From the Heart Friday: A Promise to Keep

Are you looking for a heartfelt weekend read?
Take a peek at this week’s From the Heart editor’s choice.

A Promise to Keep by Melony Teague

Title: A Promise to Keep
Author: Melony Teague
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Format: Paperback and eBook
Print ISBN: 978-1-947327-72-6

Description

Research librarian Savannah Sanderson wants nothing more than to escape into her happily-ever-after novels with their larger-than-life fictional heroes. But a promise to her late husband has her attending her dreaded twenty-year high school reunion, drinking ghastly punch, and taking desperate measures just to keep her vow, even if she has to hide behind the décor to do it.

Once a reckless troublemaker, Michael McCann fled town after graduation. Now a professional technical rescuer, he’s back for the reunion, but on his trip down memory lane, he soon comes face to face with unresolved issues, namely Savannah.

Before the night is over, a pact between these two old friends will lead them on an adventure into uncharted emotional territory where Michael must confront his past regrets and find the courage to reveal the truth. But can Savannah fly from her sheltered nest and risk her heart on a real-life hero?

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Chapter 1

Only a promise to a dying man would make her attend her twenty-year high school reunion.

Savannah Sanderson glanced at the large clock in the empty corridor of Point High. She had twenty-seven hours, forty-six minutes, and some seconds before the party—just enough time to work herself into a panic before the reunion dinner and dance. She’d arrived a day early to ease herself into the whole experience, but being alone with her thoughts wasn’t helping.

Savannah ran her fingers over the combination lock that secured what used to be her locker, feeling a peculiar connection to it since she’d stowed so much deep within her heart. The cold gray metal cabinet once held tokens of her dreams. School was out for the day and would soon be out for the summer, but she imagined the locker was filled with somebody else’s things, someone with wild and idealistic dreams of his or her own. She prayed the occupant’s future wouldn’t shatter like hers had.

The kitten sticker on the top corner had survived two decades of students. The matching backpack she’d toted from class to class, faded and worn, was still stashed in her closet at home. She couldn’t bear to part with that symbol of her survival of the awkwardness of high school. The magnet of her favorite rock band, which had held her schedule, had probably been replaced by a pouting pink-haired diva magnet. Times had changed, and she had, too.

At thirty-seven, she didn’t consider herself old—but maybe a little old fashioned. If she updated her locker now, she’d add magnets with the faces of love-song-singing crooners with velvet voices and perhaps that new actor in the latest happily-ever-after romance movie whose name she couldn’t recall. As a librarian, she saw people come in daily wishing to escape into a fictitious world with handsome heroes and feisty heroines and their happily-ever-afters. She was almost ready to think about where her story was going beyond the covers of her favorite novels. It was one thing to daydream, in love with the idea of happiness. It was quite another to find it.

She leaned her forehead against the cool enameled door, steeling herself for the days ahead. Tomorrow night, the building would flood with noise and laughter of her former classmates. For now, she must face the abandoned hallways with a heart just as empty. Only wispy recollections of her teenage years remained. It was strange how the happier memories brought her the most pain. Still, she was ready to let those memories back in. To heal.

In five months, it would be a year since Nick had left her to face her future alone. She’d done her best to prepare herself for the inevitable, but nothing had primed her for the phone call from the hospital that October night. She’d rushed to Nick’s side, counting each minute with him a gift.

Between labored breaths, he begged her, “Promise me you’ll go to the reunion.”

“I can’t go without you. I can’t face…”

“You won’t be alone, Savannah. I want to go, but as things are right now…” Even with tubes and monitors keeping him alive, Nick didn’t come right out and say what they were both thinking.

“I need you to go. For me.”

“But why? Why would you say that?”

“Can you trust me this one last time?”

Despite trying to be brave for him, a tear trickled down her cheek. He reached up to wipe it away. Nick wasn’t playing fair, and he had to know it. How could she say no? Savannah gripped his emaciated hand as if she could pull him back from heaven’s threshold.

In that sterile room in the palliative-care ward, she made the promise one hour and twenty-three minutes before the monitors announced his arrival at the gates of heaven.

At the funeral, they said Nick’s unwavering faith was an inspiration to all. If Savannah heard “Everything happens for a reason, dear” one more time, she’d lose it. All well-meant but not helpful. Savannah let the platitudes and the sentiments wash over her, but she remained tight lipped, her anger simmering below the surface.

Things were not supposed to end with her sitting dry eyed in the front row of their church, having cried all her tears in the months before Nick left this earth. She wasn’t supposed to be saying goodbye to the man who’d swept her off her feet in high school. They were supposed to grow old together. They’d promised to share a lifetime. God hadn’t been listening to that promise, had He? It was as if God weren’t listening to her at all.

Her prayers since then had been scattered, unfocused and reluctant at best, and she didn’t know what to do about it. She’d successfully hidden from her church family and society at large, burying herself in her work and her books. She’d found valid excuses why she couldn’t make it out to church—except on bake sale Sundays, of course.

Even so, she’d kept her promise. Now, standing in front of her locker, she lifted her chin and gazed toward heaven. “Okay, I’m here, Nick,” she whispered. “Now what?”

“Savannah?”

She screeched, the sound rattling the windows of the aging school building. With one hand over her beating heart, she swiveled to find the source of the deep voice over her right shoulder. Standing in front of her was a six-foot, broad-shouldered, chestnut-haired stranger. She wondered whether she’d lost her mind and conjured a hallucination of one of her bookish heroes. He shoved a hand through his cow-licked mane and stepped closer. When he didn’t vaporize, she blinked and waited. Maybe her new contact lenses were malfunctioning.

He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry I scared you.”

“The janitor said no one was here. Classes are over for the day, so I thought I was alone.”

“You’re not alone.” He winked. The man actually winked at her.

Savannah stepped backward and collided with the lockers, the clattering of the impact reverberating in the silent hallway. Nothing much had changed there. After all, there was a reason they printed Accident Waiting for a Place to Happen below her photo in the yearbook.

Was he a current faculty member? No. If so, he wouldn’t know her name. “Are you here for the reunion? It starts tomorrow. I’m a day early.” One look at the man, and he’d set her off babbling like a jittery teenager. With her back against the lockers, she inched sideways toward the exit.

“Yes, I am. Me, too.”

She stopped her sidestepping to make sense of his words. “You, too?”

He backed up, his hands raised like she was a crazy lady about to lunge at him. “Yes, I’m also a day early.”

If he was here for the reunion, that meant he had been in her class. There was a familiar sparkle in his blue eyes. Could it be—

“You don’t recognize me?”

Embarrassed, she tried to picture what he would have looked like twenty years ago. By the tone of his voice, she should know who he was. Maybe her trusty locker would open and swallow her, saving her from her impending humiliation.

Nick would have known. He knew everybody.

* * * *

Michael McCann had promised himself he’d never set foot in Point, New York, again, let alone the high school. But May was typically a slow month for him and his team, so he’d made the trip. However, the dread churning in his stomach was worse than when he executed a complex rescue extraction. And not just because Claire had sweet-talked him into helping the setup committee secure all the balloons to the makeshift dropped ceiling in the gym. Once he finished with the decor, he planned to escape for a walk around town.

But now, while roaming the halls in search of the custodian and his ladder, he’d found Savannah outside his senior classroom. He hadn’t meant to startle her, but when he’d called her name, she’d jumped and twirled to face him. Her eyes were as wide as a mama deer caught in the jeep’s headlights. The familiar spike of adrenaline surged in his veins, and he waited for her to recognize him. She was more beautiful than ever.

The sight of her in flight mode sent him into damage control with his hands extended to calm her.

She ran her hands down the side of her dark blue jeans as if to smooth the nonexistent wrinkles, then shoved a hand in his direction. “Savannah Sanderson.”

“I know.” He winced at the use of her married name. She’d always be Du Toit to him.

Her eyes widened. “You know?”

She had lost the purple-rimmed glasses somewhere along the way but not her Americanized South African accent. He’d always loved that about her. Yes, loved. Nope, he wasn’t letting his feelings loose again but rather would keep them firmly in the past, where they belonged. Except his accelerated heartbeat did not comply. She bit her lower lip; he tried not to focus on what it was doing to his insides. He concentrated instead on the telltale crease on her forehead peeking out from behind the bangs of her butterscotch-colored, shoulder-length hair.

She shifted from one foot to the other.

He raised an eyebrow. “We were in the same grade, same chemistry class. Literature class, too.” He wouldn’t make it easy for her. Something about being forgotten did that to him.

She inclined her head. “Mr. Slater’s class?” He pinpointed the moment she connected the dots as her eyes widened and her jaw went slack. “Michael? No, it can’t be…”

“It’s me.” He cringed inside, thinking of how he’d been a late bloomer, shedding his extra pounds once he left Point. He’d pushed the limits at the gym to prove to himself he wasn’t that awkward, chubby, pizza-eating loser anymore.

“But Michael was…”

He sighed. Best to get it out of the way so they could talk about the real stuff—their time apart. “Fat?”

“I wouldn’t say that, but certainly not, well…”

She made an up-and-down sweeping motion with her hand and inspected him from head to toe. It reminded him of science class, except this time he was the unfortunate specimen under the microscope.

He flexed a bicep. “Ripped?” He was proud of the hours pushing weights and of his fitness training. The effort he’d put in had transformed him from a lazy, doughnut-eating young man into someone he hardly recognized himself. It was no wonder Savannah hadn’t at first. And she had never looked at him that way before. It felt more awkward than he’d imagined.

Judging by the pink hue creeping up her neck, she was embarrassed that he’d caught her appreciating his physique. As kids, she’d always swatted him when he read her mind, so he kept out of reach just in case. His half-hearted attempt to keep a straight face failed when she gasped and covered her mouth. She shoved past him and hotfooted it down the hallway.

It took about three seconds for him to realize she was running away—from him. How ironic. He should let her go. He should get on a plane and never look back, but then, history would repeat itself. He didn’t want that. The time had come to pursue her, even if it was just down the corridor through his old stomping grounds.

Michael followed the squeak of her sneakers as they echoed down the hallway.

“Oof!” There were sounds of a struggle.

What in the world?

He rounded the corner to find the janitor on the ground with his mop and pail, trying to untangle himself from Savannah. Frothy soapsuds slid down her face, proof the mop had won this round. The janitor in his blue coveralls, showing a row of white teeth, enjoyed the attention a bit too much. Michael couldn’t stop the guffaw that escaped his lips or the chuckle that followed—until she straightened, her fiery eyes narrowed and her arms folded over her chest. “It’s not funny, Michael McCann.”

Uh-oh. He swallowed. Before he could think of what to say, she lunged for the fire-safety exit and set off the emergency alarm. That was Savannah for you. She still had a knack for the dramatic, and he loved her for it. Michael shook his head. A flight out of town was looking more and more appealing. His feet begged to flee to his rented four-by-four.

Save for the promise he’d sworn to keep, he’d be on the outskirts of Point already, heading for the Canadian border. His high school years were a mixed bag of experiences, some good and some bad enough for him to bury deep and cover with a layer of selective amnesia for good measure. Especially when it came to Savannah Du Toit and Nick Sanderson.

Where was Nick anyway? He would have to face him sooner or later, so he might as well get it over with. He lunged past the janitor, ducked out the exit, and left the redbrick building behind him. “Savannah, wait!”

Michael dashed through the courtyard, but there was no sign of her. He heard the river gurgling and rushing in the distance, its banks likely swollen with the spring rains. He turned away from the sound toward where he had parked his jeep in the visitor parking lot under a blossoming tree. He spotted her approaching the parking lot, beneath two apple trees. The pink blossoms stood no chance against the rising gusts surrounding him. Dark clouds gathered on the horizon, and then, the wind kicked up a notch, swirling sand into his eyes. The scent of the approaching rain washed over him. By the time he caught up to Savannah, she was out of breath.

She mumbled a string of words through clenched teeth. What was she spitting mad about?

“I shouldn’t have laughed.” He hated to see her upset. Not that it was the first time they’d been in fits of laughter over her knack of tripping over things. Nick had given her a hard time about it, too. And she’d laughed with them. But still, he knew what it felt like to be maliciously laughed at in those same halls, always feeling like he never quite fit in. “Listen. I’m sorry.”

Savannah spun on her heel and jammed a finger in his face. “You’re sorry? Where were you when we needed you, Michael? When Nick needed you?”

“I…” What was she talking about? Nick had never really needed him. More like he’d needed Nick’s friendship.

“Do you know where he is? Do you?” She threw her arms up in the air.

On instinct, Michael grabbed her hands, mostly to keep them from slapping him but also to still their trembling. He bent and pulled her in, eye to eye, and bit back the growl building in his belly. He should be the angry one here after all—things between them hadn’t gone according to his plan, and now wasn’t shaping up to be any different.

“Calm down. It’s been almost twenty years, and the first thing you want to do is fight?”

Her eyes darted all over the almost-vacant parking lot, looking for an escape. Michael held on. If he let her go, she would run. Running away never solved anything. Not really. He knew that firsthand. She’d chosen Nick, stayed with him. Speaking of which, where was Nick now?

Savannah looked down.

“Look at me. Where is he?”

She turned to him, her dark gray-blue eyes mirroring the approaching storm. Her chin trembled, and the misery in her eyes hit him like a sucker punch in the gut. A sound, much like a whimpering puppy, spilled from her. Then, she turned her face away.

What was she keeping from him? “Where is Nick?”

He almost didn’t hear her strangled voice over the crack of thunder. “He’s gone.”

“Where? Will he be back soon?” A deep-seated feeling of dread weighed like an anvil in the pit of his stomach.

“No, Michael. He’s gone.”

Tears coursed down her face—not good. He was going to give Nick a piece of his mind. “He divorced you?”

“No, no. He…” Her shoulders slumped as if the fight had gone out of her. He could feel her wedding rings on her finger, so divorce wasn’t the reason for Nick’s absence. Michael stilled, trying to make his mind work. The tattered American flag whipped back and forth on the flagpole, adding to the noise. Savannah’s hair blew across her face, sticking to her tear-soaked cheeks.

He couldn’t make sense of what she said. He and Nick may have had their differences, but he’d never expected things between Savannah and Nick to go wrong. If Nick wasn’t here and they weren’t divorced, then it could only mean…

Almost imperceptibly, Savannah shifted from pulling against him to leaning into him. He released her hands, and her arms circled his waist, clinging to him like she belonged there. Only, she’d never belonged to him and never would. He tucked her head under his chin and held her close. The storm of emotion inside him intensified the churning in his belly.

It wasn’t a stretch to figure he wasn’t going to like the answer to his question, but he needed to know. His mouth close to her ear, he yelled over the howling wind, “What happened?”

“Cancer stole him away from me,” she said. “It wasn’t supposed to end this way.” Her body shuddered in his arms, her voice bordering on hysteria. “He’s dead!”

Not Nick. Not his childhood best friend who had always been so full of life. The truth hit him hard enough to buckle his knees, and he took her down with him until they knelt on the pavement in the darkening parking lot, wrapped in grief and sorrow as heavy drops of rain stung. “I’m so sorry. For everything.” He hadn’t been there to protect her from heartbreak. He pulled her closer as regret flooded through him. Any opportunity to reconcile with Nick drained away in the deluge of grief. Her keening, almost lost in the wailing wind, seared his heart and burned through to his very core.

One thing was certain—he would not be flying out on that plane. At least, not today.

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A Promise to Keep

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