Friendship Heirlooms Series, Book 4: First Comes Love 2 covers

Friendship Heirlooms Series, Book 4: First Comes Love by Karen Wiesner

Return to Peaceful, Wisconsin and read the stories of those secondary characters in an all-new spin-off series. Nuggets of faith can be passed down as heirlooms from friend to friend, heart to heart, soul-mate to soul-mate.


Friendship Heirlooms Series, Book 4: First Comes Love 2 covers
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Book Four Friendship Heirloom: Responsibility

At the age of fifteen, Chad Feldmann and Winnie McBride made an impulsive choice that led to pregnancy. Now, years later, they have a precious little girl, they’ve both graduated high school, and they’re married. But all is not well in paradise. As much as Winnie loves her daughter, she can’t forget the life she’d expected to be living. Her dreams were pushed aside ruthlessly, kicked in the dirt and all but buried with pregnancy and motherhood. While they were both caring for their daughter and trying to finish high school before they got married, she and Chad lived platonically and it’d seemed to her that they were both struggling and making sacrifices to move forward wisely with their lives. Once they’re married, she discovers that Chad has used the college fund his father set aside for him to pursue the dreams he’d always imagined for his life. She’s working two jobs and taking care of their child. She can’t see that Chad is doing his part, sacrificing for their life together, anymore. The less he’s there for them, the more her resentment grows.

Chad blames himself for the reckless choice made when he and Winnie were kids. He believes he should have protected the girl he loved–even if it meant protecting her from him, until they were both ready for forever. All he wants now is to build a life with Winnie, but he doesn’t know how to do that without unintentionally taking away her dreams. In some ways, he expected to lose her from the moment they discovered she was pregnant, and that expectation hasn’t lessened at all in the years since. He knows Winnie isn’t happy, knows she’s pulling further and further from him, and he can’t figure out how to stop the inevitable. They’ve done everything backwards–the baby carriage, then marriage–and somehow he has to remind her that, regardless of all the wrongs committed, one thing has been true for him for as long as he can remember: First came love.Next Book in this Series

Chad Feldmann and Winnie McBride were secondary characters in GLASS ANGELS, Book 4 of the Family Heirlooms Series.

GENRE: (Contemporary Inspirational Romance)     ISBN: 978-1-925191-19-6    ASIN: B00XNCDQGC     Word Count: 89, 544

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Based on 1 Reviews

5.0 out of 5 stars fabulous family drama

In Peaceful, Wisconsin, young teens Chad Feldmann and Winnie McBride have sex. She becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl. To avoid the errors that most kids having kids do, Chad insists they remain celibate until they graduate and marry. Three years later, after the couple completes high school, they wed and raise their child Kally. Winnie feels resentment towards her husband and daughter as she sacrificed much for them to become a family. As she works two jobs and takes care of little Kally, her disappointment is further fueled when Chad uses his college fund that his family banked for him to pursue his dreams. Chad knows he made foolish mistakes out of love and his constant fear his soulmate would leave him; but his recent actions to insure he can care for his two beloved females instead may fulfill his nightmarish prophecy. The fourth fabulous Friendship Heirlooms series (see Forever And All That Jazz) star two wonderful protagonists as Chad and Winnie have love, a baby and marriage in that order, but apparently also a dying relationship. With a strong support cast (a trademark of Ms. Wiesner as for instance this lead couple were in the Family Heirlooms Series drama Glass Angels), fans will relish the return to Peaceful although what appears to be the end of a marriage. Harriet Klausner

Amazon Customer August 22, 2015

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Book Four Friendship Heirloom: Responsibility



Winnie McBride had been dreaming of her wedding day since she was a child. Unimaginably, though, for the past three years, she’d been dreading this more than fantasizing about it. She’d done everything to make the event the opposite of formal–part of her outdated, childish imaginings. The June wedding coincided with her and Chad Feldmann’s high school graduation. They were outside the church instead of inside. In lieu of wall-to-wall flowers, lace, ribbons and bows, they had a grassy lawn, fragrant apple trees, numerous decorative bushes and flower beds waving in a light breeze underneath a blue sky filled with brilliant sunshine.

Winnie had made her own dress, an informal, mid-calf, pale beige chiffon dress with back lacing and half-sleeves. To make it more special, she’d silk-stitched an ultra-feminine embroidered rosette just above her natural waist. The dress was a marked contrast from the sleeveless, sweetheart-neckline confection of lace and satin she’d always wanted. For once, her mother hadn’t needed to point out the inappropriateness of an ivory white wedding gown that showed a lot of skin for a girl who’d gotten pregnant at fifteen and, as a consequence, was marrying at eighteen.

Though it’d gone against Chad’s ideal, he’d agreed to wear a nice black suit, not a tuxedo, and to skip the tie. They hadn’t invited everyone they and their parents had ever known. Only a handful of their closest family and friends attended the ceremony that qualified as anything but romantic to Winnie. She’d had a stomach ache for the past week…past year! She could barely meet Chad’s eyes. Every word Pastor Wes spoke felt like a sharp tug on a noose that became tighter and tighter until she was so strangled, she couldn’t breathe anymore. How she kept herself from weeping or screaming her agony, she wasn’t sure. Her lips felt like ice under Chad’s warm, promising mouth.

Then Winnie was plunged into a surreal dream as their guests clapped and shouted congratulations and well-wishes. Dazed, she was pushed or pulled into the center of them. Her mind started whirling until she felt as if someone was spinning her in circles. The next thing she knew, her mother was leading her into the small Sunday school room where she’d gotten ready that morning and easing her down onto the couch. Winnie leaned over her knees, gasping for breath and unable to fight the massive sob building with incredible pressure inside her chest.

She only half-realized Lilith was hugging her tightly from the side, whispering consoling words in her ear. Surprising herself, Winnie was fully aware that she clung to her mother–her mother!–with a bruising grip she couldn’t slacken even if she’d wanted to. “What’s happening?” she whispered.

“You tell me, darling.”

Disjointed thoughts were thrown into her conscious mind by the tornado raging through her heart. Mom, always lecturing, bullying, redirecting me because I’m wrong. Forever wrong. Mom, the one I’ve been pushing away for as long as I can remember because she can’t possibly understand, can’t possibly love me because of my overwhelming sins. Mom…as close as my own heart. There for me when I didn’t think I wanted her there. No one else could be with me right now though. No one.

Just like that, unrestrained, unintended words poured from Winnie’s mouth. “Nothing makes sense. It was wrong. Having sex was wrong. We sinned. We ruined our lives. What’s changed today? We have a piece of paper. This ring. Pastor Wes said that we’re man and wife. And somehow now it’s moral and okay that we’re going to–” She swallowed the guilt that wouldn’t go down. “Okay that we’ll do the exact same thing that put us in this situation in the first place and now it’s somehow not wrong…”

Lilith sighed as if relieved that this was “all” that was wrong when Winnie felt crushed under the weight. “I know. It doesn’t make any sense. But it’s true.”

Winnie barked laughter in disbelief.

“Oh, Winnie, I don’t know. I can’t explain this. You were so young.”

Why did her mother look softer than Winnie had seen her for so long? Bewildered, Winnie stared at Lilith, seeing eyes so familiar she saw them each time she looked in a mirror. When I was little, no one in the world was more beautiful than my mom. She was a goddess in my eyes. And she still is. How is it I feel like I haven’t seen her at all for so many years? When I looked at her, she was my adversary every single time. But…how did she know I was sick and brought me in here, where I need to be, away from everyone, especially Chad?

Lilith cradled her face, stroking her trembling chin.

“Mom, I’m so lost. I don’t know what’s going on. I know Chad is the only guy I’ve ever loved or wanted to be with. We’ve been together forever. But how can anyone else ever understand this? I was there! I mean, we were neighbors. We were together all the time. Even if Chad wanted another girl, I was the one who was always there. Maybe he never had a choice. I never had one. By the time I did, it was too late. We had Kally, and she’s everything. I can’t live without her. She’s my whole world. But what if Chad had been given a choice?”

“He loves you,” her mother said fiercely.

Because I was there. Not because he would have chosen me otherwise. If we hadn’t been neighbors, if we hadn’t gone to the same school and church, if we hadn’t had sex and gotten pregnant, he could have made a different choice. And how can I ever believe he wouldn’t have wanted to be given that choice? What am I now besides lost and scared? No one would willingly choose me now.

“I hate myself, Mom. Why did I do this to myself?” But Winnie’s response to her own words was visceral. It was worth it. For my little Kalliope. So why am I so unhappy?

“Winnie, don’t say you hate yourself. You’re not the first girl who’s gotten pregnant out of wedlock.”

“But I am. Mom, I was the first girl in my high school to get pregnant. I got pregnant before the school slut did! Years before she did.” Phoebe Dowling, Peaceful High Slut, hadn’t gotten pregnant until her senior year. Before that horrible day when Winnie had had to publically admit her sin, she’d been the most popular girl, the one everyone looked up to. Once upon a time, her schoolmates saw her as a role model because she’d been such a strong Christian, someone who did well in everything and would succeed no matter where she ended up after high school. After her pregnancy was revealed, her friends had made a show of being supportive of her, but she’d realized the truth. Before long, they avoided her, she avoided them. Soon, she’d been all alone. In contrast, nothing had changed for Chad. All his friends respected him, maybe even revered him more than they ever had before. He’d lost nothing.

“Mom, I lost everything. My self-respect. The respect of everyone who matters to me. I gained Kally. But I lost the life I planned for myself. Nothing will ever be the same. We’ve repented, I’ve given myself back to the Lord…and I feel like nothing can ever be right again.”

“That feeling won’t last,” her mother insisted. “Especially now.”

“Why? Why especially now? Just because Chad wants to be married, live together as husband and wife, and to have sex again like that very act wasn’t the thing that destroyed our lives in the first place? How can this make any sense? How can I just act like nothing’s happened? I’ll never feel right inside. I don’t know how to feel right anymore.”

One side of Winnie’s brain couldn’t believe she was saying these things out loud to her mother. The other side insisted there was no one else she could confess them to.

“Oh, sweetheart, have you changed your mind about Chad?”

“You’re not listening to me. Why did nothing change for him? Why does he get to be the same person, and I’m…I’m nothing. Nothing I wanted to be, nothing I thought I was or would be. I’m Kally’s mother. That’s all. I don’t have anything else. Sometimes I think I don’t want anything else.”

Her mother swallowed, closing her eyes at these words. Tears slipped out when she opened them again. “I do understand. You think I’m not listening to what you’re saying, Winnie, but I do understand. I understand what it’s like to lose your own identity. To forget what it is you wanted or needed for yourself–as if those things no longer matter to anyone, including you. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be anything else for us. Because, like it or not, we want to fill this role we’re not sure we chose even as we want to be ourselves above all.”

Lilith might have been speaking from Winnie’s own heart. “I’m drowning, and I don’t know which way is up. Tell me what to do. What to feel.”

Her mother shook her head sadly. “I wish I could, my darling daughter. More than anything else in the world, I wanted to save you from heartache. Instead, I only added to it when I tried to steer you in the opposite direction. I don’t blame you if you don’t believe that.”

How could she believe it? Yet Winnie remembered when she was young and her mother had been the center of her life, just as Kally was now the center of hers. What had changed things so drastically between them?

Winnie laid her head on her mother’s shoulder, and, almost as if they were one, her mother folded her in her arms. “I promise you, you’ll find your way. I don’t know when or how, but you will. Just don’t listen to anyone or anything but your own heart. That’s where the Lord whispers His direction and promises. He’ll show you the way if you trust Him.”

“Did you, Mom? Did you listen to your own heart?”

Her mother’s tone hardened as she said, “No. I listened to everyone else. I didn’t trust myself or the Lord.”

Winnie stiffened. For a handful of unselfish moments, she wondered if she knew her mother at all. What did she mean? But then Winnie sank back against her and closed her eyes. For only seconds, she experienced healing and a righting of her upside down world in her mother’s embrace.

A knock sounded on the door. She knew before it opened who was there. Chad. She would have done anything to whisk their daughter from his arms and disappear, anything to avoid what was coming.

“Everything all right in here?” he asked as she and Lilith stood.

As much as she wanted to, Winnie couldn’t meet his eyes, and she knew he needed reassurance right now. Instead, she reached her arms out to the small, squirming bundle he held, and Kally all but leapt across the space between them. The tiny but strong arms wrapped around her neck, and Winnie knew Kally wouldn’t let her go again until she had absolutely no choice. While they’d known telling their little girl she’d be staying with her grandparents–something she enjoyed but had never done overnight, alone–would make her clingy and upset all day, not telling her would have been worse. Kally would have been an inconsolable troublemaker all night. And I would have wanted to go get her and skip my own honeymoon.

I still want to do that.

Winnie closed her eyes and hugged her baby, feeling whole again. The only place she was home these days was with her daughter. Everything else felt like a never-ending cyclone of unwanted activity. In-between school, homework, her job, church, she spent every free moment with Kally, who lived with Chad, his dad (a psychologist), and his psychologist wife Samantha, and their two children. Winnie couldn’t get herself to leave her baby, so almost every night since they’d brought her home from the hospital, she’d slept near Kally, basically moving into Kally’s bedroom. Their honeymoon would be short–today and tomorrow. Even that felt like too much time. How could she survive even a night without seeing her little girl?

Without a word, Winnie went out to the catered lunch reception in the Fellowship Hall and played her part as the radiant new bride. The hardest part was responding to all the calls for newlywed kisses. Each time the tinkle of silverware on the glasses sounded insistently, she turned obediently, averted her gaze or closed her eyes, and let Chad kiss her stiff lips. I can’t do this. I can’t see sex as anything but forbidden and sinful. Because, for the past two years, it’s been taboo. But I know Chad doesn’t feel that way at all. He went along with our parents’ dictation of no intimate contact because it was the best way. But he’s been waiting eagerly for this day without a single qualm. For me, everything’s changed. Everything. Maybe even my feelings for him…

Winnie had agreed all but wordlessly to everything that’d been planned for her future by others. She and Chad would stay in high school. Graduate. Kally would live with Chad’s family next door. They split childcare between them and their family and friends. Everyone had sacrificed to allow them to both have part-time jobs during the school year that became full-time during the summer to build their future together. For years, their wedding had been scheduled to take place three weeks after high school graduation. While their friends enjoyed their frivolous graduation parties as they waited for college to start, Winnie and Chad had spent graduation weekend getting everything moved into their new apartment. Despite the pressure building inside her, Winnie had enjoyed the weeks she’d lived there, just her and Kally, taking her little girl to work with her and then to see Chad after work, going home each night to prepare the apartment for their new life together soon. The tension inside Winnie had increased steadily for two years, but it’d metastasized to overbearing proportions in the last three weeks.

I’m not ready for the no-intimacy barrier to come down. I’m not ready to immerse myself in my love for him, the way I did for most of my life, especially that summer I got pregnant. If only I’d realize how wrong doing that was before it was too late–when there was no way to turn back.

In the time since their parents had erected that crucial boundary between her and Chad, she’d erected a barrier of her own where Chad Feldmann was concerned. No touching, no kissing, no exchange of feelings because she couldn’t risk putting herself back where everything went wrong for her. It’d been the only way.

How can I pull that barrier down now? I survived because of that barrier. I invested myself solely into taking care of my baby. There’s no way back. Not without losing myself even more than I ever have. And what would be left then? Nothing. Less than nothing. I gave everything I have, everything I am, all my love to Kally. I don’t know if there’s anything left for anyone or anything else.

Her stomach wouldn’t allow her to eat more than a few bites. Luckily, Kally was animated, bouncing constantly, and required all of her attention. Winnie didn’t think anyone noticed she hadn’t eaten. When was the last time she had? She couldn’t remember. She felt so sick all the time lately. She wanted so badly to have the power to turn every moment into a lifetime. Let this never end so I won’t have to go to that place where I shattered and the pieces of my life rearranged themselves beyond recognition. I can’t go back there!

But the time came too soon when Chad pulled the car up to the front of the church, and they said goodbye to everyone. Kally clung so hard to her, Winnie burst into tears when Chad pried them apart, intending to hand his daughter over to his mother-in-law. Kally’s volatile temper, so like Winnie’s own, struck, and she started kicking and screaming wildly for her mommy. Feeling devastated, Winnie grabbed her daughter back and ducked into the passenger seat of the car. With the door closed, she held Kally on her lap and the two of them sobbed with their faces pressed close together. She lost track of the time, but when she finally calmed down, she cradled her baby’s face in her hands and kissed every inch of it. Kally kept her eyes closed, a look of bliss in her expression, even as their sticky, salty tears dried.

“You and Grandma and Grandpa are gonna have such a fun time together. You love Grandma Lilith, don’t you? And Grandpa Kyle and Samantha are right next door with Irene–”


And I want my daughter. Nothing else. “Oh, baby, we’ll be back before you know it. You’ll hardly have time to miss us.” No one, least of all Chad, understood Winnie’s need for brevity on their honeymoon. She hadn’t allowed anyone to plan more than a weekend–hardly a weekend. Comprehension aside, no one could dispute that Winnie and Kally couldn’t be apart longer than that. “And then it’ll be just you and me and Daddy in our new apartment. You love our new home, don’t you, baby?”

Kally nodded, her face so sweet, her eyes soft, sparking pools. Winnie brushed back her thick, dark hair, almost as long as Winnie’s own. The headband of daisies the little girl had worn today had fallen out during the tumult.

“Give me one more hug and kiss, and then we have to go. You’ll stay with Grandma Lilith, okay?”

Kally pressed her salty lips to hers and then hugged her so hard, Winnie though she was trying to fuse them together. Would she fight again when they had to part?

When she got out and Chad looked utterly dazed and devastated, Kally went to Winnie’s mother, reluctantly conceding defeat even as she sobbed pitifully into her grandmother’s neck. Winnie felt anger surge inside her as she peeked at Chad again. Oh to be a man and feel nothing but your own selfish desires! Isn’t he going to miss his own daughter at all? How can he not understand that I’m dying, that I feel like someone is ripping Kally violently from me?

Winnie stalked around the car and slid back in the passenger seat, holding herself rigidly until Chad got in and started the car. Only then did she look past him to see that Kally was still not looking at them even to wave. The drive to La Crosse, to their hotel, started with the kind of stress that made Winnie want to puke.

“Are you okay?” Chad had the nerve to ask at one point.

“How can you not understand?” she said through clenched teeth. “I’ve been with her every single day since she was born. Every single day. How am I supposed to act like I can handle a separation of a day and a half? How will she handle it?” I’ll pay for my mistake for the rest of my life, but I’ll never, ever regret Kally. She was worth it all. But the rest of it…

“I do understand. I miss her, too.”

Winnie snorted.

“I do,” Chad insisted with more force than she expected. She looked at him quickly. His eyes compelled her, but she glanced away at the powerful emotion inside the beautiful, ice-blue depths of his eyes. “I miss her, but I’ve waited for this night for years, Winnie. It’s all we’ve been waiting for and wanting. Isn’t it?”

His voice cracked, and Winnie felt stricken, as if someone had punched her straight in the heart. Gasping, she turned her face and her whole body away. Renewed tears burned down her cheeks like acid. It’s my honeymoon. My wedding night. I’m so unhappy. Scared out of my mind. I might as well be a virgin who has no idea what to expect. Because I don’t. Sex…lovemaking could destroy me. I can’t believe it would heal me. Not after all the bad that single act has done in consequence.

Unable to look at or acknowledge Chad, she wept. She wanted to not care about the expression of desperation in his eyes just before she’d turned away. She didn’t want to worry she was inadvertently hurting him with her reaction that’d started long ago and was only getting worse. So much easier to forget that Chad loved me, wanted me, said he couldn’t live without me. Why doesn’t he ask if I want to forget this? Go home, get Kally… Because he’s afraid I’ll ask him to do that and give up what’s supposed to be so special tonight?

When they got into La Crosse, she had no choice but to look at herself in the mirror before they arrived at the hotel. The sight of herself was enough to make her cry out again. She’d worn waterproof mascara today, yet the black smudges around her reddened, bloodshot eyes resembled something out of a horror movie. She took a cotton swab from the makeup bag she kept in her purse and tried to rub some of it away. She felt Chad watching her, but she steadfastly concentrated on her task. Her hair was still up in the waterfall twist at the back. Other than her makeup, somehow she still looked put together, despite the mess she felt like inside.

She was the first out of the car at the check-in underpass, not thinking far enough ahead to the embarrassment she’d feel when she got inside. Chad was right behind her once they reached the desk and had to say, “The reservation’s under Mr. and Mrs. Feldmann.”

The clerk looked at them a little too closely for comfort…and then “carded” them right there in front of a line that had somehow formed behind them in the mere seconds since she’d come into the lobby. Winnie’s cheeks burned, and she felt like she was incinerating from the inside out as Chad was forced to go back out to the car, get their birth and wedding certificates, all signed and legal. They still looked like teenagers, and everyone had to realize it’d been a shotgun wedding of a sort, based on their clothes. The clerk offered some explanation about meeting insurance age requirements as he went ahead with their check-in, now that he had the documents he needed.

They all know what we’ll be doing in the honeymoon suite soon.

Humiliated, she walked out to the car behind Chad moments later and they parked closer to their room. Together, they went inside, finding their way by the directions the clerk had given them. Chad had taken her hand despite carrying both of their overnight bags.

All wrong. My husband. I’m his wife. Chad’s expression once the door was opened told her he was actually considering carrying her over the threshold. She darted inside to the in-room kitchen, complete with a sink, stove and fridge, switching on lights as she went. The suite had been pre-air-conditioned, and she shivered uncontrollably. Chad instantly dropped the luggage next to the desk on the right and went into the small living room to find the air conditioner thermostat and turn it down.

Almost as if she couldn’t help herself, Winnie found herself stalling before entering the living room after him and instead looked at Chad as if for the first time in two years. Her mind reeled as she realized he’d been a boy of fifteen the last time they’d been together like this. Yes, he’d been more muscular and manly than anyone else in their class. A heartthrob even then. But he’d been a boy. At eighteen, he was a man–inches taller and even more muscular and filled out from the years of construction and manual labor he’d been doing at his job. His skin looked like warm caramel. He was breathtakingly handsome, a million times more than she’d always thought him–and that was really saying something. His hair used to be blonder like his dad’s, but now it was closer to brown and curled slightly at the ends. His eyes had always captured her beyond speech. The ice-blue bedroom eyes were so intense, hooded with thick, dark brows, that she used to believe it was possible to drown blissfully in them. I’ve been afraid to really let myself see these changes. Even his face looks different than it did. Chad is a man. Not my boyfriend.

A surge of nearly debilitating heat filled her. I can’t! Dear Lord, what if I can’t? Worse, what if I can?

She forcefully looked away to the roses on the coffee table, right next to the bottle of champagne and two glasses, then turned to look inside the bedroom with a huge king size bed and a spacious bathroom. I’m too young for this. I’m just a girl, barely eighteen… Am I a woman? I’ve never thought of myself that way. What does Chad see?

The memory of how often he’d looked at her, touched her, when they were teenagers returned, painfully tangible in her mind. He couldn’t keep his hands off me. There was no reason he needed to. Not then. And I could reach for him whenever I wanted to. Which was often. Sometimes I thought I wasn’t whole unless I was connected to him somehow by touch. My whole being was so wrapped up in him, every last thing Chad-focused. My heart, my boyfriend, my lover…

“Winnie,” Chad whispered in her ear, suddenly there, his arms slipping around her and holding her–nowhere near as tightly as he wanted, she knew. He’s not sure of my feelings for him anymore. Because I led him to believe that with my behavior these past couple years. I didn’t want him to get close to me. At all. It was the only way. Because I changed overnight…

Tears burned her eyes when he said softly, “You’re nervous. So am I, babe.”

Nervous. She almost choked out a mirthless laugh at the understatement. But then his arms cinched just a little closer around her waist, and she felt his body, his hands, press so tightly to her, she couldn’t breathe without feeling him. Feeling everything she’d ignored too long not to make a difference.

He’s changed. I’ve changed. How is it I didn’t realize it? I’m…I’m a woman. I had breasts then, but a young girl’s breasts. Now I have a woman’s breasts, a woman’s hips, a woman’s needs.

Winnie swallowed harshly.

“I love you, Winnie. Don’t shut me out. Not today.”

Her entire mind and body focused on his chest, massive and muscular, against her back. His hands and arms were close to the undersides of her ultrasensitive breasts…

She whipped around, eyes closed, and threw her arms around him. Her mouth landed against his hard. But the kiss wasn’t what she’d secretly hoped for. It was equally too much and not enough. In the space it’d taken her to throw herself at him, he’d sighed in relief, crushed her to him, and took over the way he used to with such seductive force. She’d never been able to say no. Even when she insisted they couldn’t, he came for her over and over until the onslaught of need drowned out her protest. If only she could fall into the old fantasy now, believing nothing could be wrong when it felt so right. But she couldn’t. She wasn’t the same girl. She was nothing like she used to be. She didn’t want to believe Chad was the person he’d been when tragedy all but destroyed her. What did that mean if he hadn’t changed radically, the way she had?

Her terror washed over her like a sonic wave, shoving her back away from him with cataclysmic force.

“Tell me what you’re thinking, Winnie,” Chad begged, as though sensing the runner she was about to do.

A billion thoughts entered her head at once, but one rose fiercely to the surface. She couldn’t tell him. She’d kill him with the words. He’ll die the same slow death I’ve been enduring all these years. The death of our love?

Sobs slammed out of her, and she gasped as she instinctively forced them away. She’d loved Chad for so long, she couldn’t imagine a time when he hadn’t been her whole world. But he wasn’t anymore. Kally had taken his place. Winnie knew that deep down, but facing it crippled her. How could Chad still love her anyway? There was nothing between them other than Kally and a graveyard littered with their sins. By all rights, Chad had married her out of a sense of responsibility. There was no reason to believe he might have stayed with her if Kally had never been born. Had he spent all this time questioning his feelings for her, too? Why did questioning that make her feel devastated at the same time she felt relieved? Because she’d been doing the same thing?

And now they were married.

“Chad, we have a piece of paper. A wedding band. They’re supposed to make all the difference. But how? Why? What do either change in reality?”

The look on his face only made her reel more. How could he be confused about her words? How could he not feel exactly the same way she did?

He said in the same tone he would insist they needed oxygen to breathe, “We got married today. I don’t feel any different than I did yesterday.”

Was there something obvious here she was missing?

His face had filled with ruddy color. Winnie gritted her teeth. She’d always hated that about Chad–one of his biggest flaws as a human being. He couldn’t get himself to tell anyone how he felt. He preferred to keep his emotions locked inside like a human vault. “What do you mean, nothing’s changed?” he asked quietly.

“It’s been wrong forever. Sex. And now suddenly, because of a few symbolic trinkets, suddenly it’s okay? It doesn’t feel okay to me. Not at all.” She sagged against the living room wall, not wanting to see the betrayed look on his face. This man, my husband, is a stranger.

“There was no other option,” he said, and she wondered if he was clenching his teeth.

She lifted her face. He’d put his hands in his pockets and appeared so uncomfortable. Yet his face was otherwise shuttered. How often had she seen that look on his face? In addition to being a human vault, he didn’t like anyone confessing feelings to him, especially when she did. He didn’t want to hear what she was thinking and feeling. So why had he asked?

“There was an option,” Winnie insisted. “The option of not having sex. But you weren’t willing to listen then.” Was I?

“We can’t do anything about that now, Winnie. Don’t you know that by now? It’s been two years. Kally’s here. Once the deed was done, it was done. And we had to do the right thing for her.”

“Until now. Now suddenly sex isn’t the wrong thing. It’s the right thing.”

“It’s not wrong for us anymore.”

There was no hesitation in his words. She could hardly believe he was saying them. “Why is it not wrong now? You act like you can just turn this thing on and off. I’m asking how. I turned it off. And I don’t know how to turn it back on now.”

If possible, his jaw became tauter with the stress. “What are you saying, Winnie? You didn’t want to get married? That you… You don’t…”

She felt crazy. Nothing he said or did made any sense to her. “Do you really want to get married? Right out of high school? How can you? You say we did what we had to, the right thing. But we haven’t had a real relationship for years, since we ‘did the right thing’. Explain that to me.”

He took a deep breath that didn’t sound at all cleansing. “Did you want there to be a relationship? Because you didn’t seem to want anything like one between us.”

“Of course I didn’t want a relationship. We couldn’t risk it. We had to do the right thing. Because anything else was wrong. It was wrong then, even when we were doing it. But now everyone’s telling me I should do a complete one-eighty and act like what was wrong is now perfectly right. It feels wrong to me still.”

He laughed under his breath, not looking in the least amused. “It doesn’t to me.”

“How? How can you feel like that?”

“So you’re saying, all this…”

She turned away from him, huddling against the wall and the sofa. “All this? Our wedding, you mean? Or our honeymoon? I don’t know! Okay? I’m scared. I don’t know how to feel anymore. I can’t believe you know. You must be having the same doubts I am. How could you not?”

She was panting as if she’d run a mile in a minute. Even still, she stopped breathing when he came up behind her. Though he didn’t touch her, he was so close she felt weak and dizzy as a result. Am I weak with longing, or fear? What if he says he doesn’t want to be married to me either, that this was a mistake and he doesn’t love me? But I’m wondering the exact same things about him. Was marrying him a mistake? Do I still love him? What if I don’t anymore? I can’t imagine…

He laid his head beside hers over her shoulder. “I’m not uncertain, babe. This is the day I’ve worked toward since you got pregnant. This is what I wanted all my life. All along. I wanna be with you like this. I never changed my mind about that. I understood you needed to keep everything platonic, but I never wanted that.”

Winnie staggered at the words she couldn’t have anticipated at any turn. “You…” she gasped, “you make it sound like I decided we shouldn’t have sex again after I got pregnant.”

“More like your mom, my dad did. I didn’t want to be separated from you. Sure not the way we have been for two years. We haven’t so much as held hands. Nothing. But I knew it was what you needed. That you couldn’t take anything more.”

“I…” I can’t believe he’s saying this. Dear God, he must be lying or making all this up. He has to be. I need him to be! “How did you know I couldn’t…handle more…” She gulped, her throat suddenly desert-parched.

“I always knew.”

How? Had she said something? She couldn’t remember anything specific, couldn’t even remember doing anything that might make him think she wanted his distance. But, at the edge of her conscience, guilt seared. She’d avoided him. All this time, she’d deliberately sidestepped his every single move toward her. She’d never allowed them to be in a room alone together. She rebuffed his slightest touch. She hadn’t met his eyes when they did talk. I did all that to survive. “You had to have changed, Chad. You had to. I’m not the only one,” she insisted.

“I went along with what you and everyone else wanted. I’ve never stopped wanting to touch you.” His hands slid together just beneath her breasts, and Winnie gasped loudly against the shocking onslaught of desire rocketing through her. “I wanted to be with you every minute. I never stop thinking about what it was like between us. The way it used to be.”

“That was wrong,” she whispered painfully as he inched toward flesh she barely thought about anymore as anything sexual. Suddenly, she no longer had a compass point to fix on. She was lost in a sea of passion, just the way she’d been at fifteen, when Chad and making love with him filled her every waking thought. Reeling, she thought, He’s never forgotten that. Never stopped wanting it again.

“Look, I’ve recommitted myself to the Lord, Winnie. I want His direction for my life and our relationship. But I can’t regret loving you. Nothing can make me regret everything we shared. I love you. Then and now. You’re everything I ever wanted. I can’t see what we did was wrong. Not just because of Kally. She was worth anything. My only regret is that I didn’t protect you the way I should have right from the start. But that would’ve meant protecting you against myself. I wasn’t strong enough to do that. I loved you then though. I love you more now. Believe that if you can’t believe anything else. I just want us to be together, Winnie, the way we used to be when we were so in love nothing else mattered.” His hand lifted and he turned her face toward his. “We don’t have to feel guilty anymore.”

She didn’t want to hear that he loved her, still loved her, loved her more than before. Not when she was so unsure of every single aspect of her life except Kally. Just like that, she knew it wasn’t that she didn’t love Chad, but that she hated what she’d become after she’d given every part of herself to him. Instead of a new beginning for them, this felt like the bitter end. Of herself.

Slowly, she turned her body so they were so close she could see every hair around his full mouth–so much more than when he’d been a boy. Though he’d shaved that morning, the hair was coming back, and she remembered poignantly the feel of his lips, soft and yet hard, his unique scent, his taste, the scratch of this hair when they’d kissed as if the world had gone away and left them immersed in a sea of their love. More than anything else, she remembered how easily she’d given herself to him because he was where she wanted to be forever. But after she found out she was pregnant, she’d had no choice but to slam the door that used to be wide open between them. If she opened it again, she would lose herself in him again, to the exclusion of all else. She’d finally found a piece of herself again in Kally. Would she lose even that?

Tears flooded her sore eyes. “I’m sorry, Chad. It’s not your fault. It’s all my fault. I’m what’s wrong here. Only me…”

Chad had spent two years subconsciously realizing this day would go exactly as it had: With Winnie withdrawn, depressed. Doubting she even loves me anymore. Who can blame her?

But does she hate me?

She’d said, “I don’t know how to feel anymore. I can’t believe you know how you feel. You must be having the same doubts I am. How could you not?” She’d also admitted she was scared. Maybe all this was just her fear talking.

So why had she married him, gone through with plans that hadn’t always felt like their own? He’d chosen to believe she’d done it because deep down she really did still love him. But maybe she hadn’t forgiven him for his selfishness.

Chad glanced toward the air conditioner. After Winnie fled to the bedroom, he’d taken off his jacket, socks and shoes. He was too hot even now. Winnie was always the opposite temperature he was. If he turned it up even one degree, she’d be too cold. He started unbuttoning his already untucked shirt, hoping for some relief.

The suite was dark, he realized, and it must be evening by now. He’d shut off the lights long ago, wanting the darkness when it came. A close glance at his watch told him it’d been almost four hours since Winnie had grabbed her luggage and locked herself in the bedroom after she’d broken down. Not for the first time today. For the rest of his life, the sick look on her face would probably be what he remembered most about this day. That and the words he’d never wanted to hear and had unconsciously avoided…if she’d ever actually intended to say them out loud.

The girl he’d fallen in love with when they became neighbors at the age of nine had never had the slightest trouble spilling her guts–to anyone, because she’d felt safe pretty much everywhere. Mostly, she’d told him every single detail she thought and felt. Since she got pregnant and everyone found out, she’d changed so drastically, he couldn’t get her to admit she had a hangnail. But it’d all come out tonight. Now he knew without a single doubt he’d destroyed her life with his selfishness.

From the time he met her, Christ had been the center of Winnie’s life. She had faith as natural as breathing. Though Chad had grown up with a father who was as deeply committed to the Lord as Winnie was, Chad had always struggled because he hated being out of control–giving anyone else rule of his life. From start to finish, Winnie sought God’s will above all. It was the chief reason she’d gone along with the plan that’d been put into action two years ago after their parents found out the truth. Prior to that, she’d been the one who insisted they shouldn’t be alone so much, that they hang out together in public places, so they could resist temptation.

Every single time, she’d been the one pushing for them to do the right thing by the Lord. But Chad had been driven by his selfish, unrelenting need for her. True, the extreme pressure he’d exerted over her had been entirely sensual. He’d never forced her or been cruel, but even he couldn’t deny he’d been constant and unyielding. He wasn’t willing to accept no for an answer. While no one in his right mind could call Winnie McBride a pushover, Chad knew her better than anyone else, and he’d done and said exactly what she needed to lose all resistance.

Told myself all that time she gave in because she loved me. In truth, I didn’t give her a choice. Because if she’d had a choice, she wouldn’t have done it the first time, let alone all the times in-between. Even when she was miserable, wracked with guilt, I couldn’t get myself to stop. Then it was too late. She was pregnant. I ruined her life. Marriage covering us like a moral blanket can’t even change the truth. She’s over me. I lost her two years ago.

He covered his face with his hands, sighing deeply but not feeling any relief. Inside, he felt like he was dead. Somehow it was worse than the graveyard of desolation he’d experienced the past two years without any intimate contact with the woman he loved as much now as he had then. All he’d wanted was this to end in not only a day and a half of constant lovemaking–something he’d suffered without–but with her absent words said a dozen times or more. I love you. They could have started their lives all over again.

The sick look on her face early this morning when they’d glimpsed each other before going their separate ways to the church had told him his hopes were in vain. That look had continued all through the ceremony until she’d faced their family and friends with him as husband and wife…and darn near collapsed. Her mother had whisked her away then. Following that had been Kally’s meltdown and the solid dread and humiliation Chad had felt as he and the rest of the group had waited for Winnie to calm their little girl down in the car. Despite all that, he’d convinced himself this time he and Winnie had together would be everything he’d wished it could be.

Not surprisingly, he missed Kally, too, but he would have gotten through this time alone with his wife easily and then some. But maybe it would be better to take Winnie back to Peaceful, get Kally, and go to their new apartment. At the very least, if he proposed the idea to Winnie, she might cheer up.

He’d almost gotten himself to leave his slumped position in the sticky leather armchair when the bedroom door opened with a barely audible click. His entire body tensed, yet he shot to his feet and went to Winnie when she emerged tentatively.

“It’s dark in here,” she said softly.

He couldn’t speak as she went into the living room and turned on the lamps. He saw in the soft light that she’d changed into a nightgown that showed her svelte shape and her golden, smooth skin. Though he worried his instinctive reaction would turn her off, he got hard looking at her gorgeous body that’d altered so much since he’d last seen it like this. Her breasts were fuller, though not quite as swollen as when she’d been nursing Kally. Her hips were slightly rounder, as was her behind. Her waist seemed impossibly smaller, too, though that could have been because the rest of her had filled out as she grew up. In every way, she was a woman now, and his mouth went dry at the thought of touching her the way he used to.

When she turned toward him and glided to the sofa, he saw she’d washed off her makeup, leaving her eyes red and puffy from obvious crying. Her hair was loose and free, mussed slightly, and even that aroused him. She hadn’t cut her hair in two years. It hung more than halfway down her back, glossy, silky, so sexy, he knew he was standing there gaping at her like a lovesick fool.

She brushed her bangs from her face, then pointedly glanced at the bottle of champagne instead of him. “We should have some of this,” she said. “It’s a special occasion, right? We can have a little.”

Because he assumed the situation couldn’t get much worse, might even get better since the only direction available to them now was up, he moved into the kitchenette. Though he’d never drank alcohol in his life, any more than Winnie had, he figured out how to gently pop out the cork on the obviously expensive bottle of champagne ordered by Winnie’s father. Back in the living room, he poured the first glass, looking at her when it was barely half full to see if it was enough. “Fill it up,” she commanded softly.

He poured full glasses for both of them. Only then did he sit next to her, close because it was loveseat size, and he noticed she was looking at him again like she had for a minute when they first arrived. As if she’d never seen him before, or at least hadn’t in a long time. Funny, because he couldn’t stop looking at her. He hadn’t in two years.

“I miss Kally,” Winnie said unnecessarily.

He abruptly recalled that he’d intended to offer her a way out before she emerged from the bedroom. “Me, too. We can call, or go get her…”

Surprising him, Winnie shook her head, sitting back slightly. Without another word, without a toast, she lifted the flute of champagne to her lips and drank deeply. After she consumed the whole glass in one long draught that had him enraptured, she lowered it, cringing a little. “Not what I expected. But not bad.” She immediately reached for the bottle again. His shock grew. Was she trying to get drunk? He knew for sure she didn’t want to talk yet. She wanted him to talk, even knowing what he might say could scare her worse and devastate her more.

What could he say? He told her everything before she’d run for cover earlier, and he’d realized beyond a shadow of doubt that he couldn’t fix this. Any of it. Nothing he’d done or said for the last two years had helped her cope with their situation.

He sipped the champagne, found it too effervescent for his taste and set it down. Winnie guzzled another glass. Then she sat back, closing her eyes as if buzzed from the alcohol already. “I don’t know who I am anymore, Chad. Maybe I never knew because I hadn’t gotten to the place where it was set in stone, if you know what I mean. I’m Kally’s mom. Beyond that, I know nothing.” She glanced at him, her dark, beautiful eyes stricken. “I don’t know who you are.”

“I’m the same person I’ve always been.”

She shook her head, clearly not believing him now any more than she had before. “But I’m a completely different person. I can’t accept you’re not, too, after all we’ve been through.”

“Do you want me to have changed?” he asked, because the conclusion seemed inescapable.

She drew in a deep breath. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. I feel so lost…”

About a year ago, on Valentine’s Day which he’d fully intended to make special for them as a couple–planning time for them to be alone–in an exceptionally rare moment, she’d admitted the same thing. He’d come to expect her to be depressed weeks before and after Valentine’s Day, because she insisted she didn’t want to celebrate it after she got pregnant. Not until “this” was all over. He’d assumed she meant the holding pattern they were in before they got married. She hadn’t wanted anything to do with the romance the holiday celebrated. When he’d announced he’d arranged for a babysitter, made reservations at the fanciest restaurant in Peaceful, The Pier, and that they didn’t need to hurry back, she’d gotten crazy, berating him for making plans like that without consulting her first. She’d said nothing made sense to her–he didn’t, she didn’t, life no longer held any logic for her. When he’d tried to ask her what she meant, she’d whispered that she was lost, trapped without any choices. She was questioning everything she’d ever done, they’d done, everything they were planning to do.

Hearing her, Chad had admitted to himself he’d known deep down she felt exactly like that. Yet he couldn’t fix it. Anything he did or said would only make the situation worse for her. So he’d gone against every instinct, abandoned his comfort zone of one man against the world, and he’d talked to the pastor of their church. Pastor Wes had talked to his wife, and Jazz had intervened the way she always did–gently, with the kind of love that always made everyone feel better about their predicaments. Somehow she’d talked Winnie into a better place, giving her a new perspective. Inevitably, though, it always came back to Winnie sinking back into her despair. No, Chad wasn’t surprised to hear her words now. But they made him feel helpless nevertheless.

When Winnie reached for his glass and drained that, she actually giggled when she set it down. “I feel weird. Uncoordinated.”

Unsteadily, she reached for the bottle, and Chad intervened. “Slow down, babe. When’s the last time you ate anything? You’re drunk.”

She giggled again, and the sound was like erotic sandpaper to his nerve endings. But then she said, “I need to be drunk. Need to be something or someone else…”

He heard the words she didn’t say. She needed to be drunk and to feel like another person to get through this night. His excitement fizzled out. Heavily, he said, “Let’s order some dinner. We can eat here. You need to eat something. You’ve lost weight this week, if not before then.”

“Doesn’t it look good, Chad? Am I too skinny?”

What could he say? He gulped. “You’re perfect.”

“My body has changed,” she said with recklessness he knew came from the alcohol. She was actually facing him, too, her body curved toward him. “It’s changed a lot since I was a teenager. So has yours. I wouldn’t let myself look at you like that after… But now I can’t help it. I thought you were the sexiest guy in the world when we were fifteen. There’s no comparison to then anymore. You’re a man. When did that happen?” She was looking at his chest, bared by his unbuttoned shirt. Unbelievably, she reached inside with one hand.

Her tone conveyed that she liked what she saw, and he found himself reacting to the husky sound and her butterfly soft touch, especially when she added, “Do you like my body now, Chad? Or did you prefer me before I had Kally?”

He couldn’t stop himself. He snagged his arms around her slender waist in the elegant red satin nightgown someone had obviously given her during her bachelorette party and dragged her against his rapidly heating body.

“I guess so,” she murmured, a giggle in her voice that didn’t quite escape.

“I haven’t changed, babe. Not the way I see you. You were so beautiful today. Every day since I couldn’t touch you anymore–more beautiful. I thought my heart would burst right out of my chest when your dad brought you to me for the ceremony this morning. I love you. I never stopped, never will. It’s always been this way for me. I want you so bad, I sometimes think I’ll die from it because I can’t stop remembering what it was like between us. I know I did everything wrong. I pushed you. You wouldn’t have done any of it if I hadn’t come at you so relentlessly then. I don’t deserve you. I can understand if you don’t feel the way you used to about me…”

She leaned close to him, her chin against his chest. For a long minute, she pressed her face against him, sighing deeply. Then she turned and laid her cheek against his heart the way she used to after they made love. His throat closed up until he thought he’d strangle. “Everything’s wrong,” she whispered. “Nothing’s right. The way it should be. I can’t be happy. I can never be happy again. Because we ruined everything. Sex ruined my whole life, Chad.”

He slammed air like she had the alcohol, and he felt just as winded. “That’s not what you used to say. Before we got caught, you said making love with me made you feel complete. Whole. You said you loved me more than anything but the Lord. You didn’t care if it was wrong. You wanted to be with me, wanted me to touch you again and again until the world went away and there was nothing left but us. I felt the same. I still do. Being with you is life and death for me. Every single time we were together, it was all I wanted forever.”

She was breathing shallowly, snuggled so deep against him, somehow he didn’t care that he wanted to die because she was so unsure. Just to have her in his arms again made the pain worthwhile. When she lifted her head and looked up at him, he said fiercely, “Whatever you want, whatever you need, tell me, Winnie. I’ll get it. I’ll do it. I’ll do anything.”

“All I know is Kally. I have to live for her. What else is there for me?”

Us.” The word roared out of him like a wild animal cornered or thwarted.

“I’ve lost sight of that.”

“I’m right here.” He said the words between clenched teeth. His eyes felt hot. Moisture stung them. Why couldn’t she understand? Their marriage wasn’t the beginning of their end. It was an all-new beginning for them–but only if she wanted that, too.

Something in her expression as she looked up at him made her gaze soften. “You can’t love me, Chad. Not like you used to. I’m Kally’s mother. How can you see me as anything else? That’s all it’s been for years.”

“Not for me. But are you saying that because it’s what you want? You want it to be over between us? This marriage is just for show? You can’t love me, don’t…”

“I can’t believe you’re saying any of this!” she insisted, exploding the words. “You make me feel like I’m stabbing you in the heart. But can’t you see that everything has to be different? It can’t be the same as it was when we were two stupid kids, never thinking of the future or consequences. I’m different, Chad, even if you think you’re not. I don’t even recognize myself, I’ve changed so much. I didn’t realize it for most of this time because I was following this track that was all pre-planned and set in stone for me. I’m not the girl I was. I’m ugly. I disgust myself. There’s nothing left to…”

The word “love” screamed between them, though she didn’t vocalize it. His hands clenched as he cradled her face. “I don’t care if you’ve changed, or if you think I have. I love you! You’re perfect to me. You were always perfect. I want you, whoever you are now. But if you don’t want me…”

She cried out, and he realized he was holding her so hard he was causing her physical pain. He let go instantly, she backed off, but even then her expression was so horrified, he knew she thought he was killing her with his words. The opposite was true. His life was over. He was dead if she didn’t want him anymore, if she wanted their life together over and done with. My life is buried in the fallout of our sin.

As if he could feel any more insane, she leaned back against him, making him helpless to do anything but hold her again, gentler. This time she pressed her lips against his. Instead of the icy rigidness he’d experienced all day, her generous mouth was hot and moist and supple against his. Even if she felt different than she had, he remembered this. Everything about her was familiar. I used to live for this. For her. Anything and everything she’d give me–even if she didn’t originally intend to give it to me.

Although he realized the champagne was all that was allowing the barrier of her heart to come down temporarily, he couldn’t do anything but accept this. Embrace it and grab for anything extra he could get. Her fingers sank into his hair as she crushed her breasts against his chest, not allowing even one millimeter to separate their bodies. He lifted her over him so she was on his lap, completely open and pliable to his every move.

Almost like a lightning bolt out of the clear blue sky, he had a vivid image of Winnie, sobbing her heart out in grief, the way she had the first time they’d made love. She’d regretted their weakness, their reckless choice that went against everything they’d both claimed to believe in forever. What if she regretted this? Even if she reluctantly agreed to stay with him in a real or sham marriage, he couldn’t take it if she regretted this as soon as the deed was done. Not again.

He broke away just enough to take her face in his hands. Her high cheekbones were flooded with deep pink color. He knew she was aroused almost to the breaking point. His own surged even as he asked, “Winnie, babe…are you sure?”

She was panting raggedly, her breath strangely sweet and hot as it fanned his lips. Even as his emotions were on the knife-edge, his physical needs had reached the point of desperation. Two years. Two endless years without so much as a kiss, a hug, a touch that would affirm his hope for the future. Two sanity-stealing years of remembering the perfumed scent of her skin, her sweat, the taste of her luscious mouth, the mind-blowing pleasure of being deep inside her…

He didn’t know how he’d survived without, but he knew why he had. For this day. For the chance that someday he could have her again like this, the way he’d never stopped wanting.

“Yes,” she whispered, the pain inside her making her voice hoarse. “I never stopped loving you, Chad. I want it to feel right again, right to love you like this.”

But she doesn’t think this does feel right. And she’s going through with it anyway.

He was inadvertently holding his breath. He couldn’t let anything but those three little words matter at all. He would have killed to hear those words all this time, and now he had. He’d make them enough somehow. “Thank God.” He didn’t feel satisfied, even as he told himself to shut up and take what he could get. He had to know. “Are you sure you wanna do this, Winnie?” Because there might be no way to turn back then. I don’t want there to be a way.

In the drawn-out seconds that followed, he prayed there could be only one answer for her, as there was only one for him. Finally, she nodded. That wasn’t as good as the words, but, like everything when it came to this woman, he’d take it. If one slender thread to connect them was all he had, he’d take it every time.

Chapter 1


Two years later

Of all the idiots. What was I thinking? Gripping the steering wheel of his truck, Chad mentally kicked himself for the out of body experience he must have had to get to this point in his ludicrous situation. How could he have applied to college without telling Winnie? Classes started in two weeks! Somehow he’d gone through the enrollment and registration, admission deposit, freshman orientation, and final tuition payment for his fall term (having all calls and emails directed to his cell phone; written paperwork snail-mailed to Odd Jobs, where he worked), assuring himself he was doing the right thing. He would confess soon, he’d been telling himself all along–just as soon as he sensed she was ready to hear it.

Like she’ll ever be ready to hear this. There’s no breaking something like this to her slowly, no getting her to accept the situation in degrees. I can’t predict her mood on my best days. But I don’t need to have a full-on premonition to know she’s gonna bust a gasket.

To make matters worse, he’d somehow gotten himself to believe that the easiest way to do this was to soften her up with a romantic date before he broke the news. He’d already asked his dad and Samantha to babysit overnight Saturday and they’d agreed. First of all, though, he had to get his wife to agree to the date–a date! Something they almost never went on any more and hadn’t since they were teenagers. Whenever someone tried to force them into going on one…well, she never surrendered easily. To him or anyone else except Kally.

Chad rubbed the back of his neck, his dread growing the closer he got to their apartment building. He’d expected things to get better after they got married. Though she’d become his wife in every sense of the word, her normal state of being was withdrawn or downright ambivalent toward him. For every step he took toward her, she leapt back two more.

You can’t win here. She’ll never see your side–your intentions in starting college now. She’ll never believe you intended good to come out of it. His mind rationalized that nothing would change in terms of their schedule. Instead of being at work all day, he’d be in classes. If anything, he might have more time to take Kally so Winnie wouldn’t have to bring their daughter to work with her every day.

But then Chad thought about the level of homework he might be facing. High school had been hard enough in that regard. Between taking care of Kally and his part-time job, he’d almost never had time for homework until the middle of the night. It might be like that again–and then some. His first semester would include physics and calculus classes, in addition to history and other, more general courses that were required. This first might well be his easiest semester, but only in comparison.

Somehow he’d pulled off decent grades in high school–enough to get him into UW-La Crosse anyway. But he wasn’t looking at a standard four-year degree. In order to get the engineering degree he was interested in, he would need to complete a physics major over the course of three years at La Crosse before transferring to either UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, or UW-Platteville to complete another two years for the engineering degree. If I even meet the minimum standards to be selected to enter the engineering portion of the program, that is. If he did, it would require either a move or a four-plus hour-a-day drive back and forth for him, which wasn’t something he could conceive of, especially with Wisconsin winters. But that option was certainly more imaginable than Winnie agreeing to move to any of the three campuses that would allow him to complete a Bachelor of Science degree.

How the heck did I convince myself I’d analyzed all the angles of doing this? Last Christmas, a random comment from a friend had gotten him thinking about the fact that he and Winnie had talked about going to college at some point in the future even after she’d gotten pregnant. They’d graduate high school, get married, and, as soon as they could, start college. They’d both agreed having degrees would secure a better future for them. Chad told himself he was following the plan they’d already discussed. She had to agree with that much. Didn’t she?

Without mirth Chad laughed out loud. Guilt slid under his skin like a lethal virus. They weren’t anywhere near financially secure enough to do this, but he’d been setting aside money in a special “savings” checking account since he was fifteen. He assumed there had to be enough in there to make this work, at least for a couple years. Between their jobs (neither of Winnie’s full-time), they somehow made ends meet every month with almost nothing left over. True, insurance through Odd Jobs was sky-high–but the best Ethan Lynwood and Mike Fremont could offer him since the company was still fledgling. But the fact was, though Chad hadn’t dipped too much into the considerable college fund his father had been saving for him from the time he was a baby, they couldn’t afford to live on Winnie’s meager salaries. That was why he’d direct-deposited a portion of his checks into that special account. So he could quit his job and go to college full-time starting in September. He’d decided all on his own that he couldn’t handle his course load if he also worked eight-plus hour days six days a week, the way he had since graduating high school. Somehow they’d have to live on their savings, what Winnie made, and they’d have to cut back, though he couldn’t imagine on what. Once he broke the news to Winnie, he was hoping she’d agree to find a full-time job that offered insurance. Additionally, she’d need a job that allowed her to take Kally with her, as her current part-time ones did.

As a last resort, Winnie had a college fund of her own. Chad had reasoned they could use that to make ends meet during this time he completed his degree. She’d be the first to say she wasn’t ready to go to college full-time yet. She needed to be with Kally too much to consider it. Chad was all for that. And, once he got a good-paying job with his B.S. degree, they could set aside money for her to start college. Somehow, he had to make sure she realized that, if they fell back on using his college money to live, he couldn’t make it through one year of college, let alone five. That wasn’t an option. The amount of financial aid he’d been awarded–after turning down the loans he’d been offered–hadn’t fully covered the first semester.

Bottom line, there’s no reason to keep putting this off. I’ve considered all the angles, or at least I think I have. I went ahead with it. It’s the best thing we can possibly do. But Winnie wouldn’t like any part of this. Chad couldn’t fathom how he’d get the words out of his mouth to tell her either.

At the apartment building where they lived, he pulled into his parking space and shut off the truck. He couldn’t get himself to go up, though he saw Winnie wasn’t home yet. He tipped his head back and closed his eyes. Why did she have to be so guarded, rigid, and impatient? In the past two years, just like the previous years when they were juggling being parents, high school students and having jobs, they didn’t talk. About much of anything. Beyond their daily schedules and Kally, they didn’t share their lives, their thoughts–no matter how random–the way they had when they were carefree kids with nothing to worry about and no real problems.

Chad took a deep breath as he considered the part that bothered him the most about their married life. Other than on their wedding anniversary, Valentine’s Day, and once a week–Friday nights, like clockwork (unless she had her period, which was about the worst thing he could imagine)–they didn’t have sex. He could never be satisfied by their love life as it was. Almost all the time, he was frustrated, wanting her, wanting more, hating the awkwardness that came after every single desperate act. Why did she go through it at all? On their wedding night, she’d told him she loved him, always had, always would, but how could he believe her? Their lives were together but separate. He could only assume she stayed for Kally–because their marriage was the best thing for their daughter.

What he wouldn’t give to have his confident, carefree Winnie back. The girl who’d tell him what she wanted, needed, when and why she was happy or sad. Instead, the gorgeous woman he lived with and would have sold all his earthy possessions to have love him like she used to was in a constant state of mute depression. Since they returned from their abbreviated honeymoon, she slept nearly every night in Kally’s bedroom–on the spare twin bed there. She’d done the same thing in high school, after their daughter was born. The difference now was that she’d stopped making excuses for the sleeping arrangements. She simply shrugged and offered without apology that she’d fallen asleep while putting Kally to bed or claimed Kally had a nightmare. Most of the time, she didn’t give him a reason at all. He already knew why anyway–she preferred not to have to put up with his attentions. And if Chad had her in their bed, he would reach for her whether it was wise, warranted or otherwise.

One way or another, I have to do this. I have to suggest the date. Then, at some point while we’re alone, I’ll tell her the truth. There’s no way out of this. Telling her beforehand–even if it is only a few weeks in advance–is a lot safer than waiting until she misses my paycheck from Odd Jobs.

Chad forced himself out of his truck and walked into the building, stopping to get the mail on his way up to their apartment. If only Ethan, more of a close friend than a boss these days, had been right when he advised him colorfully to “love his woman up”. Ethan seemed to think a woman couldn’t be mad when her guy was kissing or feeling her up. While the first time Ethan suggested it, Chad had laughed and said he really didn’t know Winnie, did he?, he saw some wisdom in the practice of kissing and hugging and touching his wife as often as she’d possibly allow. While after two years, she still only tolerated it and never initiated or lingered on Friday or special occasion nights, he clung to the hope that she’d get comfortable and eventually allow him more liberties.

How can I tell her? She’ll come home tonight like every night. Exhausted. Since her dad suffered the stroke at the beginning of the summer and was still recovering in a La Crosse hospital, Winnie had been juggling hospital visits on the weekends into the mix with her two jobs. Knowing they had church and visiting her father on Sunday, she wouldn’t want to take Saturday to go out on a date even though they’d be back in Peaceful by late afternoon and could drop Kally off with his dad on the way home to get ready for their date. Chad had opted for Saturday night, since it was the night she’d most be willing to consider, though they both had to work part of the day. She could use a night out.

Chad shook his head as he closed the apartment door behind him and tossed the mail on a side table, not bothering to look at it. Winnie wouldn’t want to deal with Kally’s inability to separate from her, even when she knew their little girl needed to get used to that for her own good. What would convince Winnie the effort would be worthwhile?

Just like that, Chad had his answer. She’d become best friends with Ethan’s co-worker and best friend, Elaina, and the four of them had finally gone out on a double date months ago. He hadn’t seen Winnie that relaxed in years, despite Kally’s temper tantrum before they left her with her mom. Winnie had truly enjoyed herself. She might actually agree to the date if it was a double date with Elaina and Ethan. True, she wouldn’t like the idea of Kally being away overnight, but she’d agree to it because she wouldn’t want to have to leave their date early. They’d have the whole night. Once they spent the evening with their closest friends, they’d come back here. He’d buy flowers, a bottle of champagne, since a little alcohol always loosened her up. He’d tell her everything then, and, maybe after a relaxing, fun evening with their friends and plenty of time for them to talk without waking or upsetting Kally…

No, she still won’t be happy, won’t make it easy, will bust my chops for not telling…asking…her before instead of after the fact. Chad couldn’t deny he deserved a kick and then some.

He walked into the kitchen, opened the fridge and saw how empty it was compared to his dad’s fridge when he was a kid. Will Winnie be in a better mood if I make dinner? One less thing for her to worry about. He grimaced because he wasn’t a gourmet chef, let alone any good at it. Order a pizza? Nah, she’s always worried about money, and she’ll be less likely to agree to Saturday if we spend too much before then.

Before he closed the fridge without taking anything out, he saw she’d taken out chicken anyway. Maybe he could think of something to do with it after his routine, after-work shower. As the sawdust he’d accumulated on every inch of him from a day of hand-designing built-in shelving for a client went down the drain, his mind blanked out on how to cook chicken beyond throwing it in an iron skillet with some oil. It’d been just him and his dad most of his life and he’d been taught how to cook, yet he’d never been a natural at it. Winnie always provided a side dish and vegetables with meat. Sometimes she even made dessert.

He opened the door to let the steam out while toweling himself dry. Familiar voices carried to him. Winnie and Kally were already there. He could smell something cooking too. So much for that idea. Probably would’ve botched it anyway. Besides, he was too hungry to consider making anything like a balanced meal on his own.

Wearing just old sweat pants and a too small t-shirt, he went out, knowing they were in the kitchen. Kally had her back turned to him at the table, which was covered with her colored pencils and lots of paper. Two of her beloved dolls sat in the empty chairs on either side of her. She’d already drawn a couple pictures. As she sipped her juice, looking pleased as Winnie hung her newest on their covered fridge, Chad scooted down by his daughter’s chair. “Hey, mini Winnie. Whatcha doing?”


Good thing she’d set down her cup. She jumped into his arms happily. At nearly four and a half years old, Kally was the picture of her mother–hence Chad’s favorite nickname for her. Her hair was the same reddish brown as her mother’s and nearly as long. She truly looked like a little princess, with her Rapunzel hair and big, brown, beautiful eyes with a long, thick fringe of lashes, and adorable dimples. She was also a fashionista. Winnie saved a lot of money making most of Kally’s and her own clothes. Kally never wore pants. She always wore the sweetest dresses, skirts and tops, and had endless pairs of shoes and hair accessories since their family and friends were always buying stuff for her.

Chad hugged her to him. Somehow he nearly always thought about what his dad had said to him when the world had seemed to cave in around him because of Winnie’s pregnancy. “This could turn out to be the biggest blessing you’ll ever receive. I don’t believe for a second you’ll regret this child.” As he usually was and Chad always fought to accept, his dad had been absolutely right. Kally was the sunshine in his world, just as Winnie had been when they were young kids.

“How was your day, munchie face?” he asked when Kally slipped back into her chair and picked up her pencil color.

Without looking up from her drawing, she said, “Mommy got mad at me.”

Chad glanced at Winnie, coming to his feet from his crouch.

Winnie barely spared him an ounce of her attention from her food preparations. He knew she would get upset all over again talking about it, but she said, “I had to oversee the arrival of the baked goods that come in every morning at the bookstore.”

The Christian bookstore was also a popular coffee shop on the square in the center of town. “Yeah?”

“I told Kally to stay put, the way she always does at one of the tables during that time. But she didn’t. She went outside onto the square. I was terrified when I realized she was gone. I found her almost immediately, but…”

Her tone of voice conveyed the raging up-and-down emotions she’d been through during that time. Not for the first time, Chad acknowledged how hard it was for her to take Kally to work with her every day. The owners of the shop didn’t mind, but the fact was, Kally was always getting in trouble and making Winnie’s job harder. Normally, Kally was brimming with confidence and happiness–outgoing, affectionate, sweet and generous with everyone. Unfortunately, in one area she was a complete brat. When Kally got mad, no one wanted to be within a twenty-mile radius of that bomb going off. She raged uncontrollably, not caring about the consequences. Trying to get her to stop her tirade was nearly impossible.

It’s no wonder Winnie’s so tired and has no patience or tolerance at the end of every day. But there’s no way I can take Kally to work with me. It’d be dangerous on the worksites. Sometimes, if I’m fixing a computer or something that doesn’t involve heavy tools or equipment, I can. But that’s rare. What other choice do we have? Neither of us have family or friends who can watch her while we’re at work–everyone has jobs–and we don’t agree with daycare as a general rule.

The guilt seared inside him again, and Chad went to his wife and slid his arms around her at the cupboard. He hugged her from the back, kissing her neck. “Let me make dinner. You’re tired.”

“Your dad’s always saying he taught you to cook, but there’s been no proof of that.” She said the words like a joke, but the knife of shame plunged deeper inside him at them. “Kally’s starving anyway.”

When she moved away, he didn’t stop her though he missed the closeness immediately and her sexy perfume lingered, turning his bad feelings into something worse. Just watching her move around the kitchen doing domestic chores made him want her. Even though her long hair was caught up in an efficient ponytail, it still fell almost to her waist. Her bangs were the only part that she had cut occasionally, when they could afford it. Consequentially, her hair was always in her eyes, making her appear somehow more smoldering and sexy. Her eyes tilted up at the corners and narrowed slightly, just like a cat’s.

Chad found himself staring at her mouth, a mouth that came straight from fantasies, with a bottom lip so full, she perpetually looked like she was pouting. He’d always found her neck and throat incredibly sexy. Even when she wasn’t showing much skin, his mind went crazy filling in the details only he knew. The shirts she made for herself were generally scooped or vee’d, just barely showing off her gorgeous cleavage. She had mile-long legs and curves in all the right places, though she was thinner than she probably should have been. She was on the run and didn’t have time to eat more than quick meals most of the time. Even when she looks like a viper about to strike, the way she does now, I wanna touch her.

Because he knew he would only suffer for it later when he went to bed alone, he tried to look away and cool off. He took a seat at the kitchen table, and before long, Kally was ordering him to draw a picture while she did her own. Drawing had always been something that came naturally to him, especially the blueprint-type engineers used, and he reached for a black coloring pencil.

“Look, Mommy. Isn’t Daddy good at drawing houses? It looks real, doesn’t it? I want to walk inside that house and sit in a chair with my shoes off, and eat cookies on one of the princess beds. Daddy, can you draw a castle?” She looked up at him with her face beaming.

Winnie was smiling at Kally. Chad grabbed a fresh sheet of paper and started sketching. In minutes, the outline of a castle with towers, battlements, a portcullis and a moat appeared. Under Kally’s firm direction, he also drew princesses and knights. She named them all. As soon as she said “Vashti!” Chad remembered in black and white what had set him off on the course that was bound to give him no end of grief. His old friend Vashti Samuels had come home from law school for Christmas last year. She’d encouraged him to start thinking about his career, not just getting by on a weekly paycheck. When she’d claimed actively setting his course toward the future was the best way to take care of his family in the long run, he’d seen the wisdom of her sage advice. That’d been the beginning of his solo trek.

If Winnie found out Vashti’s the one who gave me the idea…man, more hot lava. Winnie had never liked Vashti–not that Vashti would have noticed, and not simply because she was the type to assume everyone loved her. Winnie hid her feelings well in that regard–from everyone but Chad, whom she assumed was secretly in love with the Titian-haired whirlwind.

In truth, he wondered if the fact that applying to college seemed harmless–the act of going to college seemed a million years away–had set the ball rolling. He’d figured once the idea came into its own, it would make sense and be the right choice. Now it seemed the exact opposite. Winnie would kill him. No two ways about it. As Ethan had been warning him non-stop for a month now, Winnie had every right to make curtains of him. Not telling her from the get-go had been bonkers and “nothin’ good’ll come of it, hoss”. From Chad’s point of view, telling her would be the first domino falling.


Winnie couldn’t stop thinking about that overwhelming terror she’d felt when she realized Kally was no longer in the bookstore, at her drawing table, when the morning delivery came in from the Sugar & Spice Bakery. First thing in the morning was the most hectic time in the Christian bookstore, but today had been worse than usual. Kally generally listened pretty well. But they’d had a tug of war about some stupid little thing just before the bakery van pulled up, and Kally was never reasonable when she didn’t get her way. She’d gone outside to punish Winnie for denying her.

As usual, I handled it all wrong when I found her out on the square. I screamed myself silly when she innocently claimed she was playing hide and seek with me. And then I hugged her in a boa constrictor grip while I cried and told her to never, ever do that again.

Unable to do much more than look down at her plate, knowing Kally would throw a fit when her punishment came later–when she couldn’t watch her current favorite movie because of her naughtiness that morning–Winnie thought again what it would be like to go to work and not have to do two jobs. Namely, doing the job she was paid to do while keeping an eagle eye on her daughter, the second part of her job. Most people didn’t have do childcare while they were at their jobs.

Unconsciously Winnie glanced up at Chad, blaming him instinctively. If he had a different job, he could share the load with her equally. But his was too dangerous to even consider that most of the time. On the other hand, without his job, which actually paid really well–despite the lousy insurance that was way too expensive though certainly better than nothing–they couldn’t survive.

When he shifted his gaze from Kally to her, Winnie quickly looked back at her plate, feeling ashamed of her bad thoughts. Why did they rule her life? No matter which door she entered, her bad feelings were there, standing in her way and keeping her from being happy. With Chad or herself. Does he know it? She suspected he did. But she didn’t want to talk about it, probably any more than he did. Chad had never been the type to enjoy a good heart-to-heart. In the past few years, neither was she. With anyone but Elaina lately. She’s the only person in the world I truly feel safe opening up with.

Winnie stabbed her fork into the chicken, then used her steak knife to cut off a square. She was too hungry not to eat, despite her fatigue and heavy emotions that seemed to be such a part of her being now, she no longer knew how to lift them off herself. All she wanted to do tonight was take a nice, long, hot shower, then curl up in bed. Alone. I need a good cry. Unfortunately, tears no longer came easily to her, and she often assumed it was because she felt numb almost all the time she wasn’t with Kally. She preferred a numbed state of being.

Pleasing her, Chad suggested they get out Kally’s almost two and a half foot tall, wooden castle dollhouse after dinner. That could always make the munchkin forget about her movie. With the open floor plan of the apartment, Winnie could watch the two of them setting up the castle with the million pieces of figurines, furniture and accessories while she cleaned. Winnie didn’t relish the thought of how much cleaning she needed to do before bed, but the two of them were so happy, she couldn’t help feeling soft and vulnerable, the way she always did when she saw Chad with their daughter. He was a good father, and Kally adored him.

Winnie cleaned up after dinner, putting things away and hand-washing the dishes since they saved on their electricity bill by not using the dishwasher, which she reserved for nights when she had absolutely no energy. She wasn’t surprised Chad came to her once the castle was mostly set up, telling Kally he’d be back in a minute and she could keep going.

Since their honeymoon, he’d persisted in being physically demonstrative despite Winnie’s seeming lack of any interest in initiating sex. While she’d never rebuffed him, she also didn’t encourage him. Often she thought if she let herself relax with him, she’d get comfortable with this behavior. Even she knew she didn’t really want that though. She’d long ago stopped analyzing why she felt this roadblock between them and just accepted the necessity of not losing herself completely. Somehow that felt like the only thing she had left.

“What happened today?” Chad asked when he’d slid his arms around her waist from the back. “You seem really upset, babe. Even now.”

As if he wasn’t touching her, seeking affection she didn’t feel capable of reciprocating, she continued washing the dishes, dipping them in the rinse water, then setting them in the dish dryer. Winnie glanced over at her daughter. Lowering her voice so only Chad could hear her, she said, “I was so scared. She was mad at me for saying she couldn’t have a cinnamon roll when the bakery goods arrived. I know Pete and Kim wouldn’t mind, but she doesn’t need that sugar every day of her life. She gets so hopped up after she eats one of those anyway–like I need her anymore wild than she normally is while I’m trying to wait on customers. So she punished me by slipping outside when I wasn’t looking, then pretending we’d agreed to play hide and seek out on the square. We didn’t. Of course we didn’t.”

Like he could possibly understand how hard it was for her to take Kally to work with her every single day, at both of her jobs, and try to keep her occupied so she didn’t start making trouble, Chad hugged her a little harder. He had no idea the turmoil she went through.

“I don’t know how much longer I can keep taking her to work with me, Chad. I know you decided she shouldn’t go to four-year-old kindergarten, but it’s only a half day and it’d be better than nothing. I could handle things better, since morning is the most hectic time at the store. She would be at school during that time. Then, in the afternoon when it’s normally calm and quiet there, I could distract her more easily. Besides, she needs to be more social and hang around other kids her age. It would be good for her.”

“You act like I made some big, final decision and you had no say,” Chad managed, sounding hurt.

Winnie had to rein in the white-hot anger that filled her at his gutsy words. “Did I have a say? I admit, you let me say what I wanted to, but I never had any real choice when it came to the final decision. You said no, and that was final.”

“What is four-year-old kindergarten, beyond another form of daycare? We both said we don’t like the idea of her staying with strangers.”

“This is school.”

“Not from what we were told. There’s very little ‘education’ going on. When she starts regular kindergarten next year, it’ll be a lot more structured.”

Under her breath, Winnie muttered, “We wouldn’t have to pay for this, and it would be good for both of us. But you’re not willing to see that. Because you have no idea what I go through and how hard it is for me every day. Why should you care?”


“Forget it. I’m too tired to argue about this again.”

He backed off because she moved away forcefully to get a towel and start drying the dishes she usually left sitting out to dry naturally overnight. She needed to be busy right now.

“I wasn’t going to argue. I was planning to say…” He struggled for a minute, then spit out the words, “Maybe you’re right.”

She stared at him in shock, noticing against her will that the t-shirt he wore was way too small for his muscular build. Every pectoral muscle was clearly defined, tight and rippling, his shoulders, neck and arms bulging with muscle built from hard work. With his darkly tanned skin, he could have been a cover model for a bodybuilder magazine. Her cheeks flamed in response. “What do you mean?” she demanded warily, reacting partially to her own helpless attraction to him.

“I mean, maybe we should try to register her for four-year-old kindergarten. Is it too late?”

Winnie frowned, puzzled. “I’m not sure. I threw everything out when you said no. I can’t remember the details now.”

“I’ll find out.”

You will?”

“Yeah. You’re busy enough without having to start again, looking into it. And why don’t you let me finish the dishes? You can take a shower and get comfortable.”

She took a deep breath, feeling hesitant to trust his abrupt change of heart in this area. He’d been so adamant about letting strangers care for their baby girl, she’d known he would never agree. Though she’d nevertheless found out all the information she could when she’d presented the idea to him in the first place a few months ago, she’d realized it was a lost cause from the start. Once she’d presented her case and he’d shot it down, she’d accepted his decision with a very cold shoulder for weeks on end. Another “all I have left” thing.

“I’m almost done. I’ll shower later,” she insisted.

He surprised her when he didn’t rush back to Kally to keep the precarious peace between them. He came and leaned against the sink so he could face her. “I was thinking, why don’t we go out Saturday night? Ethan and Elaina have been talking about doubling again. It’s been months since we did that.”

There was nothing else he could have said after suggesting they go out on a date that would have convinced her. She would have shot him down instantly. The prospect of seeing Elaina made Winnie consider the idea. She’d become friends with Elaina years ago, but when Chad got a job with Michael Fremont and Ethan Lynwood at Odd Jobs at the age of fifteen, Winnie had realized she actually felt comfortable with this woman. She had so few people she could talk to. Though she felt close to Chad’s stepmother Samantha and the pastor’s wife, she’d lost the ability to admit anything to them, since both seemed too close to the situation to be neutral. With Elaina, it’d been different, and when the young woman who worked with Ethan (seemingly twenty-four hours a day) started calling and asking to get together for lunch or a quick chat, Winnie had found her new best friend. Elaina was different than basically anyone else Winnie knew–she was someone who could be trusted completely, and Winnie just loved her in general. Their personalities meshed so well. Elaina was easy to talk to the way no one else in the world seemed to be for Winnie lately.

Certainly, it hadn’t hurt that Winnie liked Ethan a lot, too. He was another irresistible personality. Like Elaina did, he worked full-time for A&A Design, a successful interior decorating business in La Crosse, and also full-time at Odd Jobs, which Ethan owned with Mike Fremont. Elaina and Ethan weren’t a couple, but they also weren’t simply the fun, ultra-friendly brother-sister team they portrayed–especially in the frequent and elaborate practical jokes and pranks they played on each other, always trying to one-up the other. Often Winnie thought they’d make a cute couple, but Elaina seemed to not even consider the idea any more than Ethan did. She shrugged the suggestion off whenever Winnie brought it up.

Additionally, Ethan and Chad were close friends, and so the whole “double date” idea worked perfectly each time–though they’d managed it only rarely since they married. While Winnie suspected Elaina would laugh if she told her she’d been considering therapy a few years ago but then became so close to Elaina she decided she didn’t need it, she felt guilty for treating her friend like a paid shrink. Her guilt was usually assuaged in that regard, though, because Elaina had no trouble spilling her guts to her, too, about anything and everything.

Accepting that she’d never really had friends to begin with hadn’t been easy for Winnie. When she was in school, the girls she’d hung out with had everything in common with her. They went to the same church, same youth group, signed up for the same sports and activities at school, were all on the honor roll and dated the popular boys. Looking back, Winnie saw them and herself as brimming with confidence and self-respect they hadn’t really earned and both bordered on conceit and superiority. When she told those girls she was pregnant, everything had changed. For them and for her. Winnie wanted nothing more to do with them, and they felt the same despite the lip service they gave otherwise.

Ironically, I identify more with Phoebe Dowling, the school slut, than I ever could with my old friends. Oh, me and my friends made all nicey-nicey Christian actions and speeches with people like Phoebe, but we didn’t care about her or anyone else really. We cared about clothes, makeup, hair, boyfriends. I’d never had my faith in Christ tested before. I just assumed He would keep blessing me with everything good and wonderful whether or not I deserved it as long as I went through the motions.

Winnie realized she was being harder on herself than maybe was warranted. She truly had given her life and her heart to Christ when she was just a little girl Kally’s age. She had. But she’d still expected to be “God’s chosen” regardless of her own actions. She’d expected her life to be laid out for her, ready for the taking. She expected the Lord to fall in with her specific plans. But He hadn’t. That was the part she still struggled with. Because, even as she was disgusted by the superficial person she’d been, she still longed to be that person more than anything. She missed being blissfully, even obliviously happy, a person who never once thought something bad could happen to her. What was better than believing you’d always get what you wanted no matter what you did? I would have called it grace back then. Now I realize I was actually taking advantage of God’s grace.

Chad was looking at her almost desperately now, waiting anxiously for her response. There was little she wouldn’t do to spend actual time with Elaina–instead of the few minutes talking to her on the phone on sporadic days and seeing her on Friday nights at Pastor Wes and Jazz’s house for a small-group Bible study. “Who would we get to babysit?” she asked warily.

“Don’t get mad, but I already talked to my dad. He and Sam would love to.”

She might have gotten mad if not for her own desire to do this herself. “Have you already talked to Ethan and Elaina?” She’d talked to Elaina on Monday. Not since. Her friend hadn’t mentioned anything specific then.

“Eth says their schedule is open.”

While that was difficult to believe, considering the fact that they both worked two full-time jobs–mostly achieved because neither of them slept more than a few hours a night–Elaina always did seem available at a moments’ notice. Maybe that’s just for me, Winnie considered warmly.

The next concern was actually the biggest one. “What can we afford?”

“Whether or not we can afford it, we need this, babe. Sometimes we need time to ourselves. Don’t we?”

Already, Chad was easing himself between her and her work, and she couldn’t seem to prevent him from tugging her close. She never seemed to get over how different, how good, he felt against her. Not surprisingly, he became aroused immediately. She was only grateful she could hide her own reaction.

His face was so close, she could smell his breath, and she longed for him to kiss her. “We haven’t done anything since our anniversary in June, Winnie. Our parents paid for that. But when would be a good time for us financially? Never. So we can’t always make that a consideration. It’s good for us.”

She knew he was right, but, no matter how conservative they were, there were always more bills than money. Her college fund, which her parents had been building for her since she was born, had been nearly depleted once she paid the hospital bills from giving birth to Kally. Living with Kally in this apartment for the few months after high school graduation before the wedding had finished off the last of it. As grieved as she’d been to see it go, there’d been no other choice.

“Where would we go?” she asked.

“The Pier?” he suggested, since it was their favorite restaurant in Peaceful–but it was also the most expensive one.

She shook her head immediately, even as she thought they only went there once or twice a year. Was that really so wrong?

“Michaels?” he offered next.

Even that could be expensive, but when she sighed, Chad took it as acceptance…and an invitation. While he said they could call Eth and Elaina tonight–video call–his hands glided over her hips. His mouth touched her ear. They were going out on a date Saturday night. Was he looking for more than that, even after their Friday night sex? Did he plan to suggest they leave Kally with his dad and Sam a few hours longer so they could come home and…

True, once a week, generally after they got home from the Bible study and put Kally to bed, didn’t seem like nearly enough. Occasionally they had bouts of frequent intimacy on lazy weekends, but Winnie had been extremely careful about getting addicted to that. She could, so easily. Somehow it was easier to accept that sex was only something they did on romantic special occasions and one routine, regimented night a week. The fact was, Winnie didn’t want to allow more than that because the chance of her getting pregnant again would increase if their lovemaking increased, especially as much as Chad…okay, as much as she did, too…wanted. No birth control was a hundred percent foolproof. They hadn’t talked about having more kids, so she had no idea if he wanted more, later or ever. She didn’t think about that herself much. The thought was too terrifying, considering their crazy, financially-strapped present reality.

Chad’s mouth covered hers, and Winnie found herself falling helplessly into his too deep, too needy kiss. Even as she marveled that she had any energy to want so much, she was setting aside the plate and towel to put her hands, palms down, against his massive chest. Through the thin cotton, his skin was as hot as lava. He moaned as she stroked him, and he returned the favor without a second thought.

If not for Kally’s insistent voice, calling her daddy back for playtime, Winnie was sure she wouldn’t have had the strength to resist anything Chad wanted from her. Since their honeymoon, they’d gotten creative about stealing moments for this. Winnie had lost track of the number of times they’d frantically made love standing up and fully dressed while in the bathroom, the cramped pantry, the laundry nook near the front door–even the hall closet.

Her eyes closed tightly as she forced herself under control, she pushed Chad away, murmuring, “She’s calling you.”

“I need you,” he whispered.

She opened her eyes. Nodded tightly. Pushed him away again, this time more forcefully because she wanted the opposite–to pull him closer. Gotta get over that. But not tonight. I want to finish what we started, too. We can skip this on Friday… Nah, I doubt Chad will let me or I’ll want to.

Gulping for air, she tried to tell herself to stop thinking about it, but the desire persisted relentlessly as she finished the dishes, started a load of laundry, cleaned the house, went through the mail and sorted the bills to pay with the next paycheck. They had their family Bible study, and luckily it was short since none of them seemed to have much of an attention span or desire to discuss the selected passage this night. She played with Kally–and Chad, who wouldn’t stop touching her at every opportunity and making her need ten times worse–for a long time and she wasn’t surprised when her munchkin fought having her bath because she was having so much fun. Winnie felt vaguely guilty because Kally hadn’t really been punished for her naughtiness earlier, and Winnie knew her daughter was fully aware she’d gotten away with it scot-free. Again.

Bath-time routine was followed by snack and another how many pictures drawn. While Chad made sure Kally went potty and brushed her teeth, then read her her five nighttime book choices, Winnie quickly went to shower and put on something more comfortable. Then she called Elaina and asked if she and Ethan were available to video call in about a half hour. “We’ll be ready when you are,” Elaina claimed happily. “I can’t wait to make plans. Do you want to dress up?”

Winnie sat down on the bed covered with the black quilt with a stork carrying a little bundle and her and Chad’s name embroidered on it. LeeAnn Fremont had made it for them for their wedding. She’d asked Winnie about it months prior, wanting to know what she wanted for her wedding quilt. When Winnie had said this, LeeAnn had worried Chad would be offended, or they’d eventually not want to use it. Because, whether LeeAnn said the words or not, what Winnie had been asking for had been a reminder of their sin–not exactly wedding quilt material. But Winnie had insisted, and so LeeAnn had given her exactly what she said she wanted. Winnie had wanted to be reminded on a daily basis, sadistically so, then. Chad hadn’t. He’d never liked the precious gift but didn’t balk when Winnie insisted on putting it on their bed after their honeymoon. Funny that I almost never sleep with this blanket anymore. I sleep in Kally’s extra bed. Chad sleeps with it. Every night of his life.

Winnie stood, keeping her back turned away from the bed. “Yeah. Let’s dress up. I never get to do that.” Elaina had an amazing wardrobe. Though she dressed professionally for work, she had evening gowns and amazing clothes for going out, too.

“Pick out a few things and I will, too, and we’ll decide together in a half hour.”

Excited about the prospect of maybe getting an hour or two alone with Elaina on Saturday night just to talk, Winnie hung up and went to her closet. She barely had time to take out two things before Kally was calling impatiently for her to come in. Winnie hung the pieces on the bedroom doorknob before going to the room next door. Chad kissed and hugged Kally tightly before getting up and meeting Winnie at the door. He snagged an arm around her waist, pressing his mouth to her ear to whisper, “Come out when you’re done.”

She didn’t do that as a general rule. It was so much easier to sleep in Kally’s spare twin bed most of the week. She knew prolonged exposure to Chad would have her, literally, flat on her back. He always suggested the things that made her weak to resistance–a glass of wine to relax her after her hard day, the promise of talking about their schedules or Kally. Mostly, when they were alone, they made love, and she dreaded and anticipated that each and every time.

Feeling ashamed and not even sure why, she lowered her gaze from his intense one and said, “I called Elaina. They’ll be waiting to video call when I come out.”

“I’ll get the program set up on the laptop.”

He went out, closing the door behind him, and Winnie snuggled up with her baby girl on her frilly purple and pink bed. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I’m sorry I yelled at you so badly this morning. But you really weren’t punished tonight, were you?”

“I’m sorry I was naughty, Mommy. I knew you didn’t want to play hide and seek with me.”

Winnie pushed back her bangs back from her forehead and pressed a kiss there. “I couldn’t play hide and sick with you while I was working. You knew that. That’s never a possibility. Even though you didn’t get the punishment you should have tonight, you can’t ever do that again. Right? You could get hurt, Kally, or lost.”

“Okay, Mommy.” Kally turned toward her, putting her tiny hand flat against Winnie’s, the way they always did to be close.

“What would you think about going to school for a few hours in the morning? You know, like Irene will be just in the mornings soon?”

“Can I be with ‘Rene?” Kally asked excitedly.

“Maybe. What do you think?”

“I want to. But, Mommy, does that mean we won’t be together?”

Winnie hugged her a little tighter, lacing their fingers. “We’ll be together all afternoon and all night. It’ll just be a few hours in the morning.”

“I always want to be with you, Mommy.”

Winnie looked down into Kally’s sweet, loving face, and she couldn’t help kissing her. “I always want to be with you, too, my baby Kalliope. When I’m not with you, there’s a hole inside me. I love you so much. I think about you all the time we’re not together.”

Kally closed her eyes as Winnie kissed her again. “Me, too.”

“But we’ll be okay even apart. You’ll have fun with Irene. And we’ll be together the rest of the day. It’ll be hard at first, but pretty soon you’ll look forward to the time.”

Kally shook her head, but surprised Winnie when she said, “Let’s pray about it, Mommy.”

Winnie smiled, reminded of herself when she was this young. “Let’s. Do you want to talk to God first?”

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