<DIV><DIV>One<BR>2000</DIV><DIV>Was this what forty looked like? Really? In the past year Meredith had gone from Miss to Ma’am. Just like that, with no transition. Even worse, her skin had begun to lose its elasticity. There were tiny pleats in places that used to be smooth. Her neck was fuller, there was no doubt about it. She hadn’t gone gray yet; that was the one saving grace. Her chestnut-colored hair, cut in a no-nonsense shoulder-length bob, was still full and shiny. But her eyes gave her away. She looked tired. And not only at six in the morning.</DIV><DIV>She turned away from the mirror and stripped out of her old T-shirt and into a pair of black sweats, anklet socks, and a long-sleeved black shirt. Pulling her hair into a stumpy ponytail, she left the bathroom and walked into her darkened bedroom, where the soft strains of her husband’s snoring made her almost want to crawl back into bed. In the old days, she would have done just that, would have snuggled up against him.</DIV><DIV>Leaving the room, she clicked the door shut behind her and headed down the hallway toward the stairs.</DIV><DIV>In the pale glow of a pair of long-outdated night-lights, she passed the closed doors of her children’s bedrooms. Not that they were children anymore. Jillian was nineteen now, a sophomore at UCLA who dreamed of being a doctor, and Maddy—Meredith’s baby—was eighteen and a freshman at Vanderbilt. Without them, this house—and Meredith’s life—felt emptier and quieter than she’d expected. For nearly twenty years, she had devoted herself to being the kind of mother she hadn’t had, and it had worked. She and her daughters had become the best of friends. Their absence left her feeling adrift , a little purposeless. She knew it was silly. It wasn’t as if she didn’t have plenty to do. She just missed the girls; that was all.</DIV><DIV>She kept moving. Lately that seemed to be the best way to handle things.</DIV><DIV>Downstairs, she stopped in the living room just long enough to plug in the Christmas tree lights. In the mudroom, the dogs leaped up at her, yapping and wagging their tails.</DIV><DIV>“Luke, Leia, no jumping,” she scolded the huskies, scratching their ears as she led them to the back door. When she opened it, cold air rushed in. Snow had fallen again last night, and though it was still dark on this mid-December morning, she could make out the pale pearlescence of road and field. Her breath turned into vapory plumes.</DIV><DIV>By the time they were all outside and on their way, it was 6:10 and the sky was a deep purplish gray.</DIV><DIV>Right on time.</DIV><DIV>Meredith ran slowly at first, acclimating herself to the cold. As she did every weekday morning, she ran along the gravel road that led from her house, down past her parents’ house, and out to the old single-lane road that ended about a mile up the hill. From there, she followed the loop out to the golf course and back. Four miles exactly. It was a routine she rarely missed; she had no choice, really. Everything about Meredith was big by nature. She was tall, with broad shoulders, curvy hips, and big feet. Even her features seemed just a little too much for her pale, oval face—she had a big Julia Roberts– type mouth, huge brown eyes, full eyebrows, and thick hair. Only constant exercise, a vigilant diet, good hair products, and an industrial-sized pair of tweezers could keep her looking good.</DIV><DIV>As she turned back onto her road, the rising sun illuminated the mountains, turned their snowcapped peaks lavender and pink.</DIV><DIV>On either side of her, thousands of bare, spindly apple trees showed through the snow like brown stitches on white fabric. This fertile cleft of land had belonged to their family for fifty years, and there, in the center of it all, tall and proud, was the home in which she’d grown up. Belye Nochi. Even in the half-light it looked ridiculously out of place and ostentatious.</DIV><DIV>Meredith kept running up the hill, faster and faster, until she could barely breathe and there was a stitch in her side.</DIV><DIV>She came to a stop at her own front porch as the valley filled with bright golden light. She fed the dogs and then hurried upstairs. She was just going into the bathroom as Jeff was coming out. Wearing only a towel, with his graying blond hair still dripping wet, he turned sideways to let her pass, and she did the same. Neither one of them spoke.</DIV><DIV>By 7:20, she was drying her hair, and by 7:30—right on time—she was dressed for work in a pair of black jeans and a fitted green blouse. A little eyeliner, some blush and mascara, a coat of lipstick, and she was ready to go.</DIV><DIV>Downstairs, she found Jeff at the kitchen table, sitting in his regular chair, reading The New York Times. The dogs were asleep at his feet.</DIV><DIV>She went to the coffeepot and poured herself a cup. “You need a refill?”</DIV><DIV>“I’m good,” he said without looking up.</DIV><DIV>Meredith stirred soy milk into her coffee, watching the color change. It occurred to her that she and Jeff only talked at a distance lately, like strangers—or disillusioned partners—and only about work or the kids. She tried idly to remember the last time they’d made love, and couldn’t.</DIV><DIV>Maybe that was normal. Certainly it was. When you’d been married as long as they had, there were bound to be quiet times. Still, it saddened her sometimes to remember how passionate they used to be. She’d been fourteen on their first date (they’d gone to see Young Frankenstein; it was still one of their favorites), and to be honest, that was the last time she’d ever really looked at another guy. It was strange when she thought about that now; she didn’t consider herself a romantic woman, but she’d fallen in love practically at first sight. He’d been a part of her for as long as she could remember.</DIV><DIV>They’d married early—too early, really—and she’d followed him to college in Seattle, working nights and weekends in smoky bars to pay tuition. She’d been happy in their cramped, tiny U District apartment. Then, when they were seniors, she’d gotten pregnant. It had terrified her at first. She’d worried that she was like her mother, and that parenthood wouldn’t be a good thing. But she discovered, to her profound relief, that she was the complete opposite of her own mother. Perhaps her youth had helped in that. God knew Mom had not been young when Meredith was born.</DIV><DIV>Jeff shook his head. It was a minute gesture, barely even a movement, but she saw it. She had always been attuned to him, and lately their mutual disappointments seemed to create sound, like a high-pitched whistle that only she could hear.</DIV><DIV>“What?” she said.</DIV><DIV>“Nothing.”</DIV><DIV>“You didn’t shake your head over nothing. What’s the matter?”</DIV><DIV>“I just asked you something.”</DIV><DIV>“I didn’t hear you. Ask me again.”</DIV><DIV>“It doesn’t matter.”</DIV><DIV>“Fine.” She took her coffee and headed toward the dining room.</DIV><DIV>It was something she’d done a hundred times, and yet just then, as she passed under the old-fashioned ceiling light with its useless bit of plastic mistletoe, her view changed.</DIV><DIV>She saw herself as if from a distance: a forty-year-old woman, holding a cup of coffee, looking at two empty places at the table, and at the husband who was still here, and for a split second she wondered what other life that woman could have lived. What if she hadn’t come home to run the orchard and raise her children? What if she hadn’t gotten married so young? What kind of woman could she have become?< <BR><BR><i>Continues...</i> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Winter Garden</b> by <b>Hannah, Kristin</b> Copyright © 2010 by Hannah, Kristin. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.