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By SALLY JOHN
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2011 Sally John
All right reserved.
Chapter One ABOARD A FLIGHT FROM CHICAGO TO LOS ANGELES
When Jill was a little girl, her father nicknamed her Jillie Jaws. He asked, What choice did he have? Not only were her initials JAW, she was also without question, from birth, a motormouth. When air first hit her lungs, she never even cried. She yammered. Yes sirree, Jillian Autumn Wagner always had something to say.
Four hours into it and she had nothing to say.
Not that anyone would have listened. The flight attendants had spent more time buckled in than not because of air turbulence. A sullen thirtyish woman in the window seat wore a headset and kept her nose buried in a novel that sported a strikingly handsome Fabio-type on the cover. The aisle seat remained empty.
Of course it remained empty. It was Jack's.
Her jaw quivered. The movement had no relationship to yammering.
What would her father think? Skip Wagner thought the world of his son-in-law.
Her dad? She was concerned about her dad? What about her audience?
Don't even start, Jillian. Do not even start.
But of course she had started, thanks to Jack's introduction of the subject. He had said her fans were counting on her.
Jack was a kind man, a physician in the classic sense. He was a gentleman who wanted nothing more than to help his patients feel better. That he actually said he wanted a divorce was inconceivable. As if that weren't enough, he had added insult to injury by mentioning her fans. Moments later as they stood at the curb, he'd done it again. At the echo of his voice in her head now, she could scarcely breathe.
"You will be all right," he had said. "This trip is about you meeting your fans." He gave her a quick hug, the stiff-armed sort he used for his elderly, frail mother. Then deftly, one hand under her elbow, the other on the open car door, he ushered her into the backseat of the cab as if she were another scoop of snow tossed aside.
"Jack, I'll go later. I'll get another flight—"
"No!" He shook his head vehemently. "No. I must do it this way. I'm sorry." He shut the car door.
Before the driver pulled from the curb, Jack had scurried away, making it halfway up the sidewalk without a wave or backward glance.
And that was that.
At breakneck speed he had detonated three explosions: He wanted a divorce. He didn't want to talk about it for weeks. He mentioned her fans.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
Her fans were women who listened to her radio show and planned to read her new book. They were women from across the country who trusted her advice on how to prevent a husband from doing exactly what her husband had just managed to do.
More specifically they were women in Los Angeles who had already paid money to eat lunch with Jill Galloway. They had paid money to hear her speak about how to communicate in marriage. They had scheduled it on their BlackBerrys for tomorrow.
Before the cab had reached the end of the block, her jaw quit working.
Except for the tremble.
She was supposedly an expert in marital discourse. How did it happen that in ten words or less, with absolutely no forewarning, her own husband had exploded their world with "I want a divorce" and then sent her off to the airport?
The scene was so totally out of character for him it made her head swim. The Galloways were the poster couple for a healthy marriage. They had worked hard for over twenty years at keeping it healthy. She had taught on the subject for a dozen years. She had a solid grasp of the ins and outs—
A sharp jab against her arm startled her.
Her seatmate moved her elbow from the armrest. "Sorry."
Jill nodded and then shook her head and hoped it was a universal sign for "no problem."
"Excuse me." The woman pushed the headset from her mane of dark hair. "No one is sitting in the aisle seat. You could use it."
Jill gazed at the empty seat.
"Uh, are you all right?"
She nodded, shook her head, and nodded again. You don't want to know.
"Do you need the attendant?"
Jill's lungs craved air. Her chest felt like it was on fire. Maybe words were piled up inside. Instead of their usual flight off her tongue, they had lumped themselves together and now spontaneous combustion was occurring.
Maybe she was having a heart attack!
Miss Sullen reached up and snapped on the call light.
Jill blurted, "It's my husband's seat."
"Okaaay." Her voice rose on the last syllable.
"He's in Chicago."
The woman's eyebrows twitched.
"And I think he just left me." Jill unbuckled her belt, snapped off the call light, and moved into Jack's seat, affirming that he really and truly was not coming.
The burning sensation lessened. Maybe speaking aloud had released some of the pressure. Maybe what helped was giving voice to truth, the hard truth that she was on a plane somewhere over the Rockies and her husband for no conceivable reason was not.
She shut her eyes. She couldn't even articulate a prayer. Where was God in all this anyway? A simple answer was that He allowed this situation for a reason. A reason she could use someday. Something like a new insight to share with other women or like material for a lesson plan.
Her chest went all hot again. The simple answer did not resonate. No way, nohow.
She pressed her fingers against her breastbone. Was it heartburn? Not the kind that plagued her when she was pregnant, but the kind inflicted by such emotional pain it felt like her heart was being seared.
"Maybe he didn't leave you," her seatmate said.
Jill opened her eyes.
Miss Sullen shrugged. "You said you 'think' he left you. If you don't know for sure, maybe he didn't."
"Maybe he didn't." Jill sighed. "Out of the blue he said he wanted a divorce."
"Out of the blue?"
"Yes. The thing is, I can't figure out why he would. I mean, of course I've gone over my obvious, most glaring faults. I talk too much. I drag him to events he doesn't give a hoot about. He wanted four kids but I said no after one. I ignore his parents a lot. I don't cook. I really don't like his office manager. I threw his baseball cards into the trash. It was a mistake—I didn't mean to, but I did it. And I spend an arm and a leg every three weeks for this." She grabbed a fistful of frosted blonde hair. Its carefree style cut exactly one inch below her earlobes remained undisturbed.
Miss Sullen's brows inched upward.
Jill went on. "But that's just everyday life, you know? It's what he married. Piled up for twenty-four years with no serious complaint out of him, do they create a motive? I don't think so. But what about the big-deal stuff? the stuff that really matters?"
The woman's eyes were wide open now.
Jill slid into familiar territory, her tone confident. "The big-deal stuff is definitely in the plus column. Jack and I talk openly about everything, and I mean everything. We always have. We like each other. Physical intimacy is very good. We attend church together. We go on dates regularly. We spend time with mutual friends. He loves his work. I love mine. Our son is a mature young adult. As far as I know, that covers it. And trust me, I know a lot about marriage."
The brows disappeared behind Miss Sullen's bangs. "You sure sound like you do."
"Well, I've studied it for years. I speak at women's conferences about it and teach it to a women's Sunday school class. Have for years." Instantly her jaw locked again. Her cheeks flushed. The gush of boldness ebbed, like water circling a drain. She heard its sickening slurp.
"So," the woman said, "you're like an expert."
"Um, sort of." The doubts were piling up faster than last night's snow. She wasn't about to explain that not only did she speak on the subject, she hosted a syndicated radio show devoted to it. And not only that—she had even written a book about it.
"Then you know what this is about."
Jill met the young woman's dark eyes, more somber than sullen, wiser than thirtysome years awarded. Her black cashmere sweater did not quite reach the top of low-rise jeans. Her tall boots were of soft leather. Silver bangles clinked on her wrists; a huge diamond flashed on her left hand.
Jill said, "How do you know?"
"My husband is fifteen years older. We met at the beginning of his crisis."
As in midlife crisis.
On any other day up until this day, Jill would have asked the woman a gazillion questions and taken notes. She must be a gold mine of information. She was the prototype of the Younger Woman whose path crossed the Older Guy's as he bounced around in a confused state of dipping hormones or dying career or diminishing whatever.
But right now Jill was not pulling out her pen and pad. Right now she was imagining Jack grinning at a beauty half his age.
"Then again—" the woman slid her headset over her ears—"maybe he just has the flu." She picked up her book and began reading again.
Jill leaned her head against the seat back and closed her eyes. "Midlife crisis and divorce." She whispered the dreaded words as if tasting a kumquat. Their unfamiliar acidic flavor settled on her tongue. Did she have to get used to it?
I vote for the flu.
* * *
Agonizingly long hours later at the Los Angeles airport, Jill greeted Gretchen MacKelvie curbside with a quick squeeze. "Hi."
Gretchen held her at arm's length. Taller than Jill's five-two by several inches, she was large-boned with long, wavy brown hair and full lips. "Flu."
Gretchen's left eye narrowed; the other flashed neon green. Her ski-slope nose twitched. She had perfected the matronly glare long before she'd turned forty-two. "What's up with the incomplete sentences, Miss Jaws?"
Jill glared back at her. "It's either flu or midlife crisis. I'm going with flu."
"Jill! What happened?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He just didn't feel like coming." She shrugged off Gretchen's hands. "Is that your rental? The security guy's heading for it."
"Like I care. Stand still and talk to me."
Ignoring her friend, Jill rolled her luggage hastily toward the car, calling out to the guard. "We're here! We're coming."
"You can't park there, ma'am."
Nodding, he strode past.
Gretchen muttered to herself, aiming her key ring at the car. "Can't even park for five minutes. Curses on terrorists everywhere." The trunk popped open. Together they loaded the cases. "What do you mean he didn't feel like coming? I just saw him on Sunday. He was looking forward to his vacation."
"Yeah, well, evidently his vacation wasn't this one."
"Is it because of his car accident on Tuesday night?"
"That was no big deal. Few stitches on his head. He put on his Cubs hat and went back to work the next morning. The thing is, he said he ..." Lockjaw set in again. Jill forced the words through clenched teeth. "He said he wants a divorce."
Jill slammed the trunk lid shut. "He got sick. Hormones, midlife gear switching, flu, whatever. He'll get better."
"No. Way. You're spinning this, aren't you? You're making it palatable. Next you're going to say God works all things together for good."
"Well, He does. Meanwhile, you and I have our own work to do."
"Jillian Galloway, this is huge. A divorce? Oh, my gosh! Why aren't you bawling your head off?"
"I already did, somewhere over Colorado."
"Malarkey. Your mascara isn't smudged, not even a tiny bit."
"Fixed it over Nevada."
"Ladies!" The security guard neared again, making a show of flipping open his ticket pad.
They hurried around to the car doors and climbed inside.
Within moments Gretchen eased the car into the traffic. She sighed heavily. "Don't you ever get tired of squeezing the lemons? We do not need any lemonade, sweetums. Not today."
Jill disagreed. She would have said so, but her jaw was too busy forming itself around a wail.
Excerpted from DESERT gift by SALLY JOHN Copyright © 2011 by Sally John. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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