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Chapter One

“OK, honey, slow down,” I tell my friend Sara as I flick the windshield wipers on. “What did Ethan say? OK, then—” I have to pause, because I can hardly make out what she is saying through the sobs.

            “He s-said…he-he’s mad at me,” she wails, and I quickly pull the phone away from my ear to turn down the volume.

            “Sara, you need to calm down. I want to help you, but I have to be able to understand you, OK? Take a deep breath, and start over.”

            I can hear her inhale deeply over the line. “OK,” she says, sounding a tad bit calmer. “I did talk to E-Ethan.” Her voice wobbles when she says his name. I wait for the waterworks to start again, but she pulls it together. “He said he’s…d-disappointed, and that we’ll talk about it when he gets home,” she sniffles, and I feel a rush of sympathy for my friend.

            “So, talk. Talking is good. You’ll work it out.”

            “Mona!” she moans, clearly frustrated. “Talk is what he says when he means he’s going to…to…well, you know.”

            I shake my head, silently laughing at her. After all this time, she still can’t bring herself to say it. “Going to what?” I ask innocently. “Are you sure he doesn’t want to talk? How do you know?”

            “Mona!” She hisses in a whisper. “He means…you know…the…DD thing.”

            “OK, OK,” I relent, taking pity. “Yes, I know what you’re talking about, Sara. But you want to know what I think?”

            “Sure,” she replies, a bit peevish, probably because she realizes I’ve been teasing her.

            “I think that a big part of how things go for you tonight—whether Ethan decides to tan your butt, that is—is how you behave when he gets home. Be sweet, OK? Listen to everything he says, and don’t argue with him,” I instruct. “‘Yes, sir’ him a lot, he’ll like that.”

            “OK,” she agrees, still sniffling. “Hey, how did you get so good at this, anyway?”

            I laugh at her dubious tone. “I guess it’s a little ironic, huh? But it’s simple, really. I just think of whatever I would do in your shoes, and as the resident expert in how to end a marriage, I tell you to do the opposite.”

            “That’s great, Mona,” she says, her voice flat. It makes me chuckle.

            “Call me later and tell me how it turns out?”

            She dutifully agrees, and I hang up the phone. I say a little prayer for her, and then turn my attention back to the roads. It’s really coming down now. I hope Colby didn’t change his mind about coming to my rescue. Not that I would blame him if he did. I have put that man through a lot, to put it mildly. Frankly, it amazes me that he even accepts my phone calls.

            As the windshield wipers fling another layer of water from my windshield, I think I see headlights. I sit up straighter and peer closer in the rearview mirror—sure enough, Colby’s beat up blue truck is pulling in behind me. My stomach flutters when I see him come out of the truck with a toolbox in his hand.

            Pulling my hood up over my curly hair, I open my own car door and step out to greet him.

            “Hey,” I call out, trying to sound casual.

            “Mona, have you lost your mind? Get back in your car where it’s warm!” he snaps at me.

            “I was just sayi—”

            “Now.”

            I glare at him, but he glares right back, and well, I am getting wet, so I turn around and get back into my car. He’s as stubborn as ever. Not that I really expected any change of heart there. It’s been seventeen months since our divorce was finalized, and not a single day goes by that I don’t think about Colby—although, I can’t deny that in the beginning, the thoughts were less than gracious. As more and more time went by, my emotions cooled until all I was left with was sadness.

In many ways, Colby had been my best friend, the person who knew about all of my worst moments, and loved me anyway. That was hard to lose. He’s still the first one I think to call when anything goes wrong. Hence why he is outside, getting pelted by the pouring rain as he searches under the hood of my car for God knows what.

            Every time I see him, he brings so many memories along with him. Sad ones, and angry ones, and some happy ones mixed in, too. When we were married I used to lie to myself, I tried to convince him and me both that nothing was wrong. Every couple fights, I used to say it, sometimes yelling it at the top of my voice right before he slammed the bedroom door. When it got to the point where we were mad at each other more than we were happy together, even I couldn’t deny that we were having problems.

If I could turn back time, maybe I would do things differently. But of course, I don’t have a time machine, and I can’t bank on one being invented in my lifetime. I have to move on. Logically, I know that, but every time I see him I have to remind myself one more time.

            The door opens, and I look up, surprised. Colby sits down in the passenger seat, dripping wet, and shuts the door. My first thought is that he is getting my seats wet—I have to bite my lip pretty hard to keep from commenting, something I definitely would have done when we were married. The second is that, even sopping wet, he looks incredibly hot.

            At first glance, Colby wouldn’t strike anyone as being a particularly handsome man. He certainly doesn’t fit in the normal category as a typical heartthrob—he’s a bit rugged, a little rough around the edges. He has strong features: a prominent forehead, a strong jaw, and full, kissable lips. His ears may be considered a little large, his nose a bit on the wide side. But the first thing most people notice about him is his facial hair.

            We’d gone to school for years together, ever since we were kids—he didn’t have quite so much facial hair back then. When I met him my first thought was that he was cute, for an eleven year old, but we weren’t part of the same social circle so that was as far as it went. We got closer before I went off to college, and we talked on the phone a few times before I stopped being homesick. After that, whenever he’d cross my mind I would push the thought away, assuming he’d found someone else by now. Hell, he might not even live in our hometown anymore for all I knew.

That all changed the day I accidentally bumped into him at a farmers market. I’d been home for almost three months by then, and was out doing some shopping for my mom. My arms were full of the most beautiful apples I’d ever seen, and I cursed loudly when I dropped several after slamming into a 6’1, solid hulk of man.

            When he turned around to see what all the fuss was about, at first all I could make out was hair. He was wearing a baseball cap that pushed his bangs toward his eyes. He had grown a full beard, and although it was trimmed neatly, it took up a good bit of his face.

            “Everything OK?” He’d asked drily.

            “Fine, everything’s fine,” I’d huffed, still flustered as I knelt to the ground to pick up my apples, inspecting each one to be sure they weren’t bruised.

            “Can I help you with that?”

            “It’s more helpful than watching me do it, I suppose,” I’d snapped.

            He had a hearty, booming laugh. Once he’d started, even I couldn’t help but smile. “You have a mouth on you, huh?” he had asked, still chuckling as he knelt to help me.

            “Most women have mouths. I would guess what you’re actually referring to is how I choose to use mine.”

            This made him laugh even louder, and when I looked up I caught my breath. His eyes were the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Sea-foam green, with so much laughter and light…they were breathtaking to behold. When I became aware of those magnificent eyes, his whole face changed before me. He morphed into my Prince Charming in that one instant.

            His face scrunched as he looked back at me. He was looking so closely that I was beginning to wonder if I was sweating off my makeup, or if he had something against redheads. Just when I was starting to feel embarrassed, his eyes lit in recognition.

            “Mona?”

            I was caught off guard not only by the fact that an apparent stranger knew my name, but also by the way he said it—sounding awed and overwhelmed by his good fortune. It was also clear that the once confidant stranger had a sudden case of nerves. It was all I could do to hide my smile.

            “Do you know me?” I laughed before he could answer. “I’m sorry, that one’s obvious. What I meant was, do I know you?”

            “You probably won’t remember, but…” He whipped off his baseball cap, revealing shaggy, dark hair. I peered closer, thinking I saw something familiar.

            “Colby?” I asked, my voice sounding as disbelieving as his had moments before, minus the awe.

            He grinned sheepishly. “Hey, so you do remember.”

            “Oh, well,” I tried to shrug it off, feeling embarrassed. Having red hair is something of a love-hate relationship. On the one hand, as long as you pair it with clear skin it typically makes you insta-popular with guys. On the other, you can’t hide a blush to save your life. “I’m good with faces.”

            He nodded solemnly, and it suddenly occurred to me that I had potentially ruined any chance I might have had with him by being snippety earlier. But as it would happen, Colby liked confidant, funny women. He liked apples, too. I had him over that very night for an apple pie, which happens to be my specialty. After he took that first bite, he closed his eyes and groaned. From that moment, I knew that he was mine for the taking.

            After we’d finished our dessert, I hand washed our plates and cups. Colby sat at the bar and watched me, which I thought was odd, but even more so was that I enjoyed it. I was finding that I liked having him near.

            “Mona…”

            “Hmm?” I asked, rinsing the soap suds off the forks.

            “There was this time…in fifth grade. I gave you a note. Do you remember?”

            I turned to him with a small, quizzical smile. “A note? I don’t know. What did it say?”

            He shrugged. “I can’t remember. It’s not important.”

            I went back to washing dishes, and he’d sat there for the first night of many talks that would take place in my kitchen.

“Mona,” Colby calls out, bringing me back to the present. “What the hell have you done to your car?”

            “What? What do you mean what have I done to it? I’ve driven it, what do you think?”

            “I can do without your smart remarks tonight,” he shoots back. “Now, I want you to crank up the car. I want to hear what kind of noise it’s making.”

            I start to tell him that it’s making exactly the kind of noise I said it was when I talked to him on the phone. In the end, I shrug and fish my keys out of my purse and put them in the ignition. I turn the key, and wince at the weird, chocking whine that my car sputters out.

            “Damn it, Mona!” he groans, and I instantly know that he’s solved it, Sherlock that he is. At least when it comes to cars.

            “What? What is it?”

            “You’re out of gas!”

            “What? Really?” I look down at the fuel gauge, and sure enough, the arrow is hovering well below the E. “Oh.” The word comes out as an embarrassed whisper.

            “Oh,” he repeats, in a tone of voice that is less than kind. “I swear, I don’t know what to do about you. I skipped a date to help you out, and for what?”

            “Oh,” I say again, my heart sinking. I guess that means he’s still with what’s-her-name. I may not remember her name, but I remember that she’s a size two. What a bitch.

            “You’re too old to be making stupid mistakes like this, Mona. I swear, if you were my daughter you’d be over my knee right now!” he scolds. “And you will be if you ever waste my time like this again!”

            I roll my eyes at him. Sure, a thrill went through me at the thought of close contact with him, even if it happened to take the form of a spanking. Even so, I know an idle threat when I hear one.

            “Try me and see, little girl,” he warns, as though I’d spoken my thoughts aloud. “Next time, I won’t warn you, I will carry through. You can count on it.”

            “I’m sorry, sir,” I reply meekly, shocking us both the minute the words leave my lips. Where did they even come from? It must have been the right thing to say, though, because Colby looks mollified.

            “Fine. I’m going to go get you some gas. And Mona? If this ever happens again, don’t call me.”

            I inhale sharply. Boy, those words sting. He doesn’t seem to notice—that, or he doesn’t care. He lets himself out and is walking back to his truck before I can even form a reply.

***

            “Do you want another?” the waitress asks as she removes my Vodka and cranberry.

            “Yes, please,” I agree.

            “No more for me,” Sara says, and I grin at her. She has been on a one drink limit ever since her run-in with the law. Whether that’s her idea or Ethan’s I don’t know. I try to be a good friend and not ask for more details than she volunteers.

            I watch the waitress walk away, and keeping my eyes averted I make my announcement. “I ran into my ex.”

            “Really? Where at?”

            “Um…Bell Road. It was on the side of the road, actually,” I reply, aiming for nonchalance.

            “Excuse me? What is that supposed to mean?”

            “Well…” I risk glancing back at her to see that she is focusing on me with intense interest. “I called him when my car stalled in the parking lot.”

            “Oh.”

            “Yeah. He was pretty mad when he found out I just ran out of gas. He said he’d canceled a date to be there.” I watch her closely, trying to see what she thinks of all this, but her face is an unreadable mask.

            “Oh,” she says again.

            “He even said—” I glance around cautiously, making sure no one is loitering nearby. When I’m satisfied no one is listening to our conversation, I lower my voice and continue in a whisper. “—that if I ever did it again, wasted his time like that, that he would spank me.”

            “Oh,” Sara replies, with hardly any more emotion in her voice than before.

            “What?” I hiss at her. “Out with it already!”

            “Nothing…”

            I know her well enough to know when she’s lying. There’s no denying that she has a pretty good poker face, but it’s hard to miss the way she’s sitting on her hands, forcing them to stay still to hide her emotions. Strike one. She’s not making eye contact. Oh, sure, she’d like me to think she is, but she’s looking at my eyebrows, not my eyes. Strike two. I don’t even need a strike three, that’s how sure I am.

            “Sara,” I say sweetly, smiling at her, “we’ve been coming here every Thursday for months now. You don’t know this about me, but I’m pretty good at reading people. And you, my friend, are not being honest with me.”

            “How can you know that?” she asks, trying to maintain wide-eyed innocence.

            “Let’s just say that deception is not your gift.”

            “I’ll keep working on it,” Sara replies matching my smile. “OK, you really want to know what I think?”

            “Would I have brought it up if I didn’t? Spill, girl!”

            She dismisses my logic with a shrug. “Ok then, here it is. One: He’s still the first person you think to call in a crisis. Two: He canceled a date for you. That’s pretty big, Mona. And lastly, three: I think the whole comment about spanking you…well, I think it shows that he still cares about you.”

            I snort a laugh. “I doubt that. Maybe I’m just not telling it right. If you could have heard him…”

            “It doesn’t matter! If he didn’t care about you, he’d storm off, he wouldn’t answer your calls. But he wouldn’t suggest taking the time to…ah....”

            “Yes, I get it,” I snap, sounding harsher than I’d intended.

            Sara seems unfazed by my sudden blaze of temper. “You know what you could do, to test my little theory?” She asks, with a sly smile that can only mean trouble.

            “What is that?” I ask, with a heavy dose of sarcasm.

            “You should make something up, call him again and—”

            “Whoa!” I hold my hands out. “Hold it right there. That is definitely not going to happen.”

            “Why not?”

So help me God, she actually sounds like she can’t imagine what’s wrong with her fail-proof plan. “Why? Because I don’t want to know if he’d…you know.”

            She nods, looking smug. “Yeah, but isn’t there just this tiny bit of you that wants to know what it’d be like?”

            “No, thank you.”

            “If you’re sure…but spanking or no spanking, it’s obvious that Colby still cares about you.” She sounds so convinced that I wish I could borrow some of that conviction for myself, because I could definitely use it.

If I’m honest about it I have to admit that I probably don’t even cross his mind—until I call him to come put gas in my car, that is. And if that’s the case, how could I blame him? It’s easy for Sara to hear part of the story and think she knows what’s going on, because she doesn’t know all our history together. Truthfully, most of it doesn’t bear retelling.

            “How was it?” she asks, taking another sip of her Mojito. “Being with him, I mean.”

            Just thinking about him being in the car, right next to me, close enough to reach out and touch.... I can feel my body heating up with the memory. I can just picture it, the way his hair was slightly damp and sticking to his forehead. The way his eyes flashed when he realized I’d run out of gas. How he clenched his jaw when he promised I’d end up over his knee next time…

            When I replay those words over in my head, I catch my breath. Any woman, hearing those words from the man she loved would be rendered speechless. Unfortunately, I am not any woman. It doesn’t seem to matter what Colby says, just being near him brings out the smartass in me. I wish I had my new drink.

            “It was…good,” I say, striving for a light, casual tone.

            “Good,” Sara echoes, with a gleam in her eye, and I can tell she hears all the things I’m not saying. “Why did you two break up, anyway?”

            “Oh, God,” I groan. “Sara, I’m going to need another drink for this.”

            She immediately signals the waitress and I groan again. I was hoping she’d take that as a hint and let it go, but no, she orders another Vodka cranberry for me and a Diet Coke for herself. We sit in silence as we wait for the drinks to arrive. I start fiddling with a napkin, tearing it into strips just to keep my hands busy as I try to find the words to explain my failed marriage. It’s a tall order, that’s for sure.

“Colby and I were just so different….” I pause to take a sip of my new drink, and am gratified to feel the warmth the Vodka brings with it traveling throughout my body. “He was all cowboys and rodeos and I’m…not.”

Sara scrunches her brow in confusion. “So he lives on a farm or something?”

“Not exactly.” I can’t help but laugh. “He’s a mechanic. I’m not explaining this very well; he’s kind of country, and old-fashioned. He likes the idea of the little woman at home and while I may be a little woman,” I gesture to my 5’3 frame, “I don’t do the whole homemaker thing. I need to have a job to go to every day, and my own money and…” I shrug, unsure what else to say. 

“You couldn’t work it out?” she asks, leaning toward me.

“It wasn’t just that. We just didn’t…we don’t work. We have different ideas about what it means to be married, and we both want different things out of life. You know how you and I get together after work every Thursday? I couldn’t do that when I was married to Colby. He blew up anytime I wanted to hang out with anyone other than him.”

“But didn’t you love him?”

The question is so simple, but it makes me want to throw my hands up in frustration. What does love have to do with it, anyway? Isn’t she listening? “Some people just aren’t meant to be together,” I say at last, my voice heavy with regret.

“Maybe that’s true. But you still love him, don’t you, Mona?”

“We fought all the time. He never cared about the things that were important to me. He never took me out on dates, we just sat at home all the time…” I trail off helplessly, because all the excuses sound so trivial now that I hear them aloud. When we listed our grounds for divorce, we checked incompatibility. The truth was, there were too many reasons to list but none of them felt like the reason we were ending our life together.

The entire time we were married I felt like he was more in love with his job than he was with me. It’s one thing to love what you do—and really, who loves working on other people’s cars?—it’s another to leave your wife alone cooling her heels long after you’re supposed to be home. Which is exactly what happened to me at least three times a week.

Then there were the weekends, which he would spend either hunting or fishing. He would come home puffed up like a conquering hero, bearing prizes of dead animals, which he expected me to cook. It’s not that I can’t cook, but I can’t eat anything when I’ve had to remove its head first. Those beady little eyes always left me feeling so guilty. Several times in our three years of marriage I considered becoming a vegan. Some of the animals he brought me would have made even Gordon Ramsay a little squeamish.

He didn’t like me going out with friends too often, either. He liked to know that I was at home anxiously awaiting his return, although I never knew exactly when that would be. It all seemed so sexist and controlling to me at the time. I always felt like he didn’t want me to work so that he could control how the money was spent, that he didn’t want me to have any friends so that I would have to depend on him for everything. Looking back, I can see that wasn’t true. We had joint accounts, and he never kept tabs on what I bought. He never minded having people over, either, or me having friends…

“It’s pointless to talk about,” I tell Sara firmly. “We’re divorced, and we have been for a while, so why speculate?”

“Because you’re both older and wiser now. You know what you really want, Mona. Maybe—”

“No. It won’t happen, Sara. Let’s just drop it, OK?”

“OK. If you’re sure that’s what you really want…”

I don’t blame her for sounding hesitant. I probably would too if our situations were reversed. I know she just wants me to be happy, and believe me, I want that for myself. But the truth is, no matter how faint I feel when I see him smile, or how much I long to be close to him, that part of my life is over. We had our chance, and we blew it. There’s no point daydreaming about something that will never happen.


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