At first sight, p.1
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       At First Sight, p.1

         Part #2 of Jeremy Marsh series by Nicholas Sparks  
At First Sight


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  In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher is unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at permissions@hbgusa.com. Thank you for your support of the author's rights.

  This novel is dedicated to

  Miles, Ryan, Landon, Lexie,

  and Savannah

  Acknowledgments

  For this novel in particular, I have to thank my wife, Cathy. Not only was she the inspiration for Lexie's character, but she showed amazing patience while I was writing the novel. I wake every day knowing that I'm lucky to have married her.

  My kids--Miles, Ryan, Landon, Lexie, and Savannah--who never let me forget that even though I'm an author, I'm first and foremost a father.

  Theresa Park, my agent, deserves my thanks for letting me bend her ear whenever the mood strikes. But more than that, she always knows exactly what to say when the going gets tough. I'm fortunate to work with her.

  Jamie Raab, my editor, has once again earned my undying gratitude. She's not only insightful, but charming, and I couldn't have written this book without her.

  Larry Kirshbaum, the illustrious head of Time Warner Book Group, is heading to different pastures, but I can't let him leave without a final word of praise. I know it was a tough decision, but I'm sure you know what's best for you. It's been my honor and privilege to work with you, and I'd like to wish you the best of luck in whatever future awaits.

  Maureen Egen, another "biggie" at Time Warner Book Group, has always been a delight. She's as sharp as they come, and I've loved every minute we've spent together.

  Denise Di Novi, my patron saint in the world of Hollywood, is, and always has been, a blessing in my life.

  Howie Sanders and Dave Park, my agents at UTA, always look out for me, and I'm thankful to work with them.

  Jennifer Romanello and Edna Farley, my publicists, are both fabulous and gifted. They are treasures, and it's because of them that I'm still able to get out and meet my readers.

  Lynn Harris and Mark Johnson, responsible for The Notebook, are, and always will be, my friends.

  Scott Schwimer, my attorney, has not only a kind heart, but an extraordinary ability to make sure every contract is just as it should be.

  Flag, who does my covers; Harvey-Jane Kowal, who handles some of the editing; and Shannon O'Keefe, Sharon Krassney, and Julie Barer also deserve my gratitude.

  I'd like to thank a few more people. First, Dr. Rob Patterson, who talked to me about amniotic band syndrome. If I got anything right, it's because of him; attribute all errors to me. And to Todd Edwards, who salvaged this novel from the hard drive when my computer crashed, all I can say is that I'm grateful that he was around.

  Finally, I'd like to thank Dave Simpson, Philemon Gray, Slade Trabucco, and the track athletes at New Bern High School and TRACK EC (the Junior Olympic program) whom I've had the pleasure to meet and coach. Thanks for giving me your best.

  Prologue

  February 2005

  Is love at first sight truly possible?

  Sitting in his living room, he turned the question over in his mind for what seemed to be the hundredth time. Outside, the winter sun had long since set. A grayish sheen of fog was visible through the window, and aside from the gentle tap of a branch against the glass, all was quiet. Yet he wasn't alone, and he pulled himself up from his spot on the couch and walked down the hall to peek in on her. As he stared, he thought about lying beside her, if only to have an excuse to shut his eyes. He could use the rest, but he didn't want to risk falling asleep just yet. Instead he watched as she shifted slightly, his mind drifting to the past. He thought again about the path that had brought them together. Who was he then? And who was he now? On the surface, those questions seemed easy. His name was Jeremy; he was forty-two years old, the son of an Irish father and Italian mother; and he wrote magazine articles for a living. Those were answers he would offer when asked. Though they were true, he sometimes wondered whether he should add something more. Should he mention, for instance, that he'd traveled to North Carolina five years ago to investigate a mystery? That he fell in love there, not once but twice that year? Or that the beauty of those memories was intertwined with sadness and that even now he questioned which memories would endure?

  He turned away from the bedroom doorway and returned to the living room. Though he didn't dwell on those events from long ago, he didn't avoid thinking about them, either. He could no more erase that chapter of his life than he could change his birthday. While there were times when he wished he could roll back the clock and erase all the sadness, he had a hunch that if he did so, the joy would be diminished as well. And that was something he couldn't contemplate.

  It was in the darkest hours of the night that he most often found himself remembering his night with Lexie in the cemetery, the night he'd seen the ghostly lights that he'd come down from New York to investigate. It was then, however, that he'd realized for the first time how much Lexie meant to him. As they had waited in the blackness of the cemetery, Lexie had told him a story about herself. She'd been orphaned as a young child, she explained. Jeremy had already known that, but what he didn't know was that she'd begun having nightmares a few years after the deaths of her parents. Terrible, recurring nightmares in which she witnessed the death of her parents. Her grandmother Doris, not knowing what else to do, finally brought her to the cemetery to see the mysterious lights. To a young child, the lights were miraculous, heavenly, and Lexie instantly recognized them as the ghosts of her parents. It was, somehow, what she'd needed to believe, and those nightmares never plagued her again.

  Jeremy had been touched by her story, moved by her loss and the power of innocent beliefs. But later that night, after he too had seen the lights, he'd asked Lexie what she thought they really were. She'd leaned forward then and whispered, "It was my parents. They probably wanted to meet you."

  It was then that he knew he wanted to take her in his arms. He'd long since pinpointed that as the moment he first fell in love with her, and he'd never stopped loving her.

  Outside, the February wind picked up again. Beyond the murky darkness, he could see nothing, and he lay down on the couch with a weary sigh, feeling the pull of that year draw him backward in time. He could have forced the images away, but as he stared at the ceiling, he let them come. He always let them come.

  This, he remembered, is what happened next.

  One

  Five Years Earlier

  New York City, 2000

  See, it's simple," Alvin said. "First, you meet a nice girl, and then you date for a while to make sure you share the same values. See if you two are compatible in the big, 'this is our life and we're in it together' decisions. You know, talk about which family you're going to visit on the holidays, whether you want to live in a house or an apartment, whether to get a dog or a cat, who gets to use the shower first in the morning, while there's still plenty of hot water. If you two are still pretty much in agreement, then you get married. Are you following me here?"

  "I'm following you," Jeremy said.

  Jeremy Marsh and Alvin Bernstein were standing in Jeremy's Upper West Side apartment on a cool Saturday afternoon in February. They'd been packing for hours, and boxes were strewn everywhere. Some of the boxes were already filled and had been stacked near the door, ready for the moving van; others were in various stages of completion. All in all, it looked as if a Tasmanian devil had burst through the door, had himself a party, then left once there was nothing else to be destroyed. Jeremy couldn't believe how much junk he'd accumulated over the years, a fact that his fiancee, Lexie Darnell, had been pointing out all morning. Twenty minutes ago, after throwing up her hands in frustration, Lexie had gone to have lunch with Jeremy's mother, leaving Jeremy and Alvin alone for the first time.

  "So what on earth do you think you're doing?" Alvin prodded.

  "Just what you said."

  "No, you're not. You're messing up the order. You're going straight to the big 'I do' before you even figured out whether you two are right for each other. You barely know Lexie."

  Jeremy shoved another drawer's worth of clothing into a box, wishing Alvin would change the subject. "I know her."

  Alvin began shuffling through a few papers on Jeremy's desk, then shoved the stack into the same box Jeremy was loading. As Jeremy's best friend, he felt free to speak his mind.

  "I'm just trying to be honest here, and you should know that I'm saying what everyone else in your family has been thinking in the past few weeks. The point is, you don't know her well enough to move down there, let alone marry her. You only spent a week with her. This isn't like you and Maria," he added, referring to Jeremy's ex. "Remember, I knew Maria, too, a whole lot better than you know Lexie, but I still never felt as if I knew her well enough to marry her."

  Jeremy removed the pages and put them back on his desk, recalling that Alvin had known Maria even before he had and still remained friends with her. "So?"

  "So? What if I was doing this? What if I came to you and said I met this great lady, so I'm giving up my career, abandoning my friends and family, and moving down south so I can marry her? Like that gal... what's her name... Rachel?"

  Rachel worked at Lexie's grandmother's restaurant, and Alvin had hit on her during his short visit to Boone Creek, going so far as to invite her to New York.

  "I'd say that I was happy for you."

  "Puh-lease. Don't you remember what you said when I was thinking about marrying Eva?"

  "I remember. But this is different."

  "Oh yeah, I get it. Because you're more mature than me."

  "That and the fact that Eva wasn't exactly the marrying type."

  This was true, Alvin admitted. While Lexie was a small-town librarian in the rural South, someone hoping to settle down, Eva was a tattoo artist in Jersey City. She was the woman who'd done most of the tattoos on Alvin's arms, in addition to most of the piercings in Alvin's ears, making Alvin look as if he'd just been released from prison. None of which had bothered Alvin; it was the live-in boyfriend that she'd neglected to tell him about that finally doomed their relationship.

  "Even Maria thinks this is crazy."

  "You told her?"

  "Of course I told her. We talk about everything."

  "I'm glad you're so close to my ex-wife. But it's none of her business. Or yours."

  "I'm just trying to talk some sense into you. This is happening too fast. You don't know Lexie."

  "Why do you keep saying that?"

  "I'm going to keep saying it until you finally admit that you two are basically strangers."

  Alvin, like Jeremy's five older brothers, had never learned how to drop a subject. The man was like a dog with a bone, Jeremy decided.

  "She's not a stranger."

  "No? Then what's her middle name?"

  "What?"

  "You heard me. Tell me Lexie's middle name."

  Jeremy blinked. "What's that got to do with anything?"

  "Nothing. But if you're going to marry her, don't you think you should be able to answer the question?"

  Jeremy opened his mouth to answer, then realized he didn't know. Lexie had never told him, nor had he ever asked. Alvin, as if sensing that he was finally getting through to his delusional friend, pressed on.

  "Okay, how about these basics? What was her major in college? Who were her friends in college? What's her favorite color? Does she like white or whole-wheat bread? What's her favorite movie or television show? Who's her favorite author? Do you even know how old she is?"

  "She's in her thirties," Jeremy offered.

  "In her thirties? I could have told you that."

  "I'm pretty sure she's thirty-one."

  "You're 'pretty sure'? Can you even hear how ridiculous you sound? You can't marry someone if you don't even know how old she is."

  Jeremy opened another drawer and emptied it into another box, knowing that Alvin had a point but not wanting to admit it. Instead, he drew a long breath.

  "I thought you were happy I finally found someone," he said.

  "I am happy for you. But I didn't think you were actually going to move from New York and decide to marry her. I thought you were kidding about that. You know I think she's a great lady. She really is, and if you're still this serious about her in a year or two, I'll drag you down the aisle myself. You're just rushing things, and there's no reason to."

  Jeremy turned toward the window; beyond the glass he saw gray, soot-covered bricks framing the functional, rectangular windows of a neighboring building. Shadowed images swept past: a lady talking on the phone; a man wrapped in a towel headed for the bathroom; another woman ironing as she watched television. In all the time he'd lived here, he'd never said so much as hello to any of them.

  "She's pregnant," he finally said.

  For a moment, Alvin thought he hadn't heard correctly. It was only when he saw the expression on his friend's face that he realized Jeremy wasn't kidding.

  "She's pregnant?"

  "It's a girl."

  Alvin plopped down on the bed as if his legs had suddenly given out. "Why didn't you tell me?"

  Jeremy shrugged. "She asked me not to tell anyone yet. So keep it a secret, will you?"

  "Yeah," Alvin said, sounding dazed. "Sure."

  "And one more thing."

  Alvin looked up.

  Jeremy reached for his shoulder. "I'd like you to be my best man."

  How had it happened?

  Strolling with Lexie as she explored FAO Schwarz the next day, he still had trouble answering that question. Not the pregnancy part; that was a night he'd probably remember forever. Despite the brave front he'd put on for Alvin, it sometimes felt as if he were about to play a part in a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy, one in which anything was possible and nothing was certain until the final credits rolled.

  What happened to him, after all, didn't usually happen. In fact, it almost never happened. Who travels to a small town to write an article for Scientific American, meets a small-town librarian, and falls head over heels in just a few days? Who decides to leave behind a chance at morning television and life in New York City to move to Boone Creek, North Carolina, a town that was nothing more than a hiccup on the map?

  So many questions these days.

  Not that he was second-guessing himself about what he was about to do. In fact, as he watched Lexie sorting through stacks of GI Joes and Barbies--she wanted to surprise his many nieces and nephews with gifts in the hope of making a good impression--he felt more certain than ever about his decision. He smiled, already visualizing the kind of life he was about to settle into. Quiet dinners, romantic walks, giggling and cuddling in front of the television. Good stuff, stuff that made life worthwhile. He wasn't naive enough to believe they'd never have an argument or struggle, but he had no doubt they would navigate those rough waters successfully, realizing in the end that they were perfectly matched. In the big picture, life would be wonderful.

  But as Lexie nudged past him, lost in concentration, Jeremy found himself staring at another couple standing by a pile of stuffed animals. Actually, the couple was impossible not to notice. They were in their early thirties and sharply dressed; he had the air of an investment banker or an attorney, while his wife came across like someone who spent every afternoon at Bloomingdale's. They were loaded with half a dozen bags from half a dozen different stores. The diamond on her finger was the size of a marble--far larger than the engagement ring he'd just purchased for Lexie. As Jeremy watched, he had no doubt that they usually brought along a nanny on an outing like this, simply because they seemed completely bewildered as to what they were supposed to do.

  The baby in the stroller was screaming, the kind of piercing wail that peeled wallpaper and made others in the store stop in their tracks. At exactly the same time, her older brother--maybe four or so--was screaming even more loudly and suddenly threw himself down on the floor. The parents wore the panicked, shell-shocked expressions of soldiers under fire, and it was impossible not to notice the bags under their eyes and the translucent pallor of their faces. Despite the impeccable facade, they were plainly at the end of their rope. The mother finally worked the baby free from the stroller and held the infant against her as the husband leaned toward her, patting the baby's back.

  "Don't you think I'm trying to quiet her down?" she barked. "Deal with Elliot!"

  Chastised, the man bent down toward his son, who was kicking and pounding the floor, throwing the mother of all temper tantrums.

  "Stop that screaming right now!" the husband said sternly, shaking his finger.

  Oh yeah, Jeremy thought. Like that's going to do it.

  Elliot, meanwhile, was turning purple as he writhed on the floor.

  By that point, even Lexie had stopped browsing and turned her attention to the couple. It was, Jeremy thought, sort of like staring at a woman who mowed her lawn in her bikini, the kind of spectacle impossible to ignore. The baby screamed, Elliot screamed, the wife screamed at the father to do something, the father screamed back that he was trying.

  A crowd had gathered, ringing the happy family. The women seemed to be watching them with a mixture of thankfulness and pity: thankful that it wasn't happening to them, but knowing--most likely from experience--exactly what the young couple was going through. The men, on the other hand, seemed to want nothing more than to get as far away from the noise as possible.

  Elliot banged his head on the floor and began to scream even louder.

 
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