that had never fully withered away. I hated that someone possessed the power to hurt me so brutally. And worse yet, I'd allowed him that power over me. I thought of his letter, read nearly to bits and tucked in my top drawer even now; I'd never been able to part with it, no matter how many times I'd tried. Instead, I'd memorized every word.
Wy is married. He's a father. What good will it do to chase after him this way? What could you possibly have to say to each other?
And yet another part of me wept, You never even said good-bye to him that day, you never even told him how sorry you were.
I saw him then, headed for a truck parked near a narrow alley between two brick buildings. I elbowed around a middle-aged couple, gasping an apology, and then darted down the sidewalk. Maybe twenty paces away, I shouted, "Wyatt!"
He froze, slowly looking over one shoulder as if he couldn't quite believe his ears.
Too angry and out of breath for any sort of embarrassment, not caring that it was obvious I'd chased him, I gasped, "What...are you doing here?" Evening sun cast a long, slanted beam over us, as if we were suspended in thick, brilliantly-glowing honey.
I was out of breath, unable to look away from the dark, lonely eyes I would have sacrificed a great deal to forget, once and for all. And yet…I could no more deny the radiant joy flowing from my heart than I could have prevented its next beat. I hadn't seen Wyatt Rawley since that terrible morning on the edge of the highway outside Itasca. I absorbed the familiar – the shape of his lean body, the width of his shoulders, the dark hair on his strong forearms; the deep brown of his eyes, his long nose, his beautiful lips.
And that which had changed in the passage of years – his wavy, shaggy hair was now short, trimmed much closer to his scalp; his mouth was framed by a dark goatee; small lines of strain were visible at the outer corner of his eyes and there was a distinct maturity about him. He was all man, no lingering hints of boyishness remained, and a hot, pulsing awareness beat through my blood, beyond my control; an unspoken acknowledgment of what we had once shared. He was a doctor of veterinary medicine now. I remembered well his devotion to his studies, how hard he had worked to earn the degree and title. Of their own accord, my eyes roved to his lithe, long-fingered hands, imagining them delivering a foal.
My heart skittered, missing several beats in a row. He wore no wedding ring.
"Millie," he whispered, and my gaze flew back to his face. He stood motionless, just watching me, his posture as tense as if I'd aimed a gun at his sternum. Pain had tightened his features.
I located my voice.
"You show up out of nowhere and then you were just going to walk away?" I demanded, but with far less steam than I'd originally intended. "Is...anyone else with you?"
He slowly shook his head. "No. And I'm sorry, I'm so sorry to show up like this, without letting you know."
"Letting me know?! I haven't heard from you in five years." We stood close enough that I could see my reflection in his pupils; I inhaled, catching a hint of cologne atop his warm, perspiring skin. I wanted both to punish him and feel his arms slide around my body. I wanted relief, I wanted closure. I wanted to make love with this man until the sun crested tomorrow's horizon, until I was sated and absolved, free from pain. I wanted him. I'd never not wanted him. But I knew better now. I was no longer a naive young girl, and I would never be her again.