“Yes.” They were different, yet the same. All the Barneses shared a special quality. One I thought of as the Barnes syndrome. Kindness mixed with good cheer and an empathy for others less fortunate.
“May I ask you something personal?” Theo asked.
“You may ask. I may or may not answer.”
He chuckled, reminding me of the thumping sound of a woodpecker. “Fair enough. What was it about Flynn that you liked so much?”
I stepped backward, surprised at the boldness of his questions. Could I answer in a way that matched his honest query? Doing so seemed intimate, as if I were peeling back a layer of my skin to expose all the messy parts inside me.
“You don’t have to answer,” Theo said.
I looked up at him, meeting his eyes. They appeared almost black in the dim light. He was an exceedingly attractive man with his even features and generous mouth. Why hadn’t I noticed him when we were younger? Why indeed had it always been Flynn I thought I loved?
“It was nothing but a schoolgirl crush,” I said. “But I think it’s the quality you spoke of just now. His cheery, adventurous, and cavalier attitude is infectious. It’s as if nothing in the world could dissuade him from his insistence that life is a game. One to be enjoyed, no matter evidence to the contrary.” I flushed, embarrassed by my lengthy answer to his question.
“Life isn’t a game,” Theo said.
A game. I drifted back in time. Run, mouse, run. An image of Pa with his greasy hair and brown teeth floated before me. He’d always smelled of oil and cheap whiskey. Whenever he was in close, I held my body as tightly as I could. Pa had loved the game in winter especially because the snow hurt my feet. I’d never had shoes without holes. In the summers, I’d had no shoes at all. My feet still bore the thick calluses from those days. As much as I scrubbed, they remained, reminders of the cruelty from which I’d escaped.
Don’t think of him. He doesn’t deserve your thoughts, I told myself.
“Louisa, what is it?”
“One of those dark moments has caught me,” I said. “Remembering too much.” Before I could stop them, tears filled my eyes. A sob escaped from deep inside my chest.
Theo stepped closer. “Louisa, I’m sorry.” He pulled me into his arms. I gave him my weight as I rested my cheek against his hard chest. He smelled of shaving soap and the outdoors. “I’d take it all away—take it upon myself if I could.”
“No one can do that.” The strength in his body wrapped me in warmth. I lifted my face to look at him, and then his mouth lowered to mine and he kissed me.
I stiffened for a moment, shocked by the softness of his lips. Then the pleasure of his mouth on mine and the slight taste of wine on his breath made me almost dizzy. I wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed him back. Even though I knew nothing of kissing, my mouth moved against his as naturally as if I’d done it my whole life. I gave him my mouth and the weight of my body and the grief from the last few days. Nothing was kept inside or pushed down int
o my dark well of sadness that had no end. He returned it all, too. I could feel the parts of him he kept hidden—all the pain and turmoil of his sensitive soul. Was this what it meant to know a man?
Finally, he pulled away. We were both slightly breathless.
I brought my hand to my mouth, which felt bruised in the most satisfying of ways. “Theo?” I whispered. “What was that?”
“A kiss.” He stepped backward. The back of Lucy’s stall stopped him. She whinnied, almost as if she approved of our antics.
“I’ve never kissed anyone before.” I don’t know why I felt the need to explain that fact. He probably knew how sheltered I’d been during my time with the Linds. Suddenly, I wanted to know if he’d ever held another woman as he’d just held me. “Have you?”
He nodded with just a quick dip of his chin. “There was a woman when I was at university. I had feelings for her. But it wasn’t meant to be.”
“Why?” A tightness hardened my stomach. Was I jealous? Yes, I thought. I was jealous of Theo’s feelings for someone else. What right did I have? I’d rejected him, after all.
“She fell in love with a classmate of mine. They’re married now.”
I wanted to sing with delight in equal measure to the sympathy I felt for him. “Did it hurt?”
“No, not really. I was used to being the twin not chosen. It was much the same. She chose my best pal instead of me.”
“Oh, Theo, that must have been awful for you.”
“Not like the other time,” he said.
“The time I realized it was Flynn you wished to write instead of me.”