Summer Island Page 42

Jere walked over to Caroline. “Care?”

The tenderness in his voice told Nora all she needed to know. There might be trouble between Caro and Jere-maybe big trouble-but underneath all that there was love, and with love, they had a chance.

“You shouldn't have come,” Caro said, crossing her arms. She took a step backward, and Nora knew her daughter was afraid of getting too close to this man she loved so deeply.

“No,” he said softly, “you shouldn't have left. Not without talking to me first. Can you imagine how-” His voice cracked. “how I felt when I got your letter?”

“I thought-”

“Your letter, Caro. All these years and you leave me a letter that says you'll be back when you feel like it?”

Caro looked up at him. “I thought you'd be glad I left, and I couldn't stand to see that.”

“You thought.” He sighed, ran a hand through his hair. “Come home,” he whispered. “Mom's watching the kids for the rest of the weekend.” Caroline smiled. “She'll be bleeding from her ears before tomorrow morning.”

“That's her problem. We need some time alone.”

“Okay.” Caroline turned and went upstairs. She came down a minute later with her overnight bag. She enfolded Ruby in a fierce hug, whispering something that Nora couldn't hear; and then both girls laughed.

Finally, Caroline walked across the kitchen to Nora. “Thanks,” she said quietly.

“Oh, honey, I've waited a lifetime for last night.”

Caroline's eyes were bright. "I won't miss you anymore.

“No way. You can't get rid of me now. I love you, Caro.”

“And I love you, Mom.” Nora pulled her daughter into her arms and held her tightly, then slowly released her.

Jeremy took the overnight bag from his wife, then held on to her hand. Together; they left the house.

Ruby and Nora followed them as far as the porch, watching as the gray Mercedes followed the white Range Rover out of the driveway.

“She's gone,” Ruby said.

“She'll be back.” Nora stared out at the beautiful blue sky and choppy green sea. It was going to be a great day for sailing; no clouds, a little breeze shivering through the trees, sunlight on the water.

Ruby sidled up to Nora, stood so close their shoulders were touching. “I'm sorry, Mom.”

Nora turned. “For what?”

Ruby looked different somehow. Serious. “For all the presents I sent back and all the years I stayed away. But mostly I'm sorry for being so damned unforgiving.”

Nora wasn't sure how it happened-who moved first-but suddenly they were clinging to each other; laughing and crying at the same time.

At exactly eleven, a boat horn blared. A loud ah-oo gab, ah-oo-gah. The Wind Lass pulled up to the dock.

Ruby glanced down at the water; watching Dean tie the boat down. “They're here.” There was a strand of worry in her voice.

Nora understood. “Are you afraid to see Dean?”

Ruby nodded.

Nora laid a hand against Ruby's cheek. “You could travel the world and you wouldn't find a better man than Dean Sloan.”

“He's not the problem. I am.”

“Your whole life has been tangled up with Dean. When someone pinched him, you got a welt in the same place. He's a part of you, Ruby, like it or not. Being afraid of him is like being afraid of your own arm. Just let go. Have fun. Let yourself remember the good times, not only the bad.”

Ruby looked up at her. "I want that, Mom. I want it so much

The sailboat honked its horn again.

“Grab the picnic basket,” Nora said, pointing to the pile of supplies on the kitchen table.

Within minutes, they were headed down the path to the beach. Nora moved as fast as her crutches would allow.

The sailboat was tied down. Dean was on the bow, holding the two ropes that held the boat against the dock. “Welcome aboard.”

Nora handed her crutches to Ruby and stepped carefully onto the boat, trying to ensure that her cast didn't leave a mark on the teak decking. When her balance was steady, she took her crutches and tossed them onto the settee belowdecks. Limping awkwardly, she sidled around the giant silver wheel and sat down beside Eric. A pillow rested behind his stocking capped head and a thick woolen Navajo blanket covered his body. Although he was smiling, he looked terribly pale and weak. The shadows were purple beneath his eyes. His lips were chapped and colorless.

Nora was shocked by his appearance. He looked so much worse than the last time she'd seen him. It wasn't Eric; this gaunt, too-fragile man was a whittled down version of him, perhaps, but when she looked into his huge, sad eyes, she saw the spirit that cancer couldn't touch. With exquisite gentleness, she curled an arm around him and drew him close.

He rested his head against her shoulder; shivering a little. “You feel good,” he murmured.

Dean started the engine. Ruby untied the boat and jumped aboard; they motored out of the bay, and when they passed the tip of the island, Dean rigged the mainsail.

The boat immediately heeled starboard and caught a gust of wind, slicing through the water.

Eric pressed his face into the wind, smiling brightly.

Nora tilted her head against his and stared out atthe lush, green islands. Ruby was up on the bow of the boat, standing in the wind. Nora didn't have to see her daughter's face to know that she was grinning.

Dean hurried below decks. When he came back up, Robert Palmer's “Addicted to Love” blared through the speakers.

On the bow, Ruby moved her hips to the beat. Nora imagined that she was singing-off key-at the top of her lungs.

There was a pause between songs, and the silence seemed endless and perfect, a moment trapped in a time that was somehow both then and now: Dean at the wheel, Eric and Nora sitting on the aft deck, Ruby poised at the bow, always eager to see where they were going.

Nora felt the hot sun on her cheeks and heard the loose flapping of the ties against the mast.

“I'm glad you're here,” Eric said. She smiled at him. "Where else could I be?

You and Dean and Ruby ... you're the best parts of my life. I'll always remember my dark-haired boy. Every time I turned around, you were there, grinning up at me, saying, “What are we gonna do next, Miz Bridge?” It seems like only yesterday you were sitting at my kitchen table with your banged-up elbows on the pink placemat. God, the time goes so fast ...

“Too fast.” Eric's gaze was steady.

Nora's throat closed up, but she refused to let him see her cry. Gently, she touched his face.

Eric turned away; she could tell that he was collecting himself again, distancing himself from the truth they'd dared to touch upon.

He looked at Ruby, standing on the bow, then at Dean. They were the full boat-length apart, each trying not to get caught staring at the other. “You think they'll figure it out?”

“I hope so. They need each other.”

“Take care of him for me,” Eric said in a throaty voice, wiping his eyes with the edge of the blanket. “I thought I'd always be there for him ... my baby brother.”

You will be."

Eric laughed and wiped his eyes. “God, we're out sailing and we look like we just watched Brian's Song.”

Nora laughed and wiped her eyes.

A swift breeze rose suddenly, filling the canvas sail with a tharumping noise. The boat keeled over and cut through the sun lit, glistening water.

Dean looked down at his brother. “Do you want to take the wheel?”

Eric's face lit up. “Oh, yeah.”

Dean slipped an arm around his brother's frail body and helped him hobble toward the big, silver wheel. Eric took hold; Dean stood behind and beside him, resting a hand on his brother's shoulder, to keep her steady.

Wind-tears streaked across Eric's temples, his thinning hair flapped against the sides of his face, his T-shirt billowed against his sunken chest.

“Orcas!” Ruby said suddenly, pointing starboard.

At first, Nora didn't see anything. She stood up and tented a hand across her eyes.

She saw the first black fin rise slowly, slowly from the water. Then there were six of them moving through the sea like the upended teeth of comb, impossibly close together

“I'm the queen of the world.” Eric yelled, throwing his arms out. He laughed out loud, and for the first time in weeks, it was his laughter, not the weak, down version that cancer had left him with.

Nora knew that when she looked back on and the ugliness of the past few weeks an seemed overwhelming, she would picture him standing tall, squinting into the sun, laughing.

And she would remember her boy. Her Eric,

Chapter Twenty-three

It was early evening by the time they got back to the house. Lottie served them a delicious dinner of Dungeness crabs, Caesar salad, and French bread. She'd laughed as she set the meal on the table, saying that she hadn't figured too much had changed over the years the Sloans and the Bridges loved crab, but too soft hearted to boil one.

Even though they'd eaten a big lunch on the boat, they'd descended on dinner like Survivor contestants.

Eric had even managed to eat a few tender; buttery bites.

While the girls washed and dried the dishes, Dean had carried Eric up to bed. Finally, Nora and Ruby went upstairs, and they all stood around Eric's bed, talking softly until he fell asleep.

Now the three of them were back on the Wind Lass, headed for Summer Island. The trip, being undertaken at night, without radar; took twice the usual amount of time. And still Ruby hadn't found the courage to hand Dean her heart.

All day she'd waited for The Moment, the one when she could turn to him and touch his arm and say she wasn't afraid anymore. But every time she'd started for him, she'd seized up. The shale of old habits collected beneath her feet and made it dangerous to move.

There had always been a roadblock between them, something Ruby couldn't climb over-a crowd of people (okay, so Eric and Mom weren't really a crowd, but when you were eating crow, one extraneous witness was too many), a set of chores, a whooshing wind.

So Ruby had waited. And waited.

She was still waiting when the Wind Lass glided up to the Bridges" dock.

“Get the lines, Ruby,” Dean yelled.

She grabbed the lines and jumped onto the dock, tying the boat down. She was still figure-eighting the line around the midship cleat when she saw her mother step down onto the dock.

“Thanks, Dean,” she heard her mother say. She felt, rather than saw, Mom turn toward her. “Ruby? Honey, I'll need some help up to the house. The bank is slippery.”

Ruby shot a glance to the boat; it was all shadows up close, strips of white and gray that bobbed up and down. She couldn't see a flash of Dean's blond hair. He was probably down below. What if he left before she could get back?


She dropped the excess coil of line and headed toward her mother. Mom turned and waved. “Bye, Dean. Thanks for a great day.”

And there he was, standing beside the wheel. She could make out his golden hair and yellow sweater, even a flash of white teeth as he smiled, but that was all. “Bye,” he said in a subdued voice.

“Uh . . . If you need help leaving-you know, uh, or something-I could come right back down," Ruby said.

There was a moment's pause before he answered. She wished she could see his face. “I can always use help.”

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