NEITHER ONE of them moved as they faced each other.
As she stared at him, she noticed how little he had changed since she had last seen him. He looked good, she thought. He looked the same as he had when she had 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 smiled. «You too,» he said. «It’s really you, isn’t it? I can’t believe it…»
She felt something tremble 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, and he put his arms around her. 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.
«I still can’t believe it’s you. How did you find me?» asked he.
She stepped back, trying to compose herself. «I saw the story on the house in the Raleigh paper a couple of weeks ago, and I had to come and see you again.»
Noah smiled broadly. «I’m glad you did.» He stepped back. «You look fantastic. You’re even prettier now than you were then.»
She felt the blood in her face. Just like fourteen years ago.
«Thank you. You look great, too.» And he did, no doubt about it.
«So why are you here?»
She turned away and took a deep breath, wondering how to say it, and when she finally started, her voice was quiet. «Noah, before you get the wrong idea, I really wanted to see you again, but there’s more to it than just that.» She paused for a second. «I came here for a reason. There’s something I have to tell you.»
«What is it?»
She looked away and didn’t answer for a moment, surprised that she couldn’t tell him just yet. In the silence, Noah felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. Whatever it was, it was bad.
«I don’t know how to say it. I thought I did at first, but now I’m not so sure…»
«What is it, Allie?»
«I’m rather silly, aren’t I?» she asked, trying to smile.
«What do you mean?»
«This whole thing. Showing up suddenly, not knowing what I want to say. You must think I’m crazy.»
«You’re not crazy,» he said gently. He reached for her hand, and she let him hold it as they stood next to one another. He went on, «Even though I don’t know why, I can see this is hard for you. Why don’t we go for a walk?»
«Like we used to?»
She hesitated and looked to his front door. «Do you need to tell anyone?»
He shook his head. «There’s no one to tell. It’s just me and Clem, my dog.»
Even though she had asked, she had suspected there wouldn’t be anyone else, and inside she didn’t know how to feel about that. But it made what she wanted to say a little harder.
They started towards the river and turned onto a path near the bank. She let go of his hand and walked on with just enough distance between them so that they couldn’t accidentally touch.
He looked at her. She was still pretty, with thick hair and soft eyes, and she moved so gracefully. He’d seen beautiful women before, women who caught his eye, but to his mind, they usually lacked the traits he found most desirable. Traits like intelligence, confidence, strength of spirit, passion, traits that inspired others to greatness.
Allie had those traits, he knew, and as they walked now he sensed them once again.
«How long have you been back here?» she asked as the path gave way to a small grass hill.
«Since last December. I worked up north for a while, and then spent the last three years in Europe.»
She looked at him with questions in her eyes. «The war?» He nodded and she went on.
«I thought you might be there. I’m glad it’s finished.» «Me too,» he said.
«Are you glad to be back home?»
«Yeah. My roots are here. This is where I’m supposed to be.» He paused. «But what about you?» He asked the question softly, suspecting the worst.
It was a long moment before she answered. «I’m engaged.» He looked down when she said it, suddenly feeling just a bit weaker. So that was it. That’s what she needed to tell him.
«Congratulations,» he finally said, wondering how convincing he sounded. «When’s the big day?»
«Three weeks. Lon wanted a November wedding.» «Lon?»
«Lon Hammond Junior. My fiance.»
He nodded. The Hammonds were one of the most powerful and influential families in the state. Cotton money. Unlike that of his own father, the death of Lon Hammond Senior had made the front page of the newspaper.