Eli, Nora and her late husband, Todd, had gone to the same school, grown up in this same small town. Not only that, Eli had served alongside Todd in the army up until six months earlier when Eli had gotten out for good, but Todd had reenlisted…and only a few months ago he’d been killed in action.
“I’m sorry about Todd,” he told her as she stood in the foyer. “I wasn’t able to get back for the funeral due to my work schedule, but I was thinking about you.”
Wasn’t that the story of his life? He’d thought about her too much over the years. But they’d made the mutual decision to sever their relationship and he couldn’t fault her for moving on, marrying and having a life. Even if that life had been a lie and she had no clue.
At the age of eighteen, he’d been confident and cocky that he could make the world a better place and had thought for sure Nora would come with him and share his dream. But she’d had strong reasons for wanting to stay, just as he had strong reasons for leaving. So they’d been at a stalemate, both too young and stubborn to budge, thinking love would get them through.
Nora’s misty eyes held his. “Thanks. It’s been…rough, but I’m doing okay.”
Eli noticed the second she zeroed in on the scar running from just above his brow, down and into his hairline close to his ear. She started to reach up and Eli froze, steeling himself for her touch. When her hand dropped before she could make contact, he blew out a breath.
Eli wasn’t offering an explanation, and if she asked, he’d have to be vague. That scar mocked him each day in the mirror, reminding him of the secret he still kept for a dead man.
An awkward silence settled between them, but thankfully his mother came into the room, breaking the tension. Since when didn’t he know how to handle a woman?
Nora wasn’t just any woman, though. She was special. Trying to start anything with her now, after all this time, would just be wrong. With her a recent widow and him leaving in a few months…yeah, not a good idea. So, he’d just have to put his emotions in check and do the job he came here to do.
Besides, so much time had passed; they were nowhere near the same people.
“Nora,” his mother greeted with open arms, and the two women embraced each other. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything is fine.” Nora eased back. “I just wanted to let you know that I’ll stop by the hospital to bring some lunch after work tomorrow. I know the surgery can take several hours.”
Eli stood by the door, still watching this interaction between his high school sweetheart and his mother. It was like time had stood still, only it hadn’t. Time had been cruel and had taken each of them down different paths, paths that led to heartache and deceit. Paths that led in totally opposite directions and as far apart as two people once in love could get.
And yet here they were, full circle. Eli wanted to reach out, even hug her in a friendly gesture. He’d lost that right years ago and had no one to blame but himself.
Already the ache in seeing her had settled deep in his chest. They were only on day one so how in the hell did he expect to see her nearly every day? Because he knew full well that Nora loved Mac and Bev as much as he did and she’d be around checking on them, worried about them.
Looked like he was about to pay his penance for leaving her behind.
Oh, sweet mercy. This inescapable, awkward reunion ? ? smacked her in the face and left her utterly speechless. Remaining friends with Eli’s family had once been torture when Eli had first enlisted. She adored Mac and Bev so much that even when he broke things off and joined the army, she still held on to that precious bond with his parents. They were truly the closest thing to having her own and the teen in her embraced the stability.
Nora tried, she really did, to focus on what Bev was saying, but her mind was on the man who stood just over her shoulder. The man she’d once thought to be “the one.” The man who had told her over and over that when he graduated he planned on enlisting to explore and change the world. It wasn’t the fact he was enlisting that broke them. She was proud of him for wanting to fight for freedoms. The issue was that Eli never had any intention of returning and settling down in this small town.