The late afternoon sun sparkled off of Manito Pond as James and Leah wound their way along the path down to the playground. Hand in hand, fingers entwined, they strolled between the pine trees, a peaceful silence blanketing them in a springlike warmth that denied the crisp February air.
The moment between them that had been snatched away by a tourist’s camera still tingled on Leah’s lips. Did James feel it, too, or was she the only one affected by the spark of attraction between them?
A gust of wind swirled last fall’s leaves about their legs, a damp reminder that the steady progression of days halted for no man. Or woman. This time with James was only a stolen interlude, a brief recess from her real life. She had to remember that.
She cleared her throat. “Thank you for a lovely afternoon.” She winced inwardly at the strained formality in her voice, but couldn’t find the words to recapture the easy camaraderie they’d shared at the Conservatory. “I appreciate everything you’ve done. For me, for the children …”
James laughed and squeezed her hand. “Yeah, I’m a regular knight in shining armor. Spending time with a beautiful, fascinating woman, all in the name of charity. What a sacrifice.”
Leah glanced at his face, fighting the urge to brush back the dark hair which had tumbled across his forehead. “Yes, well, the children - and I - appreciate it.”
“Service, pride, dedication,” he quoted. “It’s an officer’s lot in life.”
Leah chuckled at his droll expression and pompous tone. “Oh, absolutely. A nurse’s, too.”
He stopped beneath an overhanging branch and turned to face her, a broad grin on his face. “See? We do have something in common besides insane hours and slightly twisted friends.”
Leah rolled her eyes at the understatement. “Slightly? You should have seen your face when I informed you of the honor you were about to receive.”
“Oh, I felt honored, all right. Probably almost as much as you did, seeing your face on the billboard.”
Leah groaned. “I’ll never live it down! Mrs. Saunders asks about you every time I see her. I haven’t had the heart to tell her it was all a setup. Someday I’ll find a way to thank Jill and Beck for that one.”
“Yeah,” James said, slowing his pace. “We probably should thank them.”
“Don’t forget your friends,” Leah suggested. “They have a lot to answer for, too.”
Stopping completely, he closed the distance between them until she had to tilt her head back to meet his gaze. “I’ve already expressed my appreciation,” he said, his voice low and more intimate.
Leah felt a flush rise from her neck to her cheeks. With luck, he’d think it was just a reaction to the cold.
A mature, 30-year-old ICU nurse did not blush just because a handsome man looked at her as if she were the only woman on the continent.
“How?” she asked. “With a personal ad in the Meeting Place, or their phone numbers on a bathroom wall?”
James slowly shook his head. “Neither. I made an extra donation to the crisis nursery in their names.”
The reason they were together in the first place, Leah thought. “That was generous of you.”
He shook his head again. “Not at all. In fact, it’s the least I could do. Meeting you is the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.”
“I feel the same way,” she admitted. “I’m a little sorry our adventure’s over.”
He pulled her into his arms, his leather jacket soft and smelling faintly of Old Spice.
She snuggled deeper into his embrace. “Ah, Leah, who says it has to be over?”
His kiss was warm and sweet, everything she’d dreamed it would be.
Feb. 14, 1996
The insistent ringing of the telephone jolted Leah awake. She fumbled for the receiver, pushing her cat off her chest as she struggled to sit up.
“Hello?” Her voice was scratchy from lack of sleep, but she smiled at the prospect of hearing James’ voice. He was probably calling to make plans for lunch.
Between his crazy schedule and hers, time together was precious. The path from friendship to love wasn’t always easy, but with James, she definitely felt it was worth the effort.
“Leah,” came an agitated voice over the line, “Jill and I are on our way over. Have you read the paper yet?”
Leah groaned into her pillow. “I worked the night shift again, Beck. I’m not awake enough to read the paper!”
“Check out The Slice.” A dial-tone followed the disconnecting click.
Leah shook her head to clear away the sleep and stumbled to the front door, a hungry cat meowing at her heels. “Just a minute, Py. I’ve got to see what Beck’s so riled up about.”
While the coffee brewed, she spread the IN Life section across the kitchen table. When she found the column she was searching for, her heart lurched at the photo of a billboard.
“Uh-oh,” she muttered. “It’s the same one. At the corner of Pines and Sprague. If Becky and Jill did it again, I’ll …”
However, the four words written across the big red Valentine heart on the billboard brought a lump to her throat and exonerated her two friends at the same time.
“LEAH, MARRY ME. JAMES.”
What could she say, but “Yes”?