The kid who’d offered to help him earlier now pecked keys on the register. “This sheet music is on sale,” he said, running the book across the scanner screen. “Are you a kindergarten teacher or something?”
Lillie grinned. “No, nothing like that. I volunteer at Hopkins Children’s Oncology every couple of weeks, and my material is getting stale. Those kids are going through enough without me, adding boredom to their list of complaints. Not that they complain. They’re the bravest little souls I’ve ever met.”
Lillie tended to ramble when nervous, and he felt bad that his nearness made her feel that way.
“My cousin was in there a few years ago,” the kid said, sliding another songbook over the screen. “Leukemia won.”
Jase watched as Lillie, ever the caring comforter, lay a hand atop his.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “How old was he?”
Her shoulders rose, then fell with a sympathetic sigh. How many times had he told her that her heart was bigger than her head? Too many times to count.
The cashier bagged her music, hit the register button to ring up her total. “It’s really nice, what you’re doing,” he said, handing her the receipt. “The thing Lance hated most about that place was how long the days were with nothing to do but watch TV and listen to his monitor beep.”
Jase had to agree…it was a nice thing she’d been doing.
She thanked the kid and turned to face Jase. “Well, it was a nice surprise, seeing you again.”
“Can you hang around a minute, just until I pay for this stuff?”
She looked surprised by his invitation. In truth, he’d surprised himself, extending it. But he couldn’t just let her leave.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll wait for you over by the door.”
There was a time when, as she looked up at him that way, his heart had beat doubletime. But who was he kidding? It was happening, right now.
The kid made smalltalk with him, too, but Jase barely heard a word as he watched her from the corner of his eye. Silhouetted against the bright sunshine on the other side of the window, he couldn’t help but notice the way her chin-length hair curved and curled above her shoulders. She used to dress like a tomboy. Sneakers and jeans with comfy t-shirts, like she’d worn to plant flowers that day in her parents’ yard. But that little dress—
“All set,” the kid said, holding up Jase’s bag.
He thanked the boy and wasted no time, joining Lillie.
“You want to grab a cup of coffee?” He held open the door, hoping that slight frown didn’t mean she’d say no. “It’s only a short walk to Café Latte’da…”
“On Aliceanna Street. I remember.”
Of course she did, because before her addiction destroyed them they used to go there at least once a week to decide the order of the songs they’d sing at Three-Eyed Joe’s.
“So what do you say? I’ll treat you to a sandwich. Or pie. Or both.” Recalling her penchant for eating small portions, he added, “We could share…”
Her sweet, sad smile told him she, too, remembered all the meals they’d shared. And again, it made his heart beat a bit harder.
“I don’t have to be at work until six, so okay, pie and coffee it is.”
They were waiting for the light to change at Fleet and Aliceanna when she said, “This won’t upset Whitney, will it?”
“Why would it upset her?”
“I, well, that day at The Flower Basket, I got the impression she knows that we were a couple.”
“I haven’t been seeing her long, so I doubt she cares enough to be jealous.”
The image of that candlelit table flashed in his mind, proof that she cared. Clamping his jaw against a twinge of guilt, Jase said, “So how long have you had this Hopkins gig?”
“Couple months now.”
The light changed, and he pressed a hand to her back to guide her across the street. Not that she needed his assistance. Lillie had been walking to and from her folks’ inn to the restaurant and hotel for months. Still, it felt good, felt right, being this close to her again.
Inside Café Latte Da, Jase admitted that he’d skipped breakfast.
“The guy who’s forever reminding people it’s the most important meal of the day?” Lillie laughed. “Why!”
“Just got back from Florida, and didn’t have time to make a grocery run. My cupboards are as bare as Mother Hubbard’s.”
“I caught the last few minutes of the casserole demonstration. You were born to be a TV host.”
“Yeah, well… So I think I’ll get the chicken wrap. What about you? In the mood for something more substantial than pie?”
“Thought I heard your belly growl earlier…”
Instinct made her press a palm to her stomach. “An espresso is plenty for now. I’ll whip up a sandwich or something before I clock in at the hotel.”
When she’d paid for the sheet music, Jase saw a lone ten dollar bill in her wallet. He knew her well enough to explain why she’d said no: Lillie had decided that until he could deposit every dime she’d borrowed, she wouldn’t take anything more from him. Unnecessary as that was, Jase respected her decision.
The sat at an empty table near the door—a rare occurrence on a Saturday afternoon—and settled in.
“Tell me about this volunteer work. When did you sign on for that?”
“A week or so after I got home, I gave in to a moment of self-pity.” She stared out the window. “It was time to stop focusing on me, and start focusing on others.” Eyes locked to his, she added, “Best—and worst—thing I have ever done.”
He didn’t get it, and said so.
“Life has put those kids through the wringer. Some of them are barely hanging on, but they’re hanging on. A person can’t help but admire the fight in them.” She sipped her espresso. “Hard to feel sorry for yourself after spending time with them.”
It made sense, considering how she’d always said that self-pity was the most dangerous of all human emotions.
“Must be tough, though, working that closely with them.”
“Only during the drive home.”
Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears. “Because I never know which of them won’t be there when I go back.”
And not because they’d gone home, healthy, he surmised.
She started talking about individual kids, the conditions that put them into Hopkins, the parents and siblings that supported them, and the staff that cared for and comforted them. Hands folded on the table, Lillie said, “And then there’s Jason, the sweetest, cutest ten year old boy you’ll ever meet. He told me the other day that he wants to marry one of the girls—Sally—because his mom’s biggest regret is that she’ll never see him walk down the aisle with the girl of his dreams.”
Wiping away a wayward tear, she added, “Then he asked me if I’d sing at their wedding, and help him make arrangements. Flowers. Streamers. Punch and a cake.”
And he knew that she’d agreed to everything. Jase wanted nothing more at that moment than to take her in his arms, tell her what a terrific person she was. But he sat back, instead, and said, “How can I help?”
“Hey. Quit looking so shocked. I do nice stuff once in a while, you know.”
“I know that better than almost anyone,” was her quiet reply.
“Maybe we can work up a couple of tunes, two or three of the things we’d sing at Three-Eyed Joe’s when people were celebrating anniversaries…”
It meant spending time with her, alone, and Jase hoped the offer hadn’t been a big mistake.
“I think the kids might like that.”
She thought the kids might like it? Why the hesitation? And then it hit him: She was as afraid of being so close, of reliving warm and wonderful moments as he was.
“Then let’s put our heads together, figure out… When is this ceremony, anyway?”
“In two weeks.” There wasn’t a trace of a smile on her face when she added, “If he makes it that long.”
“Keep a good thought, Lill. If the kid is half as determined to do this for his mom, he’ll make it. And who knows? Maybe it’s just what he needs to push him closer to a cure.”
She brought the espresso cup to her lips and, nodding, met his eyes.
His high school Lit teacher had made the class memorize what she’d termed “love poems.” It surprised him that, after all this time, he was able to zero in on a line from Sir Walter Scott’s “Lochinvar”: She’d look’d down to blush, and she’d look’d up to sigh, with a smile on her lips and a tear in her eye…”
Yet again, Jase had to fight the urge to draw her into a comforting hug.
He cleared his throat. Sat up straighter. Downed a gulp of his iced tea. “So where do you think we should get together? My place? We’d have plenty of quiet and privacy there.”
Too much, too soon, he realized when her eyes grew big and round.
“The acoustics are great in the inn’s turret. I’m sure Mom and Dad won’t mind. In fact, they were just asking about you the other day. I’m sure they’d love seeing you.”
“Sounds good. I’ll be home for a month, so my schedule is pretty flexible. You’re the one who’s clocking a hundred hours a week, so…”
“I’m happy to see you haven’t changed much,” she said, laughing. “Still exaggerating like crazy…one of the things that made me crazy about you.”
She gasped a little when that last line came out and, hands over her mouth, Lillie said, “Good grief. I’m sorry, Jase. That was really inappropriate. And bad timing.”
“It’s neither, and it’s okay. Nothing wrong with concentrating on the good times. We had plenty of those before…”
If he’d been standing, Jase might have kicked himself, because things had been going really well until he put his big foot in his mouth. Lillie shoved the espresso cup into the center of the table, her way of saying their meeting was over. She’d gathered her things and stood, and he did, too.
“So should I call you? Or would you rather call me? About a time when we can get together. To rehearse, I mean.”
Rambling again. And again, he felt bad for raising her stress level. “Do you have a pen?”
Like magic, she produced one from her purse.
Leaning over the table, he scribbled three phone numbers on a napkin. “Home, cell, and office,” he said, “in that order. You can always get me on my cell. Call any time.” Call soon, he thought. As he pressed the napkin into her hand, their fingers touched. Not for long—a blink in time, if that—but long enough to send a current of longing straight to his heart.
He’d been behaving like some guilt-ridden goofball who’d dumped his best girl, when in reality, Lillie had ended them by choosing booze and pills over their relationship.
It hit him like a punch to the gut: Suggesting that they get together, for any reason, had been a bad idea. But maybe luck was on his side, and she’d hesitated earlier because she felt the same way. Jase hoped she wouldn’t call. And he hoped she would. Why had she come back, just when he’d gotten himself back on track, and turn order into chaos again?
Feeling miserable and confused, Jase held open the café door.
A tiny frown furrowed her brow. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Just remembered something I forgot to do.” Like…staying the heck away from her.
“Oh. Because you look…different.”
“Don’t mind me,” he said, leading the way across the street. “I’m a little annoyed with myself, is all, for forgetting…” He let his sentence trail off.
“I remember what a perfectionist you are, and how frustrated you get with yourself when you let something, no matter how trivial, slip through the cracks.”
Yeah, she knew him, all right. Their closeness is what allowed her to use him, time and again, to suit her I love drugs more than you needs.