Authors: D.J. Palmer
“What do you think you should do?”
Nina thought about how to put her feelings into words.
“I won't be making a fortune, but it would be something. And it would be mine.”
“That must feel good.”
Dr. Wilcox was doing her jobâleading Nina to her own conclusions, not clouding things with pre-judgment.
“Yes. It feels quite good. I trusted a man with my family's financial future once before; I'm reluctant to do it again.”
“Then I guess you know what to do.”
Nina gave a nod. For the first time in a long time, she felt certain of a decision.
Mom glared at me from across the dinner table like I should snap out of it or something. Sure, I had a sourpuss face, but she should have been used to it by now. After all, it's been my default expression since everything fell apart. Connor was a lost causeâtoo angry with Dad and too enamored with Simon (and their dumb robot that still didn't work) to see things clearly. At least I had Ben on my side.
It was amazing, really. I never would have given a kid like Ben the time of day before I got tossed out of my tribe. Not because I was stuck up or anything, but we didn't exactly run in the same circles. Thanks to a little bit of bullying (okay, a lot) I could see now what I couldn't see then. We were just people, with different interests, different tastes, and if you closed yourself off to people different from yourself, you might be missing out on something great. Super mature of me, I know. My guidance counselor would be so proud.
I knew Mom thought Ben was going to be the answer to all her prayers, but having someone to eat lunch with didn't change my feelings about Simon, not one little bit. He could cook all the yummy dinners he wantedâlike the chicken he made tonight, with fluffy biscuits to soak up the thick gravyâand I'd still want him gone. He could play catch with Connor until he got all-state honors and I'd still want to go to boarding school, or move in with Nonni and Papa. And now I had
a new reason, a better reason to want Simon out of here, and gone for good: I'd seen the look in his eyes.
I told Ben all about it at lunch that day, and he got it right away.
“You're like Cinderella, only with the wicked stepfather instead.”
“They're not married. They're not even engaged,” I groaned.
“Oooh, living in sin,” said Ben with an evil look in his eye.
I laughed, until Ben showed me printouts from StepTalk, “a website where stepparents go to vent.” Seriously, that's the tagline. He would have shown it to me on his smartphone, but Ben is maybe the only kid in middle school I know whose parents won't let him have one.
“Married or not, he's close enough to make this relevant,” he said.
The website confirmed what I had long suspected: there were loads of stepparents who hated their stepkids. Not all, of course, but enough that they needed a place to “vent” online. It wasn't a stretch to stick Simon in this category. I had no doubt he was putting on a big show for my mom. He wanted her all to himself, and we were the luggage he had to cart around. Maybe he accepted us as part of the package, but he resented me most, because I wasn't buying into his good-guy routine like Connor.
If I had to guess, I'd say Simon secretly hated kids, including the ones he taught. Why else didn't he have them with his last wife? And why did she have to die? If she were still alive, he wouldn't be here. He'd be with her. I know she killed herself, but I wonder if maybe she got him mad. Maybe she saw that dark look in his eyes, too. Maybe it was the last thing she ever saw.
I watched Connor top his mini mountain of mashed potatoes with peas before inhaling half the structure in a single bite.
“Coach is thinking about letting me throw the ball on Friday,” he announced proudly with a mouth full of food.
“In a game?”
“Yes, Mom, in a game,” he said, finishing that bite.
My mom followed Connor's football career close enough to know he played receiver, not quarterback.
“That's good, right?”
“It's a trick play,” Connor said. “But I took some direct snaps in practice. I think Coach saw that my arm's gotten a lot stronger.”
“Well, I guess you have Simon to thank for that,” I said, after catching the appreciative look Connor sent across the table.
Simon sensed trouble brewing. “Now, Maggie, I just toss the ball with your brother,” he said. “Connor's done all the hard work on his own.”
Daisy was under the table resting her head on my boot, which was hopefully coming off in a week or twoânot that I would be heading back to the lacrosse field. That Maggie was done and gone.
“Sure,” I said, in a way that definitely poked the bear. Connor got the subtext right away.
“I can spend time with Simon and Dad won't mind,” he said snippily. “Trust me.”
“You don't know that,” I snapped.
“He's not coming back, Maggie. Get real with yourself,” he said.
“Don't say that.”
“Hey, hey, kids, let's not upset your mother, okay?” Simon said, using a variant of his teacher tone.
“I'm not doing anything,” I said, overdoing the persecuted act for dramatic effect. “All I said was âSure.'” Next up came the eye roll, followed by a well-placed headshake.
“Maggie,” Mom said, using my name to express many thoughts at once,
being the most obvious of the bunch.
“Whatever,” I said, looking down at my plate so I didn't have to look at anybody.
“Everyone take a deep breath,” Mom said, taking one herself. “I have some news to share.”
That got my attention. I had no idea what was coming, but I could see Mom psyching herself up for some big reveal. Simon actually seemed a bit uncomfortable. Maybe he didn't know either.
“I've accepted a job,” Mom said. “It's with The Davis Family Center.”
Connor perked up and looked genuinely happy for her. “Hey, that's great news, Mom,” he said. “What are you going to do?”
“It's a social worker position, focusing on family issues.”
Connor smirked. “Hmm,” he said as if some idea came to him. “I know a family that needs some help.” He eyed me nastily.
Mom returned his look, putting a quick end to any more snippy comments from my brother.
I got up from the table and hugged Mom tight. I was thrilled. Delighted. Overjoyed, to be preciseâbecause I knew Simon was against it. While I congratulated my mom, I kept my gaze laser locked on Simon, waiting to see his face get red, waiting for the dark, scary look to return. But instead he beamed with a real smile, as genuine as Connor's.
“That's fantastic!” he shouted, rising from his seat. I moved away quickly before the three of us got caught in some weird broken-family hug. “When do you start?”
“Wednesday, two weeks from tomorrow,” Mom said, and then Simon's expression changed dramatically. He looked troubled about something. He got his phone, which was plugged into the charging station at the little desk in the kitchen, because, you know, he lived here, too. I saw him frown as he checked his device.
What could it be?
“Two weeks, you said?”
“Yeah,” Mom said. “Why? Is something wrong?”
“Wellâ” Simon lowered his gaze. “I was going to surprise you, butâhang on a second.”
And with that he left the room, giving Connor and me a chance to hug Mom and congratulate her some more. Even Daisy got in a few licks. I was extra excited, overjoyed about the news. I knew what Dad had done with our money, and why I'd been getting my clothes from a consignment store instead of the mall. But I also knew that money could buy freedom, as well as stuff, and with Mom having a job, she might not feel so dependent on Simon to keep a roof over our heads.
Simon returned to the kitchen holding a glossy brochure in his hand.
“I booked us a trip to Niagara Falls for that week,” he said glumly. “Thursday through Sunday at the Sheraton, with views of the waterfall. I got an incredible deal, so I jumped on it. I was going to surprise you all tomorrow night.”
“You did what?” Mom looked completely surprised.
“Niagara Falls,” Simon said, handing over the brochure. “I knew Connor couldn't come because of football, but I figured he could stay with Luke or Joe for a few days.”
I didn't like that Simon knew the names of Connor's best friends. It was like he had taken another piece of our family for himself. My guess, if Connor had to pick between Joe and Luke, he'd pick Luke, because Luke's dad was into duck hunting and he sometimes took Connor with him, something I thought was totally gross. I mean, what did a cute little duck ever do to them?
“Since Maggie's not playing lacrosse right now,” Simon continued, “I thought she could miss a few days of school, and we could have a little adventure together.” He made a sighing sound. “Try to smooth over some of our rough patches. I already arranged it with the principal, but anyway, it conflicts with your start date, so I'll undo it. No problem.”
But I could tell Mom thought there was a problem.
“I'll call the center,” she said quickly. “Tell them I need to start the week after. I'm sure it's no big deal.”
“No, no,” Simon said, brushing off that suggestion with a wave of his hands. “That's not a good way to begin. Don't worry about it. We'll find another time to take a trip. I'm just really happy for you,
proud. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there, especially after everything you've gone through. They're lucky to have you.”
Simon leaned in to give Mom a kiss on the lips, which I saw only because I didn't look away in time. Knowing Mom the way I do, I could tell she was feeling exceptionally guilty over a trip she'd known nothing about, especially because it would've involved making things better between him and me. What should have been a big moment for
her, a rare happy occasion for my mom to celebrate, was now about Simon and how she had let
It was so unfair I wanted to scream, “Can you please just let this one thing be about Mom?” But something else was knocking at the back of my head. I have a good memory for dates. It's a by-product of being a student athlete: you always need to be aware of potential schedule conflicts, and I was pretty sure there was some other conflict that had nothing to do with the start date of Mom's new job.
I excused myself from the table and went upstairs to have a look at my school calendar. And there it was. In print. Clear as day. The big field trip to Strawbery Banke, the one Simon led every year, the one he went to in costume, with that rusty musket of his, fell on the same day as the trip to Niagara Falls that was now not happening. The same day!
What are the odds?
So now I should go and tell my mom, right? I should let her know that it made no sense to me that Simon would book a trip to Niagara Falls, during the school week of all times, on a date that conflicted with his big field trip to Strawbery Banke. This Niagara Falls trip of his had to be a lie, but for what? I stayed tight-lipped about it, because I knew what my mother would say.
I knew without a doubt that she'd take his word over mine.
Nina knew sleep would not come easily. It wasn't because of Maggie's refusal to make any accommodations for Simon, to give him a single benefit of the doubt. No, her big worry was still a little over a week away, when, for the first time in over fifteen years, she would set foot in an office building as a paid employee. She was in the middle of a mini fashion show for Simon, who lounged on the bed, hands clasped behind his head, pajama bottoms on and shirt off, giving Nina a clear view of his toned chest and the outline of well-formed abdominal muscles.
She'd acclimated to the round shape of his face, which would look boyish without the stubble, the plastic glasses he used to read, the khakis he wore to work, even how he was so particular about the way he folded his shirts. Maybe it was still that honeymoon phase, but Simon seemed to have none of Glen's shortcomings. He made a big deal of birthdays and listened to her without distractedly looking at his phone. He touched her often, lovinglyâa gentle squeeze of her hand as he'd pass her in the kitchen, a brush against her shoulder as he served her dinner, and later in bed would offer massages without expecting favors in return. Perhaps the most notable distinction was how Simon enjoyed his work without letting it consume him.
On several occasions Simon compared his and Nina's relationship to the founding of Americaâone of his favorite topics to teachâciting
how they, too, had unified under stressful circumstances, building something better together.
she told herself.
We can forge a more perfect union
The clothes Nina tried on (and there were a half-dozen mix-and-match outfits in her wardrobe) were recent purchases, all gifts from Simon. The outfits were professional, but not too buttoned-upâearthy colors mostly, cotton fabrics, no patterns. She was going for comfort and the pulled-together, approachable look of someone a person could confide in, as her clients would be expected to do.
She was showing Simon the pleated cream-colored boat-neck top and ankle-length slim-leg black pants she was thinking of wearing to her first day on the job.
Simon appraised Nina with hungry eyes.
“You look amazing,” he said, as she finished her spin.
He lunged at her from across the bed, grabbed her waist, and pulled her to the mattress, where he kissed the spots that got her blood pressure rising. Nina slid out from under him, worried about wrinkling the outfit, still not sold on it as the right choice for her grand appearance.
“I'm so nervous,” she said.
“You'll be marvelous,” Simon assured her. “Trust me.”
Nina flopped back on the bed and kissed him hard on the mouth. “You weren't always so happy about it,” she said.
“It's hard for me to share you,” Simon said, his hand rubbing the small of her back, teasing out jolts of pleasure that raced down Nina's legs and up her arms. She nestled into his embrace.
“I'm sorry this hasn't gone smoother with Maggie,” she said, switching to that subject because it was never far from her thoughts.
“Don't you worry,” said Simon. “It's a process. It's all going to be worth it in the end.”
“I hope you're right.”
Nina breathed out her worry while burying her mouth in Simon's
neck, taking in his scent, an orangey, woodsy aroma that reminded her so much of Glen. She'd been meaning to buy Simon new cologne, but tomorrow she'd make good on that pledge. He did not use Glen's brand of aftershave, but their smells were too similar, the reminders too intense.
“Remember when we were datingâ”
“You make it sound like it was
many years ago,” Nina said playfully.
“It feels like a lifetime and also yesterday, if that makes any sense,” said Simon.
“It makes perfect sense,” Nina answered, because a whirlwind romance mixed with profound hurt and a great upheaval bent time like it did lives.
“Anyway, remember when we were out shopping and you had your eye on a Coach bag? You wouldn't let me buy it for you because you said you needed a power job for a power bag like that.”
“You didn't,” Nina said.
Simon flashed an impish grin before he slid off the bed and vanished into the closet. Nina heard some rummaging, and moments later he emerged, holding a bag she remembered as vividly as the first time she'd seen it. There was so much to love about itâthe size, the expert stitching, the softness of the gorgeous pearled white leather. Simon gifted Nina the bag down on one knee, arms extended, as though he were reenacting the day in July when he had presented her with his mother's diamond ring, in the gazebo at the park overlooking the lake.
His proposal had come as a surprise, but given that they'd been about to move in together, Nina's first impulse had been to say yes. While her heart wanted to put the ring on her finger, her brain was telling her not yet. Simon had been disappointed, naturally, but not crushed, since they were still going to be living together. Selfishly, Nina wanted what Simon could offerâa chance to stay in Seabury, where her life was, where she'd put down roots. Moving in with her parents would have felt like giving up too much of her life, and it would have been
especially hard on Connor, who was nearing graduation. But even so, she didn't feel obligated to rush into a decision.
She had explained her reluctance as too much change too fast, but in the back of her mind another thought lurked, one she didn't share.
She still had unresolved feelings, and questions for which she didn't have answers. Whatever caused her hesitation, it wasn't Simon holding her back; it was herself. To his credit, Simon wasn't pressuring her, not one bit, which was one reason why every day Nina was closer to saying yes.
She took the bag, held it, felt it before opening it. A flash of something white caught her eye, and she reached inside to find a note from Simon, penned in his neat teacher's handwriting. She read it aloud:
You've got this. I know you're nervous and scared about the new job, but I've never had more faith in anybody in all my life. You are magnificent in every way. You're kind, compassionate, brilliant, and bold, and I love you more than words can say. I can't wait for the day when I can call you my wife.
With all my love and admiration,
Nina leaned forward to kiss Simon.
“You shouldn't have done this. That bag is very expensive.”
“You bought me a leather work bag for my birthday,” Simon reminded her. “Now we're even. And thanks to that bag, I never have to look for my wallet and keys.”
“You are the best,” she said, kissing him again. “What did I do to deserve you?”
“I keep asking myself the same thing,” Simon said wryly.
He took the bag from her hands to show her the tag with her monogrammed initialsâ
for Nina Garrity. Before Simon, when the
wounds were freshest, she wondered if she should take her kids away, start over like Glen might have doneâfind someplace new, somewhere not tainted with her husband's lies. She'd thought of changing her name back to Sansone, but her children were Garrity, and they'd want to remain Garrity, meaning a part of Glen would follow them anywhere they went. She'd kept the name, and now it was etched on her bag.
“It's easy enough to change the monogram,” Simon said, a glint entering his eyes as though he were reading her thoughts. “If we get married, and you know I hope we do, if you want to become Nina Fitch, I'd be honored.”
For Nina it would be her second marriage, but it would be Simon's third. His first wife, a woman named Allison, his college sweetheart, left him and moved away on their fourth anniversary. The breakup shattered Simon, but Nina understood young love. It could be impetuous and prone to sudden changes of heart, especially when there weren't children involved to complicate a divorce. Even so, betrayal at any stage can have lasting consequences. She knew all too well why Simon was afraid to open himself up to more hurt, why he had stayed single for years after.
His second wife, Emma, whom he'd met through mutual friends, eventually broke through his defenses. Her suicide years later had gutted him in a profoundly different way than the loss of Allison. In some respects, Simon's misfortune in love made it easier for Nina to trust him, and to believe he'd never betray her as Glen had done. His bruised heart wouldn't let him love her the way he did if his feelings weren't absolutely true.
With the new job looming, the idea of becoming someone else after being a Garrity for almost twenty years was too much to process. Nina pulled away, and Simon took notice.
“I'm sorry, honey,” he said. “I shouldn't have gone there. This is a lot for you.”
Nina looked at him appreciatively.
“If you don't want to do this, if you want to back out of the job, it's fine. We'll be fine. We have plenty of money. I can take care of us both. Promise.”
Nina looked at him askance. “What happened to âyou've got this'Â â¦ you've ânever had more faith in anybody'?”
“No, no, of course I have faith in you, absolutely. But it's going to be a lot of pressure, a difficult adjustment for everyone. It will be overwhelming, I'm sure. I'm just saying if you want to back out, it's fine. You can. I can take care of us, Nina. All of us.”
Of course he was referring to the children. A part of her welcomed the news, felt relief even, and a thought, rapid and jarring as a flash mob, caused her to consider his offer. She could call The Davis Family Center in the morning, make a hundred apologies, and then walk away, be home for Maggie, for Connor. But a second later another voice rose up, this one reminding her what had happened last time she'd put her financial future in the hands of a man. This one told her she was taking the job for herself,
The thoughts that had come to Nina, so crisp and clear, got stuck when she tried to voice them. Simon kissed her on the cheek.
“Forget I said anything,” he said. “You'll be amazing. They're lucky to have you.”