"Mind if I sit next to you?" the girl asked, and smiled.
I was sitting on a park bench in the shade of the willow tree. I scooted over and said, "Be my guest."
"All the picnic tables seem to be taken."
She was short, her hair curly and copper-colored, her smile dazzling. I recognized her from high school: Katie McCoy, a laughing, mischievous little creature, always the center of attention.
She was focused on balancing a huge funnel cake on a paper plate in the palm of her left hand, while clutching a cup of lemonade in the other.
"The park's so crowded," she said.
"Yes, indeed," I said.
It was noontime. I'd taken an hour off for lunch and had wandered down to LeClaire Park to sit in the cool breeze and listen to the Dixieland bands. Adults and kids sprawled on blankets in the grass, lounged in lawn chairs under trees, or sat at picnic tables scattered about. Laughing couples danced on the concrete pad in front of the band shell.
After giving me a curious look, she eyed her funnel cake, sprinkled with powdered sugar and took a bite. Then a sip of lemonade. She looked at me and said, "Free concerts like this in the park, such a marvelous idea. They're good for downtown."
"Are you part of the downtown community?"
She dabbed her full lips with a napkin. "Computer Service Center," she said. "Katie McCoy, owner and manager. "
"Ah," I said, nodding. "I'm Justine Parker. My Dad and I own the Blue Moon antique and collectible shop two blocks from here."
"Glad to meet you." She leaned toward. "I'll tell you a secret. Once a year I give myself a break from all the hassle. I come down here to the park to spend the afternoon and soak up the music."
"I always show up a bit at lunchtime."
"I usually don't talk to strangers," she said, "no matter how nice-looking and gentlemanly they appear to be, but since I sat down, I've had this feeling I know you..."
The Wooden Nickel Band revved up with "The St. Louis Blues March." The music from the horns, drum, bass, and piano seemed to stir the treetops.
"Fifth period English," I said. "Ms. Larsen's class. I sat across from you."
Her blue eyes got big. Her hand flew to her mouth "Yes! Oh my, yes. I remember—you were always so quiet."
"And you were probably the most popular girl in school."
She blushed a light pink. "Not quite, but I had lots of fun."
"Lots of boyfriends."
Laughter brightened her eyes. "Never ever could make up my mind who was exactly right for me. So what have you been doing all this time?"
"Two years in business college," I said, "then I went in with Dad at the antique shop—biggest and best in the area. And you?"
"College. Then retail sales—and now I have my own business. She eyed me. "I can't believe how...how you've changed except for the curly black hair and being so tall. You were always so—" She halted.
"Skinny. Awkward," I said for her. "Late bloomer, I guess."
I glanced at my watch. My lunchtime in the park was nearly up. I hated to tear myself away from Katie. Yet I had to leave, if only momentarily.
"Will you wait here a few minutes? " I said. "I have to check in at the store, but I'll be right back."
I hurried up the street to the Blue Moon and told Dad I was going to spend some time in the park this afternoon with someone I thought was very special. He'd have to struggle through the expected rush of customers without me. With a twinkle in his eye Dad said, "If it's a girl, it's about time."
But after I returned to the park, Dixieland music still filling the air, Katie was gone, and another couple sat on the bench. After searching for maybe twenty minutes, I scurried back to the bench for a final look. My mouth dropped open and my heart skipped, for there sat Katie
"Hi," I said. "Been looking for you."
Her face broke into a sheepish little smile. "Sorry I left."
I sat down. We were silent a moment. I was so happy I'd found her again, I said, "I've got to tell you something."
"In senior year, I had a major crush on you. You absolutely stole my heart."
She blinked. "You're kidding."
"Nope. And I thought you the girl most likely—well, to do achieve whatever you wanted in life. College, career, marriage—all yours."
"Almost," she said with a wry smile. "Except for the last part."
"I expected a proposal after I graduated from Michael Lancaster—he'd hinted—but he kissed me passionately one evening and in effect said, 'See you. I've found someone else.'"
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to dredge up bad memories."
"That's all right." She looked at her hands, folded in her lap. "I just met him again—just moments ago while you were gone. Michael Lancaster. He's divorced now."
My heart dropped into my stomach. I wondered if she'd come back to tell me they were going to make an afternoon and evening of the Dixieland Fest. Renew their passion.
We sat listening to the "Muskrat Ramble," tapping our toes. Finally I said, "So you and Michael...?" My question trailed off.
"Michael had his chance long ago," she said, and looked at me with her clear blue eyes. The cool tone in her voice told me that Michael was definitely history.
Gathering my courage, I said, "How about if we walk up to the band shell where we can hear and see better?"
"I'd love to."
At the band shell, we stood among the spectators, again tapping our toes, this time to "The Dark-Town Strutters Ball."
I faced Katie, slipped my hand into hers, and said, "Shall we—dance?"
The Girl Most Likely titled her head at the word dance, apparently catching my deeper, intended meaning, her smile warm.
Circling her arm around my shoulder, she said, "Let's…"
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