Authors: Kathryn Thomas
Getting over the embarrassment of being caught having sex in Matt’s sister’s house wasn’t easy, but once Holly eventually managed, she discovered that Becky was one of the best persons she had ever met. They immediately got along, and she was surprised to find that they had many interests in common.
For example, Becky was an artist. She taught English
Art in high school, and her drawings were in a style that Holly immediately fell in love with. When Becky insisted that she also drew something to show her, Holly was reluctant. She didn’t feel like she could compete. But eventually she got over her insecurities and created a drawing, and she was surprised that Becky was as awed by her work as Holly was by hers.
Joe was also a person worthy of admiration, Holly decided. She mistrusted him at first, due to the way he had played with Matt’s strong feelings for his sister and tricked him into rushing back to Texas, but the more she got to know him, the more she realized that all of Joe’s actions were dictated by love. Therefore, one couldn’t really fault him for any of them, no matter how stupid or absurd they may seem. Joe was a simple, loyal man with a kind sense of humor, and soon Holly was charmed.
She spent a lovely couple of days in Cartridge with Matt and his small but oh-so impressive family. She had such a great time that she finally, truly relaxed for the first time in six months, so much so that there were times when she even stopped thinking about her father and the stunt he had pulled—and that he was likely to pull again.
The thought entered her mind one night, as she sat on the porch with Matt. The house’s backyard was tidy and tranquil. It was a clear night, and there were a million stars in the Texas sky. It would have been a perfect moment if not for the nasty thought that hit her.
Matt picked up on her shift immediately.
“What is it?” he asked, reaching out to take her hand and stroke his thumb reassuringly along the inside of her wrist.
Holly sighed. “I was just thinking about my father.”
Matt grimaced. “Don’t,” he said. “He’s got no place here.”
“Maybe,” Holly conceded. “But it’s an issue I’ll have to deal with, probably sooner rather than later. Erik was right; there’ll be others after him, and chances are they won’t get a case of guilty conscience right before they get the job done”
Matt winced visibly. “Holly, don’t say that,” he said, gently but firmly. “I don’t like to think of the possibility.”
“Neither do I,” Holly admitted. “But we have to. It’s a very real possibility. You know that. My father won’t stop until he gets me back and marries me off to the Sutherland boy.”
“Then marry me.”
Holly looked sharply over at Matt. Surely she’d heard him wrong? “Excuse me?” she said, appalled.
“Yeah. You heard me.” Matt sat up straighter and squeezed her hand. “Marry
. That way, your father will be rendered powerless. He can’t have you marry someone while you’re married with someone else, and if you’re not married to the one he sees fit to run his fortune, you’re also not fit to run the family business.” He was grinning like a maniac, or like a man who’d just had the most brilliant idea of all time—which were really the same person. “It’s perfect.”
Holly slowly pulled her hand away. She stared at him. “Are you out of your mind?”
Matt’s face fell. “I…I thought you’d be happy about me asking…” He trailed off, lost.
“Not if the reason why you’re doing it is just so my father won’t bother us anymore. I don’t want to get married like this.”
Matt’s features regained some color, and his eyes sparkled with renewed hope. “But if the reason was another…?”
Holly stared at him. “Matt, what are you saying?”
Matt took a deep breath. “I’m saying I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Don’t you?”
“I…” Holly was speechless. Her head was spinning. This was all happening too fast. She couldn’t wrap her head around it.
Matt left the swing’s seat and knelt down at her feet. She watched him, paralyzed. “Holly Springford,” he said, “will you marry me?”
Holly stared. Her brain had short-circuited on her. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing and hearing. And then her brain finally began to communicate with her tongue again, and she was able to string words and sentences together.
“Matt,” she began carefully, “are you sure about this?”
He didn’t waver as he stared deep into her eyes from his kneeling position. “I’m sure,” he said firmly. “Will you marry me?” he asked again.
Holly felt a wave of relief and love so overwhelming that she almost fell down, and she was never so happy that she was sitting down.
“Yes,” she breathed, her heard hammering within her chest. “Yes, Matt Ramirez. I will marry you.”
She let out a surprised yelp when he grabbed her by the hand and pulled her down onto his lap. He kissed her passionately, and it was as if time had stopped for them. Holly clung to him and kissed him back with the same passion, feeling like she was walking on air. When they finally pulled apart, it wasn’t just lack of oxygen that forced her to breathe heavily. Her emotions felt just too strong to contain.
“I…oh, God,” she choked out. She did her best to push back the happy tears that sprang to her eyes. “Matt…what are we going to do?”
“What do you mean, ‘what are we going to do’?” he repeated, grinning from ear to ear. “We’re going to get married. And fast, before your father sweeps in with a freaking SWAT team.”
Holly couldn’t help it. She laughed. She had never been giddier in her life.
To say that the wedding was a small affair would have been a huge understatement. The only people present were Becky, Joe, and the vicar, a kindly elderly man from the local parish. Holly wouldn’t have had it any other way. She didn’t care about anything that wasn’t becoming Matt’s wife. She didn’t care about anything that didn’t involve making this incredible man the promise to love and cherish him for the rest of her life.
It all felt surreal in the most positive of ways. Holly had never once thought she could ever get to know such happiness. She felt as though she might burst from it at any given moment. The rings were also simple—two plain silver bangs. It was the most beautiful piece of jewelry Holly ever remembered possessing.
They all went out to celebrate that night. It was a nice restaurant, with a large patio set up in a field of wild grass. It was rustic and beautiful and unexpected. Just like Matt. Holly still could not believe her luck. She still could not believe she had met someone like him. She still could not believe he had fallen for her just as fast and hard and helpless as she had fallen for him.
“I love you, you know that?” he whispered in her ear later that night, when they were laying in bed in the spare bedroom.
Holly grinned in the dark. “I should hope so, you’ve married me.”
Matt laughed. He made love to her that night, and it was unlike anything else he had ever done and they had ever shared. It was passionate and tender, and it tasted and felt like promises. The whole day felt like a promise, and Holly would do everything within her power to make sure those promises were kept on both ends.
“I’m going to make sure I never break your heart,” she whispered when they were laying naked and sated underneath the sheets.
Matt held her closer still. “I trust you with it.”
Holly swallowed against the sudden lump those beautiful words brought to her throat. She burrowed closer to him, as close as humanly possible. Her husband. It still felt too good to be true.
“I want to call my parents tomorrow,” she said out of the blue. She decided it the minute she said it. It felt like the most sensible thing to do.
Matt tensed up against her. “Why?” he asked carefully.
“I want to tell them what we did today. I want to tell my father that all his little schemes amounted to nothing.”
“Oh.” She could hear the smile in Matt’s voice. “I’m on board with them.”
Holly hesitated. “I also want to tell them they still have a chance to get their daughter back.”
Predictably, the tension came back to Matt’s body at record speed. “Now,
I’m not sure I’m so happy about.”
“They’re still my parents, Matt,” Holly said. “I know it must sound crazy to you know, but I still want them in my life. But in order for that to happen, they’re going to have to change their views. They’re going to have to accept me for what I am. They’re going to have to accept
Matt was silent for a few moments. “Do you really see that happening?” he asked after a moment, his voice cautious and his words careful.
“No,” Holly admitted. “Not right now. But maybe someday. I want them to at least know that the door is open, and that it’s up to them to walk through.”
Matt sighed. It was all too clear that he did not agree with this in the least, but to his credit he didn’t say anything against it either.
“Whatever you think is best, Holly,” he said, kissing the top of her head lovingly. “Just be careful, all right? I don’t trust your dad.”
Holly chuckled in the darkness. “Believe me, I don’t trust him either. But you’ve said it yourself, now that we’re married, what can he do?”
“I don’t know,” Matt admitted. “But I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he still has some aces up his sleeve.”
Holly shuddered. “God, I hope not.”
Matt squeezed her tight in reply. It wasn’t long before his breath evened out and he was asleep.
Holly turned onto her back and stared up at the darkened ceiling. It had been a crazy few days. So much had happened, she could barely keep track of it all.
She couldn’t help thinking about Erik. She wondered where he was now. She wondered what had caused his abrupt change of heart. She wondered what had led him to do what he had done in the first place. Desperation, most likely. He had shown his true colors to her, and she had seen a very desperate, very lonely man. She felt sorry for him. She could tell he had been a good man once, and she hoped he could find his peace again.
Holly certainly had found hers. She turned her head to spy Matt’s sleeping features in the darkness, and she smiled. How had she gotten so lucky?
Holly had to try three times before she was finally able to get a hold of someone on the other end of the line. Every time she hung up and had to dial the number again, she almost didn’t do it. Eventually, however, she always managed to muster up enough courage to go through with it.
Her father finally picked up on the fifth ring of the third attempt.
“This is Harry Springford,” he all but growled into the phone.
It was clear that he wasn’t happy, which gave Holly a pang of satisfaction that made her feel instantly guilty.
“Dad, it’s me.”
There was a beat of silence on the other end of the line. “Holly?”
“Holly! Where are you? Are you okay?”
Holly almost snorted out loud. “Funny you should ask,” she said icily, “considering that you sent a fucking mercenary on my trail.”
“Young lady, I do not appreciate that language!” her father snapped.
“And I don’t appreciate being hunted down like a dog!” Holly snapped back. She took a deep, steadying breath. She couldn’t afford to lose her temper now; it would accomplish nothing, and she meant to indeed accomplish something. “Is mom there?”
Her father hesitated. “She’s entertaining.”
“Holly, I can’t just pull her away from—”
Something in her voice must have gotten her father’s attention, because after a moment’s hesitation Harry said, “Very well. Hold on.”
Holly did. She held on to her emotions with an iron grip, fully knowing that she had to be rational for this. A good ten minutes later, her father finally came back on the line.
“We’re both here,” he said. “You’re on speaker.”
“Holly?” her mother’s voice. “Holly, is that you?”
“It’s me, mother.”
“Oh my God! Are you okay?”
Holly was barely able to refrain from rolling her eyes. And then she remembered that they couldn’t see her, so she rolled away.
“Spare me,” she said. “Mom, Dad, this has got to stop,” she began. “I can’t believe you would have a professional chasing me down.”
“We didn’t know what else to do,” Eleanor Springford said. “You had gone completely off the grid. We didn’t know how to find you.”
“You weren’t supposed to find me,” Holly said. “That was the whole point. I need to make a life for myself away from you. Away from your plans for me.”
“Holly, this is ridiculous,” Harry Springford exploded. “You’re our daughter—”
“Am I?” Holly cut him off firmly. “Because you certainly haven’t treated me as such in the past seven months, Dad.”
That finally shut them up.
, Holly thought, satisfied.
“Look,” she said, “despite everything, I still love you. You’re still my parents, and you have given me all that you could. I still want you in my life,” she admitted, echoing the sentiments she had expressed to Matt the night before. “But not like this.
like this. If you want me to still be your daughter, you need to start respecting me and accepting me for who I am. You need to accept me and my choices.”
“Such as…?” Harry Springford asked cautiously after a moment.
The hesitation in her father’s voice filled Holly with hope. Perhaps they still loved her too. Perhaps they were willing to work on this too. Perhaps they also wanted to be a part of her life after all.
“Well, the first thing you should know is that I got married.”
It was a brutal way to deliver the news, she knew that, but she also knew there would be no point in tiptoeing around it.
There was a stunned silence from the other end of the line. It went on for what felt like an eternity.
?” her father finally said in a shocked whisper.
“You heard me.”
“Holly…to whom?” Eleanor Springford asked in a murmure as appalled as her husband’s.
“His name is Matthew Ramirez. He’s an ex-army man. He served five tours, three in Iraq, two in Afghanistan.”
“And what does Mr. Ramirez do now?” Harry Springford asked.
“He’s currently looking for a job.” Holly would have wanted nothing more than to tell them that Matt worked in a vineyard in California, but that had been shot to hell.
She heard her mother’s choked gasp and her father’s muttered curse.
“Holly, be serious,” Eleanor said.
“If you’re trying to give us a heart attack, this isn’t funny, missy,” Harry Springford said.
“This is not a joke, Dad,” Holly said. “I married Matt yesterday. He loves me, and I love him. He makes me very happy. I would like for you to meet him someday, when you can get past whatever it is that makes it impossible for you to approve of me having a life of my own.”
, think about this,” her mother pleaded with her.
“I don’t need to think about it, Mom,” Holly said. “We’re in love. He asked me to marry him. I said yes. That’s final.”
“Fine,” Harry Springford said after a few moments, and that one little word shocked Holly to no end. “Suppose we approve of this. Suppose we’re happy for you. What are your plans now? What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” Holly admitted. “The plan was to settle down in San Francisco, but now you’ve gone and fucked that up for us.”
Eleanor gasped audibly. “Holly!” she cried. “Language!”
“Mother, I’m so way past good matters that it’s not even funny.” She sighed. “Think about this, please. Think about the chance of coming to your senses and realize you have a daughter, if you’ll have her. I’ll fax you my phone number so you’ll know how to reach me should you ever come off your high horse.” She hesitated. “I love you both.”
She disconnected the call before they could say anything else.
Holly slumped against the back of the couch in Becky and Joe’s living room and sighed heavily. After that phone call, she felt utterly drained. At least she had gotten her point across. Now the ball was in her parents’ court. She could only hope they would pick it up.
She looked up when she heard footsteps. Matt entered the room and went to sit down next to her.
“How did it go?” he asked.
Holly shrugged. “I have no idea,” she admitted. “I said my piece, at least. I can’t do anything else.”
“You’ve done more than enough, if you ask me,” Matt muttered.
Holly arched a warning eyebrow at him.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. He leaned in and kissed her, briefly but thoroughly. “Something came for us,” he said, holding up an opened brown parcel.
“What is it?” Holly asked, intrigued.
“It’s a letter,” Matt said. “From Erik.”
Holly winced. No matter the fact that he had changed his mind and saved her in the end, she still couldn’t hear Erik’s name without feeling a surge of resentment towards the man that bordered dangerously on hate
want?” she said.
Matt shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t read it yet. Would you like to read it with me?”
Holly hesitated. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear anything Erik had to say; after all, did he deserve to be heard out? He probably didn’t, but, she realized, Matt needed to do it, and as far as she concerned, Matt deserved to have everything he needed. She sighed and nodded.
“Fine,” she said. “Let’s read it.”
In the letter, Erik apologized profusely. He said pretty much what he had said to her, which was that he had been a very desperate man who had lost his way, and that he didn’t know where was up and where was down anymore.
Erik wrote that there were no excuses for what he had done, and Holly had to agree wholeheartedly with him. He wrote about his PTSD, and he wrote about his time as a war prisoner. It was the first even Matt heard of it. They had known about it, of course; Erik had told them as much when they had met him underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, but he had never gone into details even with Matt.
It was a hard read. Those were raw, hard words to hear, even from a sheet of paper. There was so much dread, pain, and suffering in them that Holly almost had to stop reading, but she braved the tale and read on. There was horror in Erik’s words, such as she couldn’t even begin to imagine and that even Matt realized and admitted he had only known a glimpse of.
By the time the sordid tale was done, Holly had to consider that it was a wonder Erik was so well-adjusted after all. It was a wonder he had any conscience left. It was a wonder he had any bits of himself left.
Erik wrote that his demons were too big for him to fight. He wrote that he had tried to seek help, but that in the end he always ended up running. Relieving everything was too painful, and yet it was a necessary step for any trained specialist to truly be able to help him. But he couldn’t do it, no matter how many times or how hard he tried. He couldn’t bring himself to talk about it. He wrote that even putting those few and yet very vivid details down on paper for Matt and Holly’s eyes was excruciating.
Holly had no trouble believing him. She found herself almost admiring him, for having kept his humanity through all of this. She wished she could help him, but she knew he was well beyond her help—or anyone else’s, for that matter. She knew that until Erik was ready to help himself, no one else would be able to do anything for him. Not really.
Erik wrote that he knew about them getting married, and that they shouldn’t be surprised that he knew, because it was his job to keep track. Holly suppressed a shudder at those words, but she knew they were meant to be kind and not as creepy as they ended up coming across. Erik wrote that he was deliriously happy for them. He wrote that he couldn’t imagine Matt ending up with anyone better suited for him. He wrote that he would always sleep soundly knowing that his brother in arms was in the good care of someone as special as Holly.
Holly felt oddly touched by those declarations.
Erik wrote that he was moving away and leaving California. He wrote that maybe he would even leave the States. He wrote that he wanted his parents’ house and vineyard to continue to thrive and know life amongst their walls and green aisles. He wrote that he wanted them to carry on the dream.
Holly and Matt exchanged bewildered looks.
Erik wrote that he had enclosed the deeds to the house and the land, and that they were theirs if they so much as wished. All they needed to do was to show up at a meeting he had already set up with a trusted notary that following Monday, and put their signatures where it was required of them. He wrote that they would have a home and place to start their life together if they so wished.
Erik wrote that he loved them and that he was sorry. He wrote not to worry about him. He wrote that he would be all right in the end.
When they finished reading, they both had tears in their eyes—even Holly, despite all of her hard feelings towards the man, which she found had dissipated by the time she reached the last line of the letter.
Matt pulled the deeds out of the envelope.
“It’s all here,” he said, leafing through them. “It’s like he said.” He stared at her in disbelief. “What do you want to do?”