Chapter Nineteen

1

“You’re leaving my son?”

Lynn looked angry and confused as she stared at Jane. She moved down into the yard, and Jane’s heart sank. Why had she stayed so long? Why hadn’t she simply said her good-byes to Annie and left? She quickly turned away and dashed her hand across her damp cheek.

Annie stepped into the breach. “I got snap beans for dinner, Amber Lynn, and I’m makin’ ’em with fatback whether you like it or not.”

Lynn ignored her and walked toward Jane. “Tell me why you’re leaving Cal.”

As Jane turned to face her, she tried to slip back into the cool persona Lynn expected. “Be grateful,” she managed. “I’ve been a terrible wife.”

But those dishonest words threatened to unleash a fresh flood of tears. She’d been the best wife he’d ever have, damn it! The best wife she’d known how to be! She turned away.

“Have you?” Lynn sounded deeply troubled.

Jane had to get out of here before she completely shattered. “I have a plane to catch. It would be best if you’d talk to Cal. He can explain better.”

She began moving toward the side of the house, but she’d barely taken two steps before Lynn’s astonished exclamation brought her to a halt.

“My God, you’re pregnant!”

She whipped around and saw Lynn staring at her midsection. Automatically, her gaze dropped, and only then did she notice the protective hand she’d unconsciously placed there. The gesture had pressed her dress against her body and outlined her gently rounded abdomen. She snatched it away, but she was too late.

Lynn looked bewildered. “Is it Cal’s?”

“Amber Lynn Glide!” Annie snapped. “Where are your manners?”

Lynn seemed more shaken than accusatory. “But how am I supposed to know if it’s his or not when I don’t understand anything about this marriage? I don’t know what they see in each other or how they got together. I don’t even know why she was crying.” Her voice caught. “Something’s very wrong here.”

The final threads of Jane’s badly frayed emotions unraveled, and as she saw the lines of suffering etched into Lynn’s face, she knew she had to tell her the truth. Cal’s desire to protect his parents had been well-meaning, but now it had grown destructive. If she’d learned anything in these past four months, she’d learned that deception only led to hurt.

“It’s Cal’s baby,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry you had to find out like this.”

Lynn’s hurt was obvious. “But, he never- He didn’t say anything. Why didn’t he tell me?”

“Because he was trying to protect me.”

“From what?”

“From you and Dr. Bonner. Cal didn’t want either of you to find out what I’d done to him.”

“Tell me!” Her expression grew as fierce as a mother lion whose cub had been threatened, never mind that her cub was now king of the jungle. “Tell me everything!”

Annie picked up the pottery bowl. “I’m goin’ inside and fix my beans the way I like. Janie Bonner, you stay right here till you get this settled with Amber Lynn, you hear me?” She shuffled toward the back porch.

Jane’s legs wouldn’t hold her any longer, and she sank down into the lawn chair. Lynn took the other chair and sat facing Jane. Her jaw was set, her manner confrontational. Jane found herself remembering the scrappy young girl who’d baked cookies at two in the morning so she could support her husband and her baby. The expensive yellow linen dress and chunky amber jewelry didn’t hide the fact that this woman knew how to fight for her own.

Jane clasped her hands in her lap. “Cal wanted to spare you and his father pain. You’ve been through so much this past year. He thought-” She dropped her gaze.“The bald truth is that I desperately wanted a child, and I tricked him into getting me pregnant.”

“You did what?”

Jane forced her head back up. “It was wrong. Unconscionable. I didn’t intend for him ever to find out.”

“But he did.”

She nodded.

Lynn’s lips had grown thin and taut. “Whose decision was it to get married?”

“His. He threatened to take me to court and sue for custody if I didn’t do what he wanted. Now that I know him better, I doubt that he’d have carried out his threat, but I believed him at the time.”

Taking a deep breath, she described the morning she’d opened the door to Jodie Pulanski, then told Lynn about the men’s plan for his birthday. She explained her own yearning for a child as well as her concern about finding someone to father it. She spoke without embellishment, refusing to justify her behavior in any way.

When she described her reaction to seeing Cal on television and her subsequent decision to use him, Lynn pressed her fingers to her lips, and a gasp of horror mingled with a strangled laugh that held an edge of hysteria. “Are you saying you chose Cal because you thought he was stupid?”

She thought about trying to explain to Lynn how he’d used ain’t and looked so dumb and gorgeous but gave it up. There were some things a doting mother would never understand. “Obviously I misjudged him, although I didn’t figure that out until several weeks after we were married.”

“Everybody knows Cal is smart as a whip. How could you have believed anything else?”

“I guess some of us aren’t as smart as we think we are.” She continued with her story, ending with the exposure of their marriage in the media and her decision to come with him to Salvation.

Lynn’s face showed a flash of anger, but to Jane’s surprise, it wasn’t directed at her. “Cal should have told me the truth from the beginning.”

“He didn’t want anyone in the family to know. He said none of you were good liars, and the story would come out if he told you.”

“He didn’t even take Ethan into his confidence?”

Jane shook her head. “Last Friday Ethan saw me… Well, he figured out that I was pregnant, but Cal swore him to secrecy until he could tell you himself.”

Lynn’s eyes narrowed. “There’s more. This doesn’t explain your hostility to us.”

Jane’s clasped hands cramped in her lap, and once again she had to force herself to meet Lynn’s gaze. “I told you that I’d already agreed to a divorce as soon as the baby was born. You’d recently lost one daughter-in-law you cared about, and it seemed cruel to let you get attached to another. Not that you necessarily would have,” she said hastily. “I know I’m not what you had in mind for Cal. But, still, it wouldn’t have been right for me to barge into your family when I wasn’t planning on staying.”

“So you decided to behave as badly as possible.”

“It-it seemed like the kindest thing to do.”

“I see.” Her expression gave away little, and Jane realized she was once again confronting the self-possessed woman she’d first met. She regarded Jane through steady blue eyes. “What were your feelings toward Cal?”

Jane hesitated, then skittered around the truth. “Guilt. I’ve done him a terrible wrong.”

“People said I tricked Jim into getting me pregnant, but it wasn’t true.”

“You were fifteen, Lynn. I’m thirty-four. I knew exactly what I was doing.”

“And now you’re compounding that wrong by running out on him.”

After everything she’d revealed, she would have expected her mother-in-law to be glad to be rid of her. “He’s not… He’s not ready for a permanent marriage, so it doesn’t make much difference when I leave. Something came up, and I have to get back to my job. It’s better this way.”

“If it’s better, why were you crying your eyes out?”

She felt her nostrils quiver and knew she was once again on the verge of losing control. “Don’t push this, Lynn. Please.”

“You’ve fallen in love with him, haven’t you?”

She lurched to her feet. “I have to go. I promise you can have as much contact with this child as you want. I’d never try to keep your grandchild away from you.”

“Do you mean that?”

“Of course.”

“You won’t try to keep the baby from us?”

“No.”

“All right, I’m going to hold you to it.” She stood. “Starting now.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’d like my contact with my grandchild to start now.” Her softly pitched voice belied the stubborn set of her mouth. “I don’t want you to leave Salvation.”

“I have to.”

“So you’re already breaking your word?”

Her agitation grew. “The baby’s not born yet? What do you want from me?”

“I want to know who you are. Since the day we met, you’ve thrown up so many smoke screens I have no idea.”

“You already know I tricked your son in the most underhanded, dishonest way possible. Isn’t that enough?”

“It should be, but somehow it’s not. I have no idea what Cal’s feelings are toward you except that he’s been happier than I can remember in a long time. And I also have to ask myself why Annie’s so taken with you. My mother’s difficult, but she’s no fool. So what has she seen that I haven’t?”

Jane rubbed her arms. “What you want is impossible. I won’t go back to Cal.”

“Then you can stay here with Annie and me.”

“Here?”

“Isn’t this house good enough for you?”

“It’s not that.” She started to say something about her job, but she couldn’t muster the energy. There had been too much drama that day, and she was exhausted. The thought of driving to Asheville and getting on a plane was overwhelming.

Another bluebird lighted on the magnolia tree, and she realized that what she really wanted was to stay on Heartache Mountain. Just for a little while. Lynn was going to be her baby’s grandmother, and she already knew the truth. Would it be so terrible to stay here just long enough to show her that she wasn’t a bad person, simply a weak one?

Her legs felt shaky. She yearned for a cup of tea and a cookie. She wanted to watch the bluebirds in the magnolia tree and let Annie boss her around. She needed to sit in the sun and snap beans.

Lynn’s eyes held both dignity and silent supplication, and Jane found herself responding to it. “All right, I’ll stay. But only for a few days, and you have to promise me you won’t let Cal come up here. I don’t want to see him again. I can’t.”

“Fair enough.”

“Promise me, Lynn.”

“I promise.”

Lynn helped her unload her suitcase and showed her into the small spare room at the back of the house that held a narrow iron bed and an old black Singer sewing machine. The walls were covered in faded yellow paper printed with blue cornflowers. Lynn left her alone to unpack, but Jane was so tired that she fell asleep, fully dressed, and didn’t awaken until Lynn called her for dinner.

The meal proved to be surprisingly peaceful, despite Annie’s complaints that Lynn hadn’t mixed any butter in the mashed potatoes. Just as they finishing cleaning up, the telephone on the kitchen wall jangled. Lynn answered, and it didn’t take Jane long to figure out who was calling.

“How was your golf trip?” Lynn twisted the phone cord around her finger. “That’s too bad.” She glanced at Jane and her forehead puckered. “Yes, you heard right. She’s here. Yes… Talk to her?”

Jane shook her head and regarded her pleadingly. Annie stood up from the table where she’d been supervising the cleanup and, with a grunt of disapproval, made her way into the living room.

“I don’t think Jane wants to talk right now… No, I can’t make her come to the phone… I’m sorry, Cal, but I really don’t know what her plans are, except that she doesn’t want to see you.” She scowled. “You watch your tone of voice with me, young man, and you can just pass on your own messages!”

There was a long pause, but whatever Cal said didn’t seem to satisfy her because her expression grew more fierce. “That’s all well and good, but you and I have a lot to talk about, including the fact that you have a wife who’s four months pregnant, and you neglected to mention it!”

Time ticked by. Lynn’s frown gradually eased and puzzlement took its place. “I see… Is that so?”

Jane was beginning to feel like an eavesdropper, so she joined Annie in the family room, where the old woman dozed on the couch while one of the evening news magazines played on television. She had just taken a seat in the rocker when Lynn came in from the kitchen.

She stopped just inside the doorway and crossed her arms over her chest. “Cal told me a different story from the one you told, Jane.”

“Oh?”

“He didn’t mention anything about you tricking him.”

“What did he say?”

“That the two of you had a brief affair, and you got pregnant.”

Jane smiled, feeling a little better for the first time all day. “That was nice of him.” She looked over at Lynn. “You do know he’s lying, don’t you?”

Lynn gave a noncommittal shrug. “I guess for right now I’m reserving judgment about everything.”

Annie’s head popped up from the couch, and she scowled. “Unless either one of you’s got somethin’ to say that’s more important than Mr. Stone Phillips, I suggest you both hush up.”

They hushed up.

Later that evening after Jane had fallen asleep, Lynn sat on the couch trying to sort out her thoughts while her mother watched VH-1 with the volume muted, undoubtedly hoping one of Harry Connick, Jr.’s videos would come on. She missed Jim so much: the noises he made as he banged through the house, the soothing murmur of his voice in the middle of the night as he calmed a frantic parent on the telephone.

She missed the solid feel of that big warm body curled around her at night, even the way he always left the newspaper folded wrong side out. She missed living in her own house and being the boss of her own kitchen, but she also felt a strange kind of peace she hadn’t experienced in years.

Jim was right. He’d lost the girl he’d married long ago, but she was wiser than to think he wanted that girl back. It was himself he wanted back, the way he’d been in high school, when all of life’s possibilities still lay ahead of him.

As for herself, she knew there had been too many changes for her ever to be that happy, free-spirited person again. But neither was she the cool and controlled Mrs. Doctor Bonner, who had been well trained by her mother-in-law to repress all vulgar excesses of emotion.

So who was she? A woman who loved her family, that was certain. She took joy in the arts and needed these mountains around her as surely as she needed air to breathe. She was also a woman who could no longer accept second best from the man she’d loved since she was fifteen.

But Jim was proud and stubborn. By not capitulating when he’d mentioned divorce, she’d waved a red flag in his face. He never made idle threats, and if she didn’t move back into the house and resume their marriage, he would get his divorce. That’s the way he was, stubborn to a fault, just like his son. Both of them would break before they’d bend.

Her problems with Jim went back more than three decades, but what about Cal? She could read between the lines of what Jane had told her well enough to understand that Jane wanted a lifelong commitment, but Cal wouldn’t give it to her.

What was it about her son that made him fight marriage and commitment so ferociously? He’d been raised in a loving family. Why was he so resistant to having one of his own?

Even as a very young child, competition had been everything to him. She remembered teaching him hopscotch when he was so small he’d barely been able to walk, let alone hop on one leg. She’d been little more than a child herself, and he’d been her play companion as well as her son. She’d drawn a chalk outline on the old sidewalk outside the apartment where they’d been living, and she’d never forget the sight of that bottom lip caught between his teeth, all his toddler’s concentration focused on beating her. Now she suspected that the permanent ties of a wife and family had become one more symbol of the fact that the most important part of his life was coming to an end, and he had nothing to take its place.

Cal would undoubtedly have called his father right after he’d talked with her and told him about the baby. She’d been married to Jim long enough to know he’d be overjoyed at the idea of having new life in their family, and like her, he’d be concerned about Cal’s happiness. Unlike her, however, he wouldn’t be at all concerned about the feelings of the young woman sleeping in the spare room.

Lynn gazed over at her mother. “Cal must care about Jane, or he wouldn’t have lied to me the way he did.”

“Calvin loves her. He just don’t know it yet.”

“Neither do you. Not for a fact.” Even though she’d asked for it, her mother’s know-it-all attitude irritated her. Or maybe she wasn’t yet ready to let go of her hurt that Annie knew Jane better than she did.

“You can believe what you want.” Annie sniffed. “I know some things.”

“Like what?”

“She don’t put up with any of his nonsense for one. He likes that about her. She’s a fighter, too, and she ain’t afraid to go after him. Janie Bonner’s as good as they come.”

“If she’s such a fighter, why is she leaving him?”

“I guess her feelin’s got too much for her. She has a powerful love for that son of yours. You should see the way the two of ’em look at each other when they don’t think nobody’s watchin’. ’Bout set your eyeballs on fire.”

She remembered Cal’s recent happiness, along with the tears in her daughter-in-law’s eyes, and thought there was a good chance her mother was right.

Annie regarded her with shrewd eyes. “That baby of theirs is gonna be a smart little cuss.”

“It seems inevitable.”

“You ask me, it ain’t good for a special child like that to grow up all by itself. Look how bein’ an only child traum’tized Janie Bonner into gettin’ in this predicament in the first place.”

“You have a point.”

“She told me she felt like a freak growin’ up.”

“I can see how she would.”

“A child like that needs brothers and sisters.”

“But the parents would have to be living under the same roof for that to happen.”

“You’re sure ’nough right about that.” Annie leaned back in her rocker and sighed.“Seems me and you don’t have much choice, Amber Lynn. Looks like we’re gonna have to catch ourselves another Bonner.”

Lynn smiled to herself as she walked out on the porch after her mother had gone to bed. Annie enjoyed believing the two of them had single-mindedly laid a trap for Jim. It wasn’t so, but Lynn had given up trying to tell her mother that. Annie believed what she wanted to believe.

It was nearly midnight and chilly enough that she zipped the front of an ancient Wolverine sweatshirt from Cal’s college playing days. She stared up at the stars and thought how much better she could see them from the top of Heartache Mountain than from their house in town.

The sound of an approaching car broke her concentration. All the men in her family were night owls, so it could only be Cal or Ethan. She hoped it was her oldest son come to claim his wife. Then she remembered her promise to Jane that she would keep him away and frowned.

As it turned out, the car that appeared at the top of the lane didn’t belong to either Cal or Ethan, but to her husband. She couldn’t believe it. Not once since the night she’d left had Jim driven up here to see her.

She remembered the bitterness of their parting on Friday and wondered if he’d come to dangle the business card of his divorce lawyer in front of her. She had no idea how anybody got a divorce, beyond making an appointment with a lawyer. Was that how it happened? A person made an appointment with a lawyer, and, before they knew it, their marriage was over?

Jim got out of the car and moved toward her with that long graceful stride that had set her heart to beating for as long as she could remember. She should have expected him. Cal would have talked to him by now, and the prospect of a new grandchild would give him another excuse to browbeat her. She braced herself against one of the freshly painted posts that held up the tin roof of the porch and wished he hadn’t found her so unworthy.

He came to a stop below the bottom step and gazed up at her. For a long time he said nothing-he merely studied her-but when he finally spoke, there was an odd formality in his voice. “I hope I didn’t scare you showing up here so late.”

“It’s all right. As you can see, I’m still awake.”

He dropped his gaze and for a moment she had the curious feeling he wanted to bolt, but that couldn’t be so. Jim never ran from anything.

He looked up at her, and his eyes held that stubborn glint she knew so well. “I’m Jim Bonner.”

She stared at him.

“I’m a doctor in town.”

Had he lost his mind? “Jim, what’s wrong?”

He shifted his weight as if he were nervous, but the only time she had ever seen his confidence shaken was when Jamie and Cherry had died.

He clasped his hands together and then immediately dropped them to his sides.“Well, to be honest, I’ve got a thirty-seven-year marriage that’s on the rocks. I’ve been pretty depressed about it, and instead of taking to the bottle, I thought it might help me if I found a little female companionship.” He drew a deep breath. “I heard in town there was a nice lady living up here with her old battle-ax of a mother, and I thought maybe I’d stop by and see if that lady’d like to go out to dinner with me some time. Or maybe catch a movie.” A flicker of amusement caught at the corner of his mouth. “That is if you don’t have any qualms about dating a married man.”

“You’re asking me out on a date?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m kind of rusty at this sort of thing, so I hope I’m going about it right.”

She pressed her fingers to her lips, and her heart swelled. During lunch on Friday she’d told him she wished they could meet as strangers so they could start all over to see if they liked each other, but he’d been so angry at the time, she hadn’t thought he’d even heard her. After all these years, she had never imagined he could surprise her, but he just had.

She resisted the urge to throw herself in his arms and tell him all was forgiven. She didn’t hold herself so cheaply that this small bit of effort on his part, as much as she appreciated it, could erase decades of not being good enough. She wondered how far he was willing to take this.

“We may not be compatible,” she replied, testing the waters.

“Maybe not. I guess we won’t be able to decide unless we give it a try.”

“I don’t know. My mother might not like it.”

“Now you leave your mother to me. I’m real good with old ladies, even mean and crazy ones.”

She nearly laughed. Imagine stubborn, hardheaded Jim Bonner doing something this romantic. She was charmed and touched, but not completely. Something saddened her, and it took a moment to figure out what. She’d spent most of her life feeling like a beggar for Jim’s affection-always agreeable, always the one to make concessions and appease. He’d never had to put himself out for her because she’d never made any demands. She had never put a single roadblock in his way, and now she was getting ready to run back to him just because he’d made one small effort to please her.

She could still remember the feel of his randy teenager’s hands on her. Those first few times they’d had sex, she hadn’t liked it very much, but it had never occurred to her to say no, even though she would rather have been sitting in the back booth at the drugstore sharing a Coke and gossiping about their classmates. Suddenly that made her angry. He’d hurt her when he’d taken her virginity. Not deliberately, but it had hurt nonetheless.

“I’ll think about it,” she said quietly. Then she gathered the sweatshirt tighter around her and went back inside.

A moment later, a spray of gravel hit the house as he peeled away, driving for all the world like an angry eighteen-year-old.

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