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.
“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.
“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.
“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?”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.