Second Chance by Martha O'Sullivan         

                                                                              copyright 2020

     

     

                                                                                                                   

 

                                                                                 Chapter One 

          

           

          It was only because he was here again that she kept crossing his mind. He was long over her, Brian Rembrandt reminded himself with borrowed conviction, imbibing the brisk mountain air. All he needed was a stiff drink, a thick steak and a dealer having a bad night.  He wasn’t much of a gambler, but the cards would occupy his ruminating mind. And no matter how tired he was, he could still count to twenty-one. Pushing down the past, he crossed the street under a cloak of pine trees draped in velvety, gray light. 

            He knew the way. This wasn’t his first time in Lake Tahoe, especially on the Fourth of July. Summer before last, he and Lindsay had watched the fireworks illuminate the basin here before making some sparks of their own on the beach. Lindsay had always wanted to make love on the sand, when the night was still but for the aspens whispering in the breeze and the occasional swoop of a gull’s wings. Brian had been happy to indulge her. Several times.   

           “Good evening, sir,” the hostess greeted.

           “Good evening.” Brian replied, stepping through the threshold of the huge mahogany doors. The ceiling-to-floor window wall gave way to a panoramic view of the lake cradled by the Sierras. “Rembrandt for dinner.” 

           “Yes, Mr. Rembrandt.” She consulted the chart on the podium, then directed him to the lodge-style restaurant at lake level. "Right this way."

           He began to oblige, but stopped midway down the stairs, momentarily mesmerized by the breathtaking fusion of pastels coaxing the crimson sun into the inky lake. So much so that when he resumed his stride, he inadvertently collided with someone. Careening on the staircase as if in slow motion, she attempted to grasp the banister for ballast.Instinctively, Brian hooked the waist of the woman half his size and pulled her to him. The force of his reach threw them both into the inside corner of the landing. 

           “I’m so sorry!” he exclaimed, mortified.   

           She shook back a mane of blonde hair, revealing porcelain skin and a glossy mouth parted in surprise. And bottomless cobalt eyes that twisted Brian’s stomach muscles into braided dough. He lost his breath. “Lindsay?” Her name catching in his throat, he stroked her cheek with the back of his free hand, holding her eyes in his for fear blinking would make her disappear. “My God, Lindsay.”   

          Their faces were so close together that the air her sharp breath took in had no doubt been in his lungs first. She gaped at him, as if she’d seen a ghost, as all color drained from her face. Heart beating out of his chest, Brian gulped back the shock and righted them both, taking her hand in the process. It felt soft and damp, like a morning rose. Or maybe that was his palm sweating. After a shared moment of inertia, he asked, “Are you all right?” 

         She gave him a slow, affirming nod. “Brian.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “What are you doing here?” She took her hand back and lifted her chin a notch.

        His gaze seemed tethered to hers. “Putting out a fire.”    

        Brows knotting, she narrowed her eyes. “A fire?”  

        “Work.” Brian finally shook off the stupor.  “Long story.” 

        A knowing smile curved her lips, but went no farther. “Oh.” 

       He wondered if she meant to sound that disappointed. “I can’t believe you’re here. I was just thinking about you.”

       That seemed to surprise, then please her. Her mouth opened, but before she could articulate the thought, a man with dark hair and a concerned frown arrived. 

       “Linds? You okay?”  

       She swallowed the words, but her gaze remained fixed on his. “Yeah. I just lost my balance for a second.” She paused, then added, “Paul, this is Brian Rembrandt. Brian, Paul Webster.” 

       Brian tore himself away from her and extended his hand perfunctorily. “Nice to meet you.” 

       Lindsay’s companion met his firm handshake head-on. “Likewise.” 

       “Are you visiting your grandmother for the holiday weekend?”  Brian returned to her, biting back the urge to break the arm now girdling Lindsay’s waist. 

       Her face clouded and her eyes hinted of tears as she shook her head from side to side. “She passed away last year.”

       Her irises were more like pools than saucers, Brian reminded himself. And he found himself at risk of drowning. “I’m so sorry,” he told her from the heart. “I know how much she meant to you.”

       “She did indeed.” Her tone was wistful. “She was my only family.”

Silence hung over them for a few steady beats. Then her companion cleared his throat and broke it in an even voice. “Our food has probably arrived by now.  We should get back to our table.”

        Lindsay’s eyes seemed to hold his a moment longer than she liked. Then she shifted her attention to her date and responded graciously, “Yes, of course. I never made it to the ladies room, though.” She excused herself and started up the stairs. 

         Brian found himself reaching for her. “Lindsay…” 

         She finished taking the step, then stopped. “It was nice to see you, Brian,” she tossed over her shoulder, swallowing hard. “Good luck with those fires.” 

         Brian could do nothing but watch her walk away in stunned silence. Then his gaze drifted to Webster and a tacit message passed between them. With a superior smile and a chuckle in his eyes, the other man pivoted on his heel and retreated. 

         “Mr. Rembrandt?” called a voice from below. “I can seat you now.”

          Brian turned his head and nodded to the woman not much older than his daughter. He made quick work of the remaining stairs and fell into step beside her.   

         She showed him to a high top table in the bar area.  “Just one for dinner, right?” she confirmed politely, removing the second table setting.

        “Yeah,” Brian confirmed around a grunt. “Just one.” 

           

                                                                       *****

    “Where are they?” Lindsay scanned the beach.  Finally, she spotted them down the shore.  The man pointed her out to the little boy, who began running toward her. “Mommy, Mommy!  We found sea glass!  Isn’t it cool?  Is it like the kind you used to find when you were little?” the tow-head asked, wide-eyed with wonder. Nodding adoringly, Lindsay gave the crown of his wet head a tousle, then addressed his father. “Time for lunch.” He lifted the boy to his shoulders, then leaned down to kiss her…

     Lindsay woke heaving shallow breaths. She sat up in bed with a shiver and rubbed away the goose bumps erupting on her arms.  The soft breeze raised the curtains, inviting the moonlight to streak the thick planks of her bedroom floor. She got up and closed the window before sitting on the window seat and gazing into the pre-dawn darkness.  She hadn’t had a dream like that in ages. Seeing Brian must have triggered it. And that had been very real. 

     She could still feel his hand on her cheek, she thought, raising hers to the same spot as the dream turned inward. And the rest of him looked as good as his hand had felt; the chiseled cheekbones and strong, square jawline on his perpetually suntanned face. She’d run her fingers through that ash blonde hair, slept against those broad shoulders and lost herself in those strong arms countless times.  He’d smelled morning fresh like he’d just showered and was dressed casually in khaki pants and a collared shirt.  He was here on business, he’d half-explained. She’d barely heard the words for the ringing in her ears and the thudding of her heart. And the hope that danced within her when he said he’d been thinking about her.

    She’d been thinking about him too.  But that was nothing new. She’d thought about him every day over the last year. From the day she moved out of her apartment in San Francisco to the day she buried her grandmother. And, of course, yesterday when she’d found that yellowed, rectangular-shaped box in the attic. Now it was a new day, she thought, as the first bands of light fought the charcoal dim behind the mountains. And she was thinking of him still. Well, that would have to change.

    Soon she would be Mrs. Paul Webster, son of one of the most highly regarded oncologists on the West Coast. And his wife, philanthropist extraordinaire, credited for raising millions of dollars for the new pediatric cancer wing at Reno General Hospital. One that, coincidently, her architect son had designed. To whom Lindsay owed an apology. 

     She’d foregone the ladies room for fresh air while, unbeknownst to her, Paul was instructing the kitchen to box their dinner. Once home, she barely picked at her food and after exaggerating an aching head, begged off the fireworks. After Paul left, she poured herself a healthy glass of wine, sat on the upstairs deck and had a good cry as the night sky exploded with color.  She’d considered calling Moira, but she would have insisted on driving up. She’d had a date last night, her first in months, and Lindsay had no intention of ruining it on the whim of a lovesick girlfriend.  

    She let out an acquiescent sigh and ran an equally resigned hand through her hair. Must the Mountain Chickadee be so damned chipper at this hour?  From its incessant chirping you’d think it didn’t have a care in the world.  Envious, Lindsay grabbed her robe and went downstairs. Her bare feet cringed on the cold pine floor as she made her way to the kitchen. All was quiet on the lake. The fishermen weren’t out yet, the tourists were asleep and it was too early for the locals to go about the business of life. 

    He’d been alone, she lightened, ladling a heaping scoop of grounds into the filter.  If he was seeing someone surely she would have accompanied him here on the holiday weekend, even on short notice. Not that it mattered, she reminded herself, extending her left arm and studying her hand, soon naked no longer. The solitaire had belonged to Paul’s grandmother and the smaller diamond her mother’s before her. He’d added to the original stones and reset the aggregate on a traditional white gold band. Down on bended knee, Paul had been distracted by the ring slipping off, sparing him the astonishment that had no doubt flashed across her face. Short-lived as it had been. Because the more she thought about it, the more sense it made. She loved Paul, after all.  They had all but grown up together, had the world in common, wanted the same things.  He would be a loving, faithful husband and a devoted father.

     The coffeemaker beeped, ending her incongruous flight of fancy. Doctoring her coffee, she headed upstairs to start her day. She’d chosen the dream over the man. So she might as well start living it.

                                                             Chapter Two

 

        The lake glistened like a sheet of sapphire glass reflecting the limpid sky, its silky waves swishing concertedly against the shore. The scent of suntan lotion and pine straw laced the breeze and Brian could taste summer in the air as he walked through the sand and crossed to the neighboring beach. More gingerly than he liked, he self-admonished.

          He’d relinquished his table for two and taken his dinner at the bar. Only he ate too little dinner and drank too much Scotch. Which was why his mouth felt stuffed full of cotton and his head pounded like a jackhammer.But that’s not why he’d rescheduled his flight.

          He looked on as the reason he had crouched at the shore, as if searching for something in the fawn-colored sand. After a few moments of running her hands through it, she brushed them off and stood. Instantly the quicksilver of Brian’s heartbeat spread to his cock and ignited. He had feasted on those voluptuous breasts, slept wrapped around those dancer’s legs and unsparingly indulged himself in everything in between. And last night, all he could think about was Paul Webster doing exactly the same thing. Which was why he was standing on the beach sweating his ass off instead of emptying his pockets in Security right now.            

          He watched as Lindsay, oblivious to his lecherous contemplation, smoothed her hair and sat down. Sparing the phone on the chaise lounge a cursory glance, she tossed it into the mesh bag at her feet. She briefly considered the magazine that lay next to it before it saw the same fate. She reclined and within seconds her breathing leveled and her breasts began to move up and down steadily inside the clingy halter top. He wondered why she had done away with her sexy belly button ring.

           Brian made his way to her. He stopped just short of her chair and shrouding her in his shadow, swallowed hard and found his voice. “Lindsay.” 

           Her eyes flew open behind the Ray Bans she wore and her lips parted in silent surprise for a few blinks. Then, in a voice colored with awe, she sat up with matching consternation. “Brian.” 

           Holding her eyes in his, Brian decided he didn’t care if she was alone or not. He was going to say his piece. “May I?” 

           “Sure,” she stammered, gesturing to the foot of the chair and scooting up to the top. Cocking  her head to the side, she took him in. “You remembered this is my beach.” 

           He hated that she found that so shocking. “Yeah,” he told her. “I remembered.” He sat on the edge of the cushion, mindful to leave a buffer zone between them. She was looking at him expectantly, as if waiting for him to speak. So he did. “What happened to you last night?  You disappeared.” 

           Again.

           “Yeah.” She sent a revelatory look out over the water. “I had to get out of there.”

           Brian felt the knot in his stomach tighten. “I waited for you to come back.”      

           Again.

           Her gaze snapped back to him. “You did?” 

           Apparently she found that as surprising as he had. “Yeah, I did.” 

           She seemed to struggle to remain impervious, but a hint of satisfaction crept into her eyes. “Oh.”      

           That relaxed him a little. “How have you been? Did you get through your thesis? Finish your MBA?”  

           The twinkle immediately faded. “No, all of that got shelved when Gram got sick. Pancreatic cancer can be very aggressive. Then I had to settle her estate, get everything in order. I’m just now turning my attention back to school.”  

           Brian fought the recurring urge to take her in his arms and hold her until the doleful look in her eyes went away. Instead he kept his feet planted firmly in the sand and the palms of his hands glued to his thighs. “I’m sorry you’ve been through such a hard time.  I’m even sorrier I couldn’t help you through it.” 

          Deep emotion had settled in her eyes now. “Thanks. Moira was with me every step of the way.  And Pa—.” She switched gears midway. “And the Brodys collectively were great.”

          Brian’s blood was starting to boil and it had nothing to do with the heat of the day. He clenched his teeth. “Can we go somewhere to talk?” Or dinner later, he thought but didn’t dare ask. He didn’t want to hear she had plans with Webster.   

          When she didn’t answer, he laid his hand on hers. “We could walk out on the pier and have a drink, watch the boats come in.” He nodded toward the hotel pier a few hundred yards away.  “I’m staying over there.” 

           She considered first his face, then his hand resting on hers. “Let’s talk inside instead.” She swung her legs over the side of the chair and began gathering her things as if the matter had been settled. “It’s time I went in anyway.”

            Brian nodded by way of reply and helped her up. As they fell into step together, trudging through the coarse sand, Lindsay shot him a oblique grin. “Wait until you see what I’ve done with the place. You won’t believe your eyes.”

      

                                                                        *****

    “Would you like something to drink?  Beer, water, a soft drink? It’s a little early for wine, but I have that too,” Lindsay offered from her kitchen a few minutes later.

     “I’m on the wagon today,” Brian told her. “I’ll take a water.”

     She grabbed a bottle from the refrigerator as Brian took in the kitchen. “The place looks fantastic.  The frosted glass panels remind me of—” 

     “The place we rented in Napa,” she finished for him incredulously, aware 

of the similarity for the first time.  It was a wonder either of them remembered any room other than the bedroom in that vineyard cottage. She fastened another button on her tunic and cleared her throat. “Thanks. I wanted to maintain the vernacular feel of the house, but modernize. So I went with browns and greens, like the siding and the roof. The floors are original; I had them sanded and stained. For a darker contrast against the walls.” She paused, watching Brian shift his steel blue eyes to the French doors leading out to the deck. A brilliant blue haze had settled over the basin, encompassing the lake and the mountains beyond. “But there’s no competing with Mother Nature.” 

    His gaze cut back to hers and she saw the same uneasiness on his face that she felt in her stomach. “We decided to go with a peninsula instead of a table and chairs,” she continued, struggling to keep her voice level. “Knocking out that area doubled the size of the kitchen.”

     “We?” Brian asked, shoving his hands into the pockets of his deeply creased shorts. His eyes rested on the red roses bursting from a vase on the granite island. 

     “Jack Brody, Moira’s brother, and I. They did the remodel.” Brian nodded in recollection, and she saw relief flicker in his eyes. It resurrected the guilty hope from the night before and curved the horizontal line she had planted on her mouth into an unintended smile. 

     They held each other impalpably for a few seconds until Brian, eyes reverting to the lake, observed, “The wind is picking up already. Tonight won’t be as calm as last night.” His regard returned to her and it reflected the double entendre of his words. 

     “No, it won’t.” Her stomach bit as she went to the sink and nervously began washing dishes that were already clean. She cleared her throat and tried to make conversation. “So, did you get those fires put out?” 

     “Temporarily.” Joining her, Brian grabbed a dish towel. “Remember All Tech Software?” 

     “Of course. They were one of your biggest clients.”

     “Sacramento has a problem with the emissions from their plant near Fresno. Fresno being the bread basket of the world, the state is particular to environmental code compliance there. The state shut them down last week,” he elaborated. “We’ve worked out a thirty-day stay, but I’ll have my work cut out for me when I get home.” 

     Lindsay sighed inwardly, rinsing a bowl for the third time. It should feel odd to be standing with him here at the kitchen sink, doing dishes and chatting about the latest crisis at work. But it didn’t. And that was a problem. She almost had to remind herself not to ask what sounded good to him for dinner or what their plans were for the weekend. Instead she changed the subject.  “How’s Kelsey? She graduated this spring, right?  I wanted to send her something but thought it might be awkward.”  

     “She’s great, starts at USC in the fall.” Brian answered with a proud smile. “And it wouldn’t have been awkward. She still asks about you.” He paused, then finished quietly. “She says I was a fool to let you go.” 

    Lindsay’s hands froze under the water and her breath hitched, but she willed her eyes steady, trying to remain focused on the busywork. Until Brian turned her by the shoulders and taking her face in his hands, proclaimed, “She’s right.” His gaze fell to her mouth and after a long, poignant beat, he brought his lips to a whisper away from hers and hovered. She found herself barely able to expel breath, let alone move. She could only close her eyes in anticipation as he grazed her lips with his. Finding no resistance, he curved a hand behind her neck and pulled her to him. He laid his lips on hers and began to move slowly over them. The familiar taste and texture of him felt like coming home after a long journey.  

    His mouth was hot and hungry. Very, very hungry as if it hadn’t eaten in eons. And when her lips alone weren’t enough to satiate it, he parted them and placed his open mouth squarely on hers and plunged his tongue deep. He fed greedily, drawing all of her into his mouth and feasting little by little, bite by bite, until not a breath remained between them. Then with a spent sigh, he ran his tongue along her top teeth so sensually that she quivered with long forgotten dampness below. “Lindsay…,” he mumbled her name as if he’d never said it before.

     “Brian…,” she heaved in kind.

      “I miss you.” He let out a jagged breath. “I miss us.”

      She let the joy of basking in Brian’s arms again run through her, warm her. Until she realized she was in Brian’s arms again. She sprang back, mortified by her visceral reaction, and braced herself against the bank of cabinets that lined the back wall of the kitchen. She had to put some space between them. “I can’t do this.”

      “I’m sorry.” Brian’s voice was thready. “I wasn’t trying to—”

      “Don’t apologize,” she managed. She saw the lust brimming in his eyes now, but it was laced with something more. Something profound. She wondered if he was seeing the same in hers. Still, she shook her head. “You need to leave.”

      “The hell I will. We need to talk this through.”

       She opened her mouth, closed it again and drew a stabilizing breath. “There’s nothing more to say. We had a wonderful year, but we want different things,” she told herself as much as him.

        Anger flashed across his face and crept into his eyes, replacing the vulnerability she’d read in them. “It was a helluva lot more than a wonderful year and you know it,” he countered, trudging a hand through his hair and starting to pace. “How could you just leave like that?” 

        Lindsay had asked herself that a million times. And the answer was always the same. She trailed him inertly. “Because I had no other choice. I had to be honest with myself. We had to be honest with each other.” 

         “Why did it have to be all or nothing?”

         “The longer it went on, the harder it would have been to let go.” 

         “That’s bullshit.”

         Completely unnerved now, she painted a stoic expression on her face and crossed the room. Standing her ground, she opened the door and repeated, “You need to go.” Her tone was a complete contrast to the tears burning in her throat.  “Please.”

         Brian sent her a resigned nod, then grunted in deference. “Fine. I’ll go, but it’s not over. Not by a long shot.” Tipping her chin, he brought her gaze to his. “Because I’m not going to be able to stay away from you this time.” He released her gently and walked out the door. 

        Shaking inside, she watched him cross the yard and take a few steps onto the sand. Then he stopped and faced her again. “Honesty, huh? I’ll give you honesty. The most honest year of my life was the one I spent with you.” He turned on his heel and walked down the beach in the direction of the hotel. Closing the door, she gave into her rubber-like knees and slid to the floor. She had, hundreds of times, told herself she’d done the right thing for her, for the both of them, in the long run. So why was she suddenly filled with such regret? 

                                                                  Chapter Three

    Brody and Sons Construction had relocated their office to downtown Reno a few years ago when the riverfront revitalization was in its infancy and the government incentives were too good to ignore. That worked just fine for Moira. She’d much rather be here among the boutiques and cafes than stuck in an industrial park on the outskirts of town. She did the books for the business and saw to the day-to-day running of things while her father and brothers were out in the field. 

    Exactly what she’d promised herself she would never do. She’d earned an accounting degree and wanted to be the CFO of something, anything, but Brody and Sons G.C. She wanted to live in San Francisco or L.A. or Chicago. But the housing boom had changed all of that As had the economic downturn that followed.  So she’d stayed. 

    She’d modernized the office and computer systems, automated bill payment and increased efficiency while decreasing expenses. She’d hired and fired, wrangled with the county and even convinced her father to invest in going green.  And somewhere along the way, she actually started liking it. It was the first thing she’d ever done all by herself. Something no one had taught her; she’d figured it out. Something to call her own. 

    Moira was alone in the office today; officially they were closed for the long holiday weekend.  But Jack needed quotes run and people expect to be paid, holiday or not. If she finished early enough, she might call Lindsay and invite herself up to the lake. “It’s hotter than hell down here,” she muttered out loud, reworking her hair into the claw clip at the back of her head.

    She didn’t look up when the door chimes rang, assuming it was Jack or her dad. And they could wait until she hit send. She blew her side-swept bangs out of her eyes and turned around, momentarily unsettled by how pleasantly surprised she was to find neither one of them standing in front of her. 

     “Hey.”

     “Hey, yourself.”  Moira returned the greeting, pushing up from behind her desk. Paul was Moira’s definition of conventionally handsome. If it wasn’t his caramel-colored eyes and dark, wavy,  hair, it was his olive complexion and athletic build. Was it her imagination or did he hug her longer than usual? 

     Breaking apart, she cocked her head to the side and studied him. His face was as long as a summer day and his eyes as sullen as a scolded puppy.  Her smile plunged along with her stomach. “Did something bad happen?  Is Lindsay all right?”

     “I don’t know,” Paul answered flippantly, shrugging his shoulders. “You two finish each other’s sentences. You tell me.” He perched himself on the edge of her desk, one denim-clad leg bent at the knee, and looked at her sharply.

     Moira was a terrible liar, never one to think on her feet. She threw her glance around the office, searching for an answer.  And came up empty. “I don’t know what you mean.” 

    She watched Paul cross the room and stare out the window at the waves of heat radiating off the pavement for a long moment.  He was probably the only man she knew who could wear a pink polo shirt without looking the least bit feminine. 

     “Does Lindsay want to get married?” He started to say something else, but changed his mind and swallowed it. 

     “She said yes, so I assume so,” Moira reasoned flatly, threading a pen through her fingers. 

     He spun around to face her. “Why?”

     “Why what?”

     “Why is she marrying me?”

     Moira returned to her desk and started shuffling papers needlessly. “I guess because she loves you and wants to spend the rest of her life with you, Paul. Isn’t that why people usually get married?” 

    He met her snarky look head-on. “Usually. But there are a host of other reasons. Convenience, financial security, procreation, companionship.”

    Moira watched the pain of these possibilities cross Paul’s face and settle in his eyes. “Yes, I suppose there are all those reasons. But Lindsay has plenty of money, thanks to her grandmother.  She’s too young to worry about her biological clock and let’s face it.” Moria laughed around the words. “She’s beautiful and doesn’t know it, making her no stranger to male companionship.” 

    He was standing right in front of her again and she could smell the anise in his cologne. It ignited every cell in her body and forced her to concentrate on drawing breaths.  She started to reach out to him, but thought better of it and slapped her hands against her thighs instead, asking, “Where is all this coming from?” 

     “Oh, I don’t know,” Paul began sarcastically. “Lindsay seems to have an excuse for everything lately, especially when it comes to the wedding. She’s always gardening or busy or something.” Waving his hand in the air dramatically, he finished in a low growl, “And you no doubt heard who we ran into last night.” 

    She gave him an affirming nod. There was no use in pretending otherwise.  

     “Part of the reason she and Rembrandt.” He spit the name out like a bitter pill. “Parted ways was because he didn’t want to settle down, commit. So she is worried about her clock.”  

    Moira wished she were anywhere else. She had Paul’s undivided attention and had not a stitch of make-up on and had thrown her hair up right out of the shower. She scolded herself for self-indulging and conjured up a compassionate smile. “I think you’re being paranoid, but to set your mind at ease, just ask Lindsay.” As the words slid off her lips, she knew they would never come to fruition. Paul was too afraid of the answer to pose the question. He’d live with a shadow of doubt rather than risk an inconvenient truth. “She probably just needs some space. Everything is happening so fast.” 

    Gaze lingering on hers, Paul shook his head up and down contemplatively. Then he waved off whatever he was thinking and flashed her that killer smile. “I know, I know. You’re right. What would I do without you, Moirs?”  

     The irony of the guileless statement not lost on her, she smiled in spite of herself.  “Live a perfectly normal life.”

     He chuckled uneasily, as if the thought returned and startled him. Then his eyes swept the office, seeming to notice they were alone for the first time. He took a step back and cleared his throat. “Want to grab some lunch?  My treat.”

     They’d had countless meals together over the years of course, but that was before. Before the slow, unbidden epiphany. A realization Moira had shared with no one. Whenever she let it enter her mind, dread curled up inside her. Like it was right now. She justified her silence with guilt and reason. No one deserved a guy like Paul more than Lindsay. Paul would never feel that way about her anyway. She was his best friend’s sister. She would put her feelings aside and get over it.“How about a rain check? I’ve got a lot to do here.” 

     “Sure.” Silence hung over them for an interminable moment until a series of soft beeps filled the room. Paul shifted his gaze to the phone on Moira’s desk. “Well, I’d better let you get back to it.”

     “Yeah,” Moira agreed more hurriedly than she liked. “Duty calls.”

     He wagged a playful finger in the air. “I’m gonna hold you to that rain check.”    

     “Deal.”

    “See ya, Moirs.” 

    “Bye,” she said and watched him walk out to the parking lot under the cloudless desert sky.    

                                                                                   *****

    “Damn it!” Lindsay said to no one and blew the errant strands of hair out of her face. Determined to put her nervous energy to good use, she’d picked up some stacking stones at the nursery. Knees bent and back twisting, she was unloading them from the back of her SUV. 

     “They deliver this stuff, you know. They even have people who will lay it for you.”

     “Now you tell me,” Lindsay replied curtly over her shoulder.

     “Where do you want them?” Moira availed herself, grabbing a few bricks.

     Nodding toward the white fir in the middle of the yard, Lindsay directed, “Over there. I’m starting with the big one.”

     Moira obliged and went back for another load. “You went with Montana flagstone, huh?”

     “According to your brother, it’s natural, durable and is readily available in my color scheme,” Lindsay informed her, setting down her third pile. “Do you want gloves?”

     “No, I’m fine.”

     The two women worked in companionable silence for over an hour, unloading the pavers and stacking them around the trees and flower beds in the front and side yards. Then Lindsay clapped the gray powder off her gloved hands saying, “That’s good. I want the border to look random, not manicured.”

     “Thank God! My back is killing me.”

     “Consider yourself lucky. My next project is stepping stones down to the water.”

     “You’re on your own there.”

     They were sitting down in the shade drinking from water bottles when Lindsay noticed the bathing suit ties around Moira’s neck. “Oh no! Did we have plans to go to the beach today?”

     “No,” Moira answered, shaking her head of raven curls. “I just decided to come up. To make sure you were okay.”

    “I’m fine,” Lindsay told her. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

    “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you ran into Brian last night. Or because you sounded like you were bouncing off the walls on the phone earlier.” She shifted her emerald eyes to the lake, choppy in the late afternoon wind. “Then there was Paul stopping by the office this morning.” 

    “Oh, is he working with you guys again?” 

    “No. Not yet, anyway,” Moira qualified, then shared Lindsay’s gaze again. “He’s worried about you, about the two of you. He asked me if you really loved him, were marrying him for the right reasons.”

    Lindsay had to will her voice to sound natural. “And what did you say?”

    “I told him to ask you.” 

     Lindsay busied herself with brushing imaginary dust off her jeans as her lifelong friend read her mind. 

     “Don’t worry. He won’t.” 

      She returned the presumptive stare. “Why would I worry?”

     “Because you’re talking yourself into this marriage. I know you and Paul have a history. And that he’s madly in love with you, of course. But being in love with someone is different than loving them for a lifetime.” 

    Later it would make sense that guilt registered on Moira’s fair face and her eyes grappled with some dilemma, but for now Lindsay’s subconscious discounted all of that. “I know. I do love Paul that way.”

     “If you say so.” 

      Defensive now, Lindsay scooted back a little. “Aren’t you the one who told me to stop second-guessing myself and move on?” she contended. “What’s done is done and all that.”

      “I meant about Grace, about coming home to take care of her. That was before Paul proposed. And Brian reappeared.”

      Lindsay waved the logic away. “It’s all the same.”

      Moira shook her head from side to side. “Your grandmother wasn’t the real reason you left San Francisco.” She hesitated, then sniffing the air, decided to go on, “And what are the chances of you and Brian being at Hues of Blue at the same time?”

     “Coincidence.”

     “Or fate.”

     “Fate has not been very kind to me so far. I don’t put much stock in it.”

     “No, I guess you wouldn’t,” Moira allowed. “Fate can be cruel, has been to you.  But like you, it usually has a plan. “

     Lindsay was utterly confused. “A plan?” 

     “Whether you knew it or not, you thought Brian would come for you. You thought if you pushed hard enough he’d miss you, give up, give in.”

     Had she? Lindsay put on her best poker face and refuted briskly, “I didn’t have a plan. But either way, he didn’t, did he?” 

     “He didn’t ride up on a white horse dressed in shining armor, if that’s what you mean.” Moira threw a frustrated hand up in the air. “But he did use every portal known to man to try to contact you, including myself. And practically bought out the flower shop in his building.”

     Lindsay huffed out a dismissive breath as Moira kept going.

     “So to justify your behavior, you convinced yourself that he didn’t really love you.  When you were the one who qualified your feelings, attached the strings, not him.” 

     “We were at a crossroads. I left him a note,” Lindsay disputed weakly.

     “Yeah, that must have been a great way to top off a long day at the office,” Moira fired back. “It was for the best, I suppose. I mean, if you really loved him as much as you’d claimed to, nothing else would have mattered. You wouldn’t have felt like you were giving up what you thought your life would be for him.” 

     Lindsay swallowed hard and narrowed her eyes at Moira and her attempt to play the devil’s advocate. “And if he really loved me, he would have found me, compromised.”

     “Compromise is a two-way street. Who’s doing the compromising now?” Moira’s tone was increasingly cryptic.

     Lindsay went with her gut and met it.  “Moira, do you have something to say?”

     She considered for a moment, then answered quietly, “I love you, Linds. I want you to be happy. But I think you need to ask yourself why you ran away from Brian and why you’re marrying Paul. I bet the answer is the same. And it speaks to something greater.” 

    Losing herself in the lake for a few silent beats, Lindsay outwardly ignored the question, but banked it.  Instead she informed Moira, “Brian was here this morning. On the beach.”

    Moira fought a smile, but her dimples betrayed her. “Really?”

    Lindsay met her satisfied expression directly. “He didn’t come for me. He was here on business.”

    “Tahoe, yes. The beach, no,” she said, closing the small space between them. “No wonder you’re stacking stones.”

    “Yeah,” Lindsay told her, lightly tapping Moira’s shoulder with hers. “When you didn’t pick up I had to do something.”

    “Sorry. You wanna tell me about it?”

    “I’ll have to give you the condensed version.” Lindsay gauged the sun’s position in the sky. “I have to go in and get ready soon. Paul and I have a wedding.”

     

© 2020 by Martha O'Sullivan

 

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