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JESSICA

6 Years Ago


Chapter 10                 “Oh, the green looks lovely with your eyes,” I declared, as Pearl required my opinion about the tenth dress within the hour. I almost didn’t even care anymore; it was nearing five ‘o clock. Gratefully, Mary was up and about this morning and I didn’t have to rush through my day fretting over her well-being. We were in our second dress shop; the first proved to have nothing to Pearl’s satisfaction. I’ve lost track on the total number of dresses she’s tried on all together, but she was definitely more patient than I. Having merely tried on three myself, I was happy with at least two of them. I’d found a matching hat, gloves, and some shoes, all in the time of her getting excited over a pair of pink diamond earrings. The earrings alone were a hefty price, but she didn’t bat an eye over the purchase. Even though money isn’t a major concern between Mary and me, we don’t indulge ourselves frequently. The cost of her dangly jewels would have me budgeting my expenses for a month.  I was appalled to discover that the dress she had on at this precise moment was the exact one from my vision. It really did compliment her emerald gems that granted her sight, but I expect she would’ve bought this one regardless of my opinion. What am I to do now that I know she’s the woman I’ve been looking for?! Should I simply wait around for her to don the dress? I have learned nothing from this woman to be of any use to me, but if I was just intended to become her friend, then so be it; I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.             “I agree! It does look fabulous! Now to finding the right hat to go with it,” Pearl finally announced. I truly didn’t believe she would find one today at all, and I dreaded the longevity of the hat decision. The dress she chose, though, provided the precise amount of flare and elegance. It appeared made exclusively for her.             Pearl was in much better spirits today. Her make-up was done up rather boldly, but there wasn’t a hint of it being smudged; her mind seemed impeccably clear; and she walked briskly all on her own. Not as needed today, her servant still lingered in the distance.             Although our brief discussions remained on simple topics, I was of the opinion that she was a very generous, amiable individual. She talked about her favorites: Mexican food, strawberry ice cream, shopping, red for almost anything, and her love of men. She was fun, spirited, energetic. She treated her servant, and all those that waited on her, with utmost kindness and respect. Her voice seemed to know only one volume today, loud and excited. Either it was part of her natural mannerisms, or she was just thrilled to be shopping. She was considerably older than me, probably a good ten or more years, but it was only evident in the small, scant laugh lines that aged her otherwise unblemished face.             “Well, Jessica, what do you think?” she asked. My jaw dropped.             The grass-green dress, a bright carrot orange hat, and a pair of intensely pink high hills, covered Miss Campbell. The exact outfit from my vision. Was the accident going to happen today then? In the next few minutes? A familiar uneasiness began building inside me, my hands started to tremble. I’m sure my eyes revealed my fright, for Pearl ran forward in an instant panic. “What’s the matter? Are you all right?” Her concern was genuine. “Sorry.” My voice was small as I shook my head. I tried to imagine something else, anything else. I casually walked towards the window to pear out. I surveyed the road this way and that—no carriages, boys, or dogs could be seen. I turned again towards Pearl, with a surely positive-looking face in place, and reminded her, “You look absolutely fantastic!” She smiled, appearing distracted enough by my comment to remember how fabulous she thought she looked, and skipped back to the mirror to observe herself once more. Having returned, with her other dress in a box, she simply declared, “All right, let’s go.” While walking back towards the hotel, she started to talk again, but with a more serious tone. “You know, Jessica, the most important thing in this life is family. I have a sister who lives here, who won’t let me visit her, and it has very nearly broken my heart. Yesterday I tried to call on her, and, well, that’s when we met. Not that you care, or even need an explanation, but I really need to talk to someone. You have been inordinately kind to me, and have graciously joined me on such a refreshing diversion; I feel comfortable with you. “My sister and I are probably eight years apart, we’ve never really been close, but it’s because she judges me, rejects me…” her voice trailed off. “The thing is,” she continued after pausing briefly, “is she is imperfect too. When she was younger, she made mistakes, and she still withholds secrets, life-altering secrets …” She stopped walking, so I glanced back at her. Her gaze was fixed on something across the street. A little boy. Just then I saw a carriage round the corner. Knowing the outcome of the forthcoming event, I leaped into the street and sprinted toward the young boy. First I hugged his dog tight with one arm, then grabbed hold of the boy’s hand with the other. Two seconds later the carriage rattled by, and the dog pressed himself forward and barked loudly at the horses. I held tighter. After the carriage passed completely, the dog relaxed his stance. Pearl gratefully remained in place and no one got hurt. My heart pound, my chest puffed—I could hardly catch my breath. The people around me stared, bewildered. It was silly, really, I merely ran across the road, yet my body acted as if I’d been running for miles. I’m sure the anxiety was to blame. The child, whose hand was losing blood, started to wriggle and grunt. I instantly let him go, and strived to force a gulp of air to calm me down. “I’m so sorry. I had a dog once just like yours and thought I’d come by and say hello.” I lamely excused my rash behavior as I ruffled the dog’s hair on his back, scratched about his ears, then stood and walked back to Pearl. We did have a dog for a few years, Ginger, but they weren't even remotely similar. “Please forgive my abrupt and rude departure. I love animals,” I explained, still a little breathless. “Are…are you sure you’re quite all right?” She remained planted in one spot, and confusedly searched my face—likely waiting to hear words to justify my absurd actions. “Yes…” inhale, exhale, “yes I am,” I replied, my voice was slowly returning to normal. “I interrupted you before; you were talking about your sister?” I encouraged the reminder. “Well, yes. Yes, I was.” She began walking again, then continued her thoughts. “She has children, you see, and I don’t.” She hesitated again in her step and turned to glance at the little boy who was nearly out of sight by now. “So, you’re an Aunt, and probably want to be a part of their lives,” I guessed. “Precisely. I desperately want, what all women want, really. A husband, children, a home for us all to share…” Another suspended moment. “But if I can’t have all that, then I’d love to at least be able to maintain family relationships and dote on my sisters children.” Her explanation softened into a whisper. I could almost hear the bleeding anguish of her heart. Who was this retched sister of hers? What reasons did she have for rejecting such a kind and loving person as Pearl? And what secrets was she hiding? I had been unusually engrossed in her tale, completely distracted from my normal attentive self, and almost allowed the accident to occur right before my eyes. I’m grateful that she paused before her launch; that brief instant was all I needed to intervene. A delayed quiver spread over my entire body, and relief overcame my mind and heart. I took another calming breath. It was over. The tragedy was thankfully avoided. “Well, here we are. I have kept you long enough, Jessica, thank you for joining me on a truly remedial shopping excursion. Getting to know you, while doing my absolute favorite thing, was the perfect antidote.” We were in front of the hotel and I was being dismissed. Wait, who was her sister? “The pleasure was all mine. You are a dear. And know that it is your poor sister and her family that are at a loss without your attentions. I hope someday she will see reason.” Unexpectedly, Pearl reached out and gave me a hug. It was intense, but brief. She then turned around quickly, and muffled a good-bye as she entered the doors. While passing time on my journey home, I reflected on the morning’s session with Mark. We reviewed the same routines as the previous Friday, and a few moments lingered in my mind as noteworthy. When I mounted Caleb, he unnecessarily held my waist for support. I was additionally overjoyed about him asking me a couple personal questions. Even though they weren’t particularly significant, the fact that the inquiry came from him seemed promising. He wanted to know what it was like to live in Georgia, and was curious about the business my father was into. I was more than happy to divulge said facts, hoping the more he learned about me, the better. I felt rather happy about the day and the progress made, even if it was sparse. ## It was Wednesday morning, and the clouds spread out everywhere—moving faster than I’d ever seen. The frequent shadows that danced across Mark’s face left him looking all the more mysterious. The shade was a welcome reprieve from the blistering heat, but I yearned for the sun regardless. It always brightens my spirit.   …Mark had a rope in his hand...he began approaching Caleb…Caleb went on his hind legs, neighing in Mark’s face…   Leaning my arms along the fence outside the corral, I blinked to adjust my eyes. Mark was riding Caleb, talking to him, and now that the new terms and techniques were established, Caleb obeyed without hesitation. When would the rope come out? Today, tomorrow, when? Mark dismounted and came up to me. “We’re going to start the rope today, and then if all goes well, we’ll get him back on the trail tomorrow,” he explained briefly—informing me rather than acquiring my opinion on the matter. Was the rope supposed to symbolize a snake somehow, I questioned myself curiously. I was about to find out. “All right,” I said, and then panicked. The rope was on the ready and he was now pacing back to the corral. “Mark, what if we…” I emptily suggested. Suggest what? What should we do instead? After following Mark into the corral, he looked at me suspiciously as he closed the gate. “How about I hold the rope, just this once,” I lightly proposed. I put my hand on the rope and tried to pull it from him. Caleb spotted us and began trotting forward for a closer inspection. “Jessica, what are you…” Mark’s face followed mine. About five feet short of us, Caleb stopped. I noticed his eyes widen in horror. I instinctively lunged at Mark and knocked him into the dirt as Caleb backed up onto his legs and attempted to attack us. For a brief second, with our bodies welded together on the ground, I became acutely aware of my suppressed desires to be close to him. Our intimate position branded my cheeks with heat, while streaks of fire spread through my veins. The fleeting moment was just that, and I quickly remembered the impending danger bearing down on us.             Thankfully we weren’t within Caleb’s reach, yet, so while we were still down I managed to wrestle the rope from Mark’s grasp and flung it over the fence.             Caleb finally retreated to the other end of the enclosure.             I sat up with my heart pulsing out of control. I was frantic from my stumble with Mark and the thought of Caleb returning.             I looked at Mark to find his gaze swiftly rotating between Caleb and me—he appeared baffled by the whole incident.             “We should get out, give him some time to calm down,” I urged.             “What?” he gasped, exasperated, still sprawled out on the ground and merely up on his elbows now.             “Are you all right?” Did he get injured, regardless of my attempt?             “I’m fine. What was that?” he asked again, sitting up now and gesturing between me and my horse.             “Truly I wish I could explain, but…should we discuss this outside the corral?” The panic lingering inside me was also audible in my voice. I scrambled to my feet.             He stood finally, and we both exited the secure area.             “Would you mind telling me what that was all about?” he demanded for the third time, with his arms folded across his chest and his full attention on me.             “I’m so sorry. I thought he was going to hurt you.”             “You acted more like you knew he was going to hurt me,” he replied, not missing that fact at all.             “Well, it’s just that when I knew you were going to use the rope to resemble a snake, and it actually did look like a snake, I was just worried about your safety. I wasn’t quite as confident as you about his reaction, and once I saw his eyes alert with panic I acted impulsively. I’m sorry.” That thought sounded credible enough.             He stood there for several minutes: reading me, watching me, sending an occasional glance towards Caleb.             I simply waited.             “I need to get in there, and this has to be done. You can either watch, or leave, but Caleb needs to learn to trust me, you, and the reptile,” Mark stated matter-of-factly.             “I know, I know. Is there a way that you can position the snake-rope-thing so that it’s not on you, or keep it hidden until you have mounted him, possibly? I wouldn’t be as apprehensive about your well-being if you were at least above him, not beneath.” Please let him be willing to compromise.             “Very well. I’ll keep it out of sight until I’ve mounted him,” Mark agreed.             The next hour was pretty intense. Caleb continued to remain terrified, but with Mark’s encouragement he could tepidly come within five feet of it, stop, and remain somewhat calm. I watched in awe at Mark’s patience and persistence. This has been the worst day in training so far.             I was also overwhelmed at the instant outcome of my vision. I normally have several hours, sometimes days, and in Mark’s case many months, until my visions come to pass. I was totally unprepared—a nervous wreck—being thrown right into immediate action. I hope this doesn’t become a regular thing; I don’t know if I could handle the pressure. At the end of the day, Mark thought maybe another couple days, or at the very least one more week, would be required to help Caleb overcome his fear. I agreed, and would’ve complied with his advice regardless, he was the professional. I was surprised to hear that Grace was over at Arthur’s. I was becoming accustomed to having a regular invite for lunch and looked forward to it. Since I doubted Mark would extend the invitation himself, I was quick to be on my way—allowing him to fend for himself. He was doing me an enormous favor as it was, I wasn’t about to put additional pressure on him. ## Well, it’s been a week, and we are finally on our trail, expecting to find a live snake to test Caleb’s response. Mark has done an amazing job working with him and he feels like he’s ready. With Mark on Jasper, and me on Caleb, I am trying desperately not to appear anxious. Part of me wishes we would find a snake and have the confidence of knowing he can remain calm, but the other part of me fears a bad reaction. It’s close to ten in the morning, but it might as well be noon—the heat is blazing. We left probably an hour ago and the sun has unleashed its full glory upon us today with not a cloud in sight. Without even the slightest breeze, the dry stagnant heat is extremely oppressive. I am thus exceedingly uncomfortable as drops of sweat gather at my temples and a steady stream slides down my spine. I was at least grateful to have worn a cotton dress; it was pale yellow, short sleeved, and with only a two layered skirt. Thankfully my white hat was wide enough to provide my face, and part of my shoulders, a small reprieve. All anxieties and discomforts aside, I’m incredibly thankful to be out of the corral and to have Mark all to myself. We started out in a sprint, and Mark commanded his horse so thoroughly, he was several yards away before he realized how advanced he was and slowed to return by my side. I pushed Caleb with all the energy I could muster, but he apparently was no match for Jasper. After slowing to a walk, for our trail entered a mass of trees and wove in and out of them, we exchanged a few words—commenting on the weather, the scenery, and other simple matters. “How do you feel about your mother marrying Arthur?” I asked cautiously, forgetting polite conversation. “I’m happy for her. Arthur is a decent man, and they have the one thing in common, having both been previously married. I want my mother to be happy, and if marrying Arthur is what she wants, if it brightens her smile even a little, then…well, then she has my unwavering support.” The love and kindness he had for his mother unmistakably laced his voice. “I too am happy for her, for both your families. owHowHHhhHHHave you decided alkj     Have you discussed where either of you will be staying, or are they going to keep both properties?” “We have talked about it, but the matter still remains uncertain,” he simply said. We made it out of the cluster of trees and entered a massive meadow decorated with soft white flowers. Several yards later we came to a creek, and both dismounted to give our horses a break. After taking a few sips of water from my canteen, I kneeled down to dip my hand in the creek. The brisk cool water was so temptingly invigorating, I couldn’t resist from splashing some across both my arms and along the back of my neck. The crisp liquid was nearly as scrumptious to my scalding skin as a slice of Grace’s chocolate cake was to my taste buds.  I looked over to see Mark doing the same, but he also refreshed his face and dried it off on his arm sleeve. He was wearing a long sleeved, light-blue denim button-up shirt, and his sweat marks were quite noticeable, reminding me that he was every bit a real man. He glanced at me as I stood, our eyes locked for a beautiful moment. He eventually turned back to tend to his horse, and I was again left with overwhelming emotions of desire. Caleb got his fill of thirst, then I held his reigns and began walking with him along the bank. As I strolled, I marveled at the small stream swiftly travelling beside me, unwavering in its general direction and unable to stop even if it wanted to. The water pressed over a few medium-sized rocks, undeterred by the obstacles. I almost envied the simplicity of the current—no choices, no distractions, just pressing forward. Water has always fascinated me. From merely observing it I am instilled with a sense of peace. What was I going to do now that Mark thought Caleb was cured? How could I possibly find an opportunity to be with him again? Here we are, together, riding, his absolute favorite thing to do, and if he had it his way we’d probably never see each other again. Why couldn’t I simply declare my love for him? Did I love him? I didn’t think it was as serious as that. When had my feelings evolved from infatuation to a sincere, substantial emotion? It has obviously snuck up on me, so now what am I to do. I stopped, noted Mark was by my side, walking Jasper as I Caleb, and our eyes met. He again averted his face, embarrassed from being caught in his gaze. I truly did care for him. Why couldn’t we just become one; like the running water along the trail—no complications, no obstacles too big to hinder our affections for one another.             “Whether or not we run into any snakes today, I’m fairly confident Caleb will handle himself well if he ever does in the future. You don’t have to bother coming by for any more training sessions. I’m sure you have dreaded these past weeks, and have plenty of other things you’d rather be doing,” said Mark as he looked at me. He seemed to be carefully determining my reaction.             “I can’t begin to tell you how appreciative I am for your kind service. I am indebted to you. You have spent an immense amount of time training my horse, and I have complete confidence in your abilities. You’re wrong about me, though. I have in fact enjoyed our sessions together. Your talent and techniques leave me speechless. You really have a rare gift. I’ll have to search out things to do from now on. Maybe I’ll find some time to take that boat ride,” I hinted, as I began walking again.             We stopped to re-mount, then circled to head back. Apparently we were done talking and my suggestion fell on deaf ears.             Discouraged, my spirit weakened, and our return ride seemed to stretch on infinitely. I resigned myself to allow him more time. Perhaps being apart from me will make him realize what he’s missing.             ##             “Jessica, can you go into town and fetch a couple groceries? I’ve prepared a list,” Mary inquired over breakfast. She’d been overly fidgety for the past week, and abnormally avoiding me. Having just made a trip to town the day before last, I couldn’t imagine what it was she needed.             Mary stood and walked away, not having eaten more than a few bites of her favorite breakfast, biscuits and eggs, and began cleaning up. The fact that she was up this early was shocking in and of itself, but for her to pass up her preferred meal just heightened my suspicions of her behavior.             “Mary, what’s going on?” I asked, as I rested my fork on the edge of my plate.             “What do you mean?” she replied innocently, without pausing in her task—she merely sent a fleeting glance in my direction.             “All right. Let me have the list, I’ll go. Are you certain you don’t want to join me?” Resigning my efforts to push the matter further, I was still unsure why she was only requesting me to go. She loved going to town, heading over there every couple days to stop by and see her hotel manager.             Thinking of Mary’s significant other, reminds me of the many dreadful weeks since I’ve seen Mark. Without seeing him or being near him, my heart has accustomed itself to a fierce ache. He was the air that I breathed, the nutrition for my soul. I need him. I ponder all day—while I read, cook, clean, do some target practicing, and play the piano—of ways, excuses I could use, to see him. Mary can talk of nothing else but her growing fondness for her special gentleman, and I’m happy for her, but a little envious too.             Mary, her manager, his hotel…reminds me of another unsolved mystery. After Mary had made one of several trips to town, the response to my inquiry about Pearl was that she was gone. I felt sorry for her. She likely left because she felt unwanted—all alone with no family to welcome her. I hope she’ll be all right. And I fear my curiosity about who her sister is won’t ever subside.             “I have some mending to do, and was going to see to the animals for a bit,” Mary quickly explained. ##             My outing seemed to be unconsciously stretching on. I leisurely wandered through shops, not really looking for one thing in particular, but more like mindlessly observing—as if I’d know what I wanted if I found it. I even passed by the bank and peered in the window to see if I could spot Andrew. He was indeed there—attentively caring for his customers, all smiles and full of professionalism. I wanted to go in and say hello, but I wasn’t sure if I should disturb him. After finally gathering what supplies I could carry, I directed Caleb towards home.             This heat is unbearable. I don’t dare urge Caleb to more than a walk, and with it being near the end of May, a reminder of the high temperatures came in the form of several colorless patches of dead grass along our path. The cloudless sky was an endless blue, allowing the burning golden sun to radiate mercilessly on all its earthbound occupants.             Having just leaned forward to pat Caleb alongside his neck, I spotted a snake suddenly slithering out of the lifeless grass. Caleb stopped. The serpent too paused in front of us, poised to strike.             Without hesitation, Caleb charged the threatening reptile, stomping on it without a single sound of alarm. I pulled on his reigns after a bit to observe the status of the filthy creature, and found him quite mangled and motionless. Caleb gave a rather proud grunt. His smugness was well-deserved. I quickly pressed forward, hoping for no more dangerous encounters. I couldn’t withhold my praises for my dear Caleb, though; I patted him, while pride for both him and Mark swelled within me. We had overcome a large obstacle. An affirmation that Caleb and I could conquer anything together comfortably found a place in my heart. I honestly believe his particular fear of snakes is behind us. Thanks to Mark. He’d be so proud of him. I know, I will make him some cookies and deliver the fantastic news myself. Finally, I had an excuse to go see him. After putting Caleb back in his stall, I noticed the chickens still roamed the yard and wondered why they weren’t in their cages. Hadn’t Mary said she was going to do as much? I continued towards the house, with my packages in hand, and made a mental note to tend to the matter shortly. “SURPRISE! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” they all yelled as I opened the door. They—Mary had planned a surprise birthday party for me, and a houseful of guests were singing my praises. “I love you sis, I hope you were surprised. You were, weren’t you?” Mary asked excitedly. She was dressed in a fantastic, of course pink, dress, that was cut dramatically here and sewn radically there. Her make-up was flawless, and her eyes sparkled with triumph. I hugged her tight and whispered, “Yes. You shouldn’t have. I love you too.” “Happy Birthday Jessica,” Andrew said, embracing me in a brief hug. I was baffled by his presence having merely seen him at the bank hours earlier. “This is for you.” He handed me a small box. I held it gingerly, apprehensive about its contents. “Hello Jessica, it’s good to see you again.” The familiar face of the hotel manager interrupted the brief, intense moment. “Nathan, can you help me finish pouring the drinks.” Mary directed her request to Mr. Taylor. “Excuse me.” Mr. Taylor then promptly turned to do as she bid. I stood there, with Andrew by my side, holding his box, as I watched Nathan go help in the kitchen. Nathan. I never knew his name was Nathan. All this time I knew him as the hotel manager, or Mr. Taylor. Between us, Mary randomly referred to him as my manager or my sweetheart, and we hadn’t discussed his name further. Mark’s brother’s name was Nathan, and he worked at the hotel. But their last names were different. Could there possibly be two employees named Nathan at the same hotel? I wasn’t going to wait a second longer to find out. “Jessica, won’t you open it, I’d really like you to try them on,” said Andrew rather restlessly—pulling me from my thoughts. “Oh, yes.” I stopped in my tracks; reminded of the box I still held. I glanced around the room briefly and noticed several girls from church hugging the walls, eagerly waving at me, so I flashed my hand to them before turning my attentions again to Andrew. The white box was tied neatly with a red ribbon. I gently pulled on the end of the bow, and it unraveled easily. I opened the lid and found an elegant pair of pearl earrings. They glistened in the light and were very beautiful. “Do you like them?” Andrew anxiously anticipated my reaction. “Andrew they’re lovely, you shouldn’t have. I really don’t know if I can accept these…” I rambled on, bewildered at the intimate nature of the gift. What would I be saying if I accepted these? That I acknowledged and embraced his intentions? These earrings looked quite costly, and they weren’t a gift a person gave randomly. “Nonsense. You’re an exceptional lady and should be adorned with such pretty things,” he said. Mary then interrupted us to show me the cake she made. We ate cake, played a couple card games, sang some songs with me at the piano, and had an overall enjoyable time. Before I knew it, the opportunity to talk to Nathan was gone; he returned to his managerial duties. Since Andrew had left work early, he claimed there were important matters he needed to attend to before tomorrow and also disappeared. Several others departed soon after, leaving two stragglers, Mary, and myself. Knock, knock. Mary quickly tended to the door, and in walked Mark. After removing his hat, I discovered his hair was slicked back in his traditional church going fashion. His brown jacket wore over a solid black shirt that was covered with lots of shiny silver buttons. He was beautiful; prettier than a painting.  “Hello Mark, it’s good to see you.” My blatantly honest, overzealous smile could not be contained. “Happy Birthday Jessica. I’m sorry I’m late,” he replied, then continued, “It’s good to see you too. You look well.” His eyes glowed, and his smile seemed genuine. “I’m so glad you’re here, I have the most remarkable news. You see, Mary sent me to town today to pick up a few things from the store, when in truth she just wanted me out of the house to prepare such a splendid surprise, and on my way home I came across a snake in the path. Mark, you would’ve been impressed, so proud of Caleb,” I beamed. “He did good then, he followed through?” Mark asked, hopeful. “Yes, he was amazing. There was absolutely no hesitation, just pure confidence. And after the serpent was dead, he even grunted a little smugly. It was adorable.” “I’m glad to hear it. He’s a fine horse, I knew he’d be capable…um, this is for you,” he said hesitantly, as he handed me a hand-carved mahogany box. The size was similar to Andrew’s, very quaint, but much more elaborate. I took a minute to merely appreciate the outside of the box. Flowers, vines, and even a few stars were carved everywhere and on every side. The workmanship actually reminded me of something. Another box…Mr. Taylor’s box. “Did you make this box?” I asked curiously, assuming he had. “Well…it’s nothing fancy.” His humbleness about his extraordinary craftsmanship proved the modesty of his character. I slowly opened it and found a necklace inside. “I made the box, the locket is from my mother. It was hers, but she wants you to have it. The clasp has been bent, so it won’t open, but it used to function properly,” Mark rattled on. It was a gold necklace. Gold. A gold oval shaped locket hung at the end of it, and on the front was an engraving of a single rose. Even though it looked worn and aged, it was a treasure. “Mark, please, I can’t—” I tried to say. “Listen. It is a bit much, but she was adamant about you having it. I know this sounds odd, but my mother has always worn that locket, ever since forever. I honestly have never seen her without it. It is as much a part of her as assuredly as I share her blood, and if she feels that you’re special enough to be deserving of something so precious to her… Please just accept it.” “All right,” I barely whispered, overwhelmed at the expensive and meaningful gift. I was a little disappointed that Mark was merely delivering the object, and wasn’t the actual deliverer. The box would always remain dearer to me, though, for it was created by his hand and in such a strikingly handsome way. “Would you mind helping me put it on,” I asked. “Um, sure,” he replied uneasily. He moved behind me, lifted the necklace over my head, and began attaching the clasp at my collar. As his fingers brushed lightly on my neck, shivers ran down my spine. Mark was here, again in my house. I was ecstatic—noticeably more joyful than when Andrew was here. That must mean something significant. Mary and the other two guests discreetly disappeared into the kitchen. I took advantage of the moment. “Would you like to sit down?” My hope for a positive response billowed within me. “Sure.” He sat on one end of the sofa, and I on the other. “How have you been, it seems like I haven’t seen you forever,” I commented. His face appeared serene and peaceful; I found it difficult not to stare. “I’m well.” He struggled to get the two simple words out. I wouldn’t have believed him had he not looked a picture of health. “You haven’t left,” he stated the obvious. “I know you don’t have a whole lot of family in Georgia, but do you miss it, them? Do you want to go back—are you going back soon?” His eyes now seemed slightly cold and a little sad. Would he miss me if I left? I would miss him. No other man could ever compare to him. Did that mean that if he didn’t ever care for me the way I dreamed—hoped—he would, that I’d eventually have to find someone else? Settle for someone less than all of the magnificent characteristics of Mark? A sour, grumbly fear lodged inside me at the thought. I pushed the unhappy idea from my mind and returned to his question. Georgia. “I’m not sure when we’ll go back, if we will at all. We do have family there, but we’re concentrating on our own lives now, doing what we think is best for us. I’m still trying to figure things out here. I do miss Georgia, though; it has a very distinctive charm. The lay out of the land, the architecture of the homes, and the people especially, they’re like one big family. “Back in Savannah, there’s this colorful and delicious candy store that’s run by an adorable man named Oliver Lewis. He’s very short and stout—I towered over him as an adult—and missing most of his hair. I have yet to meet someone, though, with a cheerier disposition than his. His bright smile was truly heartening. And he was always handing out candies just as round and red as his sweet cheeks to less fortunate children, accompanied by gentle, endearing pats upon their heads.  “I don’t know how he’s managed to stay in business for so long. I’ve been buying sweets from him since I was little, and with his continual generosity I would’ve figured his business to have failed a long time ago. “Anyway, Savannah is filled with kind, caring people, just like Mr. Lewis.” “You must have fit in perfectly there.” He paused, thinking some more. “You actually seem too good to really belong anywhere. Perhaps you need…maybe it’s not where you belong, but who you deserve to be with to make any place right. You deserve a man who will cherish and respect you,” his gaze suddenly fell, then his eyes  peeked again up into mine.  Had Mark noticed me after all? Was he willing to be that man? Did he consider himself worthy of being with his all-too-distorted-notion of a perfect me? Or does his humbleness blind him from recognizing the pure goodness that emanates from every ounce of his quiet, yet strong character. “I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about,” I prattled insignificantly. Our line of sight was thick with fresh honesty, and his face was intense. The edges of his eyes dropped at once, and anxiety obviously writhed within him—he swallowed hard, his jaw twitched, and his teeth clenched and unclenched. “Your horse will get along well-enough on the trip, you confirmed that earlier. Do you plan on staying in town much longer, or do you want to head back ho—  to Georgia?” His eyes were almost pleading, beseeching. Maybe he did have a fondness for me. Maybe our time apart has been as excruciatingly painful for him as it has been for me. Did I dare voice my feelings for him, hoping I guessed right on his for me? My palms were sweating, and butterflies filled me and fluttered about anxiously inside me as I contemplated honesty with such an intimidatingly gorgeous, perfect man. “Texas is a decent place to live, but… Well, I suppose if I had a reason to stay…” I trailed off deliberately. His face softened, and I thought I saw the corners of his mouth turn up slightly. I finally yielded. “Mark,” I began, then hesitated to absorb a space of the seemingly calming, clear substance before exhaling slowly. “I’m not very good at this…at being the first to express my feelings.” My nervousness brought my eyelids clamped shut. I was fearful of seeing his possible shock, or rejection. I slit my eyes open, but kept them cast down, “Would you honestly be surprised if I admitted I care for you deeply?”  There was shuffling, his knee touched mine. “Jessica,” Mark lifted my chin with his forefinger. New honest eyes bore into one another as he gently grasped my right hand in his, “I know. I can sense things about people.” He looked confused, uncertain. “As much as I didn’t want this, didn’t want to go down this path again,…I too care for you.” A wave of warmth then encircled me, warming my heart, my soul. “You’re an amazing woman Jessica, one of a kind. Unlike anyone I’ve ever met. I’d be a fool not to want to be with you, to let you leave.” “Oh, Mark. I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to hear you say anything even remotely close to those words. You mean so much to me. I nearly made myself sick trying to stay away from you.” “I think these last few weeks have in truth made me realize how empty my life is without you in it. How about that boat ride for your birthday? It’s not until Saturday, is it?” His eyes sparkled like never before, and his half-smile had my heart doing flips. “Yes, it’s officially this Saturday. I’d love to share a boat ride with you,” I replied, overly eager at the fact that he was still holding my hand. We then talked for a good hour or so. He asked me various personal questions: what I do in my spare time, and how much family I have back home. Thoughts were also voluntarily shared about his dreams and desires. He mentioned he wanted to get married and settle down somewhere and start a family. Training horses is one of his truest passions, and he hopes to someday make an occupation from it. I also came to more fully understand the sincere pleasure he receives from taking care of his families land and livestock, and his hopes to be able to have his own. A yearning to travel has likewise itched within him, and given that his mother would be getting married soon, he felt as if he could finally leave. He wasn’t entirely set on living in Texas, and although his allegiance to his home land was apparent, I couldn‘t help but wonder if he was making leaving a clear option. If we ever married, would he be willing to move to Georgia if I desired? It seemed as if admitting our honest feelings for one another had broken down barriers, we conversed freely. Our hearts had unlocked, and there wasn’t a pause in our discussion. He appeared relaxed, at ease, and happier. I was elated, and soaked up all his information. I wanted to learn all I could about him—know him as well as he knew himself. Mark glanced over to check the time, it was ten ‘o clock, and suggested he better be going. “It’s been a marvelous evening, thank you for coming by. I look forward to many more such occasions,” I said. “Thank you, Jessica, for your honesty. I find such a trait invaluable. Until Saturday.” He then lifted my left hand to his lips, and softly kissed the top. Velvet lips! My knees went weak at the sight of him, his touch—Mark! “Thanks again for the gifts. I shall cherish both the ornate box and its contents.” As I said as much, my fingers casually found their way to fondling the locket. “You’re welcome.” He replaced his hat and turned to leave. I stood in the doorway to watch him mount, and curtly waived good-bye. He tipped his hat with a heart-stopping, wide-spread grin. I watched him until he was out of view, which didn’t take longer than a minute, and shut the door. Completely enraptured, I sank to the floor. Is it possible that tonight really did happen? Did Mark actually admit that he cared for me? Is it truly likely that we could in fact have a future together? What if, in spite of everything we’ve been through, and an even more amazing time courting, he didn’t want me? I really don’t know if I could ever try loving another man. Not fully allowing me a true celebration, fear and hope sided up next to each other in my heart as the questions bombarded my mind. Pushing myself up off the floorboards, I likewise pushed the gloomy thoughts away—determined to be optimistic. However long it might take, we would end up together. It was meant to be. What other explanation was there for the dreams, my father’s words of wisdom, all the signs pointing to him? I just needed to place my confidence—my faith—in God, and trust that things would be resolved as they should. As I walked into the kitchen, Mary was thankfully alone. I didn’t even notice when the other two guests had gone. “Mary, what on earth were you thinking throwing me a surprise party?” I joked, with a half-mad tease. “Oh. Tell me you’re not upset?” She anxiously searched my face. “No, come here.” I smiled as I pulled her into a hug. “I’m so glad. It was challenging deciding who to invite. Then I worried about how to get them their invitations, and whether or not they could all be here on time,” she explained, exasperated by the whole ordeal. “It was outstanding, really. You shouldn’t have, but thank you for all your hard work. I was actually surprised to find Andrew here after seeing him at the bank merely hours earlier. I don’t know how he managed to get here before me.” “Yea, I wasn’t sure if he would make it on time, but was glad he did. Well, what about Mark, you seemed happy to see him. What did the two of you talk about, did he give you this necklace or was it from Andrew?” She carefully held the locket in admiration. “It was from Mark’s mother, actually. He said it was pretty important to her, and I feel a little uneasy having accepted it.” “Perhaps she’s realized how special you really are. Maybe…maybe she knows something you don’t. Like the two of you will end up together,” she replied, letting her eyebrows rise and fall dramatically. “The necklace appears to be a locket. What’s inside?” “I’m not sure. He mentioned something about the clasp being broken. I might have a go at it, or perhaps I won’t ever know. Mark made this beautiful box to put it in, though,” I said as I showed it to her. “How extraordinary. What skillfulness,” she remarked as she twirled the box in her hands. “Maybe you’re right, or Grace…about us. Mark and I kind of declared ourselves tonight. He admitted his feelings for me are similar to mine for him.” “Are you serious! Tell me you’re not fibbing? Honestly?!” she squealed excitedly, while grabbing my hands. “Yes—honest. We had a great conversation, both of us opened up to one another. I was happy he could stay despite the late hour. He kissed my hand for the first time, can you believe it?” I cried. “Jess, this is wonderful! Your dream, all the training sessions, it’s happening! I was a little worried, he seemed so closed-off, but wow! This is truly amazing.” She shook her head in awe. “I’m happy for you,” she said sincerely as she hugged me again; it was more earnest this time, and she held on longer. My thoughts were preoccupied. Was Mary jealous perhaps? I knew she wanted me to be happy, but I was curious about her thoughts on the matter as well. She finally pulled back, and tears spilled over onto her cheeks to rest just beneath her bottom long black lashes. “What is it? Why are you crying?” I continued to hold one of her hands, so she wiped away her tears with the other. “It’s nothing, this is silliness.” She dismissed her reaction with a wave of her hand. “Mary, you’re my only family. Tell me, talk to me,” I softly encouraged. “Well, you see, it’s just that… I guess I knew someday we would find our other halves, it was inevitable. But imagining us apart, going our separate ways, scares me.” “I’m scared too. I think, though, somehow, someway, an opportunity will provide itself for us to be together. Even after we’re married.” “I hope so. I was happy my manager could come tonight, even if only for a little while. I love being with him Jess. He makes me feel special and treats me like a queen.” “You’ve never told me his name. I heard you call him Nathan tonight, is that his name then?” “Really? I didn’t mention that? Yes, his name is Nathan. I guess when we discuss him I’ve used several other names besides his given one, haven’t I?” “Has he disclosed any particulars about his family? Their names perhaps?” I anxiously inquired. “Um…he said his father passed away long ago, and that his brother still lives with his mother on a ranch just out of town. Come to think of it, he doesn’t talk about them much, and I don’t recall learning their names. The few times he’s spoken of them, he seemed cordial. He especially loves his mother. Once he owns the hotel, and can keep part of the profits, he wants to use some of the money to hire her help on the ranch. It does seem odd that he hasn’t invited me to meet them. He’s always busy running the hotel I suppose.” Her attention had focused into the air as she probably attempted to recall their previous conversations.  The similarities were overwhelming. There can’t be another Nathan at the hotel with a family of the exact circumstances as Mark. But why were their last names different? Why didn’t they see each other very often? What’s going on with their family! Anytime I try to ask Mark about his brother, he seems ill at ease. If they were admittedly brothers, did they have different fathers? No. That’s ridiculous. Although Nathan didn’t look anything like his brother or mother, he did, however, slightly resemble Luke. Maybe. If Nathan was Mark’s brother, which it undoubtedly appeared to be, both my sister and I were falling in love with men in the same family. The jolt of that possible truth stunned me into a paralyzing rigidity. I think the idea is positively marvelous, perfect even, but how would Mary feel about it? Would she be happy, or possibly annoyed? “What’s the matter?” She looked at me with concern. “Mary, I’m fairly certain we are courting men who happen to be brothers.” Confusion brought her eyebrows to a crease, and her head shook as she confusedly asked, “What? What are you saying, how…how do you know?” “I can’t quite explain, except that to tell you Mark has revealed that he has a brother named Nathan who lives and works at the hotel. They have different last names, obviously, but I’m still baffled as to why. I’ve mentioned before that Mark’s father too has passed away, and he lives alone with his mother. “Mary what are the chances that I’m wrong? I truly doubt there is a Nathan Miller that’s working at the hotel and shares the same situation as Nathan Taylor?” She appeared to digest the outrageous idea rather slowly, pacing the floor back and forth. Several moments later she stopped in front of me. “If they are brothers, and we ended up marrying these incredible men, then we would not only be sisters, but sisters-in-law,” she explained thoughtfully, methodically. She finally fervently exclaimed, “I couldn’t be happier about the idea.” Her bright smile spread across her angelic face, and she embraced me tightly yet again. We discussed the possibility of their brotherhood, surmised how entwined our lives would be if they were, how to find out for sure if the fact were true, and even still how to get the men on a more brotherly level if they were verifiably brothers. We chatted excitedly for quite some time. What a glorious day. I was grateful for the outpouring of affections from my group of friends, and especially my sister for putting the celebration together. I couldn’t be more pleased at the present situation between Mark and me. How will I endure the next two days apart from him? I could just envision how romantic our ride down the river would be. I’ll have to remember to ask him about his brother—clarify why their last names are unmatched. Hopefully he’ll be accommodating with my inquiry. I replayed the guests that attended as I lay in bed, and suddenly found Andrew’s face in my thoughts. He gave me a rather special gift. Should I return it, and be clear on my feelings for Mark? It would be wrong to leave him assuming that there could be an us. The pearls must go back.  I realize now that I hadn’t fully dismissed Andrew as a potential suitor until I’d heard Mark’s magical words of affection, I too care for you. What else did Mark say? He mentioned something about knowing how I felt for him, that he could somehow…somehow sense it about me. What did he mean by that? I secretly hoped to find out someday.