Now, I will preface this just a little. Some years ago, I ran into an old friend at the store. We visited for quite a while. I had always liked him in school, and when I got home, I started stewing about a story. A 'What if...' story about myself. Specifically, 'What if my husband died. What would I do?'
That's how this story started. The heroine is VERY loosly based on me. VERY! She and I are quite different, actually, but I had to start somewhere. I don't want anyone to fear that I spend hours on end fearing my husband will disappear or whatever, but it made a great premise for a story. (Now you're curious, huh!) I hope you enjoy this!
Two things Rhianna Rider knew for sure: 1. she could never say no to her best friend when she decided that Rhianna should do something, and 2. (because of #1) she was in for a very long night.
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.” She slumped lower in the passenger side of Nicole’s new Volkswagen Jetta.
“Will you stop worrying? It’s going to be fine.” Nicole adjusted her rear view mirror.
Rhianna glanced at her best friend and rolled her eyes. “You’re a counselor. You’re used to being with people. All the time.”
“For junior high kids. That’s not exactly people. Rather kids experiencing far too many hormones.”
Nicole gave her hair a flick and Rhianna ignored the pang of jealousy that rose in her throat at the sight of Nicole’s ebony curls flowing gracefully down her back. They framed her thin face, accenting her almond eyes and high cheek bones. “Who knows? Perhaps if you take that sour look off your face for a few hours, you might even have a little fun.”
Rhianna glared at her but knew the truth in her statement. Months had past since she had been anywhere without her girls. The thought of leaving them with a sitter caused her insides to tumble violently. She sat up and clutched her stomach, trying to squelch her nausea.
“Not in the car, Rhianna! I won’t ever speak to you again.”
“That may not be a bad thing,” she mumbled and looked out the window to see a few stray snowflakes spiraling through the air.
She was the first to admit that she did not have much of a social life any more. But it worked for her. She was as happy as she could be, given her circumstances. And she wasn’t ready to change that. Yet. In time, sure. But for now, she was content to be alone.
She rolled her eyes again as she thought of Nicole’s theatrics tonight. When she picked her up, Rhianna had claimed a headache. Nicole threatened to hogtie her and call her brother – who happened to be a semi-professional wrestler – to come load her into the car.
Rhianna’s insides twisted and turned as Nicole navigated the car along the icy roads. The early November evening was clear and crisp but the car was warm. She hugged herself to calm her nerves. It didn’t seem to help.
A crystal clear melody of laughter broke through the soft country music playing on the car’s stereo. Rhianna looked over to see Nicole in near hysterics.
“What is so funny?”
“You!” Nicole squealed. “You act as though you are going to meet the devil himself!”
“Well that’s kind of how I feel.”
Nicole’s laughter almost sounded evil.
Her head began to constrict with nerves. “May I please drive?”
“No.” Nicole looked at her as though she knew Rhianna would turn them around and head home again.
“Then will you? Heaven knows, with your driving I may never see my girls again.” She blinked hard to keep the tears at bay as excess moisture stung her eyes.
“Will you relax? You just need to breathe and pull yourself together.” Nicole stopped laughing. She saw Rhianna wipe a tear from her face but Rhianna was beyond caring. “Anna, you’re going to know almost everyone there. There’s no reason to feel so nervous.”
“Yes, but I will be the only one without a date.”
“Nonsense. I don’t have a date.”
“Yes, but you’re not married.”
Nicole sighed. “Rhianna, you need to get beyond this and get on with your life. Scott would not want you sitting at home alone growing old with those beautiful daughters of yours. He would want you to go out and have a good time. You’re still young and beautiful. I don’t think he would want you to live out the rest of your life alone.”
“Would you suggest that I remarry?”
“No. I merely suggested that you create a social life for yourself. Go out and have a good time. Make new friends. Become reacquainted with old friends. Be happy. You seldom even smile anymore.”
Nicole glided the car into a parking place.
“There is more to you than this miserable shell you show everyone all the time. Now, I want you to go in there and have a good time tonight. Forget about your girls; they are in good hands.” Nicole put a hand on Rhianna’s shoulder and Rhianna fought the urge to shrug it off. “And I want you to dance with at least five different guys tonight.”
“I couldn’t possibly dance with five guys. I don’t know that many. And I can’t dance with men I don’t know.”
“Yes you can. If you do, I promise you will have a good time.” Rhianna looked at her friend through narrowed eyes. “Don’t you want to have a good time?”
“Goats butt. Now, straighten yourself up and let’s go in. It’s freezing out here.” Nicole shivered and pulled her scarf tighter around her neck.
Rhianna had known this night would be difficult, but she was determined to make the most of it; for herself and also to prove to Nicole that she still knew how to have a good time. She pulled down the visor and lifted up the mirror. The lights next to the mirror threatened to blind her in the darkness. After visually assessing her appearance, she decided no major damage had been done by her tears. A relief. She didn’t want to start out her first night out with mascara streaked down her face. Closing the visor, she sighed and, taking a calming breath, opened the door into the bitter cold November air.
~ * ~
They checked their coats with a nice rotund woman at the entrance and proceeded down a hall to the room of the party. Upon entering, Rhianna paused and looked around. The dim lights illuminated the large room decorated in fall colors, but nothing too elaborate. Rather something she might put in a story book. Smells of apple cider and spiced cakes filled the air and music played loudly from speakers around the room. The room burst with people and their arrival was not noticed by many.
She located the three doors in the large room, one being a fire exit. She’d seen the bathroom on the way in, which may prove a great escape at some point. A few chairs lined the room but she doubted Nicole would permit her to sit. She didn’t see anyone she knew and her shoulder slumped an inch. Only when Nicole’s hand pressed on her back did she straighten and begin moving again.
Seconds later, they were seized upon by Mrs. Violet Hammel. Rhianna groaned. She had always liked Violet, but ever since Scott…. Well, she felt like a left shoe.
“Nicole Hendricks and Rhianna Rider!” Rhianna glanced around to see who had heard them heralded by Violet. Fortunately, no one had turned. “I am so glad to see the two of you here!”
“We wouldn’t miss it.” Nicole spoke so she could be heard over the speakers.
“And you look good, Rhianna.”
“Thank you, Violet. Where’s your husband?”
“Stan?” Violet looked around briefly then shrugged. “Who knows? My guess is he’s in the other room watching the game on the TV.”
“Who’s playing?” Nicole asked.
“I’m not sure. I don’t get into it much. The only game I watch is the Super Bowl and I only watch that for the commercials.”
“I like college ball better,” Nicole supplied.
“Stan watches whatever is on and suits his mood. I personally would much rather read a good book.”
“Oh, I just finished reading Pride and Prejudice again.”
Rhianna smiled at Nicole. “You read that every year.”
“I know. And I love it!”
“Oh, there’s Julia Wright. I need to go say hello. Excuse me.” Vivian bustled off to go meet another guest.
“See, this isn’t too bad, is it?”
“No, but we just got here. Perhaps we should leave now and we can chalk the evening up as a success.”
“Don’t start,” Nicole warned. Though she was nearly six inches shorter than Rhianna, she was not easily intimidated. And her wagging finger – no one could ignore that. “I want to go see Adam Whitman. And will you at least pretend to be happy, or I won’t have anything to do with you. I’m here to have fun.”
Rhianna shrugged but summoned up her most cheerful smile and followed Nicole to where Adam stood visiting with a couple people she did not recognize.
“Nicole, are you still working the art show next weekend?” one of the women asked.
“Not this year. I’ve been so busy I haven’t had a chance to breathe. I hear they are expecting quite a turnout this year.”
“Really? Oh, I really can’t wait.”
“They’re bringing in a few guys from out of state this year, I think. So it might actually be really good. I’ll probably drop by for a little while.”
Rhianna stood back as Nicole involved herself in conversation with the group. She mentally assessed the members of the group. She knew Jared Haws. He had filled out a bit since their school days but he looked good. She guessed that the dark haired man with the goatee must be Adam Whitman but had no idea who the two women were. From her observations, they were too stuffy for her taste.
“How are your books coming?” Jared asked Rhianna during a lull in the conversation.
“Fine, thank you. Have you read them?” Her response was halfhearted but polite.
“No. My kids have though. I think their favorite is, Starry Knight.”
She bobbed her head once. “That is a fun story.”
Jared laughed. “They think it’s pretty neat that I know you, which makes me look good, too.”
Rhianna hated comments like that, though she tried to smile. For once it would be nice if someone liked her work because they thought it was a good story and well done.
The evening continued that way for a couple hours. Nicole conversed with friends and Rhianna stood back and zoned out with a plastered grin on her face unless someone addressed her personally.
When she felt she could no longer handle the idleness of the evening, she fled to the restroom. Taking her time, she freshened up in the mirror, making sure her lip stick was still in place. She turned to the side and examined her hair to make sure it wasn’t out of control. She had pinned her curly, sandy blond hair onto the top of her head where it cascaded to her shoulders in soft curls. It had taken nearly no time at all, though it looked as though she could have spent hours on it. Smiling to herself, she turned to face the mirror again. Her outfit was simple, but flattering. She wore black pin-striped slacks and a red, glittery, form-fitting top. She had bought this outfit for her book signing last February when Love, Me had been published.
The door to the bathroom opened, and another woman entered. Smiling at her, Rhianna glanced once more in the mirror and left. Reluctantly she made her way back to the party. The motivation to return had been lost somewhere near the bathroom. She had not been having a good time, though it could have been worse. It was her own fault she supposed, but she was out of practice at this sort of thing and did not know how to change that.
To keep her mind off the dismal evening, she attempted to think of a topic for her next book. Nothing. The thudding base covering a quilt of conversation did little to stimulate ideas.
Reentering the party, she spotted Nicole instantly, who motioned to her. Rhianna smiled and nodded in acknowledgement, then made her way to get a glass of cider at the other side of the room. Hopefully far away from prying eyes.
“Rhianna? Is that you?”
Her mouth dropped open as she turned and saw who stood beside her. “Jerrick Mason?”
“Yeah. How are you doing?” A grin spread over his entire face and his eyes made a quick assessment of her. “You’re looking good.”
“Thanks.” Rhianna allowed her eyes to do an appraisal of him as well. “You’re not looking too bad yourself. What are you doing these days?”
“Tonight, Dan and I are the D.J.’s.” He smiled his wolfish grin. The one he’d always given her when he was trying to get her dander up. “But during the days, I’m a computer nerd.”
“A computer nerd? So you repair people’s problems or you write programs to put other people out of business?”
“A little bit of both.” He grinned and leaned forward. “However, I prefer to do the latter.”
For the first time that evening – probably accurately, the first time in almost a year – Rhianna laughed. It felt good to see Jerrick. They had grown up together since elementary school. She had floated in and out of crushes on him throughout junior high and high school. Amazingly enough, they had remained good friends over the years and bumped into each other a couple times since they had graduated. Granted, it was usually years in between times she had seen him, but she still always felt giddy with delight when she saw him.
She looked at him now. At slightly over six feet tall, he had changed little since high school. She imagined the color of his dark hair still held natural auburn highlights in the sunlight. His smile was broad and his teeth were mostly straight. He looked like he was still in good shape, too. She smiled as she saw that his habit of wearing sandals in the winter had not changed.
“Are you still playing hockey?”
“Nope. You remember that shoulder injury I got in high school?” He shrugged. “I didn’t take care of it as well as I should have. You know, I had other things on my mind.”
“Like school work?” she teased.
“Yeah, right.” He popped a peppermint candy into his mouth. “Anyway, just before graduation, when the final cut list came out, guess who was at the bottom. Yours truly.”
“Oh, Jerrick. I’m so sorry.” Reaching a hand out, she lightly touched his arm. Warmth traveled through her hand at the simple touch. She retracted her hand quickly. What was she thinking touching him with such a familiar gesture? Her face burned and she looked away.
“It certainly wasn’t your fault.”
“No, but it must have been utterly devastating for you.” She bravely looked back at him.
He shrugged. “It was for a while. But what was I going to do? I blew out my shoulder and ignored it. It was my fault for being so wrapped up in other things.”
She smiled and took a drink of the cider. It was difficult to say whether the warm and soothing feelings she felt were from the cider or standing and talking with Jerrick.
“So, your girlfriend doesn’t have any problem with you D.J.ing on the weekends and leaving her home alone? Or is she here with you?” Rhianna surveyed the crowd for a beautiful woman.
He laughed and she looked back at him in surprise. “Are you kidding me? I’ve had my share of bad luck and heartache. I’m taking it slow. I still have plenty of time to look.”
“Whatever happened to Lesley what’s-her-name?”
“Oh, she’s married with a little boy who’s about a year and a half.”
“Good for her.”
“Yeah, good for her.”
Something in his voice made her study his eyes. She knew that look. The look of disgust and betrayal. Guilt threatened to seep into her heart but she pushed it away. She would not think of the many times she had caused that look to come into those chocolate brown eyes.
“What’s the matter? You don’t approve?”
“It’s not that. You remember in high school when she dumped me and started dating Jed Stevens?” Rhianna nodded and he continued. “Well, they’re married now and about a month or two ago, she came into town, called me up, and invited me out to lunch.”
“She was by herself?”
“No, she had her son.”
“She asked you to lunch with only her baby as a chaperone? And she’s married?”
“It gets even better. I was uncomfortable the entire time and then she asked if I wanted to go back to the hotel with her.”
“Oh, she did. And I said, ‘Honey, that band on your finger represents something I refuse to come between. I will not be the cause of anyone’s unhappiness.’”
“Good for you.”
“Well, it’s just wrong. I won’t come between anyone’s marriage.”
“I don’t care what anyone says about you, Jerrick. You’re a good guy and don’t let anyone tell you different.”
He chuckled. “Don’t say that too loud, kitten. You’ll destroy my bad boy persona.” He winked.
Something inside her burst and she couldn’t help but beam at his comment. It had been a long time since anyone had called her ‘kitten.’ She had gotten the nickname from a Halloween costume gone bad. Very bad. She blushed at the memory. She had started out as a witch but the wind had been so ferocious that by the time she had gotten to the party, she looked more like a frightened kitten than a witch. After that, Jerrick had taken to calling her ‘kitten.”
“Speaking of wedding bands,” he said, “where’s yours?”
The smile faded from her face and she looked at the cup clutched between her hands. Pain floated into her chest and threatened to release through her eyes. She had quit wearing her wedding band a month ago, in an attempt to move on. Right now, the emotions felt so raw and fresh, she wondered if it had really been a good idea.
Blinking back the moisture in her eyes, she forced her breathing to calm. Then she faced Jerrick with all the courage she could muster. “He died after an accident almost a year ago.”
“Oh, kitten. I’m so sorry.” He looked at her with a sadness she did not understand. “I know he was your life. How are you and the girls holding up?”
“Time has a way of healing the heart, but some days I wonder if the wound is healing or simply scabbed over.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “Lark misses him, though I’m not sure she entirely understands why he doesn’t come home every night. And Lavender’s too young to remember.”
She breathed deeply as she tried to stifle the emotions that longed for release. Suddenly, she felt the warm and comforting embrace of Jerrick’s burly arms as they encircled her petite figure. His compassion caused tears to gush out of her eyes and onto her cheeks. It had been so long since she had cried over the loss of her husband. At this moment, she finally felt that someone might care about her loss and not force her to face this trial on her own. Perhaps someone cared for her and not merely her accomplishments.
After several minutes, she cleared her throat and pushed away from Jerrick’s arms. He gripped her by the shoulders as she wiped the moisture off her cheeks. “Are you okay?”
“I will be. Some days are just harder than others.” She smiled weakly.
He inhaled and watched her as she dug in her bag for a tissue. “Why don’t you set that cup down and let me take you out for a spin around the dance floor. Get your mind on something else for a while.”
She looked up at him and shook her head in uncertainty. “I don’t know. I haven’t danced in so long.”
“Oh, come on. You and I use to make a great dancing pair when we were in school. What do you say? For old times sake?”
Rhianna weighed the issue. A part of her wanted to accept his offer. Jerrick danced in a way most men didn’t anymore. Yet disloyalty and guilt knocked on her heart for entertaining the idea. She started to decline the offer, when she caught a glimpse of Nicole and remembered her dare to dance with five different men. Rhianna was not one to shy away from a dare typically, so she set her glass down on the table with only half of its contents remaining and linked her arm in Jerrick’s. “Lead on,” she said and a giant smile lit up his face.
Her retirement from dancing seemed only a small stumbling block. When she danced with Jerrick, the years melted away and she was back in junior high dancing with the best looking guy at the Freshman Formal. His dancing had always reminded her of her great-uncle. Jerrick was not the kind of man who simply held onto a woman and walked circles around her. He had class and style. His feet were light and quick yet she followed him easily. Dancing in his arms, she felt graceful. Throwing her head back as he dipped her on the final chord of the song, she laughed as the crowd that had gathered began to applaud.
Jerrick pulled her back into a standing position and she felt her face flush with the exhilaration of the dance. He smiled down at her. “Did you have fun?”
“Oh yes!” She giggled. “I haven’t danced like that in so long.”
“Perhaps you will let me have the pleasure again later. For now, I need to get back and give Dan a break. He’s probably near to dying right now. He was here setting up this afternoon.”
“Oh.” Sadness crept into her voice and her smile faded.
“Why don’t you come keep me company? I can still visit with you while I work.”
“Of course, I’m sure. Now, go let your friend know you’re doing all right and then come on up.”
“Yes, the one who’s eyes nearly popped out of her head when she saw you dancing with me.” He chuckled and Rhianna laughed.