Just Once

Just Once

by Karen Kingsbury
Just Once

Just Once

by Karen Kingsbury


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The #1 New York Times bestselling author “known for her deeply heartfelt novels” (Woman’s World) writes a sweeping World War II love story about a young woman torn between two brothers.

In 1941, beautiful Irvel Holland is too focused on her secret to take much notice of the war raging overseas. She’s dating Sam but in love with his younger brother, Hank—her longtime best friend—and Irvel has no idea how to break the news. Then the unthinkable happens—Pearl Harbor is attacked. With their lives turned upside down overnight, Sam is drafted and convinces Hank to remain in Indiana, where he and Irvel take up the battle on the home front.

While Sam fights in Europe, an undeniable chemistry builds between Irvel and Hank but neither would dare cross that line. Then, two military leaders pay Irvel a visit at the classroom where she teaches. The men have plans for her, a proposition to join a new spy network. One catch: She can tell no one.

With Irvel caught between two brothers thousands of miles apart, can love find a way, even from the ashes of the greatest heartbreak?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982104450
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 06/25/2024
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 40,976
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Karen Kingsbury, #1 New York Times bestselling novelist, is America’s favorite inspirational storyteller, with more than twenty-five million copies of her award-winning books in print. Her last dozen titles have topped bestseller lists and many of her novels are under development as major motion pictures. Karen recently opened her own film company called Kingsbury Productions. The company’s first theatrical movie, Someone Like You, is considered one of the most anticipated movies of the year. For more information visit SomeoneLikeYou.movie. Also, the first three seasons of Karen’s Baxter Family books are now an original series called The Baxters on Prime Video. Karen and her husband, Donald, live in Tennessee near their children and grandchildren.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: October 2, 1989 OCTOBER 2, 1989 1
Red was the last color, the very last. That’s what Dr. Edmonds was saying.

Irvel Myers’s mind would splinter and fracture and fade under the burden of Alzheimer’s, and she would forget the love that long ago caused her world to stop and stare in awe. Irvel and Hank. In little time, she would no longer know his face or his voice, or Hank himself, the one who had held her hand when she said, “I do,” and who had stood beside her that rainy Wednesday morning in Bloomington, Indiana, when she delivered their son.

Her brain would release to nothingness the name of that boy, the one she had cherished for thirty-two years, and also the smell and feel of the wood and walls and windows of the house where her life had taken shape for the past four decades, and it would do something else. It would erase entirely her years as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services.

But until the very end, it would remember the color red.

That’s what the doctor was saying.

Irvel Myers adjusted her sweater and tapped both feet on the floor beneath the doctor’s desk. The tick of the clock on the wall was louder than before. Deafening. The doctor stopped talking. For a long time, he didn’t say a word, just stared at them. And Irvel wanted to scream. How could this be happening? Her strong and glorious mind was dying? Through the years of fighting for her life and her heart, Irvel could always count on three things.

God. Hank. And her mental acuity. Until now...

Tall, strong Hank released a guttural sound. Like someone had kicked him below his ribs and he was still trying to figure out how to inhale. He tightened his hold on Irvel’s hand and whispered his next words. “How... how long?”

It was the only question that mattered.

Dr. Edmonds looked down at Irvel’s file and after a beat he lifted his eyes. “Since your first exam, your degeneration has been happening at a rapid pace.”

Her first exam. Irvel blinked and stared out the window. Two months ago today, Hank had brought her to this same office. Irvel had been acting scattered. That’s how Hank had described it. “You’re just a little scattered, my love.”

Setting dirty dishes in the refrigerator. Pulling into the driveway of the wrong house. Calling Hank from a pay phone and asking if he remembered the name of their favorite grocery store. “I know what I need to make chicken piccata.” She had forced a nervous laugh. “But for the life of me, I can’t remember where the store is.”

Now the doctor exhaled. He hesitated, as if the news was only real and true and terrible if he spoke it out loud. Finally, his answer pushed its way through. “By my estimation, you’ll need full-time care sometime in the next year, Mrs. Myers.”

A year? The word hovered over her and screamed at her and consumed her in a single instant. And as it had done all her life, Irvel’s mathematical brain imagined that time in increments. Precious, passing, dissolving, disappearing sections of time. Three-hundred and sixty-five days... fifty-two weeks... twelve months.

“I have to be honest here.” The doctor lifted his eyes to Hank and then to Irvel. “You may only have six months.”

Hank was holding on to her hand so hard now she was losing feeling in it. She slid her chair closer to his, so their arms were touching. Hank’s arm against hers, his skin against her skin. Because the two of them were only halves of a greater one. So that if he were close by, if she could feel him next to her, then maybe she would be okay after all.

The doctor was going on about a host of medications, two of which he’d like to try. The side effects included sleepiness, dizziness, mood swings and confusion. Which, of course, sounded a lot like Alzheimer’s, itself. Irvel stared at her hands and then at her husband. The doctor was still talking.

“Though slight, there is an increased risk of brain bleeds and therefore, a greater chance of premature death with these drugs, I have to tell you that. But we hope that over time they prevent the progression of disease for at least—”

“Excuse me.” Hank held up his hand. “I have a question.”

The doctor fell silent.

Hank blinked. “Will... the drugs reverse Irvel’s symptoms?” Hank looked at her, and then at the doctor again.

For a few seconds, Dr. Edmonds stayed quiet, his face slack. Then he took a slow breath. “Mr. Myers, there are no drugs that cure Alzheimer’s disease, no drugs that reverse symptoms. Good evidence exists that certain medications can slow progression for a while, maybe ease symptoms. But there are no guarantees. With the medications I’m recommending, some people experience favorable results. Some suffer worsening levels of dementia.” He paused. “It’s a personal choice.”

Hank nodded. His eyes told Irvel he was sorting through his options. Fast. Like a man running out of time. He made a fist with his free hand. “Do we have to decide now?”

Dr. Edmonds hesitated. “If the drugs are going to make an impact, they need to be taken on the front end of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. We’ll need to act quickly to accomplish that. Your wife is already struggling to remember.”

Irvel sat straighter in her chair. “That’s not true.” She blinked, her eyes locked on the doctor’s. “Forgetting my keys or... or putting the milk in the cupboard does not mean I’m struggling to remember.” She looked at Hank. The hint of tears made her voice waver. “I remember everything.”

A perplexed look came over the doctor’s face. He closed Irvel’s file and leaned back in his chair. “We can hold off on the medications. I want you both to be comfortable with your decision.”

Hank nodded. “Thank you.” He stood and helped Irvel to her feet. “We’ll be in touch.”

On their way out of the office, Irvel stopped at the door. “Our car’s to the left, yes?”

“Actually it’s to the right.” He smiled. Then he put his arm around her and opened the door. “It’s a confusing building.”

That was it. Very confusing. Irvel stayed close to Hank as they walked down the hallway and out into the parking lot. Anyone could struggle to recall where they left their car. But she didn’t say that. She didn’t say anything and neither did Hank. When they reached their blue Ford Escort, Hank stopped and turned to her. He took her purse and set it on the ground, then he drew her into his arms. In a voice almost too quiet to be heard, again and again, he said the same thing. “It’ll be okay. God has us, Irvel. It’ll be okay.”

Then he opened the door for her and when they were both inside, Irvel saw proof that Hank was only trying to convince himself. Her decorated World War II vet had tears streaming down his cheeks. He swiped at them with the back of his hand and smiled at her. “It’ll be okay.”

Irvel couldn’t bear to watch. She looked out the passenger window at the medical facility growing farther and farther away. What were they doing here, anyway? She squinted her eyebrows and focused. Really focused. They were at the doctor’s, that’s what. They had just finished getting her diagnosis.

An aggressive case of Alzheimer’s disease.

She leaned into the seat and watched the trees pass by, each of them decked in brilliant oranges and reds. Red. The last color. See, there? Irvel felt herself relax. The doctor was wrong. She could remember just fine. Not just small details like that one, but the bigger ones. The details that made up the story of her life. What about sixth grade? She opened her eyes again. Did she remember that year? The year she and Hank Myers became friends?

A myriad of vividly familiar sounds and smells and images filled her mind and she smiled. She could feel the soft grass beneath her white tennis shoes and hear the rushing creek that ran through that part of town. Young Hank was there beside her, most handsome boy she’d ever seen.

Yes, she definitely remembered. It was spring, 1931. She and Hank were twelve years old, and since he lived three doors down on the same street, the two of them walked home together. Every day. But that April afternoon, they took a different route. The one Irvel’s parents had warned her never to take, because it meant walking alongside the rushing creek.

“The earth could give way and you’d wind up in the water,” her mother had said. “Stay away from that path, Irvel.”

But the sky was blue and the sun warmed the afternoon. The maple trees were in full bloom. A little adventure seemed like a good idea, so instead of turning toward the sidewalk, she turned the other way, toward the sound of the water. “Come on.” She could feel the way her eyes sparkled. “Just once.”

Like always, Hank could no sooner say no to Irvel than he could stop breathing. He had grinned that day and found his place beside her.

“I saw Tommy Fuller talking to you at recess.” Hank picked up a stick and dragged it through the long grass as they walked. “The guys say he has a crush on you.”

“No.” Irvel felt her cheeks flush. She shaded her eyes against the brightness of the sun. “Tommy Fuller likes Betty Owens.”

“I don’t think so.” Hank cast her a look.

“It’s true.” Irvel looked long at Hank. His eyes were the most beautiful she had ever seen.

He didn’t give up. “Would you hate it? If Tommy Fuller liked you?”

“Yes.” She batted her eyelashes at him. “I’d hate it, Hank Myers. That’s all I’m going to say.”

She kept her word, the two of them too young to understand the crush that had developed between them that school year. So they switched to talking about the upcoming spelling test and the book they’d been assigned to read—Floating Island by Anne Parrish. “I like reading about a family of dolls.” Irvel lifted her face to the sun. “It’s adventurous.”

“I’d rather read about pirates.” Hank stuck out his chest. “I’d be one of the good ones.”

Irvel laughed, but she believed him. Hank was good at everything.

Ten minutes was all it took to get home along the sidewalks, but along the creek that day the walk took longer. In some areas, brush and trees had overtaken the earthen path, and they had to take careful steps around the branches to keep from falling in.

“This is why we aren’t supposed to do this.” Hank’s deep blue eyes didn’t look worried. “Be careful, okay?”

“I’m fine. The creek isn’t more than a stone’s throw across.” She laughed again. “It’s safe.”

Irvel had no sooner finished her response when the dirt beneath her right foot gave way. Before Hank could stop her, she dropped her bag, fell into the cold water and slipped beneath the white, choppy surface. She tried to scream, but the water was deep and the current faster than she could swim.

For a moment, Irvel wondered if she might die in the rushing creek, her last act one of utter disobedience to her parents. She poked her face above the water and grabbed as much air as she could. Her yellow and white sundress was pulling her down, and jagged rocks at the creek’s bottom cut hard against her legs.

Another breath, and another. Just when she wasn’t sure she could force herself above the water one more time, Hank was beside her. Panic screamed from his eyes, but his actions were calm and sure. He put his arm around her waist and swam her back to the creek’s edge. Then he helped her scramble up onto the grass.

For a long moment they lay there facing the sky, drenched and trembling, their hearts beating out of their chests. The shivering started then and Hank reached for his sweater a few feet away. He must’ve thrown it off before he jumped in after her because it was still dry. “Here.” He slipped it over her shoulders. “Come on. We need to get you home.”

When they were both on their feet, he searched her eyes. “You okay to walk?”

“I’m c-c-cold.” Her teeth were chattering. She could barely feel her hands and feet. “I’m s-s-sorry, Hank.”

“It isn’t your fault.” He picked up both their bags. “I shouldn’t have let you get so close to the edge.” He put his free arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.

“Th-th-thank you. For saving me.” She glanced up at him as they walked. His body was warmer than hers, and for the next few minutes, Irvel could hardly breathe. Not because she was cold and wet and terrified. But because Hank Myers was so close.

Long before they reached Irvel’s house, Hank stopped and turned to her again. He ran his fingers through his still wet hair. “You stopped shivering.”

“I’m... fine.” Warm rays of sunshine washed over them. “Because of you.” Irvel surveyed him, still drenched, water running from the cuffs of his pants. Their shoes were drenched, also. Another reality hit. “We’re going to be in big trouble.”

“No. It’ll be okay.” He started walking again and motioned for her to follow. “Come on.”

It’ll be okay. His words played in her mind again, and Irvel nodded. Yes, that was it. Five minutes later they headed up the sidewalk to Irvel’s house. Her mother met them halfway, eyes wide and panicked. “Where have you been?” She stopped short and looked Irvel and Hank up and down. “What happened? You’re drenched!”

Before Irvel could open her mouth, Hank was talking. “I’m sorry, ma’am. It was my fault. I asked Irvel to walk home along the creek because, well, you know it’s such a nice day and all.” He seemed to gulp back a breath. “I distracted her and she fell in the creek. But just for a moment and then I helped her out.”

Irvel and her mother both stood stone-still on the sidewalk, staring at Hank. Her mom spoke first. “This was your idea?”

Hank didn’t hesitate. “Yes, ma’am.” He nodded and took a step back. “Again, I’m sorry. Truly.” He backed up, but before he turned around, he cast Irvel a quick smile.

Irvel’s mom missed it. She put her arm around Irvel’s shoulders. “Let’s get you inside.” Her mother led her into the house. “You need to warm up. You’ll catch your death of cold.”

Irvel kept the truth to herself. After being rescued by Hank, after walking halfway home with his arm around her shoulders, she wasn’t cold at all. And in the end, it wasn’t Irvel who got sick, it was Hank.

So sick he caught pneumonia and nearly died.

He missed two weeks of school, and lost ten pounds. The whole time Irvel felt terrible. Every night after she shut her bedroom door, she would drop to her knees and pray for Hank. And every time she heard Hank’s words again. It’ll be okay.

God must have heard Irvel’s constant prayers because Hank survived. When he returned to class, he was thinner and his pale skin didn’t have its usual glow. But he was whole and healthy and alive, and that day, Irvel couldn’t stop thanking God.

On the way home Hank’s first day back, they took the sidewalk. And there, while they walked, Irvel had the chance to say what she wanted to say. “I’m sorry, Hank. It was all my fault.”

“Nah, silly girl.” He grinned at her. “You didn’t force me to jump into that ol’ creek.”

“Yes, I did.” She stopped and turned to him. “I walked too close to the edge.”

“I’d jump in again every time.” He flipped his blond bangs and searched her eyes. “You know why? Because when we grow up, I’m going to marry you, Irvel Anne Holland. You wait and see.”

For a few seconds, neither of them looked away or blinked or breathed. But then at the same time they both tipped their heads back and laughed, the innocent laugh from the precipice between being a child and being old enough to fall in love. They kept walking, talking about something funny and letting the more serious conversation fade.

After all, being grown up was millions of minutes away.

Irvel blinked and the memory faded. Hank turned the car into the driveway of the home where they’d lived for forty years. As Hank parked, Irvel reached for his hand. “I remember, Hank. I still remember.”

He nodded. “I know.” He leaned close and kissed her cheek. Then he said the same thing he’d said after he pulled her from the creek that long-ago spring day. Before war or loss or heartbreak had anything to say about life. The same thing he’d said this morning at the doctor’s office. “It’ll be okay.”

And she loved Hank Myers for it.

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