“I see you’ve noticed Sunshine’s painting,” Peter Hamlin said. “It’s one of her earlier pieces.”
“You’ve had it a long time?”
He nodded, although he seemed a little reluctant to admit it. “How is your aunt doing?” he asked.
“If you mean health-wise, she’s well.”
Beth sat back down and stared at her hands. “I … a friend told me that my meddling in her life and yours was the wrong thing to do. In my twisted thinking I assumed, I’d hoped, for so much more for you both, but my efforts did far more harm than good.” But it wasn’t all bad news. “On a positive note,” she rushed to explain, “my mom and my aunt have reconciled.”
“Because of the meeting we had at the restaurant?”
Beth shook her head. “No. That happened over Thanksgiving, when my parents came to Portland.”
“That’s good,” he surprised her by saying.
“It is for them both. It’s time this foolishness between them came to an end.”
He grinned as if he found her statement amusing.
Not knowing what else to say, if anything, Beth stood again. “Thank you for seeing me and for letting me apologize in person.” He hadn’t accepted her apology, she noted. That was on him, though. She’d done her part.
“What you did is forgivable, Beth.”
“Thank you.” Relief washed over her as she started for the door. “You surprised me.”
“I expected you to demand that I leave your office and have me escorted out.”
“But you came anyway.”
“Yes, seeing you was important. It helped that you didn’t recognize my name.”
“Ah, but I did.”
“I was curious to find out what brought you to my office.”
That made sense. “From past experience, you probably should have been afraid.”
He grinned and Beth had the feeling he didn’t find much in life amusing. “Would you mind if I tell my aunt you have one of her early paintings?”
Indecision passed over his features, tightening them briefly. “Sure. Go ahead, if you like. It won’t make any difference, but if you feel it would help her to know that I’ve thought of her through the years, then by all means tell her.”
“Thank you for everything.” Beth made it all the way to his door before she hesitated and turned back. “Would you mind answering one last question?”
“Depends on what it is.”
“You loved her, didn’t you? Sunshine, that is.”
His eyes grew sad and he nodded. “Always.”
For reasons that hit far too close to her own heart, tears gathered in Beth’s eyes. She wanted to say more but was afraid if she did her voice would crack. No matter what the future held for her and Sam, she would always love him. If he never wanted to see her again, then she could accept that, no matter how much it hurt.
When Beth arrived back at the house, she found a note from her mother on the kitchen counter.
Out for the afternoon.
Seeing that she had the house to herself, Beth made herself comfortable in her favorite chair, tucked her feet under her, and reached for her phone. Her aunt was probably busy in her studio and would let the call go to voicemail and return it later, which was fine. She was surprised when Sunshine picked up.
“You okay, Sweet Pea?”
She wasn’t, but not for the reasons her aunt assumed. Beth had yet to tell Sunshine about what had happened with Sam. Deep down, she was confident he would eventually have a change of heart. It was still so new she hadn’t dealt with her own feelings and wasn’t up to speaking about it, not even to Sunshine. “I’m good. Had an interesting morning though.”
“Before I get to that, I need to say something.” She drew in a deep breath and plunged ahead. “I want to apologize for the dinner Mrs. Reacher and I arranged. We both thought we were helping smooth the path to true love. Yet all we did was bring up old hurts. I’m genuinely sorry. If I could undo that dinner, I would. I hope you know I would never intentionally hurt you. I feel terrible knowing I did.”
“Of course you wouldn’t, Baby Girl; I know that. It’s forgotten. No apology necessary.”
Her aunt was more than generous, but then she always had been.
“Now tell me about your morning,” Sunshine said, changing the subject.
“You weren’t the only one I needed to apologize to,” Beth explained. “When I first tried to speak to Mr. Hamlin, the receptionist, not Mrs. Reacher, made an appointment for me in December. I’d actually forgotten about it. Then I got a reminder and decided that instead of breaking the appointment I would go to his office and apologize personally.”
“Did he kick you out?” she asked, making a joke of it.
“I thought he would,” Beth confessed. “Instead, he saw me. I assumed he didn’t recognize my name, but later he told me he had. He accepted my apology and asked after you.”
“Whatever anger he felt toward me and Mrs. Reacher has worn off, I think. He was actually calm and almost … pleasant.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“He has one of your paintings in his office.”
Her words were greeted with silence.
“It’s one of your early ones.”
“I asked him if he objected to me telling you that he had it, and he said he didn’t mind.” Seeing how quiet her aunt had become, Beth had to wonder if she’d done the right thing by letting her know.
Beth thought she heard a sniffle.
“Should I not have told you that?” she asked, uncertain now. “I mean, seeing that he has the painting and seems to have had it for a long time says something, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I suppose it does.”
Beth debated on telling her aunt the rest. “I asked him another question and I’m not sure you want to know the answer, so tell me if you don’t.”
“What was the question?” Sunshine asked, and it sounded as if she was struggling to hold onto her emotions.
Oh dear, would she never learn? In trying to apologize, she might have made matters even worse.
“I asked Peter if he loved you.” She bit into her lower lip while she waited for her aunt’s response.
It took her a moment. “Yes, tell me.”
“He said always.” She waited for her aunt to say something more. A long time passed.
Then finally, in a tightly controlled voice, Sunshine whispered, “Thank you, Beth.”
Unsure now that she’d done it again and hurt the people she loved, she asked, “Did I do the right thing? Or did I make matters even worse?”
An eternity passed before Sunshine answered, and when she did, her voice was thick with emotion.
“You did the right thing.”
Beth waited until Christmas Day to send Sam a text. A dozen times or more she’d typed out a few words, needing to reach out to him, hoping he’d had a change of heart. Not hearing from him ate at her.
Christmas morning, knowing she was two hours ahead of him time wise, she waited until she was certain he would be up and about. All she sent was two words: Merry Christmas.
She waited all day and got no response back.
The second weekend in January, Sam was busy working on a friend’s car when Rocco showed up at the house. Sam hadn’t stopped by his friend’s house since before Christmas for fear of inadvertently running into Beth. Nichole and Beth were tight and he didn’t want to risk a chance encounter. It was hard enough not to think about her as it was. Hard enough to push thoughts of her out of his head.
Just plain hard.
This lost feeling was new. Before Beth he’d grown accustomed to the loneliness, filled it with nights at The Dog House, watching sports, and poker nights with his buddies. He found the missing piece of his soul with the music she brought into his life. With her he’d discovered joy, laughter, and most importantly, meaning. His evenings seemed flat; he looked for things to keep himself occupied so he wouldn’t think about her. He consoled himself with the promise that this lost feeling wouldn’t last forever. He’d grow accustomed to life without her soon enough.