“Can you believe it’s been over six months since I actually saw them? I feel so horrible for staying away so long.”
“Well, today you’re changing that. Don’t beat yourself up about it,” Luke said with encouragement.
“I know I am. And I couldn’t be more excited about going to see Audrey and everyone else. I just feel awful for letting her down.”
“What do you mean?” Luke asked with concern.
“I told you before that the day I left her house, she made me promise to stay in touch and visit.”
“You have kept up that promise, Cassie.”
“No, I haven’t. Don’t you see? I should never have let it get this bad. Go this long. I broke my promise to her, to Lucy, all of them.”
“Cassie, look at me,” Luke asked as he approached me.
I looked at him momentarily but dropped my head almost immediately for fear that he would see the tears filling my eyes.
“Cassie, you’re doing the best you can. Your life changed a lot and fast. Audrey will understand. She does understand.”
“How can she understand my absence when I can’t even explain it to her? Not really. Sure, I can tell her about how I’m studying English at some college up in Michigan and how I’m so relieved that trial is over, and my life is just so perfect now. But, Luke, those would all be lies. Stupid, pathetic lies to cover up the amazing thing my life has actually turned into. I just—I wish I could tell her the truth about everything.”
“Is that why you’ve stayed away? Why you didn’t call for so long?”
I sighed. “At first I was just scared. You know a few weeks had gone by and I hadn’t reached out and I started to think it had been too long. But then more weeks passed and eventually, weeks were months and it then it wasn’t just time standing in the way anymore.”
Luke let out a deep breath.
“Okay, so how about this? How about, starting today, you make a promise to me. A promise I won’t let you break. You never go more than three days without at least texting or calling Audrey? I know that I can’t fix everything because John still thinks secrecy is the best option for the society. But, I can hold you to a simple promise to stay in contact with Mama.”
I leaned in and hugged Luke. There were countless reasons that I loved and adored him the way I did. And this was just one.
“Thank you,” I said and kissed him.
“It’s no problem,” he said and returned my kiss. “You talked to her last night about us coming down today? They’re ready for us?”
“Yes,” I said with the sweet memory of our conversation flooding my mind. “She said she has my old room still ready for me and Taylor is actually going to stay with Lisbeth at her new place, so you’ll have your own room. Audrey said she is so excited to hear what this big news we have is.”
“You don’t think she knows already, do you?”
“Well, Lisbeth and Taylor both know. I swore them both to secrecy but even if they managed to keep something this big to themselves, I doubt Mama hasn’t already put the pieces together. I mean, two of her own daughters are already married and her oldest son is engaged. I’m sure she has a sixth sense for this by now,” I said jovially.
“I don’t doubt that myself. She’s always had a sixth sense about a lot of things it seems.”
I shot Luke a glance from across the room. “If you’re referring to her initial assessment of you the first day you came to pick me up from her house then, yes, she has been right about a lot of things.”
“Yeah, what exactly did she tell you that night when you came home?”
“Oh, let’s see. I believe it was something along the lines of how she sensed a strong man of God and a firm protector. Something like that,” I reminisced.
“That’s right. I knew I always liked her,” he said with joy in his voice.
“She’s liked you from the beginning, that’s for sure. She told me I was lucky to have found you when I did and that I needed to hold on to you as tight as I could, so you wouldn’t run away.”
“You don’t have to worry about that. You’re stuck with me for a long time,” Luke said tauntingly.
“Man, I guess I’ll just have to learn to live with you,” I said returning his tone.
He approached me and kissed me.
“You know that I love you so much, right?” he whispered.
“Of course,” I whispered back.
“Good, just making sure.”
Luke grabbed my bag from my bed and his from the doorway and carried both of ours downstairs. I made my way around to everyone for a quick goodbye and joined Luke in his truck.
“Ready?” he asked.
I nodded. “And excited. I cannot wait to hold Lucy and get one of Mama’s classic hugs.”
Luke laughed at my enthusiasm and started our drive back to Ohio.
“I have to warn you of something,” I said once we made it to the major highway.
“Oh? What’s that?” Luke asked with both curiosity and nerves.
“Caleb is sort of a protective Papa bear; just like Audrey is a protective Mama bear. They both told me that they consider me one of their own daughters and that they have my best interests at heart and want to protect me as much as possible.”
“Okay,” Luke said with continued concern. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying be prepared for the classic ‘dad-cleaning-his-shotgun-while-he-talks-to-terrified-boyfriend’ speech from Caleb once we announce our engagement.”
“Oh, that. You had me all worried for nothing. I can handle anything Papa Caleb wants to throw at me,” Luke announced with new confidence.
“Is that so?” I asked with disbelief.
“Absolutely. I’ve met Caleb dozens of times. He’s not all that scary.”
“I think you’re underestimating him by a longshot,” I said fixedly.
“Am I now? What might this ‘talk’ sound like?” Luke asked with confidence.
“Well, first, he’ll play nice. He’ll ask about how we met, even though he’s already heard it from me. He’ll ask you about when you knew I was ‘the one’ and he’ll ask you about my ring and how you did it. He’ll ask if you were nervous or excited.”
“See? Cassie, those are all things I’m perfectly happy and comfortable answering.”
“Luke, that’s just the easy part of this talk. Believe me, I was there when he had it with Janelle’s now husband. He won’t let you off that easy.”
“Okay. Then, what else will he ask? It’s only fair that I can be prepared.”
“Next he’ll ask you why you’re right for me. He’ll ask why you think you’re good enough for me. He’ll want to know why he can trust you to take care of me. And he’ll ask you what your plan for our future is. And most importantly, he’ll make you promise something.”
“What’s that?” Luke asked with curiosity.
I took hold of his hand and squeezed tight. “Caleb will make you promise never to hurt me. And, he’ll promise you that if you ever do, he’ll come for you himself,” I said with sincerity.
Luke raised our clutched hands to his lips and kissed mine. “Cassie, that, is a promise I would make every day for the rest of my life. I don’t think I’ll have any problem talking to Caleb.”
I smiled as I pictured our arrival at Mama’s house. If it was anything like when I lived with her, Luke would park his truck across the street from her house and then Lucy would come flying out the door as soon as she saw me get out. I would scoop her up in my arms and swing her around and then Luke and I would come inside and be greeted by the rest of the clan. The whole house would smell of freshly ground coffee like it did every morning. Audrey would hug me last because she would hold me the longest. The smell of her favorite lavender perfume would take over my senses as I lingered in her arms. The tightness of her arms as she enveloped me would be unlike anything else. She just always had this way of showing her love through her hugs—one of my favorite things about her. She’d offer us her favorite French roast and whatever she’d baked that day with Lucy helping her.
We’d all take our coffee into the living room and sit on one of her comfy leather couches or recliners. Meeko, their boxer mix, would jump up and sit with me because I was his favorite. Lisbeth and Taylor would sit with me and Luke and we’d all just talk. We’d talk about any and everything that came up. I would tell Audrey all about whatever story of a life I’d come up with to cover Niteo and Luke would do the same. I’d listen to Lisbeth and Taylor tell me about their adventures since I’d left, and I’d listen to Lucy’s ramblings on about her playdates with the neighbor’s and other kids at church.
Audrey would ask me how I’m doing. And when I said I was fine she would stare me down and ask how I was. Then I would laugh and give her as much of the truth as I was willing to admit. And she’d accept that and wait for me to text her later that night when we were all back home and we’d have a heartfelt mother/daughter talk. And all would be right in my world.
But things were never truly right in my world.
As Luke pulled onto Audrey’s street, my heart sank with the kind of heaviness that words couldn’t do justice to. An ambulance sat in the spot Luke was supposed to park his truck and a police car was in the driveway.
At that point, my body and mind fell out of sync. My mind knew that the truck was still moving, and it wasn’t safe to open the door—but my body no longer cared. I threw the truck door open and jumped out. I needed to figure out what had happened.
Luke’s words were futile. Nothing could make my feet stop from running toward the open front door. My mind couldn’t decide what to focus on first as I rushed inside. There was no smell of freshly brewed coffee. The kids were nowhere to be found. Lisbeth and Taylor were in tears holding each other on the couch. No one came to greet me, not even Meeko. The usually neat house resembled a tornado-struck town. Laundry wasn’t put away, toys were on the floor. I could see remnants of an interrupted breakfast on the kitchen table. It didn’t make any sense.
“What happened?” I whispered nearly inaudible.
I noticed Caleb in the kitchen speaking to two uniformed officers, all with somber looks all over their faces.
Then, I saw Lucy. Huddled in the corner alone, clutching her lavender baby blanket; something she only needed when she was scared. I ran over to her and scooped her into my arms. Her faint tears on her cheeks broke my heart.
“Lucy, what happened? Is everyone okay?”
She didn’t answer right away. She just buried her face in my shoulder and held me tighter than she ever had.
I swung around, looking for any kind of answer. Then, I saw it.
Out from the back room came two uniformed EMTs pushing a gurney with a black body bag on it.
I watched them push the gurney through the kitchen and out the front door. The shock of that moment took over before my words could escape.
I saw Luke come in the front door. Before I could even register the look on his face, Lucy whispered in my ear.
“Did you know my mommy died last night?”
I couldn’t feel my arms or legs. I put Lucy down as fast as I could before I dropped her. And just as fast, I was on the floor sobbing uncontrollably.
Luke was at my side in seconds. I looked up at him and couldn’t control my breakdown. He threw his arms around me and held me close to him.
“Luke, she’s dead. Audrey’s dead.”