Forewarning: Hidden Swan is a mature love story with sensitive subject matter and nongraphic marital relationships.
“Why am I covered in feathers?” Winnie teased Joel in a whisper. She’d been awake for several minutes but he was just stirring for the first time in hours.
“Not funny,” Joel mumbled, pressing his face into the pillow beside her.
“I thought it was.” Winnie giggled at her humorous continuation of the story about Edward and Bella that Joel had referenced on their drive over to his parents’ house. In the iconic Twilight story, Breaking Dawn, Edward had tried so hard to be careful on their wedding night that he destroyed a feather pillow in the process. Bella woke up the following morning covered in feathers. That was one of the best lines from the book.
“Did I hurt you?” He propped himself up on his elbow, gazing down at her face, darkened by the late-afternoon shadow streaming across their bedroom. “Be honest.”
“Not even a little bit.” She snuggled closer and he wrapped her in his arms breathing into her hair, which she’d left down out of the braids this morning and let air dry. She knew Joel loved her long hair down and flowing across her shoulders. “I’m pretty sure I’ve never felt this good in my life.”
“Really?” Joel had a smile in his voice.
“I feel healthy, Joel,” she said in a much more serious tone. “My mind is clear, my body is strong and nourished, and I’m pretty sure I will never forget in a million years whatever the heck that was that you just did to me, with me.”
“Promise me you’ll see this treatment process through to the very end, no matter how many days we’re apart,” Joel said, his pleading tone almost pained. “You’re healthy now but you haven’t been taught yet how to stay healthy.
“I promise.” She pulled back and looked him firmly in the eye. “Like I said, I’ve never felt this good. I don’t want this feeling to ever go away.”
“I almost lost you, Winnie,” Joel whispered, leaning forward to kiss the tip of her nose. “You were so sick. Your heartrate was irregular, they couldn’t get you to wake up. I was really scared.”
“I won’t let that happen again, Joel, I promise. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel guilty. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“No, Joel, look at me.” She sat up and looked down at him. “We need to be able to talk about this. We can’t tiptoe around my illness. If one of us had cancer or asthma or something we wouldn’t try to pretend we weren’t sick. We wouldn’t pretend we didn’t need chemotherapy or an inhaler. We would meet this head-on with civility and determination. Maybe a few days ago when my brain wasn’t thinking right, yeah, we had to be careful. But I’m healthy now. Okay, I’m healthier than I was. I have a long way to go.”
“You’ve come a long way in two weeks, though.” His voice had taken on a playful tone and he reached up to handle one of her now exposed breasts.
“Oh, boy, you’re distracting me,” Winnie said, whimpering.
“Well, you sitting there naked is distracting me,” Joel said. “I’m still a man, you know?”
“I’m very aware of that.” She closed her eyes and got lost in his touch, completely forgetting the point she was trying to make.
Joel’s phone rang on his bedside table, and he rolled away from her. He answered on speaker phone, “Hello, Mother.”
“I’m bringing down food,” she said. “Are you decent?”
“Nope. Not even a little bit.”
Winnie giggled at his teasing grin.
“Well, Winnie has to eat. If she doesn’t eat the right amount of food at the right time, we’re all going to get in trouble and lose privileges. So, get dressed and meet me in the family room, pronto.”
“Slave driver,” Joel said. “See ya in a minute.” He hung up the phone and reached over for one more kiss.
“I’ll eat fast,” Winnie told him, then slid away to find her discarded clothing.
“Not too fast,” he warned. “I don’t want you to get a stomachache.”
“That’s the last thing we want,” she agreed. “A repeat of our wedding night? I shudder.”
When they were mostly dressed and stumbled out of the bedroom into the family room, Joel’s mom tsked at them. “You two look drunk. All glassy-eyed and stumbling.”
“Hi, Mom,” Winnie said, ignoring her observation. “Thank you for taking such good care of us.”
“You’re welcome, honey. Now, come sit down.”
“What culinary surprise do you have for us?” Joel asked, pulling out a bar stool for Winnie to climb up.
“One graham cracker and half a glass of milk,” Lynnette said with a satisfied smile.
“Gee, ma, don’t overfill our plates.” Joel’s words were laced with sarcasm.
“This is why I’m in charge of food,” Lynnette said, setting the two servings onto the bar in front of them. “What looks like a morsel to you is twice as much as what she would have eaten a few weeks ago. I’m providing exactly the number of calories required. I do not want to be on the wrong side of Ulysses’ wrath.”
“I’ll second that,” Winnie said, taking a nibble off one corner of her graham cracker. Then, remembering that one of the rules at the center was that they not cut their food into tiny pieces, she took a decent sized bite. She was taking this refeeding seriously, especially after the experience she’d had earlier in the afternoon.
Now that her head was clear and her body was regaining health, Winnie wanted to experience every good sensation the world had to offer. She wanted to run on the beach and let the tide roll over her bare feet as they sank in the sand. She wanted to ride a roller coaster with the wind in her hair, arms lifted and screaming in fear. She wanted to taste every taste and smell every smell and feel every feeling imaginable.
Winnie glanced at her husband and a question popped out before she remembered that her mother-in-law was sitting across from them. “You want to take a shower?”
Lynnette coughed to hide laughter and Joel nearly choked on his bite of graham cracker. He took a drink of milk and then turned to Winnie with a grin. “Heck, yeah.”
“Snack first,” Lynnette scolded, as casually as if they’d suggested going out to play on the beach.
Joel shoved the last two bites of his graham cracker into his mouth and made a show of chewing quickly then slammed back his glass of milk and thumped the glass onto the bar as if asking the bartender for another shot of whisky. “You ready?”
“I’m going to finish my graham cracker first.” Winnie took a purposely small bite with a flirt in her expression.
“Okay, you two. Enough of that,” Lynnette said. “You’re grossing me out. Finish up and I don’t want to see you again until dinnertime.”
Winnie ate the last two bites in one mouthful and washed it down with the remainder of her milk, then turned to her husband and wrapped her arms and legs around him as he carried her to their bedroom, barely saying goodbye to Lynnette.