Burlington Airport was some thirty miles from Northfield, Vermont, but it was the closest airport to my former hometown. I arrived just before one o’clock a week later.
I decided, as I stepped off the plane and down the long passenger ramp leading into the airport, that agreeing to return to Vermont had been a mistake.
You can’t go home again.
Or you shouldn’t anyway. I shouldn’t. My stomach had turned queasy, and I was pretty sure I might throw up. Although maybe I was overreacting. Chances that the same people I’d known in Northfield as a boy still lived there had to be pretty small. And one particular resident probably even less of a chance. Or that’s what I told myself.
Still, I eyed the garbage cans in the airport as I followed the BAGGAGE CLAIM signs. And then I had a moment where I just froze as I was about to get on the escalator down to the baggage area.
Just go back.
I didn’t belong in Vermont. I lived in California now, and that was where I wanted to be with Donald. Only that future had been taken from me.
I could still go to the ticket agent and fly back to Los Angeles. I could call Emily right now and tell her I’d missed my plane, so I decided not to come to Vermont after all.
But Emily was waiting below for me. I might as well see it through. I didn’t have to stay a whole month like my return ticket said.
“Move it or lose it,” an old man said crossly, pushing past me on to the escalator. I scooted out of the way just in time.
Grow up, Dane.
Nodding to myself, I stepped onto the escalator and rode it down to the bottom floor. Turning right, I saw the luggage carousels. And next to the third one down, I spotted Emily. And Hank. And their twins, Alex and Annie. They hadn’t spotted me yet, as they seemed to be chatting rather animatedly with each other.
I walked toward them, almost in slow motion. What the hell was the matter with me? This was my family, no one to feel trepidation with. I walked a little faster then, and Hank turned and saw me. He touched Emily’s arm to get her attention, and suddenly they were all on me at once.
“Oh my God, you look so skinny,” Emily exclaimed, pulling me so tight against her I swear my ribs popped.
Then the kids were seizing me. They were six years old now, and I hadn’t seen them since they were toddlers and they’d all visited me and Donald. And then Hank clapped me hard on the back.
“Jeez, Hank, don’t break him,” Emily admonished. She slung her arm around me. “Are you hungry? You must be starved.”
“Well, no, but I could probably eat.”
“Good, we’ll stop on the way home for some supper,” she said it in a tone that defied argument. “Oh, here come the bags now. Which one is yours, Dane?”
And so it went until we finally had my suitcase and they hustled me out to their minivan. I sat in the back with the twins, who chattered on about school and things six-year-olds found important. I was glad no one had brought up Donald’s death. I seemed to be forever on the brink of a breakdown whenever Donald came up. I hoped that would get better someday.
There was a chill in the air, which was fairly typical for March in Vermont, but at least there didn’t appear to be any snow, and the sun was out. About halfway to Northfield, Hank pulled into a parking lot of a restaurant I didn’t remember from my last time there. Of course I hadn’t been back to Vermont since I left at sixteen. I was sure a lot had changed.
It was one of those family-type restaurants where you could get anything from pancakes to pizza.
“This seems nice,” I said as I followed them inside and up to the hostess.
“It’s my favorite place, Uncle Dane,” Alex told me.
I smiled. “Then I am sure I’ll love it.”
As the hostess led us around a corner and to a table, I saw him. I froze, simply staring at him sitting in a booth across from some woman with long red hair. I could only see the back of her head. He was older, of course. So was I. But I would have known that dark hair, those piercing dark eyes, that strong jaw, anywhere. My gut clenched.
“Dane?” Emily called after me with a frown. They’d arrived at our table, and I was still standing in the middle of the restaurant staring at Theo Mason.
Then just like that, Theo noticed me and took his attention off the face of his dinner companion to stare right back at me. I saw tension on his face the instant he recognized me.
It just had to figure that I hadn’t been in Vermont even an hour, and staring me in the face was one of the main reasons I left in the first place. I shouldn’t have come back. What the hell had I been thinking?
“Dane!” Emily said louder. She began walking back toward me, and I realized I needed to stop causing a scene in the middle of a damn restaurant.
Besides, did I really want him to know ten years later he still had the power to hurt me?
I plastered on a smile and met my sister halfway to the table.
“What’s the matter with you?” she asked in a loud whisper.
“Nothing. Just saw someone I recognized. No big deal.”
“Theo? Oh, I didn’t know you knew him that well.”
I resisted the urge to snort. “Yeah, well. Let’s just have our dinner.”
I sat between the twins and chose chicken fingers and onion rings for dinner, though I knew Donald would never have approved of all that fried food. But eating healthy hadn’t saved him. And just like that the loss of Donald weighed heavily on me to the point that I could barely follow the chatter from Emily and her family.
“Uncle Dane,” Annie said in a tone that told me she’d been trying to get my attention for some time.
“What is it, sweetheart?”
“Hi, folks.” A deep male voice spoke from the opposite end of the table from where I sat.
Minus his lady friend. Whoever she was. Could have been his wife for all I knew. I apparently had a knack for falling for bisexual guys with wives.
Emily, who was right next to where he’d stopped at our table, smiled. “Hello, Theo. I thought I saw you.”
Theo returned the smile and glanced down my way. “Just thought I’d stop by to say hello. That’s not your little brother, Dane, is it?”
Theo had gone to school with Emily, actually. They’d been in the same grade, three years ahead of me. I’d forgotten Emily wouldn’t really know about my very brief time with Theo. How Theo had been my first back when I turned sixteen and he’d been nineteen. It wasn’t like either one of us was going to talk about it. Definitely not me.
“Yes, that’s Dane. Isn’t he gorgeous?” This time she smiled in my direction, and it was such a sweet, sisterly smile I had to refrain from growling at her for her loaded question.
Theo’s gaze swept over me, lingering perhaps a bit longer than it should. “He’s really grown up.”
“Yes, I have, and I’m right here, if you’d like to stop talking over my head,” I snapped. Clearing my throat when everyone looked at me, I said, “Nice to see you, Theo. It’s been a while.”
“Theo’s a police officer now with the Montpelier police force, right, Theo?”
He nodded. “That’s right. Made sergeant late last year.”
Well, good for him. And I meant it. Although admittedly thinking of Theo as a cop seemed a little strange to me. I never would have guessed that would be his dream. I also decided it was time to excuse myself to the bathroom as too many memories of that scared sixteen-year-old I’d been threatened to break through the fragile shell I’d tried to erect.
“Hey, can you excuse me?” I rose from the table. “Nature calls. Good to see you again, Theo.”
And then, maybe like a coward, I walked away from the table and toward the signs that directed me to the restrooms.
I pushed open the door and breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t have to go, so I went to the sink and splashed water on my face instead. I don’t really know why, maybe to wake myself up from the nightmare of the last few weeks of my life. It didn’t work, of course.
I’d been a typical angst-filled sixteen-year-old when I’d let things get too far with the older Theo. I’d had a crush on him for a couple of years. But afterward, Theo had pulled back from me, wouldn’t take my calls, and seemed to be avoiding me. I’d already begun to think I had made a huge mistake in thinking there was more to our encounter when I spotted Theo making out with a girl. Not long after, I got on a plane with my mother and left Vermont.
The door behind me pushed open, and I turned to see who had entered the restroom.
“I can’t believe you followed me in here,” I said bluntly.
“Look, Dane, I didn’t come in here to fight with you or anything.” He ran his long fingers through his dark hair. “I just wanted to say I heard about your partner from Emily, and I’m very sorry.” Theo hesitated. “How many years were you together?”
I swallowed, trying to get the lump forming like a rock in my throat to disappear. It didn’t, so I croaked out, “Six years.”
“I’m sorry. That’s so terrible.”
His eyes were so kind and sympathetic, I wanted to throw my arms around him, have him hold me, and sob right there in the men’s room. I didn’t. But I wondered if there would be a time in the future I could talk about Donald without being in danger of losing it.
“Thank you, Theo.” I had the feeling I should ask him about his life. His family. He probably had a wife and a bunch of kids by now. The words seemed to stick in my throat, though.
“Emily says you’re going to be staying in Northfield with them for a while,” Theo said into the awkward silence.
“Yeah, just about a month. I should get back out to my family.” I stepped around him, intending to make my way to the restroom door.
“Dane.” Theo wrapped his hand around my wrist.
My pulse raced at the simple touch. Strange, the effect he’d always had on me. He brushed his thumb over the sensitive skin there. My gaze rose to meet his, and my breath caught in my throat at the hint of desire I read in his eyes.
He smiled crookedly. “Maybe we can get together one night while you’re still here. Talk about old times. It’s been years.”
“Yes, ten.” He pulled out his wallet and retrieved a card, which he handed to me. “Give me a call when you get settled.”
“Sure,” I said, though I seriously doubted I would. I shoved his card into the front pocket of my jeans anyway.
“Well, I’ll let you get back to supper. It was great to see you, Dane. You look really good.” Theo paused, and for a moment I was afraid he intended to hug me. He didn’t. “I’m sorry about your partner.”
And then he left the men’s room, and I really hoped that maybe this was the last I’d see of Theo Mason.