“Oh, yeah. Who is it?”
His father pointed at the other side of the room, where Jacob Dennison sat in his wheelchair.
“Mary Jo, look,” he said, and nodded toward Dennison.
When their last guest had entered the hall, Mack took Mary Jo by the hand and led her across the room. Dennison smiled up at them. “What a fine young couple you make.”
“It’s such an honor to have you at our wedding,” Mary Jo told the old man in a tremulous voice.
“I wouldn’t want to miss this. You two gave me a priceless gift by returning the letters I wrote Joan. Reading them brought back memories I’d long forgotten, memories I want to pass on to my children and grandchildren. This is a piece of my history—of their history, too. I will be forever grateful to you.”
Mary Jo bent down to kiss Jacob’s cheek.
“Now,” he went on to say, “I wish for you the same happiness Joan and I had together. May your life be filled with love and may you always be as happy as you are this day.”
Mary Jo smiled tearfully and looked at Mack. He tightened his hand on hers.
Dennison glanced at the wedding cakes. “I don’t suppose you’d mind cutting me a piece of cake, would you?”
“I would love to,” Mary Jo told him.
They made their way through the crowd toward the wedding cakes. When they were almost there, Mary Jo paused and placed her hand over her heart. “What Jacob said? I am happy, Mack, so happy.”
“I am, too.” This was no exaggeration. Mack wasn’t even sure how to describe the emotion that suffused every part of him. He felt both calm, supremely calm, and ecstatic, surrounded by his family and friends, surrounded by happiness.
He and his father exchanged a smile. Roy wasn’t a man who smiled often or freely, but he did now. Mack felt his approval, his support. His mother was mingling with guests, completely in her element. His two sisters sat at a table, their heads close together, chatting about heaven knew what. Gloria continued to hold the sleeping Noelle.
Linnette was obviously pregnant now and due in another six weeks. Pete seemed content, talking to one of Mack’s firefighter buddies.
Mary Jo cut the large, tiered cake and after they’d posed for pictures they delivered the first slice to Jacob Dennison. Ben and Charlotte sat with him and had been joined by Olivia and her husband, Jack Griffin. Grace and Cliff Harding were at the same table.
Corrie and Charlotte took over cake duty, much to Mack’s relief, with the assistance of Emily Flemming, the pastor’s wife.
Noelle woke then and wanted to be held, so Mack took the baby in his arms and carried her around the room. Then he and Mary Jo went to sit with her brothers for a few minutes. Mel, Linc and Ned were all enjoying wedding cake, tasting and comparing the different varieties.
“I can hardly believe my baby sister’s married,” Linc said to no one in particular.
“Isn’t it time for us to go?” Mary Jo whispered to Mack. “Before my brothers start crying in their cake?”
“We aren’t crying,” Mel insisted.
“Well, I’m not giving you a chance to get started,” Mary Jo informed them. “Besides,” she said, smiling up at Mack, “we need to leave for our honeymoon.”
“I don’t want her here!” Jolene shouted loudly enough to be heard on the opposite side of the house.
“Jolene,” Bruce snapped. He knew Jolene wanted Rachel to hear every word, which she probably had. The tension between them was driving him to the point of madness. He was trapped in a seemingly hopeless situation, and anything he said or did only made matters worse.
“I don’t want her living here,” his daughter continued.
“Rachel is your stepmother and my wife,” he said with barely restrained anger. “That’s not going to change, so you’d better adjust your attitude.” Bruce had tried to let the two of them work this out themselves. Unfortunately, that hadn’t happened. He didn’t understand how all this crazy, competitive jealousy had gotten so out of hand, although he was well aware that Jolene had played the major role.
At one time she’d loved Rachel almost to the point of idol worship. They’d been close from the day they’d met, when he’d taken Jolene to Get Nailed for a haircut. It was through his daughter that Bruce had gotten to know Rachel.
Bruce slumped onto his recliner in the living room and wished this senseless bickering would end. Rachel had told him before they were married that Jolene needed more time. He hadn’t listened. He’d wanted the three of them together as a family, so he’d rushed things and brushed aside Jolene’s doubts and Rachel’s fears. Now they were all paying the price.
No one was happy, least of all Bruce. Since their argument the night of the dinner, he’d been sleeping in the spare bedroom. That was a week ago. A week without Rachel in his bed. He missed her and wanted her back where she belonged. With him. He’d made overtures to that effect, but Rachel had ignored them.
“Dad,” Jolene demanded. “You’ve got to do something.”
Slowly he raised his head. “About what?”
“Rachel is my wife.” He wasn’t going to argue with his teenage daughter.
Jolene’s eyes narrowed. “She isn’t even sleeping with you. The two of you hardly talk anymore.”
Bruce couldn’t deny the truth. “Every couple goes through an adjustment period. Rachel and I will sort this out.” He certainly wasn’t prepared to call it quits, and he didn’t think Rachel wanted that, either. They’d come a long way in the past few years. It wasn’t as if they were kids who’d rushed into the relationship. The marriage, yes, you could say that, but not the relationship. When they’d first met, Bruce was determined he’d never fall in love or marry again after Stephanie’s death. Then gradually, through the years, he’d come to appreciate Rachel. More than once he thought he’d lost her. More than once he’d been sure she’d marry Nate Townsend, that navy guy. But she hadn’t. No, Rachel was meant to be with him—and with Jolene, too.
“We don’t need her,” Jolene insisted, unwilling to drop the subject.
“But she’s pregnant…”
“So? She doesn’t have to be part of our lives, does she? Everything changed after she moved in with us, and I—” Jolene stopped abruptly when Rachel entered the room.
“I hope you don’t mind if I join this conversation,” his wife said calmly.
Jolene crossed her arms, looking venomously at Rachel.
“Jolene has a point,” Rachel said, again in the same low voice, a voice completely devoid of emotion. “How?”
“She told us she was uneasy about us getting married, remember?”
“I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen,” his daughter accused him, righteous indignation in every word.
“We’d already made the decision,” Bruce countered. “Okay, so we rushed the wedding a bit, but I wanted you with me and you said you felt the same way.”
“I did at the time.”
He frowned at the implications of her remark. “Are you saying you regret it now?”
To his dismay Rachel nodded.
Jolene thrust a triumphant finger at her stepmother. “See? See, she doesn’t want to be here.”
Rachel ignored her. “Jolene has never accepted me as her stepmother.”
Bruce didn’t like the way this conversation—like so many of their conversations—revolved around his daughter’s likes and dislikes. He and Rachel were the adults in the room; he wasn’t about to let a thirteen-year-old girl dictate his life or his marriage. He realized now that stepping aside and leaving his daughter and his wife to work out their differences had contributed to the problem. “Jolene,” he said pointedly, “will learn to accept you.” And if it took a counseling session with some stranger to make that happen, so be it.
“Daddy!” the girl screeched.
“Maybe she will.” Rachel shook her head. “And maybe she won’t.”
“All she needs is time,” Bruce muttered.
Jolene marched up to Bruce. “Stop talking about me like I’m not even here.” Whirling around, she confronted Rachel. “I hate you. I never wanted you to marry my dad. Look what you’ve done! You ruined my life.”
“Jolene!” Bruce had taken all he could from his daughter. Rising to his feet, he clasped the girl’s shoulders and turned her to face him. “You will apologize to Rachel. I won’t have you speaking to her that way.”
Jolene glared back at him, her eyes flashing with defiance. His own anger simmered just below the surface. He’d been stupid and blind. Jolene and her malicious jealousy had driven a wedge between Rachel and him.
“What Jolene said is true.” Rachel surprised him by siding with the girl. “I am pregnant and now there’s another person to consider in this equation. Jolene doesn’t want this baby any more than she wants me in her life.”
“Now just a minute.” Bruce needed to make it clear that despite his daughter’s attitude he wanted this baby.
“It’s fine. I understand—”
“You understand what?” he asked.
“To paraphrase you, when Jolene said you don’t need me, you basically told her you’re stuck with me because I’m pregnant.”
How she’d arrived at that conclusion, Bruce would never know. “I didn’t say anything like that!”
“I heard you, and frankly, neither one of you made any effort to hide your conversation from me.”
“Does that mean you’re going to leave?” Jolene asked, eyes wide with feigned innocence.
Bruce was quick to answer. “Definitely not. Rachel’s staying here, where she belongs.”
Jolene’s shoulders slumped forward. “Daddy, let her go. We don’t need her.”
“Jolene’s right,” Rachel confirmed. “And as she’s said more times than I can count, I’ve come between the two of you and ruined everything.”
Jolene’s eyes blazed with triumph. “See! Even Rachel admits it.”
“I need you,” Bruce argued, ignoring his daughter’s outburst. “Our baby needs you.”
“I agree,” Rachel said far too easily. “Our baby does need me. He or she needs me to live in a stress-free environment. This child also has to know he or she is loved and wanted by this family.”
“I love our baby,” Bruce insisted.
“I think it would be best if I left,” Rachel said firmly, as if anything he said, any opinions he held, shouldn’t be taken into account.
“No.” Again, Bruce’s response was quick and automatic. This wasn’t what he wanted. Rachel was actually suggesting she move out. None of this seemed real…or right.
“I think it would be best if you left, too,” Jolene chimed in, sounding gleeful at the prospect of getting rid of her stepmother.
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