In case you can't wait a moment longer, here's the first chapter of Not Until Then!
This wasn’t happening.
Bethany scanned the checkout counter around her, as if her purse would magically appear on it.
All she wanted was one day of the year where she had it together. It didn’t feel like too much to ask that it be today.
But apparently she was bound to make a mess even of her daughter’s birthday.
“That will be $21.99.” The cashier―an older woman with kind eyes―repeated.
“I . . . Uh . . .” She felt at her shoulder again―the spot where her purse should have been. In the rush to get everything ready for Ruby’s party, she must have forgotten it.
She rubbed at her temple. She couldn’t show up to her own daughter’s tenth birthday party without a gift. Not when everyone else would have one―probably one they’d purchased weeks ago. It was bad enough she was buying it at the grocery store, but she didn’t have much choice; it was on the way to Ruby’s school and it was almost time to pick her up.
She blinked at the necklace―a figure of a horse and a girl face-to-face within a heart. She had two choices: grab it off the counter and run out the door―or put it back on the shelf. There was a time in her life when the first would have seemed viable. But not anymore. Not even for Ruby.
“I’m sorry. I forgot my wallet. I guess I’ll have to put it back.” The words weighed her whole body down.
“Do you want me to set it aside for you?” The cashier slid the necklace into her hand and set it next to the register, sympathy in her voice.
“That would be nice, thank you.” Bethany knew the woman’s name, she was sure of it, but she didn’t have the energy to search her mind for it right now. “I probably won’t be able to get it until tomorrow. I have to get to my daughter’s birthday party. Maybe I can give her an ‘I owe you.’” She tried for a weak smile. At least she didn’t have to worry about crying. The aneurysm had stolen that ability from her right along with a good chunk of her short-term memory.
“Here.” A man’s voice spoke from behind her, and someone reached past her to hand the cashier a credit card. “I’ll get it.”
“I . . . Um . . .”
Before Bethany could stop her, the cashier had already taken the card and run it through the register.
“That’s very kind of you,” the older woman said, beaming into the space behind Bethany. “Oh, doesn’t this feel like the beginning of a romance movie? You make sure to get his name, dear.” The woman winked at Bethany.
Bethany opened her mouth as she turned to look at the man. His left arm was in a sling, and he wore a gray flannel shirt, but the thing that struck Bethany the most was his face―all hard lines and angles, not a trace of a smile.
Say something, Bethany’s brain screamed. But the words wouldn’t arrange themselves in a straight line in her head.
“Here you are, dear.” The cashier passed Bethany a small bag and handed the card back to the man.
Bethany was halfway to the door before she finally managed to turn and blurt, “Thank you,” the words sticking together like paste as they came off her lips.
She didn’t wait to see whether the man would acknowledge her gratitude.
Outside, the wind grabbed at her hair, and she pulled the zipper on her sweatshirt up higher against the early April chill as she scanned the parking lot. Usually she took a picture of where she’d parked, but she’d been in too much of a hurry today.
There. She let herself breathe out as she spotted the boxy maroon four-door only two rows away. Finally, something was going her way. Maybe that meant Ruby’s birthday wouldn’t be a disaster after all. She should have just enough time to stop home and wrap the gift before she had to pick her daughter up from school and bring her over to the stables for the party.
As she strode toward the car, she reached into her pocket for her keys.
When her fingers didn’t brush against metal in her jeans pocket, she checked her sweatshirt.
Then she checked all the pockets again.
Which meant she’d left the keys in the car.
“Please tell me I forgot to lock it,” she muttered to herself as she reached the vehicle. With a quick prayer, she tried the handle.
It lifted―but the door didn’t budge.
She peered through the window, letting her head rest against the cold glass as she spotted the keys dangling from the ignition.
“Really? Today of all days?” She hadn’t slept well last night; she was sure that was the explanation for her increased forgetfulness today. But knowing why it was happening didn’t change the fact that she was going to ruin her daughter’s birthday. Poor Ruby hadn’t done anything to deserve a mother who could barely remember to make a meal, let alone plan a perfect birthday party.
Be grateful, she reminded herself. She was still here to celebrate Ruby’s birthday. Two years ago, that hadn’t been at all certain. The aneurysm may have made things more difficult, but it hadn’t taken her life.
She closed her eyes and offered a quick prayer of thanks―as well as a plea for help out of yet another situation. Then she let out a long breath and opened her eyes. This wasn’t the first time she’d locked her keys in her car. Which was why she’d given a spare set to her brother Cam and his wife Kayla. She hated the idea of calling them to come to her rescue―again. But for Ruby’s sake, she’d do it.
She reached for her back pocket, just as she spotted her phone―in the car’s cupholder.
She groaned and pounded her fist against the car window.
Something like this would never happen to any of the perfect moms of Ruby’s classmates―whose names she would probably never manage to remember.
She shook her head. Feeling sorry for herself wasn’t going to help.
Okay, what else could she do? She could go in the store and ask to use someone else’s phone―except it wasn’t like she could remember any phone numbers to call. She had to look up her own any time she needed it, for goodness’ sake.
She had no choice but to call a locksmith. But first she’d better call the school to let them know she was going to be late getting Ruby―again.
She tried the car door handle one more time, jiggling it up and down. “Aargh.” She smacked the window again.
“Everything okay?” A man with his left arm in a sling, his right draped in shopping bags, frowned at her from the middle of the aisle.
He stared her down. “You’re sure? Because it kind of looks like you locked your keys in your car.”
“I did.” She sighed so hard it hurt. “It’s my daughter’s birthday.”
The man gave her a strange look.
Right. There was no reason for him to care.
“Anyway―” She gestured toward the store. “I have to go call a . . .” Ugh. The word had escaped as she’d been talking. “Someone to unlock it.”
“That could take hours.” The guy moved closer. “I can get it open for you.” Tension radiated from the set of the guy’s jaw, and Bethany was torn between an instinct to run away and the need to get into her car.
“You’re not going to break the window, are you?” Although if that was the quickest way to get her to Ruby, maybe it would be worth it.
The man made a sound she thought might have been a laugh, though there was no trace of humor in it and his mouth remained flat. “Hang tight a second. I’ll be right back.” He unloaded his bags on the trunk of her car, then jogged back toward the store, his slinged arm jouncing awkwardly at his side.
Bethany squinted after him until he reached the door, the beginning of a headache twinging behind her eyes. She took a few deep, controlled breaths in an attempt to stave it off. Her head could pound as much as it wanted after Ruby’s party. But she refused to spoil her daughter’s birthday any more than she already had.
Minutes passed. Bethany squinted toward the store. Maybe she should call someone after all.
She was just eyeing the guy’s bags, trying to figure out what to do with them so she could go inside and ask to use a phone, when he emerged from the store. He jogged across the parking lot, his stride powerful despite the long metal rod in his good hand.
“Sorry. Took some convincing to get the manager to let me borrow these.” He held up the rod and a screwdriver.
“What are you going to do?” A vague uneasiness crept over her. She’d never seen this man before, as far as she remembered―which admittedly wasn’t saying much. But what if he was a con artist or something?
“Trust me. I’ve done this a thousand times.”
“You’ve broken into cars a thousand times?” She pressed a hand to her stomach. Now what kind of mess had she gotten herself into? They seemed to follow her around these days. Her doctor said it was because the aneurysm had affected the impulse control center in her brain. “Maybe I should―”
“It’s okay. I’m a cop.” The way he said it seemed sincere, but Bethany eyed him. She didn’t see a badge or a gun.
“Off duty,” he said as if detecting her suspicion. He wedged the screwdriver between the roof and the top of the car door. “From Milwaukee.”
“Oh.” But that would be easy enough to lie about, wouldn’t it? It wasn’t like there was a way for her to check. She peered around the parking lot. It wasn’t exactly crowded, but there were a few people getting into and out of cars. She supposed if he tried anything, she could yell for help.
Besides, by now she had to be at least fifteen minutes late getting Ruby. She didn’t have any choice but to trust this guy.
He grunted as he pulled down on the screwdriver, opening a small gap at the top of the door. Bethany winced. If he damaged her car . . .
“Pass me the rod.” He pointed his chin toward the metal rod he’d leaned against the car. Bethany picked it up and held it out to him.
He glanced at it, then at the arm that hung in a sling. “That’s not going to work. Here.” He took half a step back, still pushing down on the screwdriver with his other arm. “Come over here and slide the rod through this opening.”
“Me?” How was she supposed to know how to do this?
The man made an impatient sound, and she stepped closer, catching a whiff of something slightly warm and woodsy and spicy that made her think of curling up in front of the fire on a winter day. Angling her body in front of his, she slid the metal rod in through the opening he’d created.
“Good. Now, see the unlock button on the side of the door?”
Bethany shifted to get a better view, accidentally bumping against his chest. An odd sensation went through her at the contact, and she scooted out of the way. “I see it.”
“Good. You want to press that with the end of the rod.”
“I don’t think I―”
“You can do it.” The quiet assurance in his words tugged at her, even though he’d obviously only said it so she’d try. He didn’t even know her.
She pressed her lips together and concentrated on guiding the end of the rod toward the button.
She missed twice, but on the third attempt, she landed right in the middle of it. She’d never heard a sound as beautiful as the click of the doors unlocking.
“Yes!” She let go of the metal rod and grabbed the door handle, pulling it open―barely acknowledging the clang of the rod against the ground as it tumbled out.
“Thank you so much!” She threw her arms around the man, who grunted and didn’t return the gesture. It took her a moment to realize it was probably because the hug was completely inappropriate. Stupid impulse control.
“Sorry.” She let go and stepped back, then bent to pick up the rod.
The man nodded tightly as he took it. “You’re welcome.” He gathered up his bags, then started toward the store.
“Do you want me to take that stuff back inside?” It was the least she could do, and he surely had places to go too.
“That’s okay. You have your daughter’s party.”
Bethany gasped. How did he know about that? Had she told him?
She suddenly realized she’d never called the school to say she’d be late. She jumped into the car and started the engine. At the last second, she remembered to open her window and call out one more thank you.
The guy lifted a hand in acknowledgment and kept walking toward the store.
As she pulled out of the parking lot, Bethany gave him one last look in her rearview mirror.
“That’s not the way I expected you to answer that prayer, Lord. But thank you.”