Distant Shores Page 15


"Jack." He took another step closer.

She stepped back. "I only take students who really care about their classes."

He closed the last small distance between them. "I need you."

She laughed. "Come on. They don't care if you jocks actually learn anything."

He heard something in her voice that surprised him, a shadow of an accent. Southern, he thought. He liked the rolling, mint-julep sweetness of it. "I care."

She gazed up at him. As the look went on, she started to blush. "Fine. I'll meet you tomorrow morning at Suzzallo. Ten-forty."

"Aw, not Suzzallo. It's a goddamn morgue in there."

"It's a library."

"How about meeting in the Quad? I could bring coffee?"

"It's not a date." She glanced at her watch. "Look, I'll be in the room by the water fountain on the second floor of the undergrad library at ten-forty. If you want help, be on time."

That had been the beginning.

Jack had fallen in love with Elizabeth fast, and it hadn't taken him long to charm her. In those days, he'd promised her the moon and the stars, vowed to love her forever. He'd meant it, too. Believed in it.

They hadn't done anything wrong, either one of them.

They simply hadn't understood how long forever was.

NINE

Elizabeth stood in the middle of her walk-in closet, trying to decide what to wear. It seemed that everything she owned was wrong. A row of ornate belts hung from pegs on one wall.

But now, in what she depressingly referred to as the metabolism-free years, they were useless. Her old belts might wrap around one thigh. As her weight had blossomed, she'd gone from belts to scarves. She had dozens of hand-painted silk scarves, designed to camouflage a bulkier silhouette, but a flowing scarf didn't seem quite right for the passionless set.

An ankle-length forest-green knit dress caught her eye. Without wasting any more time, she grabbed it and got dressed. At her bureau drawer, she chose a hand-hammered pewter and abalone necklace, a relic from her jewelry period.

"There. Done." She didn't look in the mirror again. Instead, she walked downstairs, got her handbag off the kitchen table, and left the house.

At the college, she paused momentarily outside the closed classroom door, then went inside.

The faces were familiar this time, and welcoming. Mina, dressed in another floral polyester housedress, stood talking to Fran, who seemed to be listening intently. Cute little Joey, the waitress from the Pig-in-a-Blanket, was talking animatedly to Sarah. Kim stood back at the coffee table, fiddling with a pack of cigarettes.

At Elizabeth's entrance, Joey smiled and made a beeline across the room.

"I didn't think you'd come back," Joey said, taking a bite of bagel, chewing it like a chipmunk.

Elizabeth was surprised that anyone had thought about her at all. "Why not?"

Joey looked pointedly at Elizabeth's left hand. "Big diamond."

Elizabeth glanced down at her wedding ring--a one-and-a-half-carat solitaire on a wide gold band. She didn't know what to say.

"Most of us were dumped. A few, like me, landed on our heads. On concrete floors. From ten stories." Joey grinned. "Fortunately, I bounce."

"All women bounce," Elizabeth answered, surprising herself. "It's either bounce or splat, isn't it? My husband has worked in about eight cities in the past fifteen years. Believe me, I've done my share of bouncing."

"Wow. Military?"

"No." She didn't want to pinpoint his career. The last thing Elizabeth needed was for everyone to know she was married to Jackson Shore. It always sparked a round of how-lucky-you-are conversation, and that definitely wasn't what she needed from these women. But she had to say something. "He has trouble staying focused on one thing."

Joey giggled. "Well, he's got a dick, doesn't he? They're all that way."

At the front of the room, Sarah clapped her hands together. "Good evening, ladies. It's great to see so many familiar faces."

Joey grabbed Elizabeth's arm and led her to side-by-side chairs, where they sat down.

Sarah was in the middle of her opening remarks when Mina popped to her feet. She was smiling so brightly her face was scrunched up like a dried apple. "I drove here!" Her lower lip, made fuller by pink lipstick, trembled. "I can go anywhere now."

The applause was thunderous.

Elizabeth was surprised by how deeply those few words affected her. I can go anywhere now.

What a feeling that must be. How was it that she'd never imagined such a thing, though she'd been driving for years? Freedom had always been there for her, available every time she started the car. Available to any woman who dared to look up from the preplanned route and wonder, Where would that road take me?

When the applauding died down, the women returned to their seats. This time, because there were no "new" faces, Sarah led the group in a discussion that delved into previously expressed dreams.

Joey was the first to speak. "I took the kids to the dentist yesterday. I just love all that clean space." She sighed. "The dental hygienist just bought a brand-new Volkswagen Bug. Can you believe it? I'd love to drive that car."

"Have you ever thought about becoming a hygienist?" Sarah asked.

"Yeah, right. I barely got through high school. I think my grade point average was a negative number." She tried to smile, then bent down and rifled through the huge diaper bag at her feet. "I did think about someone's dreams this week, though. One of my customers left this on the table last week." She pulled out a paintbrush and handed it to Elizabeth. "Is that, like, karma, or what?"

It was a Big K quality paintbrush, probably from a child's paint-by-number set. A cheap little brush no self-respecting artist would ever use.

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So, why did Elizabeth feel like crying?

"Thank you, Joey," she said, taking the brush. When she touched it, her heart did a funny little flop.

"Tell us about your painting," Sarah said.

Elizabeth took a deep breath. "In college, my professors said I had talent. I was accepted into several fine-arts graduate programs."

"Did you go?" Joey asked, her voice hushed with awe.

"No. After the girls were born, there wasn't time. Later, when Jamie started first grade, I tried to go back to my painting, but when I picked up a brush, nothing happened. I just sat there." She looked around at the women's faces. Every one of them understood. Sometimes you missed your chance.

And yet . . . when she looked down at the paintbrush in her hand, something happened. Nothing major, no Voice of God or anything, but something.

She remembered suddenly how it had felt to paint. It was like flying . . . soaring.

Suddenly, she couldn't think about anything else.

After the meeting, she parked in her carport and ran for the house. Without bothering to turn on the downstairs lights, she went up to her room. In the back of her closet, she shoved the clothes aside and dropped to her knees.

There it was: a cardboard box filled with old supplies. She pulled it toward her, inhaling the long-forgotten scent of dried paint. On top lay a single sable brush, its fine bristles a glossy chocolate brown. She reached for it, brushed the tender underside of her chin.

Smiling, she got to her feet and walked into the bedroom to the pair of French doors that opened out onto the second-floor balcony. She pressed a finger to the cool glass, staring out at the night-darkened sea.

If there was anywhere she could paint again, it would be here, in the safety of this yard. She closed her eyes, daring for just a moment to imagine a shiny new future.

Jack drove slowly down the twisting once-gravel and now-mud road that led to his house. Although Stormwatch Lane ran for almost a half a mile, there were no other dwellings along the way. For most of its distance, the road was bordered on the west by a sheer cliff. Below it lay the windblown Pacific Ocean.

He pulled into the carport and parked, then grabbed his garment bag and headed for the front door.

A single light fixture cast the porch in orangey light. In the corner, an empty Adirondack chair cast a picket-fence shadow on the plank floor.

Inside, the house smelled of the cinnamony candles Elizabeth burned at Christmas. She always said she was going to save them for the holidays, but she never did. She burned them night after night, until the wicks were blobs of charcoal stuck to the bottom of the jar.

"Elizabeth?"

There was no answer.

The front door opened onto a small entry area. To the left was the living room, to the right, the kitchen. Both rooms were empty. He walked down the middle of the house, past the dining room--Had he told her how good the doors looked?--and headed up to their bedroom.

She stood at the French doors, with her back to him. She touched the windowpane with her finger. Light from the bedside lamp made her look almost ethereal. There was a sad wistfulness in her gaze, one he could see even in the pale lamplight.

"A penny for your thoughts," he said.

She spun around. When she saw him, she laughed. "You scared the shit out of me."

"I caught an earlier flight."

She glanced out to sea again. "That was lucky."

Already he'd lost her attention. But his news would get it back. He started to say something, but her voice stopped him.

"It's such a beautiful night. There are so many colors in the darkness. It makes me want to paint again." She turned to look at him, finally. "I went to this meeting tonight, and--"

"I have a surprise." It flashed through his mind that maybe he should do this differently . . . maybe give her the good news after a great dinner at L'Auberge. But he couldn't wait. "Remember Warren Mitchell?"

She sighed softly, then said, "The horniest running back in New York? Of course I remember him. He's what . . . a studio analyst for Fox now?"

"He was. He had a scare with his heart and decided he needed to change his life. When he tried to quit, the guys at Fox offered him a cushy one-hour, once-a-week gig. Sort of a sports talk show."

"God knows we need more men talking about sports."

Jack was taken aback by that. "This will be a whole new kind of show. They've contracted for twenty-six episodes. They'll be filming in the Fox studio in New York, so no more traveling to the games and stuff."

"That's great for Warren."

"And for us."

"Us?"

He grinned. "I'm going to cohost the show."

"What?"

"That's why I really went to New York. To audition."

"You lied to me?"

She made it sound worse than it was. "I didn't want to disappoint you again. But this time I got the job. I wowed the network guys, honey. Think of it, we'll start over. It's almost like being young again."

"Young again? What are you talking about?"

"It'll be great, you'll see. Maybe we'll even hook up with some of the old gang. And we'll only be a few hours from D.C. You'll be able to take the train down to see the girls at school."

"A few hours from D.C.? What are you talking about?"

He winced. This was the tricky part. "We have to move to New York."

"What?"

Guilt reared its ugly head. "I know I promised this would be the last move, but they offered me so much money you wouldn't believe it. I even got a new agent--a real Jerry Maguire type. Everything can be ours now."

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