The Golden Band
Aileen Kramer glanced out the car window and her breath caught at the magnificence of Valentine, Colorado spread out before them like a picture post card. The soft glow from the cabins and snug homes radiated against the glistening snow, serving up a magical backdrop for the SweetHart Lodge, where she and Spencer headed.
Magic. That’s what they needed, and what Spencer hoped to find here. At least that’s what he’d told her when he proposed this trip. Their last getaway before the divorce became final. She slanted a glance at her almost ex-husband. Eight years of marriage hadn’t taken a toll on him as it had her.
At twenty-eight he was still handsome, the lines in his face only adding to his appeal. He’d maintained his muscular build with years on oil rigs. He could easily grace the cover of GQ with thick black hair falling over his forehead, and riveting blue eyes surrounded by eyelashes a woman would kill for.
She, on the other hand, looked every bit of her twenty-seven years, plus many more. Despair and depression did that to a person. She’d stopped paying attention to herself somewhere along the line while she cared for Becky. Then the numbness following her death brought every part of living to a grinding halt. She sighed and returned her notice to the lodge growing closer.
Built on a small rise, with several populated well-lit ski runs behind it, a welcoming sign with two hearts, entwined with the names Val and Tina Hart underneath, teased her lips with a rare smile.
“I’ll drop you off in front and park the car.” Spencer threw the car into park and hopped out. In his usual energetic manner, he strode around the car and opened the door before she could even do it.
She cringed at the hopeful look on his face. Why didn’t he understand there was nothing left in her to give? That everything she was, and would ever be, she’d buried with their three year old daughter?
Please, Spence, don’t make this weekend harder than it already is.
Aileen had been flabbergasted when Spence had stopped by her apartment to suggest a Valentine’s Day weekend fling. ‘One last trip’ he’d called it. When she’d pushed him to tell her why after all this time, he merely asked her to give them one more chance.
Valentine’s Day weekend. They’d had sex for the first time on Valentine’s Day. Two teenagers, fumbling in the backseat of the Kramer family Volvo. She was his first, and he was hers. First and only. For her, anyway. She really didn’t know what Spence had done to relieve the strong appetite he’d always had. Didn’t want to know, either.
“Come on, honey. I understand the owners are a real hoot.”
“Sir, I’ll be happy to park your car.” A young man dressed in black slacks and a hooded jacket with the SweetHart Lodge twinning hearts embroidered on the chest walked up to them, snow crunching under his feet.
“Hey, that’s great, thanks man.” Spence reached in for Aileen’s hand and pulled her out, almost as if he thought she’d rather spend the trip sitting in the car.
He retrieved their two suitcases from the back seat and started toward the door. Aileen glanced back at the car, not anxious to leave the sanctity of the dark interior. Now that they headed into the light, she felt stripped, vulnerable. She would have to spend the next forty-eight hours trying hard to act normal, feel normal.
An older woman dressed in ski pants, furry boots and a white sweater with a huge heart on the front greeted them at the front door. “Howdy, folks. I’m Tina Hart, and welcome to SweetHart lodge.” Had she been dressed in a red and white fur suit she could easily have passed the most cynical child’s scrutiny as Mrs. Santa Claus. Round and red cheeked, her smile took up most of her face. Despite Aileen’s mood, she smiled back at the woman, her spirits lifting.
“We have a reservation for Mr. and Mrs. Kramer.” Spence followed Mrs. Hart to the front desk and dropped the luggage at his feet.
“Spence?” Aileen’s heart sped up, and she tugged on his sleeve, pulling him aside. “I thought you said we would have separate rooms?” she whispered, darting a glance at Mrs. Hart.
“Honey, there’s no point in coming here,” he waved his hand around, “and staying in separate rooms.”
“But you promised.” Her already thumping heart sped up even more. She couldn’t stay in the same room with Spence. No, no. This would never work. She licked her lips and approached the counter. “Is it possible for us to have separate rooms?”
Mrs. Hart glanced briefly at Spence and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Kramer, but we’re booked solid for the entire weekend. Valentine’s Day, you know.”
Aileen chewed on her lip. Could she break her promise and insist he take her home, since he’d broken his promise for separate rooms?
Spence rested his palm against her cheek. “Please, honey. Two days. That’s all I’m asking for.”
She gave him a curt nod, rubbing sweaty palms against her thighs. Somehow she’d get through this. Then she’d never have to deal with him again. All the breath left her body as she pondered that thought. Never was a long time.
Spencer grabbed their bags and followed the directions Mrs. Hart had given them to their room, leaving Aileen to reluctantly trail behind. He’d known it was a dirty trick to tell her they would have separate rooms when he’d had no intention of doing that. There didn’t seem to be a point to them coming here if they were to be separated. Especially at night. He’d made sure their room had only one bed, too. Although, Mrs. Hart laughed when he’d asked, and assured him SweetHart Lodge would never have rooms with more than one bed. He could almost see her giving him a conspiring wink at the other end of the line.
He slid the plastic card into the reader and pushed the door open. Yes! Perfect. A huge bed sat smack in the middle of the room, covered by a white satin quilt with several pink and red hearts embroidered in the center. Rose petals had been strewn over the generous pillows. The bottle of champagne he’d ordered rested in a silver bucket, beads of condensation running down its sides. The confirmation he’d received from the Lodge assured an unforgettable weekend of Chocolate, Flowers and . . . He knew how he wanted that promise to end.
To the right, he spied the bathroom with a heart shaped tub, big enough for two. Or more, depending on your inclinations. Not his. All he wanted to do was get Aileen in that tub with a glass of champagne in her hand.
All the sorrow of the last two years marked her face. Although he’d loved running his fingers through her long blond hair, her new cut with the springy curls surrounding her cherub face, softened the tense lines. She’d lost weight, and he guessed she barely broke a hundred pounds on the scale. But since she was a tiny woman anyway, she didn’t have the scarecrow look of a fashion model.
But the saddest thing about his wife was her huge brown eyes, that one time sparkled with mischief and humor, and now looked vacant and dead. Like their Becky.
He shook his head, pushing the dark thoughts to the back of his mind. He loved Aileen, and wanted her back. But not the shell of a woman he’d known since Becky’s death. He wanted the woman he’d fallen in love with, who lay in bed beside him at night, whispering, sharing dreams and hopes for the future. The wife who surprised him with special dinners when he returned from work, who loved him with a passion he knew he’d not find anywhere else. Hadn’t tried to find, either.
“Let’s get some dinner.” Spencer shrugged out of his ski jacket and tossed it on the bed.
“All right.” Aileen slowly unzipped her coat, the entire time nervously glancing at the bed.
The Lodge teemed with people, couples with their arms wrapped around each other, clutching coffee cups and wine glasses. The lobby stayed cold with guests entering, checking in, and heading to their rooms. They passed the packed cocktail lounge, two bartenders racing from one end of the highly polished bar to the other, pouring beer and mixing drinks. The laughter and shouting rubbed her raw.
Now that she’d seen their room, Aileen knew this entire idea was a huge mistake. Better they should have just parted friends and gone on with their lives.
Spence rested his warm palm on her lower back and bent toward her ear. “Did you want a drink before dinner?”
She shook her head, no point in trying to answer him with all the noise.
He slid his hand up to her shoulder, leaving a trail of fire against her skin, and moved her forward, toward the hostess seating guests. The familiar smell of Spence’s favorite cologne, Giorgio Armani, mixed with the unique scent that was all him, wafted to her nostrils, bringing unwanted memories. Tears sprang to her eyes. Eyes that until now had remained dry for what seemed like forever.
Despite the bustling crowd, they were seated right away, in front of a large bay window with a breathtaking view of the mountain, lit up with red and white lights. A few well bundled skiers rode the lift, skis dangling from their feet and poles clutched firmly in their hands.
“You do know I don’t ski.” Aileen fumbled with the pink cloth napkin, snapping it and placing it on her lap.
“I know. I thought maybe we could give it a go tomorrow. They have lessons at ten o’clock for beginners.”
“I know. I thought maybe we could give it a go tomorrow. They have lessons at ten o’clock for beginners.”
“And do they have first aid lessons for the beginners in the afternoon?” She smirked, then her brows drew together. She’d actually said something humorous. It felt odd, actually. Strange. Like she’d crawled out of the rabbit hole to view the real world where she no longer belonged.
Spence grinned. “I’ll have to check the schedule for tomorrow. They have a lot of activities. If we don’t want to ski, we can ice skate, snow tube, take a dance lesson.”
“A dance lesson?”
“Yes. I understand there’s a real hot couple who teach the Salsa.” He wiggled his eyebrows, and she grinned. Then his eyes grew heated and her stomach fluttered. Spence could still turn her knees to jelly. But it had been so long since she’d paid attention to those feelings. She flashed back to their room with the one bed. And the sunken bathtub. No. She didn’t want to go there.
The waiter approached them and took their orders, leaving them with a basket of warm rolls. Spence reached for one, and broke it apart. “You look like you’ve lost weight.” He glanced at her as he buttered his roll.
Aileen shrugged. “A little.”
He chewed and swallowed, then wiped his mouth. “How’s the new job?”
“All right. I still can’t believe they hired me as assistant manager.”
Spence leaned back. “Why not? Before Bec… Well, before, when we were first married, you worked as a front end manager in that supermarket.”
“I know, but I’ve only worked as a sales clerk since Bec…” She stopped and dropped her hands in her lap, her shoulders slumped.
“Aileen, we can’t continue to avoid saying her name.” Spence lowered his voice and leaned forward. “She was our daughter. We made her together, we loved her together, and we lost her together.”
She shook her head. “I can’t do this. I have to go home.” She placed her hands on the table to rise, but Spence reached over and stopped her.
“Don’t go. Please.”
“This was not a good idea.” She tugged her hand free, tossed her napkin down, then fled the room, just as the waiter arrived with two plates.
“Can you box those up? I’ll take them with me.” Spence spoke to the waiter and watched Aileen retreat, his gut clenched with anger. They had to have this out, and she wasn’t going to run this time, if he had to tie her to a chair with his belt.
The waiter returned to the kitchen, and as Spencer finished signing for their meal at the hostess’s desk, the manager arrived with the boxes. Spencer took them from him and strode toward room 717.
When he entered, Aileen sat on the bed, her arms wrapped around her middle, staring off into space.
“Honey?” When she didn’t acknowledge him, he set the boxes next to the TV and joined her on the bed. “Can we talk?”
She took a shuddering breath, but remained silent.
Spence rose, running his fingers through his hair. He stood in front of her, his hands on his hips. “Talk to me.”
She shook her head, a low keening sound coming from her stiff body as she rocked back and forth.
Spence sat again, unclenched her arms and took her ice cold hands in his. “Honey, it’s time. Talk to me.”
“I can’t.” Her soft whisper tortured him.
“Yes, you can. Try.”
He remained silent gripped by the pain in her face. Eventually, she seemed to draw strength from somewhere deep inside her.
She started off soft, slow. Then like a wave engulfing the shoreline, the words tumbled out. “All the months of Becky’s illness, the trips back and forth to the hospital, the hopes that a new treatment for her leukemia would surface before it killed her, I was alone. You never talked to me, never told me how you felt.” Her bleak eyes pinned him.
“How do you think I felt?” His voice rose, bouncing off the walls of the room. He took a deep breath and spoke softer. “I couldn’t tell you. Don’t you see? You pushed me away. I tried. God did I try, but you never wanted me, never cared that I was suffering, too. You closed me out when I needed you the most.”
“Becky needed me!”
“And so did I.”
Aileen’s throat worked, misery on her face. “You never told me. You went to work, came home and ate, and went to bed. The only time you spoke out loud was when you talked to Becky.”
“God, honey, don’t you remember? You were like delicate glass, so fragile, ready to shatter. What was I to do, add the burden of my grief to yours? Watch you crumble like dust, and leave me forever?” He whispered, almost to himself. “Like Becky did.”
“Don’t do this, Spence. Don’t dredge all this up again. This was a mistake, coming here. I’m leaving.” She attempted to stand, but he grasped her shoulders.
“No! You’re dying inside, Aileen. You’re fading, disappearing. And I can’t let you go.” He kneaded her arms. “I love you. I’ve always loved you. And I need you. You’re the only person in the world who feels like I do, who’s suffered like I have.”
She closed her eyes, but didn’t move away. “You’re wrong. I’m not dying, I’m already dead.”
“No, you’re not.” He shook her slightly as her mouth worked, fighting back tears. “Cry, dammit. You never cried even one single tear while Becky was sick, at her funeral, or after. You have to get it out. Cry, honey, cry, please.”
Her voice grew thick. “Because if I start, I’ll never stop. Don’t you understand? As long as it’s bottled up inside me, I can stand it. If I let go…”
“Let it go, baby, please,” he pulled her to his chest and whispered in her hair, his lips leaving a scattering of kisses along her forehead
She shook her head frantically, taking great gulps of air. Then her shoulders started to shake before racking sobs burst forth from her body. Spencer drew her onto his lap, nestling her in his arms. He rubbed her back as her body trembled, losing her breath at times as her grief erupted in a torrent of weeping.
Time stood still, their combined grief the only presence in room 717 at the SweetHart Lodge, as they clung to each other like they should have two years before.
Soon Spence’s tears mixed with Aileen’s, and they hung on, so tightly he knew there would be marks on her thin arms tomorrow. She burrowed into his chest as if she wanted to enter his body, lose herself, become part of him.
After about a half hour, when Aileen’s sobs had turned into soft hiccups, he kicked off his shoes and removed hers. He left her long enough to pull down the quilt and slide her under it. She rolled to him as he climbed in alongside her.
Spence settled her on his shoulder. “Sleep, baby. Right here in my arms where you belong.”
Bright sunshine poured through the immense wall of windows as Val Hart took his usual stroll through the dining room, happy to see a full house again. Even though The SweetHart Lodge always did a good year round business, he always liked Valentine’s Day weekend the best. The place was crammed full with lovers. It brought a glow to his old heart. Made him appreciate his Tina even more.
He stopped and chatted with a few diners enjoying their breakfast. He spied a couple in the corner, eyes for no one else but each other. “Howdy, folks. Glad you joined us.”
The man stood and shook hands. “Spencer Kramer, sir. And this is my wife, Aileen.”
“And I’m Val Hart.” He studied their hands clasped together like they would never let go. “Let me guess. Y’all are newlyweds, right?”
They glanced at each other and smiled. “Yeah. Newlyweds I guess you could say that,” the man said as he moved his wife’s hand to his lips and kissed the golden band on the third finger of her left hand. “Newlyweds.”
Val grinned and moved away. He could always pick ‘em out.