Between Sisters Page 38


She moved forward. The scent of roses filled the night air, turned it sweet. She saw that each table had a floral centerpiece, a simple glass bowl filled with fresh white roses. A long, silver-clothed table ran along one side, its surface cluttered with elegant sterling chafing dishes and pewter trays of food. In the corner, a trio of men in white tuxedos played a World War II love song in soft, haunting tones.

“Wow,” Bobby said, coming up beside her.

The band struck up a beautiful rendition of “Isn’t It Romantic?”

“Would you like to dance, Mrs. Austin?”

Claire let him take her in his arms and lead her to the dance floor. There, with all her friends and family watching, she danced with her husband.

When, at last, the song came to an end, Claire finally saw her sister. She was tagging after Mama, who was clearly in her meet-and-greet mode. “Come on, Bobby,” she said, taking his hand and pulling him off the dance floor. It felt as if it took them hours to get through the well-wishers, each of whom had something to say. But finally, they were near the bar, where Mama was regaling a starstruck crowd with stories of life aboard the USS Star Seeker.

Mama saw her coming and stopped talking midsentence. A genuine smile curved her lips. “Claire,” she said, reaching for her with both hands. “I’m sorry I was late, darlin’. A star’s life is run by others. But you were the most beautiful bride I’ve ever seen.” Her voice cracked just a bit. “Really, Claire,” she said, softer this time, for Claire’s ears alone, “you made me so proud.”

Their gazes met. In her mother’s dark eyes, Claire glimpsed a genuine joy, and it touched her.

“Now,” Mama said quickly, smiling again, “where’s my new son-in-law?”

“Here I am, Miz Sullivan.”

“Call me Ellie. All my family does.” She moved toward him, whistling softly. “You’re good-looking enough for Hollywood.”

It was Mama’s highest compliment.

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

A look of irritation crossed Mama’s face; it was there and gone in a flash. “Really. Call me Ellie. I hear you’re a singer. Meggy doesn’t know if you’re any good.”

“I’m good.”

She took his hand. “If you sing half as good as you look, you’ll be on the radio in no time. Come. Tell me about your career while we dance.”

“I’d be honored to dance with my new mother-in-law.” Tossing Claire a quick smile, he was off.

Claire turned at last to Meghann, who’d stood silently by for the whole exchange. “Are you okay?”

“Mama brought her dog. Not to mention an entourage of bodyguards.”

“She could be overcome by the hoards of her fans at any moment,” Claire said in her best pseudo-Southern voice.

Meghann laughed. Then sobered. “She has to leave at eight- thirty.”

“A manicure with Rollo?”

“Probably. Whatever it is, I believe a prayer of thanks is in order.”

The band shifted into a sweet, soulful version of “As Time Goes By.”

Claire stared at her sister, trying to come up with words to match her emotions. “This wedding,” she started but her voice cracked. She swallowed hard.

“I did something wrong, didn’t I?”

Claire ached then for the whole of their relationship, for the years that had been lost and those that had never been.

“You spent a fortune,” Claire said.

“No.” Meghann shook her head. “Almost everything was on sale. They’re my Christmas lights. The tent—”

Claire touched her sister’s lips, shut her up. “I’m trying to say thank you.”

“Oh.”

“I wish . . .” She didn’t even know how to word it, this sudden longing of hers. It seemed too big to stand on something as thin as words.

“I know,” Meghann said softly. “Maybe things can be different now. This time together . . . it’s made me remember how things used to be between us.”

“You were my best friend,” Claire said, wiping her eyes carefully, so she didn’t smear her makeup. “I missed that when you . . .” Left. She couldn’t say the harsh word, not now.

“I missed you, too.”

“Mommy! Mommy! Come dance with us.”

Claire twisted around and saw her dad and Alison, standing a few feet away.

“I believe it’s customary for the bride to dance with her father,” he said, smiling, holding out his calloused hand.

“And her daughter! Grandpa’ll carry me.” Alison was hopping up and down with excitement.

Claire gave her champagne glass to Meghann, who mouthed: Go. She let herself be pulled onto the dance floor. As they made it to the center of the crowd, Dad whispered in her ear, “Someday Ali will get married and you’ll know how this feels. It’s every emotion at once.”

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“Pick me up, Grandpa!”

He bent down and scooped Alison up. The three of them clung to one another, swaying gently in time to “The Very Thought of You.”

Claire looked away quickly—before Ali could ask why Mommy was crying. To her left, Mama was spinning poor Bobby around as if he were a top. Claire laughed out loud and knew exactly what her dad meant.

Every emotion.

That was what tonight was. All her life she’d look back on this night and remember how good her life was, how much she loved and was loved in return.

That was what Meghann had given her.

Meghann gazed at the black velvet lawn of Edgar Peabody Riverfront Park. Across the street, the Quonset hut sat bathed in moonlight. Behind her, the band was breaking down their equipment. Only a few die-hard guests were still here. Mama had left hours ago, as had Sam and Ali. Everyone else, including the bride and groom, had drifted away at around midnight. Meghann had stayed late, supervising the cleanup, but now that job was done.

Meghann sipped her champagne and looked across the street again. Her car was parked in front of Joe’s house. She wondered now if that had been a conscious choice.

He was probably sleeping.

She knew it was ridiculous to go to him, maybe even dangerous, but there was something in the air tonight. A heady combination of romance and magic. It smelled like roses and made a woman believe that anything was possible. For tonight, anyway.

She didn’t let herself think about it. If she did, she’d call herself a fool and stay put. So she hummed along with the music and walked down the gravel road. When she reached the black ribbon of asphalt, she turned right.

At his gate, she paused. The lights were on.

This was so unlike her.

She pushed the thought away and went to his door. There, she debated for another minute or two, then knocked.

Moments later, Joe opened the door. His hair was messed up, as if he’d been asleep; all he wore was a pair of black jeans. He waited for her to say something, but her voice had pulled a full retreat. She just stood there like an idiot, staring at his naked chest.

“You just going to stand there?”

She lifted her right hand, showing him the bottle of champagne she’d carried over.

He stared at her, saying nothing. When the silence became uncomfortable, he grabbed a black T-shirt from the sofa and put it on, then came back to the door. “I suppose you’re horny. That’s why you came by, right?”

She flinched at that. She thought about pulling herself up, slapping him, even, but it would be for show. A woman who screwed strangers had lost that right long ago. He was being honest, but there was something else, too. It felt as if he were angry with her. She couldn’t imagine why. Even more disconcerting was the realization that she cared. “No. I thought maybe we could go out.”

“You want us to go on a date? At one o’clock in the morning?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“A better question is why.”

She looked up at him. When their gazes locked, she felt a flutter in her pulse. She couldn’t possibly put the answer into words. She didn’t dare look too closely at her own motivations. “Look, Joe. I was in a good mood. Maybe I had too much to drink.” Her voice stumbled; need tripped her up. Humiliated, she closed her eyes. “I shouldn’t have come. I’m sorry.” When she opened her eyes, she saw that he’d moved closer. It would take nothing at all for him to kiss her now, barely a movement.

“I’m not much for going out.”

“Oh.”

“But I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to come in.”

She felt the start of a smile. “Great.”

“What I mind,” he said, “is waking up alone. It’s okay if you don’t want to spend the night, but don’t sneak out like a hooker.”

So that was it. “I’m sorry.”

He smiled. It lit up his whole face, made him look ten years younger. “Okay. Come on in.”

She touched his arm. “That’s the first time I’ve seen you smile.”

“Yeah,” he said softly, maybe sadly. “It’s been a while.”

Meghann slept through the night. When dawn came to the small, dingy cabin windows and peered inside, she woke with a start. Instead of feeling nervous and cranky—her normal moods after a sleepless night—she felt rested and relaxed. She couldn’t remember the last time morning had been so sweet.

She felt the heavy weight of Joe’s bare leg against her own. His arm was around her, anchoring her in place. Even in sleep, his forefinger brushed possessively against her skin.

She should move away. It was a maneuver she’d perfected over the years—the intimacy-evading sideways roll, the silent plop to the floor, the soundless dressing and unseen exit.

What I mind, he’d said last night, is waking up alone.

She couldn’t sneak out.

The surprising part was that she didn’t want to, not really. She sensed that she should, in that basic self-preservation kind of way, but really, it felt good to be in a man’s arms again. As she lay here, listening to his slow, even breathing, feeling his arm around her, she couldn’t help but realize how little intimacy she’d known in her life. She was always so in control, moving forward on the path she saw for herself, she never let herself slow down enough to feel anything. It wasn’t real, of course, this intimacy she felt with Joe. They didn’t know or care deeply about each other, but for Meghann, even this approximation of emotion was more than she’d felt in years.

The sex had been different last night, too. Softer, gentler. Instead of their previous I’m-going-as-fast-as-I-can coupling, they’d acted as if they had all the time in the world. His long, slow kisses had made her crazy with wanting. It wasn’t simple horniness, either; at least that’s what she’d thought when he’d swept her away. She’d imagined that there was something more between them.

That worried her. Need was something she understood, accepted. In a gray world, it was jet-black.

Emotion was something else entirely. Even if it wasn’t a lead-up to love, it was trouble. The last thing Meghann wanted was to care for someone.

Still . . .

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