When she returned to the cabin’s main room, Chris was feeding kindling into the grate, nervous yellow flames licking at the paper towel he’d used to start the fire. She set her bags on the floor at her feet – God knew where she was supposed to put them at this point – and proceeded onto the kitchen with her groceries.
It was a man’s kitchen: outdated everything, folding card table and chairs, old beer in the fridge, TV set up on the counter. The window above the sink overlooked a pebble-floored patch of yard that was littered with leaves and pine cones, thick hardwood branches crowding against one another. It was the picture of serenity.
She unwrapped her candy bar while she stood at the counter, broke off a chunk and popped it in her mouth. I’m making the best of this, she told herself. At least Jo…
Oh, who was she kidding? Jo had probably rendered the inn to ashes by now. She had her phone in hand and was dialing when she heard Chris’s boots coming up behind her.
“Calling for backup already?” he asked.
Her thumb froze above the call button. “I was just gonna check on Jo.”
He joined her at the counter and reached to break off a square of chocolate for himself. He had that look – the grumpy, dejected one that always made her feel guilty.
Jess slipped her phone back in her coat pocket. “I’ll call her later.”
He brightened immediately. “You wanna come see the shed? Dad’s got an old chainsaw – I’m gonna see if it’ll crank and get to work on the tree.”
She blinked. “You mean, you’re going to try to remove it?”
“What’d you think I was gonna do? Call the fire department?” He laughed at the idea.
“But this is our vacation,” she said lamely.
She didn’t bother to protest about his leg. He was giving her an excited little kid face, delighted to show her the deer-dressing shed and old chainsaws and whatever other horrors awaited. “Lead the way,” she said.
Jo wasn’t burning anything…else. She set the coffee pot down on one of the refurbished antique sideboards in the dining room and gathered herself for the question she hated most. When she turned to face the table – the inn’s dining room had several small café tables along one wall for mid-afternoon snacking, but the three squares were served at the exquisite, mile-long claw-foot table draped in snowy linen and burdened with crystal candlesticks – she was met with six expectant glances. She didn’t even have to ask, it turned out.
“The blackberry preserves, dear,” Mrs. Collins reminded.
“Right.” She forced a tight smile. “I’ll be right back.” As she left the room, she called the lot of their guests some of Willa’s more colorful names for her new pre-K teacher under her breath.
On her way back to the kitchen, she passed the great room, where Tam was pretending to be Godzilla or something, covered with kids, while Tyler pretended to be too cool for that sort of thing and focused all his attention on the TV.
Ellie was scraping them into a decorative glass dish in the kitchen.
If she was honest, Jo wasn’t handling the news of Ellie’s miscarriage with the grace she should have. “You don’t have to keep helping me,” she said as she took the dish from her. “I’m sure Jordie wants to go run up a mountain or something and the girls miss their mom. I’ve got this.”
“And what, deprive him of his dad time? No, trust me. You need my help; they don’t.”
“Well” – Jo shrugged – “it’s just that it’s a nice day, and if you want to be with your family…”
Ellie gave a delicate sigh that ruffled her thick, choppy bangs. “Please don’t treat me differently now that you know,” she said. “Please, Jo, I don’t want to continue to be this poor delicate flower who almost dies on operating tables and can’t hold onto babies and needs to be coddled.”
Jo held up a hand. “I never coddle.”
Ellie’s smile was wry. “You’re very good at it, actually, but that’s beside the point. I know I’m seen as the weak one around here – ”
“Whoever said that?”
“No one has to. But I know that I am. I’m the youngest; I’m the dumb kid who married her teacher…I understand. After my medical problems…I’m trying not to be the one who needs all the support.”
There had been a time, when Jo was younger, when she’d doubted her ability to welcome new members into the family. Hers was a tight, overlapping, too-involved family, conventional and loving and all the things outsiders rolled their eyes about. “Normal Rockwell” Tam had called them. They weren’t – there were scars and claw marks – but her childhood had been so shaped by her siblings…she’d wondered how she would react to all of them going off and marrying. Tam had been hers from the beginning; he’d always been one of them, before any of them had been old enough to understand what it meant to adopt someone for life. But everyone else had found love as adults, and she’d feared, in her teenage years, that her family would fracture.
Instead, her in-laws had become deeply enmeshed within the Walker fabric. Even if it was a selfish thought, she was glad they’d become her family, rather than lose her family to them.
Jordan’s pretty, doe-eyed little student had turned out to be so much more than expected.
“Ellie,” she said, “not one person thinks you’re weak. We are all constantly amazed that you are the most grownup of us all.” She smiled. “And that you totally get my weirdo brother.”
Ellie glanced away, toward the window, color staining her high cheekbones.
“We’re all screwed up,” Jo continued. “I can’t cook. Jess can’t relax. Mike can’t stop talking about himself…Delta can’t wear off-the-rack dresses – ”
“ – being a little less than perfect means you belong with us,” she finished.
Ellie’s eyes were glittering with emotion when she met her gaze. “Thanks, Jo.”
Jo smiled. “You’re welcome. Oh, and don’t go anywhere. I was bluffing; these snotty old people are going to be the death of me.”
As if on cue, a light rap of knuckles sounded from the other side of the swinging kitchen door. A moment later, the panel eased open, and Mrs. Collins poked her head through. “How’s it coming with those preserves, dear?”
“What’s that noise?”
“The music of chainsaws,” Jess said. “Chainsaw, to be correct.”
“He’s cutting it up now?”
“Well.” Jess broke off enough square of chocolate. “Wouldn’t you? I’m heaps of fun right now, after all.”
She was sitting at the kitchen card table as the last fingers of sunlight retreated from the forest canopy, leaving the woods around them in spooky shades of indigo and gray. Chris had managed to remove the bulk of the tree from inside the bedroom, and was whittling down the trunk into sections he could split for firewood. Jess had called to check on the inn, and relate the tree-in-the-bed story to her sister.
Jo thought it was hilarious.
“I’m laughing with you.”
“But I’m not laughing.”
“For you, then,” Jo corrected. “You gotta admit it’s funny. Did you honestly think a romantic getaway would be romantic?”
“No,” Jess admitted. “I knew better.”
“Romance is overrated,” Jo said. “You should be glad you don’t have Mrs. Collins and company breathing down your damn neck.”
“Are they driving you nuts?”
“And then some. But everything’s under control,” she added hastily. “There’s nothing for you to worry about.”
“Are you sure? I think my mountain man would be perfectly happy by himself.”
There was a pause. “I’m gonna pretend I didn’t just think of fifteen wood jokes.”
“They were good jokes, though.”
Jo assured another half dozen times that Rosewood was still standing, the kids were fed, and that she should try to enjoy herself; Jess hung up with a strange sense of melancholy. She missed her kids. Missed her home. Missed the chaos of living with her sister’s family.
I’ve become homebound, she thought wryly. She didn’t want or need anyone but her family. All her friends – her posh, married friends who’d been a part of her life with Dylan – had pulled away, and she’d let them go without a backward thought. Her annual Halloween blowout was family-only these days, and people like Paige and Trey who counted as such. She had never been one to want to lean too heavily on people. Not on anyone. She’d worked so hard to be self-sufficient…
But that had been another life. Another version of herself…one she wasn’t as proud of. She’d learned, in the last few years, that it was okay to lean on the people who loved her.