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Emily Todd stared down at the sparkly silver castle and the blue-eyed prince standing in front of its door, a familiar lump rising in her throat. Oh, what she wouldn't give to rewind time back to when planning life's path had been as easy as reaching for the next crayon in a brand-new sixty-four-count pack.
Back then, with the help of Giddy-Up Brown, she'd been able to ride the perfect horse through a canopy of Burnt Autumn leaves. A mixture of River Brown and Nautical Gray had captured the hue of an angry river with the indisputable eye of a future rafter, while Foliage Green had breathed life into the woods she'd navigated with a slightly oversized compass. And Rocky Ledge? The curious mixture of brown, blue and gray? That had made the mountain she'd squeezed onto its own piece of eighteen-by-twenty-four-inch manila paper seem both majestic and ominous at the same time.
It was hard not to look at the framed pictures on the wall behind her desk and not be impressed by the colors her pint-sized self had selected when mapping out her life in crayon. Though why she hadn't grown bored with the whole notion of drawing her dreams after the fourth picture was anyone's guesseven if Milk Chocolate Brown hair and Ocean Wave Blue eyes were still her ideal for the prince who'd never materialized.
Shaking her head, Emily slipped the decades-old castle drawing back into the folder and pushed it across the desk at her best friend. "Look, I know what you're trying to do here, Kate, but this doesn't mean anything to me anymore. It's a drawing. A silly, stupid drawing. I mean, really, what guy carries a woman across a threshold these days unless she's an invalid and can't make it through the door herself?"
She considered her own words, compared them to the nightmare that had driven her out of bed before dawn, the same one that had robbed her of sleep many times over the past few weeks. "Hmm. Now that I think about it, I should have spent my Saturday afternoons running a fortune-telling operation instead of all those lemonade stands we used to have as kids, huh? I think I actually had a visionary gift."
Ignoring the blatant sarcasm in Emily's voice, Kate Jennings pointed at the series of framed pictures behind Emily's head. "You framed those drawings, didn't you? So what's the difference?"
She glanced over her shoulder, mentally comparing herself to the girl in each of the four drawings. Her hair, while still the same natural blond it had always been, was now fashioned in a pixie cut in lieu of the long locks she'd preferred as a child. Her big brown eyes hadn't changed at all, really, only they didn't sparkle quite as much. And the faint smattering of freckles noticeably absent in the drawings was right where it had always been, sprinkled across the bridge of her nose like fairy dust. "I can think of one huge difference, Kate. The dreams depicted in the frames? Those actually came true. That one" she pointed at the folder "didn't."
Kate pushed the folder back toward Emily. "So what? You drew them all at the same time."
She felt the tension building in her shoulders and worked to keep it from her voice. "Do you think a doctor would frame a term paper she'd failed, and hang it in her office beside her medical school diploma? Do you think an architect would want to showcase her first ever set of plansthe ones where she forgot to add the foundation that would have actually kept the structure standing?" At Kate's scowl, Emily continued. "I think it's cool that you found these pictures after all this time, Kate, I really do. It's why I framed the four I did. But you can't expect me to be too eager to glorify an unrealized dream alongside ones that actually came true, can you?"
Without waiting for a response, Emily pushed back her desk chair and stood. "I've got to get back to work. I have an orienteering class starting in five minutes." She strode across the office, stopping at the door. "But I'll see you and Doug on Friday night at the barbecue, right?"
"Definitely." Kate grabbed the folder and her purse and met Emily at the door. "It's not supposed to be too hot that day, so you should be"
"I'll be fine no matter what the temperature is," she snapped. Then, realizing how she sounded, she softened her tone. "This diagnosis is not going to beat me, Kate. You of all people should know that. I've done everything I said I was going to do and then some."
"If that were true, this picture" Kate waved the folder in the air "would be in a frame like all the others."
"Would you give it a rest, please? I'm not going to hang my failures on the wall. Seems kind of morbid to me."
"I get that," Kate said, tucking the folder under her arm. "But the horseback riding, the kayakingall of itcame true because you set your mind to it and you made it happen. I mean, c'mon, Emily, how many people do we know from our childhood who have started their own company? How many people do we know that have taken said company and made it the talk of, not only this town, but every other town in a hundred-mile radius? None that I can think of. And why is that? Because you made up your mind about what you wanted in life a very long time ago. So why should finding Mr. Wonderful be any different now?"
"Because I'm different now," she whispered.
Kate reached out and brushed a wisp of hair from her friend's face. "Did you ever consider the possibility that all this other stuff came true first because you were able to do it at that time?"
Emily closed her eyes, the familiar pull of fear that had accompanied the doctor's diagnosis threatening to envelop her all over again.
No. She refused to go there again. Not now, anyway. Not when she had a class to teach.
Opening her eyes, she gave Kate a hug and then shoved her through the door, her voice settling somewhere between frustration and determination. "I was and am able to do it, Kate. Nothing is going to change that. You just wait and see."
"But if you'd just slow down long enough to meet someone, you might"
"Please. I've got to go. I'll see you Friday evening."
Without waiting for a response, Emily made her way toward the classroom at the end of the hall. Her friend was wrong. Scenes in the pictures on the wall had come true because they were up to Emily. The Prince Charming picture she'd sent back home with Kate was nothing but a childhood fantasy born at a time when she'd been blissfully naive about words like disability and burden.
She was wiser now.
Squaring her shoulders, she yanked open the door and walked into the room to find five pairs of eyes greeting her arrival with the same determination that had driven her throughout her life. It was a determination she admired and understood. "Welcome to Bucket List 101. My name is Emily Todd, and I'm here to help you realize your dream of learning how to orienteer your way through the woods with nothing more than a compass and some coordinates. As you probably know from the course description that lured you here, we'll spend our first hour in the classroom learning about the compass and how to use it, along with our maps. Then we'll head out into the woods for some fun."
The left side of the conference table held a trio of retired men who were hanging on every word she spoke. To the right sat the mother-daughter team who'd called the day before looking for some memorable bonding time. "It looks like we've got a good group here," Emily said.
"I hope my presence won't change that."
Spinning around, Emily took in the sight of the man standing in the doorway, registration papers in hand, and froze, her heart thudding in her chest.
"My name's Mark Reynolds. Your assistant at the front desk said I could still get in your class if I hurried."
She knew she should say something. But for a moment she was at a complete loss for words.
Mark Reynolds was like no man she'd ever laid eyes onat least not outside the confines of her imagination. Even then, the flesh-and-blood version was much taller than she'd always envisioned. Either way though, his hair was the epitome of Milk Chocolate Brown and his eyes a perfect match for Ocean Wave Blue .
But it was his armsthe kind capable of sweeping a woman off her feet and carrying her across the threshold of a make-believe castlethat yanked Emily back to a reality that no longer had room for such silly dreams.
Mark looked down at his registration papers and then back at Emily. "So am I too late?"
Slowly she expelled the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "It's never too late, Mr. Reynolds. Not for learning, anyway."
He hung back as they neared the parking lot, his thoughts as much on Emily Todd as anything he'd learned that morning. During the first hour of class, before they'd ventured outside, they'd sat around a table, and Emily had taught them how to use a compass to find a set of coordinates. He'd tried to listen politely to the questions his classmates asked, and had worked hard to focus on the answers, but in the end, all he knew for sure was the fact that his teacher was gorgeous.
Emily Todd was straight out of the pages of one of his son's favorite fairy tales, right down to the wispy blond hair, slightly upturned nose and big brown doe eyes. But unlike those winged characters that flew around in the dark, sprinkling pixie dust in the air, this woman's feet were firmly on the ground, and she carried herself with a confidence that was anything but childlike.
He admired the determination that had driven her to start a company like Bucket List 101. It took guts andjudging by the list of outdoor activities the company offeredshe had to be in great physical shape. Her toned legs and taut body attested to that.
"Did you enjoy yourself, Mr. Reynolds?"
Mark shifted his attention from Emily to her teenage assistant. "I had a great time, Trish. Spending the last two hours in the woods was really cool."
"It's one of my favorite classes, too." Trish swept her clipboard toward Emily, who was disappearing into the woods with a drawstring bag. "Every time I think Emily has come up with the coolest class ever, she trumps it with another one the next time around. Come January, she'll be offering this same class, but on skis."
"Sounds awesome, doesn't it?" Without waiting for his answer, Trish headed across the parking lot, glancing back over her shoulder in his direction. "If you're interested, I'll be in the office tomorrow morning. We can get you signed up before the fall and winter program guide even goes out in the mail."
"Thanks, Trish. Sounds like fun." And it did.
Especially since it meant spending more time with Emily Todd.
"Don't you think you should give that back to Emily before you get in your car and drive home?"
Mark pulled his gaze from Emily's receding back and fixed it instead on one of the retired guys, who'd kept the class in stitches with his nonstop jokes throughout the three-hour course. "Huh?"
The man pointed at Mark's left hand. "You still have your compass. You were supposed to set it on the porch railing when we came out of the woods."
"Whoops. You're right. I'd guess I better catch up with Trish and turn this in before Emily thinks I made off with her equipment."
"If I were you, young man, I'd bypass Trish and take it straight to Emily. Gives you an excuse to look at her for another few minutes."
Raking his hand through his hair, Mark released an audible breath. "No, man, it's not like that. Really. I've got a kid at home and I'm not in any place to be"
"She's a cute little thing. Spunky, too." The man took a few steps and then paused. "And she don't have no wedding ring on her finger, either."
Mark looked down at the hand that gripped the compass, a familiar lump building in his throat at the sight of the half-inch band of skin that no longer stood out the way it once had when his ring was off. What on earth was he doing? He'd taken this class as a release, not to pick up chicks. It was way too soon. Seth needed his complete focus. He needed his complete focus .
Mark started back across the grass and along the path where Emily had just disappeared. Step by step, he ventured farther into the woods, and found the excitement he'd felt during the hands-on portion of the class resurfacing in spades.
It was as if the sunlight that randomly poked through the heavy leaves, warming him from the outside in, had somehow managed to rekindle a part of his spirit that had disappeared along with any respect he'd once had for himself prior to Sally's death.
Mark climbed onto a stump and looked from side to side, his heart rate picking up at the sight of Emily heading back toward him, the bag she'd been carrying into the woods now looped over her shoulder, a pad of paper and a pencil in her hand. "Emily? I saw you head back here. Everything okay?"
She stopped midstep and gave him a funny look. "Just jotting down a few new coordinates for next time. Did you forget something, Mr. Reynolds?"
"No, I " He glanced down, saw the compass he held in a death grip. "Actually, yeah. I forgot to turn in my compass. By the time I realized it, Trish had already collected them and I didn't want to just leave it sitting around."
The smile he'd found so engaging all afternoon returned. "Kind of got used to holding it, huh? Well, don't worry about it. I've found myself driving home with a compass still in my hand after one of these kinds of outings, so you're in good company. Means it started to feel natural."
He tucked the compass into his pants pocket and swept his gaze across the woods, nodding. "I can't believe how good it felt to be out here playing."
Her laughter echoed around them. "Welcome to my job. Where I get to playand help others playall day long."
"Sounds like heaven to me."
"Really? Because the last time I checked these woods were in the middle of Winoka, Wisconsin," she joked, before beckoning him to follow as she wound her way back through the trees. "If you don't mind me asking, what made you decide to take this class, Mr. Reynolds?"
He considered the best way to respond. If he shared too much, the lift in his heart from stepping out of his reality would be gone. If he didn't give her any kind of answer, he'd come across as rude. He opted for the safest reply he could find. "First of all, it's Mark. Mr. Reynolds makes me feel as if you're talking to someone much older than I want to be. And as to why I came today, I guess you could say I'm looking for something that'll help me unwind."
"Sounds like a good reason."