Even now, seven years later, with Thanksgiving dishes put away and another lonely December rushing up at her, Molly Allen knew the truth. Her year, her life, her Christmas . . . all of it might be different if only she’d said something.
The possibilities plagued her that Black Friday. They walked with her through the front door of her Portland, Oregon, private foundation office, hovered beside her over lunch at P.F. Changs, and distracted her every time she stopped in to see the cats and dogs at her animal rescue shelter.
This was Video Day. Molly’s day after Thanksgiving.
Everyone else in the greater Portland area spent the day hunting bargains and stopping in at her shelter to see if the gift they wanted might be in a cage instead of a Walmart. But now, as the day wound down, while shoppers unpacked their bags and counted their savings, Molly would snuggle beneath a blanket by herself and watch the video.
The way she did every year on this day.
She tucked a strand of long blond hair behind her ear and stooped down to the oversize cage on the bottom row. The room echoed with a dozen different barks and whimpers and cries for attention. A chorus of unrest and slight concern from the animals rescued this month to her shelter, one arm of the Allen Foundation’s efforts.
“Okay, Buster.” She unlatched the cage and welcomed a curly-haired gray terra-poo into her arms. “It’s your lucky day. Yes, it is.” She snapped a leash to Buster’s collar. The dog was a two-year-old, stuck at the shelter for three weeks. Longer than usual, considering this was Christmastime, and the cute dogs usually went first. She scratched the dog just above his ear. “Let’s get you to your family.”
For good measure, she made a general announcement to the others. “It’s still seven days till December, gang. Your turn will come!”
Buster wagged his tail furiously as Molly led him to the lobby. She liked Buster’s new family. Of course, she liked most families. Anyone willing to rescue a pet was a friend of hers, no question. But this family with their twin seven-year-old boys seemed special. Their eyes lit up as Molly rounded the corner with Buster.
“Daddy, that’s him! Our Buster dog!” One of the boys ran up and dropped to his knees, hugging Buster around his neck.
The other boy was quieter and hung back by their parents. His grin brightened the room all the same. The family had already signed the necessary paperwork, so this was the last step. Both parents shook her hand as they left. “What you’re doing here, it’s making a difference.” The dad’s eyes were warm. “I have a feeling you could be doing many more things with your time.” He nodded at her. “Merry Christmas.”
“Thank you.” Molly hesitated. “Happy holidays.”
The family turned their attention to Buster and the excitement of getting him out the door in the pouring rain and into their van parked just outside. As the family drove off, Molly checked the time. Six minutes till closing. She walked to the door and flipped the sign. The cages were clean, and the animals all exercised by ten volunteer high school kids who had worked until an hour ago. She would check the water bowls and head home.
He called the video project “The Bridge.”
Somewhere in the opening credits, he wrote this descriptor: How a small-town boy from Carthage, Mississippi, and a highbrow girl from Pacific Heights, California, found common ground on a daily commute down Franklin Road outside Music City to The Bridge—the best little bookstore in the world.
Too wordy, too many locations, Molly had told him. The two of them would laugh about how he ever could’ve gotten an A on the assignment with such a horrific descriptor.
Molly set her drenched things down just inside the door of her walk-up apartment, turned on the lights, and took off her dripping raincoat. She lived well below her means, in a new two-bedroom unit on the famous NW Twenty-third Street. Trees along Twenty-third sparkled with twinkling lights even in July, and the street boasted local coffee shops, cafés, and boutiques with only-in-Portland art and fashion. The pace and people took the edge off.
Her father would have hated it.
Dinner simmered in the Crock-Pot, vegetable potato soup with fresh-diced leeks and garlic and parsley. The soup he taught her to make. Her Black Friday soup. A whiny meow came from the laundry room, and her cat Sam strolled up, rubbing against her ankles. He was a funny cat. More dog than feline. “Hi, Sam.”
He flopped down on the kitchen floor and put his head between his paws.
“Exhausted, are you?” She bent down and scratched beneath his chin. “Good boy, Sam. Don’t overdo it.”
She ladled out a small bowlful of soup, grabbed her blanket and the remote control and settled into one half of her leather loveseat. The top button on the remote dimmed the lights, and the next would start the movie, which had been in the player since early that morning.
Molly caught her hair in her hands and pulled it to one side.
His name was Ryan Kelly.
Now he was married to the sweet Southern belle he’d dated back in high school, no doubt teaching music at Carthage High in Nowhere, Mississippi. But for two years while they attended Belmont University, Ryan had been hers. She’d dreamed of never going home again and playing violin for the philharmonic, and he’d talked about touring with a country band, making music on his guitar for a living. In the end, he had Kristen, his Southern girl back home, and Molly had her dad’s empire to run in San Francisco.
But for those four sweet semesters at the Franklin bookstore, nothing came between them.
The ending was the hardest, the final touch, the turning away, her trembling hands. Every gut-wrenching heartbeat remained etched in her soul forever. Their good-bye had happened so fast, she still wasn’t sure she understood why. How they could’ve parted ways so quickly and finally.
Molly hit the play button, and as the music began, the familiar ache built inside her. She didn’t often allow herself this trip back to then. But the day after Thanksgiving belonged to him, to the way things once were, and to the unavoidable, inescapable truth.
Like Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, she should’ve said something.
He had set the camera up on the dashboard, rigged it with masking tape and a dowel so he could turn it slightly. The viewfinder flipped out, facing them. “Just act natural,” he told her. “Keep your eyes on the road.” His taped laughter rang through her living room the way it once rang through her mornings and afternoons.
The video started with the camera on him, and his first question always made her smile. “Okay, Miss Molly, tell the people how we met. The unlikely meeting that started the madness.”
“The whole story?” He had turned the camera so she came into view, her face less than agreeable as she drove her BMW sedan. “While we’re driving?”
He laughed again. “It’s thirty minutes to The Bridge. I think you can multitask.”
She made a face at him and then laughed as she glanced at the camera. “Fine. What’s the question again?”
“Keep your eyes on the road.”
Their laughter came together in an up-tempo waltz, while the camera caught the discreet way their bodies seemed drawn to each other. The slight but intentional way their knees and elbows brushed together and the way she looked at him as he filmed her—as if she’d never been happier in all her life. Molly smiled as the video played. The camera had caught their heart connection, the friendship definitely, but it had also caught the connection they hadn’t been willing to talk about. The chemistry between them, so strong it took her breath even now.
Their crazy undeniable chemistry.
As the video played on, something remarkable happened, the reason Molly watched the video every year on this day. She no longer felt herself sitting in front of her TV screen watching footage shot seven years ago. Instead she was there again, the sun on her shoulders, adventure in her heart, the summer after her high school graduation. Not in a flashback sort of way. But really there. Heading into an oversize auditorium with three brand-new girlfriends for August orientation at Belmont.
Maybe it was the sense of freedom Molly felt that day, the fact that she’d convinced her father to let her do the unthinkable—leave the West Coast to attend college in a flyover state like Tennessee. Or the fact that here she wasn’t an heiress biding time until she could take over her father’s corporation. She was a college kid, same as everyone else. Whatever it was, that day she felt wonderfully alive and hopeful, every predictable aspect of her life as far removed as the Pacific Ocean.
That day the Belmont auditorium was filled with the energy of college freshmen excited and anxious and desperately trying to fit in. Molly and the girls took the first open seats. Her eyes had barely adjusted to the light in the auditorium when one of her friends nudged the other. “Look at him!” She pointed to a guy one section over. He was tall and built, with short dark hair and piercing blue eyes. “He’s looking at me!”
“Nice try.” The friend laughed. “He’s looking at Molly. Same as every other guy.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. He’s just . . .” Molly giggled, but she couldn’t finish her thought. Because in those few seconds, the connection between her and the dark-haired freshman was so strong it took her breath. She’d met a number of kids by then—through registration and lunch and field games earlier that afternoon. This felt different, and Molly knew one thing without a doubt, no matter what else happened in her four years at Belmont.
She would never forget this single moment.
They didn’t talk, didn’t make their way toward each other when orientation finished that evening. Molly almost wondered if her dad had someone following her, someone who would pay the guy to stay out of her way. Because her time here had come with a stipulation from her parents. She could study music, but she couldn’t date. If her father found out she was seeing a Belmont boy, he would bring her home on the next flight.
“You’ll marry your own kind,” he always told her. He’d say it with a smile, but he was serious all the same. And he didn’t mean she’d marry just any guy in their circle of friends.
He meant Preston J. Millington III.
Preston had attended boarding school with her. The guy was smart and kind and personable enough. Their parents were best friends, and Preston was on the fast track for an MBA. Her father had already promised him a position with his shipping corporation.
Molly had no feelings for Preston, but she’d been raised to believe she didn’t have a choice. No say in the decisions that would shape her life. Not until she set foot on the Belmont campus did her life feel remotely like it was her own. Still, by the end of the first week of school, Molly wondered if she’d ever see the boy from orientation again.
That Friday one of Molly’s friends invited her over for dinner, and she said yes, the way she said yes to every invite. She loved the freedom of coming and going whenever she wanted and spending time with people regardless of their income and influence. Her friend lived in downtown Franklin, thirty minutes south of Nashville. As Molly stepped out of her sedan, she saw a guy climb out of an old Dodge truck at the house next door. He had a guitar case slung over his back, and he stopped cold when he spotted her.
Again their eyes met, and Molly leaned on her open car door. It was him, she had no doubt. But what was he doing here? Before she could ask his name or why he was there, half an hour from campus, or what classes he was taking, her friend bounded out the front door. “Molly! You’re here! Come in and meet everyone. My mom’s been cooking all day and—”
Molly pulled herself away from his deep stare and hugged her friend. They were halfway up the walk when she turned back and looked for him, but he must’ve gone inside. All through dinner, Molly thought about him, thinking up ways to ask her friend’s family who he was and whether he lived there or if he was visiting.
When she left that night, his truck was gone.
But on Monday, Molly arrived early to the music building for her instrumental theory class. As she entered the hallway, she was practically overcome by the beautiful sounds of an acoustic guitar and a guy singing a song she’d never heard. His voice melted her, and somehow even before she rounded the corner into the room, she knew. As if she’d known him all her life, she knew.
Seeing him on the other side of the classroom door only confirmed it.
He smiled and kept playing, kept singing, while she leaned against the wall and watched. When the song ended, he lowered his guitar and looked right through her. “I was beginning to think you were a figment of my imagination.”
She tried to think of a witty response, but her laughter came first. “You’re a music student?”
“I am.” He stood and shook her hand with his free one. This close, his eyes looked bluer than they had in the auditorium. “Ryan Kelly. They had me in the wrong class. Just got it all worked out.”
“So you’re in here?” Her heart soared.
“If I can catch up.” He gave her a half grin and raised his brow. “I might have a few questions.”
She felt her eyes start to dance. “I might have the answers.”
And like that, it started.
Neither of them lived on campus. He couldn’t afford the room and board, so he lived in Franklin with an older couple, family friends. She lived in a house her parents owned in Brentwood’s McGavock Farms. Her dad had bought it well below market value. He hired a crew to renovate it before school started, with plans to keep it until she left Belmont, when he would sell it for a profit. For now the house was staffed with a housekeeper and groundsman, a married couple who lived upstairs. Molly had a suite on the main floor, adjacent to the music room, where she could practice and study. Dorm living was out of the question.
“Communal living is not suitable,” her dad had told her. He tried to soften his expression. “You don’t know anything about that lifestyle. This way you’ll be safe.”
From the beginning, her feelings for Ryan were anything but safe. And since her parents’ staff would’ve reported her for having a boy over, Ryan’s idea was perfect from the beginning. “I know of this bookstore. New and used books in an old house in downtown Franklin. It has a reading room upstairs that no one uses. My home away from home.” He smiled at her, and the sparkle in his eyes touched the depths of her soul. “It’s called The Bridge.”
Molly was intrigued, and from that first study session, The Bridge became a private world for Ryan and her, a hiding place for the two of them. Sure, there were other patrons, but Belmont students didn’t drive that far, and Molly loved the anonymity.
The store was set up in an old house that once was a hiding place for Union soldiers during the Civil War. The floors were old weathered pine, and the walls and doors had settled so that they didn’t quite line up. The place smelled of old books and rich leather, and Molly loved everything about it.
The Bridge was run by a man named Charlie Barton, a friend to the people of Franklin. Charlie kept fresh-brewed coffee on a table near the front register where he hung out, quick with the right suggestion of a book or an insightful conversation. Once in a while his wife, Donna, joined him. The couple would sit with Molly and Ryan near the fireplace and listen. Really listen.
“Tell me about your classes,” Charlie would say. Then he’d pull up a chair as if he had all day to hear details about music lectures and science tests and the English lit reports they were working on.
Donna would sometimes pull Molly aside. “That boy’s in love with you,” she’d say. “When are you both going to admit it?”
Molly would laugh. “We’re just friends. Seriously.”
“Hmm.” Donna would raise her eyebrows. “I guess we’ll see.”
By the end of the first semester, Molly felt closer to Charlie and Donna than she felt to her own parents.
“I’m never going back,” she told Ryan more than one afternoon while they were at The Bridge. “They can’t make me.”
He would grin at her, his eyes shining in a way that stayed with her still. “No one can make us do anything.”
It took only a few study dates to learn all there was to know about each other. Molly told him things she hadn’t told anyone. How her life back home suffocated her and how she had never considered crossing her parents or disobeying them. She told him about Preston and her father’s corporation and the plans he had for her.
He was honest, too. “I have a girlfriend back in Carthage.” He watched her, looking for a reaction. “We’ve dated since our sophomore year of high school. Our families attend the same church.”
Molly felt the sting of the news, but she didn’t let him see. She couldn’t date him, anyway. He would be her friend, nothing more. Knowing about his girlfriend back home only made him safer, giving her permission to get as close to him as she wanted.
In the beginning, Ryan talked about his girlfriend fairly often. “Her dad’s a farmer,” he told Molly one day when they were studying at The Bridge. “He’s giving her two acres, so later . . . you know, we can live there.”
Molly nodded, thoughtful. She didn’t look away, didn’t waver in her connection to him. “How will you be a professional guitar player in Carthage, Mississippi?”
His quiet chuckle was colored with discouragement. “I wouldn’t be. Everyone thinks I’ll come back and teach music at the high school.”
“What about you?” Her voice grew softer, the quiet of the store’s living room encouraging the conversation. “What do you want?”
“It’s a good Plan B, teaching music. I like Carthage.”
It hit her then how much they had in common, their lives already planned out. Suddenly she couldn’t stand the thought. “No, Ryan!” She took hold of his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “You can’t settle. You have to go for Plan A. Tour the world with the top country bands and play that beautiful guitar of yours.”
“Me?” He laughed again, but his eyes showed a hint of adventure that hadn’t been there before. “What about you? None of this Preston and San Francisco for you, Molly Allen. You have to play violin for the philharmonic.” His laughter faded, and he’d never looked more serious. “No matter what they want for you.”
Like that, their dreams were set. They promised to push each other, to never settle for anything but the place where their hearts led. They took turns commuting to Belmont, and they shared a ride every day from the beginning. Ryan would pull his truck up at the corner of McGavock Farms and Murray, where she’d be waiting, out of sight of the staff. He’d take her to school and then to The Bridge when classes were done.
Homework wasn’t all they did at The Bridge. They also found books, classics that spoke deeply to them. Gone with the Wind and her favorite, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. From the beginning Molly related to the heroine and her determination to do the right thing, even at the cost of love. They read Jane Eyre aloud to each other, and once in a while, on the drive to The Bridge, they would quote lines to each other.
“‘I’m asking what Jane Eyre would do to secure my happiness,’” Ryan would say in his best English accent, quoting Rochester.
“‘I would do anything for you, sir,’” she would quote Jane in her own Victorian accent, stifling the giggles that always came when they were together. “‘Anything that was right.’”
When they weren’t quoting Brontë’s novel, they sang along with the radio and talked about their classes and dreamed of the future. For two wonderful years they never talked about the one thing that seemed so obvious at the time, the thing that could’ve made all the difference. They never talked about whether their friendship was a cover for the obvious.
That maybe they were in love with each other.
As the video wound down and Sam curled up on the floor beside her, as her tears slid down her cheeks the way they did every time she watched the film, Molly couldn’t help but think the one thing she would always think this time of year.