THE SECRET EPILOGUE to FATAL ERROR
Two years later . . .
“Well, well, well. Apparently, hell’s frozen over.” Luke stared out the kitchen window of the ranch house where he had grown up, a mug of coffee in his hand. “In August, too. Can you believe it?”
“What’s up?” Susan looked up from her seat at the table. She had been using her laptop computer to write lesson plans for the first week of school, scheduled to restart after summer break ended in three more days. She’d slept late this Saturday morning, so she was still in her cotton bathrobe, her long legs stretched across a second chair that she’d pulled close.
Peavy jumped down from his favorite sleeping perch – her shins – and ran yapping to the back door.
“My mother’s coming up the drive,” Luke said, “and you’ll be happy to know she’s arriving by Cadillac, not broomstick.”
Susan stood and ran an anxious hand through her messy hair. “Of all the – She hasn’t set foot on this place since we moved in, and she has to show up now, when I’m a total wreck.”
“Don’t sweat it. You look gorgeous.”
Luke smiled at her, and she thought how unfair it was that he looked so damned good unshaven and wearing the ratty jean shorts and worn tee shirt he’d pulled on earlier to feed the horses. But then, Luke looked great in anything . . . and even better in nothing at all.
She couldn’t say much for his eyesight, though, if he thought she looked halfway decent. Zipping toward the bedroom, she called over the Chihuahua’s barking, “What does she want? Did you – you didn’t tell her, did you? It’s still too soon, Luke.”
“This is Ocotillo County, Susan. She’s probably known for months.”
Susan shed her robe and dug through her closet, muttering curses at the legion of blabbermouths that had mucked up her good timing. She’d kept a low profile since school let out, the memories of past disappointments forcing her to tamp down her excitement, to wait to be certain that this one time — please, God — the miracle would hold true.
That this time, she would not miscarry, as she had during her first, disastrous marriage.
Susan wasn’t certain she could bear another failure, especially now that she was carrying the child of a man who loved her beyond measure, a man who had, out of sensitivity to her wishes, managed to rein in his own enthusiasm, who had reassured her that no matter what happened, she was his entire world. The only thing that would make a miscarriage any more unbearable was the knowledge that the whole damned town was feeling sorry for them.
She emerged from the bedroom wearing a gauzy, Guatemalan summer dress – one of the few things that still fit her. When her mother-in-law came at her, arms outstretched, Susan literally shrank back, checking the smaller woman’s hands for weapons.
Virginia Maddox stopped, mouth gaping, obviously appalled. A silence filled the space between them, as rocky and hardscrabble as this arid land, as scarred and thorny as any of its vegetation.
Lowering her arms, Virginia drew herself ramrod straight. She still dressed neatly, in pressed linen slacks and a cheerful, pale green top that looked good on her. But she wore a few more creases and more gray hair than the last time Susan had seen her up close, the day she and Luke had gone to her about their plans to marry.
Unlike Susan’s own mother and sister, who flew out for the small, chapel ceremony, Virginia had taken a pass on the festivities. Susan and Luke had a running bet that she had spent the whole day erecting a shrine to Brian’s memory in her new abode.
Virginia heaved a long sigh, then looked from Susan to Luke and back again. “I suppose I deserved that reaction. I – I haven’t given you much reason to trust me, have I, Susan?”
Susan chewed her lip, unable to come up with a safe answer. And honesty seemed brutal, since it was possible the woman came in peace. Theoretically, at any rate.
“Would you like to come and sit down, Mom?” Luke asked, a struggling Peavy pinned beneath his arm. “How about a cup of coffee?”
Susan silently blessed her husband for the note of cheer in his voice. Not that it did much to ease the tension.
“No, thank you,” Virginia told him. “This is difficult enough without delaying matters. I’ve come to tell you both congratulations.”
Her gaze softened, drifted to Susan’s midsection. Susan decided she was going to pinch Trudy, the loose-lipped medical assistant at her obstetrician’s office. Or maybe flunk her kid, a junior going into advanced biology. Except that Susan really liked the little miscreant.
Her thoughts were ruthlessly torn away from plans for vengeance when she noticed the tears rolling from her mother-in-law’s eyes. Moved by compassion – or maybe it was hormones – Susan touched the older woman gently on the shoulder.
“Thanks, Virginia. That really means a lot to me. I hope you can understand why we’ve been keeping it quiet up ‘til now.” She smiled at Luke. “He wanted to hire a skywriter, but considering my history –”
Luke grinned sheepishly. “Who says I still don’t plan to? You’re six months along now, Susan. Face it sweetheart, this is really happening. I’m going to be a dad. A doting, toting, diaper-changing –”
Virginia laughed, a funky, snorting sound Susan couldn’t remember ever hearing. “Oh, really? My Luke, changing diapers?” The older woman’s wet gaze flicked to Susan. “You have worked miracles.”
“I had some pretty decent raw material to work with,” Susan told her with a shrug.
But her mind remained on Luke’s words, and a tight knot within her loosened. He’s right – he’s absolutely right. I am six months today. I’m really going to have this baby.
Still smiling, her mother-in-law pulled an even bigger miracle from her hat. “I’m only sorry I didn’t have the chance to see you work your magic. I’ve heard how happy you two were – how perfect and how right you are together. And I’ve missed that – I’ve turned my back on two years’ worth of friendly talks and family gatherings. I’ve missed your wedding, your first anniversary, I’ve missed so very much. But I’ll be horsewhipped and dragged naked through a cholla patch if I miss any more.”
Susan blinked, unable to get past the unfortunate naked-in-the-cactus image Virginia had painted in her mind.
But the woman wasn’t finished. Taking Susan by the hand, she pleaded, “Please, forgive me. Forgive me for misjudging you for so long, and so harshly.” Reaching toward Luke, she grasped his hand, too. “And Luke, I’ve been very wrong with you, too, and for such a long time. I’ve been blind to what a very fine man you are, and to how you carry every quality I tried so hard to wish into your brother. ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t seem sufficient. And if you toss me out of your house and refuse to ever speak to me again, I swear I’ll understand.”
Luke put down Peavy, then took her into his strong arms and rubbed her thin back. “No one’s tossing you anywhere, Mom. We’re just glad you’ve come back – so happy that you’re home.”
Susan watched her husband’s face, watched as a burden he had carried unspoken for so many years rose up off his shoulders. And then she joined him, hugging him and her mother-in-law-twice over, too, joined him in a future sweetened by forgiveness . . .
And founded on their love.