Belle Noel shifted in her seat and glanced at Jax Crawford out of the corner of her right eye. The movie theater lights dimmed less than fifteen minutes ago. From the looks of her date, he already appeared uncomfortable. Maybe not uncomfortable exactly. He kept shaking his left arm. She gave a slight shake of her head and tried to focus on the previews, but she could only think about the man beside her.
Belle and Jax had been friends for most of their lives. As they grew up, they'd developed feelings beyond friendship. Well, at least she had. Jax dated girls off and on. Heartbreak seemed to follow him wherever he went. Belle couldn't understand it. She thought Jax saw her as more than a friend, yet each time there was a high school dance, he invited someone else, leaving her to go either alone or with their other good friend, Ethan Knight.
Two weeks ago, they'd confessed their feelings for each other. Belle knew Jax was the one for her. She'd known it since they were kids. She'd often prayed Jax would get on the same page. And finally, he had. After their "more than friends" talk, it took him a full two weeks to ask her out on this date.
If only he'd acted faster. While she knew they'd marry one day, Belle still planned her life. Her heart sped as she thought of what the mailman had brought to her house that very day. A letter. A very important letter she'd been anticipating. If Jax agreed to wait for her, she'd go to culinary school overseas on a full ride scholarship. Having a long distance relationship wasn't ideal, but she'd be back on holidays and summers. And Jax could visit her.
Belle gave a contented sigh, imagining the two of them strolling down the streets of Paris, hand in hand. They'd sit at a small table, a pastry between them, sipping the best cup of coffee she'd ever tasted. Her life would be perfect. She'd come home after two years, marry the man of her dreams, and live happily ever after.
No, her parents weren't too happy about her leaving the small town of Snow Globe, Montana. They begged her to reconsider going to Paris, to take over the shop they'd opened, the North Pole Bakery. While she could do that, her heart longed for Paris. Her parents would understand in time that she needed to make her own way in the world. Wouldn’t they? Even though they’d taught her all about baking desserts since she was knee-high to a grasshopper, that didn't mean she had to follow in their steps.
Perhaps after she returned from Paris, she’d open up her own little bistro. Belle knew nothing about food served in bistro yet, but she’d learn from the best chefs in the world over the next two years.
In a way, she would still be following in their footsteps. She'd open her own shop, have specialty items, and maybe even add a dessert or two with a Parisian feel. Yes, her life seemed all put together. Now if only she could muster up the nerve to tell Jax about their, her, future. He'd understand, right?
Belle stole a peak at the blue-eyed, blond sitting next to her. His six-foot frame didn't tower over her five-foot-nine one, but she did enjoy looking up at him. Not many men in her small town had that going for them. And since Jax was only nineteen, he may still grow.
The previews ended, and still Jax shook his arm. She leaned forward to ask if he was alright just as his left arm bolted in front of her, colliding with her face. Her eyes stung, unbidden tears rolling down her face. She'd never been hit in the nose by a date before, and it certainly hurt.
Jax leaned forward, horror widening his eyes. "I'm so sorry, Belle," he whispered, then groaned.
Liquid dripped from her nose. She grabbed her purse. "Can you get me a tissue from here?"
He nodded, rummaging through her bag. He pulled out the tissues and handed her a bundle. "Do you need to go to the bathroom?"
Nose throbbing, she nodded her head. "I'll be right back."
Belle scooted past Jax and made her way to the restroom. She pushed open the door with her elbow, keeping the tissue firmly planted against her face to stop the bleeding. The last thing she'd expected from Jax was a bloody nose. She stifled a giggle. Oh well. It would be a funny story to tell their children and grandchildren one day.
When the bleeding stopped ten minutes later, she fixed her make-up and exited the bathroom. Jax was pacing the lobby, his brow furrowed.
"Jax? Why aren't you watching the movie?"
He shook his head and crossed the lobby in three long strides. "I couldn't sit there knowing I'd caused you pain. I'm so sorry."
She waved her hand in front of her face. "It's okay, really. What happened, though?"
Red covered Jax's face. "I don't really want to admit it, but since I hurt you, I figured you should know." He sighed and ran his hand through his wavy hair. "I was trying to put my arm around you."
Jax entwined their fingers and tugged her to a nearby bench. "Yeah. I was nervous about tonight, and so Ethan and I came up with an idea." He scowled. "No. I can't really blame Ethan since he told me not to do it. Anyway, I figured if I pretended to have a twitch, I could make it a smooth motion and put my arm around you. But then you leaned forward, and I didn't anticipate that."
Belle snickered and covered her mouth. "Why would you think that would work?"
Jax shrugged. "I don't know."
Belle scooted closer to Jax, lifted his arm, and draped it around her shoulders. "See how much easier that was?" She giggled.
Jax pulled her closer, kissed the top of her head, and chuckled. "I guess it was."
Their first kiss, in a way. Shivers ran down Belle's spine. "No more fake twitches?"
Jax threw his head back and laughed, his deep blue eyes dancing. "No more twitches."
The bell above the bakery dinged, signaling a new customer. Belle swiped the hair back from her face with her arm and turned around, a smile plastered to her face. When her gaze connected with the man standing in front of her display case, her smile faded.
"What do you want?"
Jax Crawford sighed. "Belle, it's been over seven years. Seven years. Can't you greet me like a normal person?"
Belle huffed and crossed her arms. "I can, but I won't. Why do you insist on coming here every day anyway?"
The bell dinged again. Belle turned her back on Jax, much like she'd done when she was nineteen, and greeted the customer. "Good morning, Mrs. Vail."
The mayor's wife glanced between Belle and Jax. "Am I interrupting something?"
"No," Belle replied.
"Yes," Jax responded at the same time.
"No," Belle said again. "What can I get for you today?"
Mrs. Vail's eyes sparkled. "Hm. If you say so. I'd like a large latte and two pumpkin muffins to go."
"You got it." Belle turned her back on both of them. "Sally, please make large latte."
"Absolutely, Belle," her employee answered.
Belle retrieved the muffins, placed them in a box, and taped it shut. She rang up the order just as Sally handed Mrs. Vail her items. "Have a great day, Mrs. Vail. Thanks for stopping in."
The mayor's wife smiled. "There's no other place like this one, Belle. I can't wait to see what you come up with for Christmas. Especially your cookies."
Christmas. Right around the corner. She hadn't given her cookie selection much thought. She needed to, though. Her Christmas cookies were her staple during December. Every year since she was twenty years old, she'd made a special cookie for Christmas. This year, she'd been stumped. What could she do differently that she hadn't done in years passed? Snowmen, snow globes, Christmas Trees, Star of David, and Santas had been her specialties. Now what?
The bakery empty, Belle leaned against the counter and closed her eyes.
"Belle?" Jax's voice interrupted her thoughts.
Belle bit back a groan. She thought her bakery was empty. Why wouldn't the obnoxious man leave her alone?
"Why are you still here?" Belle growled. "I close in fifteen minutes."
"I'll stay as long as it takes for you to talk to me." Jax widened his stance, his arms shoved into his jean pockets. He had no right to look as good as he did, she thought.
Belle was right. When they were nineteen, she knew he'd grow a few more inches. And he did. Now towering over her by several inches, Jax reached six foot four, if not taller. She hadn't grown since high school. His blue eyes pierced hers.
"What do you want to talk about?" Belle conceded.
"First, I'd like a cup of coffee and a cookie." Jax pointed to her favorite cookie. "Then, would you mind sitting with me?"
Belle stopped herself from rolling her eyes. "You make me crazy, you know that?"
The left side of Jax's mouth twitched, and he nodded. "I know."
She grabbed two cups of coffee and two cookies and set them on a table. She flipped the open sign to closed then sat across from Jax.
Jax studied her while chewing his cookie. She adjusted in her chair and took out her hair clip. She ran her hand through her hair, letting it flow down her shoulders.
"Don't you think it's time we work out our issues?"
"Why? Feeling guilty?" Belle raised her eyebrows.
"Every day, but not because of what you think," Jax murmured.
"Then why? Why did you do it?"
Jax sighed. "You know I can't tell you that. Otherwise, I would've when we were nineteen. I know you don't love me anymore and haven't for years. But can't we at least be friends?"
"Friends? How can you even ask that? You won't be honest with me. You won't tell me the truth. How can I trust you?" Belle pushed down the resurfacing hurt.
"If I could go back and do things differently, I would. But I can't. I made a promise to someone that I cannot break. How can you ask me to break a promise in order to make you trust me?"
"It was my life you messed with, Jax. My life. Not someone else's. You had no right to do what you did. I have every right to know why you did it." Belle narrowed her eyes.
Emotions danced across Jax's face. If only Belle could identify them, it may help her understand Jax a bit more.
"You're right, you do. But it's not my story to tell. I can't break a confidence, no matter how much I want to." Jax's shoulders slumped. "Belle," he leaned forward and grabbed her hand. "I'm so sorry. I can't tell you my reasons. Maybe one day. But please, forgive me. Give me a chance to regain your trust as a friend. Please."
Belle longed to pull away from him, to slap him and tell him to leave her establishment. She wanted to cause him as much pain as he caused her, to destroy his happiness and his life. Yet, the nudge in her heart could only be God asking her to move on, let go of the hurt and forgive the man who changed the course of her life forever.
"It's hard, Jax. You don't know what you cost me."
Sadness filled his eyes. "I do know. Every day I've seen the consequences of my actions."
Belle closed her eyes, blocking out the vision of the man who'd stolen her heart so long ago. She wanted to marry him, to raise a family with him. She longed to share their lives together and live happily ever after. Now, he sat across from her, begging for a chance at friendship. Her best friend, London Knight, would agree Belle needed to forgive him, though London had no idea why.
Knowing she'd regret her next comment, she allowed the words to leave her lips. "Fine. We can work on a friendship."
Jax shut his eyes, a slight smile lifting the corners of his lips. When he opened his eyes, she thought she saw tears forming in the corner, but Jax turned his head away. When he regained his composure, he released her hand. "Thank you. You have no idea what this means."
"I'm still hurt, Jax. I still don't understand. Maybe one day, you can trust me enough to tell me what really happened." Belle stood. "Now, I need to prepare for tomorrow."
Jax followed her lead and stood. "I'll see you tomorrow then."
"You're still coming in every day?"
Jax chuckled. "How can we work on our friendship if we don't see each other?"
Belle shook her head and unlocked the door. Jax left with a wave. Belle's heart sunk. She hoped she did the right thing. Only time would tell..
This can't be happening.
Ethan Knight tightened his hold on his son laying on his lap. It had been a trying day for his boy. Thank God he now slept while Ethan fought his battles.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Knight," Mrs. Thompson, the principal of the elementary school, shook her head. "You knew this was a possibility."
Ethan tightened his jaw. Yes, he knew enrolling his deaf son in preschool could cause problems. No, he did not know the administration would kick out his child only one week into the school year.
"I hadn't realized his actions were so horrible." Ethan's eyes darted to Landon's teacher.
Miss Madsen had the decency to lower her eyes. Maybe Ethan still had a fighting chance to keep his son in school. Miss Madsen raised her eyes, her gaze narrowed. His fighting chance evaporated like an ice cube on a hot day.
"Mr. Knight, I told you when you first enrolled the boy in my class that I don't have the capability to deal with a boy with special needs. I have fifteen three-year-olds who are normal."
"The boy's name is Landon," Ethan growled, "and he is normal. Just because he is deaf does not make him abnormal."
Mrs. Thompson held up her hand. "That's not what Miss Madsen meant." She shot the preschool teacher a look of warning. "We adore Landon. We are a small school. You know we don't have the resources for kids with special needs. We warned you this was a trial basis. Landon isn't able to communicate his needs in a productive manner."
Ethan's shoulders sagged. "And what do you suggest I do? I can't have him never attend school."
Compassion flowed from Mrs. Thompson's eyes. "Of course not. I do have a few brochures for schools in Bozeman you can send him to."
"That's over three hours away. Landon wouldn't be able to stay awake in class if we had to get up that early to drive him to school."
"You don't understand," Mrs. Thompson's voice softened. "It's a boarding school for special needs children."
Had he not been holding Landon, Ethan would've jumped up and stormed out of the room. Instead, he switched Landon to his free arm, pulled himself up from the chair, and glared at the principal. "I will not abandon my son."
"I don't see it that way, Mr. Knight." Mrs. Thompson stood as well. "You would be giving him the best possible care, and a way for him to be able to communicate."
"No more of this Mr. Knight junk, Marsha. We've known each other since we were kids."
"I'm trying to be professional, Ethan," Marsha huffed, crossing her arms. "Look, I know the last few years haven't been easy for you. We aren't doing this to punish Landon for his behavior problems. We just don't have the means to help him."
"You've known for two and a half years I'd be enrolling Landon in preschool. Why weren't steps taken to make sure you had a proper teacher in place?" His eyes shot to Miss Madsen.
The teacher straightened her shoulders, fire in her eyes. "I'm quite capable of doing my job, Mr. Knight."
"And it appears nothing more than your job, Miss Madsen," Ethan retorted.
"Just what is that supposed to mean?"
Ethan shook his head. "Nothing. Thank you for your time."
"Do you want the brochures, Ethan?" Marsha held out the paperwork Ethan had no intention of taking.
"No." He turned on his heel, threw open the door, and stalked to his car.
Send his son to a boarding school? He didn't think so. Bad enough Catherine divorced him and gave up her rights to Landon when they found out he'd been born deaf. How someone could leave flesh and blood because he couldn’t hear baffled Ethan. He'd thought Catherine better than that. He snorted. He'd been wrong. The last two and a half years he'd been raising his son on his own. He'd hoped school would give him the help they both desperately needed. Obviously not.
Ethan clicked the button on his key chain, the door to his Subaru unlocking. He pulled open the door and gently set his sleeping boy in his car seat. Landon's tear streaked face rolled away from him but not before sending a shot of pain through Ethan's heart.
His poor son. He only wanted to have friends. He should've learned sign language. If he had, Landon wouldn't be looked down upon. Ethan shook off condemning thoughts and climbed into the front seat. He pounded his fist against the steering wheel. Seriously, God, what now?
Ethan drove the short distance to his house. Living in Snow Globe, Montana, brought a sense of peace and frustration all at the same time. The small town of five hundred allowed everyone to know everyone. And their business. By this time the next day, the town would know Landon had been kicked out of preschool. He'd receive a few comments, to be sure. Well wishers knowing what's best for his son. They'd certainly done that when Catherine left. "Give the boy up for adoption" had been the most frequent suggestion. As if giving up his son was best for either of them. "He won't even remember you," they'd said. Like that would encourage Ethan. God never gave up on him. Why should he do any differently?
Ethan pulled the car into his garage and killed the engine. Since God said murder was a sin, he could only kill the engine and feel okay about it. Not the people at the school or the haughty Miss Madsen who wouldn't go above and beyond to learn how to communicate with a deaf student. He pulled out his cell phone, ordered pizza for dinner, then climbed out of the vehicle. He woke up his son with what he hoped appeared to be a genuine smile. Landon, though deaf, knew how to read emotions better than most.
Landon's eyelids pulled open in a sleepy manner. His tear streaked face lit with a smile. Ethan's heart lifted a notch. His son's sweet smile and trusting eyes bore into his heart. No way would he send the joy of his life away to school. There had to be another way. He'd search high and low for an answer. God would just have to provide a miracle. He'd done it before. He could do it again.
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