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Read the first 3 chapters of Love’s Promise right now!

Chapter 1

“Order’s up!” Jeffrey bellowed from the kitchen as he slid a pair of plates into the window that looked out upon Mabel’s Old-Fashioned Diner.

“That was fast,” Kristina Rose said with a smile as she loaded up her round serving tray with condiments and extra napkins, then grabbed the meals he had prepared. Her teeth gleamed white against her dark complexion. The added contrast made Kristina’s smiles seem all the more special. Jeff had never been sure why, but he’d always appreciated the little jolt her happiness sent rushing through him.

“Gotta be fast,” he responded without missing a beat. “Mabel’s got a reputation to uphold, after all. And, besides, I’m starved. Gonna whip something up and take a late lunch. Want to join me? I can just as easily cook for two as I can one.”

The corners of her mouth fell, and Kristina let out a slow sigh. “I wish,” she muttered. “I started my liquid diet this morning. I’m only allowed protein drinks and chicken broth… and water, of course.”

“Sorry, sorry, I forgot!” He shooed her toward the waiting customers. Now that she’d mentioned it, he had noticed her step become a bit slower, her tray droop lower than usual.

She’d be going in for surgery later that week and absent from the diner for at least a month while she recovered. Their boss, Mabel, had insisted on it. Part of him wondered why she had even come into work at all if she’d already started her pre-surgery fast, but the answer seemed obvious enough. She’d already be missing out on a month of income as she recovered, and for a young woman living on her own, well, she needed every dollar she could scrimp and save.

And while they liked many of the same things, lived in the same city, and even came from two of the only non-white families in town, they were also different in a lot of ways, too. For starters, Kristina Rose had grown up in their tiny town of Sweet Grove, Texas, whereas Jeff hadn’t shown up until high school when his parents took over the old pharmacy downtown. He was close with his parents, always had been, but Kristina had never known her father and always seemed to prickle whenever Jeffrey asked after her mother.

But that was none of Jeff’s business, of course.

He’d always assumed Kristina stayed in Sweet Grove because her friends were the nearest thing to family—and that she stayed on as a waitress for Mabel because there weren’t an awful lot of other career prospects around town. All that was fine. He was happy to have her company day in and day out.

Jeffrey, on the other hand, stayed in town to delay the inevitable. His father wasn’t thrilled he’d taken time off after completing his bachelor’s degree to come home and work as a short-order cook. No, Jeffrey’s life had all been planned out for him, and now he’d fallen nearly a full year behind that preordained schedule. He was to finish college and move straight onto his Pharm.D. After that, he’d work under his father for a few years until the old man retired and left Jeffrey as the sole pharmacist at their tiny RX shop in downtown Sweet Grove. After all, a town as tiny as theirs only really needed the one.

Jeffrey tried not to gag just thinking about the heinous plans his father had made for his life without bothering to include him in the process. Instead, he reached into the cooler and grabbed three eggs, cracked them on the side of the griddle, and watch them ooze and sizzle on the hot surface.

Funny how heat had a way of changing things. Sometimes, like with the eggs, the hot made them better. Other times you ended up with a melty mess. And for his part, Jeffrey avoided the hot in life. He preferred to live his days at room temperature.

Not that he’d ever eat his eggs that way, mind you.

He rummaged about in the walk in until he found some shrimp nearing its expiration date. Shrimp? Sure, why not? He grabbed some sausage, too, and resolved to make a jambalaya scramble for a quick, pleasant lunch.

He loved how the act of cooking could combine such different ingredients and blend them together in one harmonious and delicious whole. What could pills do? Corrode your liver? Facilitate a suicide? Drive you to bankruptcy? Nope. No, thank you.

He didn’t begrudge his father his passions—he just didn’t share them himself. Jeff would take food as medicine over actual drugs Monday, Tuesday… heck, any day of the week.

Kristina came back to the window and clinked some ice into a fresh glass, then added a stream of water from the soda dispenser. “Tasty,” she said and winked at him. “Bet you’re so jealous of the five-star lunch I have going on right here.”

“Jealous of you?” he said, sprinkling some Frank’s Red Hot onto his steaming egg dish. “Always.” And as it turned out, he kind of was. Only he wasn’t entirely sure why just yet.

He pushed through the kitchen doors and came to sit next to her at the counter. They ate and drank in silence for a few moments. Kristina Rose kept her eyes cast down toward the counter and occasionally chewed on the inside of her cheek, sucking it in then letting it bounce back.

“Are you scared?” he asked between bites.

“Terrified,” she answered without a moment’s hesitation.

“It’ll be okay.”

“I know, but that doesn't make it any less scary.”

Funny, that was exactly how he felt when forced to look toward his own future. No, it would be better to just close his eyes, eat his eggs, and focus on all the things he liked right now in his present.

***

Kristina Rose’s alarm trilled into the darkness of her one-bedroom apartment. Rather than rushing to press the off switch, she let it continue its screechy song. At least now she had a distraction.

She’d been awake for hours, just lying in bed staring at the ceiling, wondering if she was about to die and, if so, what that might feel like. What a way to spend her final hours on earth—or at least in this particular plus-sized body.

She began crying.

And now she was shaking.

She couldn’t breathe without taking huge, gaping breaths that never quite filled her lungs.

Ahh, there it was, the full-fledged panic attack.

She pressed a hand to her chest and tried to focus on the steady rhythm of her own heartbeat. Thump, thump, thump. Her blood rushed through her body. Thump, thump… thump.

Once she trusted herself to breathe again, she took one slow, shaky breath. Then another.

Her alarm continued to demand attention, so finally she pressed the silencer and headed to the bathroom to brush her teeth.

Her best friend Elise would arrive in just a few minutes and together they would drive to the hospital. At least her surgery was scheduled for first thing in the morning. She wouldn’t have been able to handle the anxiety encroaching in on her otherwise. And Elise would be there the whole time. Even though her youth pastor BFF had zero medical training, the fact that she would be close at hand made Kristina feel loads better. It was almost as if Elise’s profession gave her a direct line to God, like her prayers were answered more quickly and urgently than that of a lay-Christian such as Kristina Rose.

Ridiculous, but comforting nonetheless.

Kristina picked up her mascara wand and then set it back down. The nurse had said no makeup or hair product that morning. She’d have to go au natural. The surgical staff would be handling her guts, after all, so why did the thought of them seeing her unpolished face almost scare her more?

She’d be going into battle without any protective armor—that was why. “Such a pretty face,” everyone always said. But their praise came after she’d carefully applied the needed layers. This morning she’d need to confront her future with an ugly face and ugly, flabby body. Talk about vulnerable!

“You are a strong, confident woman,” she told herself without looking in the mirror as she usually did. “People love you for you. Besides, you have black girl magic.”

She laughed as she thought about the memes that had been flying all over Facebook about said magic. Did the Olympic gymnast Simone Biles care how she looked? Of course not, even though she was cute as a tiny, little button anyway. Simone focused on being the best she could be, on developing her talent, on finding her worth outside of appearances.

Kristina Rose could do that. She could, and she would.

Armed with prayers, a renewed sense of determination, and—of course—black girl magic, she headed out the door and into the idling sedan that had just pulled up to the curb downstairs.

Elise yawned her greeting. “Morning. How did you know I was here?”

“Because you are always five minutes early, five minutes on the nose.”

“Am I really that predictable?”

“You’re really that much my best friend. I know you, Elise, and all your adorable quirks.”

Elise scrunched her nose and winked. “Well, guess what? I know you, too. And I know how hard this is for you, but I also know how very proud I am of you.”

“You know all that, huh?”

“Yup, and I know things are going to work out just fine. Trust in the Lord. He’ll see you through.”

“You know I always do.”

Elise beat out a song on her steering wheel and blew at the blonde bangs that had fallen into her eyes. “So are we done knowing stuff for now? We kind of have somewhere we need to be.”

“Yeah, I guess we do.” Kristina Rose frowned, a gesture which did not escape her best friend.

“None of that!” she insisted and grabbed Kristina’s hand. “Quick prayer and then we’re off. Got it?”

She nodded and listened as Elise sent up her expert, professional prayers to the Almighty. Then she silently added one of her own, just in case she didn’t wake up when all was said and done.

For better or for worse, everything was about to change. And no matter what Elise said, they couldn’t really know which it would be…

 

Chapter 2

Jeffrey jammed the key into the old lock to the back door of the diner. He’d been up tossing and turning all night, then mistakenly slept through his alarm and missed walking Toto, his big, slobbery Newfoundland dog. There would be hell to pay when he got home from work—and he’d be the one fronting the bill.

He sighed and let himself into the empty restaurant, flicking on lights here and pulling out ingredients there. Most days he and Kristina opened up shop together, but for the next few weeks he’d be on his own. That made him wonder, was she actually being cut open right now? The thought sent a shiver through him. So weird to think about a near stranger rooting around inside his friend, cutting and rearranging her innards.

But this is what Kristina Rose wanted, so who was he to say he’d never found her unattractive? Yes, she was bigger than the other girls they’d gone to high school with, but what did that matter? She was the biggest in a lot of ways—not just her pants size.

Her personality, for one—she could always make a person feel as if they were the only one in the room, with her special attention and signature toothy grin. Her sense of fashion, too. Jeffrey didn’t think much about clothes, and most days he wore a simple t-shirt and jeans, but he noticed the extra effort Kristina had always made to look nice. He liked that about her. Even if she wasn’t perfect—because, really, who among us is?—she always did her best at whatever thing she undertook.

The customers at Mabel’s adored her. She was friends with everyone in the entire town, and come to think of it, she was probably the best friend Jeffrey had anywhere—even counting his canine companion. No wonder he was such a crank that day. He was worried about her, about Kristina Rose, his best friend. Well, if anyone could make him feel better, it would be the Maker. He started mumbling a prayer as he continued about the business of opening the diner.

“Keep her safe. Help her to be happy, healthy again,” he whispered as he started mixing up a batch of sausage gravy.

“What’s that now, J?” The diner’s proprietress, Mabel, shuffled into the kitchen and dropped her oversized bag by the dish sink.

“Oh, good morning. I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Good? What’s good about it? It’s far too early to be good. Let’s reconvene on that one closer to ten o’clock.”

“I told you not to come in. I can manage just fine on my own.”

“Oh pfhoo to you, too. Whether or not you can isn’t the question. I figured it’d be mighty lonely without KR around. The least I could do was come on in and… keep you company.” She spoke the end of her sentence around a gigantic yawn.

“Well, thanks for that. I’m glad you’re here, then. Can I make you something?”

“Do we have any toast?”

“What kind of question is that? Of course we have toast. Maybe you need to start running the inventory numbers sometimes yourself. Getting out of touch a bit there, Miss M.”

“Just shut up and make me some toast.”

Jeffrey laughed and cut off a chunk of sourdough bread from a loaf he had nearby. He buttered it and placed it on the hot grill while Mabel headed to the front of the diner to pull up blinds and brew a couple pots of coffee.

“Amen,” Jeff whispered when he realized he hadn’t actually finished his prayer. He wanted to make sure God heard it because, after all, Kristina Rose needed all the prayers she could get today.

He marched over to the cooler to grab some sausage but suddenly found himself recoiling in disgust. How different were human guts and sausage guts? He honestly had no idea, but he didn’t even want to touch meat today if he could help it. It felt wrong somehow, made him uncomfortable thinking that while he cut and rearranged this flesh, a surgeon would be doing the same to his Kristina Rose. Perhaps a vegetarian special was in order? He’d need to give that some thought. The residents of this Texas town weren’t too big on meatless meals.

“I’ll have you know that—J! Goodness, Jeffrey J, what are you doing?” Mabel rushed over to the grill and pulled off the smoking charred crust of toast.

Wow, he really was out of it today. “I’m sorry, Mabel. I…”

“You’re distracted, got something else on your mind.”

“It won’t happen again, I swear. I just—”

“You don’t need to apologize. It’s just toast. Or at least it was until about a minute ago.”

Jeffrey frowned and went to stir the gravy lest another kitchen fire begin to blaze.

“You wanna talk about it?” his boss asked.

He shrugged. “Not really anything to say.”

Mabel chuckled and put a hand on his wrist, turning Jeffrey to face her. “Oh, I think there’s plenty to say. The only question is whether you’re ready to say it to yourself. Forget me, because I’ve already heard you loud and clear.”

“W-what do you mean?”

“J, really?”

That’s when it hit him all at once—the worry, the distractions, everything. “You think I have feelings for Kristina Rose.”

“Think? Honey, I know.”

And in that moment, finally Jeffrey knew, too.

***

Everything felt heavy when Kristina first awoke from the anesthesia. Her eyelashes almost seemed as if they’d been weighted down or glued to her cheeks. Her limbs were thick and prickled with numbness. Even breathing felt more laborious than it once had. Wasn't this surgery supposed to have the opposite effect?

She struggled against the fatigue and opened her eyes, one after the other, in a slow, careful squint. She wanted to sit up but didn’t quite feel strong enough to do so. Maybe if she pushed down with her arms…

The movement tugged at the IV protruding silently from her arm. It didn’t hurt, but it felt icky nonetheless.

“Good morning, sleepy head,” a nearby nurse said. “I was just coming in to check on you. How do you feel?”

Heavy didn’t seem like the right response here, so Kristina murmured “groggy” instead.

The nurse chuckled and put a heartrate monitor on Kristina Rose’s fingertip. “Heart rate is good. How do you feel besides groggy? Any pain?”

Pain? Oh, yes. Surgery was supposed to hurt. But… Kristina felt absolutely fine. “I think maybe I’m too tired to hurt,” she guessed aloud.

“On a scale of one to ten?”

“Maybe two. A little like I’m hungry from not having eating all day, but nothing unbearable. I thought it would be a lot worse.”

“Well, now, why did you think that? Dr. Daniels is very good at what he does. In fact, you’ll hardly have any scars to show for it. That’s the power of laparoscopic these days. Anyway, your vitals all look great. Would you like me to invite your friends in? They’ve been waiting very patiently to see you.”

Friends? Kristina Rose had only been aware of Elise staking out the waiting room for her. Who else had come to see her? Maisie? Jennifer? Summer, maybe? She nodded, and the nurse left with her chart.

A moment later, Elise burst into the room holding tight to the string of a big, happy “It’s a Girl” balloon. “I’m so glad you’re finally up!” she said, bending down to hug her friend and taking the pain from a two straight to a four. “Oh, I hurt you, didn’t I? I’m so sorry. It’s just I’m very glad to see you. I—”

“You were worried I wouldn’t wake up.”

“I knew you were safe in the Lord’s hands, but I still worried. What would I do without you, Kris?” She shook her head and chuckled morosely.

“Is that for me?” Kristina pointed toward the pink Mylar balloon floating near the ceiling. “You know I didn’t have a baby, right?”

“I know, I know, but I had to get you something, and there weren’t an awful lot of choices in the hospital gift shop. I figured the balloon is light and pretty. It floats, which is kind of like flying, right? And, well, you’re about to take off in this new life and get a lot lighter, too, if I understand it right. So… yeah. Here.” She tied the string of the balloon to the side of Kristina’s bed.

“You were waiting for me to wake up for how long, and that was the best you could do?” Kristina laughed. “But thank you. It’s perfect.”

“Hi, Kristina Rose,” a third person said almost shyly. It was a voice she knew well, but not one she had expected to hear so soon after waking.

“Jeffrey, hi. Thank you so much for coming!” She tried to adjust herself in bed to at least find a more flattering position, but doing so tugged at the IV line again and sent her pain back up to a three after it had only just settled down from the hug with Elise.

Jeffrey came to her bedside and gave her a very light and gentle embrace, then handed her a popsicle still in its shiny, white wrapper. “The nurse wanted me to bring you this,” he explained. “It’s sugar free and will keep your throat from getting too dry.”

“I’m not really hungry,” she confessed.

But then Elise was all over her. “Missy, you better do what the nurse says if you want to get better soon. Need me to unwrap it for you?”

Kristina Rose rolled her eyes. “I think I can manage.” As instructed, she unwrapped the popsicle, which was grape, her favorite flavor since childhood. She took a tentative suck and smiled. “Thank you for bringing this, Jeffrey. It’s so refreshing right now and the sugar’s helping to wake me up a little more.”

“It’s sugar free, but you’re welcome.” He smiled, too.

Elise looked from Kristina to Jeffrey then back again, but said nothing.

“I’m happy you’re okay,” Jeffrey said, ignoring Elise’s quizzical glance. “I prayed for you all day. In fact, I was so distracted at        work that I even burned the toast. Mabel sent me here, said a cook who couldn’t even make toast was no good to her anyway.”

Kristina laughed. Had he really been so worried about her? She hated to cause him concern, but she also loved that he’d been thinking of her, that he was here.

“Do you mind if I just say a little prayer with you?” he asked. “It only feels right since I spent the whole day begging God to keep you safe. And he did, so now I need to say thank you.”

“I’ll just… go for a lap around the hall,” Elise announced, slipping out of the room.

“Can I?” Jeffrey asked again, and Kristina nodded. He sat on the edge of her bed and reached for her hands. Their hands and skin often brushed whenever she grabbed a plate of fresh cooked food to serve to their mutual customers or when they were working together to refill ketchup bottles or stock napkins. But all those brushes were casual, unintended, part of a day’s work. As his hands cupped around hers, she felt a small jolt as if her whole body was just now coming to life and shaking off the heaviness of the anesthesia. Like Elise’s balloon, she’d become light, was flying.

“Dear Lord…” Jeffrey began, but honestly, Kristina didn’t even hear the rest.

 

Chapter 3

Jeffrey felt half tempted to belt out the serenity prayer as he and Kristina Rose bowed their heads and joined hands.

God, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change… Like the fact that we are just friends, maybe best friends, but friends nonetheless. She doesn’t think of me that way and it would be unfair to put this new pressure on her with so much else going on in her life right now.

Courage to change the things I can… I can be here for her. I can help her walk this new path. I can make a difference in her recovery, be there the way she deserves.

And the wisdom to know the difference… Amen.

Luckily for Jeffrey, he’d gone to church every Sunday since he was first baptized in the tiny Southern Baptist church of his original hometown. That meant he always had a prayer at the tip of his tongue if not in the forefront of his mind. He wasn’t entirely sure which words he uttered in prayer with Kristina, but they seemed to bring her comfort—and that was the most important thing.

“How do you feel?” he asked when they both opened their eyes and looked up.

She smiled, and he thanked God that the heartrate monitor wasn’t strapped to his chest, because surely she’d know he’d just missed a beat.

“Not too shabby,” she said, then smiled her signature Kristina Rose grin again.

Another beat missed. How had he not realized his love for her before? Stupid, stupid, stupid. His throat tightened, became dry, but he pushed out the next words anyway. “What happens next?”

“I lose a million pounds, get rid of the diabetes, and live happily ever after.” She laughed, and Jeffrey realized too late that he was supposed to have laughed, too. Unfortunately, his brain got caught on “happily ever after.” Wouldn’t that be just the way?

“I’ll be fine, Jeffrey,” she said, nudging him with her leg. “Don’t you worry about me. The worst part is already over.”

He offered her a weak smile, but inside his brain continued to zoom about like a headless chicken. If he were to grab her right now and kiss her, how would she react? No, no, that wasn’t fair. She didn’t need this from him, especially on today of all days. Say, he waited a week, a month, a season. Then what?

He’d read that people who received gastric bypass surgery could lose one hundred pounds in just a couple short months! Would Kristina Rose think that his feelings had surfaced only because she’d lost weight? He’d hate for her to think that way of him, but it would be the obvious conclusion. And if he spoke of his feelings too soon, he could jeopardize their friendship, hurt her recovery. What option did that leave, really?

To speak now or forever hold his peace? He couldn’t speak now, and he’d never be at peace if he couldn’t share his true feelings. But he could be her friend, and that would have to be enough.

Satisfied, he let a smile slide across his face.

“What are you thinking about?” Kristina asked as she smoothed the wrinkles on the thin hospital blanket that covered her lap.

“You,” he answered honestly as he stood and paced toward the window. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“Me too,” she said just above a whisper.

“Can I come back yet?” Elise called from the hallway.

“Come on in,” he answered. “I was just saying my goodbyes.” Yes, he needed to say goodbye—goodbye to the thought of a relationship with the girl he’d only just realized meant so much more to him than just a friend, goodbye to his recent longing to take her in his arms, and goodbye to this hospital room where he’d been forced to admit his dream could never be.

“Bye, Jeffrey,” Kristina said, her voice cracking around the words. “Thanks for stopping by.”

He knelt and gave her a brief peck on the temple. “I’ll come see you tomorrow. Take care.”

Tomorrow. What would that be like? Suddenly, Jeffrey’s eyes had opened to such an amazing revelation, but at the same time he’d have to close his heart to the love it so badly wanted to give.

Tomorrow no longer seemed like a promise, but rather a pain he would need to endure.

Tomorrow.

***

The doctor insisted on keeping Kristina Rose overnight even though she felt absolutely fine. In fact, now that the scariest part of it all had come and gone, she felt more excited than anything. It was time to start living her new life. She’d survived the fire, and now it was time to dance in the flames.

“Good morning!” the same friendly nurse from yesterday said as she glided into Kristina’s room with a steaming cup of beef broth. “Sleep well?”

“As good as can be expected, I guess.”

“And on that same scale of one to ten?”

“One and a half?”

“Oh, good. You’ll be headed home in no time. I’m going to need to give you a prick.”

Before Kristina could even agree, the nurse jabbed a needle into her finger and swabbed at the tiny bead of blood. After a few beats, she exclaimed “Ninety-seven. That’s quite an improvement already! You’ll be out of the diabetes zone in no time.”

“Already?”

“Already. It’s a wonder what surgery can do. It will probably take another couple weeks to officially become diabetes free, but even when your sugar is fine, you’ll still need to take care of your diet for the rest of your life. Even more than before, I’m afraid.”

“Yes, I remember from my pre-surgical visits. My stomach is a thumb.”

“Just about, yes.”

Kristina glanced down at her hands, which were less swollen than before the surgery. She hadn’t even realized she’d been holding water until it was suddenly gone. Before long, she’d probably even be able to wear the stunning emerald ring her grandmother had willed her but that had never fit.

“Do I get to go home now?” she asked hopefully. She wanted to try her luck now. The ring would be a wonderful thing to come home to.

“I’ll leave that final decision up to the doctor, but everything looks good to me. Do you have any questions?”

“Nope. It all seems pretty straightforward. I read up on everything the doctor gave me and am ready to put in the work.”

“That’s great, but listen to me, honey. Everyone always feels excited, ready to conquer the world coming out of the OR, but it’s easy to lose that excitement over time. It will require hard work and a lifetime of change. Things that seem easy now or felt easy before might prove to be incredibly difficult.”

Kristina glanced over the nurse’s figure as she took in her words. The nurse wasn’t a stick, but she was nowhere near plus-sized, either. Even though her scrubs seemed a tad tight, she’d probably never had any real struggle with her weight. And while the things she was telling her were clearly knowledgeable, she also didn’t know how much this opportunity meant to Kristina Rose. Why would she ever do anything to mess it up?

“I’ve got this,” she said at last. “I know what a blessing this second chance is.”

The nurse smiled and glanced up from the monitor she’d been studying moments before. “You have a great attitude, and that’s at least half the battle. Just promise me that you won’t hesitate to reach out for help if you need it. The staff is here to support you—Dr. Daniels, the psychologist who did your evaluation, and you have friends and family who would love to lend a hand, I bet. Speaking of, do you have someone you can stay with for the next few days as you adjust to your new stomach? You won’t be able to drive for a bit longer either. Do you have the help you need?”

“Yes, yes, my friends always take care of me. Thank you.” Kristina cleared her throat and glanced toward her cell phone. Friends, she had by the bushel. Family was a different story.

“Okay, I’ll stop pestering you then. It was so nice taking care of you, sweetie. Don’t be a stranger now, you hear?”

The nurse wheeled her cart out of the room, leaving Kristina Rose by herself in the sea of white—white walls, white tiles, white sheets, white gown. Her iPhone buzzed with a new message.

On my way, Elise wanted her to know.

Elise was coming back. Would Jeffrey be back, too? Now that he knew she was okay, would he keep coming by to visit? Or would it take recovering enough to go back into work to spend any real time with him?

And what would she look like by then? She was a size 22 now. Would she still be in plus sized clothing and still wear a G-cup bra? Or would she be well on her way to skinny Minnie-dom?

And what would Jeffrey think? Would he want her then? Did she want him to want her under those circumstances?

It all made her head hurt. Perhaps a three on the pain scale.

The phone buzzed again. Elise already?

No, this time it was a call… from her mom.

“Hi, Mom,” she answered, putting the phone on speaker. Who cared if an orderly passing by overheard?

“Kristina Rose, why didn’t you call to let me know you’d come out of surgery okay? I was so worried about my little girl.”

So worried it took her more than a day to check in? Yeah, okay. “I’m fine. Sorry. Just got busy with hospital tests and sleeping and visitors stopping by.”

“Don’t try to guilt me, missy. You know I would be there if I could. Flights from Florida to Texas aren’t cheap, as I’m sure you know. Besides, Trevor needed me to help him prepare for a big sales pitch at work. And you’ve always had that independent streak a mile long. I knew you’d be just fine without me. You are fine, aren’t you?”

“Yes, totally fine.”

“Well, good. Next time remember to call your mother, okay? Gotta go, the roast needs to go into the oven. Love you. Bye!”

Kristina Rose didn’t even get to mumble a farewell before the phone clicked over. Now the emotional pain shot up to an eight, though physically she felt fine. Where to even begin processing all that? How she wished she could just dismiss the short call and put it out of her mind. But her mother had always managed to get under her skin and stay awhile. Maybe that was why she was so heavy to begin with. Her body had to house her and some phantom version of her mother. It took a lot of calories to feed both.

Normally after a call with her Mom, she’d reach for a sleeve of Oreos or swing by Mabel’s for some fresh, salty fries. Her thumb-sized stomach churned at the thought. No, no, no. Was she really struggling with emotional eating already? How would she ever manage to maintain this new lifestyle long term if a two-minute phone call sent her into a spiral of longing for something sweet and soothing?

She reached for her bedside tray and grabbed the tiny bowl of broth. Slurp.

This is delicious, she told herself. Slurp. It has all the nourishment I need. Slurp. I’m my own person, a strong person. Slu—

“I’m heeeeeere!” Elise trilled, pushing into the room with a giant duffle bag slung over her shoulder. “What did I miss?”

“Nothing important,” Kristina Rose said with a sigh. Because nothing important was precisely how she felt in that moment. Oh, dear.

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