Authors: Amy Stephens
the Coming Home Series
Heart of the Matter
Copyright © 2014, 2016 by Amy Stephens
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and
incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a
fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or
actual events is purely coincidental.
This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any
manner whatsoever without the express written permission of Amy
Stephens, except for the use of brief quotations embodied in critical articles
Cover design by Amy Stephens
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/Nikita Starichenko
Interior formatting by Amy Stephens
“There are people in your life
Who've come and gone
They let you down
You know they've hurt your pride
You better put it all behind you baby
Cause life goes on
You keep carryin' that anger
It'll eat you up inside baby
I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about forgiveness,
Even if, even if you don't love me.”
Don Henley—Heart of the Matter
“Honey, are you okay?”
I grab hold of the armrest and wrap my fingers around the door handle. My other hand is fisted so tightly in my lap that my nails are literally cutting into my skin. Not realizing I’m holding my breath, I stare blankly out the window as our SUV passes the exit. Right now, I’m grateful Todd agreed to drive us home because I’m really having a difficult time containing my emotions.
“Jenn, babe, did you hear me? Are you okay?”
I look down and notice the whites of my knuckles. I pull my hand away and wiggle my fingers so the blood circulation returns to normal. All of a sudden, I feel something brush against my leg and I jump.
“Oh, you scared me.” I look down just as my husband returns his hand to the steering wheel. I take in a deep breath, relieved it’s only him.
“Babe, what’s wrong? You’re as white as a ghost,” Todd asks as he looks from me to the road then back at me again. “Have you not heard me calling your name?”
I reach up and pull the seatbelt away from my neck. I tug at it a couple of times, not liking the way it makes me feel restricted. I notice several strands of my hair draped over my shoulder, and I reach up to tuck them behind my ear. Fidgeting—it’s exactly what I’m doing.
“I’m…I’m, uh…I’m okay,” I manage to say but even I know it’s not convincing enough for my husband.
“Why don’t I stop at the next exit? Maybe you need some fresh air,” he suggests.
Todd reaches up and adjusts the air conditioner, turning the vents so that they’re blowing on me. The cool air does feel good, but it’s not what I need to settle my nerves.
“No,” I answer rather abruptly. “Just keep going. Don’t stop.”
“Honey, what’s wrong?” Todd asks worriedly. “You’re scaring me.”
I cover my face with both hands and do my best to hold myself together. I can’t break down in front of my husband, or even worse, in front of my kids. I just can’t. I squeeze my legs together while my body breaks out in a cold sweat. I wouldn’t be surprised if Todd didn’t hear my heart pounding through my chest.
I lean up and pull open the glove box, grabbing a handful of napkins to blot my face. I lower the visor and glance at myself in the mirror. I look a horrid mess. My face lacks color and my eyes are so glazed over with tears, it’s a wonder they’re not swollen. I angle the visor to see the girls in the backseat and breathe a sigh of relief—they’re both sound asleep.
“I’m fine, dear. Really, I am.” I run my fingers through my hair and hope I sound convincing enough until we’re at least a little farther down the highway.
“How about we stop for something to drink?” Bless his heart, I know I’ve probably scared him half to death. “I’ll pull off at the next exit and grab you a cold water or something.”
I turn to look at Todd with pleading eyes because I know he’s not going to let this drop. God, I hate to even bring it up, but it’s only fair that I mention what brought on my sudden panic attack. At least I feel that’s what it was. I’ve had anxiety attacks before but it’s been so long ago, I shudder just thinking about them. Those were the days when…well, Brian was still upsetting me.
I feel the car slowing down and I start to squirm in the seat.
“No! You can’t stop here.” I manage to say. I drop my napkins and use both hands to motion for him to keep going. “Just keep driving, please. When it’s safe, we can stop then.”
“Baby, what are you talking about? When it’s
? Will you please tell me what’s going on?”
I hate that he’s getting upset with me. The last thing I want to do is wake the girls. Todd and I never argue so seeing me like this would definitely cause them to worry and think something was going on between the two of us.
He wraps his hand around mine and almost instantly I begin to relax. I’m lucky to have such a compassionate husband.
“The…the exit we just passed…is where Brian used to live,” I blurt out then turn to look out the window. I’m almost embarrassed for my earlier behavior, that I let something about Brian get to me in such a way.
Todd deeply exhales. “That sure explains things.” He squeezes my hand then rubs his thumb back and forth over the top. “It’s alright, baby. We don’t have to stop here. There’s plenty of other exits further down.”
It’s been over fifteen years now since that horrible day. Brian and I had been on our way to meet his parents and to tell them of our recent marriage and baby we were expecting. Looking back, I wonder where I’d be today had we not had that argument that led me to get out of his car on the side of the interstate. After all, it’s how I met Todd.
I wonder what ever became of Brian. The last I’d heard, he’d been in jail serving time for the stunt he’d pulled at my old apartment where he’d completely destroyed it. Who knows what else he may have been guilty of that I didn’t know about. It was during this jail time that he’d agreed to sign the divorce papers. Regardless of the reason for his being there, I was just thankful he hadn’t put up a fight. I was set free from him, forever. Or, so I thought.
Oddly enough, with the exception of a few random calls where he’d not said anything, he never tried to contact me again. Even after Chloe was born, I continuously kept looking over my shoulder, always in fear that he was watching me. Todd had assured me no one was going to harm me or my baby. It was easy for him to say, but he knew firsthand just how scared I was.
I realize now, after being with Todd, that I didn’t love Brian at all. I had fallen into a trap that I couldn’t seem to escape. When Todd and I were married and we’d confessed our love for each other, I knew then what it meant to fall in love with someone—to love and actually be loved.
Thank goodness the adoption process went smoothly, too. Chloe became a Williams and Todd has raised her as his own ever since. I feel bad that we’ve held off on telling her the truth about her real father, but the timing hasn’t been right. Not yet. Lilly was born two years later, and it’s unbelievable how much the girls resemble one another despite having different fathers.
Chloe is turning into a beautiful young woman. She’ll be fifteen soon and is quickly climbing up the social ladder at school. Just this past year she made the Varsity cheer team, almost unheard of for a high school freshman. She’s such a loving and caring daughter and always looking out for Lilly’s well-being. She’s the perfect child, and I only hope, when the time comes to share the news with her, that she handles it well. I pray she doesn’t hold it against me.
Lilly, on the other hand, is quite active in softball and volleyball. Apparently she got her athletic abilities from her father who’d been a star football player back in his high school days. She’s tall and thin and prefers ponytails over make-up and flat irons, unlike that of her older sister. Don’t get me wrong, Lilly enjoys shopping, but what’s important to her is far different from that of Chloe.
Despite their differences, they’re both always looking out for one another. The girls have their own unique circle of friends, but they’re all about family time, too.
We left out last week on a ten-hour drive to get to the Williams’ family condo over on the Atlantic coast. Rick and Beth, Todd’s parents, had bought the condo not long after retiring from the family’s pharmacy business years ago, and we’re more than welcome to stay as often as we’d like.
Typically, we try to take the girls as soon as their school lets out for the summer. The beaches along the Atlantic are so different from the beautiful, white sandy beaches I remember visiting along the gulf coast when I was younger. They’re still gorgeous, none the less, and the girls enjoy every bit of sun they can get.
This time, we cut our beach trip short by a couple days and decided to drive over to a new theme park the girls had been anxious to visit. They’re both daredevils and weren’t afraid to ride any of the park’s many roller-coasters. The more loops there were, the better they enjoyed it. Todd and I weren’t brave enough to accompany them, so we enjoyed the view just off to the side.
I truly cherish these family vacations. Once Chloe and Lilly are grown, who knows if we’ll still be able to travel and go places together.
All in all, we appear to be the perfect family, and for the most part, I suppose we are. My relationship with Todd reminds me of that of my parents, and I’m thankful I was brought up in a happy, loving environment. Some people may think our life is boring since we always agree on everything; I’ve been told we need to argue a little bit just so we can make up, but I beg to differ. I don’t need a dispute with my husband in order to make up or to have incredible sex. It’s funny, but many of my friends are rather envious of our sexual relationship. Maybe it’s one of the reasons we’ve been so content with each other through the years.
Speaking of disputes, though, we did encounter one slight disagreement just before leaving the theme park to head home. It wasn’t anything major, just that we couldn’t agree on the best route to take to get us back. We both studied the map on our phones, and even though Todd was persistent in taking the interstate, I did my best to argue a different way. I had my reasons why, but I wasn’t up to talking about it. It wasn’t the time nor place, especially having the girls with us.
Since he was driving, I gave in. I figured, if nothing else, I could always take a nap and sleep until we were beyond that one particular exit. Wouldn’t you know, though, I was wide awake. Sleep wasn’t even something I could pretend to do.
“Mom, I’m hungry.”
“Mom, Chloe’s talking you.”
I feel something brush against my shoulder and I jump in my seat. “Huh, what? Did you say something?” I look over at Todd then grasp it wasn’t him but rather one of the girls. Apparently I’d zoned out for a moment and hadn’t realized they were both awake now.
“Mom, you’re acting weird.” I hear Lilly say from the seat behind me.
Todd, reading the expression on my face, quickly comes to my rescue. “Girls, your mom’s feeling a little carsick. We’re going to stop just a couple exits from here and maybe grab a bite to eat. We could all stand to get out and stretch our legs. Does that sound okay?”
“Sure. Sounds good to me,” Chloe replies then puts her earplugs back in while Lilly pulls out the book she’d been reading earlier.
I continue to stare ahead, trying to remain as calm as I possibly can.
I reach over and rest my hand against Todd’s leg.
Why me? Why did this have to happen today?
I ask myself.
Just because Brian used to live here doesn’t mean he’s here now. He…he could be anywhere.
Another thirty minutes or so go by and I start to feel somewhat better. Without saying anything, I look over at Todd and nod my head while making a weak attempt to smile. It’s not fair to keep the girls waiting since I know they’re both hungry.
As we exit the interstate, I take in the many fast-food choices to pick from. Surely the girls can agree on where they’d like to eat. Todd points out a buffet place that’s just ahead on the right. I don’t say anything one way or the other, but I sure wish he’d suggested someplace quicker—I’m just ready to get home.
I open the door of our SUV and my legs instantly feel like Jell-O as soon as I try to stand. I quickly reach over and grab onto the door, just until I can regain my balance. It’s hard to believe that passing one particular exit on the interstate can have that kind of effect on me—and we didn’t even stop. Right now, I’d give anything just to feel like my old self again.
Inside the restaurant I notice people are laughing and carrying on about their business while enjoying their meals. No one pays us any attention—we’re just like any other random family stopping to get a bite to eat after being on the road. So why then, do I suddenly feel like we’re being watched?
I take a couple swallows of my water then glance around before going up to the buffet line to fix my plate. Todd walks directly behind me, still very much in tune to my sluggish behavior. The food actually looks and smells good, I just hope I’m able to eat.
I nearly lose my footing while walking back to our table. I’m so busy looking around instead of paying attention to where I’m going that I don’t see the rug in front of the beverage station. I immediately feel my face redden, embarrassed to be drawing unnecessary attention to myself.
Back at our table, I take the seat next to Todd then give the dining area one more quick scan. Both girls are already seated and enjoying their meal. I take a couple bites then stop. I reach for my water glass, gulping down the cool liquid as quickly as possible. My stomach churns continuously, though. Sadly, I feel my nerves have gotten the best of me.
The girls go back for another plateful while Todd finishes up with his. Once more, I try to nibble on my food, at least to have a little something in my stomach. It’s no use.
“Girls, let’s try to eat as quickly as possible,” Todd says as soon as they return. “Your mother isn’t feeling very well so we need to get her home.”
Chloe looks up at me, a worried look on her face. “Mom, are you okay?”
Both my daughters aren’t used to seeing me this way, and I feel even worse knowing my behavior is that obvious. “I am, baby girl. I think it’s just from being on the road for so long.”
When we’re finished and back in the car again, I breathe a sigh of relief.
Yes, we’re finally leaving this place,
I think to myself. Instead of getting back on the interstate, though, Todd pulls across the street to the gas station.