Distant Shores Page 41

Stephanie went down the hall. When she came back, she was wearing a baggy flannel nightgown and her face was pink and shiny. She kissed Elizabeth on her way past, then crawled into bed beside her sister.

Elizabeth wasn't ready to leave yet, to face Jack. "I want to hear about your new boyfriend, Jamie."

"That's it," Stephanie said, giggling. "If she's going to start blabbing about jazz-man with the oh-so-cool eyes, I'm going to sleep. G'night, Mom." She rolled onto her side.

Elizabeth sat down on the floor, leaning against the wall. "Tell me," she said.

Jamie pushed the covers aside and slid down to the floor beside her. "How did you know Dad was the one?"

Elizabeth tilted her head back. She stared up at the white, peaked ceiling where a lonely, rarely used fan collected dust. "The first kiss pretty much cinched the deal." She remembered how it had felt to be swept away, out of control. She would have given up everything to be with him.

In so many ways, she had.

"When your dad kissed me the first time, I cried."


"I guess that's what you do when you're falling and there's no way to land safely. Love's dangerous territory."

Jamie rested her head on Elizabeth's shoulder. "I think I'm in love with Michael. It scares me."

"Then you're growing up, kiddo."

"I think I'm afraid because of Grandad. I never knew that one minute you could be drinking eggnog and opening presents, and the next minute be in some horribly decorated room, picking out a box, and pretending that wood grain and brass accents matter."

Elizabeth put an arm around Jamie and pulled her close. For a long time, she said nothing, just stroked her daughter's hair the way she used to. "Your grandad wouldn't want you to be afraid. He never was."

"That's what I tell myself all the time. But there's a hole in me now."

"I know, honey. But it'll get easier. I promise. You'll always miss him, but after a while, the missing will be more of an ache, not so sharp a wound."

"He wanted me to swim in the Olympics. That's all he talked about at Christmas. And I can't even beat some girl from UVa."

"He didn't care about the Olympics. All he cared about was you, Jaybird. He wanted you to be happy. It'd break his heart if he thought you quit swimming because of him."

Jamie looked at her. "Can I tell you a secret?"


"I don't really want to quit swimming. I just wanted Dad's attention. Not that I got it."

"He's a little crazy right now. Be patient with him. It's a big deal to have a dream come true in the middle of your life."

"I know. I just want things to be easier, I guess."

"Life isn't supposed to be easy, Jamie. Who cares if you discover that you'll never swim the three hundred as fast as Hannah Tournilae? What matters is knowing you tried."

"So you'd still be proud of me if I stayed on the swim team but never won a race?"

"You're fishing for compliments now."

"What if I flunked out?"

"Are you close to flunking out?"

Jamie grinned. "Actually, no. Michael's really helped me out. I just wanted to check the parameters of your goodwill while you're all gooey."

Quicksilver Jamie. Her moods were like the coast's weather; if you didn't like it, stick around for ten seconds. "You're a good egg, Jamie. Now, get to bed."

Jamie gave her a kiss on the cheek, then climbed up into bed, snuggling up beside her sister. "G'night, Mom. I love you."

"I love you, too."

Elizabeth stood up and flicked off the light, then went back downstairs.

Jack had built a fire. It crackled loudly and sent spiraling, dancing gold light across the rug. He looked acutely uncomfortable, like a big man trying to negotiate his way through a tea party.

She sat down on the sofa, close but not too close.

For a long time, neither spoke. Finally she said, "I used to remind you guys endlessly about my birthday."

"We know." He laughed, then seemed to relax, as if he'd been afraid of what she'd say.

"I always thought you'd forget, and I was so afraid of how I'd feel if that happened. Why did I do that, Jack? Why did I assume I was so unimportant?"

He faced her. There was a sadness in his eyes that she hadn't often seen. "Because I would have forgotten. Not every year, not even most years, but at some point, it would have happened. Not because I didn't care, but because I never had to think for myself. You always did it for me. You were my backbone; you kept me standing." He sighed. "And I took you for granted."

Elizabeth knew he wouldn't have thought that--let alone said it--a few months ago. "I guess we're both learning a few things about ourselves lately."

"I'm not the father I thought I was." He looked surprised by the admission, as if he hadn't meant to voice it. "Without you, the girls and I have nothing to talk about. They think I'm an idiot."

This was a new side to Jack, vulnerable. It changed him somehow, shifted the balance of power between them. She felt as if they were friends, talking about their kids. "They're nineteen and twenty, Jack; they think anyone who remembers Kennedy should be in a nursing home. I used to treat Anita the same way."

"Jamie rolls her eyes at you, too?"

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"Of course. Usually right before she says, 'Hel-lo Mom, could you please get real?' And Stephanie gives me that wounded deer-eye blink and shuts up until she gets her way. They've been perfecting the act since sixth grade. They could take it on the road."

"How do you handle it?"

"On a good day, I ignore them. On a bad day, I get my feelings hurt. Fortunately, there are more good days than bad." She saw his frown and asked, "What is it, Jack?"

Minutes ticked past before he answered. "We're going to have to tell them, aren't we?"

She almost touched him then, but something held her back. Fear, maybe. If she touched him now, when her heart was swollen and tender, it might begin again, and she wasn't ready for that. This journey of hers wasn't finished yet. "Yes."

"They'll blame me, you know."

"I'll tell them it was my choice."

"It won't matter."

"They're practically grown-up, Jack. They'll understand. And we won't mention divorce, just separation."

He smiled, but it was bleak and bitter. "We can call it anything we want. Hell, call it a vacation, but they're not stupid. I'll lose them."

Suddenly she was afraid, too. "Maybe we won't have to tell them. Maybe they won't have noticed that anything's wrong between us."

"Birdie," he said, smiling sadly at her. "My dreamer."

She wasn't quite sure why, but the way he said it made her want to cry. "We haven't made a decision about the future, Jack. We're just taking a break. That's all. There's still a chance for us," she said fiercely.

He touched her face gently, as if she were spun from glass that he'd broken long ago. "I want to believe that."

"Me, too."


It was late Saturday afternoon when the shit hit the fan.

Jamie was sitting cross-legged on the floor by the fire. Her small, pointed chin was jutted out in the bulldog expression Jack knew meant trouble. "Okay, you guys, spill it."

Stephanie, in the rocking chair in the corner of the room, paled visibly.

"You want me to ask it another way?" Jamie said, her voice rising. "Steph and I aren't idiots. We know something is going on between you two."

"Leave me out of it," Stephanie said.

Elizabeth, who was sitting on the sofa, tucked her legs up underneath her. She didn't answer.

Obviously, she was leaving it up to Jack. That had always been their pattern. Elizabeth decided what the girls could and couldn't do, and Jack was the bad guy who laid down the law, the one who gave them a "talking to" when Elizabeth was unhappy with their grades.

"So?" Jamie demanded again.

The girls looked at Jack. They knew: All bad news came from Dad.

He gazed at his beloved daughters. Jamie's tight, ready-to-be-pissed expression was ruined by eyes that were already sad. And Stephanie never looked up from the hands coiled in her lap. She was like a buck private, hunkered down behind a building, waiting for the shrapnel to start flying.

The thought of telling them, of actually speaking the toxic words aloud, made him almost sick to his stomach. They would always remember that it was his voice that had torn their family apart.

He couldn't do it.

He was so deer-in-the-headlights frozen that he didn't notice when Elizabeth got up, walked around the sofa.

She was behind him now. She squeezed his shoulder, and there was a gentleness to her touch that hurt more than any punch.

"I know you guys sense that something is not normal with Dad and me," she said. Her voice was surprisingly calm.

He couldn't believe she was going to do it. Birdie. The woman who ran from conflict and couldn't make a decision to save her life . . . the woman who'd stand in front of a train to spare her children's lives.

"That's an understatement," Jamie said mulishly. "We know Dad slept on the sofa last night."

"People who love each other have fights, Jamie." Stephanie looked up. "That's all it is, right?"

Elizabeth's hold on Jack's shoulders tightened. It occurred to him to reach up, to lay his hand on hers, but he was paralyzed by what was unfolding. He could barely breathe. "It's a little more than a fight," Elizabeth said evenly. "The truth is, your dad and I have separated."

Stephanie's mouth dropped open. The color faded from her cheeks. "Oh, my God."

"I know this is difficult to hear," Elizabeth said quickly. "And we're going to have to work together to get through it, but we'll be okay. We'll always be a family, no matter what."

"Oh, this is fucking great. We'll always be a family. What a crock of shit." Jamie shot to her feet. She was breathing hard, and Jack could see that she was close to tears. "That's right up there with a guy asking to be just friends. It means he already has another girlfriend."

Elizabeth's grip became painful. "Honey, let us explain."

"No way. I've heard all I can take."

"Listen to us, please. Your dad and I were so young when we got married," Elizabeth said.

Stephanie's head shot up. "That's your reason? Because you got married too young? I thought . . . I mean you always . . . Oh, shit." She burst into tears.

This was ripping Jack's heart out. Nothing had ever hurt this much. Nothing. Ever. "Honey . . ." He didn't know what to say. He glanced helplessly up at Birdie. She gazed down at him; her mouth trembled. And then her beautiful face crumpled.

Jack didn't think. He leaned sideways and pulled her into his arms. "We'll get through this," he whispered against her wet cheek.

He had never loved her more than he did right then. She'd been stronger in this than he could have been, and now he saw the cost of that strength. She was tearing like old cloth, coming apart in his arms.

He looked at his daughters and knew he'd never forget this moment.

This was the price for every bad choice he'd ever made. And of all his poor choices, none had been worse than not loving Birdie enough to fight for their marriage. "This is hard on all of us," he said. His words came slowly; he was a blind man feeling his way down a dark and twisting hallway. "But we love you." He glanced at Birdie, did his damnedest not to cry. "And we love each other. For now, that's all we know. You guys can either help us through this, or you can be angry and shut us out. You're adults. We can't control you anymore." His voice almost broke. "But we need you now--both of us do. Maybe more than we ever have. We need to be a family."

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