The Presence of Grace (Love and Loss #2)(9)

By: Anie Michaels

“I should have never tried to go that night. It was a bad decision.” He ran a hand through his blond hair and I watched it fall right back into place. “Olivia had only been gone a short while. I hadn’t anticipated how it would feel to see married couples, parents, at an event like that. It just kind of struck a nerve, you could say.”

“Wow,” I said wistfully. “I can’t even imagine.”

“You were very gracious that night,” he said as his eyes met mine.

“All I did was hand you a few Kleenex.”

“Yeah, but you could have just kept walking. You could have ignored me.”

“You would have been fine.”

“Probably, but you didn’t know that. Not everyone would stop to help a perfect stranger.”

His praise was making me uncomfortable, displayed by the blush on my cheeks. “And what are the odds that you and I both end up in Florida three years later? Meeting at another elementary school?”

“It is peculiar, isn’t it?” he said, smiling again. He clasped his hands and rested his elbows on the table, peering at me over his hands. “My parents have lived here my whole life. After Olivia died, just a little while after my breakdown at the parent-teacher conferences, I decided to move back home to be close to them, so they could help with the kids.”

“It’s great that you have that kind of support system.”

“Yes, but why are you here?”

I brought my water glass to my mouth, sipping slowly, trying to find the right words. “Things in Fairbanks didn’t work out. I’d spent a summer here once when I was younger.” I shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant. “I figured it was a good place to start over.”

“I found you. I foiled your plan,” he stated with a straight face.

“No,” I said, laughing softly. “My plan was foiled long before you came around.”

The waiter returned to take our order, then left us in peace once more.

“So, there’s you and the kids, and your parents. Anyone else?” I hated the way I sounded, as if I was fishing for information. I totally was, but I wanted to sound less obvious about it. Fortunately, he continued providing information I wasn’t entitled to, without sounding put out by it.

“I have brothers and sisters, but they’re spread out all over the country. It’s all right, though. The kids and I pretty much have it all figured out by now. My parents help a lot, but they don’t really see it as helping. They see it as just spending time with their grandkids.”

“That’s good,” I replied. I had one more question burning through me, and it was the worst one I could think of asking, but something about Devon’s open nature and calm demeanor made me feel as though he would tell me anything. “Can I ask how she died?”

“Breast cancer,” he said almost immediately, the words cold, as if he were trying so hard to say them without emotion. As if he were holding himself back from spitting them.

“I’m sorry. That must have been so hard.” I’d never been close to anyone who passed from cancer, but I knew it wasn’t a quick and painless road.

“It was. But,” he continued on a sigh, “we’ve made it through the hardest parts. We’ll persevere.” We both paused and I had no idea where to go from there. Luckily, he kept talking. “I couldn’t help but notice there’s no ring on your finger. But there is a tan line.”

I looked down at my ring finger before I could stop myself. Sure enough, the line was still there. It had taken a while for the indentation to go away, but finally it had. My thumb rubbed over the spot where my wedding ring used to be.

“My husband and I split up about two and a half years ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not.” That was a lie. “Okay, I’m a little sorry,” I stated.

“Kids?” he asked innocently.

“No,” I replied, trying not to let the black sludge I felt swirling around inside me seep out with my words.

“I’m not sure whether that’s supposed to be a good thing or not. Kids and divorce is kind of rough. But kids are pretty awesome.”

Oh, God.

“Try a room full of thirty of them,” I said, forcing a smile on my face, trying desperately to move our conversation back to safe territory. Back to a place that didn’t make me want to drown myself.

“Did you always want to teach elementary school?”

And just like that we were safe on dry land.

We talked pleasantly throughout our meal. A few times he laughed and I held my breath, waiting for the wings of the butterflies in my stomach to stop swirling, for my heart to slow to a normal pace. Toward the end of our time together, I let myself study his face. He was pretty magnificent, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to just take the memory of him with me. The first man I’d met who seemed to, perhaps, have more baggage than me, but still seemed to be doing fine. Seemed to be making it through with the scars to prove it, but the life to also prove there were reasons to keep going.

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