The airport was as loud and crowded as a rock concert-- filled with holidaymakers, bored businessmen and security staff.
"Don't cry," Sophie Fitton squeezed her mom's hand and let her blonde hair fall forward to hide the telltale glimmer in her own blue eyes.
"I'm not. I promise," her mom lied. "I'm so proud of you for following your heart."
Since she was twelve years old, Sophie had dreamed of living in New York and being part of a vibrant big city -- and finally she had her chance.
After years of helping her mom raise her younger brother and sister following their dad's tragic death, her mom's recent remarriage and her siblings' departure to college left Sophie free. It was exciting, frightening and wonderful.
Instinctively she stretched out her free hand and caught Daniel's hand.
She'd known Daniel Lawrence all her life as the boy next door, her best friend. He and his parents had quietly helped her through the bad times, and there had been very bad times when she'd had to cling to her dream of New York. It was fitting that he was here now as she launched into her new life.
His smile twisted as he looked down at her. "You'll be fine."
Sophie nodded as the boarding call rang in their ears. She hugged her mom and stepdad, then looked at Daniel.
"Come here." He hugged her tight and whispered into her hair. "Good luck, sweetheart. You deserve to follow your dream."
Her tears broke through then. She wiped at her eyes, smiled blindly at the people she loved and walked to the plane.
How could following a dream hurt so much?
Her seat mate was an older woman who fastened her seatbelt, then pulled out a bundle of wool. Her knitting needles clicked placidly. "Is this your first flight?"
"Ye-es." Her fumble with the seatbelt had made that obvious. Sophie blew her nose, then stared out the window as the plane took off. She blinked rapidly, determined not to cry any more.
She ought to be bubbling with excitement. New York and a new life awaited her. Emily, a friend from high school, had offered a room to stay in and help with the job search. She'd be there at the airport. They planned to giggle and gossip and do all the tourist sites.
"Good luck, sweetheart. You deserve to follow your dream."
Daniel's words echoed. Why?
Her dream was important to her, wasn't it? Sophie leaned back and studied the roof of the plane. She had discussed her dream so often with Daniel, sitting on the back step of his house in summer, watching him working in the garden. He'd always understood her desire for freedom.
She thought of him now, shirt off, coaxing a tomato plant up its stake, tying it, picking the ripe fruit and offering it to her. She smelt the spicy scent of tomato leaves on his skin and ached at the memory. But it hadn't seemed important at the time.
"Dreams are important," Sophie whispered.
Her seatmate glanced up from her knitting. "It depends, dear. Sometimes reality is better. If we're dreaming castles in the air, sometimes we miss the good things in our lives."
"Pardon?" The idea was shocking. Everyone said you should follow your dreams.
"Dreams change. We change. I've found the secret to happiness is enjoying what life offers here and now."
"Well, I guess that's New York," said Sophie, but she said it doubtfully. Her seatmate's words seemed to be unlocking chaotic thoughts and emotions.
What had her adolescent dream of big city life and its freedom -- the dream that had sustained her through long years of responsibility -- hidden from her?
The plane landed bumpily in New York.
Sophie smiled at her seatmate, feeling suddenly calm. "Thank you for more than you'll ever know."
The airport was bedlam.
"Emily, I can't do this. I have to go back."
"Because New York isn't what I want, not really. I want real life. He mightn't want me, but I have to try."
Beneath her fashionable spiky haircut, Emily looked shrewd. "A man, of course. Who is he?"
"Daniel," said Sophie. "All those times he listened to me talk about my dreams, and what I really want is him. I was just too silly to see it."
"Do you love him?"
When Sophie nodded, her friend wasted no more time, but booked an immediate flight home.
"Thank you, Em."
Emily smiled, her eyes misty. "True love is the most important dream. Go for it."
"I will." She flew home and caught a cab all the way from the airport. The fare used up a lot of her savings, but she didn't care. She had to see Daniel. Even if he didn't feel the same way about her, she had to tell him that she loved him.
Her palms were sweaty as she put her case down quietly on Daniel's front porch and rang the doorbell. She heard Daniel's footsteps approach. They sounded heavy and reluctant.
The door opened.
"Sophie?" His eyes opened wide as his body tensed. "What are you doing here?"
She took a deep breath for courage. "I'm chasing my dream, Daniel. My real dream of true love and happy ever after. If you'll have me?"
They stared at each other for a long moment.
She saw a man strong, honourable, loyal, and tortured with hope.
"Sweet-heart." Daniel's voice cracked, but his arms were sure and strong as he pulled her tight against him.
"It's you I want, Daniel. You and a life together. You're what I want."
"And I want you. I always have." Her strong man trembled. "Are you sure, Sophie?"
She answered him with a kiss that gave her heart, and his response promised passion forever.
About the Author: Jenny Schwartz is an Australian writer, a dedicated suburbanite, and an incurable optimist. She likes stories to have a happy ending. Wild Rose Press has just released her sweet contemporary romance, "Guarded Hearts".