Forever Branded

By: Jessa Eden

CHAPTER ONE



Marla:

How long would you pine for someone you loved?

Months?

Years?

Forever?

For me, I carried a torch twenty-two years, six months, and four days before I saw the love of my life again.

Excruciating, I know.

“Why would you do that?” you ask.

Because I’d had real love once. A heart-pounding, dizzying kind of love that comes once in a lifetime.

Yeah, it was that good.

Only I was too young and naive to appreciate the gift I had been given before I lost it.

Now, I knew what had been ripped out of my life.

The love of a man named Beau Shepard.

His departure was partly my fault.

But I won’t get into that just yet.

At the moment, I was on my way to celebrate the opening of my sister, Emma, and her husband, Micah’s, foundation. Fresh from getting married, having a baby, and adopting a little boy, they put this charity together after Micah had retired from his career as a professional hockey player.

They’d had a busy year.

I was so excited for them to enjoy this new chapter in their life. It hadn’t been easy for them to get to this point of happiness, but they had persevered and came out better for it.

Their love story gave me hope.

Meanwhile, they were throwing a big party at a fancy hotel in downtown Baltimore and I was running late for it.

I had a pretty good excuse.

Once a week, I volunteered with Meals on Wheels. My last drop off was always Mrs. Edwards and she was a talker. She lived in a cute little cottage style house in a cul-de-sac a couple blocks from my house.

“Oh, honey,” she started as she opened her ancient screen door. “I just can’t thank you enough for bringing this meal to me. You’re an angel.”

“My pleasure, Mrs. Edwards. I’m happy to help.”

“You know I have a granddaughter that looks just like you.”

“Paige?” I asked, familiar with the story.

“Oh yes...do you know her? She has the same pretty dark hair you do.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Edwards, but no, I don’t know her. You’ve just told me about her before. Anyway, I have to scoot. Lots to do today.”

Her round weathered face fell into disappointment. “Oh, please come in and have some lemonade.”

She looked so sad, how could I say no?

I just didn’t have the heart to deny a lonely grandmother company.

“All right,” I sighed. “One glass of lemonade and then I’ve gotta go.”

She clapped her worn hands together in delight. “Oh goodie...Let me tell you about my granddaughter...”

I knew I was running late, but I dutifully followed her in, knowing I would be there for a while. To tell you the truth, I didn’t mind. Her house always smelled of sugar cookies, reminding me of when my mom used to bake for my sister and me.

Mrs. Edwards whipped out her phone to show me pictures as I listened attentively to her update me on the rest of her family. Eventually, after “oohing” and “aahing” over pictures of her granddaughter’s graduation from beauty school, I was able to say goodbye and get out the door.

I raced home, stripped off my clothes as I walked down the hall, and jumped into the shower for a quick scrub. Afterward, wrapped in my purple terry cloth towel, I hemmed and hawed between wearing my little black dress or a more daring red cocktail number.

I wished I was more of a risk taker and enjoyed drawing attention to myself.

But that had never been my style.

Ultimately, I decided to play it safe and donned the black sleeveless frock. It was simple and elegant. Appropriate for an afternoon party.

I threw on some makeup, grabbed my purse, and headed out to my car. I backed out of the driveway and sped through the streets of Baltimore, trying only to be a half-hour late.

As I looked in my rearview mirror and attempted to put on lip gloss, I weaved in and out of traffic quickly. Okay, not so safe, but I was used to multi-tasking. I turned into the parking lot of the Baltimore Waterfront Marriot in record time, parked the car, and finished applying my pink gloss. I rubbed my lips together, smearing the gloss evenly.

Perfect.

I jumped out and locked the door of my red Honda Accord, hopped across the parking lot trying to put on a pair of nude heels, and dashed into the big conference room where the celebration was happening.

“Marla!” my baby sister greeted as I flew in, her blue eyes twinkling in pure joy.

“Emma!” I threw my arms around her like we hadn’t seen each other in years. In reality, I had just seen her a couple of hours earlier at the salon we owned together.

But that’s how it had always been between us.

Tight. Thick as thieves.

We were sisters through and through.

We shared the same smile, thick waist, and voluptuous hips. She was blonde, while I was dark-haired and brown-eyed. Slightly taller than me, Emma exuded a sweet goodness that had won over Micah Turner, the rugged ex-hockey player.

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