Sara Evans is a U.S. country singer and songwriter. She collaborated with Christian romance writer Rachel Hauck on the book "The Sweet By and By" in 2010.
"Softly & Tenderly" is the second installment of that novel, following the journey of character Jade Freedom Fitzgerald of Whisper Hollow, Tenn.
Read a chapter from her book, "Softly and Tenderly," below.
The Bensons' foyer was cold. Jade shivered as she followed June inside, carrying a few of the bags and boxes her mother-in-law had collected from three days of shopping in Atlanta with Honey.
"Constance?" June clicked on the table lamp. The soft yellow light caught the gloss and glimmer of the polished mahogany. The wood grain matched the banister of the sweeping, curved staircase that spilled from the second floor into the Italian marble foyer. "You here, Constance?"
Jade dropped the packages at the base of staircase, rubbing the bend of her arm. "What did you buy? Bricks?" She peered into the Neiman Marcus bag. "Christian Louboutins? Don't you have, like, four pairs already?" Jade sat on the bottom step and lifted the lid off the shoe box, inhaling at the sight of dark red patent leather heels. "Wow."
"And now I have five pair." June scouted the formal living room for signs of life. "I bought them for the club's Christmas ball. Reb? Constance?"
Barely emerging from winter's gray, and June was already planning for Christmas. Jade could learn something here...What, she wasn't sure, but the moment sure felt teachable.
"How much?" Jade dug around for the receipt.
"Didn't your mama teach you it's impolite to ask how much? Get your nose out of my bags." June gazed into the family room on the other side of the foyer. "Well, the place looks tidy."
"Six hundred dollars?" Jade dropped the shoe back into the box and let the receipt go, fluttering into the bag. "You can buy a lot of food for the poor with that kind of money."
"For Pete's sake, Jade, don't preach to me. Reb and I give plenty to the poor." June turned for the kitchen, her low heels beating a rhythm against the marble. "Why don't you call Max and have supper here? Run quick to pick up your mama too. Mercy, I pay Constance for a full day's work and I want a full day. Whether I'm here or not. Constance!"
"Max is working late." Jade sauntered into the kitchen. "Mama's still recovering from the last round of chemo. Why don't we try for another time?"
"Well, if you're sure, fine... another time." June stood in the middle of the arching, stainless steel kitchen looking disconcerted.
Jade leaned against the ivory and green island. The kitchen was like a structural hug cozy with June's Southern hospitality and dabbled with yellow and gray Smoky Mountain sunshine dripping through the skylight. "How about we get Reb to fire up his grill this weekend?"
"He'd love that...We can thaw the kobe steaks." June opened the fridge and then closed it without looking inside. "I am sorry Beryl's not feeling well. Tell that mama of yours I'll be over tomorrow for a game of hearts."
"She'd like that. June?" Jade peered into her pinched eyes. "Are you okay?"
"Of course I'm okay. I've just been shopping for three days. Now, how about some hot tea? The house is freezing." June walked over to the basement door. "Constance?" June shoved the door closed. "That girl . . . I'm docking her pay a whole day."
"Why don't you hear her out first?" Jade slipped onto one of the island chairs and watched June fill a kettle with water and drop it onto the stove with a clank.
It was nearing five. Jade would have to leave after this cup of tea to get Mama's dinner. The latest round of chemo had zapped her energy more than the previous treatments. She slept most of the day, eating only when Jade urged her. Leukemia was a cruel taskmaster.
June set two mugs in front of Jade. "So what's new with you in the three days I've been gone? Have you and Max made any decisions?"
June never hesitated to dig around in Jade's life, prying open internal windows. Didn't Honey empty June of all her idle words? Didn't the woman just want to relax in a hot bath, order a Mario's pizza, and curl up with Rebel and a good TMC movie?
"A decision? In three days? I've hardly seen him." Her sorrow over the plethora of pregnant shoppers at the Blue Two this afternoon surfaced, gasping for air.
Perhaps June had a right to know if she would ever be a grandmother. Or not. Jade's private life with Max was private. And if Jade was...barren...then she needed to deal with that first, on her own, without her mother-in-law peering into her heart.
"What about a surrogate? The Bidwells had great success"
Or without offering myriad unwanted solutions.
"June, please, Max and I have talked ad nauseam about the options." Jade pressed her fingers into the taut muscles along her shoulders and propped her elbows on the light-kissed granite countertop. "I can get pregnant; I just can't stay pregnant. And I'm sorry, but I'm not open to using another woman's womb. It would be like . . . like having an affair, inviting another woman into our marriage. Either Max and I make a baby together, or we don't have a biological child."
"Then you'll adopt." June set tea bags and sweeteners on the island.
Jade exhaled. "If and when we decide. You can't just pick up a child like a Jiffy Mart stop for a gallon of milk and loaf of bread." Didn't she just have this conversation with Max the other night? His response and tone had been almost identical to June's. Matter-of-fact, devoid of an emotional response or commitment. But the Bensons made things happen. There was a fix for everything. "Why can't a family just be a man and his wife? Do children validate us? Prove we make love? Make us more complete? What if we're happy . . . just Max and me?"
"Are you?" The kettle rumbled from its perch on the gas flame. June reached for it and filled the cups. "If you're happy, then I'm happy." She smiled. "But every time we talk about children, I can see the pain in your eyes, hear the longing in your words. You want what you never really had growing up. A family."
"I have a family. You and Reb, Mama, Aiden and Willow." Jade tore open a packet of sweetener and dumped the white powder into her tea.
"Is that good enough? Max wants children, Jade. He doesn't care if they're biological or not."
"June." Jade fired her name with a caustic edge. "We'll have children if we are meant to have children. Maybe Max and I aren't meant to be parents. What if God doesn't find me trustworthy? Why would He give a child to a woman who -- "
"Why would God decide you aren't . . ." June dipped her head to see into Jade's downcast eyes. "Oh, I see." Her spoon tapped out a beat against the ceramic mug as she stirred her tea. "You think God would choose you out of all the women in this world who've had abortions to say, 'No baby for her; she blew it'"?
"Feels like it sometimes." Jade sipped her tea to hide her emotion. She ignored the yearning most of the time. But it had been stirred today, by the pregnant women, by the doe with her fawns. If she could finally carry a baby to term, not miscarry again, she'd feel like her past was truly forgiven and God was smiling.
"You're young, Jade. It'll happen." June's words brought little comfort.
"Sure, I know." Jade sipped her tea.
"I've got just the thing for you." June motioned for Jade to pick up her tea and follow.
Jade carried her tea up the stairs behind June, whose narrow hips swung from side to side. She'd spent her entire marriage, the past two and a half years, trying to convince herself that children didn't matter. Max completed her. God, as she was beginning to know Him, completed her. But a child . . . one of her own. Jade could imagine the joy. She'd lost their honeymoon baby after ten weeks. It was a long eighteen months before she got pregnant again, only to lose the baby last summer, two weeks before Mama came down for a short visit.
But her August visit never ended. Mama's leukemia symptoms had intensified since Jade had seen her the Christmas before, so she refused to let her return to Iowa to live in the old farmhouse, alone.
Between managing the shops, the Blue Umbrella in Whisper Hollow and the Blue Two in downtown Chattanooga, Jade cared for Mama, driving her to doctor appointments and chemo treatments.
Into the crisp, golden fall and blustery holiday season, the busyness of the shop and town celebrations kept Jade's yearning for babies at bay. When she discovered she was pregnant at Thanksgiving, she laid awake that night in bed, pools in her eyes, crunching her fingers around Max's fisted, sleeping hand. The God of mercy bestowed favor on her.
"So, June, where are we going?" Then she had her third miscarriage in January. "What's this thing you have for me? Stuffing envelopes for the club's Spring Life Auction and Dance? Or licking stamps?"
"Jade, really, no one licks stamps anymore."
At the top of the stairs, June stopped short. Jade nearly sloshed her with tea.
"What's wrong?" Jade peered around her mother-in-law's shoulder. The pink hue of her suit brightened the dim light of the landing. The media room door was ajar with an eerie blue tint emanating from the flat-panel TV screen. "Is someone here?"
"Constance?" June thudded toward the door, a matronly authority in her stride. "You best not be napping. I warned you --"
"June." Jade hurried behind her, hoping to cushion the clash between Constance and her mistress. "So what if she fell asleep? It's not like she ignored her chores. The house is immaculate."
"I don't pay her to sleep." June raised her voice as if giving Constance one last chance to wake up and feign dusting before June crashed through the door and flipped on the light. "Constance Filmore--"
Jade hung back. Constance didn't need an audience when June reamed her out. Be awake, Constance...
"Oh my, oh, oh--" June crashed backward into the door, her tea cup toppling to the plush cream and beige carpet. The golden-brown liquid spread through the fibers, sinking into the pile, creating a sprawling stain.
Jade surged into the room, accosted by the pungent scent of day-old cologne and sweat. As she stooped to pick up June's mug, her gaze strafed a topless woman standing on the other side of the U-shaped sofa. Her tangled, bleached hair stood high over her head and her unfastened jeans rode low on her hips. Surprise shoved the woman's name through her lips.
Wasn't she one of June's best friends? What's going on? Jade averted her eyes from Claire's form and glanced at June.
Her mother-in-law's high, rosy cheeks faded beyond pale, her eyes fixed, and for an insane moment, Jade wondered if she was even breathing. "June," Jade whispered, gathering June's cup by the tips of her fingers.
"June...we didn't know..." Claire Falcon tugged on her cotton top, then hunted around for her shoes. "We thought you were--"
"We? Who's we?" June's blank, unblinking gaze matched her monotone.
"I gotta go." Claire peered down at the sofa before darting for the door, her bra, socks, and shoes clutched to her chest. A sour bile burned at the base of Jade's throat as she moved aside for Claire to exit.
Suddenly, there was Rebel, standing, smoothing his hair, fixing his belt, and fastening the bottom buttons of his blue shirt.
Jade dropped June's mug, barely having the presence of mind to set hers on the edge of the wall table just inside the door. Rebel? Her knees buckled.
"Maybe you should go, Jade." Rebel stepped around the couch. "I'm sorry you had to see this."
"In my own home, Rebel?" June's tone sent chills over Jade's skin. "My. Own. Home."
"You weren't supposed to be here." Rebel casually walked between the women and out the door.
June dashed after him as he descended the stairs. "Don't you dare walk away from me." She smashed her fist into his back.
Flinching, Jade tucked in behind the wall. For a short moment, she was eight again, watching her daddy leave their Iowa farm in the middle of the night, Mama hollering after him.
But June and Rebel? The benevolent king and queen of Whisper Hollow?
The smack of June's hand against Rebel's cheek shocked Jade's heart. Tears swelled in her eyes. She expected infidelity from her mama, but not from the refined and dignified Bensons. Rebel was a church deacon. June chaired the women's auxiliary.
"You disrespect me so much you bring your filth into my home? Forty-one years, Rebel, I've been faithful and--" Back to the wall, Jade slid down until her bottom hit the hardwood.
"Forty-one, June? Are you sure you want to stick with that number?" Jade waited for Rebel's chest-rumbling "Ah, June bug," paired with a contrite apology. She listened for his tender begging, pulling her into their room to talk in private. But instead he spoke as if June railed on about petty things--a towel on the bathroom floor. A forgotten dinner date with old friends.
"I don't deserve this, Rebel, not in my own home. Where's Constance?"
"I sent her home. Didn't need her interfering."
"Never again, you hear me?" June's voice rose with command. She would be obeyed. "Never. In my home. Do you hear me, Rebel Benson?"
Dread filled Jade's belly. Never again? Max never mentioned his dad's affairs. A door slammed. Footsteps hammered down the stairs and tapped across the marble.
"Jade--" June's call carried up from the foyer and bounced around the hollow pockets of the second floor.
She couldn't move.
Pushing off the floor, Jade scrambled for the stairs. She peered at June as she inched her way down.
"You might want to keep this to yourself." June gripped her hands together at her waist, squeezing her fingers.
"To myself?" The chill of the encounter lifted, but her bones rattled beneath her skin. "What are you saying? Max doesn't--"
"Jade, you heard me." June's olive-green eyes pleaded, red and swimming. "To yourself."