Following is the epilogue for my story in the Timeless Treasures anthology – LOSING PATIENCE:
Fifteen years later.
Ethan balanced the box on his lap and traced the unicorn’s horn with his finger. The picture had faded to the point he could barely make it out. The surface worn smooth.
Pep loved unicorns. Was this the first one? Had Leslie given her this box when they were kids because Pep truly loved unicorns, or did she love unicorns because her sister gave her this box?
He should ask. Not knowing the origin of her love of unicorns suddenly bothered him. He thought he knew everything about her.
“Go ahead. Your anniversary party’s at eight, we don’t have all day if you want this done in time to surprise her. Open it,” Leslie urged from the other side of the couch, laptop open in her lap. Photos littered the coffee table, Pep smiling up at him from most of them.
Man, he loved her smile.
He ran a hand across the lid—hesitant to poke his nose into something so private Pep had felt the need to squirrel it away. But she wouldn’t mind. She’d already shown it to him years ago when he helped her move into her first apartment. He hoped the Polaroid Leslie had taken of him and Pep that day was inside.
What else might Pep have added since then? Curiosity prodded him forward. And Leslie. He winced as she poked him in the ribs, urging him to hurry.
“Fine. Fine.” He laughed. “You didn’t peek earlier? What have you been doing?”
She blew him a raspberry and waved her arms to indicate the pictures everywhere. “I’ve been scanning and loading pictures for days. I can’t believe Dad had all these hidden away in the attic.”
“Please. Did you see all the photos mymom dug up?”
She rolled her eyes. “Who do you think’s been loading them for her? Thank goodness everything’s digital now. Somuch easier to organize.”
A Christmas photo of the girls caught his eye. “Pep’s what, ten here?” Her hair stuck out in adorable red pigtails. Leslie had a matching set in blonde. Their smiles lit up the snapshot. “This is way before I knew you guys.”
She snatched the picture from his grip. “Will you please stop stalling? I want to know what’s in the box. You made me wait for you, the least you can do is get to it already.”
He let his gaze drop back to Pep’s treasures as he eased open the lid. A colorful scarf was folded neatly on the top, hiding everything underneath. He picked the bundle up and closed his eyes to enjoy the scent of jasmine that always made him think of her. The cool, silky fabric slipped open though he tried to maintain the neat folds. He set it aside to dig deeper.
Tears sprang to his eyes. He lifted out the tiny pair of baby socks and set them on top of the scarf. He shouldn’t be surprised she’d kept them. She liked to say “the past is the past so get on with your life,” but she had a deep-rooted sentimentality that belied the saying. The miscarriage had been hard on them both, but they’d made it through—together. As long as they were together, they could weather any storm.
He and Leslie sifted through the odds and ends, weeding out a few special pieces to set aside. Leslie snapped quick pictures and added them to the presentation she was creating for this evening. Each item was loaded with memories—some before his time, some after—though he knew the stories behind each, even those that hadn’t involved him. Pep had shared it all with him at some time or another.
“All done,” Leslie exclaimed. She pointed at her watch then poked his arm. “I have to start getting ready, or I’ll be late.”
“Okay.” He tipped the box over to make sure they’d gone through everything. A velvet pouch the size of his palm was wedged in the corner. The same color as the wood, he’d almost missed it. “I’ll head home in a sec, grab a shower and we’ll see you there.”
“Great.” She jogged up the stairs, leaving him alone with memories of his life with the woman he loved.
Only the faint ticking of a wall clock broke the quiet. Reminding him he didn’t have a whole lot of time if he was going to make himself presentable for this evening.
He untangled the strings on the small pouch and tilted it so the contents spilled into his open palm. He got a brief glimpse of amber before pain exploded behind his eyes. He lurched forward, pressed the heels of his palms into his eye sockets. His stomach threatened to rebel.
Just as suddenly as it came, the pain went away. But images continued to flash across his mind like a movie. Memories he’d long since lost along with the amber heart he clenched in his fist.
He shuddered as each recollection impressed itself on his consciousness. Missed New Year’s Eve party. Missed opportunity. A different life. Loneliness. Misery. A car crash, a funeral, and punching Cal Geiger.
But he’d changed all that. Hadn’t he?
So why were the images so clear? It all started in this basement, surrounded by pictures—but for a funeral, not a party. Tears burned behind his lids as two different lives converged in his head. One with Pep, one without. He clutched the gem in his hand, raced up the stairs and crashed out the front door to his truck.
He had to see her. Had to know that other life wasn’t real. Not anymore. An ice-cold prick of fear pierced his lungs. He struggled to catch his breath.
He barreled through the streets. The engine whined as he pushed the pickup to its limits. Memories blurred together. He couldn’t focus on which were real, which weren’t.
Pep’s miscarriage—but Cal’s baby, not his? Never. The idea churned his stomach. His thoughts shifted to the two healthy births that followed and he smiled. Their kids were real. But under the joyful knowledge of his family were memories of lonely meals and first dates that never went any further because no one could ever compare to Pep.
He had to see her.
God, please. Don’t let his life with her have been a dream. He couldn’t go back to that miserable excuse for a life he’d had without her.
His tires squealed as he slammed to a stop before the large Tudor home on Jenkins Street. No sign of Pep’s car in the driveway. His heart thudded in his ears.
On really cold days she parks in the garage—she’s here. Has to be.
He ran across the snow-covered lawn, slipping twice in his haste before coming to a breathless stop on the welcome mat. He couldn’t barge in like this—he’d scare the crap out of her.
The peeling green paint on the front door comforted him. He sucked in a deep breath of the frigid winter air. Everything was just as he’d left it earlier that day. If his life with Pep was a dream, their house would look different… Wouldn’t it?
The fear wasn’t going to go away until he saw them.
He should have finished the door over the summer. Pep had picked out a warm red, but he’d delayed until the weather forced him to put the job off until spring. He hated painting. Once his landscaping business had taken off, he’d been only too happy to give up flipping houses.
But this house wasn’t one of his flips. No safe, neutral colors or rented showpiece furniture designed to get the most bang for his buck. Nope. This was a home and it reflected their personalities perfectly.
Within walking distance of the high school she taught at, Pep had driven by it countless times on her way to work and fallen in love with it. On a street full of cookie cutter split-levels, Pep loved the way the home stood out. The shifting array of kids’ toys that used to litter the yard would have driven him crazy, but made Pep feel like a happy family lived inside. Just what she envisioned for them When that for-sale-by-owner sign went up, Pep hadn’t bothered driving home before calling for an appointment. She’d dragged him through the next day and they’d made an offer that night.
To her it was home. To him, it was a house that needed fixing. The building didn’t matter.
To him, home was wherever she lived.
The overhead light flicked on and bright blue eyes peeked out at him from the entryway window.
Mandy. Thank God.His sweet little girl was here. Everything was going to be all right. He’d panicked for nothing.
A flare of heat in his palm startled him. He hadn’t realized he still clutched the amber heart in his fist. With the gem still warm to the touch, his fear refused to leave completely. What if something else had changed? Was the nightmare truly over?
He shoved the gem into his pant pocket as the door swung open. A small body hurled itself at his legs.
“Daddy!” Mandy yelled.
He swept his six-year-old daughter into his arms for a bear hug. His heart melted as it did each time she greeted him with all the love in the world in her eyes. The tight band around his chest loosened. Warmth enveloped him as he carried Mandy inside then closed and locked the door behind them.
“She’s getting ready for the party. She looks booful.” Mandy squirmed in his arms until he put her down.
“I’m sure she does look beautiful.” Her silly pronunciation put a smile on his face. She was well able to say the word properly, but the cute mispronunciation had become a habit neither he nor Pep were eager to stop. “Let’s go see.” His life was falling back into place. Everything appeared as it should, but that didn’t diminish his desire to see his wife.
Mandy shook her head, then ran toward the family room at the back of the house. “Kellan and I are playing. I’m a fairy. And I have powers. He’s a dragon…” She continued rattling off details as she ran off to find her brother.
He peeked down the hall and saw Kellan with his arms outstretched like he was flying. He swooped down on his sister as she ran toward him. She shrieked and giggled as their game continued. Both his children were home. Safe. The band around his chest squeezed and released with love and relief.
He’d check on them in a minute. Right now, he needed to see Pep. The memories of her funeral were too clear, too real. The only way to get the awful image out of his head was to gaze into her gorgeous eyes, hear her laugh, smell her perfume…
He took the stairs two at a time, but continued down the upstairs hall at only a slightly faster than normal pace. She’d know he was home. If she hadn’t heard him squeal his tires when he parked, she’d have heard Mandy’s exuberant greeting.
The door to the master bath stood open. Her favorite scent filled the air. She’d probably sprayed it right before getting dressed—he always enjoyed the show when she spritzed the stuff and walked naked through the cloud of scented mist.
She was fully dressed, standing before the sink doing her makeup. He could see her reflection in the mirror. He paused to watch his fill.
Her long red hair was swept up with some sparkling hair thing, a few tendrils left to caress the long lines of her neck. Just the way he preferred. He’d enjoy playing with those few curls as they danced at the party and later, in the hotel room he’d booked for the night.
This was the first glimpse he’d had of the dress she’d picked out for this New Year’s Eve—their tenth anniversary and their first time celebrating it out of the house since Kellan had been born eight years ago.
The deep red brought him back to that fateful night fifteen years ago. This dress wasn’t as daring, it covered a lot more, but she looked as gorgeous as ever.
She’d point out the larger size as a negative, but he liked the additional roundness of her hips, how soft she felt in his arms. He knew every stretch mark on her stomach and wouldn’t trade any of them.
They’d both changed over the years, but they’d grown together. In their twenties they’d party all night and sleep all day. Now, they woke up early and longed for bed by ten o’clock. And he’d loved every minute. Their life hadn’t always been easy—the miscarriage was a particularly rough time for both of them—but together they made it through.
He must have made some slight noise—Pep’s head jerked. Something fell from her hand, rolling around in the sink with a clatter. A smile lit her face when she caught sight of him in the mirror.
“Hey, you. Did you and Leslie finish my surprise?”
He chuckled. “You’re not supposed to know about that. Who squealed?” He crossed the room and pulled her into his arms.
“Never trust a six-year-old with a secret.” Her smile slowly changed to a look of concern. “What happened? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” She cupped his face in her hand, rubbed her thumb across his cheek.
He couldn’t hide anything from her. “Nothing. Just a bad scare.” He turned into her caress and kissed her palm. One final detail nagged at him. He drew back to look into her sparkling eyes. “Whatever happened to Cal?”
She frowned. “Cal? I don’t know anyone named Cal—” Her eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Cal Geiger? Jeez, I haven’t thought of him in years.”
“Good. Whatever happened to him?” He had to be sure the asshole wasn’t in their lives anymore.
She caught her bottom lip in her teeth, she had to give it some thought. It pleased him that Cal was so insignificant she couldn’t immediately say where he was.
“Hmm. I introduced him to Judy at that party all those years ago. She dated him for a while, but he turned out to be a jerk and she dumped him after a few months. I don’t really know what happened to him after that.” She stared at him with raised brows.
“That’s right. I’d forgotten.” A little white lie. Until he’d found the amber heart, he hadn’t remembered Judy at all. She and Pep had lost touch years ago. Now his memories were confused to say the least. “Why did you introduce them, anyway?”
“He was being such a pain in the ass, following me everywhere. I figured she would distract him while I went onto the balcony to wait for a certain someone.” She poked him in the chest as she said it.
“You weren’t tempted?” She must have been, but she’d never admitted anything. Then again, he’d never actually asked.
She crinkled her nose and shook her head. “I almostsaid to hell with waiting for you.”
He held his breath. She had no idea how close they’d both come to abject misery.
She poked him in the chest again. “I was pretty pissed at you for not showing at the party. But when Cal tried to steer me out onto the balcony I just…” She shrugged. “I realized I wanted to be with you, not him. I was going to sneak out of the party after the midnight frenzy and drive over to your place.”
“You never told me that,” he responded, stunned.
Her gentle smile dazzled him. His body fairly buzzed with happiness. How had he ever come to deserve such a woman? And to think he’d almost lost her by being an idiot.
“You showed up in the knick of time, so I didn’t have to.” She shrugged.
He pulled her close, their lips brushing while he whispered, “I’m eternally grateful you had the patience to wait.”
She closed the distance for a kiss, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. When she pulled back she said, a trifle breathlessly, “Patience is my name, after all.”
“I’m a lucky man.” He picked her up and twirled them around the bedroom until she laughed, her head thrown back in delight. A second later the kids broke in on the fun and he spent the next few minutes spinning the kids around until they all fell dizzy upon the bed.
The amber heart had cooled in his pocket, but his gratitude never would.
His heart swelled with joy and love for his family. A family he wouldn’t have had without the precious gift the gem had given him.
A second chance.