EXCERPT: Going To The Chapel
Reeling with shock and grief, it took every bit of willpower Claire Coleman had to walk to her car with her head up, start her red Volvo, and leave the parking lot of the Olive Garden in south Nashville.
“Lunch,” he’d said. “We haven’t done that in a long time.”
He’d made it sound like they never met for lunch. Of course they met for lunch. She just couldn’t remember when.
Chris Laizure, her best friend since fifth grade, boyfriend since high school, and lover since their first year of college had asked her to lunch, and then broken their engagement while they shared dessert. Claire fought back tears. They had a wedding date set for eleven weeks and three days from now in a wedding chapel being built right this minute on the Crystal Springs Dude Ranch’s west lawn overlooking a beautiful valley.
Anxiety and sadness swept through Claire. How could she go on without Chris? Without the friendship she’d had practically her entire life? She picked up her phone with a shaky hand and hit the number of her sister, Jillian, fighting for composure. When Jillian didn’t answer, she left a quick—hopefully not desperate—voice mail and then pulled in a fortifying breath. Might as well call Ashley Richardson, public relations director and wedding consultant at the dude ranch, and get that call behind her. She tapped on Ashley’s name and waited. After five rings, it rolled into voice mail, too, and she hung up. Maybe she’d go out there and see if she could find Ashley, let her know her first booking was now history. Claire wished like crazy Ashley had answered so she would have that call behind her. The woman was probably leading a horseback ride for guests or snuggled in bed in the log cabin her fiancé, Hank Bradley, had just built. They seemed like the perfect couple and it was obvious to anyone who’d ever been around them that they were crazy about one another. She’d caught them wrapped in one another’s arms several times and had sometimes felt a twinge of envy. She and Chris had rarely been like that with one another. To be honest, she couldn’t even remember when they’d been like that. Of course they’d been together practically their whole lives, so there was no burning need to always touch and steal kisses.
Claire wondered what it would be like to be in the kind of relationship Ashley and Hank seemed to have—flirty, warm, passionate. She wondered if she and Chris would have been more passionate if they hadn’t been together so long. She blinked rapidly, trying to stem the tears that wet her cheeks.
Turning onto the rural road that led to the dude ranch, Claire’s mind churned with thoughts of the kind of passionate sex she’d bet a month’s pay that Ashley and Hank had. She quickly reminded herself that she and Chris might not have had that kind of love making, but sex with him had been nice. Better than nice. Warm and safe. Her tears flowed freely as she wended her way toward the ranch on the country road that still had a good two to three inches of snow. She shouldn’t have come here, but she figured that Ashley, who very well might become her stepsister someday, would appreciate hearing in person that their first wedding in the chapel had fizzled.
A sob caught in Claire’s throat. What was wrong with her? She didn’t want to talk to another person except her sister, or mom, or Chris. Which at the moment left her with no one. Jillian wasn’t available; Chris had just ended their relationship, and the person she wanted the most, her mother, was dead. Claire fought back another wave of tears and could barely swallow around the tightness in her throat.
She’d leave Ashley a voice mail telling her the wedding was off, but before she left the ranch, she wanted to see how the chapel was coming along, as morose as that seemed. She hoped no one was there and she could sit in the quiet silence inside the building and let herself grieve in the very place where she was supposed to have become Chris’s bride. She’d so looked forward to becoming his wife, and someday being a mother.
“Oh Mama,” she whispered, swiping frantically at her tears. “I need you.” Her mom had been gone almost a year and a half, and Claire had never missed her more.
She pulled her car up to the ranch house and got out, then walked behind the house and headed up the hill toward the partially-built chapel, where she hoped to find some peace. Maybe even feel her mom’s presence.
She trudged up the snowy hill and was relieved when she reached the chapel and didn’t see any workers. Why had she even thought someone might be here? It was Sunday. Most people didn’t work on Sunday. That was one of the things Chris had complained about. “You work all the time, even Sundays for crying out loud. Where do I fit in?” She hadn’t quite known how to answer that question. Since her mother had died, Claire had worked almost every day. Only when the family had forced her dad to come to this ranch for a family getaway had she set aside work. Chris hadn’t bothered to come visit her that week. Said it was a busy time in the office, but now he’d had the audacity to complain about her working all the time.
She entered the chapel and gasped at the view. Every wall, and even the ceiling, had huge glass panes, pulling the outdoors right inside. She slowly turned in a circle and marveled at the magical sight of tree limbs blanketed in snow and forming a canopy over her. It was totally magical.
And she would never be married here.
She moved as if in slow motion past two folding chairs in the middle of the aisle. Walking all the way to the front, she sat on the steps leading to the platform, not bothering to take her coat off. A podium to her right, was obviously not a finished product but still beautiful with rich dark walnut wood and curved trim on one side. Claire shifted her gaze back to the outdoors. The silence and beauty squeezed at her heart, not soothing her as she’d hoped but slicing through all her defenses, and she buried her head in her hands and wept, completely losing track of time and not even caring. Why would she? She had nowhere to go and no one waiting for her.
“Ma’am? You okay?” a deep male voice asked.
She jerked her head up and froze at the sight of sympathetic, moss-green eyes that studied her. She turned away and wiped frantically at her tears. ‘I’m fine,” she finally managed to say with at least a smidgeon of composure.
He eased down beside her and she tensed. “Who are you?” she asked, pretty sure she had nothing to fear, but mortified he’d seen her crying. She was a private person and the last thing she wanted was anyone to see her in the state she was in. Besides, what kind of man intentionally approached a blubbering woman?
“I’m Sam McGinnis, custom builder for the chapel. “I came by to sit a spell while it was empty. Soak up the good vibes.” He gave her a lopsided grin. “It helps me with my work.”
“Guess you didn’t count on a half hysterical woman being here, did you?” She started to stand but he placed a hand on her arm, a big hand that felt solid and sure. And comforting. She sank back down and stole another glance at his hands. Large, strong, work hands. Everything about this man was big. He was not only tall, but broad and muscular. He looked like he could hold off an army if he needed to. Or be a safe haven. She quickly shoved that thought aside.
“You’re obviously pretty upset,” he said softly. “I feel like I should go and give you your privacy, but I don’t want to leave you here by yourself.” She must have looked like she wondered about his sanity, because he arched a brow and shrugged. “I help wounded animals too,” he added with a smile that had Claire’s heart hammering against her rib cage.
Shocked at her visceral response to his warm smile, Clare sucked in a breath and looked away. “And what do you do when you find them? The hurt animals,” she added.
“Help them if I can. Take them to Hank, the veterinarian who lives here, if I can’t.”
“I’ve met Hank and his fiancé, Ashley. Her mom, Dottie, is dating my dad.” She sniffed. “My mom passed away,” she added. “I miss her terribly.” Oh great. Now she was spilling her guts to a total stranger.
“I’m sorry. That’s rough.”
Claire nodded and swallowed hard. A bird trilled a song outside. She cocked her head to listen, not sure when she had last taken the time to enjoy the peaceful and happy sound of a singing bird. “I think that’s a mockingbird,” she said after a while.
“You would be right. These woods are full of birds.” He looked above them a minute, and then pointed. “There he is.” Claire caught sight of the gray bird and smiled.
“This is a marvelous place for a chapel,” he said, still watching the bird. “Every builder’s dream.”
My dream, Claire thought. My shattered dream. She forced herself to focus on the beautiful canopy of snow-covered branches. “There’s a pair of cardinals,” she said, pointing to the left.
He turned his head the direction she was pointing and smiled. “Nice to see them taking advantage of the bird seed I put out yesterday.”
She watched the birds flit from limb to limb until her neck ached almost as much as her heart. “Chris, my fiancé, or rather ex-fiancé, and I were supposed to be married here this spring. The redbud and dogwood trees would have been in bloom.” She dabbed at her eyes. “I shouldn’t have come here.” She started to shove to her feet but he gently took her arm, tugging ever so slightly, and she sat back down.
“Why did you come here knowing how much it would hurt?”
To seek comfort, she thought, surprised at his question. “To torture myself I guess,” she answered with a self-deprecating laugh.
“Is it working?”
Claire’s gaze locked with his. “It was,” she answered softly. His sympathetic gaze stole right through her defenses, and she was suddenly caught in a hazy web of something she couldn’t identify yet felt helpless to look away.
He finally broke eye contact. “I should get out here. Leave you be.”
She jumped to her feet. “No, I’m the one who should go.” She glanced around one last time and pulled in a deep breath. “It is quite lovely. I knew it would be.” She started down the chapel aisle, her heart aching.
“Wait,” Sam said. She stopped and turned, not sure why because suddenly she couldn’t get out of here fast enough, even though she had nowhere to go. “What’s your name?”
She cleared her throat. “Claire. Claire Coleman.”
“Nice to meet you, Claire Coleman. Come back and visit anytime.”
She hurried out of the chapel. No way would she ever come here again. She wanted as far away from this place—and this man—as she could get. The real truth was, she admitted as she hurried down the hill, is that she didn’t want to get away from Sam as much as she needed to get away from him. And that thought had her practically running down the snowy field back to the isolated safety of her car.