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If Trish sat any closer to Brad, she would be in his lap.
Scott Williams watched his friend keep shifting closer to her husband on the couch and Brad keep trying to squeeze closer to the arm of the couch. Trish was doing it deliberately. Scott's parents, sitting at the other end of the long couch, had plenty of room, but Brad hadn't caught on to that fact yet. Scott wanted to laugh. The games newlyweds played.
No, he had to revise that, it wasn't just the newly-weds. His sister, Heather, was sitting in her husband Frank's lap, and they had been married ten years now. Heather was pregnant again and refused to sit down to rest so Frank had solved the problem. Heather didn't seem to mind. She was flirting with her husband, whispering things in his ear when she thought no one was watching. Frank was enjoying it, Scott noted. He suspected they would come up with an excuse not to linger after the party was over.
His birthday party. He was thirty-eight today. Scott looked at the coffee table and was grateful to see there were only two gifts left. He really appreciated his parents' efforts, and he was enjoying the night with his family and friends, but right at this moment he wished he had spent his birthday alone. He felt lonely, and being here just made the problem worse.
He sat in the winged-back chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him, a bowl of cashews at his elbow and his second diet cola beginning to sweat. His parents had cooked out for dinner, barbecued chicken with roasted potatoes and fresh ears of corn. It had been a fun dinner, it always was when all the family was together, but he hated feeling like a third wheel. It had never bothered him before that everyone but him had someone special, but it was bothering him tonight. For the first time in his life he felt envy and it was a disquieting sensation.
He should be married by now. For years his focus had been on building his career, serving in his church, being a loyal friend, being a much loved uncle to his niece and nephew. He had never thought he needed a wife to make his life complete. He had been wrong.
His gaze settled on Amy a couple steps away, holding his next-to-last gift. When he saw her, his face relaxed into the special smile he reserved just for his niece. She wore the dolphin shirt he had brought back from Florida for her. It was her "most favorite" shirt she had told him when he had arrived that night. Heather said she had trouble getting it off long enough to wash it. Scott grinned. He would buy this little lady the moon if she wanted it. She was four, and he adored her. Amy grinned and climbed into his lap. "Uncle Scott, this feels like a book," she told him importantly. He took the package and weighed it in his hands.
"I think you're right. Like to help?" He turned the package to let her at the tape. With full concentration, Amy worked at ripping the paper.
"Thank you, Mom." Margaret had bought him a cookbook, this one on breakfast foods. She knew he loved to cook, had seriously considered becoming a professional chef back in his college days. He didn't have company for breakfast very often; he promised himself he'd rectify that problem.
"I think you'll like the muffin recipes," she said with a smile.
Scott added the book to the small stack of gifts on the floor beside his chair.
"Last one," Greg, his nephew, told him as he brought over a two-foot-long package. Greg was eight years old, further evidence of how time slipped by without Scott realizing it. Scott could remember the pleasure of holding him as an infant, could remember the way Greg at two and three had always found him at church on Sunday mornings, and Scott would pick him up and carry him and make him feel important.
"Thank you, Greg."
The gift was from his dad. Scott opened the package as Amy held it steady for him. His eyes lit up when he saw what it was. A new fishing rod. "This is great, Dad." The perfect gift for a man with a new boat.
Larry smiled. "You've about worn out the last one I gave you," he said. Scott had to agree. But that fishing pole was lucky. He had caught his biggest bass with that rod. Still, this one was a beauty. It would be a pleasure to break it in.
He had spent the morning out on the water doing what he did every year on his birthday, evaluating his past year and laying out his priorities for the coming year. It had been hard to face the truth. He was thirty-eight, alone, and even his mom no longer asked when he was going to get married and have a family. As good as his life had been to date, he had been wrong to assume he wanted to spend it alone. He wanted what his friends and family had. He wanted marriage and kids.
The cake was brought in from the kitchen and the candles lit. Scott looked around the group that gathered around the table, especially the kids, and he grinned and turned his attention to the candles. He paused to make a wish.
Lord, how did I ever think I could go through my entire life single? I've enjoyed the freedom and the success in my career, but I never intended it to become a permanent arrangement. There isn't someone to go home to tonight, and I'm feeling that sadness. I really miss not having a wife and having that close, intimate friendship I see in these couples around me. I want to change that, Lord. I want to get married. I want to have what the others around me have. I don't want to be alone anymore.
Scott blew out the candles.
It was a cold morning for late August. The darkness was giving way to the dawn, creating an early-morning twilight. Jennifer St. James pushed her hands deeper into the lined pockets of her windbreaker, trying to ward off the chill. The wind coming off the lake was sending shivers up her spine. The peaceful beauty of the deserted beach, however, more than made up for her discomfort. It had been a difficult night.
She walked along the water's edge, kicking up sand and watching the water smooth it back into place. "Good morning."
Her older brother had drilled safety precautions into her for so long that she reacted by instinct, her feet breaking into the start of a sprint to ensure she wasn't pinned between water and a threat. No sane person was up at this time of morning.
"Easy!" the man walking a few feet over from her exclaimed, "I didn't mean to startle you."
Jennifer let her sprint fade away and came to a stop several feet up the beach, her heart racing. He had said good-morning. That was all. Good-morning. She'd made a fool of herself again. She felt the heat warm her face. Was she cursed to live her entire life starting at every surprise? She had badly overreacted. She rested her hands against her knees, ignoring the hair that blew around her face, trying to still her racing heart. She watched the man warily as he moved toward her. He was a tall man, reminding her somewhat of her brother's build, probably a basketball player with those long legs and upper-body muscle. As he drew nearer she could see dark brown hair, wavy in a way that made her envious, clear piercing blue eyes and strong features; he was probably in his mid thirties. She had never seen him before, he was the type of man she would have remembered. Not that she came to this stretch of beach very often anymore. Her gut clenched. She hadn't been back in precisely three years.
"Are you okay?" He had stopped about five feet away.
She nodded. Why did he have to be out taking a walk this morning of all mornings? The beach was supposed to be deserted at this hour. The last thing she wanted was conversation with a stranger. She looked and felt a mess. Normally she could care less what she looked like, but when it led to being embarrassed, she cared. Her jeans were the most ratty in her closet, and the jacket hid what had once been a paint sweatshirt of Jerry's.
"I didn't mean to frighten you." His voice was deep and full of concern.
"I didn't realize you were there."
"So I found out."
She straightened slowly, pushing her hands off her knees and forcing her legs to take her weight again, fighting the weakness and the light-headed sensation that hallmarked the exhaustion and dwindling adrenaline.
"You're not okay."
She shied away from the concern in his face, in his voice, instinctively took a step back as he took a step forward. "I had a long night. I'll be fine."
She looked down the beach to the distant grove of trees she had arbitrarily been walking toward. Awkwardly, because he was here and her solitude had been broken, Jennifer turned to resume her walk. The weariness was suddenly weighing heavily on her, and her desire to keep walking was fading, but her only choice was to go home, and that was not an option. She shoved her hair back from her face again and twisted the long hair once, in an old habit, to temporarily prevent it from blowing in her eyes.
"Would you mind if I walk with you?"
She was surprised at the question, surprised at the sudden tenseness in his voice, surprised at the rigidness she saw in his stance as if he had momentarily frozen. She couldn't understand the change. His hands had closed into fists at his sides, but as she watched, they opened and relaxed, almost as if he consciously willed them to do so. He had kept his distance after that one step forward and her one step back. She was not a very good judge of character, but she somehow knew he was not going to be a threat to her. She shrugged. It really didn't matter. "No." He fell into step beside her, slowing his pace to match her slow wander.
They walked along the beach in silence, a few feet apart, both with hands tucked in their jackets, the wind blowing their hair. Jennifer's thoughts drifted back to the night before, and she winced as she remembered, began to mentally draw big Xs through each scene and force herself to deliberately try to discard the memories. It had worked in the past and it would work again. With time. When the memories faded to the point she could discard them. She sighed, haunted. These memories were not going to go away. Not for a very long time. There was a distraction at hand and she chose to ignore her own rule of respecting silence. "What's your name?" she asked, not looking at him, but knowing he was looking at her. He had been watching her since they started walking and it was a disconcerting sensation. Hers were the first words spoken in several minutes, and the sound of her voice was out of place in the quiet dawn.
"Scott Williams," he replied. "Yours?"
"Jennifer St. James."
She realized immediately her mistake. Questions prompted questions. On this particular morning, even a polite social exchange felt like an intrusion. She breathed a silent sigh of relief when he asked that one question and then went silent. She was grateful he was content with his own thoughts, but she wished he would move his gaze away from her.
"I haven't seen you walking on this beach before. Do you live around here?" he asked eventually.
She shook her head.
"My home is up ahead, off the point," he told her. Jennifer thought it must be nice to live on the lake, be able to enjoy this beach whenever the notion struck. It was expensive property. They walked in silence again and Jennifer hoped the next thing said was going to be goodbye.
"What happened last night, Jennifer?"
His voice was low and deep, the emotion carefully checked. He had stopped walking and was watching her closely, watching her reaction. "What?" Jennifer honestly didn't know how to answer the question.
"You're married. You have a beaut of a black eye. I want to know what happened, so I can decide what I should do," he elaborated patiently, but tensely. There was nothing idle about his body language or his focus on her.
She didn't answer him right away. What was she suppose to say? She already felt horrible. The last thing she wanted was someone treading in an area of her life where she herself was not yet able to cope. "They are not related."
He removed a hand from his jacket pocket and reached out slowly, clearly afraid he would startle her again, to gently touch the swelling that radiated around her right eye and down her cheek, and when he spoke, the emotion was no longer contained. "Jennifer, this is recent."
His touch burned and made her cringe inside over everything she had lost. "I walked into a door," she said flatly.
He frowned. His entire face tightened at her non-answer and her rejection of his question. "Jennifer "
He wanted to help and it was the last thing she wanted. "I don't want to talk about it." Her voice was firm, rigid and laden with warning. Scott wanted to protest. She could see that. All the signs where there. The clenched hand, the set jaw, the eyes that refused to yield the question. But something stopped him, and he pushed his hand back into the pocket of his jacket and nodded abruptly before looking away. Jennifer watched, grateful. He was angry and doing his best not to direct it toward her. She had left an awful dilemma for him, but she couldn't release him from it. She did look battered. She was bruised, tired, exhausted and jumpy. But for the life of her she simply couldn't explain the truth. She could barely cope with it herself. She simply couldn't deal with it this morning.
He started walking again, and she followed him. He deliberately shortened his steps so she would once again be walking across from him. They walked along in silence, and Jennifer could see Scott measuring every step she took, measuring the growing exhaustion, the heaviness of the fatigue that made her veer off center time and time again. She could do little about what he saw. She was exhausted and she knew it and she had no reserves left.
They'd gone more than a mile down the beach and were near a private boathouse and pier when he stopped. "This is my home." He said the words, and she heard that he hated saying them. He didn't want to go. He didn't want to leave his questions unanswered. He wanted to help. She read all of those desires as he stood and looked at her. She did her best to look directly back, even if the intensity of his gaze made her want to drop her eyes and look away. "Could I walk with you a while longer? Would you like some company?" he asked, and she could feel the tug to let him do so.
She shook her head. She suddenly realized what a mess she'd created, and the fact that she had no desire to fix it both amused her and made her sad. She smiled, and it was the first genuine smile she had formed in the past seventy-two hours. "No. I'll be just fine, Scott. Thank you for offering."
He didn't want to hear that answer. "You're sure?"
He was pressing her to change her mind, and her sense of fatigue grew all the greater. She needed to be alone now more than ever. There was no room in her life for company and conversation when there were memories demanding her attention.
Jennifer nodded. "Go on. I'm just going to walk for a while longer," she assured him.
He reluctantly did as she asked. Jennifer watched as he walked up the path to his back patio. She turned toward the grove of trees and began to walk again, determined to not return home until her body demanded sleep and the memories were banished. A few minutes later she was frowning, angry with the fact she now suddenly missed the company. No, not company, him. She missed him. The sun was barely up, and she was thinking about a stranger. She would never see him again, but he had entered her life briefly on one of the toughest mornings of her life, and she would probably always remember him because of that one fact.