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 Eleven

The next morning Stella walked into Ellie’s room around ten a.m. “Morning, Stella. How are you feeling?”

Stella’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m scared. What if the whole pregnancy is like this? How am I supposed to work when I have no energy and I can’t keep food down?”

Ellie patted her bed and Stella sat down next to her. “Maybe you should go see a doctor.” She rubbed her friend’s back gently.

“I called and they said the next available appointment is in two weeks. I could be dead of starvation by then.”

“Let’s drive in and you can go to Urgent Care. There has to be something they can give you to help.”

“You can’t drive. And I’m so shaky I’m not sure I should try either.”

Ellie’s father cleared his throat from the hallway. “I wasn’t sneaking up on you ladies, but I was just coming to tell Rosie that I have to run some errands and to see if you two wanted to come along. If you need to be dropped off at the clinic I can do that.”

Stella’s face brightened. “That would be wonderful. If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Not at all. I’ll go bring the truck around.”

“That’s so nice of him.” Stella turned to Ellie. “Is Rosie your middle name?”

“It’s actually Rose, but he’s called me Rosie for as long as I can remember. It’s so old-fashioned sounding, but I love it.” She smiled and shrugged. “Although Elanor is also old-fashioned so I guess they go together.”

“It’s classy sounding. So much better than Stella. Do you know how many times someone’s asked me if I’ve gotten my groove back yet?” Stella rolled her eyes. “I’m going to go brush my teeth. I’ll meet you downstairs.” She left the room and Ellie grabbed Misty to put her outside.

Ellie watched her father pull up with a dog crate latched in the bed of the truck. She arched her brows and pointed to the crate.

“I need another working dog, sweetie. We’ll always miss old Murphy, but I need the help with the heifers.”

Ellie nodded, feeling ridiculous for questioning him. Of course he needed the help. Murphy wasn’t just a dog; he had been an important part of the cattle operation. “Of course you do, Dad. I’m sorry. Are we meeting Randy in town?”

“Yep. At Ace’s. And the dog we’re getting is a great-grandson of Murphy’s. Good stock.”

Ellie was actually looking forward to seeing him. Wait. “Dog? Didn’t you mean to say ‘pup’?”

“Nope. This late in the summer the pups are all sold. I got lucky though. They bought a new stud last year so they were glad to make a deal on this dog. He’s been the stud for the past five years and they retired him. Randy’s been putting him through a refresher course on herding.” The squeak of the storm door opening and closing announced that Stella had arrived. “And now honey, you know we aren’t mad at you or anything, but the next time you decide to take the dog with you, please let us know a little beforehand. I could have had another dog ready before you took Murphy with you the day of the accident.”

“Ready to go,” Stella announced as she stopped beside the pickup. “I’ll get in back.” She reached for the door handle but Ellie grabbed it first.

“No, no. You take front. The seats are more comfortable and it’ll be less bouncy.”

Stella paled. “Bouncy? Ugh. I’ll take you up on your offer. I don’t think I could take bouncy right now.

Ellie climbed into the back seat of the extended cab truck. Stella hauled herself up into the front seat. They chatted about something, but Ellie didn’t pay attention. What did he mean about taking Murphy the day of the accident? Her memories were fuzzy about that day and many of the days following the wreck, but Ellie had gone to an antique show down in Branson that weekend and had been on her way back to her apartment when it happened. Did she go to the farm and just couldn’t remember?

Her father dropped Stella off at the clinic and Ellie moved into the front seat. “Dad, you said something about me taking Murphy from the farm?’

“Yeah, but it’s okay honey. Don’t worry about it.”

“Thanks Dad, but did you see me at the farm that day?”

He kept his eyes on the road, but his bushy eyebrows twitched the way they always did whenever he was worried.

“Dad, there are gaps in my memories from that day, so I’m just wondering when I would have picked Murphy up.”

He nodded. “We weren’t home during the afternoon so we think that’s when you came out. If you would’ve told us, we definitely would’ve stayed home. Both of us feel guilty about that. We think that if we were there, you would’ve probably stayed for supper and then you wouldn’t have had that wreck.”

“Aw, Dad,” she touched his arm, “You guys shouldn’t feel that way. It was an accident, pure and simple, and I do remember wanting to get back to Misty so I probably wouldn’t have stayed.” Something occurred to her. “Wait, Dad, what time did you and Mom get home?”

“About 4:30, I think. Why?”

“Because I didn’t leave Branson until after 5. I’d lost track of time and was still browsing when the store closed.”

“But . . . Murphy?”

Ellie closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. “I . . . I don’t know, Dad. I don’t know how he could’ve been with me in the car, but I have flashbacks and he’s in them. When did you notice he was missing?”

“Well, he wasn’t on the porch when we got home. He didn’t come running to the truck for a treat either. We even honked the horn in case he hadn’t heard us pull up. Nothing.”

“That’s so weird.” She looked at her father. “Could you show me where I went off the road sometime soon?”

“If you really want me to, then I guess I can.” He held up a finger. “That’s another thing. The paramedics who rescued you said a Border Collie led them to you. They described Murphy perfectly, right down to his collar. They even said he was limping on a bloody paw.”

Ellie’s eyes burned as tears filled her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered, “He’d shown it to me, too, and there was nothing I could do for him.”

“You really think he was there?”

“He looked and acted like Murphy. But I don’t remember picking him up from the farm. And Dad, I would never take him without asking you first. I knew he was a working dog.”

“Then . . .”

“I can’t explain it, Dad. I didn’t take Murphy, but he somehow turned up when I needed him.”

“That’s, I don’t know, incredible? Is that the right word?” He scratched his head.

“Yeah, I think that’s the perfect word.”

“How would he even have known where to find you?”

Ellie shrugged. “I think it was a miracle.”

“Miracle. Now that’s the perfect word.” He pulled her close for a one-armed hug and quickly released her. But not before she noticed the tears in his eyes.

* * *

Since they weren’t sure how long Stella would be at the walk-in clinic, they decided to visit their favorite bookstore in Springfield, Missouri. They parked about half a block away and were mildly surprised to see people gathered around tables in front of Spencer’s Antiquated Books as they approached.

“Do you think he’s having a sale?” Dear old Mr. Spencer had never held a sale in the thirty-five years he’d been running the bookstore. Occasionally he would discount a book to move it along, but since he dealt in hard-to-find acquisitions he tended to hold onto them until the right buyer came along. He was also known to call his repeat customers if he found something he thought they would like. Ellie’s heart sank as she read the sign posted in the store window: Inventory Liquidation and Estate Sale. “Oh no, Dad.”

Her father sighed. “He said he planned to retire at the end of the year.”

“I wonder what happened.”

“Let’s go inside.” He held the door open for Ellie to enter first.

“STOP RIGHT THERE!” A male voice bellowed. Ellie and her father jumped out of the way as a man raced out the door. “DIDN’T I JUST TELL YOU ALL THAT I HAVE CAMERAS MOUNTED OUTSIDE SO I CAN WATCH YOU? GIVE ME THAT!” The irate man, Ellie realized, was her Uncle Jim, the lawyer she wanted to speak with about Miss Ruby’s will. “I saw you start to earmark that page,” he continued, taking a book away from another man, “and I will call the police if you don’t leave this instant.” The would-be-book-defiler gave her uncle a withering look and turned on his heel to walk away. “Oh no you don’t,” her uncle muttered as he grabbed another book tucked under the retreating man’s arm. “That’s it! This sale is over for today. If you want to buy what you have in your hands, go to the register. If not, put it down and leave. Right now!”

Several people complained loudly until Jim the Lawyer turned their way, eyes blazing and hands on hips, while the rest grasped their books tighter and hurried to get in the checkout line.

Uncle Jim shook his head. “Do either of you know that man I ran off?”

Ellie glanced at her father, who shook his head. “No, we’ve never met him before.” She studied her uncle’s frown. “Do you know him, Uncle Jim?”

He nodded. “He’s a multi-millionaire.”

“No!” Ellie searched the sidewalks and nearby cars to see if he was still nearby. “Why would he try to damage, or steal for that matter, a book he could easily afford to buy?”

“He’s got a reputation for that kind of thing. He’s known for finding the cheapest way of getting what he wants and occasionally it’s landed him in trouble. Nothing that his lawyers haven’t been able to handle, so far, but I refused to be one of them and he’s not likely to forget that.”

“We’re witnesses, if you need us.” Her father put his hand on Jim’s shoulder.

“Thanks, but I’ve also got it on camera.”

“What a sleaze ball!” Ellie clamped a hand over her mouth, not intending to say that out loud, but her father and uncle just chuckled.

“I think I’d better move those tables, and one of those cameras, inside before we open again.”

“What books did he have?” Ellie cocked her head, trying to read the title off the spine of the book in her uncle’s hand. He gave it to her. “Is it worth very much?” She passed the book to her father.

“About three hundred.” Jim’s hands swept the air, indicating the book-laden tables. “None of these out here are worth much more than that. Murphy kept impeccable records of each acquisition. But I’ve got yours behind the counter, just like I promised.”

“Like you promised? When?” It had been months since Ellie had last spoken to her uncle.

“I called you last night to tell you about the sale but no one answered so I left a message. Isn’t that why you’re here?”

“We didn’t get the message.” Her father turned to her. “He must have called while we were outside hunting for you, Ellie.”

“Why were you hunting for Ellie?” Uncle Jim looked alarmed.

“It’s a long story. I fell asleep under the willow tree and didn’t get home until the middle of the night.” She waved her hand dismissively. “But Mr. Spencer’s first name was Murphy?” She glanced at the name on the door. “It says ‘Rupert Spencer’ on there.”

“His middle name was Murphy and that’s what we, who were his closest friends, called him.”

“I’m sorry.” She paused. “Do you know what happened?”

“Haven’t heard yet. But I handled his business affairs and had the will so here I am.” He stroked his chin. “I’ll get back to you on Miss Ruby’s will when I’m done tonight. I haven’t forgotten you, just been swamped. It’s somehow fitting that Ruby and Murphy died the same day. They’re together again now.”

“Miss Ruby and Mr. Spencer had a past together?” Ellie’s head swam. She leaned back against the door frame.

Jim eyed her for a moment before he motioned them inside. “Come in and sit down, you two. We’ll talk after I close up the shop.”

Ellie and her father entered the small bookstore and he put an arm around her shoulder. “Are you okay, Rosie? You look a little pale.”

She smiled up at him. “I’m all right, Dad. I’m just feeling a little light-headed.”

“Do you want me to get you something? A sandwich maybe? Or a Dr. Pepper?”

“Oh, a Dr. Pepper would be awesome! Would you mind?”

“Of course not. There’s a deli right next door. Be right back, sweetie.” He kissed the top of her head and hurried away.

Ellie hobbled over to an upholstered chair and collapsed into it. Another Murphy? She remembered the old bookseller with fondness. How many times had they come to this store through the years? And he’d always waited on them with genuine interest and kindness. He’d also been extremely generous. If she had an item she was interested in, he always managed to find it. And at a very reasonable price, too. She realized with a pang that she would honestly miss him, and not just because of the books, but because of his gentility. She supposed it could have been just a persona he’d put on whenever they stopped by, but shook her head at the thought. No, she could tell when someone was being obsequious. Mr. Spencer was not one of those people.

Her father returned with a bottle of Coke. “Sorry, Rosie, but they don’t sell Dr. Pepper. Will this suffice?”

“Dad, it’s Coke with pure cane sugar. I love this stuff! So, yes, it’s perfectly sufficient.” He smiled, but still seemed a little tense. “Are you okay?

“Well,” he glanced around, “I’m not so sure we’re supposed to have that in here. I maybe shouldn’t have brought it in.”

“Oh, well I won’t open it until Uncle Jim says I can. How’s that?” He nodded. “Why don’t you pull that chair over and join me.” He did as she suggested but still couldn’t seem to relax. His hands stayed busy either smoothing imaginary wrinkles from his jeans or literally twiddling his thumbs. What was up with him? Did he think she wanted him to buy her a lot of these books? A buzzing sound interrupted her thoughts and she dug her phone out of her purse.

“It’s a text message from Stella. She’s dehydrated and they’re giving her an IV. She’ll be there at least another hour.”

“I’m glad they can help her. She doesn’t have any fat stores to use up. Morning sickness, right?”

“You’re a good guesser, Dad. She just found out.”

“Does Reid know yet?”

She shook her head. “She wants to tell him in person.” He didn’t respond, just studied her. “I’m fine, Dad. All of that is way over.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“So seeing him again hasn’t changed anything?”

“Nope. He’s Stella’s problem.” She smiled so he’d know she was teasing.

“We men are problems, that’s for certain.”

“Some more than others, Dad. If I could find someone like you, I’d be thrilled.”

“Oh no. Thankfully that mold broke over fifty years ago.”

“Gosh I hope not. We need more loving, hardworking, honest, dependable, faithful men like you in the world.” He put his hands on his head and then expanded them outward, like his head was growing from all the praise. She gently knocked one of them aside. “Goof ball.”

Her uncle approached them. “Do you have time to come to my office? I’d like to lock up the shop for the day and let Mrs. McLane go home.”

Ellie looked at her father. “We have to wait for Stella anyway.” He nodded. “Okay, that’s fine, Uncle Jim. We’ll meet you there.”

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 Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellie retrieved the box. “This one?”

“Yes. Okay, I’m ready now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They said they were bringing her to you.”

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

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

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

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

“May I ask who’s calling?”

“Ellie, umm, Elanor Thompson.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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