He could hardly wait to slide his fingers into it and feel the thick strands slip like water between them.
A date, he reminded himself. This was only a date.
“We aren’t going anyplace fancy, are we?” she asked, sounding anxious.
“No need for velvet tonight.” He crossed the room to her and touched her chin, lifting it until their eyes met. “I like what you’re wearing.” Especially the way the skirt revealed those legs that went on forever.
Definitely a downside to the floor-length gowns of past centuries.
He took her to Mario’s, a local pizza joint his brother had introduced him to the first week he was in Elk Springs. A thick yeasty crust and distinctive mix of cheeses made their pizza one of a kind. The place was big, barnlike, with private booths and candlelight. Comfortable, but atmospheric enough for an evening out.
Melanie didn’t introduce him to her daughter and he didn’t ask where the girl was. They chatted about nothing special on the short drive, then argued amiably over which pizza toppings to order before finally sitting down with a pitcher of beer. She barely sipped at hers, Kevin noticed.
Seeing his glance, Melanie made a face. “I get tipsy easily. Then I don’t know how to shut up.”
“Let secrets slip out, do you?” he asked, amused.
“Tell me one now,” he challenged her. “Or at least, something significant about you.”
She didn’t disappoint him. Her chin came up and she said, “I don’t intend to ever leave Elk Springs. I’ve traveled all my life and now I’m staying put.”
His reaction to her confident announcement was a peculiar mix. He’d never imagined staying in one place forever. The idea made him…edgy. Claustrophobic. He also felt admiration and even envy at her certainty—he didn’t quite know what he was going to do with the rest of his life. And finally, a kind of panic rippled at the edges of his awareness. What was he doing here with her, a woman who lived behind a white picket fence, that universal symbol of domesticity?
“What kind of travel?” he asked. “Tell me.”
While they waited for their pizza, she talked about her childhood as an Air Force brat. Her father had been transferred frequently, dragging his family along. Base housing was almost indistinguishable from place to place, but friends were always left behind.
“Florida, Germany, Japan, California, Washington—we never stayed more than three years anywhere. My daydreams were always of a real home. Marrying a boy I’d known since kindergarten.” She grimaced. “So guess who I married?”
“A fighter pilot?” he hazarded.
“A baseball player.”
He almost laughed, her answer was so unexpected.
“Minor league. Of course, we just knew he was going to make the big time, and then we’d have it all. For the moment, I’d travel with him and we’d live in crummy rental housing, but once he was a Yankee or a Blue Jay or an Angel, we’d buy a house and start a family, and I could join him sometimes on road trips, just for fun. The only thing is, he didn’t make it that far. He got called up and then sent down again and then got traded. One town after another. We lived in lousy apartments and mobile homes, and half the time he was gone. I got pregnant by accident, and once Angie was born, it was harder. Ryan wasn’t ready to be a father, he admitted.” Pain finally showed on her gentle face. “Then I found out he was seeing other women when the team was on the road. There I was, trying hard to make a home, and he didn’t want one.”
As if by instinct, Kevin’s hand covered hers on the table. “What did you do?”
“I came home to Elk Springs,” Melanie said simply. “My grandmother lived here, in that house. My whole life, she was here. We’d visit, sometimes, for two weeks, or later I’d even stay all summer.” She wasn’t seeing him again, her gaze poignantly fixed on the past. “I had my own bedroom, upstairs under the eaves, with flowered wallpaper she let me pick out myself. It’s Angie’s bedroom now. Oh, how I wanted to stay and go to school in Elk Springs, but my parents wouldn’t let me.” Her voice ached with longing. “After my divorce, though, Nana welcomed Angie and me with open arms. She encouraged me to go into business for myself.” Melanie’s eyes met his again, the sadness in them telling him the end to this story. “She died last winter and left me the house.”
“And you’re never leaving it.”
“That’s right.” She sounded utterly composed. “I want my daughter to grow up in one place, with friendships that span more than a year or two. I love what I do for a living, being able to walk at night without worrying, knowing the people in every business I frequent. I like to plant perennials and bulbs and know I’ll see them come up in the spring. Hawaii in the winter might be nice—for two weeks. Then give me home.” She smiled. “I think that’s our number they’re calling. Then it’s your turn.”
“My turn?” He slid out of the booth.
His secret. Damn. Did he tell her about the bullet he’d taken in his gut? Or the revelation he’d had afterward as he slowly recovered in a hospital bed?
Kevin grabbed the pizza and two plates, bringing them back to the table. He tried to figure out what to say to her as he dished up thick slices and swore when strands of cheese wrapped around his fingers.
Be honest about the changes in his life? Admit he was feeling his way like a man in the woods on a pitch-black night? One who knew which way to go, or thought he did, if he hadn’t been turned around completely, or if the moon cloaked in clouds wasn’t really behind him, instead of ahead?
Or stick to what he did know?
“Tell me something significant about you,” she said, after enjoying her first bite.
“When I was growing up, I never wanted a home.” Scare her off, why don’t you? he thought, seeing her startlement. “My father loved the wilderness,” he explained. “We camped, hiked, backpacked, cross-country skied. Every minute when he wasn’t working, we headed into the backcountry. Scott loved the out-of-doors, too, but once he discovered alpine skiing, that was it for him. Me?” Kevin shrugged. “I liked the silence and the loneliness of the forest or the canyons. When you cross-country ski, the only sound is the swish of your own skis on the snow, the plop of a heavy clump falling from a branch. I like being in places where I’m the only human for miles. I dreamed of manning one of those lonely fire lookouts or testing the water in salmon-spawning streams in the Olympic Mountains.”
“Then why did you become a college professor?” she asked tentatively.
“I’ve been in the National Park Service the past fifteen years. But it’s changed.” While they ate he talked about the crowds who were ruining the great wilderness areas saved as national parks; about the vandalism and the crime and the increasing role park rangers had as law-enforcement officers. “The pay is no great shakes,” he concluded, “the housing is similar to what you described on military bases, the transfers got old… I found myself trying to restore meadows trampled by millions of feet, instead of interpreting the pristine wilderness for eager visitors. I woke up one day—” in a hospital bed “—and realized the job wasn’t for me anymore. Scott told me about an opening here in Elk Springs, at the community college, teaching forestry and park management, and I grabbed it. He loves Elk Springs, it looked like a nice town on my visits, and if I hanker for the backcountry, there’s plenty of it within an easy drive.” He gestured, a slice of pizza in his hand.
“So here I am.”
“Then you’ve never taught?”
“I was primarily a naturalist with the Park Service, which means I spent the greater part of my career leading groups on nature walks, designing interpretive centers or hikes, writing handouts and so on. All teaching, in a way.”
Melanie was easy to talk to. He admitted to his cowardice on the day he’d walked into his first classroom. But now he found the teaching stimulating. A few kids were taking one of his classes because it met some requirement and they thought it would be a no-brainer. Those were discovering their mistake. The other kids were excited. Many had grown up in Elk Springs or Bend or Medford, and they’d spent their youths hiking in these mountains or rock-hunting in the high-desert country. They wanted to know how to protect the wilderness, how to log responsibly, how to follow a career in the park or forest services.
The evening passed with incredible speed. Usually closemouthed, Kevin realized he’d talked away a good deal of it. When he wasn’t talking but listening, he was captivated by Melanie’s face. The delicate line of her cheeks, her small nose, the widow’s peak her brown hair formed on her graceful forehead. All fascinated him and somehow added up to an utterly feminine face, which was also strong. He could see the will beneath the softness.
He had always had an image of women who were homebodies, whose greatest dreams were to sew and raise children, and they were nothing like Melanie Parker. As the end of the evening neared, Kevin found that his resistance to seriously seeing a woman like her was crumbling with nary a whimper.
Big deal. Another date. Another few dates. He wasn’t asking her to marry him, was he?
And dammit, he had decided in that hospital bed to change his life, to settle down. Okay, he hadn’t thought as far ahead as marriage or children or a white picket fence, but would it be so bad? He’d left the Park Service—although technically he was on leave and hadn’t resigned. Maybe Elk Springs would become his permanent home. Maybe he’d met Melanie Parker for a reason.
“You’re staring,” she said.
He hadn’t even realized she’d quit talking. “I’m sorry. I was thinking—” why not admit it? “—about kissing you good-night. Come on.” He slid from the booth and held out his hand for hers. “Let’s go.”
Pink rose in her cheeks, but after only the tiniest hesitation she laid her hand in his and scooted out. Neither had brought coats, although the nights were starting to get cold.
Unfortunately downtown Elk Springs was bustling. People emerged from restaurants, and the gallery across the street had something going on. Music, light and voices poured from it. Kevin had a moment of frustration and even irritation. If he and Melanie were backpacking, they could be lying on their sleeping bags right now staring up at a sky spangled vividly with stars, not washed out by electric lights. Maybe the coals of a small fire would glow beside them. Didn’t these people in town ever long for solitude, silence, a pure experience of the earth as it had been created?
Melanie saw his face and tugged at his hand. “Let’s walk down by the river.”
“Sure.” His bad mood passed as quickly as it had come. He wasn’t used to crowds anymore. He would adjust. Melanie might be just the person to help him.
A block away, they left behind the busy sidewalks and soon found the city park on the banks of the Deschutes in front of them. He’d have liked to throw rocks and break the lights illuminating the parking lot, but at least the grassy bank of the river was dark, the whisper of the river current more powerful than the now-muted voices behind them.