How was she going to keep her secret? It had been with her like a living thing for twenty-one years.
I’m glad Secrets is included in the Turquoise Morning Press Sweet But Sexy boxed set along with stories from other fine TMP authors. The book was special to me, because as I wrote it, I reflected on my teen and young adult relationship with my mother. We were friends at her passing, but not without changes on both our parts.
A “sweet” romance, Secrets is a book my mother would have liked. In fact, she told all her blue-haired lady friends that the “editor” wrote the love scene in my first romance. And it was really tame!
“Kelly, will you marry me?”
Heat swept Kelly Baron’s face, and it had nothing to do with the warm June day. Choking back dismay, she stared at the kneeling man at her feet. “For goodness sakes, Thomas, stand up.”
Thomas struggled to his feet and sat down beside her on the park bench. His normally flushed face was peppered with sweat, and he had an expectant look in his eyes. “I’m serious,” he said, fumbling in his pocket and withdrawing a small, black velvet box. “Dead serious.” He lifted the lid.
Secured inside the box was a spectacular princess-cut diamond solitaire set in a white gold, cathedral setting. Kelly was somewhat of an expert about diamond engagement rings because of her daughter’s recent wedding, but she never expected Thomas Dunlap to offer her one, let alone one that looked to be the size of a carat.
Kelly focused on the beautiful ring, avoiding the conflicting emotions whirling in her head and the warning bells ringing in her ears.
Her usually reticent suitor became assertive and removed the ring from its box. “Here. Try it on.”
Before Kelly could demur, Thomas grabbed her left hand and slipped the ring on the third finger.
“It’s too big,” were the only words she could force from her dry lips.
“That’s no problem,” Thomas said, bending over her hand. She could see the thinning spot of hair at the top of his head. He slid the ring up and down on her finger, and then raised his eyes. “We can get it sized to fit. What do you think?”
“No, about marrying me.”
That again. Panic set in. It’s not that Kelly didn’t like Thomas. They had been dating since his divorce. He was an elementary school principal in Jefferson County, and she taught fifth grade in a local Catholic school. They liked to walk for exercise, go to Broadway Series plays, and eat Italian. They had a lot in common. But she had never, ever considered marrying anybody, not even when she’d been pregnant with C.B. and needed to get married in the worst way.
“I’m not sure it’s the right time,” Kelly mumbled, looking at the way a thin strand of salt and pepper hair fell across his forehead.
Time for a forced smile. Did she want to spend the rest of her life with Thomas Dunlap? Become Mrs. Thomas Dunlap? No. For one thing, if she ever married, she would keep her maiden name. She would never succumb to an out-of-date tradition. And besides, she was too self-reliant, too used to doing what she pleased with only her daughter and her aunt to put her life in the hands of another.
But Aunt Bess was dead and C.B. was married. Thomas was right. She was free.
“This is such a surprise. Will you let me think about it?” She hated the timid note that crept into her voice. Slowly, Kelly disengaged her hands and withdrew the sparkling ring from her finger. It was too much bling. It was too much pressure. She handed it back to him. “You know I don’t do change well.”
Thomas slid the ring back into its protective velvet box. He had the look of a man receiving a death sentence. I hate to hurt his feelings. She hadn’t quite told him “no,” but she hadn’t said “yes.” If the situation were reversed, she’d feel like shit.
“You have a habit of avoiding things,” he said with a sharp shake of his finger, reprimanding her as if she was a six-year-old caught hitting another child on the playground. “It’s a character flaw you need to work on.”
Kelly shifted on the park bench. Thomas was always too blunt. That was his character flaw. She pressed her right hand hard against the bench and fought down her annoyance.
Yet could Thomas be right?
Twenty-one years ago she had avoided telling C.B.’s father she was pregnant, but that was because his mother had found out they were secretly dating and warned her away from him. She made it perfectly clear her son had a future that didn’t include a small town girl from the wrong side of the tracks. It was evident she went behind her son’s back because he never said anything about his mother’s interference. Probably her husband didn’t even know about her scare tactics.
But his mother was right. When they talked about life after high school, he made it clear he didn’t intend to end up in a small town like his father. He intended to go places, be important. Kelly was never part of that future he painted for himself.
When she found out she was pregnant, Kelly couldn’t tell him. He didn’t love her. He would reject her and their child.
And so once Kelly started keeping the secret, she had never revealed the truth to anyone, especially not her own father, who had threatened to beat it out of her and confront the boy and his parents. It was just as easy to avoid telling her mother, who could be bullied by her husband, and later C.B., who accepted life without a father. Leaving her hometown and moving to Louisville put distance between her and the problem.
Thomas cleared his throat. “I won’t wait forever,” he told her.
“Of course not.” Kelly shook off the memories and touched his sleeve. How did she soften her response? “I just need time to process this. Please?”
He kissed her then—a typical Thomas kiss with lips pressed firmly shut and eyes closed. Kelly responded, as always, timidly, tepidly—trying to deny the longing in her heart for the love of her life—someone who cherished her, didn’t want to change her and loved her just the way she was.
Someone she was too afraid to find.