Chapter One

   My daughter’s mouth hung open. “You're what?”

   A chill wind battered the kitchen door. Late-falling leaves slapped at the windows like dry
brown rain. It couldn’t be more than thirty-eight degrees outside, cold for an Atlanta afternoon,
even in the dregs of February. I could feel the draft skittering across my feet, and tried to focus
on that instead of the horrified look on my daughter's face.

   "Your father and I are getting a divorce,” I repeated as calmly as I could manage. “I tried to
tell you last week, but ….”

   What could I say without sounding like a nagging mother? That she never had time to talk to
me? That wasn’t strictly true. We had a good kind of on-the-fly-mother/daughter relationship—
Jana busy with her husband and kids and job and me busy with—well, whatever. The hit and
miss nature of things only bothered me now, when I needed enough of her time to pull the plug
on her well-ordered life.

   I had asked my daughter to drop by for a minute on her way to pick up her kids from
whatever sport they might be playing these days. My ignorance didn't stem from a lack of love
for my grandchildren. Their activities changed with the seasons, and I always seemed to be at
least one season behind. It was February now. What the heck did kids do in February?

   For a long moment, the only sound in my kitchen was the hum of my ancient refrigerator.

   Jana collapsed back against the kitchen chair. “But―
why?”

   I studied a ragged fingernail. “The grounds are irreconcilable differences.”

   “That’s ridiculous,” she blurted. “You and dad are the perfect couple. Everyone says so.”

   I would have smiled at her naiveté if I hadn’t felt so sorry for her. “I know that’s how it appears
to people, but it isn’t true.”

   She shook her head in subconscious denial of what I was saying. “But—but what’s wrong? I
mean, what
happened?”

   I had known this would be the tricky part. I certainly couldn’t tell her the truth. None of it. Over
the last several years, I had worked hard at mastering the art of evasion. I still wasn’t particularly
good at it, but I owed her something.

   “We grew apart, honey,” I said in the voice that used to soothe her when she was young. “It
happens.”

   “Not to my parents, it doesn’t,” she snapped, two spots of color appearing on her cheeks.
Her show of anger was an obvious defense. I reached over to touch her arm, but she flinched. I
withdrew my hand. “I’m afraid it does. Did.”

   She sat frozen in her chair, staring at me, searching my face for some kind of sign. She was a
lovely young woman, really. She took after her father, with the same softly curling rust-brown
hair, although Darren's was now touched with gray. She also had his deep brown eyes and
great metabolism. My own hair was lighter and straight as a stick, and I had to avoid even
looking at cheesecake if I wanted to fit into my clothes. I wasn’t overweight, but it was a constant
battle. We were both short, barely five-three, but somehow it looked better on her.

   What color anger had put into Jana’s face drained out as the truth behind my words sank in.
At twenty-seven, she still seemed like a child to me—one of the curses of parenthood, I guess,
that difficulty seeing your children as adults. Right now, she looked like a very lost, very small
child.

   Tears glistened in her eyes. One slipped down her cheek before she actually broke into
sobs, covering her face with her hands.

   “Oh, Jana,” I said, coming over to her and reaching down to awkwardly wrap my arms around
her. “I’m so sorry, honey.”

   Her sobs intensified.

   I held her until I thought my back would break. Standing beside a chair and trying to console
a person who is sitting is painful. It never happens this way in the movies. In the movies, both
people are standing at emotionally-charged moments like this, or they’re sitting on a couch
where it’s easy for one to reach the other. I thought about kneeling beside her chair, but then I
would have to hug her knees.

   “Tissues,” she gulped out.

   Suppressing a sigh of relief, I straightened my stiff back and made my way into the downstairs
bathroom, taking my time to allow Jana a moment to get herself under control. I wasn’t
insensitive to what she was feeling, but I’d had three long years to battle my way to acceptance.
Selfish as it might be, I didn’t look forward to returning to the minefield.

   When I got back to the kitchen, she was drying her eyes on a paper towel. I put the tissues
on the table anyway.

   She ignored them. “Where’s daddy?”

   She hadn’t called Darren “daddy” in fifteen years. As a barometer of her mental state, it wasn’
t an encouraging sign. “He’s not here. He’s at his house—”

   “His
house? Do you mean he’s not living here?”

   “No. He bought a house.”

   “Bought? Bought a house? You don’t buy a house in a day.”

   She would know, being a real estate agent. I wondered if later, after the initial shock wore off,
she would mind terribly losing the commission.

   “Just exactly how long has this been going on?” she demanded.

   I almost lost the battle with the laugh that time. She sounded so much like an irate husband.
“Darren found the house last week and closed on it—” Today was Tuesday. “Yesterday.”

   “You mean he moved out yesterday?”

   “No. Your father has been staying with a friend while he looked for a place.”

   She jumped on that, eyes flashing. “With a friend? A
woman friend?”

   This was turning into a disaster. “No. He’s been staying with Russ Pierson.”

   She covered her face. “With Uncle Russ? Oh, God,” she groaned. “Then you mean…it’s
really happening.”

   That stopped me. Why did his staying at Russ’s make it more convincing? Russ wasn’t really
related to us, but he had been a friend of the family since Jana was in diapers. Was it because
someone outside the family knew? Or had Darren's purchase of a house convinced her?
“I’m afraid so,” I answered, perching on the chair across from her.

   She stared down at the table, chewing her bottom lip. It was a habit I thought she’d long
outgrown. In an hour, her lip would be red and swollen, but I had enough sense not to mention it.

   When she looked back at me, I could see the truth beginning to penetrate her denial. “Don’t
you—” Her chin quivered. “Don’t you love each other anymore?”

   I was ready for that one, but before I could answer, the phone rang. I patted Jana’s clenched
fist before I rose to answer it. Any stall tactic in a storm.

   My only downstairs phone hung on the wall by the kitchen door since that was where the
telephone company in their infinite wisdom had installed the phone jack. As such, it was
inconvenient whether I was at the table, the kitchen sink, or the stove, and had been downright
hazardous when the kids were younger and used to bang their way in through the swinging
kitchen door. After Darren’s lip had been split twice, we removed the door altogether. The
phone was now cordless, but years of habit die hard, and I still acted as if it was tethered to the
wall.

   It was Aaron, Jana’s oldest. “Hi, grandma. Is mom there? She was supposed to pick me up at
soccer practice ten minutes ago.”

   Soccer. They must play soccer in February. “She’s right here, honey. Hold on.” I held the
phone out to Jana. “Aaron.”

   Jana's troubled eyes darted to the clock on the kitchen wall, then closed. I could see her
forcibly pulling herself together before she took the phone, a “mother” behavior I usually found
adorable in her. Today, it hurt me to witness the struggle since I was responsible for it.

   Finally, she took a deep breath, blew it out, and held out her hand for the phone. “Hi, honey.
How was practice?”

   I listened to the one-sided conversation, hoping I was the only one who could hear the forced
gaiety so clear in her voice.

   “I know, sweetie, but grandma and I got to talking. Sure. In about ten minutes, okay? I’ll bet
you’re starving. Tell Mrs. Evans to give you a hot dog and Coke and I’ll pay her when I get
there. See you in a few minutes. I love you.”

   When she handed the phone back to me, it was as if someone suddenly let the air out of her.
“I—I have to go. I have to pick up Aaron,” she said, standing. “And Bobbi. From ballet.” She
seemed unable to form a complete sentence.

   “Your coat,” I said, handing it to her. “Honey, I know this has been a shock for you. There was
no good way to tell you.” Master of understatement.

   She nodded her head, not meeting my eyes, her coat dangling from one hand. “I have to go.”

   She went, and my heart went with her.

   I sat at the table for a while, numb and without conscious thought. When the thoughts began
to form in my mind, they were Jana’s, not mine, or rather what I imagined Jana would be
thinking. Was that unresolved symbiosis, or an overactive imagination? She was shocked, of
course. Hurt. Questions would circle through her mind without structure or logic. How can they
get a divorce? What will happen to them now? What will happen to me? What about Aaron and
Bobbi? Will they tell them, or should I do that, and how? And what about Greg?

   Greg. That propelled me out of my chair. I moved to the counter and began wiping it. I always
cleaned when I was upset, and right now I had the cleanest house east of the Mississippi. Long
ago, I had worked out that the process of cleaning made me feel more in control. I couldn’t
control my life, but I could control dirt, right? Pitiful.

   My son Greg would have to be told, of course. I knew that, had known that, but had stuffed
the knowledge somewhere in a recess of my mind that I didn’t visit often. Jana wouldn't tell him.
They hadn’t exchanged more than ten civil words since Jana cut off her pigtails and started
wearing a bra. No. I would be the one to tell him—and it would break his heart.

   I got out the Pinesol and a sponge and attacked the cabinet under the sink.

   When the doorbell rang a little over an hour later, I knew who it was.

   “Did you tell her?” Darren asked, walking into the kitchen behind me.

   “Yes, Darren,” I said, sagging against the counter.

   My soon-to-be-ex-husband Darren looked good. He always looked good. Over six feet of
solid muscle. Square jawed. Deeply tanned from working outdoors, with dimples and a clef in his
chin that was irresistible. I forced myself to look away and noticed the wallpaper was beginning
to peel in one corner.

   “How did she take it?”

   “Not well.”

   He straddled a chair. “I should have been here.”

   At one time I might have agreed with him, but that time was long past. “It wouldn’t have
helped. It probably would have made it worse.”

   “She’s my child, too,” he said, his voice vibrating with strain.

   Sympathy tugged at my resolve. “I know she is, Darren, and she loves you very much, but we
agreed on how to handle it. If you had been here, there would have been even more questions.”

   “I feel like I’m throwing you to the wolves.”

   There was really nothing I could say to that.

   “What about Greg?” he asked.

   What about Greg? I had thought of little else while I was scrubbing my already spotless
cabinet. “He’ll be back in town this weekend. I’ll tell him then.”

   “I should be here for that.”

   It was a line drawn in the sand. Knowing both father and son, I disagreed completely, but I
knew better than to state my objections now. “We’ll see when the time comes.”

   He let it go. “What did Jana say?”

   “Not much. She wanted me to explain why.”

   “What did you tell her?”

   Irritation surged through me. “I told her we’re filing on the grounds of irreconcilable
differences. Isn’t that what we agreed on?”

   My husband knew my moods well. “I’m sorry, Lou.”

   I blew my scraggly bangs out of my eyes. “No. I’m sorry,” I said, meaning it. “This has been a
really rotten day. Jana is shocked right now, but pretty soon she’ll be angry with both of us. And
it will be twice as hard on Greg. I’ll need your help then.”

   “You’ll have it.”

   “I know I will, Darren.”

   “Want me to hang around for a while? I could stay tonight...” When I looked at him in alarm,
he said, “In the guestroom, Lou. I meant in the guestroom.”

   My face burned. “No. No, go home.”

  He seemed undecided for a moment, but finally he stood and turned to go. “Okay. Hang in
there, gal." At the front door, he turned back to me. “I love you, kiddo.”

 Sorrow almost robbed me of speech. “I know,” I whispered.

 I turned my back on Darren and my feelings, thanking God the kids hadn't witnessed that little
exchange. Talk about mixed messages. That almost brought a smile to my face. Almost. In the
kitchen, I grabbed the sponge out of the sink and began emptying the refrigerator, wondering
how much Jana—and Greg—actually would hate us for lying to them, knowing in my deepest
recesses that it was still better than them ever finding out the truth.
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