Between Sisters Page 19

At first, she thought the sound she heard was crickets, gearing up for a nightly concert. Then she heard the sweet sound of strings being strummed.

Cabin four had a pretty little porch that faced the river. They had taken the cabin off the market this summer because of rain damage to the roof; the vacancy had given Bobby a place to stay until the wedding. Destiny, Dad had said when he gave Claire the key.

Now, destiny sat on the edge of the porch, cross-legged, his body veiled in shadows, a guitar across his lap. He stared out at the river, plucking a slow and uncertain tune.

Claire eased into the darkness beneath a giant Douglas fir. Hidden, she watched him. The music sent shivers skimming along her flesh.

Almost too quietly to hear, he started to sing. “I’ve been walkin’ all my life . . . on a road goin’ nowhere. Then I turned a corner, darlin’ . . . and there you were.”

Claire’s throat tightened with an emotion so sweet and powerful she felt the start of tears. She stepped out of the shadows.

Bobby looked up and saw her. A smile crinkled the suntanned planes of his face.

She stepped toward him, her bare feet making a soft, thumping beat on the hard, dried grass.

He began to sing again, his gaze on her face. “For the first time in my life . . . I believe in God almighty . . . in the Lord my grandpa promised me . . . ’cause, honey, I see Heaven in your eyes.” He strummed a few more chords, then thumped his hand on the guitar and grinned. “That’s all I’ve written so far. I know it needs work.” He put down the guitar and moved toward her.

With every footstep, she felt her breathing shorten until, by the time he was standing in front of her, she couldn’t seem to draw a full breath. It was almost embarrassing to feel this much.

He took her left hand in his, looked down at the strip of foil that was supposed to be a diamond ring. When he looked at her again, he was no longer smiling.

“Pathetic,” he whispered, and her heart ached for the shame she saw in his dark eyes. “Not every woman would accept a ring like this.”

“I love you, Bobby. That’s all that matters. I know it’s crazy, impossible even, but I love you.” The words freed something inside her. She could breathe again.

“I’m no prize, Claire. You know that. I’ve made mistakes in my life. Three of ’em, to be exact.”

Claire could practically hear Meg’s voice in the breeze. But the sound meant nothing when she saw how Bobby looked at her. No one had ever looked at her like that before, as if she were the most precious woman on earth. “I’m a single mother who never got married. I know about mistakes, Bobby.”

“I’ve never felt this way before,” he said softly, a catch in his voice. “Honest to God.”

“What way?”

“As if my heart doesn’t belong to me anymore, as if it can’t beat without you. You’re inside me, Claire, holding me up. You make me want to be more than I am.”

“I want us to grow old together,” she whispered the words. It was her deepest dream, her most treasured hope. All her life, she’d imagined herself alone in old age, one of those white-haired women who sat on the porch, waiting for the phone to ring or a car to drive up. Now, finally, she allowed herself to imagine a better future, one filled with love and laughter and family.

“I want to hear our kids fight about who’s touching who in the smelly backseat of a minivan.”

Claire laughed. It felt so good to dream with someone.

He pulled her into his arms, danced with her to the music of the river and the crickets.

Finally, Claire said, “My sister, Meghann, is coming up to meet you tomorrow.”

He drew back. Taking her hand, he led her to his porch. They sat down in the creaky oak swing and rocked gently. “I thought you said she’d boycott the wedding.”

“Wishful thinking.” She looked up at him. “She was predictably underwhelmed by our decision to get married.”

“This is the sister Gina called Cruella De Vil?”

“Jaws is really the preferred nickname.”

“Does her opinion matter?”

“It shouldn’t.”

“But it does.”

Claire felt like a fool. “It does.”

“Then I’ll win her over. Maybe I’ll write a song for her.”

“It better go platinum. Meg doesn’t like second best. She should be here by early evening tomorrow.”

“Should I go down to the army surplus and check out some Kevlar?”

“At the very least.”

Bobby’s smile faded after a moment. “She won’t be able to change your mind about me, will she?”

She was moved by his vulnerability. “She’s never been able to change my mind about anything. It’s what makes her foam at the mouth.”

“As long as you love me, I can take anything.”

“Well, Bobby Austin,” she put her arms around him and leaned over for a kiss. Just before their lips touched, she whispered, “Then you can take anything. Even my sister.”

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CLAIRE STOOD AT THE KITCHEN SINK, WASHING THE breakfast dishes. It was a gray, not-quite-rainy day, the kind where the sky was so low it seemed to bump you in the forehead when you dared to venture outside. Perfect weather for a visit with Meghann.

The thought made her head pound. She dried her hands and reached for the bottle of Excedrin on the windowsill.

“Mary Kay Acheson gets to have Cap’n Crunch for breakfast.”

It was a common early-morning argument. “She’ll probably have false teeth in time for eighth grade. You don’t want to have to take your teeth out at bedtime, do you?”

Ali banged her feet rhythmically on the rungs at the base of her chair. “Willie has all his teeth and he’s gonna be in ninth grade. He’s practically a grown-up.”

“That’s because Karen feeds him Raisin Bran for breakfast. If he ate Cap’n Crunch, it’d be a different story.”

Ali frowned, thinking about that.

Claire washed down the aspirin.

“Do you have a headache again, Mommy?”

“Aunt Meg’s coming over tonight. She wants to meet Bobby.”

Ali’s frown deepened. Obviously, she was trying to understand the connection between Mom’s headache and Aunt Meg’s visit. “I thought she was too busy to breathe.”

Claire went to the table and sat down beside her daughter. “You know why Meghann wants to meet Bobby?”

Alison rolled her eyes. “Duh, Mommy.”

“Duh?” Claire bit back a smile. At some point, she’d have to address the issue of respectful responses, but she’d better wait until she could do it without cracking up. She held out her hand instead. “You know what this ring means?”

“It’s not a ring. It’s foil.”

“This kind of ring is a symbol. The ring isn’t what matters. The words that come with it are what matters. And Bobby asked me to marry him.”

“I know that, Mommy. C’n I have some cheddar Goldfish?”

“Let’s eat in a second. I want to talk to you about this. No one is more important to me than you. No one. I’ll always love you, even if I’m married.”

“Jeez, Mommy. I know that. Now c’n I have—”

“Forget the Goldfish.” No wonder It’s like talking to a five year old was a common expression of frustration. “Do you mind if I marry Bobby?”

“Oh.” Ali’s little face scrunched up. She bunched up her left cheek, then her right. Then she looked up at Claire. “C’n I call him Daddy?”

“He’d like that.”

“So at school, on family day, he’ll come for the sack races and help Brittani’s dad barbecue the hot dogs?”

Claire released a breath. It wasn’t easy for her to make blanket promises for another human being. That kind of faith lived in the hearts of women who’d grown up in safer homes, where Mom and Dad could be counted on. But she believed in Bobby as much as one of her mother’s daughters could believe in any man. “Yes. We can count on him.”

Alison grinned. “Okay. I want him to be my dad. Daddy.” She was obviously testing the word, weighing how it felt to say aloud. It was amazing how many little girls’ dreams could be contained in those few letters.

Big girls’ dreams, too, for that matter.

Alison gave Claire a quick kiss, then scampered off, dragging a dirty Elmo on the floor behind her. She went upstairs to her bedroom. Seconds later, The Little Mermaid theme music started.

Claire stared down at her engagement ring. As makeshift as it was, it gave her a warm feeling of hopefulness.

“One down,” she said aloud. Actually, it was two. Both her father and her daughter had put their stamp of approval on the wedding plans.

That left only two blood-related holdouts. Meghann, who definitely hadn’t sounded approving, and Mama, who probably wouldn’t much care. Claire had been putting off the call. No good ever came from talking to Mama.

Still, she was her mother, and she had to be called.

The funny part was, when Claire thought of her “mother,” the face that came to her was Meg’s. In every childhood memory, it was her sister who’d been there . . . until, of course, the day she decided she’d had enough of caring for Claire.

And Mama. Well. Truth be told, Claire’s memories of Mama were sketchy at best. Claire was lucky in that; the brunt of mama’s flightiness had fallen on Meg. Still, they all pretended that they were family.

Claire picked up the phone and punched in the number. It rang and rang. Finally, an answering machine clicked on. Mama’s thick-as-honey-and-twice-as-sweet Southern drawl was accompanied by music. “I do so appreciate your call on m’private number. Unfortunately, I’m too darn busy to answer, but leave me a message and I’ll return your call just as soon as I can. And look for my interview in People magazine, on newsstands in late June. Bye, y’all.”

Only Mama would self-promote on her answering machine.

“Hey, Mama,” she said at the beep, “It’s Claire here. Your daughter. I’ve got some big news and I’d like to talk to you. Call me.” She left her number, just in case, and hung up.

She was still holding the phone, listening to the dial tone when she realized her mistake. She was getting married in less than two weeks. If she waited for Mama to call, the wedding would be long past. The point was to invite Mama, not to simply inform. You had to invite your mother to your wedding, even if the woman who bore you had the parenting instincts of a mosquito, and there was little chance she’d actually show up.

By the time Mama had managed to fly from Los Angeles to Seattle to see her only granddaughter, Alison had been four years old.

Claire still remembered the day vividly. They’d met at the Woodland Park Zoo in downtown Seattle. Mama had been in the middle of a Starbase IV promotional tour (yet again) that touched down there.

Claire and Alison had been sitting on the wooden bench by the zoo’s entrance for more than an hour, waiting.

Claire had almost given up when she’d heard a familiar high-pitched screech. She’d looked up just in time to see Mama, dressed in a bronze silk caftan, bearing down on them like a Thanksgiving Day parade float.

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