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Authors: D.J. Palmer

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BOOK: The New Husband
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CHAPTER 27

Nina rose creakily on Saturday morning, hardly believing Monday would start her second full week on the job. Even though everything ached and had stiffened during the night, her mind revved up immediately. Jumbled thoughts of case files, forms, general worries for her clients—including the two young people who had required emergency admission into a treatment facility for their drug dependence—should have been overwhelming, but instead she was completely, almost euphorically, energized. She loved the job. The joy she got from serving others, making a real difference in people's lives, made her feel hopeful and renewed in ways she'd thought lost to her.

Before she reached the kitchen, Nina's phone buzzed with a message from Ginny. Of course she jumped at the chance to join her two girlfriends for a midmorning workout, some lunch, and maybe shopping after. It felt like ages since she'd seen them.

Nina put her phone away before getting sucked into social media or the news, thinking both would bring her down on what appeared to be a glorious weekend morning. She found Simon in the yard, raking leaves onto a blue tarp.

“I'm going to join Ginny and Susanna at the gym,” Nina announced.

“On Saturday?” Simon sounded perplexed.

“I keep canceling plans on them, and it's going to be harder for us to work out together now that I have my job. I could use it.”

“I was hoping we'd work on the yard,” said Simon, making his disappointment known. “Fall is the best time to lay down new grass seed. I was going to rent an aerator from Home Depot.”

“I'm not stopping you,” Nina said. “But I'm going to the gym with my girlfriends. Maybe Maggie or Connor can help.”

But Maggie, who had been in the yard tossing a ball to Daisy, bolted in the opposite direction at the mention of her name, running unencumbered now that her boot was off, leaving Nina and Simon to watch her go.

“She'll come around,” Nina said encouragingly. “Give it time.”

“Yeah, sure.” Simon sounded only sure of the opposite. “Have a good workout,” he said. “I'll see you when you get back.”

Nina felt a stab of guilt. He was trying so hard to form a family with her and the kids, and she needed to give him every chance to succeed. She'd apologize for leaving him in a bit of a lurch, but later.

“I'll be awhile,” Nina said. “We're going shopping after.”

Something shifted in Simon's expression, and for a moment Nina thought he'd give her that look she'd seen on the day he almost cut down those tree branches, but no, it was only a squint against the bright sun.

“Have a blast,” he said.

NINA DID
as Simon suggested—she had a blast. Las Tres Amigas, Nina, Ginny, and Susanna, together again, burned it up at the studio with leg raises, plié squats, and a host of other tortures. Afterward, the women enjoyed a light lunch, and Ginny ordered a glass of wine.

“Why do you think I work out?” Ginny said, raising her glass, and they all laughed.

A text from Maggie informed, did not ask, of her plans to go over to Ben's for the day, which for Nina was a major relief. No need for her and Simon to pal around, not when Connor (he had played a Friday-night football game) was home and could lend a hand. Ben had been a true blessing, and the Odells, who had picked up Maggie an hour ago,
were an incredibly sweet family. The more she learned how they were raising Ben, with less tech and more culture, the more she respected and even wished to emulate them.

Nina had a passing thought: she didn't tell her daughter nearly enough how proud she was of her resilience. Maggie's fighting spirit often moved Nina to tears. Secretly, she wished a nasty case of shingles on Laura Abel and her mother, but thoughts of Maggie's unfair treatment at school yielded to the more pressing demand of planning the upcoming girls' weekend.

Their annual sojourn to Connecticut took place at the beach house Ginny's parents owned. Las Tres Amigas, along with three other women from town, would stay up too late, eat and drink too much, and justify it all with the long walks they would take, each Fitbit tracking calories burned and thus earned. Nina had her misgivings about leaving Maggie at home with Simon, but it was only a weekend away and Connor would be there to act as a buffer.

“We need a shopping list,” Susanna said.

“Okay. Wine,” said Ginny, as she sipped from her glass out on the patio of Pressed Caf
é
, the lunch spot close to where they'd exercised. “Red and white. What else do we need?”

“Earplugs,” Nina and Susanna said in unison, an obvious reference to Ginny's snoring. Everyone laughed, and in that moment Nina lost sight of all her troubles.

SIMON WAS
all smiles when she returned home some six hours after she had left, with a car full of groceries and bags from a shopping trip to the outlets. Thanks to her paycheck, she felt comfortable to splurge a bit on herself.

“What's gotten into you?” Nina asked, eyeing Simon suspiciously. It seemed she'd been forgiven for her choice to work out instead of pulling weeds. He was sweaty, but his pants weren't dirty from yard work, nor were his hands.

Simon's smile lengthened, making him look giddy as a teacher on the verge of summer break.

“I've got a surprise for you,” he said, “but you've got to put this on first.”

Reaching into the front pocket of his jeans, Simon removed a bandana that belonged to Connor.

“Um, babe. The children are home … or at least Connor is, and I'm not really into that.”

Simon looked at her curiously until it dawned on him. “No, not that,” he said. “Put it on. Trust me.”

Nina took the bandana, unnerved but mildly intrigued. She tied the fabric around her head until the bright sunshine was no more.

“Can you see?” Simon asked.

“No.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

His voice sounded closer, and then from nowhere she felt a breeze near her face. She didn't flinch because she couldn't see anything, but guessed the breeze had been Simon waving his hand in front of her, testing the blindfold. He took hold of her hand.

Where is Connor?
Nina wondered.
And what the heck is Simon up to?

“Trust me,” Simon said, his voice a bit flat and affectless, his earlier enthusiasm now undetectable.

Why? What is going on?

Nina battled back her nerves to allow him to lead her across the lawn, then up the front stairs, into the foyer, and then partway down the hall. She heard a door open, the door to the basement, and her heart revved slightly.
Why down there?

“What are you doing?” she asked nervously, but he didn't answer. Instead, he led her down, step by step, into the musty basement.

“Simon, you're freaking me out a bit,” Nina said. She listened for other sounds, wondering again where Connor might be. Hearing nothing
helpful, Nina focused on Simon's even breathing, using it as a guide, but took no comfort from his proximity. Something felt off to her.

“Last step,” Simon said, lifting her hand as he helped guide her to the ground floor. “Follow me.”

Nina fought the urge to rip the blindfold off and advanced with trepidation, taking short steps, unsure what obstacles could be in her way or what awaited her. Maybe he and Connor had finally gotten their robot working.

As he pulled her to a gentle stop, Simon turned Nina around like she was about to play the pi
ñ
ata game. Then he came up from behind, leaning his body against hers as he fiddled with the loose knot he had tied. Putting his mouth to her ear, he whispered, “Are you ready?”

Ready for what?

Simon removed the blindfold with a flourish, allowing light to flood her eyes. As soon as her vision focused, Nina saw Connor standing there with a wrench in his hand. Next to him was a brand-new Bowflex home gym and elliptical trainer. A large area had been cleared of boxes to make room for the equipment.

“Now you don't have to worry about getting to the gym on workdays or not being here to help with the lawn,” Simon said with a proud look on his face. “You can get all you need for your workouts right at home.”

“It's awesome, Mom,” Connor said, demonstrating the bench press for Nina's benefit.

“He was great at helping me put it together,” said Simon. “I went to get the aerator at Home Depot, but Walmart was next door, and, well, I had a thought. They couldn't deliver until Monday, but luckily both boxes fit in my truck.”

“What do you think, Mom?” Connor asked. He had a proud smile, wide as a canyon.

What did she think?

The equipment had to cost thousands of dollars. Glen never would
have been so thoughtful, let alone as generous. She kissed Simon tenderly on the cheek.

“I love it,” Nina said, knowing how hard Connor had worked setting it up, how much thought and money Simon had put into the gift. She hoped her voice didn't betray how she honestly felt—trapped.

 

CHAPTER 28

Monday couldn't come fast enough. All I could think about was my father and his promise to chat online at noon. Ben skipped lunch to be with me in the library, but it was his idea, not mine. We both shared the same concern: that it wouldn't be my dad on the other end of the app; that it was someone pretending to be him, someone who knew about Tracy Nuts and maybe got lucky guessing his goodnight ritual, because, to Ben's point, parents say stuff like that. Together, Ben and I came up with five questions only my father would know the answers to—five questions that would prove he was alive, he had reached out to me, and he trusted me, and me alone, with his secret.

“Are you ready?” Ben asked.

I checked the time: almost noon. I'd thought about this moment every second of the day. And it felt like every second mattered, too, because judging by the way Mom gushed at dinner about the new fitness equipment Simon bought her, it won't be long before I completely lose her to
him
. Whatever. When she finds out Dad's alive, when he comes home, then Simon will have to be gone, and this will be something for me to talk to my therapist about.

“Ready,” I said to Ben, as I looked over the questions I'd written and rewritten at least a dozen times, searching for the right ones that would leave no doubt.

“What if it's him?” Ben asked. “Are you going to tell anybody?”

By “anybody” I knew he was talking about my mom.

“Not if he doesn't want me to,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

“What if he vanishes again? There's got to be a reason he doesn't want my mom and Connor to know.”

“Yeah, like the police,” Ben said.

“I'm not going to break his trust again,” I said. “I told you, I feel guilty enough about that.”

Ben did not look convinced that keeping this secret was a good idea. Then again, it's easy to judge other people's choices. He didn't lose his dad for almost two years. He wasn't living with Simon. My throat dried up as hot tears flooded my eyes.

Ben touched my shoulder gently. “It's okay,” he said. “Give it some time. He won't forget to call.”

I don't know how Ben knew exactly what to say, but he did. I'd read somewhere that kids with Asperger's had a hard time reading people's emotions, but Ben could read mine just fine. Maybe the label was wrong, or maybe he and I had a special connection. Either way, now wasn't the time to figure that out, because my phone buzzed. It felt like lightning had hit my body. I tensed, then relaxed. I checked the display. It was a Talkie message from Tracy Nuts.

It read:

Hi sweetie.

My breath caught, and those tears returned, but this time they were tears of joy. I knew it in my heart, my soul, my gut—every bit of me knew with a hundred percent certainty (no, make it a thousand, a million percent) that I was chatting with my father.

Hi Daddy.

My hands shook so badly I could barely type the words.

I miss you, Bunny.

And there was one of my questions answered already, no prodding necessary on my part: What do you sometimes call me? What other nickname do you have for me besides Tracy Nuts? And the answer, since I was a little girl, was Bunny, even though I hated it and had wanted him to call me something cooler, like Bear, but he kept forgetting and called me Bunny instead. Those tears in my eyes rolled down my cheeks, and Ben, usually so in sync with me, suddenly looked really uncomfortable. I typed:

Where are you?

I'm not anywhere close. Can't tell you where I am.

Why not???

My three question marks could have been four hundred.

There are reasons. Reasons for everything.

Please tell me.

I can't. I'm sorry.

Why? I don't understand.

You will. In time. You're the only one I can trust, Maggie.

Now I felt even worse about telling Ben, but I had some trust issues of my own to get over. I was sure, so sure, this was my dad, but my remaining four questions would be the final proof.

I typed, imagining what a puddle I'd be if I heard his voice:

Can you call me?

Not today.

Dad, I have to make sure it's really you. You understand.

Yes. Understood. You're a smart girl. Always were.

I smiled because that was something my father would say.

Where were we when I slipped on some wet rocks and scraped my knee on barnacles?

My dad would remember that fall. I had screamed like I'd been stabbed, even though after we cleaned the wound it wasn't much of anything at all.

Cranberry Island, Maine.

The response came back as fast as if he'd said it aloud. A tingle shot through my body. I showed Ben the phone and nodded.

Two right.

Three to go.

BOOK: The New Husband
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