A flash of red hair in the sweltering late July sunlight startled Derrick as he pulled into his driveway. A smile spread across his face as the woman sitting on his stoop jumped to her feet and waved energetically.
She pulled open the door of his truck as he turned off the engine, squealing with excitement. Behind the fence between the driveway and the back yard, Chelsea barked.
Grinning, Derrick slid out of the driver’s seat and welcomed her with a hug. “What’re you doing here, LeeAnn?” he asked when she bounced back a step and gave him room to move away from the car. “Thought we were meeting at the restaurant at six with Devon and Hannah?”
“I got impatient.” LeeAnn shrugged, tossing her coppery hair with an irrepressible grin. “Better waiting here for you to get home than sitting back at my mom and dad’s place, listening to my mom trot out a hundred different old wives’ tales about how to have a healthy pregnancy.”
Chuckling, Derrick rounded the back of the truck and pulled his toolkit from the bed. “Well, see, with you being out there on the west coast, she probably thinks all the medical advice you’re getting comes from yogis and voodoo witch doctors or something. Figures you need some good old Midwest common sense to balance it all out.”
LeeAnn assumed an expression of offended indignity. “I have a perfectly respectable naturopathic OB, I’ll have you know.” Beneath Chelsea’s furious barking at this near-stranger she hadn’t seen in years, he almost missed when LeeAnn’s eyes twinkled mischievously and she added, “Mom just doesn’t need to know I’ll be having a perfectly outlandish home birth, as well.”
LeeAnn suffered herself to be sniffed by the dog as Derrick opened the gate to the back yard and unlocked the side entrance to the house, dropping his toolkit inside the door before sitting on the sun-warmed concrete step. Shar pei were guard dogs, and though Chelsea was well-trained, Derrick had accepted he’d never quite manage to train her out of barking at least a little when meeting a stranger on her own territory. After a moment, she decided LeeAnn posed no threat and trotted over to greet Derrick.
“So, how is Craig?” he asked as he rubbed Chelsea’s massively wrinkled, fawn-sable head.
LeeAnn beamed. “He’s fine. Thrilled about the baby. He couldn’t make it with me this time, though. He’s got a big project that won’t be done until August, but I really didn’t want to be back in Michigan during the August heat and humidity, and by the time the winter symphony season breaks, I won’t be able to travel, so….” She shrugged. “But I wanted to come back and see you before travel and visiting became a lot more complicated by another person.”
Derrick smiled as he stood, opening the door again to let Chelsea pass. She headed straight for her food dish, accustomed to their routine despite LeeAnn’s presence. LeeAnn followed him, looking around the inside of the red brick house as he fed Chelsea.
“God, this place hasn’t changed a bit,” she breathed, seating herself at the kitchen table. With the easy manner she’d always had, she made herself at home as if they hadn’t seen each other only three times in the last ten years. Despite his customary prickly sense of privacy, Derrick let her. It had been that way since they’d been teenagers. Having her around never felt intrusive as it did with so many others. “I feel like I’m sixteen again, blushing and trying to stammer out an explanation to your grandmother about how we were studying up in your room, when we were actually making out.”
Derrick gave a nonchalant shrug. “Yeah, I guess I haven’t changed much. Haven’t seen the need to.”
“You’ve even kept the appliances. Those were ancient when we were teenagers.”
He pursed his lips, nodding. “Most of ‘em, yeah. Might remodel the kitchen before long, I guess. Having a hard time finding parts to fix them, they’re getting so old.”
LeeAnn slanted a glance at him, her huge brown eyes narrowing. “Have you changed anything? Aside from maybe painting?”
“Why should I?” Derrick asked, still giving her a calm look and ignoring a prickle of irritation at having his choices questioned. He opened the avocado-colored refrigerator and handed her a bottle of water. “Not sure I see the point of changing things just for sake of changing them. I’m self-employed, and I have to pay for my own retirement and health and contractor’s insurance. If I get injured on the job, I could end up unable to work. The fact that this place isn’t mortgaged and that I don’t spend money on things I don’t need gives me a lot of security.”
She looked like she might argue—no doubt something about change being a way to keep things exciting—then stopped herself with a shake of her head. “I swear, Derrick, you’re thirty-one going on seventy-five. You have been since we were in the ninth grade.”
Any other day, he might have shrugged that remark off, unconcerned for how he appeared to others, but today it felt like an indictment.
Was he boring?
“You’ve always known that about me, LeeAnn,” he murmured, digging in the refrigerator for a bottle of beer and twisting off the top. LeeAnn eyeballed it with a touch of envy, but drank her water dutifully. “You didn’t honestly expect that I’d become wild and exciting as I got older?”
“I guess not.” She sighed, sipping her water. “I always loved that about you, actually. You probably kept me from making a lot of bad choices when we were kids, with all your down-to-earth common sense.”
“Then what’s the problem?” he asked mildly, lifting his eyebrows.
“I don’t know.” Her eyes were soft and concerned, and he saw in them the girl he’d once fallen in love with, back when they were fourteen. He’d still been adjusting to the deaths of his parents and the move away from Tennessee and his new life here in Detroit with his grandparents. In those doe-like eyes, he’d discovered someone who would let him be quiet when he needed to be quiet. “I just want to know you’re happy, is all.”
“‘Course I’m happy,” he answered reflexively. “I’ve got a good life, here. Got my business, got a dog who’s smarter than I am, Devon and I play hockey in the winter together, get together for drinks or dinner once in a while. I’m doing okay.”
LeeAnn nodded, apparently accepting his claim even if the agreement didn’t completely reach her eyes. She tilted her head inquisitively and reached across the table, lifting a lock of his hair from where it brushed the tops of his shoulders. “This looks really good on you,” she said admiringly. “Are you seeing anyone?”
“Nah.” Derrick shook his head, brushing the question aside with a shrug, ignoring the put-on-the-spot sensation making his shoulders tense. “Haven’t really felt the need.”
Her silence spoke volumes, and the squirmy feeling got stronger.
“I’m not good at meeting people, LeeAnn. You know that.” He smiled fondly. “You were always my social buffer.”
“Well, hell, if that’s the issue, while I’m here, we can go out to some gay bars, meet some people. I’ll be your wing man.”
Derrick groaned. “God, LeeAnn, don’t even— No. Just, no. I’m fine alone. I like my life the way it is, okay? I don’t need help.”
“It’s been ten years since we broke up, Derrick. In all that time, have you dated anyone?”
He shrugged, scratching at a corner of the label on his beer bottle with his thumb nail.
“Well, what about sex?”
His neck began to heat up. He ignored it. “I’ve got a good right hand for a reason.”
“If memory serves, you’ve got two very good hands. Seems a shame someone’s missing out on them,” she teased with a saucy grin. Derrick cursed as the blush spread to his face. He hung his head and laughed softly as she chortled in delight at having gotten a reaction from him. “But seriously, honey. I’m kinda worried about you.”
“Don’t be. I told you, I’m doing okay.”
Her mouth tightened as silence fell. She stared, engrossed in her water bottle for a long moment. “Look, you know I didn’t break up with you because you were gay, right?”
Derrick blinked. “Wow. That was a quite a non-sequitur even for you.”
She waved her hand airily. “Don’t change the subject on my change of subject. You do know, right?”
“Bi, if we have to put a label on it, unless you’ve forgotten that I liked you, too. And yeah, I know.”
She didn’t lift her eyes. “I always was afraid you thought that, with the timing and everything. I broke up with you not six months after I asked you if you liked men and you told me you did.”
“I know,” he repeated in that same mellow, modulated tone, taking another drink of his beer. “It never occurred to me you had. Sure, the timing might have seemed odd, but by the time you broke up with me, we’d been having a long distance relationship for three years. Most of those years I barely had time for phone conversations or emails. You were off at college getting worldly and glamorous and I was— Well, I was back here.”
“Back here burdened with enough responsibility for four people.”
He shrugged. “It was what it was. Over and done.”
“I could have chosen my moment better.”
“Yeah, it’s not like I left you much choice there.” Derrick blew out a breath. “Look, did you really come here to hash over the past, LeeAnn? Because, honestly, I’d rather not. Can we just leave that alone, enjoy hanging out while you’re here?”
LeeAnn frowned, then nodded. “Right, sorry. That had just been weighing on me for a while now. I could never bring myself to say it before. But yeah. Okay. I got that off my chest, so I’m good. We should get going if we’re going to be on time to meet Devon and Hannah.”
“Okay.” Derrick set his empty beer bottle by the sink to rinse and recycle later. Trying to lighten the mood, he flashed her a grin and dug in his pocket, tossing her the keys to his truck. “Good thing about hanging out with a pregnant woman: designated driver by default.”
“I can live with that.” LeeAnn laughed, her mood picking up again with the natural resilience her good humor had always possessed. She sobered, though, just for a moment as they stepped back outside, grabbing Derrick’s arm as he locked the back door.
“Look, I just—” She pursed her lips, thinking. “I’m going to say this, and then I’m going to let it go. If I worry about you, Derrick, it’s because you talk about leaving the past behind, but from where I’ve been sitting all these years, it looks like you’re still living in it. I know with all that happened, your life pretty much stopped when you were eighteen. And I just have to wonder… did it ever start up again?”
She gave him a frank, honest look and lifted herself up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek, squeezing his arm. Her smile was gentle and encouraging as she turned around and led the way to his truck.