Distant Shores Page 37

And it could ruin him again.

Let me give you some advice, man to man, Tom Jinaro had said on the day he'd dangled the NFL Sunday carrot. Stay away from drugs and DUIs and underage women. Opportunities can vanish in an instant.

If it got out that he'd had sex with his assistant . . .

The words SEXUAL HARASSMENT came at him hard. If Sally decided to, she could ruin him.

He'd set himself up as Mr. Morality, too.

"Jesus Christ," he whispered, staring into the mirror. Sally's cherry-red love note cut across his reflection.

"Never again," he said out loud. "It was a onetime thing. A mistake."

Elizabeth didn't have to know. Ever.

"A onetime thing," he said again, meaning it.

By the time he'd showered, shaved, dressed, and walked to the office, he felt better. Stronger and more sure of himself. He'd made a mistake--a whopper of one, to be sure--but it would stand alone. A high-rise of stupidity in the vast prairie of the rest of his life.

At his desk, he sat down and immediately started to go through the notes he'd made yesterday afternoon. He was working on a story about a horse camp in Poulsbo, Washington, called Blue Heron Farms, where disabled children learned to ride.

Suddenly the door opened.

Sally stood in the opening, dressed this morning in a slim black suit with an emerald-green silk blouse. Her smile was depressingly cheery.

She managed to make him feel old and young at the same time.

She closed the door behind her. "I'm sorry I left while you were still sleeping. I needed to be at work early," she said.

"Don't mention it." He felt sick to his stomach. Nervous, ashamed, and excited all at once. Really, he thought, don't mention it.

Smiling, she clasped her hands behind her back and strolled toward him. The clicking of her high heels sounded appallingly loud in the room. The only thing louder was the beating of his heart.

Onetime thing, he reminded himself.

"About last night . . ."

She placed her hands on his desk and leaned forward. From this angle, he could see the lacy beige edge of her bra. Pale, firm breasts swelled beside it.

He tried not to recall how sweet she'd tasted, how pink her nipples were--

Stop it.

"You'll never guess who called for you this morning," she said.

"Who?" He kept his gaze pinned to her face. Nothing below the collar. Or the top button at the very lowest.

"Your publicist. He asked me to pass along an offer . . . from People magazine."

"People?" He rose out of his chair. "What did they want?"

She hitched one hip onto the edge of his desk. "They want to feature you in the 'Fifty Most Beautiful People' issue."

"You're kidding?"

"This is the big time, Jack," she said. "You're a star again."

He didn't mean to do it, but he reached out, pulled her into his arms.

"Take me on the shoot with you," she said, tracing his lips with one finger. "It's going to be at the Peninsula."

He gazed down at her heart-shaped face and felt a sharp tug of desire. God help him, he wanted her again already.

Elizabeth tossed and turned all night, unable to sleep. She hadn't realized how accustomed she'd become to privacy until Anita showed up.

At dawn, she got dressed and tiptoed across the hall, then eased the door of the guest bedroom open. Anita was still sleeping.

She wrote a quick gone-to-the-beach note, then went outside.

Hugging her canvas supply bag, she climbed down the steps to the beach. The ocean was energetic today, surging forward and back. Thousands of shorebirds circled the distant rocks, cawing loudly.

She left the bag by her rock and kept walking, faster and faster, until it seemed completely natural to break into an easy jog. She took energy from the surf; it made her feel powerful and free. Off in the distance, she could see a pair of box kites sparring with each other in the wind. An osprey flapped down onto its nest in a dead conifer tree.

For a few glorious minutes, she forgot that Anita had shown up last night, dragging a suitcase big enough for a two-month stay.

Finally, she turned around and came back to her spot. Collapsing, breathing hard, she sat down on her flat rock and tucked up her knees, stared out at the endless blue sea. A few diaphanous silver clouds floated across the sky.

It felt good to push herself. After years of ignoring her body, she had finally figured out what really mattered. Who cared if she was a size four or a six or a fourteen? She just wanted to be able to run down the beach and climb up the stairs and ride her bike. Size wasn't the point; health was.

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It didn't sound like much, but to a woman who'd spent almost thirty years counting calories and wearing control-top panty hose, it was freedom, pure and simple.

"Birdie, honey? Is that you?"

Elizabeth turned. Anita was standing a few feet away, wearing a long floral skirt and a heavy cable-knit white sweater.

Elizabeth reluctantly scooted sideways on the flat rock. "Here. There's plenty of room."

Anita sat down beside Elizabeth. "Whew! Those stairs are a killer. No wonder you've lost weight."

Elizabeth turned. "I have?"

"At least ten pounds, honey. Your clothes hang on you." Her mouth tightened in disapproval. " 'Course the baggy sweats you've been wearing would hang on Mama Cass."

There it was again, the familiar sniping and criticism that had stained their relationship for years. Just smile and go on, she thought, or it'll be a long visit. "I guess exercising was the key all along."

"I do yoga myself."

Elizabeth hadn't known that. Come to think of it, she didn't know much about Anita's life apart from Edward. She jumped on that; it gave them something to talk about. "What else do you do? At home, I mean."

"Regular things, I guess. I belong to a book club that meets once a month. Last month we read The Hours. I play bridge with the girls every Thursday morning. I volunteer at the women's shelter on Tuesdays. I knit enough afghans to cover a small country. 'Course your daddy took up most o' my time." She stopped, fell silent for a long time. Then, softly, she said, "I don't dream about him. Every night I go t' bed, waitin' to see him . . . but he doesn't come."

Elizabeth knew that feeling. "I've waited my whole life to dream about Mama. It's never happened."

"It's like losin' him a second time," Anita said. After another long pause, she added, "I always knew I'd outlive him. I thought I was prepared for it. What a fool I was. You can't prepare for losin' someone you love."

Elizabeth knew there was nothing for her to say. Grief was like the ocean in front of them; waves kept rolling toward you, and sometimes, the tide swelled high enough to pull you under. Usually, it had to be handled alone, in the dark, when you were most afraid. But maybe Anita had come to Echo Beach because the dark was too quiet. Maybe she needed to talk about Daddy. "How did you and Daddy meet?" Elizabeth asked.

Anita gave her a grateful smile. "I was working in the beauty salon. Lordy, I still remember the first time I saw him. He looked like a Saturday-matinee hero, with his shaggy black hair and dark eyes. He had a mustache in those days, and his eyes were dark as night. I turned to my friend, Mabel, and said, 'Oh, baby, will you look at that.' " She sighed. "I reckon I fell in love with him right then. 'Course, he barely noticed me at all."

Elizabeth frowned. Daddy had shaved off that mustache the year after Mama died. He'd never worn one since. "When was that?"

Anita didn't look at her. "It doesn't matter."

"You knew my mother," Elizabeth said suddenly, straightening.

Anita started to speak--to deny it, Elizabeth was certain. But when their eyes met, Anita sighed heavily and slumped forward. "Not really. She was with him that day, though. Mabel cut her hair."

"Did you talk to her?"

"Me? Naw. I was just out of beauty school. No one paid me much mind."

"Tell me about her."

"I don't know much, really. I heard stories, o' course. The second wife always hears stories about the first. By all accounts, your mama was the most beautiful, most adventurous woman in Springdale."

"I've heard that line for years. It's starting to sound rehearsed. Tell me something real. Why wouldn't Daddy ever talk about her?" She gazed at Anita. "Please."

"Before you were born, your mama ran away for a spell."

"She left Daddy?"

"In the middle of the night, from what I heard. It took him a while to find her. She was way to North Carolina by then, but he tracked her down and brought her home. After that, folks said, she was different. Sad and quiet. Jenny Pilger saw her break into tears one day at the Piggly Wiggly."

"Depression." Elizabeth had never imagined such a thing. Her mama, the woman everyone said was so bold and adventurous, depressed. She didn't quite know how to process this new information.

"She loved you. Old Anna Deaver said that Marguerite never let you out of her sight. She even slept with you most nights. Wouldn't let anyone watch you, ever. But the rumor was that she never did shake that sadness. Some said she clung to you so tightly they thought your little eyes'd pop out. She stopped smilin'. That's what I heard most of all. That she'd left her smile in North Carolina, and she couldn't even come up with one for you."

"I used to beg him for stories about her. He never would say anything beyond, 'You hold your memories close, sugar beet.' But I didn't have any memories. Not enough, anyway." She'd never been able to make him understand the howling emptiness she'd felt as a child.

"Maybe he didn't have any stories to give you. Sometimes unhappiness can settle over a thing and bury it until there's nothin' else left."

Nothing else left. Just unhappiness.

Elizabeth knew how that felt now. "That's how it got between Jack and me."

"It's easy, sometimes, to forget why you fell in love with someone." Anita stared out at the ocean. "I left him once, you know."

"No, I didn't know. Not then, anyway."

"How would you, I guess, livin' so far away, and your own life on top of it? Edward wasn't the kind of man who'd tell his only child that his marriage had gone missin'."

"You could have told me."

"On one of our long, soul-searchin' mother-daughter talks? Honey, you barely said hello to me when you called."

"Where did you go?"

"That doesn't matter. It didn't even matter then. Away, that's all." She sighed, and Elizabeth wondered if that memory hurt more now that he was gone.

"Maybe we shouldn't talk about this."

Anita was quiet for a moment. The ocean whooshed toward them, tumbled lazily across the sand and slunk away again. "He overwhelmed me sometimes. He was so hungry for everything, so needy, and I was young when we got married. I didn't know what I wanted. So I lived his life. For a long time, that was okay."

Elizabeth knew that feeling. Jack and her father had that in common. Both men were like the sun; everything ultimately orbited around them. In the beginning, that was okay, but as you grew older, things changed. You started to see the roads you hadn't taken, and you wondered, What if . . . ?

Anita brought her knees up and curled her arms around her ankles. She started to turn toward Elizabeth, then looked down at her wedding ring instead. "I wanted to have a child."

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