Susan Schild welcomes you back to the offbeat Southern town of Willow Hill, North Carolina, for a humorous, heartwarming story of new beginnings, do-overs, and self-discovery…
Excerpt: Jack strode toward her in his Levi’s and the dark green T-shirt she’d picked out for him—the extralong one that that fit his tall, rangy frame and was also the exact color of his pine green eyes. Her shivering lessening, she grinned at him.
“Let’s warm you up, shug.” He wrapped her in one of his large and slightly doggy-smelling fleece he’d gotten from the truck and began to rub her shoulders.
She leaned in to him, enjoying the warmth and solid heft of him, and rested her head against his broad shoulder. “Okay.” Hugging him always made her feel safe, like finally arriving home after a long, arduous trip.
On the way back to the cabin Jack cast her a sideways glance from the driver’s seat of the truck. “Did you have a good time?”
“I did.” Linny sighed. “This has been the best honeymoon ever.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she felt her face flame. Why had she said that? She wasn’t ranking her three honeymoons, holding up cards like the skating judges with numbers one through ten printed on them. Linny shot him a glance to see how hurt he looked, but he just patted her knee and whistled between his teeth as he adjusted the rearview mirror.
Linny shook her head. She’d drive herself crazy yet.
The tires of Jack’s red truck crunched on the gravel as they pulled up beside their hideaway. Linny took Jack’s hand as they walked up the front path, admiring the square-cut logs and clean lines of the two-room rustic log cabin. She’d rented it after obsessively comparing reviews on travel websites. Perched on a high ridge, their cabin was skirted by lush pink rhododendron and gave long-range views of the green and blue patchwork quilt of the valley laid out before it. She’d chosen the perfect, cozy honeymoon spot.
Linny took a quick shower, dried her hair, and slipped on a cool floral sundress. Jack was on the front porch playing his guitar, and she smiled as she heard him strumming. Padding barefoot to the tiny kitchen, she opened a beer for Jack and poured herself a glass of the crisp Pinot Grigio they’d bought at the vineyard the day before.
Pushing open the screen door with her hip, she handed Jack his beer. He sat in a rocker, cradling the guitar. A self-taught musician, Jack was still self-conscious about his mistakes, but he was coming along fast. He took a draw of beer, put the bottle on the floor, and eased into the opening chords of James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind.” Giving her a sorry-if-I-mess-up smile, he began to sing quietly in his warm tenor.
Leaning against the railing, arms crossed, she watched him and felt a wave of contentment. She held out her hand and examined her glittering ring, made from the emeralds Jack and Neal had dug out of a gem mine especially for her. Unbeknownst to her, the father-son adventure weekend they’d taken last summer was for the express purpose of finding stones for her ring. To have Neal involved in the gem hunt was a majorly smart move on Jack’s part, especially because her stepson still watched her warily, worried that she’d try to replace his mother. The stones weren’t particularly high quality, but Linny didn’t care. She loved the ring.
Jack missed a chord and winced. Noticing her ring studying, a smile played at his lips.
Linny smiled back. Ruthie, the office manager in Jack’s veterinary practice, said that after Vera divorced Jack, some women clients feigned reasons to bring their pets in for appointments just to spend time with him. “A woman with a poodle named Precious claimed the dog had ADHD, and another time a tummy ache-toothache-itching issue,” she’d said, rolling her eyes and patting Linny’s arm. “So glad he fell for you.”
Thank goodness he was the type of man who was oblivious to his own charms, unlike her late hound-dog of a second husband. But banish the thought. She wasn’t going to allow regrets to tarnish the present. Linny slid into the rocking chair beside his and sipped her wine. After a moment she began to softly sing along with him. No volume from her. She was prone to sudden scale changes and croaks.
A phone trilled from the kitchen and Jack gave her a smile as he put down the guitar and went to take the call.
His son, Neal—her new stepson, she reminded herself—had called to talk with his dad twice each of the three nights they’d been on their honeymoon. Was that normal for a twelve-year-old? A lot of the other stepmothers in the Bodacious Bonus Moms—the online support and advice blog she’d been reading voraciously for the last few months—complained about their teenage stepchildren not sharing a word with them or their husbands because they were too busy texting and Snapchatting friends.
Linny took a sip of wine and thought about it. How much did Neal’s clinginess have to do with his mother, Vera, and her new husband bickering? Petite Vera, with her little-girl voice and perfect white-blond loveliness, reminded Linny of an airy, sweet pink confection, but with her sense of entitlement and demands, she was no cream puff. Her husband, Chaz, was a trial lawyer, and no pushover either. She could see why they butted heads. And with Vera’s moneyed background and silver-spoon tastes, her wealthy new husband getting into hot water and losing a lot of his—no, their—money probably didn’t sit well with her. Linny felt a flash of mean-spirited pleasure that perfect Vera was having problems, then chided herself. Tension in that household hurt Neal and she didn’t want that.
Jack came back to the porch, rubbing a spot between his brows and talking on the phone in that soothing voice he used with scared animals at his veterinary clinic. “So they’re fighting nonstop. Can you just go to your room and turn on the white noise app on your phone?” He paused and scowled. “That loud, huh?”
Jack looked at her. “Can you hold on, buddy?” He put the phone to his chest, his expression serious. “He’s crying and he never cries. I’d send him to the grandparents, but they’re all out of town.”
Linny inhaled sharply and racked her brain. “My sister loves Neal to pieces, but she’s so overwhelmed with her new baby. I could call her, though…” she said.
Jack shook his head slowly, his face tight. “We need to go home, Lin. Neal needs us.”
Linny nodded mutely, feeling bereft. There went her week-long honeymoon, right out the window. She gazed off for one last long look at the rolling land of the valley and slumped in her chair.
Jack spoke to Neal calmly. “We’ll be back this evening and you’re going to come stay with us for a while until things simmer down.” He paused, listening, and his voice grew firm. “I don’t care if your mama doesn’t like it. I’ll deal with her. Right now, everybody needs to just settle down.” He ended the call and sent her an apologetic look. “Lin…” he began.
She held up a hand and tried to smile. “I understand, Jack. I really do.” Rising, she trudged in to begin packing, trying to fight the disappointment crashing down on her like a great wave. She and Jack had the rest of their lives to spend together, she reasoned, but it didn’t help.
Vera and Chaz were selfish, Linny thought as she thunked the milk, yogurt, and luncheon meat into the cooler she was packing with unnecessary vigor.
Gathering their toiletries and clothes to put in the suitcase, her heart squeezed for Neal. The last thing a sensitive boy like him needed was a ringside seat to the fight of the century. Going home was the right thing to do.