They took a small path into the woods. Alex talked constantly while she focused on remembering the way back to the house. “I did all of this for you, Rory. I want you to be free from worry. I want you to know that there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you. Nothing at all.”
“I really do appreciate it.”
“I don’t think you do quite yet, but you will. Once I’ve told you everything, you’ll understand. Now, close your eyes,” he said, putting his hand over her eyes. “Don’t worry. Let me lead you.” She did, reluctantly, and they walked the remaining distance with him guiding her.
In a large clearing an oversized red-and-white checked tablecloth was spread out over the grass. A pair of tapered candles in silver candlestick holders sat waiting for someone to light them.
“It’s beautiful.” It’s creepy. It’s terrifying. It’s insane. You’re insane. She thought of the beads from Julie’s necklace. I’m insane. Why didn’t I run before?
He looked at her, his expression tender. “Forgive me, Rory, for wanting to try one more time. I know we have our differences. I know that you and Cade are dating, but I think that the Fates gave me this one last chance. They sent him out of town so that I could play the hero and win your heart,” he paused for a moment and caressed her cheek. “Or at least try to.”
“I’m not a prize, Alex.”
“I never said you were. Rory, darling, come sit with me. Let’s talk and enjoy and just forget everything but each other’s company for the moment. The world has paused for us in a way that it never will again.”
There was nothing to do but keep him talking. “Tell me about your mother, Alex. How is she?”
“She’s doing well,” he answered, filling her plate for her. “These are stuffed figs. Some stuffed mushroom caps. Here’s a bit of crostini bread, the basil is fresh. And, my favorite, deviled eggs with truffles. Here.”
She accepted the plate with a gracious smile that masked the face she wanted to make. Stuffed figs? She hated goat cheese. She opted for the toasted crostini. At least she recognized the chopped tomatoes and cheese on top.
Alex handed her a goblet of wine, then began filling his own plate with about a dozen of the figs.
“I love these,” he said, biting into the first one. “They remind me of when I was a kid and the whole family would get together for the holidays, especially Christmas. My mother had it in her head that you needed a house full of people or else it wasn’t a holiday.” Shoving the rest of it into his mouth, he continued. “We always had big family gatherings. Do you remember? I know my mother started extending invitations to you and your mother after the car accident. She said she wanted to help your mother focus on something besides Robert and your father. You must miss them terribly. I know I do. How do you get through each day knowing you were spared? Did they know they were dying? Or were they killed instantly?” Rory counted the number of figs left on his plate and tried to ignore the topic.
Seven. Six. Five.
“I know how it is to be an only child, but I can’t imagine becoming one overnight. Did you see them die?”
“This bread is very good. The basil adds a nice flavor.” Anything to keep him from talking about her brother and father. Anything to keep from remembering the scream of metal and then the shouts of her father as he called his son’s name. Begging Robert to answer him. She remembered the silence that met his pleas most of all.
Four. Three. Two.
“The mushroom caps were Robert’s favorite, weren’t they?”
She nodded, unwilling to reply. Why was he torturing her like this?
“Do you like everything?”
“Yes. You’re a divine chef, Alex,” she smiled coyly at him.
He laughed. “How did I not appreciate you when we were younger?”
She smiled, relieved to have amused him and to have changed the topic. Just keep thinking I’m cute. Shifting to get more comfortable, she felt the keys dig into her thigh, reminding her to run at the next opportunity.
For the rest of the conversation – all of which centered on Alex’s youthful failure to recognize how wonderful she was – Rory put on what Cade called her “reporter’s face,” the one that hid her emotions while looking incredibly interested at the same time. At the thought of Cade, her heart twisted. Alex had manipulated her perfectly.
“You look like you have a secret,” Alex said, refilling his plate with the rest of the figs. “Care to share?” She smiled, deliberately looking away from him to buy a few moments to concoct an answer. “Oh la la. Now you have to tell me. Shall we play truth or dare?”
“The last time I played that game, I lost and had to tell Eddie Parks I had a crush on him. It was the worst moment in my entire sixth grade life. I’m a horrible game player,” she laughed, hoping it didn’t sound forced. “Let’s just say that I can’t believe the trouble you went to for me.”
He handed her another slice of the crostini. “Eat up, sweetheart. I’ve lots here, and we don’t want it to go to waste.” He grinned at her, the same silly grin he gave her in his office eons ago. She wanted to whack him with the nearest bottle this time, too. Hard.