Distant Shores Page 29


"I didn't know that."

That was, perhaps, the worst of all her failings. She'd been so afraid of her own lost dream that she'd pretended it had never existed. How could a woman who'd clipped her own wings teach her babies to fly? "I don't know why I didn't talk about it. I used to be something special, though."

"You still are, Mom."

"I'm thinking of taking a painting class at the local college." There, she'd said it. Molded a dream into words and given it the strength of voice.

"That'd be awesome. I'm sure you'll blow the shit out of the curve."

Elizabeth laughed at that. She hadn't even thought about grades. "You just remember, Stephie, these are your glory years. No husband, no babies, no one to tell you what you can't do. This is your time to dream big and soar." Elizabeth heard the fierce edge of regret in her voice. It was so easy to see the world in retrospect. She started to say something else, then heard a sound that brought her up short. "Baby? Are you crying?"

"You're not that inspirational, Mom. I just feel lousy. Now I'm getting a headache. I think I'm gonna crash. I'll have Jamie call when she gets back from swim practice."

"Okay, honey. Drink lots of fluids. And tell Tim hi for me. For us," she amended. How quickly she'd begun to think in the singular.

"Tell Dad I love him."

"I will."

"And tell him to call me tonight. I want to hear how his big interview with Jay went."

(Jay who?)

"Okay," she said. "I love you."

"Love you guys, too. Bye."

For the last few days, Jack's life had been a full-speed running game. Drew Grayland's arraignment had been broadcast on Court TV. The young man had admitted nothing and pled not guilty, but that didn't matter. The whole sordid, sorry story had come front and center. All across America, students and parents were protesting the lack of athlete accountability. Female students from dozens of universities had filed rape charges against football and basketball players.

At the heart of the story stood Jack Shore. By luck and chance--and a ton of Fox advertising money--he'd become the national poster boy for change. Everyone knew who he was again.

Now he was on the edge of his seat. Literally.

Sally sat beside him, her foot tapping unevenly on the floor as she pawed through the fruit basket on the coffee table. "You're going to be great," she said for at least the fifteenth time in as many minutes.

To be honest, he needed her to say it, again and again. That was a big part of why he'd hired her. She was great for his ego--and, of course, she was a damned fine assistant. She'd organized every nuance of this opportunity, hadn't she?

There was a knock at the door. In walked Avery Kormane, the woman who'd shown him to the small, windowless waiting room and conducted his pre-interview. "How're you doing?"

"Has anyone ever puked on the Tonight Show, or will I be the first?"

"A bird caller from Kentucky took one look at the audience and fell face-first onto the floor." She smiled. "Everyone's nervous in this room. I've seen your tapes. You'll do fine once you're in front of the camera. Just focus on Jay if you get nervous. He's a nice guy. He'll catch you if you fall."

Sally had chosen Leno for that very reason. When the offers started pouring in last week, Jack had instinctively gravitated toward Letterman. It was Sally who'd reminded him that Leno was a hell of lot easier.

Avery consulted her clipboard. "As I told you earlier, your seat is the one closest to Jay. The others should be empty. George Clooney has to catch a flight to D.C. for the next leg of his press junket."

Jack glanced up at the television monitor on the wall. On screen, Thea Cartwright was laughing with Jay. She was the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, bar none. "What about Thea?"

Avery looked up sharply. Behind the world's ugliest black frame glasses, her eyes narrowed. "Do you know her? I don't have that in my notes."

Sally was frowning at him.

"No, no. I just think she's great. That's all." He felt like a complete idiot.

Avery's nose crimped up. "Oh, that. Well, she'll be long gone. She has an opening tonight. You just shake Jay's hand, wave to the audience, and take your seat." She glanced at her watch. "Follow me."

Jack did as he was told. Sally stuck to his side like glue. They walked through the industrial maze of backstage hallways, passing several closed doors that had red on air signs above them. Finally, they came to the edge of the stage.

A narrow vertical sign lit up the word Hollywood beside him. The lights buzzed softly.

Jack's palms were sweating like geysers. He was wetter than the goddamn Man from Atlantis.

"You'll be great," Sally said again.

He wished Elizabeth were here. It only took a look from her, a feather touch, to calm him. He'd wanted this--national exposure--for years, but now that it was here, he was as jumpy as a rookie on the starting line.

This wasn't like reading the news from a teleprompter. He was supposed to be relaxed and witty. Avery had mentioned funny personal anecdotes as a good thing.

Had anything even remotely funny ever happened to him?

My wife dumped me last month . . . ba dump ba. Funny enough?

Applause thundered, shook the soundstage. On the wall, a red light flashed.

Avery tapped his shoulder. "You're on, Jack. Break a leg."

He mumbled something--he had no idea what--and stumbled around the corner. The lights were Broadway bright and aimed at his face. He could barely make out the stacked rows of people. He blinked suddenly, realized the lights weren't aimed at him; he was staring right into one.

Idiot.

His smile felt awkward, as if he'd borrowed it from a bigger man.

Jay was coming toward him, hand outstretched.

"Jumpin' Jack Flash," he said, smiling.

And just that easy, Jack's nerves dissipated. He'd forgotten that: he was The Flash. "Hey, Jay." He waved at the crowd, who applauded wildly.

He followed Jay across the brightly lit stage. He was at the big wooden desk when he saw her. At the same time, he heard Jay's voice.

". . . Thea wanted to stay. She says football is her second favorite sport."

There was a whoop of approval from the audience.

Thea got up from her seat and walked toward him. Her thin, leggy body was barely covered by a strapless black top and a hot pink miniskirt. She wore almost no makeup; her wheat-blond hair looked as it if had been hacked with a Weed Eater. It was sexy as hell. In heels, she was as tall as he.

For a split second, he was sixteen years old again, a kid pinning Farrah Fawcett posters to his wall.

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Thea grinned at the crowd. "Now, this is a good-looking man, am I wrong, ladies?"

He almost passed out, honest to God. The lights overhead felt interrogation-hot all of a sudden. He smelled her perfume, musky and sweet at the same time. He nodded and forced himself to turn away, afraid he'd look at her too long.

He took his seat.

"So," Jay said, sitting behind his desk, "you've been stirring up the sports world a bit."

"I was in the right place at the right time when the story broke." He'd had to practice humility in the mirror. It didn't come naturally.

Jay grinned. "I'll bet it's good to be back in the limelight."

"It is."

"What were the nonfootball years like?"

Every celebrity asked him that. Nothing scared a famous person more than the thought of a sudden plunge into obscurity. "Like trading in a Ferrari for a used Volvo."

"Ouch," Jay said, and the audience laughed. "What made you do it? A lot of athletes are plenty pissed off."

"I'm a father," he said simply. "It could have been one of my daughters in that room with Drew Grayland. We need to go back to the days when good sportsmanship mattered, on and off the field."

The audience erupted into applause again. A few "boos" rose above the noise.

The interview lasted another few minutes. Jay was a genius at pulling a funny remark out of serious statement, while not making light of the subject.

Then, suddenly, it was over. The music started, the lights came up, and Jay stood. He clapped Jack on the back. "You were great."

Jack felt like he'd just led his team to a Super Bowl victory.

Thea walked over to Jay and kissed his cheek. "Thanks." She lowered her voice, said something else. Jay laughed, then waved at Jack and left the stage.

Still smiling, Thea walked over to Jack. A slow smile curved her full, puffy lips. She was certain of her effect on men; took it for granted, he'd say. "You were good," she purred, leaning closer.

"Thanks."

"Would you like--"

Sally came up beside him. "You were great," she said breathlessly. To Thea, she said, "I'm Sally. Jack's assistant. It's an honor to meet you."

Thea looked at Sally's hand, placed possessively on Jack's forearm. "How lucky for you. I'd better run. I've got a premiere tonight." When she smiled at Jack, he felt a rush of pure heat. "It was nice to meet you. I hope to see you again."

"Uh, yeah. Me, too."

When she was gone, he looked down at Sally, who was staring up at him as if he were a god.

NINETEEN

On Friday, Meghann called exactly on time.

Elizabeth considered not answering, but knew it would be pointless. Meghann would just call back every five minutes until she got through.

With a sigh, she answered the phone. "Heya, Meg."

"I would have let it ring forever, you know."

Elizabeth sat down at the kitchen table. "The thought occurred to me."

"Tonight's the big night. The painting class you told me about. God, I wish I could be there."

"You mean you wish you were driving me to class."

"And walking you to the door."

Elizabeth smiled a little. "I did consider not going."

"Of course you did. But if you don't do it now . . ." Meg let the sentence trail off, unfinished. An uncoalesced threat, worse somehow for having no form.

"I know. And I'm going. I am."

"Good. Will you call me when you get home? I have a date, so I should be home by nine o'clock at the latest."

"Is that his curfew?"

"Very funny. He happens to be twenty-eight, a most respectable age. I just don't waste time anymore. If a date isn't going well in the first thirty minutes, believe me, it's not going to pick up."

"Maybe he'll surprise you."

"Birdie, they all surprise me. Last week, I hugged my date at the door and felt a bra strap. Well, I gotta go. Keep your chin up and remember how talented you are."

Were.

"I'll remember," she said.

"Keep moving. Don't stop or slow down until your ass is in the chair."

"Okay."

For the next hour, Elizabeth followed her best friend's advice. She didn't allow herself to pause or sigh or slow down or think.

Pack the supply bag.

Take a shower.

Dry your hair.

Get dressed.

Drive.

She managed to get to the community college in less than thirty minutes. She parked right in front and went inside.

Outside classroom 108, a sign was posted. It read: BEGINNING PAINTING/ 5:00.

Cautiously, she opened the door. Inside the small classroom, there were six or seven people--all women--seated in a semicircle. In front of them, a long table was draped in white fabric. A brown wooden bowl sat in the middle; it was piled high with bright red apples.

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