Liam nodded. “Get us a couple o’ beers, willya, Lou?”
“Sure thing, Doc.” Lou slapped the rag across his shoulder and turned toward the beer taps.
Liam led Julian to a red Naugahyde settee at the back of the bowling alley.
As they sat down across from each other, Liam was glad they’d come here. First off, the lighting was poor, and God knew he didn’t need to see the younger man’s face in good light. Second, there wouldn’t be a bunch of look-e-loos wandering through the place and getting all hot and bothered about a genuine movie star in Last Bend. He hoped that Julian felt out of place in a joint like this, but truthfully, Liam figured that a man like Julian never felt out of place.
Liam knew it was childish, but he needed an edge, even one as feeble as poor lighting.
Liam stared at the younger man, remembering all the things he’d learned about him. The Internet was great for that sort of thing. He knew, for example, that Kayla True had “disappeared” one day. He’d learned, too, that Julian and Mike had been blessed in the beginning, a genuine Hollywood superstar couple, but something—some reports said drugs, some said other women, some said aliens—had tarnished their star. And that the four-times-married Julian True was one of the highest-paid actors in the world.
Lou waddled toward the table and set down two schooners. Beer sloshed over the glass rims.
Julian flashed the man a bright smile. “Thanks.”
Lou started to answer, then stopped. “Hey, you look like that guy …”
Julian’s smile was so bright, Liam wanted to reach for a pair of sunglasses. “Uh-huh.”
“Julian True. You hear that a lot?”
“All the time.”
Lou elbowed the actor. “Should help with the chicks, huh?” Then he turned to Liam. “And how’s that beautiful wife of yours?”
“She’s okay. Thanks, Lou.”
Lou nodded and headed back toward the lunch counter, humming Up against the wall, you rednecked mother, as he went.
Liam took a sip of beer.
Julian leaned back, sliding his arms across the top of the settee. Liam had the impression of a golden lion stretching in the sun. “I didn’t expect … her to be so …” He didn’t finish.
“She’s better than she was.”
“Jesus.” Julian’s eyes narrowed. He was looking at Liam for the first time.
“Earlier this week, she blinked.”
“A blink, that’s good, huh?”
“It’s better than nothing.”
“Well, it was awful damned good of you to call me. We sure as hell don’t have doctors like you at Cedars-Sinai—well, maybe Liz and Michael do, but not the rest of us.”
“I’m her husband.”
Liam refused to let the tone upset him. “We’ve been married for ten years. I’m sure you noticed the wedding ring …”
Julian rolled his eyes. “Fuck me.”
Liam wouldn’t touch that line with a ten-foot pole.
Julian’s hand shot in the air. “Hey, Lou. Bring me a pack of Marlboros, willya?”
Lou grinned and grabbed a pack. Hurrying over to the table, he dropped them in front of Julian, with a book of matches. “It’s nice to see a smoker in Last Bend. We’re dying out.”
“Nice imagery, Lou. Thanks.” Julian opened the pack, extracted a cigarette, and lit it up. Smoke swirled across his face, but through the cloud, Liam could see those blue eyes studying him. Julian reached for his beer and took a long drink, then set it back down between them. “You must really love her. To call me, I mean.”
“I do,” Liam said quietly.
Julian leaned back again. “This place reminds me of that dump of a diner where Kayla used to work.”
He smiled. “God, she was beautiful. And those good Christian folks in Sunville treated her like trash.”
“She said she never fit in.”
“Who the hell would want to? That town was a case of pinkeye on God’s eyeball. But it hurt her, you know. She was so scared of ending up like her mom. Kay would have done anything to belong somewhere.”
“You mean, like marry you?”
Julian didn’t smile this time. “Or you. I can see why she came to this town. She probably needed someone like you, after … me.”
Liam couldn’t stop the question; it burned on his tongue, left a bitter taste. “What happened between you two?”
Julian sighed. “You know how it is. We were in love … and then we weren’t. Hell, I was twenty-three years old. I didn’t know who I wanted to be, but I knew it wasn’t Mr. Cleaver.” He looked away, took another long drag on the cigarette, then exhaled. “I wouldn’t even try. When she left, she said she’d wait for me to come get her. Forever—that’s how long she said she’d wait.”
Liam wished he couldn’t see it so clearly. He sipped on his beer, studying Julian over the frosted rim. “What about your daughter? Why didn’t you ever contact her?”
Julian flinched, and Liam thought, My God, he never even thought about Jacey. He got on a plane, rushed up here, and never once remembered that he had a child here.
“She was so little when I last saw her. To be honest, I don’t know what I feel about her. I’m sure we’ll work it all out when I meet her.”
Liam knew the rich were different and that the rich and famous were more so, but he couldn’t fathom the kind of man who could be so careless with a young girl’s heart. He didn’t look away from Julian. At least the man could look ashamed. “She doesn’t know you’re her father.”
“What? Kay never told her? I would have thought she’d be proud of it …”
“You hurt her, Julian.”
“Do you want to tell her yourself?”
God help him, Liam was relieved. “It’s a small town. I don’t want her to find out—”
“I won’t say anything. If word gets around, I’ll say I’m here for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Please, Liam, let’s … wait and see what happens with Kayla, okay? I mean, if she doesn’t wake up …”
“Okay,” Liam said, watching Julian closely. “We’ll wait.”
Rosa was waiting up for Liam when he got home. She set her knitting aside and got to her feet, moving across the living room toward him. She started to say something.
“Sorry, Rosa, not now,” he said, walking past her. Whatever she was going to say, he didn’t want to hear it.
Instead, he went up the stairs and quietly entered Jacey’s bedroom.
She was fast asleep, one arm flung out to the left, as if even in sleep she were reaching for the bedside phone.
“You’ll always be my daughter,” he murmured.
The next morning, Liam woke up early and rolled quietly out of bed, being careful not to waken Bret, who was sleeping peacefully beside him. He showered quickly, grabbed some clothes from his closet, jammed them in a duffel bag, and headed downstairs. On the empty kitchen table, he left a Have a good day note for Rosa and the kids.
Dawn crept through Last Bend like a slow reckoning. Thin bands of pink light crested the trees. The storefronts were all black.
He drove to the hospital, parked in his stall, and went to Mikaela’s room. He flicked on the lights and went immediately to draw open the curtains.
Then, very slowly, he turned around.
She was as still as always, her pale face slack, her arms tucked gently along her sides. There wasn’t a wrinkle in the blanket drawn up against her chest.
He hadn’t realized until he exhaled a wobbling breath that he hadn’t been breathing. He’d been afraid Julian had already wakened her.
Now, for the first time, it felt important—essential even—that Liam be the one to reach her.
“Heya, Mike,” he whispered, starting the music. Today he chose something by Andrea Bocelli, to remind her of the sad, aching sweetness of life.
At her bedside, he set down the duffel bag and unzipped it, extracting a navy cashmere sweater, the one she’d bought for him on their last trip to Vancouver. Very gently, he placed it on her chest.
“Can you smell me, Mike? Me?” He knew that if he closed his eyes, he would remember that last day of their trip. They’d driven across the Canadian border to see a road show performance of Rent, and in that darkened theater, amid a crowd of strangers, they’d held hands like a couple of school kids.
“You bought me the sweater the next day, remember? I tried to tell you that it was too expensive, that a cotton sweater from Eddie Bauer was good enough for me.” His voice broke. “And you said nothing was too good for me.”
He took hold of her hand. “But that’s not what I came here to say, is it?”
He lowered the bed rail. Slowly he climbed into bed beside her. “I don’t know why I never thought to bring one of my own sweaters before. Last night I woke up in a cold sweat, thinking that very question. I thought of everyone but me … everyone you loved except me. You always said that was my greatest strength—that I thought of everyone before I thought of myself. But it’s my weakness, too, and we both know that.”
He brought her arm up, hating the lack of resistance in her limb, and kissed the back of her hand. “I let everyone else feed you memories because I was afraid of the power they held. I was afraid of … breaking. I still am, I guess, but I can’t let another day pass without going through that fear. It seems that all I can think about is you and Julian. He fell in love with a young girl who had big dreams and seemed at home in the fast lane, a girl who charmed the whole country. I can’t imagine that woman at all. I fell in love with a nurse with haunted eyes and a heart that was tender to the touch.
“There’s a whole part of you I never knew, and knowing that makes me feel … lost. Like our life together wasn’t real.”
He took a deep breath. “When I think of us, I think of little things. Like last Christmas, when we all went skiing at Schweitzer Mountain, and you said the only thing to look forward to in a sport that froze your nose hairs was quitting it.”
He smiled at the memory. For the first time, his words had brought her to him. Not the wife who was frozen in sleep, but the laughing, vibrant woman he’d married.
“When we got home, it was just in time for Glacier Days. As usual, you were the big kahuna, organizing everyone.”
An unexpected memory hit him hard and he laughed out loud. “Remember what happened in the gym? I was the last one in there, trying to figure out how to get into that damn hairy suit. Everyone else was outside, gearing up for the sled race.”
He grinned. “You came looking for me. You were wearing that ridiculous ice princess costume for the horse rescue float, and you said, ‘I’ve always loved a man in a Bigfoot costume.’ I grabbed your hand and dragged you into the boys’ locker room. You locked the door.”
She had laughed along with him. Liam, not here …