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Love and War
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Love and War


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Edie Stephens believes she's happy with her own fabulous apartment, a good job, friends and family who love her, and a dedicated boyfriend. But hidden beneath the facade of a perfect life is a smothered past filled with lost love, regret, and shameful secrets she ran away from but can never truly escape. 

Edie's carefully ordered world is thrown into upheaval when she unexpectedly runs into the unvanquished ghost from her past. After years of burying all the things she has yet to deal with, she had no choice but to face an unrequited love that left her life too abruptly. Pain she tried to put away and forget flares into open agony. If she ever wants to heal, she needs to revisit the girl she once was--the tender-hearted innocent just coming of age who'd fallen in love in a tough situation without justice. Forced to reconcile the unanswered questions from long ago, Edie wrestles with the timeless dilemma: If love is worth fighting for, is it also worth unrelenting heartache when a happily-ever-after may only be a fairy tale?

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Edie Stephens believes she's happy with her own fabulous apartment, a good job, friends and family who love her, and a dedicated boyfriend. But hidden beneath the facade of a perfect life is a smothered past filled with lost love, regret, and shameful secrets she ran away from but can never truly escape. 

Edie's carefully ordered world is thrown into upheaval when she unexpectedly runs into the unvanquished ghost from her past. After years of burying all the things she has yet to deal with, she had no choice but to face an unrequited love that left her life too abruptly. Pain she tried to put away and forget flares into open agony. If she ever wants to heal, she needs to revisit the girl she once was--the tender-hearted innocent just coming of age who'd fallen in love in a tough situation without justice. Forced to reconcile the unanswered questions from long ago, Edie wrestles with the timeless dilemma: If love is worth fighting for, is it also worth unrelenting heartache when a happily-ever-after may only be a fairy tale?

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Chapter 1


Breathe in. Breathe out. Focus on the road...

Life throws curveballs every now and then. It's an age-old axiom that, if you're American, is an easy cliche to grasp. However, if you understand the anatomy of a curveball, it becomes something else entirely. The idea is to throw the ball with the same arm speed at the same release point only to have the bottom drop out at the last second, leaving the batter wondering what happened. But when the pitch loses its deception, there's a price to pay. 

Focus...almost there...

I'd found this to be true a time or two in my twenty-three years of life. Watching my brother make a homerun after the pitcher's failed curveball attempt during his high school baseball career; witnessing my dad's angry rant at the pitcher on TV for a sorry curveball. But then there were the more appropriate examples the adage referred to, like my parent's unplanned arrival of my twin brothers when I was six; my broken fibula the summer I was supposed to go to state for track and field that ultimately ruined my running career; Josh's rejection letter from Minnesota State that drove him to an Army recruiter who was too eager to have him sign on the dotted line. And of course, Trey. 

I turned my music as high as it could go in an attempt to drown out my thoughts. Breathing hard, I sought my rhythm and attempted to get back in sync, but my ankle throbbed where it'd been broken, and my joints cried out for a rest. Still I pushed myself that last fourth of a mile. 

I can do it...a little further...

My heart pounded in my ears, even over the intensity of the music screaming from my ear buds. Absurdly, my mind wouldn't stop thinking about baseball. About those deceitful pitches that can ruin a game, a career. A life. No matter how hard and fast I pushed myself, I couldn't outrun my past--as much as I wished I could. 

After reaching my six-mile marker, I slowed to a walk. Tamping down the urge to collapse onto the sidewalk, I shoved through the pain, knowing that my muscles needed to cool down properly or I'd be paying for it later when they cramped up. My ankle protested with every movement. I'd forgotten to take an aspirin before hitting the pavement, which was really the only antidote that allowed me to run any long distance anymore.

Biting back frustration, I wondered if I'd ever be physically able to achieve my goal of running a marathon. So far I'd managed to make it halfway after having trained for two months, but I knew I should be further. I'd realized dismally that if it hurt that bad at twelve miles, twenty-six was a near impossibility. All thanks to the aforementioned curveball life had thrown at me two years earlier, when I'd tripped over a bramble of wire in the road in front of a construction site and refractured my previous injury. 

Limping now, with sweat dripping into my eyes and creating wet trails down my back, my breathing gradually slowed. It'd been a hard and fast six miles. Running was, for me, an outlet. And today, after hearing that song that conjured up far too many memories, I'd hurried out the door hoping to leave them behind. Instead, after seeing two kids playing ball in their front yard, my mood had only shifted down the darkened crazy path of baseball analogies, thanks in part to my younger brothers who were on select leagues and could speak of nothing else.

I turned my music down so that it faintly sang in my ear. These songs were good ones, the kind that reminded me of happy times and made me slightly ache for the good old days. The song I'd heard before my run, just as I was parking my car in a space at the apartment complex and gathering my things, was not a good song. Well, it used to be, but not anymore. 

Until Strawberry Wine had serenaded from the speakers, it'd been maybe two days since I'd thought about him. For the past three years I'd thought about him almost every day. He was the kind of pain that never quite went away, like my ankle. A constant reminder of what could have been.

I wiped the sweat from my brow as I neared The Hills, which was home to me. It wasn't Hidden Bay Estates, the more exclusive subdivision on the west side of Clifton and where I'd always planned on ending up, but it had become a good place to start.

The complex was composed of four separate units set together to form a square. As a result of the design, each building overlooked a pretty, quaint courtyard in the center and back of each building. The white siding, the ivy crawling its way up the walls, and the clean, manicured lawns made it an inviting environment. 

I lived on the third floor, which after running six miles in under an hour, left me breathless again, and wondering why I'd opted for the apartment on the top floor.

Upon entering, I shed my wet clothes and went straight to the shower. I was due at Josh and Sarah's for our monthly game night at 6:30. I hoped it'd get my mind off of Strawberry Wine and all the song admonished.

After drying off, I quickly dressed and blow-dried my hair. Scott would be here soon, so I hurried through my getting ready routine, just hoping to make myself presentable. Standing before the mirror, I recognized the somber gaze that peered back at me from my brown eyes. It was something I could easily hide behind a smile or a laugh. You wouldn't know it was even there unless you knew the past six years of my life. My gaze inadvertently drifted to the stack of journals on my bookshelf. 

I sighed, telling myself this lapse wouldn't last long. After three years, the regrets and pain were lessening, and only rearing their head every now and then. Besides, I'd moved on. Life was good now. I had a caring boyfriend, a wonderful family, my own place to live, a career as a dental assistant. Most importantly, I had God's forgiveness. Something I'd struggled to accept for a while, but had finally learned to receive. But as I stared at my reflection, I wondered why I wasn't convinced that I'd moved on.

A knock on the door startled me. Dropping my brush, I glanced at the clock. Scott was right on time, as usual. Hurriedly I applied some mascara and lip gloss, smoothed my chiffon blouse over my skinny jeans, and slid my boots on, zipping them as I stumbled to the door. Scott rapped again just as I pulled it open. 

His hand was in midair, poised to knock again, and he raised his eyebrows at the sight of my harried presentation.

"Hey," I greeted him, brushing a stray lock of hair from my face. 

My heart lightened from its previous upheaval at the sight of him. With blonde hair and blue eyes, he was the polar opposite of what I was usually attracted to, but as I matched his smile, I longed to be in his arms, where I seemed to fit as if I were the last piece of a puzzle.

"Hey, babe." He stepped up to me, sliding his arms around my waist.

I wrapped mine around his neck and welcomed his lips, warm and insistent. I liked how his body felt against mine. The taut muscles, toned from running cross-country. Which is how we'd met, of course. In college on the track, as I sat on the sideline nursing the reoccurring pain in my ankle, Scott finished his laps and came up to me, his body glistening from sweat. 

"You okay?" he'd asked, breathing hard.

I'd barely glanced at him. Mumbled something dismissive, and hoped he'd go away. But he didn't. In fact, he hung around so long that we talked well into the evening. And by the end of the week, I'd reluctantly agreed to a date. Now, a year later, here we were, holding each other on my threshold. 

Scott inhaled deeply. "God you smell good."

"Don't say that," I chastised. 

"Sorry. I'll rephrase. Wow, you smell good."

I dropped my arms and retreated back into my apartment to get my purse and the plate of cookies I baked for the evening.

"Thank you. It's the Happy you bought me."

Scott held the door open for me with his backside. "Well that must be why I'm incredibly attracted to you right now."

I smiled wryly at him as I slid past him into the hall. "If that's all it takes next time, I'll just wear my pajamas."

"For your information, you look good even in those," Scott teased.

We climbed into his Jeep to make the ten-minute drive to my brother's house. 

"That old guy with the teeth came in today," I told him, gazing out the window at the world blurring by.

Scott snorted. 

"What's so funny?"

"You're a dental assistant. How's that news?"

I laughed. "No, the old guy. You know, the one with only three teeth that he consistently gets cleaned and polished every six months?"

He laughed and shifted gear. "Oh yeah. How long did it take today? Five minutes for a cleaning?"

"Well, actually, he wanted a fluoride treatment, so it took about seven."

Scott laughed with me and took my hand in his. "How was your run? Did you make the full six?"

I leaned my head back against the headrest. "Barely. My ankle has been hurting a lot lately. I don't know if I'll be able to do it."

He squeezed my hand. "You will. You just have to remember to take the aspirin beforehand and halfway through."

"What if I damage it even more?"

Scott pressed his lips together, as if the thought had occurred to him. "We could stick to a half. You could do that. You've already done it in training."

I made a face. "My goal is a full marathon." I shrugged with resolve. "I'll push through it. My ankle will be fine."

We arrived at Josh's. Already the drive was full of vehicles. When I stepped out of Scott's Jeep, I heard my cell ping from within my purse. I ignored it as I balanced the plate in one hand so I could shut the Jeep door and handle my purse in the other.

"Can hardly wait to see Josh," Scott said dryly. "He whipped my..." He glanced at me, "my butt this week in fantasy football."

"Good save." I rapped once on the door and opened it to a barrage of voices and laughter. 

We stepped into the foyer, smiling and waving at a few familiar faces that were in the living room. 

"Is that Edie?" Sarah came flying out of the kitchen with her swollen belly nearly throwing off her equilibrium. 

"Hey!" I said brightly, opening my arms for a hug the best I could with the plate still grasped in one hand.

She waddled hurriedly toward me without returning my smile and threw an anxious glance over her shoulder toward the kitchen.

"What's wrong with her?" Scott asked, his hand resting on the small of my back.

"Edie, don't you answer your phone?" When my best friend reached me, she lowered my arms to avoid the hug I was anticipating.

"I haven't gotten any messages," I said with a frown. 

Scott saw someone in the kitchen he knew and raised his chin in greeting. "What's up, man?" Then he turned back to us. "C'mon, ladies. Food awaits us."

I started to follow Scott, but Edie grasped my hand. "Don't go in there! I need to talk to you--"

But Scott had already begun shuffling me through the archway.

"Sarah, what's wrong with you?" I laughed. "Come in here and talk to me. I have to get rid of this plate."

"Edie, no--"

I rounded the corner and as my eyes swept the crowd of friends we saw every month, one face suddenly caught my attention. A familiar ghost from my past that stopped me dead in my tracks. He was standing with Josh, laughing at something he was saying. Even from my vantage point across the kitchen I could see the dimple under the shadow of his goatee. So intimately familiar, yet a stranger now. Josh's back was to me, but when Trey's gaze shifted, he locked eyes with mine over Josh's shoulder. 

The air seemed to be sucked from the room as his brown eyes stared into mine. My ears pounded from my quickened pulse and suddenly the room seemed to tilt.

Trey. Trey was here. In the same room...I became aware that I'd dropped the plate of cookies only when it smashed at my feet. The shatter of glass on tile tore my stare from his.

Everyone turned to look, a few people closest to me exclaiming out loud and stooping to help with the mess. The rest of the group turned back to their conversations, as if the world hadn't stopped momentarily. 

I felt Sarah's grasp on my arm and I weakly allowed her to pull me from the kitchen as Scott watched me with confusion and worry, and Trey looked away.

Back in the foyer, trembling, I glanced over my shoulder as if Trey would suddenly appear again to disrupt everything that'd taken me three years to carefully reestablish.

"What's he doing here? Why is Trey here?" I asked in a frenzied, hushed whisper. "I have to leave. I have to go home..."

Sarah frowned and nodded. "I'm so sorry, E. I tried to call but it went straight to your voicemail. And then I texted, but I guess you didn't get that either. He's back. Josh invited him tonight but forgot to tell me. Are you okay?"

She knew my past six years, and therefore she could see the apprehension in my eyes. 

"He's back? But where's he stationed? Why's he in Clifton?"

Sarah swallowed. "He got out. He's living in Fairview now."

Fairview? I felt the world shift under my feet again. Fifteen minutes away from Clifton - from me.

Suddenly Josh was at Sarah's side. He assessed me with concerned eyes.

"I thought Sarah talked to you..."

"What's going on?" Scott joined our ensemble, seeming like a foreigner amidst my troubles that began way before he'd ever appeared on scene.

I opened my mouth to speak, but didn't know what to say. I'd never told Scott about Trey. Never told him my painful regrets or even the secrets I'd shut the door on long ago. This was something I'd never envisioned happening in a million years.

Thankfully, Sarah stepped in to save me, as we always did for one another when the situation called for it. "E's not feeling well. She's dizzy and nauseous. Why don't you take her home so she can rest?"

Scott looked between us suspiciously, then to Josh. Josh raised his eyebrows at him as if to say, 'what can you do? Women.' Frowning, Scott put an arm around my waist and turned toward the door.

"Sorry, guys," Scott apologized with a backward wave. "I guess we'll catch you later."

I hurried into the night air, breathing it in to clear the muddle from my brain. All I could see was Trey's eyes, staring at me the way he used to. As if he missed me. As if he were glad to see me. As if all the years apart didn't matter. When I turned to give Sarah a loaded look only she would understand, I saw Trey come around the corner, keys in hand. 

He glanced out the door and saw me with Scott, whose arm was still protectively around me. He turned away, but not before I saw what appeared to be a flash of pain cross his handsome face.

****

Explaining my dizzy spell away to Scott was easy. He trusted me whole-heartedly, as well as he should. Without knowledge of Trey or his sudden appearance, there was no reason to doubt my devotion to him. 

Scott remained at my side until he was sure I was okay. Even then, he left my apartment reluctantly, promising to call first thing in the morning. I felt a pang for him as he walked out my door, something resembling love, but not the same feverish kind I'd once had for Trey...and still sometimes felt when I remembered our time together. Scott was a good man, and he loved me. I knew it by his words, by his touch, but also by the most telltale manner, his eyes. They spoke volumes, and I wondered what mine told Scott over the year we'd been dating. Tonight. Or what they had told Trey earlier.

Seeing Trey again after three years was a shock to my system. I had yet to process the fact that he was back for good. Just down the road. It was unlikely I would never run into him, since he was as close to Josh as I was to Sarah. They'd shared in the camaraderie of serving in the Army together, of going to war. Of staring death in the face. As long as Josh was around, so would Trey be. And that was a predicament. Not only because of Scott, but because there was so much left wide open between Trey and I. Things that had changed our lives and who we were.

Sitting on my couch, tucked under my favorite quilt that my great grandma had sewn when I was still in diapers, my eyes were drawn to that stack of journals resting untouched on my bookshelf. It seemed forces larger than I were at work today, trying to bring Trey and I together – and succeeding. 

Perhaps God was telling me it was time to deal with the pain, the loss. Perhaps I needed to heal so I could eventually offer the entirety of my heart to someone, instead of merely half. 

I hesitated for a moment longer, and finally threw the blanket off my lap. The overhead light seemed to cast the journals in a direct ray, so that they appeared to stand apart from my collection of poetry books, classic novels, and Bibles. 

Slowly, I slid the first book of its volume from its reserved space. The spine was stiff from having sat untouched for so long; the array of colorful flowers on the cover slightly faded. I padded back to the couch and arranged myself comfortably before holding the journal in my hands once again. 

I knew what was behind this cover. It was my sixteen-year-old self, changing, evolving - unaware of the biggest curveball life was about to throw at me. Running fervently toward an end I didn't know would be written. And with the words I'd scrawled from my own hand, I knew there'd be pain with reading them. Longing. Regret. Perhaps something else...pieces of love for a man I thought had disappeared out of my life forever. 

Taking a deep breath, I slowly opened the journal and began reading.


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