Summer Island Page 27

Chapter Thirteen

Dean carried the breakfast tray up to his brother's bedroom. It wasn't much--a glass of juice, a soft-boiled egg, and a piece of wheat toast. He knewEric wouldn't eat more than a few small bites, but it made life seem normal, this offering of food.

When Dean stepped into the room, he found his brother already awake, sitting up in bed.

“Heya, Dino,” Eric said.

Dean set the tray down, helped his brother sit up higher in the bed, then carefully placed the tray across Eric's lap.

“I'll bet this smells great,” Eric said as Dean went to the window and flipped the curtains open.

Dean opened the casement window just enough to let in the sound of the sea. When he turned back around, he noticed how wan and wasted his brother looked this morning. The shadows beneath his eyes were as dark as bruises. He seemed to have grown sicker since yesterday. “Bad night?”

Eric nodded. His head lolled back into the pillows, as if the pretense of eating breakfast hadexhausted him. “I can't seem to sleep anymore, which is pretty damned ironic since it's all I do. The pain cocktail knocks me out but it's not the same as a good night's sleep.” He smiled tiredly. “It's funny the things you miss. I don't dream anymore.”

Dean pulled his chair up to the bed and sat down.

“I wanted to talk to you last night, but I couldn't seem to stay focused.”

Dean reached out and held his brother's cold, thin hand.

Eric turned to him, smiling. “I always thought we'd come back to this house as old men. I pictured us sitting on the porch. We'd have white hair by then... or maybe only I would have hair; and you'd be bald asGrandpa. We'd play Chinese checkers and watch your kids run up and down the dock, looking for shrimp.”

Dean let himself be carried away by the dream. “They'd have nets ... just like we used to.”

Eric's eyes fluttered shut. "I wonder whatever happened to those nets we bought every year? You and Ruby used to play down on that dock for hours...

Dean swallowed hard. He thought about changing the subject, but suddenly he wanted to remember her, to reminisce with someone who'd known her. “Sometimes when I close my eyes at night, I hear her laughing, yelling at me to hurry up. She was always running off ahead.”

“I thought I'd be the best man at your wedding. It's crazy, isn't it, you and Ruby were sixteen years old, but I thought it was true love.”

“I thought so, too.”

Eric looked at him. “And now?”

Dean wanted to smile, pretend it was just a silly question between grown men about something that had happened long ago and didn't matter. But what was the point? He knew now how precious this time with Eric was. It was obvious that it was running out, leaking away like the color in his brother's cheeks. “Now I know it was.”

“She's on Summer Island.”

Dean frowned; it took a moment for the full impact of those words to hit him. “Ruby's at the summer house?”

Eric grinned. “Yep.”

Dean leaned back. “What ... with her husband and kids?”

“She's never been married, baby brother. I wonder why that is?”

Dean stood up and strode toward the window. He stared through the glass, trying to see Summer Island through the trees. His heart was beating so fast he felt faint. Ruby is here.

“Go see her,” Eric said softly.

Dean changed into a pair of Levi's and a T-shirt. At the front door; he slipped on his boat shoes and grabbed his ten-speed from its resting place beneath the eaves. There was no doubt that in this week of June, with the sun shining brightly on the islands, the ferry lines would be endless. Bikes always got on first.

He pedaled down the short, winding hill to the dock and got lucky. A boat was loading. He got right on.

He didn't go up top. Instead, he stood with his bike at the bow of the boat, barely noticing the cars streaming into lines behind him.

On Summer Island, he didn't even wave to Sister Helen as he bicycled past. By the time he swooped onto the Bridges' heavily shaded driveway, he was sweating and out of breath. At the top of the yard, he jumped off the bike and let it clatter to the ground.

Then he stopped. For the first time, he wondered what in the hell he was doing, running toward his first love as if eleven years hadn't passed, as if he'd seen her Yesterday ...

But they'd been apart for all of their adulthood; he had no way of knowing whether she'd thought of him At all.

Their last day together came at him in a rush of images and phrases.

The sky had been robin's-egg blue. Strangely, he remembered looking up, seeing the white trail from a passing jet. He'd been about to point it out to Ruby, to start their familiar “if I were on that plane, where would I be going?” daydream.

But when he'd turned to her; he'd seen what he should have noticed before.

She'd been crying.

That was not so unusual, of course; those were the days when Ruby had cried all the time.

The difference was, this time, she wouldn't let him get near her. He couldn't remember precisely what he'd said, how he'd tried uselessly to comfort her. What he did recall was how she finally stilled, and the sight ofRuby, his Ruby, looking pale and cold had scared him.

I had sex with a boy last night. She'd said it without preamble, as if she'd wanted to wound him with her confession.

He had pulled the whole, sordid story out of her; one painful syllable at a time, and when she was finished, he knew all the facts, but they hadn't added up to a whole truth he could understand.

If he'd been older; more sexually experienced, he would have known the question to ask, the only one that mattered: Why? But he'd been seventeen and a virgin himself. All he'd cared about was the promise he and Ruby had made ... to wait for each other until marriage.

Anger and hurt had overwhelmed him. She'd lied to him, and she hadn't loved him as much as he'd loved her. He'd felt foolish and used. He'd waited desperately for her to throw herself at his feet, to beg for forgiveness, but she'd just stood there, close enough to touch and yet so far away he couldn't see her clearly. Or maybe it was his tears that were blurring the world, turning her into a girl he'd never seen before.

Go ahead, she'd said, staring dully up at him. Go. It's over.

He'd had to leave fast-before she could see that he was crying. He'd turned away from her and run back to his bike. He'd pedaled hard, trying to outdistance pain, but it had raged inside of him, thumping with every beat of his heart. Everywhere he'd looked, he'd seen her ... In the shade of Miss McGinty's oak tree, where he'd read Shakespeare's sonnets to Ruby the previous week ... in the tree-lined darkness of the state park's driveway, where they'd once set up their lemonade stand. And finally, on his parents' land, where he'd kissed her for the first time.

At home, he'd picked up the phone and called his mother. Within hours, he'd been on a seaplane, heading for Seattle. By the next day, he'd been on his way to boarding school back east.

Whatever should have been said or done between them had been lost.

Dean released his breath in a steady, even stream. There was no turning back now.

He walked down the path and stepped up onto the porch. After another quick breath, he knocked.

And she answered.

The minute he saw her, he understood what had been missing from his life. It was hokey, he knew, and sentimental and sappy, but that didn't make it any less true. What he'd been longing for; without even realizing it, had been that elusive, magical mixture of friendship and passion that he'd only ever found with her.

“Ruby,” he whispered. It actually hurt to say her name. She was so beautiful that for a second he couldn't breathe.

“Dean,” she said, her eyes widening.

He didn't know what to say. He felt like a seventeen year-old kid again, tongue-tied in front of the prom queen. He was trying like hell to appear casual, but it was difficult. He was sweating suddenly and his throat was painfully dry. All he could think was, Ruby's home, and she was standing in front of him and he didn't want to say the wrong thing, but he couldn't imagine what the right thing was. He'd dreamed of seeing her for so long, but now ... the moment felt spun from sugar, so fragile a soft breeze could shatter it. “I ... Uh ... I came home to see Eric ... you probably heard about that.”

“How is he?” Her voice was barely audible.

“Not good.”

She closed her eyes for a second, then looked up at him again. “I'm here with my mother. She had a car accident and I'm taking care of her.”

You? It had slipped out, an intimate observation from a man who'd once known the girl. He was instantly afraid he'd offended her.

A smile hitched one side of her mouth. “I know. I should call Ripley's Believe It or Not.”

“So, you've forgiven her, then.”

Sadness darkened her eyes. “Forgiveness doesn't matter, does it, Dean? When a thing is done, it's done. You can't unring a bell.” She smiled, but it wasn't the smile he remembered, the one that crinkled her whole face and sparkled in her eyes. She seemed to be waiting for him to say something, but he couldn't think fast enough, and as usual, she didn't wait long. “Well, it was good seeing you again. Nora is in my old room. Say hello before you leave. She'd hate to miss you.”

And with that, she walked past him and headed down to the beach.

Ruby thought she was going to be sick. That was why she'd left Dean so quickly. She couldn't stand there, making polite conversation, not when it felt as if carbonated water had replaced her blood.

She ran down the path toward the beach and sat down on her favorite moss-covered rock, just as she'd done a thousand times in her life.


She heard her name, spoken softly in the voice that had filled her dreams since adolescence, and she froze.

Her heart picked up a wild, thumping beat.

She hadn't heard his footsteps, hadn't prepared to see him again so quickly.

“Can I sit with you?”

She tried not to remember all the hours they'd spent here, huddled out on this rock, staring first out to sea, then gradually at each other. She sidled to the right it had always been her side.

Dean sat down beside her

She felt his thigh along hers, and she ached to scoot closer ... to lay her hand on his the way she'd done so many times before. But she'd lost that right. In her angry, confused youth, she'd thrown it away.

She had always known that she still carried a torch for Dean, but obviously she hadn't understood what that meant. It was more than fond memories or adolescent longings. A torch was hot; it would scar your flesh if you weren't careful.

“This brings back memories,” he said softly.

She didn't mean to turn to him, but she couldn't help herself. She wanted to say something witty, but when she gazed into his blue eyes, she was sixteen again. Except he had become a man. Lines bracketed his mouth and crow's-feet fanned out from the corners of his eyes. If it were possible, he was even more handsome now.

She felt a rush of shame. If only she'd worn better clothes today than torn black shorts and a ragged T-shirt, or cut her hair recently. He was probably disgusted that she'd let herself get so... ugly.

She reached deep inside for a casual voice. “It's good to see you again,” she said, staring back out at the sea. “I hear from Caro that you're a corporate bigwig now.”

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