Her first mistake was agreeing to attend this Christmas party. Her second was downing a glass of champagne and then, for courage, another.
Her third error in judgment was remembering Michael.
The only reason Linette Collins had agreed to come was that it was easier to give in to Nancy and Rob than argue.
It was well past time for her to socialize again, they claimed. Long past time for her to grieve. Only no one had told her how she was supposed to grow another heart. No one had told her all the time she'd been granted to mourn her husband was two short years.
Her heart had been rubbed raw in the time it had taken leukemia to claim her young husband's life. Since Michael's death the days had blended together, one twenty-four-hour period dragging into the next until the weeks and months had blurred together in a thick fog of disenchantment.
Linette had gotten on with her life, the way everyone said she should. She went to work every day. She ate. Slept. She managed to do all that was required of her and nothing more, simply because she hadn't the energy. Or the inclination.
Then, out of the blue, when she was least expecting it, she'd found peace. A shaky sort of acceptance that teetered, then, gradually, with time, righted itself.
This serenity happened as if by magic. She woke one morning and realized the pain she'd constantly carried with her didn't seem quite as heavy. The doubts, the fears, the never-ending litany of questions, faded. Unsure of how it had happened, Linette had graciously accepted this small slice of peace, this unexpected reprieve, and clung to it tenaciously
Each day the feeling had grown stronger, and for the first time in months she felt whole. Almost whole, she amended.
But when she'd stepped into this Christmas party she hadn't been prepared for the festivities to hit her quite this way. The fun, the singing, the laughter, reminded her forcefully that it had been almost two years to the day since Michael's death.
"I'm so pleased you came," Nancy said as she squeezed past Linette. Her sister-in-law smelled of cinnamon and bayberry and looked incredibly lovely in her sleeveless winter green velvet gown. Linette's own white wool dress didn't fit as well as it should. She'd done what she could to disguise how loose it was with a narrow gold belt.
"I'm pleased I came, too," Linette bed, but it was only a small whiteone and unfortunately necessary. She sipped champagne and forced herself to smile.
"Did you sample the hors d'oeuvres?" Nancy asked. "You must! I spent hours and hours assembling those little devils. Try the teriyaki chicken bits first. They're wonderful." She pressed her fingertips to her lips and kissed them noisily.
"I'll give them a taste," Linette promised.
Without warning, Nancy's arms shot out and hugged Linette long and hard. When she drew back, Linette noticed tears shimmering in her sister-in-law's eyes. Nancy's lower lip quivered as she struggled to hold in the emotion. "I miss him so much," she said, choking out the words. "I still think about him. It doesn't seem like it's been two years.
"I know." Instead it felt as if several lifetimes had passed.
Linette squeezed Nancy's hand. It often happened like this, her comforting others. How ironic.
"Oh, damn. I didn't mean for that to happen,- Nancy murmured, pressing her index fingers beneath each eye while she blinked furiously in an effort to keep the tears from spilling down her cheeks.
"It's only natural you should miss Michael," Linette offered, briefly wrapping her arm around Nancy's waist.
"It just hit me all at once that he was gone. I'm sorry, Linette, the last thing you need is for me to remind you of Michael, especially tonight. This is a party, we're supposed to be having fun." Nancy reached for the champagne bottle and Linette's glass. She sipped from her own glass, then laughed lightly. "He'd want us to celebrate."
That was true. Michael had always been generous and loving.
"Oh, my," Nancy said a tad breathlessly, turning around abruptly. Her startled eyes flew to Linette's. "Tell me, how do I look?" she asked, nervously brushing her hands down her skirt.
Linette blinked, surprised by Nancy's lack of confidence. "Great."
"I'm positive. Why?'
"Rob's boss and his wife just arrived."
"You don't have a thing to worry about," Linette assured her.
"My makeup's okay?" She dabbed at her cheeks.
"A beauty queen would envy you that face.
Nancy laughed. "Rob's up for promotion, you know."
Linette didn't, but the news wasn't a surprise. She'd often admired her brother-in-law for his intelligence and ambition.
With a toothpaste-ad smile on her lips, Nancy left, and Linette glanced at her watch once more. Ten more minutes, she decided, and then she'd make an excuse and leave. Silently she'd slip back to life without Michael.
The minute Cain arrived at the Christmas party, he'd noticed her. Like him, she was alone. Uncomfortable. Eager to escape. She was a lovely thing. Petite and fragile. He found himself studying her almost against his will. It wasn't that she was strikingly beautiful. 'Winsome" came to mind, although it was an old-fashioned word and not often used these days. But then, she seemed to be a quaint kind of woman.
It was almost as if she'd stepped out of another time and place. Perhaps it was the sense of being lost that he felt. A sense of being alone and slightly afraid, uncomfortably aware of being out of place.
Not afraid, he decided. The more he studied her, the more he realized this woman had walked through a deep, dark valley. He wasn't sure how he knew this, but he'd come to trust his intuition. She sipped from the champagne glass and briefly gnawed on the corner of her lip. Watching her made Cain wonder if she'd made her way completely across that valley. Maybe he should find out. No. He decided to leave well enough alone.