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The mistletoe secret, p.1
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       The Mistletoe Secret, p.1

           Richard Paul Evans
 
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The Mistletoe Secret


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  To Trish Todd

  With gratitude for your boundless patience.

  It’s been a pleasure working with you.

  PROLOGUE

  Aria winced as she picked up a half-eaten rice-paper egg roll that someone had smashed into the table’s crystal centerpiece. “Really? Would you do that at your own home?” she mumbled to herself, then dropped the roll into the tub she was busing the table with. The diner she worked at occasionally catered weddings, and in a town as small as Midway, Aria always knew someone at the ­wedding—usually the bride or groom, if not both. At tonight’s celebration the bride, Charise, was her boss’s niece.

  The bride had looked beautiful in her lace-topped, ivory satin dress. Beautiful and happy. Aria scolded herself for wondering how long it would last.

  She remembered her own wedding day and the ­beautiful dress she’d had to sell three months ago to make rent after her Jeep’s alternator went out. Even though it hadn’t been much of a wedding, not even by a small town’s standards, she had been happy then too. She had the pictures to prove it. But there had been cracks in the façade of nuptial bliss. Her groom, Wade, had been controlling and short-tempered and shouted at her just a half hour before the wedding ceremony, berating her for inviting someone he didn’t like to the wedding. He had also drunk a lot and embarrassed the few people who actually showed up to the party. She remembered fearing that she’d made a mistake, a fear she quickly brushed away with thoughts of her alternative option—embarrassment, loneliness, and living with her mother.

  All the same, her fear had been right. Just a few years after the ceremony, Wade left her stranded—alone and broke in a small, Swiss-style town out west, far from her home in Minnesota. And tonight she was picking up the mess of someone else’s wedding before going home alone. She tried to ignore the painful inner voices that chided her. If she never made it home, would anyone really care? Would it be this way the rest of her life? And the biggest question of all: Is anyone else out there?

  CHAPTER

  One

  Whether we admit it or not, most of us live our lives on autopilot. We wake at the same hour, go to the same place of work or worship, talk to the same people, eat at the same restaurants, even watch the same TV shows. I’m not criticizing this. Habit is stability and stability is vital to survival. There’s a reason farmers don’t change crops midseason. When wisdom does not require change, it is wisdom not to change.

  But sometimes the evolving terrain of life requires us to evolve with it. When those times come, we usually find ourselves quivering on the precipice of change as long as we can, because no one wants to dive headlong into the ravine of uncertainty. No one. Only when the pain of being becomes too much do we close our eyes and leap.

  This is the story of my jump—a time when I did one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever done: I hunted down a woman I didn’t know, in a small town I’d never heard of, just because of something she posted on the Internet.

  I’ve heard it said that solitude is among the greatest of all suffering. It’s true, I think. Humans don’t do well alone. But it’s not really solitude that’s the problem—it’s loneliness. The difference between solitude and loneliness is that one exists in the physical world, and the other exists in the heart. A person can be in solitude but not lonely, and vice versa. My job has taken me to some of the most crowded cities in the world and I’ve still seen and felt loneliness. I’ve seen it in the cold spaces between strangers jostling next to one another on the crowded sidewalks. I’ve heard it in a thousand rushed conversations. We have more access to humanity than ever before and less connection.

  I’m not a stranger to loneliness. It was part of my childhood. There was loneliness between my mother and father. They never divorced. I think they stayed together because they didn’t want to be alone, but they were terribly lonely. And terribly unhappy. By the time I was sixteen I promised myself that if I ever got married, my marriage would be different. Ah, the best-laid plans.

  My name is Alex Bartlett. Bartlett like the pear. If I had to pick a starting point for when my story began, it was this time last year, approaching the holidays.

  I live and work in Daytona Beach, Florida, a town made famous by fast cars and smooth beaches. I have one of those unromantic jobs with a company you’ve never heard of, doing something you’ve never thought about and never would have if I didn’t tell you about it. I work for a company called ­Traffix. We sell traffic management systems for transportation departments. Basically, the product I sell counts the vehicles on the freeway and then sends in traffic analyses. If you’ve ever seen one of those electric freeway signs that tell you how many minutes to the airport, that’s probably my company’s software doing the calculating. I don’t design it. I just sell it.

  My sales territory was in the US Northwest, which includes Northern California, Oregon, and Washington State. Since I live on the East Coast, that meant I traveled a lot for work, sometimes for stretches of weeks. I hated the loneliness of the road and being gone from home. My wife, Jill, hated my traveling too. But only at first. After a few years, she got used to it and took to creating a life without me. It seemed that every time I came home, reentry was more difficult. After five years she seemed indifferent to my traveling. I was lonely at home as well.

  Believing that my absence was hurting our marriage, I took a pay cut and traveled less. But as soon as I started spending more time at home, I realized that things had changed more than I realized. At least Jill had. She was different. She seemed uninterested in us—or maybe just me. She had become secretive.

  Then she started traveling with a group of women she met online. At least that’s what she told me she was doing. One day I was helping out with the laundry while she was gone and I found a folded-up, handwritten note in her jeans.

  My deer one,

  Each day were apart from each other feels like years. Your so far away. Im sorry that I couldnt come with you this time. I cant bear the idea of loosing you. I cant wate until you return and we will feest again on each others love.

  —Your Clark

  A sick, paralyzing fear went through my body. My face flushed red and my hands began to tremble. The idiot couldn’t even spell. But idiot or not he had my wife. When I had calmed down enough to speak I called Jill.

  “Who’s Clark?” I asked.

  There was a long pause. “Clark? Why?”

  “Tell me who he is.”

  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

  “I found a note from him in your jeans.”

  She hesitated for a moment, then said, “Oh, right. He’s Katherine’s lover. She handed that note to me as we got off the Phoenix flight so her husband didn’t find it. It’s nothing. I mean, to Katherine it’s something, she wanted me to hold on to it, but it has nothing to do with me.”

  I just sat there processing her excuse. The fact that Jill’s name wasn’t on the note left me little ground to dispute her claim, even though it seemed unlikely. “You’re not cheating on me?”

  “Why would I cheat on you?”

  “But Katherine’s cheating on her husband.”

  “Yes. And I can’t say that I blame her. She’s been going to divorce him for, like, two years, she’s just waiting for the right time. He’s go
t a bunch of real estate deals pending and she doesn’t want to throw a divorce on top of that.”

  “Thoughtful of her,” I said sarcastically.

  “She’s not doing it for him,” she said, apparently missing my sarcasm. “If these sales go through, she’ll make a boatload in the divorce. Why would you think I was cheating on you?”

  I wasn’t sure how to answer. “You’re gone a lot lately.”

  “You’ve been gone most of our marriage. I never assumed you were cheating.”

  I honestly didn’t know if I should feel more foolish for doubting her or for believing her. I finally just breathed out slowly. “All right. Be safe. I miss you.”

  “I miss you too. ’Bye.”

  We were together only five days after she returned before I left town on business to Tacoma. A week later I came home to an empty house and a note on the kitchen table.

  Dear Alex,

  There is a season for all things and it is my season to spread my wings and fly. I can no longer be held inside this cage, gilded though it may be, like a sad, lonely bird. I cannot bear the thought of someday looking back with regret over what might have been.

  It’s not you, Alex, at least it hasn’t been your intent to keep me so unhappy. You are a kind soul. It’s me and the human spirit yearning to fly. I need to be free and freedom cannot be contained within the shackles of a loveless marriage. I wish you to find freedom and love as well.

  Sincerely,

  Jill

  P.S. I took the money from our savings and 401k.

  She needed to be “free?” She was already free to do whatever she wanted, wherever and whenever she wanted. It was painful not understanding, not knowing what she meant, other than not wanting to be attached to me.

  A few weeks later, pictures surfaced online of my ex-wife with another man. She wasn’t traveling with “just the girls” as she had claimed. I saw a picture of Clark with his arm around my wife. He looked like a cross between a young Tom Selleck and a mandrill monkey. I felt like such an idiot for missing her secrets and believing her lies. Especially for believing her lies. The lies hurt more than her betrayal. Anyone can have their head turned, but the lies were continual evidence that she didn’t love me. She hadn’t for a very long time. Maybe she never had.

  I vowed that I would never let someone lie to me again.

  Now that she was gone I was just as alone as when I had been married, only now it was official. Some of us, maybe most of us, are good at attracting what we claim we don’t want. My life seemed doomed to loneliness.

  CHAPTER

  Two

  It was the Friday evening before Thanksgiving and I was still at work. Half the office lights were off and, except for the janitorial staff, I hadn’t seen anyone in the building for several hours. I didn’t really need to work late, I just didn’t have anywhere else to be and going home to an empty apartment was the last thing I wanted to do.

  A little after eight, I heard footsteps shuffling toward me. I looked up to see Nate, one of my co-workers, leaning against his cane and holding out an unopened can of Red Bull. “Here, man. Just what every insomniac needs for dinner.”

  I took the can from him and popped its tab. “Thanks.”

  “How’s it going?”

  “It’s going.”

  I had worked with Nate for about three and a half years in the sales department, and during that time he’d become more friend than co-worker. I’d always thought that Nate didn’t look like a salesman. He was a scary-looking guy—“formidable,” one of our managers once called him. He was as bald as a thumb, with a long blond beard that forked like a snake’s tongue. His biceps and forearms, which were massive, were covered in tattoos. At one time he could bench-press more than four hundred fifty pounds—roughly two and a half of me.

  Before coming to Traffix, Nate had been a Marine. If you asked him, he would tell you that he was still a Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Between Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Nate had seen lot of action and a lot of bad things. He still suffered from PTSD. One time his wife woke in the night to find Nate crawling around the room on his elbows and knees, dodging enemy fire.

  He left the marines after surviving his second IED explosion, in which he’d lost all of his teeth, broken his back, and partially lost his sense of balance. Even broken up as he was, he was still the toughest person I’d ever met.

  Nate had good stories, and by “good” I mean interesting to listen to, which he rarely shared and only with the few people he trusted. But when he did, they practically erupted out of him, as if they’d been building up pressure just waiting to burst out.

  Once, about a year after he left the marines, Nate was at a gun expo and stopped at a vendor’s booth to admire a hunting rifle. “This for deer?” he asked.

  The proprietor looked at him with a condescending smile. “Of course. What’s the matter, haven’t you ever hunted before?”

  Without flinching, Nate looked him in the eyes and said softly, “Not animals.”

  The man’s smile disappeared.

  “What are you still doing here?” I asked.

  “That’s what I was going to ask you,” Nate said. He pulled a chair out from the cubicle across from me and sat, resting his cane between his legs. “I just landed. I wanted to input the sale before I went home.”

  “Where have you been?”

  “St. Louis. Finally closed it.”

  “Congrats.”

  “Thanks. That bonus check will be the down payment on my Christmas present to myself this year. My new truck. Unless Ashley takes it.” He smiled slightly. “So what’s your excuse?”

  “No place else to be.”

  “Have you had dinner?”

  “No.”

  He stood. “Let’s get some man food. And by that I mean beer.” As I closed out my computer Nate said, “I’m calling Dale to meet us.”

  Dale was another salesman at Traffix. His region was the mirror opposite of mine: East Coast, the New England area. He was shorter than me by at least six inches and looked a little like Michael Keaton when he wore his wire-rimmed glasses.

  Dale was also the self-proclaimed, designated wisecracking comic relief that every man-pack requires. Really, the guy lived in a mental bounce house. Sometimes being around him seemed like more work than it was worth, but he was a good guy and always lightened things up.

  I drove Nate to our usual haunt, The Surly Wench Pub & Café. We had been going to this place for years, even back when it had different management and a different name: The Pour House. The new name was more fitting for its new proprietor.

  Dale was already seated at a table when we arrived. Being a weekend night, the pub was crowded and the noise level was only slightly lower than a chain saw demonstration. There were three mugs of beer in front of Dale, one of them a quarter down.

  “Ahoy, me maties,” Dale said in a pirate voice. “Join me in a grog.”

  “Why are you talking like that?” Nate asked, sitting down.

  “Arrr, doncha know what day it be?”

  “Day to talk like an idiot?”

  “No, you filthy bilge rat. It be International Talk Like a Pirate Day.”

  Nate took a drink, then said, “There’s no such thing.”

  “Aye, that’s whar you’d be wrong, matie.”

  “Stop that,” Nate said.

  Dale turned to me. “What be going on, you landlubber? Nate said it be arrrr-gent.”

  “Nate closed St. Louis.”

  “Aye,” Dale said, lifting his mug. “Thar be reason for a celebratin’!”

  Nate pointed a finger at him. “If you keep talking like that, I swear I will rip out your tongue and strangle you with it.”

  Dale, who was something like half Nate’s size or, at least, muscle mass, cleared his throat. “All right,” he s
aid, resuming his normal voice. “As you wish.”

  “Thank you,” Nate said. “And we’re not here to celebrate my sale. We’re here to talk about Alex’s woman problem.”

  Dale set down his drink. “Argh. Tales of the filthy wench.”

  Nate pointed at him again and Dale lifted his hands in surrender. “All right, you and your steroidal biceps win.” He turned back to me. “Nate’s right, my man. You’ve got to get over her. It’s been a year.”

  “Eleven months.”

  “Close enough,” Nate said. “Really. It’s time to stop grieving your marriage’s corpse. It’s time to just bite the bullet.”

  “I’d rather put one through my head.”

  Dale glanced at Nate. “That’s not good.”

  Nate took a long drink of his beer and then leaned in close. “Let me ask you something. If Jill called you tonight and asked you to come back, would you?”

  I thought for a moment, then said, “Yeah. I probably would.”

  He shook his head. “I was afraid of that.”

  “What’s wrong with forgiveness?” I asked.

  “To err is human, to forgive is divine. Neither is Marine Corps policy.” He took a drink, then said, “Jill was sucking the life out of you long before she cheated on you. Why are you looking for happiness where you lost it?”

  “We always look for things where we lost them. Keys, wallets, sunglasses.”

  “He’s got a point,” Dale said.

  Nate frowned. “Just be grateful there aren’t kids involved. She’d use them as human shields.”

  “She’s not that bad.”

  “Since when is she not that bad?”

  Nate was right. “So how does one ‘bite the bullet’?”

  “You burn the bridges, sink the boats. You cross the Rubicon.”

 
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