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"You haven't been to church in over a year, Dixie," her father said, rubbing a thick hand over his coarse, closely cropped, steel-gray hair.
Dixie folded a bath towel and placed it atop the growing stack on her kitchen table. Small, round and battered, it had seen better days, as had the suite in the formal dining room.
"You don't have to remind me how long it's been since I buried my husband, Dad."
Sitting in a wobbly chair at that table, Samuel Wallace shook his head sadly. "I know I don't, sugar lump. It's just that I'm concerned about you laying out of church. With Mother's Day and your own mother's birthday falling on the same date this year, it seems like a good time to be in the Lord's house."
Dixie lowered her gaze as she reached for a small striped T-shirt from the laundry pile. "This is the third time we've had this conversation in the past two weeks."
"And we'll keep having it until you agree to join us in church," Sam insisted in his gravelly voice.
"I'm just not ready, Dad."
"It's her one wish, Dixie, to have her only child and grandchild in church with her on that special day. That's all she wants, Dix, just to have the family together in the pew again."
But the family wouldn't be together, Dixie thought, not without Mark.
Pulling another towel from the jumble, Dixie surreptitiously sucked in a deep breath before making the first fold. She did not wish to respond to her father in anger, but really, her mother was being terribly insensitive of late. Not only had Vonnie Wallace started urging Dixie to date and think about marrying again, now she asked this.
Her movements brisk and efficient, Dixie folded and stacked the towel. "I'm not sure I'll ever be able to sit in front of that altar again without seeing Mark's casket there."
"It was difficult for us the first few times, too, sugar lump," Sam rasped, his hazel eyes glimmering, "but you, Clark and the church are all the family we have. Mark would not have wanted us to pull back from any of that."
No, Mark would not have wanted that. No one valued family and connections more than Mark had. An orphan from the age of eleven, he'd grown up in a series of foster homes, so family had meant everything to him. That was one reason why it was so hard for her to go on without him, but her parents did not understand. In their world, loss and trauma were just experiences to be put behind.
She had tried to tell them, to explain about that day, but even if she'd been completely honest, they couldn't possibly understand. They had not been in the boat with Mark when it hit the pylon. They had not prayed frantically in the moments before, when it became clear that the structure was not a floating buoy. They had not screamed her husband's name upon impact or seen the bloody gash across his neck and shoulder as he hit the water. They had not begged God for Mark's life as blackness overwhelmed all else. They had not awakened in a hospital bed days later with broken bones and a head injury to be told that a best friend and husband of five years was dead and gone.
How could she sit in that church and not remember that awful day? How could she celebrate Mother's Day when Mark would never know another Father's Day with the son he had so desperately desired?
As if summoned by her thoughts, Clark ran into the room, vrooming as he drove a plastic car in his little hand on a highway of air. At nearly three, Clark never walked anywhere, and he delighted in no one as he did Sam. "Pop-Pop!"
Sam Wallace caught Clark in his arms and lifted him onto his lap, pushing aside his coffee cup with the back of one hand to be sure that it was safely out of reach. "Hello, there, hot rod. How's my best boy? Been playing on that swing set out back?"
"Swing, swing, swing," Clark chanted, swaying side to side on his doting grandfather's lap.
Pushing away images of the dream, Dixie smiled even as she rolled her eyes. "All I ever hear is swing, swing, swing." She shook her head, her softly curling, golden-brown hair swishing just above her shoulders. "I'll be so glad when he's old enough to go in and out on his own."
"Ha! I'll remind you of that when he's driving you crazy by fanning the door every five minutes," Sam said, rising to his feet with Clark in his arms.
Still robust at sixty-four and recently retired from the diesel mechanics shop that he'd run for a full quarter century, one of Sam's first postretirement projects had been to erect the swing set beneath the old hickory in Dixie's backyard in time for warm spring weather. He and Clark headed out there now.
"Fifteen minutes, you two," Dixie instructed, glancing at the clock over the white enamel stove. "I have to get to the grocery store before I can make lunch."
"No problem. I've got the Old Codgers' Bible study in half an hour," Sam said with a wink. That was his affectionate name for the senior men's Thursday meeting, which ended with lunch at a local restaurant.
"And be careful," Dixie called, shivering a little.
"Don't worry," Sam told her, lingering a moment in the back door. "Just think about Mom's request. And while you're at it, Dix, you might want to remember what she went through to have you."
Dixie frowned as the door closed behind him. Low blow, she thought. Was it her fault that her mother had had to suffer through numerous miscarriages and several surgeries before finally carrying a child to term at the age of thirty-six?
"And one more thing," Sam said, opening the door again to stick his head back inside. "We owe Vonnie for skipping the big six-oh last year."
"I didn't ask anyone to curtail celebration of Mom's sixtieth birthday," Dixie pointed out softly.
"No one said you did. We all felt it was too soon after the tragedy. But that was fourteen months ago. It's time to move forward again, Dix."
Not fourteen months, Dixie thought, as he disappeared again. Merely thirteen months, two weeks and two days.
Clark had gotten lanky all of a sudden, Dixie realized, lifting him into the seat at the front of the grocery cart. His baby fat had gone to long legs and arms in a matter of weeks. She'd be buying him new pants again before she knew it. She couldn't help wondering how else he would take after his father. Would his dark, curly hair lighten and streak, as her own medium golden-brown tended to do in the summer sun, or would it stay as glossy as his father's dark chocolate-brown had done? Clark had her green eyes, rather than Mark's blue ones, but Clark's were lighter than her own dark green ones. Now suddenly he was showing signs of having inherited his father's long, lean frame rather than her short and, in her opinion, too-curvy one. If only Mark were here to see his son grow.
She turned the cart down the nearest aisle. A familiar salt-and-pepper head lifted from the perusal of a soup can.
"Dixie!" Bess Slade dropped the can into her shopping buggy and quickly pushed it down the aisle. "How good to see you."
Bess had been Vonnie Wallace's best friend since she and her son had joined the church some eleven or twelve years earlier, after Bess's divorce. At one time, much had been said about getting Dixie and Bess's son together, a plan Dixie had greatly resented, as she was already going steady with Mark. She'd even accused her parents of not approving of Mark, a charge they had adamantly denied. It was only, Vonnie had insisted, that Bess dreamed of a perfect marriage for her son, one similar to those of his older sisters, one far different from that which Bess herself had experienced.
Because Joel Slade was four or five years older than Dixie, their paths had not crossed, and Vonnie had made the whole matchmaking thing sound like Bess's idea. As a result, Dixie had avoided Bess as best she could over the years. Yet the woman had been nothing but kind and thoughtful in those awful days and weeks following Mark's death. Remembering how Bess had quietly slipped around her parents' house at the reception following Mark's funeral, keeping dishes washed and glasses filled, Dixie put on a smile.
"Hello, Bess. How are you?"
Bess delayed answering while she made a fuss over Clark, exclaiming what a handsome boy he was and how much he'd grown. Eventually, however, she came to a reply.
"I am so excited. Joel is finally home. After ten years, he's left the Marine Corps and decided to finish college here in Lawton."
"That's nice," Dixie replied blandly, but in the back of her mind she was hearing her mother say that it was time for her to start thinking of dating again. One surely had nothing to do with the other, though. Any idea of getting Dixie together with Joel Slade had surely evaporated long ago. Surely not.
"Yes, it is," Bess went on. "And speaking of nice, Joel and I both are very pleased about being invited to join your family for Vonnie's birthday. That it's Mother's Day, as well, will make it even more of a celebration."
Dismayed, Dixie made a concerted effort not to gasp. "Will you excuse me, Bess?" she said, turning the cart about. "I just remembered something."
"Of course. I'm so glad I ran into you. Bye-bye, Clark. Such a handsome boy," she said for the second time, but Dixie was already mentally determining how she was going to nip this matchmaking nonsense in the bud.
By the time Dixie got Clark back into the car and drove through Lawton, then covered the five-plus miles to her parents' small acreage, she had put together a stern little speech. Clark on her hip, she stepped up onto the porch, and opened the door straight into the living room without bothering to knock. Her mother greeted her from the sofa, where she sat watching a television game show, her pale curly hair caught at the nape of her neck.
"Dixie. What a nice surprise." Pointing the remote, she shut off the TV and stood, reaching out for Clark, who went to her readily. "How's my darling today? Have you had lunch yet?"
"No, we haven't."
Vonnie turned and carried Clark through the swinging door at one end of the sofa, saying, "Come, let me fix you something. Dad's gone to his weekly Bible study."
"I know. He stopped by the house first."
"Did he?" Vonnie looked over her shoulder in surprise. "That's nice."
Silent on the subject, Dixie followed her mother into the kitchen.
Vonnie carried Clark to the high chair in the corner of the room near the trestle table, before moving to the refrigerator. While Dixie stewed and worked up her courage, Vonnie took out sandwich makings and carried them to the work island that was the heart of her warm brick-and-tile kitchen.
"Did Sam mention Mother's Day?" Vonnie asked innocently.
"You mean, did he pressure me to attend church with you that day? Yes, yes, he did."
Vonnie paused in the act of opening a jar of mayonnaise. "I'm sorry, Dixie," she finally said. "I never meant for you to feel pressured."
"But you did mean to invite Bess and Joel Slade to join us," Dixie accused petulantly.
Vonnie came around the island to lean against the counter. Dressed much as her daughter was, in jeans, a simple T-shirt and tennies without socks, her long, curly blond hair caught in a clasp at the nape of her neck, Vonnie looked decades younger than her nearly sixty-one years. Though a little plumper than Dixie, Vonnie could have passed for her sister, except for the silver in Vonnie's pale gold curls.
"And that's a problem because…"
Dixie shoved her hands into her hair, drawing it back from her face. The gesture emphasized the slight widow's peak from which her thick, wavy hair fell in a natural part. "Don't you think I know what you're up to, Mom? All this talk about me dating again, and now I find out you've invited the Slades to your celebration. You and Bess tried to push Joel Slade on me once before, or don't you remember?"
Vonnie didn't even try to deny it. "That was eons ago. You were a girl."
"And now I'm a widow."
Vonnie bowed her head, arms folded.
"Honestly, Mom," Dixie went on, "what am I supposed to think? First you say I should start dating again, and the next thing I know Joel Slade is in town and joining us for your celebration! Seems obvious to me."
Vonnie sighed. "You know, Dixie, we used to get on rather well, you and I."
"We still would if you'd stop trying to make me get over Mark's death!" Dixie snapped.
Without a word, Vonnie walked to the table, picked up Clark and carried him into the hallway and through the door of the playroom that she and Sam had outfitted for him. Dixie heard her murmuring to the boy before she came out again and closed the door behind her. To Dixie's shock, when Vonnie marched back into the kitchen, she came loaded for bear.
"Not everything is about you, Dixie!" Vonnie said heatedly. "It's my birthday! Mine! Is it so wrong to want my best friend at the table with me?"
"Your best friend and her son," Dixie pointed out.
Her mother's anger had set her back. Vonnie didn't get angry. Over the past year or so, unfortunately, Dixie's own temper had grown shorter and shorter. Today, however, the provocation surely justified the reaction. Didn't it?
"It's not just my birthday," Vonnie pointed out. "It's also Mother's Day, and Bess's son is finally home. What was I supposed to do, Dixie? Tell Bess to come along but leave Joel at home? Save her celebration for another time?"
It did sound unreasonable when put like that, but Dixie could not quite give up her pique. "If you'd limited the invitation to her, she would have declined. Problem solved."
Vonnie parked her hands at her ample hips. "It isn't a problem for anyone but you, Dixie! After all he's been through…" Vonnie paused and closed her eyes as if calming herself. "I happen to think very highly of Joel, and you would, too, if you'd ever met him."
"That's just the point, isn't it, Mother?" Dixie accused. "You want me to meet him because you want me to stop grieving my husband and start dating other men!"
"Is that a crime?" Vonnie asked, spreading her hands. "I just want what's best for you, Dixie. I always have."