Between Sisters Page 22


Meghann slowly turned around. “If I remember correctly, you were happy when you married Mama. I was happy when I married Eric.”

Sam walked toward her. “Your mama is a piece of work, that’s for sure, and I was mad at her for a lot of years, but I’m glad I married her.”

“You must be on drugs.”

“Claire” was all he said.

“Oh.” Meghann felt a pinch of jealousy. There it was again—the Claire father-daughter thing. It pissed her off. She ought to be long past that.

“Be careful with her,” he said. “You’re her sister.”

“I know I’m her sister.”

“Do you?”

“Yeah, I do.” Once again, she walked away. She strolled through the campground, surprised at the number of guests who were there. All of them seemed to be having a good time. The place was well maintained and perfectly situated. Every view was a picture postcard of mountain, trees, and water. Finally, she returned to her car and drove to Claire’s house.

This time when she knocked on the front door, she heard the patter of feet come from inside. The door burst open.

Alison stood there, dressed in daisy-festooned denim overalls and a pretty yellow eyelet blouse.

“You can’t be Alison Katherine Cavenaugh. She’s a baby.”

Ali beamed at that. “I’m a big girl now.”

“Yes, you are.”

Alison frowned up at her. “Your hair is longer and there’s gray in it.”

“Why, thank you for noticing. Can you give your Aunt Meg a hug?”

“You look like you’re breathing okay.”

Meg had no idea what the child meant by that. “I am.”

Alison moved forward and gave her a lukewarm hug. When she stepped back, Meg said, “I brought you a present.”

“Let me guess.” Claire emerged from the shadows at the end of the hallway. “You thought every five year old needs a Swiss Army Knife.”

“No. A BB gun.”

“You didn’t.”

Meghann laughed. “I went into the bowels of Hell—a toy store at Northgate—and found the dullest-looking salesperson. She recommended this instead.” She handed Alison a brightly wrapped box.

Ali ripped it open. “It’s a Groovy Girl, Mommy. A Groovy Girl!” She flung herself at Meghann, this time hugging for real. She showed the doll to Claire, then ran upstairs.

Meghann handed Claire a bottle of wine—Far Niente 1997. “This is one of my favorites.”

“Thank you.”

They stared at each other. Their last meeting had been a year ago, when Mama was in town for the Fan-ference. Mama had taken Claire and Ali to the zoo, then later, Meghann had joined them at the Seattle Center. They’d spent most of their time taking Alison for rides in the Fun Forest. That way, they didn’t need to talk.

Finally Claire surged forward, pulled Meghann into a quickie hug, then let her go.

Meghann stumbled back, too surprised by the gesture to respond. Afterward, she wished she’d hugged Claire in return. “Dinner smells good, but you didn’t have to cook. I wanted to take you out.”

“The Chuck Wagon smorgasbord isn’t exactly your style. I didn’t want to hear about it.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, come in. It’s been too long since you were here.”

“You’ve never been to my place.”

Claire looked at her. “It’s called small talk, Meg. I wasn’t picking a fight.”

“Oh,” Meghann said again, feeling like an idiot.

She followed Claire to the sofa and sat down beside her. She couldn’t help noticing the ridiculous engagement ring—a band of tinfoil, for God’s sake. It was good she’d come up here. There was no point in putting it off. “Claire, I think—”

Then he walked into the room. Meghann knew instantly why her sister had fallen so hard. Bobby might be a loser as a singer, but he was a winner in the looks department. He was tall and lean, but broad-shouldered, with blond hair that fell almost to his shoulders. When he smiled, it was with his whole face.

A man like this didn’t just sweep you off your feet; he twirled you into the air so far and fast there was nowhere to go but down.

He and Claire exchanged a look that radiated love. Meg was reminded of The Way We Were, that paean to the bittersweet truth that sometimes the wrong man could look so good he took your breath away.

But sooner or later a woman had to breathe.

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“I’m Bobby Austin,” he said, smiling.

Meghann rose to her feet and shook his hand. “Meghann Dontess.”

“Claire says folks call you Meg.”

“My friends do, yes.”

He smiled. “I’m judging by that bite-on-a-lemon look of yours that you’d like me to stick with Miz Dontess.”

“I imagine those mountain girls in Arkansas think you’re charming.”

“The Texas girls sure did.” He put an arm around Claire. “But those days are behind me now. I’ve found the girl I want to grow old with.” He kissed Claire lightly on the cheek and squeezed her hand, then he took the wine bottle and walked into the kitchen.

In the few moments he was gone, Meghann stood there, staring at her sister, trying to choose her words with care, but nothing seemed quite right.

Bobby returned with two glasses of wine and handed one to Meghann. “I imagine you have some questions for me,” he said, sitting down.

His forthrightness threw Meghann off. Slowly, feeling a little uncertain, she sat down in the chair opposite the sofa. They were separate entities now: Bobby and Claire versus Meghann. “Tell me about yourself.”

“I love Claire.”

“Something substantive.”

“You’re a facts-and-figures, gal, huh? I’m thirty-seven years old. Graduated from Oklahoma State. Degree in music appreciation. Rodeo scholarship. I was a calf roper. Which is why my knees are gone. I’ve . . . been married.”

Meghann leaned forward, on alert. “How many times?”

He glanced at Claire. “Three.”

“Oh, shit.” Meghann looked at Claire. “You’ve got to be kidding. If marriages were felonies, he’d be in prison for life.”

He scooted forward. “I married Suellen when we were eighteen years old. She was pregnant, and where I come from—”

“You’ve got kids?”

“No.” His voice grew soft. “Miscarriage. After that, there wasn’t much reason to stay married. We lasted less than three months. I’m a slow learner, though. I got married again at twenty-one. Unfortunately, it turned out that she wanted a different life than I did. Nice cars, nice jewelry. I got arrested when they busted her for selling cocaine out of our house. I lived with her for two years and never noticed it. I just thought she was moody as hell. Nobody believed I wasn’t a part of it. Laura was the only one who counted. She was—is—a pediatrician who loves country music. We were married for ten years. It broke up about a year ago. I could tell you why, but it’s none of your business. Claire knows everything, though.”

A three-time loser and a felon.

Perfect.

And now the bad sister had to break the good sister’s heart.

How?

That was the $64,000 question. How did you say the things that needed to be said at a time like this? Especially with Mr. Better-Looking Than God sitting there? Harriet had been right about one thing: Meghann and Claire had been poised on a cliff of politeness and pretense for years. The wrong approach could send them over the edge.

Claire got off the sofa, moved toward her. She sat on the carved Chinese chest that served as a coffee table.

“I know you can’t be happy for me, Meg.”

“I want to be.” It was the truth. “It’s just that—”

“I know. He wouldn’t get a platinum rating. I know. And you handle divorces for a living. I know that, too. Most of all, I know that you grew up in Mama’s house.” She leaned forward. “I know, Meg.”

Meghann felt the weight of those few words. Her sister had thought of all the same reasons, had seen all the possible outcomes. There wasn’t anything Meghann could say that Claire didn’t already know.

“It won’t ever make sense and I know it’s crazy and risky and—worst of all—Mama-like. I don’t need you to tell me these things. What I need is for you to trust me.”

Trust. Exactly what Harriet had predicted. But Meghann had forgotten long ago how to trust people. If she’d ever known.

“It’s hard for you, I know. The leader of the pack never makes a good follower. But it would mean a lot to me if you’d let this go. Maybe hug me and say you’re happy for me. Even if it’s a lie.”

Meghann looked into her sister’s pale green eyes. Claire looked frightened right now; expectant, too. She was obviously preparing herself to be wounded by Meghann’s response, but a slim part of her couldn’t help believing. . . .

It reminded Meghann of their childhood. Whenever Mama had brought a new “friend” home, Claire had let herself believe that finally there would be a daddy in her life. Meghann had tried to protect Claire from her own optimism, but she’d never succeeded, and so, each stepfather had broken a tiny piece of Claire’s heart. And yet, when the next man arrived, her sister found a way to believe again.

Of course Claire believed in Bobby Austin.

There was no way Meghann would change her sister’s mind, or—more important—her heart. Thus, she had two choices: pretend to give her blessing or stick to her guns. The first choice allowed her and Claire to remain the almost sisters they were. The second choice risked even that tenuous relationship.

“I trust you, Claire,” Meghann said at last. She was rewarded with a small, uncertain smile. “If you say Bobby Austin is the man you love, that’s good enough for me.”

Claire released a sharp breath. “Thank you. I know that wasn’t easy for you.” She leaned forward and hugged Meghann, who was too surprised by it to hug her back.

Claire drew back and stood up. She went over to the sofa and sat down by Bobby, who immediately put an arm around her and pulled her in close.

Meghann tried to think of what to say in the awkward silence that followed. “So, what’s the wedding plan? Justice of the peace? I have a friend who’s a judge. . . .”

“No way.” Claire laughed. “I waited thirty-five years for this. I’m having the whole enchilada. White dress. Formal church wedding. Cake. Reception with dancing. All of it.”

Meghann didn’t know why she was surprised. Claire had been one of those children who played bride endlessly. “There’s a consultant in my building. I think she planned Bill Gates’s wedding.”

“This is Hayden, not Seattle. I’ll rent the VFW hall and everyone will pitch in with potluck. The Bon Marché has a bridal department now. It’ll be great. You’ll see.”

“Potluck? Potluck?” Meghann got to her feet. Apparently there was something of her mother in her after all. She wasn’t going to let her sister have a Wal-Mart wedding. “I’ll organize the wedding and reception,” she said impulsively. Once she’d offered, she felt steady again. In control of something.

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