Between Sisters Page 36


He reached out, grabbed her wrist. “Don’t go.”

“I wasn’t leaving. But maybe I should.”

He let go of her wrist suddenly. “Maybe you should.” He took another swig from the bottle.

“Who is she, Joe?” Her voice was soft, but in the quiet room, it seemed too loud, too intimate. She flinched, wishing she hadn’t asked, surprised that she cared.

“My wife. Diana.”

“You’re married?”

“Not anymore. She . . . left me.”

“On June twenty-second.”

“How’jou know?”

“I know about divorces. The anniversaries can be hell.” Meghann stared into his sad, sad eyes and tried not to feel anything. It was better that way, safer. But sitting here beside him, close enough to be taken into his arms, she felt . . . needy. Maybe even desperate. Suddenly she wanted something from Joe; something more than sex.

“Maybe I should go. You seem to want to be alone.”

“I’ve been alone.”

She heard the ache of loneliness in his voice and it drew her in. “Me, too.”

He reached out, touched her face. “I can’t offer you anything, Meghann.”

The way he said her name, all sad and drawn out and slow, sent a shiver along her spine. She wanted to tell him that she didn’t want anything from him except a night in his bed, but amazingly, she couldn’t form the words. “It’s okay.”

“You should want more.”

“So should you.”

She felt fragile suddenly, as if this man she didn’t know at all had the power to break her heart. “We’re talking too much, Joe. Kiss me.”

In the fireplace, a log fell to the hearth floor with a thud. Sparks flooded into the room.

With a groan, he pulled her into his arms.

TWENTY

THE NEXT MORNING, THE WEATHER IN HAYDEN WAS perfect. A bright sun rode high in the cornflower blue, cloudless sky. A thin, cooling breeze rustled through the trees, making music on the deep green maple leaves. By five o’clock, Claire was ready to begin dressing. The problem was, she couldn’t move.

Behind her, there was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” she said, thankful for the distraction.

Meghann stood in the doorway, holding a pile of plastic-sheathed dresses. She looked nervous, uncharacteristically uncertain. “I thought maybe we’d get dressed together.” When Claire didn’t answer instantly, Meghann said, “You probably think it’s a stupid idea.” She backed out of the room.

“Stop. I think it would be great.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. I just need to shower.”

“Me, too. I’ll meet you back here in ten minutes.”

True to her word, Meghann was back in ten minutes, wearing a towel around her naked body. Once inside the room, she changed into a bra and panties, then dried her hair and fashioned it into a beautiful French twist.

“That looks great,” Claire said.

“I could do your hair if you’d like.”

“Really?”

“Sure. I did it all the time when you were little.”

Claire didn’t remember that, and yet she crossed the room and automatically knelt in front of the bed.

Meghann settled in behind her, began brushing her hair. She hummed as she worked.

Claire closed her eyes. It felt so good to have someone brushing her hair.

It came to her then, floating on the lullaby of her sister’s humming, a memory.

You’ll be the prettiest girl in all of Barstow kindergarten, Claire-Bear. I’ll put this pink ribbon all through your braids and it’ll protect you.

Like a magic ribbon?

Yes. Just exactly like that. Now sit still and let me finish.

“You did do my hair when I was little.”

The hairbrush paused, then began stroking again. “Yes.”

“I wish I remembered more of those years.”

“I wish I remembered less.”

Claire didn’t know what to say to that, so she changed the subject. “Have you heard from Mama?”

“No. I left three messages yesterday. Her houseboy told me she’d call back at a better time.”

“There’s no point getting mad at her. She is who she is.”

“Yeah. A has-been actress and a never-was mother.”

Claire laughed. “She’d debate ‘has-been actress’ with you.”

“That’s true. After all, she’s done Shakespeare in Cleveland. There. All done.”

Claire climbed to her feet and started to head for the bathroom.

“Wait.” Meghann pulled her back to the bed. “Sit down here. No one is supposed to do their own wedding makeup.” Meg got up, ran to her bedroom, and returned a minute later with a box big enough to hold fishing tackle.

Claire frowned as she sat down. “Not too much. I don’t want to look like Tammy Faye.”

“Really? I thought you did.” Meghann opened the tackle box. Inside lay dozens of shiny black compacts emblazoned with the interlocked Chanel Cs.

Claire smiled. “I think you spend too much time at Nordstrom.”

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“Close your eyes.”

Claire did as she was told. Whisper-soft bristles breezed across her eyelids and along her cheekbones.

Fairy kisses, that’s what I call ’em.

Halloween. The year they lived in Medford, Oregon. Mama had been waiting tables during the day and dancing in a strip club at night.

Can you make me look like a princess, Meggy? Claire had asked, eyeing Mama’s oh-so-off-limits bag of makeup.

Of course I can, silly. Now, close your eyes.

“Okay. You’re done.”

Claire’s legs were unsteady as she got to her feet. She looked at Meghann, sitting there on her knees with the makeup box open beside her and, for a split second, Claire was a six-year-old princess, holding her big sister’s hand on Halloween night.

“Go look.”

Claire went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror.

Her blond hair had been loosely drawn back from her face and twisted into an elegant roll. The hairstyle emphasized her cheekbones and made her eyes look huge. She’d never looked this pretty. Never.

“Oh” was all she said.

“You don’t like it. I can change it. Come over here.”

Claire turned to her sister. They were always doing that to each other, misinterpreting, imagining the worst. No wonder every conversation bruised one or the other. “I love it,” she said.

Meghann’s smile was dazzling. “Really?”

Claire took a step toward her. “What happened to us, Meg?”

Meghann’s smile faded. “You know what happened. Please. Let’s not talk about it now. Not today.”

“We’ve been saying ‘not today’ for years. I don’t think it’s a strategy that’s worked, do you?”

Meghann released a heavy sigh. “Some things hurt too much to talk about.”

Claire knew about that. It was the principle that had guided their whole relationship. Unfortunately, it had kept them strangers to each other. “Sometimes silence hurts most of all.” She heard the ache in her voice; there was no way to mask it.

“I guess we’re living proof of that.”

They stared at each other.

Suddenly the door banged open. “Mommy!” Ali raced into the room, already wearing her beautiful ice-blue silk bridesmaid dress. “Hurry, Mommy, come look.” She grabbed Claire’s hand, dragged her toward the door.

“Just a second, honey.” Claire threw Meghann a bathrobe, then slipped a nightgown over her own head and followed Ali downstairs. Outside in the driveway, Dad, Bobby, and Alison stood around a candy-apple-red convertible.

Claire moved toward them, frowning. That was when she noticed the pink bow on the hood. “What in the world?”

Dad handed her a note. It read:

Dear Claire and Bobby,

Best of luck on your big day. I’m

still hoping to make it up there.

Hugs and kisses,

Mama

Claire stood there a long time, staring down at the car. She knew what it meant: Mama wasn’t going to make it to the wedding. Probably, she chose the hard-to-get hair appointment instead.

Meg came up beside her, laid a hand on her shoulder. “Let me guess: Mama’s wedding gift.”

Claire sighed. “Leave it to Mama to give me a car with two seats. Am I supposed to have Ali run along behind?”

Then she laughed. What else could she do?

Claire stood in the dressing room at the small Episcopal church on Front Street. The last hour had been nonstop action. She and Meghann hadn’t found five minutes to talk.

The Bluesers had been in and out of the dressing room every few minutes, oohing and aahing over her dress, and Meghann had been busily checking details, clipboard in hand. Ali had asked at least a dozen times which step she was supposed to stand on.

But now, the room was mercifully quiet. Claire stood in front of the full-length mirror, unable to quite grasp that the woman in the glass was her. The gown fit perfectly, flowing to the floor in a cascade of white silk, and the veil made her look every bit the princess.

Her wedding day.

She couldn’t quite believe it. Every night since meeting Bobby, she’d gone to sleep wondering if he’d be there in the morning. When the sun came up, she was quietly amazed to find him still there.

Another lovely legacy from childhood, she supposed.

But soon, she would be Mrs. Robert Jackson Austin.

There was a knock at the door.

It was Meghann. “The church is packed. Are you ready?”

Claire swallowed hard. “I am.”

Meghann took her sister’s arm and led her out to the small area behind the closed church doors. Dad was already there, waiting with Ali.

“Oh, Ali Kat, you look like a princess,” Claire said, kneeling down to kiss her daughter.

Alison giggled, twirled. “I love my dress, Mommy.”

Behind the doors, the music started. It was time.

Meghann bent down to Alison. “Are you ready, sweetie? You walk slow—like we practiced, okay?”

Ali hopped up and down. “I’m ready.”

Meghann eased the door open a crack. Ali slipped through and disappeared.

Dad turned to Claire. His eyes filled slowly with tears. “I guess you’re not my little girl anymore.”

“Get ready,” Meghann said; a second later, the organ started “Here Comes the Bride,” and she opened the doors.

Claire slipped her arm through her dad’s and they walked slowly down the aisle. At the end of it, Bobby, dressed in a black tuxedo, waited. His brother, Tommy Clinton, stood beside him. Both men were smiling broadly.

Dad stopped, turned to Claire. He lifted the veil and kissed her cheek, then eased away from her, and suddenly Bobby was there beside her, taking her arm, leading her up to the altar.

She looked up at him, loving him so much it scared her. It wasn’t safe to love someone this much. . . .

Don’t be scared, he mouthed, squeezing her hands.

She focused on the feel of his hand in hers, the comfortable stability of him beside her.

Father Tim droned on and on, but Claire couldn’t really hear anything except the beating of her own heart. When it came time for her to say her lines, she panicked that she wouldn’t be able to hear or remember them.

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