No wonder Meghann was suspicious. Their past had given her reason to be.
Claire walked across the main lobby of the registration office. On her way to the window, she picked up a fallen flyer, no doubt dropped by one of the guests, and tossed it into the cold fireplace.
Outside, the sun was just beginning to set. The camp lay bathed in a rose-gold light in which every leaf edge seemed sharper, every green distinct. Sunlight sparkled on the blue water in the swimming pool, empty now as the guests were firing up their camp stoves and barbecues.
As she stood there, feeling vulnerable and uncertain, she saw a shadow fall across the grass.
Dad and Bobby strolled into view. Dad wore his summertime uniform: blue overalls and a black T-shirt. A tattered River’s Edge baseball cap shaded his eyes; beneath it, his brown hair was a mass of fuzzy curls.
He wore a pair of faded jeans and a blue T-shirt that read: Cowboy Up for Coors. In this fading light, his long hair was the color of eighteen-carat gold, rich and warm. He carried their Weed Eater in one hand and a can of gasoline in the other. In the days he’d been here, Bobby had pitched in with the work. He was good at it, though she knew he wouldn’t be happy at River’s Edge forever. Already, he’d mentioned going on the road for a few weeks this summer. The three of them. “The Austins’ road trip” was how he put it. Claire thought it sounded great, traveling from town to town for a while, listening to her new husband sing. She hadn’t broached the idea with her father, but she knew he’d be all for it. As for what would become of the camp next season, they’d have to cross that bridge together when the time came.
Dad and Bobby stopped in front of cabin number five. Dad pointed up toward the eaves and Bobby nodded. A minute later, they were both laughing. Dad put his hand on Bobby’s shoulder. They moved away, toward the laundry room.
“Hey, Mommy. Whatcha lookin’ at?”
Claire turned around. Ali stood at the bottom of the stairs, clutching her Tickle Me Elmo doll. “Hey, Ali Kat. Come over here a minute, will you?” She sat down in the blue-and-white striped chair-and-a-half by the fireplace, putting her feet up on the matching ottoman.
Alison crawled onto her lap, settling comfortably in place. Heart to heart, the way they always sat.
“I was just watching Grandpa talk to Bobby.”
“Bobby’s gonna teach me to fish. He says I’m old enough to go to the trout farm in Skykomish.” Alison leaned closer and whispered, “There’s a trick to catching the big ones. He’s gonna teach it to me. An’ he says we can float down the river in inner tubes by August. Even me. Did you ever put a worm on a hook? Yeech. But I’m gonna do it. You’ll see. Bobby said he’d help me if it was too wriggly or snotty.”
“I’m glad you like him,” Claire said softly, trying not to smile.
“He’s great.” Alison wiggled around until she was facing Claire. “What’s the matter, Mommy? You look like you’re gonna cry. The worms don’t feel anything. Honest.”
She stroked Alison’s soft cheek. “You’re my whole world, Ali Kat. You know that, don’t you? No one could ever take your place in my heart.”
Alison and Elmo kissed Claire. “I know that.” Alison giggled and scampered out of Claire’s lap. “I gotta go. Grandpa’s taking me to Smitty’s Garage. We’re gonna get the truck fixed.”
As she watched her daughter run out the front door, heard her yell “Grandpa! Bobby! I’m here!” Claire felt the pressing weight of responsibility again. How did a woman know if she was being selfish, and was that necessarily a bad thing, anyway? Men were selfish all the time and they built multibillion-dollar corporations and rockets that flew to the moon.
But what if the marriage didn’t work?
There it was. The clay beneath it all.
She needed to talk to someone about this. Not her sister, of course. A friend. She dialed Gina’s number.
Gina answered on the first ring. “Hello?”
Claire slumped back into the oversize chair and put her feet up. “It’s me. The Insta-Marry Queen.”
“Yeah, Claire. That’s you.”
“Meghann thinks I’m being an idiot.”
“Since when do we care what she thinks? She’s an attorney, for God’s sake. That’s below invertebrates on the evolutionary chain.”
Claire’s chest eased. She smiled. “I knew you’d put it in perspective.”
“That’s what friends are for. Would you like me to sing that?”
“Please, no. I’ve heard you sing. Just tell me I’m not being a selfish bitch who is going to ruin her daughter’s life by marrying a stranger.”
“Oh, so it’s your mother we’re talking about.”
“I don’t want to be like her.” Claire’s voice was suddenly soft.
“I’ve known you since all five of us showed up for the first day of school in the same blue shirt. I remember when you bought cream to make your boobs grow and still believed in sea monkeys. Honey, you’ve never been selfish. And I’ve never seen you this happy. I don’t care that you’ve known him less than two weeks. God has finally given you the gift of love and passion. Don’t return it unopened.”
“I’m scared. I should have done this when I was young and optimistic.”
“You are young and optimistic, and of course you’re scared. If you’ll remember, I had to drink two tequila straight shots to marry Rex—and we’d lived together for four years.” She paused. “I probably shouldn’t have used us as an example. But the point remains. A smart person is afraid of marriage. You made it past the marriage-for-marriage’s-sake years and you haven’t reached the nursing-home-desperation years. You met a man and fell in love. So it happened fast. Big deal. If you’re not ready to marry him, by all means, wait. But don’t wait because your big sister made you question yourself. Follow your heart.”
Claire’s gut was clenched, her mind was clouded, but her heart was crystal clear. “What would I do without you?”
“The same thing I’d do without you—drink too much and whine to strangers.”
Claire heard the tiny thread of depression in Gina’s voice. It made her love her friend all the more for listening to her problems while her own whole world was caving in. “How are you doing?”
“This day or this week? I’ve got more mood swings than a teenager, and my ass is starting to look like a Buick.”
“No jokes, Gigi. How are you?”
She sighed. “Shitty. Rex came by last night. The son of a bitch has lost about ten pounds and dyed his hair. Pretty soon he’ll ask me to call him the Rexster again.” She paused. “He wants to marry that woman.”
“Ouch with a blowtorch. I’m remembering the day he proposed to me, and he’s pricing diamonds. It hurts like hell. But you haven’t heard the real news: Joey’s back.”
“You’re kidding. Where’s he been?”
There was a pause, the sound of movement, then Gina lowered her voice. “I don’t know. Here and there, he says. He looks bad. Older. He got home yesterday. He’s been asleep for almost thirteen hours. Honestly, I hope I never love anyone as much as he loved Diana.”
“What’s he going to do?”
“I don’t know. I said he could stay here, but he won’t. He’s like some animal that’s been in the wild too long. And this house brings back a lot of memories. He stared at the picture of my wedding for almost an hour. Honest to God, I wanted to cry.”
“Give him my love.”
“You got it.”
They talked for a few more minutes about ordinary, everyday things. By the time they hung up, Claire felt better. The ground beneath her feet felt firm again. Thinking about Joe and Diana helped, too. With everything that had gone wrong between those two, they still were proof that love could be real.
She looked down at her left hand, at the engagement ring she wore. It was a strip of silver foil, carefully folded and twisted around her finger.
She refused to think of what her sister would say about it, and remembered instead how she’d felt when Bobby put it there.
Marry me, he’d said, on bended knee. She’d known she should smile gently, say, Oh, Bobby, of course not. We barely know each other.
But she couldn’t say those words. His dark eyes had been filled with the kind of love she’d only dreamed of, and she’d been lost. Her rational self—the part that had been alone for almost three dozen years and become a single parent—had warned her not to be a fool.
Ah, but her heart. That tender organ would not be ignored. She was in love. So much so that it felt like drowning.
Gina was right. This love was a gift she’d been given, one she’d stopped looking for and almost stopped believing in. She wouldn’t turn away from it because she was afraid. One thing motherhood had taught her—love required boldness. And fear simply came with the package.
She grabbed her sweater off the back of the sofa and slipped it over her shoulders, then she went outside.
Night had almost completely fallen now; darkness enveloped the salmon-hued granite peaks. To the tourists who sat around their campfires making s’mores and roasting hot dogs, it seemed like a quiet time in this patch of green tucked up against the mountains’ vertical walls. The locals knew better. Within walking distance, there was a whole world unseen by the casual observer, unheard by those who spent their lives listening on telephones and watching computer screens.
On peaks nearby, ones with names like Formidable, Terror, and Despair, the glaciers were never still, never silent. They slid forward, groaning, creaking, crunching every rock in their path. Even the heat of an August sun couldn’t melt them away, and along the banks of the mighty Skykomish, just beyond where the humans walked, a thousand species of wildlife preyed on one another.
Yet the night felt still and calm; the air smelled of pine needles and drying grass. It was that time of year when, for a few weeks, the lawns in town would turn brittle and brown. That rarest of times in the Northwest—a patch of dry.
She heard the quiet buzz of the campers’ dinner conversations, punctuated every now and then by a barking dog or a child’s high-pitched giggle. Underneath it all, as steady and familiar as the beating of her heart, was the chattering of the river. These sounds had become the music of her youth, long ago replacing the jumbled cacophony of raucous music that had been Mama’s soundtrack.
She didn’t bother with shoes. Barefoot, her soles toughened by summers spent along this river’s banks, she strolled past the empty pool. In the small, shingled pool house, the filter’s motor thumped on, buzzing. A pair of inner tubes—one shocking pink and one lime green—floated on the darkening water.
She made her nightly rounds slowly, stopping to talk to several of their guests, even sharing a glass of wine with Wendy and Jeff Goldstein at campsite thirteen.
It was completely dark by the time she reached the small row of cabins on the property’s eastern edge. All of the windows glowed with fuzzy golden light.