Running always helped to clear her mind. Well, not always, but usually. Lately nothing seemed to be working, but Ellie figured getting out was better than staying in and getting lost in her head again – a habit she was trying hard to break.
She found herself at one of her favorite spots along the trail in the Heath and stopped, suddenly under the spell of the dappled sunlight filtering down through the trees. She wished those luminous beams could show her what she was looking for in the same way that they highlighted usually hidden nooks and crannies of the woods.
Hoping the peacefulness of her surroundings might seep into her own being, she sat down against one of the tall, weathered trees and closed her eyes, catching her breath, trying to center herself. The air around her was damp, but clean and earthy. The only sounds she heard were those of the nature surrounding her. This was the perfect setting for remembering that she was part of something bigger when she otherwise felt so small.
She could have been sitting there for five minutes, an hour, or half a day. She really didn’t know, but she did know she was no longer alone. How long had he been there? Had he just shown up? He had a habit of doing that. He didn’t say anything and she didn’t need to see him to know he was there. She was always overly aware of his presence. He was keeping his distance, just over her shoulder.
The silence continued as she tried to focus on the changing patterns of the sunlight, but her mind kept wandering and the effort she had to put into reining it in was more tiring than the miles she had already run. She gave in and let the memories wash over her; so many of this spot and he was part of most of them.
Their mutual love of nature and the changing of the seasons made this their own little piece of heaven. It was their idyllic frost covered wonderland in winter where icicles sparkled like diamonds in the trees, where in spring the grass grew thick and green like carpet under their feet, where in summer the canopy of shade from the trees protected them from the sun, and where in the fall the leaves gave up their homes on the branches for another year and covered the ground in a patchwork quilt of colors before the first snow fell and started the cycle over again.
“You’ve been pushing back, distancing yourself for a while now.” It was a statement, but his deep voice was soft and hesitant, his tone questioning.
She sighed, twirling a blade of grass between her fingers, knowing that even if she could manage to get out all of the words and feelings in her head and heart, it probably wouldn’t help either of them understand the situation any better. Simply put, it was time for her to go.
“I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“How about starting with why you decided to leave now and not tell me?”
She laughed a small, sad laugh. “How can I tell you why when I don’t exactly know why myself?”
“This is all you, Ellie. You made the decision. You have to know why. And I think I deserve to know that much, don’t you?”
She heard him sigh, could tell he was rubbing the back of his neck. Nervous habit. Then she heard his soft footsteps in the grass and the rustle of his clothing as he sat down behind her. Still not having looked at him, she could tell what he was wearing – track suit, sneakers, and a hat. Always a hat. She’d dropped the blade of grass, replacing it with a flower from the small patch in front of her. She could feel his eyes on her back, waiting patiently for an answer. He was always so very patient with her. She loved that about him.
“Because I became too attached, Ben. Because I wanted more and I was afraid of the inevitable outcome if I made my true feelings known.” She trailed off, finally having found some words, knowing they weren’t ones he wanted to hear. It broke her heart to say them.
His voice was gentle when he finally spoke again. “I understand, I do, but –“
She cut him off, sounding harsher than she meant to, emotions bubbling to the surface. “No. There is no ‘but’. If you truly understand, then you know that. I’m sorry. That’s just how it is. The nature of this – “ She stood up, waving her arms between the two of them, and he wasn’t sure if she’d taken a cue from the weather or it from her as dark, angry clouds rolled above and a gust of wind roared through the trees sending a shower of leaves swirling down around them. “The nature of us – we’ve always known we were heading straight for the edge of a cliff and we’ve deftly ignored it as long as we can. Now we’re teetering on that edge. We can’t hang on any longer. Time has run out.”
Thunder rumbled overhead. Suddenly she felt him against her back, arms encircling her, his breath ghosting in her ear. “You’re right. We ignored the elephant in the room. We alluded to it and talked around it and acted like it would somehow take care of itself. I just wish you had talked to me rather than running away. I wish I had talked to you rather than letting you run away.”
Raindrops mixed with tears, a combination of confusion and sadness.
Against her mind’s better judgment, her body relaxed into his embrace. He gently kissed her neck, just below her ear, and she involuntarily tilted her head to give him better access, shivering at the sudden warmth flooding her body from that small gesture. “I don’t need to be reminded that this is my fault. I’m well aware of that fact, maybe too – “
Her quiet words were lost as he spun her around and kissed her urgently. Resting his forehead against hers, he rubbed his hands up and down her arms, then opened his worried eyes. “Your fault? How on earth do you get that this is your fault? It seems to me we’re in this together. If I’ve done or said anything that made you feel that I was blaming you for… for anything, then I’m an arse who deserves to be run away from without so much as a word.”
The kiss had been so unexpected, her head was still spinning. “No. No, you didn’t do anything. It’s just… things never got to a certain point. I kept hoping they were heading in that direction, but at the same time I knew they weren’t, really. I’m… It’s not your fault. I understand. I’m just not your type.” She was looking down, the last part barely a whisper.
He wasn’t completely sure he’d heard her right. “What?”
She screwed up her courage and looked directly at him. “I’m just not your type.”
He appeared genuinely confused and at a loss for words, hands on hips, mouth opening and closing repeatedly, brow furrowed. He took off his hat, tucking it into a pocket, and ran his hands through his hair. “ What?! Can we please back up a bit and have a proper conversation that we both earlier agreed we should have had, well, earlier ? I think we’ve both been in our own heads a bit too much and now we’re both suffering because of that.”
She nodded, focusing on their now entwined hands, his thumbs rubbing gentle, calming circles on the backs of hers. “We both knew from the beginning that my job here with the Gallery was only temporary and that I’d have to go back to the States by the end of the year. I don’t think either of us expected to end up feeling the way we did – “
He interrupted her. “The way we do . At least the way I do. My feelings haven’t changed. Have yours?”
Shaking her head, she continued. “Okay… I don’t think either of us expected to end up feeling the way we do . No, my feelings haven’t changed. But that doesn’t matter much since we’re going to be going back to different lives. Very different lives. In different countries. On different continents.”
“Okay, I get your point on the ‘long distance’ relationship thing – there are limits and the pond is pretty big.” He squeezed her hands and gave her a half-hearted smile, trying to lighten the mood a bit. “As for the rest, well... I… for a while now… I’ve wanted to ask… I’ve wanted to ask if you’d consider staying, but I didn’t think it would be fair.”
It was her turn to be genuinely confused and at a loss for words as she looked up at him, eyes wide, questioning. “What?”
“I didn’t think it was fair to ask that much of you, to ask you to give up a part of your life to stay here. Especially when my job requires me to be gone so much and there are so many other… complications… to consider.”
“I’ve wanted to stay. I wouldn’t see it as giving anything up. I didn’t think you wanted me… to stay.”
“You have? You wouldn’t? But I do!”
“Yes. No. You do?”
“Yes. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Right then they wanted – needed – more. Practically throwing themselves at each other, knowing there was so much more to be said – What did she think his type was, anyway? How could he think she wouldn’t be willing to stay if he’d asked? – but at the moment just wanting to celebrate their declarations, he let her take the lead. She brought her trembling hands up to his face, their eyes locked as if seeing each other for the first time. He kissed her thumb as she traced it over his lips. Then delving her hands into his damp, disheveled curls she brought his mouth down to hers, lips and tongues meeting franticly. A little strangled noise rose from his throat and he cupped her face, gently wiping away the remnants of her tears.
Once again, time seemed to stand still. They were breathless and soaked to the skin when they finally ended the kiss, but they were warm, clinging as tightly to each other as possible. Lifelines. The passionate effect of the kiss on him was not lost on her. In fact, it was pressed firmly against her hip. It was an empowering sensation, suddenly realizing she could have this effect on him. She gently rocked against him and his arms tightened further around her as he let out a soft groan. They stood tucked together, the rain and their labored breaths slowly returning to normal the only sounds around them.
Finally breaking the silence, they spoke at the same time. “Did you mean what you said?” Eyes meeting, they both nodded.
“We still have a lot to talk about.” He rested his chin on her head, warm hands rubbing up and down each other’s backs.
“Yes.” She placed a kiss over his still pounding heart.
“We need to remember to do that talking out loud to each other and not just to ourselves in our heads. Too much unnecessary trouble.”
“Yes.” Another kiss, this time just above the collar of his shirt.
“I’ve got a little time off before my next project starts and I know you do, too, before you have to head hom… back to the States. Of course you’ll have to go back, at least for a little while, to put things in order if you decide you’re definitely going to stay.” He stood back a bit and lifted her chin so he could look her in the eyes. “And I definitely want you to stay.”
He kissed her nose and eyelids before reaching her lips again. “How about we take a little trip before then? Somewhere secluded where we can sort ourselves out and then get lost in each other?”
“Yes.” This time she kissed the base of his throat.
“Good. In the mean time we should probably think about heading back to civilization and getting into some dry clothes.”
“Yes.” This time she gave a little nip to his jaw.
He hummed and kissed the top of her head. “Is there anything I could ask right now that you wouldn’t say ‘yes’ to?” His voice was sultry and he gently squeezed her hands as she smiled up at him, letting out a long sigh.
She kissed both corners of his upturned mouth. “I can’t really think of anything.” She smiled and kissed the tip of his nose.
Taking her by the shoulders, he turned serious for a moment. “In that case, let me tell you a little something about ‘my type’ – what ‘type’ I consider you to be – and ask you a question. I want you to consider both very carefully.”
“Yes.” A quick peck on his cupid’s bow.
He took her face in his hands, gently returned the kiss, and smiled before his expression turned serious again. “Take a deep breath.”
She did, her heart skipping a beat.
He smiled again, a genuine smile that lit up his whole face, reaching his eyes and revealing the crinkles she loved so. “Fancy a drink?”
“Oh God, yes!”