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Book Jacket

0736917012
Trade Paperback
pages
Jan 2007
Harvest House Publishers

The Secret of Us

by Roxanne Henke

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

Laura

Prologue

LIFE CAN TURN ON A DIME…or the tap of a brake pedal.

One minute you’re a 20-year-old college student, sitting at a stoplight, impatiently drumming the steering wheel, because if the light doesn’t turn green soon you’re going to be late for your art history midterm. The next minute you’re sitting in an emergency room, and the guy who smashed his BMW into the rear bumper of your car is sitting beside you, still apologizing.

“Honest, all I did was glance at my watch to see what time it was. The light was red, and I was already late for a meeting and then…” One side of his mouth turned up. “I guess you know what happened next.”

“Yeah.” I touched the goose egg I could feel rising between my eyebrows where my head had hit the steering wheel. I looked at the guy who had already promised he’d take care of everything.  If I could trust my blurry vision, he looked really cute. I should have plucked my eyebrows last night. I held the two pieces that used to be my glasses in my hands.

He nodded at the broken plastic in my lap. “Sorry about those too.”

I fingered one tortoise-shell earpiece. “I usually wear contacts.  I was only wearing these because I was running late.”

 “You too, huh?” He grinned as though we had much more in common. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.”

“You already said that.”

He held up his right hand as if he was already in court. “Well, this is my promise.” He lowered his hand then held it out to me.  “Donnie Dunn,” he said as we shook hands. Maybe he had told me his name out on the street, out by the police car, before the ambulance hauled us away. If so, I’d forgotten. I put my hand in his.  “Dunn,” he repeated, as if everything that came after was already a done deal.

Fast forward an hour, and you’re limping out of the hospital with crutches and a date for the next night.

Within a year you have a husband. And there you have it.  A whole new life.

And then 23 years later, late one night you turn over in bed, look across the king-sized expanse and wonder, Do I know this man? Have I ever really loved him?  

I slipped out of bed and tiptoed into the bathroom, closing the door quietly behind me. The soft glow of the nightlight was all I needed. I stared at my empty eyes in the dark mirror.

There was a cough from the bed just outside the door. Oh, please,  

Donnie, stay asleep.

I stood in front of the sink and laid my forehead against the cool marble of the countertop. I needed to clear my head. I needed to put some semblance of order to these thoughts that had kept me awake more often more than just tonight.

After 23 years, did he care anymore?

More importantly…did I?

 

And two shall become one…

Laura

“SO, WHAT DO YOU THINK, MOM? Lemon chiffon or the red velvet?

Or do you think one of the others tastes better?”

From across the table, my daughter’s words slid through the netting of my faraway thoughts. I glanced at my watch.  Who knew picking a wedding cake would take this long? If we didn’t wrap it up soon I was going to be late for the art guild meeting.  And to think I thought I’d have time to go grocery shopping between this appointment and my meeting. With Stasha living at home until the wedding, it was taking some readjustment for all of us, including the fact that there was one more person I needed to remember to feed.

Speaking of feeding, 200 guests would be eating this wedding cake at the end of August. Just over two months from today.  I knew Stasha was as anxious to check this one-more-thing off her long list as I was to get to my meeting.

I blinked my eyes and stared at the four cakes sitting between us on the table. The sugary frosting from the tastes I’d had of all four slices coated the inside of my mouth. I moved my tongue around trying to distinguish the flavors. At this point, they all tasted the same to me. I sighed to buy myself time. Make my answer something that would appease Stasha, not make her dissolve into a puddle of impatient tears. “What do you think Josh would like?”

Anastasia brushed an imaginary stray hair from her eyes. “The only kind of cake he likes is chocolate. But that’s too predictable.”

The lady from the bakery picked up a long knife and pointed it at one of the cakes. “The red velvet cake has cocoa in it, so technically it is a chocolate cake.” She paused, giving me time to remember the price sheet she’d sent ahead of our meeting. Of course it was the more expensive cake. Not that Donnie would care. “It’s elegant,” she added. “And good.”

“Let’s go with the red velvet,” Anastasia said, her eyes flickering to mine for confirmation. “Josh will like it.”

I forced a smile onto my face. “Sounds like a good choice.”  I reached for my purse. If I hurried I might be able to get to the meeting a bit early. Maybe make a few phone calls from my cell phone in the parking lot. I had promised Karen I’d try and track down a couple of the artists she was hoping to display in her new gallery.

The gallery you should be opening. Another thing not to think about now.

“Great choice.” The bakery lady put aside her knife and slid the cakes out of the way. From a nearby shelf she pulled a thick binder and placed it on the table. “Now, we’ll want to decide on a look  for the cake.”

Oh, good grief. A look.  What next? I felt like giving her a look.  One that would have nothing to do with wedding -cakes and everything to do the ridiculous amount of time these minute details consumed. I took my hand off my purse and forced it to lie still in my lap. I wanted nothing more than to rub my temples.  The headache that seemed to accompany each of these wedding-planning events throbbed as if an amped-up punk band was tuning up inside my head. Instead I turned up the corners of my mouth and let my eyes crinkle into the appearance of a smile. I wasn’t about to let my only child suspect anything was wrong.

I closed my eyes momentarily against a sudden emptiness. Even I couldn’t put into words the vague unease I’d been feeling.  The sense that after 23 years of marriage to her father I didn’t know if—no, I wouldn’t, couldn’t, think about that now.  Stasha had been planning her wedding day since she was five.

Sixteen years and a college degree hadn’t damped her enthusiasm one bit. She had been collecting ideas for years. Now it seemed Stasha planned to use them all in one elaborate day. A day I had vowed to get through smiling. She would never know the questions I’d been grappling these past months. Is this all there is? Do all marriages eventually turn into…companionship? Friendship? If you could even call it that.

Empty. That was the word that best described the arrangement we had unknowingly ended up with. I pressed a hand against the side of my face. Maybe this would pass. It wasn’t as if Donnie and I hadn’t had rough patches in the past.

But this is different.

Hormones? I prayed whatever I was feeling was simply hormones. The alternative was just too scary.

As the cake lady pattered on, explaining the intricate details that made each style of cake unique, I couldn’t help but compare Stasha’s plans with the wedding I’d planned so many starry-eyed years ago.

“Are you sure you don’t want something different?” My made her point by going several blocks out of her way to drive past the large Lutheran church I had attended as a child.

I gazed out the car window as we drove past. She had managed to arrange our route so that the church was on my side of the car.  “I’m sure.” I turned her way. “I haven’t lived here the past few years.  All our friends are in Carlton.”

When I had shown up on my parents’ doorstep all those years ago with a huge grin and a bigger diamond, it wasn’t hard to see the surprise on their faces. “Isn’t it a little soon?” Mom asked right after she sort of hugged me.

I swung my arms wide. “Not when you’re in love.” I tried to assure her a justice-of-the-peace wedding was exactly what we—I— wanted. “Besides, this will be so much easier for you.  All you have to do is show up and be happy for us.”

Mom cast a last glance through my car window at the church.  “Well, that’s all I’ve ever wanted for you, Laura. For you to be happy.”

I shifted my chair to get a better look at the photo cake Stasha was holding my way. Happiness, I reminded myself as I nodded my approval. Like mother, like daughter. Like grandmother. We’d come full circle. Too bad my mother was no longer alive. Her granddaughter was planning the wedding she’d wanted me to have.

Like my mother, all I wanted for Stasha was happiness.  Which was why I planned to let Stasha have her perfect day. I would wait until the ink on her marriage license dried and the photos of the beautiful bride and her loving family were in an album.

Then…then I might consider…

No. I could never do that.

Are you sure?

Yes. Leaving Donnie wasn’t an option. When I said “I do,” I had meant it.

You’ve changed. Donnie’s different. You’ve grown apart.

Oh, how well I knew that. Stasha tilted another elaborate wedding cake picture my way. One part of me pointed to the picture and shook my head, another part of me kept up the silent debate.

You don’t have to do anything now. Stasha’s wedding isn’t until August. You’ve lived with Donnie for 23 years; another two months isn’t going to matter one iota. Just think about what you’ll say.

To tell the truth, it was getting harder not to think about it.  Donnie was wrapped up in yet another big ad campaign.  Never home, as usual. The story of his life, and mine. There would be time for us later. Always later.

When will your time come?

I thought my time would have been here by now. As it was, I’d put off my painting, my dreams of travel, of having my own gallery, of having a life, waiting for my husband to—

To what?

Exactly. In the past 23 years I’d learned that Donnie’s work was what counted. What mattered within the four walls that made up our house.  The expanse of space that encompassed the agency.  In the tangled web that was our marriage.

Which was why I needed to have a serious talk with Donnie.  Not an “Oh, by the way” kind of talk. We’d had those.  This time I needed my husband to sit down and listen, really listen to how unhappy I was in this union of ours.

No, not now. Not when Stasha is planning her wedding.  Not while Stasha was living with us for the summer. We already had all the emotions we needed under one roof. There would be plenty of time later, after the wedding, for what I needed to say to Donnie.

I knew Donnie. I knew the way he’d react if I told him how I was feeling. First he’d deny that he worked so much. Then he would tell me about the good life he was providing for me.  For us.  That would be my cue to start back-pedaling, to make excuses. We do have a beautiful house. Yes, I love my sports car. Of course I’m happy Stasha is getting the wedding of her dreams. No, I’m the one who’s sorry. I’d start to cry. Donnie would put his arms around me until my tears dried.  I’d go back to same old, same old. He’d go back to work.  After this many years, even our arguments were scripted.

No, this time when I talked to him, things would be different.  This time I wouldn’t let him comfort me into thinking I was the one who had been wrong all along. I didn’t plan to let his familiar platitudes distract me. This time I would press on, press him until something changed. Or else.

Or else what?

I vaguely took in the picture of the cake Stasha was pointing to.  I nodded. Whatever she wanted would be okay with me. My daughter wouldn’t know how far my thoughts had strayed from wedding cakes, flowers, and linen colors. I had a much larger problem on my plate.  What would be an “or else” for Donnie? Donnie knew I’d never leave.  I knew I’d never leave. The vow I made didn’t allow for that option.

But there was another thing I knew. I knew I didn’t want to continue living the way we were. Roommates. Glorified roommates.  Sharing a house and a last name. Not much else. Oh, we slept in the same bed, but that’s all we did there. If this was what 23 years of marriage amounted to, I wasn’t so sure I wanted it anymore.

What are your alternatives?

There was the rub. The only alternative was to upset the comfortable applecart that was our marriage.

Comfortable?

I coughed at the sudden tightening in my throat. Even in my unhappiness I had to admit there was a certain comfort in the familiar. I didn’t know exactly how I wanted my marriage to change, just that I did.

As Stasha and the cake lady discussed the endless shades white that frosting could be, I let my mind drift again. I wasn’t quite sure how Donnie and I had gotten to this point, and I didn’t have a clue how we’d get out of it. All I knew was that what we had was no longer enough. At least not for me. I planned to let my husband know exactly how I felt. And I wouldn’t back off until we had an answer to what ailed us.

What if there isn’t one?

I gritted my teeth against the thought. There just had to be.  No one should be expected to live in a shell of a marriage. A relationship that looked strong and pretty from the outside with nothing but vapor inside.

“Mom. Mo-om?”  Stasha was waving her hand in front of my face. “Where are you?” She was laughing, obviously in the dark about my conflicted emotions. Which was exactly where I wanted her to be. Clueless. She deserved her measure of happiness. Soon enough she’d find out what marriage was all about.

“Right here,” I said, forcing a smile, giving my head a little shake, bringing my thoughts back to seemingly simple wedding woes. There would be plenty of time to think about my marriage later. If I dared think about it at all.

I’d learned, even in my thoughts, that it was lonely to live without feeling loved.