Chapter 1 1
Outside Kari Baxter’s French bedroom window, storm clouds gathered in the early morning sky over Bloomington, Indiana. Dark and tinged in green. Tornado clouds.
The kind that could destroy a person’s life in a matter of seconds.
Kari’s heart pounded and she sat up in bed. Something was happening today… She thought for a moment and then she gasped.
She was getting married today.
That’s what was happening.
Her feet were instantly on the floor, her lungs grabbing at quick sharp breaths. Like she was running a race. Yes, she was getting married! How could she forget? It was Saturday, after all. Kari ran her fingers through her long dark hair and rushed to the window. At five this evening she would become Tim Jacobs’s wife.
How could that not have been the first thing on her mind?
Even before she opened her eyes?
Kari exhaled. Okay. Calm, she told herself. You didn’t miss it. Everything is fine. Her breathing slowed a little and she waited for that wonderful wedding-day peace and joy to replace her anxiety. Her heart raced and she kept waiting. And she waited some more. Then she dropped to the cushioned window seat at the base of the tall panes of glass.
Her eyes lifted to the stormy sky. Maybe that was it. What bride wouldn’t feel stressed by such terrible darkness overhead? On her wedding day? Like it was some sort of sign.
This was crazy. The weather couldn’t make or break her big moment. Even still, anxiety ran through her veins. Her breathing remained shaky. She closed her eyes and hugged her arms to her chest. God, help me. Please.
Across the room on the back of her door hung her wedding dress. Satin white with cap sleeves and a simple fitted bodice. Cascading tulle and a modest train. She and her mom and sisters had picked it out a week after Tim proposed. The girl at the shop called it a Cinderella dress.
A few times since then Kari had wondered if her decision had been a bit rushed. Impulsive because of the newness of her engagement. But in the last month she had talked herself into really liking the gown. A lot.
Yes, hers was going to be the perfect wedding.
Thunder rolled through the hills beyond Bloomington. The sound vibrated her window and even her soul. She was doing the right thing, marrying Tim. Right? Yes, she was. For sure. Tim was charming and intelligent and he made her laugh every time they were together. And he shared her faith.
That’s how they met, after all. At a Bible study on campus.
They would share a beautiful life together. She would support his new position as professor of writing and when she accompanied Tim to his many university events and parties, she could see herself hanging on his every word.
Kari could hardly wait!
She drew a steady breath. There. That was better. Her heart wasn’t racing as fast and she wasn’t panting. She leaned her shoulder against the window and watched the wind move through the trees. What if a tornado hit today?
Would that be a sign?
No. Nothing was a sign. She closed her eyes and exhaled. God had led her to Tim Jacobs and today when she married him she would be the happiest girl in the world. She looked at the sky again. Greens and blacks, swirling low.
Enough of this. She stood and walked to her gown. Everything was going to be okay. She ran her fingers down the length of it. Such a pretty dress. Then it hit her. This strange morning of wild emotions wasn’t because of the weather. There was a perfectly good reason. A troubling one.
His name was Ryan Taylor.
Kari walked back to her bed and lay down again. Her mom had invited Ryan’s mother to the wedding, which made sense. The two were neighbors. The Taylors had moved down the street when Kari was twelve. All through the seasons when Ryan had been the love of Kari’s life.
Right up until two years ago.
Since then, their mothers had stayed close. Another perfectly acceptable detail. Because Kari was over Ryan Taylor.
But with his mother coming to the wedding, Ryan had to know about it. Which meant three doors down he was waking up in his childhood home knowing that later today Kari was going to marry someone else. Despite the fact that for most of his life he had thought he would marry her. They had both thought so.
And something about that made Kari sad.
Like she should run out back to the path behind her house. Run through his yard, knock on his door and give him one last hug.
Even though it was his fault things hadn’t worked out.
She closed her eyes. This day was supposed to be a happy one. Didn’t her groom deserve her best? Be excited, she told herself. Don’t think about Ryan. The words had been her battle cry for the past twenty-four months.
Don’t think about Ryan Taylor.
After all, he had cheated on her. Left her to find out about his actions in the middle of his gravest hours. When his life and future hung in the balance.
Another clap of thunder shook her window.
A few months after Ryan’s betrayal, Tim entered her world. And all of life had been a whirlwind since. In the years when she was growing up and falling in love with Ryan, Kari had never imagined things would work out this way. With her marrying a different man.
Was her heart still unsure about this? Even now? On her wedding day?
She exhaled and a pit formed in her stomach. What an awful bride she was, questioning her commitment, doubting her intentions. Definitely… I’m sure about this. Absolutely. She was in love with Tim. She took a deep breath. Tim. Wonderful, kind, considerate Tim. Intelligent, well-read Tim. The brilliant writer and witty conversationalist.
Tim, the one she was marrying today.
Yes, her mind needed to be there. With her distinguished groom.
Images from the last few years came to life, and her recent past played out once more. After she met Tim at the campus Bible study, Kari came home and told her parents she had found a friend.
Only a friend.
He was in the last year of getting his PhD, teaching journalism students, and about to be hired full-time by Indiana University. But he was five years older, and Kari hadn’t even finished her undergrad degree. She hadn’t considered dating him. But they began meeting for coffee and then dinner. After all, professors and undergrads weren’t allowed to date.
“Be careful,” her mother had told her several times in those early days. “He’s falling in love with you, Kari.”
“No, Mom!” She didn’t see it. “He likes talking to me. I make him laugh. That’s all.”
Once, over dinner, Tim asked her a question she wasn’t expecting. “Tell me about him.”
Kari had blinked a few times. “What?… Who?”
“Him. You know, your greatest heartbreak.” He looked deep into her eyes. “I want to know everything about you, Kari. Even that.”
The memory froze there. Again her heartbeat came louder, faster, and she could see him. Her greatest heartbreak. The handsome face of Ryan Taylor. Did she still love him?
Even now… on her wedding day?
She rolled onto her side and let the memories come, let them soothe her nervous heart one more time. Ryan was a senior at Indiana University, and Kari a sophomore, the year his ability as a running back took the national sports scene by surprise. Before his graduation, Ryan was drafted in the second round by the Cowboys, and everyone celebrated.
After he moved to Texas, though, Ryan didn’t call as often. He seemed too busy for her. Kari tried to tell herself nothing had changed. After all, he still called, still told her he loved her whenever they talked. And that he missed her, and he would only ever love her.
One weekend during his first season with the Cowboys, Kari and a friend took a trip to Dallas to see him play. After the win, Ryan brought them to a team party. Kari had never seen so many beautiful girls—and all of them seemed to know Ryan. Discouragement whispered words of discontent on the flight home. He was bound to forget her. How could things work out?
They had entirely different lives, after all.
Despite her concerns, they didn’t break up. Ryan talked about coming home once the season wrapped up. He told her he’d spend a few weeks in Bloomington before summer training. And once she graduated, he wanted to marry her. “I love you, Kari girl. I always have.” He had said that every time they spoke.
She could still hear the sincerity in his voice. The warmth of his tone.
His injury was something none of them had seen coming. A single hit that ended his career. The Cowboys were playing the Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago that day. One minute Ryan was running like the wind, football tucked under his arm the way it had been all his life. Helping his team to a fourteen-point lead.
The next he was laid out on the field. Not moving.
Silence came over the stadium while trainers and coaches and medical personnel rushed to his side. In hushed tones the announcers talked about how Ryan Taylor’s injury looked serious, and how they wished Ryan would move even his fingers or toes.
But Ryan didn’t move at all.
He was driven off in an ambulance, and when the announcers revealed which hospital he was taken to, Kari and her father packed their bags and set out for Chicago.
After an almost silent four-hour drive, they met Ryan’s mother in the lobby of intensive care. Ryan was in surgery for a fractured vertebra in his spine and there was only the slightest chance he would walk again.
Kari remembered falling to her knees right there in the waiting room, begging God to heal the boy she loved. But even if Ryan were paralyzed, she had been sure she would never leave him. She would drop out of school and help him rehab. And whatever remained of Ryan Taylor, she would stay by him till the day she died.
That was her plan. Even when nothing was certain about the next few hours.
But in the morning everything changed. Ryan’s nurse told Kari something more shocking, more devastating than the report of his broken neck. “You can go see him in a little while.” The woman raised her eyebrows. “Right now his girlfriend is in the room with him.”
Adrenaline pushed through Kari’s veins and the floor beneath her feet turned liquid. Ryan’s mother had said nothing about a girlfriend. How dare the woman welcome them after their long drive and not tell Kari the awful truth? Ryan was seeing someone else. One of the girls from those parties, no doubt.
And that was that.
Without waiting to see Ryan, Kari and her dad left the hospital and drove home. From what his mother said, Ryan was still rehabbing, even now, years later. But he could walk and run. Last fall he’d even made another brief attempt at playing in the NFL.
Yes, God had granted Kari the miracle she had prayed for regarding Ryan’s healing. But that’s where her answered prayers ended.
A week after his injury, Ryan called. But Kari refused to talk to him, and so Ryan tried harder. Several calls a week in the beginning. A few times he even sent letters to her.
Her mother thought she was being coldhearted. “Talk to him, at least,” she had told Kari more than once. “Hear his side of the story.”
“His side?” The idea had seemed outlandish. “Mom, what side could there be? He’s seeing another girl behind my back.”
Her determination to avoid him never wavered. If Ryan could cheat on her after all they’d been through, then she was finished.
Kari glanced at her wedding dress again. She could still see Ryan sprawled out, motionless on the field. Playing football had been his life. Lying there on that cold Chicago grass, he had to have known that his playing days were over.
But since then Kari had often wondered who suffered more that day. Ryan had moved on, obviously. He was healthy, coaching in the NFL now, home for the summer. So maybe Kari had been the one truly paralyzed that day. Not her legs or her spine.
When Tim had asked her about Ryan that night at dinner, Kari had told him everything. How she had loved Ryan since she was in seventh grade, and how they had fallen in love his second year of college, after the sudden death of his father. And how his mom still lived three doors down. Kari even told Tim about that terrible morning at that Chicago hospital. When she found out Ryan was seeing someone else.
Tim listened and sympathized and his kindness warmed Kari’s heart. She had wondered if maybe she was falling for the professor.
A few weeks later at Kari’s graduation party, her mother found her in the kitchen. “I need to tell you something.” She looked worried. “Ryan Taylor is coming by tonight. I just found out.” Her mom hesitated. “Apparently he wants it to be a surprise.”
Kari would have none of it. How dare Ryan come by her graduation party as if nothing had happened? An idea hit her. Tim was already at the party. She pulled him aside and asked him the craziest question. “Would you pretend to be my boyfriend? When Ryan comes by?”
“Why?” Tim had looked unsettled at first.
“Because… I don’t want him to think I’m waiting around.” The request was her desperate attempt to come against Ryan’s surprise visit. As if he could come by her house like he’d done nothing wrong. She narrowed her eyes. “Ryan cheated on me. I want him to leave me alone. If… if he sees us together, he’ll know I’ve moved on.”
“Got it.” Tim nodded slowly.
Then he stepped up to her, put his hands alongside her face and kissed her. A kiss that took her breath and made her jump back—not sure whether to laugh or yell at him. “What was that?” Her heart skipped a beat.
“That’s yes.” He grinned at her. “Just getting ready for my role.”
They held hands the rest of the night, and when Ryan showed up, Kari introduced Tim as her boyfriend. Ryan looked like he’d been hit in the gut. He made polite small talk and after a brief stay, he left.
Only Tim never let go of her hand.
Sometime later, he admitted that his acting that night had been nothing of the sort. “I’m in love with you, Kari. I’ve been in love with you since the day I met you.”
And just like that her mother was proved right. Like always.
At first Kari wasn’t sure about Tim’s declaration. She was leaving soon for a six-month catalog-modeling job in New York City. This wasn’t the time to fall in love. But Tim had an answer for that.
“I’ll wait.” He took her hands in his. “However long it takes.”
Which was exactly what he did. Kari was flattered and moved by Tim’s determination and relentless pursuit. By the sound of his voice every time he called her during her months in New York.
Once he even flew to Manhattan so they could spend a day together.
They strolled through Central Park, and he impressed her with facts and bits of information about the city. When a thunderstorm hit, they ran for a cab and spent the rest of the day at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. He didn’t fly back to Indiana until late that night, after dinner in Times Square and front-row seats at The Lion King musical.
Tim Jacobs had her head spinning, for sure.
In those months of modeling, Kari hadn’t known if she felt the same way about Tim. But she knew one thing. Tim wasn’t going anywhere, not unless she asked him to leave. And unlike Ryan Taylor, he would never cheat on her. Not in a million years. He loved her too much.
And that became more appealing to Kari with every passing day.
After her time in New York she returned to Bloomington to model for a local boutique. Tim called the day she got home and they picked up where they left off. By then Tim had gone from student teacher at Indiana University to full-fledged professor. The more time they spent together, the more she felt herself falling for him. He knew obscure details of every world war and political time period. Funny stories and little-known anecdotes about Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain. Like a walking textbook, his knowledge seemed boundless. She could listen to him for hours without getting bored.
He talked about ancient philosophers and theology and his dreams of writing a novel someday. His faith was a priority through it all, and after spending time with her family, Tim stopped attending services at the campus chapel, and began going to church with her every Sunday.
“This is where I belong,” he told her one Sunday. “Home is where you are, Kari. Every day I fall for you a little more.”
Over the next few months she officially became his girlfriend, and things grew serious. Tim talked about marriage and raising a family and sharing forever together. Most of the time Kari felt the same way.
One Saturday evening Kari sat down with her parents. “Tim and I… it’s getting serious.”
Even now she could remember how her voice hadn’t sounded perfectly excited or hopeful. That should’ve been her happiest conversation ever. Instead her tone was more matter-of-fact than awestruck.
Her mom had looked at her for a long while. “Are you asking us… or telling us?”
“Telling.” Kari’s answer had come quickly. But it wasn’t exactly the truth. She exhaled and glanced at her dad. “Does it seem like I’m asking?”
Her dad nodded. “It sort of does, honey.” He smiled at her. That look that always made her know everything was going to be all right. Her dad leaned closer. “How do you feel about him?”
“Well.” They had been in the living room. Kari was seated next to her mother. “That’s why I’m telling you.” She forced a laugh. “I’m happy. Because we’re getting more serious, of course.”
“We’ve always told you”—her mother’s voice was calm, full of peace—“whatever boy you give your heart to, we’ll give our heart to him, too. We’ll love who you love.”
Something in her mother’s tone caused the slightest discomfort for Kari. “But…?” She looked straight at her mother. “I hear a but in there, Mom.”
“Honey.” Her mom turned to her. “My only hesitation… is whether you have one.”
Kari rested her head on her mother’s shoulder. “Tim’s amazing.” She stared across the room at her father. “He really is. And he loves me.” Her voice fell a notch. “He absolutely does. Tim won’t ever need anyone but me.” She sat up straight again. “Which is something I could never say about Ryan Taylor.”
They talked for the next half hour about all the ways Tim had delighted her and honored her and treated her like a princess. But the whole time she had felt like she was convincing herself.
Before she turned in that night, her parents each hugged her. Dad gently brushed her bangs off her forehead. “Kari, it sounds like you love Tim very much.” He held her gaze a long time. “We’ll listen… if you need to talk again.”
“We’re both here for you.” Her mom kissed her cheek.
A few times since then they’d talked about Tim. There was never a reason why Kari shouldn’t love him. Why she should pull away from a guy who treated her so well. When he proposed to her over a candlelit dinner, her yes was out before he finished his question.
That had to mean something.
Since then she had worked hard to keep from thinking about Ryan, about how this season in her life was supposed to be about him and her. Most of the time Kari’s heart had no trouble believing she was in love with Tim. He would make a wonderful husband.
But whenever she prayed about marrying Tim, the Lord’s silence on the matter was deafening. She told herself that God didn’t always respond with a clear answer. But it was one reason she had just the slightest doubt about moving forward.
A doubt she hadn’t shared with anyone. One she tried to squash every time it reared its head. Tim was wonderful. Theirs would be a storybook life.
And later today, Tim would be her husband.
Kari sat up in bed again and smiled. Life would play out with love and beauty, with Tim caring for her and protecting her the rest of her life. Theirs would be a story marked by deep talks, and hours of laughter, and most of all a long happily ever after. She felt her heart gradually relax. Today would be perfect, whatever the storm held. With Tim she would never have to worry about where he was or who he was with. There would be no girlfriend on the side.
And always, at the end of the day he would come home to her.
Only her. For the rest of time.