He smiled at that. “Sam is certainly vigilant in terms of health care, that’s true. You should have seen him when you were little. I got three calls a week asking if such-and-such was normal. Things like three sneezes in a row would set him off. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean he’s a fool. Do the headaches seem to be triggered by your cycles?”
“I’m thirty-five,” she said with a laugh. “It seems like I’m always ovulating or flowing. So, yeah, maybe.”
“Did you ever start exercising?”
“Ever? Ninth grade was a good year for me. I went out for track and volleyball.”
He wrote something in her chart. Probably couch potato.
“Are you sleeping well?”
“Like a baby. Since I met Bobby . . .” She blushed again. “Well, you know. I sleep great.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Stress?”
“I’m a single mother who is about to get married for the first time. The sister I barely know is planning the wedding, and my mother is threatening to come. So, yes, I’m a little stressed out.”
“Okay. Tell your dad I said everything is fine. No worries. But get some exercise. It’s the best treatment for stress. Also, you’re a little anemic again. That can cause headaches, too. So start taking some iron, okay?”
“You got it.”
“Now get that beautiful little girl of yours home and start doing that woman-wedding thing. The whole town is looking forward to it.”
“That’s what happens when you wait fifteen years after everyone else in your class.”
“You were only moments away from being labeled the town spinster. I don’t know who Bess and Tina will worry about now.” His eyes sparkled behind the small round glasses.
He patted her shoulder. “I’m happy for you, Claire. We all are.”
THE AFTERNOON TURNED GRAY AND COLD. RAIN FELL IN tiny staccato bursts that were all but invisible to the nak*d eye.
Claire spent the rest of the day pretending to work.
“Go home, Claire,” her father said to her whenever he happened to walk into the office and see her.
“I’ve got work to do,” was her standard answer, and every time she said it, he laughed.
“Yeah. You’re a big help today. Go take a bath. Do your nails.”
She was too nervous to take a bath or do her nails. Thirty-five was too old to marry for the first time. How could she possibly be doing the right thing?
But every time her worries threatened to overwhelm her, she’d turn a corner or open a door and see Bobby. He was painting the fence around the laundry room the first time she saw him, scrubbing canoes the second.
He’d looked up at her approach both times. Hey, darlin’, he’d said, smiling. I love you.
Just that, those few and precious words, and Claire breathed easier again, for an hour or so, until the doubts once again welled up.
Finally, at around three in the afternoon, she gave up and walked back to her house. Toys lay scattered on the grass in the front yard; a Barbie that was half dressed, a pink plastic bucket and tiny shovel, a red Fisher-Price barn, complete with farm animals. She picked everything up and headed for the house.
“There you are,” Meghann said when she walked in.
“Hey,” she said, sighing as she walked over to the toy box and dumped her load in.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” She certainly didn’t want to discuss her wedding jitters with Miss Prenup.
Meghann got up. Claire could feel her sister’s gaze; it was lawyerly and intense. Not a sister-to-sister look at all. “I was just going to have some iced tea. Would you like one?”
“A margarita would be better.”
“You got it. Sit.”
Claire sank onto the sofa and put her feet up on the magazine-covered coffee table.
Meg was back in no time, holding two glasses. “Here you are.”
Claire took the glass and tried the margarita. “This is good. Thanks.”
Meg sat in the bentwood rocker by the fireplace. “You’re scared,” she said gently.
Claire jumped as if she’d been shouted at. “Anyone would be.” She took another drink, careful not to make eye contact. She felt like a squirrel in the presence of a cobra.
Meg moved to the sofa and sat down beside Claire. “It’s normal, believe me. If you weren’t scared right now, I’d take your pulse.”
“You think I should be scared.”
“I remember when Elizabeth and Jack got married. They were as in love as any two people I’ve ever seen. And she still needed two martinis to walk down the aisle. Only a fool wouldn’t be afraid, Claire. Maybe that’s why weddings take place in churches—because each one is an act of faith.”
“I love him.”
“I know you do.”
“But I should sign a prenuptial agreement to protect my assets in case we get divorced.”
“I’m a lawyer. Protecting people is what I do.”
“You protect strangers. Members of your family are a different thing.”
Meghann looked down at her drink, then said softly, “I guess.”
Claire wished she could take back that little cruelty. What was it about their past that made them wound each other so consistently? “I know you’re trying to help, but how can you? You don’t believe in love. Or marriage.”
It was a moment before Meg answered, and when she did speak, her voice was soft. “I’ve never seen a baby crow.”
“On my way to work, I see crows clustered along the phone lines in the waterfront park. So I know that every spring there are nests somewhere, filled with tiny newborn crows.”
“Meg, are you having a seizure?”
“My point is: I know things exist that I never see. Love has to be one of them. I’m trying to believe in it for you.”
Claire knew how much it cost her sister to say something like that. No one who’d grown up in Mama’s shadow found it easy to believe in love. That Meghann would try, for Claire’s sake, really meant something. “Thank you. And thanks for planning the wedding. Even if you are keeping every detail a secret.”
“It’s been more fun that I thought. Kinda like being on the prom committee—not that I ever would have been on such a thing.”
“I was Prom Queen.” Claire grinned. “No kidding, and Rhododendron Princess, too, at Mountaineering Days.”
Meghann laughed. Obviously she was relieved by a return to casual conversation. “What does the rhodie princess do?”
“Sit in the back of a 1953 Ford pickup in a dress the color of Pepto-Bismol and wave at the crowd. The 4-H Goat Club walked behind us in the parade. It was raining so hard that I ended up looking like Tim Curry at the end of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Dad took about three dozen photos and put them all in an album.”
Meghann looked down at her drink again. It was a moment before she spoke. “That’s a nice memory.”
Claire immediately regretted her comment. All it did was highlight Meghann’s fatherlessness. “I’m sorry.”
“You were lucky to have Sam. And Ali is lucky to have you. You’re a great mother.”
“Do you regret it?” Claire said, surprising both of them with the intimate question. “Not having kids, I mean.”
“Being a divorce lawyer made me sterile.”
“Meghann,” she said evenly.
Meg finally looked at her. “I don’t think I’d be any good at it. Let’s just leave it at that.”
“You were a good mother to me. For a while.”
“It’s the ‘for a while’ that matters.”
Claire leaned toward her sister. “I’d like you to baby-sit Alison next week. While Bobby and I are on our honeymoon.”
“I thought you weren’t taking a honeymoon.”
“Dad insisted. His wedding gift was a week’s trip to Kauai.”
“And you want me to baby-sit?”
Claire smiled. “It would mean a lot to me. Ali needs to know you better.”
Meghann released a fluttery breath. She looked nervous. “You’d trust me?”
Meg sat back. A tremulous smile curved her lips. “Okay.”
Claire grinned. “No taking her to the shooting range or teaching her to bungee-jump.”
“So, skydiving lessons are out. Can I take her for a pony ride?”
They were still laughing when Dad pushed through the door and came into the living room. He was already dressed for the rehearsal in black pants—freshly ironed—and a pale blue denim shirt with a River’s Edge logo on the pocket. His brown hair had been recently cut and was combed back from his forehead. If Claire didn’t know better, she’d think he’d moussed it.
“Hey, Dad. You look great.”
“Thanks.” He flashed an uncomfortable smile at her sister. “Meg.”
“Sam,” Meg said stiffly as she got to her feet. “I need to get dressed. Good-bye.”
When Meghann had disappeared upstairs, Sam sighed and shook his head. “I feel about two feet tall when she looks at me.”
“I know the feeling. What’s going on, Dad? I need to get dressed.” She looked past him. “I thought you were playing checkers with Ali?”
“Bobby is trying to French-braid her hair.”
Claire laughed at that and started for the stairs. “I’ll redo it before we leave. You want to pick me up in forty-five minutes?”
“I need to talk to you first. Just for a minute. I didn’t know if I should talk to Bobby at the same time—”
She smiled. “I hope this isn’t my long-overdue sex talk.”
“I talked to you about sex.”
“Don’t do it is not a talk.”
“Wiseass.” He nodded toward the couch. “Sit down. And don’t give me any lip. This’ll just take a second.”
He sat down on the coffee table. “Margaritas, already?” he said, glancing at Meg’s glass.
“I was a little nervous.”
“It makes me think of when I married your mama.”
“Let me guess, she was power-drinking all day.”
“We both were.” He smiled, but it was a little sad, that smile, and it excluded Claire somehow.
After a short pause, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a small black box, and opened it.
Inside was a marquise-cut yellow diamond set on a wide platinum band. “It’s your grandma Myrtle’s diamond. She wanted you to have it.”
The ring sparked a dozen sweet memories. Whenever her grandmother had dealt a hand of cards, this diamond had splashed tiny colored reflections on the walls.
Dad reached out, took her hand. “I couldn’t let my baby get married with a tinfoil ring.”
She tried it on. The ring fit as if it had been made for her. She leaned over and pulled him into her arms. “Thanks, Dad.”
He smelled of woodsmoke and bay rum aftershave, as he had for the whole of her life, and in that moment, as she held him with her face pressed against his cheek, she remembered a dozen times from her girlhood. Nights they’d gone bowling and had dinner at Zeke’s Drive-In . . . the way the porch light flickered ten seconds after she and her date pulled into the driveway . . . the stories he used to tell her at bedtime when she felt scared and alone and missed her big sister.