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It wouldn't have been so hard to go through boxes of the elderly Bristows' belongings if they hadn't included the Japanese kissing dolls that used to sit on top of the piano where their grandson Gray Bristow had taught her to plunk out "Chopsticks."
Ruthie Chandler touched the small porcelain faces together so the two pairs of puckered lips met once again. The boy doll's premolded hair still showed evidence of having been darkened with a black marker to look like Gray. The girl doll's locks carried the remnants of a red marker and her face sported brown hand-drawn freckles like Ruthie's. Some gentle cleaning should easily remove the marksif not the memoriesfrom the smooth white finish. She expected the charming, nostalgic set to sell quickly and move on to a new home where it would foster new memories.
Ruthie set the pieces aside and wished it was as easy to set aside the bittersweet memories they stirred in her.
In the adjoining shop, Savannah must have noticed something on her face or in her demeanor. The pretty blonde moved past the wedding dress on display and joined her, where she peered over her shoulder at the pair of dolls in her hand. She didn't say anything at first. Didn't need to.
Her friend had been with her at Wednesday night Bible study the evening she'd received the Dear Jane letter from Gray four years ago, so Savannah must have recognized the shell-shocked expression that apparently had crept back onto her face. Ruthie mindlessly rubbed her thumb against her left ring finger where the white-gold engagement ring used to sit. Back then her world had been filled with hope for a future with the man who'd been the Boaz to her Ruth.
A sentimental romantic, Ruthie had loved the part of scripture where the biblical Ruth asked the kindly Boaz, "Why have I found such favor in your eyes ?" and the happy ending where the couple blessed her mother-in-law, Naomi, with a grandson named Obed. She had imagined the baby she and Gray might have somedaya child with her then-fiance's dark hair and almond-shaped eyes, which hinted at his grandmother Naoko's Japanese heritage. A child he would protect. A child she would teach to savor the memories of its growing-up years. A child they would raise in the church and who would love God.
Unfortunately, her then-fiance's emails from Afghanistan had become short and to the point which she had told herself was for reasons of military security. But that hadn't explained their platonic tone. The messages she'd received during the three months prior to the breakup could have been written to his sister. Something had happened just before that Thanksgiving something Gray had alluded to but couldn't, or wouldn't, tell her.
Savannah had offered to make her wedding dress, one she claimed would be as beautiful as the bride. It would have been beautiful, no doubt. But it hadn't come to pass.
Her friend's compliment had made her blush at the time. Not by a long stretch would she call herself beautiful. Not with her fine red hair, freckles and lanky figure. Back then, she had begun to wonder, however, if Gray had become disenchanted with the image in the photo she'd sent him. Now she just tried not to think about it.
"The Bristows must have been busy with their spring cleaning," Savannah said, and gestured toward the stack of boxes. "You'll have plenty of nice things to sell at the sidewalk sale. Hopefully, the weather will be warmer than today." The pretty blonde's limp always seemed worse during cool weather.
This portion of the historic Carytown district in Richmond, Virginia, was often referred to as the "Mile of Style." Tucked away in the 1930sera Cary Court Park & Shop, like a quiet cove in a bustling harbor, a cluster of tiny businesses gathered under the name Abundance. Inside, three storesRuthie's Gleanings, Savannah's Connecting Threads and Milk & Honey, a café run by Paisley, another former college roommateshared the same roof and exterior walls and were separated only by decorative waist-high room dividers that encouraged browsers to wander from one shop to the next. Although business was slow this Tuesday afternoon in late April, the upcoming annual sidewalk sale would draw shoppers from all over Virginia with its upscale trendy and vintage offerings.
Ruthie shook away the nostalgic cobwebs that clung to the corners of her heart and turned her attention back to the Bristows. "Ever since Pop brought Sobo home and put her in the hospital bed in their spare room, she's been directing him on clearing out the clutter in there. I wish she would just rest and focus on healing."
After Ruthie's mother had died suddenly in a work-related accident eleven years ago and she'd had no place to go, Naoko Bristow had taken her in and gained legal guardianship for her final two years of high school. But they hadn't stopped there. Though she'd known them only from church, they had treated her as if she were their own flesh-and-blood granddaughter, insisting she call them by their grandparent names: Sobo, the Japanese word for grandmother, and Pop, a Southern endearment for grandfather. The elderly pair had even sent her off to college and set her up in their Fan District rental house with two roommates. An added bonus to gaining these adoring grandparents had been meeting and falling in love with their grandson.
The couple had been there with her at church the night she'd learned Gray didn't want her anymore. They had handed her the letter, in fact. And on hearing the message inside the Afghanistan-postmarked envelope, they'd grieved right along with her grieved as much for his broken faith as for the broken engagement.
"Right," Savannah said. "Tell that to the tiny dynamo who forgot she's in her seventies and climbed a trellis to prune roses."
If it weren't for the broken hip that had resulted from the fall, Ruthie would have applauded Naoko's youthful energy. Instead, the incident served as a reminder that time eventually catches up to even the most active of people.
"The doctor said her body also thinks it's younger than it is, so her recovery time should be quick."
"Thank God for that." Savannah picked up the girl doll, stared at the red hair and freckles and gazed back at Ruthie. "You're going to keep these, aren't you?"
"And torture myself? I don't think so." Every time she saw them, she would no doubt remember Gray's large, warm hands covering hers while he guided her fingers over the piano keyboard. Remember the way he had peeked at her when he thought she wasn't watching but she was always watching, and they'd both shyly look away. She'd remember the way her heart went rat-a-tat-tat at his nearness on the mahogany bench. Between sneaking glances at Gray, her gaze had often drifted to the tiny porcelain dolls he had jokinglyor not so jokinglycustomized to look like them, and which had prompted the human counterparts to steal kisses when Pop and Sobo weren't looking.
Outside, a sudden movement broke her reverie. A dark silver-gray sedan that looked like the civilian version of a police car spun into the lot and double-parked in front of Abundance. The car door swung open, and a black-haired man emerged from the driver's side.
Savannah's eyes widened in surprise. "Speaking of torture, it looks like you have a visitor. Gray Bristow, if I'm not mistaken." She sidled closer to Ruthie as if to shield her. He would never hurt her physically, but Savannah had been with her at the Wednesday night Bible study when Ruthie received his letter and knew the heartbreak he had caused her. "Do you want me to stay?"
"No, I can handle it." Maybe. Somehow. Dear God, please give me the strength to handle the obstacles that cross my path.
Her friend eased back to her own shop, casting wary glances over her shoulder while Ruthie struggled to gather her wits enough to face the man who still sneaked into her dreams at night.
Almost guiltily, Ruthie stuffed the kissing dolls back into one of the boxes she hadn't finished unpacking. Pretending to busy herself with polishing an antique beveled-glass jewelry casket, she watched him yank open the door and blink off the effects of the bright sun as he stepped inside.
The first thing she'd always noticed about Gray, physically, was his erect military bearing. He moved like a man on a mission. Three and a half of the four years after she'd received his breakup letter, the army had either kept him overseas or sent him to a distant stateside assignment. The past six months since his return to Richmond and civilian life, she had carefully choreographed her visits to his grandparents to avoid encountering Gray. She suspected he had done the same.
He had changed a lot since she'd last seen him. The casual blue T-shirt strained at biceps strengthened during his time in the army, and he actually seemed a little taller, which could have been merely an illusion from his don't-mess-with-me attitude. But the biggest change she noticed was in his face. Painand maybe fear?lurked in his handsome features.
He took off his sunglasses and pushed a hand through his wind-ruffled hair. When his gaze landed on Ruthie, she caught a flash of an expression she couldn't identify before his handsome features turned grim. He walked toward her, his movements effortless and silent.
Ruthie turned to face him. She wished that they could erase what had gone wrong between them and start over. She wanted him to believe again. In the God he'd begun to doubt while in Afghanistan. And in a future together with her.
But that wasn't going to happen. Certainly not judging by the look on his face. If his expression showed her so bluntly "it's not going to happen," then what might hers be revealing to him? She'd always been told her emotions were like clear glass anyone could read right through them, and she prayed a futile prayer that he would not see how much she'd missed him. How much she still hurt from his rejection.
What a fool she was to ever believe that she'd gotten over him. She lifted her chin. The smart thing to do would be to simply stand there and treat him like an ordinary customer, but everything in her being urged her to beg him to take her back on any terms.
"It's Sobo," he said, ignoring the formality of a hello and getting straight to the point. His voice sounded strained, as if he had run the entire way here. "She's been taken to the emergency room, and it's serious."
Ruthie caught fear rippling in his coffee-brown eyes, and her heart went out to him, while her mind flashed through a thousand possibilities. "Did she hurt herself again?" she asked. "How did she get out of bed?"
"I'm not sure of all the details," he said. "I called Pop from work to check on him and Sobo, and the rescue squad was already loading her into the ambulance. I've already spread the word to the rest of the family." He shifted where he stood, the nervous action revealing his unspoken desire to go to his grandparents and stand by them during this difficult time. "There's a blood clot in her leg. A complication from the hip fracture. The danger is that it could break loose and travel to her lung." He reached for her hand to urge her along. "Come on, I'll drive you to the hospital. Pop shouldn't be alone in the waiting room. He needs us."
Ruthie started toward the door with him, then turned back to get her purse from behind the counter. She reached to move a room divider to close off the shop to customers, but a moment of panicked indecision swept over her. Her gaze landed on an eavesdropping Savannah.
"Go!" said Savannah with a sweeping motion of her hands. "Paisley and I will take care of your customers."
Relieved, Ruthie thanked her and raced out the door with Gray.
He'd hopedsince he no longer prayedthat he wouldn't feel a thing for Ruthie when they met again. Stupid of him to think it for even one short minute. Everything he'd ever felt for her came rushing back the instant he caught sight of those big greenish-brown eyes and those wild freckles. Twenty-nine. There were twenty-nine freckles, and he'd taken delight in counting each and every one, before he'd learned the greater delight of kissing them.
How she'd laughed. But then, that was Ruthie. She always laughed. How could he have forgotten? Fine. He hadn't forgotten, any more than he'd forgotten her generosity, her business acumen, her He scowled. The bottomless faith she possessed that kept him from ever taking her for his wife.
They had been good togetherlike a key in a lock. But then that fateful day in Afghanistan had happened, shaking and even breaking the faith he'd lived by all his life. As a result, he'd lost an important part that had made them fit together so perfectly. Ever the optimist, she had believed they could work through the problem, but he hadn't wanted to lead her on when he knew that his foundering belief made them incompatible. He hadn't wanted to hurt herto hurt either of themwith the hope that their differences could be overcome.
In order to protect her from his own traitorously weak will, he had turned away from her. Refused to answer her letters that asked questions for which he himself did not know the answers.
To be honest, it had been hard to lock away his feelings for Ruthie. To shove his emotions aside and move on, putting one foot in front of the other.
But that was then. He was a different person now, with different beliefs. His time in the army had taken him through some harsh experiences, led him to make some difficult decisions, but it had also taught him to get the assignment done, no matter what was going on inside his head and heart. Being around Ruthie meant he needed to barricade his heart. Not so much for himself as to protect her.
The inconvenient truth was that he still loved her. And for that reason, he could not let her know how much she still meant to him.
On the way to the hospital, Gray tried not to think about the woman in the passenger seat, so he used the short ride to fill her in on the details. Pop had left Naoko in the ground-floor bedroom for only a short time to prepare her favorite meal of udon noodles. When he returned with the lunch tray a short while later, Naoko's leg had become painful and swollen. Her doctor had warned them of potentially fatal complications after the hip surgery, so Pop had promptly called the rescue squad. A follow-up call revealed that they'd arrived at the hospital and Naoko had been whisked off for tests to see if the clot was starting to move. The worst-case possibility was that it could travel to her lungs and kill her.
When they arrived at the hospital, they were told she was being moved to a room to stay overnight. After she was settled in, someone would give them the room number. He led Ruthie to a quiet corner of the waiting room to wait for Pop to come tell them that Sobo was going to be fine. That was the hope anyway.
Gray leaned back in the waiting room chair and covered his eyes with the crook of his arm. He had no idea what had prompted him to swing by Abundance and pick up Ruthie. At the time, he had told himself it was because her presence would be a comfort to Pop. Gray could have just as easily told her the news and let her find her own way to the hospital, but some inner urge had propelled him to the store Ruthie had opened shortly after their breakup compelled him to draw her close during this time of need.
Until now he'd been doing so well keeping his distance. Pretending he and Ruthie didn't mean anything to each other anymore. Now, with this one short exposure to the pretty redhead with the soft-spoken demeanor and gentle encouragement, the years and distance melted away. If he was honest with himself, he'd have to admit he needed her as much as Pop did.
Maybe more. The realization made him uncomfortable. For now, he'd stick with the excuse he'd given her on the car ride over here that Sobo and Pop would want to see her after Sobo came out of the emergency room.