I Want to Hold Your Hand

I Want to Hold Your Hand

Book 2 in the Green Mountain Series

Hannah & Nolan

“Now this is how contemporary romance is done. Marie Force has gifted us with an incredibly beautiful story of love, loss and finding the courage to love again…This book is one of the best books I’ve ever read and I invite all readers to experience this incredible story of courage, family and most of all, love.”—Reviewed by Elizabeth for Cocktails and Books

 

“I can’t say how much this story touched me and how much I thoroughly and completely enjoyed it. I’ve always enjoyed reading Marie Force but some how missed this series. This is the second book in it and I immediately went looking for the first. Yes, it’s that good.”—5 stars. Reviewer Top Pick from Night Owl Reviews.

 

“Contemporary powerhouse Force sensitively introduces love to a war widow in the second Green Mountain contemporary (after All You Need Is Love)…. When Nolan finally sees that Hannah is opening up to the idea of new relationships, he fights for her, despite not believing he is good enough for her. Hannah and Nolan’s story starts with serious, sad issues, and their chemistry and relationship are genuine and passionate enough to pull them through.”—Publisher’s Weekly review of I Want To Hold Your Hand

 

“This is a wonderful story of loss and renewal and I would recommend to anyone who likes contemporary romance.”4 star review by Ramblings from a Chaotic Mind “I Want To Hold Your Hand is an emotional contemporary romance that fans will definitely want to read time and time again! Force has created something special with her Green Mountain series and the Abbott family are three-dimensional characters that walk right off the pages and into your heart!”—Review from Tracy Marsac at ReadertoReader.com.

For the Abbott siblings, the Green Mountain state has always been an idyllic place to call home. But it isn’t until they open themselves up to love that they’ll truly discover how fulfilling life can be.

Almost seven years after losing her husband in Iraq, Hannah Abbott Guthrie isn’t sure she’s ready—or able—to move on, but the attentions of a lifelong friend are making her think about it for the first time. The memory of the sweet kiss she shared with Nolan Roberts hasn’t strayed far from her thoughts, but she also fears that pursuing something with him would mean betraying her husband’s memory. Nolan has loved Hannah for years, but he’d been giving her the space she needed to heal from her devastating loss. Now, when an opportunity arises to show her how he feels, Nolan can’t resist, but he knows earning her love will take more than a kiss. Somehow he has to prove to Hannah that finding love twice in a lifetime is possible—and well worth risking her heart.

Read the short story that appears at the end of the print edition of I Want To Hold Your Hand titled A Hard Day’s Night.

Join the I Want To Hold Your Hand Facebook Readers Group.

ISBN
eBook: 978-1101637753
Print: 978-0425266779


Read the Green Mountain and Butler, Vermont Series in order


Chapter 1 

A new boy moved to town over the summer. His name is Caleb Guthrie. Hunter and Will like him, but I haven’t decided yet. —From the diary of Hannah Abbott, age twelve

Hannah Abbott Guthrie looked forward to the second Thursday of every month, when she met her high school friends in St. Johnsbury for lunch and an afternoon at their favorite spa. The tradition began after Hannah lost her husband, Caleb, in Iraq almost seven years ago. She’d continued to meet the girls every week long after the first awful wave of grief passed into the new reality of life without Caleb.

Like her family, her friends had been there for her one thousand percent, and Hannah loved her “escape from it all” days passionately. This time, she was even considering the possibility of taking her friend Becky up on the standing invite to spend the night in St. Johnsbury so she wouldn’t have to drive home after the relaxing afternoon.

Her brother Hunter had volunteered to come by when he got back to town to check on Caleb’s old dog, Homer, so he wouldn’t have to spend the whole day and night alone. Even with Homer covered, she was playing the invitation by ear. Since Caleb died, she had a lot of trouble sleeping, and if she was going to be up at all hours, she preferred to rattle around in the privacy of her own home.

Hannah picked up the overnight bag she’d packed just in case she decided to stay, gave Homer a snuggle and let him know Uncle Hunter would be by to see him later. She locked the door to the huge Victorian she’d inherited from Caleb. The house was far too big for one person, but Caleb had loved the house that had come from his grandmother, and Hannah would never sell it.

She unlocked her aging SUV and put her bag into the back before sliding into the driver’s seat. The day was chilly but sunny, an early spring day in northern Vermont, where winter hung around far longer than it did just a few hours south. In deference to the lingering winter, Hannah had chosen to wear a heavy coat rather than the new spring jacket she was ready to break out any day now.

With the key in the ignition, she turned it and got a clicking sound that didn’t bode well for going anywhere. “Come on,” she whispered. “Not today. Do this tomorrow when I’ve got nowhere to be.” She turned the key again and got the same click, click, click noise that she recognized as a dead battery. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

She leaned her head on the steering wheel as she tried to remember where everyone was today. Her dad and Hunter had gone to a business conference in Montpelier. Will was in New York helping his girlfriend, Cameron, pack up her apartment for her move to Vermont. Colton was up on the mountain at the family sugaring facility, Wade knew as much about cars as she did, Lucas and Landon were working a twenty-four-hour shift at the volunteer fire department and Max was at school in Burlington.

Her sisters, Ella and Charley, were as useful in this situation as Hannah and Wade. Her mom had taken Hannah’s grandfather for his annual physical this morning. That left one person she could call and, as luck would have it, he was the last person she wanted to call.

“If I call Nolan he’s going to get all hopeful, and I can’t do that to him,” she said, reasoning with herself and the cold air. It had been enough that recently she’d danced with him at the Grange and then let him drive her home. That was more than she’d done with any man in all the years since Caleb died.

But Nolan wasn’t just any man. He’d been less than circumspect about his feelings for her, never missing a chance to inquire about her to one of her family members—all of whom loved relaying Nolan’s thoughtful sentiments to her at every possible opportunity.

“You’re being foolish. You can either call Nolan and continue with your plans or miss the day with the girls. Those are your choices.” The one thing she didn’t feel foolish about, after living alone for close to seven years, was talking to herself. If anyone knew how often she had full conversations with herself, they’d probably have her committed.

She reached for the cell phone she kept in the car for emergencies and made the call, holding her breath while she waited for him to answer the phone at the station he ran in town.

“Nolan’s.”

At the sound of his deep voice a flutter of nerves filled her belly.

“Hello?”

“Oh sorry. Hey, Nolan, it’s Hannah.”

“Hannah.” With the single word came hope, surprise and hesitation. That he managed to convey so much by only saying her name was one of the many reasons she’d kept her distance from him. His feelings for her were a badly kept secret, and being around him made her nervous. She’d known him all her life, so the nerves were stupid, really, but she had them every time she laid eyes on the man. “What’s going on?”

“Well, my car won’t start, and I’ve got somewhere to be for once.”

“What’s it doing?”

“Clicking.”

“Sounds like the battery. I’ll be right there.”

“Oh um, do you have time?”

“Of course I do,” he said as if that was the stupidest question he’d ever heard. “That’s my job. I’ll be there in a few.”

“Thanks, Nolan.” She put the phone in her purse and waited, feeling anxious and unsettled. He had that effect on her, and he wasn’t even here yet. In the last six weeks, she’d tried not to think about the night she’d danced with him and then let him drive her home. She’d tried not to think about how she’d let him kiss her good night, or how much she’d really, really liked kissing him.

Her fingers found their way to her lips as she relived the moment on her front porch. He’d insisted on walking her to the door. “I had a good time tonight,” he’d said. “Thanks for dancing with me.”

“It was a terrible chore.” She hoped her wittiness hid the nerves that were rampaging through her.

“I’m sure it was,” he said with a good-natured laugh. “I’m known for my two left feet.”

“You’re a smooth dancer.”

“Am I?” he asked, sounding surprised.

“Very.”

“Huh. I always thought I kind of sucked at it.”

“You don’t.”

The words had hung in the air between them, which had gone heavy with expectation.

“Hannah . . .” His fingers on her face were soft despite the hard work he did with his hands every day.

She’d been rendered breathless and speechless by the yearning she’d seen on his handsome face, which had been illuminated by the porch light. And then his lips were on hers, gentle and undemanding but no less earth-shattering than a much more passionate kiss would’ve been. Hannah had ruined it by pulling back from him when she didn’t even want to. Why she’d done that was a question she still couldn’t answer six weeks later.

He’d called her the next day, but coward that she was, she’d let the call go to voicemail and hadn’t seen or spoken to him again—until today. Although, she’d listened to his sweet message over and over again until she knew the words by heart.

Oh hey, Hannah, it’s me, Nolan. Um, I, ah, wanted to say I had a nice time last night. There’s a new Mexican place in Stowe that I’ve been wanting to check out. I remember you love Mexican food, so if you’d like to go sometime, you have my number. Call me, okay?

She hadn’t returned the call or told anyone about the kiss. Not her mother, her sisters or especially her nosy brothers and father, who would’ve made way too much out of what had been a rather simple kiss. Except it hadn’t been simple at all. It was the first kiss she’d received since being widowed, and she couldn’t escape the feeling that she’d somehow betrayed Caleb’s memory.

Of course she knew that was ridiculous. Caleb would be furious at her for moldering away in the home they had loved, still alone after all these years. Her husband was a get-things-done kind of guy who hadn’t stood around waiting for life to find him. He’d gone after his dreams with gusto and passion, including his desire to serve his country.

If he came back to life for one day and found her stuck in the same place she’d been for almost seven years, he’d kick her ass from one end of Vermont to the other. Hannah knew she had to own the guilt she felt over kissing Nolan and not pass it off as a betrayal of Caleb’s memory. She knew without any shadow of a doubt that her husband had loved her as much as it was possible for a man to love a woman, and he’d want nothing but the very best for her.

No, the guilt belonged to her alone, and the least she could do was own it. Kissing Nolan had absolutely nothing to do with Caleb. Heck, he would wholeheartedly approve of her seeing Nolan, a man he had respected and considered a close friend. At least she hoped he would. She had no way to know for sure.

So what was the hang-up? Hannah wished she knew, but she kept coming back to the same excuse time and time again. She wasn’t ready to move on with another man, and she didn’t see any point to leading Nolan on when she wasn’t ready for the things he wanted from her.

A knock on the window startled Hannah so badly she jumped. With trembling hands, she opened the door.

“Sorry to scare you. Thought you heard the truck.”

Hannah couldn’t believe she’d been so lost in thought about all the reasons why she couldn’t have a relationship with this perfectly nice—and totally sexy—man that she hadn’t heard a thing. How had she failed to miss the arrival of the huge tow truck that was now parked at her curb? She got out of the car. “I was . . . um . . .”

“A million miles away?” he asked with an adorable grin that showcased the deep dimple on the left side of his face. His dark hair was infused with streaks of silver that made him look a bit older than his thirty-five years. But it was his intense brown eyes and the way they seemed to take a full inventory of her features every time she was in close proximity to him that undid her like they always did.

She felt stripped naked of all her defenses when he looked at her the way he was right now. Hannah cleared her throat. “I guess I was.”

“A lot on your mind?”

Desperate for something to do with her hands, she jammed them into her coat pockets. “No more than usual.”

He stared at her for a long moment, and just as she was about to remind him that he was here to work on her car and not set her on fire with the raw and needy desire she saw in his eyes, he said, “I tried to call you.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry if I was out of line that night. I’ve gone over it and over it, and I can’t believe I took such advantage of the first opportunity you’ve given me—”

“Nolan! Stop. Don’t say that. You didn’t take advantage of me. I can’t stand that you think you did.” Even though the last thing she wanted was to have this awkward conversation, she couldn’t let him think he’d done something wrong when he hadn’t. “You didn’t.”

He shook his head, dismissing her words. “I did take advantage. I’ve waited so long for you, Hannah. You have no idea how long. And the first chance I get, I couldn’t leave well enough alone.”

Shocked and further unsettled by how disgusted with himself he sounded, she had no idea what to say. How long had he waited? More than seven years? If so, that was news to her. Drawn to him despite her huge desire not to be, she laid a hand on his arm.

He looked down at her hand and then up at her eyes.

“You didn’t do anything wrong. It was me. I shouldn’t have pulled away from you the way I did because I didn’t want to stop kissing you. I don’t know why I pulled away when that was the last thing I wanted to do.”

Nolan stood up a little straighter. “Hannah . . .”

“I’m very confused.”

“Over what?”

“How I can want to kiss you one minute but still feel like I’m not ready for any of this in the next minute? I’m not sure what that means.”

He took a deep breath, as if he was trying to maintain control. “Maybe we could figure that out together.”

She ventured a look up at him, and her heart did a funny tap dance in her chest that left her breathless. This was not good. This was not at all what she had planned for today. “How do you mean?”

“Spend some time with me. We can do anything you want. No pressure, no kissing, no nothing unless you want it. I’d be completely happy if I got to hold your hand, Hannah.”

Unnerved by his urgently spoken words and the kindness behind them, she licked her lips and tried not to notice the way he zeroed in on the movement of her tongue. “Why me?”

“Hell if I know,” he said with a gruff laugh, “but I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t you.”

“Wait, so you’re saying—”

“Forget I said that. The past doesn’t matter. All we have is right now, and I want to be with you, even if we do nothing more than have a meal together every now and then. Would that be possible?”

“I . . . Um, my car. I have somewhere to be.”

His lips flattened with displeasure that she regretted causing, but she wasn’t able to answer his question. Not without some time to think about how she felt. She didn’t have a spontaneous bone in her body. Not anymore. Not since Caleb died and took her youth and vitality and hopes and dreams with him.

“Pop the hood.”

The brusque, businesslike tone was in sharp contrast to the pleading edge his voice had taken on when he asked her to spend time with him.

Hannah got back in the car and did as he asked, her fingers slipping off the hood latch before she was able to get it open. She left the driver’s side door propped open so she could hear him if he needed her to do anything else.

Nolan lifted the hood, which gave her a moment’s reprieve from his intense gaze to collect her thoughts. He wanted to spend time with her. He had no intention of pressuring her for things she wasn’t ready for. He was sweet and handsome and kind and hardworking and all the things she liked and admired in a man—not to mention sexy as all hell. That last thought shocked her to the core. When was the last time she’d thought about anything having to do with sex?

“The battery is definitely dead, which is weird. It’s relatively new. We just replaced it a year or so ago. Did you leave your headlights on last night?”

“No.”

“Hmm.”

“Can you fix it or should I cancel my plans?”

He popped out from under the raised hood. “How far are you going?”

“Just to St. Johnsbury.”

“I can fix it, but I need to push the car to the end of the driveway so I can use my truck to jump it. Can you shift it into neutral?”

“Sure. Do you want me to help you?”

“Nope. Sit tight and hold the wheel steady and then hit the brakes when I tell you to, okay?”

“Okay.”

He dropped the hood but didn’t latch it, took off his coat and tossed it on the lawn, which was finally devoid of snow. He wore a gray work shirt with a red name patch sewn above the chest pocket. His biceps bulged from the effort to move the car, but it started to creep toward the street, picking up speed as it went.

“Okay, stop.”

Hannah pressed down on the brake to slow the momentum.

In a matter of minutes he had her car attached to his truck with jumper cables. She watched him as he worked, noting the way his hair fell over his forehead and how the shirt stretched across his broad chest. Had she ever noticed how muscular he was until she danced with him at the Grange?

Truthfully, she’d never given herself permission to look too closely for fear of seeing something she couldn’t handle. But she looked now, and she had to admit she liked what she saw—and she was sick and tired of her own company. That was something she’d confessed to herself during the long, cold, lonely winter she’d just endured.

With her parents, grandfather, nine siblings and a litany of aunts, uncles and cousins living nearby there was always something going on around her. But at the end of the day, Hannah was alone in the big house where she’d once been happily married. She was thirty-five years old and had been a widow for one-fifth of her life, longer than she’d been married as of this upcoming seventh anniversary of Caleb’s death.

It was probably time to start living again.

“Try it now,” he said.

Hannah turned the key and heard the welcome sound of her engine turning over. “Thank you so much.”

“No problem.” He removed the jumper cables and let her hood drop before bending down to grab his coat off the ground.

Hannah watched his every move, noting the way his navy blue work pants stretched across his taut backside as he bent over. The visual made her skin tingle with awareness—the kind of awareness she hadn’t experienced in a very long time, the kind of awareness that still had the power to frighten her. She opened the window.

He paused outside her door on his way to the truck. “Drive safely and call me if you have any more trouble.”

“I will. Send me the bill.”

“Don’t be silly. There’s no bill, Hannah.”

“Thank you for helping me.”

He paused as if there was something else he wanted to say besides, “No problem.”

He’d started to walk away when Hannah called out to him. “Nolan.”

Turning back, he raised a brow. “Yeah?”

She forced herself to say the words. “I’d like to spend some time together. Like you said. If that’s okay.”

Judging by the flabbergasted look on his face, that was the last thing he’d expected her to say. “You would? Really?”

Hannah nodded. “I’ll call you.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

Chapter 2

Okay, I’ve decided . . . Caleb Guthrie is a bully. He pulls my braids on the playground every day and then runs away. All the boys laugh when he does it. I just want to punch him. —From the diary of Hannah Abbott, age twelve

Nolan went on with his day as if the most momentous thing in the known universe—or at least his known universe—hadn’t just transpired in Hannah Guthrie’s driveway.Thank God for dead batteries, he thought as he returned to the garage and got busy dealing with the cars customers had dropped off for repairs that morning.

He went through the rote motions of changing oil, replacing a timing belt and fielding calls from customers while trying not to think about Hannah and the hope she’d given him earlier. Since the night they’d danced and kissed, he’d berated himself at least a thousand times for moving too quickly, and then to hear that she’d liked kissing him and hadn’t wanted to stop . . .

Holy hell, how was he supposed to function knowing that? And how was he supposed to cope with the overwhelming guilt that came with his feelings for Hannah? He carried that guilt with him all the time.

Caleb Guthrie had been one of the best friends Nolan had ever had, and the pain of his loss was something Caleb’s unruly tribe of friends still carried with them all these years later. Caleb had been the sun around which the planets orbited. He’d been their fearless leader, and they were lost without him in so many ways.

After living the life of an army brat with his officer father, Caleb arrived in Vermont at the start of seventh grade when his father finally buckled to pressure from his family and retired as a full colonel. The kids from tiny Butler, Vermont, hadn’t known what to make of Caleb, who had friends all over the world. They were his “Sultans,” as Caleb called them. He’d named his group of friends after the Dire Straits song “Sultans of Swing,” his dad’s favorite song, and he collected Sultans everywhere he lived.

Becoming one of Caleb’s Sultans was a high honor, one none of them took lightly. It involved a foolish initiation ritual made up entirely by Caleb, who picked and chose his Sultans carefully. Upon entering the inner circle, Nolan had found a friend unlike any he’d ever had—funny and brazen and playful and serious and daring, brilliant yet twisted in his humor and approach to life.

He’d lightened Nolan up, taught him there was more to life than work and had exposed him to people and ideas and adventures that ranged from skiing the Rocky Mountains to spring break in Mexico to years of Mardi Gras in New Orleans where the Sultans worshiped their Creole patron.

Life with Caleb was all about fun. Life without him was a huge, gaping void that no one else could ever fill. Nolan couldn’t begin to speculate on the hole that Caleb’s death had left in Hannah’s life. The two of them had been amazing together, truly, deeply in love, and devoted to their friends and family as much as they were to each other. The Sultan parties every Labor Day weekend at their house were legendary, and despite the agony of Caleb’s loss, Hannah and the Sultans continued the tradition without him, knowing he’d expect nothing less.

But goddamn it was tough. Young, vital men with their whole lives in front of them weren’t supposed to die at twenty-eight. They weren’t supposed to die without giving the people they left behind some idea of how they were supposed to carry on without them.

Nolan liked to think that Caleb would approve of his affection for Hannah. He chose to believe that because the possibility Caleb wouldn’t approve was simply unbearable. Nolan had always loved Hannah as a friend and hadn’t entertained anything other than friendly feelings toward her until about two years after Caleb died.

That’s when everything changed for him. It’d been over a Labor Day weekend with the Sultans, watching her carry on like everything was fine as she kept the unruly guys in food and beer, when Nolan had realized he felt something more than friendship for her. Why did it have to be her of all people? He’d asked himself that question almost every day for five years. He couldn’t say exactly, other than she touched him deeply, far more deeply than any other woman ever had.

He fixed things. That’s what he did. He wanted to fix things for her. He wanted to make her smile again the way she used to when Caleb was alive, the way she used to before life pulled the rug out from under her and left her reeling. He wanted to put the pieces back together again for her, to make right that which could never be made right.

The Abbott family had tuned in to the fact that Nolan’s feelings for Hannah went beyond that of a lifelong friend, but the other Sultans didn’t know. Well, except for Hannah’s brothers, Hunter and Will, who were fully initiated into Caleb’s tribe. But Nolan didn’t think they’d told the others. Why would they? It wasn’t like anything had ever come of Nolan’s feelings for her.

Until a recent Saturday night at the Grange. Until today when she said she wanted to spend some time with him. How long would he have to wait to hear from her? Would she panic on the drive to St. Johnsbury and decide she’d been impetuous?

Leaning into the hood of a Chevy sedan, Nolan released a deep breath and tried to figure out how long he’d been staring at the V-8 while thinking of nothing but Hannah Guthrie and how she’d looked that morning—lovely and flushed and embarrassed and undone by their conversation.

Waiting to hear from her might actually kill him. It was certainly killing his concentration, he thought, as he got busy changing the spark plugs and filters on the older-model car.

Every time the garage phone rang, his heart stopped for a moment, which was flat-out ridiculous. She said she’d call him. She hadn’t said she’d calltoday. But why hadn’t he asked her to call to let him know she’d arrived safely after the trouble with her battery?

He wiped the grease off his hands with a red oil rag and threw it aside in frustration. Was it possible for a person to drive himself nuts? If it was, he was well on his way. Since his productivity was positively shot, he decided to break early for lunch.

He was on his way out the door to grab something to eat at the diner when the phone rang. Under normal circumstances, he would’ve let voicemail pick up the call, but there was nothing normal about circumstances under which Hannah Guthrie might be calling. So he ran back in and grabbed the phone.

“Nolan’s.”

“Hey, it’s me. Hannah.”

Come on. No way. Had he gone straight around the bend into the land of the delusional? Had he wished so hard for her call that he’d made it happen out of sheer will?

“Nolan? Are you there?”

It was really her. “Oh yeah, sorry. I’m here. Is everything okay with the car?”

“That’s why I called. I figured you’d be worried about whether or not I got here, and I did, so I wanted to tell you.”

Was it his imagination or was she rambling? And did she sound nervous? The calm, cool Hannah he knew and loved never sounded nervous. She was always in perfect control of her emotions, something he admired greatly about her in light of what she’d been through. “That’s good to know. I was hoping it wouldn’t give you any more trouble.”

“It didn’t.”

Nolan wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say next. His brain spun with possibilities, each of them rejected.

“I also wanted to tell you . . .”

His heart pounded as anticipation beat through him in time with his heart. “What, Hannah? What did you want to tell me?”

“Ever since I saw you this morning, I can’t stop thinking about enchiladas.”

Since that had been about the last thing he’d expected her to say, he laughed. “Is that right?”

“I’m drooling, in fact. So I was thinking, maybe we could check out that place in Stowe later? If you’re not busy. I know it’s last minute—”

“I’m not busy.” He was but he’d get out of it. The racing team could meet without him. “What time will you be back?”

“Around six thirty.”

“How does seven sound?”

“Sounds good. I’ll see you then?”

“I’ll be there. I can’t have you drooling all over the place. What will people say?”

Her laughter made him smile. “See you soon.”

Nolan put down the phone and let out a very loud, “Yes!

“See?” Becky said as Hannah hung up the phone. “Was that so hard?”

“It was excruciating. I sounded like a complete idiot.”

“You did not! He’s probably dancing for joy around the garage after hearing from you.”

“Be quiet. He is not. I never should’ve told you any of this.”

“Yes, you should have, and you told me because you wanted me to force you to do something about it.”

“That isn’t why I told you!”

“Yes, Hannah,” Becky said gently, “it is. You needed permission to act on what you feel for Nolan. I’m glad I was the one you confided in and that I was the one who gave you the push you needed to make that call. It’s high time, isn’t it?”

“I suppose. It’s just that I still feel . . . I don’t know. It’s ridiculous, but it feels disloyal to Caleb.”

“Aw, honey, Caleb loved you so much. He’d want you be happy. You know that.”

“Of course I do, but it’s hard to think about moving on with someone else. I never wanted to move on without him.”

“You don’t have any choice. You’re a young, beautiful, vibrant woman with so much life left to live and so much love left to give. I can’t even begin to understand what you’ve been through, and you’ve handled it all so gracefully and with such dignity.”

“Not always,” Hannah said with a laugh, looking to lighten things up a bit. She didn’t allow herself many trips to the maudlin side of town where nothing good ever happened, but once in a while . . .

“I’m sure you’ve had a lot of rough moments, and you may continue to have them for the rest of your life. But that doesn’t mean you can’t also have other things, too, such as a wonderful, sexy guy who looks at you like you’re the cat’s meow.”

“He does not.”

“Um, yes, he does. Ask anyone.”

Every time someone said that to her, Hannah felt twitchy and off balance. She’d known Nolan forever—even longer than she’d known Caleb. He had been one of her husband’s closest friends and had served as a groomsman at their wedding. “Do you ever think that maybe Nolan is too close?”

“How do you mean?”

“He and Caleb were the best of friends. I’ve known him my whole life. He’s always been there, you know? How does that suddenly turn romantic?”

“The same way it did for you and Caleb, remember?”

As if she’d ever forget the night Caleb kissed her at the quarry and changed everything between them forever. She had to admit Becky made a good point.

“I want you to do something for me,” Becky said.

“What’s that?”

“I want you to have dinner with Nolan and not blow it up into a big freaking deal in your mind before it actually is. It’s dinner. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“If I’m to believe what you and everyone else says, it’s already way more than that to him.”

“So what? That’s his deal, not yours. Don’t take it on. Go to dinner. Eat a meal. Enjoy his company and relax. Can you do that?”

“I guess so. I can probably relax easier with him than I would with someone I just met.”

“I know you can do it. Go have a wonderful time. You’ve so earned the right to some fun and happiness, Hannah.”

Hannah hugged her longtime friend. “Thanks for the pep talk and for letting me off the hook on the sleepover.”

“Once you told me about Nolan asking you out, I was prepared to kick you out of here if I had to.”

Hannah smiled at Becky’s emphatic words. Sometimes she felt like the people in her life needed her to move on more than she needed it for herself. Up until the last couple of months, she’d been perfectly fine to rattle around in her big old house alone and to spend more time living in the past than she did in the present.

At some point over the recent winter though, she’d begun to feel anxious and lonely and perhaps ready to step foot out of her self-imposed cocoon to take a peek at what had been going on in the world while she was holed up with her grief.

After two hours of laughter and pedicures she was on the road home, her mind spinning with thoughts about the evening she’d agreed to spend with Nolan. Would it be awkward or easy? Would he try to kiss her again or would he keep his distance? Which did she prefer? She couldn’t say for certain.

By the time she pulled into the driveway twenty minutes before Nolan was due to arrive, her nerves were stretched thin. An accident on the main road into town had added half an hour to the ride. Inside the house, she used the phone in the hallway to leave a message for Hunter on his office voicemail to let him know she’d decided to come home and he was off Homer duty.

“Hey, Home Boy,” she said, using the nickname Caleb had given his dog as a puppy after the multicolored mutt had decided he belonged with Caleb. No one was really certain of his breed, but speculation ran the gamut from German shepherd to Lab to beagle. “Where are you, buddy?” Hannah checked the sitting room, where she and Homer spent most of their time, as well as the studio, where she worked and he kept a bed on the floor, but saw no sign of Homer.

At sixteen, he didn’t do the stairs on his own anymore, so he had to be somewhere on the first floor. She went into the kitchen and stopped short when she found him sprawled on the floor, his eyes open and trained on her, his distress apparent.

Hannah dropped to the floor next to him. “Hey, buddy. What’re you doing in here?” She stroked his face and back and noted the choppy cadence of his breathing and his seeming inability to raise his head off the floor. He tried to stretch his paw out to her the way he always did, but couldn’t muster the strength. Tears filled her eyes. “No, Homie. Not yet. Please not yet.” She lay down on the floor next to him, petting him as she wept.

Hannah knew she should get up and call Myles Johansen, the local vet. He’d been making house calls to check on Homer for quite some time now and had told her to call any time she needed him. Somehow she knew if she got up, if she made the call, that this time would be different.

“Oh, Homie, I’m sorry I left you today. I know you haven’t been feeling good for a long time, but you’ve stuck around because you don’t want to leave me alone. I promise I’ll be okay. Before I call anyone though . . . While it’s just you and me . . . When you see Dad, make sure you tell him I love him, and I miss him, okay? You’ll take good care of him, won’t you? He’ll be so happy to see you.”

One more minute, she told herself, sobbing as she clung to Homer. One more minute and then she’d get up to call Myles.

“Hannah?” Nolan’s voice echoed through the first floor. “Are you home?”

How long had she been lying there with Homer? She wiped her eyes with her sleeve, trying to fix the unfixable. “Back here.”

“You didn’t answer the door, so I hope it’s okay I came in—” Nolan halted in the doorway to the kitchen when he saw her on the floor with Homer. “Oh God, Hannah, what is it? What’s wrong?”

She shifted slightly to the right so he could see Homer stretched out on the floor, his breathing shallow and labored.

“Oh no. What can I do?”

“Would you mind calling Myles for me?”

“Of course. Anyone else?”

“Hunter. He’ll tell my parents. And the Guthries. They should be here.”

“Yes, yes, I’ll call them. You stay with Homer.”

Hannah breathed a sigh of relief at knowing she didn’t have to be the one to make the calls, to say the words . . . “It’s okay, buddy,” she whispered to Homer. “Everything is okay. You can go if you’re ready. I understand that you’re tired and you’ve had to live a long time without your best friend. That’s been so hard on you, but you took good care of me. Dad would’ve been so proud of you for taking such good care of me.”

She tried to quiet her sobs so as not to upset Homer. This wasn’t about her. It was about him, and she wanted to give him everything he needed.

Nolan returned to the kitchen and squatted next to Hannah. “Myles is on his way, and I left a message for Hunter. I also called your mom when I couldn’t reach Hunter. Hope that’s okay.”

Hannah nodded, grateful to him for taking charge.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, resting a hand on her shoulder. His voice, she noticed, was thick with emotion. He’d loved Caleb, too, and that mattered right now.

“This helps. Thank you.” Hannah leaned into him, resting her head on his chest as she continued to stroke Homer’s silky ears and coat. The dog’s eyes were closed now, his breathing even more shallow, if that was possible.

Nolan sat next to her, keeping his arm around her as she leaned against him, grateful for his presence and his strength.