Distant Shores Page 22


The writers and producers were doing that, of course, but Warren had his own assistant producer, and Jack had noticed that Warren got the lion's share of the good questions.

Jack picked up a pen and began making a list. His assistant would have to be bright, ambitious, dedicated, intelligent. Someone like . . . Sally.

Why hadn't he thought of it before? She had the experience. They had worked well together in Portland, and she was a tiger behind the scenes. She tracked down every nuance of a story. She'd be a real addition to the show. As it was, all the producers and writers were male. A young woman who loved sports would shake up the perspective a bit. And she'd make sure Jack looked good.

She'd do it, too. He had no doubt about that. Sally was a woman with big dreams and tall ambitions. A chance to be a production assistant for a network show in the Big Apple would really charge her batteries.

This was business, pure and simple. That he'd been attracted to her didn't matter. He'd always be tempted by some young woman; that was hardwired in his DNA, as much a part of him as blue eyes and blond hair. He'd been tempted plenty of times in the past fifteen years--and even more recently--but he hadn't fallen out of the old marriage bed even once. Those days were behind him.

This was strictly business.

Unable to sleep, Elizabeth put on one of the thick terry-cloth robes that Anita had placed in the guest room closet and went quietly downstairs. The old house creaked and moaned at her progress. The wind against the windowpanes sounded like a cat scratching to be let in.

She didn't doubt that the house knew its master had gone on, but this place had weathered the storms of death for a long, long time. The first Rhodes had come to this land long before the Civil War, one of the working-class poor of England who dared to dream of a better life. He'd crossed the sea as an indentured servant and been sold at auction to a farmer in nearby Russellville. He'd worked hard, married well, and planted the seeds of a dynasty.

In the darkened kitchen, she made herself a cup of tea and stood at the sink, staring out at the backyard. Moonlight tipped the dead black branches with pearlescent color. Thin clouds scudded across the breezy sky; they created a shifting pattern of light on the garden.

She tightened the belt on her robe and went outside. The screen door banged shut behind her. The wind suddenly died down. An almost preternatural silence fell.

She shivered, though not only from the cold. It felt as if she'd been summoned out here, perhaps by the memory of their night out here at Christmas.

"Daddy?" she whispered, feeling both silly and hopeful.

There was no answer, no Hollywood moaning or ghostly apparition. No tall man dressed in a flannel shirt and twill pants standing beside her.

She stepped down onto the brick path that bisected and outlined the garden. The thin slippers she wore protected her feet from the cold as she walked past the perfectly shaped boxwood hedges. Here and there, shaped camellia bushes stood above the squared hedge, their glossy green leaves a stark contrast to all the brownness.

This had once been her special place, and now she was a stranger to it. So many times in her youth, especially on long summer nights when the heat made sleep impossible, she'd come out here. Alone and searching. In the winter, she'd scoured the leaf-blackened beds for signs of spring. A patch of lime green moss, a seed pod that had sprouted.

What she'd really been looking for, of course, was her mother, and here, amid the flowers she'd tended so carefully, Elizabeth had thought she felt her mama's spirit.

She'd always tried to picture her mama in the garden, maybe thinning the daffodils or trimming the roses, but all she'd ever seen of her mother were black-and-white photographs, and even those had been scarce. Most of the pictures had been portrait shots--wedding, graduations, that sort of thing. They left Elizabeth with a vague, colorless image of a pretty young woman who always looked perfect but never laughed or spoke.

Elizabeth knelt at the edge of the rose bed. Damp black earth ground itself into the plush fabric beneath her knees.

The bare, grayish brown rosebushes cast shadows on the darkened earth. Moonlight gave them an eerie look, like twisted hands from an ancient reptile, each finger thickened by age and studded with huge thorns.

Behind her, she heard the sound of a door creaking open and clicking closed, then the rhythm of footsteps on the brick path.

"Hey, Anita," she said without turning around.

"It's amazin' to think that those roses'll be bloomin' in just a few months."

"I was just thinking the same thing."

When she was little, Elizabeth had often cried when her mama's favorite flowers wilted and died. Now, though, as a woman full grown, she understood the importance of rest. It was the very bleakness of winter that made spring possible. She wished such a thing could be true for housewives who'd lost their way, that instead of wasting a life, you could be hibernating, gathering strength for the coming spring.

A breeze kicked up, sent a few dry, brittle leaves skittering across the path. "I tended those roses by hand all these years. I never let a gardener near 'em."

Elizabeth sat back on her heels and looked up at Anita. "Why?"

Anita smiled sadly. Her platinum hair was a mass of curlers; thick night moisturizer glistened on her cheeks and forehead. A heavy blue-plaid-flannel nightdress covered her from throat to foot. She looked ten years older than her actual sixty-two. "I smelled her perfume once."

Elizabeth felt a shiver. She remembered the pretty little bottle that had sat on her mama's vanity table. "Mama's?" she whispered.

"It was one of those days--when you were in a mood, as your daddy used to say--you disagreed with everything I said. So I stopped talkin' at all. I came out here, ready to attack your mama's garden. I wanted to fight somethin' I could see. But when I sat out here, all alone, feelin' sorry for myself, I smelled your mama's perfume. Shalimar. It wasn't like she spoke to me or anything weird like that. I just . . . realized I was fightin' with her baby girl, who was broken up inside. After that, whenever you made me crazy, I came out here to the garden."

Elizabeth heard the pain in Anita's voice, and for once, she understood. "No wonder you were out here so often."

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"I should have done things differently, I guess. I knew you missed her somethin' awful."

"I started forgetting her. That was the worst part. That's why I always asked Daddy about her. But he wouldn't say a thing, ever. He always said, 'Keep your memories close, Birdie.' He never seemed to understand that my memories of her were like smoke. I couldn't hold on to them."

"I imagine your mama is giving him a piece of her mind about that right now."

"I don't think anyone held as much of Daddy's heart as you did, Anita." Try as she might, a slight bitterness tainted her final words.

"Thank you for that." Anita gazed out over the fallow fields. "Why didn't you fly home with Jack and the girls?"

Elizabeth felt the cold suddenly. She shivered and stood up, crossing her arms. "He had to be at work first thing in the morning. I thought I'd stay and help you clean the house."

"Heloise cleans the house. She has since you were in pigtails." Anita looked down at her. "You can tell me to mind my own business, y' know."

"The truth is I don't know why. I just wasn't ready to go back to New York."

Anita took a step forward. Her silly pink slippers sank into the black earth. "Your daddy used to say to me, 'Mother, if that girl don't spread her wings, one day she's plumb gonna forget how to fly.' He was worried that you were missing out on your own life."

"I know." Elizabeth didn't want to be talking about this. It hurt too much, and right now, in her mama's garden, she was fragile. She wiped her eyes--when had she started crying, anyway?--and looked at Anita. "What about you? Will you be okay?"

"I'll get by."

It wasn't really an answer, but it was all there was. They had both known it would come, the day when Anita would be left alone in this white elephant of a house. For a while, the phone would ring almost hourly and friends would show up on the porch with a casserole, but sooner or later, the stream would run dry, and Anita would have to look widowhood in the eye. "I'll call you when I get to New York, just to make sure everything is okay."

"That would be nice."

Silence fell between them again. Wind whispered through the shrubs and played the chimes that hung from the porch roof. A melancholy sound.

Elizabeth wished suddenly that things were different between her and Anita, that they could hold hands and comfort one another. But it was too late now to recraft a relationship whose time had come and gone.

"We've missed our chance, haven't we?" Anita asked softly.

Elizabeth nodded. She didn't know how else to respond.

"It's too bad," Anita said. "But don't you worry about me, honey. I'll be fine. You don't marry a man who is fourteen years older and expect to outlive him. I always knew I'd be alone one day."

Elizabeth had never considered that. To her, the age difference had always fallen on her daddy's side of the equation. She'd seen it from a man's point of view. A younger wife made a man happy. Everyone knew that. Men--shallow as plate glass--had been proving it for years.

Now she saw the other side of that coin. Sure, Anita had gotten a good life and a lot of money. She'd been accepted into the local social scene and married a man who treated her like a piece of the finest French porcelain.

In return, Anita had no children now to comfort her, and no partner with whom to spend the hearing-aid years. She was sixty-two years old and a widow. Alone perhaps for the remainder of her life.

"Why didn't you and Daddy have children?" Elizabeth asked--finally--the question she'd pondered for years.

Anita sighed. "Oh, honey, that's a question for another time, maybe between different women."

"In other words, mind my own business."

"Yes." She smiled, maybe to take the sting out of her answer. "That question cuts to the heart of me, is all. I'm not goin' to answer it as idle chitchat at midnight two days after my husband's death."

Elizabeth understood. They'd missed their chance for intimacy. Now they were simply two grown women, connected by the barest strand of relation, who would go their separate ways. "I'm sorry," she said at last, choosing the sentence she herself had heard a hundred times in the past few days. "You call me if you're feeling too alone."

"There are worse things in life than being alone."

Elizabeth sensed that Anita had chosen those words carefully. She felt transparent suddenly, as if unhappiness ran through her veins, showed in the tiny blue lines that came from her heart.

Anita took a step closer.

Elizabeth stepped backward, needing space between them. "I better get to bed now. Six will come awfully early." She walked away, forcing herself to keep a steady pace. It was difficult.

She went inside the house and slammed the door, then peered cautiously out the window.

Anita was still standing there, shivering, her white hair twined around a dozen pink curlers. Even in the fading moonlight, Elizabeth could make out the glittering tear tracks on her face. Anita was standing alone, crying.

She was looking at the roses.

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