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She opened her eyes and smiled up at him. He certainly looked like a good kisser, with nicely sculpted lips and a strong jaw, broad shoulders and thick black hair. Maybe he was just having an off day.
"I've been waiting a long time to do that," he said. "Your term in office couldn't end soon enough for me."
He didn't mean it as a dig. Did he? The fact that her term as mayor of Avalon, New York, had concluded in scandal still stung; maybe she was just being paranoid. She decided to laugh it off. "All right, now you sound like one of my political enemies."
"My reasons are romantic," he insisted. "I was waiting for the right time. It wouldn't have looked right for us to be together when you were mayor, not with me being president of the only bank in town."
You look like such a hunk, she thought. Don't act like a dork. And yes, shewasbeing paranoid about the scandal, which was odd, because given her background, Nina was no stranger to scandal. As a young single mother, she'd held her head up and gone to work for the town of Avalon, eventually serving as deputy mayor. The salary was almost nonexistent, and hadn't improved much when Mayor McKittrick fell ill and she became the de facto mayor, the youngest and lowest-paid in the state, as far as she knew. She'd inherited a city-finance nightmare. The town was on the verge of bankruptcy. She'd cut spending, which included her own salary, to the bone and eventually found the source of the leak—a corrupt city administrator.
Enough, she thought. This was a new chapter of her life in so many ways. She'd just returned from three weeks away. She and Shane were on their first date, and quibbling with a first date was a no-no. And aside from that kiss—awkward and way too… slobbery—things were going all right. They had shared a Sunday afternoon picnic at Blanchard Park, on the shores of Willow Lake, the town's best asset. Afterward they had taken a leisurely stroll along the lakeshore, and that was where Shane made his move. He'd stopped right in the middle of the path, cast a furtive glance left and right and then pressed his mouth in full lockdown mode upon hers.
Snap out of it, Nina scolded herself. This was supposed to be a new beginning for her. While she was raising her daughter, she'dnever had the time or energy to date. Now that she was making her belated entry into the world of dating, she really shouldn't ruin it by being hypercritical. She had ruined more first dates by being hypercritical than…come to think of it, she'd ruined all of them. First dates were the only kind Nina Romano ever had, because there was never a second. Except that one, years ago. The one that had resulted in her getting pregnant at the age of fifteen. After that, she'd concluded that second dates were bad luck.
Everything was different now. It was time—past time— to see if a date could actually turn into something besides a disaster. Nina's daughter Sonnet was grown; she had finished high school early, at sixteen, and had been accepted at American University, neatly avoiding every youthful mistake Nina had made.
Don't, she thought, feeling herself starting to drown in thoughts of Sonnet. In a moment of insane self-deception, Nina had convinced herself that it would be easy to let go of her daughter. To let go of the child who had been Nina's whole world until high school graduation a few weeks ago.
Trying to pull herself back into the moment with Shane, she quickened her pace and felt a fiery sting along the length of her leg. Too late, she saw that she had strayed too close to a clump of thigh-high nettles.
Even when she gave a soft hiss of pain, he didn't seem to notice as he strode along beside her, filling her in on his latest round of golf.
Golf, thought Nina, gritting her teeth against the stinging sensation. Now, there was something she'd always wanted to try. There were so many things she'd put off learning and doing. Now that Sonnet was gone, it was Nina's turn to take her shot.
The thought put a spring in her step despite the nettles. It was a gorgeous Saturday afternoon and people were out in droves, like creatures awakened from hibernation. She loved the sight of couples strolling along the lakeshore, families picnicking in the park, catboats and canoes plying the clear blue waters of the lake. Nina loved everything about her hometown. It was the perfect place to launch the next phase of her life.
Though not financially rewarding, serving as mayor had brought her friends and allies who far outnumbered her enemies, even after the finance scandal. These connections, and Shane's bank, were the key to her new endeavor. Now that Sonnet was gone, Nina was about to resurrect a long-buried dream.
"So you've been waiting for me to free myself of the mayor's office," she remarked to Shane. "That's good to know. How are things at the bank?"
"Actually, there've been a few changes," he said. "I was going to talk to you about that later."
She frowned at the way his gaze shifted as he spoke. "What sort of changes?"
"We've got some new personnel who came on board while you were away. And can we not talk about business?" He touched her arm, sent her a meaningful look. "On the path back there—" he gestured "—it felt like we really clicked. I missed you. Three weeks is a long time."
"Uh-huh." She reminded herself to be fair, to give this date a chance. "Three weeks isn't that long, not to me. I've waited for years to get going. This is it. My new life. I'm finally starting a future I've dreamed about ever since I was a little girl."
"Um, yeah. That's great." He seemed uneasy, and she remembered that he didn't want to talk about work, so she dropped the subject.
"I'm glad I got to make the trip with Sonnet," she told him. "I can't remember the last time we had an actual vacation."
"I thought maybe you'd be seduced by big-city life and never come back," he said.
He didn't know her at all, then. "My heart is here, Shane," she said. "It always has been. Here in this town where I grew up, where my family is. I'd never leave Avalon."
"So you got homesick on your trip?"
"No, because I knew I'd be coming back." The day after graduation, Nina and Sonnet had taken the train to Washington, and they'd spent three glorious weeks together, seeing the nation's capital and the colonial monuments of Virginia. Though Nina wouldn't admit it, she was also reassuring herself about Sonnet's father, Laurence Jeffries, and his family. Sonnet would be spending the summer with him. Laurence was a high-ranking army officer, a military attachÉ. He'd invited Sonnet to travel with him, his wife and two daughters to Casteau, Belgium, where Laurence was assigned to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.
Having a father who worked at SHAPE was a wonderful opportunity for Sonnet, who would be serving at NATO as an intern. It was a chance for her to get to know Laurence better, too. Laurence and his trophy family. He was a shining star, an African-American graduate of West Point. His wife was the granddaughter of a famous civil rights leader, and his daughters were honor students at Sidwell Friends School. Yet they genuinely wanted to make Sonnet feel welcome, or so it seemed to Nina. At summer's end, Sonnet would matriculate at American University. Simple, thought Nina. All kids left home, right?
The fact that Sonnet would be living with her father, stepmother and stepsisters was simple, too. Blended families were the norm in this day and age.
So why was it, every time she imagined Sonnet in that so-perfect Georgetown brick house or the quaint Belgian town filled with SHAPE and NATO personnel, that Nina panicked? She felt her daughter becoming a stranger, more distant with each passing day. Stop it, she admonished herself again.
Letting her go was a good decision. It was what Sonnet wanted. It was what Nina wanted, something she'd been waiting for—freedom, independence. Still, saying goodbye had been a leap of faith. Thank goodness, Nina thought, she had something to come back to besides an empty house. She had a new life, a new future planned, a new adventure. Nothing could take the place of her daughter, but Nina was determined to move forward. There were things she'd given up, things she'd missed by becoming a mother at such a young age. No, she reminded herself. Not given up. Postponed.
Shane was talking again, and Nina realized she hadn't heard a word he'd said. "I'm sorry. What were you saying?"
"I was telling you, I'm pumped about going kayaking. I've never been."
Pumped? Had he really said pumped? "The lake's a good place to start. The water's pretty tame."
"Even if it's not," he said, "I'm prepared. I bought some gear, just for today."
They arrived at the town dock and boathouse, busy with people out enjoying the best weather of the year so far. She saw couples and families strolling or splashing in the shallows. Her gaze lingered on a couple sitting on a bench at the water's edge. They were facing each other, holding hands, leaning forward in earnest conversation. They were ordinary people—he had thinning hair, she had a thickening waistline—yet Nina could sense their intimacy, even from a distance. There was a certain posture people took on when they loved and trusted each other. The sight of them made her feel wistful; she was no expert on romantic love, having never experienced it firsthand before. One day, though, she might unveil that mystery for herself.
Glancing over at Shane, she thought, probably not today.
He mistook her glance. "So after we go kayaking," he said, "I thought we'd go to my place. I'll fix you dinner."
Please, she thought. Please stop trying so hard. She smiled up at him. "Thanks, Shane." Once again, she reminded herself to loosen up. In a way, dating was like being an explorer, setting off into unknown territory.
"Nina," someone called. "Nina Romano!"
There, in the picnic area near the boat shed, was Bo Crutcher, the star pitcher of the Avalon Hornets, a Can-Am Baseball League team. As usual, the long, tall Texan was drinking beer and hanging out with his buddies.
"Hey, darlin'," he drawled. His accent flowed like sun-warmed honey.
"I'm not your darling, Bo," she said. "And isn't there a rule about drinking before a game?"
"Why, darlin', I reckon there is. How'd you get so smart?"
"I was born that way," she said.
"Seems like you know everyone in town," Shane remarked.
"That was my favorite part of being mayor—meeting so many people."
Shane looked back over his shoulder at Bo. "I don't know why he hasn't been fired from the team."
"Because he's good." Nina knew Bo Crutcher had been cut from other teams thanks to his party-animal ways. The Can-Am League was pretty much his last chance. "When you're good at something, people tend to overlook a lot of other flaws. For a while, anyway. Eventually, though, they catch up with you."
The sound of boyish laughter carried across the water, catching Nina's attention. She immediately recognized Greg Bellamy and his son, Max, launching a canoe.
Every unattached woman in town recognized Greg Bellamy, the ultimate in recently divorced guys. He was ridiculously handsome in a white-teeth, sparkling-eyes, broad-shouldered, six-feet-something way. For a long time, Nina had had a secret crush on him. He wasn't for her, though. He came with too much baggage in the form of two kids. Nina knew and liked Max and Daisy, but she kept her distance. She had finally reached a place in her life where she could just be by herself. Taking on another woman's children was not in her plans.
Besides, Greg wasn't interested. When he first moved to town last winter, she'd invited him to coffee but he turned her down. Nina reminded herself of this when someone else joined Greg and Max—a woman in breezy white capri pants and a lime-green sweater. She appeared to be about eight feet tall and very blond. Although she wasn't close enough to see, Nina knew she was attractive. That was the only type Greg Bellamy seemed to favor. Italian-American women under five foot two, known for their fiery tempers, cropped hair and lack of fashion sense, didn't appear to interest him.
Resolutely pulling her attention from Greg Bellamy, Nina led the way to the boat shed where she kept her kayak. She'd had the kayak for years because she loved being on the water. Willow Lake—the Jewel of Avalon, as it was known in chamber of commerce brochures—was ten miles long, fed by the Schuyler River and bordered by the wooded rise of the Catskills. One end of the lake faced the town of Avalon and was fringed by the popular city park, which Nina had been instrumental in funding when she was in office. Farther along the lakeshore were summer homes and the occasional bed-and-breakfast hideaway. Privately owned property on the lakeshore was exceedingly rare, since the land was now part of the Catskills Forest Preserve. The few places that had been built before the preserve stood like storybook settings from another time. In the shape of a long, curved finger, crooked as though beckoning, the lake stretched deep into a pristine wilderness. At its northernmost reaches nestled a place called Camp Kioga. The property had been in the Bellamy family for generations. Of course it had. Sometimes, it seemed to Nina, the Bellamys owned half the county. The camp had recently reopened as a family resort. At summer's end, it would be the setting for a much-anticipated wedding.
As she and Shane brought the kayak from its berth in the boat shed, she felt a surge of nostalgia. She had bought the two-man kayak years ago at the annual Rotary auction. It was perfect for her and Sonnet. Remembering those rare summer days when she stole time from work to go paddling on the lake with her daughter created a pang of longing so unexpected that Nina caught her breath.
"Something the matter?" Shane asked.
"I'm fine," she said. "Just excited about getting out on the water again."
He went to his car to get his gear. While Nina launched the kayak at the dock, she tracked the progress of Greg Bellamy's canoe. He and his boy, Max, paddled in tandem while the blonde sat like a Nordic princess in the middle. Wasn't she bored? What fun was it to just sit there, keeping every hair in place, white pants unwrinkled?