“You sure you want an older home?” Jennifer Larson stepped into the living room of the early-American style home, eyed the faded wallpaper and fought the dust tickling her nose. The doors leading from the room had the added benefit of creating functional areas for the office space her client wanted. But sheer age and the dilapidated state of the place would require a significant amount of time and money to return the house to its prior glory.
“Yes, I like a house that has weathered a few storms and developed the divine grace that comes with age. Given a little care, she’ll be in the perfect spot to shine.” Hagan Cheney, a few feet away, stood by the large front window. The bright afternoon sun drew long shadows across the floor, adding to the dreary surroundings. A prevailing wind whistled around the house and through the bare oak tree in the small front yard, a salacious cat-call to alert every female to clutch their skirt close.
She shivered and air rushed through her nose on a loud sneeze.
“Gesundheit,” Hagan threw over his shoulder, shifting so that his masculine silhouette blocked her view of the wintry landscape.
“Thank you.” Jen tilted her head and narrowed her gaze. His tall, lean form topped hers even with three-inch heels on, a welcome rarity from the men she usually met. In addition, he had strawberry-blond hair, a known weakness of hers. The reddish-gold locks danced along the collar of his black shirt, teasing her with the idea of running her hands through the thick mass. Her fingers twitched. She dropped her gaze. Tight jeans covered a round, squeezable butt. Hot awareness suddenly sizzled, stunning Jen with its power. She knotted her hands into fists and fought the unwelcome attraction.
No way, I’m his real estate agent, not his date for the evening. And it’s only been four months since...
“Elkhorn’s main street isn’t large, but the Little League baseball field and the restaurants should attract people to the area.” Hagan’s dark brown…no, hazel, his eyes were hazel she realized abruptly when his gaze met hers. He cocked a brow and a sexy smile teased the corner of his lips. Oh, darn, the man had nailed her ogling his backside.
Heat burned her cheeks and the air sizzled between them. Goose bumps popped out on her arms, and her internal timer ticked off each day she’d gone without sex—well over a year.
His smile grew wider and visions of his mouth melting onto hers slammed home the impossibility of the situation.
Give it up, girl. It’s not happening.
She swallowed and searched the room for a distraction, some way to gain control of her raging hormones and maintain the professional image she’d strived so hard to develop the last five years. “I agree. It is in a great location.”
The chipped plaster hanging haphazardly above their heads offered a reprieve. “But the house still needs a lot of work. And you did say you had a limited budget for remodeling.” She strolled into the hallway and gulped in some much needed air. Just because she found Hagan attractive didn’t mean the feeling was mutual.
A Realtor had to understand a client’s needs and learn their likes and dislikes. The relationship that developed could appear almost personal, but rarely lasted. Luckily, though, in this empty house, she didn’t have the enticement of staring at Hagan across a king-size bed or a comfy couch.
The soft thud of his rubber-soled shoes followed in her wake as she led the way to the staircase. Jen cupped her hand around the oak railing and rubbed her moist palms against the polished wood. The man called to something inside her, a deep yearning to break away from the norm. A preposterous dream.
Her gaze ran along the gentle curve of the banister until the golden wood flowed into the second floor. She tightened her grip. Bedrooms. The word conjured alluring images and warmth flooded through her veins. Maybe, she should call an end to the showing and drive him back to his office. “From what I’ve seen so far, you’d be better off with a different house. But if you like, we can check upstairs?”
“Lead the way, beautiful.” Hagan brushed his hand lightly across her back.
Hot tingles danced along her spine. Jen rushed forward. Whoa. As a new widow, she shouldn’t find the man attractive. Even if he was hot.
Drawing on her professional reserve, she stifled the urge to race up the stairs and slowed her pace. “I...uh...believe there are four rooms on the second level.”
The wood floor groaned under Hagan’s weight and his footsteps echoed through the empty house. “Any other houses in the area for sale?”
Reaching the landing, she sailed across and stopped by the first bedroom door. A brief glimpse revealed the same disappointing result as the space downstairs. “No, but there are a number of small towns nearby that might have what you’re looking for.”
An enticing male scent floated through the air, a second before a hand gripped the doorframe by her shoulder.
Every female gene sprang to attention at his close proximity.
Desire poured through her, drenching her with emotions she hadn’t felt in months, hell, maybe even years. Her knees wobbled and she staggered into the doorframe, but remained standing.
Hagan peered over her shoulder and blocked her retreat. “Not bad, if I want to have another office suite up here. I can tear out this wall and make a larger lobby, or close off the doorway and create another entrance into the room.” He wandered to the next bedroom.
She gulped in a quick breath and air screamed back into her lungs. The residual scent of his citrusy cologne flowed in too and prompted her out-of-control hormones to form images of him: lying in bed, on top of her, his chest nestled against hers, his lips a breath away from…
Oh, my, a year without sex and I’m losing it.
Craig, why didn’t you divorce me before you died?
Jen gathered her strength and followed Hagan through the house. The easy flow of his long limbs showed incredible grace for a big man. So tempting, yet, she couldn’t pursue him. Not now, not with everyone watching her, they expected her to act like a grieving widow. If she didn’t, they’d forever brand her as an unloving wife.
She hated the farce, but she had no choice. No one knew her marriage had turned into a sham long before Craig died.
A few minutes later, she walked outside and breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, with the showing done, she could return Hagan to his office. She locked the front door and stored the key in the lockbox. Spinning on her heels, she faced Hagan.
At the end of the porch, one foot already positioned on the first step with a hand out to assist her, he waited. “So, Jen, since we’re done for today, why don’t we meet tomorrow night for dinner?”
Jen edged backward and her butt hit the closed door. The urge to run away from his undeniable magnetism, and the problems he’d cause, sent her mind into a tail spin.
What in the hell should I do now?
“You have one saved message. To listen...” The computer-recorded voice echoed through the phone’s receiver as Jen stared at an empty spot on the corner of her desk in her mind she saw her husband’s picture. Forcing her hand to move, she pressed the required number.
“Hey, honey, we just arrived.” The comforting sound of Craig’s voice rang in her ear. Memories flashed: The dimple beside her husband’s mouth when he smiled, the soft touch of his lips, the teasing taste of his kisses. The wall she’d managed to build around her emotions in the last four months shattered. Hot tears fell, raining relentlessly onto her cheeks.
“And the weather here in Seattle sucks. It’ll probably take us forever to get to our meeting which should have started an hour ago.” After a slight pause as if someone had caught his attention, he continued, “Sorry, gotta go. Jack needs help with the rental car agent, and Bob and Eric are retrieving our luggage. I’ll try to call you later. Love ya, bye.”
“The call that never came,” Jen whispered and wearily dropped her head onto her hands. Again, the monotone voice offered her options for the message. She hit the button to stop the irritating sound.
Not even a second passed before a different noise broke the silence. At the base of her phone, a red light flashed in rhythm with the squawking ring.
Gathering her emotions back into a tight knot, she punched the appropriate line. “Moorehead Real Estate. Jennifer Larson speaking. How may I help you?”
“Hey, Jen, are you still coming tonight?” Brie Sullivan’s southern accent reopened Jen’s thoughts to the pain of the last few months.
A million excuses sped through her mind. She didn’t want to continue meeting with the executive wives of the company where her husband had worked, nor did she like dealing with their grief. “I shouldn’t. I have offers pending on several homes.”
“Come on, Jen, you’ve worked late every night this week. Surely, you can take a night off to visit friends.” Brie forced compliance with a stab to the heart. “The kids are expecting you, and I’ve already picked up George from your house. He’s dog tired.” Her friend giggled at the pun.
George, her lovable fifty-pound blond Lab, loved to play and must miss his evening runs with Craig. Their lives had changed so much, yet in the boring way of existing, remained the same. The papers scattered across her desktop, teased her with the idea of staying late and finishing a few more tiresome tasks.
She weighed her options: spend the evening grieving for her dead husband, or dig through paperwork?
The heavy scent of Old Spice blew into her office and a stout figure disappeared around the curve in the corridor. Did she really want to deal with her boss and his constant demands for her to list more properties, sell more homes?
Brie’s plea interrupted. “Please, Jen. I can’t face Marianne and Sylvia without you.”
Jen retrieved her pen and tightened her fingers around it. “All right, but we need a change of the topics for our meeting. I’m tired of remembering the past.”
“Great. Then maybe y’all can help me figure out what I should do about my parents.” Brie barely finished when a loud crash sounded through the receiver.
“Oh, shit, I’ve got to go. I’ll see you at seven.” Brie rushed through her goodbyes and hung up before Jen could ask about the problem.
“They’re probably pressuring Brie to move to Florida again.” Jen spoke to the empty office and then glanced at the clock. Six thirty-two.
If she had any hope of changing into her favorite pair of jeans, she’d better leave. Opening the bottom desk drawer to retrieve her purse, she caught a fingernail on a torn piece of rough cardboard and glanced at an upside down picture frame.
Her mind froze. How long ago had she placed Craig’s picture in the drawer? If she wanted to move on, shouldn’t she take the photograph home and pack it away with everything else?
She shoved her bag out of the way and lifted the wooden frame. Craig’s smiling face swam before her eyes.
Her best friend and college sweetheart...Craig, where did our love go wrong? Good and bad memories changed sorrow into anger.
How could she ever find happiness if she continued to live in the past?
“It’s about damn time I found out.”
She tightened her grip on the picture then threw it across the room where the frame broke with a satisfying crash of broken glass and splintering wood. She grabbed her purse and marched for the door. One, two, three enraged steps later, she hit an emotional wall and her gaze fell to Craig’s picture lying on the carpeted floor.
His warm smile shot an arrow through her heart. Tears blurred her vision and she scrambled by the broken glass to retrieve the scarred photograph.
After carefully tucking it into her purse, she stomped to the door.
She had to get on with her life, but she couldn’t forget where she’d been.
“So what’s the issue with your parents?” Jen followed Brie into her living room. Like most parents, they didn’t know when to back off. They had complained about every move Brie made since Eric’s death, criticizing Marianne’s suggestion for a financial advisor for his life insurance money, and Sylvia’s sudden need for all of them to join a gym.
“The usual. They want me to move back to Florida so I can be near them.” Brie collapsed into one of the tan recliners, sitting on the edge of carpet leading from the living room into the breakfast area. She shoved her bangs out of her baby-blue eyes.
Jen sank to the floral sofa, her mind racing with how to help Brie. Without Eric acting as a buffer, her parents constantly badgered their daughter with unreasonable demands.
Back off people, tickled Jen’s vocal cords and she bit her lip to keep the words at bay. Didn’t her mother advise her numerous times to keep her opinion to herself? But Brie didn’t need this, not on top of the grief she suffered at losing Eric. Hell, between worrying about the kids and adjusting to handling everything alone, she barely made it through a day without calling Jen in tears.
How could Brie’s parents be so clueless about their daughter’s struggles?
Jen laid a hand on George’s head and stroked his soft, blond coat. The soothing caress helped ease some of her anxiety about Brie’s problem and the evening ahead. Luckily, he understood her pensive mood and had stayed close since the moment she’d arrived.
“It might not be...”
“Georrrrrgeee,” Allison’s young voice echoed from upstairs.
George lifted his head from Jen’s lap. Tail wagging, he stood ready to adhere to her command. His deep brown eyes begged for permission to race to the young girl’s side.
“I swear that girl has the two-second bath down pat.” Brie slid to the edge of her seat. Long blond hair framed her face, and her exhausted expression showed the trials of dealing with two active children.
The doorbell ringing drove Brie to her feet.
Tiny footsteps pattered on the stairs.
“Woof,” George barked and danced around the corner of the couch, adding to the mayhem of the moment.
Happy to have an excuse to delay her meeting with the other members of the executive wives club, Jen shove to her feet. “Why don’t you get the door, and I’ll herd the kids back to their rooms?”
An element of relief washed across Brie’s face before she smiled. “Thanks, but don’t worry about putting them to bed. They just need to play quietly for awhile.”
“All right.” Jen approached the staircase, smiling at the homey picture the siblings made standing on the landing. Allison, with her gray eyes wide and her wet brown hair dripping on her faded cotton gown, had her hand on her younger brother’s arm as if holding him back from bolting down the stairs. Ethan, also in his pajamas, appeared wide-eyed and eager for a chance to join his mother at the front door.
George, as if he understood her words to Brie, bounded for the stairs and leaped over the first few steps.
Jen followed. “Okay, kids, your mom says it’s back to...”
George greeted Ethan with exuberance, covering the boy’s face with slobbery kisses. Ethan wrapped his plump little arms around the dog’s neck, dropped to his knees, and ducked his blond head to avoid the tickling abuse. A joyous giggle echoed in the stairwell.
Sunshine broke through Jen’s weariness and she smiled. George, so much like Ethan in coloring and loving personalities, the two were kindred spirits.
Her dog, always willing to share his love with everyone, crowded closer to Allison. She grabbed his collar to hold him at bay and fell back against the wall. “George, I had a bath.”
The indignant tone didn’t stifle George’s zeal, but shattered Jen’s enjoyment of the light-hearted exchange. She’d never have the perfect Norman Rockwell family, not with Craig, not with anyone. Yet, not having a baby with Craig was probably the best thing she could’ve done considering her current circumstances. Being a single mother would have been no picnic.
Ethan’s small hands closed around her leg.
Jen helped him to his feet and shoved her depressing thoughts aside. “Come on, guys, back upstairs. Your mom wants you to play quietly in your rooms for a while.”
She herded the group up the steps. “You don’t have to go to sleep, just keep the noise level to a low rumble.”
At the top of the stairs, George led the way through the door on the left while Allison stopped in the hallway. “I don’t see why we can’t play downstairs. It’s not like you guys are going to say anything we haven’t heard before.”
Following George into Ethan’s room, Jen paused near the doorway to keep from treading on the plastic army men scattered across the floor. She swiveled on her heels to answer Allison. “Oh, but we are,” and she dropped her voice to a whisper. “The secret society of the executive wives’ club is plotting to take over the world.”
Ethan’s eyes widened with wonder. “Really?”
“No, silly, she doesn’t want to tell us they’re talking about Daddy.” Allison’s shoulders sagged and she stomped into her room on the opposite side of the hall in a disheartened huff.
Unsure how to handle the young girl’s sarcasm, Jen ushered Ethan farther into his room, decorated in G.I. Joe paraphernalia. Army fatigue green curtains covered the window, and the bed’s cotton comforter displayed soldiers fighting for victory.
Jen studied the toys facing off on the floor. So many times while visiting Craig at his office, she’d run into Eric. Each time, he had recounted his son’s army battles with pride and amazement. Love had sparked in Eric’s eyes and while she enjoyed the tales, she’d never understood, until now, how much the man had truly loved his son.
Tears gathered. She swallowed back the heartache and forced excitement into her tone. “Wow, you have an incredible number of military men here. Are you in the midst of a battle?”
Ethan puffed out his chest. “Someone has to fight for justice in the world, and I’m the chosen one.”
Jen dropped to her knees, grabbed his hands and kissed each with a loud smack. “My hero! How can we ever repay you for saving us?”
“Ain’t nothing.” Ethan tugged his hands free. He held his shoulders back in an erect stance for a moment, then his face fell and he threw himself into her arms. “I miss Daddy.”
The admission tore a hole through Jen’s heart. He’d never know how much his father adored him. The loss of the special bond between father and son plunged Jen into a dark void. Pain constricted her lungs and she couldn’t breathe.
She gathered Ethan closer. His small body snuggled tight against hers eased the restrictive bands squeezing against her chest. His clean little boy’s scent drew tears and a crack formed in her armor. She wasn’t alone. The other members of the executive team had families who were grieving as well. She now realized the importance of their get-togethers: by helping each other, they would all move forward—a snail’s pace for some.
George nudged her, his nose wedging deeper into her armpit. Jen wiggled away from the abuse and released Ethan.
Innocent hazel eyes met hers. She forced a smile and shored up her courage. “Me, too, but he’d expect us to continue the fight.”
Ethan nodded and wiped away the tears on Jen’s face with his sleeve. “Be a brave soldier.”
Renewed by his simple honesty, Jen smiled and decided she needed to get her life back on track. Jostling George out of the way, she rolled to her feet. “You’re right. Now, let’s march onto victory.”
Jen’s feet lagged on the bottom step. She rubbed her sweaty palms on the stair’s railing. I can do this. I can tell them I need to start seeing other men.
Fortified by her conviction, Jen entered the large area and immediately caught sight of Marianne and Sylvia, sitting together on one of the sofas, deep in conversation. Not willing to interrupt and happy to have a few more minutes to herself, Jen automatically assessed the value of the house in today’s market. The living room, which led seamlessly into the breakfast nook and kitchen, had no walls between the two, creating a perfect area for entertaining.
Brie furthered enhanced the appeal of the sitting area by arranging two full-length sofas and two recliners in a semi-circle in front of the fireplace. Gas logs shimmered with red-and-blue flames, adding a cozy glow to the over-sized space. The picture windows along the exterior wall added depth and drew her gaze to the snow-covered cornfields, glowing eerily from the light of a fingernail moon. The farm butting against Brie’s backyard would also add value to the house because she didn’t have noisy neighbors behind her home.
The beige carpet in the living room met rich, radiant wood. The honey-brown color lined the floor of the breakfast nook and kitchen. The oak cabinets were a little lighter and additional warmth to the area. Only the toy box tucked away by the patio door hinted at the other uses for the large space.
“Hey, Jen, you want a drink?” Brie strolled around the bar separating the two areas, tray in hand. In a pair of faded jeans and a bright yellow sweatshirt, her small form and casual appearance made her appear no older than a teenager. Tiger slippers added to the illusion.
Jen’s taste buds tingled with the desire for something that could soften the frazzled edges of her day. Two fingers of whiskey, neat; unacceptable with the other ladies. She stroked George’s head to keep him near and stepped around the end of the floral couch to perch on the armrest. “Sure. What’s the drink of choice tonight?”
Brie set the tray on the coffee table in front of Marianne and Sylvia. “Tea. With the snow we’ve been having this week, I figured I’d serve something hot.”
“Wonderful idea.” Marianne shifted to the edge of the couch. A squint formed between her brows and she leaned in to read the labels on the small packages of the various teas. “I’m a huge fan of Earl Gray.”
Why doesn’t she just get reading glasses? Jen inwardly groaned and knew it would never happen. Marianne didn’t like the idea of getting older.
“They’re in the pile somewhere. Can you also pour while I get the sandwiches?” Brie, the perpetual hostess, smiled and returned to the open-area kitchen, leaving Marianne to handle her assigned task.
“Brie, you’re a killer to my waistline.” Sylvia scooted forward. “Tea would have been more than enough. You didn’t need to fix sandwiches too.”
Marianne poured hot water into a cup and offered the mug to Jen. “Here you go. Now you won’t have to wait on us.”
“Thanks.” Jen grabbed her favorite flavor of tea and dropped it into her cup, before settling into the tan couch opposite the two women. The difference between Marianne and Sylvia struck her anew.
Each an executive’s wife, they presented very different pictures of what a successful man might want in a woman. Marianne, petite with a classic style, wore a long fashionable skirt and a coordinating top. At a formal dinner or at home in the kitchen with kids, she could handle any situation. Sylvia, on the other hand, was a tall woman who could have been a model in her youth, but now she looked like an Amazon warrior with an excess of a hundred pounds to lose. She dressed professionally—in a pair of black dress pants and a long, bright-red sweater that fell to her hips. Both had over twenty years invested in their marriages.
They had lost more than a mate; they had lost a companion of twenty plus years and the union of solving problems together. Now, they faced the problems of tomorrow alone. She couldn’t say the same about her marriage to Craig. Yes, they had managed to stay together. But was it because they had been too lazy to get a divorce? Or had both of them been unwilling to admit failure?
Brie rejoined them and set a platter of finger sandwiches on the coffee table. “Marianne, did I hear you say your son heard from Momma Turner’s insurance company?”
The muscles in Jen’s chest tightened.
“Yes.” Marianne poured a cup of hot water for Brie and set down the teapot. “Travis hates to be in the dark about anything and checks in with them regularly to see how their suits against all the plaintiffs are going.”
Jen shifted restlessly on the edge of the couch. Here we go again, another night of discussing the demise of their dead husbands. The smooth flavor of lemon zinger that had tasted so inviting only moments ago, now churned through her stomach. Bitter bile hit her tongue. Disgusted, she abandoned her cup to a nearby end table and sank into the corner of the couch.
“Plaintiffs? How many are there?” Brie knelt near the coffee table and chose a bright orange packet.
“Let’s see, there’s the driver, the trucking and repair companies, and even the manufacturer of the brakes.” Marianne counted them off on her fingers.
“But why sue all those other people? The police have already established the brakes failed.”
“In the legal arena, you have to sue everyone along the food chain.” Marianne stirred her tea and a soft tinkle rang repeatedly from her cup.
Jen cringed. The irritating click played against her nerves like a chant from an old comedy. Bring out your dead.
“Especially the larger companies because they’re the ones with the money,” Sylvia added and lifted a small triangle sandwich to her lips. In the blink of an eye, the dainty treat disappeared. She blotted her fingertips on a napkin and reached for another without any regard for the calories contained in the compact package.
Jen scanned the appetizing tray and bit back the reason for not having food at these meetings. They always over-indulgenced in emotional eating.
Brie strolled to her favorite recliner. The tigers’ heads on her slippers bobbed up and down in time with her step and in harmony with Marianne’s spoon. “But I don’t understand. The insurance company had to pay us no matter how our husbands died.”
“Yes, but they’re trying to recoup their cost. Jack, Craig, Eric, and Bob shouldn’t have died. If the brakes had worked, the truck wouldn’t have flattened their car and killed our husbands.” Marianne’s tense voice held a trace of anger and her gaze a spark of malice.
Without meaning to, Jen envisioned an eighteen-wheeler squashing a mid-size car. The pancake remains flashed in her head, before the muscles in her neck and shoulders throbbed with pain. She lifted her hand to rub the ache but changed direction and eased forward to pet George where he lay on the floor instead. “Did Travis learn anything new?”
“Not really. The trucker is on suspension and the other companies are still filing information with the court.” Marianne rested her spoon on the coffee table, giving Jen’s nerves a much needed reprieve. “It’ll be several months before the case goes to trial.”
“Then we shouldn’t worry about it at the moment.” Jen glided one last stroke along George’s smooth coat and straightened. Her heart beat heavily in her chest and her palms grew sweaty. If she didn’t tell them soon about her decision to start dating again, they’d run off on another tangent concerning their husbands.
She drew in a deep breath and blurted out, “I’m moving on with my life.”
Waiting for a comment, she charted the slow descent of Marianne’s cup to her lap. A second later, Sylvia shifted forward and grabbed another sandwich from the platter. Brie offered a weak smile.
“Want to explain?” Marianne retrieved her spoon.
Squaring her shoulders, Jen drew in a fortifying breath. Each of the other women had been in a loving relationship. They didn’t know about the year she’d lived in a house with a man who bore the title of her husband, but not her lover.
“First, I’m not talking about anything related to Craig’s death. I loved him.” She twisted her hands together and shifted to the edge of the couch. “But I have to move on and...the best way to do that is by finding someone new.”
“What?” Sylvia jumped from the couch. Tea splashed on her sweater and she dropped her sandwich. Animosity tightened Sylvia’s lips and lines of anger popped out across her forehead. “You can’t. It’s wrong. Craig’s only been dead for a few months.”
The over-exuberant display of emotions shocked Jen and she froze. What the...
“Easy, honey. If you’re not careful you’ll burn yourself.” Marianne rose beside Sylvia and grabbed her cup. “Look, you’ve already spilled some on your sweater.”
Brie rushed forward and gathered a few napkins. “Here.” She shoved several in Sylvia’s hand and stared at the spot.
Uncertain what to do, Jen stood. George, next to her, his warm body nestled against her leg, kept her from drifting forward. They didn’t understand because she’d never revealed the marital problems she and Craig had experienced. She couldn’t, not now, maybe not ever.
Sylvia’s gaze swung between Marianne and Brie. “But didn’t you hear what Jen said? She wants to go out with another man.”
“Yes.” Brie touched Sylvia’s arm. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”
“But?” Sylvia turned to Marianne. “But how can she even think about...” Tears filled her eyes. She covered her mouth with a trembling hand, then shook her head and rushed passed Jen to the hall bathroom.
Sylvia’s misery hit Jen. These women had stood beside her during the toughest time in her life and she had unwittingly hurt them. A backwash of guilt drowned her. How could she cause them such pain?
Maybe, she should have kept her plans to herself.
Brie paused in front of Jen and briefly touched her arm. “Don’t worry. She’ll come around. You just caught her unprepared.”
The silent understanding in Brie’s smile helped relieve some of the tension in Jen’s chest. “I’m sorry, but I can’t grieve for Craig for the rest of my life. I need...”
The frustration of the past year exploded through her, and Jen stomped her foot. “Hell, we all need to move on.”
“Some of us need more time.” Brie held up a finger. “I’ll be right back and then we’ll discuss it.”
Jen dropped onto the couch and lifted her hand to caress George’s coat. He shimmied away and strolled across the room.
After a quick sniff, he wolfed Sylvia’s forgotten sandwich off the floor. He turned and meandered back to Jen. His brown eyes twinkled and his mouth held a happy smile. She couldn’t ruin his pleasure by scolding him, so she closed her eyes and rubbed her fingers across her forehead. The light pounding of a headache beat insistently against her brow.
What had made her think they would understand?
Silence filled the room, the tension interrupted only by the light ticking noise of Marianne stirring her tea. The sound tap-danced on Jen’s nerves and she peered at the woman.
Marianne sat staring into space, a perplexed expression on her face. After pulling her spoon from her cup, she laid the utensil on her napkin-covered thigh. “How can you forget a lifetime of love?”
“I won’t forget, but I still need to move forward.” Jen retrieved her tea and sipped the now lukewarm liquid. Hell, it was just a date.
Yet if they needed more grieving time, she should probably leave and let them carry on in peace.
Sylvia stepped back into the room from the hallway. “But you’re dishonoring Craig’s memory.”
“How? Because I don’t want to spend every night alone?” Jen snapped.
Sylvia grabbed her chest.
“Ouch.” Brie wrapped her arm around Sylvia’s waist and they strolled across the living room to Sylvia’s empty seat. The older woman settled back into her place on the couch while Brie perched on the arm. “I couldn’t go out on a date even if I wished to. The only men I ever see are at the grocery store. They’re friendly in a grandfatherly sort of way.
As the only one in the group who worked outside of the home, Jen met scores of people all day long. Most weren’t single, or even worth her attention, but Hagan was—so hot. She wiped her sweaty hands on her jeans. Any woman would notice him wherever she happened to see him—grocery store, library, coffee shop. “That’s because you don’t work with the public. I happened to show several houses today to a very nice-looking man.”
“And he asked you out?” Marianne’s soft-spoken question hung in the air.
Jen stared out the window behind the three women, unsure how to proceed. A picture of Hagan Cheney’s hazel eyes and wide smile flashed in her head. Tall, with the muscular body of an athlete, he reminded her a little of Craig. “Yes.”
“What does he do? Where does he live?” Brie crossed to the table where her tea stood. The prying questions reminded Jen of her sisters. They’d bombarded her with questions about ever guy she’d ever dated.
Jen forced herself to relax and drifted back to the corner of the couch. “He’s a chiropractor and lives somewhere off Dodge at the moment, but he wants a house to convert into an office in the older part of a small town.” Jen ventured a glance at the other two women in the room, and immediately regretted looking.
Sylvia gawked at Jen as if she’d been sucker punched. Marianne didn’t appear much better. A frown marred her face, and to Jen’s horror, she retrieved her spoon. The irritating ticking started again.
Jen scrambled through her brain for something to pacify them. Over the last few months, they had counted on each other for support—like they were a part of Jen’s family or her best friends, and she didn’t have many friends. She didn’t look forward to losing them. But the idea of hurting them again didn’t sit well either. “He’s a nice guy. I think Craig would have even liked him.”
“And when are you going out?” Sylvia’s sorrow presented a picture of total desolation. She held herself tightly in place with a white-knuckled grip while her tear-filled gaze met Jen’s.
Unable to inflict anymore pain on the woman, Jen pushed to the edge of the couch and stood. “I appreciate everything…”
“No, you can’t leave.” Brie lunged forward and grabbed Jen’s arm. “Not with my parents demanding I move back to Florida.”
Jen turned and the crest-fallen distress on Brie’s face registered.
Holy smoke, what now?
Brie’s parents couldn’t make her move unless she wanted to.
George, excited by the exchange, rushed forward and bumped into Brie.
She swayed on her feet.
Jen caught her by the shoulders. “But I thought they understood that you didn’t want to relocate the kids while they were still in school.”
“They did. Until I told them I’m pregnant.”