Summer Island Page 28

“It doesn't mean much.”

“Spoken like a rich man.” She tried to smile. “So, how's life treated you?” God, she wished he'd take the reins of this awkward conversation and ride away ...

“I saw your act once. At the Comedy Store.”

She turned to him, and immediately regretted it. She was close enough to see the green flecks in his blue eyes. She remembered suddenly how his eyes used to seem to change color, to take on the hue of the sea or the sky. “Really?”

“I thought you were funny as hell.”

Her smile softened into the real thing. “Really?”

"I was going to talk to you after the show, but there were so many people around you. A man ...

“Max.” She felt the sting of that missed opportunity, and wondered how often that happened in life. Chances lost and won on a turn of fate so small they couldn't be seen by the naked eye. “We broke up a while ago. And what about you? Are you married?” The moment she asked the question, she flinched, feeling completely exposed. If she could have sucked it back into her mouth, she would have.

“No. Never.”

She felt a sudden euphoria, then it fell away, left her even more confused. He could ruin her with a word, this boy she'd loved who'd become a man she didn't know. She'd loved him so much, and yet she'd broken his heart. She still barely knew why. “That summer... I found out from Lottie that you'd moved away,” she said, her voice unsteady.

“I couldn't face you,” he answered, looking at her. “You didn't just hurt me, Ruby. You ruined me.”

“I know.” She almost reached for him then, placed her hand on his thigh as if she had every right to touch him. And the stinging realization that she couldn’t touch him, that she didn't even know him, brought her up short.

She lurched to her feet, terrified that if he looked at her again, she would burst into tears. “I have to get back to Nora.”

Slowly, he got to his feet and reached for her.

She stumbled back so fast she almost fell over the bank. His hand dropped back to his side, and she had a sudden, overwhelming fear that he wouldn’t try to touch her again.

She could see the disappointment in his eyes. “Time is precious,” he said. “If I didn't know that before this week, I know it now. So I'm just going to say it: I missed you.”

She couldn't imagine what to say next, how to answer. She had missed him, too-missed him so much-and it hurt to know that she would go on missing him until she was an old woman. A more bendable, trusting person could have changed the future in this very moment, but Ruby couldn't imagine that kind of strength.

He waited, and the silence stretched out between them. Then, slowly, he turned and walked away.

Chapter Fourteen

Nora sat on the porch. She could see Dean and Ruby sitting out on that old rock of theirs.

Ruby was the first to stand. Slowly, Dean followed. They stood frozen, close enough to kiss.

Then Dean turned and headed back up toward the house, leaving Ruby behind. He strode up the path, saw Nora on the porch, and came toward her. At the railing he stopped, hung his arms over the wisteria covered edge, and smiled tiredly. “Hey, Miz Bridge.”

She smiled. “Call me Nora. It's good to see you again, Dean. I'm glad you finally made it back to the island.”

“It's good to see you, too.” He looked at her, and in his eyes, she saw pain. “Thank you, Nora,” he said softly. “You're everything to him.”

She nodded, knowing she didn't need to say anything. Everything that mattered had passed between them in silence.

Dean turned back, stared down at the beach. Nora knew that they both wanted to talk about Ruby, but neither of them knew what to say. Finally, he pulled away from the porch. “Will you guys come over on Saturday? I've got the Wind Lass working. I'm going to take Eric sailing.”

“That would be great.”

Dean shot a last, lingering look at Ruby, then walked away.

Nora waited, knowing that Ruby wouldn't stay down there for long. Sure enough, a few minutes later, she headed up the path. When she saw Nora on the porch, she paused.

Nora noticed that her daughter's eyes were red. A thin tracing of tears streaked her cheeks.

Nora's heart went out to her. “Come,” she said, “sit with me.”

Ruby looked torn. She probably couldn't decide which was worse-being alone right now or being with Nora. Finally, she walked up onto the porch, hitched her butt up onto the railing.

Nora longed to touch her daughter, to simply lay a hand on Ruby's head the way she used to. But such intimacy was impossible between them now. The only way she could touch her daughter was with words, with memories. “You know what I was remembering just now? The winter I was pregnant with you. A freak weather pattern moved through the islands.”

Ruby looked up. “Yeah?”

“The snow came earlier that year than anyone could remember. Just after Thanksgiving. At first people tried to drive, but by evening, there were more cars in the ditches than on the roads, and we all gave up. By nightfall, the clouds were gone, and we'd never seen such a starry sky.” She smiled at the memory.

“Your dad and I were on the porch when we heard the laughter. We put on every piece of winter clothing we owned and followed the sound walking through snow that came up to our knees. I remember having the strangest feeling that I could see our words; they seemed to be written in the steam of our breath. The snow didn't crunch beneath our boots. It sort of... sighed. We followed the laughter all the way to the McGintys' place. That ugly old swamp on their property remember it?-well, it had frozen solid. Every kid on the island was there, skating or sliding or inner-tubing. I never knew how it was that everyone knew to be there at just that moment. . . . At midnight, stars started falling. Hundreds of them. The next day on the news, they had all kinds of scientific explanations for it, but we believed it was magic.” Nora closed her eyes, and for a moment, she could almost smell the newly fallen snow, almost feel that stinging cold on her cheeks. “After that, for almost a month, things on the island went a little crazy. Roses bloomed on prickly bushes that had been brown and dead for weeks. Rain fell from cloudless skies. But what I remember most of all were the sunsets. From then until the new year came and chased the magic away, the night sky was always red. We called it the ruby season.”

Ruby said softly, “Is that where my name came from?”

Your dad and I used to sit out here, wrapped in blankets, and watch that ruby sky. We never talked about naming you after it, but when you came, we knew. You'd be our Ruby. Our own bit of magic.

Ruby smiled. “Thanks.”

Nora looked at her and paused. “Dean invited us to go sailing on Saturday.”

“What will I say to Eric?”

“Oh, Ruby,” she said gently, “you start with hello.”

Ruby barely slept that night. At first, she tried to tell herself it was the heat. Even with the windows open, summer had always been sweltering on the second floor.

I missed you.

If there was one thing Ruby knew, it was that she hurt people, and she didn't want to hurt Dean again.

He deserved a woman who could return his love as fully and freely as he gave it. That was the one thing she'd known even as a teenager.

Finally, at about three-thirty, she went out onto the balcony and sat in the chair her grandfather had made. In the dark before the rising sun, she tried to pull peace from the familiar sounds and smells. The whoosh of the waves ... the hoot of a barn owl, not too far away ... the scent of her grandmother's roses, climbing up trellises on the side of the house.

Write. That'll get your mind off everything.

She reached for the pad beside her. Then she stopped. Frowning, she drew her hand back.

For the first time, she considered the impact of her article. She'd agreed to write it because she'd wanted to hurt her mother, to strike back for all the pain she'd suffered as a young girl.

But she wasn't a child anymore.

Before, she hadn't wanted to know why Nora left them. Or maybe she'd been so damned certain that she'd seen everything that mattered.

But marriages broke up for reasons; women like her mother didn't just up and leave their husbands on a sunny summer's day.

Ruby had glimpsed moments in the past days, images that didn't fit with the picture she'd drawn of her mother. And there was the “best of” file she'd read. The first “Nora Knows Best” column appeared months after her mother had left ... and in a cheesy local newspaper that couldn't have paid her more than gas money.

It didn't fit, and that bothered Ruby.

She closed her eyes ... and remembered a cold, crisp October day that smelled of ripening apples and dying black leaves. Dad had been in the living room, sitting in that leather chair of his, drinking and smoking cigarettes he'd rolled himself. The whole house had smelled of smoke. Caroline had been gone on a field trip to the Museum of Flight in Seattle and they'd missed the ferry back. Ruby had been in the bedroom, reading Misery by Stephen King. “Groovy Kind of Love” was on the turntable.

There was a knock at the door. Ruby sat up in bed, waiting to hear her dad's footsteps, and when he went past her open door she recognized the stumbling drunkenness of his gait. Please, she thought, don't let it be one of my friends ...

She heard him say, “Nora,” in a voice that was too loud, belligerent.

Ruby froze; then she heard the scratching whine of the record player's needle being scraped across vinyl. Everything went quiet. Chair springs creaked.

Ruby slipped out of bed and crept to the door of her room, pushing it farther open.

Dad was in his chair, Mom was kneeling in front Of him.

“Rand,” Mom said quietly, “we need to talk.”

He stared down at her, his hair was too long, and dirty. “It's too late for talking.” Mom reached for him; he lurched to his feet, swaying unsteadily above her.

Ruby couldn't stand it another minute, seeing her father's pain in such sharp relief. “Get out,” she yelled, surprised at the strength in her voice.

Mom got to her feet, turned around. “Oh, Ruby,” she said, holding her arms out.

As Mom came toward her, Ruby saw the Changes in her mother, the gray pallor in her cheeks ... the weight she'd lost ... the way her hands, always so strong and sure, were blue-veined and trembling as she reached out.

Ruby sprang backward. "Go-go away. We don't want you anymore.

Mom stopped; her hands fell uselessly to her sides. “Don't say that, honey.” She gazed at Ruby. "There are things you don't understand. You're so Young ...

Ruby ignored her mother's tears. It was easy; she'd cried so many of them herself they'd lost their currency. “I understand how it feels to be left behind, as if you were ... nothing.” Her traitorous voice broke, and the sudden rawness of her pain made it difficult to breathe. Ruby fisted her hands and drew in a deep, shuddering breath. “Go away, Mother. No one here loves you anymore.”

Mom glanced back at Dad, who'd slumped into his chair again. He was holding his head in his hands.

Ruby wanted to put her arms around him and tell him she loved him, just as she'd done so often in the past few months, but she didn't have the heart for it now. It was all she could do to keep from wailing. She stepped back into her bedroom and slammed the door shut.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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