The night was beautiful, unusually mild for the season. “How about a walk along the river?” he asked. “The water fire is tonight.”
“What a coincidence,” she teased, and didn’t think twice about grabbing his hand when he extended it.
Hand in hand, Rick and Abby strolled along the river. Hidden speakers offered the eclectic sounds of primitive chants and tribal drums. Alluring smells of vendor delicacies wafted on unseasonably warm breezes. Side streets were cordoned off and police officers rerouted traffic. Amongst thousands of pedestrians, the walk along the river moved like a stream of warm pudding.
They felt comfortably alone in each other’s company, occasionally stopping to point out something they had spotted and wanted to share.
Although Abby only had two glasses of wine, she felt lightheaded—almost drunk.
As if lovers were sworn to secrecy, other couples offered subtle nods in greeting—with Rick and Abby returning each gesture.
Steel fire pits sat several feet out of the water, lining the middle of the river every thousand yards. Old, wooden boats filled with thespians dressed in black threw fresh-split cordwood onto each. Like swarms of angry fireflies, a million sparks scurried into the air. Bright orange and red flames licked at the black sky, as strong smells of burnt oak and cedar reminded folks of cozy summer campfires and the love that could be shared beneath a starry sky.
At the end of the path, Rick summoned one of the many hawkers to buy Abby a single red rose.
She accepted the gift with a smile. “Good thing this isn’t a date,” she joked again.
“Good thing,” he repeated.
After hugging him, she kissed his cheek. “Thank you for this wonderful experience, Richard,” she said. “I mean it. This night has been absolutely amazing.”
“I only supplied half of it,” he replied, and hugged her again. “Thank you for the other half.”
Walking slowly, they started back toward their cars.
* * *
Once they reached the parking lot behind the Blue Grotto, Rick turned to Abby and cleared his throat. “Let me take you out again this weekend.” It was more of a statement than a request.
Abby shook her head and kissed his cheek. “I’d love to, Richard. Believe me, I would. But it’s not just about what I want. I still need to get Paige settled in. She’s not used to…”
He placed his finger to her lips. “Okay,” he said, “then when?”
She thought about it and shook her head. “I honestly don’t know.” She shrugged. “But what I do know is that our timing couldn’t be any worse right now.” She searched his eyes. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am, Richard. I wish…”
He looked surprised and devastated, all at the same time. “Not even as friends?” he asked.
She looked deeper into his eyes. “I’d love that, but do you really think that you and I could just be friends?”
He smirked, and then shrugged. “I don’t know.” He thought for a moment. “A different place, a different time, I think you and I…”
“Who knows what the future holds,” she said, stopping him from saying any more.
“Friends then,” he said, and kissed her cheek. “I understand.”
“Thank you,” she said, but she could tell by his tone that he didn’t understand at all. “I’ll be seein’ ya,” she said, and hurried off to her car while she still had the strength.
“Yeah,” he said. “See you around.”
* * *
With his head spinning, Rick got into his car and began replaying every second of their time together. As he drove away, he could still smell Abby on his clothes and hoped the scent would last. It had been an eternity since he’d felt this way about anyone.
* * *
When her mom returned home from her “dinner with an old friend,” Paige was sprawled out on the couch, pretending to be asleep. Abby took a seat beside her. Even with her heart pounding in her ears, Paige dared not stir. Abby pulled the blanket over her and kissed her forehead. “Night, babe,” she whispered, and quietly stepped out of the room.
Paige slowly opened her eyes and took a deep breath. “Just the two of us, huh?” she whispered, and fought back the tears.