Amy closed her suitcase and looked around the bedroom she shared with her husband, Stephen. Everything was neatly in place, just the way she liked it. Stephen teased her that she’d fall down dead if the clock showed eight A.M. and she didn’t have all the beds made. But he didn’t fool her; he liked the house to be clean and neat as much as she did.
She sat down on the buttoned bench at the foot of the bed and sighed. I can’t do this, she thought for the thousandth time. For that matter, why was she being made to do it? She wasn’t good with strangers, wasn’t good in social situations where she had to meet people and make chitchat. She liked going to the same places, seeing the same people, and talking about their same lives. So what was wrong with that? If it made her feel safe, so what?
Just because Stephen and his father knew some therapist and she suggested that Amy get away for a while didn’t make it necessary. Besides, what gave that woman the right to tell other people what they should do with their lives?
“You have on your sulky face again,” Stephen said from the doorway.
It flashed through her mind that this was her last chance to show her husband how much she hated being sent away, so she tried to keep her look of anguish. But it didn’t work. He was leaning against the doorway, wearing dark gray trousers and a crisp white shirt. Sunlight was coming in from the window across the stairs behind him, making the light hit his dark blond hair in a way that made a halo around his head. When he smiled, his blue eyes seemed to emit starlight. She could feel her body growing limp.
“Don’t give me that look,” he said. “The kids are downstairs diving into their Froot Loops and we don’t have time to…” He gave a little one-sided grin and nodded toward the bed.
It took Amy three whole seconds to react. “You gave them Froot Loops? Do you know what’s in that stuff? Sugar!” She was running toward him and the doorway when he caught her about the waist.
“That got you out of your stupor,” he said, pulling her to him. “They’re not eating anything illegal.” He nuzzled his face in her neck. “They’re having one of those sawdust cereals you buy for them.”
She pushed away and glared at him. “But I bet that the minute I’m out of here, you’ll let them have everything they want.”
“Why not?” Stephen said, smiling, still holding on to her. “I’ll be the good guy and you’ll be the dictator.”
She twisted out of his grip. “That’s not funny.”
He dropped his hands to his sides and his face became serious. “Amy, we’ve been over this a thousand times. I’m not going to leave you here alone.”
“Then stay with me. Or go with me.”
“No,” he said firmly. “I promised the boys this camping trip and I’m going to do it.” He smiled a bit. “You’re welcome to go with us.”
Amy rolled her eyes. She loved her husband and two young sons passionately, but camping? During the one camping trip she’d gone on, three years ago, she’d been so nervous that she’d made all of them miserable.
There had been an open campfire and a toddler. She stayed awake for the first three nights, terrified that her youngest son was going to wake up and walk into the fire.
There had been bugs, dirt, and no bathrooms. When they finally hiked out of the place, she had fallen asleep in the car, exhausted and relieved that the ordeal was at last over.
During the following year, neither Stephen nor their oldest son mentioned that Amy had spent the entire week complaining. But the next summer when Stephen spoke of another camping trip, before Amy could say a word, he said, “I vote that this year we leave Mommy at home.” Both had agreed.
After that, Amy’s extreme hatred of camping had become a family joke, and she had laughed along with them. The second year, she’d helped them pack nutritious food, buy the best camping gear, then she’d happily waved them off. She spent a luxurious week repainting both of the boys’ bedrooms and going to the gym. When they returned, all four of them were happy to see one another and had had much to talk about. Amy had been in such a good mood that she’d laughed when she found her homemade, good-for-you food still in the cooler, right next to a bag full of empty wrappers for every disgusting, high-sugar, high-fat thing they could find at the local convenience store. It took the boys nearly three days to come off their sugar high. But then, it had taken Stephen the same amount of time to come down, and since he expended his energy in the bedroom with Amy, she didn’t complain.
This year was to be their fourth camping trip, their third without Amy, but now things were different. Four months ago, she had miscarried their third child, a little girl, and Amy had not been able to recover from her grief.
Everyone said that she was young and she could “try again,” but nothing consoled Amy. She had reacted by closing into herself, not wanting to get out or see anyone.
Through it all, Stephen had been wonderful. He’d done the grocery shopping and he’d been the one to go to the boys’ last teacher conference. At church he’d made excuses for why Amy wasn’t there. He said she had the flu, then bronchitis. Not one person believed him. They patted him on the arm and said, “Give her time.”
Stephen had gone home, battled with the boys to get them out of their good clothes before going outside, then told Amy every word the people at church had said about her absence. For the last two Sundays, she’d still been in bed when they returned.
But a few weeks ago, things had changed. His father called him at work and asked him to go to lunch with the wife of a friend of his. She was a therapist. Stephen had thanked his father for the offer, but said he couldn’t possibly go. Between all that he had to do at work and his new responsibilities at home, things that Amy usually took care of, he was overwhelmed. The day before he’d put on socks that didn’t match and a new client had noticed. For the ten years that they’d been married, Amy had always put out his clothes for him. The truth was that he didn’t know where his socks were kept.
But his father knew how to get his son to do what he wanted. “Are you saying that you don’t want Amy to get back to her true, bossy little self? Do you want to spend the rest of your life with a woman who can hardly get out of bed? Do you want to start dressing yourself?”
Stephen sighed. He knew he’d lost this argument before it began. However, he had the presence of mind to ask about the woman. He didn’t want to be conned into sending Amy to somebody who rang bells and burned incense. According to his father, the woman had credentials “a mile long.” “She works with some big names,” his father said. “I can’t tell you who they are because — ”
“I know,” Stephen said, “breach of trust. I just don’t want to waste my time with her if all she’s going to tell me to do is sit down with Amy and reason with her. I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work.”
His father hesitated. “Are you saying you want to give her drugs?” There was horror in his voice.
“No, of course not! I want…I don’t know, maybe I’m looking for magic.”
His father snorted. “Good luck on that! But do give Jeanne a try.”
“I’ll give her anything I can, but it’s Amy who won’t listen to anyone.”
“Sometimes, son, you just need to be the man of the house.”
Stephen looked at the phone and grimaced. “Sure, Dad, I’ll club her over the head and drag her around by her hair.”
“The good ol’ days are gone, son, and all of us men have to face that.”
His father said the words so seriously that Stephen laughed. “Okay, point made. I’ll listen to the woman and do whatever she wants us to do. I just hope we don’t have to sit in a candlelit circle with a bunch of strangers and tell our innermost fears.”
His father chuckled. “From what I’ve seen of Jeanne that would be her worst nightmare. She’s pretty down-to-earth and she tells it like she sees it.”
“Oh great,” Stephen groaned. “Dr. Phil on hormones.”
“I’m glad to see that you haven’t made up your mind about her.”
Stephen started to reply but his secretary tapped on the glass wall of his office to let him know that the meeting was starting in three minutes. “I have to go, but I’ll see her. It can’t hurt to talk to her.”
“At this point, nothing can hurt.”
Stephen put down the phone, slipped on his suit jacket, and went to his meeting. The next day, he met with Jeanne Hightower at a restaurant near his office. Later, he was ashamed to admit to himself that he’d gone to the lunch with a certainty that it was going to fail. He knew that Amy would refuse to go to a stranger and talk about her problems. She’d think that going to a therapist meant she was one step away from being committed to an insane asylum. But then, Amy loved historical novels and often tended to think in nineteenth-century terms.
Stephen had been startled at the look of the woman. She was quite a bit overweight and looked like someone’s grandmother, not a therapist who dealt with “celebrities,” as his father had told him in a second conversation.
Stephen braced himself for a long, nerve-racking luncheon in which he’d be asked all about the state of his marriage and whether he and Amy were faithful to each other. Instead, as soon as he sat down, Jeanne pushed a folded piece of paper toward him.
“I think we should get business out of the way first. Your father told me about your wife and I think she should spend a few days at my house in Maine.”
“What?” was all Stephen could manage to say.
“Your father told me that you and your sons go on a camping trip every year and that Amy usually stays home and works on the house.”
Stephen’s back stiffened. The woman was making it sound like Amy had to fix the plumbing on a shack. “She usually does some decorating, yes,” he said.
Jeanne smiled at him. “While you and your kids go camping, get your wife to go to this place on those dates. I have a couple of other women who’ll be there and I think the three of them will mesh.”
Stephen opened the paper, saw the address in faraway Maine and the dates of his camping trip. He smiled at her in a patronizing way. “Amy has a mind of her own and she would never agree to spend time alone with strangers. For that matter, I’m not sure I like the idea either.”
“Okay,” Jeanne said and picked up her menu. “What’s good to eat here?”
Stephen frowned. “Is that it? You’re just going to drop it?”
Jeanne looked up at him with twinkling eyes. “You could always tell me about your wildest sex experience. Unless it’s boring, that is. But if it’s a good one, I’d like to hear about it.”
All the stiffness left him and he smiled. He realized that she had seen and felt his reluctance, and she’d quickly managed to relax him. “You are good, aren’t you?”
“The best. In fact, I’m so good that if you tell me you’ll use all of your gorgeous six feet to persuade your wife to go to my house in Maine, I’ll not mention another word about it and you and I can have a nice lunch together. You don’t happen to like baseball, do you?”
“Love it,” Stephen said as he slipped the note into his shirt pocket and picked up his menu. With his head down, he said, “By the way, it’s two.”
She blinked at him for a moment, then smiled. “Right. Six feet two. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to tell me about your sex fantasies?”
“Fantasies?” he said, his eyes on the menu. “You mean like the one where I wear tall black boots and ride a black horse and Amy is — ?”
“Your wife?” Jeanne said, her eyes wide. “Your sex fantasies involve your wife?”
“Always have, always will,” he said. “We met when we were just three days old and we’ve been — ”
“If you spend my lunch hour telling me your life story I swear I’ll charge you double my hourly rate.”
“Even if I tell you about the sword?”
Jeanne hesitated. “Okay, I’ll have my secretary call yours and I’ll schedule you for next week.”
“In your dreams,” Stephen said.
It hadn’t been easy for him to persuade Amy to agree to go to Maine. They didn’t usually argue — his father said it was because Stephen let Amy make all the rules — but this time they did.
“I do not want to go to some faraway state and spend weeks with a bunch of women I’ve never met. Women you heard about through a therapist.”
She made the last word sound like “witch doctor.”
Stephen was determined to not let her wear him down so he stood his ground. “You cannot stay here in this house alone while the boys and I go camping.”
“Then I’ll go with you.”
That idea horrified Stephen so much that he’d taken a step back from her. His reaction set Amy off into the tears that were always near the surface these days.
He threw up his hands in futility. “Amy, other women would kill for this chance. You get to get away from us and this house that you work on like a galley slave and you — ”
“Is that what you think of me? As a…What did you call me? A galley slave?”
“You’re not going to twist this around so I’m the villain. I think this is a good thing for you to do.”
“I don’t know these women and neither do you. Who knows what they’re like? They’re in therapy. For what? Murder?”
“Amy, calm down. It’s true that we don’t know them, but Jeanne does and she — ”
“And I guess you know this Jeanne person?”
Stephen thought back to their luncheon and the two subsequent phone conversations and he couldn’t help smiling. For all that she was old enough to be his grandmother and as wide as she was tall, there was something sexy about her. When his secretary heard him laughing on the phone she had raised her eyebrows.
“What does that smile mean?” Amy asked, advancing on him. “That’s a sex smile, isn’t it? There’s something more going on with you and her than just therapy, isn’t there?”
Stephen stopped smiling. “How did you guess? I’ve been having an affair with Jeanne Hightower for weeks now. Great sex. She likes my sword the best. And the tall leather boots.” He left the room before Amy could say another word.
That argument had been a turning point. That night Amy put on her prettiest lacy nightgown and snuggled up against him. They hadn’t had sex in weeks. But Stephen knew what she was doing and he was having none of it. It took all his resolve but he’d moved away from her and gone to sleep. Never before had he turned down her invitation for sex.
The next morning Amy got up early and made them breakfast. She didn’t say much during the meal, and it had been a solemn occasion. Usually, the boys were talking on top of each other and kicking each other under the table, but that morning all four of them had been quiet.
As Stephen left for work, Amy told him she’d go to Maine. It had been a victory for him, but he hadn’t liked being a bully to make her do what he wanted her to.
Since she’d told him she’d go, she’d done everything she could to get out of her promise, but Stephen remained steadfast. He saw how she was pretending to be more cheerful, but he also saw how she would stand and look out the kitchen window for half an hour at a time. He had known her all his life and he’d never seen her like this. When her mother died six years ago, Amy had mourned then moved on, but since the miscarriage she seemed to have stepped back from the world.
Stephen couldn’t see how a few days at a summerhouse in Maine with some strangers would help, but he had no other ideas. Every day, Amy seemed to move deeper inside herself. Slowly, he seemed to be losing her.
And he knew that if he lost Amy, he’d lose his life. She was his life. She had been everything to him for his entire life, through kindergarten, elementary school, high school, college. She had always been there, always with him. When they were six, one day over milk and cookies, she’d said, “Let’s get married right after we get out of college. I want a big wedding, and I want three children: two boys, then a girl. Okay?” Stephen had nodded in agreement. They had never talked about it again but it was exactly what they’d done.
The only flaw in the plan had been the miscarriage, and with the break in Amy’s perfect life she seemed to have lost something that she couldn’t get back.
Now, he had to work to keep from giving in to her. He knew that if he said yes, why didn’t she forget about Maine and go camping with them, Amy would explode in happiness. She’d throw herself at him for a moment, then she’d bustle around to hurry and get everything and everyone ready. Amy the dynamo of energy, happiest when she was organizing people. Their pastor once said that he didn’t know if he could run the church without Amy.
But Stephen knew that Amy’s happiness wouldn’t last long. By the time they got to the campground she’d be staring out the window, her mind only half on what was going on around them.
And, of course, there was the horror of a camping trip with Amy. Cleaning fish was not her idea of fun. Campfires scared the wits out of her, and he didn’t want to think about her lectures on what could be crawling inside a sleeping bag. No, camping was for him and the boys. No bathing, no shaving, no eating anything that was remotely good for them. Last year he’d won the belching contest but he feared his youngest son might win this year. He meant to practice on the drive to the campground. He and the boys were going to buy one each of every cola they could find and see which one produced the most gas. The big contest would be on their last night out. The winner got the plastic vomit that was hidden at the bottom of his backpack.
No, he didn’t want Amy with them on the camping trip. But if she was at home, with no reason to get out of bed, he’d never enjoy himself.
“All packed?” he asked cheerfully. Amy gave him a pleading look, but he ignored it. “Dad should be here soon to take you to the airport.” His father said that Stephen would cave if Amy shed even one tear at the airport, so someone other than his son had to drive her there.
“Yes,” she mumbled in such a sad voice that Stephen almost gave in to her. But he squared his shoulders, picked up her suitcase, and left the room. Amy scuffled along behind him.
Amy said nothing on the way to the airport with her father-in-law. She knew from long experience that she wouldn’t get anywhere with Lewis Hanford. When she was four, he’d watched her and Stephen playing in the sandpile and he’d said to her, “You’re as bossy as they come, aren’t you?” Amy’d had no answer for that so she’d just blinked up at him. He was a tall man, with broad shoulders and a hard, flat stomach. She didn’t know it then but he’d played semipro football until an injured knee had sent him home. He wasn’t the easiest man to live with, nor were his three eldest sons who were just like him.
Amy looked up at the man, utterly unafraid of his size or his gruff manner. “Stephen and I are going to get married.”
Lewis looked at his youngest son, the incredibly beautiful, blond Stephen who had a temperament just like his mother’s. He was always in a good mood, always happy, very easy to get along with. “I think you two will do very well together,” Lewis said, then went into the house. Neither he nor Amy spoke of the matter again. To them, it had been settled that day.
Now, in the car, she confronted him. “I’ll never forgive you for making Stephen send me away,” she said under her breath.
“Add it to the list you already have against me.”
“That list fills up a roll of paper that is now too heavy for me to lift.”
She knew how to get to him and he smiled. “You’ll be fine,” he said gently. For all of their arguments over the years, he loved her as the daughter he’d never had. His three eldest sons had all married and divorced and their lives were now full of exes and steps. But Amy was a person who made up her mind and never swayed from her decisions. And she was still unafraid of him.
“Oh, so you’ve met these women who have to go to a therapist for whatever horrible things have happened in their lives.”
“Like losing a baby?” he asked softly.
Amy turned to look out the side window. “I didn’t go to anyone for that.”
“But you should have.”
She looked back at him. “Like you should have when Marta died?”
“Yeah, I should have,” he said loudly. “I should have gone to talk to someone instead of drinking myself into a stupor every night for a year and trying to run my truck into a tree.”
“All right,” she said in a tone meant to calm him down. “I was willing to go talk to someone — ” His look made her backtrack. “Okay, so maybe I wasn’t willing to talk about what was a very private matter to me, but going to spend time in a house with strangers…I don’t see how that will do me any good.”
” ‘Spend time,’ ” he said. “You make it sound like you’re off to prison. What do they sell up in Maine?”
“Sell? I don’t know. Lobsters. Blueberries.”
“You better bring back some food. Stevie and the boys will be full of the junk they’re taking on the camping trip and they’ll need something good.”
“If you’re trying to make me angry, you’re succeeding.”
“Good. I like you angry better than weepy.” He stopped in front of the departure area of the local airport.
“I still don’t see how my Stephen could be related to you.”
She waited for him to reply but he just sat there. Obviously, he wasn’t going to help her with her suitcase. Again she thought how Lewis and his three eldest sons were Neanderthals. Stephen opened doors for women, carried anything that weighed more than their handbags, and sang in the church choir. Lewis and the “boys” smashed beer cans on their foreheads.
She got out, opened the back, and hauled her heavy bag out. Before she closed the door she said, “Ever think that maybe Marta came to her senses and Stephen isn’t yours?”
When Lewis looked at her with fury on his face, Amy gave him a sweet smile and slammed the door shut. He took off so fast she had to grab her hand back.
She went into the airport to start the long security check.
Copyright © 2008 by Deveraux, Inc.