Kayleigh blew a cooling breath through the lid of her foam coffee cup and glanced at Dustin. In his favorite ball cap, well-worn jeans, and scuffed work boots, he looked like a typical farmer. And it felt like a typical Sunday as they leaned side-by-side against her dust-covered car. Every week since Dustin got his driver’s license, they’d met for coffee before church.
But this Sunday was finally different.
Dustin sighed as he took a big swig from his cup. “Not much I love more than gas station coffee.” He glanced at her, the look in his eyes more serious than his tone implied. “Maybe fishing. A perfect sunrise. Or that sundress you’re wearing this morning. New?”
She nodded, wondering if she’d feel out of place wearing such a cheap dress once she reached her new life in Chicago. “Sure is. I’m glad you like it.”
Silence fell over them again. They were rarely this quiet together and it didn’t feel right. But then, nothing had since she’d applied for the job in the first place. Kayleigh’s chest tightened in a way that was becoming too familiar. “What if I’m doing the wrong thing?”
Dustin leaned closer, drawn to her like she was to him whenever they were together. “No need to worry about that, Kay. If anyone’s meant for city life, it’s you. Besides, where else are you going to make a discovery that changes human history except at a world-class museum?”
His unshakable faith in her was great, but right now she’d rather have blunt honesty. “I’ll miss it here.”
“Of course, you will. It’s the best place on earth.” They locked eyes and grinned at the old inside joke. While all their classmates dreamed of making it big somewhere—anywhere—else, Dustin and Kayleigh always claimed they’d never leave Benton. And now here she was, car stuffed full, ready to abandon everything she’d ever known.
Setting her coffee on the roof of the car, Kayleigh gave in to the urge to lean against him, settling into that perfect spot under his arm. How could this be the right choice when it felt so wrong? “I wish you could come with me.”
“I know. And you know I can’t.”
His voice broke with the words, and Kayleigh immediately regretted saying it. “I’m sorry, Dustin. I don’t mean to keep bringing it up. You absolutely should be here, taking care of your mom. She needs you.”
That terrible silence took over again. Kayleigh took a second to pray for Dustin’s mom, who’d been as much a mother to her as her own. It wasn’t only the cancer threatening his mom’s life that kept Dustin here, though. Living in the city instead of being the fifth generation to work on his family’s farm would break him. More than anyone she knew, Dustin belonged in Benton.
The question was, did she?
Dustin reached up to set his cup next to Kayleigh’s, then wrapped both arms around her. “I know you’re nervous, but you don’t need to be. So what if the whole town’s always had us pegged to settle down, to be together forever like a couple in those romances your mom reads.”
Kayleigh’s heart ached. Wasn’t that what she’d always dreamed of? When had the idea of leaving for something “better” taken root? Mom insisted Kayleigh would regret settling for life in Benton, teaching history at the high school and wasting time until the next wedding, baby, or county fair to break up the monotony. But was that true for Kayleigh, or just for her mom?
“Kay, you’re going to do amazing things in the city. Turn that stuffy old museum upside down. You have a wandering side that I love. But I also don’t get it. I’m meant to be here, where my roots are.” Dustin chuckled, the sound vibrating through Kayleigh. “Fishing sure won’t be the same, though. Might have to give that up if I don’t have you there to bait the hooks for me.”
For the first time all week, a laugh spilled out of Kayleigh. “I won’t miss touching those slimy, wiggly things and you know it.”
But she would.
The laughter died on her lips, and Dustin turned solemn. “How about one last kiss?”
It was a bad idea. She should get in her car and drive out of town before church let out and everyone stopped her to say goodbye one last time. That was the whole point of skipping service this morning. It definitely wasn’t to spend every last second with Dustin.
Instead of making the wise choice, she tipped her face up and watched as he lowered his lips toward hers. Her eyes slid shut, and she savored his touch, trying to imprint every sensation in her mind so she could remember later. Her stomach rolled and her head swam with that reality. One last kiss.
She pushed away, needing to breathe without his scent filling her senses. Kayleigh met his startled gaze as the truth clicked into place in her mind. It didn’t have to be this way. “No, I can’t, Dustin.”
His face fell. “Yeah, of course. There’s no reason to make this any harder. You better get going if you’re going to make it before dark. Let me know when you get there safe.”
Sliding her arms around him again, she let the joyful realization fill her heart. “I mean, I can’t leave. I don’t want to leave. I’m staying.”
He searched her face for a long moment, then he broke out in the huge grin that had captured her heart as a pre-teen. “You’re sure? Don’t stay just for me and then regret it down the road. I want you to be happy.”
“That can only happen here in my hometown with you.” Kayleigh laughed as she rose on her tiptoes to meet his lips again. One last kiss was never going to be part of their story.
Connect with Abbey at www.abbeydowney.com.