Excerpt: Storming Meg

 

Chapter One

 

“What the he— heck are you doing here?”

Meg Wolf censored her tongue for the sake of the six tiny ears attached to three cherubic faces lighting up at the sight of her ex-husband. Uncle Pete’s living room had just gotten a lot smaller.

“Daddy!” Five-year-old Nora charged full tilt at Jack Wolf, who neatly caught her up and swung her around. Jack perched her on one lean hip, her little bottom supported by a long arm ropy from hard work. He bent to scoop up seven-year-old Marie on the other side while three-year-old Daisy hopped and whined, chubby arms raised imploringly.

“Just a second, angel, gotta unload some cargo first.” He let Nora slide to the floor. Giggling, she clawed at his T-shirt in a futile attempt to hold her ground.

The red-and-black shirt was emblazoned with the words Wolf Mann Brew Pub, Ithaca, New York in a bold, distinctive design Meg had never seen before. Had he and his partner, Kevin Mann, hired a graphic artist? She wondered how he could afford such a luxury, knowing the child-support payments he sent every month had to eat up most of his income. It didn’t sit right with her, taking his money when she was certain she now earned much more than he did. The thought briefly crossed her mind that he might try to have the payments lowered.

No. He’d never do that. His innate pride and sense of honor wouldn’t let him.

Jack’s teasing grin never faltered as he glanced at Meg, but she saw something flicker in his light blue eyes. Wariness. Caution. As if he was mentally assessing just how twisted her knickers were getting over this blatant breach of divorce protocol.

“What a surprise to see Daddy here, huh, girls?” She crossed her arms over her chest. Jack smirked at her syrupy tone.

Nora said, “I didn’t know you were gonna be here, Daddy!”

“We’re gonna have Thanksgiving with Daddy!” Marie crowed. She hugged her father harder and pulled back to rub his beard stubble. “You’re scratchy.”

Meg groaned inwardly as she took in the girls’ beaming faces. Damn Jack. Damn him for teasing them with his presence, raising their expectations.

“Daddy’s just here to wish us a happy holiday, girls. He can’t stay,” she said, with a meaningful glare at the daddy in question.

Three little faces fell. Meg felt like Cruella de Ville. Trust her ex to cast her as the heavy.

He said, “Not so fast, Mommy. As a matter of fact, I will be sharing that turkey with my favorite gals. I’m getting a whole four days with you.”

Meg had to shout to be heard over the delighted squeals. “Uncle Pete invited you?” That was impossible. Pete detested Jack. He’d never have invited him to his annual Turkey Day get-together at his island vacation home.

Jack’s eyes slid away. “Not exactly.”

She should have guessed. “Tanya. You wheedled an invitation out of Tanya.”

He met her gaze now as he lowered his daughters to the braided rug. “She invited me. No one did any wheedling.”

She smirked, well aware that Pete’s wife had her own agenda where Jack was concerned.

“I want to see my daughters, Meg. I want to spend Thanksgiving with them. Is that too much to ask? Just one holiday together—”

“Girls, go upstairs and choose your beds. Marie, do you remember what room? Last one on this side?” she asked, pointing to the horseshoe-shaped hallway that overlooked the living room, a wooden balustrade running its length. Her oldest daughter nodded and Meg forced a smile. “Good. I want Daisy in a lower bunk. I’ll be up in a few minutes.”

The girls pounded up the stairs, blond curls bouncing. She turned on Jack. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

“I told you, I was invit—”

“By that—that—” She glanced around quickly and lowered her voice. “That bimbo!”

Jack chuckled. “Is that any way to speak about your aunt?”

“She’s not my aunt, she’s the shameless gold digger who managed to rope my uncle Pete into marriage.”

“Meg.” He took a step toward her. She crossed her arms again and he stopped, with a weary little sigh. “Come on. It’s Thanksgiving. I don’t want to spend the next few days tussling with you. I just want to see my little girls. For more than a few hours this time.”

“You’re setting them up for disappointment, Jack. They’ll expect this to be a regular thing.”

He just looked at her for long moments. Finally he murmured, “Would that be so bad?”

His forlorn expression, the mingled hope and pain she read there, pierced her like a knife. She struggled to put starch in her words, in her resolve. Remember, she commanded herself. Remember why you left him.

“I’m afraid I can’t allow this,” she said.

A muscle jumped in his cheek. “I’m afraid you have no choice. I’m an invited guest and I’m staying.”

“We’ll see about—”

“That boat ride was murder!”

Startled, Jack swung his gaze to the front door and the dapper, dark-haired stranger hauling two designer suitcases through it. One look at Meg’s face was all Jack needed. He swore under his breath.

The man set down his luggage and cast a quick and approving glance at the high-ceilinged room with its dark paneling, enormous stone fireplace, and ponderous leather furniture. “You were right, darling. This place is charming.” He wore a tweed sport coat over a blue oxford-cloth shirt, with knife-creased gray slacks and gleaming loafers. His neatly trimmed dark hair sported a touch of gray at the temples.

Meg licked her lips and twisted a strand of pale blond hair around a finger. Jack almost smiled. Some things never changed.

The boyfriend droned on, “It reminds me of the cottage on the Cape where my people used to summer.” Noticing Jack, he stepped forward and thrust out his hand.

“D. Winston Kent. I’m Meg’s fiancé.”

A huge iron ball slammed into Jack’s chest. In the space of a heartbeat a thousand thoughts assailed him, one paramount among them.

It’s really over.

He forced his eyes to focus on D. Winston Kent’s genial expression and the manicured hand extended toward him, forced his overloaded mind to catch up and do what was expected.

He was a man. He’d act like one. He wouldn’t shame himself. Or Meg.

Jack raised his hand and clasped the other man’s smooth palm. “Jack Wolf,” he said. “What’s the D stand for?”

The firm handclasp stalled in midpump. D. Winston Kent’s dark brown eyes widened. He looked at Meg, who was staring into space, twirling that lock of hair to beat the band. Only then did Jack notice the square diamond on her ring finger. The thing was the size of a Chiclet.

That was the finger on which he’d once lovingly, proudly, placed a wedding band. At the time he couldn’t afford a diamond, but he’d always meant to make up for that lapse someday.

“It stands for Donald,” her fiancé said at last, pasting a wooden smile on his clean-shaven face. “Actually, it’s Donald Winston Kent the Third. But call me Winston.”

“Well, I’m more a one-of-a-kind guy myself, Winston. Somehow I don’t think any of my daughters would have appreciated being called Jack Junior.” Was that a proprietary spin he gave to “my daughters”? My daughters?

Meg said, “Winston, I, uh, hadn’t realized uncle Pete’s wife invited Jack this weekend.” She shoved her hands into the pockets of her windbreaker and addressed Jack. “Now you see why it’s not a good idea for you to stay.”

“Nonsense.” Winston slid an arm around her stiff shoulders. “Jack and I have to get acquainted sooner or later. Might as well be sooner.” He seemed oblivious to the nonverbal signals his ladylove was pelting him with, easily interpreted as Stay the hell out of this. Blithely he droned on, “It’s just as we discussed, darling. The girls should see us all getting along in order to fully internalize the reality of their new family—”

“Winston…”

“—and gain a healthy sense of closure.”

A surge in his blood pressure nearly boosted Jack off his feet. Meg looked like she’d just been handed a blindfold and a cigarette. Wearing a smug little smile, Winston gave her shoulder a hearty squeeze.

Jack spoke just one word, as soft and low as a panther’s warning growl. “Closure?”

“Winston!” Smiling brightly—too brightly—Meg disengaged herself from her fiancé’s arm. “Why don’t you take the bags upstairs? Your room is the middle one, right there.” She pointed. “You’ll be sharing it with my cousin Neal.”

“Certainly. I’ll check on the kids, make sure they’re getting settled in okay.” He lifted the bags, nodded to Jack, and made his way up the curving staircase and down the hall.

Meg bit her lip. “I didn’t mean for you to find out like this.”

“Winston Kent, Meg?” Jack couldn’t bear the way she was looking at him, the gentle sympathy underlying her words. “Winston? Kent?” he sneered.

Her delicate, dimpled chin jutted and angry color flooded her cheeks. Good.

“Who were the runners-up?” he asked. “Raleigh Chesterfield? Benson Hedges? Joe Camel?”

“Trust you to respond with typical maturity.”

“Meg, the man uses ‘summer’ as a verb.”

She blushed harder. “Don’t expect me to apologize for Winston’s privileged background.”

“What does he do for a living?”

“He’s a partner at Watkins, Gilroy, and Stone.”

Something shriveled deep within Jack. The bastard had a piece of one of Wall Street’s most prestigious law firms. This was the kind of husband Meg had always wanted, the kind of husband she’d tried to turn Jack into for five years.

“A little long in the tooth for you, no?” he asked. “What is he, forty? Forty-two?”

She shrugged. “Something like that.”

Something like that?”

She rolled her eyes. “Forty-five.”

“Forty-five? For God’s sake, Meg, you’re only twenty-seven. That’s a difference of—”

“I can do the math.”

“What are you doing with a forty-five-year-old guy?” He allowed himself a mirthless chuckle. “Silly question. Is he any good?”

“Go to hell.”

He was already there. “Do you love him?”

She blinked. “What kind of question is that?”

“Just wondering.” Go ahead, it won’t kill you. “I wish you well, Meg. I want you to know that.”

She searched his expression, her own tightly shuttered. “Thank you.”

He took a deep breath. “So. How’s it been, working for Pete? I hope he treats his employees better than his relatives.”

“I can’t complain. He just promoted me to VP of marketing.”

“Congratulations. You get another hefty raise out of it?”

“Uh, yeah.”

She seemed embarrassed by that, foolish woman. Probably thought her ex-husband was living hand-to-mouth.

Meg looked as uptight as Jack felt. He had to escape. Just a few moments alone to sort out his thoughts, regroup—and come to terms with the finality that he could no longer avoid.

“Listen, I, uh, brought some beer. I have to go and stick it in the fridge or it won’t be cold for—”

“I’ve got stuff to do, too.” She waved him away with a tense little smile.

He made his way to the pantry off the kitchen where he’d left the three cases of beer that he’d brought from his brew pub as a peace offering for his host. He slit open the cardboard with his pocketknife and began stacking bottles in the emptier of the two refrigerators.

Now that it was over for good, he couldn’t help pondering how far he and Meg had come from their first bizarre encounter eight years ago.

That year, spring never arrived in upstate New York. A sudden heat wave rolled in on the heels of the last April snow flurries. The day Jack met Meg, the mercury hovered close to eighty and the sky was a blinding azure. Out of boredom he’d accepted Gus Black’s invitation to a daylong barbecue party at the house Gus shared with seven other students near the State University at Binghamton.

The dilapidated house and grounds were overrun with students in high spirits celebrating the brief reprieve between winter inertia and cramming for finals. The prevailing mood ranged from giddy to downright raucous.

One girl stood out. Jack had noticed the pretty blond freshman around campus during the school year, bundled against the elements, hauling her backpack of books between buildings. Now he finally got to see what the heavy parka had concealed: a lovely, graceful body in frayed cutoffs and a sleeveless black T-shirt.

His practiced eye instantly discerned what a less observant fellow might have missed at first glance. Her small breasts, youthfully high and firm, were unencumbered by a bra. Only the most subtle sway and quiver of soft flesh gave it away. You had to look hard.

God, he loved the first signs of spring.

The party was a dud. Jack knew it within the first fifteen minutes. As a twenty-four-year-old sophomore, he had little in common with his fellow students. At the moment he felt downright ancient, depressed by their relentless, manic joviality, fueled by liberal quantities of booze. He’d outgrown that brand of juvenile excess when most of these kids were in grade school. As for the little huddles he spotted in odd corners and behind half-closed doors, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on there.

Deciding he had better ways to spend this glorious day, he mumbled some excuse to Gus, who was preoccupied with emptying a pitcher of beer over another youth’s head. Jack was circling the house, heading for his battered, secondhand Jeep, when he heard it—a female voice, shrill and affronted. And scared. A breathless hitch inflected her words when she told whoever she was with to get his hands the hell off her.

He recognized that voice. It was the blonde, the girl called Meg. He also recognized the inebriated snicker that answered her, though the words that followed were muffled by a clump of overgrown junipers that concealed the pair. It was Drew Haley, one of Gus’s housemates. A big, blond senior whose credo was Better Living through Chemistry. His nickname was Fog.

The decision to intercede hadn’t been a conscious one, more a reflex action. In the next moment Jack was staring into Fog’s unnaturally wide pupils. Meg’s lips were the same shade of white as her face. Fog’s beefy hand shackled her upper arm in a bruising grip.

The altercation that followed was brief, the outcome predictable. Jack didn’t question his ability to intimidate. It was a skill he’d honed in the most demanding arena imaginable, where survival and sanity depended on making men fear you. This blustering dopehead never had a chance. Jack turned the man’s bowels to jelly without raising his voice.

Afterward Jack escorted Meg back to her dorm, where he met her moon-faced, dulcimer-strumming roommate and her striped cat named Trout. They shared a bottle of too-sweet Liebfraumilch and grilled cheese sandwiches made with an electric iron, and he watched her blush and twist her hair when he scrutinized her portfolio of watercolors. They were good and he told her so.

He managed to hold out until their third date before going for the gold. She pried his busy hands out of her jeans and said no. I’ve never, she said. Can you wait?

He kissed her tenderly. I can wait, he told her. It’s okay.

It wasn’t okay. He was frustrated as hell.

But he was pleased, too.

Eight long months later, during Christmas break, they made love on the fold-out couch in his studio apartment. Snow pattered softly on the windowpanes as he inhaled her sharp gasp, as overcome as she by the newness and wonder of it. As if it were his first time, too.

In a way, it had been.

Jack leaned on the open refrigerator door now, staring at shelves full of brown and green bottles but seeing Meg’s face as she’d looked a few minutes ago. Inflexible. Wary.

Was this the same grateful, ingenuous girl who, only half teasing, had called him her white knight as they drove away from that horrendous party eight years earlier?

Was this the same strong, brave woman who’d clutched his hand and cursed him soundly as she struggled to bring his babies into the world? After each birth the two of them had wept and laughed and said, “Let’s do it again.”

What had happened to that woman? To the bond they’d shared, the vows they’d exchanged?

Part of the blame lay with her uncle Pete, who’d schemed to break them up almost from the beginning. It was some sort of power trip for him. He’d constantly urged Meg to leave Jack and take a lucrative job with his company in Queens, always laying it on thickest when she was at her most vulnerable, when the checking account was depleted and she was worn-out from the kids and worried about the future.

If Jack had thought he could have kept her by sacrificing his dream, by remaking himself as the nine-to-five drone she’d always wanted him to be, he might have done it. Except that he knew, as she couldn’t, that it wouldn’t have been enough. Eventually she’d have discovered the truth about him, the ugly past he’d never been able to bring himself to share with her despite his best intentions, despite his gnawing need to expose it, exorcise it. Sooner or later she’d have found out who and what she’d married, and it would have been the final blow no matter how many concessions he’d made to middle-class stability.

The hell of it was, he’d been all prepared to tell her that weekend just to get it out in the open. Damn the consequences.

He’d even allowed himself to harbor the foolish hope that his stunning admission might actually prove to be cathartic, a sort of electroshock therapy to jump-start their relationship and get them talking again. He’d half convinced himself this brief holiday together would be a turning point. The first step toward reconciliation.

He shoved the last bottle of beer in the fridge and slammed the door. Hard. Sounded like a giant wind chime in there.

Yep, he’d been all set to win back his wife and children. A big man with big plans. Only, he hadn’t counted on Meg having a few plans of her own.

And a new white knight by the name of D. Winston Kent III Esquire.


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