“Don’t you miss Whistle Creek?” Reed asked.
“Miss not being able to get a pizza at two in the morning? Miss being cut off from civilization for two days when there’s a blizzard? Miss having my mail misdelivered because Jamison is in the sauce again?” Marietta shook her head. “Not at all.”
“Jamison’s retiring this year, I hear. There’ll be a new mail carrier in town.”
“Whistle Creek hasn’t changed at all in two hundred years, Reed. Sure, we could get a stoplight downtown and new seats in Cindy’s Diner, but that’s not progress. And it’s not the kind of life I want.” Her gaze met his. “It never was.”
So they were back to square one. The same square she’d used as a leaping off point seven years ago.
“Don’t you get tired of it, though? The rush and fury of the city? The constant race of a career?”
“That adrenaline rush is part of what I look forward to. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I love the city. I love the noise, the people, the crowds. I hate all that solitude and quiet of the country. The way people there shut you off if you don’t fit into their little perfect mold of how they think life should be.” She shook her head. “No, Reed, I don’t belong in Whistle Creek. I never did.”
“Not always,” he said. “There was a time when you loved that place.”
When you loved me.
She took a sip of wine. “That was a long time ago, Reed. I was different then. You were different.”
“Yeah, I was, wasn’t I?” He’d been more gullible, more ready to believe in happily ever after. In the impossible.
Dora arrived with their food. The waitress chatted with them for a few minutes as she dropped off the plates of sandwiches, catching up on Reed’s life, getting an introduction to Marietta.
By the time she was gone, Marietta was diving into her sandwich and the conversation had gone back into small talk territory. She made quick work of her meal, as if she couldn’t wait to get out of there, and finished off her glass of wine, refusing a second. Clearly, there would be no tipsy mistakes, no wine-induced reunions or kisses.
And would he want her in his arms because of an alcoholic blur? No. If Marietta ever came back, Reed wanted it to be because she wanted him, not because a bottle of wine had distorted her judgment.
Marietta insisted on paying half the bill. “This isn’t a date, Reed.”
“Of course not,” Reed said. “Two old friends catching up, right?”
“Yeah. That’s all.” But she turned away as she said it.
And he knew he should be glad, should leave it at that, but something inside him rebelled and wanted more. Wanted to push the issue, to see if maybe…
Maybe the tension he read between them wasn’t from the years apart but from unfinished business.
Doors that had never quite shut.
What would happen if he nudged that door open?
They called goodbye to Joe and left the restaurant. Marietta frowned when she glanced out the wide windows and saw the storm still gusting. “It’s still snowing.”
“Mother Nature seems determined to give us a white Christmas.” He grinned. “Or she’s conspiring to keep you and me together.”
“My client is going to freak. In fact,” she dug her cell phone out of her back pocket and sighed, “she’s called me four times in the last hour. I bet reception was poor in that back corner and that’s why I missed the calls.” She started to dial, but Reed covered her hand.
“Let it go. Take a break. You look like you could use one.”
She did, indeed, look tired. Faint shadows colored the pale skin beneath her eyes. Her smile seemed to sink, her shoulders sag. He wanted to take her home—not to his apartment in South Bend, but to Whistle Creek, to the one place where he’d last seen Marietta laugh—heck, the last place he could remember laughing.
Why was it whenever Reed thought of home, he still thought of Whistle Creek?
And yet he’d so rarely gone back there? Had pushed it from his mind, focused on his career, let Whistle Creek become a stamp in his past.
He looked at the woman whose hand he still held and knew why. Because it wasn’t home without Marietta. Right now, all he wanted to do was scoop her up, take her back to Whistle Creek, wrap one of his grandma’s afghans around her, light a roaring fire and keep her with him until she had caught at least three good nights’ sleep. Take care of her, because right now, Marietta looked very much like she needed someone to care.
She always had. But if there was one thing Marietta excelled at, it was pretending everything was just fine, even as it fell apart around her.
“This is my job, Reed. I have to call her back.” Marietta pulled away and dialed. An instant later, she was connected with someone on the other end, someone whose high-pitched voice carried all the way through the cell, enough that Reed could make out part of the conversation. “It’s okay, Penny. I’m sure the storm will stop any time now. What do those weather people know anyway? Why don’t you, ah, eat some chocolate. Oh, sorry. Yeah, that does interfere with your colonic, doesn’t it? Well, think about chocolate then. And take deep breaths. I’ll call you the minute the storm lifts.” She hung up, then let out a deep breath. “Penelope can be—“
“Exhausting?” Reed chuckled. “I got tired just listening to you deal with her. How did you end up working for a woman like that?”
“Serendipity. Penelope was the speaker at a bridal show in Chicago, part of a promotional tour for a romantic comedy she had a bit part in. This was before she was a star and before my business was much of a business. She stopped by my booth on her way to the restroom, fell in love with one of my designs, and we got to talking. Her next movie became a hit, People magazine did a spread on her wedding to Brock Wayne, who had been bachelor of the year or something, and they featured my dress.” Marietta shrugged. “The rest was history. And one hell of a roller coaster ride.”
“Is she always this demanding?”
Marietta laughed. “Most days she only calls me forty-five times. I’ve flown out to her house in L.A. for fifteen fittings, met her in ten different cities for other fittings and countless alterations. She’s changed her mind fifty-two times, and just this week, moved up the wedding date by three days as a publicity stunt. But it’s been worth it. She’s paying a fortune for her dress, and the exposure for my company alone has made sales increase a hundred-fold. I’m so busy, I can barely breathe.”
“And that’s exactly what you wanted, right?”
But she said it too quick, too fast. He looked at her, wondering how happy she could be jetting all over the world instead of celebrating Christmas.
His gaze took in every inch of her, a face imprinted on his memory, as if Marietta had become a part of him—of his heart—a long time ago. Was it any wonder he’d never married, never even come close to loving another woman the way he’d loved her?
What if…she wasn’t as happy as she claimed?
What if…there was still a chance for them?
What if…Reed took this opportunity, this serendipitous meeting—a sign from fate, to be sure—and played Clarence, pulled a little “It’s a Wonderful Life”? Because if he didn’t, and this storm lifted, he would always wonder exactly that—what if.
And Reed had already done enough second-guessing since she’d left to last a lifetime. “Come with me, Marietta. I have an idea.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You said you’re not going to get to celebrate Christmas because you have to travel. Then I say you do it here. Now. With me.”
“Are you crazy? We can’t celebrate Christmas in an airport. I mean, look at this place. It’s depressing as heck.” She gestured around the airport, crowded, filled with grumbling, grumpy passengers tired of the delay, the walls of gray and seats of blue, reflecting the mood in the room. None of it, as Marietta pointed out, seemed especially festive. “Reed, really, let me just grab a book, sit down and wait for the storm to stop.”
“That’s exactly why we should do this. Because this is no way to spend a holiday.” He caught her wrist. It was the first time he’d really touched her—touched her skin, her warm, sweet, peach skin—since they’d run into each other again—grabbing her elbow for five seconds hadn’t counted—and the connection seared his veins, raced heat from his fingertips to his heart. And then, it all rocketed back, every minute of their past together, rushing at him in one tidal force.
Reed inhaled, sharp, then steadied his gaze on hers. “Do you remember the cabin?”
Because he sure as hell did. If there was one thing that starred in Reed’s dreams, it was the cabin.
And the two Christmases he and Marietta had spent there.
The one when he gave his heart to her forever.
And the one when she broke it.