Wet running shoes were not my fave.
I glanced down at the puddle at my feet, my shoes squelching in defeat. I pursed my lips and scowled at the gray clouds overhead. “It was supposed to be nice today.”
The clouds didn’t respond. Drops of mist simply bounced off my face, as if mocking me. I let out a puff of air, my breath steaming in the February morning. “Move to Washington, they said,” I grumbled to myself. “It’ll be fun, they said.”
I wiped off the water that was starting to pool at the nape of my neck and dribble across the small silver chain I wore as I glanced at the park. It was practically deserted, except for a twenty-something couple on the swing-set. They giggled and kissed in the rain like idiots, the stars in their eyes obvious even from fifty-feet away.
I toyed with my necklace and scoffed. “Gag me.”
My day officially ruined before 9 a.m., I trudged back to my jeep, my shoes squeaking like cheese curds. I had to lean all my weight back to wrench the driver’s door open, narrowly avoiding falling on my butt once it finally decided to cooperate. When I got in, I had to slam it twice to keep it closed. Yay for not having money to buy nice things.
The interior was freezing, so I turned the ignition to let the car warm up a bit and looked at the phone I had left in my cup-holder. I groaned. I had been gone all of forty-five minutes, and I already had six new text messages and a voicemail from my literary agent, Jennifer. She had done her waiting – of which she had made me well aware – but now she was getting anxious about my progress on my new novel. I quickly scanned the texts, and didn’t bother with the voicemail. I would call her back later when I actually had something to report.
An emoji-laden text was also sitting on my screen, hearts and kissy-faces nauseatingly
abundant. It was from my mom. She wished me a happy Valentine’s and let me know that she would call me later. Oh joy.
The only other notification was an alert letting me know I was at 23% battery. Considering my options, that was the lesser of three evils.
I dumped the phone back into my cup holder and watched the rain fall outside my windshield. That couple was still on the playground, kissing and tickling and cuddling. They looked like they would fall to pieces if they were ever separated.
I pulled out of the parking lot and drove home. Shops, houses, and rhododendron bushes skated past my windows in vibrant greens, pinks, and grays. Cartoon hearts adorned every storefront, beckoning to couples and lonely souls alike. I ignored them.
I glanced at my side-mirror when I came to a stoplight, and realized my face had been pulled into a subconscious scowl. It had been doing that a lot lately. I blamed him.
My chest panged at the thought. My fingers reached instinctively for the chain around my neck, and my scowl deepened.
Oh, yeah. It was definitely his fault.
When I pulled into my driveway, my phone rattled in the cup-holder, playing the first few bars of Jason Mraz’s I Won’t Give Up. I glanced at it. As promised, my mother was calling.
I considered not picking up – I really did – but I knew it would be a lost cause. She would keep calling until she wore me out, and that battle was beyond the energy levels I possessed for today. With a sigh, I answered the call.
“Hey, Mom. How are ya?”
“Oh, never mind me, Stephanie. How are you? Have you been eating better? Did you get any sleep? How are you feeling? Do you need me and Dad to bring you anything?” The questions came in rapid fire, like she was trying to fit a lifetime’s worth of words into thirty seconds.
“Do you have any plans tonight? Now that we finally convinced you to move closer, we could take you out to dinner!”
“We could go to that fun little pizza place you love so much! Oh, what was its name?”
I rolled my eyes. I loved this woman to pieces, but she was too much.
“Did you just roll your eyes at me?”
I winced. I forgot that she had that ridiculous super-mom sense. “No, Mom. I did not roll my eyes.”
“Don’t you lie to me, young lady. I know these things.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Mom, please…”
I heard a deep voice in the background and a protest from my mom, but then another voice came on the line. “Hi, Annie.”
I slumped in relief. “Hi, Dad.”
“What your mother is trying to say is that she loves you, and she’s worried about you. I’m going to put you on speaker phone so she can hear what you have to say.”
“I could hear her just fine before, Rich,” Mom griped.
Dad chose to stay silent.
“Mom, I’m fine,” I responded, “you and Dad don’t need to worry about me. I’m a big girl, and can take care of myself.”
Mom sighed. “I know, honey, but this is your first Valentine’s since…” She didn’t finish the sentence. She didn’t have to.
That pain in my heart was back. I shoved it away. “Mom, honestly, I’ll be okay. You and Dad go and enjoy date night.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
I wanted to scream at the phone. I didn’t. “Yes, Mom.”
“Okay, then. I love you, Stephanie. Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“Love you, too, Mom.”
“Love you, Annie.”
“Love you, Dad.”
The line went dead, and I let my head thump back against my headrest. This was going to be a very long day.
I hauled myself out of my car and trudged toward my house, the sad, wispy excuse for “rain” making my skin break out in goosebumps. When I got inside and shut the door behind me, the house was completely silent. No pots and pans clattered together in the kitchen. No country music blared from the speakers. A booming laugh didn’t bounce from wall to wall. We hadn’t lived together, but his presence had almost become a permanent part of the place. I massaged my necklace between my thumb and forefinger while I stared at the empty house. I still half expected that idiot to show up on my doorstep with a dozen roses and a stupid grin on his face.
I clenched my jaw and shook my head. “Don’t be dumb, Steph.”
I walked towards my bedroom, avoiding eye contact with the pictures on the walls. The carnage from last night’s Nicholas Sparks movie marathon was still strewn across my living room. Tissues, blankets, pillows, and chocolate wrappers begged me to clean them up. Why I had done that to myself, I would never know.
I ignored the mess and took a quick shower. Once clean, I threw on a pair of jeans and a warm hoodie, took a few brush strokes through my unreasonably long mane of hair before piling it into a messy bun, then dropped my phone into my laptop bag and made a beeline for the front door. If I stayed at home, I would never get anything done.
When I walked outside, the weather hadn’t improved much, and neither had my scowl. I clambered into my rickety old jeep and headed out.
I had forgotten how busy the local Starbucks always seemed to be. Hipsters, bloggers, and bleary-eyed corporate pencil-pushers all sat with steaming cups of coffee within arm’s reach. Their faces were all plastered to their phone screens. Paper hearts and cupids hung from the ceiling in red, pink, and white. Lovely.
I swatted the decorations away as I inched towards the counter. When I finally made it to the front of the line, the freckled barista that looked barely older than sixteen gave me a large, perfectly straight smile. I couldn’t imagine that her face wasn’t sore after five minutes of that grin. Did everyone have to be so ridiculously cheerful?
“Welcome to Starbucks! What can I get for you?”
I ordered my usual, and also considered getting a cinnamon roll. My stomach rumbled in agreement, but then I remembered how many chocolate wrappers were sitting on my living room floor. I bypassed the roll. Freckles nodded absently while taking my order, and then, impossibly, her smile widened.
“Hey, are you the one that’s usually with that big guy?”
I gave her a tight smile, hoping my eyes spelled death. “I am.”
She either didn’t notice my veiled threat, or didn’t care. “I haven’t seen you two for a while. Is he coming to meet you later?”
I almost waited for an arm to wrap around my shoulder, for a laugh to roll out of his big chest while he said, “Of course! I’m right here!”. His timing was impeccable for things like that.
I didn’t wait.
“Nope.” I dropped my change on the counter and found a table before Freckles could ask any more questions. Mom would have told me she was just being friendly. I, on the other hand, had to refrain from lodging a complaint with the manager. Didn’t they teach these people anything about customer service? There was a system to these things. Fake smile, take the order, take the payment, “Have a nice day!”, repeat. That was it. No nosy outside questions required.
Luckily for Freckles and the management, my drink was done in short order, so I was somewhat mollified. I took an appreciative sip, letting the creamy warmth glide down my throat. Satisfied for now, I set the cup down and pulled out my laptop.
When the screen lit up, my heart lurched a little. It had been months since I’d opened this computer (Netflix was on my TV. Everything else was on my phone). I had forgotten what I had set as my wallpaper. His face smiled back at me, his camo-clad arms wrapped around an equally happy “picture” me. That had been taken a lifetime ago.
I ran my fingers along the silver chain I wore, rolling it between my fingertips, and hovered my cursor over the “Pictures” folder. I needed to change that background. I watched the cursor wait patiently on the folder.
I sighed and moved it away. Today was not the day.
Instead, I clicked on the Word document labeled “IN PROGRESS”, and began to write.
“Let me guess; decaf, milk, no sugar, with perhaps a hint of nutmeg?”
I blinked, my trail of thought gone. Was someone talking to me?
I looked up to find a broad-shouldered, short-haired, giant of a man towering over me, holding a cup of steaming apple juice and a plate with two cinnamon rolls. His blue eyes were kind, but right now he looked at me with smug amusement.
I glanced at my drink and inwardly scoffed. As if he could have me pegged so easily.
I drew my cup close and took my time with a sip, never breaking eye contact. “Wrong.” I went back to work.
He plunked down in the seat across from me. The corners of my mouth pinched together. Could he not take a hint?
“You sure about that? I think you’re bluffing.”
I glanced at him. His eyebrow was raised in a challenge, but he still had that infuriating smirk on his face. That had to go.
“Hot chocolate, extra chocolate. Peppermint, caramel, cinnamon, marshmallows, and extra, extra whipped cream.”
The smirk was gone, but now he flashed me something worse. A full-on, though thoroughly abashed, smile. “Wow. I had not expected to be that far off.”
I shrugged. “Most people don’t expect someone sitting in a coffee shop to hate even the smell of the stuff.” I blinked in self-consternation. Why was I still talking to this guy?
He leaned back in his chair, taking a thoughtful bite out of one of his cinnamon rolls. “If you hate it that much, then what in the world are you doing here every day for two hours?”
That I couldn’t let slide. “Oh, so you watch me, is that it?”
He smiled and showed a hint of shyness. “Maybe a little.”
I scooted my chair farther around the table and away from him.
His eyes widened in dismay, and he tried to wave me back, flustered. “I was just kidding!”
I met his eyes briefly, and the corner of my mouth twitched up into a momentary smirk. He was too easy.
He visibly relaxed. “Ha, ha, very funny.” He took a sip of his drink. “But you didn’t answer my question.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You’re in here just as much as I am. Shouldn’t you know by now?”
He almost choked on his apple juice. “I’m sorry. Who’s watching who?”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, please. Don’t think I don’t notice a hulking army man watching me from his corner table. I’m a writer and a woman. Not a lot gets past me.”
He cocked an eyebrow at me. “What makes you think I’m in the army?”
“Well, the haircut, for one thing. No one does a buzz cut just for the sake of it. Plus, you’re in much better shape than most people, so…” Too late, I realized my mistake.
“Oh, so you noticed.” He put his elbow on the table and flexed, that smirk back on his face. “Why, thank you.”
Heat rose to my cheeks. I tried to save myself with a cutting remark, but my brain wasn’t formulating words fast enough. I settled for a scowl.
Drat this man.
He chuckled and winked. “You’re right. I’m an army guy, through and through.” He put his other elbow on the table and leaned forward, resting his chin on his steepled fingers. “Now, I just have to figure you out.”
I viciously fought back the blush that was threatening to deepen. No. He would not win.
He still stared at me with those big blue eyes. “So, you’re a writer, huh? A… journalist, maybe? Fulfilling the stereotypical dream of writing in all the coffee shops across the state?”
“Ooh, first the drink, now my profession. That’s another strike for our batter.” I had regained some equilibrium, and I smirked. Two could play at that game. “Third one gets him booted off the table.”
He feigned hurt. “You wouldn’t kick me off. I’m too charming.” When I didn’t respond, I saw a bit of worry creep into those baby blues. “Would you?”
I remained unmoved. “One more guess.”
“You’re not going to give me any leeway?”
Oh, how I wanted so badly to win, to turn him away with my superior wit. He should have known better than to invite himself to my table. But my stomach betrayed me. I took one cursory glance at his second, untouched cinnamon roll, and that was the end of it. My stomach growled as if it had been starved for months.
He had enough grace to refrain from laughing.
I rolled my eyes. “Fine. If you don’t want to leave, you at least have to give me the other cinnamon roll.”
He grinned. “You got it.” He leaned back again, stroking his chin thoughtfully. His eyes flickered from my poker face to my computer and back again. “Are you an… author?”
“Well, obviously, genius. But what kind?”
He puffed up his cheeks, and then let the air out of his mouth like a popped balloon. “You’re really making this difficult.”
I splayed my hands. “You brought this on yourself. Now stop stalling and guess.”
He shook his head and grimaced. “I’m gonna go with my gut and say… novelist.”
“Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!” I tipped an imaginary hat to him. “You may keep your cinnamon roll.”
“Meh.” He slid the cinnamon roll towards me. “I actually hoped you wanted to share. A pretty girl like you shouldn’t be all alone on Valentine’s Day.”
My brain took a moment to process. The conversation had gone by in such a whirlwind, I hadn’t taken time to consider what was happening. My heart stopped.
Oh. My. Heck. Had I been flirting?
Shaken, I scoffed and gestured to my no-makeup-ed, messy haired, hoodie-clad wreck of a self. “I think you may need glasses, sir.”
“Nah, I just got a physical done.” He tapped the corner of his eye. “I’ve got perfect eyes.”
Watching the changes in their deep blue color, I almost caught myself agreeing with him. Heat rushed to my cheeks again. What was happening to me?
Again, somehow at a loss for words, I turned back to my computer screen and started typing.
Exactly what I was typing, I couldn’t say.
He chuckled again. “Alright. If you don’t want the roll as a gift, can I at least exchange it for your name?”
I let out a deep, overly long sigh, battling the smile this man had somehow drawn to my face. “I suppose, if you must.” I met his gaze, and a small smile managed to break through. “I’m Stephanie.”
He smiled. “Nice to meet you, Stephanie. I’m Ca-”
“Is anyone sitting here?”
I blinked. A tall, lanky guy had his hand on the very empty chair across from me. My hot chocolate still rested on the table next to me, with only one sip taken out of it. There was no cinnamon roll. No steaming apple juice. I glanced at my laptop where the little vertical cursor flashed patiently, waiting for me to complete the fragmented sentence. My eyes suddenly stung.
I shook my head and pasted on a half-smile. “Nope. Just me and my thoughts here.”
He smiled. “Great, thanks.” He took it and placed it at another table, where a girl was waiting patiently for him. I don’t know why he needed the extra chair. The minute he sat down, she was practically in his lap. In that moment, I recognized them as the nauseating couple from the park. Wonderful.
I glanced back at the new pages I had written. What in the world had I been thinking, writing that down? I was a fiction writer. No one cared about my own life. Jennifer would probably have my head. I had to delete it all and do it again.
I highlighted the entire section, and then my finger hovered over the “Delete” key. I had to do this. I had to start all over.
I saved the document and turned off my computer. I would have to tell Jennifer that she needed to wait a little longer. It wasn’t happening today. I pulled out my phone to let her know, but it was completely dead. Of course I had forgotten to charge it. That sounded just about right for today.
With pursed lips, I stuffed my laptop into its case, threw my phone in with it, grabbed my keys and drink, then headed out. The drink ended up in the trash can before I made it out of the building. It was cold, and not worth the effort.
Why? Why did I think it was a good idea to dredge up that memory, especially today of all days?
“Have a nice day!” Freckles called as the door shut behind me. I scoffed.
The wash of colors flashed by in reverse as I drove home. Couples swooned over each other on the sidewalks and in the cars next to me, carrying roses and chocolates and oversized stuffed bears. All I had waiting for me at home was a pair of wet sneakers.
I had to stop at the crosswalk for another pair of lovesick lovebirds, and I wanted to punch them in their perfectly happy smiles. Seriously, did no one in this town have anything better to do?
When I got home, I slammed my car door and tromped inside, laptop bag in hand. I didn’t bother to lock the front door behind me, and dumped all my junk on the counter. I jammed the charger into my phone, then marched to my living room with a garbage can in tow. I had to get something productive done today.
The room was just as much a mess as when I left it, but that was about to change. I piled tissue after wadded-up tissue into the trash. I snapped blankets into perfect folds and laid them across the backs of my couches. The Nicholas Sparks movies went to the back of an out-of-the-way shelf on my entertainment center, along with the box of tissues. I wouldn’t be needing them for a while.
I straightened my throw pillows, and then flopped onto my sofa cushions, playing with the chain around my neck. I pulled the rest out from beneath my hoodie, and the engagement ring that it was looped through fell into my palm.
I ran my thumb across the smooth band and small, but perfect, oval-cut diamond. It had been six months since he had given me that ring. It had been four months since I took it off my finger.
I took a deep breath and rubbed my face when the weight of his absence started to creep in. My chest ached, and tears pricked at my eyes. That stupid jerk. I hated him for making me feel this way. Feelings were for chumps.
Why hadn’t I turned him away that day, just like I had everyone else? Life would have been so much easier.
My phone blared out the first few bars of I Won’t Give Up and scared me out of my thoughts.
With a groan, I hauled myself off the couch and padded back to the kitchen. It was probably Jennifer, hounding me again for those chapters I didn’t have. I was not looking forward to that conversation.
When I got to the phone, I glanced at the caller ID and cringed. Sure enough, it was Jennifer. I pasted on a smile and answered it. “Hi, Jennifer.”
“Hello, Stephanie,” she said in her perfectly clipped voice, “how are we today?”
I curled my lip. I despised when she said it that way. “I’m alright.”
“Mmm-hmm. Wonderful. Does that mean you have chapters for me?”
I grimaced. “About that…”
She sighed; a deep, drawn-out sigh that set my teeth on edge. “Stephanie, listen, I’m going to be straight with you.”
Are you ever not?
“I get it. Your muse is gone, and you’re feeling a little lost. It’s rough, and I’m sorry,” – she didn’t sound sorry in the least – “but you have to get over it. In situations like this, they don’t come back. They just don’t. Life moves on, and you have to, too.”
I felt like I had been punched in the gut. Burning anger rose to my face, and it took every ounce of willpower for me to keep my mouth shut. How dare she?
“So, can I expect new chapters by tomorrow?”
“Yeah.” I was impressed that I somehow managed to keep my voice even.
“Great! Then I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Have a nice day!” She hung up without another word.
I stared at the phone for a minute, clenching and unclenching my hand around it. Fury and hurt raced through my veins. Oooh, that woman! I wanted to chuck my phone across the room.
Before I could, though, another call came through. This one was from my mother.
I violently jabbed the “Answer” button. “Mom, I already told you, I don’t need-”
“Stephanie, finally! Where have you been? We’ve been calling you for hours! He’ll probably be there any minute! So help me, if you were purposefully ignoring any of my calls…”
She was more hysterical than usual, and talking about three times as fast. I was not in the mood for this. “Mom, Mom! Slow down. I can’t understand you.”
Someone chose that moment to pound on my door. I rolled my eyes heavenward and resisted the urge to scream. Why was this happening to me?
I heard shuffling on the other end of the line as I stormed towards the door. My dad’s voice came over the phone.
“Annie, the Trentons called us. They couldn’t get a hold of you.” He paused. “Are you sitting down?”
My heart plummeted. The Trentons were his family. This was way out of hand. I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could take. I turned my doorknob. “Sure.”
“Annie, they found him! They found Carter! The minute the government gave him leave, he made a beeline straight for you.”
If my dad said anything else, I didn’t hear it. I was frozen in my open doorway, my world narrowing to nothing but the shining, perfect blue eyes of the person on my porch. My jaw dropped, and my heart leapt to my throat. He was there. He was actually there, with that perfect timing of his. Despite everything, he was right in front of me. I had told myself to somehow expect this, but now that it had actually happened, I had no idea what to do.
Carter smiled, the stitches above his eyebrow and along his jaw bone making the movement seem painful. “Hi, Steph.”
His rumbling voice brought me back to my senses. I closed my gaping mouth and hung up the phone. My fists clenched, and my body shook. “‘Hi, Steph’?” I ground my teeth. “‘Hi, Steph’?” A few of my neighbors walking down the street heard my screech and glanced over with wide eyes.
“What do you want?” I snarled. They scurried away.
My attention turned back to the man clad in army fatigues standing on my doorstep. “Carter Trenton, do you think it’s okay to just show up like this? You ask me to marry you, and then, poof!I don’t hear a single word from you for four months!”
He gaped at me in disbelief. “I’m… sorry?” He spread his hands wide, his brow furrowed. “Just so we’re clear, I was trying not to get shot. Communication isn’t exactly accessible when you’re lost behind enemy lines!”
Silence reigned heavily between us. I took in his sunburnt hands, the bruises on his neck and face. His broad shoulders slumped ever so slightly, and there were dark shadows beneath his eyes. Rain dripped off his hair and into his face. He was exhausted. I tried to swallow back the lump in my throat.
Carter’s brow eventually unfurled. He chewed on the inside of his cheek and reached out a hand to gently touch the ring that dangled off my necklace. I watched his big, beautiful eyes fill with tears, and his lower lip quivered. “I’m so happy to see you again, Stephanie.” He met my gaze and gave me a watery smile. “I’m sorry I made you worry.”
I laughed. An ugly, hoarse, bark of a laugh that scratched the back of my throat. I tried to smile, but my lower lip shook too much. “You better be!” The floodgates broke, and I threw my arms around him. I jumped straight into a puddle and got my feet soaked for a second time that day, but I didn’t care. I nestled my face into his chest, and heard his powerful heartbeat next to my ear. I sobbed until my chest hurt, and even then I couldn’t stop. I was an absolute wreck, getting tears and snot all over his uniform, but he didn’t seem to care. He wrapped shaking arms around me, and buried his face in my hair.
I drew him closer to me, wishing for all the world that I had left my tissues out a bit longer.
“Welcome home, you big idiot.”