Romance. It used to be readers knew exactly what to expect when they picked up a title in the romance genre. A man. A woman. External conflict. Internal conflict. Resolution. Happily Ever After.
Okay, so it was formula based but the stories hooked us and romance readers worldwide drove the genre to the top of publisher’s “money makers” list.
These days, readers must examine the sub-genre because a “romance” can include an assortment of couplings, heat content and might only allude to an HEA ending. The chick lit that no one wants to mention anymore has merged with romance (and often other sub-genres) to create a sometimes indefinable content – leaving readers conflicted about how to classify the book.
“Just Like Heaven” is a romance. It might also appeal to Chick Lit and contemporary romance readers. It addresses real people (i.e. not a famous celebrity or a tough on the outside, soft on the inside detective) with real problems. And it still manages to deliver a charming, endearing story that will elicit a sigh or two at the end.
I liked it. But be warned, I have a sweet tooth and “Just Like Heaven” is a sweet story about an Episcopalian priest . . . yes, you heard me right . . . and a heart attack patient. Kate and Mark are uncommon characters in Barbara Bretton’s tale of love – being over 40 is just one of the unique traits that attracted and held my attention. Yeah, yeah . . . I’m a baby boomer. Boomers know first hand that love doesn’t always happen when you’re twenty something and in perfect form.
At times, it feels as though the character’s intense attraction balances on a narrow path, with heaven on one side and hell on the other. At others, it’s almost lyrical and old fashioned with it’s delivery. Add a healthy dash of humor, a reality that feels “real”, and “Just Like Heaven” is an interesting, well written story that will keep you turning pages to the end.
Just Like Heaven
Genre: Contemporary romance/women’s fiction
Publisher: Free Spirit Press (previously published in print by Berkley)
Number of pages: 320
Word Count: Approximately 90K
Because love can happen anywhere . . .
Even in New Jersey!
A beautiful morning in early spring. What could possibly go wrong?
Just returned from a buying trip in England, Kate French was jet-lagged and exhausted and running on fumes. She was already running late for an appointment but a wave of dizziness forced her to pull into the shopping mall parking lot in search of a quick fix of caffeine and protein.
When the pain first hit, she ignored it and continued racing across the parking lot toward the food court. But within moments she realized something was terribly wrong as her wobbly legs gave out and she dropped to the ground. The last thing she remembered as she started to fade away was the guy in the Grateful Dead T-shirt who held her in his arms and promised he’d never let her go.
Mark Kerry didn’t think of himself as a hero but the story of a Good Samaritan who had saved a woman’s life in the parking lot of the Princeton Promenade was attaining the status of suburban legend. Determined to return a stack of documents that had been left behind when the ambulance swept her away, he called in some favors and tracked her down at home one week later.
The moment Kate saw him again, the world and everyone in it disappeared. She knew his voice, the smell of his skin, the way his hands felt against her skin, the taste of his mouth, everything that mattered. All the things she would ever need to know about him.
And then she took another look . . .
PRAISE FOR JUST LIKE HEAVEN
*TOP PICK!* Bretton’s lyrical writing enthralls from the first page as she immerses readers in a tale of romance and new beginnings. –Romantic Times
Bretton has few peers among contemporary romance novelists when it comes to combining escapist romance with everyday, messy reality. She’ll make you believe that love can happen anywhere – or make you grateful that you’ve been fortunate enough to find it. –Susan Scribner, The Romance Reader
This one will keep you reading past your bedtime. –Elizabeth Darrach, BellaOnline
*STARRED REVIEW* Very few romance writers create characters as well developed and realistic as Bretton’s. Her books pull you in and don’t let you leave until the last word is read. –Shelley Mosley, Booklist
Coburn, New Jersey – 9:30 a.m.
Kate French shifted the phone from her left shoulder to her right and plunged her hand deeper into her lingerie drawer.
“Mom!” Her daughter Gwynn was no longer a teenager, but you would never know it from her tone of voice. “Are you listening to me?”
“I heard every syllable.” Kate pulled out an orphaned hand-knit sock and a silky pink camisole carbon-dated from the Disco Era and tossed them on the bed behind her.
“So what should I do?”
Unfortunately Kate had shifted into maternal auto-pilot five minutes into the conversation and had lost track. Was Gwynn still debating her roommate Laura’s excessive devotion to the New York Giants or had she segued into an old favorite of all the French women: a dissection of Kate’s non-existent love life.
She bent down and peered deeper into the perfumed recesses. One pair of plain cotton panties. Was that too much to ask for? “Run it by me again, honey.”
“I know what you’re doing,” Gwynn said. “You’re answering emails while I’m pouring out my heart to you. I really wish you wouldn’t do that.”
“Gwynnie, I’m not on the computer.”
“I can hear the keys clicking.”
“What you hear is the sound of your mother searching her lingerie drawer for a pair of —”
“Hold on! I have another call.”
The distance between the thirteen-year-old girl her daughter used to be and the twenty-three year old woman she was hadn’t turned out to be quite as wide as Kate had hoped. She glanced over at the clock on her nightstand. Come on, Gwynnie. I have things to do.
“That was Andrew.” Gwynn the daughter had been replaced by Gwynn the girlfriend. She sounded almost giddy with delight. The sound hit Kate’s ears like fingernails on a chalkboard. “He called from the boat! Isn’t that the—”
“I’m going to hang up now,” Kate said. “I have an appointment down in Princeton and I’m running late. We can pick this up another time, can’t we, honey?”
“But, Mom, I still haven’t—”
“I know, I know, but this can’t be helped. I want to hear everything you have to say, honey, but not right this minute.”
“You’re going to Princeton?”
“Yes, but not if I don’t get out of here in the next ten minutes.”
“If I leave now I could meet you for lunch at the Mexican place and I can tell you my news in person.”
“I thought you were working lunch shift at O’Malley’s during the week.”
“Mondays are slow. They won’t miss me.”
“You can’t just not show up, Gwynn. That’s how you lost your last job.” And when you do show up, you’re always late. That’s not how you get ahead.
“You always do that to me.”
“Do what?” She glanced at her watch. Was she the only one in the family who believed in punctuality?
“Keep score. Why can’t you just accept that my career path isn’t like yours and let me live my life my own way?”
“Gwynnie, do we need to have this conversation right now?” She was still on London time and not up for a discussion of individual rights and freedoms with an independent young woman who still expected mommy to foot the bill for her car insurance.
“You sound pissed.”
“What I sound is jetlagged.” She waited for the appropriate response from her only child but none was forthcoming. “Did you forget I’ve been in England for almost ten days? I got home very late last night and I’m still on London time.” Does any of this ring a bell, Gwynn? She liked to believe most daughters would notice when their mothers were out of the country.
“You’ve been gone forever. That’s why I have so much to talk to you about.”
“Honey, this can’t be helped. I really have to go.”
“Are you okay?” Gwynn asked. “You’re not acting like yourself.”
“We’ll talk later, honey,” she said and then disconnected.
Normally Kate would have felt guilty for cutting her daughter short but today she only felt relieved. She loved Gwynn more than life itself but her daughter’s melodramatic outbursts had a way of sucking the oxygen right out of her lungs.
“Okay,” she said as she tossed the cell onto the bed. “Let’s get down to business.”
There had to be something wearable in the house. A ten-day trip to the U.K. shouldn’t deplete a woman’s reserves. She pulled out the second drawer of her lingerie chest and dumped the contents in a pile. T-shirts from various island paradises. A garter belt with tiny roses embroidered across the handmade lace, remains of a long ago Valentine’s Day celebration. More bras than any one 34B woman needed in three lifetimes. A puka shell necklace. The black lace mantilla she had found in a shop in Seville during her last married vacation. Ticket stubs, a McCarter playbill, a deflated balloon dachshund, and what was easily the worst birthday present her mother had ever given her: the infamous red lace thong.
Maeve had come of age at the start of the turbulent 60s and she believed in shaking up the status quo whenever she had the chance. How better to ignite some passion in her forty-year-old daughter’s life than to present her with outrageously sexy underwear in front of friends, colleagues, relatives, and a half-dozen prospective boyfriends. Unfortunately the passion Maeve ignited in her daughter had nothing to do with romance and everything to do with embarrassment. Kate had tried to be a good sport about it but it had taken every ounce of self-control at her command to keep from throttling her own mother.
She held up the thong. It wouldn’t cover a Barbie doll, much less a full-size woman. What on earth had Maeve been thinking?
She considered making a quick run to Target for a three-pack of Jockey for Women but the clock was ticking and Professor Armitage wasn’t known for his patience. And there was the fact that she was way beyond exhausted. Jet lag rarely bothered her, but today she was having trouble keeping her eyes open long enough to finish getting dressed.
She cringed her way into the scrap of lace and elastic then peered at herself in the mirror opposite the bed. That was better than a jolt of caffeine. The thong should have come with a warning sticker. This much reality so early in the morning was hard to take.
She looked closer. That couldn’t possibly be right. The human body wasn’t supposed to have quite so many indentations. Maybe they should add an instruction label too for the lingerie-impaired. She slipped off the thong, spun it around, then tried again.
A forty-one year old woman with a red lace wedgie was a sight to behold.
Thank God it was a sight nobody else on the planet would likely ever see.
Rocky Hill, New Jersey – 9:45 a.m.
“Congratulations,” the realtor said as Mark Kerry handed her four signed copies of the contract. “It’s now official: your house is sold.”
It was also officially the point of no return. “Now what?” he asked, wishing he felt more enthusiastic about the sale.
Bev the realtor scanned the signature pages then slipped them into a large folder. “We have a tentative closing six weeks from today. I’ll arrange for the appraisal, the home inspection, radon testing, smoke alarms, yadda yadda yadda. All you have to do is pack for your move,” she said with a cheery smile.
“And dig up the township permits for the new roof.”
“See?” Bev rolled her eyes. “I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached. We’ll need the roof permits, the signed lead paint disclosure, and your attorney’s name. You can fax copies to me and I’ll pick up the originals.”
“So far it’s been almost painless.”
“Five days from listing to contract,” Bev said, clearly pleased, “and we managed to get top dollar. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
She gave him a contact sheet with pertinent phone numbers and a metaphorical pat on the back.
“You look shell-shocked,” she said as he walked her down the gravel driveway to her car. “I promise you the hard part is over.”
Easy for her to say. When Memorial Day weekend rolled around he would be on his way back up to New Hampshire to find out if you really could go home again.
Where was home anyway? This small stone cottage in New Jersey didn’t have much going for it but somehow over the last two years it had become home. Or as close to it as he was likely to get.
Two postage-stamp bedrooms. Small kitchen. No dining room. No family room. A basement with its own share of troubles. When he walked through the front door he knew he was where he was meant to be.
But nothing lasted forever.
The other contract he needed to sign was propped up against the toaster, along with a note from his old friend Maggy Boyle who was shepherding him through the process.
The funny thing was, he thought he would have more time. Bev the realtor had warned him to be patient. The New Jersey real estate market wasn’t as hot as it used to be and the whole thing might take a while.
Kris and Al Wygren showed up on Sunday for the first Open House and fell head over heels in love with the place. They loved the wonky windows, the big stone fireplace, the squeaky floor boards, every single thing. He had pointed out all the flaws and they only loved it more.
The Wygrens were all of twenty-five or twenty-six. Newly married. Newly pregnant. Ready to build a nest of their own.
He and Suzanne had been just like them. Young and in love with their entire future spread out before them like a field of wildflowers. Not that he would have ever thought of the wildflowers simile. That was pure Suzanne. She had seen life through a prism of joy that even in memory still amazed him.
Her mother used to say that God had been feeling generous the day he made Suzanne. He had granted her beauty and wit, intelligence and a kind heart, a sense of humor that could still make Mark smile across the years.
But the one thing God hadn’t seen fit to grant her was the one thing that would have made all the difference: a long life.
When she looked at him, she saw a hero. The kind of man his father had been, the kind of man he wanted to be. But time hadn’t been on their side. She had been taken from him while he was still very much a work in progress.
At least Suzanne never saw him stumble and fall. She never saw him flat on his face on their front porch, stinking of cheap whiskey and pain. She hadn’t been there to see him try to outrun the memories of their past. The lost days, those dark nights, belonged to him alone and for that he was glad.
She never found out her hero was only a man.
Central New Jersey – around 10:30 a.m.
Kate was stopped in traffic near the Bedminster exit on Route 287 when a wave of something uncomfortably close to nausea swept over her. Jet lag on an empty stomach was bad enough but for sheer misery she would put her money on the thong.
Traffic eased up as she neared Bridgewater Commons Mall but the cell phone calls kept coming. Her assistant Sonia called twice. Clive phoned from England to tell her she had left a pair of sunglasses behind. Armitage’s secretary wanted to make sure she was on schedule. Jackie the furniture refinisher with another one of her minor emergencies designed to boost her going rate another ten percent.
They all called for different reasons but every call ended the same way. You sound exhausted . . . you need a vacation, not a buying trip . . . I’m worried about you . . .
Bless call waiting, the greatest exit strategy ever invented. What was wrong with everyone? Sure, she had noticed the dark circles under her eyes but that was genetic. Maeve had them and Maeve’s mother before her. And unless she missed her guess, Gwynn had something to look forward to. She wasn’t twenty any longer. Not even Estee Lauder could turn back the clock.
She shifted around in the driver’s seat, tugging at the elastic band pinching her hipbone. Her mother had promised her that the thong would release her inner goddess and turn her into a siren capable of luring men away from ESPN and repeats of Baywatch, but so far her inner goddess was missing in action.
Her cell burst into the William Tell Overture as she neared the Route 1 exit. Her mother’s theme song.
“What did you say to Gwynn? She called me, sobbing.”
“Hello to you too, Mom. I thought you were in New Mexico.”
“I am and our girl woke me up with her tale of woe. What is going on back there?” Maeve was on the other side of the country, touring for her latest self-help tome, but family drama transcended geography.
“It was Gwynn being Gwynn,” Kate said. “She wanted to talk, I needed to finish dressing and get on the road.”
“You hurt her feelings. She had some news she wanted to share with you.”
“I cut her short once in twenty-three years and it’s a major incident?” She took a series of deep breaths and tried to calm herself. “I haven’t slept in almost thirty-six hours, Maeve, and my body thinks it’s the middle of the afternoon.”
“You don’t sound like yourself,” Maeve observed. “What’s going on, sweetie? We’re worried about you.”
“Is Mercury retrograde again or something? There’s nothing wrong with me that a good night’s sleep won’t take care of. Why is everyone suddenly asking if I’m okay?” Jet lag was hardly a new concept.
“Maybe because it’s clear you’re not yourself. You’ve seemed a little depressed, forgetful–”
“Ma!” Kate practically shouted into the tiny cell phone. “I think your imagination is running away with you.”
“You might be entering perimenopause,” Maeve volunteered.
The morning was actually deteriorating. She wouldn’t have believed it possible but she had learned long ago to never underestimate her mother.
“So how did things go in London with Liam? Any sparks?” Maeve was nothing if not resilient.
“We had tea together my first day. That was it.”
“Sharon said he would be perfect for you. She’ll be so disappointed.”
“Next time why doesn’t Sharon fix you up with the Liams and Nigels of this world. I keep telling you I’m not looking for a man and I mean it.”
“You might not be looking but you wouldn’t turn down a good one if he popped up.”
“I’m not sure there are any good ones,” she said, “at least none that I’d be interested in.”
“That’s not normal, honey. You sound like you’ve given up.”
“Mom, this is old news. I’m perfectly happy being on my own, even if that seems to bug the living daylights out of everyone else in the world except me. Can’t we just leave it at that?”
“Sara Whittaker’s son is back in town. He’s been working in Tokyo the last few years, a graphic artist. I think you two might hit it off.”
“Mom, I have another call. We’ll have to pick this up later.”
“You don’t have to use the call-waiting excuse with me, sweetie. I know when you’ve had enough.”
Kate had to laugh. “It’s a real call this time,” she said as her irritability lifted. “I’ll call you tonight. I promise.”
Paul Grantham, old friend and confidante, was next in queue.
“Took you long enough, French.”
“Thank God it’s you,” she said, adjusting the headset. “This thing hasn’t stopped ringing since I got off the plane.”
“So how was the big buying trip? Is there anything left on the other side of the pond?”
“Not much,” she admitted. “I may have struck gold.” She told him about the stack of Revolutionary War era letters she’d found in a tiny shop near Lincolnshire written to a colonel’s wife in New Jersey.
“When will you know if you found the mother lode?”
A truck, horn blaring, appeared out of nowhere in her blind spot. “Oh, damn! Sorry!” She veered back into her lane, heart pounding wildly. “What were you saying?”
“Are you okay?” he asked. “You sound a little out of breath.”
“I’m not out of breath. It must be the connection.” That and her surging adrenaline.
She held on while Paul answered an assistant’s question.
“Sorry,” he said. “Crazy morning. We’re still on for the Hospital Gala this week, aren’t we?”
“I take it Lisa’s no longer on the scene.”
“Lisa is looking for somebody who’s willing to go the distance,” he said, “and we both know I’m saving myself for you.”
It was an old joke between them, but lately she had the feeling there was more behind her old friend’s words than either one of them cared to acknowledge.
Paul was a partner in a prestigious Manhattan law firm, another one of the Coburn High School Class of 1982 who made good. He had been in her life for as long as she could remember, part of their crowd from kindergarten through high school. He had hung out with them at Rutgers where Kate had struggled unsuccessfully to combine marriage, motherhood, and college, and he had stayed a good friend even after their respective marriages fell to the divorce statistics. They had tried dating once early on but the absurdity of dressing up and staring at each other over candlelight and a bottle of Taittinger had pushed them both into helpless laughter which was pretty much where they had stayed.
Or so she had thought until recently.
“Oh my God,” she said through clenched teeth. “I almost rear-ended a cop.”
“You sure you’re okay?” he asked. “Maybe you should take the day off and catch up on your sleep.”
“That’s something you say to your aging aunt,” she snapped. “I’m not ready for the nursing home yet, Paul.”
“Tell you what,” he said. “How about if we’re not both hooked up by the time we hit retirement, we pool our social security checks and move in together.”
“Sweet talker.” She rolled to a stop. “No wonder Lisa’s not going to the Gala with you this weekend.”
“She’s twenty-eight. I don’t have time to wait for her check.”
She tried to think of something suitably witty to say in response but her mind was filled with nothing but air.
“Kate?” Paul’s voice poked through the fog. “Are you still there?”
“Sorry,” she said yet again. “I don’t know what my problem is today.”
“Did you eat anything? You’re probably hungry.”
“I grabbed a brownie and a Frappuccino at the airport while I was waiting for my bags to get through Customs.”
“And now you’re crashing. Pull into a McDonald’s and get an Egg McMuffin.”
He sounded uncharacteristically solicitous which made her wonder how bad she sounded.
“I don’t have time. Armitage expects me there in twenty.”
“Screw Armitage. Get something to eat. You’re running on fumes.”
Another wave of nausea gripped her. Maybe he was right. “I’m coming up on Princeton Promenade,” she said, easing over into the right hand lane. “They have a great food court.” She could grab some protein and a bottle of water and be on her way again with time to spare.
“Oh, wait! I don’t have to stop. I have some nuts in the glove box.” She leaned across the passenger seat and popped open the glove box in search of smoked almonds, survivors of her last trip down the shore for the semi-annual Atlantique City extravaganza. The Atlantique City trade show was a must for New Jersey antique shop owners, and Kate was no exception. French Kiss maintained a prominent spot twice a year. She sifted through her insurance card, registration, owner’s manual and pushed aside a mall flashlight and an open packet of tissues. Where were the almonds?
She veered toward the fender of a white Escalade and quickly steered back into her own lane to a chorus of angry horns.
“What the hell is going on?” Paul asked. “It sounds like you’re at the roller derby.”
She caught sight of herself in the rear view mirror and the odd feeling in the pit of her stomach intensified. A single bead of sweat was making its way down her forehead toward her right eye. It was barely seventy degrees outside. Nobody broke into a sweat in seventy degree weather, least of all her.
“You’re right,” she said. Everybody was right. “I’m a menace. I should get off the road.”
“Want me to drive down there and get you?”
She turned on her blinker and made the right into the parking lot of Princeton Promenade. “Don’t be silly. You’re in Manhattan. I’ll be fine after I get something to eat.”
“I’ll send a car for you. We use services all over the tristate area.”
She zeroed in on a spot two lanes over and headed for it. “I’ll stop. I’ll eat. I’ll be fine.”
“I’m gonna hold you to it.”
She whipped around the head of the third lane from the entrance and zipped into the spot as a dented blue Honda angled itself behind her. “Uh oh,” she said.
“What’s going on?”
“Some guy in an old blue car is glaring at me. He seems to think I stole his spot.”
“He didn’t have a turn signal on.” She hesitated, replaying the scene in her head. “I might have.”
“Where is he?”
“Stopped right behind me.”
“Blocking you in?”
She slunk down low in her seat. “I never do things like this. I’m the most polite driver on the planet.”
“Is he still there?”
“Want me to call mall security? I can use another line.”
She hesitated. “Maybe you—oh, thank God! He’s driving away.” She watched through the rear view mirror. Good-looking men in her own age demographic had no business wearing Grateful Dead t-shirts.
Paul wanted to talk her into the mall and out again but her cell battery was running down. The only way he would let her go was if she promised to phone him after she saw Professor Armitage.
Normally she would have told him to back off, but so far nothing about the morning had been even remotely normal. It wasn’t like him to be so solicitous. The last time he had sounded that worried was when one of his daughters said she wanted to become a model.
A vague sense of dread wrapped itself around her chest and it wouldn’t let go.
“Okay,” she said out loud. “Don’t go getting crazy.”
The problem was so obvious that it was almost laughable: she needed food and water and she needed them right now. The food court was located near the multiplex at the south end of the Promenade. A huge round clock mounted to the left of the Sushi Palace sign offered up a reality check she didn’t need. Armitage expected her at his front door in exactly thirteen and one half minutes. Even if she ditched the search for protein she would never make it on time.
Why hadn’t she just cancelled out earlier this morning when she was trapped at the airport waiting for her boxes and bags? Why had she been so hell bent on squeezing as much from the day as was inhumanly possible?
She swallowed hard against a sudden, acrid burst of nausea at the back of her throat. The air was soft and sweet with spring promise and she swept huge gulps of it into her lungs in an attempt to clear away the discomfort but that didn’t help either.
She flipped open her phone and said, “Call Armitage,” then waited while it attempted the connection.
“Call Armitage,” she said again.
No luck this time either.
She would have to find a pay phone in the Food Court and –
Professor Armitage. That was it. Concentrate! The thought of facing the professor’s wrath wasn’t half as unnerving as this weird, disconnected feeling that seemed to be growing more intense. Unless Armitage wanted to assess the documents in the emergency room of the nearest hospital he would simply have to understand.
Understand what? She went blank for a second as scattered images flooded her brain. Professor Armitage’s wooly grey beard. His fierce little eyes. The cold slick feel of the metal box in her hands. The way that stupid thong pinched exactly where no sane person wanted to be pinched. The whooshing sound inside her head . . .
Don’t faint! she warned herself. She would die of embarrassment if the EMTs saw what she was wearing under her peach cotton twin set and pearls.
A shiver ran up her spine and she pushed the thought as far from her mind as she could. Clearly her imagination was as jet-lagged and out of whack as the rest of her, hopping without warning from one bizarre thought to the next.
She didn’t know the first thing about being sick. Her last hospital stay was twenty-three years ago when she gave birth to Gwynn. She was the one who visited patients and brought them flowers and candy and trashy magazines to while away the hours. She was always the one who got to go home when visiting hours were over.
The thong pinched when she took a step, then pinched harder when she stopped. What she wanted to do was duck between the parked cars and make a swift adjustment but wouldn’t you know it: the man she’d beat out for the parking spot was a few aisles over and looking right at her.
Bad enough she was wearing underwear ten years too young and two sizes two small for her. Imagine being caught fiddling with it in public by an angry man in a Grateful Dead t-shirt. They locked eyes for a second and she looked away. His look was disconcertingly direct but it wasn’t angry and that unnerved her. She had expected anger or irritation but she saw neither. His look wasn’t flirtatious but there was something there, something she couldn’t put her finger on. She couldn’t remember the last time a man’s gaze had unsettled her this way. The stupid thong was even affecting her judgment.
She shot him another quick glance. Tall, lean. Thick dark hair that caught the sunlight and held it. A deeply intelligent face alive with open curiosity aimed in her direction and a smile that–
Okay. Enough of that. The smile was for whoever was on the other end of his cell phone connection. Besides, the guy was wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt. What more was there to say?
A woman with three small children in tow raced past her in a cloud of baby powder and soap. Her stomach lurched at the sweet smell and for a second she thought she was about to faint. She tried to steady herself with another deep breath of spring-fresh air but suddenly her chest felt tight, like some unseen force was wrapping a band around her ribcage and pulling tighter and tighter and she knew she was going down.
Or was she down already? She wasn’t sure. The world had gone all soft-focus on her except for the sickening smells of pickled ginger, old Juicy Fruit, and motor oil.
I’m asleep, she thought. What other explanation could there be? This had nothing to do with real life. Open your eyes, Kate. You really don’t want to be having this dream.
The room smelled like a Dumpster. The mattress was hard as a rock and the covers were all tangled up around her legs and she felt like she was being —
She opened her eyes and screamed. Actually she tried to scream but she couldn’t draw down enough oxygen to manage more than a loud whisper.
The guy in the Grateful Dead t-shirt, the same guy she had beat out for the parking spot, was bent over her, tugging at the hem of her skirt.
“Glad you’re back with us,” he said, like they were chatting over cocktails at TGI Friday’s. “I was starting to worry.”
He tugged again and she tried to strike out at him but her arms seemed weighted with lead.
“Whoa!” He pretended to duck. “Take it easy. I’m on your side.”
She thought of a half dozen remarks she could make but none of them found their way to her lips. What was wrong with her? Usually she could deal out a smart remark at the speed of light. “Get your hands off me,” she managed. That’s the best you can do? Pathetic.
“You don’t want all of Princeton to see that red lace, do you?”
Oh God . . . the thong . . . just leave me here so I can die of embarrassment . . .
“So what happened? Did you trip? One second you were walking toward the Promenade and the next–” He made a falling gesture with his hand.
Couldn’t he see she wanted to roll under a car and disappear? Why was he trying to make conversation?
It wasn’t a hard question but she couldn’t seem to figure out the answer.
“Does this sort of thing happen a lot?”
“Never.” She cleared her throat. “Absolutely never.”
“I’m going to take your pulse again.”
“It was over a hundred when I checked your carotid artery. That’s not great.”
Not every Dead Head could use “carotid artery” in a sentence with such ease. Was it possible he actually knew what he was doing?
“No thanks.” But she wouldn’t mind an extra-strength Advil. Her shoulder. Her back. Her hand. Even her teeth hurt from the fall. Her left jaw was actually throbbing.
“I’m a licensed EMT.” He pulled some cards from his pocket and she pretended to examine them but the truth was she couldn’t focus on the text. “Fifteen years’ experience. New Hampshire and New Jersey.”
“This really isn’t necessary,” she said. Or at least that was what she tried to say. She was having trouble following the conversation and even more trouble synching her thoughts with her words.
“Do me a favor and lie down. You look like you’re going to pass out again.”
She wanted to protest but suddenly the thought of lying flat on her back in the middle of the Princeton Promenade parking lot sounded like the best idea she’d ever had. He opened a newspaper wide and spread it down on the ground beneath her head but the combined smells of pickled ginger, motor oil, and chewed-out bubble gum seeped through and made her retch.
He placed two fingers on the pulse point in her inner wrist and monitored the second hand on his watch. “One twenty. Any nausea?”
She nodded. You felt queasy in the car too. Maybe you should tell him that too.
“Any underlying medical conditions that might have some bearing on this?”
She was perfectly healthy. Why couldn’t he see that for himself?
“Are you on any medication?”
“Are you in pain?” The man was relentless.
“Not–not exactly pain.”
Oh God. Even through the fog swirling around her, she could see where this was going. “Yes.” Admit it, French: you’re in big trouble.
“Not sharp . . . pressure.” Three words and she was totally wiped out. What was happening to her?
“Okay. I’m not trying to worry you but we need to call 911.” He pulled a cell phone from his back pocket and punched in some numbers.
The band around her chest tightened and she broke into a sweat.
“. . . yes, I’ll stay here with her . . . thanks.” He jammed the phone back into his pocket. “You’re probably right. I’ll bet it’s nothing too but I know you’ll feel a lot better if you heard that from a doctor and not some guy in a Dead shirt.”
She wanted to laugh at his joke but all she could manage was a quick smile. She was sweating. How could that be? She wanted to say, “This isn’t really me,” but that required more energy than she could muster up. He wiped her forehead with the back of his hand and she almost wept from the gentleness of the action. “Heart attack?” she whispered.
“Yes,” he said. “There’s a good chance that’s what it is.”
“Lie to me,” she managed. “I don’t mind.” She tried to force another laugh but the iron band around her rib cage wouldn’t let her.
He didn’t pull his punches but the deep compassion in his eyes made her feel safe.
“It could be indigestion, a panic attack, a sprained muscle. But if it is your heart, we need to get help sooner rather than later.”
“Are you sure you’re not a –”
She was going to say “doctor” but the pain exploded and it blew everything else away. Deep crushing pain from the center of her body that stripped her of her identity, her memories, her future, stripped her of everything but bone-deep terror.
“Oh God . . . oh God . . . ” Was she saying it or just thinking it? She didn’t know. She felt like she was floating above the parking lot like a helium balloon on a very fragile string.
He leaned closer. She could feel his warm breath against her cheek. “What is it? Do you want to say a prayer? Is that what you’re saying?”
No . . . no . . . make it stop . . .
“Stay with me.” His voice flew at her on the loud rush of wind inside her head. “I’m not going to let you go.”
Don’t let go . . . don’t let me go . . . I’m scared . . . this is really happening . . . oh God . . . Gwynnie . . . I’ve got to see Gwynnie . . . I have to tell her I love her . . . I don’t even know your name and you’re the one who’ll have to tell my daughter . . .
“The ambulance is on its way . . . you’re going to be fine . . . just hold on a little longer . . . I’ll stay with you . . . ”
I can’t hold on . . . I want to but I can’t . . . don’t let me go . . . don’t let me go . . .
“Talk to me . . . come on . . . look at me . . .open your eyes and look at me . . . grab my hand and hang on . . . I’m not going to let you go . . . ”
Somewhere in some other universe he took her hand and held tight but it was too late. His words were the last ones she heard.
About the Author:
Barbara Bretton is the USA Today bestselling, award-winning author of more than 40 books. She currently has over ten million copies in print around the world. Her works have been translated into twelve languages in over twenty countries.
Barbara has been featured in articles in The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Romantic Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Herald News, Home News, Somerset Gazette,among others, and has been interviewed by Independent Network News Television, appeared on the Susan Stamberg Show on NPR, and been featured in an interview with Charles Osgood of WCBS, among others.
Her awards include both Reviewer’s Choice and Career Achievement Awards from Romantic Times; Gold and Silver certificates from Affaire de Coeur; the RWA Region 1 Golden Leaf; and several sales awards from Bookrak. Ms. Bretton was included in a recent edition of Contemporary Authors.
Barbara loves to spend as much time as possible in Maine with her husband, walking the rocky beaches and dreaming up plots for upcoming books.