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It looked just the same. Ivy let the hunter green, barn-style door slowly swing closed behind her as she surveyed the homey lobby of the Heavenly Arms Motel. Hap's old rocking chair still sat before the potbellied stove in the corner, and the game table, its surface worn by the shuffle of countless dominoes, still claimed center stage. On closer inspection, one of the black leather couches appeared to be a replacement for a former version, but it all felt just as she recalled, much more of a living room than a motel lobby, despite the chest-high counter behind her.
In nearly seven years, nothing appeared to have changed, not at the motel and apparently not in her hometown of Eden, Oklahoma. On the one hand, Ivy found that comforting; on the other hand, she prayed that this was not a harbinger of things to come.
The sound of a door opening made Ivy turn just as a petite blonde in slender jeans and a striped T-shirt emerged from the office to smile across the counter at her. Ivy masked her surprise, partly relieved and partly disappointed. She'd expected Charlotte or one of the other Jeffords. The presence of this small, pretty stranger demonstrated that some things had changed around here, after all.
"Hello. Can I help you?" the blonde asked, swinging a chunky toddler onto her trim hip. Dressed in olive-green corduroy overalls and a bright yellow T-shirt, the boy twinkled blue eyes at Ivy, expecting instant acceptance.
Ivy smiled, despite the pang in her chest, and addressed the blonde. "I have a reservation."
The woman seemed relieved. "That's good. We've booked a full house." As she pulled a registration form from beneath the counter, she asked, "Here for thereunion?"
Ivy accepted an ink pen and began to fill in the required information as best she could. "That's right. The reunion." More than one, hopefully.
"Seems to be a big deal around here," the blonde went on.
That, Ivy thought, is an understatement.
The annual high school reunion, always scheduled for the Saturday before Easter, counted as one of the highlights of the year in the small town of Eden and had for as long as Ivy could remember. Tonight's banquet would be the first that thirty-year-old Ivy had attended, however. In the twelve years since she had graduated from Eden Memorial High School, she had returned to her hometown only rarelyand not at all for more than six years.
Truth be told, she'd gladly have skipped tonight's festivities, had they not been her excuse for returning after all this time. She trembled a little, recalling her father's last words to her.
"If you have any shred of decency left, you won't ever show your face around here again. You've got nothing to say that I want to hear, so don't bother calling or writing, either."
She had honored his wishes and had planned to keep doing sountil several months ago when she'd found herself on her knees in a break room at the radio station where she'd worked in Tulsa. The good friend who had knelt with her had held her hand as Ivy wept and confessed to God her many failings.
In the time since, Ivy's world had literally turned on its head. She learned that God's forgiveness removed the eternal ramifications of her sin and that she owed it to herself and others to try to make amends to anyone she'd ever harmed. But how did she approach someone who never wanted to see her again, let alone ask for his forgiveness? She already knew that turning her life over to God did not mean that everything would suddenly become perfect. Quite the opposite in some respects. It could make, and had made, life very difficult. Then again, most of the mess was of her own making.
Ivy pushed the form back across the counter and smiled at the pretty hotel clerk. "I'm sorry, but I don't have a permanent address at the moment."
The woman glanced down at what was written on the form before saying, "Oh, that's all right, Ms. Villard. Your credit card has been approved, and that's what counts. Welcome back, by the way."
That might well be the only welcome she would receive, Ivy mused. She hoped, prayed, that her sister, Rose, would be glad to see her, but their father undoubtedly would not be. Ivy expected that he would refuse to meet with her. Still, she had to try. He had been right, after all, about everything.
Ivy had elected not to inform Rose of her plans to attend the reunion, despite their recent tentative communication via e-mail. As much as Ivy would have liked to prepare her younger sister for seeing her unexpectedly after all these years, she knew that she would do better to protect Rose from their father's anger. Should Olie conclude that Rose had participated in, or even kept mum about Ivy's plan to see him, he might well cut Rose and her family from his life as he had Ivy. It seemed best to just show up where she expected her sister to be and let matters proceed from there. Or not, as God willed.
Forcing her thoughts back to the young woman across the counter from her, Ivy pulled out her best manners. "Thank you. That's very kind. Do you mind if I ask your name?"
"Oh." The blonde ducked her head shyly, hunching her slender shoulders. "Sorry. I'm Cara." She laid a key on the counter and offered her tiny hand, saying, "Number four ought to suit you."
Ivy accepted the other woman's hand, clasping it briefly with her own. "Nice to meet you, Cara. Do you mind if I also ask about the Jeffords?"
"Not at all."
"Do they still own the place, then?"
Cara laughed. "Absolutely. Although Hap is thinking about retiring when Charlotte and her husband get their house finished."
"Charlotte's married?" Ivy asked, pleasantly surprised. Charlotte had always seemed utterly dedicated to the care of her grandfather.
"She married Tyler Aldrich," Cara said, rocking back on her heels as if to give the words greater significance.
Ivy could only shake her head. "I'm afraid I don't know a Tyler Aldrich. I've been gone a long time, you see. Is he new to the area?"
Cara chuckled. "Oh, yes. The Aldrich family hail from Dallas. Maybe you've heard of the Aldrich grocery store chain?"
"That Tyler Aldrich?" Ivy straightened, blinking. It all but boggled the mind, to think of mild, dutiful Charlotte married to the Aldrich fortune.
Cara nodded, grinning. "He is such a nice a man."
Before Ivy could inquire further, the telephone rang, and Cara hurried to answer it, tossing an apologetic smile over her shoulder. Ivy slid the key into the outer pocket of her soft, roomy leather handbag and left the other woman to her business. The child on Cara's hip watched Ivy as she turned away. He watched still when Ivy glanced back, one hand on the door, as if he sensed the longing in her, bone-deep, forever unfulfilled. Bag clutched under her arm, she gave him a wistful little wave and went out into the blustery, late-March afternoon.
Wind spun her long dark hair about her face as she hurried toward the small, boxy SUV hybrid that she'd left parked under the drive-through. Its bronze-brown body and darkly tinted windows hid the fact that it carried the majority of her earthly possessions, everything she hadn't sold, given away or put into storage before embarking upon a new life.
She tossed the big, puffy handbag into the passenger seat atop the small suitcase she had packed for what would undoubtedly be a short stay here in Eden. Holding closed the sides of the long, tailored tan jacket that she wore over comfortable black leggings and a pretty, babydoll top, she slid beneath the steering wheel and set the flat sole of one calf-high boot against the brake peddle. A sultry warmth already softened the edge of the stirring breeze, so the boots would soon have to be retired for the season.
Easter had come early this year, but as always it brought spring with it, an appropriate time for, God willing, renewal. It seemed right to journey out on faith, trusting that if the job for which she had applied at the radio station in Oklahoma City did not come through, something else would. Thankfully, Ivy still had connections in this part of the state, though explaining the break-up of the Fire-Brand Phillips and Ivy radio show was proving difficult. Still, being half of what had once been one of the most popular programs on commercial "rock/talk" radio didn't hurt.
Except that it had. Did.
It was never easy when you turned out to be exactly the fool that others had claimed.
She had reason to hope, though. As sorry as she was for the wrong choices she had made in the past and as willing to atone for them, she knew in Whom she had placed her faith, and she trusted Him to bring a brighter future. Perhaps it would never be what she had once dreamed it might, but she was content to do her best and leave the rest to her Lord.
Yes, she very much wanted to see her sister, to hear the sound of her voice and be enfolded in her embrace. Most of all, she wanted to recognize welcome in Rose's tawny brown eyesbut what would be, would be. With God's help, Ivy could survive her disappointment if Rose turned her back. She had survived before when their father had done the same, but this time she would not be all on her own. Never again would she be all on her own, even if she should forever be alone as "Fire-Brand" had predicted.
As she donned her little black dress with its flirty, knee-length hem and crisscrossing spaghetti straps that so closely matched those of her spiked heels, Ivy imagined the look of surprise that she would undoubtedly see on Rose's face. She prayed that she would also see pleasure and welcome thereand that ultimately her father would agree to meet with her, as well. She asked for the right words to say and the right tone to take and for strength and grace in what would surely be a difficult moment.
Ivy never expected that when she finally laid eyes on her sister again, she would find Rose obviously pregnant with her third child or that the depth of pain and envy that she would feel at the sight of that big rounded belly would diminish the much-anticipated joy of her only sister's loving embrace.
As assistant principal, history teacher and all-around coach, Ryan Jefford was well-known around the alma mater, a permanent fixture, some said. He liked it that way. After college he had returned to Eden and devoted himself to educating the youth of his hometown. It was a decision he hadn't regretted so far.
He loved these yearly Easter-weekend reunions, delighted in seeing his old classmates and, at the advanced age of thirty-four, even former students. Easily recognizable even in the soft light from the candles that glittered around the decorated cafeteria, he'd long been the unofficial host of these annual events, no matter the ever-changing composition of the committee in charge. As he worked his way through the milling, chattering throng, dispensing handshakes, backslaps and smiles, he felt a sense of pride in this place and all who had passed through it over the years, and that definitely included his older brother, whom Ryan spied in the distance.
At six foot four and a half, Holt tended to stand out in a crowd. It came as no surprise to see Holt's pretty, petite wife, Cara, beaming at her husband's side. Ryan wondered if she'd stopped smiling even once in the three weeks since their wedding. As he moved toward them, he saw that his sister, Charlotte, and brother-in-law, Ty, also stood nearby, surrounded by a crowd of curious alumni anxious to meet the wealthy grocery store magnate.
Ty seemed politely amused by the interest, while a surprisingly polished Charlotte looked on with subdued pride. Ryan chuckled to himself, imagining that some of those gathered around Tyler were disappointed to find that such a wealthy man seemed so ordinary and down-to-earth. That everyman persona could be a tad misleading, however, as Tyler Aldrich could, and did, get things done with great speed and ease. Only a few weeks ago, he'd helped Cara and Holt settle a tricky custody battle with her late husband's parents with a single phone call and, in Ty's stated opinion, a modest check. It hadn't hurt that Holt and Cara had quickly married, either, ostensibly to provide her delightful baby boy, Ace, with a stable, two-parent home. In truth, Holt and Cara were as deeply in love as Charlotte and Ty, and Ryan took no small measure of credit for having helped them realize it.
Now everyone said that Ryan's turn had come to take that much-vaunted hike down the aisle, but Ryan doubted that. He remembered the difficulties of his parents' marriage and knew too well the great time demands of his calling. As an educator, he took his work very seriously. He loved his family, and they truly came first in his heart, but he had to admit that their needs often came second to those of his students and school. His family and his passion for education centered his life, just as his faith, church and convictions centered his spirit. He simply had nothing left over for romance. After what love had cost his motherher lifehe was okay without it. Fortunately, he found great contentment in his work.
"Looking sharp there, Mr. Jefford," his big brother greeted him, flicking the lapel of Ryan's black suit.