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My Perfectly Imperfect Life
By Jennifer Archer
Thorndike PressCopyright © 2006 Jennifer Archer
All right reserved.
Amarillo, Texas Summer 2006
June in the landlocked Texas Panhandle feels like a sauna. Dry heat. Not a drop of water in sight to cool off in. No ocean. No raging river. No babbling brook. I'm the only one doing those things. Brooding, raging and babbling, that is. I sit in my backyard at the patio table wearing only my slip. My old black Labrador retriever, Saxon, lies at my feet, panting steadily.
"I guess we better go back inside to the air-conditioning," I murmur to him. "My makeup is melting."
When I glance at his grizzled face, Saxon's tail thumps the patio's concrete floor.
"Just one more minute." I listen for the sound of Stan's truck in the alley. We're the only house on the block with a rear-entry garage.
Saxon whines. "He'll be here."
The dog whines again, and I swear I see pity in his eyes.
"He'll be here," I repeat, but I can't blame him for doubting. Saxon has been through too many other nights with me that started out like this one. The two of us alone. Waiting in the darkness for Stan to come home from his job as a cop. He always shows up. Sometimes later than others. During those minutes or hours, or even days, when he should be home but isn't, I feel as though I'm holding mybreath, and the same old worries bombard me. Is he in danger? Hurt again?
Then Stan walks through the door in one piece, and I exhale.
That's what will happen tonight, I assure myself. He couldn't get away from work, that's all. But it's my birthday, for crying out loud. Forty years. Can't he at least be on time this once? Not that I really feel like celebrating, but we have reservations at Piper's. Stan knows that; it was his idea. But that was this morning. Who knows what's gone on in his life since then? Not me, that's for damn sure.
I take deep breaths to steady my nerves. Now I understand why the woman Stan almost married, years before we met, broke off their engagement. He said she was unreasonable about his work. Unreasonable? She probably couldn't handle all the worry and loneliness, and I don't blame her. If I could've seen into the future and known the reality of being a cop's wife, maybe I would have backed out of the marriage, too.
Laughter drifts from the house across the alley, and I hear a baby's delighted squeal. Despair wraps strong arms around me and squeezes, bringing tears to my eyes. The home pregnancy test was negative again this morning. Oh, I figured it would be, but it still hurts to see the evidence of another failure. Each time my period is even a day late, I tell myself not to get excited, not to expect anything. But an ember of hope still smolders somewhere deep inside me. It flickers a bit then flares as one late day turns into another, then another until, finally, I perform the same ritual that I've perfected over the past five years.
These are the instructions the manufacturer should have written on the box: Pee on the strip, watch the clock for five minutes, hold your breath and pace. Pray, if you're so inclined.
I won't tell Stan. Facing him with the bad news gets harder each time. I want to enjoy dinner and put it out of my mind. Or try to. I'm the one with the problem, not him. Endometriosis. Started when I was thirty. Before that, I probably could have gotten pregnant without any difficulty, or so the doctors tell me. But I didn't meet Stan until I was thirty-four, and we didn't marry until the next year.
We'll just have to try again, like always. Maybe I'll even follow Aunt Maeve's advice and buy a yellow pair of booties, tuck them away in a safe place. She swears that's the key to conception.
Forty. No big deal. Lots of women my age have babies these days. Even so, I admit I'm starting to panic. It feels as if the time allotted for me to conceive is slipping away, the sand falling faster through the hourglass, picking up the pace with each grain that sifts through.
Stan's truck rumbles at the end of the alley, pulling me from my thoughts. "Told you so," I say to Saxon, then nudge him with my toe.
A cool rush of air hits my face when I open the French doors leading from the patio into our bedroom. Saxon limps along beside me toward the closet. I hear the door from the garage into the kitchen open then shut.
"Dinah?" Stan calls out.
Saxon limps toward the door at the sound of Stan's voice.
I search the closet for my black dress, expecting my husband to appear at any moment. But when the door to our home office down the hall squeaks, I know Stan must be checking his e-mail.
I shove one hanger across the rod, then another. He can't even say hello first. His job, that damn e-mail, or whatever it is he looks at on the computer lately, takes precedence over everything. Even our efforts to conceive.
Just yesterday morning, at four to be precise, I walked up behind him where he sat at our home computer. He almost shot through the ceiling when I spoke his name. Thanks to his quick punch of a button, the screen went black before I could glimpse what he studied with such focused intensity. There have been other nights, too, when I've awoken to find the bed empty and the computer monitor's glow illuminating the shadowed hallway.
Lifting the dress from the hanging rod, I step from the closet and drape it over a chair in the corner, then reach for the zipper.
Stan radiates tension when he walks into the room a second later. That's nothing new. But tonight there's an edge to it that alerts all my senses. I glance across at him and force a smile. "Hi, sweet-ie." You're late.
He rolls his left shoulder and winces, stretches his head from side to side.
"Your neck bothering you?"
"Yeah. It's stiff."
Probably from all the late nights he spends on the computer. "I'll give you a massage later. Why don't you make us a drink while I finish getting ready?"
After another left-to-right neck stretch and a glance at me, he starts to leave, then does a double take, his focus on my slip. "Don't change a thing." His mouth turns up at one corner. "You look good just like that." He leans against the door frame, his jacket slung over his shoulder. As he reaches to pat Saxon's head, his gaze moves slowly down my body.
Since we're already late, I don't want to encourage what his expression tells me he has in mind. "My usual martini," I say. "Extra dirty, no —"
" — Vermouth, four olives and a twist of lemon," he finishes for me.
I lower the zipper on my dress then glance up to see that he hasn't moved. Tiny strands of silver streak his tousled dark brown hair. His sun-bronzed face, with its wide mouth, narrow nose and cleft chin, is lined by life, adding a touch of ruggedness to his appearance that suits him. Even after five years of marriage, the sight of him still stirs awareness in me. The slow, casual way he moves, his broad shoulders and narrow hips, the desire in his eyes at certain times when we're together; times like now. All of it has the power to steal my breath, to make me forget my irritation.
Stan leaves Saxon and walks toward me, placing his jacket on the chair. He unbuckles his belt and tugs his shirttail free of his waistband. The directness of his gaze unnerves me as I raise the dress to slip it over my head.
"Wait," he says.
I lower my arms.
"Don't put that on." He nods me over. "Come here."
"I thought your neck was stiff?" I tease.
He grins. "So is something else."
I'm not sure why my heart races as I smile and step toward him. Something about him seems dangerous tonight. An exciting sort of danger, not one I fear.
"You're in a strange mood," I say, tilting my head. He takes the dress from my hands, tosses it on the chair beside his jacket.
"It'll get wrinkled."
"I don't want you to wear it, anyway." Stan trails a fingertip from my elbow to my shoulder.
"But it's your favorite dress."
"I like this better." He lowers one strap on my slip, skimming my shoulder with his palm, scattering goose bumps over my skin.
I laugh again. "I can't wear this to Piper's." Confusion flickers in his eyes, but he quickly covers it.
"You forgot, didn't you?" Frustrated all over again, I back up, lifting my slip strap into place.
"I didn't forget." Moving closer, Stan lowers the opposite strap. "It's your birthday. I just had a better idea how we might celebrate it."
"I thought you wanted to go out?"
He pulls me to him. "That was before I saw you in this."
I want to stop him when his palm covers my breast, to tell him that tonight I'm going to have things my way, not his. We're going to Piper's. Case closed. But because work has kept him so busy, too much time has passed since he touched me like this. The heat and pressure of his hand feels too good, too right. "We have reservations for eight o'clock," I protest weakly.
His mouth meets the curve of my neck, the brush of his lips starting an ache at my center. "The only thing I want to eat right now," he murmurs, "is you."
I kiss him back when his lips touch mine. God, he tastes good. Like — I pull back slightly. "Have you been eating strawberries?"
Excerpted from My Perfectly Imperfect Life by Jennifer Archer Copyright © 2006 by Jennifer Archer. Excerpted by permission.
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