The same small shops owned by the same families. Dogwood petals still littered the ground. Boringsville was just how he’d left it.
“Conner? Conner Hayes?”
Though taller, there was no mistaking Krista Rhodes. She had light brown hair and oval face so much like his best friend, Luke—her brother.
“Hey Kris. How’s it going?”
After a quick hug, her gaze brushed him head to toe. “Looking good, Conner.”
Niceties hadn’t changed here either; he’d gained the beginnings of a pot-belly and wrinkles.
“I heard you were back.” Her head tipped, just like Luke. “Sorry about you and Tiffany.” Her words didn’t match her tone.
Another thing he hated about small towns, everyone’s personal life became public news. Most of the town’s folk knew he’d married his high school sweetheart, moved to the big city, and the marriage failed, as well as his business. He’d come home to start over.
“Yeah,” he shrugged. “Nothing’s worked out quite like I planned.” He tried to step past her toward the barista.
“We have to catch up.” Kris stood beside him. “When are you free?”
Conner shrugged again. “Still getting settled. I’ll let you know.” It took some prodding but Kris finally headed on her way.
The next morning, Conner headed to work a little earlier than the previous day hoping to avoid running into Kris. But she rose from a table in the coffee shop as soon as he stepped through the door and greeted him with another hug. Why couldn’t she just let him be? Order his coffee and head to the job he never wanted in a place he hated? Kris was a painful reminder of so many things he’d lost. Instead of leaving, she waited in line with him and led him to her corner.
“I really should go.”
“Your dad’s office doesn’t open until ten, like every other place in Watford.” Her gaze searched him. “I never figured on you joining your dad’s dental practice.”
The thought of having his hands in someone else’s mouth made Conner’s skin crawl. “I work in the back. Dad’s hasn’t had a proper accountant in years.”
“Luke always said you were good with numbers.”
Conner closed his eyes fighting back the anger and tears.
“I miss him too.” Her whispered was laden with emotion.
“Why’d he join the army anyway? We had plans.”
Kris’ hand rested on his, stirring a warmth and tenderness he didn’t want to feel—not here, not in this dead-end place. He wanted to yank it away. “He talked so many times about the business you two wanted to start, but you know he felt a duty to the country.”
“How are your parents doing?”
“Dad’s quiet. Spends a lot of time on the porch watching the world go by.”
Conner tried not to laugh. The world was so far beyond the white picked fences of this back-water town. Her dad wasn’t missing much.
“Mom, tries to busy herself with projects. She still makes a cake every year on his birthday.”
He glanced up hoping for an escape of these painful memories, and the reminders of his best friend Luke in the mirror sitting before him.
“Do you remember the drag race down Pine Street?”
Conner couldn’t suppress a smile. “It wasn’t much of a race. Only had our licenses for a couple of months; we pulled out of the school parking lot one afternoon just goofing. We didn’t make it five hundred feet before Officer Ryan had us pulled over and in the back of her squad car leaving our cars in the Bloom’s yard. She walked us each to the door of our houses by the ear. After dad got home, I couldn’t sit down for week. But your dad bought Luke a car!”
“He said if Luke was going to wreck anything it would be his own car. But the thing was a rust bucket that wouldn’t start.” She sighed. “Dad knew his son well. After Luke put in the work and money restoring that heap, he drove it like a grandma.”
“He loved that car. Whatever happened to it?”
“I have it. Someday I’ll find someone who will appreciate it as much as he did.”
Conner glanced at the clock. “Don’t you have work?”
She sprang up. “Good grief. The scrapbooking moms are going to have a fit.” She kissed his cheek, and paused a moment. “Thanks for reminiscing.”
Conner strolled far behind her. It felt good to remember after all. He passed her shop. She’d expanded her craft shop to include a cozy bookstore too. She waved.
The days grew sticky. They continued to run into each other every morning, no matter the time Conner arrived. At some point he stopped trying to avoid her and the drinks they ordered were iced. They’d laugh at the crazy things Luke and Conner had done. The dread of seeing her stopped. The hugs and banter anticipated.
“You’re in a mood this morning,” she said.
“Women are evil.”
“My ex showed up yesterday all a flutter about her upcoming wedding. She’s such a witch.”
“I’m a woman,” she whispered.
“What?” He stared as she waved a hand drawing his gaze down her silhouetted form. “You’re one of the guys, Kris.”
She stood and left. “Goodbye, Conner.”
She wasn’t at the coffee shop the next morning or the following one. Yet everyone in town knew his ex was back and preparing to get married again. He wanted to crawl in a hole—no he wanted to get out of this horrid town and go where no one knew him.
His mood mirrored the changing weather—dark, cold, volatile. Kris stopped frequenting the coffee shop or noticing him pass her store. That was for the best. He was beyond ready to get out of this hick-town. He had no intention of staying in the speck of dirt that didn’t even register on a map. Dad’s books were almost cleared up and Conner was filling out online applications everyday to rejoin the world again. Soon—any day now—he’d catch a break.
Fifty-year-old Christmas decorations adorned the square once again. Everyone came to sing carols, bundled against the wafting snow. Conner glimpsed Kris on the other side of the crowd. Without much success, Conner tried to see the short, muscular man she spoke with. She smiled and laughed. Conner turned to his car, blowing on his hands to warm himself. He needed to get out of here before the turn of another year.
The dogwoods were just budding when Conner finally had an interview at a financial firm in Chester City. It wasn’t a big city, but it was two hours away. He passed the diner on his way home when Kris stepped out in front of him.
Her bright yellow dress fluttered in the breezed as she drew her wrap tighter around her shoulders.
She turned, startled. “Conner.” There was no affection in her voice. “I thought you were off to better pastures.”
A tall, gangly man—different from the one he’d glimpsed at Christmas—joined her. This one had a short dark beard. He encircled her with his arm. “Ready? We don’t want to miss the show.”
She flashed a smile. “Yes.” When Conner didn’t move, she introduced them. “Conner, do you remember Blake Weston from school? Blake this is Conner Hayes, Luke’s friend.”
Blake extended his hand. “Good to see you again.” He turned back to Kris. “We really have to go.”
Conner watched them stop at the corner for a passing car. Blake leaned down and kissed her.
The world stopped. Like the town he hated, he was caught in a dimension of time where nothing ever changed. But it had changed—Kris was with someone else. All he could remember about Blake was that he was in Kris’ class and on the chess team. Chess? Seriously? Kris had nothing in common with him.
Conner blinked and found himself standing in front of Kris’ place. How’d he get here? He didn’t remember moving from in front of the diner. Or crossing the dozen streets between here and there. Good thing this was a quiet town or he would be road kill. The lights were out, but her car was alongside the house in the drive. She’d walked or ridden with him. The thought of his Kris with Blake Weston. His Kris? When did that happen? The realization drove out the biting spring evening and caused his hands to form into fists. Why hadn’t he missed her over the long winter? What was the matter with him? He wanted to leave so what did it matter that she went out with Blake?
Conner didn’t sleep, he turned off the 4 a.m. alarm, and sent the interviewing company his regrets. Now, with the sun barely up, he stomped across Kris’ lawn as she exited her home. She was dressed in tight jogging pants and a baggy sweatshirt. She removed an earbud, her brows crinkling. “What’s the matter?”
“You will breakup with the clown immediately.”
She staggered back a step as if he’d struck her. “What?”
“I’m serious, Kris. End it.”
Fists on her hips, she took a wide stance on her porch. “Now you listen here, Conner Hayes. Butt out. I can see whomever I want. You’re not my father, and you’re not Luke.”
Conner moved to the middle step and looked directly in her eyes. He took another step up closing the gap between them.
Her weight shifted back on her heels.
But Conner wrapped one arm around her waist. He stared at her for a really long moment. The corner of his lips quirked up in a smile, as he looked at her differently than ever before. He kissed her softly on the cheek. At first it was like kissing a statue.
An odd euphoria jostled inside him, making his smile grow. “Do I have to say it again? You’re going to break up with Blake.”
Her eye narrowed and for a moment he expected that she was going to yell at him again. Her arms slide over his shoulders and the early morning light danced in her eyes. “Are you suggesting you want to take his place?”
He leaned forward, still smiling, and kissed her other cheek. “So we’re in agreement. Weston is history.”
She pressed her lips to his.
Conner sunk his fingers into her hair. A breath eased out against his face and her arms tightened around his neck. Her kiss deepened with a passion he hadn’t expected. He withdrew, reluctantly, to look at her.
Her gaze scrutinized him again, though her arms were still draped over his shoulders. “If you ever make me wait again, Conner Hayes, so help me…”
“Wait? You mean the winter when you stopped coming to the coffee shop?”
“Heaven help me, but you’re dense. I have been in love with you since the ninth grade.”
Conner stared at her. “I was a senior then, got married, went to college, moved away…”
“One can’t always help who they fall in love with.”
She didn’t let him respond as she leaned forward and captured his lips again.
Everyone has moments of loneliness, but there is greater depth to those of us who feel we are never seen. But in that you are strong.