Chapter 36 ~ Heartstrings

Heart StringsDan stopped by the florist and picked up a dozen red roses and ten white ones on his way to the cemetery that lay nestled in the hills north of Hollings, Iowa. Millie had been laid to rest in the shade of a bur oak not far from the angel of intercession. She had chosen the location herself years before, never imagining how soon she would need it.

After the funeral of one of their most loved customers, he and Millie had slowly walked hand in hand through the cemetery, back to their car. When they reached the statue, she had paused for a moment of prayer and reflection and then said if her body had to spend eternity anywhere this was the perfect place. He had agreed that it was beautiful, but told her they had a lifetime to live before they’d have to make that kind of decision. He never believed a life could be so short. When she died, he’d remembered what Millie had said and honored her wishes.

It was the only decision he had been able to make regarding Millie’s funeral. Stacy and Millie’s parents had done the rest for him. They picked the programs, the music, wrote the obituary. Gina selected the casket and Stacy designed Millie’s headstone. He did nothing. He couldn’t fathom the idea of even attending her funeral. The only reason he did go was because he knew Stacy would need him to hold her up, and because he knew she would be there to do the same for him.

Carefully, Dan knelt and placed the bouquet of roses beside the stone Stacy had created as the final tribute to his wife, her best friend. Dark grey in color with a rose carved into the side in a lighter shade, below her name, Milena Marie Handley, Stacy had them inscribe ‘I will hold you in my heart until I can hold you in my arms,’ the sentiment perfectly Millie.

Dan didn’t know whether to kneel, sit, or lay beside her on the cold ground, so he remained where he stood, frozen in place. He knew she was disappointed in him. He could feel it weigh heavy in the air all around him. He had made a mess of his life, and he had destroyed Stacy’s. He didn’t know what to do, where to go. He had no idea how to survive one moment to the next. He was back in the exact same place he had been in August and it disgusted him. He needed Millie to reach out to him, run a calming touch through his hair, and tell him everything would be okay.

“I love you, Millie,” he whispered, hoping her sleep was peaceful, her dreams warm and sweet, hoping he was still her Danny-Boy.

He stood with her for a moment longer, praying for understanding, waiting to feel some sort of miracle wash over him. It never came. So, he left.

***

The little bell tinkled as he pushed open the door. Three steps in the floor creaked under his left foot. He closed his eyes and inhaled as a flood of memories washed over him.

“Can I help you find anything today?”

Dan opened his eyes to a thin woman with long, brown hair twisted into a braid. She wore khaki pants and a green polo shirt, ‘Hollings Hardware’ embroidered in script on the breast. She was attractive, and she was pleasant, but she was not Millie. Not even close.

“I’m just looking,” he answered.

She smiled and returned to the register as Dan wandered the aisles, finding almost everything as he remembered it. He spotted a few minor changes here and there, but nothing felt foreign or out of place. The whole experience felt surreal, as though he had been gone only a day or two instead of months. At the same time, it felt as though he had never been there at all, as though he had only dreamed it.

“Dan?” a familiar voice called in disbelief.

He turned as Barb Canton rushed to him. The armload of wallpaper slipped from her grasp, sending rolls tumbling down the aisle. She wrapped him in her thick, doughy arms, squeezing him so tight he lost his breath and his back cracked.

“What are you doing here? Are you moving back to Hollings? Why haven’t you returned any of my phone calls? I’ve called and called, and not one word back! We’ve all been so worried about you! My goodness, you look good! I forgot how handsome you are! You have to come over for dinner! Have you seen what they did to the gazebo in the park? It’s a darn disgrace, that’s what it is!”

Words just kept pouring out, without a pause for breath. He laughed and hugged her back.

“It’s good to see you, too, Barb.”

She let him go and held him out at arm’s length, clutching his upper arms tight in her beefy hands. Shaking her head as her eyes welled up, she pulled him in for another bone-crushing hug before pushing him away. She swiped at her eyes and said, “You made me ruin my mascara. Shame on you, Dan Handley.”

Bending to pick up her wallpaper rolls, he listened as she filled him in on all that had happened in Hollings since he’d left. The people she talked about didn’t feel real to him anymore. He walked with her to the register and set her purchases down on the counter, hoping to make his escape while she was distracted with the cashier.

The bell on the door tinkled again, and he was immediately greeted with another exclamation of surprise as Judy Warner recognized him. She was older and slower to move than Barb, but the hug he received from her was just as fierce. She held his face in her hands for a long moment while she looked him over.

“You need to eat more,” she declared when she finally let him go.

They discussed the weather and her knee replacement surgery, then she asked him where to find mouse traps and he pointed her to aisle five. Their interaction left him with a feeling of déjà vu and he smiled as he watched her slowly make her way through the store.

“Are you Dan Handley?” the woman at the register asked.

“Yes, he is!” Barb answered with a proud smile. She reached over and ran her hand across his shoulders, as though she didn’t quite believe he was actually standing there next to her. “Dan, honey, this is Beth Stephens. She’s no Millie, but she’s one sharp cookie. You did real good picking her to sell the store to.”

Dan held out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said, finally making the introduction he should have made months earlier.

“You too, Dan.” Her handshake was firm and quick, and her smile was warm. “If you have a few minutes there is someone else who would love to meet you.”

Beth finished checking Barb’s purchases, and then she went to the back room while Dan helped Barb load her car. When he came back inside, the little girl who had peeked at him out the window all those long months earlier was standing in the middle of the room with Beth, hiding behind her a little bit, waiting for him. He stood awkwardly just inside the doorway. He’d never had a pen pal before and didn’t quite know what to do. Melissa looked at him, a timid smile on her face.

“Hello, Melissa.”

She clutched onto her mother’s leg as Beth put her hand on Melissa’s back in encouragement.

“Hi,” she whispered in reply.

“Thank you for the pictures,” Dan said, and tucked his trembling hands into his pockets. The way his heart skittered in his chest one would think he was standing in front of the Pope and not a bashful, little girl.

Melissa didn’t answer. Beth knelt down and smiled in encouragement.

“Melissa would like to say thank you for the letter, wouldn’t you, Melissa?”

Melissa nodded, but remained silent.

“The dog in your pictures looks an awful lot like my Dolly,” Dan said.

Melissa’s face lit up in a brilliant smile and she moved away from her mother, just a little bit.

“I have a puppy. Her name is Sophie, and she’s this big!” Braver, she stepped away from Beth and motioned a gigantic dog with a stretch of her arms.

That’s when Dan noticed her shoes. Tied tight on her tiny feet, with the laces done up in heavy double knots, were the neon colored shoes that Dan hated so much and Millie had loved, the shoes Melissa had included in every picture she drew.

“I like your shoes,” Dan whispered, struggling to find his voice again.

Melissa looked down at her feet and smiled the brightest smile Dan had ever seen.

“They’re my magic shoes,” Melissa said and stuck out one of her little feet so Dan could see them better. The lemon yellow laces had been replaced with bright pink ones, and she had completely covered them in marker, glitter, and sticker jewels, but they were definitely Millie’s shoes. They were way too big, almost comical on her, and Dan had never been so happy to see a pair of shoes in his life.

“They are magical,” Dan agreed with a deep sigh of relief. He wasn’t crazy after all.

“We found them under the sofa shortly after we moved in,” Beth explained. She put an arm around Melissa and absentmindedly ran a loving hand through one of the little girl’s pigtails. “I hope it’s okay that we kept them. I’d put them in the box we gave to Hank and Gina to send to you, but Melissa didn’t want to let them go. She thought they were the most amazing shoes—”

“They’re so pretty!” Melissa chimed in.

“Gina gave them back to her and said Millie would have wanted it that way. Melissa wears them when she plays dress-up. She wishes her feet would hurry up and grow so she can wear them all the time, don’t you?”

“Uh-huh!” Melissa agreed with a sharp nod and a ballerina twirl.

“Millie would love that Melissa is wearing her shoes,” Dan agreed. “They were her favorite pair.”

“I’m sure you know this, but everyone loved your wife,” Beth said. “They had a really hard time coming into the store and not seeing her here. She was all anyone wanted to talk about for a very long time. She was a very special person.”

“She was,” Dan exhaled as he felt a huge weight lift from his shoulders. “Well, you’re probably getting ready to close and I should get going—”

“Wait!” Melissa cried, pulling away from Beth and running toward the back of the store. She changed direction and ran right up to Dan, pointed her finger at him, her face serious, and commanded, “Stay right here.”

“I will,” he promised.

She ran back through the store and while he waited for her to return, he wandered the aisles again, remembering how much he hated to dust the shelves, and how much he loved the smell of Aisle Four. He didn’t know what long-ago spill had soaked into the wooden floor and settled into the grain, but no matter what they had stocked on the shelves in that aisle it always smelled the same, and he loved it. It was the smell of his life in Hollings.

Before long, Melissa came bounding back through the store with a piece of paper in her hand. She skipped over to Dan and presented her newest picture to him with a smile. She had drawn her and him standing under a rainbow with a smiling sun shining overhead. Melissa had on Millie’s shoes and she was holding Dan’s hand in one of hers. In the other, she held a yellow flower outlined in orange.

“Another Melissa masterpiece! Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome!” She beamed.

“I really like the flower you put in all of your pictures. It’s very unique.”

“What’s unique?” she asked.

“It means it’s something special you do, unlike anyone else.”

“Oh,” she said, thinking it over. “Am I the only one whose favorite color is yellow?”

Dan laughed and said, “No, it’s unique because you put add the orange around the yellow. No one else does that.”

“Well you have to,” she said as though it was obvious. “If the orange weren’t there, you might not see the yellow, and the yellow is too pretty to miss.”

“They complement each other,” Beth added as she joined them.

Dan had to agree. They were beautiful together, more striking than they ever would be apart.

“Are you returning to Nebraska?” Beth asked.

“Actually, I don’t know where I’m headed. I had plans to move to Arkansas, but I’m not sure anymore.”

“Well, wherever you end up, be sure to send us your address. Melissa loves to send her pictures to you,” Beth said.

Melissa nodded her head vigorously in agreement.

They waved good-bye through the picture window as he pulled away from the curb. After talking to Melissa, he wasn’t sure what direction he would turn when he hit the highway, but there was definitely one last stop he had to make before he left Hollings behind him for good.

***

When Gina opened the door and saw him standing on her porch she about fainted dead away in surprise. She recovered quickly and pulled him inside. Hugging him tight, she cried and scolded him for not calling, laying on the guilt like only a mother can, and then she hugged him again. That night, he slept in Millie’s old bed, in Millie’s childhood room. In the morning, he sat in Millie’s chair at the kitchen table and ate breakfast with Millie’s parents.

He surrounded himself with the life of his wife and the love of her family. It felt as though at any moment Millie would walk through the door and come home to him. She never did, but it was a good feeling to have, nonetheless, so he stayed another night.

The morning of his second day with the Meyers, he stood in the middle of the living room and looked at Millie’s family smiling back at him from their dusty, assorted frames where they hung on the walls and sat tucked into bookcases. Gina had displayed pictures of the entire family, but the star of the show was, of course, Millie. Millie and Dan, Millie and Dolly, Millie by herself, Millie and Stacy, Millie and Gina, Millie and Hank, Millie, Millie, Millie. Everywhere he turned, she was smiling at him.

The pictures of Millie’s grandmother were already starting to fade. Her style did not change from one picture to the next. The color of her world was wrong, dated, trapped in time. Before long, the same would happen to Millie. She would fade away, in image and in memory, until all that remained of her existence was a beautiful picture hanging on a wall or tucked into a cedar chest, a portrait of a long-lost relative that no one quite remembered.

She was still so real to him, so alive, it didn’t seem possible, but it was her fate. No matter how much he loved her, life would move on without her, and she would slowly disappear. It was his responsibility to keep her memory alive. He would always hold her in his heart and never forget the love that they shared, but there was more to honoring her life than simply loving her. He had to be the man she had helped him become. He didn’t exactly know how he was supposed to do that, but it was high time for him to figure it out.

He packed his bag of toiletries, Melissa’s drawing, and other treasures he had managed to collect in the two days he had been in Hollings, and wandered into the kitchen. He found Gina sitting at the table, drinking a cup of coffee, looking through the nursery catalog in front of her, making notes on an order form, counting four-pack and six-pack flats of annuals, gallon pots of perennials, mentally filling the displays inside her roadside greenhouse.

Spring was still a month away, but she had to look towards the future. It was her job, but it was also a matter of survival. No matter how desperately grief wanted time to stand still, Mother Nature continued to roll through the seasons. She left you no choice but to roll along with her.

Dan leaned against the door jamb and caught a glimpse of Millie through her mother’s beauty, and also a reflection of loss through her tired eyes. “I think I’m going to get headed out.”

“But why?” Gina asked in surprise. “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know for sure.” He shrugged. “Somewhere.”

“You can’t leave.”

“I have to.”

She looked him over long and hard, her expression serious, her eyes sad.

“Fine,” she finally decided. “But you have to eat first.”

“I can get something on the road.”

“Nothing healthy, I’m sure. Now sit.”

He set his bag in the hall and sat at the table while she busied herself slicing and dicing. Every time she opened the fridge, a wall of Melissa’s crayon drawings faced him. In every picture she was wearing her magical rainbow shoes, standing beside a grey-haired woman whose sad smile could only be Gina’s. He wished Melissa could see the joyous smile she used to wear.

“Did I tell you I stopped by the hardware store when I got to town?”

“I’d wondered if you had.”

“Melissa’s a great little kid.”

“She’s something, isn’t she?” Gina smiled as she looked over the drawings, smoothing one with her hand. “She reminds me so much of Millie, I can’t seem to stay away.”

“She’s been sending me drawings in the mail the past few months.”

“Really?” Gina asked, surprised.

“Yeah… They kind of creeped me out at first.”

“Why?”

“I thought she was drawing Millie. Pretty stupid, huh?” Dan said, still kicking himself for his ridiculous assumption—and for wishing he could still believe Millie was reaching out to him from heaven. Gina looked confused, so he explained, “The shoes.”

“Ah,” Gina said and then laughed. “She just loves those silly little shoes.”

“So did Millie.”

“Yes, she did.”

“It was nice of you to let Melissa keep them. Millie would have wanted them to end up with someone who appreciated them. I sure didn’t.”

“She had a pair of those Converse high-tops when she was in junior high. Her uncle Steve, Hank’s brother, gave them to her for her thirteenth birthday. They were pink and he’d laced them up with bright yellow shoe laces, just like that striped pair. She wore them every day, even to church. I think she slept in them that first night.” She shook her head and laughed. “She was constantly drawing on them, little hearts and flowers and the like. Her friends colored on them and wrote little sayings on them. When one faded, they’d add another. They were like a walking scrapbook. She wore them until she completely wore them out, and then she kept them on a shelf in her closet.”

“Steve was the one who was killed in the motorcycle accident?” Dan asked.

“He was.”

“So that’s why she loved those shoes,” Dan said, more to himself than to her. She already knew.

“Here you go, dear.” Gina set a plate piled high with chopped salad in front of him and covered his hand with hers, giving him a reassuring squeeze. She sat beside him, pulling her chair closer and asked, “Can I be nosy for a minute?”

“Sure.”

“You’ve hardly said two words since you showed up. I can tell something’s bothering you, and I wish you would let me help you with it.”

“I just needed to see Millie.”

“I understand,” Gina said with a nod. “But I get the feeling there’s more to it than that.”

“I don’t know,” he said, fighting to find the words to explain how he felt. “I guess I feel like I’m messing everything up. Like I don’t know what I’m doing anymore now that I don’t have Millie beside me—not that I need her to tell me what to do… It’s more like when she was alive I felt like whatever I did had some sort of meaning to it, even if it wasn’t obvious, so I paid attention. Like it would all lead up to something big, if that makes any sense.”

“It does.”

“And now I feel like everything I do is just a random string of pointless events running in circles, and going nowhere until—suddenly—I realize they were all clues, or warnings or something, and I totally missed them… I miss her so much, Gina, and sometimes I feel like I’m losing her… like I’ve disappointed her so much she’s ashamed to be near me… I guess I thought if I came back I’d be able to feel her again.”

“Do you?”

“No,” he admitted. “And I have a pretty good idea why.”

“Why?” she asked as she ran a reassuring hand across his shoulders.

“Because of Stacy…”

“What about Stacy?”

“I don’t know exactly how to explain it.” Dan speared a carrot with his fork and tapped it on his plate. He had no idea how to tell Gina what had happened between him and Stacy. It was a conversation he’d never imagined he would have with his mother-in-law.

“Give it a try,” Gina encouraged.

“I always knew the girls were close, but the more time I spent with Stacy, the more I realized how close they really were. I used to be Stacy’s best friend. She never kept secrets from me. I always knew everything about her, all the little stuff, but also everything that was going through her head. She spent so much time here in Hollings for the past ten years I thought I still did, but once I moved back to Allman Falls I realized how much the girls kept between the two of them.”

“Like what?”

“Like all the problems between Stacy and Chase. I thought they had a great relationship. They always seemed happy together, like everything was going good. But then I moved back to Allman Falls and the more time I spent with them, the more I realized what an ass he is. And then a few months ago, we found out Chase was cheating on her with a girl from Juliette—a very young girl at that.”

“I’ve never liked that man,” Gina said, her jaw set tight as she shook her head.

“Judging from everything I’ve seen and heard since I moved back, I’d be willing to bet this wasn’t his first affair, but this time he got her pregnant.”

“That poor girl,” Gina gasped.

“Stacy was devastated—more about the baby than the affair, I think, like she could handle Chase messing around on her, but not the baby. I tried to help her, but I just made everything worse.”

“I should call her—”

“No, no,” Dan rushed to stop her as she stood to go to the phone. Typical of a mom, she wanted to reach out to help the second she heard there was trouble. “This all happened in November, Gina. There’s no point in calling now.”

“She stopped calling me right about then, but I thought she just didn’t need me anymore. I thought she was… I should have known. Millie came to me quite a few times over the years for advice on what to say to help her, but…  I should have known. I’m so sorry, Dan.”

“I don’t think she stopped calling you because of Chase. She probably stopped because Stacy and I… We…” he stuttered, too ashamed to admit what he’d done.

Patiently, she waited, confusion mixing with love in her eyes, oblivious to what he’d done. He felt more guilt in that moment than he ever had in his life. There was no way to put it lightly, so he just looked her straight in the eye and confessed his sin.

“Stacy and I slept together, Gina.”

A pained, chirp-like noise escaped as her hand flew up to cover her mouth, her eyes wide in absolute disbelief. Horror, actually. For whom he did not know—Millie, Stacy—common decency itself. It didn’t matter. He hated himself.

“I’m sorry.” With the lettuce churning around in his stomach and his voice thick with shame, he tried to explain. “I don’t know what happened. I’ve known Stacy all my life, Gina, and I mean all of my life, and I’ve never felt like that about her. But suddenly, there we were, with these feelings for each other that didn’t make any sense at all. It was stupid and impulsive and never should have happened…”

He trailed off as Gina stood up from the table, her chair scraping heavy across the linoleum. She crossed the room to the sink and stood before it with her arms crossed around her stomach, squeezing her sides with her hands. She was quiet for a long time, her eyes vacant, looking inward instead of out the window into the backyard. He wished he could take back everything he’d said and everything he’d done, but it was too late.

“I’m sorry, Gina.”

She remained silent for so long, he thought she was waiting for him to leave. He set his fork down and scooted back his chair, opening his mouth to apologize again when Gina finally broke the silence.

“Are you in love with Stacy, Dan?”

His heart screamed, Yes, but he bit back the word before it escaped from his mouth. Falling in love with Stacy felt like so much more of a betrayal to Millie than simply physically making love to her had been, and he wasn’t prepared to make that confession.

“I don’t know… maybe. It doesn’t matter though.”

“Of course it matters,” she snapped, her tone harsh.

“No, it doesn’t. It’s too soon after Millie. It’s wrong to have feelings for anyone right now, especially Stacy. What happened was a huge, huge mistake, and it never will again.”

“You can’t do that to yourself,” Gina said as she returned to the table. She closed her damp eyes briefly and let out a sigh. “There’s never a ‘right time’ to fall in love. It just happens.”

“She’s back with Chase.”

Why?” Gina cried out in disbelief.

“I have no idea.” Dan pushed his plate away and set his elbows on the table in frustration. “She won’t talk to me. She just completely shut me out. I ran into them the other day and she has a fucking engagement ring on her finger.”

“Watch your mouth, Daniel.”

“Sorry.”

Gina fell into silence again, still processing everything he had unloaded on her.

“I’m sorry, Gina. I never should’ve told you all this.”

“No, no. I’m happy you did… well, not happy exactly, but you know what I mean. Stacy’s been like a daughter to me, and you’ve always been…” Her voice cracked a bit and she cleared her throat. “Oh, Dan…this is hard. Give me a moment to think.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” She patted his hand and stood up from the table again, going to the fridge and coming back with a pitcher of tea. As she poured them each a glass she said, “Logically, I knew you would fall in love again. I just thought I’d have more time to get used to the idea.”

“Gina, I’m not in love—”

“Hush now, let me think,” she interrupted. There was another long, uncomfortable pause during which Dan wished the earth would swallow him whole before she asked, “When did you two…?”

“Thanksgiving night.”

“And when did she go back to Chase?”

“I don’t know for sure. She quit talking to me right before Christmas.”

“Did you quit talking to her, too?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. She sat back at the table, turning her chair so she could face him as if she had a lecture brewing inside her.

“It’s really hard to talk to someone who won’t talk to you.”

“Have you tried?” Gina asked, her frustration showing.

“Of course I tried!”

“Knowing you like I do, I’m sure you didn’t try very hard.”

“Seriously, Gina, I tried. I called her over and over and over again. I went to her house and beat on her door. I pretty much turned into a stalker,” he cried out in his own frustration. “She told me to leave her alone, so I have. For the past two months, I’ve tried living in Allman Falls without her, and I can’t do it. It hurts just as bad as living without Millie—hell, it’s even worse because she chose to abandon me. I can’t do this anymore—any of it. I feel like I’m living a nightmare that just keeps getting worse at every turn. The only way to escape it is to wake the hell up and completely start over again.”

“What do you mean by start over?”

“I put Chelsea up for sale and I’m moving,” Dan explained.

Moving?”

“Yeah, to Mena, Arizona,” Dan said then corrected himself. “I mean Arkansas. Mena, Arkansas.”

“That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard! You can’t be serious!”

“I’m heading there tonight,” Dan said.

Gina just stared at him, literally speechless.

“Look, I just stopped here to say good-bye before I left. I’m sorry I—” he tried to apologize, but she pushed her chair away from the table again and jumped to her feet, cutting him off in mid-sentence.

“Well, Dan, you know you are always welcome here anytime you want, but you need to go back to Nebraska. Right now.”

“What?” Dan asked, flabbergasted.

“Come on. Up you go.” Gina pulled on his arm and as soon as he stood up she pushed him toward the door. “See you later, Dan.”

“Gina! What the hell?” Dan grabbed on to the doorjamb and turned around.

“You are not moving to Arizona, or Arkansas, or wherever, and leave that poor girl floating by herself while she deals with all of this, Daniel!” Gina wagged her finger in his face, furious with him. “Think of everything she’s done for you since Millie died. She never once backed down when you were doing everything in your power to push her away! She loved you, and supported you, and stuck by your side, no matter what! It’s your turn to stand beside her now, even if she doesn’t want you there. Be her friend, Dan.”

“But I don’t know if I can go back to just being friends with her,” Dan protested. “Not after everything that’s happened, and not if she’s staying with Chase.”

“Well you should have thought about that before you starting sticking things where they didn’t belong!” Gina snapped, her fury back in full.

Flinching, he took a step back. He’d never seen her so angry before.

“I’m sorry… that was uncalled for… but, Dan, listen to me. You don’t even know if you’re in love with her. She probably doesn’t know up from down right now, let alone how she feels about you.”

“If she loved me… hell, if she loved herself she never would’ve gone back to Chase!”

“Why do you think she went back to him?” Gina asked. “Think about it, Dan. Why?”

“I have no idea! Because she’s a glutton for punishment? At least that’s what she told me once before when I asked her why she was still with him,” he answered in frustration. “You tell me.”

“Because she’s scared and Chase is the safer choice.”

“Safer than me? That’s bullshit, Gina! I would never hurt her. I’ve done nothing but protect Stacy my entire life!”

“He’s safer for her heart, Dan.”

“How can he possibly be safer for her heart? He cheated on her!”

“And knowing Stacy like I do, I guarantee you she believes you two did the same to Millie.”

“We didn’t cheat…” As Gina’s words sunk in he felt the blood drain from his face and his stomach plummet to his feet.

“I know you two didn’t cheat on Millie, and Millie wouldn’t think so either, but Stacy loved her so much I’d bet you anything she believes she did. That guilt is what’s driving her back to Chase.”

“Shit,” he said on a whisper of regret as his mind replayed the days after Thanksgiving. He should have known her fears. If he’d been listening to her he would have. You were meant for Millie, Dan. She’d spelled it out for him that night in his truck, and he’d been so self-involved he didn’t hear her pain.

“Go home and talk to her, Dan. Really talk to her. And listen this time.”

He nodded. “Okay.”

“I can’t believe I’m giving relationship advice to my son-in-law,” Gina said with a shake of her head, more to herself than to Dan, and then she let out a laugh. “But I know Millie would be so tickled to know you fell in love with Stacy.”

“I hope so,” Dan said, no longer denying he was in love with her.

Gina took one of his hands in hers and assured him, “She would. She once told me that you and Stacy would be the epitome of true love, if only you weren’t both so stupid.”

“What?”

“Never mind,” Gina said with a bright smile and a dismissive wave. She pulled him into her arms and squeezed tight. Relieved she still loved him after all he’d done, Dan hugged her with everything he had. She held onto him longer than she needed to, but he wasn’t in any hurry to let go of her, either.

“Don’t do anything else to make me yell at you,” she said, wiping a tear from of her eye when she finally let him go.

“I can’t promise, but I’ll try really hard not to. You scare the crap out of me.”

“Good. You needed the crap scared out of you,” Gina said with a little laugh, and handed him his bag. As he walked out the door, she added, “You know, if you would’ve just called me like you were supposed to, you could have saved yourself a lot of time and gas money.”

Dan laughed. “You’re right, Gina.”

“I’m always right. Don’t you forget it.”

She stood in the doorway and waved as he backed down the driveway. When he got to the highway, his truck didn’t even hesitate before it turned west and accelerated home.

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