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Authors: Robin Wells

The Wedding Tree

BOOK: The Wedding Tree
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RAVES FOR THE NOVELS OF ROBIN WELLS

“Phenomenal . . . A tangled web of lies, fate, and unrequited love. The twists and turns will keep readers glued to the pages until the end. A great read!”

—RomRevToday.com

“With sympathetic, memorable characters, a touching story, gentle humor, and evocative writing, Wells's latest will please fans.”

—
Library Journal

“A beautiful book full of heartache and love . . . A great, captivating read.”

—A Journey of Books

“Well written with depth and detail . . . A wonderful, heartwarming story.”

—My Book Addiction

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2015 by Robin Wells.

“Readers Guide” copyright © 2015 by Penguin Random House LLC.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

BERKLEY® and the “B” design are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

For more information, visit
penguin.com
.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-40386-4

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Wells, Robin (Robin Rouse)

The wedding tree / Robin Wells.

p. cm.— (Wedding tree ; 1)

ISBN 978-0-425-28235-9 (paperback)

1. Divorced women—Fiction. 2. Grandparent and child—Fiction. 3. Family secrets—Fiction. 4. Louisiana—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3623.E4768W45 2015

813'.6—dc23

2015023962

Berkley trade paperback edition / December 2015

Cover photo: Plantation © Crestock / Masterfile.

Cover design by Sarah Oberrender.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

Version_1

To my brother, Charles Richard Rouse, for the hard, heartbreaking work of clearing out our parents' home.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

With deep gratitude to the Greatest Generation, especially my parents, Charlie Lou and Roscoe Rouse, Jr.

Thanks to Annette Doskey for providing insights into New Orleans in the 1940s, and to fellow writer Nancy Wagner, aka Hailey North, for reading rough drafts, offering encouragement, and being an all-around dear friend.

I also want to thank my editor, Cindy Hwang, and my agent, Steve Axelrod.

And finally, this book wouldn't have been possible without the love and support of my two inspiring daughters, Taylor and Arden, and my dream-come-true husband, Ken.

1

adelaide

F
unny, how you keep telling yourself,
someday.
Someday I'll get organized. Someday I'll get everything sorted out. Someday I'll tackle the tasks I've been dreading all these years.

I kept waiting until I had a big block of time. A few free days, I thought. And, of course, they never came. No day is ever really free. And the truth is, if I'm entirely honest—and I haven't been on this topic, I admit it now—I didn't
want
to sort through my belongings. Sorting through meant looking back, and looking back meant confronting things I'd spent most of my life trying to avoid.

So I put it off and put it off, and then, just when I worked up my resolve and finally got started,
this
happened.

I'm foggy on what exactly it was
this
is—I can't remember how I ended up here—but here I am all the same, hovering over my own body in a hospital room. I'm pretty sure it's the hospital in my hometown of Wedding Tree, Louisiana, because I've visited lots of friends over the years and I recognize that awful gray linoleum flooring. When you're visiting someone who's really bad off, you spend a lot of time gazing down so you don't have to look at their pain.

Anyway, here I am, floating against the ugly acoustical tile ceiling, looking down at an old woman with tubes snaking out of her nose and her arm veins. Apparently I'm not dead yet, because the
old woman's chest is falling and rising, and a machine wired up to her is steadily beeping—so hard to believe that ghastly-looking old gal is me! But if I'm up here watching the goings-on, I must be on the way out.

Which means it's too late to make good on my intentions to sort everything out and do what I should have done sixty-something years ago.

“Never put off till tomorrow what you should do today.”

I turn my head at the familiar voice. “Mother?”

She's floating beside me. At least, her head is—and her shoulders, too. The rest of her seems to trail off into vapor, but maybe my soul has poor eyesight. Mother's hair is pinned up prim and proper, with neat waves on the sides, just the way she always kept it, and she's wearing the dress with the starched lace collar that she was buried in forty-something years ago.

“Did I—did I just die?” I ask.

“Not yet, although if I were you, I'd die of shame, looking like that in a public place.” She looks down at the woman on the bed and clucks her tongue. Mother always had the highest standards for appearance and comportment, and clearly the woman on the bed was violating all of them. Her—no,
my—
hair is an unruly tangle of gray, far too long to be age appropriate. My skin is a blotchy testament to the fact I hadn't stayed out of the sun as Mother had warned, and my mouth gapes open in a most undignified fashion.

Still, a hospital room isn't exactly a public place, and—

“Don't you sass me, young lady.”

I was hardly young—on what planet was ninety-one young? Besides, I didn't think I'd spoken aloud.

“Thoughts, words—they're all the same,” Mother says. “It's all energy. There are no barriers on this side.”

Oh my.

“Oh my, indeed.”

“What happened?”

“You fell and hit your head. You're unconscious, and you're having an out-of-body experience.”

“So I can't possibly help how I look.”

“A lady always manages to look her best for visitors.”

Oh—I had visitors! My view widens, like a zoom lens being reversed, to see three people gathered around my bed. I can only view the tops of their heads, but I'm sure the stocky man with the bald patch standing at the foot of the bed is my son, Eddie, and I think the tall, auburn-haired man beside him is his partner, Ralph.

I've always known Eddie is the way he is—they call it gay now, although in my day, that meant happy, and Eddie was always a sad, tentative, nervous boy. The word for Eddie's kind, a word I only heard whispered when I was young, was
queer
. I never thought badly of him for it. The way I figured it, Eddie liked men, just like I did, and he can't help it any more than I could. If someone told me to start liking women that way, I don't reckon I could, so it stands to reason that Eddie couldn't, either.

I tried to explain that to Eddie's father, but he wasn't having any of it. Charlie thought it was a character flaw and a choice. He took it personally, as if it were something Eddie was doing to annoy him—which couldn't be further from the truth, because all poor Eddie ever wanted was to please his daddy.

But he couldn't, and he couldn't change the narrow minds of other townsfolk, and in a town as small as Wedding Tree, where everybody knew everybody else's business, well, it was no wonder Eddie went to college in California and never moved back. How old is he now? Fifty- or sixty-something? So odd to think that my baby is that old. The top of his head, all bald like that, looks a lot like it did the day he was born. The sight makes me want to cry. Oh, how I wish I could see Eddie's face!

Click.

All of a sudden, Eddie is framed in a portrait lens.

Oh, my—my soul is a camera! Well, that makes sense. It's been an extension of my body throughout my life. I've been taking
pictures for so long that I tend to frame things, to look at them and move my right finger, as if I'm pressing the shutter. This moment—freeze it, capture it, make it live forever. And this moment. And this one. And this one here.

“She pressed my hand,” a young woman says.

My view twirls as if my head were on a swivel mount.
Click.
Oh, there's my granddaughter, Hope, sitting on my right, holding my hand. Such a lovely girl . . . So beautiful, with her wavy light brown hair and eyes the color of iced tea—so much like my late daughter, Rebecca.

The thought sends a stab of pain through me. “Is Becky with you?” I ask Mother.

“She's on this side, but they wouldn't let her come with me. Said you don't get to see her until you clean up the mess you've made down there.”

“You mean . . . I'm going to get well?”

“Well, now, Adelaide, that's like everything else in life. It's entirely up to you.”

Was it? Was it really? I wasn't sure that anything in my life had really been my doing—except for the mistakes, of course.

Mother levels me with a steely frown. “If you know what's good for you, missy, you'll get back down there and unleash the truth.”

Unleash—as if it were a dangerous animal. Well, that is about right. “I was trying to when I ended up here.”

“You were going about it all wrong. You need Hope's help.”

I look back at my granddaughter. She looks so sad—sadder than she should look at the prospect of an old woman passing. She'd been sad when I'd last seen her, too—which was when? I was fuzzy about the recent past. All I knew was that when that cad of her ex-husband cheated on her, he'd stolen something from her—something more than her inheritance and her art gallery and her home, all of which he'd purloined right out from under her. That lowlife had robbed her of her view of herself as lovely and lovable.

We females are so vulnerable to that. Most of the women I'd photographed over the years didn't have a clue how lovely they really were. They'd look in the mirror and just see flaws—then, years later, when they looked back through their old pictures, they always exclaimed, “I was so thin back then!” or “I had such nice skin!” In the present moment, so many beautiful things go unseen, eclipsed by some over-imagined imperfection.

Men don't have that problem with their physical appearance—at least, not the straight ones. They all think they're irresistible just the way they are. Most of them, of course, are completely deluded. But other men, like Joe . . .

Oh, why was I thinking of Joe now? I did not—
not
—want him to be my dying thought, not after spending so much of my life trying to forget about him.

“You get back down there and tell Hope everything,” Mother says.

Everything?

“Yes,
everything
.”

My soul flushes scarlet. Oh Lord—was this a foretaste of hell, having my mother read my thoughts? Mother shot me her most reproving look.

“I—I don't see how that will make a difference,” I mentally stammer.

“Yours is not to wonder why; yours is but to do or die. Now get to it, and no dillydallying.” Mother turns her neat bun toward me, as if she were about to leave, then whips back around. “And be sure to dig up what Charlie buried.”

The beeping machine attached to the old woman in the bed stops for a moment, then rat-a-tat-tats like a high-speed shutter. “What? What did he bury?”

She lifts her eyebrows in that I'll-brook-no-nonsense way of hers. “That's what you need to find out, isn't it?”

My soul flutters. “Do you know? My memory isn't very . . .”

“You didn't forget.” Mother's voice is cold steel. “You never had
the nerve to find out, and this is your last chance to rectify the situation.”

“But . . .”

But Mother is gone. Not so much as a vapor trail remains.

Click.

A feeling of suction, as if I were being vacuumed downward from the ceiling, followed by heaviness, and then . . . Oh, my head! Oh, how it hurt. And my chest! Heavens to Betsy! Mother hadn't said anything about my chest.

“She's awake!” my granddaughter says. “Gran's eyes are open.”

I stare at her. She looks a little like Becky, but she isn't. Becky is gone. Hope is alive.

And apparently, so am I. Although I have to say, it doesn't seem to have much to recommend it.

BOOK: The Wedding Tree
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