Being Mrs. Culpepper

Chapter 14 – Robin

Robin stepped onto the veranda and sat on a chair underneath the whirring ceiling fan, seeking relief from the unseasonably warm and humid May afternoon. James would arrive soon; they enjoyed sitting outside but today was not the day. With the pool seemingly calling her name, she unzipped her beige cotton pencil skirt and placed it on a chair. Her sleeveless pull-on top was off in a flash. In her black lace panties and bra, she dove into the deep end of the pool.

His laugh was boisterous, and startling.

“Jamie, you scared me.”

He walked closer to the pool. “What are you doing?”

“Cooling off.  You should join me.”

“I didn’t bring trunks.”

“So what? I’m not wearing a swimsuit. Come on, I dare you. Double dare you.” She splashed water his way.  

He stripped down to his black boxers, and dove in. She shrieked with joy.         

The next morning over waffles James asked about evening plans. “What would you like to do tonight? Staying in is not an option.”

“There’s this small jazz club about thirty minutes away. Good ambience, good music. You want to go cut the rug with me?”

“Absolutely.”

She wore a black clingy dress, moving her hips in a rhythmic way that made him want to undress her. Black silky shoes covered in crystals were the perfect height for dancing. Makeup had been applied to seduce any man who dared look her way. Her lips, adorned with a subtle berry wine lipstick that he hadn’t seen before, caused a powerful stirring inside of him. He hoped he wasn’t having another heart attack. She wore her hair in a simple updo, exposing the nape of her long neck—the placed he loved to kiss. As she made her way from the restroom to her table, his eyes followed. So did the eyes of other men.    

After she was seated he made his way to her table.

“Hello, Sweetheart.” He bent down and kissed her neck.

Robin did a double take. “Brandon. Hi.  You look well.”

“You shouldn’t be in here unescorted, looking the way you look.”

She glanced at her dress, then at him. “What’s wrong with the way I look?”

“You have that ‘take me home and undress me’ kind of look.”

“You had your chances.  Where’s Carla?”

“I’m flying solo tonight. You here with your girlfriends?”

“No.”

“By yourself?”

“No.  And why are you here? You had a heart attack a few weeks ago. Shouldn’t you be at home resting?”

James returned to the table and bent down to kiss her.

“Honey, are you all right?” His hand rested on her back.

“James, you remember Brandon.”

James nodded Brandon’s way. Brandon nodded in return.   

“Good to see you, Robin. Save me a dance, will you?”

Robin glanced at James.

“You need his permission to dance with your husband?”

“I’m with him, not you.”

Brandon headed towards the bar. The band returned. His eyes stayed on Robin while she and James slow danced. He ignored the advances of several women and stood as he watched his wife dance with her lover.

 Around midnight Brandon drove to Robin’s house hoping that she’d be home and would invite him in. She’d left thirty minutes ahead of him. When he arrived her car wasn’t in the driveway. Had she started parking in the garage after he moved out? He waited an hour, banged his head on the steering wheel, then headed home.                                            

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him, Jamie. He didn’t want me while we were together so it makes no sense that he’d react that way when he saw us.” 

“He wanted you. Still wants you.”

She got in bed next to him.”I doubt it.”  

“It’s hard for a man to see his woman with another man, with her looking the way you looked, especially with the man still in love with her. I can relate. Why didn’t you dance with him?”

“I didn’t want to dance with him. I’m not his woman. I’m yours.”

He ran his hand up and down her thigh. “I like the sound of that. If I proposed to you right now, would you say yes?”

“I’m still married.”

“We’d marry when your divorce is final.”

She pulled her knees into her chest. “I wouldn’t say no, I’d say let me think about it.”

“I’ll take that.”

“I hear you bought a new house. Sounds like a boutique hotel.”

“Trey told you.”

“He did. He said he loved it, and thought all of us would fit. You bought it with our blended family in mind?”

“Yes.”

She breathed deeply, and smiled.

“I’m happy, Jamie, for the first time in a long time.”

He took her hand in his. “Tell me why.”

“I’m painting, and sketching, and honing my photography skills. And can you believe I’m playing again? The gorgeous baby grand my parents gave me as wedding gift sat in my living room for years, untouched. I stopped playing after Murphy died. My girls took lessons for a few years and they hated it so I stopped pushing them to continue. Trey and JJ didn’t want lessons, but they played by ear and sometimes messed around on it. Mostly it sat unused. Then last week I had an itch to play, and I played all afternoon. It came back to me. All those lessons. Hours of practice. Recitals. It came back. Felt good to play.”

“What did you play?”

“Beethoven. Mozart. Motown.”

James cackled.     

“I’m divorcing Brandon. I know you and everyone else thought I should have done it years ago, but I had to be sure the timing was right for my family, for me. I love not having a job. I love giving full attention to my children, my home. And, of course, I’m beyond thrilled that you’re in my life again.”

“But you don’t see me as a permanent fixture in your life, as your husband.”

“Permanent, yes, husband, not yet. I’ve been someone’s wife or daughter all my life. I’d like a little Robin time, with no legal complications.”

“I’m a complication?”

“No, not you. Marriage. The institution. I’d like six months, then please ask me again.”

She smiled to herself, thinking about the conversation with Sasha, about marriage. A crock of shit. She studied his face, searching for what he might be thinking, or feeling, or wanting to say. He stayed silent for a few moments. His life was complicated enough on its own, without her and her kids in it.

“Come home with me. I don’t care if we ever get married. I need you with me.”

“Is the new house ready?”

“It will be in a few weeks.”

She paced around the room, settling at the row of windows, looking out into the darkness. James stood behind her and placed his arms around her waist. She leaned into him.

“When the house is finished, I’ll be there.”                          

Summer came. After offers of cash from Robin, then legal threats from Brandon’s attorney, Carla finally sold her dead husband’s portion of Culpepper Construction to Brandon. A couple of months later Brandon sold the construction business to a large construction group. The price was right, and after all debts were retired, he walked away with his retirement fund intact. Several large construction firms had already reached out to him to serve as a consultant on projects. Since the heart attack he hadn’t regained the energy to do the type of work he’d done before. Consulting was a nice option.

With Culpepper Construction no longer an issue, Robin and Brandon finalized their separation/divorce agreement. Given Robin’s wealth, Brandon would pay no child support, and would be awarded the entire amount of their joint savings. His debts would be paid by him, her debts would be paid by her. He had no claim on her house or her vehicles, and she had no claim on his house or his vehicles. Retirement accounts remained separate. Their children would be the beneficiaries of their life insurance policies. Robin would pay Brandon no alimony. It was a clean agreement, worked out between the two of them.

 The day after the agreement was signed, Robin packed her SUV and headed to Fairfax, Virginia to spend four days with Marcus and Rose. James hadn’t wanted her on the road alone for six and a half hours but she wanted to drive herself and assured him she would take breaks along the way.

Marcus’ sprawling single story home had four bedrooms and four baths, each with wide doorways. The yard had plenty of space for Rose’s flower garden. The entire set-up was perfect for aging in place, with ample space for live-in help when the time came. Robin had never seen her mother happier; it was, she decided, time for her to enjoy some happiness, too.

During the first two days of the visit the three of them did lots of antique shopping. Marcus knew all the best places. On the third day, at Robin’s request, Marcus made himself scarce. With Rose settled in her swivel rocker, and Robin sitting cross legged on the sofa, the long overdue conversation took place.

“Mom, why didn’t you and Daddy get me some help? Why didn’t you ever ask me about it? Maybe I remembered more than I was aware of and needed some prompting.”

Rose teared up. Robin made no allowance for sympathy. She needed answers.

“Your father never knew. I never told him, and I begged my parents not to. They blamed him for your state of mind, your actions, and…”

Rose’s tears flowed. Robin waited.

“I blamed myself. If I hadn’t had the affair, there would have been no fight, no leaving, no sending you girls away that summer. And when you came home, you seemed fine. Happy. Content. No nightmares. No sudden burst of tears. No acting up. I assumed you’d blocked it all out. And I didn’t want to go dredging it up.” Rose whimpered. “I kept quiet. Never told anyone, not until Marcus came back into my life. I told him.”

“And what did he say?”

“He said I needed to make things right with you. I would have called you to come for a visit if you hadn’t called first.”

“There was nothing weird about me when I came back? No bed wetting, no anger issues, self-mutilation, nothing? Did I pick on Angel more than usual? Play with matches or knives, anything strange?”

Rose crossed her legs at the ankles. “I swear on my mother’s grave, there was nothing. I watched you the way a hawk watches its prey, ready to swoop in at the right moment. But there was nothing. You had what appeared to be a normal adolescence, a normal middle and high school experience. The only time I worried was when you pulled the knife on James.”

“Me, too.” Robin extended her legs, making circles with her feet. “Does Angel know?”

“I never told her.” Rose jumped, as if she’d been bitten. 

“What, Mom? You remember something?”

She nodded, took a few deep breaths, then spoke. “You talked in your sleep. Angel heard you. You girls missed each other so much that summer; when you retuned home, Angel slept in your room for several weeks, just to be near you. At night, while you were sleeping, she heard you holding a conversation with someone. You sounded mad, or frightened. And you moved your hand as if you were stabbing something. The talking went on for a couple of weeks but she couldn’t make out what the conversations were about.”

“I don’t remember any of that. Did Angel mention it to me?”

“She didn’t. She was worried, though. I told her you were probably having bad dreams but of course I assumed it was about your criminal father-in-law.”

Robin chuckled. “You have any idea why Birdie never left him? I would have been scared to death to stay with a man like that.”

“Fear, baby. Like many women in abusive situations, she was afraid of what he might do if she left. And afraid be on her own. Her only life experience was as a wife and mother. She had no skills or education to get a decent paying job. She was scared.”

“Like you were when Daddy left us.”

“I was frightened, yes, but I could teach. Birdie had nothing but fear.”

“I get that. But after Brooke and Brandon graduated college and had good paying jobs, they could have helped her leave him. I would have helped if she’d asked. But I couldn’t offer. I was the one who shot her husband. Didn’t know how she felt about that.”

“Did she ever say anything to you about it, while you and Brandon were married?”

“We had a cordial relationship. Never came up. What do I do, Mom?”

“Tell me, Robin, why are we having this conversation now? Why not when you first remembered what happened— twenty years ago, wasn’t it?”

Robin leaned back in her seat. Her voice was low, her words measured. “I was afraid to say out loud what I’d done. Afraid to admit that my mind was clear when I shot Senior in the foot. And the amount of anger I carried that day? It frightens me even now to think about it. Am I still angry inside? Probably. Am I capable of doing something like that again? I don’t know. I was afraid that my children would be wary of me if they found out. Afraid you and Daddy would hate me. And now I’m afraid to go on with my life without regaining the part of me that I lost in Tidbit.

Robin eyeballed her mother; Rose shifted in her seat. “I’m no longer afraid of the truth, whatever it is.”

Her voice moved from a steady tone to an ear-piercing sound. “Why didn’t you and Daddy help me? I was drowning, Mom, and you and Daddy watched me go under.”

Rose placed her glass on a side table. “Don’t get shrill with me, young lady.”

Robin spilled lemonade all over the hardwood floor. Rose’s misplaced anger always made her nervous. Where was that tone twenty years ago when she should have spoken up on Robin’s behalf?

 Rose removed her glasses then dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “It was the way he said my name. Rosie. He called me, calls me, Rosie. His Rosie. The way he looked at me. The way he held me, not out of obligation like your father, but with loving care, as if he were insulating me from the troubles of the world. I breathed easy with him. We were in vulnerable places in our lives when we started the affair. Our suffering brought us together. We fell in love. Those two years with him sustained me for thirty years. I never loved your father the way I loved Marcus. And your father never loved me the way Marcus loved me.”

Unbelievable. This woman was making it about her. “Your suffering blinded you to the needs of your children.”

“Sadly, regrettably, yes.” 

“He never remarried?”

“He was engaged, once. Then the woman called it off. She didn’t want to be married to a police detective. The life you know, the worry.”

“You called him to let him know Daddy died.”

“No, not me. It was Thick. Apparently, she felt guilty about sleeping with my husband, in my home, and thought it was a nice gesture on my behalf.”

“Did that make up for what she’d done?”

“Not one bit.” Rose chuckled.

Robin glanced out the window at her mother’s roses. How did she do it in this climate? Pink, peach, and white English roses in shrubs; yellow climbing and rambling roses throughout the garden.

“The roses here are even more lush that the ones you had at home. What are you doing differently?”

“Those are Marcus’. He once told me that the love he put into the garden made missing me bearable. He planted his first roses thirty years ago and never stopped. He won’t let me tend them. He does it all. And I don’t mind, not one bit.”

“Daddy used to say that you and I were alike, like he and Angel.”

“Did he? I never knew that.” Rose leaned forward. “Can’t believe how much I miss him. We had our moments. Good moments.”           

“Me, too.”          

“What’s next for you?”

“Therapy. I need to know why I suppressed that part of my life. I need to know why I showed no outward symptoms of stress all those years. Is that a part of PTSD, no symptoms? I need to know why I put Daddy on an undeserved pedestal while I harbored so much anger toward him. I need to know why I shot Senior rather than let Grandpa handle the situation. I need to know why I left one wayward husband after three years and stayed with another one for twenty. Or why being a mother was a driving force in my life, more than being a wife.”

The more she spoke, the louder she became. “I need to know why you kept this from Daddy, and why you never got me any help. I need to know if I’m capable of hurting someone else, or myself.”

Rose snorted. “We’re all capable of those things, dear.”

“You’re not helping, Mom.”

“Robin, something powerful happened between you and Brandon that summer. The trauma the two of you suffered was certainly a factor, but the connection runs deeper than that. Did you….”

 “For God’s sake Mom, I was twelve and no I didn’t have sex with Brandon. If you worried so much about it, why didn’t you ask me years ago? You could have taken me to a doctor if you needed proof.”

“I hadn’t considered it back then.”

Robin threw her hands in the air. “What kind of family did I come from?”

“Every family is flawed, dear. Now, about wanting to be a mother: you were scared you’d never carry a baby to term. Trey was a sure thing. You loved him. And wouldn’t lose him.”

From the small bar Robin retrieved the margaritas that Marcus had mixed before he disappeared. She handed one to Rose, whose eyes lit up as she sipped, then took a sip from her own glass.

“This is delicious.”

“With you and Brandon, it’s never been about your marriage, or your children, or the other women. Or James. It’s about the twelve-year-old in you, seeing your father leave, having to go to Georgia. Meeting Brandon, having another traumatic experience. In hindsight I should have kept you girls at home and taken your father to court. But he knew that I wouldn’t stand up to him.”

“You could have left him. You could have gone back to teaching, gotten child support, lived in a regular house.”

“True. But I never considered it. Like you with Brandon, I had my reasons for staying.

“In your minds, no one other than the two of you would ever understand what happened. Each of you believed you were protecting the other by not talking about it. Not healthy, dear. You’ve been that man’s safe harbor for years and not in a good way. You made it so he’d never have to talk about it, or face it in any meaningful way. ”

“By your definition, you, Mother, have been my safe harbor.”

They finished their drinks in silence.

“Why did Daddy come home?”

“What?”

“When I came back from Georgia, Daddy had moved back home. Why did he come back?”

Rose went to the bar and refilled her glass. She took a huge swallow, then returned to her seat.

“The wives of the partners in his firm had a standing lunch date once a month. I didn’t attend in June or July, but something in me wanted to go in August. Your father hadn’t told anyone he’d moved out, but there were rumors. Me back at work, you girls gone. Didn’t take a genius to figure out something was up.

“During the lunch I brought it up before anyone asked. I told them we’d had a huge disagreement, his temper got the best of him, and he left. Now mind you, honey, those women were married to men with egos bigger than your father’s. They understood without me having to say much, and didn’t think too kindly of John for deserting his family. A week later he was back home. No apology, no explanation.”

“He came home to save face with the partners, to keep his partnership.”

“Something like that.”

“Were you happy to have him back?”

“Only financially speaking. He was quite demanding, you know. I enjoyed the break. We eventually talked about it. But he never forgave me.”

“You ever forgive him?”

 “No.”

“Why not?”

She responded in a whisper so soft that Robin could barely make out what was said.

“Because he broke you, and made it so I couldn’t fix you.” Rose welled up, and right before her sobs exploded, Marcus came running into the room, as if he knew that she needed him.

“It’s okay, Rosie, my sweet Rosie. You did what you had to do to keep going.”

Robin watched, mesmerized by the love she was witnessing. The way he held her, and spoke to her, and comforted her. The way she melded into him.

She quietly left the room. And wept.

 

Marcus’ salt and pepper sideburns gave him an air of distinction, especially  when he wore one of his many Stetsons. He had a younger man’s stride, filled with confidence and perfect posture. And his eyes would light up when he said Rose’s name. At the end of Robin’s visit Marcus walked her to the car.

“Thank you, Marcus, for your hospitality. You make a nice margarita.”

Marcus nodded. “One of my post retirement jobs was bartending. You’re welcome to visit with us anytime, Robin. She’s watching from the window, so keep smiling and nodding while I talk.”

“Okay.” She smiled and nodded.

“There’s more to the story than Rosie told you. She promised me she’d tell you everything, but she didn’t. I saw it in her eyes after your talk. When she first told the story to me I asked her to write it down, in a letter to you. The detective in me wanted her to do that for her sake, and yours. The details are in a letter, in your tote bag. I put it there. Promise me on your children’s lives that you won’t read it unless Brandon and James are both present.”

She felt her mother’s eyes on her, and although the smile had left her face, she managed to reach out and hug Marcus.

“I promise. Thank you, Marcus.”

 

Robin struggled to keep her attention on the road.  The letter. The talk with Rose. Robin’s  regrets. Then Nana’s voice came to her: after darkness comes light. She surrendered to the tranquility of Nana’s voice and words, and enjoyed the trip home.

Around six p.m. she arrived home to an empty house; even Pipsqueak was nowhere to be found. She’d left Fairfax without eating lunch and was starving. After texting James to let him know she was back, she made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and found herself chewing and humming, the way she’d hummed when she devoured Nana’s  pancakes and country bacon. She glanced at her cell phone as it rang. Trey.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Hey. Where’s my welcome home party?”

“James asked for the night alone with you. Amber and I have Zoey and Sasha. JJ’s with Dad. We’ll see you tomorrow. Bye.”

Ten minutes later her phone rang again. It was James.

“Welcome home.”

“Hi Jamie. Glad to be home. Your meeting over?”

“Yes. Finally. Let’s have dinner at home tonight. Bring an overnight bag.”

“I finally get to see the new house, huh?”

“It’s ready for you.”

James headed to the kitchen to let Chef know Robin’s approximate arrival time, to remind him how she liked her steak prepared. He walked through each room downstairs, hoping, and praying that she would love his home. Their home. Purchased and renovated with her in mind.

He called his father. His spiritual guide. His conscious. Teller and hearer of truth. The man whose opinion he valued above all others. The man who’d helped him through the breakdown he’d suffered when Robin left him years before. No one else had known about it, not even his mother.

“Hey, son. Big evening. How you holding up?”

“I’m terrified.”

“About what?”

“Robin. She’s not that mousy little woman I married the first time. Tolerating my foolishness. She expects more of me now, and herself, too. I’m worried that I won’t meet those expectations. Plus, she’s loaded. She doesn’t need me, financially speaking. And I need her to love the house.”

“You’re not the immature, self-indulgent fool you used to be. She knows that. You know that. And be thankful she has her own money. That means you won’t have financial pressure in the relationship. Robin’s not the kind of woman to throw her wealth in your face and if she were you wouldn’t want to be with her.

“You’ll respect her. She’ll respect you. That has worked for me and your mother, going on fifty-five years now.”

James tried but couldn’t imagine living with the same woman that long. “How do you and Mom tolerate each other after all those years together?”

“Hasn’t been an easy journey, but it was one we committed to taking, together. We learned to give each other space to be ourselves—not Your Honor, not Reverend, not Catherine’s husband, not the hot shot lawyer’s daddy. Just James. Same for her. You know those trips your mother used to take each summer, before arthritis got her down?”

“She loved those trips. The Holy Land. Rome. Paris. Dubai. London, Morocco. She and her church sisters saw the world.”

“Those women loved spending months away from their husbands, and we loved having them gone. Everybody needs that, including Robin. The traveling she did after you two broke up for the umpteenth time had nothing to do with loving you and all to do with keeping a piece of herself. But I’m preaching to the choir. Tell me what you’re really worried about.”

“Brandon. She loves him. She’s been to hell and back with him, for him. I’m not worried about her sleeping with him. I know she won’t. But the emotional connection between them is real. It’s bigger than the marriage or their children. They genuinely love each other, married or not.”  

“Seems to me that the same can be said for you and Robin.”

“How?”

“Counselor, I do believe you know what I mean.”

There was a moment of silence between them. 

“Yes, sir. I do.” James conveniently changed the subject. “Are we working you too hard at the office?”

“Are you kidding me? I’m having a ball, working for my son in the firm that he built from scratch. Didn’t know how much I’d missed the action until I got back in.”

“Good to hear. I love having you there. If we need to cut back on those three days a week just say the word. You ever miss being on the bench, or in the pulpit?”

“I thought I would, but no. I’d been at it twenty years. Same for the pulpit. Don’t miss it. There are lots of similarities between the pulpit and the bench, but that’s another conversation for another time.”

James tapped his fingers against the phone.

“What else? Stop tapping and ask me.”

“What did you hold over John that kept him from hijacking my career?”

“You.”

“Me?”

“You were my boy. And I loved your mother more than words alone can say. I would do anything to protect her, which meant I would not allow John to harm you in a way that would upset my wife. We wanted five children and after you were born, we were told another pregnancy would be too hard on your mother’s body, and she most likely wouldn’t survive it.”

James waited for his breathing to return, like he’d done when he was seven and took a hard fall from the backyard jungle gym. He remembered not being able to breathe. Hearing his father’s tender voice and loving words calmed him that day until he could breathe again. 

“I never knew that.”

“She didn’t want you to know. We tried our best not to spoil you, but we did anyway.”

James chuckled. His memory of childhood had no spoiling, only sternness.

“There was nothing we wouldn’t do to protect you. Nothing. You were a good son. We were so proud of you attending Georgetown, the place where your mother and I met. You graduated with honors and found a fine woman to spend your life with. I wished at the time that she’d had a different father, but it wasn’t Robin’s fault that John was Satan’s consigliere.”

James lost it, inside his head. He wouldn’t disturb the seriousness of his father’s story by laughing.

Rev rarely, if ever, used profanity. He was a philosopher at heart, and loved the English language, as evidenced by his masterful openings and closings during his days as a litigator, and the eloquent sermons he’d delivered from the pulpit. But now it seemed that he’d forgotten about those things. He uttered words that James had never imagined he’d hear his father string together about anyone, much less about John.

“John and I crossed paths years before you fell under his spell. I knew where all the bodies were buried. Knew who buried them. Your mother and I went to hell and back to bring you into this world and I was not going to allow him to crush your spirits. I told him I’d bury him if he compromised my boy’s career. That’s all I can tell you.”

“Yes, sir.” James swallowed hard. “Dad, I’m sorry if I failed you by aligning myself with John. I thought…”

“Stop. Now. Don’t you think I knew what was happening, you trying to make it on your own without your old man’s influence? Nothing to apologize for. My job as your father was, and is, to always have your back. We’re good, son.”

“Thank, you, sir.”

“You and Brandon are two of the luckiest men I know, having a woman like Robin love you the way she loves you. Robin’s season with Brandon has passed. She’ll always love him. Don’t hold that against her. This season, the one we’re in now, is for you.”

“I love you, Dad.” 

“Not as much as I love you. Have a good evening with my daughter-in-law.”

James grinned. “Yes, sir.”

 

From the outside the house seemed perfect. Classic lines. Older house, with an appearance of elegance. Brick exterior. Immaculate grounds, not overly manicured. She rang the bell; when he opened the door, he stared at her for a moment, as if he didn’t recognize her.  

 “Hi, James.”

He kissed her lightly on the lips. Their embrace was long, and tender.

“I’ve missed you. Get in here.”

 He showed her to his gentleman’s room — a fancy man cave, JJ would call it — complete with a custom billiard table, several poker tables, and three big screen TVs built into the walls. In front of the wall of windows, overlooking the rear grounds, was a table set for dinner for two, with a Caesar salad and bread at each place.

“No dining room in this boutique hotel?”

“We can’t get this view from the dining room. Sit, please.”

She remained standing, taking in the tree lined back yard. Probably too big to be called the back yard. The rear grounds, as her father had called the back of his home. Her eyes stayed on the gazebo, adorned with what appeared to be thousands of string lights, like the one they’d admired in Barcelona on their honeymoon. She imagined he’d had it built for her, for that reason.

After getting her seated, James sent a quick text. While enjoying the salad they made small talk.

“How are your parents?”

“They’re good. Old, but good.”

“We’re old, too. Our thirties and forties are long behind us.”

“We have some pep left.” He winked at her.

She thought of the towels his parents had sent as a wedding gift when she’d married Brandon. Then she wondered how they’d put up with snooty Ashley for seven years. A few minutes later a man appeared with their dinners on a cart. 

“Good evening, Mrs. Westbrook. I hope everything is to your liking.”

The man placed a covered plate in front of her then removed the lid, revealing the finest cut of prime rib, seemingly prepared in a state of more than medium well, less than well. Next to the steak sat a twice baked potato, with grilled parmesan broccoli rounding out the meal.

“It looks and smells delicious. I’m sure it will be fine, thank you, um…”

“Chef Justin.”

Chef removed the lid from James’ plated food and waited for James’ comment.

“Everything looks good. Thank you, Chef.”

As Chef left the room Robin gave James a friendly kick under the table. “Mrs. Westbrook?”

“I’m practicing for later, when you drop the name Culpepper.”

She shrugged. “Being Mrs. Culpepper hasn’t been any prize.”