Chapter Fourteen

As it turned out, Ellie didn’t have even one day in preparation for her talk with Reid. When her father pulled into the driveway, a black convertible sat in front of the garage.

“Oh no! Ellie, Reid’s here. I didn’t know he was coming, I promise.” Stella looked panicked.

“Dad, can you give us a minute?” Her father nodded and left them alone in the truck. “Stella, it’s okay. I’ll talk to him today and then you guys can go out like you’d planned.”

“But I haven’t gotten the present and card and stuff.”

“Then you have to decide if you can keep it a secret until you can get them or if telling him now is more important to you. I won’t say a word, of course.”

“Okay. Shoot, here he comes. I guess I’ll just wing it and see what happens.”

Reid jogged over to the truck, opened Stella’s door, pulled her out, and threw his arms around her. “Hey, baby. I’ve missed you.” He buried his face in her neck. “I’m so sorry,” Ellie heard him whisper. Stella was hugging him back. Then their arms loosened and he was kissing her. Ellie looked away. Should she just wait in the car or get out the other door since her side was blocked by their bodies? She started to scoot to the other side when her door opened.

“Hi Ellie,” Reid held out a hand for her. She took it and he helped her out of the truck. “I, um, guess we need to talk.” She nodded. Stella was climbing the front steps to the porch. She looked over her shoulder once before she opened the screen door and walked inside the house.

Would this day never end? Ellie was exhausted from the full day, probably the busiest she’d had since she came home. She limped toward the porch, her leg was screaming at her, and stumbled when it buckled beneath her. Reid caught her before she hit the ground, then picked her up and carried her to the porch. Her face burned with embarrassment. She hoped Stella couldn’t see them right now. She’d imagine all sorts of inappropriate things.

“Thank you,” Ellie said when he set her feet on the porch. “Can we do it out here?” That sounded wrong. “Talk, I mean.” C’mon Ellie, pull it together.

“Sure, if you want.”

“Or maybe we should go somewhere more private, so my parents can’t hear anything.” That didn’t sound right either. “Accidentally. I don’t think they’d purposely listen in.”

He held up one hand to stop her. “Is there somewhere close by that you’d prefer?”

“Ummm,” she considered her nature sanctuary, but that was too personal. “No, not really.”

“We could go somewhere else on the farm here, in my car, if that’s okay.”

“Okay, yeah, I guess that’d be fine. Let me text Stella so she doesn’t panic.” She fired off the text while he brought the car up to the porch. “Thanks,” she said as she plopped down into the low seat of the Jaguar. “I forgot you guys had this car.”

“I’ll never sell this baby. Stella and I love this car.”

Ellie wondered if that would still be the case in about nine months. “It’s a beauty.” Ellie pointed him in the direction of the barn. She figured it would be as non-romantic a place as possible and she didn’t want to be in the car while they talked.

He followed the dirt road around to the barn. “Just park here, it’s fine,” she said.

“All right.” He did as she suggested. He had to help her out of the car, though. Her leg wouldn’t cooperate. “Do you want me to carry you in?” She bit down on her lip, trying to decide whether she’d make it on her own. He scooped her up and started walking. Could she just sleep out here so he wouldn’t have to touch her any more after they talked? Why was her own body betraying her?

“There you go.” He set her down inside the barn. “That leg’s still giving you trouble, huh?”

She rubbed her thigh and winced. “It’s doing better every day. But today I’ve been on it too much.” She sat on a hay bale and rubbed her way down to the ankle. She was stalling. How was she going to do this?

He finally sat down beside her. “Ellie, I’m really, really sorry I betrayed you by reading your journals. It was a despicable thing to do to you.” He leaned forward, elbows on knees and hands clasped in front of him.

Minutes dragged by. He didn’t move. “I don’t know how to go forward from this,” she finally said. “How do we act like you don’t know what you never should have found out?”

“Looking back, I wonder how I could have been so clueless. But I’ve come to realize that while you may have been in love with me, you loved Stella even more. That’s what I noticed about you. Your devotion to her. That’s why I never questioned why you hung around with us. I always figured it was because of her.”

She’d been staring at him while he spoke. It was strange seeing him in the world she grew up in. He seemed very out-of-place in his dress shirt and slacks sitting on a hay bale inside an old barn. Still handsome, though. And he still smelled fantastic.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you hadn’t read my diaries and I don’t know why things have turned out like they have. Maybe because you have to make choices when you’re in a relationship. Maybe there’ll be some other woman along the way who will want you and maybe she’ll let you know that. What will you do? Are you going to stay with Stella or are you only with her until someone else catches your eye?” He didn’t answer; he was still staring out into the barn. “If I said I still loved you, what would you do?”

His head turned slowly until he was looking straight into her eyes. “Do you?” She swallowed. He sat up and his whole body turned toward her until their knees touched. The moment of truth. “Do you still love me, Ellie?”

No,” she whispered. A lie, because the truth would’ve ripped them all apart.

Reid’s eyes seemed to grow in size until Ellie realized he was leaning toward her. Slowly, waiting to judge her reaction. If she did nothing, she could picture it all happening. The kiss, the first one, the next one. The ones that would make her forget everything she thought she knew about herself.

If things had been different, if he hadn’t been in love with her best friend, would there have been any chance with him? It was there for a moment, this alternate life.

Unconsciously she’d been moving just as slowly away from him; her head and shoulders bumped the wall behind her. What about her own morals? Did she believe some things were wrong, like kissing a married man, or was everything all right if it was what your heart wanted?

Her hand came up. Her hand against his chest. A little pressure. It didn’t take much. He stopped. Waited a few long seconds to see if she would change her mind. And turned away.

Maybe Reid was a great man for Stella, but he was definitely the wrong man for her. She’d made her decision. The rightness of it flooded through her. It swallowed up the little bit of regret that tried to surface. Drowned it until it was gone. Forever.

“No,” she said again. The truth, because the lie had been revealed. “The Ellie who was in love with you died in an automobile accident earlier this summer.”

His eyes found hers again and she tried to read his face. He didn’t look disappointed. He looked almost relieved. “Then those weren’t your journals I read, were they? They belonged to someone else.”

“Yes, that’s it exactly. I’m not her.”

“And I’ve never been him either–the Reid in your diary. You only saw the man I allowed you to see. And Stella probably didn’t tell you about our arguments.We’re two strong-headed people and that’s not always easy in a relationship, as you’re about to find out. Are you ready to return to the house?”

“Yes.” What did that last part mean?

He picked her up and hurried back to the car. They drove back to the house. He carried her inside and up the stairs while she gave him directions to the guest room where Stella was staying. She knocked lightly.

“Come in,” they heard Stella say. She pushed the door open.

Reid carried her in and set her on her feet before he went to Stella. “You were right, babe.”

Stella beamed. “I knew it!” Stella turned to Ellie. “He tried to kiss you, right?”

“How–” Ellie looked from one face to the other. “How did you know?”

Stella rushed over and enveloped her in a hug. “Because I told him to, Ellie. Actually, it’s the only way I’d agree to him coming out here. He had to agree to try. I’m sorry. That was probably a dirty trick to play on you. But I wanted to know if the girl who was in love with my husband would try to take him away at the first opportunity. I wanted to be able to trust you completely. But . . .”

Ellie didn’t feel quite right. The air, the room, everything seemed to be receding into the distance rapidly. Her eyelids drooped. She couldn’t fight it so she didn’t.

* * *

There was something cold pressed to her forehead. She tried to remove it and heard her mother’s worried voice surround her. “Oh, she’s okay. Ellie? Ellie can you wake up please?” She opened her eyes. Her mother was leaning over her. “It’s been a long day, hasn’t it sweetie. You probably did too much. How do you feel?”

Ellie considered it. Her leg ached more than usual and her head still felt a little strange. “My leg hurts pretty bad, Mom. And I still feel a little light-headed. But I think I’m good. Let me sit up.” She caught the washcloth as it slid off her forehead, but other than a little dizziness, she seemed to be all right. Reid and Stella were standing behind her mother, looking a little chagrined. She’d been set up. By her best friend. It all came back. “I think I just need some sleep.”

“Are you sure, honey? Do you want me to bring you something to eat or drink?” Her mother was still worried.

“Some water would be nice, Mom.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Ellie turned to Stella. “Are you still planning to go home tomorrow or what?”

“Well, we were thinking maybe we would leave tonight,” Stella answered.

“I think that would be a good idea.”

“You’re mad at me for testing you like that,” Stella said.

“Hurt and betrayed are more what I’m feeling. Anger might come later.”

“Ellie, I’m so sorry. Maybe it’s my pregnancy hormones, but it seemed like a good idea when I thought of it.”

“Wait. Did you just say pregnancy hormones?” Reid stepped between them, his eyes darting from Stella’s to Ellie’s. “She said that didn’t she?”

“Aw crap, there goes my special way of telling him,” Stella grumbled.

“What? Telling me what? That you’re pregnant? WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON?”

“Calm down, Daddy, she’s getting to it,” Ellie said.

“Yeah, I’m getting there! I had this whole plan on how I was going to tell you, but at least I can still surprise you with the twin thing.” Stella clapped a hand over her mouth.

“She did not just say twins, did she?” Reid sat down on the bed.

“Oh crap, I just spilled that too, didn’t I? What is WRONG with me today?”

“Well, you were just in the hospital for several hours,” Ellie added.

“That’s true.”

“You were in the HOSPITAL today?” Reid’s face was turning an alarming shade of red.

“I think you’d better start from the beginning and tell him everything.” Ellie said.

So Stella did. With Ellie filling things in whenever Stella forgot something. Ellie’d had enough when they started kissing. “You guys should get a room,” she muttered. “Oh wait, I think I’m still in your room. I’ll just go then.” She got up to leave and barely made it to the door before Reid caught up to her.

“I don’t think you’re quite ready to be on your own just yet.” He wrapped an arm around her waist and they limped along like that for about three steps before he whipped her up into his arms again.

“I think you like this damsel-in-distress thing a little too much. You really need to cut back before it becomes an out-and-out addiction,” she said. He scoffed. “Unless Stella likes it, then I’d say go ahead.”

“And I’d say you’re still out of it because you’re not making any sense.”

“I am pretty tired. It was a tough day.”

“Your mom forgot your water,” he said, setting her on her bed.

“Yeah, the room service sucks but the views are amazing.”

His eyebrows pressed together. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Not really. He had some explaining to do. “Reid, why did you do that to me?”

“I think you need to ask Stella about it. She told me to try to kiss you. When your wife tells you to kiss another woman, you just do it, okay?” He was trying to be funny.

She didn’t laugh. “What if I had let you? What was your plan?”

The smile and playful manner disappeared. “I could see you fighting yourself. I was feeling pretty conflicted, too. I’d like to think that I’d have stopped it before anything happened.”

“But you can’t say that for sure.” He didn’t respond and in the ensuing silence she heard footsteps on the stairs. She held a finger to her lips to silence him.

“Ellie, I’m sorry I didn’t bring this earlier but–” Her mom stopped at the door, glancing between Ellie and Reid. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t know you had company.”

“It’s okay, Mom. I’m still not too steady on my feet so he helped me back and we’re just talking.” She turned to Reid, “Do you want to share your big news?”

He turned, excitement playing across his face. “Stella’s pregnant with twins! I’m going to be a daddy!”

“Congratulations! That’s really exciting. Do twins run in your family?”

“Not in mine, but maybe they do in Stella’s.”

“Well no wonder she hasn’t been feeling too well. Morning sickness, I presume?”

“Yep,” Ellie answered. She smiled at Reid. “Good luck getting her to eat. And thanks for helping me but Stella’s probably waiting for you. She might need help packing.”

Reid paused at the door. “Do you want us to stop in before we leave?”

“Yes, please. I’d like to see you guys off.” He nodded and disappeared.

“You okay, sweetie?” Her mom handed her the glass of water.

She took a few sips. “Just really, really tired. What were you getting ready to tell me when you walked in with my water?”

“Oh! That your uncle called and he wants you to stop by Spencer’s tomorrow to pick up your books. He’ll be there all day.”

“Good. If Dad has time, we can go whenever he wants.”

“Got it. Well, I’ll let you rest and say goodbye to your friends in peace. Sleep well, sweetie.”

“Thanks, Mom. Love you!”

“Love you too.”

Stella and Reid came in shortly afterward to say goodbye. Reid gave her a hug, told her not to be a stranger, and went to put Stella’s bags in her car. Stella sat down. “Reid told me you guys talked a little more and that you’re still confused about tonight.” Ellie nodded. “You have to understand, Ellie, that your father called out-of-the-blue saying that you wanted Reid to take care of your dog after your accident. Reid, not me. I didn’t know why that was. Had you changed in the years we’d been apart? Maybe decided that you weren’t going to walk away after all? And you’ve become exotically beautiful, too. Reid even mentioned it. So, I panicked. Especially now that I’m pregnant I needed to know if you’d changed. And, I’ll admit, it was kind of a test for Reid as well. I didn’t tell him that, of course. But if he followed through with anything, that would’ve given me a lot to consider.”

“I have changed in the past few months and we haven’t really talked about it but you’ve changed too, Stella. All through college you seemed to trust me, even though you supposedly knew that I was in love with Reid. When you showed me your engagement ring, I told you that he’d shown it to me, in his bedroom, and you just laughed. Was that fake? That trust?”

“No. I did trust you. And Reid. But I’m a divorce lawyer. I’ve represented hundreds of women, mostly, who are divorcing their husbands for things like unfaithfulness. All of these scenarios kept coming into my mind and I couldn’t shake them. I came here, hoping to get to know you again and lay those demons to rest once and for all. Then I found out I was pregnant and I panicked. I felt like I’d run out of time to figure it out.” She paused. “It really seemed like a good plan when I thought of it at the clinic today even though Reid didn’t agree. Maybe he was right. Can you forgive me?”

Ellie thought about it for a moment. Wasn’t forgiveness an act of the will? Hard to do, but easier than trying to forget it ever happened. Stella waited, eyes pleading. “Yes,” she finally answered.

“Oh, thank you!” Stella jumped up and threw her arms around her. Ellie hugged her back. “I promise I won’t ever test you again like that. I hope someday you can forget I ever tried.”

Me too, Ellie thought, drawing away. “You take care of yourself and those little ones, Stella.”

“Thanks, El. For everything. Call me if you’re in town and we’ll go for lunch or something.”

“Sure thing.”

“I guess I’d better go.”

“Yeah, I bet Reid is wondering what’s taking you so long.”

“See you around?”

“Bye, Stella. Drive safely.”

Stella waved as she walked out the door. Ellie listened as she hurried down the steps, heard the screen door slap shut, and then the sound of the tires on the gravel as they drove away. They were finally gone and she was relieved. Now she needed to put Misty outside again. After she rested for a few more minutes. She closed her eyes.

It was pitch black when she woke up and she needed to use the bathroom. She flipped the blankets off, thanking her mother for them, and glanced at her alarm clock. It was just after three in the morning.

When she returned to her room she quickly changed into pajamas and climbed back into bed, settling onto her side. Misty jumped over her legs and wriggled into her arms. She stroked the soft fur a few times and closed her eyes. A brief shake of the mattress caused her to open them again. Something pressed against her legs. She reached down to find a bigger dog curled up in the crook of her knees. She stroked his head and ears a few times. “Welcome home, Jack.”

Chapter Thirteen

Ellie’s phone chimed. “I hope that’s her. I’m starting to get really worried.” She’d kept her phone right beside her for the last two hours, worried she’d miss a response. Stella had been in Urgent Care for over five hours. Ellie and her father had gone to the bookstore, spent time talking to her lawyer uncle, and picked up their new dog in that time. To kill another hour, and because they thought she wouldn’t want to smell the food anyway, they’d driven to Culver’s and picked up supper to go. They took their meal to a nearby park and were eating at a picnic bench, allowing Jack to get out but keeping him on the leash so he’d stay close.

Ellie sighed as she read Stella’s text. “She says it’ll be even longer. They want to run some tests before they release her. Should I go to be with her and you can run Jack home?”

“If you think she’d like you with her, we can certainly do that. Why don’t you ask her?”

Ellie typed her reply and sent it. A few moments later, she heard back. Stella would like for her to come, but didn’t want to pull her away from anything. She read the message to her father. He nodded. “Tell her you’ll be there in about twenty minutes.” She sent the message. They weren’t completely finished with their meal, but she knew they weren’t far from the clinic.

Jack was lying quietly at her feet. She tried to share a french fry with Jack, but he sniffed at it and turned away. She knew he’d have to go through a bit of a depression in his new setting as he let go of his old life and embraced his new one. “It’ll be okay, Jack,” she murmured to him as she scratched his ears. “We’re good people too and I already love you.” His ears perked up as she spoke, his eyes meeting hers briefly before looking away. She pinched off a bit of her burger, with cheese melted on it, and offered him that. He accepted it readily and even rose to his feet, sniffing the air around her. She laughed and pinched off another bite for him.

“Don’t spoil my dog, kiddo.” Her father smiled, but she knew there was a grain of truth in the tease.

“Oh Daddy, you know he’ll never be allowed in the house while we’re eating. How many chances will I have?”

“If I know you, there’ll be plenty.” But he didn’t complain when she gave him the rest of her burger. She couldn’t eat the whole thing anyway. And she wanted the dog to know he could trust her.

Fifteen minutes later, she walked into the clinic and asked for Stella. It took her a few minutes to follow the directions she was given, but eventually she found the right area. A nurse escorted her to Stella’s room.

Stella was sitting up in the hospital bed watching television when she walked in. “You look better already! How do you feel?”

“Much better! They even brought me some soup and I ate it all. Everything still tastes a little off, but maybe that’s what pregnancy does to me.”

“Maybe. What kind of tests do they still want to do?”

“They’ve ordered an ultrasound because I’m measuring bigger than what I should be for six weeks along.”

“Huh, well maybe you’re further along than you thought? How cool would that be? Just skip some of those queasy weeks and get to the baby sooner.”

“Sounds too good to be true so I won’t believe it until they tell me.” She put her hand in front of her mouth like she was trying to hide and leaned toward Ellie to whisper, “But I sure wouldn’t complain if that turns out to be the case.”

Ellie chuckled. “Do you know when they’ll be doing the ultrasound?”

“It was supposed to be done about an hour ago, but there was an emergency so it got pushed back a bit. Which is fine. If it were me having the emergency, I’d want others to be patient and understanding. In the meantime, I’ve been googling different ways to tell Reid. Some people have waaaay too much time on their hands. I don’t want to wait longer than I have to so that I can plan some elaborate scheme. I’ve decided that I’m going to buy a stuffed animal made for a baby, wrap it up really nice, and have a card for someone who’s expecting attached to it. Maybe I’ll take a picture of the pregnancy test and throw it in the card, too. As proof. I left it sitting on my bathroom sink because I keep looking at it to make sure I haven’t dreamed this up.”

“That sounds like a fun way to tell him. Have you guys been talking?”

Stella’s eyes lost a little of their sparkle and her smile faded. “We talk every night and text through the day. It’s mostly insignificant stuff, but he’s apologized more than once so I’m taking that as a hopeful sign that he wants to stay with me.”

“I can’t imagine him with anyone else. It’s always been you Stella, for as long as I can remember.”

“But he didn’t know you were in love with him, too. Now he does. I don’t know if that changes anything. Why would he want to stay with me, when he could have you?” Tears filled her eyes and she blinked them away.

“No, Stella, he can never have me. I was in love with him a long time ago. But that was before a lot of things.”

“Like what?”

“Like, it was before he showed me your engagement ring. Before you got married. Before he read all of my journals without permission.” She pressed her lips together, remembering. “It’s going to take a while to forgive him for that last one. I should let you read them all so that you guys can talk through anything you need to. Then I’m going to burn the blasted things. I never imagined anyone, especially him, ever reading them.” She paused. “Were you ever in love before Reid?”

“Yes, once. Why?”

“Well, imagine that you put all of your feelings about that guy down on paper and then years later he gets to read them. You don’t feel that way about him anymore, but now all of that is out there between the two of you and you can’t really talk it through and so it just sits there, worming it’s way into your friendship. And every time you catch him looking at you, you wonder if he’s thinking about what you used to dream about.”

Stella was quiet for several minutes. “I’ve never thought of it like that but I can definitely see your point. I don’t need to read the journals, Ellie. I’m pretty sure I can imagine it well enough. And I don’t think I want to be talking with Reid about your journals in the future. You two will have to hash that out between you. And I’d really like for you to do that before Reid and I try to work it out. Because I need to know that he’s really there for me and this baby. Not that he’s secretly hoping that you two have a chance someday.”

“I’d hoped we could just act like it never happened, but I guess I see your point. I’ll talk to him about it the next time I see him.”

“I think that’s going to be tomorrow, so be prepared. I’m going to tell him to come out and pick me up for dinner tomorrow and then I’m going home. I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with you, but I really want to spend the rest of my vacation at home. I’m actually excited to start planning the nursery and stuff.”

The door opened and a woman came into the room, pulling a large cart with a monitor and some other things on top. Ellie leaned toward Stella. “You get to see your baby now!”

Stella grabbed her hand and didn’t let go. “I’m so nervous. I’m glad you’re here.” Ellie squeezed her hand in reply and smiled.

The ultrasound technician introduced herself and began to set up the procedure. She asked Stella to pull her hospital gown up and then squirted a clear gel over her lower abdomen. She explained what she was doing as she went. “Now, Stella, I want you to know that this is new equipment so I’m still learning how to work with it. And right now, your fetus is very small and has a lot of space to hide in. It may take me a few moments to try to find him or her but when I do, I’ll turn this screen toward you so you can see your baby.” Her voice sounded distracted as her hand adjusted the wand she held pressed against Stella’s belly. Then it froze and she began tapping buttons.

Stella’s eyes darted between the technician’s face and Ellie’s. Her expression grew more and more serious as the moments flew by. “Is there a problem?” Her voice shook.

The technician glanced at Stella and then returned her focus to the screen. “Oh, no, no, I’m just trying to get everything in order.” Her hand relaxed and she withdrew the wand. “I told you before that this is a new machine and I’m trying to learn it. But there’s someone who’s worked with it a lot more than I have and I want her to come in. Is it okay if I go get her?”

Stella nodded and the woman turned off the screen, rose, and left the room. Stella stared after her. “Something’s not right, that’s why she left, isn’t it?” Her soft voice sounded frightened.

“We don’t know that. She might have had trouble getting the baby to stay still long enough to get a picture.”

Stella shook her head. “No, something’s wrong.” She closed her eyes. Ellie pressed Stella’s hand between both of hers. The door opened and two women came in. The technician was followed by an older woman.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Rebecca Stern.” She shook Stella’s hand, then Ellie’s, and then clicked on the machine as her hand swept the wand up and over Stella’s abdomen. “Now let’s take another look.” She paused and began to click buttons and adjust the monitor. “There you are!” Stella’s shoulders relaxed and she sighed audibly. “And there you are!” She clicked more buttons before turning the screen toward Stella. “We found out why you’re measuring bigger than you should. Take a look at your twins!”

“TWINS!!” Stella and Ellie shouted simultaneously.

The doctor pointed out the two babies on the screen. “If you look carefully, you’ll see that they’re identical. They share the same sack.” Her finger drew a circle along a thin white line on the monitor. “Here’s baby #1,” she traced again, “and baby #2. Now, if you look at the two in comparison, you’ll see that one of the babies is quite a bit bigger than the other. Both have heartbeats, so both are alive, and you can see them moving. But you need to be aware that occasionally one of the two won’t survive. It’s possible that the littlest one may not make it. Sometimes it just depends on whether he or she is a fighter.”

“What happens if it doesn’t make it?” Stella stared at the screen.

“Usually your body just absorbs it when they’re very small like this. And the surviving baby is fine.”

“Hang in there, little one.” Stella’s eyes flitted between the screen and her abdomen. “Don’t give up. Fight!”

The doctor took some more measurements very quickly and recorded them. She printed out some pictures and handed them to Stella. “These are for you to keep. You need to call your obstetrician and tell them you’re pregnant with twins. They’ll set up appointments differently for you. And will try to help you prepare for an earlier delivery than what you thought. Twins generally do not go full term. You need to be prepared for the possibility of confinement–bed rest–during the last few weeks too.” She wiped the gel off Stella’s abdomen as she spoke. “Do you have any questions?”

“Tons, but I think I’ll save them for my doctor,” Stella answered.

“Sounds good.” She shook their hands again. “Take care of yourself and congratulations!”

“Thank you.” Stella waited until they left the room and then studied the pictures in her hands. “How am I going to tell Reid now?”

“Just put the pictures in the card or in the box and let him figure it out,” Ellie said.

“Oh my gosh, he’s going to flip out! Two babies, Ellie! We’re having twins!”

Ellie laughed. “I know, I was here!”

“I just can’t grasp it. Double everything! TWO nurseries?!”

“Well, maybe not. I believe I’ve heard that twins like being together and if you separate them it’s harder for them. And for you in that case.”

“Oh, yeah, I think you’re right.” She threw the blanket off. “Where are my clothes? We need to get out of here.”

“Whoa, I think they have to tell you that.” She put the blanket back over Stella.

“Fine. Where’s my nurse button.” She dug it out from under her elbow and pressed the button several times.

“I’ll call my dad and tell him to come back for us,” Ellie said, digging her phone out of her pocket.

“Okay, but don’t tell him about the twins. I want Reid to know first. Or, I guess it would be third since I found out first and you found out second.” Stella talked and talked. She seemed to be in chatterbox mode, so shocked from finding out she was carrying two babies instead of the one she expected. Ellie let her talk, trying to be calm in the storm of excitement surrounding her friend.

 

Chapter Twelve

Ellie and her father arrived before her uncle, so they waited inside the truck. Ellie sipped at her Coke and tried to imagine Mr. Spencer as a younger man. Was he the young man in the picture with a young, pregnant Miss Ruby? It was possible. If so, what had happened to them? They’d looked so happy in the photo.

A black Volkswagen Passat pulled up and they watched Jim Thompson, Esquire, get out and walk into his office. Ellie chugged the rest of her Coke, knowing it would be warm when she returned.

“You ready, honey?” Her dad still looked nervous. She was feeling pretty anxious herself so she just nodded.

Uncle Jim was talking with his assistant when they entered. “You can take a seat in my office and I’ll be in shortly,” he said, winking at Ellie. She smiled in response.

Ellie and her father settled into chairs arranged in front of a huge, antique desk. Ellie’s hand brushed the aged wood, tracing the grain with her fingers. She’d found the desk for her uncle at an estate sale a few years back and immediately called him. He’d bought it on the spot, sight unseen, based solely on her recommendation. She had no idea what he’d done with the desk he’d had before, a practical piece without the beauty, charm, and character of the one in front of her now. Sold it? Given it away since he’d found something better? Her father drummed his fingers on the edge of his chair, fidgeting again, and suddenly she thought she understood why.

“Dad, Mom told you that I know about Miss Ruby being my biological grandmother, right?” He nodded and looked away. “Are you worried that I’ll love you and Mom less if I know more about her and Mr. Spencer?”

Her father sighed, but the way his shoulders relaxed told her enough. “It’s new territory and I’m a worrywart, I’ll admit, but I think I’m more concerned that you’ve been through so much lately and I don’t want you feeling overwhelmed.” He paused. “And I guess I’m also concerned that whatever we learn today could change everything we have.” He trailed off and she could tell by the way he kept swallowing that he was struggling for control.

She reached over to take his strong, calloused hand in her own. “Dad, no matter what, I love you and Mom more than anyone or anything else in the world. Nothing can ever take your places in my heart and in my life. Love isn’t genetic, Dad. It’s relational. You two are my parents. End of story.” She squeezed his hand and felt him return the gesture. When Uncle Jim entered the room a few seconds later, she didn’t let go.

Just as his hands had lent her strength and security as a little girl, they did the same now. She held on just as tightly.

Jim Thompson dropped a thick manila folder on his desk and settled into his chair with a sigh. He folded his hands on top of the folder and looked at each of them. “Dave, Ellie, thanks for agreeing to come here. I wanted to do this formally, as Murphy and Ruby would have wanted, I think. I’ll cut to the chase and tell you what most people want to know the most. Yes, there’s money coming to you, Ellie. A lot of money. When Ruby Jefferson died, you became a millionaire.”

Ellie’s mouth dropped open and she turned to her father with wide eyes. He smiled and lifted his free hand to gently tap her chin. “We are not a fish, as your mother likes to say.” His reaction brought a touch of normality back to her and she responded to it by sticking her tongue out at him. His lips twitched up.

Clasping her father’s hand between both of her own, Ellie turned back to her uncle. “Okay, so I’m a millionaire. That’ll have to process for a while. Is—was—Mr. Spencer my biological grandfather?”

Her uncle nodded. “He was, yes.” Ruby and Murphy were married for twenty years, but Madison’s death drove a wedge between the two of them that evidently could not be overcome. I was friends with both of them at the time and it was difficult to watch. Her grief was overwhelming and she couldn’t understand when Murphy went back to work as if nothing had happened. There were a lot of arguments. He confided in me. He said that he could feel the distance between them increase each day when he left to go to the bookstore. She filed for divorce the day after the first anniversary of Maddie’s death.”

“Did you know my mother, too?”

“A little. As well as any middle-aged man can relate to a teenager who is unrelated to him, I suppose. She wasn’t around much whenever I was in their home.”

“How did you meet them?”

“My former business partner was their lawyer. When he retired, they decided to give me their business. Most of my library came from Spencer’s Antiquities so we already had a good rapport.” He shrugged. “They invited me to their annual Christmas Eve party that same year and the rest is history.”

“Did you have anything to do with them choosing your brother and his wife as adoptive parents?” Ellie inwardly cringed that she’d asked such an obviously stupid question, but she wanted to know for sure.

Uncle Jim’s eyes softened. “I did, Ellie, and I’ll go to my grave feeling as if the entire purpose of my being on this earth was so that I could do that one beautiful thing—find you a new home with very loving parents who’d wanted children for years.”

She fought back tears as she looked from her uncle into the loving eyes of her father and back again. “Thank you for that, Uncle Jim. I couldn’t have asked for a better life.” She squeezed her father’s hand again and finally let it go. “Mr. Spencer stayed in town, obviously. Did Miss Ruby, too?”

“They owned a huge estate about twenty miles from the city. It’s yours now, by the way. We can drive out and take a look any time you want. Miss Ruby stayed in the house and Murphy moved into an apartment over the bookstore. A few years later he married a widow with a young son. He adopted the boy and from what I could tell they had a good family life. His adopted son grew up to become a paramedic and lives in Springfield. He visits often, though, on his days off. I’m sure he’ll take good care of his mom now that Murphy’s gone.”

“They’re okay financially? When you finish liquidating the store, they’ll be okay?”

“Oh yes. Murphy did quite well and they were careful with their money. He wouldn’t take a cent from your grandmother in the divorce. It was her inheritance from her parents and he wouldn’t budge even though she offered to share it with him.”

“He was always very kind to me,” Ellie said. “Always wanting to know if there was a book I was particularly interested in finding. I suspect that he only charged me a fraction of the cost for the ones he sold to me.” She turned to her father again. “Thanks, Dad, for taking me on those monthly excursions to town. It was your way of sharing me with my grandfather, wasn’t it?”

Her father nodded. “Your mom made sure Miss Ruby stayed up-to-date with you and I made sure Murphy did. It was a small way to say thanks for the best gift we’d ever been given.”

Ellie laid her hand on her father’s arm and squeezed gently. “To me, too, Dad.”

Uncle Jim opened the file in front of him and then slid it over to her. “That’s a listing of assets and unpaid bills. Only the utilities and such. She always paid off her credit cards each month. The woman loved to shop online.”

Ellie tugged on her father’s arm to draw him closer so he could read along with her. She had a feeling she’d need his grounding council as she made decisions in the future. They read down the list of properties Miss Ruby owned and the income, in the case of a few apartment buildings, and expenses from each. Then there were the stocks, bonds, and other investments. Finally, a brief listing of bills left to pay. “Why aren’t you listed on here, Uncle Jim? You’re working and you should also be paid.”

“Ruby already paid me. She was always very generous, too.”

“Maybe so, but you’re still working so I want to see your billing listed on here in the next update. I don’t want to take advantage of your services. Please bill me?”

He studied her for a few moments and then nodded his head once. “It’ll still be a few more weeks before everything’s settled. Ads have to be run in papers for any creditors to file if there are any outstanding debts we didn’t know about. Stuff like that. But as soon as we can, we’ll finalize things and get the money transferred to you.” He glanced at his watch. “Do you have any more questions for me?”

Ellie looked at her father who shook his head. She couldn’t think of any more either. “I think we’re good. For now. And I know how to reach you if I think of something.”

Her uncle rose from his chair and they followed suit. “You certainly do.” He smiled as he walked around the desk to give each of them a hug. “Now don’t go spending any money just yet. Wait until you have it before you start buying jets and motor boats.” He winked at her again.

“HA! No worries. I have no plans to buy anything right now. Mom and Dad are spoiling me at home. I have everything I need.” She turned to kiss her uncle’s cheek. “Thanks, Uncle Jim. For everything.”

“You’re welcome, Ellie girl. Drive safe, you two.” He ushered them out of the office and walked them to the door. “I’ll be in touch.”

Ellie clicked the seat belt around her and checked her phone. Nothing from Stella. “Shall we go see the new dog now?”

Her father glanced at his watch. “We’re a few minutes late, so I suppose we should get moving.” He reached out to touch her shoulder. “Are you okay? That was a lot to deal with, wasn’t it?”

“I’m fine, Dad. Yeah, it’s kind of overwhelming, but thankfully I have some time before I have to learn to handle all of it. And I’m planning on asking you and Mom a lot of questions as I make decisions. You’ll probably get sick of it.”

He chuckled. “I guess we’ll get used to it eventually, right? It’ll be a new kind of normal.”

She nodded. “Now about the new dog. What’s his name?”

“Jackson. Randy says he was born on June 25, 2009, the day Michael Jackson died. They named him in tribute to one of their favorite artists.”

“Oh, well that’s nice. I love some of his songs.”

“I liked the Jackson Five.”

“Me too, Dad. You sure listened to them enough when I was growing up. Do you think Randy would mind if we shortened it to Jack occasionally?”

“Nope. Don’t think he’d mind at all since he also told me that’s what they call him.”

A few moments later, they pulled into the parking lot of Ace Hardware and saw Murphy’s great-grandson sitting quietly beside his owner. Randy waved and approached the truck. Jackson stayed where he was, but his eyes and ears were trained on Randy and he came immediately when he was called.

Ellie bent down to scratch the soft, black ears. Brown, intelligent eyes lifted to her own and she smiled. “I hope you like Cocker Spaniels, Jackson. Misty is a little wound-up at times, but I imagine she’ll have to work hard to keep up with you.” He licked her hand, wagging his tail. “You sure look like Murphy.”

“Yeah, and he’s dependable, just like his great-grandfather. I’m glad you guys are taking him. We’re retiring from the dog breeding and training business. I figure forty years is long enough.”

“Oh, are you staying on the farm?”

“For now. We’re still young enough to work it just fine. Eventually our son will take over.”

“Well, happy retirement, Randy!” Ellie’s father said. “Maybe now you’ll have time to come out for dinner sometime.”

“We’d love to. Now, do you think Jack will work for you?”

“He’s ready to work with my cattle?”

“Yep. He’s had a refresher course, but he didn’t need it. Remembered it all like it was yesterday.”

“Then we’ll take him.” Ellie’s father pulled out his wallet but Randy put his hand on his arm to stop him.

“He’s a gift, Dave. To you and your family. You guys have been wonderful customers from the beginning. I’m glad he’ll have a great home. We had him neutered last year, but knew it would have to be a special family for us to be willing to part with him. Don’t let him roam for a few weeks, until he gets used to being a part of your family. Then he should be good to go.”

“Well now. That’s quite a gift, Randy. Thank you!” Ellie’s father shook Randy’s hand. “You know we’ll take good care of him.”

Randy nodded and then bent down and tousled the fur on top of Jackson’s head. “You be a good dog and I’ll see you soon.” He clipped the lead onto his collar and handed the leash to Ellie’s father. “This is another reason we’re retiring. It’s getting harder and harder to part with them. They take a little bit of me with them when they go.”

“Are you sure you want to part with him? We can look elsewhere.”

“I’m sure. We’re keeping the last one. And as you know, one Border Collie has more energy than any two people combined. She’ll keep us busy well enough. Thanks for asking.” He shook her father’s hand and then turned to Ellie. “I heard the story of how Murphy led your rescuers to you when you had the wreck. I’m glad he helped to save your life. Dogs understand love. Much better than we do, I sometimes think. It’s good to see you on your feet. You take care of yourself.” He stepped back, nodded goodbye to each of them, and then turned and left.

Jackson whined once, but didn’t pull at the lead. They watched Randy drive away. When Ellie’s father turned toward the back of the truck, and the cage for Jackson, Ellie stopped him. “Dad, do you think we could just let him ride in the cab with us? Like Murphy used to?”

Her father paused, and the two of them locked eyes.

She missed Murphy, more than she ever thought she would. They’d bought him as a pup when she was thirteen and she’d talked her parents into allowing him to sleep inside the house at night instead of in the barn with the animals. He had free roam of the house, after he was house-trained, and was always curled up next to her in her bed whenever she woke up. He’d been her protector and her friend when everyone else was untrustworthy. He’d known all her secrets.

When she’d left for college it had been hard on him. He’d kept circling the house, looking for her, and whining. She’d had to come home for a few weekends so that he knew she was okay. When she graduated, she would’ve taken him with her in an instant. But Murphy belonged on the farm.

Until he’d managed to somehow find her at the time of the accident. She wished she could remember how.

Maybe her father read what was on her face and in her eyes. Maybe he was thinking about Murphy too. But for whatever reason, he turned and led the dog to the cab of the truck. “Up,” he said, holding the door open. Jackson leapt into the truck and was waiting for her—tail wagging, tongue lolling out, smile on his face—when Ellie climbed inside.

 

Chapter Ten

Stella didn’t come out of her room until after lunch. Her pale face and the circles under her eyes told Ellie that she hadn’t slept well. They sat out on the porch for a short time, but when the scent of cooking hamburger reached them, Stella clamped a hand over her nose and ran back inside.

Miss Ruby’s will could wait until Stella felt better. Or maybe she should just talk to her Uncle Jim since he was the lawyer who drew up the papers. That seemed like a better option, so Ellie went to her room and called his office. Unfortunately, he was in court and his assistant couldn’t say when he would return.

Ellie opened the box and read through more of Miss Ruby’s letters to her daughter. Each year, on the anniversary of Maddie’s death, the fragile, barely-healed scars on Miss Ruby’s heart tore open again, and the words she read left Ellie feeling vulnerable and raw. The tenth anniversary letter was particularly tough to read and afterward she desperately needed to escape.

She drove the Ranger out to the edge of the woods as near as she could to a secluded little area her father had cleared for her. This was her private little sanctuary. An Adirondack chair sat under a willow tree she’d planted near the body of her first pet—a goldfish who had died, probably from overfeeding, when she was seven years old. Murphy and she used to spend hours out here. She’d read whatever book she was absorbed in at the moment while Murphy hunted squirrels and rabbits as a younger dog, or rested beside her when he grew too old to care about the wildlife.

Ellie found the clearing and glanced around. A couple of summers ago, she’d planted a small shade-loving perennial garden with hostas, bleeding hearts, columbine, and bluebells. A new tree now stood in their center and she smiled. A dogwood! Her father had planted a dogwood tree in her little garden. It seemed to be thriving here, nestled in among the larger trees and protected from the harsher weather. She took a deep breath, enjoying the scents of the forest surrounding her and already feeling more at peace than she had in her bedroom.

She parted the hanging fronds of the willow and settled into the chair. She couldn’t stay long, the sun was already heading for the horizon and it was hard enough finding the place in the daylight—a ten minute trek winding through oak, hickory, ash, maple, and fir trees—but this spot had always calmed her when nothing else could. Oh Murphy, I wish I could have buried you here.

She woke with a start. It was pitch dark under the willow. She reached for her crutches and hurried from the clearing. If she headed as straight as possible through the trees, they would end eventually and then she would just have to locate the Ranger. She shivered. It was too quiet in the trees and that worried her. Shouldn’t there be crickets or something making some noise? Or was her presence keeping them silent?

It was nearly impossible to stick to a straight line as she skirted the trees, but she tried to adjust and readjust as she hobbled through. Several times she caught a crutch on an exposed root and almost fell, catching a branch or a tree trunk to stay upright. She decided to slow down since she didn’t want to rebreak her leg. Why did she leave her phone in the Ranger? What a stupid thing to do! But she hadn’t planned to stay long. Only half an hour or so to recharge her mental batteries. Her parents must be worried sick. Maybe that was good though. Maybe they would come hunting for her.

The sound of a stick breaking high up in the trees behind her made her whirl around. She searched the boughs for reflective eyes and felt relieved when she didn’t see any. But what would they reflect? She carried no flashlight. Her heartbeat sped. Were there any black bears in their woods? Or wildcats?

She gasped as something touched her good leg and lost her balance when she shifted onto her cast automatically. She landed on her side and cried out in pain. A wet tongue swiped at her face and she threw her arms around the furry body standing over her. “Murphy!” Her dog whined and his whole back end wagged in time with his tail. “You’re alive! How did you get home?”

Murphy squirmed free and pushed against her, propelling her to her feet. He took several steps away from her, then paused, looking over his shoulder. “I’m coming, Murph. Lead the way.” She followed the old dog as he picked his way through the trees at an angle from the direction she had been heading. It took longer than she thought it should, but he led her straight to the Ranger. She climbed in behind the wheel and waited for him to jump up beside her. When he didn’t, she went looking for him.

The old dog sat at the edge of the forest. “Come on, Murph. Let’s go home, boy.” She patted her leg as she spoke. Murphy didn’t move so she approached him. She bent over in front of the Border Collie and stared into his intelligent eyes. “Murphy?” The dog, his tail wagging again, stood on his back legs and put his paws on her shoulders so he could lick her face once more. She hugged him tightly. “I love you, Murphy. And I always will.” She felt his flanks rise and fall with a deep sigh. As soon as she let go, Murphy turned and raced back into the forest. She waited in the Ranger, eyes searching the tree line, hoping he would return. But knowing he wouldn’t. Her phone rang and she picked it up. There was a long line of missed calls illuminated on the screen. All from her parents. “Hello?”

“Ellie? Oh thank God! Where are you honey? Your dad and I are worried sick. We were just about to call the police but we knew you’d taken the Ranger out so we thought at first that maybe you just needed some alone time. But it’s four in the morning. Are you alright?” Her mother’s words rushed out. Relief and worry mingled in her voice.

“I’m okay, Mom. I went to my clearing for a few minutes and fell asleep. I’m on my way back and I’ll explain more. I’m sorry I worried you but I’m fine. Relax and I’ll be right there.”

“Oh thank God. Thank God.” Her mother replied, but her voice sounded distant so Ellie assumed she was talking to her dad. She hung up the phone and, with one last glance around the area, started up the Ranger and pointed it toward home.

Her mother and father were waiting for her on the porch when she pulled up. Her father bounded down the stairs, took her crutches away from her and propped them against the Ranger, then picked her up, cradling her in his arms as he carried her to the house. “Ellie-girl, you scared us near to death.” He kissed her forehead and put her down in front of her mother, who immediately clamped her arms around her tightly, tears streaming down her face.

Her father brought her crutches to her and both of her parents flanked her as she hobbled into the living room. “Sit down, baby, and tell us what happened. You’re as white as a ghost.” They positioned themselves on either side of her.

“Well, as I told you on the phone, I went to my clearing to escape. Some of Miss Ruby’s letters are heartrending to read. Tonight’s was the tenth anniversary of Maddie’s death and I just wanted to spend a few minutes in my sanctuary.” She turned to her father. “Thank you for the Dogwood, Dad. It’s so beautiful and looks perfect there. When did you plant it?”

Her mother huffed, probably frustrated at the sidetracked conversation.

But her father’s face had lit up. “I bought it when we got back from visiting you the first time in the hospital.” He shrugged, looking sheepish. “I spent a little more than I normally would for a tree, but we were so relieved to know you were going to be okay. I kind of went hog wild.”

“Aw, Dad, that’s so sweet!” Ellie gave her father a hug. “I love it. Truly!”

“I knew you would. You can’t believe how hard it’s been to keep it secret. I was beginning to think you didn’t care about the clearing anymore.”

Ellie chuckled. “I do. I just hadn’t gotten out there yet.”

“Well don’t go just before dark anymore, please,” her mother said.

“I won’t, Mom. I promise.” Ellie paused. “Murphy found me.”

Both of her parents reacted with shocked expressions and exclamations. “What?” “How?” “Where is he now?” “Are you sure it was Murphy?” The words flew at Ellie from both sides. She held up her hands to stop them.

“I don’t know if I can fully explain it. I was trying to find my way out but it was so dark and I kept getting tripped up.” She took a deep breath, the feelings of fear returning with the story. “I heard a branch snap in a tree behind me. It was over my head but when I tried to see anything, I couldn’t.”

Her mother clamped a hand over her mouth. Her eyes wide. “It could’ve been a wildcat,” she murmured.

Her father grimaced. “Don’t borrow trouble, honey. Now go on, Ellie.”

“That’s when Murphy found me. He brushed against my leg and nearly frightened me to death. I fell down, but he licked my face and I realized it was him. He let me hug him and he gave me more doggy kisses, but then he pushed against me and I realized he wanted me to get up. After I got back on my feet, he started leading me out of the woods. I must have gotten way off track, because it took him a while but he eventually led me right to the Ranger.”

“He’s always been such a great dog,” her mother mumbled. “I’m going to spoil him rotten.” Her expression changed to puzzlement as she looked back toward the front door. “Where is he now?”

Ellie shrugged. “I don’t know, Mom. He wouldn’t come with me. I called and called him. I even went back to get him. He was sitting right at the edge of the trees, but . . .” Her voice broke and she choked back the tears. “He just stood up on his hind legs and licked my face.” Sobs broke free. “I told him I love him. And then he ran back into the trees.”

Her mother held her while she cried. Her father patted her back. She pulled herself together after a few minutes and sat back up.

“Tomorrow I’ll comb the area and see if I can find him.” Her father smiled gently.

“Thanks, Dad.”

“Why wouldn’t he come with you? Was he hurt?” Her mother still looked puzzled.

“I don’t think so. He raced back into the woods like he used to when he was a pup.”

“And you’re really, really sure it was Murphy? Maybe you dreamed it.”

“It was Murphy, Mom. He was wearing his collar with his dog tags and everything.”

“That’s so weird.”

“I know, Mom. I know.”

It was quiet in the room until Ellie yawned. “Well, we can discuss it more in the morning. We should all get some sleep.” Her father pulled her to her feet and helped her up the stairs and to her room. Her mother hugged her, asked her if she was okay, and left with her father to get a couple of hours of sleep before the new day began.

Ellie changed clothes and collapsed into her bed. Misty jumped up beside her, snuggling in, and Ellie curled around the little dog. Her last thoughts before she fell asleep were of Murphy.

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 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.