Nate Cambridge sat at the little bar inside the restaurant where he and his father had last dined before the accident. His father, who had loved luxury, often patronized the posh Gorham Hotel. Even though Nate lived only thirty miles away, he’d decided to spend the night here to be close to his father’s memory. And this was more meaningful than that damned memorial service he’d just attended.
With his right hand, he rotated the rocks glass of Johnny Walker, watching the golden highlights bounce between the glass and high polish of the ebony bar. The plane had crashed a week ago. The only reason he’d gone to the airline-sponsored memorial service was to escort his mother, who’d insisted. She’d also insisted that he place a memento into the cask provided for that purpose, before it was lowered into the ocean. So now, his duties were over and his only goal was to devote himself to forgetting the horrible visions of the accident.
He’d been there, seen his father get on the plane, saw the wing disintegrate, then pasted himself against the terminal window and called out to his father as the plane plunged into the ocean. Nate put the glass to his lips and let the warm scotch pour out slowly into his mouth.
He told himself that it was the sting of straight liquor that brought new tears to his eyes, and tried to ignore the dark puffy shadows beneath them, reflected in the huge mirror behind the bar. Beyond his reflection, he noticed a woman whom he’d seen at the memorial service. She still wore her black suit from earlier and she stared at her food and moved her fork back and forth on her plate.
Nate left ten dollars next to his empty glass as he slid off the cushioned bar stool, then approached her slowly. “Excuse me.” He waited until she looked up and he saw that her clear green eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. “I, uh, was at the memorial service today and saw you there.” He hesitated, then motioned toward the bar. “I was here having a drink and,” he faltered, “Would you mind some company?”
The corners of her mouth angled up and her eyes narrowed with sarcasm. “Yes, I’d like the company of my dead father, who wasn’t supposed to be in New York in the first place.” She let go of her fork and dabbed at her nose with a tissue.
“I’m sorry. I lost my father, too.” Nate didn’t know what to do with his hands, so he stuffed them into his pants pockets and looked at her. Her golden skin tone and sun-streaked hair told him she was from out of state, someplace warm, and her voice had a smooth, cultured feel to it.
She dropped her hands into her lap and sighed. “Forgive me. I’m sorry about your loss as well, Mr. –“
Nate let go of the keys in his right pocket and extended his hand. “Nathan Cambridge.” He held her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze and shake. “Nate.”
“Alayna Henry.” She motioned toward the place across from her. “I guess I could use some company right now.”
Nate slid into the booth and with a nod, caught the attention of the waiter, who brought over another set of silverware and a glass of water and menu. “Looks like your dinner has congealed.”
She shoved the plate away. “It’s been here a while.”
“Yeah. I’ve had trouble lately, too.” Nate shook out his napkin and draped it over his left knee. “But tonight, I’m going to give it a try. Do you want to try again?”
She shook her head. “You go ahead.”
He opened his menu and looked at it a moment, then looked back to her. “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you let me order something for you? You might change your mind when it gets here.”
She smiled slightly. “Suit yourself. It’s your nickel.”
It’d be a damn site more than a nickel, but she looked wan and tired, fragile. So when the waiter reappeared, he ordered eggplant parmesan for them both and a bottle of wine. It didn’t occur to him until they were alone again that he’d ordered exactly what he and his father had eaten their last night together. He looked at Alayna to see if she could read it on his face, but her eyes were down again, watching her fingers as they twisted the stem of her water glass around one way, and then the other. Nate cleared his throat. “My father and I used to come here.”
She stopped twisting her glass and looked at him as the waiter reappeared, poured a taste of the wine for him, and Nate approved it. “Did he travel often?” The waiter filled their glasses and finally left.
Nate drained half of his wine before answering. “He did.”
She nodded, and it felt like she understood how it had been to have an often absent father. “It was a nice memorial.”
Nate scoffed. “Yeah.”
“You don’t think so?”
He finished the rest of his wine and reached for the bottle. “They didn’t even recover a single bod – thing from the wreck.” He pulled the bottle out of the ice bucket, and the ice sloshed. “Big deal,” he said, as he filled his glass to just below the rim, noticing that she’d only sipped her own. “We got to put a momento into a cask that got dumped into the ocean. I don’t see the point.”
She looked wide-eyed at him and shook her head. “I do. One day, your father’s alive, the next he’s not.” Alayna raised her hand from her glass and moved it in the air. “It was too abrupt, too catastrophic, to just say, oh well, he’s gone and that’s that.” She took another small sip of her wine. “A person just can’t do that. It’s not natural.”
“Maybe not, but it’s what I’m going to do.” At least, he was going to try his damnedest.
“I don’t believe you. You came over here because you wanted to talk about it.”
He leaned back. “No, I wanted to talk to you.”
Alayna leaned her cheek into her palm and looked at him. “You can’t run away from it.”
He leaned forward, took her right hand in his, and stroked the top of it with his thumb. It was unbelievably smooth. “I’m not running away.” He looked at their hands and then at her. “I’m moving on.” Nate became acutely aware of their skin on skin contact and he began to believe he could actually push the tragedy out of his mind.
She pulled her hand away, leaving Nate feeling almost bereft, and grabbed the stem of her wineglass. “Well, it’s none of my business. But I can’t move on until I find out what my father was doing here.”
“He hadn’t told you where he was going?”
“Yes. But he told me he was traveling to Texas.”
“Ah,” he sighed. “The world is full of people hurting the people they love.” Nate shook his head.
“Yes, well, I’m staying until I find out what he was doing here.”
Nate grimaced. She looked too sad to be made even more upset by what she’d discover, and too beautiful for more tears. He cleared his throat. “Maybe his secrets should be left buried with him.”
She shook her head. “I thought I knew him.” Her words were tremulous, and she pressed the tissue to her eyes.
Nate’s chest tightened. “I don’t think anyone could ever know everything about a person. And it doesn’t make sense to go digging up stuff that can hurt you.” He stopped because the waiter had arrived with their dinners. He felt disappointed that she’d probably become too upset again to eat.
She picked up her fork and started that poking, shifting movement again. Then she lifted her head and eyes to him. “My whole life is in question, now. I had certain beliefs about us, and now it seems as if none of them are true.”
“Alayna, the life you lived with him was real. You know that much is true.” She still looked skeptical. “Look, you had a father, whom you cared about, right?”
“Yes.” She looked down at her food and poked at it some more.
“That’s real. And he spent time with you?”
“Yes.” She set her fork down and looked at him again.
“And what did you two do together?” He stuffed a bite of eggplant into his mouth, thinking that it had never tasted this good before.
“He’d take me fishing, and to the opera.”
He swallowed. “He sounds like he was a pretty good guy.” He cut off another bite and stabbed it with his fork.
She gave him a slight, lopsided grin.
“What about your mom? Were they still together? Did she come with you?” He put the next bite into his mouth.
Alayna looked off to the side. “She died three years ago.”
He stopped chewing and swallowed the bite whole. His pain over the loss of his father was indescribable, yet this amazing woman had lost both of her parents and survived. “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks.” She looked back to him.
They sat in silence, maintaining eye contact for a moment, and he wanted to take her into his arms and make her feel better. He shook his head.
“How do you do it?” Nate set his fork down and watched her shrug as he took a drink of wine to force a lump from his throat.
“You’ve been through so much, but here you are, talking about it, dealing with it.”
She crossed her arms and leaned on her elbows. “What else is there to do? I’ve got to live my life.”
“But are you sure you want to go looking for more pain?” She sighed and looked down at her plate. “You fascinate me, Alayna.” Her eyes darted to his, and she looked confused. “I think you should stay in New York.”
“Yes. But I think you should stay so we can get to know each other.”
Alayna looked at him a moment, then shook her head. She took the napkin from her lap and wiped at non-existent food particles on her lips, then set it by her plate. “I can’t.” She clutched her purse and began sliding out of the booth.
Nate grabbed her wrist. “Please, stay and talk a while longer.”
“Nate.” She stood and turned her wrist in his hand, and he let her slide almost out of his grip, until he had her hand in his. He held it the way a man holds a woman’s hand to kiss it, and unable to resist, he did, as tenderly and slowly as he could. He felt her tremble, and lifted his eyes to hers, pleading. “Stay.”
“It – I hadn’t planned on this.” She took a step back, but he didn’t let go of her hand. She tugged, but he held firm.
Nate sighed and dropped his head for a moment. Then he got an idea and snapped his head back up. “Okay, I’ll make a deal with you.”
“What kind of a deal?”
“If I help you find out about your father, will you promise to spend some time with me?”
She stopped pulling on her hand. “How can you help?”
“I’ve got a friend who’s with a police special investigative unit. He can help us.”
“Well,” she said, stepping forward, but sounding less than convinced.
“He can find out things more quickly. Then you can leave sooner.” Although that thought didn’t sit well with him, he’d just have to make the most of the time they’d have together. Nate nodded toward her place at the table. “Come on.” She glanced at her dinner and actually looked hungry. Nate held his breath. Finally, she sat back down and he released her hand.
“Okay.” She lifted her wineglass.
He lifted his own glass. “Shall we toast on it to make it official?” Alayna clinked her glass against his and as they both drank, Nate knew that this arrangement would be just as good for her as it was for him.
“Okay, let’s see.” She took another sip of wine, then set her glass down and dabbed at her eyes again. “What memento did you leave in the cask at the memorial service?”
Nate cocked his head and sighed. But she just cocked her head and looked back at him, waiting. “It was a picture of me and my dad.”
“Mm. Me too.” Alayna took a bite of her dinner.
“We were fishing. My dad used to take me fishing, like your father did.”
She smiled sadly and looked off.
“I’ve got some more pictures of us and my mom. Maybe that’s a good way to start getting to know each other.” He reached into his back pocket for his wallet.
“No,” she said, raising her hand to him. “I can’t stand to look at my own family pictures right now. I don’t think I can look at yours, either.”
Nate slid his wallet back into his pocket. “Oh. Okay.” He tried not to be disappointed. Nate thought he’d actually like to look at pictures of his dad to start getting in the habit of thinking of him as a memory.
The next morning at eight O’clock, Alayna heard a knock on her door. It would be Nate, right on time. When she opened her door, scents of his shampoo and soap wafted in, and she stepped aside to let him in.
His smile looked tired. “Good morning. How was your night?” He handed her a Styrofoam cup. “Coffee.”
“Thanks.” She popped off the lid and blew on the steaming surface of liquid. “Better. It’s still pretty tough. You know. Moments of sanity, and then – not.” She swallowed the tightness in her throat that came every time she thought of it.
“Yeah, I know.” He stood by the door, sipping his coffee and a minute passed before Alayna remembered her manners.
“I’m sorry.” Alayna motioned toward the couch. “Have a seat while I finish getting ready.” She felt like she were on a date and chided herself for being silly as she went back into the bathroom.
“Thanks.” He loosely lowered himself onto the couch and leaned back, crossing his legs, and looked around. “Aren’t these rooms something?”
“Yeah. The allowance that the airline gave us wasn’t enough to cover this, but I wanted to stay someplace extra special.” She applied mascara to her eyelashes, leaning an inch away from the bathroom mirror so she could make sure it would be perfect.
“I called my friend this morning and gave him all the info you gave me last night. He said to give him a few days.”
She popped her head out of the bathroom door and looked at him. “A few days?”
“That’s not bad. Believe me, if there’s something to find, he’ll find it. Besides, it’ll give you more time to change your mind about wanting to know.”
She ducked back into the bathroom. “I won’t.” And it would still be faster than if she were doing the research herself, just as Nate had said. “I guess I had just thought that someone who does that kind of thing for a living would be faster than that.” “Well, our world isn’t completely Orwellian, yet. He’ll still have to dig.”
She smiled and came out of the bathroom. “My dad had always thought his social security number was just a tool for Big Brother.” “Yeah, I guess a lot of people their age were like that.” Nate stood and lifted her coat off the back of the armchair, then held it open for her.
She slipped her arms inside the sleeves, and the backs of his hands skimmed her neck as he brought the collar of her coat to rest against her skin. She tried to ignore the goosebumps rising on her body as she turned to face him. Nate stood only inches from her and he rubbed his hands along her arms. She leaned toward him, then Alayna stepped back, alarmed by her response. “So, where are we going?”
“I thought we’d grab some breakfast on the way to the Museum of Modern Art. Sound good?”
She was thrilled. “Sounds great.”
As they entered the elevator, she stood close to him to make room for everyone else, and his arm felt warm against hers. She couldn’t keep from imagining how it’d feel to have his arm around her.
The backs of their hands touched, and Nate took her hand in his, twining their fingers. She didn’t pull away from him this time. It felt too good to hold his hand. Besides, handholding was harmless, she told herself. She’d made friends with a very nice man in this city that until last night had held only the death of her father. She was glad to know him, to have this camaraderie while she searched for clues about her father. Alayna looked up at him and saw he was watching her with an uncertain look on his face. She smiled and squeezed his hand to reassure him and he looked relieved. When the elevator door opened, they left the hotel then headed down 6th Avenue. “It’s so cold.” Her words came out in a shiver and she grabbed the collar of her coat up around her neck.
He chuckled and put his arm around her, which turned out to feel better than she imagined. “This weather isn’t bad. But, you aren’t from around here.” He looked down at her. “Where are you from, anyway?”
Alayna leaned into him when a cold burst of wind hit them as they turned left on West 53rd Street. “C – C – California.” “Poor baby,” he said, pulling her closer to him. “This must be torture.”
“It is.” Alayna reveled in the solid, protective feel of his chest against her face. Part of her mind told her she shouldn’t be doing this. But another part of her felt drawn to him, wanted to relax, to rely on him. It confused her. “At least I won’t be here when it gets really bad.”
“I can’t think about that.”
She slowed her pace. “You just met me.”
Nate slowed to match her pace. “I know, but I feel too good around you to even imagine you leaving.” He stopped on the sidewalk and pulled her into the protective inset of a doorway, then faced her, holding her upper arms. “Alayna, I’ve never felt this before. I know you experience the same charge that I do, when we touch.”
Alayna looked into his sincere brown eyes and put her hands on his forearms, feeling each nerve-ending buzz. “This is all happening too fast.”
Nate exhaled. “Maybe we’re supposed to be together.”
“Nate.” Alayna cocked her head. “I don’t believe in fate.”
He grinned. “Okay. But you can’t ignore the evidence that your body and mind give you.” He began to rub her arms and she stepped closer to him. She leaned against him and rested her forehead on the soft wool lapel of his coat.
Nate lay his cheek on the top of her head and hugged her, then started them walking again. “And all the evidence points to the conclusion that there is something between us that should be investigated further.” Nate peered down into her face. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
“You sound like an attorney.”
She couldn’t ignore or deny what she felt. “Well, then, yes, counselor.”
“Then I hereby declare us,” he looked down into her face again, “an experiment. Not a relationship,” he raised his free hand in the air, as if stopping an objection. “Just a running scientific experiment on which we’re collecting data.”
She laughed and it felt good. He stopped on the sidewalk again and his smile faded as he faced her again and held both her hands. “Okay?”
Alayna swallowed as her throat began to tighten. Her father had just died, she’d discovered that he’d been lying about something, and now she felt as if she’d plunged into a soothing but stimulating emotional whirlpool with the most amazing man she’d ever met. She inhaled deeply, then exhaled slowly as she looked into his eyes. “Yes.”
He sighed heavily. “Good. Now let’s get something to eat and see some art.”
Alayna hooked her arm through his as they walked through the museum. She allowed herself to pretend that she was free from her troubles, just for this snapshot in time. It felt nice to wander the museum and talk quietly, like a normal couple.
Nate paused in front of a painting. “ My dad used to bring me and my mom to the museum a lot, especially when a travelling exhibit was here.” Nate put his right hand on her left hand and squeezed, then looked down at her. She met his gaze. He bent down and kissed her lightly on the lips, and she was so glad he had. Maybe Nate was right, and she should think more about today, and the future, instead of the past.
They strolled to the next piece and stood in front of a swirling woman painted in pastels of turquoise, peach, and silver. It was part of an American Indian art show travelling the country. She pulled him along. “My dad had said he wasn’t sure how long he was going to be gone this time.”
Nate squeezed her hand. “A lot of people commute to different states these days. My dad did.”
She nodded. “But I don’t know if that’s what he was doing.” Alayna let Nate pull her hand into his coat pocket with his. “Whatever it was, his long absences made me want something different for myself.”
“I know. It’s nice if you enjoy your job, but family should come first.”
Alayna stroked her fingers between his, reveling in the intimacy of it. She’d never felt so right holding a man’s hand, and then felt suddenly sad at the thought of not feeling Nate’s hand in hers again. She stopped and looked for a tissue in her left coat pocket, to catch the tears that threatened.
“Oh, it seems that any sad thought will start the flow these days.” She let go of his hand to blow her nose.
“What were you thinking?” He encircled her loosely with his arms.
When she didn’t answer right away, he led her to a bench nearby, where they sat. “What?”
“I was just thinking I’d miss holding your hand once I leave here.”
“Then don’t leave, Alayna.” He squeezed her hand and she squeezed it back. “But even if you do, we can work something out.” She looked up at him to see if he were serious. “Nate. It’s thousands of miles away.”
“Then we’ll start looking for new jobs, and whoever finds one first, moves.”
“But we’ve only just met.”
“What does time have to do with anything? Some people will never belong together no matter how much time they spend with each other. But we do.”
She sniffed and stuffed the tissue back into her pocket. “It sounds nice.”
She quirked her eyebrow and tilted her head. “You’ve been so direct in your pursuit of me. It surprises me.”
Nate smiled and took her hands in his. “Well, you’ve made me think a little. Maybe I do run away from some things.” He kissed her hand, then stood and lifted her up. “Come on. Let’s get you back to the hotel for something hot to drink. Maybe there’s a message for us.”
There was no message that day or the next. But on the third day, after they’d returned from the Empire State Building, Nate found his message light blinking on his telephone. Alayna waited on his couch and stared at him while he dialed the number. She alternatively clenched her hands and picked at her cuticles while she waited.
“It’s ringing.” He looked at her and smiled questioningly.
She nodded, unable to speak. It was the moment of truth. Maybe Nate was right and she should stop him right now, make him hang up.
“Brian? Hey Bud.” Nate wandered away from the desk as far as the telephone cord would go, and rested his hand on Alyana’s shoulder.
His touch infused her with a calmness she desperately needed at this moment. She leaned her cheek against Nate’s hip and he rubbed her back.
“I see.” He moved back to the desk, leaving her feeling adrift and uneasy. She’d felt a shift in his tension level, and could tell he was moderating his voice and movements so he wouldn’t scare her. How had she come to know him so well in only three days? Nate mumbled a few more non-committal answers into the receiver then thanked Brian and hung up. He turned toward her and opened his mouth, then closed it.
“Nate.” She stood, gripping her hands together, and faced him. “Please tell me what he said.” Alayna focused on his face. “You’ve got to.”
“Are you sure?”
She exhaled briefly, closing her eyes, then looked at him. “I’m sure.”
He looked away from her for a moment, then looked back and took her hands in his and pulled her back onto the couch. “Alayna.” He sighed. “Brian found out that your father has traveled here several times a year for at least the last five years. He’d have to do a lot more digging to find out just how long it’s really been.”
“Okay.” She squeezed his hands and felt as if he were her anchor.
“And then once he arrives, there’s nothing.”
Her hands were getting slick. “What do you mean?”
“He disappears when he gets here. Then, after a time, he flies back home.”
Alayna looked at the wall past Nate’s face. Her mind tried to make some sort of sense of this, but it seemed as if all of her training in logic had drained away. “How long?”
“You said after a time.”
“Oh. Sometimes a month, sometimes two,” he shook his head and lifted his hand. “Sometimes several.” He dropped his hand and rubbed his thigh. “It’s different each time, but averages out to about a couple.”
“I see. So, he could have been working here instead of Texas, then.” Hope rose up in her heart.
Nate sighed. “No, Alayna.”
She jerked her eyes up to his. “Why?”
“Because there’s no record of him here. We don’t know what he had been doing here, but it’s not been working as Allen Henry for Charles Chase Consulting.”
“What are you saying, exactly?” Alayna felt her stomach start to churn. She heard her voice rise a pitch but was able to quiet herself and bring it back down. “Please.” Alayna felt as if she were about to crack. Questions swirled around in her mind, creating a hazy fog through which she could barely hear or see or think. She thought she might vomit.
“This is really difficult for me to say.”
She must have slumped forward a little bit, because Nate held her shoulders. “First of all, there is no Charles Chase Consulting anywhere else but on the West Coast.” He drew in a deep breath as if bracing himself, then released it. “And, financially, there’s no way he could have supported his life style with what he’s been claiming on his taxes.” She shook her head slowly. She couldn’t think.
“Brian’s best guess is that your father had been living a double life.”
Alayna lifted her head and leaned back. She blinked several times, trying to clear her vision. Double life? She shook her head again then stood up. “I have to go.” She walked the opposite direction of the door, then stopped, confused. “I just -- I have to go.” She turned around, located the door, and then headed toward it.
Nate stepped in front of her. “Alayna, ” he said, trying to hold her, “You shouldn’t be alone right now.”
Suddenly the haze cleared and she felt anger burst through. She threw off his hands. “Don’t touch me.”
“Let me help you.” He followed her to the door and stepped in front of her again.
“I don’t want anymore of your help. And I’m leaving this horrible city.” Alayna was unable to catch back a sob before it ripped from her throat. It didn’t matter.
Nate let her go. He paced his hotel room for twenty minutes, trying to decide what to do. Finally, he strode, almost ran, through the halls to her room.
He knocked on her door. “It’s me. Let me in.”
She unlocked the door and when she didn’t’open it, he pushed it open and stepped inside, then shut it quickly. Alayna stood with her back to him, staring out of the bedroom picture window that looked onto City Center, and in the distance, Central Park. She had her arms wrapped tightly around herself, and seemed unusually still for the storm he knew churned inside her.
“Don’t.” She turned. “I shouldn’t have tried to find out. Because yesterday I loved him.” She shook her head and turned back to the window.
“I know this has got to be the worst possible news,” he began slowly, moving towards her. “But.” He stopped and lifted both hands, then dropped them. “You can’t let it be the end of the world.”
She paced, articulating her words with upward swoops of her hands. “I don’t think I can stop here. I have to find out the rest.” Nate stepped back as if he’d been pushed. “I think that’d be a mistake. Let’s move on. Together.” Nate felt as if any wrong move or word might make her explode.
“My entire world has been altered.” She jerked to a stop. “I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone. I don’t know anything anymore. I don’t know who my father was. Who you are.” She slammed her palm onto her chest. “Or myself.”
Her pacing became more frantic. She shook her head and exhaled loudly. “I’ll never know. God, how I hate him.” The venom in her voice shocked him, and the depth of her emotions seemed boundless. Although it scared him, it drew him as well. He knew that no matter what happened, he couldn’t give her up. He couldn’t live without her passion.
She paced a couple more times, then stopped. She exhaled again, then went to the couch and sat. Alayna rested her head in her hands for a moment, then lifted her face to him and met his eyes, sighing. “It’s okay. I’m under control now.” She rubbed her face with her hands, looking as if she were trying to erase the knowledge behind her eyes. “There’s nothing I can do to change the past. But I will find out what that past is.”
Nate eased over to the couch and lowered himself next to her. “I won’t try to change your mind, if it’s really set. But, I’ve got to have my final say.” He waited for her to face him again. “Look at yourself. Like you said, yesterday you loved him. Today you hate him. Your memories and life have been altered.” He took her hands and uncurled her fists. “Is that what you came here for? Where and what will that leave you?”
She looked away and sighed. “I don’t know.” Tears ran from her eyes, but she remained silent, motionless.
Nate pulled her into his arms. “Alayna. I know it’s only been a few days, but I truly and deeply care about you. From the moment I met you I’ve felt like I belong with you. I know you feel the same.”
She choked back a sob. “I did.”
He pulled her away from himself and looked into her eyes.
“I do.” More tears fell from her eyes and she turned away and tried to stand up.
He held her firmly. “No. Face this. You’re the one telling me I shouldn’t run away.” She relaxed under his hands again. “I want to be with you. What can I do to prove myself to you?”
She tilted her head and smiled softly. “I don’t know.”
He looked around as if he might find the right words in the air. “I know. I’ll let you examine my W2s and 1040s. I’ll, I’ll have Brian do a full blown check on me.”
She started laughing softly, then reached for the box of tissues on the coffee table. “Stop.”
“I’ll run naked across the stage at Radio City Music Hall! That’s it!”
Alayna blew her nose and starting crying again. Nate put his arm around her shoulders and leaned her back with him. “I’m serious. If you go to the top of this hotel, you’ll be able to see me enter the building from behind – I mean -- you’ll be able to see my behind enter the building.”
She only laughed, then cried harder and wrapped her arms around him. He squeezed her hard against his chest, then lifted her face and looked into her eyes. Tentatively, he leaned his face toward her and kissed her. She opened her mouth to him, and their kisses began slowly, then built up until all their emotions of the last days erupted into physical passion. She began to slide back onto the couch pulling him with her. Their kisses became almost frantic and she lifted her hands to his shirt buttons. The next morning, they awoke in her bed. She curled her fingers into his chest hair and nuzzled her head into his shoulder. “Good morning.” She began kissing his shoulder and chest.
“Good morning.” He rolled to his side and embraced her. “How are you feeling?”
“A little sore, actually.” She chuckled.
Nate threw himself on his back. “She’s making a joke. I can’t believe it.”
“Well, last night, I realized that I can’t let the past affect my future. You’ve been right all along.” She leaned up on her elbow and rested her body against his. “I’m deeply hurt by my father’s actions, but I can’t let them define me.” “I’m glad.” Nate shifted to his side, feeling aroused by her naked body against his.
She kissed his neck. “It’s going to take me a while to get over it, but I will.”
“Mm. Have I told you how sexy and beautiful you are?” Nate began kissing her neck, behind her ear.
“Only thirty two point five times.”
He stopped kissing her, confused. “Point five?”
She laughed. “You got interrupted the last time.”
“Then,” he said, pulling her on top of him, “I’d better make up for that.”
“My thoughts exactly. But first,” she said, kissing him and then rolling off of him, “I need a shower and some food.”
Nate was completely ready for her, so he tugged on her jokingly. “Oh, are you sure?”
“Positive.” She slid off the bed and he admired her bare rump as she walked to her suitcase.
“Your wish is my command, Sweetheart. But afterwards, you’re mine.”
“I want to keep hearing that.”
“You will.” Nate folded his hands behind his head as he watched her get ready for her shower.
Alayna stopped at the bathroom door and turned back to him. “Will you order us some food?”
“Sure thing.” Nate rolled over to the edge of the bed and grabbed the phone. “Then I’m going to my room to get some clothes.” Nate heard her turn on the shower.
He put yesterday’s clothes on and hurried to his room and then back with his small suitcase. By the time she came out, he had everything packed, and had laid two photo frames on top of his clothes in the open bag. “Hey, you look good.” She was wrapped in the dark blue velour robe provided by the hotel, and had twisted a towel around her wet hair.
She rolled her eyes and smiled. “Thanks. I’m feeling kind of tired. I think after we eat we should rest some more.”
He hugged her and pressed his hips into hers. “Is that what we’re calling it now?”
She laughed and lightly slugged his arm. “Just get in there and get out before our food comes, you.”
“Okay.” He went into the bathroom, then came out and watched as she pulled on a pair of faded blue jeans without panties and a baggy T-shirt without her bra. If he hurried, he could be done with his shower and they could make love again before breakfast arrived. He ducked into the bathroom and shut the door, then jerked on the faucet.
The hot water pounded his forehead. Since meeting Alayna, he’d felt like he’d stepped off a plane from nowhere and entered his real life. He had no idea how he’d ever gotten along without her. They’d agreed to try his idea of looking for jobs simultaneously.
It didn’t really matter to him where he ended up, as long as they were together.
Just as Nate began to lather up his hair, he thought he heard a scream and then a door slam. He turned off the water and called her name. He heard nothing, so he wrapped a towel around his waist and came out of the bathroom.
“Alayna?” She wasn’t there. He looked around and saw that her suitcase was tipped over, the contents spilled on the carpet. Her coat and purse were missing.
He ran to the huge window and saw her hailing a cab. “Alayna!” He screamed her name several times, knowing she couldn’t hear. All he could do was watch. A cab pulled up to the curb. As she stepped into the car, she turned and looked up to where he stood. She must have noticed him there, because she jumped into the car and it began to drive away before she slammed the door. Quickly, he turned back toward the room. His eyes darted everywhere, trying to find some clue as to what would have caused her to leave. Again, his eyes went to the overturned suitcase. Then, he looked to his suitcase. It was where he’d left it, but his pictures were missing. He frantically looked about the floor, then found them. But, there were three picture frames lying together on the carpet; one of the frames was bent and the glass had been broken out of it.
Nate walked over to them and looked down. He didn’t recognize the broken frame. He squatted and picked it up, examining it. Then, feeling sick, Nate fell to his knees on the carpet. He supported himself with one arm on the bed, and sobbed. “No. Oh God, no.” He looked at it again. “Alayna.” Tears sprang from his eyes for the first time in twenty years and he wanted to die. It was a picture of Alayna, her mother, and her father – Nate’s father.