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First pages

Prologue

Ava Whitaker

The letters on the computer screen blurred, mimicking the whirling haze in Ava’s mind. How did a simple work project lead to such intrigue over a man she only met online? Now, he wanted to meet her in person. Why not? He knew she was married and swore he just wanted to be friends. Coffee shops were public places, so she didn’t need to fear being attacked. But, did she really fear an attack or the attraction between them?

Sitting on the sofa with the computer on her lap, Ava shook her head and snickered at herself. Silly of her to imagine he felt the same enticement as she did for him. His words had caught her attention at first, but then his photo…

Oh dear. Her resistance weakened at the memory of his shadowy beard punctuating a bright smile with a dimple in his right cheek. A Keith Urban haircut and tight T-shirt added to the rogue appeal.

She grinned, her insides tickling over the prospect of actually seeing him in the flesh. She hadn’t reacted like this to a man in years—that bad boy image drew her like a magnet.

A heavy exhale blew through Ava’s lips. Why, oh why did her boss, the congressman, have to assign her to read the political discussion board where she’d met up with the enigmatic man? Before even laying eyes on his picture, he hooked her with his intellectual words. She loved a good debate, and apparently he did too, as he showed enormous interest in her own points of view. He said she opened his mind to new perspectives, and he enjoyed how she made him laugh. Friendly compliments, or flirting? Either way, the adulation felt good, because she certainly didn’t get any from her husband.

Ava rested her head back on the sofa pillows, closed her eyes and released a melancholy sigh. The men she dated before marriage were trouble. Ava thought she’d struck gold when falling in love with a clean-cut, respectful family man. Her heart and hopes sank, because a stable life with him now seemed near impossible.

Over the past twenty years, her husband had switched from calm and compassionate, to insensitive, withdrawn and self-involved. She didn’t know how to awaken the loving man she’d married who seemed buried deep inside. Even when they were in the same room, he was absent from their marriage.

She jerked her head upright, her neck stiffening with indignation toward herself. How could she compromise her core principles? Normally, nothing would justify even contemplating the idea. Is this what it’s come to? Am I really that unhappy?

Meg Whitaker

Meg, the newest member of the symphony orchestra, eyed the conductor as he spoke to a percussionist before rehearsal. Wavy blond hair touched the top of his shoulders. Despite a small frame, the defined muscles rippled in his lean arms. Definitely different from her husband’s larger, but flabby, build.

He moved toward the podium and caught her staring. Their eyes locked for a few intense seconds, until he raised his baton, and they each concentrated on the job at hand.

Violin to her chin, Meg read the music in front of her.

The conductor’s arms floated to and fro, his body swaying.

During a break from her part in the composition, Meg caught his eyes again and thought she’d drown in their sea of green. His masculinity pulled her toward him uncontrollably. Did he continue to watch her through the corner of his eye?

Unexpected giddiness welled inside her. She couldn’t remember ever feeling so aroused. Certainly her husband didn’t elicit such a thrill, not even in the early stages of their relationship.

Meg had forgotten what she ever saw in her sports-minded husband. How could she have thought they were a good match those twenty-plus years ago? With her dream to play in an orchestra finally realized, life with him appeared unrefined. The man had no interest in her activities, and honestly, she hated sports. For years she supported his endeavors. When the time came for him to reciprocate, he mocked “those flighty musicians.”

She longed to be understood and imagined being loved by someone who recognized her talents.

Meg and the conductor had immediately clicked during the few times they spoke. She held back a grin thinking about how much they had in common. Did she misinterpret his signals, or did he feel the same compelling pull? Maybe the handsome musician would steal her away, replacing her empty life with fulfillment and joy.

Chapter One

Ava

Nineteen Years Earlier

Ava entered her dark apartment feeling for a light switch. She loved autumn but wasn’t a fan of the shorter daylight hours. With no time to change clothes before cooking their first meal as a married couple, she hung up her coat and headed directly into the kitchen. They had returned to their suburban Chicago home only yesterday from their honeymoon.

While cooking, scenes of Hawaii’s aquamarine sea and black sand beaches played in her mind. Water splashed out from the sink onto her emerald skirt waking her from the daydream. Ava dabbed at the material with a dry dish cloth, and then pulled an apron out of a drawer. She slipped the strap over her head and under her shoulder length hair before tying the garment at the waist. Thankfully, plain old water couldn’t stain her favorite work outfit. She liked how the magenta and blue print blouse, along with the green skirt, flattered her buttery skin tone and golden brown waves.

Ava flurried around the counter from item to item, while minced garlic sizzled in a pan.

Alex traipsed in from work and tossed his jacket over the sofa’s armrest. “Mmm, something smells good.”

“Hon, let’s hang up our coats in the closet right when we get home, k?” she spoke through the breakfast counter opening.

“Sure.” He moved into the tight kitchen and wrapped his long, lean arms around his bride. “This is heaven, coming home to my hot Italian babe cooking for me.”

“Your Italian babe likes a clean home.”

“Eh, well I guess I can’t have everything.” He winked, then picked an olive from a jar and popped it in his mouth.

Ava passed him two plates. “Can you please set the table?”

They were in their mid-twenties and had waited to move in together until after the wedding. She couldn’t believe the time finally arrived…the honeymoon over and living together as husband and wife. It didn’t seem real, almost like they were playing house. Ava glanced at the coat still on the seat, then reminded herself that adjusting to each other might take some time.

The phone rang as he placed the last piece of silverware on the round table in the dining area.

Alex picked up a cordless from its base on the counter. “Hello … Heya, Joss …yeah…we’re about to eat…okay…tonight? I don’t know, hold on.” He held a palm over the receiver and turned to his wife. “Do you think we can go over to Jocelyn’s tonight?”

“Why? Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, but she barely goes two hours without talking to her brothers. It’s been a whole two weeks since before our honeymoon. I’m surprised she didn’t try calling us in Hawaii.”

“Heh,” Ava chuckled. “Okay, I guess we can go after dinner.”

He quickly hung up with his sister, and the newlyweds settled in to eat. Alex stabbed a fork into his salad. The front of his dark hair swooped over one side of his forehead.

Ava snickered at how he savored every morsel of the pasta fagioli, groaning with pleasure during his first couple of bites. She cooked for him often, but never grew tired of his appreciation. When they first started dating, he told Ava he never understood other people’s passion for food until meeting her. His family, the Whitakers, mostly ate bland meats and potatoes.

Ava sipped some soda and placed it back down on the table. “Why is your sister eager for us to visit so soon?”

“She said they missed us while we were gone.” He dipped a shard of Italian bread into some sauce and crunched into it.

“Really?” Sensing more to the story, her intuition bristled.

Alex helped to clean dishes after dinner, coaxing her to hurry in order to get to Jocelyn’s. She loved his family but didn’t understand the rush.

◊◊◊

“Come on in,” Jocelyn greeted them at the door.

Though chilly outside, the house felt too warm and smelled of hot dogs. Ava draped her jacket across the back of a dining room chair. Blue cushions were tied to each seat, adding to the country style décor. For a young woman of twenty-nine, Jocelyn had the taste of a little old lady. She even wore pants with elastic waistbands which fit smooth over her plump bottom. At least she wore some make-up; a soft turquoise shadow complemented her dark hair and eyes.

Alex’s younger brother, Mason, and his wife, Meg, sprawled out comfortably at the other side of the table.

“Hey there.” Ava waved at them.

Jocelyn pulled a chair out from under the table. “Sit down. Have something to eat. We saved some for you.”

“I told you over the phone that we were eating dinner, Joss,” Alex said.

“Oh, I thought you decided to eat here instead.” She shrugged. “Well, you two can afford the calories.”

His siblings usually referred to Alex as “the scrawny one,” and he seemed accustomed to being treated like it too. Showing no resistance, he sat down to eat a second dinner.

“Aren’t you going to have something, Ava?” Jocelyn cocked her head sideways. “I made enough for everyone.”

“No, thank you.” Ava tapped her belly. “Dinner was enough, but I didn’t eat dessert yet if you have something sweet.”

Jocelyn shot straight into the kitchen and carried out a plate with slices of pumpkin Bundt cake, then joined them at the table.

Ava admired Jocelyn’s strength. As the oldest, she must’ve felt responsible to take care of her younger teenage brothers when their mom died eight years ago. A motherly role fit her well, because she excelled at nurturing, protecting and managing the Whitaker family. She watched out for their dad’s well-being and warmly accepted her brothers wives like sisters. Jocelyn’s gift of caretaking spread even further to her own two toddlers.

“Where are the kids?” Ava asked. She loved being a new aunt by marriage.

“They went to bed right before you got here. You might’ve seen them if you’d gotten here a little earlier.”

The woman merely stated a fact, but Ava wondered…could it have been a dig?

“So, how are the newlyweds?” Mason asked, leaning back with one arm stretched behind Meg on the chair next to him. His square, stocky build fit his athletic background. Although the youngest, his masculine, hairy build made him appear older than his brother.

“Good,” Alex muffled through a mouthful.

Jocelyn meandered around the table pouring coffee. “Can’t wait to see your honeymoon pictures.”

“Yeah,” Meg agreed. Her dusty-blonde hair complimented a creamy, smooth complexion. “You guys had the best honeymoon of all of us. Mason and I went to the Wisconsin Dells.”

Jocelyn chimed in, “David and I spent ours in Galena.”

Ava didn’t know how to respond. Were they happy for Alex spending his honeymoon in Hawaii, or jealous? She decided to change the subject. “Anything exciting happen while we were away?”

“As a matter of fact,” Jocelyn grinned, “we do have some news to share.”

“Oh?” Ava’s earlier hunch about something more to the story proved correct, and this time it felt like a bomb about to drop.

Jocelyn set her palms down flat on the table, directing the conversation toward Alex. “Well, you know the pharmaceutical company Dad works for moved to Milwaukee, right?”

Her brother nodded.

“Dad’s been living in that tiny rental efficiency and needs to find a house. It’s been a royal pain for him to drive over a hundred miles to see us. When David and I went there to help him find a home, we ended up finding something for all of us!” She chirped the news like a cheerful song bird.

Alex shook his head and crinkled his nose. “Huh?”

“We found a big house with a ‘mother-in-law’ apartment attached. We’re moving to Milwaukee with Dad!” Smiling, Jocelyn clasped her hands.

“Are you kidding?” Alex’s voice lowered, the tone he used when sounding troubled.

“Nope.”

“What about David’s job here?”

Her attitude grew even perkier. “He found a job at an accounting firm in Milwaukee and starts after the first of the year.”

At the other end of the table, David nodded with approval. “Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t been really happy at my job here anyway.”

His comment tweaked Ava’s curiosity. He rarely voiced any discontent. She never saw him contradict his wife. Perhaps he accepted it as a tradeoff for the way Jocelyn served his every need.

Alex sipped a glass of water and swallowed hard. “Whoa, this is news. Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“It was a surprise to us, too. Once we decided, everything happened so fast.”

“You seem excited about it.” Ava tried to sound happy for them, but something seemed off. Her dreams of having his family over to their place for gatherings slowly faded away.

“Oh yes, we are.” Jocelyn pointed toward Mason and Meg. “Those two are thinking about making the move too. Mason even put in some applications to teach at one of the high schools there.”

“Geez, isn’t getting me married off good enough? Now you’re anxious to get farther away?” Alex tried to make it sound like a joke, but Ava could tell it bothered him.

“Don’t be silly. You know our family always sticks together.” Jocelyn showed a secretive smirk. “That’s why we all discussed it, and we want you guys to move there too. Alex, you can ask the airlines for a transfer to Milwaukee.”

Ava wanted to scream. What about her job as an aide to the congressman? We’ve only spent two days in our apartment together, and now they expect us to move to another state?

“This is a new one on me, Joss.” Alex responded in his usual careful way. “I need time to digest it.”

“I understand. Think about it, but I know you’ll want to be by your family. Dad needs us near him.”

Ava loved his family and wanted them to love her. Was she supposed to uproot from her home, her own parents, a sibling and a great job in order to win the Whitakers approval?

◊◊◊

Ava respected their decision to move for the sake of Robert’s career, but she couldn’t help feeling abandoned by her husband’s family. She and Alex didn’t even have a chance to settle in as a married couple, and within weeks his family was gone.

An overnight bag lay open on the bed while Ava packed some toiletries in a pouch. It’ll be strange to spend the first Thanksgiving away from my home and family. Six weeks after the wedding, and her heart sagged with melancholy over having to spend the holiday 120 miles away in Wisconsin. Of course, she knew marriage meant incorporating another family into her lifestyle, but never expected the long distance between them. Another unforeseen obstacle…the heavy weight of family pressure to stay overnight and help the Whitakers move on the holiday weekend.

Ava slouched. That leaves no time for my family.

After dropping a miniature tube of toothpaste into the pouch, she zipped it up and packed the sack in with the rest of their things. At least she looked forward to seeing Jocelyn and Robert’s new place for the first time.

Alex lugged their suitcases to the car and the two of them took the congested highway to Wisconsin. They met the other seven members of his family at a restaurant where his Dad, Robert paid for their Thanksgiving meal.

The Greek restaurant incorporated its potato salad and baklava in with an American Turkey meal. Robert sat at the head of the table and appeared to radiate with pride in his family.

“I sure am going to miss you guys, but I’m glad you look happy, Dad,” Alex’s warm brown eyes emitted sincerity.

Robert rubbed his small belly and shined the attractive smile her husband had inherited. “We’ll miss you too, kid. You know, we’d love to have you join us, but we understand.”

Jocelyn shook her head. “Well, not me. I’m holding out hope he’ll put in for a transfer.”

A stabbing pain hit Ava between her shoulder blades. Why didn’t they consider her feelings and what she’d have to give up in order to move?

Mason chimed in. “Look at it this way, Joss. His clown feet won’t take up as much space. We’ll have more room without him around as often.”

“Oh.” Jocelyn waved him down.

“Yeah well, I won’t have to put up with the smell coming off of your feet anymore. So, there’s a plus for me too … shorty.” Alex retorted with a grin.

“Hey you two,” Robert winked, “We could use a little less feet…and mouth from both of you.”

Everyone chuckled.

Ava loved her father-in-law. Alex inherited his sense of humor and easy going personality. But, sometimes she thought Robert was a bit too compliant. Despite the lack of backbone, his warmth and acceptance endeared him to her.

The Whitaker clan finished up their meals and headed over to Jocelyn’s new house. As soon as they stepped inside, Alex’s eyes widened. “Wow, this place is huge! You guys have your hands full moving into this mansion.”

Jocelyn placed coats onto a nearby chair. “Oh, don’t exaggerate.”

“Be prepared,” Meg joined the conversation. Her normally sparkling blue eyes drooped at the corners. “I’m exhausted from helping them unpack the truck yesterday. Tomorrow we’ll all have lots of boxes to dig into.”

Jocelyn breathed a heavy sigh. “I need the house ready by Christmas. I’m dying to decorate and serve us all our first holiday meal here.”

Ava shot a glare over to Alex. Do I get to spend a holiday with my family? Getting no reaction from her husband, she stored the thoughts away for a private conversation at another time.

“Are you ready for a tour?” Jocelyn’s voice rang.

“For sure,” Ava answered while taking in the grand high ceilings adorning the auditorium- sized great room with stone fireplace. A raised hearth held poinsettias scrunched between boxes.

“You’ll love the kitchen.” Jocelyn chattered and led the way.

Ava envied the gray marble counter tops and center-island in the large square kitchen. Jocelyn’s affinity for country décor persisted, but the new place had a fresh, cleaner look. Chair rails split the white walls above, from blue below, accented further with white baseboards.

They followed Jocelyn downstairs.

“Wow, what a beautiful finished basement.” Ava said as she took the last step down onto the soft gray Berber. “This carpet keeps the floor from getting cold.”

Jocelyn pointed to an area beside the stairs. “This is where we plan to put a ping-pong table, and the kids play area will be over there.” Her arms swung around pointing at the different areas. “There’s even space for air mattresses for when you guys stay overnight. And, over here…” She moved around the opposite end of the stairwell to a little alcove. “This is one of the entrance’s to Dad’s apartment. The other one is on the far west side of the house.”

Footsteps descending on the stairs alerted them to Robert’s presence. He must’ve kept an ear on their conversation. “Come on, I’ll show you my place.”

At the end of the tour, Ava was impressed. She figured Robert likely covered the mortgage of such a palatial home. David certainly couldn’t afford it on his accountant’s salary, and Jocelyn stayed home to raise the kids. The arrangement worked well for all of them.

On Friday, after Thanksgiving Day, the family spent their time assembling furniture, lifting, unpacking and putting away items. By early evening, exhaustion set in, sending most of them to bed early.

Wearing her robe, Ava stopped in the kitchen to take some aspirin for a slight headache.

Jocelyn scuffled in, searching for something in the cabinet drawers. She wore flannel pajamas.

“This place is great for the five of you.” Ava spoke softly, standing near the basement door.

“I know. I’m so happy we found it. I can’t wait to have Christmas here.”

“Oh yeah, that reminds me.” Ava needed to nip the holiday situation in the bud. “We can see you guys on Christmas Eve, but we’ll be spending Christmas Day with my family.”

“You can still do both.” Jocelyn opened a drawer without looking at her.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, since it’s such a long drive, you can stay overnight on Christmas Eve. That way you can be here on Christmas morning with Gramps and Grammy. You can go home later to your family.” Jocelyn folded a dish towel over the handle of the oven.

“I don’t think so. We’ll have no time left to celebrate with my family after the long drive back to Illinois.”

“You think it over. We Whitakers are flexible. We’ll work something out. And, I’m sure you’re going to want to see Gramps and Grammy.” Jocelyn used a matter-of-fact tone, not sounding upset at all.

Ava didn’t know what to make of the conversation. Did she mean to imply that Ava wasn’t flexible?

◊◊◊

During the weeks leading up to Christmas, the newlyweds made one other trip to Wisconsin. Ava mentioned their holiday plans again, but Jocelyn simply stated, “You think about it some more.”

Undeterred, Ava stuck to her original plan, and they arrived at noon on Christmas Eve. She hoped spending all day there might mollify the situation.

Jocelyn welcomed them with open arms, showing no sign of agitation over a stand-off about where to spend the holiday.

When Alex’s sister fixed lunch for everyone, Ava asked, “Aren’t we going to wait for Meg and Mason to get here from Illinois?”

“No, they’ll be here later.” She placed a platter on the table.

Ava didn’t realize how much later. Hours went by as she played games with the little ones. Alex joined her with the kids on occasion, in between watching television with David. Robert visited for short spurts and other times disappeared into his apartment.

Nearing five o’clock, Ava traipsed into the kitchen to find her sister-in-law prepping dinner. “Do you need any help in here?”

Jocelyn moved from the sink to the stove. “No thanks, I’ve got everything under control.”

Tightness clenched Ava’s chest, thinking about the two-hour drive back home to Illinois. “What time is everyone supposed to get here?”

“They should be here shortly.”

Ava left the kitchen and slumped against Alex on the sofa with a sigh.

“Hey, hon,” he reached around, snuggling her under his arm. “How’s my beautiful bride?”

“It’s getting late, and no one is here for dinner yet. We still have to drive all the way home.”

“We’ll be fine.” Alex kept his eyes on the television.

Ava paid little mind to the decorative clock hanging in the dining room before, but suddenly its ticking sounded like a jackhammer. One hour later, Gramps and Grammy Whitaker entered through the front door with a burst of frosty air. Finally, they could eat dinner. Instead, Jocelyn laid out appetizers for another hour, until Meg and Mason arrived.

The meal knotted in Ava’s stomach like a rock after eating too fast to get a move on for home. She shoved a last bite of pecan pie in her mouth and announced, “Hate to eat and run, but we gotta get going.”

“Wait … we have to open presents yet,” Jocelyn ordered.

“It’s ten o’clock. We still have a two-hour drive home.”

“Well, then you might as well stay overnight. We have plenty of room. It’s starting to snow anyway.”

Ava bit her lip to stop from snapping at her sister-in-law. Without a word, she wiped the corner of her mouth and shoved away from the table to leave.

Jocelyn rushed toward them. “At least stay to open presents.”

Ava flashed squinting eyes at Alex for support but received a blank stare in return. She blew out a heavy sigh. “Get the gifts out quick, because we’ve got to go.”

“I’ll clear off the table, Joss.” Meg gathered cups and dishes. “You go ahead with the gifts.”

Jocelyn rummaged under the tree for presents, while the others gathered around the crackling fireside.

The baby, Courtney, was in bed, and four-year-old DJ fell asleep on the nearby sofa.

Grammy lounged on a rocking chair.

Ava sat on the stone hearth and angled her body toward the older woman. “So, where did you and Gramps go earlier today?”

“We visited my sister. We planned to come here tomorrow, but Jocelyn said you couldn’t make it. She asked us to come today, instead.” She pushed the rocker with a nervous foot.

“You didn’t have to come here just for us, Grammy. We don’t mind if you spend the day with your sister.”

“You don’t understand yet, since you’re still a newlywed.”

“Understand what?”

“When you get married, you give up your family for your husband’s.”

“Are you joking?” Ava’s eyebrows rose, trying to make sense of the statement.

The combination of Grammy’s powdery makeup and frozen expression, looked like hardening clay. “Anytime Jocelyn asks me to be here, I come. They don’t have a mother and need us. This family is our priority.”

Ava folded her arms. “Am I supposed to give up my mother, because they don’t have one?”

Grammy stopped rocking. “Jocelyn likes for all of us to be together at the same time. It’s the least we can do for all the good work she does taking care of our family. We show our appreciation that way.”

“So, spending time with my family means we aren’t showing appreciation?” Ava’s fists balled underneath her biceps.

“You don’t get it…but you will eventually. Besides, we always take a family photo on Christmas.”

Ava thought steam might shoot out of her ears. She didn’t know how to handle veiled insults. Jocelyn also used the same tactic.

Ava’s family, the Marino’s, said exactly what they meant, aired their grievances out in the open, then ate and laughed at themselves afterward. How could she air a grievance with people who seemed kind on the outside, but were really being rude?

Between opening presents and getting everyone situated for a family photo, they didn’t leave until midnight. She wanted to say something about it to Alex on the ride home, but heavy snowfall made for a stressful drive. There was no sense adding more by complaining about his family.

Just two months ago she had danced at her own fairytale wedding and frolicked in a tropical honeymoon paradise. How did things change so quickly?

Chapter Two

Meg

Anticipation almost leapt out of Meg’s chest while waiting for the line to turn blue. A giggle caught in her throat at the thought of becoming a mother.

She leaned against the bathroom sink facing the mirror, imagining a child with her unique blizzard-blue eyes combined with Mason’s dark hair. Hopefully, their baby wouldn’t inherit her nose bump.

Meg vowed not to raise children the same as her parents. Growing up on a farm doing hard labor seemed so simple minded. Her family didn’t appreciate her creativity or intellect, expecting her to put farm chores before schoolwork. Meg loved to learn and knew that education served as her ticket out of rural Illinois. She withdrew into her studies, earned a scholarship and never looked back.

The first week at Southern Illinois University, she met the burly, attractive jock, Mason. They couldn’t keep their eyes or hands off of each other, and he invited her to spend school breaks with the Whitakers in suburban Chicago.

The pale blue line on the stick darkened. Their upcoming trip to Wisconsin made the opportune time to tell the family. What a nice surprise on Jocelyn’s birthday to learn she was about to become an Aunt.

◊◊◊

On the drive to Milwaukee, a few inches of frozen snow lined the roadside, revealing a salty film on the cleared streets. Cabin fever hit most people by mid-February, but with new life growing inside Meg, everything felt fresh like spring for her and Mason. They barely got inside the door of their extended family’s home when Meg spilled the news.

Jocelyn clapped and bounced on her heels. “Oh my God, this is great news! This is the best birthday gift ever.” She leaned one shoulder against Meg’s for an awkward hug. Then, she turned to Mason and ruffled his hair. “Congratulations! You little stinker, you never told me you two were trying to get pregnant.”

Jocelyn’s husband, father and children filed into the kitchen.

“Something big must be going on,” Robert said. “I heard Jocelyn all the way downstairs.”

“Dad, guess what? I’m going to be an aunt, and you’re going to be a grandpa again,” Jocelyn explained.

“Hey! Hey! Congratulations you two.” Robert bellowed. “Lookout world, the Whitakers are growing in numbers.”

Jocelyn’s husband, David, slapped Mason on the back. “Great news. DJ and Courtney are going to love having a cousin to hang out with.”

“Knock, knock.” Ava peeked her head in the door, then pushed it open for her and Alex to enter.

Four-year-old David Junior, DJ, ran toward the door squealing, “Auntie Ava’s here.”

Fifteen-month-old Courtney bobbled behind her older brother for a hug from their aunt.

Ava squatted down to wrap her arms around them. “Hi, you two, I’m so happy to see you.”

Meg burst with the news, “The kids love you so much. My baby will be lucky to have you as their aunt.”

“Your baby?” Ava stood up from her crouched position.

Meg nodded, smiling.

“Oh my God, you’re pregnant.” She slipped off her gloves and moved in for a hearty embrace.

Not accustomed to shows of affection, Meg stiffened a moment, and then patted Ava's shoulder. She’d never met a person so expressive before and didn’t know what to make of her newest sister-in-law. At first she found the strong personality off-putting, but later began to admire Ava’s outgoing, candid nature. Much more introverted, Meg preferred interacting with the children in her music classes at Hamilton Elementary.

The news seemed to lift everyone’s spirits as they talked and laughed together during dinner in the dining room under the high cathedral ceiling. For desert, Jocelyn let her young children blow out the birthday candles. Meg couldn’t wipe the smile from her face, envisioning doing the same with her own someday.

Ava folded her fork into a piece of moist, white birthday cake. “So, Meg, have you told your family yet?” She slipped the bite into her mouth.

“No, not yet.”

“I don’t know much about your family. Where do they live?”

Meg scraped at some frosting on her plate. “In southern Illinois.”

“Where abouts?” Ava’s head cocked sideways.

“The town where I grew up is as far south in the state as you can get. Their farming lifestyle wasn’t for me. I’m not very close with them.” She put that place behind her long ago and hoped the answer ended the discussion.

“I hear you. I’m a city girl myself.” Ava scooped up the final crumbs of her dessert. “You didn’t say…when is your due date?”

“September thirtieth.”

“Hey…that’s one day before our first wedding anniversary.”

“Oh yeah,” Meg nodded, “I didn’t even realize.”

Ava’s large, henna eyes landed on Alex. “We should head home. Work tomorrow, you know.”

“Wait,” Jocelyn gripped Alex’s arm from his other side, “you can’t leave yet.”

“What?” Ava’s eyebrows rose.

“You’re going to want to stay, because we have more exciting news to tell you,” Jocelyn stated.

Ava glanced Meg’s way. “Are you pregnant with twins?”

She laughed, then shrugged. “I don’t know what she’s talking about.”

“Go ahead…tell them, Mason.” Jocelyn grinned, and her chest puffed.

Meg’s head whirled in the direction of her husband. “Tell us what, Mason?” What did he tell Jocelyn and not me?

“He’s pregnant too?” Alex chuckled.

Mason curled a corner of his upper lip. “Very funny.” He focused on Meg first, then the others around the table. “You know, I applied for jobs here in Milwaukee. Well, one of the Phys Ed teachers is retiring after this semester, and I got the job. We can move here this summer before the baby is born.”

Meg’s thoughts jumbled into a glob, and her eyes darted around the room checking for the others reactions. Her toes scrunched, and she fidgeted. She wanted to move, but somehow the announcement felt wrong. She’d have to quit her job, but wanted to stay home with their child anyway, so that wasn’t it. Meg missed living near Jocelyn and imagined sharing motherhood together. A few months of the long drive to Milwaukee furthered her motivation to move. But, why did she find out about it now?

That’s it!

It bothered her because Mason confided in Jocelyn and then shared the news with everyone without ever discussing it with Meg. How could a man exclude his wife from such a big decision?


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

I enjoy reading and writing fiction about characters we can relate to and the drama that is created from emotional reactions. Human behavior fascinates me. When opportunities for growth arise, do we recognize them? When we do, the outcomes can be inspirational. I grew up in the Midwest and write about maddening and humorous family dysfunction in my memoir anthology, Home Avenue. Come and join the discussion on my blog about life, pets and philosophy at the Lori's Lane link below my bio picture.

Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
Yes, but depending on what's happening in someone's life, each person may receive a different message. Beta Readers told me there is a lot to relate to and apply to their own lives. I'd love to hear how the message resonates for different people.
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
It was difficult to move forward in time twenty years without summarizing and telling. I needed to show the difficulties these women faced over the years so the reader understood why they might consider having an affair.
Q. What did you learn while writing this book?
A.
There are a lot of nuances to writing that need to be addressed and finely tuned. Between my writers critique group, Beta Readers, and an editor, there was a lot I learned about putting the reader in the minds and hearts of my characters. I also learned that having those people's help was essential.

Next in:
Literature & Fiction
The Enemy at Home
Jack's Fight has Just Begun
Saints and Sinners
How would you feel if it happened to you?
Nina's Nebulosity
In full darkness, a ray of light brings hope.