Burning Bridges [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Anne Krist
eBook Category: Romance
eBook Description: Sara Richards's world is rocked when three love letters from 1970 are delivered decades late. The letters were written by Paul Steinert, a young sailor who took her innocence with whispered words of love and promises of forever before leaving for Vietnam. Sara is left behind, broken hearted and pregnant, yearning for letters she never received. Now, years later, she discovers the betrayal wasn't Paul's when her mother confesses to a sin that changed their lives forever. How can Sara reveal to Paul's parents they have a granddaughter they've missed the chance to know? Even worse, how will she find the words to tell her daughter that she's lived her life in the shadow of a lie? Picking her way through the minefields of distrust and betrayal, Sara finds that putting her life together without burning any bridges will be the hardest thing she's ever done.[Mainstream Contemporary Romance]
eBook Publisher: Siren-BookStrand, Inc./BookStrand, Published: 2008
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2008
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11 Reader Ratings:
"Recommended Read 5 Pixies: Anne Krist delivers a strong and poignant love story with Burning Bridges. Young lovers separated by family and war makes for a deeply touching tale. The history and scenes into the lover's past helps create a vivid and relatable relationship. Burning Bridges unfolds nicely and allows readers to be entranced in the story. I enjoyed the author's ability to let things happen naturally without anything feeling forced. Every character has their own battles and they all fumble through life realistically. Each character brings a little to the table and keeps the cast feeling vibrant and full. Word choice rounded out the book. The writer has a flow to her writing that kept me interested until the end. Displaying unwavering talent when dealing with delicate situations, Anne Krist's Burning Bridges stayed with me long after I finished."--Twila King, Dark Angel Reviews
"5 Stars: Rarely does a story come along which touches one in countless ways from every affecting scene, yet this writer does so with her first release. The name of Anne Krist will become recognized as an author who conveys genuine and heightened feelings between her memorable characters. The exceptional storytelling ability of Anne Krist shines throughout this compelling story from start to finish. Beautifully written and particularly heartwarming, this is romance at its finest. With a marvelous cast of characters and an original plot, Burning Bridges will grab readers and pull them into the imaginative and noteworthy storyline. A connection is formed almost immediately as each dynamic character is introduced, and all aspects of their lives become more important as each new detail is revealed. There are joyous times intermingled with the more poignant moments, and every single situation is shown with heartfelt realism. Although the book is packed with circumstances where emotions are at the forefront, there is never a time when a set of events did not add immensely to the story. With the myriad of sentiments between the convincingly portrayed characters, I found these spirited individuals quickly working their way into my own heart as their happiness or anguish also affected me. With having grown up during the time of the Vietnam War, this story was especially moving to me as I remember this being a stressful time in U.S. history. Whether this gifted author is writing a tender romance as Anne Krist or a more sensuously steamy tale as Dee S. Knight, the story will be totally rewarding. I look forward to many more books from "both" of these authors. With surprising twists and believable interplay between characters, Burning Bridges is an unforgettable love story filled with passionate desires and potent emotions."--Amelia Richard, Ecataromance
"5 Hearts: Anne Krist has certainly made a name for herself with this phenomenal first novel. While her counterpart is well known for her amazing erotic stories, Ms. Krist will quickly become a favorite author for the reader who prefers a lighter storyline. Although I used the term lighter, I did not mean to infer this would be a less significant work. To the contrary, I foresee this book quickly becoming a number one blockbuster. This author has created fabulous main characters as well as the supporting cast members. This poignant story has a unique plot which is unequaled. When Sara found out how her parents had fabricated a lie to keep her from Paul, she faced, seemingly insurmountable difficulties dealing with her mother. The myriad of emotions and baggage faced by these two--and later Paul also--showed depth and dimensions rarely explored in characters. As I continued to read, I shed some tears, laughed some, and definitely did not want the story to end. It is a magnificent study in the resilience of the human spirit and the power of love. I cannot possibly recommend this book highly enough. It's extraordinary."--Brenda Talley, The Romance Studio
"5 Stars: Burning Bridges is a yummy romance. Anne Krist has a talent for conveying great emotion. Keep a box of tissues close at hand when you read Burning Bridges. I was wiping tears throughout the book. The plot quickly captured my interest, and I felt I was part of the drama. The tension between Paul and Sara (both are stubborn and hardheaded) left me tingling. The love they shared was obvious. I did not want this story to end. Fans of romance should place Burning Bridges at the top of this summer's reading list."--Anne Boling, Review Your Book
"5 Cups: Ms. Krist has a heart-warming, emotional story on her hands. I fell in love with Sara and Paul's story from the beginning. There is so much heartbreak in the story I had to find out if things could be resolved in the end. Love does transcend time no matter how long it may be dormant. There are a lot of obstacles for these characters to overcome and my heart took the ride with them. Just the simple fact that there is more than just Sara and Paul affected in this story made me keep turning pages. This is one I highly recommend!"--Krista, Coffee Time Romance
"Burning Bridges is a story that I feel many people would enjoy. I laughed and cried throughout this entertaining novel. The message in this novel is universal and could be any parent trying to ensure that their children receive the best in life. It was very easy to relate to the characters in this wonderfully written story. I was very taken with the characters; I felt the sorrow and anger of each one. This story flowed relatively well and it could be the life of anyone walking past you on the street. The dialogue was realistic and the storyline was well developed, consistent, and resolved at the end."--Breia Brickey, Paranormal Romance
The brown mailing envelope lounged against the back door, appearing deceptively like a friend passing the time. Sara Richards snatched it up with one hand while fitting the key in the lock with the other. A quick glance showed the addressee to be Mary Ellen Noland, her mother. Tape held the flap end closed and her mother's scrawl crossed the other end. "Call me when you've read this."
Strange. She hung up her keys and dropped her purse on the table, examining the return address. Department of the Navy. Her father had been dead over ten years. What would the Navy be sending her mother now?
She loosened the tape and pulled out a letter then spilled a second envelope onto the table. The smaller pouch was addressed to her, Sara, from the U.S. Postal Service and had been forwarded to the Navy. Frowning, she skimmed the letter: Recently recovered bags of mail ... hidden in a storage shed in Virginia Beach since 1970 ... enclosed FPO letters sent to Sara Noland ... forwarded from Oceana NAS to the Department of Navy ... sent in care of Mrs. Mary Ellen Noland for Sara Noland...
Boneless, she dropped into a chair and stared at the USPS envelope. 1970. So long ago and yet like yesterday. Only one person would have written her from overseas, and he hadn't sent any letters. In fact, he'd disappeared, forgetting she lived and leaving her to face the disastrous following months alone.
Then he'd died.
No, these letters couldn't be from Paul Steinert.
But who else?
Sara's Siamese, Pi R Squared, rubbed his head against her ankle and pled for food, but she ignored him. With surprisingly steady hands, she opened the postal service pouch. Someone--her mother?--had slit the end of this also, and then taped it closed. Three smaller envelopes fell out. She'd seen his handwriting only once but recognized it immediately. Her hand flew to her mouth. Blood roared in her ears, blocking Squared's plaintive meow.
An image filled her mind. Not how he looked the first time she'd seen him, but after they'd been meeting for several weeks. The wind off the ocean ruffled his short blond hair and love filled his eyes, eyes bluer than an autumn sky. That was Paul as she dreamed him after he left and later, when she damned him for forgetting her. When she heard he'd been killed in action and all during those interminable months when she longed for one last chance to hold him, she pictured him there, on the beach at Sandbridge.
For the first time in years, the pain of his death crashed over her. Her grief now was nothing compared to the agony when she'd first heard, when she'd wanted to die, too. Worn down over the years, his memory was a dull ache, familiar, like a friend she counted on to be there.
She picked up one of the small envelopes. On a back corner, he'd noted it as number twenty-nine. Checking the other two, she saw a twenty-eight and thirty. He'd written thirty letters? How could that be? She hadn't received even one. Thirty letters couldn't have been lost due to a foul up in the mail.
Mechanically, she dumped a packet of dry food in Squared's dish and then called her mother.
"I thought it would be you. Have you read the letters?"
"No. What happened, do you know?" Scattered on the table, the three packets drew her gaze and she stared as though trying to read their meaning through the sealed paper.
"Only what the Department of Navy letter said. Some bags of mail were lost. I suppose if I weren't still receiving part of Dad's retirement, they wouldn't have found me."
Sara closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. "I mean, do you know what happened to the rest of the letters?"
"What?" There was no mistaking the naked fear in her mother's voice.
"The envelopes are numbered. I have twenty-eight through thirty. What do you think happened to the others?" Tension radiated through her shoulders and neck. Her mother was about to say something she didn't want to hear, she knew it.
"Sara, you have to understand, Dad and I only wanted what was best for you. You were a child, a high school senior with a wonderful future in front of you. You'd been accepted at William and Mary. The last thing you needed was to get mixed up with a sailor who would love you and leave you. Which, I might add, is exactly what he did."
Sara could barely suck air into her lungs. Her fingers whitened with the hold she had on the phone cord. "What did you do, Mother?"
"More than anything, we didn't want you hurt." Moments passed. "Your father made the decision, but I was in favor of it, I want you to know that. He's not here, so if you're going to get mad, I suppose it will have to be at me." She ended with a sigh. "After--that man--left Virginia Beach, we determined it would be best for you to make a clean break. We never had any doubt that he was wrong for you. So we intercepted the letters."
The blood drained from Sara's face and she pulled over a chair. If she didn't sit she'd fall. "You did what? How could you do that?" Her voice broke.
"You put your letters in the mailbox and I took them out after you left for school. And his..."
All too well, Sara remembered days of rushing into the house to sort through the stack of mail on the hall table, never finding a letter from Paul. Each day with no news added a stone to her wall of doubt that he loved her and depleted her store of faith that he'd stand by her.
Sara moaned. "Do you know what you did with your meddling?"
"Sara, you were seventeen, a child. Do you know what that means? He could have gone to jail. Your father was in favor of going to his commanding officer--even to the police. It was fortunate for your friend that his ship left."
Sara envisioned her mother sitting alone in her living room. About this time each afternoon, a gin and tonic sat on the table beside her. She'd wear a skirt and blouse and her hair and make-up would be flawless. Sara also didn't doubt that her mother's posture was rigid and her thumb rubbed the tips of her index and middle fingers. Those were indications her mother's emotions--anger, frustration, fear, whatever--were threatening to override her normal control. Today she deserved every terrible, panicky feeling she was experiencing.
Mary Ellen sighed. "Try to see it from our point of view. You were a good girl with a good future. He destroyed all of that in a matter of weeks. You were our responsibility and we protected you the best way we knew how."
"Yes, protected you. We loved you more than anything on earth." She quieted, as though considering the next bit. "He died in service to his country. That was at least an honorable thing."
A sob broke from Sara.
Her mother softened her tone. "I have no doubt he might have been a good man, but not for you, and not at that time. I don't regret ending the relationship, whatever else happened."
"I can't believe you did this. I don't even know what to say to you." A headache inched its way forward to throb behind her eyes. She used her free hand to block the light coming through the kitchen windows. "The horrid things I thought about him, the certainty I had that he'd forgotten me ... all wrong. I mailed the first letters from school. I wish I'd kept on doing that and asked him to write me at Cindy's house. Who knows what might have happened?"
"Sara, it's been so long. I thought you'd be able to understand after all this time, but maybe I was wrong. Put the whole episode with that man behind you, darling. Just throw those letters out. What difference could they possibly make now?"
"I don't know."
"Darling? We shouldn't talk about this over the phone. I can be there in a few minutes and then--"
Sara's eyes shot open. "No! I may never forgive you for this, Mother. In fact, I'm hanging up before I say something I probably shouldn't."
"Sara, let me--"
Sara slammed the receiver back in the cradle. Vaulting from the chair, she paced around the kitchen table. Squared stopped eating and turned to watch, his Siamese-blue eyes following her path. In agitation, she picked up the letter from the Navy, glanced unseeing at the words then tossed it back. Stomping to the sink, she poured some water then drank it all without taking a breath. Finally, she turned and stared at Paul's envelopes.
"It's true," she told Squared. "There's nothing these letters can do for me now. Paul is dead, no matter what these say."
She brushed her fingers over Paul's bold script, then stuffed everything into the larger Navy envelope. Hiding the whole package in her "all-purpose" drawer at least removed them from sight, but she knew now nothing would erase them from her mind. With a resigned sigh, she went to change her clothes.
As if sensing her discomfort, Squared followed her to the bedroom, stretching out on her bed and cleaning himself. Sara removed her work clothes and slipped into stay-at-home sweat pants and shirt. She lay on the bed, covering her eyes with her arm. Squared moved closer, curling against her leg.
"It's all my fault," Sara explained, stroking his back. "I should have trusted him, found some other way to contact him. He understood that I was too young to handle our relationship, yet he trusted me. And I let him down, boy."
In the dim light of the late afternoon, she drifted into a light sleep. From one of her favorite memories, she dreamt Paul as she first saw him, a Viking god highlighted by the afternoon sun in the parking lot of the Alan B. Shepherd Convention Center.
Virginia Beach, Virginia--January, 1970
"Of all days to debate about whether to wear the short skirt or the shorter one," Sara wailed to her best friend, Cindy. "We'll be lucky if we aren't late."
The blue Volkswagen Beetle sped down the highway. Or as fast as it could speed, with the tiny engine pushing from the rear, and Sara having to shift gears so often because of traffic and lights. She huffed in frustration.
"Oh, we have plenty of time. I had to make sure I looked just right. You never know who we'll see," Cindy replied with her usual assurance.
"I hope you're right."
"You worry, Sara, and things always turn out okay. Just keep your mind on driving and we'll be fine." Cindy clasped her hands and shrieked with excitement. "I can't believe our parents bought us tickets to see Michael Wales!"
That brought a real smile to Sara's face. "I know! Our parents are the best."
She flicked a knob on the radio as she veered into the parking lot, silencing Neil Diamond's "Holly Holy."
"See? I told you. You worry too much. We're here with a good ten minutes to spare." Cindy flipped her straight blonde hair over her shoulder. She turned the rearview mirror toward her and applied a fresh coating of lip gloss.
"We're only 'here' if I can find a place to park." Sara maneuvered her little car up one aisle and down another, until finally, "Good! There's one." Before she could get to the space, a sleek, red Corvette swung in.
"Oh, no! That was our space," Cindy cried.
Two men unfolded themselves from the little sports car, the driver with olive skin and hair as dark as the passenger's was golden. The men started toward the building. Suddenly, the passenger looked at Sara and then back at the space.
The low-hanging sun framed him, a fair giant with short hair and the physique of a warrior. For a brief moment, Sara pictured him with sword and shield at the helm of a Norse sailing vessel. Her heart fluttered and her breath caught. Then she brought herself under control.
The girls watched as he talked to the dark-haired man and gestured to them. The driver looked around then shook his head before continuing toward the building. The blond shrugged apologetically at Sara and followed his friend.
"Shoot! I thought maybe he would have a heart." Sara eased off the clutch and started forward again.
"They were cute." Cindy swerved in her seat to watch the men as they picked their way through the parked cars. "I wonder what the chances are of seeing them--"
A piercing whistle cut through Cindy's words. "Stop, Sara! The blond guy is waving at us."
Sara turned to look behind them. The blond man was indeed waving, gesturing for her to come toward him. "What does he want?" she muttered. Deciding to ignore him, she drove on, turning to the right.
He whistled again.
"He wants you to pull around there. He's still waving."
"Oh, all right," Sara grumbled. "But make sure your door is locked, Cindy. And don't roll your window down."
Cindy laughed. "You sound like my mother. What do you think is going to happen right here in the parking lot?"
Sara managed a U-turn and drove to where the man stood. Rolling her window down an inch, she said loudly, "What is it?"
He bent down to peer through the glass at her, a lopsided grin on his face. Good Lord, he was cute. Muscled shoulders and arms, angular, strong features, hair a rich blond, and dark, sapphire-blue eyes.
"Oh, my heavens," she heard Cindy say under her breath.
For once, Sara understood her friend's meaning. His grin made her stomach do flip-flops and her palms sweat.
"I don't bite," he said around a chuckle, motioning to the almost closed window. "I just wanted to tell you, there's a place right over there. I think you can squeeze your Bug into it." He turned and pointed at a half space at the end of the aisle, a couple of cars away.
Flashing him a look of gratitude, she put the little car in gear and pulled into the spot. The tall, handsome stranger followed.
When Sara turned off the engine, the guy opened the door for Cindy and held out his hand to assist her. Out of nowhere, a sharp pang of jealousy struck Sara. Its intensity and suddenness disturbed her. After all, she didn't know this man; what difference did it make if he and Cindy hit it off?
By the time she collected her purse, stepped out and made sure the doors were locked, Cindy and the mystery man were like old friends. Again she felt the Green Monster strike, and gave a mental shake to rid herself of its clutches.
"Sara," Cindy said, smiling dreamily at the tall man, "this is Paul Steinert. Wasn't he just wonderful, finding us this space?" She tittered.
It was all Sara could manage, not to gape. Cindy always flirted but tittering was something new.
"Paul, this is my best friend, Sara Noland."
Paul smiled and held out his hand. "Hello, Sara. I'm sorry about the other space. This one is closer to the door, though."
She locked gazes with him and her tongue twisted in her mouth. Surges of heat flew through her body. If his smile had that effect, what would his touch do to her? Something wonderful.
No, something forbidden.
Sara glanced at his hand but wrapped her own around her pocketbook. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Steinert." Ugh, I sound so stiff. I wish I knew how to act like Cindy.
In fact, she didn't know how to react to this man at all. "Thanks very much for your help in finding our space, but we'd better get inside. Come on, Cindy."
"You're right." Paul drew his hand back and held his arm out to Cindy, who slipped her hand through it with a huge smile. "My friend is meeting me inside, so I'll just walk you two in." He extended his other arm to Sara, but she struck off toward the building.
"Your friend doesn't like me," she heard him say in a lowered voice to Cindy.
"Oh, she's fine. She's just more cautious than I am." Cindy tittered again.
Sara strode ahead, fuming, and waited for them in the lobby. Just like Cindy to latch onto a guy. This is supposed to be our day to have fun together.
Shame followed the thought. Cindy was just being Cindy, fun-loving and free instead of guarded and serious like ... well like her. Until today, she'd never envied her friend's easy way with boys. But Paul is no boy. He's definitely a man.
Maybe that made the difference.
Once inside, Paul introduced them to his friend, Mitch Hamilton, who said hello and then stuck his hands in his pockets. He absently watched people as they pressed by, but his eyes kept coming back to Cindy. Sara didn't mind his attention to her friend.
"You'll have to forgive Mitch's lack of enthusiasm for Michael Wales," Paul explained. "He's more into the Stones."
"Sorry," Mitch said, with a radiant smile.
Dark and swarthy, he would have been the epitome of dreamy to most girls, but to Sara his olive-toned skin and black eyes held no appeal. Though his smile was brilliant, it seemed practiced. Not like Paul's, as natural as sunshine. And just as warm.
Mitch smiled again, this time at Cindy. "I don't suppose you'd like to trade tickets with Paul and sit with me, would you?"
Cindy raised a hopeful brow at Sara. "No, thank you," Sara answered for her.
Mitch winked at Cindy and gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Well then, Paul, we'd better get to our seats if we're gonna listen to this guy. Maybe we'll see you afterward."
"Cindy, let's go." Sara looked at her ticket to determine which door to access.
"Will we see you later?" Paul still had Cindy's hand on his arm, but he looked at Sara when he spoke.
"No, I don't think so. Thanks again for helping me find the parking space. We'd probably still be out there if you hadn't."
"Don't worry about it."
Sara tugged Cindy toward the door leading to their seats.
"Bye, Paul! Bye, Mitch," Cindy called over her shoulder.
The lights dimmed and soft music began as the girls took their seats. "Just made it," Sara whispered.
"They were cute. And nice," Cindy whispered back.
"They were okay, but we're here for the concert, so forget them."
Cindy laughed quietly. "You wouldn't say that if you knew what Paul asked while you were walking ahead of us and couldn't hear. I'll give you a hint. It was about you."
Sara turned an astonished look at her friend, who now faced forward wearing a smug smile. The spotlight came on and a disembodied voice announced Michael Wales. She fixed her gaze on the stage, but all at once it didn't matter who stood on it. She was grateful the applause was so loud, for otherwise Cindy certainly would have heard the hammering of her heart.
No one had ever had this effect on her. Was it because he was older? They hadn't even touched but somehow, when she'd first seen him, she knew. Fate had led her to this place and time for the sole purpose of meeting Paul Steinert. The world changed that day. Nothing would look the same, or smell, or taste the same again.
If. If she saw him. If she pushed her reservations and caution aside.
But she wouldn't. He was a man. She was still in high school. They had nothing in common. Only trouble could come from any further meetings. Besides, despite her friend's comment, he'd shown obvious interest in Cindy, not her.
The hour and a half couldn't have passed any slower. Most of the concert was a blur of lights, a strumming guitar and a soft baritone. It was both amusing and disappointing that after weeks of anticipation, all Sara focused on was blond hair and deep, blue eyes.
Finally, she allowed herself to be pushed and nudged into the lobby.
"Oh, wasn't it just the best thing ever?" Cindy gushed. "And now we get dinner out, too." She sighed with appreciation. "I can't wait to tell everyone at school tomorrow."
Sara glimpsed the gridlock in the parking lot. "We might as well wait for a couple more minutes."
"Okay, I'm going to the bathroom." Cindy craned her neck to locate the ladies' room.
"I'll wait over there by the window."
Moving out of the way, Sara let her mind wander as she watched people leave the building and cars jockey for position. A few minutes later, she saw the Corvette maneuver around the line and pull away. That was it, then. He was gone. Good. So why did it feel like a punch to her stomach?
Nothing good would come from seeing Paul again. The first encounter was an accident and could be brushed away; a second would be from desire.
Desire. The very word sent a rush of heat through her. Heat like she'd known from Paul's smile, a crook of the lips that everyone did but no one did like him. How could she feel this for someone she didn't know? One glance from him and her heart raced. Rational thought evaporated. She wished for less knowledge of math and more cleavage. No, it wouldn't do to spend time with a man who filled her with surging warmth.
"A penny for your thoughts."
Startled, Sara spun around. "Paul!" She looked at him and then back at the parking lot. "I thought ... But I saw the Corvette leave. Where's your friend?"
"He's gone. With your friend, as a matter of fact."
"What?" This time Sara pushed past him to scan the rapidly emptying lobby for any sign of Cindy. There was none. "What are you talking about? She's just gone to the restroom."
"She was coming out of the ladies' room when we saw her," he explained. "She said you're going to dinner and invited us to join you. When Mitch offered to drive her in the 'Vette, Cindy said I could come with you." He smiled, keeping his distance and his hands in his back pockets. "You don't mind, do you? Like I said earlier, I don't bite."
"I do mind." Sara paced angrily. "How could she do this? For heaven's sake, she just jumps into a car with a perfect stranger?" She stopped to glare at Paul as though through him she could make Cindy feel her irritation.
"With all due respect, I've known Mitch for weeks. He might be a stranger but he's not perfect. I, on the other hand..."
His smile widened, making the situation worse as far as Sara was concerned. Hadn't she just come to the conclusion that he was poison to be with? And mostly because his damn smile made her want to be with him? She'd kill Cindy, no two ways about it.
"Sorry," he said, his expression sobering. "Just trying to lighten the mood."
"It didn't work." She bowed her head. "Look. I'm sure you're a very nice man, and your friend seems nice, too. But as Cindy said, I'm cautious, and I'm not comfortable with this situation at all. Not to mention the fact that my dad will kill me if he finds out." She looked up at him. "And trust me, my dad always finds out. This will do nothing but get me in trouble. And it's not even my fault." The last came out as a whine, but she couldn't help it.
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize this would be such a problem." He thought for a moment. "Tell you what. You head over to the restaurant. I'll catch a cab and then Mitch and I will shove off. Okay? It'll be all right." He reached out and squeezed her shoulder.
It was nothing, a throw-away gesture. The kind of thing a guy would do to his kid sister. But his touch sent shock waves through Sara's body.
Her eyes widened and she gasped. In a daze, she saw his eyes darken, revealing an emotion that hadn't been there a moment ago. She couldn't put a name to what showed in his features, but instinctively she knew it wasn't something one would see in a brother. His hand still rested on her shoulder, branding her with the outline of his fingers and the circle of his palm.
She stepped back and his hand fell to his side. Neither spoke for a second or two. Then, "Thanks, Paul. I appreciate your understanding." Fumbling with her purse, she turned and practically ran for the door and then for the car. When she reached it, she looked back. He stood watching her.
She climbed in and started the engine, letting its consistent hum work to calm her. Shivering, she turned the heater on full blast. Cold permeated her body--all except her shoulder where Paul left his searing imprint. Dropping her head on the steering wheel, Sara silently implored the little engine to flood the car with warm air so she would stop shaking.
Finally, hot air blasted from the heater vents. Still she trembled. It was then she knew she shivered not from the cold air, but from the heat of his touch.
And she wanted his touch again. His touch and more. The concert, which for weeks had been at the center of her thoughts, devolved to an interval of white noise sandwiched between Meeting Paul and Being With Paul.
She'd never wanted anything so much in her life, nor had she ever risked so much. If her parents found out, she'd be grounded until they sent her off to William and Mary in the fall. She knew in her heart, he was worth the gamble.
The parking lot had emptied. She swung the car around to the door and strained across the gearshift to see if Paul was still there. Her heart sank. He was nowhere. Not inside the door or at the window where she'd left him.
Sara heaved a sigh. Her head fell against the headrest and she closed her eyes, wondering if she was more relieved or disappointed. Then she jumped at a tap on the passenger window.
Opening her eyes, she saw Paul looking at her expectantly. She reached over to unlock the door.
"Hi." It was too simple, but all she could manage. Her heart was in her throat and her pulse raced. She was both scared to death and exhilarated.
"Hi." He settled in the seat and turned to face her. "I was about to call a cab when I saw you out here. Were you waiting for me?"
"Yes. Yes, Paul, I've been waiting for you." The words hung there, the double meaning clear to both of them.
"Good." He rested his hand on hers atop the gearshift. Once again, his warmth flowed through her, as though she was a cold, distant planet, and Paul, rays of solar energy bringing her to life.
"I'm sorry you might get into trouble for something that isn't your fault," he said quietly.
"Ah, but now it is my fault." Her wry smile sparked a half smile from him. "But I couldn't really let you take a cab, could I? After all, you're just passing through and what kind of impression of my city would my bad manners leave in your mind?"
"How do you know I'm passing through?" He squeezed her hand and rubbed her knuckles with the pad of his thumb.
Paul scrubbed his free hand through his short hair. "What gave me away?" He cocked his head, watching her chuckle, then added, "I don't come out and say it because let's face it, the military isn't too popular these days. I'm Navy. Is my being in the service a problem for you?"
"It will be for my dad. He's in the Navy, too, which will make this worse in his eyes." She sighed at his raised brows. "He loves the Navy but not sailors. Not for his daughter."
"I hate to admit it, but I understand why he'd be unhappy."
"It gets worse." She watched his face. "I'm seventeen."
The movement of his thumb stopped and his hand tensed. Then the tension drained away. "I did think you were older, but I like you, Sara. I felt it immediately, maybe even before we spoke, while you were thinking about how you'd missed getting that parking space." He thought again, his brow wrinkled slightly. "I'm not all that much older than you. I'm twenty."
"Twenty isn't very old. But my age..."
"Yeah. Your being underage does strike fear in my heart."
"Might as well call a spade a spade. I'm jail bait." Sara held her breath, afraid he would climb right back out of the car.
Instead, he smiled. "I'm not looking to get physical. I just want to be friends. Can we do that?"
She breathed again. "Yes, I think so."
"Good, because you're right. I'm a long way from home and will be going a hell of a lot farther in a few weeks. I need a friend." Another smile.
Would her heart ever beat normally in the face of Paul Steinert's smiles? She doubted it.
"I just have two questions. First, when will you be eighteen?" His grin was impish and she laughed.
"Okay, we just have to get through the next few weeks. By the time I get back you'll be legal and maybe I can take you out without fear of being arrested."
"I'd like that. What's the second question?"
"Can we adjust the heater? It's hotter than blazes in here!"
Laughter bubbled up from deep inside her. "Yes! It's plenty hot, now."
* * * *
Present day, Beaufort, South Carolina
The insistent ringing of the telephone disrupted Sara's memory. Or had she been asleep? With a squall of protest from Squared, she sat and picked up the receiver.
"Sara?" Jennette Williamson, Sara's assistant, sounded hesitant. "Uh, you sound kind of strange. Are you okay?"
"Yes, fine. I laid down and fell asleep, I guess. What's up?"
"Well, I was about to close when the mailman delivered a certified letter. Do you want me to leave it on your desk, or open it?"
Sara's forehead bunched in worry. She owned a small art gallery catering primarily to local business and regular clients. There were few reasons anyone would need to send her a formal letter. "Who's it from?"
"Beaufort Management." The owner of the building that housed her gallery.
"I wonder what they want. Go ahead and open it."
"Hold on just a minute." She heard paper tearing and Jennette picking up the phone again. "'Dear Ms. Richards. We regret to inform you that Beaufort Management has sold the property at 321 King Street. The new owners have indicated their intention of demolishing the building--'
"What? It says that, Jennette? They're going to demolish the building?"
"Oh, Sara. It does."
"Maybe you'd better finish reading." A sick feeling settled in Sara's stomach.
"'Therefore, please accept this as formal notification that Beauty By Beaufort, a gallery owned by you located at 321A King Street must be vacated no later than ninety days from receipt of this notice. Sincerely...' Sara, the gallery! What's going to happen?"
Sara sat on the edge of her bed, her head in a fog. Evicted! Her aunt had founded the art gallery in that building almost fifty years ago. What would she do? Where could she go with the business that was not only her livelihood but her legacy? She'd promised, as her aunt lay dying, that she'd take good care of the gallery and of her aunt's long-time clients and artists. What would happen now to the people who depended on her to keep that promise?
"I don't know, Jennette." She rubbed her temple. "I'll think of something. Just leave the letter on my desk and lock up now. Will I see you tomorrow?"
"Yes, in the afternoon. Sara? I'm really sorry."
Sara gave a rueful laugh. "Me, too. Have a good evening."
After hanging up, she made her way into the kitchen where she put the kettle on for tea.
What an afternoon this had been. First, like a firestorm from the past, Paul's letters brought back sweet memories of innocence and simpler times, but the notice from her landlord had well and truly catapulted her into the present. She'd have preferred to spend a few more minutes basking in the warmth of Paul's smile.
Her gaze strayed to the drawer where she'd tried to hide the reminder of his existence. Fate had provided the perfect way to extend her nostalgia and dreams of what might have been. Tomorrow would be soon enough to decide what to do next about the gallery.
She opened the drawer and withdrew the envelopes.
* * * *
Sara stared at the letters arranged before her in numerical order. The moment in time she and Paul shared was long ago, yet her dream had conjured his presence as though she'd just seen him. In her mind, his blue eyes darkened with passion before his lips captured hers, and he moaned his appreciation when their tongues met. She tasted his sweetness and knew the steel of his arms as he held her. How many nights had she put herself through hell reliving those memories? Too damn many.
After the concert, they'd met clandestinely on weekends, mostly at Sandbridge, where they could walk and talk undisturbed. With each meeting, stirrings built deep in Sara that pushed her to want more, but Paul insisted they restrain themselves because of her age.
Then the weekend before he shipped out, she planned a surprise and her life changed forever.
The kettle screeched, bringing her back to the present. Sara prepared a cup of tea and then picked up the envelope marked twenty-eight. At one time, she would have given her right arm to hold this letter. Now, curiosity and the desire for a brief escape drove her more than the passion of youth. Blind love had faded when she'd had no word to bolster her during the long weeks after the ship left.
First had come the waiting. No letters arrived, even though she wrote him daily. There were no phone calls, no notes, no anything, for days that dragged into weeks then crept into months.
Anticipation morphed into anxiety. She worried he was sick or hurt and unable to write.
One day she admitted that Paul must be afraid to write for some reason, and she feared what he would say if she did receive a letter. That their time together had been a mistake, that she was too young to be in love. That he really loved someone else and Sara had been only a stand-in while he was in Virginia. Perversely, she began to sigh with relief when she arrived home and found nothing.
Now, knowing why she hadn't received mail, what would she feel if she opened this letter and her old fears proved to be true?
"Nothing," she murmured. "Paul's dead. He can't hurt me any more." At the very least, his letters might allow her to put his ghost to rest. For that reason alone, she had to read them.
She slid her thumb under the flap and ripped the envelope open. A single sheet held his hurried scrawl.
May 16, Somewhere up the Mekong Delta
Here I am in the middle of another boring day on this LST--Large Slow Target--missing you and wishing I was there to walk the beach at Sandbridge instead of here, making my way up this stupid river.
I can hear you telling me that what we're doing is important, and I know it, honey. The guys up river need us. I guess I'm just in a pissing kind of mood. So many days are the same. Lots of boredom for a little action.
I hope I don't sound like I'm whining when I say that things would be so much easier if I heard from you. The mail comes in bunches, and I wait for some word from you at every mail call, but so far, only two letters have arrived. Honey, if you've changed your mind about us, please tell me. It would be better than waiting and hoping, but never knowing.
I hope everything is okay for you, sweetheart. That school is going well. Graduation must be coming up pretty soon. I got a little present for you, but I don't know if I should send it. Let me know when you write, okay?
I relive being in the back of that station wagon every day, Sara, and I'll never forget our night as Mr. and Mrs. I can't wait to make it happen for real. That is, if you haven't changed your mind.
I need to stop now if I'm going to get this in the outgoing mail. I love you, Sara.
Sara covered her mouth, trying to muffle the sobs she couldn't contain. He'd loved her. After three months with no word from her, he'd still loved her, and never knew that she loved him.
May 16. He'd died a few weeks later, thinking that she hadn't cared enough even to write and tell him that she didn't care. Her tears flowed unchecked, along with the recollection he mentioned. She'd picked him up at Little Creek Naval Base that Saturday with a surprise picnic for two. A virgin when she woke, she'd gone home Sunday a woman.
Though Paul had pushed her off him their first time, he worried that he hadn't had protection with him. Sara, in the first glow of real passion, hadn't given his words much thought. She hadn't really known what protection meant.
She'd found out soon enough.
The sip of tea calmed her. She refolded the paper and slid it into its envelope. Picking up the second, she opened the letter quickly and began reading.
May 22, Patrolling
Hello, my sweet Sara,
I haven't had time to write for a few days. First I complain that it's too boring and then we have several days of action. I expect soon we'll be back to being bored. I'm sure your dad's told you that it's the Navy way to hurry up and wait.
The past few days have seen an increase in activity in the areas where we've been. I can't tell you where that is exactly, although by the time you get this letter anything that's going to happen will have happened. We've been stepping up our patrols to try and stay ahead of the VC. Last night I had to board a fishing boat. It was just a small little shit of a boat, but there was a papa, mama, uncle and four kids, all crammed on there, living, as well as fishing. The cop we have with us from Saigon was called to interpret for me while I asked for their papers and searched the boat. Lots of weapons get carried up and down these rivers and it's part of our job to stop them. Anyway, this cop counts seven people and we have seven ID cards but there's an extra rice bowl or something set out, making him suspicious. He asks about the extra bowl but doesn't get the answer he wants, so he pulls his gun and is ready to shoot one of them. I'm scared as shit someone is going to get killed because of a bowl of rice, for Pete's sake. So, I'm yelling at him to wait, trying to tell him that we'll figure it out. The poor people on the boat are all waving their arms and screaming and are more scared than I am, and the cop's screaming, too, at the top of his lungs. I tell you, if there were any VC hiding along the shoreline, they would have been laughing too hard to shoot us. I have to admit, if the cop had shot someone I don't know what I'd have done. Turns out, the woman's brother, who was VC by the way, had been on board, but swam ashore when we approached.
There were no weapons on the boat and nothing for us to do but let them go on and live their lives. But Jesus, I was scared. You never know what's going to happen. The brother could have been hiding, ready to kill us instead of making his way quietly back to his camp. In this case, I had to wonder who was more dangerous, our cop or their soldier. It's a hell of a war, Sara.
These poor people. The VC come in to take the country. Then we come in. Even though we're here to do the right thing by them, they don't understand anything half the time except that they're sick and tired of war on their land. And it's hard for us to know what to do sometimes. One day, a sweet little girl is kissing your cheek and the next day she stands there while her mother shoots you. I feel for them, Sara. I know we're here to help, but I wish there was some way to make it all end for them.
Anyway, I told you in a previous letter all about the Swift boats that patrol the coastline. Remember Mitch? He and I will be on one of them for a short time to give them some mechanical help. To tell the truth, I'm looking forward to something new. There's no need to change my address. Just send mail here and I'll get it when I come back on board. Just please send mail, Sara. I don't know how much longer I can go without hearing from you. I've read the two letters I have over and over. By now I can recite them in my sleep.
I'll say goodnight now. I hope everything is fine with you. I miss you so much. I wish I could hear your voice, and I wish it would tell me what's wrong.
I love you,
She threw the pages onto the table, not bothering to stick them back in the envelope. She smoothed the last letter on the table, wiped her eyes and began to read.
May 31, Swift boat duty
As you can see, I'm reassigned right now. Will be here for a bit longer than I'd thought, but then it'll be back to my LST. Having been here, Large Slow Target will really be meaningful. Even with the problems I'm here to fix, this baby moves. And she has to, with the action we get into sometimes. There's been a lot lately. The VC must be up to something, with all they're throwing at us. But we're equal to the task, so don't worry about me. I'll be just fine.
But, sweetheart, that's what I want to ask you about. How are we? I've gotten two letters from you, Sara. Two letters in over three months, and they were both in the first mail call. I can only assume that you've changed your mind and don't know how to tell me. Just say it, whatever it is. I'll deal with it, and I'll try to understand. But this silence I can't understand. I would write Cindy if I knew how to contact her, or even risk trying to reach your dad, that's how worried I am.
I have to say, this is going to be my last letter until I hear from you. I love you. I'll come for you as soon as I get home, if you want me to. But if you don't answer this letter, I'll know not to and I'll leave you alone. Then you don't have to worry about telling me. I hope to hell I hear from you....
I love you.
They'd met and fallen in love. It should have been easy, but none of it had been. Their love had started with lies she'd told her parents so she could see him, and then lies they'd told her back. Add to the mix a war that kept her and Paul separated by thousands of miles, and it was no wonder everything had fallen apart. Left alone, they might have made it, but they hadn't been the only players.
Sara dabbed her wet cheeks and blew her nose again. Tears were useless. Pushing up from the table, she dragged herself to the bathroom where she began filling the tub. She popped two aspirin to deaden the headache raging behind her eyes and sank into the water.
Wrapped in a cocoon of liquid warmth and with the lights dimmed, her tension began to abate. Soon, Paul's letters filled her mind and his pain ripped at her heart. The dripping of the faucet beat a tattoo that played in her head as Paul loved you. Paul loved you. Paul loved you....
And she'd loved Paul. She'd loved him and he'd died thinking she didn't. No matter how much she cried, there would never be enough tears to make up for that.
* * * *
"Mother? We need to talk." In the gallery's kitchenette, Sara dumped coffee into the filter as she spoke into the telephone.
"You're calling me 'mother.' I suppose that means you're still upset."
"Upset is a strange word for how I feel, but, yes. Upset more than mad. I think I'm past mad. It's time now for some questions and answers. Can you meet me here at the gallery for lunch?"
"I'll be there at eleven thirty, all right?"
"I'll slip out and bring sandwiches in."
"Don't bother. I'll stop and pick something up. Are you ... are you okay?"
Sara rubbed her eyes, gritty with fatigue. "I didn't sleep much." In fact, she hadn't been able to close her eyes without seeing Paul. Sometimes he stared in accusation; other times his eyes pled for something. Her love? Understanding?
"If it makes you feel any better, neither did I. I'll see you later, then."
After setting the coffee pot to brew, Sara sat at her desk and opened the letter from the management office. In ninety days she had to find another location for the gallery or close shop and find something else to do with her life. That prospect seemed so alien she couldn't begin to imagine where to start.
In one form or another, she'd worked at the gallery since coming to Beaufort after high school graduation. A couple of years before that, her father's sister, Barbara, had started selling the work of local artists, paintings that spotlighted the Beaufort area.
Beauty by Beaufort developed a he her enthusiasm. Barbara hadn't felt the urgency for change, and when Sara might have implemented new ideas, she couldn't afford the time or energy to follow through properly. Now she had no choice but to do something. Ninety days wasn't much time to make major changes.
Sara opened the old Army surplus file cabinet in the corner of the office and pulled the financial records for the last three years. She knew every dollar that passed through the gallery, but now she hoped to see something new, some funding that might magically appear.
Just as it had for Barbara, the gallery provided a comfortable living, although years had been lean when Sara's daughter was growing up and then again when her aunt was sick. But she'd managed to accumulate several thousand dollars in the past few years. Would it be enough to move to a new location, one better suited to the tourist trade Beaufort continued to attract?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the ringing phone. "Good morning. Beauty by Beaufort."
With only one word spoken Sara knew something was wrong. "Good morning, sweetheart. Aren't you at work?"
"No, I took a sick day."
Sara's brow creased with worry. "Paula, what's wrong?"
Her daughter's voice caught. "Mom, I feel so silly but I had to talk to you. I was cleaning up the apartment last night and I found an acceptance letter from Northwestern for Dan."
"Northwestern? That's in ... uh, it's in--"
"But I thought he was going to attend law school at USC." Sara took a breath. "Chicago is a very long way. Did Dan say he wanted to go?"
"I didn't tell him I found the letter, but I know he does."
"Oh, Paula. How do you feel?"
Paula's tone tightened as though she held back tears. "I don't want to go. Mom, he's had the letter for two or three days I think, and he hasn't said a word."
"Maybe he's thought about it and decided to turn them down."
"I don't think so. He talked about it months ago, about how great the Northwestern program is. I got upset that he was looking into a school that far away, and he hasn't brought it up since. But I know he hasn't forgotten."
"So you're not certain he's chosen Northwestern. The law school at Carolina is excellent, too."
"I know, and so does Dan. But lately he's been restless. I think he wants a change." Her voice broke. "I think he wants a change in more than where he attends school."
Sara couldn't contain a soft gasp. "Paula! Has he said anything, done anything?"
"No, but for the past few weeks he's been really quiet. Oh, I don't mean he acts mad or nasty, he just seems ... uncomfortable around me. And the fact remains that he didn't tell me about the acceptance from Northwestern. I only found it because it fell out of a book when I was dusting."
"You have to talk to him. Believe me, I know the dangers of not communicating when things don't seem right." The bell over the front door rang and Sara stood to see who was entering. She was surprised to see her mother, but a quick glance at her watch showed that the morning was nearly gone. "Do you want to come home this weekend?"
"No, but thanks." Paula gave a nervous laugh. "I'm half afraid if I leave for any length of time I'll come home to find him packed and gone. You know, he hasn't proposed. He hasn't even suggested I go with him to Chicago."
Sara lowered her voice. "Honey, I'm so sorry. But Dan loves you. You need to talk to him, let him know how you feel."
Her mother entered the office and set a bag from Bay Street Deli on the desk. "Paula?" she mouthed. Sara nodded. "Let me say hello to her." Her mother held her hand out for the receiver.
"Paula, your grandmother is here and wants to say hi. But call me tonight, will you?"
"Sure. I feel better just telling someone about what's going on. I love you, Mama."
Hot tears stung the backs of Sara's eyes, a reaction she experienced whenever Paula reverted to Mama. "I love you, too, Pumpkin." She handed the phone to her mother.
"Hello, PB. How's my favorite granddaughter?"
Sara unpacked the sandwiches and drinks, half listening as her mother launched into a description of the bazaar her church was planning for the upcoming holidays. It was only mid-October, and her mother was thinking ahead to Christmas. What will I be doing by Christmas? Making a move to a new location for the new year or wondering what to do with the rest of my life?
She stepped to the doorway and looked at the paintings lining the walls. The cozy shop had been her focal point for more years than she cared to count. Everything would be different by the first of the year, here at the gallery and maybe at home, too. Like the leaves being whipped from the trees by the wind, the landscape of her life would look quite different in a few weeks. She only hoped it wouldn't be as barren and cold as she feared right now.
Dan had been accepted at Northwestern! She was happy for him, but what if he wanted Paula to go with him? Paula had attended school in Charleston and then been offered a job there. Except for brief vacations, Sara and her only child had never been farther apart than those seventy miles. Charleston was far enough for Paula's independence, yet close enough for quick visits, lunches, plays, overnight gab fests. Sara had devoted her life to her daughter, and reaped the reward of knowing her child as a friend.
Oh, she was blessed, and she knew it. Blessed and spoiled. How could she bear Paula's move to Illinois if it happened? And what if Dan and Paula decided they liked Chicago and wanted to settle so far away? A sob welled in Sara's throat and threatened to burst. She sucked in a breath.
Right now, those were ifs not certainties. She could talk to Dan, remind him how hard law school would be with an additional person to consider. Paula could help him, sure, but she would also demand time he wouldn't have to give. And though Paula could teach there as well as here, the expense of a second person, added to that of graduate school, could be overwhelming. Surely Dan would see the logic of Paula's waiting for him in Charleston. He was a reasonable man.
Hearing her mother's chuckle and response to something Paula said brought Sara to her senses. She had never purposely avoided acting like her mother. In fact, she'd often sought her mother's advice, especially when Paula was a child. But knowing what she did now, having learned in the past twenty-four hours the heartache meddling could bring about, Sara knew she wouldn't interfere with Dan's and Paula's decision.
If Paula needed arms to shield and shelter, Sara would always be there, but she would not become her mother. And today she fully realized just what that meant.
Her mother hung up the phone and settled in one of the chairs facing the desk. Sara sat in her chair behind the desk. When they had their food set out and she had taken a sip of her drink, Sara dropped her bombshell.
"I'm making reservations to fly to Iowa as soon as possible. It's long past due for Paul's parents to know they have a granddaughter."