Randy stomped the snow off his boots at the back-porch door before entering the small storage room that acted as a weather barrier to the cabin. Like so many years before, he was alone at Pops’ and Grams’ cabin with Nicki Cartwright. Perhaps he was being given a chance to explain why he left and why he’d never been able to face her and apologize.
When he opened the cabin door, he saw her sitting in the same place. She had curled up in the oversized chair and wrapped a blanket around herself. She seemed to be lost in her thoughts. Was she as unsettled as him to be here? Or were thoughts of someone else distracting her? A pang of jealousy caught him off guard.
That was stupid. She’d probably had several boyfriends in the last eight years. He had no claim on Nicki’s affections. And it wasn’t as if he had been chaste.
Still he couldn’t shake the primal urge to pound on his chest and roar at any other man who might get within ten feet of Nicki. Randy shook the thought from his head and kicked the porch door closed behind him. “It’s sleeting more than it is snowing now.”
“I thought I heard ice hitting the window.”
“The roads will be slick in the morning if this keeps up.”
She nodded in agreement. “I guess you got here just in time.”
Randy held her gaze. “Looks like it.”
Something unspoken passed between them. Nicki squirmed in her chair. It made him want to disturb her. To get under her skin and never leave. But he didn’t want her to be afraid of him. Besides, it wasn’t as if he was going to bite her.
At least not in a bad way.
And, even then, only if she asked.
Nicole fingered one corner of the blanket, twisting it around and around. “So, how have you been?”
“I’ve been fine.” He walked to the couch across from where Nicki sat and dropped his bags on the floor next to it. “Business is booming.” He slipped his coat off and draped it across the back. He rested his elbows on his thighs and looked her in the eye. “You look good, Nicki,” he said quietly. Honestly.
“Most people call me Nicole.”
Randy smiled at her attempt to sidestep his compliment. He scanned her from head to toe, at least what he could see from beneath the blanket. “You still look like Nicki to me.”
She blushed under his scrutiny. “Yeah, well…” she stammered. “What have you been up to? I heard you started your own architectural firm.”
He leaned against the back of the couch and draped one arm across the top of the cushions. “I did. Actually it’s a partnership with one of the guys I went to school with. We specialize in renovating historical buildings to make them commercial friendly without losing the historical value of the property.”
Nicki nodded. “Didn’t your firm get some kind of award recently for your work in one of the Chicago suburbs?”
“Yeah, we did.” It pleased him that she kept tabs on him. “How did you know? I haven’t even told Pop or Gram yet.”
“It must have come across in one of the newswires at the station.” A faint blush appeared on her cheeks. “Don’t worry, though.” She pulled one slender hand from under the blanket and waved it in the air as if to brush away the thought. “I haven’t said anything to them. So, if you wanted to surprise them, it isn’t ruined.”
“Thanks. It’s not that big of a deal even if you did tell them. I just wanted to surprise Gram. She always makes a big deal about things like that. I thought she’d get a kick out of housing the plaque for me.”
“She’ll love it.”
In reality, the award meant a lot to him and Vince. It would open many doors for their firm and create new business opportunities. New business meant they might be able to open a second office like they had talked about for a couple of years.
“What about you? How’s your television show going?”
“Good.” Nicki nodded. “I get to interview local artists and keep up with new exhibits in town. So, yeah, it’s good.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Nicki continued to nod. Was she trying to convince him that it was good? Or herself?
“Gram said the show was a new concept for the station and they went out on a limb to give you a chance with it,” he prompted.
“Yeah.” She smiled. Now she looked like the Nicki he remembered. “At the time, no one in the state had done anything like it. Bob took a chance on me and the show.” She tilted her head to one side. “It’s been working out. We’ve been getting great ratings and it supports the governor’s campaign to promote the arts in the community.”
“Do I sense a but in there?”
“Well…” Nicki’s voice trailed off as she turned her head away. “We’ll see how it turns out.”
“What’s the problem? Don’t you like doing the show?”
When she faced him he saw a troubled look in her eye before she could mask it.
“Mostly. I love doing the interviews and the research and going to the gallery openings. The politics that go with running a show get old after a while but it is part of the deal.”
Once again he was unsure who she needed to convince. Before he could press her, she changed the subject.
“So, how long were you planning to stay around?”
Was she already trying to get rid of him? “I didn’t make definite return plans. Through the weekend at least.”
Randy surprised himself with his answer. He’d told Vince he’d be back Sunday night, but something about Nicki’s prickly attitude made him want to stay just to get to the bottom of it. “What about you? Did you take vacation days to come out here?”
“A couple, but I can head back in the morning.”
“Seriously. Don’t leave because of me.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to stay.” Nicki pulled the blanket up to cover her arms and chest.
“Why? We’re two grown adults.”
“Two adults who have a history.”
Randy couldn’t resist asking, “Did I ruin things between us so badly that you can’t even stand to be in the same place as me?”
Nicki held his gaze before answering. “I’d like to think not. But I spent so many years putting it behind me that I’m not sure I want to go back into that dark place to figure it out.”
Randy nodded, more in acknowledgement that he’d heard what she said than agreement. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
“What exactly are you apologizing for?”
“For walking away and not telling you why. For not returning your calls. For not getting in touch with you even once over the last eight years.” In a softer tone he added, “For hurting you.”
Nicki nodded stiffly and turned her face away.
Randy’s heart twisted painfully in his chest. He’d hurt her and he regretted it more than anything he’d ever done. What could he do to make it right?
He crossed his arms over his chest and stared into the empty fireplace. Memories of the day he’d left Sumner for Chicago flitted through his mind.
Nicki stood from the chair, halting his trip down memory lane.
“I think I’ll turn in. Are you going to stay up for a while?” she asked.
“Probably only long enough to grab a bite to eat. I’m a little tired from the drive.”
“I took a casserole out of the freezer when I got here. It’s in the fridge. There’s some lunch meat, too.”
“That’ll work. Thanks.”
Nicki turned to go then stopped. “I, uh, I took the back bedroom. It looked like both of the bedrooms were made up down here. I didn’t check upstairs, though.”
“I’m pretty sure the drive will catch up with me pretty soon and I won’t care where I crash. I’ll just take the other one down here.”
“Okay. Well, goodnight then.”
Randy watched until Nicki disappeared around the corner. Even in the loose-fitting pajamas and T-shirt, he could tell she worked to stayed in shape. She had always been delicate looking but now she had womanly curves in all the right places. His body hardened just thinking about exploring those curves.
It may be too late for regrets but perhaps it wasn’t too late to begin something new.