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I was sixteen the first time he said it. With his arm around me in the darkened room, my head on his shoulder, probably half asleep.

“I love you.”

Three little words that had the power to change my life. If I chose to let them.

Of course at sixteen, love was exciting. Love was roses and chocolates and romantic walks on the beach. Love was that funny little feeling in the pit of my stomach when he walked in the room and smiled my way. Love was everything I’d read about, watched on television and dreamed up in my head. Love wasn’t a choice. It just happened. Like somebody sprinkling fairy dust over us.

And so somehow we went from that heady moment to walking down the aisle to walking into a hospital to walking out with another precious life in our arms. Twice we did that.

And all the while, he said it. “I love you.”

The first time he said it, all those years ago, I wouldn’t admit that it terrified me. Still, so many  years, a lot of sleepless nights, two perfect children, some gray hair and a few unwanted pounds later, it still does. Because I’ve learned, you see, that love is a choice. You choose to love. Through the good. Through the not so good and through the hard and crazy stupid stuff. Through the times when you don’t know what to say so you say nothing. Through tears you can’t stop. Still, you love. You choose to live in those moments. To embrace this incredible wonderful life that has become yours. You choose to love. You choose to stay.

I’ve known people who give up on this thing. This love. Because it doesn’t work for them anymore, for one reason or another or a lot of reasons that pile into one big explosion and they can’t find their way through the fallout. I always wish they could find another way. A better way.

Love is a choice. Love is a gift. And sometimes its hard to take. Sometimes we feel like we don’t deserve it. I feel that. Some days I look around, look at these people who love me, these people who would do anything for me, this man who has loved me so long and still does, this family, these friends, and I wonder why…why me? How did I get so lucky? What did I do to deserve this?

Nothing.

Love is a gift. Freely given.

Mine. Yours.

Ours for the taking.

I’m slowly starting to believe that. Slowly starting to accept it. Eyes wide open and smiling. And the more I know of it, this love, the more I want to give back. I want to permeate my stories with it. It is why I do what I do. Why I wrestle to find just the right words. Time and time again.

It’s not always easy. Writing the happy ending thing is something I’ve taken for granted. When you’re writing fiction you can pretty much decide the fate of your characters. This time…this book…it’s been a struggle. They’re fighting me. They’re fighting this love. This choice. And I’m not sure yet which way it’s going to go. Because sometimes people make wrong choices. Sometimes they have to live with that. But I want them to make the right choice. Funny how they’ve become so real. How I’m so totally invested in this story. I so want things to turn out right.

Yet…love is a choice. And maybe they will choose another path. I don’t know yet. But I do know there is hope. Because there always is.

Scene from Winter’s Edge

I doze for maybe an hour and then wake with a start. It’s been so long since I’ve slept in this bed. In this room I once shared with my husband. Memories hang heavy. Good ones. Bad ones. I wipe sleep from my eyes and widen them as the room comes into focus.

Kevin is curled in the lounge-chair by the window. Watching me. Or he has been. Now his eyes are closed and he’s breathing quite deeply. He’s changed into jeans and a t-shirt, his dark hair damp. It’s longer than I’ve seen him wear it. A lock curls over his forehead.

It’s been so long since we have shared this room that his presence surprises me. And I’m strangely sad about that.

After Shelby died, neither of us slept well. I’d wake at all hours, pace the house, clean, read, watch television. Kevin would get out of bed and sit in that chair. Sometimes he’d stare out the window. Sometimes he’d read. Sometimes he’d watch me sleep. I asked him once why he did that.

“Because knowing you’re there, knowing you’re okay…somehow makes me believe we’ll get through this.”

And suddenly the sight of him sitting there this morning makes me smile.

I slip out of bed, grab a blanket and tuck it around him.

My hand stills just above that errant lock of hair. I study the face I know so well, have loved so long, and wonder whether forgiveness is possible. Wonder whether I’ll ever trust him enough to let him take me in his arms again, kiss me and love me the way I remember. The way he used to when things were good…when things were…the way they’re supposed to be between a husband and wife.

Memories play with my mind and stir old feelings. Inexplicable longing surges through me and almost sends me flying from the room.

Kevin shifts in the chair and my heart jumps.

His eyes flutter open, land on me for just a moment before they close again, but a grin slides across his mouth. “Thanks, Savannah,” he mumbles, pulling the blanket up around his shoulders.

I let out my breath and find myself smiling down at him.

This man.

What he’s put me through…

But I know right now in this minute, that despite it all, he still owns my heart.

Whether I want him to or not.

And I must choose what to do with that.

© 2014 Catherine West

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