The wind whipped at his hair, the sun hot on his shoulders as the loose fabric of his shirt snapped against his torso. Buffeted by blustering gusts, he bent to uncleat the jib before tacking into the breeze.
He looked up and met her eyes.
Hand on the tiller, she grinned at him; a smile of exquisite happiness lighting her face.
His heart swelled until he thought it would burst, and then she closed her eyes and raised her face towards the sky.
Her expression was one of unutterable joy, and it shone so bright that it rivaled the sun.
A piercing arrow of love shot directly through his sternum and, like a kick to the solar plexus, almost bent him double. It knocked the breath from his lungs and shook loose all the love in his heart.
The boom swung past and he ducked, the sail luffing overhead before it caught the wind and snapped taut as a pregnant belly, whisking them over the glistening surface of Lake George.
Kathryn opened her eyes, and leaning hard against the tiller, whooped with glee.
His heart soared. Her beautiful face - almost as familiar to him as his own – glowed with an inner peace that he never dreamed he’d see – not in this lifetime.
The beauty of it twisted his heart in his chest.
He loved her. Loved her like life itself.
All the longing and the yearning he’d held at bay for years was storming to the surface. It burned through his veins, searing its way through his body, leaving him heartsore and in desperate need. This love had been his heart’s blood for so long that he was floundering now that it had been set free. He’d spent years submerging it - for her sake as well as his. He thought that he’d tamed it, quashed it, killed it even, but it had a life of its own, and it pushed against his constraints with a fierceness that left him breathless.
Lake George. It was where it had ended, before it had even begun.
The memory was indelibly imprinted on his mind; a time rife with the sweet pangs of longing tempered with the harsh reality of regret. He’d loved her then – almost as much as he did now.
Oh, God, how he’d loved her.
She’d cheated death that day, thwarted the ultimate equalizer, and she - high on the joy of life, and he - giddy with relief, were blind to the pitfalls that awaited them and the nights and days of anguish to follow.
They’d met by the shoreline, the water mirror-calm and lit by moonlight - the stuff of romantic fancy.
Heady with excitement that only a close brush with death can stir, they’d clambered aboard the ketch and set sail towards the moon - the bow spraying droplets of gold like starlight against pitch.
She’d poured the champagne and they’d toasted to the wonder of life, the frailty of it, and to their good fortune that the benevolent entity who kept wayward captains safe, had been smiling on them that day.
He’d almost told her then; the words, ‘I love you.” restless and ready to spill from his lips.
But she’d raised her glass and tapped it against his. “To the freedom of friendship.” She’d sighed and then added, “I’ll show you the real Lake George one day – when we’re home.”
His heart had frozen mid-beat but he’d met her gaze with a steady one of his own; the look of sadness behind her smile, quelled his dismay.
He knew then that she felt it too, but for reasons too complex and numerous to name, she’d drawn a line.
He’d accepted her decision, although he thought his heart might break. Except, he knew hers was breaking too and it was his duty to ensure that hers remained whole. In that moment of exquisite anguish, he renewed his vow to protect her and to guard her against the uncertainty to come.
They’d survived the intervening years and it had not broken him - although, she’d come close to breaking at times - but they were safe, at last.
He had no idea how long he’d been staring into the distance, his mind light-years away.
A while, it seemed; she’d trimmed the sail and they were at anchor.
“I lost you there for a while.”
“I was remembering the last time we were on Lake George.”
She nodded and, without a word, locked the tiller and moved to his side. “It’s why I asked you here today. I promised to show you the real Lake George one day.”
She reached for his hand, weaving her fingers through his. “Something broke that night and I’ve waited all these years to mend it.”
“Nothing was broken, Kathryn.”
“My heart was. I loved you but I couldn’t tell you.”
His heart thumped double time. “I knew.”
He studied their clasped hands, before meeting her eyes. “I loved you too.”
She smiled. “I know. I’ve always known.”
She breathed deeply, closed her eyes and again, tilted her head skyward.
A prayer? A benediction?
He watched for a long moment, before lifting his fingers to caress her cheek, her jaw, her lips until she opened her eyes.
The lap of the water rocked them gently and suddenly his mouth was on hers.
His heart swelled, full to bursting with love and need, and a want so deep he could have drowned in it.
She tasted of Kathryn – so familiar yet unique.
She gasped as she pulled back and then laughed and tumbled them to the deck.
There was no space between them, nothing but love and the thudding beats of their hearts.
She pressed her forehead to his and whispered the words, “I love you.” against his lips.
He inhaled them, directly into his heart, then kissed her and gave them back a hundredfold.
They loved there, in the dying light of the day.
At the beginning again.