THEY FINISHED dinner, both pleased with the meal, neither talking much now. Noah looked at his watch and saw that it was getting late. The stars were shining brightly, the crickets were a little quieter now.
«How about the porch again?» he asked, handing her the cup, and she agreed, leading the way.
He grabbed a quilt for her in case she got cold, and soon they had taken their places again. The quilt was over her legs; their rockers were moving. Noah watched her from the comer of his eye. «God, she’s beautiful,» he thought. And inside he ached.
For something had happened during dinner.
Quite simply, he had fallen in love again. He knew that now as they sat next to one another. Fallen in love with a new Allie, not just her memory. But then he had never really stopped, and this, he realized, was his destiny.
Noah glanced up at the stars, their twinkling lights reminded him that she would be leaving soon, and he felt almost empty inside. This was a night he wanted never to end. How should he tell her? What could he say that would make her stay?
«Talk to me,» she finally said.
«What should I say?»
«Talk like you did to me under the oak tree.»
And he did, reciting distant passages, toasting the night.
She rested her head against the back of the rocker, closing her eyes. It wasn’t just the poems or his voice that did it. It was all of it, the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Lon could not evoke these feelings in her. He never had and probably never would. Maybe that was why she had never been to bed with him. She had always used the excuse that she wanted to wait until marriage. He took it well, usually, and she sometimes wondered how hurt he would be if he ever found out about Noah.
But there was something else that made her want to wait, and it had to do with Lon himself. His work always came first. For him there was no time for poems and wasted evenings on porches. She knew this was why he was successful, and part of her respected him for that. But she also sensed it wasn’t enough. She wanted something more. Passion and romance, perhaps, or quiet conversations.
Noah, too, was thinking. As he rocked, he remembered the thousands of empty nights he had spent since they’d last seen each other. Seeing her again brought all those feelings to the surface, and he found it impossible to press them back down. He knew then he wanted to make love to her again and to have her love in return. It was what he needed most in the world.
But he also realized it could never be. Now that she was engaged.
Allie put down the tea, then ran her hands through her hair, closing her eyes as she did so.
«Are you tired?» he asked, finally breaking free from his thoughts.
«A little. I should really be going in a couple of minutes.»
«I know,» he said, nodding, and his tone was neutral.
She didn’t get up right away. Instead, she picked up the cup and drank the last swallow of tea, feeling it warm her throat. She took the evening in. Moon was higher now; temperature was dropping.
«I should go,» she finally said, handing the quilt back to him.
Noah nodded, and then stood without a word. He carried the quilt, and the two of them walked to her car while fallen leaves crunched beneath their feet. She started to take off the shirt he’d lent her as he opened the door, but he stopped her. «Keep it,» he said. «I want you to have it.»
She didn’t ask why, because she wanted to keep it, too.
«I had a great time tonight,» he said, «thank you for finding me.»
«I did, too,» she answered.
He summoned his courage. «Will I see you tomorrow?»
A simple question. She knew what the answer should be. «I don’t think we should,» was all she had to say, and it would end right here and now. But for a second the demon of choice confronted her, teased her, challenged her. Why couldn’t she say it? As she looked in his eyes to find the answer she needed, she saw the man she’d once fallen in love with, and suddenly it all came clear.
«I’d like that.»
Noah was surprised. He hadn’t expected her to answer this way. He wanted to touch her then, to take her in his arms, but he didn’t.
«Can you be here about noon?»
«Sure. What do you want to do?»
«You’ll see,» he answered. «I know just the place to go.»
«Have I ever been there before?»
«No, but it’s a special place. You’ll love it.»
She moved away before he could attempt a kiss. She slid behind the wheel, breathing a sigh of relief. He shut the door for her, and she started the engine.
«See you tomorrow,» she said.
Noah waved as she turned the car around and then drove up the lane, heading back towards town. He watched until the lights vanished behind far-off oak trees and the engine noise was gone. Clem wandered up to him and they returned to the back porch side by side.
He sat in the rocker again, trying once more to fathom the evening that had just passed. Replaying it. Running it in slow motion. «She’s engaged,» he finally whispered, and then was silent for hours. The night was quiet, with little activity except for Clem, who checked on him occasionally as if to ask, «Are you all right?»