Copyright ? 2007 by Nicholas Sparks All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this
publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or
stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the
publisher. Grand Central Publishing Hachette Book Group 237 Park Avenue New York, NY 10017 Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroup.com. The Grand Central Publishing name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc. First eBook Edition: September 2007 ISBN: 978-0-446-40131-9 Contents Copyright Acknowledgments Prologue Part One One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine Ten Eleven Twelve Thirteen Fourteen Part Two Fifteen Sixteen Seventeen Eighteen Nineteen Twenty Twenty-one Twenty-two Epilogue ALSO BY NICHOLAS SPARKS
The Notebook Message in a Bottle A Walk to Remember The Rescue A Bend in the Road Nights in Rodanthe The Guardian The Wedding Three Weeks with My Brother (with Micah Sparks) True Believer At First Sight Dear John
For the Lewis family:
Bob, Debbie, Cody, and Cole. My family.
Okay, I’ll be honest. It’s sometimes hard for me to write acknowledgments for the simplereason that my life as an author has been blessed with a kind of professional stability thatstrikes me as somewhat rare in this day and age. When I think back to my earlier novels and
or I see names of peopleMessage in a BottleThe Rescue,reread the acknowledgments in, say,
with whom I still work today. Not only have I had the same literary agent and editor since Ibegan writing, but I’ve worked with the same publicists, film agent, entertainment attorney,cover designer, and salespeople, and one producer has been responsible for three of the fourfilm adaptations. While it’s wonderful, it also makes me feel like something of a brokenrecord when it comes to thanking these people. Nonetheless, each and every one of them deservesmy gratitude.
Of course, I have to begin—as always—with thanking Cat, my wife. We’ve been married eighteenyears and have shared quite a life together: five children, eight dogs (at various times), sixdifferent residences in three different states, three very sad funerals of various members ofmy family, twelve novels and another nonfiction work. It’s been a whirlwind since thebeginning, and I can’t imagine experiencing any of it with anyone else.
My children—Miles, Ryan, Landon, Lexie, and Savannah—are growing up, slowly but surely, andwhile I love them dearly, I’m proud of each and every one of them.
Theresa Park, my agent at Park Literary Group, is not only one of my closest friends, but afantastic one at that. Intelligent, charming, and kind, she’s one of the great blessings of mylife, and I’d like to thank her for everything she’s done.
Jamie Raab, my editor at Grand Central Publishing, also deserves my gratitude for all she does.She puts the pencil to the manuscript in hopes of making it the best it can be, and I’mfortunate to have had access to her intuitive wisdom when it comes to novels. More than that,I’m lucky to call her a friend.
Denise DiNovi, the fabulous producer of A Walk to Remember, Message in a Bottle, and Nights in
is my best friend in Hollywood, and I look forward to those times on the film set,Rodanthe,
simply so we have a chance to visit.
David Young, the new CEO of Grand Central Publishing (well, not exactly new anymore, Isuppose), has not only become a friend, but one who deserves my heartfelt thanks, if onlybecause I have the nasty tendency to deliver my manuscripts at the very last possible moment.Sorry about that.
Both Jennifer Romanello and Edna Farley are publicists and friends, and I’ve adored workingwith them since The Notebook was published in 1996. Thanks for all that you do!
Harvey-Jane Kowal and Sona Vogel, who do the copy-editing, always deserve my thanks forcatching the “little errors” that inevitably crop up in my novels.
Howie Sanders and Keya Khayatian at UTA deserve my thanks for the good fortune I’ve had infilm adaptations. I appreciate all that both of you do.
Scott Schwimer always watches out for me, and I’ve come to think of him as a friend. Thanks,Scott!
Many thanks to Marty Bowen, the producer responsible for Dear John. I can’t wait to see how it
all turns out.
Thanks again to Flag for another wonderful cover.
And finally, many thanks to Shannon O’Keefe, Abby Koons, Sharon Krassney, David Park, LynnHarris, and Mark Johnson.
Stories are as unique as the people who tell them, and the best stories are those in which theending is a surprise. At least, that’s what Travis Parker recalled his dad telling him when hewas a child. Travis remembered the way his dad would sit on the bed beside him, his mouthcurling into a smile as Travis begged for a story.
“What kind of story do you want?” his dad would ask.
“The best one ever,” Travis would answer.
Usually, his dad would sit quietly for a few moments, and then his eyes would light up. He’dput his arm around Travis and in a pitch-perfect voice would launch into a story that oftenkept Travis awake long after his dad had turned out the lights. There was always adventure anddanger and excitement and journeys that took place in and around the small coastal town ofBeaufort, North Carolina, the place Travis Parker grew up in and still called home. Strangely,most of them included bears. Grizzly bears, brown bears, Kodiak bears . . . his dad wasn’t astickler for reality when it came to a bear’s natural habitat. He focused on hair-raisingchase scenes through the sandy lowlands, giving Travis nightmares about crazed polar bears onShackleford Banks until he was well into middle school. Yet no matter how frightened thestories had made him, he would inevitably ask, “What happened next?”
To Travis, those days seemed like the innocent vestiges of another era. He was forty-three now,and as he parked his car in the parking lot of Carteret General Hospital, where his wife hadworked for the past ten years, he thought again about the words he’d always said to hisfather.
After stepping out of the car, he reached for the flowers he’d brought. The last time he andhis wife had spoken, they’d had an argument, and more than anything he wanted to take back hiswords and make amends. He was under no illusions that the flowers would make things betterbetween them, but he wasn’t sure what else to do. It went without saying that he felt guiltyabout what had happened, but married friends had assured him that guilt was the cornerstone ofany good marriage. It meant that a conscience was at work, values were held in high esteem, andreasons to feel guilty were best avoided whenever possible. His friends sometimes admittedtheir failures in this particular area, and Travis figured that the same could be said aboutany couple he’d ever met. He supposed his friends had said it to make him feel better, toreassure him that no one was perfect, that he shouldn’t be so hard on himself. “Everyonemakes mistakes,” they’d said, and though he’d nodded as if he believed them, he knew theywould never understand what he was going through. They couldn’t. After all, their wives werestill sleeping beside them every night; none of them had ever been separated for three months,none of them wondered whether their marriage would ever return to what it once had been.
As he crossed the parking lot, he thought about both of his daughters, his job, his wife. Atthe moment, none of them gave him much comfort. He felt as though he were failing inpractically every area of his life. Lately, happiness seemed as distant and unattainable to himas space travel. He hadn’t always felt this way. There had been a long period of time duringwhich he remembered being very happy. But things change. People change. Change was one of theinevitable laws of nature, exacting its toll on people’s lives. Mistakes are made, regretsform, and all that was left were repercussions that made something as simple as rising from thebed seem almost laborious.
Shaking his head, he approached the door of the hospital, picturing himself as the child he hadbeen, listening to his father’s stories. His own life had been the best story ever, he mused,the kind of story that should have ended on a happy note. As he reached for the door, he feltthe familiar rush of memory and regret.
Only later, after he let the memories overtake him once again, would he allow himself to wonderwhat would happen next.
Tell me again why I agreed to help you with this.” Matt, red-faced and grunting, continued topush the spa toward the recently cut square at the far edge of the deck. His feet slipped, andhe could feel sweat pouring from his forehead into the corners of his eyes, making them sting.It was hot, way too hot for early May. Too damn hot for this, that’s for sure. Even Travis’sdog, Moby, was hiding in the shade and panting, his tongue hanging out.
Travis Parker, who was pushing the massive box alongside him, managed to shrug. “Because youthought it would be fun,” he said. He lowered his shoulder and shoved; the spa—which musthave weighed four hundred pounds—moved another couple of inches. At this rate, the spa shouldbe in place, oh . . . sometime next week.
“This is ridiculous,” Matt said, heaving his weight into the box, thinking that what theyreally needed was a team of mules. His back was killing him. For a moment, he visualized hisears blowing off the sides of his head from the strain, shooting in both directions like thebottle rockets he and Travis used to launch as kids.
“You’ve already said that.”
“And it isn’t fun,” Matt grunted.
“You said that, too.”
“And it isn’t going to be easy to install.”
“Sure it is,” Travis said. He stood and pointed to the lettering on the box. “See? It saysright here, ‘Easy to Install.’” From his spot beneath the shady tree, Moby—a purebredboxer—barked as if in agreement, and Travis smiled, looking way too pleased with himself.
Matt scowled, trying to catch his breath. He hated that look. Well, not always. Most of thetime he enjoyed his friend’s boundless enthusiasm. But not today. Definitely not today.
Matt reached for the bandanna in his rear pocket. It was soaked with sweat, which had of coursedone wonders for the seat of his pants. He wiped his face and wrung the bandanna with a quicktwist. Sweat dribbled from it like a leaky faucet onto the top of his shoe. He stared at italmost hypnotically, before feeling it soak through the light mesh fabric, giving his toes anice, slimy feel. Oh, that was just dandy, wasn’t it?
“As I recall, you said Joe and Laird would be here to help us with your ‘little project’ andthat Megan and Allison would cook some burgers and we’d have beer, and that—oh yeah,installing this thing should only take a couple of hours at the most.”
“They’re coming,” Travis said.
“You said that four hours ago.”
“They must be running a little late.”
“Maybe you never called them at all.”
“Of course I called them. And they’re bringing the kids, too. I promise.”
“Uh-huh,” Matt answered. He stuffed the bandanna back in his pocket. “And by theway—assuming they don’t arrive soon, just how on earth do you think the two of us will beable to lower this thing into place?”
Travis dismissed the problem with a wave as he turned toward the box again. “We’ll figure itout. Just think how well we’ve done so far. We’re almost halfway there.”
Matt scowled again. It was Saturday—Saturday! His day of recreation and relaxation, his chanceto escape from the grindstone, the break he earned after five days at the bank, the kind of day
he needed. He was a loan officer, for God’s sake! He was supposed to push paper, not hot tubs!He could have been watching the Braves play the Dodgers! He could have been golfing! He could
have gone to the beach! He could have slept in with Liz before heading to her parents’ houselike they did almost every Saturday, instead of waking at the crack of dawn and performingmanual labor for eight straight hours beneath a scalding southern sun. . . .
He paused. Who was he kidding? Had he not been here, he would have definitely spent the daywith Liz’s parents, which was, in all honesty, the main reason he’d agreed to Travis’srequest in the first place. But that wasn’t the point. The point was, he didn’t need this. Hereally didn’t.
“I don’t need this,” he said. “I really don’t.”
Travis didn’t seem to hear him. His hands were already on the box, and he was getting intoposition. “You ready?”
Matt lowered his shoulder, feeling bitter. His legs were shaking. Shaking! He already knewhe’d be in serious, double-dose-of-Advil pain in the morning. Unlike Travis, he didn’t makeit into the gym four days a week or play racquetball or go running or go scuba diving in Arubaor surfing in Bali or skiing in Vail or anything else the guy did. “This isn’t fun, youknow?”
Travis winked. “You said that already, remember?”
“Wow!” Joe commented, lifting an eyebrow as he walked the perimeter of the hot tub. By then,the sun was beginning its descent, streams of gold reflecting off the bay. In the distance, aheron broke from the trees and gracefully skimmed the surface, dispersing the light. Joe andMegan, along with Laird and Allison, had arrived a few minutes before with kids in tow, andTravis was showing them around. “This looks great! You two did all of this today?”
Travis nodded, holding his beer. “It wasn’t so bad,” he said. “I think Matt even enjoyedit.”
Joe glanced at Matt, who lay flattened in a lawn chair off to the side of the deck, a cold ragover his head. Even his belly—Matt had always been on the pudgy side—seemed to sag.
“I can see that.”
“Was it heavy?”
“Like an Egyptian sarcophagus!” Matt croaked. “One of those gold ones that only cranes canmove!”
Joe laughed. “Can the kids get in?”
“Not yet. I just filled it, and the water will take a little while to heat up. The sun willhelp, though.”
“The sun will heat it within minutes!” Matt moaned. “Within seconds!”
Joe grinned. Laird and the three of them had gone to school together since kindergarten.
“Tough day, Matt?”
Matt removed the rag and scowled at Joe. “You have no idea. And thanks for showing up ontime.”
“Travis said to be here at five. If I had known you needed help, I would have come earlier.”
Matt slowly shifted his gaze to Travis. He really hated his friend sometimes.
“How’s Tina doing?” Travis said, changing the subject. “Is Megan getting any sleep?”
Megan was chatting with Allison at the table on the far end of the deck, and Joe glancedbriefly in her direction. “Some. Tina’s cough is gone and she’s been able to sleep throughthe night again, but sometimes I just think that Megan isn’t wired to sleep. At least, notsince she became a mom. She gets up even if Tina hasn’t made a peep. It’s like the quietwakes her up.”
“She’s a good mom,” Travis said. “She always has been.”
Joe turned to Matt. “Where’s Liz?” he asked.
“She should be here any minute,” Matt answered, his voice floating up as if from the dead.“She spent the day with her parents.”
“Lovely,” Joe commented.
“Be nice. They’re good people.”
“I seem to recall you saying that if you had to sit through one more of your father-in-law’sstories about his prostate cancer or listen to your mother-in-law fret about Henry gettingfired again—even though it wasn’t his fault—you were going to stick your head in the oven.”
Matt struggled to sit up. “I never said that!”
“Yes, you did.” Joe winked as Matt’s wife, Liz, rounded the corner of the house with Bentoddling just in front of her. “But don’t worry. I won’t say a word.”
Matt’s eyes darted nervously from Liz to Joe and back again, checking to see if she’d heard.
“Hey, y’all!” Liz called out with a friendly wave, leading little Ben by the hand. She madea beeline for Megan and Allison. Ben broke away and toddled toward the other kids in the yard.
Joe saw Matt sigh in relief. He grinned and lowered his voice. “So . . . Matt’s in-laws. Isthat how you conned him into coming here?”
“I might have mentioned it,” Travis smirked.
“What are you guys saying?” Matt called out suspiciously.
“Nothing,” they said in unison.
Later, with the sun down and the food eaten, Moby curled up at Travis’s feet. As he listenedto the sound of the kids splashing away in the spa, Travis felt a wave of satisfaction washover him. This was his favorite kind of evening, whiled away to the sound of shared laughterand familiar banter. One minute Allison was talking to Joe; the next minute she was chattingwith Liz and then Laird or Matt; and so on for everyone seated around the outdoor table. Nopretenses, no attempts to impress, no one trying to show anyone up. His life, he sometimesthought, resembled a beer commercial, and for the most part, he was content simply to ride thecurrent of good feeling.
Every now and then, one of the wives would get up to check on the kids. Laird, Joe, and Matt,on the other hand, reserved their child-rearing duties at times like these to periodicallyraising their voices in hopes of calming down the kids or preventing them from teasing oraccidentally hurting one another. Sure, one of the kids would throw a tantrum now and then, butmost problems were solved with a quick kiss on a scraped knee or a hug that was as tender towatch from a distance as it must have been for the kid to receive.
Travis looked around the table, pleased that his childhood friends not only had become goodhusbands and fathers, but were still a part of his life. It didn’t always turn out that way.At thirty-two, he knew that life was sometimes a gamble, and he’d survived more than his shareof accidents and falls, some of which should have inflicted far more serious bodily injury thanthey had. But it wasn’t just that. Life was unpredictable. Others he’d known growing up hadalready died in car accidents, been married and divorced, found themselves addicted to drugs orbooze, or simply moved away from this tiny town, their faces already blurring in his memory.What were the odds that the four of them—who’d known one another since kindergarten—wouldfind themselves in their early thirties still spending weekends together? Pretty small, hethought. But somehow, after hanging together through all the adolescent acne and girl troublesand pressure from their parents, then heading off to four different colleges with differingcareer goals, they had each, one by one, moved back here to Beaufort. They were more likefamily than friends, right down to coded expressions and shared experiences that no outsiderscould ever fully understand.
And miraculously, the wives got along, too. They’d come from different backgrounds anddifferent parts of the state, but marriage, motherhood, and the endless gossip of small-townAmerica were more than enough to keep them chatting regularly on the phone and bonding like
long-lost sisters. Laird had been the first to marry—he and Allison had tied the knot thesummer after they graduated from Wake Forest; Joe and Megan walked the aisle a year later,after falling in love during their senior year at North Carolina. Matt, who’d gone to Duke,met Liz here in Beaufort, and they were married a year after that. Travis had been the best manin all three weddings.
Some things had changed in the past few years, of course, largely because of the new additionsto the families. Laird wasn’t always available to go mountain biking, Joe couldn’t joinTravis on the spur of the moment to go skiing in Colorado as he used to, and Matt had all butgiven up trying to keep up with him on most things. But that was okay. They were all stillavailable enough, and among the three of them—and with enough planning—he was still able tomake the most of his weekends.
Lost in thought, Travis hadn’t realized that the conversation had lapsed.
“Did I miss something?”
“I asked if you’d talked to Monica lately,” Megan said, her tone letting Travis know he wasin trouble. All six of them, he thought, took a bit too much interest in his love life. Thetrouble with married people was that they seemed to believe that everyone they knew should getmarried. Every woman Travis dated was thus subjected to subtle, though unyielding, evaluation,especially by Megan. She was usually the ringleader at moments like these, always trying tofigure out what made Travis tick when it came to women. And Travis, of course, loved nothingmore than to push her buttons in return.
“Not recently,” he said.
“Why not? She’s nice.”
She’s also more than a little neurotic, Travis thought. But that was beside the point.
“She broke up with me, remember?”
“So? It doesn’t mean she doesn’t want you to call.”
“I thought that’s exactly what it meant.”
Megan, along with Allison and Liz, stared at him as if he were just plain dense. The guys, asusual, seemed to be enjoying this. It was a regular feature of their evenings.
“But you were fighting, right?”
“Did you ever think she might have simply broken up with you because she was angry?”
“I was angry, too.”
“She wanted me to see a therapist.”
“And let me guess—you said you didn’t need to see one.”
“The day I need to see a therapist is the day you see me hike up my skirt and crochet somemittens.”
Joe and Laird laughed, but Megan’s eyebrows shot up. Megan, they all knew, watched Oprahnearly every day.
“You don’t think men need therapy?”
“I know I don’t.”
“But generally speaking?”
“Since I’m not a general, I really couldn’t say.”
Megan leaned back in her chair. “I think Monica might be on to something. If you ask me, Ithink you have commitment issues.”
“Then I’ll make sure not to ask you.”