More Than Words
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“No,” I said, my fists clenching at my sides, a sudden fierce protectiveness racing through me. I’d been there to save you. “You weren’t nobody to me. To me you were everything.”
He shook his head. He looked pained, as if my words had hurt him. “I stayed away for a week and then I couldn’t anymore. I planned to go back the next Saturday, but I came home Friday afternoon and my dad was packing up our house. He’d been laid off from his job, and I knew enough to stay out of his way and not to question his decision. I snuck back to the boxcar and left you a piece of music. I hoped …” He looked off in the distance, the corners of his eyes tightening minutely. “I hoped you’d know it was a goodbye … a thank-you.” He shook his head. “The truth was, Jessie, other than you, there was nothing in that town for me. I’d burned every bridge there was to burn. My dad and I got in the car with all our stuff and drove to Los Angeles the next morning.”
“Oh.” It felt so strange to have the pieces of that long-ago mystery come together. And I had been scared that it would hurt, but mostly it just made me sad. I pictured myself returning to those train tracks day after day, month after month, continuing to hold on to the hope that Callen would return, and he was long gone, in a city four hundred miles away, beginning a brand-new life. But he’d wanted to return. That piece of knowledge made something inside me feel lighter. If only I had known it back then. “I found the music, but I didn’t realize it was for me. I thought it was something you’d accidentally left behind. Couldn’t you have left me a note? Or written to me later? Something?” Anything.
“No. I …” An expression, part pain, part embarrassment, moved across his face, and he opened his mouth to say something but then apparently changed his mind. “I thought it would be better if we just cut ties, if you didn’t think about me again.”
I blew out a breath. He’d been wrong about it being better that we just cut ties, and I wished he’d made a different choice. But he’d been a fourteen-year-old kid with an abusive father and who knew what other hardships that he might be keeping to himself. I found it difficult to be angry with him now. “I felt guilty for a long time,” I admitted. Sad, heartbroken, and guilty.
“You? Guilty? For what? You didn’t do anything wrong.”
I shook my head, remembering the disbelief I’d felt when I’d seen him on television, but also the relief. “I knew you didn’t have a good home life, and I worried that something bad had happened to you, that I should have tried to find you back then when I still might have been able to do something … I should have gone to a couple of schools to look for you, or asked my parents for help, or—”
“Jessie,” he said, shaking his head. “No. You were a kid. We both were. God, I’m sorry that I made you worry. Forgive me for that?”
“I already forgave you for that, Callen,” I said softly. And”—I let out a breath—“now that I know what happened, I’m glad the move was fortuitous for you as far as your music. It all started for you in L.A., right? It worked out the way it was supposed to, I guess.”
His eyes moved over my face for a moment. “I guess,” he finally murmured. He put his hands into his pockets and glanced up the hill toward the town. “Think there’s any chance of us finding a place to eat up there?”
I smiled, aware that he was changing the subject but not minding. We’d said what needed saying. “I’m sure there is. Come on.”
We walked the short distance to the downtown area in silence, stepping onto the cobblestones that lined the narrow streets. Flowers trailed out of window boxes, colorful awnings shaded shop windows, and girls rode by on bicycles, their front baskets filled with fruit and bread and morning purchases. The day had warmed even more, and there was something sleepy and old-fashioned about the town that filled me with a sense of dreamy happiness. I could have strolled the cobbled streets all day, window-shopping and exploring small, dusty stores, but I didn’t figure Callen would find such things interesting. I was here for a month, though, and I’d have plenty of time on my own.
“We could get some things to go and have a picnic lunch somewhere nearby,” Callen offered.
I raised a brow. “Why, Callen Hayes, that sounds perfectly … sweet. What will it do to your reputation if the paparazzi gets a picture of that?”
He laughed. “I’ll be ruined. My bad-boy image will be shot to shit.” He stopped in front of a storefront featuring a stand of hats and grabbed a ball cap with the French flag on it, perching it on his head. “I’ll wear a disguise.”
I laughed, though my stomach did a slow roll of appreciation at how cute he looked. What was it about boys in ball caps?
He paid for the cap, letting the shopkeeper keep the very generous change, and then we walked a few stores down to a market, where we bought a basket of ripe strawberries, a wedge of Brie, some sliced ham, and a bottle of sparkling water. A bakery across the street had just taken a tray of warm baguettes from the oven, and we bought a loaf and took cutlery and napkins from the counter.
I asked the woman who rang us up at the bakery if there was anywhere interesting to sit and eat lunch nearby, and she told me about some church ruins that overlooked the Loire River a quarter mile outside town. When I told Callen what she’d said, he smiled and said he was up for anything. Why does he have to be so charming?
As we turned out of town, something caught Callen’s eye at a novelty store on the corner, and he stopped, pulling an object out of a tall box. A kite? I stepped closer and saw that the kite he’d chosen was in the shape of a red-and-black pirate ship, a white skull and crossbones on its topsail. I laughed. “Why, One Eye, look at that; it’s your ship. I was sure it was in a thousand pieces on the ocean floor by now.”
He laughed, too, taking the kite inside and returning a moment later with his purchase. I shook my head, turning my face up to the sky. “I don’t know if there’s enough breeze for a kite today.”
“We’ll have to see.” He winked, and my heart flip-flopped over itself, causing me to look away on a frown. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to be swooning over Callen Hayes. I’d vowed not to do it, and yet here I was, strolling through a quaint French village on my way to a picnic lunch with him. I groaned internally. A couple of hours. I had to get to bed early tonight since I started my new job in the morning. And then it would be easy to focus on what I needed to focus on … which wasn’t him.
I had no doubt he’d find ways to occupy himself very easily as well. I had a perfectly good idea about what ways those would be, and I hated that the thought depressed me. Still, it was wise I kept it in mind, wise I remembered who Callen was despite the temporary boyish happiness in his eyes today. Despite the romance of the Loire Valley and despite the erratic beating of my heart each time he turned his beautiful smile my way and looked at me with affection in his eyes.
I wasn’t unique. This was part of his allure. He used to make me feel special all those years ago, too. But now? I refused to become one of many who fell for those same charms.
“What’s the sourpuss expression about?” he asked, breaking my moody silence.
“Huh? Oh, I’m just hungry. Come on, the woman at the bakery said the ruins are this way.”
I didn’t like the suddenly somber look on Jessie’s face, so I took her hand in mine and clasped it firmly. “Lead the way.” She looked startled as she glanced between our latched hands and my face, but she didn’t try to pull away. I grinned, finally eliciting a laugh from her as the mood lightened.