Everything in this place was foreign. The food, the smells, the angle of sunlight as it spilled down between the mountains and into the tiny village. Kara was used to damp cement and close-knit buildings. Fog-filtered light and cool breezes. The briny ocean air and the rumble of a passing bus.
Here the air smelled of dry earth and cows. The tallest buildings were a ruined castle on the hilltop and the town church, and the sun shone with alarming regularity and intense heat.
She hadn’t wanted to come here; her mother had insisted. Instead of a summer working with her friends at the local pool, she was stuck in another country speaking rusty German, barely able to follow conversations that passed seemingly at the speed of light.
Not that this part of Italy wasn’t beautiful. The landscape was breathtaking, and it had entered her soul years ago. But she was lonely. Her great aunt was kind, but spare with her emotions, and the townspeople were busy, hardworking folks with little time for idle chatter.
Kara perched on a rocky ledge overlooking the green valley, a shiny ribbon sparkling in the distance as it trickled down from the Alps.
“Hallo,” a man called from behind her. A young man, maybe twenty, like her. And handsome. “Kara?”
She nodded and stood, speechless as recognition dawned. “Niklas.” She hadn’t seen him since she was ten.
A grin spread across his face and her heart nearly stopped. When had the scrawny boy who used to chase her through the fields turned into this, this man? His shoulders were broad and strong, and he was at least six feet tall. His hair had darkened to light brown, but his eyes still shone vivid blue.
“Mutti told me you were back,” he said in accented, but flawless English, his eyes never leaving her face. “When your aunt said you were out wandering, I thought of this place first.”
She smiled back, still trapped in his gaze, a million questions fighting to be asked. “It’s good to see you again.” God, how lame. That didn’t even begin to express how happy she was that he was here. With the boy she’d spent a childhood planning to marry, and the last five years thinking she’d never see again. “Are you in University?”
“Yes. At Stanford. Mechanical engineering.”
Her mouth dropped. So close. He’d been so close this whole time. Had her mother known and not told her? “I’m at Berkeley. In chemistry. I had no idea you were so near.”
“I know. Your mom made me wait.”
Another shock to her system. She gaped like a fish out of water, staggered by the betrayal.
He stepped in close and gently tugged at a piece of her long hair. “It was worth it, Kara. You are even more beautiful than I imagined. The last photo I have is your school picture when you were fifteen.”
Oh, no. The one where she had braces and a bad perm. She made a face and he laughed.
He'd kept her picture. “I missed you,” she said, thinking of the framed photo of him as a teenager that stood on her nightstand.
And then he kissed her, and there was no place she wanted to be more than those mountains with the strange light, surrounded by the smell of earth and cows, under the warm sun, where everything was foreign.