Excerpt: The Christmas Locket

Contemporary Romance

Chapter One

Caitlin Brandenburg drove swiftly through the Virginia countryside anxious to reach her destination. She ignored the rows of trees lining the road, raising their barren branches to the winter sky. It was a beautiful day—cold, clear and sunny. She should have been enjoying the scenery, but heartache was her companion and she never gave a thought to anything but reaching the house at the end of the journey.

Sanctuary.

The place she’d loved as a child and sought it’s comfort to escape to now that things were unraveling.

She’d left Washington, D.C., that morning after months of soul searching. It wasn’t easy walking out on a marriage. Yet for a woman married six years, it hadn’t been as hard as she expected. Out of all that time, her husband had only been home a total of one year, seven months, two weeks and three days. She’d counted it up.

She’d spent two summers in Europe, to be closer Zach. But even then, he’d rarely been able to spend more than a few days at a time with her.

What kind of marriage was that? For all intents and purposes she was a single person unable to have a normal social life because of a legal tie to a man half a world away.

Time to change all that.

She felt as if she were cutting a part of herself out with a dull knife.

Caitlin noted the highway sign flashing by. She was drawing closer to her turnoff. The exit that would take her to the house her aunt Sally had left to her upon her death last summer.

Zach came home for the funeral. That added three days to the tally. Then he’d left. She hadn’t wanted him to go, had begged him to stay, but some skirmish captured the world’s attention and off he went to report it.

He’d been a news correspondent for a dozen years, always in some hot spot—whether because of a natural disaster or man-made war. She should be used to it. But she’d wanted him to stay just a little longer and he’d deemed the news more important than his wife’s request.

Aunt Sally’s death had been the catalyst for this final decision. She’d been Caitlin’s last living relative. There was no one else. And Caitlin wasn’t getting any younger. If she wanted children to live on after she was gone, she needed to do something about it soon.

She’d talked to Zach several times on Skype this fall, e-mailed him almost daily—at least at first. He didn’t want to discuss family matters long distance. Wait until he came home, he said. And then he hadn’t returned home–even when she asked him to make an effort for Christmas.

Caitlin gripped the steering wheel tighter. She wasn’t going to think about the past. For far too long she’d put her life on hold for Zach Brandenburg. Now she was taking it back.

She’d known when she married him that he was a reporter with a travel lust that took him all over the globe. From armed skirmishes to natural disasters, Zach Brandenburg always sought to be in the middle of the late breaking news.

It had been exciting in those first months to be a part of his life, to tell friends and co-workers that her husband was Zach Brandenburg.

E-mail, Skype and texts had kept them connected. And she’d been thrilled each time he came home, hoping that this was the time he’d stay.

Her summer in Athens and the one in Rome had seemed romantic at first. Only it turned out she was as lonely there as at home—actually made even worse since she didn’t speak either language.

After six years, she was tired of their electronic relationship. She was tired of constant disappointments. She wanted a husband at home every night, someone to eat dinner with and discuss their respective days. Someone to share child raising with. Someone to start a family with. Someone to grow old with.

Zach was not that man.

The realization had come slow and painfully hard.

But she’d admitted it finally. And taken steps to change the status quo.

She recognized her exit approaching and slowed to turn off the highway onto a quiet country road. It soon narrowed and twisted as it meandered through the wooded area. Historic Williamsburg was not too far from the house on the James River that had once been her aunt’s.

Caitlin’s parents had died of influenza when a particular virulent strain had swept through the country the winter of her senior year in college. Her mother’s parents had been dead before she was born, her father’s dying within months of each other when she was still a young child. Her birth had been a surprise to everyone. Her parents had been in their forties and had long given up any hope for a baby.

Caitlin recognized familiar landmarks. She smiled sadly as she rounded the last bend and saw the old house in solitary splendor on the banks of the historic river. She’d spent many summers here with her aunt. Even knowing Aunt Sally had died last summer, Caitlin halfway expected to see her peering through the windows, watching for her arrival.

She turned onto the gravel driveway, heading past the house toward the old carriage house in back. For a moment her imagination flickered to happier times.

The house had been built in the 1770s, had withstood the war for American independence, and then the bloody Civil War that almost tore the country apart eighty years later. The clapboard structure had been renovated and updated a time or two. The plumbing wasn’t the best in the world, but sufficed.

Electricity had been added long ago and probably needed to be updated to accommodate all the modern electric devices.

Caitlin wasn’t sure if she’d be the one to handle that. One of the reasons for her visit was to decide what to do about the place.

She stopped near the back door and shut off the engine, gazing around. The grass lay dying in the winter sun, long and shaggy. She’d hired a caretaker for the grounds, but dealing with a firm long distance wasn’t the best way to handle things and it looked as if they’d neglected the job.

Caitlin thought practically the best thing to do would be sell the place and get from under the responsibility.

Yet every once in a while, she daydreamed about moving to the Williamsburg area and living in the old house.

She hadn’t voiced that to anyone—not even her best friend, Abby. The idea was number one on her list of things to think about while she was here.

She was a good elementary school teacher and would have no trouble finding a job wherever she went. Maybe a clean break from everything in Washington would be best. If she moved here, she’d have a place to live in that wouldn’t have a single memory of Zach.

She planned to spend her entire school break working on the house—and considering her options.
Sadly she was doing it alone.

Her aunt had been a spinster who’d never married. She’d loved Caitlin’s visits and always made sure they toured historic Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown each summer and went many times to the beach.

Caitlin remembered most fondly the lazy days lying in the grass in the backyard beneath the weeping willow tree, on the banks of the river, watching the water drift by. The trees had been in full leaf every summer, providing plenty of dapple shade in the hot Virginia summer.

The branches looked bare and bleak without their leafy canopy.

Everything looked a little bleak in winter—or was she projecting the way she felt?

She and Zach had only managed one Christmas together, their second year married. Other years she’d spent part of the day with her dear friend Abby and Abby’s growing family.

She’d been invited to Abby’s again this year, but Caitlin planned to spend this school break in the old house. She needed to get used to doing things by herself if she was serious about ending her marriage.
She climbed out of the car, studying the old two-story clapboard house. It had been around for a couple of hundred years and Caitlin expected it would survive another couple of hundred. It was in fairly good condition. At least she didn’t need to have it painted again anytime soon. She hoped the roof was in good condition and not need to be replaced for a very long time.

She’d done her best to keep her spirits up during the last weeks of the school term. There was no sense letting anyone else know how difficult the last few months had been.

Once her decision was made, Caitlin thought it’d become easier. It was not proving so.

Her heart ached in longing and wishful thinking. But that wasn’t swaying her decision. She was determined to see the change through and make a different kind of life for herself in the future.
Caitlin often wished she’d been a part of a large family when she’d been a child–instead of the only child of older parents. Her desire for siblings had faded as she grew up. And she found lots of joy in teaching her third-grade class every year.

But this year, with the death of Aunt Sally, the desire for family of her own had escalated. She’d tried to explain her feelings to Zach, but he’d pooh-poohed the idea, saying their lives were full the way they were.

His maybe, not so hers.

Others spent weeks shopping for Christmas, making cookies and pies and decorating their homes for family gatherings. She’d finished her short list before Thanksgiving. And there wasn’t much reason to decorate their condo when she was the only one there.

She had a plan. She needed to sort out and packing up things in the house. If she didn’t finish during this holiday, the rest would have to wait until summer. That was a long time for the house to remain empty.

She wondered what it would be like filled with childish laughter, the sound of running feet and shrieks of delight. Maybe she’d look for Aunt Sally’s picture albums to see if there were any old photos of holidays. It had been a long time since any child had run through the house.

She drew a deep breath, feeling the pain in her heart.

She wasn’t out of love with Zach, but she couldn’t stay in a marriage that existed more on paper than in reality.

One day she hoped to make a happy life with someone else.

Once she got over Zach.

If she ever did.

Opening the car door, she caught her breath at the cold air. Time to get inside and see about warming up the big old house before bedtime. There was plenty to do and not as much time as she wished to do it all. Could she have the place cleared out by January first?

The project gave her something to focus on. She’d hardly notice another holiday was passing without her husband.

Her e-mails over the last several weeks had begged him to return home.

Zach kept saying things were too hot to leave—he had a job to do, she should understand.
She tried to explain her unhappiness and the decision she was considering, but couldn’t come right out and tell him via e-mail. She wanted to tell him in person.

If he didn’t return home, soon, however, she wasn’t sure what she’d do.

She’d have to Skype him, not let him find out from an attorney.

She’d even written out what she’d say, the rationale, the hard time she’d had before reaching her decision. Skyping might even be easier than face to face, she could have a script and not get off track if he argued with her. Had she brought it with her?

Christmas was not the time to tell him their marriage was over. And if she hadn’t brought her speech, she’d wait until she returned home in the new year.

Putting it off was cowardly, but she didn’t want to tell him so close to Christmas.

If he agreed to return home for the holiday, she’d have remained in Washington until she spoke to him.
But, it was more important to Zach to report the news from some foreign hot spot than spend the holidays with his wife.

She’d contact him in January after she returned home.

One way or another, she had to tell him their marriage was over.

Tears filled her eyes. She dashed them away, blaming them on the cold wind. Time to get inside and warm up.

 

Chapter Two

Zach Brandenburg let himself into the condo. He was exhausted. The flight home had been one delay and mishap after another. He should be thankful the plane hadn’t crashed, but that was about the only holdup he hadn’t experienced. Bad weather, canceled flights, crowded airports and crying babies on the planes made him wish he’d stayed in Beirut.

Maybe it’d been a sign he wasn’t supposed to come home for Christmas.

But Caitlin’s e-mails lately had been disturbing. She’d almost demanded he come home. She rarely asked anything of him. And he wanted to see her. Make sure she was all right. His flying visit in August had been solely to attend her aunt’s funeral. Not enough time to spend together beyond the duties of that sad event.

“Caitlin?” he called, listening for her.

The place was silent. He checked his watch. Was she still at the school? He thought it was already closed for the holidays.

She was probably over at her friend Abby’s. They could be baking Christmas cookies with Abby’s kids. Caitlin loved the Christmas season. Her emails were usually full of all the decorating at the school she’d done or the treats she baked for colleagues. Or the excitement of her kids as the big day approached.

He thought back to her recent emails. She hadn’t talked of any holiday preparations this year.

The house felt cold and lonely.

He glanced into the living room as he passed, hoping he’d have time for a quick shower and maybe a short nap before she came home. He was surprised by the papers on the coffee table. Caitlin had a desk where she worked. Was she writing notes to include in Christmas cards?

He stepped closer, seeing his name on the first line of the top sheet.

A sickening dread took hold. His instincts were honed by years of dangerous assignments. He knew better than to ignore them.

Dropping his duffel bag, he stepped closer and picked up the sheet. Her handwriting was clear and easy to read. She was a good example to her school children. He stared at the words for endless moments. Then he picked up another sheet—same message, different words. He glanced at two more. His eyes burned. Fatigue gripped him. But it was nothing compared to the crushing blow to his heart–she wanted to end their marriage.

Caitlin had left him.

She was gone. The house was empty and lifeless for a reason—the heart of it was gone.

Zach reread the words, as if doing so could change them.

They remained the same, indelibly engraved in his mind. Disbelief warred with the words dancing before his eyes. He felt sick.

The woman he loved beyond all else had not loved him enough to stay.

Crushing the papers in his hand he turned, as if seeking her.

The stunning realization hit.

It was his fault and he knew it.

He’d deliberately stayed away this fall sensing the change in her, fearing this very thing. Why had he thought she wouldn’t take such a step unless consulting him first? So they could talk.

She always wanted to talk about things, nitpick them to death. She’d given enough hints all fall that he should have picked up. Subconsciously maybe he had. Why else change his plans at the last moment and return home for Christmas?

But he was home now, dammit. Where was Caitlin?

He ran up the stairs to their bedroom. Throwing open the closet door, he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw her clothes. She hadn’t moved out. Not yet, at least.

Her suitcase was gone.

He went into the bathroom assessing what was there and what was not. She’d gone somewhere for Christmas. Then she was coming back. He could wait.

Zach shook his head and turned. No, he couldn’t wait. He wasn’t going to sit around while Caitlin ended their marriage. He wanted to set her straight on that.

Only he had to find her first.

Walking slowly downstairs, he tried to think. He was known for his coolness under fire, why couldn’t he think now?

Abby would know. She was Caitlin’s best friend.

Zach looked around the condo with impatience. It was his home, too. Just because he wasn’t often here didn’t mean he should feel like a stranger in his own home. He needed to find Caitlin’s address book. Scrounging around her desk he found it and quickly dialed Abby’s number.

“Hello?”

“Abby?”

“Yes?”

“Zach Brandenburg here. Do you know where Caitlin is?”

“Where are you?” Her voice held surprise.

“Home.”

“She said you weren’t coming home for the holidays.”

“I planned to surprise her. Only she got the first surprise in,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Abby’s voice was cautious.

“A bunch of notes, like she was writing a speech.”

There was silence on the other end.

“Where is she, Abby?” he asked softly.

“She says it’s over, Zach. She’s been agonizing over this all fall. Let her go.”

“Like hell, I will. Where is she?” He wanted to hit something he was so frustrated.

“If she wanted you to know, she’d have left word. I can’t help you, Zach.” She hung up.
Zach swore and threw down the phone on the sofa in frustration.

If she hadn’t expected him home, Caitlin wouldn’t have gone to stay at Abby’s. They could drive over to each other’s place in less than ten minutes.

It meant she went somewhere else. But where?

Aunt Sally’s house.

Her refuge she’d once called it.

He scooped up his duffel and headed out. A bath and sleep would have to wait. He needed to find his wife and talk her out of her plans to leave