(I’m not a romance author. Usually. But here’s a sweet meet-cute story.)
Jamie sat down on the far end of the seat, biting her nails with a fury that she could only muster up when she was at peace with the world. She had tied her dirty blond hair up in a tight ponytail, but it yanked on her scalp and she let it tumble out in unruly waves. It was too long, she thought, and the edges were fraying. It needed cutting.
The train started with a jerk and sped up by the countryside. The houses were thrown out here and there and a stream or two dashed by in a blinding blur of crystal light. What a lovely day.
It had been like this the day she got married. It was something she could think about now, without the pain. She curled a long strand of hair around her finger and sighed. She hadn’t been back here since then. Sure, she had seen it, floating by the window, rushing through her periphery as she typed her latest reports on her laptop. But she always worked on train rides and she was only looking, truly looking, now.
It was all probably the same she thought, even that house. Some other couple was surely honeymooning there now. Hopefully they were prepared for how futile and stupid marriage could be. She hadn’t been.
Zachary Powers had been prepared though. That explained the prenuptial. Oh, sure, his father had insisted, but he’d agreed. She should have read that as the first in a long series of signs, signs that never faded as the years stretched on. He’d always been the rich kid on the block, the rich handsome kid. She’d been the beautiful cheerleader. They’d fallen in love the first day of high school and he kissed her for the first time at freshman prom. The kiss had been lovely, passionate, clichéd, worth everything else that followed.
It was a marriage destined to happen. A marriage destined to fail.
Another sigh escaped her lips. She hadn’t put makeup on today, and they were a bland pink, blending into her freckled skin and bowing into a natural pout. She was thirty-five now, but everyone meant it when they said she looked a decade younger. It was as if time had frozen since her divorce. Perhaps it was better to think of her business. That, unlike her personal life at least, had shown some progress.
She was still toying with the ends of her hair and biting her nails when he entered, almost rhythmic in her movements. The late afternoon sunlight clouded up in poofs around her and created an almost dappled effect. She hadn’t even noticed the train had stopped at the station, until he walked in, a gentle swagger with a rough hand that rubbed through his chocolatey hair. It was whitening at the ends, a wise gray.
The first second she looked at him, a dozen expressions crossed her face. He was handsome, not in the movie-star way, but in the husband way. That is the worst type of handsome, she thought, because you think of marrying him the instant you meet him. His eyes were jet black, his lashes put her own to shame, and his suit – well, she’d always been weak with men in black suits. His lips, no, that wasn’t a good idea. She’d just met him. She forced herself to look at his eyes. It was too much to have asked her to look away altogether.
His face was chiseled into a smolder, but he broke out into a smile when he met her gaze. It was a genuine smile that raised from his chin to his forehead and creased around his eyes in a dad fashion. She smiled back, prettily, the calm returning. I should have got the haircut this week. What a day to make the decision not to wear makeup.
“Hi,” she said.
“Mind if I sit here?”
“No, of course not.” How lucky the train didn’t have assigned seating. It was a long ride back.
They sat in silence for what seemed like ages, and the train started again. A rhythmic chugging that pattered on in a whoosh of metal.
He tried to work on his Mac, but she wouldn’t let him. She was by far the loveliest thing he’d seen in a long time. He looked at her and the long blonde hair, and the tight skirt, and the golden legs. It was physically impossible to sit next to her and focus on anything else. He should have sat on the other side. He bit his lip and slammed his laptop back into his bag.
Jamie studiously looked out the window. She didn’t know if she wanted to start a conversation with the stranger. Maybe it would go somewhere? She had avoided men for so long, her friends thought she was gay. Might as well be, she thought. She hated men.
Zach had permanently scarred her. Dear Lord, she had loved him. There wasn’t a day that went by in the five years they were married that she wouldn’t have given her life for him. Even the day when they signed the papers and agreed to part ways.
“How are we supposed to move on?” she’d asked. I love you too much.
“I don’t know. Time, I guess.”
“You know what I’m going to do, Zach? I’m going to pretend it never happened. I’m going to burn everything, throw everything away, and pretend I never knew you.” Why didn’t you try more?
“What about all our friends? What if we run into each other?”
“I’ll just make new ones in New York. I don’t want to come back here. And we can always pretend we’re just meeting for the first time and move on.” Please say you’d rather not get a divorce.
“Alright, Jamie. If you want to be strangers, we can be strangers.”
“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Jamie jolted up with a couple blinks of her eyes and looked at the man next to her. So he’d started to talk to her. That was a good sign. Right? Or was it a bad sign that he’d started with the weather?
“Yes, it is a lovely day.”
His left hand rubbed his knee. No marriage ring. Well, at least that was a good sign. Almost unconsciously, she lifted her hands out of the shadows of the bags surrounding her and danced them on the table, so that he could see.
She wasn’t married either. Or even engaged. Really, he thought, a beauty like her? That was good.
“The way the cottages move in the light. Almost like a merry little jig, if you think about it,” he said.
“That’s very poetic. Are you a writer?”
“Used to be,” he laughed, a deep throaty, sexy chuckle. “Back when there were things to be poetic about. I’m in corporate finance now. In London.”
So that explained the accent. It was a little British at the ends of words and in the middles of sentences. Not enough for one to have been certain he wasn’t American, but enough for it to make him even more attractive. God, she hoped she hadn’t been blushing.
“Originally from the U.S., though? I mean your accent isn’t –”
“Yep. Originally from a small town in Minnesota.”
“Really? I’m from Minnesota too. Where?”
“Rochester,” he said. “You probably don’t –”
“Jesus, I’m from Rochester too. I went to Century High. You?” her eyes had lit up at the memory of the place. Sure, most of the memories were of Zach. But that was the good times with Zach. The late night ball games, the parking lot where they’d done way more than they should have, the dancing in the rain, the crying in the snow, the getting down on one knee. Good memories, those.
He’d stared at her and bit down on his lip. “You’ve got to be kidding. I went there too. Probably graduated years before you though.”
She didn’t correct him. “Small world, ain’t it? You work in London and I work in New York. I’m a lawyer, you’re in corporate finance. We’re on a train in the middle of nowhere. And we’re from the same high school.”
“I never see you at the reunions,” he said, knowing the next line was clichéd, but what the hell. “I’d have remembered a girl like you.”
“Yeah,” she looked at the reddening trees outside, “I don’t like to go back home.”
“No family there?”
“Eh. Who likes reunions anyway? You just get to see how fat the jocks have gotten, how dumb the nerds have gotten, and how broken-up the married couples are. Let me tell you, the first reunion, five years in, that’s magical. And then ten years in, all the magic’s gone.”
His black eyebrows dipped as he said it and her breath hitched. He was so cynical, so broken, and so much like some wounded warrior. She wanted to kiss him right then and there, hug him, and tell him the world got better over time, because it definitely did.
“I guess that’s why I don’t go” is what she settled for saying.
“What’s it like, being a lawyer?”
“Long hours, as always. Lots of money you don’t have time to spend. It’s the same in corporate finance, I bet. This ride is the first break I’ve gotten in weeks.”
“Yes, it’s the same,” he took a deep breath. “London is such a lovely city and I haven’t even gone up in the London Eye yet. I’ve been to Westminster Abbey once. That’s life, though, today.”
“Yes, it is.”
“I sometimes wish I had kids, you know? To keep me sane.”
She chuckled and put a hand on his arm knowingly, “I agree.”
His muscles tightened and she drew her fingers off. The touch had sent tingles through his entire body and his toes had actually curled. Since when did that happen other than in movies?
“It’s not too late, you know.”
The busboy jangled in, carrying a flat plate with twenty or so fancy bites adorning it, their colors mingling and clashing and calling out to the palate. “Would you like some?”
“I’m vegetarian,” they said it at the same time and both blushed.
“These are good,” he pointed a gloved finger at what looked like tiny pizzas. They took two.
“Thanks.” Again in unison.
The busboy chuckled, “You’re such a cute couple.”
They ate in silence, watching the next station crowd each other and clamber in, the sun setting fast. A woman dressed in bright purple debated whether to risk sitting in first-class though she didn’t have tickets, but finally shuffled into the next carriage with a bulky swagger.
Thank God, they were alone again.
“Which stop do you get off at?” he asked.
“York,” she said. “You?”
“Same. My mom lives there now.”
“She got cancer last year.”
“I’m so sorry about that. Mine died a few years ago from it. Such a goddamn shitty disease.”
His eyebrows raised in a twinkle.
“Oh, sorry. I curse,” she said, tightening her jaw.
“No, it’s fine,” he chuckled. “I do too. Lots. Less over the years, but still lots.”
“What stage’s she in?”
“Four. Got a few months left. That’s how it is.”
“Is it just you? Her kids, I mean?”
“Yeah, just me. No grandkids, either. I regret that now. I always thought I’d eventually find someone, you know?”
“Yeah…” she trailed off, her eyes flicking gently into his and then away at the world. “You’ve never been married?”
He huffed, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I haven’t been with a girl in the last five years. Dated around before that. Never been married, though.” The faintest smile seemed to warm his face as he said it.
She snuck a glance sideways at him. How’d he manage that? He was charming, handsome, rich – hell, she was falling in love with him on a train ride.
“You ever been married?” he asked.
She drew her legs up and leaned her back against the wall, draping a thin blanket over her legs to not reveal anything. He tried to fight back a burning desire to pull it off of her and close the little distance that still remained between them.
Her eyes had turned glassy – and god, they were beautiful – and she whistled out a deep breath. “Yeah. Yeah, I was married a long time ago.”
“Oh.” He didn’t know what else to say. He had wished she hadn’t said that. Sure, she wasn’t a kid and he was in his thirties, but a part of him would have still given the world to have been her first anything. First love, first kiss, first time, that was long gone, sure. But first proposal, first ring, first marriage, first…his eyes fell. This was what happened when you built castles in the air.
“Didn’t quite get around to any serious relationships after him, though. Don’t know why. Life happens.”
Great, he thought. Maybe she hadn’t gotten over the idiot. (And of course he had to have been an idiot, he thought, to leave this beauty.)
“What happened?” she asked, noticing his silence and the hesitant eyes. God, why did I say I was married?
“Um, nothing. Nothing. Just…forgot we’re strangers for a sec, I guess. I rarely open up to people and people never open up to me. I figured you were – single.” He was aware of how lame he sounded.
“I am,” she said. “He’s long-gone history. I usually tell people I’ve never been married. Even my friends don’t know.”
“Well, I’ll take that as a compliment,” a smooth smile and he picked up her hand, lacing his fingers around hers.
Her eyes widened.
“His loss, my gain.”
A red creeped into her cheeks and he blushed. “Sorry, I guess I’m being really forward.”
He tried to remove his hand, but she held on. “No. It’s refreshing.”
“Can I take you out for dinner, then? In York?”
“What about your mother?”
“After I see her. Maybe tomorrow or something? When do you leave back to the U.S.?”
“I have a month off. I’m spending it in York.”
He didn’t bother biting down a huge smile that brightened all his features and made him seem like a young boy again.
“Well, isn’t that nice?” He ran his hand over his stubble and she forced herself to look away rather than blush again.
She smiled at the town outside. “Yeah.”
When they reached the station, he held her hand, boldly, and, for some reason, she let him. The lights around the platform threw a magnificent glow to the heavens and broadened out around the slated streets. He opened the cab door for her and got in himself.
“Thanks for inviting me home. I’ll call the hotel,” she said.
“Or you could stay with us. It’s a huge house,” he gave her a roguish smile.
“You’re kidding,” she breathed. “How do I know you’re not a killer?”
“You can stay and find out,” he said. Man, she’s cute when she blushes. He was doing a great job of falling in love with a girl he’d just met.
She rolled her eyes. “Maybe.”
The drive was painfully short and they made it in absolute silence. He wished it was longer so that he could slowly move closer and closer, and trace his hand around her neck, and –
“Are you getting out?” the driver asked gruffly.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, turning to her. “This is it.”
He paid and clutched the wallet in his hand and his suitcase in another. He turned around to find where she’d gone. She had pulled her bags out and waltzed around the yard, looking up at the grandiose façade in front.
He grinned. “It’s nice, isn’t it?”
“Simply marvelous.” This man, this place, this country: maybe it all really could make her finally forget all those painful years ago. Forget her ex-husband Zach, forget the divorce.
“You travel so light,” he said. “Most girls don’t.”
“Oh, I’m not most girls,” she said. Oh, he knew that. “And I’m rich. I’ll buy what I need here. Dress-shopping is first on my list.”
“I could take you.”
“I told you. I’m rich.”
“Yeah, so am I.”
He walked her up to the door, but she suddenly stopped at the entrance, shaking her head and looking back at him.
He didn’t see that she’d stopped and he crashed into her, his suitcase tumbling down the stairs and his wallet flying open.
“Oh my god. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry,” she said. Why had she hesitated? They were getting on so well.
“It’s okay,” his fingers scrambled to put his money back in the wallet, and she bent down to help him.
“I just don’t think I can –” She stopped. Her eyes caught on a torn photo tossed off to a dirty corner of the step: a picture of a lovely young teenager with two dark braids on the side of her head, her blue eyes laughing through the mists of time.
“Who’s she?” she asked, facing him. He had seen her look at it, seen the tears that erupted in her eyes despite every effort not to cry, seen her beautiful lips tremble as they mouthed the words.
He stood up and came so close to her that the hard wooden door slammed against her back. Don’t kiss me, she thought, or I won’t be able to be mad at you.
His lips were dangerously close to hers and he was fighting every bone in his body urging him to fix that distance, “It’s the reason I went to London.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she whispered.
“We’re strangers,” he said. “Why would I tell you my whole life story on a train ride?”
He paused, because she had started trailing a soft finger on his cheek. He wanted to move, he needed to move, but he couldn’t.
“Besides,” his voice was breathy. “You didn’t tell me why you came to York.”
She shoved her hand into a tiny pocket on the side of her skirt, and his hand rubbed over hers as she drew out a torn picture of her own. “This.”
He didn’t even look at it. He just wanted to smash his lips into hers and tell her that he’d fallen in love with her on a train ride and that the past meant nothing to him anymore and that –
A shuffling sound came from inside, and a metallic click, and the next minute she was tumbling backwards and had clutched on to his shirt for support. His arms flung around her to stop both of them from falling.
“I thought I heard you. Oh!” a completely bald, dimpled lady bit her plump lips, her eyes twinkling like stars in the night. “You didn’t text me to say you brought a friend.”
You didn’t call me to say you brought a friend. Mrs. Powers had said that the first time Zach had brought Jamie home, so many years ago. Back when texting wasn’t a thing and cell-phones were huge and clunky. Zach had been the only one on the block with one. It hit her, now, as she blushed and looked at the lady in front of her.
With long locks of hair and young, dainty skin, no blind man would have mistaken Jamie’s mother and this woman for sisters. But bald, weak with cancer, and a few months off of the end, she looked exactly the same.
As she threw her arms around the woman, Jamie felt the thin bones cling back to her. The woman hugged like her mother too.
“So, who is this sweet, lovely girl?” the woman asked as she extricated herself from Jamie’s arms and touched her cheek gently. A small smirk was in his mom’s eyes and all over her face, as she turned to look at her son.
“Oh! I don’t think we actually introduced ourselves,” he said, beaming at his mom and turning to Jamie.
Jamie smiled back, her white teeth glistening, and she held out a graceful hand, “I’m Jamie Reinhart.”
His mother watched the pictures of them swivel out of their hands and drift over the floor. Man, what time could do.
“Zachary Powers,” he said, looking into her eyes with a gaze that said I’ve always loved you as clearly as the tears in hers. “Nice to meet you.”
(c) Isvari Mohan, 2015