Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Nineteen

BEN

The light is still on in the bedroom as I come upstairs. Becca had waited up, and just because I want to, I stand in the doorway and take a minute to stare at her.

I met her the summer we both turned sixteen when she had started working at my family's feed store after school. I knew of her and her sister, had heard the gossip and rumors around town about their drunk of a father. I had seen her in the halls in between classes, and her locker was a few down from mine, but I could never muster up the courage to talk to her.

She was hard to get to know and there was a sadness about her which made me wonder all the more. She was withdrawn and wounded and mysterious. She didn't say much and kept to herself and constantly left me wanting to find out what she was thinking. I carried around the foolish, adolescent fantasy of being the one she'd let rescue her.

My mama had taught me that the best things in life are always the ones worth waiting for. I was more than willing to wait as long as it took for Becca.

I'd tried to play it cool and strike up a conversation with her as we stocked shelves and counted inventory. Nothing too personal at first, just small talk. Easy and harmless. I'd sneak in questions here and there, trying to draw her out. We'd talk about our favorite music, the annoyance, and stress of homework, our love of horses. I'd tell her silly jokes to help ease the haunted look in her eyes. The first time I ever made her laugh is still one of the best days I have spent on this earth. It was the sweetest sound I'd ever heard.

I thought I'd never get the chance to go on a date with her. She was always just out of my reach. Earning her trust was slow progress, like waiting for molasses to pour from the bottle. A few times, she let me drive her home, but always had me drop her off before we got near the gate to her ranch, as if she didn't want me to come inside or see where she was from. Or maybe she was afraid of what would happen to me if I got too close.

I felt like I'd take two steps forward, five back. I could barely eat. I lost sleep over her. I was starting to lose hope.

And, then, on one of the hottest summer days on record, where even the flies panted and fainted from the heat, my luck finally changed.

My palms had been clammy and my heart had pounded so loud I'd swore she could hear it, but I'd worked up the nerve to ask her to the movies. When she'd said yes, I could only stare at her a second in shock. She'd looked up at me with her shy smile and lonely, beautiful eyes, and I knew my life would never be the same.

We saw Forrest Gump. Becca loved it, and to this day, it's still her favorite movie of all time. Afterward, we went to the Sonic for milkshakes, and then drove out behind old farmer Larson's field where we sat on blankets in the back of my truck and looked up at the stars.

All throughout the night, I'd reached for her hand, holding it as long as she'd let me. I didn't even try and kiss her. I didn't want to scare her off. As we searched the heavens for constellations, she leaned a little closer and finally let herself reach for mine. And that was the second I knew I loved her.

We spent every waking minute of that endless summer together, and haven't been apart since.

She looks up from her book and gives me the same smile that had turned me upside down at sixteen. "Hey, you."

I smile back. Even after all this time, she still makes my heart do a sweet, slow flip in my chest. She's the prettiest woman in the world to me. "Hey." I push myself off the doorjamb.

"How's he doing?" To cool herself in the heat, she pulls her hair back off her neck, tying it up in that effortlessly feminine way women know how to do. "Did you get a chance to talk to him?"

"Yeah, I did." Since my niece is in the bedroom right down the hall, I close the door and then come over and sit on the edge of the bed. I look over my shoulder at her, a knowing smile on my face. "Lexy has him pretty tangled up."

She grins, flashing the dimple in her right cheek. "I knew it." She folds down the page, closes the book, keeping her palm on the cover. Her smile turns wistful and dreamy. "I could tell he was falling for her. He needs her. And it's so sweet how she looks at him like he's her hero. She's fascinated by him."

"Unfortunately for him, I think the feeling is mutual." I unlace and remove my work boots, set them on the floor by the bed.

"They've both been through so much." Putting her book on the nightstand, she picks up her lotion. She flips the cap up, squeezes it out into her palm. Her nightly routine has always intrigued me and I watch as she smoothes moisturizer on her hands, up over her sun-kissed arms. I recognize the scent of lavender. "They'll be good for each other."

Standing, I walk into the bathroom. "He's struggling with it." I open the medicine cabinet, pull out the dental floss, toothpaste, and my toothbrush. "He's feeling guilty that he's let her get so close. It's hard for him after losing Megan like he did." Turning around, I lean against the sink as I floss. "You're going to let this happen on its own, right? You know he doesn't like to be pushed."

"I know." She sets the lotion back on the nightstand while she waits for me to finish brushing my teeth. "l'll stay out of it." When I raise my brows at her, she laughs and rolls her eyes. She innocently holds up her hands, palms out. "I will. I promise." I know her too well to believe her, but wisely say nothing as I turn back to the sink. "I just want him to be happy again."

I rinse out my mouth with Scope, spit it out, wash it down the drain. "I know you do." Pulling a towel from the rung, I wipe my face. "He'll get there. He's already let her in more than most people.” Since I know Becca is watching, I fold the towel and hang it back up instead of leaving it crumpled on the sink, come back into the room. "Any word yet from Richard or Victoria?"

"No, nothing." Becca sighs sadly, shakes her head as she flips the sheet up to create a breeze, lets it billow back down. The humidity makes even the dust cling to the skin. "I don't know how someone does this to their own daughter, Ben."

"I don't know either." I strip off my socks and jeans, toss them into the hamper. "But you can't make someone want to get help."

"I wish there was a way we could," she says, helplessly. "At least Lexy is here and away from the drinking. Do you think she's doing alright?"

My white T-shirt follows the rest of my clothes into the pile of laundry until I'm wearing only blue boxers. "I think she's doing the best she can considering what she's up against." Going to the window, I push the lace curtains aside so more air can circulate through. The room fan lazily groans as it rotates back and forth, uselessly trying to get ahead of the sweltering summer heat. I feel its pain.

Becca takes a sip of water from the glass she leaves next to the bed. "I hope she knows she's safe with us." She set the glass back down, turns off her light. "I want this to be a place where she can heal."

"It will be. She's just figuring it all out right now. A lot has changed for her over the last few weeks." I climb in beside her, the antique wooden bed creaking under my weight. I turn out my bedside light, the room settling into the fragrant, moonlit dark. Adjusting my pillow, I lay back, sighing as my body relaxes, my sore muscles easing into the comfort of the mattress. "We just need to let her get used to everything. She seems to like it here, and is starting to settle in." When I lift my arm, Becca nestles into the crook, fitting perfectly, and I turn my head so I can breathe in the scent of her hair. It's too hot to be this close, our skin is already damp and sticking, but I don't mind.

She tilts her head to look up at me. "Did I tell you she called me 'Aunt Becca' this morning?"

"She did?"

She smiles, and even through the shadows I can see her eyes light up. "While she was helping me with breakfast. She was asking me where the cinnamon was and just said it as if it was the most natural thing on earth. As if she's always been calling me that."

I know all too well how huge and important the moment was. Becca has dreamt for years of having her family back. She's never stopped needing or missing them. I kiss her forehead. "See? She's finding her way."

"I hope so. I don't want her to be hurt anymore."

"Try not to worry so much," I soothe, as I trace my fingers lightly up and down her arm. "We won't let anything happen to her."

She catches my hand, links her fingers with mine, just like she did that starry, summer night so long ago. I've held on tight to her ever since. "I love you."

There's not one man on this earth as lucky as me. I'd bet my life on it. Propping myself up on my elbow, I smile down at her. "Have I ever told you how much I like the way you look at me?"

"You're my hero," she murmurs, tenderly touching my cheek.

I keep my eyes on hers as I lean down to kiss her. I'd save her every day to hear those words.
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