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Authors: D.J. Palmer

The New Husband

BOOK: The New Husband
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For Richard Glantz, who as my stepfather (and grandfather to my kids) has stepped up time and time again.

And to the memory of John Kristie, a mentor and friend who saw something in me I didn't see in myself.

 

CHAPTER 1

It was a chilly predawn morning when Anthony Strauss eased
Sweet Caroline,
his seventeen-foot Boston Whaler, from the trailer into water so dark it was indistinguishable from the sky. To the east, the rising sun raced along the riverbank, igniting the shoreline of Lake Winnipesaukee in a buttery glow. Anthony cast his lure about twenty feet out and was beginning to slowly reel in his line when he noticed a fellow boater some forty yards off his starboard.

In the early-morning darkness, the boat had been nothing but a black shape on dark water. The sunrise revealed a Starcraft Starfish, a great lake-fishing boat. The discovery was mildly disappointing. Anthony had thought he was alone out here and enjoyed feeling like he was the most dedicated fisherman. Still, it was polite to wave, and Anthony's hand went up almost reflexively. Nobody waved back. On second inspection, Anthony discovered that the figure he believed to be the boat's captain was, in fact, a dog.

Guiding his vessel closer to the Starcraft, Anthony watched while the dog—a golden retriever, he could now see—gazed forlornly toward land as though its owner might emerge at any moment from the dense forest abutting the rocky shoreline. The Starcraft, to Anthony's recollection, did not have a below-deck cabin, so he was surprised when he couldn't see anyone else in the boat with the dog.

The engine was off, but gusty winds pushed the unmanned vessel
across the choppy gray water. The dog kept perfectly still while Anthony glided by, its black eyes locked on the same spot on the shoreline, golden fur rippling in the steady breeze.
Where is the captain? What if he's suffered a heart attack? What if he's fallen overboard and drowned?

Anthony turned the wheel on his Whaler, steering the boat in a tight circle to make a second pass. As he neared, he called out: “Hello? Is anybody there?”

His barrel chest and solid build gave him a booming voice that should have attracted anyone's attention, but still only the dog looked his way. Slowly, the animal's gaze drifted back to the shoreline, as if it had assessed Anthony and determined he could be of no real help.

Steering the boat for a closer approach, Anthony hooked a set of bumpers onto his port side. As he neared, the dog moved, greeting Anthony with a wagging tail and lolling tongue. Gripping the gunwale with one hand, rope in the other, Anthony fastened the two boats together, using the bumpers to protect their respective hulls.

The dog barked three times in quick succession, as if trying to say something of great importance. Anthony appraised the animal thoughtfully before turning his attention to the Starcraft's interior. The deck was covered in deep red.
How odd,
Anthony thought, until his mind clicked over. A gasp rose in his throat as a sickening realization set in.

Anthony had gutted plenty of fish in his day, but none had ever bled like that.

 

CHAPTER 2

SEVENTEEN MONTHS LATER …

Nina told herself everything would work out fine. A cloudless August day gave the sun free rein to scorch the earth dry and bake her olive-toned skin a shade darker. She stood on the brown grass of her new lawn, facing the thirty-foot Ryder truck that held the majority of her life's possessions, all carefully packed inside corrugated boxes that were stacked neatly between the small pieces of furniture moved without the help of professionals. The bigger items were coming later.

“Anybody see the box cutter?”

Using her hand as a visor against the sun, Nina glanced at her feet and around her general vicinity, but did not see a box cutter. She did, however, catch the harsh look her thirteen-year-old daughter, Maggie, sent Simon, the new man in their lives, who was fumbling about the truck in search of the missing tool. That single glance reconfirmed Nina's greatest fear, that this move wasn't going to go as smoothly as she dared to dream. It was not a look of pure contempt, not the scathing, narrowed-eyed death stare any middle-school-aged girl could serve with the speed and accuracy of a pro tennis player, but still it smoldered with an unmistakable hostility.

Poor Maggie had so much on her plate, so many reasons to be angry, and for sure Nina was partly to blame, because she had opened her heart and soul to another man—a man who was
not
her daughter's father.

“Found it!” Simon yelled, holding up the box cutter like he was wielding a broadsword. As it turned out, the missing tool had been hidden in the tall grass of the sloping front yard, which needed mowing as much as it did water. Somewhere, buried deep inside that truck, was the mower.

Nina was familiar with her new neighborhood because it was still in Seabury, New Hampshire, a few miles from where she had lived only this morning. Even so, she had no friends nearby, and maybe for that reason it felt foreign here, as though she'd moved clear across the country. She was used to living near her very dear friends Susanna Garston and Ginny Cowling, but pop-in visits would be less frequent now that they lived fifteen minutes across town. For whatever reason, it felt much farther than that. Of course she'd adjust, and eventually she'd be as comfortable here as she'd been in the place where she'd spent the last fifteen years raising her children. She understood it would take time and effort for things to feel normal for everyone, and that applied to her new relationship as much as to her new home.

But today it all felt eerily unsettling.

At the far edge of her lawn a splendid oak tree growing near her property line spread its thick branches from the neighbor's yard into hers, providing pockets of shade where a bold chipmunk escaped the August heat and observed the move with curious dark eyes.

Turning her head to the sound of scuffing footsteps, Nina watched nervously as her son, Connor, backed down the truck ramp clutching an oversize box in his outstretched arms.

“Careful, buddy. That looks pretty heavy,” Simon said as Connor made a tricky pivot move at the bottom of the ramp that had heated to a steak-sizzling temperature under the unrelenting summer sun.

After deftly avoiding the family's five-year-old golden retriever, Daisy, who had splayed herself out at the foot of the ramp, Connor sent Simon a confident look that carried no resentment, but then again, he didn't share Maggie's unrealistic fantasies about their dad. He knew as well as Nina that Glen was gone, and gone for good.

Connor trotted the box up the wide front stairs with ease. Nina still could not get comfortable with how much he'd grown in the past few years. He towered over her and his younger sister. Not only was he tall for his age—sixteen going on twenty-six, judging by his attitude these days—but he was also well-muscled, thanks to his dedication to the football team. He was as handsome as a Disney prince, too, with a wavy head of jet-black hair and an irresistible dimpled smile. He'd gotten Nina's darker Italian coloring, and Glen, who was Irish through and through, had made plenty of milkman jokes over the years.

Inside, Nina caught Maggie, blue eyes brimming, surveying the empty rooms from the unfurnished foyer. The modest home was a good deal smaller than the one her daughter had lived in all her life, but square footage was not the reason for Maggie's distress. It was all about whom she'd be living with, not where.

It was all about Simon.

If somebody had told Nina a few years ago that she would end up living with the social studies teacher from her daughter's middle school, in a new house they had bought together, she would have broken into a fit of laughter.

In another eight months or so, the court most likely would grant Nina her divorce from Glen, after which she might feel ready to say yes to Simon's marriage proposal so he could officially become her new husband. New Hampshire law was quite specific: spousal abandonment had to last two years or longer and required a demonstrated, willful desire to desert and terminate the marital relationship. Clearly, Glen's actions met those criteria. Or maybe he really was dead. Without a body, Nina had no way of knowing, while Maggie continued to hold out hope that her dad would soon return to them.

Nina directed Connor, still lugging the box, down the hallway to the kitchen. At some point, she'd hang her framed family photographs on the bare white walls, just as she had decorated her last home—only this time Glen would not grace any of the images.

With the windows closed, the empty house had turned into a sauna.
Sweat beaded up on Nina's arms, and the cotton of her loose-fitting gray T-shirt stuck to the small of her back. But a tickle of excitement at the prospect of nesting helped her ignore the discomfort. Without the previous owners' furniture, the rooms appeared smaller than Nina remembered, though it was easy to visualize where she would put her things. The living room curtains would have to be shortened, but first she'd have to find her sewing machine, hidden inside one of those moving boxes.

Returning to the front hall, Nina found Maggie, looking serious, standing in the middle of what would eventually be a small first-floor office. Perhaps she, too, was imagining what the room would look like with furniture in it, though she would have to picture it with Simon's furnishings in the mix—if she could remember what he owned. Maggie had been to Simon's house only a few times, even though he lived just on the other side of town.

Before cohabitating, Nina had enjoyed plenty of afternoon delights at Simon's modest lake home, but she'd never spent the night. There was simply too much heartache, too much sadness, for her to leave the kids alone while pursuing personal pleasures. Still, she was no stranger to Simon's place, having gone there enough to commit his alarm code to memory.

When the movers came, Maggie would see that Simon had perfectly fine furniture, nothing too fancy, that would mix well with what they already owned. Then again, as Nina was learning, it was much easier to blend furnishings than the people using them.

“I hate it here,” Maggie said, eyes watering, before Nina could utter a single word of comfort. She looked so much like Glen it was sometimes hard for Nina to hold her daughter's gaze. Maggie had fair skin like her father and the same straw-colored hair, hers descending to the middle of her back. She shared Glen's snub nose and big round eyes, and her sweet smile could melt the coldest of hearts. She was a slender girl with narrow shoulders and delicate arms. Her long legs
were strong from skiing and lacrosse, but like a foal's, they did not yet fit her body.

Deep breaths, Nina, deep breaths.

“It's going to be all right, just give it some time.”

“I wish we'd moved in with Nonni and Papa like we'd planned. I'd rather live in Nebraska.”

Before Nina could respond, Simon sauntered into the room carrying a box labeled
OFFICE,
a smile on his face and sweat dripping into his eyes. Daisy followed him, panting from heat and thirst.

“We're making great progress—though gotta hand it to Connor,” Simon said, breathing hard, “he's crazy strong. Football team's lucky to have him.”

Nina forced out a smile while Maggie tried to discreetly wipe her eyes.

Practiced at checking in with his students, Simon took notice of Maggie's distress as he set down his box. He dropped to one knee, giving the youngest Garrity a temporary height advantage, and tried to make eye contact, though Maggie would not meet his gaze. Nina looked at him lovingly, appreciating his gentleness and compassion.

“I know you don't believe me,” Simon said sweetly, “but it's going to work out fine. At school I might be Mr. Fitch, but here I'm just Simon. And I know we can all live together and be friends.”

Channeling her social worker skills, Nina shared a few words of comfort and encouragement as well, though her daughter did not seem convinced. Worry turned her sweet face hard, older.

“I'm going to help Connor,” Maggie said, sending a look back at Daisy to encourage her beloved dog to follow.

Simon stood and sighed as he pulled Nina into an embrace. Putting her ear to his chest, not minding the dampness of his shirt, she listened to the steady patter of his heart.

“It's too much,” she said in a whispered voice, like an admission to herself. “It's too much, too fast.”

Simon kissed the top of her head. “We knew what we were getting into, but what choice was there?” he said. “It was either this or you'd have had to move away, and neither of us wanted that.”

It was true. Nina did not have the money to keep their family home and could not afford a new home without Simon. Before he had entered the picture her best, really her only option, was Maggie's current wish—to move to Nebraska. While Nina was close to her parents, her life was in Seabury, and there she wished to stay.

“People are talking about us, you know that?” Nina said. “We're the talk of the town.”

Simon didn't look surprised, and for good reason. Both she and Simon had been touched by tragedy, and together they had raised eyebrows for the choices they had made in the aftermath. Nina had done what many had advised and moved on with her life, but apparently it was too quick for some.

“I don't care what people think,” answered Simon. “I love you and that's all that matters. I know it's tough on Maggie right now, but she's going to get over it. I promise you it's going to work out. You'll see.”

“I hope you're right,” Nina said with audible desperation.

And I hope you know what you're doing,
she told herself.

In Simon, she had found a loving and genuinely caring companion who adored her and had guided her through the darkest days of her life. Still, she worried. How difficult would Maggie make this move for her, and even more so, for Simon?

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