When Anna shuffled into the kitchen, Mark was taking a casserole dish out of the over. “Something smells heavenly, and I’m starved.”
Mark put the steaming dish on a trivet in the middle of the kitchen table. “I’m not usually into casseroles, but this one looks and smells delicious.”
“Thanks, for giving me time to shake off the travel dust.”
“More relaxed. It’s going to take a while to adjust to thinking of Ben, Beth and my other Summerfield relatives as family. One of the reasons Mom, Dad and I have such a tight bond is because it’s always been the three of us against the world.”
“Don’t forget that I know Bertie and John, Anna. They consider half of the people in Clarkesville as family. And you’ve told me yourself that Simon is like an uncle and Hallie is like a sister.”
“True, but when it comes down to the inner circle, it’s just the three of us.”
“For now, maybe you should think of the Summerfield’s as potential friends.”
“That would certainly relieve some of the pressure.” Anna spooned a serving of casserole onto her plate. “I have a news flash for you. Ben sent a text. He’s decided not to withhold any information from Beth. He warned me that I might not hear from her for several days.”
“Your hands are tied, Anna. She's probably experiencing reservations similar to yours.”
“I get that. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to change the subject. I need a break from anything Summerfield.”
“Fine by me. Name the subject.”
“You. Your life. To start with, I can’t believe that you are adept in the kitchen along with all of your other talents and skills.”
“When you enjoy good food, and live by yourself, basic cooking skills are a necessity. I’m an expert coffee maker, and I make a mean omelet. But . . . I'm especially proficient at reheating take-outs from my favorite restaurants.”
Anna chuckled. “Dad’s a master at reheating too. Tell me about the trip you’re taking tomorrow. Business or pleasure?”
“Both. I have a dinner meeting with a business associate, and longtime friend, in L.A. tomorrow evening. On Friday, I’ll drive to San Diego to spend time with Sharon. If things go the way I hope, I’ll remain in San Diego until Thanksgiving.”
“How is your sister?”
In between bites Mark responded. “It’s hard to say. I’ll know more after my visit.”
“If you are in California, who will your mom spend Thanksgiving with?” She hurried to add before he could respond, “If she doesn’t have plans, our family would love to have her join us at the farm. Mom prepares a Thanksgiving feast to rival any four-star restaurant.”
“She and Ethel Harrison are spending the holiday in Williamsburg. She couldn’t face preparing a Thanksgiving meal without Sharon being here to enjoy it. She’s in a better place than she was six months ago, but she’s still hurting. Your invitation will put a smile on her face. She adores your parents, and she likes to be remembered.”
To Anna's surprise, she choked up and her eyes welled with tears. “That's a trait that humans share.”
Mark pushed his plate aside, reached across the table and wiped a tear away. “Why the tears, honey.”
Anna fiddled with her napkin. “Ignore my tears, Mark. My emotions are on overload.”
“Talk to me. Tell me what's really wrong."
“It’s just that I’ve barely seen you in the past month, and now you’re leaving for three weeks.”
His face brightened. “So, you have missed me?”
She nodded. She wanted to tell him that her life felt empty without him in it. But, she was desperately afraid that he would leave permanently if he knew how much she cared.
“I’ve disappointed Sharon once, Anna. I had a ticket to fly to California when I heard that you’d been advised to leave Raleigh. I couldn’t leave until I knew you were safe.
"Three weeks will pass in the blink of an eye. You’ll be busy with work, and getting to know your biological family. My visit with Sharon could be the difference between a family reconciliation and a permanent estrangement.”
“You’ll stay in touch?”
“I’ll stay in touch. This trip doesn’t change anything between us.”
“Is there an us, Mark?”
His look was penetrating. “That’s your call.” He paused before adding, “When I see something I want, Anna, I go after it. You’ve seen me work, so you should know that. I don’t think that I could have made it any clearer that I want you.”
“As a friend? There’s a difference between friendship and a relationship.”
“I know that. I wasn't sure that you did. It’s doubtful that a couple can have a solid relationship without friendship. We’ve scaled one hurtle after another, personally and as co-workers. I've known from the beginning of our friendship that our relationship was worth fighting for. You’ve been so caught up in the past that you haven’t been able to think about a lasting relationship or the future.
"On one occasion, I took a chance that the time was right. I immediately sensed that you still needed to know that our friendship was secure. I did learn one very important thing. From the fireworks we experienced that evening, we are compatible physically.”
Anna had no doubts about that.
“We’ve come to a crossroads, Anna. If you aren’t interested in moving our relationship to the next level, I need to move on. I’ve taken enough cold showers to last a lifetime. I want a home and a family. For that to happen, I need a woman who loves me the way I love her. Anything else is negotiable. If she’s on my side no matter what, we can make it work.”
Anna could hardly breath. She took a couple of deep breaths, but still found it difficult to form words. “You’re not the only one who’s been frustrated, Mark. There have been two or three time I came very close to handing in my resignation. I didn’t because I wasn’t sure that we were the right fit.
“You were voted the sexiest bachelor in Raleigh last year, for heaven’s sake. I’m about as sexy as a lamppost, and I’m not a socialite. I don’t want to be a member of the Junior League or hang out with the women who spend their days on the tennis court. That’s not who I am. I’m happy when I’m in a barn hanging out with horses, or throwing a party for underprivileged children. As much as I care about you, I recognize that you need a partner who fits your lifestyle.”
“I can’t believe that’s who you think I am. Or for that matter, that you would compare yourself to a lamppost. Why is it that you are self-assured in the workplace and yet question your worth as a woman?”
“Even though I’ve dated in the past, Mark, I’m relatively naïve when it comes to relationships. I think part of my problem has been that I couldn’t imagine a man loving me the way Dad loves Mom, and vice-versa. I’m not willing to settle for anything less. I think I started falling in love with you the day we met. You couldn’t have been any more supportive over the years, but I wasn’t sure that you saw our relationship as lasting.
Mark shook his head. “This a hell of a thing. You tell me that now, when I’m leaving town for three weeks. I should have stuck to my plan not to get into this until my return.”
“I’m not sorry. Knowing that you care will keep me going for the three weeks that you're gone.”
He rose from the table and pulled her into a tight embrace, then brushed her lips with a kiss. “As tempted as I am, Anna, I’m not starting something I can’t finish. I did that once before.”
“I don't like it, but I can live with it.”
“You need to do some serious thinking while I'm gone. We’ve shared a lot, Anna, but we’ve avoided talking about our personal hopes and dreams. It’s important that both of us have the freedom to pursue our goals, but our individual goals have to be goals that the other partner can live with. Unless we are on the same page, one of us is going to get hurt.
“You’ve accused me of playing the field, and that’s not who I am now. Every sexual encounter I’ve had has been with the understanding that I wasn’t interested in a long-term relationship. I moved in with a woman named Carolyn when I was twenty-two, but that relationship didn’t end well. If I’m honest, we were both immature. When my hormones were raging, the thought of having an available sexual partner was appealing. Problem was, we hadn’t taken into consideration that we had absolutely nothing in common.
"If I could change the past, I would. I can’t. You are going to have to trust that my ideas about sex and love have changed.”
“I'm working on it. And, you are going to have to accept that my past has left scars. I can’t promise that the nightmares won’t return, and I can’t promise that there won’t be self-doubt. I can assure you that my goal is to be emotionally healthy. I’m dong all that I can do to make that happen.”
“That doesn’t scare me. A permanent relationship is all about flexibility and commitment.”
“If there’s anything I’ve learned, Mark, it’s that there are no guarantees in life.
“That's one of the reasons that we need to live each day as if it's our last.”