Jacey moved toward Mikaela. “I don’t want to leave you, Mom.”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore, honey. I’ll be home soon.”
Mikaela smiled. “I promise.”
After they left, Mikaela decided not to bother checking out of the hospital right now. There would be time enough for technicalities tomorrow. She called for a cab, then carefully packed up all the photographs from the bedside tables and windowsills. At the last minute, she folded up her hospital gown and placed it gently on top of the things in the suitcase—to remind her always of this time. She didn’t ever want to forget any part of it. It was the coma that had saved her life. She prayed only that she had not awakened too late. That was one thing she knew now. Some chances came and went, and if you missed them, you could spend the rest of your life standing alone, waiting for an opportunity that had already passed you by.
She’d been unconscious for over a month. In reality, she had slept through the last fifteen years of her life.
Someone knocked at her door.
She froze, her heart thumping in her chest. Her gaze darted to the packed suitcase and empty table. Please don’t let it be a nurse—
Julian strode into the room as if he belonged there. “I started sneezing this morning. I think I’m developing an allergy to this Podunk town.” He grinned. “You should see the hoopla goin’ on on Main Street. Grown men are walking around in Sasquatch costumes.”
Glacier Days. She’d forgotten all about it.
In ordinary times, Liam would have been dressed in one of the Bigfoot costumes Mikaela spent hours putting together. Every year he grumbled about his dignity, and every year he ran in the race for charity.
She limped toward Julian. When she was close enough to touch him, she stopped. Finally she saw him, the man and not the myth. He was still devastatingly handsome, still a shooting star in a dark sky that wasn’t quite big enough to contain his magic. But when she looked past that, she saw what had been there all along, what had swept her up and then broken her to bits. She didn’t need to see Julian and Liam side by side to recognize the difference between tinfoil and sterling silver.
“Oh, Julian.” She said his name in a soft and tender voice that held a lifetime’s regret.
“I don’t like the way you’re looking at me.”
“Of course you don’t. You want to be watched, not seen.” It was true, she realized. His was the magician’s life, full of illusion and sleight of hand, where only one man saw what was behind the curtain.
“Kayla, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. I realized how much I’ve missed you.”
“Oh, Jules.” She sighed. It saddened her that she’d given up so much of her life waiting for this cubic zirconia moment. As if they could simply ride off into the sunset together. She’d forgotten that they’d already gone that direction once. It had taken them to a place so bright and hot that everything they were burned down to ash.
He flashed her the grin she’d seen a million times, the one that used to curl her toes and make her heart lurch into overdrive. “I know you’ve missed me, too.”
At her look, his smile faded.
“What?” he asked, his voice uncharacteristically uncertain.
How did you tell a man that at last you’d grown up, that you’d learned true love wasn’t a night of passionate sex under a sky lit up by fireworks, but an ordinary Sunday morning when your husband brought you a glass of water, two aspirins, and a heating pad for your cramps?
“I used to have a dream,” she began, gazing up at him. “It started right after I left you. It changed a little over the years, but the point of it was always the same. In the dream, I’m an old woman with flowing white hair. My children have grown up and moved on and had children of their own. Liam is gone; he’s been dead for many, many years.
“I imagine myself on a pink-sand beach. There is a white cottage behind me, and I know it is my home, where I live alone. I am sitting on the beach in a portable chair, as I do every day, all day. And one day I look up and an old man is coming for me. It’s you, Jules. I realize then that I’ve waited fifty years for you to show up. You tell me that you’ve given it all up for me. You’re not Julian True anymore. You’re the other man, an ordinary man, the one whose name you never gave me.”
“Mel,” he answered softly. “My name is Melvin Atwood Coddington the Third.” He tried to smile, as if anything about this moment were funny. “Who would have guessed that Gibson would do so well with it?”
She touched his face. “You should have been Melvin.”
“What are you saying?”
“Last night I had the dream again—only I wasn’t alone on the beach anymore. I was sitting with Liam, watching our grandchildren play in the water.” She gazed up at him. “I love him more than you can imagine, Jules. I only hope it’s not too late to tell him that.”
“I know he loves you, Kayla.”
She felt an aching sadness for all the things that could have been, for all the things she’d lost while waiting for what could never be. “There is no Kayla, Jules. There never was. And you were never Melvin.”
His voice was thick. “It sounds like you’re saying good-bye.”
“Oh, Jules, we said good-bye a long, long time ago. I’m only just now getting around to leaving.” She caressed his cheek, let her fingers linger there for a moment, then slowly she drew back her hand and headed for the door.
“Wait! You can’t just walk out of here. The press is waiting at the front door. I’ll go make a statement, then I’ll pick you up at the back door and take you …” He paused, said softly, “Home.”
She turned back to him. “What will you tell them?”
He looked sad. “I’ll tell them the story’s over. That Sleeping Beauty found her Prince. They might … follow you for a while.”
She smiled. “And cover my glamorous life? After ten minutes, they’ll realize that the ordinary life of a small-town doctor’s wife is hardly front-page news.”
“I’ll be right back with the limo. I’ll meet you around back.” He gave her a last, heavy look, then turned and left.
Mikaela reached for her suitcase, then decided to leave it in the closet. It was too unwieldy for her to carry, and it would only arouse suspicion. She called and canceled the cab. Empty-handed, she left her room. She kept her head down, and her side brushed against the wall as she made her slow, limping way down the hospital corridors.
When she opened the door, the first thing she noticed was the evergreen smell of Christmas. Green pine needles and fresh snow. A dark purple sky filled with the first few evening stars made her feel small. She smiled; that was what she expected from the sky. All her life, she’d gone out at night and stood beneath all that blue velvet darkness. It was her temple, the true house of her God, and it never failed to remind her of her place.
She liked feeling small. It had been the wanting to feel big that had led her to Julian.
The limousine pulled up, the door opened, and she got inside.
The limo crawled through town at the posted speed limit of ten miles per hour. Outside, there were people everywhere, moving in gray clouds of exhaled breath, walking beneath banners that read: WELCOME TO GLACIER DAYS.
Julian couldn’t take his eyes off Mikaela, although she rarely looked at him. She directed the driver out of town, onto a back road where trees outnumbered houses a thousand to one. They turned into a driveway, passed beneath an arch announcing ANGEL FALLS RANCH.
Acres of white pastures rolled away from the road on either side, bracketed by four-rail fencing. Beneath a huge old tree, a dozen horses stood, their big butts turned into the wind.
Mikaela touched the smoked-glass windows. “Hi, babies,” she murmured to the horses. “I missed you.”
At last the house came into view; it was a beautiful log structure set against the serrated black mountains. White icicle Christmas lights hung from the eaves and made the house look like a princess’s castle.
The car pulled up in front of the house and stopped. The driver—Julian could never remember his name—hurried around to their door.
“Thank you,” she said to the young man as she got out.
Julian realized that not once in all these weeks had he offered the driver those simple words. He got out of the car and stood beside Kayla. She shivered with cold and he put an arm around her.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she said, speaking of the house.
He looked down at her, only her. “The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
The driver got back into the car and shut the door, giving them privacy.
Kayla turned to him. “Come in with me, Jules. Meet your daughter.”
He saw the sorrow in her eyes, and he knew that she understood what hadn’t yet been said. Still, as always, she expected the best of him. It was, he knew now, one of the things he loved most about her. In all the world, she was the only one who had ever wanted him to reach for the man he could be.
He hated to hurt her again, to remind her of the painful truth. “You know I can’t.”
“Oh, Julian …” She said his name on a sigh of disappointment, a sound more intimate and knowing than any kiss they ever shared.
“If I walked through those doors, it would be a lie. We both know that. I don’t want to do to Jacey what I did to you.”
She looked at him and tried to smile.
It broke his heart, that soft realization in her beautiful eyes. “Tell me you’ll always love me,” he whispered.
She touched his cheek. In the coldness, her touch was a brand that burned his flesh. “I’ll always love who we were.”
He felt and heard the continent that lay between his question and her answer. He knew as certainly as he’d ever known anything that this time he would miss her forever. When his fans had died and the women no longer followed him, he would sit in a leather chair in his lonely house and dream of this woman who had once and truly loved him.
He reached down for her left hand. The plain gold band glittered in the pale glow of the limo’s headlights. “Do you still have the wedding ring I gave you?”
“Give it to Jacey. Tell her …”
“Tell her that out here, somewhere, is a man who wishes he were different.”
“Be different, Jules. Come in with me. You know Liam, he’ll make a place for you.”
“Liam’s not the problem. I wish …” He couldn’t say it.
“What do you wish?”
Somewhere a branch snapped in the breeze, and it sounded dangerously like the breaking of his own brittle heart. “I wish I could love you the way he does.”
He didn’t want her to answer, so he pulled her into his arms and kissed her for the last time. “Goodbye … Mikaela.”
She turned away from him and limped through the snow. One last time, she stopped at looked at him. “Good-bye, Julian True.” It was spoken so softly, he wondered later if he’d imagined it.