Fiction Thursday: A New Chapter Chapter 14 Part One

To catch up with the rest of this fiction story click HERE.

I will not have a post for Christmas Eve, partially because I don’t have the second part of the chapter finished.

Chapter 14

The run had felt good. Had long had it been since she’d gone on a run?

Liz didn’t even know but now that she had this whole blood sugar and fluid intake while breastfeeding thing figured out, or mostly figured out, she felt like she could start exercising again. Thankfully she’d only run out of energy a small distance from the apartment and had been able to make it back without having to call Molly for a ride.

Now, standing in the shower, the water pouring down her, she tried to chase away of the chill autumn morning. She didn’t have long to do it, though. It was her first day back at work and her mom, unfortunately, was on her way over to watch Bella. Rubbing the shampoo into her hair, she thought about a show she’d watched the day before.

The woman being interviewed by a counselor was dealing with panic attacks, much like Liz still was from time to time.

“What’s one happy memory you’ve had in the last year or so?” the counselor had asked the woman. “A child being born? An event you attended maybe? I want you to focus on that memory when you start to panic. I want you to take yourself back to that moment, or one moment, and visually walk yourself through the moment that brings you joy, as if you are experiencing it again through your mind.”

Liz started to think about her own good memories, specifically those over the last year. Yes, Bella’s birth was one, but when she thought of one of the last times she could remember really laughing Liz had found herself mentally catapulted back to a night of bowling with Matt three months before her encounter with Gabe.

She’d only been bowling a couple of times before and it showed. Matt finally asked if she’d like the bumper rails up so the ball would stop going into the gutter.

“No! I’ll get it!”

She’d scolded him but she was laughing so hard tears were in her eyes.

On one try she almost flew with the ball across the slippery floor and Matt had had to catch her, holding her up against his side to keep her from going with the ball. They’d both been laughing so hard they’d almost fallen again and when she looked up at him, she’d been mesmerized by his smile and the sparkle in his eyes. She’d had a brief thought, which she’d pushed aside quickly. The thought that she wished she’d gotten to know Matt better, before she’d become involved with Gabe.

Gabe who she’d known wasn’t good for her but who paid her attention when others didn’t. A man who half the women in town thought was “hot, dangerous, and a total catch.” She’d thought the same at first and that’s probably why it had taken her so long to admit their relationship was on a fast track to nowhere. That and he was controlling, manipulative, and seemed to have only started dating her because he saw her as someone he could practice all those attributes on.

Worse than all of that was that she had let him control and manipulate her. He’d manipulated her through his words, his touch, the way he’d told her she turned him on the way no one else had before. If that was true then he shouldn’t have needed those other women, the ones who hung around him at parties and laughed at his jokes or the one she found him making out with in their friend’s bathroom during a party. He’d claimed she’d been kissing him, and he’d been trying to push her away.

Liz hadn’t believed him but, well, he’d been drinking. He’d messed up and he still cared about her so maybe he’d straighten up and stop drinking as much now. He’d promised he would and for a month he had. They’d spent their evenings at home watching movies, going to the gym together, and sometimes going for walks together.

Then she’d reached in the couch one night looking for the remote and there it had been. A pink bra with red flowers splattered all over it. A bra much less practical than what she usually wore, something he’d often commented on, in fact. She’d stared at it a few seconds before registering that one, it wasn’t her bra, and two, it had been shoved in her couch. The one she’d picked out at the local furniture store. She’d jumped up from the couch and stared at it in horror.

Could it had been left over from one of their parties? No. She’d never had enough to drink that she would have forgotten someone doing that on their couch.

She knew.

She’d known for a long time.

What was she doing? Living this way? After all the talks she’d given Molly about being good enough, about being worth more than she thought. Now she needed to give herself the talk.

She didn’t even wait for Gabe to come home. She’d called Molly, packed her bags, and finally walked away, into a new future.

Or so she thought.

She shut off the shower and reached for a towel, thinking about how Matt had been with her each step of her pregnancy. Telling him she was pregnant in the first place had been beyond awkward. She’d told him when he’d called to ask her to the movies.

“McGee, listen. I don’t know if anyone told you, but,” she’d swallowed hard and taken a deep breath. She knew this would be the end of his phone calls. “I’m pregnant.”

“Oh. I didn’t think you and Gabe —”

“We aren’t together anymore. I —” she’d wanted to say she’d messed up, but she really didn’t want to hash all that out with the man she’d fallen for but knew was out of her league.

She’d thought that would be the end of it. He’d stop calling, stop coming over to hang out with her and Molly and Alex. He’d make himself scarce.

But he didn’t. Instead, he’d asked her if she needed a ride to the doctors the day her car had broken down. He had driven her to her next four appointments, but he wouldn’t have had to if Bert Tanner had worked a little quicker to fix her car.

After the doctor’s appointments, Matt had invited her to lunch, asked if she’d be at the apartment when they held movie nights, and asked if she would like to go to fishing with him.

They weren’t an actual couple, yet he’d been there for many important moments in the last year; a little too much there the day of Bella’s birth.

And now she knew he’d even been there at her apartment that night. Had he known then that she was pregnant?

She wrapped the towel around her hair and dressed in the t-shirt and shorts she’d worn to bed. Once again, she’d forgot to bring her new change of clothes with her.

 Heading toward her bedroom to find the clothes she planned to wear to her first day back at work, a knock at the door stopped her, but she hesitated.

She was wearing a towel around her head and no bra. She bit her bottom lip and took a chance. She didn’t have to open the door all the way.

“Hey.”

Matt smiled from the small space between the door and the door frame. Sunlight caught the glint of golden in his eyes

“Hey,” she said back.

“Can I come in?”

The man who had lied to her about knowing about her suicide attempt wanted to come in? The man she’d tried to call two days earlier but had been somewhere they couldn’t talk and then hadn’t even bothered to call her back? Not that a phone call was the best way to talk about it anyhow. “No. I just got out of the shower.”

He furrowed his eyebrows and folded his arms across his chest. He was in uniform, apparently on his way to the office. “Um, Liz. You do know that I delivered your baby so I —”

“Seriously, McGee?”

He grinned. “I’m just saying that there is no need to be modest at this point.”

She rolled her eyes as she flung the door open and walked into the living room area.

“I wish you wouldn’t bring that up. It’s really embarrassing for me.”

His tone had softened but she still didn’t turn to look at him as she tipped her head forward and tightened the towel on her head. “Liz, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t keep picking on you about that. Listen, for what it’s worth, I wasn’t actually focused on anything other than Bella that day. I really didn’t see anything. I mean, you know, I just caught her and didn’t —we covered you with my coat so I really only reached in and caught her.”

Liz sighed. “I know. You’ve said this before. It’s still just awkward for me.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” He paused as she dropped a couple pieces of bread in the toaster. “Anyhow, I brought you something.”

She turned and he was holding a small bottle toward her. “What’s this?”

“It’s for your anxiety.”

Her eyes narrowed. “My what?”

“Your postpartum anxiety. It might help some and it should be safe to take while nursing. It’s CBD oil.”

“What makes you think —”

“You get the same look my sister used to get when she was battling panic attacks after she had her second. They came out of nowhere, most of the time for no reason. It was a physical reaction too, not in her head. She tried to hide them, but she had one at church one day and couldn’t slow her breathing. She almost passed out. All the ladies at church meant well and kept reciting Philippians 4:7, telling her to be anxious for nothing. They didn’t seem to understand her hormones were trying to regulate and triggering the attacks. That might be what’s happening with you. I don’t know but it can’t hurt to try and see if it helps.”

How did he do it? How did he see through her so easily?

Could he see inside her now? Did he know how upset she was that he didn’t tell her he’d been there that night?

She took the bottle slowly. “Thank you.”

She set the bottle on the counter and buttered her toast, her back to him.  “Is something wrong?” he asked. “You seem tense this morning.”

“I’m fine. Just nervous about my first day back.”

“Your mom is watching Bella?”

“Sadly, yes.”

He stepped in front of her as she reached for the refrigerator door. “You’ll do fine, you know.”

She looked up at him and his green eyes met hers. They swam with concern and she knew she should tell him what she was really upset about, but she couldn’t. She had to get dressed and go to work. She didn’t have time to hash out what he’d witnessed that night in her apartment.

She swallowed hard. “Thank you for the CBD oil.”

He nodded, breaking his gaze with her. “You’re welcome. You can ask Linda more about it at the store. I’m sure she knows all about it.” Pink flushed across his cheeks as he stepped back to the other side of the table. “Or, well, you probably already know about it after working there for the last three years.”

She wanted to giggle at how shy he suddenly seemed, but she was also still angry at him. The waring emotions in her made her want to run away but luckily a knock on the door interrupted them and she stepped out of the kitchen to answer it.

Marge swept past her as soon as she opened the door. “Sorry I’m late. I had to stop at the church and pick up some books for the ladies group tonight. We’re starting a new series.” She pulled her jacket off and turned to hang it on one of the pegs next to the door, pausing when she saw Matt.

“Oh.” She smiled, looking over her shoulder at him as she hung her coat up. “Hello, Matt.”

He nodded. “Hello, Mrs. — I mean, Marge.”

Liz didn’t even want to know what her mother was thinking at that moment. This was the first time they’d all been in the same room since her mom and her had had their blow up about the birth announcement.

Marge and Matt looked at each other for a few moments and Liz silently prayed neither of them would broach the elephant in the room. Finally Matt broke the stand off by clearing his throat.

“Welp, have to get to work, so you ladies have a good day.”

“You too,” Liz said. Please hurry and leave.

Marge drew in a breath and Liz tensed. “Matt, wait, I—” She let out a slow breath and looked at the floor. “Matt, I think, I mean I’m wondering if you told the people at the hospital you were Bella’s father to protect Liz and Bella.”

Matt stood with his hand on the doorknob and nodded, looking directly at Marge as she raised her gaze again. “Yes, ma’am, that’s what I was doing. It wasn’t really well thought out, I realize that, but the nurse already thought I was the father, so it wasn’t much of a jump. I did ask her to keep it out of the paper, but she must have forgotten. I apologize if this has caused any difficulties for your family.”

Marge sighed. “It hasn’t caused anything difficult for us, it’s you I’m worried about Matt. What others might think of you. What the people at church are thinking.”

Matt laughed. “I’m not worried about that Marge.” His expression became serious again and his gaze drifted to Liz. “Liz and Bella are more important to me than all of that.”

Liz swallowed hard and she felt like instead of only being braless she was standing naked in her kitchen with Matt and her mom both looking at her, as if waiting for a response. She couldn’t respond, though. She didn’t know what to say. He’d never said anything so blunt to her before and she was having a hard time wrapping her mind around it.

“Anyhow,” he said before she had a chance to respond. “Off to work. You ladies have a good day.”

Liz turned toward her bedroom as soon as he closed the door behind him. She was not having a conversation with her mom about this right now. “I’m going to go get dressed.”

She filled her time before walking out the door filling her mom in on where the bottles of breastmilk were, how to warm them, and where the extra diapers were, not giving her a chance to broach the topic of Matt.

“Bye, Mom.” She rushed for the door. “Thanks again.”

“Good luck, honey!” her mom called after her.

In the car Liz gripped the steering wheel and took a deep breath. She needed to focus on her first day back at work, not on Matt McGee.

Why had he said it that way? That she and Bella were more important to him than what people thought of him? And in front of her mom.

She growled in frustration as she turned the car toward the health food store, anxious to get her first day out of the way.

Fiction Thursday: A New Chapter Chapter 12

Just a couple of notes: I wrote this chapter and several others after it before I got sick with Covid so if it doesn’t make sense, it was simply my normal brain fog. I also tentatively changed the name of the book from The Next Chapter to A New Chapter. We will see if I stick with that. What do all of you think? Don’t care? I wouldn’t blame you. Let me know in the comments.

For anyone new, these chapters are part of a book in progress so there are typos and errors and plot holes that I fix before I self-publish the book later down the road. Or hopefully, I fix them and don’t upload the wrong file like I did for a couple previous books. Argh! Anyhow, moving right along to chapter 12.

To catch up with the rest of the story click HERE.

Chapter 12

Ginny looked at the dress and blouse Liz had lain on the bed and pondered it for a few moments. She turned to her closet and pulled out a blue dress and then a maroon one. The blue dress was sleeveless, like the black one. The maroon one featured short, puffed sleeves, which had never looked good on her. She eliminated it from her selection and looked between the black and blue dress.

Liz was probably right about the black dress. It would look nice with the white blouse pulled over it.

The problem was, Stan had seen her in all of these dresses. She worn the black one for last year’s banquet. She shouldn’t wear it two years in a row, should she? She could wear the white blouse with that blue skirt with all those funky swirling patterns on it. It had been a gift from Olivia. She hadn’t been brave enough to wear it yet.

She bit her lower lip and studied the skirt then slipped it on. It fell down to her shins, perfect to wear with those brown suede boots she’d picked up at the consignment shop at the beginning of summer.

She tried the boots on and pulled on the blouse then stood in front of the full length mirror on the back of the door.

Huh. Not too shabby.

She turned to the side and her gaze fell on her belly. It was slightly less pronounced than the last time she looked, but she would still need another few bike sessions before it went all the way away.

She thought about what Liz had said earlier. “Just wait until Stan sees you. He won’t be able to keep his hands off you.”

Ginny’s chest tightened. Wouldn’t he, though? He was certainly able to keep his hands off her a lot these days. She couldn’t even remember the last time he’d hugged her, let alone held her in his arms.

The engine of Stan’s car rumbled in the driveway and she took a deep breath and reached for the necklace she’d laid out on the dresser. She needed to hurry. Stan loved to be early to these banquets.

She had already pulled out the suit he like to wear, along with the white shirt, blue tie and matching cuff links.

She looked at her earrings in the mirror, leaned back and took a deep breath. The outfit wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do. She was out of time.

She descended the stairs and found Stan loosening his tie in the living room, looking down at an opened newspaper on the coffee table. “Hey, hon. I’ve only got a few minutes. I’ve got to head up and get dressed.”

“I set everything out for you,” she said, stepping off the bottom step.

He slid the tie he’d been wearing all the way off and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his dress shirt. “Thanks.” He turned and started to walk toward the stairs then stopped. His brow furrowed and he frowned. “What are you all dressed up for? You have another night out with Liz? It isn’t time for the fundraiser yet is it? I thought that was in a couple of weeks.”

Her chest constricted. Was he joking? If so then that would be a departure from his recent demeanor. “What do you mean why am I dressed up. Your banquet is tonight, right.”

Stan was still frowning. He shrugged a shoulder. “Well, yeah, but you told me a few weeks ago you hate these things. I gave your ticket to Frank. He had a date he wanted to bring.”

She tossed the small black purse she’d planned to take on the recliner next to the couch and turned away from him, her hands on her hips. Her lower lip quivered, and tears stung her eyes but she wasn’t going to let him see she was upset. It wouldn’t matter anyhow. He’d probably call her too sensitive or remind her she was “going through the change and that makes everything seem worse than it is.”

“You don’t mind, right?” He walked toward the stairs.

She drew in a shaky breath and tried to keep her tone calm. “No. I guess not. It’s just that I go with you every year and —.”

He was half way up the stairs. “Yeah, but you’ve been so busy this year with the library and the fall fund raiser and now helping Liz. I talked about it with you the other day, remember?

“No,” she mumbled as the bedroom door closed upstairs. “No. I do not remember.”

She sat on the couch, smoothing the skirt down over her knees. Maybe he had talked to her about it. Maybe she’d been texting Sarah about the fund raiser at the same time. Maybe Olivia had called with another California Crisis while he was talking or maybe it was the day Clint had called to say they’d be moving back out in about a month now instead of the two months he’d thought it would be.

She bit her bottom lip and swiped at a tear that escaped the corner of her eye. It was just a banquet and she did hate them. They went on for every with every real estate agent who every walked and breathed in a three-county area taking the podium to update the attendees about every single accomplishment they’d had that year. Then there was Stan, accepting his award, thanking her and while he’d once meant it and they’d once been like a team, that wasn’t true anymore.

His appreciation of her wouldn’t be sincere this time. They barely knew each other these days. He’d be putting on an act at that podium, just like she was putting on an act now. She pulled her shoulders back, straightened her back as she heard the bedroom door open. Time to pretend she was fine with this. Time to pretend she didn’t care. Time to be a grown up and realize her life was changing.

She and Stan weren’t the people they used to be. Not every marriage was like Robert and Annie Tanner’s, close and romantic even 30-years later.

Some people just slowly grew apart and that’s what was happening with her and Stan. She’d never consider divorce, of course, but it was time to accept that their future years would most likely be lived mainly apart.y apart.

Their romantic moments had happened, and been wonderful, but that part of their life was over.

She barely noticed as he leaned down and kissed her cheek. “Hey. You’re okay, right?”

She nodded and stood quickly, heading toward the kitchen, and tightening her jaw with resolve. “Of course I am.”

“Good and listen don’t worry about me. I know you support me. I appreciate that.” He pulled on his suit coat and reached for his keys. “Plus, don’t you have stuff you wanted to do before Tiffany and Clint come back? And what about Olivia, did she ever make up her mind about coming home?”

Ginny pulled a mug for her tea out of the cupboard by the fridge. “Hmm? Oh yes. She said she’s going to stay out there until Christmas break.”

He reached for his jacket and slid the keys into his pocket, walking toward the front door. “Good. That’s settled then. Okay, I’ve got to head out. There’s an abandoned warehouse out on highway 10 that Jake Landsdale wants me to look and I’m going to check it out before the banquet. We’re trying to track down the owners because there’s a huge commercial firm that is interested in the property. I’ve heard they might build a distribution center there. It would mean a lot of jobs for the area. I’ll call you on my way home and let you know how I did, okay?”

“Yeah,” she said at the already closed door. “Okay.”

She sat at the table and swallowed her emotion with a sip of tea. He hadn’t even noticed her hair, she realized as she propped her chin in her hand and her elbow on the table. She laughed softly, her eyes burning with unshed tears. Her prediction had come true. She had told herself he wouldn’t even notice, and he didn’t.

***

Stan turned his car toward Paskey Road at the bidding of his GPS, Ginny’s expression when he’d left the house still in his mind.

Well, that was weird.

Ginny hated these real estate banquets. Why had she seemed so annoyed that he had given her ticket away? He thought she’d be happy. Now she could stay home and read a book or bake or whatever else she did when he wasn’t home.

“Turn left onto Anderson Road.” The woman’s voice on the GPS was warm, soothing.

Ginny’s voice had once been warm and soothing. Now she just rambled about night sweats, the library, art classes, every single crisis their kids had going on, and most recently about Liz Cranmer. He scoffed, shook his head as he turned the car left. There was a development he hadn’t expected — her forming some kind of connection with their daughter-in-law’s younger, somewhat troubled sister.

He felt guilty calling Liz troubled. Just because she’d tried to kill herself last year didn’t mean he should be placing a label on her. Still, she was a bit, well, troubled. She’d lived a full year with that physical therapist who had made a scene a couple of years ago at a restaurant he and Ginny had been at. Obviously the man couldn’t hold his liquor very well.

“In half a mile, turn left on Henderson Road.”

A twinge of guilt tugged at him. He wasn’t supposed to even know about Liz’s suicide attempt, and he wouldn’t have if Matt hadn’t asked for prayer for her during the men’s meeting last year. Matt hadn’t said at the meeting what had happened or even named Liz. Stan had overheard him talking to Jason Tanner when he’d gone to get his coat. Matt had sworn Jason to secrecy but was deeply worried about Liz, not only her physical health but her spiritual health. Jason had promised to pray and to assuage his guilt, Stan had promised himself to pray for Liz too. He had prayed that night but knew he should have prayed for her more over the last year.

He couldn’t figure out what had drawn Ginny to the woman.

Maybe his wife felt like she needed some kind of project to occupy her time when she wasn’t at work.

He squinted into the setting sun, then reached for his sunglasses hooked in the sun visor.

Where was this building anyhow? He needed to check it out before he brought the representatives of that firm from the city here to show them the land. He also needed to find the owner to see if they would sell. This could be a big deal for the area. More jobs would be a definite boon to this area hard hit by recessions and crashing milk prices.

“Three-twenty-eight Henderson Road. There it is.”

The two-story brick structure was barely visible behind a veil of vines and overgrown trees and bushes. Sliding the car into park, Stan reflected again on his wife’s demeanor when he’d told her she didn’t have to go with him to the banquet. The way she’d flopped onto the couch, kicked off her boots. Brown boots he’d never seen her wear before.

There was something different about her too. He couldn’t put his finger on it. Maybe her make-up. Was her lipstick a different color?

He shrugged a shoulder as he stepped into the chilly autumn air and headed toward the building. He didn’t see any signs posted, nothing to indicate who the building belonged to or when it had been built. It was clear, though, it wasn’t in use and hadn’t been for a long time. The windows were broken out, the shingled roof was breaking apart, large metal doors rusted at the top of a flight of stone stairs.

The metal doors were slightly open, and Stan wondered if he should investigate, but decided against it and walked around to the back of the building instead. Maybe he could find a clue to who owned the building there. From what he could remember, this building had once been a factory warehouse of some kind. Despite living in this area his entire life, other than the four years he’d spent away at college, he’d never heard definitively what the building had been.  

When he reached the back parking lot, overgrown with grass poking up through the cement and asphalt, he noticed there was another door around the back. It was cracked open like the front, a chain and bolt hanging down from the metal door handle as if it had been cut open.

It was probably someone living in the building, squatting as it was called when the person hadn’t been given permission to live there. Stan would report it to the building owner, if he knew who it was. He walked up the steps toward the door and reached for the handle, then hesitated. This was probably a job for the police, not a real estate agent used to sitting at a desk and on his way to a banquet in one of his best suits.

This building was in the state police’s jurisdiction and Stan doubted they’d come out and investigate a possible squatter. Matt might come with him on his day off, though, if the kid ever had a day off. It seemed like he was always working or volunteering somewhere, which is why it had surprised Stan when he’d read in the paper he’d had a baby with Liz.

When had he had any time for a dating life? Stan turned to walk back toward his car and laughed softly. Not like a man had to have a dating life to father a baby. Still, Matt didn’t seem the type to simply sleep with a woman and walk away. There had to be more to that story. Unlike Ginny, though, he didn’t have any interest or time to take on a personal project. Not too mention Matt’s personal life was none of his business.

He rubbed his hands together to brush off the dirt and slid behind the steering wheel. Turning the car on he realized he didn’t feel the anticipation he should be feeling at the prospect of earning another Real Estate Agent of the Year Award. These banquets really were boring. Having Ginny with him had always broken up the monotony, given him someone to chat with while the other agents droned on and on about their triumphs over the last year. She’d never been too hard on the eyes those nights either.

Oh well. Couldn’t be helped now. She’d probably changed into a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt by now. He’d have to make it up to her next year, if he was nominated again. If he wasn’t, then maybe he’d stay home too. There were only so many speeches about real estate he could listen to and give.

He turned the car back onto the main highway toward the sportsmen’s club, the annual site for the banquet. No more feeling guilty about giving Ginny’s ticket away.

She hadn’t wanted to go anyhow.

This would be a good night. He could go talk shop with his fellow agents without feeling like he needed to rush her home.  Besides, she liked quiet nights at home with a cup of tea and a book. She was always saying how much she looked forward to nights like that.

Why was he even thinking about all this? There was nothing to think about.

He flipped the radio station to the oldies channel and leaned back. Singing along to Fat Domino he tapped his hand on the steering wheel.

Yep. It was going to be a good night.

Fiction Thursday: The Next Chapter. Chapter 10

I’m posting a chapter on Thursday because Bettie asked me to. That is all.

To catch up with the story click HERE or see the link at the top of the page.

Chapter 10

She glared at her reflection, at the boring, straight strands falling around her shoulders, and wished she was young again.
When she was younger, she could cut her hair and feel like a different person. Not now. Nothing she did made Ginny feel like a different person. She was the same, boring, never-does-anything-exciting woman she always was, whether her hair was pulled back in a ponytail or hanging across her shoulders.

Still, maybe a change would help her feel less stuck somehow. She pulled the hair up on her head and held it in place with her hands, turning her head and looking at the effect in the mirror.
Maybe she should have it styled differently. Or cut it short.
What would Stan think, though?

She snorted.

He’d never even notice.
His nose was buried too far into real estate paperwork.
She picked up her phone as it rang. She heard her thoughts in Liz’s voice. “I want to make a change and I’m starting with my hair. Is that stupid?”
Ginny huffed out a breath blowing at a strand of hair that had fallen across her forehead. A strand of hair that had once been blond but now featured streaks of gray. “No. Not at all because it’s the same thought I had.”
“I’ll get us an appointment with Missy.”

Missy Fowler? Ginny had always gone to Betty Richardson. Missy was for young women. Her styles were more modern, bolder, and — exactly what she needed.

“See if she has anything Friday afternoon. I’m free then.”

***

Most of the time she didn’t think about the night with the pill bottle clutched in her hand, the way she’d swallowed all those pills and wanted it all to end but then all of the sudden, when her chest had gotten tighter and her breathing was shallow, she suddenly didn’t want it all to end.

She’d tried to throw it all up but it didn’t work, no matter how many times she shoved her finger into the back of her throat.

Her hand had trembled when she reached for the phone, her vision blurring as she hit the number 9, as far as she got but luckily enough for her cellphone to tap into the local emergency center.

She’d tasted bile and choked out the words around a rush of vomit. “Help me.”

When she woke up bright lights blazed into her eyes, deep into her brain. Voices swirled in her mind, running together, overlapping, making no sense.

“Pills . . . floor . . . bottle . . . Hold her down we need to get an IV in . . . pregnancy test. Check that, Tom.”

She hadn’t known who Tom was at the time. Maybe that good-looking emergency room doctor she later found out Jessie Landry was dating, which means he obviously had no taste anyhow. Later she learned Tom Stapleton was Matt’s partner, a veteran police officer, on the force some 20-years. He must have been the responding officer, the first to arrive before the ambulance. She wished she could remember but by then her world had begun to fade around her and she’d started imagining her friends and family crowded around her casket in Homer’s Funeral Home.

Matt’s partner was how he had found out about her being in the hospital. Tom had thought the two were dating and asked Matt if she was okay. The day Matt came into the hospital room to check on her she had wished her bed would transform into a venus fly trap so she could disappear inside.

She’d smoothed a hand back through her hair but she knew it wasn’t going to help. She was a mess. There was no getting around it.

Matt’s expression had been hard to read. He seemed to be trying to be cheerful but there was something else lingering behind his eyes. Was it concern? Disgust? Liz seized on the disgust interpretation in that moment because it was the emotion she held toward herself. Absolute and total disgust. How had she sunk so low that first she was pregnant with the baby of a man she despised and second she’d actually tried to kill herself? Kill herself. My God. She’d fallen so far. It wasn’t something she’d ever considered before, even when she’d battled depression while living with Gabe. What had snapped in her brain to make her think that was the logical way to handle the news of her pregnancy?

And now here she was in a hospital room with the handsome police officer she’d gone out on two dates with looking at her like she was a complete crazy person, most likely wondering what he’d been thinking asking her out in the first place. Until the moment she saw those two lines on that pregnancy test she had seen the possibility of a new future with Matt, one full of tenderness and friendship and maybe even love. A future very much unlike the bleak one she’d been looking at when she’d been living with Gabe, before she woke up and gathered her courage to walk away.

“I took too many pills from a prescription I had for painkillers. It was an accident.” The lie spilled out of her before she even thought. There was no way she could tell Matt the truth. Not now. Not ever. She laughed a little pathetic laugh that she hoped sounded real. “It was for a knee injury I had a few months ago. It had flared up again but I guess I forgot how many pills I was supposed to take. When I realized I had taken four instead of two I tried to throw them up. It didn’t work so I called 911.”
It wasn’t all a lie. The pills had been painkillers and she had been prescribed them for a knee injury. The pain from that injury had been long gone before that night, though, and she’d definitely taken more than four pills. It was clearly not an accident.

Matt seemed to buy it, hook line and sinker.
“Yeah. Those directions can be confusing sometimes.” He’d reached over from the chair he was sitting in, leaning toward her, and covered her hand with his. “All that matters is you are still with us. It all could have ended a lot differently.”
The words haunted her for weeks afterward and even now she thought about them often.
“It all could have ended a lot differently.”

She looked at the baby asleep in the crib next to her and took a deep breath, grateful she had a breath to take, grateful she had a baby to look at.

She tossed the covers off of her and walked gingerly toward the desk on the other side of the room. Opening her laptop she blinked in the light, waited for her eyes to adjust, and read the email she’d received a couple hours earlier.

Dear Liz Cranmer:
Thank you for taking the time to apply to Travers Community College. We are pleased to let you know that you have been accepted for the fall semester for online classes and may begin scheduling your classes upon receipt of this letter.

There it was. Her green light to improve herself. Her green light to forget the past, change her future. Her green light to reject who she’d been before. Her green light to at least pretend she was a fully functioning adult and not an abject failure at everything she tried.


Maybe she’d fail at this too.


Maybe she’d be unable to understand the coursework.


Maybe her thoughts about being stupid were true.


Maybe. Lots of maybes.


But maybe she’d succeed and maybe she’d make a better life, not only for herself but for her daughter.


Fiction Thursday: The Next Chapter Chapter 8

Welcome to a special Fiction Thursday.

If you want to catch up on the story you can HERE, but if you want to wait until it is all done, it will be out on Amazon in the Spring.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. If you haven’t read the other books in this series, you can find information about them HERE. The first two books in the series are The Farmer’s Daughter and Harvesting Hope.

Chapter 8

Liz flopped back on the bed in Jason’s spare room and groaned, pressing the heel of her palms against her eyes. “I don’t even want to be here today. I mean, not because I don’t want to be at the wedding. It’s just —” She shook her head. “I can’t believe Matt didn’t talk to that nurse. Everyone is going to be staring at us. It’s going to be so weird.”
She also couldn’t believe that Matt hadn’t stopped by or called in two days, giving her the opportunity to grill him about the birth announcement snafu.
Molly tossed a bottle of water onto the bed next to Liz. “Drink that.” She reached for her dress hanging on the back of the door. “And calm down. Jason and Ellie only invited about 50 people to the ceremony so not everyone will be staring at you. Maybe about 20 out of the 50 and even then, they will only stare at you after the wedding because they’ll be staring at Ellie during the wedding.” Molly stepped into the dress and pulled it up across her body, looping the straps over her shoulder. “Her gown is gorgeous. I can’t wait for you to see it.”
Liz propped herself up on her elbows and looked at her friend. She was wearing a peach-colored dress with spaghetti straps displayed in a fan pattern across the back. The skirt flowed out in a ruffled pattern that fell to her ankles and set off a pair of light-tan heels.
“That gown is gorgeous too. Did Liz pick them out or did you have a say?”
“Judi and I had a say and then each dress was fitted to each of our body types because Judi and I are obviously not the same size.”
Judi was Ellie’s younger sister who had moved home earlier in the summer.
Liz sat up and opened the water bottle, sipping from it.
Molly gestured at the bottle. “No sipping. Drink it. You need to stay hydrated. You’re nursing, it’s warm out, and you’re on the verge of a panic attack.”
Liz scowled and drank more from the bottle. On the verge of a panic attack? Oh no. She was already there. “Wouldn’t you be panicking if the guy you went on two dates with let the whole town think he was the father of your baby?”
Molly shrugged. “Better him than Gabe, that’s all I know.”
Outside the window, Liz heard laughter and greetings. More guests were arriving. She wondered if Matt was here yet, though she figured he was probably with Jason and Alex at the Tanner’s, getting dressed. Maybe she could find him before the ceremony started, warn him about the announcement, in case he hadn’t seen it. She stood and looked out the window. White chairs had been set up in the backyard and a trellis was placed where Ellie and Jason would stand to say their vows. The was under the drooping branches of a weeping willow and in the distance was a recently cut cornfield. Beyond the field were the green hills of Pennsylvania and beyond them hazy blue mountains even further away, hugging the expanse of farmland that made up most of Spencer Valley.
Liz tipped her head back and closed her eyes, willing her muscles to relax. The birth announcement wasn’t the only worry pressing in on her. Ginny had volunteered to watch Isabella today while she was at the wedding and even though she fully trusted Ginny, she felt like she was neglecting her duties as a mother. She should be the one taking care of Isabella, not someone else. Taking even a short break to help Molly get dressed as Ellie’s bridesmaid and staying for the ceremony and reception filled her with illogical guilt.
“Zip me up?” Molly lifted her hair and turned around.
As she zipped the back of the dress, Liz thought about how she’d once been confident, not filled with fear and anxiety over every little thing. It didn’t seem that long ago in some ways, but in others, it seemed like a lifetime ago. She needed to find her confidence again, stop worrying about what other people thought of her. Now just to figure out how to do that without burning every bridge like she currently felt like doing.
From there, her thoughts shifted abruptly to how long Molly’s hair had become, how the soft curls were falling past the middle of her back now, and how Molly was practically glowing. She looked over Molly’s shoulder, at her reflection in the mirror. Her friend was losing weight, something she’d been wanting to do for a long time. Liz only hoped Molly was doing it for the right reasons, not to try to fit in and make a man happy like she’d done herself for so many years.
Molly turned and clasped Liz’s hands in hers. “Hold your head high, Liz. All the thoughts that you think people are having about you are probably nowhere close to what they are thinking.”
Liz snorted. “Yeah. It’s probably a lot worse.”
“Liz!” Molly laughed and rolled her eyes. “You’re starting to sound like me. Now come on. Go find your seat and I’ll talk to you after the ceremony.”
In the kitchen, on her way to the backyard, Liz found Annie, Molly’s mom, folding napkins and placing them in a wicker basket on the counter.
“Hey, Liz. You look beautiful today.”
Liz placed a hand on her hip and tipped her head down slightly. “Now, Annie, you know it’s a sin to lie.”
Annie’s laugh was rich and full, one of the many attributes Liz loved about her. She shook her head as she folded the last napkin.
“It’s true, my dear. I know you’re tired, but you do look lovely. Missy did a nice job on your hair.”
“Thank you.” Liz decided to push the protest of the compliment aside and instead accept it. She patted the hair Missy Fowler had piled on her head, leaving the rest of her dark strands hanging down her back and across her shoulders. Missy was the hairstylist who had a shop below Ellie’s apartment — or Judi’s apartment now. “I actually do feel a little more rested today. We actually had one two hours and one three-hour stretch last night. Isabella has been better since Ginny brought me that gripe water the other day. She also showed me some pointers she used on her babies to get the trapped gas out.”
“What do you think Isabella’s nickname will end up being? Bella or Izzy?”
Liz made a face. “I hope it’s Bella. Izzy is too close to Lizzie. The kids in school used to chant that Lizzie Borden rhyme at me and I hated it.” Liz’s rolled her eyes as she recited the rhyme “Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her mother forty whacks; when she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.’ Ugh. How awful.” She knew no matter how upset her mother made her, she’d never be like Lizzie Borden. “I’m just glad I never told anyone my real name. The taunting would have been the same.”
Annie’s brow furrowed. “Real name?”
“Lizanne.”
“Oh.” Annie looked surprised. “I always thought it was Elizabeth.”
“People assume it is and I just let them. I’m named after my great-grandmother, which was a fine name in the early 1900s, but not so great now.”
The sound of a truck engine brought Liz’s gaze to the kitchen doorway and out through the front window. Her heart rate sped up at the sight of Matt climbing out of his truck. She wished the palpitations were only because she found him attractive and not because she was terrified of talking to him about the birth announcement. Had he seen it? She couldn’t imagine he had or he would have answered her call earlier or called her before she’d tried to call him.
Her gaze took in a gray vest over a white shirt and a light-gray suit coat hanging from a bent finger and draped over his back. He’d had a haircut, making his dark brown hair even shorter on the sides and top. She imagined he’d have to cut it even shorter when he started at the academy in a couple of months.
“High and tight” is what she’d heard the state trooper hair cuts referred to as.
As she had a few times before, she found herself daydreaming about his hair looked like all ruffled up after a shower.
Or after she’d pushed her hands through it.
She drew in a sharp breath at the thought of messing up Matt’s hair, knocking some of that perfection out of him, and seeing what an unguarded Matt McGee was like.
She pulled her gaze away from him and slid her phone out of her purse, shooting a quick text to Ginny to check on Bella. She had left two bottles of pumped breast milk, hoping they’d be enough to keep Isabella satisfied until she came home.
Ginny texted back as Liz found a seat in the backyard.
All is well. She’s swinging in a little swing I’d kept here for the grandchildren. Happy as a clam.
When Matt appeared next to the arch standing next to Alex, who was standing next to Jason, she wished she could grab Matt and pull him aside, scold him for not blocking the announcement from going in. There were too many people filling the chairs, though, and soon the ceremony would start. She’d have to wait for later to interrogate him.
Molly was right. Ellie’s dress was simple and gorgeous. The veil hung across the back of her hair in a thin wisp of white. Finely sewn lace interlaced patterns down the back and along the train, which trailed a couple of feet behind her but clearly could be removed later, as evidenced by the bustle buttoned at Ellie’s waist.
Liz fought back emotions through the entire ceremony, partially because she was happy for Jason and Ellie and partially because she was sad for herself. Would she ever have a happy, beautiful ceremony like this? She mentally kicked herself, wishing for the hundredth time that she’d never gone to that party that night, that she’d never let herself be alone with Gabe and listened to his threats.
If she’d been stronger, hadn’t had that last glass of wine, then maybe she would have been like Ellie, standing hand in hand with a handsome man looking at her like he’d lasso the moon for her if she wanted it. Taking a deep breath, she reminded herself of what she’d thought the night she brought Bella home. Since she couldn’t have what her sister had, children with a husband, or what Jason and Ellie had — a love so deep their connection would survive whether they had children or not — she’d find a way to make it up to Bella. She’d find a way to make sure Bella wouldn’t be embarrassed to have her as a mother.
Tears stung her eyes as she watched tears glistening in Jason’s eyes when he said his vows. She wiped a fingertip under her eye, careful not to smudge the makeup she’d actually taken time to put on that afternoon after not wearing any for the last two months. Soon there were tears on Ellie’s cheeks as well and a quick glance around her showed that others had pulled out tissues and handkerchiefs, including Molly who kept nibbling on her bottom lip, obviously trying to hold the emotion in.
When the ceremony was over, and Jason and Ellie had walked down the aisle, beaming at each other the whole way, the guests dispersed to a pair of large tents set up to the left of the chairs. Liz sat herself at a table close to the head table, seriously considering leaving and heading back to the apartment for a quiet night with a sleeping baby and a movie. She couldn’t leave, though.
She still needed to talk to Matt. So far, she hadn’t been even able to catch his eye and she was beginning to wonder if he was avoiding her on purpose. After a meal of pulled pork, roasted potatoes, and homemade coleslaw, she gave up on pulling him away from talking with Jason and Alex and decided a walk might help her relax more. She’d better enjoy it while she could. She’d be back on newborn duty as soon as she arrived home.
A cool breeze swept over the yard at the front of the house as she rounded the corner of the house and walked toward the front porch. The porch was open, the white railing freshly painted and reminding her of a picture on an issue of Country Living magazine. She stepped up the steps and found a wooden slatted chair painted to match the railing and front of the house. Sitting in it she smiled, thinking how this house would soon look like a real home thanks to Ellie’s touch, instead of a bachelor pad, which is what it had been for the last five years.
She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes, letting her mind wander and focus on the sound of a cicada or katydid somewhere across the driveway instead of her racing thoughts. After a few seconds of counting chirps, the world faded around her.
“Need a blanket?”
The words snapped her out of her brief nap, leaving her in a world of disorientation for a few seconds. She couldn’t even seem to register if she’d dreamed the words, or someone had actually spoken them.
Blinking her eyes to clear the sleep away she saw Matt standing on the top step, leaning his hip into the stair railing.
She shook her head. “I can’t believe I fell asleep like that.”
“You must have needed it.”
She pushed her hand back through her hair and let it fall slowly down her back. “I’ve been trying to catch you all day. We need to talk.”
He cocked an eyebrow, grinning. “About?”
Why was he grinning? Did he really think she was flirting right now?
“You haven’t seen the paper?”
He pushed off the railing and stepped up off the top step onto the porch, shoving his hands in his front jean pockets.
“Yeah, I saw it.”
She tightened her jaw. He was so aggravating. Seriously. “Saw what?”
“The baseball scores.” He rolled his eyes. “The birth announcement, Liz. I saw the announcement.”
“You saw it and didn’t call me?”
“I saw it an hour ago. When Jase showed me. I didn’t have time to call you. When did you see it? Why didn’t you call me?”
Liz glanced away, focusing on her hands clenched in her lap. “I —” She couldn’t say she thought he’d stop by, and she could talk to him then. How would that sound?
Desperate.
That’s how it would sound. “I don’t know. I was in shock, I guess. I can’t believe you didn’t stop that nurse.”
Matt sighed and propped the right side of his body against the column, his hands still in his front jean pockets. He tipped his face down toward the porch floor. “I did stop her, Liz. I asked her not to put it in the paper. She said she wouldn’t.”
Liz stood pressing her hands against her hips. “Well, then we need to call that hospital and give them a piece of our mind. They violated our privacy.”
Matt looked at her with an amused smirk. “We need to call?”
Liz threw her hands in the air, tipping her face toward the porch ceiling. “Okay. I need to call. And I will. First thing Monday morning.”
“And what good is that going to do?”
Her head snapped down and she leveled a burning gaze on him. “Excuse me?”
He shrugged a shoulder. “What’s been done is done. It’s not like they can take it out of the newspaper. It’s already been printed so calling them up and yelling won’t help anything. The proverbial cat is out of the bag.”
Was he serious right now? Why was he so calm?
“McGee, the whole town thinks you were sleeping with me. The people at your church think you were sleeping with me.” She paused for effect. “Having sex. Out of wedlock. Do you get that? They think you fathered a child with the screwed-up daughter of Frank and Marge Cranmer, the most revered members of Encounter Church. Do you not get that?” She huffed out a frustrated growl. “What are we going to do?”
Matt tipped his head and the smile faded into a more thoughtful expression, but she still couldn’t read him. His response sent anger seething through her.
“Nothing.”
She tossed her hands out to her side. “What do you mean nothing?”
He frowned. “What I said. Nothing. It’s no one’s business. Let people make up their own minds about what the truth is.”
Liz slapped her hands down against her side. “Oh, that’s just great. Let people make up their own minds? In this little town? That’s fine for you but everyone is looking at me like I corrupted the town saint.”
Matt’s amused laugh grated on her nerves. “The town saint? What does that even mean?”
She took a step toward him, incredulous. “You can’t be that clueless. You’re the town golden child. You’re a police officer, you lead Bible studies, help old ladies cross the street, take cats out of trees, and I’m pretty sure a woman was healed last week when she touched the hem of your uniform.”
His laugh deepened and she briefly imagined smacking him in the head. “Liz stop it. That’s ridiculous. No one thinks that stuff about me. I’m just — well, me. Small town cop. Spencer Valley’s Barney Fife.”
“Uh, yeah.” Liz raised her eyebrows. “If Barney Fife had groupies.”
Matt tipped his head back and laughed loudly. “I do not have groupies.”
He wiped the bag of his hand across his eyes as he stepped toward her. His eyes were still moist from the tears of laughter as touched his hand under her chin, cupping it gently. “And you’re not screwed up.” The smile faded and the intensity of his gaze on her sent her heart flapping wildly against her ribcage. She wanted to look away, but she couldn’t. His intensity pinned her down, stopped her racing thoughts. “You need to stop claiming that title. I’ve never given it to you, and I don’t know anyone else who has either. It’s something you call yourself.”
Her mouth lost its moisture as she tried to speak. “My parents —”
He dropped his hand from her chin. “Have they ever said you’re screwed up?”
“No, but they —”
“You think they think that, but they’ve never said those exact words, right?”
Liz put her hands up in front of her. “Okay. Enough about my parents. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about how to handle this birth announcement thing.”
“I already told you I’m not going to do anything other than going on with my life and you should do the same.” He held out his hand. “Now come on. There’s a party going on in the backyard. Let’s go celebrate Jason and Ellie.”
“McGee. Seriously. We can not just —”
“Yeah. We can. Now come on.”
Liz’s jaw tightened and her eyes narrowed. She was not just going to go back to the reception like nothing was going on, like this birth announcement wasn’t going to create even more issues for her and for him.
He kept his hand held out to her, his eyes on hers. After a few seconds, she took his hand reluctantly but let it go as she hit the bottom step. She tightened her hand into a fist against her side. How could he be so calm and confident about it all? Wasn’t he worried about his reputation? No, he obviously wasn’t, so why was she?
She was used to feeling like the black sheep in her family and her community. She didn’t want him subjected to the same judgment.
They walked together toward the backyard in silence. Jason and Ellie were dancing in the middle of the second tent, the rest of the guests watching.
Jason’s mom touched a tissue to the skin under her eye and Molly had slid into a chair next to Alex, her head against his shoulder as she watched.
Liz’s chest tightened. How long would it be before Molly and Alex were standing there, having their first dance? Then she’d be alone for real. Molly would be building a life for herself and Alex. Yes, Liz would have Isabella, but she would essentially be on her own.
Her palms grew cold, and she closed her eyes. No. She would not do this here. What was with her anyhow? She’d never dealt with a panic attack a day in her life before the night she’d found out she was pregnant. She’d had a small break from them during pregnancy and now? Well, now she felt like she should be in a mental hospital.
The voice of the DJ startled her out of her racing thoughts. “The bride and groom would love for their guests to join them.”
And that was her cue to step back and head —
Her back slammed into something solid. Glancing over her shoulder her gaze met Matt’s grin.
Oh.
She hadn’t backed into something. She’d backed into someone.
“Where are you going?”
“Home.”
“You’re not leaving before you dance with me, are you?”
“Uh. No.” She raised her hand and took a step away from him. “I don’t dance.”
“So?” He shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t either. We’ll just fake it. Plus, you owe me.”
“I owe you?” She turned toward him, raised an eyebrow. “For what?”
His smile widened. “I delivered your daughter.”
She rolled her eyes and turned her back on him. “Wipe that grin off your face, McGee.”
He stepped toward her, and his breath tickled the back of her neck. “Come on, Liz. This is your first time out since Bella’s been born. Have a little fun.”
Liz brushed her hand across the back of her neck, then held it there, warmth spreading across her skin. She closed her eyes. “McGee, come on. I don’t dance, okay?”
His breath was warm against her ear. “Just one, then you can go. I promise.”
He stepped in front of her and held his hand out. She pulled her lower lip between her teeth, studying him for a few seconds before laying her hand in his and letting him tug her a few steps forward to the edge of the makeshift dance floor. She really didn’t dance. Never had, never had wanted to. What was she doing agreeing to this?
Where did she even put her hands?
She tried to remember all those romantic Hallmark movies she’d watched over the years and laid one hand on his shoulder while he held the other. He slid his other arm around her side and laid his hand against her lower back.
She couldn’t lie.
It felt awkward.
The way she was standing.
How he was holding her.
She felt like she was dancing with her brother if she’d had one.
But then the dynamics shifted as his hand slid to the curve of her lower back and he gently pulled her toward him. It was a different kind of awkward now. She and Matt had known each other on an acquaintance level in high school. They’d been on a couple of dates in the last two years, had sat next to each other on movie nights when Molly, Alex, Jason, and Ellie all piled into her and Molly’s tiny apartment, and for goodness sake, he’d delivered her baby. She didn’t know how to feel about how close they were standing to each other now, but she knew her body was firing off warnings all over the place. Her cheeks were warm, her hands were clammy, her breath had quickened and she could barely hear the music over the thumping rhythm of her heartbeat.
He smiled and her chest tightened.
How had she never noticed the tiny freckle right above his left eye? Or how long and dark his eyelashes were? Or how amazing his aftershave smelled? Or was it cologne? She wasn’t even sure. Maybe he only wore cologne on special occasions, so that’s why she’d never noticed. Maybe she’d simply been too self-focused in the past to notice all these things.
No, not maybe. She had been.
Now, though, here she was looking right at him after he’d pulled her closer and she was finding it hard to look away.
No wonder all the women in town swooned when he walked into the diner or held a door open for them at church. She’d even heard stories of one for two women needing to fan themselves with their speeding tickets after he pulled them over.
“Doing okay?”
She nodded slowly, pulling her gaze from his, glancing over his shoulder where she caught Molly watching her with a smile. Or was it a smirk? Liz scowled at her, and Molly laughed, her arms around Alex’s neck as they swayed to the music too.
“Okay, we should stop.” She tried to pull away, but Matt pulled her back in. “Matt. Come on. I’m not a dancer.”
He shrugged a shoulder. “Neither am I, or most of the people here. Let’s fake it.”
The music from the DJ’s sound system switched to a new song. The singer was singing, “I’m going to love you forever and ever, amen.”
Liz’s gaze flicked around the tent, even more, self-conscious as she thought she saw Ellie’s sister Judi whisper something to one of Jason’s cousins.
She leaned her forehead against Matt’s shoulder, lowering her voice. “This should get the tongues wagging.”
“Let them wag. We’ve got more important things to focus on in our worlds. I’ve got the academy to think about and you’ve got a little girl to focus on. What others think of us, doesn’t matter.”
There he went again. Being practical. Logical. Totally right.
As the dance continued Liz felt her knees weakening and she knew it wasn’t because Matt’s other hand had moved to her waist.
Not now. Not here. Please.

Extra Thursday Fiction: Quarantined Chapters 8 & 9

A little update on Extra Fiction Thursday: after I finish this particular series, I will probably be retiring the extra fiction Thursday and returning to fiction only on Fridays. About today’s chapters: one of these chapters will feature some marital romance. For some readers of clean fiction this “romance” may seem a bit too suggestive, but I feel it’s important to this story to show that passion does and can exist within the bonds of marriage, even in a marriage where the couple has been married a long time. The scene will not include graphic sex, of course (sorry to disappoint those who like reading that. Ha!) but there will definitely be some suggestive sections that won’t be vague about what’sgoing to happen next.

The synopsis of the story: Liam and Maddie Grant are set to sign divorce papers when Liam comes home to tell Maddie he’s been exposed to a new virus that is shutting down the country and part of the world. Now the couple is quarantined in their home and have to face the issues that split them apart and decide if they want to sign the divorce papers or stay together. Across the city, Liam’s brother United States Senator Matthew Grant is quarantined with his wife and children, as well, wondering if his marriage could end up on the same path as his brothers. Matthew also finds himself spending his time in quarantine reflecting on his time as senator and his upcoming re-election campaign.

To catch up on the rest of this story click HERE.


Chapter 8

When the sounds of cartoons filtered through his dreams, Matt knew he had fallen asleep on the living room couch again. He’d been up late, thinking, praying, writing down thoughts he wanted to share with John and Liam when they got back into the office. He’d leaned his head back to think about some projects he knew needed tackling when the Senate was back in session again and then — well, he’d woken up here, in the corner of the sectional with children strewn around him eating cereal out of bowls, toys and comic books spread out on the carpet.

“Hey, Dad,” Tyler mumbled around a mouthful of corn flakes. “Sleep well?”

Matt squinted into the sunlight pouring through the window behind the TV, holding his hand up to block it as he struggled to sit up.

“Um, yeah,” he said hoarsely. “I think so. I don’t know. I don’t even remember falling asleep actually.”

He stood slowly, the pull in his upper back bringing a grimace.

“Where’s your mom?”

“She’s in the bathroom crying,” Lauren said cheerfully. “And her hair looks all funny.”

Matt rubbed his eyes with both hands, willing the heaviness of sleep to leave them. “What? Why is she crying?”

Tyler shrugged, his eyes glued to the cartoon on the TV. “Probably because her hair looks funny.”

“How does it look funny?”

Tyler shrugged, looking at the TV. “I don’t know. Lauren said it looked funny. I don’t want to know so I’m not going to look.”

Matt sighed and stepped over the toys and comic books on his way toward the stairs. “Guys, pick up this mess, okay? If your mom is already crying, she’s going to be crying more when she sees all this.”

Lauren was right. He could see Cassie through a small opening in the bathroom door, sitting on the floor by the tub, crying. Her hair was slicked down across her head, orange colored strands hanging down in front of her face.

“Cassie? What’s going on?”

“Oh! I thought you were still asleep.”

“I woke up and asked where you were. You okay? And what happened to your hair?”

Cassie held up an empty plastic bottle and box of hair dye. “This is what happened.”

“You’re dying your hair? Why?”

Fresh tears poured down Cassie’s cheeks. Her words flowed out of her fast, furious, mixed in between sobs. “I don’t know. Why not? I can’t leave the house to get my hair done and there are all these gray hairs sprouting up in the middle of my head and I wanted to do something to hide them because I don’t want to be old, Matt. But I am old. I’m old and I don’t know how I got here. I’m old and I have stretch marks and you deserve better than this old, run down, fat woman with gray hair who now has orange hair because she was trying to transform from brunette to auburn.”

Matt stared at his crying wife, bleary-eyed, wishing he’d grabbed a cup of coffee before he’d made the journey up the stairs. Liam had been right. It was obvious that even though Cassie had appeared “fine” she was absolutely “not fine.”

Guilt settled in his chest like a heavy stone at the bottom of a lake. Why hadn’t he asked before this if she was okay? If she was really okay?

He drew a deep breath to try to clear the cobwebs of sleep from his mind before he spoke. There were a few times a man shouldn’t speak. One was when they were drunk. Two was when their wife was drunk. Three was when either of them were half asleep. He knew there were many other times but right now he was half asleep and he was afraid to talk and say something wrong. He had to say something, though. He couldn’t simply leave his wife in the middle of the bathroom floor believing she was old, fat and — what else had she called herself? Oh right. Run down.

His knee groaned in protest as he kneeled next to her. To take the weight off of it he slid down on his butt and said cross legged. He didn’t think his wife was old but at that moment, with his aching knees and sore back, he certainly felt old.

“Cassie, hon’ where did you get the idea that you are old or run down?”

“It’s not an idea, it’s a fact.” She choked back a sob. “I don’t know why I was so stupid. I just thought if I could change my hair a little, maybe it would help me feel better, make me feel less…blah. I don’t know.”

He slid his arm around her shoulders, hugged her sideways against him.

“Oh, Cas. I love you. You feel blah because you’re stuck in this house with your preoccupied, self-centered husband with no outlet for your creativity and extrovert personality. There is nothing wrong with you. All this being forced to stay at home has been hard on all of us. I know it’s hard on me too, but we’ve needed this slow down, this wake-up call to what we’ve been missing out on while we were working so hard to . . . I don’t know. Work so hard.”

She sniffed, reaching for the toilet paper roll, ripping a piece off and blowing her nose.

“I just wanted to look nice for you,” she whispered.

He looked down at her, pushing the wet strands of hair from her face. “Cassie, you always look nice for me. I’m sorry it’s been so long since I told you that.”

“It’s okay.” She wiped her eyes. “You’ve been —”

“Being busy is no excuse,” Matt interrupted. “I should have been just as busy showing you and the kids how much I love you.”

He lifted a strand of her hair and studied it. “You know, I think I’ll like having a wife with red hair.”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s orange. My hair is going to be orange.”

Picking up the almost empty bottle of hair dye, Matt smiled. “Come on. Let’s finish squirting this in your hair, do whatever we’re supposed to do to let the color get in there, wash it out and see what happens. This could be a lot of fun and what we need right now is some fun. Okay?”

Shelaughed through the tears. “Okay. I guess.”

“I’ll help you finish this up and then why don’t I convince Tyler to watch the girls tonight in the downstairs den. They can have one of those frozen pizzas that came in the grocery delivery. I’ll whip up a delicious dinner for us and we can eat out on the patio, underneath the stars. What do you say? Let me pamper you tonight.”

“I say, ‘let’s hurry up and get this hair done so you can make me dinner and rub my feet tonight,’” Cassie said with a laugh.

Matt narrowed his eyes. “Wait a minute. When did I say I would rub your —”

“Well, you said pampering. I just thought I’d give you a suggestion on how.”

Matt smirked and shook his head. “Okay, lady, you win. I’ll rub your feet, but don’t expect me to feed you grapes.”

Cassie leaned over to kiss his cheek. “Oh, no, never grapes. But you can feed me chocolate covered strawberries.”

Matt laughed. “Yes, ma’am.”

***

It was yet another morning since the quarantine had started that Liam woke up disoriented, but this time there was a woman in his bed, and he was relieved to see that the woman was his wife.

After gently sliding himself away from Maddie, making sure her head shifted softly onto the pillow, he sat up, rubbing his hands over his face. Glancing behind him he looked at Maddie still asleep, her hair splayed out around her head on the pillow. He couldn’t stop the smile that tugged at his lips as he watched her sleep. They may not have been in love like they used to be, but she was still beautiful.

His eyes made a path from her closed eyes, down her nose, across her soft lips (slightly parted) her throat (exposed by how her head was tipped back slightly) continuing across her chest and stomach, hips and legs. He hadn’t taken the time to look at his wife in this way for a long time. He realized now that he’d certainly been missing out. He also now realized how much he wished his hands could take the same journey his eyes were taking; how he wished he could gather her close like he had so many times in their marriage and make all the bad years, all the hurts they’d inflicted on each other go away.

Liam forced himself to look away, walking toward the kitchen in search of a cup of coffee. He needed to clear his head. They were as good as divorced. Why was he thinking about her this way now? There was no turning back. They’d fallen apart. They weren’t seeing eye-to-eye, they’d hurt each other too many times and besides, the divorce was what she had wanted, what she still wanted.

Something Pastor Josh had said at their wedding popped into his mind as he filled a filter with coffee beans he had ground the night before.

“A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”

It was from the Bible. Leviticus? No, maybe it was Ecclesiastes. Liam couldn’t remember. What he could remember was that Pastor Josh had said it while laying his hand over his and Maddie’s hands, which were intertwined as they stood at the front of the church, their friends and family looking on.

Pastor Josh looped the rope around their wrist and hands, binding them together. “These three strands of rope signify that today Liam and Maddie don’t only need each other in their marriage. They need to be unified with God to help them on the tough days and even on the easy days. Today Maddie and Liam make a covenant before all of you to face the trials marriage may bring with the help of God, the other person in their marriage; the only person who can truly bring them through.”

The Keurig breathed out a hushed whoosh, a comforting sound as he waited for the coffee to begin dripping into his cup. He leaned on the counter top, propping his chin on his elbow.

When had he and Maddie let go of that third strand? When had they let go of God and pushed him from their marriage? Maybe it wasn’t so much that they’d pushed God away but that they’d forgotten he was even there. After the last miscarriage Liam’s anger toward God had consumed him to the point he didn’t want to talk about God or to God.

He hadn’t spoken to God since they’d lowered that tiny box in the ground after the last miscarriage. He’d always been afraid what God might say back.

Why bother? he had often thought since the baby’s loss. God’s not there. If he was your little girl and all those other babies would be here today in your arms and not in a grave in the ground.

Lately, though, Liam had been aching for the days he had trusted God, no matter what, no matter how hard life had become. He had trusted God when his dad had been diagnosed with cancer, when his mom had been in that car accident and they thought she’d never wake up again. Each time, though, those outcomes had been good. His dad’s cancer had been cured by surgery and radiation. He’d been in remission for ten years now. His mom woke up and while it was a long road to recovery, she was doing well and most days it was as if the accident never happened.

It was when the outcomes had been bad that Liam had really struggled. He had believed then that God had abandoned him, had walked away from him during the trials. Maybe, though, during those trials God had actually been closer to him than any other time.

He let out a long breath. He hadn’t prayed — really prayed — in years. Almost all of his prayers in recent years had been quick utterances like “God, please let me get to this meeting on time” or “God, be with so-and-so in their difficult time.” He wasn’t even sure if he knew how to pray anymore.

“God,” he whispered, his hands on the counter, his eyes closed. “How do I trust you even when the outcome isn’t what I wanted? Show me. Please. And show me how to accept that Maddie doesn’t want this anymore, doesn’t want me,” his voice cracked with emotion. “anymore. Help me through this. I know I don’t deserve your help, but I’m asking for it anyhow.”

Liam swiped the back of his hand across his cheek to wipe away tears he hadn’t expected.

The isolation must be really getting to me. I’m a grown man standing in my kitchen crying.

He had to admit though, the tears, and the prayer, had been therapeutic.

Yes, he’d just prayed for the first time in maybe four years and yes, he might still not find the answers he was seeking, but he felt different, liberated somehow. Somehow, he felt that no matter what happened between him and Maddie, he was going to be okay and so was she.

He walked back toward the bedroom as the coffee brewed and leaned against the door frame. Maddie had curled up on her side, pulled the covers up around her shoulders.

Reddish blond strands were draped across her face and her mouth was about the only part of her visible. He laughed softly at the sight of her, looking almost like a child refusing to get out of bed and greet the day. She never was a morning person, unlike him.

He remembered well that first week they’d been married, after the honeymoon, and how he’d jumped out of bed, made her breakfast and carried it into the bedroom, proud of his efforts. She was buried under the covers, her head completely covered. He had lifted a corner of the comforter and saw her in a fetal position, her hair a mess, but her face beautiful and peaceful. That peaceful look changed when he asked her if she was ready for breakfast. Her beautiful face scrunched up and she somehow curled her body tighter into a fetal position and mumbled something about “sleep” “morning” and “five more minutes.”

She’d eventually woken up and eaten her breakfast half asleep but as the years passed the grumpy mornings and been a bit less romantic and a little more confrontational.

“I know I have to get up for work, Liam!” she shouted more than once, tossing a pillow across the room at him.

But he’d laughed at most of the confrontations, ducking the pillow and sometimes even tossing it back. There were some mornings he returned the pillow by walking it across the room, sitting on the edge of the bed, and trailing his finger tip from the bottom edge of her nightgown, down her leg, hoping she’d wake up and start both of their mornings off right.

The ringtone from his phone startled him from his thoughts and he lunged across the room and snatched it quickly from the bedside table so it wouldn’t wake Maddie. He walked into the living room before answering it.

“Liam”

“Yeah, Tony. Hey.”

He hadn’t expected to hear from his lawyer after being told signing the paperwork would have to wait for two weeks at the earliest.

“You guys hanging in there?”

“As best as can be expected under the circumstances.”

“I know that not being able to sign the paperwork has probably been weighing on you, so I wanted to let you know that we’ve decided that as long as everyone agrees to wear masks, we can sign the papers at the end of this week. Would that work?”

Liam swallowed hard and looked down the hallway. “Um..yeah. Let me ask Maddie if that works for her.”

Tony chuckled. “How’s that been working out?”

Liam winced then laughed softly. “It’s been interesting to say the least.”

“Well, not much longer, buddy. We’ll get these papers signed and get you into your own place as soon as your quarantine is over. Any word on your test yet?”

“No. Not yet. I’m going to be calling the doctor later today to find out what the delay is.”

“Okay, well, keep me updated. If Maddie agrees I’ll clear it with her attorney this afternoon.”

After thanking Tony and saying goodbye, Liam reached for the coffee mug, stirring in cream and sugar. Walking quietly down the hall he peaked into the spare room. The bed was empty and he could hear the shower in the bathroom at the end of the hall. He looked at the empty bed again, an ache spreading across chest as he remembered the feel of her against him the night before.

Back in the kitchen he started breakfast and sipped the coffee. He was plating eggs and bacon and putting another slice of toast in the toaster when he heard the bathroom door open and bare feet against the floor in the hallway.

He would miss the sound of Maddie’s feet in the hallway when the divorce was final.

He noticed a tremble in his hand as he set the mug on the counter. His heart was pounding faster, his breath quickening as he pictured himself signing the papers. He closed his eyes tight against the image, rubbing his hand through his hair as if he could rub it from his mind.

Dear God.

A cold chill slithered through his arms and legs at the same time a piercing ring squealed in his ears. Pain clutched at his chest and gnawing nausea swelled in the pit of his stomach. Touching a hand to his forehead he felt sweat beading there. He tried to draw in a deep breath but it caught there.  

What was going on?

Could it be the virus?

He straightened himself and held his hand out in front of him, his breaths quick, yet shallow. His hand shook violently. Clenching it into a fist he willed the shaking to stop.

His mind raced to make sense of what was happening as he stumbled back against the refrigerator, sliding down it to the cool, gray linoleum. He struggled to drag air into his lungs and blackness encroached across his vision. Even before his head hit the floor, he had completely lost consciousness.

Chapter 9

The children had been ushered upstairs into their parent’s bedroom with pizza, cookies, juice and child-appropriate movies. Matt was in the kitchen cooking dinner and Cassie didn’t have anything to do other than wait. She rubbed her hands together and then ran her hands down her arms, bouncing her foot as she sat in the recliner in the living room. She was too restless to sit and wait. She stepped into the dining room and pulled two candles out of a drawer in the bottom of the china cabinet, placing them in the center of the table.

 A rush of butterflies slid up from her toes and throughout her limbs as she lit the candles, but she couldn’t figure out why. She was simply having dinner with her husband. Her husband of 15-years. The one person, except her mother, who knew her better than anyone.

She had no reason to be nervous. She looked at her hands, saw they were trembling and closed them tight into a fist. Good grief, why was she so nervous? Maybe because this was the first date, so to speak, that she and Matt had had in probably three years. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, holding her hands against her chest.

And maybe because she needed to tell Matt something she’d wanted to tell him for a month now and she wasn’t sure how he’d respond when she did.

“Dinner is served,” Matt announced, entering the dining room with two plates full of food in his hands.

He laid the plates on the table at empty places next to wine glasses full of ginger ale and gestured for her to sit down.

“Nice touch on the candles,” he said with a smile as they sat.

Good grief, she was still shaking. “Well, I thought it would give us a romantic touch.”

Romance. Something they’d had here and there over the last few years, but not very often. And now here they were, able to be romantic and instead her stomach was in knots and her mind was racing.

Her anxiety faded slowly as she noticed Matt had pulled on a well-fitting blue polo shirt, a pair of snug blue jeans and had even shaven off his four-day stubble. She studied his masculine jawline as he sipped the ginger ale and her heart raced faster as she remembered how many times she’d kissed that jawline on her way to his mouth.

“You okay?” he asked after they’d discussed what movies the kids were watching, what snacks they’d given them, and were halfway through their meal.

“Yes, but I’m nervous,” she confessed. “And I don’t know why.”

She did know why. She simply couldn’t say why. Not yet anyhow.

“Maybe because we’ve barely been alone in months,” Matt said with a laugh.

Cassie winked. “More like years.”

Matt bit his lower lip, watching her as she cut her seasoned chicken into smaller pieces.

“Yeah. It has been years, hasn’t it?”

The warmth of his hand over hers brought her gaze to his. “Cassie, I’m sorry.”

His voice was soft.

Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Why? Dinner is wonderful. I wish I had known you could cook this well or I would have had you cooking more often.”

He shook his head. “No, not that. I’m sorry for everything. For dragging you into this crazy world of politics. For neglecting you and the kids. For focusing on my job so much I lost sight of your needs.”

“Matt, I’m okay, really I —”

“Are you really? Because you always say you’re fine, but I’m worried that you aren’t actually fine.”

Cassie let out a deep breath and smiled. “Well, no, I’m not totally fine. I’m nervous about all of this stuff going on on. I’m nervous about one of us getting sick. I’m nervous about . . .” She rubbed her fingers along the top of the table. “the election and what it will mean for our family if you win again.”

Matt laid his fork down and leaned back in his chair. “I’m worried about it too, to be honest. I’ve been trying to decide if I am doing the right thing running for re-election.” He propped his elbows on the table and pressed his fingers together, tapping the tips of them against his mouth.

“But,” he said finally. “I think, in the end, it’s the right thing to do. We’ve accomplished a lot in our six years here and I know there is more we can accomplish, even if we can’t pass laws. There are other initiatives my influence in the senate can help support and push forward.”

Cassie swallowed a piece of chicken and nodded. “Right. Those are good points.”

“You don’t feel the same, do you?”

“Oh, no, I do. It’s just . . . Well, all of this has put a lot of strain on our family.”

Matt nodded thoughtfully and took a bite of roasted potato. “It has, I know, but there have been good times too. I’m not traveling across the country when sessions are over. We are all here together in the city. That’s at least a couple good things.”

Cassie hadn’t expected to feel such crushing disappointment that Matt wanted to continue his re-election campaign. She knew he was excited about the chance to serve another term; they’d discussed it before. Somehow, though, she had hoped these last two weeks at home had shown him what he’d been missing out on for the sake of his job. She remembered what she had decided a couple of days ago, though. Matt needed more of her and that included more of her support. She’d support him, no matter what, knowing that they would be in it together.

Their conversation moved to less serious topics. The weather, the latest book by their favorite Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias, and what movie they could watch later.

Cassie finished her last bite of chicken and stood. “I should wash up before the kids start running down here asking for snacks.”

He followed her to the kitchen. “Cassie, I’m sorry about the whole election conversation. Did I dismiss you too quickly? We can talk about this more. I didn’t mean to —”

“Matt, it’s fine. I’m not upset. I knew you wanted to run for re-election and I’m here to support you no matter what.”

He stood next to her and handed her his plate. “You don’t have to say you are okay with this if you’re not.”

“But I am okay with this. If you feel what this is right then —”

Matt placed his hands on her shoulders, still behind her. “Cassie, this isn’t just about what I think is right. This has to be what we both want.”

Cassie turned the water on in the sink and added dish soap. “It isn’t that I don’t want it, Matt. I’m just nervous. That’s all. With everything going on in the world, it’s just making me more nervous right now. When things settle down, I’ll feel calmer.”

She turned toward him, forcing a smile. “We’re in this together. It’s all going to be fine.”

He kissed her mouth quickly. “Let’s not talk about this right now, okay? This is a night to relax, not stress. We can talk about this some more tomorrow. I’ll help you wash the dishes and then we can pick out a movie.”

Cassie nodded and turned back to face the sink. “Now, that sounds like a plan. Just no Die Hard.”

“No Die Hard? But that’s a totally relaxing movie. And there’s even romance.”

Cassie rolled her eyes.

Matt laughed and stepped behind her, reaching over her shoulder and picking up the pre-rinse sprayer next to the faucet. He pulled it out, examining it. “Do we ever use this thing?”

“I do sometimes, but no, not a lot really.”

“How does it even wo —”

Matt pushed the small button on the back and a spray of water shot from it, striking Cassie in the face.

“Oh my gosh! Cassie! I’m so sorry!”

He snatched a dishtowel from the counter, patting her face dry as she sputtered.

She laughed as she took the towel and finished wiping her face. “Usually you point it toward the dirty dishes, Matt.”

He bit his lower lip, trying not to laugh. “I’m sorry,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t know that button worked so well.”

Cassie snatched the sprayer from him, pointed it toward him and pushed the button, soaking the front of his shirt. “You mean like that?”

Matt’s eyebrows raised, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Um..yeah. Like that.”

He reached for the sprayer, but Cassie leaned away from him. “Oh, no you don’t.”

“What?” he asked, feigning innocence. “I just thought I’d put it back for you.”

“Oh really? I think I can handle that.”

Matt wrapped his hand around Cassie’s as she attempted to lean over the counter and slide the sprayer back into its place.

“Matt. . .”

“Yes?”

They both began laughing as a small struggle ensued and more water sprayed up, covering them both.

“Ah, man, looks like you’re a little wet, Mrs. Grant,” Matt said, his eyes traveling down the shirt clinging to his wife’s chest. “Maybe you need to get out of those clothes and dry off.”

Cassie smirked, letting go of the sprayer. “Very sly, Mr. Grant. Very sly.”

Matt’s smile was broad as he cupped his hand against his wife’s face, tracing her bottom lip with the palm of his thumb. Cassie’s eyes drifted to her husband’s mouth and she hoped he was about to kiss her the way he used to kiss her, before the stress of life made their romantic moments rushed and infrequent.

The ringing of Matt’s cellphone startled them both, but Matt didn’t move away. “It can go to voicemail,” he said softly.

“That’s Liam’s ringtone isn’t it?”

Matt laughed softly as the theme song from Iron Man blared from across the kitchen. “Yeah, but he can’t wait.”

Cassie glanced at the phone as the ringing stopped but then started again almost immediately. “I don’t know. Maybe you’d better check on him, see if he and Maddie are okay? I can go get changed into something more comfortable, check on the kids, and then we can pick up where we left off when I get back.”

Matt sighed, his hand slipping from her face, down her arm and grazing her hip as he lowered it. “Yeah. Okay. But don’t take too long, okay? And bring me a dry shirt, will you?”

Cassie kissed his cheek softly. “No problem. Talk fast.”

“Liam, you have horrible timing,” Matt told his brother when he picked up the phone.

He walked onto the back patio and sat on a fold out lawn chair, leaning back.

Liam wasn’t laughing, though.

His voice was strained.

“Matt. I need to talk.”

“What’s going on? You don’t sound right.”

“I’m in the ER.”

Matt sat up on the edge of the lawn chair, his heart pounding.

“Are you having trouble breathing?”

“Yes, or I was. But it isn’t the virus.

“Then what —”

“Maddie found me on the floor in the kitchen this morning. I had blacked out and was bleeding from my head. She called an ambulance, but they wouldn’t let her ride with me. Something about new protocols with the virus.”

Matt’s eyebrows raised. “What in the world happened? You’re there alone?”

“Yeah and the doctor just left the exam room. All the tests are clear. And I’m negative for the virus. He said I had a panic attack. I’m just waiting to be discharged.”

“A panic attack? Why? What’s going on? Did something trigger it?”

Did Maddie try to kill you? No, Matt, don’t ask him that.

“I was thinking of signing divorce papers right before I hit the floor. Tony called this morning and said we could come in Friday to finalize the paperwork.”

Matt’s concern faded to amusement, though he didn’t want his brother to know that. Even though Liam couldn’t see him he hid a grin behind his hand instinctively.

 He cleared his throat, doing his best to sound sober and concerned. “Oh. Okay. Well, what do you think that means?”

Liam groaned into the phone. “Shut up, Matt. You know what it means.”

Matt smothered a laugh behind his hand. “Do I? Maybe you should tell me what it means.”

“Stop gloating. I know you’re enjoying my misery.”

“Enjoying your misery? I’m just glad that you’re taking time to think through this and work through your feelings, little bro.” He laughed softly. “But I would say that if you can’t handle thinking of signing divorce papers without hyperventilating, it might mean you don’t want this divorce.”

“Yeah, I got that, Matt.” Liam sighed. “But now what do I do? Maddie wants this divorce.”

“Does she?”

“Yeah. She’s the one who asked for it, so I know she wants it.”

Matt shrugged. “Maybe she thought you wanted it.”

During the silence from the other end of the phone Matt heard Cassie’s footsteps in the kitchen.

“I have to go,” Liam said finally. “I’ll call you back later, okay?”

Matt turned to watch Cassie open the patio door and walk toward him. “Okay, but a lot later.”

“Huh?”

“I said call back a lot later. The kids are upstairs watching movies. Cassie and I are downstairs. Alone.”

“Wha — Oh. I see. Well, good luck, big bro.”

“Thanks.” Cassie tied her dark blue robe closed at the front. “The same to you. How are you getting home? Maddie coming to get you?”

“No. I’m calling a taxi. Maddie managed to get my wallet to me before the ambulance pulled out. I can’t believe I’ve been here all day being tested. Anyhow, Maddie’s been texting me. I’m going to let her know I’m on my way home.”

The brothers said their goodbyes and Matt slide his finger over the end button and then flicking the silent mode before he laid it face down on the floor of the patio.

Cassie tossed Matt a white T-shirt and he caught it with one hand. “Is he okay? What did you mean about how he was getting home?”

“He’s in the ER.”

“Oh my gosh! What happened? Did the doctor confirm his diagnosis?”

“He’s negative. It’s not the virus. It’s the divorce. The doctor said he was having a panic attack”

Cassie sat on the edge of the lawn chair, next to him. “Oh wow. It’s finally hit him, hasn’t it?”

Matt nodded. “He doesn’t want this divorce.”

Cassie tipped her head back and sighed. “Yes! I’ve been hoping one of them would come to their senses.”

“Me too. I’ll give him a call later and see how it’s going. How are the kids?”

“They’re asleep.”

Matt laughed and shook his head. “Really? This early? You mean all it takes to get them to sleep is putting a movie on and tossing them into our bed? I wish we’d known that before.”

Matt pushed Cassie’s hair back from her neck, leaned forward and kissed the skin he exposed. He pulled back and looked at her with a smile. “Well, then, I guess we can pick up where we left off before my brother interrupted us.”

She focused on the warmth of his mouth against her skin, a contented smile pulling her mouth upward. Moving herself until she was sitting across his lap, one leg on each side of him, she slid her hands in his hair as he continued to kiss her neck, closing her eyes.

Both of his hands slid up her legs slowly, tenderly, toward her back as his mouth trailed along the nape of her neck. A rush of intoxicating desire exploded in his chest when his hands met bare skin where he thought he’d find cotton. He pulled back and looked at her with wide eyes.

“I do believe you’re not wearing anything underneath this robe, Mrs. Grant.”

“Oh, Mr. Grant how astute of you to notice. I see you haven’t lost all of your observational skills after all these years.”

A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as his hands continued the journey across her skin, up her back, across her front, pulling open the robe a little more as he pressed his lips to hers.

“Should we retire to the boudoir, my lady?” he asked hoarsely a few moments later, his body pulsating with a mounting need to feel her – all of her – against him.

His heart raced at her breath hot against his ear, her two-word answer sending him over the edge. “Yes, please.”

His heart sank at his next thought. “The kids are in our room. Asleep.”

“Oh.” She pushed her lower lip out.

He pulled her robe closed and jerked his head to one side. “Come on, follow me. I’ve got an idea.”

She stood slowly. “Matt. . .”

“Trust me.”

He tightened his hand around hers and tugged at her arm. When he opened the door to the garage she pulled back. “Matt. What in the wo—”

He turned toward her before she could say anything else, pulling her into the garage and covering her mouth with his. Sliding his hands down her back, he placed them on either side of her waist, lifting her onto the hood of the black BMW he’d bought when he’d landed that first big job as an attorney all those years ago.

He unhooked her robe, letting it fall open. She gasped as kissed her throat, her neck and then gently nibbled on her earlobe, his hands sliding down her bare back.

“We’re going to dent the hood of this car,” Cassie whispered against his ear.

“It’s just a car, Cassie,” Matt answered, sliding his arms behind her and pulling her against him. “Being with you is much more important than a car.”

Closing her eyes, lost in the caresses of her husband’s mouth and hands Cassie forgot about what she’d been nervous about before. She knew she’d have to talk to him eventually, but it could wait. She slid her hands up his now bare back. Oh, yes. It could wait.

Extra Fiction Thursday: Quarantined, a novella, Chapter 6 and 7

*Warning: This week’s chapter deals with the topic of miscarriage.

Normal disclaimer: The fiction I share here is not usually the final draft. It also isn’t normally the first draft. Either way, it is edited and rewritten before the final “publication” as an ebook on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

If you’d like to catch up on the story you can do so HERE.

I welcome feedback, suggestions and corrections.


Chapter 6

The bundle in Maddie’s arms, swaddled in a blue and white hospital blanket, had been so tiny, motionless. Liam wanted to run out of the room and never look back, but he knew he couldn’t. That was his baby in there, in  his wife’s arms; his baby who hadn’t lived. His legs felt like lead weights as he stepped across the room, nodding at the nurse who looked at him with concern and compassion, tears in her eyes.

The nurse’s hand on his shoulder was warm as he moved to stand next to the bed, looking down at Maddie. Eyes still on the small, lifeless face peeking out from the blanket, Liam sat next to his wife, sliding his arm around her as she cried. Maddie’s hair was soft against his face as he buried it there to try to hold the tears in.

“I thought it would be different this time,” she said through the tears. “I thought this time we’d make it.”

The three other miscarriages had been early in the pregnancies and one of them had been what the doctor’s called a blighted ovum – an empty sac, or a baby that never grew enough to be picked up by the ultrasound.

Liam kissed the top of Maddie’s head and closed his eyes. “I know, Maddie. I know. Me too.”

And he had thought they’d be bringing a baby home. The nursery had been ready, the baby clothes purchased, the crib set up. When the doctor told them that the placenta had ruptured and the baby wasn’t going to survive Liam’s ears had started ringing. When he learned Maddie might be lost too, colorful lights mixed with blackness faded across his vision.

A deep breath and a head shake had kept him from hitting the ground, but the doctor still took three long steps toward him and grabbed his arm to steady him.

“Please, Mr. Grant. Sit. We’re going to do everything we can to save your wife.”

In the midst of grief was joy that Maddie had survived; that even if he couldn’t carry a baby home with him, he still had Maddie. Sitting in the dimly lit den in the back of the house, he chewed at the nail on his thumb as he remembered that horrible day and the days that followed.

There was no denying those first few months had been beyond difficult. Maddie was stoic most days, angry others. Then there were the days she spent sobbing almost uncontrollably behind the closed bedroom door, unable to get out of bed and face life, or even face him. He comforted Maddie as best as he could, tried to be gentle, tried to understand her grief and most of all he tried not to burden her with his own grief.

He had to be strong for her. She wasn’t capable of helping him heal when she couldn’t heal herself; he knew that. He also knew he should have relied more on God to heal them both, but he was angry at God; furious that God had not only let him down, but most of all that he had let Maddie down.

All Maddie had ever wanted was to be a mother. Blow after crushing blow eviscerated that dream.

Liam blamed God.

He had been raised to believe God wanted his people to prosper not suffer, that he loved them. If that was true, then why had this so-called compassionate God let Maddie suffer so much and so often?

After the loss of the baby, who he and Maddie named Abrielle, Liam buried himself in work at the public relations firm he’d been employed by during that time. When he wasn’t working, he did his best to make Maddie happy — making her dinners, making sure she had quiet time, and not pressuring her to go back to work at the small magazine she’d been working at.

She was never happy, though. She didn’t want to take the medicine the therapist had suggested. She didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t answer phone calls from her parents or come out of her room for visits by Cassie or her friends. She didn’t want him to hold her and tell her it was going to be okay.

 Many days it seemed like it was him she wasn’t happy with. He finally  gave up trying to make her happy. Maybe he should haven’t have given up. Maybe if he hadn’t, she wouldn’t have wanted the divorce.

He stood from the loveseat in the den and paused at the window, looking out at the side yard, barely lit by the half moon. He rubbed his chin, biting the inside of his lip.

“I want a divorce.”

Those had been her exact words and she’d said it without even flinching, other than a small muscle jumping in her right eye, right above the small scar she’d gotten when she fell off her bike at 8-years old. Liam had used to kiss that scar, then her cheek, on his way to her mouth.

He hadn’t really wanted a divorce, but he had known in that moment it was what Maddie wanted.

She felt he’d never been there for her, that he had abandoned her.

If she felt that way, there was no changing her mind, no matter how many times he reminded her of how often he had been there.

He shook his head and drank the last of his soda down.

Maybe after the divorce, they would find the healing and peace neither of them could find when they were together.

***

Maddie poured herself a glass of milk and squeezed in a large helping of chocolate syrup. She knew it wasn’t right, but during stressful times she reached for comfort food and that comfort food was usually full of fat and sugar.

Walking to the back deck she flopped in a lawn chair and guzzled the milk, looking out at an empty backyard, a backyard she had once thought would house a swing set, a tiny kiddie pool, and a sandbox.

She could still remember the conversation she’d had with Cassie after the loss of Abrielle.

“What is wrong with my body? Women’s bodies are supposed to grow babies! It’s natural! That’s what all the books say! I guess I’m just not natural.”

Cassie — beautiful, sweet and fertile Cassie, pregnant with baby number three — shook her head and reached out to take her hand.

“Maddie, that isn’t true. There isn’t anything wrong with you. If there is a medical reason you can’t carry a baby to term the doctors will find it. Having a medical reason for the miscarriages doesn’t mean you’re not a real woman.”

Maddie had known Cassie was right, but she still struggled with toxic thoughts, thoughts that told her that her body had failed her, but more importantly, Liam. She’d seen Liam with his nieces and nephews. She knew he’d be a wonderful father and she’d wanted to make him that father. It had never happened, though, and no matter how many times someone told her it wasn’t her fault, she knew it was.

She leaned back in the lawn chair and closed her eyes against hot tears.

It was her fault Liam wasn’t a dad.

It was her fault their marriage had fallen apart.

What had happened to her? When had she become so miserable? When had she become someone that even she wouldn’t want to be around? No wonder Liam had jumped at the opportunity to divorce her.

He needed someone who had as much passion for life as he did, who wasn’t miserable and depressed and cold.

“God,” she whispered, her eyes still closed. “How did I get here, at this miserable, lonely place? Why did you abandon me here?”

A tear slipped down her cheek and she brushed it away quickly with the back of her hand, choking out a small laugh. Maybe you’re asking why I abandoned you, huh? She shook her head. I don’t know anymore, Lord.  I don’t know where I’ve been or even who I am.

She pulled her knees up to her chest, bowing her head against them, letting the tears flow.

Father, help me let Liam go, so he can be happy again.

Chapter 7

Tiny fingers and toes, pudgy arms and pudgy legs. Cassie kissed Tyler’s newborn nose, tears streaming down her face part from exhaustion but also joy.

“I can’t believe he’s here,” Matt whispered near her ear and when she turned her head, she saw that her husband’s face was streaked with tears too.

There were days it felt like Tyler had been born yesterday, not the 13-years it actually was. Thirteen years. So much had happened during that time. Two more pregnancies and two more children, her retirement from social work, Matt’s campaign. . . . How had it all gone by so fast?

There were times Cassie thought she should have done more with her life by now, but there were other times she was happy with where she was. She’d decided to send the children to a small, private Christian school the year before last when Matt’s national profile had increased. She began volunteering there regularly, helping the children at the school sign out library books or teaching them art. Best of all, she was able to see her own children throughout the day, keep an ey on them and make sure they weren’t approached by anyone from Matt’s political world. So far, the media had left the children alone, even when they hadn’t left her alone.

The story on the opinion page of the Post last year had questioned her involvement with the school. If Senator Matt Grant’s children attended a Christian school where his wife also volunteered, could he be trusted to treat all of his constituents fairly? What about the Muslim children? Or the Buddhists? Or even the Jewish?

“How will Grant’s faith influence his oath of office to represent all of his constituents?” the columnist asked.

“It won’t,” Matt told a reporter who posed the same question at a press conference a few days later. “My faith is what inspires me to care about all of my constituents. I believe God created them and called for me to love them as he has loved me and them.” He told her later he had smiled easily, winking at the reporter good-naturedly, even though inside he had felt unsettled by the question. “And you, Jim. He has called for me to love even you.”

The critics continued to squawk, though, and after that Cassie decided to no longer read or listen to the news. She tried instead to focus all her attention on her children and family. She had buried herself in volunteering, in reading, in her Bible study, in anything to try to drown the critical voices of the world out.

She was beginning to realize now, though, that she’d also drowned out Matt and her marriage, subconsciously pushing aside anything she thought might threaten her family’s safety. Pouring herself a glass of milk she leaned back against the counter and winced. Did she really think being close to Matt was a risk to their safety? If anything, being closer to him should have been a comfort in a sea of chaos.

If she had been feeling like she had been in a sea of chaos, alone on a storm-tossed ship in the middle it, then how had Matt been feeling? He’d been the one at the brunt of it, the one taking the hits and, in almost every way, the one shielding the rest of the family from the blows.

Walking into the living room, sipping the milk, she watched Matt in the backyard with the children, tossing a rubber ball between each of them. He tipped his head back and laughed when it bounced off Gracie’s forehead and she tumbled backwards, giggling. Tyler picked it up and tossed it to Lauren, who quickly dropped it, giggling too much to hold on to it.

 Lauren bent to pick it up and Matt lunged for it at the same time, snatching it from her then gently bouncing it off her forehead, sending her into another fit of giggles. Cassie couldn’t hear what they all were saying, but she knew the children were finding whatever Matt was saying funny by their laughter and wide grins.

Cassie hadn’t seen Matt this relaxed and joyful in at least two years, probably longer. She watched him as he tossed the ball, his muscles still well defined and toned after all these years, visible underneath the t-shirt pulling against his stomach as he lifted his arms to catch the ball, stop it from sailing over the fence into the neighbor’s pool.

An ache filled her chest, moved up her throat, threatened to spill tears down her face. She bit her lip, trying to hold back the emotion but it didn’t work. Tears pooled in her eyes, streaked her cheeks and she let them roll, knowing they were as full of joy as they were sadness. She was so grateful for this time with her family, with Matt, but she was also sad that she hadn’t tried to have more of it in the last couple of years.

Matt deserved so much more from her. More of her attention, more of her comfort; simply more of her. She needed to stop holding back and lower her walls. She needed to be sure she was supporting him in every facet of life.

Running for re-election may not have been something she wanted, but it was something he wanted. He was running because he felt it was not right for the people who had voted for him, but his family.

“Lord, help me to be what Matt needs me to be for him,” she whispered, wiping another tear away. “Help us to both lay down what we want for what you want. For what you need us to do in this time.”

***

On the tenth night of quarantine, still with no sign of illness, Liam headed to bed early, shutting off his phone and laptop around 10 p.m. He slid under the covers, emotionally and physically drained. He was glad, though, that he hadn’t yet experienced any coughing, muscle aches, or sore throat. His mind was racing, filled with thoughts of work, thoughts of what this virus might mean to his parents, his older aunt and uncles, and anyone else whose health might be more vulnerable.

 His thoughts were also filled with Maddie.

She was sitting in the room down the hall, but she might as well have been thousands of miles away with all the interaction they’d had this past week.

Matt was right.

Liam still loved Maddie.

Sadly, it was growing more obvious that Maddie didn’t feel the same way about him. The anger she had for him radiated off her each time they passed each other in the house. He didn’t even try talking to her. She’d spoke her piece. Her mind was made up about their marriage.

To her it was over, and he needed to accept that.

Sleep had finally begun to slip over him when he heard a soft knock on his door. He rolled over and closed his eyes tighter, ignoring it. Ignoring her. Another knock. He pulled the blanket up around his shoulders.

The door squeaked open and then footsteps, soft across the floor.

What did she want? He was too tired for another fight.

“Liam?”

Maddie’s voice was barely audible. He ignored her again.

She spoke a little louder. “Liam?”

Silence.

She sighed in the darkness and he felt, rather than saw, her turn back toward the open doorway.

He rolled his eyes. “What?”

Silence fell over the room and he heard a breath drawn in sharply and slowly let out again.

“Will you hold me?”

He rolled over, squinting in the darkness, trying to make out her face to decide if she was serious or not.

“What?”

“Just hold me. Nothing else.”

Was this some kind of trick to lull him into a false-sense of security? He squinted again, trying to see if she was holding a weapon of some kind.

“Please?”

She seemed serious.

Very.

He heard a vulnerability in her tone he hadn’t heard in a long time.

“Um . . . yeah. Okay.”

She lifted the sheet and comforter, sliding next to him, her body warm, her feet cold. Her feet had always been cold, and she’d always slid them up his legs to warm them, making him squirm but laugh at the same time. There was a time he’d asked if she needed the rest of her body warmed up too and there was a time she’d say ‘yes’ and he’d snuggled close and nibbled at her earlobes.

He wasn’t going to ask if she needed warming up this time.

Surprise opened his eyes wide as she laid her head on his shoulder, a hand on his chest over his heart and closed her eyes.

They laid in the dark listening to each other breathe until she whispered: “I tried to stay away from the news but it’s like watching a train wreck. I can’t seem to look away.”

His voice as soft. “I know.”

“People are scared.”

“Yeah.”

“They’re convinced they’re all going to die.”

“They’re not. Fear does crazy things to your mind.”

Silence settled over them again.

She laughed softly again. “Yeah. Like that time you had that spider on your arm when we were driving to my parents and you almost drove us into a river.”

Liam snorted a laugh. “Well, spiders are scary, what can I say? All those legs. . .” He shuddered. “It’s just creepy.”

Silence stretched between them again.

“Liam?”

He stared into the darkness, at the light of the streetlight bleeding in under the blinds. “Yeah?”

“If this kills one of us —”

“Maddie, this isn’t going to kill either one of us. I already told you we don’t even know if my test is positive. And most of the cases are mild, especially in our age group. We’re not in the highest risk age group. Okay?”

“But if it does . . . ” Maddie took a deep breath and spoke fast as she exhaled. “I want you to know . . . I’ve always loved you. Even when I didn’t like you.”

Liam laughed softly.

“Thanks. I guess.”

“And, Liam?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry you thought you had to fix me. Only God can fix me.”

Crickets chirped outside. A dog barked somewhere down the street. Liam closed his eyes and let out the breath he’d been holding.

 “Yeah. I know.”

He laid his hand over hers, the one laying on his chest.

“Maddie?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry you thought I didn’t care. I did care. I’ve always cared.”

He had been trying not to be aware of her body warm against his, of the smell of her shampoo, of how soft the skin on her arm as he trailed his fingertips down it, of how her closeness made his heart rate increase.

But he was aware of it.

All of it.

Much more than he wanted to be.

He slid his other arm under her and she slumped into him as he moved his hand slowly up her arm, resting it just below her shoulder. He squeezed it gently then lightly touched his lips against the top of her head, her closeness suddenly intoxicating. “I love you, Maddie. Despite it all. I love you.”

He listened to her breathe and for a moment he thought she had fallen asleep.

 “I’m so tired. . .” she whispered against his neck, her breath warm. He could tell she was fading fast.

“Sleep. We can talk more in the morning.” He looked at the ceiling, barely visible in the darkness from the orange glow of the streetlight outside. “It’s not like we’re going anywhere.”

She slept but he couldn’t. Not now with her tucked against him soft and warm, kicking his thoughts into high gear. He hadn’t expected her to come to him for comfort. He hadn’t expected it, but he welcomed it and loved having her so close, even if that closeness was only physically.

 Had she meant what she said? That she still loved him?

Maybe it had been the stress and worry talking. The exhaustion even.

The only thing he was sure of was that those words had sparked a warm, comforting fire in the center of his chest. He closed his eyes, savoring the feel of her hand over his heart, trying to switch his brain off, knowing he’d meant it when he’d told her he still loved her.

Extra Fiction Thursday: Quarantined, a novella, Chapter 5

As always, this is a work of fiction in progress. What I share on the blog is not the final draft of the novel or novella I’m working on. I reread, rewrite, and rework the stories a few times before I finally publish them on Kindle or Barnes and Noble. I also try to fix typos, plot holes, and punctuation issues in the final draft and have it proofed and edited. If you see errors in the chapters I post on the blog, feel free to send me a note on my contact form (link at the top of the page) so I can make the corrections, if I haven’t caught them aready.

Following along with the story and missed a week or want to follow along? Find the other chapters HERE.

Have some thoughts on the story itself? Let me know in the comments.

Chapter 5

Cassie climbed under the covers and flopped on her back to stare at the ceiling, moonlight cutting a square across it from the window.

What was with all of Matt’s weird questions tonight? The situation with Liam and Maddie must be rattling him even more than she realized. She rolled to her side, fluffed up her pillow, hugged it and tried to get more comfortable.

It wasn’t working.

Her mind was racing too much.

Maybe Liam and Maddie’s situation was rattling her too.

She was thinking about them and their marriage, and viruses and if her family was safe and how to get groceries if they had to shelter in place for even longer and the media and what they’d be saying for the rest of the week with Matt and his staff having still worked for a week after they knew they’d been exposed to a contagious virus and  . . . .

She squeezed her eyes shut, sucked in a deep breath, and held it for several seconds before letting it out again. She had to calm down. What was that one relaxation technique she’d heard about again? Breathe in six seconds, hold five? Or was it, breathe in seven and hold six and then let it out for the count of four or was it letting it out for the count of seven? Oh, forget it. Trying to remember the technique was making her even more anxious.

She closed her eyes and tried to focus on one worry at a time instead.

She couldn’t deny that there were days she regretted agreeing with Matt that he should run for the senate in the first place. They both had such high hopes six years ago; hopes that they could make changes for the voters who had put their faith in Matt, while not being changed themselves. But it was impossible not to be changed by the influences of Washington, D.C. Nothing in this city was like the small upstate New York town Cassie had grown up in and it was also nothing like Stevensville, Ohio where she and Matt had lived before he had been elected.

Stevensville, Ohio was small. Very small. Like everyone knows your name and your business small. It was also still her and Matt’s home in the summers when they left the city behind for much needed breaks. Only that break wouldn’t be coming this year. Not with all the craziness about viruses and quarantines and freezes on travel. Cassie wanted to cry but she was afraid to because once she started, she might not stop. She was homesick for New York and Ohio, for her own family, for Matt’s family, for the familiar she’d left behind when Matt was elected six years ago.

She sighed and opened her eyes, looking at the other side of the bed where Matt slept most nights of the week, unless he was working late and then he stayed at John’s apartment, closer to his office. She touched cool sheets, thinking of how many nights they’d laid here next to each other, back to back, rarely speaking because she knew he needed his sleep, because she knew he needed to get up early in the morning, because she didn’t want to burden him anymore than he was already burdened.

But she missed him. She missed him holding her and them talking about their future, instead of him telling her about the stress he’d been under that day and then falling into a fitful sleep. She missed his hand on her cheek as he moved closer late at night, a small, mischievous smile that signaled he wasn’t ready for sleep yet.

She missed long, slow kisses, roaming hands, but as much as the physical, she missed the emotional connection they’d once had. The connection when Matt wanted to talk with her before anyone else, when he didn’t want to make a decision unless he’d asked her, and when she’d known so much about his day, his job and his life that it was as if they were thinking like one person.

“Cassie, are you sure you’re okay with this?” he’d asked eight and a half years ago when he’d considered running for Senate.

“Yeah. I am.”

That’s what she’d said, but she really hadn’t been sure she was okay with it. She was okay with Matt wanting to help the people of his small hometown and the surrounding counties by becoming a senator from Ohio, but she wasn’t really sure she was okay with the lives of their entire family being upended. She’d given up her social worker career four years before, deciding to spend more time at home with the children. Matt’s career as a lawyer had exploded and from there he’d become involved in county politics and then state politics. When the state’s Republican party came to him and asked him to run for the senate, he’d turned them down at first. But after several meetings, a few months of consideration, and talking to Cassie, his parents, his sister and brother, and his pastor, he’d decided to step into an already contentious race for the seat.

From the moment he’d announced to the day he won the seat the lives of the Grant family had been a whirlwind. After the election, the moving began. Tyler had been 7 at the time, Gracie 3 and Lauren was born in Washington. Every effort was made to ensure that the children and Cassie would see Matt as much as possible, despite his job, but there were weeks they still barely saw him at all.

The idea of having the family living close had been a good one, but the execution of it had started to fail within six months. Meetings, conferences, sessions that ran late into the night, and media-made emergencies were constant, taking over every aspect of Matt and Cassie’s life. Matt still made every effort to attend baseball games, dance recitals, and Saturday mornings at the park, in addition to balancing his responsibilities as a senator, but that left little to almost no time for him and Cassie.

For the most part, Cassie was okay with being the last in line for his attention. She preferred he spend as much time as he could with the children during their formative years. This was a season of life, not a new normal. Time for them, as a couple, would come later, when things slowed down.

If things slow down, Cassie thought, panic suddenly gripping her, like a heavy weight in the center of her chest. If Matt gets reelected we could have another six years of this and maybe even another six after that. . .It’s already been six, I don’t know if I can take another six.

She shuddered, pulling the covers up around her, even though it wasn’t that cold in their bedroom. She tried to imagine six more years, or even more, of accusations against her husband, and sometimes even her, in the press. She tried to imagine six more years of barely seeing her husband; of feeling like her husband’s nanny, even though she loved her children desperately; and of constituents confronting her husband when they were out in public, complaining about this or that change he’d promised he’d make if elected but still hadn’t been able to.

Tyler would be graduating high school at the end of six years. So much of his life had already been consumed by Matt’s position. Would he have to endure it during his high school years as well?

Cassie knew it wasn’t only the quiet life she and Matt had led before he’d entered politics that she was homesick for.  She was homesick for time alone with Matt. She was tired of sharing him with his staff, his fellow congressmen, his constituents, and the press. She was tired of feeling like she was second in line for his attention, even though she knew he didn’t mean to make her feel that way.

Who knows, she thought, feeling sleep finally settling on her. Maybe this quarantine will be good for not only Liam and Maddie but for Matt and me. Maybe I’ll actually get him to myself for once.

***

The election had been brutal. There was no denying it. Worse than the campaigning, the traveling, the long days, had been the media coverage. Non-stop negative stories aimed at destroying Matthew Eben Grant before he could even open his mouth. The media machine was out of control. There was no denying it, especially after that first month of campaigning when one of the state’s biggest newspapers had questioned his staff’s lack of diversity. Those questions had led to him refusing to answer questions of his campaign staff’s ethnic backgrounds and horrified when a newspaper had called the head of his campaign his “one token person of color,” as if she hadn’t been qualified for her job simply on the merits of her professional experience.

From that story it was a quick jump to combing through Matt and Liam’s social media accounts, searching for anything that would sink them in the political arena. One rogue satirical Tweet from his college days, labeled as sexist by feminists, dominated headlines for a few days, but as it always was with the current 24-hour/7-day a week news cycle, the press had turned it’s hungry eyes to another candidate, another subject to devour. the following week.

The polls showed Matt losing and big, right up until election day, but the night of the election the numbers had come in fast and furious late in the evening. Matt had won by a landslide. Apparently the silent voters, the one who didn’t want to be yelled at or condemned for their opinions, had come out in droves and sent a hard message home to the incumbent and his political party: “We’ve had enough of the status quo and of corrupt politicians with empty promises and even emptier apologies.”

Matt knew, though ,that in less than a year he could be in the same boat and it could be his rear end with the boot of the voter against it as they shoved him out the door. Voters preferences were fickle and ever changing and some days nothing a senator did could make anyone happy. Matt had only been a senator for six years, but it felt like it had been 100. Now he had a small idea why so many presidents went gray while in office, though thankfully he didn’t have the same pressure as a president.

He yawned, stretching his arms out as if he intended to stand up and head up to bed, but he didn’t stand up. Instead he fell back on the couch, remote in hand. He surfed streaming services, suggested shows and movies scrolling by, but he wasn’t really seeing any of it. His mind had slipped back to five and a half years ago, to near the end of the election when the news stories were at their worst. He was being called a racist, anti-woman, anti-this, anti-that. He had lost count of all the names they had called him.

“Is this even worth it?” he asked Cassie one night in bed, snuggled close against her.

“If you can get in there and really help facilitate some change, then, yes, it’s worth it,” she assured him.

But then the win came and with it came more news stories, personal attacks against him and his family. The worst came when one of his staff members brought him an article about Cassie, accusing her of being fired from her previous job.

He was furious. “Where did they even get that story? Cassie was never fired from her job. She left to support me and be with the children.”

Scanning the story, he saw a former co-worker of Cassie’s was quoted and offered only summations, not facts. Still, the headline suggested the accusations were true. It wouldn’t have upset Matt as much if it had been about him instead of Cassie. He’d grown accustomed to being accused of inappropriate acts or offensive words, or anything else the press could come up with, but Cassie?

Cassie was off limits.

Only she wasn’t off limits.

She wasn’t off limits because he had made her fair game when he’d decided to accept the party’s urging to run.

He’d dragged her out into the open and essentially thrown her to the wolves.  

The story had been pushed to the side quickly in a few days with another news story, about another politician, overshadowing it. One of the only good aspects of the 24/7 news cycle was how fast paced it was. It meant a story that was in the forefront one day was gone by the next and even though the story on Cassie had faded fast, he still felt incredible guilt about how much he’d exposed his family during this process.

He’d always wanted to protect Cassie. Now he didn’t know how to. In a hyper-political atmosphere that was beginning to suffocate him, the negativity was coming from every side.

His phone rang and he glanced at the ID before answering it. He let out a sigh of relief when he saw it wasn’t John, a member of the Senate or the press trying to reach him.

“Hey, bro,” he said to Liam. “You hanging in there?”

“Yeah. Locked myself in my office. You?”

“Yeah. Feels weird just to be sitting at home.”

“A good weird or a bad weird?”

“Both.”

“Things okay with Cassie? The kids?”

“Kids are doing great. They don’t know much about what’s going on. Cassie’s . . . okay, I guess. She seems tired.”

“Is she mad at you for all this?”

Matt laughed. “She doesn’t seem mad, really. She just seems like Cassie. She’s cooking for the kids and me, cleaning, checking on her parents.”

“Did you ask her if she was okay?”

“Yeah, she said she’s fine.”

Matt heard a small laugh on the other end of the phone.

“What?” he asked. “No. Don’t even say it. You think ‘I’m fine’ is code for something else.”

“You know I’m no expert on women,” Liam started.

“Uh, obviously.”

“But I am learning during this that apparently when a woman says she’s okay, she’s really not,” Liam continued. “I didn’t know that Maddie was struggling, Matt. I just thought she hated me, that I was doing everything wrong, but I think she feels — I don’t know. Abandoned? She pretty much told me she feels like I abandoned her.”

Matt sighed, laying on his back, staring at the ceiling. He slid his arm behind his head. “In what way did you abandon her?”

“Staying at work too much, for one. She says I worked more so I didn’t have to face us losing the babies.”

“Did you?”

“No, I . . .”

Liam’s voice trailed off and then there was a brief silence. “Yeah,” he said finally. “Yeah, I did. When you asked me to be your press secretary I jumped at it because I knew I would be so busy I wouldn’t have to think about losing the babies, about that empty hole in the center of my chest.”

Matt grimaced as he sat up, propping his elbow against his knee. “Liam, I’m sorry I was so focused on the election, on me really, that I didn’t notice all you were going through.”

“Dude, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. I didn’t even admit to myself how much it was bothering me.”

“I know, it’s just — I’m really starting to realize how out of touch I’ve been with what really matters in the last few years; you and Maddie, the kids. Cassie. When I decided to run, I pulled all of you —”

“Matt. No. You were doing what you felt was right. And it wasn’t just you who decided to run. We all decided. As a family. We knew this could be rough. Yeah, it’s a little worse than we expected with all the extra political drama going on these days, but we are still in this together. It’s okay. We’re all okay. Well, we will be okay, one way or another anyhow. None of this is your fault.”

Matt flopped back on the couch again. “I know it isn’t. But I still feel . . . guilty. I don’t know. What I do know is that all of this, this forced slow down, has opened my eyes up to what I’ve been missing lately. I don’t like that our family, or our country, is going through this, but it’s putting some things in perspective for me.”

Liam sighed on the other end of the phone. “Yeah. It’s doing the same for me.”

Extra Fiction Thursday: Quarantined Chapter 4

Welcome to Chapter 4 of Quarantined. Let me know in the comments if you are following along and what you think should happen next.

Since this is a novella there will be less chapters than the other stories I share on my blog, which will be good for some of you who don’t have time to read a longer story.

To catch up with the story you can click HERE.

Chapter 4

Maddie and Liam hadn’t spoken to each other for four days, other than for her to ask if the doctor had called and him to say ‘not yet,’ and him to ask if she wanted some lunch or dinner and her to say ‘I’ll make my own.’

He’d locked himself in his office, dealing with the fall out for his brother’s delay in quarantining himself after his interaction with the ambassador; writing press releases and using video chat features to do interviews with major news commentators.

She’d locked herself in the bedroom, writing bits and pieces of her novel in between pouring over news sites; scrolling through social media feeds for personal stories from those who had had the virus and were recovering. She wondered if she and Liam would eventually face the same situation, or would they be worse with one of them admitted to an ICU somewhere. Who even knew at this point since he’d lied to her about having the virus in the first place? She should have been happy it wasn’t confirmed, but she was furious he had lied to her and it made her wonder how many more times he’d lied to her.

In the evenings she binged watched Parks and Recreation while eating ice cream or popcorn, grateful she’d stocked up on groceries even before Liam had told her about the quarantine. Liam spent his nights straightening boxes, speaking to his brother through video conferencing and binge-watching Bosch, the crime show about a rugged, hard-edged Los Angeles Police Department detective; just what he needed to distract him from the restlessness he felt.

“So, how’s it going with Maddie?” Matt asked via video messaging on night seven of Liam’s quarantine as he’d leaned back on his couch and cracked open a soda.

His gaze wandered off to one side, toward something behind his computer before Liam could answer. “Tyler. Stop hitting your sister. I don’t ca—you know what, just go outside. In the backyard. You’re allowed to go in the backyard. . . . I don’t know. Hit the ball. Chase the dog. I don’t care. Just get out for a while. Take your sisters with you . . . Hey! I’m still in charge around here. Do what I say!”

He looked back at Liam through the screen. “Fun times over here. I can’t wait until this thing is over.”

Liam scoffed. “It’s only been three days for you, dude. If you can’t handle three days with your wife and kids, you’re in serious trouble.”

Matt grinned. “Yeah. I know. First world problems, right? Anyhow, what’s up with you and Maddie? I see you’re still alive, so she hasn’t stabbed you yet.”

Liam winced and rubbed his hand across the back of his neck. “Not for a lack of wanting to, I’d imagine.” He sat back against the headboard of the bed, arms across his chest. “We had it out the other night. The stuff she accused me of doing — you wouldn’t even believe it. Affairs, spending more time at work than with her, not supporting her after the miscarriages. It was all a bunch of crap.”

“Well?”

Liam scowled at his brother. “Well, what?”

“Did you do those things?”

“You know I didn’t, Matt.”

“Then why is it bothering you so much? Don’t be so defensive. You know you didn’t do anything wrong so let her rant.”

Liam shifted on the bed, focusing his gaze out the window. “I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t support her like I should have after the miscarriages. And she’s pretty accurate about working too much too.”

“And the affairs?” Matt asked.

“No!” Liam snapped, looking back at his brother. “I didn’t have an affair.” He paused, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. “I could never do that to Maddie. You know that. We haven’t been getting along, yes, but I . . . I could never hurt her that way.”

He furrowed his eyebrows and leaned closer to the screen of his laptop. “Do you really think I could do that?” he asked his brother.

Matt laughed. “Liam, no, I don’t, and I don’t know if Maddie really does either, but she’s scared. She obviously didn’t feel secure in her relationship with you to think that.”

Liam sighed. “Yeah, well, it’s not like I helped that feeling any. I told her I already had the virus.”

Matt shook his head and rubbed his eyes. “Oh, Liam, Liam. When will you ever learn? Never lie to a woman. When she finds out she thinks that means you’ve never told the truth about anything and you’re really a secret agent whose been living a double life.”

Liam flopped back on the bed and groaned. “I know. I know. I’m an idiot.”

“Yes, you are. Seriously, though, I don’t think you or Maddie really want this divorce. You’re both just afraid to do the work it will take to keep this thing going. It’s going to hurt, little brother, but I think you two need to work things out. I think you still love your wife or what she said to you wouldn’t have hurt so much.”

Liam shook his head and clicked his tongue, rolling to his side and propping himself up on his elbow. “Senator Matthew Grant. The hard-headed, some might say, pig-headed, youngest-ever head of the homeland security committee showing that he’s also a marriage counselor.”

The brothers laughed easily together.

Matt leaned closer to the screen, his expression fading from jovial to more serious. “Liam, lLet me give you some brotherly advice. Make sure this divorce is truly what you want before you sign those papers. You and Maddie have something special. Always have. I don’t want to see you throw this away without really thinking it through, okay?”

Liam let out a long breath, tapping his fingers along the touchpad of the laptop.

Matt pressed him further. “Promise me you’ll think really hard about all of this while you two are locked up in there, okay?”

Liam nodded. “Yeah. Okay. Thanks, Matt.”

The brothers said their goodbyes and Liam closed the laptop and laid back on the bed. The last thing he wanted to do was think long and hard about anything else, especially his marriage. Thinking about it all made him hurt more, but he knew Matt was right. He knew he had to be sure that this divorce was truly what he wanted, not simply something he was doing because he didn’t want to face the tough questions, work through the tough issues. In the end, though, it didn’t matter if he wanted to work through the issues. Maddie had to want to work through them too and if she didn’t, then, well, all this thinking about it all would be completely pointless.

***

With the children in bed, it was just Matt and Cassie alone in the living room. Alone. Together. With a canyon of silence between them.

Matt slumped further down on the couch, drumming his fingers on the cushion. He had no idea what to do with himself without hearings to plan for, committee meetings to gather research for, or statements to draft for the press. He should probably be on the phone with John and Liam, preparing their plan of action for when they got back into the office in the next week or so. He looked at his phone on the end of the couch, but didn’t feel any motivation to reach for it.  In fact, he didn’t feel any motivation at all to deal with his job, especially the press.

He’d already drafted a statement with John. There really wasn’t anything else to say. For now anyhow. He was sure in the next day or so he’d be getting calls from other senators looking to set up virtual meetings to draft various bills or establish plans of action for the current situation, but for now his phone had gone silent and he should enjoy the silence while he could. He would have enjoyed it, if it just wasn’t so weird.

He felt his forehead. Maybe he was coming down with that virus after all. He’d been going full bore at his job for two years straight now, but today he’d finally hit some kind of wall. He wasn’t even motivated to reach for the remote and watch television.

He looked over at Cassie sitting sideways on a chair, her legs hanging over the arm of it, her head bent over a book. She was wearing a pair of hot pink short-shorts, a loose fitting white t-shirt and her hair was falling out of a messy bun she’d piled on top of her head. Her long legs were as shapely and attractive as the first day he’d met her. His eyes followed the length of them from her bare toes to the edge of her shorts and remembered the many times his hand had traveled that path over the years.

Desire swelled in his chest as he thought about the night they’d celebrated his win. She’d worn that black skirt with the slit in the side, the slit that went from the middle of her thigh to her knee. Only she hadn’t even known the skirt had that slit until she was at his victory speech and he’d laughed later in the back of Liam’s car when he had watched her try to hold the pieces together, her cheeks flushed pink. Cassie always was fairly modest in how she dressed and he knew she never would have worn the dress if she hadn’t been rushed. The election results came in earlier than expected and she’d snatched the skirt out of her closet, the skirt she’d purchased a few days before but hadn’t had a chance to try on. She knew Matt’s acceptance speech was going to be closely watched by many since he had run against a long-time senator who had been thrown in the middle of a scandal the year before.

“I can’t believe I wore this skirt to your acceptance speech,” she hissed. “I can imagine what the press will be saying tomorrow.”

“That you’re gorgeous?”

“Or that I’m a floozy.”

Matt tipped his head all the way back and laughed. “A floozy? What happened right there? Did we just teleport back to the 40s?”

Cassie punched Matt in the upper arm, giggling. “Shut up.”

Back at the house, the children staying with Cassie’s parents, Matt had stood behind Cassie as she unhooked her necklace and took her earrings out.

“For what it’s worth,” he said, stepping closer, reaching out to touch the edge of the skirt. “I really like this skirt.”

“Oh, you do, do you?”

His finger found the slit and slipped inside, touching the skin there, on her upper thigh.

His mouth touched her bare neck, his voice husky as he spoke. “All I wanted to do was get back here with you. No kids. All alone. Finally.”

She turned, smiling, sliding her arms around his neck. “And what can we do here, all alone?”

He didn’t need words to answer her question. His mouth found hers while he gently pushed her back toward the bed, lowering her to it.

“You okay over there?”

 Cassie’s voice interrupted the memory of his hand traveling up that leg, under that skirt, that night.

“Huh? Oh yeah. Good. I’m good.”

“You miss work, don’t you?”

“Um. No. Actually. I don’t. And that weirds me out a little.”

“Oh.”

She shrugged and turned back to her book. “This break is probably just showing you how burned out you are.”

“I’m not burned out.”

Cassie was back into her book. “Mmm. If you say so.”

Am I? he wondered

Matt sat up straighter and leaned forward on his knees toward Cassie.

“We haven’t spent a lot of time together lately, have we?

She glanced up from the book, eyebrows raised slightly.

“No. Not really, but you’ve been busy. I understand.”

“Do you want to spend more time together? I mean, maybe you’re bored with me? Our life here together?”

Cassie laughed. “Matt, where is this all coming from?” She closed the book. “Is this because of Liam and Maddie?

Matt shrugged. “Yeah. Maybe. It’s got me thinking a lot, I guess.”

“So? What’s the verdict? Are Liam and Maddie getting a divorce?”

Matt sighed. “I don’t know. I mean, they’ve been meeting with a divorce attorney. The only reason they missed the last meeting was because of this craziness.”

He looked at Cassie, watched her watching him and wondered again if Cassie would ever want to divorce him. If she did, he wouldn’t blame her. He’d dragged her into this crazy political world, under a never-satisfied microscope of public scrutiny. The same with the kids. What had he been thinking? Of his constituents? The future of the country? Or had it really just been of himself and his own desire to reach a certain level of success?

Cassie blew out a breath. “Wow. Now they are stuck together in that house. That has to be super awkward.”

“Yeah. Liam said Maddie accused him of cheating on her.”

Cassie’s eyes widened. “No way.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, did he?”

“Cassie! You know Liam wouldn’t do something like that.”

“I don’t think he would, no, but . . .”

“But what? Men do those things because we’re all jerks, is that what you mean?”

“I’m not saying that but long hours, all those pretty women around, he and Maddie so distant after the miscarriages, especially after the last one.”

Matt was uncomfortable with his wife’s line of thinking. He stood and walked toward the kitchen for a glass of juice. Did Cassie really think his little brother would cheat on Matt? If she thought that then what did she think of him? He’d been working long hours too. Around a lot of pretty women, many of them more than willing to sleep with a senator to work their way up the ladder in their careers. Was Cassie drawing a line between the possibility that Liam had cheated to the possibility he had too?

He poured the juice and heard her footsteps behind him. “I’m sorry, Matt. I really can’t see Liam doing that, no. Your brother has just been under a lot of pressure and —”

“Being under pressure doesn’t lead to affairs, okay? Or not all the time anyhow.”

Cassie raised her eyebrows and held up her hands. “Okay. I wasn’t trying to pick a fight. I was just trying to enjoy a quiet night for once with a book. I’ll leave you alone.”

Matt turned toward her. “Cassie, I didn’t mean to start a fight either. I just —”

“It’s fine.” Cassie walked to him and kissed his cheek. She stepped back and looked him in the eyes. “You just need to unwind. You’ve been put through the ringer by the media, members of congress, and now Liam’s drama. I don’t blame you for being tense. Why don’t you go watch one of your favorite shows? I’m going to turn in early.”

“You don’t need to turn in early.”

Her mind had been made up though. She was weary of discussing Liam and politics and viruses and . . . life, quite frankly.

“I really do need to,” she said softly, already at the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. “See you in the morning, Matt.”

Matt finished his juice and shuffled back to the living room. Watch one of his favorite shows? He didn’t even have any favorite shows. Not current ones anyhow. He never had time to watch television anymore. He sat on the couch and slumped in the corner of it again, even further down this time than before.

He didn’t have time for anything anymore other than political fights and trying to put out fires. He pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. Dang it. What had he been thinking dragging his family through all of this? Just, seriously, what had he been thinking?

He had been thinking he could help people, change things in Washington. Most days, though, he felt like he was a hamster on a wheel in its cage, getting nowhere fast. Maybe he’d made the wrong decision deciding to run for re-election this year. He’d accomplished most of what he’d set out to do to help his constituents and then some, but there were days it was as if those wins were eroded by the opposition until they were losses again.

Laying his arm across his eyes he sighed and tried to think clearly. He needed to decide if this re-election was really what he wanted, for one, but also if it was really what was best for his family.

Extra Fiction Thursday: Quarantined Chapter 2

I’ve been off Facebook for a few days and haven’t looked at the news but based on some of the blog posts I’m reading, the events going on in today’s world are hitting people hard and spiraling them into depression. Take a break from it all today – either reading this chapter from this novella I’m working on or simply walking away from media all together and pick up a book, take a walk, or start a hobby that gave you comfort before. We have to choose to walk away from the stress so I’m encourage you (and me) to choose to do that.




Matt Grant tapped the end button on the screen of his phone and laid the phone on the coffee table next to his laptop and paperwork. He rubbed his hand across his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling a tension headache pulsating in his temples.

He’d just got off the phone with his assistant press secretary, John Chambers. They’d drafted another statement for the media, answering accusations that Matt was still at work in his office in the capitol.

“Just make sure they know I’m at home, self-quarantining, just like my doctor told me to,” Matt had told John, more than a touch of annoyance in his voice.

“I’m making sure,” John said. “I’m assuring them all of us are safely locked away now. Just like the critics seem to think we should be, even though our preliminary tests are inconclusive. I doubt this will satisfy them, but we can try.”

With the statement to the press out of the way, Matt’s mind wandered back to his brother Liam, who he needed to call and check on. The doctor who had examined Liam had listed his diagnosis as “probable” for the virus, which was what had triggered this latest scandal in the first place. Matt was sure Liam would be fine but there was a small part of him that worried about his little brother developing symptoms of the virus that was sending others to ICUs across the country. Matt wasn’t only worried about Liam’s physical health though. He was also worried about his mental and emotional health.

Liam had told Matt months ago that his marriage was in shambles. Matt had barely listened, sure his brother and sister-in-law would work things out. He knew Liam still loved his Maddie, and Maddie still loved Liam.  He was sure of it. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be struggling so much with the idea of divorce and it would have been finalized months ago.

It couldn’t be easy being quarantined together during a pandemic with all the issues they had with each other, but Matt was glad they were. Maybe it would give them a chance to work out their issues and save what had been a great union at one time. As it was, their divorce proceedings had been delayed because of the pandemic, which Matt saw as a way for them to buy more time and truly be sure the divorce was what they wanted.

What made Matt uncomfortable wasn’t only that he could hear pain mixed with longing in his brother’s voice when they had talked about the divorce a couple of weeks ago. It was also that he wondered, worried even, that maybe his marriage was bleeding out in the same way his younger brother’s had and he had been too wrapped up in himself to realize it.

Matt and Cassie hadn’t had a lot of time alone lately. They actually had barely even had time to talk.

Their life had been a runaway train since the election six years ago and now it was picking up speed again as their re-election campaign was underway. Really, though, the train had never actually slowed down.

 In Washington he faced daily drama and conflict whether he wanted it or not. Becoming the head of the Committee of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last year hadn’t helped slow things down any either.

Then there was this crazy never-before-seen virus that seemed to come out of nowhere a few weeks ago and now had him at home with his family, waiting to see if he developed any symptoms after being exposed to it more than a week ago. He was convinced if he had the virus he would have developed symptoms by now, but he had stayed home to make sure things looked good to the press and his constituents. Making sure things “looked good and right” to others seemed to be 90 percent of his job anymore, leaving little room for him to actually do good and right and accomplish the things he’d been elected to do.

All the drama in Congress left him little time to focus on Cassie or the kids and he regretted that. He regretted it even more when his brother’s march toward divorce had become a growing reality. He’d never pictured Liam and Maddie divorced. They were the perfect couple. They’d weathered some hard storms, but Matt had been sure the challenges would bring them closer together. In fact, he thought it had but now he realized he’d been too wrapped up in the campaign and job to notice how much they’d actually drifted apart.

Sure, Liam, as his press secretary, spent many late nights working with him, but he imagined when he went home, he and Maddie made up for lost time. Instead Matt had recently learned that Liam had been working at home as well, sleeping in his office, leaving Maddie alone most of the time, writing her romance novels and reaching for companionship on social media.

Matt and Liam’s parents had been the perfect example of a stable, loving marriage. Married 54 years, Tom and Phyllis Grant made it clear each day how much they loved each other. Sure, they had argued, even in front of their children, but those arguments had been resolved usually before the sun had gone down and with a fair amount of ‘making up’. Matt and Liam, and his sister Lana had been grateful the majority of that making up had gone on behind closed doors.

Standing from the couch to stretch, Matt looked out the window at his own three children playing ball in the backyard and felt a twinge of guilt. Getting pregnant and carrying three babies to term had been easy for him and Cassie. They’d never had to face the heartbreak of not being able to get pregnant or of a miscarriage. Matt felt like he’d taken being able to become a father so easily for granted.

He looked around his living room, well-decorated with expensive furniture and commissioned paintings, and thought about how much of his life he had taken for granted, especially lately. He’d taken for granted the newer model car he drove, the highly-rated bed he slept on, the full refrigerator, and even fuller bank account.

He rubbed his hand along his chin and turned toward the kitchen where Cassie was making a late lunch for him and the kids. Her dark brown hair fell to her waist in a tight braid, the bottom of it grazing the top of the waistband of a pair of red workout shorts. Her favorite T-shirt, featuring Johnny Cash wearing a cowboy hat, fit her medium build well, hugging all the areas it should, especially for the benefit of her husband admiring the view that he hadn’t admired for a long time.

He watched her stirring the taco meat in the skillet and his gaze traveled down her legs and back up again, thinking about the first time they’d met in an English lecture at college.

“Pst.”

He’d leaned over the desk to try to get her attention, but she was intently focused on the professor. He had tried again.

“Pst.”

She glared over her shoulder at him.

“Do you have an extra pen?” he whispered.

She rolled her eyes, ignored him, tapping the end of her own pen against her cheek gently as she kept her eyes focused forward.

“It’s just,” he leaned a little closer so he didn’t interrupt the other students. “I left my pen back in my dorm room and I want to make sure I’m taking notes.”

He was glad he had leaned a little closer. She smelled amazing. What was that perfume? He had no idea but it was intoxicating. Maybe it was her shampoo. The fluorescent light from the lecture hall was reflecting off her luxurious black strands of hair and he pondered what it would feel like to reach out and touch it. But he didn’t reach out and touch it. That would be weird. Even a 19-year old college freshman like himself knew that.

A year later, though, he was touching that soft dark hair while he kissed Cassie for the first time outside her dorm after their third date. And over the years he’d sank his hands in that hair in moments of tenderness and moments of passion. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he watched his wife and thought about a few of those moments, including that time in the back of his new car after he’d landed that job at the law firm in Detroit.

He could deny it. It wasn’t only the material things of his life that he had taken for granted. He had also been taking Cassie for granted. For far too long.

***

Cassie Grant turned from where she was cooking lunch for her husband and children and watched her husband pace back and forth in the living room.

She knew he was worried about the situation with the virus, the way his office had been thrown into the middle of an unexpected scandal. She was sure he was also worried about whether he’d develop symptoms of the virus, pass it on to the children, and if his other staff members would be infected, now that it looked like Liam’s test for it would be positive. Too little was known about how the virus affected the majority of people, although early reports showed that most cases were mild.

And then there was Liam and Maddie’s marriage which was about to end. Matt and his brother had been raised by parents who had been married 54 years. The brothers and their sister weren’t a product of divorce and Cassie wondered if the prospect of Liam’s marriage ending was weighing on Matt’s mind along with the virus.

Cassie wasn’t sure what her husband was thinking anymore, though, because Matt hadn’t been talking to her much lately. He’d been busy at the office, putting out fires, which seemed to pop up several times throughout the day, thanks to a 24/7 news cycle that never let up.

She couldn’t deny that she missed seeing her husband. She missed their date nights and family movie nights and him just being around the house when she needed him. But she knew that he was doing what he thought was right to try to make a difference for the people who elected him.

Turning the burner down she leaned back against the counter and watched Matt turn and look out the window where their children were playing. Her gaze fell on the back of his head, on his soft brown hair and she remembered with a soft laugh that day in college when they’d been studying in a private room on the first floor of the university library. The love seat they were sitting on was soft, plush, light maroon.

Papers and books were spread out in front of them and Matt was debating the importance of some moment in history to the future of something or other. Cassie couldn’t remember now and hadn’t cared then. She’d tuned him out long ago. Instead she had been watching him amazed at how impassioned he was about the topic at hand. She had been staring at the muscles in his jaw and how they moved as he spoke, at his long fingers connected to that manly hand, at a strand of hair that had fallen across his forehead that she desperately wanted to push to the side. And she’d definitely been watching his mouth. His lips looked amazingly kissable.

Cassie was sick of listening to him quite frankly.

“Cassie, don’t you see that —”

Cassie leaned forward and pressed her mouth to Matt’s, cutting his sentence short, touching the side of his face gently. She pulled back and looked at him, her mouth still inches from his. He had finally fallen silent. At least for a few seconds.

“Oh. Um. Okay. Was I talking too —”

“Just shut up, Matt.”

She caught his mouth with hers again, sinking her hands into his hair, moving closer to him at the same time he moved closer to her.

He slid his arm around her and held her to him gently as the kiss continued.

“So, I guess you weren’t only interested in me as a study partner,” he said breathlessly a few moments later.

“Is that the only way you were interested in me?” she asked, her fingers still in his hair, playing with it.

A grin tugged at one corner of his mouth. “What do you think Cassie Henderson?”

She answered with another kiss, and they leaned back against the seat as they kissed, forgetting they were in a study room in the library.

Three years later they were married, a year later their first, a boy, was born. That had been 15 years ago and now they had three children, an expensive home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Matt was a U.S. Senator while she stayed home with the children, her career as a social worker long behind her and his career as an attorney behind him, for the time being at least.

Sure, some of that initial passion of their relationship was gone, replaced with the everyday and the mundane, but Cassie recognized this as a season – a season during which marriage became more about comfortable moments and less about desire. It wasn’t that she didn’t have desire for Matt; it was just that they never seemed to have time for it anymore.

She startled out of her thoughts, smelling something burning.

“Oh no!”

She rushed to the stove and turned it down, smoke billowing from the skillet where she’d been browning meat for tacos. She moved the skillet to another burner and groaned. It looked like they’d be having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch today.

The blaring of the smoke alarm only made the humiliation that much worse.

Matt rushed into the kitchen, waving a newspaper at the smoke. “Whoa there! Let’s not add burned down house to our list of bizarre occurrences for the month.”

“Sorry. I guess I got distracted.”

Matt pulled the battery from the fire alarm. “No big deal, right? It might can be salvaged.”

He grimaced at the charged edges of the meat in the pan. “Or maybe the dog would like a treat.”

Cassie sighed. “I’m not sure even Barney should eat that.  I’ll just make the kids some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You want one?”

“You know what, yeah. I haven’t one of those in years. Crustless?”

Cassie shook her head. “What are you, six?”

“Sentimental reasons,” Matt said with a wink. “My mom used to make them that way for me.”

Cassie pulled the bread out of the bread box and Matt slid the peanut butter and jelly across the counter.

“So, being quarantined with me has to be pretty boring for you, huh?” he asked.

“Not really,” she said with a smile, spreading peanut butter on slices of bread. “But it is weird seeing you here this time of day or, well, much at all.”

Matt winced softly. “Ouch.”

“Well, it’s not your fault. You’re busy.”

He couldn’t read her tone of voice but sadly it seemed more apathetic, more along the line of “that’s just the way it is” than anything else.

Matt leaned back against the counter, sliding his hands in his dress pants pockets. He looked at his dress shoes, chewing on his bottom lip, thinking. First, he thought about how absent he’d been in his family’s life. Then he thought about how he was quarantined at home but for some reason he was still wearing dress shoes, a dress shirt and tie, as if he was on his way to a meeting or a senate hearing.  He had apparently forgotten how to relax, unwind, and kick back.

He cleared his throat. “I guess I can go to change into something more comfortable. It doesn’t look like I’ll be doing anything business related for a few days anyhow.”

When he returned wearing a pair of sweatpants and a Garth Brooks t-shirt the children were already around the table, munching on sandwiches and drinking chocolate milk.

“Daddy! Sit next to me!” his youngest, Lauren, called, tapping the back of the chair next to her.

“Okay. I can do that.”

His son Tyler eyed him over his glass of chocolate milk as he drank from it. At the age of 13 he waffled between being bored and annoyed most of the time.

“It’s weird seeing you here,” Tyler said bluntly as Matt sat down.

Matt looked into his son’s bright blue eyes, noticing the acne starting to form along the top of his forehead near his closely cropped hairline. He wasn’t sure how to take the comment. Did Tyler mean “good weird” or “bad weird”? Should he ask? Did he even want to know?

Luckily, he didn’t have to decipher his son’s meaning for long.

“But it’s a good weird, right?” Cassie asked, as if she could read Matt’s mind, and after 15-years of marriage, she probably could.

Tyler grinned. “Yeah. It’s a good weird. Just weird.”

Gracie, his middle daughter, smiled sweetly at Matt and then giggled around a mouthful of sandwich.

“I like you being here, Daddy.”

Matt smiled back at her, reaching across the table to cover her hand with his. “I like it too, sweetie. Maybe something good will come out of all of this, huh? At least you will all see me a little more often.”

His gaze focused on Cassie and he saw she was watching him, but again he was having a hard time reading her expression. Was she happy they’d all be spending more time together? Or was the extra time with him simply a reminder for her how much she didn’t need him around anymore?