Part One, by AmyBeth Inverness
Leigh was tired of the pity. Self-pity was bad enough; she’d put an end to that six months ago. But the soft sighing of everyone she had contact with in her day-to-day life was exhausting. “Miles was such a good man,” they would remind her. “We’re so sorry for your loss.”
Her loss was more than three years old, however it seemed that her label “the young widow” was permanent. Yes, Miles was a good man. But on the way home from work that day she’d been adding up all the little things he did that drove her crazy. She was this close to asking him to go to couple’s therapy. She had rehearsed exactly what she would say when she found him wasting time on the computer instead of fixing dinner. Instead she spent that evening with paramedics who explained to her that Miles’ heart attack probably happened while he was driving home. It looked like he had just ignored the symptoms until it was too late.
Three years was long enough. Her friend Holly had arranged for them to do a working vacation, volunteering with a group that documented historic architectural sites. They’d be staying in cabins in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, commuting via jeep to what remained of Jennytown, a small community that thrived briefly during the gold rush of 1860, then mysteriously died. The next three weeks she expected to be pity-free, and with luck, they would be the end of the pity altogether.
“You packed light, right?” Holly asked when they met at the airport.
“One carry-on. If I desperately need something more, I can buy it there. We’re only going to be an hour or so from civilization.”
“Yo!” a group of other young people were beckoning to them. Most of the group would be like Holly, recent college graduates filling in the summer months any way they could while looking for that first real job. Leigh used to babysit Holly… she’d even changed her diapers. But as the young woman graduated High School and then went on to excel at the University, their relationship had changed into a true friendship. The ten year age difference was irrelevant.
Holly had been her rock when Miles died. Leigh used the University as an escape, a place where she could mingle with people while fading into the background. Some of the students in Holly’s circle knew that Leigh was a widow, but twenty-somethings were naturally self-absorbed and they rarely mentioned it.
And then there was that one weekend. The one year anniversary of Miles’ death had been the worst. It wasn’t just the loss of the man she loved, it was the exhaustion of weeding through the paperwork, proving to various entities that Miles had indeed died and that she, as his widow, was legally entitled to handle whatever it was that needed to be handled. Although the financial part was secure, she was mentally, physically, and spiritually bankrupt.
Leigh had endured the reminders and the pity and the memories on the Tuesday that was “the day.” Then it continued on into Wednesday, then Thursday. By Friday she’d had enough. She escaped to Holly’s dorm room, to find it full of people who waved hello and then went on with whatever they had been doing.
She ended up pouring out her heart to a young man with a Celtic knot tattoo around his left bicep. His first name was something Gaelic, but everyone called him Dodge. She’d spent Friday night until Sunday morning in his dorm room, appreciating the stamina that twenty-year-old men possess.
Leigh had avoided the University for a few months after. She didn’t exactly regret the hook-up, but she didn’t want a relationship with someone ten years younger than she was, and she couldn’t stand the idea that he might politely acknowledge what they’d shared as “pity sex.” Fortunately, Holly had a rather large group of friends, and Leigh didn’t usually see Dodge when she visited. In the last year, Holly had spent more and more time with Leigh away from the University, eager to be done with school and finally move on with her life.
Part Two, by Taylor Lunsford
Dodge pulled the parking break of his rented Jeep and scanned the skeletal remains of Jennytown. He’d done his internship this spring with a firm that specialized in restoration architecture and he couldn’t believe they’d invited him along to help oversee this summer’s project. Promises hadn’t been made, but the project manager hinted that if he kicked ass at this, Dodge would have a job by fall.
“Keep your nose clean and your hands to yourself,” Jack, the curmudgeonly fifty-something year-old project manager grumbled coming to meet Dodge. “I know there will be a lot of sweet little things walking around, batting their eyelashes at you, but don’t go getting wrapped up in a summer fling. Last thing I need is a weepy little girl moping around when we’re trying to get this town done and on a deadline. It’s pro-bono as it is. Firm doesn’t need to waste a second more than we have to. Three weeks is already taking more resources than the partners want.”
“That won’t be a problem, sir,” Dodge said. He looked down at his scuffed work boots, shoving his hands in his pockets. Sleeping with random chicks passed the time in college, but he gave all that up a year ago. One weekend changed how he viewed girls his own age forever. The weekend he’d spent with Leigh, a much older, emotionally unavailable woman he’d met in his dorm ruined him. Besides, most of the girls coming to help out were friends of his from college that he had no intention of ever getting in the sack with.
He worried about the firm’s decision to bring volunteers in to help on the Jennytown project. This town was special; it had a soul that seemed buried under the debris of crumbling buildings and dead leaves. Even the chipmunks that scampered around the stone foundation of the old school house seemed to sense the potential here. Bringing in a team of inexperienced college students seemed to be asking for trouble in his opinion. Hopefully, they’d just document the historical shit or rake up debris and leave the real work to the small crew Jack brought with him.
Okay, so maybe Dodge also hoped that they stayed out of his way for another reason. Holly and everyone were great, but they were always at him to start dating again. The last thing he needed was more females hounding him about his love life. Lord knew he got enough of it from his mom and four sisters—four very married sisters who couldn’t seemed to think beyond love and marriage and babies. He was barely twenty-two, just out of college. The thought of making any sort of commitment to any of the women they thought were good for him gave him hives.
Digging for his tool belt in the back of the Jeep, he strapped it on, feeling more and more at home by the minute. This kind of work is what he loved. He got that the academic stuff was necessary to get paid to be an architect, but feeling the bones of a project really got to him. Helped center him. This summer was about getting a job and getting Leigh out of his head. All he needed to do was keep himself centered and get through the next three weeks.
Part Three, by Alyssa Linn Palmer
Holly left Leigh to her own devices.
“Just don’t get lost,” Holly said, laughing as she headed toward a group of students. Leigh blew her a raspberry in reply. Now that was childish, but it amused her all the same. She headed away from the small groups of students mingling near the vehicles. She felt old suddenly, being around all those students. Working vacations like these were for teenagers, ready to rise with the dawn and work all day, and then party all night.
She headed off the main road of Jennytown and pushed through overgrown grass toward a grey stone foundation. Part of the steps to what had been the front door remained, and she could just see the beginnings of old, maybe Doric style columns. Fancy, for a tiny place like Jennytown. Most of the rest of the building was crumbling, and nature was beginning to take back what had been built.
Glancing back, no one had noticed her departure, and she hoped she could see some of the town on her own before they were corralled into work groups. She climbed up the steps and peered over the edge of the foundation.
“What are you doing?”
Leigh teetered on the edge and a strong hand pulled her back and away. Not that she would have been hurt much if she’d fallen; it was only a couple of feet down to a mostly grassy interior, after all. She tugged her arm out of the guy’s grasp.
And she did. Look, that is.
Familiar dark blue eyes stared back at her. Dodge seemed as speechless as she was. He took a step back.
“What are you doing here?”
“I could say the same to you.” She managed to find her voice and she straightened, stiffening her posture.
Dodge rubbed his arm and her gaze fell on the Celtic tattoo. She remembered the feel of that arm around her shoulders, how he’d leaned in, his warm breath ghosting over her cheek. He’d kissed her, right there in the bar, and it had been surprisingly tender. And now he was here.
“I’m helping to project manage this gig,” he said. “What’s your excuse?” He gave her a half-smile as he said it, as if he felt apologetic for the awkwardness that enveloped them.
“Holly’s idea of a fun time,” Leigh replied.
“How come I never saw you again?” Dodge asked. Well, that was blunt. “Did you stop hanging out on campus?”
Leigh shook her head and brushed the hair from her eyes. “It was only one night, Dodge.”
He reached out and clasped her hand, tugging her down the steps. “I’d hoped it wouldn’t be,” he said. She found herself speechless again. There was no pity there in his look, nothing but warmth. And lust. Definitely lust.
“I don’t think this is the time or the place,” she replied. A silly cliche, but she’d blanked on anything better to say. Yes, I do want to have sex with you again? As if that’d be it.
“We’ll be here for three weeks,” he remarked. “Plenty of time.”
“Gather round, everyone!” An older man waved his arms in exasperation, trying to gather the attention of the young adults milling about. Dodge grinned.
“Come on,” he said, tugging on her hand. Leigh pulled her hand free. Dodge shrugged. They went back to join the group and she noticed the older man giving Dodge a sharp look. He sidled away from her, but gave her a look that made her avert her gaze. He would come find her later. Maybe he had stamina for more than just one night.
Finale, by Allie Sanders
For nearly three weeks Dodge had been trying to get Leigh to himself. He’d never been so frustrated by a woman before.
From sun up to nearly sun down they worked on clearing away the rubble hiding the remains of Jennytown but the nights were their own and while most of the volunteers spent their time drinking and turning the old mining town into party central, Leigh was never among them. Some nights he’d find her deep in conversation with Holly or other girls but often she’d disappear and no one could tell him where she was.
He’d tried to follow her one night but he’d got caught talking to Jack. He knew the older man was impressed with his work on the project and had hinted at the permanent position Dodge was hoping for. He’d do just about anything to get in with the prestigious firm.
Finally, on the last night they were to be in Jennytown, Dodge found his opening. As he was leaving the cabin he shared with a few of the other archetects he saw Leigh leaving the cam p and heading into the woods.
The cabins they were staying in weren’t actually that far from Jennytown. It was a good thirty minute drive down winding roads but straight through the woods it wasn’t more than ten minute’s hike. Dodge was surprised to follow Leigh there.
“Do you come here every night?” He asked, stepping clear of the woods just moments after her. Leigh jumped, her hands flying to her chest as she let out a small scream.
“My God! You scared the crap out of me! Don’t ever do that again.” She dropped her hands to her sides as he joined her. “Yes, I love it here. You can almost see them walking around. Nature’s trying to take the town back but even hundreds of years later she hasn’t been able to. There’s something magic about this place.”
Dodge agreed. He’d felt it from the moment he laid eyes on the town but what brought the magic alive was Leigh’s face as she spoke. She was softer, younger, almost wistful. Nothing like the hurt, angry, sad woman she’d been a year ago when they’d hooked up.
“I’ll be sad to leave this place tomorrow.” Dodge took her hand as they walked around the ruins. She tried to tug it free but gave into his hold after a moment.
Dodge said nothing as they walked. The moon was bright, not full but enough so he could make out certain details of her face. Her eyes were shadowed, giving her a sad look. She’d had that look the first time they were together and he’d hoped to wash the sadness from her eyes.
“Why did you never come back or call me after that night?” He hadn’t meant to ask that but once the words were out he realized he needed to know. Their weekend together had changed him in ways he didn’t understand.
For a long time it seemed like Leigh wasn’t going to answer. They walked through the dead town without saying a word and Dodge wanted nothing more than to grab and shake her until she explained.
“I was tired of being pitied,” she finally said. “For three years I’ve gotten nothing but pity from people because my husband died and then I met you and spent a night crying on your shoulder before taking you to bed and damn it I didn’t want to see you again and see the pity in your eyes. I may not have much but I’m not going to take pity sex.”
“You think that was about pity?” Anger welled up, making Dodge see red. “We had sex because we wanted it. We both wanted it. Don’t try to tell me it was about pity.” Before she could say anything he pulled Leigh against him and crushed his mouth to hers.
Leigh sighed into Dodge’s mouth, shocked at the forcefulness of his actions. She’d wanted him. God help her, she wanted just this since the moment she saw him again. All of the reasons she shouldn’t touch him flew through out of her head as she tasted him, as she felt his hard body against her and his work-roughened hands slide down her arms and around her waist to cup her ass.
Their mating, there in the abandoned town amid the rubble, was rough and primal and everything Leigh needed but didn’t know how to ask for or take for herself. After, while they dressed he turned to her in the moonlit night.
“You won’t leave me again. Not this time. I’m not stupid, I know why this shouldn’t work and why this isn’t a good idea but we want each other, we like talking to each other. We can give this a shot.” His growled words pierced her.
Her heart raced. Her stomach fluttered. And when he offered his hand she knew it was more than just an offer help her stand up. Her own hand shook as she placed it in his and allowed him to pull her to her feet.
“This isn’t forever,” she warned.
“I never said it had to be.”
As they left Jennytown Leigh realized the weight she’d been carrying since Miles died was missing. No, it wouldn’t be forever but it was the start of a new life for her and she couldn’t wait to take it on.