It was hard to be brave.
Jen was determined not to give in to her tears. Across the lake, garlands of multicolored lights outlined the ferris wheel, the tilt-a-whirl and the antique carousel against the night sky. A soft breeze coaxed the dark water into playful ripples and carried the faint music from the rides. Jen leaned against the gazebo railing and took a deep breath of the moist summer air, redolent of roses and new-mown grass. The ache in her chest did not ease.
Her cheeks hurt from the hours of forced smiles. She had fled as early as politeness allowed, not waiting for the cake or the toss of the bouquet, dying to escape the visions of Amanda and Jack-- laughing together at the head table, clutching each other on the dance floor, kissing every time someone clinked a spoon against a glass...
She remembered Jack's kisses. It seemed like yesterday, although it had been more than a year. On a summer night as balmy and sweet as this one, he had parked on a country road outside of town, grabbed a blanket from the trunk and led her through a meadow to a knoll overlooking the river. She recalled the tall grass caressing her bare legs and the heat of his fingers interlocked with hers. The black bowl of the heavens arched overhead, studded with blazing jewels. They had settled onto the blanket, lying side by side, entwined in a feverish kiss. His familiar smell, soap, sweat and nautical after-shave, mingled with the scent of growing things.
His mouth was fierce, his tongue bold, claiming her as his and his alone. She rejoiced. His hand slid up her thigh under her cotton dress. His finger stroked the sensitive crease where her hip joined her torso. Summer lightning shimmered through her. He cupped her mound through her panties, making her shiver, then wriggled his fingers under the elastic waistband and into her soaked crevice. He had been clumsy and awkward, but Jen hadn't cared. The notion that he was touching her in her most private place was as arousing as the actual contact.
She opened to his tongue and fingers, above and below, letting him lead her to new peaks of delight. Heat coiled deep in her belly, embers threatening to burst into flame. Without breaking their marathon kiss, he took her hand and curled her fingers around the shaft of flesh that protruded from his jeans. Once again she marveled at the strangeness of it, the velvet skin stretched taut over swollen rigidity. When she stroked it, it jerked and pulsed like some alien creature, quite separate from the man she loved.
"Oh, Jen," Jack had moaned. "I can't take much more. Put this on me." He had pressed a small, square packet into her palm.
Alarm bells rang in Jen's head. "But we agreed...not until we're married..."
"I can't wait, baby. It's only three months. Please...See what you do to me!" He had rolled her onto her back and straddled her, so she got a good look at his straining erection. Her skirt was bunched up under her. Her thighs were sticky and a smell like the sea rose from the cleft between them. He rubbed the mushroom tip against her pussy, still hidden by her soaked underwear. "Don't you love me, Jen?"
"With all my heart. That's why I want to wait. I want our wedding night to be special."
"It will be special. But right now--oh, have some pity on me, baby!" Before she could answer, he had pulled her panties down, exposing her sex to the night air. "You're gonna love the feel of me inside you, Jen!"
"No!" She had scooted backward, away from him, and scrambled to her knees. "We promised. You promised." The raw greed she had seen in his face frightened her.
"You know what they say, babe," Jack said with a feral grin. "Promises were made to be broken..." Despair overwhelmed her then, as she understood how wrong she had been about Jack Barnes.
She hadn't stopped loving him, though. He had been the one to break it off. "I don't think you're right for me," he'd said. You mean I'm not enough of a slut? she'd thought, blinking away her tears, nodding her agreement that from now on they'd just be "friends". When she'd heard about his engagement, she had been physically sick for three days.
Now, at least, the torture was over. She took in another lungful of the soft night air. The tinny carnival tunes wafting over the water made her smile despite her misery. Since her dad had brought her here for the first time, when she was eight, Lakeview Park had always been one of her favorite places. She loved the smell of frying corn dogs, the melting sweetness of cotton candy, the breath-stealing thrill of being hurled into space by the amusements. When she strolled the tree-hung paths lined with lichened stone, or sat on one of the curlicued wrought iron benches, or stood here on the point where tiny waves lapped at the piles of a ruined wharf, she felt the past enfold her like a comforting blanket. One hundred and twenty years the park had been here, offering its peace and its pleasures.
Then Jen remembered that she would soon lose this as well. Probably the last season, the local newspaper had said. After a decade of losses, the owners were selling to some conglomerate that wanted to build a shopping mall. No one was interested in old-fashioned amusement parks anymore.
No one but me, Jen thought. The tears she had been fighting all day welled up and spilled down her cheeks. Huge sobs shook her slender body. She buried her face in her hands and finally allowed sorrow to overwhelm her. Everything she cared about was gone or going: Jack, the park, her cancer-ridden father...
"Please don't cry, Jen."
A male voice, full of warmth. A strong hand on her shoulder. Jen turned to the source, blinking to clear her vision. A young man stood beside her, dressed in a brown uniform she didn't recognize. His straight black hair was parted on the side. His even-featured face wore an expression of concern. Something tickled the back of her brain, some vague sense of familiarity.
"Do I know you?" she asked. She must look horrible, she realized, with her eyes swollen and her skin blotchy. She sniffled and stood straighter.
"Well, not exactly." His grin made him look more boyish. He had a cleft chin, she noticed, and dimples in his pale cheeks. "It's complicated." He laughed, and Jen discovered she couldn't help joining him.
"What do you mean, complicated?" she continued when her giggles subsided. Something about her companion made her feel totally at ease.
"I'll explain later," he said. He brought his hand out from behind his back. Between his thumb and forefinger he grasped the stem of a single red rose. "For you, lovely Jennifer. A token of my esteem."
How did he know her name? She took the blossom. Its heady perfume surrounded them. "Thank you. But if we've never met..." she began.
"I'm Daniel," he interrupted. "You can call me Dan." He leaned on the rail next to her, gazing out over the lake. "It's lovely here, isn't it? Even with the music, there's a quiet calm that's healing to the soul."
Jen didn't answer. It didn't feel necessary. On the opposite shore, the amusements twinkled like a faraway galaxy.
"In the old days, there was a dance pavilion here on the point. On summer nights like this it would be crowded with couples of all ages, from seventeen to seventy. The trolleys brought us here from town. The whole place was strung with lights. It was a fairy land."
Daniel took her hand. It felt so natural that she scarcely noticed. She was caught up in the picture he was painting of a happier past.
"The orchestra played from dusk until midnight. Admission was a nickel. Over there" -- he pointed toward a clump of trees to their left-- "they sold refreshments: sweet corn, lemonade and shaved ice with syrup..."
"The night we met," he said, slipping his arm around her shoulder, "I bought you a raspberry ice. It made your lips purple. I just had to kiss you..."
Just like that, he did. His mouth was gentle but Jen still felt the passion as he pressed his body against hers. Strange electricity sparked between them. He kept his mouth closed. Wanting more, wanting to taste him, Jen teased the seam where the lips met. He relaxed and allowed her to entangle their tongues. Pulling her to his chest, he ran his hands down her back to her waist. Her nipples peaked under her thin dress. She rubbed them against the odd, rough-woven fabric of his shirt. Between her thighs she began to melt.
The kiss made her dizzy. Perhaps she wasn't getting enough oxygen. The world spun around them, but there was no chance of her falling. Daniel held her, strong and secure.
Gradually the whirling ceased. Dan brushed his lips against hers one last time, then drew back. His left hand rested between her shoulder blades. The other held hers, out to the side. Jen became aware of music. She clutched his belt as he led her in a sprightly waltz.
They moved together across the floor of an octagonal pavilion, its wooden roof supported by carved pillars. Strands of bright bulbs sparkled overhead, radiating from the center to the periphery. Other couples danced around them, the women in tunics and slim, ankle-length skirts, the men wearing cuffed trousers and waistcoats or uniforms like Dan's. She felt the fabric of her own skirt fluttering around her calves.
"How...where...what's going on, Daniel?" She looked up into his warm brown eyes. His ripe lips curved into a smile and those adorable dimples winked at her.
"Never mind, my sweet. Just dance with me."
He led her with grace and confidence. Jen found that if she simply relaxed into his arms, following was effortless. As the music slowed, he held her closer. A hard bulk at his groin pressed against her belly. Languid arousal washed over her in waves. I must be dreaming, she thought. She never wanted the dream to end.
They swayed together. Jen closed her eyes, breathing in his scent of fresh-cut wood and lavender. When she leaned her head on his chest, she could hear his heart, strong and regular. She felt their breathing synchronize.
The waltz went on forever. Then the music stopped. The lights went dark. They still stood, holding each other, at the center of the floor. The orchestra and the other dancers had disappeared.
The summer wind ruffled Jen's hair. The forest stirred around the deserted pavilion.
"Come home with me, Daniel," she whispered. He answered with a kiss, sweeping her back into her voluptuous dream-state.
"I can't," he said finally. "Tomorrow I'm shipping out."
"I'm off to the Western Front. To Marne."
Jen racked her brains, trying to remember why that sounded familiar. "No, don't go," she pleaded . "I've just found you."
"You'll find me again, Jen." He smiled sadly. "You always do. Or I'll find you. Look for me, when you return. Follow your heart. When we meet again, you'll know."
He placed one last luscious kiss upon her lips, then stepped back into the shadows. "Remember me, darling. And don't cry."
The dizziness descended again, but this time she didn't have Daniel's sturdy frame to hold on to. A hurricane raged around her. Tears poured from her eyes but the gale whipped them away. When the tumult eased, she found herself back in the gazebo, sitting cross-legged on the splintery floor. Alone.
"Daniel!" she cried, her agonized voice echoing out over the lake.
"Don't cry," she heard, in her ear, in her heart. "Look for me. I'm waiting for you."
The summer air was heavy with the scent of roses. Looking down, she discovered she still held Daniel's gift. She brushed the velvety petals across her lips, remembering his kisses. "I'll find you," she whispered to the night. "I promise."