"Sarah Jane?" He took a step closer.
I turned to run but for some reason my legs refused to obey my brain. So I faced the inevitable and formed my mouth into a smile. "Is that really you, Jesse? How long has it been? Six years? Seven? What are you doing back in town. I thought you were a stockbroker in L.A. now. Or is it an investment banker? I know your mom told me, but I can't remem-"
He gripped my elbow, cutting off the stream of babbling I couldn't seem to control.
"I'm visiting my folks for a few days. How are you?" His brown eyes were intent and seemed to pierce me to the bottom of my crepe-soled loafers.
I took an involuntary step back, breaking his grip. "Fine. Great. Enjoy your visit." I turned again and this time my legs and feet carried me across the street. I ducked into the drugstore and sank onto the red leather stool at the old-fashioned soda fountain.
"Coffee, Sarah Jane?"
The quavering voice finally pierced my fog and I looked into Mrs. Caldwell's rheumy blue eyes and nodded. "Is there any cherry pie left?" One look and a few words with Jesse and I immediately felt seventeen again and running for comfort food? "Nevermind, yes, just coffee."
Mrs. Caldwell tottered to the stainless steel machine and pushed a few buttons. In less time than it took to correct a spelling test, she set the paper cup of caffeine on the counter. "I heard Jesse was back in town for a visit," she said.
"Why didn't anyone tell me?" I sipped cautiously since Mrs. C was known for coffee both strong and hot.
"Didn't know you'd care." She returned to the gleaming monster wiped off the steam spout. “Jesse’s been gone five years. Thought you’d moved on.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” I mumbled. “And it’s been seven years, just FYI.”
“What’s that?” Mrs. Caldwell leaned over the counter, one hand cupped behind her ear.
“Thanks for the coffee.” I fished a few bills out of my wallet and left them.
Rosedale was a wide spot in the road between the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the California coast and we knew how to get the tourists and travelers to stop for more than gas and the restroom. A quaint and attractive old town with the drugstore soda fountain. A courthouse park with a carousel and picnic tables. A movie theater that showed family features on Friday nights. A farmer’s market on Wednesday evenings May through October.
Speaking of … I glanced over at Enns Dry Goods but couldn’t see if Jesse and the blonde were still inside.
It couldn’t be helped. I’d have to pass in front of the store. If I stayed on my side of the street, I may be able to make it past without seeing Jesse again. I ducked my head and headed to the park. Nathan would be there, setting up the family booth of early peaches and plums at the farmer’s market. If anyone knew what was going on, it would be my brother the gossip.
I’d stayed after school a bit to lay out supplies for tomorrow’s art project for my second graders. That combined with my stop to moon over those stiletto heels, and it was now after five. If I hurried, I may be able to catch Nathan before the after-work crowds came looking for their organic produce. I hurried past the booths crowded with green lettuce and bell peppers and dimpled oranges, lemons, and limes. A few merchants waved as I dodged jog strollers and dogs leashed to their owners.
“Nathan!” I finally slipped between the dropped tailgate of the farm pickup and the folding table. “Guess what?”
“I’m glad you’re here, Sarah Jane. Can you go get the plastic bags out of the back seat?” Nathan barely glanced over his shoulder as he helped Carlene Bowers pick through a lug box of early Gold Dust peaches.
“I’m making fruit pizza for the potluck Friday,” she said. “So they need to be firm but really flavorful.”
“All Richter Family Farms fruit are the best of their kind.”
“They sure are.” Carlene looked Nathan up and down.
My brother, never the swiftest at getting innuendo, flushed and glanced at me. “The bags, Sarah Jane?”
I dropped the satchel of papers I still had to correct and fished around in the back seat until I found the roll of plain white bags we gave to customers who’d forgotten their own containers.
“Hi, Carlene,” I said, handing Nathan a bag.
“Sarah Jane.” She nodded at me but her smile faded. “Thanks, Nathan. I’ll save you a piece of the fruit pizza. Will you be at the potluck?”
“Aye.” He turned to help another customer, a man wheeling a bicycle with one hand and carrying a canvas tote in the other.
Carlene disappeared into the crowd and I tried to catch Nathan’s attention but the biker wanted to discuss the worthiness of our peaches for freezer jam.
I sighed and returned to the pickup. After shoving my satchel into the back street I fumbled for my apron. After dropping the strap over my head, I adjusted the whole thing until Richter Family Farms was emblazoned across my chest, then wrapped the long waist straps around and tied them in front.
I said a prayer that Jesse and his blonde didn’t decide to come pick up some local fruit to take home back to their loft apartment in Los Angeles or San Francisco or Chicago or wherever Jesse had ended up after leaving me and my heart behind here in the middle of California’s breadbasket.
“We have a deal, right, God?” I whispered. “I stay and help and you keep Jesse away. Just like you did seven years ago.”
My heart faltered as I realized the truth of those words.
End of story.
I truly believed that it was over. I had left the past behind and moved on. Until I heard his voice saying my name and I looked into his cocoa-brown eyes.