Authors: Leah Atwood
“You can.” A loud sigh escaped. “I need to stay in here in case I have to play mediator.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
Not that he could have with her death grip on his arm. The too familiar anger boiled in her, starting in her abdomen and forcing its way up her body, resulting in a headache. It was a wonder she didn’t have high blood pressure.
Voices rose, until Madison could make out each word clearly despite the set of French doors closing off the room.
“I wish I’d never married you. Thirty-five years of my life wasted.” Madison’s mom stormed out of the room, slamming a door behind her. The walls rattled from the force.
Her mom ran past her, lips trembling. She didn’t seem to notice her or Archer standing there.
Before Madison recovered from the shock, her dad came out and left through the front door. Her legs wobbled. The fight had been one of the worst she’d heard, with curses slung at the other. Her mother’s declaration before running out hurt the most. Did she regret having her and Anna? Were the years raising them a waste?
Archer covered his hand with hers. “Come on.”
He took her into the room, prompted her to sit on the floral loveseat.
When the trembling reached her shoulders, he stilled them with a tender embrace.
“See what I mean?” Between tears, she looked at him. “They’re horrid to each other. How can anyone treat another human, let alone their spouse, like that?”
“I don’t know.”
She wiped at the tears and sniffled. “I thought I’d gotten over crying when they fought, but this one got me. Do you think my mom really believes the last thirty-five years of her life have been wasted?”
“People often say things out of anger.” With one hand on her shoulder, he held her hand with the other. “I saw her with Elise, and when she talked to you. There’s joy in her, and she loves you. Don’t doubt that.”
“I know she loves me, but I can’t help wondering if she’d rather not have had us if it meant being free from my dad.”
He shook his head vehemently. “That wouldn’t be love, and your mom loves you.”
“Anna and I have both asked them to seek counseling, but they refuse.” Tears subsided, she sighed. “They’re so used to that way of life, they can’t understand it’s not normal or healthy.”
Archer removed his arm and shifted his position. Cleared his throat. “If I’m out of line asking, I’m sorry, but has your dad ever hurt your mom?”
“After what you witnessed, I can’t blame you for asking.” She sighed again, weary of her parents and wishing she could escape permanently, except she did love her parents in spite of their flaws. Individually, they were great—together, not so much. “As far as I know, there’s no physical violence between them. I’ve never seen it, or seen any signs of it from either of them.”
“That’s good. How are they toward you and Anna?”
“Firm, but kind. They never treated us poorly, but they don’t realize the lasting effects their fighting had on us.” Her eyes locked on his. “It’s why I break off relationships at the least sign of differences.”
“But not with me?”
“No. You’re different. For the first time I want to stay.”
His smile managed to balance the delicate combination of understanding and self-satisfaction. “I’m glad.”
“Anna told me earlier that she has to make a choice every day to keep joy in her relationship. It hit me hard and made me realize I don’t have to be like my parents.” She ran a hand over the crease in her dress. “I can choose to react differently to disagreements and differences.”
“Your sister is a wise woman.” Taking her hand again, Archer drew a long breath before speaking again. “I choose to treat you with respect, not raise my voice to you, and only speak words to encourage, not tear down.”
If she wasn’t sure of love before, now she knew. She wanted to repeat his words, tell him she’d treat him the same way, but the lump in her throat precluded her from speaking, other than a raspy, “Me, too.”
May was Archer’s favorite month of the year. The rains of March and April transformed into brilliant greens on the trees and grass, and a rainbow of color through the blooming flowers. On mornings like this, he loved to sit on the rear porch with his cup of coffee and enjoy the tepid temperature before the heat came.
And on a twelve-hour day at the garage, and then two hours at the hospital with Gran, like last night, he much preferred to drive home with the last rays of daylight pouring through the windows and passing vibrant curbsides filled with tulips, daffodils, and other flowers he didn’t know what to call. He didn’t garden, never had a desire to, but he enjoyed the aesthetic benefits of other people’s hard work.
This May held even more allure than previous ones. He was in a solid relationship, one he could see lasting forever. Madison and he were approaching the halfway point of their marriage. With each day, the prospect of an annulment sounded like more of a nightmare. He didn’t want to let her go and had just over two months to convince her to stay.
An image materialized of her at the hospital last night with Gran. She’d worn her rings, as she only did at the hospital, and on the nights they’d had dinner with Landon and Tanya. One day, he hoped to replace the fake diamond with a genuine one and propose for real. He had no idea how the logistics would work since, technically, they were already married, but all that could be worked out.
Madison wasn’t the only reason this May possessed a special quality. Gran’s doctor had called that morning with great news. To everyone’s surprise, her health continued to improve, and she’d gained enough strength to have surgery. Granted, that in itself terrified Archer, but the operation offered a chance for more years with her. When they weren’t even sure two months ago that Gran would still be with them today that was fantastic news. He had to believe God would bring her through the surgery.
He heard his phone ring from inside the house. The interruption broke his contemplative mood, and he almost ignored the call, but no one ever called this early, unless it was bad news or someone needed a tow. Except, Cody was on duty this weekend, with all calls forwarded to his line.
That meant whoever called brought bad news. He shut his eyes, sent a prayer that it wasn’t Gran. On the third ring, he ran into the house and answered, putting the phone to his ear without checking the caller’s identity. “Hello?”
“Archer? Everything okay?” Madison’s voice greeted him.
“I’m fine. It’s so early, I thought someone was calling with bad news.” He paused. “You’re not calling with news are you?”
“No. Well, it depends on how you look at it.” Her laugh let him know it couldn’t be that serious. “I’m sorry to give you a scare, but I knew you’re an early riser, so I thought I’d ask and get it over with so it’s not hanging over my head.”
“Ask what?” With the level of things he’d asked of her, he couldn’t imagine what she had to ask that would intimidate her.
She took a deep breath and exhaled, sending a windy hum through the phone. “Here’s the deal. Remember I told you about Sean’s girlfriend, Laurena?”
“Yes.” From what she’d told him, he didn’t care much for the girl. Perhaps it was Madison’s bias toward her rubbing off on him, but something about her didn’t ring true, though he couldn’t pinpoint the reason.
“Here’s the deal. Sean called me last night after you and I left the hospital.”
“And?” he probed when Madison didn’t elaborate.
“Laurena is in town. He asked if we could do a double date tonight.”
Stifling a groan, he rubbed the back of his neck. “What did you tell him?”
“That I had to talk to you first.”
He appreciated the consideration, but a double date with his girlfriend’s best male friend and that dude’s girlfriend—that wasn’t his idea of a good time. “Where at?”
“I’ll pick you up at six-thirty.”
. Spending time with Madison would be the only good part of the night.
By all accounts, Sean was a good man. Archer had nothing against him, didn’t feel the least bit threatened by him. He was secure in his own relationship with Madison, and he believed that Sean and Madison shared nothing more than a platonic relationship. The problem arose because he had nothing in common with Sean, and definitely not Laurena.
“Does that mean you’ll go?”
“Yes. You wouldn’t have asked if wasn’t important to you.”
Madison let out a short laugh. “I confess, my main reason for wanting to go is nosiness and wanting to meet Laurena in person.”
The corner of his lips turned up. “Should have figured.”
“I can’t help it. My bad vibe toward her is so strong, and I’m hoping by meeting her in person, I’ll realize I was wrong.”
“Have you mentioned it to Sean?”
She gasped. “Goodness no. That’s not my place.”
“But if you think she’ll hurt him, shouldn’t you say something?” He had mixed opinions. If any of his friends felt that strongly about a girl he dated, he’d hoped they’d be honest with him. A few of his friends had learned the hard way, too late, that the women they’d been involved with weren’t what they seemed. After those experiences, they’d come to an unwritten agreement to let each other know of any concerns in the future. Fortunately, everyone loved Madison, and no one had a bad word to say against her.
“Not unless I have concrete proof. Sean’s so happy that I won’t destroy that based on a feeling.”
“Fair enough.” He returned to the deck and grabbed his mug of now cold coffee. “What are your plans for the rest of the day?”
“Housework—I’ve let it go too long. Maybe some painting when I finish. What about you?”
“Meeting Landon at the hospital and then babysitting Lacy for two hours around noon.” He went to the kitchen, poured out the bad coffee then made a fresh cup.
“Lacy’s so much fun.” He could hear Madison’s smile in her voice. “I don’t suppose you need any help to watch her?”
“I can handle one six-year-old, but if you want to come with me, I wouldn’t turn you away.”
“What time are you leaving?”
“I’ll be going to Tanya’s straight from the hospital, so I’ll be leaving here in an hour or two.”
“My housework shouldn’t take more than a few hours, and I can finish the rest this afternoon, if you don’t mind me coming to the hospital with you.”
He loved that she created opportunities for them to be together. “I’d like that. Could you be ready to leave about a quarter after nine?”
“I’ll see you in a bit.”
They exchanged a few more lines of conversation before ending the call. He hung up and let a wide smile span his face. Today wouldn’t be so bad after all.
I don’t like her
. An hour into their dinner at Victorio’s, Archer decided that Madison was right to have a bad vibe about Laurena.
Whatever does Sean see in her?
She’d called the restaurant “quaint” in a tone that was clearly insulting. Victorio’s didn’t carry her favorite wine, and she’d complained about that despite everyone else at the table ordering tea or a soft drink, not even putting wine as an option. Then she’d been snippy with the waitress for putting her lemon in the water when she’d specifically told her to put it on the rim.
Archer had seen enough and was ready to leave, but the restaurant, packed to capacity, ran slow in getting their meals to them and Laurena was a slow eater.
Probably because she never takes a break from talking about herself
. His thoughts toward her were less than charitable, no matter how hard he tried to think in nice terms. Okay, he hadn’t tried
Madison hid her feelings about her better than he did—he was pretty sure an annoyed scowl was plastered to his face. She sat, listening intently, to Laurena tell the story for the third time of how she and Sean had met.
Sean didn’t look too enthralled either. Archer tried to catch his gaze for a sympathetic expression of boredom, but Sean didn’t shift his eyes.
Hold up. He’s staring at Madison with wistfulness, not boredom.
It couldn’t be. Why would he be looking at her like that? Unless his feelings for her weren’t platonic? Maybe he’d read him wrong. He cast a second glance at Sean, taking the opportunity to study his expression since no one paid attention to him at the moment.
Definitely wistfulness, which was a certain indicator that the platonic friendship existed for only one of them. He wouldn’t say anything to Madison about it—for now. No reason to stir up the hornet’s nest when the problem didn’t cause any issues at the moment.
Once everyone had eaten—if not for the watch on his wrist he constantly checked, he’d be convinced the ordeal lasted for five hours, not the two in reality—he had to stifle a relieved sigh that no one ordered dessert. He couldn’t take any more of Laurena’s bragging or Sean’s ogling of Madison. How could she not see Sean’s blatant attraction toward her?
The waitress left the check, and he grabbed it, eager to pay and leave.
Sean snatched it from him. “I’ll take care of it.”
He grabbed it back. “First to touch the check, pays.”
“Can you afford it? I didn’t think mechanics made that much.” An arrogant sneer matched Sean’s nasty tone.
Even Laurena, who’d displayed few good manners all evening, gasped at Sean’s comment.
Madison furrowed her brows, switching her gaze from Archer to Sean, confusion written on her face.
So that’s how it’s going to be.
Archer entwined his free hand with Madison’s and endeared her with the sweetest smile he could muster above the anger simmering in him. “I think I can handle it.
is a guest here, and we want to show our hospitality.”
“Have it your way.” Sean mimicked Archer’s action and laced his hands with Laurena’s.
The waitress couldn’t take the check soon enough. When she returned with his card, Archer filled out the tip line and scratched his signature. He assisted Madison to her feet. “Been a pleasure folks,” he said through clenched teeth.
He escorted Madison to the parking lot, with a hand on the small of her back. Once in the car, he took a calming breath so he wouldn’t take out his frustration with the evening on her.
Madison broke the ice with an irritable growl. “That was horrendous. Laurena was everything I expected, and I don’t know what in the world got into Sean. I’ve never seen him act that way.”
“It’s pretty obvious,” he muttered, starting the car and pulling out of the space.
“What do you mean?” Because of the darkness of night, Madison’s facial expressions were obscured, but her tone indicated confusion.
“He barely took his eyes off you the entire night.” Distracted, he almost drove through a red light but braked at the last minute.
She scoffed. “I’m sure you misread him.”
“A man knows when another man is checking out his girl, wishing he was with her.”
“Sean and I aren’t like that.”
“You aren’t. He is.” His fingers tightened around the steering wheel. Man, he was still heated. He could handle a lot, but degrading him in front of his girlfriend? That took a lot of nerve.
“We’ve been friends for such a long time, and he’s never mentioned anything.” Her phone lit up. “That’s him now. He sent a text.”
“What does it say?” Grinding his teeth, he focused on the road ahead.
“We need to talk.”
“Are you saying you and I need to talk, or is that what the message said?”
“The message said ‘We need to talk’, as in Sean wants to talk to me.” She dropped the phone in her purse.
“You didn’t answer him?”
“No. I’m still too mad at him.” Silence reverberated between them until she placed a soft hand on his arm. “I’m so sorry for the way Sean treated you.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“No, but I’m still sorry he acted like that.”
“It's done and over now.” He couldn’t lie and say the anger had faded, but he wouldn’t allow the animosity to interfere with his and Madison’s relationship.
“You’re a terrible liar.”
He chuckled. “Okay, so maybe I’m still upset, but I don’t want it to come between us.”
“If it makes you feel better, I’m livid. I don’t know what’s going on with him, and why he’s so happy with that despicable woman.”
“He didn’t seem too happy tonight.”
“You’re right. Something about him was definitely off.” Madison stopped talking for several seconds. “You do know that even if you’re right, and Sean has feelings for me, that it changes nothing between us, right? I care for you, a lot, in ways I’ve never had an inkling of affection for Sean.”
“I know, but it does help to hear it.”
“Maybe tomorrow I’ll reply to Sean, but I’ll talk on the phone, not in person. If you’re right, I’m not comfortable meeting him alone.”
“Don’t stay away from him on my account.” The words tasted bitter on his lips. “He was your friend before you were my girlfriend.”