The choice, p.1
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The Choice


  Copyright © 2007 by Nicholas Sparks

  All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

  Grand Central Publishing

  Hachette Book Group

  237 Park Avenue

  New York, NY 10017

  Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroup.com.

  The Grand Central Publishing name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  First eBook Edition: September 2007

  ISBN: 978-0-446-40131-9

  Contents

  Copyright

  Acknowledgments

  Prologue

  Part One

  One

  Two

  Three

  Four

  Five

  Six

  Seven

  Eight

  Nine

  Ten

  Eleven

  Twelve

  Thirteen

  Fourteen

  Part Two

  Fifteen

  Sixteen

  Seventeen

  Eighteen

  Nineteen

  Twenty

  Twenty-one

  Twenty-two

  Epilogue

  ALSO BY NICHOLAS SPARKS

  The Notebook

  Message in a Bottle

  A Walk to Remember

  The Rescue

  A Bend in the Road

  Nights in Rodanthe

  The Guardian

  The Wedding

  Three Weeks with My Brother (with Micah Sparks)

  True Believer

  At First Sight

  Dear John

  For the Lewis family:

  Bob, Debbie, Cody, and Cole.

  My family.

  Acknowledgments

  Okay, I’ll be honest. It’s sometimes hard for me to write acknowledgments for the simple reason that my life as an author has been blessed with a kind of professional stability that strikes me as somewhat rare in this day and age. When I think back to my earlier novels and reread the acknowledgments in, say, Message in a Bottle or The Rescue, I see names of people with whom I still work today. Not only have I had the same literary agent and editor since I began writing, but I’ve worked with the same publicists, film agent, entertainment attorney, cover designer, and salespeople, and one producer has been responsible for three of the four film adaptations. While it’s wonderful, it also makes me feel like something of a broken record when it comes to thanking these people. Nonetheless, each and every one of them deserves my gratitude.

  Of course, I have to begin—as always—with thanking Cat, my wife. We’ve been married eighteen years and have shared quite a life together: five children, eight dogs (at various times), six different residences in three different states, three very sad funerals of various members of my family, twelve novels and another nonfiction work. It’s been a whirlwind since the beginning, and I can’t imagine experiencing any of it with anyone else.

  My children—Miles, Ryan, Landon, Lexie, and Savannah—are growing up, slowly but surely, and while I love them dearly, I’m proud of each and every one of them.

  Theresa Park, my agent at Park Literary Group, is not only one of my closest friends, but a fantastic one at that. Intelligent, charming, and kind, she’s one of the great blessings of my life, and I’d like to thank her for everything she’s done.

  Jamie Raab, my editor at Grand Central Publishing, also deserves my gratitude for all she does. She puts the pencil to the manuscript in hopes of making it the best it can be, and I’m fortunate to have had access to her intuitive wisdom when it comes to novels. More than that, I’m lucky to call her a friend.

  Denise DiNovi, the fabulous producer of A Walk to Remember, Message in a Bottle, and Nights in Rodanthe, is my best friend in Hollywood, and I look forward to those times on the film set, simply so we have a chance to visit.

  David Young, the new CEO of Grand Central Publishing (well, not exactly new anymore, I suppose), has not only become a friend, but one who deserves my heartfelt thanks, if only because I have the nasty tendency to deliver my manuscripts at the very last possible moment. Sorry about that.

  Both Jennifer Romanello and Edna Farley are publicists and friends, and I’ve adored working with them since The Notebook was published in 1996. Thanks for all that you do!

  Harvey-Jane Kowal and Sona Vogel, who do the copy-editing, always deserve my thanks for catching the “little errors” that inevitably crop up in my novels.

  Howie Sanders and Keya Khayatian at UTA deserve my thanks for the good fortune I’ve had in film adaptations. I appreciate all that both of you do.

  Scott Schwimer always watches out for me, and I’ve come to think of him as a friend. Thanks, Scott!

  Many thanks to Marty Bowen, the producer responsible for Dear John. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.

  Thanks again to Flag for another wonderful cover.

  And finally, many thanks to Shannon O’Keefe, Abby Koons, Sharon Krassney, David Park, Lynn Harris, and Mark Johnson.

  Prologue

  February 2007

  Stories are as unique as the people who tell them, and the best stories are those in which the ending is a surprise. At least, that’s what Travis Parker recalled his dad telling him when he was a child. Travis remembered the way his dad would sit on the bed beside him, his mouth curling into a smile as Travis begged for a story.

  “What kind of story do you want?” his dad would ask.

  “The best one ever,” Travis would answer.

  Usually, his dad would sit quietly for a few moments, and then his eyes would light up. He’d put his arm around Travis and in a pitch-perfect voice would launch into a story that often kept Travis awake long after his dad had turned out the lights. There was always adventure and danger and excitement and journeys that took place in and around the small coastal town of Beaufort, North Carolina, the place Travis Parker grew up in and still called home. Strangely, most of them included bears. Grizzly bears, brown bears, Kodiak bears . . . his dad wasn’t a stickler for reality when it came to a bear’s natural habitat. He focused on hair-raising chase scenes through the sandy lowlands, giving Travis nightmares about crazed polar bears on Shackleford Banks until he was well into middle school. Yet no matter how frightened the stories had made him, he would inevitably ask, “What happened next?”

  To Travis, those days seemed like the innocent vestiges of another era. He was forty-three now, and as he parked his car in the parking lot of Carteret General Hospital, where his wife had worked for the past ten years, he thought again about the words he’d always said to his father.

  After stepping out of the car, he reached for the flowers he’d brought. The last time he and his wife had spoken, they’d had an argument, and more than anything he wanted to take back his words and make amends. He was under no illusions that the flowers would make things better between them, but he wasn’t sure what else to do. It went without saying that he felt guilty about what had happened, but married friends had assured him that guilt was the cornerstone of any good marriage. It meant that a conscience was at work, values were held in high esteem, and reasons to feel guilty were best avoided whenever possible. His friends sometimes admitted their failures in this particular area, and Travis figured that the same could be said about any couple he’d ever met. He supposed his friends had said it to make him feel better, to reassure him that no one was perfect, that he shouldn’t be so hard on himself. “Everyone makes mistakes,” they’d said, and though he’d nodded as if he believed them, he knew they would never understand what he was going through. They couldn’t. After all, their wives were still sleeping beside them every night; none of them had ever been separated for three months, none of them wondered whether their marriage would ever return to what it once had been.

  As he crossed the parking lot, he thought about both of his daughters, his job, his wife. At the moment, none of them gave him much comfort. He felt as though he were failing in practically every area of his life. Lately, happiness seemed as distant and unattainable to him as space travel. He hadn’t always felt this way. There had been a long period of time during which he remembered being very happy. But things change. People change. Change was one of the inevitable laws of nature, exacting its toll on people’s lives. Mistakes are made, regrets form, and all that was left were repercussions that made something as simple as rising from the bed seem almost laborious.

  Shaking his head, he approached the door of the hospital, picturing himself as the child he had been, listening to his father’s stories. His own life had been the best story ever, he mused, the kind of story that should have ended on a happy note. As he reached for the door, he felt the familiar rush of memory and regret.

  Only later, after he let the memories overtake him once again, would he allow himself to wonder what would happen next.

  Part One

  One

  May 1996

  Tell me again why I agreed to help you with this.” Matt, red-faced and grunting, continued to push the spa toward the recently cut square at the far edge of the deck. His feet slipped, and he could feel sweat pouring from his forehead into the corners of his eyes, making them sting. It was hot, way too hot for early May. Too damn hot for this, that’s for sure. Even Travis’s dog, Moby, was hiding in the shade and panting, his tongue hanging out.

  Travis Parker, who was pushing the massive box alongside him, managed to shrug. “Because you thought it would be fun,” he said. He lowered his shoulder and shoved; the spa—which must have weighed four hundred pounds—moved another couple of inches. At this rate, the spa should be in place, oh . . . sometime next week.

  “This is ridiculous,” Matt said, heaving his weight into the box, thinking that what they really needed was a team of mules. His back was killing him. For a moment, he visualized his ears blowing off the sides of his head from the strain, shooting in both directions like the bottle rockets he and Travis used to launch as kids.

  “You’ve already said that.”

  “And it isn’t fun,” Matt grunted.

  “You said that, too.”

  “And it isn’t going to be easy to install.”

  “Sure it is,” Travis said. He stood and pointed to the lettering on the box. “See? It says right here, ‘Easy to Install.’” From his spot beneath the shady tree, Moby—a purebred boxer—barked as if in agreement, and Travis smiled, looking way too pleased with himself.

  Matt scowled, trying to catch his breath. He hated that look. Well, not always. Most of the time he enjoyed his friend’s boundless enthusiasm. But not today. Definitely not today.

  Matt reached for the bandanna in his rear pocket. It was soaked with sweat, which had of course done wonders for the seat of his pants. He wiped his face and wrung the bandanna with a quick twist. Sweat dribbled from it like a leaky faucet onto the top of his shoe. He stared at it almost hypnotically, before feeling it soak through the light mesh fabric, giving his toes a nice, slimy feel. Oh, that was just dandy, wasn’t it?

  “As I recall, you said Joe and Laird would be here to help us with your ‘little project’ and that Megan and Allison would cook some burgers and we’d have beer, and that—oh yeah, installing this thing should only take a couple of hours at the most.”

  “They’re coming,” Travis said.

  “You said that four hours ago.”

  “They must be running a little late.”

  “Maybe you never called them at all.”

  “Of course I called them. And they’re bringing the kids, too. I promise.”

  “When?”

  “Soon.”

  “Uh-huh,” Matt answered. He stuffed the bandanna back in his pocket. “And by the way—assuming they don’t arrive soon, just how on earth do you think the two of us will be able to lower this thing into place?”

  Travis dismissed the problem with a wave as he turned toward the box again. “We’ll figure it out. Just think how well we’ve done so far. We’re almost halfway there.”

  Matt scowled again. It was Saturday—Saturday! His day of recreation and relaxation, his chance to escape from the grindstone, the break he earned after five days at the bank, the kind of day he needed. He was a loan officer, for God’s sake! He was supposed to push paper, not hot tubs! He could have been watching the Braves play the Dodgers! He could have been golfing! He could have gone to the beach! He could have slept in with Liz before heading to her parents’ house like they did almost every Saturday, instead of waking at the crack of dawn and performing manual labor for eight straight hours beneath a scalding southern sun. . . .

  He paused. Who was he kidding? Had he not been here, he would have definitely spent the day with Liz’s parents, which was, in all honesty, the main reason he’d agreed to Travis’s request in the first place. But that wasn’t the point. The point was, he didn’t need this. He really didn’t.

  “I don’t need this,” he said. “I really don’t.”

  Travis didn’t seem to hear him. His hands were already on the box, and he was getting into position. “You ready?”

  Matt lowered his shoulder, feeling bitter. His legs were shaking. Shaking! He already knew he’d be in serious, double-dose-of-Advil pain in the morning. Unlike Travis, he didn’t make it into the gym four days a week or play racquetball or go running or go scuba diving in Aruba or surfing in Bali or skiing in Vail or anything else the guy did. “This isn’t fun, you know?”

  Travis winked. “You said that already, remember?”

  “Wow!” Joe commented, lifting an eyebrow as he walked the perimeter of the hot tub. By then, the sun was beginning its descent, streams of gold reflecting off the bay. In the distance, a heron broke from the trees and gracefully skimmed the surface, dispersing the light. Joe and Megan, along with Laird and Allison, had arrived a few minutes before with kids in tow, and Travis was showing them around. “This looks great! You two did all of this today?”

  Travis nodded, holding his beer. “It wasn’t so bad,” he said. “I think Matt even enjoyed it.”

  Joe glanced at Matt, who lay flattened in a lawn chair off to the side of the deck, a cold rag over his head. Even his belly—Matt had always been on the pudgy side—seemed to sag.

  “I can see that.”

  “Was it heavy?”

  “Like an Egyptian sarcophagus!” Matt croaked. “One of those gold ones that only cranes can move!”

  Joe laughed. “Can the kids get in?”

  “Not yet. I just filled it, and the water will take a little while to heat up. The sun will help, though.”

  “The sun will heat it within minutes!” Matt moaned. “Within seconds!”

  Joe grinned. Laird and the three of them had gone to school together since kindergarten.

  “Tough day, Matt?”

  Matt removed the rag and scowled at Joe. “You have no idea. And thanks for showing up on time.”

  “Travis said to be here at five. If I had known you needed help, I would have come earlier.”

  Matt slowly shifted his gaze to Travis. He really hated his friend sometimes.

  “How’s Tina doing?” Travis said, changing the subject. “Is Megan getting any sleep?”

  Megan was chatting with Allison at the table on the far end of the deck, and Joe glanced briefly in her direction. “Some. Tina’s cough is gone and she’s been able to sleep through the night again, but sometimes I just think that Megan isn’t wired to sleep. At least, not since she became a mom. She gets up even if Tina hasn’t made a peep. It’s like the quiet wakes her up.”

  “She’s a good mom,” Travis said. “She always has been.”

  Joe turned to Matt. “Where’s Liz?” he asked.

  “She should be here any minute,” Matt answered, his voice floating up as if from the dead. “She spent the day with her parents.”

  “Lovely,” Joe commented.

  “Be nice. They’re good people.”

  “I seem to recall you saying that if you had to sit through one more of your father-in-law’s stories about his prostate cancer or listen to your mother-in-law fret about Henry getting fired again—even though it wasn’t his fault—you were going to stick your head in the oven.”

  Matt struggled to sit up. “I never said that!”

  “Yes, you did.” Joe winked as Matt’s wife, Liz, rounded the corner of the house with Ben toddling just in front of her. “But don’t worry. I won’t say a word.”

  Matt’s eyes darted nervously from Liz to Joe and back again, checking to see if she’d heard.

  “Hey, y’all!” Liz called out with a friendly wave, leading little Ben by the hand. She made a beeline for Megan and Allison. Ben broke away and toddled toward the other kids in the yard.

  Joe saw Matt sigh in relief. He grinned and lowered his voice. “So . . . Matt’s in-laws. Is that how you conned him into coming here?”

  “I might have mentioned it,” Travis smirked.

  Joe laughed.

  “What are you guys saying?” Matt called out suspiciously.

  “Nothing,” they said in unison.

  Later, with the sun down and the food eaten, Moby curled up at Travis’s feet. As he listened to the sound of the kids splashing away in the spa, Travis felt a wave of satisfaction wash over him. This was his favorite kind of evening, whiled away to the sound of shared laughter and familiar banter. One minute Allison was talking to Joe; the next minute she was chatting with Liz and then Laird or Matt; and so on for everyone seated around the outdoor table. No pretenses, no attempts to impress, no one trying to show anyone up. His life, he sometimes thought, resembled a beer commercial, and for the most part, he was content simply to ride the current of good feeling.

 
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