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"You'll never guess who I saw today."
Caroline reached for a roll and gave her mother a bemused glance. She never won at this game, which had become a standard part of their weekly dinner. Judy James knew more people than the President of the United States. Or so it seemed. "I haven't a clue, Mom."
Instead of responding, Caroline popped a chunk of the crusty roll into her mouth, savoring the fresh-baked flavor. No question about it — her mom was a whiz in the kitchen, even if she did have a few idiosyncrasies. Like her penchant for outrageous hats. And her eclectic taste in decorating, thankfully confined to the family room, which had done time as a South Seas beach shack, a Japanese tea house and a Victorian parlor — to name but a few of its incarnations. In light of those eccentricities, Caroline supposed this silly guessing game was a tame aberration. And it was one she felt obliged to indulge, considering how much she owed her mother, who had been a rock during the difficult months when grief had darkened Caroline's world, blinding her to everything but pain and loss. She couldn't have made it through that tragic time without the support of the older woman sitting across from her.
"Okay. How about Marlene Richards."
A thoughtful expression crossed Judy's face. "Goodness, I haven't had any news of Marlene in quite a while. Whatever made you think of her?"
"I reviewed an obit today for a Maureen Richards for the next edition of the paper. No relation, it turns out. But it made me think of Marlene. She was a good Sunday school teacher. A bit unconventional, but all the kids loved her. I wonder what ever happened to her?"
"When she retired, she went on a mission trip to Africa. Liked it so much, she stayed. Last I heard, she lived in a little village somewhere back in the bush and taught school."
At her mother's prompt and thorough response, Caroline smiled and shook her head. "How in the world do you do that?"
"Keep tabs on so many people."
"I make it a point to stay connected. And speaking of staying connected do you want to guess again?"
"Nope." Focusing her attention on the appetizing pot roast, Caroline cut a generous bite and speared it with her fork.
"All right. Then I'll tell you. David Sloan."
The hunger gnawing at Caroline's stomach suddenly turned into an ache that spread to her heart, and her hand froze halfway to her mouth. "David Sloan?"
"Yes. Isn't that a strange coincidence? I was at the post office, and as I was leaving I must have dropped my scarf, because the next thing I knew this nice young man came up from behind and handed it to me. He looked familiar, but it took me a few seconds to place him. He didn't remember me, of course. We only met that one time, just for a few minutes and under such sad circumstances. But when I introduced myself, the oddest expression came over his face." Judy tilted her head in the manner of an inquisitive bird. "Kind of like the one on yours right now."
Caroline lowered her fork to her plate, the pot roast untouched. David Sloan. Her fiancé"s brother — and the man who bore at least some measure of responsibility for his death. For a moment, the taste of resentment was sharp and bitter on her tongue, chasing away the fresh flavor of her mother's homemade roll. But then her conscience kicked in, dissipating her resentment with a reminder that she bore the lion's share of responsibility for the tragedy — and triggering a crushing, suffocating guilt that crashed over her like a powerful wave, rocking her world.
"Anyway, he took a new job and moved to St. Louis a couple of months ago. Still, it's a big city. Seems strange that I would run into him, doesn't it?" Judy prodded.
"Yes." Caroline could squeeze only one word past her tight throat. With a shaky hand, she reached for her glass of water and took a long, slow swallow, struggling to rein in her wayward emotions. "I'm sorry, honey." Distress etched Judy's features as she studied her daughter's face. "I had no idea the mere mention of Michael's brother would upset you."
"I didn't, either." Denying the obvious would be foolish. Her mother knew her too well for that.
Reaching over, Judy patted her hand. "Well, we just won't talk anymore about it, then. Except I did promise him I'd give you his regards. Now that I've done that, tell me about your day. Any hot news at the Chronicle?"
Switching gears wasn't easy. But Caroline appreciated her mother's efforts to distract her. It was a technique that had helped keep her sane during those first few weeks after Michael's death, as her world disinte-grated around her. So she tried to change focus. And prompted by Judy's interested questions, she was able to maintain the semblance of a conversation. As the meal ended, her mother even elicited a smile or two from her with an entertaining story about her latest passion — square dancing — and the lessons she was taking with Harold, her reluctant partner and steady beau.
"So I said to Harold, "Just listen to the caller. He'll tell us what to do. It's like assembling that glider in my backyard. You just follow the directions and it all comes together.'And he says, "I didn't read the instructions for the glider." Judy shook her head in exasperation. "Now I know why the thing seems a little lopsided. And why he ended up with all those leftover parts."
By the time Caroline left, with her almost untouched, foil-wrapped dinner and an extra piece of dessert in hand, she felt a bit more settled. But as she drove home through the dark streets of St. Louis, a shiver ran through her — one that she knew was prompted by more than the damp cold on this rainy March night.
Although her numbing, debilitating grief had ebbed over time, the mention of Michael's brother had dredged it up from the deep recesses of her heart. Along with all the other emotions she'd wrestled into submission these past two years. Guilt. Anger. Blame. Resentment. Some of those feelings were directed at her; others, at David Sloan. But none of them were healthy. As a result, she'd tried her best to suppress them and to move on with her life. Yet it took only the merest incident, like the passing reference to David tonight, to remind her that they hadn't been tamed, just subdued.
The rain intensified, obscuring her vision, and she flicked on her wipers. With one sweep, they brushed aside the raindrops, giving her a clear view of the road ahead. Too bad she couldn't banish the muddled emotions in her heart with the same ease. But they clung with a tenacity that rivaled the ivy creeping up the side of her mother's brick bungalow, imbedding itself with roots that sought — and penetrated — even the tiniest crack.
As she pulled into her parking spot, the light in the front window of her condo welcomed her with its golden warmth and promise of haven. Set on a timer, it came on faithfully every day at five o'clock, lessening the gloom of coming home to a dark, empty apartment. It might be a poor substitute for the warm embrace of the man she'd loved, but that glow buoyed her spirits, which had a tendency to droop after she left the office. Her hectic days at the newspaper kept her too busy to dwell on her personal life during working hours, but it was harder to keep thoughts of the past at bay when she was alone.
It was getting easier, though. Each day, in tiny increments, the past receded a little bit more. It had been months since she'd had to pull the car over because her hands had begun to shake. She didn't choke up anymore when she heard a song on the radio that reminded her of Michael. She didn't cry herself to sleep every night.And, once in a while, a whole day passed when she didn't think about what might have been. That was progress.
She knew Michael would have wanted her to move on. He, of all people, with his love of life and live-for-today attitude, would have been the first to tell her to get over it and get on with her life. To live, to love and to laugh. To make every day count.
Caroline was doing her best to put that philosophy into action. But it didn't take much — as tonight's brief conversation proved — to remind her that she still had a long way to go before she reached that ideal.
And to make her wonder if she ever would.
David Sloan angled into a parking place, set the brake and rested his hands on the steering wheel as he read the sign a few doors down. County Chronicle.
A wave of doubt swept over him, and he hesitated. Was he making a mistake coming here? He hadn't seen Caroline since Michael's funeral, and her attitude toward him then had been chilly at best. Not that he'd blamed her. If he and Michael hadn't argued, Michael would have been more focused when he'd gone to meet that contact in the marketplace. His brother had always had great instincts. That was why he'd been such a successful photojournalist, why he'd risen through the ranks of the Associated Press to be one of their top shooters. It was why they'd sent him to the Middle East, knowing that he'd be able to get into the thick of things, make great images and emerge unscathed. Until that fateful day in the marketplace, when he had no doubt been distracted by their argument, and by concerns for their mother. So David understood why Caroline would blame him for Michael's death. For turning her world upside down. For destroying a man they'd both loved in the prime of his life. He blamed himself, too.
For almost two years he'd grappled with his complicity. But finally he'd come to terms with it — at least as well as he would ever be able to, he suspected. And some good had come out of his struggle, too. After much prayer, he'd reevaluated his life and made some dramatic changes, following a new path the Lord had revealed to him. The work he was doing now might not offer him the kind of income provided by the high-stakes mergers and acquisitions he'd brokered in his previous job, but it paid dividends in human terms. And even though it had been hard for David to let go of the financial security his former position had offered, he'd put his trust in the Lord three months ago and made the change. So far, he hadn't had a single regret.
But he had plenty of regrets about his role in Michael's death. And one of them involved Caroline. He'd always felt the need to contact her, to express his sorrow, to apologize. Though they'd sat side by side at Michael's funeral, her grief had been too thick for words to penetrate. When he had reached out a tentative, comforting hand to her once during those terrible few days, she'd recoiled, staring at him with a look of such profound loss and resentment that it was still seared in his memory. That was the main reason he'd never tried to contact her. Not the only one, but the main one.