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Authors: D.J. Palmer

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BOOK: The New Husband
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CHAPTER 21

Today was the day I would prove to Mom that Simon had another side to him—an evil side. There hadn't really been a good opportunity to execute my brilliant plan until now. Mom was at work (first day on the job, three cheers for Mom!); Connor was at practice; Simon, I think, was out in the yard; and I was in the basement, looking for something. There was a lot of junk in our basement: storage containers filled with snow pants and boots, holiday decorations, plates and dishes that had been banished here for whatever reason, lots of things we had moved that really should have gone to the dump.

There was also a wide workbench and cabinet with all of Simon's tech stuff for building robots. Nearby, on the floor, was Simon and Connor's creation, which they cleverly named Bob. It was shaped like a stop sign and had four wheels bolted to its metal sides. I thought Simon's love of tech and history was a bit odd, but he was fond of saying that the past informs the future.

I grabbed a fold-up chair and positioned it in front of a storage unit that was pushed against the back wall. If it were a dangerous weapon, something that could shoot more than one lead slug every three minutes, Simon might have kept it locked up in a safe. But we kids were older, and supposedly knew better than to play with guns or mess around with things that didn't belong to us. Besides, I didn't see any ammo around.

I got Simon's antique musket down with ease. It was wrapped in a soft fleece blanket, along with the bayonet, which wasn't attached. I didn't see any gunpowder or ancient bullets nearby, but I wasn't about to load the stupid thing and shoot Simon dead. I'm not a maniac.

The gun felt lighter than I expected, about the weight of a baseball bat, maybe a bit heavier. I stepped down from the chair and lifted the musket to eye level, picking up a faint scent of oil, like engine oil, or WD-40, some treatment to keep it in working condition. I examined the various components and saw there wasn't really much to it. The wood was dark and rough, like the hull of a ship that sailed in cold seas. The long gun barrel had some rusty spots, and plenty of dings, like it had seen some action, but it looked to be in pretty good condition.

I was mostly interested in the trigger mechanism. It was pretty cool to see it up close, I had to admit. Kids went bonkers to touch Mr. Fitch's rifle, and here I was holding it in my hands like I was playing soldier or something. The metal of the trigger was silver-colored and badly tarnished. There were some letters carved into a silver plate—
HENSHAW
, I think it read. I could barely make out a date, 1772, that had also been etched into the soft metal.

I called Ben at home, and he answered right away, expecting my call.

“I got the gun,” I said.

“Well, yeah,” he said, because that really wasn't the hard part.

“I'm just letting you know,” I said, a bit annoyed.

“Okay, but where are you going to do it?”

“I'll do it right here, right now,” I said.

“What about your phone, the proof?”

“I've got that taken care of.”

“So do it,” Ben said.

If he had a phone, I'd probably Snapchat him, or we might use Talkie, which was the new new thing, because there always had to be a new thing when it came to social media. Instead, I pressed the speakerphone
icon and set my cell phone on the same chair I'd used to help me get the gun.

“Can you hear me?” I asked.

“Loud and clear,” Ben answered, his voice calming me.

“Okay,” I said, taking in a breath and holding it for a bit. “Here I go.”

“You know he's going to have a right to be mad at you,” Ben said.

I paused. “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean you might record him freaking out, but won't your mom say he had a good reason to be angry?”

“If I'm right,” I said, “it's not going to look like normal anger to her.”

“Yeah, okay,” said Ben. “Go for it.”

I began to pull hard on the gold-plated loop that arched over the trigger. At first, it wouldn't budge, but then I tugged it from side to side, harder and harder with each yank, until I eventually heard a crack of old wood splitting and the piece of metal snapped right off the gun with some splintered wood still attached.

Immediately after, I felt a lot of relief because I'd done it. Then, about two seconds after that, I felt sick to my stomach, because, you know, I'd done it.

“Wow. I heard that crack!” Ben cried out.

“Yeah,” I said, sounding shaky, my words catching in my throat. I could feel my heartbeat going way too fast. “Now for the fun part.”

And upstairs, I went to look for Simon, to tell him what had happened.

I FOUND
Simon out in the yard, rake in hand, but he wasn't raking up anything. Instead, he was again eyeing the branches of the oak tree that extended from the neighbors' property onto ours. I didn't know what to make of that, but my bigger concern was the torn-up hunk of metal and wood I held in my left hand. Of course I was worried. Would Simon be pissed off to just the right degree of mad, enough so that I'd get grounded and that would be that? It was too late to try out
a plan B, even if I had one. I couldn't exactly glue the broken part back on.

I had my phone in my hand because phones were always attached to teenagers' hands, like an extension of our palms. No suspicion there, no reason for Simon to think I might be recording his reaction to the bad news I was about to share. I still had Ben on the phone, just in case Simon started murdering me or something. At least Ben would be a witness to the crime and I'd have justice from the grave.

But the truth was I didn't think Simon was going to hurt me. My only goal was for Mom to see that angry look, get some video evidence, proof that her sweet Simon wasn't at all who he pretended to be. He was a showman, a liar, and someone we had to get out of our house right away.

I crossed the lawn, approaching Simon with the apprehension of a dog that had just gone potty in the house. I carefully held my phone so the display was facing me, the camera lens facing out toward Simon.

“Simon,” I croaked out, realizing this was my second big acting job in nearly as many days. “I have something to tell you.” The nervous edge to my voice wasn't faked in the slightest.

“Well, I have something to tell you, too,” Simon said, spinning around, bringing the rake along with him. “These branches are crossing over into our property. Now, I told your mother about it, but she won't let me cut them down, and the neighbor won't cut them down either. Property law, Maggie, is not something to trifle with. The framers of the Constitution treated private property as the cornerstone of a free society.”

I was too worried about my covert recording and what I was about to tell him to try and make sense of his little speech.

“Speaking of property,” I said, pushing the words past the lump that had sprung up in my throat. “I am really, really, really sorry.”

I bit my bottom lip, remembering that flickering dark look I'd seen, praying I could capture it.

“Sorry about what?”

Simon grew edgy, and then noticed my closed fist, instinct telling him that's where he'd find the source of my sorrow. Adrenaline (I'd learned about it in bio) shot through my body and caused my sprained foot to throb. I shifted my focus to the ground, mindful to keep the camera lens pointed at him.

“I was downstairs, looking for something, and I sort of stumbled on where you kept your antique musket, and—”

I thought I saw the color drain from Simon's cheeks, but for certain I heard the sharp breath he took. He was bracing himself, like I did when Mom asked me to sit down at the kitchen table because she had something to tell me about Dad.

“What did you do, Maggie?” Simon asked warily.

“I was just checking it out and … and … and this happened.”

I uncurled the fingers of my left hand to reveal the looping piece of metal and splintered hunk of wood with ancient screws still attached. Simon's eyes opened wide at seeing what was in my hand, and … and … there it was, the start of the flicker I'd been hoping for, that shift from Simon to Simon 2.0. At almost the exact same moment the transformation began, his eyes darted over to my other hand, to my phone, and I swear,
I swear,
he noticed the camera lens pointed right at his face.

I tried to keep my hand steady, but I'm sure my recording of Simon would look like it was taken during an earthquake. I felt light on my feet and started to get super dizzy, as if I was having an allergic reaction without having eaten a peanut. I tried to push past the discomfort to focus on Simon, but what I saw made me feel even sicker to my stomach. Instead of capturing the look I was going for, recording his other personality, or worse, documenting some kind of attack on me, what I caught was his expression shifting as fast as I could blink. The darkness slipped from his eyes, and to me, he looked like one of the poker players Connor sometimes watched on TV, men and women who tried like heck not to reveal their hand.

I was thinking to myself:
Did I get it? Was it enough?

Simon shook his head from side to side to signal his supreme disappointment in me.

“Boy, oh boy, Maggie, this is really, really unfortunate,” he said in an emotionless voice. “You knew you weren't supposed to play with that gun. Any gun. It's not safe. It's not primed to be fired, but you didn't know that. You could have been hurt.” He reached out and took my wrists in his hands, like he needed to touch me to drive home his point. I felt him apply gentle downward pressure on my wrists, lowering the camera in the process, so the only thing I'd be recording would be his khaki pants.

“I thought you were more mature than this, Maggie. I'm really, really angry at you.” But he didn't sound really angry; in fact, he didn't sound angry at all.

“I can't send you to your room. Honestly, I can't do anything,” he said, coming across as more sad than mad. “So I guess I'll just have to wait for your mother to get home and she'll have to deal with this. Could I have the piece you broke off, please?”

I gave it to him, my hand shaking. As he took the broken piece into one hand, he continued to gently hold on to my wrist with the other, keeping pressure on it so I couldn't raise my phone and record his face. Then he did the strangest thing ever—worse than the dark look I was after, worse than anything I could have imagined. He cocked his head slightly to one side, keeping his expression a complete blank, the perfect poker player all the way. Then he looked me right in the eyes, cold as a snake's stare, and he gave me a wink.

 

CHAPTER 22

The second call Simon made to Nina on her first day at work was to apologize for his apology, which he sweetly worried hadn't sounded sincere enough. Simon's third call came while Nina was chatting with Dave in Human Resources, and that was to ask about dinner. The fourth call came twenty minutes after the dinner conversation to ask about weekend plans, something Nina patiently told him would have to be discussed at home. She couldn't remember what he wanted on his fifth and sixth calls, but by that point her annoyance was starting to grow and show.

While Nina appreciated that Simon cared enough to keep in touch, he was making it difficult for her to concentrate on her work. She remembered what Dr. Wilcox had said about the job bringing up buried feelings for Simon, unearthing dormant insecurities, and her anger faded.

“You need to stop being so anxious,” she told him. “You're acting like a jealous boyfriend.”

Simon laughed awkwardly, as though embarrassed at being caught. He promised he wouldn't bother her again.

“You're simply going to have to adjust,” Nina said, taking a stricter tone. “I have a lot on my plate already, but I thank you for your love and support.”

“Always,” Simon responded. “And I'm sure by now they've figured out how lucky they are to have you.”

At the completion of her workday, she was overwhelmed with a strange mix of elation, exhaustion, and dread.

Listen to Simon. To Rona. You've got this! You'll do just fine.

Nina walked to her car, the last one left in the parking lot. She felt buoyed from her private pep talk and ready to let her hairdresser, Derek, do his magic. This time she'd have it styled to Simon's exact specifications, because deep down she did not entirely believe that exhaustion was to blame for his never-happened-before impotence.

Hair emergencies and quick alterations were Derek's specialty, and he accommodated her as she'd hoped he would. At the salon, he studied the picture Nina had taken with her cell phone camera and went to work on those bangs first, taking them from chopped to straight in no time. Next, he attacked the sides to make the hair look swept forward, a feat he accomplished with the help of enough hair spray to hold the style in a hurricane, and he adjusted the length as well. It was far more hair maintenance than Nina desired, but she figured she'd try out the look for a little while.

Derek was finishing up, lathering on effusive praise as he lathered in some leave-in conditioner, when Simon called for the seventh time that day. Nina took the call, answering with a bit of an attitude. “Yes, Simon,” she said, wondering what he could possibly want now.

“Sorry to bother you again,” he said, “but there's a problem.”

“Problem” was an understatement.

Nina drove home with a dark cloud above her head.
How dare Maggie! How could she?
Maggie was never this child. She was never in trouble at school. She was never disobedient, mouthy, or moody, or difficult in any way. But then Nina shifted her thinking as she remembered some basic truths: her daughter's age, her trauma, the new man in their lives, and how confusing this must be for her. Even so, Maggie was old enough to know better than to play with guns.

When Nina reached home she was a lot calmer, and with time in transit to process her feelings, she felt ready to confront Maggie without blowing a gasket. Connor, football in hand, stood in the driveway
chatting with Simon, who looked calmer than expected. As she exited her car, Nina was taken aback by the strange looks she got from both of them. Then she remembered her hair.

“You like it?” she asked.

“Looks good. But why the change?” Connor asked, tossing the football a few feet in the air before catching it one-handed.

“Thought I could spruce it up a bit more,” Nina said, knowing only Simon would fully understand.

She caught the bewildered look in Simon's eyes as he approached.

“Well,” she said, noting the drip of apprehension seeping into her voice.
Does it look awful?
“Do you like it?”

She twirled, albeit a bit nervously, when Simon didn't answer right away.

“I … I…”

Simon gawked at her as though she were some exotic being, a nymph, something otherworldly.

“It seems I've rendered you speechless,” Nina said. “Not exactly the reaction I was going for.”

“You look … you look amazing,” Simon finally managed.

Nina's whole face lit up at the compliment. “Really?” she said, twirling once more, lighter on her feet, all but forgetting what Maggie had done.

Simon came closer, pulled her into an embrace, a hug that felt imperative, and whispered in her ear, “Absolutely amazing.” He pressed against her and she felt him come to life. “Can I make it up to you tonight?” he said, and she got the subtext right away.

“Hmmm,” Nina answered, stepping back, shooting Simon a coy look that all but said
Invitation accepted.
“Where is the accused?”

“I don't think there's much question of her guilt,” Connor chimed in. “Has she been tested for a concussion?”

“You stay out of this,” Nina said, giving Connor's muscled shoulder a squeeze as she marched past him, heading up the walkway—which, she absently noted, had no weeds growing between the paving stones.
Simon, with his fastidious nature, wouldn't allow them to grow, leaving Nina grateful that he had inherited some good traits from his overbearing father.

She strode into the house and found Daisy there in the foyer, greeting her with a wagging tail and playful kisses as though Nina had been gone for years. In a way, it felt like she had been gone that long. Her body was completely fatigued, and she wondered how long it would take to adjust to the mental gymnastics of the workday. Nina paused to give Daisy some much-appreciated attention before trekking off upstairs in search of her daughter, believing Maggie's bedroom would be the most logical hideout.

“Hey there,” Nina said at the sight of Maggie, who was seated at her small desk by the windows overlooking the backyard, a schoolbook splayed open in front of her.

“You cut your hair again,” Maggie said, after turning in her chair to greet her mother.

“Thanks for noticing,” Nina said.

“I liked it better before,” said Maggie.

“Thanks for the honesty.” Nina's tone implied thanks for nothing, but her annoyance went away when she sat on Maggie's bed, taking in all the familiar sights and smells of youth, toys replaced with trinkets, all of it serving as reminders that this was a girl with more on her plate than most adults could handle. “So, what am I supposed to do with you?” Nina said as she shrugged her shoulders.

“You're the parent,” Maggie answered with a shrug of her own.

“Oh, I forgot.” Her rebuke was gentle. “So, since I'm the parent, why don't you tell me what you were thinking?”

“I was just messing around,” Maggie said, but Nina caught a look in her daughter's eyes suggesting that there was more to the story.

“What's going on with you?”

“I said it was an accident.”

“It was an antique and also a gun. You
know
better.”

“I was curious,” Maggie said. “I said I was sorry. I'll pay him back.”

“When? Over the next fifteen years? It's worth thousands of dollars.”

Maggie had no answer for that, not that Nina had expected she would.

“You're a smart girl, Maggie. You don't do things like this. Did you do it intentionally? Did you do it to upset Simon?”

There! Maggie's nostrils flared out and she blinked rapidly, two of her easy-to-spot tells, making her non-answer all but an admission of guilt.

“Why?” Nina said, letting her exasperation be heard. “Why are you making this so hard on us all? Do you want to see your therapist more? I don't know what to do to help you, but you have to come to terms with the fact that Simon is a part of our lives now.”

As Nina thought for a moment, she went to pull her hair back out of habit, forgetting all the hair spray holding it in place.

“I can't let this go by without doing something,” she said. “Hand it over.”

Maggie knew what was being asked of her and tossed her phone onto the bed with attitude, where it made a small bounce and landed next to Nina.

“Take it,” Maggie said dejectedly. “When can I have it back?”

“How about right now.”

Simon's voice came from the open doorway, where he had hovered unnoticed.

“Sorry to be eavesdropping,” he said. “But may I?” Maggie responded with another shrug of her shoulders—
Do what you want,
she told him silently, and so he entered her room.

“I don't think Maggie should be punished at all,” Simon said, taking a moment to look around and appreciate all of Maggie's things. This was her space, and normally she would not have welcomed Simon inside.

“People make mistakes, and nobody got hurt,” Simon continued. “She apologized and I accepted her apology. Worst case, I get a new musket; best case, I can get it repaired. I was going to drive over to
Wicked Weaponry tonight—I sent their repair guru a picture of the damage, and he thinks he can fix it up and it'll be as good as old.”

Simon waited for a laugh that didn't come.

“Yeah, that wasn't very funny,” he admitted. “But no punishment at all. That's my plea here. It's fun to have, but I don't
need
it for the field trip. And I'll find another way to store it. That was my bad. Maybe I'll keep it at the gun store until I figure something out. Doesn't matter, none of this matters. I just want things to be better for us all, and this is one way I can think of doing that. Nina?”

Nina shifted her gaze to Maggie, who appeared placid but uncomfortable, like she was trying hard not to react to Simon's overture in any way. She certainly appeared to be actively avoiding eye contact with him, though for a teen that was no surprise.

“Okay,” Nina said, rising from the bed, putting herself between Maggie and Simon. “How about we shake hands and make a pledge to try and work harder to support each other.”

“Deal,” Simon said, jumping on the offer, extending his hand fast as a whip crack. Maggie held out a few beats before extending her arm to give Simon an extremely tepid handshake. Glen would have made some remark, as he believed strongly that a firm handshake and solid eye contact were signs of maturity, but Nina had had enough for one day to try any additional corrective measures on her kid. She was tired, oh so tired, and wondering how the heck she was going to get up in the morning and do it all over again.

You'll do it by putting one foot in front of the other,
she told herself.
Millions of people do.
Nina kissed the top of Maggie's head, taking in the smell of marigold-scented shampoo, and then turned to Simon.

“Please tell me I don't have to make dinner,” she said.

“You don't have to make dinner,” he answered with a dimpled smile. “It's grilled chicken with lemon, capers, and rosemary. Already cooked.”

“Oh, thank God,” Nina breathed out.

“How about you take off your work clothes and I'll set the table—with Maggie's help.”

The look he sent Maggie made it clear she owed him and not to complain. Maggie rose reluctantly from her chair.

“I'll have a glass of wine waiting for you downstairs, but I'm going to let you all eat without me,” Simon said. “Want to get to the gun store before they close and see about fixing it up before the field trip. Might be able to avoid some disappointed kids.”

Nina made a kissing sound that made Maggie sneer.

“Thank you … thank you,” she said. “I'm a working woman now. I need to be pampered.”

“You are a superstar,” Simon said, “and soon you'll be a well-fed one. Maggie?”

Maggie slunk out of the room with footsteps that were close to being a stomp. Nina let out a big sigh once she was gone.

“You are a lot more understanding than I would have been. I was going to take her phone and ground her for a month.”

“And give her more reason to hate me?” Simon said. “No, thank you. Let's let this go and hope for smoother seas ahead. It's all going to be fine.”

Simon bent down and deposited a gentle kiss on Nina's forehead.

“Tonight,” he said, this time planting a quick kiss on her lips as he took her into his arms. Nina sank into his embrace and felt the taxing day leave her body. “You look amazing,” Simon said. “And you are amazing. I can't tell you how lucky I am to have you in my life.”

“Are you about to say you complete me?” Nina asked, giving him a playful pinch so he knew she was referencing that famous movie quote in a loving way. She pulled back to appraise him thoughtfully. “Thank you for being you,” she said.

Simon kissed Nina again before leaving Maggie's bedroom to deal with dinner prep and his broken musket. Nina showered and ate a quiet meal with Connor and Maggie, the way it had been before the short-term trio had become a quartet. There was no talk of the gun, or getting along, or any weighty subject. Conversation was limited to
school and logistics, including a reminder that Maggie was scheduled to get another x-ray on her injured ankle.

After dinner, Connor helped with the dishes, while Maggie, who had set the table, got a reprieve. Simon returned a few hours later with the good news that his musket could be repaired without the break being too noticeable, and might even be ready for Friday's field trip.

That was not the only thing he fixed.

Later that evening, when the kids had gone to bed, after giving Nina a foot massage, preparing her lunch, consulting with her on day two's outfit, and refilling her glass of wine, Simon took her in his arms and made love to her with exquisite tenderness.

“One phone call tomorrow, that's your limit,” Nina told him as she nestled in his arms, basking in the afterglow. “One.”

BOOK: The New Husband
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