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Fear. It’s all around us. It finds a way inside, lodging deep within, refusing to surrender. It latches on, following you on this path called life. The way it makes our bodies tremble through our core, perspire with one thought, or makes our hearts feel as if they’re coming to a standstill, causing all blood flow to rush from our head to our toes. It’s the one word that can instantly cause our breathing to become slow and labored, stirring up the worst emotions within.
Suddenly my chest becomes too tight to bear. My legs go numb and my arms feel weak. My heart is beating too fast and, no matter how much I pray for it to slow, and the tight pain to go away, it doesn’t.
I’m gasping for air. “My chest. It’s too tight.” I claw at my shirt, as if I could rip it off. The once soft fabric now feels like fire, burning away my flesh.
“Mom, I don’t think she’s okay!”
“I can’t breathe. My … tight … the pain … it won’t stop. I can’t feel my arms, or …” Oh my God, this is it.
I fall to my knees.
“Is she having a heart attack?” Panicky, Genna stands and yells for my dad.
Every dream I’ve had, every sense of hope—everything I’ve feared is burning them away right before my eyes.
It’s easy to forget what matters most when you’re distracted by your deepest fear, which, in my case, is leaving behind everyone I cherish most. Sometimes it’s the most disturbing thoughts that tunnel their way to your core and hold on, no matter how hard you try to shake them.
The afterlife doesn’t scare me. The unknown can be magical when you really think about it. The beauty of possibility.
There are muffled voices around me, yelling and screaming, but my eyes are frozen. I can’t move my head to see who’s speaking. I can’t even be certain where I am at the moment.
I begin to feel like I’m floating and it’s then that I realize I’m being put on a stretcher. There are two men yelling. Why are they yelling? Are they yelling at me?
A cold rush of air startles me as a mask is put over my face. It’s the first time I get a deep, fulfilling breath since this all started.
“You’re going to be okay. Keep your eyes open for me, okay?” one of the men instructs, leaning close to my face.
I try to nod, but he shakes his head. “Don’t try to move.” I go cold, every limb gone numb. Then, pain.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much pain in all my life. It’s as if a hundred men are standing on top of me, stabbing my chest with razor-sharp knives. I swear, with each jab of pain I can hear the crack of the blades stabbing deeper inside of me, slowly ripping me apart. Then the pain pierces my heart and I cry out.
“Someone needs to call Parker!” Genna screams.
The men start running and I feel like I’m flying. The wind washes over me and it’s almost calming.
My surroundings go blurry as I’m lifted. Everything is happening so fast. My shirt is ripped open and freezing stickers are placed on my chest.
Cries fill my ears, drowning out the loud banging from the men moving around. I don’t know where I am, but when I hear my mom say, “Parker, its Aundrea. We’re going to the hospital,” I let my eyes drift closed and just pray the pain will stop. And that Parker will get to me before it’s too late.
It’s terrifying to think about.
Sometimes life can be run by our emotions; how we feel about ourselves can dictate the path our life takes.
Before Parker entered my life, I didn’t think about tomorrow, much less my future. But he changed me. The day he told me he could see my future was the day I knew I would stop at nothing to make sure I saw the start and end of each day. For him.
For us. It’s when our future began.
“Aundrea?” a gentle voice asks, breaking me from my thoughts. I shiver as Parker grasps my hand, helping me. My senses are heightened, trying to glean some clue as to where we are.
“Can I look now?” I giggle, nearly tripping over the uneven ground. The blindfold Parker had me put on before leaving our apartment slips a little as I catch my balance, but it doesn’t fall off.
His grip on my arm tightens as he chuckles. “Almost. A couple more steps.”
He guides me up a small set of steps, loosening his hold as we reach the top. He lets go of my arm, but doesn’t say a word; only the sound of crickets fills the night air. A welcome breeze kisses my face softly.
My ears perk up at the sound of a key entering a lock. “Where are we?” I ask, even though I know he won’t answer. I have a strong urge to just rip off the blindfold.
“We have one last tiny ledge to step over, so careful now.” Holding my elbow, he leads me through the door. A few steps in, we stop abruptly. “Okay, open.”
I pull down the blindfold and blink away blurriness as my eyes adjust.
“What is this?” I stand, breathless, taking in my surroundings. Before me is a large open layout of living space leading into what a glimpse suggests is a kitchen. I look down, shuffling my feet. I’m standing on dark, rich hardwood floors that run into the most beautiful, detailed floor molding I have ever seen. To my side is a large, wide staircase leading to an open space that overlooks where we’re standing.
Of course, I know what this is—a house—so my question should really be, “Why are we here?”
Parker steps in front of me, taking one of my hands in his. I look up, meeting my husband’s crystal blue eyes.
“Do you know that paper is the traditional one year anniversary gift?” I shake my head, bemused. Handing me a folded note, he says quietly, “Open it.”
I fumble with the paper. I suck in a sharp breath as I read the deed I’m clenching in clammy fingers. “Parker, you bought us a house.” It doesn’t come out as a question, but rather a stunned statement.
His throat bobs as he rubs the back of his neck nervously, and a light sheen of sweat forms on his forehead. I smile at his nervousness, which causes his shoulders to relax.
“Aundrea, I was taught that when you find the person you’re meant to be with, you should do everything in your power to keep them. Spend every day of your life proving to them that they’re worth it. You’re always by my side, helping me, wanting to protect me, and showing me that I can be the best man possible. Together, we’ve started to build a life that means something to us, and I want the next chapter of it to start here.”
He motions at the house around us. “I want to grow old, have lots of children, and hear their little footsteps run around on these hardwood floors. I want to have a future with you in this house.”
I cover my mouth to stop my lip from quivering. “I love it,” I mumble, my voice barely audible. I haven’t even stepped more than a foot into the place, but I can already tell by the hardwood floors and open layout that I’m going to fall head over heels for this house.
I look around the room, taking in the stone fireplace, high ceiling, bright lights, and crown molding. “It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
Heat rises to my cheeks and I’m almost certain my ears have turned bright red. We’ve been together for three years now, and been married for one year, and this man can still make me blush.
“Come here.” He takes my hand, lacing our fingers together. “Let me show you around our place.”
I give a small nod, allowing him to lead the way. He takes me through the house, showing me the den, the living area, every bedroom and closet. Each room seems larger and more extravagant than the last. I’m surprised by how large this house is. It’s more than I could have ever dreamed. Parker explains that it’s a newly built house, which is why the walls are so plain, which I don’t mind because we’ll be able to add our Mr. and Mrs. Jackson touches to it.
Parker shows me every corner, ending with us standing in front of a sliding glass door off the dining room. A cool blast of air hits me as I follow him out to the large deck.
“Parker,” I breathe. My mouth drops open at the sight before me. The deck is covered with glowing candles and, in the center, a blanket is laid out with a bottle of champagne and two glasses.
“It’s amazing, huh?” he asks, motioning to the large backyard.
“It’s perfect.” I’m in absolute awe as I realize this is all ours.
Coming up behind me, Parker wraps his arms around my waist, pulling me against his chest. “We’re far enough away from the city that you can stargaze as much as you want with no light pollution.”
Resting my head on his shoulder, I look up at the black sky. I could stare at this view all night. I fill my lungs with the cool night air and let it out slowly as I take in our expansive back yard.
“Is this for real?” I ask half choked up, half smiling.
“Very much. Our future continues here, Aundrea.”
I turn to face him. “This place is amazing, Parker. Honestly, I couldn’t have picked a better place for the two of us.”
Engulfing me in his arms, he hugs me tightly, kissing the top of my head.
Snuggling in closer, I start thinking about the last couple months. How could he have managed this without my finding out?
“How did you do this?”
“What do you mean?”
I laugh. “How did you purchase a house without me knowing? I mean, I understand I’ve been busy with finals and gearing up for graduation next month, but I didn’t think I was that out of it.”
“I know the realtor.” He shrugs with a half smile. “He brings his dog into the clinic. Three months ago he mentioned this property and when I saw him again recently he brought it back up, surprised it was still on the market. I knew I had to see it and, when I did, I couldn’t resist. The price was right and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Of course he’d know the realtor.
I laugh again and Parker raises an eyebrow. “What’s so funny?”
“What if I’d hated the house?”
“I knew you wouldn’t.”
“Confident are you?”
“When it comes to you, yes.”
Giving him a warm smile, I wrap my arms back around his hard body, resting my head on his chest. “Here,” he says, pulling me to the center of the deck where the candles are glowing softly.
Settling under the blanket, I snuggle against him, looking up at the clear sky and the stars shining above us. I can imagine myself stargazing out here every night, or snuggling on a chaise longue with my Kindle and a glass of white wine.
This is our home.
Parker reaches for the champagne bottle, so I wiggle forward to give him more room. He pops the cork and pours us each a glass, not allowing the bubbles to overflow.
“Happy wedding anniversary, Aundrea. Here’s to many more.” He raises his glass and I do the same.
“Happy anniversary, handsome.”
The bubbles tickle my throat as I take a small sip, watching my husband do the same.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not thankful for this man before me and all his surprises. Over the last three years he’s done nothing but be supportive in all I do, constantly trying to give me everything that I deserve. He’s taught me to embrace life, and I can’t wait to welcome whatever life decides to throw our way next.
“Wait. Stop a minute and back up. He bought you a house? Like, a house house?” my best friend Jean screams into my ear the following evening. A house house? Is there any other kind?
Moving the phone away in an attempt to get my hearing back, I answer, “Yes, he bought us a house. Not just me.”
“Same thing.” Um … okay? “Damn, Dre.” I can picture her sitting on the couch in her Minneapolis apartment shaking her head in awe as she speaks. “When’s the move? Did you have any idea he was even looking?”
I shrug, even though she can’t see me. “We’re not sure on a move-in date, but since our lease is up at the end of next month, we’re hoping soon. Parker said the realtor doesn’t think it will be a problem. The loan has already gone through, so we’ll just need an inspection for the final okay. And, no, I had no idea he was looking. It just sort of fell in his lap.”
“Shit. I can’t believe that man sometimes.”
Neither can I. “I know.”
“The timing will be perfect, too. Take your last final, graduate, and move into that big new house of yours. You’re finally entering the real world!” The shuffling sounds on Jean’s end suggest she’s getting more comfortable. “If it weren’t for me, the two of you wouldn’t even be together.”
“That’s not true!”
“Sure it is. I practically had to force you to go home with him that night at Max’s Bar. If it weren’t for me, you would never have left with him, there’d be no ring on that pretty little finger of yours, and there definitely wouldn’t be any house. So, you’re welcome.”
“Thanks.” It comes out flat, but I pick the tone back up. “For the record, I went home with him all on my own.” She giggles. “Are you coming to Rochester this weekend?” I ask, changing the subject.
“I think so. It all depends on Kevin. He mentioned something about needing to pick up a shift for Jason.”
Kevin is another veterinarian Jason met in college and introduced to Parker when he moved here. They asked him to join the practice a little over a year ago, and recently he became the third partner at the clinic. He also happens to be Jean’s boyfriend—not that she approves of that word.
“Well, if not, maybe I can come up for the day or something?”
“I’d like that, Dre. It’s been forever.”
“It’s been two weeks!”
“My point. Forever.”
I smile just as I hear keys fumbling in the door. “Hey, Parker’s home. I’ll chat with you later, okay?”
“Fine, go hang out with that man candy of yours while I sit here in my empty apartment watching reruns of Gossip Girl.”
I chuckle, ending the call as Parker enters our apartment.
Standing in the entryway in gray dress slacks and a black button-down shirt unbuttoned a little at the top, he looks just as good as he did this morning when he left for work. His blond hair is disheveled, as if he’s run his hand through it a hundred times, suggesting a stressful day.
“What’s all the laughing about?”
“Ah.” He raises his eyebrows and smiles.
Setting his keys in the dish by the door, he walks into the living room and sits next to me, pushing my physics book aside. It falls to the floor as his lips meet mine, gentle and soft. He takes my top lip into his mouth and tenderly kisses it.
Leaning back, he gives me a wink. “Hi.”
“Hello, handsome.” I run my fingers along his stubbled cheeks, smiling. “How was your day?”
His shoulders relax as he sinks into the couch. “Busy, but good. Yours?”
I groan, throwing my head back playfully. “Studying. Lots and lots of studying. I don’t think I can see straight. Change of subject, please.”
He laughs, pulling me in for another kiss. “That bad, huh?”
“I’m just anxious for my last final to be over.”
The moment I was cleared of needing further cancer treatment, I sunk all my spare time—plus some—into my studies. I doubled up on course work, taking as many classes as I could so that I could graduate in a timely manner. There were semesters my family—including Parker—thought I was crazy to take on so many sleepless nights and long study hours, but I looked at it as making up for missed opportunities, and I’ve truthfully enjoyed every second of it. I’ve worked so hard to get to this point, and the thought of graduating next month from the Winona State University, Rochester with a bachelor’s in physics is the most rewarding and liberating feeling ever.
Parker winks, then stands and moves through the kitchen effortlessly, opening the fridge and taking out a beer. He looks over his shoulder at me, raising an eyebrow, and I nod.
He rejoins me on the couch and I use my shirt to twist the cap off my beer.
“No studying tonight, beautiful. We’re celebrating.”
I take a small, appreciative sip. “Celebrating what?”
“I thought we did that last night?” I bite my lip, remembering our naughty evening.
“Oh, we definitely celebrated last night.”
I blush. I shouldn’t be bashful thinking or talking about having sex, but when it comes to sex with Parker … it’s hard not to feel the heat.
He sets his beer down on the coffee table and his face turns serious. “I’ve been thinking—don’t give me that look, Aundrea.”
“The look that says, ‘Oh, boy, here we go!’”
I laugh. “Sorry. It’s just, last night you surprised me with a house. I’m not sure what can top that.”
He takes a deep breath. “When Mark showed me the house, the first thing that popped into my head was how we’ll have all this space to fill.” I can see the tension in the small lines forming around his eyes.
“What are you saying?”
He runs his hand through his hair and swallows hard. “Maybe it’s time we think about adding to the Jackson family.”
“Like a dog?” I raise an eyebrow. It’s a joke, but one I hope eases the tension in his eyes.
“No.” He gives me a weak smile. “What if we considered the idea of starting a family? I mean, it’s probably not going to happen overnight, but I think it’s time we discuss our options. Look into what’s available for us.”
I don’t realize I’m holding my breath until I suddenly feel lightheaded. Forcing myself to breathe, I brace against the armrest. “You mean … you want us to have a baby?”
He nods. Before I can say anything, he reaches for my arms, almost as if he knows what my reaction will be: passing out.
I kind of feel as if I might.
Are we ready to have a baby?
Am I ready to have a baby?