She had never been one to deceive herself and, just now, lying nak*d in his arms, she had to admit that there was something between them. Not love, surely, but something. When he kissed her, it felt as if she’d never been kissed before.
There it was, as clear to her as the colors of the rising dawn: the prelude to heartache.
It had sneaked up on her. She’d opened a door called anonymous sex and found herself standing in a room filled with unexpected possibilities.
Possibilities that could break a woman’s heart.
If she left him behind, he would fade into a pretty memory. It might hurt to remember him, but it would be a bittersweet pain, almost pleasurable. Certainly preferable to the kind of heartache that was sure to follow if she tried to believe in something more than sex.
She had to end this thing right now, before it left a mark.
The realization saddened her, made her feel even lonelier.
She couldn’t help herself; she leaned over and kissed him. She wanted to whisper, Make love to me, but she knew her voice would betray her.
So she closed her eyes and pretended to sleep. It didn’t help. All she could think about was later, when she would leave him.
She knew she wouldn’t say good-bye.
Joe awoke with Meghann in his arms, their nak*d bodies tangled together. Memories of last night teased him, made him feel strangely light-headed. Most of all, he remembered the hoarse, desperate sound of her voice when she’d cried out his name.
He shifted his weight gently, moved just enough so that he could look down at her. Her black hair was a tangled mess; he remembered driving his hands through it in passion, then stroking it as he fell asleep. Her pale cheeks looked even whiter against the grayed cotton pillowcase. Even in sleep, he saw a kind of sadness around her eyes and mouth, as if she worried her troubles both day and night.
What a pair they were. They’d spent three nights together now and had exchanged almost no secrets about each other.
The amazing thing was, he wanted her again already. Not just her body, either. He wanted to get to know her, and just that—the wanting—seemed to change him. It was as if a light had gone on in a place that had been cold and dark.
And yet it frightened him.
The guilt was so much a part of him. In the last few years it had wrapped around him, bone and sinew. For more nights than he wanted to count, it had been his strength, the only thing holding him together; the first thing he remembered in the morning and the last thing on his mind when he fell asleep.
If he let go of the guilt—not all of it, of course, but just enough to reach for a different life, a different woman—would he lose the memories, too? Had Diana become so intertwined with his regret that he could have both or neither? And if so, could he really make a life that was separate from the woman he’d loved for so much of his life?
He didn’t know.
But just now, looking down at Meghann, feeling the whisper softness of her breath against his skin, he wanted to try. He reached out, brushed a silky strand of hair from her face. It was the kind of touch he hadn’t dared in years.
She blinked awake. “Morning,” she said, her voice scratchy and raw.
He kissed her gently, whispered, “Good morning.”
She pulled back too quickly, turned away. “I need to go. I’m supposed to pick up my niece at nine o’clock.” She threw the covers back and got out of bed. Naked, she yanked a pillow up to cover herself and hurried into the bathroom. By the time she reemerged, dressed once again in her expensive lavender silk dress, he was dressed.
She picked up her strappy sandals in one hand and draped her panty hose over one shoulder. “I’ve really got to go.” She glanced at the front door and started to turn toward it.
He wanted to stop her, but didn’t know how. “I’m glad you came last night.”
She laughed. “Me, too. Twice.”
“Don’t,” he said, moving toward her. He had no idea what—if anything—was between them, but he knew it wasn’t a joke.
She looked at the door again, then up at him. “I can’t stay, Joe.”
“See you later, then. Good-bye.” He waited for her to answer, but she didn’t. Instead, she kissed him. Hard. He was breathless by the time she pulled back, whispered, “You’re a good man, Joe.”
Then she was gone.
Joe went to the window and watched her leave. She practically ran to her car, but once she was there, she paused, looking back at the house. From this distance, she looked oddly sad. It made him realize how little he knew her.
He wanted to change that, wanted to believe there was a future for him after all. Maybe even one with her.
But he’d have to let go of the past.
He didn’t know how to do all of it, how to start a life over and believe in a different future, but he knew what the first step was. He’d always known.
He had to talk to Diana’s parents.
MEGHANN PARKED THE CAR AND GOT OUT. A QUICK glance up at the house told her that no one was home. The lights were all out. She rammed her panty hose into her handbag and ran barefoot across the lawn, then slipped quietly into the darkened house.
Thirty minutes later, she was showered, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, and packed. On her way out, she paused long enough to write Claire a quick note, which she left on the kitchen counter.
Claire and Bobby
She drew a funny picture of a pair of martini glasses alongside her name, then paused, took one last look at the house that was so much a home. It was unexpectedly difficult to leave. Her condo was so cold and empty by comparison.
Finally, she went to her car and drove slowly through the campground.
The place was quiet this early on a Sunday morning. There were no children in the pool, no campers walking around. A lonely pair of fishermen—father and son by the looks of them—stood at the riverbank, casting their lines toward the water.
At the property line she turned right onto a rutted gravel road. Here, the trees grew closer together, their towering limbs blocking out all but the hardiest rays of morning sunlight. Finally, she came to the clearing, a horseshoe-shaped yard full of oversize rhododendrons and humongous ferns. A gray mobile home squatted on cement blocks in the middle of the yard, its front end accentuated by a pretty cedar deck. Pots of red geraniums and purple petunias were everywhere.
Meghann parked the car and got out. As always, she felt a tightening in her stomach when she thought about meeting Sam. It took a concerted effort to look at him and not remember their past.
Go. Just leave.
You’re just like your Mama.
She gripped her purse strap and walked up the gravel walkway and onto the porch, which smelled of honeysuckle and jasmine on this June morning.
She knocked, too softly at first. When no one answered, she tried again. Harder this time.
The door swung open, hinges creaking, and there he was, filling the doorway, dressed in shabby overalls and a pale blue T-shirt that read: River’s Edge. His brown hair was Albert Einstein wild.
“Meg,” he said, clearly forcing a smile. He stepped back. “Come on in.”
She sidled past him and found herself in a surprisingly cozy living room. “Good morning, Sam. I’m here to pick up Alison.”
“Yeah.” He frowned. “Are you sure you want to take her this week? I’d be happy to keep her.”
“I’m sure you would,” she answered, stung. It was too much like the other time.
“I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“Of course not.”
“I know how busy you are, though.”
She looked at him. “You still think I’m a bad influence, is that it?”
He took a step toward her, stopped. “I should never have thought that. Claire’s told me how good you were to her. I didn’t know about kids back then, and I sure as hell didn’t know about teenage girls who—”
“Please. Don’t finish that sentence. Do you have a list for me? Allergies. Medications. Anything I should know?”
“She goes to bed at eight. She likes it if you read her a story. The Little Mermaid is her favorite.”
“Great.” Meg looked down the hallway. “Is she ready?”
“Yeah. She’s just telling the cat good-bye.”
Meg waited. Somewhere in the trailer a clock ticked past a minute, then another.
“She has a birthday party to go to on Saturday. If you get her here by noon, she’ll make it,” Sam said finally. “That way she’ll already be here when Claire and Bobby get home on Sunday.”
Meghann knew the arrangements. “She’ll be on time. Do I need to take her shopping for a gift?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“Nothing too expensive.”
“I think I can handle shopping, thank you.”
Another silence fell, marked by the clock’s passing minutes.
Meghann was trolling for something innocuous to say when Alison came racing down the hallway, carrying a black cat whose body stretched almost to the ground. “Lightning wants to come with me, Grandpa. He meowed me. Can I take him with me, Aunt Meg, can I?”
Meg had no idea whether cats were allowed in her building.
Before she could answer, Sam knelt down in front of his granddaughter and gently eased the cat from her arms. “Lightning needs to stay here, honey. You know he likes to play with his friends and hunt for mice in the woods. He’s a country cat. He wouldn’t like the city.”
Alison’s eyes looked huge in the heart-shaped pallor of her face. “But I’m not a city girl, either,” she said, puffing out her lower lip.
“No,” Sam said. “You’re an adventurer, though. Just like Mulan and Princess Jasmine. Do you think they’d be nervous about a trip to the big city?”
Ali shook her head.
Sam pulled her into his arms and hugged her tightly. When he finally let her go, he got slowly to his feet and looked at Meghann. “Take good care of my granddaughter.”
It was not unlike what she’d said to Sam all those years ago, just before she left for good. Take care of my sister. The only difference was, she’d been crying. “I will.”
Alison grabbed her Little Mermaid backpack and her small suitcase. “I’m ready, Aunt Meg.”
“Okay, let’s go.” Meg took the suitcase and headed for the door. They were in the car and moving forward down the gravel driveway when Alison suddenly screamed, “Stop!”
Meg slammed on the brakes. “What’s wrong?”
Alison climbed out of her seat, opened the door, and ran back into the trailer. A moment later she was back, clutching a ratty pink blanket to her chest. Her eyes glistened with tears.
“I can’t go ’venturing without my wubbie.”
Claire would always remember her first sight of Kauai.
As the jet banked left and dipped down, she saw the turquoise-blue water that ringed the white sand beaches. Reefs glittered black beneath the surface.
“Oh, Bobby,” she said, turning to look at him. She wanted to tell him what this moment meant to the girl who’d grown up in trailers, dreaming of palm trees. But the words she came up with were too small, too trite.