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Graham O'Leary shoveled dirt with a vengeance, pushing himself until his muscles ached, because he needed the exertion. He was filled with nervous energy that had no place to go. This was Tuesday. That made it D-day. Amanda would either get her period or miss it. He hoped desperately that she would miss it, and only in part from wanting a child. The other part had to do with their marriage. They were feeling the strain of failing to conceive. A wall was growing between them. They weren't close the way they used to be. He could feel that she was pulling away.
For Graham, it was déjà vu.
Grunting at the unfairness of that, he heaved an overloaded spadeful of dirt from the hole, but when he lowered the shovel again and pushed in hard, he hit rock. Swearing angrily, he straightened. Sometimes it seemed that rock was all he found. Forget the historic bit about stone walls marking one man's land from the next. He would bet that those walls were built just to get the damn rocks out of the fields! Put 'em over near the other guy's land, he imagined the old-timers saying. Only they'd missed a few.
Annoyed, he bent, worked his shovel under the rock, levered it up, and hauled it out. Clear of that impediment, he tossed spadefuls of dirt after it, one after the other in a steady rhythm.
Oh, yeah, he knew what pulling away looked like. He had seen it in Megan, building slowly, mysteriously, reaching a point where he had no idea what she was thinking. With Amanda, he knew the cause of the problem, but that didn't make it easier to take. They used to be on the same wavelength on everything. Not anymore.
Grunting again as he dug deeper, he remembered the tiff they'd had the week before when he had tossed out the idea that she might be more relaxed, and therefore more apt to conceive, if she cut back on the hours she spent at school. She didn't have to be the head of a dozen different programs, he had said in what he thought was a gentle tone. Others could do their part. That would allow her to come home early one or two afternoons each week; she could read, cook, watch Oprah.
She had gone ballistic over that. He wasn't suggesting it again.
Gritting his teeth, he hauled out another rock. Okay, so he was working longer hours, too. But he wasn't the one whose body had to provide a hospitable environment for a child to take root. Not that he would even breathe that thought. She would take it as criticism. Lately, she misinterpreted lots of what he said.
She'd actually had the gall to accuse him of being absent for the second artificial insemination -- like the thing could have been done without his sperm. Okay, so he'd gone back to work after producing it. Hell, she had told him to leave. Of course, now she was claiming that what she'd said was that he didn't have to stay if he was uncomfortable.
His head flew up. His brother Will was squatting at the edge of the hole. "Hey. I thought you left." The crew worked from seven to three. It was nearly five.
"I came back. What are you doing?"
Planting his shovel in the dirt, Graham brushed spikes of wet hair back with an arm. "Providing a hospitable environment for this tree," he said with a glance at the monster in question. It was a thirty-foot paper birch that would be the focal point of the patio he'd designed. Not just any tree would do. It had taken him a while to find the right one. "The hole is crucial. It has to be plenty wide and plenty deep."
"I know," Will replied. "That's why I have a backhoe coming tomorrow morning."
"Yeah, well, I felt like getting the exercise," Graham said offhandedly and went back to it.
"Heard from Amanda yet?"
"You said she'd call as soon as she knew."
"Well then, I guess she doesn't know yet," Graham said, but he was pissed. They hadn't talked since he had left the house early that morning. If she'd gotten her period, she was keeping it to herself. His phone was right there in his pocket, silent as stone.
"Did you call her?" Will asked.
"No," Graham said, pedantic now. "I called yesterday afternoon. She said I was pressuring her."
He sputtered out a laugh and tossed up another shovelful of dirt. "They say it's the Clomid. But hey, it's not easy for me either, and I'm not taking the stuff." Under his breath, he muttered, "Talk about feeling like a eunuch."
"No cause for that," Will said. "You haven't lost it. You have an audience, y'know."
Graham paused, pushed his arm over his brow again, shot his brother a wry look. "Yup." He went back to digging.
"Her husband's an Internet wizard. They're barely thirty and have more money than they know what to do with. So he plays with computers, and she watches the men who work on her lawn. It's pretty pathetic, if you ask me."
"I'd call it flattering."
Graham shot him another look. "You talk with her, then."
"Can't do. I gotta get home. Mikey and Jake have Little League. I'm coach for the day." He pushed himself up. "Don't stay much longer, okay? Leave something for the machine."
Still Graham dug for a while more, if only to bury the idea of Little League under another big mound of dirt. By then his muscles were shot. Tossing the shovel out first, he hoisted himself out of the hole and made for his truck, a dark green pickup with the company logo in white on the side. He took a long drink of water from a jug in back, doused the end of a towel, and did what he could to mop sweat and clean up. A short time later, he pushed his arms into a chambray shirt and set off for home.
* * *
"Your move," said Jordie Cotter from the edge of the deepest armchair in the office. He was fifteen and as sandy-haired as his three younger siblings, which Amanda knew not because she kept detailed files on every student, but because the Cotters lived two doors away from Graham and her. In fact, she had no file on Jordie at all. He wouldn't be in her office playing checkers with her if he thought he was being counseled. For the record, he was here to discuss his community service requirement, since she headed the program. This was the third time he'd come, though. There was a message in that.
Grateful to be distracted from thinking about the baby that was or wasn't, Amanda studied the checkerboard. There were five black pieces, four of them kinged, and three reds, all single. The reds were hers, which meant she was definitely losing.
"I don't have many choices," she said.
d"Make your move."
Picking the lesser of the evils, Amanda moved in a way that she figured would sacrifice only one piece. When Jordie jumped two, she sucked in a breath. "I didn't see that coming."
He didn't smile, didn't pump a fist in the air. He simply said again, "Your turn."
She studied her options. When she looked up at the boy, he was somber.
"Do it," he challenged. When she did, he jumped her last checker to win the game and sat back in his chair. Still, though, there was no sense of victory. Rather, he asked, "Did you let me win on purpose?"
"Why would I do that?"
He shrugged and looked away. He was a handsome boy, despite the gangliness that said he was still growing into his limbs. But his T-shirt and jeans were several notches above sloppy, his hair was clean and trimmed, and he didn't have acne, not that many students here did. In affluent towns like Woodley, dermatologists did as well as orthodontists.
"You want to be liked," he answered without looking at her. "It helps if you lose."
Amanda drew in a deep breath. "Well, I do know how that is. I used to do it in school sometimes -- you know, deliberately blow an exam so that I wouldn't look like a geek."
"I wouldn't do that," Jordie said.
Amanda didn't believe him. Oh, maybe it wasn't the geek factor. With Jordie, there were other possibilities, not the least of which was the tension she knew existed at home. But something was definitely going on with the boy. His grades had taken a dive at midterm, and the expression he had taken to wearing around school was the sullen one he wore now.
His eyes met hers. They were dark and wary. "Did my mom say anything to you?"
"About the grades? No. And she doesn't know we've talked."
"We haven't talked. Not like, talked." He glanced at the checkerboard. "This isn't talking. It's just better than doing homework."
Amanda touched her heart. "Ach. That hurts."
"Isn't that why you have things to do here? To make kids want to come?"
"They're called icebreakers."
He snorted. "Like Harry Potter?" he said with a glance at the book on her desk.
"I think Harry's cool."
"So do the twins." His twin brothers were eight. "I tell them Harry flies through our woods on his broomstick. That keeps them from following me in there. Our woods are cool. They're real. Harry's not." Sitting forward, he began resetting the checkers on the board. "About the CS requirement? I'd do peer counseling if I thought I could, but I can't."
"I'm not good at talking."
"Seems to me you talk with your friends."
"They talk. I listen."
"Well, there you go," Amanda said in encouragement. "That's what peer counseling's about. Kids need to vent, and you're a good listener."
"Yeah, but sometimes I want to say things."
He raised unhappy eyes. "Like school sucks, like home sucks, like baseball sucks."
"Baseball. I thought you liked baseball." He had just come from practice. It must have been a rough one.
"I'd like it if I played, but I don't. I sit on the bench all the time. Know how embarrassing that is? With all the kids watching? With my parents watching? Why do they have to come to games? They could miss one or two. I mean, my mom is always at school. Julie loves it, but what does she know? She's only six."
"Your mom does good stuff for the schools."
"Know how embarrassing that is?"
"Actually," Amanda said, taking a calculated risk, "I don't. My parents were too busy fighting with each other to have the time or energy for either my school or me."
Jordie lifted a shoulder. "Mine fight. They just do it when they think we can't hear."
Amanda made a noncommittal sound, but didn't speak. Taking the moment's space to gather his thoughts, Jordie went off in a direction that was slightly different, but clearly upmost in his mind.
"And even if we can't hear, we can see," he said. "Mom hardly ever smiles anymore. She doesn't plan fun things like she used to. Like sleepovers for all our friends." He caught himself. "I mean, it's not like I want those anymore, I'm too old, but Julie and the twins aren't. Mom used to have twenty of us over at once with popcorn and pizza and videos, and I didn't even care if the little kids were bugging me and my friends, because that was all part of it, y'know?"
His enthusiasm gave way to a somber silence, then anger. "Now she just pokes her head in my room asking nosy questions."
"Fuck it," came a high, nasal voice.
Amanda frowned at the neon green parrot in a cage at the end of the room. "Hush up, Maddie."
Jordie stared at the bird. "She's always saying that. How come they let you keep her?"
"She only swears for kids. She knows better when it comes to Mr. Edlin or any of the teachers. She's perfectly polite when they're in here."
Like checkers, Maddie was an icebreaker. Some students stopped by daily for a month to give the bird treats before they felt comfortable enough to talk with Amanda.
"She's a good bird," Amanda cooed in the direction of the cage.
"I love you," Maddie replied.
"She flips?" Jordie asked. "Just like that? Is she a good guy or a bad guy?"
"A good guy. Definitely. Good guys can say bad things when they're upset. Maddie learned to swear from someone who used to chase her with a broom, which was how I came to adopt her. She knows what anger sounds like. She gets upset when kids get upset, like you just did about baseball."
"I wasn't talking about baseball when she swore," Jordie said.
No. He had been talking about his mother. But, of course, he knew that, which was why he was on his feet now, hoisting the backpack to his shoulder. Talking about parents was hard for kids like Jordie. Talking about feelings was even harder.
Jordie needed an outside therapist, someone who didn't know his family. For that to happen, though, either he or one of his parents had to take the initiative. None of them was doing it, yet. So Amanda went out of her way to be there when Jordie came by. Unfortunately, she couldn't make him stay. Before she could utter a word, he was out the door and tromping down the empty hall, lost again in whatever dark thoughts were haunting him.
Wait, she wanted to say. We can talk about it. We can talk about moms fighting with dads, how you feel about it, what you're doing when you're supposed to be studying, what you're thinking when you're blue. I'm free. I can talk. I can talk as long as you want. I have to keep my mind busy.
But he was gone, and as they had been doing all day, her eyes went to the desk and Graham's picture. It was in a neat slate frame, his smile beaming at her through his trim beard. It was a face that many a female entering this room had remarked upon. Graham O'Leary was an icebreaker, too.
She had to call him. He would be waiting to hear. But she didn't know anything yet, and she might not for hours.
Besides, lately it seemed that the only thing she and Graham were about was having a baby -- and, oh, did she feel the pressure of that. He had done his part successfully, and more than once. Her body was the problem. Of course, he didn't say that in as many words, but he didn't need to. She felt his impatience.
But what more could she do? She had followed Emily's instructions to the letter -- had eaten well, rested well, exercised in the most healthy and normal of ways, except for today. Loath to do anything that might bring on her period, she was moving as little as possible.
It was nonsense, of course. Normal physical movement wouldn't wreck a normal pregnancy. At this point, though, she was desperate. She hadn't left her office since lunch, and though she might have liked to use the bathroom, she quelled the urge. As a diversionary measure, she sat back in the sofa, checked her watch, and thought about Quinn Davis. It was five-thirty. She had told the boy she would be in her office until six, and so she would be.
His notes unsettled her. They had come by e-mail, the first sent early that morning saying, "I need to talk to you, but it's private. Is that okay?"
"Private is definitely okay," Amanda had written back. "What you say is between you and me. That's the law. I'm free third period. Would that work?"
He hadn't shown up during third period, but another e-mail arrived during fourth. "Would my parents have to know that we met?"
"No," Amanda replied. "That's part of the confidentiality rule. They wouldn't know unless you sign a form saying it's okay. I have a free half hour right after school, but if you have to be at baseball practice, we could make it later. I'll stay until six. Will that work?"
She hadn't heard back. Nor had she heard footsteps in the hall to suggest that Quinn had come while Jordie was there, and she'd been listening. Something was up with Quinn. Her instincts told her so, and it had nothing to do with the fact that he approached her by e-mail. Many students did that, precisely because it was more private. She often suggested meeting times, often never heard back, and other than keeping an eye on the student or perhaps sending a follow-up note, there was nothing she could do. She couldn't force the issue.
But Quinn Davis wasn't her usual case. He was a star. In addition to being sophomore class president, he was a peer counselor, high scorer of the varsity basketball team the past winter, and now he was the wunderkind of the baseball team. Two older brothers, both leaders at Woodley High, were currently at Princeton and West Point. Their parents were local activists, often in the papers, forever in Hartford lobbying for one cause or another.
Amanda wondered if Quinn would show and, if so, what he would say. It could be that he wanted to tell Amanda about a student who needed help; part of the point of the peer leadership program was to identify problem students before they exploded. Student referrals were responsible for easily a third of the students she regularly saw. But she doubted that was the case here, with the student insisting on confidentiality from his own parents.
Slipping off her shoes, Amanda folded her legs beside her. She was tired emotionally; that was a given. She was also physically tired, though if she dared think that it might be the earliest sign of pregnancy, she got a nervous knot in her belly. In any event, she was grateful that her job allowed for casual dress. Allowed for? Demanded. The students had to perceive her as both professional and approachable, no mean feat for someone like Amanda, whose small size and wayward blond curls made her look more like she was twenty-five than thirty-five. The challenge was to appear more sophisticated, yet not formidable.
Today's outfit worked. It was a plum-colored blouse and pants, both in a soft rayon.
A noise came from the hall -- a muted sound that could have been an anguished shout -- then silence. Fearing that it was Quinn and that something was terribly wrong, Amanda jumped up from the sofa and went to the door. Down the hall, immobile and alert with his mop protruding from a pail-on-wheels, was the janitor.
"Heeeere's Johnny," sang out Maddie from the depths of her office.
Amanda let out a breath. "Mr. Dubcek." The man was white-haired and stooped, eighty if he was a day, but he refused to retire. He was remembered not only by parents of current students, but by grandparents as well. That gave him clout in the respect department. He was never spoken of as Johann, always Mr. Dubcek --
except for Maddie, but then, Maddie didn't know about respect. She only knew that the old man fed her and cleaned out her cage and took her every night to his small apartment in the basement of the school.
"I was listening for voices," the janitor told Amanda in a rusty voice. "I'd'a gone away if you had someone in there. I didn't want to interfere."
"No one's here," she said with a smile, but the smile faded when, standing now, giving gravity its due, she felt an unwelcome rush.
Heart pounding, she went down the hall to the lavatory. Well before she closed the stall door and lowered those soft plum pants, she knew. In that instant, pummeled by a dozen emotions, not the least of which was a profound sense of loss, her mind closed down. Sinking onto the toilet, she put her elbows on her thighs and her face in her hands and began to cry.
She must have been there a while, because the next thing she knew, there was a loud knock on the outer door and the janitor's frightened call: "Mrs. O'Leary? Are you all right?"
Mrs. O'Leary. Ah, the irony of that. Professionally, she had always been Amanda Carr. She had surely introduced herself to the janitor that way four years before. At the same time, though, she had introduced him to Graham, who was helping her set up her office. She had been Mrs. O'Leary to the proper old gentleman ever since.
And what was wrong with being Mrs. O'Leary? On a normal day, nothing at all. She was proud to be married to Graham. She had always believed that once they had kids she would use O'Leary more often than Carr.
Once they had kids. If they had kids. And that was what was wrong with being Mrs. O'Leary today. Without the kids, did she have a right to the name?
Tears came again.
"Mrs. O'Leary?" the janitor called again.
Sniffling, she wiped the tears with the heels of her hands. "I'm fine," she called in an upbeat, if nasal, voice. "Be right out."
After dealing with necessities in the stall, she washed her hands and pressed a damp paper towel to her eyes. A headache was starting to build over the right one, but she didn't have the wherewithal to pamper it here, much less the strength to deal with whatever was ailing Quinn Davis. Praying that the boy would not show up, she returned to her office, repaired her face in a hand mirror, shut down her computer, locked up her files, and, waving at the janitor's distant figure on her way down the hall, left school.
* * *
Graham considered prolonging the trip home. There were places he could stop, ten minutes here, ten there, giving Amanda more time to call. But the suspense was too much. He kept the truck on the highway and his foot on the gas.
The phone rang. His heart began to pound.
"Hi?" he answered as much in question as greeting, but it wasn't Amanda. It was a woman who owned a real estate firm and had hired him to redo the office grounds. The job was small, the potential large. The woman's clientele was high-end. If she liked what he did, she would recommend his work, and while he had plenty to keep him busy, he always welcomed more. Lately, given the tension between Amanda and him, his work was his salvation.
"I was just wondering when I'll be seeing you," she said warmly.
He drove with his left hand while the right opened his little black book. "You're on my call list. I'll have your plans ready by the first of the week." He flipped several pages, darting glances at each. "How does a week from today sound? Say, four?"
"Perfect. Next Tuesday at four. See you then."
Graham barely ended the call when the phone rang again. Again, his heart began to pound, but it wasn't Amanda this time, either. It was his brother Joe.
Graham let out a breath. "Nah. I'm headed home."
"Mom was asking."
"I'll bet she was. I have to tell you, there are times when I wish I hadn't said anything to anyone."
So they had. The questions had started one month into his marriage, and they hadn't stopped. In hindsight, he should have said that he and Amanda didn't want children, and would they please bug off. Having his entire family know what they were going through was nearly as humiliating as jerking off into a jar. O'Leary men didn't have to do things like that. Hell, Joe had recently had his fifth child, and Graham suspected he and Christine weren't done yet.
"She's beginning to despair," Joe said now of their mother, Dorothy. "Says she wants to see your kids before she dies."
"She's only seventy-seven."
"She says she's growing frail."
Graham felt a cursed helplessness. "What more does she think I should do?"
"She says this is her last wish."
"Joe. Come on. This isn't what I need right now."
"I know. I'm just putting you on notice. She keeps saying it should have been Megan."
That was nothing new. "Well, it isn't Megan -- it can't possibly be Megan -- I don't want it to be Megan," Graham declared. "Help me out here, Joe," he pleaded. "Remind her I'm married to Amanda. If I'm going to have a baby, it'll be Amanda's. Hey, there's my call waiting," he lied, but he couldn't keep this particular conversation going. "I'll get back to you later."
He disconnected without another word and drove on in brooding silence. This damned day was nearly done. He didn't know why Amanda was keeping him in the dark. Even if she didn't know anything yet, she could have called and told him that. She knew he was waiting.
Turning off the highway, he drove along roads that he knew now like the back of his hand, and there was some solace in that. He loved Woodley, loved the way the town roads twisted and climbed through forested hills. A map of the town was like a tree -- a trunk that rose from the highway and forked way up at the crest of the hill, spilling off in two directions with limbs bearing town buildings, offices, and stores, branches off those limbs for houses, and, farther down the branches, neat cul-de-sacs like the one he and Amanda lived on.
No road in the town was barren. Each was bounded by white pine, beech, and hemlock, or maples, or birches, or oaks. Climbing into a curve now, he passed a meadow of red trillium. Farther on, he saw yellow trout lily, and beyond that, a dense stand of mountain laurel with its perfect white blossoms. A less-knowing passerby wouldn't have picked out the jack-in-the-pulpit with its maroon hood from the shade at the side of the road, but Graham did. Likewise, at a glance, he could differentiate maidenhair fern from oak fern or bracken, or lichen from moss.
These woods had them all. Graham took pride in that. His own hometown, where much of his family still lived, lay only fifty minutes to the east, but the two towns were worlds apart. That one was a working-class enclave filled with good folk who dreamed of living here. For Graham, the dream had come true.
At least, one part of it had. They were still working on the other part, and if the news was good today, he would be doubly thankful he lived here. When it came to hospitable environments in which to raise kids, Woodley took the cake.
The town center was nestled around the fork in the road at the top of the hill. The three streets intersecting at its core were lined with beech trees, wood benches, and storefronts that were as inviting in winter white as they were now in May. The smells were as rich as the populace -- hot sticky buns from the bakery, a dark roast blend from the café, chocolate from fresh dipped fruit at the candy store. Give or take, there were a dozen small restaurants on side streets to serve an upscale population of fourteen thousand, but the food staple was on the main drag, a chic little eatery that served breakfast, lunch, and dinner at wrought-iron tables in a glassed-in patio in winter and an open one in summer. Several doors down, past an art gallery and an antiques store, a bookshop was stocked to the eaves, and what parent in his or her right mind would go elsewhere when this one employed a full-time storyteller for kids? There were boutique-type clothing stores scattered around, a drugstore whose owner cared enough about his clients to advise them when medications clashed, a hardware store, a camera shop, and -- the latest -- a tea café.
Some of the stores took up the two floors that the town fathers had decreed would be the height limit, but those second-floor spaces also housed lawyers, doctors, interior designers, and the like. Graham's office was over a housewares store that had sent more than one newcomer to Woodley his way.
He didn't stop at the office now. Nor did he stop at Woodley Misc, the general store, though an SUV pulled from a spot right in front. Not so long ago, he would have swung in and run inside to buy an Almond Joy for Amanda. Amanda loved Almond Joys.
This day, though, he didn't have the patience for chitchat, which was what one could count on getting at Woodley Misc. Besides, he was annoyed at Amanda for not calling, for not thinking about him for a change. He was annoyed at her for not being long since pregnant, period.
That thought stopped him cold. He knew it was unfair, but his mind didn't take it back, which left him feeling more than a little guilty.
It was with a deliberate effort that he propped his left elbow on the open window, draped his right wrist over the back of the passenger's seat, and made like all was well and that he was cool.
* * *
Amanda's numbness wore off during the drive home from school, and the enormity of the situation sank in. There would be no baby. Again. No baby. She felt empty, barren -- frustrated, bewildered, sad.
She and Graham had been so cautious this time, not daring to get carried away. Still, they had talked of hanging a stocking on Christmas Eve for the baby about to be born, and of having something new to toast this New Year's Eve. They had talked about how much easier the O'Leary holiday bedlam would be if they were about to have a child of their own.
Pulling the tortoiseshell comb from her hair, she shook her head to spread out the curls and tried to relax with positive thoughts. She had plenty to be grateful for, plenty that others didn't have. For starters, she had a beautiful house on a charming wooded cul-de-sac in an upscale neighborhood -- a perfect place for kids.
Only she didn't have the kids yet.
But she did have three neighbors, two of whom had become close friends. The third, Ben's young widow, kept to herself, but the others more than compensated with front-yard visits in spring, backyard cookouts in summer, leaf-raking parties in fall, and Sunday-night pizzas in winter. More important, there were countless woman-to-woman talks on the phone, on porch steps, or by the Cotters' pool.
She could use one of those talks now. Either woman would tell her how envious they were. Neither of them had the kind of career she did. Karen worked hard without benefit of either a paycheck or respect, and the trade-off for Georgia, who got a large paycheck indeed, was being out of town and away from her family several days a week.
Amanda wasn't paid a lot, but her career wasn't about money. She simply loved the work -- and talk about convenience? The school was ten minutes from her home. If she had a baby, she could exchange her full-time position there for one as a consulting psychologist. She would have as large or small a caseload as she wanted, and could see students right at the house. The office over the garage had its own entrance. If she had kids, it would be perfect for that.
She even had a car for kids, an SUV that was de rigueur in Woodley. Granted, it was four years old and starting to show its age. In the past few months, they'd had to replace the fuel-injection system, the suspension, and the battery. They talked about getting a new car, but then month after month passed without her conceiving, and it seemed foolish.
The car purred happily enough now as she turned off the main road and drove through a gently winding stretch of wooded land. A final turn, and the cul-de-sac came into view.
Graham's truck was not in the driveway.
Not quite sure how she felt about that, she opened both front windows and, with the flow of warm air through the car, let the circle soothe her. With May just days old, the landscaping around the four houses was coming to life. The grass had greened up and just been cut, leaving horizontal swathes and a lingering scent. Huge oaks ringing the dead end had leafed out into a soft lime shade; paper birches with curling white bark were dripping with buds. The crocuses had come and gone, as had the forsythia blossoms, but patches of yellow daffodils remained, and tulips were starting to bloom. Clusters of lilacs stood tall and fat at each porch rail; though still a week shy of full bloom, they were budded enough to perfume the air.
Turning into her driveway, Amanda breathed it all in. Spring was her very favorite season. She had always loved the freshness, the cleanness, the sense of birth.
Sense of birth. Shifting into park, she stepped on the emergency brake and wondered why it always came back to that. Many people went through life without being parents. Some women she knew were actively choosing not to have kids, and they were perfectly satisfied with their lives. The thing was that she did want them, only it wasn't happening, and she didn't know why.
Was this her punishment for wanting a career of her own? For keeping her maiden name? For delaying parenthood? Yes, she would have had an easier time conceiving ten years before, but she hadn't been ready to have a baby at twenty-five. She hadn't even known Graham then. And he had been worth the wait. She still believed that.
Her mother believed otherwise. She believed that the genetic differences between them were simply too great for conception. Graham was tall, solid, and green-eyed; she was small, lean, and brown-eyed. He had straight dark hair; hers was curly and blond. He had seven siblings; she was a lonely only child. He was athletic; she was not.
As far as Amanda was concerned, her mother was a snob, and her theory was hogwash. But that didn't lessen the pain she felt now. They'd had such high hopes this time. Graham was going to be upset.
She should have called him. Cell phones, like e-mail, were less intimidating than having to say some things face-to-face. She might have broken the news that way. Shared the sorrow. Confessed to failure.
She could still do it. But her courage failed her.
Disheartened about that failing on top of the other, she gathered up her briefcase and had straightened when a movement in the rear-view mirror caught her eye. It was the widow, Gretchen Tannenwald, wandering along her newly edged flower beds. She had spent long hours the fall before putting in bulbs, working with her back to the neighbors, keeping to herself even when others were out and about. Attempts at friendliness on their part were met with the briefest possible response. Even Amanda, who was supposedly good at it, had made a try or two, but Gretchen was no talker. Hard to believe that she had been married to the ever-genial Ben.
Then again, not hard to believe at all. Gretchen was barely half Ben's age and the total antithesis of June, but he had needed a drastic change to pull him from his grief.
The neighborhood men were sympathetic. "You can see she idolizes him," said Russ Lange, the romantic. "Any man would love that."
Leland Cotter, the dot-com chief, was more blunt. "What's not to love? She's a looker."
Graham suggested that Ben loved her energy. "She has him traveling and hiking and playing tennis. He and June led a quieter life. Gretchen opens new doors."
The neighborhood women were less generous. As far as they were concerned, the Tannenwald marriage was about two things: sex for Ben and money for Gretchen.
Of course, that didn't explain why Gretchen was hanging around without Ben. Amanda had thought she would sell the house, take the money, and run. But here she was, wearing a short, swingy dress that made her look even younger than thirty-two.
Actually, Amanda decided with a start, the dress made her look pregnant.
Unsettled by that, she twisted around to look out the rear window. It was a minute before the light caught Gretchen's body in profile again, and there it was, something that did indeed look like a belly -- which was a curious prospect. Ben had been gone a year, too long to be part of it, and Gretchen had been a virtual shut-in since his death. She didn't date; surely they would have noticed. To Amanda's knowledge, the only men who had been in the house for any period of time were the plumber, the carpenter, and the electrician -- and, on one mission or another, Russ Lange, Lee Cotter, and Graham O'Leary.
Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Delinsky