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I kissed him because he was better than nothing.
Derek froze for a moment and I thought I'd made a mistake. I felt better when he rested his hand on my hair, even if it had all the weight of a butterfly's wing.
“Do you mean it, Van?” he asked.
I couldn't look at him. “Of course I do,” I whispered into his neck.
He put his arms around me. I rested my head against his chest and listened to his heart thump at a rate that contrasted with his calm embrace. With one finger I doodled on his shirt pocket.
“That's interesting,” I said.
“You've got quite a pectoral muscle here.”
“I should think so,” he said drily. “I lift a lot of heavy things.” He worked as a research librarian at the college, but a few years back he'd bought a little land where he grew hay for two elderly horses. I'd tried to lift a bale of hay once, and the attempt almost yanked my arms from their sockets. I'd noticed a few months ago that farm chores had put some serious muscles on this quiet, gentle man.
“I see.” I put my hand on his arm. “Derek, I'm going to buy you short-sleeve shirts for your birthday.”
“Long-sleeve shirts rolled to the elbow are not showing off your arms.” I had my fingers on an incredible biceps.
He laughed. “I can't wear short sleeves to work. Too cold in the winter, and the air conditioning at the library makes it way too cold in summer.”
“You're too practical.”
This time he kissed me. He was still tentative, but his lips were soft and warm. His unexpected strength warmed my response. I let my lips open a little wider and wrapped my arms around his neck. He tightened his embrace but made no effort to speed up our kiss.
I pressed against him and moaned softly. His breathing picked up. Finally I felt his tongue against mine, hesitant and slow. I ran my fingers into his thick brown hair and pulled him closer.
That convinced him I was serious, I guess. His lips grew firmer, and his tongue explored mine with more sureness. When he nibbled gently on my bottom lip, I jumped in surprise and pleasure. He smiled and went back to kissing me. I let my hands wander down his powerful arms, hidden in the loose oxford shirt.
He broke it off just as I was getting into a groove. “What's wrong, Der?”
“Nothing. Just remembered need to stop by the farm supply store, get a thing,” he muttered. He went to the front door where he'd left his coat. I followed, wondering if I should stop him. He looked at me, agony on his face. He took one step toward me.
When I held out my arms, he fled.
Derek Lane was my husband's best friend, and when Luke died three weeks after turning thirty-six, Derek kept me going. When I accidentally gave the funeral home Luke's cell phone number on the contact form, Derek stepped in and finished the planning. When the last mourner left my house, Derek awkwardly hugged me and handed over a thumb drive. It contained a spreadsheet with the name and address of everyone who'd sent flowers or cards.
That was Derek's style in a nutshell. Reliable, thoughtful and low key. Nothing wrong with that, of course. It's just that Derek would never sing love songs at karaoke night. Derek would never propose to a woman on a Jumbotron. And Derek would certainly never stop mowing the lawn to seduce his wife under a tree.
Derek would finish mowing the lawn. Then he'd put away the mower, lock the shed, take a shower and lead his wife to the bed with the blinds drawn.
If he had a wife, which he didn't.