I need your help with Who Wants to Marry a Billionaire Gamer? (Love Letters Series Book Two).
This is the sequel to Who Wants to Marry a Mormon Girl?
I need your ideas for names. We need to come up with about ten WOMEN's FIRST names.
Shoot me your ideas! Comment with your suggestions! -Julie L. Spencer
Brock waited, fidgeting, the oppressive lighting causing sweat to bead on his forehead. The professional television cameras captured his every expression, every movement, every evidence of his nervousness. Although he’d watched the television show, Love Letters, and been one of Michelle’s love interests, he was unprepared for the responsibility of acting as the leading man.
He wasn’t sure he believed a person could find love on a reality show even though he’d watched Michelle and Ashton fall in love right in front of him. He wasn’t jealous of Ashton. There had never really been a connection between Brock and Michelle. They’d had fun together on their many dates, but the greatest take-away from Michelle’s season had been Brock’s friendship with Ashton. They’d connected on night one and supported one another as Ashton made one mistake after another trying to win Michelle’s hand. It worked. They were now engaged to be married.
Brock allowed a smile to play across his face and he resigned to the idea that maybe he would find love as well.
A make-up artist hovered over him, dabbing at the sweat on his brow and upper lip. He wondered how uncomfortable this must be for her, but she handled her job with complete professionalism, almost as if she were playing with a full-sized mannequin.
He might as well have been a mannequin for how little he was able to move. They had instructed him to wait right here in a side room in the stately Los Angeles mansion used by every season of Love Letters. The show’s host, Rachel Gibbons would arrive any minute. After a quick interview he would be led outside to the patio where he would welcome twenty women hand-picked to suit him perfectly.
A snort escaped as he remembered that first night meeting Michelle. Here she was a sweet, innocent Mormon girl surrounded by twenty guys drinking alcohol and wagering which of them would get her into the hot tub first. What were the producers thinking? Had they not researched her religion at all before choosing the guys? What were the chances he’d be paired with anyone close to his dream girl, if that existed?
Brock led a quiet life for a famous billionaire. Well, famous in his realm anyway. As a gamer and streamer on the Twitch platform, he had millions of followers. He didn’t even have to announce himself on social media when he logged in to broadcast live. The viewers just showed up. He interacted with them in real time as they watched him play video games, interacting with their profile names anyway. None of them knew his real name just like he didn’t know theirs. They all knew him as Brockast, his tongue-in-cheek nickname combining his first name with reference to his playing games while broadcasting live through the streaming platform.
They also didn’t know he was the inventor of the video game, Dystopia, which had become an overnight success immediately upon launch, thrusting him from a small-town computer programmer in rural Michigan to a billionaire in little under two years. He had gone on to create three other games and started a small company to handle the business aspects of his life. He wanted to focus on gaming, competing, designing, and streaming.
Thankfully Michelle’s season had yet to air, or his ladies would have seen the episode where they’d attended Twitchcon and he’d been welcomed as a celebrity and the reigning Fortnite champion. It wouldn’t take much research for the girls to figure out the prize money had been 1.5 million dollars. Once they realized he had multiple championships across several platforms, they would draw a basic knowledge of his wealth and status. He wanted the girls to like him for who he was on the inside and not because he was rich and famous.
The men behind the cameras shifted and the boom mic lowered as Rachel Gibbons entered the room and sat on the chair to Brock’s left. She reached over and shook his hand in a professional way that led him to believe they were already recording. He was doubtful. There would likely be some sort of countdown and a person calling out, “We’re rolling.” Still, Brock acted as if all the cameras were recording all the time just in case.
“How are you doing, Brock?” Rachel asked. He knew she wasn’t just making small talk. She was evaluating his reaction and gauging his nervousness.
“I’m good,” Brock lied, then cleared his throat and started again. “I’m nervous.”
“As would be expected,” she said, leaning forward and patting his knee. “Do you have all the lines rehearsed?”
“I think so.” He took a deep breath, knowing the lines were the same each season: I’m excited to be here, ready to find love, and then Rachel would explain the nuances of the show. Since being chosen to play this part, Brock had gone back and binge-watched every season as far back as he could, noting the similarities, facial expressions, reactions, types of dates, anything he thought might help him. Now all he had to do was act. He gulped.
“We’re going to start recording in just a moment and then you’ll be introduced to the ladies. Sound good?”
“Sure,” Brock stammered. She didn’t really wait for his response anyway, just turned and gave some last-minute instructions to the stage manager, crew members, and producers. It was show time. He looked around one more time. There were cameras everywhere, seen and hidden. He wouldn’t be surprised if there was a camera in his lapel pin. This was to be his reality for the next several weeks as he whittled down twenty women to find one who could theoretically become his wife.
As predicted, Brock felt a shift in the room and Rachel Gibbons turned toward him again, all business this time. Cameramen, producers, and stagehands tucked themselves discreetly out of view and someone called out, “Action!”
Rachel rambled through the cliché motions of welcoming Brock to the show and telling him how excited they were to have him as their leading man. She assured him that they’d handpicked twenty eligible ladies just for him. He almost rolled his eyes remembering how many times he’d heard these identical words while binge watching past episodes. The memory gave him an excuse to smile, which probably would be misconstrued as excitement to meet these twenty perfect women. Yeah, right.
“You confided in me a few moments ago that you’re nervous,” Rachel said, leaning forward conspiratorially. Traitor. “What are you most excited about?”
“I’m ready to find love,” I recited the script as if it were on a sheet of paper in my lap. “I’m excited to start this journey.”
“We recently completed Michelle’s season and you were not her chosen bachelor. How does it feel to now be playing the part of leading man?”
“I think I now understand how she must have felt that first night while waiting to meet us,” Brock said. “Watching her and Ashton fall in love gives me hope that this process can work for me too.”
“You and Ashton have become good friends since meeting on Michelle’s season, is that correct?”
“Yeah, we still talk pretty much every day and I’m going to be the best man in their wedding next month.”
“That’s really sweet. What an inspiring love story theirs was.”
“I agree.” Brock nodded.
“Here’s how the show works,” Rachel said, as if Brock didn’t already know. He kept reminding himself this was for the audience, not for his benefit. “Each week the ladies will write love letters to you explaining why you should keep them on the show. You will then write love letters back to the ladies you feel a connection with.”
“I can do that.”
“We’ve found that you’ll be able to tell right away which ladies are saying what they think you want to hear rather than actually having a connection with you.”
“Sounds good,” he said.
“Are you ready to meet the ladies and start your own love story?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Brock said, leaning forward in his chair.
No turning back now…
Strong arms wrapped around Stephanie’s waist, pulling her back.
“Stop!” Tears ran down her cheeks as she fought the hold that prevented her from ending her pain. “Let me go.”
“Not on my watch.” The firm voice insisted that she wasn’t going anywhere.
Jerk! Leave me alone.
“What is it you think you’re doing?” He pulled Stephanie into his arms like she was just a tiny ragdoll. He smelled like… something familiar. Grease? Snowmobile fuel? Yuck.
“Put me down,” Stephanie insisted, pushing against the arms his chest.
“Not until you promise that you won’t try to jump again.”
She gave up struggling from his strong grip, folded her arms across her chest and furrowed her brow. “Fine, I promise. Now let me down.”
The man placed her gently on her legs but kept his arms around her as if still unsure that she wouldn’t rush over to the railing again.
“Leave me alone.” Stephanie pushed out of his arms, not even looking up at him, and stomped her feet up the stairs to the upper deck. “I don’t need your help. I’m fine.”
“I doubt that,” he said. Stephanie turned around and glared at him.
“What right do you have to tell me if I’m fine or not? You ruined everything.”
“If you’re trying to thank me for saving your life, it sure isn’t coming across very clearly.”
“Whoever said I wanted you to save my life? Did you ever think of that? What if I don’t want to live…”
Stephanie broke down and collapsed onto the deck. Tears stung her frozen cheeks and she curled into a ball on the planks of wood.
Large boots approached her and stood next to her for a long time, waiting. She wanted to smack them and force them to leave. She finally calmed her breathing enough to grumble at the boots. “Go away.”
“Sorry, can’t do that.” The voice that went with the boots was far above her, removed from the reality of lying in a heap on the cold wood of the deck.
Stephanie wanted to be far above. She wanted to float up into the sky, beyond the man with the faraway voice, beyond the clouds, beyond her pain.
She rolled over onto her back and gazed up at the gray blanket of doom pressing down on her. Snow would come from that mass of grayness. She could just feel it.
“It was supposed to last forever.” Her whisper floated off into the damp, gray air. Why am I even talking aloud? He can’t hear me from up there. The man with the boots can’t hear me. Jared can’t hear me. I doubt God can hear me.
The man crouched down and Stephanie could see him more clearly. He was wearing brown Carhartt coveralls with a green and yellow patch on his breast pocket. Forest Service? She squinted her eyes. “You’re a park ranger?”
“Off-duty.” He looked down at his clothes. “But, yes. I manage the Huron Shores Ranger Station.”
“Are you bragging about that?” Her derogatory statement caused him to narrow his eyes.
“I’m very proud of the work we do here.” He reached down and offered Stephanie his hand, which she accepted and allowed him to help her back to a standing position. “I suppose you won’t be impressed by my near-perfect study habits while I was earning my Master’s degree in Natural Resources Management.”
“I suppose I would be if I weren’t in such a horrible mood.”
“Been a tough day?” His voice was much kinder than she deserved.
“Been a tough month…”
“Want to talk about it?”
“What are you a grief counselor on your off days?”
“If you think your rude sarcasm is going to make me want to leave you alone so you can head back over to the overlook and attempt suicide again, you’re strongly mistaken.”
“Gee, thanks.” Stephanie turned and walked back toward her car. He caught up to her and cut her off before she could get in.
“I’m legally allowed to take you into custody if I suspect you are a danger to yourself or others.”
“Are you joking?”
“Maybe.” He cracked a tiny smile. “Maybe not.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.” She tried to get around him to open her car door, but he stayed between her and the car. “I’m going home to wallow in my own misery and maybe eat a lot of chocolate.”
“How about if I take you out for coffee and you can tell me what misery you’re going through that made you want to jump off a bridge.”
“I don’t drink coffee. I’m a Mormon.” She folded her arms across her chest.
“Uhh… that doesn’t make sense, but whatever. How about a drink? There’s a steak house just a few miles from here and I’m sure they’ve got enough beer on tap to drown whatever sorrows you’re dealing with.”
“I don’t drink either.” Stephanie was gritting her teeth. “I’m a Mormon.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I can understand why you’re depressed if you don’t drink coffee or beer. Being a Mormon must be horrible.”
“It’s not.” She raised her eyebrows.
“You’ve got me fooled.” He leaned down to look more closely in her eyes. A light smile played across his features. “Want to get a hamburger? I assume you at least eat… right?”
Really? Is he flirting with me? Ugh! “I don’t go out to eat on Sundays.”
He rubbed his eyes and shook his head slightly. “I give up. Do you want to go out with me or not?”
“Really? You just met me. No, you don’t even know my name, and you’re asking me to go out with you? Because it’s not enough that you just watched me try to throw myself off the side of the overlook.” Stephanie waved her hand down toward the deck. “Let me guess, your first thought was ‘she’s insane’ and your second thought was ‘but she’s kinda cute so I’ll let it slide.’ Does that about sum it up?”
“Uhh… sure. That sounds about right.”
“You’re the one who’s insane.” Stephanie tried to push him out of the way so that she could get into her car. He may as well have been a giant boulder for all she could make him budge. His arms wrapped around her waist to hold her there.
“I’m not letting you leave.” His voice was caring, but insistent. “I need to know that you’re going to be okay.”
“I’m going to be okay,” she said. She looked off to the side, back toward the planking that led to the overlook. Her knees felt weak and she knew the minute the words came out of her mouth that they were lies. All lies. “I’m not okay.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Stephanie leaned forward and let her head rest on his chest, face to face with the ugly brown and green patch from the U.S. Forest Service, smelling the greasy fuel smells that reminded her of when her dad used to work on his snowmobiles, scratching her cold cheeks against the rough Carhartts.
“I’m not okay…”
The drive took Stephanie along the scenic byway of the Huron National Forest. In her opinion, there wasn’t much to see except a lot of trees. If she’d ever taken the time to stop at the Lumberman’s Monument or one of the campgrounds, she’d find something more interesting to look at. But she just drove numbly along barely seeing the rows and rows of perfectly spaced conifers.
“Second growth” they called it. Trees that were planted there by men after loggers had destroyed most of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan back in the early 1900’s.
It just didn’t seem natural to her. Trees should be wild and random and scattered, like God took a handful of seeds and tossed them across the sandy soil, then sent his rain and sunshine and minerals to help the little seeds grow into big, beautiful trees. But the trees along the byway were too straight, too tall, and too perfect. Stephanie didn’t like them. She grew more and more angry at the trees as she drove west in the afternoon sunlight.
She almost drove right past the scenic overlook. It wasn’t visible from the road. There was just a little drive that led her car to a parking lot. From there Stephanie could see a boardwalk leading out into nothing. Nothing, that’s how I feel. Perfect.
The overlook perched high above the Au Sable River. The deck had two levels and she stepped down the wooden planks to the lower deck. It was a long way down, even from there. The tops of the highest trees were beneath her. These weren’t tall and straight. They had variety and depth. They grew wild at the bank of the river and seemed to beckon for her to join them. I want to be wild, too. I want to feel free from this pain. I want it to be over.
Stephanie pulled herself up onto the railing of the overlook and sat there looking down. One… small… lean… forward, and it would be over. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the fresh, frigid, January air. Her fingers were already numb, she couldn’t feel her nose, and her cheeks burned from the wind. None of it could possibly be as bad as the pain in her heart. She opened her eyes and watched the river meandering by, chunks of ice floating on its surface and lining the river banks. Ice… like my heart. I want to float away like the chunks of ice, down the stream, away from this place, away from the pain.
She closed her eyes again, and leaned forward.
It was only a dream, Stephanie told herself. Only a dream. But, what a good dream. He was there, with me in our bed. I could feel him… everywhere. It was like my body was responding to his touch as it had every time we’d made love. From that first night after saying our vows in the temple to be together forever, until the day we locked up the beach house and drove north into the mountains. It had been as if my body knew instinctively how to respond to his touch, and it felt that way again. I felt like a livewire. I felt like the tiniest breath of wind would be enough for me to burst into flames.
How can I live this way? How can I go the rest of my mortal life feeling like this? It’s like having an itchy skin rash that I’m not allowed to scratch. It’s like my arms are locked inside a cast and pinned to the bed. No, it’s like my arms have been set free from the casts, but I’d been told that I’m not allowed to move them.
There is a way… the voice in her head almost sounded sinister, like it was tempting her. She shook her head even though there was no one there to see her. There was no one there to hear her. There was no one listening to the words she couldn’t bring herself to say. There was no one there.
Yes, there is… this voice wasn’t sinister; it was comforting. She knew that God was trying to comfort her, and she needed to listen carefully to His whispered voice. She needed to stay strong and hold on to the values she’d lived true to her whole life. She needed to stay strong so that someday she could be reunited in the celestial kingdom with her eternal companion. Stay pure.
But, it would be so… easy. She curled onto her side, wrapped herself into a ball, and cried.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Stephanie was a source of gossip in the Oscoda Branch congregation. The young, grieving widow who was lost and frustrated and always on the verge of tears. Her heart ached and she was aware that her prayers had been lacking in recent weeks.
The Sunday school teacher taught how Satan knows our weaknesses and uses them to snag us and how he doesn’t want us to pray because he knows that we will draw close to the Savior & farther away from him. Stephanie bowed her head with tears in her eyes as the teacher told the class that the Gospel is a plan of happiness and not gloom & sadness. Tears fell down Stephanie’s cheeks during the closing hymn and she resolved to go see the branch president before leaving that day.
She didn’t have to wait long. He didn’t have very many appointments before her. Stephanie’s tears began before he had even shut his office door.
“I can’t live like this, President Jones!” She sobbed. Instead of sitting at his desk, he pulled up a chair and sat with his knees close to hers, head lowered and handed her a box of tissues.
“I know it’s been hard, Sister Crawford.” His kind words were an attempt to comfort her. “Your loss is still so recent. It’s understandable for you to be grieving. We all understand.”
“No, you don’t understand.” Stephanie interrupted. “I need Jared!”
“I do understand.” He patted her hand that rested on her knee. “I lost my father just last year. But, I know that we’ll be together again someday. So will you and Jared. You were sealed in the temple. Your marriage is eternal.”
“No, President Jones.” She said it more firmly this time. “I need him… physically.”
“Oh…” He pulled his hand away and sat back in his chair. This was a more serious problem than just a grieving widow. “Are you… have you…?”
Stephanie felt bad that she was putting the branch president in the predicament of having to ask uncomfortable questions, but that was the nature of his calling.
The branch president was tasked with counseling his patrons who were committing serious transgressions. But that usually involved a young man struggling with pornography or a gambling addiction or a drinking problem. He probably wasn’t prepared to deal with an innocent young lady confessing to a possible chastity issue. This would have to be handled a little more delicately.
She suddenly felt guilty for more than just her inappropriate thoughts, but also for putting him in this predicament.
“No…” She hesitated, knowing she was teetering close to the truth. “Not really…”
“I’ve been… very tempted.” Stephanie covered her face with her hands, not wanting to even look him in the eye.
“With… another man? Or…” He seemed to choke on his words but forced them out. “…by yourself?”
“By myself…” Stephanie’s words were muffled by her hands covering her face and by her sobbing. She felt terrible, like she was the most horrible, sinful woman in the world. It felt as if it would be easier to confess that she had had a one-night stand with a stranger she’d met at a bar than to admit that she’d been tempted by the possibility of self-indulgence. She started crying harder while he sat silently waiting. When her crying let up slightly, she grabbed a tissue from the box and dried her eyes.
“But you… didn’t…?” He was obviously very uncomfortable with the situation, so she tried to pull herself together.
“No…” She hesitated. “…I didn’t.”
His whole body relaxed with a sigh of relief and he almost smiled slightly. But he cleared his throat, sat up straighter, and looked her in the eye.
“You’re right. I can’t understand what it’s like to lose my spouse. That would be very different than losing a parent. I’m sorry I dismissed your frustration.”
“I’m sorry to put you in the position of having to counsel me for something so… embarrassing.”
“Trust me.” President Jones tried to get her to look him in the eye. “That is not even close to the most embarrassing things I’ve heard people confess. And you know, you didn’t technically do anything wrong. Being tempted to do something wrong is not the same as following through with those actions. How did you end up getting yourself out of that situation?”
“I felt God telling me that He was there with me and that He was listening and watching. His Spirit drove away the negative spirit in the room.”
“That’s good. That means that you still have a lot of willpower, and a lot of power over Satan. He doesn’t like that, so the more you can keep God’s Spirit in your life, the less and less power Satan will have over you. Are you praying and reading your scriptures?”
“Not as often as I should be,” she admitted.
“Do you think you could try to do better at reading and praying?”
“Yeah, I’ll try.”
“I think we should meet each week after church for some accountability. If you need, I can recommend a good therapy group for bereavement.”
“It would just be a bunch of old people.” Stephanie rolled her eyes.
“Maybe it would be good to have your ministering sister come over a little more often for now as well.” He suggested. “Who is your ministering sister?”
“Ah, well that will make it easy for me to get in touch with her. She’s probably at home making me some lunch right now. I’ll tell her that you’re going through a hard time because of the loss of your husband and suggest that she come visit you a little more frequently than she normally would.”
“You’re not going to… tell her anything that I confessed to you, are you?”
“Of course not. I would never do that.”
“Okay.” Stephanie stood up to leave. “Thanks for listening. I’ll try to do better.”
“I’ll see you one week from today.” President Jones stood up and shook her hand. “Life will get easier. I promise.”
“Don’t make promises you have no control over.” Stephanie sighed and walked from the room.
“Don’t you have any furniture?” Beth pushed the snow out of the way to force the door open. She helped Stephanie get into the house, then headed back out to the car to get all the luggage.
Stephanie stood in the quiet, dark living room and felt nothing. There is no life here. Where there had been a crackling fire, there was now a soot-covered hearth, just cold stone and brick. She hobbled over to where the mound of blankets still lay in a forgotten jumble on the carpeting.
She could almost imagine his body lying there, grinning up at her, beckoning her to join him. His arms reached up for her and she fell into them. He rolled her over and looked down into her eyes, all laughter pushed aside and in its place a passion that she could feel emanating from every part of him.
His breathing was heavy, his sandy-colored curls fell across his forehead and she reached up to push them out of his eyes. Those eyes. They could pierce right into her soul. He leaned down to press his lips to hers and the wind from the open doorway blew snow across the room, breaking the spell and reminding Stephanie that he was never going to kiss her again.
She rolled over into the blankets and held them to her face, trying to shield herself from the cold and the hurt, trying to hide her tears from her well-meaning older sister. He was never coming back, and she was going to sleep alone for the rest of her life.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Stephanie woke feeling stiff from sleeping on the floor, tears crusted on her cheeks, hungry and needing to use the bathroom. Her sister was nowhere to be seen. Did she leave me here alone? She wrapped one of the blankets around her shoulders and hobbled across the room. There was a note near the door scratched on a piece of paper Beth had torn from a scratchpad.
I went to the grocery store, be back soon. –Beth
“Good, I’m starving.” Stephanie grumbled as she kept hobbling over to the bathroom. The toilet seat was up, like a guy had been the last person to use this bathroom. Jared. Stephanie sat down on the floor, leaned against the wall, and stared at the cold toilet seat and what it represented. “I never should have complained when he left that stupid toilet seat up.”
“Are you sick?” Beth rushed into the bathroom, her purse draped over her arm and three bags of groceries in her other hand. She set the groceries down and crouched closer to Stephanie.
“The toilet seat is up…” Stephanie looked up at her sister and bit her lip.
“I see that.” Beth looked confused. “Did you throw up or something?”
“I didn’t lift up the toilet seat, Beth.”
“Well, I haven’t used this bathroom. I used the master bathroom because it was the only place I could find soap and a towel to dry my hands.”
“Jared used this bathroom.” Stephanie took a deep breath and looked back over at the toilet.
“Squirt, Jared’s not here. He’s not coming back.” Beth put a hand on Stephanie’s shoulder.
“I know that.” Stephanie shrugged out from under her sister’s comforting gesture. She spoke through clenched teeth. “Before we left for the island, he was the last person to use this bathroom, and he left the toilet seat up.”
Beth reached over and closed the lid.
“What are you doing?” Stephanie almost lunged across the room.
“If you wanted sympathy and sugar-coating, you should have had mom drive you home.” Beth reached down and helped Stephanie to her feet. “You’re not going to leave a toilet seat up for the rest of your life just because Jared was the last person to touch the darn thing, and you’re going to snap out of this slump and get on with your life. Now, get yourself out from under this nest of blankets and get cleaned up. We’re going shopping. You need furniture!” Stephanie watched in shock as Beth stomped away to put the groceries in the kitchen.
“Well, I’m never washing these blankets!” Stephanie called after her, as if yelling would somehow help the situation. She wrapped the soft cloth closer and pressed it around her face. She mumbled as she closed the bathroom door. “They smell like Jared.”
“I don’t blame you for that,” Beth called from the kitchen. “He always did smell good.” Stephanie smiled just a little, holding the blanket close to her nose, remembering the feeling of having him there.
“Yeah…” she whispered. “He did.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“We want Amish furniture.” Stephanie pouted and crossed her arms. The salesperson was trying to sell her on a large, plush sectional that was nowhere near what she wanted in her new living room.
“Rephrase that,” Beth said. “You want Amish furniture.”
“I want Amish furniture,” Stephanie grumbled. “There’s a store over near Gladwin that sells handmade, classic, Amish furniture. Made by Amish people. We had been planning to go shop there.”
“I would assume Amish furniture would be made by Amish people.” Beth shook her head and sighed. “You know, handmade furniture is going to take weeks to get once you order it. They don’t just wave their magic wands and furniture is delivered to your house.”
“I know that. I’m willing to wait.”
“Well, let’s get a few normal pieces of furniture now so that you and I can have a place to sleep and sit to watch television while you’re waiting for your fancy furniture to be handmade.”
“How long are you planning to stay with me?” Stephanie hobbled after her sister, who hurried off towards the mattress sets.
“How soon are you getting that walking cast off?” Beth stopped and looked down.
“I don’t know. A few weeks. But, I think I can try to learn to drive with it on.”
“Well, I guess our next shopping trip will be to a car dealership.” Beth turned and kept walking.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Well, you were right. The furniture there is incredible, and you drove all the way there and back with minimal problems.”
“Be careful Beth,” Stephanie said. “That almost sounded like a compliment.” The sisters grinned at each other.
“I love you, Squirt. But I should probably be getting home to my husband.”
“I’m sure he misses you.” Stephanie looked out the window.
“I’m sure he does.” Beth reached over and held Stephanie’s hand for the last few minutes of the car ride.
Stephanie awoke in a strange hospital surrounded by nurses who spoke with a southern accent. She didn’t remember how she’d gotten there, but her mom was holding her hand and she couldn’t move her head. Stephanie reached for her neck and realized there was a brace holding it in place. She hurt everywhere and felt foggy like she’d been drugged.
“Mom?” Stephanie’s voice was just a raspy whisper and her mouth was dry. Her mom stood up quickly so that Stephanie could look at her without craning her neck.
“Hi, Honey!” She smiled with a mixture of sadness and relief. “How are you feeling?”
“I don’t know,” Stephanie whispered. “Where am I?”
“Knoxville,” she softly responded.
“Tennessee? Why? What happened?”
“You were in a car accident, honey. Don’t you remember? You hit some black ice and spun off the highway… and crashed into a rock outcropping.”
Stephanie’s mind began to swim with the incredulity of what her mom was saying, and it was more than just the pain medication. It felt like her whole world was spinning back there on the highway. The song on the radio, the laughter as she listened to Jared try to sing, the way his smile changed to panic as his eyes left hers and returned to the road just as he swerved slightly while correcting the minor adjustment after serenading his new bride while flying down a slick mountain highway on the last few days of Christmas break.
Stephanie remembered the way his head always rested on her shoulder when he slept, the way he sighed just slightly when he first opened his eyes each morning and saw her lying next to him in bed, the passion in his eyes that pulled her away from the kitchen sink and reminded her that the dinner dishes could wait, and the grin on his face later when he handed her the towel to dry while he washed.
The glass that seemed to explode against the rock wall and the tangled mess of fiberglass and fabric and the deflated nylon bag that tried to stop her new husband’s head from being crushed. The sirens and the lights and the frantic people everywhere pulling and yelling and all along Stephanie kept trying to unfasten her seatbelt so that she could rescue him. I didn’t even get to say goodbye…
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Decisions, decisions, decisions. Why do they keep asking me so many questions? Cremation or casket? Cemetery near his parents, or up at the lake? Who should we notify at the school where he taught? Where did he keep his will? Did he have full coverage on the car? What about a life insurance policy? Would he want us to have a simple service for just the family, or open it up to the community? How soon will you feel like going back to Michigan? Is there someone who can stay with you for a while? What will you do now? What will you do now? What will you do now?
What will I do now?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Stephanie’s sister was the first person to walk in the door who didn’t have that look in her eyes. She wasn’t offering any sympathy and Stephanie appreciated it. She was tired of seeing the pity from everyone else.
“Hey squirt,” she smacked Stephanie lightly on her big toe, which was sticking out from under the blanket. “I’m here to drive you back to Michigan!” She grinned from the foot of the bed. Stephanie had never been so happy to see someone smile. It was the first time she’d smiled back to anyone in several days, and it felt good.
“Beth, I’m so glad you’re here.” Stephanie sighed. “I had been wondering how I was going to get home. I don’t exactly have an extra car in Tennessee, and I can’t drive with a walking cast.” Stephanie’s enthusiasm didn’t quite reach her voice, but the underlying message was there. Life would go on. Somehow.
Her Time on Earth
“Stephanie, wake up.” Jared laid his hand on her knee and squeezed gently. “It’s time.” He stood slowly and offered her his hand. It took effort to rise from the soft chair and she clung to him hoping she wouldn’t collapse.
“Did I fall asleep?” Her whisper was barely audible as she looked up into his soft, brown eyes. The understanding she saw there ensured her that he wasn’t angry.
“Just a little. It’s okay. We’re almost done and then you can sleep when we get to the hotel later, okay?”
“Do you really want me to sleep when we get to the hotel?”
“No, not really…” The shift of emotion in his eyes told her that he was just as ready for this to be complete as she was. It was a beautiful ceremony, simple and full of inspiring words for their future together.
Too bad I didn’t hear any of it. Jared led her over to kneel at the altar and he barely released her hand as he walked around to kneel on the other side. She kept her eyes open long enough to say “yes” when the officiator at the Detroit Temple asked if she would take Jared to be her husband for time and all eternity. He similarly affirmed his commitment, and it was done. They were married. Forever. Eternity is supposed to be forever.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Do you want a priesthood blessing?” Jared leaned close so only she could hear.
“I had one last night. I’ll be fine… soon. I promise.” Stephanie pushed the food around on her plate, still not feeling up to eating the obligatory piece of wedding cake. She looked up at her new husband and forced a smile. “It’s just a sinus infection. The doctor said once the antibiotics kick in, I’ll start feeling better.”
“Well, at least we have an excuse to duck out of here early.” He raised his eyebrows suggestively and she read his message loud and clear.
“Maybe I should sneeze real loud and they’ll kick us out.”
“Kick us out of our own wedding reception?” He bit his lip as if seriously considering the possibility. “Maybe you could feign a big yawn, too.”
“Do you think that would be too obvious?”
“If I yawned, it would be obvious. But you? You could probably get away with it. You are sick, after all.”
“True. I did fall asleep at our wedding.”
“I must admit, that was a bit unexpected.”
“Are you mad at me?” Stephanie pouted just slightly for emphasis, but the glint in his eyes assured her that he was not the least bit angry.
“Will you sleep in my arms tonight for the first time?” His whisper was so close to her ear that it tickled. She giggled, nodded her head and turned her face to his. “Then I’m not mad.”
With his lips so close, all she had to do was lift her chin slightly and they connected. They didn’t stop. Their kiss lasted much longer than was socially acceptable, even at a wedding reception. Somewhere in the room, someone whistled suggestively, and Jared finally pulled away just slightly. She reached for more, but he took her face in his hands and held her a few inches away from his. He chuckled softly.
“We should probably wait just a couple more minutes for this.” Jared raised his eyebrows and Stephanie moaned softly and reluctantly pulled away.
“Can I sneeze now?” she whispered.
“Soon.” Jared poked his fork into the cake on her plate and lifted it to her mouth. “How about some cake first?”
“Humph.” She opened her mouth for the cake, trying to communicate with just her eyes that cake was not what she wanted.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Just think, if the closing on the house hadn’t gotten delayed, we’d be driving in this snowstorm.”
“Oh darn, we have to stay in the hotel for another two days?” Stephanie rolled over and grinned up at her new husband. “Would you shut those drapes and come back to bed?” The room was suddenly dark.
“But I want to leave for our honeymoon.” His whisper was much closer than she expected and she startled.
“We are on our honeymoon.” She laughed and pulled his face to hers. “Besides, sixteen hours in a car is not my idea of a honeymoon. I like this better.”
“We’ll stop halfway to the island.” Jared spoke between kisses. “And when we get there, I’ll take you for a swim in the ocean.”
“It can’t be that much different than swimming in Lake Huron, and that’s just outside our window.”
“It’s a little bit frozen right now. Michigan in December is not exactly swimming weather. Besides, your mom described Edisto Island as beautiful, I can’t wait to gather seashells and walk on the beaches of South Carolina.”
“Would that require us to leave the beach house?”
“A little, yeah.” Jared looked down at Stephanie grinning up at him through the dark.
“I’m really glad you’re feeling better.” His sincerity was not disguised by his flirtatious expression.
“Me, too.” Their kiss silenced any further discussion for the night.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Would you like to do the honors?” Jared held out the newly-made key to the back door, which seemed to Stephanie like it should be called the front door. She would need to get used to the idea that living on a lake meant the front door was actually facing the lake, and the back door was facing the road. She opened her hand and raised her shoulders in excitement.
“Why thank you, kind sir.” She slid the key easily into the lock and pushed away two feet of snow as the door opened. They didn’t care that the walkway needed to be shoveled, or that they had no furniture. They had wood that the previous owners had graciously stacked next to the garage, and within a few minutes they had a blazing fire in the fireplace. They didn’t need any other lights or heat, which was good because they couldn’t figure out where the breaker box was or how to turn on the furnace. They snuggled up on the plush carpet right in front of the fireplace and stayed there until morning.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The multitude of windows on the beach house suggested there would be an incredible view of the ocean from three sides. The place was divided into two apartments, but Stephanie’s parents had rented the whole beach house just for them as a wedding gift. After touring the house like a couple of excited kids, they chose to stay in the upstairs apartment for the week. They lugged suitcases up the stairs along with grocery bags full of food to stock the refrigerator and got settled.
The second night on the island they came up for air long enough to go to dinner at the local pizza place, a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant with homemade cobbler fresh from the oven and a scoop of ice cream sitting on top.
The remainder of their time on the island was less eventful, not discounting that one late-night trip to a very secluded spot on the beach with a full moon and a picnic blanket.
Those are the moments Stephanie will hold on to for the rest of her time on earth . . .
Great news! Meet Me at Half Court is now available on Amazon!
Great news! Meet Me at Half Court is now available on Amazon!