Adjusting the headrest of her seat back, Christina wasn’t sure what was biting at her stomach harder—the simple feeling of travel anxiety or the dawning realization that, after almost a week in South Carolina, she was minutes away from liftoff—which meant she was mere hours away from Minneapolis.
Which meant Matthew and Mary.
“God,” she whispered painfully, her eyes closing at the onslaught of fear, nerves, utter anticipation which kicked through her bloodstream at the thought. Again, she wasn’t entirely sure which emotion gripped her harder.
She was desperate to see them. To apologize, to look into their faces and know that they forgave her and that everything would be all right again…
“You old sap,” she muttered, buckling herself snugly into the place. To the wide-set man stuck beside her in seat 8B, she probably looked like a totally buffoon. She wasn’t in a frame of mind to care.
She was desperate to see the Gordman’s…and absolutely terrified. What is she was wrong? What if, like her mother, they couldn’t get past their disappointment? What if they were wrong, and they didn’t love her as much as they claimed? What if she was just deluding herself that they were different than Natalie? What if she was setting herself up for failure?
And then there was Jason.
“I wouldn’t blame him if he laughed right in my face,” she told herself, her fingers flipping angrily through the pages of the in-flight magazine. He’d accused her of playing it hot-and-cold. Wasn’t she about to prove him right? She’d all but sworn that she couldn’t have a relationship with him and…and know she was getting ready to throw herself at him. Total spaz move.
“God, you’re an idiot,” she realized, tossing the magazine down on her lap in disgust. “Why do you think he’d even care?”
A week spent with Natalie DeLuca had done something miraculous to Christina. It had opened her eyes to history. Or maybe it hadn’t been so miraculous after all. Maybe she’d always known, but this had just put it all into a tangible sort of expression. Sitting at the dinner table four of the last seven nights had forced her to see what her teenaged self had been unwilling to accept—
Natalie DeLuca loved no one as much as she loved herself.
She was a selfish woman—whereas most parents wanted their children to have better lives then they had, Natalie couldn’t have stomached the thought.
It’s not that she wanted Christina to have a bad life, but there was a limit to where her goodwill ended and her jealous began.
“Which is why she married dad,” Christina muttered to herself, but there was no anger in the accusation, no hurt or bruising.
Christina no longer wanted to fight for her mother’s affection. She no longer felt like she needed to. Natalie would always be Natalie—Christina couldn’t morph her into someone she wasn’t anymore than Natalie had been able to do with her daughter.
But that had never been a problem for Christina’s father, who lived to come home to his wife, who could always be found at dinner leaning eagerly across the dining room table, waiting for his beloved to tell some drawn-out story of her afternoon at the country club or latest fashion trip or whatnot.
He truly treasured her.
“He was happier to see her each evening than me,” Christina surmised, completely ignoring the stranger beside her. He, however, was staring with his jowl-jaw across the way at her. Any minute now, he’d be flagging down a flight attendant, asking politely to be transferred to another section of the plane. “And he hadn’t seen me in four years.”
Granted, John DeLuca had sounded absolutely bemused, stunned—half expecting a stranger’s voice, when he’d called her that first evening, after Natalie had informed him of their daughter’s unexpected return home. In fact, he’d been almost pathetically eager to see his daughter.
That had healed a lot of hurt.
But, much like Natalie, John didn’t love Christina most. As much as he glorified in seeing his daughter (how many times had he just reached out to touch her? To hug her in some way?) John had never counted the cost of losing her to Natalie.
He loved Natalie best.
He wanted Natalie to be happy (which, as it happened, was all that Natalie wanted to, so their marriage remained blissful after all these years…)
“It’s a strange thing, isn’t it?” Christina asked, turning abruptly now, to stare at the balding man squirming so blatantly beside her.
“Huh?” His voice squeaked in surprise.
Christina didn’t bother to explain. “It’s like, I don’t know, you hold all of these terrible memories in your mind. These things that happened and you can’t get over them until, I don’t know, until one day you go back in time, so to speak, and you realize,” she spread her arms out rather majestically. “You realize, there’s no point in being angry anymore. There’s no point replaying all that old shit. You can’t change people. You can’t change things. You can only accept ‘em and move on and…” Her voice petered out, her thoughts scrambling to make sense of all the emotions stemming through her body.
Christina was vaguely surprised to see he was even bothering to listen to her. “And you finally understand that you can be worth more and still be willing to take less at the same time.”
Because that’s how she felt.
The stranger nodded slowly. “But why would you settle for less?”
She inclined her head a little to one side. “You wouldn’t, not unless you were getting all the rest from someplace else.”
Which brought her straight back to Matthew and Mary.
“And Jason,” she whispered.
Smiling half-apologetically, Christina waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, nothing. I’m sorry. I’m just babbling.” She threw him a long look. “It’s been one of those weeks. I’m still trying to process it all.”
He smiled encouragingly. “Well, it’s a long trip, if you need someone to talk to…”
And that, apparently, is all it took for Christina to turn toward her plane companion and tell him everything. Absolutely everything. From her affair with Bill to her anxiety with Jason to her blowup with Mary and Matthew.
Her travel companion—whose name she later learned was Gary—sat patiently while she let the story tremble loose and jumbled from her mouth. Her hands waved frenzied throughout the long, drawn-out tale. But alas, she came to an end.
Shrugging, she said: “…so, that’s why I decided to come back home.”
Gary nodded thoughtfully. “And it was successful?”
Christina started to speak and then stopped. She took a moment to consider before responding: “Yeah. I guess. I mean, my mom is always going to be who she is but…”
“I think I’ve finally learned to accept that. I’ve learned to accept who she is. And she’s learned to accept me, too.”
“Ah.” He leaned back in his chair in a satisfied sort of way. Christina wished she could feel half so contented.
She shrugged impatiently. “So, yeah, I’ve gotten one thing accomplished at least.”
“And what’s next?” But she had a feeling he already knew what she’d say…
Christina half-laughed, her glance exasperated when it met his. “Pray Jason hasn’t given up on me.”
“You still doubt them?”
“Not Mary and Matthew.” She looked down at her lap. “But—Jason is different.”
“That is, I want Jason to love me differently. Oh, I know he’d always be there for me, if I needed him. But…”
“But you want more than that?”
She nodded. “And you know what? I think I may have had it. Once.”
He smiled, but there was something slightly sad about it. With a flick of his wrist, he looked down at the watch he wore. “Well, we land in less than twenty minutes.” There was something so pointed in those words, especially when he looked over at her, his eyebrows rising.
She stared back, nonplussed. “Yeah?”
He whistled, not bothering to answer her directly. “You can only delay the inevitable for so long.”
“That’s what I’m terrified of.”
He patted her hand. “I assure you, it’s more scary not knowing.”
She nodded. “I suppose…” and then, it hit her. A niggling notion at the back of her mind. Jerking herself upright, she blinked across the way at Gary. “Wait. What day is it?”
“No, no,” she said, batting at the words as the thought morphed into a full-fledged idea. She was already hatching plans as she pulled up her phone’s calendar. “Hah!” Her fingernail tapped against the screen. Looking over at Gary, she shot him a dazzlingly smile. “Do you know what Monday is?”
“It’s Labor day.”
“Right.” But he didn’t look like he was following her.
“The Gordman’s never miss an opportunity to celebrate a holiday.”
“I see.” But clearly he didn’t.
“And I’ve never been allowed to miss spending it with them.”
Then his face cleared. “I see.”
Her face lightened. “Now I just need a reason.”
“For showing up.” Her exasperation was perhaps a bit excessive, all things considered.
His wide forehead crinkled. “But I thought you just said…”
But Christina was busy scanning her work calendar, looking for any possible excuse for turning by their house unexpectedly. But there was nothing unusual on the schedule—no business trips or tax appointments, no budget meetings…. Her breath sagged out of her with defeat.
Then she felt Gary’s hand coming to rest against her forearm. Glancing up in surprise, she met a patient smile.
“Can I offer one piece of advice?”
She nodded slowly.
“As a man who’s been married almost fifteen years—don’t get distracted by flimsy excuses.”
“No, I won’t—”
“Because usually that’s when the greatest of intentions fall apart.”
Christina laughed softly at his knowing response. “You know this from experience?”
He winked. “You don’t stay married for long if you don’t pick up a few tips along the way.”
Just then the pilot’s fuzzy, disembodied voice came over the loudspeakers, informing the passengers of the approximate time, temperature, and estimation of arrival as they approached their destination.
Christina’s face cleared. Her fingertips reached forward, just brushing over Gary’s shoulder. “I—thank you, Gary. I’m sorry you got stuck with me,” she said amusedly, “but I’m so thankful you had nowhere else to go.”
He chuckled. “Now don’t go apologizing. I rather enjoyed the company.”
She inclined her head. “Thank you for saying that—even if you’re lying.” She wrinkled her nose. “You know, I never even asked your reason for flying?”
“God,” Christina made a face. “Now I feel like a complete ass.”
He raised one eyebrow.
“I didn’t even ask what you do for a living.”
He smirked. “I’m a psychologist.”
Her smile slipped. “You’re joking.”
She closed her eyes. “Please tell me I’m not going to be some case study?”
He really laughed then. “No, no. Nothing like that.”
She blew out a breath. “Well,” she said, with a sideways grin. “No wonder you’re such a good listener….”