Keri flew home on Sunday, letting Darryl and Brittany drive the car south the day before. She'd spent a lot of time helping her mother, since Paula was restricted in everything she did. Her hand was looking a lot better, which was good. Keri missed Nick, but knew he'd be busy for a long time.
She drove to her apartment, heading upstairs to take a nap. It had been a long trip, seeming like more than just the few days she'd spent in Chicago.
As soon as she walked inside, she saw her answering machine blinking. She played the one message, wondering who would be calling her, since all her friends knew she'd be out of town and to call her cell phone if they needed her.
"Keri, it's Nick. I'm back in Germany and wanted to make sure you got home okay. Check your email and let me know. I worry about you." The machine beeped.
He cared? It surprised her. She figured he'd forget about her and never contact her again, just because it seemed like the natural thing to do since he was so far away.
She went to her laptop and turned it on, then checked her email. Sure enough, there were six emails from Nick, asking how she was doing, how the rest of the family was, and how her mom's hand was doing. She replied to each of them, asking about him as well. His depression from grief would catch up to him, but she didn't want to push him. At least he could use her and her family for a surrogate family in the meantime.
For the next month, Keri would reply to emails before school from Nick, rush home to see more emails from him, then chat with him online for half an hour before he had to go to bed. Since there was a six-hour time difference, she'd spend the evenings doing schoolwork and thinking of things to tell Nick the next day. She really missed him, but she couldn't pressure him. He still lived in Germany, and they really couldn't date long distance. But she had bought him a Christmas present and sent it. She couldn't let him spend Christmas alone.
About a week before Christmas, Keri came home after a long day at school.
The phone rang as soon as she stepped inside, so she grabbed the phone beside the couch. "Hello?"
It was Nick. Her heart beat faster and she didn't know what to say. "You're calling me? This has to cost a fortune."
"Not a problem. How was school today?"
"Tiring. How about you? How was work?"
"The same. Tiring. I need to talk to you. Do you have a minute?"
She laughed. "For you, I have all the time in the world."
He was quiet but she could tell he wanted to talk about something big.
"Spill it," she said.
"Right to the point." She imagined him running his fingers through his hair. "I want an honest opinion from you. Was my dad right when he said I wasted my life?"
"Are you still thinking about that?"
"Yes, and I want your opinion. Am I wasting my life?"
"No. I'm worried you don't have any downtime, but no, you're not wasting your life. You're helping others and making sure patients don't die. You're a really good person and don't ever forget it."
He was quiet for a moment. "If that's true, why don't I feel like a good person?"
"Because you're letting a dying man's thoughts get to you. Let it go, Nick. I believe in you, as does my whole family."
He was silent, yet again. "I miss him a lot. His dying words were directed at me, making me feel so guilty. I never told him I loved him and I really miss him."
"It's hitting you hard."
He sniffed. "More than anything. I'm afraid it's affecting my work, because the big boss wants to talk to me in the morning. I'm worried, Keri. I don't want to be demoted or discharged from the Army with a black mark on my record. That'll prove Dad right."
"What happened today at work?"
He sighed and she could hear him crying. "It doesn't matter. I did my job but wasn't really here. I have to go, and I want you to move on from me. I'm not worth waiting for."
"Nick, that's not true and you know it, deep down."
"If I lose my job, I can't drag you down with me."
She needed to have him focus, thinking about the present she'd gotten him. "What are your dreams for your life?"
"Well, I want to go into practice for myself, get married, and have kids, so we can run on the beach. I guess I need to think about living near a beach some day."
At least he had a plan. "Yeah. Just remember the dream. That's your goal, to work toward and live your dream. As for your dad, his goals were probably different than yours, so it's not relevant right now."
"You're saying my dead dad's words aren't relevant? That's kind of cold." He paused. "I have to go." The phone went dead and Keri just stared at it. What just happened? She didn't even have time to find out if he'd gotten the present she sent him for Christmas. Maybe he didn't get it or maybe he didn't like the engraved watch she'd sent him? Maybe he didn't read the back where it said, 'Live your Dream'?
She just knew it. It was the wrong thing to write, especially if he was losing his dream. Jane had talked her into it and Keri had spent a lot of money on the watch.
She could only sigh. The more she thought about it, she hadn't really said anything to upset him, but he was really upset. Grief had finally caught up with him and his dad's words haunted him. If she could only talk to him, face-to-face.
She spent the weekend checking her email and waiting by the phone, but he never called and never emailed. It was as if he'd dumped her, but she didn't think she did anything to deserve it.
Keri taught school through the following Wednesday, the day before the Christmas break. At the end of the day on Wednesday, she stopped Pearl as she was heading out the door. "Excuse me. Do you know if your uncle's okay?"
"I think so. Why?"
"I haven't heard from him and want to make sure he's okay with your grandpa's death. I know you had a tough time with it and was wondering about your uncle."
"I think he's fine. Grandpa's playing cards in Heaven, which is what Mom told us."
"I see. Maybe he's just busy?" But Keri knew that wasn't the truth. Nick was the type to keep in touch, no matter what.
"Merry Christmas, Miss Matthews." Pearl headed out the door while Keri fell into her seat, wondering what was going on. She missed Nick more than she thought she would, worried about him. If she could only talk to him, she could find out what was really going on.
After finishing her schoolwork around six, Keri grabbed a sandwich on the way home, and went to her empty apartment. Another Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone. Her parents had given her money for Christmas, and she had no decorations or a tree, since it was only her.
After getting some ice cream for dessert, she settled in for a long winter's night.
A knocking at her apartment door made Keri open her eyes, looking at her clock. "Nine in the morning?" She crawled out of bed while the knocking continued. "I'm coming. Just wait a minute." Whoever it was seemed impatient. But when she opened the door, Pearl and Rico stood in front of her.
"Miss Matthews?" Pearl asked. "Would you like to come to our place for Christmas Eve? We're making cookies all day long."
"I just woke up." She thought for a moment. "Sure. You need help, I guess?"
She nodded. "A lot of help. Mom said she doesn't even know how to use a mixer."
"That's not good. I'll be right down as soon as I get a shower and something to eat."
Pearl and Rico bumped fists. "Yes," Pearl whispered. They ran away, while Keri shook her head, wondering what they were talking about.
She got a shower and dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. After pulling her hair back into a ponytail and getting a breakfast bar, she went downstairs and knocked on Rita's door.
The door opened and Rita ushered her inside. "Come on in. I'm so glad you're here. We have to go to a Christmas Eve party and are to bring cookies with us for dessert."
"Cookies? Wouldn't you rather have a cake or something?"
The woman's face lit up and she took Keri's hand, pulling her inside. "Let's get to work. I'm terrible in the kitchen."
They began to cook and Keri taught them all how to make chocolate chip cookies. After that, they made oatmeal and peanut butter cookies. When they were done, they made two cakes, one of them a chocolate cake, and the other a coconut cake—Nick's favorite. Just the thought of it made Keri sad, but he was gone.
Rita finally checked her watch. "We have to go. We're expected there by six."
Keri walked toward the door. "That was fun. I hope you have a good time."
Rita grabbed her arm. "Oh, no. You have to be there, too."
Keri looked down at her clothes. "But I'm covered in batter and dough."
"So? We are too." She chuckled and ushered her kids out the door. "Let's go or we'll be late. I think they're making steak."
"Steak," Keri said. "Yum."
Rita moved her toward the door, locking it behind them. They all walked outside to the Mercedes and got inside. Keri felt sad, because that Mercedes had been Nick's car—well, his dad's car. She truly missed Nick, but he was gone. His own sister and kids didn't seem to mind that he wasn't around, but they would have been used to him being away.
Rita drove toward the west, closer to the beach.
"Where are we going?" Keri asked.
"To a Christmas Eve party," she said. "I think there are going to be a lot of people there, too."
Keri looked down at her clothes. "I'm not dressed for this."
"Relax," Rita said. "No one cares." She drove toward an area known as Orange Estates, north of Bay Pines, and pulled into a big home with a manicured lot.
"Where are we?" Keri asked.
"At a party," Pearl said, giggling behind her hand.
"Yeah. A party," Iris said.
They got out of the car and carried the cookies and cakes to the door. Rico took the cake from Keri's hand while Rita rang the doorbell.
"Are you sure you can handle that?" Keri asked Rico, pointing at the cake.
He nodded. "You need your hands free."
She was confused until the door opened. There, before her, stood Nick wearing a giant grin. "Nick!" Keri felt the tears behind her eyes, reached out and gave him a hug. "I missed you so much," she said between sobs. "I'm so sorry I upset you. I really didn't mean to. You have no idea."
"I can only imagine." He backed away, then leaned down and gave her a kiss. "Welcome to…my house."
"Your house? Since when?"
"Since yesterday." He chuckled. "I have a lot to tell you, but come on in. We're having a party."
She looked out the sliding glass door to the backyard, where about twenty people milled around, talking and laughing with music playing in the background.
"I'm not dressed for this," she said to Nick, pointing toward her shirt.
"You're fine. It's very casual and everyone's a mess." He ushered them to the kitchen where they put the cookies and cakes on the counter.
Nick took her outside, where he introduced everyone. No one was dressed up, and some were still in scrubs. They were all either doctors, their wives, or people who worked at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center. Nick started a few grills, pulled out some steaks, and handed the tongs to another man. "Have fun. I'll be back."
Keri stood back, watching Nick as she drank a soda.
"Keri," he said, as he approached her. "I want to talk to you."
"You have a beautiful home and very nice frien—"
His finger went to her lips. "I need to talk to you alone." He took her hand and directed her inside, then to the bedroom. He sat her down on the bed and stood in front of her. "I have to apologize to you. When I talked to you last week, I was really upset."
"No kidding. What did I do wrong?"
He smiled and then sat beside her. "Nothing, because you were right about all of it. Dad's death finally hit me. I talked to my boss the next morning and he said he knew it would hit me, too, then said there was an opening in Florida—Bay Pines. He even set up this place for me to rent. It's fully furnished and I'm negotiating buying it from the owner." He took her hand. "I wanted to be near you more than ever. I'm just sorry I took it out on you. That's what I wanted to talk to my dad about. I finally found someone for my personal life, and wanted to know what Dad thought. That's why I couldn't talk to your dad or to you. But I did talk to Rita and she approves. I flew back here and moved in yesterday, but wanted to make this special for you, because I missed you more than you know. I never want to be away from you like that again and never date long distance."
"So you're living near me now?"
"Yeah." He grinned slightly. "Is that okay? Can you ever forgive me?"
"I sure can." She hugged him again. "You didn't do anything wrong."
"I also forgot to tell you thank you for the watch." He took it off and studied it. "I got it the same afternoon they offered me the job here. It's exactly what I needed. My watch broke the day before I got this in the mail. Thank you."
He grinned and turned it over. "Did you know it was engraved?"
She laughed. "My friend Jane made me do that. You know, it's—"
He leaned down and kissed her. "Thank you so much. It's perfect. I do want to live my dream…with you." He paused, looking into her eyes. "Keri, I love you. I have for a while, too. I looked forward to talking to you every day, and my boss saw it, knowing I needed you. I have a special Christmas present for you, too, and more out under the Christmas tree."
"You didn't have to."
"Yes, I did. You don't have anyone here to celebrate Christmas with you, and I don't want you to ever be alone for any other holiday." He walked to the closet and grabbed a medium-sized present. "Rita helped me with this and you get it a day early."
"Rita did? She didn't even tell me anything."
He nodded. "It's been a busy few days. I lived at one of the doctor's homes for the past two days until I could move in. It didn't matter because I was working sixteen hours a day, at least." He handed her the present. "But that was just to get used to the ropes. My hours will be more normal starting next week." He nodded toward the box in her hand. "Open it."
She opened the box, seeing the most beautiful jewelry box inside. She ran her hand over the top. "It's beautiful."
"I bought that in Germany right after I got back." He smiled. "I want to make my dream come true, Keri, and hope it's your dream, too. I love you so much." He opened a drawer of the jewelry box and took out a small blue box. As he got down on one knee, he looked up at her with a grin, and then opened the box, showing her a big diamond ring. "Keri Elise Matthews, will you marry me?"
She felt her eyebrows lift considerably while her mouth fell open. "You know my middle name? You talked to my family?"
He nodded. "I called your dad and he gives us his blessing. Will you marry me?"
She wiped her eye, filled with tears of happiness. "I'd love to."
He stood up and pulled her to her feet, then gave her a kiss and a hug. "Thank you, sweetheart. I'm not a loser anymore. That's what Dad kept telling me, because I couldn't settle down and always put my career in front of my personal life." He backed away and put the ring on her finger.
"That's what he said? You're not even close to being a loser. You were just waiting for the right person."
He chuckled. "Exactly."
"I love you, Nick. I guess I need to tell Charise from the airport she'll be a bridesmaid."
He laughed. "Yeah. Don't forget her. It's her fault we got first class." He leaned his forehead on hers. "Want to tell everyone outside?"
"Sure. I'd love to."
And as they walked out the door, his guests crowded around the hallway near his bedroom, cheering the newly engaged couple on while wishing them the most happiness for their lives together. It was certainly more than Keri ever hoped for, finally living the dream she'd always wanted.