ne so quickly and easily was harder than it looked.
Allie sat at the front of the canoe, facing backward. He had said something about missing the view when he started to paddle, but she'd shaken her head, saying she was fine the way she was.
And it was true.
She could see everything she really wanted to see if she turned her head, but most of all she wanted to watch Noah. It was him she'd come to see, not the creek. His shirt was unbuttoned at the top, and she could see his chest muscles flex with every stroke. His sleeves were rolled up, too, and she could see the muscles in his arms bulging slightly. His muscles were well developed there from paddling every morning.
Artistic, she thought. There's something almost artistic about him when he does this. Something natural, as if being on the water were beyond his control, part of a gene passed on to him from some obscure hereditary pool. When she watched him, she was reminded of how the early explorers must have looked when they'd first discovered this area.
She couldn't think of anyone else who remotely resembled him. He was complicated, almost contradictory in so many ways, yet simple, a strangely erotic combination. On the surface he was a country boy, home from war, and he probably saw himself in those terms. Yet there was so much more to him. Perhaps it was the poetry that made him different, or perhaps it was the values his father had instilled in him, growing up. Either way, he seemed to savor life more fully than others appeared to, and that was what had first attracted her to him.
"What are you thinking?"
She felt her insides jump just a bit as Noah's voice brought her back to the present. She realized she hadn't said much since they'd started, and she appreciated the silence he had allowed her. He'd always been considerate like that.
"Good things," she answered quietly, and she saw in his eyes that he knew she was thinking about him. She liked the fact that he knew it, and she hoped he had been thinking about her as well.
She understood then that something was stirring within her, as it had so many years ago. Watching him, watching his body move, made her feel it. And as their eyes lingered for a second, she felt the heat in her neck and breasts, and she flushed, turning away before he noticed.
"How much farther?" she asked.
"Another half mile or so. Not any more than that."
A pause. Then, she said: "It's pretty out here. So clean. So quiet. It's almost like going back in time."
"In a way it is, I think. The creek flows from the forest. There's not a single farm between here and where it starts, and the water is pure as rain. It's probably as pure as it's ever been."
She leaned toward him. "Tell me, Noah, what do you remember most from the summer we spent together?"
"All of it."
"Anything in particular?"
"No," he said.
"You don't remember?"
He answered after a moment, quietly, seriously. "No, it's not that. It's not what you're thinking. I was serious when I said 'all of it.' I can remember every moment we were together, and in each of them there was something wonderful. I can't really pick any one time that meant more than any other. The entire summer was perfect, the kind of summer everyone should have. How could I pick one moment over another?
"Poets often describe love as an emotion that we can't control, one that overwhelms logic and common sense. That's what it was like for me. I didn't plan on falling in love with you, and I doubt if you planned on falling in love with me. But once we met, it was clear that neither of us could control what was happening to us. We fell in love, despite our differences, and once we did, something rare and beautiful was created. For me, love like that has happened only once, and that's why every minute we spent together has been seared in my memory. I'll never forget a single moment of it."
Allie stared at him. No one had ever said anything like that to her before. Ever. She didn't know what to say and stayed silent, her face hot.
"I'm sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable, Allie. I didn't mean to. But that summer has stayed with me and probably always will. I know it can't be the same between us, but that doesn't change the way I felt about you then."
She spoke quietly, feeling warm.
"It didn't make me uncomfortable, Noah. ...It's just that I don't ever hear things like that. What you said was beautiful. It takes a poet to talk the way you do, and like I said, you're the only poet I've ever met."
Peaceful silence descended on them. An osprey cried somewhere in the distance. A mullet splashed near the bank. The paddle moved rhythmically, causing baffles that rocked the boat ever so slightly. The breeze had stopped, and the clouds grew blacker as the canoe moved toward some unknown destination.
Allie noticed it all, every sound, every thought. Her senses had come alive, invigorating her, and she felt her mind drifting through the last few weeks. She thought about the anxiety coming here had caused her. The shock at seeing the article, the sleepless nights, her short temper during daylight. Even yesterday she had been afraid and wanted to run away. The tension was gone now, every bit of it, replaced by something else, and she was glad about that as she rode in silence in the old red canoe.
She felt strangely satisfied that she'd come, pleased that Noah had turned into the type of man she'd thought he would, pleased that she would live forever with that knowledge. She had seen too many men in the past few years destroyed by war, or time, or even money. It took strength to hold on to inner passion, and Noah had done that.
This was a worker's world, not a poet's, and people would have a hard time understanding Noah. America was in full swing now, all the papers said so, and people were rushing forward, leaving behind the horrors of war. She understood the reasons, but they were rushing, like Lon, toward long hours and profits, neglecting the things that brought beauty to the world.
Who did she know in Raleigh who took time off to fix a house? Or read Whitman or Eliot, finding images in the mind, thoughts of the spirit? Or hunted dawn from the bow of a canoe? These weren't the things that drove society, but she felt they shouldn't be treated as unimportant. They made living worthwhile.
To her it was the same with art, though she had realized it only upon coming here. Or rather, remembered it. She had known it once before, and again she cursed herself for forgetting something as important as creating beauty. Painting was what she was meant to do, she was sure of that now. Her feelings this morning had confirmed it, and she knew that whatever happened, she was going to give it another shot. A fair shot, no matter what anyone said.
Would Lon encourage her painting? She remembered showing him one of her paintings a couple of months after they had first started going out. It was an abstract painting and was meant to inspire thought. In a way, it resembled the painting above Noah's fireplace, the one Noah understood completely, though it may have been a touch less passionate. Lon had stared at it, studied it almost, and then had asked her what it was supposed to be. She hadn't bothered to answer.
She shook her head then, knowing she wasn't being completely fair. She loved Lon, and always had, for other reasons. Though he wasn't Noah, Lon was a good man, the kind of man she'd always known she would marry. With Lon there would be no surprises, and there was comfort in knowing what the future would bring. He would be a kind husband to her, and she would be a good wife. She would have a home near friends and family, children, a respectable place in society. It was the kind of life she'd always expected to live, the kind of life she wanted to live. And though she wouldn't describe theirs as a passionate relationship, she had convinced herself long ago that this wasn't necessary to be fulfilled in a relationship, even with a person she intended to marry. Passion would fade in time, and things like companionship and compatibility would take its place. She and Lon had this, and she had assumed this was all she needed.
But now, as she watched Noah rowing, she questioned this basic assumption. He exuded sexuality in everything he did, everything he was, and she caught herself thinking about him in a way that an engaged woman shouldn't. She tried not to stare and glanced away often, but the easy way he moved his body made it hard to keep her eyes from him for long.
"Here we are," Noah said as he guided the canoe toward some trees near the bank.
Allie looked around, not seeing anything. "Where is it?"
"Here," he said again, pointing the canoe at an old tree that had fallen over, obscuring an opening almost completely hidden from view.
He guided the canoe around the tree, and both of them had to lower their heads to keep from bumping them.
"Close your eyes," he whispered, and Allie did, bringing her hands to her face. She heard the baffles of the water and felt the movement of the canoe as he propelled it forward, away from the pull of the creek.
"Okay," he finally said after he'd stopped paddling. "You can open them now."
Swans and Storms
They sat in the middle of a small lake fed by the waters of Brices Creek. It wasn't large, maybe a hundred yards across, and she was surprised at how invisible it had been just moments before.
It was spectacular. Tundra swan and Canada geese literally surrounded them. Thousands of them. Birds floating so close together in some places that she couldn't see the water. From a distance, the groups of swans looked almost like icebergs.
"Oh, Noah," she finally said softly, "it's beautiful."
They sat in silence for a long while, watching the birds. Noah pointed out a group of chicks, recently hatched, following a pack of geese near the shore, struggling to keep up.
The air was filled with honking and chirping as Noah moved the canoe through the water. The birds ignored them for the most part. The only ones who seemed bothered were those forced to move when the canoe approached them. Allie reached out to touch the closest ones and felt their feathers ruffling under her fingers.
Noah brought out the bag of bread he'd brought earlier and handed it to Allie. She scattered the bread, favoring the little ones, laughing and smiling as they swam in circles, looking for food.
They stayed until thunder boomed in the distance--faint but powerful--and both of them knew it was time to leave.
Noah led them back to the current of the creek, paddling stronger than he had earlier. She was still amazed by what she had seen.
"Noah, what are they doing here?"
"I don't know. I know the swans from up north migrate to Lake Matamuskeet every winter, but I guess they came here this time. I don't know why. Maybe the early blizzard had something to do with it. Maybe they got off track or something. They'll find their way back, though."
"They won't stay?"
"I doubt it. They're driven by instinct, and this isn't their place. Some of the geese may winter here, but the swans will go back to Matamuskeet."
Noah paddled hard as dark clouds rolled directly overhead. Soon rain began to fall, a light sprinkle at first, then gradually harder. Lightning ...a pause . . . then thunder again. A little louder now. Maybe six or seven miles away. More rain as Noah began to paddle even harder, his muscles tightening with every stroke.
Thicker drops now.
Falling . . .
Falling with the wind . . .
Falling hard and thick . . . Noah rowing . . . racing the sky . . . still getting wet . . . cursing to himself . . . losing to Mother Nature...
The downpour was steady now, and Allie watched the rain fall diagonally from the sky, trying to defy gravity as it rode on westerly winds that whistled over the trees. The sky darkened a little more, and big heavy drops fell from the clouds. Hurricane drops.
Allie enjoyed the rain and leaned her head back for a moment to let it hit her face. She knew the front of her dress would soak through in a couple of minutes, but she didn't care. She did wonder, though, if he noticed, then thought he probably did.
She ran her hands through her hair, feeling its wetness. It felt wonderful, she felt wonderful, everything felt wonderful. Even through the rain, she could hear him breathing hard and the sound aroused her sexually in a way she hadn't felt in years.
A cloud burst directly above them, and the rain began to come down even harder. Harder than she'd ever seen it. Allie looked upward and laughed, giving up any attempt at keeping dry, making Noah feel better. He hadn't known how she was feeling about it. Even though she'd made the decision to come, he doubted that she'd expected to be caught in a storm like this.
They reached the dock a couple of minutes later, and Noah moved in close enough for Allie to step out. He helped her up, then got out himself and dragged the canoe up the bank far enough not to drift away. Just in case, he tied it to the dock, knowing another minute in the rain wouldn't make any difference.
As he was tying the canoe, he looked up at Allie and stopped breathing for just a second. She was incredibly beautiful as she waited, watching him, completely comfortable in the rain. She didn't try to keep dry or hide herself, and he could see the outline of her breasts as they pressed through the fabric of the dress that clung tightly to her body. It wasn't a cold rain, but he could see her nipples erect and protruding, hard like little rocks. He felt his loins begin to stir and quickly turned away, embarrassed, muttering to himself, glad the rain muffled any sound of it. When he finished and stood, Allie took his hand in hers, surprising him. Despite the downpour, they didn't rush toward the house, and Noah imagined what it would be like to spend the night with her.
Allie, too, was wondering about him. She felt the warmth in his hands and wondered what it would be like to have them touch her body, feeling all of her, lingering slowly across her skin. Just thinking about it made her take a deep breath, and she felt her nipples begin to tingle and a new warmth between her legs.
She realized then that something had changed since she'd come here. And although she couldn't pinpoint the exact time--yesterday after dinner, or this afternoon in the canoe, or when they saw the swans, or maybe even now as they walked holding hands--she knew that she had fallen in love with Noah Taylor Calhoun again, and that maybe, just maybe, she had never stopped.
There was no uneasiness between them as they reached the door and both of them went inside, pausing in the foyer, clothes dripping.
"Did you bring a change of clothes?"
She shook her head, still feeling the roll of emotions within her, wondering if it showed on her face.
"I think I can find something here for you so you can get out of those clothes. It might be a little big, but it's warm."
"Anything," she said.
"I'll be back in a second."
Noah slipped off his boots, then ran up the stairs, descending a minute later. He had a pair of cotton pants and a long-sleeved shirt under one arm and some jeans with a blue shirt in the other.
"Here," he said, handing her the cotton pants and shirt. "You can change in the bedroom upstairs. There's a bathroom and towel up there too if you want to shower."
She thanked him with a smile and went up the stairs, feeling his eyes on her as she walked. She entered the bedroom and closed the door, then set the pants and shirt on his bed and peeled everything off. Naked, she went to his closet and found a hanger, put her dress, bra, and panties on it, and then went to hang it in the bathroom so it wouldn't drip on the hardwood floor. She felt a secret thrill at being naked in the same room he slept in.
She didn't want to shower after being in the rain. She liked the soft feeling on her skin, and it reminded her of how people used to live long ago. Naturally. Like Noah. She slipped on his clothes before looking at herself in the mirror. The pants were big, but tucking in the shirt helped, and she rolled up the bottoms just a little so they wouldn't drag. The neck was torn a little and it nearly hung off one shoulder, but she liked the way it looked on her anyway. She pulled the sleeves up almost to the elbows, went to the bureau, and slipped on some socks, then went to the bathroom to find a hairbrush.
She brushed her wet hair just enough to get out the snarls, letting it rest on her shoulders. Looking in the mirror, she wished she had brought a clasp or a couple of hairpins.
And a little more mascara. But what could she do? Her eyes still had a little of what she'd put on earlier, and she touched up with a washcloth, doing the best she could.
When she was finished, she checked herself in the mirror, feeling pretty despite everything, and went back down the stairs.
Noah was in the living room squatting before a fire, doing his best to coax it to life. He didn't see her come in, and she watched him as he worked. He had changed his clothes as well and looked good: his shoulders broad, wet hair hanging just over his collar, jeans tight.
He poked the fire, moving the logs, and added some more kindling. Allie leaned against the door-jamb, one leg crossed over the other, and continued to watch him. In a few minutes the fire had turned to flames, even and steady. He turned to the side to straighten the remaining unused logs and caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye. He turned back to her quickly.
Even in his clothes she looked beautiful. After a moment he turned away shyly, going back to stacking the logs.
"I didn't hear you come in," he said, trying to sound casual.
"I know. You weren't supposed to." She knew what he had been thinking and felt a tinge of amusement at how young he seemed.
"How long have you been standing there?"
"A couple of minutes."
Noah brushed his hands on his pants, then pointed to the kitchen. "Can I get you some tea? I started the water while you were upstairs." Small talk, anything to keep his mind clear. But damn, the way she looked . . .
She thought for a second, saw the way he was looking at her, and felt the old instincts take over.
"Do you have anything stronger, or is it too early to drink?"
He smiled. "I have some bourbon in the pantry. Is that okay?"
"That sounds great."
He started toward the kitchen, and Allie watched him run his hand through his wet hair as he disappeared.
Thunder boomed loudly, and another downpour started. Allie could hear the roaring of the rain on the roof, could hear the snapping of logs as the flickering flames lit the room. She turned to the window and saw the gray sky flash lighter for just a second. Moments later, another boom of thunder. Close this time.
She took a quil