Distant Shores Page 36

The apartment was as quiet as a tomb. No candle scented the air, no music had been turned on, no aromatic dinner pulled him toward the kitchen.

Disappointment poked a hole in his good mood. He hadn't realized how lonely success could be if you had no one to share it with.

He made himself a drink, then put a CD into the stereo--an old Queen album. "We Are the Champions" blared through the tiny black speakers.

Sipping his drink, he went to the window and stared out.

Tonight, the view didn't help. All he saw when he looked down was a crowd of strangers. For the first time in this city of millions, Jack felt alone.

He picked up the phone and dialed Birdie's number, then hung up before she answered. He didn't know what to say to her anymore. "I love you" was no longer enough, but what else was there? All he knew was that tonight's victory was hollow without her.

He finished his drink and poured another. By now, the apartment was starting to soften; hard wall edges were blurring. Queen moved on to "Another One Bites the Dust."

He slid down to the floor and sat there, leaned back against his Barcalounger. He flipped open the drink holder hidden in the tufted velour arm. He tried twice to put his glass in the hole, then gave up and downed the rest of the Scotch.

Maybe he should go out, have a few drinks at Kel's.

But he didn't feel like moving.

What he felt like was talking to his wife. He wanted to show her the tape, and watch her smile at him afterward. In the old days, she would have teared up; no doubt about it. She would have said, "Oh, baby, that was amazing. I always knew you had it in you."

He needed that now.

It was funny how profoundly you could need something that for years you hadn't even noticed was missing.

He got to his feet. The apartment swayed for a second, then righted itself.

He was drunker than he thought. "So wha?"

Why should he stay sober anyway? He'd rather be drunk right now; he had a lot of things he wanted to forget. Like the softness of her touch . . . or the way her green eyes sparkled with pride at his accomplishments.

He stumbled into the kitchen, where he made himself another drink. He'd left the jigger somewhere--God knew where--but it didn't matter.

The doorbell rang. His heart lurched. Against all common sense, he thought, Birdie.

He hurried to the door and opened it.

Sally leaned against the doorframe, a bottle of Dom Perignon dangling from one hand. Her hair was loose and flowing around her shoulders. She wore a pretty, scoop-necked dress that tucked in at her tiny waist and ended just above her knees. "I sneaked past the doorman. I hope that's okay."

"Uh. Sure."

"I saw the final edit," she said, smiling.

The magic words. "Iss good, isn't it?"

"You're a genius, Jack. A god. I was practically crying when Alex Rodriguez talked about leaving Seattle."

Her words were a precious water that irrigated his dry heart.

He stepped back to let her inside. He smacked into the wall and stumbled sideways. "Oops. Sorry."

She grabbed his arm to steady him. With one foot, she kicked the door shut. "I guess you don't need champagne."

"I'm a little drunk," he said. He thought maybe he'd whispered the confession.

She moved in close to him.

He felt her small, lithe body pressing against his, and he groaned, realizing suddenly how lonely he'd been in the last few weeks.

"Sally . . ." He didn't know what to say, what to ask for. All he knew was that his head was swimming and his dick was rock-hard. He could feel the blood draining out of his brain.

But he tried. Excuses and reasons staggered through his quickly shrinking brain. He had stumbled onto Wait, Sally when she kissed him.

That was the end of even pseudo-rational thought. When her lips touched his, he was lost. Time seemed to slow down and speed up at the same time.

He gave in; it was that simple. In some distant, hazy part of his mind, he knew he was doing a swan dive out of a high-rise building, but he couldn't make himself care. For months--years, really--he'd been holding himself in check, keeping steady to the vows he'd made to Elizabeth.

But now she was living in Oregon and she'd made it very clear that she didn't want him. Nothing had ever hurt like admitting that.

Sally gazed up at him, her eyes dark with the same runaway passion that was making his dick ache. "Well?"

His mouth was dry--it only made him think of places that were wet. "You know I'm still married," he said, feeling that sentence was a personal triumph of self-control.

"Of course I know. I don't want your ring." Smiling slowly, she reached down into his pants. "I'll take this instead."

Jack couldn't help himself. He moved into her hand. He felt the top button on his pants pop free, felt the warm pressure of her fingers against his flesh.

He started to speak--although what he would say he couldn't imagine--

"Take me to bed," she whispered.

Four little words that were his undoing.


Elizabeth finished the day on autopilot. As she'd defrosted the chicken and started the casserole, she'd thought, Exhibit. My work.

She'd already browned the chicken and chopped the onions when she realized she was cooking for her old life. It was a chicken casserole that would easily feed eight people.

Once the meal was in the oven, she went into the pantry and pulled out the seascape. She would finish by tomorrow morning, and then start something else.

Maybe she'd try a watercolor next. In the old days, she'd loved oils, but she was older now. The smeary softness of watercolor appealed to her. And more important, she had a limited amount of time. She'd be more likely to make her five-works-by-the-festival deadline if she didn't work in oil.

She thought she heard a car drive up. Then a door slam.

Maybe Meghann had cleared her schedule and headed south for a girls' weekend.

Elizabeth hurried to the door and flung it open.

Anita stood there, wearing a flowing white dress and pink ballet slippers. A floppy purple hat covered much of her face. Beside her was a huge suitcase and a long, narrow cardboard box. A lime green taxi drove away. "Hey, Birdie," she said, smiling uncertainly, "this is the beach I picked."

Elizabeth didn't quite know how to react. First, there was Anita's appearance: she looked like something out of a Grimm's fairy tale, nothing like the Texas golddigger that was her usual style. Gone were the bright, garish colors and peroxided, high-rise hair. Now a simple white braid hung over one shoulder. There was something almost otherworldly about her, a fragility that bespoke great sadness.

And--even more disconcerting--was the fact that she was here, invading the solitude that had cost Elizabeth so dearly.

She remembered their last phone conversation. Elizabeth had been triumphant after painting class--and yes, tipsy. Had she invited Anita here?


No invitation had been issued, drunken or otherwise. But she'd written that despairing we're family letter right after the break up. All of this flashed through her mind in an instant.

"I hope you don't mind me just showin' up. My mama would be spinnin' in her grave at such a breach of etiquette, but I was lookin' through travel magazines for a place to go, and I saw an ad for Oregon beaches. And I thought, hell's bells it must be a sign."

"You look . . . different," Elizabeth said clumsily. An understatement on par with It rains in Oregon.

Anita laughed. "Oh, that. All those clothes were for Edward. This is my natural hair color."

For Daddy?

Her regal, aristocratic father had wanted his wife to dress like Dolly Parton?

Elizabeth couldn't process that. She didn't want to step aside, not for Anita-the-Hun, but what choice did she have?

You take care of her, you hear?

"Come on in." Elizabeth grabbed the huge suitcase (What did Anita need with that much stuff? How long did she intend to stay???) and dragged it over the threshold.

Anita stepped inside, looked around. She was wringing her hands together. "So, this is the famous beach house. Your daddy always wanted to see it."

That sentence brought them together for a moment. "I begged him to come up for the Fourth of July."

"Yes," Anita answered softly.

"Come on, I'll show you to the guest bedroom. It's upstairs." Elizabeth turned and walked through the house, dragging the rolling suitcase behind her. When she reached the foot of the stairs, she looked back.

Anita stood in front of the fireplace. A pretty red-gold sheen made her dress appear translucent. She reached out for one of the framed photographs on the mantel.

It was the one taken at Christmas, where the whole family stood clustered around the brightly decorated tree. They were laughing so hard their faces were scrunched up. All except Daddy; he looked grim and irritated.

And no wonder. He'd bought Elizabeth a 35 mm camera for Christmas. It had taken him twenty minutes--and at least that many tries--to get the automatic timer to work.

I don't care if your damned lips are ready to fall off, he'd boomed, frustrated by their laughter, just smile, damn it. This is fun.

It was the last picture she had of him.

Anita turned. There were tears in her eyes. "Could I get a copy of this?"

"Of course."

Anita looked at the picture for a second longer, then headed for the stairs. Gone was the Bette Midler mince-step; in its place, a flowing gracefulness that suggested at least a few years of dance training. She stopped in front of Elizabeth.

"I didn't know where else to go, Birdie," she said quietly. "I couldn't stay there another night."

Elizabeth could understand that. Her father had generated a lot of heat. Without him, it would be a cold world. She looked down at her stepmother. Amazingly, she couldn't see the woman she'd fought with for most of her life. This new Anita was frail and fragile, a lost soul. "Of course it's okay, Anita. We're family."

For better or for worse, it was true.

Jack came awake slowly, groaning. He felt as if he'd been hit in the head with a crowbar. He rolled over in bed; his outflung arm cracked onto the nightstand, sent the lamp clattering to the floor. He opened one eye. The clock read: 8:07.

There must have been a power outage last night. He never slept past five o'clock.

Then he noticed something on the floor. Red. Small.

Smacking his dry lips, he stared at it, trying to focus.

It was a condom wrapper, ripped in half.

He bolted upright. At the movement, his headache lurched into a run.

Oh, shit. He glanced to the left.

The bed was empty.

Sagging forward, he closed his eyes for a long moment; then slowly, he pushed the covers aside again and got out of bed. He stumbled into the bathroom--where he saw that Sally had written a note on the mirror. In lipstick.

Great sex



The a in her name had a little halo above it.

The headache kicked him in the skull, pounding.

It never would have happened if Birdie had moved to New York. If she hadn't left him.

(Yeah, try that one on for size.)

The message on the mirror stared back at him.

Great sex.

It had been pretty damned good; that was true. Not jump-up-hit-your-head-against-the-ceiling great, but damned good. It had rejuvenated him, made him feel young again.


It had always been a weakness in him, that desperate, aching need to be wanted. In rehab, one of the shrinks had told him that his neediness was a by-product of having alcoholic parents who died too young. He didn't know about that, or care particularly. What he did know was that it had almost ruined him once, that desperate need.

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