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Definitely, Maybe in Love: Part 4 – Chapter 32

“The one by the fence is a solid seven,” Mel said. “I could do without the mullet, but…when in Rome.”

Mel and I waited in front of the three-level-stacked house with the wrap-around porch. Flanked by tall pines and quaking aspens, it backed up to a skyline of pointy, tree-covered ridges. The whole scene was very picturesque in front of the wide blue Montana sky.

A lop-eared chocolate lab padded over. Mel knelt down, taking its face between her hands. Dangling off its collar, the dog had a red and silver tag. “Its name is Spring,” she said, reading the tag.

My hand flew to my throat. “Are you serious?”

She laughed, petting the dog behind the ears. “I’m just messing with you. Calm down. You look like you’re about to stroke out.”

“I might need you to check my vitals in a minute.” I was only half kidding.

Mel knew I wasn’t in the mood for a talk, so she’d been occupying herself by checking out then rating the ranch hands as they paraded by.

“And this one’s a ten-plus,” she murmured, ogling over a blond cowboy in tight jeans.

I laughed, grateful for the distraction, until I heard the familiar sputter of my car. Knowing Henry would reappear in a matter of seconds, my heart went banging like a bass drum. Just as he and my Subaru came roaring up the driveway, another car arrived, pulling up behind it. Henry was walking, already halfway to me, when the passenger side of the blue BMW flew open.

“You,” Lilah said, staring across the driveway at me. “What are—” She cut herself off, turned her chin to glance at Henry, then back at me. Slowly, her puckered lips stretched, revealing a very toothy smile. “How amazing. You’re here, too.” She rushed to me, overtaking Henry. That was weird. “Henry didn’t tell us you’d be here.” She cast her glance over her shoulder at him. “Naughty boy.”

Henry stood in place, watching me, gauging my reaction. Was he afraid I was going to pummel her? Well, maybe the thought did cross my mind, but after I gave him a tiny nod, he walked back to the cars.

“Spring, hey!” Dart waved from the driveway. “Hi, Mel. Still rockin’ that Cardinal crimson?” He pointed at her Stanford T-shirt.

“Yeah, boy!” Mel extended her arms like a cheerleader.

“Lilah.” Dart sounded frustrated. “Get your own bags. I’m not your slave.”

Lilah’s painted-on smile tightened for an instant before turning to her brother. “Coming,” she replied sweetly. “We must catch up later, dear.” The old sneer was back, which made me more at ease than her smile had.

Henry was behind my car, his expression puzzled, staring at my keys in his hand.

“Maybe you should give him a hand,” Mel suggested.

I moved toward the Subaru. “It’s the silver one,” I said, coming up beside him, “with the square head.”

“Thanks,” he said, his eyes on the keys. He popped open the hatchback door.

Mel was hanging back by the porch steps, knowing that, left to my own devices, I would not be aggressive enough in my present state to arrange being alone with Henry. And I’m sure she knew that was what I needed most in the world.

Lilah was a different story. Even with no one answering her, she was prattling away as she dragged two huge suitcases from the trunk.

My mouth was ajar, ready to speak as I watched Henry fishing around through my cluttered trunk area. Even if I did manage to get my mouth to work, I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry” didn’t seem sufficient, but I had to start somewhere.

“Yours?” he asked from halfway inside my car. He was holding up my Green Peace tote bag. Under other circumstances, I might’ve been embarrassed by all the empty cans, bottles, and Mel’s “emergency” candy wrappers that were strewn about the seats and floor.

“Yes,” I replied. The rest of his body was already on the way out, Mel’s knock-off Gucci suitcase in his other hand. He stood, facing me, a bag in each hand. “Thank you,” I said, tucking the front of my hair behind an ear.

Henry’s head tilted as he regarded me. “This is surreal,” he offered, though it seemed like he wished for a different word. “Listen, can we—”

That was all he got out before Lilah came from behind, dominating the conversation. He shot me a quick glance before he followed Lilah and Mel up the porch and through the front door. I closed the hatchback, shut the driver’s door with my hip and jiggled my car keys, not sure what to do next.

“Hey, Spring,” Dart said, enfolding me in a quick and friendly hug.

“It’s so good to see you,” I said, hugging him back. His T-shirt was warm from the sun.

“Long day?”

“It’s barely noon,” I replied. “Too early to be long.”

He laughed at my non-joke and, for maybe two seconds, stared at me. I could almost see what I thought he might be envisioning: Julia standing at my side. His eyes refocused a moment later.

“How have you been?” he asked.

“Fine, fine. You?”

He smiled, running his hand through his stylishly unkempt light hair. “Fine, fine,” he echoed. We both turned toward the house at the sound of Lilah’s laugh.

The Knightly home was huge from the outside, like the grand fortress atop a hill that it was. On the inside, however, it was much more subtle. There were no ornate Persian rugs, crystal chandeliers, or silk draperies. Instead, the rustic, western décor was warm and welcoming.

When Dart and I entered, Lilah was acting as hostess, pointing out interesting items as we passed. Henry was nowhere to be found, leaving only Mel to pay attention to Lilah. She was such a trooper. She winked at me then quickly turned back to Lilah, nodding and tapping her chin, enthralled.

I lingered in the vestibule, taking in the many focal points of the room.

Past the gray stone-tiled entryway, the floors were light hardwood, covered with thick rugs in various primary colors. Our stack of suitcases was piled at the foot of an open, switch-back staircase. Brown and white-marbled hides and miscellaneous buckskins were draped over the banisters of the second and third floor landings that opened up to overlook the living room. Directly over the brick fireplace was a pair of antlers.

Maybe five minutes later, Henry’s voice came from behind me, whispering my name. When I turned around, half his body was around a corner. He motioned with his finger for me to follow.

From the familiar scent of clean mixed with spice, I knew he’d just showered and shaved. He’d also changed clothes again and was now in a white T-shirt and dark jeans. I had a hard time remembering the days when all he wore were Armani suits and argyle sweaters. Both extremes seemed fitting on him.

“Do you have a second?” he asked once we were alone in the hallway.

“Sure,” I said, more relieved than I’d felt in months. I wanted nothing more than to be alone with him, to talk to him, to explain, if I possibly could.

“My sister wants to meet you.”

“Oh.” I blinked, not exactly disappointed. I’d been curious about Cami for a long time.

Henry took a step back and leaned his elbow against the wall in a very relaxed manner. “Just to warn you, she’s a little shy, enormously socially awkward, but she’s also your biggest groupie.”

“Shut up,” a soft yet irritated voice came from the crack in the door behind him.

“My groupie?” I whispered. “How does she know about me?”

“I’ve mentioned you once or twice,” he explained. “Spring”—he pushed open the door—“this is my sister, Cami.”

Camille Knightly stepped into the hall. Her big brown eyes regarded me through a row of thick black lashes. Naturally blushing, she wasn’t wearing a stitch of makeup; she didn’t need it. She had the same dark brown hair as her brother, waving past her shoulders, and she stood about five-three, no more than a hundred pounds. The girl was as cute as a button, the prettiest little thing outside the pages of a Seventeen magazine.

The way Alex had portrayed her, I’d half expected Cami to be some uppity and pampered, social climbing brat, more like Lilah Charleston and her sorority clones. But that was nothing like this delicate eighteen-year-old in faded jean capris and a pale yellow peasant top.

“Hi, Cami. It’s nice to meet you.”

“It’s nice to meet you too,” she said, a little stiffly. She didn’t need to be embarrassed, but her brother, who was playfully jabbing her in the back to move forward, probably wasn’t making it easier.

“Henry,” I said, “would you grab my backpack from the front seat?” I dangled my car keys in front of him. “You can leave it in the living room and I’ll meet you later?”

His lips pressed together, forcing upon me his oh-so-scary icy expression. But his eyes were grinning approvingly. He took my keys and gave Cami one last poke before leaving.

“I have two brothers,” I said. “I know they can be a pain.”

“He’s always trying to embarrass me,” she said in the direction he’d just bolted. “Especially around his friends. He still thinks I’m nine.”

“He’s just teasing. I think my brothers were put on earth to torture me.” I lifted a smile, doing my best to help her feel comfortable. “I’ve been teased plenty of times by your brother, too. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?”

She rolled her eyes. “No, it doesn’t.”

Voices from the living room were drawing nearer. Lilah’s little tour must be heading our way. I wasn’t willing to move yet, not until Cami was.

“So, I hear you’re thinking of going to Cal Berkeley next year. You sure about that?” I made a face. “You know they’re just a bunch of communists down there,” I joked, presenting to her the bitter rivalry between Cal and Stanford.

Cami laughed harder that I thought applicable. “That’s so funny. That’s exactly what Trip said.”

“You call him Trip, too?”

She shrugged her slight shoulders. “When he’s around other people, he likes to think he’s some big thing, but up here, he’s just loser Trip.”

“I love it!” I laughed.

“What kind of car do you drive?”

“It’s a Subaru Outback,” I said, surprised at the question. Cami seemed a little disappointed at my answer. “Why?”

“I don’t know. The way Trip talked, I thought maybe you had a hybrid or an electric car.”

“I hope to someday.”

“I get my first new car next month,” she said. “Anything I want.”

“Have you decided?” Knowing her brother, I wondered if she would go the insanely expensive route like the Viper, the sporty route like his Jeep, or something more conventional…like a nice, medium-sized spaceship.

“My first choice is the Smart Car.” This floored me, though I tried not to let it show. “Dad and I made a test drive a few weeks ago, but he says it’s too impractical, because I can only fit in one passenger. So I’m getting a Prius. Red, I think. Or blue. What do you think?”

“Well, if you’re going for economical, why not a full on electric or natural gas?”

“Dad said anything but that.” A quiet scoff shook her chest. “So I’m saving up to buy my own. I’ll have enough in a few years. He just doesn’t grip that this country’s in the middle of an environmental crisis. Trip doesn’t get it, either,” she whispered. “You saw what he was driving around in.”

I nodded, placing the appropriate air of horror on my face.

“I think maybe his being at Stanford with more conscientious citizens altered him a little—for the good. Did you notice the white and blue receptacles around the ranch? We’re recycling now. Started this summer. It was Trip’s idea. Pretty cool, don’t you think?”

“Very cool,” I replied. “Impressive, actually, and a little…surprising?” I didn’t mean my last word to come out like a question, but I couldn’t help it. Henry initiating a recycling program?

Cami’s brown eyes fluttered. She gave me the impression she was a very old soul, wise beyond her years. “I know my brother can act like a big, stupid gorilla sometimes,” she said, “what with his caveman NRA talk, and have you seen his impersonation of Eleanor Roosevelt?”

I shook my head with a groan.

“Spot on,” she reported. “It’s an important election year, and he still mocks the system. He’s incorrigible!”

Behind all her eye rolling and irritation, I could clearly see that Cami adored her brother. I knew for a fact that the feeling was mutual. I couldn’t help myself from thinking Cami’s tone sounded a lot like mine used to when Henry and I met to study. She was aggravated, yet forgiving. Oodles of love on all sides.

“The Indian blanket hanging on that wall was hand-woven by sweet little Navajo children.” Lilah’s voice came from around the corner.

I noticed Cami’s posture stiffen. “My friend Mel is here with me,” I said. “She’s a blast. You’ll like her.”

“Cool.” She exhaled. “Trip’s probably out back at the grill by now. After lunch, can I show you something? I wrote this paper-thing. It’s being published.” She waved a hand in the air like it was no big deal. “But I’d like your opinion.”

“Sure,” I said. We both turned at Lilah’s voice growing nearer. “Henry’s out back, you say?” I pointed in the other direction. “Can we get to it this way?”

Cami grabbed my arm and we made our escape.

Ten minutes later, we all gathered at the veranda. Henry was adjusting the flame on the gas grill, while Dart and Mel sat on either ends of a long porch swing. Lilah had besieged Cami and they were swinging together in an oversized hammock. Lilah was stroking Cami’s dark hair with her spider-leg fingers.

I wasn’t relaxed enough to actually sit and attempt a normal conversation with anybody, so I wandered over to the food. There was a spread of typical backyard patio picnic cuisine set up under a blue awning. In addition to that, I also noticed three extra bowls off to the side in dishes that didn’t match the rest of the setting, as if they’d been added last minute. Fruit salad, chilled pasta alfredo, and what I knew to be a brick of hard tofu.

When I looked over at Henry, it seemed as though he’d turned his head away from me just a split second before. He was now staring down at the grill, wearing a familiar smirk.

The others joined me under the awning. I loaded up my plate with the three bonus items, knowing full well they were only there because I was. I couldn’t help feeling warm and a little glowy inside, enjoying Henry’s attempt at hospitable teasing. I sat on a rocking chair, carefully balancing my plate on my lap.

“Still no meat?” Dart asked me as he sat at my side, a dripping hamburger in one hand.

“Eighteen months and counting,” Henry answered as he joined us from behind, grilling tongs in hand.

“Nineteen,” I corrected.

Dart set his plate off to the side. “You know, Spring, there’s something I’ve always wanted to talk to you about.”

“What’s that?” I asked, loading up a fork-full of spiral noodles.

“The vitamins and proteins in meat are impossible to replicate, and can’t be found in any other foods.”

I stopped chewing.

Dart was observing me with caring eyes. “A balanced diet is the healthiest way to live. That includes a little meat sometimes, and a little milk. The idea is moderation.”

My eyes flicked to Henry, whose expression was frantic as he stared at Dart like he was about to muzzle him.

“Too much of anything isn’t beneficial,” Dart went on, “and not enough can be just as harmful.”

A few months back, if anyone had the nerve to say that to me, I would have flown off the handle, quoting plenty of other statistics about how a clean and kind, animal-free lifestyle can add years to your life and better the planet. But I hadn’t become vegetarian for the health benefits. It was political, a statement…like so many other things in my life had become. That was not the point Dart was making now.

“I know,” I said. “I’ve been reading about that, actually.”

After I spoke, Henry exhaled and relaxed the tension in his shoulders.

“Would you like half of mine?” Dart offered hopefully, displaying his plate of meat.

“Not yet.” I laughed. “But I’ll let you know.”

Henry leaned against the back of my chair. “In the meantime, there are two portobello burgers on the grill.”

“Thank you,” I said, feeling touched again. “And anyway”—I turned back to Dart—“someone around here swore he would call me out on Facebook if ever I fall off the wagon.” I gave Henry a look.

“Me?” He tapped the silver tongs against his shoulder, smiling innocently. “Honeycutt, I think you know how well I can keep a secret.”


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