"You trying to kill yourself, or are you just stupid?"
Marcie Malone didn't think she was either, but when she drives from Georgia to the southwestern shore of Florida without a plan and wakes up in a stranger's home, she doesn't seem to know anymore. Despondent and heartbroken over an unexpected loss and the man she thought she could count on, Marcie leaves him behind, along with her job and her whole life, and finds she has nowhere to go.
Herman Flint has seen just about everything in his seventy years living in a fading, blue-collar Florida town, but the body collapsed on the beach outside his window is something new. The woman is clearly in some kind of trouble and Flint wants no part of it—he's learned to live on his own just fine, without the hassle of worrying about others. But against his better judgment he takes Marcie in and lets her stay until she's on her feet on the condition she keeps out of his way.
As the unlikely pair slowly copes with the damage life has wrought, Marcie and Flint have to decide whether to face up to the past they’ve each been running from, and find a way to move forward with the people they care about most.
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It's his hands that let her know everything is going to be okay after all.
Sitting close beside her on the stands, bare but for the two of them with practice having ended almost two hours ago, his empty glove forgotten at his feet, he cradles her hand in his, one wrapped firmly around her fingers as if anchoring her to the hard metal surface currently freezing her butt, the other cupped over it like a baby bird he shelters from the cold bite of the March air.
But it isn't their clasped hands resting on the thigh of his acid-wash jeans, above the rip in the knee that's from wear, not fashion, that solidifies their future for her. Not the sight and warmth and comfort of his wide fingers around hers, his nails short and blunt and chewed at the edges, hers ragged with peeling pink polish the same color as the two lines that have just brought their childhood to a screeching halt.
It's the way he didn't care when her pee got all over his fingers as he took the little stick from her. But also the way he rubbed his hand hard against his jeans before he let himself touch her again. Those two things tell her all she needs to know: that no one has ever loved her like Will does-no one has ever loved anyone the way Will Malone loves her-and that she will do anything to hold on to this boy.
So even though they've never talked about anything further in the future than senior prom, even though they are just kids, with no idea how to even take care of themselves, let alone a baby, she says yes. Because everything is going to work out. As long as she has him and he has her, everything always does.
Marcie lay curled on her side like a comma, staring at the drywall texture of the bedroom wall-a "Monterey drag," the contractor called it. It was supposed to be more elegant than an orange-peel finish, but she and Will were sorry they'd chosen it because the taupe paint alternately glopped and skipped over the deep fissures and grooves, and it took three coats to cover the white freckles still showing through. Now I know why they call it a drag, Will had joked as their arms started to ache with rolling.
That was how many years ago now? When the house was just built, long enough that a lot of those white pocks had started to reappear where the paint had been scuffed, dinged, and chipped away with wear. They should repaint-they could afford to hire someone to do it now, of course. They were too old for that nonsense, and she couldn't see them undertaking that two-day ordeal again. By the end of it, every inch of them had ached as if they'd done a triathlon instead of home dŽcor. They'd both been covered in paint, not least because with the carpet yet to go in, Marcie and Will had made a game of practicing different brushstroke techniques on each other (Nice to know my art classes do have some practical applications, Marcie teased as she made impressionist streaks across Will's forearm) until it had led to the inevitable conclusion and they'd wound up on a drop cloth on that cold concrete floor, smearing it all over each other's bare bodies.
Too old for that nonsense too. Too old for a lot of things.
She curled deeper into the sheets, listening to the shower run in the master bathroom and knowing she had to get up and get ready too or she'd be late for work. She'd already missed two days at the height of event season at the hotel. Chuck was probably on the verge of going supernova from the pressure of trying to handle everything on his own-not that he'd actually had to do that, since he'd been burning up her cell phone with increasingly frantic messages, most recently about the Frazier-Magnussen reception. Mrs. Frazier was determined that her son would have the perfect wedding she'd never had, and most of Marcie's efforts so far had centered around managing the mother of the groom and gently reminding her that the hotel was simply hosting the reception, and any changes to the menu or dŽcor needed to be run by the Magnussens and their wedding planner. Apparently Mrs. Frazier was inflamed to the point that Mr. Magnussen was now calling to complain that the hotel was helping the woman take over his daughter's special day. Marcie needed to put out that fire before it got out of hand.
Will had tried to confiscate her phone when it kept buzzing with work calls and texts-You need to rest, and they need to give you a break right now-but she'd argued that ignoring the crises would only make them worse when she got back, and it wasn't as if Chuck or anyone else at the Bonafort knew why she'd suddenly taken two unprecedented personal days. Marcie and Will hadn't exactly been sharing the joyful news. Will wanted her to stay home a few more days too, not try to jump right back into routine but give herself some time "to process." As if she were an antiquated CPU. Marcie just wanted him to stop hovering over her. He'd been a steady presence ever since they got back from the doctor, pulling the covers over her shoulder, rubbing her arm or bringing her a glass of water or making soup that grew cold on the bedside table next to the tarnished silver bell that was part of the Malone family sterling his parents gave them when they were married, two eighteen-year-olds who used paper plates and plastic forks when they entertained. He'd set it there so she didn't have to get up if she needed anything, but she had yet to ring it because all she really wanted at the moment was a little space.
She'd told him after the procedure that he didn't have to stay home with her. If I need anything I can call Emily, she'd said, nodding at her cell phone charging on the nightstand. Her mother-in-law lived just three doors down-they'd all bought at the same time after Will's father died, a new neighborhood where they could be close enough for Will and Marcie to keep an eye on Emily-and she would come right over, but Marcie knew she wouldn't call. Emily didn't know about the miscarriage. No one did, because they hadn't told anyone Marcie was pregnant. They hadn't quite gotten used to the news themselves.
I want to stay with you, he'd replied, and he probably meant it, stroking her arm until she put her hand on top of his, trapping his fingers to stop them.
It came out sharper than she meant it to, and the wounded look on his face sent a flash of guilt through her. I'm just going to sleep, she'd said as a consolation prize. She hadn't wanted to take time off at all, but the doctor advised her to take things easy on yourself for a little while and not try to tough out the pain, though there really wasn't any pain so far. The woman had also offered to refer Marcie and Will to a fertility expert-this is quite common with older parents-so clearly Dr. Wilkins wasn't exactly an expert at reading the room.
The shower turned off and she watched the moving shadows in the light seeping under the door as Will finished getting ready. She flipped over and assessed the paint wear on the opposite wall.
The bathroom door shushed across the carpet and she smelled Will's Mitchum deodorant on a wash of humid air. Closing her eyes she kept her breathing steady, hoping he'd assume she'd fallen back asleep, but Will knew her rhythms too well.
The dip of the mattress behind her, that relentlessly stroking hand on her shoulder. So nice and solicitous now that the problem was solved. Her eyes opened.
"Marcie . . . if you want to take another day at home, I think-"
She sat up, tapping him on the shoulder as if tagging him out so he'd make room for her to get out of bed. "Nope. Just getting a slow start. You through in the bathroom?"
He stood obligingly, holding out a hand to help her up that she ignored. He rested it on her shoulder when she got to her feet, stopping her, and she could smell his toothpaste as he held her gaze. "Marce . . . sometimes things happen for a reason," he said as he pulled her in for a hug.
Marcie stood inert in his arms, staring at the drywall pattern over his shoulder and clenching her jaw until she could look at him again. "Okay. I'll see you tonight."
In the bathroom she pulled the door shut despite the steam still swirling from Will's shower, and when she finally heard the garage door grind open, the hum of an engine, the garage closing behind his car, she felt her body uncoil as if a spring had been released.
Her phone rang barely fifteen minutes after she got on the road, her late start costing her when she got stuck in rush-hour traffic just before Spaghetti Junction. She glanced down at the screen telling her what she already knew: Chuck.
"Four Hundred is stop and start, but I'm on my way," she answered.
"Oh, thank God," came her assistant's relieved voice. "The flowers for the McConley anniversary party came in and there are gardenias. Gardenias, Marcie!"
Marcie rubbed her forehead, where a throbbing drumbeat was just starting to pulse. At the last minute she'd tossed Dr. Wilkins's pain pills into her purse and maybe she'd take one after all. The McConley children were celebrating their parents' fifty-year anniversary with a party for nearly a hundred friends and family, and Andrea, the eldest daughter, had been carefully particular about the menu, dŽcor, and even the cleaning parameters for the banquet room: "No strong scents-at all. My mom has parosmia and is very sensitive to smells." Gardenias were beautiful and elegant, but they smelled like a French cathouse.
"Did we make sure to note that in the florist order?" Marcie asked.
She heard the clicking of a keyboard. "Of course-I have a copy of it pulled up: 'Only unscented arrangements.'"
She let out a breath of relief. "Great. Just call June and let her know we need to replace the centerpieces asap."
There was a beat.
"I'm just thinking of how to say it."
She sighed. Chuck was a fantastic assistant event coordinator-careful, organized, and wonderfully personable-but confrontation of any kind made him squirm. "Forget it. I'll be there in forty minutes and I'll call her."
The sedan in front of her had had its blinker on as they'd crept along for the last mile, and the relentless flashing was making Marcie's headache worse. "Go on, buddy," she muttered as a space opened up in the next lane, but he didn't take it, nor the next two he could easily have slid into. She turned her own signal off and on a few times, the way she'd flash her brights at someone to let them know their brights were on, but apparently that semaphore didn't translate.
Traffic eased up enough once she got inside the perimeter so she could get the car up almost to the speed limit, but at this hour she'd get snarled in it again when she got close to town. Atlanta highways were like the veins of an old man who'd lived on nothing but Varsity cheeseburgers all his life.
She mentally ticked through the day's to-do list. Put out the fires first. Check with the catering staff to make sure everything was delivered and on track for this weekend's events. Follow up with two potential clients she wanted to land-another wedding and a very high-end bat mitzvah-and talk to Monique, the front desk manager, about the wedding party's arrival pattern. Plus the usual fielding of new inquiries, meetings, and supplier calls.
Her pounding head made her wish she could leave Chuck to handle all the interactions and work in the Secret Garden today. It wasn't actually called that-or anything, since technically it wasn't even an official feature of the hotel grounds, but that was most of what she liked about it. Renaldo had been head groundskeeper longer than Marcie herself had worked at the Bonafort-more than twenty years-and in that time his pet project had been slowly transforming what had been a gloomy concrete employee patio where the hard-core smokers used to huddle, using their nicotine addiction to justify extra breaks, into a bucolic little hideaway. Now it was bordered by grass and a profusion of plantings Renaldo had transplanted from clippings taken from the public-facing areas of the grounds. A broken fountain they'd replaced years ago served as a birdbath that drew sparrows, cardinals, and warblers despite their location so close to downtown. On especially stressful days Marcie would go sit out there, letting the Georgia sun soak into her closed eyelids and drowning out the sounds of cars on Ponce de Leon by focusing on the birdsong and the croaking of amphibians Renaldo had lured to the area with his "toad holes."
Frogs and toads are important for a garden, but so fragile, he told her. They need somewhere dark and cool and safe to tuck themselves away from dangers, and a little calm water outside the door.
You're an artist, Renaldo, she said as he showed her the chipped ceramic pots discarded from the hotel displays that he'd turned upside down and used for the purpose, dotting them amid the landscaping in pleasing ways. You take found materials and make them beautiful, not just useful.
Mr. Hullender used to say the same thing in her high school art class: Art takes the ordinary and makes it sublime. Everyday life could use a bit more of the sublime, in Marcie's experience, but a bunch of stoners and jocks looking for an easy A didn't really seem to vibe to the artistic groove Mr. Hullender faithfully tried to create, and Marcie had long ago learned that art was a luxury of youth. The closest she'd come to creativity in the last twenty years was painting the bedroom.
The blare of a horn startled her out of her reverie and she realized she'd almost missed the Monroe exit. Jamming her signal on, she checked her rearview, but a white monster truck rode her right bumper, cutting her off till it was too late.
Dammit. The throbbing in her head seemed to swell down into the sides of her throat. Now she had to fight in-town traffic all the way to Tenth Street, cutting across Midtown and adding at least another thirty minutes to her commute.