Lauren Holt punched at her pillows, her phone in her hand. In three years, she’d moved twice to get away from the traffic noise but discovered there were no apartments in the City of Atlanta that offered an escape. At least school was out for the holidays. Her third-grade class had been so excited, and they had loved the wooden-reindeer clothespin ornaments she’d made for them.
Christmas at home in Holt Ridge, Tennessee, had been her favorite time of year. But living alone in Atlanta left her with no family nearby and no festivities to celebrate. That, of course, brought to mind the reason for her isolation—David Decker.
So close. She’d come so close to marrying him. Then in the week before their wedding, he had shattered her world. Why had he done that?
Still having no idea, she rested back against the pillows then tapped her phone screen, hoping somehow she’d hear something in his last voice mail she hadn’t heard in the past three years.
“Lauren, it’s David. The negotiations are going well to resolve the last-minute dispute. I should wrap up tomorrow morning and be on a flight tomorrow night. I’m the luckiest man alive. In three days, you’ll be my wife. I love you. We’re going to build a great life together. I can’t wait. Night, angel.”
She let out a wistful sigh. His eager tone. No hint of cold feet or of anything being wrong. A great life together. Love. Her heart hitched and a lump swelled in her throat. How had so much changed in just two days?
As baffled now as then, she stared at the screen. Tapped the messages and scrolled to his last text. The one he had sent her the night before their wedding...
Lauren, I’m sorry about the timing on this, but I’ve decided our marriage would be a mistake. I can’t do that to either of us. I hope you will be happy and find the right man for you. When I return, it will be to Nashville, not to Holt Ridge.
A mistake. From love and a great life together to a mistake. How? Why?
Having no answers, she sighed her frustration. Her chest tight, her heart weary, she set the phone on the bedside table and clicked off the lamp, inhaling deeply the fresh scent of the cool, sun-dried sheets. Just like every other night in the past three years, she had listened and found no answers. Not in his voice mail. Not in his text. Not in her broken heart.
Her mother advised Lauren repeatedly to move on, to fall in love again. But how could she even try? Why would she want to try? The costs of loving were steep. A broken heart incapable of healing, constant haunting memories of all the good that had been lost. Logically, she knew she should move on. Realistically, it was impossible to do.
She was stuck. Torn between imagining what their life together would have been like and wondering if she’d ever really known David at all. He’d deserted her the night before their wedding in a text message. A text message. What kind of man did that?
The phone rang.
Lauren startled awake and snagged it, checked caller ID. Caroline? Why would her sister be calling her at this time of night? Had to be bad news. “Hello.”
“Lauren, it’s me.” Caroline’s voice cracked. “It’s Mom.”
Lauren sat straight up in bed, bunched the covers in a closed fist. “What’s wrong with her?” She’d had surgery a couple days ago. Routine, Caroline had said. And it had gone well.
“She’s developed a post-operative infection.” Caroline paused. “It happens sometimes, they say, but she’s not responding to treatment.”
“Did you ask Jessica about it?” Lauren asked. Jessica Weaver had been Lauren’s best friend all her life. She was an excellent nurse.
“I did. She’s taking care of mom, just like you asked,” Caroline said. “Lauren, it’s bad. Really bad. Jessica says they’re doing all they can, but nothing is working. She said we’d better be prepared.”
Lauren tried to swallow a gasp, reminded herself to breathe.
“Mom said to call you.” Caroline sniffled, exhaled a sharp breath that blew static through the phone. “She said she wants to see you…one more time.”
One more time? Lauren swung her feet over the edge of the bed, toe-seeking her slippers. “I’ll see if I can get a flight.”
“A week before Christmas?” Caroline grunted. “That’s going to be impossible.”
“Maybe, but I’m going to try,” Lauren said. “I have to try.”
“We’re having heavy snow storms, too.”
“It always snows there this time of year,” Lauren let her impatience seep into her voice. “Stop worrying, Caroline. One way or another, I’ll get there. You tell Mom, I’m coming.”
“I will.” Caroline cleared her throat. “Lauren, I’m scared.”
Caroline was the older sister but her being the protective one in real life had never worked. Since their father’s sudden death when they were twelve and ten, Lauren had been the one to step up and try to right the wrongs and fix whatever happened to break to keep them and their mother glued together. Their dad had made a hairpin turn on an icy mountain road and slid into a ravine. Caroline, who had always been closer to him, had been devastated by his death. She’d become a semi-recluse, hidden away with her books, and she seemed content to stay that way. The truth was Caroline, while genuinely devastated, also liked nature and animals more than people. If she had to feign devastation indefinitely and being inept to get more time alone and less with others, she had no qualms with doing it.
How their mother hadn’t seen through Caroline’s convenient ineptitude was beyond Lauren, though honestly, Mom never had seen what she chose not to see in anyone, including in her daughters.
Little sobs crackled through the phone. Lauren’s heart tugged. “Caroline, it’s going to be okay. Hold yourself together, all right?”
“All right.” She paused. “I’m so glad you’re coming home.”
“Of course, I’m coming home. Have either of you ever needed me and I haven’t come?”
“Well, no, but I worried this time might be different.”
“Because of David.”
Lauren stilled at her bedside. “What has he got to do with this?”
Caroline hesitated. “You know. You haven’t been back home once since you left. Your leaving was all about him and we all know it.”
David was the last thing Lauren wanted to talk about right now. “I’d better get busy trying for a flight. Tell Mom we talked and what I said. I’ll be there as soon as I can…”
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