Authors: Denise Grover Swank
A Rose Gardner
Between the Numbers Novella
Thirty and Thirty-One
Denise Grover Swank
Rose Gardner Mysteries
(Humorous Southern mysteries)
TWENTY-EIGHT AND A HALF WISHES
TWENTY-NINE AND A HALF REASONS
THIRTY AND A HALF EXCUSES
THIRTY-ONE AND A HALF REGRETS
On the Otherside Series
(Young adult science fiction/romance)
(Adult urban fantasy)
THE CURSE KEEPERS (November 19, 2013)
THIS PLACE IS DEATH (Curse Keeper #1.5, February, 2014)
THE CURSE BREAKERS (May 20, 2014)
New Adult Contemporary Romance
BUSINESS AS USUAL (April 2014)
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locations are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used factiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
Copyright 2013 by Denise Grover Swank
Cover art and design by Eisley Jacobs
Cover Photography: Iona Nicole Photography
Copy Editing: Cynthia L. Moyer
All rights reserved.
Joe stood in my front door, his voice breaking. “Goodbye, Rose.” Then the door shut behind him.
The unthinkable just happened. Joe left me.
My lungs burned for air, but my body had forgotten how to breathe. As though Joe had sucked all the air from my house with him when he told me it was over.
My vision fogged, and a huge lump filled my throat, but I still couldn’t take a breath. I fell to my hands and knees. The door was blurry through the tears that filled my eyes but refused to fall. It was like every part of me forgot how to function. As if Joe had announced we were done, stuck a pin in me, and left me a collapsed heap on the floor. There was nothing left of me now but skin and bones and a shattered heart.
Breathing was the most natural thing in the world, but nothing in a world without Joe was natural. I’d heard of people who died from broken hearts, but I realized that wasn’t necessarily true. They died because their bodies forgot how to live.
The room grew darker as I was closer to passing out. Finally, my body found the will I couldn’t summon, and I sucked in a breath, releasing it with a sob.
This wasn’t happening.
I lay on the floor for what could have been minutes, or hours or even days, sobbing so long there shouldn’t be tears left, yet the bottomless well of despair remained.
“Rose?” Neely Kate’s worried voice came from my front door.
I lifted my head off the floor to see her shocked face. She hurried over and knelt beside me. “Rose, what happened?” Her words were strangled.
I tried to catch my breath. “He…e’s gone.”
She shook her head, tears in her eyes. “Rose, I don’t understand. He just called me. He sounded upset and told me you needed me…oh.” Her voice faded. “
How did I explain that the only man I’d ever loved left me to protect me?
Neely Kate grabbed my arms and pulled me to a sitting position, worry in her eyes. “You need to calm down, sweetie. You’re all banged up from last night. All this cryin’ can’t be any good for your head.”
What did it matter?
“Come on. Let’s at least get you on the sofa, okay?”
I let her help me up off the floor and settle me on the cushions while I tried to get control of my crying. I heard her voice while she talked on her phone, the last ten minutes with Joe replaying in my head. When had it all gone wrong?
The next thing I knew, Violet was kneeling in front of me, looking up into my face. “Rose, what happened?”
I opened my mouth to answer but nothing came out. Neely Kate handed me a glass of ice water, and I took a sip.
“Did you guys have a fight?” Neely Kate asked.
“No.” My voice sounded hoarse from all my crying.
“I don’t understand why you’re so upset. What happened?” Violet sat next to me and squeezed my hand.
“Joe broke up with me this morning.”
Neely Kate sat on the floor in front of me, shaking her head. “That doesn’t make one lick of sense. He’s crazy about you.”
What was I going to tell them? I couldn’t tell them the truth. I had to protect Violet. “He’s decided to run for the state senate. His family doesn’t find me acceptable.”
Violet lifted my hand, staring at the ring still on my finger. “Then why are you wearing an engagement ring?”
I closed my eyes and leaned back into the cushions. “He proposed last night.” I swallowed, my fuzzy mind trying to piece together a story they would believe. “I went to dinner at his parents’ house—”
“You didn’t tell me you were going to meet his parents,” Neely Kate said.
My chin trembled. “It all happened so fast. Joe called and asked me to come at the last minute. But it was a disaster. There were about twenty people all dressed up in tuxedos and long dresses and I… wasn’t. His parents didn’t approve of me, and I didn’t fit in with their friends.” I looked into Neely Kate’s eyes. “And Hilary was there.”
They both gasped.
there?” Violet’s tone was cold, and it was nice to hear her using it on someone other than me.
I thought about the vision I had of Joe with a pregnant Hilary and swallowed the tears threatening to resurface. “Her family is close to Joe’s. She’ll
be there.” I sighed with resignation.
to you. Why would he break up?” Neely Kate asked.
“His father announced that Joe’s running for the state senate. And everyone was so awful at dinner.” I shook my head. “It was clear to all of us I didn’t belong there.”
Violet tugged on my hand. “Rose, this is crazy. Joe
you. There’s no way he’d just dump you to run for the state senate.”
I looked out the window into the side yard. I wanted to tell her the truth, but I couldn’t do it with Neely Kate there. Not after Violet confessed the night before that she’d had an affair while she was still living with Mike, and that Mike suspected and threatened to take the kids from her if he found out it was true. If Joe’s family released the photos they had of Violet and Brody, Henryetta’s married mayor, she would be destroyed. She may have been awful to me the last few months, but she was still my sister. She’d been there for me for twenty-four years. That had to overshadow a few months of jealousy and snippiness. I could have endured the speculation that I’d hired Daniel Crocker to kill Momma. I was regaining my senses enough to realize that Mason was the assistant DA, and there’s no way on God’s green earth that he’d prosecute me. I also knew Mike would never resort to bribing county officials. It might be ugly when the news broke. But we’d all clear our names in the end. All of us except Violet.
I couldn’t do that to her.
I searched her worried face. Joe had always told me one day I’d have to choose—him or Violet. I just didn’t know it would be this way. I took a deep breath to settle my shaky nerves. “Joe decided he wants to run for the senate, and I have to respect that. But we all know I’m not meant to be a senator’s wife. It’s best if we just end it now.”
Violet and Neely Kate broke out into a chorus of protests, and I squeezed my eyes shut, my eyelids pushing out a fresh batch of tears. I didn’t know if I could do this, but I thought of Violet with her kids. She may have been lacking as my sister lately, but she adored her children. I could do this for her.
“Stop.” My voice quivered, and I opened my eyes and forced the word out louder, “Stop.”
Both women quieted.
“Look.” My voice broke, and I tried again. “We all know that Joe had another life in Little Rock. He never meant to fall in love with me.”
Neely Kate leaned forward, resting her hands on my knees. “No one ever plans to fall in love, Rose.”
I hiccupped a breath, trying to keep from crying again. “We come from two different worlds. Who were we kidding? It was never going to work. We lived two hours away, for heaven’s sake.” I swallowed another sob. I had to make them believe me.
Violet frowned. “That man is head over heels in love with you. There’s no way he’d just break up. He proposed.”
“He changed his mind! Okay? He changed his mind.” I started crying again. “He told me if we were going to stay together I had to give up my friends like Bruce Wayne and…” My voice trailed off.
“Me.” Neely Kate whispered.
I shook my head, sending a jolt of pain through my already aching head. “Not just you. Everyone and everything. I’m too white trash for his family.”
He said that
?” Violet screeched.
“No.” I couldn’t pin that one on him. “His mother did, though. And as much as I love Joe, he cares more about what his family wants than wanting to be with me. He still wanted to marry me, but it was clear to both of us that the person I needed to be to help him win this race isn’t who I am.”
“I don’t believe this.” Neely Kate sat back on her butt, shaking her head with narrowed eyes. “He asked you to change so he could run for the senate?”
I sighed. “We all know that I am not the ideal senator’s wife.”
you, Rose.” Violet said softly. “That man loves you with a fierceness I’d give anything to have. He wouldn’t give you up unless there was a good reason.”
I choked back a sob. “Sometimes love isn’t enough.”
“You really don’t believe that do you?” Neely Kate asked.
“He left me, didn’t he?” A heaved breath slipped out and I struggled to keep control of my tears. “He’s gone and we just have to accept it.”
Violet wrapped her arm around my shoulder, but I couldn’t take their pity. I stood up and looked out the window. “He was just pretending. None of this was real. Joe always told me that Joe Simmons and Joe McAllister were two different men. I just didn’t realize how different.” I took a breath. “This was bound to happen. We were just too stupid to admit it.” My biggest fear had come true. I’d lost Joe.
I wrapped my arms around my front and held tight, thinking if I squeezed hard enough, I could keep myself from falling apart. “Joe cared about me, but he always knew it wouldn’t last. That’s why he kept so much of himself hidden.”
Both women were silent.
I forced a laugh. “It’s good this happened now. Before either of us got hurt.” I started to cry again and the dam to my despair I’d spent the last several minutes building up split apart and my emotions flooded through my body. “But now I’m all alone again.”
Neely Kate got up and pulled me into a hug. “You’re not alone, Rose.” Her voice broke with her tears. “You have me and Violet. And Mason.”
Violet hugged me from behind. “You’re not alone. I promise I’ll make up for every awful thing I’ve done to you over the last few months.” Her words sounded choked. “You were there for me when Mike left me. I’m here for you now.”
I nodded, but we all knew it wasn’t the same.
The night before
I stood outside my parents’ house, staring into Rose’s face, dying inside after what happened at their disastrous dinner. I’d hurt her tonight. My family had done their level best to embarrass her in front of their
friends, but Rose had held her head high and never let them belittle her. I’d never been so proud of anyone in my entire miserable life. Little Rose Anne Gardner from Henryetta had done what I’d always longed to do.
She’d stood up to my parents.
“What do you want to do, Joe?” She looked up at me, longing in her warm brown eyes. Whenever she looked at me like that I wanted to give her everything and anything she asked for. Because she deserved it all and so much more.
“I want to marry you.” I’d just asked her to marry me moments before and I knew I’d screwed up by doing it now instead of waiting until tomorrow. It was a Hail Mary move, a panicked attempt to keep from losing her. I told myself it was okay that she didn’t say yes. At least she hadn’t jerked the ring off and told me to go to hell, which was exactly what I deserved. But this was Rose, who believed I was a better person, even when I knew I wasn’t.