SE­RIAL Be­yond Ru­bies

Lily re­alised now that shar­ing your wor­ries was al­ways the right thing to do . . .

The People's Friend - - 8 - by Kate Hewitt

MAURA gazed at her husband, her heart thud­ding hard, mak­ing her dizzy as she willed him fi­nally to be hon­est with her.

“John, please . . .” He rubbed a hand over his face and looked away.

Maura’s hard-beat­ing heart started to plum­met. She felt the fear re­ver­ber­ate through her as she braced her­self for what was com­ing.

“They’re lay­ing off peo­ple at work,” John said in a low voice. He dropped his hand from his face to stare at her bleakly. “Loads of us at mid-level. I’ve been wait­ing for the call, or to be asked into the head of­fice . . .”

She blinked, try­ing to take in his words. “Laid off?”

“It hasn’t hap­pened to me yet, but I’m afraid it’s a mat­ter of time. I’ve been putting in ex­tra hours, try­ing to prove my­self.” He gri­maced. “I’ve also been pol­ish­ing up my CV and see­ing what other jobs are out there.”

Maura stared, try­ing to process what John was telling her. He was wor­ried about work, not their mar­riage.

A smile broke out over her face as re­lief crashed through her.

“Oh, John!”

He looked at her in con­fu­sion.

“I thought you’d be dev­as­tated, Maura. Why are you smil­ing?”

“Be­cause I thought you were leav­ing me.” Then, to her sur­prise and hor­ror, she did some­thing she never did. She burst into tears.

“Oh, Maura.” John pulled her into a hug. “Don’t cry.”

“I’m sorry,” she said with a sniff as she strug­gled to re­gain her com­po­sure. “I’ve been so scared, John. The more you stayed away, think­ing up any ex­cuse not to be at home, the more I wor­ried that you were . . .”

“Don’t say it.” He eased back to gen­tly press his finger against her lips. “Don’t say it, Maura. I love you. I’ve al­ways loved you.

“It’s why I kept this from you. I didn’t want you wor­ry­ing, think­ing we might have to move or lose the house or good­ness knows what else. You work hard

enough al­ready.”

“And so do you. But why didn’t you tell me, John? I would have un­der­stood.”

“I didn’t want to worry you.” He smiled in wry ac­knowl­edge­ment, al­though the ex­pres­sion in his eyes was bleak. “I felt ashamed for not be­ing able to hold on to a job. I didn’t want you think­ing badly of me.”

“It wouldn’t be your fault if you were laid off.”

“It would still feel like it.” Maura frowned and John smiled, wip­ing the tears from her cheeks.

“Why are you look­ing so fe­ro­cious now?”

“Be­cause you should have been able to tell me. If you thought I’d look down on you for that . . .” She shook her head. “What kind of mar­riage do we have, John, if we can’t share our fears?”

For a mo­ment he looked as if he wanted to ar­gue, then he sighed and nod­ded.

“Fair enough. I should have told you. I should have felt that I could tell you. But that’s on me more than it’s on you, Maura.” “Still –”

“But while we’re talk­ing about it, what about you? Why didn’t you talk to me ear­lier if you were wor­ried some­thing was go­ing on?”

“I was afraid you were go­ing to ask for a di­vorce!” Maura burst out. “And I couldn’t cope with it, not with ev­ery­thing else.” “Ev­ery­thing else?” “Dan be­ing so bois­ter­ous and Chloe . . .” Maura sniffed, near tears again. “It’s as if she’s turned into some­one else en­tirely. I feel as if she hates me, and it’s so hard to deal with.”

“Es­pe­cially when I’m not around.” John’s ex­pres­sion soft­ened and he pulled her into an­other hug. Maura wrapped her arms around him, grate­ful for his com­fort. “Oh, Maura, I’m sorry. I’ve re­ally dumped you in it, haven’t I?”

“It’s all right,” she said, her voice muf­fled against his shoul­der. “As long as we’re hon­est with each other now. No se­crets, John. If you lose your job, we’ll deal with it to­gether.”

He sighed, his arms tight­en­ing around her.

“I sup­pose keep­ing it from you made it feel like less of a threat. I don’t want to up­end the fam­ily, Maura, and I might not be able to find an­other job lo­cally.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Maura leaned back to look up at him. “To­gether.”

“All right.” John kissed her softly. “And what about Chloe?” he asked. “Should we talk to her? See if some­thing’s up?”

“Maybe, if she’ll let us.” Maura sighed. “I feel like she bites my head off if I so much as ask her how her day was.”

“That’s teenagers for you, I sup­pose.”

“But what if it’s some­thing more? That’s what I’m wor­ried about. That some­thing’s go­ing on and she won’t tell us what it is. She’ll just try to deal with it her­self and she’s only thir­teen, John.”

“Then we’ll talk to her,” John said firmly. “Be­cause one thing I’ve learned tonight is that it’s no good keep­ing se­crets.”

“It’s time for the fire­works!”

Si­mon looked up from the blank screen of his phone to see every­one hur­ry­ing out to­wards the gar­den for the night’s en­ter­tain­ment.

The Lang­fords al­ways put on a good fire­works show, but Si­mon couldn’t muster en­thu­si­asm for it now.

He glanced at his phone one last time, will­ing Kelly to text him back. It had been an hour since she’d signed off so abruptly when he’d men­tioned he was at a party.

An hour of Si­mon won­der­ing what he’d done wrong, and how he could make it right.

He’d also been won­der­ing why he cared so much about a silly text con­ver­sa­tion.

The an­swer that was creep­ing up on him and be­com­ing im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore, was that he cared for her. He, Stodgy Si­mon, was fall­ing for his as­sis­tant.

It was most likely against of­fice rules, not to men­tion com­mon sense, but he felt it all the same. The trouble was, he didn’t know if he had the nerve to do any­thing about it.

“Aren’t you com­ing, Si­mon?”

He looked up to see Anna walk­ing along­side Will.

Al­though they weren’t hold­ing hands or touch­ing at all, Si­mon could sense sparks fly­ing be­tween the two. He knew they’d had a sud­den and ac­ri­mo­nious split 10 years ago, and he won­dered what was go­ing on now.

“Yes, I’m com­ing. In a minute.”

“You’ll miss it,” Anna warned with a laugh, then moved off with Will.

Si­mon looked down at his phone again. This was get­ting ridicu­lous. He needed to make up his mind, or at least work up the courage to send a text.

Tak­ing a deep breath, Si­mon swiped the screen and brought up Kelly’s mes­sages. He started scrolling through them, sur­prised when he saw that they’d texted fairly of­ten for the last few months, al­ways in­sti­gated by Kelly.

He hadn’t no­ticed it be­fore; he’d just taken each text as it had come, as­sum­ing it was workre­lated, but a lot of them weren’t.

A smile started to spread across his face and he be­gan to type. Where did you go?

He waited, peer­ing at the screen, obliv­i­ous to the burst of colour and sound in the sky above him, and the en­su­ing oohs and aahs.

Two tor­tur­ous min­utes passed be­fore a re­ply came. I’ve been here. I thought you were busy.

Si­mon’s thumbs fum­bled as he hur­ried to text back. I wasn’t busy.

Why not? You should be hav­ing fun!

He peered at the emoji that punc­tu­ated her text, try­ing to make out the ex­pres­sion on the yel­low face. A twisted sort of smile and raised eye­brows.

What did that mean? Your emo­jis are con­fus­ing me.

He blinked as three emo­jis pinged in: a smil­ing face with two tears. Cry­ing with laugh­ter. Mak­ing fun of me, you mean.

It’s hard not to. He was grin­ning now,

He, Stodgy Si­mon, was fall­ing for his as­sis­tant

be­cause surely this was flirt­ing? Ei­ther that or she just felt sorry for him. Don’t over­think it, Si­mon.

He smiled, amazed at how she seemed to read his mind even from miles away. Se­ri­ously, are you hav­ing fun?

Was he? Si­mon hes­i­tated, his mind rac­ing as his thumbs stilled.

How did he an­swer that? His heart was start­ing to beat hard and he felt sick with nerves. What if he’d mis­read the sit­u­a­tion?

Tak­ing a deep breath, Si­mon started to type. I’d be hav­ing more fun if

you were here. He shut his eyes and pressed Send.

As soon as he’d done it, he was filled with a sud­den hor­ror.

What if Kelly was of­fended? What if she claimed some sort of ha­rass­ment? Or what if she felt sorry for him and had to let him down, and then they had awk­ward con­ver­sa­tions at work, the enor­mous ele­phant in the room al­ways lum­ber­ing be­tween them? He couldn’t take it back. Fight­ing a grow­ing sense of ter­ror, Si­mon thrust his phone into his pocket and strode into the crowd.

Anna and Will were laugh­ing to­gether, and Maura and John were hold­ing hands. Every­one was happy and with some­one – ex­cept for him.

In his pocket his phone buzzed. Si­mon didn’t look at it. He didn’t dare.

He tilted his head up to gaze at the Cather­ine wheels burst­ing above, filling the sky with light and colour. Chil­dren dodged be­tween the adults, screech­ing and laugh­ing.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

How many times had Kelly texted him? Was she lam­bast­ing him for be­ing creepy?

“You all right, Si­mon?” Will called across the gar­den, and Si­mon man­aged a strained smile.

“Yes, thanks.” He sounded so stiff and stand­off­ish.

Buzz. Buzz. An­other Cather­ine wheel burst in the sky, and Si­mon couldn’t take it any more. It was bet­ter to know the truth than fear the worst.

He slid his phone out of his pocket and steeled him­self to look at the screen. Do you mean that? He squinted at the emo­jis. A bluish face with wide, star­ing eyes and hands held up to its cheeks. A face of hor­ror.

He’d made a com­plete mess of things. Why on earth had he done it?

Then he saw the sec­ond emoji – a face with hearts for eyes – and he started to grin.

Si­mon, tell me I’m not read­ing too much into what you texted, be­cause I’m hop­ing . . . His grin widened. Do you want to go out for a drink next week­end?

This time there was no text back, and for a sec­ond his heart be­gan to plum­met. Then, to his ut­ter shock, his phone rang.

It was Kelly – not tex­ting, but ac­tu­ally call­ing. It was the next best, and most terrifying, thing to a face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion.

He swiped the screen to an­swer the call. “Kelly?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

As the last of the fire­works faded away in an acrid cloud of gun­pow­der smoke, Anna turned to Will.

“That was amaz­ing. Your fam­ily al­ways puts on such a good show.”

“Thanks.” Will said with a grin. “Not that I had much to do with it. I brought a cou­ple of pack­ets of crisps, that’s all.”

“That’s some­thing.” They stayed there, smil­ing at each other in the dark while Anna’s stom­ach fizzed.

She’d spent the last hour talk­ing to Will; he’d nod­ded and lis­tened, alert and in­ter­ested, with­out of­fer­ing opin­ions and judge­ment.

She’d for­got­ten how com­fort­able she felt with him. Too com­fort­able, per­haps, be­cause it was that fear of fall­ing into a numbing rou­tine at only twenty-two that had sent her har­ing off to Aus­tralia.

But tonight ev­ery­thing had come tum­bling out: the fun she’d had in Aus­tralia, as well as the hard times.

The job in Alice Springs that felt lonely and strange, and made her won­der if she re­ally be­longed there. How an­chor­less she felt, even as she still shied away from slink­ing back home with her tail be­tween her legs.

Will had lis­tened, and it had felt won­der­ful, but now as she grinned at him Anna re­alised he hadn’t ac­tu­ally said all that much. In fact, she had no real idea what he was think­ing.

“The big day to­mor­row,” Will said, shov­ing his hands into his pock­ets. “For your par­ents.”

“I’m glad they’re fi­nally get­ting a chance to have a big do.” Anna thought of her mother’s trou­bled ex­pres­sion ear­lier that day and pushed the thought aside. “Will you be there?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Will gave her that fa­mil­iar smile. “Will you save a dance for me?”

“Of course,” Anna said, won­der­ing if he was ask­ing for old times’ sake or as some­thing new.

Peo­ple were start­ing to drift away, so Anna turned back to the house.

“I sup­pose I should make it an early night with all the prepa­ra­tions for to­mor­row,” she said.

“Your dad seems to have it well in hand.”

“He does, doesn’t he? He’s tak­ing it all rather se­ri­ously.”

“I sup­pose a re­newal of vows is a se­ri­ous busi­ness. Com­mit­ting to each other again af­ter so long.” Will’s gaze held hers for a mo­ment as Anna’s heart tum­bled in her chest. Was Will talk­ing about her par­ents, or about them? “Y-yes,” she stam­mered. “I sup­pose it is.”

Maura watched as her par­ents stood in front of all their friends and fam­ily, and made the vows they’d made 40 years ago, their voices ring­ing with love.

The morn­ing had been chaotic, with her mother hur­ry­ing about look­ing tense, and her fa­ther dis­ap­pear­ing for hours to check on the prepa­ra­tions.

But they were both here now, hold­ing hands and look­ing in love.

Next to Maura, John reached for her hand and laced his fin­gers with hers.

Maura squeezed his hand, heart over­flow­ing with thank­ful­ness both for her fam­ily and her mar­riage.

Last night’s hon­esty had been very much needed. Al­though she and John hadn’t yet had a chance to talk to Chloe, Maura knew she could face what­ever was both­er­ing her daugh­ter, be­cause she would face it with John.

Grat­i­tude and hope filled her heart as her par­ents turned from the al­tar. The cer­e­mony was over, and now the party could be­gin.

Maura and John fol­lowed the rest of the guests out of the church, Chloe and Dan be­hind them.

“All right, dar­ling?” Maura asked lightly as she turned to her daugh­ter.

Chloe had been quiet all week­end, but it had felt slightly less hos­tile today, giv­ing Maura hope.

“I’m fine, Mum.” Chloe hunched her shoul­ders and looked away.

Maura glanced at the guests stream­ing by and low­ered her voice.

“You’ve seemed down lately. Maybe like you’re wor­ried about some­thing?” The words came hes­i­tantly; she wasn’t used to en­gag­ing Chloe this way, she re­alised. She’d for­saken their heart to hearts as much as her daugh­ter.

Chloe looked at her in sur­prise.

“I didn’t think you no­ticed.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” “Be­cause you don’t no­tice any­thing,” Chloe snapped, and pushed past her.

Maura’s bit her lip, try­ing not to let her daugh­ter’s harsh words af­fect her.

“We’ll try again,” John said as he came be­side her. “Teenagers aren’t easy, love. You know that.”

“Yes,” Maura said with an at­tempt at a smile. “I cer­tainly do.”

The party was in full swing as Anna sipped her drink, try­ing not to look for Will.

Every­one seemed to be hav­ing fun, ex­cept her par­ents. Lily was sit­ting by her­self, and Andrew was try­ing to sort out a prob­lem with the kitchen.

When Anna went to ask her mother how she was, Lily gave her a wan smile.

“I’ll be glad when this is over. It seems as if it’s been be­set by prob­lems.”

“I hope Dad sorts it out so he can have a dance with you.”

“Yes.” Lily pressed her lips to­gether. “That would be nice.”

“The room looks great,” Anna said, glanc­ing at the chairs swathed in ivory gauze, fairy lights dec­o­rat­ing the walls. “Like some­thing out of a story.”

“Yes, it is very nice.” Lily smiled back, al­though Anna thought her eyes still looked trou­bled. “You should go and dance. I saw Will look­ing for you ear­lier.”

“Did you?” Anna tried to keep the ea­ger­ness from her voice. “Where?” Lily’s smile deep­ened. “By the buf­fet.”

With her heart start­ing to thump, Anna wended her way through the crowd in search of Will. Then she caught sight of him.

Her heart went from thump­ing to com­pletely still as she stood there, trans­fixed. She was still in love with him.

The re­al­i­sa­tion was both won­der­ful and terrifying, and be­fore she had a chance to process it, Will caught sight of her.

Anna sim­ply stood and stared as he be­gan to walk to­wards her. He stopped in front of her, still smil­ing, al­though his eyes were se­ri­ous.

“Want to dance?” he asked and held out his hand.

“Yes,” Anna whis­pered, a world of long­ing and love in that one word. “I do.”

It wasn’t un­til halfway through the party that Maura found Chloe. She was in the bath­room, hun­kered up on the row of sinks, her knees clutched to her chest.

“Chloe.” Maura stared at her in con­cern. “Tell me what’s wrong. Your fa­ther and I can tell some­thing is.”

Chloe looked away and Maura waited. For once she’d be pa­tient.

“I talked to Aunt Anna,” Chloe fi­nally said in a low voice, and Maura strug­gled to make sense of that com­ment.

“Aunt Anna? Why? I mean, was it a good con­ver­sa­tion?”

“Sort of.” Chloe bit her lip, her head still averted. “I told her some stuff.”

Maura tried not to feel hurt. She was glad Chloe had told some­one.

“What kind of stuff?” she asked gen­tly.

“Stuff at school.” Chloe hunched her shoul­ders. “I’m sorry, Mum. I know I’ve been a pain at home.” “Oh, Chloe . . .”

“I just feel so an­gry. And help­less. And that stinks.”

“Why, dar­ling?” Maura took a step for­ward, long­ing to hug her. “Why do you feel that way?”

With tear-filled eyes, Chloe be­gan to tell her.

Si­mon was spend­ing the party on his phone.

He’d es­caped the noise of the din­ing-room and was sit­ting out­side on a bench, half-frozen to death but en­joy­ing ev­ery minute of his con­ver­sa­tion with Kelly.

They’d talked about ev­ery­thing and noth­ing, and along the way they’d both ad­mit­ted they’d liked each other for a while.

If you were here, he texted now, I’d ask you to dance. I’d prob­a­bly step all over your feet, though. I wouldn’t mind. Easy for you to say when you’re in London!

Do you re­ally mean it? That you’d ask me to dance?

Yes. Si­mon was so ab­sorbed in his con­ver­sa­tion that he barely reg­is­tered the taxi pulling up in front of the ho­tel. He heard the car door slam as he waited for Kelly’s text re­ply. “Hello, Si­mon.”

The phone fell from his fin­gers, the screen crack­ing as it hit the con­crete.

He looked up, shocked, to see Kelly stand­ing in front of him, an un­cer­tain smile play­ing about her lips.

“Oh, dear. You’ve bro­ken your phone.”

“It doesn’t mat­ter.” His phone had be­come com­pletely ir­rel­e­vant.

He stood up, ut­terly flum­moxed. Af­ter hours of tex­ting, Kelly was here in the flesh, look­ing won­der­ful and a lit­tle bit ner­vous, and the truth was Si­mon didn’t know what to do with her, or what to say.

“I hope you don’t mind me gate-crash­ing your par­ents’ party,” Kelly said with an un­cer­tain laugh. “I wanted to see you in per­son. I was afraid if we texted too much it would be awk­ward when we came face to face.”

She peered at him anx­iously.

“Is it awk­ward?”

“A bit,” Si­mon ad­mit­ted. “But it is me we’re talk­ing about. It al­ways would be.”

She laughed at that, her smile tinged with re­lief.

“That’s true. Are you glad I came?”

“Very much so.” Quite sud­denly, Si­mon knew ex­actly what to do. He reached for her hands and pulled her to­wards him. He put his arms around her and kissed her on the cheek.

“Kelly,” he said. “Will you dance with me?”

Lily picked at the wed­ding cake and felt as if she might as well have been eat­ing a mouthful of dust.

She’d barely seen Andrew since the re­cep­tion had started. He’d been scur­ry­ing to and fro, sort­ing out mi­nor dis­as­ters and check­ing ev­ery­thing was run­ning the way it should.

Once the party started, shouldn’t he have been by her side?

When they’d re­newed their vows in the church, Lily had felt rekin­dled hope.

Here was the man she loved, his smile soft and his eyes crin­kled at the cor­ners, hold­ing her hands as he promised to cher­ish and love her. A cou­ple of hours later, he’d dis­ap­peared.

Lily was do­ing her best to put a brave face on it. Anna had looked con­cerned, see­ing her alone and no doubt seem­ing glum, and for their sakes as well as Andrew’s she’d tried to act as if it wasn’t a big deal.

As if she wasn’t wor­ried about what Andrew was do­ing or why he was do­ing it. Was he avoid­ing her?

“Ev­ery­thing OK, Mum?” Maura asked, com­ing to sit next to her.

“Yes, fine. How are you?” “Re­ally good, ac­tu­ally.” Maura’s smile was un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally shy. “John and I have sorted a few things out. It’s such a re­lief.”

“Oh, I’m so glad.” Lily squeezed her daugh­ter’s hand. “I’m so pleased for you both.”

“What about you, Mum?” Maura looked at her se­ri­ously. “Is ev­ery­thing OK with you and Dad?”

“Maura, for good­ness’ sake, we just re­newed our vows!” Lily tried for a laugh. “What can you mean?”

“Dad seems so busy with this party, and I won­der if that both­ers you.”

Lily looked away so her daugh­ter wouldn’t see the truth in her face.

“It will be nice for things to be­come nor­mal again,” she said care­fully.

“Some­thing I’ve learned is that you need to con­front things head on in a mar­riage,” Maura said, her voice full of emo­tion. “For the last few months I was wor­ried John didn’t love me any more.”

“Oh, Maura –” “Then I got up courage to talk to him about it and it’s been such a re­lief.” Tears shim­mered in Maura’s eyes. “I don’t know what’s go­ing on, but if there’s any­thing you’re wor­ried about, you should talk to him. That’s all I’m say­ing.”

Her throat thick with emo­tion, Lily nod­ded.

“Thank you, dar­ling,” she mur­mured. “You’re right.”

It was easier said than done, be­cause she couldn’t ac­tu­ally find Andrew.

Lily wan­dered through the din­ing-room, smil­ing and chat­ting with guests, all the while her gaze was dart­ing around, look­ing for her husband.

It re­ally was a beau­ti­ful event, she ac­knowl­edged as she noted all the per­sonal touches, from the photos of them through the years adorn­ing each ta­ble’s cen­tre­piece, to the guest book where friends could write mes­sages.

She flipped through a few of the pages, emo­tion grab­bing her as she read the many kind things peo­ple had said, all the poignant mem­o­ries they shared. But where was Andrew?

She left the din­ing-room and looked in the hall, then out­side in the car park and gar­dens. He wasn’t any­where.

Back in the din­ing-room she saw Maura and John laugh­ing with Will and Dan, and Anna danc­ing closely with Will Lang­ford.

Even Si­mon was danc­ing with a pretty young woman and they were both smil­ing and star­ing into each other’s eyes as if they couldn’t get enough of each other.

Lily smiled at the sight, de­spite her worry. She’d longed for Si­mon to find some­one and it looked as if he fi­nally might have.

If only Andrew were here to see and share it all.

With a sigh she turned away, and she saw him com­ing from the kitchen, look­ing har­ried.

“Andrew! I’ve been look­ing all over for you.”

“Sorry, love.” He gave her a tired smile. “Would you be­lieve the ovens went on the blink?”

Lily shook her head, too ex­as­per­ated and emo­tional to be un­der­stand­ing about an­other cri­sis.

“Why is that your prob­lem?”

Andrew jerked back a lit­tle, look­ing sur­prised.

“Well, some­one needed

to sort it out.”

“But surely the cater­ers, or the staff could have done it,” Lily per­sisted. “This is our party, and you’ve worked so hard and you’re not even here to en­joy it with me. I’ve been eat­ing our cake alone!”

Andrew’s shoul­ders slumped, his face fall­ing into such sor­row­ful lines that Lily in­stantly re­gret­ted her out­burst.

“I’m sorry, Lily,” he said. “I’ve messed up, haven’t I? I’ve been work­ing so hard for this party, so you can have the re­cep­tion you de­serve –”

“Is that why you’ve done it, Andrew?” Lily burst out. He gaped at her.

“Of course.” “Be­cause for the last six months I’ve barely seen you. When­ever there’s been the tini­est is­sue, you’ve run out of the house to fix it.” Lily took a deep breath, need­ing courage to keep speak­ing. “I’ve started to won­der if maybe you’re avoid­ing me.” “What? No!”

“Then why? Why has this party be­come more im­por­tant than us?” She stepped for­ward, reach­ing for his hands. “Why have you been in­ter­ested in ev­ery de­tail, so much so that I feel like you don’t even know who I am?

“Or maybe you know who I am, but you don’t like what you see any more.” A lump came to her throat. “Is that it?”

“Lily.” Andrew looked ag­o­nised. “That’s not it at all. I got so caught up in this party be­cause I wanted to hon­our you with it. I al­ways felt badly that we had to run off to get mar­ried.

“That you never got the cer­e­mony and cel­e­bra­tion you de­served.”

“But I did get it,” Lily protested. “I got you, and that was all I wanted. I want you at home, shar­ing life with me, not try­ing to im­press me with some party I never wanted!” Tears were run­ning down her face and Andrew pulled her into a hug.

“Oh, Lily. I’m sorry. I’ve been so fo­cused on this party that I lost sight of what was im­por­tant. Us.”

“I thought you were go­ing off me,” Lily con­fessed in a whis­per, her head buried in Andrew’s shoul­der.

“Never.” He sighed and pulled her closer. “I fix­ated on this party as much as I did be­cause I’ve been feel­ing at a loose end since re­tir­ing.

“I guess I let it take over be­cause it felt good to have some­thing to plan. But I’ve made a com­plete mess, haven’t I?”

“You haven’t,” Lily protested, draw­ing away from him to of­fer a shaky smile through her tears. “This party is lovely. I was look­ing at the ta­ble cen­tre­pieces and the guest book and ev­ery­thing else, and it’s all been amaz­ing.

“I feel ter­ri­ble for com­plain­ing when it’s all so beau­ti­ful.”

“You’ve ev­ery right to.” Andrew shook his head. “I got it all wrong. Will you for­give me, Lily?”

“There’s noth­ing to for­give, Andrew. I love you and today has been beau­ti­ful. I’m glad we’ve talked about it. I’ve been silly to keep it from you for so long.”

They smiled at each other then Andrew kissed her softly.

In that mo­ment Lily knew this was all she needed. And the party she’d been dreading was turn­ing out to be pretty per­fect, af­ter all.

“Hey!” Anna came into the room, hold­ing hands with Will. “We’ve been look­ing ev­ery­where for you. They want to take a fam­ily photo.”

“Of all of us?”

“All of us,” Anna smiled at them ex­pec­tantly.

Lily and Andrew looked at each other and grinned. Here was the fam­ily they loved, and that was all that mat­tered.

Andrew slipped his hand into hers.

“Let’s go,” he said. “I can’t wait!” The End.

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