She took a deep breath and stood again. “It’s now or never,” she whispered, then picked up her things and went to the door. She went downstairs and the manager smiled as she walked by. She could feel his eyes on her as she went out to her car. She slipped behind the wheel, started the engine and turned right onto Front Street.
She still knew her way around the small town, even though she hadn’t been here in years. After crossing the Trent River on an old-fashioned drawbridge, she turned onto a gravel road that wound its way between antebellum farms, and she knew that, for some of the farmers, life hadn’t changed since before their grandparents were born. The constancy of the place brought back a flood of memories as she recognized landmarks she’d long ago forgotten.
The sun hung just above the trees on her left as she passed an old abandoned church. She had explored it that summer, looking for souvenirs of the War between the States, and, as she passed, the memories of that day became stronger, as if they’d happened yesterday.
A majestic oak tree on the riverbank came into view next, and the memories became more intense. It looked the same as it had back then, branches low and thick, stretching horizontally along the ground with moss draped over the limbs like a veil. She remembered sitting beneath the tree on a hot July day with someone who looked at her with a longing that took everything else away. And it had been at that moment that she’d first fallen in love.
He was two years older than she was, and as she drove along this roadway-in-time, he slowly came into focus once again. He always looked older than he really was, she remembered thinking, slightly weathered, like a farmer coming home after hours in the field. He had the calloused hands and broad shoulders that came to those who worked hard for a living, and the first faint lines were beginning to form around dark eyes that seemed to read her every thought.
He was tall and strong, with light brown hair, and handsome in his own way, but it was his voice that she remembered most of all. He had read to her that day as they lay beneath the tree with an accent that was soft and fluent, almost musical in quality. She remembered closing her eyes, listening closely and letting the words he was reading touch her soul.
He thumbed through old books with dog-eared pages, books he’d read a hundred times. He’d read for a while, then stop, and the two of them would talk. She would tell him what she wanted in her life-her hopes and dreams for the future-and he would listen intently and then promise to make it all come true. And the way he said it made her believe him, and she knew then how much he meant to her.
Another turn in the road and she finally saw the house in the distance. It had changed dramatically from what she remembered. She slowed the car, turning into the long, tree-lined dirt drive.
She took a deep breath when she saw him on the porch, watching her car. He was dressed casually. From a distance, he looked the same as he had back then. When the light from the sun was behind him, he almost seemed to vanish into the scenery.
Her car continued forward slowly, then finally stopped beneath an oak tree that shaded the front of the house. She turned the key, never taking her eyes from him, and the engine sputtered to a halt. He stepped off the porch and began to approach her, walking easily, then suddenly stopped cold as she emerged from the car. For a long time all they could do was stare at each other without moving.
Allison Nelson, twenty-nine years old and engaged, a socialite, searching for answers, and Noah Calhoun, the dreamer, thirty-one, visited by the ghost that had come to dominate his life.
CHAPTER THREE: REUNION
NEITHER ONE of them moved as they faced each other.
He hadn’t said anything, and for a second she thought he didn’t recognize her. Suddenly she felt guilty about showing up this way, without warning, and it made it harder. She had thought that she would know what to say. But she didn’t. Everything that came into her head seemed inappropriate, somehow lacking.
As she stared at him, she noticed how little he’d changed since she’d last seen him. He looked good, she thought. With his shirt tucked loosely into old faded jeans, she could see the same broad shoulders she remembered, tapering down to narrow hips and a flat stomach. He was tanned, too, as if he’d worked outside all summer, and, though his hair was a little thinner and lighter than she remembered, he looked the same as he had when she’d known him last.
She took a deep breath and smiled. “Hello, Noah. It’s good to see you again.”
He looked at her with amazement in his eyes. Then, after shaking his head slightly, he slowly began to smile. “You too,” he stammered. He brought his hand to his chin, and she noticed he hadn’t shaved. “It’s really you, isn’t it? I can’t believe it…
She heard the shock in his voice as he spoke, and surprising her it all came together-being here, seeing him. She felt something twitch inside, something deep and old, something that made her dizzy for just a second. She caught herself fighting for control. She hadn’t expected this to happen, didn’t want it to happen. She was engaged now. She hadn’t come here for this. Yet.
Yet the feeling went on despite herself, and for a brief moment she felt fifteen again. Felt as she hadn’t in years, as if all her dreams could still come true. Felt as though she’d finally come home.
Without another word they came together, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and he put his arms around her, drawing her close. They held each other tightly; both of them letting the fourteen years of separation dissolve in the deepening twilight.
They stayed like that for a long time before she finally pulled back to look at him. Up close, she could see the changes she hadn’t noticed at first. His face had lost the softness of youth. The faint lines around his eyes had deepened. There was a new edge to him; he seemed less innocent, more cautious, and yet the way he was holding her made her realize how much she’d missed him.