She wasn’t the one who’d violated the vows they’d spoken before God and their families.
She wasn’t the one who couldn’t hold down a decent job for longer than six months at a stretch.
She wasn’t the one who’d walked out on the family he’d agreed to support. But then Brian never had been much for financial responsibilities.
Overnight, it seemed, the love she felt for her college sweetheart and the only lover she’d ever had turned to a fire-quenching hatred. After he’d left, she’d decided to make his life a living hell. The same hell he’d given her all the years they were married.
"Mom,” Karen asked her, "are you all right?”
"I’m fine, sweetheart.” They pulled onto the dirt road that led to Nichols’s Riding Stables.
"Are you going to be in the barn with Mr. Nichols when I’m finished with my lesson?”
"Ah.” Maureen needed to think. Thom confused her, and she’d already decided not to see him again, other than what was unavoidable. "I don’t think so.”
"Where do you want me to meet you?”
"I’ll be the car,” Maureen told her. She parked in her usual spot, and with her hands braced against the steering wheel she smiled at her daughter. "I’m sorry I called your daddy a bastard, Karen.”
"Don’t worry, Mom, I know my dad.” Having said that, the twelve year old climbed out of the car, slammed the door, and raced toward the barn.
Thom’s daughter was waiting for her, and the girls wrapped their arms around each other as if it had been months since they’d last spent time together. Like long-lost friends, the two headed inside the barn.
Maureen climbed out of the car. If she was going to avoid Thom, she couldn’t sit in her car, waiting like a sitting duck. She was prepared this time and had changed out of her heels into her tennis shoes.
She needed time and space to think about her conversation with Karen. A walk. Any place where she could escape. Anywhere she could drown out the echo of her daughter’s voice as she repeated the word Maureen had said so often. Bastard. Bastard. Bastard.
A number of horse trails led away from the stables, and Maureen chose one, following the narrow, winding dirt pathway.
"Damn you, Brian,” she muttered, fighting the blast of anger. Brian hadn’t talked to his daughter in over a year, and when he’d phoned he hadn’t so much as asked about her.
True, Maureen hadn’t given him much of an opportunity. No doubt he’d called because he was angry over her latest attempt to get him to pay child support. He’d probably boosted his courage with a couple of beers. He’d been out of work—that was the usual excuse—but he was working now and would give her what he could in time. She’d heard that countless times before and would rather he dealt directly with her attorney.
Maureen didn’t want to hear his hard-luck tales. They were all too familiar. She’d told him coolly and unemotionally exactly what he could do with his lame excuses. Then she’d hung up and sat and shaken with anger.
Thom had made an excuse to leave soon afterward. Not that Maureen blamed him. It wasn’t until he’d driven away that she’d noticed the untouched pot of coffee. She wanted to explain to Thom about Brian, but it wasn’t possible to wrap it up with a pretty pink bow. It was better that he not know.
She enjoyed Thom’s company, but he didn’t understand what it was to have suffered through a divorce. He didn’t know what it was like to have his trust ravaged, to have his heart violated to the point that the last lingering vestige of respect had long since died.
From the little he’d told her about Paula’s mother, Maureen knew they’d shared a deep and personal commitment to each other. The kind her own mother and father shared now.
Maureen walked as fast as her feet would go, her anger carrying her over the uneven pathway. Tired and breathing heavily, she turned off the road and followed a shallow stream as it wound around a crop of bolders. The stream had a peaceful effect, and she watched it for several moments, then decided to sit down and rest before heading back to the stables.
She found a good-size rock and sat there with her arms tucked around her bunched-up knees. She could see herself through Karen’s young eyes, and she didn’t like the picture. Yet she didn’t know what to do to change the image in her mind.
Heaven was aware she could do nothing to change Brian. She’d tried, God help her, with a zero success rate.
Defeated, Maureen looked up. Daylight was fast slipping away, and she needed to get back to the stables. She slid off the rock and started back toward the trail, or where she last remembered seeing the trail.
This didn’t seem to be the right way. She turned and started in the opposite direction, certain she remembered that bend in the stream.
Within minutes it was so dark, she couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of her. Fighting panic, she knew that either someone would come and find her or she’d wait until morning and discover the way back on her own.
Cupping her hands around her mouth, she called out as loudly as she could, "Is anyone out there?”
Only an eerie, unnatural silence greeted her frantic question.
"Please,” she whispered. "Thom? Anyone?”
"I don’t know what’s wrong with Edith,” Joy said as her father carefully lifted the hood of her dated Chevy in his repair shop. "She’s been acting strange lately.”
Ray Palmer smiled at his daughter. "If you translate ‘strange’ as Edith starting up of her own accord, you need more than a mechanic.” Her father leaned over the engine, out of Joy’s view.
"Did you see the Lakers game last night?” he asked, his words muffled, aimed as they were at the garage floor.
"It was great.” Or it had been until after the game, when Ted had gone quiet and brooding on her. He’d driven her home as if he couldn’t be rid of her fast enough.
She hadn’t invited him up for a drink. Really, what was the use? It was more than apparent that he was glad the evening was over and he could be done with her.
While her father checked Edith’s innards, Joy wandered around his shop. It smelled of grease and tires and gasoline. These scents had been like perfume to her when she was a little girl. Her brothers came down to the garage often, but it was only on rare occasions that Joy was allowed in her father’s domain.
A BMW similar to Ted’s pulled up out front, catching Joy’s eye. A door slammed, and she watched in shocked disbelief as Ted Griffin nonchalantly walked into her father’s shop.
"What are you doing here?” she asked, looking past him, certain Blythe would be with him, too. That he would bring his fancy girlfriend to her father’s shop infuriated her. Blythe was sure to wrinkle her nose at the very thing Joy loved about this old shop. She waited, but apparently Blythe wasn’t with him.
"As I recall, you were the one who mentioned that your father’s a mechanic. It’s time for an oil change, and I thought I’d give him the business. Unless you have any objections.”
Eating her own words had never appealed to Joy. She suspected they tasted a good deal like crow. "Of course I don’t object,” she said, stepping down from her high horse. "I do remember mentioning Dad’s shop.”
Her father straightened, closed Edith’s hood, and wiped his hand clean on the pink cotton rag. He studied Ted briefly and then looked to his daughter. "You know this young man, Joy?”
"Dad, this is Ted Griffin,” she said, making a half-flopping motion with her hand. "Ted, my father, Ray Palmer.”
"Hello, Mr. Palmer,” Ted said, and stepped forward to offer his hand.
The two men exchanged robust handshakes. "Have you been having any problems with your car, son?”
A grin teased the corners of Ted’s mouth. "None to mention. But I’d prefer to be on Edith’s good side in light of what happened to my friend’s car. I’d be grateful if you had the time for an oil change.”
"So you were around the other night when Edith pulled her little trick.” Ray chuckled and stuffed the pink rag into the hip pocket of his gray-striped coveralls. "I always said it’s never a good idea to turn your back on a frustrated woman.”
"Sorry, sweetheart, but it’s true.”
Joy noticed that Ted was doing an inadequate job of hiding a smile.
"Pull your car in here and I’ll be finished with her in a jiffy.” He walked over to the large garage doors and raised them so Ted could ease his car into the slot next to Joy’s infamous Edith.
Her father directed Ted into the spot and then suggested, "Help yourself to the coffee. This shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes.”
"How fresh is it, Dad?” Joy asked, knowing her father’s penchant for strong coffee.
"It’s fresh,” Ray insisted. "I made it myself yesterday morning.”
"Thanks anyway,” Ted managed to say around a smile.
"If you two want to make yourselves useful,” her father said as he raised the hood to Ted’s car.
"Sure, what do you need?”
"Lunch,” Ray told them. "There’s a deli two blocks down. Get me something to hold me until dinner, will you?” The question was directed to them both.
"A sandwich,” Joy offered.
Ted followed her out of the garage. They walked side by side for about half a block. "You don’t need to come,” she said stiffly. After all, she was perfectly capable of walking two blocks without an escort, especially him.
"I want to come.”
"Why?” she asked, and briefly closed her eyes. Clearly he was looking for ways to make her miserable.
"Do I need a reason?”
Joy pinched her lips together. "Yes. I want to know why you’re here.”
"You know why.”
"Okay, so I told you about my dad’s shop, but did you have to come this morning? Did it have to be while I was here, too?”
"Yes,” he murmured as though he were admitting to a fault. "I followed you here.”
He couldn’t have shocked her more had he confessed to a crime. "You did what? That’s crazy!”
"I had to talk to you.”
Ted’s shoulders compressed with a sigh. "Last night.”
"Why?” Joy asked in a small voice. "So you can tell me how bad you felt about going out with me when you’re practically engaged to another woman? That’s what I tried to explain. You don’t need to come to me with a list of excuses. I don’t need any explanations.”
"Maybe I do,” Ted said, his voice hard and loud. "I want to know why I can’t stop thinking about you. What is it you do to me?” he demanded. "Because whatever it is, stop, because I don’t like it. I had a perfectly wonderful life until your lunatic car—”
"Don’t you dare talk about Edith that way!”