Shards of Alabama sunlight sliced through the open shutters. Josie stretched her legs from under the warmth of her down comforter, allowing the chilly January air to nip at her feet. On the other side of her window, the city of Birmingham stirred to a new day. Moving her hand over the sheets, she felt the lingering warmth from her husband’s body, and decided to put off the day a moment longer. Gathering his pillow into her arms, she buried her face in what little he’d left for her, wishing as always that she could have more.
After forcing herself from the safety of her bed, she dressed her five-six, petite frame in black yoga pants and a black tank with pink trim, exited her closet, and nearly collided with John—her husband.
How does he do that? He had a habit of just appearing out of nowhere, and without a sound, almost like a ghost or a vampire—something equally sinister. Still in his running clothes, he moved past her without a word.
“ And good morning to you too,” she mumbled as she followed him into the bathroom.
Perched on the side of the tub, he removed his running shoes while she stood in front of the sink, smoothing her waves of loose russet curls into a ponytail. She watched his reflection in the mirror as she secured the band, wondering whether or not to ask…
“ What time did you get home last night?” She hoped she sounded casual, as if she wasn’t too concerned. But the late nights had grown in frequency over the last few months, and with each passing day, so did the memory of what it felt like to climb into bed with him.
“ I had some pressing issues,” he said, dragging a hand through his tousled blond hair.
“ Issues?” Josie asked, wondering why he always had to be so cryptic. “Bobbie earned another strip yesterday. He’ll have his blue belt soon.”
“ That’s great,” he responded as if she’d simply commented on the changing weather.
“ You missed supper again…and Jack’s game,” she said, taking note of the way his green eyes under heavy lids avoided contact with hers.
“ Uh huh,” he grunted while removing the jacket to his jogging suit before tossing it into the hamper.
Although John’s face and midsection had thickened with age, Josie’s heart still experienced a faint quiver at the sight of his abs and chest through a slightly damp t-shirt.
She tried again. “He was expecting you.”
“ I’m a busy man, Jocelyn,” he said into the mirror as he rubbed a hand over the stubble on his square jaw.
“ Then I guess you’re not interested in attending Beth’s program at the pre-school?” she asked coolly while covering the faint freckles she’d always hated across her nose with a light dusting of powder. “It’s the day after tomorrow.”
“ In case you haven’t noticed, I’m in the middle of a campaign, and I still have clients at the firm I’m responsible for,” he said as he removed his t-shirt and track pants before sliding open the shower door and turning on the water.
With a touch of mascara, she added a bit of life to her hazel eyes. “Oh, I’ve noticed,” she growled, thinking about all the time she’d spent expertly planning, right down to the last detail, a sure-to-wow campaign dinner party for him.
After adjusting the temperature, he stepped into the shower and turned to make eye contact with her at last. “Speaking of which, do you have everything ready for tonight?”
“ Yes, I’m skipping work today to make sure everything gets done.” Josie hated missing the few hours a day she worked at a local defense firm. It was practically the only time she got to interact with other grown-ups. “Beth will be disappointed if you don’t—”
“ I hope I don’t have to remind you how important it is for everything to be perfect.”
“ Right. But the kids miss you is all I’m saying—” Josie stopped talking when John slid the shower door shut. She felt like a coward using the kids to make him feel guilty. Why can’t I just say that I miss him? She watched his muddled reflection through the tempered glass, knowing it was getting late and that this conversation was obviously over. She wondered why she even bothered to try.
After all, wasn’t this the fate of most marriages, two people existing independently of one another with barely their children as a common bond? And if so, was it naïve for her to hope for anything more?
With a dab of clear gloss, she rolled her pouty lips together and donned her coordinating pink hoodie. Then, after another quick glance at the man behind the glass, she headed out to wake the kids.
* * * *
The parking lot at the local YMCA was teaming with activity as usual. And, as usual, Josie was running late. With only seconds to spare, she’d safely deposited all three of her children at their respective schools and then headed for her Pilates class. Although the sky was blue as she pulled into the last open parking space and hopped out of the van, she felt a cool damp breeze brush across her face. If it rains my hair will frizz tonight, she worried as she looked to the darkening western sky.
A shiver ran down her spine, bringing with it the feeling that possible rain, and subsequent frizz, might be the least of her worries. Shaking off the chill, she reminded herself that planning parties always tended to make her nervous. There were too many unseen variables that could pop up at the most inconvenient times.
Hurrying into class, Josie shed her hoodie, grabbed a mat and an exercise ball, and then selected a spot on the floor next to her best friend since college. A native Californian, Gina had relocated here with her father, a college professor at the University of Alabama. Gina was her “Yankee” friend—at least that’s what Josie’s momma had always called her. In her mother’s way of thinking there were Northern Yankees and Western Yankees. Basically, anyone who didn’t understand the Southern way of doing things deserved the title. Though Josie had been born and raised here, she felt like even she didn’t get it. Does that make me an outsider as well?
Gina turned her light blue eyes to Josie and gave a little wink as she pulled her long dark hair up into a ponytail and lowered her tall willowy body down onto the mat. “You’re late,” she teased before sending her attention back to the perfectly toned, never-given-birth-to-an-eight-pound-baby instructor.
The class began with some stretching and warm-ups on the floor, then they moved to the ball. The first time Josie had attempted Pilates on the ball, she thought she was going to crack her skull. And in fact she’d fallen with an embarrassing thud a few times, but with practice had become a pro.
Once on top of the ball, the class was instructed to begin stomach crunches. After what seemed to Josie like an eternity, the instructor said, “Okay, ladies, just ten more.” Josie groaned as the lactic acid began to burn her abdominal muscles. Haven’t we done like a million already, she silently complained, surveying the instructor’s perfectly flat abs. The ease with which the instructor continued to effortlessly crunch was getting on Josie’s last nerve, and she wondered if the woman was actually in as much pain as the rest of them, just better at hiding it.
When it was time to work their backs, the whole class turned over. The class had their fronts on the ball, feet on the floor, and arms outstretched. Josie looked around the room at all the women positioned as if they expected to take flight.
When did being a woman come down to this? She turned her attention to Gina, remembering that there was a time when they’d believed they were champions of women’s rights. How had they gone from feminists to sell-outs? Maybe “sell-out” was too strong a term—daily exercise was important—but when had women come to accept meeting together in a room to simulate flight, on a ball, as a productive use of one’s time?
We could be using this time to accomplish something constructive. Think how powerful we’d be if we didn’t spend so much time worrying about having tight butts and firm abs? Why can’t we just be happy with being healthy and let our bodies be—
Josie’s train of thought hit a fast stop when she realized that everyone was moving to the floor to begin cooling down. Dutifully, she rejoined the other women in their mission to be “fit”. They were united solely in their search for what to some of them was an unattainable goal. She sighed gratefully when the class ended, even though she knew quite well she’d continue the pursuit another day.
“ Look’n good, girl,” Gina said, slapping Josie on the backside as she leaned over to collect her mat and exercise ball. “John must be loving the new you,” she added with a sly smile.
“ Doubt he’s even noticed,” Josie responded under her breath.
Gina baited Josie with another knowing grin. “Things must be getting pretty heated in the bedroom.”
“ Not since we stopped trying to get pregnant,” Josie blurted out before she could stop herself. Gina’s eyebrows shot up. Oops! Josie mentally kicked herself. In the past she’d confided everything in Gina, but since her marriage to John she’d become very close-lipped about personal matters, especially regarding her relationship with her husband. Only this time it was too late, she’d already said too much, and knew there was no way Gina would let this one go.
She trudged on. “You know how John’s always insisted that the perfect family consists of four children?” Gina gave her a nod. “Well, as you know, when I didn’t get pregnant, John was very disappointed, so we gave up trying.” She turned away and quickly added, “…and apparently, that included sex in general.”
Josie hadn’t shared John’s disappointment. She’d wanted to stop after one child. No wait, I never really knew if I wanted children at all. But John had been very anxious to start a family, and she’d been desperate to make him happy. So, not long after their first anniversary, Jack was born.
“ Wasn’t that like…a year ago,” Gina asked, a look of disbelief on her face.
Has it been that long? Josie flashed Gina a disarming smile. “My, how time does fly,” she said, making quickly for the door. As she went she felt her friend’s stare boring into her back and hoped against reason that she would let the subject go for now.
“ Yes, it does,” Gina accused, but thankfully said no more.
As they walked along in silence, a subtle sting of guilt again pricked Josie’s conscience about admitting to herself that she didn’t want another child. She couldn’t even imagine a life without the three she had. Before Jack was born, she’d envisioned herself practicing law, as a champion of civil rights, and arguing precedence-setting cases in supreme courts all over the country. Well, with a career at least. Breast feeding, diapers, and crying for no apparent reason—not just the baby—kept her mostly at home, while John went to work every day, having grown-up conversations and engaging in mind-stimulating work.
Looking back, she remembered too many nights when he’d come home exhilarated after a victorious day in court and geared up for an evening of passionate love-making, only to go to bed frustrated when she turned him down. She needed intimate adult contact too, but after a day with the kids, she couldn’t possibly see him as anything more than just another person who wanted something from her.
“ Morning, ladies.”
Josie looked up to see a handsome gentleman greeting them with a warm smile.
“ Y’all planning to show up for work today?”
Leaning an elbow on the gym’s juice bar, Brian McAlister absently rubbed the cleft in his chin with his forefinger while the gaze from his bright eyes danced toward Josie and Gina. Pushing his six-foot, robust frame away from the bar, he dragged a hand through the brown wavy hair curling playfully about his ears and along the back of his neck.
“ Brian, you know I’m going to be in late today,” Gina said. “We have the third-grade dress rehearsal this morning.” She gestured to both herself and Josie.
A paralegal, Gina had joined Brian a few years ago when he’d moved his law practice from northern California to Alabama after his second marriage failed in a record six weeks. Gina did the legal research and divorce mediation for the business, while Brian handled the litigating, some civil, but mostly criminal. Josie had been working with them a couple of mornings a week for the past six months or so.
Josie started to apologize for missing work as well, but stopped when she unexpectedly heard her husband’s voice echoing from the surround sound speakers. She looked up.
On the screen behind the bar, John smiled amicably from the television as he spoke to a group of seniors. Then his voice was muted and someone else spoke: “He will protect the rights of aging Americans,” the narrator’s voice asserted. The ad shifted to a scene with John reading a book to elementary school children. “John Bearden is committed to keeping Alabama safe for your children,” the narration continued. The image cut to John standing behind a podium with his campaign staff, all men with the exception of a very attractive woman, positioned behind him, looking official.
“ As your circuit court judge, I promise to be hard on crime and relentless in my pursuit of justice, not only to keep your family safe, but for my own.” John was speaking with what looked like incredible conviction, while sounding surprisingly genuine at the same time.
A flash to a picture of John casually playing on the lawn with their kids rounded out the ad. It ended as a narrator possessing what could have been mistaken for the voice of God, boomed, “A vote for John Bearden is a vote for justice and security in an insecure world.”
All three of them stood silent, eyes agog as a college-aged girl at the juice bar turned to her friend and stated in a not-so-subtle voice, “John Bearden… He is one fine-lookin’ man—he can have my ‘vote’ any time of the day or night.”
Josie felt her mouth drop open while Gina rolled her lips together, her eyes amused under raised brows.
Brian said, “Going with the strategy of making people afraid not to vote for him, I see…very popular with republican candidates these days.”
Gina added, “How did Trisha McSlutty-pants get her mug in the clip and not you?”
Josie knew she should say something, but at the moment, there just weren’t words—none she could use in mixed company anyway—to describe why Trisha had been placed front and center while Josie was nowhere to be seen. She’d known that with the financial support from the owner of Southern Steel, Philander Montgomery, John was making a commercial, but she hadn’t seen it, and didn’t realize it was already airing. Heat rose on the back of her neck. Shower glass or no shower glass, John and I are definitely going to have a conversation about this!
Brian tried again. “So…that’s what buddying-up to big steel will buy a candidate these days?”
“ I guess so,” Josie finally muttered as she pushed past them and headed for the parking lot.
Once outside, she paid little mind to the hastily intersecting traffic, determined to put some much-needed distance between herself and more questions she obviously didn’t have the answers to.
Brian caught up with her. “Have…you given any more thought to my offer?”
With Brian’s encouragement Josie had finally taken the bar exam after ten years, and passed it the previous summer. Since then, he’d been hinting that he wanted her to work full-time, and he had officially offered her a position a couple of weeks ago.
“ Yeah, about that,” she said, glancing briefly in Brian’s direction. “I don’t think this is a good time…with the campaign and all.”
“ That’s code for, ‘I’m afraid to ask my husband because he’s a selfish Neanderthal who wants me at his beck and call twenty-four seven,’” Gina chimed in.
Josie turned and gave Gina her best stay-out-of-it look before addressing Brian again. “It’s just not a good time, that’s all,” she said simply. After Gina’s comment she couldn’t exactly admit that she hadn’t even broached the subject with John. He’d barely agreed to the part-time position, and his approval had been conditional at best. Not having anything left to bargain with, Josie knew that working full-time would be out of the question.
With Gina still trailing a few paces behind, Brian walked Josie to her van where he reiterated, “We really could use someone like you. You’re a very talented lawyer, you know.”
“ Thanks, but you know how busy I am right now. I mean today alone is going to be crazy,” Josie said, barely acknowledging the compliment. The sting of being so publicly reminded of just how disconnected she and John had become was trumping any other sentiment at the moment.
“ Right—that dinner tonight,” Brian said with a shake of his head. “First it was a minivan…” He whistled through his teeth. “And now the former environmental activist, AKA Josie McClain, is sitting down to eat with a toxic polluter.”
Josie bit her lip to hide her embarrassment. Up to this point she had successfully managed to avoid this subject with Brian. “I know you must think I’m a traitor. There seems to be no limits to the irony that’s become my life,” she admitted, and then attempted to change the subject. “And besides, everyone knows the first unofficial rule of motherhood…” she motioned to the van. “…is that all mothers must drive a car that seats more than five, looks appropriately like a box, and consequently sucks any remaining amount of sexiness permanently from its driver.”
Brian made a quick appraisal of Josie’s fitted yoga pants. “I’m not sure I would agree with that last part,” he said, and then he fell silent, staring at her with those brown eyes.
The same eyes she’d known so well, so long ago. The eyes that had always been able to look right through her and know exactly what she was feeling. Then Brian’s lips parted into a crooked grin, the same adoring smile that had always made his eyes twinkle just a little. Josie swallowed hard, pushing down her desire to return the affection, reminding herself that she was a married woman.
After holding her gaze a moment longer, he said, “Just so long as you don’t start paintin’ your face orange while yellin’ ‘War Eagle’.”
“ You know I would never.” Josie gave her nose a repugnant wrinkle. “The Judge raised me better than that,” she said, knowing that this was one Southern tradition she did understand. After all, every resident of the State of Alabama knew they were duty bound to swear an oath of allegiance to either the University of Alabama or Auburn University. The blood “rolling” through her veins was now, and always would be, Alabama Crimson.
With a chuckle and a “See y’all later,” Brian turned and headed for his car.
Josie watched him go, enjoying the view. Sure, I’m married, but I’m not dead.
“ He’s still got it so bad for you, girl,” Gina said with a knowing smile. “And after all this time.”
“ Oh please.” Josie waved Gina off. “We have to get going. We have to be at the school in forty-five minutes.”
After climbing into her van, Josie turned the key, and hesitated, giving herself a moment to think. Could Brian still be in love with me after all these years? How would my life be different if I’d stayed with him? Mulling the subject a minute longer, she knew one thing for sure: she wouldn’t be sleeping alone every night even though there was a man lying next to her in the same bed. But she hadn’t chosen Brian—she’d chosen John. Some days it was hard to remember why.
Closing her eyes, she could almost smell the damp, stale air blowing from the air-conditioner in John’s cheap apartment and feel the brush of his breath across her face. Leaning her head back, she let her mind drift to that day. She was lying on her back in a pair of John’s boxer shorts and a tank top. Next to her, he was lying on his side in some house pants, his bare chest glistening softly from the humidity.
John’s head was propped up on one elbow as he quietly watched her. With his other arm reaching across Josie’s body, their hands moved together randomly, fingers engaged in a graceful dance. Contented just to lie next to him, she inhaled, breathing in the masculine scent of his skin. To her father, a judge on the State Court of Civil Appeals, John was a valued and trusted law clerk. To Josie, he was the most charismatic and exciting man she’d ever met. Politically, they couldn’t have been more different, but when they made love, sparks of a more ardent nature flew. Yet Josie knew that soon the summer would end, and she’d return to California, law school, and…Brian.
In the tranquil silence, John said, “Marry me.”
Josie giggled, thinking she’d heard him wrong. “What?”
“ Marry me,” he repeated. John’s expression never wavered; his gaze locked with hers, waiting for a response.
“ You’re crazy. I hardly know you.” She laughed more timidly this time, watching John more closely, trying to read his expression.
“ Oh, I think you know me just fine,” he said with a wry smile.
Josie felt her cheeks grow hot. “That’s not what I meant.”
“ I know what you meant,” John said, his fingers leaving hers to glide up her arm. “If you don’t marry me, I’m almost certain the Judge will personally see to my untimely demise.” His eyes showed a glint of folly.
“ A small price to pay,” Josie said flippantly.
His fingers continued to dance over her chest and down between her breasts, leaving a trail of heat that penetrated her very soul. “And, I can’t imagine ever wanting another woman more than I want you right now.”
Josie’s heart started to pound. “You’re…serious.”
“ I’m asking you to be my wife, Jocelyn,” he said, sliding his body on top of hers. His emerald eyes beckoned her to answer. “Will you? Will you…be my wife?”
Never in her life until then, or since, had she felt so wholly drawn to another person.
“ I loved him…I’ll always love him,” she whispered.
The memory held only a moment longer until the sound of impatient honking caused Josie’s eyes to snap open. Someone wanted her spot. Sighing, she knew she shouldn’t look back but forward, focusing on today and the reality of what lay ahead. Releasing the emergency brake, she had little choice but to aim the van down the road stretching before her.
© Julie Ford
Read read of chapter one HERE
The Woman He Married
Author: Julie Ford
Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press
Genre: Contemp Romance
An aspiring young defense attorney, Josie McClain looked forward to taking on the injustices of the world—one case at a time. Eleven years later, she’s a stay-at-home-mom, battling demons that don’t require a law degree, but do demand the ability to remain insanely busy while nursing a heavy dose of denial. But keeping up pretenses proves more than she can bear when a bracelet that should have been hers shows up on the wrist of another woman.
Now, in the midst of an Alabama judicial campaign, Josie’s marriage to candidate John Bearden slowly begins to unravel as an ex-lover comes back into her life. When he offers her the dreams she thought she’d lost, Josie faces one of the most difficult decisions of her life. Josie embarks on a journey of self-rediscovery, hoping fulfillment might be within her reach.