—Belle, A Christmas Carol
It was the same drive from Charleston to McClellanville I’d driven countless times before. Over the Ravenel Bridge, following Highway 17 north up the coast. Christmas lights glowed in the dim light of dusk. All I could think about was getting back home so I could go to my room, shut the door, and pull myself together.
Ashley drove me in her Jetta. She’d recently purchased the car—her first new one, she told me, and she proudly pointed out all of its features. Mardi Gras beads hung from the rearview mirror, and Coldplay blared from the speakers, a welcome change from carols. During the nervous, break-the-ice minutes of our first time alone together in over a year, Ashley rattled on and on nonstop, updating me about friends we used to know, places where we used to hang out, and how Charleston had grown up from the quiet town we loved to a chic metropolitan city. I’m not partial to change and was sad to hear that. At length Ashley ventured to ask me about my experiences in the war, but I’d grown adept at cutting off this line of inquiry with short, noncommittal replies.
We passed through Mount Pleasant, then Awendaw, to the sign that instructs you to turn right to McClellanville. As we drove along the darkened, winding road toward the coast, Ashley fell into a tense, exhausted silence.
I welcomed the silence. I was fighting a splitting migraine brought on by the stress of being confined in a small space on the plane and the emotions of the family reunion. Not to mention seeing Ashley Cooper again. For the past fifty-five minutes as I listened to her chatter on, all I could think was, What are you doing here?
“You don’t seem very happy to see me,” Ashley said accusingly, breaking the silence. She swung her head to look at me, her face more a pout than a scowl. The pout was her signature move.
I studied her face in the pearlescent light of streetlamps to gauge her meaning. Ashley was a true southern beauty, peachy skinned with finely arched brows and full lips. Kissable lips, the guys called them, and for years I’d made sure I was the only man to kiss them.
“It was nice of you to come meet my plane.”
“Nice of me?” Her voice rose. Her fingers tapped the wheel in agitation. “Of course I would come to meet you. You’re my boyfriend!”
She sounded hurt, but it wasn’t my intention to cause her pain. “I didn’t realize I was still your boyfriend.”
“Why would you think that?”
I shook my head with a short laugh of disbelief. “Maybe because of the Dear John letter you sent me in Afghanistan.”
“I never sent you a Dear John letter!” She glared at me again and met my gaze. After a moment’s impasse her expression changed to guilt. She waved her hand dismissively. “Oh. That. That wasn’t a Dear John letter. I was simply writing to tell you that since you were gone for such a long time, I thought we should, you know”—she lifted her shoulders—“start dating other people.”
“In my book that’s breaking up.”
Ashley looked at me again, brows furrowed, then abruptly pulled to the side of the road. We were only a block from the house, but she parked at a haphazard angle and, with an angry twist of the wrist, turned off the engine.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose with my fingers, then my temples, trying to ease the throbbing before the confrontation. Were we really going to do this now?
She took a deep breath, then turned in her seat to face me, all her previous joviality gone.
“Then you should have told me that,” she cried. “See? That’s what’s so frustrating with you. You don’t tell me what you’re thinking. I’m not a mind reader. If you didn’t want me dating anyone else, it would’ve been nice if you’d told me that.”
“Look, you wanted to date other men. I got that.”
“Yes . . . No . . .” She shook her head and put her face in her palms. “I don’t know.”
Tears came then and it pained me to see them. Literally. My head throbbed. “Don’t cry.”
She dropped her hands. The blue of her eyes shone like sparkling lakes, and for a moment I was transported back to the time when those eyes lost in tears had me under her spell. There was a time I would’ve done anything for her.
I wished I could still feel that passion.
“I was lonely!” she cried. “You were always away.”
“I was fighting a war.”
“I know,” she said, mollified. “But I was here. Waiting. Always waiting.” Her eyes flashed. “You didn’t give me anything to wait for.”
I closed my eyes and ground out, “What does that mean?”
“When you graduated from the Citadel, I thought, ‘Now he’ll propose. We’ll get married as we’d planned.’ I waited . . . but you didn’t. You went right off to the Marines, and then I only saw you on occasion. I’ll be honest. I went out with a few guys then. Just dinner. Drinks.”
My eyes flashed open.
“Nothing happened,” she hurried to add. Then she lifted her chin. “It could have, but I stayed true. Then before you got deployed, I thought, ‘Now he’ll propose. He’ll want me to have something to hold on to. A commitment. A promise. Something! He won’t leave me with nothing to hope for.’ ” She shook her head and said with anger, “But you didn’t! Once again you left me behind.” She sniffed and brusquely wiped the tears from her face. “So I wrote you that letter. I’ll have you know, Taylor McClellan, that a lot of people consider me a catch. I’ve waited long enough. I’m past my prime! I have to take care of myself, too. So, yes, I’ve been dating other men.”
The challenge in her eyes shifted to defeat. Her lips shook. “But here’s the problem. You’re still stuck in my heart. What am I supposed to do, Taylor? Tell me. Help me. What am I supposed to do?”
This time Ashley dissolved into tears and slumped against my chest. My heart ached for her but still I stiffened, wanting to pull back. Sympathy gave me the strength to put my arm around her and gently pat her shoulder as she clutched my shirt and sobbed. The feel of her rounded shoulders, the smell of her hair—memories flickered. Yet there were subtle differences. Her hair was shorter now, styled more maturely. Her life had changed, as mine had. Ashley had a new job, a new car, new interests. New friends. She didn’t fit in my arms the same way anymore.