Henry felt the muscles in his body tighten, one by one, until he was so stiff he couldn't move without fearing that shards would crack off. He and his mother never spoke about his marriage. Not once in thirty years had Jean broached the subject of his relationship with Susan. The two women had never been fast friends, but he'd accepted that they were different. One slow, one fast. One quiet, one loud. Both had a place in his life. In his heart.
It was none of his mother's business, and yet as he moved away from the sink to pick up a smaller wrench from his toolbox, Henry felt he had to say, "I still look at Susan that way."
"You used to call her Susie. For years, you never used her formal name. She was always your Susie."
He'd awakened this morning telling himself that everything was going to be okay. Wesley would come back when he was ready. Liam was home, for a little while at least. And Henry and his wife had shared a bed again. Maybe they hadn't really touched, except by mistake, but at least they'd both been in the same place at the same time.
Susie. Susan. They were just names.
But were they really?
Had his marriage finally passed the point of no return? After all these years of trying to act like nothing was wrong, now that the door to unrest was open, did he have a prayer of getting it closed again? Or was there no way back? Did Wesley have it right? Was leaving the only option?
"The truth is never easy to hear, is it?" He wasn't even pretending to work on the sink now.
"No," his mother said, her look at once intense and yet hazy. "Which is why I've never told you the full truth about your father." She nodded as if she'd just concluded a battle inside her own head. "But I think it's finally time."
If not for her pregnancy, perhaps Jean would have remained in her parents' house. It was certainly the easier path, to simply live the life she had before.
But loving Thomas had changed everything.
Most young women in her position would have been frightened. Jean wasn't naive enough not to be scared. Of course having a child would be a big adjustment. A huge one. It wasn't even that her husband's memory would now live on, whether or not he ever came back to her.
Having a baby of her own simply meant that now all of the love in her heart would have a place to flow. She loved her parents. Her sisters. Her friends.
But this love was already different.
Different, even, from the love she'd felt for Thomas.
What she'd felt for her husband had been pure. Deep and real. But neither of them had truly depended on each other, and she would find her feet without him. She would have to.
This child would look to her for its health. Its happiness. Jean would be there to give her baby all of that and more.
In the end, the one hundred dollars left in the bank account was all it took. She found a cottage where she could keep an eye on a toddler, with a beach where a growing child could run and play and learn to swim. Her parents tried to fight her decision, but the girl who everyone had always assumed was happy to follow the lead of others had turned into a woman who finally knew just what she wanted.
A home of her own. And a career with which she could not only support her child and herself--but that would also feed her mind.
Those first months, most of the carpenters in town weren't sure whether they were supposed to help her out to please her powerful father, or shun her to make sure she failed and had to move back home. She cobbled together a workforce of soldiers coming back from the war, and Jean got in there with them whenever she could, wielding a hammer until her stomach grew too big.
Other women watched her, women she'd known her whole life, and while some of them were aghast at what she was doing, many more of them told her that working for the war effort had given them a taste of something they wanted more of. Those evenings with her sister as they knitted blankets and caps and booties for her baby sowed the seeds for Lakeside Stitch and Knit. The two Farrington girls were the last the town would have expected to get their hands dirty with work. But they were more like their successful, driven father than even he wanted to see.
It had been a struggle to get her construction business off the ground. But bigger than the struggle had been the joy of it.
She would miss Thomas forever. No other man could possibly replace him. But when her water broke and the midwife made it to her cottage just in time to greet quiet little Henry, Jean was happier than she'd ever known was possible.
One year went by, then two, and she had a chubby, laughing toddler to chase down the beach.
That was when the letter came, with the ticket to New York City.
A dozen different thoughts and emotions coursed through her. She was thrilled to know that Thomas's hands had touched this ticket, to know that he wanted to see her again. She was surprised that he'd reached out to her like this. And yet at the same time, it was inevitable, because nothing had ever really been finished--the door had never been closed. She was nervous--terrified, actually--about seeing him again. About all the ways her life had changed, and all the ways she knew his life must have changed too.
But she never once thought about not getting on that train.
She never once considered not going to him.
She had to see him.
Because this time, she was going to be the one to make the decision about the door opening up again...or closing forever.
He was waiting for her at the station. His hat was pulled down low, and he was thinner, so much thinner, than he'd been before.
She wanted to run into his arms. But she knew somehow that keeping this distance was important. Vitally important. So she simply said, "Thomas."
"You must be hungry after the train trip. I know a place just around the corner. A place we can talk."
"Yes," she said softly. "I would like to talk."
Walking beside the man she loved so deeply, without touching him, without kissing him, was the most difficult thing she'd ever done. Far more difficult than telling her father that her husband had disappeared. Worlds harder than giving birth or raising a baby on her own.
With a table between them, coffee steaming from cracked white mugs, he simply sat and looked. She did the same, drinking him in.
Finally, he spoke. "Falling in love with you was never the plan."
To keep herself from reaching out to touch him, Jean curled her hand around the mug, barely aware that it was scalding her skin. "My father supposed that was the case."
"He was right. Money was what I was after. You were my target. I should have been pleased by how easy you were to woo, how quickly you agreed to marry me."
Just as she should have been going cold at her husband's frank admission about why he'd pursued her. But there were many different truths, weren't there? And only one had ever been important to her.
"I loved you right from that first moment," she told him honestly, knowing there was no sense in pride here in this diner, sitting across from the man she still loved with all of her heart.
She watched his breath catch in his throat at her words, remembered the taste, the scent of his skin on their wedding night. The one sweet night that had given them Henry.
"One day," he said in a hoarse voice, "I realized I wasn't simply saying what I thought you wanted to hear. I was telling you the truth. I loved you. I wanted a life with you."
She hadn't needed him to bring her here to say that. She had never doubted his love for her. Well, maybe in the dark of night there had been a time or two when doubts had crept in. But sitting here, across a Formica-topped table, surrounded by rough-looking strangers, she would never doubt it again. "And now you want me to know why you left."
"God, yes." His grip on his own coffee cup was so tight that his knuckles showed white through his tanned skin. "I've barely slept since that night."
She waited silently for him to gather the strength to share the truth with
her. Some things, she'd learned since leaving her parents' house and striking out on her own, took time. Making a baby. Teasing out a smile from a toddler's tears. Building a business.
And most of all, speaking the truth.
"If I had been working for myself," he said, "I would have stopped. I would have given up my previous life for you. So many bad decisions led me to you, Jean. So how can I regret everything in my past? I pulled myself up out of the gutter by working for the wrong kind of people. As soon as I fell in love with you, I wanted to pull out of the deal I'd made." He closed his eyes. "But I couldn't. Not when it would have put your life, your family's lives, in danger." His hands were shaking now, little drips of coffee spilling out across his fingers, running down to make puddles on the tabletop. "I had to take the money. I had to leave, even though I knew that when I left I could never come back. I could never risk your life just because I selfishly wanted your love for my own."
She'd been planning to tell him all along. Now it was finally time. "You have a son."
His mug of coffee tipped, would have spilled, but Jean caught it before it could turn over. Her fingers brushed his, and she let them go still over his hand.
Their eyes locked. Held.
"Henry is two and full of energy. He looks like you." She pulled her hand back to reach into her pocket, then handed him the photo.
"My God." Tears were streaming down his face. "He's beautiful." His eyes lifted from the picture. "So are you."
She could taste her own tears on her lips as she smiled back at him. And she could see, as clearly as she'd ever seen anything, that her husband wanted desperately to start a new life with her and his son.
She would have risked herself for his love in a heartbeat. To be with him. But she could never risk her own son.
Not even for the only love she'd ever know as a woman.