Anthony her brother was loyal. He had always been on her side, her strong supporter. Nevertheless, he still lived where she dreaded to return, home. Their parents had been gone many years ago. He was all she had left except for a few cousins scattered over a few thousand miles. However, now she had no other immediate option but to show up on his doorstep. She hoped the surprise would not upset her sister-in-law. Kelsie had not trusted herself to not break down into sobs if she had tried to call first. So here she stood beside her parents' old suitcases filled with random quickly stuffed pieces of her life.
It was one of her young nephews who answered, looking up with his mouth in an "O" before slamming the door in her face. She could hear him yelling inside, "Aunt Kelsie's here! Aunt Kelsie's here!" She let herself in leaving her two suitcases and train case outside on the stoop. It was a Saturday afternoon. Everyone was home, and they came pouring out of the kitchen and living room. Her brother let everyone else get their hugs and squeezes in before wrapping his arms around her resting his chin on her head.
"What's up, little Sis?"
It took a few shuttering breaths before she could get out, "Can I stay here awhile?"
He held her at arms length studying her face where it was obvious that there was a battle against tears that threatened. It was all she could do to not begin bawling in front of the children which would scare them half to death.
"Of course." He slid his arm around her shoulders, pushed through his sea of children, well, all four of them whose arms and legs and big eyes all wavered before her tear filled eyes, and led her into his study and closed the door.
"Fess up. What's wrong? Did Brian break your heart?"
She shook her head but was unable to look him in the eye. "I broke his."
"You had a good reason, I'm sure."
"Thanks, Tony." She was the only one who was allowed to call him Tony, a nickname leftover from their close childhood. "Thanks for always believing in me."
"What made you change your mind? I'm sure it was serious this close to your wedding day."
"I was beginning to have my doubts, but then I found stuff posted on his phone, disgusting stuff, you know. I wasn't signing on for that. I didn't mean to find it. I wasn't searching for it. He most certainly didn't plan on me finding it, but I did by accident. Sometimes at work I had to check his phone for him, and he'd forgot to delete a few things. Besides, I'd see his eyes wandering a few times as well. It made me very uncomfortable. This was the last straw."
Her brother left where he was leaning against his desk to pace. Then he stood before her with his arms crossed. "Sometimes, God opens doors, you know, giving us timely insights. I'm glad He was sparing you that for a lifetime. It's a hard addiction to break, and most men never can. You're right though. You should not have to put up with it. It is being unfaithful. But are you going to stay strong or will you be giving him a chance to repent?"
"I already did. He just wanted to make it about me invading his privacy. He vented his anger at me as if it was all my fault. That was telling enough. It was a whole other side to the man I thought I knew after the past few years working together. So no fiancé, no wedding, no job, and here I am."
As if on cue, her cell phone rang. It was him. She turned it off.
"Welcome home, Kelsie. You know you can stay with us as long as you want. As you know, this couch makes out into a bed, not comfortable, but tolerable."
"What about your wife? What will Darla have to say about it?"
"Pshaw, she loves having you here. The kids will be ecstatic."
"Well, you know that I'm not comfortable coming back home here, but I do appreciate your support. It means the world to me."
He opened his arms and she fell in them, gulped back a few sobs, before straightening. I only brought a couple of suitcases. I'd already decided to sublet my apartment to a friend who was willing to move in after the wedding. She's putting the rest of my things in storage for me until I decide what to do to get back on my feet."
"I seriously doubt you'll have trouble finding work. It's not what you know, but who you know around here, and you and I both have a lot of friends in the community, sis."
"I know. I'm just not sure that I can stay here. I might look elsewhere. I just don't know. I haven't gotten that far yet. This all came down yesterday and into late last night. I have a lot of phone calls to make for cancellations. Don't worry though. I never cashed that generous check you sent me to help pay for the wedding. I had enough in savings to cover my share."
"Keep it. You'll need a rainy day fund for a bit till you are back on your feet. And it's a rainy day." He nodded to the sheets that had begun pouring down outside.
"My suitcases!" Kelsie ran out of the den only to find her suitcases had been brought in and left in the entry where her oldest nephew looked a little sheepish.
"I didn't figure you wanted to leave them out in the rain, Aunt Kelpie." That was her brother's nickname for her that all his kids picked up on. She doubted that any of them even remembered her given name.
"Thanks, sweet Pete!" That was her pet name for him. "I thought they were getting drenched outside."
"Ahh, Aunt Kelpie, I don't mind you calling me that around here, just not in front of my friends, okay? I'd never hear the end of it."
She laughed. "Okay. I guess I'll have to let you grow up a bit, but it doesn't mean I have to like it." Last night she thought she'd never laugh again. But it felt good. The knot in her stomach she thought was permanent just loosened a bit.
Darla came over and embraced her in a long hug. I'm sorry, sugar. I can help you make all the calls you want to cancel whatever you need to cancel.
"Thanks. I have my "to-do" notebook with all the numbers here in my bag. I guess I should start now."
"Let me see if I can make a dent in it for you while you relax. I already have a casserole in the oven, so I have the time right now. Go hang out with the kids."
"Thanks, Darla. You don't know what this means to me."
Little Gigi was up on her lap before she had time to sit back and her nephews, twins Ted and Ned, were on both sides with Pete standing in front of her.
"Does this mean I won't be a flower girl, Aunt Kelpie?"
"Yes, but you get to keep the dress."
"Yes!" the twins yelled simultaneously. "We hate being ring bearers. We were only doing it because we love you, Aunt Kelpie."
She ruffled their hair. "I know. You're good sports."
Pete was quietly staring at her. "Are you sad, Aunt Kelpie?"
"A little, but mostly relieved." It wasn't until she said that that it made sense. She had been feeling pressured, feeling propelled forward faster than she wanted. Marriage had just seemed a likely path to her relationship, but it had become a slippery slope. "Because you care about somebody doesn't mean you should always marry them. I was just a little late realizing that."
She had been pressured in more than one way by her fiancé who wanted things that should wait until after the ceremony. What a relief she'd not given in. Kelsie realized now that he did not cherish her enough to treat her respectfully, something she'd had to fight him for. She'd made that mistake once, and once was more than enough. It had been devastating. That was why she hated coming home, afraid of running into her past. Hopefully he had moved on, though she never had asked if he still lived in town. Surely not. Her brother had been her supporter then as now. Even though Anthony had been practically a newlywed himself with a wife and toddler and on a tight budget, he'd set her up in the city, with a job and a place to live. Since then, she'd managed well enough on her own, after--well, she wouldn't let her mind go there, to the hurts of the past.
"Do you think it will turn into snow?" Gigi was asking bringing her thoughts back to her niece and nephews.
"I don't know. Hopefully, we'll get some before Christmas," she offered.
"The weather man predicts a foot between now and then. Hopefully this rain won't turn into ice," her nephew added. When did he grow up she wondered. He had to be about eleven by now.
"I asked Santa for a new sled," Ted announced.
"I asked him for more Legos," Ned said. "That way, he can share his sled outside and I can share the Legos with him inside."
"Sounds like a plan."
"What do you want for Christmas, Aunt Kelpie?" Gigi asked innocently, but it rocked Kelsie to the core. What did she want?
"I'm just glad to be spending Christmas with you. That's the best present an aunt could ever have," she said tickling the three younger ones as they squealed and fell off the couch in playful dramatics.
"I'm glad you didn't bring Brian. I didn't like him." Pete surprised her with this comment.
"I don't think he was very nice to you. He spent too much time on his phone instead of talking to you or to us. Once I got up in the middle of the night, and he was in the bathroom on his phone. I don't think anybody was up at that time of night for him to talk to. He was angry at me, but all I needed to do was use the bathroom."
"You're right. I don't think he was very nice sometimes, well, a lot of the time either." She shuddered at what her nephew revealed.
"Did you bring us presents?" Gigi asked.
"No, I still haven't done my Christmas shopping yet. I was too busy getting ready for the wedding before, but now I'll be able to look for a few things certain kids I know might like." She smiled as their excitement was contagious.
"Just so you know, our lists are on the refrigerator," Ted told her solemnly. "But if you really want to, you can surprise us with something else."
"I'll have to figure out if I can guess what Santa's going to bring you, before I go shopping to get something else." Pete just groaned, but didn't reveal his worldly wisdom on the Santa issue to his younger siblings.
"Are you going to go to church with us tonight? It's a special night for Christmas carols and communion."
"Yeah, we're not doing it at our church on Christmas Eve since all the churches get together for that at the plaza.
"Sure." Kelsie hoped she could get by with what she had packed little thinking about including something or other to dress up a little. It had all been a blur trying to get out of town as soon as possible."
"Just let me shower before dinner and wash my hair."
She came down the stairs a little later with her hair in a towel. Neighbor James was sitting on the living room couch jiggling his leg as he always did. When he saw her he jumped up grinning.
"Aren't you a sight for sore eyes!" he exclaimed.
Kelsie felt her towel turban and knew she couldn't even blush at this yahoo's compliments. He had chased her for years and never given up. Since he grew up down the street, he had been like another brother. She had to be nice, but just barely.
"How about if I swing by and take you to church tonight then we can go out and get pie or something," he offered.
Didn't she just break off an engagement? What was he thinking?
"James, some things never change, including my 'no,' to your nice invitation."
"Well, you can't blame me for trying. Is it because you just broke up with your fiancé? Is it too soon?"
"No and yes. But it will always be too soon. We just weren't made for each other, buddy."
She didn't know how many times they had had this conversation over the years, probably every single time in her single times whenever she came back home. He must have recognized her car in the driveway.
"Hey, James. I think it's time you give up on her and move on with your life." Her brother came to her rescue.
"Well, I couldn't help but try one more time since she's available. I guess I'll just ask Janet again like I usually do.
"Janet Sizemore? She's sweet," Kelsie encouraged him.
He sighed. "But she just isn't you, Kelsie. I guess I better get over it once and for all."
What was the guy, thirty? She met him when they moved in when she was five. That's a long time to carry the torch for any one. It would be more flattering if she knew it wasn't just a stagnant fixation. He still drove the car he'd driven in high school, wore the same coat, the same baseball cap, and the same Old Spice aftershave. He ate macaroni and cheese on Mondays, hamburgers on Tuesday, tacos on Wednesdays, spaghetti on Thursdays, fried chicken on Fridays, took his mom out to Cathy's Diner on Saturdays, and had roast, potatoes and carrots on Sundays. His mother would still be wearing the same apron when she fixed his meals except it caught on fire four years ago, and she had to sew a new one. They'd had the same aluminum Christmas tree so long that it was now vintage. No, it would be James over her rigor mortis dead body.
"I'll see you at church, James. Tell your mother hello for me."
"Yeah, she doesn't like to go out at night."
She hadn't since they had known them. Nothing new here.
Darla came in with Kelsie's wedding to-do list. "Look how many things I've been able to check off your list. These others aren't open on Saturday or until after Christmas, and we can take care of them then. Not all of them were willing to give refunds for your deposits, but many did. And of course, you can't take your wedding dress back, but you can save it for next time."
Kelsie was so grateful for what her sister-in-law had done for her that she could ignore the "next time" comment. "This is so wonderful. I can hardly believe it. You lifted a huge load off my shoulders, Darla."
"Well, you don't need to do this. I don't have a dog in the fight, so I can do it without all the negative emotions involved. It's the least I can do," she said. "Hey, y'all, it's time for supper. Are you going to eat with us, James?"
They all knew he was not going to break from his routine. He never had even as a little boy. He might eat a cookie or two, but never a meal.
"Bye, thanks for stopping by, James. It is nice to see you."
"You too, Kelsie. Welcome home."
A home cooked meal was not something she enjoyed often. Her ex-fiancé was too picky so she gave up trying to cook for him, and it was no fun to make a huge meal for just herself alone. "This is delicious, Darla. It's a real treat."
"Thank you. The way these kids are growing, you're lucky to get full servings. Never any left overs around here."
She helped her sister-in-law wash the dishes, then hurried upstairs to dry her hair. She had found a pair of skinny jeans to wear with a plaid shirt. It would have to do. In fact, as she looked through her suitcases, her plaids were about the only clothes she'd packed. They must be her comfort clothes.
She didn't bother to put on much make up either. She didn't have to try to please the man who was no longer in her life. He'd liked her to lay it on thick, much more than she was comfortable with. What a relief! She just had to blow-dry her hair and put on her shirt and a pair of boots. Looking in the mirror, she gasped. She'd forgotten to take off the heart necklace Brian had given her. She'd worn it every day since last Christmas. Maybe Gigi would like it for a gift this year. He was dead to her, so no feelings were stirred as soon as it was off her neck except relief.
The family was bundling up at the foot of the stairs.
"Ready?" Anthony looked at her. "You'll see a lot of people you know, most of whom will probably ask about your upcoming wedding. Can you handle this so soon?"
"Bring it on. Maybe I'll hire Gigi here to be my official spokesperson," she said as she winked at her darling niece.
"That's probably not a bad idea," Darla laughed.
"You mean I can tell everybody that Aunt Kelpie dumped her fiancé?"
Everybody tried not to laugh to gage her feelings, but she just smiled. "Maybe it would be better to say that the wedding was cancelled. That might be a smidge more polite though the other is true."
"Don't worry, James is an usher and will probably have already told half the church by the time we get there anyway," her brother added.
"Good," Kelsie sighed. "That's probably a good thing."
She had to drive her own car since there was no room in her brother's for all of them since her brother always picked up Mrs. Walters, a sweet widow who lived on their street. "See you there."
It took her a little longer to get there since her tank was on empty and she had to swing by a gas station on the way. Once she got to the church, Gigi patted the pew beside her.
"You were almost late, Aunt Kelpie," she whispered with an accusing stare.
"Sorry, I didn't want to run out of gas on the way to church."
"Shh," Ned hushed them as the senior pastor got up to the podium to welcome everyone.
Kelsie smiled at her bossy niece and nephew. Then her eyes were captured by the huge tree up front. It was decorated elegantly but simply with boughs of fake snow and white twinkling lights. Magical. The evergreen tree's fragrance reached clear to where they sat. She had not bothered to get a tree herself this year with the wedding looming. Looming, that sounded close to dreading. No more. She was as free as a bird. Kelsie breathed deeply before a familiar voice drew her gaze to the platform.
It couldn't be. "What's he doing here?" she said under her breath without realizing it.
"Oh that's Pastor Kyle. He's our youth and music pastor," Pete informed her in a quiet voice. "I'll be old enough for youth group this summer."
Kelsie's heart dropped to her stomach and took swimming lessons. She might be sick. She put a hand over her eyes as if to shade them from a glare and slumped down in her seat. This cannot be happening. "O Lord, get me out of here, please!" was her silent prayer. She kept her eyes down or hid behind an open hymnal as the traditional carols were sung.
Her heart was doing summersaults like it was going out for the Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. Kelsie hoped her niece and nephews could not hear it beating out of her chest. After all these years, just listening to the sound of his singing did funny things to her insides. His voice was more enchanting than ever. Kyle had not been a Christian when she went out with him. That was her first mistake. He barely was on the fringe of the youth group back then, just hanging out to find girls, her most particularly. That's when her life took a turn south. Now he was some kind of an assistant pastor? Why didn't Anthony warn her? She bent over and glared at him.
He crooked his eyebrows with a look of feigned innocence. She knew better. How had he let the one who had led her astray back into his life? She straightened back up and let out an exasperated sigh just as Kyle began reading the Scripture. Their gazes locked and for a second she thought he was going to forget where he was. It was too much. She had to get out of there.
"Excuse me," she whispered along the pew as she squeezed by to hurry out the back door. His deep voice followed her out as he was reading, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?..."
Kyle glanced up to see the back door swing shut with a puff of cold air. Her niece and nephews' heads were turned watching her leave until Darla snapped her fingers. He could hear Gigi's little voice clear up to the platform asking, "Why did she leave, Mommy?" Anthony had a funny look on his face.
Kyle took a deep breath and finished reading before leading the congregation in another hymn, but he might as well have left the sanctuary as well for all the attention he gave to the songs. His mind was definitely elsewhere lingering on a familiar pair of darkly lashed brown eyes that had just pierced him in the chest. If anything she was more beautiful than ever.
Oops. He was trying to lead them in singing another verse that wasn't there. "Didn't this carol used to have five verses instead of four? Well, let's just sing the first verse over again, shall we?" He nodded to the pianist to continue as he tried to cover up his flub. "Get your head back into worship, Kyle," he silently scolded himself.
After church he shook hands as people milled about. He overheard James telling someone, "Yeah, she broke her engagement off three weeks before the wedding, imagine that! I still don't stand a chance though," as he smiled weakly at Janet Sizemore suddenly realizing he shouldn't have said that last bit. The man was a regular town crier. Kyle raked his hand through his hair and closed his eyes. When he opened them, Anthony was standing by his side.
"Surprised, huh? So was she. I had not figured out how to tell her yet."
"Yeah. It's been eight years." He took a deep breath and tried to ask carelessly, "Is she here visiting for Christmas?"
"Yes, and beyond. She's come home, at least for now. After the first of the year, she'll be looking for a new job. Whether it'll be here or somewhere else, I don't know. Sorry about that little disturbance with her leaving."
"I don't blame her. I never have been able to talk with her, not since...well, you know. You blocked me from finding out where she went no matter how hard I tried to get it out of you." He sighed, "I loved her you know."
"I think I finally believed you, but she still wouldn't relent and let me tell you where she was. Sorry, pal. Maybe you two can talk it through soon. It's long over due."
Just then Shawna Pickling came up and draped her arm over Kyle's. "Kyle, honey, some of us singles are going to Cathy's Diner to eat some pie. I'll save you a seat."
"Not tonight, Shawna."
Anthony almost laughed at the overdone pout that girl put on. A rooster could sit on her bottom lip. It couldn't be more obvious the girl was chasing after Kyle hard, almost as unrelenting as James was with his sister. And Shawna wasn't the only one. Anthony was sure that their attendance had picked up since Kyle had come on staff and word got out in the community that the prize hunk of high school back in the day was back in town. Suddenly their singles group was up and roaring, mostly females though.
When she slunk off, Anthony slapped Kyle on the back and said, "I'm glad I'm already married, pal. I wouldn't want to be in your shoes for anything."
"Said the man with four kids and an adoring wife," Kyle grinned back before his face fell back deep in thought like the weight of the world was upon him.
"Do you think she would talk to me tonight?"
"Probably not the best timing." Darla had just joined the conversation blocking Kyle off from several other females heading their way. "She just broke her engagement last night, packed up and moved back to town today. Surprised us, in fact. I don't think she even knows how exhausted she is. How about if you come to dinner tomorrow?"
Even Anthony raised his eyebrows.
"I don't know. She might feel backed into a corner," Kyle rubbed the back of his neck.
"Well, you two have to work it out sometime. She'll have to be pleasant around the kids anyway, then we'll leave you two alone after dinner to talk. I just won't give her advance warning so she can't flee, at least I hope she won't. That's the best I can do," Darla offered with a gracious smile.
"Thanks, Darla. I'm willing to try if you are. Are you okay with that Anthony?"
"Yep. If worse comes to worse, we can lock you two up in a room together until you work it out."
"I'm afraid it might come to that. I'm sure she hates me."
"No, but it was a life changer, that's for sure. But God's grace is bigger."
"Thanks, friend. Did she ever say...?"
"Hey, like I've always said, that's for her to tell you, not me."
"Okay, okay. I'll just be praying hard between now and then."
The next morning Kelsie went to town to do some Christmas shopping after consulting with Darla on what the children might like. Midway through, she grabbed some fast food in a drive-through, not wanting to sit down with anyone who might want to chat in a restaurant. Drive-throughs were her lot in life. She ate from them on a rotating basis, not healthy, but predictable. Maybe she was more like James than she thought. She'd run into a few old friends like Shawna, but had cut it short. Besides, that particular old acquaintance was a bit frosty.
Walking by a new shop, she paused. A pretty skirt in window captured her. In her hurry out of town, Kelsie had not put much thought into what she might want to wear over the holidays, or even for interviews that she would need to line up. But there was no way she was going to drive three hours back to the city to dig through her storage. A few choice items could carry her over for now. It was a pretty skirt, very pretty. Kelsie shrugged her shoulders and went inside. It fit like a glove. The red plaid was festively appropriate, not too fancy. She could wear it Sunday. Then she frowned. She didn't even think she could force herself to go Sunday and see him again. Maybe she would wear it to the joint service on the plaza Christmas Eve. She bought the skirt anyway. Even if it would be hid underneath her coat, she would still feel pretty. That was kind of essential to her well being after the years wasted on her ex-fiancé.
It was beginning to snow. She watched the flakes fall in the twilight as they danced if on display in front of streetlights. She loved her hometown and wished she could settle here. But no. That idea had been completely squashed at church last night. She could never live in the same town as him. Kelsie suddenly dug in her purse for her phone. Darla had told her not to hurry, that dinner wasn't until six, but it was fifteen till. She threw her packages in the back seat and drove home. A strange pickup was in the driveway that she didn't recognize. Darla and Anthony were always inviting people over. Hospitality was their gift.
Kelsie was gathering up her bags when Pete came out to help. "No peeking, but thanks for your help, Sir Nephew, my knight in shining levis."
Gigi stood in the door, "Guess who's come for dinner!" Suddenly a hand went over her mouth and she was pulled back inside. That was odd, Kelsie thought. Once in the house she called, "I'll be right there Darla as soon as I dump these packages in the den. Sorry I'm late."
"You're right on time. We're just waiting here at the table visiting." Her sister-in-law was always gracious.
Kelsie slipped into the downstairs bathroom and brushed her static fly away hair and made a loose, quick braid before walking into the dining room. Her mouth dropped open as she locked gazes with Kyle once again.
"Hello, Kelsie." He stood up from his chair.
"Look who's here for dinner!" Gigi was bouncing up and down in her chair. "It's Kyle! He's our friend from church!"
Kelsie was speechless, but she finally tore her eyes away from his deep green ones, and stared at her brother mouthing, "How could you?" Her feet wouldn't move.
"Ted jumped up from his chair and led her by the hand to a chair. "Look, you get to sit between Ned and me."
...and right across from her ex-boyfriend, the one who had caused her the most pain in her life, the one she wanted to see even less than Brian, her ex-fiancé.
Anthony cleared his throat nervously and said, "Shall we pray?"
Kelsie did not enter the conversation around the table. She couldn't think. Words swirled about her. Her eyes stayed only on the food she pushed around with her fork. She never looked up.
Finally, Gigi's voice broke through, "Aunt Kelpie, are you sad?"
"No, yes, a little. There's been a lot of change to deal with..."
"Not about Brian though, right? We didn't like him," Ned commented.
"No, not Brian." She took a fleeting glance at Kyle. He looked almost as miserable as she felt. But that was no excuse. She had been broadsided, and he's the one who hit her, not the other way around. Suddenly she jumped up. "Well, thank you for the dinner, but I think I go wrap presents now." Her plate was untouched.
"No." Her brother's hand had reached over Ted and gripped her wrist, hard, like a vice. "The rest of us are going to town as a family to see a movie, and you two are staying here to talk it out. No excuses, understand? Come on kids, get your coats on. Darla, just leave the dishes on the table. I'll help you when we get back."
Kelsie glared. Oh, but she was steaming. As soon as they left, she would pack her suitcase and be gone. Even if it meant spending Christmas alone. Maybe her friend would let her sleep on the couch in her old apartment until she could get back on her feet. Anything would be better than this, betrayed by her own brother. Oh, no, not tears. She furiously blinked, but one after the other dripped down like raindrops before a coming storm.
It was completely silent. Even the children did not make a peep as they pulled on their coats. The front door opening and shutting was the only sound.
"I've tried to find you and talk to you for years," Kyle finally spoke in almost a hushed whisper.
She began clearing the table even though it was obvious that no one had quite finished. The dinner had been ruined. He came over and put his hand on her arm, and she tensed up.
"Please, Kelsie. I'd like just a few minutes of your time then I'll leave. I promise."
She shook her head, but sank down into her chair and put her head down in her hands.
She could hear him pace back and forth.
"I want you to know that I really am sorry, that's it's all my fault. I've wanted to tell you that for the last eight years. I'm sorry, so, so sorry, for taking advantage of you..."
"It wasn't just you. It was both of us who were wrong, so don't get on any high horse like you have to take all the blame."
"I never wanted you to leave though. Maybe I understand a little of why you did perhaps, but I begged and begged your brother to tell me where you went. He never would. He said it was what you wanted. But all these years I've wondered. It's torn me up inside. Did you...were you pregnant? Is that why you left? Because if you were, I wanted to do the right thing. I loved you, Kelsie, even though I wasn't the man I should have been for you. I would have been glad to marry you."
She put her hand up while covering her face still with the other. "Stop. There is no child, okay. I did not have one to put up for adoption. I did not have an abortion, if that's what you're worrying about. I was just disappointed in myself, and needed to get away from you...I didn't think I could be strong enough to stay away from you if I was here. So I left. End of story. No, that's not the end of the story. I am leaving. I can't stay here. I had no idea you became a Christian. I had no idea you were on staff at the church. I heard nothing, by choice, about your life." She got up to go pack.
"No. I'll resign. It's my responsibility. You need your family right now. I don't know what happened in your engagement, but it can't be easy. I can go live with my dad in Arizona and look for work there. I'm sorry, Kelsie, deeply, deeply sorry I hurt you. That's really what I wanted to say. Thank you for telling me about...the other thing, answering my questions."
As he went by, his hand grazed against her back, then his hand slid over her arm as he was leaving. Was he was crying too?
"Kyle, stop. I can't ask you to resign. Really. I can go stay with a girlfriend. You obviously have made a place for yourself here." She almost smiled. "It was nice to hear you sing, as shocked as I was finding you on the platform."
He turned and tilted her head up until she was forced to look him in the eyes. "Will you forgive me, Kels?"
She gulped air. No sobbing. No. She tried to stop them from coming. First one shook her, then another until she was overcome. He wrapped her in his arms. She grabbed his shirt in her fists and clung on like a drowning person. He murmered, "Please, sweetheart. I need to know you can forgive me." He stroked her hair, he kissed her forehead, she tilted her face up until he hesitated above her lips. His breath drew her like a warm fire.
Instantly she shoved him away so forcefully that he practically stumbled. "See! This is why I can't stay. I'm leaving. Yes, I forgive you. It's myself that I've struggled to forgive. So take it at that. Good bye, Kyle. Please leave now. There's no more to be said." She furiously wiped away her remnant of tears.
"Please, wait until after Christmas before you leave, I beg you. I'll pray about what God would have me do. I still think I'm the one who should move away. Can we drop it right there until after Christmas? I have commitments until then, but could be gone after that. Besides, it's obvious that your niece and nephews would be devastated if you left suddenly. What was that Gigi called you by the way? Kelpie?"
She sighed. "It's their nickname they heard my brother call me and they've never called me anything else hardly."
"What's a Kelpie anyway? I've heard the term, but am not familiar with it."
"Are you trying to make conversation with me or something?" She almost smiled again. "A kelpie is a sprite, one that say warns children away from dangerous depths. It can take several forms, like a horse or a woman..."
"Well, I think we've said all we need to now. This is as dangerous a depth as I want to wade in."
He looked at her like no one else in her life looked at her as if he was drinking in the sight of her satiating a thirst from a long drought. She gulped. He was more handsome than ever. As crazy as it was, she almost wished he had kissed her. That's why she had to push him away. She never had felt the attraction for her ex-fiancé as she had for the man standing in front of her.
"Please promise me, Kelps."
"I promise. Just until after Christmas."
He was leaving. "Kyle?"
He stood with his hand on the door knob.
"How...when did you change? You know, from the bad boy of the youth group to an associate pastor? My brother never said anything."
He motioned towards the couches. "May I?"
She sighed. She had asked for it. Kelsie went and sat down on the couch motioning him over.
He sat on the edge of a soft overstuffed chair with his elbows on his knees leaning towards her. "After you left I was devastated. I kept coming over to beg your brother to find out where you went. I couldn't stay away." Kelsie couldn't keep her eyes away from falling into his. "Anyway, one talk led to another, until one evening he knelt down with me right here and led me to the Lord. I repented, and I had a lot to repent of. Anyway, I started going back to the church, and your brother discipled me. Then I decided to go away to college using my football scholarship, but couldn't find anything that interested me except Bible courses. So the next year I switched and went to Bible college. After I graduated, the pastor offered me an internship that turned into this job. It's a calling on my life."
"Why didn't you ever marry? Eight years was a long time ago."
He wasn't expecting that, never dreaming she would be willing to talk like this. "You know, Kelsie, I only loved you." It was said so softly that she almost didn't hear it. "I did try dating a few times, but it wasn't you. Even if I kissed a girl, I found myself pretending it was you. That's when I pretty much knocked it off. I haven't dated in almost two years. I don't want to date anyone here at church anyway, though there is pressure. It's not easy being single and being on staff at a church. That's why your brother, the pastor and a couple other men are in an accountability group with me."
"I thought that the church would never hire someone with our kind of failure, you know, not good examples and all..."
"If I had sinned in such a way after I'd been on staff, then sure, they would have every right to fire me. But since the sin was before I was a Christian, they did not see it as a hindrance even though I confessed while keeping your name out of it. They offered me the positin as long as I stayed accountable. That has really been important to me, to stay honest with my prayer partners in every area of my life. I've been an open book with your brother pretty much. He's my best friend, by the way."
"Why am I not surprised," she grimaced.
"Kelsie, can I ask you another question?" She hesitated then nodded.
"What happened? Why did you break your engagement?"
She stood and turned her back to him staring out at the snow falling. "It wasn't right, the engagement I mean. I knew it, but let it go on too long because it was expected. Then I found out some things that disturbed me, things he was into. I didn't want that kind of a marriage. So I called it off. I worked in their family business, so I was out of a wedding, out of a job, out of an apartment. So here I am."
"Your family is really happy you are, you know."
"So you've talked about all this? Plotted this dinner?" She found herself getting mad all over again.
"Darla invited me last night after we had visited after the service for a few minutes. Your brother has known all along that I wanted to speak with you. They set it up, but I can't say that I wasn't a willing accomplice." He chuckled. "She even said that you'd have to play nice in front of the kids. So I guess you could say, yeah, we plotted this all out. But I can't say that I'm sorry."
He walked up to her and put his hands lightly on her arms. "Thank you, Kelsie. This means the world to me. To see you, to talk to you. Even if I made you mad, made you cry, I don't think I'm sorry. I've dreamed about this day getting to see you again."
When she turned around to him, she was ever so close, dangerously so. She stared up into his face, the one she had cried into her pillow for years over at night. Her hand reached up to smooth back his hair above his eyes. His breath slowed. "This was good, yeah?"
He took her hands and his thumb slowly rubbed gentle circles on them. "Kelsie?"
The door burst open, and they jumped apart.
"There weren't any family friendly movies so we went for hot chocolate, but now we're hungry again since we didn't finish eating supper." Pete was talking heading towards the food.
Suddenly her brother and sister-in-law were staring back and forth between the two of them with smiles spreading over their faces like the dawn of a new day. "Are we good? Did we interrupt you too soon?" Her brother looked like the cat that ate the canary which lapped up a bowl of cream with mice swimming in it.
She realized then that Kyle was still holding her hand, so she jerked it away. "Yeah. It's a truce until after Christmas."
"Then are you going to fight again?" Ted wanted to know.
"You don't fight girls, do you Pastor Kyle?" Ned wanted to know.
"No, I'd be happy if I never fight your Aunt Kelpie, ever. I happen to be one of her biggest fans."
"I don't think she thought so at dinner, did you Auntie? She was pretty mad." Gigi added her observation.
"Come sit at the table and finish your supper. If it's too cold, take it in the kitchen and warm it in the microwave. Pete, help your sister."
Darla and Anthony sat down in the living room all relaxed like they had all been forever friends.
"Did she let you say all that you wanted to, Kyle ?"
"All that I think she could handle for one night. But it made me think of a few other things I'd like to say maybe at another time."
"Well, then why don't you come back for Christmas Eve. It's only in a couple of days," Darla said. "Then we can go to the community service together."
"I'm willing unless Kelsie would rather I not."
She shrugged, "I guess it's okay." When she looked up, She didn't know who had a bigger smile on their face, her brother or Kyle. They must be as thick as thieves.
"So, how did it go?" Anthony wanted to know after Kyle left.
Kelsie shook her head and leaving her brother's questions unanswered going into the den and shutting the door. What could she say? She was so confused. She did know deep in her heart that there was still something she would have to tell Kyle. He was right. Not everything had been said. Kelsie tried to lose herself in gift wrapping the presents, not wanting her mind to go there.
The next couple of days, Kelsie helped Darla bake and cook and clean staying as busy as possible. She avoided talk of Kyle, but the kids would not let the subject drop. It was Kyle this, and Kyle that.
"Kyle has a brand new song he's going to sing at the community service," Pete informed her. "I think you'll like it."
"Did he play his guitar and sing when he was your boyfriend?" Oh, Gigi. Did she have to bring that up?
"Yes. He's always had a nice singing voice."
"Did he make up songs for you back then?" Ted wanted to know.
"Yes. He made up a song for me once."
"How did it go," Ned asked.
"I can't quite remember." But oh, she did. It had played in the back of her mind for years. The way he sang her name so tenderly never left her.
Here kids, take these cookies. We're going to drop them off for Mrs. Walters. Her children are here visiting, and this will help for her holiday.
"Thanks," Kelsie mouthed to her sister-in-law.
The turkey dinner had all the trimmings. Kyle sat next to her and every time their shoulders or knees brushed it was ridiculous. It sent a shiver into the pit of her stomach that ricocheted all through the rest of her. Still, it was a happy family dinner that she could get lost in the conversations bubbling around her without having to speak directly to him. When it was over, Kyle had to leave early to get to the service for a sound check.
The snow had made a beautiful backdrop for the city tree in the middle of the plaza, even if the snow plows had left deep drifts around it. People were gathering in the cold holding the candles that were being passed out. At the close of the service, they would be lit, one by one, neighbor to neighbor. Kelsie was anxious to hear Kyle sing again.
Her eyes were fixed on him as he sat up on a wall beside the live nativity scene. At first, she was confused. It sounded like Kyle was singing a love song, to her. It was all about a second chance at love and forgiveness. Then she realized he was singing about coming back to God at Christmas, seeking His forgiveness. Kelsie's face heated at her own misinterpretation of his song. But his eyes sought hers across the crowd as he sang. Suddenly she realized it could be taken both ways in a sense. Is that what he meant?
As the candles were all blown out, he whispered, "Ride home with me, Kelsie, please?"
It was time. She nodded and felt him grasp her hand a little more tightly as he led them through the crowd trying to not stop and talk to all the people who were complimenting him on his song. Finally they were at his truck where he opened the door. She had to let go of his hand to get in and get buckled. It all felt so familiar. The truck roared to life and the heater blew warm air into the cold. He reached for her hand and once again she surrendered.
Instead of going straight home, he drove up the hill and stopped at a view point where the town below glowed with Christmas cheer out of the darkness. The town tree was like a candle still lit.
"Kelsie, I have to ask you. Is there any hope for us? It's all I can think of. All I've ever wanted."
She looked up with luminous eyes.
"First there is something I have to tell you, Kyle. I wasn't completely honest with you the other day. I was pregnant. I did not have an abortion or give up our child for adoption. I had a miscarriage at five months. It was the hardest thing I've ever been through, and I was alone. I did not tell Tony and Darla until afterwards. My girlfriend dropped me off at the hospital, and I left by myself. I was so young. My mother was gone..." She began crying. How she hated her tears.
He enveloped her laying his cheek against her bent head buried into his shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Kels. So very sorry. I wish I could have been with you."
"I know. I wish now I had let you. I was afraid. I had not made any decisions about the future of our baby girl, but I named her Kylie, after you, you know. It was so hard, no funeral or anything. They just took her away.
"Thank you for telling me. I'm sure every time you see me now, you think of her, painful thoughts."
Then she said, "I didn't love him you know."
"Yes. I tried to convince myself I did. That's the main reason I broke it off. I kept thinking it would happen as our relationship progressed, but it never did. Then I lost respect for him. That was it. It was over. I'm so relieved."
"Thank God. I was so afraid when Anthony told me you were getting married. It really tore me up. That's when I knew I still loved you. Do you think God has been bringing us back together at this point?"
"I'm still thinking about it, but I'm not sure."
"You had to know, I had you in my head when I wrote the song that I sang tonight."
"It was so beautiful, it made me cry. It seems I've been done nothing but cry lately."
"I think you needed to grieve. I needed to grieve. It has kept me back from going on in relationships wondering if I had a child out there that I did not know about."
"I'm sorry that I made Anthony keep that a secret. It wasn't fair to you."
"I think it is healing now to have that out there between the both of us, Kelsie. Your pain is my pain."
"I feel better all ready. I have been carrying that hurt around for eight years. Thank you for sharing that burden now. Are we good then?"
His truck had been running to keep the heater going, and it was time to go back to the family's Christmas Eve. The children were going to each open one present tonight. She hoped they had not waited for them to return.
"By the way, I like your skirt. A lot. I like that every time I see you, you are in plaids, just like back in the day."
"Yeah, I guess that's about all I packed. I'll need something else for interviews however."
When he parked the truck, he turned to her and asked, "Can I hope, Kelsie?"
She lifted her face to his and after a hesitation to be sure, he kissed her, gently.
"I don't think we should spend a lot of time alone together. It is too tempting, you know. At least I'm being held accountable. But I wouldn't want to have to answer to Anthony about how I'm treating his sister."
Kelsie laughed. "No, I hope you never have to say a word, which means we'd better hurry in."
When they came in hand in hand, Anthony arched his eyebrow but did not say a thing, just grinned.
The Christmas C.D. was blaring some a cappella group.
Darla's smile couldn't be brighter. "We waited, but almost gave up on you two. Okay kids..."
In her hurry to grab a present, her niece spilled Kelsie's glass of sparkling cider all over her new skirt.''
"I'm sorry, Auntie."
"Wait, Gigi," her father warned.
"I'd better go change," Kelsie said even though Kyle had grabbed a kitchen towel for her.
"Just a minute Kelpie," Anthony winked. "You won't want to miss this. Are you ready kids?
The present is for all of you, and it's out in the garage. Sit tight, and I'll go get it now."
"What if I don't want to share," Gigi pouted and sat back on the couch with her arms crossed in a huff.
"Need any help, Dad?" Pete asked.
"No, I got it, but you can turn down the Christmas music. Darla get your video camera ready. This will be a Christmas you'll remember," Anthony said before he went out into the garage.
"What is it? What is it?" Ned and Ted started chanting.
Just then Anthony came in with a whimper. A bundle of fur was in his arms.
"A puppy?" Gigi shot out of the couch followed by the twins. Pete was too surprised to move.
"It's a King Charles Spaniel," Anthony said.
"We'll have to chose a name we all can agree on," Darla added as she continued to video tape her ecstatic children with a wriggling puppy licking them.