Ready for Love

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Chapter 1

“Are you ever going to say anything?”

Her familiar voice electrified Luke, startling him as he squatted in the dark beside her parents’ porch.

The peal of laughter that followed her question reminded him of the happiest time in his life, when she’d laughed at all his corny jokes, before she’d gone away to college and met someone she liked better.

“Luke?”

He stood slowly, not sure if he was more relieved or mortified to have been caught watching her. “How long have you known?”

“Since the first time you came last summer.”

Okay, mortified. Definitely mortified. Luke released an unsteady laugh. “And here I thought I was being so sly.”

“As if I could ever forget the sound of your boat scraping against the beach. I used to listen for it every night.”

The reminder of those unforgettable summer nights made his heart race. When he’d heard through the island grapevine that she’d arrived on a ferry earlier in the day, he’d told himself to stay home, to leave her alone. But knowing she was here, knowing she was just across the pond… Like the summer before, he’d been unable to stay away.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You must think I’m some sort of creep. I swear I’m not. It’s just when I heard about what happened… to your family… I had to come. To make sure you were okay. Well, of course you weren’t okay…” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Jesus, I’m screwing this all up.”

She smiled, and he was relieved to see it reach her expressive eyes the way it used to, back when she smiled at him every day. He took it as a sign that she’d recovered, somewhat—as much as anyone ever could—since he last “visited” her a year ago.

“Do you want to come up?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t want to bother you or your parents—”

“They’re off-island for a few weeks. Family reunion in Wisconsin.”

“You didn’t want to go?”

She wrinkled her nose. “I’d rather be here in the summer than anywhere else.”

Somehow he worked up the fortitude to climb the five steps to the porch, his heart pounding so hard he wondered if it would burst through his chest. Keeping his hands in his pockets so she wouldn’t see them tremble, he was unable to remember the last time he’d been so nervous. Speaking with the love of his life for the first time in seventeen years would make any man nervous, he supposed. “You always did love it here.”

“It’s my favorite place in the world.”

“I wondered if you were going to come this year.”

Her smile faded a bit. “I had some stuff I had to take care of before I could come out to the island.” She gestured to the rocker next to hers. “Want to sit?”

“Um, sure. I guess. For a minute.” Under the glow of the porch light, he took a furtive glance at her. He was relieved to see that she did, in fact, look a thousand times better than she had a year ago, just a few months after the accident. “Who’s your friend?” he asked, referring to the gorgeous golden retriever who lay between their two rockers. The dog had taken a long measuring look at Luke as he approached the porch but had remained silent.

“This is Buddy.” She reached down to scratch his ears, and even as he clearly enjoyed the attention, the dog never took his solemn eyes off Luke. “We gave him to the kids the Christmas before… the accident… He loved them both, but he and my son Max had a very special bond. I thought poor Buddy would die himself of a broken heart after what happened. He whimpered and cried for months.”

Luke’s heart ached at the pain in her voice and at the image she painted of the devastated dog. “He wasn’t with you last summer.”

“I was still recovering from my own injuries, and we worried I’d trip over him or he’d knock me over without meaning to. He stayed with our neighbors at home for a few months. I’m so glad to have him back with me now. The poor guy has been through a lot.”

So have you, Luke thought but chose not to say. As if she needed the reminder.

“I owe you the world’s biggest apology,” she said, startling him.

“I was the one stalking you. How do you owe me an apology?”

“You were checking on me. Big difference.” She curled her legs up under her and turned to him. “The apology I owe you is for seventeen years ago.”

“Oh. That.”

“Yeah. That.”

“Sydney—”

“Luke—”

He cleared his throat and folded his hands tight in his lap. This was far more excruciating than he’d ever imagined it would be—and he’d imagined it plenty of times. Thousands of times, to be honest. What he might say. What she might say. If either of them would have anything at all to say. “Sorry,” he said. “Go ahead.”

“What I did to you was unconscionable. I know it’s no consolation, but I thought of you so many times. I wanted to write to you or call you or something, but what does one say in that situation? ‘I’m really sorry I left for the school year and never came back?’ Would that have made anything better?”

“It helps to know you thought of me.”

“Oh God, Luke, how could I not think of you? Those summers… The time we spent together… Other than when my kids were born, it was the most magical time of my entire life.”

No, he decided, this was far more excruciating than anything he’d ever imagined. “If that’s how you felt, then why—”

“I was an idiot.”

Shocked by her bluntness, he gave up any pretense of trying not to stare at her. The thick strawberry blonde hair he’d loved running his fingers through was shorter than it used to be, but the summer freckles that had popped up on her nose after long days in the sun were still there. The bright blue eyes that had been so tragically sad last summer seemed to have recovered some of their sparkle.

“I had this idea, you know, of how my life should be. Who my husband should be. What he would do for a living. Where we would live. I was a snobbish fool.”

“I suppose the boy you’d left behind on the island, who worked at a marina and never made it to college, didn’t quite fit the bill.” Luke tried like hell to keep the bitterness out of his tone, but after so many years of suspecting what had driven her away, hearing confirmation of what he’d most feared was hardly a balm on the still-open wound.

“I know there’s nothing I can say to change what happened all those years ago, but I want you to know I regretted the way I treated you. I always regretted it.”

Hearing that didn’t help as much as he’d thought it would.

She looked down at her hands. “Sometimes I wonder if what happened… to me… was payback…”

“Don’t say that. No one deserves what happened to you.”

“Karma can be such an awful bitch,” she said ruefully. “Maybe I asked for too much, you know?”

“I can’t believe in a God or any higher power who’d take the lives of innocent children to pay their mother back for being cavalier with the feelings of an old boyfriend.”

Sydney winced. “Cavalier. Ouch.”

“What would you call it?”

“Horrible. I was horrible to you.” She leaned her head back on the rocker and studied him. “You haven’t changed at all. I’d know you anywhere.”

“Your hair is shorter, but otherwise, you look exactly the same, too.”

“Tell me you found someone else, got married, had a boatload of kids. Tell me it all worked out well for you.”

“No wife, no kids, but a good life. A satisfying life.”

“I ruined the wife and kids thing for you, didn’t I?”

He fought to maintain a neutral expression, to not let her see the pain. “Don’t give yourself too much credit, Donovan. You weren’t all that important.”

Her laughter danced through the night, making his heart flutter. “Whatever you say, tough guy.”

He never had been able to fool her. “Could I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Your husband…?”

“Seth.”

“You were happy with him?”

“That’s a very complicated question.”

Luke expelled a tortured moan. “Come on. Tell me it was worth it—at least for one of us.”

They sat in uncomfortable silence for a long time. “Seth was a good man, a wonderful father, a devoted husband and I loved him.”

“But?”

She looked over at him, their eyes connecting with a powerful sense of awareness that left him breathless. “What I felt for him… It was different than what I felt for you.”

He wanted to ask her what she meant by that. How was it different? Different better? Different more? Different less? But he couldn’t seem to form any of those questions, so he had to settle for what she’d given him.

“I shouldn’t be admitting these things, especially to you. See what I mean about karma?”

Luke shook his head. “The universe doesn’t work that way. It just doesn’t.”

“Some days, it’s hard to believe I didn’t have it coming. I wasn’t always a good person.”

“You can’t honestly believe that. A drunk driver killed your family, not you.”

“That’s what my counselor has been trying to get me to believe for fifteen months now.”

“Getting any closer?”

“Good days, bad days.”

“I hope seeing me won’t make this a bad day.”

“Seeing you is wonderful. I’ve wished for years to have the opportunity to tell you how sorry I was to have left without a word. Sometimes when we’d come for a summer visit with my parents, I’d think about going down to McCarthy’s to see you.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“That would’ve been so unfair to you, for me to show up out of the blue like that after all that time just so I could make myself feel better about being a shit to you.”

“I would’ve liked to have seen you, to have met your kids. More than anything, I’ve missed my friend Sydney. The best friend I ever had.”

Her eyes sparkled with tears. “I’m so sorry, Luke,” she whispered. “I’m so very, very sorry. Can you ever forgive me?”

“I forgave you years ago. You were nineteen. You didn’t owe me anything.”

She reached over and rested her hand on top of his. “I owed you so much more than what you got from me after four magical summers together.”

The brush of her skin against his brought back a flood of sweet memories, the sweetest of all memories. He turned his hand so hers was caught between both of his, and the emotion hit him so hard it took his breath away. Suddenly, it became urgent that he leave before he said or did something he’d regret. “It was good to see you, Syd.”

“Thanks for checking on me.”

Luke grimaced. “Checking is a much nicer word than stalking.”

She squeezed his hand. “It touched me last summer to know you were here, that you cared, despite the way we left things. I hope you understand I wasn’t ready yet…”

“Please. Of course I understand.”

“Will you come back again?”

Startled by the question, Luke said, “Do you want me to?”

“I missed my friend Luke. I never stopped missing him.”

Overwhelmed by her, he couldn’t find the words.

“I can see I’ve caught you off guard. I’ve been doing that to people a lot lately. Ever since the accident, I don’t see much reason to hold back. Life is short. What’s the point of hedging?”

“No point, I guess.”

“I don’t mean to shock you.”

“You haven’t shocked me so much as given me a lot to think about.”

“Do you accept my apology?”

He nodded. “Clean slate.”

“That’s far more than I deserve.”

“The slate is clean, remember?”

She smiled at him the way she used to when she still loved him, and Luke swore his heart stopped for an instant.

He forced himself to release her hand, to get up, to walk down the stairs, to make his escape while he still could. He’d made it to the lawn on the way to the beach when she called out to him.

“Come back, Luke. Please come back again.”

Luke waved to show he’d heard her and continued toward the shore on what used to be his well-worn path between her yard and the beach. His old rowboat, the same boat he’d had way back when, waited for him to make the trek across the salt pond to the same small house he’d once shared with his mother. Her illness had kept him tied to the island when Sydney and his other friends were leaving for college.

He’d never regretted giving those important years to the woman who had raised him on her own, but he couldn’t help but wonder what might’ve been different for him—and for Sydney—if he’d been able to accept the scholarship he’d been offered that would’ve made him a marine biologist. Would that profession have been good enough for Sydney? The Sydney she’d been back then?

Probably not. She’d married a banker. A guy who studied algae and pond scum probably wouldn’t have made the cut. Either way, it didn’t do any good to speculate now. What difference did it make? She’d made her decision a long time ago, and he’d had no choice but to accept it.

Except, as he rowed slowly across the vast pond, guided by the light of the moon and stars, he was filled with an emotion he hadn’t experienced in so long he’d almost forgotten what it felt like: hope. She’d never forgotten him. She’d thought of him, missed him, regretted their parting. God, what did that mean?

She was no longer married. Her husband and children had been gone for more than a year. He could see just by looking at her that she was doing much better accepting the awful hand life had dealt her than last summer when the pain of her loss was still so fresh and new.

“Ugh,” he said out loud as he rowed. “Don’t go there, man. It was over and done with years ago. Leave the past where it belongs.”

But even as he told himself there was no point, that pesky burst of hope refused to be ignored.

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ISBN
E-Book: 978-0983475453
Print: 978-1942295181