“I’m sure they mean well, but it’s a little nerve-racking.”
“I grabbed a blanket from the warming area. If we sit over there you can keep an eye on Oliver without him seeing us,” Finn suggested. “Plus, we won’t have to be the object of any whispers.”
Maggie nodded in agreement. She was fine with Oliver dogsledding, but she didn’t mind watching him from a discreet distance. And Maggie had never enjoyed being stared at. Although the townsfolk of Love weren’t being mean-spirited, she had endured enough stares in Boston to last a lifetime.
As they moved toward a quiet area with a clear view of the dogsled track, Finn found a perfect spot and took a moment to lay a blanket down on the ground. They both sat and got comfortable.
“I have some hand warmers if you need them,” Finn said, patting his jacket pocket.
“I’m good for now. This cup is really warming up my hands.”
They each sipped their warm ciders. With a full moon set amid an onyx sky, Maggie couldn’t help but admire the beautiful surroundings. She felt so tranquil and relaxed. She knew it wasn’t just the winter carnival or the townsfolk or Oliver’s effusive joy.
“Do you think I’ve changed a lot?” Maggie asked Finn. Being here tonight at the winter carnival reminded her of the last time she’d been at a holiday event here in town. It had felt like a trip down memory lane. She had been ten years old. A lifetime ago for all intents and purposes. Sometimes she wished she still had a sense of childhood wonder. Back then she hadn’t been nervous at all about riding a dogsled. Over the years she’d become more of an anxious person. Pushing past those fears was the best remedy for anxiety. She was trying really hard in all areas of her life to be braver than she felt.
“Not really. Maybe a little bit. Have I?” Finn asked. He ran his hand across his jaw. “Aside from growing into a ruggedly handsome man,” he said in a teasing voice, “I think I’m still me.”
“At first you seemed really different,” Maggie said. She smirked at him. “But once I scratched the surface, you’re the same old Finn.”
“Thanks. I think,” he said with a low-throated chuckle.
“I meant it as a compliment. Sometimes I feel like the best parts of me ended up being chewed up by life. You remind me of a time and place when I was a better version. I wasn’t so anxious or jaded. And lately I’ve been wondering if I passed it on to Oliver. He can be a worrywart sometimes.”
“I don’t believe that, Maggie. Do you know why? Because of Oliver. That kid has more heart than anyone I know, except for his mother. Where do you think that came from?”
Maggie shook her head. “I’m not sure he got that from me. I’ve been so afraid, Finn. Afraid of taking chances. Afraid of the sky falling in.” She shrugged. “Just plain afraid. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I get really anxious sometimes worrying about things that are out of my control.”
He reached out and squeezed her mittened hand. “You have nothing to be embarrassed about. Everyone has fears. We all worry. Give yourself a break, Mags. You’ve been through a lot. That takes a toll on a person.”
“You’re right. It does,” Maggie said. “I don’t like the feeling of things being out of my control. But the reality is, life often is unpredictable.”
“I get it. When my grandfather got sick I felt as if my world had tilted on its axis.” He bowed his head. “My emotions were all over the place. Fear had me in its grip. I knew there was nothing I could do to keep him in this world and it made me panic. I ran away from the pain of losing him. In the process, I cut myself off from all the people I loved and who loved me in return.” Finn cleared his throat. “I didn’t get to say goodbye to him. Fear cost me that moment.”
She reached out and placed her hand on Finn’s knee. “I’m sorry you missed saying your final farewell to him. There was so much love between the two of you. I hope you’ve been able to hold on to that.”
“It’s been easier to focus on the good memories ever since I returned. Now that I’m no longer running I can finally breathe a little easier. There’s something about being back home that’s been healing in a lot of ways.”
Maggie looked at Finn as surprise washed over her. She felt the same way about being in Love. There was something so special about this heartwarming Alaskan town. “Honestly, I’ve felt different ever since I stepped off that seaplane. I feel braver than I’ve felt in years. And hopeful.”
Finn nodded. “Hope is a wonderful thing.”
They locked gazes. “I’ll tell you a secret, Mags. You were my first crush,” Finn admitted.
Maggie let out a squeal. “Really?”
“Yes, ma’am. I used to wonder if you were crushing on me as well.” He wiggled his eyebrows at her. “So? The moment of truth has arrived. Were you?”
Maggie ducked her head down. Her cheeks felt flushed. She shouldn’t be embarrassed. This was Finn. Her childhood pal. But with his soulful green eyes and rugged good looks, Maggie was having a hard time keeping him strictly in the friend zone. Adrenaline did tend to course through her veins whenever he was in her orbit. As children, her feelings for Finn had been strictly platonic.
“To be honest, no, Finn. It wasn’t until much later that I developed romantic feelings for anyone. I think I was sixteen. A late bloomer, I suppose. I think being around my mother made me wary of developing feelings for anyone. After all, she chased anything with a pulse. It didn’t make for a very stable childhood.” She met Finn’s gaze head-on. “But I’ll tell you one thing, Finn O’Rourke. I thought you were the best thing since sliced bread. You were the most impressive, courageous and wonderful boy I’d ever met. You showed me how to run freely and embrace everything the world has to offer. And you didn’t treat me differently because I was a girl. You taught me not to be so fearful. And you changed me for the better. Every time I left Love I felt stronger and more confident. I owe you a debt of gratitude for that.”
Finn placed his hand over his heart. “That means the world to me. I thought about you long after you left Love for the last time. I kept hoping you’d come back. But you never did.”
“I thought we would come back too. When we left here that last time I never knew it would be twenty years before I came back to Love.” She quirked her mouth. “My mother fought with Uncle Tobias over her lifestyle. He wanted us to stay in Love so I could have a stable upbringing.” She shook her head as bitter memories rose to the surface. “She was always chasing the next best husband. So instead of coming back here we moved to Arizona, then California and New Mexico before heading to New England.”
Finn let out a low whistle. “That’s a lot of moving around.”
Maggie nodded. “It was rough. That’s why I want Oliver to stay rooted in one place. Stability is important for children.”