Escape into the world of Sugar Maple during the Christmas of 1945.
Rosie Bessler slid her old white slip over her head and eyed the new dress she’d made, which was hanging on the bathroom door. One she hoped would get Victor’s attention. It had been a week since he’d returned from Germany, and a peck to the forehead or a squeeze of a hand was the only attention she’d managed to provoke. Yes, they were strangers, not the same as they were when they married as Victor had pointed out, but they’d once shared a great love. Years ago, before the war. Had too much time passed for them to find their love again?
She pushed bad thoughts from her mind before they could take hold about how ex-soldiers had trouble adjusting to home life and it was her duty to make it as easy as possible, and her nerves jolted her insides with excitement. She donned her dress, buttoned the front, adjusted the wide shoulders, and cinched the belt around her waist, careful to snug the sleeves to cover her wrists. A simple cotton dress in navy, but it was flattering. There’d been a time when it would’ve taken less than a new dress to get Victor’s attention.
She retrieved her wet nylon device to draw on her faux stockings she’d made out of an old screwdriver and a bicycle clip and then sat in the rickety wooden chair in the corner. Despite shaking hands, she managed to draw the eyebrow pencil up the back of her leg and then to the other leg.
After a deep breath and a scan in the oval mirror over her dresser, she let her gaze drift down to their wedding picture. Five years hadn’t changed them too much, except for Vic’s limp and sadness that flickered in his eyes most days. But she hadn’t developed any deep wrinkles on her face, sagging skin, or any of that. She didn’t look like a child anymore as she had on their wedding day, though. Despite Victor’s lack of interest, many men still looked her way on the streets, even in the small town of Sugar Maple.
With the bed made and Victor gone to the shop already to work, she checked that the dishes were done, surfaces wiped clean, and their humble house tidied. How things had changed. Only weeks earlier, the house was left in semi-clean state because she’d been the one working on carving toys, opening the shop, and even staying to closing time, not to mention starting her own business making furniture. Now her duty was to be a supportive wife. She only hoped she remembered how to fill that role.
It was almost a shame she had to put on her old coat and cover the dress, but she’d remove it in a grand Ingrid Bergman fashion. She slid on her good, brown and tan lace-up oxfords, her hat, and then set off on her jaunt to the shop.
On her walk, she scanned the once vibrant area that had fallen into disrepair. At the end of the street, where the town square began, there was new life, though. Two men worked on removing boards from the old diner. Perhaps it would be open soon. Now that the war was over, certainly life could finally begin again. That was what December was all about—hope, celebration, and the spirit of Christmas.
The hint of bitterness in the air invigorated Rosie’s steps, and she picked up her speed, passing the general store. A tiny decorated Christmas tree, the first sign of the season, sat in the front window. Perhaps they should decorate the shop and their home. It had been years since she’d bothered, but there was a lot to be thankful for this season.
She matched her pace with the beat of the hammering and smiled at Mrs. Hutchins, who still wore her war helmet. The woman was always sure the Nazis would take over Sugar Maple. A slouched woman of advanced years, she spoke mightily, and Rosie bet on her if the Germans ever did arrive. Which, thank goodness, they never had.
Mrs. Slaughter, the woman who’d lost her husband on the beach at Normandy, stood outside the old soda shop with Miss Alberts. Mrs. Slaughter only lived across the street from their humble home, and they had occasion to see one another, but they hadn’t sat down for tea together since the war broke out. How Rosie missed simpler times.
At the door to the shop, she spied Victor through the window. He sat hunched over a toy he worked on, but she couldn’t make out what it was. She took a second to see the man, her husband. The one who she’d doubted at one point would ever return from the war, especially when years had passed with no communication. He’d never give details but would only say that he was beyond the reach of mail and humanity. The tone of his voice whenever he even spoke about the war sent a shiver through her that threatened panic.
Handsome, strong, sweet, tender, and dark was the man who’d returned. They’d make their marriage work though. They needed to. They were all they had left in the world, with Vic’s father dying in the Great War and his mother of heart failure while he was away, not to mention both her parents passing. A drizzle of grief heated her skin, but she pushed the bad memories away to make room for new, happy ones.
She blinked and watched him work for a few more moments, savoring the sight. If only he wanted her with the passion they’d once shared. He needed to believe that they truly belonged together once again. If he couldn’t see that on his own, she’d make him.
With a deep breath of courage, she swung the door open with the bell announcing her arrival, but he didn’t look up. That was okay. It gave her a chance to remove her coat and hat, straighten her belt, and saunter like a lady into the center of the room. “Good morning, my love.”
She waited one, two, three heartbeats. He placed his chisel down and turned to face her. When he stood to his full height, it was several inches taller than her, even with her small heels. The man still stole her breath when he stood close to her. He was the man she had waited years for, her husband who had arrived home to her, the person she’d been granted the gift to grow old with.
He approached, causing her hands to tremble, but she forced herself not to fidget. It felt like their wedding day, full of wonder and excitement.
He slid his hand over her elbow, leaned over, and kissed her cheek. She reached for him, but he took her hands and clutched them, kissing each before retreating.
No. No. No. “Enough.” Her words were not ladylike, the kind that should spill from the mouth of a devoted wife. It was carnal, mad, frustrated.
He stopped short of his work stool and pressed his palms to the hardwood table, head down like a scolded dog. “Don’t,” he said, strangled, desperate.
She forced a softness to her words, remembering her place in the world and the hope of a future for him. “Please, we need to talk.”
“No,” he said with authority but didn’t look at her.
She stepped closer. “Returning to this town after what you’ve been through must be difficult. I’m not the naïve little girl you married; I understand things now. You can talk to me; we can work through things together. Trust me that I can handle your burdens.”
“I’m here. Isn’t that enough?” He dared a glance her way, his eyes bloodshot, his forehead crinkled. The man hadn’t slept since he’d returned. Not that she’d know for sure since he insisted on remaining in the guest room.
Guilt plagued her. How could she want more than him by her side, alive? “Having you here is everything. I prayed for your return every hour of every day.”
A small smile fought at the corner of his lips, but not hard enough because it fell to a frown once more. “Then we’re good.” He chuckled, a nervous laugh. “Speaking of good… What’s this, and why are we selling it?” He brushed past her without a look, not even a glance at her new dress.
She fisted her hands and fought not to stomp her heel. An air of agitation took hold, but she knew it wasn’t fair. She was being selfish and pathetic. He was right. The world was right. She had to readjust to this new normal. The Sugar Maple clock tower chimed eight, so she walked over to the front door—which allowed her a few seconds to calm herself—to flip the sign to open and stood next to the front display. “It’s called a slinky. It’s all the rage this year. I’ve already sold a few.”
“This thing?” Victor picked it up as if lifting a dead mouse by its tail. It slunk down to his knees and didn’t retract the way it should.
“Here, like this.” She placed each end in one hand and then did the up and down movement to make it go.
“I still don’t see the appeal.” He scratched his dark brow.
She giggled; the little thing always made her smile. “Here, watch this.” She placed it on top of a box and then moved a wooden block underneath it. “It moves like a worm.” With her fingers, she nudged one end over so it walked down until it reached the table. “See?”
He shrugged. “I guess. Why do they call it a slinky?”
“Because that’s what it does. It slinks.” Realizing Victor would never move beyond his family heritage of wooden blocks and hand-carved toys, she put the thing in the front window, where a young boy pressed his nose to the glass, eyeing the metal lump with wide-eyed wonder. “See, look?”
He followed where she pointed to the young boy outside, who popped up and ran. “Well, he was excited about it. All the kids are. It’s going to be our biggest seller this Christmas. That’s if anyone can afford to buy any toys.”
“We better hope they do, if we want to keep the business open.” Without another glance her way, he returned to his work and ignored her once again.
Was now the time to tell him that her furniture business made more in a week than the toy shop in a month? She clutched the article in her pocket she’d cut from the paper about a woman’s role with her husband returning and mumbled, “It’s your duty to return to assisting and caring for your husband as he returns from the war.”
“What’s that?” Victor asked but didn’t pause his attention on the tiny star he carved to look like a sheriff badge.
“Furniture.” She let go of the paper. “The furniture I’ve been making in the back room has provided extra income while the shop has been slow.”
He smiled, stood, and took her in his arms, if only briefly. “My Rosie. You have done well. No man could be prouder of his wife.”
Rosie saw the man she’d fallen in love with. The one who saw only her gifts but never her faults, and she warmed even more to the man who stood before her. A man she knew was and always would be her only love in this life.
“I’m sorry you’ve had to work so hard.” He stepped away from her, returning the distance between them. “You can rest now. I’m home. No need for you to work so hard anymore.”
But she wanted to work. She preferred creating things over cleaning them, but now wasn’t the time to get into all of that. Especially when she wanted to return things to the way they once were. If not working meant she could have her husband by her side and in her bed, she’d give it up.
Vic returned to his work but asked, “What are you in such deep thought about?”
“Nothing.” She smoothed out the front of her dress and grabbed her store apron. “No. I mean, there is something.” Before she covered her efforts, she was going to make sure he saw them, so she marched over to him, her wide heels clunking against the floor, sliding in the half-inch-thick sawdust. “I worked day and night to make this new dress so that I would look nice for you. I took extra care with my makeup and hair. Tell me, am I invisible?”
“What?” He set the star on the table and looked at her as if seeing her for the first time since he’d returned home. His expression turned from distant to wanting. The hungry look he had on their wedding night that made her tremble at the thought of his desire. And as fast as it had appeared, it was gone and so was he, back to work.
“Am I ugly?” she asked, raising her voice above the octave a lady should speak.
“No.” He closed his eyes and his hands gripped the chisel so tight she could see the white appear around his knuckles. “You’re beautiful,” he breathed more than spoke.
“I can’t be,” she whispered and then turned away from him and all hope he’d ever notice her again.
“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” He hobbled to her side, abandoning his cane but grabbing the wall instead of her for support. “You must know that. Rosie Bessler, you’re my everything. The reason I open my eyes in the morning, the reason I come to work, the reason I made it through that blasted war, the reason I live.” His breaths were short and tight, his gaze wild. He squeezed her arms as if willing her to hear his words.
“How could I know that when you keep your distance?” she whispered, tears pricking at the corner of her eyes.
“We need time. That’s all.” He kissed her, sweet and brief, at the corner of her mouth.
“How much time?”
He withdrew and balanced himself with one hand on the top of the workbench. “Time to heal, to get to know each other again.”
She rounded on him, blocking him from hobbling off the way he did every other time she broached the subject of intimacy. “Heal?”
“Yes,” he grumbled and then returned to his stool.
A car drove by with a backfire, and the hammering continued outside, competing with her pulse drumming in her neck. Was there more to his distance than just needing time to get to know each other again? The way he struggled to be near her made her think there had to be another reason. “I knew you were injured, but you’ve not spoken about it, and I haven’t pressed you for answers. Your leg. You walk with a limp, but…but is there more damage? Are you afraid or unable to—”
“No.” He bolted up and shot for the back door, but she wouldn’t let him escape. Not this time. “Tell me. Why won’t you touch me? Kiss me? Make love to me? Are you struggling with the memories from war? If so, talk to me. I’m not that fragile. I promise I can handle the weight of your grief. All you have to do is share it.”
“I can’t.” He swallowed so loud it sounded like a sandbag piled on the sidewalk preparing for an invasion.
“Yes, you can. I’m your wife.” She clung to him. “Tell me. I can handle it. I can handle anything if it helps lift the burden from you.” She kissed his cheek, his nose, his chin, and lingered by his lips.
The simple touch of his thumb over her wrist sent tingles through her awakened body. “Rosie,” he said in a gravelly tone. “You can’t. And I can’t touch you.”
He flipped her hand over and lifted her sleeve. “Because of this.”
The scar. Her self-inflicted scar shone like a red beacon of loss in the night. “How did you know? When?”
“I knew before I ever arrived home that something was wrong. You can’t hide from me, Rosie. I see you. I’ve always seen you. New dress or not, makeup and hair done or not. You are and forever will be the love of my life, and that’s why I can’t touch you. That’s why no matter how much I want to exercise my husbandly rights, I’ll never make love to you again.”
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