Love is a promise,
Love is a souvenir,
Never let it disappear
The men stay with her for a while, but it isn't long before she hears a low-voiced conversation and the slow tread of departing footsteps. That's okay by her. She's used to being alone, and she stays until even she has to admit that the glint she's been staring at is probably just a trick of light against the water and not the moon shining in Sophie's hair.
She swipes at the dampness on her cheeks and blows out a shaky sigh. She's done the best she can for Sophie. It's time to let her go. Acknowledging it doesn't stop the worry, but it does give her the strength to turn away from the water.
That's when she sees Sam. He's standing a few feet away, waiting for her, and once she gets past the shock of seeing him there, she smiles and moves into his arms.
"Are you okay?" he asks gently.
"I'm fine." She tries to hide the sadness behind her smile. "I'm happy, Sophie's happy …Everybody's happy."
"Uh-huh." There's a note of skepticism in his voice, but he doesn't push. He just holds her close and lets the sound of the surf wash over them. Her life has turned inside out in a few short hours. She's a little shell-shocked, a little nervous about the night ahead (twenty years is a long time to go without sex, and dear God, what if she screws this up, too?), and her feet are killing her, so she's in no hurry to move. In fact, she'd be perfectly happy if she could just freeze time until her head can catch up to her heart.
Only her head and her heart aren't getting along so well just now. Her heart thinks she just won the lottery, but it's her mother's voice she hears in her head, and it's telling her that she's been an impulsive little fool. Again.
She still doesn't quite believe it, and only the ring on her finger convinces her that she didn't hallucinate the whole thing.
"This is crazy." Her voice is muffled against his chest, and she should probably lift her head if she really wants to talk to him, but she can't quite muster the energy.
"Maybe." His hand slides up and down her back, a simple gesture that still manages to make heat curl in her stomach. It's going to be an interesting night.
"Can we … go for a walk or something?" She needs time to get her head on straight. It's all moving too fast.
His arms tighten around her, then drop away as he steps back and offers his hand. At the end of the dock they turn away from the walkway that leads up to the villa and set out along the narrow footpath that circles the island.
Sam never lets go over her hand, even when the trail narrows, and the single point of contact is enough to ground her, reminding her that she isn't the only one whose life has taken a sudden surprising turn. When the path eventually opens into a tiny cove and Sam pulls her to a stop Donna realizes that the sounds of the party have faded, replaced by the gentle music of waves lapping on the beach.
She's avoided this stretch of beach since the day he broke her heart, and she half expects a resurgence of the old pain. But as she kicks off her shoes and buries her toes in the sand, it doesn't come. Instead, the moon dances on the crests of the waves and the sand slides, soft and cool, between her toes, and all she feels is relief.
"I remember this place." His gaze takes in the curve of the beach and the steep cliff that rises at the other end. "It was twenty years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday."
She remembers it, too. She also remembers the promise he etched in the side of that cliff he's staring at.
He glances from the rocks to her and back again. "Do you think it's still there?"
He sets out across the sand, and there's a sort of childlike excitement in the way he moves, but she hangs back. What if it's gone, erased by twenty years of wind and rain? It's silly, but the possibility still sends a superstitious shiver racing along her spine. She casts a quick glance heavenward, crosses herself, and follows him.
Her sigh of relief when she reaches his side is heartfelt, if silent. It's still there. It's faded in spots, and one edge of the lopsided heart borders a wide crack in the rock, but she can still read the letters.
DS + SC
The tacky graffiti brings back a rush of images. The dilapidated little row boat he'd rented for the day. The wicker basket she'd packed with wine and cheese and a tiny jar of caviar—not because she liked the stuff, but because she'd thought it might impress him.
The way it had felt when he kissed her. The way …
All at once she can't catch her breath. She steadies herself against the rock and tries to look casual, hoping the darkness will hide the blush that warms her cheeks.
They'd thought they had the world by the tail—a pair of wide-eyed innocents who were about to get a crash course real life. "We were so young."
Sam brushes his fingers over the inscription. "Do you remember what I said to you when I carved this?"
She can only nod as another image assails her—their hands laced together against the rock while Sam makes a promise that turns out to be uncannily prophetic.
"I said I would always love you." He tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and lets his hand come to rest along the curve of her jaw. Regret shadows his eyes. "And that no matter what happened, I would always be here for you."
It had sounded silly and melodramatic at the time. She remembers laughing at him and slipping away to dive into the ocean, the intensity of the moment more than her young heart could handle.
This time she doesn't run. This time, she presses her lips against his palm. "You're here now."
"All those years …" He shakes his head. "I never stopped missing you."
She's spent those same years burying her own feelings—both for Sophie's sake, and for the sake of her own sanity. It's become such a habit that it's a little strange not having to do it anymore.
"Lorraine always knew." He leans against the rock, his gaze on the distant horizon. "We didn't talk about it, but she knew."
It would be a special kind of torture to live, day in and day out, knowing that the man who shares your bed is in love with somebody else, and Donna almost wishes she could meet Lorraine so that she could apologize.
"When did …?" She doesn't know how to ask him when it ended, or how to deal with the sinking conviction that his divorce is somehow her fault. But he slants a look at her and answers the question anyway, and she remembers that he always did have a knack for knowing what she was thinking.
"Three years ago." He sounds calm, but he doesn't quite meet her eyes. "It was all very neat and tidy. She got the kids and the house. I got the car and the mortgage." He shrugs and shoves his hands deep in his pockets, and she knows he isn't telling her everything but she lets it drop because she suddenly realizes how much he's giving up by marrying her.
"Tell me about them. Your kids."
Something in her voice must've alerted him to her mood change because he gives her a sharp glance before he answers. "Tommy's nineteen, a sophomore at MIT. Charles is seventeen."
She should've asked him about his kids before. What would they think of their father's sudden marriage to a woman who lived half a world away? Would they blame her for the breakup of their family? Would they press Sam to make a choice between her and them?
It's her turn to look to the ocean for answers, but the endless expanse of water only offers up more questions, and she realizes that she knows nothing about his world, nor he about hers.
What in the hell had they been thinking?
Restless, she tugs the red scarf over her shoulders and walks to the water's edge. Bubbles froth to white around her ankles and then slide away in an endless cycle of death and rebirth. It's mesmerizing, and she watches it while she tries to make sense of the chaotic jumble of thoughts and feelings that tumble through her head.
She should've said no, or at least, not yet, should've waited until they'd had some time to get reacquainted. But in typical Donna Sheridan fashion, she'd leapt without looking, without considering that there might be consequences.
"Donna." His feet are bare, but he hasn't bothered to roll up his pant legs, and they drift in the current like small patches of seaweed. The sight derails her thought process, and she finds herself wondering what it'll be like to lick the salt from his skin. Then he takes her hand in his and the ring presses against her fingers and she comes back to herself with a thud. Think, Donna. Think. Try to stay focused. But it's impossible with him standing so close, so she takes a step back.
He's worried about her. She can see it in his eyes, feel it in the reluctant way he lets her go when she pulls away.
"I know what you're thinking, Donna. Don't do this to yourself. Don't do it to us." He takes a step toward her, but she backs up again and twists the thin gold wedding band that, until a few hours ago, had been destined for Sophie's finger.
"What've we done, Sam?" Her voice sounds small to her own ears.
She senses his intent an instant before he moves, but she isn't quite fast enough to get away. He catches her shoulders, and after a half-hearted struggle, she stills beneath his touch. "We did what we should've done years ago." His grip on her shoulders turns into a caress, lean fingers sliding up her neck to tangle in her hair. "What we would've done, if we hadn't screwed it all up so badly."
Incredulous, she turns to stare at him. "Can you really walk away from everything—your job, your home, your kids …?" She shakes her head. "For a half-imagined love affair and a broken-down hotel in the middle of nowhere?"
"I'm not walking away from anything." He scrubs his hands through his hair and counters her questions one by one. "The boys are busy with their own lives. I can run my company from here, and when I do have to go back, you can come with me. As for a home …" He looks around, but his eyes come to rest on her face. "This place feels more like home to me than New York ever did."
Without warning he pulls her into his arms and his mouth comes down on hers and he kisses her there on the beach with the moonlight shining down and the waves whispering against the sand. He kisses her, and her pulse throbs in her ears and a moan crowds the back of her throat, and suddenly she's young and in love and the whole world lies at her feet, awaiting orders from its queen.
When he lifts his head they're both breathing hard. His eyes glitter with reflected moonlight and something much more dangerous, and she bites her tongue because it's either that or beg him to take her right there on the beach.
"Did that feel imaginary to you?" His voice is husky, and she realizes with satisfaction that he's a little stunned, too, so instead of answering his question, she puts her arms around his waist and leans into him, giving a little hum of approval when he rests his cheek against the top of her head. They stand like that, with the water swirling around their feet and the stars brightening the sky over their heads, until he sighs.
She looks up, and he shakes his head, just a little, just enough to let her know she doesn't need to say anything, so she doesn't. She just holds on, knowing she loves him, that she's always loved him, and that, rash and impulsive as her choice might have been, she doesn't regret it.
"I love you, Sam Carmichael." She'd fought her feelings for him the same way she fights the weeds that keep popping up in the hotel courtyard, digging them out time and again only to have them come back stronger than ever. How often had she looked for his eyes in Sophie's face? How many times had she seen his sparkle in her smile? Wishful thinking, maybe, but she's always wanted to believe that Sophie was his and that, through her, Donna would have a connection to the man she loved. "I always have."
He gives her a brilliant smile and drops a kiss on the end of her nose. "I know."
Her laugh is a little giddy, and she slips out of his arms to spin in a jubilant circle in the surf. She almost falls when the sand sucks at her feet, but Sam's there with a wide grin and steadying hands and she throws her arms around his neck. "God, this is insane!"
"I think we covered that part already." His hands settle at her hips and he pulls her in for another kiss, his lips lingering on hers. "If this is what crazy feels like …" the words are muffled against her skin as he marks a path along her jaw. "I never want to be sane again."
"Mmm… Hear, hear." Donna lets her head fall back to give him better access, and he obliges by giving her earlobe a nip that sends a shockwave straight to her toes. She lets herself go, falling against him, trusting that he'll catch her. He does, and in an instant she's enveloped in his warmth, her head cushioned against his chest.
Where had she ever gotten the crazy idea that she didn't want this for herself? She does want him. Desperately. She presses her hands against his back, runs them up his arms and across his shoulders, slides them down his chest, but it isn't enough. With a murmur of impatience, she slips them under the loose hem of his shirt. Muscles ripple beneath her fingertips and he makes a strangled sound that brings her eyes back to his even as he captures her wayward hands.
He swallows hard and steps back from her, keeping her hands trapped in his. "I think," he says carefully, "we should get back to our guests."
She doesn't want to. She wants to make love with him here, in the sand, like they did all those years ago. But she knows he's right. Their private little beach isn't so private anymore, and sooner or later somebody will undoubtedly come looking for them.
She blows out a frustrated sigh. "Damnit."
That earns her a crooked smile. "My sentiments exactly." He glances back at the cliff. "There's something I need to do before we go up." He reaches in his pocket and comes up with a slim pocket knife. "Give me five minutes."
She follows him back to the rocks and the little carving, curious. It takes him a minute to sketch in the simple change, and when he looks up at her with a question in his eyes, she nods because she doesn't trust herself to speak past the lump in her throat.
"There." A few minutes later he blows the dust away and nods in satisfaction. "That's more like it." He pockets the knife and puts his arm around her waist.
She feels a little silly for tearing up over a rock, but as she reaches out to trace the new initial she can't help feeling once again like she's stepped through a carnival mirror and found herself in Wonderland.
"I … probably should've asked." He's endearingly nervous. "I didn't think …"
She puts her finger to his lips, stopping him mid-sentence. "It's perfect."
His tongue flicks against her fingertip, and the resulting shockwave makes her gasp. With a knowing smile, he pulls her hard against him, his lips finding hers in the darkness, his hands sliding low on her hips and then, with agonizing slowness, easing back up until his thumbs brush against the undersides of her breasts, and this time she doesn't even try to hold back the moan that rises in her throat. The kiss intensifies, threatening to carry them away, but somewhere in the back of Donna's mind a small, irritating voice reminds her that she has responsibilities back at the villa.
Reluctantly, she pulls away.
"I think," she says, trying to ignore her body's raging demands, "we'd better get back." She knows that look in his eyes, knows he wants her as badly as she wants him, and while twenty years ago they might've followed their hearts instead of their heads, time has granted them a certain awareness of their obligations. Just now, Donna isn't sure that's a good thing.
He looks back the way they came and she sees his chest rise and fall in a deep sigh. "How long do these shindigs usually last?"
He groans, and since she knows exactly how he feels, she takes pity on him. "But then they all go home."
"All of them?"
"Yup. Every last one." The humor of their predicament suddenly strikes her, and she gives him a mischievous grin. "Of course, then there's the cleaning up to do …" She waits a beat. "And I need to do something about all that water. God, what a mess that's—"
The rest of the sentence is lost as his lips come down on hers and intelligent thought abandons the field of battle to her libido. When Sam finally lets her go she stumbles a bit, and he steadies her with a predatory gleam in his eye.
"You were saying?"
"I guess maybe the water could wait a bit."
He laughs. "That's one of the things I love about you, Donna. You have a fine sense of proportion."
She twitches her hips provocatively as she bends to pick up her shoes. "Yes. Well. That's because you're the one who's going to have to fix it." She throws a quick grin over her shoulder and starts up the path.
"Oh, no you don't."
She hears him coming after her and breaks into a run—fast enough to make him work for it, but not so fast that he can't catch her. He does, a dozen steps up the path (apparently he's in better shape than she gave him credit for). He sweeps her into his arms and silences her startled squeal with another heated kiss. When he sets her down again he crooks his arm, all gentlemanly manners and formal dignity, and she curtsies, smiles, and loops her arm through his.
They start up the path together, the pain of the past abandoned to the outgoing tide, and their future opening up before them on the sparkle of the moonlit sea.
And the best part, Donna decides as she slants a speculative glance at her new husband, is that that part of her life is finally about to begin.