Chapter Nine

(Writer’s Note: I apologize for the time-lag in getting this next chapter out. I’m afraid I was suffering from writer’s block and needed some time to step back since my original plan changed while writing Ellie’s story. I hope to add a new chapter each week now that I’m back on task. Thanks so much for reading!)

A light tap on Ellie’s door had her scrambling to put the lid back on Miss Ruby’s box and set it aside.

Stella stood in the hallway. “Did I wake you up?”

“No, come on in. Did you get enough sleep?” Ellie sat on her bed so Stella could have the chair in front of her desk.

“I guess so. I’ll get by for a few more hours anyway.” Her leg bounced rapidly, a nervous habit that Ellie remembered from their college days. “Do you feel like getting out? I’d love to sit on the porch or something. It’s so peaceful out here.”

“Yeah we could do that, or we could take our old Ranger for a spin. Its top speed is about five miles per hour so it’s pretty safe, even with me driving. We could take a short tour of the farm.”

“I would love that!” She jumped up from her chair, grabbed Ellie’s crutches, and thrust them toward her, drawing Ellie’s camera bag strap over her shoulder as soon as her hands were free again.

Stella drove while Ellie gave her directions. They stopped often so Ellie could get pictures. At first there was a lot of small talk revolving around Ellie’s memories growing up in the country. But soon all their conversation focused on photography. Stella seemed genuinely fascinated, asking question after question.

Finally, Ellie turned to Stella, holding the camera out. “Would you like to try? I’ve set it on auto, so all you have to do is point and click.”

Stella bit her lip. “Are you sure? I don’t want to break it.”

“Keep the neck strap on. If you drop it, it won’t fall far.” Ellie slipped the strap over Stella’s head. “Have fun. I’m going to wait in the Ranger.”

“Um hmm.” Stella’s reply probably meant she hadn’t even heard her, but Ellie hobbled to the Ranger anyway. Miss Ruby’s box and the letters it contained made her impatient to get back and she wished Stella would hurry.

Stella, however, seemed to have honed in on a maple leaf clinging to the tree. Ellie had a better lens in the bag for close-ups. But that meant she’d have to walk over there again, switch lenses, and probably have to explain the process. She sighed and reached for her crutches just as Stella turned to approach the Ranger. Ellie smiled, relieved, and waited for Stella to climb inside.

“Thanks! That’s was fun!” She handed the camera back to Ellie. “I think I got some interesting shots. To me anyway. You’re probably much better and will think my pics are lame.” She chuckled as her eyes darted to Ellie’s and away.

“I doubt that. Besides, it’s what they mean to you that matters. We’ll take a look inside. I have my editing software installed on my laptop.”

“Yay! I can see them bigger!”

Ellie and Stella returned to the house shortly before supper. Both volunteered to help but Ellie’s mother shooed them from the kitchen. They ended up on the porch swing, swaying gently as they listened to the birds singing from the nearby trees. Stella’s phone buzzed and she dug it out of her pocket, grimacing when she looked down at it. She typed for a few seconds and then put the phone away again.

“Reid?”

“Yeah, he wants to know how it’s going.” One side of her mouth curved up. “Wanna guess what I told him?”

Ellie considered it for a moment. In their college days, when Stella got angry she’d clam up, hardly saying anything or answering in one-word statements. Ellie smiled. “Fine?”

“Bingo!” Stella shrugged. “He probably won’t get it. He never does.” Her phone vibrated. “But we’ll know in a sec.” She studied her phone for several seconds. “Huh, I guess maybe he does get it. He’s apologizing again and wants to talk. I’m going to say that we’re getting ready to eat and I’ll call him later.” Her fingers moved rapidly across the phone’s screen.

Ellie’s mom called them to dinner shortly after. Stella said she was starving but didn’t seem to eat very much. Then, after everyone finished eating she shooed Ellie’s parents from the room while she did all of the dishes, even drying them and putting them away, with Ellie’s help.

They ended up back in her room with Stella at the computer editing her photos and Ellie on her bed going through Miss Ruby’s box again. She didn’t pick up the letters because she didn’t want to start crying. Instead, she opened a small photo album. It was an older style where the photos nested against each other so that she had to flip each one up to see the next one. The old photos were yellowing.

The first several were of Miss Ruby and a well-dressed man. She must have been in her late teens or early twenties. Ellie studied the young woman’s face in the photo. She had been very beautiful. Several pictures later, the young woman’s figure had changed. From the way her hands were placed against her belly, it was obvious she was pregnant. A thin, gold band glittered on the fourth finger of her left hand.

Ellie smiled at the happy face staring back at her from the photo. Miss Ruby glowed.

Stella yawned, stood, and stretched. “I can’t concentrate. I’m so tired all of a sudden.” She walked to Ellie’s side and looked over her shoulder. “Who’s that?”

“Miss Ruby as a young lady. A young, pregnant lady.”

“It’s hard to imagine her young, isn’t it?” She leaned closer. “I only met her once, I think, when Reid couldn’t get over to feed Misty one time.” She chuckled. “He told me I’d have to get past the ‘guard dog’ but she was very sweet to me.”

“To me too,” Ellie replied. She flipped the picture up and found baby Madelyn tucked in her mother’s arms. Miss Ruby’s smile said it all. Ellie’s heart ached with the joy in the new mother’s eyes. Would she ever know that kind of happiness? A sniff brought her out of the moment. She turned to find tears streaming down Stella’s face. “What’s wrong?”

“That photo is so beautiful it scares me.”

“Scares you? Why?”

“Because I might be pregnant but I’ve been trying not to think about it.”

Ellie was quiet for a few moments. “You haven’t told Reid, I’m guessing.”

“No. I haven’t taken the test. I bought one. I even have it with me but I’ve been afraid to use it.”

“Maybe knowing one way or the other would be a relief.”

“Maybe.” Stella wiped the tears from her cheeks. “You think I should take it now?”

Ellie shrugged. “Only if you’re ready and you want to.”

Stella took a deep breath. “Okay.” She took a few steps toward the door. “Can I bring it in here and we can read the results together?”

“Sure, if that’ll help.” Stella nodded. “All right. I’ll stay put.”

Ellie returned to the photo album, flipping through the pictures faster now. Maddie grew up quickly and Miss Ruby matured through her thirties. One of the photos showed Miss Ruby holding a birthday cake with a big 4-0 on it. A teenage Madelyn sat near her mother, a tolerant smile on her face. There were only a few more pictures after that one and the rest of the album was empty.

So sad, Ellie thought. Maddie had so much to live for. Evidently she’d found a man who loved her. And she’d had a baby. A girl. Ellie flipped the last of the empty album sleeves over and found a pocket attached inside the back cover of the photo book. It was obvious from the bulge that something was inside. She flipped it open, removed a stack of pictures, and froze.

Baby pictures. Only much more recent in age. Not pictures of Maddie. Ellie’s heartbeat sped up. She stared at the baby, nestled in the arms of a woman she’d known all her life as her mother. She flipped through the pictures quickly. Not possible.

No way, her brain insisted. Yet the pictures were the proof. She recognized them. There was another album downstairs in the bookcase with copies of these same photos inside. Ellie, growing older, growing up. She’d found her grandmother. Or rather, her grandmother found her. Why didn’t she tell me?

“Ellie?” A voice broke through her confusion. She turned to find Stella standing beside her, looking at the photos with a puzzled expression on her face. “Isn’t that you?” Ellie nodded and handed the photos to her. Stella handed her the pregnancy test and sat down on the bed beside her. She found the latest pictures. The ones taken last Christmas. Downstairs in the family room. Beside the Christmas tree. “These were in that box?” Ellie nodded again. “Why?”

“I think Miss Ruby was my grandmother.” Stella handed the pictures back and she returned them to their pocket. “Her daughter, my mother, died in a car accident around the time I was born and Miss Ruby decided to give me up for adoption. It’s in the letters she wrote.” She pointed to the box.

“Wow!”

“I know.” She glanced at the plus sign on the pregnancy test. “Did you read the results yet?”

“Yeah. I was right.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Be the best mom I can be.” She smiled. “I’ll need to tell Reid, of course.”

“I always thought he’d be a good father.” She paused. “If you have any girls, you might want them to get a lock for their diaries, though.”

“Definitely!” Stella hugged Ellie tightly for a few seconds before letting her go. “Wow, what a weird day. I find out I’m having a baby and you find your biological grandmother.”

“Yeah, a few days too late.”

“She must’ve had a reason not to tell you. Don’t you think? How long have you known her?”

“I met her at my apartment complex. We moved in around the same time. That can’t have been a coincidence now that I know we’re related. I wonder how much my mom knows.”

“It sounds like we both need to have some conversations tonight. I’m going to my room and call Reid.” She paused. “But you know what? I’m not telling him over the phone. I want to think of a special way to surprise him.”

“I think that’s a great idea.” Ellie hugged her friend again. “I’m really happy for you, Stella. You’re going to be a wonderful mommy.”

“Mommy . . . wow.” Stella’s eyes were wide as she left the room.

Ellie put the photo album back in the chest, then changed her mind. If her mom tried to deny it, she might need to show her the proof. Although she couldn’t imagine that. Her mom had always told her the truth whenever she’d asked questions in the past. She put the album back and shut the lid.

Ellie found her mom reading in the living room. “Whatcha got there?”

“Pride and Prejudice.”

Ellie plopped down on the ottoman in front of the chair. “You should have that memorized by now.”

Her mother shrugged. “I probably do. Certain parts anyway. But you know how much I love Austen. Are you okay?” She marked her place in the book, closed it, and placed it on the table beside her.

Ellie took a deep breath. “I just found out Miss Ruby was my biological grandmother.”

Her mother’s eyes softened. “She didn’t want me to tell you, sweetie. It was one of her stipulations for the adoption. But I sent her pictures of you through the years. We stayed in touch.”

“How did we end up in the same apartment complex?”

“You probably got to know her well enough to know that when she makes up her mind to do something, there’s no stopping her, right?” Ellie nodded. “When I told her you were moving into that complex, she went to the owner and bought the whole place!” She chuckled. “The poor owner probably didn’t know what hit him.”

“She bought the apartment complex?”

“Yes. And then kept the management staff that was already in place.” She rose from her chair. “Come with me. There’s more you should know.” Ellie followed her into the office and watched as she opened the lock box. Her mother rifled through some files until she found what she’d been looking for. “This is your grandmother’s will. Her lawyer wants you to call him.”

“What? When did you talk to him?”

“I talk to him often. He’s your Uncle Jim.”

“Oh my gosh! How many people knew about this?”

“Just your uncle, your dad, and I.” She put her hand on Ellie’s arm. “Are you okay, honey? I’m sure this is overwhelming.”

Ellie shook her head. “I’m still trying to grasp it, I guess. But Mom, I wish I could have really known her when she was alive. I don’t understand why she wanted to keep it a secret.”

“I don’t have an answer for you. She didn’t tell me.”

“She lost her daughter and then she gave me away.”

“I don’t think we can imagine the pain she was experiencing, honey. And she wanted you to have a good home.”

Ellie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m glad she gave me to you and Dad. I don’t regret my life at all. I guess I just wish I could’ve had you, Dad, and Miss Ruby. There must have been so many stories about my biological mother that I’ll never know now.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” her mother whispered. She kissed the top of Ellie’s head—a familiar, loving, comforting gesture—and then left the room.

Ellie sat down behind the desk and opened the manila envelope. She read through the papers as best she could. She wanted Stella to look them over with her. She’d be able to tell her, in plain English, what they said. But that would have to wait until the morning.

She put everything back in the envelope, carried it upstairs to her room, and added it to the envelopes and photos in Miss Ruby’s box.

It took her a long time to fall asleep that night.

Chapter Eight

Reid tiptoed past Miss Ruby’s apartment. Her television was off and he didn’t want to explain why he was coming over so late. Not to mention the journals he held under his arm.

It was three in the morning and he’d spent the past two hours in his car, reading the last few volumes of Ellie’s diaries. A nagging fear ate at him, telling him he needed to return her property before she came home. He let himself in and flipped on the lights. Misty didn’t meet him at the door.

“Mis-ty, come here girl,” he sang. Nothing. He went to the kitchen. Her food and dishes were gone. “Uh oh.” Ellie’s bedroom door stood open. He flipped on the light and peeked inside. Her bed looked perfect again. He slipped a hand under the pillow he’d stuck her journal under. All he felt were smooth sheets.

He hurried to the guest room, barreling past the bookcases to the closet. Pausing for a moment, he reached for the light switch. A bag lay just inside the doorway. His heart dropped into his stomach. He knelt in front of the bookcase where the earlier journals should have been. It was empty. She knew. And she’d taken the rest of them with her. What can I do now? She’s going to hate me.

Then again, why should he care? It wasn’t like they were ever close. He put the books back on the shelf and left the room. But he did care. He sat on the couch across from her barn photos. It was dark in the room, he hadn’t turned on the lamp. His phone buzzed but he ignored it.

Reid rubbed his hands up and down his face, exhausted but trying to reason it out. Many of her journal entries mentioned him. Sometimes it was just in passing—a sentence stating that the three of them ate lunch together that day—but sometimes she’d recounted whole conversations that he didn’t even remember.

When they’d first met, her opinion of him had been low—cocky, dismissive, rude—but she’d slowly changed her mind and began to respect, admire, and even fall in love with him. And he hadn’t been trying to get any of that from her. He’d just been himself and she’d just been Stella’s friend. That’s why it bugged him. He wasn’t that nice guy to her anymore. He’d ruined that by deliberately invading her privacy.

His phone buzzed again and he dug it out of his jeans pocket. It was a text from Stella. Ellie just messaged me. She was released today and meant to call and tell us but Miss Ruby had an accident and died this afternoon so that distracted her. She has Misty with her.

Oh, and she had a special message for you. She said to tell you you’re a jerk for reading her journals and she wants them all back in her apartment before she gets home. And that now she can never see you again for the rest of her life.

Reid threw his phone on the floor. It bounced once, flipped over, and landed face up on the thick carpeting. A new line popped up and he leaned over to read it. You deserve worse and if you’re not home in an hour I’m going to tell her where you are.

He plucked his phone up off the floor and sent a reply. We’ll talk when I get home. And you’re both right. What should he do? He tried to come up with a reasonable excuse for reading her journals. He could remind her that she told him he could read anything in the guest room. No. He’d known they were off-limits but read them anyway. Maybe he needed to tell her the truth.

He typed another text to Stella saying that he’d be late because he was going to call Ellie and apologize.

It can’t wait until morning?

She texted you in the middle of the night. She’s obviously awake.

I’m just saying that people are more emotional at night when they’re tired. She might take it better in the morning.

I’m going to explain what happened and apologize. I’ll tell her that you didn’t know. I don’t want you to lose her friendship.

Don’t worry about that we’re closer than ever. And she knows I told you not to read them so leave me out of your convo.

Okay fine.

I really think you should wait until she’s slept, but it’s your funeral.

I’ve thought about it but she’s just going to be madder in the morning if I don’t explain.

Reid chickened out and decided to text her instead of calling. He didn’t think he could stand it if she started crying of anything. He wrote out paragraph after paragraph, each time erasing them and starting over. He settled on a few simple sentences. I put the rest of your journals back. You’re right it was a jerk thing to do. I’m sorry. Can I explain? He sent the text and waited. A moment later it showed as delivered and after a few seconds more he knew she’d read it. Will she respond? Five minutes passed. Ten. Fifteen. He paced the floor.

Are you in my apartment?

Please leave and give my key to Stella when you get home. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t enter my apartment again without her. And right now I’m too angry to talk about this. Maybe later when I’ve calmed down. Goodbye, Reid.

Goodnight Ellie. And I’m really sorry.

He sent the text and waited but it didn’t even show as delivered. She must have shut off her phone as soon as she sent her last message.

Reid left the apartment, locking the door for the last time. As he passed Miss Ruby’s door he paused, remembering the spirited woman who’d questioned him the first time he’d arrived. Rest in peace, Miss Ruby.

He experienced an unsettling sense of finality as he pulled out of Ellie’s apartment parking lot. He debated with himself all the way home and finally decided she probably wouldn’t forgive him. He also knew he deserved it.

Reid opened the door to his home and found the couch made up with sheets, a blanket, and his pillow. Great, Stella was in another one of her moods.

“I can’t believe you texted her tonight,” Stella said, approaching him with her hand out, palm up. “Especially after I told you she’d had a rough day. You don’t think of anyone but yourself, do you?” He dug in his pocket for Ellie’s key and threw it on the couch. She glared and went to retrieve it.

Her condescending attitude set him off. “I’m not sleeping on the couch tonight. If you want to, you can.” He stomped past her and into their room, slamming the door behind him. Stella’s lamp was on but she hadn’t been in bed. It was still “company-ready” the way she made it every morning. He turned on his lamp, undressed, climbed into bed, and waited for Stella to come in so they could talk it out. He listened for that squeaky board in their wood floors to give her away. Nothing. Not a sound.

He glanced at his watch and yawned. It was 3:45 in the morning. He rolled toward Stella’s side of the bed and clicked off her lamp. He did the same with his, then turned on his side and closed his eyes.

Almost immediately a picture flashed through his mind of his father carrying his mother to their bedroom when she had been too ill to walk. His dad still mourned her even ten years later. He’d always wanted that kind of love in his marriage and yet he doubted his father had ever treated his mom the way he’d just treated Stella. He threw off the sheets with a groan and rolled out of bed. He needed to apologize. Especially since she was right.

The lights were off in the living room and he flipped on the hall light in case Stella was asleep. The couch was empty. Even the sheets and pillow were gone. He checked out the guest room. Also empty. On the dining room table he found her phone and a note.

Reid,

I’m glad I have two weeks off. I guess I’ll use it differently now than what I’d planned but maybe it’s better this way. I’m going to spend a couple of days with Ellie since she’s invited me. I need to return her key anyway.

Let’s use this time to figure out if we still want to stay together. Because what happened tonight . . . well, I’m tired of arguing with you. 

I’ll see you when I get back. To pick up my clothes if nothing else.

Take care,

Stella

Reid carried the note and her phone with him as he checked the garage. Her car was missing. It was the middle of the night and she hadn’t slept. What if something happened to her on the way? He turned on her phone.

Ellie, he texted, this is Reid. Stella’s on her way to your place right now. We got into an argument. Would you please let me know when she gets there? I just want to know she arrived safely.

She’s already here, Ellie texted back.

He sighed, his shoulders slumping forward in relief. Okay thanks. She must have left immediately after their fight to already be there. He looked at his watch. Six a.m. already? Maybe he had fallen asleep. Maybe he’d dreamed about his parents. It was going to be a long week, but Stella was right. They couldn’t keep going like they were.

* * *

Ellie dropped her phone on the bed, a rueful smile on her face as her eyes met Stella’s. “He’s worried about you. That’s gotta mean something, right?”

Stella shrugged. “Maybe.” Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy from crying. Ellie’s eyelids felt like they were made of sandpaper every time she blinked. “I’m sorry I kept you up all night, Ellie. I just didn’t know what to do and I didn’t want to go to my parents’ home. They’d want me to file for a divorce tomorrow if they knew how much we argue.”

“And you weren’t frightened of him at all? Never worried that he was going to hit you or something?”

“How many times do we have to go over this? No, Ellie. Reid would never strike a woman. He tossed your key, yes. But not at me. Away from me. He was very angry, more so than I’ve ever seen before, but he never stepped close to me, never tried to intimidate me. He knew reading your journals was wrong and you caught him. He knew I’d be mad too. But I’ve been so emotional lately. And so stinking tired. The last case I handled just wore me out.”

“Then I’m glad you came here.”

Stella’s gaze dropped to her hands clasped in her lap.“I’ve had this vacation planned for months. I’d hoped Reid would take some time off too, and he tried but one of the partners in his firm is on vacation this week so he could only get next week off. I’d been researching resorts when he came home. But that doesn’t matter right now. We should probably try to get some sleep. You look exhausted.”

Ellie admitted to herself that Stella was right, while she waved off her friend’s fears with a smile. “You’re more important than sleep. But you look like you’re about to fall off the bed!”

Stella laughed. “Maybe, but I’d be asleep before I hit the ground so I probably wouldn’t notice.” She stood up and stretched. “Thanks again for listening and letting me crash out here with you for a few days. I’m really looking forward to hanging out.”

“Me too. It’s been too long.”

“I hope you can get some sleep, El.”

“Don’t worry about me. It seems like I sleep way too much anyway.” She smelled bacon. “Mom’s got breakfast ready. Would you sleep better with a full stomach?”

“Mmmm, yeah, maybe.”

Ellie hopped up. “Then let’s go pig out!” Ellie’s stomach growled as the two women made their way to the kitchen. Her mother had pancake batter waiting beside a griddle. And there were scrambled eggs with green peppers, mushrooms, and onions in a covered pan, still warm, with crispy bacon on a nearby platter.

While Ellie made the pancakes, Stella searched for plates and silverware. She could have told her where to look, but she had a feeling Stella wanted to see everything anyway. Minutes later they sat at the table, full plates in front of them. Neither of them spoke as they ate. Ellie had a hard time keeping her eyes open and she suspected Stella was having the same problem.

In an almost dream-like stupor, they made their way back to their respective bedrooms. Ellie fell asleep almost immediately.

She awoke a little after one that afternoon, feeling groggy. The house was quiet. She got up and went to the window. Leaves fluttered to the ground with each gust of wind. She’d missed their peak color, but trees dressed in dull yellows, reds, and oranges still surrounded the farm. She opened her window to catch the breeze, picked up Miss Ruby’s box, and returned to her bed.

Her fingers traced the carvings that covered the beautiful wood box. Why did Miss Ruby want me to have this? Then she lifted the lid. Inside were pink envelopes bundled together with rubber bands. She could tell from the faded colors that some of them were much older than the others. She picked up a set. The first one of the bunch had “Madelyn Elizabeth Jackson, 4/16/70 – 4/19/88” written on it in a delicate, feminine cursive. Ellie paused to count. She was barely eighteen when she died.

My sweet Maddie,

Today my heart is weeping. How can you be here one moment, and gone the next? How can 18 years be enough? They weren’t. Not for me and not for you. What of your dreams to be a writer? To be a wife? To be a mother?

I don’t know how to go on and I’m not sure I want to. I miss you so much. I’ll love you forever, sweet girl.

Mom

The creases in the letter were torn in places, probably from being folded and unfolded over and over, and there were warped spots in the paper where Ellie imagined Miss Ruby’s tears had fallen. Did she have other children or was she all alone after her daughter died? She should’ve visited with her more while she was alive. She must have been so lonely.

Folding the letter carefully, she slipped it back into the envelope and opened the next one.

Sweetheart,

I’m planning your funeral and I feel like I’m dying too. I ache all over from the tears that rarely cease. I’m empty inside. Poured out with my tears.

Your Aunt Rita is helping me by going through your pictures. Each one is another knife piercing through the haze of my grief. You were such a beautiful baby, a happy toddler, an inquisitive child, and a loving daughter. I wish you hadn’t tried to grow up so soon. And that I’d known you had a beau. Who was he? Why didn’t you introduce us? I don’t know if these questions will ever be answered.

I signed the papers today. I found her a loving family. She isn’t to know about us, but I’ve requested regular updates and pictures. For you. And I guess for me too. Maybe I’m hoping to see you in her someday. Maybe that will bring some peace.

And you’re right; she is beautiful.

I love and miss you more each hour,

Mom

Ellie read each letter as Miss Ruby documented her struggle to deal with her daughter’s death. She only got through the first bundle before she had to take a break. They were heart-rending to read. Why did Miss Ruby want her to have these? She could only guess that it was a way for her to preserve the memories of her daughter.

Chapter Seven

For the next few weeks Ellie worked three times a day on regaining mobility in her arm. When they put a walking cast on her foot, her focus shifted to walking. As her release neared she pushed herself more and more, determined to walk out of the rehabilitation center without assistance.

Because of the seizures, Ellie wouldn’t be allowed to drive for six months. She’d taken a leave of absence from her job. Thankfully, her insurance covered all of the medical expenses except for her deductibles.

Her mother and father arrived for the big day. Ellie couldn’t tell her mother had ever had Lyme disease. She rushed around the room packing all of Ellie’s things, smiling and talking with everyone she encountered. And silent tears rolled down both of her parents’ cheeks when she walked out the door unassisted.

Ellie still wore a walking cast. Her ankle hadn’t healed completely yet. Another week or two, the doctor told her. She still had slight pain when she put weight on it, but everyone seemed happy with her progress. For the next two weeks, she planned to relax at her childhood home.

First, they needed to stop at her apartment so Ellie could pick up some clothing, books, her camera, and most importantly, her puppy. Reid and Stella didn’t know she was being released today. She’d call them later.

Miss Ruby’s TV blared down the hall. With a lump in her throat, she knocked on her door. She’d missed the little lady. Nothing. She pounded harder to be heard over the noise. Still nothing.

Ellie hobbled to her apartment and grabbed the spare key her neighbor gave her for emergencies. She returned to the door, knocked once more, and pressed her ear to the painted steel. How Miss Ruby loved her game shows! She unlocked the door a few inches and peered inside. “Miss Ruby? It’s Ellie. Are you okay?” She heard a groan and hurried in. “Oh no!”

Miss Ruby lay on her stomach on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. She had a gash on her forehead. Ellie knelt beside her. “What happened? How long have you been here? Ruby, can you talk to me?” Her skin was cool but not cold. Ellie dialed 911 and spoke to Miss Ruby while they waited for the ambulance.

When the paramedics arrived, Ellie stood off to the side, listening to their conversation as they placed a neck collar on Miss Ruby and prepared to turn her so they could work on her more easily.

As they rolled her onto her back, she regained consciousness with a gasp. “Ellie?”

“I’m right here, Ruby.” She leaned over one of the paramedics and smiled at her. “They’re taking you to the hospital. You’ll be fine in no time.”

Her breathing sounded wrong, raspy and shallow. “I don’t think so.” She struggled to get the words out. “I can’t feel anything from the neck down. I came in here to get some dinner and my legs just gave out on me. I hit my head on the table when I fell. I don’t want to be on a ventilator, okay? I have a DNR in my Living Will.”

Ellie panicked, what could she say? “Don’t give up, Ruby, okay? The doctors put me back together so I’m sure they can help you, too.”

“We need to get her to the hospital.” One of the paramedics wheeled the stretcher over beside Miss Ruby.

“Wait,” Ruby said. “Ellie, go get the carved chest out from under my bed, but don’t open it until later.”

Ellie retrieved the box. “This one?”

“Yes. Okay, I’m ready now.”

“I’ll call and check on you later, Miss Ruby.”

”You take care, girl.” Her eyes fluttered closed. “I love you,” she whispered.

Ellie didn’t know if she’d meant to say those last words but she responded to them. “Love you too.” She blinked tears from her eyes and followed them outside, locking up the apartment behind her before returning to her own. She handed to box to her father and asked him to take it to his truck, planning to go through it when she was in the room she grew up in.

Ellie paused in her living room, her eyes travelling over the barn photos, seeing them with fresh eyes. I’ll always be a farm girl. With a smile on her face, she limped away. She froze as she entered her bedroom. Her bed was a mess! Then she remembered Reid saying that Misty had trashed her room. She heard a whine behind her.

“Did you do this?” Misty blinked, tail wagging. “You should feel bad. My bed is off-limits.” Ellie grabbed the pillows off the bed to straighten the coverlet and found her journal, chewed on two of its corners. “You really were a bad girl, weren’t you?” The puppy jumped up in front of her. “Oh no you don’t. Get down!”

Misty tried to get away from Ellie, running back and forth on the bed. She finally jumped off, racing out the door. “Puppy kindergarten! That’s what you need!” She bent to retrieve the journal. It had fallen open to Reid and Stella’s wedding day. Her scalp prickled. Misty didn’t tuck the journal under a pillow. Reid must have. Did he read it first?

She flopped down on the bed, hugging the book to her chest and waffling back and forth between mortification and anger. Finally she sighed. She wouldn’t know unless she asked him outright. And if he hadn’t read it, her questions might make him curious. She got up, dropped the offending book onto her bedside table, and finished making her bed.

Her hospital resolution to burn the journal sent her to the guest room to grab a satchel and a couple of books to read while she recuperated. She flipped on the closet light and found the bag she wanted on the floor beside the bookcase that held her library of journals. Several of the most recent volumes were missing and that answered her question. Not only had he read the one in her bedroom, but he’d taken the last few years’ worth, too.

“Sweetheart, are you about ready? We need to get home in time for Dad to milk.” Her mom stood in the doorway.

Ellie grabbed a smaller tote bag. “Yep, give me another minute. Did Dad pack Misty’s food?” Her mother nodded. “Okay, if you want to head down to the truck, I’ll meet you there in a couple of minutes.”

She thrust the diary into the tote bag and grabbed a few books. Her mother had evidently taken the suitcase she’d packed in her bedroom, so Ellie grabbed her camera bag and locked up the apartment.

Riding in the back seat of the truck, Ellie wondered what to do about her journals. Should she confront Reid or let it go? She fell asleep trying to decide.

“Ellie? We’re home, honey. Dad’s already unpacked the truck and put your stuff in your room.” Ellie blinked, yawned, and stretched.

“Sorry, Mom. I guess I’m a little tired.”

“Of course you are. It’s been an exciting day. I’ve got some beef stew simmering in the crock pot for dinner. You should probably eat and go straight to bed.”

“The only way this day could get better is if I could take a bath in that old claw-foot tub.” Ellie climbed out of the truck and headed for the front porch. Her mother beat her up the stairs and held the door open for her. The smell of her mother’s special recipe wafted around her. “Oh Mom, it’s been too long!”

Her mother smiled as she ladled beef and vegetables into a soup bowl. She set it in front of Ellie, then slathered butter on a few slices of her freshly-baked wheat bread and handed them to her as well.

“You’re not going to make me eat alone on my first night home, are you?” Ellie teased. From the small amount in her mother’s bowl, Ellie knew she’d also eat when her dad came in from his chores.

After eating two bowls of stew, Ellie carried her bowl to the sink and grabbed a towel to throw over her shoulder. Her mom intercepted the towel. “Oh no you don’t, you need to go to bed. You’re practically asleep now.”

Ellie yawned. “Thanks Mom. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

“Don’t worry about it tonight. I’m just so happy to have you home I could—I don’t know—dance maybe?”

“I’d like to see that,” Ellie’s father said as he entered.

“Okay you two, keep the party down. Don’t want to draw the cops.” Ellie kissed each of her parents on their cheeks. “I’m going to call the hospital and check on Miss Ruby, then I’m calling it a night. I love you both so much.”

“We love you too, baby.” Her mother hugged her tightly then let her go.

“Sleep well, Rosie.” Her father kissed the top of her head.

Ellie climbed the stairs to her room, smiling at the nickname her father still used with her. She dialed the hospital’s information number and asked for Ruby Jefferson’s room. After answering several questions, she was told to hold. Ellie’s knee bounced up and down, a nervous habit. Did it usually take so long to find a patient? The paramedics said they were taking her to St. Luke’s.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but there is no Ruby Jefferson listed in our hospital.”

“They said they were bringing her to you.”

“Maybe they changed to a different hospital because of her injuries or because she preferred it.”

“I think she had a spinal cord injury. She said she couldn’t feel anything below her neck.”

“I see.” The woman paused, then whispered. “Try the University of Kansas Hospital.”

“Okay, thanks,” Ellie whispered back. She looked up that number and started over. This time she was immediately transferred. A man answered. “Yes, I’m looking for Ruby Jefferson.”

“May I ask who’s calling?”

“Ellie, umm, Elanor Thompson.”

“Thank you, Miss Thompson. I am David Marsh, one of the chaplains. I’m sorry to have to inform you that Miss Jefferson passed away earlier this evening.”

“Oh no!” Ellie’s voice cracked. She tried to swallow. “She was such a sweet, lovely person.” The chaplain offered his condolences. “Thank you. She tried to prepare me today, but I kept telling her she’d be fine.”

“She must have cared a great deal about you, Ellie. She listed you as her only contact. She also said you had her will and would know how to proceed.”

Was her will in the box she gave Ellie? “Okay, I’ll call tomorrow to make arrangements, if you don’t mind. I’m a little overwhelmed right now.”

“I understand. Again, please accept our condolences on Miss Ruby’s passing.”

Ellie pushed the end button, then hoped she’d remembered to thank the chaplain again. The square box, a little taller than a shoebox and about four times as wide, sat on the bed beside her. Part of her wanted to see what was in it tonight. But only a small part. Mostly she wanted to crawl in bed and remember Miss Ruby.

She picked up the box and groaned. Was it always this heavy? She didn’t recall having any trouble lifting it earlier today. Adrenaline maybe? She carried it to her desk and set it down, taking a moment to trace the name engraved across the top: Jefferson.

Ellie crawled into bed and said a prayer of thanks for Miss Ruby Jefferson. Maybe she’d left instructions about what kind of service she wanted inside that box. She fell asleep trying to recall the first time they’d met. A few hours later she jolted awake. She’d forgotten to call Reid and Stella!

Chapter Six

Reid called Stella as soon as he was in his car. “Meet me at Ellie’s, you’ve gotta see this!” She complained at first, but with an exaggerated sigh she gave in. He got to the apartment ahead of her so he took Misty for a short walk.

He didn’t see Miss Ruby that day, but he heard her television through her door as he passed it. He fed Misty and made sure she had plenty of water in her automatic waterer. He replaced her soiled puppy pad next. She ate a few bites, lapped a little water, then went straight to her doggy bed and collapsed with a tired sigh.

Stella still hadn’t arrived, so he took the trash out to the dumpster. He saw her drive up and waited for her to park so they could walk in together. “How was your day?” She hadn’t put on any makeup so he assumed she’d stayed home.

“Relaxing for the most part. I worked for a couple of hours this morning, but after that I just took it easy. I even watched a couple of Cary Grant movies.”

“Oh yeah? Which ones?”

An Affair to Remember.”

“With Deborah Kerr?”

“Yep. And then My Favorite Wife.”

“Is that the one with the actress he ended up marrying?”

“No, you’re thinking of Every Girl Should Be Married.”

“If you say so.” He let her in the apartment and ushered her to the guest bedroom. “Ellie said I could look at anything in here. You won’t believe it.”

They stood in the middle of the room, slowly turning to look at the bookcases lining the walls. Ellie organized them according to subject and then alphabetically by last name. She had bookcases labeled for History, which Reid headed toward, and Classics, which drew Stella, along with Fiction, Philosophy, Sciences, and Fine Arts. All the books were in excellent condition for their age. Under the window, Ellie had a bench with pillows for a reading nook. In one corner, a leather chair sat beside a floor lamp for nighttime reading.

Stella held a blue-leather, gold-embossed book in her hands. She drifted to the window bench while she opened it. “She really said we could read anything in here? I think these must be pretty expensive.”

“She told me to help myself. What did you find?”

The Romance of King Arthur.”

“You know you really don’t have time to read the whole thing.”

“Yeah, but I can pretend.”

Reid wandered from one bookcase to the next, his eyes traveling over the titles. He glanced in the closet as he passed and stopped. More bookcases. He flipped on the light. A dehumidifier hummed in the background. These books definitely looked fragile. He read the titles. Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh, the Chronicles of Narnia, and several volumes from the Nancy Drew Mysteries series. He crouched to see the bottom shelf and found a row full of unlabeled books. He drew one randomly and flipped it open.

 

January 20, 1998

Dear Diary,

Today was soooo boring and January is soooo depressing. But Mom made pizza so that’s good at least. Now I have to finish my homework. And more chores. I hate cows.

Love,

Ellie

 

Reid smiled. She’d dotted all of her I’s with little happy faces.

“What’d you find in here?” Stella’s voice just behind him made him spin around in surprise. She smirked at him, glancing down at the book still open in his hands. “You’re reading her diary? That’s just wrong! Put it back where you found it and leave her past alone.”

“Jeez, Stella, calm down. She was just a kid so I’m not reading anything juicy. And I didn’t know what these books were until I opened one. It’s going back, okay?” He put it away where he’d found it. “See? Her secret about hating cows is safe with me. I promise.”

Stella’s frown deepened. “You should know better than most people that childhood can be full of memories that should be left in the past. If you’d read something horrible would you be able to act like you didn’t know when you’re around her again?”

Reid bristled. “Of course I could. If I reacted every time I met an abuser I’d have been thrown in prison a long time ago. I HAVE to act like I don’t know a lot of stuff every time I enter a courtroom. Just like you do.”

“Still, respect her privacy, Reid. These aren’t out in the room for a reason.”

“I put it away, okay?”

“Good. Are you ready to go home? I’ve got an early morning.”

“Just about. I’ll take Misty out one more time. See you at home.”

She kissed him lightly and left.

Reid followed her to the door, then returned to the journals. He could tell from the covers—kitties, iridescent butterflies, horses, and other critters—which ones contained childhood memories. Her teen years were probably in the fluorescent colors. He chose a simple gray book, the first of many volumes, and carried it with him when he took Misty outside.

As the puppy did her business, his gaze wandered around the parking lot. No silver Jetta. Stella’s on her way home. He unzipped his jacket far enough to grab the journal from under his arm then stood under a lamppost to read it. He didn’t notice the silver car parked across the street. Didn’t know Stella had pulled over to take a client’s phone call. Didn’t know she watched him now.

August 26, 2002

Today was the first day of high school. It was as humiliating as it always is. No one ever wants to sit next to me. The good thing is that in English a black girl talked to me. I hope we can become friends. Her name is Tamara but it’s pronounced like ta-marra with the accent on the “m.”

Fingers crossed!

 

August 27, 2002

Tamara and I ate lunch together after English class. At one point, she looked over at me and asked what the heck I’d done to my hair. When I told her I just washed it, she looked surprised and asked me if I had white parents or something. Evidently no one’s told her about me because when I said yes her mouth dropped open. Then she told me to ask my folks if I can go to her house after school so she can show me how to do my hair the right way.

 

August 28, 2002

Well, no surprise. Mom and Dad won’t let me go to Tamara’s house until they meet her parents so they’ve invited them to the farm for dinner on Friday. I want to crawl under a rock and die. I don’t think ANYONE has parents as embarrassing as mine!!!

 

August 29, 2002

Tomorrow night Tamara’s family is coming over and she’s bringing her hair stuff to my house. This should be interesting.

 

August 30, 2002

Wow, where do I start? This morning I got up and Mom was in the kitchen making breakfast. She asked me if I had any suggestions for dinner and I told her to make a roast or something. She asked me if black people like roast and I told her that I thought everyone liked roast. I don’t know if that’s true of everyone but it certainly was of Jeremy and Barbara who were both WHITE! No wonder Tamara’s mouth fell open! She was adopted from New York City when they lived there. Their family just moved back to Missouri this summer. I think I have a best friend for the first time E V E R!!! Oh, and it turns out that I’m not supposed to wash my hair too often. And when I do, I’m supposed to moisturize it with oils so it won’t break off all the time like it does now. Tamara even styled my hair in nice ringlets that she says frame my face. I’m so excited! Someone who’s like me!

Reid skimmed through the rest of the book, but it was pretty boring. Sleepovers, manicures, make-up, and gossip filled the pages. He drove home with the next five volumes in his car.

 

Chapter Five

One Saturday afternoon Stella walked through the door. She wore jeans, a t-shirt, sandals, her hair up in a ponytail, and dark sunglasses.

“Stella!”

She put her hand on her hip. “I’m incognito. How did you recognize me?”

“You forgot the blonde wig.”

“Dang! I knew I forgot something.”

Ellie laughed. “What’s up, girl?”

“You’re sure looking better than the last time I was here.”

“I’m moving to rehab on Monday. I’m pretty sure I won’t look very good once they get their hands on me.”

Stella winced. “That bad, huh?”

Ellie thought about pretending it wouldn’t be a big deal, but she didn’t want to lie about it. “Pretty much. But I want to walk again, so . . .” She shrugged.

“I wish there was something I could do to help.”

“You guys are taking care of Misty for me. I’ll owe you for life just for that.”

“You’ll owe Reid. Not me.” Stella’s lowered lip trembled and she bit down on it.

Ellie reached out and touched her friend’s arm. “Stella, what’s wrong?”

Stella took her sunglasses off. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying. “You know that Reid and I had only dated a couple of months before we met you, right?” Ellie nodded. “So I feel like you’ve been a part of us all along.” She took a deep breath. “And I knew you were in love with Reid.”

Ellie’s hand flew to her mouth and she shook her head rapidly, mortified. How did she know?

Stella pulled Ellie’s hand away from her face and held it pressed between her own. “It’s okay, Ellie. I’ve known almost from the beginning. I’d see the way you looked at him when you didn’t know I could see you. But you never tried to get him away from me. Ever. Did you?”

“I couldn’t do that to you. You were my best friend.”

“I hope we can get that back. But first I wanted to be totally honest with you. I knew why you stopped coming over after we were married. I think Reid wondered about it sometimes, but I understood.” She looked down at Ellie’s hand. “I don’t think I could’ve stepped aside if I were in your shoes. I’m very self-centered sometimes. But you were always the kindest, sweetest, humblest person I knew. Is that why you didn’t tell him? Why you didn’t even try?”

Ellie had to clear her throat and swallow several times before she could speak. “The two of you were perfect for each other. I couldn’t figure out why you let me hang around anyway and I sure didn’t want to lose your friendship.” She squeezed Stella’s hand. “I thought about it a lot. Believe me. But in every scenario, I lost something I couldn’t stand to lose.”

“Not if he’d chosen you.”

Ellie shook her head. “That was the worst of the bad scenarios.”

“How so? You’d have the man you loved.”

“But I’d lose my best friend. Even worse, I’d have betrayed my best friend. How could I live with that guilt? I don’t think I could’ve, which would have driven a wedge between Reid and me, too. I just couldn’t hurt you like that. Besides, how many times do we think we can’t live without something or someone and it turns out we can survive just fine? I moved on, Stella, even though I’ve missed you terribly.”

“I’ve missed you, too, El. There’ve been so many times I wished I could tell you things. But I didn’t want to hurt you. And . . .” She blinked several times, then shook her head and looked out the window. “Never mind. I can’t say it.”

“I thought you said you wanted to be honest with me. You can tell me anything.” They locked eyes. Ellie’s eyebrows rose. “Please?”

Stella let go of Ellie’s hand with a sad smile. She stood and paced the room, fiddling with her pony tail, her face showing the war within. She stopped in front of the sink and stared at her reflection in the mirror. “Do you remember the year I took you for a full makeover for your birthday?”

“Yes.”

“I’d hoped it would give you some confidence if you got a new hair style and learned how to apply your makeup to play up your beautiful face.” She turned toward Ellie. “You had no idea how gorgeous you looked. Then I watched your self-esteem fall even more when Reid didn’t seem to notice. I knew that day how much he loved me because every other man stared at you. Except for him. He told me later that he’d shown you my engagement ring before he asked me and I ached for you again. Especially when he admitted he’d talked you into trying it on to see if it fit.”

Tears streamed down Stella’s face. The pitch of her voice rose as she tried to finish. “I was so jealous of you.” Ellie’s mouth fell open and Stella huffed a laugh, wiping tears from her cheeks. “I knew you’d probably make him so much happier than I could and one time, after Reid and I argued, I almost broke up with him. I came so close to telling him how you felt. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. It was only because I was furious with him that I even considered it. But I still felt, feel, guilty.” She retraced her steps, sitting down beside Ellie and taking her hand again. “I’m so sorry, Ellie.”

“For what? You didn’t do anything but love a man who loved you. And I’m glad, Stella. I’m glad you two are happy.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

Ellie blinked, trying to figure out what to say. “You’re not happy?”

“We argue a lot. This morning I woke up and could tell Reid hadn’t come home last night. I called him. Did you know that he’s been sleeping at your apartment?”

NO! I had no idea!” Ellie’s stomach churned.

Stella squeezed her hand. “He says he’s not sleeping in your bed. He says he’s been staying because Misty’s been so lonely. And I believe that’s true to some extent. But today I accused him of running away from our problems and he lashed out. He said that both places had bitches living in them but only one of them was hard to live with.”

Ellie’s blood boiled. He’d called her friend and her dog a bitch! Granted, Misty was a female dog, but still.

“Are you mad at me?” Stella’s voice dropped to a near whisper. “Because I know I deserve that.”

“I’m mad at Reid. I hope you said something back.”

Stella’s gaze fell to the floor. “I told him maybe he should just move in with you permanently.”

Stella!”

 “Well I didn’t really mean it.”

“Does he know that?”

“Yes. We’ve talked since then and he’s bringing Misty to our house for a while today so she can get out and we can work through this.”

“Good. You know, if Misty’s causing problems between you two, I can ask my parents to take her to the farm for me. I had no idea I’d be here this long, Stella. Honestly. Or I wouldn’t have asked you guys to help with her.”

“I have to admit, when your dad called and said you’d asked for Reid, my first thought was that maybe you’d decided to try for him after all. But you’re still the same, aren’t you? You could barely look at him when we were here the last time.” Ellie nodded. “So why did you ask for him?”

“I don’t remember doing that. My parents say I told them to call Reid, but I don’t recall it at all.”

“Even subconsciously you’re in love with him.”

“I’m not in love with him, Stella. He’s a married man. I gave him up a long time ago. I want you two to be happy and have kids and all of that. I’m still hopeful I’ll find someone who isn’t too picky about piddly things like legs that are the same length and who finds scarring attractive.” She winked. “It could happen, right?”

Stella laughed. “So it wouldn’t bother you to see him on a regular basis again? Because I really miss you.”

“I think I could probably handle it. Do you think he could handle three bitches?”

Stella giggled, relief evident on her face. “I sure hope not. It’ll be way more fun.”

* * *

The next morning Ellie’s parents showed up after breakfast to spend the day with her. It had been two weeks since she’d seen them. As soon as her mother walked in, she understood why. Every step caused obvious pain and when she smiled, only half her face worked.

Fear locked Ellie’s body down. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. Her heart raced in her chest and she felt nauseous. Mom’s had a stroke! The door swung open again and her father rushed in.

“I told you to wait for me, babe!” He helped his wife to a chair, then turned to Ellie. “Your Mom has Lyme disease, sweetie. We just got the diagnosis yesterday and she’s on antibiotics, but it’ll take a while for all of the symptoms to go away.”

Ellie put a hand on her chest, trying to slow her heart rate. “But she’ll be okay? Eventually?”

“That’s what her doctors say. And you’ll never hear it from me, but your mother can be stubborn at times.” He winked at his wife.

Her gaze travelled to her mother. “You wouldn’t let Dad tell me you were sick?”

“We didn’t want you to worry. You have enough to deal with.” Her mother spoke slower than usual and her words slurred a bit, but Ellie understood. Anger flared within her.

“I know why you kept it from me, Mom. But if I got Lyme, would you be okay if I didn’t tell you?” Her words and the sharp tone in her voice betrayed her irritation.

Her father knelt beside her mother’s chair, taking her hand as tears formed in her eyes. “You’ve got a point, Ellie, and we’ll take that into consideration if something like this ever happens again, but we are your parents and we still have a responsibility to look out for you the best way we can. Your mother wasn’t hospitalized. She wasn’t dying. We did what we thought was right.”

Ellie accepted the admonition. She’d over-reacted and hurt her mother in the process. “You’re right, Dad, and I’m sorry. Mom, will you forgive me? I was scared and then angry, but I should’ve kept my mouth shut. I love you.”

“Of course I forgive you. I love you too.” Her mother leaned forward to squeeze Ellie’s hand.

“All right, enough of that mushy stuff.” He reached behind him. “Ellie, I brought your favorite card game, Mille Bornes! And I’m going to attempt to break my previous record of coup-fourrés.”

Ellie groaned. Mille Bornes was her dad’s favorite game, not hers. And if he broke his previous record, it wouldn’t be much fun for her mother and her. But within a few minutes, the three of them were laughing and razzing each other around the table like they had while she lived at home.

They ordered Chinese food delivered for supper that evening and had just finished eating when Ellie’s favorite therapy dog arrived with Reid. Misty licked at Ellie’s face for a few seconds before she turned her attention to the leftover rice on her plate.

After several minutes of chit-chat between the four of them, her dad announced that it was time for them to head home. Reid took Misty for a quick walk while they said their goodbyes.

“Mom, please take care of yourself. Rest, as often as you need to. Please?”

“I’ll try, sweetie, I promise.”

“Dad, you’ll make her rest, right?”

Her father laughed. “When have I ever been able to make her do anything she didn’t want to do?”

“Drive safely and let me know when you get home. We all know how dangerous those back roads can be.”

“We will. But it’ll be after ten before we’re home.”

“I’ll be up. You guys take care of each other until I see you again.”

“Okay, sweetie. We love you!”

“Love you two, too!” Her mom and dad laughed. Her forehead furrowed at the awkward alliteration then she shrugged it off.

When Reid came back in, Ellie played with Misty while they talked about her parents and her mother’s illness. Reid had gotten to know them a little during the weeks he’d been caring for Misty.

“Stella said she saw you yesterday.” Reid shifted in his seat.

“Yeah and I’m so glad she stopped by. She said you’ve had to sleep at my house because of Misty. You know I can get Miss Ruby to check on her at night. You don’t have to go to all that trouble.”

“The first time it happened I was watching TV on your couch and Misty fell asleep on my chest. I figured I’d finish NCIS and leave. I woke up a little after five.”

“I can’t believe you fell asleep during NCIS.”

“I know, now I’ll have to watch that episode again because I don’t know what happened to Ziva.”

“I love Ziva. I hated when—”

He held up a hand. “Don’t tell me anything. I’m only on the eighth season.”

“Oh. Wait, have you been watching my DVDs too?” Irritation swelled inside her. She hadn’t thought it would get so complicated having someone watch her dog. Of course, she often wondered why they didn’t just take her to their house. Maybe Stella kept an immaculate home and didn’t want the puppy messing it up.

“No, I brought mine from home. Why? Do you own all of them?”

“Yes. I guess you can watch mine if you don’t want to buy them.”

“Thanks but I think I want them all in my collection. And speaking of collections, I love your barn photography. Especially the center one. It’s your home isn’t it?”

Ellie smiled. “Yes, but how did you know I took them?”

“I guessed, but I also saw your cameras in the bag by your desk.”

The conversation had gone from okay to a little creepy. She wondered what else he’d gone through in her home.

“Okay, that freaked you out a little, I can tell. I promise I’m not going through your stuff.”

She sighed. “That’s good. I think you’d be freaked out too if I went to your house and started looking through your things without your permission.”

“Point taken.” He held his hand up, palm toward her. “I solemnly swear not to look through anything else in your home.”

She nodded. “Thank you.”

“Okay, don’t freak out some more, but I did have to go in your bedroom and remove that little devil,” he pointed to Misty, “from on top of your bed. She made a mess, but I cleaned it up and pulled the door shut so she couldn’t get in anymore.”

“Did you close the guest room door too?”

“Yes. And you should know that it took a great deal of self-control not to go snooping in there.”

“I give you permission to snoop away in the guest room. I just don’t want Misty to chew up anything in there. I’ve been buying those old books since high school. Some of them are irreplaceable.”

His face lit up. “You just made my night!” He looked at his watch and yawned. “Is it time to go?”

Ellie laughed, kissed Misty on her head, and handed her to Reid. “Thanks for bringing her tonight. She’s actually great therapy.”

“Glad to do it. I didn’t know if you’d be allowed visitors during rehab so I figured this might be her last shot until you’re released. What are your plans when you’re finally free?”

“I’ll probably head out to the farm for a couple of weeks. I’m not sure when I’ll be released to go back to work. Tomorrow I’m supposed to get my arm cast off. I’ve been told my wrist and elbow will be locked up from not moving for the past eight weeks. And I’ve got to have both arms before I can get around on crutches.” She touched her nose. “At least I had a good plastic surgeon to fix my face.”

“You sure did! I almost didn’t recognize you without that Jimmy Durante nose.”

Ellie looked at Misty. “If you love me, you’ll bite him now.”

Reid laughed. “Well, take care, Ellie. I’d better get Misty home before Miss Ruby chews me out. You’ve got a good watchdog living next door.”

“She’s a great neighbor. Thanks again for bringing Misty over. I owe you big time.”

“Yeah, well, you might have to bring dynamite to get me out of your guest room.”

Ellie narrowed her eyes. “I have a coworker with a Rottweiler named Dynamite.”

Reid tucked Misty under his arm, protectively. “Don’t worry, she’d never do that to us. Dynamite would eat you for lunch.”

“Goodbye Reid.” Her dry tone made him smile.

After he left Ellie fell back on her pillows, exhausted. It had been a long but enjoyable day. And she’d managed to carry on a conversation with Reid that wasn’t too uncomfortable. That was progress.

 

Chapter Four

Two weeks after her accident, the door to Ellie’s room opened. Two people and a black rug entered.

“Oh my gosh! Stella! Reid! Misty! Wow, do you need to see the groomer or what?” The puppy danced around the room, sniffing at everything.

Stella laughed and turned to Reid. “I’m pretty sure that comment was only meant for Misty, but I’m calling my stylist when we get back to the car.” She winked at Ellie, who returned the gesture.

Misty tracked Ellie’s scent to the bed, clawing the sheets and jumping as high as she could until Reid picked her up and held her out to Ellie.

As excited to see the dog as the dog was to see her, Ellie let the pup lick her face a few times and them pulled away. “Reid, Stella, thanks so much for taking care of this little troublemaker for me. I hope she hasn’t been too horrible for you guys.”

Stella rounded the bed and bent over to hug Ellie. “She hasn’t been any trouble for me, but then Reid’s the one who’s been puppy-sitting for you. It’s so good to see you, El. It’s been waaaay too long.”

“It has, hasn’t it? You look fabulous, girl!”

Stella laughed. “Wish I could say the same for you. Ouch!”

Ellie squirmed, knowing she was teasing her, but also knowing it was true. “I know. I’m a mess. What I wouldn’t give for a real bath. But how did you guys sneak her in here?”

“No sneaking, required.” Reid spoke for the first time and hearing his voice after so long gave Ellie goosebumps. “I got your little monster here a job as a therapy dog.” He smiled, tousling the black mop on Misty’s head. “I’m sure everyone will love her, if she can learn to keep her tongue to herself.”

“Good luck with that.” Stella swiped her hands down her face, then looked at her fingers as if she could see the germs on them.

“Awww, don’t let them give you a complex, Misty. You’re perfect.” Ellie planted a kiss on the puppy’s head. Deep brown eyes stared out from under a fringe of black hair. Eyes that always melted her heart. Eyes that looked so similar and yet so different from Murphy’s. How he’d stared at her that last time, lifting his paw for her to see. Had he wanted her to fix it? She couldn’t do anything but look into his liquid brown eyes and tell him she loved him and that help would be there soon. He’d laid his head on her shoulder for a few minutes so she could scratch his ears before he went back to his makeshift bed.

“Ellie? Are you in pain? Do you want me to buzz the nurse?” Stella’s eyes searched Ellie’s, distress evident on her face.

“What? Oh,” Ellie wiped the tears away. “I’m always in pain, Stella. I can’t have morphine anymore and I’m trying to wean myself off the other stuff.” Why did Murphy’s death haunt her? “But I’m okay. I’m handling it as best I can. Did I zone out?”

“Yeah, Reid asked how important those red high-heels are to you?”

Ellie glared at the puppy. “You didn’t.”

“She most definitely did.” Reid grimaced. “She figured out how to knock the dog gate down, too. It’s in pieces in the dumpster. Small, chewed-up pieces.”

“Oh no. I named you wrong. I should have called you Miss D, as in demon.”

Stella chuckled. “Cute. So her name’s really Miss T?”

Ellie nodded. “Yes, T as in Trouble. But it sounds like Misty so that’s what I call her.”

Stella’s phone buzzed in her purse. She glanced at the screen and held a finger up, an apologetic look on her face. Ellie nodded and Stella left the room.

Ellie’s nerves kicked in. Being alone with Reid, even after nine years, still frazzled her. She cleared her throat. “So . . . other than my red shoes, have there been any other casualties?”

Reid’s focus had drifted to her cast-encased leg. “Other than the gate, you mean?”

“Yes. Anything else?”

His eyes locked on hers. “If you had any secrets in the trash, they’re safe.”

Ellie groaned. “I bet that was fun to clean up. Anything else?”

Stella returned to talk with Reid. “I’m afraid I’ve got to get back to work. You ready to go?”

“Sure.”

“Okay, I’m going to run to the restroom.” She hugged Ellie. “I’ll be back soon. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“I agree. Thanks for coming, Stella.”

“Love you sweetie. Heal fast.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Stella paused at the door, winked at Ellie, then turned to Reid. “I’ll meet you at the car?”

“Yep, I’ll pull up to the front doors.” After Stella left, Reid turned back to Ellie, holding Misty close so she could say her goodbyes.

“You be good, you little devil.” She rubbed the pup’s silky ears and got licked in the face in return. “Thanks again, Reid. It was probably quite a shock to get that call from my dad.”

He shrugged. “Maybe at first. I couldn’t figure out why you wouldn’t ask for Stella instead of me. But it’s not important. I’m glad to help you. I haven’t been much of a friend so I’m trying to make up for that by spoiling your puppy until she’s unmanageable.” His smile was evil.

“Don’t you dare! I’ll dump her on your doorstep and make you live with the consequences!”

“You know I’m teasing. Maybe I’ll teach her some tricks and surprise you.”

“Good luck. She’s stubborn like her owner.”

“She’s a sweetheart like her owner.”

Ellie’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Reid had only complimented her once, sort of, about her hair. She felt uncomfortable, but laughed it off. “Nice try, mister. I’ll still dump her on you if you don’t watch it.”

Reid laughed. “I’ll be good. Take care, Ellie.” His hand squeezed her shoulder.

“Okay. Bye.”

He walked out the door and her head fell back on her pillow. She stared at the ceiling. Maybe it felt awkward because it had been so many years. Then again, Reid seemed to actually want to talk to her today. In the past, he only spoke to her if he needed something.

Stella, on the other hand, hadn’t changed. She was still beautiful, her dark red hair twisted up in a French knot. Ellie hadn’t realized how much she missed her friend until she showed up today. Maybe when she got out of the hospital, she’d plan a girls’ night out for the two of them.

Ellie buzzed the nurse and asked for a pain pill. Several minutes later she returned, spilling an oval-shaped pill Ellie had never seen before into her hand. “What’s this?”

“Your doctor prescribed a narcotic.” She held up a hand, cutting Ellie off before she could get a word out. “Ellie you just had surgery two days ago. You’ve got to be in constant pain.”

“I want to get out of here. I want to go home. I figure that will happen faster if I’m not drugged up all the time.”

“Pain stresses us out, too. You have to rest in order to heal. Take this so you can sleep well.”

Ellie sighed. “I hardly ever take over-the-counter pain killers,” she grumbled. The nurse handed her the humongous glass of water which always sat on her bed tray. Ellie took a moment to analyze the pain. She probably couldn’t sleep well until it eased up a bit. So, with one last dirty look directed at the nurse, she swallowed the pill.

The nurse smiled. “You are probably the sweetest, most-compliant patient I’ve ever had. Except when it comes to taking your meds.” She shook her head. “Try to sleep now. I’ll check in on you in an hour or so.”

Ellie drifted off, suddenly exhausted.

Reid appeared in her dreams again. He and Ellie walked hand-in-hand around the farm where she’d grown up, kissing in the barn and beside the spring-fed stream that ran through the property. They saw Murphy, hiding in the tree line, and she called to him. He raced toward them at full speed and Ellie laughed, knowing he’d come right up to them before he swerved off. He’d played this game with her all his life.

Ellie watched, spellbound, whenever he ran full-out like that. He was glorious and graceful, especially in the moments when all four paws were off the ground—two stretched out in front with one slowly falling, preparing to touch down and start the sequence again, and two stretched out in back where they’d just left the earth. His mouth was open, tongue lolling out to the side. He looked like he was smiling at her.

Tears filled her eyes. “Oh, Murphy.” She and Reid stood side-by-side. Murphy would swerve any second. Ellie watched the Border Collie alter his gait, gathering his hindquarters under him like he did whenever he jumped. Was he going to try to leap over them? Ellie ducked, trying to drag Reid down with her but he let go of her hand. Murphy, growling ferociously, lunged for Reid’s throat.

“No, Murphy!” Her eyes popped open.

Ellie looked around, trying to get her bearings again. She was still in the hospital. All of her lights were off, but she could see from the light coming in under the door. It must be the middle of the night.

She closed her eyes, trying to recover from the nightmare. Seeing Reid earlier that day had obviously brought back the dreams. Maybe she’d always have those “what if” kinds of dreams where the two of them had a life together. But the accident had changed her. She no longer wanted to pine for someone she could never have. She wanted to be happy and content.

The first thing she would do when she went home is grab those journals, take them to the farm, and burn them. After that, she would do some serious thinking about the present as well as the future. If she could do anything, what would it be? Ellie fell asleep thinking perhaps it was time to empty her guest room.

Chapter Three

A jarring sound shattered her peacefulness. No! No, no, no, no, no! Ellie tried to get back to the quiet but a bright light hurt her eyes. “Elanor Thompson? Elanor? Can you hear me? Elanor!” She tried to shield her eyes and heard him shout “She’s alive!”

She faded in and out, too exhausted to feel relief or frustration at the voices talking around her. She just didn’t care. She tried to respond when a woman asked where the dog went. They’d found Murphy’s body. Would they just discard him? She wanted to bury him out on the farm. But her mouth couldn’t form the words and she slipped away again.

The sound of a machine revving up jolted her awake. Right on top of that overwhelming noise, the loud screech of metal being sawn apart caused her to cover one ear and grit her teeth. A couple of blankets covered her, as well as something heavier that pressed her down. In spite of the noise, she couldn’t stay awake for long. Sleep was so peaceful.

Fingers probing her neck woke her up again. Her eyelids felt so heavy, but she forced them open. A man crouched beside her. She saw him clearly in the light of a new day.  

“Elanor Thompson?” A low, friendly voice asked.

“Yes,” she croaked. She tried to swallow. “Water?”

“We’ll have you out as soon as possible. We have to stabilize you before we can move you.”

She squeezed her eyes closed as her heart pounded with fear. She still felt no pain, but she remembered the agony she’d endured before. She had a feeling her reprieve was almost over.

The paramedic worked quickly, putting a brace around her neck, immobilizing her head, shoulders and torso. It hadn’t hurt at all, so she hoped maybe her pain block would continue. Maybe he’d given her a shot while she slept? She sighed.

Then he looked her in the eye. “I’m sorry, Elanor, but this next part is probably going to be tough. Just hang on and we’ll get you something for the pain.” She took a deep breath and bit down on her lower lip.

It didn’t help. As soon as he touched her arm, she screamed in agony. She’d thought the pain before was bad. That was nothing compared to what she felt now.

“Stop! Oh God, please make it stop!” she sobbed, trying to push him away.

He caught her arm and strapped it down beside her hip. A stiff board held her head motionless as well. “Elanor, fighting me will only jar your broken arm more. Calm down and let me finish so I can get you something for the pain.”

“Sorry, sorry, sorry. Oh God, it hurts so bad. Please, please hurry.”  

“I’m trying to. Hang on.”

She tried to hold still for him, all the while begging that he’d just leave her and let her die.

“I’ve stabilized as much as I can from this position. We’re going to have to lift you out now.”

“Just let me rest for a few minutes, please. I don’t know how much more I can take.”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t do that. We need to get you to the hospital, Elanor.”

“Ellie. Just call me Ellie.”

“Okay, Ellie. Just a few more minutes and we’ll have you out of here.”Someone touched her foot and she screamed again. Pain shot through her, making her teeth and every inch of her skin ache in a sudden, overwhelming crescendo of fire.

* * *

Ellie woke in the ambulance. She had an oxygen mask over her face and an IV bag hanging near her head. Her pain continued to be severe and she moaned.

A man leaned over her, into her line-of-sight. “I’m sorry, Ellie, but the doctor won’t authorize any pain meds until you’ve been evaluated. You could have internal injuries. We’re only a few minutes from the hospital. Hang in there. You’re doing great.”

She licked her lips, noticing a funny taste in her mouth. The ambulance braked quickly and hit a large bump. She felt it magnified through all of the broken places in her body and begged them for something to help with the pain.

“We’re almost there. You’re doing great, Ellie.”

Her eyes drifted closed and her body felt heavy all over. She welcomed the respite from the pain but wanted to tell him something, just in case. “If I die, please tell my parents that I love them. And tell them to take Misty to Reid. He’ll find her a good home.”

“You’re not going to die,” the paramedic said. “You can tell your parents yourself when you see them.”

Ellie fought back the heaviness for a few moments. “But it hurts so much. I’m not sure I want to live anymore.”

“Keep fighting, Ellie. The pain won’t last much longer. We’re almost to the hospital.”

“Misty, my dog. She won’t understand why I’m gone.” She sighed. “Oh Murphy.”

* * *

Ellie drifted in a fog of medication. She knew she was in a hospital and, in her few waking moments, recognized her father and mother. They’d told her she’d broken her left arm, shattered her left ankle, and cracked three ribs. The doctors said it was a miracle she hadn’t punctured a lung. She had multiple lacerations on her face, arms, and chest. Her nose was indeed broken. And she had a concussion which explained the mini seizures she’d had while she was pinned in the Mustang.

She’d already had two surgeries to place a plate and screws in her ankle and pins in her arm. She would need plastic surgery on her face after the swelling went down. It was a lot to handle with the pain and the drugs, not to mention the guilt she felt every time her father came to visit her. She knew he had to hire someone to milk the cows, but whenever she tried to bring it up, they’d shut her down with reassurances that these sorts of things were precisely why emergency funds existed.

The fourth day after she’d arrived at the hospital, she asked her mom who was taking care of her dog. Her mother smiled; her father rolled his eyes. The look they exchanged said a lot.

“I’ve asked you this before, haven’t I?”

“Yes, sweetie, several times.” Her mother winked.

“Several hundred times, you mean.” Her dad teased.

“Reid picked Misty up the same day your dad called him. I’m sure he’s taking excellent care of her.”

Ellie blinked, confused. “I told you to ask Reid to take care of Misty for me?”

“Yes, dear. Don’t you remember?”

She shook her head. 

“You told us over and over that Reid would know what to do. So your father called him and asked him to look after her. Miss Ruby has been meeting him at your apartment. He really is a very nice man, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, he is. He must think I’m a nutcase, though, to ask him to take care of my dog out-of-the-blue like that. I hope she’s being good for them.”

“Of course she is. You’ve trained her so well, sweetie.”

“Mmhmmm,” she replied, distracted.

Her stomach churned. Something was wrong; something that was unsettling about the fact that Reid had been in her home. And, like a splinter buried just out of reach, she couldn’t dig up the answer.

* * *

Later that evening Miss Ruby unlocked Ellie’s apartment to let Reid in but she didn’t open the door. “Wouldn’t it be easier if you just took the dog home with you? She’s got to be lonely here alone all day long. I don’t think that’s what Ellie had in mind.”

“Ellie works during the day, too, doesn’t she?” Reid waited for her answer. Miss Ruby nodded. “So the pup’s used to it. I play with her every night before I leave.” He cleared his throat. “You know, what would make this easier would be if you loaned me Ellie’s key. Her dad has been here vouching for me, and I’ll give it back as soon as Ellie’s home.”

Miss Ruby’s eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips. Finally she shook a finger up at him. “You better take good care of that dog. If you let anything happen to her, you’ll have Ellie and me to answer to.”

“Don’t worry, Ma’am,” Reid said, holding out his hand for the key, “I’ll take great care of her until Ellie comes home. I’ll spoil her until she’s impossible to live with. He smiled down at the diminutive old woman.          

“I don’t think that dog could get any more spoiled,” she retorted. “But it sounds like you’ve got the right idea.” She paused. “Are you married?” She pointed at his empty ring finger.

“Yeah, I just can’t seem to keep track of my wedding ring. I’ve lost it three times now.”

“Fiddlesticks! I’d hoped Ellie had finally met someone when I saw you here with her father.”

He chuckled. “Ellie and I went to college together, but we were only friends. She’s always been too good at judging a person’s character to fall for someone like me. But, thanks for the key, Miss Ruby. You’ll get it back.”

He opened the door to Ellie’s apartment to find that the little fur ball had broken down the dog gate and made a huge mess. It looked like she’d found every trash can in the apartment and emptied their contents, one tissue or piece of paper at a time, on the living room carpet. Then she’d shredded all of it.

Thankfully, she’d returned to the kitchen to do her business on her puppy housetraining pads. Reid was proud of himself for that find. No more big messes spread out on the kitchen floor. He just wadded up the used pad and put a new one down every day. Ingenious invention!

He looked around as he circled the apartment picking up after the dog. For the past three days, he’d cleaned up the puppy’s mess and taken her for a walk, unable to handle to stench in the apartment, but those puppy pads must have a deodorizer built in because he couldn’t smell anything today. Either that or he was getting used to the smell.

Reid had never been in any of Ellie’s dorm rooms when they were in college or in any of her apartments afterward. He liked what he saw. Ellie had a well-decorated, very inviting home. She evidently liked antiques and had purchased some beautiful pieces that blended well with the rest of her slip-covered furniture.

Her wall art consisted mostly of nature photography—waterfalls, flowers, mountains and streams—with one exception. Reid crossed the living room to study the photos. This wall appeared to be an important one to Ellie. It had an antique desk pushed up against it, with her writing materials carefully arranged. A bulky black bag sat on the floor near his feet.

Pulling her chair out, he sat down at the desk, trying to see the wall the way she would. He vaguely remembered her saying she’d grown up on a farm but it had never crossed his mind that she might miss it. Now he sat at her desk studying each picture and appreciating the simple beauty of the subject. Each photo was a tribute to a country barn.

Some looked new, with bright, barn-red paint. Others looked older, with chipped, faded paint. And the largest one, which occupied the center spot right above her desk, looked old, but well maintained. Its doors were standing wide open and a gray-haired man, driving an old John Deere tractor, was emerging through them. The picture had been taken in the fall. The leaves were a riot of reds, yellows and oranges. Low mountains trailed off into the distance. It was an entrancing, tranquil scene.

He looked around the room again. So many photos, but all within a theme.  Something clicked in his mind and he turned back to the black bag, hoisting it up onto the desk. She hadn’t zipped it closed the last time she’d used it. Inside were two digital cameras and several different lenses. He picked up the first one, a very nice Nikon, and was tempted to turn it on to see her photos. He put it away and picked up the other one, an even more intimidating Canon. She would probably laugh at his little auto-focus Fuji. He put the second camera away, closed the bag, and set it back where she had left it. He leaned back to admire the photo over her desk—the one he felt sure must be of her parent’s farm—with awe and a little jealousy that she had a place like that to go back to.

He got up to continue his clean-up when a bright color caught his eye. A red, high-heeled shoe. A chewed up, red, high-heeled shoe to be precise, which was lying on its side in the hallway. He hoped those shoes hadn’t been favorites. He’d gotten distracted by the photos, but now he followed the trail of destruction into the bedroom and found the miscreant on top of Ellie’s bed. She was lying across a book. A book with chewed corners, no less. He grabbed a corner and whipped it out from under the dog; Misty did one complete roll and landed back on her feet, tail wagging energetically.

“If you don’t cut this out, you’re going to get us both into trouble.” Misty cocked her head to one side and Reid plopped down on the bed beside her. He stroked her long, silky ears, laughing when her back foot pawed at the air. He stopped, the pawing stopped. She waited to see if he would continue. When he didn’t, she turned around a few times and curled into a ball on top of her pillow.

Reid looked back at the book he’d probably have to replace. But it wasn’t a book, it was her journal. A lavender ribbon, frayed at the end, had fallen out of it. He flipped through the book to find her last entry, where the ribbon should go, but something caught his eye. His name.  

A small part of his brain warned him that what he was reading was personal and not meant to be read by anyone other than the author. But it fell open to the day he’d shown her Stella’s engagement ring, and reading his words—spoken without thinking—and her reactions drew him further in. He read past his wedding day, understanding for the first time why she didn’t come over anymore.

He leafed through the earlier part of the journal, finding the day they met and reading his name where she’d written it for the first time. He read through the entire journal, could see—through her words— his metamorphosis from “jerk” to friend and then to what she wished could have been so much more. All those years and she hadn’t said a single word. Never letting on, because—as she wrote— that would have betrayed Stella and she wouldn’t have been able to handle that guilt

Guilt. That was the emotion he felt most intensely now. For as he read their interactions from her perspective he saw how unknowingly callous he’d been toward her. She was just a girlfriend of Stella’s. An unwanted girlfriend, often enough. How many times had he begged Stella not to invite her to something because he saw her as a distraction or maybe even competition for Stella’s attention? Now he wished he could go back and do things differently.

His attention drifted around the room. Her bedroom was a mix of blues and whites, and more antiques. The bed frame was cast iron with thin black spindles and copper accents. It looked like it belonged in an Audrey Hepburn movie. There was a blue, yellow and white quilt folded across the foot of the bed, with a plain white one covering the blue floral sheets. The pillows—and there were a lot of them—were a jumble of solid blue, floral blue and blue ticking stripes. He couldn’t believe they all went together, but somehow they did.

The walls were painted a very pale blue. Her windows were rivers of sheer white material flowing from black iron rods into a white puddle on the wood floors below. There was a massive oak wardrobe on one wall. And instead of photos, there were vivid watercolor paintings hanging on these walls.

A black bundle of fur jumped up at him and he fell on the bed. “Misty, no!” She darted back and forth, licking his face with her small pink tongue. He rolled to his side, laughing. She got in several good swipes at his nose, chin and ears before he could restrain her. “Yuck! Enough already.”

He rolled onto his back again, holding the little dog in both hands above him. Her small head was hanging down toward him, tongue still lapping and all four legs pawing the air as she tried to reach him again.

“C’mon, girl. Let’s go for our walk.” He tucked her under one arm and left the now-rumpled room.

* * *

Later that evening, Ellie awoke from one of her many naps to find her parents sitting in chairs next to her bed. Her mom looked like she’d been crying and that made Ellie nervous. “Mom, what’s wrong?”

Her mother looked to her father, who gave her the go-ahead-and-tell-her nod. Her mother took a deep breath, set her shoulders, and blew out her breath in a huff. “We have some bad news. Your dad has been out at the scene of the accident every day calling for him, but he hasn’t showed up. We think maybe Murphy’s . . . gone.”

Ellie frowned and her father touched her cheek, drawing her attention to him. “Don’t worry, baby, I’ll keep searching for as long as you want me to.”

Ellie blinked up at him. “Murphy died before I was rescued, Dad.”

“What? Oh, no honey. He was alive. The paramedics said he led them to you.”

“Murphy did?”

“The paramedics described him perfectly. Black and white Border Collie with a blue, reflective collar.” Her dad looked down. “They said he wasn’t using one of his front paws. He had a pretty bad cut on the injured one, but when they tried to catch him, he ran away.”

“He might have left so he could . . . go . . . alone. Some dogs like to be alone at the end.” Her mom had tears in her eyes again.

Ellie nodded. “It’s okay, Dad. You don’t have to go back looking for him. I’ll go one last time when I’m able to. Thanks for trying to find him, though. I love you both. So very much.”

“I’m sorry we couldn’t find him for you. I know how much you loved him.” Her dad’s voice was gruff with emotion.

Ellie closed her eyes. “I did love him. I always will.” Tears slipped from beneath her closed eyelids and Ellie calmed her breathing so her parents would think she was asleep. She couldn’t talk anymore. Murphy had led the paramedics to her? Had she dreamed he’d died and he’d actually escaped to save her life? She vividly recalled touching his cold body and seeing him curled in that ball for hours before she was rescued the next morning. If he’d been alive, surely she’d have known it. So how did he lead the rescuers to her? She fell asleep trying to figure out what had happened.