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Letting go of the past . . .
After five years, Natasha Lawrence believes she is finally over the recurring nightmare of the last conversation she had with her husband, Tim, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11. She and her two sons have now comfortably settled into a small South Carolina town, close to her in-laws. But when her late husband's stepbrother moves nearby and offers friendship and ...
Letting go of the past . . .
After five years, Natasha Lawrence believes she is finally over the recurring nightmare of the last conversation she had with her husband, Tim, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11. She and her two sons have now comfortably settled into a small South Carolina town, close to her in-laws. But when her late husband's stepbrother moves nearby and offers friendship and support, Natasha feels guilty about her attraction to him.
Can sometimes open your heart
Confirmed bachelor Jared Langston had always envied the family life his stepbrother Tim Lawrence enjoyed. But when his job takes him to Atlanta, near Tim's widow and her two sons, he finds himself drawn to Natasha despite the complications of the blended family relationships. Will Jared be able to overcome his own inhibitions and convince Natasha to take a chance on love?
Late summer 2005
"Take care of my sons."
Natasha's eyes flew open, and she shivered in the dark August night. Her dream seemed so real. She'd heard Tim's voice just as plain as she had that awful day four years ago, when he called her after the explosion six floors below him in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
She reached for the remote control, wanting to get some light into the room. My goodness, if this kept up she'd have to get a night-light, like Gary and Gordon used. But her sons were mere children, almost nine and seven years old; one would almost expect them to be afraid of the dark. She, on the other hand, was a grown woman.
An infomercial aired on the TV screen. Natasha turned to the bedside clock: 3:00 a.m. No wonder.
She turned to one of the cable-movie stations. She gasped in fear at the sight of Wesley Snipes portraying a half man, half vampire in one of his Blade movies and quickly changed the channel. She decided that Nick at Nite had to be a safe choice.
Her heartbeat slowed to normal at the reassuring, nonthreatening sound of canned laughter. She recognized the seventies sitcom being shown. Just another night in paradise, she thought bitterly. Sitting up at three in the morning, alone in her king-size bed,haunted by a recurring dream of her last chilling conversation with her late husband as he awaited his own death.
Natasha's dreams began immediately after the nightmare of losing Tim. She would never know the precise moment that it occurred, but she prayed death came before the collapse of the World Trade Center's North Tower at 10:30 a.m.
By then Barbara, her mother-in-law, had arrived from Newark, where she worked as an assistant district attorney. On the way she stopped at the day care and retrieved Gary and Gordon, whom the family called Gordy. Both children knew something was terribly wrong, but no other details were given. Barbara put them in the master bedroom with the TV set tuned to the Cartoon Network, a channel she knew would be safe from any frightening news video of burning towers.
For the boys' sake Natasha tried to stay calm, but when she saw the South Tower collapse in a tremendous gray cloud, she lost it. If the South Tower, which had been struck about fifteen minutes after the North Tower, could fall, what was to stop Tim's tower from falling as well?
Just minutes later, her worst fear came true. Natasha gasped at the sight, then began sobbing uncontrollably. Tim, plus God only knew how many other people, was dead.
Gary and Gordy came running at the sound of her anguished cries. Together, she and Barbara tried to explain to the youngsters that their daddy had gone to heaven, something that children two and four could hardly grasp. For months afterward they both asked when Tim would be coming home.
Now that they were older, they had a better understanding of what happened, but they still felt the loss.
She shivered again. This same dream, which she used to have maybe once or twice a week, now interrupted her slumber at least three times a week, sometimes four. And each time it happened, it took longer for her to get back to sleep.
Her alarm went off at six forty-five. Natasha shut off the buzzing noise with a heavy hand. She couldn't be sure exactly when she fell asleep, but the last time she looked at the digital clock it said 4:07. After the boys left for school she would go back to sleep for an hour or two. She didn't like the idea of sleeping in the daytime, but she wouldn't be able to function if she didn't get back at least part of the sleep she'd lost.
"Are you okay, Mommy?" Gary asked as she yawned loud and long while pouring milk over their cereal.
"Oh, yes, I'm fine. Just a little tired."
"You should go to bed earlier," Gordy suggested.
She laughed. "I'll try that." She put the milk away and poured orange juice, then set the glasses on the table and sat down with her sons, ready to share her idea with them. "Boys," she said,
"what do you say we fly down to South Carolina this weekend and visit Grandma and Grandpa Ed?"
"Ooh, can we, Mommy?"
Natasha smiled. "I guess that means you'd like to go."
She called her mother-in-law after Gary and Gordy left for school.
"Natasha! I was just going to call you," Barbara exclaimed.
"How'd you like to have some company this weekend?"
"We'd love it, Natasha! You know that." Barbara called out to her husband. "Ed, Natasha and the boys are going to come down this weekend."
Natasha easily heard Ed Langston's booming response. "Just tell us when their plane lands, and we'll be there to meet them." Her eyes suddenly became damp. How blessed she was to have such caring in-laws. They were the only family she and the boys had. If it weren't for them... She sniffled, an action not lost on Barbara.
"Natasha, are you crying?" she asked, concern in her voice.
"I'm fine, Barbara."
"That's not what I asked you."
"I'm fine, Barbara," she repeated pointedly.
"Natasha, tell me what's wrong."
She took a deep breath. She should have known her mother-in-law wouldn't be put off. "I keep having that dream about Tim's last day, about what he said to me."
"Why didn't you tell me, dear? I assumed that stopped long ago."
"It's never gone away completely, but I'm having it more often lately, every other night or so."
"I know why. It's Kirk," Barbara said flatly.
"Oh, I don't think so," she said quickly. "It's probably because of the anniversary coming up."
"You might be right. Does that usually happen around September? I know I find myself thinking of Tim more this time of year."
The sad note in Barbara's voice made Natasha wish she could reach out and hug her. As difficult as it had been to lose her life partner, she couldn't imagine losing Gary or Gordy. She said a quick prayer that she never would know the pain of losing a child, even a child who'd grown into an adult.
"I do, too," she said. "But it never affected my dream. I don't know what to make of it happening so often now."
"Like I said, it's Kirk. All that stress has finally caught up with you. I know you've tried to keep a stiff upper lip about it all, but sometimes you just can't be stoic, Natasha. I'm so disappointed in my son I don't know what to do. And that Tara! I could just throttle her."
"Barbara, it's old news. We need to forget about it and move on."
"He's disgraced his brother's memory," Barbara said, her voice quivering.
"I don't see it that way," Natasha said gently. "After all, Tara is his wife. Honoring her wishes takes precedence over his spending time with Gary and Gordy."
"I can't dispute that spouses should come first for each other, but if Tara had any humanity whatsoever she wouldn't be so jealous. That's the whole root of the problem, you know. I always told Kirk she was too possessive. He can hardly call his soul his own."
Natasha tried again. She found it unbearably sad that Barbara had lost one son and harbored such disappointment in the other. "I'd prefer to not even talk about it, Barbara. The boys are fine, and I am, too."
But Barbara wouldn't be swayed. "I'm not having it, Natasha. My grandsons are growing up. They're without the male influence they need because Kirk virtually abandoned them, and even after four years you're still having nightmares, reliving the worst day of your life, of all our lives." She sighed audibly. "But I'm so glad you're coming down. I wish you'd consider moving here. There's really nothing to hold you in New Jersey."
Natasha hesitated a moment, not sure if she should really share her thoughts with her mother-in-law. She hadn't even spoken to the boys yet. "Barbara, I thought that while I'm there I'd look at some houses."
"Oh, Natasha! Really?"
"I think a change of scenery would do us all good."
"Ed and I tried to get you to come down when we did. You've always been so reluctant to even consider leaving Montclair. I'm pretty sure what changed your mind."
"Yes, I know. You don't want to talk about it. Instead, I'll tell you my good news. It's the least I can do, after you've made Ed and I so happy." She paused for effect. "Jared is moving to Atlanta."
"Yes, his employer offered him a position as director of IT at their Atlanta office. Ed and I are thrilled about it. He's been so far away all this time, but Atlanta is only two hours from here, you know."
"Yes, I know."
"And if you and the boys come, we'll have three of you close by. Kirk will never leave New Jersey, of course, and maybe that's for the best."
"I'm just happy that you and Ed put me in the same category as Jared and Corey and Kirk." The long-divorced, fiercely independent Barbara Lawrence married Ed Langston when Tim and his younger brother, Kirk, were still in college. At that time, Ed's son Jared had recently graduated from college, and his daughter, Corey, was in high school. The Lawrence-Langston offspring, despite not having grown up together, had formed a close alliance, particularly the boys. Distance separated Corey from the rest, for she chose to remain in South Carolina with her mother after her parents'divorce.
"You're more than just a daughter-in-law to me, Natasha," Barbara said. "You and Corey are the daughters I always wanted but never had."
When Natasha lay down to get some sleep, she considered the possible connection between her dream occurring more frequently and the fact that she'd never felt so alone in her life. She always tried to play down Barbara's vehemence where Kirk and his wife, Tara, was concerned. But Kirk's behavior still hurt.
Natasha was certain that it would have broken Tim's heart to know what happened after his memorial service. At first Natasha had plenty of male companions for Gary and Gordy, who were just two and four years old at the time. Gary turned five just two weeks after the attack that destroyed the World Trade Center. Between Kirk, Jared and Ed, they didn't lack for role models.
Jared, who at the time of the attacks worked in lower Manhattan, just blocks away from the trade center, had never really recovered from the horrible scene he witnessed that day. Although he'd lived in a third-floor walk-up on West Fifty-fourth Street, after the attacks he spent a lot of time in New Jersey with the family as they grieved the loss of Tim together. Within six months, he accepted a position in Houston and left New York for good.
Two years later Ed and Barbara retired and moved to Ed's hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. That only left Kirk and his wife, Tara, in New Jersey.
At first Kirk spent a few hours every Saturday afternoon with the growing Gary and Gordy, playing catch or taking them bowling or out for ice cream. Often Natasha would go along when they went out. But when Tara called one day while they were on the way home and heard Natasha's voice in the background, she lit into Kirk with such vehemence that he had to hang up, unable to prevent Natasha and the boys from overhearing Tara's tirade as she ranted.
Sitting next to Kirk in the front seat, Natasha could actually hear Tara's stinging words: "I've heard all about these 9/11 widows, latching on to any man in their social circle, whether they're available or not. They sashay past, flashing their cleavage and all that money they got from those financial settlements, and the men follow behind them like puppies. No one is immune, not their dead husbands' best friends, and certainly not their brothers."
The next day Kirk called and sheepishly said he wouldn't be able to spend as much time with the boys anymore because Tara resented the time away from home on his day off. Natasha said she understood, but she didn't. In her opinion Tara's behavior was unreasonable and selfish. Sometimes Kirk only spent an hour and a half with Gary and Gordy, and the most he ever spent was three hours if they went to a movie and got something to eat afterward.
Natasha didn't know at the time that she would barely see Kirk after that. As the weeks passed with no word from him, she painfully realized the truth. Even after a year, it still hurt.
Learning that Jared would be moving close enough to spend some time in South Carolina was definitely an improvement.
Excerpted from One On One by Bettye Griffin Copyright © 2006 by Bettye Griffin. Excerpted by permission.
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