The kitchen has filled with the aromatic scents of vanilla and coffee beans by the time I hear footsteps on the stairs. I turn, not sure who’ll I find on the landing. A smile tugs at my mouth when I see Michael, but the tortured expression on his face forces me to turn away.
So . . . Miss Perfect Example of a Model Marriage isn’t ready to forgive and forget. Something in me wondered if she would rather sweep the incident under the rug and go into denial rather than face the truth about her perfect husband, but apparently she’s decided to face reality.
I should send her an official invitation to the Betrayed Wives Club.
I catch Michael’s eye as he stops at the foot of the stairs and rubs the back of his neck. “I’d offer you a place on the couch, but I don’t think you’ll want to be here when Ginger gets up tomorrow morning. I did make you some coffee, though.”
He gives me a rueful smile. “Did you make it with rat poison?”
“Shoot, I knew I forgot something. You’re in luck—we cleaned out the kitchen drawers today. Not a spoonful of rat killer to be found in this entire house.”
Michael moves to the bar and perches on a stool as I open a box and pull out a mug. “Do you take cream and sugar?”
“I think I’d better take it black. It’s going to be a long drive home.”
I pour the steaming liquid into the cup, then slide it across the bar. He lifts the mug, then raises a brow. “Why are you still speaking to me?”
I lean against the counter and cross my arms. “I always liked you, Michael. And, believe it or not, I understand that marriages can get stale. I’m not happy about you cheating on my sister, but there’s no sense in pretending that these things never happen.” I shrug. “I might even be a little relieved that now Ginger will have to step off her soapbox and stop preaching to me and Rose. But we’ll take care of her. You don’t have to worry about that.”
A half-hearted smile flits across his face, then he sips from his mug. “This is good. Aren’t you having any?”
“I shouldn’t. I need to sleep tonight. Ginger can be a slave driver, you know.”
“Oh, I know.” He takes another sip and lowers the cup back to the counter. I suspect Michael is stalling because he wants to talk, but I’m not sure he should be talking to me. Even though we’ve been related for twenty-seven years, I’ve always suspected that Michael doesn’t take me seriously because I never finished college and I don’t like to talk about politics and world affairs.
But at the moment, I’m the only person around.
“Did, um—” he turns the handle on his coffee mug— “did Ginger say much to you and Rose?”
“Ginger never shares much with us. But she shared enough for us to understand what happened.”
He grimaces, and his dark eyes brim with threatening tears. “I hate that this is happening. I didn’t mean to hurt her. If you knew how I’ve agonized—”
“You weren’t thinking about her, that’s the point. And you know what they say about a man who takes fire into his hand—he’s gonna get burned.” The quote isn’t Shakespeare, but it’s enough to make him wince.
“I don’t want to lose my wife, Pen. It was a mistake, an infatuation. Theresa kept after me, waiting for me after class, coming to my office for advice, managing to meet me in the parking lot every morning. I was . . . flattered. She was attractive, and very intelligent. She’s brilliant, actually.”
“Your wife isn’t exactly chopped liver.”
“But you know how it is—marriage gets comfortable after a few years. And this woman was so . . . exotic. She listened to me. She said she needed me. And now she’s pregnant.”
This news slams into me with the force of a blow. Michael has been caught in a trap, complete with iron bars and a pick-proof lock. The conniving temptress did her work well.
His face transforms, the handsome and detached veneer peeling back to reveal the agony underneath. “I don’t know what to do.” He folds his arms on the counter and casts me a look of helpless appeal. “Ever since I heard that Theresa might be pregnant, I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve considered the problem from all angles, and the best solution isn’t what I want to do. But it’s the only way I can own up to my mistake, keep my job, and continue providing for my sons. I have to walk away from someone, but if I walk away from Theresa, she’ll destroy me. And then I’ll have nothing to offer anyone.”
“I wonder—” my voice is dry— “what made this woman think you had much to offer in the first place.”
Michael drops his head onto his folded arms, quietly and thoroughly going to pieces. The sound of his contrite sobs strikes me as surreal—I feel like I’m watching a Star Trek rerun, and Spock has just collapsed in a crying jag.
After a few minutes, I lean my elbows on the counter and look my brother-in-law directly in the eye. “Get a hold of yourself and listen to me. Have you seen a genuine pregnancy report? Something from a doctor’s office?”
He lifts his head and blows his nose, then wearily props his chin on his hand. “Yeah. I have. And I hate to admit it, but I found myself hoping that she’d miscarry or choose—you know, not to have the baby. But she’s determined.”
“Of course she is. So don’t you dare think of this woman as innocent, because she’s obviously clever enough to get you where she wants you. Let me guess—she said you wouldn’t need to worry about birth control, right?” When his eyes close, I shake my head. “You’re such a man, Michael. You’re smart, but your brains go right out the window when your hormones get stirred up. Face it, this other woman played you, and now Ginger and the boys are going to pay the price.”
His lips tighten. “Do you think Ginger will—”
“Divorce you? I don’t see any reason for her to stay with you.”
The tension on his face dissolves into a bewildered expression of hurt. “I never thought I’d be asking Ginger for a divorce, but I can’t see any other answer. Theresa could make things miserable for me at the university if I don’t marry her.”
“I thought you couldn’t be fired. That you had immunity or something.”
His mouth twists with bitter humor. “Tenure doesn’t mean I couldn’t be fired for gross misconduct. If I abandon Theresa, she could claim sexual harassment.”
He considers a moment. “Yeah, she would. I’d lose my job.”
“What about your family? Can you just walk away from them?”
“Would I really be walking away? Ross and Ryan are practically grown, and I’m sure most of their friends have divorced parents. I could stay in touch with them and with Ginger; there’s no reason this has to spell disaster. Ginger’s always been independent and capable, she’ll be fine on her own.”
Overcome by sheer disbelief at his matter-of-fact summation, I can’t speak. Ginger has always said that Michael lives more in his head than in his emotions, and now I see the proof of it. He speaks like a true professor, a man who regularly turns problems into logical solutions. I can’t disagree with his argument; his sensible conclusion sounds like something I might have come up with. Being the man he is, Michael will want to marry the other woman. He can even cloak himself in responsibility, claiming that his unborn child needs a father.
But what about the wife and sons he will abandon? Though I can appreciate the common sense in his proposed solution, I can’t deny the heartbreak he will cause.
“I don’t understand,” I say, the words hurting my throat, “why this other woman can’t see that a man who’d cheat on his wife will also cheat on her, but maybe she only wants you for a couple of years. So drink your coffee, stiffen your spine, and go back to Savannah. Ginger will come home when she’s ready.”
Michael looks at me, his eyes soft with pain. “It’s the best thing, you know. Ginger will want to divorce me. No one will blame her for doing it.”
“You may be right,” I answer, “but that doesn’t mean she’ll be happy afterward.”
Michael stares at the counter for a moment, then he gulps his coffee down. He lowers the mug and runs the back of his hand across his mouth. “I never thought I’d be gratefulthat you were around to talk to Ginger. You’re more experienced in these matters, so I know you’ll give her good advice.”
For some reason, the compliment stings.
“If Ginger wants to talk,” Michael continues, “tell her to call me. I’m not going to bother her any more, but I’ll keep my phone on.”
I nod. “Goodbye, then.”
He moves toward the door, picks up the overnight bag he dropped on his way in, and steps onto the front porch. He casts a look at me, a wordless plea for mercy or sympathy or understanding, but I send him on his way with a curt wave. “Drive safely, Michael. Have a nice life.”