Between Sisters Page 29


She took Meghann by the arm and led her down a wide hallway, toward the noise. They finally reached the great room—a living room/dining room combination—that overlooked a beautifully landscaped backyard. “Claire! Look who made it,” she said loudly enough to be heard above the din.

Everyone stopped talking and turned toward them. The crowd was a sea of T-shirts and jeans.

Except for Meghann, of course, who looked ready for a night of dancing at the Space Needle.

Claire extricated herself from Tentacle Boy and hurried toward her. She looked gorgeous in a pair of ice-blue cotton pants and white boat-neck cotton sweater. Her long blond hair had been pulled back from her face and gathered in a white scrunchy. She smiled brightly. “I’m so glad you could make it. I thought you had a migraine. When I get a headache, I can’t move for hours.”

Meghann felt like Jackie O at a keggar. “I shouldn’t have come. I’ll go.”

“Please don’t,” her sister said. “I’m glad you’re here. Really.”

Bobby sauntered through the crowd and sidled up to Claire, slipping an arm around her hips. Meghann had to admit that he looked good. Damn good. He was going to bypass breaking her sister’s heart and just plain shatter it.

“Heya, Meghann,” he said, smiling broadly. “I’m glad you could make it.”

It stuck in her craw to be welcomed to her own sister’s party by country boy. She had to force herself to smile. “Thanks, Bobby.”

They stood there in an uncomfortable silence. Finally, Gina said, “I’ll bet you could use a drink.”

Meghann nodded. “By all means.”

“Come to the kitchen with me,” Gina said. “We’ll get you a jumbo margarita.”

“Hurry back,” Claire said. “We were just going to start the games.”

Meghann actually stumbled.

Games.

Meghann really did have a headache now.

She sat on the edge of the sofa, her knees tucked primly together, a paper plate of homemade cookies on her lap. The rest of the guests (in pairs, like on Noah’s ark) sat sprawled against one another, in a circle on the hardwood floor. They were all talking at once, resurrecting memories and moments from a lifetime Meghann didn’t know.

Remember when Claire fell off the high dive at Island Lake Camp—

Or when she hid Mrs. Testern’s favorite ruler—

When she called Poison Control because she caught Ali eating the diaper-pail deodorant—

The junior and senior high school years, the girls-just-want-to-have-fun years, the Alison years. They were all a mystery to Meghann. She had stories to tell, of course, stories about a girl who once cut all of her hair so she could look like Buffy on Family Affair, who cried every night that Mama forgot to come home, and who slept curled in her big sister’s arms on a cot that was too small.

“Claire’s big sister,” said a brown-haired woman in faded jeans and an Old Navy T-shirt. Her wedding ring sported a diamond the size of a pencil eraser. She plopped down beside Meghann. “I’m Karen, by the way. We met several years ago. Your dress is beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

“I hear you want Claire to sign a prenuptial.”

“That was it for small talk, huh?”

“We watch out for one another.”

In truth, Meghann was glad for that. God knew she’d failed Claire in the watching-over department. That was why she was sitting here, overdressed and separate, pretending to love the cookies. “That’s nice. She’s lucky to have you as friends.”

“We’re all lucky. She won’t sign anything, you know. I gave her the same advice.”

“You did?”

She fluttered the fingers of her left hand. “Divorce wars survivor. That guy over there—the one chewing like a squirrel—that’s Harold.”

“Maybe you could talk to Claire. It’s not smart for her to go into this thing unprotected.”

“This thing is marriage, and it’s all about faith. Your sister is one of the believers in this world. Don’t take that away from her.”

“In law school faith is surgically removed.”

“My guess is that yours was lost long before that. Don’t look so shocked. I’m not a psychic or anything. We tell each other everything. You guys had a rough time of it growing up.”

Meghann shifted uncomfortably. She wasn’t used to people knowing so much about her. Not friends, and certainly not strangers. Her childhood was something she’d never shared with a girlfriend, not even Elizabeth. She remembered how people had looked at her when she was child, as if she were white trash; she hadn’t wanted that judgment to follow her into adulthood.

Karen seemed to be waiting for a response. The moment lengthened between them. Meg’s heartbeat accelerated. She didn’t want this conversation to continue. These Bluesers were too damn blunt.

“Okay, everyone, it’s time for the games!” Gina yelled suddenly, jumping to her feet.

Meghann let out her breath in a relieved sigh.

“Gina loves games,” Karen said. “I just hope no one has to humiliate themselves. It was nice to see you again. I better run. Harold just started hyperventilating.” And she was gone, back to her husband in a blink.

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“Outside,” Gina said, clapping her hands again and ushering everyone outside, where a row of powdered-sugar doughnuts hung at intervals along a sagging clothesline. “Everyone pick a doughnut and stand in front of it.

The guests surged forward, lining up.

Meghann hung back in the doorway.

“Come on, Meg,” Gina called out. “There’s a place for you, too.”

Everyone turned to look at her.

She hurried across the porch and out into the yard. The sweet smell of honeysuckle and roses filled the night air. Somewhere nearby there must be a pond, because frogs were croaking en masse. It gave the evening an odd, surreal edge—or maybe that came from the swinging doughnuts.

“When I start the stopwatch, everyone starts licking the sugar off the doughnuts. This will tell us who is the best kisser.”

A man laughed. Meghann thought it was Charlotte’s husband. “If you want to know who has the best tongue, we should be licking—”

“Don’t you dare finish that sentence,” Charlotte said, laughing.

“Go. And no fair using hands.”

The group went at it. Within seconds, everyone was laughing.

Meghann tried, she really did, but at her first pass, the doughnut hit her in the nose and white sugar fluttered down the front of her black Armani.

“Done!” Bobby yelled, throwing his hands in the air as if he’d just scored the game-winning run.

Claire put her arms around him. “And there you have it, the real reason I’m marrying him.”

Meghann stepped back from the undulating doughnut. Once again, she was the only one not laughing, and her silence settled on her chest like Hester Prynne’s scarlet A.

Gina handed Bobby a CD. “You win. And I must say, none of us will ever look at you quite the same again.” She rushed back into the house, then came out with a big white porcelain bowl. “The next game is called Truth in M&M’s. Everybody take as many as you want, then find a seat.” She went around the group, handing out candy.

Meghann could tell that she wasn’t the only suspicious person. No one took a handful. Meg chose two, then sat down on the top porch step. Everyone else pulled up a patch of grass and sat down.

“For each M&M, you have to tell one thing about the bride or groom and make a prediction for the future.”

A groan moved through the men.

Harold rolled his eyes; Karen elbowed him.

“I’ll start,” Charlotte said. “I have three. Claire has a beautiful smile, and I predict Bobby will keep it on her face. Also, she is a great cook, so I predict he’ll be fat by forty. And finally, she hates to do laundry, so I predict Bobby will learn to like the stained, rumpled look.”

Claire laughed the loudest of all of them.

“My turn,” Karen said. “I’m on a diet—as usual—so I only picked one. Claire has developed a . . . fondness for electrical devices. I predict she won’t need one anymore.”

“Karen!” Claire cried out, her face turning red even as she laughed.

They continued around the circle, and with each comment, Meghann felt herself edging toward uneasiness. Even the husbands here seemed to know more about Claire’s everyday life than Meghann did, and she was terrified that when her turn came to make a prediction, she’d blurt out, I predict he breaks her heart. She finished her second margarita in gulps.

“Meg? Meg?” It was Gina. “Your turn.”

Meghann looked down in her palm. Sweat had turned the candies into red smudges. “I have two.” She tried to smile. “Claire is . . . the best mother I know, so I predict she’ll have another child.”

Claire smiled at her, then leaned lovingly against Bobby, who whispered something in her ear.

“Another one, Meg.”

She nodded. “Claire loves well, but not necessarily easily, so I predict,” she barely paused, “that this is the real thing.” When she looked up, Claire was frowning.

Meghann didn’t know what she’d said wrong. It had seemed cheery and optimistic to her, romantic even. But Claire looked ready to cry.

“I’m last,” Gina said in the sudden silence. “I have only one. Claire is completely tone-deaf. So I predict that Bobby will never let her be his backup singer.”

That got them all laughing and talking again. They got to their feet and closed ranks around Claire and Bobby.

Absurdly, Meghann felt the start of tears. She got clumsily to her feet, realizing when she stood up that those margaritas had been stronger than she’d thought. She turned away from the party. Getting drunk would be the last straw. When no one was looking, she ducked into the house and ran for her car.

She meant to go home, wait up for Claire, and apologize for whatever wrongs she’d uttered.

Then she saw the tavern.

FIFTEEN

MEGHANN EASED HER FOOT OFF THE ACCELERATOR. THE Porsche slowed to a crawl.

Through the smoke-grayed glass of the tavern’s window, she could make out the shadowy bodies inside, pressed in close together along the bar.

It was easy to get lost in a crowd like that, where no one asked your name or why you were there. She knew that if she went inside and had a drink—or two or three—she would feel better.

Maybe she would meet someone . . . and he would take her to his place for a few hours and help her forget. Help her sleep.

Experience had taught her that on a night like this, when her inadequacies felt as sharp as bits of glass embedded in her skin, she would lie in her lonely bed and stare up at the ceiling, unable to sleep. In the morning, she would awaken to a face that was wrinkled and stare into eyes that were tired and sad.

Meghann hit the gas. The car roared to life. She sped down two blocks, found a parking space, and pulled in. When she shut down the engine and got out of the car, she noticed how quiet the night was. The Big Dipper pointed toward the river.

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