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IT’S ONLY SIX WEEKS until our wedding day. I’m over-the-moon excited. I’m also swamped with last minute details. So steady, dependable Clay Asher—my ruggedly-handsome, black-haired, onyx-eyed fiancé—has gone downtown to pick us up some breakfast.
Having brewed a fresh pot of coffee, I reach into the antique cabinet Grandma Nettie gave me as a housewarming gift and take down my favorite mug. It’s made from heavy, white ceramic. On one side is an image of a hand-carved heart. It holds a special memory that I keep hidden away. That I can never share with anyone, especially not my future husband.
Clay and I have a lot in common. Our love of trivia board games, classic literary novels and tennis, to name a few. After he gets back and we eat, we’re going to mail off the wedding invitations, head to the club, grab a court and play a few sets. I’m wearing my new tennis dress, a shimmery, pink little number that showcases my curves.
As I’m relishing the feel of hot, caffeine-infused liquid sliding down my throat, I hear the creaking of the screen door from my front porch. Since Clay is only going a short distance, and I live in a safe neighborhood, I don’t bother locking up after he leaves. He hasn’t been gone nearly long enough to complete his errand. The sound of his footsteps are harried and a bit off. He must have forgotten something. I call out to him, “I’m in the kitchen, Clay. What did you forget?”
“Who the fuck is Clay?”
When I see a man who might as well be a ghost, stepping over the threshold, all the color drains from my face. The room spins out of control. I drop the mug. It shatters into a thousand pieces on the tile floor. Clutching the edge of the rose-colored, marble countertop to steady my legs, I gasp, “Ian? It can’t be. Wh—what are you doing here?”
He flashes me that knee-buckling smile that could always make me forgive him for anything. But what he did to me, to us two years ago, is completely unforgivable.
“I’m here to reclaim my wife. My home. Our life together.”
Suddenly, I’m trembling so bad my teeth begin to chatter. Despite the warm breeze of spring fluttering the sheer, lacy curtains from my kitchen window, I feel cold as ice. I think my body is going into shock. Struggling to fill my lungs with air, I slide down to the floor. Numbly, I begin picking up pieces of the broken ceramic heart. The irony of Ian Callum literally and figuratively breaking mine, then and now, isn’t lost on me.
He closes the space between us, grabs a handful of paper towels and kneels beside me. As he dabs at the brown liquid, I can feel his eyes burning into my skin. His heated gaze could always warm me when nothing else could.
It’s like I’ve been thrust into a time warp, back to the days of marital bliss I shared with Ian—my now ex-husband, only he doesn’t know that yet. Days where we shared everything from the mundane to the sublime. From cleaning up a spill like we’re doing now to skiing the slopes of Sugar Mountain before making love all night long by a crackling fire. It really didn’t matter what activity we were engaged in. Every moment was a life-altering, mind-boggling adventure.
When the floor is clean, he grabs both my wrists. Standing, he pulls me to my feet and says, “Talk to me, Helena. Tell me you still love me. Tell me I can make everything all right again.”
I shake my head but don’t pull away. I want to jerk my arms back, breaking the hold he has on me, but I can’t. The touch of his hands, the feel of his fingers locked around my wrists melts my insides. I thought I had made peace with never having physical contact with him again, but my body is calling my mind a liar.
Finding my voice, I say, “I’m no longer your wife, Ian. You left me two years ago, disappearing without a trace. When it became horribly, painfully obvious you weren’t coming back, I filed for a divorce.”
He laughs harshly. “How is that possible?”
I shrug. “The law allows a woman who has been abandoned a year or more to unshackle herself from a wayward man who cannot be found.”
He drops my hands, bends forward and rests his palms on his knees. Now he is the one struggling for oxygen. Through clenched teeth, he says, “I didn’t abandon you. I would never fucking do that.”
“Then what do you call it?”
He stands taking in a deep, controlled breath through flaring nostrils. “I call it a piss-poor, insomnia-induced decision.”
I huff, losing patience. I won’t deny on some level that seeing him all safe and sexy doesn’t make me feel happy and relieved. But it also resurrects all the feelings of hurt and betrayal I’ve spent the last two years overcoming.
“You’re not making any sense. And, honestly, I don’t give a rat’s ass what your reasons were for leaving. All I need to know is you walked out on me. On us. On a marriage I thought you cherished as much as I did. Apparently, I was wrong.”
Angrily raking long, tanned fingers through his beautiful, beach-blond hair, he curses, “Damn it, Helena, you weren’t wrong. You meant and do mean everything to me. You are my life. My whole fucking world. You always have been and always will be.”
“Then why did you shatter my heart?”
“I didn’t do it on purpose. If it’s any consolation, my stupidity shattered my heart, too. Along with the back of my skull.”
He closes his eyes as if conjuring up the memory. “You know how bad my insomnia can get. That night when I disappeared, I did what I always do when I can’t sleep.”
“Okay. So you took a walk and what? Kept on walking? Decided the grass was greener on the other side? Got tired of being tied down to one woman?”
“Hell no, on all counts! I had no control over what happened. I was mugged and robbed, Helena. The blow to the back of my head left me with amnesia.”
“If that’s true, you would have been taken to the hospital. I would have been able to find you.”
“I didn’t seek medical attention. I was too addled and out of it to think straight. I didn’t even realize the extent of my injuries. As I was staggering down the sidewalk, an old trucker named Tommy came along and offered me a ride.”
“And you willy-nilly went with him?”
“Yeah. He was nice and grandfatherly. I was scared and in pain. I didn’t know who I was or where I lived. I latched onto his kindness and rode it a hundred and fifty miles from here to a Vidalia-onion farm in Georgia.”
I shake my head in disbelief. “You’ve spun quite the fantastic tale.”
“It’s not a tale. It’s the truth. You know me. I’ve never lied to you.”
“I thought I knew you.”
He rubs the back of his neck. I know I’m frustrating him, but I’m frustrated, too. For two years, I thought he had intentionally walked away from me and our marriage. Now, he tells me he was attacked, injured, lost and scared. I don’t know how to process that.
“I know you’re angry, baby, but I—”
“I’m not your baby anymore,” I snap.
“She’s mine,” Clay snarls, stalking into the kitchen. He’s carrying a white paper bag with Betty’s Bakery written in pretty calligraphy on the side. The warm, delicious aroma of her homemade blueberry muffins infuses the air. I have no idea how long he has been back or what all he has overheard. I do know he recognizes my ex-husband. He has seen plenty enough pictures of him.
Ian ignores Clay, focuses on me and says, “Remember how you and I used to make breakfast together every morning? You would whip up the muffin batter while I fried up bacon strips until they were extra crispy, then both of us squeezed fresh orange juice. I would never have fed you any store-bought shit.”
I take the bag of muffins and say, “It’s from my favorite new bakery, Ian. It was built while you were away. While I was nursing a broken heart. While, piece-by-piece, Clay was putting it back together again.”
“I just bet he was,” Ian says, glaring hard at my fiancé. “Looks like he was also making himself at home in my house.”
Clay fists his hands by his side. “I was doing way more than that.”
Ian’s head snaps around, his ocean-blue eyes locking onto my violet-colored ones. “What does he mean by that? Has he been in our bed? Has he been inside you?”
I avert my gaze from his. I know I shouldn’t be feeling an ounce of guilt or shame, but I’m engulfed by both.
Sighing, I say, “I thought you had left me. I never expected to see you again.”
A sound of agony bubbles from deep in his chest. “So it’s true? You slept with him?”
“Why wouldn’t she?” Clay smirks. “We’re engaged to be married.”
Only then does Ian look at the ring finger of my left hand. He sucks in a ragged breath when he sees the diamond. “No,” he mutters, shaking his head. Looking at his own finger, he asks, “Where’s the pretty, delicate band that matches mine?”
I swallow hard, not wanting to answer in front of Clay, but his cemented stance tells me he isn’t going anywhere. “In the bedroom, on the dresser, in the back corner of my jewelry box.”
Ian fumes, “You mean in our bedroom, on our dresser. Go get the ring and put it on.”
My heart instantly turns to galloping hooves, jarring the ground beneath my feet while pounding against my ribcage. I steal a glance at Clay. His jaw muscles are working, but he remains quiet in what I’ve come to know as silent strength. Yet he watches and waits to see what I will do.
I look back and forth between two furious men. One who, in the past, was my everything and one who now fills up my present. But somehow, I can’t see a future without both of them. I must be crazy. Ian’s showing up out of nowhere has likely given me some sort of breakdown. Throwing my hands up in the air, I run upstairs, leaving them in my wake.
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