I never thought I’d see her again.
Okay, so I hadn’t exactly been looking for Sabrina Hudson in the fourteen years since we’d last been together. For the first year, not thinking about her had been a matter of self-preservation. It had hurt too much, caused me too much gut-deep pain to let my mind linger on memories of her deep brown eyes, the way her whole face lit up whenever I said something she found amusing.
And then . . . well, life had gone on as it does when you’re young and grappling to figure out basic shit like surviving high school, getting into college, and supporting yourself. If I’d thought of Sabrina, it had been occasional and fleeting, with the pang of regret a little more bearable each time.
When I’d seen the name Hudson on the schedule that Linc had sent out to the crew, sure, I’d thought about Sabrina and her family. But as I’d noted a moment ago, it wasn’t exactly an unusual last name. It hadn’t even occurred to me this project we were working—this incredible sleeping beauty of a house—might belong to my Sabrina.
Because that was still how I thought of her. In my mind and in my memory, she was still my Brina girl, the first one I’d loved, the person who I’d most suffered over when Mom and I left town.
She was staring at me now, and in her gaze, I saw a mix of confusion and trepidation give way to disbelief and wonder.
“Wesley?” She breathed my name. “Is it really—how are you—I mean, what are you doing here?”
Of all the questions I was sure Sabrina was about to ask, that hadn’t been the exact one I’d expected. I gave my head a little shake just to get loose of the cobwebs before I answered.
“I work for Kent and Turner. I’m on this project, restoring this—well, uh, I guess your house.” I lifted one shoulder. “How’s that for a hell of a coincidence?”
“Yeah, coincidence,” she echoed, her eyes still stuck to my face. “It’s been—God, I haven’t seen you in—”
“Fourteen years,” I finished for her. “I know. I figured I’d never see you again. Every now and then I check on social media to see if you’re there. I saw a profile that looked like it might have been you, but it was ten years old, and nothing after.”
Sabrina wrinkled her cute little nose, making me want to reach out a finger to stroke down its length and smooth those bumps.
“I don’t do social media,” she said. “It’s not my thing. I had a couple of accounts for half a year back in college, but I hated how it made me feel, so I got rid of them.”
“Ah, so that was you.” I grinned. “You went to Carolina for college, huh? Long way from Waukesha.”
“Yeah, that was kind of the point,” she shot back. “I wanted to start over, far away from everyone I knew back in Wisconsin. I was ready to stop being poor little Sabrina Hudson whose mom died when she was in kindergarten.”
“No one ever thought of you that way.” I frowned, thinking back. “At least I didn’t.”
“You were one of the few. Every year, I had to deal with a new set of teachers who handled me with kid gloves, like I might shatter. And every time there was something in school that involved mothers, everyone looked at me like I was going to have a meltdown. Like the reminder that I didn’t have one was going to break me.” Sabrina pressed her fingers to her temples as though she was holding her head together, and suddenly I remembered that was her stress tell—what she did every time she was grappling with something huge like a killer exam or bickering friends. I hated the idea that I was the one causing her angst right now.
“Hey.” I couldn’t help myself. I lifted my hand to brush her fingers away from her hairline. “It’s okay, Brina girl. Maybe the rest of them were idiots, but I always knew you were made of stronger stuff.”
For just a moment, her lips curled into the ghost of a smile, and her eyes met mine with a muted gratitude. And then she seemed to remember where we were and everything that had happened between us. She stepped backward again.
“Yes, you always said I was tough.” The smile turned brittle. “Guess that’s why you figured I could handle it when you left me without a word. You never looked back, did you?”
“Sabrina.” Slowly, I shook my head. “No. That wasn’t what happened at all. It was—I didn’t have a choice.”
“That’s bullshit.” She tossed her head, making her wavy black hair dance. “Everything is a choice, Wesley. You moved away without giving me any notice, any explanation at all. You could have dropped me a note. You could’ve sent me a text. But you decided I wasn’t worth the time or energy.”
“It wasn’t that way,” I began again, but she rolled her eyes and cut me off.
“It wasn’t even the fact that you skipped town the day after—” She stopped abruptly, biting her lip, and I knew what she’d been about to say. “But we were friends, Wesley. You’d been my closest friend since preschool. We went through so much crap together, and I thought you were the one person I could always depend on. In a sea of craziness, you were my reliable float. After you left—” She turned around, giving me her back, but the way her head bowed, I knew she was hiding tears.
That just about killed me.
Who knew that all these years later, Sabrina Hudson still had the ability to rip out my beating heart?
“Sabrina, you have to realize that if there had been any way for me to reach out to you, I would have done it. God, don’t you think it destroyed me, having to leave everything and everyone behind me when we left? And if you don’t know, after all the years we were friends, after I told you that night how much I cared for you, if you didn’t know that you were at the top of the list of people I’d miss, then . . .” I trailed off. “Maybe there’s nothing I can say.”
“I guess not,” she whispered, the sound muffled since she was still facing away from me. “And if there’s nothing left for either of us to say, then I’m going home.” She waved one hand, gesturing vaguely to the space around us. “Tell Linc I was here and everything looks fine. Tell him I’ll be back next week to check on the progress.” She paused. “Please.”
“Don’t you want to take a look around? Check out what we’ve done upstairs?” I hated that my surprise appearance was robbing Sabrina of the joy of watching her house come back to life.
“No, not now.” She turned toward the door, and once again, she held her head between her hands. “I just came off a long shift at the hospital, and I need to get home to sleep.”
There was so much I wanted to ask her. She worked at the hospital, so did that mean she’d realized her long-held dream of becoming a doctor? Where was she living now, while she waited for her house to be ready? How had the last fourteen years treated her? Was she married, living with someone . . . did she have a family to raise in this rambling old house?
But I could tell that she was on the verge of falling apart, and I knew that if I witnessed that, it would only make her resent me more. So I didn’t ask any questions. Instead, I stayed where I was, hooking my thumbs in the beltloops of my jeans.
“Okay, Sabrina. I’ll let him know.”
She nodded and reached for the doorknob, hesitating only a second before she stepped across the threshold.
“I didn’t know what happened to you, Wesley, and I always wondered. I’m glad you’re alive and well.”
Before I could respond, she was out the door, pulling it shut behind her. I listened to the sound of her feet on the porch and then crunching on the gravel of the drive, but I went back upstairs before the slam of her car door.
A few minutes later, I heard the familiar rumble of Linc’s truck, and shortly after that, he climbed the steps to find me.
“Got those nails,” he announced, tossing me a small paper bag. “But we need to order some more from the company because the local hardware store doesn’t stock them on a regular basis.”
“Yeah, sorry about that.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “I thought what we had on hand would work, but these will be better.”
“Agreed.” Linc squinted at me, frowning. “Was that the homeowner I passed on the way in? I slowed down to wave, but she just kept on going.”
“Yep.” Tension made me a little terse. “She came by to check on things, I guess.”
“Didn’t hang around very long, did she? Was she happy with what she saw so far?”
I hesitated, unsure of how much to say. “She didn’t get any further than the foyer. I went downstairs, and I think she was surprised that she wasn’t here alone.” I opened the bag and pretended to examine the tiny finishing nails. “Turns out that she’s someone I knew . . . a long time ago.”
“Oh.” Linc watched me, waiting for me to go on, and when I didn’t, when my face went hot, his eyebrows rose. “Ohhhh. Old girlfriend?”
“Not quite. Kind of, maybe. We were just kids, and things—didn’t end the way I’d hoped. Or the way she’d hoped, I guess.” I closed the bag of nails again, crimping the paper to keep them from spilling. “It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time and a good ear,” Linc offered.
“That’s okay.” I shook my head. “I know you need to get home, and I’ve lost the light here, anyway. Mind dropping me at the office on your way?” All of us working on the house tried to share rides to and from the site to cut down on too many vehicles in the driveway.
“No problem.” Linc waited as I grabbed my tools and stood up to follow him down the stairs. “You know, that offer to listen isn’t going to expire. Any time you need to talk, I’m here.”
“Thanks. You’re a good guy, Linc.”
He paused at the back door, his smile wry as he dug in his pocket for the key to lock up.
“I wasn’t always, and that’s what makes me a good listener. I don’t judge, and I believe in second chances.”
I nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
But as we trudged to the pickup, I wasn’t thinking about Linc’s offer. Instead, I was hoping that maybe, somehow, Sabrina might also be an advocate of second chances.
It was unlikely. She didn’t seem disposed to hear me out or to understand what had gone done all those years ago in Wisconsin.
But a guy could hope.
What’s the story between Sabrina and Wesley?
And will she give him a second chance?
Read next week and find out!
Meanwhile, if you haven’t read the first four Burton romances,
Enjoy a little taste of Fall in Love in a Small Town, coming September 28th!
Sexy underwear on a freshly washed and shaved body? Check.
Dress that’s just the right mix of flirty and fun? Check.
Sassy new hairstyle that makes me look sophisticated–at least I hope so? Check.
Taking a deep, cleansing yoga breath, I gave myself one more encouraging grin in the mirror before I turned away. I’d set up the files I’d brought home from the society’s document library on my kitchen table, and there was a bottle of my favorite shiraz breathing on the counter next to two brand-new wine glasses. I’d been going for serious-business-evening alongside the suggestion of let’s-have-some-fun. I hoped that I’d struck the right note.
The knock on the door made me jump, even though I’d been waiting for it. I shook my head to dispel some nerves and yanked open the door.
Jacob stood on the other side, one hand resting on the wall of my small porch. The light jacket he wore was faded and almost threadbare; I recognized it from our high school days. Back then, seeing him wear it had made me sigh and wish. But right now? The way it clung to arms that had gotten a lot more bulked up since we were teenagers? Total droolfest.
He was wearing old jeans, too, and I knew the way they fit him was going to tempt me to stare at his very fine ass all evening. That wasn’t going to be a hardship.
“Hey, Lib.” His eyes swept over me from head to toe, and was I imagining it, or did I see a flare of heat in his expression? If so, it was too fleeting to be sure. And when he bent to kiss my cheek in greeting, it felt like he was keeping things brotherly, not suggestive.
“C’mon in, Jake,” I invited, stepping back as I eyed the backpack he had over one sculpted shoulder. “What do you have there?”
“Notebooks, binders, my laptop, and a portable scanner,” he answered, dropping the bag in a kitchen chair and unzipping it. “Tools of my trade.”
“Of course.” I smiled, nodding at him. “You come well-prepared.”
He stared at me for a moment and then muttered something under his breath. I wasn’t sure what he said, but it sounded like Not really. Whatever that was supposed to mean.
“Can I pour you some wine? I’m going to have a glass.” I moved toward the counter to give myself a little room before I did something crazy. Something like wrapping myself around him and climbing his body like a tree.
“Um . . .” Jacob looked almost mystified by the question. “Uh, sure. Yeah, wine sounds good.” He sat down and pulled out his laptop. “Sometimes I forget that you’re not still an underage kid, Lib. I was about to ask you how you managed to get ahold of wine.”
I rolled my eyes, irritated. “Jesus, Jacob. I’m twenty-five years old. Just two years younger than you. Newsflash . . . I do all kinds of grown-up things now. I buy alcohol, own a car, rent a house, go on dates . . .” Inspiration struck along with a kind of reckless courage I hadn’t known I possessed. Circling the small table, I stood next to him, closer than I had to, and leaned over to place the wine glass on the other side of his computer. I angled my body just enough to give him an eagle-eye view down the scooped neckline of my dress.
Lowering my voice, I completed my sentence, staring him in the eye.
“I even have sex. Believe it or not.”
Jake’s throat worked, and his mouth dropped open a little. Without looking away from me–almost as though he was powerless to do so–he reached for his wine and took a long drink. When he spoke again, his voice was raspy.
“Oh, I believe it, Liberty. I totally believe it.”
Coming September 28th
We rarely recognize last times when they come.
I’m the mother of four (mostly) grown children, and I couldn’t tell you that I recall the last diaper I changed as a mama, the last time I nursed my youngest, the last time I cuddled a little one who woke up in the middle of the night with a bad dream.
During the course of COVID lockdowns, we were unable to be with so many of our beloved church people, those living in senior centers, and over those months, we lost several to death or to relocating after a spouse’s passing. As I’ve come back to Sunday worship, those losses are all the more poignant because I didn’t know when I saw them last that it was . . . the last.
Fourteen years ago tonight, I was going through lasts with my mother.
The last time her eyes opened and she knew me.
The last time she spoke to me.
The last instruction she gave me.
The last time she squeezed my hand.
The last decision she made.
We sat in that hospital room at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and we kept watch. We waited. We were mostly women: my mother’s sisters, her niece, her granddaughters, and her daughters, my sister and me. My cousin and my son were our token guys.
It was my oldest daughter’s prom night. When we knew what was coming–because after months of fighting leukemia and rejection following a stem cell transplant, in the end, it was very sudden–we brought over my four children who ranged from six to eighteen. My husband had been living in Florida for nearly a year ahead of our family’s move there. I hated that the night was ruined for her, but being together, all of us, at the end was important.
When I look back now, fourteen years later, I remember some things very clearly. My daughter, still in her prom gown, had been given a scrub top by a kind nurse who knew that the beading on the strapless dress was chafing her arms. When she went wandering in search of coffee that night, I’m pretty sure patients thought they were having hallucinations. I remember that even in the midst of anticipatory grief, I had to worry about things that had to do with my parents’ estate–my father had died 51 weeks earlier. And I remember the love and care poured out on us by everyone at the hospital and by family and friends all over the world.
When we left the hospital late on the morning of June 2nd, I knew it was the last time. And although I’d hated the circumstances that brought us there for a solid eighteen months–for first one parent and then the other–leaving was hard.
It was an ending.
It was a last.
From my aunt Eleanor:
Two large white onions
2 tbs butter
Swiss cheese slices
Cream of celery soup
1 cup of milk
Bread (you can use french bread or just plain sandwich bread, sliced and with the crusts removed–I make my own homemade bread the day before and use that. It’s amazing!)
Slice onions into rings and saute in the butter. When the onions are soft and translucent, transfer to a casserole and place the cheese atop them.
In the same pan used to cook the onions, heat the soup and milk, blending together. When it’s thick and bubbly, pour over the onions and cheese in the casserole.
Top with slices of bread and bake in 400 degree oven until bread is toasted and sauce is hot and bubbly. YUM!! (This is great as a leftover, too. I love it better the next day.)
From my mom:
Gingerbread with Lemon Sauce
1.5 cups flour
3/4 tsp ginger
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup shortening
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup boiling water
Grease a square baking pan. Combine the first six ingredients. In a mixer bowl, beat shortening about 30 seconds. Add brown sugar and beat until fluffy. Add egg and molasses; beat one minute. Add dry ingredients and water alternately to beaten mixture, beating after each addition. Turn into prepared pan, baking 30 minutes at 350.
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon grated fresh lemon rind
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Combine sugar, cornstarch and sale in sauce pan. Stir boiling water into mixture and return to boil, stirring constantly. Lower heat and simmer, stirring, until sauce is thickened and clear. Stir in butter, lemon rind and juice. Pour over warm gingerbread.
From my Auntie Harr
Chinese Chicken Salad
1 head of lettuce (I used romaine, but I think my mom always used iceberg)
3-4 green onions chopped fine
2 chicken breasts, shredded (I usually boil mine and then shred it with a fork)
Mandarin Orange Segments
Toasted sesame seeds
Dressing: 1/3 cup sugar (I used honey and it was just as good–and better for you!)
1/3 cup sesame oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar (or you can use apple cider vinegar)
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
Wash and prepare lettuce–toss with green onions, chicken breasts, asian noodles, orange segments and sesame seeds. Mix dressing ingredients in the blender, then toss with salad.