This week’s chapter is a little bit longer. The chapters in the final book will probably be longer than what I usually post here, which will reduce the number of chapters in the final book. Also, for those who have been following this story for awhile, you might be wondering what will happen with Jason and Ellie. I haven’t forgot that I need to finish that part of the story and will add it as a separate part at some point in the future. Honestly, I’ve been so focused on finishing the storyline with Robert, Alex, and Molly, that I haven’t gone back to decide what will happen with Jason and Ellie. I’ll keep you updated, in other words.
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Cecily Madigan Burke stepped inside the Tanner’s farmhouse with two swift, long steps, paused in the living room, and slowly slid her sunglasses off, taking it all in.
Alex could only imagine what she was thinking as she looked around at the walls covered in family photos, at the comfortable couches and chairs, the woodstove, and the cozy farmhouse kitchen. It was nothing like her three story, 10-bedroom mansion in the Baltimore suburbs. Unlike the Tanner’s house, nothing about where she lived felt like a home.
“Mom.” He snapped his fingers in front of her face. “What are you doing here?
She huffed a breath out and propped a hand on her hip. “What am I doing here? I had to hear about my own son being injured from his best friend instead of him and he asks what I’m doing here?”
“Mom, I’m fine —”
“You’re fine? Really? You don’t look fine. You’re all bandaged up and bruised. You wouldn’t answer my phone calls, so I finally called Jason.”
In one quick movement Cecily swung around to look at Molly who was still standing in the doorway with a stunned expression.
Cecily tipped her head to one side, lips pursed, and stuck her hand out. “Hello. I’m Cecily, Alex’s mom. Apparently, my son isn’t going to introduce us.”
Alex sighed and shoved one hand in his front jean pocket and gestured between his mom and Molly with the other. “Mom, this is Molly. Molly, this is mom.”
He tipped his head at his mom and raised an eyebrow as Molly took her hand. “Happy?”
“Nice to meet you,” Molly said quickly, apparently still trying to recover from Cecily’s sudden appearance.
Cecily let her hand drop, pursed her lips, and studied Molly, looking her up and down. “Ah, yes. Jason’s sister. Alex has mentioned you.”
Alex noticed his mom didn’t tell Molly it was nice to meet her too.
“Molly’s my girlfriend, Mom.”
Cecily looked Molly up and down again, slower this time, her cheeks sucked in slightly. “Oh. Well, okay. That’s different. You usually date tall, leggy blonds.”
Alex rubbed a hand across his eyes, closed them, and pinched his nose between his finger and thumb. “Mom, how did you find me?”
Cecily slid her jacket off and sat on the couch, crossing one leg over the other. “I know how to use the internet, Alex. I’m not a total moron. I just punched in the Tanner’s address, told Harold to put the directions into the Jags GPS, and here I am.”
Harold? Really? Apparently his mom had claimed his stepdad’s assistant as her own.
Alex scoffed. “You drove here alone? You?”
Cecily raised an eyebrow and narrowed her eyes. “Yes, Alex. All by my little ole’ self. Now, are you going to tell me what happened?” She glanced at Molly. “Or am I going to have to ask Molly here what happened?”
Alex tried to suck in the exasperated breath quietly but failed. “I got hurt trying to lift a tractor off Robert. He’s in critical condition. I’m fine. Just a few stitches.”
For the first time, Cecily’s tense demeanor faded. Her eyebrows lifted and her mouth fell open slightly. “A tractor fell on Robert? Are you serious?”
She swung her head to look at Molly. “Is your father okay?”
Molly looked startled at having the attention turned to her so quickly. She glanced at Alex then back to Cecily. “Oh. Well.” She started to stammer. Watching his mother unnerve someone wasn’t a new thing for Alex, but he didn’t like that Molly was his mother’s target this time.
“I – I’m not sure,” Molly choked out. “He had surgery yesterday for a broken leg and cracked pelvis and, um, well, during surgery he had a small stroke so he’s in a coma right now.”
Cecily looked genuinely concerned and that surprised Alex. “Oh my. I had no idea.” She smoothed her hand across her pleated pants and cleared her throat. “I’m so sorry. Alex speaks very highly of your father. Much more highly than he does of his own father but then, I can’t blame him for that, of course.”
Alex exchanged a look with Molly and rolled his eyes.
“Can I get you something to drink or eat, Mrs. Burke?” Molly asked.
“Call me Cecily, please. I’ve never been good at being a Mrs. Not with Alex’s dad and not now. And I’d love a glass of water with a splash of lemon if you have it.”
Molly smiled as Alex flashed a look of annoyance at his mom behind her back. “We definitely have that. I love a splash of lemon in my water myself.”
Cecily watched Molly walk into the kitchen and then looked at Alex. “You ignored my calls.”
“I had a lot going on.”
“You ignored Sam’s calls too.”
“Like I said —”
His mom waved her hand dismissively. “I know. You had a lot going on.” She leaned back on the couch. “Did you ever call Sam back?”
“No. I’ll call him later.”
She cocked an eyebrow. He hated when she cocked an eyebrow. “So, you don’t have any idea what’s going on?”
Alex shook his head. “No. Is something going on?”
Cecily accepted the glass of water from Molly and took a sip. “That’s good water. Very fresh. Thank you, dear.”
Molly stepped toward the door. “Listen, I’m going to head out to the barn to check on Uncle Walt. You catch up with your mom, okay? So nice to meet you, Mrs. —”
Cecily raised her hand and shook her head. “Again, please, Cecily is fine.”
“Nice to meet you, Cecily,” Molly said.
Alex looked over his mom’s head and mouthed, “Don’t leave me.”
“Good luck,” she mouthed back with raised eyebrows.
Cecily sat on the couch patting the cushion next to her as the front door closed. “Sit, Alex. We need to talk.”
Alex looked sore and beat down as he walked toward the barn from the house. Molly had watched his mom drive away in her silver Jaguar about ten minutes earlier and she wondered if it was his side that was making him walk slowly, or the conversation with Cecily.
He nodded. “Yep.”
He kept walking toward the stalls, pushing his hands back through his hair and clutching it there for a moment before he reached for a shovel.
“Maybe you should just rest today.”
“Too much work to be done.”
“Uncle Walt and Hannah are here. Troy too.”
He shook his head as he reached for a shovel. “I need to keep my mind off things. This will help.”
She didn’t want to push for information about what all he needed to keep his mind off of. Was it just her dad or was it whatever his mom had talked to him about?
She knew he’d share when he was ready.
Or he wouldn’t.
It was up to him.
“Is your mom driving back to Baltimore already? I could have made up the spare room for her.”
Alex pushed the shovel gently between the cow’s hooves, scooping manure and hay. “Actually, she’s going to stay overnight at that bed and breakfast in town. I forgot the name.”
“The Lavender Inn?”
“Yeah. That one. I’m not sure it will be up to her standard of living, but I’m sure she’ll whip them into shape in no time.”
Molly stuffed her hands deep into her coat pocket. “I’m going to head out to the store, see if they need anything there.” She kicked at the dirt with the tip of her boot. “Do you need anything?”
He shook his head. “Nope.”
She turned, leaving him in the barn, working and clearly not interested in talking about his mother’s visit.
On her way to the store she called Liz to update her. After she’d filled her in on her dad and Alex’s condition, she decided to tell her about Alex’s morphine-induced rambling.
“Whoa.” Liz blew out a long whistle. “That’s a Hallmark movie moment right there.”
“I’m starting to think he was pranking me,” Molly responded. “Maybe he wasn’t as out of it as I thought.”
Liz laughed. “I doubt it. Has he said anything since then?”
“No. I don’t think he remembers anything after those painkillers kicked in.”
Molly heard her friend sigh on the other end of the phone. “Molly, why don’t you think Alex could really feel that way about you?”
Molly paused at a four way stop, empty fields on either side of her and a red, paint-chipped barn in front of her. Her chest constricted. She didn’t want to answer the question.
“I knew you were still there. You hadn’t had time to hit that dead spot yet,” Liz said. “Listen, I’m going to tell you something that you would tell me if the situation was switched. You need to start believing Alex really loves you. I’m your best friend and I know you think that you aren’t pretty enough or good enough or whatever enough for a good-looking guy to be in love with you, but you are, Mol. You’re way too focused on your weight and it’s obvious Alex isn’t. He loves you for you.”
Molly pulled her lower lip between her teeth and left it there while she turned toward the main road into Spencer. All the doubt about anyone loving her even though she wasn’t a size four wasn’t going to disappear with a simple pep talk from Liz, but she knew her friend meant well, and she knew she needed to work on believing that Alex truly loved her, despite the flaws she saw in herself.
“You know,” she said finally. “I have a feeling that I’ll be saying something similar to you one day, Liz. Like how you seem to think you’re not worthy of happiness because of your past mistakes or —”
Liz hissed out a few breaths to mimic static. “What’s that? Molly, you still there? I think I’m losing you. Did you hit that dead spot?”
“Very funny, Liz. I am actually almost at that dip. I’ll call you later and we will finish this conversation.”
Molly shook her head as she pushed off on the phone and laid it in the seat next to her. Liz was right. She needed to accept that Alex really loved her, but she had doubted her worth for so long she didn’t know how to break out of the pattern. It was something she couldn’t do alone, she knew that. It was also something that wouldn’t come over night, no matter how much she wanted it to.
Her thoughts drifted from Alex to her dad as she hit the main road to head to the store.
Jason had texted her while she’d been in the shower. There was no change in her dad’s condition, and she couldn’t help wonder if there ever would be. Would he ever come home and if he did, would he be the same man he’d been before the accident?
Alex had been looking forward to another night with Molly, but she’d chosen to spend the night with her grandmother, who was having a tough time after losing her husband only a year and a half ago and now her son being in critical condition.
He knew it was the right thing for her to do, not only so she could be with Franny, but to remove the temptation that would come if they were alone again. With her trying to distract herself from worrying about her dad and him trying not to think about his dad or how his mom was staying at an inn 15 minutes down the road, they were both in dangerously vulnerable emotional spaces in their minds. That vulnerable mental status could very well lead to a vulnerable physical status and he had committed to Molly, and himself, to not rushing things.
Now, instead of watching a movie with Molly, he was standing outside The Lavender Inn, scowling at the front door, dreading having another conversation with his mother and regretting he’d agreed to her request to take her he’d take her to dinner before she left for Baltimore in the morning.
At this point he wished he hadn’t decided to give up alcohol. He could certainly use a belt of something strong before he faced her again. He let out a long breath and took a step toward the front door, which opened quickly before he got there.
“There you are.” His mother swept past him wearing a puffy silver jacket, a pair of blue slacks, and pink high heels. “Does this town have any good restaurants or should we just swing by a convenience store and buy some packaged meat and cheese?”
Alex recognized the sweet smell that overtook his senses as his mom passed. It clearly wasn’t her perfume. She’d been drinking and by the way she was listing toward the left he had a feeling she’d worked her way through the mini-bar over the last several hours since she’d left the farm.
He pressed his hand against the truck door as she tried to open it. “I don’t think you’re in any shape to go out, Mom.”
She turned to look at him, scowling. “We’re going. We have a lot of things to talk about.”
Anger flashed in her eyes. “Like how you never talk to me.” She stepped toward him, speaking through clenched teeth. “Like how you blame me for your father leaving us.”
Alex rolled his eyes. He didn’t have the emotional reserve for this conversation after the week he’d had.
He grabbed his mother under her elbow and turned her toward the inn. “You’re drunk. Come on. You’re going back inside.”
She wrenched her arm out of his hand. “You!” She pointed at him and staggered backward. “You act like I’m – I’m too stupid to know that you and Sam hate me. You always hated me. After all I did for you!”
Alex put his hands on his hips and bit the inside of his lip to keep himself from causing any more of a scene than his mother already was. Thankfully no one was outside to see her. “We don’t hate you.” He grabbed her arm gently and pushed her toward the front door of the inn. “Come on. Let’s get you back to your room so you can rest. You need to sleep this off.”
She swung to face him, her face smeared with tears and mascara. “I did not drive your father away. I was never good enough for him. I wasn’t pretty enough. I was never skinny enough. I- I – I wasn’t strong enough or something and that’s why he left us for that woman and —”
Alex placed his hands on his mom’s upper arms and turned her toward him. “Dad left you because of his problems, Mom. It wasn’t something you did. Now come on. I’m taking you back to your room.”
Cecily nodded slowly, closing her eyes as the tears rolled down her cheeks. She slumped against Alex as he hooked an arm around her waist and led her back into the inn.
She fumbled in her purse for her key when they reached her room, swaying too much to slide it into the lock. Alex pushed it in for her and helped her into the dark room.
When she collapsed onto the bed, still crying, he saw for the first time his mother for what she was, maybe what she’d always been: a lost, confused, and betrayed woman who used her internal pain to lash out at others. He should have felt more compassion for her in that moment, but his emotional well was dry, especially for the woman who had never really been a mother to him.
He sat on the chair across from her as she sniffled and pulled the comforter up around her shoulders, not even bothering to slip off her designer boots. Leaning back, he watched her a few moments, until her sobbing quieted and her breathing fell into a rhythmic pattern.
He didn’t know how to feel about this latest breakdown. Mostly he felt annoyance, bordering on anger. He’d seen so many of these shows over the years, most of them fueled by too much alcohol, that he’d grown numb to them. Was it all an act this time too? Like all her other performances? A ploy for sympathy? Simply an opportunity to paint herself the victim again?
He didn’t know. Maybe this time there was sincerity in her tears. Sadly, he didn’t really care if there was.
Maybe there was some legit guilt on her part. He probably should have said even more, comforted her more, but he truly didn’t have it in him. He didn’t feel the compassion he knew he should feel for a woman who was obviously in search of reassurance that she wasn’t as bad as she thought she was. The problem was, he couldn’t lie and tell her she’d been an amazing mother. He couldn’t summon the tenderness a son should have for his mother. It simply wasn’t there. It had been drowned out by resentment and bitterness he knew he’d have to address one day.
As he left the room and the inn, climbing back into his truck, he knew one thing. He’d rather be cuddled up with Molly, instead of driving home on a cold autumn night, alone, thinking about how dysfunctional his family had been his whole life.