Distant Shores Page 27

"Hey, Sally," he said, leaning back in his chair.

"Jack! It's great to hear from you. How're things in New York? I hear your show is popping some killer numbers."

He couldn't remember the last time someone had sounded so genuinely happy to hear from him. "Things are great. Fox thinks I'm a god."

"We all think that, Jack. It sure isn't as much fun around here without you."

"Then maybe you wouldn't mind moving to New York. I need an assistant."

It was a moment before she asked, "Are you kidding me?"

"No. This is a genuine offer, okayed by my boss. We can't offer a hell of a lot of money, but I'm sure it's more than you're making now."

"I can be there in ten days." She laughed. "I'll live in the YWCA if I have to. Thanks, Jack. You don't know what this means to me."

"You deserve it, Sally."

"Thank you."

After Jack hung up, he sat there a minute. He was just about to leave for home when the phone rang again.

It was Warren. "Hey, Jacko, Beth has her yoga class tonight. How about dinner at Sparks?"

"Count me in."

"Seven-thirty okay?"

"Meet you there."

It took Jack longer than he'd expected to get home, change into Levi's and a black T-shirt, and catch a cab. He pulled up to the restaurant at seven-forty-five.

Outside, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the darkened window. He paused just long enough to run a hand through his now quite blond hair.

The hostess, a pretty young woman in a skintight black dress, smiled up at him. Her cheeks were as pink as cotton candy. "Welcome back to Sparks, Mr. Shore."

He gave her his showbiz smile. "Well, thanks. It's nice to be here. I'm meeting Warren Mitchell."

"He's already here. Follow me." She turned and walked away from him. Her small, beautiful ass swung gently this way and that. He followed her to a table in the back corner of the restaurant.

There, she touched his arm, smiled sweetly up at him. "I'm here until closing. If there's anything"--her voice italicized the word--"you need, just let me know."

God it felt good, being wanted again.

"I'll think about that, darlin'," he said, sliding into the seat. He watched her walk away.

Warren laughed. "I ordered you a Dewar's on the rocks." He raised his own glass in a salute. "It's awesome what a little TV exposure does for a guy's sex appeal, isn't it? Even old guys like us."

Jack reached for his drink. "It feels good to be somebody again, I can tell you that."

Warren took a sip of his drink. "It couldn't have been easy, going from the NFL to local sportscaster in Sioux Falls."

"I was never in Sioux Falls, but the point remains. It was hell."

"I wasn't there for you back then. When your knee gave out."

"There wasn't anything you could have done."

"Bullshit." Warren took another drink. "It scared the shit out of me, you know? One minute you were on top of the world; the next minute you were down for the count."

"I always knew I had glass knees. It was only a matter of time."

"How'd you get through it?"

Jack leaned back against the tufted seat. That was something he hadn't thought about in years, the how of losing everything. After the surgeries, he'd slept a lot; he remembered that. He'd stayed for days, maybe weeks, in his bedroom, holed up in the dark, pretending the pain was worse than it was, popping pills as if they were Sweetarts.

One day, Elizabeth had whipped open the curtains. That's all the time you get, Jackson Shore. Now, get up, get dressed, and meet me in the living room. We have the rest of your life to plan. In ten minutes, I'm going to dump ice water on you, so don't lollygag.

True to her word, she'd dumped water on his head. Then a few minutes--hours--later, she'd dared to use the prohibited words: drug addiction.

"Elizabeth got me through it."

"That doesn't surprise me. You got lucky with Birdie. If I'd married a girl like her instead of--"

"We broke up." It was the first time he'd said the words aloud. He was surprised by how it felt, both depressing and uplifting at the same time. He'd seen Warren looking at him last night while they were out drinking; more than once his friend had asked when Birdie was getting back to town. "It took me a while to say it out loud, that's all."

"Jesus, you two have been married forever. You're the only hope the rest of us have."

He'd heard that for years, from all of his friends who'd married and divorced and then married again. "Then there's no hope."

"Are you okay?"

The answer to that question had layers and layers. The truth was, he didn't want to look too deep. When he did--mostly late at night when he was lonely--he remembered the good times instead of the bad, and he ached for what they'd lost. It was better to swim on the surface of that pool, to feel good about his new life. "Yeah. It had gotten pretty stale around our house."

"I know how that is. The silence'll kill you. How is she taking it?"

Warlord assumed it had been Jack's decision to separate. Of course. No one would credit Birdie with the guts to end their marriage.

"She's okay. Now can we please talk about something else?"

"Sure, Jack," Warren said slowly. "Anything you want."

EIGHTEEN

The beach had become Elizabeth's sanctuary. In plainest terms, it had saved her. In the past week, she'd spent hours sitting on "her" rock, rain or shine. The weather didn't bother her one way or the other. Day by day, hour by hour, she became stronger.

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Until today, finally, she was ready to step back into her ordinary world.

According to her planner, tonight--Thursday--was the yearly library auction and dinner dance. It was amazing that she'd forgotten, given the countless hours she'd spent organizing the event.

She picked up the phone and called her cochair, Allison Birch. "Hey, Ali," she said when her friend answered. "It's me, Elizabeth."

"Oh, hi. I thought you'd moved to New York already."

"I came back."

She was trying to tack an explanation onto that when Ali said, "Is Jack back on the air? I haven't seen him."

"Just me. I came back. Jack and I are . . ."

There was a long pause. "Did you two split up?"

"We're taking a break from each other, that's all."

"Jeez. I never thought he'd leave you. I mean . . . I know you guys were having problems, but I thought it was . . . you know. The way we're all unhappy now and then."

Elizabeth didn't know which part to answer. Of course Allison assumed that the separation was Jack's idea. Women like Elizabeth didn't leave men like Jack.

"So, what are you going to do?" Allison asked.

"I thought I'd look for a job."

"In Echo Beach?" Allison laughed. "Doing what?"

"I don't know yet. Anyway, I'm still here and I wanted you to know that. Maybe we can have lunch together next Wednesday, after the site committee meeting?"

"Sure."

"And tonight is the library auction. I guess I'll see you there."

This time, when Allison paused, Elizabeth tensed up.

"It's a dance," Allison said. "Who will you bring?"

Elizabeth had forgotten how paired up the world was. "I didn't think about that."

"You'd have to sit by yourself at our table. Wouldn't that be weird?"

"I guess I have to learn how to go places alone," Elizabeth said, hearing the little catch in her voice.

"Yeah," Allison said on a sigh. "I guess you do. Should Chuck and I pick you up?"

"No," she said quietly, knowing that she wouldn't go now. Couldn't go. She stumbled through a few more moments of awkward small talk, then pleaded a headache and hung up. She slumped down onto the sofa.

This damned separation was a never-ending series of late hits.

She was single now. A woman alone, one who'd blundered daringly into some unfamiliar country without a map or compass.

She started to get that sorry-for-herself feeling and refused to give in to it. She'd been hiding out long enough.

It was time to merge back into the traffic of her old life. So what that there would be no car-pool lane this time. Such was life. What mattered was conquering fear.

She got up and went into the kitchen for a glass of water. It was there, by the fridge, that she noticed the calendar. Today had two things listed.

Library auction: 6:30

Passionless: 7:00

She'd forgotten all about the meeting, which was odd, since she'd actually intended to go.

But tonight, she was going to the auction.

She went upstairs, showered, dyed her hair, and then poured her more-than-healthy body into the elegant DKNY red knit dress she'd bought last month. She put on her makeup with exquisite care, trying to look her very best. At last, she added a single piece of jewelry, an intricate butterfly necklace, handcrafted of sterling silver and onyx.

When she stood back and looked in the full-length mirror, she saw a slightly overweight woman in a clingingly sexy dress. Not a "new" Elizabeth at all.

She paused, debating the whole question again, then reached in her closet for a black pashmina shawl, and left the house.

She drove past several small seaside towns. At Manzanita, she turned off the main highway and followed the twisting, treelined road down to the beach. Here and there, houses glowed against the falling darkness. Finally, the road spit her out in the parking lot of one of the coast's few glittering four-star hotels. As she neared her destination, nerves fluttered in her stomach.

What was she doing? She couldn't go in there alone--

"Yes, you can."

She parked the car and sat there.

It was twenty-five minutes after six. The auction would be starting any minute. If she waited too long, everyone would notice her entrance. Better to slip in quietly.

She took a deep breath. "Okay. I'm getting out of the car now."

She wrapped the cashmere-blend shawl around her body and headed toward the hotel.

In the lobby, she saw several people she knew. Smiling, nodding, she kept moving, but she was certain she heard, Where's Jack? whispered behind her.

She was imagining it, surely.

She hurried up the carpeted stairs toward the ballroom. At the open door, she paused.

Dozens of beautifully dressed people sat at white-clothed tables, chatting with one another.

She knew what they were saying: the same things a group like this always talked about, regardless of what city or town they were in. Men talked about jobs and sports. For women, it was school, kids, and diets.

In the corner, a jazz trio pumped out an uneasy rendition of an old Ella Fitzgerald song.

She didn't need to check her ticket to find her table. There it was, front and center. One of the perks of being Echo Beach's premier volunteer was prime table placement. Of course, it didn't hurt that she was--had been--married to one of the town's very few celebrities.

Allison and Chuck were already seated. Even from this distance, Elizabeth could see that Allison was wearing her usual choice: a black St. John knit. Three other couples were already at the table, talking quietly among themselves and sipping champagne. They were all people Elizabeth knew, some well, some only in passing. In a town this size, everyone knew everyone a little.

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