“My darling girl,” she told Cricket and hugged her tighter. When I came closer, her hand went to my shoulder. “Take him to the living room,” she instructed. I began to walk away, but before I could take more than one step, she hugged my neck. “I’m sorry for you too, boy. I know you loved him very much.”

I nodded, afraid to speak for fear I’d break down, and took Eugie to the main living room. I laid him on the plank flooring by the large windows and just sat beside him.

No one prepares you for the death of a pet. It’s not quite like losing a human loved one, obviously, but you cannot help but feel a tiny bit of despair. After all, they serve you so loyally. I think they genuinely love you, and they’re so protective of you. They do their jobs so instinctually and so exceptionally because that’s how God made them.

I remembered stories from my childhood, when my mom used to take Bridge and me to church. They were the stories of St. Francis. Through St. Francis, we were reminded just how these creatures of God served humans, and by serving His humans, they served and praised God. I always thought of animals as nothing more than soulless creatures before those stories, never once thinking that they too had a purpose. I had seen a statue of St. Francis in a courtyard once and the image was of him bending down and scratching a dog behind his ears and I thought, if a man so close to God gave respect to even the lowliest of God’s creatures, they must be worth loving.

Cricket came into the living room and sat beside me, taking my hand in hers.

“He was such a good boy,” she said simply.

“He was,” I agreed.

We sat, staring out the window, watching spring melt the leftover snow right before our eyes, coming to terms with the drastic turns our life had taken in the past few hours.

She squeezed my hand. “We’ll have to bury him,” she said softly.

“Of course.”

“There’s a little dogwood tree right at the bottom of our main homestead,” she began.

“I know it,” I told her, which made her smile.

“He liked to sleep there with me when we were both little.”

“That’s sweet, Cricket.”

She nodded with a gentle smile. “The ground will still be too cold to dig by hand.”

“I can get the digger.”

She looked at me and smiled again. “Thank you.”

I stood, ready to do what I needed to. “Stay here. I’ll come get you when it’s ready.”

She stood up as well and reached for my hair, running her hands through the length before placing her palm on my cheek. “Thank you,” she said, kissing the crease of my mouth.

The digger was in the carriage house, so I walked there with a heavy heart. I started the machine and drove it down to the dogwood she used to sleep under with Eugie as a little girl. I tried to imagine her as a small girl, as if she could be any smaller, with a puppy-sized Eugie. I pictured her again, older, recently, sitting on the bottom of the stairwell with a book in her hand and Eugie laid about at her feet. That’s how I decided I’d always remember them together, and the thought made me warm through.

I dug a hole wide enough and deep enough to accommodate him and set the remaining dirt beside the grave. When I was done, I jumped from the digger and placed two shovels in the mass before heading back up to the carriage house, hosing off the digger and locking it all up.

The whole process took approximately an hour and in that time, all the hands had arrived, along with Jonah, and Bridge had joined them all at the house. We all walked to the bottom of the property. I carried Eugie with Cricket at my side.

We laid him inside and Jonah and I shoveled in the dirt while Ellie and Cricket held hands.

Afterward, Emmett said a little prayer asking God to give the family peace, and we went home to eat lunch. Everyone told their personal stories about Eugie, some funny, some hilarious, some sad and some silly, but all were heartfelt.

After lunch, Ellie asked where Ethan was. That was my cue to leave Cricket and take a shower back at the trailer. On my way down the lane, I passed an affectionate Jonah and Bridge, which made me simultaneously want to gag and smile. Go figure.

I had a plan, and now that I had an opportunity with Cricket, there was nothing that could stop me.

Chapter Thirty-Two

“Is a Miss Cricket Hunt here?” I playfully asked Ellie at the front door.

I handed her a small bouquet of flowers, which delighted her.

“Where did you get these?” she exclaimed.

“In town. I had to get a few things for our first date, which included flowers for one Miss Ellie Hunt.”

“Charming,” Ellie said, kissing my cheek. “Thank you. They’re lovely.”

I’d called Cricket from Kalispell, surprising her and asking her to dinner.

“Where are you going?” Ellie asked.

“Dinner, then who knows? I’m hoping to keep things casual. I know she’s going through a rough time, and I just want to distract her a little.”

“Thoughtful,” Ellie said, her smile reaching her eyes.

Just then, Cricket descended the staircase, stunning me speechless. Ellie nudged me with her elbow and winked.

“Caroline Hunt is sporting a black lace sheath with boat neck, cap sleeves and scallop-edge hemline,” Ellie teased, her hands gesturing gracefully at Cricket as she descended the staircase. Cricket played the drama well and would stop to pose every few steps. “Notice the ankle-strapped black heels, accented quite nicely with a cluster pearl choker, and to top the ensemble off, a black beaded clutch.

“Caroline has decided to wear her hair down tonight and curled with a swept bang with simple makeup to accent her daring red lipstick,” Ellie finished. She looked at me and winked. “Tell me we country folk can’t clean up real nice,” she added with an exaggerated accent, making me laugh, before kissing Cricket on the cheek. “Have fun. Be a good girl.”

Ellie left the room to us and I found an overwhelming need to call her back. I had no idea what in the world I was going to tell the magnificent creature in front of me. She descended the staircase with ease and approached me with an easy smile, totally unaware of how unbelievably gorgeous she looked. She dazzled me, dazed me, stupefied me.

She had yet to realize she’d struck me mute and nonchalantly handed me her black cashmere long coat. I took it from her, my hands trembling, and she turned. I helped her into it and swept her hair away from the collar.

She turned her head, her back still to me, and whispered, “Thank you.”

My mouth went severely dry when she turned toward me once more, still unaware and began fastening her buttons.

“Where are we going?” she asked, her face shining.

I opened my mouth but the words wouldn’t come. I tried to swallow, but I wasn’t able.

“Are you okay?” she asked. I shook my head like a fool. “Let me get you some water,” she said, looking concerned.

As she began to walk off, I grabbed her hand and drew her to me. I curled both her hands into my chest and as she searched my face, I searched hers. I wrapped my arms around her tiny back and inhaled the scent of her hair, my eyes sliding to the back of my head.

The perfume sparked a memory in me, reminding me of that night I sat at her back and the wind whipped the bouquet of her hair at me. I recalled wishing so badly to run my fingers through her hair, so I sat back a little, ran my hands up her back and neck before cupping her cheeks in both my palms. My thumbs gently caressed her cheekbones briefly before I broke the contact and threaded her curls through my fingers. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply each time I would slide a strand between my forefinger and thumb.

“So soft,” I quieted. She opened her eyes and we stared directly into one another. “You make it difficult for me to talk,” I admitted.

“Do I?” She smiled.

“Very much so,” I smiled back.

“Shall I needle it out of you?” she asked.

“And how would you accomplish that, Miss Hunt?”

Her heels gave her a few inches and she reached my neck easily. She kissed me tenderly at the base of my throat, making me chuckle low in my chest.

“That’s not making it,” I paused as she kissed that spot softly again, “any easier.”

She pulled back. “Say what you need to say, Spencer,” she said thoughtfully.

“I bought you something,” I told her.

Her eyes widened and I placed a small orange paper box with gold filigree on the top.

“It’s a James Avery,” I explained.

“I can see that.”

She opened the box and emptied the gray leather pouch inside and its contents into her hand. Out slid a small charm bracelet with a single charm of a dogwood flower. Her hand went to her mouth and her eyes began to gloss. I fixed it on her wrist.

“Don’t cry,” I told her. “It kills me when you cry.”

She let a tear slip. “Sorry,” she giggled and I leaned down to kiss it away.

“This,” she choked, examining the details of the charm, “is…” A few more tears escaped. “Now I’m speechless.”

I laughed. “Cricket, you’re so beautiful,” I told her, referring to her massive heart.

“Thank you.”

“No, let me finish,” I told her, breathing in deeply. “You’re more than beautiful. You’re this bright, clean, exquisite light. Just being near you is a balm to my dejected heart.”

At that, her hand found my heart and she pressed there.

“And,” I continued, topping her hand with mine, “I’ve never met anyone as astounding as you. You’re so fair it almost hurts if I stare too long. But-but I can’t help it. If you’re near, I have to watch every single movement, memorize every step, every gesture. You captivate me and I—” I declared, but she cut me short.

She looked around us.

“Spencer, save those words. Remember those words,” she said, grabbing my hand and pulling me out of the main doors, we stumbled upon the rocky gravel to the moonlit hayloft and climbed the bales until we reached the top.

“What about dinner?” I asked.

“I just want to be alone with you.”

Her words assaulted my senses. I removed my jacket and gently settled her on top.

I laid beside her, my arms on either side of her head and stared into her face.

“After prep school, a bunch of my mates and I backpacked around the world.”

“Where did you go?” she asked, unbuttoning my cuffs and rolling up the sleeves.

I leaned forward and my hair fell into my face. She ran her hands through the mass and pushed the strands back for me.

“Uh,” I said, shaking my head, “all over, but there’s one particular place that reminds me so much of you.”

“Where?” she murmured.

“Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela.”

“What’s there?” she murmured into my ear, bringing the side of my face to hers.

I spoke slowly, under the influence of her touch. “A, uh, a natural phenomena called Catatumbo Lightning.” She lightly bit my earlobe and my head fell forward a bit. “Cricket,” I mumbled.

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