If her hands hadn’t been covered in double chocolate chip cookie dough, Melanie Weaver would have slapped duct tape over her mouth to stop herself from doing it again.
Saying yes when she really meant no.
Even when she had the best intentions of refusing, that slithery yes word slipped out instead. “Do you want a slice of Great Grandma’s fruitcake?” “Can you call Bingo for the Ladies Auxiliary?” “Don’t you just love this orange sweater?”
She hated fruitcake, had grown tired of the “B-4 and After” jokes, and never wore orange. Yet every year, Great Grandma brought a rock-hard fruitcake to Christmas dinner and Melanie choked down a slice, praising the wrinkled dates and dried cherries. On Tuesday nights, she dutifully showed up at the Presbyterian Church and called out letters and numbers in a smoky room filled with frantic red-dotters. And in Melanie’s closet, there were three orange sweaters, birthday presents from her Aunt Cornelia, who took Melanie’s compliment of a mango-colored afghan as sure evidence of love for the color.
So it stood to reason, based on her history of always saying the wrong word at the wrong time, that on a bright spring Friday morning she would accept an invitation to her twenty-year class reunion when her life was as jumbled as a ten-thousand-piece puzzle.
“It’ll be wonderful to have you!” Jeannie Jenkins, former cheerleader, blasted Melanie out of her reverie with a voice that hit unnatural decibels on the phone. “Everyone is, like, so looking forward to seeing you. I just knew, when I saw your name on the list, that you’d want to go. I mean, you must have just forgotten to RSVP or something.”
“Or something,” Melanie said. She hadn’t returned the card because she hadn’t intended to go, nor to answer all those questions about where Cade was.
Or, worse, see Cade there with another woman on his arm. She may be ending her marriage, but she wasn’t quite ready to imagine him with someone else.
“The reunion is only, like, a week away. We’ll all be together again, in just a few days. Isn’t that so exciting?!”
“Absolutely.” Melanie tried to work some enthusiasm into her voice. She wanted to see her old friends, to catch up on their lives, but the thought of running into Cade, surrounded by memories of happier days, was unbearable. Her resolve would falter, and all those maybes would pop up, the same maybes that had stalled her leaving over and over again because she’d thought things might change. Go back to the way they were.
Either way, there was no return to those days. Melanie had changed, and Cade hadn’t accepted those changes. She now had her shop, her new life. A life that no longer included Cade.
It was early afternoon and Cuppa Life was empty, save for Cooter Reynolds, who was sipping his daily mocha latte while reading the Lawford News and tapping his foot along with the soft jazz on the sound system. She had an hour until the college student flood poured into her coffee shop on the west side of Lawford, Indiana. And hopefully, only about five seconds until her daughter Emmie, who worked part-time in the shop, was here for her Thursday shift. Melanie had started the cookies, sure Emmie would be in any second, but twenty minutes had passed since Emmie’s shift was due to start and she still wasn’t here.
“Did you like, go to college?” Jeannie didn’t wait for an answer. “Me, I totally couldn’t go. I was so done with school when it was over. The last thing I wanted was more.” She let out a dramatic sigh, as if Westvale High had been the equivalent of a stint in San Quentin.
Jeannie continued chattering on about how hard high school had been, how much she’d hated sophomore grammar, how the guidance counselor had tried to talk her into at least a two-year degree.
The words struck a note of pain in Melanie’s chest. Ever since she’d been a kid, Melanie had dreamed of owning her own business. She’d spent her summers here in Indiana, working in this very space, helping her grandparents run what had then been a very successful antiques shop. Her grandfather, who’d seen that spark of entrepreneurial spirit, had encouraged Melanie to go to school, get a degree in business.
Melanie had had a scholarship to Notre Damea free ride to the college of her choiceand then been sidetracked by marriage, a child.
Always, Cade had said, there would be time for Melanieuntil her chance came up and he’d dismissed it faster than a perpetually tardy employee.
But Melanie refused to be put off. When Emmie was grown, Melanie had started taking night classes in business, working part-time at the Indianapolis university’s coffee shop.
There, she had found her calling. In the camaraderie and coffee, she’d laughed more, looked forward to her days, and started thinking of that future she’d put on hold.
After leaving Cade, she’d moved to Lawford and opened her own coffee house, to create that community atmosphere in the city’s busy business district. She’d gotten her certification as a barista at a conference for coffee shop owners and put those business classes to work.
It may not have been the dorm life and college experience she’d dreamed of during high school, but that didn’t matter. She wouldn’t have traded those years of raising Emmie for credit hours and a degree.
Emmie had been worth every sacrifice, ten times over. Her giggles, her first day of preschool, her scraped knees and bicycle riding attempts. Even the early years with Cade had been wonderful, filled with laughter and meals eaten while sitting on the floor of their sparse apartment living room, with candlelight providing the mood and pillows serving as furniture.
Melanie shook off the thoughts and concentrated on stirring chocolate chips into the already chocolate dough, while Jeannie chattered on about how cool the reunion would be, how awesome it would be to reconnect with the other Westvale Highers. Jeannie was clearly a woman who didn’t need much oxygen.
“So whatcha been doing all these years?” Jeannie asked when she came up for air, her voice interrupted by a blank sound in the phone line. “Oh, damn. Can you hold on a sec? I have another call, probably from ex number-two.” Jeannie clicked off to retrieve call waiting.
Melanie pictured her personal resume: thirty-seven-year old woman, almost divorced, running a coffee shop that had finally started showing a profit three months ago. Experience included nineteen years of running a vacuum and a dishwasher. Hey, but she could Calgon with the best of them.
It had been a conscious decisionthe only decision she could imagine makingonce she saw those two pink lines three weeks after prom night. She remembered being excited and scared, all at the same time. But Cadeand, oh, how she missed that old Cade sometimesCade had held her and told her it would all be okay. They’d work through this life twist together.
So she’d married him, had Emmie and then stayed home while Cade worked and went to law school. Later, she’d hosted the dinner parties, sent the thank-you notes and held down the home fort while Cade worked his way up the Fitzsimmons, Matthews and Lloyd ladder.
“Melanie?” Jeannie again, back from her other call. “You still there?”
“Yep.” Finished with the cookie batter, Melanie stepped to the right and peeked around the corner of the shop and chuckled. Cooter had fallen asleep on one of the sofas, the paper across his chest, his snores providing an undertow of rhythm to the soft sounds of the stereo system.
“Remember Susan Jagger? She was saludadorian,” Jeannie said, mangling the word, “and can you believe she started her own business selling dog sweaters? She’s about to hit two million in sales! Oh, and remember Matt Phillips, the kid who always sat in the back and never said a word? He’s, like, a famous software nerd now, like that Gates guy. Matt wrote something that runs some big huge computer machine or something. I didn’t really listen when he was telling me. I mean, it was computers.” Jeannie paused to inhale. “And you, why I bet you’ve, like, invented a cure for cancer or something.”
“Not quite.” Melanie shouldn’t be envious that other people had accomplished more than she had.
But she was. Green as the Jolly Green Giant.
Admitting she’d spent the last two decades helping her husband succeed seemed…embarrassing for someone who had been voted Most Likely to Become President and even more, a woman who had graduated in the top ten of her class.
“Then what are you doing?”
Melanie drew in a breath. So what if she wasn’t running a huge company. Cuppa Life was something to be proud of. It was hers, all hers, and every inch of its success was due to Melanie, no one else.
She’d done itopened a business and survived that critical first year. Sure, she was running an espresso machine instead of a multi-million dollar business, but she was happy. And that, she’d found, was all that mattered.
“I own a coffee shop in Lawford,” Melanie said. “It’s doing really well.”
“Well, that’s cool,” Jeannie said, the words coming out with that exaggerated care that spelled unimpressed. “Like, everyone drinks coffee.”
Melanie dropped cookie dough balls onto the sheets, refusing to let Jeannie’s tone get her dander up.
“Anyway, I was, like, at the state courthouse the other day. Had a little incident with my neighbor’s underwear.” Jeannie let out a dramatic sigh. “Long story.”
“I bet,” Melanie said, biting back a laugh as she slid the first two cookie sheets into the oven. She peeked around the corner again for Emmie, who was now thirty minutes late.
“And while I was there,” Jeannie continued, “I ran into Cade. He was, like, doing some kind of lawyer thing. We got to talking and I told him I didn’t have your RSVP, and he gave me your number here. So, we owe our little reuniting all to Cade!”
Melanie’s breath got caught somewhere between her windpipe and her lungs. When would the mention of Cade’s name stop doing that? She no longer loved him, hadn’t in a long time, and shouldn’t be affected by his voice, the sight of him or a discussion about the man she was about to divorce.
But some part of her, that leftover teenage romantic that had believed in happily ever after, still reacted. Still wanted him and still thought about him when the night closed in and loneliness served as her blanket.
“Anyway, he said you two were still together. Ever since high school. I think that’s so romantic.” Jeannie sighed. “You guys, like, give people hope.”
The oven door, released from Melanie’s grasp, shut with a slam.
“Still together?” Melanie echoed. How could he? He’d received the divorce papers. Seen her walk out the door a year ago. Except for the occasional conversation about Emmie and seeing him at a distance on the sidelines of Emmie’s college soccer games, there had been nothing between them. Melanie had done everything she could to send the message it was over.
Clearly, Cade hadn’t been listening.
“Here I can’t even hold onto a man for five minutes,” Jeannie said. “I don’t know how you do it.” She took in a breath. “You guys got married so fast after graduation, then moved to what, Indianapolis? I don’t blame you. When we were kids, we might as well have lived in Mars, what with Westvale so far out in corn cob country. Anyway, we lost touch and I can’t wait to see you next week. So, did you guys have any kids?”
“Yes, one. But, Jeannie, listen”
Jeannie barreled on, not even hearing her. “You guys are, like, my idols. I’m divorced, twice now, soon to be three times. But it’s not so bad. The alimony is almost like a full-time job.” Jeannie laughed. “Anyway, you must have the coolest husband in the world. Especially if you stuck with him and had a rugrat.”
At that word, Melanie heard the bell over the entrance to Cuppa Life jingle. She peeked around the corner again, and smiled. Enter one rugrat, or rather, a nineteen-year-old sweetheart named Emmie.
“Hi, Mom,” Emmie said as she headed into the kitchen.
“You deserve it, Melanie,” Jeannie was saying. “I mean, like, someone should get the fairy tale ending. Besides Snow White. That girl never even changed her dress in the whole movie. I mean, what man wants that? Like, wouldn’t she start to smell?”
“Jeannie, Cade and I”
“Oh, almost time for my manicure! I need to get to the salon.”
Melanie looked down at her own hands, glistening with butter. There was dough under her short, no-nonsense nails and in the creases of her knuckles.
She needed to tell Jeannie the truth. That Melanie and Cade, the “it” couple at Westvale High, had fallen prey to the divorce statistics. Melanie had ended up pregnant at eighteen, married and living in a cramped apartment in Indianapolis before her nineteenth birthday. That she was changing diapers and figuring out the best way to potty train before she was old enough to drink.
That Cade had been the one to go on to school, thanks to his father funding the tuition and providing a part-time job at the family law firm to cover their other expenses. Cade had been the one to rise to the top of his field, with Melanie by his side, providing that home front support.
Since then, her biggest accomplishment had been learning how to make a good latte.
Well, that and Emmie, she thought as her daughter came into the small kitchen area, pressed a quick kiss to her mother’s cheek, then slid into place beside her to help with the rest of the cookies. Emmie was tall and lithe, with the same blond hair as her mother, but the wide, deep eyes of her father. She had Cade’s athleticism, Melanie’s wit, and on most days, a sweet, compassionate way about her that had survived the ugly teen years. She was Cade and Melanie’s pride and joy
The one thing they had done right together.
Yet, since the separation, Emmie had become more distant, more rebellious. Her short cropped hair was now topped with red, her ears tripled in earrings, and her attitude less friendly and more filled with annoyance.
Jeannie sighed. “I so wish I’d had that kind of happy ending, too.”
As Melanie opened her mouth to tell Jeannie the truth, it somehow got lodged in her throat. Maybe it was pride, maybe it was the thought of everyone in her graduating class giving her that pitying look at the reunion, as if she hadn’t measured up to their expectations.
Or maybe it was simply that she had yet to take off her wedding ring.
The ring fit tight, considering she’d gained a couple dozen pounds in the years of marriage. That was all. It certainly wasn’t because somewhere deep in her heart, she saw taking the ring off as that final, irrevocable step.
“Ohmigod, I almost forgot!” Jeannie said, interrupting before Melanie could stop letting a simple gold band make the decisions. “Me and the committee had, like, this brainstorm last night. I swear, I saw a light bulb over Susan’s head, it was just so cool. Anyway, we were thinking you and Cade could give the welcoming speech together. The sweethearts of Westvale High, still together and happy.”
“Sorry I’m late,” Emmie whispered in her mother’s ear. “My car wouldn’t start so I had to find a ride.” Melanie put up a finger to signal she’d been done in a minute.
“You guys are, like, the perfect high school love story,” Jeannie went on. “Wouldn’t it be so neat? Like that one movie that came out ages ago. You know, the one with the girl that croaked at the end?”
It took a second for Melanie to realize Jeannie meant “Love Story.” “I don’t think so, Jeannie. In fact, I’m not even sure I’m coming.” Melanie moved to the sink to rinse her hands. Emmie had already washed hers and was busy dropping balls of dough onto cookie sheets.
Emmie helping with the baking she dreadedwithout being asked? And, in a good mood, one that involved an actual smile? Melanie cast a quizzical eye over her daughter. Something was up.
“Oh, come on, Melanie. You have to do it. I mean, you two were prom King and Queen. It’ll be like a fairy tale, only in real life.” Jeannie sighed. “Kind of like what happened to Cinderella after the prince proposed.”
Melanie remembered that prom night, the magical star-shaped lights twinkling overhead, the way Cade had looked in a tux.
Especially the way Cade had looked. The man had yet to meet a suit that didn’t make him look more attractive than a ten-pound chocolate bar.
She and Cade had stood on that stage, hands clasped, beaming at each other, thinking nothing and no one would ever separate them.
They’d been wrong.
“Uh, Mom?” Emmie said, her voice now an urgent whisper as she put on a pair of oven mitts and switched out baked cookies for her loaded sheet of dough. “When I needed a ride to work, the only person available was”
The door to the kitchen swung open and for the second time in five minutes, Melanie drew in a sharp breath that became a block in her windpipe.
He entered the small kitchen, seeming to take up half the space without even trying. Melanie swallowed hard, surprised by the instantaneous, explosive gut reaction to her husband.
Correction: almost ex-husband.
Apparently her hormones hadn’t received the separation papers, nor read over the draft of the divorce agreement, because they were still screaming attraction.
And why wouldn’t they? Cade hadn’t changed at all in the year they’d been apart. A few more crinkles around his blue eyes, the perpetual worry line above his dark brows etched a little deeper, but overall he was as handsome as he had been when she’d still loved him. He may be a bit disheveled by the stress of his day, but he was still sexy.
Really sexy. Familiar desire rose inside her, coupled with the longing to touch his face, run a hand down his chest, feel the security of his long, lean body against hers. The temperature in the room seemed to multiply. Melanie pulled at the neck of her T-shirt and checked the A/C. Nothing broken there
Except for her resolve.
Attraction, though, had never been their problem. Marriages weren’t based solely on the swirling, tangling pulses of estrogen and testosterone. They needed communication, understanding, give and take.
And a man who wanted more for his wife than perfecting her baked Alaska and diaper changing.
Cade still sported the same athletic physiquetrim, broad-shouldered, a chest of hard, tight planes. It had never been solely his body that had attracted Melanie, though she hadn’t mind the nice physical package that had wrapped around Cade.
It had been his eyes. And his smile.
Right now, the smile was absent, but those eyesthe same big blue eyes that had drawn her attention that first day in freshman year, standing in the hall outside Mrs. Owen’s art classthey now riveted her attention for a brief, taut second, before she remembered the man may have incredible eyes, but horrible husband skills. He’d never listened to her, not really, never heard her when she talked about her dreams, her goals. He’d been as focused as a horse with blinders, seeing only one road aheadfor both of them.
And when it had really mattered, Cade hadn’t been there at all.
The oven timer dinged. Cookies. She needed to tend to the cookies. Melanie grabbed a spatula and a pot holder, but her attention was still all on Cade, not the hot pan she withdrew from the oven.
“Melanie?” Jeannie asked, her voice concerned, seeming to come from a thousand miles away. “I really have to get to the salon, but I wanted to be sure you and Cade can do me this eensy weensy favor. You will do it, right?”
“Hi, Melanie,” Cade said, his voice the same deep baritone she’d known for more than half her life. Once upon a time, that sound had made her heart sing. “Is it okay if I stay here for a bit?” he said. “I’ve got some time to kill before a meeting.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Melanie said. And promptly dropped the spatula. It landed on the vinyl floor with a soft clatter.
“Oh, great!” Jeannie cried. “I’ll see you a week from Friday then!” She giggled. “You and Cade. It’ll be the best speech ever. You guys always did have a way with words. And a lot more.” She let out another laugh, then hung up.
“No! I meant to say no!” Melanie yelled into the phone, scrambling for the spatula, but Jeannie was already gone, off for some French tips.
The yes had been for Cade, not Jeannie. Somehow, the sight of him after so much time apart had knocked her off kilter. As it had in the early days, before their “way with words” became more about flinging them around the living room in arguments that went nowhere.
Emmie tossed her mother a grin, then turned away and started sliding the cookies onto the cooling rack. Melanie tossed the spatula into the sink, all thumbs and as consternated as a chicken in a fox den.
She grabbed a warm chocolate chip cookie off the wire cooling rack and stuffed it in her mouth before she could make the same mistake twice
Say yes when she really meant to say no.