In honor of Valentine’s Day –
here’s a special chapter written for Jess Carter and Emily Post of Sound Advice.
Nana’s Rules to Live By
40. Apologize; and mean it.
Actions speak louder than words, but sometimes words need to be said. When an argument ensues, be honest and thoughtful in your apology. Don’t just say the words “I am sorry,” mean them.
We’d had a fight.
It wasn’t really that simple, and it was all Tom Carter’s fault. It was Thursday night and somehow a tradition had evolved that the Carter and Scott siblings gathered together at the Town Tavern to share a drink and their lives. My life was now part of their life and these ritual gatherings. I was thrilled to be a future member of their family as I no longer had my parents, my Nana, or my sister, who lived in the South with her four rambunctious children.
What I did have was Jess Carter, and his daughter, Katie. But tonight, Tom Carter might have striped it all away. He was a practical jokester, and Jess’ older brother. They were best friends, but sometimes Tom could go too far. Tonight was one of those nights.
It started with a conversation about Valentine’s Day, which was in two days. Tom mockingly asked what romantic grand gesture Jess was going to do to show his love for me, to which Jess replied nothing.
“I tell her every day I love her,” he said, almost cold heartedly. He didn’t mean it that way. And he did tell me he loved me daily; often more than once within a day. I was a bit taken aback that he had nothing planned, though, but couldn’t dwell on it long as next began a discussion of our wedding plans. Jess had asked me to marry him in October and I couldn’t be happier.
Unfortunately, planning a wedding was daunting. Planning a wedding in a small town was almost impossible. I wasn’t trying to be a snob, but there were certain things I wanted, and didn’t want, for my wedding. I didn’t want the VFW Hall. I didn’t want the church basement banquet room. I didn’t want someone’s backyard under a tent. I did want the ceremony to be centered on family and friends in a place that was special and unique to this town. Since I hadn’t grown up here, I didn’t know where that location would be.
On top of that, I wanted traditional wedding attire. I planned to wear white. If Nana had been alive, she would have disapproved for obvious reasons. Jess and I were already living together. I had initially wanted to wear my grandmother’s dress. She had such a lasting love with my grandfather, and I wanted the luck I thought something old would bring to me. I was disappointed when it didn’t fit. I was curvier than her despite my slim build. Jess crumbled about a tux. He said it just wasn’t his thing, but he conceded to it. When Tom got involved, I learned more to the story and I didn’t like it.
Jess had been married before. His wife left him after scaring their sweet child into silence. It was a sad story for another time. Regardless, Jess had had a formal wedding with tux, dance lessons, and the church hall. For him, he didn’t want that all again. To me, a wedding was a fairy tale come true. Jess seemed to understand that, or so I thought, until Tom brought up some truths.
“You know you don’t like monkey suits,” Tom voiced across the wood table.
I saw Jess’ jaw clench and knew that Tom said something that struck a nerve with him. He had a habit of doing this when he was angry or concentrating. Right now, I sensed he was both. He didn’t respond to Tom.
“It’s not like you haven’t done this before,” Tom laughed as he lifted his beer. “I mean, you’ve had practice. The practice wedding. The practice wife. The practice marriage.” He continued to laugh at himself, but didn’t stop there. “You’ll be the perfect husband because you’ve already been one.”
I wasn’t terribly comfortable with these comments. Jess and I had discussed his ex-wife at length, and I felt confident that he hadn’t loved her like he thought he should. He had loved her as a teenager who loved his high school sweetheart. He had loved her as the mother of his child. But he hadn’t loved her in the sense of true love. They were thrown together by circumstances that didn’t work for them: marriage forced by pregnancy.
I didn’t like to call myself the second wife. In label, I was; in theory, I wasn’t. I didn’t worry about it, except every once in a while. This was one of those moments. I was tired. I felt I had exhausted all avenues for the wedding reception and was feeling a bit of the pressure of living in a smaller community. There had been gossip about our whirlwind relationship – we’d gotten engaged rather shortly after a relatively brief summer romance. Now, Tom was bringing up Debbie, Jess’ ex-wife.
“It’s his day, too. He doesn’t want to wear the tux,” Tom said. “He shouldn’t have to wear it.” His eyes narrowed at me in a rare moment of seriousness from the dark haired man across from me. I immediately looked at Jess. His defined jaw was tight.
“Jess?” I whispered.
“Shut up, Tom,” he growled.
“You don’t want to wear a tux?”
There was silence despite the loud bar and I could see Tom within my peripheral vision opening his mouth to speak. Jess interjected.
“Not really,” he grumbled.
“I thought you were okay with it,” I replied.
My grandmother had been a woman of tradition and, in many ways, so was I. I wanted this, but not if he was going to be unhappy.
“Why didn’t you say something?” I asked.
“I did,” he pondered, twisting the beer bottle on the table with one hand, “but you weren’t listening.”
I sat back, stunned.
“You don’t want to wear a tux?” I asked again, almost in disbelief.
“No,” he said softly.
“Then why are you doing it? Why did you say yes?”
“Because you’re making me,” he puffed out a low breath while he spoke the words.
“I’m. Making. You?” I quietly emphasized each word through slightly gritted teeth.
“Well, I don’t want to make you do something you don’t want to do?” I added.
“See, I told you she’d be agreeable. You just had to be more honest,” Tom responded. I didn’t even understand why Tom was still speaking. This seemed like a private conversation, and suddenly I felt like the Town Tavern was the wrong place to have it. My anger was slowly rising, though.
“Yes. Please be honest. What else am I making you do?”
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, leaning forward toward the table from his relaxed, stretched out position. A piece of sandy blond hair slipped from his signature ponytail and he pushed the stray behind his ear. His voice was low as he uttered my name in warning.
“No, really. What else?” I repeated.
“I don’t really want the whole big wedding fan-fare. Why can’t we just go to the Justice of the Peace? It’s not like we aren’t already together. I just want it to be legal. For me. For Katie. For you to belong to us. I don’t need the other stuff.”
My eyelids were blinking rapidly, both from shock and to wash away the silly tears forming in my eyes. I was tired, I told myself. I felt I already belonged to him, but I still desired a wedding. It wasn’t a matter of needing the other stuff, as he called it. It was a matter of wanting it.
“What about me?” I whispered.
“What about you?” He said, suddenly sounding a bit uncertain.
“I … I gave up a lot of things to be here, and I’d like to have a real wedding.”
Jess pushed back his chair and faced me.
“Are you unhappy here? Is this place not good enough? Am I not enough?” His voice was rising, and he suddenly stood. My heart was racing with the look of pain his eyes held. I’d seen those eyes shade all kinds of blue: deep denim in anger to bright blue in arousal. This was different.
“I’m not saying that,” I stammered.
“Maybe you need to be honest, Emily. Maybe this isn’t what you really want.”
“What are you saying?” My voice shook as I somehow knew what he was going to say next.
“Maybe you don’t really want to marry me.”
The silence at the table seemed to spread throughout the bar like a slow fog and it eerily hung in the air for a second or two. In that time, Jess moved away from the table and walked out the door.
I blinked back a tear, but a different one escaped.
“Tom?” Karyn Scott said softly to her husband, reaching over to touch his arm. The look of shock on Tom’s face did nothing to soothe the discomforting moment.
“I … I didn’t mean for that to happen. I just wanted him to grow some balls and tell you he didn’t want to wear the stupid suit like a teenager going to prom.”
“Thomas Carter,” Karyn spoke louder, “that is enough.” Her eyes reached mine, filled with sympathy, but it was too late. The realization that I might not be engaged any longer overcame me, and so did the tears. I stood, awkwardly bumping the table. Glasses teetered and a beer bottle fell over with a soft clatter. The sound was behind me as I rushed for the door and burst into the cold frigid air of February.
Valentine’s Day was two days away. The number one romantic day of the year. The meet me at the top of the Empire State Building day. The let me count the ways I love you day. Suddenly I hated Valentines’ Day. It was going to be the least romantic day as it marked the end of my engagement.
When I got home, Madison Scott, Jess’ niece was still there, but Jess was not. Maddie was babysitting Katie while we went out and I had thought Jess might have taken her home. He hadn’t been home. I offered to drive her in the bravest voice I could muster, but Madison said she’d call her mom. When Karyn arrived shortly afterwards, her face was full of sympathy, but I didn’t want to talk. I climbed the stairs slowly to the room I shared with Jess. We hadn’t slept separately since I’d moved here. Not once. If he had a meeting in Detroit, he drove home in order to arrive late at night, so we could be in the same bed. Together.
I numbly climbed between the sheets and reached for Jess’ pillow. Hugging it tightly to my chest, I cried deep sobs. I did love Jess. I did want to marry him. I did think he was good enough. I wouldn’t have given it all up if I hadn’t thought that. I tried to reason with myself. It was Jess’ insecurity, not mine.
When I finally fell asleep, it seemed only minutes before I woke up to get Katie ready for school. Although I didn’t work outside our home, I woke with Jess each day to prepare Katie for the day ahead. I didn’t know how to respond to Katie when she asked where her dad was. I didn’t have an answer, and my heart felt heavy. The day passed with no word from him. By evening on Friday, I had assumed the worst. If he wasn’t dead, I was going to kill him. He wasn’t dead, though, as he had picked Katie up from school and taken her to his mother’s home. Mary Carter would make a wonderful mother-in-law, and I heard the sympathy in her voice as she explained to me that Katie was with her.
Darkness fell early in winter, and the nights seemed excessively long. Time appeared to slow as I waited and wondered what to do next. By nine o’clock, I was tucked in bed trying to concentrate on a book when I heard Jess come up the stairs. He had an uncanny way of sneaking into this home without making much noise. He suddenly stood in our bedroom doorway completely covered in snow gear looking like a model for outdoor wear. He’d let the scruff on his face grow in a bit in the colder months and it enhanced his hard facial features more. I had to gulp down the relief I felt to see him.
“I was wondering if you’d take a ride with me.”
My first thought was his truck. The snow was deep outside, but the roads were clear. Lake effects caused the snow to fall heavy, and often, this time of year. What Jess meant was a snowmobile ride. I nodded and he walked back downstairs. It took me a few minutes to bundle up. I tried to have not an inch of skin exposed. In the night air, the wind bit even more as we sped through the dark woods.
I didn’t have a choice but to hold onto Jess. Wrapping my legs behind his thighs and my arms over his chest, I held myself against him to ward off the icy chill. But I also did it because I missed him. I needed to touch him. He seemed reserved, so I tried to relax and not hold him too tight. My thick gloved fingers struggled to grip his jacket, and it would have been easier to keep my arms spread around him.
The beam of light only highlighted so much of the darkness that seemed to spread around us. I didn’t have any sense of where we were going or how far we had gone. Suddenly, I recognized the barn ahead of us. The Scott family owned a cherry farm, and the barn was an old structure on a distant piece of their property. It was solid despite its years. Jess slowed the powerful machine to a halt beside the small side door and I shakily removed myself from the snowmobile. He didn’t touch me, but waved his hand forward, directing me to lead the way inside the barn.
I expected the open space to be damp and dirty. It was definitely dark and cold when Jess’ flashlight scanned the barren space. Instantly, the light found a circle of candles. More candles than I’d ever seen before. There had to have been a least a hundred. I wanted to make a joke about a satanic ritual, until I turned to face Jess. His expression was still hard when he brushed past me. He took his time to light each wick and slowly the space came alive. The glow was warm. The shadows soft. The space felt intimate.
“What’s going on here?” I asked. It was the first words we’d spoke other than his request for the ride.
“I think I found the place for our wedding,” he said, looking down at another candle as he lit it.
“Our what?” I questioned softly. At the tone of my voice, Jess spun to face me.
“Our wedding,” he said slowly.
“Are we still getting married?” I asked.
“Aren’t we?” he responded. He cocked an eyebrow and his jaw was moving almost double time. I longed to touch his face and stop the pace at which he was working the inside of his cheek. I longed to hold him and tell him that I loved him. I longed to show him how much.
“We had a fight,” he said. There was a deep pause before he spoke again. “We didn’t break our engagement.”
“Maybe we should,” I said looking down. I’d had time to reflect in the last twenty four hours. I didn’t want to make him do something he didn’t want to do, even something as silly to him as wearing a tuxedo. But I also didn’t want to give up my little fantasy just because he had done it before.
Jess was immediately in front of me. His hand cupped my chin and he forced me to look up at him.
“No,” he said defiantly.
“No, what?” my eyebrows pinched in question.
“We are still getting married.”
“I…” I began to speak when his lips come toward mine. It was a brush, a silencing, and I felt the immediate desire for it to be more. He did this to me sometimes. It turned me on and pissed me off at the same time. He’d lean close than refuse. He had amazing willpower.
“This is it,” he said. I was so confused. I thought he just said we were still getting married and now he was saying this was over.
I continued to stare at him as he slid his hands down to mine. He removed my thick gloves, dropping them on the ground, and clasping my fingers in his. He tugged me slowly into the glow of candles.
“This is it.” He said again as we stood inside the ring of soft flames. He reached for my face and his lips were on mine in the way I craved. Powerful and strong, like him, he took control of my mouth. His lips caressed mine in a way that spoke volumes. I was his. He was mine.
“Let’s not ever let last night happen again,” he said as he pulled back for a breath.
“Not sleeping with one another.” I nodded and he continued. “I can’t sleep without you. It was one of the first things I discovered and loved about you. I felt comfortable with you. You felt safe to me.”
My heart thudded as my body relaxed. He still loved me.
“This is it,” he said one more time. “This is where we can have the wedding. I’ve listened to you. You want some place special. Some place family. This is family. This is the Scott’s. It’s big enough. Unique enough.” Jess stepped back and waved his arm at the overlarge door.
“We can open that up in the heat of August and the sun will be shining. It will be glorious.”
Soft tears trailed down my face and I giggled at his excitement.
“Who are you and what have you done with my Jess Carter?”
“Your Jess Carter wants his Emily Post to marry him.”
Jess slowly lowered himself to one knee, still holding my hands with his.
“Say you’ll still be my wife?”
By now, larger tears glided down my cheeks, but a smile could not be helped on my lips. I nodded.
“Say it. You know I need the words.”
“Yes,” I whispered.
He stood and took my mouth with his again. His tongue danced with mine and for several minutes we kissed like it was the air we needed to breath. When Jess pulled away, I felt a bit drugged.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I’ll wear the tux.”
“Jess,” I said, feeling like the air was let out of the balloon and I attempted to step back.
“I mean it. I’ll wear it. I want to wear it,” he emphasized.
“No you don’t,” I sighed.
“Emily, I don’t want to disappoint you. That’s one of my greatest fears. I don’t want you to think you’ve made a mistake.”
“Jess,” I spoke again, tenderly caressing his name. “You aren’t a disappointment. What I said…”
“Had some truth. You gave up a lot to be here. For me. For Katie. And I think I can wear some silly suit for a few hours if it will make you happy.”
I again attempted to pull out of his grasp, but he tugged me forward. I collided with his chest. It was awkward in our heavy winter coats and snow pants, but somehow his arms made it around me. He held me tight against him.
“Listen to me,” his breath whispered over my lips. “I love you. I want to marry you. I want to wear the tux.”
He sighed before he answered. “Because this will be my first wedding, too.”
The expression on my face must have let him know I didn’t understand.
“I might have had what people call a wedding before, but it wasn’t really a wedding. To me, a wedding means bonding. You belong to me. I belong to you. That was not what the first one did. It was not a practice. It was a mistake. We’ve discussed this. This will be my first wedding, too, and I want it to be perfect for both of us.”
My voice gave way to my hopefulness as I asked him what he envisioned.
“I don’t care, as long as at the end, you are my wife.” He kissed me hard. “But in saying I don’t care, I really mean, it’s up to you. I mean, you can make the decisions. I mean…”
“Jess, shut up and kiss me.”
“That might have been the first impolite thing you’ve ever said to me. Does your grandmother know those words crossed your lips? She’d be very disappointed in your manners, Emily,” he teased.
“She’d be disappointed to know other things I’ve done with these lips, too,” I replied tartly. With that, Jess’ mouth was on me again while his hands covered my face. I wanted this man. Now. But the idea of striping off our clothes in the cold barn did not seem romantic to me. Our kissing slowed and Jess began to sway. He unzipped his coat then unzipped mine. Forcing us chest to chest, he wrapped his coat around me as he slipped one hand around my back. The other pulled our clasped hands between us. We were dancing in the candlelit barn.
The heat between us would only last so long in the surrounding cool air. Jess was breathing into my neck. He kissed it tenderly and whispered, “Happy Valentine’s Day, Emily.” He reached for my right hand. Jess had developed a habit of taking my hand and twirling the rings on my finger. One from him. One from Katie. I thought he was simply playing with them when I felt something cold slip down my skin. I was watching him as he kissed my knuckle, then kissed the rings. Another new ritual of his. When he pulled back, he held my hand in a way that I could see another band on my finger.
I stared at the white gold he’d slipped onto me. It blended with the square diamond and the separate diamond band he’d already given me. I shouldn’t have had this one yet.
“I just wanted to see what it would all look like when it is worn together,” he said, staring at my hand between us. “I can’t always see the big picture, but this I can. I gave you Now, but I’m ready for Forever.” Now. The word had a special meaning for us. Forever was going to mean so much more.
“I love you,” I whispered.
“I love you,” he said as he nuzzled my nose. The cold was catching up to me, but his skin was warm.
“This was very romantic,” I said shifting my head from left to right to signal the shimmering candles around us. We had stopped dancing. Jess was still enveloping me in his warm coat.
“I wanted the night to be special. It’s almost Valentine’s Day.”
“You said you didn’t need Valentine’s Day to show that you loved me,” I giggled.
“I don’t, but it still seemed like a good occasion to take extra care in letting you know I do love you. And I want you to be my wife. Forever.” He didn’t have to say more. I knew by the way he looked at me I would be everything to him. Everything he never had and always needed. He would do the same for me. Be all that I ever wanted.
c) 2015. Copyright material of L.B. Dunbar. All material is protected under copyright laws.