June, twenty-three years later
"OH, STEVEN!Ethan would love it." Erika Welby stared at the automobile_a 1955 red-and-white Chevy Bel Air with pristine whitewalls parked in the car dealership"s showroom. "It looks like the one you had in high school. But can we afford it?" She glanced at her husband.
Steven jerked his head in the direction of the garage door. "Ask them. They"re the buyers."
Erika whirled about to find Dallas and Paula Hurst standing near the open doorway, both of them grinning like Cheshire cats.
"Don"t refuse," Paula pleaded. "We want to do this."
"You know we love the kid." Dallas draped his right arm around Paula"s shoulders. "It"ll be a great surprise for his birthday."
It would, indeed. Ethan had wanted a car of his own since obtaining his driver"s license last year. This one, an exact replica of the car Steven had owned at the same age, would be his dream car. But with college expenses looming on the horizon and a single-income budget, Erika wondered how they would ever pay for it.
"Aren"t you the one who"s always saying it"s more blessed to give than to receive?" Dallas lifted an eyebrow, challenging her. "Are you going to rob us of this blessing?"
A part of Erika wanted to resist. A part of her hated the idea of being indebted to Dallas Hurst for any reason. She had her reasons. Plenty of them. But she"d trained herself years ago to pretend those reasons didn"t exist.
Besides, she knew Dallas and Paula could afford to buy the car. They didn"t have children, and both of them were successful professionals in their respective fields_Dallas in computers and Paula in real estate development. Dallas, Ethan"s godfather, had always doted on the boy. Would it be so wrong to accept his generous offer?
Erika looked at Steven again. His hopeful expression reminded her so much of their son that she had to grin. Steven turned toward his best friend. "Okay."
The two men let out identical whoops and stepped toward each other for a high five. Then they headed off to strike a deal with the salesman.
Paula"s laughter drew Erika"s gaze. "Do you suppose they"ll ever change?" Paula said.
"Never." Erika shook her head.
They were alike in countless ways, those two men. Over the years, they"d played baseball together, tormented their sisters together, learned to golf together, been sent to the principal"s office together_just to name a few things. They"d never lived more than five miles apart, with the exception of the time Steven was away at college. When Steven and Erika got married, Dallas had served as best man. And Steven had returned the favor years later.
But they were different, too, and Erika often wished the two men weren"t friends at all. There were times when she hated the thought of seeing them together, of listening to their good-natured male banter, of knowing they shared things she couldn"t be a part of.
The truth was, Erika was never completely at ease with Dallas. Perhaps because she knew things about him that were better forgotten. And so, as usual, she made the choice to forget, tucking unpleasant thoughts away in some dark corner of her mind.
Paula interrupted her thoughts by asking, "Is this as much like Steve"s old car as the guys say it is?"
"Yes." Erika turned toward the automobile. "It"s identical. Could be the same one, for all I know." She ran her fingertips along the driver"s side door. "Steven kept his car shining clean, like this. He was so proud of it. He worked hard to earn the money to buy it."
A frown puckered her forehead. Would the car mean more to Ethan if he had to work for it the same way his dad had?
"Oh no!" Paula exclaimed. "Look at the time. I"ve got an appointment in twenty minutes. I"ll never make it if the lights aren"t with me. Tell Dallas I had to run." She raised her hand in a half wave. "See you Saturday." Then she hurried away, her high heels clicking against the concrete floor.
Feeling suddenly dowdy compared to Paula"s ultrachic, ultrafit image, Erika stared after the younger woman.
Paula Hurst_thirty years old, petite, slender, and as pretty as any cover model with her short red hair, cat-green eyes, and pouty lips_lived a high-paced life, a wireless phone in one hand and an electronic organizer in the other. Since the first day Dallas introduced Paula to the Welbys, Erika had never seen her look anything but totally put together_makeup on, hair perfectly coifed, nails manicured.
"I haven"t been totally put together since Ethan was born," Erika muttered as she turned toward the Chevy.
Seventeen years. How was it possible Ethan was about to have his seventeenth birthday? Where had the time gone? It seemed only yesterday since she"d cradled that squalling, red-faced newborn in her arms; only a moment since she"d sat in the rocking chair at 2 A.M. and watched him nurse; a second in time since she"d worried about fevers, coughs, and spit-up, healthy baby checkups, and keeping current with immunizations. When did her baby boy get to be big enough to ride a bike, let alone drive a car?
"I"m going to be blubbering in another minute," she whispered to herself as she closed her eyes. Thank You, Lord, for the gift of my son.
She released a deep breath, the brief prayer making her feel better. And not a moment too soon.
Steven jingled the car keys as he reentered the garage. "Sweetheart, we got it. Wanna drive into the foothills and smooch awhile? No bucket seats in this lady."
"Oh, sure. That would set a good example for Ethan, wouldn"t it?" But her refusal couldn"t dim the pleasure she felt at her husband"s suggestion. Truth was, after eighteen years of marriage, Steven still made Erika go weak in the knees. "Besides, you"ve got to get back to work."
"It"s a mighty nice day for a drive," he cajoled. "I could play hooky."
"Is this car for Ethan_" she playfully punched him in the arm_"or are you trying to relive your wild and woolly youth, Mr. Welby?"
He grabbed her and pulled her close. "Both."
Then he kissed her.
As Steven"s Chevy rolled to a stop at the curb in front of her house, Erika fought tears. "Here we are," Steven said softly.
She looked toward the house. "Yeah."
"Sorry the movie was such a drag."
"It was okay." She turned to look at him. "I like everything when I"m with you."
He put his right arm around her shoulders. "Me, too." He kissed her temple.
"I wish you weren"t going," she whispered, unable to stop herself.
"Hey, you"ll be so busy with school, you"ll probably forget me in a month."
She swallowed the lump in her throat. "I won"t forget you, Steven. I love you."
"I know." This time he kissed her on the lips.
She clung to him, feeling desperate. It hurt that he hadn"t said he loved her, too. She knew he cared. They"d been together almost every day this summer, and he"d always treated her special. But he"d still never said he loved her.
Steven broke the kiss just as it was beginning to steam up. "I"d better get you inside," he said hoarsely.
In that moment, she wished she hadn"t told him no all those times when he"d wanted more from her. She knew it had been the right thing to do, but still . . . If only she"d given in to his desires, then he would have said he loved her. If only she hadn"t been so afraid. If only . . .
Steven opened the car door and got out, then held a hand toward her.
She was crying now, tears sliding silently down her cheeks as they walked toward the front stoop, still holding hands. The porch light, moths fluttering around it, cast a yellow glow on the narrow sidewalk.
"I"ll be back for Thanksgiving," Steven said.
It didn"t help. This was August, the nights warm and alive with the sounds of crickets. Thanksgiving was in cold and silent November. It seemed a lifetime away.
"I"ll write to you, Erika."
"Promise?" she whispered.
Reaching the house, he stopped and turned toward her, placing his hands on her shoulders. "I promise." He smiled. "You"re gonna write to me, too. Right?"\r\n
She nodded, her throat too thick with emotions to speak.
Don"t leave me, Steven. I love you. I need you. Don"t go. Please don"t go. Say you love me. Say you"ll never leave me.
Just as Steven leaned forward to kiss Erika again, the front door jerked open. In unison, the couple turned toward it.
"It"s after eleven," Erika"s father said gruffly.
"Hi, Mr. James," Steven replied. "Sorry I got Erika home late. The movie ran a bit long."
Her father grunted as he scowled first at Erika, then at Steven.
Steven faced Erika again. "I"ve gotta go."
"I know," she mouthed, but no sound came out.
"You take care," he said softly. His beautiful blue eyes seemed to offer tenderness, encouragement, hope. "You tell Dallas if you need anything. Okay?"
She nodded, blinking hard to stop the tears.
Steven kissed her lightly on the lips, then strode away.
"That was some show you were giving the neighbors," Erika"s father snapped. "I won"t stand for it, girl. You understand me?"
"But, Dad, we didn"t_"
"Get inside. Now!"
She wanted to turn and run after Steven. Instead, shoulders slumping, she followed her father into the house.