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He took in her watery blue eyes and the pert little nose that was nearly the color of her scarf. Either his memory was rusty or Marlee Farrow had changed big time. She was far more beautiful than he remembered. Her eyes narrowed, either in anger or suspicion, and he realized she was waiting for him to respond. “Yeah, it’s me.”
Her expression remained guarded. “What are you doing here?”
He deserved her cold reception and then some. He just had to get through this and say what he needed to say. Then he could finally close this chapter of his life and move on. “I thought I might find you. I tried your house, but no one was home. Then I remembered you used to like to come to the lighthouse.”
She shifted her gaze to the wind-whipped waves. “It soothes me.”
Ben rammed his hands deeper into the pockets of his pea coat. “Even in this weather?”
She wasn’t making this easy, but she had no reason to. He forged ahead. “I need to talk to you.”
She still refused to look at him. “Go ahead. I’m listening.”
He needed to be able to sit down with her, to look her in the eye. “Can’t we go somewhere, I don’t know…warmer? There must be a coffee shop in town.”
She pushed back the sleeve of her coat and glanced at her watch. “The Java Joint will be closed by now. It’s two days before Christmas, you know.”
He knew all too well. “There must be somewhere else.”
Marlee hesitated, and he could almost see the wheels turning. “I guess we could go to my house,” she said. “I moved to Grandma Berta’s old cottage a few years ago.” She stepped back from the railing and headed toward the path back to the harbor.
Ben caught up in two long strides. “My mom told me.” She shot him a quick glance, and his gut clenched at the flash of pain in those lovely blue eyes.
“Funny. She never told me a thing about you.” Marlee squared her shoulders and marched ahead.
An ache grew in the pit of his stomach as he stared at her straight back and swinging stride. Because I asked her not to. I wanted to disappear from your life. You deserved to forget me.
Neither spoke on the short walk to her house. Ben waited on the tiny porch as she fumbled for her key then opened the crimson door. “Come in,” she said. She unwound her scarf and hung it on a peg by the door, along with her hat and coat.
He stepped into the compact living room and waited. He felt as out of place as Gulliver in Lilliput. If he reached up, he could probably touch the ceiling without extending his arm. The cottage was one of a long row that had been built for nineteenth century sailors’ widows…or in this case, maybe a circus midget. Marlee, however, seemed perfectly at home in the diminutive space. She headed toward the kitchen, which was little more than an alcove off the main room, filled an old copper kettle at the deep farmhouse sink, and put it on the small gas stove to heat.
“Is tea all right?” she asked.
“Anything hot sounds great.”
“You might as well sit down.” She gestured toward the round table draped with a vintage flowered cloth that must have belonged to Berta.
He pulled out one of the sturdy ladderback chairs and sat, trying to remember the words he’d crafted and rehearsed over the past few weeks.
She pushed a bright red pottery mug with hand-painted holly wreaths toward him and took the seat across the table. “All right. You’re here. You said we needed to talk, so talk.”
Ben wrapped his hands around the mug and stared at the rising tendrils of steam. He’d thought of this moment for months, but now that he was with her, his mind went blank.
Her voice was softer, less angry now. When he raised his gaze, he saw pain in her eyes, but also a hint of wistfulness.
She nodded. “I agree. We do need to talk. Since you don’t seem to want to start, I will. I’ve missed you.”
Guilt turned the knife. “I’ve missed you, too, Marlee.”
“We used to be so close—you, and me, and Matt.”
He stared down at his hands. “I know. But after what happened, I couldn’t face anyone, especially you.”
“It was an accident, Ben. No one blamed you.”
He glanced up. “They should have. I blamed myself. I still do. I should have done more. I was weak, and I panicked.” Anger and regret churned in his stomach.
Marlee looked thoughtful. “Could you have saved him?”
He’d asked himself that question a thousand times. “I don’t know, but I should have tried harder.” He slammed his fist to the table hard enough to rattle the mugs. “Matt was my best friend, like a brother to me, and I let him die.”
“The Coast Guard said the storm was too strong. There was nothing you could have done. In fact, you’re lucky you didn’t drown, too.”
“For a long time, I wished I had.”
“And that’s why you ran away and joined the Navy?”
He shrugged. “I had to get away. I didn’t care what happened to me. I thought it would be fitting if the sea took me, too.”
She took a long sip of the cinnamon-scented tea then sat back in her chair. “You haven’t been home in five years. Why are you here? Why now?”
“I had to see you, to tell you to your face how sorry I am about Matt’s death.” His voice dropped. “I owe you that much.”
”I always knew you were sorry.”
”I always knew you were sorry.”
“I needed to say it.”
She reached across the table and gave his hand a quick squeeze. “And I needed to hear it. So what’s next?”
He tried to read her emotions in her expression, but her features gave nothing away. “My tour is up, and I’ve left the Navy.”
“Have you come home to Porter’s Landing for good?”
“I don’t think so.” He shifted in his chair and glanced out the window. A few flakes drifted past the pane, highlighted by the streetlight on the corner. “I don’t know.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“A buddy has offered me a job as a mechanic in his garage in
I might take him up on that.” Newport News, Virginia
“Is that what you did in the Navy? As I recall, you were a bio major in college.”
He shook his head. “I was a medical corpsman working mostly in physical therapy.”
“That sounds rewarding.”
His mind flashed to some of the desperately injured, but determined, young men and women he’d worked with. “It was.”
Marlee finished her tea, set her mug firmly on the table, and met his gaze head on. “I have an invitation and proposition for you.”
Ben’s heart skipped a beat. “What’s that?”
“Meet me at the hospital Christmas party tomorrow afternoon at three o’clock.”
She held up her hand. “No excuses. Most of the village will be there, including your mom. She comes every year. I’m sure she’d love to have an escort.”He thought of his mother and all the Christmases he’d missed. If he was making amends, she deserved more from him, too. “Okay. I’ll be there.”