Rosewood – Part 12
“Are you happy here…with me?”
The silence that followed was oppressive. Jess could hear the blood rushing through her ears, the unsteady thump of her heart; her utter stupidity was a riptide, pulling at her, dragging her under a haze of embarrassment and fear. Why couldn’t she have kept her mouth shut? Why did she always have to ruin things –
Chris pulled in a deep breath, his chest lifting, eyes widening in obvious alarm, before he said, “What?”
She couldn’t look at him; she glanced away, attempting to swallow the lump in her throat.
“Are you serious?”
She took a shaky breath. “Well are you?”
He closed the distance between them much faster than a man who’d had recent knee surgery should have been able to. His hands hovered over her in a useless gesture before he took hold of her upper arms and turned her to face him. His face, when she dared look at it, was etched with worry and confusion. “Am I happy?” he repeated, sounding dumbfounded. “Where the hell did that come from? Is this some kinda pregnancy hormone thing?”
“The hormones aren’t helping.” Her voice was a small, choked thing that she hated. “But…” A deep breath gave her courage. She faced him fully. “I am serious. After everything that’s happened…and with the way we rushed into things…and the stress…my mom said – ”
“Oh, Christ,” he muttered. “Your mom said? And you listened to her?”
“I wasn’t trying to. You know how she won’t let up when she’s dead set on something.”
“And she was dead set that…I wasn’t happy?” The hurt in his voice wasn’t disguised well enough.
“She thinks we need to take a vacation,” she said in a rush. “And maybe we do, but all I know is” – she wet her suddenly paper-dry lips – “a vacation won’t fix things if they’re broken. If we…”
He studied her a long moment before he released her and turned away. She watched him go to the table and ease down into his usual chair, bad leg extended before him.
Jess wanted to kick herself. Every time she opened her mouth, she let loose a fresh stream of stupidity. Telling him that she’d talked about him with her mother was the stupidest thing yet.
“Chris.” She walked to stand beside him. “I didn’t mean to – ”
“You wanted to talk about this in the middle of a party?”
“No, I didn’t want to.”
“But obviously, I look so miserable you just can’t help it.”
“Chris,” she said again, struggling for the right words. “Just listen to me a minute.” She went to sit beside him; her eyes went to his hand on the table top, the way one large index finger traced a crack in the wood surface. She didn’t reach for him, but she wanted to.
His look was expectant in a scornful way when his dark eyes came to hers. “Listening,” he prodded. The gentleness had left his voice, and in its place, mockery. He sounded like his older brother.
Jess pulled in a deep breath, called herself an idiot, and launched into the waist-deep tangle of worries that had piled up over the last two months. “You took on a lot when you married me. You got this – this instant family, without any chance to adjust. Wife and baby and stepson and a whole pack of in-laws. That’s more than most men could stand for any span of time –”
“That’s bullshit,” he interrupted, scowling.
“It’s – ”
“Bullshit,” he repeated. “Don’t act like your family’s extra special complicated and no one can stand to be around them.”
“I’m only saying – ”
“You’re saying you expect me to bail.” She’d never heard him sound like this; too late, she realized she’d called his loyalty into question. A former Ranger from a Marine family, who’d suffered through countless knee operations, who’d been a forty-two-year-old career bachelor – and she’d insinuated that he couldn’t handle a little stress, a little family pressure. She’d suggested, after all he’d dealt with – gracefully, no less – that he couldn’t deal with her. “You know what” – his voice was awful, and he started to push up from the table – “if you’re sick of me, just say it, but don’t act like –”
“No!” She snatched his hand out of the air, her slender fingers curling tight around his. “No, baby,” she pleaded. “Wait a minute. Please.”
He stared at her, planes of his face harsh with anger…and hurt. His feelings were hurt more than anything, but he’d be damned if he told her that.
She pulled in a trembling breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…Can I start again?”
He didn’t respond.
“I just want to make sure you’re happy. I don’t want you to start wishing you were somewhere else. I don’t want you to resent me and me not even know about it.”
“So I resent you now?”
“No! I mean, I don’t know. I hope not.” She exhaled in a rush. “Can you humor a crazy pregnant woman?”
He pulled his hand from her grasp, but stayed, still staring at her in a way that made her want to shrink down into the collar of her sweater. “This is because of Dylan.” It wasn’t a question.
It also spiked her temper in a way she hadn’t expected. She felt heat surge beneath her skin as her head snapped in his direction. “This has nothing to do with Dylan,” she bit out. “This is about my mom picking the worst moment to remind me that I don’t know anything about holding onto a husband.” Her words gained momentum, tumbling one after the next, and she was powerless to rein them in. “This is about me being a paranoid idiot, because I love you worlds more than I ever even thought about loving Dylan, and I don’t care that I lost him, but I can’t lose you. This is about Tyler calling you ‘Dad’–” Her voice cracked. “And when I watch you with him, and I think about this whole mess with your leg and how upset you were about it…” She shook her head and glanced away, eyes welling up. “I won’t let you go over something stupid,” she said fiercely, tears clouding her vision, clogging her throat. “I asked you if you’re happy so that if you’re not, I can make you happy.”
Out of breath, she fell silent, blinking hard against the tears, banding her arms across her stomach; she could feel the way it was beginning to change, that first slight rounding that was the baby. She’d taken a page out of her rash little sister’s book, blurting out exactly what she thought. It had always worked for Jo, but that was with Tam, and they all knew he operated in his own, rash way. Chris might not –
His large, callused hands were gentle on her upper arms. He’d moved behind her chair – she hadn’t noticed – and now pulled her up to her feet, as carefully as he would lift Maddie.
“Jessica.” The way he said her name, the blend of waning anger, frustration, and tenderness, was her final undoing.
When he turned her into his arms, she went, her own arms stealing around his waist, pressing her face against the soft, threadbare front of his shirt.
He stroked the back of her head, fingers tangling in her hair. He was the solid, silent wall she needed to lean against while she wrested control of her emotions. After a long moment, he said, “I’m not happy all the time. Nobody is, sweetheart. But that doesn’t mean I’m not happy.”
“I’m sorry about what I said before,” she said against his chest. “I didn’t mean – ”
Because even if he was the one with the surgical history, she was the damaged one, and he knew that better than anyone, better than her mother.
“I don’t like the beach,” he said, hand trailing down her back. “But my dad’s got a hunting cabin in Blue Ridge. That’s not much of a vacation – ”
She sighed, knotting her fingers in the back of his shirt. “It’s perfect.”
Out in the hall, Jo pulled away from the swinging door where she’d had her ear pressed. Feeling relieved – the quiet murmuring of voices was always a good sign – she turned to rejoin the party…and almost ran into her husband. Tam caught her by the shoulders with his wrists, settled her balance, and started to duck around her.
“Whoa.” She grabbed a handful of the front of his Zeppelin t-shirt and pulled him down the hall with her. Tried to anyway. “You can’t go in there.”
He had a crumpled pack of smokes in one hand and a beer in the other.
“Plus, what happened to being on the patch?”
“That’s only for when Georgia isn’t losing to Florida.” He deftly shook her off. “I’ll quit tomorrow.”
“Yeah, just in time to tell the girls you’ll die of lung cancer one of these days – hey, I said you can’t go in there.”
“I know. Why not?”
“Jess and Chris.”
“What about them?” He grinned as she hooked a hand in his belt and made an attempt to tow him that went nowhere. “Why are we whispering?”
“Would you just come on?”
He followed her back to the gallery; Jo was struck by how very high-school this whole exchange was becoming, and didn’t care; it was kind of fun. “They’re having a…couple moment,” she explained.
He wrinkled his nose and shook a cigarette out one-handed, taking it between his teeth.
She reached up and snatched it out of his mouth. His black brows jumped, but she could see the smile he was holding back. “Oh, you wanna go there?”
“Are you listening to me? Don’t go in the kitchen.”
“They’re not going at it on the table, are they? ‘Cause I eat there, and I’m very not okay with that.”
When he made a reach for the cigarette, she tucked it behind her ear. “If they are, knowing Jess, she’ll Lysol it afterward.”
“Don’t put pictures in my head.”
“Tam.” Jo folded her arms; he’d had one too many beers, but he knew when to quit, sobering, though a smile still lingered in his eyes. “They’re going through a rough spot,” she said, keeping her voice low in case someone stepped out of the great room. “They need to get some one-on-one time, and they’re talking vacation. Which I’m totally on board with.”
He nodded. “Right, so…I’ll smoke on the front porch instead.”
“You’re not hearing me: they’re going on vacation.”
“And that means we’ll be running the inn by ourselves.”
Eyes widening, he popped the tab on his beer. “Well,” he said calmly, “shit.”