Jenna, alone with a young baby, searches for a path and fights against artistic desires.
Jenna Rhodes escaped her mother's idea of a successful, elite life with an early marriage to an unknown artist, but her husband's eventual success has catapulted her into the midst of another world in which she feels she doesn't belong. Now, in her early twenties, she finds herself alone with a young baby and fighting against her overwhelming artistic desires. With memories of the past and the rekindling of an old friendship, Jenna struggles to find her own world. Rejecting her impulses becomes impossible, though, when a handsome magnetic force begins to pull at her spirit.
Jenna inhaled deeply, allowing crisp fall air to invade her body. Feeling a nip of winter creep further through her open window, she pulled the plush blanket higher around her baby’s shoulders. Jenna loved the precious time spent rocking her child to sleep while he snuggled into her breast. At these moments, she felt the most connected to her only love. She also missed him the most vividly.
Lightly running her fingertips over Aaron’s tiny head, Jenna studied the perfect little features, so like his father’s. Daniel had never tried to conceal the pride he had felt whenever someone mentioned how much his son resembled him. He had considered the child his greatest work of art, and his most important. Jenna’s husband had been many things, but humble had never been one of them. She couldn’t help grinning, recalling his admission of knowing he was a very good-looking guy. And he really was, or had been. Even after he had gotten sick and had lost too much weight, his features had still been perfect and his eyes absolutely beautiful.
She snuggled her baby closer and returned her gaze to beyond the window. The view from their loft was breathtaking at this time of the year, with hundreds of maple trees along the banks of the Illinois River boasting their shades of red and yellow and green and brown. The Spirit of Peoria, a reproduction of the beloved old riverboats, often sailed by with passengers walking the decks or standing at the rails. Six years earlier, Jenna and Daniel had watched the Julia Belle Swain together whenever they caught it floating along the river. Once, covered only with a sheet pulled from their bed, they had stood before the large window and talked of taking the short cruise on the old paddle-wheel. Some day.
“Some day” had never come. Neither had so many other days they had planned. Their time together had centered around his painting, but then, he had told her to expect that. She hadn’t argued when he had refused to go out because he was working or when she had to go to bed alone. She had been warned and had willingly accepted his terms. The naivete of youth, Jenna mused sullenly. Now, there was no later for them. The Julia Belle and Daniel were both gone.
His baby stirred in her arms and Jenna coerced herself to rise slowly, moving across the loft to settle Aaron in his crib. Convinced he was still slumbering, she wandered into the kitchen to pour a cup of mint tea; a habit she had developed while carrying her first child. Daniel’s mother had suggested it might help settle her stomach and it seemed to work. Even well after the morning sickness was gone, Jenna had continued the routine and joked with her husband that maybe he should try it as well, to calm his nerves. He didn’t like mint tea. He didn’t like boats either, except at a distance. Alan had once pointed out that Daniel’s work was the only interest they shared. Jenna quickly pointed out that her advanced pregnancy proved him wrong. Her best friend hadn’t been amused.
Not sure what to do with herself while Aaron slept, Jenna returned to the beautifully carved oak rocking chair, a gift from her mother-in-law. Joan had been nearly as excited as her son after hearing that he and Jenna were expecting their first child, and had wasted no time making sure they had everything they needed for the baby. Jenna hadn’t heard from Joan recently. She considered trying to call, but knew she would have to talk to two or three other people just to get through to Daniel’s mother and then most likely have to leave a message. She wasn’t up to that today. A fleeting thought of calling her own mother surfaced, then dissipated. She would just try again to invite Jenna to some social gathering. And Jenna’s sister-in-law would insist on coming over and staying the day, with the kids. She wasn’t up to that, either.
Alan. He would be at work, but she could talk to Cheryl for a few minutes, until her twins interrupted, and ask her to say hello. Jenna didn’t want to talk to him now, anyway. She only needed to feel the connection – to know he was there.
She dialed his number without stopping to think about it. She knew it better than her own.
His voice startled her. He shouldn’t be home now.
After another prompt, she gathered herself enough to answer, grimacing at the shakiness of her voice.
“Jenna, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”
She hesitated again. No, she wasn’t, but she wouldn’t tell him that. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You don’t sound fine.”
Trying to maintain composure, she fumbled for something to say to him now that he was on the phone. “I … I’m just surprised you answered. I figured you’d be at work.”
“We just finished a big job. I gave everyone the day off.”
“Oh? How’d it go?”
“Another Nicklaus project.”
Jenna half-grinned at the term. Nicklaus had been one of her friend’s first clients, never satisfied and constantly insisting on changes. When she had still been meeting Alan on Sundays for dessert and coffee, Jenna would hear about all of the complaints and revisions of the week and make jokes to put him in a better mood. It had always worked.
“Jenna?” Alan’s voice called her back.
“Sorry, I thought maybe you’d heard enough complaining recently and I should just stay quiet.”
“Do you want me to come over?”
Yes, she very much wanted him to come over. “Oh, no, I’m fine. I was just checking in to see how you guys are doing. Is Justin over the flu?”
“Jenna, that was two weeks ago.”
She paused, holding her breath a moment and wishing she hadn’t called.
“I’m coming over.”
“No. Alan, it’s your day off. You should spend it with your family.”
“My family is fine; you’re not. I’ll be right there.” He didn’t give her time to respond before she heard the click from his end.
Oh, hell. She wasn’t ready for company. She hadn’t gone out in nearly a week or showered in two days, and there were dishes in the sink and baby toys and blankets on the floor. Not having time to shower and clean both, Jenna decided her own cleanliness would be more noticeable. So she checked on her sleeping son and jumped into the warm water.
The doorbell found her almost presentable while slipping into one of Daniel’s shirts, and Jenna rolled the sleeves while heading to the door. A slow, deep breath prepared her for her friend’s visit.
Alan glanced at her wet locks. “Hey, Jenna. You didn’t have to shower for me.” He gave her a small kiss on the cheek in his usual casual style and waited to be asked in further.
“You didn’t have to come over.” She studied her friend admiringly. All the work he did outside was so good for him. He always had a beautiful tan and his muscles were well-toned. Daniel had been very pale-skinned and burned easily.
“It sounded like you need some company. Has your sister-in-law been over recently?”
“No, her kids have been sick, too, and she didn’t want to give it to us. I guess that’s what I was thinking when I asked about Justin.” She motioned for him to step in and closed the door softly, having learned to keep everything as quiet as possible while Aaron was asleep. He even slept as lightly as his father had.
Alan scanned the area as he strode easily to the small couch. Everything in the loft was small … except the space still reserved for Daniel’s easels and canvases and large paint-stained work table.
Jenna only half followed her friend, wishing she had cleaned up earlier. “Do you want a drink? I think all I have is juice right now, but I can make some iced tea.”
“No, Jen, I’m fine. Come sit down.”
Sitting alone with him was the last thing she wanted. She could hide her emotions well from everyone else but had never been able to keep anything from Alan. They had been friends since his family moved in across the street when Jenna was eleven, and she had spent more of her teenage years with him and his family than with her own parents.
As a distraction, she went to the sink and began running water into the metal basin. Alan moved to her side and took the dishes from her hands to dry, talking easily of his kids and his job. He never brought up his wife unless Jenna asked about her. She knew they got along well. They always had. Cheryl was a wonderful person, very devoted to her family and especially to her husband. And she was a neat freak. Her house was always immaculate. How she did it with three kids, Jenna couldn’t begin to imagine. But Cheryl completely adored Alan and he never did anything to upset her.
A quiet fussing from the opposite end of the room drew her out of her thoughts and she went to collect her baby, gently pulling him from the crib which had claimed part of Daniel’s studio space. Alan set to work putting the dishes away as she sat down to nurse Aaron. She knew it made her friend uncomfortable when she nursed in front of him, although she kept herself covered and Cheryl had nursed all three of their babies. But there was no such thing as privacy in the loft, unless she wanted to disappear behind the curtain that hid their bed…her bed…from the living area. And she didn’t want to sit back there right now. She often slept curled up on the couch instead of going to the bed alone.
Her mother had tried to convince her to move since Jenna had no further reason to live in an art studio, but she couldn’t bring herself to sell it and couldn’t move out and leave it empty. Maybe she would get around to redecorating some day; make it presentable for company. A useless idea, Jenna laughed to herself, since she was out of the habit of entertaining and was content letting it match her memory of the first time she had stepped inside. She still thought of that moment as the rebirth into her new life – the life of her own choosing.
Her parents had worked everything out for her from the beginning. Their only child would graduate with honors from the school close to where they had carefully chosen to live, then attend the University of Illinois, as they both had. After getting to know Alan and his family well, her mother had decided they would be the perfect match. Alan was two years older than Jenna, a very good student, responsible, hard working and well-mannered. His parents weren’t in the same social class as Jenna’s parents, but Alan could get there with his career plans. He would also graduate from U of I and work on building a foundation for a family the following two years that Jenna would need to finish school. Then they could marry and Jenna could start on her own career.
There had only been two major problems with the plan. Alan had been intent on getting a job after earning his associates degree in horticulture from Illinois Central College, possibly continuing school after building his bank account. And Jenna had never had any interest in marrying Alan. He was her friend – nothing more.
Illinois Central. The junior college in East Peoria hadn’t entered her mind in a long while. She wondered if any of its students could possibly have memories of the school that would come even close to equaling her own. Alan had tried to talk her into going there after high school. He’d said it was the perfect place to start deciding what she wanted to do. She could take some basic classes as well as some that just sounded interesting and would eventually find something to hold her easily-distracted attention. He even took her with him during spring break of her senior year to check it out. That was where she had met Daniel.
She did like art. So Alan had asked his art professor to let her sit in on his basic drawing class. Jenna could still see it clearly.
The students intently studied an elegant round vase that sat atop an old, weathered crate. The vase held a large handful of wildflowers. Jenna loved the mixture of old and new, of smooth and rough, of splintering grayness and soft pastels. And the flowers were fresh. Their scent mingled with the dampness of the basement classroom.
She felt out of place being the only person, other than the professor, not trying to capture the objects with charcoal and newsprint. The quiet was disarming, broken only by the soft scratches made by budding artists and the occasional creak of metal stools or tapping of a nervous foot against the concrete floor.
The professor, a man who looked as if he had been teaching a good many years, crept silently around the circle of art tables, stopping occasionally to study a student’s technique but not interfering in his work. Until he came to an intense-looking male sitting directly across from Jenna. She had noticed the guy immediately upon entering; first because he was the only one with the initiative to begin working before class officially started, and then, because he seemed totally unaware of anyone else in the room. He had the darkest hair she had ever seen on someone so pale, and had strong, but small, features. She thought he had occasionally looked over at her while drawing the still life but scorned herself for even thinking that he would. She just happened to be behind the object he was studying.
The professor stood over his shoulder. “Mr. Rhodes, you seem to have overshot the still life I so carefully set up this morning.”
The young artist didn’t bother to stop sketching. “I wasn’t interested in drawing flowers, so I found something I was interested in.”
Jenna waited for the reaction as a couple of others snickered. Surprisingly, the older man threw a crooked grin behind the artist’s head and began moving on to the next student. “This must be why Einstein received poor marks in school.”
There was no response. The interruption hadn’t stopped his work. Jenna had a hard time keeping her eyes from him. He still seemed to be watching her.
With twenty minutes left of the hour, it was time for critiques. The students, all in turn, set their drawings up on an easel and listened to comments from the others. The defiant, but good-natured, young man found something constructive to say about each, and was the last to place his work up for review.
Jenna gasped. She sat for a moment staring at her own face, feeling the increasing warmth of her cheeks. He had taken the lib-erty of drawing her shoulders uncovered; luckily not getting any further than her shoulders, but the likeness was incredible. He received plenty of compliments from the class and the professor finally asked for her opinion.
“What?” She couldn’t look at the artist who had made her blush.
The teacher smirked. “I think he should hear what you think of his work.”
She felt Alan watching her. He would not be happy about this. But the class was waiting. Jenna focused on the drawing. “It’s … it’s better than real life.” Catching a glimpse of the artist’s grin, she looked away quickly. He packed his things and left the room.
“Jenna? Jenna, what are you thinking so hard about?”
Alan’s voice drew her from her memories, and she took a deep, quick breath, answering evasively. “College.”
“Oh? Are you thinking about going?” He sat back against the couch, keeping his eyes away from the feeding baby.
“To do what?”
“Didn’t you just say you were thinking about college?”
“Yeah, but…” She stopped short, not about to admit where her thoughts had been.
He slowly stood again and moved to the chair on the opposite side of the small end table. “Jen, I know the baby is still young enough that you want to stay home with him, but you should at least start thinking about what you’re going to do.”
“The baby has a name. His name is Aaron, after his father, Daniel Aaron. I know you never liked him, but I loved him and I still love him and I can’t even think about the future. All I can handle now is day to day and sometimes I’m not sure I can handle that!” She lowered her voice as her baby objected and adjusted herself to raise him to her shoulder.
Rubbing his back softly helped her relax and she apologized to her friend. “Alan, you know I had no idea what I wanted before Daniel, and I sure as hell don’t know what to do now.”
“I know.” He had lowered his eyes while she was refastening her nursing bra but now faced her directly. “Jenna, I never disliked Daniel.”
“Then why did you stop coming over?”
“Because he didn’t want me here.”
“I wanted you here.”
“You could have come over any time. Cheryl loves visiting with you. You didn’t have to isolate yourself just because Daniel wanted to be isolated.”
“He didn’t want to be isolated, he just…”
“Wanted to be left alone to work. I know, but he did isolate you. You always had a bunch of friends in school that you never see anymore. Have you even talked with Karla recently?”
She shook her head. He was right. She missed running around with her cousin and chatting about anything and everything.
“I didn’t dislike him; I just didn’t like what he was doing to you.”
“It was my choice and I loved being with him.”
“But you lost yourself….”
“No. Alan, I found myself with Daniel. I was lost before him and I’m even more lost without him now.”
He began to argue but decided against it. “Jen, come spend the day with us.”
With the happy couple and their three kids? “No, thank you. I don’t really feel like going out.”
“Maybe not, but you need to get out of here. There’s a new art exhibition at Lakeview. Why don’t we go see it?”
“No. Alan, I can’t…”
“Okay, what about the zoo? The kids have been bugging us to take them again…”
“Then you should do that. We’re fine right here.”
Her tone made it clear he wouldn’t be able to change her mind and he gave in with a nod. “Well, I’m going to go. Cheryl didn’t mind me coming over, but I think she was looking forward to having the day together, so…”
“So, you should go spend time with your family, like I told you over the phone.”
She hadn’t meant it as harshly as the look in his eyes said it had sounded. Well, she couldn’t help that. She had asked him not to come.
Aaron started fussing for the rest of his meal and Alan gruffly insisted she not get up to see him out. Jenna refused to watch him leave, but the click of the door nearly changed her mind. The rest of the day would be just her and her baby, again.
Cradling Aaron in the other arm, she appreciated the grateful expression he threw her for allowing him to finish nursing.
At least she had him. And he was strong and healthy. How could Alan have expected that she would visit him and his pregnant wife after she had lost Daniel’s first child? Her friend wouldn’t have had to stop coming over just because Daniel didn’t want to visit. She had wanted to see Alan, not his wife who just reminded her of what she had lost. Her husband hadn’t isolated her. Losing his baby had isolated her. He had wanted children. He had wanted children maybe even more than he had wanted her. They were the link to the future he somehow knew he wouldn’t have of his own. And she couldn’t have handled walking around watching all of the families laughing and talking and making her feel like such a failure for not being able to carry her baby full-term. But Daniel had loved her, even if she had failed him.
The time he had given her had always felt too limited, but it had been complete … and intense. Nothing distracted him from what he chose as his focus. And he had focused on her often enough to keep her from feeling neglected, except for their bad time. But she wouldn’t let herself think about that. There was no point. Instead, she chose to remember how he had picked her out from the crowds of girls around the campus.
After the art class, Alan had left her sitting in the center area of the college. The main building of Illinois Central formed a nearly complete oval around a large open area paved with the same red brick. It reminded Jenna of an old amphitheater, the way the oval dropped into different levels. She could still clearly see the picnic tables scattered around the upper level, with students propped on their seats. A few were studying, but most were chatting with others who were between classes. The narrow mid level was interrupted by short, wide columns of brick holding small trees, providing additional seats for loungers who wanted slight shade. The lowest level, only several inches from the highest, was free of obstacles and Jenna watched three males use it as a Frisbee court. She kept her eyes averted from the guy who had removed his shirt and shoes and was lying on a towel in his shorts with his head propped on his backpack. She thought it was still a little cool for tanning, but the sky was absolutely cloudless and the air was fresh following last night’s spring shower.
She had chosen to sit just below the highest step and nearly against one of the tree columns. She didn’t need it for support, preferring to sit with her legs crossed in front. But she didn’t want to be too much in the open. Pulling her eyes from the Frisbee game, Jenna went back to her book.
“What are you reading?”
The voice was less startling than the face she found. It was the defiant young artist. He casually planted himself next to her, lifting the book enough to see the cover.
“The Agony and the Ecstasy? That’s a good one. Have you read Lust for Life? Same author.”
“No, not yet. I just finished Love Is Eternal.”
“Irving Stone fan?”
“I’m becoming one.” She stole glances of his face as he studied her overtly.
“So, where’s your friend?”
Friend. Was he trying to find out more than what he asked? “He’s in botany.”
“Botany? On purpose?”
Jenna couldn’t help grinning at his expression, and she agreed with him. “He’s studying to be a landscape engineer. He understands all that stuff.”
He nodded, amused. “And you? What do you want to be?”
“I don’t have the slightest idea.”
His eyes pierced her skin as they ran down her arms, touched her fingers, and then returned to her face. “Have you ever considered being a model?”
Was he joking? He didn’t look like he was. So, he was either hitting on her, or crazy. “I know you can’t be serious.” Jenna knew she wasn’t model material. She wasn’t built badly but was constantly fighting five or ten pounds she didn’t want and her features were too masculine for her taste. She had always wanted her jaw line to be less square and her eyes to be less narrow. Her mother had taught her tricks with carefully applied makeup to round out her jaw and widen her eyes, and she had pulled her long hair into a loose bun today, leaving a couple of wisps to curl at the sides of her face. But she still wasn’t model material.
“I’m very serious.” The intense eyes continued to study her. “I thought you were just being modest earlier, but you honestly have no idea how beautiful you are.”
Jenna again felt her cheeks get warm and pulled her eyes away to watch the Frisbee players.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to embarrass you. I have a terrible habit of saying what I think. But I always tell the truth, and I don’t waste my time drawing or painting anything I don’t want to see again.”
Her son pulled away, letting her know his tummy was sufficiently filled for the time being.
Jenna studied his round cheeks and square jaw. Aaron had inherited some of her appearance, though he looked much more like Daniel. Five and a half months old already. Maybe it was time to give him cereal. Wasn’t that what the pediatrician had suggested? She would have to go out to get it since she hadn’t thought that far ahead. She supposed she could. It wasn’t like she had any other plans. But she would most likely run into someone who would insist on offering condolences again. Jenna didn’t want to deal with that today. Maybe she should have accepted Alan’s offer. He was very good at running interference whenever the subject arose. And she missed talking to him.
With Aaron propped against her left side, she reached over to pick up the receiver, started dialing, then set it down again. She hadn’t been very nice after he had gone to the trouble of coming over. He would understand, though. He always had. But the zoo? Did she really want to go there?
Jenna pushed herself off the couch and walked over to the sketches still hanging along the corkboard strip which ran the length of the studio wall. Finding the one in her mind, she sat carefully in front of it, holding Daniel’s son close against her heart, studying the image she could still feel. Her mother asked every time she came over, which thankfully wasn’t often, when she intended to pack Daniel’s things and try to sell the sketches. Jenna didn’t intend to do either. The loft was their home and it would stay their home.
But maybe Aaron could use some fresh air. Aaron Matthew, after Daniel Aaron and Alan Matthew. She took a long, deep breath, then made herself get up.
She again found the voice she wasn’t looking for at the other end of the telephone. “Cheryl, hi, is Alan there?”
“Hi, Jenna! He’s outside; we were just leaving. Did you want to change your mind and come with?”
He had told her she’d refused. He surely hadn’t said how rude she had been.
“Did you need to talk to him personally?”
“What? Oh, no. Just … are you sure you wouldn’t mind the intrusion?”
“Of course not.” She sounded genuinely happy. “Should we come by and pick you up?”
“No, the baby seat’s already in my car. I’ll meet you there.”
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"charming" with "skillful prose and compelling characterization … a book you won't want to miss"
Writer's Digest Book Awards