METHODS OF MADNESS


Fear struck Emily Ramsey with such force that she couldn’t move. Her body was stone, as cold and hard as the diamond that glittered against the velvet lining of the wooden ring box.

She was going to lose him.

Zachary Sullivan smiled at her, his cinnamon-brown hair blasted by the wind so it stood straight up from his forehead. “I know it’s not exactly the Hope Diamond, but hey—you know all about schoolteachers’ salaries.”

Willing herself to relax, Emily dug her toes into the sand and drew a deep breath of briny air. “I wouldn’t want the Hope Diamond. It’s cursed. And this is gorgeous.”

“You don’t sound too sure.” The teasing note in Zach’s voice disappeared with his next words. “Or are you having second thoughts about taking me along with the ring?”

“No second thoughts.” She rotated the box and studied the delicate wooden inlays forming a daisy on the lid. “The box is as beautiful as the ring. How long did it take you to make this?”

He smiled and shrugged. “I thought you could use one more thing for your daisy collection.”

Emily smiled back. She’d never told him that every daisy-themed item in her apartment had been a gift from Tricia. Daisies had been Tricia’s trademark.

She reached to take the diamond solitaire from the box, but her fingers trembled. She lowered her hand rather than risk dropping the ring into the sand.

“You’re shaking.” Zach took the ring box and set it on top of the picnic hamper. “You okay, Em?”

Emily intertwined her fingers with Zach’s and squeezed hard, as though the combined strength of their hands could stanch the eruption of memories. What was wrong with her? This was what she’d yearned for, prayed for, thought could never happen again. But now, with Zach Sullivan sitting beside her, an uncertain half smile on his face and sand speckling his rolled-up jeans, all Emily could feel was a resurgence of the pain and uncertainty she thought she’d finally banished.

Wind whipped dark strands of hair across her face. She didn’t push the hair back; she wanted it to conceal the wetness in her eyes.

“Emily, what’s wrong? We did talk about this, right? I wasn’t hallucinating?”

Emily forced a laugh past the catch in her throat. “Nothing’s wrong. I’m just happy.” Knowing the unsteadiness in her voice had made it obvious she was crying, she stopped trying to conceal it and wiped her cheeks with both hands. “I can’t believe myself.” She tucked her hair behind her ears; the wind promptly blew it loose again. “I thought mothers were the ones who cried at weddings, and here I am bawling before I even have the ring on my finger.”

Zach smiled, relief plain in eyes that were a muted gray-blue under the cloudy skies of this northern California beach. “Let’s make it official, and the thought of being stuck with me for eternity will really give you something to cry about.” He took the ring from the box and stretched to his feet, drawing Emily with him. In a gesture both courtly and awkward, he knelt in the sand in front of her.

“Emily Ramsey, will you marry me?”

Emily’s throat constricted. Despite the bony breadth of Zach’s shoulders and the athletic leanness of his tall body, he looked fragile, almost spectral, as though if she closed her eyes, he might disappear. She reached forward and trailed her fingers through his windblown hair, along his cheekbones, over his jaw, needing to feel the warmth—the reality—of him. “I love you,” she whispered.

Zach drew her down onto the sand next to him. “Is that an answer, or are you trying to distract me?” He kissed her, his lips moving from her forehead to her neck, his touch making her feel as wobbly as driftwood tossed on the surf. “I love you.” His lips brushed her ear. “Will you marry me?”

“Yes. Yes and yes.”

Zach took her hand and slipped the ring onto her finger. The band of this ring was platinum. The band on the ring tucked in the back of her dresser drawer was gold, but other than that, the rings were almost identical. What would Zach think if he knew she still had Ryan’s ring?

Zach wrapped his arms around her. Emily tried to feel only the strength of his arms and the warmth of his mouth against hers, letting the sensations fill her and crowd out memories.

She was marrying Zach Sullivan. Everything would be fine.

* * *

“Oh, honey, we’re so happy for you!” Carolyn Ramsey reached for Emily’s left hand. Emily hastily picked up a dishtowel and started drying a china platter. Her mother had a habit of grasping Emily’s hand when she was excited, and the sparkle of a new diamond apparently made her fingers an even more attractive target.

Carolyn turned back to the leftover dinner rolls she was placing into a bag for Emily to take home. “Zach’s such a good man. I can tell. He’s perfect for you.”

“That’s what Nicole kept hissing in his ear until he finally asked me out.”

Carolyn laughed and brushed bobbed gray hair back from cheeks that had grown flushed from vigorous kitchen work. Whether cooking or cleaning up, Carolyn moved at double-speed the instant her feet touched kitchen tile. “I don’t know what you’d do without Nicole.”

Emily kept smiling, but the words burrowed so deeply into tender truth that they hurt. Without Nicole she would have fallen apart, and it made her cringe to remember how broken and helpless she’d been that first year. She thought of Nicole removing Ryan’s ring from Emily’s finger—almost forcibly—and shutting it in the ring box with a decisive click. “If Ryan were alive, he would have come back by now. He’s dead. You know it. It’s time to move on. Do it for Tricia. She’d want you to be happy.”

Do it for Tricia. Nicole’s mantra, the words Emily could never combat. If it weren’t for Nicole, she probably never would have emerged from her protective shell enough to catch Zach Sullivan’s attention. And Zach was perfect for her.

So far this Sunday afternoon, everything had been perfect—her parents’ transparent joy at Zach and Emily’s announcement, the cheerful conversation during dinner, Zach’s arm brushing affectionately against hers when he reached for something on the table. And naturally the dinner had been another of Carolyn’s culinary triumphs—the beef tenderloin a succulent, medium rare, the salad an intriguing combination of baby greens, goat cheese, lemon zest and toasted pine nuts.

Perfect. And this time, everything would stay perfect.

“He looks like such an athlete,” Carolyn remarked. “Does he coach basketball as well as teach math?”

“No. He always says he’d rather play a pickup game with a few friends than add all the stress that comes with organized sports. ” Emily slid the china platter into the cupboard.

“Tall, dark, and handsome. With such a beautiful wife, he’ll have a crop of beautiful children.”

“You’re sweet, Mom.” Emily mentally recorded the bet she’d just lost with herself. She’d predicted that her mother would mention grandkids before dinner ended, but Carolyn had lasted half an hour beyond that. Pay up, Em. That’s one more bottle of Welch’s you owe yourself. “We won’t have any blond kids, that’s for sure.”

Carolyn wiped a smudge of flour off her sleeve. “You and Zach do have similar coloring, though your skin is more olive and your hair is a darker brown. I really like your haircut, honey. It’s very—hip.”

Hip? Had her mother ever used that word before? Emily ran dish-damp fingers over her hair. “Nicole gave me two choices. I could either agree to get my hair cut and highlighted, or she’d knock me out, take me to the stylist, prop me up in the chair, and I’d get my hair cut and highlighted anyway. I wasn’t sure she was kidding about the second option, so I thought I’d better go voluntarily.”

Carolyn laughed. “Do you like how it turned out?”

“Yes, I do.” It had taken her a few days to decide that she did like the shorter, layered, artfully tousled look the stylist had given her, but from the number of people who had raved about the haircut, it must really flatter her. Either that or people were just relieved to see she was capable of trying something new.

“It’s good to try something new, isn’t it?” Carolyn asked.

Suppressing a sigh, Emily nodded and turned back to the rack of dripping dishes.

“I’m proud of you.” From the intensity in Carolyn’s tone, she wasn’t just talking about the haircut.

Emily picked up a plate and dried it vigorously, glad Zach was outside admiring the new brick patio her father had installed and couldn’t overhear this conversation. “I figured if my first graders could manage to get haircuts without kicking and screaming, maybe I could too.”

“You look beautiful. You’re doing so well, and Dad and I couldn’t be happier for you and Zach.”

“Zach’s great.” Emily’s response sounded ridiculously generic to her own ears, the type of remark she’d make about anyone from her visiting teacher to a helpful bag boy at Safeway.

“It’s easy to see why you love him. And it’s so good to see you in love.”

Emily focused on the gilt-edged plate she was drying. “You never thought it would happen again, did you?”

“I was afraid you wouldn’t let it happen.”

“Mom, for goodness sake.” Emily added the plate to the stack on the counter. “If I didn’t want to meet someone, I wouldn’t have been hanging out in the singles ward.”

Carolyn smiled, but her eyes were serious. “I think that most of the time you were there in body but not in spirit. We worried about you, sweetie.”

“You worry too much.”

“We can’t help it. You’re everything to us now.”

You’re everything to us now. Emily had been waiting all day for someone to refer to Tricia, simultaneously aching to hear her name and dreading it. She thought of the way Tricia had teased her when Tricia went off to college. “You’re doomed, Em. The only kid left at home. I won’t be around to take the heat off you. You won’t be able to get away with anything.”

“After what you went through, didn’t we have a right to worry?” Carolyn asked. “I don’t blame you for keeping to yourself for a while. I know it took a lot of courage for you to let Zach into your life.”

Emily dried a handful of forks, letting the clink of stainless steel take the place of a response. She hadn’t paid much attention when Zach and his girlfriend had broken up last year, putting Zach back in circulation, but Nicole’s matchmaking sensors had gone on high alert. For a while Emily had tried to ignore Nicole’s hints and prodding, but Nicole’s expert maneuvering had thrown Zach and Emily together so many times that, to Emily’s amazement, sparks began to fly.

“Life is good,” Emily said, realizing her mother was waiting for her to speak. “Life is wonderful. Will you make my wedding dress? Your sewing beats anything in the bridal shops.”

Carolyn beamed. “Do you even need to ask? I’ve been waiting for this day for—” She stopped and Emily knew she was thinking of the nearly finished bridal gown packed in tissue in a box in the attic.

Silence pulsed between them. Emily could picture every detail of the dress—the beading on the sleeves; the voluminous, gathered skirt; the panels of lace. A frothy, romantic dress. To spare her mother the awkwardness of asking if she wanted to wear that dress, she said matter-of-factly, “Something simple, I think. No train or beading or anything glittery. I’ll pay for the fabric, of course.”

“You don’t need to do that.” Carolyn removed her apron. “It’s my gift to you.”

“I don’t expect you to pay for two wedding dresses. Maybe I should—I could wear the other dress—”

“Do you want to wear it?”

Emily twined the dishtowel around her hand, remembering Ryan’s voice as he looked at the picture of the dress-in-progress that Carolyn had e-mailed Emily. “Wow! You’ll make Cinderella look shabby. But isn’t there some kind of law about the groom not seeing the wedding dress before the big day? I hope this doesn’t jinx us.”

“No,” Emily said quietly. “No, I don’t want to wear it.”

“I planned to pay for two wedding dresses.” Carolyn hung the apron on the hook. “I refuse to spend the money on anything else. That’s settled.”

Two dresses. One for her and one for Tricia. Instinctively, Emily knew what Tricia would say if she were here. “Are you nuts, Em? Let her buy the new dress. She wants to do this for you. Don’t take that pleasure away from her. Think of it as my dress, if you can’t stand having her spend the money on you. Wear it for me, okay?”

“Would you like me to look at some patterns and bridal magazines to get ideas for you?” Carolyn asked. “I know you’re busy, and I’d love to do a reconnaissance mission to see what’s out there.”

“I’d appreciate that.” Emily hung up the dishtowel and glanced around the clean kitchen to see if they’d forgotten anything. She loved this room with its terra-cotta tile floor and honey-brown cabinets. Her parents’ house was small, but every room exuded welcome and warmth.

Sometimes she wanted to hide here, crawl backward in time until she was a child, carefree and confident and sure that bad things could never come closer to her than newspaper headlines.

“Honey.” Carolyn’s voice was soft. “I hope you don’t expect too much from yourself right now. It’s a happy time for you, but I’m sure there must be a lot of anxiety too.”

Emily felt suddenly naked. Were her feelings that plain on her face? “I’m fine.” She removed the apron that shielded her sweater and skirt and hung it on one of the sunshine-yellow hooks on the pantry door.

“I know you’re doing well, honey, but you may hit some bumps. It might not hurt to have you and Zach go together to talk to someone. Your bishop, or a professional counselor. We have a good friend in the stake—”

“Mom, please. I’m fine. We’re fine.” Emily straightened a couple of soup cans on the pantry shelf.

Carolyn was silent. Emily ran out of things to straighten in the tidy pantry. Reluctantly, she stepped back and closed the door.

Carolyn and she faced each other. Carolyn looked calm and steady, her Sunday dress a simple navy shirtwaist, her makeup minimal but expertly applied. “Have you talked to Zach about Ryan?”

“He knows. Everyone knows. He probably heard the whole story within a week of moving into the ward.”

“I understand that. But have you talked to him?”

“He knows about Tricia.”

“Emily, have you talked to him?”

Emily’s dry tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. Swallowing, she turned away and straightened the dishcloth draped over the edge of the sink. “Mom, everything’s fine.”

“Sweetheart, I can tell you’re anxious. I don’t want a cloud hanging over you. You and Zach need to start your marriage on a strong footing, and that means trusting Zach enough to trust him with your feelings. A bit of premarital counseling can go a long way toward—”

“I’m a grown woman. I think I can handle my own relationships.” Emily was instantly ashamed of her curt words, but she’d gotten similar advice from her mother at least a dozen times over the past three years—that she should see a professional counselor, that no one could handle this type of stress on her own. Maybe she shouldn’t have resisted. But if she suggested to Zach that they go to counseling now, what could Zach think except that she was still hung up on Ryan?

“I’m sorry.” She smiled. “I know you just want to help me, but I promise, we’re fine. The past is past. Let’s talk about the future—like how you’re going to spoil your first grandchild.”

Pain still flickered in Carolyn’s eyes, but she chuckled and opened the fridge. “If you’ll slice this cheesecake, then I’ll make the blueberry sauce.”

“Deal,” Emily said, grateful for her mother’s willingness to change the subject. Emily was fine. And the last thing she wanted to do was to scare Zach into thinking she had enough emotional baggage to fill the cargo hold of a 747.