I heard her distinctive engine note coming down the street: Cassie was home for the summer.

This would quite likely be her last summer in her hometown, for she had one final year of college remaining. She was strongly considering grad school -- at least, that had been the plan when she had come home during Spring Break -- so perhaps she might be around next summer.

I certainly hoped that she would be here for at least one more summer beyond this one. I had watched my young neighbor grow up from a shy pre-pubescent girl to a confident young woman. She was one of the better youngsters in the neighborhood: She never played loud music, she was always courteous to everyone, she did not dress like a streetwalker, and I do not recall having ever heard a foul word escape her lips. She was also quite serious about her studies, which was why I had a strong belief that she would continue on to grad school, although I secretly hoped -- somewhat selfishly -- that she would take a year or two off from studying before going on to grad school.

The old Volkswagen Rabbit slowed, and I set my book on the coffee table to look out the window. The diesel engine was distinctive in its sound as she idled, waiting for a pair of pickups to pass so that she could turn into the driveway of the family home.

With a fond smile, I watched as Cassie got out of the small silver car. Her parents were not home yet, so there was no one to greet her, but she did not seem to mind as she stood and stretched after the three-hour drive, her breasts straining beneath the orange shirt which had been tucked into her jeans. Then she looked across the street, toward my house.

I do not believe she saw me, for I was sitting well away from the window, but she locked the car and headed toward the street. At first, I thought that she might be checking the mailbox, but she crossed the sidewalk and the asphalt, definitely heading toward my front door. I resumed reading, so that she could feel that she had surprised me.

When the doorbell rang, I took my time in meandering to the front door, and when I opened it, Cassie's expressive eyes and heartwarming smile brightened what had already been a good day overall. The hug we shared was a long one indeed, for Cassie was almost as close to me as my wife had been before cancer had taken her from me.

Over Oreos and milk, one of her favorite snacks since childhood, Cassie and I chatted about the two months since I had last seen her. We had traded quite a few e-mails during that time, but to learn about some of the same events with her sitting before me, to hear her voice instead of simply read her words, it made a significant difference.

"So," I finally asked, only somewhat jokingly, "whose heart got broken because you had to come home for the summer?"

Cassie gave me a shy smile as she took another sip of milk. "Okay, not my business to know. I understand."

She set her glass down on the kitchen table. "Actually, no one's heart has been broken."

"I see. You've always been really devoted to your studies, ever since I first met you over a decade ago when your family moved in across the street."

She shrugged. Something in her body language told me that she was hesitant to say something, that there was something she was holding back.

"I hope I haven't touched a nerve," I said softly and sincerely.

Cassie shook her head, and a moment later finally looked me in the eyes again. There was an expression in her eyes which I had not seen in a long, long time, and it warmed my heart that such an expression was aimed at me.

"Why me?" I asked, and she instantly knew what I meant, although she again visibly hesitated.

"You've taught me a lot over the years," Cassie replied with a maturity well beyond her years. "Even more than my own parents, you've always looked out for me You've always been there for me. More than anyone else I've ever known, you've made me feel special, like I'm a princess. You've been a true mentor, a lighthouse guiding me when I went through some rather rough times a few years back. You have a wisdom born from experience, and I've always admired you for that."

I leaned back in my chair, folding my arms across my chest as I digested her kind and honest words. "Well, it's true that I've seen and done a lot, and if any of my experiences can help me to help you live a better life, then I'm glad."

She smiled. There was definitely something more she wanted to say, and I knew what it was, but clearly the difference in age prevented her from speaking.

I left it at that, politely suggesting that she go unload the car before her parents returned from their respective offices. When we hugged on my front porch, I could feel her unspoken love surrounding me, and when I placed a soft kiss to her forehead, she looked up at me, her eyes even more expressive than usual.

Cassie knew that I knew. It did not need to be said.

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