A girls guide to moving.., p.11
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       A Girl's Guide to Moving On, p.11

           Debbie Macomber
 
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  He hesitated. “Some.”

  I continued to press, hardly able to understand myself. “You’ve kissed other women since your wife died, right?”

  He sobered and nodded. “I sorry. I not meet you yet.”

  “Nikolai, please don’t apologize. That wasn’t why I asked.”

  “No one else make me feel like you. When I with you I feel joy in my stomach, in my arms and legs. My head feel joy and I want to bake bread again, bread with my own hands, not bread from mixer like in deli.”

  I knew what I was about to tell him would wound him. Just knowing that hurt me. It was important that I not mislead him. This was all new to me and rather unexpected. “I need to see other men, Nikolai. You’re the only man I’ve kissed since my husband, and I don’t know what I’m feeling with you. It could be the simple fact that it’s been a long time since I’ve felt a man’s touch. I don’t want to hurt you, but I don’t want to lead you on, either.”

  The happiness drained out of him as he stared at me as if he was sure he’d heard me wrong. “You want to meet other men to kiss? How you meet these men?”

  I swallowed and nodded. “I signed up with an online dating service.”

  He shook his head as if to say this was all wrong. He pulled his hand away from mine. His eyes grew intense, as if he were unable to understand what I’d told him. “What is this dating service?”

  “It’s a place where single men and women go to meet other people.”

  “You need to meet other people?” Again he shook his head. “You go to meet and kiss other men?”

  “Maybe. I don’t know yet.”

  “When you do this?”

  I wasn’t sure what to tell him. “I’m seeing someone Friday night. It’s not a date. We’re just meeting for coffee to see if we’re compatible.”

  A frown darkened his face. “What this word compatible?”

  “It means that we’re meeting to see if we want to date, to continue spending time together.”

  Nikolai looked utterly dejected.

  “Do you understand why I’m doing this?” I asked.

  He shook his head. “No, I not understand why you want other man. Why you want to kiss other man you not even know.”

  “I won’t be kissing him.” I needed to clarify that, because the time might come when I would kiss Earl. “Not on Friday.”

  Relief showed in his eyes. “You no kiss this man?”

  “We’re only having coffee,” I explained again, and glanced at my watch. “I need to get home. Thank you for the wine.”

  Nikolai left money for our drinks on the table and then helped me put on my coat. “I walk you to car.”

  “I’d like that.”

  He took my hand again and was quiet on the return trip. I knew he’d need time to absorb what I’d told him. When we reached the parking lot, I unlocked my car and he opened the door for me. He didn’t kiss me and as I drove away I realized how disappointed I was that he hadn’t.

  —

  By Friday I was an emotional mess. Thankfully, I had Kacey to talk me off the edge of the cliff. She stopped by the apartment and spent most of the afternoon offering me advice and encouragement.

  “Just be yourself,” my longtime friend said, as if this evening would be a breeze.

  “I feel…I don’t know…unnerved.” I needed to remember this meeting hit two items on our list—number two and number three—let go in order to receive and make new friends.

  Kacey thrust her fist against her hips. “Unnerved? Whatever for? It’s coffee. What could possibly happen? He’s vetted, you’re vetted. Have fun. Live a little.” She was full of advice. I wondered how she’d do in my situation. Silly question. Knowing Kacey, she’d sail through the entire meeting without so much as a hiccup.

  I shook my head and didn’t feel the least bit reassured. “Do you realize how long it’s been since I’ve gone on a date…I know, I know, this isn’t a date. We’re just meeting for coffee.”

  “Have you and Earl spoken?”

  “Just by email.” Earl sounded pleasant enough. We were around the same age and both divorced. On paper we were a perfect match, or so the computer seemed to think. I liked that he was local. It seemed we had a lot in common. Like me, he enjoyed reading and puzzles. We shared the same political views and values. He believed in God and family the same as me and he attended church. I did as well.

  Once I was dressed and ready to go, Kacey stepped back and wore a smug, satisfied smile. “You look great.”

  I should, after we’d spent the better part of three hours shuffling through every item of clothing in my closet. I’d tried on more outfits than a Macy’s mannequin.

  Nichole stopped by just minutes before I was set to leave the apartment. Kacey had returned home in order to get ready for some wine-tasting event at the country club with her husband, Bill.

  “I wanted to wish you luck,” Nichole said, hugging me.

  “How do I look?” I asked, slowly twirling around.

  “Stunning. You’ll blow his mind. He’s going to be overwhelmed by your charm and beauty. After an hour sipping coffee you’re going to ruin him for any other woman.”

  I shook my head and laughed. I couldn’t ask for a better cheering squad. “Jake’s got Owen?” I asked.

  “It’s his weekend,” she confirmed. “He picked him up from daycare this afternoon.”

  I knew Nichole was still raw from the divorce. I was proud of how hard she’d worked to move on. We both had. It didn’t make it easy, but being close and being able to encourage each other was a big help.

  Earl had suggested we meet for drinks, but I preferred Starbucks instead. I would need a clear head. I’d never been one to indulge in alcohol. A single glass of wine was my limit.

  I walked to the Starbucks, which was in the neighborhood. The sound of my footsteps pounded like nails of fear in my head. I didn’t have a good feeling about this and doubted I was ready. But then I doubted that I’d ever be ready.

  As soon as I walked in the door I spotted Earl right away. He sat at one of the tables and I noticed that he’d already purchased two coffees. He sat so he could see the door, and when I came inside, he stood. I noticed he had a nice smile. As I approached, he extended his hand.

  “You must be Leanne.”

  “And you must be Earl.” I made a genuine effort to smile and appear relaxed and comfortable.

  “I hope you don’t mind, I took the liberty of buying your coffee.”

  “I don’t mind at all.” He pulled out my chair and I sat.

  The conversation flowed easily for the next hour. Neither one of us brought up our exes, and I was grateful to leave Sean out of the conversation. I learned that Earl had been single for four years and worked for Intel. He had three children, all adults, and was a grandfather twice over. It didn’t take me long to discover how likeable he was or what a great sense of humor he had. Like the computer predicted, we were a good match.

  Which was exactly what I told Kacey when I phoned her later that evening. She made me promise to call as soon as I got home. If I didn’t, she threatened to drive into the city and beat down my door.

  “He sounds perfect,” Kacey commented.

  “But…”

  “But, you mean there’s a but in this?” she cried. “I don’t want to hear it.”

  “This is my first almost date,” I reminded her, pressing the phone to my ear as I walked the carpet barefoot, sinking my toes into the lush thickness.

  “Tell me about the but, and hurry because we’re supposed to leave in ten minutes.”

  “Okay, okay. On paper Earl and I look like we were made for each other, but, Kacey, there simply wasn’t any spark. Nothing. I enjoyed him and Earl said the same about me, but there was no connection. Zilch. Nada. Nothing.”

  “It isn’t always about physical chemistry,” my friend reminded me.

  “I know. But Earl didn’t feel it, either. We hugged when we parted and wished each other good luck.”
>
  I could hear Kacey exhale a sigh. “Are you depressed?”

  “Not at all. I had an enjoyable evening, and meeting Earl gives me hope. It was encouraging.”

  Kacey was far more disappointed than I was.

  “Don’t be discouraged. There’s someone special waiting for you.”

  “I know,” I returned, and I did.

  By the time I was in bed, I was relaxed and tired. The day had been exhausting. I slept like a lamb and woke Saturday morning feeling refreshed and eager to tackle the day. Nichole and I were meeting later in the morning to shop at the farmers’ market.

  I had dressed in jeans and a sweater and a deep blue fleece jacket when the doorbell rang. I assumed it was Nichole and was surprised to find Nikolai.

  The instant he saw me, he broke into a smile. I stepped aside so he could come into my apartment.

  “Nikolai, what are you doing here?” I hadn’t realized he knew my home address.

  “I sorry. I know it not good thing I come, but I not sleep. I worry and then I have idea. Very good idea.” He took hold of my shoulders with both hands and stared at me intently before he asked, “You meet other man for coffee?”

  “Yes.”

  “You kiss other man?” He frowned, as if he found the question difficult to ask.

  “Not really.” I didn’t consider Earl’s kiss on my cheek at the end of the evening as a real kiss.

  Nikolai’s eyes darkened as he continued to intently study me. “What does ‘not really’ mean?”

  “He kissed my cheek.”

  “That is good.” His relief was obvious. “You say you need to meet other men. Kiss other men. At first I no understand why, then I realize you need this after so many years with one man. But I think maybe you need more.”

  “More?”

  “Yes, yes. You need compare.”

  “Compare? How?” I wasn’t following him.

  “Like this.” His large hands framed my face, his long fingers sliding into my hair as he lowered his mouth to mine. I hadn’t felt any spark or chemistry with Earl. At all. If I was looking for sparks, then Nikolai’s kiss gave an entire Fourth of July fireworks display.

  Slowly, with reluctance, he released me. I stood with my eyes closed, savoring the kiss, unwilling to let go of the warmth that filled me.

  “You date other man, then date me and compare. Okay?”

  I remained dazed, unable to speak.

  “You need more compare?” he asked, bringing me back into his arms.

  I smiled softly and nodded.

  Leanne and I were heading for the farmers’ market, a favorite Saturday excursion for us. Since I was teaching full-time, if only temporarily, I’d cut back volunteering at Dress for Success to one Saturday a month so I had more free time.

  Leanne and I usually met in the hallway outside our apartments, which were across the hall from each other. When she didn’t show, I knocked on her door. A couple of minutes passed before she answered, and when she did her face was flushed and there was a man in her apartment. I instantly knew this had to be Nikolai. He had the look of someone from Eastern Europe, with a broad forehead, pronounced cheekbones, and thick, straight salt-and-pepper hair. Leanne had mentioned him several times.

  When she saw it was me, Leanne looked flustered and blurted out, “Oh sorry, I…I didn’t realize it was that time already.” She grabbed her purse and then seemed to remember that she had company. She turned abruptly and thrust out her arm. “Nichole, this is Nikolai Janchenko, one of the students in my class. Nichole is my daughter.”

  I loved that she chose to introduce me as her daughter.

  Nikolai hurried forward and took my hand in both of his large ones, shaking it enthusiastically. “It is great honor to meet daughter of my teacher.”

  I couldn’t help smiling back at the warmth and affection he radiated. “You’re the one who bakes her the bread, aren’t you?”

  He nodded. “Bread is life. Bread is love.”

  “Nichole and I are going to the market this morning,” Leanne explained, clenching her purse like she was in danger of meeting a mugger. “I’ll see you Monday night, Nikolai.”

  “Monday,” he repeated as his gaze shifted to Leanne. The look he gave her told me everything. Nikolai loved Leanne. His feelings for her radiated off him like candlelight in a mirror. If the way she reacted was any indication, my wonderful mother-in-law had tender feelings for him, too.

  We all rode down in the elevator together. Nikolai went in one direction and we went in the other.

  We hadn’t gone more than a few feet when Leanne said, “Go ahead and say it. I know you’re dying to comment.”

  She knew me well. I was squirming inside, hardly able to hold back the words. “OMG, Leanne, Nikolai is a treasure. Did you see the way he looks at you? He thinks you can walk on water.”

  “I’m his teacher,” she insisted. “That is all.”

  “Nothing else?” I finished for her. “Are you sure?”

  “I…don’t know.”

  I didn’t want to embarrass her, so I didn’t press further. “He adores you.”

  Leanne bit into her lower lip and whispered, “He kissed me.”

  She seemed so unsure and embarrassed, but I knew it was because she was unfamiliar with these emotions. She’d been married all those years, and while we’d never openly discussed it, I suspected there had been few private displays of affection between Leanne and Sean. Anything physical had been done for show. It might have been years since she’d last been kissed.

  “Did you like it?” I asked, slipping my arm around hers.

  “I did,” she said, her voice gaining strength. She raised her hand to her face. “I really did, but, Nichole, I’m so confused. I have mixed feelings. I’m Nikolai’s teacher and I’m not sure getting romantically involved with him is ethical.”

  “Phooey.”

  “I’m afraid what he really feels is gratitude.”

  I laughed. “Phooey squared. I saw the way he looked at you.”

  “He’s so different than Sean.”

  “That’s a bad thing?” I asked, and laughed. “And isn’t that one of the items on our list? Loving ourselves? We have to love ourselves in order to love others.”

  “It’s just that I don’t know what I’m doing. These feelings are so unfamiliar. I’m all twisted up in knots. Yet when I’m with him this happiness comes over me and I can’t stop smiling.”

  “Be happy, Leanne. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should feel. Just be happy.”

  She grew quiet. “I don’t know what I feel anymore. I met the guy from that online dating site and he was great, but we didn’t click. We both knew almost right away that while we could easily be friends, there wasn’t any romantic spark between us. I blame myself for that.”

  This was part of Leanne’s problem. She took on far more responsibility than was warranted.

  “Instead of enjoying the evening,” she confessed, “all I could think about was Nikolai.”

  “We need to add another rule to the list. Number five: Be open to new experiences. Don’t let the past taint the future.”

  “That sounds like a good addition,” she whispered.

  —

  We had a great time at the market; we always did. We returned to the apartment with our arms full of farm-fresh produce and eggs that had been laid that morning.

  “Do you have plans this evening?” Leanne asked.

  Actually, I’d been looking forward to seeing Rocco and Kaylene. “Yeah, I’m heading over to Rocco’s to take a few photos of him and his daughter before the big father-daughter shindig.”

  “You like him, don’t you?” Leanne pressed.

  I did, and felt a little silly admitting it. “He’s a friend.” And he was. We’d talked a couple times since he’d dropped off the ice cream. Basically, he’d called to check up on me. He’d given me good advice about letting go of the past. He’d sent it in a text:

  I know you’re hurting, but thi
s will pass. I promise you in time your tears will dry and your heart will heal.

  I’d written it down and set it on the desk in my bedroom with the promise I’d never let anyone know, especially his friends, that he was the author.

  Leanne didn’t insist on more information about my friendship with Rocco, and I was grateful. I dropped the veggies off at the apartment, and vacuumed and cleaned the kitchen before I met Laurie, my BFF, for lunch. The two of us had taken an extravagant trip to an Arizona spa a couple of years back when I was married to Jake. My husband had arranged everything. Now I suspected that he’d done it in order to spend time with his girlfriend. In retrospect, I had to wonder if that was the weekend when he’d gotten the other woman pregnant.

  After lunch and a long gab fest with Laurie I returned to the apartment and finished housework and laundry. The weekends without Owen felt strange. I missed my son. I’d need to get used to this alone time, which felt uncomfortable and awkward. Silly mind games filled my head of all the might-have-beens in my marriage and my life. I never expected to raise my son with a part-time father.

  At five-thirty I grabbed my coat and headed out the door to see Rocco and Kaylene.

  —

  When I arrived Kaylene answered the door and told me that Rocco was still getting dressed. He showed about five minutes after I arrived. “Wowza,” said Kaylene, and I had to agree with his daughter’s assessment. I barely recognized Rocco as the tow truck driver I’d met all those weeks ago.

  Gone were the grease-smeared coveralls and shirts. He actually wore a shirt and tie. His hair had been cut and he’d shaved, emphasizing a strong chin. I nearly did a double take.

  “Well?” he said, directing the question to me.

  “You clean up nice,” I teased.

  He rubbed his hand along the side of his clean-shaven face. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

  “I meant it as one.” The difference in him was striking. He could be a business executive from the way he carried himself, well, other than the tattoos. It felt like he filled up the entire room, and for a couple awkward moments I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Kaylene may have said it, but I was certainly thinking it. Wowza.

  Kaylene and I had already decided on the best lighting for the photo, so I had the two of them stand in front of the fireplace. I snapped a number of photos, shifting my position a few times for a better angle. I could tell Rocco was growing impatient as I continued to take pictures.

 
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