Landers hadn't been back to Greenville in the five years since he graduated from Green College. He returned to Enville, living with his mother and working at Stop and Save until he was finally able to land a IT job with a local business. Great Aunt Harriett died a few years later, leaving her estate to Landers. He allowed his mother to move into Harriett's grand house and they sold the run down home he had been raised in.
Comfortable financially thanks to Great Aunt Harriett, Landers was free to look for other jobs and when he saw an on-line advertisement for an IT Director at the Blue County Medical Center in Greenville, Landers thought it might be fun to return to his former college town for sentimental and nostalgic reasons. He was hired for the position after a couple of interviews and he rented a comfortable condo in the Blue River section of town, deciding to give the new job a year before committing to buying property.
Landers enjoyed the job and the condo. He liked being back in town and occasionally he'd drive by the Green College Campus but it seemed like it was a different life when he had lived there. He had fond memories and sentimental sadness remembering the friends he had made but he had moved on from that period in his life, proud to be a professional computer programmer and technician and excited to be able to advance the hospital's IT Plan.
Landers was walking down the Main Street of Greenville one sunny Saturday morning, window shopping when he stopped at the front of the florist shop to enjoy the pretty flower arrangements. It was easy to see inside the shop and when he saw the proprietor he recognized her right away - that perfect smile of hers she was offering the customer was easy to register and for a moment Landers felt his breath suck away. He hadn't thought about her in a while but now that he saw her again he realized how much he had missed her.
She was wearing bright red slacks and a flowery blouse. Landers waited for the lone customer in the store to leave before he stepped inside the shop. She glanced up from the paperwork she was completing on the counter and Landers could tell by the look on her face that she had immediately recognized him. She smiled warmly.
"Hello, Hillary," Landers said.
"Hello, Landers," she grinned, coming around from behind the counter to give him a hug. "Maybe I should start calling you Paul now. College is over."
Landers gladly accepted her hug. "It's nice to see you," he said.
"I never expected to see you here," she admitted, stepping back to give him the look over.
"I moved back a couple of months ago," he explained. "I work at the hospital."
"Oh," she said, nodding her head.
"You work here?"
"For a couple of years," she said cheerfully. "I moved back to the area to be with a boyfriend but that didn't' work out."
"Where'd you go? After…."
"Back home," she said. "Finished my degree at Massachusetts Liberal Arts College which was commutable from my parent's house. My boyfriend got a job at Hillsboro Plastics so I moved her with him."
"I'm sorry it didn't work out."
She shrugged indifferently and the two of them stood there for a moment, each unsure of what to say next. Finally, Hillary smiled.
"Would you like some coffee?" She asked, motioning to the coffee pot behind the counter.
"Sure," Landers replied with a broad smile of his own.
He followed her behind the counter and watched as she poured him a mug and handing it to him before pouring one of her own. Landers took a sip from his mug.
"Wow, that's potent!" He laughed.
"It's been sitting here a while," she said, pouring some creamer into her mug and taking a sip. "Yeah, kind of strong," she laughed.
"So, where are you living?" Landers asked, partly to make conversation but mostly because he was interested to know.
"I have a small place a few blocks away," she answered. "You?"
"Blue River Condos down past the Blue River Inn."
"That's a pretty area."
The door opened and a customer entered the store.
"I need to get back to work." She put her coffee mug down and went to attend to the customer.
"Okay," he said.
But he didn't move. He stood watching Hillary interact with the customer as if he was the manager of the place observing business. Hillary didn't pay much attention to him until she was done with the customer and then she grinned, giving him a look.
"How did I do?" She wanted to know.
"You were terrific," Landers smiled. "When do you get off?"
"Can I come back then?"
"Sure," she said warmly and Landers left the shop literally smelling the roses.
There had been a few relationship attempts while living in Enville but none of them lasted – nobody's fault, really, just the way life worked out sometimes. But seeing Hillary again had awakened something long dormant and forgotten deep inside Lander's soul. All the feelings he ever had for Hillary came bubbling back to the surface with a force that almost knocked him over as he left the florist shop. He walked to the nearby barber shop and got a trim before heading home for a shower and to prepare himself for The Return of Hillary. It was a dream come true.
Landers watched through the florist shop window as Hillary closed the store. She hadn't changed much, really. Her hair was a darker shade and shorter by three or four inches but she looked the same – a full figured girl about his height. She came out of the store and locked the front door.
"The Greenville Diner is just around the corner," Hillary told him.
It was the kind of place Huntzer would have loved but neither commented on that fact. They slid into a booth and glanced at the menus, although Hillary said she pretty much had it memorized since she ate there often. They placed their orders (spaghetti with meatballs for him, crispy chicken salad for her) and Landers checked out the motif (plenty of historic photos of Greenville and the diner) before finally training his eyes on Hillary – such a lovely sight.
"So what have you been up to?" Hillary wondered.
"Graduated from Green," Landers answered proudly. "Went home for a few years but now I'm back working at the hospital."
"I thought about you over the years," Hillary admitted sheepishly.
"It was an awkward ending," Landers said.
"I'm sorry about that," she said.
It was quiet between them for a few moments.
"I missed you," Landers told her.
She smiled sadly as she played with the corner of her placemat. "I wasn't very nice to you, Paul."
"You were always nice," he said.
She met his eyes. "You know what I mean."
"I never wanted anybody more than I wanted you," he confessed honestly. "But being with somebody you can't have is pretty painful."
The waitress returned with their food, interrupting the conversation. They waited until they were alone again.
"Things ended badly," she reminded him.
"What happened?" she asked. "After I left?" She hesitated for a moment, "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."
"It was hard," Landers admitted as he ate his spaghetti. "You were gone. He was gone. There was a void. A vacuum. I pretended none of it happened."
"What about Iona?"
"She had some mental health challenges later on," Landers said delicately. There was no reason to tell Hillary that he slept with her for nearly six months. "She kind of disappeared."
"She was a sad, depressed person," Hillary recalled but Landers decided not to comment further. Hillary gave him a look. "I'm sorry I obsessed over him when I was supposed to be with you," she sighed. "I wasn't in the greatest place back then."
"You never made a commitment to me," Landers said. "All four of us were screwed up."
"Yeah," she sighed sadly.
"There was no reason for you to stay."
"How could I do that to you?" she asked. "You were hurting too."
"You would've stayed out of guilt and that would have been on my conscious," he said, thinking of Iona in that context.
You probably resented me for leaving."
"I wanted you," he admitted quietly. "But I understood."
It felt awkward between them for several moments. Landers stared at her and he had to resist the urge to lean across the table and kiss her. Hillary changed the subject and talked about the florist shop and Landers talked about the hospital computer system and before they knew it they were done with their meal. Landers paid the bill and walked her out of the diner.
"Did you drive to work?" He asked.
"No, I walk or ride my bike most days," she said.
"I'll walk you home," he said, thinking about Iona and the night he chased after her from the library all the way to her apartment and what happened between them once they got inside.
"Okay," she agreed.
They walked down a couple of side streets to an old Victorian apartment house with a wraparound porch and a second floor balcony. A memory of Huntzer's row house in downtown Boston with its upper floor balconies flashed through his mind.
"Do you want to come in?" Hillary asked when they reached the large house.
"Maybe for a few minutes," Landers offered.
Hillary took her house keys out of her handbag as they walked across the large stoop of her apartment house. She used the key to unlock the front door and Landers followed her inside and down a flight of stairs to a remodeled cellar with a hallway running down the center with several doors on each side. Hillary stopped in front of a pine wood door and she slipped another key into the slot. Landers was surprised at how nervous he felt as she invited him inside the opened door.
Her apartment wasn't much bigger than the studio he rented his last two years at Green but it was much more modern and comfortable looking. It was modestly furnished – a kitchenette to the left, an opened living area and a wall less bedroom to the right.
"Have a seat," Hillary said, gesturing to the long leather couch. "Thirsty?"
"Sure," Landers acknowledged, taking a seat on the couch.
Hillary opened the refrigerator and took out a couple of ginger ales. Landers grinned, amused that it wasn't booze. She stepped into the room and handed him one of the cans as she took a seat next to him on the couch.
"I can't quite believe we're together like this again," she said.
"I'm different now than I was back then," he told her.
"Me too," she smiled.
"I don't want to get my hopes up," he admitted, setting his soda can on the coffee table and taking her free hand in his. "I missed you, Hills."
"Huntzer said that was in reference to my breasts," Hillary replied.
Landers became red faced and Hillary laughed. "Don't worry," she said. "I knew you didn't mean it that way."
"It feels like it's only been six days instead of six years since I last saw you," Lander said.
"Feels like six years to me!" Hillary responded and that made Landers feel good.
She placed her arm around his shoulder and gave a little squeeze.
"I'm glad you're back," she said,
"Me too," he beamed, resisting the urge to scoop her into his arms and kiss her.
"I missed you," she whispered into his ear.
Landers closed his eyes and breathed in as she drew herself closer to him.
"I should have stayed," she said. "We could have grieved together." She sounded like she was going to cry.
Landers sucked in a deep breath as he wrapped his arm around her waist and squeezed her tight. "You know what would have happened," he dared to say.
Hillary chewed on her lower lip. "I'm pretty sure," she said.
"Maybe it's better this way."
"Are you still grieving?" She asked.
"About a lot of things," he said.
"Paul?" Hillary said quietly.
Her face was inching closer to his and her lips brushed across the bottom of his chin. Landers felt his breathing quicken having waited so long for this moment. He tightened his squeeze around her waist and he allowed her to find his lips with hers. Landers gently kissed her in response and she cupped his face as she continued the memorable first kiss, some seven years in the making.
Hillary moaned when Landers brushed the tip of his tongue against her lips and she willingly opened her mouth, darting her tongue into his mouth. Landers hand made its way under the back of her blouse to rub the skin of her back. She sucked in air while prolonging the kiss and stroking his cheek with her hand, staring in his eyes.
Landers was unsure of what to say so Hillary spoke instead.
"Paul?" she said into his mouth.
"I was such a fool back then," she confessed.
"I accept your apology the way you're kissing me." He stared into her face so close to his.
"You were so nice to me," she sighed. "When I had a chance to really think about my time at Green I realized that I was a twit."
"No you weren't," he insisted.
"I was so worried about what Huntzer felt about me that I never paid any attention to how you felt about me," she said. "You were kind, generous, giving, compassionate and thoughtful. You cared about how I felt and you listened to what I had to say. You made me feel special."
"You are special."
"I treated you like shit," she groaned. "I knew Huntzer was sleeping with Iona and had no interest in me but I was unable to let it go. I was such a ninny."
"I loved you,"
"I never realized that you were the maximum the whole time."
There was moment of silence as they stared at each other.
"What about now?" Hillary asked, still so close that he could feel her breath on his face.
He kissed her. "I never stopped loving you," he said quietly.