Distant Shores Page 14


He could still remember how it felt; that was the hell of it, the thing that had haunted him. When you were on top, you glided rather than walked . . . doors magically opened for you long before you reached for the knob . . . and tables at the best restaurants were held for you. Most of all, he remembered how people looked at you.

"Mr. Shore? The captain has turned on the seat-belt sign. We're about to land."

He shoved his briefcase back under the seat in front of him, then smiled up at the flight attendant. "Thanks."

The plane touched down gently, shuddered a few times, and rolled easily toward the terminal. Within moments, the flight attendant reappeared, holding his garment bag. "Here you go, Mr. Shore. You didn't have a coat, did you?"

He flashed her a smile. "I forgot one. I haven't been back east in a while."

"How could anyone who played for the Jets forget a New York winter?"

She knew who he was. This wasn't ordinary first-class service; she was flirting with him.

"I'm from Minneapolis, myself. I've got a two-day layover here . . . at the Warwick Hotel."

Jack heard the shuffling, banging sounds of people deplaning. It all seemed very far away.

All he had to do was nod, say, I'll be here for the night, too; what a coincidence, and ask for her name. They could spend tonight in the dark corners of a smoky cocktail lounge, with their legs pressed excitingly close together, making small talk until the time was right to stop talking altogether . . .

For a moment he wanted it--wanted her--so much he felt light-headed. Then he thought about Frank Gifford and took a deep breath. His equilibrium returned. Those days were behind him.

He reached for his garment bag, took it from her. "Thanks. Have a great time in New York."

Her smile started to fall. She reinforced it quickly. "Have a good trip, Mr. Shore."

"You, too." He shouldered his bag and left the plane. At the gate, there was a crowd of people waiting for the next flight.

Warren stood out from the crowd like a two-hundred-year-old Douglas fir in a new-growth forest. He was tall and expensively dressed, but that wasn't what separated him from the others.

The crown of celebrity sat comfortably on Warren's head. He moved forward, grinning. The crowd parted to let him pass. They were pointing at him, whispering among themselves. Jack didn't think Warren even noticed.

"Warlord, how the hell are you?"

"Jumpin' Jack Flash," Warren said loudly enough that people turned to stare. Recognition found its way onto a few older faces. The kids with bleached hair and nose rings moved on, uninterested.

Warren pulled Jack into a bear hug, then clapped an arm around his shoulder and guided him away from the gate. "God, it's good to see you." He kept up a steady stream of we-haven't-seen-each-other-in-years-and-how-have-you-been-and-have-you-seen-the-

old-gang conversation as they strode through the terminal, got into Warren's red Viper, and roared onto the expressway.

It was a gray winter's day. Clouds blanketed the expressway, sent a sputtering, drizzling sleet onto the windshield.

"Remember playing in this shit?" Warren said, honking his horn and swerving into the next lane to avoid hitting a Lexus SUV.

Jack grinned. He and Warren had been teammates at the University of Washington in Seattle. He was sure they'd played in the sun--they must have--but he couldn't remember it. What he remembered was playing in Husky Stadium on days when it seemed as if God himself were pissing on the field. "Elizabeth and Mary used to wear Hefty garbage bags to the games, remember?"

Warren laughed. "What I remember about Mary is her tits and that I never shoulda married her."

They'd been a foursome back then: Jack and Elizabeth-Warren and Mary. They'd been inseparable at the UW; then the draft had sent Warren to Denver and Jack to Pittsburgh. After several years and more than a few transfers, he and Warren had been reunited in New York. By that time, Warren had been married to Phyllis, and both he and Jack were superstars in the hectic, crazy world of the NFL. Of them all, only Elizabeth had kept her wits about her in the golden years, when money had flowed through their home like water. She'd saved as much of it as she could, but Jack hadn't made it easy on her. He'd thought fame would last forever.

"How is Birdie?"

"Great. So are the girls. They're both at Georgetown now. Stephanie is still quiet and much too serious. She's dating this whiz-kid who won the Westinghouse Award. Her grades are perfect. She's graduating this June--with a degree in micro something or other."

"Just like her mom, huh? Birdie was the only straight-A student I ever knew."

Jack had forgotten how much his wife loved school. For years after graduation, she'd talked about getting a master's in fine arts, but she'd never done it. Elizabeth was like that; she talked about a lot of things.

"Jamie's like me. If she weren't one of the best swimmers in the country, she'd be fighting like hell to make it through junior college."

"Remember Callaghan's Pub? Throwing back brewskis with the boys."

And picking up girls. At least Warren hadn't said it out loud. Still, silence didn't change the past. Jack had spent a chunk of his youth in that bar, flirting with the endless stream of girls that followed football. Taking them to bed.

And all the while, Elizabeth had been in a ridiculously big house on Long Island, raising their children alone. When he'd finally come home, smelling of booze and smoke and other women's perfume, she'd always pretended not to notice.

How had they made it through those days? And how was it possible that they'd been happier then than they were now?

It was the kind of question that bugged the shit out of him.

"There's the station," Warren said, cocking his head to the left. "We'll meet the head honchos tomorrow for breakfast. Your audition is scheduled for ten-thirty. I'll read with you."

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Jack loosened his tie. "Any pointers for your old buddy?"

Warren pulled up in front of the hotel, then turned to Jack. "I saw your interview with that college girl. My only suggestion is to relax a little. You know the camera is like a woman--it can sense fear and desperation--and desperate guys never get blow jobs."

Jack laughed. He couldn't remember the last time he'd gotten a blow job. Maybe desperation had been his problem all along.

His door opened. A uniformed man smiled at him. "Welcome to the Carlyle, sir."

Jack got out of the car and handed his bag to the bellman. "Thanks."

Warren leaned across the empty passenger seat. "Do you want to come over for dinner tonight? Beth is a shitty cook, but she makes a dangerous martini."

"I'll pass. I need to get my head on straight for tomorrow."

"You always did go underground before a big game. I'll swing by around eight. We'll have breakfast at the hotel."

"Great. And, Warren--thanks for all of this."

"Don't thank me until they offer you the job. Then I'll take cash." The electric window rolled soundlessly upward.

Jack watched the red Viper roar down the street and skid to a jerking stop at the light. Then he checked into his hotel and went up to his room. The first thing he did was pour himself a drink. It didn't help. He was as jittery as a rookie on game day. All he could think about was how much this chance meant.

Please, God. He glanced down at the phone and knew he should call Birdie, but the thought exhausted him. He'd have to pretend he was in town to see some college athlete--as if--and she'd blather on about sofa fabrics. Neither one of them would really listen to the other.

It had been that way for years. So why was it bothering him so much lately? With a sigh, he picked up the phone and dialed his home number.

On the fourth ring, the answering machine picked up. Birdie's recorded voice said, Hi, you've reached Jack and Birdie. We're not here but the answering machine is. Leave your message.

"Hey, honey," he said, "I'm at the Carlyle Hotel, room 501. The number's on the fridge. Call me. I love you."

Those words came automatically, but in the silence that followed, he found himself thinking about what they meant . . . and how long it had been since they were completely true.

He went to his window and stared out at the glittering Manhattan night. A watery, faded reflection of his own face stared back at him. He closed his eyes, and in the sudden darkness, he saw a younger, brighter version of himself. A man still puffed up with the certainty of his own greatness.

That man walked through another time and place, far from here. Seattle.

Dusk, on a cold winter's day . . .

He'd gone to the Delta Delta Gamma sorority house on Forty-fifth Street and been told that Elizabeth Rhodes always spent Sunday evenings in the Arboretum. He'd had no choice but to go looking for her there. Desperation had spurred him; there was nothing more desperate than a college football star with a failing grade.

He'd found her in the marshy trails along the edge of Lake Washington. She'd been painting. At first, all he'd seen was her hair, gilded by the setting sun. She'd had on a blue shetland wool sweater and baggy denim overalls that completely camouflaged her body, a trio of paintbrushes stuck out of her back pocket.

Odd that he remembered that single detail, but there it was. She'd had three brushes.

He still remembered their conversation, almost word for word. . . .

He cleared his throat and said, "Elizabeth Rhodes?"

She spun around so fast, she dropped a paintbrush. "Who are you?"

Her beauty stunned him.

She tented a hand across her face, squinting into the setting sun. He noticed the strand of pearls at her throat, peeking out from beneath a tattered denim collar. "Who are you?"

"Jackson Shore . . . I got your name from Dr. Lindbloom in the English Department. He said you might have room in your tutoring schedule for a new student." He grinned sheepishly. "I'm flunking out of Lit one-oh-one."

A frown pleated her brow. "What year are you?"

"Junior."

"A junior flunking out of a basic English lit class who calls for help--on a Sunday--in the final week of the quarter." Her ocean-green eyes narrowed. "Let me guess: athlete."

"Football."

The smile she gave him was thin. "Of course. Look--what was your name, Jock?--I'd love to help, but--"

"That's great. Dr. Lindbloom said I could count on you. When can we get together? My final paper is supposed to be a verse in iambic pentameter. Whatever the hell that is. I really need your help."

She sighed and ran a hand through her hair. The movement left streaks of yellow paint across her forehead. "Damn." After a long moment, she said, "I suppose I could meet with you tonight."

"Tonight? Whoa . . . homework on a Sunday night? I don't think so."

He could see that she was trying to remember his name again, and insanely, that turned him on. He was used to women pursuing him, sleeping with him because he was the quarterback, and yet here he was, drawn to this woman who couldn't remember his name. "I'm sorry. You'll have to find someone else." She inclined her head in dismissal and went back to painting.

He took a step toward her. His tennis shoes sank into the wet, marshy grass. "What if I want you?"

She turned around. Staring up at him intently, she tucked a flyaway lock of blond hair behind her ear. That was when he noticed her huge diamond engagement ring. "Look, Jake--"

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