Distant Shores Page 39


Anita smoothed her hand across the pillow. "Your daddy always tried to get me to take up needlepoint, but I never could master it. Such a feminine thing."

Elizabeth glanced down at the pillow. It was one of the few mementos she had of her mother. She had often tried to imagine her mother in a rocking chair, working with all that beautiful silk thread, but all she could draw up was a black-and-white image of a young woman looking into the camera.

"Your mama made this pillow," Anita said. "I can tell by her dainty stitches. That time she came into the beauty salon? She stitched the whole time Mabel cut her hair."

"I try to picture her sometimes."

Anita set the pillow down and stood up, then placed her thin hands on Elizabeth's shoulders and guided her toward the mirror that hung above the bureau.

Elizabeth stared at her own puffy reflection. Her hair was a mess, her face looked pale without makeup.

"When I first saw your mama, I thought she was the loveliest woman I'd ever seen. She and Edward looked like a pair of movie stars together." Anita pulled the hair back from Elizabeth's face. "You're the spittin' image of her."

As a girl, Elizabeth had spent hours searching through family photographs for pictures of her mother, but she'd never found more than a few.

She'd been looking in the wrong place for years, and no one had ever told her. All she'd needed to see Mama was a mirror. Now, as she looked into her own green eyes, she saw a hint of the woman she'd spent all her life missing. "Thank you, Anita," she said in a shaky voice.

"You're welcome, honey."

Jack barely slept that night.

Bleary-eyed and hungover, he padded into the bathroom and turned on the shower.

Unfortunately, the hot water couldn't wash away his regret. He'd slept with Sally again last night.

He wished he could believe it wouldn't matter; he and Birdie were separated, after all. But he knew better. This separation wasn't a license to screw around. It was a hiatus, a resting period in the midst of a long marriage. If he found out that Birdie had been unfaithful, he would kill the guy.

She'd forgiven him once, but that had been years ago, when they were different people. Back then, she'd been willing to sacrifice a huge amount of herself for their family. Though he'd hurt her, she'd been willing to believe in him again. In them.

But those days were gone. The new Birdie was a woman he couldn't predict.

She might learn about this mistake and file for divorce.

Or maybe she wouldn't care anymore. Maybe she'd drifted so far away that fidelity didn't matter.

He wiped steam off the bathroom mirror and stared at his hazy reflection. After a night of partying, the wrinkles around his eyes were more pronounced, and his skin had a sick gray tinge. It was easy to imagine himself as an old man, stooped by time and bad choices, tottering forward with a cane to steady his walk.

He'd always believed that Birdie would be beside him in those twilight years, still loving him when he had nothing to offer but a shaking hand and his heart. It had never occurred to him--not even in the past weeks--that they wouldn't always be together.

Now, suddenly, he was afraid. What if he'd finally ruined it?

He had just started shaving when the phone rang. Naked, he walked into the bedroom to answer it. "Hello?"

"Hel-lo, Dad." Jamie sighed disgustedly. "I told you he was still at home. He forgot us."

Shit. Today was the day they were going to Oregon. "I was just walking out the door."

Lame, Jack. Lame.

"Often, people leave for the airport before the plane lands," Jamie said.

"I meant to."

"He meant to," Jamie said, clearly talking to her sister. "How long until you'll be here? Maybe we should get a room and wait until it's convenient for you to pick us up."

He glanced at the clock. It was eight-forty-eight. "An hour, max. I don't know what traffic is like. Our plane doesn't leave until . . ."

"Eleven-forty-nine."

"Right. I'll meet you at the gate by ten."

Jamie sighed. "We'll be there, Dad."

"I'm sorry," he said. "Really."

"We know. See you in a few."

Jack hung up the phone, took two aspirin, and rushed to get dressed.

What if Birdie could tell he'd been unfaithful just by looking at him?

Damn. One screwup at a time. For now, he had to deal with the fact that he'd forgotten to meet his children at the airport.

In ten minutes, he was out the door and in a cab, heading toward Kennedy.

That gave him plenty of time to figure out what to say beyond, I'm sorry.

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Maybe Stephanie would buy it, would smile prettily and say, That's okay, Dad, but not Jamie. She'd stare daggers at him and ignore him for as long as she damned well felt like it.

Once again, he needed Birdie. She'd always been the glue that held their family together. She'd guided him, gently and not so gently, toward an easy relationship with his daughters. She'd made sure that he'd apologized when he needed to and listened when it was imperative. Without her, he was on his own, and he had no idea what to say.

"You can quit being strong, you know," Anita said as they sat at the kitchen table, eating an early lunch. A few presents sat on the counter.

"What do you mean?"

"A happy birthday from your stepmother and a little gift doesn't quite cut it. Admit it, you miss your family. You've looked at the phone about fifty times today."

"I'm fine. And you said you were going to teach me how to play cribbage tonight. That's something to look forward to."

She eyed Elizabeth. "What did you normally do on your birthday?"

"You mean besides warn everyone for a week that it was coming?"

Anita nodded.

"Let's see. I usually took the day off from all volunteering projects and slept in. By the time I woke up, the house was empty. Jack and the girls always left birthday messages on the table. Once they tied balloons to the chairbacks." Elizabeth's heart did a little flip. She'd forgotten that . . . "Jack always made dinner for me that night. His one meal--chicken piccata. It took him two hours and two drinks to make it, and you couldn't talk to him while he was cooking. He cursed a blue streak the whole time. After dinner, he gave me a body massage and then we made love. Oh, and I got to kiss and hug the girls as much as I wanted--they weren't allowed to protest."

"It sounds wonderful."

"It was."

"You're good at it, you know."

"What?"

"Denial. I mean, if I didn't know you, I might think everything was just peachy for you."

"I made a choice. I wanted to be alone." Elizabeth's voice softened; hurt feelings flooded through the barriers she'd built. Suddenly she was drowning in sorrow; a minute ago she'd been happy. She'd buried herself in denial because she knew how much a birthday without her family would hurt. No one had even called her today.

That was the realization she'd been running from all morning. No one had called.

Elizabeth forced a smile. "I'm going to go paint now. I need to finish four more pieces before the festival."

Anita stood up from the table and unwrapped her apron. "Do you mind if I tag along? I could knit while you paint."

"I'd appreciate the company," Elizabeth answered truthfully. "I'll go change my clothes and grab my stuff."

Upstairs, she changed into a pair of baggy Levi's and a well-worn blue denim shirt. She was almost to the door when she realized that she needed a belt.

She went back to the bureau and dug through her clothes, finally finding an old leather belt with a big silver buckle. She threaded it through the loops and cinched it tight, then went back downstairs.

Anita grinned at her. "You look like one of those country-and-western singers from home."

"Daddy bought me this belt at Opryland, remember? I haven't been able to wear it in years." Smiling at that, Elizabeth gathered her supplies. It wasn't ten minutes later that she and Anita were climbing down the steps.

"I can't believe you can carry all that stuff down these horrible old stairs. I keep thinkin' I'm gonna twist my ankle and plant my wrinkled face in the sand."

Elizabeth laughed. She felt good again. The girls would call tonight. Most definitely. "The tide's out," she observed. "We can spend hours down here."

Anita picked up the knitting bag she'd dropped down from the top of the stairs. Flipping her blanket out on the sand, she sat down and started knitting. A pile of fuzzy white yarn settled in her lap like an angora bird's nest.

Elizabeth set up her easel, tacked the paper in place, and looked around for a subject. It was easy to find things to paint, but difficult to settle on just one. Her practiced eye saw a dozen opportunities: Terrible Tilly, the lighthouse in the distance, lonely and stark against the aqua-blue expanse of sea and sky . . . Dagger Rock, the black stone monolith that rose from the ocean in a cuff of foamy surf . . . a Brandt's cormorant circling the land's edge.

She settled on the ocean itself; it was definitely a watercolor day. No oils or acrylics. She needed to complete four paintings in time for the festival; there was no way she could make the deadline if she worked in oil.

Happy with that decision, she started work.

It wasn't as easy as she remembered. She started and stopped three times, unable to find the flow she needed in watercolor. Everything was so damned wet; the colors kept bleeding into one another. She wasn't controlling the paint.

"Damn it." She ripped the latest attempt off the easel and tossed it to the ground.

"It's never easy to start a thing," Anita said, barely looking up. "I guess that's what separates the dreamers from the doers."

Elizabeth sighed, unaware until that moment that she was breathing badly again. "I used to know how to do this."

"In high school, I spoke Spanish."

Elizabeth got the point. Skills came and went in life. If you wanted one back, sometimes you had to dig deep to find it. She walked out to the water and stood there, staring out. She let the colors seduce her, reveal themselves in their own way and time.

She was doing it incorrectly. Trying to impose her will on the paper. That was a level of skill she had lost. Now what she needed to do was feel. Be childlike with wonder again.

She released another breath and went back to the easel. She set everything up again. And waited.

Sea air caressed her cheeks, filled her nostrils with the scents of drying kelp and baking sand. The steady, even whooshing of the waves became music. She swayed along with it. This time, when she lifted her brush and dipped it in paint, she felt the old magic.

For the next few hours, she worked at a furious, breathless pace. Finally, she drew back and looked critically at her work.

In a palette of pale blue and rose and lavender, she'd captured the dramatic, sloping coastline and the glistening curve of sand. The distant peak of Dagger Rock was barely discernable, a dark shadow amidst a misty blue-white sky. A few strokes of red and gray formed a couple, far off in the distance, walking along the sand. But something was wrong . . .

"Why, Birdie, that's beautiful."

Elizabeth practically jumped out of her skin. She'd been so intent on her subject that she hadn't even heard Anita walk up. "I can't seem to get the trees right."

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