We held each other for a short eternity, and when he set me on my feet again, I wasn’t sure I could stand. I took a small step to steady myself. “What are you doing in Summerville?” I asked, my voice shaking slightly with emotion.
“I was doing some research, and I found this place.”
“Research for what?”
“A couple things. The retail chain I work for offered me a new store of my own, so I started looking for good areas. Summerville seemed like the perfect place.”
“I don’t get it. Why would you pick a small town like this? It’s not exactly big chain friendly.”
“Book stores do well anywhere.”
“Book stores? You mean Between the Lines? That’s your store?” I was surprised. That store was due to open in about a month. I was anticipating its grand opening.
“Yup. That’s my store. I think it’ll do well in this area.” He seemed very confident, almost cocky. But I guess he had a right to be. After all, he had supposedly hand-picked the location for this latest addition to the nation-wide chain.
“Yeah, but you were always the beachy, blue-seas type. And we’re far away from the ocean. What’s the other reason?” I was very interested in why this beach-bum hunk would want to settle in a town nestled in the middle of the Pennsylvania mountains. The only water around here was lakes and streams.
“I’ve out-grown my beach-bum phase,” he said as if he was reading my mind. “There’s good fishing, hiking, and skiing here. If I don’t get away from the beach, I’ll never grow up. And I need to grow up. Being the general manager of a store like Between the Lines is a huge thing. I don’t want my care-free lifestyle screwing that up for me.”
“So you’re done with the party life? Are you sure that’s what you want?” When I had known him, he partied every hour he was awake. That was one reason why we had drifted apart. I was grounded and he wasn’t.
“Yeah. You can only party for so long before it catches up with you. I started to notice that I was getting older, but the bar crowd was staying the same age. It made me think that maybe I needed to re-evaluate my life.” He shrugged. It seemed that he was still trying to get over this drastic change.
Trying to change the subject, or at least soften it up a bit, I asked if he wanted to get some coffee and catch up. I knew a great little café down the street that had good food and even better coffee.
I replaced the Byron book I had been planning to buy, and led the way down the busy street to the café. One time Dominic tried to take my hand, but I told him no. As much as I craved his touch, it was inappropriate.
We sat at an outside table and ordered our drinks and sandwiches. “I still don’t understand why you came to a place like this. Partying aside, it’s cold here. We have snow on the ground practically all winter,” I said.
“Like I said. I’ve grown up. I’ve also developed a passion for skiing. I love the seasons, though, so farther north wouldn’t suit me.” He smiled at me with that grin that could melt the iciest of hearts. “Now I have another great reason to stay.”
“Really.” I gave him a curious look. “And what might that be?” I asked, though I had a pretty good idea what the answer was. I just wanted to hear him say it.
“Do you really have to ask?”
I smiled at him. “I don’t think so, but why don’t you tell me anyway. Just to be sure.”
His smile broadened and a blush came to his cheeks, but he reached across the table and took my hand in his. “You’re the reason. You know that. I thought I’d never see you again, Ella. I have longed for this moment for what seems like an eternity. Now that I know you’re here, I’ll never leave.”
While I had known I was his reason to stay, I never thought his feelings would still run so deep. It was obvious that the man was still in love with me. Now I had the horrible task of breaking his heart.
“Dominic,” I squeezed his hand and looked directly into his soft green eyes as I spoke his name for the first time in so many years. “I’m married. I have a ten-year-old daughter.” I didn’t want to tell him that he couldn’t just walk back into my life after all those years because it would hurt him. And it would be a lie. He could come back to me anytime. I’d take him one way or another. Just to be near him I felt like a void in my soul had been filled.
“I figured that,” he said with a shrug. “But just being near you again is enough. Even if we’re just friends. I need your presence in my life, Ella.”
“You never cease to amaze me Dominic. You show up in Summerville, PA claiming to be opening a book store…”
“I am opening a book store,” he cut in.
“That’s not my point. I haven’t seen you in over fifteen years. And yet you sit here telling me that you can’t live without me. What about before, Dominic? What about the effort you stopped putting into our relationship? I may have walked away, but you can’t say I didn’t try.”
He sat there quietly. I allowed him time for the words to sink in. “I deserve that,” he said with sullen conviction. “You’re right. I didn’t try very hard at the end. But I was young and stupid. All I wanted to do was party, and I never thought about the consequences.”
I nodded slightly in agreement. “What happened that night, Dominic? What happened that night you never went home?” The pain of our last night together was coming back, and I didn’t want to feel it. I tried to push it back down, but it wouldn’t go and I could feel the tears stinging my eyes. However difficult it was, I kept my gaze on his, determined to be strong in the face of my old pain.
“I was caught,” he said simply. “The cops pulled me over just before Bridgewater. I had a good bit of weed and coke on me.” He tried to shrug it off. “I spent some time in jail, of course, but I had a good lawyer. He got me off on technicalities over the paperwork.”
“You never called.” I tried to hide the hurt in my voice, but I don’t think I was successful. “I never knew what happened to you. No one told me. They just told me to forget about you. I found out what happened by reading the paper, Dominic.” Tears flowed freely down my cheeks.
“I’m sorry, Ella.” He scooted his chair around so he was sitting next to me, and held both my hands in a firm, steadying grip. “I thought that was best for you. Really. I didn’t know how long I’d be locked up.” He brushed the tears from my cheeks. “I’m so sorry. I know now that I was wrong. And I know I’m too late, but please believe me, Ella. I loved you. I thought I was doing what was best for you under the circumstances.” He dropped his head to face his lap and was quiet for a minute. “I loved you, Ella.” A shuddering breath escaped him. Then he met my eyes again, tears falling freely from the green depths of his. “I love you still.”
It was my turn to hang my head. So many thoughts and emotions were swirling through my mind and body. I shook my head and said, “I’m married. I have a daughter.” I took my hands from his and wiped my face. “A year ago I thought my world was going to crash and burn. But I survived. We survived. All of us. Michael and Allison and I. Life isn’t what it used to be, but we survived.” I looked up at Dominic. “And now you come waltzing back into my life, and I feel it up-ending all over again.”
“What are you talking about? What happened a year ago?”