Caroline jolted awake when the phone rang, loud and insistent, beside her bed. Telephone calls at night always scared her, too often portents of bad news, illness or death. Hands shaking, blinking sleep from her eyes, she snatched up the receiver, breathless.
“I need you. Will you come home?”His voice hit her like a fist in the stomach, sucked the air from her lungs, and caused her heart to beat an erratic rhythm. She thought she should have forgotten the sound of his voice, the deep, low rumble that streamed into her ears; she'd tried hard enough in the last five years but clearly she'd failed. He didn't identify himself but he didn't need to – she would have known his voice anywhere, anytime, anyplace. At fifteen, she embroidered his name on her heart with blood red stitches. Another woman would search for the courage to hang up or tell him he dialed a wrong number but Caroline wouldn't do that. She couldn’t. She still loved him and that knowledge destroyed every defense she'd built. It smashed through them all and left her vulnerable.
“Just come, Caroline. If you still love me... “
“I do.” She interrupted him, saying it before he had to ask. Long ago, a wise woman told her that love never dies and it was true. If anything in her life held meaning, it was that.
“Then you’re coming?”
“I’ll come today.”
“I’ll see you then. You know where to go, don’t you?”
“Yes, Reid, I do and I’ll be there.”
He said nothing and she thought he'd hung up the phone but just before she put down the receiver, she heard him whisper.
“I love you, Caro.”
His tender words caught her hard and strangled her throat with unshed tears.
Her bedside alarm clock read 2:15 in big, green numerals but she knew she wouldn't sleep again so she got up, made the bed with stiff, neat corners, and fixed coffee. After she drank the first cup, she packed a single suitcase. Online, she bought her plane ticket and before daylight streaked the sky, she called a taxi and rode to the airport. In rapid sequence, she checked her bag and boarded the flight, her mind already back there, with him.
Not accustomed to moving with such swiftness, Caroline felt like she hadn't breathed from the moment she answered the phone until she was in the air, winging eastward back toward Neosho. Her hometown. And his.
As she listened to tunes on her ipod to pass the time, Celine Dion’s “I Drove All Night” poured into her ears and tears trailed down her cheeks, the song feeling all too familiar right now, evoking too many memories of Reid. She turned off the music, more than her emotions could handle at the moment.
All she had to do was close her eyes and she could see it, that sleepy small town cuddled by the rugged Ozark hills, sprawling over the hills and down into the valley. Each tree-lined street, the town square, the high school football stadium, and the parks were all as vivid as if she'd just left last week instead of five years ago. In memory, Neosho had the frenetic quality of a dream or nightmare, a surreal mystique that didn't seem real. She seldom thought of it, just as she'd tried so hard to block Reid from memory. She couldn't think of him every day or the pain would devour her so she'd trained herself not to think, never to remember. Once he spoke to her again, however, all of her defense mechanisms vanished like rising smoke from a campfire.
His voice on the phone sounded the same, evoked a thousand memories, and twisted her heart with painful spasms. She wondered if he looked the same after five years seasoning and if he'd see the girl he remembered in her face or if she'd look like a stranger.
Whatever prompted him to call her was serious or he'd have never phoned. Caroline had no idea how he even got her number given that it was unlisted. She'd forbidden her few close friends to give it out to anyone and there was no one in Neosho now who would know it. She lost touch with her many of her friends long ago, in the early months of exile, afraid to hear from them because she knew they'd just want to talk about Reid. She had no family anymore, no one except Aunt Julia and the most she sent her was a card each Christmas. She said all she needed to say her aunt on the day she left Neosho forever, leaving behind a life in shambles, a reputation in tatters, and Reid.
Caroline stared at the clouds that wafted past the airliner windows as memories long denied flew at her like birds before an oncoming storm. Her best memories were with Reid, some of the bad featured Aunt Julia, and a few others were the worst; ones that focused on her loss and the secret even Reid didn’t know about. To return she would have to face them all, Reid first and then the others. To face her aunt, she'd have to confront old demons and she wasn’t sure if she had the strength. Although she wanted to, meeting Reid again would be hard enough.
Caroline closed her eyes and pushed all the thoughts away except the memories of Reid, as the plane soared through the sky. At the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, the closest destination she could book on short notice, she rented a car and began the hour drive north, back into Missouri, back into the Ozark hills where she grew up. With summer past, the first brilliant colors of fall painted the landscape with orange, yellow, and red.
Caroline was almost home and she was terrified.She thought she knew the way but now that Highway 71 was four-lane, she felt lost so she meandered off onto the original highway, the old, two-lane road she remembered. She followed it through the neighboring small towns and on into Neosho, amazed at the new businesses that lined the highway on the southern edge of town. It wasn't quite noon when she reached her hometown, which looked both amazingly the same and yet so very different.
Now that she was here, her knees trembled and her hands shook. The faded blue jeans she pulled on for travel felt too casual and the old T-shirt, a favorite, seemed like a rummage sale reject. She hadn't bothered with make-up and the best she could do before she met Reid was brush her hair smooth. Caroline resisted the temptation to go buy a new outfit, to stop and have her hair done or have a full cosmetic makeover at the Merle Norman studio, and drove straight to the Big Spring Park, a tiny area just two blocks from the downtown Square.
She parked in the lot across the street and walked across, nervous now that she'd see Reid again in moments. As she traveled along the sidewalk that led through the park, her heart thumped so hard she could feel each beat. Caroline skirted around the Grecian pool and veered right to where wide cement steps led down to the spring inside the grotto. This had once been their special place, a refuge in times of trouble. Before she could see anything, she heard small stones pitched into the water, the rhythmic plunks familiar, and she knew Reid was near. He was nervous, too, or he wouldn't toss pebbles. When calm, he could sit as still as a statue for hours. With a long, deep breath, Caroline started down the steps toward where he sat, almost at the bottom.
If he heard her coming, which she thought he must have he gave no indication, sitting with his back to her. His broad shoulders were tight beneath the old chambray work shirt he wore and his black curly hair was longer than she remembered, touching the collar of the shirt. She sat down next to him and put her hand on his arm.
At her touch, he turned and she felt the energy surge between them, electric as ever. Reid’s eyes, the deep navy blue she remembered so well, met hers and her anxiety melted.
His voice made her name an endearment.
They stared at each other as if they could bridge five years distance in a few moments and then he put his arm around her.
“You got here quick. I thought you might keep me waiting half the night.”
“You knew I'd come.”
“Yeah, I did.” It appeared he hadn't doubted her, even after the years of silence and separation and something deep within her stirred and rejoiced at that. Even now, it seemed he knew her well.
“Why did you have me come here, to the grotto?”
“Don’t you remember?” His voice was very soft.
“I do. This was our secret place, somewhere we came when we were troubled.”
Reid nodded. “We came here the day after my mom died.”
Caroline leaned against his shoulder, savoring the feel of his strength behind her, inhaling the long remembered but never forgotten masculine scent of him. En route, she worried that he was injured or ill but even though he looked tense, he also looked well.
“Are you all right?” She needed to know.
“I’m okay,” Reid said. He put his hand in the center of his chest. “That is, except for this pain I’ve had right here for about five years now. A deep, burning pain that never went away. Today though, it feels just a little bit better.”
She inhaled sharply, panicked at the idea of him having chest pains and then realized his heart trouble was romantic, not medical. Without analyzing it or planning what she'd say, she leaned forward.
“Maybe this will help it heal.”
She touched her lips to his, a very light kiss, her mouth barely touching his.
“It helps if it’s real,” Reid said, taking her face into his hands and kissing her with thoroughness that ignited fire in her veins. “Did you mean what you said on the phone?”
“I came, didn’t I?”
“You did, but do you?”
Her answer was a vow. “I do, Reid. I love you.”
He exhaled. “It’s about time you told me so.”
Five years worth of unshed tears formed a knot in her throat but she choked out the question around it.
“So what’s wrong?”
“Ross is missing.”
“Yeah, he’s missing, since last Sunday. It’s probably really since Saturday. I tried to make a report first thing Monday morning but no one wanted to take it, not yet.” Reid scrubbed his right hand over his face. “His truck was out at the Shoal Creek access on Lime Kiln road with his wallet on the seat. His fishing gear was still in the truck, too. The authorities aren’t too worried about him at this point. They figure he went off on his own or might have drowned but without any evidence of that or a body, they’re not looking.”
“Haven’t they done anything?” Caroline said, images of Ross filling her mind. Ross was Reid’s older brother, five years his senior. She had a thousand memories of Ross, working on his old 1949 Chevy truck in their backyard, taking them over to Silver Dollar City one weekend and paying their way into the amusement park, dressed up for his senior prom in a light blue tux, and so many others. Ross had always been Reid’s best friend, his rock of sorts and if Ross didn’t come back, it would hit Reid hard. Now Caroline understand why he called her and she knew, without a doubt, that she'd stay until Ross returned, one way or another.
Reid sighed. “No, they haven’t. They took the information but that’s it, no report. They still keep saying it's too soon. They won’t put his name out online, on MULES, until it’s been at least a week because they say he’s an adult and may have just gone where he wanted. Until they put him online, they won’t release any information to the media either. I looked on the state highway patrol website and there are almost 700 missing people in the state, some of them from a long time ago. No one is out looking for Ross and I don’t think anyone will. The Ramsay boys aren’t a high priority for law enforcement.”
He was right; in the small country town, the Ramsey’s had always been ordinary folks, not the elite or white collar professionals. She picked up his hand, put it in between hers, and stroked it--an old habit.
Love Never Fails from Rebel Ink Press
Now available at All Romances, Coffee Time Romance, Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, and more