Comfy Shorts: Four Romantic Short Stories by L.K. Campbell

Marry Markham wheeled her new red, organizer luggage through the revolving doors of the beachfront resort and waited her turn in the check-in line.

“Next,” the clerk called out.

“Marry Markham,” she told the clerk. “That’s Marry with two ‘r’s. My parents’ sense of humor. I was born on their anniversary.”
Comfy Shorts: Four Romantic Short Stories
Comfy Shorts: Four Romantic Short Stories by L.K. Campbell
The dark-haired young man didn’t laugh. “I didn’t think it was funny, either,” she said. “But it’s a good gimmick for my wedding planning business.” The clerk seemed to ignore her while tapping the touch screen on his computer. She looked around the luxurious lobby. Glass tiles, marble floors and soothing pastel colors all led up to a serpentine shaped staircase and elevators beyond. It had the feel of being on a cruise ship. “You’re in room 432,” the clerk said. “You have an oceanfront balcony, queen-sized bed and Jacuzzi tub.” Wow. Mom spared no expense. “Sounds wonderful,” she said to the clerk. “And here is the schedule for all of the week’s activities,” he continued. “Including the Meet and Greet Breakfast tomorrow morning, the bachelor auction tomorrow evening, and of course, the Looking for Love in All the Right Places seminar taught by talk radio personality, Dr. …” Marry stood back and held up her hands. “Wait a minute. Bachelor auction? Love seminars? What kind of place is this?” A shocked expression registered on the clerk’s face, and he pointed to the mural that decorated the wall behind him. “Encontrar el verdadero amor en La Luna Resort,” she read in her best tenth-grade Spanish accent. “It’s been twenty years since I took Spanish. Could you translate?” The clerk continued to point to the sign as he spoke. “Find your true love at La Luna Resort.” “So you’re telling me that this is some kind of matchmaking resort?” The clerk shrugged his shoulders. “If you want to call it that.” “And there would be no mistake about that in any of your advertising?” He shook his head. “La Luna is advertised as a resort for singles looking to meet other singles.” Mom! She took a deep breath and weighed the positives. She’d always wanted to see Puerto Rico, and she desperately needed a vacation after all of the hours she’d been working. “Thank you,” she said and pushed aside the schedule. “But I won’t need this. What I’d rather have is information on touring the island.” “Of course,” he said and pointed to the rack of pamphlets and brochures at the end of the counter. “Feel free to pick up brochures on whatever interests you. I’ll get a bus schedule and riding pass for you. Most of the tourist sites have buses that pick up and drop off at different times during the day.” “Good, I won’t have to rent a car.” After collecting her bus schedule and pass, she headed for the elevators and was almost tempted to stop in for a stiff drink at the bar located across the lobby. A margarita would definitely take the edge off. What was Mom thinking? Silly question. She knew exactly what her mother was thinking. Marry is thirty-five and running out of time to give me grandchildren. The elevator dinged and the doors opened onto the fourth floor. She’d expected to emerge into a darkened, narrow hallway. Instead, she stepped out into bright sunshine emanating from floor-to-ceiling windows in a well-appointed lounge area. She stepped over to the windows to take in the view of the resort gardens below, rich with blooming foliage and paths that led to private nooks and gazebos. It couldn’t be more idyllic, she thought. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” someone in close proximity said. She turned and looked at a tall stranger with clean-cut brown hair, a friendly smile and nice build from what she could see in the loose shirt and trousers he wore. The guy was just her type if she had come to La Luna Resort looking for a man, which she hadn’t. “Hi, I’m Dr. Love,” he said. Marry couldn’t restrain herself. She laughed out loud. “Well, of course you are,” she said. “No, really,” he said. “Dr. Allen Love.” Oh, sure, as if a good looking doctor would need to come to La Luna to find a mate. She gripped his extended hand and recalled his name from the schedule-of-events flyer that the clerk had shoved in her face. Heat flushed her cheeks, and she broke off the handshake. “You’re the seminar leader, aren’t you?” “The one and only,” he said, and then laughed. “Oh, I’ll bet you thought my introduction was a lame pick-up line.” Marry shrugged one shoulder. “Well, yes. It’s kind of funny.” He laughed again. He has a nice laugh, Marry thought. Warm and inviting like an overstuffed recliner at the end of a hard day. Her eyes darted down to his left hand. No wedding ring—not that she was the least bit interested. “When I first started my couples’ therapy practice, the name thing didn’t occur to me,” he said. “Then when I went on the radio, my publicist thought it was a great angle. You know how publicists are. Always looking for an angle.” She smiled and nodded, even though she wouldn’t have a clue how publicists are or what they do. “And who do I have the pleasure of conversing with?” he asked. “Marry,” she said. “With two ‘r’s, and I’m a wedding planner, so I guess I know something about angles, too.” “I guess you could come up with all kinds of catchy slogans,” he said. She shook her head. There had to be a better slogan than the one her ad rep at the newspaper had thought up. Marry, Marry How Does Your Wedding Go. “I hope I’ll get to see more of you during the week, Marry,” he said. “Actually, you probably won’t see much of me. I’m not here for any of that singles stuff. I’m here by mistake.” He shoved his hands into his pockets and shook his head. “I’m afraid you have me at a loss. The reason people come to La Luna…” “I know that now,” she said, interrupting him. “I thought my mother had given me a regular vacation for my birthday. I only found out when I checked in that this is a singles resort.” She reached down and grabbed the handle of her luggage. “So, I plan to just keep to myself, enjoy the island and get a tan.” “Suit yourself,” he said. “But you might miss out on some fun.” She tossed him a sideways glance. “I’ll take my chances,” she said. “By the way, do know which direction I go in to find Room 432?” He smiled and pointed to the right. “That way.” “Thank you. It was nice meeting you, Dr. Love and good luck with your seminars.” She wheeled her luggage off in the direction he had pointed. Luckily, she didn’t have to go far. Marry slipped her key card in the slot while reading the placard on the door, “The Sunshine Room” and also in Spanish “La Sala del Sol”. When she opened the door, she understood the name. The decorating scheme was composed of yellows, creams and muted oranges, and an obstructed view of the ocean. “Wow!” she said aloud. “Have I died and gone to heaven?” She went straight for the balcony doors and slid them open to reveal a semi-circular balcony with two lounge chairs—not the cheap plastic stuff, either. It looked like teak and had padded vinyl covers that matched the colors in the room. She walked to the railing, looked out on clear blue water and inhaled the scent of ocean air and surf. A cruise ship sailed into the nearby harbor while a speedboat darted through the waves. Just what I needed, she thought. Seven days and six nights of paradise. She dropped down onto the lounge chair, kicked her shoes off and closed her eyes. The sound of the surf lulled her until she dozed off. Marry’s eyes popped open. Was that a man’s voice she heard? He sounded as if he could be a just a few feet away, and his voice seemed familiar. She got to her feet and walked to the railing. The only people about were four stories below her at the pool. The voice she’d heard was much closer. She was sure of it. She leaned over and looked to the balcony on her right and didn’t see anyone. But looking to her left, she saw bare feet propped on the balcony railing. Definitely a man’s feet, she thought. She heard the rat-a-tat of fingers typing on a keyboard. Not wanting to be intrusive, she moved back away from the railing. She stepped back inside her room, closing the balcony door behind her. After getting a glimpse of the hotel’s three swimming pools, she didn’t want to waste any more time in her room. She unzipped her luggage and pulled out her new lemon yellow bikini and cover-up. She’d bought the daring outfit to celebrate losing most of the weight she’d gained during several months of depression. Thanks to throwing herself into starting a new business, one sad chapter of her life was finally over. She spied the green light blinking on her tablet indicating email in her inbox. She wanted to ignore it, but the temptation to peek was too great. What if one of my clients need me? She started to pick up the device but stopped short. Her assistant was a bright, capable young woman who could handle anything that popped up. Let her handle it. You need this vacation. She closed the suitcase with the blinking tablet still inside. Floating in the warm water, her skin caressed by the tropical breeze couldn’t have been more rejuvenating, but if she stayed in the pool much longer, she’d end up shriveled like a prune. She swam to the ladder and looked up at a pair of tanned, masculine legs. A hand reached down. “Need help?” She looked up at a familiar face. “That’s quite alright, Dr. Love,” she said. “I can manage.” “Please call me Allen,” he said. He didn’t move while she climbed up rung-by-rung. Nice legs, she thought. The right amount of muscle and not too hairy. She averted her eyes when they came level with the front of his army green swim shorts. “Could you step back, please?” she asked. “So that I can have a little room?” Allen grabbed a couple of towels from the courtesy rack and held it for her. She took it from him and wrapped one around her torso and used the other to dry her long mane of auburn hair. To her chagrin, he followed her back to her lounge chair. “I expected you to be off exploring the island,” he said and sat down on the chair next to hers. She reached for her sunscreen. “I’m here for a week, so there’s plenty of time.” “But you said you didn’t want to take part in any of the events, and the meet and greet pool party starts in fifteen minutes.” Oh, shoot. Why had she tossed out that schedule? “Does that include all three pools? I can move.” He shrugged and stared at her legs for a little longer than she found comfortable. “Yes, you could move to one of the other pools.” He paused and made eye contact with her. “But I wish you wouldn’t.” His eyes were as warm and blue as the sea that stretched out beyond the infinity pool. Incredible. Why hadn’t she noticed those eyes at their first meeting? She forced herself to look away. “I-I really don’t want to spend the afternoon being hit on by a bunch of desperate men,” she said. Allen leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “How about just one desperate man?” His ivory cotton shirt fell open, and her eyes dropped to the light dusting of brown hair across his muscular chest. She’d always liked a man with a little bit of hair on his chest—not to mention a boatload of charm. “Dr. Love…Allen, we just met. You don’t know anything about me.” “Carpe diem,” he said. “Seize the day or the moment. That’s what I tell the people who call into my show.” Marry shook her head. “And how has that worked out for you? You’re still single in spite of being a rich doctor.” He lowered his head, and she had feeling that she’d said the wrong thing. “I’m a widower, Marry. My wife was killed in a car accident five years ago. That’s why I know better than anyone that there’s no time like the present.” Heat flushed her cheeks, and she could have crawled under her chaise lounge. It still didn’t change the fact that she didn’t intend to have a vacation romp. “I’m very sorry about that,” she said. “But I don’t do flings or have casual sex with men I hardly know.” He narrowed his eyes, and she could have a sworn that a light blush colored his cheeks. “Okay,” he said. “That’s good to know, but I was only looking for a date to the pool party.” She mentally slapped herself for behaving like a goof. Well, that was her modus operandi when it came to meeting men. Which is why you’re still single, she could hear her mother saying. “I’m not going to be pushy,” he said. “But you might want to stay for the bacon-wrapped shrimp and piña coladas plus a great, local salsa band.” She could eat her weight in bacon-wrapped shrimp. The chef salad she’d had on the plane had long since worn off. “Don’t I need a name tag?” she asked, pointing to the one on his shirt. “Be right back,” he said. She grabbed her floral print cover-up that screamed tourist and pulled it over her head. She didn’t want to be clad in just her itsy bitsy yellow bikini when dozens of eager bachelors poured into the pool area. Before she could get her feet into her flip-flops, Allen was back. He handed her the nametag along with a pen. “Would I be too out-of-line if I wrote ‘Not here to hook up’ under my name?” she asked. He answered her with a crooked smile. “So, why aren’t you interested in finding love, Marry?” “Alright,” she said. “You’re a psychologist, so it’s time for the head-shrinking, right?” “Not at all,” he said. “I’m just making conversation.” Marry pulled the backing off the tag and slapped it onto her upper chest. “My business has finally taken off in the past year. It seems like the only time I’m not working or thinking about work is when I’m sleeping. The last thing I need right now is a man to make me feel guilty that I’m not spending enough time with him.” “It’s a wonder you took time for a vacation,” he said. She probably wouldn’t have if the most recent client hadn’t been such a nightmare. “As I mentioned earlier, this vacation was a birthday gift from my mother. I wish I had known that she was sending me to a lonely hearts last resort.” “Hmm, wonder why she did that?” he asked. “Not because mother knows best,” she said. “She’s been married three times. My dad was husband number two.” He rubbed his chin. “Is that so?” “See, you’re starting already,” she said. “This is why I could never become involved with a psychiatrist.” “Psychologist.” “Psychologist, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst. It’s all the same.” Allen shook his head. “Not entirely, and I wouldn’t dream of practicing on anyone who didn’t ask for my help. I do find it interesting that you have such an adverse reaction to psychology.” She sat up straight and looked out toward the ocean. “My mother’s third husband was our family counselor when her marriage to my dad was breaking up. Instead of helping her repair her marriage, he helped her out of it. So, yeah, I kind of have an aversion to your profession.” He made a disturbed face. “That was unethical of him, to say the least. How old were you when that happened?” “Fourteen,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Oh, look, they’re setting up the bar. Can I get you a piña colada?” He nodded and she walked over to the bar, hoping that he wouldn’t follow. Over the years, she’d learned to lock away her hurt and anger towards step-daddy dearest. Why had one question from Dr. Love taken the lid off that cauldron of emotions? While she was waiting for their drinks, he came up beside her and nudged her arm with a plate. “As promised, bacon-wrapped shrimp along with stuffed mushroom caps,” he said. Marry could resist the man, but she couldn’t resist the food. She was starving. She took the plate from him, collected her drink and returned to her lounge chair. The band began to play, and she tapped her foot to the quick, Latin beat. “When you’ve finish eating, will you give me the honor of a dance?” he asked. She laughed. “I shouldn’t admit this,” she said. “But if anyone had a video of me dancing, it could probably go viral on You Tube, and not in a good way. I have two left feet.” He stretched out on the lounge chair next to hers and grinned. He had the type of smile that at one time could have melted her resolve, but she was older and wiser now. “Salsa dancing is more about the hips than the feet,” he said. “And I have a feeling you can move those pretty well.” She nearly swallowed a mushroom cap whole and had to take a huge gulp of her drink to wash it down. “Ex-Excuse me? And just how did you come to that conclusion?” she asked. “I watched you walk to the bar. You have very graceful movements. I’ll bet you would make a fine dancer if you gave yourself the chance.” Little did he know. Following five years of dance lessons and several embarrassing recitals, her mother had decreed that no more money would be wasted on that effort. “It ain’t gonna happen,” she said. He jumped to his feet and began dancing. He turned and swaying his hips to the tropical rhythm. He wasn’t the best dancer in the world, but she couldn’t help smiling at his attempt to impress her. “Come on,” he said. “You know you want to join me.” She giggled. What was that? Marry Markham was not a giggler. Either the heat of the late afternoon sun was getting to her, or she was getting a little buzz from her drink. “It’s more fun watching you,” she said. “Really?” He did quick turn on one foot, lost his balance and if she hadn’t moved out the way, he would have fallen on top of her. “So graceful,” she said. “I guess I didn’t mention that I’m a little out-of-practice,” he said. Marry helped him back into his chair. “Why don’t you sit out the rest of dance? I think it’s safer for all concerned,” she said. “I’m going back to the buffet. Would you like something?” “A couple of those mini-seafood kabobs would be nice.” While she moved through the buffet line, Marry pretended not to notice the two men on either side of her. Both of them were giving her the once-over in way that left her uncomfortable. Neither of them interested her. The guy on her right must have taken a bath in his cologne, and his hair was slicked back like a hood in an old gangster movie. How am I going to survive a whole week in this place? The blonde guy pressed in close to her, and darned if she didn’t feel his hand against her lower back. At least, she hoped it was his hand. “Excuse me,” she said. “Would you mind moving a step back so I can reach the shrimp?” “Okay,” he said as if he were offended. Cologne guy turned around and attempted to take the plates from her. “Need some help with those?” he asked. “No. Thank you,” she said. “I can manage.” She took a few more items from the buffet and made a hasty retreat back to Allen. “In your seminars, perhaps you could give a few pointers in etiquette,” she said while handing him is plate. “Talk about pushy.” He shook his head. “Probably wouldn’t do any good.” He sipped his drink and tasted the mango salsa she’d put on his plate. “So where do you live, Marry?” “In an apartment complex.” The silly and incredibly attractive little boy grin appeared on his face again. “Very funny, and where is the apartment complex?” “Florida.” “That’s interesting,” he said. “How so?” she asked. He leaned toward her, and she wanted to back away, but she didn’t. “My Let’s Talk Relationships spot airs on the morning news in three major Florida markets. I can’t believe you haven’t seen it.” She ignored the urge to reprimand him for being narcissistic. “I work fourteen hours a day. I don’t have much time to watch T.V,” she said. He put his feet up and reclined on the chair. “What a shame.” “Please. Let’s not cover that territory again,” she said. He held up his hands in surrender. “I promise.” He popped a scallop into his mouth. “These hors d’oeuvres are really good. So what are your plans for dinner?” Marry let out an audible sigh. He’s as subtle as a heat-seeking missile. She’d always been attracted to men who were a little more reserved. Then again, she didn’t exactly have a passing grade when it came to romance—a broken engagement attested to it. She did not intend to add Dr. Love to her list of failures. Her mother would never let her live it down. “Since I haven’t even unpacked my suitcase,” she said. “I’ll probably order room service and eat-in. I’d venture down to the hotel restaurant, but the cologne tester and surfer dude over there might be waiting to pounce on me again.” “I have a better idea,” he said. “Let me take you to Aquaviva—one of the best restaurants in San Juan—or at least it was the last time I ate there.” He paused and took his cell phone out of his shirt pocket. “Just say yes, and I’ll make the reservations.” For a moment, she considered it, but she had a feeling that a dinner date with Dr. Love would be much more than just a date. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I think I’ll order room service and spend the evening catching up on my reading. You don’t know how long it’s been since I had time to relax and read a book.” Allen nodded and put his cell phone back in his pocket. “Suit yourself, but please give me a rain check. You can’t leave Puerto Rico without going to Aquaviva.” A busboy came by with a tray to collect their empties. “I think it’s time to head back to my room,” she said while standing and gathering her things. “Before you go, let me recommend that you order room service from El Club de las Estrellas’ menu. That’s the casual dining lounge on the third floor. The food is better and cheaper than the La Luna Restaurante on the first floor.” “Thanks for the advice,” she said. “How many times have you heard that in your line of work?” Marry walked away, but she had a feeling that he was still watching her. She turned back to him. “It was nice talking with you,” she said. “And I didn’t mean to come off so harsh about psychologists. I’m sure you’re a good one.” Allen’s smile spread across his face. “No doubt, we’ll see each other again,” he said. * * * Brightness pierced Marry’s eyelids. She rolled over and groaned. The sun had risen over the horizon and flooded her room with morning light. Oh, crap, she thought. I forgot to close the drapes last night. No wonder they call this room La Sala del Sol. She sat up and stretched. Even as she’d been rudely awakened, she felt more refreshed than she had in months. Her eyes locked on the clock. Eight a.m. She’d gone through her brochures the night before and decided to visit the Caguas Botanical Garden. She had plenty of time for coffee and breakfast before catching the bus in front of the hotel at ten. Marry willed herself to leave the big, comfy bed and start a pot of coffee brewing. She picked up the phone and ordered a breakfast of sausage and eggs from the restaurant. At home, her breakfast was usually a microwave pastry or cereal, but what the heck? She was on vacation. She went to the closet and picked out her outfit for the day—a light blue cotton shirt and khaki capri pants. After taking a quick shower, she dressed before her breakfast arrived. A young man in crisp uniform handed her the covered tray. She signed the check and handed him some bills from her purse. Rather than eat in the room, she decided to eat on the balcony. The aroma of the hotel’s gourmet coffee smelled wonderful, and she poured a cup before taking her breakfast outside. While she ate, she watched the boats coming and going from the marina. A beautiful sleek, modern yacht was anchored just off shore, and a smaller boat had ferried someone out to it. She picked up the ceramic mug emblazoned with the hotel logo and stood up, leaning against the balcony railing. Hotel workers below cleaned the pools and straightened the lounge chairs. After leaving the party the night before she had sat on her balcony, listening to the band and watching the partygoers. She had seen Dr. Love mingling briefly with each guest but never spending too much time with any one in particular. It shouldn’t have mattered to her, but for some reason, it did. Glancing at her watch, she regretted that she only had a few minutes more to enjoy the coffee and the scenery, but she didn’t want to miss her bus. She bent down to pick up her breakfast tray and nearly dropped it when she heard his voice. “Beautiful morning to have breakfast outside, isn’t it?” he asked. Marry turned to see Allen leaning over the railing of the room next door to hers. The feet I saw propped on the railing yesterday belonged to the radio shrink? What are the odds? “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “This hotel has hundreds of rooms, and yours is next to mine.” He grinned. With sleep-tousled hair and wearing only a t-shirt and pajama bottoms, he looked even more handsome than he had the day before. “Just lucky I guess,” he said. “Well, this is all very nice,” she said. “But I have a bus to catch.” “Where to?” “The botanical garden at Caguas,” she said. “I thought it would be a nice place to spend the day where I wouldn’t have to worry about horny single men hitting on me.” Allen laughed. “Don’t forget your camera and a good pair of walking shoes.” She looked down at her silver thong sandals with the two-inch heels. “Oh, I guess I’d better change shoes,” she said. She stepped back inside, and changed to the comfy Bass sandals she’d worn for the flight down. She pulled her hair into a ponytail and swiped on some dark mauve lipstick. She went to close the sliding door to the balcony and couldn’t help peeking to see if he was still there. He was gone. It was just as well. She only had enough time before the bus came to stop by the bistro in the lobby and pick up a sandwich to have for lunch. When she boarded the bus, she found it only half-full, so she had her choice of window seats. The driver closed the door, and she relaxed against the seat for what she hoped would be a leisurely ride. Instead, the bus went a few feet and stopped again. She heard the doors open but couldn’t see over the top of the seat in front of her, so she turned to look out the window again. “Excuse me, is this seat taken?” Her head whipped around. “What are you doing here?” Allen grinned while taking the empty seat next to hers. He’d only had time to dress in a pair jeans and a polo shirt and hadn’t shaved, but he looked…sexy. “I couldn’t let you go off to Jardin Botánico by yourself. You might get lost.” “Getting lost might have been my intention,” she said. “Don’t you have seminars to conduct today?” He shook his head. “That’s tomorrow and Thursday. Then, on Friday, I broadcast my weekly radio show from the hotel ballroom, but I’m free until tonight when I emcee the bachelor auction.” “Lucky me,” she said while trying to muster some irritation in her voice. Deep down, she was glad for the company—not that this crazy, impulsive man was wearing her down. Visiting a place like Jardin Botánico was more enjoyable with another person rather than wandering around alone. “If you like nature and learning about the culture of the island, you’ll love this place,” he said. “Lots of photo ops.” “So you’ve been there before,” she said. “This is my fourth year doing the La Luna gig. I’ve seen a lot of Puerto Rico,” he said. “Any other recommendations for what I can do this week?” she asked. Allen looked at her for a moment and a smile worked its way across his mouth. “I can think of one or two things,” he said. Their eyes locked for a split-second, and she was drawn into the depth of his. She turned away and reached into her tote to get her water bottle. “Other than spending time with you,” she said. “Oh, well, you should go to Arecibo. You would probably enjoy the lighthouse and historical park. There are replicas of Spanish galleons that you can board and a recreated village showing how the natives lived in the pre-Columbian era. Oh, and the park also has replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.” “I like history,” she said. “And I think I have a brochure for it.” His knee brushed hers when he turned in his seat. She swallowed hard. The sensation rekindled feelings in her that had been dormant for too long. She shook it off and moved as far as away from him as she could in the confined space. “What exactly do you talk about in your seminars?” she asked. “How to chase and trap a mate?” “Far from it, Marry,” he said. “It goes much deeper than that. My hope is that the people who attend my seminars will leave with the tools to create lasting relationships.” She turned her head to look at the passing scenery and cars zipping by on the busy, four-lane highway. “For someone who’s in the marriage business,” he said. “You certainly are cynical about it.” Her head snapped around toward him. “I’m not cynical about marriage. I believe there are people who’ve found true love and made it last.” “But you don’t believe you can,” he said. Marry could picture the wheels turning in his brain, itching to psychoanalyze her. She wagged her finger at him. “Oh, no, Dr. Love, you’re not sucking me into that conversation.” He leaned back against the seat and yawned. “I hope that very large lizards don’t scare you,” he said. Her eyes widened. “What?” “They’re all over Jardin Botánico. Iguanas mostly. Last time I was here I took a great picture of one about two-feet long.” He spread his hands to show the length. “Just sitting on the handrail of one of the bridges.” “Thanks for the warning,” she said while unease gripped her. She’d never been fond of reptiles. “Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “They won’t bother you unless you poke them with a stick or something.” “That wouldn’t be my first instinct,” she said. The bus slowed and turned into the entrance. They disembarked in front of a waterfall fountain cascading from the roof of a modern architectural structure topped with a stained-glass bird and butterfly. They followed the line of tourists through the entrance to the garden where Allen insisted on paying for her. Not wanting to make a scene, she allowed him the privilege. They took the path that led through the ruins of the old sugar plantation. “Since you’re a wedding planner, you might be interested to know that they have a lot of weddings here,” he said. “Oh? Well, it’s a beautiful setting,” she said. “I can imagine any number of scenarios.” “What made you decide to go into that line of work?” he asked. She strolled out ahead of him to photograph the sugar mill. He came and stood next to her. “I helped my best friend plan her wedding a few years ago,” she said. “And I enjoyed all of it—the details that went into arranging everything. I decided that if I was ever going to get out of my boring job and do something for myself that would be it.” “Stand in front of the chimney and let me take your picture,” he said. She handed him her camera and moved into the best photographic vantage point. She smiled at his urging. “Perfect,” he said. “You have a beautiful smile, Marry. Of course, there’s a lot about you that’s beautiful—auburn hair and eyes the color of chocolate. Even the freckles on your nose are beautiful.” Heat filled her cheeks. She’d spent most of her life focusing on her flaws, and if she ever forgot about them, her mother would remind her. “You’re very kind,” she said. He came close to her and placed the camera strap around her neck. He was close enough to kiss. Do I want to kiss him? “It’s not kindness,” he said. “It’s the truth.” His eyes softened, and he bent his head as if to kiss her. At once, panic settled into her core. She backed away. “You’ve asked me a lot of questions about myself,” she said. “But I know very little about you.” Allen inhaled a deep breath through parted lips and pushed his hands into the pockets of his nice-fitting jeans. She averted her eyes to the bright orange bird of paradise blooming along the walkway. “You said that you’re a widower. Do you have children?” she asked. “No, we had only been married a little over two years when she was killed, so we hadn’t made the decision yet to start a family.” “Have you had many relationships since your wife died?” He nodded and shrugged. “I’ve dated a few women but haven’t had a serious relationship. I’m very picky.” A chuckle escaped from her mouth before she could stop it. “Why do you find that funny?” he asked. Marry looked off into the distance and debated with herself as to whether to answer him truthfully. “Okay, here’s the thing,” she said. “You’ve known me less than twenty-four hours. Yet, here you are tagging along after me.” “You really don’t know how incredibly attractive you are, do you?” His question stung like the opening of old wounds. “Have I ever looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘Hey there, beautiful’? No. I haven’t.” She paused and swallowed back the lump in her throat. “And if I’m so beautiful why are men always dumping me for other women?” “Maybe the problem is that you’ve been choosing the wrong men,” he said. She turned and marched off toward the footbridge. “Oh, here we go,” she said. He jogged up behind her. “Marry, wait. I’m not talking to you as a psychologist.” He grasped her shoulders and spun her around to face him. “I’m speaking as a man who thinks you’re pretty, smart and funny—not to mention brave enough to start your own business and make it a success.” His face was only inches away from hers, and she stared into those gorgeous eyes. “And one other thing, I think,” she said. “I’m a challenge. You like a challenge, don’t you?” He grinned and nodded before claiming her mouth with his own. She melted into the warmth of his kiss, feeling as if she belonged in his embrace. It had been too long since she’d allowed herself to feel anything, much less passion. Before she could go too far, her cautious side took over. She pulled back, placing her hands against his chest. “And add good kisser to the list, too,” Allen said. Marry disentangled herself from his arms and started across the bridge. “Come on,” she said. “We have a lot more territory to explore.” “We sure do,” he said. * * * When she heard his door open and close, she typed “goodnight” in the chat box and signed off of Facebook. After their kiss on the bridge, they’d had a wonderful day exploring the remainder of the garden. She’d even let him talk her into a paddleboat ride. It had taken them a few minutes to get in sync, but once they did, she found herself having more fun than she’d had in a long time. She slipped her robe on over her pajamas and went out onto the balcony. The pools were still alive with activity, and there seemed to be a party going on in the large hot tub. She turned her head when she heard his balcony door open. He stepped out wearing his tuxedo shirt with the tie undone. She released the breath she was holding. Was there anything he could wear that didn’t make him look ravishing? “How did the bachelor auction go?” she asked. “Great,” he said. “I don’t subscribe to that way of meeting a mate, but it’s a fun diversion for the participants.” They both looked down at the sound of a big splash following by hysterical laughter. “They’re having a good time,” she said. “Where did you have dinner tonight?” he asked. “I went to El Club de las Estrellas,” she said. “I figured with all the single guys participating in the bachelor auction I was safe from predators.” Allen laughed. “Predators, huh? Is that the way you see me?” She scrunched her face. “No, you’re like a little puppy that followed me home.” “I can live with that,” he said. “Instead of talking across the balcony, why don’t you come over here?” She cinched her robe a little tighter. “Oh, I-I don’t know about that,” she said. He rolled eyes and pointed toward his balcony door. “I have a suite, Marry. That’s my living room in there. I’m not asking you to come to my bedroom.” “Well…okay,” she said. “But I’m in my pajamas. I’ll be over after I dress.” Before she closed her door, she heard him say, “Don’t change on my account.” The black slacks and ivory silk top she’d worn to dinner were still draped across the small sofa next to the bed. She changed quickly and stepped into her flip-flops but didn’t bother with makeup. When he opened the door for her, he’d changed out of his tuxedo and into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. She suddenly felt overdressed. “Come into my home away home,” he said. If her room was The Sunshine Room; then his was The Jungle Room in all different shades of greens and browns. The upholstery on his sofa and matching recliner looked like fern leaves. He motioned toward the sofa. “Please sit down,” he said. “Can I get you something from my mini-bar?” She waved her hand. “No, thank you. I don’t want anything to drink.” “I have soft drinks, too,” he said. “In that case a diet Coke,” she said. “I like your suite. When I used to work as a district sales manager, my company would always put me up in the cheapest places. I hated coming back to the motel at night and doing follow-up reports at those tiny desks and sitting in uncomfortable chairs.” “Believe it or not,” he said. “I’ve stayed in some of those places, too.” He handed her drink to her and sat down on the other end of the sofa. He propped his bare feet on the coffee table. “La Luna always puts me up in this suite when I do seminars for them.” Marry leaned back against the comfy sofa cushions. “I was chatting with my mother on Facebook a while ago,” she said. “She wanted to know if I’d met anyone yet. I reminded her that I’d only been here two days.” “So you didn’t tell her about the psychologist who’s been chasing you all over the island? I’m hurt, Marry.” “I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction,” she said. He squeezed his lips together, turned an imaginary key and tossed it over his shoulder. Marry laughed. “You could make a whole practice out of psychoanalyzing my relationship with Mom.” Allen sipped his drink and made a face. “I don’t think that’s a project I want to tackle,” he said. “Is she still married to her third husband?” “They were divorced about ten years ago. Now she’s with a guy she met at her senior citizens club. I don’t think they’ll ever get married, though.” “Why is that?” “He’s rich as all get out, and Mom says she’ll never sign a pre-nup,” she said. “He owns a lot of real estate in Tampa. Mom moved there to a ritzy retirement community after she sold her home in Orlando.” “Small world,” he said. “I live in Tampa.” Marry’s thoughts raced. This could put a whole new spin on things. “Mom wanted to get away from all the tourists, but I love Orlando, and it isn’t so far from Tampa that I can’t drive over for a visit when I want to.” He set down his drink. “An hour and a half on the interstate. Less than that if the traffic’s light,” he said. He moved closer to her and brushed a tendril of her hair away from her face. “Do you think we could start seeing each other on a regular basis?” She nodded. “That might be possible but remember I’m a busy woman.” “Yes,” he said and leaned in close enough to touch his lips to hers. “So you’ve told me.” He took her drink from her and set it on the coffee table. Placing his hands on her shoulders, he pressed her back against the couch and kissed her. She ran her fingers through his hair, grasping his head and drawing him into a deeper kiss. He moved closer, pressing the side of his body against hers. She could feel the sparks coursing between them like two charged atoms. But her mind was soon flooded with all of the reasons she’d stayed away from men for two years. If I don’t stop him now; I never will. Marry broke off the kiss and struggled to catch her breath. “Allen, please don’t move too fast,” she said. He caressed her cheek. “I have no problem respecting your boundaries,” he said. “I’ve rushed into physical relationships in the past and ended up hurt—badly. I don’t feel that I know you well enough, and I’m getting too old for playing around.” “Yeah, you’re practically a senior citizen,” he said with a laugh. She picked up her drink and took a sip. “You know what I mean,” she said. “Yes, I do,” he said. “And for your information, I was just enjoying our kiss. I wasn’t going to ask you to have sex with me…tonight, anyway.” Marry smiled. For as much as he was driving her crazy, he was really growing on her. “I have seminars all day tomorrow,” he said. “But tomorrow night, I’d like to take you out on our first real date.” “I would like that,” she said. “Good. I’ll make reservations at Aquaviva,” he said and planted a quick, chaste kiss on her lips. “I hope this place isn’t too fancy,” she said. “I only brought casual clothes.” “What you’re wearing tonight looks great,” he said. “You don’t have to dress up.” Butterflies danced in her stomach, and she took another sip—more like a gulp—of her drink to calm them. Allen Love was breaking through the barriers she’d erected around herself and her heart, and she didn’t know whether to be happy or scared. * * * Allen knocked on her door at six p.m. She checked her appearance in the mirror. For their night out, she’d dressed in the same black slacks she worn the night before but paired it with a white, silk tank top. When she opened the door, he greeted her with a kiss on the cheek. During the day, she had found herself missing his company. Without his banter, it had been a lonely bus trip to Arecibo and back. “By the way, I have a rented car,” he said. “So I thought that after we eat, you might like to take a drive along the coast.” “That sounds perfect,” she said. She wrapped around her shoulders the colorful cotton shawl she’d purchased in Arecibo. When they reached the parking lot, and she saw that the top was down on his rented convertible, Marry was glad she’d worn her hair up. The wind tunnel look wasn’t becoming on her. “So how did you spend your day?” he asked after he was in the driver’s seat. “I took your advice and went to Arecibo today. It was a little crowded,” she said. She reached across the seat and brushed her fingers through his hair, bringing a smile to his lips. “And it would have been more fun sharing it with you,” she said. “Yes,” he said. “My evil plan to win your heart is working.” She laughed. “Don’t get all full of yourself.” When they entered the restaurant, she felt enveloped by the color blue. The lighting was blue. The décor was blue. “It’s very blue,” she said. “You’re supposed to feel as if you’re under water,” Allen said. Marry nodded. “I like it.” “The ceviche is the most popular dish on the menu, but they have a variety of seafood and other dishes,” he said. Allen ordered watermelon sangria for both of them. Marry took a tentative sip of the unfamiliar drink. “Mmm, sweet,” she said. “With just a little tang.” He leaned across the table and brushed a kiss against her lips. “Just like you.” She felt a blush rise to her cheeks. “Wait until you get to know me better,” she said. The waiter brought crab cake appetizers and placed them on the table between them. “Besides going to Arecibo, what else did you do today?” he asked. “Hung out at the pool. Oh, I was chatting with mom on Facebook again, and it seems that I was wrong about her plans with Nick. They are talking about marriage,” she said with an eye roll. “You don’t approve?” “This would be her fourth marriage. At her age,” Marry said. “I think she should admit the fact that marriage isn’t something she’s good at.” Allen chuckled. “She doesn’t have a good track record, but you can’t rule out the possibility that this one will work out.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe. At least, Nick Rudolph has money. He can keep her style, and…” “Wait a minute,” Allen said. “Nick Rudolph is your mother’s boyfriend?” Marry nodded. “Yes.” Allen buried his face in his hands and laughed. “Is there something funny about that?” she asked. He looked up at her and shook his head. “Marry, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think we’ve been had.” “What are you talking about?” she asked. “Nick Rudolph is my uncle,” he said. Heat rose to her cheeks. “So you’re saying that you think my mom and your uncle set us up to fall for each other?” He nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. They probably even arranged for you to have the room next to mine to increase the odds of us meeting.” Marry dropped her fork and leaned back in her chair. “I understand my mother’s meddling, but why would your uncle co-conspire with her to set us up?” “My whole family has been trying to find a wife for me.” “They don’t respect your right to find someone on your own?” Allen looked down at his plate. “Jill’s death was very difficult for me. I mean…I know it’s never easy to lose someone, but when it happens so suddenly. The last time I saw her she was hurrying off to work that morning, and then…she was gone. The next time I saw her was at the morgue in the hospital.” Marry reached across the table and clasped his hand. “I’m so sorry.” He inhaled a deep breath. “I went through several months of both depression and over-compensating with work until I basically burned myself out. I had to take some time off from my private practice to regroup. Then the radio opportunity came along, and it breathed new life into me. It was as if I found a purpose again.” “But your family still thinks you’re missing the love of a good woman,” she said. “That’s about the size of it,” he said. They ate in silence for a few minutes before Marry spoke. “Charlie, my ex-fiancé, left me at the altar. Well, not exactly at the altar. While I was dressing for the rehearsal the night before the wedding, he texted me from the airport. He was leaving to go on our honeymoon with another woman.” “Ouch,” Allen said. “No wonder you’ve cloistered yourself away from men.” “I went through a period of depression, too and lots of questioning, blaming myself and wondering what I did wrong that I couldn’t hold on to him. Sometimes I still wonder.” He opened his mouth to speak but closed it and shook his head. “Go ahead, Dr. Love,” Marry said. “Say what you were going to say.” “Some guys are just jerks,” he said. She dropped her fork. “Uhm…gee. I’m glad I didn’t pay for that advice.” Allen pushed aside his empty plate and leaned against the table. “Okay, I’m assuming that he didn’t just pick this woman up in the airport, correct?” “He’d known her for a long time. She was an old girlfriend,” Marry said. “So he was a coward as well as a jerk,” Allen said. “This Charlie guy was probably having doubts about your relationship a long time before he sent that text to you on the night before your wedding. He should have been a decent man and told you the truth when he first realized that he still had a thing for his ex-girlfriend.” “Maybe he tried to tell me, and I wasn’t listening. I was busy planning the wedding, and I did a lot of traveling for my job…” “Hey, Marry.” Her head snapped up, and she stared at him. Why did he take that tone with me? “Hmm, I didn’t seem to have any trouble getting your attention just then,” he said. “Charlie could have found a way to talk to you if he’d been man enough to face you.” “Charlie never liked confrontation,” she said. He leaned back in his chair. “I wrote a paper on that once. Remind me to let you read it.” He paused while the waiter took their plates. “I have no doubt that you would have given him the devil,” he said. “What makes you say that?” He pointed to her head. “Red hair,” he said. “Fiery temperament.” “That’s an old wives’ tale,” she said. But true, she acknowledged to herself if not to him. He grinned as if he’d read her mind. “Confrontation is sometimes necessary—especially when you’ve made the kind of mistake Charlie made. You have to face the music and take your lumps, or take the coward’s way out as he did.” “It did make me a stronger person. I would have never started my business if Charlie hadn’t left me, and in hindsight, we had a lot of differences that might have made us incompatible. I’m better off without him.” He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. “And there you have it,” he said. “Making the best out of the hand we’re dealt—not letting it cripple us or make us afraid of…life.” It might have been the potent drink in front of her or the atmosphere of the restaurant, but Marry felt warm and relaxed from head to toe. It had been ages since she’d felt that way. “So how do you propose that we get our revenge on my mom and your uncle?” she asked. He raised his glass. “By having the best time that we can have and not telling them a single thing about it.” She touched her glass to his. “Agreed. I like the way you think.” * * * Marry awoke on Friday morning feeling regret that her vacation was almost over. Looking at the clock, she saw that it was past nine. She and Allen had stayed out late the night before at a dance club. She enjoyed the music, but she’d finally given him proof that she couldn’t dance. She started the coffee brewing and walked over to the balcony. The hotel staff was setting up beyond the pool area for what appeared to be a wedding. The flowers and arch facing the ocean gave it away. She remembered how a week earlier she had rolled her eyes at the resort slogan, Encontrar el verdadero amor en La Luna Resort. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one who had found love at La Luna. Marry still couldn’t quite believe it. A man that she’d only known for a week had swept into her life and stolen her heart right out from under her in such a different and unexpected way. With Charlie, her relationship had begun with crazy, hormonal, horny sex. What she felt for Allen was as much cerebral as it was sexual. Instead of turmoil, he’d brought out the best in her. Her mother had certainly pulled a fast one on her. She smiled at the thought of how she’d kept her mom on pins and needles all week—not giving away any details about Allen. As far as her mom knew, she’d been spending her days and nights in solitude curled up with her Kindle reading murder mysteries. She glanced toward Allen’s suite but remembered that he was broadcasting his live radio show from the ballroom. He’d probably already left his room. Her head snapped around at the knock on her door. She rushed to open it and found a member of the hotel staff holding a garment bag. “I have a delivery for Marry Markham,” he said. “Oh, there must be some mistake,” she said. “I haven’t ordered anything.” The young man seemed puzzled and looked around. “You’re Marry Markham, correct?” She shrugged one shoulder. “Yes, that’s me.” He held out the garment bag. “There’s an envelope attached. Perhaps that will tell you who sent it.” “Well…thank you…I guess.” Marry laid the bag across the end of her bed and pulled the envelope off, tearing it open. Marry, I’d like for you to attend a wedding with me this morning. I took the liberty of buying this dress for you, because I remembered you saying that you only brought casual clothes. I bought it on the sales lady’s advice, so I hope you’ll like it. I’ll meet you in the lobby at 11 a.m. after I finish my radio show. Allen Marry sighed. “Oh, Allen, I will never get over how impulsive you are.” She hoped that he’d guessed her size correctly. She opened the bag and found a silk, floral print sundress. Pink orchids on a pale green background were a little too froufrou for her taste but appropriate for a wedding. Must be the one they’re setting up on the beach, she thought. In that case, she wouldn’t have to worry about shoes. She could wear her flip-flops or go barefoot. At eleven on the dot, the elevator doors opened, and she stepped out into the lobby. But where in the lobby am I supposed to meet him? She remembered that he was doing his broadcast from the hotel ballroom and went in that direction. He came through the doors looking very dapper in a gray business suit with a blue and gray-striped tie. His eyes scanned her from head to toe. Instead of wearing her hair in its usual ponytail, she’d let it fall around her shoulders. The dress was a little long for her taste, but it fit well, and she’d opted for her silver sandals instead of the flip-flops. “Beautiful,” he said. “Before we go out to the wedding, let’s go over to the lounge and talk for a minute.” Dread crept into her heart. A phrase like let’s talk was not usually followed by anything good. She followed him over to the sofa and sat down. He moved close to her and took her hand. “Marry, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about us, and I’ve made up my mind about something,” he said. “I want to continue what we’ve started here, and, I say that with bruised feet from our night out dancing.” He paused, and his grip tightened on her hand. A thought rushed through her mind and popped out of her mouth before she could stop it. “Oh, my goodness,” she said. “The wedding…Is that our wedding on the beach?” Allen’s eyes grew wide, and he shook his head, “Oh, no, no, Marry. I know you think I’m a little fast and forward, but I would never do that.” She breathed a sigh of relief—not that she wouldn’t be flattered or that she would never consider marrying Allen. “The wedding is for La Luna’s public relations director,” he said. After they stopped laughing, he took her hand again. “Well,” he said. “What do you think about continuing our newfound relationship after we return to Florida?” Marry caressed his cheek with the back of her hand. “I would like that very much.” The kiss they shared wasn’t quite as passionate as Marry would have liked, but they were in a public space, after all. There would be plenty of time for passion later when they were alone. Allen stood. “We’d better go,” he said. She took his arm and walked across the lobby with him, feeling a sense of renewal through her whole being. “So other than attending this wedding with me, how would you like to spend your last full day in Puerto Rico?” he asked. A sly smile crossed her ruby red lips. “Well, I think I remember seeing a wedding chapel not too far from here.” Allen stopped walking and turned to her. “Really?” “Carpe diem,” she said. “I don’t want to give you the chance to change your mind.” He embraced her in a bear hug. “That could never happen,” he said. “Let’s do it. There’s a jewelry store next to the shop where I bought your dress.” He paused and grinned. “You know what? Your name is going to be Marry Love. Now, that’s an advertising angle. You’ll be the most sought-after wedding planner in Florida. Maybe even get a reality T.V. show…” Marry silenced him with a long, slow kiss on the lips. For the next day and a half, business would be the last thing on her mind. the end Not for Me “I’m sorry,” Nicole said. “It has nothing to do with you.” Like the blue makeup he wore, dejection painted the young man’s face. One of the antennae on his white wig drooped. “Honestly,” she continued. “I’m just not interested in dating anyone right now.” “But she said that you were available,” he said. “Who is she?” “Brenda. She said that you’d be working late tonight, and I should come by and meet you,” he answered. Her face grew hot, and she could imagine it turning beet red. This was the last straw. The next time she saw Brenda; she was going to let her have it with both barrels. “Look,” she said. “I feel bad about this, so go back to the Sci-Fi section, pick out a DVD, and I’ll let you have it for free.” His demeanor perked up, and she could’ve sworn that his drooping antenna stood up straight. “Gee,” he said. “I hope you have the complete first season of Stargate Atlantis.” “I don’t feel that bad,” she said. “Keep it under $20, please.” The next morning, Brenda strolled into the store with a huge grin on her face. “Hi, Nicole. Did you have a nice evening?” she asked. Nicole nodded and continued keying the new merchandise into the store computer. Brenda walked behind the counter and stuffed her oversized designer purse into a small cubbyhole. “Did anything unusual happen last night?” Brenda asked. Nicole filled her lungs with a large intake of air and turned toward her. “If you’re asking whether or not I hit it off with the Andorian, the answer is no.” “Andorian? What in the world are you talking about?” At the end of her rope and with about one inch of patience left, Nicole said, “An Andorian is a character from Star Trek. Your little friend came over here dressed as one.” Brenda tossed her head back and laughed. “Sometimes, that boy acts so foolish.” Nicole’s cheeks blazed hot. The pulse in her temple pounded. “And yet you sent him over here to ask me for a date?” The look of surprise on Brenda’s face reminded Nicole of her mother’s when she’d told her that she was cashing in her 401k to start a new business. “Well, I…I…I just don’t know what to say,” Brenda stammered. “You’re a Star Trek fan, so I thought you and Billy would make a good couple.” Nicole felt sick. Literally. At any moment, she was going to throw up all over Brenda’s burgundy slacks and matching pumps. “First of all,” Nicole said. “Not everyone who likes Star Trek dresses up like characters from the show—especially not if they’re going to ask someone for a date.” Brenda started to speak, but Nicole held up a hand to silence her. “And second of all, he was way too young. When did he graduate from high school? Last year?” Brenda’s red lips twisted to one side, and she walked around to the other side of the counter. “If that’s the thanks I get for trying to help you, I won’t do it again,” she said. “Help me? You think you’re trying to help me?” Brenda held out her left hand and gazed at the three-diamond anniversary band her husband had given her for Valentine’s Day the previous year. Nicole wouldn’t dispute the fact that it was a beautiful ring, but she was a little tired of the way Brenda flaunted it. “Honey,” she said. Oh, God. I hate it when she calls me ‘honey,’ Nicole thought. “How old are you, now?” “Thirty-three.” As if Brenda didn’t know. “You’re going to have to stop being so picky,” Brenda said. “Or you’ll never get one of these.” Brenda waved her diamond-clad finger in front of Nicole’s face, and anger boiled in the middle of Nicole’s chest. She spun back around to the computer and laid her trembling hands on the keyboard before she said something she’d regret later. As if on cue, the mall PA system blasted out the Linda Ronstadt version of the old pop standard, But Not for Me. Not having a boyfriend on Valentine’s Day was the pits. How many years in a row was this? Four? She couldn’t help being a little jealous when the florist came by and delivered roses to Brenda. Sometimes, she received balloons, too. Last year, it was a stuffed teddy bear that said, “I love you” when Brenda pressed its paw. If she’d pressed that bear’s paw one more time, I think I would’ve ripped it to shreds and tossed it in the dumpster behind the store, Nicole thought. Oh, well, at least Brenda’s husband remembered Valentine’s Day. During Nicole’s brief marriage, she was lucky to get a card. Her ex-husband’s idea of romance was going inside Burger King to eat rather than picking something up at the drive-thru window. His idea of love was to smack her around when he’d had too much to drink. They’re writing songs of love but not for me, Linda Ronstadt sang. “I promise that I won’t send another man over here if you’re not interested,” Brenda said. Nicole turned to her and flattened her palms on the counter. “I’m only going to say this once. You’re embarrassing me. How do you think it made me feel last night when I had to hurt that little boy’s feelings? I thought he was going to cry until I gave him a DVD.” She turned back to the computer screen. “You just don’t use good judgment, Brenda.” She hated having to talk to her that way. Brenda was a good employee who had been with her ever since the opening day of Nicole’s Multimedia Emporium. Out of the corner of her left eye, she could see Brenda straighten up and back away from the counter. “Fine, then,” she said. “But next week, when Valentine’s Day rolls around, and you don’t have a date, you’ll only have yourself to blame.” That sucked the wind out of her triumphant sails. Brenda was right. She only had herself to blame. Nicole’s reflection stared back at her from the computer screen, and she didn’t like what she saw. Since her divorce, she’d gained a little weight—not too much but enough to make her feel dowdy. She’d stopped doing anything to make herself look attractive. She was only wearing a tiny bit of makeup on her pale face. Her blonde hair was limp and loose, and her clothes were anything but sexy. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be involved again. I might as well admit it. I’m afraid of getting hurt, she thought. Every man isn’t like Rob, but how can I be sure? After all, I thought he was the perfect man when I married him. The flutter in the pit of her stomach caused her to question if she’d been too harsh with Brenda. She glanced at the older woman who was busy setting up a display cabinet for the new shipment of e-readers they’d just received. “Look, Brenda, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to sound as if I don’t appreciate you. I do, but my love life is off-limits, okay?” Brenda shrugged one shoulder. “Suit yourself,” she said. “But every Valentine’s Day I feel badly when Albert sends me flowers and gifts, and you don’t get anything.” Nicole heaved a sigh and sat up straight. “Well, don’t feel that way,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me.” She stood and walked around to the other side of the counter. “I’ll be in the back unpacking and tagging those e-readers.” As soon as Nicole saw Brenda walking across the mall courtyard the next morning, she knew something was wrong. Brenda’s usual cheery disposition was missing. In its place was the face of a woman who looked as if she’d spent the night crying. Nicole left the greeting card shelf that she was straightening and pushed the door open for her. “Brenda, what’s wrong?” “I would’ve called in sick,” she said. “But I knew that you’d need me today for the…” She broke off, started sobbing and wiped her eyes with the worn Kleenex she clutched in one hand. “For the Valentine’s Day sale.” Nicole laced her arm through Brenda’s and led her over to the sofa in the reading nook. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” She nodded, and Nicole drew a cup of coffee from the Espresso machine. “Here,” she said while handing her the cup. “Now, tell me what’s wrong.” “I don’t know where to start,” Brenda said and another torrent of tears poured from her eyes. Nicole pulled a handful of paper napkins from the dispenser on the counter, and Brenda patted her face dry before taking some sips of her coffee. “Albert left me,” she whispered. Nicole dropped into a nearby chair. She wanted to say something but couldn’t find any words. “He came home from work last night and told me that he wasn’t happy. Then he packed a bag and left. I don’t even know where he went.” “Are you sure he’s gone for good?” Nicole managed to ask, even though she was still shocked. Brenda nodded and pressed the napkin against her eyes. “How could he do this after twenty-seven years? For heaven’s sake, our first grandchild was just born.” “He turned fifty a few weeks ago. Maybe it’s a midlife crisis,” Nicole said. “That’s what mother said, too. She told me not to worry. They always come back.” She lifted her head and looked into Nicole’s eyes. “But they don’t always come back. Do they, Nicole?” She slid over onto the sofa and put an arm around Brenda’s shoulders. “Oh, now Brenda, there’s no comparison between your marriage and mine. Rob was an abusive alcoholic. I thought I could love him enough to change him. I was wrong. Our marriage was a mistake from the beginning.” Brenda’s tears must have been contagious, because she felt moisture dampen her eyelids. It was the first time that she’d voiced those thoughts aloud. “I’ll bet that Albert comes back in a few days,” Nicole said. Brenda gulped down a few more sips of coffee and stood up. “Well, I guess we’d better get to work,” she said. “Today is going to be a busy day.” Before she turned to walk away, Nicole reached out and caught her by the hand. “Brenda, are you sure you can handle being here today? I can call my sister and ask her to come help out…” “No. I wouldn’t dream of it,” she said. “Albert can act like an ass, but I’m not going to let it keep me from doing my job.” Poor Brenda. She’d married her college sweetheart and settled down to what she thought was happily ever after. Was this proof that no marriage was perfect? She walked back to the sales counter where Brenda was counting out change for the cash drawer. Nicole watched while Brenda tried to go about her usual morning tasks as if nothing was wrong. Every now and then, Brenda would pull out a tissue to wipe the stray tears that slipped out. I have to do something, Nicole thought. “What do you think about getting dressed up and going out on the town tonight?” Nicole asked. At first, a look of surprise colored Brenda’s face; then she smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “Thank you for trying to make me feel better, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t have any fun.” A naughty idea occurred to Nicole, and a mischievous smile crossed her lips. “I can guarantee you’ll have a good time at The Adonis Factory.” Brenda’s face turned as red as her hair. “Oh, Nicole! I couldn’t go there. What would people say if someone saw me at a place like that?” “If they know that Albert walked out on you, they’ll probably say, ‘Good for Brenda’.” She fidgeted with some items on the counter, and Nicole could see that she still had a pink blush on her cheeks. “My friend Debbie said that the men at The Adonis Factory take it all off,” Brenda whispered. Nicole had never actually been to the male strip club, but the idea intrigued her, and it was for a good cause. “So,” she said. “We’ll never know if that’s true until we check it out for ourselves.” The corners of Brenda’s mouth tilted up into a smile. “Okay,” she said. “But I’m wearing a hat and sunglasses.” “Good enough,” Nicole said. “I might have to do the same.” Nicole looked at the clock. It was five minutes until closing, and it couldn’t come soon enough. A steady stream of customers had made it a good day money-wise. Sales of greeting cards, romance novels and chick flick DVDs had been high on the list. Nothing more had been said about the girls’ night out, and Nicole wondered if Brenda would back out. Maybe it was a bad idea to suggest the strip club. Brenda might be too straight-laced for a place like The Adonis Factory. While straightening the magazine rack in the reading area, Nicole turned toward the window that faced out into the mall. She saw Albert walking toward the store, holding a single, red rose. “Brenda,” she called out. “I believe someone is coming to see you.” “Who?” Brenda asked. Brenda started walking toward the front of the store and then stopped in her tracks. “What are you doing here?” He raked a hand through dark hair that was streaked with gray. He held out the rose toward her. “I came to apologize,” he said. “For the way I walked out last night.” Brenda hesitated for a moment before closing the distance between them and taking the flower from his hand. “I don’t think you could’ve hurt me any worse, Albert.” At once, Nicole felt as if she was eavesdropping on a private moment. “Excuse me,” she said. “I have things that I need to take care of in the office.” A few minutes later, Brenda stood in the doorway. “Nicole, if you don’t mind, I think I need to cancel our girls’ night out.” Nicole nodded. “Of course.” Brenda stepped closer to the desk. “He’s not coming home tonight, but he and I are going out to eat, so we can talk about what’s going on with him. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?” She felt humbled that Brenda was asking her advice. The woman was almost old enough to be her mother. “I do,” Nicole said. “And Brenda, I hope Albert will realize what a good wife he has.” A tear dropped from Brenda’s eye, and she patted Nicole’s hand before leaving the office. Nicole walked out with them and gave Brenda a hug before she left. She looked at the digital clock behind the cash register. It was time to close up and go home to her back massager and a glass of wine. She locked the door and then turned the lights off in the front of the store. “Hey,” a masculine voice called out. Her heart skipped a beat, and she turned the lights back on. “Who’s there?” she called out. A head popped up over a shelf in the DVD section. His thick, black hair was neatly cropped, and a grin spread from one dimpled cheek to the other. “I guess I let the time get away from me,” he said, and his hazel eyes twinkled. What a cutie, she thought. With her luck, though, he was probably unavailable. “Can I help you find something?” she asked. “Yeah,” he said. “I was looking for a DVD of the last season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.” She strolled over to the DVD section to get a better look at him. He was built like an athlete. His faded jeans hugged a nicely shaped butt. She glanced down at his hands. No ring. That was promising. Her mood shifted into high gear. “Are you a Star Trek fan?” she asked. He nodded, and his eyes traveled from her shoes to her head and back again. He stepped closer and her heartbeat took off at a jackrabbit’s pace. “By the way,” he said. “My name is Jeff.” She slipped her hand into his and held her breath while a warm tingle of pleasure worked its way up her arm. “I’m Nicole, and I hate to tell you this, but I don’t have that DVD in stock.” She felt flirtatious, which took her by surprise. It’d been a long time since she’d allowed herself the luxury of being playful with a handsome stranger. “However, I happen to own the set you’re looking for.” He grinned, and his eyes softened. “So what are my chances of borrowing them?” he asked. “Would you like to discuss it over dinner?” she asked. “That is if you don’t have any plans.” He straightened up, looked down and shoved his hands into his pockets. Not a good sign. Her heart sank. “It would have to be a quick bite,” he said. “I have to be at work at eight.” The wheels in Nicole’s suspicious mind started spinning. Was he telling the truth or just trying to back out gracefully? “I’d like to see you when we could spend more time together,” he said. “I don’t work on Sundays or Mondays. Could we go out one of those two nights?” She smiled and said, “Give me a call here at the store.” She might be crazy enough to flirt with a stranger but not to give him her home number, yet. While Nicole counted up the cash drawer and filled out her deposit slip, she thought about the plans she’d made with Brenda. She hadn’t wanted to go solo her first time at a male strip club but maybe it was better that way. If things got a little too hot for her taste, she could slip out. She dropped the day’s take into the night deposit box at the bank and then swung by her apartment to eat a sandwich and change clothes. She searched her closet for something special to wear. Most of her “night on the town” clothes were a size too small, but she found a pair of black, velvet pants that still fit. She added to it a v-neck, white sweater with pearl buttons down the front. Since the booze was half price for Ladies’ Night at The Adonis Factory, the crowd was loud and loaded. The air was heady with the odors of a hundred different brands of perfume. She nudged her way up to the bar and was greeted by a young man wearing a red, satin bowtie, matching thong and a smile. “What’s your pleasure,” he asked. She glanced down as his large thighs and other parts. “Holy cow,” she said. “Pardon me?” he asked. Her hand shot up to cover her mouth. She hadn’t meant to say that aloud. “I’m sorry. I meant to say strawberry daiquiri.” She retrieved her drink and found a small table off to one side of the stage near a convenient exit door. More young men, dressed in the same fashion as the bartender, danced on platforms at either end of the stage. Women ran up to them and stuffed dollar bills into the strings that held their thongs in place. A woman who looked middle-aged stood next to one platform in a red lace tank top and leather mini-skirt. She mimicked the dancer’s moves. “Oh, baby,” the woman said. “I’d like to untie those strings with my teeth.” Nicole took a huge gulp of her drink and fanned herself with her hand. It’s so hot in here, she thought while she shimmied out of her coat. “Bring on the show!” a heavyset lady in the front row shouted. She surveyed the crowd and didn’t see anyone that she knew. Thank goodness, she thought. The house lights dimmed and the stage was flooded with beams from multicolored lights overhead. Familiar music started to play, and men dressed in uniforms from the original Star Trek series strutted across the stage. One by one, they ripped off their red shirts as their names were called out by the Master of Ceremonies. The gold lamé curtains parted, and the M.C. shouted, “And here he is ladies. The one you’ve been waiting for.” The crowd went wild. Bras and panties flew onto the stage. “Captain…on…the…bridge.” This had to be good, she thought. She leaned over to her left in order to see around the woman who was jumping up and down in front of her. “Take it off,” the woman was yelling. A tall guy with thick, black hair emerged from the slit in the curtains. He gyrated to a jazzed up version of The Next Generation theme song. Her pulse quickened when the spotlight hit him, and she could see his face. Her breath caught somewhere between her lungs and throat. She dropped back and slunk down into the seat. It was Jeff, the guy she’d met at the store. So this was where he had to be at eight tonight. He yanked off the green shirt that he wore and revealed the well-toned muscles of his chest and abdomen. Part of her wanted to stay and see the rest of him, but her conscience won out. She had to get out of there before he spotted her. She crouched down and headed for the exit while covering the side of her face with her coat. She heard a woman yell out, “Beam me up, Scotty!” Whistles and screams went up from others in the audience. Nicole breathed a sigh of relief when she made her way back out into the lobby. She stopped to compose herself and came face-to-face with a life-size poster of the man she’d almost taken to dinner that night. In the picture, he was clad in a tiny, black Speedo and nothing else. She strained to keep her eyes from settling on the ample bulge at the apex of his muscular thighs. I need a breath of fresh air, she thought and stepped out into the crisp, February breeze. When she felt cool enough to put on her coat, Nicole looked down at the purple stamp on the back of her hand. Oh, what the heck, she thought. It’s about time I sought out some new life and explored new worlds. With that, she did an about face and marched back into the club. She squeezed through the crowded lobby and waved the back of her hand to the ticket taker. Once back in the main room, her shoulders dropped when she saw that another act had taken the stage. She headed for the bar and found an empty stool. She was about to place her order when she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Allow me to buy you a drink.” Nicole spun around on the stool. Jeff stood in front of her. He was now clad in a t-shirt and jeans, but the images of his near-naked body remained in her mind. “But not here,” he said. “There’s a more intimate place a couple blocks from here.” She swallowed and inhaled a deep breath. “I hope I haven’t shocked you out of wanting to go out with me,” he said. She shook her head. “Shocked? No. Just surprised. What are the odds that I would meet you in my store tonight and now…here?” “You never know,” Jeff said. “When things are meant to be.” This is crazy, she thought, even as she hopped off the stool and took the hand he offered. “So is McNally’s Bistro good for you?” he asked. She nodded. “I’ll get my jacket and meet you out front,” he said. Somehow she managed to put one foot in front of the other and walk back outside only to come face-to-face with his huge…poster again. What am I doing? I’m going out with a male stripper, she thought. A chuckle worked its way up into her throat. She laughed at her luck where men were concerned and at what Brenda would say when she told her the story. She laughed until tears streaked down her face. A woman entering the club stopped and gave her a strange look. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she said, and the woman nodded in return. “Happy Valentine’s Day to you, too,” Jeff said from behind her while he draped his arm across her shoulders. “Ready for some fun?” “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I am.” the end CHRISTMAS WISHES Two Holiday Short Stories Lead Me Home In the Nick of Time Lead Me Home Annie Henderson navigated each dip and curve on Highway 221 with the utmost caution. The low-lying clouds around Grandfather Mountain unnerved her. Before she knew it, she could end up in the middle of one and unable to see past the hood of her car. When she rounded the big curve under the Linn Cove Viaduct, the memory of a summer storm and her high school boyfriend, Rick Webb popped into her mind. Heat rushed to her cheeks when she recalled what had transpired between them that day. He’d parked the car in the old overlook to wait out the downpour. One kiss from Rick could melt her like ice cream on a hot day. Two had made her do something she’d never done before. Annie shook off the tingling sensation in her abdomen. What brought that on? Years had passed since she’d last thought of Rick as a lover. Even when she’d caught a glimpse of his recent television interview, her old feelings hadn’t re-emerged. She’d only felt relieved and proud that he hadn’t let his troubled past hold him back. They might have had a future together if only she’d been stronger. Instead, she’d been a coward, and Rick ended up with the guilt that should’ve been hers. That was another memory that she’d buried long ago. The clouds lifted on the outskirts of Blowing Rock, and she breathed a sigh of relief. If ever she had a sanctuary—a little piece of heaven on earth—this town was it. No matter what was troubling her, she could always hike down to Glen Burney Falls, see and hear the power of nature in the rushing water and everything came into perspective. Or she could stand on those famous cliffs at the edge of town, feel the wind rush up from the valley below and be in awe of the miracle that created her precious mountains. She’d also found comfort in Blowing Rock when her husband had been killed in Iraq. Her mother had said, “This is where you need to be, Annie.” It hadn’t taken any more persuasion that that to lead her home. She turned onto the road leading to The Chetola Resort and parked at the main lodge. The reception area buzzed with activity. During Thanksgiving week, people came from all over the state to buy Christmas trees at the local farms. Most every hotel, motel and inn in Blowing Rock and nearby Boone booked up weeks in advance. She stepped over to the long counter where all of the clerks were busy checking guests in and out. One young lady, wearing a crisp gold uniform, motioned her forward. “I’m here to see the manager,” Annie said. “About your advertisement in Mountain Memories.” The young woman squinted and furrows appeared in her brow. “I think he’s out right now, but I’ll go check.” Annie turned and faced the gray stone fireplace that beckoned her toward its warm glow. She ambled over to one of two large, leather chairs and took a seat. The flat screen T.V. was tuned to the tourists’ information channel, and she watched until her thirty-second advertisement for Mountain Memories flashed by. Seeing her work on screen never ceased to put a little thrill into her otherwise mundane life. The clerk still hadn’t reappeared. She walked to the window to look out at the lake. The trees were bare now and the air was devoid of the usual summer haze. She used to love this time of year but now it only reminded her of her loss. Her gaze traveled to the bridge where a man stood taking pictures. The camera hid his features from her, but she couldn’t help feeling that there was something familiar about him. She also couldn’t help noticing how his stonewashed jeans hugged the contours of his muscular thighs. A familiar pang of guilt shot through her heart. She turned her back on the scene. What’s happening to me? For the second time in one day, she’d had carnal thoughts about a man. Her grief support group had discussed those feelings at length during one session. Her counselor would remind her that her feelings were natural, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed. But while her body was yearning for physical pleasure, her heart couldn’t get past memories of making love with her husband. “Mrs. Henderson.” She jumped, and her purse dropped to the floor. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said while bending over to pick it up. “My mind was somewhere else.” The clerk shrugged. “My boss asked me to apologize to you, but he’s been held up at a meeting over in Boone. He said that he wants to run the same size ad as usual, but he’ll email you some new photos of the Bob Timberlake Inn.” Annie pulled a yellow legal pad from her oversized, organizer purse and scribbled down the information. “Good enough,” she said. “And thank you for your time.” She took a few steps backward, swung around and collided with a tall, masculine wall. “Oh, pardon me…” she said and then looked up at the man’s face. For a moment, the world—her world—stopped turning as she gazed into sea blue eyes that she’d recognize anywhere. At once, it all came back to her—every touch, every kiss and every laugh they’d shared. Another memory surfaced, too. His last words to her, I’ll call you tomorrow. “Annie,” he said. “I’m surprised to see you here. You haven’t changed a bit.” She nodded her head and struggled to compose herself. Her voice trembled when she answered, “It’s good to see you, Rick.” He grinned, and his face took on the appearance of the teenage boy she’d fallen in love with a lifetime ago. “I thought you’d moved away from Blowing Rock,” he said. “Last I heard you’d married a soldier.” Annie swallowed the lump in her throat. “He was killed in Iraq. I came back home to help my parents with their new magazine.” Rick placed his hands on her shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze. She took a step backward for fear that she might be tempted to fall into his arms and sob. “I’m so sorry to hear that, Annie,” he said. Desperate to keep from looking into his eyes, she glanced back toward the T.V. “So what brings you back to Blowing Rock?” she asked. “Grandma’s not doing well,” he said. “I got a call from her doctor. He doesn’t think she’s going to be around much longer.” Her eyes turned downward toward her navy blue pumps. Even another person’s grief turned her into a sobbing mess. It was one of the reasons she’d decided to attend the counseling sessions. “I’m surprised we haven’t run into each other before now,” he said. “I come back to visit Grandma every chance I get.” “I haven’t been going out a lot, except to sell ads for the magazine. I’ve stuck close to the print shop and home.” He grasped the heavy camera strap and pulled it up higher on one of his broad shoulders. “Are you living with your parents?” “No. My mom had already turned my old bedroom into her art studio, so I have a small apartment.” He smiled, and a pink hue colored his cheeks. “I’m on my way to the nursing home right now, but could we get together later?” She wanted a few moments alone with him if only to ask why he’d left town without a word. Then again, maybe she didn’t want to know the answer. Considering the trouble she’d caused for him, it was no wonder that he’d fled without saying goodbye. “Yes,” she said. “I’d like to catch up with you.” “How about the Speckled Trout?” he asked, and the blue of his eyes softened. “For old time’s sake?” Her heartbeat quickened. “I’ll meet you there at six.” He reached his right hand out toward her, and she placed her hand in his. The friendly handshake seemed odd coming from the man who’d been her first lover. Shouldn’t they have hugged or at the least shared a chaste kiss on the cheek? No. It’s better this way. “Six it is,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it, Annie. I have a lot to tell you.” Rick backed away toward the exit door without taking his eyes from hers. She stood in the same spot and waited until she saw the top of his head disappear around the corner of the building. She released the breath she’d been holding and walked outside into the cold mountain air. She pulled her jacket together and buttoned it up to her collar. Workmen strung Christmas lights on the evergreen shrubs that lined the granite pathway. Others were hanging wreaths and garlands. At one time, the scene would’ve put a smile on her face, but instead tears rolled down her cheeks. While these same preparations were going on last year, a suicide bomber killed her husband. Someone who didn’t give a damn about his own life had stolen his and in a way hers, too. She still hadn’t made peace with God over it. She’d gone to church every Sunday for her parents’ sake, but in her soul, emptiness now resided where joy had once lived. * * * The sterile environment of the nursing home sent a shiver through Rick. It wasn’t a bad place. In fact, it was one of the nicer extended care facilities in the area, but he hated that his grandmother had to die here. His heart broke a little more with each visit. She always cried about how much she wanted to go home and sleep in her own bed. More than anything, he wished he could sit in her kitchen while she baked bread and made apple jelly, but it wasn’t possible. Her last heart attack necessitated the round-the-clock nursing care she received at Blue Ridge Meadows. Her door was ajar, and he saw a nurse standing next to her bed, writing on a clipboard. The pale, thin woman lying in the bed looked nothing like his robust, hardworking Grandma. Every spring, she’d plow and plant a one-acre vegetable garden on the side of their mountain. He used to call her Blowing Rock’s version of the Energizer Bunny. He thought she’d live to be a hundred, at least. She turned her head toward the door, and the corners of her wrinkled mouth turned upward. “Ricky,” she said in a hoarse voice. The nurse’s head snapped up. “You can come in,” she said. “I’m just checking her vital signs.” He stepped into the room and sat in the chair next to the bed. “How is she doing today?” he asked the nurse. “About the same,” she said and patted his shoulder on her way out the door. Grandma Murphy reached a bony hand out toward him. Seeing the dark bruises, left on her hands by I.V. needles, almost brought tears to his eyes. He clasped her hand as gently as possible. “I’m getting ready to leave this world, Ricky,” she said. “Don’t talk like that.” “I might as well tell the truth.” Rick’s head fell forward, and he drew in a staggered breath. “I just hate to see you go.” “That’s the worst part of it,” she said. “Knowing the grief that my family will go through. As for me, I’m going to a better place. You will, too, one day, and I’ll be there to greet you when you come through the door.” With his palm, he wiped away the tear that rolled down his cheek. “Is there anything I can do for you?” She nodded and crooked her finger toward him. He scooted the chair closer to the bed. “I want you to tell everyone the truth about that fire,” she whispered. “Grandma, that was ten years ago. Does anyone still care?” “Yes. Some people have long memories.” She paused and held a Kleenex to her mouth while she coughed and struggled to get her breath. “Don’t let me go to my grave with the Caldwells and those Spruce Ridge people thinking so hard of you.” Why had she asked this of him? He didn’t give a damn what people thought of him. Let them talk. “Did you know that Annie’s husband was killed in Iraq? I can’t dredge up the past now while she’s grieving for her husband.” She turned her eyes toward the window and folded her frail arms across her gaunt chest. “Did Annie think as much about you when she let you take the blame for something you didn’t do?” “It’s not that simple, Grandma. Besides, I didn’t take the blame for anything. The sheriff let me go. Remember?” She wagged her finger at him. “But they still thought you did it and talked about you like you did it, even after you left here.” “I have a hard time believing that people are still talking about that worthless Webb boy—the one who set fire to the church.” He stifled his laugh when his grandma’s jaw tightened and twitched. He’d seen that look many times—usually when he’d been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to do. “And in case you haven’t noticed,” he said. “I’ve done pretty well for myself during the past few years.” Grandma Murphy settled back into her pillows and closed her eyes. “I know you have, and I’m so proud of you, Ricky.” Rick filled his lungs with a huge gulp of air and then exhaled slowly. “I love you, too, Grandma.” “Then clear your name before I pass on. That’s all I want.” He bowed his head, laced his fingers together and said a silent prayer for his grandmother. After a moment, he bent forward and kissed her cheek. “I’ll do what I can, Grandma,” he whispered. She didn’t answer him. She’d drifted off to sleep. He tiptoed out of the room and closed the door behind him. He wanted to honor his grandmother’s last wishes, but not this one—not if it meant hurting Annie. No matter how many other women he’d dated, his beautiful Annie was always the one that got away. Ten years ago, he’d been a stupid kid with nothing to offer her. As much as he hated to admit it, Mrs. Caldwell had been right when she’d told him that Annie was better off without him. Seeing her again had sparked a fire in his soul. Except for the weariness in her eyes, she’d changed very little. The bouncy blond curls, curvaceous figure and legs that fueled a teenage boy’s fantasies remained just as he remembered them. He glanced at his watch. Six p.m. can’t come soon enough. * * * Annie checked the time on the wall clock. Darn, it’s only one minute later than the last time I looked. She finished up an ad layout and straightened her desk. “Mom, I’m outta here,” Annie shouted toward the back office of Caldwell Publishing Company. “You’re in an awful big hurry to go home,” her mother said. “Do you have a hot date?” Annie’s muscles tightened. Her date with Rick wasn’t a subject she wanted to discuss. Her mother never liked Rick. He came from the wrong side of town and wasn’t a churchgoer. “I ran into—” Annie paused and swallowed. “An old high school friend this afternoon. We’re having dinner at the Speckled Trout.” “Anyone I know?” Annie stopped in her tracks. She turned and looked at her mother. At fifty-two, her mother’s face was still youthful. There were very few wrinkles except for the laugh lines around her eyes and mouth. Annie once hated the fact that she resembled her mother. Now, she didn’t mind it so much—especially if it meant aging as well as her mother had. “As a matter of fact you would know him,” she said. “Him?” her mother asked and furrows appeared in her brow. “Please don’t tell me that you’re talking about Rick Webb.” “Yes, I’m talking about Rick,” Annie said. “I can’t believe you’re still holding a grudge after all these years.” The ream of paper that her mother had been holding landed on her desk with a thud. “Still holding a grudge? He set fire to the church. Have you forgotten the damage it caused?” The heaviness of Annie’s heart threatened to undo her. Moisture flooded her eyes. Over the years, she’d learned how to suppress her guilt about the fire. With one sentence, her mother brought it back to the surface. “He didn’t do it,” she almost whispered. Her mother rested a hand on one slender hip and her lips formed a straight line. “The sheriff didn’t have enough evidence to arrest him, that’s true, but Millie saw him poking around in the debris the next day.” “The whole neighborhood was poking around in the debris. That doesn’t make him guilty,” Annie said. “Let it go, Mama.” “You’re still taking up for him? It broke my heart to see you crying over him after he left town without saying goodbye.” Her mother’s words stung like a wasp bite, and the old wound started itching. Maybe her mother wasn’t the only one who needed to put the past behind her. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Mama.” Annie stormed out of the building and around the corner to her car. For most of the afternoon, she’d been excited about her dinner with Rick. Following one conversation with her mother, excitement had turned to apprehension. Was it a mistake to see him again? She’d never told anyone about the fire—not even her husband when he discovered her fear of fires. She pressed her forehead against the steering wheel and squeezed her eyes shut. One month after her fifth birthday, her father had been called to pastor the Spruce Ridge Congregational Church in a small mountain community near Blowing Rock. The sanctuary dated back to pre-Civil War days. Through one hundred and fifty years of storms, floods, blizzards and other natural disasters, the old church had held fast to its foundation. It had only taken two careless teenagers to almost destroy it. A few minutes later, Annie cranked the car and drove to the Speckled Trout Café and Oyster Bar. For old time’s sake, he’d said. Back when they were teenagers, Rick saved his money from his job as a bagger at Food Lion in order to treat her to a special prom night dinner. He always wanted to make everything perfect for her. In the end, it was to his detriment. When she parked her car in front of the restaurant, it occurred to her that she had no idea what kind of vehicle he would be driving, and she didn’t see him on the porch waiting for her. Her stomach knotted. What if he’d left her hanging again? She walked up to the door to go inside. “Looking for someone?” She jumped and spun around. “Oh, Rick, you startled me.” He grinned and tilted his head. “Forgive me,” he said. He stepped beside her and opened the door. “I made reservations, so hopefully they’ll have our table ready.” The aroma of pan-fried Rainbow Trout assaulted Annie’s senses. The years slipped away. It seemed like yesterday that she was a shy eighteen-year-old out on her first grownup date with the boy she adored. “Webb. Table for two,” Rick told the hostess. She almost expected Rick to sit next to her the way he’d done in the past. Instead, he took the chair across from her. “I think I’m going to stay around Blowing Rock for a while,” Rick said. Butterflies danced around in her stomach and drifted up into her chest. She took a deep breath and cleared her throat. Her heart yearned to get to know him all over again. Still, life had aged and changed them. Was it possible to rekindle the romance they’d once shared? “After Grandma passes away, my uncle will need me to help settle things and get the house cleaned out,” he said. “Grandma lived there for sixty years, so I’m sure it’s jam-packed with all kinds of stuff.” Annie nodded. She remembered cleaning out the rental house she’d shared with her husband. How had we managed to accumulate so much junk in only four years? “I’ve already talked to the Watauga Democrat and Blue Ridge Magazine,” he said. “About doing some freelance photography work for them.” The waitress delivered their drinks to the table. Rick drank a whiskey sour while she sipped a strawberry daiquiri. A sign of being grown-up, she thought. In years past, the drinks would have been Mountain Dew on the rocks. “I saw you on Good Morning America,” she said. “You look good on T.V.” His cheeks colored a deep pink, and he shook his head. “The attention was embarrassing. The soldiers were the real heroes. All I did was snap a few photos.” “But you put yourself in harm’s way to do it. I thought that was very heroic. I was proud of you.” He gazed into her eyes. “I’m glad,” he said. “That I made you proud. There was a time—” Rick stopped when the waitress approached and set two steaming hot bowls of French onion soup on the table. “This brings back memories,” Annie said. “The first time I had French onion soup was on our prom date. Every time I’ve had it since then, I remember that night.” Rick laughed. “God, we were so young, weren’t we Annie? It’s amazing what we’ve been through in the last ten years.” The familiar twinge of regret crept into her heart. “Yes, a lot has happened.” “Would you like to talk about your husband?” he asked. She swallowed and blinked away the wetness from her eyes. “Later. Maybe.” The flavor of the soup permeated her taste buds, and the memories of her high school love affair came back to her. The first kiss, and the first time she and Rick had made love. Then, the fire that changed their lives forever and the call that never came. “Rick, why didn’t you call me like you said you would?” His spoon stopped midway between the bowl and his mouth. “Excuse me?” She hadn’t meant for it to pop out that way, but she might as well see it through. “The last time we saw each other you told me that you’d call me the next day. You didn’t, and a couple of days later, I found out that you’d left town to stay with your aunt in Wrightsville Beach.” Rick put the spoon down and some of the color drained from his face. “Annie, I—I don’t understand.” “I’m sorry. This is ancient history, isn’t it? I shouldn’t have brought it up.” “But I did call,” he said. “Your mother said that you didn’t want to talk to me. She said that you’d decided that it was best for both of us not to see each other again.” Her spoon dropped into the bowl, spilling soup onto the table. The room began to spin. “Oh my God, I think I’m going to sick,” she muttered. Rick reached out to her, but she grabbed her purse and fled into the ladies’ restroom. She splashed warm water on her face and patted it dry with a paper towel. How could Mama have done such a thing? I was eighteen and of legal age to make my own decisions. Of course, her mother believed that Rick had burned down the church. If she’d only known the truth. Annie pulled her makeup bag from her purse and reapplied her face powder and lipstick. Her heart broke when she thought of how Rick must have felt when her mother lied to him. Worst of all, he’d spent the past ten years believing that she didn’t want him in her life. Just wait, Mama. You’re going to get a piece of my mind that you won’t forget. When she returned to the table, the waitress had delivered the entrées. Rick’s head was bent down toward his plate, and he picked at the fish with his fork. He looked up and smiled when she took her seat. “Look, Annie,” he said. “While you were in the restroom, I did a lot of thinking, and I don’t want you to be angry with your mother.” “Why shouldn’t I be? She lied to you and to me.” He reached across the table and covered one of her hands with his own. The gesture flooded her with warmth. “But Annie if you think about it, she did the best thing for both of us. You were going away to college in Raleigh. I was going out to the coast to live with my aunt. What chance did we have?” She shook her head and rubbed a hand across her forehead. “That’s not the point. She treated you unfairly, and it was my fault.” Rick glanced down at his plate. “Nothing was your fault. You didn’t ask me to do what I did.” “But I didn’t ask you not to do it either. Tell me something, Rick. Did you go to the beach to get away from the rumors and gossip?” He didn’t answer her. He chewed on a piece of bread and drank the coffee that the waitress had delivered along with their meals. “Sometimes silence speaks louder than words,” she said. “You must’ve hated me for a long time.” He leaned forward and gazed into her eyes. “No, Annie, I never hated you.” He paused. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “I never stopped loving you.” She tasted the saltiness of tears spilling down her face. She grabbed his hand and held it. Her throat tightened, but she managed to squeeze out the words. “Then I have to make things right for you,” she said. “I have to tell the truth.” * * * After dinner, they left their cars at the restaurant and walked downtown. From a bench seat in Memorial Park, they watched the activity along Main Street. Tourists strolled up and down the sidewalk in front of shops that were lit up with twinkling red and green lights and Christmas decorations. The breeze brought a whiff of baking bread from the deli to Rick’s nostrils. It was good to be home. It was even better to be sitting so close to Annie again. “Annie, I want you to think long and hard about what you said in the restaurant.” “My mind is made up,” she said. “It’s time I told the truth—not just for your sake but for mine.” Rick closed his eyes. The memory of Annie standing at his door, trembling and pale as a ghost, smelling of wood smoke and covered with soot was still seared across his mind. He could picture it as if it happened yesterday. “And what about Ashley?” he asked. Annie turned toward him and hesitated for a moment as if she realized what he was thinking. This was about more than just the two of them. Were they willing to hurt someone else in order to relieve their guilty consciences? “Ashley and I lost touch after I went away to college,” she said. “My parents said that her family moved out west to Oregon a few years ago, so I guess she’s never had any reason to come back to Blowing Rock.” A gust of wind blew through her hair, and she pulled the collar of her jacket up around her cheeks. He resisted putting his arm around her, even though he wanted more than anything to hold her. “I think it’s going to snow tomorrow,” she said. Same old Annie, Rick thought. Change the subject when things get uncomfortable. “My feelings haven’t changed since that night,” he said. “I don’t want you or anyone else to get into any trouble over this. I won’t let you take that chance.” She turned toward him and placed her hand on his arm. “The way you took a chance for me?” Her features softened. He’d give anything to kiss her. “If we don’t tell anyone else,” she said. “We need to tell my parents the truth.” Rick leaned back against the bench and chuckled. “So you’re going to say…what? I’ve been lying to everyone for the last ten years. It was really me and Ashley who burned down the church, so Rick Webb isn’t the worthless bum you thought he was.” “Something like that,” she whispered. He shoved his hands into the deep pockets of his leather coat. “Annie, you may not believe this, but I really don’t care what anyone thinks about me. I’ve been on the Today Show. Newsweek paid out six figures for just one of my photographs. You didn’t screw up my life, so there’s nothing you have to make right. Understand?” She stared at him, and he reveled in the amount of admiration visible in her eyes. “Six figures for one picture? Wow.” He turned toward her and allowed himself the luxury of brushing a golden tendril from the edge of her face. Her skin was still as soft as he remembered. The blue of her eyes deepened with desire. The years melted away. Wasn’t it just yesterday that they were parked under the Linn Cove Viaduct, waiting out the downpour from a thunderstorm? He cupped her face with his hands and his mouth moved to within inches of her lips. The vibration on his hip startled him back into the present. He snatched his cell phone off of his belt and looked at the caller I.D. He blew out a sigh. “It’s the nursing home,” he said and at once, a sense of dread filled his heart. “Mr. Webb, she’s leaving us,” the voice on the other end said. His whole body shuddered as if someone had thrown ice water in his face. No matter how much he’d prepared himself for this moment, it wasn’t going to be easy. “I’m on my way,” he said. Annie’s face was stricken with concern, and he struggled to keep his composure. “I’ve got to go,” he said. “Do you want me to come with you?” she asked. He’d love nothing more than to lean on her for support, but it occurred to him that it might be too much for her since she was still struggling with her own grief. “No,” he said. “I think I better do this alone. I’ll call you later. I promise.” In a move that surprised him, she threw her arms around his shoulders and kissed his cheek. After letting go, she reached into her purse and took out a business card. “My home and cell phone numbers are on there,” she said. “I’m here for you, Rick. Please don’t forget that.” He stuck the card in his breast pocket and ran the three blocks back to his car. Please don’t let me be too late, he prayed. * * * Before Annie opened the door to her apartment, she heard the phone ringing. Could it be Rick this soon? She dropped her purse on the couch and rushed over to the phone. Her parents’ number was displayed on the caller I.D. She let it ring. Considering what Rick had told her during dinner, she wasn’t ready to talk to her mother. She went into her small bedroom and changed into her favorite comfortable sweatshirt and jersey pull-on pants. Glancing over at the phone on her bedside table, she saw the message light blinking. She stretched out on the bed. She remembered crying over Rick for days, and her mother never even blinked. But how am I any different? She’d kept an even worse lie from not only her parents but also the congregation of her father’s church. She scooted over to the edge of the bed, picked up the phone and punched in the number to retrieve her mother’s voice mail. Annie, please call me back as soon as you get home. I don’t like the way our conversation ended. Annie didn’t like the way it ended, either. She hated being at odds with people, even if she felt justified. Losing her husband had taught her how wasteful it is to hold grudges. “And to keep secrets,” she whispered. She pressed the speed dial button. Her mother answered on the first ring. “I’m coming over to talk to you,” Annie said. “Is Daddy there? I want to talk to him, too.” Fifteen minutes later, she sat in the driveway of her parents’ house. The last time she’d been this afraid to talk to her parents, she and Ashley were caught smoking at school. Annie remained in the car until she saw the porch light come on and the front door open. She took in a few deep breaths to calm her nerves. Her hands were shaking like crazy. She ambled up the stone pathway and onto the new deck that her parents had built over the summer. “Annie, your phone call has me worried,” her mother said. “I hope nothing is wrong.” She gave her mother a quick hug and kissed her cheek. “That will depend on how you and Daddy feel about what I have to say.” Her mother kept her arm around Annie as they walked into the large country kitchen. Her dad, Mack Caldwell sat at the kitchen table engaging in one of his longtime evening rituals—working the crossword puzzle from the newspaper. He looked up and smiled at her. “Hi, sweetie. Your mother says you have something important to tell us.” “Does this have something to do with Rick Webb?” her mother asked before she could say anything. Annie slung the strap of her purse over the chair opposite her father and sat down. “Rick Webb?” her father asked. “Is he in town?” She looked at her mother. She’d expected her father to already know about her dinner with Rick. “Yes,” she said. “His grandmother is dying.” “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “I’ll be sure to put the family on my prayer list.” “Annie had dinner with Rick tonight,” her mother said. He removed his reading glasses and sat back in the chair. “Oh? That comes as a little bit of surprise.” She flattened her palms on the table to stop the tremors in her fingers. “I ran into him today at the Chetola just out-of-blue, and I think I’d like to get to know him again.” “But think of the heartache he caused you and this family,” her mother said. A twinge of anger surfaced, but she held her tongue. She needed to confess her own sin—not reveal her mother’s. “Rick didn’t cause any heartache,” she said. She paused and looked into her father’s eyes. “But I did.” He blinked and the muscles of his face tightened. “What are you trying to say, Annie?” Tears stung her eyes. “Rick didn’t have anything to do with the fire.” “Honey, we went through all of this ten years ago,” her father said. She reached across the table and grabbed his hand. “It was Ashley…and me. We caused the fire, Daddy. Rick wasn’t even there.” Her mother dropped down into the chair next to her. “I don’t believe you. Why are you saying that? Just because Rick is famous now…” Her father held up a hand to hush her mother’s next comment. “Annie,” he said in a calm and even voice. “Tell me the whole story.” Annie cleared her throat and wiped her eyes with a paper napkin from the table. This was her moment of truth. No turning back. She kept her eyes focused on the table. She couldn’t look at her father. She couldn’t bear to see the disappointment in his eyes. “Ashley and I had gone out ghost hunting that night. After we spent a couple of hours at Lost Cove Cliffs, we came back to the church. There had been that report on the news about the tourists who claimed that they saw the ghost of Pastor Barnes wandering in the cemetery.” Her father scowled but refrained from repeating his usual lecture about belief in ghosts. He poured a glass of ice water from the pitcher on the table, and she drank from it. The cool liquid flowed down her throat and into her stomach, helping her to relax. “We sat down on the stone bench near the choir room entrance and waited for a sign of Pastor Barnes. Ashley had just lit a,” she paused and swallowed. “A cigarette when we heard a strange noise coming from the old part of the cemetery. It scared Ashley so bad that she dropped the lit match and the cigarette.” Annie squeezed her eyes shut. For so long, she’d tried to suppress the memory and the fear of that night. But she had to go on with it—not only for Rick’s sake but for hers as well. “It hadn’t rained in weeks and the grass was dry as a bone. I couldn’t believe how quickly it caught fire. We tried to stomp it out but the wind was strong that night, and sparks from the burning grass blew everywhere. Before we knew it, the bushes on that side of the church were ablaze. I went for the water hose, but the door to the pump house was locked. By that time, the flames had leapt up the side of that old woodwork.” Her mother sobbed, and her father bowed his head as if he were praying. As much as she hated hurting them in any way, she was relieved to be shed of the burden. “We were scared, and neither one of us was thinking straight. We drove over to the gas station, used the pay phone to call 911 and then hightailed it out of there. Ashley dropped me off at Rick’s house so that I could get cleaned up before I came back home.” She turned and gazed into her mother’s eyes—eyes that looked so much like her own. “The reason some of Daddy’s parishioners saw Rick snooping around in the debris the next day was because I thought I’d dropped my bracelet. He went back there to get it for me, so no one could connect me to the fire.” Only the ticking of the clock above the sink broke the silence in the kitchen. Her mother straightened up and a little bit of color returned to her cheeks. “Well, I think this shouldn’t go any further than this kitchen. The fire was ruled an accident by the insurance investigator. He believed that someone might have tossed a cigarette from a passing car. How ironic.” “Oh, Annie,” her father said. “I wish you had trusted us enough to tell us the truth that night.” She stared at the ice in her glass. “I was afraid that Ashley and I would go to jail and that the church would dismiss you when they found out that your daughter had a part in the fire.” “Oh, but it was an accident,” her mother said and reached across the table to caress her hand that was now as cold as ice. Her knees turned to water. There was more to be told, and she knew that now was the time. “The cigarette…we weren’t smoking tobacco. It was pot, Mama. Ashley still had some in her purse. That’s why we had to run.” Her mother turned as white as Pastor Barne’s ghost and slumped back in her chair. Her father looked thoughtful for a moment and then cleared his throat before speaking. “You still should’ve told me the truth and let me worry about the consequences,” he said. “As for Rick, I’m ashamed of myself for doubting Mrs. Murphy’s word that he was at home with her all evening. Thank goodness, the sheriff didn’t doubt it.” She reached across the table toward her father, nearly spilling the water. “Oh, Daddy, I wouldn’t have let him go to jail for me. Please believe me. I would’ve told the truth before that happened.” “He’d been in trouble before,” her mother said. “And we didn’t exactly like the idea of you dating him, so I’m afraid that we were a little too eager to believe the worst.” “You didn’t know him,” Annie said. “Rick always had a good heart.” Her mother sighed and shook her head. “I wish had known him better, because I have a confession to make, too.” Before her mother could say more, Annie’s cell phone rang. She grabbed it from her purse. A local number appeared on the screen. “Excuse me,” she said and went into the den to answer the call. “Grandma passed away a few minutes ago,” Rick said. “It was…very peaceful.” Tears flooded her eyes. “Oh, Rick. I am so sorry. For everything.” “Are you all right?” he asked. “Is something wrong?” She paused and inhaled a deep breath. “I told Mama and Daddy the truth about the fire. I told them everything.” He didn’t respond. “Are you still there?” she asked. She heard his staggered breath and then he said, “Yeah, I’m here. How did they take it?” “They were supportive, as always. I wish I had trusted them as much back then as I do now.” “Well…we all make mistakes when we’re young that we wish we could take back later.” “Is there anything I can do for you tonight?” she asked. A little part of her hoped that he’d want to see her and to share his grief with her. Funny, just a few days earlier, she would’ve shied away from anyone doing that. He coughed a couple of times, and she wondered if he’d been crying. “You already have,” he said. “You gave Grandma her last wish. I didn’t tell you earlier, but when I saw her this morning she asked me to tell the real story about what happened that night.” His voice broke, and Annie’s throat tightened before she spoke. “It was time…for everyone to know the truth,” she said. “The guy from the funeral home just got here,” he said. “So I have to go. But, I will call you tomorrow.” For a brief moment, she was taken back to the last time he’d said those words. She shooed away the memory. This time, she could depend on him to keep his promise. * * * Annie pulled back the drape and gazed at the Carolina blue sky and the fresh blanket of snow that covered the yard. Unlike the last two holidays, this Christmas brought her joy and happiness. She looked toward the lake where Rick and her father were stringing lights on the gazebo. It’s nothing short of a miracle, she thought. Both of their lives had changed in drastic ways since the first time they’d fallen in love. Yet, they’d come full circle and found one another again. “This is going to be a good Christmas, isn’t it?” her mother said. Annie looked down at the box of decorations her mother had taken down out of the attic. Angels, angels and more angels. Her mother had a thing for angels. “I did some shopping today,” her mother said. “And I want to give you one of my gifts now.” Her mother’s hands were clasped around a small box. She held it out toward Annie, who took the box and opened it. “Oh, a Pandora charm bracelet. I’ve wanted one of these.” She hugged her mother. “I love it, Mama.” Her mother glanced out the window. The men laughed and talked as if they were old friends. “I was wrong about him, Annie, and I’m sorry for the trouble I caused all those years ago,” her mother said. Her cheeks tingled and tears blurred her eyes. “When Rick told me what you had done to keep us apart, I was so angry. But he told me not to hold it against you, because you did the best thing for both of us.” She paused and drew in a deep breath. “And he’s right. We probably wouldn’t have made it through that summer without breaking up.” Her mother patted away her tears with a Kleenex. “When I talked to Rick the other day and asked his forgiveness, he said the same thing to me.” Annie drew her mother close into a tight hug. “Oh, Annie,” her mother said. “You’ve been through so much. You deserve to be happy. I think Rick will make you happy.” “Well,” Annie said while letting go of her mother. “This tree isn’t going to decorate itself. Which angel should we hang first?” Both women laughed even when the sudden, cold breeze from the opening door whooshed through the room. “We’ve got the outside decorated,” her father said. “But it doesn’t look as if you’ve made too much progress in here.” “Annie and I were talking,” her mother said. “That’s the problem with you women,” her father said. “You can’t talk and work at the same time.” Annie grabbed Rick’s hand and pulled him down the hall into the kitchen. Without a saying a word, she planted a huge kiss on his eager lips. He encircled her in his arms, lifting her off the floor. “What was that for?” he asked when their lips parted. “Do you remember our talk the other night about how we were going to take things slowly?” He nodded with a look of disappointment. She smiled and gave him another quick smooch. “I think I’m ready to move over into the fast lane,” she whispered against his ear. Rick’s embraced tightened. “Then fasten your seat belt, Annie.” The look in his eyes told her that she was in for the ride of her life. end In the Nick of Time A strong gust of wind buffeted against Julie and sent her careening backward against Nick’s chest. He wrapped his arms around her. If she’d been encased in a warm cocoon, it couldn’t have felt better than being in Nick’s arms. She wished she could make the moment last forever. “I love you,” she whispered. He placed a light kiss on her earlobe but said nothing. Her spirit plummeted almost as low as the canyon beneath her. After months of dating and countless hours of the best lovemaking she’d ever experienced, how could he not say three simple words? Unless—he didn’t love her. Wow. It was the first time she’d admitted that possibility. What if she’d only been a casual affair to Nick? How had she misread their relationship so completely? “Look at the cabin over on that ridge,” he said. “I’d love to own a place like that.” The thought of waking up with him to sunrise in the mountains entered her mind and then disappeared. How could he not say, “I love you” in this beautiful place that meant so much to them? They’d shared their first kiss while watching the sunset at Thunder Hill Overlook. He loosened his grip on her and turned her toward the parking lot. “I guess we’d better head home,” he said. “It’s a long drive, and it looks like snow is coming.” A few miles down the road, his prediction came true. Light flakes drifted onto the windshield and soon coated the shoulder of the road. With the snow and a freshly cut Christmas tree tied to the roof of the SUV, she felt as if she were a character in a holiday movie. Of course, there was one big difference. Those movies always had happy endings. She wasn’t too sure about how her story would end. “You’re awfully quiet,” he said after they’d been on the road for a while. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.” He reached a hand across the seat and caressed her knee. The warmth of his hand penetrated the denim fabric of her jeans. “I guess it’s a good thing we don’t live together,” he said with a wink. “We’d never get any sleep.” Memories of their night together warmed her chilled body. If Nick didn’t love her, what was she going do? The last thing she wanted to be was one of those women who invested years in a relationship only to be dumped. She couldn’t forget that her former co-worker, Mary Sue, had been kicked to the curb by her boyfriend of seven years. And worse, he did the deed in McDonald’s, of all places, during the busy Friday lunch hour. Heck no, that wasn’t going to happen to her. But how could she live without Nick? He’d been the first man in her life who’d ever cared about pleasing her. She hated to admit it, but at age thirty-five, she’d never experienced the Big-O until Nick came along. If she ended up hurt, she had no one but herself to blame. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been told about Nick before she became involved with him. His affairs were always fodder for the rumor mill around town. She hadn’t wanted to believe the gossip. A cad wasn’t what she saw when she looked at him. “Nick, why have you never been married?” she blurted out and then covered her mouth with one hand. Too late, she couldn’t call back the words now. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “I was engaged once,” he said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why that question popped into my mind.” Oh, yes, she did. She wanted to know if she was going to end up like Mary Sue, sitting alone in McDonald’s with a half-eaten Big Mac and crying in her Diet Pepsi. “Debbie and I dated for a few years before I popped the question,” he said. “A few weeks before the wedding, she started to act weird. I thought it was just pre-wedding jitters, you know.” His hand dropped to the automatic window controls, and he pushed the button to crack his window. Cold air rushed into the car, and she pushed the sleeves of her heavy cardigan down around her wrists. “One weekend, she had to go away for a few days on a business trip. When she came back, she gave me my ring and told me it was over.” She snapped her head around to look at him. His jaw muscle twitched, and he had a death grip on the steering wheel. Whatever had happened, it still seemed to cause him pain. She regretted even more that she’d opened this can of worms. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Please forget that I said anything.” He glanced at her and shrugged one shoulder. “I haven’t told this to many people,” he said. “It’s not something that I wanted a lot of people to know. She told me that she’d fallen in love with her boss. Apparently, it’d been going on for a while before she worked up the nerve to tell me.” Her heart softened toward him. Lord knows, she’d been dumped her share of times. She propped her arm on the back of the seat and entwined her fingers in his soft, brown locks. “But to wait until so close to the wedding? What a…” For once, she stopped short of saying what she was thinking. “And you never wanted to marry anyone else?” she asked. He kept his eyes fixed on the road in front of him. “I’ve never let myself get that close to anyone else. I guess I never had the courage to risk being hurt like that again.” She leaned away from him and rested her forehead against the cold window. Fog, caused by her warm breath on the glass, obscured her view of the passing countryside. Just call me Mary Sue. I’ll have the Extra Value Meal Number One, she thought as a tear dropped from her eye and fell onto the armrest. Time passed like brown sugar molasses poured from a cruet before Nick spoke to her again. “This snow isn’t letting up. I’m thinking we should drive straight on through to Winston-Salem and not stop for dinner,” he said. She swallowed back the lump in her throat. “That’s fine,” she said. “I think I have something in my refrigerator that I can fix for us.” His sigh caused the pit of her stomach to tighten. “I’m a little tired myself,” he said. “Would you mind too much if I just dropped you off at your place and said goodnight?” Her eyes stung. Don’t cry, Julie. Maybe he is just tired. “Of course, I don’t mind,” she said. Except for the holiday music on the radio, the remaining miles passed in silence. When they arrived at Julie’s apartment, Nick walked her up the slippery sidewalk. His kiss at the door was tentative and had none of the passion she’d experienced earlier in the day. “Look, Nick,” she said. “I’m sorry that I brought up all that stuff about marriage.” He smiled and squeezed her shoulders but didn’t draw her into a full embrace. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” he said. “But I obviously brought back a lot of bad memories for you. That was the last thing I meant to do.” He planted another kiss on her forehead. “I’d never told you any of that stuff. How could you have known? So don’t give it another thought. I’ll call you in the morning.” She opened her mouth to speak, but he placed two fingers against her mouth. “Get inside. It’s freezing out here,” he said. She watched him until he got back into the SUV. He blew her kiss before driving the vehicle out into the dark street. She entered the warm apartment and shed her outer garments. Thank goodness, Michelle wasn’t home. She’d never be able to hide her feelings from Michelle, and she really didn’t want to talk right now. She headed straight to her bedroom, changed into her favorite sleep shirt and climbed under the covers. * * * “I’m breaking up with Nick,” Julie said. Julie’s roommate, Michelle looked down at her from the stepladder. “You’re joking, right?” “It’s no joke,” she said while handing Michelle another strand of mini-lights for the top of the Christmas tree. “But why? He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you.” “He doesn’t love me.” Michelle stepped off of the ladder and stood in front of Julie with her hands on her hips. “Nonsense! He’s crazy about you. He bought you that diamond circle pendant for your birthday,” she said while pointing at the necklace Julie wore. “It must’ve cost at least a hundred bucks.” Julie fingered the pendant that hadn’t been off of her neck since he gave it to her. She remembered how she cried tears of joy when she opened the box and saw it. Afterwards, they’d made love for the first time. He’d done things to her that night that she’d only read about in romance novels. Her smile faded as memories crept in of their trip home from the mountains. “But he can’t say the words,” Julie said. “Don’t you think that if he felt it, he could say it?” Michelle opened a box of delicate, spun glass ornaments. “Oh, Julie, you’re so pitiful when it comes to men. You’re as fragile as these ornaments. That’s why you’ve had such bad luck with romance.” “Well, thanks a lot,” Julie said. “The truth is that I think he’s never gotten over his ex-fiancée. The way he talked last night, I might never get him to make a permanent commitment.” “I remember that. I heard that she dumped Nick, thinking that her boss was going to leave his wife for her. Good enough for her that she ended up losing the man and her job.” “Well, she really did a number on Nick,” Julie said. “He told me that he’s never wanted to get that close to anyone after the way she hurt him.” Michelle grabbed her arm and pulled her down to sit on the sofa. “Listen, some men have a hard time saying I love you, but it might not mean that he doesn’t love you. You’d be crazy to break up with Nick.” Julie picked up a box from the coffee table. She unwrapped her favorite angel from the tissue paper packaging. “I don’t want to end up like Mary Sue.” Michelle frowned. “Crazy Mary Sue Beecher?” Julie stood up and hung her angel on the tree. “She dated Joe Parker for all those years, and then he dropped her for a younger woman. I don’t want that to happen to me.” “Please don’t tell me that you’re comparing yourself to a forty-five year old woman who sent out engraved invitations to her cat’s birthday party and still dresses like a 1980s Madonna wannabe,” Michelle said. “She gave her heart to Joe, and now all she has is her cat.” Michelle’s mouth skewed to one side, and she rolled her eyes. “Oh, like Joe Parker was some kind of sweepstakes prize. I believe I’d take the cat. You’ve got a good man, Julie. For once in your life, don’t screw it up.” She flinched at the sound of the phone ringing. Her nerves were on edge. It rang again, and she looked at the caller I.D. readout. “Speak of the devil.” “Don’t break up with him before Christmas,” Michelle said. “You might get a really good present.” She grabbed the phone before the voicemail picked up on the fourth ring. “Hey, Julie.” A little tingle dashed down her spine at the way he almost sang her name. “It took you a while to answer the phone. Were you in the middle of something?” he asked. “Michelle and I are decorating our Christmas tree.” “Sounds like fun. Can I come over? I’d like to talk to you about something I’ve had on mind ever since we got back from the mountains.” Every muscle in her body tensed. “Sure. I’ll make a pot of coffee,” she said. “I’d like to talk with you, too.” * * * Twenty minutes later, she poured a cup of coffee for him and added the hazelnut-flavored creamer that she kept on hand for him. He took a seat at the small, round dinette table. “I’ve been thinking about something you said to me while we were in the mountains,” he said. A tingle shot through her chest, and she dropped down into her chair. “Oh? I said a lot of things. What are you referring to?” Michelle walked into the kitchen, and they both turned to look at her. “Don’t mind me,” she said. “I’m just getting some coffee.” Nick turned back to Julie. “I’ve decided that I’ve played around long enough,” he said. “I want to take a stab at something.” Julie heard Michelle draw in a sharp breath and set her cup down hard on the counter. “You know, I just remembered that I told Mike I’d come over sometime tonight and help him wrap his presents,” Michelle said. “Gotta go. Bye.” She hurried into the living room, grabbed her coat and went out the front door. Nick shook his head. “Michelle’s a little high-strung, isn’t she?” Julie wrapped her hands around her mug and let the warmth of the coffee permeate her fingers. “She can be.” She paused and took a deep breath. “So, you were saying?” He swallowed back a sip of coffee before answering her. “Right. Well, remember when we were looking at some of the digital photos I took around the Christmas tree farm, and you said that I should think seriously about doing something with my photography?” She sighed and was afraid that it sounded like air being released from a balloon. “Yes. I recall saying that,” she said. Nick kept talking as if he didn’t notice the distress she was feeling. “The thing is, I was surfing around the Internet and found a site where you can upload your photographs and sell them as all kinds of wearable art and stuff. You’re so good with computers that I was hoping you’d help me with it.” Her whole body slumped down in the chair. Would you like to super size that combo, Mary Sue? He leaned forward and squeezed her hand. “Oh, I know that you’re really busy at the bookstore right now,” he said. “And I wouldn’t think of asking you to do this until after the holidays...” She straightened up. “Sure. I’ll help you with it. No problem.” “You don’t seem too enthusiastic about it. Do you think it’s a bad idea?” She stood up and went to the coffeemaker to refill her empty mug. “It’s a fine idea, Nick. I’m just tired. Like you said, the store keeps me busy this time of year.” She held out the coffee carafe. “Would you like some more coffee?” He shook is head. “No, I’ll be awake all night.” The T.V. in the living room blared out a familiar theme song. “Hey, it’s Christmas Vacation,” he said. “That’s one of my favorites.” They moved into the living room to watch the movie, and he laughed at every scene as if he hadn’t already seen it fifty times. “This is one of my favorite parts,” he said. “Chevy Chase is trapped in the attic and keeps stepping on a loose board that hits him on the head. Then he falls through the floor.” She rolled her eyes at him and chuckled, but she didn’t feel like laughing. The scene in the movie could’ve been a metaphor for her love life. “You’d rather watch some fluffy, romantic stuff on the Hallmark channel, wouldn’t you?” he asked. She shook her head. “Actually, I love this movie, but my favorite part is when the squirrel gets in the house.” When the movie was over, he stretched out on the sofa with his head in her lap. She brushed her fingers through his hair and massaged his scalp. He closed his eyes and let out a low growl. “Nick, there’s something I’ve had on my mind lately, and I want to talk to you about it.” He turned his head so that he was looking up at her. His sky blue eyes searched hers. “Oh, I’ll bet I know what this is about,” he said. Dare she hope that he really did know her feelings? “You do?” He sat up and took one of her hands. “Yeah. It’s about what you want for Christmas, isn’t it? Now don’t worry. I’m not one of those lame men to waits until Christmas Eve and then has to take what’s left on the clearance table.” And there was the deflating balloon again. “It’s not about what I want for Christmas.” She sat forward as if to stand up. “Never mind. It’s not that important.” He reached out and gave her auburn ponytail a gentle tug. “Since Michelle’s still out, you want to fool around?” he asked. “She could be back any minute.” It was a fib. Michelle would probably spend the night at Mike’s. “Oh, come on,” he whispered. “Let’s live dangerously.” Desire twinkled in his eyes and colored his face with a warm glow. He winked at her and swung his hand down around her ankle. He massaged it in that sensitive spot that always melted her resolve. She glanced at Michelle’s nativity scene. “Okay, but let’s go to my bedroom. I can’t do that with the baby Jesus staring at me.” * * * “Do you think my nephew would like this?” Mrs. Murphy, one of her regular customers, asked. Julie looked at the book the older woman was holding. American Cars of the 1950s. Car crazy Nick would love it. Too bad he didn’t love her as much as he loved old automobiles. “Is your nephew into classic cars?” Julie asked. “Aren’t all young men?” Mrs. Murphy asked. Julie shrugged her shoulders. “Well, some are and some aren’t.” “I’ll take it anyway,” Mrs. Murphy said and piled several more books onto the counter. “Along with the rest of these. “I was glad to see that you have Nora’s new release. I can’t miss one of those.” “Now, Mrs. Murphy, you know that if I don’t have it, I’ll get it for you.” “I know, dear. That’s why I come here instead of going to the big chain store at the other end of the mall.” Mrs. Murphy handed Julie the correct change for her purchase and passed Michelle on her way out the door. “I’ve got the perfect gift for you,” Michelle said to Julie as she approached the checkout counter. “I just picked it up at the novelty store.” She reached in the shopping bag and pulled out a familiar item. “A Magic Eight Ball? I didn’t know that they still made those things,” Julie said. “Look,” Michelle said while giving the ball a shake. “Does Nick love Julie?” She peered into the little window. Maybe was written on the floating die. “Oh, great, even the Magic Eight Ball isn’t giving me the answer I want to see.” Michelle put down the bag and leaned across the counter. “Maybe this will brighten your spirits. I just saw Nick coming out of the jewelry store with a small bag in his hand.” She dismissed Michelle with a wave of her hand. “He was probably picking up his watch. He dropped it off the other day to get the band fixed.” Julie walked over to the New Release shelves and straightened up the mess that the last set of patrons had made. “So what are you giving Nick for Christmas?” Michelle asked. “The newest version of Call of Duty. He loves computer games—especially playing war.” Michelle’s mouth skewed to one side. “Hmm? You’d think a man who spent ten years in the Army—two of those in Iraq—would want to get away from war.” “Ever since his Grandpa passed away and left him all of his old Army stuff, Nick has immersed himself in World War II history,” Julie said. “Well, I’m glad you took my advice and didn’t break up with him,” Michelle said. “I think you’d be making a terrible mistake.” Julie looked at the clock that was hanging over the cash register. “It’s my lunchtime. Do you want to walk over to the food court and get a Greek salad?” “Sounds good. Can I leave my packages in your office?” “Of course. While you’re back there, let Maggie know I’m leaving. She’s in the stock room.” * * * Last minute holiday shoppers crowded the mall, and the long line at Taste of Athens wasn’t moving very fast. “Let’s go to McDonald’s,” Michelle said. “They have others things on the menu besides burgers and fries.” Julie shrugged. “I do need to get something quick, because I don’t want to leave Maggie alone for too long.” They traversed the mall as hurriedly as possible and fell into the shortest line. Julie turned to survey the small dining area. Her heart leapt into her throat. She saw Nick sitting at a table in the corner. He wasn’t alone. Platinum blonde Debbie, made up like a Playboy Playmate, sat so close to him that she was almost in his lap. The sight of them together stung like a slap in the face. Hadn’t he told her that Debbie hurt him so badly that he’d been afraid to get close to anyone else? Now, they were sitting side-by-side, staring into one another’s eyes and appearing to be quite cozy. Rumor had it that she was on her way to divorce court with her most recent husband. Did she want Nick back? She turned and tapped Michelle on the shoulder. “I’m not hungry anymore,” she said before running back out into the mall. She hadn’t gotten far when she heard him call after her. “Julie!” She kept walking. “Julie! Stop right where you are!” People turned and stared at her, but she didn’t slow her pace until she felt his hand on her arm. “Why did you run out like that?” he asked. She refused to look at him. “I didn’t want to intrude on anything,” she said. He let go of her arm and slapped a hand against his forehead. “No! It wasn’t what it looked like. We weren’t together. She just showed up and sat down at my table.” She glanced at their reflections in a nearby store window. Perhaps he was telling the truth, but he and Debbie had looked like a real couple. “Look, Nick,” she said. “We haven’t made any kind of commitment to one another. You’ve never even said that you love me.” She bit back the tears. “So if you want to get back together with Debbie now that she’s free, I can’t stop you.” A deep crease appeared on his forehead. “Julie? How can you think that you mean so little to me?” “That’s the problem, Nick. I don’t know what I mean to you.” He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. She didn’t wait for him to say anything else. She fled to the restroom around the corner and stayed there until she was sure that he was gone. When she got back to the bookstore, a salad and diet drink sat on her desk in the office. The attached sticky note in Michelle’s handwriting read, “Don’t take things at face value.” The dull ache in her chest worked its way into her throat. The tears spilled out and soaked the napkin she held against her eyes. * * * “Julie,” Michelle whispered while holding her hand over the phone receiver. “He’s calling again.” “Tell him I’m not home.” Michelle squinted and frowned at her before answering Nick. “She’s in the shower. I’ll tell her you called.” She stepped into the doorway of Julie’s room. “How much longer are you going to avoid him? He’s called three times today.” She pulled her knees up to her chin. “It’s over. There’s nothing more to say.” “How do you know it’s over? I swear to God you should’ve seen the look on his face when you turned around and ran out of McDonald’s. He didn’t even say ‘excuse me’ to Debbie. He just jumped up from the table and ran after you.” Michelle sat down on the edge of the bed. “And he didn’t come back, either. I waited around to see. After about ten minutes, Debbie got up and left. She looked pretty disgusted.” She grabbed a tissue off her bedside table and wiped her eyes. “With everything else that I’ve been feeling lately, seeing them together was the last thing I needed.” “You shouldn’t have let that little scene bother you, Julie. Aren’t you even willing to consider that he was telling you the truth about what happened?” Julie pressed both fists into the mattress. “I’m not avoiding him because he ate lunch with Debbie—whether it was intentional or not.” Michelle waved a hand in front of her. “Then what’s this all about?” Julie swallowed back more tears. “I confronted him with the fact that he’d never said he loved me, and he just stood there like a dumb chicken.” “And now you’re hiding in your bedroom like a dumb chicken,” Michelle said. “Talk to him before it’s too late.” They both jumped at the sound of the doorbell. “I’ll get it,” Michelle said. In a moment, Julie heard heavy footsteps coming down the hall. It didn’t sound like Michelle’s flip-flops. She bolted off the bed when Nick appeared in the doorway. “You wouldn’t talk to me on the phone, so here I am,” he said. A staggered breath passed through her parted lips. Tears coated her eyelids. “I don’t know what you want me to say to you, Nick,” she said. He held up on hand and walked toward her. “Don’t say anything. Just listen, okay?” He sat down on the bed and pointed next to him. “Sit down, please,” he said. She did as he said but kept a respectable distance between them. “First of all, I didn’t meet Debbie for lunch,” he said. “I was in the mall, and I decided to stop by Mickey D’s to get a cheeseburger. She saw me, came over to my table and sat down. She hadn’t been there more than two minutes when you walked in.” She released the deep breath she’d been holding. “I believe you,” she said. “But the two of you looked comfortable together, and I have to wonder…” She paused and shook her head. “Wonder what?” he asked. “She and I were engaged once, but that doesn’t mean I could ever go back to her. We have too much water under that bridge. Muddy, stinky swamp water.” She turned and looked at him, trying to keep from smiling. “But you loved her enough to ask her to marry you.” She paused to screw up her courage. It was now or never. Time to put all her cards on the table. “And I’m just afraid that you’ll never love me that way.” She pulled another tissue from the box and patted her eyes. She didn’t look at him, but she felt him put his hand on her thigh and gave it a little squeeze. “You see,” she said. “The thing is that I do love you that much, but…” He leaned toward her and rested his chin on her shoulder. “I love you, too,” he whispered into her ear. Her whole body went rigid. “What did you say?” she asked. He put an arm around her shoulders. “I love you, Julie. I knew almost from the moment we met that you were the woman for me.” “Well, why did it take you so long to say that?” she asked. “Do you know what I’ve been going through? Every time I said it, you never said it back. I was beginning to think that you didn’t feel that way about me.” He threw up his hands. “I don’t know. Blame it on the Army. They made me a tough guy. We don’t talk about our feelings.” Her laughter began as a chuckle and wouldn’t stop. Soon they were both giggling like a couple of teenagers. “I know it’s still a few days before Christmas,” he said. “But I want to give you your present now.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small red, velvet box. It looked like a ring box. Every nerve ending in her body went on alert. Could it be…? “I picked it up at the jewelry story this morning,” he said. “Michelle gave me your ring size, so I hope it fits.” Breathe, she told herself. It seemed to take forever for him to open the box. Her breath caught in her throat. It wasn’t the average, run-of-the-mill diamond solitaire. It was the diamond that dreams were made of. “Will you marry me, Julie?” How lucky could she get after all the bad apples she’d picked, to then find a man like Nick who loved her and wanted to marry her? A tear crept out of her eye and rolled down her cheek. “You bet I will,” she said. “And you might as well know right now that this is forever. There’s no getting out of it.” “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. End I hope you’ve enjoyed these short stories. If you feel inclined, please leave a review on Amazon.com. Keep reading for a bonus short The House Next Door. Bonus Short Story The House Next Door My bad luck had me stuck in a grocery store checkout line on Halloween. I looked at the time display on my smart phone. In two hours, my friends would be arriving at my house for a costume party. How could I have forgotten the chocolate for my special dessert? I tapped my foot as if that could make the line move faster. I hoped that the chocolate wouldn’t melt before I got out of there. I looked around at the other lanes. Other people in the same predicament slumped against shopping carts. Their zombie-like expressions seemed to fit the holiday. My attention wandered to the next lane over. A man clad in a black leather bomber jacket and dark shades that obscured his eyes stood two feet away from me. Where had he come from? He hadn’t been there the last time I looked that way. He skimmed his fingers through his close-cropped brown hair and turned his head in my direction. My jaw dropped. He wasn’t ordinary handsome. He was stop and take notice handsome. Though I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me, I smiled at him. The corners of his mouth turned up and heat flushed my cheeks. I looked down at my basket, thinking of a way to strike up a conversation with him. Be cool, I told myself. When I looked up to speak, he had disappeared. I stood on tiptoes and scanned the area around me. The man had vanished, or had he been a figment of my imagination? No, I couldn’t have imagined him, but where had he gone in the split-second that I had looked away? “Hey, lady, the line’s moving,” a voice from behind me said. I sighed and stepped forward. Halloween had already begun playing tricks on me. By the time I turned my car into the driveway of my house, twilight had fallen. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of light from the vacant house next door. I stared at it for a few seconds. Maybe there was a glare on my glasses. I took them off and rubbed the lenses with a tissue and then returned them to their snug perch on the bridge of my nose. I took one more glance at the house. Except for the streetlight casting a pale glow across the front porch, no light shone from any of the windows. I hadn’t forgotten the day that the former owner, Mrs. Murphy had found her husband’s dead body in the garage, slumped over the steering wheel of his car. Her screams had awakened me from my Sunday morning slumber. The poor lady had never been the same since that day. Her children had decided that she should move to a senior citizens’ apartment complex. Earlier in the week, I noticed that a local realtor had posted a sign out front. I could never buy a house in which someone had died—not that I believe in ghosts, but my vivid imagination would run wild. When I got out of the car, I could have sworn that I saw a dark shadow dart across the yard. I shivered and felt adrenalin rush to my chest. I grabbed my grocery bag and dashed to my front door. As soon as I was inside my warm, cozy house, I reprimanded myself for being frightened. “Mr. Murphy isn’t wandering around over there,” I said aloud while I went from room-to-room turning on every light in my house. After I finished preparing my Halloween dessert, Baked Dracula, I had just enough time to take a quick shower and get into my costume. I had wanted to dress as the Game of Thrones character, Daenerys Targaryen, but alas, I waited too late to order my costume and the party store was out of stock. I had to choose between Mrs. Bigfoot and the traditional witch costume. I opted for the latter. I pulled the dress over my head and used my hands to smooth out the wrinkles in the shiny, black fabric. To my surprise, it had a sexy, Morticia Addams vibe rather than the old hag version. Chalk up one thing going right for me this Halloween night. I sat at my dresser and smeared the special green make-up on one side of my face. The sharp ding of the doorbell caused me to drop the tin on my cream-colored carpet. “Oh, shoot! I’ll never get that stain out,” I said aloud. “I’ll have to keep my guests out of the bedroom.” Ding-ding! “Coming!” I looked through the peephole and saw three little characters. Their mother stood in on the walkway. “Trick or treat,” they said in unison when I opened the door. One of the little boys pointed at my face and snickered. “What are you supposed to be?” he asked. “I’m a witch with a split personality,” I said. The scowl on his face told me that he didn’t get my joke. He shoved his orange bucket toward me. I dropped several pieces of candy in his bucket and the same amount in the bags that the other children held forward. I started back inside, but I stopped when a white apparition seemed to float down my driveway. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so I squinted to get a better look. The ghost stopped at the bottom of my porch steps, and the wind blew up the hem of the white sheet to reveal jeans and rollerblades. I heard a little girl’s voice say, “Trick or treat.” She held out a paper sack that was already half full. “My goodness, you kids started early tonight, didn’t you?” Her arm stretched out in the direction of the Murphy house. “The man over there gave me a lot of candy.” A cold gust of air blasted my porch, and I shivered. My costume wasn’t made for warmth. “You must be mistaken,” I said. “That house has been empty for weeks.” The ghost shook her head. “I knocked on the door, and the man gave me candy.” I took a few steps toward the end of my porch and looked at the house. I didn’t see a vehicle in the driveway, and the windows that faced my house were dark. I turned back to the little ghost to question her further, but she’d skated away to the next house. My teeth chattered, and I hurried back into my house. “How can there be a man next door? But she did have candy. Why am I talking to myself?” I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders and headed back outside. The silence of the evening was broken by the shrieks and giggles of costumed children, who were now out in full force. Being careful to stay in the shadows, I crept toward the house. A sliver of light peeked out from under the garage door. It could have been the light that I'd seen earlier. I froze in place when I heard the faint tapping of metal on metal. Mr. Murphy used to spend a lot of time in the garage working on that old riding lawn mower with the loud engine. He frequently woke me up at the crack of dawn on Saturday mornings. Screwing up my courage, I moved forward. The tapping grew louder. Being careful where I stepped in the darkness, I inched my way toward the window on the other side of the garage. The blinds were shut. A shadow passed in front of the window, and I held my breath. The shadow took on the shape of a man. The blinds rose, and I took off running. I would’ve made it back to my house if the fishtail hem of my dress hadn’t caught on something that was protruding from the ground. I couldn’t keep my balance in the stiletto heels I wore. I teetered around like a drunken person and then fell face first into a pile of leaves. I heard the electric motor of the garage door opener followed by the creaking sound of the door rising. I didn't dare move. Play dead, I told myself. It's dark and maybe you’ll blend in with the leaves. I held my breath at the sound of footsteps crunching dead leaves. They came close and stopped near me. A male voice asked, “Aren’t you a little old for trick-or-treat?” I took my time rolling over and sitting up. He couldn’t have been the ghost of Mr. Murphy unless he had grown several inches taller and lost weight in the afterlife. I couldn't make out his features in the darkness. “I’m Jake McLeod,” he said. “I’m with Pinnacle Real Estate.” I got to my feet and brushed away the leaves that had stuck to my clothes. It took me a moment to remember my name. “I’m Melissa Avery,” I finally said. “I love…I mean…I live next door.” My cheeks blazed hot. “A little girl told me that a man was over here, and I came to investigate.” “And you’ve found me,” he said. The lights from a passing car illuminated Jake’s face. Was it…? No, it couldn’t have been the mysterious man from the grocery store. I wanted to squeal like the children running up and down the street. “I’ll leave you to whatever you were doing over here,” I said. “I’m sorry to have bothered you.” “No bother at all. I’m glad I got to meet you, Melissa Avery.” The tone of his voice pricked my tender nerve endings. “I’d better go. The trick-or-treaters are getting restless,” I said. “If you need anything, I’m right next door.” “I’ll remember that.” On shaky legs, I walked back to my house. Once inside, the thought occurred to me to take him my phone number. I grabbed a sticky notepad and wrote it down. On the way out the door, I set the candy pale on the porch and told the children to help themselves. When I crossed to the other side of my driveway, I stopped. The lights in the garage were now turned off. Where is he? I wondered. It hadn’t been more than a few minutes since I left him. He must have had a vehicle inside the garage that I hadn’t been able to see. I walked around to the side of the house only to find it dark and quiet. The beating of my heart increased. I walked up onto the porch and rang the doorbell. I heard no movement or sound inside the house. Disappointed that I had somehow missed him, I turned to go back home. A strange noise—like the sound of flapping wings—drew my gaze back to the Murphy house. I couldn’t discern the shape of it, but a dark shadow rose above the garage, crossed the roof and disappeared into the darkness of the sky. What was that? I’d never seen an owl or any other nocturnal bird that large. The wind whipped through the thin material of my skirt and chilled me to the bone. I ran back to my house and darted inside. I pulled up the local phone directory on my tablet and searched for Jake McLeod. The search returned no listings. Okay, no big deal. Maybe he had an unlisted phone number. I tapped in the name of the real estate company that he had said he represented. No listings were returned for Pinnacle Real Estate. Now, that is odd, I thought. I found my flashlight and went out to the street where the real estate sign sat in front of the Murphy house. I held my breath when I read the lettering on the sign. Michael Brown, Broadwell Realtors. So, who is Jake and why was he in the Murphy’s house? I wondered. My imagination kicked into overdrive. Why would Jake be in the house if he wasn’t Mrs. Murphy’s real estate agent? How weird to go to a vacant house on Halloween, hand out candy to trick-or-treaters, and tinker around in the garage. My investigation would have to wait. My guests would be arriving soon. Somehow, I managed to put aside my curiosity about the mysterious Jake McLeod. It had to be a Halloween trick that my imagination had played on me. My party seemed to be going well. My friend Cheryl complimented me on my “eye of newt” hors d’oeuvres. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said. “That I invited my brother to drop by.” “I didn’t know you had a brother,” I said. “He’s visiting from out-of-town, and I didn’t want him to sit at home while I came to your party.” “Of course, that’s fine,” I said. “But where is he?” “He’ll be along,” she said. “He was on a business call when I left.” I poured her another cup of witch’s brew punch. “What type of business does he do?” I asked. The doorbell interrupted us before she could answer me. Before I could open the door, the lights flickered and went out. Only my pumpkin lanterns provided illumination. My friends made jokes about me forgetting to pay the electric bill. “Very funny,” I said and opened the door. A tall figure stood silhouetted against the full moon that provided light to the dark street. “Trick or treat,” he said. I might not have been able to see him clearly, but I’d never forget that voice. “He-he-llo,” I stammered. “I hope you don’t mind that my sister invited me,” he said. I breathed a sigh of relief. Jake McLeod was Cheryl’s brother. “N-not at all,” I said. “Please, come in.” I led him into the candlelight and offered him a cup of punch. His dark eyes twinkled. “It seems our paths keep crossing, Melissa Avery,” he said. “And now, we’re going to be seeing more of each other.” My mouth went dry. “We are?” “Yes, a few moments ago, I bought the house the next door,” he said. “I’m in the business of buying and flipping old houses.” I poured a cup of punch for myself. “Well, that explains it,” I said. “Explains what?” “You introduced yourself as Jake McLeod with Pinnacle Real Estate, but Mrs. Murphy’s realtor is Michael Brown with Broadwell Realtors.” He laughed. “And you must have thought that I was up to no good.” I would never want to admit to him or to anyone else what thoughts had crossed my mind that evening. He raised his cup to mine. “Happy Halloween,” he said. “It’s my favorite holiday.” I turned to the punch bowl to refill my cup. “Would you care for more…?” I didn’t finish my question. When I turned around, he had vanished again. Where did he go? I looked around my living room, squinting in the dim candlelight. I made my way over to Cheryl. “Have you seen your brother?” “Oh, he just texted me that he’s not coming,” she said. “He had to meet someone to sign some paperwork.” A chill shot up my spine, and I trembled at the sound of the front door opening and closing. The lights came back on, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. Trick or treat? I wondered. Either way, I’d never forget this Halloween. * * * Read on for an excerpt from Revisiting Evergreen Book 3 in The Evergreen Series. Chapter 1 THE VIBRATION ON NEAL PERRY’S hip yanked his attention away from the commuter train’s passing scenery. He ran his thumb across the text message icon. Steph? Her name made his pulse race but not in the way that it once had. The message read, “Please call. Need to talk”. She needs to talk? She’s spent three weeks rejecting every attempt at communication. He’d begun to accept that their marriage might be over. “Will call from home,” he texted back. “15 mins away.” Her reply came back, “Will meet you there.” He stared at the screen. Her art gallery is within walking distance of the train depot. Why would she want to meet at the house two miles away, unless…? He didn’t dare hope that she might want to come home. Is she going to serve me with legal separation papers tonight? Stephanie had left a lot of unanswered questions when she’d walked out on him by sending the text message: “Need to be alone. Can’t explain.” What had that meant? When he got home, he found a handwritten note telling him that she’d moved into the studio above her gallery. He’d rushed over there, but she wouldn’t come to the door or answer her phone. The next morning, he’d gone back only to find one of her art students minding the store. “She’s gone into the city,” the woman had said. “Did she act as if she were upset about anything?” The woman had shrugged a shoulder and turned her head to keep from making eye contact with him. “I don’t know. I really don’t want to…” The screech of train wheels braking on metal rails jerked him out of the memory. From the window, he could see the depot ahead. He turned off his phone and returned it to his pocket. He stood and found a place in line at the nearest exit. When the doors opened, the other commuters dashed from the train and made their way to the hundreds of cars that filled three parking lots alongside the tracks. He bided his time—unlike when he and Steph were first married. Back then, it seemed as if it took forever to get home to her. This evening, he had no idea what awaited him at what used to be their home. I’m in no hurry to find out. Stephanie stared at the door and clasped her hands together to keep them from shaking. The pills aren’t working today. Come on, Neal. What’s taking you so long? She lowered her head and closed her eyes. She couldn’t bear to look at the happy home she’d decorated, or her own artwork adorning the walls. Those paintings depicted beautiful things—birds, flowers, and seascapes. She must’ve been living in a fantasy world to think that her past would never come back to haunt her. The door opened, and he seemed surprised to see her sitting on the sofa. He loosened the knot in his tie, removed his suit jacket and tossed it over the back of the nearest chair. “Okay, what’s this all about?” he asked without any preliminary pleasantries. It didn’t bode well for her. She took a deep breath and blurted it out. “My dad emailed me this morning,” she said. “He wants the family to spend a week in Blowing Rock at a B&B that used to belong to his grandfather.” He ran a hand across his forehead as if he had a headache. “Blowing Rock? Where is that?” “In the North Carolina mountains,” she said. His shoulders relaxed, and he sat down in the chair across from her. She stared at the coffee table. She couldn’t look at his face—couldn’t bear to see the hurt and confusion she’d placed on those handsome features. “The woman who owns the place found artwork hidden in the house that belonged to Dad’s uncle, Stephen,” she said. “And she’s created some sort of memorial to him. She’s establishing a college scholarship in Uncle Stephen’s memory. There’s going to be a formal presentation, and Dad wants everyone to be there.” “That all sounds nice,” he said. “But what does it have to do with me?” The lump in her throat felt like a tennis ball. Time to rip off the bandage. Just say it. “I want…I need you to go with me and pretend that everything is fine between us,” she said. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “Why would you want me to do that?” he asked. “Because my parents don’t know that we’re living apart right now, and I’d rather not tell them yet,” she said. “You haven’t told them? I don’t understand,” he said. It killed her to hear the hopeful tone in his voice. Why did life have to be so unfair and open old wounds that she’d thought were healed? “Are you kidding me? I thought they would never speak to me again when I dropped out of law school to open an art gallery. How am I supposed to tell them that we’re separated and disappoint them again?” He flopped backward in the chair. “But you dropped out of law school ten years ago,” he said. “I hope they would be over that by now.” She stood up and paced to the other side of the room and back. “You really don’t know my parents,” she said. “Maybe not in the way you do, but I can’t believe you haven’t shared this with them, Steph.” “They would want an explanation,” she said. “And I can’t give them one.” He squinted and massaged his temples. “Any more than you can give me one,” he said. “You’ve spent the last three weeks rejecting me, and now you want me to go on some family vacation and lie to your parents.” She stood in front of him and clinched her fists by her side. “I don’t blame you for being confused,” she said. “All I’m asking for is one week of your time.” “Can’t you see how unfair that is?” he asked. She wished that she could tell him the truth about why she’d left. She’d never get the words out without breaking down and retreating into that dark place that threatened to consume her. “You’re right,” she said. “I haven’t been fair to you, but it’s complicated.” His grip on the arms of the chair turned his knuckles white. “Is there another man?” His question threw her off-guard. Where did that come from? “No, of course not,” she said. “I can’t believe you would assume that I’d be unfaithful…” He sprang forward in the chair, slamming one fist into the leather upholstery. She jumped backward. “What the hell am I supposed to assume, Steph? Tell me why you left,” he said. “Was it me? Did I do something wrong? I thought we were happy. For God’s sake, we were trying to have a baby.” She fought back tears. He doesn’t know what he’s asking of me. “Tell me,” he said. “Tell me the truth, and I’ll go with you to North Carolina.” “You didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “This is my problem.” “But it’s our marriage,” he said. “So that makes it my problem, too. Why can’t you tell me what’s going on?” She cupped her hands over her cheeks. “Because it’s too difficult,” she said. “Whatever it is,” he said. “We can work through it together for better or for worse. Wasn’t that in our wedding vows?” He stared at her with those translucent blue eyes that always seemed to look straight through her. What answer can I give him? He deserves one, doesn’t he? “As I said, it’s complicated, but I’m seeing a doctor…” He got to his feet and came to her side. “Oh, my God, are you ill?” “No, not that kind of doctor. I’m seeing a psychiatrist,” she said. His chest heaved with the sigh he released. “Then it’s an emotional problem,” he said. “That doesn’t happen all of a sudden. Was I too self-absorbed to notice you were having problems? Is that why you had to leave me?” She reached for his arm but drew her hand back before she could touch him—before she could feel his strength and want to hide in it. “Please don’t blame yourself,” she said. “It wasn’t like that at all.” “What was it like?” he asked. “I need to know. This is killing me, Steph. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I can barely get myself through my work.” He’d described her feelings to a tee, and she’d been so wrapped up in her emotions that she hadn’t considered his. “I left because…” She paused, taking deep breaths in and out. “I had a breakdown, and I didn’t want you to see me that way. I never want you to see me that way.” “I’m strong enough to handle it,” he said. “I love you. Tell me what caused it.” She swallowed. “I-I can’t tell you. I’m not ready,” she said. He turned his back to her, went into the kitchen, and took a bottle of water from the refrigerator. He rummaged in the cabinet where they kept the medicines and shook an ibuprofen from its bottle. Oh great, I’ve given him a headache. That’s why I had to leave, Neal. I didn’t want to transfer any of my pain to you. “I’ll go with you to Blowing Rock,” he said. “Maybe spending time with me will help you to trust me enough to open up about this.” Relief, mixed with a little trepidation, washed over her. “I can’t promise that right now,” she said. “But I’m grateful that you’re willing to do this for me.” “So when do we leave?” he asked. “Next Sunday,” she said. “Dad rented the place for a whole week, but if you wanted to make up some excuse for why we couldn’t stay longer, we could leave after the scholarship presentation.” He downed the glass of water and shook his head. “I’m not going to make a career out of lying to your parents,” he said. “If they expect us to stay a week; then we’ll stay a week.” A whole week. Could she keep her emotions in check for that long? I can’t argue with him when he’s doing me a tremendous favor. “Do you think you’ll have any problems getting away?” she asked. “I doubt it,” he said. “My dad has been worried sick about us, and he’ll be glad to give me the time away with you. What about the gallery? Do you feel comfortable closing for a week during tourist season?” “One of my adult art students has been helping me this summer,” she said. “I think she can handle the place for a week. I’ll ask another of my students to lend her hand.” She paused and picked up her purse. “Speaking of the gallery, I’d better get back.” She walked toward the door. “Oh, what time do we need to leave Sunday?” he asked. “I looked up the mileage, and it will probably take eleven hours to get there, so we’ll need to leave very early Sunday morning.” “Eleven hours? Why don’t we fly down?” he asked. “Like when we visit your parents in Charlotte.” She gripped the doorknob and pressed the latch with her thumb. “The nearest airport is over the mountains in Tennessee, and it doesn’t have commercial flights. The alternative is to fly in to Charlotte and ride with my parents to Blowing Rock. Obviously, I don’t want to be trapped in a car with my mom for two hours.” What if she were to ask about…? Her stomach twisted into a knot thinking about it. Maybe she won’t even remember. Please, God, don’t let her remember. “Could you stand to be in a car with me for eleven hours?” he asked. She spun back around and faced him. “Of course, I could, Neal,” she said. “I don’t have any bad feelings toward you. I’m so sorry for what I’ve done to you but…” She stopped when cold dread crept up into her chest and choked her words. No, I can’t tell him, she thought. Not yet. “Steph?” “I’ll see you around five a.m. Sunday morning,” she said. He nodded, and she opened the door. Once outside, she clutched her stomach until the pain subsided.

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