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A wintry wind blew across Bloomington the day after Thanksgiving, and it reminded Katy Hart that the seasons had changed. Not just in the air around town but in her life as well. After all they’d been through, after every good-bye they’d ever told each other, this time Dayne Matthews wasn’t going back home.
He was home.
The walk around Lake Monroe was Dayne’s idea --- returning to the place where their hearts first connected, the place where they could always find their own world no matter what paparazzi or media circus waited for them at the other end of the wooded path.
They held hands, their pace slow and easy. The shock of the past week’s events wasn’t wearing off, but it was sinking in. For the first time in his life, Dayne had a family waiting for him around the corner, people he could visit after Sunday church services or invite over for a barbecue. Sisters and a brother and a father who would welcome him and listen to him and laugh with him. People who saw him not as Dayne Matthews, Hollywood star, but as Dayne, the missing member of the Baxter family.
Katy breathed deep and looked up through barren branches to the bright blue sky beyond. “We’re dreaming, right?”
Dayne chuckled. His arm brushed against hers as they walked. “I keep asking myself the same thing.” He tightened his hold on her hand. “I thought we’d be on a plane back to LA this morning.”
Katy smiled. “I hate to say it.”
“I know.” He laughed again. “You told me so.”
A burst of wind swept along the path, and Katy moved closer to Dayne. He was warm and strong, and the hint of his cologne mixed with the smell of distant burning leaves. The feel of him against her filled her senses. Even in the darkest days, when Dayne’s accident looked as if it would kill him or leave him permanently injured, Katy had always believed that somehow, someway, they would wind up here.
When Dayne woke up from his coma, when God’s miraculous powers became brilliantly obvious in Dayne’s recovery, his doctor and therapist had never thought for a minute that today he would be well enough to walk around Lake Monroe.
But here they were.
Dayne released Katy’s hand and put his arm around her shoulders. “We need to shop.”
“For the house?”
“Yes.” He stopped and faced her. “Every room. You can pick out what you want, and we can have a designer do the rest.” He grinned and framed her face with his hands. “As long as it’s ready before the wedding.”
Katy felt suddenly light-headed. This was the part of being engaged to Dayne that she rarely thought about. The lifestyle change. She would go from her apartment above the garage at the Flanigan house to a beautiful estate on a bluff overlooking Lake Monroe. Whatever furniture, whatever bedding and linens and dishes and entertainment systems she wanted would be hers. The thought was overwhelming, more than she could comprehend. Not that she would change because of it. Her tastes would remain simple; she was sure of that. But still her new budget was something she’d have to get used to.
“The house could stay empty for all I care.” She eased her arms around his waist. “I only need you.”
“Mmmm.” He came closer, his breath warm on her face. He worked his fingers into her hair, cradling her head with both hands. Smoldering desire filled his tone. Slowly, with a restraint that didn’t show in his face, he kissed her. Then he pulled back enough to see her eyes. “You and a big bed with down comforters and satin sheets --- ” he kissed her again, longer this time --- “and a dozen pillows.”
He chuckled low in his throat and swayed with her, dancing to the sound of an occasional passing flock of geese and the whisper of the breeze around them. He pressed his face lightly against hers. “Maybe we should change the wedding date.”
She felt dizzy with the nearness of him. “Okay.”
His lips met hers. “Let’s get married this afternoon.”
Katy’s body reacted to his, and she almost dropped the teasing and told him yes. But she kissed him instead. Long and slow, a kiss that told him he wasn’t the only one looking forward to the honeymoon, dreaming about every day that followed. She could feel him trembling. How easy it would be to get into trouble between now and then. She ran her hands up the small of his back. “We have to be careful.”
Dayne kissed her again. When he pulled back, his breathing had changed. “Very… very careful.” His eyes were smoky, filled with passion and a longing that was more about love than lust. He moved a strand of her hair and looked deep into her eyes. When he spoke again, there was control in his tone once more. “And we will be careful.” He smiled. “The wedding’s going to be beautiful, Katy.”
She put her hands on his shoulders. A cool wind blew through the space between them. “I was sort of looking forward to your other idea.”
“The courthouse this afternoon?”
He laughed. “I love you.” He kissed her again, but this time he was the one who stepped back. “For now, though, this --- ” he gave her a pointed look and exhaled hard --- “will have to happen in small doses.”
Katy laughed and fell into place beside him. For a while it was all they could do to keep walking. She ached to kiss him again, to stay lost in his embrace for an hour. But Dayne was right. They’d made a promise to God and to each other to wait until they were married --- a promise that was bound to be more difficult for Dayne, whose past had robbed him of the innocence Katy still cherished. In her private moments with God, she had vowed not to tempt Dayne. For that reason, their tender, intimate moments needed to be brief.
“So… Dayne raised his brows. His expression told her that he was still cooling off. “About the wedding…”
She smiled and turned her gaze toward the water. “The real one?”
“Right.” He slipped his arm around her shoulders. Their strides were casual and in perfect unison.
“You really think we can keep the media away if we have it at the country club?”
“I’d like to try.”
She’d been thinking about the logistics. They wanted a beautiful, traditional ceremony without the chaos of circling helicopters and paparazzi jumping out of the bushes. Especially now, when the chase of media had nearly cost Dayne his life.
Even so, Katy had no idea how they were going to keep the wedding a secret. She looked at him. “I can’t get past the impossibility of it.”
“I’ve got someone working on it.” His voice was deep, soothing. “I guess the rule of thumb is fifty people. Invite fifty or fewer, and the press usually doesn’t find out. Invite more…” He shrugged. “It’s just about unheard of.”
“Fifty?” Katy winced. “CKT alone has more than twice that.” She wanted to invite her ailing parents from Chicago, the Flanigans, the Baxters, and everyone involved with her Christian Kids Theater group. Then there were a few dozen Hollywood friends and business associates Dayne hoped to invite.
“I know. We need to plan on a hundred and fifty.” Dayne narrowed his eyes and glanced at the path ahead of them. “That’s why we need to talk.” He stopped and drew a long breath. “I have an idea.”
Katy looked into his eyes, and her heart soared. Dayne wasn’t willing to settle in any way, not when it came to her. “Tell me.”
“Okay.” His eyes danced. “Here’s what I was thinking…”
John Baxter didn’t usually jump into Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving. But Elaine had suggested the idea. Now it was Friday morning, and he was waiting for her to pick him up so they could drive to Circle Centre mall in the heart of Indianapolis. Elaine told him the trip could take most of the day. They had fifteen grandkids between them to shop for.
John wandered into the living room and looked out the front window. She would be here any minute. Elaine Denning was never late. He leaned against the sill and thought about last night.
Elaine’s visit with him and his kids over pumpkin pie marked the first time he’d included her around any of them. The outcome had been dramatically better than he’d ever hoped. The entire family had accepted Elaine with kindness and grace, making conversation with her and helping smooth over any awkward moments --- like the time Maddie walked up, took Elaine’s hand, and said, “Are you Papa’s girlfriend?”
Rather than looks of shock or disapproval, everyone chuckled, and Ashley walked up to her niece. “Yes, Maddie.” She smiled at Elaine. “She’s Papa’s friend and she’s a girl. So that makes her a girlfriend.” She cast an unthreatened smile at John and Elaine.
“See.” Maddie looked at Cole, satisfied. “I thought so.”
As his granddaughter walked off, John had looked at Ashley, awed. The animosity she had always expressed about Elaine seemed to have been totally replaced by warmth and acceptance. Her hospitality toward Elaine had been one more way the Baxters’ Thanksgiving was marked by God’s presence.
After Maddie’s innocent remark, the topic of Elaine and him hadn’t come up again. Everyone was busy connecting with Dayne and Katy and the Flanigans, who had also joined them for dessert. Elaine’s presence felt natural, and John believed they’d found a new level of friendship because of it.
Late last night, when she was ready to leave, he had walked her to her car. Their conversation replayed in his mind.
“I felt welcome tonight, John.” Elaine seemed careful to keep some distance between them.
John pulled his jacket tighter around himself and looked at the half-moon hanging over the Baxter house. “I guess they’re ready for me to have friends.”
Her expression changed but only slightly. She smiled. “I’m ready for that too.”
“Good.” He reached out and gave her hand a single squeeze. They’d avoided each other for two months, because John was determined to give Elaine the space she seemed to want. If she was looking for more than friendship, he was the wrong man. He wasn’t ready to love again, and he had a strong sense he might never be.
The memory dissolved as Elaine’s car pulled into the drive. A slight thrill passed through him. He was looking forward to the day more than he’d expected. Elaine made him laugh with her subtle sense of humor. Spending a day with her would get him out of the house, away from the memories of a lifetime of Thanksgivings past.
John took a last look at the house before he stepped outside. This was the day each year when Elizabeth would haul out the Christmas decorations and turn the Baxter house into a wonderland of red and green and twinkling lights.
Since her death, the banister had gone without garland, the mantel without pine branches and bows, and three decades of decorations had stayed in boxes. Last year this had been one of the hardest days of all. He’d spent most of it sitting in his recliner --- the one next to her rocker --- looking through photo albums of smiles and laughter and loving moments lost forever to yesterday.
He would not spend the day that way this year, though. He turned and closed the door. As he did, he left behind the trace of cologne he hadn’t worn in years. Today he would find another kind of smiling and laughter, shopping and joking and enjoying time with a woman he couldn’t wait to spend the day with --- Elaine Denning.
Someone was knocking at the door, but Bailey Flanigan could barely open her eyes.
“Bailey…get up. Come on!” The voice was Connor’s.
“Please…” She groaned and turned over. “Let me sleep.”
She had stayed up late Thanksgiving night, going over audition songs with Connor and texting Tim Reed. It was three in the morning when she’d turned off the lights and finally fallen asleep.
The door opened and Connor leaned in. “Bryan Smythe’s here. I’m serious, Bailey. You have to see this.”
Bryan Smythe? Bailey sat up. It took only a few seconds before her body responded. She jumped out of bed and ran into her bathroom. “What in the world?” She looked over her shoulder at her brother. “Why?”
Connor grinned. “You need to see for yourself.”
“Ugh. I can’t go down looking like this.” She ran her fingers through her hair and splashed cold water on her face. The mirror told her she still looked half asleep. There were pillow creases across her right cheek.
“It doesn’t matter.” Connor’s tone was almost frantic. “He’s waiting. Come on.”
After Connor left, Bailey darted into her closet, water still dripping from her face. She pulled off the T-shirt and flannel leggings she’d been sleeping in and slipped into a sweatshirt and the first pair of jeans she could find. Ever since she and Tanner Williams broke up, her social life had been one extreme or the other. Meanwhile, Tanner had been seeing a senior girl with a reputation for sleeping with her boyfriends. Bailey and Tanner rarely looked at each other when they passed in the halls, and many weeks Bailey could come home from school five days straight without so much as a single call or text from any guy.
On those days, Cody Coleman, the senior football player who lived with them, would pat her on the shoulder and smile at her as if she were a child. “Don’t worry, Bailey. They’ll be lined up one day.”
Her attraction to Cody had cooled a lot since he moved in with them. He dated a different girl every few weeks, and he treated Bailey like she was thirteen instead of sixteen. Sometimes she couldn’t wait for next year, when he’d leave for college and they could be finished with him.
Bailey pulled her hair back in a ponytail and hurried out her bedroom door. The text messages from Tim the day before ran through her head. Do you ever think about the future, Bailey? …How things might wind up? She had kept her answers short. Tim Reed was rarely in such a pensive mood, and she wanted to know what he was thinking. A few texts later he wrote, Let’s go to the park tomorrow. You and I need to catch up.
What was this with Bryan? She rounded the corner and headed down the hallway. Sure, he’d acted interested a few months ago. But he’d been out of the picture for a while. Rumors around CKT had him seeing someone at his high school. So why was he here this morning?
She made it to the entryway, and there, standing just inside the front door, was Bryan. He held an enormous bouquet of roses --- red and yellow and white. A small note card was tucked in near the middle.
Bailey gasped softly and looked from the flowers to Bryan. “What… what’s going on?”
He shrugged. “I finally had a morning to myself.” He took a step toward her and held out the bouquet. As he handed it to her, he grinned. “I might not call every day, Bailey, but I’m thinking about you.” Bryan hesitated; then he moved back toward the door. “I wanted you to know.”
She wasn’t sure what to do next. “For no reason?” She lifted the flowers close and smelled them. “You brought me roses for no reason?”
His eyes answered her question before he did. In them she could see confidence and determination directed entirely at her. “You’re reason enough.” He gave her one last smile and raised his hand. “Bye. See you around.”
Then, before she could hug him or thank him or get any more information than that, he turned and jogged down her walkway.
Bailey went to the door, stepped outside, and raised her voice so he could hear her. “Thanks. They’re beautiful.”
He waved and flashed a grin that said he enjoyed this --- being mysterious and unexpected and beyond romantic. He was in his car and back down their driveway before she could catch her breath.
What was he up to? And why this morning? She pulled the card from the bouquet and opened it.
White because I will always treasure your innocence, yellow because we were friends before anything else . . . and red for all that I hope lies ahead.
Chills passed down Bailey’s neck and spine. “Okay, Bryan,” she whispered as she smelled the flowers again. “Could you be any more amazing?”
She was heading back inside, still trying to make sense of it, when from the far left side of the house she heard her mother scream.
“Mom?” Bailey set the flowers down and raced toward the sound. She heard her father and the boys running behind her.
They arrived at the guest room door at the same time, and Bailey covered her mouth. Her mother was kneeling on the floor, her eyes wide and scared. “Call 911. Hurry. He’s barely breathing.”
Connor jumped into action, racing past their mom and grabbing the phone.
Her dad rushed into the room and knelt near her mother. “Does he have a pulse?”
Her dad looked like he was going to cry. He moved in closer. “How could he?”
“Pray, Jim.” Tears spilled onto her mother’s face. She looked at the rest of them. “Pray!”
“Is he…?” Bailey couldn’t finish her sentence. She stayed frozen near the doorway.
Cody Coleman was sprawled on his back, his face and arms gray. The entire room was filled with a pungent smell. That’s when Bailey spotted it. Only then did she have a clue what had happened. Lying next to Cody was a bottle of liquor --- hard liquor.
The bottle lay on its side, and from what Bailey could see it was no longer full.
It was completely empty.
Excerpted from SUNRISE © Copyright 2017 by Karen Kingsbury. Reprinted with permission by Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.
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