She’s sitting on the wrought iron bench by the front door, the one she bought to reinforce the fact that we should sit there and take our shoes or boots off outdoors. She’s wrapped her arms around her bent knees.

“Hi,” she says, in a quiet, listless voice. Reaching beside herself, she picks something up.

A glass of white wine.

Looking at it, I feel sick again. She’s sitting on the steps with chardonnay? Where’s Clay? Heating up the focaccia?

When I ask, she shrugs. “Oh, I imagine he’s halfway back to his summer house by now.” I remember her saying that if I told, she’d lose him too. Clay plays for the winning team. Mom takes another sip, swirls the glass, looking into it.

“So…did you guys…break up?”

She sighs. “Not in so many words.”

“What does that even mean?”

“He’s not very happy with me. Though he’s probably coming up with a good ‘resignation from the race’ speech. Clay does thrive on a challenge.”

“So…you kicked him out? Or he left? Or what?” I want to pull the glass out of her hand and toss it off the porch.

“I told him the Garretts deserved the truth. He said truth was a flexible thing. We had words. I said I was going over to talk to you. And the Garretts. He gave me an ultimatum. I left anyway. When I came back, he was gone. He did text me, though.” She reaches into the pocket of her dress, pulling out her phone as if it’s proof.

I can’t read the screen, but Mom continues anyway.

“Said he was still friends with all his old girlfriends.” She makes a face. “I think he meant ‘previous’ girlfriends, since I was probably the oldest. Said he didn’t believe in burning bridges. But it might be good if we ‘took a little time to reassess our position.’”

Damn Clay. “So he’s not going to work with you anymore?”

“He has a friend on the Christopher campaign—Marcie—who says they could use his skills.”

I bet. “But…but Ben Christopher’s a Democrat!”

“Well, yes,” Mom says. “I mentioned the same thing in my little text back. Clay just said, ‘It’s politics, sugar. It’s not personal.’” Her tone’s resigned.

“What changed?” I point at the bay windows of her office, curving gracefully out to the side of our house. “In there…you and Clay were on the same page.”

Mom licks her lips. “I don’t know, Samantha. I kept thinking of his speech about how I’d done it for you. To protect you and that Garrett boy.” She reaches out, sliding her palms down either side of my face, looking me in the eye, finally. “The thing is…you were the very last thing on my mind. When I thought of you…” She rubs the bridge of her nose. “All I thought was that if you hadn’t been there, no one would know.” Before I can respond or even let that sink in, she holds up a hand. “I know. You don’t have to say anything. What kind of mother thinks that? I’m not a good mother. That’s what I realized. Or a strong woman.”

My stomach hurts. Though I’ve thought this myself, though I’ve just recently said it aloud to Jase, I feel sad and guilty. “You told now, Mom. That’s strong. That’s good.”

She shrugs, brushing off the sympathy. “When I first met Clay this spring, I stalled on mentioning I had teenagers. The truth was just…inconvenient. That I was in my forties with nearly grown daughters.” She gives a little rueful laugh. “That seemed like a big issue then.”

“Does Tracy know?”

“She’ll be home tomorrow morning. I called her after I got home.”

I try to picture Tracy’s reaction. My sister, the future lawyer. Horrified at Mom? Devastated at having her summer interrupted? Or something else entirely. Something I can’t even picture? Oh Trace. I’ve missed her so much.

“What did Mrs. Garrett say? What happens now?”

She takes another big sip of wine. Not reassuring.

“I don’t want to think about that,” she says. “We’ll know soon enough.” She straightens her legs, stands up. “It’s late. You should be in bed.”

Her motherly, admonishing tone. After all this, it seems ridiculous. But when I see the slump of her shoulders as she reaches for the doorknob, I can only tell her another truth, however inconvenient.

“I love you, Mom.”

She inclines her head, acknowledging, then ushers me into the chill of the central air. Turning to lock the door firmly behind her, she sighs, “I just knew it.”

“Knew what?” I ask, turning.

“Knew no good would come of getting to know those people next door.”

Chapter Fifty-two

Contrary to Clay’s predictions, the Garretts don’t call a press conference the next day. Or go directly to the police. They do, after all, bring out the talking stick. There’s a family conference at the hospital, with all the children down to Duff. Alice and Joel want to report Mom immediately. Andy and Jase argue against it. Ultimately, Mr. and Mrs. Garrett decide to keep the matter private. Mom had offered to cover all the medical bills and the additional expenses of hiring someone to work at the store, Jase tells me, and his parents struggle with that. Mr. Garrett doesn’t want charity—or hush money.

For a week, they discuss it as a family. Mr. Garrett is moved from the ICU and Mom goes to visit.

Even Jase doesn’t know what passes between them, but the next day Mom resigns from the race.

Just as she said he would, Clay writes the speech for her. “Certain events in my family have convinced me that I must decline the honor of running for office once again in the hope of serving as your senator. Public servants are also private individuals, and as such I must do the right thing for the people closest to home, before I try to serve the wider world.”

There’s a lot of lurid speculation in the press—I guess there always is, when a politician resigns unexpectedly—but it dies down after a few weeks.

I expect her to take a cruise, that trip to Virgin Gorda, escape, but instead she spends a lot of time at our house, fixing up the garden she used to care about before she got so busy in politics. She makes dinner for the Garretts, and hands it to me to bring over until Duff gets as sick of sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, and puff pastry as he’d ever been of pizza. She asks me how Mr. Garrett is doing, averting her eyes. When Jase offers to mow our lawn, she tells me to thank him, but “we have a service.”