Stan had been listening to his breathing and staring at the patterns on the ceiling of the Blue Room of the Blueberry Inn for two hours now. It was a lovely ceiling, with shapes of leaves impressed into the paint by an obviously expert mason. The inn, overall, was actually lovely. It smelled of fruit, it was quiet, the bed was soft, the owner was sweet and attentive (he’d certainly never run out of towels or cups of piping-hot, blueberry tea), the atmosphere was cozy, and the breakfast that came free with the room fee was better than any at the local diners.
Despite the comfort of this home away from home, though, his chest was aching. As a matter of fact, his arms were too.
They ached to hold Ginny close against him, feel her breathing slow and soft. He missed how he used to know everything was going to be okay as long as she was there.
He hadn’t gone to work yesterday and had answered two calls the entire day. One was from Matt, updating him on Bernie’s condition. The young man was in pretty bad shape, but doctors were optimistic and expected him to pull through and go home in a couple of weeks. He’d face some charges for his involvement in the heroin delivery, but nowhere near what he could have expected, and Matt was hopeful he’d get a lighter sentence because of the evidence he’d turned over. That sentence would hopefully be outside of prison so he could still be with his family and help support them.
The next call had come from Olivia. He had assured her he was fine, just tired and stressed. He told her he’d explain more about why he was staying at the inn later.
“She loves you, Dad.”
He didn’t want to talk about Ginny’s supposed love for him. “I need to go.”
“Clint and Tiffany will be here in a few days. I hope you’re going to come home before then. I really don’t want to have to tell Clint our parents are splitting after 32 years of marriage.”
He’d assured her that he’d be home when Clint and Tiffany came home, hung up and had flopped back on the bed, where he’d been laying ever since.
Splitting after 32 years of marriage.
Was that what was really happening?
A strange buzz shot up from the tips of fingers to his throat and he closed his eyes. His heart picked up its rhythm and his chest tightened. He dragged a hand across his forehead, now beaded with sweat.
Oh, this was just great. He was having a heart attack at the Blueberry Inn. He clenched his eyes closed tighter against the pain in his chest. At least he’d die somewhere pretty he supposed.
His breathing quickened and he sat up on the edge of the bed, tightening a fist against his chest as he opened his eyes. “You’re fine, Stan. You’re not having a heart attack. You’re just —”
He stared out the window at the empty yard outside, a cherry tree naked of its blossoms in the center of it next to a black metal bench.
He remembered Ginny talking about Liz one day, about how she was suffering from panic attacks after giving birth.
He was not having a panic attack. Panic attacks were for women. He winced at how that thought had sounded. It wasn’t that women were weaker, they just had more hormones and hormone shifts from pregnancy and menopause and cycles or whatever they were called. He stood and walked to the window, drawing a breath in slowly and holding it for a few seconds. Isn’t that what Ginny had said she’d told Liz to do? Something about a deep breath, holding it for six seconds and letting it out for seven or eight or something.
He couldn’t remember and if he wasn’t careful, he was going to end up hyperventilating. His gaze drifted from the cherry tree to the street beyond. About half a mile down the road Ginny was dressing for the library fundraiser. She was slipping into that black dress he loved, putting on that necklace he’d bought her for birthday five years ago, making sure every hair was in place, and her lipstick was on straight.
How he longed to touch that hair, kiss that neck, breathe in deep the smell of vanilla body spray he knew she’d use before she walked out the door. He wanted to hold her hand as they walked to the car, sit next to her at the fundraiser and feel a swell of pride that his wife had created all of this to raise money for the library and provide free books and outreach programs to the community, especially the youth.
He rubbed his chest with the heel of his hand and noticed the ache was subsiding. His breathing was slowing down too. Thinking of Ginny in that dress must have been enough to distract him from the panic surging through him and if that was working then that meant he wasn’t having a heart attack. Mental images of beautiful women in low cut dresses might cause a heart attack, but not cure one.
A bird jumped from the back of the bench to the ground, searching for food. It pecked at the ground as Stan watched it, but not really seeing it. Images played across his mind. Nights of passion, clutching hands, hard kisses then tender embraces, long talks about their favorite movies, and slow dancing to Frank Sinatra in the living room.
He remembered Ginny cradling babies, swaying late at night to soothe them, kissing booboos, wiping away tears, late nights talking with their daughters about boys and one early morning advising their son on the best way to propose to his girlfriend.
He turned back to the bed and laid on it again, on his back, hands folded across his stomach. He tried to think if he could really imagine Ginny cheating on him, beyond a quick kiss from Keith that was. If he was going to be honest with himself, something he hadn’t done in a long time, he couldn’t imagine it.
Still, any woman who felt neglected could forget who they were and stray from their marriage vows, couldn’t they? He certainly had made Ginny feel neglected. He was sure of that. All work all the time had not only made Stan a dull boy but a very cranky and unlovable one.
He closed his eyes, felt a wave of exhaustion, and realized he had no idea how to even get back to who he’d been before he became so obsessed with being the best in his career. He had no desire to be that person any longer but how could he break out of the mold he’d created for himself these past few years?
“You just take a sledgehammer to it and commit to being better, Stan.” He mumbled the words as sleep overtook him. “You also commit to talking to your wife more and yourself less.”
She’d tried not to let what-if’s consume her mind, but Ginny couldn’t help it. The way Clint had told her that he and Tiffany were moving had lingered in her thoughts for months now. That one comment about “how this move is needed right now” is what had really stuck with her.
Now, with Clint on the other end of the phone, checking in and letting her know everything was coming together for the move, she couldn’t hold back her concern any longer. No, she didn’t need any more to worry and stress about, between the situation with Stan and Olivia coming home, but it would be one less thing she had to sit and wonder about.
“Clint, are you sure things are okay because when you called to tell me you were moving closer, you said you and Tiffany could really use this change.” She sighed, closing her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose with her thumb and index finger as she sat on the stool by her dresser. “Just something about your tone made me think there was something you weren’t telling me.”
Clint laughed. “Mom, things are really fine. You worry too much. You also have your mom goggles on. Things have been tough for me and Tiff because having four kids and one on the way is a challenge, but our marriage is good. We could use a couple nights out together, some alone time, though. Maybe you and Dad could help with that?”
Ginny let out a breath. “Of course, we could. Anytime. We would love to—”
Had he just said, “one on the way”?
“Wait, four and one on the way?”
Clint laughed. “Yeah. One more on the way. I was going to wait and tell you and Dad when we got there but you’ve sounded so worried, I just needed to let you know what’s going on and been on our minds.” He laughed again. “And don’t ask for any more grandchildren from us. This is the last one. We’re making sure of that.”
She hung up a few minutes later, promising not to pass the news on to anyone else until they arrived and could share the news themselves.
She began to wipe the make-up she’d worn to the fundraiser off, suddenly exhausted, despite the good news from Clint. It had been a very long, very emotionally draining week. Staring at herself in the mirror it unnerved her at how removing the makeup slowly revealed more of the wrinkles she developed in the last few months. She’d probably developed most of them in the last few days, along with several additional grey hairs.
At least the fundraiser was over. Now she needed to shift gears to finishing plans for Clint and Tiffany’s welcome home party. They’d be here in only a couple of days. She couldn’t wait to hug her grandchildren close, forget about her crumbling marriage for even a few hours as she watched them giggle and play with each other. She hoped Clint and Tiffany wouldn’t mind if she filled them up with chocolate chip cookies and cake for the first couple of days, especially because she knew how much they loved her chocolate chip cookies and lemon sponge cake.
Filling their kids up with sweets, might distract them from the fact she and Stan were currently living in separate locations. The heartbreak struck at her again at that thought and she took a deep breath to keep from crying. She’d cry after she got undressed, slipped into her nightgown and cuddled under the covers with a Jan Karon book and a carton of chocolate ice cream.
The diet could wait until she pulled herself together a little more.
She reached behind her to neck to unzip her dress and looked at herself in the mirror. There was no way she could reach it that way. She tried behind her back and slid her hands up, but that wasn’t working either. She’d had Olivia zip it up for her before she left, a job that used to be Stan’s. Olivia was out with some friends at the movies, though, and probably wouldn’t be home until late. Ginny had a feeling Brent might be attending as well and wondered if this would mean a reunion between the two. They’d made a nice couple in high school, before Olivia had decided Spencer and all that was associated with it was too good for her.
Ginny winced as a pain shot through her wrist. There had to be a way to get this dress off without help. What did single women living alone do to get out of similar dresses for goodness sake?
She screamed at the voice, clutching her hand to her throat.
Stan’s reflection in the mirror caused her to scream again and she pivoted to face him. “Stan! Good grief! I thought I was alone.”
A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Sorry about that.” He took a couple of steps toward her as she tried to catch her breath and the smile faded. “And for all the times you really were alone.”
The intensity in his gaze left her unable to look away. He was a foot away from her now, studying her as if trying to read her reaction to his words. She had no idea what message her expression was sending because she wasn’t even sure what expression she was making. Her mouth was partly open, her face still warm from the shock of him walking in when she thought she’d been alone, her eyes wide and her eyebrows raised. She imagined she might look something like Edvard Munch’s The Scream painting at the moment.
He lifted his hand, held it in mid-air for a few seconds then pushed several strands of her hair behind her ear, cupping her cheek instead of lowering his hand. “How I could have ever chosen my job over you, I’ll never understand.” He stepped even closer, looked down at her, smoothing the palm of his thumb across her jawline. “Can you ever forgive me?”
This time she wanted the kiss that followed. She wanted the arm that slid around her back, pulling her close. She wanted the fingers that slipped behind her head, up into her hair, clutching as his mouth softly touched her upper lip. She wanted this kiss more than she’d wanted almost anything, other than the first kiss he’d ever given her or to hold each of her children while carrying them inside her for nine months.
He tilted his head, caught her mouth more firmly with his and deepened the kiss, drawing her mind completely from her body until all that filled her thoughts were the feel of his skin against hers as he slowly unzipped the dress and slid his hands inside, sliding them down her back.
When he pulled his mouth from hers, he found her neck, trailing kisses along it and then back to her mouth again.
She moaned softly as the kiss continued and the dress slipped off her shoulders and to the floor. Both of his hands had moved into her hair now and her fingers clutched at the front of his jacket as he stepped back, pulling her with him toward the bed.
This wasn’t how she had expected her night to end. Not in the least. But as she felt the bed underneath her, her husband’s body next to her warm and solid as she had wanted it to be for so long, she decided this was a much better ending that huddling under the covers alone with a pint of chocolate ice cream.
“Olivia, no. I don’t want to wake, Mom. It sounds like she’s had a crazy week with the fundraiser and, well, everything else.”
Ginny listened but didn’t open her eyes. Was that Maddie’s voice? Her oldest daughter was home, and no one had told her she was coming? Stan shifted slightly next to her, but he was either asleep or lying in wait like her to see what their children said about them. She kept her arms around his middle, pressed her cheek against his bare back and listened to the commotion in the hallway outside their bedroom door.
Olivia sighed. “I shouldn’t have even told you about everything else, but I didn’t know how to explain about Dad not being here.”
Oh great. How much did she share?
“I just wonder what made them have that fight.” Maddie definitely sounded concerned and as the oldest daughter Ginny was sure she wanted to fix it. It didn’t sound like she knew the whole story, though, and Ginny was glad for that. She didn’t really need the whole family knowing about the kiss with Keith. She was embarrassed and ashamed enough.
“I’m sure it was just — I don’t know, old people stuff.”
Ginny sighed softly. Typical Olivia comment.
“Liv, that’s not nice.” Ginny’s eyes flew open. Clint? What was he doing here already? He and Tiffany weren’t supposed to be here for two more days, and he hadn’t told her when they talked last night that he was already in town. “They’re not just old people. They’re our parents.”
The clanking of dishes and a bump against the door preceded Olivia’s next words. “Well, whatever. Let’s take Mom some breakfast. She’ll be so excited that you are both here already.”
Ginny clenched her eyes closed. It was too late to dart from the bed and throw on some clothes, too late to have Stan do the same. Luckily, they were both covered with the comforter and hopefully enough to keep their children from being too shocked.
“Oh!” Olivia’s whispered declaration made Ginny bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. “Oh. Ew. Ew. And another ew.”
Maddie’s giggles were muffled. “I guess they made up.”
“Do you think they’re —” Olivia made a gagging noise that made Ginny want to laugh even more. “I mean do you think that they —”
Ginny couldn’t see it, but she could practically hear Clint roll his eyes. “They’re old, not dead, Liv. Yeah, they probably are, and they probably did.”
Now Maddie, also whispering, though Ginny wondered if they knew how loud they were whispering. “Liv, I know it’s your parents and you don’t like to think about it —”
“Our parents. Our parents, Mad and they are like 60. Ew.”
“They’re like 56, not 60,” Clint said in a scolding older brother tone. “That’s not that old. I mean, we’ll be that old someday.”
The voices faded and the door clicked closed. “Yeah, some of us faster than others.” Olivia’s voice teased from the hallway. “I was going to go down and eat breakfast but I think I’ve lost my appetite now.”
“Well,” Maddie said, her voice trembling with laughter. “At least we know things are good between them.”
“Oh, Mad! Stop!” Olivia’s tone of disgust did Ginny in and a giggle tumbled out of her.
Stan’s shoulders shook and she knew he’d been listening to. He rolled over to his side, smiling and cupped his hand against her cheek like he had the night before.
“Good morning, old lady.”
“Good morning, old man.”
“This old man could use a shower and some breakfast but he’d also like to lay here a little longer with you, if that’s okay.”
Ginny tipped her head slightly as he kissed her forehead. “It is, old man. It definitely is.”
“Let me get my hands on that baby!” The squeal that followed Tiffany’s affectionate demand made her sound more like a high school student than a grown woman with four children. Liz obliged and handed her older sister Bella. Tiffany kissed Bella’s cheek pulled her back and held her in front of her for a few seconds before cradling against her.
“Oh, you are so sweet! Even sweeter than I imagine! I’m so happy I can finally hold you!”
Tiffany swayed a little in place, all her attention on Bella as Liz looked on with both amusement and tenderness. She’d imagined she might have children one day and her sister would rejoice with her. She actually hadn’t expected it to be so soon, though, and definitely had not planned for it to be something that happened without a husband, so the moment was tinged with a bittersweetness she’d rather not have tasted.
Tiffany looked up. “So, how is motherhood treating you?”
Liz chewed on her lower lip for a moment. “Okay. I just wish I was as good at it as you are.”
Tiffany snorted a laugh. “As good at it as me? Did you see my children today? One of them has two different shoes on. Another one is over behind that chair making a mess in his diaper and the oldest has eaten his weight in brownies today.” She sat down on the couch and crossed one leg over the other, shifting Bella to a sitting position against her. “I’ve been watching you the last couple of days, Liz. You’re good at this mother thing. Don’t worry about that. There isn’t some magical perfect way to be a mom. There’s no formula. You just do the best you can, and you are doing the best you can and that best is pretty great right now. You think I know everything about parenting? Even with four kids? Well, technically five.” She glanced at her belly.
Liz smirked. “Or six if you count, Clint, right?”
Tiffany laughed and held a finger to her lips. “Shh. That was just between you and me.” She tipped her head toward the cushion next to her. “Sit down and tell me about the college classes you started. How are they going?”
Liz sat and leaned back against the arm of the couch, twisting her body toward Tiffany. “They’re going. I’m still not sure what degree I’ll end up with, but right now I’m working toward a degree in social work and until then I’ve apparently become a children’s librarian.” She shrugged a shoulder, smiling. “It’s not such a bad job, but of course, I haven’t had my first story time yet, so I’ll get back to you on that.”
Shouts from outside the window drew her attention from her sister and daughter and she stood to look out it. In her parents’ side yard, Matt was standing with his legs apart and an arm cocked back with a football in his hand, ready to throw it down the field to Jason. Clint and a group of Clint’s friends swarmed around him, raising their arms, ready to tackle Matt or block the throw.
She smiled, letting her eyes linger on Matt’s attentive expression as his gaze flicked across the field while he decided where to throw the ball. The charges against him had been dropped after Gabe’s arrest. Once he’d completed his two-month suspension, Reggie and the council planned to reinstate him based on his previous good record. Liz was disappointed that he had lost his chance to become a state police trooper, but she seemed to be the only one. Matt told her he was content where he was, glad to be able to remain in Spencer with her and Bella.
“So, it’s official?” Liz looked over her shoulder at Tiffany’s question and saw her sister was standing behind her now, looking out the window as well.
Tiffany snorted a laugh. “You know what. That you’re together with little Matty.”
Liz raised an eyebrow but couldn’t help smiling. “Little Matty?
Tiffany laughed again. “Yeah, that’s what his sister and I always called him in school. Sooo, is it official?”
Liz looked back out the window, at Matt who’d tucked the ball under his arm and was now attempting to run down the field still dotted with spots of snow from the snowfall the night before.
“Yeah.” A smile pulled at her mouth as she pushed the curtain further back. “It’s official.”
Ginny set a tray of glasses full of lemonade on the coffee table. “And it’s about time too.”
Liz pursed her lips and shot Ginny a mock scowl, but wasn’t able to hold it long before a smile pulled her frown upward. “Shush, you.”
Stan stepped behind Ginny as she straightened and slid an arm around her waist.
“She’s just happy for you, Liz.” He pulled Ginny back against him and kissed her cheek. “She’s hoping that you and Matt will have as happy of a marriage as she and I have for all these years.”
Liz held up her hands. “Slow down, matchmakers. No one said anything about marriage.”
Ginny winked. “Not yet, no, but I’m sure if I use my teacher voice with little Matty he’ll get right on that.”
Liz laughed an easy laugh, a laugh that wasn’t forced or tight like it had once been. Ginny and Stan meant well. A future with Matt was what she wanted, but for now, she simply wanted to enjoy the beauty coming forth from the ashes of her past.