BUILDING A FAMILY by M.K. Stelmack.
The best man in the world wanted to marry her. But she couldn’t say yes…yet! Most girls dreamed of the day someone offered them a ring. Not Connie Greene. She couldn’t even open the box. She did care for Ben Carruthers – always had, always would. But she couldn’t marry him until she’d made amends for the wrongs she’d committed. Until then, she had to protect Ben from himself. And most important, from her.
Haven’t we all wished that we could go back in our past and fix our mistakes? It’ll never happen—at least, not with our present understanding of the space-time continuum—so the best we can do is redeem ourselves in the here and now. And that’s exactly what Connie Greene decides to do in Building a Family, the second of three in my series with the Greene siblings: Seth, Connie and Mel. Seth’s story is told in my February Heartwarming release, A Roof Over Their Heads. There, Connie is a nasty piece of work who shows only glimmers of her good heart. As one reviewer put it: “Previously in “A Roof Over Their Heads” I did not care for Connie one bit (great writing) but getting to know her through this story shows a side that seems tough but hides a soft heart.” (Karen Mcnicol)
Connie develops a list of four people she needs to do right by, if she can move on with her life. Front and center is her ex-boyfriend, Ben Carruthers. He has loved her since the day they met as kids and even years later when she made a mess of her life—and his. He wants to give them a second chance, but Connie is holding out until she can look herself in the eye again.
Connie was a challenge to write. If there’s one thing harder than reading about unlikeable characters, it’s making you see that they aren’t that way at heart. Nor does it help that Connie is upfront about all her shortcomings—she makes you feel silly for actually wanting to like her even a little bit. Take for instance when she decides to return Ben’s engagement ring: He deserved better, even if he couldn’t see it for himself. Someone had to save him from his own stupidity. She’s like sandpaper—rough but she’ll wear you down until you love the results.
Here’s what I mean…
Connie spotted the ring box as soon as she entered the darkened kitchen. It was hard to miss, given that it sat beside a lit tea candle on the island.
Her chest tightened and wild panic surged through her. “No. Don’t you dare.”
She raced down the stairs and flung open the front door. Barefoot in subzero temperatures and with no coat, she ran to the curb. Ben and his truck were nowhere in sight. Figured.
Giving her space Uh-huh. She tiptoed up the snow-packed walk and then navigated the frozen steps back into the house, the sudden warmth making her toes tingle. Her defrosting feet left damp footprints on the plywood subfloor.
Maybe the box had just been a figment of her Valentine’s Day-stressed imagination. She crept into the kitchen. Nope. Still there, with its pale blue velvet and gold lettering.
Maybe it wasn’t what she thought it was.
But what if it was? To verify her assumption, she’d have to open the box. And she knew—like she knew every line on Ben’s face—that above all else, she must resist the temptation. For she was quite sure that if it turned out to be the ring Ben intended to bind her to him with, she would put it on and never take it off.
She loved him but she didn’t deserve to love him. The one good things she’d done in their relationship was end it. Cruelly and quickly, but effectively.
Until now. Why now, after three Valentine’s Days had passed, did he give her an engagement ring? How, when they’d not gone out on a single date, not kissed, not even held hands, when she’d not given the slightest encouragement—driving her home most nights absolutely did not count since she barely showed the decency to thank him—how in his right mind could he have possibly concluded she would marry him?
She reached for her cell phone. He’d be awake. She called, and it went straight to voice mail.
“Oh, no, you don’t, Ben Carruthers. You will pick up your phone. Right. Now.”
Five more times it went to voice mail before Connie admitted defeat. She didn’t leave another message. The world could rightly accuse her of a lot, but she did possess the decency not to reject a marriage proposal via voice mail.
She set her elbows on the island, lowered her chin into her hands and contemplated the box in the flickering shadows of the tea light. She didn’t recognize the jeweler’s name and searched it on her phone. A custom jeweler from Calgary. She canned through the creations, each a glittering marvel. Connie stretched out a finger and touched the velvet top of the box. Smooth and a little rough. Like Ben’s jaw before his morning shave.
Connie pushed herself straight. “Why, Ben? Why could you not keep it simple between us?”
Connie didn’t even bother knocking on Ben’s door, but rounded his house to the backyard, where his workshop dominated.
She pushed open the workshop door and, sure enough, there he was. He sat on a sawhorse, in front of a huge sheet of wood leaning against a wall. She inhaled the smell of newly cut wood and the chemical tang of varnish. When they had been together, she breathed in the same smells on his neck.
“I haven’t been here in years and it still stinks to high heaven,” she declared.
Other than turning his head to her, he didn’t move. Connie checked for the box in her front jacket pocket for the thousandth time. “You didn’t return my calls.”
Ben shrugged. “I didn’t know that I was supposed to.”
“After six calls, it should be obvious.”
He went back to studying the sheet of wood. He was going to make her spit it out. Fair enough. The ball—or the ring—was in her court.
“I found the Valentine’s Day gift you left in the kitchen.” A part of her still hoped it wasn’t him, though who else?
He didn’t lift his eyes from the absolutely riveting wood. “Did you like it?”
“I never opened it.”
Ben’s shoulders curved in a kind of cringe. She’d hurt him. Well, let the bleeding begin. She pulled the box from her pocket and set it beside him on the narrow wedge of the sawhorse. “Here. You can have it back.”
He maintained his focus on the wood. “I’m not taking it.”
“You have to. That’s one gift you have to accept if the recipient declines.”
“No, I don’t. You can keep it.”
“What would I do with an engagement ring if I’m not going to marry the man who gave it to me?”
“I suppose you could give it away. Or sell it. It’s yours to do whatever you want with.”
“Don’t be a jerk. You know that I don’t have the willpower to sell it or give it away. You also know that it’s taking every last bit of my self-control not to flip open that box, jam on the ring and make you marry me. I am really that shallow.”
Finally, he dragged his attention away and looked at her with his strange brown eyes flicked with yellow. Polished and stained circles of natural mahogany. “Connie,” he said, “I don’t know that at all.”
She glanced away. Had to, if she was going to get through this, if writing his name down not a freaking hour ago was to have any meaning. “Well, it’s true,” she muttered to the cement floor. It had a crack in it. She marked its path across the cement to where it forked underneath the sawhorse, the two paths fading away underneath the sheet of wood.
“Just to be clear,” he said. “You wouldn’t be making me marry you. The fact that I have you the ring indicates a certain amount of free will on my part.”
“Ben. But—” how to say this without sounding mean? “—you were always a bit dumb when it came to me.”
He traced his finger along a curving grain in the wood. “I’m aware of that,” he said softly.
“Ben, listen to yourself. You sound like someone on a suicide mission. Are you out of your mind?”
“Yes,” he said, “I am.” He picked up the box. “I’m so far gone that I bet I will go ahead and open the box, show the ring to you and you will cave and put it on.” His fingers settled on the lid.
She lunged and stripped it from him. “Don’t you dare.”
He returned to contemplating his big screen of wood. “I guess you’ll be keeping it.”
She chucked the box into her purse. “How long have you been keeping it? You didn’t have the time to drive the two hours to Calgary and back again last night.”
He didn’t answer and she was about to repeat herself, when he quietly said, “Since a week before we broke up.”
That was three years ago. When she was a drunk, unemployed and…hateful. How could he have even considered marrying her? “Why?”
“Connie, I get it. You’ve given me every reason not to love you. But last night you slipped up.”
“I slipped up? What are you talking about?”
“I saw you. I was coming out of the washroom. I spotted you over at the bar. You were picking olives out of my nachos.”
Her stomach flip-flopped. “The cook messed up. You hate olives. I didn’t want to hear you gripe about the mini rubber tires.”
He turned and raised his index finger, a detective about to break the case. “The reason I have always ordered nachos is because I thought your kitchen made them without olives. I assumed other people ordered them as an extra. But they didn’t. You’ve just always made sure that mine came without rubber tires.” His smug smile widened and softened into one that made her insides all squishy. “You’ve always known what I wanted.”
Panic ran circles around insider her. Remember the list, remember the list. “You’re nuts. I have no idea how you draw a line from me making sure you don’t get olives to proposing marriage. I mean, if the criteria’s remembering what people like or don’t like, I’d be getting marriage proposals every other day.”
He shook his head, again in that slow way of his. “Not buying it, Connie.”
What would it take for him to understand? “Ben. I broke up with you. I cheated on you with another guy. Another guy that I didn’t care to date again, that I can’t even remember the name of, because he’d served his purpose of making you see that I didn’t want you then, and I don’t want you now.”
There, she could be blunter. Some of that wasn’t even remotely true, but it was all for his own good.
Ben didn’t even blink. “Don’t tell me what you believe I need to hear, Connie. I love you, you love me—” she squawked in protest but he sailed on “—what’s holding you back?”
Your name on my list. I can’t do or be anything with anyone until I can strike off each and every name. Until then I can’t look you in the eye. And looking someone in the eye when you promise your life to them is kinda important.
She could say none of that, because he’d tell her that he forgave her—giving her a ring proved that. He’d push her to move on, even while she still felt like the same destructive cheat who’d wrecked so many lives.
The best she could do was stay silent. Let her heart tie her tongue.
Giveaway! From now until June 26th, I have a $50 Amazon or Kobo e-gift card up for grabs. Here’s the link where there are a bunch of ways to gain multiple entries:
About the Author:
M.K. Stelmack write contemporary romance set in Spirit Lake which is closely based on the town in Alberta, Canada, where she lives with pets who outnumber the humans three to one, and with dust bunnies the size of rodents—because that’s what happens when everyone in the household prefers to live in their imagination or outdoors. She’d love to meet you on her Facebook page or at her website.