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A patch of late-afternoon sunlight filtered into the room, giving it a slumberous feeling. Caroline settled into the deep leather chair, careful not to rest her head against the back and mess up the elaborate curls her hairdresser had deemed appropriate for the mother of the bride. The soft gray satin of her dress barely made a sound as she smoothed the material over her knees.
In less than two hours, her daughter would be married. By the time the sun went down, Caroline would be on her own with her husband.
Caroline's head throbbed, a dull ache behind her left eye. Gingerly, she rested her cheek against the cool leather and willed the pain to go away. She could do it; she'd done it before. She just had to concentrate on the center of the pain, visualize the ache flowing out of her body, dissolving in the air
"Caroline? Are you in here?"
Patty's voice floated into the room. Caroline was tempted to ignore her, to wait silently in her chair until she was alone again.
But maybe it would help to talk to someone. And Patty had been there almost from the beginning.
"I'm over here."
Patty's heels tapped across the polished floor. Her dress was a soft green, the perfect foil for her auburn hair. Her hair's color had deepened over the years until it now had the patina of fine mahogany. Today she wore it in a smooth chignon at the nape of her neck.
I wore my hair like that when I was married, Caroline thought. I walked down the aisle in the same dress that Reecie's wearing right now, with my hair twisted into a soft bun so it wouldn't tangle in the cape.
The thought caused a pain to lodge in her stomach and she pressed her fist against the waistband of herskirt.
"Why are you sitting in the dark?" Patty rested a hand on Caroline's shoulder. "Are you doing okay?"
Caroline knew the question referred to her daughter's impending departure. She'd been asked variations of the question over and over during the weeks of wedding preparations.
Each time, she'd been able to blithely reply, "I'm fine." Having your youngest child and only daughter get married usually caused some turmoil in a person's life, but no one really expected you to say that.
Patty could stand the truth. Caroline tipped her head back and gave her friend a rueful grin. "Remember when we made those speeches at the beginning of each school year? How sending your five-year-old to kindergarten was the natural order of things, that as parents we were expected to watch our children grow up and grow away from us?"
Patty nodded. She and Richard had never succeeded in having children but she'd been as close as a parent to many of the students who had gone through her classroom.
"It's all crap." Caroline closed her eyes and sighed, feeling the air expand her lungs and then leave her body in a long release of misery.
Caroline opened her eyes. "No, really, Patty. I don't want Reecie to go out into the big bad world, even if she does have a wonderful man at her side. I want her to be little again, sleeping in her crib where I can tuck her in each night."
"You didn't get this maudlin when Adam got married."
No, she'd been thrilled and excited at his wedding, dancing and smiling until her husband, Nick, finally had to drag her home so the caterers could finish clearing up and the DJ could leave.
But then, the rest of her life hadn't been about to change with her son's marriage.
A lump formed in her throat, making it difficult to swallow. Patty knelt down, the skirt of her gown swishing against the chair. "What's going on, Caroline? You haven't been yourself for days. It's more than Reecie getting married, isn't it?"
Caroline hesitated. She wanted to tell someone. But Nick deserved to hear it from her first.
A tic started behind her eye, the next stage of her headaches. She'd been getting them more and more frequently, partly, she knew, because she wasn't getting enough sleep. "I'm tired."
And she was. All the people in and out of the house, last-minute decisions. The trips and phone calls to clear up a misunderstanding about some aspect of the wedding.
"Reecie was in tears most of this past week," she said. "The florist called and had lost part of her order, could she remember how many flowers she wanted for the front tables? One of her bridesmaids left her dyed-to-match shoes at home." She shook her head. "Being the mother of the bride is very different from being the mother of the groom."
Patty rose to her feet. The sun coming through the paned window dappled her skirt with rays of pink and gold. "That's it? Just letting Reecie go?"
Caroline could hear the disbelief in her voice. Again, she was tempted to tell her everything. But she couldn't say a word to anyone until she talked to her husband. She owed him that much at least.
She pushed herself out of the chair and crossed the room with short, jerky steps, hindered in her urge to hurry by the long skirt of her gown. She linked arms with Patty. "It's harder to let them go than I thought it would be. I told Adam he couldn't go off to college until I put all his school pictures in that bus frame we bought from some school fund-raiser. He didn't think that was funny, especially since his junior- and senior-year pictures weren't in it. I just wish I had some way to hold Reecie back."
"You don't mean that."
No, she didn't. She wanted her children to be happy, to find someone they could love all of their lives.
That hadn't been her first goal. She was going to graduate from college, get her master's degree and change the world. A man hadn't been necessary for those dreams to come true. Then Nick had come into her life and she'd taken a detour.
And now she was going to ask him for a divorce.
The irony of the timing didn't escape her. How many times had she heard of couples who divorced after the last child left? She had thought they were overreacting about the empty-nest syndrome, but now she understood. Once the buffer of the kids was gone, it was so much easier to see what was missing in the relationship.
The sun dipped lower in the sky, only a few rays making their way onto the carpet. A bird flew by, its cheery song too loud in the quiet room. Soon she would have to paste on her party smile and join the crowd eager to see her daughter wed. And she did want Reecie to be happy.
Patty clasped Caroline in a light hug, her perfume wafting around the two of them, reminding Caroline of visits when they had sat on the guest bed in their respective homes, laughing and talking and catching up on everything since the last time they'd seen each other. "You're going to make it," Patty said. "You always do. You're one of the strongest women I know. You and Nick have years ahead of you."
Caroline stumbled and a tear slid down her cheek. She brushed it away before it landed on her dress and spotted the material. "I can't stop crying," she said, running her hand under her eyes to catch another tear.
"I keep thinking about what life's going to be like without the kids around" She hiccuped and pressed her fingers to her lips. She couldn't finish the thought, even to her best friend.
Without the kids around and with nothing left between Nick and me.
A knock sounded on the door, startling her. "Mom?"
Her son's voice recalled her to her duties. She swallowed, hoping her voice sounded normal to him. "I'll be right there, Adam." She backed away from Patty's comforting embrace and steeled herself for the next few hours and what she had to do once she and Nick were alone.
Even though, deep down, she wanted to believe that maybe, just maybe, Patty was right.
Thirty years earlier
Nick swung the car off the highway at the Mustang, Kansas, exit. He slowed down at the stop sign at the top of the ramp and glanced over at her. They were sitting hip to hip and his face was only inches away from her. But instead of grabbing a quick kiss, as he usually did when they stopped, he studied her carefully. "You're not going to let your mother talk you into a big wedding, are you, Caro?"
"No." She scooted away a few inches so she could see him easier. "We talked about this. We're having a simple wedding with our families and a few friends. I haven't changed my mind about that, Nick."
His dark brown eyes were almost black in his intensity. "Your mom may try to change it," he said, his voice low and deep. "She may want to give her only daughter a big wedding. But we don't need a big wedding, right?"
She nodded. His family had money, she knew, much more than her family. Nick didn't want their wedding to be a burden on her parents and she loved him even more for that consideration.
She didn't care how they were married. She would have gone to the courthouse with him if she hadn't known it would hurt her mother. She wanted to start their life together and each day that they waited increased her desire to be alone with him.
He leaned forward and nipped at her lips. His musky cologne and the hint of the outdoors that always clung to him made her inhale deeply. He ran every day, rain, shine or snow. They had met when he almost knocked her down. He had been racing a fellow runner back to the gym and cut across campus. She had been walking to a history class and the next moment, she was stumbling to keep her balance. He had kept her off balance ever since.
His breath warmed her skin and she shivered, wishing they were anywhere but on the road to her parents' house. The college afforded them little enough privacy, the dorm rules stating that members of the opposite sex could only visit during certain hours of the day. Once in her house, her father would keep close tabs on their whereabouts.
So far, Nick had honored her request to wait until they were married before they went all the way. His patience was growing thin, though, and she couldn't blame him. If she hadn't been nervous that one of their roommates would return for a forgotten book or assignment, she would be tempted to go beyond their bouts of heavy petting.
A horn honked behind them. Nick pressed his foot to the gas and rolled through the intersection. Caroline slid across the seat until she could rest her head on his shoulder. "I love you."
He picked up her hand and pressed a light kiss to her palm, then linked their fingers together. "I love you. What do you say we skip your parents' house and drive to a motel for the weekend?"
Her stomach tightened at the thought of Nick and her in a motel room. "Iwe" She licked suddenly dry lips.
He chuckled. "I'm teasing, Caro. You already told your parents we're coming." Keeping his eyes on the road, he rubbed his chin against their joined hands. "Soon, though, I'm going to get you alone and naked. This waiting is killing me!"
She didn't answer, knowing her desire matched his. Sometimes she wondered why she was so adamant about keeping her virginity until her wedding night. She knew her parents expected it, even though nothing had ever been said out loud to her. But she and Nick loved each other, she wore his engagement ring, they had a wedding date picked out.
And yet a tiny part of her worried about what would happen if they made love and then didn't get married. Free love might be the norm for thousands of others in the country, but she had never been able to get that close to someone she barely knew. Making friends every time her family had moved had been difficult enough. The thought of letting someone into her pants had been excruciating, at least until she'd met Nick.
Nick was the right man, she knew it. And, soon, very soon, they would be married and she could satisfy the urges that were getting stronger and stronger every time they were together.
"We're not having a big wedding," Caroline said. Her father had taken Nick to the golf course and she had agreed to run errands with her mother. "Nick and I don't believe we need a lot of people around to prove our love for each other. Our family and a few close friends. That's all."
"I understand, dear. Your father and I are just thankful you aren't shacking up, like so many of these so-called modern couples, without benefit of any legalities."
"Mom!" Caroline sputtered. Had Evelyn Armstrong just said "shacking up"?
Her mother patted her hand. "Sweetheart, your father and I were young once, too."
Caroline sat silent in her seat. Where was the woman who had nervously told her about the birds and the bees, blushing furiously the entire time. Caroline's engagement had suddenly elevated her from the baby of the family into the secret society of women.
Nick's family had reacted differently to their announcement two weeks earlier. His parents had made it clear when he went off to college that they would not pay his tuition if he was living with a woman. He had thought that by getting engaged the situation would be more palatable.