Chapter 34

Hannah could smell...roses.  Almost suffocating from the sweet scent.  Her free hand felt around the air, touching nothing but the crisp cotton on Justin’s shirt.  “Where are we?” she asked, for about the tenth time.

“I told you,” he murmured, leading her steadily -- and blindly -- forward.  “It’s a secret.”

Okay, when she agreed to go out with him on a real date, she didn’t figure he’d blindfold her and take her off to God knew where.  In a way, it was sweet and charming.  But then again, she was the one wearing the blindfold.  Relinquishing her eyes for the sake of a surprise had lost its appeal about fifteen minutes ago.  Because fifteen minutes ago, they were still in the truck, and she expected him to whip the silk necktie from around her eyes and allow her to greet their destination with a smile...and eyesight.

But noooo...he threatened to tie her hands behind her back if she tugged on her bindings one more time.  Kinky.  Just wait until she got him back to the hotel.

Her heels sank into gravel, not expecting it, swaying off-balance, and he said, “Careful now.”

“Well, I can’t see,” she huffed.

“That’s kind of the point,” he retorted, chuckling.  “Trust me, okay?”

Yeah, she trusted him.  He said that when he covered her eyes, and started the truck back at the parking lot, and after she’d continuously asked him where they were going.  Sweet...but getting annoying.

As though he sensed her blooming frustration, he said, “Where’s your sense of adventure, Songbird?”

“Behind this blindfold, Jack,” she said.  But she smiled.  “We are going to dinner, right?  I hope you’re not planning to feed me this way?”

“Mmm, now there’s an idea.”


He laughed again, drawing her closer to him by her elbows.  “Relax.  Ready?”

“Yes!”  Hannah reached up for the tie, but he quickly grabbed her hands.

“Oh, no, you don’t.  I’ll do that.”  Then he kissed her, and she fell into him.  Oh, wow...a blind kiss.  We’ve got to do more of those.

The tie loosened, and she blinked as it slid down her face.  The sky was fading from royal blue to navy blue, and a soft breeze tickled her hair across her shoulders.  Justin stood in front of her, smiling, waiting, watching her as she looked around.  Roses.  Everywhere.  Circling a fountain as the sun faded down behind distant trees.  “Oh, Justin!  It’s beautiful!  Where are we?”

“The Botanic Gardens,” he said, leading her to a small, cloth-covered table in front of the trickling, tiered fountain.  Lights twinkled among the many rose beds, highlighting the various colors of petals with mesmerizing enchantment, and it was so magical, so unbelievably unique and precious, she got tears in her eyes.

“How did you...oh, heavens, I didn’t know they allowed this kind of thing!”

“They don’t, normally, but as it so happens,” Justin said, pulling out her chair, “one of my old college buddies is the Executive Director here.  I pulled some strings, and got us a date to remember.  First dates should be like that, you know.”

Hannah, stunned, plopped down in her chair and stared. first dates went...oh, wow.  Oh, my goodness.  This one had to be a record.  This one was something men thought up for their twentieth wedding anniversary, not first dates.  Hell, her very first date had been to a bowling alley.  That had been a 6, as far as date ratings went.  This one topped the chart and then some.

Dinner, maybe at a place down on Beale Street, with a live band, that’s what she assumed.  Not this.  Not surrounded by so many varieties of blooming roses, her skin began to infuse with the aroma.  At first, the silence had been her give-away that they weren’t at a normal restaurant.  Now, a distant hum of excitement filled the night.  Hannah turned her head in that direction, still way too dazed to do more than gape, blush and blink.

Justin smiled, pulling a picnic basket from under his chair.  “Unfortunately, this date does not come with a waiter,” he said, setting the table with a candle, lighting that, and dinnerware.  “There’s a concert tonight, so most of the staff has been hopping to work on that.”

Alone, with the man she loved, surrounded by God’s most beautiful of flowers...and music.  Not too shabby.

“So...what’s for din-din?” she asked, leaning over to peek inside the basket.

“I have no idea,” he laughed.  “Dane, my buddy, had the cafe here put this together for us.  Hopefully, it’s nothing that needs heating or refrigerating.”

He removed a two plastic bowls from inside the basket and a bottle of wine.  Popping the top off one bowl, the aroma of vinaigrette and olives drifting out.  “Mmm,” Hannah sighed, taking a deep sniff.  “Greek salad...what’s in the other one?”

“It looks like...grilled sandwiches.”

“Paninis or like grilled cheese?”

Justin peeled the top slice of bread off one sandwich.  “Uh...”

Hannah took it from him and studied it.  “Eggplant.”

“Eggplant?  What’s the white stuff?”

Hannah dipped her tongue to the sandwich and smacked her lips.  “Goat cheese.  Yum.”  Justin stared at her.  She stared back.  “What?”

He shook his head as though to clear stars from his brain.  “Nothing, nothing, but you look damn sexy licking that thing.”

She paused, filling her plate with salad...grinning slowly.  "One track mind, Justin?"

"Just a you-track mind, Hannah."

Okay...damn him.  Her smile said, Smartass; her brain snorted out, Flirt; but her heart was flipping over with a great big, Awwww.  Damn him, damn him, damn him.  How was she supposed to make him admit he loved her, too, if he kept distracting her this way?  Jeez, the rate he's going, I'll be blurting out those three words before the wine is opened!


Well...maybe by the end of dinner then.

"Taste this," he said, pouring a small bit of red into her glass.  "I'm a cold beer kind of guy, so tell me if I chose the right kind.  The guy from the cafe rattled off so many different ones, I'm not sure I heard half of them."

Hannah sipped the wine.  It was sweet, tangy, and she told him so.  He watched her over the table, a small smile curving his lips just so.  “Sweet and tangy, huh?  I’m not sure I believe you.”

“Then taste it yourself,” she said.

Justin stood up from his chair, leaned way over and swiped his tongue across her lips.  “Sweet and tangy,” he agreed quietly.  Hannah’s pulse lept.  Damn him, damn him, damn him!  She’d never had so much trouble keeping her mouth shut.  

Just tell him!  See what happens.

And then what?  Watch him clam up again?  Ruin this perfect date?

You don’t know for sure that will happen.  Maybe he’s waiting for you to say it first.

And maybe, nothing changes at all!  

“What’s wrong?” he asked her, settling down into his seat again.  “You got that deer in headlights look.”

Tell him!

No!  He has to say it first!

“I’m fine,” she told him, smiling.  “Just a little overwhelmed by all this.”

He shook his head, dishing out their paninis and salads.  “You’re about as bad as Josie at lying.  I can always tell when she’d doing it, and I can usually tell when you are.  But,” he added when she opened her mouth to deny herself, “I’m not going to insist you tell me--”

Tell him!

That’s not what he’s talking about.  Shut up!

“--I want us to have a nice dinner without fighting,” he concluded, adding a soft smile to his words.

“I’d like that,” she sighed, relieved that her inner ramblings had hushed for the moment.

So, they ate, and they talked, and they laughed.  And it was wonderful.  The concert beyond the trees began, and they sat, listening to the music for a while.  Hannah recognized the band from her teenage days, and it brought back some fond memories.  Soon, she hummed along with one of her favorites, and Justin rose from his chair, holding out his hand.

“Dance with me,” he said.

He led her to the side of the fountain and pulled her close to his chest.  But her heels kept sinking into the gravel.  “Wait...I can’t dance in these.”  She slipped off her shoes, dropped about three inches in height, and he grinned, bringing her back to his embrace.  Through two songs, they danced.

“You do this well for a farm boy,” she said, teasing him.

He shrugged.  “I’ve picked up a few moves over the years.”  And he spun her out and brought her back as smoothly as if they were standing in a ballroom under a crystal chandelier and not in a garden under the stars.  “But I haven’t really danced in a long time, except when I was in Barcelona a few weeks ago.”

She frowned.  “Oh?  Find yourself a nice Senorita to seduce?”

“Not exactly,” he said.  “I went to this bar, and there was a girl there.  She was Irish, I think.  I really don’t remember.  But she looked a lot like you.”

Hannah froze.  Like me?

“Don’t tense up on me,” he murmured.  “I’m just telling a story, not trying to make you jealous, but yes, she did look like you.  At the time, if you remember, I didn’t like you very much, and when I saw her, I thought -- and I’m fairly sure this was my exact thought -- Sonofabitch!  She’s followed me to Spain!”

He chuckled, but Hannah didn’t find it very funny.  So what if they hated each other back then and he’d gotten pissed over a woman who looked like her?  He didn’t have to tell her that!

“Anyway,” he went on, pivoting them around together, “I figured, what the hell?  And asked her to dance.”

“That’s nice,” Hannah commented cooly, staring past his shoulder to the horizon.

She could feel his smile falling down on her, but she refused to look at him.  “I held her, just like this,” he said.

“That’s great, Justin.”

“I held her, just like this,” he repeated, “And I closed my eyes and imagined that she was you, that I held you, just like this.”  He closed his eyes and pressed his temple to the side of her head.  Hannah closed her eyes for a different reason.  Yes, she was jealous.  He held another woman...just like this.  And she didn’t like it one bit.

Moving back enough to look at him, she contained her violent emotions and asked, “Why are you telling me this, Justin?  I don’t really want to hear about it, since you seem to be comparing me with my doppleganger.”

His mouth twitched.  “Doppleganger?  Now there’s a word I haven’t heard in a while.”

“My daddy was a big sci-fi fan,” she replied cooly.  “I know all the lingo.”

His smile was adoring.  “No, Hannah, I’m not comparing you.  I held her, and I danced with her, and I wished she was you.  Even when I didn’t like you, even when the thought of you made me so angry, I couldn’t breathe without spitting fire, I wanted you.  I wanted other women to be you.  I couldn’t stop wanting you.  I couldn’t stop thinking about you.  I didn’t even know you that well, not this woman you grew into.  I thought I knew the girl you’d been, but I was wrong about all that.  And now, I think I know why I was so obsessed with you.”

Her irritation began to fade as he spoke.  Oh God...he’s going to say it.  

“Okay,” she said, lightly, hoping her heart wasn’t pounding in her voice.  “Tell me why you think that.”

His hand smoothed hair back from her neck and he traced the curve of her neck down to her shoulder.  “Because...because you were right about me, and I didn’t want to believe you, but you were right about everything.  I did hate all women because of what Beth did to me, and I thought you were the same type of woman.  I was wrong.  I knew it back then, but my mind and heart weren’t speaking with each other.”

Just say it!

“Hannah,” he whispered carefully.  “I...I’m sorry.”

“Oh, Justin, I lo--what?”

“I’m sorry.  I was angry.  I lived in a hell of my ex-wife’s making.  There are women out there that can be beautiful and caring, and you’ve proven that to me.  You’ve given me a reason to look for the positive in people, women especially, to think about what I really want in a woman, to be a man worthy of such a woman.  I was not very nice to you, and I’m sorry for everything mean thing I’ve ever said and thought.”

She blinked at him.  This was a joke, right?  Women especially?  Other women?  Not her?  “That’s it?  You’re sorry?”

“Well, yeah...what did you think I was going to say?”

She let out a laugh...a panicky, shrill laugh and stepped out of his arms.  “Oh, my god...”  

I’m a rebound.  A freaking rebound from Beth!  He didn’t love her.  Didn’t want to love her.  She’d only been his gateway to believing that he could love, to finding someone else.  But not her.  And she almost let herself slip!

“Hannah?  What is it?”

She pushed at her hair, tightening her fingers into it for a second.  “Nothing.  And I accept your apology, Justin.  It’s all in the past.”  

“Hannah, you’re lying again,” he said, tucking his thumbs behind his belt as he studied her.  Then his eyes widened and his expression was cognizant.  “You thought I was going to say...oh, wow.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Justin,” she insisted and walked over the gravel to the table.  That bottle of wine had barely been touched.  Not any more.  “I didn’t think anything of the such.”  She drank a hefty helping from her glass and poured more.

“If you didn’t think it, how do you assume what I’m thinking?” he asked, following her.  “You’re in love with me, aren’t you?  You thought I was going to say the same.  Admit it, Hannah.  That’s what you thought, wasn’t it?  You almost said it to me.”

She glared at him over the rim of her glass.  “Cocky much, Jack?  I was going to say no such thing.  We’ve agreed that love has no say in this relationship--”

And ain’t that a bitch?

“--so, I don’t know what you think I was going to say, but it’s not that.”

“Who said anything about love?” he inquired, a snarky grin curling his lips.

“You did, the first time!  So don’t banter words with me,” she snapped.  “You know very well this thing between us had been boiling up to something.  Why not love?  What’s wrong with love?”

“Nothing’s wrong with love,” he said.  “But we’ve only been seeing each other for a week.  I just don’t think we’re at that point yet.”

Fat lot you know, Jack.  Third glass...down the pipes.  Not counting the one with dinner.  But that was okay.  Drunk was a hell of an improvement over the shame and embarrassment.  

Justin took her glass and the wine bottle away from her.  “Listen,” he said sternly.  “We’re here, it’s a beautiful night, there’s music and flowers and some wine left...we’re not going to fight tonight.”

“You started it,” she said, sounding like a three-year-old.

He laughed and drew her into his arms again.  “Yes, I started it...and now I’m finishing it.  No more fighting tonight, Hannah.  Just let us be.”

“Fine, but tell me one thing first...this date, was this all just part of your 'I'm sorry'?"

He sighed.  “Let it go, sweetheart.  It doesn’t need to be complicated.  I’m apologizing for being a world-class jackass to you once upon a time.”  He spread his arms wide.  “This was my apology!  A night of romance!  To make up for every screw-up I’ve done in the last few months.  Two people, together, under the stars, talking, touching, laughing, dancing...nothing getting in the way of all that.  A normal date.”

“There’s nothing normal about this date,” she said, inhaling deeply.  Okay, okay, calm down, Hannah.  She was letting herself get worked up.  She made herself believe that he was ready.  And now, she found herself scrambling to cover up her disappointment.  Nothing really new here...just the same old song and dance.  The setting had changed, but not the story or the characters.  He wasn’t ready.  She was, but she was more determined than anything.  In the end, it was all going to blow up, but Hannah was resolved to come out the victor in this.  She just needed a plan...and to enjoy what’s left of this date.  

She gave him a  smile...a teeny smile.  “But it is the best date I’ve ever been on.”

Justin arched an eyebrow, looking vigilant and dubious of her sudden, emotional one-eighty.  “Been on many dates like this one?”

She mimicked his expression.  “Do you want to fight or dance?”

“Dance,” he answered, and locked her in his arms.  “Definitely dance...and maybe a little...”  His mouth brushed the side of her lips, the first kiss since he took off the blindfold.  It evolved into a little more than a brush, and then a little more than the little more, and soon she couldn’t tell if it was him or the wine making her head fuzzy.

But none of that changed the fact that he had the perfect opportunity to tell her that he loved her.  And he hadn’t.  Hannah was disheartened by that, but she remained positive.  Just because he didn’t say it, didn’t mean anything at all.  He was right.  They’d only been seeing each other intimately for a week, and now they were spending two days together, his daughter knew about them, and beyond that...not a single note of progress.  

Didn’t matter.  I might be the rebound, but there won’t be a rebound after me.  No way, no how.  He’s mine...and Hannah planned to see that he didn’t forget that.


Justin held her close to him as she curled away on her side of the bed, asleep in his arms.  The date...that perfectly planned date...a disaster.  It started out great, ended great, but somewhere in the middle, the spit hit the fan.  She wanted him to love her, thought he would say something to that effect, but he couldn’t, not yet.  He’d been thinking about it all afternoon.  Every time he considered how easy it would be to open himself up to her, open his heart to her and allow himself to fall in love...every time in the past week...he’d think about how it wouldn’t work.  Not the way things were now.  

There were so many things he wished he had said to her, instead of backing up and going about their date as though nothing had happened.  He could have said, “I care a great deal about you, Hannah, but love...that’s a big step, especially for me.  I need some more time to think about what that means.  There’s more at stake here than just you and me.  I have my daughter to think about--”

In which she would have probably responded with, “Oh, no, you don’t!  Don’t you dare use Josie as an excuse again!”

He smiled into her head, imagining her eyes sparkling with that age-old argument between them.  He would have gone on to explain, “The fact of the matter is that we do live in different states.  My business is in Savannah.  I can’t leave that.  Spending these weeks here has been a huge adjustment in my business because I’m relying on other people to do my job for me.  I can’t relocate because the navy base in Georgia is my bread and butter right now.  I’m contracted with the navy.  If I lose that, then I lose half of my income.  My business will suffer.  My employees will suffer.  And I can’t do that to them.”

And she might have rolled her eyes and said something to the effect that she wasn’t asking him to give up everything, and he would have said, “But I won’t let you give up anything, either, Hannah.  You have your home and business in Conway.  That store of yours was your father’s.  And I know you love your father too much to give that up.  And your house...your grandparents’ house.  You grew up in that house. Do you honestly think you could give it up, too?  For me, for a different kind of love?  Even if you do think you can let all that go, I just won’t let you.  I can’t have that kind of guilt on my conscience.  I can’t fall in love with you, knowing how you will sacrifice so much--”

And that’s where things would have gotten out of hand.  Hannah would have yelled, “Oh, shut up! Heaven forbid that you feel guilty about us!  I’m sure there are women out there that are more convenient for your fragile emotional state!”  And he would have started to lose his patience -- “Dammit, Hannah! I don’t want anyone else!  I want you!” -- and then the demands would come out -- “You have me, Justin!  But you don’t want me the way I am!  Not forever!  And I’m not sure I can bear that!  It’s forever, or...or...nothing at all!”

Then what would he have said?  Honestly, would Hannah have spoke such warnings?  If he’d been having that argument with Beth, that’s exactly how it would have gone, so he didn’t want to believe that Hannah would have taken the same routes.  Not the Hannah he knew.  If he were to guess, he’d say the conversation would have gone on with, “Is that what you really want?” and she would have sighed out heavily and said, “No.  But I don’t want to be your rebound from Beth, either.  I’m tired of taking scraps, and I want that forever, Justin.  I deserve that.  We deserve that.”

That was the Hannah-response he knew.  She wouldn’t give up, but she wouldn’t have made ludicrous warnings about them.  

“You’re absolutely right,” he agreed with his imaginary Hannah, whispering silently into the darkness of their hotel room.  He caressed the silken skin of the real Hannah’s hip, reminding himself of that.  “We deserve forever, Hannah.  But what we have, it’s good enough for now, don’t you think?  It’s as close to perfect as we can get right now.”

She sighed in her sleep, turning slightly toward him, but he didn’t have to worry about waking her.  The woman could sleep through a nuclear attack.  He smiled at her, loving that about her, that he could do anything to her, and she’d open up to him, even asleep, and trust him completely.  And he trusted her the same.  It was himself he struggled with.  His reason for coming to Memphis with her had been a good one.  He did want a chance to make everything right between them, to apologize for being a world-class ass about so many things, but it seemed that whenever he opened his mouth, he just made it worse.  He’d wanted a chance to explain what he was feeling, why he was so hesitant about so much, and he guessed he did a pretty damn, freaking, great job of that.  Starting with that stupid tale of that chick from Barcelona.  Why the hell did he even mention that?   A Royal F*ck Up, was what it was.   

With a sigh, he stared at the back of her head.  So close together and yet so far away.  

All the over-thinking in the world hadn’t stopped the inevitable.  He couldn’t fall in love with her...and yet, he was right there...right within reach...all he had to do was grab it, grab her, and never let go....

But is there a way to have it all...and not feel so damn guilty?

Could he love her and not ruin her, or himself?  His imaginary argument had some good points.  He refused to let Hannah give up everything for him, and he had too many of his own responsibilities to chance it.  He did have Josie to think about.  His job paid for her school, set up her college fund, gave them both insurance and a decent life without many deficiencies.  He couldn’t leave Savannah without compromising all that, and he wouldn’t let Hannah leave her life for him and Josie.  They were at a stalemate.  There was no half-way point.  

Everyone he’d ever talked to said that love was easy, but it was a lot of hard work to make it work.  Hard work, he’d never been a stranger to, but this seemed almost impossible.  Neither him, nor Hannah, was allowed to make even one change, because that would change too much.  

If all he had to give was love...then the solution would be so simple.  But nothing in this world was simple, especially for a man raising a daughter on his own, and caring too much for a woman to ask her to change for him, and still have his pride as a man.

Love was simple.  The rest was not.

Justin closed his eyes to that thought, felt his heart and soul search for Hannah regardless of his protests, loving her relentlessly while he still could, and sometime in the middle of the night, hers responded...and he woke the next morning with her face was pressed against his heart, clinging to him as though her very existence depended on him.  He planted a kiss on her forehead and got up to take a shower, but when he came out...she was gone.

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