“I…I’m going out to dinner with my former employer,” Colette explained haltingly.
“Is this your first date since you lost your husband?”
Colette shrugged and looked uneasy. “Sort of.”
Alix wasn’t sure what that meant but didn’t press for an explanation.
“It’s more a matter of who this date’s with that’s bothering me.”
Alix nodded, encouraging her to continue.
“I agreed to go and now I wish I hadn’t.” Colette stared out the window for a moment. Alix let the silence build. She’d learned from Jordan not to be afraid of the silences in a conversation.
She thought Colette was about to speak when Julie, who worked weekends, delivered Alix’s sandwich. Alix waited until Julie was out of earshot. She wondered why Colette would have agreed to this date when she was so clearly reluctant.
“Can’t you just cancel?” Alix asked. Problem solved. As far as she could see, there was no reason for Colette to be so worried about this. If she didn’t want to go out with the guy, she didn’t have to. Women changed their minds all the time. Men, too, for that matter.
“It’s just that…I don’t know what to expect from him.”
“Why put yourself in this situation at all?” It didn’t make sense to Alix.
Colette broke eye contact, lowering her head. “Christian said if I went to dinner with him this one time, he’d never bother me again.” She spoke in a low, uninflected voice.
Alix was outraged. “That’s blackmail!”
“I suppose it is.”
“Suppose, nothing! You can’t let a man manipulate you like that.” Alix was getting worked up now. No way was a man taking advantage of Colette, not if she could help it. “You want me to deal with this loser?”
Colette smiled for the first time. “Thank you, but no. I’ll be fine.”
“How well do you know him?”
“I worked for the company for seven years, five of those as his personal assistant.”
Alix frowned, a little confused by the inconsistency of Colette’s reactions. “Is he the reason you left?”
Colette hesitated. “In a manner of speaking, yes, but it’s…more complicated than that.”
Alix wanted to say that life was complicated. She merely nodded, murmuring, “I understand,” although she didn’t really.
“I’ll go out with him because there’s something we should discuss…I’m just not sure I have the courage to do it.”
“Would you like to discuss it with someone else beforehand?” she asked. If Colette needed a willing ear, Alix was happy to provide it.
Colette considered her offer for a long time before she replied. “I appreciate it, but no…” Her expression was sad, regretful, as if she badly needed a confidante but didn’t feel ready to trust anyone just yet.
“So you haven’t really dated since Derek died.” Alix didn’t know what else to say.
Colette shook her head. “I ran into a friend of his recently. He phoned a couple of times this past week and we’ve talked about getting together. Between his schedule and mine, it’s difficult, though.”
“By the way, I want to tell you again how sorry I am about your husband.” Alix was afraid she might’ve been somewhat insensitive during their conversation last Wednesday, the way she’d been going on about how she couldn’t bear the thought of losing Jordan when this woman’s husband had died. “It’s so tragic, and—”
“Don’t say that!” Colette’s mouth thinned and she bit her lower lip as if struggling not to cry.
Alix was completely confused now. “Why not? It’s what people say when there’s a death in the family.”
“I know….” She grabbed her purse and scrabbled for a tissue, eventually finding one and dabbing her eyes with it. “It’s hard to explain.”
Alix remained silent.
“I…I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” Colette said, digging into her purse for a fresh tissue.
“Listen, it’s all right,” Alix said. “Whatever you tell me goes no further. One thing I can do is keep my trap shut. That’s a lesson I learned years ago.”
“Okay.” Colette gave her a watery smile. “I loved my husband and he was a good man. We were having fertility problems, and those problems affected our marriage. I wanted to see a specialist and Derek didn’t. He said he wanted children, but if it didn’t happen naturally, he was fine with letting it go. I wasn’t.” She paused and blew her nose. “The morning Derek fell from the roof, we’d had a huge argument. He should never have gotten on that roof. He probably wouldn’t have if we hadn’t been fighting.”
“So now you feel responsible for what happened.” Guilt manifested itself in so many different ways. Alix had dealt with it often enough to know the tricks it could play.
“I do and I don’t. I begged him to call a roofing company. Derek wouldn’t hear of it. I hoped that if he cooled off and thought everything over, he’d see my point about fertility treatments, so I didn’t try very hard to stop him from doing the repair work himself.” She shrugged in a dispirited way. “He had all these new tools he really wanted to use, too. Some of them were Christmas gifts from me….”
“You couldn’t have known what would happen,” Alix said in a reasonable tone.
Colette nodded. “That’s true. But we had this…this issue between us. I wanted a family and Derek said he did, yet he wasn’t willing to take the next step to make children a possibility. I’m over thirty and I didn’t want to put it off any longer.”
Colette nodded again. “What I told everyone at our last knitting class is a lie.”
Alix tried to remember what Colette had said and couldn’t recall.
“My marriage wasn’t good anymore, even though I said it was. In fact, I was miserable and I suspect Derek was, too.”
“I’m sure you would’ve worked things out,” Alix said and reached for her sandwich, taking the first bite.
“I think we would have, too. Like I said, I loved my husband and I grieved for him when he died. I’m still grieving. But Derek’s gone and he isn’t ever coming back. Life goes on and I have to go on, too.”
“Yes, you do,” Alix said firmly. She took another bite of her lunch.
“It’s just the one date,” Colette said aloud, as if she needed to reassure herself. She’d obviously returned to the subject of her former boss.
“Do you really feel you need to go through with this?” Alix asked. Something had happened there, but Colette had dropped such obscure hints that Alix couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. Probably an office romance gone wrong.
Colette nodded. “I’ll have dinner with him, and then it’ll be over, once and for all.”
“I say almost the same thing about the wedding,” Alix told her half-humorously. “It’s just the one day and once it’s over, Jordan and I can go on with our lives. My reward is that I’ll have a husband I love who loves me. If I have to stand up in front of a bunch of people I don’t know, if I have to pretend to be someone I’m not, then I can do that for one day.” Alix had said these words to herself so many times, it sounded as if she was repeating a pledge.
When she’d finished, she discovered Colette studying her. “This wedding’s freaked you out, hasn’t it?”
“You have no clue.”
Her friend laughed. “Wanna bet?”
They both smiled then.
“If you want, I can be at your place when the big bad wolf shows up,” Alix offered.
Colette cringed. “He’s not so bad. His name is Christian Dempsey.”
“Dempsey. Well, let me be the one to tell this Mr. Dempsey that he isn’t playing fair and that you refuse to be manipulated.” She’d do it, too—in a heartbeat—and enjoy watching the man’s expression.
“Listen, Alix, I can do this,” Colette said with more confidence than she’d shown before. “You’re right, you know. Talking helped. I don’t feel comfortable burdening Susannah with my troubles. I like Lydia a lot, and for a while we had tea together every morning, but we haven’t done that lately.”
Alix knew the problem there. “Margaret’s pretty needy these days.” That was certainly an understatement.
“I can understand why.” Colette smoothed out her knitting and smiled at Alix. “I’m so grateful you came in. I feel so much better.”
Hearing that buoyed Alix’s spirits. “I thought it was time we got to know each other.” She sipped her coffee, which had grown cool.
“What kind of sandwich is that?” Colette asked.
“Turkey with cream cheese and cranberries.”
Colette twisted around to read the menu board near the counter. “I was so stressed about this dinner tomorrow that I skipped lunch and now I’m ravenous.”
“Here,” Alix said and slid the remaining half of her sandwich over to Colette. “Have the rest of mine.”
Colette picked it up and took a bite. “Mmm. Delicious.”
“My favorite. Hey, listen. Tell me how your date with Dempsey goes, okay?”
Colette raised her eyebrows. “It’ll be fine.”
“Good, because if he tries anything I’ll break his kneecaps.”
Colette laughed then, and the sound drifted through the almost-empty café.
As Colette waited for Christian Dempsey on Sunday evening, she tried to calm her frayed nerves by reviewing her conversation with Alix Townsend the day before. She’d gotten to know Alix and to like her. After lunch, they’d chatted for nearly two hours.
Her conversation with Alix had clarified her own situation. She knew most of her comments had been cryptic and yet Alix hadn’t pressed her for details Colette didn’t want to disclose. She could only imagine what people would think once they learned she was pregnant. But Alix wasn’t judgmental in the least. If anything, she was exactly the opposite—accepting, tolerant, kind.
During their conversation, Alix had opened up about her own life. Colette would never have guessed the trauma the young woman had endured, and she’d found it difficult not to reveal her shock. Hearing about Alix’s struggles made Colette feel close to her in a way she hadn’t with anyone in years.
Colette used to think she had good friends. For the past half-dozen years, her life had revolved around her job with Dempsey Imports, and most of her time was spent with colleagues, many of whom became friends. They’d replaced the friends she’d had in college. And when she and Derek socialized, it’d been with a completely separate group, primarily cops and their spouses. After Derek’s death, their “couple friends” had eventually drifted away. Later, when she resigned from Dempsey Imports, she’d abandoned her work friends, afraid Christian would use them to contact her. It was a rude awakening now to realize her friends were so few.