If I Return, page 1
All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2013 by Sawyer Bennett
Published by Big Dog Books
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
No part of this book can be reproduced in any form or by electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without the express written permission of the author. The only exception is by a reviewer who may quote short excerpts in a review.
Cover Design by Vitalink
Interior Design by Novel Ninjutsu
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I step out of the elevator and head toward The Great Hall, nervously wiping my hands on my jeans. The heels of my boots clack against the slate floor, providing a rhythmical noise that keeps me slightly centered. Sneaking a glance up at the vaulted and beamed ceiling of the lobby, I feel overwhelmed with awe by the magnificence of this room. I pass in front of the fireplace, large enough to fit an entire high school football team in it. There are several rocking chairs lined up in front of the hearth, with hotel guests sitting there quietly conversing while they stare into the jumping flames. The heat coming off the roaring logs is comforting, while the crackling and spitting noises of the combusting wood puts me in a cheerful mood.
A hopeful mood.
Because this scene transports me back to just one year ago, when I met the man who I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to spend the rest of my life with.
It’s Christmas Eve and there are more people here than I would have imagined. But The Montgrove Inn, located in the picturesque city of Asheville, North Carolina, is a Christmas dream come to life. The Great Hall is called The Great Hall, because...well, it’s “great”. It’s a massive, three-story vaulted room, which houses matching fireplaces of a monstrous size on each end. In between, low-slung leather couches and cozy tables are scattered, offering residents a place to relax and enjoy the beauty of the Inn. Christmas trees stud the stone floors, decorated in crystal confections of red, blue, silver, and green. The west end of the hall has floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the sun that is starting to set over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I walk up to the bar that sits in the corner of the Hall and take a seat at the end. Wiping my hands again, I wish I wasn’t so nervous. But the truth is, my gut is churning and my heart feels like it’s about to explode out of my chest. Because there is a chance I will see Jack again... tonight... and it’s all I’ve wanted for the past year.
The bartender approaches and I ask him for a glass of Cabernet. He asks to see my ID and I willingly produce it from my back pocket. I just turned twenty-two last month so I’m not surprised. After he sets the glass of ruby liquid in front of me, I take a small sip, hoping the alcohol will calm my nerves. I resist the urge to gulp it down, wanting the courage it will give me.
As I sip my wine, I keep glancing at the lobby doors. Every time they open, I hope to see Jack come sauntering through.
I’m disappointed, time and again. Every minute that passes that he doesn’t arrive, I can feel more disappointment laying over me like a heavy blanket.
I finish my wine and motion to the bartender for another. Just as he sets it down in front of me, I feel a presence at my back as someone steps up to the bar. I can tell it’s a male body by the subtle hint of cologne as he starts to take the seat next to me. I close my eyes and inhale deeply.
With elation rising in my chest, I open my eyes with a smile and turn to face the man. He turns to look at me with an appraising glance, but the smile slides from my face and my heart bottoms out in my stomach.
It’s not Jack and I can’t help but be crushed by this letdown.
I offer the man an apologetic smile and mumble, “Sorry, I thought you were someone else.”
“Ah... that’s a pity,” he remarks. “That smile you gave me was enough to make me believe in Santa.”
The man sitting next to me is charming and handsome, his voice cultured. He’s flirting with me, and I can tell by the style of his clothes and hair that he is sophisticated and wealthy. Every girl’s dream.
But he’s not Jack.
I struggle to turn the corners of my mouth upward, hoping he will just leave me alone. Instead, he sticks his hand out to me. “I’m Chris.”
My manners step up to the plate—my mother would be so proud—and I shake his hand. “Hope.”
“That’s a lovely name. It fits the lovely girl sitting next to me.”
I give him one more—and hopefully last—apologetic look. “I’m sorry... but I’m waiting for someone. My boyfriend.”
Chris’ smile stays warm but easy acceptance flashes in his eyes as he stands from his seat. “My loss. Have a good evening.”
“Thank you,” I say softly as I watch him retreat to the other end of the bar.
I shake my head slightly. If I were any other woman, his words would have warmed me. If it were Jack sitting here saying those words, I would have crawled up on his lap and kissed him soundly. But neither of those scenarios are playing out, and I turn away to take another sip of my wine. It tastes bitter, just like my feelings right now.
Who am I kidding? Jack isn’t going to come.
I’m a pathetic mess of a woman who has pined after a man that I haven’t even spoken to in a year. A man who captured my heart, and then slowly enslaved it.
And then he left me.
He had told me not to think about him. He told me not to wait. The only thing he offered me before he headed off to war was a vague promise that we could meet again on Christmas Eve. At the same exact spot where we first met... here at The Montgrove Inn.
He had told me, “Hope... I’ll be here on Christmas Eve. And we can move forward. But only if I make it back. Only if I return.”
Those words echo in my head, sounding more hollow as I sip at my wine and wait for my heart’s desire to meet me. I have no idea if he’ll show. The most I can do is hope for a Christmas miracle, and that my Jack will walk through those doors soon.
I close my eyes again, idly running my finger over the rim of my wineglass.
I think back to the day I first met Jack...
372 Days Ago
“Oh, Hope... look at that.”
I glance up from my iPhone and look out the cab window as we pull up to The Montgrove Inn. The hotel is a monstrous, gray stone structure covered with a red-tiled roof that has vestiges of the last snowfall still clinging to the edges.
The main part of the Inn is six-stories high and was built almost a hundred years ago. Over time, it has been added on to and the newer part of the resort actually dribbles down the backside of the mountain, with a world-class spa built underground.
My sister, Audrey, has her nose practically resting against the glass window as she ogles the hotel. I sigh in contentment, very much looking forward to this Christmas vacation nestled in a winter wonderland.
I’m only here by Audrey’s invitation. She’s the maid of honor in her best friend’s wedding. A Christmas Wedding to be more specific. I don’t know the bride, Jenna, all that well, but it was either come here with Audrey or go to St. John with my parents. They like Christmas a little warmer.
And while the idea of spending the holidays on a tropical island has merit, I’m not about to pass up a chance to see snow on Christmas for the first time in my life. Plus, Audrey is not only my older sister—she’s my best friend in the entire wo
As the cab comes to a slow halt, Audrey’s door is opened by a handsome bellman wearing a dark green parka to protect him from the biting cold. He holds a gloved hand out to Audrey and she takes it, giving him her most flirtatious smile. Rolling my eyes at Audrey’s antics, I turn to pay the cab driver, giving him a soft, “Happy Holidays” before sliding out of the backseat.
Audrey is chattering away to the bellman while he removes our suitcases. I stuff my hands in my coat pockets to warm them up, and watch the activity around me. Several bellmen stand around, directing cars as they arrive. Mercedes, BMW, Audi... this resort is for the privileged and, as far as I can see, we’re the only ones that have arrived by cab, having just flown into the Asheville Airport.
I’m not out of place here though. Audrey and I come from money. Our parents are both pediatricians and operate a successful practice in Orlando, which is where we’re from. Still, I can’t help but be a little intimidated, as this is the first time I have traveled without my parents.
Audrey seems to be in her element though, as she follows the bellman into the hotel, gesturing for me to come along. Hoisting my purse up over my shoulder, I start toward the Inn. As I walk closer, I gaze up at the huge structure in front of me, awed and impressed by the beauty of the stonework. The building is a true work of art and it makes me feel small and insignificant as I walk toward the front doors.
Unfortunately, grace has never been my forte, and I manage to stumble as the tip of my foot snags on a piece of stone paver. I feel my body fly forward, gravity toppling me down toward the ground. My heart lurches in my throat, and I actually start feeling embarrassed that I’m getting ready to wipe out in front of all of these people. But I never hit the ground because a pair of strong arms catches me.
The fact that my downward progress has been halted does nothing to still my heart, which is galloping away from me at a million miles an hour. As warm hands softly grip my upper arms, I look up into the face of my savior, ready to throw out a heartfelt platitude of thanks. Instead, my words get caught in my throat and I can only stare with an open mouth at the man that is holding me.
Pure masculinity is the first thought that comes to my mind. He is tall and has short, dark hair cropped really close to his head, buzzed even shorter around his ears. His eyes are a blue-gray, but shining more blue in the bright afternoon sun. I bet on rainy days, they darken to the color of steel. His eyelashes are so thick and dark that you’d think he was wearing eyeliner. A strong jaw with a square chin, lightly covered in the perfect amount of stubble, sets off his amazing visage. The man offers me a smile, and his teeth are perfectly straight and gleaming white.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“Um... yeah. Thanks. I guess I should have been watching where I was going.”
He’s still holding onto my arms when he says, “Yeah, it’s hard not to get caught up in the beauty of this place, huh?”
“I know. The architecture is phenomenal.”
The man finally releases my arms and steps back a foot. It allows me to get a better view of him. He’s young, although maybe a bit older than I am. He’s wearing a dark navy peacoat and I can see a hint of a cream, cable-knit sweater peeking out from the top. Dark jeans complete his outfit and they fit him to perfection.
We stare at each other for an awkwardly long time, and I have no clue what to say. But the moment is broken when another man comes up behind him and claps him on the back, causing him to break eye contact with me.
“Ready to go, Jack?”
He turns to his friend and says, “You bet.”
Turning back to me, he gives me a smile before walking off after his buddy. He doesn’t turn back to look at me, and I have unfettered access to stare after him as they walk down a hill and toward a parking lot. He has a great backside... at least from what I can see.
“Hope... come on. Let’s get checked in.”
I glance to the Inn doors and Audrey is standing there waiting for me. She flips her honey-blond hair over her shoulder and winks at another cute bellman that walks by.
I grin. My sister is such a flirt.
Actually, she’s more than that. She’s practically a man-eater.
Audrey has always been the wild one while I have always been the shy one. Audrey partied her way through college, falling in and out of love more times than I could remember. When she finally had enough of getting her heart broken, she decided that no-strings relationships were the only kind she could tolerate. Two years older than me, she is brash, outgoing, sexy, and unapologetic about any of it. She owns it as a matter of fact.
I’m quite the opposite. I didn’t get Audrey’s golden hair or emerald eyes, her pouty lips or C-cup breasts. There’s nothing about me that stands out actually. My hair is neither blond, nor brown. In fact, the best way to describe it is the color of mouse fur. And while “mousy” describes the color of my hair, at least it is long and thick, with just enough natural wave to it that I can practically make it stand up and do the hokey-pokey if I want. My eyes are between brown and hazel, or some might call them the color of swamp mud. I’m average height and average build.
I’m just... average.
Hoisting my purse again, I walk toward Audrey, carefully watching where I’m going so I don’t trip again. My mind thinks back to the man that caught me... Jack. I wonder if I’ll see him again. While my sole intention for this holiday was to curl up with a good book every day, I can’t help but think about what it would be like to talk to him again. I feel a flutter of excitement in my chest, and while my brain tries to squash it, it continues to beat with hope.
Audrey and I check in and the same bellman that Audrey has been flirting with shows us to our room. Jenna’s father paid for the rooms for the wedding party for the entire week we are here. He is an uber-wealthy industrialist who made his money in cosmetics and electronics.
Weird combination, I know.
Once all of our bags have been carried to our room, Audrey promptly forgets the bellman and heads to the windows to gaze out over the Blue Ridge Mountains. I turn to tip him, handing him a ten-dollar bill. I think the going rate is two-dollars per bag and Audrey, in typical fashion, brought four bags to my one for the week’s stay. The bellman takes the money, giving a wistful look in Audrey’s direction before turning to leave.
When the door closes, Audrey turns to me. “We’re going to have so much fun this week, Hope. I can’t wait to go skiing, and I’m told we should head into town for some really cool bars. Oh, and we need to go visit the Biltmore... I hear it’s amazing at Christmas... and then we should...”
I tune Audrey out as I start to unpack my one measly bag. She has the ability to get excited over anything, and because she’s the adventurous of the two Camden girls, she’ll want to be on the go constantly.
“Honestly, Audrey... I just want to relax. I’ve been studying so hard. I just want to rest my brain by getting lost in a good book.”
Audrey makes a pfft sound. “Ridiculous. You’re going to take your nose out of a book and live life for once. You’re too serious all the time. You need to let your hair down and party.”
I cock an eyebrow at her. She knows better than to even suggest such a thing to me. I am a driven woman, and I don’t have time for the same frivolities that Audrey seeks. She made it through college okay, but she’s yet to do a thing productive with her degree. She’s worked a variety of jobs, mostly retail, since graduating from school two years ago.
I, on the other hand, have had my eyes set with determination on my goal to become a social worker. It’s all I’ve ever wanted in life. From the time I set foot on the campus of Florida State University, I went balls to the wall to get my undergrad degree in social sciences. I didn’t even bother taking a breath before I dove into my Master’s in social work. I hoped to have it finished in about a year.
Sometimes though, I do wish I could be like Audrey. She’s so
Audrey’s not through with me. “Come on, Hope. Just for once in your life, stop living by rules. Live in the here and now.”
“And what would you have me do over the next week?”
Why I ask her that, I don’t know? I suppose I’m humoring her.
Audrey plops down on her bed and looks at me with all seriousness. “Well, for one... I think you need to get laid. That will go a long ways toward loosening you up.”
I snicker at her idea. I’m by no means a prude, but I certainly don’t hop beds the way Audrey does. In fact, I’ve only had sex with one man in my young life... my former boyfriend, James. We met our freshman year at FSU, and we were like two peas in a pod.
Both of us were serious, studious, and totally avoided the party scene. We started out as friends, and then started dating. It was almost a year before we even had sex, and both of us were virgins so it made for some awkward fumbling for a while. But, eventually, our intimacy leveled out and it was... nice. I mean, it wasn’t earth shattering and my world wasn’t rocked, but it was... nice. Safe. Reliable.
Oh, God... my sex life was like a trusty old Ford truck. I realize in a brief moment of clarity that I sometimes border on the pathetic side.
Still, since James and I broke up right after graduation, I haven’t really been interested in another relationship. In fact, I’ve haven’t really met anyone that perked my interest. Unless you count the gorgeous man I met twenty minutes ago.
Shaking my head, I give a disapproving look to Audrey. “I’m just not built that way. I don’t have your willful spirit or your confidence. I wouldn’t even know how to go about getting laid.”
“Well, then let’s try to tap into that this week. You don’t really know anyone here... a virtual stranger. You could be as wild and wanton as you want. We could hook you up with a hot ski instructor, and you could have wild sex all week. What’s stopping you?”