Carol Denman divorced her husband over twenty years ago and has never looked back. But on the day before their daughter’s thirtieth birthday, John barges back into Carol’s life with a request that threatens the fragile stability she has built.
John Bowman is sick. Very sick. While he still can, he has some amends to make and some promises to fulfill. But to do that, he not only needs his ex-wife’s agreement…he needs her.
With the past hovering between them like a ghost, Carol and John embark on a decades-overdue road trip. Together they plunge back into a life without water…but which may ultimately set them free.
|Publisher:||Pink Sand Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.73(d)|
About the Author
Marci lives in the Midwest with her husband, two teenaged kiddos, and numerous rescue pets. If she had an ounce of will power, Marci would embrace healthy living but until cupcakes and wine are no longer available at the local grocery store, she'll put that ambition on hold and appease her guilt by reading self-help books and promising to join a gym "soon."
Read an Excerpt
CAROL DENMAN BLINKED. The long and slow kind that gave the brain a moment to process unexpected information. When she lifted her lids, her assistant still stood on the other side of her desk. Tiana's near-black eyes filled with a million questions. The rich umber skin above her nose crinkled as she drew her brows together.
The words she'd spoken lingered in the air between them.
There was a man standing outside Carol's office asking to see her. Not just any man. Her ex-husband.
"You were married before Tobias?"
Tiana's voice was low enough that no one outside the office could possibly hear, but to Carol's ears, the words sounded as if they had been announced through a bullhorn. The question spun her tightly held emotions out of control. The skin above her brow prickled with the first signs of nervous sweat. Clenching her fists, digging white acrylic tips into her palm, she took a breath to calm herself before the telltale sign of anxiety — bright red creeping up her pale neck until it settled over her face — could start.
She blinked again. This time the rapid, mind-clearing kind. She dislodged the knot in her throat before finding her voice. "Yes. A long time ago." A lifetime ago. "Did he say what he wants?"
"No." Confusion faded to what appeared to be concern. "He looks nervous. Should I tell him to leave or ... I can call security." Security was a seventy-three-year-old overweight retired police officer who was far more invested in completing the Houston Chronicle's crossword puzzle than he ever was in doing his job. Carol suspected even if she did need help, old Charlie Turner would call 911 and offer crowd control long before he'd intervene with some kind of physical altercation in her office. Not that she was worried about what her ex would do to her.
Just the opposite.
She was more concerned she'd grab the sterling silver scissors from her desk drawer and shove them repeatedly into his chest.
Outside her window, early summer sunlight reflected in a blinding starburst off the man-made pond where geese liked to gather as they migrated. This time of year the water was smooth. Still. Deceptively calm. As she stared at the water, memories of her life with John flashed through her mind like an old 8-mm film on a loop.
Laughter, singing, playing.
Screaming. Crying. Begging.
Tiana's quiet voice cut into Carol's thoughts. "Should I tell him to leave?"
"Um ... No." God, I'm going to regret this. "It's fine. Show him in."
"Are you —"
She cut Tiana off with a resolute nod. "Show him in."
Tiana hesitated before disappearing through the glass-paneled door. Though the three panes had been frosted to afford Carol some privacy, movement was evident on the other side. She felt her stomach knot, knowing Tiana was speaking to John, inviting him in to see the woman who'd disappeared from his life so long ago. Carol inhaled as much oxygen as her lungs would hold, then exhaled through parted lips in an attempt to regain her emotional footing.
Pushed the emotions down.
A set of knocks — a rhythm she recognized from decades ago — fell on her door. Knock-knock. Knock. He'd used that same beat to draw her attention to him from their first date, when he'd shown up with a handful of wildflowers he'd denied picking from the side of the road, until the night she snuck out of his life while he was sleeping.
Her entire body tensed at the sound. So familiar. So ... haunting.
Then there he was. Her past in the flesh. Standing before her, looking as uneasy as she felt. She'd spent years rebuilding herself after leaving him and even more years quieting the discontent he'd sown deep into her soul. As she met his gaze, that old feeling washed through her like a tsunami. Her impeccably composed life fell apart and, as always, she had little control over whatever storm John was about to bring crashing down on her.
How many times had he told her she needed to calm down and relax? Live in the moment; worry about the rest later. She'd never mastered those particular attributes that had always come naturally to him. However, even with his laid-back attitude toward life, crow's feet had cut deep lines around his eyes and pronounced parentheses curved around his mouth, making him look much older than his — how old was he now? — fifty-six years. Gray peppered his brown hair, especially around his temples. His shoulders stooped slightly, as if he carried the weight of the world. Or years of guilt.
She stared, unmoving in her chair. Her heavy heart held her down like an anchor in a wild sea of rage.
What did he expect her to do?
Smile? She couldn't.
Hug him? She wouldn't.
After staring in deafening silence for several long seconds, John gave her a lopsided grin that was as familiar as his knock. She used to find the half-hearted smile charming. She used to find a lot of things about this man charming.
By the time she left him, she couldn't even find something she liked.
"Hey, you." His voice, as it always had, settled over her like a warm blanket. Only now that blanket seemed to be made of fiberglass. His deep baritone felt like a thousand invisible splinters embedding into her skin. "It's been a while, huh?"
"Twenty-four years." Her voice came out hoarse. Cracked. Broken. She gestured to a chair on the other side of her desk.
His feet seemed to be as glued to the floor as her body was to her chair.
"Or stand. Whatever suits you." Gathering the papers she'd been studying before his arrival gave her a legitimate reason not to look at him longer than she already had. The pages didn't need to be stacked in perfect alignment, but she tapped them on her desk — one side, then the other, and back again — until they were. She didn't realize he'd sunk into the chair until he slid a Snickers candy bar across her desk.
There it was. The peace offering. The lame gift that always paled in comparison to the offense for which he was trying to make amends.
He gave her that smile again. "That used to be your favorite." It'd been years since she'd eaten a Snickers. She'd changed her bad eating habits long ago. The candy was far too sweet for her now. Even so, she set the bar aside with the papers. "Thank you." Her gratitude sounded as empty as it felt.
"You go by Carol now," he pointed out. "You, uh ... You always hated being called that. You said it sounded too old."
"Well, I'm older."
His tilted smile returned. "Aren't we all?"
"No," she said coolly. "Not all of us."
His face sagged for a few seconds, and then he continued as if she hadn't intentionally gut-punched him. "You got remarried."
"Did you have kids?"
Tapping into the Ice Queen faÃ§ade he'd often accused her of, she froze her heart from the inside out, which had always been her go-to defense where John was concerned. "No."
He glanced around her office — the commercialized space with cherry-colored bookshelves that held medical dictionaries and binders of federal guidelines, a desk polished every night by the custodial team none of the executives ever saw, and framed degrees that were supposed to relay her competence for sitting in the sterile environment. "Look at this place. You've done good for yourself, kiddo."
"I'm not a kid, John. I am a grown woman who's made a life for herself despite the damage you caused."
He pressed his lips together as if to stop himself from rebutting.
Oh, how easily she fell into another of her old defense tactics, rebuffing any attempt he made at civility in case he was drawing her in for the kill. "Sorry, that just came out."
"No, it's okay. I blindsided you by showing up. Seeing me can't be easy for you."
Carol looked out to the water. "It's June. June is difficult." "Her birthday is tomorrow."
She cut her gaze to him. "I know."
Staring at his hands, he toyed with a gold band on his left ring finger. Carol hadn't cared enough to ask if he'd remarried, but clearly he had. If his sudden appearance hadn't shaken her so deeply, she might have inquired about his new life. Asked what kind of poor broken soul he'd found after she'd finally gained the courage to leave him. Asked if he manipulated his new wife as much as he used to manipulate her.
John stopped playing with his wedding ring and heaved out a big breath. "I want to see her."
Carol didn't respond. Didn't move. She should have known why he was there the moment Tiana announced his unexpected visit.
Lifting his gaze to hers, he seemed to beg with his eyes. His expression triggered memories of the many times in the past she'd seen that exact same silent plea on his sad face. She'd become immune to his puppy-eyed looks long before leaving him.
"Please. I'm her father."
Her lips trembled until she pressed them together. When she spoke, the tremble moved to her voice, making her words quiver. "I know who you are."
"Please, Caroline ... Carol. I want to see her for her birthday.
Then I promise I'll leave."
She focused out the window, back at the water, pushing away the memories that always seemed to be trying to drag her backward. Part of her wanted to tell him to burn in hell, but he was right. He was Katie's father. He had a right to see her on her birthday. His request wasn't unreasonable, but damned if she didn't want to tell him to go back under whatever rock he'd slithered from.
After a moment, she pushed a button on her desk phone. "Tiana, I need to leave. Reschedule anything I have this afternoon, please." John didn't say another word as she gathered her things, simply following her out of her office. Once in the elevator, he leaned against the faux-wood-paneled wall, skimming her over, top to bottom, with the kind of candor that used to amuse her. She wasn't amused now. She knew exactly what he was thinking. He was judging her appearance and all the other changes she'd made since walking away from him.
Her once long sandy-brown hair was layered at shoulder length with golden highlights to hide the encroaching grays. Pediatric scrubs had been replaced by tailored suits and too-high-to-be-practical heels. Instead of an oversized purse stuffed with tissues and snacks, she carried a Tumi briefcase filled with documents and a laptop that rarely left her sight. She no longer accepted a few extra pounds because she was too busy to do anything about them. She worked out for at least an hour every morning to keep her figure lean.
She wasn't Caroline Bowman any longer.
She was Carol Denman.
And Carol Denman wasn't too worn down to return his blatant stares. Carol Denman wasn't too fed up with his lies, denials, and manipulations to handle whatever he planned to toss her way. She'd had a long time to recover from his antics and was more than prepared to hold her own.
Returning his deliberate gawking, her earlier assessment stood. He looked like hell. The wrinkles in his suit spoke to the cheap material and the fake leather on his shoes had worn long before the soles. The dark stain on his collar, probably coffee, was faded enough for her to know it'd been washed and set in. While she'd taken a huge step forward in her life without him holding her back, he seemed to be stuck in the same rut where she'd left him.
She embraced the sense of superiority he'd always accused her of harboring. His penetrating stares used to intimidate her. Oh, how she'd hated feeling judged — by anyone, but most especially by John. Her former self bent over backward to please him, even when that meant undermining her own self-worth. Now she was impervious to his judgment of her. Now she had the confidence to see he had been right. She was better than him. "Go ahead," she said impassively. "Let's have it."
"Whatever smart-ass comment you're cooking up."
He shrugged as if he had no idea what she was insinuating. "I was thinking that you look nice."
She didn't believe him. John always had a thinly veiled jab ready to casually kick her feet out from under her. Raising a brow, she let him know she didn't buy his innocence.
"That outfit must have cost a few pennies."
Ah, there it is. She smirked, making it clear his dig had missed the mark. "Yeah. A few. Still a cop?"
"Life goal achieved. Congratulations. Where?"
"Never left, then."
The twitch that played on his lips and the twinkle in his eye gave away the underlying intent of his words before he even said them — he was about to go for the kill. She braced herself for the next round.
"I never felt the need to run away."
Tilting her head, she smiled like an angel. "You never felt much of anything, thanks to Anheuser-Busch."
Instead of responding, he looked up at the floor indicator. She knew how his cop brain worked. How he was processing her reaction bit by bit, tucking away the information to pick apart later. His comment about her outfit had rolled off. His jab about her leaving had been rebuffed. The old approach at knocking her off balance was failing. He was analyzing the situation, putting every nuance of her voice into the right box to better prepare for his next assault.
As the elevator bumped to a stop, Carol pushed herself upright and walked out before John. The click of her shoes echoing through the tiled lobby as she led him from the building was the only sound between them. His silence, she suspected, was due to him trying to figure out what had happened to the woman he'd married.
Outside, the humid summer air enveloped her, pressed down on her, and made her feel as if she were ... drowning. Or maybe that was the presence of her ex-husband sucking the air from her personal space.
She didn't look at him as he stepped beside her and kept her pace as she strode down the sidewalk toward the parking lot. "You can follow me."
"I took a cab."
Of course he'd taken a cab. Driving himself would have made things too easy. She pressed a button on her keyring and a silver Lexus SUV chirped to life. She set her bag in the back and climbed in behind the steering wheel. "Don't," she warned when he reached for the air conditioner controls the moment she turned the ignition. "The air will take a few minutes to cool down. Be patient."
He lifted his hands in surrender. "I'm not used to this heat. This humidity is smothering." As she eased out of her reserved parking spot, he sank back against the tan leather seat. "Nice car."
She let his comment fall unanswered, unsure if the compliment was sincere. The old John, the one she used to know, assumed anyone who drove expensive cars and wore fancy suits had to be some kind of a swindler. The only honest people, as far as he was concerned, were cops and nurses — an amendment he made only after she had earned her nursing degree.
He redirected the conversation when she didn't engage. "Last I heard you were in St. Louis. How did you end up in Houston?"
"Last you heard? I didn't keep in touch with anyone after I left. How did you hear anything about me?"
"Well, you did send me divorce papers. From St. Louis."
A memory of sitting in a rundown law office while decisively signing her name on those papers flashed through her mind. "So I did. My husband's job brought us here about fifteen years ago."
"What does he do?"
"He worked in environmental sciences for a gas company."
She tightened her hands around the leather-encased steering wheel as her answer echoed around her mind. "And now he's dead."
Her words stung her more than she suspected they surprised John. Though Tobias had been gone eight months, there were still times she poured two cups of coffee before her heart clenched in pain as she remembered he wouldn't be joining her for breakfast. She still reached for him in the morning, lifting her head to listen for sounds that gave away his whereabouts when she found his side of the bed empty. She still picked up her phone and started to text him whenever she might be late getting home. Every time, she felt the harsh slap of reality across her soul. He wasn't having breakfast. He wasn't in the house. He wouldn't receive that text. The man she had needed more than the air she breathed was gone.
"I'm sorry." John sounded sincere.
The car started to cool, but the tension made the atmosphere as unbearable as the afternoon heat had. The proximity to the Gulf of Mexico could make summer afternoons in Houston feel unforgiving. John wiped his hand across his forehead before dragging his palm down his thigh.
Though she had grown used to the temperature and humidity, she remembered how stifling it had felt when she and Tobias had first relocated. Suppressing the urge to let her ex swelter unnecessarily, she turned the temperature down a few degrees.
She didn't owe John an explanation, but the words tumbled out of her as the air filtering from the vent cooled. "He was hit by a truck while on his morning run. It was foggy. The guy didn't see him in time."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Life Without Water"
Copyright © 2019 Marci Bolden.
Excerpted by permission of Pink Sand Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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