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Diana Collins woke with a start and lay very still, her heart beating hard in her chest. She stared into the dark room. She'd heard something. She was sure of it.
It was midsummer and her windows were all open. That was nice for ventilation, but not so wise for safety, even out here in the country. Silently she railed at herself. She'd known she should do something about getting bars on the windows or
But wait. There it was again. The intruder wasn't stumbling around in her little turn-of-the-century cottage. He was still outside. He was singing.
Slowly she lifted her head. She knew that song. She knew that voice.
"Cam," she whispered, and now a different brand of adrenaline was shooting through her veins. She smiled.
"Cam, you idiot!"
Slipping out of bed, she went to the window and looked down toward the lake. She could just make out a dark figure lounging on the pier. The moonlight glinted on a bottle he was holding as he leaned back to let out a wobbly high note.
"Oh, Cam," she said despairingly, but she was laughing. It must have been ten years since she'd last seen him. Joy flashed through her as she dashed around the room, searching for a robe to throw over her light nightgownand to conceal, at least for the moment, her rounded belly.
Everything was going to be well, not okay, but better. Cam was back.
Cameron Garfield Wellington Van Kirk the third was feeling no pain. There was no denying ithe'd been indulging. And since he almost never had more than a single glass of wine at dinner these days, he'd been affected more quickly and more thoroughly than he'd expected. He wondered, fleetingly, why he seemed to be bobbing in a warm,mellow glow. It was unusual, but rather nice.
"Maybe a little too nice," he muttered to himself in a Sam Spade accent, trying to look fierce and world-weary at the same time. It didn't really work. But did that matter when there was no one here to witness it anyway?
Never mind. He was going to sing again. Just one more swig from this nice bottle and he was going to sing that song about Diana.
"'I'm so young, and you're '" he began tunefully, then stopped, frowning. "Wait a minute. I'm older than she is. This song doesn't make any sense."
An owl called from across the water, then swooped by, its wings hissing in the air.
He turned and there she was, coming down toward the pier, dressed in lacy white and looking like something ethereal, magicfrom another world. He squinted, trying to see her better. He wasn't used to thinking of her as part angel, part enchantress. The Diana he'd known was a girl who had both feet firmly placed in a particularly earthy sort of reality. At least, that was the way he remembered it.
"Diana?" he whispered loudly. After all, he didn't want to wake anybody up. "Is that you?"
She came closer and he watched, fascinated, then blinked hard and shook his head. It was his old friend Diana all right but it looked like she was floating. Were her feet even touching the ground? Her cloud of blond hair shimmered around her and the gown billowed in a gust of wind and he felt a catch in his breathing. She was so beautiful. How was it that he'd managed to stay away this long?
"Cam?" she said, her voice as clear as the lake water. "Is that really you?"
He stared at her without answering. "If this is heaven," he mumbled as he watched her, enchanted and weaving dangerously right next to the water, "it's more than I deserve."
"It's Apache Lake, silly," she said as she came onto the pier and headed right for him. "Heaven is still to come."
"For you, maybe," he muttered, shaking his head as he looked her over.
She might look magical but she was all woman nowno longer the barefoot girl with the ragged cutoffs and the skimpy cropped top and a belly-button ringand like as not a set of bruises administered by her bully of a father. That was the Diana he'd left behind.
This new Diana was going to take some getting used to. He made no move to give her a hug or a kiss in greeting. Maybe that was because he wanted to with a sudden intensity that set up warning flares. And maybe it was because he'd had too much to drink and didn't trust himself to keep it simple.
"Some of us are still holding our options open," he added irrelevantly.
Her answering laugh was no more relevant, but it didn't matter. She was laughing from the pure joy of seeing him again. She looked up at him, still searching his face as though needing to find bits and pieces of the Cam she remembered. She noted how he was still fighting back the tendency to curl in his almost-black hair. And there were his startlingly blue eyes, crinkling with a hint of laughter. That was still the same. But there was a wary reserve that hadn't been there before. He was harder now, tougher looking. The sweetness of the boy had been sloughed away and in its place there was a cool, manly sort of strength.
For just a moment, her confidence faltered. He was large and impressive in a way she didn't recognize. Maybe he'd changed more than she was going to like. Maybe he'd become someone else, a stranger.
Oh, she hoped not, but her heart was in her throat.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey yourself," she said back softly, her dark eyes luminous in the gloom as she searched for clues in the set of his shoulders, the lines of his face. "What are you doing here?"
He frowned, trying to remember. Everything seemed to have fuzzy edges right now. He'd been on his way homeif you could call the house where his parents and grandfather lived his home. Yeah, that was it. He'd been on his way home, and then, he'd taken a detour .
Suddenly the answer was clear. He'd thought he was just stopping by to say hello to an old friend, putting off the homecoming he had waiting for him at the Van Kirk family mansion on the hill not too far from here. But now he knew there was a flaw in his thinking. There had been another motivation all along. He just hadn't realized it. He'd come to find the person he'd missed most all these years. And here she was, not quite the same, but good enough.
He looked down at her, needing nothing more than the Diana she was today. He soaked her in as though he'd been lost in the desert and dying of thirst. She promised to be something better and more satisfying than mere alcohol could ever be.
They said you can't go home again, and maybe that was true. Things could never be the way they'd been before he left. But that was okay. The way Diana had turned out, things might just be better.
"What am I doing here?" he repeated softly, still struggling with blurry thinking. "Looking for you."
"For me?" She laughed dismissively, looking over his shoulder at the moon. "I think you're looking for someone who isn't here anymore."
"You'll do," he said simply.
They stared into each other's eyes for a long moment, their memories and emotions awakening and connecting in a way their words could never quite explain.
"I thought you weren't ever coming back," she said at last, and her voice had a catch in it that made her wince. Tears of raw feeling were very near the surface and she couldn't let them show. But to see him here, standing on her pier, just as he had in those bygone days, sent her heart soaring.
She looked at him, looked at his open shirt and wide belt, his attractively tight jeans and slim hips, the way his short sleeves revealed nicely swelling biceps and she shook her head. He was so like the young man she'd known, and yet so different. The dark hair was shorter and cut more neatly, though it was mussed a bit now and a spray of it still fell over his eyes, just like always. The face was harder, creases where dimples used to be. But the gorgeous eyes were just as brilliantly blue, sparkling like star-fire in the moonlight.
For so long, she'd been afraid his last declaration to her would come true. Even after all these years, the memory of those final words had the capacity to sting deep down in her heart.
"I'm out of here, and I'm never coming back."
She'd thought her world had melted down that day. And now here he was, back after all.
"Naw," he said carelessly. "I never meant it. Not really."
She nodded. She accepted that. She'd waited for a long time for him to show up again. She'd been so sure he would, despite what he'd said. But after years, when it didn't happen, she'd finally started to lose faith.
She remembered when he'd left. She'd been an angry and confused eighteen-year-old, trapped in a broken home, grasping for a reason to thrive. For so long, he'd been her anchor to all that was good in life. And then he'd left and she'd felt adrift in a world without signs or shelter. She'd been so very all alone.
"What I can't understand is why you're still here," he said.
She lifted her chin. "Where did you think I'd be?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. San Francisco maybe. Becoming sophisticated." He half grinned. "Gettin' swanky."
"Swanky?" She laughed. "That'll be the day."
As if on cue, he began to softly sing the Buddy Holly song of the same name, still staring soulfully into her eyes.
"You're drunk," she accused him, shaking her head as though despairing of him.
He stopped short and grimaced. "No. Impossible." He stared hard, actually trying to convince her. "You can ask anyone. I don't drink."
"Cam!" She looked pointedly at the bottle in his hand.
He looked at it, too, then quickly looked away. "Hey, anyone," he called out a bit groggily across the lake, forgetting all about keeping it quiet. "Tell her. She needs to hear it from a neutral source."
She bit her lip, trying not to laugh at the picture he made. "There's no one out there," she told him simply.
"Sure there is." He turned his heavy-lidded gaze on her. "Look closely, now. Can't you see them?"
Turning to lean on the railing, she looked out across the lake to the stand of pines and cottonwoods shivering in the breeze. It was so good to be here in the night with Cam, almost as though a missing part of her was back in place, where it should be.
"Us." He moved closer and spoke very near her ear. "Cam and Di. The boy and girl we used to be. The ghosts are out there."
She could feel his warm breath on her skin. It made her pulse beat just a little faster and she was enjoying it, for now.
It had been so long.
She'd tried asking about him over the years, first in the village, then at the Van Kirk mansion when she'd been there in connection to her job, and the response she had was minimal. She'd told herself that it looked like he was gone for good, that he'd had some sort of rift with his family that couldn't be repairedthat he was never coming back. She'd tried to convince herself to forget about him. But his influence on her was embedded in her soul. She couldn't shake him loose, no matter what.
And at the same time, she'd always known that she could never really have him. But that was a tragic fact of life, something she'd accepted as a given.
She turned and looked at him. "I don't see anything," she told him, determined to be the realist to his crazy dreamer. "There's nobody out there."
"Sure there is." He frowned as though it was a puzzle that needed solving. "Maybe you should have some of this," he said, brandishing the bottle and looked at her hopefully. "Your vision might get better."
She shook her head, rolling her eyes as she did so. He looked at the bottle, drained it, then frowned, silently reproaching himself. She had a right to hate drinking. She'd certainly suffered enough from the stuff.
"Okay. I'll get rid of it." Easy enough for him to say. The bottle was empty now.
"Wait!" She stopped him from sending it sailing out into the water, snatching it from his hand. "Don't litter in my lake. I'll put it in the trash can."
He blinked at her but didn't protest, leaning back on the railing with his elbows and watching her with the trace of a smile on his handsome face. She tossed the bottle and turned back to him. Her heart lurched at the picture he made in the moonlight, part the man he was now, part the memory of the boy. There had been a time when she would have done anything for him. And now? Hopefully she knew better now.
Looking out across the water again, she pretended to squint and peer into the moonlight. "Wait a minute," she said, looking hard. "I think I see them now. Two crazy kids stomping around in the mud."
"That's them," he said approvingly, then looked down at her. "Or more accurately, that's us."
Us. Yes, they had spent time together on that side of the lake. How could she forget? Some of the best moments of her life had been spent there.
Cam was always fighting with his grandfather in those days. After a particularly bad argument, she would often find him down at the far side of Apache Lake, fishing for rainbow trout. She would sit and watch and he would tell her stories about the valley's history or his sister's latest exploit or sometimes, what he wanted to do with his life. His dreams involved big things far away from gold country. Whenever he talked about them, she felt a sense of sad emptiness inside. She knew she would never be a part of that world.
He always used catch and release, and she would watch regretfully as he threw the shiny, silvery fish back in and they watched it swim away. He didn't realize that she could have used it for dinner. More often than not, the refrigerator at her house was bare and her father was off somewhere burning through the money that should have gone to food, pouring it down his throat in the form of bargain wine. But she never said a word to Cam. She was too embarrassed to let him know her dinner would be a cheap candy bar that night.
Such things were not a problem any longer. She had a nice little business that kept her comfortable, if not exactly rolling in wealth. These days she was more likely to try to cut down on calories than to need to scrounge for protein.