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Echoes of Paradise

By dkahler All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Romance

Chapter 1: Gone But Not Forgotten

Celeste drove down the heavily treed winding road on her way to Marshall’s grocery store. She absentmindedly brushed a strand of her wavy golden hair back behind her ear and sighed. It was a crisp October morning, and the leaves on the trees were rich shades of amber, burnt orange, and crimson. The sunlight illuminated the landscape, creating a picture-perfect scene. It was the type of day when onlookers would stop to admire the radiant beauty of the fall season. But not Celeste. She hardly even noticed where she was. She drove mechanically ahead, never pausing to gaze at her surroundings. Her head felt foggy, and her heart ached. There was a heavy, uneasy feeling weighing down on her, holding her body tight like a prisoner in iron chains. As she turned the corner, she began sobbing. Celeste couldn’t believe Connor was really gone. This couldn’t be happening.

Not him, she thought. Anyone but Connor.

He was the one she had held in her heart for so long. He was the one who had saved her from her troubled past and helped heal the painful scars left behind from her abusive ex-boyfriend. Connor was her one true love. Although she had let him go and eventually married someone else, she would never love anyone as completely and deeply as him. She had always hoped that somehow…some way…someday…they would be together again. That was impossible now. He was gone for good. Connor was dead. Nothing and no one could ever bring him back. Any chance they ever had to be together again had died right along with him.

Connor wasn’t supposed to die! Not yet anyway. He was far too young—just thirty-five years old. His whole life was still strung out before him, a life that could have included Celeste if only they’d had another chance. That opportunity had now been cruelly and abruptly taken away from them.

Celeste had been looking forward to finally seeing Connor again soon. He had been teaching in Rome since college but had decided it was time to return home. Although he had always been adventurous and had enjoyed exploring a new land and culture, he missed his friends and family. However, he never had the opportunity to see his loved ones again. In a tragic twist of fate, the plane Connor was traveling home on crashed before it reached its destination. No one understood how or why this could have happened, least of all Celeste. All she knew was that her dreams had been shattered and replaced with a trail of emptiness and sorrow. Celeste was feeling her grief profoundly now—so profoundly, in fact, that her mind had begun to play tricks on her.

At times, she swore she had heard Connor’s voice whispering in her ear. It’s okay, Celeste. I’m still here. On other days, she thought she had caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye. As a rational, intelligent woman, she knew that it was all just her imagination. So she chose to ignore what she was experiencing. She had already lost Connor, and she certainly wasn’t about to allow herself to lose her sanity too.

It was understandable that Celeste was feeling the way she was. She had gotten her hopes up, only to have them come crashing down like the aircraft that had once carried her lost love. She couldn’t help but think about what could have been.

When Celeste found out Connor was moving back, she had felt a surge of excitement. He had left a message on her cell phone that he would be arriving home soon and wanted to see her when he returned. It had been so long, and she couldn’t wait to reconnect with him. She pictured his beautiful, charming smile and warm brown eyes. She could feel his strong arms holding her, protecting her. She remembered his playful sense of humor and the way he used to tease her. He loved to be chased and would sometimes run away and make her catch him. But despite his frolicsome nature, he wasn’t immature, irresponsible, or weak by any means. He was hardworking, self-sufficient, and intelligent. He knew how to take care of himself and rarely depended on anyone for anything. In relationships, Connor was quiet, strong, and stoic. That didn’t mean that he was unemotional or incapable of affection. It was simply the image he projected. He didn’t talk openly about his feelings and preferred to keep his innermost thoughts to himself. But Celeste could feel his love and tenderness when they were together. And she always knew she was safe with him.

If she had a problem, Connor was the first person to come to her aid. When her jealous ex-boyfriend, Andy, had keyed her brand-new Mustang, Connor offered to confront him. Although Celeste refused, she appreciated his caring nature and his desire to stand up for her. Connor disliked injustice and wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion about anything that wasn’t right. She needed someone like him by her side.

But unfortunately, their relationship as a couple didn’t last. They had a strong attraction and got along well, but they had different goals and aspirations. Celeste liked stability in her life. She wanted to get married, settle down, and raise a family. She wanted a man who needed her, someone she could take care of.

Connor wasn’t that man. He was patient, kind, passionate, and supportive. But he didn’t want or need a woman to take care of him. He was too independent and self-sufficient—a bit of a free spirit. Being tied down just didn’t suit him. Connor wanted to explore and embrace life. She knew he dreamed of relocating to a foreign country after graduation. He craved adventure and new experiences, while Celeste felt safer with her predictable life and familiar, comfortable surroundings. She had no desire to move anywhere, and certainly not halfway across the world. As much as she longed to be with him, she hadn’t wanted to hold him back. And she certainly didn’t want to wait around for him to decide if he was ready or willing to settle down. What if he was never ready? It wouldn’t be fair to either of them to sacrifice their dreams for each other. So she made the difficult decision to let him go. They parted on good terms, and she never stopped caring about him. Shortly after they split up, Connor set off on a new adventure. He moved to Italy, and she never saw him again.

Celeste did the only thing she could do at the time: she moved on with her life. She finished college and landed a great job as an accountant. She met a wonderful man and got married. And she had a terrific little five-year-old boy named Chip. He was her north star, always asking questions, keeping her on her toes, and displaying the wisdom of a sage. Unfortunately, the marriage was not a source of happiness or fulfillment for Celeste. She and her husband, Dave, had drifted apart over the years and were now separated. They were working hard to overcome their differences through couples therapy, but it was still unclear if they would reconcile or not. Their relationship issues stemmed in part from the fact that Celeste was still in love with Connor.

Throughout her marriage to Dave, Celeste would still sometimes think of Connor and wonder how he was doing. She had always hoped that one day their paths would cross again. She had never wanted him completely out of her life. She just didn’t think their relationship would work long term. She had called it off with him to protect herself from future heartbreak and give him the freedom to discover what he wanted in life. She had never been angry or bitter that their relationship didn’t work out. Instead, she was left with a sad longing. Although she had no expectation of them becoming a couple again, she had secretly hoped that one day, he would tire of the single life and figure out that all he really wanted and needed was her. Connor was a good person. He was someone she would never forget, no matter how hard she tried. Not even after death.

As Celeste pulled into the crowded grocery store parking lot, the tune “Kiss from a Rose” began playing on her radio. The song was about a man’s dead girlfriend and the reminders he had of her. She had always thought the song very sweet and touching, but today, it was a painful reminder of recent events. Connor was dead. He wasn’t ever coming back. She would never again see his smiling face or hear his voice. She would never get the chance to tell him how she really felt about him. She would never again feel his strong arms around her or feel his lips kiss her tenderly, yet passionately. She would never get to say good-bye.

“Oh, great,” she said sarcastically. “A song about a dead person. Just what I need today!”

She abruptly shut the car off and stormed into the grocery store. Celeste didn’t feel like shopping, but staying at home moping wouldn’t do her any good. So she got a shopping cart and forced herself to maneuver through the aisles of food, grabbing items she would need to make dinner. As she trudged by the meat counter, filet mignon caught her eye, and she began to think of Connor again.

Celeste remembered how they had met. Her friend Sue had called her and excitedly announced that Bill, a cute guy she had a crush on, had invited her over for dinner. “And he wants me to bring you to meet his friend!” she said enthusiastically.

“Oh, no. I don’t do blind dates,” Celeste said firmly. She wasn’t at all interested in joining them.

“Come on,” said Sue encouragingly. “It’s just dinner. And besides, I’ll be there. It’s not like you’d be meeting this guy alone. It will be fine.”

Sue was a bit wild and promiscuous—and a master seductress. Getting a guy interested in her was never hard. Sue was absolutely gorgeous, with long, sleek brown hair and eyes the color of emeralds. She wouldn’t think twice about a blind date or a one-night stand with some gorgeous guy she met in a bar. She loved to live on the edge and take risks. Spontaneity was her way. Celeste, on the other hand, was more cautious, reserved, and morally sound. She was always the sensible one.

After more begging and pleading, Sue had finally convinced Celeste that the dinner wouldn’t be a big deal, and Celeste reluctantly agreed to join them. She wasn’t expecting much and was certain “her” guy would turn out to be a creep or a loser. He could just be looking to get laid. Either that or he was a homely, desperate guy who couldn’t get a date on his own and needed his friend to help him.

After her last relationship, Celeste wasn’t too eager to let a man into her life for fear of getting hurt again. Her ex-boyfriend, Andy, had been a very controlling person who treated her like his possession instead of his girlfriend. He had slapped her, criticized her constantly, and had even pushed her down the stairs one time, breaking her arm. After that horrid experience, she had vowed to never let another man hurt her again. She was guarded and prepared for her meeting with Connor. This time, she was in control. A thick brick wall she had constructed in her mind would keep anyone from getting too close to her.

When Celeste arrived at dinner that night and met Connor for the first time, she was pleasantly surprised. Instead of the homely creep she had envisioned, the person looking back at her was handsome, charming, sexy…and seemed nice. He had a medium build and was about five foot eleven. Celeste was immediately drawn to his warm, brown eyes and thick, wavy chestnut hair that made you want to run your fingers through it. When he smiled, he revealed his perfectly straight, dazzling white teeth.

Celeste smiled to herself and thought, Wow, he’s good-looking! I’m sure glad I came. Of course, his attractiveness didn’t guarantee she would like his personality, but it was certainly a start!

The guys had prepared a candlelight dinner for Sue and Celeste, and the table was set nicely. Celeste was surprised and impressed. She had expected something more casual, like burgers and beer. Instead they had created a warm, cozy, romantic atmosphere. Their meal was filet mignon with shallot cream sauce, twice-baked potatoes, asparagus, and red wine. Bill confessed that Connor had done all the cooking, because he didn’t know how. Once again, Celeste was impressed.

He’s hot—and he can cook, she thought. I wonder if he’s actually nice, too

Celeste comfortably settled into her chair at the dining room table and allowed the guys to serve her dinner. It felt good to be pampered, and she found herself enjoying both the food and the company. She was usually quite nervous around guys she didn’t know, but for some reason, she felt comfortable and at ease with Connor right away. He quickly proved to be genuinely nice, charming, and intelligent. Celeste remembered that during their meal, Connor sang the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”Their eyes met, and instead of just gazing in her direction like most guys would, he looked deep into her eyes and touched her soul. He then flashed her a dazzling smile, and she couldn’t help but smile back.

Celeste and Connor seemed to hit it off right away. They spent the evening exchanging flirty smiles and making eye contact. Connor was eager to get to know Celeste and asked her questions about what she liked and didn’t like. She remembered him asking what kind of music she listened to.

“Do you like Pink Floyd?” he had asked.

“No,” she replied.

“Oh, I love Pink Floyd!” he exclaimed. “Are you sure you don’t like Pink Floyd?” he asked again with a smirk.

“No…sorry.” Celeste smiled flirtatiously.

He seemed disappointed but didn’t hold it against her. That was just one thing they didn’t agree on.

Sometime later Celeste developed a headache. Connor offered her another glass of wine, but she refused, telling him about her headache.

“You just need to drink more wine!” he responded.

And he again flashed her that sexy, charming smile, his perfect white teeth gleaming in the candlelight. She still politely refused, thinking, Is this guy trying to get me drunk?

She wondered if he was hoping to take advantage of her or if he was just trying to have a good time. She didn’t know him well enough to make that determination. But she did know that she was both impressed and intrigued by him. She thoroughly enjoyed the evening and honestly couldn’t have asked for a better blind date.

A couple of days later, Sue called.

“Celeste,” she said, “Bill wants me to come over, and Connor is going to be there, too. Apparently, Connor was very impressed the other night. He wants to see you again!”

Her heart leapt. This time she excitedly agreed, eager to see Connor again. After their blind date the other night, the brick wall she had constructed to protect herself had begun to crumble.

When Sue and Celeste arrived at Bill’s house that evening, Connor surprised Celeste once again. He handed her a beautiful bouquet of red roses. Her heart melted. She thought that was so sweet of him, especially since he had just met her days before. Celeste and Connor had another good evening, laughing, talking, and getting to know each other. He was everything she ever wanted in a man—strong, kind, passionate, intelligent, fun, charming, and totally gorgeous. She loved the way she felt when she was with him. They ended the night with a tender, passionate kiss that left her smiling all the way home. And so their romance began.

“Ma’am?…ma’am?…Excuse me, ma’am?” Celeste was jolted back to reality by a gruff woman’s voice.

“I’m sorry,” she replied, realizing she hadn’t been paying attention.

“Are you going to buy that filet?” the woman asked.

“No,” Celeste replied. “It’s all yours.”

Celeste stepped aside and pushed her shopping cart out of the way. She realized that her head was now pounding, and she felt sick to her stomach. An overwhelming sense of sorrow and pain came over her. Connor was gone forever. The man who had once kissed her passionately and touched her soul had vanished from the face of the earth. She desperately wanted to hold him just one last time.

The thought that he had ceased to exist gripped her with a powerful sense of sadness, helplessness, and fear. Her feelings continued to build until she was overcome by them and could no longer escape. As hard as she tried, she was unable to fight back the emotions that flooded her mind and heart. Celeste bolted out of the grocery store, leaving her half-full shopping cart behind.

When she reached the car, she realized her hands were shaking, making it difficult to get the key out of her purse. She struggled for a moment, then was able to unlock the car and jump into the driver’s seat. Celeste felt hurried, frantic. There was nowhere she had to be; yet she was certain there was something she was supposed to do. She just wished she could figure out what.

As Celeste started the car, the tears began to flow uncontrollably. She had no idea where to go but started driving anyway. She drove in circles for hours, the tears rushing down her cheeks like a rapidly flowing river. Her environment and her surroundings soon faded into the background, and the only thing she could see was the road in front of her. The path, it seemed, led nowhere. She knew where she was but felt so lost and alone. She didn’t know where to go or what to do. Her pain was closing in on her, suffocating her. Celeste couldn’t stay in this place. It hurt too much. She had to get out—and fast. She decidedly pointed her car in the direction of the office and sped to her escape.

When she walked through the doors of D & D’s Accounting, her boss, Jeremy, looked up at her, startled. He was a scrawny little man with a pointed nose and round metal glasses.

“Celeste!” Jeremy said with a hint of delight. “I didn’t expect to see you tonight.”

She just stood frozen at the front door, paralyzed by the emotions that had brought her here in the first place.

“Are you okay? Are you sick?” Jeremy asked with concern. He had always had a soft spot for Celeste. Everyone in the office knew he was smitten with her. Everyone, that is, except Celeste. She was oblivious to his attraction. She just thought he was being nice. Little did she know that Jeremy had been thrilled when she and Dave separated. He secretly hoped they would get divorced so he could ask her out.

Celeste peered back at him through puffy, red eyes. Her pale, expressionless face resembled that of a ghostly white china doll, and her body felt limp and lifeless. She strained to reply.

“I’m…fine,” she croaked weakly, slowly heading to the safety and security of her office.

She closed the door behind her and took a deep breath. Free at last. Then she sat at her desk, pulled out her calculator, and got to work. Soon the pain, the emotions, and the grief were replaced by hundreds of numbers, the droning hum of her computer, and the clinking sound of her calculator. She had now fully entered the physical world, a place where dreams and feelings could be left behind. Facts and figures now filled up her mind, and she was lulled into a place where she could feel nothing but the draft coming in the window behind her and the plastic buttons of the calculator beneath her fingertips.

She had successfully escaped that horrible place she had been trapped in. Everything was okay now. Celeste had used this technique many times before, throwing herself into her work to numb her pain or loneliness. With accounting, that was easy to do. It was a mundane, boring job requiring concentration and thinking, but no creativity or emotion.

Celeste had never really liked her job, but it was a good distraction, and it paid well. She remembered once aspiring to become an artist who painted glorious ocean scenes. She and Connor would sit at the beach, watching the soothing rhythm of the waves and the brilliant colors of the sunset. It was all so quiet and peaceful. Being at the beach soothed her soul and filled her with an uplifting stillness and a sense of completeness. It had helped that Connor was with her. The world always seemed crisper and sharper when was he was around. It was as if everything just came to life when they were together.

Her dreams of becoming an artist were short-lived. Her dad, who had always encouraged her creativity, had passed away of a heart attack just as she was about to enter college. Once he was gone, her mother—struggling to survive as a single parent—encouraged her to pursue a more practical career. “Art doesn’t pay the bills,” she would always caution. “Make sure you find a career that allows you to support yourself.”

When she and Connor split, she lost her inspiration and opted to major in accounting. She threw herself into her studies and found them a very effective way to hide from her emotions and lessen the sense of loss she felt. Dave had met her at that point and assumed she was a driven, career-minded woman with an eye for business and a strong desire to excel in the corporate world. He believed they were so much alike. Or at least he wanted to. He never knew of her passion for art or love of nature. And she never really shared them with him. That part of her life, the essence of who she really was, had disappeared with Connor.

“What am I even doing here?” she asked herself. “I don’t even like accounting, and yet this is the first place I come to when I’m upset. I don’t even know who I am anymore. This isn’t who I was supposed to be.” Celeste packed up her belongings and shut down her computer. It was time to head home.

An empty, quiet, dark house awaited her. Her husband hadn’t lived there in several months, and five-year-old Chip was staying with his grandma for a few days. Soon Celeste fell into a deep, dreamless sleep—which seemed fitting, considering the circumstances. All that awaited her in the morning was another long day at the office filled with numbers, and a mundane desk job. Her dreams, her passion, somehow had escaped her.

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1. Chapter 1: Gone But Not Forgotten
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