“I hate that I have to fly out in the morning,” Carter whispered in her ear, his warm breath teasing her senses. It had been nearly a year since she’d felt his touch, his love.
Could she dare hope he found her attractive again? The last two years had left her feeling defective and his being distant for so long hadn’t helped. What if he decided to never come home again?
His hands slipped to her hips, but she grabbed them. With a breath and a leap of hope, she said, “We have today.” She turned in his arms and clasped her fingers together behind his neck, looking up at his gray eyes, their golden-yellow spirals drawing her into their depths. The same eyes she saw in Jacob. The same hair and skin tone. He was a mini replica of her husband.
The sound of toys clattered in the other room reminded her that Jacob was close by, unpacking his bedroom. She tried to read Carter’s face. If she offered to spend some alone time with him, would he reject her? “Why don’t I check on our boy while you go shower? We have a couple hours until dinner. We can have some quiet time together.” Her words felt forced, like she was speaking to a stranger instead of her husband. He went stiff in her arms and her heart sank. Maybe he just needed some more encouragement. It could be he didn’t quite get her meaning, so she offered a playful wink.
He rested his forehead on hers and smiled. “That sounds like a great idea.” His arms relaxed and he leaned into her. The mingling scents of his aftershave and hard work created an intoxicating aroma that made her snuggle closer to him.
His nose raked down her cheek to her collar bone. “I think you should shower, too, though.”
She slipped from his arms and slapped him playfully on the arm. “Hey, now. I just unpacked half a house. I can’t always be perfect like your mom.”
He sighed and stepped from her, heading for their bedroom. She chased him, knowing she’d screwed up. Why did she have to make a comment about his mother, especially now? “Hey, I didn’t mean that the way it came out. Listen, I promise to try my best to make things work with Judith. She’s family and if I were to confess the truth to you, I…I admire her. My issues with her are less about how she is, and more about how I don’t live up to her image in your eyes.”
More boxes shuffled in Jacob’s room and she moved to help him, but Carter grabbed her. Pulling her close, he dipped her, planting a kiss on her lips. The air whooshed from her lungs, but she didn’t care. She only wanted Carter.
“Mom! What do I do with my towels?” Jacob yelled, shattering their moment.
Carter broke the kiss and lifted her back to standing, but the room continued to spin. He held her upright until she caught her breath. “You’re perfect just the way you are,” he breathed into her ear. “I don’t want anyone else but you as my wife. You’re special in so many ways.”
Heat flooded up her neck to her cheeks. “Thank you. I wasn’t trying to… I know the counselor said—”
“I didn’t say that because the counselor advised me to. I said it because I truly believe you’re an amazing wife and mother, and I’m lucky to have you.” He kissed her check then swatted her bottom. “Now, go help Jacob while I shower so we can have some of that quiet time you promised.”
She nodded then sashayed toward Jacob’s room, swaying her hips with extra emphasis
Carter’s words trailed after her. Maybe moving to Creekside would be better than she’d thought. During their visit to Café Bliss that afternoon, Aunt Sue had promised to let her work a few hours a week while Jacob was in school. Cathy West seemed almost human compared to the woman full of gossip she once knew, easing some of her anxiety about the town learning things she’d rather keep secret. And Aunt Sue had assured her the schools really were better here.
She spotted Jacob on the floor in the corner, looking at an old picture book. She quickly glanced back to make sure Carter had gone to their room, knowing he wouldn’t approve of his nine-year-old son reading baby books.
She slipped through the doorway then closed it behind her. “Whatcha doing?”
Jacob shoved the book under his leg, his glance swaying guiltily between the book and her. His expression was like a squirrel debating whether to flee or freeze and hope she hadn’t seen him.
“It’s okay.” Emily sat down beside him and crossed her legs, easing the book from beneath his leg. “Ah, it’s your favorite adventure story. Would you like to read it together?”
He sat stone still and she knew he contemplated his answer carefully. She opened the book to the page where the boy finds his way through the woods and discovers the lion. “Oh, this is my favorite part.” She pointed to the lion. “When he eats the boy’s lunch, right?”
Jacob cracked a smile and shook his head. “No, that’s not what happens. He sits with the lion and the lion gets the monkeys to bring fruit for them to share.”
“Really?” She gave him a skeptical look and shook her head for added emphasis. “You sure?”
He snuggled up to her side. “Yep, see? It says right there that the monkeys got bananas and coconuts.” His little fingers pointed to each of the words. “Then on the next page,” he quickly turned the page and pointed to the words, “the lion tells the boy that the hunters are coming and that they have to leave before they construct their city.”
“Wow, that’s a big word. You can read construct?”
Jacob nodded double time. “Ah-ha. Oh, and here,” he flipped the pages, “the animals form an army to start a revolution against the land owners.”
Pride surged through her at his determination to not only read the book, but understand what he read. If only Carter could see his son’s accomplishment, but he wouldn’t. He’d only see Jacob holding a baby book. “Oh, no. Do they fight a big battle? What happens at the end?”
Jacob gave her his familiar head tilt and eye roll, informing her he’d caught onto her reading game. Still, he shrugged and flipped to the end. “The animals sign a peace treatment.”
“You mean treaty?”
Jacob’s skin flushed. He slammed the book shut and threw it across the room. “I’m so stupid!”
She wanted to chastise herself for correcting him, but what was she supposed to do? If she didn’t correct him, he wouldn’t learn, yet when she did he shut down.
Jacob retreated to the corner and faced the wall with his arms crossed over his chest. The sound of soft sniffles told her he was crying, but she knew he hated crying in front of anyone. Should she leave? Hold him? Get the book and tell him to keep practicing? She searched the room for answers. Lego sets designed for children twice his age that he’d constructed in a matter of hours rested on a bookshelf. The electronic keyboard that he’d taught himself to play by watching YouTube videos sat in the opposite corner. He was smart, probably smarter than most.
She sat there for a moment, praying for guidance. “I know this is frustrating, but there are a lot of people who have struggled with reading.” She inched closer. “You know, I saw somewhere that Albert Einstein had trouble learning to read, and he was one of the smartest men who ever lived.”
Shoulders slumped, Jacob rested his head against the wall. The sniffles had stopped, but he didn’t respond, so she scooted a little closer. “Sometimes people are smart in different ways. History is full of stories of people like that, those who excelled in some areas but struggled in others. No one is perfect at everything. Just think about all the things you can do. One day, you could be a famous musician, or a world-renowned architect or engineer who designs airships.”
He angled to the side, and she could see the tears running down his cheeks before he swiped them away. She wanted to pull him into her arms and promise it would get better. That she would be there to help him and protect him from the world, but she couldn’t learn to read for him. There were some things only he could do.
“Are you just saying that?” Jacob stuttered between short breaths.
“No, it’s true. Sometimes people have a weakness because their strengths are so superior. It’s like a superhero.”
“Superhero?” He turned to face her.
“Yes, you know, like kryptonite is Superman’s weakness. Every superhero has some sort of weakness they have to overcome.”
“So, reading’s my kryptonite,” he murmured. “I think it’s gonna kill me.”
She stifled a laugh. “You’re not going to die from reading. Unlike Superman, you can learn to conquer your weakness.”
“You really think so?” Jacob looked up at her with the most hopeful eyes she’d ever seen, and she pulled him into her arms, snuggling him in her lap.
“Yes, I really think so. In fact, I know you will. Just a week ago you couldn’t read the word construct, yet now you can. It may take time and you have to be patient, but if you keep at it you will get better.”
He wiggled into her for a moment and she loved the feel of him in her arms. As big as he was, he was still her baby, the only one she was likely to have according to the doctors.
“Mom? Do I have to go to school? Can’t you teach me?” he asked.
She squeezed him against her and kissed the top of his head. “I’m afraid not. A superhero needs a sidekick, right? Real teachers are like sidekicks, there to help you overcome your weakness. So, you’ll have to be brave and go to school so you can learn.”
“Brave like a superhero?”
“Yes, just like a superhero.”
He pushed from her arms and stood, lifting his chin high, then walked across the room to retrieve the book. “Let’s start at the beginning.”
The door opened and Carter stuck his head inside the room. “Hey, what’s going on in here? I thought you were going to shower.”
Emily held her breath as Jacob hid the book behind his back. No one said anything for a moment.
“I thought I told you to throw that book out before we moved. You don’t need baby books anymore.” His words cut through her like a bulldozer tearing through a forest and chasing the animals from their homes.