“Nick?” Marie asked incredulously, pushing to her feet as he lifted one hand in a casual wave of greeting. “What are you doing here?”
“Hey, Marie,” Nick replied, an almost inaudible chuckle in his voice as she walked toward him, “it’s good to see you; how’s the vacation turning out so far?”
Marie rolled her eyes, knowing what he was getting at, and said, “The vacation’s nice, and it’s good to see you, too.” She paused, arched one eyebrow pointedly, and added, “Now answer the question.”
His grin broadened and he moved forward, draping an arm around her shoulders and turning her back in the direction of her camp as he declared, “Word through the grapevine was that you’d been abandoned up here, so I thought I’d keep you company. Camping alone just isn’t as fun as it sounds.”
Fidgeting self-consciously beneath his arm, Marie attempted to frown up at him and demanded, “Did Mike put you up to this?” She certainly wouldn’t put it past her brother to send up a babysitter when he’d learned she was by herself in the mountains, and, though she knew he meant well, she didn’t feel that a twenty-three year old woman really required babysitting.
Nick chuckled again, louder this time, and teasingly tugged her against him for a second before releasing her altogether and replying, “No, no, this wasn’t Mike’s idea. Though he did say to tell you that you lucked out as he was gonna be heading up here as soon as he could talk his boss into giving him the time off.”
Marie had the urge to roll her eyes a second time, but she refrained, instead watching as Nick claimed the bench seat of the old, wooden picnic table and asking, “So you’re not here to babysit me?”
“Cross my heart,” Nick replied, mimicking the motion with his right hand. His arm fell back to his side and he added, “Besides, we both know I’d make a lousy babysitter.”
She couldn’t help but laugh then, finally accepting that he was there as her friend and not her brother’s, and let herself collapse back into her camp chair as soon as she’d repositioned it to face him. “That’s true,” she allowed as she settled.
Nick’s eyes broke from hers to wander curiously around the campsite, and suddenly Marie realized she was nervous. Her stomach was swirling again, in a way it hadn’t done since she’d been a teenager, and she had to swallow just to stabilize her breathing. He said he came to keep me company, she reminded herself slowly. But, does that mean…? There was only one way to find out. “So,” she began awkwardly, “how long are you planning on staying?”
He returned his attention to her easily and offered a lazy shrug as he said, “I have to be back to work the Monday after next. That encompasses the rest of your trip, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” Marie replied mechanically as her brain stalled. He was intending to stay for the entire rest of her trip. And, on one hand, she was thrilled. She wouldn’t have to be lonely – let alone bored – anymore, and she’d have someone she trusted nearby for late-night peace of mind. He was right, after all; camping alone wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. But, on the other hand, a part of her was terrified.
Nick had been best friends with her brother since she was four (Nick had been six and Mike seven); she literally could not remember a time when Nick hadn’t been in her life. She’d avoided him like the plague back when boys had cooties, and then she’d developed an embarrassing crush on him just in time for him to start picking on her. They’d both matured since then (now he only ever teased her in good-natured fun), and she’d thought she’d gotten over her unmentionable infatuation sometime during high school. Ironically, also during high school, they’d started spending more time together when Mike wasn’t around, until they were close friends in their own right. She’d started dating, and by the time she was on her third first-date she no longer found herself wondering how differently Nick would handle the situation. It had felt like a sign and she’d embraced it, willingly deciding that her feelings for Nick had been more of convenience than anything else.
Lately, however, she was back to second-guessing herself. In the months since she’d seen the proverbial light and kicked her ex to the curb, Nick had started acting differently. He was more physical than he used to be. In the past he’d never done more than give her shoulder a light squeeze or playfully flick her forehead, but recently he’d taken to doing things like throwing his arm around her shoulders and hugging her. He still talked – and otherwise acted – the same, and it was confusing her. But, worse, it was reminding her of those feelings she’d once had. And now he was going to be camping alongside her for a week and a half, with no one to run interference and the ridiculous summer heat messing up her hormones.
Consistent tapping on the top of her head drew her out of her reflection, and Marie blinked rapidly, her cheeks flushing in horror as she realized she’d been less-than-subtle about her distracted thoughts. Nick was now crouching before her, one index finger repeatedly drumming on her head, and giving her a funny look. His half-amused, half-concerned green eyes locked onto hers and he asked, “Everything okay in there?”
Swallowing again, Marie let her lips lift in an apologetic smile and replied, “Sorry! Yes, completely fine, just…overheated.” Overheated? Really? Did I have to choose that word?
Nick’s lips twitched, his hand shifting to cover her head for a lingering moment, and his voice was noticeably softer as he repeated, “Overheated, huh?”