Read an Excerpt
Ties That Bind
By MARIE BOSTWICK
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Marie Bostwick
All right reserved.
Today, I turned forty.
I wanted to let this birthday pass unnoticed, but when my lunch break came I decided I deserved a treat and walked around the corner to the Blue Bean Coffee Shop and Bakery, known to locals in New Bern, Connecticut, as the Bean.
My table was near a window frosted with little icy snowflake patterns where I could watch people bundled in scarves, hats, and thick wool coats scurrying from shop to shop in search of the perfect Christmas gift. When the waitress came by I ordered a plate of nachos, loaded with extra everything including so much sour cream they ought to serve it with a side of Lipitor.
Six bites in, a glob of guacamole and chili slipped off my chip and onto my chest. Dipping a napkin in water to clean up the mess only made it worse. My white sweater looked like a toddler's finger-painting project. I was on my way to the restroom to clean up when I spotted Arnie sitting in the back booth with Kiera Granger. That's where people sit when they don't want other people to know what they're up to. It doesn't do any good. Everybody in New Bern is well informed about the business of everybody else in New Bern.
On another day maybe I'd have been able to forget the sight of Arnie and Kiera sitting in the dimly lit booth, heads together, hands nearly but not quite touching as they talked intently, so intently that Arnie didn't even see me, but not today. I left my food and twenty dollars on the table and ran out the door and into the street, wishing the blustery December snowfall would turn into a blizzard and hide me from the world.
With only five shopping days until Christmas, Evelyn would need all hands on deck, but I couldn't face going back to work. I fumbled around in my bag until I found my cell phone. Evelyn answered on the fifth ring.
"Cobbled Court Quilts. May I help you?"
I heard a car round the corner; the engine was so loud that I'm sure everyone within three blocks could hear it. I stopped in my tracks, hoping the heap would pass so I could continue my conversation. Instead, it slowed to a crawl and the noise from the engine grew even louder. I pressed the phone closer to my left ear, covered the right with my free hand, and shouted into the receiver.
"Evelyn? It's Margot."
"Margot? What's all that noise? I can barely hear you. Where are you?"
"I'm going home."
I held the phone directly in front of my mouth, practically screaming into it. "I'm going home. I'm not feeling very well. I'm sorry, but ... aack!"
A blast from the car horn nearly made me jump out of my skin. It was more of a bleep than a blast, the kind of short, sharp tap on the horn that drivers use to alert other drivers that the signal has gone green, but what did that matter? At close range the effect was the same. I yelped and dropped the phone, dropping my call in the process.
When I regained my balance, my phone, and some of my composure, I turned toward the street and saw a low-slung, bright blue "muscle car," rusty in spots and with multiple dents, a tailpipe choking clouds of smoke, topped by a roof rack carrier piled high with possessions and covered with a plastic tarp that was held in place by black bungee cords—sort of. The tarp was loose on one side, exposing some boxes, a big black musical instrument case, and a hockey stick. Quite a collection.
The driver was a man about my age with black hair receding at the temples and brown eyes that peered out from rimless glasses. A boy of twelve or thirteen sat slumped in the passenger seat, looking embarrassed and irritated. The driver said something and the boy cranked down the window. The driver shouted to me, but I couldn't make out his words over the roar of the engine.
What kind of person shouts at strangers from their car? Or honks? In New England, honking in a situation that is short of life threatening is up there with painting your house orange or coming to a dinner party empty-handed. You just don't do it.
Climbing over a snowbank and into the street, I noticed that the car had Illinois plates and a Cubs bumper sticker. Were they visiting relatives for Christmas? If they were, I probably knew the family. So no matter how rude he was, I had to be nice.
Shaking my head, I mimed a key in my hand and twisted my wrist, signaling him to shut off the ignition. Instead, he shifted into neutral. That reduced the engine noise to a loud hum rather than an earsplitting roar. Better, but not much.
"Sorry!" he yelled. "If I turn it off, I'm not sure I'll be able to start it again. Can you tell me where Oak Leaf Lane is? We're lost." The boy, who I supposed must be his son, slumped down even farther in his seat, clearly humiliated by his dad's admission. I smiled to myself. Teenagers are so painfully self-conscious.
"Turn around, take a right at the corner. Oak Leaf Lane is the third right after the traffic light. Beecher Cottage Inn is down about a quarter mile on the left, if that's what you're looking for. Or are you staying with family over Christmas?"
Still grinning, he shook his head. "Neither. We're moving here." The man leaned across his son's lap and extended his hand out the window so I could shake it. "I'm Paul Collier. This is my son, James. James is starting as a seventh grader at the middle school after the holidays and I'll be starting a new job at the same time."
"Dad!" James hissed. "You don't have to tell her our life story."
Paul Collier rolled his eyes. "I wasn't. I was just making introductions. This is the country, James. People in the country are friendly. Isn't that right, miss?"
He looked to me for support, but I decided to stay out of it. Paul Collier seemed nice, but I had to wonder how he was going to fit into New Bern. The residents of New Bern are friendly but, like most New Englanders, they are also proud and a bit reticent. They like for strangers to act ... well, a little strange, at least initially. And they don't like it when strangers refer to their town as "the country." Makes us sound so quaint.
I bent down to shake his hand and changed the subject. "Well, it's nice to have you here. On Christmas Eve, we have a carol sing with hot chocolate and cookies on the Green. That's the park in the center of downtown," I added, realizing they might not be familiar with the term. "And if you're looking for a place to attend Christmas services, New Bern Community Church is right on the Green too."
"Great! I was just telling James that we needed to find a church first thing."
His enthusiasm piqued my interest. Most men don't put finding a church high on their list of priorities when they move to a new town. My gaze shifted automatically, searching out his left hand, but I couldn't tell if he was wearing a ring.
What was I doing? When was I going to get over the habit of looking at every man I met as a potential mate? Even if this man was single, his hair was too dark and his forehead too high. Not my type. And he was probably too short. And anyway, I was through with all that. And even if I hadn't been—which I was, I absolutely and forever was—Paul Collier's response to my next question would have settled the matter.
"So, you've moved here for a new job?"
"I'm a lawyer. I'm starting at Baxter, Ferris, and Long after Christmas."
A lawyer. Of course, he was. It was a sign, a clear sign that I was supposed to learn to be content as a single woman and stay away from men. Especially lawyers.
I let go of his hand and took a step back from the blue heap; he couldn't be a very successful lawyer if he was driving such a pile of junk. "Well ... good luck. Have a good Christmas."
"Thanks. Same to you, miss. Or is it missus?"
He was awfully direct, another quality that doesn't go over well in New England.
"Margot," I replied, leaving his question unanswered. "Margot Matthews."
"Nice to meet you, Margot. Merry Christmas."
He put the car back into gear, revved the engine, made a three-point turn in a nearby driveway, and drove off, leaving my ears ringing. Or so I thought, until I realized that the buzzing was coming from my phone.
"Sorry, Evelyn. I accidentally dropped the phone."
"What happened? It sounded like an airplane was about to land on top of you."
"Just a car driving by. Listen, I don't think I can finish the rest of my shift...."
"Something you ate at lunch?"
"Sort of," I replied. "Will you be all right without me?"
"Sure. I mean ... if you're sick, you're sick. Do you think you'll feel better if you just lie down for an hour? Maybe you could come in later."
Evelyn is not just my boss; she's also my friend. She doesn't have a deceitful bone in her body, but something about the tone of her voice made me suspicious.
"Evelyn, you're not planning a surprise party at the quilt shop, are you?"
I told her, I told all my friends, that I don't want to celebrate this birthday. Why should I? There is nothing about being forty and still single that's worth celebrating.
"No. We're not planning a party at the shop. Take the afternoon. But you've got that meeting at church tonight, don't forget. Abigail called to see if you'd pick her up."
The meeting. I was so upset that it had completely slipped my mind.
I sighed. "Tell her I'll pick her up around six fifteen."
In the background, I could hear the jingle of the door bells as more customers entered the shop. I felt a twinge of guilt. I almost told her that I'd changed my mind and was coming in after all, but before I could, Evelyn said, "I've got to run. But feel better, okay? I know you're not happy about this birthday, but whether you know it or not, you've got a lot to celebrate. So, happy birthday, Margot. And many more to come."
I built a fire in the fireplace and stood watching the flames dance before settling myself on the sofa to work on my sister's Christmas quilt. Quilting, I have found, is great when you want to think something through—or not think at all. Today, I was looking to do the latter. For a while, it worked.
I sat there for a good half an hour, hand-stitching the quilt binding, watching television and telling myself that it could be worse, that my life could be as messed up as the people on the reality show reruns—trapped in a house, or on an island, or in a French château with a bunch of people who you didn't know that well but who, somehow, knew way too much about your personal weaknesses and weren't afraid to talk about them.
When I picked up the phone and my parents started to sing "Happy Birthday" into the line, I remembered that being part of a family is pretty much the same thing.
"I'm fine. Really. Everything is fine."
"Margot," Dad said in his rumbling bass, "don't use that tone with your mother."
I forced myself to smile, hoping this would make me sound more cheerful than I felt. "I wasn't using a tone, Daddy. I was answering Mom's question. I'm fine."
My mother sighed. "You've been so secretive lately, Margot."
Dad let out an impatient snort. "It's almost as bad as trying to talk to Mari."
At the mention of my sister's name, Mom, in a voice that was half-hopeful and half-afraid to hope, asked, "Is she still planning on coming for Christmas?"
"She's looking forward to it."
Looking forward to it was probably stretching the truth, but last time I talked to my sister she had asked for suggestions on what to get the folks for Christmas. That indicated a kind of anticipation on her part, didn't it?
"She'll probably come up with some last-minute excuse," Dad grumbled.
In the background, I could hear a jingle of metal. When Dad is agitated, he fiddles with the change in his pockets. I had a mental image of him pacing from one side of the kitchen to the other, the phone cord tethering him to the wall like a dog on a leash. Dad is a man of action; long phone conversations make him antsy.
"Wonder what it'll be this time? Her car broke down? Her boss won't let her off work? Her therapist says the tension might upset Olivia? As if spending a day with us would scar our granddaughter for life. Remember when she pulled that one, honey?"
A sniffle and a ragged intake of breath came from the Buffalo end of the line.
"Oh, come on now, Lil. Don't cry. Did you hear that? Margot, why do you bring these things up? You're upsetting your mother."
"I'm sorry." I was too. I hadn't brought it up, but I hate it when my mother cries.
"I just don't know why you're keeping things from us," Mom said.
"I'm not keeping anything from you. But at my age, I don't think I should be bothering you with all my little problems, that's all."
I heard a snuffly bleating noise, like a sheep with the croup, and pictured my mother on her big canopy bed with her shoes off, leaning back on two ruffled red paisley pillow shams, the way she does during long phone conversations, pulling a tissue out of the box with the white crocheted cover that sat on her nightstand, and dabbing her eyes.
"Since when have we ever considered you a bother? You're our little girl."
"And you always will be," Dad said. "Don't you ever forget that, Bunny."
Bunny is my father's pet name for me—short for Chubby Bunny. My pre-teen pudge disappeared twenty-five years ago when my body stretched like a piece of gum until I reached the man-repelling height of nearly six feet. I haven't been a Chubby Bunny for a quarter century, but Dad never seemed to notice.
"It's Arnie, isn't it? Is he seeing someone else?"
Mom didn't wait for me to answer her question, but she didn't have to. Somehow she already knew. How is that possible? Is that just part of being a mother?
"Don't you worry, Margot. Arnie Kinsella isn't the only fish in the sea."
"Maybe not. But all the ones I haul into my boat seem to be bottom feeders."
"Stop that. You can't give up," Dad said with his usual bull moose optimism and then paused, as if reconsidering. "You still look pretty good ... for your age."
"You know what I think?" he asked in a brighter tone before answering his own question. "I think maybe your husband's first wife hasn't died yet."
"Werner!" My mother gasped, but why? Was she really surprised?
"What?" Dad sounded genuinely perplexed. "At her age, a nice widower is probably her best shot at getting a husband. I'm just saying ..."
"Hey, guys, it's sweet of you to call, but I need to get ready to go."
"Are you going out with friends? Are they throwing you a party?" Mom asked hopefully and I knew she was wondering if my friends had thought to invite any bachelors to the celebration.
"I've got a meeting." Not for two hours, but they didn't need to know that.
"On your birthday?" Dad scoffed. "Margot, they don't pay you enough at that quilt shop to make you go to meetings after hours. I keep telling you to get a real job."
Yes, he does. Every chance he gets.
I used to have a "real job" according to Dad's definition. I worked in the marketing department of a big company in Manhattan, made a lot of money, had profit sharing, a 401(k), and health insurance, which I needed because I was forever going to the doctor with anemia, insomnia, heart palpitations—the full menu of stress-related ailments. After I moved to New Bern and started working in the quilt shop, all that went away. Insurance and a big paycheck aren't the only benefits that matter—I've tried to explain that to Dad. But there's no point in going over it again.
"It's a church meeting. I'm on the board now. Remember?"
"Oh. Well, that's different, then."
My parents are very active in their church. Mom has taught fourth grade Sunday school since 1979. When there's a snowstorm, Dad plows the church parking lot with the blade he keeps attached to the front of his truck and shovels the walkways. No one asks him to do it; he just does. That's the way my folks are. They're good people.
Excerpted from Ties That Bind by MARIE BOSTWICK Copyright © 2012 by Marie Bostwick. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.