Authors: Lauren Gilley
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Sagas
Lauren Gilley’s Walker Family Series:
Better Than You
Dream of You
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and places are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Resemblances to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidence. All characters are the property of Lauren Gilley and may not be duplicated.
Copyright © 2013 Lauren Gilley
amily – a group of people with the right, and the temerity, to voice their opinions about everything from your haircut to your love life.
Siblings – your genetic counterparts; they share your curfew, your hand-me-downs, your bewildering holiday dinners, and all the unremarkable memories in between.
Spouses – those brave souls who agree to become a part of what you are; who want to be your family.
They are complicated and breakable and resilient – all the ways in which people belong to one another. Everyone has history. Everyone has stories. The Walkers have stories…and this is Jessica’s.
Jess never bought into the notion that a woman had to live to certain expectations in order to in fact
be a woman
. She was a stay-at-home mother. A wife. A sister. A daughter. Her own person. A
person; she was proud enough to stand her ground, but not too proud to hold on to something dead. The night her world collapsed was the night she dusted off the rubble, and got back on her feet.
he tie was red. With bold, diagonal white and blue stripes in varying thicknesses that doubtless composed some sort of pattern Tam hadn’t yet been able to discern. “This is…”
Terrible, hideous, garish
. But he couldn’t say that as he stared down into the tissue paper filled box Jo had put in his hands. “It’s…”
“Will picked it out,” Jo supplied with a chuckle.
Which explained a lot. Tam glanced up from his graduation present and across the room where his two-year-old was playing with a set of plastic zoo animals. Her thick, shiny black hair was fast falling out of her pigtails, and her overalls were dirt-smudged from an afternoon in the sandbox. “And Mommy couldn’t steer her in a different direction?”
Jo made a face.
“What you meant to say,” Randy said from his chair, “is ‘thanks, honey, I love it.’ And then you shut your mouth and smile and don’t have to sleep on the couch.”
Tam snorted. “Thanks, honey, I love it.”
“Liar,” Jo accused, but she grinned. “It’ll go great with your new haircut, though.”
His hair. He was – somewhat ashamed to think – traumatized. He reached now out of old habit to tidy the spikes across his forehead…but they weren’t there. It was all one length. Respectably short. So thick, it wanted to stand up on top, and it did, a little anyway. As much as it could. He scratched the ends of his fingers through it and couldn’t pull the reins on the dire frown that tugged at the corners of his mouth.
“Oh, baby, I’m sorry,” Jo said with a
sympathetic chuckle. “It looks great. Hot, even.”
“Now who’s the liar?”
“You know what’s better than hair?” Randy said. He was watching TV and had been for the past half hour, interjecting wisdom when he felt it necessary. “A job.”
“Yeah.” Tam went shaky inside just thinking about his upcoming interview. Tomorrow was graduation, and the day after, he was driving down to Buckhead and walking into Mike’s building in his new garish tie to shake hands and pass around his resume and kiss ass in hopes of landing the first legit job of his life. No more delivering pizzas and stocking shelves; he’d never have to work third shift again; his days of answering customer service calls would be over. But he’d be this guy with super short hair and suits and wingtips and overzealous handshakes and…
He was a little bit nauseas just thinking about it.
Across the room, Willa stood up on her sturdy toddler legs, a plastic giraffe clenched tight in one little fist, and she made a beeline for Jo. This was her new thing: bringing them her toys.
“What’ve you got?” Jo asked. “A giraffe? Thank you.”
Okay, so the nausea wasn’t important.
“Will,” he said, and her head whipped toward him, her smile instant. Her eyes were big like Jo’s, but they were brilliant blue like his. “Come here.”
“She doesn’t know anything about you,”
Jo had told him one night in those first tenuous weeks after they’d brought Willa home from the hospital.
“She doesn’t know about your parents, or your past, or any of it. You’ll just be her sweet daddy, and when she’s old enough and you tell her, she’ll still love you.”
“Hi, Daddy,” she greeted when she reached him and he picked her up, set her on his lap. He swore her words were clearer every day.
“Did you get me this?” he pulled his new tie out of the box and she reached for it, eyes wide. “Did you pick it out?”
She giggled, and said something that might have been
and he wondered how long Jo had worked on it with her.
He kissed the top of her head and her slippery dark hair that smelled like Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo. “I love it.”
Her robe was black. In its clear plastic sleeve, hanging off the back of a kitchen chair, it was nice and flat. But Ellie knew that when she pulled it over her head the next morning, it would drape across her like a shiny black tent. Even with heels and jewelry and makeup, with carefully styled hair, the truth was sad: There was just no way to make six months pregnant with twins look good on graduation day.
In Jordan’s words:
Her three year plan for college had panned out. Between summer courses and a maxed out schedule every semester, she’d managed to pull it off. And when success had been in sight, they’d decided to start trying. When she graduated, Ellie would continue to help Paige run the bakery and focus on her writing, so the timing would be right for welcoming a baby. But two babies they’d never counted on.
The look on Jordan’s face the day they’d found out would have been something to laugh about if Ellie hadn’t been mirroring it. The tech had passed a wand over her belly and said,
“Huh. There’s two heartbeats here.”
Ultrasound had confirmed that, yes, there were two babies where there was supposed to be one.
Three distinct pairs of feet ascended the steps from the now-finished basement and Ellie shook herself out of her daydreams. She resumed slicing the carrots she’d been prepping for dinner before her robe/tent had distracted her.
Paige came tumbling into the kitchen first – her pink rain boots had been sloppy and irregular as they’d thumped up the stairs. “El! You have got to go see it! It’s perfect! I have my very own boy-free bathroom!”
“I’m so happy for you,” she said dryly, and earned a dramatic eye roll.
Jordan came up next, quiet, just the soles of his sneakers touching against the stairs producing sound. “Baby, where’s the checkbook?” he asked, and she motioned to her purse where it hung from the back of a kitchen chair. He would need it to pay the third set of shoes: their contractor Chris.
“I think you’re a hit,” Ellie told him as he stepped into the kitchen and closed the door to the basement behind him.
“It’s not pink enough,” he said with a glance toward Paige, and grinned, “but I’m glad to hear it.”
Ellie had hired Chris herself and was pleased as punch to listen to her almost-impossible-to-impress husband praise the newly finished basement. Her pregnancy had brought about the sobering realization that her two bedroom, one bath, beloved little blue Cape Cod house wasn’t big enough for their growing family and Paige. They would need the second bedroom for a nursery and Ellie had dreaded the thought of asking her very best friend since childhood to take her fancy orange cooking implements and get out. She’d told Jordan as much one night, overcome with hormonal tears, and he’d given her one of his deep sighs and flat faces and suggested they finish out the basement and put her “pink gremlin” down there. Ellie had taken it upon herself to find a contractor, and because most of the men she’d interviewed had given her the creeps, she’d secured the least creepy. And had then come to realize he was a damn competent contractor too.
“What do I owe you?” Jordan asked as he flipped to a new check in their book, and Ellie didn’t get to hear because Paige filled up her field of vision, bouncing and giddy as a kid.
“Seriously, El, have you seen it?”
She grinned. “Let me put these on to sauté and then I’ll lumber my giant way down and check it out.” Paige was grateful, she knew, even if she never got around to thanking Jordan properly. That was okay: Ellie would thank him for the both of them.
The panties were black. V-string with a laser-cut mesh front panel. Very obviously used. Under a clean white handkerchief, a fistful of pocket change, movie ticket stubs and a half a pack of Trident gum, the panties were in the pocket of Dylan’s camel-colored suit coat pocket. The good one – the JoS. A. Bank coat.
Jessica held them from curled fingers for one seemingly endless moment, the thump of her pulse sluggish in her ears. She held them – the black V-string panties – standing in the master bedroom’s walk-in closet, breathing in the smells of her perfume and Dylan’s cologne that clung to their clothes. Their clothes. Their closet. Their home and their life.
Not her panties.
Her hand went limp and the scrap of mesh fell to the floor, a stain against the oatmeal carpet. The breath she sucked in got caught in her throat and her stomach heaved. She staggered out of the closet, into the bathroom, and gathered her long blonde hair up in one shaking fist before she curled over the toilet and lost her dinner.
“I have to have dinner with a client,”
Dylan had said over the phone that afternoon. And how many times had he said that in the past two years? In that detached, free-floating voice that meant nothing to either of them.
Clients with mesh panties.
After, once she’d rinsed out her mouth and watched the cold water overflow her hands until her fingers were numb, once she’d pressed a damp cloth to her forehead and beaten down the rolling waves of nausea, she went back out into the room she’d shared with Dylan Beaumont for the past ten years and began her search.
In the drawer of his nightstand, under stacks and stacks of old bills and receipts, she found the love letters – they were perfumed. She didn’t read them.
He kept his good dress shoes in their original boxes, and in one of them she found condoms. In another she found the DVDs. Fetish porn – women bound and beaten and raped.
Jess sat down hard on the thick, plush carpet at the end of the bed. She didn’t cry. She didn’t scream. She didn’t panic. She didn’t…anything. She merely existed, for ten silent, devastated minutes.
And then she started packing.
Jordan’s room was still very much his room. His bed and furniture and high school track accolades were all still in place, the walls still khaki. It was the same as he’d left it two years ago when he’d married and moved out, only now, Jo’s old baby crib was tucked in front of the closet door.
Beth had fought her, tooth and nail, insisting that Willa have a true nursery, that one of the two boys’ rooms be transformed. Jo had argued practicality – eventually, she and Tam would move out, the rooms would be needed for overnight guests, and no baby in the world ever noticed that his or her room was done in pastel colors and wallpaper motifs. Jo had a changing table and a crib and a play pen and all she truly needed, and she didn’t feel guilty for depriving her daughter of a cutesy, girly nursery.
“Where’s Zeke? – there he is.” She shifted Willa around to her opposite hip and reached into the corner of the crib for Zeke the stuffed Zebra. Tam had bought it for her; it had been important to him, and Jo had understood, for him to be the one to gift her with her first real toy. It had been as big as she was as a newborn, with a black yarn mane and hooves filled with beans. It was soft, plush, and now chewed-on. Thoroughly beloved. Will’s arms went around it automatically and she hugged it tight, yawning into its yarn mane.
Jo did not feel fundamentally changed by motherhood. She’d heard other women talk about that sort of thing – a total shifting of priorities and transformation of their souls – but she didn’t understand those sentiments. She stood in her brother’s old room, her child on her hip, and when she looked at the thick black lashes down on her porcelain cheeks, breathed in the smell of baby shampoo, saw the very ends of Will’s black hair curling because they were still damp from her bath, Jo knew that she’d been born knowing exactly how to love her little girl. Those first few days in the hospital hadn’t been an awakening, but a confirmation:
Hi. There you are, finally. We’ve been waiting. And I’ll be damned if you don’t look exactly like your dad.
Jo didn’t call her “princess” or “angel.” She dressed her in overalls and durable toddler jeans because she ripped leggings and dresses. They listened to Def Leppard in the car and Will rocked back and forth in her carseat, giggling like crazy. They didn’t do playdates or Mommy and Me classes. They played in the sandbox and went down the slide together at the neighborhood playground, watched cartoons and had oatmeal every Sunday morning. Will was adding new words to her vocabulary every day and her daddy was this magical wizard who earned squeals of delight every evening when he came home from school or work and asked, “How’re my girls?” as he picked her up.