When Least Expected
Alexis stared at her phone in disbelief.
It was Ian.
Why was her ex-husband calling her? Especially when they hadn’t spoken since signing the divorce papers six months earlier?
It took a moment for her brain to come up with any possibility other than that he wanted to tell her how great his life was with his new girlfriend. Though Ian wasn’t really the rub-it-in type.
Maybe something had happened to someone in his family? She had no real family to speak of, so his family had been hers. And even after the divorce, they still were.
“Hello?” she answered, trying to make her voice sound carefree and happy. Unfortunately she didn’t know how to pull that off quite yet.
“Lex, are you off work? I wanted to wait to call you when you were out,” he said.
She looked back at the high school building over her shoulder.
“I just left. What’s wrong?” She’d known Ian long enough to recognize the different tones of his voice, and this one was telling her something bad had happened. He wasn’t trying to stick his new happy life in her face. There was something very wrong.
“It’s Uncle Jimmy. He passed away this morning.”
“No!” She leaned against her car as the tears began to fall.
Ian’s Uncle Jimmy had been like a father to her. In fact, because she had no father of her own, Jimmy had walked her down the aisle at their wedding. She still saw him once a week for dinner. He loved her cooking, and she’d missed having someone to cook for after Ian had left last May. She had just seen Jimmy on Thursday and had planned to see him this Thursday, too.
She was going to make pork chops. But now… She wiped at the tears on her face.
“My parents are working out the details. Willa is on her way home from New York. I’m sure my mom or Kelly will call you to let you know about the service. They were both busy, so they asked me to let you know.” Of course he had to have a reason. He couldn’t have done it because he wanted to. He couldn’t have come in person to offer a shoulder to cry on, or a hug.
She pushed the angry thought away. The important thing was that he had called her.
“Thank you for calling. I’m sorry, Ian. I know you were close to him, too.”
“I think he liked you more than me,” Ian said, his voice cracking.
Her heart hurt for him.
As much as she’d tried to play the angry, vengeful ex-wife, she didn’t have it in her. The truth was she missed Ian, and she wondered every day what she could have done differently to keep their marriage together.
She was certain it was her fault he’d left. And as much as she’d wanted to pretend he would come back, that it was only a “trial separation,” as he’d said, a part of her knew he wouldn’t ever come home.
Up until two years ago, she and Ian had had a storybook marriage, complete with flowers for no reason and trips to his uncle’s cabin for romantic weekends alone.
Not that they weren’t always alone . It was, after all, just the two of them,
After four years of taking the Pill, they’d decided they were going to let nature take its course. They’d started talking about colors to paint the nursery, and bought books filled with possible baby names.
By the next year, they were masters at taking pregnancy tests and then sighing in defeat at the negative results. They’d decided nature was taking too long, so they’d employed a fertility specialist and taken nature out of the equation altogether.
As it turned out, as compatible as they were in every other way, their reproductive organs weren’t up to the challenge of making them a happy family.
They were told numerous times that it wasn’t impossible. Even with her finicky uterus and his low sperm count, they still had a chance. Hope.
A hope that had died little by little that last year, until May, when she came home and Ian was gone.
“So I guess I’ll see you at the service,” Ian said, bringing her back to the pain of the present.
“Yes. Thanks again for calling.”
“I probably should have come in person, I just…” Right.
“It’s fine.” She disconnected the call and sat in her car, crying for all the things she’d lost.
As Ian had predicted, his older sister, Kelly, called her a few hours later.
“Did he come see you?” Kelly asked in a broken voice.
“Called? What kind of person calls a family member with this kind of news?” There was a pause before Kelly answered her own question. “The same kind of person who packs up and leaves while his wife is at work. That little piece of—”
“It’s fine, Kelly. What can I do?” Lexi offered, not wanting to hear her tear Ian apart. She was still oddly defensive about him.
“There’s really nothing to be done. Jimmy left very detailed instructions, and though Mama is probably going to have a coronary, Daddy is insisting we do things the way he wanted,” Kelly said.
“Do you think Jimmy was just trying to piss off your mother?” They laughed together.
“I wouldn’t put it past him.” Jimmy was a fun-loving, down-to-earth guy, and Mrs. Montgomery was all about appearances. Jimmy used to love to repulse his sister-in-law on a regular basis. “The viewing will be tomorrow night, and the service will be the next morning at ten.”
“Okay. I’ll be there. Let me know if you need anything.”
“I will. You’re still my sister, even if my little brother is an ass.”
“Thanks, Kel.” She and Kelly still met for dinners when Kelly needed a night off from being a wife and a mom, which happened about once a month.
Since the divorce, Kelly had spent a great deal of time assuring her that Ian had made a huge mistake, and that one day he would see it, but probably not until it was too late. Kelly was looking forward to a time when she would be able to pull the big sister line: “I told you so.”
Ten minutes later, Ian’s younger sister, Willa, called, too.
“Did you hear?” Willa said. Lexi could hear the sounds of an airport in the background.
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“This is so awful. I haven’t seen Uncle Jimmy since the Christmas before last. I kept thinking I needed to visit, but I just never made the time, and now it’s too late.”
“It’s okay. I know he knew you thought of him. He was always telling people how proud he was of his niece who was finishing up medical school in New York City.”
“Really?” she cried.
“Yes.” It was not a lie that Jimmy was proud of Willa. But what he mostly said was, “I don’t know why she’s gotta go to some fancy Yankee school to be a doctor. We southern folk are built the same way. Why couldn’t she have found a school closer to home?”
There was no way Lexi was going to mention that part.
The next evening, Lexi pulled out her black skirt and a purple fitted shirt. Jimmy had liked purple.
She gave herself a pep talk the whole ride to the viewing.
“He has a girlfriend. He’s happy. It’s good. I’ll be happy with someone someday, too. I hope. It’s good. You can do this. If you can’t, then it’s a viewing, and you’re expected to cry anyway. No big deal.”
She took a big breath and walked into the funeral home.
Oh, God, it hurt.
Ian was standing next to his uncle’s casket when Alexis walked in.
Seeing her comforted him in a way the girl standing next to him never would. He and Meeghan had been dating for the last six months. He’d met her in October in the coffee shop he frequented. Since his divorce was final and he was looking for a distraction, he’d said yes when she asked him out for something more than coffee.
He hadn’t been ready to date, and he still wasn’t. He knew it, but it was even more evident as he stood in the funeral home wishing Meeghan hadn’t come with him. She hadn’t known his uncle that well. She had only met him once, and then had told Ian old people creeped her out.
His uncle may have been seventy-two when he died, but he was anything but old. He’d had a way of looking at things that made a person feel stupid and lucky all at the same time.
Now, Ian was there without him, and with a girl he didn’t love hanging on his arm. Meeghan was trying to look the respectable amount of sad for the occasion and failing. He wanted more than anything to go give his ex-wife a hug so she could comfort him the way he knew she would. The way only she could.
He’d hated telling her the news over the phone, but he hadn’t trusted himself to be near her. He would want to hold her, and then he would have to eventually let her go again. He couldn’t do it.
Alexis stood in line with other people, strangers who had come to give the Montgomery family their sympathies. The thought of Lexi being a stranger instead of part of his family made him twitch.
Fortunately, he didn’t need to say or do anything. His sister Kelly was already walking across the room to Lexi. He watched enviously as Kelly wound her arms around Alexis and held her.
“Come stand with us,” Kelly said. He could hear his sister over the woman—Aunt Grace—crying on his shirt.
“No. I don’t think I should,” Lexi said as she looked over at him, their gazes locked on each other for a long second. “I don’t think Ian would like that,” she whispered more softly. He could only make out her words because he knew her voice so well.
“Who cares what he would or wouldn’t like?” his older sister snapped. “I don’t like it that he brought that little poser here during a family crisis, but am I saying anything or pulling her out of here by her hair? No, I’m not. This is about Jimmy, and he would want you here with us because you were his family. Let Ian and what’s-her-face do whatever the hell they want.”
His sister had made her feelings about his new relationship very clear. He was not surprised she would side with Lexi over her own blood. Like their uncle, Kelly had always treated Alexis like family.
Kelly led Lexi over to the end of the line of family. She hugged Willa, and the two of them cried together for a long moment. God, why was he stuck so far away from her?
“Who’s that?” Meeghan asked as she tugged on his arm.
“Alexis,” he answered, and watched as Meeghan’s eyes narrowed on his wife. Correction: ex-wife. It was easy to forget they weren’t together anymore when Lexi was in the same room as him. His old reflexes kicked in. He swallowed and gave Meeghan a weak smile to put her insecurities to rest.
Not that her insecurities ever took much of a break. Ian didn’t remember being so insecure when he was twenty-two, but that had been eight years ago, so he couldn’t really remember.
He had no right to complain, though.
This was the life he had chosen. He hadn’t been forced into it. He’d run to it freely to escape the failure and pain of constantly letting down the one person he wanted to make happy.
He couldn’t stand to watch Lexi’s face every time they had another negative pregnancy test. Seeing her struggling to be brave had been killing him day by day. He’d decided to leave before the sadness that had become their life destroyed his soul, and her with it.
Part of him wished she had a man with her when she walked in, someone who could give Lexi all the things he couldn’t. Of course the other, more selfish part of him was grateful for a reprieve.
He knew one day it would happen. Lexi would move on with someone and be happy. He also knew the news would break him.
Kelly was right. This was about Jimmy, and Lexi knew down to the tips of her toes that he would have wanted her there. He would have wanted her to feel safe and loved with the rest of the Montgomerys. She knew this wasn’t her family anymore, but she loved them.
Lexi knew it wasn’t her place to stand with the Montgomery family, and the look on Meeghan’s face made that abundantly clear. If it wasn’t bad enough to be at a funeral for a loved one, getting glares from Ian’s girlfriend the entire time sure didn’t help. Willa attempted to shield Lexi with her tiny body, but it didn’t work. Kelly made a few comments threatening to go over to poke her eyes out if Meeghan didn’t knock it off, but Lexi put the skids to that plan.
“What would Uncle Jimmy say if you got into a fight at his funeral?”
“He would say, ‘Put me down for twenty dollars on Kelly.’ Duh,” Kelly said, making Willa laugh inappropriately. Kelly was probably right, but fortunately, it didn’t come to blows. Despite Meeghan’s obvious wishes for Lexi’s death, she survived the ordeal with only a few confused relatives pointing out that Ian was standing with some unknown woman.
Lexi would have thought every relative and resident of Roanoke, Virginia, would have heard about the divorce by now, but there were still a few who had missed it. She found herself wishing she had been spared as well.
When the torture of the viewing was over, she excused herself to stop in the restroom in order to avoid the more personal plans for visits at their homes.
Lexi held a damp paper towel under her swollen eyes, hoping for some miracle. What she got was the opposite.
Meeghan came out of the stall and tugged at her tight miniskirt before looking up and noticing Lexi in the mirror. Lexi glanced away, but it was too late. Blood was in the water and the shark was moving in.
“So, you’re the ex-wife?” the girl said in a high, childlike voice.
“I guess so.” Lexi wasn’t in the mood for this. Not that she was going to get into a throw down, regardless. Although she could hear Jimmy’s voice in the back of her mind: Put me down for twenty dollars on Lexi.
Lexi tossed her paper towel in the trash and turned to leave.
“I’m the new girlfriend. Meeghan.” She pronounced it MEEgun. When Kelly had originally told Lexi the new girl’s name, she had added a few more es, to make it sound even more ridiculous. Lexi praised herself for not laughing.
“Yes.” Lexi nodded. Was she supposed to follow that up with a Nice to meet you? or a How’s my husband holding up? She knew for a fact they had only started dating after she and Ian were divorced. It wasn’t as if he’d had an affair with Meeghan, but Lexi couldn’t help but be resentful of how quickly she’d been replaced.
Knowing that he’d moved on so soon, while she was still hurting, killed her a little.
“And… maybe the future Mrs. Montgomery,” she added. Lexi hadn’t heard any talk of Ian getting remarried, and she would have heard this news about two seconds after Kelly did. Either Kelly didn’t know or Meeghan was just trying to start trouble. It was better to walk away, so that’s what she did.
She found Kelly in the crowd and headed for safety.
“We’re going over to Mama and Daddy’s. You coming?” Kelly asked.
“Uh, no. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“You are family, Lex. He’s going to have to understand,” Willa added, using her best begging face.
“I know he probably would, but I’m just not up for it.” Lexi glanced over at Meeghan as she went back to Ian and wrapped her arms possessively around his waist. Definitely not up for it.
“I’m sorry. Do you want me to go throw her out? Because you know I will,” Kelly said as Willa nodded.
Lexi smiled at the image Kelly’s offer conjured up in her mind.
“No. I’ll see you guys tomorrow at the funeral.” Lexi gave her ex-sister-in-laws another hug and went home. Alone.
“You are such an asshole.” Ian looked over his shoulder to see his older sister as she walked out on his parents’ porch to chastise him.
“I know, Kel. You don’t have to tell me.” He knew it to the very depths of his soul.
“Well, I’m going to tell you anyway because it makes me feel better.” He nodded as she went on. “What are you doing with that little girl?”
“She’s twenty-two. She’s only eight years younger than me. Not a little girl.”
“She sure as hell sounds like a little girl.”
“She can’t help that, now can she?” he spat in self-defense. He understood; he’d had visions of munchkins the first time she’d spoken to him.
“She looks like a little girl.”
“Again! Can’t help that!” He ran his hand down his face, hoping this conversation would be over soon.
“She said something to Lexi when they were in the bathroom together.”
That got his attention. “What did Lex say she said?” He was certain Meeghan could be rude when she felt threatened, and being around Lex definitely would make her feel threatened.
“Lex didn’t say anything. You know she wouldn’t. I didn’t hear it, but it was something nasty by the look on Lexi’s face when she came out of the bathroom.”
“I can’t really do anything about that either then, can I?” he asked wearily.
“You’re miserable. Can you do anything about that?” she asked.
“My favorite uncle just died. Of course I’m miserable, Kel.”
“You know that’s not what I’m talking about. You were miserable before Jimmy died.” That was true, but he’d thought he had been hiding it better than this.
“Look, I’m with Meeghan now. I’m asking you to cut me some slack.”
“Some,” she conceded and gave him a level look before she went back inside.
She was going to be very disappointed. The truth was he didn’t know what to do to get his life back in order.
When he’d run from Alexis, he’d thought he was doing the right thing for both of them. He’d moved into an apartment on the other side of Roanoke from where they had lived together in the hopes he wouldn’t run into her.
After three months of working himself up to face her so they could go to counseling, as originally planned, he still couldn’t make himself do it. He knew what he would see in her pretty blue eyes.
Compassion, understanding, hope, and more than anything…pain. Pain she was trying to hide from him. She was always trying to push on and be strong, and he couldn’t do it anymore.
So without so much as a phone call to warn her, he’d called his lawyer and had them serve her the papers. The divorce went through quickly. He gave her everything. The house, the furniture, the car.
He couldn’t stand to take one more thing from her when he couldn’t give her the one thing she wanted the most. A family.
A few minutes later, Willa came out. She was less direct than Kelly, but he could tell he wasn’t going to like what she had to say either.
“Are you going to marry that girl? She’s told me three times how she’s going to be the next Mrs. Montgomery. Please don’t marry her. I don’t like her.”
“I’m not marrying anyone at the moment, Will.”
“Okay, thanks.” She sighed and looked up at the dark sky.
“It was sad seeing you and Lexi apart.”
“It is sad.”
“What happened?” she asked, trying to understand.
“I don’t have an answer,” he said honestly.
She nodded and didn’t say anything else, so he took the opportunity to change the subject to her classes. Soon she was off, giving him an excited description of how many times she’d had her hands inside a cadaver.
He was almost relieved when Meeghan asked him to take her home a few minutes later.
Meeghan had to get up early, so it was understandable, but he knew it was more about her not feeling comfortable with his family.
This had been strange for him. When he’d started dating Alexis, his family had welcomed her with open arms. She’d fit right in and loved everyone. His family wasn’t warming up to Meeghan in the same way at all. They certainly weren’t rude or nasty to Meeghan, at least not to her face, but she didn’t seem to like anyone.
Ian’s older sister was too nosy, his mother thought she was better than everyone, and his father was too opinionated. Willa had been spared only because she lived too far away. Most of her conclusions were somewhat true, but Alexis seemed to accept their shortcomings and love them anyway.
While Meeghan went to the car, Ian went to say good-bye to his mother. He found her in the kitchen with Kelly, talking about him. He paused in the hall to listen.
“It’s not right. Lex was just as close to Jimmy as the rest of us. It’s not fair that she has to deal with this on her own because he’s being so stupid,” Kelly snarled.
“Your brother is hurting, too,” his mother said in his defense. “He’s just too stubborn to fix things so he doesn’t have to hurt so much. He still loves her. I know he does.”
Ian swallowed and walked into the kitchen so he wouldn’t have to hear anymore. As far as defenses went, his mother’s was letting him down on many levels.
“I’m heading out,” he said.
“Okay, sweetie. We’ll see you tomorrow at the service. Do you mind if we have Alexis sit with us?”
“That’s fine, Mom.”
“Will it upset Megan?” she asked with a frown. She had pronounced her name in the traditional way, despite having been corrected by Meeghan many, many times.
“She’ll be okay.” He wasn’t sure if Meeghan would be okay or not, but it didn’t really matter. Alexis should be allowed to sit with the family because she was family. Or at least closer to family than Meeghan.
As he walked out to the car, he felt much older than his thirty years. He shouldn’t have to deal with things like whether his girlfriend would be upset about his wife …ex-wife. Ian missed Jimmy, and he missed Lexi, too.
“I’m not going to the funeral tomorrow. I have to work, and I don’t like funerals,” Meeghan told him as he was driving her to her apartment.
Who liked funerals? For a moment he thought about explaining to her how she would be going to the funeral to help him and support him during a sad time in his life, but he didn’t. She didn’t get it. Something that had been second nature to Lexi went completely over Meeghan’s head .
He knew this thing with Meeghan wasn’t going to last forever. They didn’t have much in common, and she was too young. Not in actual age but in maturity. She was twenty-two. The age of going out every weekend to clubs with her friends. The age he had been when he and Lexi started dating.
Alexis had been twenty then and had never seemed as young as Meeghan.
They hadn’t gone out partying with their friends. They’d been content to watch a movie with a pizza and beer.
He would never tell Kelly this, but she was right about everything. He was definitely an asshole. He realized it more and more every day.
The funeral was relatively drama free. Ian gave a very emotional eulogy, and Lexi had to fight the urge to go stand next to him to offer him support as he wiped his tears. She knew how much he loved his uncle, and how much he was hurting.
There was more family that she hadn’t seen since the divorce. They gave her dual sympathies, one for the loss of her uncle and another for her failed marriage. Most followed up with some sentiment about how they had been so sure she and Ian were going to make it. She just nodded. She had thought so, too.
Ian managed to give her a quick, awkward hug at the gravesite before everyone started to disperse. She assumed the reason for the affection stemmed from the missing girlfriend. A quick stab of hope flared in her chest. Maybe they’d broken up? Maybe they wouldn’t be getting married? Maybe he would come home? She quickly shook the thought away and gave him a small smile.
“Your eulogy was really touching. You did a good job. Jimmy would have appreciated it,” she told him truthfully. He simply nodded and thanked her before he walked away.
Lexi went with Ron and Kelly to their house afterward. Their son, Aidan, had stayed at the neighbor’s, being too young to attend the service. It was nice to see him.
“Aunt Lex, do you want to watch me play a video game?” he asked excitedly. Willa was already trapped.
“Sure,” Lexi agreed, though she would rather have watched paint dry than watch her six-year-old nephew drive around in a bubble collecting letters to spell the word happiness. She almost couldn’t remember how to spell that word. She certainly didn’t know how to feel it.
Thanks to Willa, Lexi was able to escape to the kitchen a few minutes later.
“Did you notice Meeeeeeghan wasn’t at the service?” Kelly asked in her overemphasized way. It had become her joke when Aidan wasn’t around.
“Yes. What do you think it means?” Again the hope leaped into existence, and she quickly squashed it.
“I told him she said something snotty to you at the viewing,” Kelly admitted.
“What? How did you know?”
“I didn’t. I just figured.” She shrugged.
“Kelly, you need to be nice to her. Especially because she might be your sister-in-law someday.”
“No way.” Kelly’s face turned grim as her body tensed.
“She alluded,” Alexis said with a frown.
“Yeah. She made it sound like it was going to happen. Like they might get married.” She swallowed, trying to choke down the idea of her husband marrying another woman.
Kelly’s eyes narrowed.
“She told me they were getting married, too,” Willa said as she came into the kitchen. She filled a glass with water and leaned against the counter. “I asked Ian last night, and he said he wasn’t marrying anyone at the moment.”
“ʻAt the moment’?” Lexi repeated, not knowing what that meant exactly.
“Look, even if my brother is stupid enough to marry this girl, she will never, I repeat never be my sister. You are my sister and she can just suck it.”
“Mama said ‘suck it’!” Aidan laughed from the living room, while Kelly squeezed her eyes shut. Lexi and Willa couldn’t help but laugh, too.
“Aidan!” she barked in her mom voice. Kelly turned back to them sadly. “I really don’t like this,” she said with tears in her eyes.
Willa put her arm around her sister and said, “Me neither.”
“It’s going to be okay,” Lexi said. “He needs to be happy. No matter who makes him happy, we should want that.”
“You were too good for him,” Kelly said and shook her head.
That wasn’t true.
Ian had been a wonderful husband, always there when she needed him. Always noticing the stupid little things, like when she got her hair cut or bought a new dress. He was a husband her friends had always been jealous of. Right until he wasn’t her husband anymore.
She’d scared him off. She’d realized it immediately after he moved out, and she’d tried to tone down the crazy, obsessed, must-be-a-mother complex so she could be the doting wife again, but she never got the chance. She had lost herself in all the scientific insanity, and then she’d lost him, too.