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Justine Samuels sipped at the small glass of champagne she allowed herself on special occasions. This, she supposed, qualified. She'd just won the biggest case of her career--a multi-client personal injury case against a major business that'd tried to cover up, rather than fix, a problem known by the highest-level employees in order to save money. Her clients were thrilled with her; her law firm--Adams, Samuels & Gosnik General Practice--even more so. Though they mainly drafted wills, negotiated tax settlements with the IRS and handled various family law claims, they'd done a few personal injury cases. Nothing like this one. This was one most small-town lawyers avoided as out of their league. Justine had viewed it as challenge in which she could garner success with hard work and determination. After ten long months, she'd finally done just that. Hence the celebration party her partners had thrown her at the only swanky restaurant in town, The Pier.
A few feet away, Justine watched her husband surreptitiously glance around, clearly not enamored of her partners' conversation. Will Gosnik and Harry Adams shared little in common with a man who'd been married as long as Joshua had. At fifty-three, Harry had decided his recent divorce put his life in permanent bachelor status. Will had never married, never wanted to. Both were playboys who came on to everything with a shapely turn of leg. Justine unwillingly qualified. The only reason she could ignore their playful advances came down to their genuine respect for her and her work.
When Joshua's dark gaze drifted to her, she didn't have the fortitude to hold their shared glance for longer than a few seconds. She stirred the oliveshe'd specially requested in her glass and nodded at something one of the six legal assistants the firm employed said. Heat filled her cheeks. She knew Joshua's eyes lingered on her. She could feel them like heat-seeking missiles.
While her company get-togethers were rare, Joshua always put on a suit that inevitably made him look both uncomfortable and gorgeous. And, after all these years, he still attended every one of her trials. She had no clue why he did that. But since he owned his own business and set his own hours, it was no doubt easy for him to fit them in. It just wasn't easy for her to imagine why he would adjust his schedule to attend. Did he have any idea how much she appreciated the efforts he made to attend her trials and come to her firm's shindigs with her?
Does he have the slightest clue that I can't take my eyes off him when I see him in a suit? It reminds me of the tuxedo he wore at our wedding. I kept looking at him, losing my place as his father performed the ceremony, convinced it was all a dream. In what world would I be marrying the man of my every fantasy? But, almost eighteen years later, I still can't get myself to believe we're married. Because I don't have a clue why he married me outside of his unwavering sense of responsibility.
Justine swallowed, continuing to feel the fire rage in her face, and lifted her gaze to again skirt it over Joshua.
Your cologne smelled so good in the car on the way over here. What I wouldn't have done to bury my face against your shoulder...
"So how many years has it been, Josh my man? You've had Justine on the hook for ... what? Two decades?" Harry asked, mostly sloshed by now, and Justine's attention riveted to the trio of men close enough to easily overhear.
"Eighteen years on the twenty-fifth," Joshua said. His voice sounded thick with discomfort.
Linda and Arabelle were talking about the latest fashion trends, and Justine only half heard them as Harry slapped her husband on the back, exclaiming, "How do ya keep the romance alive, fella? What's the secret to keepin' love strong? Could barely look at my hag of a wife--thankfully ex-wife--toward the end. Sometimes thought I hated everything about her. Got so sick of her face..."
"Not that Justine is anywhere near a hag," Will added with a lurid chuckle. "Nowhere near. Can't be too hard to wake up next to her every day. So what's the secret, Josh? How do you keep it going?"
Justine found herself holding her breath for Joshua's answer. Without love ... how did Joshua stay with her? She wanted to know almost as badly as she didn't want to know.
His face is so serious. Utterly serious. Is he actually going to answer them?
Arabelle's voice drifted to her. "...but are they comfortable all day? I love a sexy shoe as much as the next girl, but..."
"I'd have to say the secret to a good relationship is..." Joshua started.
Will and Harry seemed as enraptured about hearing his answer as Justine did. She was almost leaning toward them. Arabelle glanced at her, and Justine quickly lifted her glass to her mouth to avoid having to speak.
"Never ... and I mean never..." Joshua paused, his expression intense, "...pick your nose when you're alone together."
Justine burst out laughing ... which wasn't a good thing to do when she had a mouthful of champagne. The drink came out of her nose, too, and Linda grabbed at napkins at the bar nearby, looking a little uncertain what had prompted the reaction in her boss. After setting her glass down and grasping the napkins, Justine mopped her face and chin. Quickly, she excused herself. With her purse in hand, she charged into the ladies' restroom like a bull.
When Joshua doesn't know what to say--and that isn't often--he leans toward the outrageous. What was he supposed to say? What did I expect him to say? He could hardly say the truth, "I love my daughter and wanted her to have a stable home life growing up," in answer to how he kept his marriage going strong after all this time.
Disgusted with herself, Justine blew her nose, then went to work repairing the damage to her makeup. As she cleared her smeared mascara from the tears of laughter that filled her eyes at Joshua's off-the-wall humor, she looked at herself the way she'd done countless times in the years they'd been together. What did he see when he looked at her? Did he find her attractive? Logically, he must. But then she recalled Harry's words about his ex-wife. Toward the end of their marriage, he'd barely been able to look at his wife, considered her a hag and hated every familiar curve and line that made up her face.
She shook her head at her reflection. Shoving her makeup back in her clutch, she took a deep breath to re-fortify herself for another entrance. The last thing she expected to find was Joshua waiting alone in the hall outside the restrooms. She knew he hated these parties. He wasn't the type to be comfortable in crowds of people. Even with his large family, he had a tendency to withdraw to the sidelines.
"You okay?" he asked, and she couldn't help wondering if he'd seen her response to his tension-relieving joke.
"Fine. I think we've been sociable enough," she said, giving him the out she knew he wanted.
"That mean we can make a graceful exit?"
"The quicker, the better."
The effort of disengaging herself from the congratulations and well-wishing wasn't easy, but they finally made it out to the car. Being alone together inside the confines of the vehicle that smelled of his cologne made her at once relieved and nervous. She could feel his tension as he drove across the town they'd both been born and grown up in.
Peaceful was an apt name for the friendly Midwestern town located in central Wisconsin with a population of around thirty-five hundred citizens. Filled with old-fashioned, barely modernized business fronts along the main street, lush green grass, and an abundance of brightly colored trees lined most of the residential roads, the town had nevertheless had many new commercial and private businesses crop up to make it much more self-sufficient in the last few years. Justine often thought that it had to be one of last places in the world that remained utterly safe, even after dark.
Tonight, the drive seemed endless. Her mind produced and discarded a dozen things to say to ease the discomfort. Surprising her, Joshua broke the silence. "Congratulations on the case. Must be a relief to have it over with."
She laughed, a wavering little thing that embarrassed her. "I don't know what I'll do with myself now."
He paused only an instant. "You always find something."
In that, he knew her well. "La Crosse main branch has asked me to join their firm," she said softly, looking across the seat at him. She hadn't intended to tell him because she'd had no plans to accept.
He met her gaze across the car. "As a partner?"
"Full partner. I'm happy as a full partner here."
"It'd mean more money, more prestige, better cases. Wouldn't it?"
Though he faced the road, she nodded. "My place here is completely satisfying."
Did it matter to him? Did he want her to take the job? She understood through and through, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he'd never leave Peaceful. His family was here, his work. Everything he loved held him firmly rooted here. Yet he wouldn't try to hold her with him.
Should that bother me? I've known it from the beginning. We're strangers. We have been even when we were ... Ugh! After eighteen years, we're still so uncomfortable with each other, it isn't funny. Without our daughter here to act as our net, we're hopeless together. And even when she gets home ... Well, in a few months, she'll be going off to college in Minnesota. What will Joshua and I do then? Beyond avoid each other as much as we have in the past few weeks she's been gone.
Somehow, Justine couldn't bear to hear him encourage her to leave him for her career if she wanted to. Not tonight. "Vashti called," she said, changing the subject. "She gave me her flight information for Sunday."
His hmm was both noncommittal and enough to make Justine crazy. Did hmm mean "Okay, whatever" or "Take the job in La Crosse. Save me the trouble of leaving you after Vashti heads to college"?
In the excruciating silence that followed, Justine thought about what, if anything Joshua was feeling about her chance for promotion and re-location. She thought about their daughter's usual course--she'd want to throw them an anniversary party, one they'd always wanted to avoid, claiming they preferred a quiet, intimate celebration ... one spent on opposite sides of the house. She thought about Joshua's outrageous humor with Will and Harry. Obviously her partners believed in the faï¿½ade she and Joshua had carefully constructed to reveal a perfect marriage. It was only perfect by virtue of the fact that they'd lasted as long as they had. They'd done it for Vashti.
What will happen when we no longer have to stay married for the sake of our daughter?
Turning her head just slightly toward him, Justine observed her husband with a lump the size of a baseball in her throat. Outside of their mutual faith and walk with the Lord, outside of Vashti, they had nothing in common. No practical reason at all to stay together.
So why does the idea of being separate from him torment me?