Emily’s thoughts were still with Jeremy the next afternoon as she kept herself busy cleaning her dorm room. With a three-day break and not much to help her fill the hours, she had decided a good pre-Christmas/finals cleaning might be just what she needed to take her mind off of him. However, it hadn’t quite worked out that way. The snow outside her window continued to come down although more gently now. Twice she had gotten caught just staring at it and thinking.
It was so strange because when the two of them were together, not on a date, but just together, Jeremy seemed like an altogether different person. He was almost… nice. Immediately her mind asked if he wasn’t a nice guy the other times. Yes. But in a different way. As hard as she thought, she couldn’t explain exactly why.
Like the night before, in the car, he was so sad and hurt. It was as if he was a little kid in desperate need of a hug and someone to just listen. Emily wondered about Rebecca’s side of the story he told. Somehow they had made it through and stayed friends. Somehow Rebecca had forgiven him, but it was clear Jeremy hadn’t forgiven himself. Strangely, Emily never would’ve guessed all of that when she was out with them. They seemed as if they had been friends forever.
The laundry had piled up in the basket until it was clear she needed to take it to the laundry room and get it done, or it would take over her whole room. The good news was if she did, she would have clothes through the end of the semester. Then she could go home and do the next round there. Home. She bumped into that word hard.
The hour she’d spent with her family on the phone the day before represented the most time she’d spent with them in three months. Even now she wished she could call them, or better yet go there permanently. Homesickness twined through her as she turned the corner into the laundry room. She was all the way in and at the little table before she noticed that on the dryer, propped against the side wall sat Holly with her textbook angled on her knees.
“Oh, hi,” Emily said as she swung her basket onto the table.
Holly looked up in surprise both at Emily’s arrival and that it was someone she knew. “Hi. What’re you doing here? I thought everybody went home.”
“Not this everybody.” Emily laughed a short little laugh as she commenced throwing clothes onto various piles. “I was about to be covered up by the laundry monster. I figured it was better than studying.”
“Huh. I decided to do both. Makes thinking so much less likely.”
Emily snagged on the melancholy and the downward tilt of Holly’s head. “So, how are things?”
For the longest minute there was no answer. Finally Holly heaved a sigh that Emily heard even over the sound of the dryer. “Do you really want to know, or are you asking just to ask?”
Although she hadn’t considered there to be a difference, all levity dropped from her demeanor in a heartbeat. Clothing piles all but forgotten, she gazed over at Holly with concern. “I really want to know. Why? What’s going on?”
Holly sighed again and shook her head. “I hate this.”
The concern deepened. “What ‘this’?”
Anger dripped from the scowl on Holly’s face. “This. Everything. My life.”
The answer bowled into Emily. “Why? What happened?”
In disgust Holly shook her head and set her jaw into stone. “My mother. Again.”
So that she could look busy and not as worried as she really was, Emily flipped a shirt into the colors pile even though she kept her gaze on the figure sitting on the dryer. “Oh? What about her?”
Holly’s glance across the room was only that. It was clear the more she thought about whatever had happened, the closer to tears she got. Finally her face crumpled altogether. When she took a breath, it pulled more anguish to the surface. Finally seeing the emotional turmoil that was impossible to miss, Emily left her laundry and went over to Holly. The crushed look Holly turned on her when Emily got to the dryer ripped Emily’s heart out. “Holly?” Concern and compassion wafted through Emily as she laid her hand on Holly’s arm. “Hey. Whatever it is, you can tell me.”
The books slid from Holly’s lap as she turned and let her legs dangle over the side. She buried her face in her hands as sobs of pain echoed through the room. “I can’t believe she did it again. I just can’t believe it.”
Softly, gently Emily rubbed her hand across Holly’s back. She waited, knowing Holly would tell her in her time. There was no need to rush it. Moments slid by one into the next, into the next. With a breath Emily pulled in the Spirit’s help. Whatever had happened was big, and she wasn’t at all sure she would have the words to help Holly through this. Not saying so much as a word aloud, she prayed in her spirit for guidance. Words, timing, guidance, help, strength—all of it.
With a slight jerk Holly shook her head three times, shaking off the tears as she sat up and sniffed. “I hate her.” She wiped her eyes in embarrassment and tried to smile. “I really do.”
Emily’s gaze took in the anguish. “Parents aren’t perfect even though it would be nice if they were.”
“Yeah.” Holly laughed a hollow laugh. “That would be nice.” She shook her head and set her jaw. Her gaze shifted to the other side of the room as she struggled to pull composure back to her.
Carefully Emily moved the books on the dryer next to Holly’s. Then she spun and hoisted herself onto the white appliance. After a minute her gaze traveled over to Holly. “It’s tough when they let you down, huh?”
“You can say that again.” Holly sniffed. “I really thought Dan was the one, you know? The one who would make her stop. Stop running, stop looking, stop killing every chance we ever had at normal. I guess that worked.” The shake of her head was so slight as to not even be there. “Six months. Six stinking months. I mean, the ink hadn’t even dried on the marriage license this time.”
Emily raked in the breath of understanding. “This isn’t the first one, huh?”
“Fifth.” Holly sniffed, looking as if she was physically burying the hurt. “’Course that doesn’t count the others that never made it to the altar, but those only stayed a night or two if that.”
It was difficult in one way to comprehend the life Holly was describing, but in another, not so difficult at all. “She leaves them? They leave her?”
Holly shrugged. “Does it matter? Somebody always messes up enough that I’m left to pick up the pieces.” She ran the edge of her hand over the moisture in the corner of her eye.
Numbness descended on Holly’s features. “I thought it was going to be different here, you know? Mom’s there. I’m here. I can’t get mixed up in the middle of it, right? Well, that worked.”
“How’d you get in the middle of it?”
The look Holly gave her was like she hadn’t realized this conversation was really happening. She considered the question for a moment and then deflated as her gaze fell between her knees. “Dan was helping her pay for me, for here. Now that he’s gone…” The admission pulled her face down into her hands. Her elbows were digging into her knees, making creases on her faded denim jeans. However, this breakdown lasted considerably less time than the previous one had. She heaved a ragged breath. “So, who knows what happens next. By January Rebecca may be looking for a new roommate.”
Emily let all the information go into her and through her. “Do you want to leave?”
“No.” Holly face crumpled on the word. “I really like it here. I’ve made some really good friends—Rebecca, Eric… I don’t want to start over again.” Anger flashed through her and she rammed her elbow into the wall. “I hate starting over again! I hate it.” Both hands came up as fists across her face as she fought to hide her grief behind them.
“Hey.” Gently Emily reached over and wrapped her arm around Holly who let herself drop into the hug as the sobs took over again. “Let it out. Okay? Don’t fight it. Just let it out.”
Wrenching sobs cascaded from Holly who shook with each one. “It’s just not fair. It’s just not.”
“No, you’re right. It’s not. Life stinks sometimes. And sometimes it stinks worse than that.” Emily wound her chin up over Holly’s head as she held her there, absorbing the grief and the anger and the hurt.
“I don’t know why she always has to be so selfish. I don’t know why for once she can’t stick it out when it gets tough. Why does she just give up at the first sign of trouble?”
“I don’t know.” Emily’s memory tripped on another ripped-apart soul, and she looked Heavenward pleadingly. No one deserved this kind of pain. No one. And yet it seemed everywhere she looked people were plummeting through grief and hurt so deep that they might be swallowed up at any moment. “I really don’t know.”
By the time the sun went down on Saturday evening, Jeremy was bored to tears. Even the big screen television no longer held any fascination. He tried playing video games, but that didn’t help either. In the kitchen he sighed as he looked into the refrigerator. Nothing looked appealing. Nothing sounded good. As he headed back into the living room, his gaze caught on the cordless phone. With a shake of his head, he kept walking. However, planted in front of the television, the evening spread in front of him like an endless horizon.
He ticked off his options, which weren’t many. Eric was still at his parents’. With the clearing of the clouds, the temperature outside had dropped to below nothing, so going out alone in the cold didn’t sound appealing either. No, like it or not, he was trapped, and that didn’t look to be changing any time soon. As if pulled there by an unseen force, his gaze slid back to the phone. Calling her made no sense whatsoever, but that’s all he could think of doing. Finally just to get his head to shut up, he stood and grabbed the phone before collapsing back on the couch.
He dialed the number, having surreptitiously obtained it from the message Rebecca had left Eric three weeks before telling him she could be reached at Emily’s. Jeremy punched in the numbers and ratcheted himself down vertically on the leather. One ring, then two. A finger of concern traced through him. Where would she be at this hour?
The sound of her voice filled his whole spirit. He loved that soft, feminine timbre. “Well, hello, beautiful. What’re you up to? This is Jeremy.”
“Oh.” She breathed. “I almost hung up on you.”
He grinned. “Wouldn’t be the first time someone’s done that. How’re you?”
“Fine. I guess.” However, she sounded as if life had gotten the best of her, and she was giving up. The sigh she added didn’t improve the assessment.
The tops of his eyebrows plunged forward. “I guess? What’s up with that? You sound like it’s Monday morning instead of Saturday night.”
“Yeah, well, if I knew where Holly was right now, I’d feel a little better.”
The name from the previous semester bumped into Jeremy. “Holly? I didn’t know you guys hung around together.”
Again Emily sighed, and that was doing nothing to calm his nerves. He sat forward and scratched the back of his head.
“Well, we talked last night ‘til like two in the morning,” Emily said, and without being there he could see her arms folded and the worried look on her face. It was a face he could get used to seeing. “She’s really having a hard time. Family stuff. But she’s been gone all day today. I’ve been calling their room. There’s no answer, and I just went up there. Nothing. I’m afraid of what she might do as bad as she was last night.”
Worry clapped over him, and he leaned an elbow on his knee. “Do? As in…?”
“As in I don’t know. She’s really torn up. Her mom’s getting a divorce and moving to California. Holly’s afraid she may yank her out of school, or who knows what.”
“California! Good grief. That’s a little drastic.”
“Well, apparently her mom’s like that. I think stability’s been in really short supply in Holly’s life.”
Jeremy sighed. “Been there. So she didn’t say where she was going tonight?” His gaze slid to the window and out onto the bleak coldness beyond. Wherever Holly was, he hoped she was warm and safe.
“I didn’t think to ask. I mean, where would you go on a night like this?”
“Maybe she went out with some friends.”
For the life of him Jeremy couldn’t think of a good plan of action. It would’ve been nice to at least set Emily’s mind at ease, but he could think of nothing that would even do that.
Finally Emily heaved a sigh. “So, what are you doing?”
He noticed the change of subject and hoped it would give her something else to think about for awhile. He slumped back into the soft leather. “Being bored.”
“Bored?” She laughed. “I thought you have like 772 channels on that television of yours, what do you have to be bored about?”
“Yeah? Well, there’s nothing on 775 of them. Oh, no I take that back. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is on one, but Eric’s not here, so…”
“You’d have no excuse.”
He grinned. “Something like that. What about you? You making lots of forward progress?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m such an overachiever. I’m reading ahead in Animal Science. Well, I was before I went up to check on Holly anyway.” The melancholy returned to her voice.
Skepticism drained through him. “Animal Science? You’re serious.”
“Yeah. It’s kind of required for a wildlife major.”
His brain stomped through the implications of that answer. “So, what are you planning on doing with this major anyway?”
“Well, park rangers and wildlife management in Remlin is a possibility, or I could manage the wildlife on a hunting range.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Like quail or deer…”
“You’re talking real animals here.”
“Yeah, it’s not much fun to shoot the fake kind.” Her laugh danced through him.
“So, you hunt then?”
“Some. My dad’s kind of in charge of the hunting on the ranch where he works, but it was more than he could really keep track of.”
“Oh, so you want to go back and work for your dad.”
There was a hesitation, but only a breath of a one. “Actually I’d work for the Wycliffs.”
“They own the ranch.”
“Oh.” A previously unseen piece of the puzzle of her life fell into place. “So, you want to be the wildlife manager for the ranch then.”
“It’s an option.”
He pulled his foot up to his other knee as he transferred the phone to the other ear. “So, you must really like… What’s the name of it again?”
“Remlin.” Her voice slid into wistfulness. “It’s nice. So different than here.”
“Oh? How so?”
“Well, it’s quieter for one thing. The closest neighbor could be a couple miles away or more, especially if you live a little farther up in the mountains than my mom and dad do. But then, up there you have to deal with the snow. Four-wheel drives, tire chains, that kind of thing. But it would still be worth it.”
“Yeah, but isn’t it boring up there? I mean there’s nothing to do.”
She breathed a laugh. “I thought you were bored here.”
Caught in his own circular reasoning, Jeremy shared her laugh. “Well, you’ve got a point there.”
“Up there it’s a peaceful bored. Here it’s like a manic bored, like you’re supposed to be doing something but you’re not, so you feel bored and guilty. Up there, you can just sit and just be, and it’s okay.”
He tried to imagine the place she was describing. “I couldn’t do it. I’d go completely bananas.”
“Who knows? You might really love it. I think it’s like having your own little piece of heaven.”
The dreamy quality of her voice was pulling him into the vortex of her dream, and he shook his head to get the trance to break. “So, your folks have a house there then?”
Sadness touched her tone. “No, they rent one on the ranch, but if I go back, I want to buy something. Even if it’s only a little something. I’m not going to tie my life to someone else’s whims if I can help it.”
“Independent wildlife consultant available but at a price?”
A smile cracked through the sadness. “Something like that.” She gasped. “Oh, hey. Someone’s here. Hang on.”
For a moment Jeremy thought she was simply going to hang up. Instead, it was clear she had put the phone down. He could hear the conversation in muffled bits and pieces.
“Oh, my gosh! I was so worried about you… Are you okay? Yeah. Just a second.” Scratching noise announced her return. “Jeremy?”
“Listen, Holly’s back. I’ve gotta go.”
Disappointment smacked into him. “Oh, sure. No problem. Take care. I’ll see you Tuesday.”
“K. Take care.”
They signed off, and as he hit the off button, Jeremy couldn’t help but feel how long it seemed until Tuesday.
“I’m sorry,” Holly said as she stood at Emily’s door. “It’s just when I got back, you’d left that message on the machine, and I tried to call you back…”
“No. No problem. I was just talking to Jeremy. He’s snowed in and bored,” Emily said, brushing off the phone call as if it meant nothing to her. The truth was her heart had been about to pound out of her chest the entire time; however, the reality was they were friends. Nothing more. So as ridiculous as her heart was being, she knew better. “Come on in. Where’ve you been?”
“I went over to Gorman Hall for awhile with a friend of mine. We’ve been talking.” Holly came into the room, shut the door, and dropped into the brown chair.
Grabbing a throw pillow, Emily sat on the bed. “So, how is everything? Have you heard from your mom?”
The platinum blond bob brushed the bottom of Holly’s jaw line as she shook her head. “It’s probably better that way. I’d hate to make anything worse.”
“Is that possible?”
Holly laughed shortly. “Probably not. But mom’s not real long on patience. She takes everything I say wrong, so it’s easier just to avoid the subject rather than to hear the yelling.”
Avoiding the subject. That was a topic Emily knew a lot about, but she shoved that thought underneath her desire to help. “So, have you come up with a way to pay for school without her?”
“Alisa… that’s the girl I went to talk to… she said I could get loans and stuff, but I don’t know. It’s all so overwhelming.” She scratched the part in her hair. “I mean doing it on my own, without help. I’m not exactly what you’d call independent.”
Softly Emily smiled at her. “Well, maybe it’s time to learn.”
“Why can’t they shut up for a little while?” Jalile asked, glancing over her shoulder the next Sunday evening as the kids around Emily’s table leaned forward trying to hear Leslie’s most recent encounter with the Holy Spirit. The noise in the gym where the basketball goals stood increased exponentially with each table that broke from classes, and they were breaking fast.
“Anyway,” Leslie continued despite the noise, “Mom said James and I could go to the store, but I forgot my purse and had to go back. Then on our way to the store, there was this humongous wreck. If I hadn’t had to go back, we might have been right there when it happened.”
Jalile shook her head seriously. “It’s weird because I always thought we just lived. I didn’t know the Holy Spirit was doing anything until we started talking about it here.” She leaned in even more, nearly shouting to be heard. “I was taking a science test the other day, and I was totally freaking out until I remembered to breathe, like Emily told us. I closed my eyes and said a little prayer, and it was like the little box of answers in my brain just opened up.”
With a scowl Leslie glanced over at the basketball players. “Why do they have to be so noisy? I wish we could go somewhere quieter. It’s hard to pray with all the yelling.”
Emily agreed. As much progress as they had made with the noise, it would be much better without it. “Well, I was thinking. If you all want, I could talk to Charlie and see if he’ll let us use that first room in the hall. I don’t think there are chairs, but it would be a lot quieter, and maybe we could even do some music and other things.”
Except for Matt who was again sleeping, the other five heads nodded in unison.
“Then it’s settled. I’ll talk to Charlie, and if I don’t tell you any different, we’ll meet in that room when we come back after Christmas.”
With that, they said their closing prayer, and hugs encircled Emily. It was amazing how much she had grown to love these kids once she’d thought to get to know them. “Have a great Christmas, Jalile and good luck on finals.”
“You too, Miss.” The black girl was growing into her womanhood, and Emily said a silent prayer that once they had the privacy and time, the Holy Spirit would find a way to let her guide them through this treacherous time of life. The group broke up—some going to basketball, some going to snacks.
Emily sidled her way around the gym over to Charlie who stood with another sponsor doing nothing more than drinking Kool-Aid and talking. Once there, her courage almost failed her, but she gathered it up quickly. “Umm, Charlie. Can I talk to you right quick?”
“Sure. What’s up?” He wasn’t much younger than her, and she wondered how much training he had for this job. After all they had accepted her on the basis of her offer.
“Umm, my group and I were talking tonight, and it would really be nice if we could start meeting in that extra room over there.” She pointed in the direction of the closed door. “Not everybody, just my group.”
“Oh.” His face fell. “There aren’t any chairs in there.”
“I know, but they said that’s okay. We just can’t talk in here with all the noise.”
“Look out!” With one hand Charlie batted a basketball to keep it from hitting Emily who ducked out of its way. Crisis averted, Charlie went back to his drink. “Well, I’d hate to make your group feel left out, sticking them off by themselves like that.” He took a drink as if the conversation should be over.
“Yeah, well, they were the ones who suggested it. We’re always last to break anyway, and when everyone else gets up to play, it’s really hard to get anything else done.” She didn’t want to beg. Charlie was the kind of guy who liked girls to be under his fist of control. However, she also was not willing to back down on this one.
“I’m not cleaning that room too,” he said with a deepening scowl.
“I’ll clean it. You won’t have to lift a finger. I promise.”
He didn’t look particularly happy about it, but finally he nodded. “But if anybody complains, that’s it.”
“No problem.” She spun on her heel, strode to the table, and picked up her books and purse. It was weird, but she was going to miss youth night between now and when they came back after Christmas. On her way out, she waved to Jalile and Leslie and even to Matt although he didn’t really acknowledge her effort.
Outside, she hopped on the bus, making a mental note to share the breakthroughs with her Bible Study group and her lunch pals. Her mind tripped across one lunch pal in particular, and she reanchored her purse on her shoulder at the thought. Dreamily her gaze drifted outside. The snow from Thanksgiving was gone, but she still remembered being in his car and at Eric’s. That was a good day. It was too bad they were meant to be just friends. Jeremy was really a nice guy when he let himself be.
At her dorm she got off and half ran, half walked across the grass, through the parking lot, and into the warmth of the building. One thing was for sure, Boston winters could almost out-pace Colorado winters but for the snow. Swiftly she climbed the stairs and went straight to her room. However, she was surprised to find the light on her machine blinking. A punch of the button and his voice filled her so that the smile came automatically.
“Hey, there, Emily-remily. This is Jeremy. Short notice I know, but Becca’s coming over tonight, and I was thinking you could ride over with her. Call me back when you get this so I know how many burgers to make. See ya later. ‘Bye.”
Emily shook her head. She threw her stuff on the end of the bed, slid up to the headboard, and picked up the phone. It took less than two minutes to have him on the phone.
“I didn’t come,” she said by way of intro, and she heard his laugh.
“Yeah. I kind of noticed that.”
“Sorry. I had youth group tonight.”
“You would take youth group over my deluxe guacamole burgers?”
“I’m sorry. You should’ve called sooner.”
“Would it have made a difference?” he asked.
He laughed. “Well, at least you’re honest.”
Her laugh matched his. “I’d better be. I just got back from church.”
“Oh. Good point.”
What they talked about from that point forward didn’t really matter as much as that she could be with him even over the phone lines. There was something about his wit and his quick humor that lit her spirit. She couldn’t have explained it had she tried, so she didn’t. It didn’t even occur to her to question it even when they finally hung up three hours later. As night took hold of the clock, she climbed into bed, and even in her dreams, he was the one person in the world that she wanted to talk with. Peaceful dreaming enveloped her, and she let her dreams take her wherever they wanted to go.
“Becca and I were talking,” Eric said on Thursday as the foursome sat around the table, sandwiches and drinks nearly finished.
“There’s a scary thought,” Jeremy said, but he grinned so everyone would know he was teasing. Being with them had become so effortless in the past two weeks. Some of that was due to Eric and Rebecca, but most was because of the black-haired beauty sitting right next to him. He had lost track of the number of hours they had spent talking on the phone. It was never about deep things, but still, it was like whole evenings could pass without him so much as noticing. In fact, he wasn’t even sure his television still worked.
“Be nice,” Emily said, leaning into him, but her smile said she wasn’t really upset, more that she was trying to keep him in line.
“Like I’m ever anything but nice,” Jeremy retorted.
“You have your moments,” she said, gazing at him with a look that swept all reason away from him.
“Hmm.” Eric cleared his throat. “Like I was saying, Becca and I were talking, and we thought it would be fun to go out looking at Christmas lights on Friday night.”
Jeremy was looking at the only thing he ever wanted to see again, and she made carrying on logical conversation very difficult.
“Yeah, so,” Rebecca said when neither of them fell off the cloud they were obviously floating on. “You guys in or out? We thought we’d leave about 7, maybe grab something to eat. We definitely want to go out to Emerson Park. After that, I don’t know that it matters.”
Emily was the first to break the spell when she managed to wrench her attention from him so it could go to the other side of the table. “Sounds good to me.”
“Me, too.” Anything that involved Emily was good with Jeremy.
Rebecca showed up at Emily’s ten minutes before the guys were supposed to be there. Within a minute and a half, it was clear her arrival had more to do with curiosity than promptness.
“So, what’s up with you and Jeremy anyway?” Rebecca asked as she sat on Emily’s bed.
Across the room Emily straightened her belt, checked her reflection, and readjusted her shirt. “Why do you think something’s up?”
“Hello. He was looking at you like he wanted to eat you at lunch on Thursday.”
Emily laughed as she took out her perfume. She wished she had something more expensive and exotic, but Windsong was all she had ever worn. “We’re friends.”
“Uh-huh.” Nothing about Rebecca’s agreement sounded like an agreement. “That’s why he was on the phone with you for like six hours the other night.”
“Three,” Emily said defensively. “But who’s counting?”
The smile Rebecca beamed at her made her ears flame to life. She picked up the little throw pillow from the chair and aimed it at her friend. “It’s not like that, and you know it.”
Rebecca caught the pillow at her face. “I know no such thing. I think he’s got a thing for you, and if I’m not missing my guess, I think it’s mutual.”
The phone rang, and Emily was glad for something to distract Rebecca from her crazy theory. She strode to the phone, purposely putting her back to her friend. “Hello?”
“Hey, there, doll-face.”
Emily couldn’t stop the smile so she spun farther toward the phone so Rebecca wouldn’t see her. “Hey. You downstairs?”
“Ready and waiting.”
“Cool. Becca’s here. We’ll be down in a sec.”
“Okay. But don’t take too long. I might not be able to wait.”
“We won’t.” Emily hung up the phone and had to take a breath to get the excitement to settle down in her chest before she could turn with anything resembling nonchalance to face Rebecca. “They’re downstairs.”
Happy knowing danced through Rebecca’s gaze when she stood. “Then we don’t want to keep them waiting.”
If she was any more excited, Emily felt like she would’ve floated right off the floor.
“Hello, ladies,” Eric said as the two of them came down the stairs. It was a good thing he could get something out because Jeremy’s brain gears had locked the second he caught sight of her. Ice blue top over a solid black everything else made her skin appear darker, her hair shiner, and her more beautiful than any other he’d ever seen. And with her hair pulled up and out of her face, he could see much more of her face, which was a very, very good change.
“’Bout time you guys get here,” Rebecca said jovially. At the last step she leaned in to kiss Eric.
Across the step, Emily stopped, and her gaze plummeted to the floor. Jeremy loved that shyness about her. It did funny things to his insides.
“Don’t worry about them,” he said, leaning closer to her both to keep the inside joke between them and so he could get just a little closer to her. She smelled like an April rain, and she looked like the best Christmas present he’d ever gotten. “They’re always like this, but if you don’t get too close, I don’t think it will rub off.”
Emily laughed softly and corkscrewed her face. “Oh, gosh. Let’s hope not.”
And then because he had wanted to for so very long, Jeremy slid his hand into hers. Slim fingers, the perfect amount of warmth. It felt like coming home.
“So are we going or what?” Eric asked as if he was frustrated by the lack of progress by the entire group.
“Hey, we were waiting for you,” Jeremy said, forcing the words through the non-existent breaths. When they turned for the car, her hand still in his, he wouldn’t have been surprised to find himself flying the rest of the evening.
The conversation at the little burger joint was light-hearted and easy. For that, Emily was grateful. It was so much easier to be with him when it wasn’t just the two of them. Why that was, she wasn’t at all sure, but for one night she didn’t want to analyze, she only wanted to enjoy.
Back in the car, she discreetly sat on her side of the backseat. Of course she wanted him to hold her hand, but every time he did, she didn’t think her heart would withstand the rush. In the front Eric and Rebecca babbled on about how to get wherever they were going. For Emily, anywhere they were going was fine as long as Jeremy was there with her.
Slowly, stealthily Jeremy slid his hand across the seat palm up in invitation to hers, and the leap of her heart filled her throat. Wanting to accept the unspoken invitation more than she had ever wanted anything else in her life, Emily let her hand drift over to his, and at the first touch, she had to swallow the gasp that filled her. Their fingers touched, drifting over and across each other, sending a rush of signals throughout her body. A moment and the centers of their palms slipped side to side over one another. The tingling sensation of drifting over his soft but solid hand ripped her breath away. It was clear he wasn’t intent on holding rather he simply wanted to touch and play. It didn’t matter. The teasing was more thrilling than she could ever have imagined.
His gaze chanced up to take in her face even as his hand continued exploring hers. She couldn’t look at him. He might see the cascading emotions crashing through her. Finally, with a firm grip, he caught her fingers in between his, and his thumb rubbed solidly over her knuckles. The suddenness of the gesture took her so by surprise that she had to force herself to calm down.
Gently he pulled her hand to his lips and kissed the tops of her knuckles. She wasn’t sure it was the smartest move ever, but her gaze found his just the same. His smile was tender, and his eyes held only respect and love. She couldn’t be sure she actually smiled in return. It was too easy to get lost in the trance he had her in.
“Oh, look at that one!” Rebecca said from the front as Emily gave up the idea of staying on her side and let herself fall under the arm he pulled her under. “It’s beautiful.”
“It sure is,” Jeremy whispered into Emily’s hair, which was now pressed next to his lips.
Instinct said she should be shy, and sanity said she shouldn’t let him get too close because of the danger of letting her heart slip from her grasp again. However, at that moment instinct and sanity were nowhere to be seen. With his free hand, he caught hers on his thigh, and she let herself get lost in being with him. Life at that moment was more perfect than anything she could ever have let herself imagine it could be again.
Two hours driving around looking at lights hadn’t been nearly enough for Jeremy, so when they pulled up to the dorms again, he was determined not to let this opportunity get away. “I’ll just walk Em to the door.”
Eric said something Jeremy didn’t really hear. Quickly, he got out his side and helped her out.
He could feel her shyness reassert itself as she told Eric and Rebecca goodnight. It nearly dropped the barrier back between them as they started for the sidewalk; however, this time Jeremy wasn’t letting anything build walls it had taken so much effort to break down. Trying not to be overly obvious, he slid his hand between them and into hers. He glanced over at her. “I had fun tonight.”
“Yeah, so did I.” Her shoulders seemed to enfold the rest of her into them. She glanced his way sending the dark tresses that cascaded down her jacket front in a gentle slide to one side. “The lights were really beautiful.”
He smiled at her. “I wasn’t really looking at the lights.”
She ducked her head and said nothing. When they got to the door, Jeremy carefully angled his steps into the tree-provided darkness by the empty, stone-cold flower planters. Wishing with every heartbeat that he could let himself go and not think about each and every move he made with her, he spun her gently so she could lean against the planter. Instead of taking up the position next to her, however, he stayed where he was so they were now toe-to-toe.
If she was like every other girl he’d been with, aggressive and confident, he would’ve known what to do. But she wasn’t like any of them. Instead she looked like a fragile bird frightened of being crushed. He fought to think of something normal to say that didn’t sound either cheesy or leading. “I guess you’re going home for Christmas.”
Her head was down so all he could see was the part in her hair. She nodded. After a moment she pulled her gaze up. “First flight out next Wednesday.”
The thought of a whole month without her crashed into him. “You don’t have finals?”
“Three Monday. Two Tuesday.”
Shock knocked into him. “And you’re going out looking at lights on Friday?”
The smile that drifted up from her to him sang through his heart. “How could I say no?”
His gaze intertwined with hers, and something he couldn’t fight took over. Like a magnet-to-magnet attraction it tugged him irrevocably toward her. “Well, I’m glad you didn’t.” With the tips of his fingers, he brushed down the fall of hair from the edge of her neck as she stared into his eyes without moving. At that moment it was clear that kissing her was the reason he had been born. Who came toward whom, he would never have been able to tell, but when he closed his eyes, and her lips found his, warmth and freedom spread through him in torrents he hadn’t expected. Breathing ceased to be important. Life ceased to be important. All that mattered was that finally she wasn’t running.
One kiss and then two, and Jeremy’s brain slammed into gear again. It was worse than the hardest thing he had ever done, but he knew that pushing her farther than she was willing to let him go was a one-way ticket to a disaster.
He backed up, hoping some distance would break the attraction. It didn’t. “So, can I call you over Christmas?”
She smiled as the shyness returned. “You better.”
For six days Emily had thought of nearly nothing but him. Finals were a challenge not so much because they were hard but because he drifted through her thoughts at random intervals causing her breathing and thoughts to do strange things at the most inopportune moments. More than anything she wanted this to be for real, and yet, the nagging thoughts wouldn’t leave her alone. The plane ride to Colorado was an exercise in finding out how much she could argue with herself.
There were the two disaster dates, which couldn’t just be explained away as flukes. But more than that, there was the arrogance and the materialism that couldn’t be ignored. Then again, when he wasn’t trying to impress anyone, he could be so sweet and so gentle and so kind that she had a hard time figuring out why she wouldn’t just let herself fall for him without a look back. She sighed and let her head fall to the side. Her gaze drifted out, far beyond the clouds to Heaven itself. “God, please. I can’t make another mistake here. I might never recover this time. Please, help me to make the right choices with Jeremy—even if they aren’t the easy ones.”
“Emily V! I don’t believe it! When did you get in?” Audry Reynolds, her best friend from high school, threw her arms around Emily with no more warning than that. Somehow it wasn’t the reception she had expected when she’d made the quick stop at the bank for her mom on Thursday. It was strange how all this felt so normal and yet so… different.
“Aud! What’ve you been up to?” Emily returned the hug and pushed back to survey her friend. The bright red hair flipped up at the ends, the fashionable outfit. As much as some things changed, others never did.
“Michael didn’t tell me you were back,” Audry said, referring to Emily’s older brother. The question of why he would have didn’t register.
“Yeah, I got back Wednesday evening. Jet lag and the whole thing.”
Audry took hold of Emily and dragged her out of line and over to the blue padded benches along the side. It was clear the deposit would have to wait. “Okay. Okay. I’ve got to know. How’s Boston?”
“It’s good.” She hoped her smile didn’t give her totally away as she brushed the hair from her forehead and wound it over her ear. “I’ve only got another year left.”
“Wow. I can’t believe it. It’s gone by so fast. So are you still coming back when you’re finished?”
Soft acquiescence drifted through her. “Can’t stay away.”
It was then that Audry dropped her head closer to Emily even as her gaze darted around the bank. “Haven’t had much limit-busting since you-know-who left.”
You-know-who. The words banged into Emily like a fist to the gut. She tried to laugh it off, but it hurt. “Does that surprise you?”
“No. He’s such a jerk. I heard he’s coming back to town for Christmas. I just wish Santa would kindly run over him with his sleigh, put him out of all our miseries.”
“Now, Aud,” Emily protested with a shake of her head. Emotions she had thought were long-since gone traced through her, and it was all she could do to fight them back so they didn’t find their way into her voice.
Audry waved a pale hand dotted with freckles in the air. “What? Okay. I know. I know. Forgive and forget. I wish I could do that as easily as you did.”
Emily shrugged off the memories. “Like I had a choice.”
“Well, I for one can’t wait until you’re back here for good, and you can nail his carcass to the wall.”
“This isn’t about revenge.” Emily ducked her head. “It’s about protecting those that can’t protect themselves from someone who thinks he can take anything he wants.”
Audry’s eyes narrowed to two green slits. “I know, but still. I’d pay big money to see him in handcuffs and locked away for good for all the misery he’s caused.”
“Yeah? Well, maybe someday, Aud. Maybe some day.”
Knee-deep in lights, tinsel, and ornaments, Emily barely noticed the phone ring until her younger brother, Nathan, one of the twins brought it to her on Saturday afternoon. Except for her and Nathan, the house was empty.
“For you, Em.”
“Me?” That was weird. No one called her. The ringing phone was always for one of her brothers or her parents.
Like he was bored, Nathan flipped the phone to her. “Some guy.”
Confusion and fear rammed through her chest as she took the phone, not bothering to untwine the long strand of silver garland tree tinsel that was wrapped around her shoulders four times. It hung down across her in unpatterned arcs, and she had to flip the bottom edge of it up, over her other shoulder to be able to get the phone to her ear. “Hello?”
“Hey, stranger. How’s it going?”
Jeremy’s voice made her insides jump. Instantly the need not to be in the center of her parents’ living room sank through her. She stepped past Nathan who was lounging on the couch and kept walking right to her room to the left of the hallway. “Ugh. I’m putting up the Christmas tree for Mom. Joy. Joy.” She sat on her bed and had to flip the edge of the garland over her shoulder again because it fell off. “You?”
“Oh, you know.”
Worry trounced through her on the desolation in his voice. “No, I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me?” His side went silent, and her worry turned to serious concern. “Jeremy, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. It’s dumb.”
“Well, fortunately I don’t charge for dumb. So, give. What’s up?”
He sniffed softly, and that threw her into real concern. “I’m just sick of being here alone that’s all.”
“Alone? What do you mean alone? Where are you?”
“North Carolina. On the beach. Sitting out here on the deck watching the waves, so what do I have to be complaining about, right?”
He sounded more depressed than she had ever heard him.
“You don’t have friends there?”
“Oh, you mean the jerks next door who had the blow-out bash last night? Well, yeah. Them I get along with.” The laugh was miniscule and derisive. “Actually, I’d be better off if I went over there the whole time and skipped this joke my family calls being together.”
Sarcastic to the point of malicious, Emily heard the hurt and anger three-quarters of a country away. “Okay, Jeremy. That’s it. What’s really going on?”
He let out a long, heart-wrenching breath. “Well, so far, I’ve been here for three days, by myself, watching television. There’s nobody to talk to, and nobody who really cares if I’m dead or alive.”
She wanted to put her arms around him. “What about your mom?”
He laughed. “Oh, yeah. Her. She was supposed to be here, huh? Well, that worked for all of five minutes. She called me from New York ten minutes after I got here. Emergency meetings. Can’t be helped.”
The concern dug deeper into her. “She ditched you for Christmas?”
“Oh, no. She’s flying back at six o’clock on Christmas Eve… if I’m lucky.”
“Oh, man, Jeremy.” Emily ran her hand through her hair and slid back onto her bed so that her back was against the wall and her feet dangled off the edge. “I’m sorry. I wish there was something I could do.”
Sadness drifted through his voice. “You already are. I’ve been sitting here for 48 hours trying to think of someone to call.”
“It took you 48 hours to think to call me?” Somehow that hurt.
“No, it took me 48 hours to get up the nerve to call you.”
She laughed. “Yeah. Like I’m so scary.”
“No, I just didn’t want to bother you. I know you’ve got stuff going on there.” He sounded so sad and desolate.
Serious rapped into her. “Hey, now. Okay. You listen to me. Let’s get one thing straight right now. I’m never too busy to talk to you. Got it?”
The sound he made said he didn’t believe her.
“I’m serious, Jeremy. If you ever need to talk, I’m here. Midnight. Noon. Three o’clock in the morning.”
His laugh was filled with disbelief. “Yeah, you and me and the party next door.”
She shrugged. “Could be worse. It could be you by yourself and the party next door.”
There was a sigh she heard with no trouble.
“I’m so tired of this. I shouldn’t have come. I should’ve just stayed in Boston like I wanted to. At least there I’ve got Eric.”
“You could go back.”
“Oh, yeah. There’s an idea. Mom would kill me dead.”
That sent anger through her. “She’s not there, but she expects you to be?”
“Yep, that’s how it works.” He sounded so matter-of-fact.
“Well, that stinks.”
“Tell me about it.”
Emily tried to think of something to do, something to make him sound less abandoned, less hopeless.
“So tell me about Christmas at your house,” Jeremy said, and the wistfulness in his voice wafted across the lines. “I bet it’s great.”
Although she would never have thought so, Emily could see how lucky she really was, and so, she launched into a play-by-play of all the happenings in her life since she’d walked away from him Friday night. Leaving out as few details as possible, she recounted everything, inserting as much humor and levity into the story as she could until an hour and a half later he sounded almost normal again.
Sometime in the middle of the conversation, she had resorted to lying down on her pillows, the tinsel garland still wrapped around her so that she looked like a Christmas tree taking a nap. The light was fading at her window when she heard the knock on her door.
“Sweetheart? Did you forget the tree?” her mother asked as she pushed open the door.
Instantly Emily sat up, and her head swam with the motion. “Yeah, Mom. Sorry. I’m working on it. I’ll be right there.”
Her mother acknowledged the answer and ducked back out.
“Listen, Jeremy, I’ve got to go. Christmas calls.”
“Oh, okay.” The melancholy slid back into his voice. “Well, can I call you again?”
She smiled as her heart panged forward. “You better.”
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2006