Andrea Randall has written a special treat for all you In the Stillness fans! We are getting the farmers market encounter from Ryker’s point of view! What was going through Ryker’s mind when he first laid eyes on Natalie after ten years apart? Read and you will find out! Enjoy…
It’s hotter than usual for this time of year, and the sweat is pouring off me, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The farm finally secured a contract with Atkins Market, and I’m unloading our first delivery with my buddy, Steve.
“This is the last box, Steve. I’ll be right in.” I hand him the last crate of squash and take a breath in the shade of the truck before jumping out into the blazing sun. Leaning forward to pick up the stack of dirtied papers, I’m stopped by a familiar voice.
“Natalie! What are you doing?”
On instinct, I whip around. For ten years, wherever I’ve been and whatever I’ve been doing, any time I hear Natalie, I turn around. It’s never her.
Shit. That’s Natalie. My Natalie. No. No, it can’t be her. If it were, she wouldn’t be walking toward me. She’d be running. Or yelling. Her eyes are wide, unblinking, and moving slowly across my face and up and down my body. I can see that her full lips are slightly parted, set in neither a smile nor a frown. Remembering, against my better judgement, how her lips once felt against my skin, accelerates my heart. Natalie’s arms are hanging loosely at her side, though they’re not moving as she carefully places one foot in front of the other. The closer she gets, the more it looks and feels like we’re in a dream—that she’s in a trance and I’m frozen in place.
Wiping sweat from my forehead, I’m certain that I’m watching the same girl walk toward me that walked toward me twelve years ago on the common. The gorgeous girl that I couldn’t help but kiss a minute later. I’m staring at the girl, now a woman, who put on a brave face and kissed me goodbye before I left for war. I take off my gloves and rub my eyes, trying to ignore and disguise tears that have filled them. Blinking twice and reminding myself to breathe, I’m forced to recognize this is real. It’s Natalie.
Say something, fool, before she comes to her senses and runs away. Like she should.
My breath catches in my throat as she stops ten feet in front of me, staring for an eternity and a half before slowly shaking her head.
Her voice. It’s her voice. God, her voice. Suddenly I’m back in Afghanistan, anxiously waiting for her to pick up the phone. Shaking my head, too, I grin in spite of myself.
Her lips part further, but neither one of us moves. Out of my peripheral vision, I see Steve approaching.
“We’re all set, Ryker, just bring them the inventory sheets and they say we’re good to go.”
I can’t look at him. If I do, she might disappear. To be safe, I just blindly slap his shoulder, grateful that her eyes aren’t searching for an escape. “All right, Steve-o. Thanks.”
As I pry my feet from the asphalt and walk toward her, I notice Tosha approaching Natalie, looking flustered. “Seriously, Natalie,” she says, “what are you do—” she drops her bags as her eyes land on me. “Ryker?”
Stopping just in front of Natalie, and ignoring Tosha for the moment, my lips form a full smile as I take her in. Her hair is still long, and hanging free down her back like I always liked it. She barely looks a day older than the last time I saw her, except there’s a slight tiredness that’s settled in her eyes. She’s still breathtaking, as always.
“Hi,” Natalie says as she exhales. She looks scared. I am, too.
Tosha takes Natalie’s hand as she looks me from head-to-toe. Her eyes bore through me as, I’m sure, she’s looking for signs of the last Ryker she saw. One I barely remember. One who’s not here anymore. Smiling through my nerves, I run a hand through my hair, staring at the pair of speechless women.
Tosha takes a breath. “Hi Ryker.”
Okay, that was a little more excited than I’d intended, but, neither of them are ignoring me. She lets go of Natalie’s and hand stands on her tip toes, giving me a hug. I look to Natalie as Tosha pulls away. God, I want to hug her. I want to pick her up and swing her around, setting her down twelve years ago, where maybe we could start all over.
As if she hears my thoughts, Natalie lunges forward and wraps her arms tightly around my neck. I lock my hands around her lower back, dropping my papers as I breathe her in. Sweet Jesus, she still smells like lilacs.
The last time I laid eyes on her, at her graduation from Mount Holyoke, she was laughing with Tosha and some dark-haired guy who I saw her kiss a minute or so before she spotted me. The way her face sank as she found me across the grass broke my heart, and I got the hell out of there as fast as I could. I plucked a lilac from it’s bush on the walk to the car, vowing to stay far away from her for the rest of my life. I owed her that.
Her soft cheek brushes against my chin, and we sway for a moment. For just a second it’s us. She lets go first and takes a step back.
She chuckles uncomfortably. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
She’s right. Here. We’ve lived in the same town for several years and have managed to avoid each other this whole time. I’ve never tried to avoid her, to be honest. But, knowing how things ended between us, that’s exactly what she’s been doing.
Tucking my hands in my pockets, I try for a nonchalant shrug. “I just got a contract with them last week, this is our first delivery.”
Watching those bottomless dark eyes flick back and forth between the truck and my face, I realize I’ve skipped a step.
Smiling again, I say, “It’s my farm, Nat. I started it two years ago and this is the first year we’re selling off of the property.”
Idiot, don’t call her Nat! That name doesn’t belong to you anymore. I find myself wondering who, exactly, it does belong to.
She and Tosha look at each other, wide-eyed. Natalie smiles, looking back at me, settling my heart’s uneven race. “That’s amazing, Ryker, good for you.”
“Thanks.” My eyes fall to the ground for a second. They take their time coming back up—following the curve of her hips before meeting her eyes again. “You look great, Natalie.”
“You do too.” I feel the tension around us snap as I watch her face relax.
I’m about to open my mouth and try to say thirty things at once, when an impatient truck driver honks his horn.
Dude, seriously?! This is Natalie, give me a second!
“Shit, listen,” I shake my head to help me focus. Her eyes haven’t stopped moving across my face since she spotted me. I’d kill to know what she’s thinking. “I gotta get these papers inside and get back to the farm. You should stop by sometime and see the operation.” Tosha’s been picking up the bags she dropped when she saw me. I pick up the last one and hand it to Natalie. “It was great seeing you, Natalie.”
You should stop by sometime? What?
I can’t believe it’s her. Still. Reaching out, needing to touch her one more—one last—time, I softly squeeze her shoulder before picking my papers up off the ground and jogging inside before she can tell me to go to hell.
Once back in the truck, alongside Steve, after we settle up inside, he pulls me out of my head.
“Who was that you were talking to? She’s hot. So was her friend.” Steve nods approvingly as he speaks.
I open my mouth three different times. How do I tell him? Sure, Steve and I are friends, but only in the last couple of years. He knows I have a messy past, but the details haven’t ever been necessary. She’s the only thing that went right for me back then, and I fucked it up. Big time.
With my stomach twisted in knots, and a lump forming in my throat, I shrug, deciding the less he knows, the less I have to fill in. “She’s just this girl I used to know.”
I feel guilty as soon as the words are out. Natalie’s not just anything. She never has been. She was my soul mate. Is. And I ruined her. But, she looked healthy and happy. Turning left to head back to the farm, I fight the urge to track her down. To grab her face and kiss her, to kiss away the pain I caused in her.
No. I take a deep breath and ignore the lilac buds on the trees as we head down the road. I can’t ever see her again.
Natalie is a wife.
Natalie is a mother.
Natalie is a cutter.
Clawing at walls built by resentment, regret, and guilt, Natalie cuts as an escape from a life she never planned.
Staying present is only possible when you let go of the past. But, what if the past won’t let go?