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Rosewood Short – Part 3
The weather had turned cool, and damp, heavy clouds smothering the atmosphere. All the late summer lake traffic had died away, and the fall/winter season was starting for the inn. Jess had only two couples staying with them, both composed of retirees, neither of which seemed inclined to take of advantage of any of the downstairs amenities. Her husband and brothers had taken over the game room, ringed around the poker table in a portrait apropos given the heavy wood paneling and antique light fixtures. The room was swimming with cigar smoke, undercut with a sweet note of whiskey. They each had their own laugh: low, dark, sinister snatches of male voice. Jordan had little lines at the corners of his eyes that hadn’t been there before the twins had come along. Tam was doing so well at work that he’d relaxed, and he was wearing his hair too long in the front again, jagged black spikes across his forehead. Mike was starting to look more and more like Dad – a well-dressed version of Dad in Ralph Lauren everything. And Walt, after all this time, looked like he actually enjoyed everyone else’s company.
Chris was working on his third drink. Jess had been counting while she feigned tidying up. She couldn’t be quiet about it anymore. “Baby, you know you aren’t supposed to drink with your meds.”
Silence. From everyone. From the other side of the poker table, Jordan sent her a look that said: “Dude…”
Chris had his back to her, and she saw his shoulders tense. He was used to her directives – everyone was – but the weeks of his recovery had seen a change in him. One she didn’t like.
“I’m not taking my meds,” he said without turning to her, and the others studied their cards.
Jess paused in the act of fluffing a pillow at the velvet tufted settee in the corner of the room. The fire logs on the hearth crackled, and that was the only sound. “Why not?”
“Because,” he said in a smooth, foreign voice that reminded her too much of her ex-husband, “if I’m gonna be drunk, I at least want to blame the bottle for it.”
“Your doctor said – ”
“He can go to hell.”
She swallowed against the lump in her throat. She hated this. Being an invalid was turning him into a different person. And she was already emotional because of the baby…
Tam lifted his head a fraction and made eye contact with her, his eyes startlingly blue. “No,” his expression said. “Just give him a minute.” He looked sympathetic.
She tossed the pillow onto the settee and left the room, her breathing growing irregular, her slender hands curling into fists at her sides. She retreated to the kitchen, where the girls mirrored the boys, around her long ranch table, with wineglasses and chips and salsa. Jess threw herself into her chair and reached for her ginger ale, wishing like hell it was Pinot Grigio instead.
“Uh-oh,” her little sister said. Jo had French braided her own hair and dozens of wisps had come loose to frame her face. Her blue-green eyes were knowing. “What’d you say?”
“You just assume it’s something I said?” Jess bit back. “That it’s my fault?”
Delta regarded her a moment, lashes low over her dark eyes. The brunette made jeans and a t-shirt look like runway fashion. Of course, the t-shirt was probably Gucci or some such. “You need a drink.” When Jess started to protest, a hand going to her stomach, Delta flashed a wicked grin. “Or the next best thing.”
Further down the table, Ellie smiled a sweeter version of Delta’s smile. “A little stress relief,” she suggested, nodding in agreement with Delta. Jo snorted a laugh and Ellie said, “What? I know things.” Then her cheeks colored and she reached for her wine.
“He’s having a hard time with recovery?” Walt’s wife, Gwen, guessed.
“Only mentally,” Jess grumbled.
“He’s a contractor,” Delta said. “And was a soldier – ”
“Ranger,” Jess corrected automatically.
Delta rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Point is: he doesn’t like sitting around.”
Across the table, Jo was turning a chip around and around in her small hands. “Are things bad?” she asked, tone becoming more serious. “I mean…”
“No, nothing like that.” At least, she hoped not.
Later, after she’d turned off Tyler’s lamp and checked to see that Maddie was sleeping – she was curled on her side, gold ringlets fanned across the pillow, curled up in a ball around her favorite stuffed dog – she braved her own room, chest feeling heavy. Chris was reclined against the headboard, reading a car magazine, in t-shirt and the awful green basketball shorts she’d threatened to toss out half a hundred times. A cold tide of disappointment washed through her just looking at him. She went to her dresser, put her back to him, and took off her earrings.
How was she here again? Distance, silence, hostility. She wasn’t going to let her second marriage go the way of her first – she’d promised herself that. But maybe she was just cold. Maybe she couldn’t help it. Maybe she couldn’t keep anyone happy…
She glanced up into her dressing table mirror and was ashamed to see tears sliding down her cheeks. And then she saw Chris’s reflection behind her – saw that he was watching her – and she was mortified.
She ducked her head and swiped at her face, going to the closet, and the laundry hamper there.
“What?” She peeled off her sweater and dropped it in the hamper. Added her jeans and socks.
“Are you crying?”
“No.” Her bra went in the shallow drawer he’d installed beneath her sweater cubbies and she pulled a nightgown off its hanger – simple white cotton that hit mid-thigh, with dainty straps.
She brushed her teeth, washed her face with cold water in the en suite bath, and turned the lamps out with a flip of the wall switch before she dared take her place in bed.
“I was still reading,” he said in the shadows, voice flat, emotionless.
“It’s late,” she countered, and heard her own words vibrating with emotion. Stupid hormones.
The horrible, pressing silence – the smell of it was noxious with disappointment and failure – held them captive while she slipped beneath the covers and rolled onto her side, facing the bathroom door, spine curled against an imagined chill.
His hand landed on her shoulder. Big, work-roughened, callused at the base of each finger, and oh so welcome, it skimmed down her arm to the indentation of her elbow.
“I’m being an ass,” Chris said, tone soft now. “I’m gonna keep being an ass, to be honest. I hate this. But baby” – he squeezed her elbow – “we are not in trouble.”
He understood her mind better than she did; he always seemed to know exactly what was bothering her, the fears spinning, the past traumas revisited. With a grateful sound, she rolled over toward him, an arm going around his waist.
“Thank you,” she whispered against his t-shirt, and he smoothed her hair.