She wanted to make him stop walking so they could talk about it, but she knew it wasn’t the right time, and certainly not the right place. And what would she say? What could she say? No words could undo what she had done, the choices she had made. She had married another man, a man she barely knew. Naive and impressionable, she had allowed herself to be swept away by the older, sophisticated Andrew and the life he offered her. How could she expect Roy to understand? How could he believe that she had never stopped loving him, that she had spent many late nights over the years lying awake while Andrew slept, thinking about him, missing him?
She’d had a good life with Andrew, and she had grown to love him over time, but it hadn’t been the same love she’d always felt for Roy. But she had made her choice. She had said her vows to Andrew only days after accepting his proposal and had honored those vows until his death. Except for that one night, twelve years ago.
Encouraged that Roy had accepted her hand in his rather than rejecting it, she continued to walk along his side through the parking lot in silence. Only when they reached the entrance did he release it. Two high school girls sat at a table selling tickets at the gate. One of Roy’s uniformed deputies stood behind them.
“How’s it going, Marty?” Roy asked, holding two fingers up for the girls.
“All’s good so far,” Marty replied.
“Good. Chester working with you this evening?” Roy pulled out his wallet and paid the girls for the tickets as he spoke.
“See that these two girls behave themselves,” he teased, pointing at the two teenagers.
“Sheriff Slater!” Blushing, they both giggled.
“I’ll do my best.” Marty winked. “Enjoy the game, Sheriff, Ma’am. Should be a good one.”
Roy touched his hand to the small of Charlene’s back, urging her to proceed through the gate. As she did, she said, “I’m surprised you don’t get in for free.”
“I could. I prefer to pay my way to support the team and the school.”
The two teams had already made their entrance onto the football field. As Roy and Charlene approached the stands, a sudden chill ran through her body. She stopped, crossing her arms over her chest as she stared out onto the field. For an instant, Charlene was seventeen again, and a jubilant, dirt-smudged quarterback was running toward her. She closed her eyes as he raised her off the ground and swung her around and around—
“Charlie? You all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said, not turning to face Roy.
“You cold? I didn’t bring a jacket, but I’m sure Marty has a blanket in his SUV I can go get—”
“No, Roy, I’m fine. Just a little overwhelmed with memories there for a moment.”
“Good ones, I hope.”
Finally turning to face him, she smiled. “Yes, good ones.”
“Sheriff Roy! Heads up!”
Charlene whipped around in time to see the home team’s quarterback standing on the sidelines several yards from them, football in his hand. He threw it to Roy, who caught it with ease.
“Nice throw, Tim. You’ve got some arm there.” He threw the football back to him. “Show ’em how it’s done tonight.”
“That’s the plan, Sheriff.” Tim’s smile was broad, confident. He turned his attention back to his receiver, throwing the football to him as they continued their warm-up.
Roy pointed to a vacant spot in the bleachers.
“Cute kid,” Charlene said as she made her way to that spot, carefully stepping around others already seated in the process.
“He’s a good kid, and one hell of a quarterback,” Roy replied as they sat. “And no! He’s not mine!”
She laughed as she placed her handbag on the seat beside her. “I wasn’t even thinking that!”
She studied Roy as he turned to address someone who called out to him a few rows above them. There was no doubt in her mind that he loved the town, and they loved him, just as they had over twenty years ago when he first moved there and immediately became their star quarterback. He was their ‘fair-haired boy,’ and he could do no wrong in the eyes of most of the town, though they never understood why he wasted his time with that poor girl.
He watched the first half of the game with great enthusiasm, often standing, clapping and encouraging the team on. Charlene tried to concentrate on the game, though she couldn’t avoid the eerie sensation of dozens of eyes on her, and the whispers around them. It didn’t mean, of course, she told herself, that anyone recognized her. It would be natural for the town to wonder, and gossip, about the visitor in town showing up at the game with Sheriff Slater. The homecoming mum she wore would only add to their curiosity.
At halftime, while the visiting band marched onto the field, Roy asked if she wanted anything from the concession stand.
“No, thanks. I’m too full from the dinner.”
“I could use a soda. Want to go with me, or stay here?”
“You sure? You alright by yourself?”
She smiled at him. “I’ll be fine, Roy.”
She wasn’t fine, though. She hugged herself once again, overwhelmed with a feeling of vulnerability, as she watched Roy disappear behind the bleachers. She jumped at the touch of a hand on her shoulder and turned to find Sally standing next to her.
“Hi,” the young girl said, smiling shyly. “You’re the nice woman from the coffee shop this morning, right?”
“Yes, I am! And you’re Sally. Nice to see you again.” She meant it, too. She was pleased to see the young girl who had been on her mind much during the day.
“I like your mum.” Sally continued to smile; her hands clasped together in front of her.
Charlene noticed at once how pretty Sally looked dressed in jeans, a cute sweater, and ankle boots. Her face was bright with soft makeup; her long hair curled. She wore a huge heart-shaped mum pinned to her chest.
“I like yours!” Charlene replied. “You must be Bobby,” she said to the attractive young man standing next to Sally.
“Yes, ma’am.” He extended his hand. “Nice to meet you. Sally has talked about you all day.”
“Not in a bad way, though!” Sally quickly said in defense, tucking her hair behind her ears, her eyes wide. “I just said you were nice, and pretty, and drove a cool car. That’s all. We’re on our way to the concession for a hot dog and drink.”
“And we better do that, Sally, or we’ll miss the Homecoming Queen crowning. Nice to have met you, ma’am, enjoy the game,” Bobby said.
“Bye,” Sally said, offering a short wave as she and Bobby headed in the same direction as Roy, hand in hand.
Charlene was still thinking about the young couple when Roy returned with a drink and giant chocolate candy bar. As he removed the candy wrapper, he said, “Passed Sally and Bobby on my way back. Bobby said my date was mighty pretty. I had to agree with him.” He broke the candy bar in two, offered her half.
“Thanks,” she said as she took it from him.
As they nibbled on their candy, they turned their attention to the field, where the crowning of the Homecoming Queen was about to get underway. Four young girls dressed in fancy dresses and their male escorts took to the center field as they were introduced, and then one was named Homecoming Queen. The team quarterback, Tim, took the field, where he placed a crown on her head, and then quickly kissed her on the cheek. Everyone in the stands stood and cheered, including Roy and Charlene.
As they sat, Charlene said, “Well, that brought back memories.”
Roy turned to face her. “Yeah? How so?”
“You crowning the Homecoming Queen our Senior year. Sheila Prentiss. I hated it when you kissed her.”
“Made you jealous?”
“I wanted to scratch her eyes out.”
“Huh! Never knew that. Like you had anything to worry about. You should have been the Homecoming Queen. As far as I was concerned, you were always the most beautiful girl in the school.”
“You were just prejudice. But it didn’t matter. I didn’t care. I didn’t need a homecoming crown. I had the quarterback. That was all I wanted, all I needed.”
“At that time, anyway.” Roy’s eyes locked with hers, sadness in his.
“I’m sorry, Roy.”
“For what? Letting me believe we had a future together, and then turning right around and marrying someone else? Informing me through the mail? Returning eight years later, only to slip out during the night, leaving me to wake in an empty bed? Never hearing from you again until now?”
“All of it.”
“Is that why you’re here? Is that why you drove 500 miles, during the night? To say you’re sorry?”
“What else? Spill it, Charlie, why did you come back now?”
“Hey, Sheriff! Ma’am. Enjoying the game?”
The voice was Kellie’s. She had appeared from nowhere, it seemed, and was sitting on the tier below them.
Roy blew out air from his cheeks. “Deputy.”
“Nope. Not Deputy. Not on duty. Just Kellie. Are you enjoying the game?”
“Trying to,” Roy replied, making no effort to hide his annoyance with her sudden appearance.
“Am I interrupting anything?” She looked out onto the field, then back at them.
“As a matter of fact, you are.”
“Oops! My bad. I just wanted to say hi.”
“And you have.”
“Roy! How rude.” Charlene gave him a soft slap on his leg.
Kellie smiled. “Oh, it’s okay, ma’am. I’m used to the old grizzly bear and his moods, though I would think he’d be in great one this evening.”
“Nice mum,” Roy said. “Did you buy it for yourself?”
Kellie sat up straight. “I did not! I have a date. He’s helping out in the concession during the half-time rush.”
“Coach Miller, huh?”
Charlene couldn’t help but notice how Kellie’s eyes lit up at the mention of his name. Curious about the man, she asked, “Coach Miller?”
“Yeah,” Roy replied. “New girls’ basketball coach. Also teaches Math. My deputy here went all gaga over him the minute he arrived in town.”
“That I did,” Kellie admitted, her eyes sparkling even more than before.
The crowd in the stands suddenly stood and cheered. The team had returned to the field. The second half of the game was about to start. Kellie excused herself after telling them to enjoy the rest of the game, and the rest of the night.
Once she was gone, Roy turned to Charlene. He slid his arm around her and pulled her close to him. He said nothing, merely turned his attention back to the field as the game continued.
The second half of the game proved to be more exciting than the first, with each team taking their turn in scoring, with Roy thoroughly into it, cheering when the Eagles scored and groaning when they allowed the Alpine Bucks to do the same.
With three seconds left in the game and the score tied, the fans stood, holding their breaths, as the Valhorne Eagles attempted to kick a field goal.
When the football successfully cleared the crossbar, right in the center of the uprights, Roy raised his fist in the air. “Yes! That’s the way to get it done, boys!”
After they left the bleachers, Charlene stood back and watched with respect, and a sense of pride, as Roy congratulated the coaches on the sidelines, and then the players, giving them all high-fives.
Before they headed out to his truck in the parking lot, he checked in with his deputies on duty. The drive back to the hotel was quiet, with him concentrating on the traffic and the celebrating fans walking along both sides of the street.
When he arrived at the hotel, he parked in front along the street as before, grabbing the one available space. The main strip through the town had a much more impressive atmosphere after dark, with a touch of Victorian romanticism for several blocks both directions created by a series of globed street lanterns lining the long sidewalk. Stringed lights along the hotel’s courtyard entrance added to the soft ambiance.
Roy walked Charlene inside. Once in the lobby, she turned to face him.
“Thank you, Roy. I enjoyed the evening. Both dinner and the game.”
“So did I.” He stepped closer to her. “Goodnight.” He touched her face with the palm of his hand, then leaned in and kissed her lips. He let out a slight moan as his lips left hers. In an instant, both hands were cupping her face as he pulled her closer, pressing his lips firmly against hers. The kiss was long and passionate. When it ended, he rested his brow on hers, whispered, “Guess we’d better call it a night. It’s been a long day for you.”
With her hands resting on each side of his waist, she replied, “Yes, I am tired. It’s been a long twenty-four hours. Will I see you tomorrow? Perhaps we could meet for breakfast.”
“I’d like that. Just call me when you’re up and going. I’ll leave my number at the front desk for you.”
“Sounds good. Good night.”
“Good night.” He kissed her once more, then stepped back as the elevator door opened.
“I’d better grab that. See you in the morning.”
She stepped into the elevator, turned, smiled at Roy as he stood watching as the doors closed. When the elevator door opened on the second floor, she stepped out, turned left and walked to her room at the end of the hall, searching through her handbag for her key card as she did. When she reached her room, she slipped the card in the slot, and then she paused, not pressing on the door handle. She pulled the card out, dropped it back in her bag, turned, and raced the length of the hallway, past the elevator, to the stairs at the other end. She scurried down the stairs, through the lobby, and out the front door.
Roy was about to step into his truck.
Though out of breath, she managed to yell out Roy! Wait!
Her hands on her hips, inhaling and exhaling to catch her breath, she said, “Don’t go. Please. Stay.”
He stepped outside the car door, rested his hand on the top of the window.
“I need to know first, Charlie, are you going to be gone in the morning? Because I can’t make love to you tonight and wake up alone in the morning. I can’t go through that again. Will I have to handcuff you to the bed to keep you here?”
A number of people were walking along the sidewalk between Charlene and Roy. A couple most likely in their fifties turned and headed toward the hotel entrance at that moment. The woman glanced over at Charlene, turned to check out Roy, then turned back to her and smiled.
She waited for them to pass, focusing on the ground. She shook her head, chuckling.
“Well, you can, if you want. But I promise, Roy, I won’t disappear in the morning.”
He turned, facing his truck. He removed his hat, ran his hand through his hair as he exhaled. Turning back to face Charlene, he asked, “How can I trust that? Why should I believe it?”
“Because I have no reason to run away this time and every reason to stay. I love you, Roy.”
He took in a deep breath, let it out, turned to face his truck once again. When he pulled the door open wider, Charlene’s heart sank. Instead of getting in and leaving as she thought he was going to do, he tossed his hat into the cab and closed the door.
“Say it again.”
She stood with one hand on her chest, her heart beating fast. “I love you. I always have.”
Someone near her cleared his throat. “I think this is the part where the two of you run into each other’s arms and kiss.”
Charlene hadn’t noticed the group of guests she had seen checking into the hotel earlier coming up the sidewalk to her right. They were too dressed up to have attended the football game. She assumed they were passing through town on their way elsewhere, had stopped for the night, had dinner in the hotel dining room, and were now returning from an evening stroll.
She blushed, then took steps toward Roy, meeting him halfway.
She slipped her arms around his waist. Looking up into his eyes, she said, “I love you. I just need to know that you love me, too.”
With his hands on her neck, his thumbs caressing her cheekbones, he replied, “How can you possibly have any doubt? God, Charlie, I have loved you since the moment I first laid eyes on you. I have never loved anyone but you, and I will love you until the day I die.”
He traced his thumbs over the contours of her moist lips before pulling her close and devouring them with his own. Her arms slipped tighter around his waist.
A carload of teenagers passed slowly by on the street. The driver honked as one of the young passengers stuck his head out the window and yelled, “Way to go, Sheriff!” and then whistled.
Charlene tore her lips from Roy’s. Chuckling, she said, “I think we’re creating a scene, for the second time today.”
“I don’t care. Let them watch, let them honk.”
She placed her hands on his chest, slowly began unbuttoning the top button of his shirt.
“I don’t care, either, but I do think we should take it upstairs. As I said earlier, I do like you in red, but I like you out of your clothes even better. And that might be more of a scene than this town can handle.”
“That might be,” he replied, raising his eyebrows and kissing her on the tip of her nose.
“Shall we?” She took him by the hand and began walking up the sidewalk as he followed.
Once inside the lobby, they saw that the elevator was stopped on the second floor. They took the stairs. When they reached the second floor, Roy scooped her up in his arms.
“Last one on your right,” she whispered as she slipped one arm around his neck. She stroked the side of his face with her fingertips, then kissed his neck as she eased her hand down to his chest. She continued to undress him, running her fingers through soft, dark chest hair as she pushed the small white buttons through the holes of his shirt one by one as he carried her down the long hall.
This night she didn’t want the urgent, desperate lovemaking of their last time together. She wanted them to take their time, to explore one another, to reacquaint themselves with each other as they had been so many years ago.