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The Sweetest Valentine

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Elise took her meal tray from the hostess with a smile, her nose already wrinkling at the smell of overcooked potato, chicken, and red peppers which wafted out from under the aluminum foil cover. But she’d missed breakfast this morning in her haste to get to the airport and it could be quite some time before she had the chance to eat again.

The young man sitting next to her, a pleasant youth with bright blue eyes, a busy, long beard, and ever-present headphones, peered enviously at her meal as she slipped the covering off the plate. “I knew I should’ve chosen the chicken.”

She glanced at his meal, a slushy heap of undiscernible brown meat spooned over rice, and had to agree. She gave him an apologetic smile as she unwrapped her bread roll, an object which felt far too lightweight in her hands to possibly contain anything more substantial than air pockets and promises.

Elise hurriedly snatched her plastic cup of spring water off her tray and held it carefully aloft as the plane unexpectedly shuddered and lurched. The seatbelt sign pinged on above their heads and a static announcement about the safety of passengers crackled through the cabin. With a sigh, Elise lay the foil covering over her meal and took a nibble of her roll. Her stomach had always inclined to the delicate side and there was no chance that she could attempt to eat her lunch while the plane rolled and heaved through a patch of turbulence.

She gazed out the window at the endless clear blue skies. It had always amazed her how a storm-free sky could batter an aircraft and throw its passengers into a state of nervous agitation. But she guessed that was what turbulence was – a state of instability, conflict, or confusion. And she’d had enough experience with that state to last her a dozen lifetimes.

Elise’s mother, an unhappy, purse-mouthed woman, had brought her only daughter up with a strict set of rules. Elise was expected to do the right thing, say the right thing, and under no circumstances let her mother down. But the young Elise, a free-spirited girl with a love of adventure and a penchant for testing the laws of cause and effect, had struggled uncomfortably under a domestic routine fraught with rules and restrictions.

Elise, dressed in a homemade floral dress while her peers pranced around in the latest mass-produced fashions, had stuck out like a sore thumb in the playground. However, her unique attire and her mother’s warnings not to get dirty had not hindered her enthusiasm for rough and tumble childhood games. And invariably she would return home at the end of the day with scraped knees, lost hair ribbons, and at least one rip in her dress. Her mother’s wrath was nothing if not consistent but Elise learned to bear the tirade of scolding that was sure to follow every excursion.Elise smiled to herself as the plane rocked and jumped. Her mother’s turbulence.

And of course Elise’s mother had rules about boys and dating. It had been drummed into Elise from an early age that marriage was for maidens in a virginal state. No man wanted a bad girl for his bride. Unfortunately, her mother’s constant alluding to bad girls only made Elise more interested in the concept. What, exactly, constituted a bad girl? Elise herself had been told often enough that she was a bad girl for returning home with a grubby face and dirty knees after an hour or two playing with her friends, but surely a grownup man looking for a bride could overlook a little dirt if he was head over heels in love?

For the adolescent Elise believed in love with all her heart. True love, with lingering looks, flowers and bluebirds, and happy-ever-afters. The kind of love stories she devoured from the sweet paperback novels she spent all of her pocket money on. Handsome suitors, beautiful girls, and a meeting of hearts and souls. Though strangely enough none of these stories ever mentioned a bad girl. Elise had tried to talk to her mother on several occasions in the hopes of getting a little more information on exactly what a bad girl was. But her mother had just huffed and puffed and pulled her cat’s-bum mouth in even tighter and refused to speak of the dark activities which bad girls must surely get themselves involved in.

When Elise was 17 she walked, quite literally, into Tom. They’d stepped around a corner at the exact same time, coming from opposite directions, and banged into each other which a force which had pushed the breath from her body. Tom, solicitous and apologetic, had reached out a hand to steady her and she’d found herself looking up into the most extraordinary pair of eyes she’d ever seen. Eyes which held entire universes in their depths, eyes she wanted to get lost in forever.

Elise’s mother hadn’t been entirely happy about Elise’s new boyfriend, but that was to be expected. Elise’s mother didn’t like anyone very much, regardless of who they were. She’d tightened her mouth and tightened her set of rules, forbidding Elise to stay out later than 9.30 at night and insisting that Elise and Tom’s dating activities be held in public places.

Of course Elise didn’t listen. She tried to be home by 9.30 but no-one had ever warned her how time becomes completely unimportant when you’re in love. And while their dates may have begun in public places such as cafes and movie theatres, they didn’t always end there. Tom had an old red pickup which he was inordinately proud of, and invariably they would find themselves parked on the hill overlooking the city. And the lights would twinkle from the houses and streets below, the stars would twinkle from the sky above, and Elise would chase the stars she saw reflected in Tom’s eyes.

It was a few days after Elise’s 18th birthday when she broke her mother’s cardinal rule and became a bad girl. Though she didn’t feel like a bad girl, and Tom told her that she most certainly wasn’t. How could something which felt so right be so bad? How could the fact that Tom’s and Elise’s universes had finally connected in a meteor shower of pure delight and sky-high passion ever be seen as bad? Elise was not a bad girl and nothing her mother could say could convince her otherwise. She was Tom’s girl, and the happiest girl alive.

When they found out she was pregnant it had been shocking but not devastating. Tom promised to stand by her – why wouldn’t he? They were in love, two hearts bound, and the addition of a baby could only make their happiness greater. However, Elise’s mother had not agreed at all. She had screamed and cried and asked How could Elise do this to her? Though Elise was unsure exactly what it was that she’d done to her mother. From what she could see, her mother had absolutely nothing to do with it at all.

But Elise’s mother had not let up. She had explained the rules to Elise over and over, day after day. The rules meant that Elise could not keep the baby. The rules meant that Elise and her mother must move away, far from this city where people could see that Elise’s mother had raised a bad girl. There was no hope for Elise now. She had ruined her life and her mother’s. And gradually, as the months passed, Elise’s mother had worn her down. Despite Tom begging and pleading and promising he would always be there for her, Elise and her mother had moved away to another town where no-one knew them. And Elise’s baby boy was born without fuss or fanfare and quietly handed over to his adoptive parents.

And Elise’s life had continued, dulled down and grey, with a constant dash of turbulence served at the side. She’d returned to school and finished her education before taking a drab little job in a drab little company. Her light had gone out and she had lost the knowledge of how to reignite it. At 23 she married Gordon, a brusque, red-faced man who shouted a lot. There were no children from their union and Elise was pleased. She didn’t want a child with Gordon. Her and Tom’s baby boy, wherever he was, was the result of the biggest love she could ever know and that was enough for her.

Gordon had died suddenly in his mid-thirties, struck down by a heart attack mid-rage as he yelled and waved his arms in the air. Elise had called the ambulance shortly after he hit the floor, his bulging eyes registering surprise that anything would dare to interrupt his tantrum, but by the time the paramedics arrived he was gone.

Elise’s mother had grimly held onto her life, growing unhappier and more bitter every year, until she’d walked in front of a bus that she’d expected to wait for her as she put her foot on the pedestrian crossing. Elise’s mother had thought that the bus driver would follow the rules and stop, but unfortunately the bus driver had been momentarily blinded by the early morning sun and did not see the pedestrian crossing or Elise’s mother until it was too late. Elise thought it was little ironic that it was a broken rule which had finally propelled her mother from the world.

“Mom?”

Startled out of her daydreams, she stared at her son in the seat beside her for several seconds as she struggled to bring herself back to the present. Adam was 22 now and he looked more like his father every day, with those sparkling blue eyes and his thick, dark hair. Though Tom would have never worn a scruffy beard like Adam’s, of course. Tom was always clean shaven and smartly dressed, the most handsome man Elise had ever laid eyes on.

“We’re nearly there. Are you nervous, Mom?”

Elise saw that their meal trays had been removed and that the passengers were shuffling in their seats, packing away books and magazines, and preparing for arrival. She smiled at Adam, hoping the gesture was reassuring. “I don’t know. I honestly can’t say. I just want to get it over with now, I guess.”

Adam nodded, apparently satisfied with her answer, and replaced his headphones in his ears. Elise pulled the magazine she’d bought from the airport newsagent out of the pocket on the seat in front of her and idly flipped the pages. Overblown hearts and silhouetted images of couples embracing jumped out of the pages out of her. Valentine’s Day. Was that today? She checked the date on her phone and her stomach did a backflip. February 14. How very appropriate.

The plane landed on time and without incident and they collected their bags and walked out of the terminal to catch a cab. Elise had found them a reasonably priced hotel not far from the city center. Their rooms were basically furnished but clean and Adam declared that they’d do just fine. He kissed her on the cheek and said he wanted to have a look around, promising to return within an hour. Elise waved him off then sat heavily down on the bed, glad for a little time alone.

Adam had come back into her life when he was 18. His adoptive parents had encouraged his search for his birth mother and Elise would never forget the day she picked up the phone and heard his strangely familiar voice for the first time. And their first meeting, arranged a month later, had been a heady mix of happiness, sorrow, exhilaration, and regret. But she couldn’t have been prouder of the fine young man her baby boy had grown into; a considerate, thoughtful person with a willingness to forgive and forget and welcome her into his world.

Her phone pinged with text and she glanced at the screen, expecting it to be a message from Adam. Not Adam, Tom. With shaking fingers, she opened the message and read it. “Can’t wait. In lobby.”

No! He wasn’t supposed to be here yet. That wasn’t their plan. They’d arranged a dinner for tomorrow night, the three of them, a civilized occasion that Elise would have plenty of time to prepare herself for. Her first meeting with her first love after all these years, with the added safety net of their son along to soften any impact that seeing Tom again could have. It would be Tom’s first meeting with Adam too, of course, and they’d planned it that way.

Be spontaneous, a small voice whispered in her head. Grab opportunities as they come to you, just like you used to do. Forget the plans, the rules. Go down and see him now. He’s waiting for you, Elise.

Making up her mind, she quickly tapped in her reply. “Give me 5 minutes.” She dropped the phone onto the bed and hurried into the bathroom, flipping on the light switch to illuminate the small room in yellow-tinged fluorescent light. She leaned on the basin and peered at herself in the mirror, her eyes instantly drawn to her worst bits. Tom had never known this face in its current state, with dark shadows under the eyes, wrinkles, and an ever-present aura of sadness that she never seemed to be able to shift. What would he think of her? Tom was a polite man, but could he hide the flicker of repulsion in his eyes when he saw her as she was now, a pale woman with a nervous smile and a care-worn face? People said that the eyes never lied and Elise knew it was true.

Sighing, she applied a slick of lipstick and fiddled with her hair, hoping that the careful hairstyle chosen by her empathetic hairdresser softened her face. Though her friends had kindly told her it suited her, made her look younger. Even Adam, when she’d met him at the airport to catch their flight, had commented on her hair. She smoothed her dress down over her hips, took a deep breath, and left the hotel room.

By the time the elevator doors opened in the lobby, Elise’s palms were sweating and the butterflies in her stomach had multiplied to such an extent she was finding it hard to concentrate on anything else. She stepped out of the elevator as a tall man with thick, dark hair pushed himself off the sofa, dropping the newspaper he’d been reading down onto the glass coffee table in front of him, and walked slowly towards her, his eyes fixed on her face.

And then, suddenly, nothing else mattered. The years which stretched between them compounded and disappeared. The 40-year-old couple hugging and crying and laughing in the lobby of the Downtown Hotel were 18-year-old lovers again, back in each other’s arms as if they’d never been apart. Finally, Tom drew back and gazed down into her eyes, shaking his head in wonder. “I’ve been dreaming of this moment for 22 years, Elise. You haven’t changed one bit. And no-one is ever going to take you out of my life again. I won’t allow it.”

And she smiled back at him, lost in the love which shone from his face and the promises of unexplored universes within his eyes, and she knew without a doubt that the turbulence had passed at last.
The End

 

 

Bio: Cherie Mitchell is a New Zealand writer who has ghostwritten over 150 romances. She has recently begun to write under her own name and her new releases include Desire, Turquoise Girl, and Dorothea’s Advice for the Lovelorn. Cherie has lived and worked in Australia and China, has a thirst for knowledge, and loves the unexpected.

Website: www.hotfromthepen.com

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