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Gemma White loved to make love in the morning. When the sheets were warm from lazy limbs, when muscles were rested and revived, when the day was yet a possibility. Morning lovemaking was an act reserved for the lucky fewnew lovers who ignored the impulse to sneak out in the middle of the night, live-in lovers who still enjoyed waking up together, and married lovers wise enough to take advantage of a time when both partners' bodies were primed for passion.
Gemma smiled and rolled over, sliding a loving hand toward Jason's side of the bed. But when her fingers encountered cold emptiness, her eyes flew open and reality descended with a crash.
Jason was gone.
The desire that had pooled in her belly ebbed as sadness, temporarily banished by the cleansing arm of sleep, swamped her chest. The humiliation and shock of his departure hadn't lessoned over the past few weeks and, if anything, had become more embedded in her heart, like sets of bicycle tracks through fresh mud that had dried into an ugly, permanent cast.
Would mornings ever feel right again?
The wail of the phone pierced the air. She closed her eyes, cursing the person on the other end for intruding on her moment of misery. After four teeth-rattling rings, the phone fell silent then started up again. Resigned, she swung her legs over the edge of the bed and reached for the handset.
"Hello?" she murmured into the mouthpiece.
"Are you up?" her best friend Sue demanded.
"Literally out of bed and walking around?"
Gemma pushed to her feet. "Absolutely."
"What's on the agenda today?"
"Um " Gemma turned on a light and glanced around the cluttered bedroom. Dirty clothes occupied everysurface. The floor was littered with at least two boxes of tissues crumpled into balls. "I thought I might clean."
"Good. You want everything to look great in case you have company."
"Are you coming to Tampa?" Gemma asked, panicked. She wasn't ready to deal with the full frontal assault of Sue's personality. Her friend would roll into town from Tallahassee like a tank, armed with endless pep talks. But Gemma was too raw, too exposed, to deal with her failed marriage so matter-of-factly, over cups of frothy coffee and shoe shopping. She needed time to reorient herself.
"I can't get away from work right now," Sue said. "I meant in case Jason stops by."
Gemma tightened her grip on the phone. "Have you seen him? Is he coming here?"
"No, I haven't seen him. But in case he does drop by, you and the house need to look your best."
As if the divorce hadn't fazed Gemma. It was, after all, antifeminist to behave as if her husband's desertion had devastated her. Where was her pride?
"Have you told your parents yet?"
"What are you waiting for?"
"The divorce isn't final yet."
"Gemma, you're stalling."
"It will break their heartsJason is like a son to them."
"Considering Jason's position in the governor's office, it's bound to hit the local papers soon. Is that how you want them to find out?"
"No." But neither did she want her mother pecking her to death with worry. "I'll tell them soon."
"Did you find a job?"
Another dilemma. Unemployment was not so unusual for the wife of the state attorney general, but not so realistic for a divorcée with no alimony. "Not yet," Gemma admitted.
A noise outside drew her to the picture window overlooking the side yard. She nudged aside the filmy white curtain and looked down into the overgrown lawn of the empty house next door. A tall man with shiny dark hair was using a mallet to dislodge a faded For Sale sign that had been posted on the lawn for all of the two years that she and Jason had lived here.
"Have you even looked for a job?" Sue prodded.
"I will today."
"Okay." Sue's disbelieving response vibrated over the line. "Gemma, you have to pull yourself together."
"I know, and I will. I just need some time to absorb my new reality." She pushed hair out of her eyes. From his tool belt, she gathered the stranger was a workman, hired, no doubt, by the new owner to fix up the place. She felt a spurt of relief for the sagging Spanish house whose exotic lines she'd always admired. But when the man lifted his dark gaze to her second-floor window, she dropped the curtain and stepped back, her face stinging.
The man had probably thought her house was empty. How many rubber-banded newspapers were piled on the front porch? Had weeds overtaken the brilliant birds-of-paradise and ginger flowers in the planting beds? Tending to the exotic plants that thrived in the lush Florida humidity had always been her favorite pastime. But since the final court appearance last week, she'd found it unnecessary to move beyond the front door.
"I'm sure any of the nonprofit agencies that you've helped to raise money for would be happy to hire you in some capacity."
"Probably. But I don't want to take advantage of my relationship with Jason."
"There's nothing wrong with using his name to get the job. You'll prove yourself once you get there."
Gemma understood the practicality of her friend's advice, but something inside her revolted at the idea of using Jason's connections. "I don't want to be in a position where I'd have to feel grateful to Jason, or be around people who might expect me to ask him for favors."
"I have some business contacts in Tampa. I could make some calls," Sue offered cheerfully.
RightSue's business associates would be clamoring to hire a thirty-two-year-old with an unused degree in art history. She'd save herself and her lobbyist friend the embarrassment of asking. "Thanks anyway. I'll find something on my own."
"Okay," Sue said warily. "Have a good day. I'll call you later."
Gemma returned the receiver with a sigh. She had no right to be irritated with her friend. Sue was only trying to help in a situation that had rocked both of them to the core. Sue felt betrayed by Jason, too. She had introduced Gemma and Jason when the girls were seniors at Covington Women's College in Jacksonville and Jason was in law school at the University of Florida in nearby Gainesville. Sue had preened as her two friends had dated, fallen in love, graduated, married and evolved into an influential political couple.
I introduced them, she'd gushed to onlookers as camera bulbs flashed at their lavish wedding and over the years at every political appointment and election leading up to Jason being sworn in as state attorney general. When Gemma had called her, blubbering about a divorce, Sue hadn't believed her at first. Like Gemma, she couldn't conceive of Jason turning his back on their ten-year marriage with no warning and no remorse, as if it were simply one of the hundreds of decisions he had to make daily.
If there were fifty ways to leave your lover, he had surely chosen one of the most cruel. He'd asked Gemma to pack a suitcase for him for a last-minute trip and bring it by his office. Then after ensuring she had packed his favorite ties and shoes, he'd turned to her and said, "This isn't working for me anymore. I want a divorce."
Gemma remembered laughing at the comment. Jason had always exhibited a quirky sense of humor. But he'd leveled his pale blue eyes on her with an expression that she'd since realized was pity. "I'm moving to Tallahassee alone, Gemma. It's over."
It's over. As if he was referring to a television show or a song that had run its course.
A banging sound next door jarred her from her circular thoughts. Gemma wiped at the perspiration on her neck, realizing suddenly that she was sticky all over, that the air in the room was stifling. A check of the thermostat revealed that yet something else had gone wrong when she wasn't looking. She'd have to call a repair service.
She went from room to room on the top floor to open windows, releasing heat that had risen in the house. The bedroom that Jason had turned into his office looked as if it had been violated, stripped of furniture and decorated with cobwebs in strange places. From the walls sprang naked cables that had once provided power to fuel his busy life.
It was exactly the way she felt. Unplugged and unwanted.
When she returned to her bedroom to slide open the side window, she chanced a glance at the house next door, startled when the peeling shutters on the round window twenty feet across from hers were thrown open and the dark-haired man she'd seen earlier appeared. She distantly registered the fact that she was wearing only a thin tank top and no bra, but she was rooted to the hardwood floor when his gaze landed on her. He inclined his head in a polite nod.
Gemma managed a shaky smile, but he was already gone, like the breeze.
Feeling sideswiped, her smile dissolved into an embarrassed little frown. A glance up at the sky had her shielding her eyes in mild surprise. In contradiction to the gloom hovering over her inside, it was a beautiful early spring day outside. The sun was everywhere.
She'd thought she'd be living in Tallahassee by now, settling into anew home close to Jason's new office, socializing in the governor's circle and generally being the helpmate that she'd learned to be looking good, speaking well.
The thought slid into her mind unbidden, and instantly she resisted it. She had been an integral part of Jason's life, had helped him achieve his dreamstheir dreams. She had been relevant. Perhaps Jason had fallen out of love with her, but he hadn't ignored her.
Otherwise, how could she have been happy?
Frowning, Gemma turned away from the window and padded downstairs in search of something cool to drink. The kitchen was dark and hummed with electric white noise as the refrigerator labored to stay cool. The pungent smell of overripe fruit hung in the air. From a wire basket, Gemma picked a pear to munch on, then rummaged in the fridge, past Jason's Red Bulls, for a bottle of tea.
While she drank and waited for the caffeine to kick in, Gemma mentally sifted through the things that had unraveled, things she needed to tend to. Sue was right about one thingshe had to find a job. She was more fortunate than most divorcées in the sense that in lieu of alimony Jason had paid off the house and her car, and left her with a small savings account. But she didn't want to squander what money she had, and the house and car wouldn't run on their own.
Besides, a job would help her to rebuild. Reclaim. Renew. Her future could be waiting for her in the Help Wanted ads.
She pulled on shorts and a T-shirt, and swept her hair back into a ponytail. Then she unlocked the front door and walked barefoot out onto the covered porch. The light gray painted wood planks were gritty beneath the soles of her feet, the two chairs sitting next to a small table full of leaves and yard debris. Scooping up the rolled newspapers, she turned and tossed them inside. Then she surveyed the weedy, neglected yard that would have to wait until she addressed other items on her mounting to-do list.
How quickly things could go from neat and orderly to utterly out of control.
She walked to the mailbox and, at the curb, turned to take in the house next door. The faded yellow, two-story stucco structure with the red tiled roof and wrought-iron details was one of the last houses in the older, eclectic neighborhood to be rescued. She thought she remembered hearing that the house had been tied up in court, something to do with probate. If properly restored, it would be glorious, she decided, much more interesting than the sturdy but standard home that she and Jason had settled into.
The dark-haired handyman was nowhere to be seen, but his presence was evident. The For Sale sign was gone and two ladders leaned against the front of the house. A pressure washer and other equipment sat near the front door. She smiled, relieved that the house would finally receive the attention it deserved.
Her mailbox, labeled "Jason and Gemma White, 131 Petal Lagoon"another artifact of the marriage to correct was stuffed full of high-tech catalogues and news magazines that Jason liked to read. It was taking a while for his forwarding address to trickle down. She loaded her arm with the mail and flipped through it idly as she made her way back to the porch steps. Her hand stopped on a large brown envelope with the county's return address. Walking inside, she closed the door behind her and dropped the rest of the mail on the kitchen table. With a sense of foreboding, she slid nervous fingers under the flap and pulled out a sheath of papers.
Final Judgment and Decree. Gemma swallowed hard and scanned the four short paragraphs that officially terminated her marriage.
" it is decreed by the Court that the marriage contract heretofore entered into between the parties to this case, from and after this date, be and is set aside and dissolved as fully and effectually as if no such contract had ever been made or entered into "
As if the marriage had never existed.
Her eyes watered, blurring the words. This was it then. Proof that the last ten years of her life hadn't mattered. She'd assumed that she and Jason were years away from the menace of a midlife crisis, yet in less time than it had taken to plan her wedding, her marriage had disintegrated.
What now? she wondered, leaning into the granite counter, uncaring that the hard edge bit into her pelvic bone. TV therapists and girlfriend shows referred to breakups as a clean slate, a new chapter, a chance for a woman to find her authentic self.
But what if her authentic self was being Jason White's wife?
It was a notion that she didn't dare say aloud for fear that Oprah herself would appear on her doorstep. She knew that being absorbed into a man's life was considered passé, but she couldn't remember the person she'd been before Jason. She didn't have a point of reference, a place of origin. She recalled only a vague sense of floating aimlessly before she'd moored herself to him.
He had been her first and only lover. He was all that she knew.
The sound of the doorbell pealed through the air, jangling her nerves. She frowned, wondering who could be visiting. Then, remembering what Sue had said about having company, her pulse picked up at the thought that it could be Jason. Had Sue been trying to forewarn her? Perhaps he'd received his copy of the final papers, too, and he'd reconsidered
Gemma wiped at the wetness on her cheeks as she hurried through the foyer and was smiling when she opened the door.
But at the sight of the man standing on the threshold, her smile faltered.