I Want to Hold Your Hand
An Excerpt From
I Want to Hold Your Hand
CHAPTER 1

A new boy moved to town over the summer. His name is Caleb Guthrie. Hunter and Will like him, but I haven’t decided yet.

—From the diary of Hannah Abbott, age twelve

Hannah Abbott Guthrie looked forward to the second Thursday of every month, when she met her high school friends in St. Johnsbury for lunch and an afternoon at their favorite spa. The tradition began after Hannah lost her husband, Caleb, in Iraq almost seven years ago. She’d continued to meet the girls every week long after the first awful wave of grief passed into the new reality of life without Caleb.

Like her family, her friends had been there for her one thousand percent, and Hannah loved her “escape from it all” days passionately. This time, she was even considering the possibility of taking her friend Becky up on the standing invite to spend the night in St. Johnsbury so she wouldn’t have to drive home after the relaxing afternoon.

Her brother Hunter had volunteered to come by when he got back to town to check on Caleb’s old dog, Homer, so he wouldn’t have to spend the whole day and night alone. Even with Homer covered, she was playing the invitation by ear. Since Caleb died, she had a lot of trouble sleeping, and if she was going to be up at all hours, she preferred to rattle around in the privacy of her own home.

Hannah picked up the overnight bag she’d packed just in case she decided to stay, gave Homer a snuggle and let him know Uncle Hunter would be by to see him later. She locked the door to the huge Victorian she’d inherited from Caleb. The house was far too big for one person, but Caleb had loved the house that had come from his grandmother, and Hannah would never sell it.

She unlocked her aging SUV and put her bag into the back before sliding into the driver’s seat. The day was chilly but sunny, an early spring day in northern Vermont, where winter hung around far longer than it did just a few hours south. In deference to the lingering winter, Hannah had chosen to wear a heavy coat rather than the new spring jacket she was ready to break out any day now.

With the key in the ignition, she turned it and got a clicking sound that didn’t bode well for going anywhere. “Come on,” she whispered. “Not today. Do this tomorrow when I’ve got nowhere to be.” She turned the key again and got the same click, click, click noise that she recognized as a dead battery. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

She leaned her head on the steering wheel as she tried to remember where everyone was today. Her dad and Hunter had gone to a business conference in Montpelier. Will was in New York helping his girlfriend, Cameron, pack up her apartment for her move to Vermont. Colton was up on the mountain at the family sugaring facility, Wade knew as much about cars as she did, Lucas and Landon were working a twenty-four-hour shift at the volunteer fire department and Max was at school in Burlington.

Her sisters, Ella and Charley, were as useful in this situation as Hannah and Wade. Her mom had taken Hannah’s grandfather for his annual physical this morning. That left one person she could call and, as luck would have it, he was the last person she wanted to call.

“If I call Nolan he’s going to get all hopeful, and I can’t do that to him,” she said, reasoning with herself and the cold air. It had been enough that recently she’d danced with him at the Grange and then let him drive her home. That was more than she’d done with any man in all the years since Caleb died.

But Nolan wasn’t just any man. He’d been less than circumspect about his feelings for her, never missing a chance to inquire about her to one of her family members—all of whom loved relaying Nolan’s thoughtful sentiments to her at every possible opportunity.

“You’re being foolish. You can either call Nolan and continue with your plans or miss the day with the girls. Those are your choices.” The one thing she didn’t feel foolish about, after living alone for close to seven years, was talking to herself. If anyone knew how often she had full conversations with herself, they’d probably have her committed.

She reached for the cell phone she kept in the car for emergencies and made the call, holding her breath while she waited for him to answer the phone at the station he ran in town.

“Nolan’s.”

At the sound of his deep voice a flutter of nerves filled her belly.

“Hello?”

“Oh sorry. Hey, Nolan, it’s Hannah.”

“Hannah.” With the single word came hope, surprise and hesitation. That he managed to convey so much by only saying her name was one of the many reasons she’d kept her distance from him. His feelings for her were a badly kept secret, and being around him made her nervous. She’d known him all her life, so the nerves were stupid, really, but she had them every time she laid eyes on the man. “What’s going on?”

“Well, my car won’t start, and I’ve got somewhere to be for once.”

“What’s it doing?”

“Clicking.”

“Sounds like the battery. I’ll be right there.”

“Oh um, do you have time?”

“Of course I do,” he said as if that was the stupidest question he’d ever heard. “That’s my job. I’ll be there in a few.”

“Thanks, Nolan.” She put the phone in her purse and waited, feeling anxious and unsettled. He had that effect on her, and he wasn’t even there yet. In the last six weeks, she’d tried not to think about the night she’d danced with him and then let him drive her home. She’d tried not to think about how she’d let him kiss her good night, or how much she’d really, really liked kissing him.

Her fingers found their way to her lips as she relived the moment on her front porch. He’d insisted on walking her to the door. “I had a good time tonight,” he’d said. “Thanks for dancing with me.”

“It was a terrible chore.” She hoped her wittiness hid the nerves that were rampaging through her.

“I’m sure it was,” he said with a good-natured laugh. “I’m known for my two left feet.”

“You’re a smooth dancer.”

“Am I?” he asked, sounding surprised.

“Very.”

“Huh. I always thought I kind of sucked at it.”

“You don’t.”

The words had hung in the air between them, which had gone heavy with expectation.

“Hannah . . .” His fingers on her face were soft despite the hard work he did with his hands every day.

She’d been rendered breathless and speechless by the yearning she’d seen on his handsome face, which had been illuminated by the porch light. And then his lips were on hers, gentle and undemanding but no less earth-shattering than a much more passionate kiss would’ve been. Hannah had ruined it by pulling back from him when she didn’t even want to. Why she’d done that was a question she still couldn’t answer six weeks later.

He’d called her the next day, but coward that she was, she’d let the call go to voicemail and hadn’t seen or spoken to him again—until today. Although, she’d listened to his sweet message over and over again until she knew the words by heart.

Oh hey, Hannah, it’s me, Nolan. Um, I, ah, wanted to say I had a nice time last night. There’s a new Mexican place in Stowe that I’ve been wanting to check out. I remember you love Mexican food, so if you’d like to go sometime, you have my number. Call me, okay?

She hadn’t returned the call or told anyone about the kiss. Not her mother, her sisters or especially her nosy brothers and father, who would’ve made way too much out of what had been a rather simple kiss. Except it hadn’t been simple at all. It was the first kiss she’d received since being widowed, and she couldn’t escape the feeling that she’d somehow betrayed Caleb’s memory.

Of course she knew that was ridiculous. Caleb would be furious at her for moldering away in the home they had loved, still alone after all these years. Her husband was a get-things-done kind of guy who hadn’t stood around waiting for life to find him. He’d gone after his dreams with gusto and passion, including his desire to serve his country.

If he came back to life for one day and found her stuck in the same place she’d been for almost seven years, he’d kick her ass from one end of Vermont to the other. Hannah knew she had to own the guilt she felt over kissing Nolan and not pass it off as a betrayal of Caleb’s memory. She knew without any shadow of a doubt that her husband had loved her as much as it was possible for a man to love a woman, and he’d want nothing but the very best for her.

No, the guilt belonged to her alone, and the least she could do was own it. Kissing Nolan had absolutely nothing to do with Caleb. Heck, he would wholeheartedly approve of her seeing Nolan, a man he had respected and considered a close friend. At least she hoped he would. She had no way to know for sure.

So what was the hang-up? Hannah wished she knew, but she kept coming back to the same excuse time and time again. She wasn’t ready to move on with another man, and she didn’t see any point to leading Nolan on when she wasn’t ready for the things he wanted from her.

A knock on the window startled Hannah so badly she jumped. With trembling hands, she opened the door.

“Sorry to scare you. Thought you heard the truck.”

Hannah couldn’t believe she’d been so lost in thought about all the reasons why she couldn’t have a relationship with this perfectly nice—and totally sexy—man that she hadn’t heard a thing. How had she failed to miss the arrival of the huge tow truck that was now parked at her curb? She got out of the car. “I was . . . um . . .”

“A million miles away?” he asked with an adorable grin that showcased the deep dimple on the left side of his face. His dark hair was infused with streaks of silver that made him look a bit older than his thirty-five years. But it was his intense brown eyes and the way they seemed to take a full inventory of her features every time she was in close proximity to him that undid her like they always did.

She felt stripped naked of all her defenses when he looked at her the way he was right now. Hannah cleared her throat. “I guess I was.”

“A lot on your mind?”

Desperate for something to do with her hands, she jammed them into her coat pockets. “No more than usual.”

He stared at her for a long moment, and just as she was about to remind him that he was here to work on her car and not set her on fire with the raw and needy desire she saw in his eyes, he said, “I tried to call you.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry if I was out of line that night. I’ve gone over it and over it, and I can’t believe I took such advantage of the first opportunity you’ve given me—”

“Nolan! Stop. Don’t say that. You didn’t take advantage of me. I can’t stand that you think you did.” Even though the last thing she wanted was to have this awkward conversation, she couldn’t let him think he’d done something wrong when he hadn’t. “You didn’t.”

He shook his head, dismissing her words. “I did take advantage. I’ve waited so long for you, Hannah. You have no idea how long. And the first chance I get, I couldn’t leave well enough alone.”

Shocked and further unsettled by how disgusted with himself he sounded, she had no idea what to say. How long had he waited? More than seven years? If so, that was news to her. Drawn to him despite her huge desire not to be, she laid a hand on his arm.

He looked down at her hand and then up at her eyes.

“You didn’t do anything wrong. It was me. I shouldn’t have pulled away from you the way I did because I didn’t want to stop kissing you. I don’t know why I pulled away when that was the last thing I wanted to do.”

Nolan stood up a little straighter. “Hannah . . .”

“I’m very confused.”

“Over what?”

“How can I want to kiss you one minute but still feel like I’m not ready for any of this in the next minute? I’m not sure what that means.”

He took a deep breath, as if he was trying to maintain control. “Maybe we could figure that out together.”

She ventured a look up at him, and her heart did a funny tap dance in her chest that left her breathless. This was not good. This was not at all what she had planned for today. “How do you mean?”

“Spend some time with me. We can do anything you want. No pressure, no kissing, no nothing unless you want it. I’d be completely happy if I got to hold your hand, Hannah.”

Unnerved by his urgently spoken words and the kindness behind them, she licked her lips and tried not to notice the way he zeroed in on the movement of her tongue. “Why me?”

“Hell if I know,” he said with a gruff laugh, “but I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t you.”

“Wait, so you’re saying—”

“Forget I said that. The past doesn’t matter. All we have is right now, and I want to be with you, even if we do nothing more than have a meal together every now and then. Would that be possible?”

“I . . . Um, my car. I have somewhere to be.”

His lips flattened with displeasure that she regretted causing, but she wasn’t able to answer his question. Not without some time to think about how she felt. She didn’t have a spontaneous bone in her body. Not anymore. Not since Caleb died and took her youth and vitality and hopes and dreams with him.

“Pop the hood.”

The brusque, businesslike tone was in sharp contrast to the pleading edge his voice had taken on when he asked her to spend time with him.

Hannah got back in the car and did as he asked, her fingers slipping off the hood latch before she was able to get it open. She left the driver’s side door propped open so she could hear him if he needed her to do anything else.

Nolan lifted the hood, which gave her a moment’s reprieve from his intense gaze to collect her thoughts. He wanted to spend time with her. He had no intention of pressuring her for things she wasn’t ready for. He was sweet and handsome and kind and hardworking and all the things she liked and admired in a man—not to mention sexy as all hell. That last thought shocked her to the core. When was the last time she’d thought about anything having to do with sex?

“The battery is definitely dead, which is weird. It’s relatively new. We just replaced it a year or so ago. Did you leave your headlights on last night?”

“No.”

“Hmm.”

“Can you fix it or should I cancel my plans?”

He popped out from under the raised hood. “How far are you going?”

“Just to St. Johnsbury.”

“I can fix it, but I need to push the car to the end of the driveway so I can use my truck to jump it. Can you shift it into neutral?”

“Sure. Do you want me to help you?”

“Nope. Sit tight and hold the wheel steady and then hit the brakes when I tell you to, okay?”

“Okay.”

He dropped the hood but didn’t latch it, took off his coat and tossed it on the lawn, which was finally devoid of snow. He wore a gray work shirt with a red name patch sewn above the chest pocket. His biceps bulged from the effort to move the car, but it started to creep toward the street, picking up speed as it went.

“Okay, stop.”

Hannah pressed down on the brake to slow the momentum.

In a matter of minutes he had her car attached to his truck with jumper cables. She watched him as he worked, noting the way his hair fell over his forehead and how the shirt stretched across his broad chest. Had she ever noticed how muscular he was until she danced with him at the Grange?

Truthfully, she’d never given herself permission to look too closely for fear of seeing something she couldn’t handle. But she looked now, and she had to admit she liked what she saw—and she was sick and tired of her own company. That was something she’d confessed to herself during the long, cold, lonely winter she’d just endured.

With her parents, grandfather, nine siblings and a litany of aunts, uncles and cousins living nearby there was always something going on around her. But at the end of the day, Hannah was alone in the big house where she’d once been happily married. She was thirty-five years old and had been a widow for one-fifth of her life, longer than she’d been married as of this upcoming seventh anniversary of Caleb’s death.

It was probably time to start living again.

“Try it now,” he said.

Hannah turned the key and heard the welcome sound of her engine turning over. “Thank you so much.”

“No problem.” He removed the jumper cables and let her hood drop before bending down to grab his coat off the ground.

Hannah watched his every move, noting the way his navy blue work pants stretched across his taut backside as he bent over. The visual made her skin tingle with awareness—the kind of awareness she hadn’t experienced in a very long time, the kind of awareness that still had the power to frighten her. She opened the window.

He paused outside her door on his way to the truck. “Drive safely and call me if you have any more trouble.”

“I will. Send me the bill.”

“Don’t be silly. There’s no bill, Hannah.”

“Thank you for helping me.”

He paused as if there was something else he wanted to say besides, “No problem.”

He’d started to walk away when Hannah called out to him. “Nolan.”

Turning back, he raised a brow. “Yeah?”

She forced herself to say the words. “I’d like to spend some time together. Like you said. If that’s okay.”

Judging by the flabbergasted look on his face, that was the last thing he’d expected her to say. “You would? Really?”

Hannah nodded. “I’ll call you.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

CHAPTER 2

Okay, I’ve decided . . . Caleb Guthrie is a bully. He pulls my braids on the playground every day and then runs away. All the boys laugh when he does it. I just want to punch him.

—From the diary of Hannah Abbott, age twelve

Nolan went on with his day as if the most momentous thing in the known universe—or at least his known universe—hadn’t just transpired in Hannah Guthrie’s driveway. Thank God for dead batteries, he thought as he returned to the garage and got busy dealing with the cars customers had dropped off for repairs that morning.

He went through the rote motions of changing oil, replacing a timing belt and fielding calls from customers while trying not to think about Hannah and the hope she’d given him earlier. Since the night they’d danced and kissed, he’d berated himself at least a thousand times for moving too quickly, and then to hear that she’d liked kissing him and hadn’t wanted to stop . . .

Holy hell, how was he supposed to function knowing that? And how was he supposed to cope with the overwhelming guilt that came with his feelings for Hannah? He carried that guilt with him all the time.

Caleb Guthrie had been one of the best friends Nolan had ever had, and the pain of his loss was something Caleb’s unruly tribe of friends still carried with them all these years later. Caleb had been the sun around which the planets orbited. He’d been their fearless leader, and they were lost without him in so many ways.

After living the life of an army brat with his officer father, Caleb arrived in Vermont at the start of seventh grade when his father finally buckled to pressure from his family and retired as a full colonel. The kids from tiny Butler, Vermont, hadn’t known what to make of Caleb, who had friends all over the world. They were his “Sultans,” as Caleb called them. He’d named his group of friends after the Dire Straits song “Sultans of Swing,” his dad’s favorite song, and he collected Sultans everywhere he lived.

Becoming one of Caleb’s Sultans was a high honor, one none of them took lightly. It involved a foolish initiation ritual made up entirely by Caleb, who picked and chose his Sultans carefully. Upon entering the inner circle, Nolan had found a friend unlike any he’d ever had—funny and brazen and playful and serious and daring, brilliant yet twisted in his humor and approach to life.

He’d lightened Nolan up, taught him there was more to life than work and had exposed him to people and ideas and adventures that ranged from skiing the Rocky Mountains to spring break in Mexico to years of Mardi Gras in New Orleans where the Sultans worshiped their Creole patron.

Life with Caleb was all about fun. Life without him was a huge, gaping void that no one else could ever fill. Nolan couldn’t begin to speculate on the hole that Caleb’s death had left in Hannah’s life. The two of them had been amazing together, truly, deeply in love, and devoted to their friends and family as much as they were to each other. The Sultan parties every Labor Day weekend at their house were legendary, and despite the agony of Caleb’s loss, Hannah and the Sultans continued the tradition without him, knowing he’d expect nothing less.

But goddamn it was tough. Young, vital men with their whole lives in front of them weren’t supposed to die at twenty-eight. They weren’t supposed to die without giving the people they left behind some idea of how they were supposed to carry on without them.

Nolan liked to think that Caleb would approve of his affection for Hannah. He chose to believe that because the possibility Caleb wouldn’t approve was simply unbearable. Nolan had always loved Hannah as a friend and hadn’t entertained anything other than friendly feelings toward her until about two years after Caleb died.

That’s when everything changed for him. It’d been over a Labor Day weekend with the Sultans, watching her carry on like everything was fine as she kept the unruly guys in food and beer, when Nolan had realized he felt something more than friendship for her. Why did it have to be her of all people? He’d asked himself that question almost every day for five years. He couldn’t say exactly, other than she touched him deeply, far more deeply than any other woman ever had.

He fixed things. That’s what he did. He wanted to fix things for her. He wanted to make her smile again the way she used to when Caleb was alive, the way she used to before life pulled the rug out from under her and left her reeling. He wanted to put the pieces back together again for her, to make right that which could never be made right.

The Abbott family had tuned in to the fact that Nolan’s feelings for Hannah went beyond that of a lifelong friend, but the other Sultans didn’t know. Well, except for Hannah’s brothers, Hunter and Will, who were fully initiated into Caleb’s tribe. But Nolan didn’t think they’d told the others. Why would they? It wasn’t like anything had ever come of Nolan’s feelings for her.

Until a recent Saturday night at the Grange. Until today when she said she wanted to spend some time with him. How long would he have to wait to hear from her? Would she panic on the drive to St. Johnsbury and decide she’d been impetuous?

Leaning into the hood of a Chevy sedan, Nolan released a deep breath and tried to figure out how long he’d been staring at the V-8 while thinking of nothing but Hannah Guthrie and how she’d looked that morning—lovely and flushed and embarrassed and undone by their conversation.

Waiting to hear from her might actually kill him. It was certainly killing his concentration, he thought, as he got busy changing the spark plugs and filters on the older-model car.

Every time the garage phone rang, his heart stopped for a moment, which was flat-out ridiculous. She said she’d call him. She hadn’t said she’d call today. But why hadn’t he asked her to call to let him know she’d arrived safely after the trouble with her battery?

He wiped the grease off his hands with a red oil rag and threw it aside in frustration. Was it possible for a person to drive himself nuts? If it was, he was well on his way. Since his productivity was positively shot, he decided to break early for lunch.

He was on his way out the door to grab something to eat at the diner when the phone rang. Under normal circumstances, he would’ve let voicemail pick up the call, but there was nothing normal about circumstances under which Hannah Guthrie might be calling. So he ran back in and grabbed the phone.

“Nolan’s.”

“Hey, it’s me. Hannah.”

Come on. No way. Had he gone straight around the bend into the land of the delusional? Had he wished so hard for her call that he’d made it happen out of sheer will?

“Nolan? Are you there?”

It was really her. “Oh yeah, sorry. I’m here. Is everything okay with the car?”

“That’s why I called. I figured you’d be worried about whether or not I got here, and I did, so I wanted to tell you.”

Was it his imagination or was she rambling? And did she sound nervous? The calm, cool Hannah he knew and loved never sounded nervous. She was always in perfect control of her emotions, something he admired greatly about her in light of what she’d been through. “That’s good to know. I was hoping it wouldn’t give you any more trouble.”

“It didn’t.”

Nolan wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say next. His brain spun with possibilities, each of them rejected.

“I also wanted to tell you . . .”

His heart pounded as anticipation beat through him in time with his heart. “What, Hannah? What did you want to tell me?”

“Ever since I saw you this morning, I can’t stop thinking about enchiladas.”

Since that had been about the last thing he’d expected her to say, he laughed. “Is that right?”

“I’m drooling, in fact. So I was thinking, maybe we could check out that place in Stowe later? If you’re not busy. I know it’s last minute—”

“I’m not busy.” He was but he’d get out of it. The racing team could meet without him. “What time will you be back?”

“Around six thirty.”

“How does seven sound?”

“Sounds good. I’ll see you then?”

“I’ll be there. I can’t have you drooling all over the place. What will people say?”

Her laughter made him smile. “See you soon.”

Nolan put down the phone and let out a very loud, “Yes!

• • •

“See?” Becky said as Hannah hung up the phone. “Was that so hard?”

“It was excruciating. I sounded like a complete idiot.”

“You did not! He’s probably dancing for joy around the garage after hearing from you.”

“Be quiet. He is not. I never should’ve told you any of this.”

“Yes, you should have, and you told me because you wanted me to force you to do something about it.”

“That isn’t why I told you!”

“Yes, Hannah,” Becky said gently, “it is. You needed permission to act on what you feel for Nolan. I’m glad I was the one you confided in and that I was the one who gave you the push you needed to make that call. It’s high time, isn’t it?”

“I suppose. It’s just that I still feel . . . I don’t know. It’s ridiculous, but it feels disloyal to Caleb.”

“Aw, honey, Caleb loved you so much. He’d want you to be happy. You know that.”

“Of course I do, but it’s hard to think about moving on with someone else. I never wanted to move on without him.”

“You don’t have any choice. You’re a young, beautiful, vibrant woman with so much life left to live and so much love left to give. I can’t even begin to understand what you’ve been through, and you’ve handled it all so gracefully and with such dignity.”

“Not always,” Hannah said with a laugh, looking to lighten things up a bit. She didn’t allow herself many trips to the maudlin side of town where nothing good ever happened, but once in a while . . .

“I’m sure you’ve had a lot of rough moments, and you may continue to have them for the rest of your life. But that doesn’t mean you can’t also have other things, too, such as a wonderful, sexy guy who looks at you like you’re the cat’s meow.”

“He does not.”

“Um, yes, he does. Ask anyone.”

Every time someone said that to her, Hannah felt twitchy and off balance. She’d known Nolan forever—even longer than she’d known Caleb. He had been one of her husband’s closest friends and had served as a groomsman at their wedding. “Do you ever think that maybe Nolan is too close?”

“How do you mean?”

“He and Caleb were the best of friends. I’ve known him my whole life. He’s always been there, you know? How does that suddenly turn romantic?”

“The same way it did for you and Caleb, remember?”

As if she’d ever forget the night Caleb kissed her at the quarry and changed everything between them forever. She had to admit Becky made a good point.

“I want you to do something for me,” Becky said.

“What’s that?”

“I want you to have dinner with Nolan and not blow it up into a big freaking deal in your mind before it actually is. It’s dinner. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“If I’m to believe what you and everyone else says, it’s already way more than that to him.”

“So what? That’s his deal, not yours. Don’t take it on. Go to dinner. Eat a meal. Enjoy his company and relax. Can you do that?”

“I guess so. I can probably relax easier with him than I would with someone I just met.”

“I know you can do it. Go have a wonderful time. You’ve so earned the right to some fun and happiness, Hannah.”

Hannah hugged her longtime friend. “Thanks for the pep talk and for letting me off the hook on the sleepover.”

“Once you told me about Nolan asking you out, I was prepared to kick you out of here if I had to.”

Hannah smiled at Becky’s emphatic words. Sometimes she felt like the people in her life needed her to move on more than she needed it for herself. Up until the last couple of months, she’d been perfectly fine to rattle around in her big old house alone and to spend more time living in the past than she did in the present.

At some point over the recent winter though, she’d begun to feel anxious and lonely and perhaps ready to step foot out of her self-imposed cocoon to take a peek at what had been going on in the world while she was holed up with her grief.

After two hours of laughter and pedicures she was on the road home, her mind spinning with thoughts about the evening she’d agreed to spend with Nolan. Would it be awkward or easy? Would he try to kiss her again or would he keep his distance? Which did she prefer? She couldn’t say for certain.

By the time she pulled into the driveway twenty minutes before Nolan was due to arrive, her nerves were stretched thin. An accident on the main road into town had added half an hour to the ride. Inside the house, she used the phone in the hallway to leave a message for Hunter on his office voicemail to let him know she’d decided to come home and he was off Homer duty.

“Hey, Home Boy,” she said, using the nickname Caleb had given his dog as a puppy after the multicolored mutt had decided he belonged with Caleb. No one was really certain of his breed, but speculation ran the gamut from German shepherd to Lab to beagle. “Where are you, buddy?” Hannah checked the sitting room, where she and Homer spent most of their time, as well as the studio, where she worked and he kept a bed on the floor, but saw no sign of Homer.

At sixteen, he didn’t do the stairs on his own anymore, so he had to be somewhere on the first floor. She went into the kitchen and stopped short when she found him sprawled on the floor, his eyes open and trained on her, his distress apparent.

Hannah dropped to the floor next to him. “Hey, buddy. What’re you doing in here?” She stroked his face and back and noted the choppy cadence of his breathing and his seeming inability to raise his head off the floor. He tried to stretch his paw out to her the way he always did, but couldn’t muster the strength. Tears filled her eyes. “No, Homie. Not yet. Please not yet.” She lay down on the floor next to him, petting him as she wept.

Hannah knew she should get up and call Myles Johansen, the local vet. He’d been making house calls to check on Homer for quite some time now and had told her to call any time she needed him. Somehow she knew if she got up, if she made the call, that this time would be different.

“Oh, Homie, I’m sorry I left you today. I know you haven’t been feeling good for a long time, but you’ve stuck around because you don’t want to leave me alone. I promise I’ll be okay. Before I call anyone though . . . While it’s just you and me . . . When you see Dad, make sure you tell him I love him, and I miss him, okay? You’ll take good care of him, won’t you? He’ll be so happy to see you.”

One more minute, she told herself, sobbing as she clung to Homer. One more minute and then she’d get up to call Myles.

“Hannah?” Nolan’s voice echoed through the first floor. “Are you home?”

How long had she been lying there with Homer? She wiped her eyes with her sleeve, trying to fix the unfixable. “Back here.”

“You didn’t answer the door, so I hope it’s okay I came in—” Nolan halted in the doorway to the kitchen when he saw her on the floor with Homer. “Oh God, Hannah, what is it? What’s wrong?”

She shifted slightly to the right so he could see Homer stretched out on the floor, his breathing shallow and labored.

“Oh no. What can I do?”

“Would you mind calling Myles for me?”

“Of course. Anyone else?”

“Hunter. He’ll tell my parents. And the Guthries. They should be here.”

“Yes, yes, I’ll call them. You stay with Homer.”

Hannah breathed a sigh of relief at knowing she didn’t have to be the one to make the calls, to say the words . . . “It’s okay, buddy,” she whispered to Homer. “Everything is okay. You can go if you’re ready. I understand that you’re tired and you’ve had to live a long time without your best friend. That’s been so hard on you, but you took good care of me. Dad would’ve been so proud of you for taking such good care of me.”

She tried to quiet her sobs so as not to upset Homer. This wasn’t about her. It was about him, and she wanted to give him everything he needed.

Nolan returned to the kitchen and squatted next to Hannah. “Myles is on his way, and I left a message for Hunter. I also called your mom when I couldn’t reach Hunter. Hope that’s okay.”

Hannah nodded, grateful to him for taking charge.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, resting a hand on her shoulder. His voice, she noticed, was thick with emotion. He’d loved Caleb, too, and that mattered right now.

“This helps. Thank you.” Hannah leaned into him, resting her head on his chest as she continued to stroke Homer’s silky ears and coat. The dog’s eyes were closed now, his breathing even more shallow, if that was possible.

Nolan sat next to her, keeping his arm around her as she leaned against him, grateful for his presence and his strength.

CHAPTER 3

I did it. I finally punched Caleb Guthrie right in the face. He was shocked, and he stared at me with blood rushing from his nose. The school called my mom to come get me, and I had to stay in my room all night. It was soooooo worth it.

—From the diary of Hannah Abbott, age thirteen

Myles arrived a short time later and let himself in through the front door. Nolan must’ve told him where to find them, because he appeared in the kitchen and kneeled on the floor next to Homer. “How long has he been like this?”

“I don’t know.” Hannah wiped new tears that formed when she heard the tension in Myles’s tone. “He was fine this morning—or as fine as he ever is these days. Walking around and eating and everything. I came home after a few hours out and found him here.”

Myles, who was blond and blue-eyed and handsome, had once asked Hannah to dinner, but she’d declined. Despite her rejection, he’d been a source of great comfort to her as Homer slipped into old age. With a stethoscope in his ears, Myles listened to Homer’s chest. “His heart rate is extremely low.” Myles looked at Hannah, sadness reflected in his gaze. “We can wait and see, or we can help him along. It’s up to you.”

“Is he suffering?”

“I don’t think so.”

“What should I do?” Hannah asked.

“I can’t tell you that, Hannah,” Myles said kindly.

“Could we make him more comfortable?” Nolan asked.

“That we can do.”

With Hannah’s approval, the two men worked together to gently move Homer to the sofa in the sitting room, the spot he’d claimed as his own the day he came to live with Caleb.

Stirred by the movement and activity, Homer woke briefly, sighing when he landed on the sofa before going back to sleep.

Hannah sat with his head on her leg, petting and stroking him so he’d know she was there. Tears ran freely down her face when she thought of how much Caleb had adored Homer, how in tune the two of them had been with each other, how Homer had followed Caleb around like a shadow whenever he was home and waited by the door for him to return when he was away. Caleb’s deployments had been as hard on Homer as they’d been on her.

Nolan sat next to her on the sofa and took hold of her free hand.

Myles occupied the easy chair next to the fire that had burned down, leaving the room chilled.

“Would you mind lighting the fire, Nolan? I don’t want Homer to get cold.”

“I’d be happy to.”

Nolan soon had the fire warming the room and casting a cozy glow over Homer.

“Should I help him along, Myles?” Hannah asked after a long period of quiet.

He got up to check Homer’s heart again. “I don’t think you’ll need to.”

That news started the tears flowing again.

Nolan put his arm around her and offered silent comfort as she focused on the slow rise and fall of Homer’s chest.

So many memories came flooding back to her, of the years she and Caleb and Homer had spent moving around with the army as Caleb advanced through the officer corps and the leave time they’d spent at home in Vermont. Each time Caleb deployed, Hannah and Homer came home to be with her family. She and Homer had propped each other up and gotten each other through the long absences.

On the day they lost Caleb, they’d been here in Vermont passing an ordinary day at home until the army chaplain showed up with two other officers, all of them wearing the telltale class A uniforms, and shattered her world. Somehow Homer had known . . . He’d understood and had grieved right along with her.

The front door slammed open, startling Hannah from her memories. Hunter came into the sitting room, looking harried and a bit undone, which was wildly out of character for her calm, cool, collected twin. “I came as soon as I got Nolan’s message. Is he . . .”

“No, but soon,” Hannah said, resigned now despite the overwhelming sadness. Losing Homer truly marked the end of an era for her as well as Caleb’s friends and family. “Come see him.” She held out a hand to Hunter, who wrapped his hand around hers as he knelt on the floor next to Homer.

Tears filled Hunter’s eyes as he bent to kiss Homer’s sweet face. Then he reached for Hannah, hugging her tightly. “Are you okay?”

“I’ve been better, but we knew this was coming.”

“Still . . .”

Her twin knew her better than just about anyone, so he understood how hard the loss of Homer would hit her. “Still,” she said, forcing the hint of a smile to reassure Hunter. He worried about her endlessly.

Their parents came in a short time later, followed by Hannah’s brother Will and his girlfriend, Cameron, who’d just returned from New York City.

“We came as soon as we heard.” Will hugged and kissed Hannah, before bending to kiss and pet Homer. “How is he?”

“Not so good.”

Her mom had brought food that she set out in the kitchen. The others wandered in there, but Hannah never left Homer, and Nolan never left Hannah.

“I’m sorry our plans got messed up tonight,” Hannah said.

“This is more important.”

Only because she was watching him so closely did she see Homer take one last deep breath before his chest stopped moving altogether. She bent to hug him, whispering in his ear, “I love you, Homer. Don’t forget to give Dad my message. You guys have fun together. I’ll see you both again someday.”

Nolan’s hand lay warm on her back, rubbing her shoulders as she sobbed for Homer and for Caleb and for all that she had lost. She hugged Homer until his fur was wet from her tears.

“Let Myles take him, Han,” Hunter said through his own tears.

“He needs his blanket.”

“Where is it?” Will asked.

“Upstairs in my room on the bed.”

Will headed for the stairs. “I’ll get it.”

Her brother returned a minute later with the battered quilt Caleb’s mother had made for Homer when he was a puppy. Thinking of a much younger Homer dragging his “blankie” around from room to room made Hannah cry again as they all worked together to wrap Homer in his beloved blanket.

A knock on the front door preceded Amelia and Bob Guthrie into the house.

“Oh no.” Amelia’s eyes shone with tears as they rushed into the room and saw Homer wrapped in the blanket. “We’re too late.”

“Just by a few minutes.” Hannah stood to greet her in-laws with hugs. “Why don’t you spend some time with him before Myles takes him.”

“We’d appreciate that,” Bob said gruffly.

Hannah felt Nolan’s hand on her back as they joined her family in the kitchen. Everyone hugged her, and Hannah moved through each embrace on autopilot. She knew Homer was gone, but the pain couldn’t seem to permeate the numbness. It was far too reminiscent of the day Caleb died, when she’d been surrounded by loved ones wanting to do something for her when there was nothing anyone could do. She remembered all too well what it felt like when the numbness wore off and the pain rushed in.

“I’m so sorry,” Cameron whispered.

“Thank you. Glad to have you back.”

Cameron’s watery smile was reassuring. Hannah adored her, and having her here definitely lifted Hannah’s spirits.

She hugged her parents next.

Unshed tears swam in his eyes as her dad kissed her forehead. “I’m so sorry, baby,” Lincoln said. “Homer was a good old boy.”

“Yes, he was. Caleb will be happy to see him again.”

Will slipped from the room, and Cameron went after him.

“Everyone wanted to come over,” Hannah’s mother, Molly, said, “but I told them you had a full house. They’re all thinking of you.”

“I know.” Hannah had little doubt her other seven siblings were upset about losing Homer. “Thank you for running interference.”

“What can we do for you?” Molly asked, smoothing a hand over Hannah’s hair.

Hannah shook her head. “Nothing special. It helps to have you here.”

“We should tell the Sultans,” Hunter said, echoing a thought that had been on Hannah’s mind since shortly after she arrived home to find Homer in such dire condition. “They’d want to know.”

“Would you call them?” Hannah said. “I don’t think I could do it.”

“I’ll take care of it.” Hunter’s eyes were rimmed with red, his jaw set in a way that reminded Hannah of the months after Caleb died when her twin had tried so hard to hold it together for her that he’d buried his own grief.

“You guys don’t have to stay,” Hannah said to her family. “I’m okay. I promise. And Nolan is here.” She looked at him and was comforted by his nod as much as his quiet, steady presence over the last couple of hours. A flutter of nervous energy passed through her at the thought of leaning on him, at the thought of him wanting her to lean on him.

When the others eyed him speculatively, Hannah added, “We had plans tonight.” Watching her family process that momentous news with far more decorum than she’d expected from them also helped to lift her spirits ever so slightly. She could tell they were nearly bursting with the need to ask a thousand questions that they wisely contained. She was in no mood to deal with an Abbott inquisition right now, and they knew it.

However, she also knew she was only postponing the inevitable. She’d be in for a grilling after she’d had sufficient time to mourn Homer.

Her family stayed while Myles gathered up Homer’s body. They stayed while she spent some tearful time with Caleb’s parents. And they stayed until they were certain Hannah was okay. Convincing them to go took some doing on her part, but she finally succeeded in assuring them she’d be fine.

When she was left alone with Nolan, she turned to him, unsure of what she should say. She appreciated that he waited for her to gather her thoughts and didn’t feel the need to immediately fill the silence.

She forced a smile for his benefit. “Heck of a first date, huh?”

“One for the record books,” he said as he took her hand once again. He couldn’t seem to refrain from touching her, and Hannah couldn’t deny that she liked being touched by him. “But I’m glad I was able to be here with you tonight.”

“So am I. Can you sit for a minute?”

“For as long as you’d like.” He released her hand only to add a log to the fire before he sat next to her and reached for her again.

“What’re you thinking?” she asked after a long period of companionable silence.

“That this brings back a lot of painful memories for me, so I can only speculate as to how you must feel.”

“I feel pretty awful, but it helps to imagine Homer crossing the bridge and finding Caleb waiting for him. I can picture Homer running for Caleb the way he used to, both of them young and strong and thrilled to be together again.” She wiped away new tears. “They must be so happy to see each other.”

“Yeah,” Nolan said gruffly, brushing quickly at his face with his free hand. “I bet they’re having one hell of a reunion.”

“Thinking about that brings comfort, you know?”

He nodded.

“Remember how Caleb would pat his chest and Homer would jump into his arms?” Hannah asked.

“I remember. I also remember that Homer wouldn’t do that for anyone but Caleb no matter how hard we all tried to get him to do it for us.”

“That’s because Caleb was the only one he trusted enough to catch him.”

They sat in silence for a long time, watching the fire, lost in their own thoughts and memories. It was nice, she thought, to have him there with her, to share the grief with someone who’d loved Caleb and Homer and felt their loss almost as profoundly as she did.

“We need to do something for Homer,” Nolan said.

“Like what?”

“We should do what Caleb would’ve done—a full-on funeral with all the bells and whistles he would’ve insisted on.”

For the first time in hours, Hannah had reason to truly smile imagining the send-off Caleb would’ve given his beloved companion. “You’re absolutely right. It needs to be huge and awesome and over the top.”

“Totally and completely over the top.”

“We need the Sultans.”

“We couldn’t do over the top without them.”

Hannah turned so she faced him. “This is a really great idea, Nolan. And you’re right. It’s exactly what Caleb would’ve done.”

“You would’ve thought of it. Eventually.”

“When should we do it?”

“We’d need to give the guys some notice to get them here. Weekend after next?”

“That works for me. I love this. Thank you so much for honoring Homer and Caleb by suggesting it.”

Nolan shrugged off her praise. “Do you want me to go so you can get some rest?”

“No.” She dropped her head against his shoulder. “I know you have to work tomorrow and everything, but if you don’t mind staying a while longer . . .”

Nolan put his arm around her and kissed the top of her head. “I don’t mind.”

• • •

Will never said a word on the ride from Hannah’s house to his cabin on the outskirts of town. The cabin was now their place, Cameron recalled, the excitement of her move to Vermont dimmed by the news they’d been greeted with upon arriving back in Butler.

Cameron wished she could think of something to say that would make Will feel better, but she decided to wait until he was ready to talk about it. Recalling the tortured, grief-stricken look on his face when she’d found him in Hannah’s mudroom, her heart broke for him.

The cabin was cold and dark when they arrived. And it was unusually quiet with his dogs spending one more night at his parents’ house.

“Weird without the boys here,” Cameron said, hoping to spark some conversation.

He squatted before the hearth to start the fire. “I know. I hate when they’re not here. Sucks the life out of the place.”

Cameron went into the bedroom and found the suitcase that contained her pajamas. She put on the flannel moose pajama pants Will had bought her along with one of his UVM sweatshirts and joined him in the living room.

He stared into the fire, lost in thought and miles away from the cozy room.

She couldn’t bear to see him in pain so she went to him and curled her arms around him from behind. “What can I do for you?”

Will blew out a deep breath and covered the hand she’d placed on his chest with his. “Having you here makes everything better.”

“I’m sorry about Homer.”

“Thanks. Even though I knew he was getting old, I refused to believe he could ever die.”

“I know.”

“It brings it all back. With Caleb.”

“I know that, too.”

“When Hannah said Caleb must be happy to see Homer . . .” He shook his head. “That killed me.”

“Come here,” she said, urging him to turn into her embrace.

He did as she asked, his arms encircling her. “Sorry,” he said, his voice muffled by her hair. “This wasn’t how I expected to spend our first night of officially living together.”

“Please don’t apologize for being upset, Will. I only met Homer a couple of times and didn’t know Caleb at all, but I’m heartbroken for Hannah. I can only imagine how you must feel.”

He hugged her for a long time as Cameron stroked his hair and back, wishing there was something she could say or do to make him feel better.

“I’m so glad you’re here to stay,” he said, breaking the long silence.

“So am I.”

He pulled back so he could see her face and kissed her softly.

As she caressed his cheek, she stared at the face she’d longed for during the weeks apart while she packed up her life for the move.

“What do you suppose it means that Hannah and Nolan had plans tonight?” he asked.

“I suppose it means that maybe things have progressed a bit since they danced at the Grange.”

“God, that would be awesome. I couldn’t believe it when she said they’d had plans for tonight.”

“I was proud of you and the rest of your family for biting your tongues on that one.”

“Wasn’t easy,” he said with the first hint of a smile.

“I bet Hannah knows she’s in for it as soon as things settle down a bit.”

“For sure.” He leaned in to kiss her again, a bit more intently this time. “I don’t know about you, but I’m totally wiped out. What do you say we hit the sack?”

As the thought of hitting any horizontal surface with Will Abbott made her heart leap for joy, Cameron said, “Fine by me.”

They stood together in the bathroom to brush their teeth and then Cameron rushed into bed, pulling the down comforter up to her chin as her teeth chattered. She couldn’t believe it when he emerged from the bathroom naked.

“Are you for real? I’m freezing, and you’re naked?”

“I’m counting on you to warm me up.”

“You’re going to be very disappointed.”

“Never.” He curled up to her, big and strong and warm and solid. “I still can’t believe you’re here to stay and I get to sleep with you every night. I feel like the luckiest guy in the universe.”

“I feel just as lucky.”

“You’re wearing way too many clothes though.” His hand worked its way under the sweatshirt, making her startle when his cool hand touched her much warmer belly.

“There’s no way you’re getting me naked tonight, mister. I’m way too cold.”

“I’ll warm you up. I promise.”

“No!” Cameron screamed when his other freezing hand landed on her back.

 

I Want to Hold Your Hand

I Want to Hold Your Hand

Green Mountain Book Two