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Claire Rennels clung to one thought.
She couldn't be sick.
But the waves of chills shuddering across her clammy skin told their own story. She shivered and crumpled to the bathroom floor like cheap toilet paper. Clutching the commode, she felt beads of perspiration break out on her forehead, and took several quick breaths.
What was wrong with her?
She drew another long breath, slowly releasing it through her mouth. Feeling calmer, she tipped her head back against the flowery wallpaper and stared up at the peach-colored ceiling. They needed to paint. The color had faded to a shade she couldn't describe, and a spiderweb dangled in one corner.
Someone, preferably not her, should clean away the cobwebs. She wasn't a great housekeeper and would be the first to admit that failing. Their home had a lived-in look, but it was comfortable and cheery.
The calm didn't last long. Bile rose in her throat and her stomach spun with gut-wrenching nausea. She leaned over the toilet, retching one more time. She should be with her husband, Dean, helping to move his mom into a new house, but here she was, puking her guts out and getting acquainted with the ceiling.
With her stomach finally resting, she pushed herself to her feet, stumbled to the sink and washed out her sour mouth. She should clean the bathroom, but she didn't have the strength at the moment. Maybe later.
Glancing at herself in the mirror, she did a double take. Holy cow! Her pallid skin, fatigued eyes and sweat-soaked hair made her look like death warmed over, as Bunny, her mother-in-law, would say.
Back to bed, no question. Claire planned to hide her weak body beneath the covers until the world was a brighter shade of hearty pink, not sickly green.
As she trudged toward the bedroom she kept repeating her delusional mantra for the day: I'm not sick. I'm not.
Suddenly a thought occurred to her and she stopped dead in her tracks. When was the last time she'd had her period? She quickly calculated the weeks.
Her hand trembled as she scrubbed at her face. Think. Think. Think. She'd had a period in late June, right before they'd taken their daughters, Sarah and Samantha, to Cancun for a family vacation. Since Sarah was getting into a serious relationship, this would probably be the last trip with just the four of them.
Claire made her way to the bed and sank down on it, dragging her fingers through her sweaty hair. This was late August. No. No. No. She couldn't be pregnant, not at the age of forty-three. Life couldn't be that cruel. But she knew that it could.
Staggering to her feet, she dug in a drawer for jogging pants and a T-shirt. She had to buy a pregnancy test even if she threw up all the way to the store.
TWENTY MINUTES LATER she rushed into her bathroom to perform the test, sincerely hoping this was one she'd fail.
Staring at the result, Claire moaned and slid to the floor, tears streaming down her cheeks. Not again! How could she be so careless?
Swiping away tears, she rested against the vanity. In a little over a week she would start college, her dream since she was eighteen. She'd managed to earn a few credits while she'd raised her family, and now she would finally get her degree. But just like when she was eighteen, she found herself pregnant.
Her stomach cramped again, this time from the selfish, negative emotions swamping her. She'd raised two wonderful daughters and put them and her husband through college. She'd earned the right to do something for herself for a change.
She stared into the bedroom to a bookshelf adorned with baby pictures of their daughters. Set among them were trophies and awards she and Dean had won in high school. He'd been a football jock and she'd been salutatorian of the class. The hunk and the nerd, they were called. But as smart as she was supposed to be, she wasn't smart enough to avoid getting pregnant.
At age eighteen, two months from graduation, Claire had discovered she was going to have a baby. All her hopes and dreams crumbled as she made the hardest decision of her life. She wasn't going through that again.
This time she was older, although not much wiser. She knew she had options. She should call Dean, but if she saw him she might actually kill him. It was her body and she'd make this decision alone.
You didn't create the baby alone, a little voice whispered inside her head. She wouldn't listen to that voice. It had told her to go ahead and use a condom when she'd forgotten her diaphragm on the Cancun trip. She might kill the little voice, too.
After gathering the packaging and the pregnancy test paraphernalia, Claire hurried to the kitchen, wrapped everything in paper towels, and threw it into the trash to hide the evidence. She wasn't ready to tell Dean. She ran to her car before she could change her mind.
The Planned Parenthood Clinic wasn't far away. She'd driven by it many times, and sometimes thought of the women inside. She'd never understood how a woman could abort a baby. This was different, though. This was her life. Beyond that, she wouldn't let herself think.
She parked some distance away, and took a few moments to calm down. Protesters marched outside in the August heat. A wrought-iron security fence enclosed the clinic to keep the protesters out and to protect the women who made the choice to abort their child.
All Claire had to do was go inside, take another pregnancy test and make a decision. Easy.
Wrong. She'd been raised in a Christian home, just as she and Dean had raised their girls. She took a deep breath and prayed for strength. The moment she did, she knew this was wrongso horribly wrong. She couldn't do it. Her beliefs wouldn't allow it.
She had rights. Was that supposed to alleviate the guilt? She tucked her blond hair behind her ear. In reality, her rights had been compromised the moment she'd agreed to have sex with her husband.
She knew, as did Dean, that a condom wasn't one hundred percent safe. There was always a risk of conception, and once she and Dean had taken that risk they had to be prepared to deal with the consequences.
Just as they had years ago.
Claire rested her hand on her stomach. The new life inside took precedence over her rights. Some people might not believe that, but she did. No way could she end her pregnancy. She couldn't do it when she was eighteen, and she certainly couldn't do it now.
Slowly, she drove home, trying to come to terms with everything she was feeling. Talking to Dean wasn't going to help. She knew him as well as she knew herself. He'd offer his support, but what she needed now was time alone. He wasn't going to understand that. Still, she hurriedly threw clothes into a carryall.
Grabbing underwear out of a drawer, she saw a stack of old letters tied with a worn red ribbon hidden away in the back. She pulled them out. These were letters she'd written to Dean in high school and after they were married. He'd kept them in a drawer in his bedroom. When she'd moved in with him and his mother, she'd found them, and was so touched he'd saved them. She'd tied the red ribbon around the letters adding new ones to the pile over the years. Writing to Dean always gave her peace and strength, and reinforced their love.
Her love letters.
Her feelings. Her emotions.
Twice in the past she'd faced unexpected pregnancies and had found acceptance waiting deep in her heart. She had to find that once again.
Everything she'd felt for Dean was in the letters, her fears, her hopes, her dreams, but most of all her love. Looking at them, she knew that to come to terms with her future she would have to find the love and motivation that had defined her life. The letters would do that. She gently placed them in the bag.
In the kitchen, she wrote a note for Dean.
Dean, I'm not feeling well and need to get out of the city for a while. Don't worry. I'll call.
At the moment that was the best she could do. She'd phone him later and try to explain. Right now she didn't need to hear him say they could work this out or that he loved her. She just needed some time to herself. She paused as she saw her new laptop lying on the deskthe laptop Dean had bought her to start college. Swallowing back a sob, she ran for the door.
She had no idea where she was going until she got on the North MoPac Expressway and saw US 290. Claire and Dean had bought a small house on Lake Travis, just northwest of Austin, when Sarah was about twelve. They had a friend who'd been getting a divorce, and all they had to do was come up with five thousand dollars cash and take up the payments for the next ten years. It was a very good deal and Claire had known that if they took it, their budget would not extend for her return to college. But that was okay. Her family came first. They'd spent a lot of time on the lake ever since, especially with the girls and their friends. Their summers were always fun.
Without a second thought she took the exit and headed for the lake house now, hoping to recapture a part of her youth and maybe a part of herself.
DEAN RENNELS STROLLED through the back door, whistling. He'd finally gotten his mom moved. She'd been living in the same house he'd grown up in. As a single mother, she'd worked extra hard to make sure he was raised in a good environment. Back then the neighborhood was nice and the park a place to play ball.
In the last few years, though, the area had gone downhill, the park was used for drug deals and the neighborhood kids were no longer safe. Neither was his mom, who'd refused to move until a teenage girl was murdered in the park.
Her new town house had just been built, and updated with a security systemeverything he wanted for his mother, the only person who'd been there for him and Claire in the early days.
He threw his keys on the desk in the kitchen, hoping Claire was feeling better. He was sure it was only nerves. There were only ten days until she started college, a dream she'd had since she was eighteen. The reality was hard for her to believe, but he was going to make sure nothing stood in the way of her dream this time.
Nothing. "Honey," he called, walking toward the bedroom. He picked up the comforter from the hardwood floor and laid it on the rumpled bed. In the bathroom, a stench sent him reeling. She was definitely sick. Where was she? A sliver of alarm slid up his spine. Could she have driven herself to the hospital? No. She would have called him.
Hurrying back to the kitchen, he spotted the note attached to the refrigerator. He read it, frowning. "What ?"
He read it again, but it still didn't tell him a lot. She needed to get away. Why? His gut tightened with a premonition. Something was wrong.
He dragged in a breath. Claire had said she'd call, so he had to wait. To keep busy, he went into the utility room for cleaning supplies to scrub the bathroom. That done, he sprayed air freshener, something the girls had bought at a specialty shop. He sniffed. Lime and verbena. Not bad. But not something he wanted to smell on a regular basis.
After straightening the bed, he flipped on the TV. An Austin high school team was supposed to be playing on one of the cable channels. He found it. Pivoting, he started for the den and noticed Claire's underwear drawer. She'd left it open, and the contents were spilling out. A spot was vacant in the back cornerwhere Claire stored the love letters. He teased her about keeping them, but she'd said one day their daughters might like to read about their parents' lives as teenagers.
Why had Claire taken the letters? They'd been there for years. He closed the drawer with a sinking feeling. Had she left him? No. There were no signs. They were in love, always had been since grade school.
He'd sat behind her in class and had a bird's-eye view of her blond ponytail and the colorful ribbons tied around it. Every day brought a different ribbon, to match her clothes. As a boy, he didn't quite get that.
But he got Claire, even though she tended to ignore him. So one day he yanked her ribbon and drew her full attention. She'd quickly retied the bow and glared at him. He just grinned at her.
Later he'd yanked it again on the playground and run away. She'd yelled after him, "I'll get you, Dean Rennels."
And she did. Over the next few years she got him in more ways than he could remember. Claire was a voracious reader and won the reading award every term, writing the most book reports of anyone in their class. In ninth grade the teacher wanted them to read with a buddy, and the top readers had the honor of choosing their partners. Claire picked him, the boy'd who pulled her ribbons. The guys teased him, but he didn't care. Usually he couldn't wait to get out of class to go play ball, but for the first time, something, or someone, held him back.
After that Claire helped him with his book reports and made suggestions of what he might want to read. She introduced him to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He'd loved those stories, but couldn't quite get into The Grapes of Wrath or Moby Dick or Wuthering Heights and many other books she couldn't put down.
It wasn't just the books; it was Claire with her soft lilting voice, her serene expression and the light in her brown eyes. He never noticed those things in other girls, but Claire held him spellbound, which was a feat because sports usually had his undivided attention.
The School Dance, 1980
DEAN'S LOCKER WAS ACROSS from Claire's. The school dance was a week away and he wasn't sure about going. Since he played football, the coach said he had to go. Dean wasn't sure why. The dance had nothing to do with football.
As Claire arranged books neatly in her locker, he walked over to her. "Are you going to the dance?"
"No. My parents don't allow me to date."
"My mom won't let me date, either, but I'm thinking about going."
She closed her locker, but before she could walk away, he blurted out, "Maybe we could meet at the dance. It wouldn't exactly be a date."