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Chapter 3
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.
Her eyes brimmed with tears as they finally released each other. She laughed nervously while wiping the corners of her eyes.
“Are you okay?” he asked, a thousand other questions on his face.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cry.
“It’s okay,” he said, smiling. “I still can’t believe it’s you. How did you find me?”
She stepped back, trying to compose herself, wiping away the last of her tears. “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 what have you been up to? Why are you here?”
His questions brought her back to the present, making her realize what could happen if she wasn’t careful. Don’t let this get out of hand, she told herself; the longer it goes on, the harder it’s going to be. And she didn’t want it to get any harder.
    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 did want 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..
The air was suddenly rattled by the sharp cry of a raccoon, and Clem came out from under the porch, barking gruffly. Both of them turned at the commotion, and Allie was glad for the distraction.
“Is he yours?” she asked.
Noah nodded, feeling the tightness in his stomach. “Actually it’s a she. Clementine’s her name. But yeah, she’s all mine.” They both watched as Clem stretched, then wandered towards the sounds. Allie’s eyes widened just a bit when she saw her limp away.
“What happened to her leg?” she asked, stalling for time.
“Hit by a car a few months back. Doc Harrison, the vet, called me to see if I wanted her because her owner didn’t any more. After I saw what had happened, I guess I just couldn’t let her be put down."
“You were always nice like that,” she said, trying to relax. She looked past him towards the house. “You did a wonderful job restoring it. It looks perfect, just like I knew it would some day.”
He turned his head in the same direction as hers while he wondered about the small talk and what she was holding back.
“Thanks, that’s nice of you. It was quite a project, though. I don’t know if I would do it again.”
“Of course you would,” she said. She knew exactly how he felt about this place. But then she knew how he felt about everything— or at least she had a long time ago.
And with that she realized they were strangers now. Fourteen years apart was a long time. Too long.
“What is it, Allie?” He turned to her, but she continued to stare at the house.
“I’m being rather silly, aren’t I?” she asked, trying to smile.
“What do you mean?”
“This whole thing. Showing up out of the blue, 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?”
“Why not? I think we both could use one.”
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.”
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 did make what she wanted to say a little harder. It would have been easier if there was someone else.
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 that it seemed as though she were gliding. 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, traits he aspired to himself.
Allie had those traits, he knew, and as they walked now he sensed them once again lingering beneath the surface. “A living poem” had always been the words that came to mind when he tried to describe her to others.
“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, 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 you made it out okay.”
“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 fiancé”
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.
“I’ve heard of them. His father built quite a business. Did Lon take over for him?”
She shook her head. “No, he’s a lawyer. He has his own practice.”
“With his name, he must be busy.”
“He is. He works a lot.”
He thought he heard something in her tone, and the next question came automatically. “Does he treat you well?”
She didn’t answer right away, as if she were considering the question for the first time. Then: “Yes. He’s a good man, Noah. You’d like him.”
Her voice was distant when she answered, or at least he thought it was. Noah wondered if it was just his mind playing tricks on him.
“How’s your daddy doing?” she asked.
Noah took a couple of steps before answering. “He passed on earlier this year, right after I got back.”
“I’m sorry,” she said softly.
He nodded, and they walked on in silence.
They reached the top of the hill and stopped. The oak tree was in the distance, with the sun glowing orange behind it. Allie could feel his eyes on her as she stared in that direction.
“A lot of memories there, Allie.”
She smiled. “I know. I saw it when I came in. Do you remember the day we spent there?”
“Yes,” he answered, volunteering no more.
“Do you ever think about it?”
"Sometimes,” he said. “Usually when I’m working out this way.
It sits on my property now.”
"You bought it?”
I just couldn’t bear to see it turned into kitchen cabinets.”
She laughed under her breath, feeling strangely pleased about that. “Do you still read poetry?
He nodded. “Yeah. I never stopped. I guess it’s in my blood.”
“Do you know, you’re the only poet I’ve ever met.”
“I’m no poet. I read, but I can’t write a verse. I’ve tried.”
“You’re still a poet, Noah Taylor Calhoun.” Her voice softened.
“I still think about it a lot. It was the first time anyone ever read poetry to me. In fact, it’s the only time.”
Her comment made both of them drift back and remember as they slowly circled back to the house, following a new path that passed near the dock.
As the sun dropped a little lower and the sky turned orange, he asked: "So, how long are you staying?”
“I don’t know. Not long. Maybe until tomorrow or the next day.”
"Is your flanc6 here on business?” She shook her head. “No, he’s still in Raleigh.”
Noah raised his eyebrows. “Does he know you’re here?”
She shook her head again and answered slowly. “No. I told him I was looking for antiques. He wouldn’t understand my coming here.”
Noah was a little surprised. It was one thing to come and visit, but it was an entirely different matter to hide the truth from her fiancé.
The gravel crunched beneath their feet as they walked. He asked: “Allie, do you love him?”
She answered automatically. “Yes, I love him.”
The words hurt. But again he thought he heard something in her tone, as if she were saying it to convince herself. He stopped and gently took her shoulders in his hands, making her face him. The fading sunlight reflected in her eyes as he spoke.
“If you’re happy, Allie, and you love him. I won’t try to stop you from going back to him. But if there’s a part of you that isn’t sure, then don’t do it. This isn’t the kind of thing you go into halfway.”
Her answer came almost too quickly. “I’m making the right decision. Noah.”
He stared for a second, wondering if he believed her. Then he nodded and they began to walk again. He said: I’m not making this easy for you, am I.?”
She smiled a little. "It’s okay. I really can’t blame you.”
"I’m sorry anyway."
"Don’t be. There’s no reason to be sorry. I’m the one who should be apologizing. Maybe I should have written.”
He shook his head. "I’m glad you came. It’s good to see you again. You were the best friend I ever had, Allie. I’d still like to be friends, even if you are engaged, and even if it is just for a couple of days. How about we just kind of get to know each other again?”
She thought about it, and decided that since he knew about her engagement, it would probably be all right. Or at least not wrong.
She smiled slightly and nodded. "I’d like that.”
"Good. How about dinner? I know a place that serves the best crab in town.”
"Sounds great. Where?”
"My house. I’ve had the traps out all week, and I saw that I had some good ones caged a couple of days ago. Do you mind?”
"No, that sounds fine.”
He smiled and pointed over his shoulder with his thumb.
"Great. They’re at the dock. I’ll just be a couple of minutes.”
Allie watched him walk away and noticed the tension she’d felt when telling him about her engagement beginning to fade. Closing her eyes, she ran her hands through her hair and let the breeze fan her cheek. She took a deep breath and held it for a moment, feeling the muscles in her shoulders relax as she exhaled. Finally, opening her eyes, she stared at the beauty that surrounded her. She always loved evenings like this, when the faint aroma of autumn leaves rode on soft southern winds. She loved the trees and the sounds they made. Listening to them helped her relax even more. After a moment, she turned towards the dock and looked at Noah.
God, he looked good. Even after all this time.
She watched him as he reached for a rope that hung in the water. He began to pull it, and despite the darkening sky she saw the muscles in his arm flex as he lifted the cage from the water. He let it hang over the river for a moment and shook it, letting most of the water escape. After setting the trap on the dock, he opened it and began to remove the crabs one by one, placing them into a bucket.
She looked around and realized she had forgotten how fresh and beautiful everything seemed here. Over her shoulder, as she walked over to join Noah, she saw he had left a couple of lights on in the house. It seemed to be the only house around. At least the only one with electricity.
She stepped on the dock and it creaked under her foot. The sound reminded her of a rusty squeezebox. Noah glanced up, then went back to checking the crabs, making sure they were the right size. She walked to the rocker that sat on the dock and touched it, running her hand along the back. She could picture him sitting in it, fishing, thinking, reading. It was old and weather-beaten, rough-feeling. She wondered how much time he spent here alone, and about his thoughts at times like those.
A compulsion had driven her here, and for the first time in three weeks the feeling was gone. She’d needed Noah to know about her engagement, to understand, to accept it—she was sure of that now. While thinking of him, she was reminded of something they shared the summer they were together. With head down, she paced around slowly until she found it—the carving. Noah loves Allie, in a heart. Carved into the dock a few days before she’d left.
A breeze broke the stillness and chilled her, making her cross her arms. She stood that way, alternately looking down at the caning and then towards the river, until she heard him reach her side. She could feel his closeness, his warmth.
“It’s so peaceful here,” she said, her voice dreamlike.
“I know. I come down here a lot now just to be close to the water. It makes me feel good. Come on, let’s go. The mosquitoes are getting vicious, and I’m starved.”
 
THE SKY had turned black and they started towards the house. In the silence Allie’s mind wandered and she felt a little light-headed. She wondered what he was thinking about her being here and wasn’t exactly sure if she knew herself. When they reached the house a couple of minutes later, Clem greeted them on the back porch.
Noah set the bucket by the door, then led the way inside to the kitchen. It was on the right, large and smelling of new wood. The cabinets had been done in oak, like the floor, and the windows were large and faced east, allowing the light from the morning sun. It was a tasteful restoration, not overdone as was so often the case when homes like this were rebuilt.
“Do you mind if I look around?”
“No, go ahead. I did some shopping earlier and I still have to put the groceries away.”
She toured the house for the next few minutes, walking through the rooms, noticing how wonderful it looked. She came down the stairs, turned towards the kitchen, and saw his profile. For a second he looked like a young man of seventeen again, and it made her pause a split second before going on. Damn, she thought, get a hold of yourself. Remember that you’re engaged now.
He was standing by the counter; a couple of cabinet doors open wide, empty grocery bags on the floor, whistling quietly.
“It’s unbelievable, Noah. How long did the restoration take?”
He looked up from the last bag he was unpacking. “Almost a year."
“Did you do it all yourself?”
He laughed. “No. I always thought I would when I was young, and I started that way. But it was just too much. It would have taken years, and so I ended up hiring some people. . . actually a lot of people. But even with them it was still a lot of work, and most of the time I didn’t stop until past midnight.”
“Why’d you work so hard?”
Ghosts, he wanted to say, but didn’t.
“I don’t know. Just wanted to finish, I guess. Do you want anything to drink before I start dinner?”
“What do you have?”
“Not much, really. Beer, tea, coffee.”
“Tea sounds good.”
He gathered the grocery bags and put them away, then walked to a small room off the kitchen before returning with a box of tea. He pulled out a couple of tea bags and put them by the stove, then filled the kettle. After standing it on the burner, he lit a match and she heard the sound of flames as they came to life.
“It’ll be just a minute,” he said, “this stove heats up pretty quick.”
“That’s fine.”
When the kettle whistled, he poured two cups and handed one to her. She smiled and took a sip.
“I’m going to get the crabs in to marinate for a few minutes before I steam ‘em,” he said, putting his cup on the counter. He went to the cupboard and removed a large pot with a steamer and lid. He brought the pot to the sink, added water, then carried it to the stove.
“Can I give you a hand with something?”
He answered over his shoulder: “Sure. How about cutting up some vegetables to fry. There’s plenty in the icebox, and you can find a bowl over there.”
He motioned to the cabinet near the sink, and she took another sip of tea before setting her cup on the counter and retrieving the bowl. She carried it to the icebox and found some okra, courgettes, onions and carrots on the bottom shelf. Noah joined her in front of the open door, and she moved to make room for him. She could smell him as he stood next to her—clean, familiar, distinctive—and felt his arm brush against her as he leaned over and reached inside. He removed a beer and a bottle of hot sauce, then returned to the stove.
Noah opened the beer and poured it in the water, then added the hot sauce and some other seasoning. After stirring the water to make sure the powders dissolved, he went to the back door to get the crabs.
He paused for a moment before going back inside and stared at Allie, watching her cut the carrots. As he did that, he wondered again why she had come, especially now that she was engaged. None of this made much sense to him. But then Allie had always been surprising.
He smiled, remembering the way she had been. Fiery, spontaneous, passionate—as he imagined most artists to be. And she was definitely that. Artistic talent like hers was a gift. He remembered seeing some paintings in the museums in New York and thinking that her work was just as good.
She had given him a painting before she’d left that summer. It hung above the fireplace in the living room. She’d called it a picture of her dreams, and to him it had seemed extremely sensual. When he looked at it, and he often did late in the evening, he could see desire in the colours and the lines, and if he focused carefully he could imagine what she had been thinking with every stroke.
A dog barked in the distance, and Noah realized he had been standing with the door open a long time. He closed it quickly and went into the kitchen.
“How’s it going?” he asked, seeing she was nearly finished.
“Good. I’m almost done here. Anything else for dinner?”
“I have some homemade bread that I was planning on. From a neighbour,” he added as he put the pail in the sink. He began to rinse the crabs, holding them under the tap, then letting them scurry around the sink while he rinsed the next one. Allie picked up her cup and came over to watch him.
“Aren’t you afraid they’ll pinch you?”
“No. Just grab ‘em like this,” he said, demonstrating.
She smiled. “I forget you’ve done this your whole life.”
She leaned against the counter, standing close to him, and emptied her cup. When the crabs were ready he put them in the pot on the stove. He washed his hands, turning to speak to her as he did so.
“You want to sit on the porch for a few minutes? I’d like to let them marinate for a half-hour.”
“Sure,” she said.
He wiped his hands, and together they went to the back porch. Noah flicked on the light as they went outside, and he sat in the older rocker, offering the newer one to her. When he saw her cup was empty, he went inside for a moment and emerged with a refill and a beer for himself. He held out the cup and she took it, sipping again before she put it on the table beside the chairs.
“You were sitting out here when I came, weren’t you?”
“Yeah. ............
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