That night, when the quartet returned to the cabin, Ashlee and Ryan retreated to their room, anxious for a moment alone together. Jessica kicked off her heels and sat down on the couch, sighing. Her mind was whirling with the thought of Nick. Memories swirled around in her brain, creating a storm of emotion. She closed her eyes and reclined her head, hoping that this tumult would end. It had to. She couldn’t spend her whole life wondering what could have been with Nick.
And what about Josh? she thought sleepily, as she drifted off to a dreamless slumber that came so easily that Jessica herself didn’t realize she had fallen asleep.
Josh came into the room sometime later and stood for a second, watching her with his eyebrows furrowed.
Dinner had been quite different after Jessica and Ashlee had returned from the bathroom. Ashlee was gushing about some guy from across the room who looked like the embodiment of Tall, Dark, and Handsome, but Jessica hardly said anything. She offered a comment every now and then, but for the most part, she was silent. Ashlee and Ryan both had seemed to do fine without Jessica’s input, even though Josh had noticed that Ashlee had slid worried glances her sister’s way.
Now Jessica had her head reclined on the back of the couch, face tilted upward. Her shoes were off, discarded nearby. The strapless dress revealed Jessica’s soft skin, and Josh’s fingertips tingled in anticipation. Wanting to be next to his wife, Josh crossed the room quietly and sat down on the couch beside her.
Jessica, however, didn’t move a muscle.
Hmm, Josh mused thoughtfully. So he trailed a fingertip down her bare arm, watching and waiting for her reaction. She still didn’t move. He leaned in closer, catching the scent of the perfume she wore and felt himself harden. Damn, he wanted her, and wanted her badly.
“Sweetheart,” he whispered fetchingly into her ear. “Are you awake?”
Suddenly, Jessica snorted in her sleep. Josh sighed in exasperation and muttered an oath under his breath. He paused a moment before picking Jessica up and taking her to their bedroom where she dreamed about a clear winter sky filled with twinkling stars. Josh, however, slept fitfully due to his sexual frustration.
* * *
At the other cabin, Claudia-Michelle sat at the piano wearing one of Aidan’s shirts while Nick and Aidan were around her, Nick on the piano bench and Aidan on the couch. She was playing an upbeat song. Nick was making up lyrics. Katie was in bed, probably asleep. After they had returned from Belvidere’s, Aidan had cracked open a bottle of wine and Katie had retreated to her and Nick’s bedroom. Now the trio, particularly Claudia-Michelle, found themselves feeling slightly tipsy.
The night is cold, I can’t sleep without you
‘Cause loneliness is a disease I can’t cure
Not without your love, baby
When Claudia-Michelle messed up a note, she broke off and sent Nick and Aidan into peals of laughter.
“I thought you could play better than that, Claud,” Nick joked. Claudia-Michelle shoved at him and he nearly fell off of the piano bench.
“I am the greatest pianist in the world,” Claudia-Michelle declared.
“The most drunk, you mean,” Aidan commented from the couch.
“That makes me even more great!” Claudia-Michelle went back to playing. “Hey, shouldn’t we all be in bed?”
Aidan got up from the couch and scooped Claudia-Michelle up from the bench. Before Claudia-Michelle could protest, Aidan had her in his lap. Nick shook his head in amusement.
“If you two want to go to bed,” Nick began, but Claudia-Michelle waved a hand in a dismissive gesture.
“Aidan can hold his hormones,” Claudia-Michelle assured Nick. She looked down at Aidan. “You can control your hormones, can’t you?” She didn’t give Aidan time to answer. “Oh it doesn’t matter anyway. I need to talk to Nick.”
Nick glanced up from the keys. “What have I done now?”
“That’s a good question.” Claudia-Michelle swatted away Aidan’s curious hands. “Maybe you can tell me. Do you know a girl named Jessica…”
Nick’s heartbeat skipped when he heard the sound of that name.
“…Martin? I ran into her tonight in the bathroom. She seemed…to know you. Do you know her?”
As the drunkenness inspired by the wine began to slowly evaporate, his mind was left glaringly clear. He could lie and allow Claudia-Michelle to hurt him later. Or he could tell the truth and risk Katie overhearing. He worried that Katie would become even more jealous than she already was of Claudia-Michelle. And a jealous woman was hard enough to deal with.
So he decided to lie.
“Jessica…Martin—you said?” Claudia-Michelle stared at him intently, awaiting his answer. “Oh no, I don’t know a Jessica Martin.”
Before Claudia-Michelle could speak, Aidan asked, “Who’s Jessica Martin? Should we know her?”
“I’m just trying to figure out if Nick does.” Seeming a little sober now, Claudia-Michelle tilted her head quizzically. “Are you lying to me, Nick?”
A silent moment passed. Claudia-Michelle stared at Nick with omniscient aqua eyes. He stared back, gaze unwavering. Did she know? What would she say?
Aidan laughed and hoisted Claudia-Michelle up into his arms. Nick had to reign in his sigh of relief.
“This is quite enough,” Aidan told Claudia-Michelle. “You and I are going to bed.” Claudia-Michelle threatened bodily harm if he didn’t put her down. “No. Not going to work this time.” He nodded at Nick. “Good night, mate. Have fun on your own.”
Nick smiled as he heard Claudia-Michelle protest as they went down the hall to their bedroom. Claudia-Michelle was a strong woman, and Aidan knew it, but he had the foresight of a wise man. He knew when she needed to be stopped. No matter what wounds he endured in the process.
His smile faded as he thought of Jessica. It had been seven years since they had seen each other, and their last meeting had been tearful, miserable. But he lowered his head and allowed himself to remember.
* * *
Seven years ago, wintertime
The cold still persisted like a stubborn smell on old cloth. A snow shower the night before had covered the world in whiteness. She had looked out her window that morning and been bowled over with wonder. Never before had she seen this phenomenon. But now she was amid the cold snow and the overcast sky, but she hardly felt her cold, reddened nose and sluggish boots. The pain in her heart was more immense that the little pinpricks of pain the chilliness brought.
“You’re leaving?” she asked. She tried to keep her voice strong, but she knew it wobbled. “When?”
He could feel her sadness because he was feeling the same thing. He told himself the best thing was to be strong about the situation. If he allowed himself to break down, then she would break down, and they both would be here in the snow, a crying, lamenting mess.
“In a week,” he replied. “My dad has to start his new job as soon as possible. I wish I could stay here, but we’ve already talked about it. It’s a better opportunity for our family.” He brushed his lips across her brow. “I’m really sorry. I…”
She shook her head. “No. Don’t say that if you don’t mean it.”
“I do mean it,” he insisted, then sighed. “I love you. I wish I could be in two places at once. But I can’t.”
She took his hand in her smaller one. “Could we…at least keep in touch?”
“I would want nothing less,” he told her, and kissed her gently.
Something seemed to change then. Something bloomed between them that had been lying dormant. He knew what it was and was astonished to sense it coming from her. It was desire. Surprised, he pulled away and stared at her. Her cheeks were pink, her eyes wild. As if she saw the question in his eyes, she nodded imperceptibly. He just blinked at her, incredulous.
She looked at him with earnest eyes. “I want to. I really want to. I—”
He took her by the shoulders and looked into her large brown eyes. Yes, there was nervousness there, but it was accompanied by something else: tranquility. She was peaceful with the decision she made. That relaxed something inside of him, and he took her into his arms. When he kissed her, he knew. She wanted this—and not in a token sense. She made a decision, and she wasn’t going to regret it one bit.
“When?” he asked quietly.
Not wanting to feel the cold coming between them, she moved closer to him. “Whenever you want.”
* * *
Nick raised his head as the flashback ended. Their first and only time had been full of nerves, full of tears, full of promises. After that, he picked up with his family and moved a thousand miles away. He shook his head at the events that happened afterward.
Jessica and I had tried to continue our relationship, but we couldn’t. We lost touch. We just gave up writing, gave up calling. Then there was nothing but silence. And I never heard from her again.
There had been bits and pieces over the years. Nick had heard when Jessica graduated high school and struck out on her own. He had heard when she had gotten married, but he didn’t allow himself to think about it. He was a successful musician with cities to tour, songs to write. Now he had his girlfriend, and marriage talk was impending. He knew he would get married eventually to Katie. It was the only way things could be.
But, as he thought about it, he suddenly wished things could change.