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Overruled: Chapter 21

Stanton

When I was young, the preacher would give sermons about hell. He made it sound like the inside of an erupting volcano with its burning lakes, molten lava, and painful depths. But I don’t think hell is fire and brimstone.

I think hell is a hospital waiting room.

Interminably slow, every second ticking by like a clock with dying batteries. Frustration, fear—even boredom—so potent your head throbs.

“Is Nana gonna die, Daddy?”

Presley sits beside me on the bench, leaning against me, my arm around her. Sofia’s on the other side, holding my hand. Jenny’s been chasing down information, but even working here, the only answer she’s able to get is “waiting on tests.” JD gets her coffee, tells her to try and sit down. Jenny’s parents and mine are scattered through the waiting room, along with a handful of neighbors who had family injured in the storm.

“I don’t know, baby girl.” I stroke her hair. “Nana’s a strong woman. You should think good thoughts, say a prayer.”

Just then Dr. Brown comes out and June, Wayne, Jenny, JD, and Ruby converge. “It was a heart attack,” he says, looking at Jenny’s mother. “A big one. But she’s stable. She’ll be here a few days. We have to run several more tests, but there doesn’t appear to be any lasting damage.”

There’s a collective sigh, heavy with relief. June asks, “Can we see her?”

The doctor replies, “Yes, she can have visitors, one at a time. But she’s asking for Stanton.”

And the sighs turn into a wave of what the hells.

I stand. “Me? Are you sure?”

The look on his face says Nana’s been quite the pain in the ass about it. “She was very insistent.”

My eyes meet Jenny’s—both of us puzzled. Then I shrug and follow Dr. Brown down the hall, leaving June Monroe clucking in the waiting room like a hen whose egg’s just been taken away.

He leaves me outside the closed door of Nana’s room. I open it slowly and step in cautiously—aware that I’m entering the room of a crone who’s threatened to shoot me on more than one occasion—and it’s possible she’s pocketed a needle or a scalpel that she has every intention of launching at my head.

Or somewhere lower.

But when I get inside, it’s just Nana, in a hospital bed with covers pulled up to her chin. And for the first time in my life, she seems . . . frail. Old.

Weak.

When I swallow, I taste tears in the back of my throat. I don’t think it makes me any less of a man to admit it. It’s been one hell of a day.

And a hero needs his foe. It’s only in this split second that I realize what a wonderfully formidable foe Nana has always been to me. How wrong it would be—how much I would miss her—if she couldn’t fill that role anymore.

Her next words, wheezy and feeble, bring those tears straight to my eyes.

“Hello, boy.”

I smile, my voice a bit strangled. “Ma’am.”

Her brittle hand pats the space beside her and I sit in the chair next to the bed.

She regards me with a tired but determined expression—bent on having her say.

“You know why I never liked you, boy?”

I clear the knot from my throat and reply, “Because I knocked up your granddaughter?”

“Ha!” She waves her hand. “No. My Juney was bakin’ in my oven for two months before I got around to sayin’ my own vows.”

That’s more information than I ever needed to know.

“Is it because I didn’t marry her?” I try again.

She shakes her head. “No.” And pulls in a ragged breath. “It’s ’cause, even when you first came sniffin’ around my grandbaby, a twelve-year-old nothin’ carryin’ a football . . . even then, I could see you were goin’. Had that look in your eyes, a hankering for somewhere else—the way a colt looks at a closed gate, just waitin’ for someone to leave the latch off. Rarin’ to go.”

I nod slowly, because she’s not wrong.

“And I knew . . . if you had the chance . . . you’d take her with you.” Her cloudy eyes look into mine, seeing straight through me.

“But you’re not takin’ her with you anymore, are you, boy?”

I blow out a breath and sit back in the chair. All the things that have been twisting me up, swirling in my head the last few days, have suddenly straightened out. So clear. Such a simple answer.

“No, ma’am, I’m not.”

Nana’s face relaxes a bit and she seems relieved to have the confirmation. “Some horses like bein’ penned. Belongin’ to someone, grazin’ on the land they know—don’t have the desire to venture out.”

And I think back to every late-night riverbank talk Jenny and I shared, filled with fire and dreams. Of different. And my mind’s eye sees what that seventeen-year-old boy didn’t—Jenny’s enthusiasm was always for me, but never for us. Because her heart was here, in this small town with its warm people. She didn’t have any need for more . . . and I was already gone.

“It’s important,” Nana says, patting my hand, “that a woman doesn’t feel like the ugly sister. The second, lesser choice. That’s a bitterness that won’t sweeten.”

I blink down at her. “How did you . . .”

“Jus’ ’cause I’m goin’ blind, doesn’t mean I don’t see.”

I close my eyes and it’s Sofia’s face that comes alive. Her smile, her laugh, that sharp mouth, those arms that can hold so tight and tender, I would gladly stay within them for every moment of a lifetime.

I cover my face with my hands.

Fuck me.

“I have screwed up, ma’am. Everything. Badly.”

“Well then, fix it,” she gibes. “That’s what men do—they fix things.”

“I don’t know where I’m supposed to start.” My hand rises. “And before you say ‘at the beginning,’ we’ve already begun. How am I supposed to show her that it’s always been her—when everything I said, everything I did, told her it wasn’t?”

A grin blooms on Nana’s lips. “My Henry, God rest his soul, was not a handy man. Bought me a gardenin’ shed once, to keep my tools. Came with directions in ten languages. Henry put it together—and it was the most pitiful thing I ever saw. Crooked walls, upside-down door. So . . . he took it apart piece by piece and started all over again. Took a bit of time, but it was worth it, ’cause in the end, that little shed . . . turned out perfect. You have to start all over again, too—from the beginnin’.”

I think about being back in DC. All the things I want to do for her, all the words I want to say . . . to start over. To show her. But it’ll have to be after the wedding. After things are settled here with Jenn. That way, Sofia will see with her own eyes that I’m past it. That what I share with Jenny doesn’t diminish what I feel for her. So she won’t have any doubts—and she’ll believe me.

Nana scowls. “Now, don’t you go tellin’ anyone what we discussed. It’s private. I have a reputation to uphold.”

I laugh. Both from Nana’s warning and because now I have a plan.

She points at the door. “Go on, then. Bring my daughter in here before she busts the door down.”

I lean over, take my life in my hands—and kiss Nana on the cheek. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“You’re welcome, boy.”

•   •   •

Back in the waiting room, I give June the go-ahead. Then I answer Jenny’s inquisitional stare. “She’s all right.” I squeeze her shoulder. “Don’t worry—that woman’s too goddamn mean to die.”

Jenny laughs, hugging me with relief. When we step back, I tell her I’m taking Presley back to my parents’ for the night. Then I put my arm around Sofia, and the three of us walk out the door.


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