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A Bright Red Ribbon
By Fern Michaels
eKENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2012 MRK Productions
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEven in her dream, Morgan Ames knew she was dreaming, knew she was going to wake with tears on her pillow and reality slapping her in the face. She cried out, the way she always did, just at the moment Keith was about to slip the ring on her finger. That's how she knew it was a dream. She never got beyond this point. She woke now, and looked at the bedside clock; it was 4:10. She wiped at the tears on her cheeks, but this time she smiled. Today was the day. Today was Christmas Eve, the day Keith was going to slip the ring on her finger and they would finally set the wedding date. The big event, in her mind, was scheduled to take place in front of her parents' Christmas tree. She and Keith would stand in exactly the same position they stood in two years ago today, at the very same hour. Romance was alive and well.
She dropped her legs over the side of the bed, slid into a daffodil-colored robe that was snugly warm and pulled on thick wool socks. She padded out to the miniature kitchen to make tea.
Christmas Eve. To her, Christmas Eve was the most wonderful day of the year. Years ago, when she'd turned into a teenager, her parents had switched the big dinner and gift opening to Christmas Eve so they could sleep late on Christmas morning. The dinner was huge; friends dropped by before evening services, and then they opened their presents, sang carols and drank spiked eggnog afterward.
Mo knew a watched kettle never boiled so she made herself some toast while the kettle hummed on the stove. She was so excited her hands shook as she spread butter and jam on the toast. The kettle whistled. The water sputtered over the counter as she poured it into the cup with the black rum tea bag.
In about sixteen hours, she was going to see Keith. At last. Two years ago he had led her by the hand over to the twelve-foot Christmas tree and said he wanted to talk to her about something. He'd been so nervous, but she'd been more nervous, certain the something he wanted to talk about was the engagement ring he was going to give her. She'd been expecting it, her parents had been expecting it, all her friends had been expecting it. Instead, Keith had taken both her hands in his and said, "Mo, I need to talk to you about something. I need you to understand. This is my problem. You didn't do anything to make me ... what I'm trying to say is, I need more time. I'm not ready to commit. I think we both need to experience a little more of life's challenges. We both have good jobs, and I just got a promotion that will take effect the first of the year. I'll be working in the New York office. It's a great opportunity, but the hours are long. I'm going to get an apartment in the city. What I would like is for us to ... to take a hiatus from each other. I think two years will be good. I'll be thirty and you'll be twenty-nine. We'll be more mature, more ready for that momentous step."
The hot tea scalded her tongue. She yelped. She'd yelped that night, too. She'd wanted to be sophisticated, blasé, to say, okay, sure, no big deal. She hadn't said any of those things. Instead she'd cried, hanging on to his arm, begging to know if what he was proposing meant he was going to date others. His answer had crushed her and she'd sobbed then. He'd said things like, "Ssshhh, it's going to be all right. Two years isn't all that long. Maybe we aren't meant to be with each other for the rest of our lives. We'll find out. Yes, it's going to be hard on me, too. Look, I know this is a surprise ... I didn't want ... I was going to call.... This is what I propose. Two years from tonight, I'll meet you right here, in front of the tree. Do we have a date, Mo?" She nodded miserably. Then he'd added, "Look, I have to leave, Mo. My boss is having a party in his town house in Princeton. It won't look good if I'm late. Christmas parties are a good way to network. Here, I got you a little something for Christmas." Before she could dry her eyes, blow her nose, or tell him she had a ton of presents for him under the tree, he was gone.
It had been the worst Christmas of her life. The worst New Year's, too. The next Christmas and New Year's had been just as bad because her parents had looked at her with pity and then anger. Just last week they had called and said, "Get on with your life, Morgan. You've already wasted two years. In that whole time, Keith hasn't called you once or even dropped you a post card." She'd been stubborn, though, because she loved Keith. Sharp words had ensued, and she'd broken the connection and cried.
Tonight she had a date.
Life was going to be so wonderful. The strain between her and her parents would ease when they saw how happy she was.
Mo looked at the clock. Five-thirty. Time to shower, dress, pack up the Cherokee for her two-week vacation. Oh, life was good. She had it all planned. They'd go skiing, but first she'd go to Keith's apartment in New York, stay over, make him breakfast. They'd make slow, lazy love and if the mood called for it, they'd make wild, animal love.
Two years was a long time to be celibate—and she'd been celibate. She winced when she thought about Keith in bed with other women. He loved sex more than she did. There was no way he'd been faithful to her. She felt it in her heart. Every chance her mother got, she drove home her point. Her parents didn't like Keith. Her father was fond of saying, "I know his type—he's no good. Get a life, Morgan."
Tonight her new life would begin. Unless ... unless Keith was a no-show. Unless Keith decided the single life was better than a married life and responsibilities. God in heaven, what would she do if that happened? Well, it wasn't going to happen. She'd always been a positive person and she saw no reason to change now.
It wasn't going to happen because when Keith saw her he was going to go out of his mind. She'd changed in the two years. She'd dropped twelve pounds in all the right places. She was fit and toned because she worked out daily at a gym and ran for five miles every evening after work. She'd gotten a new hairstyle in New York. And, while she was there she'd gone to a color specialist who helped her with her hair and makeup. She was every bit as professional looking as some of the ad executives she saw walking up and down Madison Avenue. She'd shed her scrubbed girl-next-door image. S.K., which stood for Since Keith, she'd learned to shop in the outlet stores for designer fashions at half the cost. She looked down now at her sporty Calvin Klein outfit, at the Ferragamo boots, and the Chanel handbag she'd picked up at a flea market. Inside her French luggage were other outfits by Donna Karan and Carolyn Roehm.
Like Keith, she had gotten a promotion with a hefty salary increase. If things worked out, she was going to think about opening her own architectural office by early summer. She'd hire people, oversee them. Clients she worked with told her she should open her own office, go it alone. One in particular had offered to back her after he'd seen the plans she'd drawn up for his beach house in Cape May. Her father, himself an architect, had offered to help out and had gone so far as to get all the paperwork from the Small Business Administration. She could do it now if she wanted to. But, did she want to make that kind of commitment? What would Keith think?
What she wanted, really wanted, was to get married and have a baby. She could always do consulting work, take on a few private clients to keep her hand in. All she needed was a husband to make it perfect.
The phone rang. Mo frowned. No one ever called her this early in the morning. Her heart skipped a beat as she picked up the phone. "Hello," she said warily.
"Morgan?" Her mother. She always made her name sound like a question.
"What's wrong, Mom?"
"When are you leaving, Morgan? I wish you'd left last night like Dad and I asked you to do. You should have listened to us, Morgan."
"Why? What's wrong? I told you why I couldn't leave. I'm about ready to go out the door as we speak."
"Have you looked outside?"
"No. It's still dark, Mom."
"Open your blinds, Morgan, and look at the parking lot lights. It's snowing!"
"Mom, it snows every year. So what? It's only a two-hour drive, maybe three if there's a lot of snow. I have the Cherokee. Four-wheel drive, Mom." She pulled up the blind in the bedroom to stare out at the parking lot. She swallowed hard. So, it would be a challenge. The world was white as far as the eye could see. She raised her eyes to the parking lights. The bright light that usually greeted her early in the morning was dim as the sodium vapor fought with the early light of dawn and the swirling snow. "It's snowing, Mom."
"That's what I'm trying to tell you. It started here around midnight, I guess. It was just flurries when Dad and I went to bed but now we have about four inches. Since this storm seems to be coming from the south where you are, you probably have more. Dad and I have been talking and we won't be upset if you wait till the storm is over. Christmas morning is just as good as Christmas Eve. Just how much snow do you have, Morgan?"
"It looks like a lot, but it's drifting in the parking lot. I can't see the front, Mom. Look, don't worry about me. I have to be home this evening. I've waited two long years for this. Please, Mom, you understand, don't you?"
"What I understand, Morgan, is that you're being foolhardy. I saw Keith's mother the other day and she said he hasn't been home in ten months. He just lives across the river, for heaven's sake. She also said she didn't expect him for Christmas, so what does that tell you? I don't want you risking your life for some foolish promise."
Mo's physical being trembled. The words she dreaded, the words she didn't ever want to hear, had just been uttered: Keith wasn't coming home for Christmas. She perked up almost immediately. Keith loved surprises. It would be just like him to tell his mother he wasn't coming home and then show up and yell, "Surprise!" If he had no intention of honoring the promise they'd made to each other, he would have sent a note or called her. Keith wasn't that callous. Or was he? She didn't know anything anymore.
She thought about the awful feelings that had attacked her over the past two years, feelings she'd pushed away. Had she buried her head in the sand? Was it possible that Keith had used the two-year hiatus to soften the blow of parting, thinking that she'd transfer her feelings to someone else and let him off the hook? Instead she'd trenched in and convinced herself that by being faithful to her feelings, tonight would be her reward. Was she a fool? According to her mother she was. Tonight would tell the tale.
What she did know for certain was, nothing was going to stop her from going home. Not her mother's dire words, and certainly not a snowstorm. If she was a fool, she deserved to have her snoot rubbed in it.
Just a few short hours ago she'd stacked up her shopping bags by the front door, colorful Christmas bags loaded with presents for everyone. Five oversize bags for Keith. She wondered what happened to the presents she'd bought two years ago. Did her mother take them over to Keith's mother's house or were they in the downstairs closet? She'd never asked.
She'd spent a sinful amount of money on him this year. She'd even knitted a stocking for him and filled it with all kinds of goodies and gadgets. She'd stitched his name on the cuff of the bright red stocking in bright green thread. Was she a fool?
Mo pulled on her fleece-lined parka. Bundled up, she carried as many of the bags downstairs to the lobby as she could handle. She made three trips before she braved the outdoors. She needed to shovel and heat the car up.
She was exhausted when she tossed the fold-up shovel into the back of the Jeep. The heater and defroster worked furiously, but she still had to scrape the ice from the windshield and driver's side window. She checked the flashlight in the glove compartment. She rummaged inside the small opening, certain she had extra batteries, but couldn't find any. She glanced at the gas gauge. Three-quarters full, enough to get her home. She'd meant to top off last night on her way home from work, but she'd been in a hurry to get home to finish wrapping Keith's presents. God, she'd spent hours making intricate, one-of-a-kind bows and decorations for the gold-wrapped packages. A three-quarter tank would get her home for sure. The Cherokee gave her good mileage. If memory served her right, the trip never took more than a quarter of a tank. Well, she couldn't worry about that now. If road conditions permitted, she could stop on 95 or when she got onto the Jersey Turnpike.
Mo was numb with cold when she shrugged out of her parka and boots. She debated having a cup of tea to warm her up. Maybe she should wait for rush hour traffic to be over. Maybe a lot of things.
Maybe she should call Keith and ask him point blank if he was going to meet her in front of the Christmas tree. If she did that, she might spoil things. Still, why take her life in her hands and drive through what looked like a terrible storm, for nothing. She'd just as soon avoid her parents' pitying gaze and make the trip tomorrow morning and return in the evening to lick her wounds. If he was really going to be a no-show, that would be the way to go. Since there were no guarantees, she didn't see any choice but to brave the storm.
She wished she had a dog or a cat to nuzzle, a warm body that loved unconditionally. She'd wanted to get an animal at least a hundred times these past two years, but she couldn't bring herself to admit that she needed someone. What did it matter if that someone had four legs and a furry body?
Her address book was in her hand, but she knew Keith's New York phone number by heart. It was unlisted, but she'd managed to get it from the brokerage house Keith worked for. So she'd used trickery. So what? She hadn't broken the rules and called the number. It was just comforting to know she could call if she absolutely had to. She squared her shoulders as she reached for the portable phone on the kitchen counter. She looked at the range-top clock. Seven forty-five. He should still be home. She punched out the area code and number, her shoulders still stiff. The phone rang five times before the answering machine came on. Maybe he was still in the shower. He always did cut it close to the edge, leaving in the morning with his hair still damp from the shower.
"C'mon, now, you know what to do if I don't answer. I'm either catching some z's or I'm out and about. Leave me a message, but be careful not to give away any secrets. Wait for the beep." Z's? It must be fast track New York talk. The deep, husky chuckle coming over the wire made Mo's face burn with shame. She broke the connection.
A moment later she was zipping up her parka and pulling on thin leather gloves. She turned down the heat in her cozy apartment, stared at her small Christmas tree on the coffee table and made a silly wish.
The moment she stepped outside, grainy snow assaulted her as the wind tried to drive her backward. She made it to the Cherokee, climbed inside and slammed the door. She shifted into four-wheel drive, then turned on the front and back wipers. The Cherokee inched forward, its wheels finding the traction to get her to the access road to I-95. It took her all of forty minutes to steer the Jeep to the ramp that led onto the Interstate. At that precise moment she knew she was making a mistake, but it was too late and there was no way now to get off and head back to the apartment. As far as she could see, it was bumper-to-bumper traffic. Visibility was almost zero. She knew there was a huge green directional sign overhead, but she couldn't see it.
Mo's hands gripped the wheel as the car in front of her slid to the right, going off the road completely. She muttered her favorite expletive again. God, what would she do if the wipers iced up? From the sound they were making on the windshield, she didn't think she'd have to wait long to find out.
The radio crackled with static, making it impossible to hear what was being said. Winter advisory. She already knew that. Not only did she know it, she was participating in it. She turned it off. The dashboard clock said she'd been on the road for well over an hour and she was nowhere near the Jersey Turnpike. At least she didn't think so. It was impossible to read the signs with the snow sticking to everything.
A white Christmas. The most wonderful time of the year. That thought alone had sustained her these past two years. Nothing bad ever happened on Christmas. Liar! Keith dumped you on Christmas Eve, right there in front of the tree. Don't lie to yourself!
"Okay, okay," she muttered. "But this Christmas will be different, this Christmas it will work out." Keith will make it up to you, she thought. Believe. Sure, and Santa is going to slip down the chimney one minute after midnight.
Excerpted from A Bright Red Ribbon by Fern Michaels Copyright © 2012 by MRK Productions. Excerpted by permission of eKENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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