A new and alien emotion unfolded in Julian’s chest, made it difficult to breathe.
Night fell like sudden blindness, obliterating the last pink rays of the setting sun. Liam turned away from the window and stared at his daughter.
Jacey stood in front of a full-length mirror, staring at her reflection. Her hair had been swept back from her face and coiled into a thick black mass, accented with four glittering pink crystal butterflies. The sleek, lavender gown fit her perfectly.
She looked so grown-up. He couldn’t help feeling a brush of sadness, as if he’d already lost his little girl.
Tears glazed her dark eyes, and he knew she was thinking of her mother.
“She would be so proud of you,” he said. “You look beautiful.”
“You know what I remember? Your first Halloween in Last Bend. You were five years old, and you dressed as the tooth fairy. Mike went all the way to Bellingham for the perfect pink satin. She sewed a thousand pink sequins on your gown.” He moved toward her; for a second, he saw her as she’d once been, a little princess in a glittering dime-store tiara. “Mike and I weren’t married then, but that was the night …” He swallowed hard. “You asked if you could call me Daddy.”
“If your mom were here right now …”
She took his hand, squeezed it. “I know.”
He forced a smile. “Well, m’lady, it’s time.”
Holding hands, they went downstairs. A few minutes later, Rosa ushered Mark into the living room. He was wearing a navy blue tuxedo with a ruffled white shirt and a lavender bow tie. His jet-black hair was slicked back from his face.
“Oh, Jacey,” Mark said, moving toward her, “you look great.”
She smiled. “Thanks, Mark.”
Upstairs, Bret poked his head over the railing and started singing at the top of his lungs, “Here comes the bride, all fat and wide—”
“Bret!” Liam yelled, biting back a laugh. “Stop it.”
Bret dissolved into laughter and scampered down the stairs, skidding into place beside his sister. She elbowed him in the shoulder. “Thanks a lot, rugrat.”
Bret looked up at her. Rosa had scrubbed his little face to a mop-and-glow shine. “Really, you look pretty.”
Mark handed Jacey a clear plastic box. Inside it lay a white orchid wrist corsage with tiny lavender ribbons. “This is for you. Norma at the nursery said it was the very best kind.” He stumbled around, trying to open it for a minute, then gave up and shoved the box at her.
Jacey removed the flower and slipped the elastic band on her wrist. “Thanks. Grandma—would you get Mark’s boutonniere out of the fridge?”
Rosa bobbed her head and scurried into the kitchen. She came back a moment later with a small white carnation, its tips dyed lavender. “Here you go.”
After that an awkward silence fell. Liam wanted to break it, but his throat felt swollen and tight. He kept turning to his wife to say Look at her, honey, but there was no one beside him. He hoped Jacey didn’t hear the serration in his voice when he croaked, “Okay, kiddos, photo op.”
Jacey shoved his shoulder. “Very funny.” She took Mark’s hand and led him to the piano. He slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her close.
“Think sex!” Bret said, darting behind the sofa. Giggles rose up from his hiding place.
Liam snapped enough pictures for a Town & Country layout. He knew he was prolonging the moment—as if Mikaela would magically walk through that door if only he could extend this scene a little longer.
“Enough, Dad,” Jacey said, laughing. “The band is probably on their second set.” She disentangled herself from Mark’s arm and went to Liam.
“I know,” she said softly, “she’ll want to see all the pictures. Every angle, every pose. That’s why I’m bringing my camera in my purse. I’ll take pictures of everything.”
He pulled her into his arms and held her close. Then he drew back and smiled down at her. “Now go and have a good time.”
Jacey kissed Rosa and Bret good-bye, then hurried out the door.
Liam stood at the kitchen window, watching her drive away. There she goes, Mike. In ordinary times, he would have turned to his wife now and taken her in his arms. She would have been crying. Liam would have gone to the piano, sat down and played something sad and sweet, something that gave her the room she needed to grieve for the little girl who was crossing the bridge to womanhood.
Only right now he was the one who felt like crying, who had glimpsed the emptier nest of the future and seen how much quieter this house would be when Jacey left.
And there was no one there to hold him.
With a sigh, he went into the living room and turned on the television.
Julian knew it was the wrong thing to do. Dangerous, even, but he couldn’t help himself. In truth he didn’t even try. Self-control had never been his strong suit. He couldn’t have said exactly why he wanted to go to the prom, but he’d never been one to get caught up in reasons. He wanted to go. That’s all that mattered. He had spent a long, depressingly quiet day at the hospital, sitting by Kayla’s bedside, and he needed some action.
In his overdecorated bedroom, he dressed carefully, as if he were headed to the Oscars, instead of some backwoods high-school dance. A black silk T-shirt and black pleated Armani pants. Instead of bothering his driver, he walked the three blocks to Angel Falls High School. When he got there, his cheeks were numb from the cold, his eyes were watering, and he desperately needed a smoke.
He walked through the empty hallways, stopping now and then to look at the trophies displayed in glass cases between rows of gray metal lockers.
At the auditorium, he paused, took a deep breath, and opened the double doors. It took his eyes a second to adjust to the darkness, but gradually he saw that the gym had been turned into a cheesy tropical paradise. False palm trees clustered around a patch of gold shag carpeting; beside it, a dozen tuxedoed boys and ball-gowned girls formed a line for pictures. Against the far wall, a band played some hard-edged song that was almost familiar.
He knew the moment he’d been recognized. A hush fell across the room. Dancing stopped. The kids eased away from him, forming a whispering, pointing funnel toward the dance floor.
He looked around, smiling his big, overpracticed smile until he saw her. She was on the dance floor with her date. Even from this distance, Julian could see that they were staring at him.
He moved through the crowd in the way he’d learned long ago: head up, smile planted, making eye contact with no one.
The song ended and another began. The love theme from Titanic, the movie. That damned heart was still going on.
He stopped beside Juliana—J.C., he reminded himself—and held out his hand. “May I have this dance?”
The crowd gasped. Her date—a big, good-looking kid in a ridiculously cheap tux—looked confused.
Jacey turned to the boy. “Do you mind?”
“Uh … no.”
Julian swept her into his arms and began dancing. The crowd closed in on them, whispering and talking so loudly, it was hard to hear the music.
“Why me?” she whispered.
He smiled. “Why not? So, J.C. of the midnight hair, tell me about yourself. Do you get good grades? Have lots of friends? Practice safe sex?”
She laughed, a throaty, barroom sound that was exactly like Kayla’s. “You sound like my dad—not that he’d ask about my sex life.”
Something about the way she said it—dad—while she was smiling up at him … well, it pinched his heart.
It seemed odd, but he’d never thought about that word until today. Dad. Such a solid, dependable, grown-up word. Even now, with his daughter in his arms, Julian couldn’t really imagine being someone’s dad.
“Mr. True? Did you hear me?”
He laughed easily. “Sorry, I was thinking about something. So, what do kids in this town do for fun?”
She shrugged. “The usual stuff. Skiing, ice-skating, bowling, horseback riding. In the summer we hang out at Angel Lake. There’s a cool rope swing off a big madrona tree at Currigan Point.”
It sure as hell wasn’t “the usual” in Los Angeles, not for a celebrity’s kid, anyway. If J.C. had grown up with Julian, she’d have spent her life behind iron gates and sheltered by bodyguards. She wouldn’t have known what it was like to ride her bike to town for a drugstore soda.
For the first time, he understood what Kayla had asked of him all those years ago. She’d used words like rehab and safety, but that wasn’t right. What she’d wanted was a normal life for their daughter.
Just that. A normal life.
It was something Julian had never wanted. But now, as he held this daughter who was and wasn’t his, he wondered about the price he’d paid for his fame.
It struck him hard, left him breathless, the sudden realization of how deeply he’d failed his daughter. As if he’d just walked into a room as familiar as his own bedroom and suddenly found it empty.
He should have known it all along, of course, but he hadn’t thought about it until now.
He wasn’t J.C.’s father. She had a man at home who’d loved her, who knew if she’d worn braces or snored in her sleep, who’d been there to pick her up when she fell down.
Julian had planted the seed of her, but he hadn’t chosen to nurture it; he could never have helped her grow into the vibrant, beautiful flower he now held in his arms. How could he help another person grow when he needed so much sunlight for himself?
Even though he was smart enough to know the truth—that he wasn’t this girl’s father and never would be—he couldn’t help wishing, dreaming, that things could be different.
The song came to an end. Sadly he leaned down and kissed her cheek. Then he did what he did best: He walked away.
Liam was in the living room, nursing a watered-down Scotch, when he heard the car drive up.
Immediately he tensed. He’d been sitting here for hours, by the light of a single lamp, thinking about the decision he and Julian had made. The more he considered it, the more he saw how reckless and dangerous it was to withhold the truth from Jacey. This was a small town; gossip moved like bees from one backyard flower to the next, over picket fences and through telephone lines. The Make-a-Wish ruse would work for a while, but Liam didn’t really trust Julian to understand the stakes. Anyone who said, “You know how it is—we were in love and then we weren’t,” had a pretty hazy understanding of love and heartache.
The bottom line was this: Liam hated deceiving Jacey. He couldn’t quite believe that deceit was ever really in a person’s best interest. Now, every time he looked at her, he felt the heavy, ugly curtain of this lie between them.
The front door swung open suddenly, and she breezed into the room. Her cheeks were flushed a deep, rosy pink and her espresso-dark eyes were shining.
He couldn’t tell her now, not on this night that should hold only magical memories.