The original ending for this book didn’t sit well with some readers. In my mind, the ending brought Charlotte’s life full circle and showed her incredible strength. That wasn’t what readers wanted for her so I rewrote the end of the book BUT if you’d like to read the original ending…
“Girls!” Blake hollers from the living room.
“What, Daddy?” Stella yells back, right next to my ear.
Walking into the room, Blake takes in the scene before him. The counters are covered in flour. Sophia’s nose is dusted in white, too. There are pans stacked on the counter next to the stove. Stella is beating the crap out of the dough on the counter in front of her. Me? I’m standing between our girls, smiling like an idiot. I love cooking with them, and Thanksgiving dinner is the perfect time to do it.
“What’s going on in here?”
“We’re cooking, duh!” Sophia’s smart little mouth tends to get her in trouble but not today. Today, I can’t help but laugh at her response.
“I see that, honey. What are you cooking?” There’s a look of dread on Blake’s face.
“Pie, daddy. We’re gonna surprise Gran-Gran with apple pie,” Stella tells him excitedly as she continues to beat the crust against the counter.
“Oh, well would you girls like to come with me to pick her up from the airport?”
“No, Daddy. We have to cook the pie,” Sophia replies. She doesn’t add the “duh” this time, but you can hear it in her voice.
“What time does her plane land?” I ask.
“In a little over an hour. I need to get going, or I’m going to be late.”
“Well, drive carefully,” I reply, moving around the island to kiss my husband. Placing his hand on my belly and giving it a little rub, Blake kisses me softly. I know what he’s trying to do and it works, desire beginning to stir inside me. Winking at Blake, he catches on immediately.
“I’ll be back soon.”
One more kiss, and he’s out the door. He won’t be back for hours. It’ll take him at least 3 hours to get there and back. I love living in the middle of nowhere, but it’s also rather inconvenient from time to time. Right now is one of those times. I want some alone time with my husband.
With the girls, I wasn’t even interested in sex. It appears this pregnancy is going to be completely different. I haven’t had a lick of morning sickness yet. I don’t have any weird cravings, but that could change at any moment. My sense of smell seemed to be enhanced last time, this time, too, only I don’t feel nauseated all the time.
Focusing my attention back on the girls, we finish the pie crust and start working on the filling. While the pie cooks, they help me clean up the kitchen. Wanting to help more, I show Sophia how to peel potatoes, watching her carefully to make sure she doesn’t cut herself. Stella has lost interest in cooking at this point, disappearing into the living room to watch cartoons.
My phone starts ringing just as Stella comes running into the room. Seeing I’m on the phone, Stella waits in front of me impatiently, bouncing on her toes.
“Charlotte, it’s Judy.”
“Hey mom,” I reply, cheerily. Covering the mouthpiece, I tell the girls it’s Gran-Gran. They both holler hello excitedly when I tell them to. Laughing, I put the phone back up to my ear. “How was your flight?”
“Fine. What time did Blake leave?”
“A while ago. He should be there somewhere.” Looking at the clock on the stove, I notice Blake has been gone for well over two hours, closer to three. They should be on their way back.
“Mama,” Stella whispers, still bouncing on her toes in front of me.
“Hold on, baby. Mama is talking to Gran-Gran.”
“Just a second, Stella,” I say firmly, holding up my finger.
“Have you checked baggage claim, mom?” My heart is racing. Blake is never late. He always picks her up in the same spot.
A knock at the door startles me. Who could it possibly be? We’re not excepting anyone.
“Judy, someone is at the door. Can you hold on a sec?”
“Go ahead and answer it. I’ll wait.”
Pulling the phone away from my ear, I unlock and open the door. The phone falls from my hand, landing on the ceramic tiles, echoing through the house. It’s the only thing I hear. His lips are moving but I don’t hear what he’s saying.
“Mrs. Collins. Why don’t we talk in private, in the living room maybe,” the officer says, looking past me.
Turning around, I see both the girls peeking around the corner of the kitchen. “Can you girls go play in your rooms for a minute while Mommy talks to the nice officer, please?”
“Sure, Mommy,” Sophia replies, grabbing Stella’s hand, and pulling her away. There’s a look of concern on Stella’s face. More than likely, it mimics my own.
Picking up the phone and handing it to me, the officer walks past me and into the living room. “Judy,” I say as soon as I find my voice. “I have to go.”
“What’s the matter?” she asks hurriedly. I can hear her freaking out on the other end of the line. There’s nothing I can do for her. When I don’t answer, she continues. “I’m on my way, Charlotte. Stay strong. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Taking a seat across from the officer, I nervously wait for him to begin.
“Is your husband Blake Collins?” he asks cautiously, his voice soft and caring.
“Does he drive a black BMW?”
Shifting on the couch, the officer reaches for my hand, and I allow him to take it. I don’t know why. I never let anyone touch me except Blake. He’s the only person who’s allowed to touch me.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Collins, but your husband was in a rollover collision on the freeway this afternoon. His vehicle was hit by a tractor-trailer.” I’m not sure if he pauses for dramatic effect or to allow me time to let the information sink in. Either way, it’s not necessary. “We did everything we could to try and save him, Mrs. Collins. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
I’m nauseous. I’m going to puke. I need to puke. Move feet. Carry me away from here. Get me out of this situation. I don’t want to be here anymore. I need to be anywhere but here.
Leaning over the side of the chair, I let it go. The officer moves to rub his hand up and down my back, the way Blake did when I was pregnant with the girls. Soft and slow, caring and gentle. I’ll never have that again. I’ll never feel the touch of his hand again.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” he asks.
“My mother-in-law. She’s at the airport. Blake, he was headed to pick her up.” Saying his name causes my heart to ache and tears to form. “I need her here.”
Closing the door softly behind him, the officer promises to return shortly with Judy. He called her for me, told her where to meet him, and that he was on his way. He’s going to break the news to her for me if she hasn’t figured it out already. For that, I’ll forever be appreciative.
What am I going to tell them?
Forcing myself out of the chair, I make my way down the hall. They’re in Sophia’s room, playing with their dollhouse. I lean against the door frame and watch them for a minute. They’re happy, laughing with each other as they make the dolls talk. This is going to be hard for them to understand. It’s hard to me to understand.
Death. It’s something I had to deal with when I was only a year older than they are right now. I remember thinking how unfair it was. I lost both of my parents and felt alone. I need to make sure they know they’re not alone. They still have me.
Be strong, Charlotte. For the girls.
“Girls,” I say. My voice is barely above a whisper, but it catches their attention immediately. Moving to the bed, I pat the seats beside me. “Can you come over here? I want to talk to you about something.”
“What’s wrong, Mama? You look sad,” Sophia says nervously as she takes the seat on my left.
“I am sad, honey. That’s what I want to talk to you girls about.”
“Why are you sad? Why was that policeman here?” Stella’s little voice is scared. Her normal, confident voice is gone and has been replaced with a soft, hesitant one.
“Well, that nice officer came here to talk to me about something.” I pause, looking between the girls. I’m about to break their hearts, and I’m not ready for that. “You know how Daddy went to pick up Gran-Gran?” They both nod, listening intently to every word. “Well, on his way there, he was in a car accident.”
“Is Daddy okay?” Stella interrupts.
“He got hurt, honey.”
“Where is he, Mama? I wanna go see him,” Sophia states, jumping off the bed.
“We can’t go see him right now.”
Sophia stomps her foot on the ground angrily. “But why? I wanna go see Daddy!”
“Sophia, honey, come back up here, please.”
“No! I wanna go see Daddy! Let’s go, Mama!”
Grabbing my hand, Sophia attempts to pull me off the bed. I can’t do this. Tears begin to form in my eyes, and all I can think is I can’t do this. I can’t tell them. Not yet. Not right now.
Be strong, Charlotte.
I repeat it over and over again. Blake would want me to be strong for the girls. I have to be strong. I can survive this. They can survive this. We will survive this. Together. As a family.
Rubbing my stomach, I wipe the tears from my eyes and pull both the girls in for a group hug. With my mouth between their ears, I whisper the words I never imagined I’d have to tell them. Stella pushes against my arm, breaking free and running from the room. Sophia collapses on the floor next to her bed. I follow her, pulling her into my lap, and rocking her trembling body back and forth.
Over and over I whisper, “It’s all going to be okay, baby girl. Mama’s here.”
After Sophia falls asleep in my arms, I pick her up, tuck her into bed, and head to find Stella. I search the house for her, finding her in our closet, wrapped in one of Blake’s shirts, crying. Picking her up, I rock her in my arms, promising her the same things I promised her sister. I’m here. It’s all going to be okay.
Judy arrives in tears just after I tuck Stella into her bed. We hold each other on the couch and cry until we both fall asleep. Vivid memories of Blake consume my dreams. The first time we met. Our first kiss. The day he proposed. The look on his face when I told him we were pregnant the first time. Fresh tears are streaming down my face when I wake up.
I love you, Blake Collins, I whisper. I always have, and I always will.
Christmas comes and goes in a blur. I’m surrounded by family, and it’s the best thing for me. Judy decided to move in with us. After I announced Blake and I were expecting, she insisted. As much as I feel like a burden on her, I’m also extremely grateful. The girls are keeping it together most days, and I think having her around helps.
As I wait for the doctor to come in the room, memories of the last time I was here begin to flash through my mind. Blake was with me. He was holding my hand as we listened to the baby’s heartbeat. He was here, and now he’s not. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. Some days, it’s easier than others.
“Charlotte. Nice to see you. How are you feeling today?” the doc asks as she takes her place on the stool next to me.
“Fine actually. No morning sickness this time around,” I reply, cheerfully. I’ve mastered the art of sounding happy while feeling miserable.
“And where is Mr. Collins today? Should we wait for him?”
Shit. I should have expected this, but I didn’t even think about it. Judy canceled my appointment last month because I wasn’t ready to deal with the questions. I can’t avoid them forever.
“Um, no. He’s not going to be able to be here.”
“Really?” she asks, surprised. “I didn’t think he would want to miss this.”
I’m going to have to tell her. I can continue to attempt to talk in circles, but it won’t do any good. She’ll ask me again at my next appointment and the one after that. I’m going to break down at some point in time, so I might as well get it over with.
“He, um, wouldn’t have missed this if he didn’t have to. There was an accident, just before Thanksgiving.”
Shock flashes across her face before pity takes over. “I’m so sorry, Charlotte. I had no idea. Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”
“Yeah. It’s hard, but I’m managing.”
“Are you eating enough? You don’t look as if you’ve gained much weight.”
“I think so. It feels like I eat nonstop sometimes.”
“Okay, well,” she pauses, picking up the cold gel and shaking it in the air. “Shall we?”
“Sure,” I reply, pulling up my gown to reveal the tiny baby bump that’s started to form.
Blake loved the tiny bump I had with the girls. It wasn’t until I was farther along that I ballooned. I went from “average pregnant lady size” to “ready to pop” overnight. We weren’t prepared for it.
The cold gel startles me, reminding me where I am and what’s about to happen.
“Okay, let’s see if the little one is going to cooperate today,” the doc says, moving the camera around my stomach, spreading the cold gel as far as she can. “There you are. Okay. Charlotte, do you see this spot here on the monitor?”
Looking over to where she’s pointing, I nod my head.
“Either there’s something there or there’s not, and it looks like there’s something there. You’re having a little boy. Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” I reply dryly.
Blake would be over the moon right now. We’re having a boy, someone he would have been able to teach how to throw a baseball and take camping. Our little boy would have been spoiled by his father. Probably to the point the girls would have become jealous and started acting out.
“Did you guys have time to pick out any names?”
“Um, not really.”
It doesn’t matter anyway. I already know what I want to name him. It may have been a joke at the time, but our son will carry his father’s name with pride. He’ll know everything about him and the man he was. So will the girls. My children will never forget their father. I will never forget their father.
Driving back to the office, I hear my phone start ringing in my purse. I don’t have to answer it to know it’s either Judy or Alice. Both of them were excited to find out the sex of their new grandbaby, and both of them knew exactly when my appointment was this morning. They can wait a few more minutes.
I call Alice first. She’s less likely to make me cry. Of course, she’s thrilled for me and offers to come stay with me once the baby’s born. I’ll probably need her here. She’s been my rock through all of this, allowing me to grieve in my own way and in my own time. She understands the bond Blake and I shared better than anyone.
Judy starts crying the moment I tell her the news. I knew she would. We talk for a few minutes, both of us in tears before she asks if I’ve decided on a name. Alice didn’t have to ask, I’m sure she assumed. As I tell Judy, my own tears begin to silently fall.
Over the next few weeks, construction starts on the house. I decided to go ahead and add the two bedrooms Blake and I were supposed to discuss. That’ll give me the room I need for all the kids, Judy will still be able to have a room of her own, and I’ll be able to set up an office and work from home more often.
Before I go on leave, I need to hire another agent. Interviews start tomorrow. Normally, I would have Blake screen them first, but instead, I had my secretary do it. She’s called all the references and done background checks. All I have to do is ask them the questions and make a decision. Five candidates, one job.
“Go ahead and send in the last one, Sarah,” I say into the intercom as I shuffle things around on my desk, looking for the folder I need.
So far, the candidates have been good, but not great. I’m looking for something more. I can’t put my finger on it, but I think it’s more about the person and less about the job they’ll be hired to do. They’ve all been qualified, but they were not whom I’m looking for to represent the agency.
“She’s on her way in, Mrs. Collins,” Sarah calls just as I find the folder.
When the door opens, my jaw hits the floor. Aubrey is standing there, a pitiful look on her face, but dressed for success as usual. She takes a tentative step into the room, closing the door behind her.
“You have a lot of nerve, Aubrey.”
“You’re right. I do. After what I did to you, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me to go to Hell and kicked me out right now. But I’d like to talk a little before you do that. At least, take a look at my references, see what I’ve been doing. I think it might surprise you.”
Feeling a twinge of sorrow for being so rude to her, I motion for her to take a seat and open her folder. She’s been busy the last few years. She’s made a great name for herself. Her references are impeccable, and she has three glowing letters of recommendation.
I only have one question for her. “Why? Why do you want this job?”
“I want to work here because this is by far one of the most highly sought-after companies to work for in the industry. You and Blake do it all. You have your own magazine, a list of highly visible clients, and a line out the door of people that want you to represent them. More than anything, I want to make amends. I want to apologize for everything. If you’ll give me the chance, I’d like to prove it to you.”
“So you want my business?”
“No. I want to be a part of your business. I want to help it grow even more and succeed.”
The girl in front of me is not the same girl I used to call my friend. She’s changed, matured. She’s grown into what appears to be a caring person. What would Blake say right now? Would he want me to give her a second chance or kick her out? I wish I could ask him because I’m not sure what I should do.
What I do know is life is short. If I hold onto this grudge forever, I may be missing out on the person Aubrey’s become today. I want to forgive her, to give her a second chance, but it’s going to take time. If she’s here, working under me, we’ll have nothing but time.
Crawling into bed, I cuddle up to Blake’s pillow and inhale. It stopped smelling like him a few weeks ago. I broke down that night, crying until after the sun rose over the horizon. It’s here I feel closest to Blake. In the bed we used to make love, where he used to hold me while we slept, and comfort me when I was sad or ill.
I haven’t talked to him in a while, and tonight feels like the right time.
“Hey, baby! Sorry, it’s been a while. I’ve been staying pretty busy. Between work, construction, and the girls, it’s kind of crazy around here. So, I have some good news for you. We’re having a little boy. I know we laughed about it, but I’m going to name him Blake. Only a few more months, and he’ll be here. I wish you had been there with me during the ultrasound. Your face would have lit up like a Christmas tree when she told you it was a boy. I can almost see it now.”
Closing my eyes, I pause, focusing on the way Blake’s face used to look when he was excited about something. I remember the way his eyes would start to sparkle and his smile would seem as if it stretched from ear to ear. Blake had a great smile.
I tell him about a few other things and that I love him. Just before I start to drift off, I tell him about Aubrey, her interview, and bringing her on as our newest agent. I hope he understands my decision. More than anything, I hope I don’t regret my decision.
Once sleep consumes me, he’s there, waiting for me, just like he always is. The storm has passed, there are puddles everywhere, and Blake is holding my rain boots. It’s my favorite time of day, jumping from puddle to puddle, holding my husband’s hand, without any fear in my heart.