From This Moment(14)


by Melanie Harlow

“That seems to be a popular topic of discussion around here,” Wes said, shaking his head, “but I really have no idea.”

“Small town. We like to know everyone’s business.” I smiled. “Hey, what about CB? I saw your initials carved with hers on the door of the shed. Maybe she’s still around.”

He groaned. “Is that still there? Jesus. That had to be twenty years ago.”

Hugging my knees, I leaned forward. “First love?”

“Not even.” He hesitated, as if he were trying to decide whether to confess something.

“Come on,” I cajoled, carefully reaching out of the canoe, and splashing water toward him. “Tell me. I’ve been spilling my guts for an hour.”

“First kiss.”

I squealed. “And?”

He cringed. “It’s too embarrassing.”

“Wes, I had a completely humiliating breakdown in front of you last night. I got snot on my arm.”

“This is worse.”

“Get it out. You’ll feel better.”

“Let’s just say it was a very awkward, very fast experience.”

I gasped. “You lost your virginity to her?”

“No. Just my dignity.”

Laughing, I tilted my head back and felt the sun on my face, the wind in my hair, and something like joy in my heart.

It had been a long time.

Six

WES

It was exactly the kind of day I’d wanted—for Abby, for Hannah, for my parents, for myself. We took Abby out in the canoe, we built a sand castle complete with a moat and keep, we walked along the beach looking for fossils and sea glass. We talked. We laughed. We remembered Drew with funny stories and favorite memories. It was the first time since he’d died that we had all been together without being overwhelmed by sadness.

After dinner, I helped Abby find a stick to roast marshmallows. My mother tried to talk us into using metal skewers she’d brought down to the beach, but I insisted we had to do it the real way. We stood side by side holding our sticks with the marshmallows over the flames, watching them get warm and brown and bubbly. I like mine nearly charred, but I left my first one over the fire too long and it plopped into the ashes, which made Abby giggle uncontrollably.

And Hannah—I hoped she felt as happy as she looked. She had a smile on her face all afternoon, and I saw no trace of the tension I’d sensed in her this morning. In complete contrast, she seemed relaxed and contented, joking with my father, tolerating my mother’s criticisms-disguised-as-compliments (“My goodness, look how thin you are in that swimsuit! I can’t hardly see your shadow!”), and giving me a grateful look when I went back for seconds of her potato salad and told my dad he had to try it. (He did, and enjoyed it, much to my mother’s chagrin.) She’d even stopped playing with her wedding ring. Everything about the day was perfect.

There was only one problem.

My heart beat faster every time I looked at her. My stomach tightened every time she came near me. My breath hitched every time I caught the scent of her skin—a potent mix of Coppertone and waffles. I was nearly drunk on it by day’s end.

I wasn’t imagining my body’s responses to her, and by the time the sun went down I was finally forced to admit it had nothing to do with how much we both loved or missed Drew, and everything to do with the fact that I was attracted to her, plain and simple. I always had been.

Other truths I’d buried threatened to surface.

She’s part of the reason I stayed away.

I measure every woman I meet against her, and no one ever comes close.

What if? What if? What if?

I tried hard to ignore my feelings. Deny them. Convince myself there was nothing wrong with appreciating a beautiful woman.

Yeah, but you don’t just want to appreciate her, do you? asked my conscience, which seemed to have a direct line of communication with my dick. You want to—

Don’t even think it.

I thought it.

I wanted to touch her. Kiss her. Know what it was like to be inside her. Feel her hands on my body. Hear her soft moans and loud cries and make her come over and over again.

You’re an asshole.

God. I was an asshole. In no universe were these feelings about my brother’s wife okay. They’d never been okay. But what could I do? Tell her to put her cover-up back on because the sight of her slender curves in a bathing suit was too tempting? Tell her to stop giggling at my stupid jokes and stories because the sound of her laughter was too sweet? Tell her to stop looking at me that way when I took off my shirt because I wasn’t my brother no matter how much I looked like him? I wasn’t an idiot. I knew it wasn’t me she was seeing.

No matter how much I wished it was.

Look, you can’t turn back time. You made your choice, and they made theirs. And you know what? If you had to do it all over again, you’d make the same decision. You’d step aside for him, you always did.

I frowned into the fire.

“Hey, you.” Hannah nudged me with her bare foot. She and I were sitting next to each other in chairs by the dwindling bonfire while Abby played nearby in the sand. My parents had just gone up to the house. “Everything okay?”

I sat up straighter, took a drink of my scotch. I’d poured some over ice when it became clear my stupid feelings for her had not gone away, no matter how much time and distance I’d put between us. “Yeah. Fine.”

“Fine, huh? I give that answer a lot too.”

I braved a glance at her, and her expression was shrewd. Then she nudged me again with her foot. “I’m on to you, pal.”

For fuck’s sake, did she have to touch me? She was making things worse. “Sometimes I’m just quiet.”

“I remember that about you.” She tipped up her wine glass, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the hollow at the base of her throat. “But actually, I think you’ve been very talkative today.”

“Have I?”

“Yes. And you’re an amazing listener. I appreciate it.”

Not if you knew what I was thinking. “Any time.”

A minute or two went by. The sun was sinking fast behind the trees, deepening the shadows on the beach. Abby began to sing softly, backed by the rhythmic shush of waves on the shore. “Can I tell you something?” Hannah asked.

“Of course.”

“Lots of people have told me, ‘You’re not alone.’ But I haven’t felt that way until you said those words to me today.”

I looked at her and vowed I would never violate the trust she placed in me. “I meant them.”

She smiled at me as she stood up. “I better get Abby home and in the tub. But Wes, you were right about today. Thank you. I had such a good time.”

“I’m glad.”

Then she did something that shocked me—she reached out and slowly slid her fingers through my hair.

I couldn’t speak. I wasn’t even sure I could breathe.

She smiled. “You have sand in your hair.” A moment later, she was walking away from me. “Come on, Abs. Let’s get the toys put away. Time to go home.”

I was still sitting there in disbelief when I heard my mother’s voice. I hadn’t even seen her come down the steps and I was looking right at them.

“Hannah, dear,” she called, making her way toward them, “I was thinking earlier, why doesn’t Abby just stay the night here? I’ve got a room all set up for her, and she hardly ever uses it.”

Hannah hesitated. “I have the sitter coming in the morning.” Then she glanced at me. “But I guess I could give her the day off. Sure. She can stay.”

Good girl. I felt proud of her for letting go of the reins a little.

“Perfect!” My mom clapped her hands together. “I’ll keep her until you’re done with work. You can just pick her up here.”

“What about clothes for tomorrow?”

“Oh, I have plenty of things here. You know how I love to shop for her. I always wanted a little girl and ended up with two boys!”

“I can hear you, Mom.” Oh good, I could still speak.

She turned to me and stuck her hands on her hips. “Now I’m not saying my boys weren’t everything to me, but it is fun to have Abby to shop for. I’d shop for your kids too if you had some,” she scolded.

“I was telling him earlier Abby needs some cousins.” Hannah turned and gave me a wicked smile over her shoulder. “Make that happen already, why don’t you?”

I grimaced and took another swallow of scotch. Just what I needed—Hannah and my mother united in their nagging at me to procreate.

“Abby,” my mother said, “let’s go up and you can take a bath in the big tub in my bathroom. Would you like that?”

“Yes.” The little girl jumped to her feet, brushing sand off her hands and knees.

“And then you can put on your princess nightgown and I’ll read you a story if you’re not worn slap out.”

“I’ll get the toys put away down here. Do you need help getting her into the bath?” Hannah asked.