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Page 13

testpreptraining

“No,” Mark said quietly, “I understand.”

“The second anniversary was different from the first. The first one…” Maggie shook her head and made a little gesture with her hands, a sort of sweeping-away motion. “The second one…it made me realize there are days when I forget to think about him. And that makes me feel guilty.”

“What would he say about that?”

Hesitating, Maggie smiled into her whiskey sour. And for a moment Mark experienced an appalling stab of jealousy over the man who could still elicit a smile from Maggie. “Eddie would tell me not to feel guilty,” she said. “He would try to make me laugh.”

“What was he like?”

She drank again before answering. “He was an optimist. He could tell you the bright side of just about anything. Even cancer.”

“I’m a pessimist,” Mark said. “With occasional positive lapses.”

Maggie’s smile slid into a grin. “I like pessimists. They’re always the ones who bring life jackets for the boat.” She closed her eyes. “Oh. I’m getting a buzz already.”

“That’s okay. I’ll make sure you get back to the ferry.”

Her hand had crept across the table. She let the backs of her half-curled fingers touch his, a tentative gesture that Mark didn’t know how to interpret. “I talked to my dad this weekend,” she said. “He’s never been the kind of parent who told me what to do; in fact, I probably could have done with a little more parental supervision while I was growing up. But he told me that I should go on a date with someone. A date. They don’t even call it that anymore.”

“What do they call it?”

“Going out, I guess. What do you say to Shelby when you want to spend the weekend with her?”

“I ask if I can spend the weekend with her.” Mark turned his hand upward, opening his palm. “So are you going to take your dad’s advice?”

She nodded reluctantly. “But I’ve always hated the whole process,” she said feelingly, staring into her drink. “Meeting new people, the awkwardness, the despair of being stuck with someone for an entire evening when you know within the first five minutes that he’s a dud. I wish it was like Chatroulette, and you could ‘next’ someone right away. The worst part is when you both run out of things to talk about.” Without realizing it, Maggie had started to play with his hand, absently investigating the crooks of his fingers. He felt the pleasure of her touch all along his arm, responsive chords resonating along nerve pathways.

“I can’t picture you running out of things to talk about,” Mark said.

“Oh, it happens. Especially when the person I’m talking with is too nice. A good conversation always involves a certain amount of complaining. I like to bond over mutual hatreds and petty grievances.”

“What’s your top petty grievance?”

“Calling customer service and never getting to talk to a person.”

“I hate it when waiters try to memorize your order instead of writing it down. Because they hardly ever get everything right. And even if they do, it causes me a lot of stress until the food gets to the table.”

“I hate it when people shout into their cell phones.”

“I hate the phrase ‘No pun intended.’ It’s pointless.”

“I say that sometimes.”

“Well, don’t. It annoys the hell out of me.”

Maggie grinned. Then, seeming to realize that she was toying with his hand, she flushed and pulled back. “Is Shelby nice?”

“Yes. But I tolerate it.” Mark reached for his whiskey and finished it with an efficient swallow. “My theory about meeting people,” he said, “is that it’s better not to make a really good first impression. Because it’s all downhill from there. You’re always having to live up to that first impression, which was just an illusion.”

“Yes, but if you don’t make a great first impression, you may never get the chance to make a second one.”

“I’m a single guy with a paycheck,” he said. “I always get a second chance.”

Maggie laughed.

The waitress brought their food and collected their empty glasses. “Another round?” she asked.

“I wish I could,” Maggie said wistfully, “but I can’t.”

“Why not?” Mark asked.

“I’m barely sober.” To demonstrate, she crossed her eyes.

“You only have to stop when you’re not sober,” Mark said, and nodded to the waitress. “Bring another round.”

“Are you trying to get me drunk?” Maggie asked after the waitress had left, giving him a mock-suspicious glance.

“Yes. My plan is to get you drunk and then take you on a wild, crazy ferry ride.” He pushed a glass of water in her direction. “Drink this before you start on your next one.”

While Maggie sipped the water, Mark told her about his weekend with Shelby, and her list of things a man did when he was ready for commitment. “But she wouldn’t tell me the fifth thing,” he said. “What do you think it is?”

As Maggie considered the possibilities, her face went through a series of adorable contortions: a crinkling of the nose, a squint, a brief gnawing of her lower lip. “House-hunting?” she suggested. “Or talking about having children?”

“God.” He grimaced at the thought. “I have Holly. That’s enough for now.”

“What about more later?”

“I don’t know. I want to make sure I’ve done right by Holly before I even think about more kids.”

Her gaze was sympathetic. “Your life has changed a lot, hasn’t it?”

Mark searched for ways to describe it, feeling awkward in his desire to connect with her. He had never been given to confiding in others, had never seen the point in it. Receiving sympathy was one step removed from being pitied, which to him was a fate worse than death. But Maggie had a knack of asking questions in a way that made him want to answer.

“You look at everything differently,” he said. “You start thinking about what kind of world you’re going to send her out into. I worry about what kind of subliminal crap she’s getting from TV, and if there’s cadmium or lead in her toys….” Mark paused. “Did you want kids with…him?” He found himself reluctant to say her husband’s name, as if the syllables were invisible shims being tapped into place between them.

“Once I thought I did. Not now, though. I think that’s one of the reasons I love my store so much—it’s a way to be surrounded by children without having the responsibility.”

“Maybe when you get married again.”

“Oh, I’ll never get married again.”

Mark tilted his head in a silent question, watching her closely.

“I’ve done it once,” Maggie said, “and I’ll never regret it, but…it was enough. Eddie fought the cancer for a year and a half, and it took everything I had to be there for him, to be strong. Now there’s not enough left of me to give to anyone else. I can be with someone, but not belong with someone. Does that make sense?”

For the first time in Mark’s adult life, he wanted to hold a woman for unselfish reasons. Not in passion, but to offer comfort. “It makes sense that you would feel that way,” he said gently. “But that may not last forever.”

They finished lunch and walked back to the ferry terminal, the rain so light and slow that you could practically see suspended droplets in the air. You could feel the sky pressing downward. The world was painted in shades of steel blue and pale gray, with Maggie’s hair holding an intensity of red beyond red, every lock an inviting sine wave finished in a neat coil.

Mark would have given anything to play with those striated curls, to fill his hands with them. He was tempted to reach for her hand as they walked. But casual contact was no longer an option…because there was nothing casual about the way he wanted her.

Maybe his attraction to Maggie was simply a result of having just made a commitment to Shelby, and his subconscious was trying to find an escape route?…Stay on course, he told himself. Don’t get distracted.

Their conversation was temporarily interrupted by the necessities of driving the car onto the ferry and finding seats on the main passenger deck. After that they occupied the same bench, talking about everything and nothing. Their occasional silences felt like the peaceful interludes after sex, when you lay there steeped in sweat and endorphins.

Mark was trying hard not to imagine sex with Maggie. Taking her to bed and doing everything to her, deep-pitched and half speed, improvised, and stretched out, and repeated. He wanted her under him, over him, wrapped around. Her body would be pale, adorned with a few constellations of freckles. He would chart them, trace their paths with his hands and lips, find every secret pattern and shiver and pulse—

The ferry docked. Mark waited on the main passenger deck longer than he should have, reluctant to part company with Maggie. He was one of the last people to go downstairs to the parking lanes and get in his car. The sky was sherbet-colored and streaked with cirrus. He felt, as always, the relief of returning to the island, where the air was easier to breathe, softer, and the brisk tension of the mainland ceased. The shoulders of the passengers waiting on the deck dropped en masse, as if they had all been rebooted simultaneously.

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