“Hello, this is Stacy. I am not available. You may leave a message at your own discretion.”
“You win. I’m not calling you anymore.”
The message ended abruptly, with such a resounding click of finality Stacy’s heart shuddered in her chest.
“No, no, no,” she muttered as she ran from the shower to the answering machine, wrapping a towel around her dripping body as she went. He couldn’t stop calling her. She needed his morning messages to start her day. She needed him, but until she could somehow summon the courage to reach for what she wanted, she needed the messages more.
“You win. I’m not calling you anymore,” Dan’s voice said once, twice, three times more as she replayed his final words again and again.
Stacy chewed on her fingernail and pushed play one more time, trying to decipher the tone of his voice. “Did he sound angry to you, Willie? Or just smug?” she asked her energetic, black and white terror of a terrier-mix puppy, whom she’d named Willie Nelson because his bark had a southern twang and he looked awesome in a bandana. Willie looked up from the sock he’d been trying to kill and cocked his head, as though considering it.
“I think he almost sounds smug,” Stacy said and pushed the button to play it again. Willie dropped the sock and spun in a little circle, sniffing the carpet. Stacy let out a little gasp and scolded, “Oh, no you don’t! Not again!”
Scooping up the puppy just as he squatted, Stacy made a break for the front door, ripping it open at the exact moment the doorbell rang. Willie whimpered in urgency as Stacy swung open the screen door, smacking it straight into Dan’s face.
His hands flew to his nose. “Ow!”
“Dan!” Stacy cried in startled reply. Willie squirted from her grasp and dove off the porch, into the patch of grass in the front yard, glaring back at Stacy with indignation as he relieved himself.
“What the hell?” Dan asked at the exact time Stacy exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! You scared the crap out of me, kochanie!”
She didn’t know if it was from fright in the moment, or simply from seeing Dan again after so long, but either way she felt certain she was having a heart attack. Feeling vulnerable, she tucked her towel tighter and hid behind the open screen door as she asked, “Are you okay?”
“I think so,” Dan answered, still rubbing his nose. “I might’ve peed myself a little, though.”
“Sorry,” Stacy said, biting back a laugh as Willie bounced back onto the porch. She scooped him up, cuddling him to her chest.
“This is new,” Dan said, reaching out to scratch the puppy’s head, his hand remarkably close to Stacy’s barely-covered breasts. A hot blush rushed up her chest to her neck.
“What are you doing here?”
The question came out harsher than she intended, causing Willie’s lip to curl in a protective snarl. He nipped at Dan who froze for a startled moment before slowly pulling his hand away from the pup, and from Stacy.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized again, both for her sharp tone and for the attack.
“It’s okay.” He tucked his hands into his jacket pockets and stepped back from her. “I just wanted to say something to you and I didn’t think I’d have enough room on your voicemail. One last message, I guess you could call it.”
“Oh,” she replied on an exhale of disappointment. “Okay.”
“Okay…,” he echoed and then paused. He took another step back, cleared his throat and looked her straight in the eyes. “Stace, I love you. I’ve always loved you. For as long as my memories go back, I have loved you. You are my best friend, and you will always be my best friend, even if you never talk to me again. You know me inside and out, all my secrets and all my shame, and you accept me anyway. You are my past, and my present, and I hope my future. Everything that is me is because of you.
“It’s because of you that I was able to be the kind of man Millie could love. I am forever indebted to you for introducing us, for giving us the opportunity to fall in love and spend ten amazing years together. They were the absolute best years of my life, and I miss her more than anyone else can ever understand—except for you. She will live in my heart forever, and you appreciate that because she lives in yours, too.”
Stacy nodded her agreement and longed to reach for him, but she didn’t want him to stop talking. She kept her hands to herself and just listened.
“When Millie asked me to move back to Allman Falls and build that house on Chelsea Lake, I told her no. But she insisted, so I did. I built that house because she told me to, but I also built it so I could burn it down. That was my big plan when I showed up in August, Stace… I never planned to live in that house, and I never intended to stay here.”
Dan paused for a moment and took a deep breath. His speech was structured, practiced, as though he had been afraid if he left it to chance he would forget something he wanted to say. Stacy was careful not to interrupt, desperate to hear everything he wanted to tell her.
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking the past few weeks, and I couldn’t sleep last night because my mind was all over the place. I kept thinking about Millie and how much she loved both of us. She loved you so much, Stace. All she ever wanted was for you to be happy. I’m not going to pretend that I can read her mind, because I can’t. I never could. She kept me guessing every single day. But the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to realize that she didn’t send me to Chelsea just so I would build that stupid house. She always thought much bigger than that. If I had to guess, I’d say she sent me here so I could build a life. I have come so close to doing that, Stace, so very close. I’m only missing one thing.”
He stepped closer to her and lifted his chin, just a little, as though finding his courage.
“I need you in order to complete my life. I need you forever. You are so much of me, of who I am, that I feel numb without you. I love you, and I’m in love with you, and I will spend every day of the rest of my life loving you just as fierce as I do today.”
He took another step closer.
“I can accept it if you’re not in love with me. That’s not what I’m asking from you, and it won’t change how I feel about you if you don’t love me the same way. All I’m asking is that you let me back into your life, even just a little bit. I messed up, Stace, and I am so truly sorry. If I could do anything over again, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving night. That night was beautiful and it was perfect, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.”
He inched even closer. She could feel the heat emitting from his body, she could smell his skin, taste his breath just as real as she had that amazing night so long ago.
“If I could do anything over, it would be letting you get out of my truck before I told you how much I love you. You gave me everything, Stace, your heart and soul, and I just took it from you like it was something I deserved, and I gave you nothing but grief in return. I was blind to your pain and I left you standing all alone. I am so sorry for that, and I’m begging you to let me spend the rest of my life making it up to you. I love you, Stace, and I miss you like hell.”
He took another step closer to her, until they stood barely an inch apart.
“I miss hearing you say my name,” he added softly.
The skin on the back of her neck tingled in anticipation for his touch, but he kept his hands in his pockets. With his eyes focused on her lips, he took in another deep breath and she held hers.
“Please, let me back in,” he whispered as his eyes drifted back up to hers.
He paused as though he had volumes more he wanted to say to her, but he left it at that and disappeared off the porch, leaving her speechless. She stared after him, stunned by the overwhelming amount of information and emotion he had unloaded on her. Long after he climbed into his truck and backed out of the driveway, she remained standing in the doorway, frozen.
When Willie licked Stacy’s chin, she snapped out of her trance and looked down at the puppy.
“What do you think?”
Willie yipped and Stacy nodded in agreement.
“You’re right. We need Cheryl.”
Twenty minutes later, Stacy found herself sitting at Cheryl’s kitchen table, her knees pulled to her chest, a cup of coffee warming her hands as she waited for Cheryl to consider Dan’s speech. Memorized by her heart, Stacy had recited what Dan had said, word for word, and the older woman had sat quietly listening. When she reached the end, Cheryl frowned as she slowly stood up from the table and crossed the kitchen to the coffee maker, taking her time considering her response as she refilled her mug and mixed in the cream. The wait was driving Stacy crazy, but she kept patient and quiet.
“Stacy honey, let me ask you something,” Cheryl finally said, breaking the silence. She returned to the table and pulled her chair closer to Stacy’s. “Why do you think Millie wanted Dan to come back to Allman Falls?”
“To build the house,” Stacy answered.
“But why?” Cheryl asked. “He had a very healthy business in Hollings. He had family there and a town full of people he knew and loved. He would’ve eventually healed there, or anywhere, for that matter. He had no reason to leave. So why did Millie insist he return to Allman Falls?”
Stacy thought about it and drew a blank. Cheryl was right. Dan had a very full life in Hollings, even without Millie.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, here’s what I think.” Cheryl took Stacy’s coffee mug from her and set it on the table, then reached out to take Stacy’s hand in hers. “Millie loved you more than she loved anyone else in the world, and Dan’s right when he said she only wanted you to be happy. It’s all she wanted for Dan, too. She knew how much you two have always meant to each other, and I think by sending Dan home she was able to give one last gift to each of you—someone to love as much as she loved you both. I can’t say that her intention was for you two to fall in love, but I believe with all my heart that she wanted you two to love each other, support each other and weave your lives together again. Falling in love was probably more than she’d hoped for, but it’s a beautiful thing.”
“It feels like we’re cheating on her,” Stacy admitted, still shamed just thinking about what they had done.
“Oh, but you’re not cheating on her. You’re cheating each other if you let this kind of love slip through your fingers. Allow yourself to love Dan and let him love you. I know it hurts, and I know it’s not fair, but Millie’s gone, honey, and she’s not coming back. You both have to find a way to live without her.”
“I’m trying, Cheryl.”
“I know you are, but you’re making it harder on yourself than you have to. Don’t be afraid of your feelings. If Millie could’ve picked anyone in the world for Dan to marry and have babies with, and finish living his life with, I know she would’ve picked you.”
Stacy left Cheryl’s and headed for work feeling even more confused than she had been when she first showed up, but there was one thing that she was not confused about. She was in love with Dan. She had never loved another as much as she loved him, and the longer she was apart from him, the more it hurt. She wanted to dive straight into that life she knew he would give her—one of love and pleasure, laughter and children, happiness, support, and promises kept, forever.
But if she did—if she just closed her eyes and took that leap—would she lose Millie in her heart? Would Millie somehow cease to exist for either of them? That last question weighed heavy on her for the rest of the day as she tried to focus on the eighteen energetic fifth-graders sitting before her. Midway through the day, she gave up and turned the lights down low. The children watched a documentary about brave penguins, fighting against incredible obstacles and nature itself to find true love, and she sat at her desk with her hands clasped before her, praying for even a hint of that same resilience.