Following is the epilogue for my story in the Timeless Treasures anthology – LOSING PATIENCE
(This is the unedited version. The edited version will be posted shortly.)
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 loved unicorns, or did Pep love unicorns because her sister gave her this box?
He should have asked her. Not knowing the origin of her love of unicorns suddenly bothered him. He thought he knew everything about her.
“Go ahead. Open it.” Leslie smiled at him from the other side of the couch. Pictures littered the coffee table, Pep smiling up at him from most of them. Man, he loved her smile.
He eased the lid open—hesitant to poke his head into something so private Pep had felt the need to squirrel it away. But 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 even 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 photos hidden away in the attic.”
He plucked a Christmas photo of the girls off the table. “Pep’s what, ten here?” Her hair stuck out from the side of her head in adorable red pigtails. Leslie had a matching set in blonde. Their smiles lit up the photo. “This is way before my time.”
She snatched the picture from his grip. “Will you please stop stalling? I want to know what’s in the box.”
He let his gaze drop back to Pep’s treasures. A colorful scarf was folded neatly on the top, blocking his view of everything underneath. He picked it 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 keep it in its neat folds. He set it aside to dig deeper.
Tears instantly sprang to his eyes. He lifted out the tiny pair of baby socks and set them aside. 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. He was glad of it. The miscarriage had been hard on them both, but they’d made it through—together.
He and Leslie sifted through the odds and ends, weeding out a few items to set aside. Each item was loaded with memories—some before his time, some after—though he knew the stories behind each item, even those that hadn’t involved him. Pep had shared it all with him at some time or another.
Leslie looked at her watch then poked his arm. “I have to start getting ready, or I’ll be late. Can you finish up here and still be on time?”
“Sure.” He took a quick look at the box. A small velvet pouch was all that was left to go through. “I’ll get this done quick, grab a shower and head over.”
“Great.” She jogged up the stairs, leaving him alone with memories.
With her gone, the silence weighed down on him. Only the faint ticking of a wall clock broke the quiet. It did serve to remind him that 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. The agony dispersed quickly, but left behind a whole slew of images. 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?
Tears streamed down his face as two different lives converged in his head. One with Pep, one without. He clutched the gem in his hand and raced up the stairs and out the front door.
He raced 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. He had to see Pep.
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, but on really cold days she parked in the garage.
He ran across the snow-covered lawn but came to a breathless stop on the welcome mat. He couldn’t barge in on her 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?
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.
This house was different, of course. No safe, neutral colors or rented showpiece furniture designed to get the most bang for his buck. No. This was a home and it reflected their personalities perfectly.
Within walking distance of the high school, Pep had driven by it countless times on her way to work and fallen in love with it. 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. To him, home was wherever she lived.
The overhead light flicked on and bright blue eyes peeked out at him from the entryway window. A flare of heat in his palm startled him. He hadn’t realized he still clutched the amber heart in his fist.
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 its hold. 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. Let’s go see.”
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’d check on them in a minute. Right now, he needed to see Pep.
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 by now. 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 from where he stood. He paused to watch his fill before she noticed his presence.
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 first 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. Their life hadn’t always been easy, but together they made it work.
He must have made some slight noise because 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 birthday 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. 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?”
She caught her bottom lip in her teeth, which told him she had to give it some thought. It pleased him that Cal was so insignificant now she couldn’t immediately say where he was.
“Hmm. You know 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.”
“That’s right. I’d forgotten.” Just a little white lie. Until he’d found the amber heart, he hadn’t remembered. 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. Of course, he’d never actually asked.
She crinkled her nose and shook her head. “I almost said to hell with waiting for you.” 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.” She turned her brilliant smile on him. She still had the power to dazzle him with a look. “But you showed up in the knick of time, didn’t you.”
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. He didn’t need it any more. Everything he needed was right here, right now.