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Chapter Eleven

Alas, this is where our free visitation with Lizzie and Ben comes to an end. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed their journey thus far. There is a bit of a happy resolution here… but it is only the beginning of Lizzie’s story.

If you would like to discover what happens next, the complete novel, An Ever Fixed Mark is available in ebook format:
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Thank you so much for following this blog and reading. Hope to see you on the next one!

Chapter Ten

She resisted the crushing sorrow that started to work its way into her mind and strangle the hope that sweetly lulled her to sleep.  It was a challenge to distract her thoughts.  Meg hadn’t returned from where she disappeared for the evening.  Jackie was already out of the house by the time Lizzie brought herself down to the kitchen.  Not that Jackie was the company she sought… but any conversation… even an aggravation was better than the empty pillow that haunted her.

She didn’t understand.  Why did he say he would stay?  She was already lying naked next to him.  He could have stayed silent and had the two more hours of sex she gave him readily before falling asleep.  She wouldn’t have refused him, even if her heart was disappointed.  It wouldn’t have been half so disappointing as the waking.

Lizzie tried to eat some toast, but lost her appetite before swallowing her first bite.  She drank some juice before dressing herself for a run. She ran for eight miles, twice her average.  Eight miles to lose her mind to the music of her headphones and the determination to each benchmark.  Eight miles to avoid going back home to her empty home to figure out what to do next.

The run exhausted her.  It was after dawn when she closed her eyes on Ben.  It was only two hours later when she opened them and found him gone.  She took her water bottle and sat herself on the couch, where she sat mindlessly in front of the television for six straight hours.

She heard the key in the lock, but didn’t bother to prop herself up when she heard footsteps on the stairs.  “So, how did it go?” Meg poked her head around the door frame.

Lizzie leaned her head away from the television.  She saw the tall frame of Alec shadowing behind Meg and decided a simple answer was best.  “It went.”

“We have pizza,” Meg indicated her confusion.  “Do you want any?”

“I’m not hungry,” Lizzie muttered, even though her stomach ached and she still felt the drain from her run.

Lizzie didn’t say anything as Meg and Alec brought their pizza and beer into the living room.  She didn’t protest when they put in a DVD.   She didn’t offer up the couch, forcing them to sit close together on the loveseat.  She could have gone upstairs and avoided them.  But for some strange reason, she decided to stay there and observe Meg and her boyfriend.

Lizzie had known Alec for three years, but she was still startled at the obvious age difference between him and her friend.  It almost made her uncomfortable to see Alec touch Meg with affection.  She knew they had sex.  She knew that Meg enjoyed the sex.  But Alec – mostly because of the aging of his smoking habit – looked old enough to be her father. It didn’t stop the sight of them together from stinging.  To see them whisper and laugh together or find some reference Meg could use for her thesis was more than a little irritating.

At some point during the second movie, Lizzie fell asleep.  She woke in the darkened living room.  Someone slammed the front door and was walking up the stairs.  Lizzie smelled Jackie’s perfume as she looked in to see who was on the couch.  Lizzie breathed in slowly, pretending to be asleep.  She waited for a quiet half hour until Jackie left the bathroom and closed the door to her bedroom.

Lizzie pried herself off the sofa, her joints stiff from not properly stretching and lying on the couch for so many hours.  She went to the kitchen and refilled her water bottle, quickly swallowing it before filling it again.  She found a few remaining pieces of Meg’s pizza in the refrigerator.  She stood by the window, picking off the anchovies and doing her best to not swallow it in one bite.

There was a full moon.  Her silly small talk wasn’t completely off base.  Full moons made people do foolish things.  Like confess feelings.  Or lie about them.  Lizzie forced her eyes shut.  She didn’t want to hurt like that.  Not again.  No.  This was a lot worse.  It was worse because this time she actually believed that it might be.

She heard something drop on the ceiling.  Meg and Alec apparently stayed at the apartment… and weren’t asleep.  They probably weren’t going to sleep any time soon.  That made the idea of going upstairs even less appealing.

Lizzie went back to the couch and altered her position from her thirteen hour sloth.  She turned on the television to shield her ears from any reminders of upstairs.  She mindlessly surfed through all the channels, finally settling on a documentary about the American Revolution.  She drifted in and out of concentration, mixing up the details of the show with her tour at the Fulton house and Meg’s latest thesis description and the echo of Ben’s empty promises.  Her semi-conscious wandered to Harriet’s chair and fell against the cushions as someone bit into her neck.  She opened her eyes and saw Ben watching from the doorway.

In the quiet of early dawn, she returned to her room and the bed she left untouched since the day before.  She ripped up the sheets and removed the smell of him from her pillows and then went back to sleep.

She checked her email after waking in the afternoon.  She knew there wouldn’t be anything from Ben, but looked anyway.  She logged onto Facebook just to make sure no feed indicated where he went.  She knew her phone was somewhere… in a pocket… or her purse.  She could check to see if anyone called on Saturday, but the effort to sift through the pile of clothes on her floor was too depressing.  She tried to read a book but just drifted back to a vacant stare towards her window.  The constant inactivity slowed her mind, allowing the time to pass with surreal speed.  There was nothing accomplished as her weekend drew to a close.  Merely, she managed to stop thinking.

The phone startled her ears at four o’clock.  She followed the sound to the jeans still on the floor from Friday night.  It was probably Nora, searching for her own distraction from stress to hear about Lizzie’s outing with Ben.  WHY had she told her friends?  Why hadn’t she learned that all the men she wanted never wanted her… and to tell anyone differently was just a fanciful story?

She flipped the phone without bothering to confirm Nora’s identity.  “Hello?” she greeted with moderate pleasantness.

“Hi, Elizabeth.  This is Ben.”

Lizzie sat slowly on the edge of her bed.   “Hi Ben,” she let her voice return to her actual mood.

“I’m… I regret that… I really enjoyed seeing you on Friday.”

Lizzie felt a calm chill in her mind take over.  ‘You did,” she inflected no emotion in her voice.

“I would like to see you again,” his explanation was kind but equally distant.  “I think I should explain some things.”

“Explain what?” Lizzie released meanness into her words.

“Are you available tonight?”

Lizzie paused, letting a few moments slip into silence while she contrived possible excuses.  She could call Nora, or see if Meg and Alec wanted more pizza, or even invite Eric over for a one night reunion.  Anything would be better than seeing him again so soon.  “I have to work tomorrow.”

“It doesn’t have to be a late night,” he hesitated.  “I just want to talk to you.”

Lizzie wrestled between disappointment and insult.  “I can meet you for coffee.”

“Okay.   Where?”

“Um…” Lizzie felt her brain clear and reconsidered.   “I really shouldn’t have caffeine that late.  Why don’t you come back here and I’ll think of somewhere else to go.”

“Elizabeth, I…”

“What?”

“I can be there by 6.”

“See you.”

Lizzie closed her phone and paused in her seat.  He was going to tell her whatever it was he was avoiding.  Or he was going to try to avoid it again and lure her … to… she had to keep her head.  She was in too deep now.  He could really hurt her.

She was pleased to see both Meg and Jackie disappeared again.  She took a quick shower, but didn’t put much effort or thought into getting dressed.  She threw on the jeans from the floor and a t-shirt with paint stains.  He wasn’t worth any more of her time that weekend.  But it left her with idle time.  She finished cleaning up her bedroom and remade the bed.  She tidied up the sofa, the cushions and blankets still a mess from her campout in front of the television.

At 6 o’clock exactly, the doorbell rang.

Lizzie led him up the stairs silently.  They paused in the hall.  “Let me get my jacket.  We can get ice cream,” she made the decision on her feet.

“Can we stay here?” he put his keys on the table by the radiator.

Lizzie breathed in deeply, knowing she should insist on more neutral territory.  “Sure,” she didn’t make an attempt at pleasure with her answer.  She led him across the hall into the dining room, the most formal of all the rooms in their house.  She pulled out a chair and looked at him as he took the one opposite.  “Can I offer you some coffee – or tea?”

“I’m all right.  Do you want to get yourself something?”

Lizzie looked at the bar and determined she would save that until he was gone and her heart was broken.   She waited for him to settle in the chair and sat rigidly to face him.

“I can tell you are not happy with me,” he looked down.

“I don’t understand…” Lizzie breathed out her anger and her sorrow.

“Of course you don’t.”

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“But there is someone.”

“Not someone else,” he met her eyes. The gray green was filled with that burning she saw in the darkness of her room. “There is you.”

“So you like me?” Lizzie couldn’t stop herself from asking such a desperate question.

“I like you very much,” he revealed a pained smile.

“Then what’s wrong?”

He continued to look at her, letting several minutes pass into silence.  Lizzie felt uncomfortable under his watchful gaze, but was frozen in the expression of her last sentence.  She heard the clock tick in the kitchen and felt the light of the evening sun slip slowly behind the trees outside the window.

“You are a very intelligent, perceptive individual,” Ben finally broke the quiet of the dining room.

Lizzie released an annoyed sigh.  That was neither an explanation nor a compliment.  She turned in her chair away from him, feeling the urge to leave the room and the frustrating conversation.  “What is that supposed to mean?”

“You see the world and maintain a certain amount of skepticism and doubt.”

“About you, yes.”

“About what I am finding incredibly difficult to even start to tell you.”

Lizzie turned back to face him.  He was struggling.  “You are going to tell me something about how you like me, but don’t think we should be together.”

“It could be,” he nodded.  Lizzie glared at him, tossing aside any swell of sympathy she felt at his grief.  “The other night you said you were looking at my yearbook photos and thought I looked the same as I do now.”

“Except for the hair.”

“Except for the hair,” Ben repeated.  “I haven’t changed since high school,” he paused and took in a deep breath.  “I haven’t changed for two and a half centuries.”

“WHAT?” Lizzie shouted, more in anger than anything else.

Ben reached across the table and took hold of her hands to stop her from leaving her seat.  “I know this is quite incredible, Elizabeth,” he hesitated again.  “I don’t look older because I haven’t aged for over two hundred years.”

“What?  Are you a vampire or something?” she clenched her fists under his grasp.

Ben caught her eyes and looked at her with more gravity than she had ever seen in him.  “Yes.”

Lizzie squared her jaw.  Was this some sort of demented joke he contrived with Meg?  “That stuff isn’t real,” she wanted to move her arms, but felt fear creep into her stomach.  A fear to do anything to make him angry.  What if he really believed it?  What if he was psychotic enough to try to open up her veins and kill her?

“It’s very real.”

“But you… you… you are Ben Cottingham.  You went to Springs Regional High School.  Vampires don’t go to Springs Regional.  Or live in Coldbrook.”

He laughed, lightening the severity of his look.  “You think I should live in Bavaria?”

“I don’t… I think you are full of shit,” she hardened her eyes, still unable to move her arms.

“You’re scared,” Ben sighed sadly.  He relaxed his grip on her arms and slowly unclenched her hands to clasp them in his own.

“I’m scared because you are delusional.  No wonder you were attracted to Sara.  You both live in fantasy worlds,” Lizzie still couldn’t move.

“Elizabeth…”

She decided to not say the next thing that came in her mouth.  She bit into her lip, not sure what she could say.  What would anger him.  What would anger her.  What was or was not completely crazy.  Her mind swelled with confusion and could no longer fight the tears that filled her eyes.

“Elizabeth,” he repeated.

“Why?” she wept.  “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I feel if I am going to include you in my life, you need to know this about me.”

“You don’t feel like it’s something you should keep to yourself?”

“Not from you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It wouldn’t take you long to notice that I don’t eat anything.  Or drink anything.”

“But all that wine… and at the bar you had beer.” Lizzie hissed.  He was always getting her drunk.

“Did you ever really see me drink?”

“No,” Lizzie assented weakly thinking of the unfinished bottles.  Her fingers fell limp in his grip. “Do you want to suck my blood?”

“Yes,” he shut his eyes and bent down his chin.

Lizzie retreated her arms quickly and folded them across her chest.  “I think you should go.”

“Is that what you want?” he lifted his eyes back to her, but they still burned.

Lizzie felt the tremble of her lip rattle all through her bones.  She was terrified of what he could do to her.  But there was something deep within her that was terrified if he left, she would never see him again.  “I don’t know what I want,” she hugged herself to calm the trembling.

“I won’t hurt you,” his voice was calm.

“But you want to kill me,” she articulated the reality she couldn’t grasp.

“No,” he shook his head and tried to reach out his hand, but retrieved it on a second thought.  “Not at all.”

“You just said,” Lizzie shut her eyes, unable to repeat his confession.  “You said you wanted to.”

Ben sat back in his chair and looked as though he was choosing his words very carefully. “You’ve taught yourself to not eat when you aren’t hungry, haven’t you?”

“Most of the time,” she couldn’t look at him.

“You’ve taught yourself portion control?”

“More or less,” she was still crying.  How dare he hit that nerve in the middle of this conversation.

“It’s the same way for vampires.”

“This is insane,” Lizzie stood up from her chair.  She looked at the bar and thought about getting a drink.  She also measured how close the bottles were if she needed to defend herself.

“It isn’t insane, Elizabeth,” Ben’s voice was still calm.  “Think about everything you taught yourself about diet.  A person needs a certain amount of nutrients and calories to function well.”

“And many people overeat.”

“And become ill,” Ben continued.  “It’s the same way for me.   If I drink too much blood, then it doesn’t do me much good.  If I drink a regular schedule, then I won’t overeat.”

“Do you keep a regular schedule?”

“Until this week,” Ben hesitated.  “You might say I was too distracted.”

Lizzie looked at his eyes.  He was hungry.  “How much is a serving?”

“A pint.”

“That’s what I give at the hospital,” Lizzie muttered.

“Exactly.  Nature isn’t illogical.  If I keep a steady feeding pattern, I never need take more than a pint… which is precisely how much the human body can lose without any consequence.”

“What if you don’t feed regularly?”

“Then there are tragic costs for the source,” Ben said quietly.

“Source?  You mean people?  Or do you drink from animals?”

“Animals work in a desperate situation.  It isn’t healthy.  One tends to mimic qualities of the source.  Vampires who feed on animals tend to be more like animals.”

“And you become more human by feeding on humans?”

“Simply… yes.”

Lizzie allowed herself a lengthy look at him.  He was the same Ben.  With the freckles under his eyes and the strong shoulders.  He didn’t look like a monster.  She didn’t even see if he had sharp teeth.  She kissed him and had been inside his mouth… but never felt the cut of fangs.  She saw so much of his body, his perfect ageless body.  Was he – could he – really be immortal?  Lizzie was in disbelief.  But to disbelieve this would mean disbelieving everything else he told her.  Was she that desperate to have this man love her?  That she was willing to buy into his fantasy just to feel the thing she wanted to feel?

“When was the last time you ate?”

“Last Saturday.”

“How often do you need to eat?”

“Once a week.”

“What happened yesterday?”

“I lost my appetite.”

Lizzie thought of the pair of blemishes she saw in the mirror just below her neck.  And the other mysterious bug bites. “Did you bite me?”

“There is a sort of venom in our fangs that is like anesthesia.   It just… numbs… the person… so they don’t feel pain.  I wanted you to sleep so I could leave quietly,” he confessed awkwardly.

“But you didn’t…”

“I didn’t take anything.  Just a touch to prolong your sleep.”

“Why did you leave?” the question brought Lizzie back to the reality before this strange conversation started.

“Because…” Ben breathed out slowly.  “Because I wanted very badly to take your blood.  All three times, Elizabeth.  I never knew if I would be able to resist in the morning.”

“But you could resist at night?”

“Because you had alcohol.”

“So?”

“Alcohol weakens the blood and bitters the flavor.”

“So my intoxication stopped you from …” Lizzie struggled with the completion of the sentence.  “All that red wine put you off?”

“From drinking your blood.  Not from you,” he said with determination.

“You made sure that I had wine,” Lizzie looked at him.

“I didn’t know I was going to tell you this, Elizabeth,” he paused.  “I haven’t tried to see you with the intention of making you a source.  So I needed to take precaution… because there was always that desire.   I never take without consent of the source.”

Lizzie uncrossed her arms and allowed them to fall to her side.  “How many sources do you have?’

“That’s complicated.”

“I’m pretty good at figuring things out.”

“Yes,” he looked amused and worried at the same time.  “You are.”

“So how many?”

“I go to a clinic.”

“Oh,” Lizzie thought of a hundred new questions, but didn’t have the energy to start asking them.  A part of her was willing to accept this bizarre and strange new way of seeing things, of seeing Ben.  She let herself look at him again and saw his gray green eyes.  Those hadn’t changed.  They were still hungry.  They still looked at her with the same look that glanced across the library table at Springs High School.

“Do you want me to go?” he asked as Lizzie remained frozen by her inability to select a question.

“No,” she shook her head.  She felt as though she was in a dream she was writing as she was dreaming.  Maybe she spent too many hours on the couch.  Maybe Meg had put something on that pizza.  And yet it was starting to feel as if she knew this all along… as if she had just been waiting for him to say something so they could move on to the next step.

“You have fangs?” Lizzie blurted out.  Tangible proof to his identity could confirm once and for all whether or not she was in some grief laden psychosis.

“My teeth are a necessary tool for feeding,” he answered.  “I can’t just … I don’t think I should take that risk right now.”

“Because you would try to feed?” Lizzie met his gray green eyes.

“I might.”

“Do you want to?” Lizzie let that question articulate before she had a chance to talk herself out of it.  She saw his breath quicken the rise and fall of his chest.  He was looking at her.  She didn’t know where on her body he was focused.  She wondered if he had some extrasensory ability to see the blood rapidly coursing through her veins and was allowing himself to imagine something he had been fighting so fiercely.

Lizzie laid her left wrist across the table.  “Maybe I’m as crazy as you are, Ben.  I don’t know that I am sane… or even awake.  But more than anything… right now… I want to believe this thing you are telling me.  I want to believe you,” she stretched so her fingertips almost touched the fabric of his shirt.

He curled her fingers into her palm and slid her arm back towards her torso.  “This isn’t why I told you.”

“You’re hungry,” Lizzie pushed his hand back and turned her wrist up on the table.

He sat back in his chair and put distance between them.

“Are you afraid?” she looked directly at him.

“Yes.”

“Why?  Will you kill me?”

“No. It’s…” he flickered his eyes up, looking confused and pained.  He drew in a breath and revealed a smile of deeper admiration.  “You are brave.”

“And stupid,” she lifted up her left arm.  “I want a Twinkie when you’re done.”

He laughed and took hold of her wrist.  He stroked the inside of her arm gently.  His fingers were neither warm nor cold, but left an electric sensation along her skin.  He pulled her hand towards his mouth and kissed her palm with delicate eagerness.  He kissed the base of her palm, then her wrist.  He rested his lips there for a few moments.  Lizzie resisted the urge to clench her fist shut and forced her fingers to relax.  She saw him pull back his lips and expose his fangs before they plunged into her skin.  She shut her eyes quickly, expecting to feel pain.  She immediately opened them to see if it really happened.  She felt something move down her arm, but no pain at all.

She wasn’t sure how long he bent over her wrist.  She heard the clock ticking in the kitchen, and saw the last ribbons of sunlight stream through the large windows.  She felt her heart beating fast like in the last leg of her runs.  She was terrified and yet calmly aware that it was real.  It wasn’t a ridiculous story he made up as an excuse.  He was really a… vampire.  He was really drinking her blood.

He lifted his eyes and gently rested her hand back on the table.  His lips were closed.  She couldn’t see if there was anything dripping from his teeth… his fangs.  She looked at her wrist and saw two red marks the same distance apart as the mysterious bug bites. She touched the marks with her right fingers.  “It doesn’t hurt.”

Ben was breathing slowly and watching her.  He wasn’t ready to speak.  He looked as though he just came back from a ten mile run.  “I’m not even bleeding,” she lifted her arm closer for inspection.  “How…” she looked to Ben’s satisfied stare.

“The chemical in our fangs cauterizes the wound,” he said slowly.

“Magic?”

“No more magic than amino acids or chromosomes.  The body is an amazing machine.”

“But you aren’t human.”

“I’m a different genus of human.”

“Homo… vampyre?”

“Yes.”

Lizzie perked up her ears as she heard the front door.  Neither she nor Ben spoke as someone climbed the stairs to the foyer.  Jackie looked through the doorway.  “Hi Lizzie.”

Lizzie tucked her arms in her lap.  “Jackie, you remember Ben?”

“The guy who carried you home,” Jackie smirked and then turned back into the hallway.  Lizzie looked at Ben silently until she heard the door close at the top of the stairs.

“I can go get you a Twinkie.”

“I don’t eat Twinkies. “

“Are you okay?” Ben asked softly.

“I honestly don’t know,” she looked at her wrist again.  “I… am glad you aren’t married.”

Ben took hold of her hand.  The burning look was gone from his eyes.  His cheeks had more color and his skin looked smoother.  Did she really do that to him?  “I won’t ever hurt you,” he said softly.

She wanted to believe that, but there was still a small part of her that was scared.  A much larger part of her was mesmerized by this new Ben.  He was still the old Ben, the guy who carried her home.  She didn’t want him to go away.  If this was another one of her strange dreams, she didn’t want to wake up.  Not alone.  “Will you stay here tonight?  Will you stay until the morning?” she asked.  “Can you?”

“Can I?”

“Will you burn up in the sun?”

“Um, no,” Ben laughed.  “You’ve seen me in daylight, Elizabeth.”

“Right,” Lizzie nodded, feeling a little lightheaded.

“I will stay,” he squeezed her hand.  It was warm and sent a sensation up the length of her arm.

Lizzie smiled across the table.  At Ben.  A vampire.

 

 

Chapter Nine

He disappeared.  Well, it seemed like it.  She knew he was probably somewhere in Cambridge living his life as usual, going to his office and back to wherever he lived in Central Square.  But there was no word from him, no confirmation of the fact that he really was thinking about her.  That he wanted to talk to her again.  No email.  Nothing on Facebook.  Not even a phone call.  Not that she had given him her number.  But it couldn’t be that difficult to find it if he wanted to contact her.

Lizzie spent a week talking herself in and out of all sorts of possibilities.  She idled over Facebook and Google looking at whatever the name Ben Cottingham yielded.  Nothing proved anything.  She saw no evidence that he was married.  He wasn’t gay.  She knew that for sure.  She didn’t know why he left without goodbye.  Or why he hadn’t bothered to make any contact since. Was he going to wait another six weeks and show up spontaneously with a bottle of wine to check on her ankle?  Was she going to wait another six weeks for him?

She wanted to see him.  She didn’t want to send a message across Facebook and not be able to see the expression when he saw her name in his inbox.  She wanted to catch him in the moment and see if he was glad to see her.  Or if he had an impulse to run away.  She couldn’t just keep hoping for another sudden appearance.  She wasn’t running any races in the near future.  She thought briefly about finding one and posting it on Facebook to lure him with another update.  She didn’t want to resort to deceit… not yet.  She knew he lived somewhere close to the Charles River.  She could at least run there and hope that whatever led him to walk a few blocks from his house on a Saturday afternoon would lead him to cross her path again.  Maybe.  It was a stretch, but it would be good exercise… for her ankle.

She directed herself towards the Harvard Footbridge.  With each step, she let her mind go back and replay the night in her apartment over and over.  He said he couldn’t stop thinking about her.  Then he said he tried not to… to what?  To see her?  To obsess about her?  To bring a bottle of wine to her apartment?  To seduce her?  To stay away?  What did he mean?  If he wanted to stay away, why did he show up after saying he couldn’t come to dinner?  Why didn’t he stay away?

Why didn’t he contact her?  He knew how to find her.  He knew where she lived.  He knew she was on Facebook.  Was he still trying to talk himself out of whatever it was that he was trying not to do?  Maybe it was Sara.  Maybe he didn’t want to go back down that road to Springs.  Who could blame him?  He had a successful business in Boston.  He didn’t need to look back.

She turned around at the Harvard Bridge and headed back towards the train.  Maybe she wouldn’t see him.  She would have to email him.  She wasn’t going to allow another week to pass without giving herself the opportunity to ask him these questions she asked herself over and over.  Never mind her own question.  If it was a real possibility, would she stay?  Or would she find a reason to run away?

She passed the Mass Ave. Bridge when she saw him.  She didn’t see his face, but she knew it was him.  He was walking away from her, at a pretty brisk pace.  She increased her run to a sprint and then slowed when she was a few feet from him.  As if sensing her, he turned suddenly and gave her the reaction she hoped to see.  He smiled.

“Hey Ben,” she took out her earphones.

“Elizabeth,” he responded.  “I see your ankle is doing very well.”

“It is,” she felt the runner’s high release her grin without any effort.

She saw the breeze ruffle his short hair.  He closed his eyes for a brief second as if collecting a thought.  He stepped back from her and looked down the river.  “I’m glad to see you,” he finally looked back at her.

“Me too,” she was confused by his look and increased distance.  The oxygen drain from her head often impaired her perception.  She felt the endorphin rush fuel her confidence.  “Maybe we could get dinner some time?”

Ben looked down the river a second time.  “Lizzie,” he startled her with her nickname.

She felt the coolness enter her brain.  There was something holding him back.  Damn it.  She didn’t care.  “I feel badly that you showed up and there was no dinner last week.  I also appreciate your attention to my ankle.  Whatever you did made it feel much better.  You don’t know how much that meant to me,” she smiled.

He looked at her intently.  She sensed the urge she felt at the top of the stairs when he brought her home.  She wanted to go towards him and pull him into her kiss.  She was about to take a step when he lifted his hand and ran his fingers through his hair.  He moved his face back towards the water, but she could tell he was still looking at her.  She knew he desired her.  She knew that much was true.  If that was all… if she was to him just what Eric was to her… maybe… maybe that would be okay.

“I saw that you are going to see Jack’s band next weekend,” he turned back to face her.

“What?” Lizzie was surprised by the fact he knew that.  Facebook.  “Oh yeah.  Yeah, on Friday.”

“I’d like to see the band.  And go with you,” he smiled.  “I’ll drive.”

“To Worcester?”

“I’d enjoy your company,” he returned his smile to the one she saw at the beginning of the conversation.

“Okay,” Lizzie nodded.  “Pick me up at… seven?  That should get us there by 8.  Jack’s band goes on at 10.  The opening band is pretty decent, too.”

“Sounds good,” the strain returned to his face.  “Listen, I have to get to an appointment.   I’ll see you on Friday.”

“Yeah,” Lizzie nodded and put her earphones in to stop herself from lunging at him.  She picked up her feet and ran back to the train.  She was elated and confused.  She didn’t understand his restraint.  There was honesty in his reaction.  She knew in spite of whatever he was hiding, he was happy to see her.

****

Lizzie decided on jeans and a sleeveless shirt.  She told herself she wouldn’t care so much, but she changed her outfit several times and would have continued to be indecisive if the doorbell didn’t ring.  She let Meg answer it, knowing she was eager to meet the guy who made Lizzie blush.  Lizzie didn’t tell Meg or Nora about Ben’s mysterious behavior, but figured the observation of one of them might help with some perspective.

“Hi Ben,” Lizzie came into the living room.

“Hi,” Ben turned around and grinned at her.  Lizzie saw Meg’s nod of approval over his shoulder and rested her gaze on Ben’s friendly eyes.

“You’ve met Meg,” Lizzie felt her whole body lighten.

“She was just telling me about her thesis,” Ben made a strange smile.  Lizzie couldn’t tell if it was amusement, approval, or the attempt to curb himself from laughing outright.  Lizzie noticed all the books spread on the table and realized how the topic probably came up.

“He actually recommended a couple books I have never heard of,” Meg explained her enthusiasm.

“That’s impressive,” Lizzie warmed at the fact that he was in her living room, talking with her best friend, and still looking at her with admiration.  “I didn’t know you were a fan of gothic literature.”

“I’ve had time to read a few genres.”

“Really?” Lizzie was surprised to hear a man who built and managed his own company spent time reading literature.

“Yes,” Ben came to her side and touched her elbow.  “We should probably get going.  Meg, it was wonderful to meet you.”

“The same,” Meg looked at Lizzie one more time before they went down the stairs.

Lizzie let him open the car door for her.  Normally she hated that gesture.  It was too old fashioned.  With Ben it seemed charming, not patronizing.  She watched him sit beside her.  He looked tired.  His skin was paler, making the freckles more pronounced under his eyes.  He turned those eyes to her as he fastened his seat belt.  The gray seemed to overtake the green.  He looked… nervous.  Lizzie knew she should say something, anything to start the conversation and stifle the oppressive silence that had overtaken the car. “Weather’s nice, huh?”

“It is a nice night.”

“The moon is supposed to be full, I think,” Lizzie felt like a dork.  Was she trying to sound too desperate for a story out of a romance novel?

“It’s the perfect temperature.  Not too warm, not too cold,” he started the ignition.

“The way May is supposed to be.”

“I don’t expect anything of May weather.  It’s always different.  Sometimes hot.  It’s even snowed.”

Lizzie tried to remember a May when it snowed.  “Well, I brought a sweater just in case,” she was impatient with herself for her lame conversation.

“So, you’ve been to a lot of Jack’s gigs?”

“Yeah.  I don’t know if you remember the band he tried to start in high school.  Most of those guys moved away after college.  Just Mike…” Lizzie paused, wondering if Ben remembered Mike from his friendship with Oliver.  She didn’t want to remind him or remind herself of the conversation on the back deck of Jen and Jack’s house.  Or the wordless fifteen minutes after.  She wasn’t sure how much of her history she should reveal at this point, if ever.  “Mike’s the drummer.  Anyway, after Jack and Jen had Zach, they got serious and recruited some other musicians.  They’ve been together for about ten years.   I think they are pretty decent, even if I’m family. “

“It’s good to see he is still devoted to it.  I remember his love of guitar back in high school.”

“Yeah.  Jen really supports him.  Have you met his wife?”

“No.”

“They got married real young,” Lizzie knew she was talking a lot, but couldn’t think how else to fill the silence.  “They thought she was pregnant.  She was.  She lost it, but they were engaged and decided to elope anyway.  Two years later, they had Zach.  They have a daughter, Izzie, who is three.”

“Sounds like a happy family.”

“You know, I think they are soul mates.  They were probably married in their last life, too.”

“You believe in that stuff?  Reincarnation?”

“I think so.  I mean… I really don’t KNOW.  I don’t necessarily know that any of it is THE answer.  But, yeah, it’s nice to think we come back here eventually.  I would like to see another century.  See what new gadgets teenagers have two hundred years from now,” Lizzie laughed at herself.

“But you wouldn’t be you?”

“I don’t know how it works, Ben.  You probably think it’s all… silly.”

“I like what you said about not knowing THE answer.”

“So you’re not an atheist?”

“Did you think I was an atheist?”

“I guess I did.  Are you?”

“No.”

“Hm,” Lizzie looked to the cars they passed on the Pike.

“You were pretty religious in high school,” Ben commented.

“I was a good little Catholic girl from a small town,” Lizzie kept looking at the blurred cars.  “I am definitely not that now.”

“You live in a suburb.”

“I’m no longer Catholic… and I’m definitely not good.”

“You’re good.”

“I don’t think we’d be in this car right now if either one of us thought I was good.”

Ben pursed his lips together and tightened his grip on the steering wheel.  Lizzie knew she hit some sort of nerve.  She couldn’t tell if it was his sin or hers that caused his immediate tensing.  He took a deep breath and relaxed his arms. “Do you really think that makes you a bad person?”

“Well…” Lizzie faded her voice.  If he did have a wife or girlfriend, obviously what they did together did make her a bad person.  She still wasn’t ready to ask him that question.  “Sometimes it does.”

“To do something that makes you feel good?”

“It’s not the physical act,” Lizzie argued.  She couldn’t believe the conversation about weather shifted to sex before they got beyond 495.   “But the motivation.”

“The motivation?” he glanced at her.

“I slept with Mike – Jack’s drummer.” Lizzie spoke before stopping her whim for honesty.  “He has a girlfriend.  I knew that.  But I went ahead and slept with him because he wanted me.  Because it felt good knowing he would choose me when he had someone else.  Because for so much of my life I didn’t feel wanted.  I don’t love Mike.  I didn’t do it out of love.  I did it to make myself feel good for five minutes.   It was stupid.  It was cruel.  And it was not good.”

Ben took in a breath.  He clearly didn’t know what to say.  He was stuck in the car with her, on the Mass Turnpike, with very little option to turn around and drive her back home.  “That doesn’t make you a bad person, Elizabeth.”

“Yes, it does,” Lizzie looked down.  She was doing a great job towards retaining his interest and sympathy.  “That isn’t my only indiscretion.  There have been a lot of indiscretions…” Lizzie faded off and found a question forming in her mind.  Maybe she would ask it to cut to the chase and end it before her hopes got the better of her.  “You know that I’m promiscuous.  Is that why you are here?”

“What?” Ben shook his head as he switched lanes.

“Are you just taking me out tonight so you can get laid?”

“Well, I’m not going to deny that I have hopes for the end of this evening.  I enjoy being with you, Elizabeth.  In your bed.  And sitting in this car right now.  I …” he faded his conversation off to another gaze.  “I think you are beautiful and funny and smart.  I think you are good.  We all make mistakes.  We all do things to hurt other people – most often because we feel hurt.   I certainly can’t point my finger at you.  I don’t think less of you for what you’ve done.  I don’t think any less of your ultimate goodness.  You spend every day helping to raise money for a hospital.  You are a devoted friend.  You show appreciation to those who help you… and you obviously care enough to let it bother you enough to confess it to me.”

Lizzie looked at Ben, who kept his gaze at the left lane of the highway.  She felt the anger and apprehension she had about his character dissolve.  “You really think I’m good?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Even when half of the time we’ve spent together has been in a bedroom?” Lizzie couldn’t believe she said it.

“You are good in the bedroom,” he turned his attention away from the road long enough to smile.  Lizzie met his smile and breathed in deeply and confidently.  He looked back to the road, still grinning mischievously.

She let silence slip into the car between the next two exits.  It wasn’t that uncomfortable silence of uncertainty.  It was a mutual comfort with one another’s company.  Like she had known him for a long time and such silences were perfectly acceptable parts of the routine.   She had known him for a long while, much longer than she knew Nora and Meg.  And yet there was still so much mystery.

“I don’t remember you being an athlete,” she broke the silence after fifteen minutes.  Her thoughts didn’t venture far from his last comment.

“In high school?  I wasn’t,” he laughed.

“But… you look like an athlete.  Even in the yearbook pictures, you have the same… well I didn’t really notice it then.  But…”

“You were looking at our yearbook?”

“A few months back – at Sara’s… she had an awful spiral perm.  I was really unattractive,” Lizzie wanted to eat her words again, wondering if she hit a sore spot with mention of Sara.

“You weren’t unattractive,” he answered without a pause at Sara’s name.

“Your hair was longer… but not much else,” Lizzie looked at him without fear.  “But I don’t remember you being athletic.”

“I told you, I wasn’t.”

“Then where does the muscle come from?  Heavy duty mouse clicking?”

“We did a lot of work around the house back then.  I guess that’s…” he let his eyes look at her and then back to the road.  “Now I go to the gym.”

“That’s not fair.  I work so hard to …”

“Females have to work harder.”

“I know a few men who would hate you, too.”

“They probably have a better appreciation for beer than I do,” Ben started switching lanes towards the exit.  “You don’t hate me?”

“I’ve thought about it,” Lizzie said lightly, albeit very honestly.

“You like running though,” he showed a little confusion.

“I do.  It took me a while, but once I discovered that runner’s high, it got a whole lot easier to drag myself out of bed every morning.”

“Endorphins,” Ben smiled a different grin.

“You’re not an athlete and you grin over endorphins?”

“I wouldn’t know what to do with a baseball if it was flying straight toward me.”

“Your brother was on the baseball team, wasn’t he?”

“Oliver?”

“Yeah, I thought I remember that… or maybe that was someone else’s brother.”

“I don’t think Oliver played sports either.”

“Too busy working around the house?”

“I guess so.  I don’t remember,” he turned off the ramp onto the main road.

“It’s just after the next light,” Lizzie offered.   “Not a bad place.  Pretty decent crowds – and far enough from the colleges so it isn’t a bunch of frat boys.”

Ben followed her directions and parked the car in front of the restaurant.  Lizzie decided to put her sweater on when she got out of the car.  She felt an arm around her waist turn her.  Ben pulled her close and kissed her suddenly and passionately.  Lizzie had to pull herself back to get some air.  “We have to go in,” she looked away from his eyes so he wouldn’t continue and tempt her to go back into the car.  He slipped his arm around her back and led her into the restaurant.

****

“So what gives, Lizzie?  Are you dating Ben?” Jack muttered the moment Ben got up to buy the next round.

“I don’t know,” Lizzie saw Ben’s gaze as he waited for the bartender.  “I don’t know what’s happening.”

“He’s cute,” Jen smiled.  “Jack said he’s an engineer or something.”

“Computers,” Lizzie forced herself to look at Jen.

“Isn’t he the one that followed Sara around all the time?” Jen asked.  “I always imagined some nerdy, scrawny kid with broken glasses.”

“He wasn’t scrawny.  And I think I wore the broken glasses,” Lizzie laughed.  “Besides, everyone liked Sara.  Even this one.”

Jack finished his glass of whiskey.  “I was 14 and hormonal.”

“It’s okay, Jack,” Jen laughed.  “I liked Drew Armstrong.  He was a beautiful boy, but cocky as shit.  Turned out he was gay.”

“I’ve often wondered if Sara was a repressed lesbian,” Lizzie said flippantly.  “It might explain all the Jesus love.”

“Don’t give him any ideas, Lizzie.  You know he’s imagining very bad things right now,” Jen laughed.

“It might give you something to look forward to,” Jack pinched his wife’s side.

“Isn’t your break over?” Jen sniveled and then kissed him on the lips.  Lizzie glanced back up at Ben’s constant gaze.  She felt her own smile creep across her cheeks.

“I’m going to hit the loo before you start,” Lizzie excused herself, but Jen decided to follow her.

“He is really nice, Lizzie,” Jen stood over the sink in the bathroom, dodging the crowded line behind them.  “It’s obvious he is really into you.”

“You think?”

“Yeah… you don’t?”

“I… we’ve had a couple great nights.  Then weeks go by without… anything.”

“I imagine he’s a little scared.  If he was in love with your best friend as a teenager that might bring some stuff up.”

“Great,” Lizzie peered into the reflection of the mirror.  “I don’t want… I don’t want to be his choice because he’s been carrying a torch for Sara all these years.”

“I don’t think that’s the case,” Jen looked at her own reflection.  “Didn’t you like someone in high school?”

“Yeah… but I never really thought I had a chance.  You know, Jen.  I have a self-defeating attitude towards men.  I don’t ever pick the ones who like me back as much as I like them.”

“I think he likes you back, Lizzie,” Jen sighed.    “Maybe you are the one who is still hung up on Sara.”

“I didn’t say she was a lesbian because I had a crush on her.”

“No… but you were in her shadow.  Her pretty, perfect shadow.  That’s a tough shadow to leave.  Even after running for two years.”

“I’ve been in a lot of those shadows.”

“Did you ever think that maybe he liked you?” Jen turned away from the mirror.  “Maybe the Sara thing was just an excuse to be around you.”

“Not likely,” Lizzie could still see the reflection of her frumpier self in the mirror.

“Would you have given him the time of day if he did?” Jen had a direct approach much like Nora’s.

“You know what’s funny?  I used to be in a club with his brother,” Lizzie remembered the thought as she spoke it.  “We had a lot of fun together.  Oliver made me laugh.  I thought for a little while that he liked me.  But he was two years ahead of us… and he had a girlfriend.  I decided it was just my imagination.”

“Maybe Oliver paid attention to you because he knew his brother was secretly pining for you,” Jen winked as the bass vibrated through the bathroom door.

“Secretly pining?” Lizzie laughed as they edged towards the door.  “For Sara’s less attractive friend?”

“You know Lizzie, you didn’t just suddenly become beautiful,” Jen paused before opening the door.  “You lost weight, but you have always had beauty.  It’s just when you got thinner, you decided to believe it.”

Lizzie looked at Jen but lacked the wit to retaliate.  She pulled open the door and went back out to where Ben was waiting for her.

****

Lizzie looked down at Ben as her heart rhythm slowed.  She breathed in deeply and dropped her chest onto his.  She kissed him passionately once more and slid down against the mattress, not removing her glance from the green gray eyes that followed her movement.  Her heart was still accelerated and her every nerve enlivened.  She felt her limbs itch with the energy to run several miles, but she had no desire to leave the spot where she lay opposite him, staring into those gray green eyes.

He moved a hair that fell from her temple across her nose.  The touch of his fingers against her face thrilled her smile to a broader width.  She didn’t know when the last time was that she felt so content, so elated, so glad to be in a moment.  She wanted to hold onto it… but not by herself.  She felt the hope and adrenalin of risk rise to her throat.  She kissed him again and narrowed her eyes as she pulled away.  “Ben.”

He rested his palm against her scalp and slowly caressed down the length of her hair.  “Elizabeth,” the breath of his voice was still close to her lips.

She rolled onto her back to leave the temptation of another kiss and excuse to abandon what she was daring herself to say.  “What I said about being good before,” she looked up at the stripes of her blinds silhouetted by the street light.  “I was telling the truth.  I have been a pretty heartless whore the past several months.”

“Elizabeth,” he said her name again as he draped an affectionate arm across her breasts and rested his chin inside the curve of her shoulder.

“I…” she felt his kiss against her neck.  It made her nerves tingle, as though each one were an electric charge.  She instinctively arched her head, making it easier for his seduction.  He eased his arm back so one palm landed on her exposed breast.  Lizzie leaned into him but moved her motivation back into her head.  “Ben,” she whispered.  He moved away from her neck and lifted his eyes that burned with an intensity she never saw before.  He kissed her lips briefly until she closed her mouth and stopped reacting.  She lifted her hands and held them against his temples.

“I don’t think you are a whore,” his concentrated stare said with determination.

“I know,” she smoothed along his hair and cupped her hands at the base of his skull.  “I know what I did and why I made the choices I made.  I was running away from something.  From myself.  When I’m with you, I’m not running away.  I feel like I am running to something I want.  I want to be here.  I want to be myself here.”

Lizzie took in a deep breath and felt the weight of his hand as her chest rose and fell.  She dropped her hands from the back of his head and let him relax back onto his elbow.  He moved his hand from her breast and gently traced down the length of her torso with his finger.  He stopped at her pelvic bone and retraced his finger back between her breasts, all the way along her neck to the base of her chin.   He paused, turning his fiery eyes back to her neck.  Then he fell back against the pillow and let silence fill the room.

Lizzie heard a car pass on the street below.  She didn’t want to be distracted by the outside world.  It was as if the spell were breaking.  The longer the pause after her confession, the less warmth she felt inside and out.  She didn’t want to lose that warmth.  She didn’t want to lose that chance to be with someone now that she had finally decided to be honest.  “I want you to stay, Ben,” she made one last attempt.  “Stay with me through the morning.”

He shifted his position again and leaned over to kiss her.  “I want to stay,” he looked at her.  “I want to be the one you run to.  I want you, more than you know.”

Lizzie let her next breath plunge all the way to where he dragged his finger.  As her chest rose, his palm found her breast again, followed soon after by his mouth.  She let the conversation fade as he revitalized the sensation of her nerves and skin.  She allowed the hope to enter her mind that he would be there through the morning.  That he wanted her more than she knew.

When she woke up the next morning, he was gone.

Chapter Eight

Lizzie looked at her watch in between sips of water.   She resisted the letdown as she emptied the bottle and tossed it in the recycle bin.  She walked a few yards and turned back to where she was waiting.

“Lizzie!” Meg shouted through the crowd of spectators and runners.

Lizzie shut her eyes and breathed out relief.  “Hey.”

“Congratulations!” Meg hugged her, forcing Lizzie to put pressure on her exhausted ankle.

“Did you just get here?” Lizzie tried not to let the pain make her voice too sour.

“Kinda.  Well, it took me forever to find a parking spot.  And even then, it’s a couple blocks from here,” Meg offered sheepishly as she handed Lizzie another water bottle and her bag.  “I should have left the house earlier.”

“It’s all right,” Lizzie prepared to start the walk back towards the car.

“You made better time than you thought?” Meg tried to deflect the culpability.

“Ten minute miles,” Lizzie breathed out.  “Not bad considering my ankle.”

“Your ankle is okay?” Meg frowned.

“It’s all right.  It will be fine when we get back to the car.”

“Why don’t you go sit over on that bench?  I can bring the car around.  It just might take a few minutes to get around the road that’s still blocked off for the finish line.”

Lizzie nodded, willing to be a wimp and indulge her ankle.  She ignored the instinct to limp.  Her legs pulled through six ten minute miles.  Not bad.  There would be friends and dinner to make her forget the resurgence of swelling.  She rubbed the sweat off her forehead, breathing in deep.  She lifted her glance towards the bench and saw the gray green eyes looking at her.  She quickly changed her direction towards him and felt the stiffness of her ankle melt away with the eagerness of her steps.  He looked the same, his freckles still obvious under his eyes.  “Ben, what a surprise,” Lizzie concentrated on a determination to be kind.

“I saw your Facebook status and thought I would witness you overcome your injury,” he smiled graciously.

“Oh,” Lizzie was startled by his answer, not sure if it was because he paid attention to her update, or because he was checking on her ankle six weeks later.

“You did it.  Even with a slight malfunction,” he smiled, making her forget everything that upset her in the months since the reunion.

“It’s still not perfect,” she concentrated her pressure on her right foot so her pain wouldn’t give her away.  “But better.”

“Well, congrats,” he touched her arm.  “I imagine you… well done, Elizabeth.”

“Um, listen, we’re heading back to my place for spaghetti and drinks.  Just a small group of friends.  You wanna come?  It should be fun.  My friend Davis is always entertaining,” Lizzie offered.  “I still owe you for giving me a ride home.”

“You don’t owe me.  I was glad to help you,” he paused and shifted to a smile.  It wasn’t a real smile.  “Thanks for the invitation.  I would like… but I don’t think I will be able to.”

“Oh,” she felt the pain creep back into her memory.

“Maybe some other time,” he nodded as Lizzie’s bag started ringing.  Ben looked at the satchel dangling from the clutches of her hand.  She couldn’t ignore it.  She looked for the phone and saw Andrew’s name come up.  Ben nodded as he touched her shoulder again and walked away.

Lizzie let out a sigh and flipped open her phone.  “Hi,” her eyes followed Ben until he faded amongst the crowd of runners and spectators and water bottles.

“Lizzie,” Andrew’s voice was foreboding of disappointment.  “You’re done?”

“I’m waiting for Meg to bring the car,” she sighed, looking towards the bench that was now occupied.

“Congratulations,” he lacked enthusiasm.

“What’s up?”

“Davis is sick,” Andrew sighed.  “He hasn’t been able to eat all day.  I would leave him but he … well, you know how he gets.”

“No worries.  I don’t think I’m good company right now anyway,” Lizzie took the patience out of her answer.

“What happened, lovely?”

“Just my ankle flaring up,” she looked towards the road, hoping Meg would appear soon.

“Maybe tomorrow?”

“Plans with Nora.”

“Well, some time this week.  I will cook you a fabulous dinner.”

“Yeah, sure,” Lizzie said quickly seeing Meg’s red Focus .  “Meg’s here.  Talk to you later.”

“Call me tonight if you need to bitch.”

“Tell Davis I hope he feels better,” Lizzie closed her phone and walked to meet Meg’s car.

“I would have pulled up closer,” Meg said as Lizzie put on her seatbelt.

“Andrew just called to cancel,” Lizzie explained before Meg could question her sour mood and infer any other cause.

“That’s too bad.”

“So I guess it’s just us,” Lizzie leaned her head back and closed her lids.  All she could see was the gray green eyes.

“Alec called.”

“Mm?”

“He wants to go to a movie.”

“Well, we can eat early.”

“The movie is at five-thirty.  So… well, seeing that we’re having dinner with Nora tomorrow…”

“I’ll just go home and take a shower.”

“Sorry Lizzie,” Meg sighed.  Lizzie didn’t answer.  She just kept her eyes closed to dry the tears before they had a chance to escape.

****

Lizzie didn’t know if the quiet of the apartment was a blessing or a curse.  She wasn’t doing much to take the pressure off her ankle.  She lingered an extra ten minutes under the steam of her shower.  Then she cooked her small bowl of spaghetti.  She went for sauce in a jar and frozen meatballs.  Not the fancier version she planned with Andrew… but it refueled her weary limbs.  She cleaned up the kitchen and was contemplating one of Meg’s DVDs when the doorbell rang.

She felt the swollen joint as she walked down the steps and had to pause before reaching for the door.  She forgot the irritation and almost lost her breath completely when she saw Ben on the other side of the door with a bottle of wine.  “I hope it’s not too late to change my mind,” he smiled.

“Well,” somehow she laughed.  “Actually my friends were sick.  And Meg went out with her boyfriend.  So… there’s no dinner.”

She breathed out, hoping he didn’t think she made up the dinner story to lure him back to her apartment.  But he came to her apartment.  He remembered where she lived.  He changed his mind.  “We can still have wine,” he offered, not lifting his gray green eyes.  Lizzie realized she was in jeans and a t-shirt.  Her hair was still wet from her shower.  She was barefoot and didn’t… well, she was more attractive than the last two times he saw her – sweaty and muddy after a run.

“Come on up,” she turned around and went back up the stairs.

Lizzie let herself pause in the doorway with the two wine glasses and bottle to take in the reality of the moment.  He stood by the mantelpiece of their inactive fireplace.  He was in her living room.  He accepted her invitation.  He came to see her at the end of her race.  He came because he thought she wanted that.  She felt giddy and unreal… and suddenly very foolish and guilty for letting herself doubt.

He sensed her presence and turned to her frozen stance.  He took the glasses from her hand and paused.  “Is everything all right?  How’s the ankle?”

“It’s been better,” she smiled and set the Malbec on the coffee table.  Lizzie sat in front of the table and silently filled the two glasses.  She offered him one and took a large sip from her own.

“Where is your roommate?” he disturbed the silence without taking a sip from his glass.

“I have two roommates,” Lizzie explained.  “Jackie – the one you met – is visiting her sister this weekend.  My other roommate, Meg, is the one who went to the movies with her boyfriend.”

“It’s a nice apartment,” he looked around the room and settled on the couch beside her.  Lizzie was glad she cleaned in anticipation of guests.  She managed to hide away all of Meg’s vampire novels and washed all the dirty wine glasses.

“Yeah,” Lizzie nodded.  “There’s a lot of space for three people.  I like the fact we have two floors.  I really like the spiral staircase.”

“That is a nice touch,” Ben agreed.  “It’s always been the three of you?”

“Well, originally it was Meg, myself, and our friend Nora.  We all worked together at an historic village during college and decided to get an apartment together.”

“One of your other museums?”

“Yeah.  We used to dress up in period costume and give tours in character.  We had a lot of laughs together and learned how to deal with stress.  I think it was a pretty easy transition to living together.  I’m lucky to have such good friends.”

“You are,” Ben set his glass down.  “Do you all still work in museums?”

“I’m the only one.  Meg is perpetually in grad school, teaching undergrads and writing another thesis.  Nora became a middle school teacher.  She’s the most grownup of us.  She actually got a fiancé and moved out.”

“So Jackie moved in.”

“Yup.” she saw his gaze and then dropped her eyes to her wine.

“Did you study history in college?” Ben broke another awkward silence.

“I did,” Lizzie took another sip.

“You read a lot in high school.”

“I still do,” she lifted her eyes to him, curious at the observation.  “It keeps life interesting when my job is so dull.”

“You think your job is dull?”

“Dreadful.”

He lingered his gaze on her eyes for a second and shifted towards the coffee table where she rested her feet.  “Your ankle is swollen,” he observed.  “Do you have an Ace bandage?”

“I do,” she muttered into a sip of wine.  “On the shelf over the bathroom sink.”

She drank the rest of her glass and a sip of another before he came back with the Ace bandage she abandoned a week ago.  He sat back at her side and turned her legs so they rested in his lap.  She watched him silently as he slowly pressed his fingers into the bottom of her foot, concentrating his thumb inside her arch.  She felt the wine warm her skin and breathed deeply as he progressed down to her heel.

“How did you end up at Mt. Elm?”

“Money,” she shrugged and took another sip as he started to wrap the Ace bandage around her relaxed ankle.  “I worked on fundraisers at all the museums.  It wasn’t a lot of skill to switch the concept to hospitals.”

“But it’s boring.”

“Hellishly boring.”

“Why don’t you do something else?”

“I’ve thought about…” she watched him circle the bandage around her foot.  “I don’t… I don’t think I’m all that qualified.”

He fastened the bandage and lifted his eyes to her.  “Qualified for what?”

Lizzie looked at her wineglass.  She didn’t know how to answer that.  It was a relatively simple question.  It was an answer she would have easily found had Andrew not bailed and stayed home.  If Andrew hadn’t stayed home with Davis, she wouldn’t be sitting with her legs across Ben’s lap on her second glass of wine.    “I…” she muttered, looking at her hands.  Suddenly his hands were unclasping the glass and taking it away from her to put on the table.  He moved his hands to her chin and pulled her against his lips for a lengthy kiss.

He pulled back from her and slid her feet back onto the floor.  He moved a dangling strand away from her eyes and held onto the side of her face.  “I keep thinking about you, Elizabeth,” he whispered.  Lizzie kissed him again, unable to think how to answer the echo of her own feeling.  She pressed herself against him, forcing him towards the sofa.  She lifted herself onto his lap and pulled back from the kiss to look at him and his green gray eyes.

She started to unbutton his shirt and leaned back towards him, kissing his mouth, across his cheek, down to his neck.  She felt him breathe in and out against her own neck.  “I tried not,” he breathed.  “I tried not to do this.”

Lizzie didn’t understand what he was saying.  She figured it was the wine or just the elation of the moment clouding her head too quickly.  She lifted her face and kissed his mouth again.  “I’m glad you changed your mind,” she met his stare and stopped undoing his buttons.  She smoothed along his temples.  “Do you really…” she couldn’t stop her eyes from welling.  “Am I really what you’ve wanted all this time?”

He took hold of her face gently and kissed her again.  She barely noticed his hands leave her cheeks and slip under her thighs as he lifted her and carried her up the spiral staircase.

****

Lizzie heard the doorbell ring as she stepped out the shower.  She threw on a towel and ran down the stairs, her wet hair dripping on her shoulders.  Nora laughed as she opened the door.  “I always forget traffic is better on Sunday afternoons,” she offered.

“Meg is still at Alec’s,” Lizzie took one of the dresses and walked with Nora up the stairs.

“Is she on her way?” Nora asked as they got to the top of the staircase.

“I just came back from a run,” Lizzie tightened her towel after hanging the dress up on the coat rack.

“Another run?  The day after your race?  I take it the ankle is back to normal,” Nora took the sheeting off of Lizzie’s dress.  “Don’t bother getting dressed.  Go put this on.”

Lizzie went back to the bathroom and put up her wet hair in a clip before trying on the dress.  The burgundy material fitted her frame flawlessly.  She rushed back out to the hallway to show Nora.  “It’s perfect,” she beamed.

“It is,” Nora grinned as she unclipped Lizzie’s wet hair to see it on her shoulders.  “No, I think we should see your shoulders.”

“Are you wearing yours up or down?” Lizzie let herself wander over to the mirror in the hallway.  She once avoided it at all costs.

“Up,” Nora put the clip back in her hair.  “How did it go yesterday?”

“I made good time,” Lizzie turned away from the mirror.

“And you decided to go for a run today.”

“Ben came to see me.”

“Ben?  High school Ben?” Nora smiled.  She was impressed by the story of his chivalry on Memorial Drive.

“Yes,” Lizzie smoothed along the skirt.

“Did you know he was coming?”

“I didn’t know he was there until I was waiting for Meg to bring the car.”

“And?”

“He ended up coming over last night,” Lizzie couldn’t prevent the smile that eked across her chin as she heard the door at the bottom of the stairs.

“Are you going to see him again?” Nora asked, unmoved by the sound at the door.

“I hope so,” Lizzie smiled and ignored the lump of doubt that prompted her to run on her bandaged ankle.  Ben was gone when she woke up.  She didn’t know how she should feel about that when he made her so happy by coming to her apartment.  When he said that he couldn’t stop thinking about her…

“Oh my God, Lizzie!” Meg got to the top of the staircase.  “You look amazing!”

“Thanks,” Lizzie let the praise warm her memory and fade out the sickening sense of uncertainty.

“There is no way my dress is going to look that good on me,” Meg dropped her bag and went to her dress on the coat rack.

“I think you might be surprised, Meg,” Nora offered.  “Margie did an amazing job with the dresses.  You should see Becca’s.”

Meg took her dress off the hook and disappeared down the hall into the bathroom.  Lizzie turned back to her reflection once more.  She let Ben slip back into her mind and hoped that he might be able to see her in that dress.  “You know, Nora,” Lizzie sighed at her reflection.  “I think I really like him.”

“Ben?”

“Yeah,” Lizzie shut her eyes accepting the fact she just made it real.  She hoped that by wishing it she didn’t just curse it by making it too much like her last wish for a man for whom she let herself feel.

“He would be a fool to walk away from you.”

“A fool,” Lizzie repeated to her reflection in near silence.

“Hey, I think you got a bug bite,” Nora said suddenly.

“What?” Lizzie turned away from the mirror.

“At the base of your neck,” Nora touched a spot that Lizzie couldn’t see in the mirror or her periphery.  “You don’t feel it?”

“No.”

“Actually, you’ve got two of them.”

“Is it really obvious?”

“No,” Nora laughed.  “That’s a funny place for a bug bite.”

“Something probably found me while I was running.”

“Maybe it’s the Chicken Pox.”

“I had those when I was seven,” Lizzie looked at the mirror trying to see what she knew she couldn’t.

Meg came down the hallway, beaming at the fit of her own maroon dress.  “Margie is a genius.”

Nora smiled.  “I am going to have beautiful photographs!” she exclaimed.

Lizzie caught the contagious elation of her friends and let it fuel her hope that there would be much more to smile about in June.

Chapter Seven

Lizzie looked at the Facebook updates and switched back to her word document.  She had been alternating screens every five minutes for two weeks now.  There was never anything indicating the presence of Ben on the social networking site.  Nothing to reveal what he was doing since he left her at the top of her stairs.  Nothing in her inbox to ask if she felt better.  It was a foolish habit and just made the day drag even more.

She started typing a status update about her boredom but was distracted when the door to the office opened, ushering in Richard, Dr. Chiang, and their lunch partner.  “Lizzie, you know Gerard Fulton,” Richard approached Lizzie’s desk after taking Gerard’s coat.

“You’re the girl from the house,” Gerard paused to recognize her with his waspy blue eyes.  It wasn’t a look of admiration.

Lizzie forced her smile.  “Yes I work there on alternate Saturdays,” Lizzie held out her hand kindly.

“We are lucky to have Lizzie on staff,” Richard said as his phone rang.  “She has told us many interesting facts about your ancestors.”

Lizzie smiled at Gerard and Dr. Chiang as Richard politely excused himself to take his call.  She wondered if the Fulton heir was as charmed by Dr. Chiang as everyone else when a pager buzzed the surgeon’s coat pocket.  Lizzie directed her to another desk and phone to use, leaving Lizzie alone with Gerard Fulton.  She tried not to linger too long in awkward silence, knowing how important Gerard’s money was to the hospital.  “Have you visited Brattle Street recently, Mr. Fulton?” she asked politely.

“Not since the end of the summer, I’m afraid,” he actually seemed to perk up at the opportunity to discuss the house.

“I was there last Saturday.  I always like the early spring in that house.  The light seems to best highlight some details in March and April – before all the leaves block out the sun,” Lizzie smiled, but was uncertain when he offered nothing to fill the next silence.  “Do you know who Lotty might be?”

“Lotty?”

“A few months back, my manager showed me a letter that Harriet had written to someone named Lotty,” Lizzie was inspired by her preoccupation with the Fulton daughter.

“That was probably Charlotte,” Gerard stated the fact proudly.  “The wife of Horace, John’s son from his first marriage.”

“Oh,” Lizzie felt satisfaction for both intriguing him in conversation and answering a minor mystery.  It was something she could include on the tour.  She had it straight from the mouth of a Fulton.

“She was English,” Gerard continued.  “I can’t remember the history of her family.  Horace started to invest in a ship building company south of Boston, but he died before making his own fortune.”

“I didn’t know that,” Lizzie responded.  She actually didn’t want to know that.

“I didn’t know there was such a letter,” Gerard said abruptly.

“Yes, it is in the museum archives.”

“Hm,” Gerard muttered.  “Harriet married Lazarus Benedict.  He was from the North Shore.”

“We don’t know very much about Harriet,” Lizzie commented hopefully.

“It is a pity about that chair,” Gerard looked at her.

“The chair?”

“In Harriet’s room.  It gets far too much exposure from the sun.  It is a fine piece.  You must do something about preserving it.”

“Yes,” Lizzie smiled empathetically.

“Tell Jonathan he should get some better shades for that room,” Gerard advised as Dr. Chiang returned to the conversation.

“I will,” Lizzie assented, even though she seldom had reason to speak with the curator never mind the authority to tell him how to maintain the property.

“Gerard, I apologize for that,” Dr. Chiang interrupted.

“That’s all right.  Leslie is very kind.”

“Yes, Lizzie is very helpful,” Dr. Chiang smiled once more before leading him into Richard’s office.

Lizzie laughed to herself and returned to her computer as Richard closed the door.   She sat back at her computer, with no added tasks from her idling before.  She clicked over to Google and typed in Charlotte Fulton.  She saw a genealogy page that confirmed she was married to Horace Fulton, son of John and his first wife, Caroline.   There was a link to an art collection, tracing the original purchase back to a Charlotte Fulton in 1858.  Lizzie wasn’t sure if it was the same Charlotte Fulton. Perhaps.  But… not much else.  She clicked on the image option – just in case there was some random portrait out there.  There were a lot of modern photos of Charlottes and Fultons… but no Charlotte Fulton.  On the next page, she found a silent movie star in a mysterious black and white photo.  Lizzie clicked on that picture and found a profile.  That Charlotte Fulton appeared in a number of films in the 20’s of which Lizzie had never heard.  Well… she had some more information, but nothing interesting or in depth enough for a good story on her tour.  All she could say, really, was that Harriet wrote A letter ONCE to her sister in law.  Not really that exciting.

Lizzie remembered there was another name in the letter.  Mr. Chester.  She typed in Charlotte Fulton Chester in the search icon.  Another genealogy page showed up.  There were too many words and too many names for Lizzie to understand how they all connected to one another.  She scrolled down to find Charlotte Fulton or Chester.  Her eyes froze on the sight of Benjamin Chester.  Her heart skipped as her cheeks flushed immediately.  So much for distracting herself from those thoughts.

She clicked out of Google and back to Facebook.  A red notification popped up to say she was tagged in a few photos someone finally put from the reunion.  She was in three of them.  There was one with Sara.  One with Dan and Delany Stewart.  And one with Ben.  She lingered on that image and let herself be mesmerized by the happiness of the gray green eyes.  She liked how she looked in that picture.  The multiple glasses of wine didn’t show.  She looked… happy.  Like he did.  They looked like… a couple.

She habitually clicked to see who else was logged on.  She saw Ben’s name.  Was he looking at the picture of them together and thinking… what might he be thinking?  Lizzie went back to the picture and selected the link to his profile from his tag.  It looked as though he caught up with his negligence of Facebook within the past ten minutes.  He was friends with ten new people… including Delany Stewart.  There wasn’t much else.  Nothing to show what he was thinking.  She looked over to his profile and saw the same succinct explanations for his place of employment and education. He hadn’t revealed his interests, activities, music, or films.  She went back to the picture of them together and saw he removed the tag identifying himself.

Lizzie’s heart sank.  It was so silly and so relatively minor.  But… why didn’t he want the Facebook world to see him partnered with her?  Did they look too much like a couple?  Did he not want anyone in particular to see that and get the wrong impression?  A girlfriend he already had?  Or… God forbid… a wife?

She shut her eyes and took in a deep breath as the door to Richard’s office opened.  Dr. Chiang hastened back to the desk to make another phone call.  Richard escorted Gerard to his coat and thanked him for his time.  Gerard Fulton nodded to Lizzie, muttering something else about the chair in Harriet’s room.  All the words blended together, but she managed to force a smile and keep her eyes dry enough to not make the wretchedness she felt more obvious.

“He was impressed with you, Lizzie,” Richard’s words were clear as he came over to her desk, landing a small piece of paper in front of her.

Lizzie looked down at the check for fifty thousand dollars.  She managed to place herself back to the hospital for a few seconds and met Richard’s eyes.  “That was generous of him.”

“And it’s just the first installment,” Richard winked. “Make sure you follow up about that chair business if you can.  Mt. Elm will appreciate it.”

“Yeah,” Lizzie said mechanically.

“If you want you want to type up the thank you letter, you can leave early this afternoon,” Richard offered.

“Thanks,” Lizzie smiled and made herself close the Internet browser and go back into Word.

“A success,” Dr. Chiang took Richard’s hand before he returned to his office and shut the door.  Lizzie looked away from her computer to Dr. Chiang lingering by the desk.  “Do you like working at the Fulton House?”

Lizzie was startled by the sudden question and didn’t know how to quiet her thoughts to register an honest answer.  Just a polite, simple, “Yes.”

“Maybe I’ll take a tour someday.  I’ve heard so much about it.”

Lizzie resisted the disbelief from registering on her face.  Lizzie knew she had reason to flatter Gerard Fulton about his family’s history… but why offer Lizzie the insincere comment about hearing so much about a museum people only discovered by accident or through tourist guides?  Lizzie took in a deep breath, annoyed with her peevish lack of patience.  She shouldn’t jeopardize her professional relationships because she was insulted by Ben Cottingham.  “I’d be happy to give you a tour sometime.”

“Enjoy your afternoon off,” Dr. Chiang left the office.

Lizzie watched the door close and reached for her phone.  She found Eric’s number and pressed send.

****

Lizzie gazed through the large windows at the view of the Charles.  She always thought the image of Boston from across the river was breathtaking, even at three in the morning when her breath had already been vigorously spent.  She wondered if they should have closed the blinds… not that anyone was looking across the river to see what was happening on the fifteenth floor.

She wanted to leave, even though she felt badly that Eric splurged on a hotel room when they could have easily gone back to either apartment.  It was a nice variation to their routine, but not enough to quiet her mind enough to allow sleep.  Not enough comfort to make her want to stay beside him.

He was sleeping.  The room was silent except for the faded echo of a car horn.  The view was… the evening was worth it to have that view of the city in the darkness of pre-dawn.  She couldn’t feel the stiffness of her ankle anymore.  It wasn’t a bad evening.  It wasn’t an awkward morning.  It just wasn’t… it wasn’t… it wasn’t what she wanted.  It wasn’t Ben.

She stared at the silver waters reflecting the street lamps and lights of the boats along the river.  She watched the boats, some in shadow.  Some were lit by a lantern.  She saw the ferry move across the river.  Then she saw him, standing at the edge of the water.  His feet were in the marshes.  She walked towards him, knowing she would get her feet wet.  She saw the russet hair and waited for him to turn around and look at her with the green eyes.  She reached out to touch his shoulder and when he turned around he laughed.  Nobody laughed at her jokes.  Not even Jack.  Jack leaned forward over his lunch tray and rolled his eyes at her lame punchline.  Sara smiled politely, but she could tell she wanted to roll her eyes at Ben.  Lizzie was annoyed.  Annoyed that Sara could determine what was funny at their table.  Then why was Ben laughing at her joke?  He was always nice to her.  Nice so she would convince Sara to give him a second look.  Convince her to let him take her to the prom.   Then he would give her a corsage of lilies.  Lilies.  Lilies were Lizzie’s flower.  Not Sara’s.

Lizzie opened her eyes.  The sun reflected off the blue river straight into her pupils.  She rolled away from the window and let the images of her dream collect before falling away from her memory.  Was it a memory?  Sitting across from Ben in the cafeteria as he laughed at a joke Sara didn’t think was funny.  To impress her so that she would convince Sara to go to the prom with him.  Or was she just wishing he was he trying to impress her?

She tried to hold onto the images of her dream as she turned onto her back and saw Eric’s smiling eyes.  “Good morning.”

“Morning,” she wished the sound of her voice didn’t break the spell of her dream.

“I have a surgery this morning,” he grinned.

“Okay,” she shut her eyes to try to bring back the Springs’ cafeteria.

“I’m off tonight.  How about dinner?’

She opened her lids to the attention of his dark eyes.  It was a genuine invitation.  Not a spontaneous drink.  Not the impulse to stay at a hotel.  Or maybe the hotel was part of it?  Had he been waiting to ask this question for a while and planned out the detail?  “Eric, I…”

He sat up and took her hand so she would do the same.  “What if we take a couple steps back and just go on a date?”

“I don’t…”

“We can still… we can still end up in the same place.  I just thought maybe we could make this a little more serious.”

“No,” she was surprised the answer came so bluntly from her lips.  She was too tired to control herself.

“I like being with you, Lizzie,” she watched him curl his dark hand around her pale fingers.

“I don’t want to date,” she couldn’t buffer herself.

“But don’t you want to… I mean you’re 33.  Don’t you want a family?”

She retracted her hand.  “That’s not what this was about, Eric.”

“It could be.”

“I’m not good enough for you,” she shut her eyes.  “I’m a bad… I would be a bad girlfriend.”

“Not if you let yourself … let’s just try it.”

“I’m sorry Eric.  I’m sorry if I led you on.  I… I…” she stopped the temptation to be completely honest with a look at his eyes.  He really liked her.  For a few seconds she let herself imagine the possibility.  She could be one of the doctors’ wives for whom Andrew wanted to cater.   “I’m flattered.  But I don’t… I think we should stop seeing one another.”

“Oh.”

“I really should get to work,” Lizzie left the bed clumsily and went quickly to the bathroom.

She took a shower and didn’t fuss too much when putting her clothes back on.  She wasn’t eager to impress anyone with her appearance at the hospital.  It was going to just be a day she had to get through.  She left the bathroom and saw Eric sitting in a chair by the window, looking at the Charles River.  He turned to her, the invitation still hopeful in his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Lizzie grabbed her bag and coat.  “I’m really sorry, Eric,” she said a final time and walked out the door.

Chapter Six

Lizzie saw Alec’s car parked on the street in front of the house.  She decided to leave her bag in the stair hall and settle on the couch without going upstairs.  It was well after noon, but she knew that might not matter with Meg and her on and off again boyfriend.  She was tired and all too happy to lose the heels she put back on her feet before leaving the South End.  She arranged the pillows to support her neck comfortably and found something on the television from which she could easily fade away as her lack of sleep enveloped her.

She was too tired to relax into her subconscious.  She numbly watched the romantic comedy on the television while her mind toyed with the idea of sitting up to organize the books Meg left on the coffee table.  Her eyes were heavy, making the images on the television blur.  She vaguely understood the storyline… college friends who separated over the years and then found each other as well as the unspoken attraction that hadn’t disappeared in the years of separation… or something like that.  She let her eyes close and saw a warm orange settle into view.  She felt herself falling backwards, but then opened her eyes to finish watching the movie.  It turned out the guy had a thing for her best friend all along.  Not the girl.  Lizzie didn’t really like the movie all that much.  She wanted the story to be different and decided to stop watching the television.  She got off the couch and went into the dining room, where her friends were standing around a table full of food.  They were laughing and talking.  Davis turned around and pulled Lizzie into the circle.  She saw Ben immediately across the table.  He smiled at her.  She didn’t want to look at him, annoyed by his cold reception at the funeral.  He offered her a glass of wine and said, “I’m sorry.”  The other people in the room seemed to fade away.  He took her hand and led her out of the room into the hallway.  Only it wasn’t her hallway.  It was a big old house… was she at work?  Was a tour about to come through?  They couldn’t be found talking.  Lizzie pulled his hand out of the hallway into the living room, where a different movie was on the television.  Meg was sitting on the couch with Alec asking Lizzie to get out of the way.  She was watching vampire films for research.  Lizzie sat herself in the chair and started watching, remembering that she was once in a vampire film and played a girl who was killed by a vampire.  She remembered that Ben was there with her, but when she looked up…

Lizzie felt a sudden jolt to her body and woke harshly to a rock song blaring on a car commercial.  “Hey sleepyhead,” Meg set a glass of water on the coffee table.

“Hey,” Lizzie sat herself up groggily.  Darkness settled into the room. “What time is it?”

“Five-thirty,” Meg picked a couple books off the table.  “When did you get home?”

“Noon,” Lizzie took up the glass that Meg left on the table.

“You’re still in your dress,” Meg smirked.

“Yeah… well…” Lizzie didn’t have the alacrity to offer a snappy reply.  “Where’s Alec?’

“He went home an hour ago,” Meg sat in the black chair by the fireplace.

“Oh,” Lizzie set down her glass.

“So the gala was a success?”

“It was,” Lizzie paused, knowing the detail for which Meg was waiting.  “There was a good turnout.”

“Any surgical interns?”

“He didn’t come to the gala,” Lizzie took a sip of her water.  “But he picked me up after I shut down the reception table.”

“You’ve been seeing him a lot lately.”

“I’m not in a relationship with Eric,” Lizzie said very purposefully.

“So … you don’t like him?”

“He’s attractive… I like him.  I like being with him… for a little while, at least.”

“Just a little while?”

“I don’t think he’s boyfriend material, Meg.”

“Yeah… but he likes you.”

Lizzie didn’t want to say what was really on her mind.  That she was still obsessing about her former high school classmate, who didn’t have any interest in talking to her whatsoever and only visited her dreams.  She couldn’t admit that … even to Meg.  Because even to Meg, it seemed foolish and deluded.  And a little too close to her preoccupation with Will.  It was easier to explain that she had no interest in Eric beyond a couple nights a week than any element of truth relative to her heart.

“I’m not going to stop seeing him… I guess…” Lizzie was starting to wonder if Eric was taking things more seriously than she was.  She had seen him more in the month since her fifteen minutes on the back deck with Mike.  It kept her out of trouble and occupied her thoughts.  But she didn’t want it to be real.

“Maybe you’ve got the right idea, Lizzie.  No attachment.  Just love the ones you know will never love you back.  That way you don’t tease yourself with hope for something you won’t get in return,” Meg picked up one of her books and pursed her lips.

“Alec?”

“Mm,” she nodded, still focused on the book.

“Why are you with him again?

“Because when it’s good, he makes me… I feel at ease with him.  We can talk about anything and everything.  I feel comfortable in my skin when I am with him.  He makes my skin feel real good…” Meg smiled to herself.  “But when I’m not in his company, the spell wears off and he’s…”

“Meg,” Lizzie didn’t know what to say.  She wasn’t qualified to give any relationship advice.  Especially when her moral barometer was closer to Alec’s than decency.

“I bet Eric made you feel good last night – even if it wasn’t about your heart,” Meg still stared at her book.

“He did,” Lizzie admitted quietly.

“Yeah,” Meg hesitated and set the book back on the table.  “You know it’s Valentine’s Day today.”

“I suppose it is,” Lizzie groaned and leaned back against the pillows.

“I forgot about that,” Meg sighed. Apparently, Alec had forgotten, too.

****

Lizzie had a Saturday off from the Fulton House and chose to make use of the milder March weather with a lengthy run.  She decided to train for another race.  A local 10K.  It wasn’t a marathon, but something with which to occupy her time… and thoughts.   Thoughts that tempted her after helping Nora address wedding invitations.  Tempted her to remember feelings to which she didn’t want to pay attention  – wanting someone to take to Nora’s wedding, that someone would look at her with as much appreciation for her company as her transfigured body, and the yearning to have someone beside her when she woke up in the morning.  She didn’t want to think about those things… especially when there were signs that Eric was interested in something more than a drink and his apartment.

She figured she would try a new route to challenge her muscles and provide enough distance to gauge her time for the 10K.  She took the train across the river so she could run the Cambridge side of the Charles.  She walked to the end of the Longfellow Bridge and started her run towards Harvard Square, losing her concentration to the beat of her music.

The song ended and changed to an 80’s song.  It reminded her of the reunion and took her out of her focus on the next benchmark.  Why?  Oh why… couldn’t she let it go?  It had been two months since she saw him at the funeral.  He wasn’t interested in talking to her.  Why was she so interested in talking to him?  Why?  What was there to Ben Cottingham beyond some thrilling gymnastics after dancing to 80’s songs for one night in November?  What was it about him that made him latch into her memory and ache for realization?

He was attractive… but not in an obvious way.  His russet hair and freckles weren’t more impressive than… well than Eric’s dark curls and chiseled jaw.  Eric was a runner.  Ben had strong shoulders.  Eric was a doctor.  Ben was an entrepreneur with technical genius.  Maybe he lacked the skill with people that he had with machines… but Lizzie thought his conversation was compelling to keep her talking.  For a couple hours, with the lubrication of much wine.  Eric liked… what did he like?  Other than her?  He didn’t go to museums or have interest in history.  He didn’t know that any part of Massachusetts existed outside of 128.  Eric knew her and was interested in her.  Ben only had an interest after Sara turned him away.  But no matter the point of observation, both were attentive to her physically… and neither were part of her emotionally.  Only one might want to change that.  But it was the other with whom she wanted to explore it.

Why didn’t she want Eric?  Why the hell did she want Ben?

She was just being stupid.  Eric was a real opportunity.  And Ben… well… she couldn’t really write him off as a failure.  She failed to talk to him, too.  Didn’t she?  Not that it would have mattered… not that it would have mattered if she ever spoke up to Will.  He never wanted her.  Ben didn’t want her.  But Lizzie was different when Will was in the picture.  Now she was … running up and down the Charles.  She still wasn’t at her ideal weight, but she was pretty close.  She looked good in a red dress and a black dress… and out of those dresses.

Lizzie felt the surge of endorphins as she saw a crowd of runners approach from the opposite direction.  She leapt off the paved path and started running along the damp grass.  She increased her speed and let the high empty her brain of all that stress.   She was ready to run all the way back to Newton.

She landed her foot and slid on a patch of mud.  Before she realized what was happening, she fell on the ground, with her right foot going in the opposite direction from the rest of her leg.  She looked up quickly, tears filling her eyes.  She felt stupid.  So stupid.  How many people saw her land on her ass?  She looked and saw that everyone was walking, running, or cycling in an opposite direction from a view of her.  She saw the cars pass on Memorial Drive and caught one driver looking at her.

The pain shot up her calf.  She needed to get herself up.  There was a bench a few feet away.  She managed to pull herself up with her arms and good leg and limp over to the bench.  She took out her earphones and shut her eyes, hoping that it would stop her from babbling like a baby.  Why hadn’t she brought her phone?  She was at least a mile from the train.  Probably two at this point.  She could hail a taxi… if one passed by on the street.  She didn’t think she could stand that long.  She didn’t bring any cash.  Just her Charlie card.

Her ankle really really hurt.  It was probably just a sprain.  She hoped.  She tried to lift it to get a better look, but started to cry again as it smarted more.  She set it down and took in a deep breath as a pair of walkers went by.  She hated to be helpless.  To look helpless.  To not be able to take care of herself.  She could do it.  She just didn’t know how…

“Elizabeth,” a voice came behind her and numbed her completely.

“Ben.”

“Are you okay?”

She was pretty sure her cheeks were already rosy from the exercise, but now they were flaming.  “I…” she tried to think of a way to argue that she would be fine, but the tears were still wet on her cheeks.  “I think I sprained my ankle.”

He sat in front of her and lifted up her muddy shoe.  How did he know which one to look at?  He unlaced her sneaker and removed her sock.  She felt his warm fingers against the throbbing joint.  “I don’t think it’s broken,” he looked up at her, revealing his gray green eyes she found so charming and unforgettable. “You would be howling right now if it were.”

“Good,” Lizzie said succinctly.  “What are you doing here?”

“I live a few blocks down the road,” he stood up slowly, still holding her sock and muddy sneaker.

“Oh,” Lizzie felt suddenly very embarrassed, taking her sock and putting it into the sneaker.  Would he think she decided to stalk him?  “I thought I’d go for a run along the river.”

“Yes,” he was looking at the river.  “Did you drive here?”

“No, I took the train,” Lizzie looked down and decided to forsake her pride.  “Can you – could you get me back to the train station?”

“I’ll give you a ride home,” he looked at her and smiled.  “Unless you want to go to the emergency room?”

Lizzie shook her head.  With her luck, she would end up having Eric examine her.  Maybe this was her karma for avoiding her running partner.  “You’re sure it’s not broken?”

“I’m sure,” Ben smiled.  “Do you mind sitting here while I get the car?”

“Yeah, of course,” Lizzie bit her lip to stop the ridiculous tears she felt like letting out.  She wasn’t sure if it was the pain, the embarrassment, or the torture of being in his company.

She watched him walk away and disappear somewhere across Memorial Drive.  She was happy to see him and excited that he wasn’t just going to disappear.  He was helping her… coming to her rescue… like some dopey fairy tale.  Lizzie got annoyed with her thinking and grounded herself.  Maybe it was a fortunate coincidence.  Maybe it was an opportunity… an opportunity for her to say something to him.

She watched the runners go by and avoid the muddy patch into which she so blindly slipped.  Her ankle still hurt.  She tried not to think of it as she rehearsed ways of entreating Ben to seeing her again.  Expressing her gratitude for his assistance and offering to buy him a drink – or dinner.  Or… what did he like to do anyway?

“Hey,” his voice called her back to the present.  “Let me give you a hand.”

Lizzie didn’t speak and allowed Ben to pull her off the bench.  He draped her left arm around him and guided her to his Prius, parked illegally on Memorial Drive.  Luckily it was a Saturday and not rush hour.  Even so, there were a lot of angry drivers irritated by his position.  Ben didn’t seem to mind and took his time easing her into the passenger seat.  Soon enough he was beside her and starting the ignition.

“Where to?” he met her eyes briefly before getting back into the traffic.

“Newton.  You can just cross the river and get on the Pike.  Get off at the hotel exit… and that will get you pretty close to my apartment.”

“That sounds easy enough.”

“Thanks,” Lizzie wasn’t able to segue into her invitation.

“Not at all,” Ben shook his head.  “I wasn’t going to leave you to hobble back to the T.”

“I’m lucky you happened to walk by.”

Ben took in a short breath.  “Pretty lucky.”

Lizzie didn’t understand why he hesitated like that.  Did he regret being her savior?  She felt her confidence sink deep into her stomach.

“So are you training for another marathon?” he asked casually, as if it were an automated response to picking up women with sprained ankles.

“I’m running a 10K at the end of next month.  Hopefully this will heal by then,” Lizzie sighed as they crossed the Charles

“It takes four to six weeks to heal completely.  You can get a brace and work back gradually,” he said matter of factly and turned his head.  “When’s the race?”

“Six weeks.”

“I’m sure you’ll do okay.  You’ve got strong muscle.”

Lizzie bit her lip.  Was that a compliment or a casual observation?  “I work at a hospital,” Lizzie laughed at herself.  “I know a doctor or two.”

“I know… just take it easy for the rest of the weekend,” he cleared his throat.  “Have you heard from Sara lately?  How’s she doing?”

Lizzie let out a sigh and with it her hopes for dinner.  “She seems okay,” Lizzie answered, not that she was an authority on how Sara was doing.  Pretty much anyone who was a Facebook friend could deduce what she could tell Ben.  “She had her baby.”

“Oh?” Ben clearly didn’t pay attention to Facebook.

“Jack and I talked about going to Connecticut to visit her,” Lizzie continued.  “But we haven’t really gotten around to it.”

“How’s Jack?  Have you been to see his band play recently?” he continued as though the questions were predetermined and the answers didn’t really matter.

“Jack’s all right.  I haven’t gone to see the band lately,” she didn’t want to think about the band… or the drummer.  She looked away to the sign indicating the necessary exit.

“Send him my regards,” Ben nodded as they took the exit.  “You’ll have to guide me from here.”

Lizzie was glad to give up the conversation for navigation of the half miles and turns to her house.  She didn’t see Meg’s car and figured Jackie wasn’t apt to come down and help her up the stairs.  Lizzie picked up her sneaker and looked at Ben.  What would it hurt to ask him?  Just to say thank you?

He looked straight ahead, through the windshield.  His thoughts seemed to be somewhere beyond Jefferson Park or the fact that she was sitting beside him.  Was he thinking back to his question about Sara?  Or a regret that he ignited a conversation with a one night stand he preferred to let alone and ignore?  Lizzie was sure she had his expression on herself when she left Jack’s house that January night.

“Elizabeth,” he began and let a deadening silence rest between them.  “I…”

“Thank you so much for driving me home.  I’m sorry if I got mud on your seat,” Lizzie said quickly and opened the door to get herself out.  Before she knew it, he was beside her to help her out of the seat.

“You need to keep the pressure off your ankle,” he lifted her into his arms.  He took the key from her hand and carried her up the stairs.  He settled her softly back on her good foot, slowly unwinding his arms from her side.  She was very close to him.  Almost touching her torso against his.  She could feel his breath against her exposed neck.  She wanted to kiss him.  She didn’t want to kiss him.  She couldn’t do that to herself and let him walk away.  He would walk away.  She saw that in his vacant gaze out the windshield.  She wanted to kiss him very very badly.  She felt herself slowly lean a little closer as the door to the bathroom opened at the end of the hall.

Lizzie stepped back and remembered the pain of her ankle.  Jackie came into view and quickly surveyed the situation.  “Hi Jackie,” Lizzie recovered herself.  “This is my friend, Ben.”

Jackie narrowed her dark eyes with semi interest.  “What happened to you?”

“I slipped when I went running and hurt my ankle.”

“Oh,” Jackie’s unpleasantness softened into sympathy.  “Let me get you some ice.”

“You should get off that foot, Elizabeth,” Ben urged as Jackie left for the kitchen.  His eyes looked at her… was it sadness or pity that reflected against their green tint?

“Yeah,” she locked his gaze for a few seconds, feeling another urge to leap at him for a kiss as Jackie returned with a bag of frozen vegetables.

“We don’t have peas,” she laughed.  “But I think broccoli will work.  We forgot to fill the ice trays.”

“Broccoli will work,” Ben winked and went down the stairs.

“Thanks, Ben,” Lizzie said softly and let Jackie guide her to the sofa.

Chapter Five

Lizzie sat in a pew with her cousin.  It was a long time since she sat inside St. Mary’s.  Probably not since another funeral… or wedding.  She was once a devout Catholic… but not since she left Coldbrook and went to college.  She scanned the crowd for Ben before the mass started, but was able to push him out of her mind when she resolved he wouldn’t be there.  That the important part of the morning was to support Sara and her family.

“Hey, so how was Christmas?” Jack whispered as the crowd moved slowly towards the back of the church to share condolences with Sara’s family.

“It was…” Lizzie looked up and saw Ben further down the line.  “It was fun.  It would have been more fun if you and Jen were there.  How was Jen’s family?”

“Less rowdy.”

“I bet you missed us,” Lizzie tried not to make her observation of Ben obvious.

“Of course I did.  I missed the food.  What did you make this year?”

“Something healthy.  I missed the guitar playing at the end of the night,” Lizzie laughed.  “Hey – when is the next gig, Jack?”

“We have some shows coming up in the spring.  I hope you’ll come to one or two.”

“I’ve been known to do such things on occasion,” Lizzie felt someone’s eyes on her.  She turned from Jack and met Ben’s gray green eyes.  He paused for a second and looked away.

“Hey – is that Ben Cottingham?”

Lizzie hoped the blush wasn’t too obvious in her cheeks.  Fortunately, it was cold and the indoor heat had already made her a little ruddy.   “It was.”

“Do you think he still has a thing for Sara?”

“Who knows?”

“Was he at the reunion?”

“Yes.”

“I’m surprised.  I mean… I always thought he would be the sort to leave this town and never look back.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I don’t know.  He was smart.  I bet he made a small fortune.”

“He went to MIT.  And he has his own computer company.”

“Really?” Jack looked curiously.

“At least that’s what he says on Facebook.”

“Oh yeah…” Jack nodded.

“Sara,” Lizzie said abruptly, realizing the line had already reached the greeting family.  “I am so sorry.”

“It was such a surprise,” Sara clung to her embrace.  “He was so alive at Christmas.”

Lizzie stepped back and offered a friendly smile.  “I will always have happy memories of him,” she kissed Sara’s cheek and looked to Jack.

“Jack,” Sara leaned into his embrace.

“Jen sends her sympathies,” Jack explained his wife’s absence as Lizzie moved through the line of Sara’s siblings and mother.  It was always weird trying to say the right thing, when nothing was ever right to say… especially when she was really impatient to go outside and see if Ben was still there.

She opened the door of the church and saw him standing on the bottom step.  “Hi Lizzie,” he said in a tone that dashed her hope to the pit of her stomach.  It wasn’t just sobriety that reflected the occasion.  It was the sobriety that proved the reason he hadn’t called her back.  The reason he didn’t say goodbye the morning after.

“Hi Ben,” she forced a small smile.

“Good to see you,” he didn’t meet her eyes as Jack followed through the door.

“Ben!” Jack nodded his greeting. “So there’s no cemetery because he’s cremated, right?”

“Yeah,” Lizzie nodded, still looking at Ben.  She recognized the contours of his muscle, even under his winter coat.  He had strong shoulders.

“Are we going back to the house?  Lizzie, what about you?”

“Yeah, for a little bit,” Lizzie didn’t move her eyes from Ben to look at Jack.

“I’ve got to head back to Boston.  Good to see you,” he repeated and disappeared into the mass of cars.  Lizzie heaved a great sigh, glad the sad occasion didn’t make her disappointment look obvious.

****

“I thought you worked on Saturdays,” Jack finished his plate from the buffet of casseroles and sandwiches.

“I took the day off,” Lizzie glanced over the crowd of heads in the living room, hoping to catch Sara’s eye.

“Don’t you get sick of giving the same tour every week?”

“I only do it twice a month,” Lizzie looked back at Jack.  “I like it.  I work with one of my best friends… and the house is kind of creepy at this time of year.”

“Ever see any ghosts?”

“I wouldn’t call them ghosts,” Lizzie softened her voice, uncertain if the topic of ghosts was appropriate at a funeral reception.  “Just some odd energy… if you believe that sort of thing.”

“Are you sure you aren’t drinking on the job, Lizzie?”

“I’m pretty sure,” Lizzie shook her head at him.  “Most of the time anyway.”

“One of these days I’ll come check it out.  Jen wants to see it.  She likes old houses.”

“Well, you live in one,” Lizzie took a bite from her plate as a book on the shelf by her side caught her eye.  “Oh my goodness!  Is that our yearbook?”

“I have a copy of that somewhere,” Jack said with half interest as Lizzie pulled it off the shelf.  She flipped through the first pages coated with signatures and sentimental messages and stopped at the aerial class photo.

“It’s difficult to tell who anyone is from that perspective.”

“It’s about getting everyone in the photo, Jack,” Lizzie looked for herself at the bottom of the crowd.  Jack was behind her, wearing his infamous leather jacket.  Sara was on top of Ben’s shoulders.   Lizzie couldn’t have sat on anyone’s shoulders.  It was long before marathon days.

Jack turned the pages with more interest than his initial response to her discovery.  He stopped at a candid of a science lab.  “Wow, Lizzie you look good.  I mean now.  I know this is probably going to be tacky – because I’m your cousin… and a bit of an idiot.  But, geez, I think half these girls would kill to improve so much since high school the way you did.”

“Thanks, I guess,” Lizzie was used to the awkward uncertain compliments.

“But I did think you were pretty then, too.”

Lizzie couldn’t restrain the laugh.  “It’s okay, cuz.  I understand what you are trying to say.”

“And there’s Sara and Ben,” Jack looked at the opposite page.  “He left pretty fast today.  Surprised he didn’t stop in for a little ambrosia.”

“He’s kind of a health freak.”

“Was that on his Facebook, too?”

Lizzie looked up at Jack.  “No, something he said at the reunion.”

“I saw him checking you out, Lizzie.  I think you scared him away.”

“Stop,” Lizzie looked down at the photo of him with Sara.  She recognized the same muscular contours she discovered that night.  How was she so oblivious 15 years ago?

“I forgot I left that here,” Sara’s voice caused Lizzie to look back up.  “I brought it with me during the reunion so I could look people up if I met someone I couldn’t remember.”

Lizzie offered a moderate smile.  “How are you doing?”

“I just want to have this baby,” Sara took the seat that Jack offered.  “I don’t feel like I can grieve until I give birth.” Sara took the book out of Lizzie’s relaxed palms.  “Oh my God!  Look at the hair in this picture.  Why did we ever think spiral perms were a good idea?  Ben looks the same.  Well his hair isn’t as long.  But he still looks 25. Ben didn’t come back, did he?”

“No, he said he had to go back to Boston,” Jack offered.

“It was nice of him to come,” Sara sighed and looked some more at the yearbook.  “Oh, look at you, Jack.  Whatever happened to your leather jacket?”

“I still have it,” he smiled proudly.

“No way,” Sara gleamed.  “Does Jen let you wear it?”

“I’m not that skinny, Sara,” he shook his head.  “Not anymore.”

“You wore that thing to the prom,” Sara laughed and skipped ahead a couple pages.  “Did you see those pictures?   See, look, there you are in your leather jacket.”

Jack took the book back and looked at the picture.  “You look stylin in your mermaid dress, Sara,” he retorted.  “What did you wear, Lizzie?”

“I didn’t go to the prom,” she shook her head.

“She protested, remember?” Sara rolled her eyes.

“I just didn’t have someone special to take me,” Lizzie sighed.  She actually didn’t miss having that memory.  Especially when she spent half of her working day planning parties like the prom to raise money for health care.

“Really?  I could have sworn you were in my limo,” Jack gave the book back to Sara.

“No, that was Melissa Benson,” Sara said softly.

“Oh,” Jack nodded and then remembered.  “Oh yeah…”

“She went as Kyle Granger’s date, don’t you remember?”

“Why was I in a limo with Kyle Granger?”

“I don’t know,” Sara shrugged.  “Probably because the Bensons were your neighbors.”

“Oh…  yeah.  He was dating Melissa … but she was a year older than us, wasn’t she?”

“Yeah,” Lizzie sighed, wondering if she should bring up Melissa’s fate at a funeral.  It didn’t seem appropriate, when Melissa never had one.

“They never found a body,” Sara said what Lizzie wouldn’t.  “I can’t imagine facing that as a parent.”

“Or as a teenager,” Lizzie muttered.   She remembered a conversation she overheard when someone described Melissa as a thinner version of Elizabeth Watson.  Lizzie wasn’t ever sure if that was what the person actually said, but it did creep her out sixteen years ago.

“She was in my astronomy class,” Jack took a cracker from Lizzie’s plate.  “You were, too, Lizzie.  Do you remember her?”

“She was the best in that class,” Lizzie answered absently.  “Sort of a teacher’s pet.”

“So were you,” Jack tried to smile.

“Hey,” Sara sat up quickly.  “She’s kicking.”

Lizzie turned to look at Sara with a genuine smile.  Sara grabbed Lizzie’s hand and placed it on her stomach.  Lizzie felt the foot press against her palm.  “Wow,” she beamed.

“I’ve decided to name her Josie – short for Josephine.  After Dad,” Sara sighed.

“He’d like that,” Lizzie remembered why they were there in that room, in Sara’s company.  She removed the yearbook from Sara’s lap and put it aside, deciding the visits to Springs nostalgia were no longer necessary.

****

“Thanks, Lizzie,” Jen smiled as she came back into the living room.

“We read two books,” Lizzie picked up the beer she left on the side table when she brought three year old Isabel up to bed.

“I bet she wanted two more,” Jen grinned.

Lizzie sat uneasily on the edge of the sofa as Jen shifted back to the conversation between Jack and his bandmates.  Lizzie was glad she accepted their offer for dinner, but felt awkward in the group of Jack’s friends.  Especially when the drummer, Mike, kept looking at her.  She knew it was because she went with him to his car one night after a gig.  Now he had a girlfriend.

“Hey Lizzie, didn’t a friend of yours play at a place in Central Square?” Jack brought her focus back to the conversation.

“Yeah,” she muttered not sure how Will still qualified as her friend.

“Maybe his band could play with ours.”

“You’re not really going to start doing gigs in Cambridge,” Jen shook her head with a glance at the bass player’s wife.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s a lot of work and a lot more time you won’t be here,” Jen explained lightly, but Lizzie knew her intention was not very light-hearted.  Lizzie took the final swallow of beer and decided to leave the room to get another.

Instead of returning to her uncomfortable seat, she went through the dining room onto the back deck.  The January air was cool, but clean.  There was a half foot of snow blanketing their backyard, chopped up with children’s footprints.  The air was quiet, the eerie calm of Coldbrook that always startled her at first, but eventually calmed her.

“Hey,” Mike slid the door shut.

“Hey,” Lizzie was conscious of her smile.  She wasn’t going to try to be inviting.  Not that he wasn’t attractive.  He was.  She always thought so.  Even in high school.  But she was wary of musicians.  And… she had to remind herself… he had a girlfriend.

“Couples,” he leaned on the railing beside her.

“I’m sure Amy would agree with Jen,” Lizzie put the name out to remind him.

“She’s not here,” there was a knowing look as he took a sip of beer.

Lizzie turned away to look at the snowy backyard.  “Hey, didn’t you used to hang out with Oliver Cottingham?” Lizzie asked suddenly as the memory entered her mind.

“Kinda,” Mike shrugged with disinterest.  “Why?”

“His brother was at the funeral today.”

“Yeah, he was part of your little group.  I remember that.  It was because of Ben that I found out about Jack’s band,” Mike turned his lean around, bringing himself closer to Lizzie’s side.  She appreciated the warmth, but not the intimacy.

“Do you keep in touch with him?”

“With Oliver?” he laughed over another swallow.  “Naw, he moved to California or something.  We just hung out on occasion.  Once the band started, we didn’t have much in common.  It’s nice Ben showed up.  He had a thing for your friend, didn’t he?”

“Yeah,” Lizzie’s heart sank.  Why was she having a conversation about the Cottinghams?  Not like Mike the drummer would know anything about Ben now.  Or why he had to leave to go back to Boston.  Or why he would actually want to talk to Lizzie after their night together.

Mike wanted to talk to her.  Maybe not talk.  She felt his hand touch her lower back.  He wasn’t put off by the awkwardness of seeing her again after a hasty fuck in the back seat of his Mazda.  She didn’t want to think about Ben anymore.  She didn’t want to think about stupid guitar players who married someone else.  She peered through the glass doors into the dark dining room.  The living room wasn’t visible from that angle.  She looked back at Mike and decided to forget about Amy.  Screw it.  She let him kiss her and slide his hand over her breast.  She grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the back wall of the house.  She kept kissing him as she reached for the button of his jeans.  He reached under her skirt and pulled her tights towards her knees.

She drank the rest of her beer after he went back in the house.  She took in the cold air, knowing its reaction against her skin would qualify the blood in her cheeks.  She shut her eyes and let the sting of guilt creep in as her pulse returned to normal.  She preferred the guilt hovering in her brain over the disappointment that Ben walked away and didn’t want to see her.

 

 

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