Noah tucked a thumb in his belt loop. “Well, no, I cain’t rightly say…”
“Oh, stop it,” Grace snapped at him. “You know I didn’t mean it that way.”
He laughed and let his hand drop to his side. “I suppose someone who grew up in the tiniest town in Florida doesn’t have a lot of room to criticize.”
“It’s not the tiniest town in Florida,” Grace protested before her expression went thoughtful. “At least I don’t think it is.” She tapped a finger against her lip. “I’m sure some of the towns in the keys must be smaller.”
“Put it this way. Your home town is a lot smaller than my home town. Maine may feel remote, but my high school probably had more students than Tassamara has residents.”
Grace shrugged. “It doesn’t feel small. At least not to me.”
“How often do you get out of here?”
She flashed him a quick grin. “More often than I like, actually. But some of our business has to be dealt with in person. We do plenty of remote work, but all of us travel pretty often. Well, except for Nat. She’s a homebody.”
“What’s your favorite place?”
“Apart from here?” Grace thought. “You know, I’m not sure. I like cities for a couple days at a time, but there’s none I’ve visited that I’d want to live in. I’ve never spent much time in winter. I don’t think it really counts as experiencing cold weather if I breeze into a city and take a taxi from the airport to a hotel or office and back again. And I’ve barely left the country. A trip to Europe when I was in high school and another when I was in college. I used to think…” She shook her head and fell silent, with a rueful half laugh.
“What?” he prompted her.
“Oh, after I got my Master’s, I was going to take some time off. Travel the world. I had a whole tour planned, nine months. I was going to go east to west. Europe, Africa, India, Nepal, Japan, New Zealand. My last month was going to be driving cross-country, going up the west coast, then swooping down to the Grand Canyon, then back up to the Badlands, then down again. For some reason, I really wanted to go to the Grand Canyon.” She looked away from him, out her office window, staring at the trees.
He didn’t think she saw them. She looked much sadder than the idea of the Grand Canyon seemed to warrant. “Never been?” he hazarded.
“No. Surprising, ‘cause you’d think my dad would have taken us when we were kids. Such his kind of thing.” She smiled, but it looked forced.
“Yeah, my mom took us, me and my brother. We were nine, ten, something like that.” He shrugged. “Long drive to see a big hole in the ground,” he said lightly, “but it was cool. We had fun.”
“I bet.” Her eyes were shadowed. “Did you play car games? We were always big fans of the ones involving license plates. I can still remember the triumph of finding an Idaho.”
“Twenty questions for us. My brother thought it was funny to pick the same thing over and over again.”
She smiled but didn’t say anything else.
“What happened?” he finally asked, breaking the silence.
He wasn’t sure whether she was willfully misunderstanding, but he shook his head and answered honestly. “With your trip.”
She looked startled before shaking her head with another laugh. “Right, of course, you don’t… Sorry, everyone knows. I guess I take it for granted. But, ah…” She was being far less articulate than usual, as if struggling to find the words, but she swallowed and continued, her voice even. “Well, my mom died. I mean, Dillon died first. And then my mom just a couple of days later. It was…”
He felt like he could fill in the empty space in her sentence. Traumatic. Horrible. Devastating. He could see all of those words in her eyes.
But she finished with “…unexpected. And since I was the obvious one to take over my mom’s job, that’s what I did. I came home and I haven’t really left since. Apart from trips to New York and DC and Chicago and Seattle and wherever the business takes me.” She gave him a bright smile. “Like I said, I do travel quite a bit.”
“I’m sorry,” Noah said.
“For?” She raised an eyebrow.
“For your loss. It must have been really hard. To lose your mom so young. And your nephew.”
She dipped her chin, silent acknowledgement of the sympathy. Her eyes looked greener than usual, as if maybe a sheen of tears was filling them. “He was more my brother than my nephew. My baby brother. I was eight when he was born and so excited to have a baby to play with. I’d been asking my mom for a baby sister or brother for years. I’d given up hope.” She chuckled and moved away, around her desk.
Was she trying to escape a conversation that was paining her? Noah wasn’t sure if he should just drop the subject and return to their previous topic, but Grace bent down and pulled a book off the bookcase that ran along the far wall. She returned to the desk and set it down.
It was a scrapbook, he realized, when she flipped it open. One of Dillon. She flipped through the first couple of pages and turned the book to him, showing off a picture of an impossibly cute, beaming blonde girl, holding a tiny dark-haired baby.
“You were adorable,” he said, in honest immediate reaction.
She laughed, a real laugh that came from deep within. “You’re supposed to be admiring the baby,” she told him, but her eyes met his. It was another of the moments of awareness that occurred so often between them. He wanted to step closer, to touch her skin and see if it was as soft as he remembered it being. His gaze dropped to her mouth and then he pulled it away and leaned over the book, starting to turn the pages.