Unknown: Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment, toughness, heart, talent, guts. That is what little girls are made of, the hell with sugar and spice.
Shawn and Mac went in together looking for the man with the scar. Glancing into the kitchen they saw him wiping the surfaces of the counter tops and door handles. Evidently he was clearing away all signs of fingerprints from the premises. Shawn gave a disgusted sound as the man glanced up. Ducking back along the wall, Shawn waited as he heard the heavy tread of the man coming toward the door opening.
“Is anyone there?” The question was asked out loud but Shawn and Mac didn’t reply. They waited silently as the man came through the door. Mac went low and tackled the large man around the knees while Shawn threw his weight on the man’s shoulders. Together they brought him down in a complete surprise attack.
Shawn quickly rolled him over and went for his throat, his hands encircling it as he thrashed around. Mac sat on the legs, holding them down as the larger man bucked, trying to throw off the weight pinning him down. Shawn used his fists to strike him, rendering him unconscious. When the figure was limp, Mac reached up to catch Shawn’s cocked fist and brought it backwards. “Shawn... Hey... .Hold it man. Hold up.”
Shawn sat back on his heels as he straddled the man wiping the edge of his lip where the scarred man had bloodied it when he was flailing his arms. Taking in a deep breath, he stood up and rolled the man over. Mac had meanwhile stripped the scarred man of his belt and then used it to bind his hands behind his back.
Looking over their prisoner and sucking in air, they grinned like young boys before bending over and lifting the boneless man to a chair. Puffing under the exertion of the man’s weight, Shawn remembered the sole purpose of their journey from New York. He scrambled backwards to go search the house looking for Belle his right palm slapping the wall to hang on as he entered the bedroom. He opened the closed doors, scanned the closets, the pantry, the bathroom. But when he was finished, he came back empty handed. There was no sign of Belle except for her winter coat that had been tossed on the floor by a rocking chair.
“Where is she? Where the hell is Belle?” Shawn gripped the man’s lolling head as he saw that he was still knocked out. “What have they done with her?”
Mac, who had walked through the house to double check behind Shawn, came back and announced that someone had been lying on the bed from the impression on the bed spread. “She’s been here Shawn. She didn’t get away on her own. You know as well as I do, just how long a drive it was for us to get here.”
Shawn turned around and slapped both hands on the window seal, gripping the ledge. “She couldn’t have gotten out of here if she tried. The door was locked...the windows boarded up....” He turned around and ran a hand through his hair. “She has to be somewhere. They called up Craig and he didn’t fall for their ploy. They were probably listening to the news broadcasts to hear a report on Belle’s kidnaping. Then when Craig called the police and called the bluff of the kidnapers... they knew that they had to do away with Belle. Oh God....what have they done with her?” The anguished cry filled the empty room.
Shawn walked out onto the porch. His mind was on the way that the kidnapers could have hurt his precious Belle...how had they killed her....disposed of her body? His head bent in supplication, the tears falling freely from the corner of his eyes. Why did he ever leave her alone? He knew that she had been apprehensive of being followed, and he had left her alone. It was his fault that he hadn’t protected her.
His dark eyes lifted to the heavens beseeching them to give him a clue. The moon came out from behind a cloud and a beam of light shown on the water behind the beach house. Was that the answer? The waves were climbing higher and higher on the beach as the tide came in. The sand receding with each tug of the ocean. In the path of the moon bean, Shawn saw an object bobbing up and down. He soon had his coat off and was unbuttoning his shirt and stood with a bare chest when Mac found him on the wet sand taking off his shoes.
“Shawn. You can’t go out there. There’s no way you could live in that surf...it’s too rough...too cold.....and Belle couldn’t either.” Mac’s hand restrained Shawn as he swung around. A angry gaze filled his eyes as he struggled with his emotions. Shawn bent over to pick up his coat and shirt from the beach when he heard Mac ask. “Could she swim?”
Shawn jerked up, a dash of hope lighting his face. He peered up the beach to see if could see a life form on the damp sand. He started running over the wet ground, pulling his clothes on as he used the flashlight to search through piles of driftwood and seaweed. He ran, calling Belle’s name over and over in desperation.
Mac caught up with him as Shawn bent over a large object. Rolling it over, he discovered it was a Styrofoam ice chest that had been washed ashore. Yelling out loud, Shawn raised his distressed brown eyes up at his friend as he knelt by the trash. “She just can’t be gone, Mac.”
Guilt...agony...frustration...pain....hopelessness, these feelings assaulted Shawn as he stumbled to his feet once more in one last attempt of finding his love. The optimism he had felt when the day had begun, was eroded away just like the sands of time on the beach. The flashlight beam swept along the higher dunes and then searched the piles of garbage that had been left behind. One mound was different.
With a yell, Shawn dropped to the ground and turned the figure over. Belle, her golden hair matted to her head, her lips blue with cold, was half frozen. “Belle.” The exultant cry was like a triumphant ringing in Mac’s ears. He knelt down on the other side of the woman as Shawn picked her up to hold her close.
He could feel how small she was, her slender frame was trembling....Trembling........she was alive!
Miraculously, Shawn’s mouth covered hers, sending warmth into her as her lips finally responded. His hands warmed her skin, framing her face, touching her shoulders, and holding her tightly.
“Sh...Shawn.” The barest whisper reached his ears and ended on a sob. “I knew that you would come find me.” Shawn quickly stripped off his coat, wrapping her inside. “I’ve got to get you warm. You’re so cold.”
Belle’s breathing was shallow as Shawn stood up, his precious cargo now cradled within his strong arms. “ Mac, go get the Explorer and crank the heat up on high. We’ve got to get her to a hospital now.”
Mac was on his way back to the beach house, saying his own prayer as he returned. He called his brother to give him a few of the details, before calling 911. The emergency operator soon had his call traced and help was on it’s way. Soon sirens were screaming down the deserted beach front road, the red lights blinking alerts. An ambulance led the way down the last stretch as it was quickly followed by several police cars.
The ambulance stopped by the Explorer and the attendants got out to get their patient. Shawn was reluctant to let Belle go, but knew she needed help. The fast acting medics soon had her vitals taken down and an oxygen mask was placed over her nose and mouth. Shawn stuttered at that, scared down to the bone, as he heard the rattles in Belle’s chest, but the attendant told him it sounded like she had developed a respiratory infection.
Soon the ambulance was ready to leave with Belle and Shawn had to ride to the hospital with Mac. The Explorer ate the ground up as it flew down the highway. They arrived at the hospital and parked in the emergency parking lot as the ambulance backed up to the bay. Hurrying inside, Shawn stood to one side to catch a hold of the tiny hand of the unconscious woman and lifted it to his lips. Then she was gone, pushed through the swinging doors and into the white cavern beyond him.
Offering up a prayer, Shawn stood there staring silently, willing life, strength, hope, courage, and faith to the woman who held his heart.
Orison Marden: There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something better tomorrow.
The call reached Tracey Wesley as she was getting ready for bed. She picked it up on the first ring, anxious for news of Belle. Scott’s voice soothed her as she listened to his voice.
“So Mac and Shawn followed one of the kidnapers and found out where they were keeping Belle. They had drugged her and left her for dead, and by sending her out into the ocean without an oar. Evidently they hoped that she would eventually drown and be washed up on shore.”
“Scott, is she going to be all right?” Tracey’s whisper sounded in his ears as he perched on bed in his home pulling of his shoes as he readied himself for bed. “Please, tell me she is going to be okay.”
The haggard look vanished from the green eyes, as he thought about Tracey begging him in a different way, her sultry voice asking for something that he would be glad to supply, as he ....get a grip Marshall....he told himself as he answered her question.
“From all accounts, it looks like she will. She’s got a case of double pneumonia while suffering from shock and exposure. I’m pretty sure that she will be a patient in the hospital for several more days.”
“And she’s in New Jersey? Why did they take her all the way to the Jersey shore?” Tracey reclined on her sleigh bed, her eyes closed, ready to dream about the man who had starred in her fantasies over the past week.
“Yes, that’s where the kidnapers took her and used the ocean to do their dirty work. Only it didn’t happen. They didn’t count on my brother or Shawn Brady to reckon with....so how are you Darling?” Scott’s words filled Tracey’s ears with a romantic longings. They made plans for the next morning to drive down to visit with Belle.
“I really need to apologize to her Scott. I feel so guilty that I sent Belle out into the streets feeling like I did. I don’t know if she will ever forgive me.”
Scott whispered wise words to Tracey as they spoke late into the night. When she hung up, Tracey’s outlook on life had changed. She was a woman heading on a new course with an improved attitude and different way of life.
The dark-haired man stood with his hands in his pockets as the Doctor checked over the patient. Her figure was still slim and restless in sleep under the standard issued blanket; her face still white with blue shadows underneath her eyes. The oxygen mask had been taken off that morning, as her breathing had regulated. Thankful for the little details and changes that were improving each hour, Shawn closed his tired eyes briefly.
He had stayed the long night, sitting on the edge of Belle’s bed, holding her hand and keeping it cradled next to his cheek. Sometimes he had just brushed the hair off of her forehead, running his fingers through the tangles. A nurse had brought him a comb, but there were too many tangles in it for him to run the comb through. There would be plenty of time for that later, after her hair had been washed.
The Doctor turned and gave Shawn the thumb’s up as he put Belle’s chart back. “I assure you Dr. Brady, that she is under the best care. As soon as she is rested fully, she will wake up. A lot of it is the residue of the drug we found in her blood stream. It was smart thinking of you to tell the police about the syringe that was in that beach house. It helped us analyze the toxins immediately.”
Shawn offered a smirk to the elderly man who had been on staff when Belle was admitted the night before. “I’m glad that I could help. The police arrived promptly and took the kidnaper away with them while the ambulance crew were working on Belle.”
“Will you be here when I come back and make the rounds again?”
“I’m not sure. I have a ride coming to take me back so I can get cleaned up. I feel like I have at least ten pounds of sand on my body.” The gritty feeling was unpleasant, and Shawn was ready to shower.
“Well if I don’t see you again today, take care Dr. Brady. And if you want to ever change hospitals, I am sure we could take you on our rotation.”
Thanking him, Shawn waved him out as he sat down beside Belle once again. Picking up her hand, his thumb ran circles over the back of it in hopes of offering some small comfort to her. He had plans already, and he wouldn’t be practicing medicine in New Jersey. Already he had called and had a letter of resignation typed up ready to turn in to Craig. All he had to do was to pick it up and add his signature. And the rest would be history, that is, except for one tiny detail.....and he was really looking forward to saying goodbye to several people at the Medical Center.
The room was all white, even down to the shade drawn over the window. The narrow hospital bed with it’s white blanket offered a monochrome color scheme. When the nurse came in the room, she too wore a white uniform. Seeing that Belle was awake, she picked up her arm to strap on a blood pressure cuff and stick a thermometer in her ear. Taking her vital signs, the nurse smiled.
“I’m Jennifer Johnson, but most people call me JJ. You’re in a hospital in New Jersey where you have been for the past four days.” The young nurse offered the information when she saw the distress in the patient’s eyes.
Belle’s blue gaze widen at the fact. She couldn’t even remember yesterday....so how could she have been here for four days. Her eyes closed briefly as the nurse finished her check up. When she started to refill the water glass, Belle reached for her arm. “You want some water? I’ll bet your throat is very dry. They told me you had taken in a lot of salt water.”
JJ could see the silent questions in her troubled gaze. After helping her patient tilt her head so she could sip from her straw, she raised the bed to a more comfortable position. “How about sitting up so you can get your bearings?” The young woman on the bed smiled her thanks as she struggled to sit up. Her matted hair was a tangle around her shoulders, the sand dry now and making the sheets scratchy.
“You were brought in because you were kidnaped and were rescued by the most handsome man. From what I read in the newspaper, he is a big shot doctor in New York City. The newspaper staff has been lurking around the hallways to catch a photo of you, but we have security outside your room. They even took my picture.” The tall slender blond fluffed her hair for good measure before continuing with the story. “That good looking- man found you along with another man, washed up on the shore along the Jersey coast.” JJ stopped long enough to change the IV drip bags. “You’re suffering from exposure to the cold weather, have a really bad case of pneumonia. You know spring time is not a good time to be sick. The air is so fickle nowadays that you can’t be too careful.”
Belle’s head sank back against the pillow. She felt weak as a kitten. She didn’t feel like she was strong enough to change positions on the narrow bed. Closing her eyes, she tried to remember exactly what had happened.
It seemed like she was in a fog bank, a cloudy dream, and all the events were just sequences in a moving picture. She could remember being lifted and placed in the rowboat. Being so cold she couldn’t get warm, horrible dreams about an icy plunge into the ocean, then the relief when she had felt sand underneath her hands, and she had clawed her way up to where she could rest on dry sand away from the surge of the incoming tides, before collapsing on the beach.
Then there had been a brief moment when she had felt someone holding her, kissing her and filling her with warmth. Had that been Shawn? From the nurse’s description, it had sounded like it. But where was he now? Closing her eyes to the headache brewing between them, she fell asleep.
When Belle woke again, the shade was up and sunlight filtered in through the window. There was a potted shrub by her bed that was spilling yellow blooms onto the table top. It was like bottled sunlight. Belle recognized it as a Forsythia plant, the harbinger of spring. A sound beside her caused her to turn to see who was sitting by her bed.
“Greer!” The whisper was faint, but the eyes looking out from the hollow face were no longer feverish. They were clear as her memory returned in tact.
“Belle! I am so glad to see that you are awake and alert. It’s wonderful to see you. I told Mac that if they didn’t let me in this morning, then I was going to fight my way in.” Greer hugged her friend close and then adjusted the pillow underneath her head. “I don’t want to over tire you Belle. But I did want to see you.”
“Greer, can you tell me what happened during my stay here? The nurse tells me I have been here for four days?” Belle looked toward her friend, wanting answers to all her questions.
“Well it’s been five days now.” At the shocked expression Greer sat back down to start her story. “I’ll be glad to Belle. I guess I had better start the night you were kidnaped. Mac and Shawn were desperate to find you. There were few clues until Dr. Wesley received a phone call from the kidnapers demanding a ransom. He thought it was a hoax and refused to pay up.”
Belle shook her head at that news. It sounded just like him.
“Then Shawn had an idea to stake out this building where he thought those guys worked that ran that protection business your sister was involved in. Mac and Shawn took a chance and sure enough, they followed one of the men and he led them to the beach along the Jersey coast. Shawn tackled him and beat him up while Mac tied his hands together.” Belle’s eyes widen at the news of the fight.
“When they couldn’t find you inside the house, they started looking up and down the beach. Shawn found you washed up on shore from the incoming tides. They called an ambulance and here we are.”
Belle moistened her lips and whispered, “ What happened to Shawn? Was he hurt from the fight?”
Shaking her head, Greer replied, “No, but he was a real hero. All the newspapers and a televison crew were here at the hospital taking pictures and trying to get interviews with anyone connected to the story. I believe that Dr. Wesley received some bad publicity from all of this.”
Belle sighed in relief that Shawn was all right. She wondered where he was. Thinking of her plant, she motioned towards it and asked Greer if she knew where it had come from.
“Shawn brought it the first day I got to visit you. He said it was to remind you of him. And said he hoped you would think of him while he was gone.”
“Yes, he resigned from the Medical Center and left New York. No one knows where he went. But he did leave a card for you. Do you want me to read it to you?”
At Belle’s nod, Greer opened the drawer by the bed and retrieved the tiny envelope.
“ ‘The winter blues will soon be gone
And birds will soon burst forth in song
The yellow bells soon will ring
My promise is here, it’s almost spring.’
That’s all it says Belle.” Greer handed her the small card as she sat back down.
Belle turned it over in her small hands. What had Shawn meant by that? Where had he gone? He had quit work, giving up his way of life...What we he do now? Would he ever come back? Would she see him again?
There was a knock on the door as JJ entered. She frowned at Greer as she had overstayed her time limit. “You must let Belle rest now before I bring her lunch. She still can’t over do it.”
Greer stood up to leave and hugged Belle close. “Now don’t forget to get better. I have a job for you when you get out of this place.”
Belle met the laughing eyes and knew in an instant what had happened. “You’re in love with Mac?”
Greer held out her left hand so Belle could see the engagement ring that fit her fingers. “We aren’t setting a date yet. We’ll wait until you are ready because Belle, I want you to be my maid of honor.”
Tears filled her blue eyes as Belle tightened her hold on Greer’s hand. “You bet I will. That’s what friends are for.”
The spring quote on the card from Shawn was by M. Garren.
Peter Ustinov: Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit.
Tracey came down the stairs to wait for Scott to pick her up. They were attending the final performance of the Winter Jazz Ensemble before taking in a late supper at the Brass Stand. As she entered the foyer to glance in the mirror, she saw her father pouring himself a drink at the bar in the drawing room She had wanted to avoid seeing him, but knew that sooner or later she would have to face him.
“Father.” She walked in and placed her fur on the back of the sofa in readiness of her escape.
“So are you going out with Marshall again?” Craig turned around and swallowed the drink in one gulp. The hot sensation only burned his throat once. “Do you think it is necessary to keep dating him Tracey? What is this? The fourth time this week?”
She carefully sat down so that she would not wrinkle her dress. “Of course it is necessary Father. What part of the phrase ‘in love with him’ don’t you understand?”
“Since when did you fall in love with Marshall?” Craig sneered with disgust at this daughter. “What makes you think you’re in love with him?”
“Because he has taught me how to have courage, to live my life honestly, to have the faith that life will go on. He has shown me how to have fun, to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, and to be a caring person.” Her face lit from within as she spoke of the man who had become such an important part of her life. “He’s my friend, and we just enjoy being in each other’s company. There doesn’t have to be a reason or occasion for us to go out.”
She used her hands to express her thoughts. . “I don’t mind it when we stay at home and just watch the television or a DVD.” As she brought them to rest in her lap, her face softened as her eyes glowed. “He loves me for me, not because I am your daughter, not because I have money.” Tracey patted her hair in place as she looked up at Craig from under her lashes. “Actually Father, Scott may have more money than you do.”
Craig’s hand clinched on his glass before he sat it down. “Be that as it may, what good is HE going to do me down at the Medical Center? You do know that Shawn Brady resigned?” His voice was tight, his anger held in check.
“Yes, Father, I know. Shawn came by to see me and told me he was leaving New York. We had a long talk the other day.”
“And you did nothing to stop him from leaving? He gave up his future as a doctor to just up and quit?”
“No! He is escaping you, trying to find his way, to find his future. He was never cut out for this life...this round of social events that are as necessary to attend as they are for you to put in an appearance....this part of his job. For heaven’s sake Father.......Shawn is...was... a dedicated doctor......not someone who just wants to get rich beautifying others.”
“Gads! Tracey.” Craig yelled as his face flushed with the anger that he had been holding in check. The veins in his neck were throbbing as his cheeks turned a livid shade of red. “Escaping me? After all that I did for him? After I promoted him to become a full partner in the Center? And he turned me down.”
“But Father, you did it for an unethical reason. It was unworthy of Shawn.” She tried her best to finally make Craig see the error of his ways. “It’s like this Father. I was trying to live my life to suit you....to make you happy.......and maybe to feel your approval.........you’ve always held it against me that Chloe and Mom were the ones who died........and I’m sorry that you felt that way....but I missed them too.”
Tracey stood and tried to lay her hand on her father’s shoulders as he bent over the divan supporting himself. The move was uncharacteristic of her and she waited to see if she would be rejected.
“I have wanted your approval...wanted to feel loved by you......but you shut me out. But when I said that I was going to marry Shawn so you could have someone to step into your practice, I was really cheating myself and cheating Shawn.”
“How could you be cheating him?”
“By marrying him without love. I would have deprived him of love just to fit into your plans. He loves Belle and she did love him too. I was very foolish, belittling her when she was down and I took our friendship for granted. By me acting this way, I kept them from being together.”
Hearing the doorbell ring, Tracey started walking across the room. She needed to get some fresh air and couldn’t wait to be in Scott’s arms again.
Craig remained stooped over the high-back divan, his thoughts in an uproar. Was his life to end in hopeless turmoil? Would he ever know what it was to be a human again? All he knew was he had to take a chance. Craig straightened up and thought about what he had just heard. Had he been an ass to everyone just because he had never really grieved the lost of his wife and oldest daughter?
“Good night Princess.” Tracey stopped and turned around as she walked back into the room. “It’s been a long time since you called me that. I missed it when you didn’t cuddle me anymore. I was so afraid that you blamed me for everything. I needed the reassurance that you just couldn’t give me.”
“Tracey, can you ever forgive me? I....I have a lot to learn about relationships it seems. Maybe you can help me find the man I used to be or could be again.”
Craig opened his arms and Tracey stepped forward to feel the embrace from her father for the first time in years. “I think we both could use a refresher course. But we will both learn together.”
Craig nodded as he released her. “Well then, for starters, how about asking Mars...Scott to join us for dinner next week?”
“I will Father. You will like him, you really will.”
It had been ten long days since Belle had woken up. She had become frustrated with her inability to leave the hospital. She was slow to regain her strength and was surprised to see how tired she was when she had walked up and down the hospital hallways. She had lost weight and her appetite was still off, but the only way she was told that she could be released was if she had someone to stay with her. Greer was available in the evenings, but Belle could not stay in their apartment during the day when she didn’t have anyone to check on her.
During the long days in the hospital, it had given her plenty of time to try and figure out her life. It was a dilemma that she still hadn’t solved and Belle was wondering just what she was going to do. All her ideas of what she was going to do had been shunned by everyone. And no one seemed to be helping her with her brainstorming. All the spinning she had done in her mind over the past several days, had just left her with a headache and no other options were available. Just where was she going to go? There just didn’t seem to be a suitable answer to her question.
Tracey and Scott had paid a visit together and declared their engagement just a few days ago. Tracey had bloomed under Scott’s love. She had found her independence and her humility. When she had entered Belle’s room for her first visit after Belle had woke up, she had pleaded with Belle to forgive her. She had told her how unhappy she had been all her adult life, how jealous she was of Belle and her relationship with her father, and then how much she envied Belle and her ability to be so happy and lovable a person. By the time the two friends had made up, each was a tearful mess.
Belle had forgiven Tracey and they had made plans to go shopping once Belle was released for Tracey’s wedding gown. Celeste was going to design it and Tracey wanted her to help her choose the bridesmaid’s gowns. The happiness on Tracey’s face was enough reason for Belle to get well.
Mac had been a visitor too, dropping by one afternoon and supplied Belle with a solution to her predicament. Greer had received a call from the former caretaker of John Black’s lodge. Greer had not known the woman who had called, but she had been pleased by the heartwarming news that she had offered. It seemed like Verbena told her that the new owner of Skyridge Retreat was going to take possession in May and wanted it to be throughly cleaned. Verbena had been hired back by the realtor and wanted Belle to come stay with her for company. She had promised to put some weight on Belle if she did return and since she really had missed her. It would be good company for herself too if Belle came for a visit.
It had seemed like the best solution and on this day when Belle was going home, the two couples were coming to pick Belle up from the hospital and take her to the airport. Tracey had provided Belle with some new clothes since her spring clothes were too big. Scott and Mac had given her new suitcases and Greer had provided the toiletries. So Belle was ready to leave and go back to Georgia. She had thought that Verbena would drive her to the cemetery so that she could visit with her father. She was looking forward to that.
Verbena had promised that the weather was beautiful, the trees all budded out, the birds were building nests and the breeze carried the scent of the wisteria and hyacinths that wrapped around the walk way close to the lodge. Belle was excited about returning but she would miss her friends. But she would miss Shawn most of all. He had completely disappeared. Tracey had told her that he had stopped in to see her when he had resigned from the Medical Center, but had not left a forwarding address. Belle supposed he was gone for good. She hoped that one day he would find happiness.
So she sat dressed in her new clothes waiting by the window for her ride to arrive. The doctor had left after signing her release papers and JJ was checking the drawers and closet to see if Belle had left anything behind. The new suitcases were packed and she was just waiting when there was a knock on the hospital door. Belle couldn’t help but perk up when her friends came in. She was ready to escape the white walls that had been her environment the past three weeks. She was ready for the sun to shine and warm her up. She had felt frozen ever since her kidnaping. The winter in New York had been too harsh and she needed to seek out the warmth of the south. She was ready to go home.
David Viscott: To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides.
Belle felt the twin-engine plane level out as she unbuckled her seat belt and leaned back in her seat. She had not been able to fly into Atlanta directly, but had managed to get a connecting flight from New York to Chattanooga, TN. Now she was on the smaller plane heading back to Blairsville. The trip might have taken longer than her first flight, but it had given her a chance to think over the past.
It was hard to believe that it had been almost five months since she had traveled to Skyridge Retreat when her father had been so ill. Caught up in the memories from the previous time she had visited the lodge, Belle wondered if was a mistake to return . . . return to home. What was it that her dad always had said . . . you could never go home again . . . well she was going to prove that adage wrong? The lodge was what she considered home . . . even though it no longer belonged to her family. Seeing it again and living in it for several weeks would only open up the many wounds that had started healing and closing. But where else was she to go?
Her sister was no where to be found. Belle hadn’t heard from her since she had seen her on the stairs to the subway one afternoon. Samantha hadn’t ever tried to stay close to Belle. The only times she came around was when she needed money. And Belle didn’t have any extra cash to give her now. The sale of the lodge had gone through, but Belle had yet to receive her cashiers check Greer promised that if it came while Belle was in Georgia, she would take it to Mac or Scott and let them deposit it for her with her approval.
Belle was glad that she had some friends that she could count on. A lot had indeed happened in the five months since she had come back. When Belle and Sami had arrived in the dark of night, and Shawn had met them at the airport that had only been the start of the changes. Belle had met the man of her dreams, had said goodbye to an important person in her life, had found herself challenged by a switch in jobs, not once but two times, and had faced the end of her life only to have been brought back in the nick of time. And Shawn Brady had been the catalyst.
Because of Shawn, she had changed her perspective on life when it seemed like all avenues were closed off to her. She had forged ahead with courage and determination to keep a bright outlook on her future even if her new job had not been what she had always wanted to do. For now, Belle was just happy to still have a place to work. Celeste had assured her she would keep a position open for her on her return to good health.
The small plane started slowing and circling the cleared airfield around the mountains as Belle started fastening her seat belt. The airport was still far below and Belle was surprised at how fast the time had flown by since she had left Chattanooga. She had spent the time reminiscencing and hadn’t paid any attention to where she was. Pressing her face to the glass she watched as the ground got closer. She could see the fields greening with the spring grasses and the mountains in the distance still standing guardian over the lower Appalachian Trail and the surrounding valleys.
Perhaps it was a mistake to come back. Yet here she was returning because she had no other place to go. Verbena was picking her up and the days at the lodge would be numbered. She wondered what the new owner would change about it. Would he keep the grounds and acreage that went with it and use it for it’s intended purposes or would he sell off the lots and just use it for a mountain retreat? She hoped that Verbena would be able to give her some insight.
The ride into town and up the mountain was very normal. Belle could almost fool herself that this was like any other time before when she had visited the lodge. Lifting her hand in a passing greeting, she waved at the small boy holding his dog as he stood with a woman by the dollar store. Life in the small town went on without notice. With her golden head resting on the passengers’ window, Belle listened as Verbena filled her in on the shenanigans of her children and grandchildren. Commenting when necessary, she just couldn’t get fired up about the gossip. Maybe I’m more tired than I realized, Belle thought as she struggled to keep her eyes open. Surely I will start to feel better after I can take a walk outside in the warm sunshine.
Verbena helped Belle carry in her luggage and then settled the frail woman in the kitchen while she fixed their lunch. She was very concerned about her appearance. She had been told that Belle was recovering, but she looked like she could be blown over by a stiff wind. She was obligated to get her healthy again. Starting with supper, she would fix them both a steak. Red meat and a balanced diet would soon have her charge back on her feet.
Belle unpacked after lunch and came downstairs to sit with Verbena while she was taking down several of the oil paintings that represented the area that had been showcased throughout the lodge. It seemed strange to be able to wander in the rooms and see the changes that had already taken place.
“The new owner said that he wanted to have these walls cleaned and was going to bring some new art work down when he comes to visit.” Verbena was mentioning some of the new arrangements that the realtor had specified when he had contacted her about returning. “He said that the owner should be here by May. That only leaves two months to get this place the way he wanted it.”
“It looks like the owner would come here to see that the work was being carried out to his specifications then Verbena. Have you talked to him at all?” Belle asked as she rose to help take books off of the shelves so that they could be cleaned too. “Do you know what his name is?”
“It’s on one of the contracts that the realtor had me sign since I was doing the housework, but I forgot who it was. I did talk to him when I first got back. He gave me a whole list of things that he wants done and I’m to contact the paint store and get a certain color for the room’s upstairs. I’ve got a whole list to keep me occupied. For the kitchen he wants to have new counters and a butcher block put in. Sounds good doesn’t it?”
Belle walked back after sitting down her box and grabbed another one. “So the lodge is really getting a face lift while he has new cabins built.” Her fingers rifled over the binders of the old Reader’s Digest condensed book collections that she then placed inside the box.
“That it is Isabella. Why don’t you sit down while I take this load to the back room where I’m storing things for now? You haven’t been resting like you were supposed to do.”
Belle agreed and stretched out on the sofa. She was feeling tired. While waiting for Verbena to return, Belle closed her eyes and rested her head on the cushion. The fire was still burning low in the fireplace and as Belle listened to it popping and crackling, her thoughts turned toward Shawn. This was the room that they had culminated their love in for the first time during that ice storm. After reaching for the throw that still hung on the back of the sofa, Belle drifted off to sleep picturing Shawn’s face in her mind.
The room was lit only with the flames that burned and spurted. The man standing in front of the mantle, looked down at the woman. He knelt by the figure and brushed his hand along her jaw, The soft skin that was warmed from the fire, dipped down and his fingers brushed the tantalizing exposed flesh before drawing up the blanket. His soft lips left a chaste kiss on her brow, lingering a moment as he drew in the scent of the woman. With regret he stood and walked out the door with only one backwards glance.
Belle turned over reaching for phantom that had touched her. Her hands came up empty and she woke with a start. “Wha . . . was it a dream? Sh . . . Shawn . . . are you here?” She sat up and looked around the dim room. Twilight was upon her as she stood up and walked to the window. Belle turned back around and then looked back at the door. It appeared to still be locked.
Running her fingers over her hair, she took down the clip as her hair tumbled to her shoulders. “I must have been dreaming. All these memories of Shawn . . . how we met . . . how we became . . . friends . . . became lovers . . . ” Belle stood by the fireplace and looked inside the burning embers to see if there were any answers to be found. “Toughen up Belle, you knew this was going to be hard.” She told herself.
The overhead light flashed on as Verbena came into the room. “So you’re awake now. Good, good. You got in a long nap. I came in to check on you when I didn’t hear a peep from you Belle. I saw you were sleeping and pulled that colored throw up over you.” The older woman placed several split logs in the carrier by the stone fireplace. “Do you feel any better?”
Rubbing her eyes, Belle smiled as she turned around to warm her chilled fingers in front of the fire. “I feel better Verbena. I had forgotten how good it felt to be home.”
The hours passed and turned into days and with each new day Belle’s appetite returned. She had gotten stronger and was hoping to try and walk some of the trails around the cabins by the weekend. She ventured further each time she walked around outside. Verbena was pleased by the color that was now in her cheeks and the returning sparkle to the blue eyes. Her health was coming back quickly as it does with youth, and Verbena knew it was time to help the heart that still was so closed off. Each time that Verbena had mentioned Dr. Brady, Belle had clammed up. She wanted to see if she could bring a reconciliation between the two of them.
“Belle, since your friend Miss Wesley is getting married to Scott, why don’t you call Dr. Brady up? It’s a modern world we are living in. He might get excited about hearing from you. I thought he was falling in love with you when he was here before looking after John.”
Belle’s eyes glazed as she lowered her head. Thoughts of Shawn had invaded her every waking moment every single day. How could they not? Everywhere she looked, she saw images of Shawn . . . splitting the logs out in back with his ever-present flannel shirt unbuttoned . . . sitting at the kitchen table with that lock of dark hair spilling over his brow as he tipped back in the chair . . . washing his hands and reaching for the towel as he touched Belle’s hands that were holding the towel out to him until he gripped her fingers with his own . . . teasing her with his lips as he came up behind her, standing so close that Belle could feel the imprint of his hard body against hers as he nipped her earlobe with his teeth . . . STOP. It’s got to stop now Belle. She told herself. You’re killing yourself by remembering all these images. You came here to heal, and you’re just damaging your heart. He’s moved on, moved forward with his life, and he didn’t call you . . . didn’t ask you to share it with him again . . . how foolish you were to turn him down then . . . if you had to do it over again . . . wouldn’t you say YES?
No . . . you wouldn’t do it this time either. Belle’s head was pounding with her thoughts. She knew without a doubt that given a chance to repeat the past . . . she would still have not married Shawn. His future had been bright and he needed to succeed on his own . . . she would have held him back then . . . now, she wished she had a chance to say good bye to him . . . why wouldn’t he at least give Tracey an address to reach him . . . I wonder if he’ll be there for her wedding to Scott? Wouldn’t that just make Dr. Wesley steam? Belle could just picture a cartoon Craig Wesley with clouds of vapor escaping his forehead as it peeled backwards with his cheeks flushed with rage and his tiny fists raised in his anger . . . I’m so happy that Tracey found her true love . . . that she can finally achieve happiness on her own merit without her father’s interference . . . I think Scott is exactly the medicine she has needed for years.
Belle didn’t answer Verbena, but instead grabbed her light sweater and told the older woman that she was going to take a walk. Opening the lodge door, the scent of spring was in the air. Traces of pine pollen had already made a golden pathway on the edge of the porch. Using the hand rail, Belle made her way down the uneven steps since they were being repaired by the crew that had been hired to fix up the retreat and to build the new cabins.
Her mind continued to remember events of the past as she spent time walking toward her favorite place on the property. Climbing up the steep trail had winded Belle, so she sat on a stump left over from a fallen tree from years ago. The sight in front of her cleared her mind instantly, sent rejuvenating happiness to her heart. A sea of golden trumpets was enormous as the waving yellow heads stretched as far as the eye could see around the entire banks of Daffodil Lake. The beauty fulfilled the healing that she had been searching for since her father’s death and Shawn’s disappearance. Tears trickled down the flushed cheeks as she closed her eyes and breathed in the aromatic fragrance and found serenity.
“I can picture our little girl running on chubby legs with two fist fulls of flowers in her small hands bringing you a bouquet . . . or me, teaching our son how to skip stones on the lake’s surface during the summer . . . ” The husky voice was real, not imagined as Belle quickly rose and turned to face the man that had filled her waking thoughts for so long.
He took a step forward around the stump and gathered her in his arms, lifting her up to twirl her around several times before sliding her down his hard body to capture her lips with his own. He was thirsty for the woman who had ruined him for another, drinking in the beauty of her alone that could quench his self-imposed drought.
“Isabella, your well now . . . you’re healthy now?” His gentle hands cupped her face, smoothing his thumbs over her cheek bones to tilt her face up so that he could look into the azure pools and see himself reflecting in them. Her gorgeous eyes were clear except for a few escaping crystal tears that were captured by her long eyelashes.
Shawn’s gaze raked over her slender frame, noticing that she had regained some of the lost weight and her curves were still alluring. His hands shifted to slide around her shoulders as he pulled her to his own body to hold her close. He could feel her heart beating against his own. Her head was nestled on his shoulder, his chin resting on her golden curls as they absorbed the feeling of renewal and deep abiding love as his large hands stroked up and down her back.
Seconds . . . minutes . . . it could have been hours for all Belle knew, but time had stood still for an indefinite period while wrapped in the hard embrace. The rhythmic strokes of his hands soothed her soul as well as offered comfort. Breathing in the spicy cologne, Belle knew that she had truly come home.
Shawn finally released her as he sat down on the stump of the large oak tree holding Belle in the space between his thighs. “I am so glad that you are better Belle. I was worried about you.”
Belle stood at that turning around to stare hotly at Shawn. Her blue eyes blazed with a bright light as he cheeks flushed with anger. “How can you say that? Worried about me? Be for real Shawn Brady . . . I never saw you stop by my hospital room? You haven’t called to check up on me? You didn’t leave a forwarding address with . . . ”
“Hey, slow down.” The hard line of his lips descended on hers effectively closing her mouth. His lips slowly heated as hers opened under his, offering an invitation that he didn’t refuse. Standing once more, Shawn drew her back against him and let her feel the arousal that dominated his tight well-worn jeans. Sinking into the heat his tongue tangled with hers, capturing it in a decadent duel as he left her whimpering as his kissed her cheeks and lowered to nip along her jaw line to find the pulse beating wildly at the base of her silky throat. His breathing was harsh, but Shawn gathered his wits and held her hands within his own as he sat back down. As much as he would like to make love to his Isabella, she deserved to hear a few things first.
“Belle, after Mac and I rescued you, I had to go to the police station and give my statement about the kidnaper that had taken you. After he was taken into custody, he spilt everything he knew about the plan between him and his partner.” His long-fingered hands caressed hers as he held them. “That night, after the police were through with me . . . you couldn’t have kept me away from you. I had been scared out of my wits when I thought that you had drowned in the Atlantic.” He rose haunted eyes to hers as he willed Belle to understand how he had felt.
“Belle, it was pure hell when I thought you were dead. Then Mac asked if you could swim, and we went searching for you up the beach. When we did find you, you were half frozen, blue with cold, shivering without getting any warmer when I was holding you.” Belle could feel Shawn’s pain as she listened to him give details that she hadn’t known about before.
“When we did get to the hospital, I wasn’t about to leave you until I knew you were out of danger. I spent the night with you . . . holding you as close as I could around the IV’s . . . stroking your hair . . . your face . . . praying that you would recover.” Tears filled his voice as he remembered the terrible time that he had spent when he didn’t know if Belle would recover completely.
“By morning, you had improved dramatically and I needed to see about some things. I spoke with your doctor and he assured me that you would be sleeping for a while. Every time I came to see you and I did spend every night with you until I left New York, you were resting. It was a healing sleep that you needed.”
Belle gave a tentative squeeze to the fingers holding hers before turning her palm over and linking their fingers together. “I had to go see Craig at the Medical Center. I turned in my resignation among other things. I had already planned on doing that, but after the stunt he pulled when he could have saved you if he hadn’t been such an ass, I couldn’t forgive him for that. I gave him my resignation and he taunted me that you were holed up laughing and would be appearing soon enough . . . I decked him Belle, hit him as hard as I could with only your beautiful face in my mind as he laughed. I don’t think that he ever expected it, but he sprawled on the floor in a fetal position protecting his nose.”
“Guess he didn’t want to have cosmetic surgery on it then?” Belle offered a smile as she leaned in to kiss Shawn’s rough cheek as she murmured. “My hero!”
“Damn straight, I am!” His lips captured hers in another fiery kiss as he sucked her bottom lip into his mouth as nipped gently before releasing it. “I spoke with Tracey and told her I was leaving for good. I wanted to wish her luck with Scott. Mac seems to think that they will get married.”
“Oh Shawn, they are! They came to see me in the hospital and announced their engagement.”
“After I spoke with her . . . I came by to see you one last time.” Shawn pulled Belle close again, turning her around so that he could hold her from behind and still sitting down so that her hips were resting on the tree stump too. His hands clasped hers around her waist, his thumbs just brushing the underside of her breasts.
“I left you that plant in the room . . . hoping you would remember me . . . remember that like the Faith that we share . . . the endurance and determination that you have that kept you going . . . that you would remember hope springs eternal . . . and spring always comes . . . no matter what part of the world you are in . . . I just want to be a part of that world with you again . . . share my life with you . . . because Isabella Black . . . I’m in love with you . . . irrevocability . . . til death do us part.”
Belle had been leaning back against the warm body with her eyes closed, but that last part of his words sent her twirling around in his arms. “What did you just ask me?”
Shawn stood up and cleared his throat. “Isabella . . . I love you with all my heart. I want us to be together forever . . . to be able to have those children I whispered in your ear about earlier . . . to live our life and share in all the joys with you.” Licking his suddenly dry lips, Shawn took her tiny hands in his after reaching into his pocket and withdrawing a small velvet box.
“Would you do me the honor of being my wife? To wear my ring so that all that see it will know that you belong to me?” He opened the box and took out a gold band set with a diamond solitaire. Two diamond baguettes shared each side of the ring, the stones glistening in the sun.
Belle watched with awe as he slipped the ring over her knuckle on her left ring finger before bringing it up to his lips. He was watching her eyes darken and stopped before caressing the hand he held. Belle looked up and offered him one whispered word.
“Yes.” Her own lips swooped down to cling to his, opening and showing him just how much she truly loved him. “Yes, Shawn Brady, I will marry you . . . stand by your side, to have and to hold, to love and to cherish . . . have your babies and grow old with you.”
Later as the couple headed back to the lodge, Belle asked Shawn how he knew where to find her. The day was winding down and the smoke from the chimney curled against the trees as they came into the lodge’s yard.
Belle’s arm was snuggled securely around his waist, her fingers wrapped around a belt loop for added comfort. Shawn started blushing as he unwrapped his arm from her shoulders and reached for her hands.
“Belle, I have something to confess to you . . . and I guess I had better tell you before we go any further . . . ” Shawn stopped in the middle of the stone steps leading up to the side porch of Skyridge Retreat.
“What Shawn? You can tell me anything.” Belle held his hand tightly offering him encouragement.
“I bought the lodge. I want us to live here . . . make our home . . . raise our family here.”
Belle leaped into the waiting arms, knowing that he would catch her. “Oh Shawn, you have made me so happy. I am thrilled that you did that.”
“I came down here several weeks ago and applied for a license to be a doctor is this state. I should be practicing medicine soon . . . no more of the plastic surgery . . . I’ll hang my shingle here in the new office spaces that I’ll add onto the lodge by the end of the summer.”
Belle smiled at her future husband and sealed the deal with a kiss. Her promise of spring would always be found with him.