"More complications? Where are the other ones? Sugar, you don't have anything in your life to complicate it. You're just running scared, that's all."
Ainsleigh was sorry she had brought the subject up. She and Marlene were having breakfast in the gazebo in the backyard. It was the morning after her date with Nick, and her friend was not feeling much compassion for her fears.
"Of course I'm scared, Marlene. I'm a bit out of practice with this relationship stuff and I do have a legitimate reason to be concerned." She refilled their half-empty coffee cups, hoping it made her seem calm and unaffected, but her shaking hands gave her away.
"Hogwash! You're not the first woman to be widowed at a young age. Nobody expects you to die alone just to prove a point. Life's giving you a second chance at happiness. Grab it with both hands!"
"I don't know if I can," Ainsleigh said. Her chin was set, but her eyes showed her vulnerability.
"Then you're a fool." Marlene's expression was severe. "I know I'm being tough on you, Sugar, but it's time somebody gave it to you straight. Otherwise you're gonna end up a lonely and bitter old woman."
"How's Rob?" Ainsleigh said, abruptly changing the subject to make a point. She reached down to pet Hey Cat, who was nuzzling against her leg.
"Mr. Parker is great," Marlene replied, happy for a new topic. "That's because I know how to grab happiness with both hands," she added stubbornly before letting the subject drop. "He took Britt out for some father-daughter time. Now that he's traveling so much, she really misses him. We both do."
"Looks like I got here just in time!"
Both women looked up to see Evan loping across the yard. Ainsleigh poured him a cup of coffee while Marlene took a couple of homemade blueberry muffins from the basket on the table and put them on her plate. She knew once Evan was done, there would not be anything left. "Hey there handsome," she said as he sat down across from her.
"Hey Sugar," Evan teased, taking one of the muffins from her plate. "Ains," he said, turning to greet his friend. "What are you two genteel ladies doing out here in the blazing sun?"
"Pretending mostly," Ainsleigh said. She noticed that Marlene had not only replaced the muffin Evan had swiped, but had taken a bite out of each of them to keep him at bay.
"Pretending it isn't hot," Ainsleigh said, turning her face into a non-existent breeze. "Every once in a while—"
"Oh," Marlene interrupted. "Speakin' of hot, I thought you meant you were pretending that you weren't in love with a certain hot preacher I know." She ignored Evan's grunt and smiled at Ainsleigh's glare. "I guess my work here is done," she said breezily as she grabbed her muffins and walked toward her own back door. "Thanks for breakfast, Sugar."
"Hot preacher? There goes my breakfast," Evan said. He tossed the partially-eaten muffin back into the basket and sat back in his chair, eyeing Ainsleigh carefully. "So much for pleasantries. I guess you know why I'm here."
"To tell me I'm a big fool for not rushing into things with Nick," she offered with a glance at Marlene's back door. She had already heard it all from her neighbor and she did not want to hear it from her best friend.
"No, nothing like that. I just thought you might want to talk about it." Once again his devotion to her was humbling. She wondered for the millionth time what she had done to deserve him. One smile from him and she knew everything was going to be okay.
"So you don't think I'm a fool?" She reached out and touched his arm, grateful for his understanding.
"I didn't say that." She expected him to wink at her, his telltale way of letting her know he was teasing her. But he didn't wink. And he clearly was not teasing.
"Then you'll be happy to know that I didn't push Nick away," she said, sliding her hand away from him. He stopped her before she broke contact, trapping her hand against his arm.
"I understand, Ains," he said sincerely. "I'll admit I wasn't sure about it in the beginning. I mean, I knew he had a thing for you the first time you guys met. And he's a great guy, so I was happy for you both. But then I thought about Danny, and I sorta felt like I needed to protect his turf. You know what I mean?" he asked, running his hand through his hair in frustration. He stood up and turned his back to her.
She hadn't seen him like this since Danny's accident. His need to protect her took over during those awful days and he was the only one who could reach her. He kept her sane. And now he was trying to reach her again.
"And now," she prodded gently, walking around to stand in front of him. She didn't want to put words in his mouth, but she desperately wanted to know how he felt. She trusted Evan more than anybody else in the world and knew he would never lie to her. He had always been man enough to say the hard thing, even when he knew she would not like it.
"Now, when I see life in your eyes again, I know it's what Danny would want."
She threw herself into his arms and sank into his warm embrace, not realizing until that very moment how much she had missed him lately. She was very fond of Michelle, and she could see how crazy Evan was about her. But she didn't get to see as much of him as she was used to, and moments like this had become too rare.
"How do you feel about him?" he asked as she stepped out of his arms. She bit her lip, unsure of how to answer. The two men were close, and she knew that Evan would never betray her confidence. But did she want to put him in the middle? Admitting her feelings for Nick did not erase the obstacles.
"I'm not sure," she said, bowing her head so he couldn't see her face. He bent down so he could look into her eyes and he immediately knew the truth.
"Liar," he whispered. "But it's okay. I know it's new and maybe you haven't had time to come to terms with everything. But I'm here if you need me, Ains. Always." He kissed her forehead and reached for another muffin before turning to go.
He stepped out of the gazebo and started across the yard, but stopped after only a few steps and turned back to her. "Give yourself a break. You're allowed to be human." Then he walked away, leaving her to think about what kind of future she really wanted.
As she stood in the kitchen washing up the breakfast dishes, Ainsleigh did a lot of soul searching. She thought about the tragedies that had plagued her life. Everybody she had ever loved, except Evan, was gone. But she reminded herself that there were many happy times with the people who had been taken from her. And she would not trade those for the alternative: an empty life with no pain, and no joy.
When Nick's face came to mind, she couldn't keep herself from smiling. She knew Evan was right. There was a light in her eyes that she thought had been extinguished. She had seen it, too. There was also a spring in her step that had been missing for a long time. And she liked that feeling. Danny would understand that. He would forgive her for wanting more out of life than loneliness and pain.
As if on cue, the phone rang. She smiled when she heard Nick's voice and quickly accepted his invitation to join him for a trip to a nearby flea market.
"Pick me up in an hour," she said. "I need to talk to somebody first."
Ainsleigh was only a few yards from the gravesite when she came to an abrupt stop. She heard a voice and knew immediately who it belonged to: Evan. Not wanting to interrupt, she stepped off the path and ducked behind a tree.
She listened with tears in her eyes as he told his old friend about Michelle and how meeting her had made him miss Danny that much more. He now realized what it felt like to find the woman you want to grow old with and how unfair it was that Danny was cheated out of that.
He also told him that he was still looking after Ainsleigh, and that he always would. He told him about Nick, that he was a good guy and that he loved her with all of his heart.
When she stepped back onto the path, she kicked a stone, startling him. He quickly wiped his eyes before facing her.
"I guess we had the same idea," she said, looping her arm through his.
"Guess so." His voice was gruff with emotion.
"I brought Nick here yesterday." It seemed like such a long time ago that it was hard for her to believe that it had only been one day. "He prayed for me."
"So did I," Evan admitted. "Did it make you uncomfortable, having him here?"
She shook her head. "Not at all. He was so understanding. He doesn't seem to mind when I talk about Danny and Matty. He's not jealous or anything. I was actually glad that I brought him, even though we quarreled a little bit."
"Ah," he said, and nothing more. He did not want to ruin the moment with an argument. After a few minutes of companionable silence, he spoke.
"I don't think Nick will expect you to forget Danny or consider it an insult to acknowledge him and Matty. The two men have a lot in common. They both love you and want you to be happy. We all do." He threw his arm across her shoulders and hauled her up against him.
"I love you, Evan," she said, her voice muffled against his neck.
"Love you too, Ains. But not here, your husband is watching."