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Authors: Peg Sutherland

Double Wedding Ring

BOOK: Double Wedding Ring
10.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Dear Reader,

My heart has never left Sweetbranch, Alabama, I guess.

Sweetbranch, the setting for my 1993 Superromance Late Bloomer, is a composite of a number of small Southern towns that I knew as I was growing up in Alabama. When I close my eyes and think about the diner and the beauty shop and the men in overalls walking the sidewalks of Main Street, I feel myself going home to the places of my childhood.

So when I thought of doing a trilogy about homecomings, there could be only one place for me to take my characters home—to Sweetbranch.

In my 3 Weddings & A Secret trilogy, you'll find out what's happened to Rose and Ben since the final pages of Late Bloomers. Plus, you'll meet four other very special couples who find the kind of love that says we're truly home. In Double Wedding Ring, Addy's Angels and Queen of the Dixie Drive-In, you'll experience first loves, lost loves, and even the kind of love that can endure seven problem children—and if that's not love, I don't know what is.

I truly hope you enjoy your visit to Sweetbranch as much as I have.

Wishing you love,

Peg Sutherland

Double Wedding Ring
Peg Sutherland

Special thanks to Lauren Stayner in the Multi-Skills Training Center at Central Piedmount Community College; and to Rose Harris and Jacqueline Mruk at the Charlotte Institute of Rehabilitation.

























August 1995

the corner of the faded quilt at the same instant her daughter reached for the opposite corner.

“I'll get this, sugar,” Susan said, the response automatic and protective. “You grab the basket.”

Malorie gave Susan the funny smile, the one that said mothers are an everlasting mystery, and dropped the corner of the quilt. Susan finished folding the familiar patchwork, telling herself that any comfort she imagined in the soft fabric was merely the fancy of a desperate woman.

The remains of their picnic gathered up, the two women linked arms and passed beneath the canopy of giant oaks. The campus was small, old-fashioned. The traditional brick buildings said your sons and daughters would be safe and nurtured and lovingly force-fed the values of a simpler, saner era. Having grown up in a time that had rejected all those traditional values, Susan was now just the right age to want her daughter to be blanketed in them.

“You sure you're not going to be lonely?” Malorie asked as they reached the dilapidated blue station wagon in visitor parking. At least, it
been blue once upon a time; after twelve years, it was hard to tell. The vehicle, which leaned to one side where the shocks had finally given up the ghost, looked out of place amid the shiny, sedate sedans rimming the U-shaped drive in front of the college.

Susan hoped Malorie wouldn't decide she was as out of place here as the old family wagon.

Smiling her best smile, the one that had seen her through the past year, she said, “Now, Mal, you know I'm going to be way too busy for tomfool stuff like being lonely.”

“I know what you

Malorie set the picnic basket on the front seat, atop the worn quilt Susan had placed so carefully on the passenger side. They faced each other over the door frame, elbows propped identically on the rust-pocked car roof. A stray blond curl danced along the side of Malorie's slim, freckled face, and Susan checked the urge to tuck the hair away, behind her daughter's ear. At twenty-one, Mal no longer needed that kind of mothering.

“You know I've got a pile of work screaming for attention,” Susan said instead. “And you know I've been away from it too long. I'm as eager to get on with things as you are.”

As Mal closed the passenger door, Susan hoped that was true, for both of them. She knew she had no choice but to let Malorie go, to let her daughter make her own way.

Susan had firsthand experience at being the object of someone else's controlling tendencies. So she smiled breezily and pretended she didn't worry for a minute about her baby's belated flight from the nest. Buddy would have made it easier. The old Buddy, not the hollowed-out shell with the empty eyes she and Malorie had nursed, babied and protected for two years. But the old Buddy, who'd had enough confidence and bravado for all three of them beneath his mechanic's overalls.

But Buddy was gone now. Susan still felt guilty for considering it a blessing; wondered if she would have felt that way had things been different during their twenty-plus years together.

At any rate, that left only Susan to give Malorie a boost, to press gently for her daughter to get on with her life. Both of them had been carrying around this emotional umbilical cord for way too long now.

Okay, Buddy. Today I'm cutting the cord. The way you told me to a long time back.

She was confident that somewhere, in a place where he was no longer sick, Buddy saw and was glad.

Mal stepped back from the hug and clasped her hands tightly in front of her, looking uncertainly at the ground. “You tell...tell Cody I said bye. Tell him...I'll think about him every single day.”

Susan could still hear the tantrum the sturdy little two-year-old had pitched when they left him with old Mrs. Harkins next door that morning. No little brother had ever been as fiercely loyal as Cody Hovis. “He'll do fine, you know.”

Mal's smile had a tight look to it, a look that said she wasn't going to give in to all the feelings spinning around inside her. Leaving Cody might be the hardest part for Malorie, Susan thought, but the only thing to do now was move on. That's what Buddy would have said. And he would have been right.

They walked around to the driver's side. Knowing they both needed to end on a smile, Susan said, “Now, sugar, I want your solemn promise to call me every single day.”

Malorie laughed. “And twice on Sunday.”

She opened the car door, which groaned in protest.

Susan didn't dally, but she did watch in her rearview mirror until she couldn't spot the slight figure in slip dress and T-shirt amid the trees and cars and red brick buildings. It bothered her that Malorie watched for that long, too. In a way Susan was grateful her daughter's scholarship had come from a college three hundred miles from home. Queens College in Charlotte was just the right distance from Susan's little seamstress shop in the garage behind their house in Atlanta.

Susan needed that distance, too, so she could find the energy and the time for being a mother to a two-year-old and for getting back to work. Working at home had been tough while Buddy was sick. Picking up that needle or plopping down at her old Singer hadn't distracted her the way it once had. Just keeping up with the costumes for Lolly's dance studio had been next to impossible.

Business was off. If she was going to survive—if she was going to make enough to keep herself and Cody going—she had plenty to concentrate on this fall without worrying about Mal.

“What we've got here is a new beginning,” she said into the silence as she pointed the wagon onto Interstate 85. At forty-four, she wasn't exactly crazy about the idea of a new beginning. But there it was. Once again, God hadn't seen fit to ask her whether or not she liked things fine just the way they were.

The drive from Charlotte to Atlanta called for a headache powder, the way it always did. Trucks clogged the interstate all the way to Greenville, South Carolina. Each time a semi whizzed past, Susan felt knocked around in her old wagon. She was darned tired of being knocked around.

Still, Susan wasn't prepared when one mud-encrusted tractor-trailer passed her, then pulled back into her lane a few yards too soon. Even as she saw what was happening, she expected a last-minute miracle. The crunch of metal took her by surprise. No time for fear, even, as her car lurched to one side and swerved into another car coming down the on-ramp. More tortured metal. The steering wheel slipped from her hands. The world became flashes of light and sound that she couldn't name.

The car stopped rolling. Susan heard nothing. Saw nothing. Felt nothing. She only knew. Knew that it was too late, forever and ever too late.
If only...

She knew nothing more until she heard the rescue workers speaking to her. Gibberish. Words that were scrambled in her brain. Still, nothing moved, nothing
Except her fingers. Clutched around the corner of the quilt.

He was all she could remember.

* * *

the eighth long-neck beer bottle in a Miss Goody Two Shoes straight line with the first seven. Least, he thought there were seven. He supposed he could be seeing double.

“Yer sorry ass is drunk, Eugene,” he mumbled, wondering if there was another beer in the refrigerator. And if he could manage to make it over there to find out. “Guess you're a Junior, after all.”

“Aw, hell, Tag, I ain't drunk,” he replied, for there was no one else to talk to him in the narrow, dingy trailer he called home, sweet home. “I'm jus' drinkin'.”

That struck him as mighty funny, so he laughed and lurched into a standing position. The room whirled around him, leaving him to wonder if somebody had hitched up this rolling tin can he lived in and taken it for a spin. Tag's laughter died quickly.

“Daddy, how the hell'd you manage to do this ever' blessed night of your life?” he mumbled, for he'd swear and be damned his old man must be close by.

Tag remembered now why he'd never taken another drink after that first rip-roaring drunk back in 1975. One bottle of beer, it appeared, turned into another. And another and another. Tag had seen that routine before. He might be Eugene Junior, but hell if he planned to turn into a carbon copy of Eugene Senior.

Right this minute, he couldn't even remember what had made him pick up that first bottle tonight.

“Musta been a damn fine reason,” he told himself as he loosened his grip on the metal counter and started for the other side of the trailer. Only four feet long, the path to the refrigerator was treacherous, land-mined with uneven linoleum and a bump in the floor that looked like an upside-down iron skillet, maybe the one he'd used to fix his supper. He stubbed his toe, stumbled against the counter, and ultimately found himself in front of the refrigerator. Grateful that reprieve was near at hand, Tag managed to get his fist around the door handle and yank.

The refrigerator bulb flickered on and off. But light or dark, bleary-eyed or not, Tag could see well enough to discern the ugly truth. The icebox was empty.

“Aw, hell.”

He sank to the floor.

Sitting there on the cold, sticky floor, that was when he noticed it. Living in this traveling hellhole for two years, he'd never noticed the pattern in the linoleum. The interlocking circles. In pink and green.

Like the quilt.

The pattern of circles had a name, but he couldn't pull his thoughts together enough right now to think of it. He could only remember the way she'd worked on it those last two years in Sweetbranch. Sitting curled up on the porch swing, with a sea of rose and green and white spread out across her lap. Her long, slim fingers working the needle, in and out, in and out.

For her hope chest, she'd said the first time he asked. Almost defiantly, as if she expected him to make fun, the way he'd made fun all those years before when she'd been his best friend's kid sister.

But that summer, 1960-something, he'd looked up and realized she wasn't a kid anymore.

Tag stared at the interlocking circles on his filthy floor and thought if he didn't have one more beer, just enough to usher in oblivion, he wouldn't be able to stand it.

Why didn't she wait?

Then, eight bottles of beer or not, everything came rushing back. Vietnam. The homecoming that must have been God's idea of a bad joke. Rehab. Staring at the little aluminum-sided house in the middle of a block of matching houses, knowing she was inside.

Why the hell didn't she wait, the way she'd said she would?

No more beer. Only bad memories. Tag stared across the ten-by-ten room—small enough that he could see the whole thing even when he was seeing double—and saw the torn screen window over the sofa that made into a bed, when he bothered to fold it out. Through the window, he could hear the roar of the bikes. Round and round on the track.

He pulled himself up, inch by head-spinning inch, until he hung over the counter. Where the hell was his helmet? He was supposed to race tonight. If he could find that helmet...

If only she'd waited...

He steadied himself along the counter, moving slowly toward the door. No helmet. Hell, no need. Hadn't his nephew told him long since that he must have nine lives? About what you'd expect from an old tomcat.

Tag tried to remember how many lives he'd used up, but he kept losing count somewhere between the bullring in Tijuana and that dirt track outside Wedowee, Alabama. Or was it Wetumpka? Hell, he must have at least one good life left. And if he could just manage to kick start his bike, point it into the wind, then he wouldn't need another long neck bottle. He could find the oblivion he craved in the wind, in the night, in the speed.

He made it to the door, got his hand on the knob. It rattled, fell off in his hand. He made a sound, something between a sob and a chuckle. As the doorknob dropped, he stumbled and crashed heavily against the door. It gave way under his weight and he felt the cool night air on his face.

He fell through the door and down the stairs, thinking of Susan. All the rest, in between Susan and now, he could forget. He could pretend she'd waited, after all.

He slashed his forehead on the bottom of the rickety metal stairs as he hit bottom.

In the darkness, Susan was waiting.

BOOK: Double Wedding Ring
10.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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