Charleston, South Carolina
Present Day

CALLIE STARED AT WES, stunned into silence. It’s true what they say, she thought. My tongue tastes ashes.

Wes – handsome, dark-haired, impeccably dressed Wes – smiled at her and said apologetically, “This wasn’t anything I planned, Callie. Lucy and I just met again by accident. But we started talking, and remembering what we’d had together, and I don’t know, it just sort of all clicked.”

“Clicked,” she echoed faintly. She was vaguely aware of the other diners around her in the elegant restaurant, the click of silverware, the low hum of voices. This is a dream. It can’t be real. This can’t possibly be happening.

“Yes,” Wes nodded, with that dazzling smile and only a trace of regret in his voice. “Kind of amazing, really. It was as if we had never been apart. So I knew the only honorable thing to do was to tell you and explain that it’s not fair to you to go on when I know my future is with Lucy.”

“Wes,” she managed, concentrating on keeping her voice low and even, “we’re engaged.”

“I know,” he nodded earnestly, “and we’ve had a wonderful time together. I really thought it would work, but when I saw Lucy – well, I guess I was never really over her, and now that I know she feels the same way, I just have to try again. You understand that, don’t you?” he added with another winning smile.

Callie concentrated on lifting the heavy linen napkin from her lap, carefully folding it, and placing the smooth burgundy napkin beside her full plate. Finally, she said, “No. No, I do not understand.”

Wes reached out to put his hand over hers. She gazed at it, that strong, bronzed hand that had held hers so firmly when she said she would marry him, barely hearing him say, “I’m sorry, Callie, I really am.”

At least he sounded sincere, she thought absently, still studying his hand covering hers. Over…it’s over? How can that be? But when she looked up at him and saw his expression, sad but utterly resolute, she knew that whatever she thought they had was no more. Yes, she thought blankly. Over.

She was seized by an intense desire to get up, get out, and get away from all this. She rose swiftly from her upholstered dining chair and caught up her clutch purse. “I have to go, Wes,” she muttered.

He rose also, tossing his napkin on the table and reaching out to catch her arm. She stepped away quickly but not fast enough – his hand stayed her from rushing past him. “I understand, Callie,” he said encouragingly. “But before you go, um, could you give me back the engagement ring?”

Callie stared at him in disbelief, For the first time, the flames of anger began to lick at the edges of what little composure she still had. “No,” she responded firmly. “No. I cannot.” She shrugged off his hold and walked out of the dining room with all the poise she could muster. I’m selling that sucker first thing tomorrow, she promised herself determinedly.

≈≈≈ 

After a sleepless night, Callie dragged herself into the bathroom and gazed blearily into the mirror over the sink. She looked awful: her normally neatly waved blonde hair was hopelessly tangled and mussed, and her eyes were swollen and red from crying all night. Callie briefly considered calling in sick but she knew she was better off going into work. Staying busy would keep her mind off Wes. The thought of him, smiling so happily as he talked about his long-lost Lucy, started the hot tears flowing again. How could that happen? We had just been talking about buying a house, raising children – Callie shook her head, hard. This was getting her nowhere.

After a quick shower and a hot cup of strong coffee, she felt a little bit restored. She dressed in her favorite suit to further bolster her confidence - elegantly tailored soft gray linen paired with a soft white silk blouse. I can do this, she told herself. I can make this work.

I have to make something work.

And for the most part, she did. She ruthlessly suppressed all thoughts of Wes (or “not-Wes” as she now referred to him) and concentrated on work. As a result, she made progress with the job fair her human resources firm was planning and she was able to talk with several of her clients about candidates she had recruited for their executive positions.

Mina Pederson was sitting in the cubicle across from her. Mina had become a close friend over the few years they had worked together. In fact, they looked enough alike to be sisters. They were both slim and had the same medium height. Callie’s hair was wavy where Mina’s was perfectly straight, but their hair was a similar shade of yellow and their eyes were both walnut brown in color.

Callie could tell that Mina knew something had happened but Callie had shot her a look that warned, “Not now, not here.” Mina understood, bless her, and didn’t press. But at the end of the day, Mina invited Callie over to her apartment for coffee. Callie just nodded, exhausted from not-Wessing all day. She really just wanted to go home, but it took less energy to agree.

So after work they drove to the old Victorian mansion where Mina rented a few rooms and settled in front of the fireplace in Mina’s living room with big mugs of hot Columbian coffee. The weather was only a little nippy, as it was already late January. But since the weather never got very cold in Charleston, residents had no qualms about using their fireplaces whenever the outside temperature dropped below fifty degrees.

Mina waited until they were comfortably seated on her sofa before asking what on earth was going on. Callie spilled the whole story, Mina getting up partway through to fetch a box of tissues. Callie thought she had finally gotten past the tears, but she was halfway through the new box before she had finished telling Mina what happened.

“He actually asked you for the ring back?” Mina asked incredulously.

“He did,” Callie confirmed, wiping her tears with another tissue. “Maybe he wanted to give it to Lucy.” That thought wrenched another sob from her tight chest. “Oh, Mina, we were supposed to be getting married! He was the one, we were perfect for each other. And now…now it’s all….” She dissolved in tears again, unable to go on.

Mina waited a moment and then asked, “Have you told your mom?”

That was the first thing Callie had done. She nodded. “Last night. Not that I was able to talk much. I mostly just cried. I was such a mess! Mom suggested I come home to Ware –“

“That’s in Kansas, right, where you grew up?”

Callie nodded again. “It would be nice to go back for a little while, but I’ve got all these things going in at work, and our beloved leader would have a fit.”

Mina snorted. “Oh, Phil Lester can go --“

“Mina!” But the comment had coaxed a small smile from Callie.

And that response brought a big grin from Mina. “Well, that’s probably anatomically impossible anyway. But he’s such a jerk. I heard him riding you again today.”

“Yeah, well, he signs my paycheck,” Callie shrugged, “and jobs aren’t easy to find these days, so…I miss my mom, especially now, but I just don’t know how I’d swing it.”

Mina patted her hand. “I know, sweetie. But at least you can keep in touch by phone.”

Callie nodded, blew her nose, and the talk drifted to other, not-Wes topics. An hour later, Mina was suggesting Callie stay the night, but Callie shook her head. “No, I want to go home. Thanks, Mina, I’ll be fine. At least I know I’ll sleep tonight.”

That attempt at humor, feeble as it was, prompted an answering smile from Mina. “Okay, kid. But call me when you get home, okay?”

“Sure,” Callie agreed, her smile strengthening. “Thanks, Mina.”

“Oh what are cellmates for?” Mina laughed.

Callie walked out to her SUV, hunching a little in the chilly air. I can do this, she thought. I can make it through this. After all, what else could happen?

 

 

Chapter Two ⇒

 

 

"That Little Thing" Copyright © 2020 by Susan Stafford