ILLUMINATING DAYS OF DISCOVERY

By Sharon D. Tweet

CHAPTER 1

 

She leaned against the window frame and looked out into the darkness. Straining to see through the glare of the bright lights reflecting from within, she could just make out the sight of the snowflakes as they fell with a gentle hush. Lost in her thoughtful reverie she did not notice him walk up behind her.

“A penny for your thoughts,” he whispered in her ear as he slid his hands around her waist and rested his head against hers. He looked at her reflection in the window and smiled.

She closed her eyes, sighed, and let the feel of his touch wash over her. Opening her eyes she smiled at his reflection in the window. “First, a nickel for a kiss.”

He turned his head to kiss her on the temple. “And I won’t charge you; I’ll just tell you – I love you.”

The rhythm of the old eighties song reverberated in their thoughts.

Caroline shifted in his arms, leaning her back against the window frame, looking him full in the face. Smiling, she rested her hands on his forearms. “And I love you.” A faraway look clouded her eyes. “I was just thinking that I’ll miss having Mom and Dad here tonight. They would’ve enjoyed our announcement.”

A sad smile darkened Rick’s features. “I’ve thought the same thing. Kind of puts a little cloud over things a bit, doesn’t it? But, I choose to believe they’d be on board with this.”

They stood in reflective silence for a few moments, once again gazing out the window at the falling snow, his arm around her shoulder. Jazz music filtered through the home in the background, mixed with the laughter and chatter of friends.

It was New Year’s Eve and Rick, Caroline, and Jackson were hosting an intimate gathering for their singles small group and a handful of other friends. What their friends did not know was that Rick and Caroline planned to share some special news. What Jackson did not know was that his world was about to be knocked off-kilter.

* * * * *

Although Rick’s estate was rather grand with its twenty-acre wooded grounds and spacious eighty-seven hundred square foot home, Rick Stratford himself was not a particularly formal guy. The formal living room had not a stitch of furniture, save the temporary folding tables and chairs set up specifically for the night’s party, and the party itself was just a simple casual gathering of friends.

In preparation for their New Year’s Eve party, Caroline had taken the opportunity to do a little shopping for the previously empty foyer. As guests arrived, they were greeted by an antique console table offering a collection of house slippers for both the men and women. Cleverly decorated snowmen stood sentinel over the offering under a stunning cherry framed mirror. A complementary bench sat opposite flanked by a temporary garment rack.

As two ladies entered, they shed their coats and selected a pair of slippers before slipping into the vast emptiness of the living room. Spying an empty throw rug in a corner, they changed out of their winter boots and set aside their bags.

In keeping with his host duties, Jackson was making the rounds, ushering their guests to the great room.

“Up you go, ladies.” Jackson reached out both of his hands to the two ladies seated on the floor. “We are ready to convene in the next room and start this little party.”

At his request, each lady lifted a hand to his.

He smiled down at Monica as she set her hand in his right hand. Before Jackson could adjust his gaze he felt the soft, gentleness of fingers glide into his left hand. Looking at his left hand, his gaze started at her slender, delicate fingers with soft pink polished nails and traveled along her navy blue sweater-covered arm and up into sparkling teal green eyes. He felt the sparkle from her eyes right to the core of his being as he closed his fingers around hers and helped lift each lady to her feet.

“Thanks for the assist, Jackson.” Monica smiled at Jackson; his attention, however, was riveted on the other woman. Monica grinned and went on. “Jackson Atherton, this is my cousin Beth Monroe. She’s staying with me while she’s working on a few projects for work.”

Trying to mentally shake free from his mesmerized gaze, Jackson registered her name. Beth. His 5’11” athletic physique seemed to tower over her slender and petite 5’5” frame. Her hand still clasped in his, he smiled. “It’s very nice to meet you, Beth. I’m glad you could join us tonight.”

Beth felt a slow flush cover her as she smiled, a little shyly, and reluctantly removed her hand from his. She fidgeted, tucking her wavy shoulder-length, golden blonde hair behind one ear. “Thank you for having me. And for letting me crash your party. Monica said it was a friends thing tonight.”

Jackson chuckled. “You’re not crashing anything.”

“I told you not to think that, Beth.” Monica spoke in unison with Jackson. “They’re more than happy to have you join us.” Monica chided her cousin lovingly.

Recovering his senses, a broad grin filled Jackson’s face. Tilting his head toward Monica he said with a wink, “What she said. Come on. We’re gathering in the great room.” With a chivalrous bow, Jackson pointed the way through the living room.

Monica took the lead, followed by Beth. Jackson filed in behind them. Watching Beth walk across the floor Jackson took in the sight of her. Wow. She’s beautiful. And those eyes… Hmm…

 * * * * *

As the guests filtered in from the kitchen, living room, and foyer, Rick and Caroline mingled and greeted and visited. Upon seeing her brother Jackson enter from the living room behind the ladies, Caroline slowly migrated toward Rick near the majestic, sparkling Christmas tree.

Smiling down at Caroline, Rick said, “I just got the cue from Jackson; it looks like everyone is here.” He tilted his head to one side. “Are you ready, Sunshine?”

Caroline took a deep breath and looked out at their guests.

Jackson leaned against the doorframe to the living room while his gaze followed Monica and another woman as they crossed the floor along the back wall. Rick’s intern, Caleb, was clustered with another architect from the firm, and Caroline’s shooting buddy, Tom, and his girlfriend in the middle of the room motioning toward the beautiful Christmas tree. Nearby were a couple of Jackson’s coaches from the Park and Recreation Center sharing a story with great animation. Dave and Patty from their singles small group were making their way out of the kitchen and headed toward Monica.

Smiling up at him, her green eyes sparkling like the emeralds they mirrored, Caroline said, “I’m ready for all of it, Ricky.”

* * * * *

Sunshine and Ricky – the nicknames established more than fourteen years earlier when Caroline and Rick first met. Back when Caroline was still in high school, Rick came home for the holidays with her brother, Jackson. As Jackson’s new roommate, and having no family of his own, Rick was soon welcomed into the Atherton family as a new member. Rick became every bit the son and brother that Jackson was in the family – and that was the way it remained for fourteen years.

Through college and the establishment of their careers, Jackson, Caroline, and Rick built the most unique and tightly bonded relationship. From checkered pasts to devoted followers of the Lord, they shared all that life brought them and grew and encouraged each other. It was only during the past year that life and love shook up the status quo of their relationships.

* * * * *

Rick squeezed Caroline’s hand before catching Jackson’s eye. He gave a slight nod and Jackson stepped back into the living room. As the festive music faded, the din of chatter among friends began to fade as well.

“Hey friends, gather ’round,” Rick spoke loudly so all could hear as conversations slowly wound down. With all eyes on him, Rick continued. “First let me say welcome. Caroline, Jackson, and I are so glad you made it out tonight. And we’re very glad there are no big storms in the forecast tonight.”

Smiles and nods were seen all throughout the room. So far the winter had charged in like a wild lion with one snow storm after another. Not only was it a very white Christmas, but it looked to be a long, white winter as well.

“Otherwise this would turn into an impromptu slumber party,” came the boisterous, laughter filled comment from Coach Eddie, sending the room into spurts of laughter and comments.

“Well, we certainly have the space here if that were to happen,” said Rick, reining in the crowd. “But for now, it looks like we’ll be able to just enjoy a fun night of fellowship without concern for the weather. Now, before we turn up the dancing music, break out the games, and dig into all that good food in the kitchen, I’d like to take a minute to share a little something with you.”

The crowd became hushed and all attention once again focused on Rick and Caroline.

“I think most all of you know that this has been a difficult year for the three of us,” Rick motioned toward Caroline and Jackson, “as we’ve dealt with a year of “firsts” without our folks. But God has been so gracious in His care for us through your friendships, and we thank you for that. Still, there have been so many moments we would’ve loved to share with them… and this is one of them. In the midst of this year of grieving and changes, God has also allowed it to be a year of revelation and discovery.”

With Rick’s eyes and face radiating a warm and excited glow like sunshine, he continued, “A year where the most amazing thing has happened.”

Rick’s smile could not be contained. His energy and enthusiasm were contagious and some of the guests began to shift and even bounce in anticipation.

With a warm and genuine tenderness, he slipped his arm around Caroline’s shoulder and continued. “Not only have Caroline and I discovered that we’ve fallen in love with each other, but she’s also blessed me beyond measure by agreeing to be my wife! We’re getting married!”

Suddenly the room was alive with exclamations and applause. For some, the news was not a particularly new divulgence of information as they moved forward with easy congratulations. For others, there appeared to be a mix of emotions.

At the back of the room, in the would-be library, as Monica and Beth moved forward to offer their congratulations, Patty turned and looked thoughtfully at Dave.

“Oh, Dave, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Patty inquired in a soothing voice.

Dave had worked with Caroline in the church nursery for the past couple of years. For some time he had known he was more than just a little attracted to her, but he could never quite move their relationship beyond the companionable friendship they shared. Even though he had witnessed the relationship between Caroline and Rick and been suspect of its benign nature, as they all claimed for so long, he chose to believe that their relationship would remain as one of the quintessential brother and sister, while he held out a veiled hope that he could one day win her heart. Faced with the reality of that lost hope, Dave was unsure of what to think, feel, or say.

“I’m, I’m…” he stuttered. “I’m not quite sure what to think right now,” he said, defeated. “Of course I want to be happy for her; for both of them.”

“Of course you do, Dave. You’re a good friend. I just know how much you… well, I know how you felt.” Patty rested her hand on his arm.

“I’m stunned. Of course, I should’ve noticed. The signs have been there; even more so lately. It was foolish of me…” His voice trailed off as he looked out across the room at the festive group of well-wishers.

Caroline and Rick were glowing. Caroline showed off a stunning diamond sunburst engagement ring while exchanging hugs amidst a tangle of arms and the excitement of laughter. Rick could not seem to tear his adoring eyes off Caroline for any length of time as he shook hands and accepted congratulations.

Suddenly Dave felt ridiculous and conspicuous as he realized that, with the exception of Jackson, who remained leaning against the doorframe watching the throng of well-wishers with a satisfied grin, he and Patty were the only two not engaged in the celebration. Squaring his shoulders he took a deep breath and looked at Patty. “Come on, Patty, our friends just shared some wonderful news. Let’s go be supportive and happy for them. This is a celebration, not a pity party.”

With a sympathetic smile, Patty nodded and said, “You are absolutely right.” In a quiet whisper she added, “and if you need to talk later, I’ll be here.”

Smiles firmly in place, the two friends eased themselves into the joyful crowd and proceeded to offer their congratulations along with the rest.

*******

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