Between Sisters Page 11

“Why couldn’t he baby-sit for an hour or two?”

Gina sat upright. “Hot damn, Claire. Why didn’t we think of that before? He’s fourteen.”

Karen frowned. “With the maturity of an earthworm.”

“We all baby-sat at his age,” Charlotte said. “Hell, I was practically a nanny that summer before high school.”

“He’s a responsible kid, Karen. He’ll be fine,” Claire said gently.

“I don’t know. Last month his fish died. Lack of food.”

“They won’t starve to death in two hours.”

Karen looked back at the cabin.

Claire understood exactly what her friend was thinking. If Willie was old enough to baby-sit, he wasn’t really a little boy anymore.

“Yeah,” Karen said finally. “Of course. Why not? We’ll leave a cell phone with him—”

“—and a list of numbers—”

“—and we’ll tell them not to leave the cabin.”

Gina smiled for the first time all day. “Ladies, the Bluesers are going to leave the building.”

It took them two hours to shower, change their clothes, and make the kids’ dinner. Macaroni and cheese and hot dogs. It took them another hour to convince the kids that their plan was possible.

Finally, Claire took firm hold of Karen and led her outside. As they walked down the long, winding driveway, Karen paused and looked back every few feet. “Are you sure?” she said each time.

“We’re sure. The responsibility will be good for him.”

Karen frowned. “I keep thinking about those poor little goldfish, floating belly-up in the dirty water.”

“Just keep walking.” Gina leaned close to Claire and said, “She’s like a car in the ice. If she stops, we’ll never get her going again.”

They were standing across the street from Cowboy Bob’s when it hit them.

Claire was the first to speak. “It’s not even dark out.”

“As party animals, we’ve lost our touch,” Charlotte said.

“Shit.” This from Gina.

Claire refused to be thwarted. So what if they looked like sorority girls amid the professional drinkers that populated a place like this in the early evening? They were here to have a good time and Cowboy Bob’s was their only choice.

“Come on, ladies,” she said, storming forward.

Her friends fell into line behind her. Heads held high, they marched into Cowboy Bob’s as if they owned the place. A thick gray haze hung along the ceiling, drifting in thin strands between the overhead lights. There were several regulars along the bar, their hunched bodies planted like soggy mushrooms on the black bar stools. Several multicolored neon beer signs flickered in the gloomy darkness.

Claire led the way to a round, battered table near the empty dance floor. From here they had an unobstructed view of the band—which was now noticeably absent. A whiny Western song played on the jukebox.

They had barely made it to their seats when a tall, thin waitress with leathery cheeks appeared beside them. “What c’n I get for y’all?” she asked, wiping down the table with a gray rag.

Gina ordered a round of margaritas and onion rings, which were promptly served.

“God it feels good to get out,” Karen said, reaching for her drink. “I can’t remember the last time I went out without having to do enough preplanning to launch an air strike.”

“Amen to that,” Gina agreed. “Rex could never handle getting a sitter. Not even to surprise me with a dinner date. The surprise was always: We’re going out to dinner. Could you plan it? Like it takes ovaries to pick up the phone.” At that, her smile slipped. “It always bugged the hell out of me. But it’s a pretty small grievance, isn’t it? Why didn’t I notice that before?”

Claire knew that Gina was thinking about the changes that were coming in her new, single life. The bed that would be half empty night after night. She wanted to say something, offer a comfort of some kind, but Claire knew nothing of marriage. She’d dated plenty in the last twenty years, and she’d fallen into pseudo-love a few times. But never the real thing.

She’d figured she was missing out, but just now, as she saw the heartbreak in Gina’s eyes, she wondered if maybe she’d been lucky.

Claire raised her glass. “To us,” she said in a firm voice. “To the Bluesers. We made it through junior high with Mr. Kruetzer, high school with Miss Bass the Wide Ass, through labors and surgeries, weddings and divorces. Two of us have lost our marriages, one hasn’t been able to get pregnant, one of us has never been in love, and a few years ago, one of us died. But we’re still here. We’ll always be here for one another. That makes us lucky women.”

They clinked their glasses together.

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Karen turned to Gina. “I know it feels like you’re cracking apart. But it gets better. Life goes on. That’s all I can say.”

Charlotte pressed a hand on Gina’s but said nothing. She was the one of them who knew best that sometimes there were no words to offer.

Gina managed a smile. “Enough. I can mope at home. Let’s talk about something else.”

Claire changed the subject. At first, it was awkward, a conversation on a one-way road trying to change directions, but gradually, they found their rhythm. They returned to the old days and everything made them laugh. At some point, they ordered a plate of nachos. By the time the second order of food came, the band had started. The first song was a bone-jarringly loud rendition of “Friends in Low Places.”

“It sounds like Garth Brooks got caught in a barbed-wire fence,” Claire said, laughing.

By the time the band got around to Alan Jackson’s “Here in the Real World,” the place was wall-to-wall people. Almost everyone was dressed in fake leather Western wear. A group was line-dancing in a thigh-slappin’ way.

“Did you hear that?” Claire leaned forward and put her hands on the table. “It’s ‘Guitars and Cadillacs.’ We gotta dance.”

“Dance?” Gina laughed. “The last time I danced with you two, my butt hit an old man and sent him flying. Give me another drink or two.”

Karen shook her head. “Sorry, Charlie. I danced until I hit a size sixteen. Now I consider it wise to keep my ass as still as possible.”

Claire stood up. “Come on, Charlotte. You’re not as damn old as these two. You want to dance?”

“Are you kidding? I’d love to.” She plopped her purse onto her chair and followed Claire to the dance floor. All around them, couples dressed in denim were dancing in patterns. A woman pirouetted past them, mouthing 1-2-3 along the way. She clearly needed all of her concentration skills to keep up with her partner’s moves.

Claire let the music pour over her like cool water on a hot summer’s day. It refreshed her, rejuvenated her. The minute she started to move in time with it, to swing her hips and stamp her feet and clap her hands, she remembered how much she loved this. She couldn’t believe that she’d let so many quiet years accumulate.

The music swept her away and peeled back the layer of motherhood years. She and Charlotte became their teenage selves again, laughing, bumping hips, singing out loud to each other. The next song was “Sweet Home Alabama,” and they had to stay for that one. Next came “Margaritaville.”

By the time the band took a break, Claire was damp with perspiration and out of breath. A tiny headache had flared behind her left eye; she stuck a hand in her pocket and found an Excedrin.

Charlotte pushed the hair out of her eyes. “That was great. Johnny and I haven’t danced since . . .” She frowned. “Jeez. Maybe not since our wedding. That’s what happens when you try like hell to get pregnant. Romance hits the road.”

Claire laughed. “Believe me, honey, it’s after you get knocked up that romance changes ZIP codes. I haven’t had a decent date in years. Come on. I’m so dehydrated I feel like a piece of beef jerky.”

Char nodded toward the back. “I need to use the rest room first. Order me another margarita. And tell Karen this round is on me.”

“Sure thing.” Claire started to head for the table, then remembered the aspirin in her fist. She went to the bar instead and asked for a glass of tap water.

When the water came, she swallowed the single pill, then turned away from the bar. As she started to head back to the table, she saw a man walk onto the stage. He carried a guitar—a regular, old-fashioned guitar that didn’t plug in or amp out. The rest of the band had left the stage, but their instruments were still there.

He sat down easily on a rickety bar stool. One black cowboy boot was planted firmly on the floor, the other rested on the stool’s bottom rung. He wore a pair of faded, torn jeans and a black T-shirt. His hair was almost shoulder length, and shone blond in the fluorescent overhead lighting. He was looking down at his guitar, and though a black Stetson shielded most of his face, Claire could make out the strong, high bones that defined his cheeks.

“Wow.” She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a man who was so good-looking.

Not in Hayden, that was for sure.

Men like him didn’t show up in backwater towns. This was a fact she’d learned long ago. The Toms, the Brads, the Georges of this world lived in Hollywood or Manhattan, and when they traveled, they stood behind blank-eyed bodyguards in ill-fitting black suits. They talked about meeting “real people,” but they never actually did it. She knew this because they’d once filmed an action movie in Snohomish. Claire had begged her father to take her down to watch the filming. Not one of the stars had spoken to the locals.

The man leaned toward the microphone. “I’m gonna fill in while the band takes a short break. I hope y’all don’t mind.”

A round of lackluster applause followed his words.

Claire pushed through the crowd, elbowing past a young man in skintight Wrangler jeans and a Stetson as big as a bathtub.

She halted at the edge of the dance floor.

He strummed a few notes on the guitar and started to sing. At first, his voice was uncertain, almost too soft to be heard above the raucous, booze-soaked din.

“Be quiet,” Claire was surprised to hear the words spoken out loud; she’d meant only to think them.

She felt ridiculously conspicuous, standing there in front of the crowd, only a few feet away from him, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t look away.

He looked up.

In the smoky darkness, with a dozen people crammed in beside her, Claire thought he was looking at her.

Slowly, he smiled.

Once, years ago, Claire had been running along the dock at Lake Crescent behind her sister. One minute, she’d been laughing and upright; the next second, she was in the freezing cold water, gasping for breath and clawing her way to the surface.

That was how she felt right now.

“I’m Bobby Austin,” he said softly, still looking at her. “This song is for The One. Y’all know what I mean. The one I’ve been lookin’ for all my life.”

His long, tanned fingers strummed the guitar strings. Then he started to sing. His voice was low and smoky, seductive as hell, and the song had a sad and haunting quality that made Claire think of all the roads she hadn’t taken in her life. She found herself swaying in time to the music, dancing all by herself.

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