Nathan Spieth chatted with Stephanie Collins while keeping an eye on Helen. She flitted about, the skirt of her lightweight summer dress fluttering above her knees, making sure everyone had a drink and was helping themselves to snacks. He didn’t think any of the other members of the Silverberry Book Club—meeting this Tuesday evening in Helen’s back yard—had noticed anything. But he’d long been attuned to even the slightest changes in her mood.
Something was definitely not right in her world.
“All right, everyone!” She called the group to attention by tapping lightly on her martini glass with her fingernail. “Let’s gather round and start the discussion.”
Nathan offered Stephanie a seat on the deep cushion of the outdoor sofa. This was her first book club meeting, and she seemed rather shy and bewildered. She had come with Terrance Renfrew and his husband Bennett, but the couple had become involved in a conversation with Penta Potter, another member of the Silverberries, and left Stephanie standing awkwardly alone. Nathan had stepped into his unofficial role as secondary host and set himself to putting the new arrival at ease.
Once everyone was settled, Helen launched the analysis of last month’s assigned reading. Nathan watched her closely, contributing when needed to keep the conversation going, but otherwise letting the six or so other members carry the ball. The book club had been active for a little over two years, but he’d sensed for a couple of months now that interest was waning. Part of that might have something to do with the wonderful weather they’d been having. Who wanted to sit around discussing “good” books when they could be out on a boat or at a cabin or generally enjoying the heat wave? Meeting on Helen’s deck had been a compromise, yet even so several regulars had made their excuses and not attended.
An hour later, the discussion broke up. Nathan began collecting the party’s detritus while Helen escorted the rest of the Silverberries to the front yard. He lived right next door—had for twenty years—and it was habit for him and Helen to help the other with clean up when it was their turn to host. Given Helen’s demeanour this evening, he had an additional motive for sticking around.
She returned from the front yard and climbed the wooden steps to the deck. Normally brimming over with energy and verve, she moved at a slower pace tonight, and the creases around her mouth were deeper than usual.
As he placed dirty glasses of all shapes and sizes on a serving tray, he said casually, “Everything all right?”
“Of course.” Her reply came so quickly he knew it was a reflex, not necessarily the truth.
He straightened and pinned her with a glance. “Helen. I’ve known you a long time. There’s something on your mind.”
She averted her gaze and began stacking serving dishes with abrupt, jerky movements. “It’s nothing important.”
Nathan studied her. Three years ago, when her husband Aaron had died, she’d stopped colouring her hair and had chopped the long silvery locks into a skull-hugging cut that accentuated her cheekbones and amazing green eyes. A muscle in her jaw flexed repeatedly and well acquainted with her innate stubbornness, he decided to leave the subject be. For now.
They worked in silence, moving around each other with the ease and efficiency of years of practice. He reflected on how they’d come to this stage in their relationship. When they’d met, they’d both been married. Nathan’s three sons and Helen’s only daughter had been in elementary school. Now they were both widowed. He had three grandchildren, she one granddaughter.
He’d found Helen attractive from their first meeting, in a general, appreciative way. As he’d grown more and more dissatisfied with his own marriage, though, he’d done his best to squash any show of interest. The difficulties Wanda and he were going through were complicated enough without adding in lust for their next-door neighbour—especially since that neighbour was very happily married and had no idea what he was feeling. Then, just when he’d raised the courage to discuss divorce with Wanda, she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, and, well, he’d stayed.
Now she had been gone five years, and his sharp, stabbing guilt had faded. What still stood out keen and clear were the months leading up to her final day. It was one more thing he and Helen had in common. Though his love for Wanda had faded well before her diagnosis—unlike Helen’s feelings for Aaron—watching someone you’d built a life and family with die of cancer was not an experience he ever wanted to live through again, and he was sure Helen felt the same way.
A clattering smash jolted him from his thoughts. Helen stood at the sink, the chip and dip bowls, vegetable platter, and sundry other dishes in a heap inside it. She gripped the edge of the counter and rocked back and forth, her head bowed.
“Helen?” Alarmed, he stepped forward, tossing aside the dish rag he’d been using to wipe the kitchen island and resting his hand on her forearm. “Now you’ve got to tell me. What’s going on?”
She looked up, her eyes wide and wild, a pulse beating rapidly in her throat.