“She’ll be glad to hear it,” he said, grinning. “She does have an ego.”
“It appears creative talent runs deep in your family.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I have an ego too.”
“I’ve heard about that over the last couple of weeks,” she said. “Eccentric, temperamental, brilliant, demanding, meticulous, generous, compassionate…your family knows you well.”
“Ha,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve gotten an earful. My family does not hold back what they’re thinking. Especially if they think there will be another wedding at the end of it. Don’t let them pressure you. I’ve told them everything has to be on your terms.”
Hattie decided the best way to handle Duncan’s talk of the future they might have together was to ignore it altogether. “They say you’re a hermit. And they miss you when you’re not around.”
“I know,” he said. “But it’s hard to explain. I love them. And I can’t imagine not having them within easy reach. But I like being on my own. I need to be on my own. My talent is a gift, yes, but it can be difficult to pull the emotions I put on canvas out of the depths of my soul. It doesn’t always make me someone people want to be around.”
“I think they understand you more than you think they do,” she said. “They love you fiercely. That is easy to see. Especially since I’ve been asked questions even my doctor doesn’t ask so they know that I won’t break your heart. Apparently, someone named Jenna left a bad taste in their mouths.”
Duncan rolled his eyes and blew out an aggravated breath. “It would’ve been nice if someone had spoken up while I was with Jenna.”
“Would you have listened?”
His smile was a quick slash across his face and she thought in that moment he looked something of a pirate. “Of course not. I’ve been told my head is as hard as the Blarney Stone.”
She chuckled. “But you never married?”
“No,” he said. “That would have been a disaster. At least with Jenna. But when you see the relationship my parents and brothers have, and the relationships my aunt and uncle and cousins have, it sets a pretty high standard. It’s not worth settling for anything less.”
“Hmm,” she said, looking down at her hands nervously.
And then she looked back up and his breath caught. She was beautiful. Despite the strength she showed the world there was a raw vulnerability about her that made him want to protect her. And in her gaze was something else…
Longing? Hope? Love? Maybe it was wishful thinking on his part. But he wouldn’t be able to paint her any other way.
“It’s raining,” she said, never breaking eye contact.
He put the sketch pad and pencils aside and slowly got to his feet, making his moves deliberate so she had plenty of time to tell him to stay where he was. But she didn’t. She just stared at him with those slumberous eyes, her pulse hammering in her neck.
His body vibrated with energy, and he held his hand out to her, waiting for her to take it. And when she did, he pulled her to her feet, so their bodies barely brushed. They were almost eye to eye, and her lids fluttered closed as he moved closer, so close he could feel her breath across his lips.
Her hands came up and rested on his chest, and her head dropped back the slightest bit. That was all the invitation he needed. His mouth pressed against hers with a gentleness that surprised him. He wanted to breathe her, taste her, become one with her. But he sensed the timidness in her own kiss and knew she needed something softer, sweeter.
He danced with her, holding her flush against his body as the rain fell softly around them. He took the kiss deeper, swallowing her gasp of surprise, and he wound his fingers through the thick length of her hair.
The sweetness of it surprised him. It was like coming home—like being starved and walking into a banquet—or like thirsting in the desert and coming upon an oasis. She was the missing piece of his soul he’d never realized he needed. His painting had always filled that part of him. But it never would have filled him completely. But now he knew and there was no turning back. She was his present and his future.
Hattie couldn’t remembera time in her life where she’d felt so content.
She’d never felt such joy. Such love. She’d not really understood what the word meant—not until Duncan.
They fell into a comfortable rhythm, and if the memories of her past haunted her from time to time, it was easy to push them away when Duncan was near. They spent their days working, and their evenings were spent talking or hiking or eating out with friends or family.
And the longer they went, the more she felt the dread in her stomach as she waited for the other shoe to drop. He wanted more. She could tell he did. His family talked about their future as if it were inevitable, and Duncan never protested. He spoke of having his brother Hank draw up plans to expand his home, and flashes of a little girl with her father’s eyes and a little boy with Hattie’s pale hair filled her mind. Those were dreams she couldn’t afford to have, but she couldn’t bring herself to squelch the joy she saw on Duncan’s face with the truth of her circumstances.
She loved him. There was no doubt about that. And they talked about everything—goals, hopes, dreams, and the future. They talked of his past and his family. The O’Haras were deeply rooted in Laurel Valley, and remembering the legacy of past generations was obviously important to all of them. There was a deep pride and love of family that she’d never understand.
But there was one subject she’d diverted with expertise—and that was her own past. She’d give away nuggets of truth, remembering what Atticus had told her. But she’d learned how to redirect questions and take the attention from herself when the questions got too personal.
Duncan watched her closely during those moments, and she knew he was waiting for her to come clean. To tell him about her past and why she’d come to Laurel Valley. One thing she’d learned about Duncan during their time together was that he wasn’t a stupid man. He saw things in people that often went overlooked. He saw something deep within her that she wasn’t ready to reveal, and it made her nervous because once that layer of her soul was exposed there was no going back.