CHAPTER 31

Bree

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The days dragged by. My heart felt like it had cracked open and lay heavy in my chest, and the tears constantly threatened. I missed him so badly that most days I felt like I was underwater–looking at the world around me and wondering why I couldn't connect, why everyone and everything was cloudy and distant, inaccessible.

I worried too–what was he doing? Where was he sleeping? How was he communicating with those he needed to communicate with? Was he scared? I tried to turn that off as it was one of the reasons he'd left. He felt like less of a man because he depended on me for so much in the outside world. He hadn't said that exactly, but I knew it was true. He didn't want to feel like I was his mother, but rather that he was my equal, my protector, the one I depended on sometimes.

I understood. It still broke my heart that leaving me was his solution to that problem. Would he come back? When? And when and if he did, would he still love me?

I didn't know. But I'd wait. I'd wait forever if I had to. I had told him I'd never leave him and I wouldn't. I'd be here when he got back.

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I worked, I visited Anne who was recovering quickly, I walked along the lake, I kept Archer's house clean and dusted, and I missed him. My days inched along, one rolling blankly into the next.

The town had gossiped fervently for a while and from what I had caught wind of, once it was revealed, no one was too surprised that Archer was Connor's son too. People speculated about whether Archer would come back and demand to take what was rightfully his, or whether he would come back at all. But I didn't care about any of that. I just wanted him.

Surprisingly, after the day of the parade, there had been radio silence from Victoria Hale. I thought distantly that maybe that should be worrisome–she didn't seem like the type of woman to lie down quietly and accept losing–but I was hurting too badly to do anything active about it. Perhaps she just believed that Archer was no threat to her. And maybe he wasn't. My heart ached.

Travis tried to talk to me several times after the day of the parade, but I was short with him and, thankfully, he didn't push it. I didn't hate him, but he had missed so many opportunities to be a better person when it came to Archer. Instead he'd chosen to belittle someone who was already struggling in so many ways. I'd never have any respect for him. He was Archer's brother in name only.

Fall turned to winter. The vibrantly colored leaves withered and fell off the trees, the temperature dropped dramatically, and the lake froze over.

One day in late November, several weeks after Archer had left, Maggie came up to me where I was restocking behind the counter and put her hand on my shoulder. "You planning on going home for Thanksgiving, Bree honey?"

I stood up and shook my head. "No. I'm staying here."

Maggie looked at me sadly. "Honey, if he comes back while you're gone, I'll call you."

I shook my head more vehemently. "No, I need to be here if he comes back."

"Okay, honey, okay," she'd said. "Well, then you're coming to our house for Thanksgiving. Our daughter and her family will be in town. And Anne and her sister are coming over too. We'll have a real nice time."

I smiled at Maggie. "Okay, Maggie. Thank you."

"Good," she'd smiled, but somehow she still looked sad.

Norm sat down with me at the break table later that day when we were closing up and all the customers had gone, a piece of my pumpkin pie in front of him and took a big bite. "You make the best pumpkin pie I've ever had," he said, and I started crying right there at the break table because I knew that that was Norm's way of telling me he loved me.

"I love you, too!" I sobbed out and Norm stood up, scowling. "Aw geez. Maggie!" he called, "Bree needs you."

Perhaps I was slightly over-emotional.

November rolled into December and Pelion got its first light snowfall. It blanketed everything, casting a magical feel to the town, making it feel even more old-fashioned, like one of those Thomas Kinkade paintings.

December second was Archer's birthday. I took that day off and spent it in front of the fire at his house, reading Ethan Frome. It wasn't the best choice–he was right, it was the most depressing book ever written. But it was his day, and I wanted to feel close to him. "Happy Birthday, Archer," I whispered that night, making my own wish. Come back to me.

One cold Saturday, a week or so later, I sat cuddled up on my couch with Phoebe, a blanket, and a book, when I heard a soft knock on my door. My heart jumped in my chest and I got up quickly and peeked out the window, the flash of a boy standing soaked from the rain racing through my mind.

Melanie was standing on my porch wearing a big, down jacket and a hot pink scarf and hat. My heart sank. I loved Melanie, but for a brief second there, I had allowed myself to hope that it was Archer coming back to me. I went to let her in.

"Hi." Melanie smiled.

"Get in here," I said, shivering in the blast of icy cold that came in through the open door.

Melanie stepped inside and closed the door behind her. "I'm here to pick you up for the Pelion Christmas tree lighting. Go on. Get dressed," she bossed.

I let out a sigh. "Melanie…"

She shook her head. "Uh uh. I'm not taking no for an answer. I refuse to let you become the cat lady of Pelion."

I laughed despite myself. "The cat lady of Pelion?"

"Hmm hmm." A look of sadness swept her pretty features. "He's been gone for over two months now, Bree. And I know you miss him–I do. But I'm not going to let you sit in this cottage and pine for him around the clock. It isn't healthy." Her voice gentled even more, "He chose to go away, honey. And I know he had his reasons. But you still have a life. You still have friends. You get to miss him–but please don't stop living."

A tear ran silently down my cheek and I swiped at it and sniffled. I nodded my head as another tear ran down my other cheek. Melanie took me in her arms and hugged me. After a minute she stepped back. "It's cold. You'll need to bundle up. Wear something without cat hair on it."

I laughed out a small laugh and wiped the last tear off my cheek. "Okay," I whispered, and went to get dressed.

As we drove downtown, Christmas lights twinkled everywhere. For the first time since he'd left, I felt something close to serenity as I looked around at the small town that I'd grown to love so much, full of so many people who were part of my heart now.

We met Liza in the crowd at the center of town and I smiled more than I had in two months. Both girls regaled me with their most-recent dating stories and linked arms with mine as the tree blinked on to cheers and whistles.

I inhaled the crisp December air and looked up at the sky, full of stars, and whispered in my mind, Come back to me. A feeling of peace washed over me, and I looked around, hugging my friends closer and smiling at nothing in particular.

Christmas came and went. Despite the fact that Natalie begged me to come home and spend it with her, I said no and instead spent another holiday with Maggie and Norm. I was doing better, making an attempt to live my life, but I needed to be in Pelion. I needed to be home where Archer knew where to find me.

Was he okay? I stood at my window looking out at the frozen lake, the snow gently falling, and I wondered if he was warm, did he have enough money? Was that old truck still running all right? Was he missing me as much as I was missing him? "Come back to me," I whispered for the thousandth time since he'd left.

On New Year's Eve, the diner was only open until noon. Melanie and Liza had asked me to go out with them to a big party on the other side of the lake at the home of some guy they knew who lived there year round. I had said yes, but now, as I pulled on the little black dress I had bought at Mandy's boutique for the occasion, I considered calling the girls and begging off. I just wasn't in a party mood. But I knew they'd just railroad me and not take no for an answer, and so I sighed and continued doing my hair and makeup.

I took some time pinning my hair into an up-do that I thought looked nice, and applied my make-up carefully. I felt pretty for the first time since Archer had left and taken his look of lust and adoration with him, the one that made me feel like the most desirable woman on earth. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, swallowing down the lump in my throat.

Liza and Melanie picked me up at eight o'clock and we arrived at the party half an hour later, a sprawling mansion just outside town. I gasped as we drove up the long driveway. "You girls didn't tell me we were going to a movie star's home!"

"Nice, isn't it? Gage Buchanan. His daddy owns the resort here. He's kind of a dick when he wants to be, but he throws epic parties, and we usually get an invite, because we're friends with his sister, Lexi."

I nodded, taking in the beautifully lit house and all the cars pulling up in front of it. A valet in a red coat opened our doors when we stopped, and Melanie handed him her keys.

We walked past the large fountain out front and up to the door where we were welcomed by a butler who didn't smile, but gestured us inside with a sweeping motion. Liza giggled as we walked to the coat check.

The inside of the house was even more jaw dropping, a sweeping staircase right off the foyer, lots of marble and glittering chandeliers everywhere, the furniture classic and expensive looking, and large enough to fill the huge rooms. Everything seemed grand and oversized. It made me feel like Alice In Wonderland as I walked through the wide hallway with the large portraits and floor to ceiling windows, each leading to an individual balcony.

We wandered through the house, me taking it all in, while Liza and Melanie chatted and I half-heartedly listened to them.

The house was beautifully decorated with gold and black streamers and balloons everywhere and tables full of blow horns and confetti to toss when the clock struck midnight. People were laughing and talking, but I just couldn't buoy my mood. I felt anxious, hot, like there was somewhere I needed to be right that second, but I wasn't sure where, or why. I turned in a slow circle, looking at the people all around me, searching for something… but I didn't know what.

When we entered the ballroom, a woman with a tray came over and offered us a glass of champagne. We each took one and I looked around distractedly.

"Bree? Earth to Bree," Liza laughed. "Where are you?"

I smiled at her, coming back to the here and now. "Sorry, this place is just sort of overwhelming."

"Well drink up! We have some dancing to do!"

"Okay." I laughed, trying to shake the strange feeling.

We finished our champagne and headed to the dance floor and as we danced and laughed, and the champagne hit my system, I was able to come back to the moment.

We started to leave the dance floor as the fast song we were dancing to ended and a slow song came on.

"Oh hey, there are Stephen and Chris," Melanie said looking toward two young men standing to the side of the dance floor and chatting. They spotted Liza and Melanie and smiled and gestured them over.

I put my hand on Melanie's arm. "You go talk to them. I need some air anyway."

Melanie frowned. "Are you sure? We can come with you."

I shook my head. "No, no, really, I'm fine. Promise."

They hesitated, but then said, "Okay, but we'll come find you if you're gone too long." She smiled and winked. "And if we do and find you in an empty room petting the family cat, there will be an intervention."

I laughed. "I promise I won't be long."

I walked out of the ballroom toward the larger balcony that I'd seen on our way in and when I stepped outside, I inhaled a deep breath. It was chilly, but not frigid and after all the dancing, I welcomed the cool air on my skin.

I walked along the balcony trailing my hand on the stone railing. It felt magical out here–large, potted trees adorned in twinkle lights were placed along the outside of the house, and in between were small, intimate benches just big enough for two. I leaned over the side, looking down at all the guests talking and laughing on the balcony below and then straightened up and just stood there for a few minutes, inhaling deeply and looking up at the stars.

I had the strangest sensation that someone was watching me. I turned in a slow circle, that same feeling I'd felt inside the house coming over me again. I shook my head slightly and brought myself back to the present.

A couple burst out onto the balcony, laughing as the man groped at the woman and she teasingly pushed him away from her before pulling him in for a kiss.

I looked away, my heart squeezing at the sight of the intimacy between them. Please come back to me, I said in my mind.

I walked toward the door, moving around the couple and leaving them to their privacy, and entered the house again. Once I was back in the hallway, I stood still and took another deep breath before moving toward the ballroom. I startled as I felt a hand on my arm, my breath caught, and I turned slowly. There was a tall, good-looking man with jet black hair and beautiful, deep blue eyes standing just behind me. His eyes were trained on me. "Dance?" he said simply, and then held out his hand as if my yes was a foregone conclusion.

"Um, okay," I said softly, releasing my breath and taking his hand.

The man led me onto the dance floor and stopped in the middle, pulling me in to him. "What's your name?" he whispered into my ear, his deep voice like silk.

I leaned back slightly, looking up into his blue eyes. "Bree Prescott."

"Nice to meet you, Bree Prescott. I'm Gage Buchanan."

I leaned back. "Oh, this is your house! Thank you for having me. I'm Liza and Melanie Scholl's friend. Your house is so beautiful."

Gage smiled and then turned me effortlessly, moving his body fluidly to the music. He was easy to follow, even though admittedly I wasn't a very good dancer.

"And why is it I haven't met you before tonight? I find it hard to believe a girl as beautiful as you hasn't been the talk of the town. I would have made it a point." He winked.

I laughed, leaning back slightly. "I live in Pelion," I said. "Perhaps–" I stopped talking abruptly as the loud chatter going on around us seemed to cease, the conversation now just a low murmur moving through the crowd, the music, "In My Veins," seeming to rise in volume as the voices around us died. Gage stopped moving and so did I as we looked around, confused.

And that's when I saw him. Standing on the edge of the dance floor, those gorgeous whiskey-colored eyes trained on me, his expression unreadable.

My heart flew into my throat and I drew in a loud gasp and brought my hands to my mouth, pure happiness filling every cell in my body. He looked like a god standing there, somehow taller, bigger, seeming to have an authority he didn't have before, but still that beautiful gentleness in his eyes. I blinked, mesmerized. His dark hair was longer, curling up over his collar, and he was wearing a black suit and tie and a light colored dress shirt. His shoulders seemed even broader, his frame larger, his beauty more intense. I drank him in, my heart beating triple time.

I vaguely noted that people were watching us as I took a step toward him and he moved toward me, like magnets being drawn together by the force of something neither one of us controlled. I heard an older woman in the crowd mutter, "He's the spitting image of Connor Hale, isn't he?" her voice soft, dreamy.

The people on the dance floor moved aside to make way for him and I stood waiting now. The lights twinkled around me and the music swelled as Archer made it to me on the dance floor and looked somewhere just to my right.

I felt a hand on my arm and when I tore my eyes from Archer and looked up, Gage, whom I had forgotten was there, smiled and leaned in, whispering, "It's suddenly become obvious to me that you're already taken. Nice meeting you, Bree Prescott."

I let out a breath and smiled back at him. "Nice meeting you too, Gage." It seemed Gage Buchanan was a nicer guy than Liza and Melanie gave him credit for. He nodded at Archer and moved off, disappearing into the crowd.

I looked back up at Archer and for several moments, we did nothing but gaze at each other before I brought my hands up and signed, You're here, tears springing into my eyes, joy enveloping me.

He let out a breath, warmth filling his expression as he brought his own hands up. I'm here for you, he said. And that's when his face broke into the most beautiful smile I'd ever seen in my life and I launched myself into his arms, crying and gasping against the crook of his neck, holding on tight, holding on for dear life to the man I loved.

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