Jesse strolled down the chilly street, his boots crunching on the packed snow that blanketed every surface in a fabric of shimmering white and filled him with nostalgia. He hadn't seen snow in over a decade.
He passed the old familiar bookstore, flooded with memories of the last time he'd been inside hiding amongst the stacks of books, lips locked on the beautiful brunette that should have been his wife. His gut clenched and the corners of his mouth tugged down. Jesse shook his head, driving the memory down where he kept all his regrets, and continued down the sidewalk.
A group of young college girls slowed as he passed them. Their mouths fell open slightly and Jesse struggled to keep from blushing.
"Afternoon ladies." He nodded, and the group raced off giggling.
Jesse shook his head. Guess he wouldn't be able to avoid his past and be as invisible in town as he'd hoped.
The thought of fresh doughnuts and cocoa pulled him closer to 'Showtunes Bakery'- the small mom and daughter bakery where every doughnut and drink was named after a classic Broadway show.
He headed for it and his knee buckled in front of the Johnson's pharmacy. Jesse gripped the edge of the wooden bench before he stumbled to the ground.
The doctor had told him it was too soon to go without his brace.
Jesse brushed the snow from the bright red bench and sat down heavily. His knee ached from his trek around town. He spotted the city hall clock. He'd only been out thirty minutes. At this rate he was never going to heal. He sighed and rubbed his leg through his jeans trying to ease the sore muscles.
All around him people strolled up and down the street. Into shops, out of shops. Cups of coffee steaming in their hands. Some laden down with bags and packages for the upcoming holidays. Christmas music played in the park from the ice rink that the city erected every winter. With Thanksgiving only three days past, the city wasted no time in getting ready for the holidays.
He shut his eyes and took a deep breath. It'd been almost fifteen years and still nothing had changed. The smells, the sounds, the atmosphere. All of it. Home.
Jesse opened his eyes to see a little girl with long blonde hair and bright blue eyes sitting next to him.
He smiled. "Hey."
She held a plant shaped like a Christmas tree in her bare hands. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to you too."
Her bright purple leggings clung to her legs and tucked into snow boots. A long purple striped sweater coat hardly seemed warm enough to keep out the chill. Jesse scanned the street.
"Are your mom and dad here? I think you need a coat."
She smiled. "The cold doesn't bother me. I've always lived here."
"I've been away for a while. Guess I'm not used to it anymore."
She nodded. "Being down south in the sun has made you more sensitive probably."
Jesse snorted. She sounded much more mature than possible for such a young girl.
"I know who you are," she said. "Everyone does. You're the famous football player my mom talks about. She watches all your games. You're impressive."
His gut tightened at the thought that he'd never play again. "I was impressive."
She watched Jesse rub his knee. "Did you get hurt?"
"Yup. I'm done with football. Well, playing anyway."
The little girl stood. "My mom will be sorry to hear that."
She held out her small plant. Its piney fragrance drifted back to him hitting him with a sense of longing.
"This is for you."
"I can't take it. It's yours."
"Actually, It's not." she said.
Jesse took the plant. "I'm sorry-"
He looked up again, but the little girl was gone.
Jesse stood and spun in a circle. He caught a glimpse of a purple striped sweater skipping down the street. He opened his mouth to call to her, but the girl disappeared around the corner.
Jesse shook his head. Weird.
The smell of doughnuts made his stomach growl. He turned and limped toward Showtunes.
* * *
"Annika?" The sound of her name made Annika stop reading, though her eyes didn't lift from the page of her book.
His voice still held the same husky, deep tone that rumbled in the air and got the attention of every woman in the vicinity. The one that made her weak in places that weren't lady-like and flush in places that weren't convenient.
Her heart thundered as she tried to figure out what to do. He'd said her name thousands of times– but not in a long, long time.
She lifted her eyes, and in front of her stood an All-American-good-looking-farm boy with the heart-stealing-smile– the same smile that had stolen her heart her first year of college and broken it two years later when he'd gone off to play for the NFL.
Annika collected her thoughts and gave him a polite, yet not overly eager smile. "Jesse Winchester."
She had to keep her composure. She couldn't dare lose it in front of everyone in town. She'd be the center of the monthly professor gossip circle at school and she'd had enough of those clucking hens for one lifetime.
"Annika Jolley. I can't believe I'm seeing you." His dimpled cheeks were darn near as perfectly kissable as she'd remembered.
Memories and feelings she'd buried for a decade and a half bubbled to the surface. She glanced around the doughnut shop for someone, anyone, she could pretend to be meeting- but there was no escape.
"What are you doing in town?" she asked. "I thought you were off playing football somewhere in Dallas, or something." She let the lie roll off her tongue like wine. She knew very well that Jesse hadn't been playing in Dallas since the previous season.
"Blew out my knee and got myself traded. Now that it looks like I might be out for good, I decided to come back."
"Sorry to hear that." She gripped her cup of pumpkin spiced cocoa so tight it crushed inward. "Is the school doing a fundraiser this weekend or something?"
He shifted a potted rosemary plant from one hand to the other. "No fundraiser. I wanted to finish my degree."
"Really?" She sipped again trying to keep from racing out the door or smashing him in the face with the cup. "I'm surprised they didn't ask you to coach."
"Oh, they did. I start coaching in the spring and I'll pick up a few classes every semester as well."
"I don't remember you as being the schooling type."
He chuckled. "True, but I don't want to be a has-been player who spends the rest of his life making a living off his two minutes of fame. I figured a degree of some kind might do me some good."
Interesting. The guy she'd known in college had lived for the limelight. And she'd read all about him in every tabloid after he'd left.
"What are you reading?"
She glanced at the cover of the book. "Dead Awakenings."
He snickered. "A vampire book? I wouldn't take you for one of those vampire girls."
Not that he knew anything about her anymore. "Surprisingly, they're not vampires. It's zombies– Deaders. A girl enters an unsanctioned drug trial to pay some bills and wakes up to find she's become a Deader. It's good."
They stared at each other. Jesse's eyes crinkled in the corners, revealing lines that hadn't been there before. His dark hair had been cut a bit more stylish and the stubble looked good on him. His hazel eyes and crooked grin were exactly the same as she remembered. But his outfit cost more than she remembered his entire wardrobe being worth in college.
Annika's mind screamed at her to invite him to sit down, but her heart told her to send him packing. Walk away with a smile and a 'good to see you'.
"So, what are you up to? Did you become a nurse?"
It surprised her that he even remembered. "No, actually. I–"
"Jesse! There you are." A bombshell blonde dressed like a snow bunny slid up next to him and claimed his arm with hers.
Annika's gut clenched tight at the sight of the perky blonde- the kind of girl she'd always envisioned Jesse would end up with– even on the night that he'd told her he wanted to marry her. Which had been exactly one week before he'd gotten drafted.
"Who's your friend?" she asked through glossy bubblegum lips. The girl couldn't have been more than twenty-five or twenty-six. Annika fought to keep her jealousy at bay, heavens knew she was used to men throwing away the lives they had for women a decade younger. It didn't get any easier though.
"Oh, Carrie, this is an old friend of mine from college, Annika. Annika, this is Carrie."
Time for her to shut the conversation down and move on. "It's nice to meet you," Annika managed.
"We should go, hon. We don't want to be late for our massage appointments." Carrie's southern drawl only added to her charm, making Annika cringe all the more. A beauty queen and her king, perfect. Just what she didn't need to see in the aftermath of her life.
"Yeah." The word came out slow as if he didn't even realize he was saying it. And his eyes never left Annika's face. "It was great to see you." Sincerity punctuated his words making her all the more uncomfortable.
She gave him a tight smile. "You too."
"We should go to lunch, and catch up." He threw her another great smile that threatened to make her say yes.
This was not happening. Warning bells chimed in her head making her gathered up her things and throw them in her bag. She was not going to be drawn back in no matter how charming his smile.
"Why don't you invite her to our Christmas party?" asked Carrie.
"You don't have to do that." Annika stood trying to make her escape.
"It's a great idea," Jesse said. "Here." He pulled open his messenger bag and removed a card, and handed it to her. "Please, come."
"And bring a guest," Carrie added.
Jesse's smile faltered before he nodded. "Of course."
Annika looked at the linen embossed card and wondered if Carrie had picked them out. "I'll think about it."
"Great." Jesse zipped his coat. "Maybe I'll see you around campus before then."
Annika gave a tight smile. Carrie waved as she walked outside. Jesse stopped suddenly and turned back.
"Hey. I just realized what this is." He held out the potted plant to her. "It's rosemary. You're favorite, right?"
Why did he know that? Why did he remember that?
"Uh... yes. It is."
"You like it in your lemonade."
She nodded, unsure of what to say. He continued to stand there, holding the plant out to her until she took it from him making him smile.
"Thanks," she said through a suddenly dry throat.
She needed to stop this. She needed to stop acting like a schoolgirl. "I have to go."
He motioned over his shoulder to Carrie. "Yeah, me too."
"Please consider coming to the get together," he said.
Without another word Jesse limped out of the doughnut shop.
Annika's fingers ran circles over the raised print on the card as she watched them hop into a souped-up Land Rover and back out of the snow packed parking spot. Jesse Winchester, the love of her life, was back at Moorpark College.