“Yes, I am.” I can tell by her expression that she isn’t sure how much I know about her, and she’s even more unsure what to say about it. “You’re her . . . you’re . . . Tessa,” she says. I can see her thoughts coming together.
“I’m . . .” I choke. I don’t have the slightest idea what to say. Hardin told me that she was happy now, that she’s forgiven him and made a new life for herself. The empathy that I feel for her is deep. “I’m sorry . . .” I end up saying.
“I’m going to get some more champagne. Trish, come along.” Susan grabs Trish by the arm and gently leads her away. Trish turns her head, watching Natalie and me until she disappears through a door, gown and all.
“Sorry for what?” Natalie’s eyes shine under the bright lights. I can’t imagine this girl, the one in front of me, with my Hardin. She’s so simple and beautiful, so unlike any of the girls from his past that I’ve encountered.
Nervous laughter falls from my lips. “I don’t know . . .” What exactly am I apologizing for? I ask myself. “F-for what he did . . . to you.”
“You know?” I hear the surprise in her voice as she continues to stare at me, trying to figure me out.
“I do,” I say, suddenly embarrassed and feeling the need to explain. “And Hardin . . . he’s different now. He deeply regrets what he did to you,” I tell her. It won’t make up for the past, but she has to know that the Hardin I know isn’t the Hardin that she once knew.
“I ran into him recently,” she reminds me. “He was . . . I don’t know . . . empty when I saw him on the street. Is he doing better now?” I watch for judgment in her cloudy blue eyes, but there isn’t a trace of it to be found.
“Yes, he really is,” I say, trying not to look down at her stomach. She lifts her hand, and I see a gold band on her ring finger. I’m so happy that she’s been able to turn her life around.
“He’s done a lot of terrible things, and I know I’m way out of line here”—I swallow, trying not to lose my confidence—“but it was so important to him to know that you forgave him. It meant so much . . . thank you for finding the strength to do that.”
To tell the truth, I don’t think that Hardin regretted what he did to her as much as he should have, but her forgiveness did chip away at some of the bricks he’s spent years building between himself and the rest of the world, and I know it gave him a little peace.
“You must really love him,” she says softly after a long silence passes between us.
“I do, so very much.” My eyes meet hers. We’re connected, this woman whom Hardin hurt in such a terrible manner and I, in some strange way, and I feel the power of that connection. I can’t begin to imagine how she felt, how deep the humiliation and pain he caused her actually was. She was abandoned not only by Hardin, but by her family. At the beginning, I was just like her, a game to him, until he fell in love with me. That’s the difference between me and this sweet pregnant woman. He loves me, and he wasn’t capable of loving her.
I can’t help the disgusting thought that passes through my mind, the thought that if he had loved her, I wouldn’t have him now, and I’m selfishly grateful that he didn’t care for her the way he cares for me.
“Does he treat you well?” she surprises me by asking.
“Most of the time . . .” I can’t help but smile at this terrible answer. “He’s figuring it out.” I finish on a note of certainty.
“Well, that’s all I can hope for.” She returns my smile.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve prayed and prayed that Hardin would find his salvation, and I think it’s finally happened.” Her smile grows, and she touches her belly again. “Everyone deserves a second chance, even the worst sinners of all, don’t you think?”
I am in awe of her. I can’t say that if Hardin had done to me what he did to her, without so much as an apology, I’d be sending positive thoughts out for him the way that she is. I’d probably be wishing for his imminent demise, yet here she is, this compassionate woman, only wanting the best for him.
“I do.” I agree with her despite my failure to understand how she could be so forgiving.
“I know you think I’m nuts”—Natalie lightly laughs—“but if it wasn’t for Hardin, I wouldn’t have met my Elijah, and I wouldn’t be only days away from giving birth to our first son.”
A shiver creeps up my spine at the thought that comes to my mind. Hardin was a stepping-stone in Natalie’s life—actually, more like a massive bump in the road on her way to the life she deserves. I don’t want Hardin to be a stepping-stone in my life, a painful memory, someone I’d be forced to forgive and come to terms with. I want Hardin to be my Elijah, my happy ending.
Sadness overtakes my fear as she brings my hand to her stomach, swollen in a way that mine most likely will never be, and I notice the gold band on her finger, something I most likely will never wear. I jump back at the movement against my hand, and Natalie laughs.
“The little guy’s busy in there. I wish he’d come out already.” She laughs again, and I can’t help but put my hand back to feel the movement again. The baby in her belly kicks at my hand once more, and I join in her happiness. I can’t help it—it’s contagious.
“When are you due?” I ask, still mesmerized by the flutter against my palm.