Authors: Kimberly Rose Johnson
He spotted Holly in his side mirror, picking her way across the parking lot toward her apartment. She moved slowly, like someone twice her age. In high school, Holly had been all smiles and fun. What had happened to make her so mellow and serious? Was it her job? Or perhaps trouble with her family? Whatever it was, he determined to help her move past it to recapture the vivacious girl he once knew—the girl he’d had a crush on in high school.
hursday afternoon Holly closed the door to the break room at the hospital and perched on the arm of the sofa. Her mother had been calling every day for four days. Of course she always called when Holly couldn’t answer, and even more frustrating, she never left a message.
She should have returned the call days ago, but dealing with Todd and then working overtime the following days had left her emotionally and physically spent, and ready to fall into bed every night.
She couldn’t handle her mother’s censure when she was exhausted. But today had been a good day. She pulled out her phone and pressed in the number.
“It’s about time!” her mother snapped even more than usual.
Holly sat straighter. “What’s wrong, Mom?”
“I didn’t raise you to be so self-centered. And at such a time as this, too.” Her voice caught.
“What is it, Mom?” Holly’s heart thumped wildly in her chest. Her mom never chewed her out. Sure, she belittled her, but this was different.
“Your sister had a miscarriage on Monday.”
Holly slid down the arm of the sofa and sank into the thick cushions. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. Her throat burned, and she swallowed hard. “What happened?” Her heart hurt for her sister. Even though she was a tad jealous, she loved Jessica and was excited about being an auntie.
“Jessica won’t say. She’s understandably upset.” Her mother’s words were clipped. “I’m very disappointed in you, Holly. Family comes first. If you weren’t so focused on your
—” she said
as if it were a bad word “—you could have been there for your sister.”
The line went dead.
She checked the screen—Mom had hung up on her. With a sigh she tucked her cell away. Silent tears slid down her cheeks. She never wanted this—never wished hurt on her sister.
Holly wiped away the tears and took several slow deep breaths. If she could do something to take her sister and brother-in-law’s grief away, she would do it in a heartbeat.
Lord, You know their pain. Please help them through to the other side of their heartache.
Holly well knew the grief and guilt of losing a child. Not that she’d ever had her own, but... She squeezed her eyes closed, unwilling to revisit that horrible day. The day a baby died on her watch.
Jessica had to know she wasn’t to blame for the miscarriage. Her sister had done everything right. She took her prenatal vitamins, maintained a healthy diet, didn’t drink or smoke. No. Jessica was not to blame. Holly would make sure her sister understood that. It was the least she could do.
Her shift was over, but being alone with nothing to do but think didn’t appeal. Holly looked around the empty break room and sighed before standing. She checked her face in the mirror on the door. Not too bad, considering. Maybe Mrs. Nelson would enjoy a visit. Holly pulled the door open and stepped into the wide hallway. Good, no one was around. She double-timed it to the end room, rapped on the door and entered.
The older woman sat upright with the TV remote in her hand. “I hope you’re not here to poke me with another needle.”
Holly chuckled. “No, Mrs. Nelson.” She pulled a chair around to face the television. “I’m off the clock, and thought I’d stop in for a visit. What are we watching?”
Mrs. Nelson narrowed her eyes and studied Holly for a moment. “Haven’t decided.”
Holly lifted her chin and faced the screen. “I know it’s not Thanksgiving yet, but the Hallmark Channel has Christmas movies.”
“I love a good romance.” She changed to the station and turned up the volume. “This is the first time you’ve stopped by for a social call.”
Holly pursed her lips and nodded. She should’ve known Mrs. Nelson would question her actions. “You’ll be leaving us in the morning. Figured it was about time I stopped in for a visit.”
Holly hadn’t fooled her patient. “Truth is, I had some upsetting news, and I don’t want to be alone.” She glanced at the older woman.
Mrs. Nelson’s face softened. “Ah, now that wasn’t so hard, was it? You’re welcome to sit here as long as you’d like. I understand not wanting to be alone with one’s thoughts. The good Lord knows what a rampage my mind can go on when left to wander. Being cooped up in the hospital all week has been mighty tough.” She patted the large black Bible on the bed beside her. “Were it not for this, I’d be cuckoo.”
Holly gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “Thanks.” Somehow she knew the woman would understand. She sat back and focused on the TV.
Thirty minutes into the movie, Holly realized hiding out wasn’t the answer. She needed to call Jessica now. Guilt at not returning her mother’s calls nipped at her, but regardless of her harsh words, Holly wanted to be there for her sister even if she was five days late.
“Mrs. Nelson, I need to get going. If I don’t see you before you leave, take care of yourself.”
“You, too, dear. I hope whatever is bothering you works itself out.”
“Thanks. Bye.” Holly stepped into the hall and meandered toward the exit.
She turned toward the voice and stopped. A soft smile played on her lips.
* * *
Matthew stood near the entrance of the hospital holding his niece in his arms. His heart jumped at the pleasure he’d read on her face when she spotted him. Something about her posture concerned him, though. Trying to play it cool and not show his concern, he sauntered in her direction.
Holly looked past him toward the exit. “What are you doing here?”
He glanced over his shoulder, then back at her after spotting no one. “April had a follow-up visit for her arm. We missed you Monday. I hope you had a restful evening. Ava and I had a blast sledding. Didn’t we?” He tickled his niece’s belly.
She giggled and wrapped her arms around his neck, then whispered into his ear, “Down?”
He set her on the floor, but grasped her hand. When he looked back at Holly he saw a shadow of sadness in her eyes. “You okay?”
She shrugged. “I’ve been better.” Her voice caught.
He took a step closer and rested a hand on her forearm. “What’s wrong? I’d like to help.”
She shook her head and opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
He spotted April at the end of the hall. “Don’t leave. I’ll be right back.” He scooped up his niece and strode to his sister. “I’d like to talk with Holly for a bit. Maybe you and Ava could walk over to The Gingerbread House since it’s so close.”
April eyed Holly. “Of course. Take your time. I’d like to do a little shopping, too, if there’s time.”
“I’ll call you when I’m ready. I’m not sure how long I’ll be.”
“No problem.” She held up her arm. “I’m mending like a champ, according to the doctor.”
“Great!” He gave her a quick hug, then marched back to Holly, who hadn’t budged. “You were on your way out when I stopped you?”
He breathed a little easier. At least she’d collected her emotions and didn’t look ready to burst into tears again. “May I walk you home?”
“What about your sister and niece?”
“They’re going out for goodies.” He was actually pleased at this turn of events. Not because Holly was hurting, but because it gave his sister and niece free time to explore without having to worry about inconveniencing him, which April seemed to always worry about.
“Oh.” She frowned. “Good for them.”
“What’s wrong? And don’t tell me it’s nothing, because I’m not blind.”
“Okay. I guess you could walk me home, then.”
He started toward the sliding doors and was pleased when she kept pace with him. Whatever had her down must be big, because he’d never seen her like this. Sure she was more serious now than when they were teens, but this was different.
They strolled side by side to the edge of the sidewalk.
“This is where it gets tricky.” He took her trembling elbow and guided her though a pile of snow on the side of the road. Good thing they both wore boots. “Holly?”
“When did you last eat?”
“I’m not sure. Why?”
“Just thinking about your blood sugar.”
“How’d you know about that?”
“You’re shaking, and you almost passed out at your parents’, remember?”
Her face fell, and she looked as though she might burst into tears.
“What did I say?” He dipped his head to look into her eyes. “I’d like to help if you’ll let me.”
“Okay, thanks.” When they reached her building she led the way to the stairwell that went up to her second-story apartment.
He followed and stopped at the top, waiting for her to unlock the door. “May I come in?” He didn’t feel right about leaving her alone. She needed someone, and by the sound of it, she needed food, too.
“Sure.” She slipped off her boots and left them beside the door. “I’m going to change. Be right back. Make yourself at home. There’s soda, water and milk in the fridge. Or, if you prefer, coffee is on the counter and the hot chocolate mix is beside it.” She headed to a bedroom and closed the door.
Matthew looked around the space and noted the small galley kitchen. He could at least make her a sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate. He preferred cocoa made from scratch, but this prepackaged mix stuff was okay in a pinch.
A loaf of whole wheat bread sat on the counter. He pulled open the fridge door and found cold cuts, sliced cheese, lettuce, tomato and mustard. The sight of the mustard brought to mind a memory from high school. Holly wouldn’t remember, but he’d once stood behind her in the lunch line and noticed that she’d grabbed packs of mustard and no mayo for the sandwich she’d purchased.
He pulled open cupboards until he found the plates, then slapped the sandwich together. He slid the plate across the counter to the seating area and waited. Why was it taking her so long to change?
“You doing okay, Holly?”
“Be there in a minute.”
He wandered to a window that looked out onto Front Street. The sidewalks below were clear of snow and a few shoppers wandered in and out of the businesses, which reminded him—he needed to get back to his bakery soon. He’d spent way too much time away from the place since his sister had come to town. Even though he was enjoying the time off and his staff was great, the boss needed to be there. But not for the first time he was thankful for George, his dependable baking assistant.
“Sorry for taking so long.”
He turned from the window and took in the vision before him. Perfectly fitting jeans covered her long legs, complemented by a purple sweater. Her auburn hair set off her green eyes and cascaded straight to just above her shoulders.
He caught his breath.
“What?” She frowned. “Is something wrong with my sweater?” She reached for the collar and looked down.
“No. Sorry for staring, but you look beautiful.”
She stopped and her lips parted. “Oh.”
He shook his head and walked toward the kitchen. “I made you a sandwich and some hot chocolate.”
“Wow. That was sweet. Thanks.” She stepped past him and pulled a glass from the cupboard, then filled it with water from the tap. “You didn’t make yourself one?”
She perched on the bar stool and took a tentative bite. “It’s delicious. I bought a sandwich for lunch today but didn’t manage to eat much of it.”
“I’m glad you like it.” He leaned against the countertop. “You were upset earlier.”
She took another bite then set the sandwich on the plate. “Jessica miscarried and I just found out about it a little while ago.” She turned to him. “My mom accused me of being self-centered and not being there for her.”
Matthew’s stomach sank for Holly. It had to hurt having an accusation like that thrust at you. “Are you going to be okay? Your mom was kind of harsh.”
“Yeah. I’ll be fine. Eventually. It hurt to hear, but maybe she’s right. I do tend to put work above everything and everyone. Maybe I’m too focused. I just can’t let anything bad happen on my watch.”
“I can understand feeling that way, but bad things happen all the time. You can’t change that.”
“But if I’m focused and not distracted I can at least rest assured I did my best.”
Matthew kept silent. Holly had a lot on her mind, and from his experience with his sister, she just needed to let it out.
Holly looked at him with pain-filled eyes. “Mom called several times this week while I was working and she didn’t leave a message, so I assumed it wasn’t important. The hospital has been super busy, so I’ve had to work overtime. By the end of each day I was so tired I forgot to call back. I finally remembered today.”
“Jessica never contacted you?”
“No.” She stared into her glass. “We used to be closer than we are now. I guess with her being married and me working full-time we’ve drifted apart. I never used to be like this before I started working at the hospital. I was actually a fun person to be around and spent time with my friends.” She buried her head in her arms.
He moved around the counter and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t beat yourself up over this, Holly. You’re not perfect. We all have only so much energy. Besides, now you can work at making some changes. Why not give your sister a call now? I’m sure she’d love to hear from you.”
She lifted her head, and her cheeks were tinged pink. “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks.” She paused. “I’ll call Jessica tonight for sure.” She wiped her eyes and rested her hand on his. “I can’t believe I’m baring my soul to you. We barely know each other, yet I feel like I can tell you anything.”
“Sometimes it’s easier to talk to people who don’t know you as well.” He reached out with his other hand and brushed hair away from her face. “Although I feel like we’re getting to know each other. You’ll get through this, Holly. You’re strong—always have been.”
“Thanks for saying so.” Her voice came out barely above a whisper. She licked her lips.
They were only a foot apart. His attention focused on her silky-smooth mouth. Would her lips be as soft as they looked? He wanted to find out, but she had a boyfriend.
A firm knock on the door caused them both to jump.
Holly stood. “I wonder who that could be.” She took the few steps to the door and pulled it open. “Todd.” Her shoulders slumped.