“I broke the head off hers. Grandpa says I hafta ’pologize and give her my doll. It’s ’posed to make me feel better.”
He squatted down to be eye level with her. “Well, Ali Gator, I guess we have something in common, after all. I . . . broke something very special, too, and now I have to go apologize.”
She sighed dejectedly. “Too bad.”
He put his hands on his thighs and pushed to his feet. “So, I really need to get going.”
“Okay, Joe.” She walked over to the door and opened it, then looked back at him. “Do you think Marybeth will play with me again after I ’pologize?”
“I hope so,” he said.
“See ya later, Ali Gator.”
That made her giggle, and then she was gone.
Joe stood there a minute, staring at the closed door. Finally, he turned and headed down the hallway. For the next hour, as he shaved and showered and dressed in his cleanest worn clothes, he tried to string together the sentences he would need. He tried pretty words—Diana’s death ruined something inside me; stark words—I f**ked up; painful words—I couldn’t stand watching her die.
But none of them were the whole of it, none of them expressed the truth of his emotions.
He still hadn’t figured out what he would say, when he turned onto their road or, a few minutes later, when he came to their mailbox.
Dr. and Mrs. Henry Roloff.
Joe couldn’t help touching it, letting his fingertips trace along the raised gold lettering on the side of the mailbox. There had been a mailbox in Bainbridge like this one; that one read: Dr. and Mrs. Joe Wyatt.
A lifetime ago.
He stared at his former in-laws’ house. It looked exactly as it had on another June day, so long ago, when Joe and Di had gotten married in the backyard, surrounded by family and friends.
He almost gave in to panic, almost turned away.
But running away didn’t help. He’d tried that route, and it had brought him back here, to this house, to these people whom he’d once loved so keenly, to say—
He walked up the intricately patterned brick path, toward the white-pillared house that Mrs. Roloff had designed to look like Tara. There were roses and sculpted hedges on both sides of him, their scents a cloying sweetness. On either side of the front door stood a cast-iron lion.
Joe didn’t let himself pause or think. He reached out and rang the bell.
A few moments later, the door opened. Henry Roloff stood there, pipe in hand, dressed in khaki pants and a navy turtleneck. “Can I—” At the sight of Joe, his smile fell. “Joey,” he said, his pipe aflutter now in a trembling hand. “We’d heard you were back in town.”
Joe tried like hell to smile.
“Who is it?” Tina called out from somewhere inside the house.
“You won’t believe it,” Henry said, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Henry?” she yelled again. “Who is it?”
Henry stepped back. A watery smile spilled across his face, wrinkled his cheeks. “He’s home, Mother,” he yelled. Then, softly, he said it again, his eyes filling with tears. “He’s home.”
“Are you sure this is tequila? It tastes like lighter fluid.” Meghann heard the sloppy slur in her voice. She was past tipsy now, barreling toward plastered, and it felt good.
“It’s expensive tequila. Only the best for my friend.” Elizabeth leaned sideways for a piece of pizza. As she pulled it toward her, the cheese and topping slid off, landing in a gooey heap on the concrete deck. “Oops.”
“Don’t worry ’bout it.” Meghann scooped up the mess and threw it overboard. “Pro’ly just killed a tourist.”
“Are you kidding? It’s ten o’clock. Seattle is empty.”
Elizabeth took a bite of her crust. “So what’s the problem, kiddo? Your messages lately sounded depressed. And you don’t usually cry when I show up.”
“Let me see, I hate my job. My client’s husband tried to shoot me after I ruined him. My sister married a country singer who happens to be a felon.” She looked up. “Shall I go on?”
“I baby-sat my niece when Claire went on her honeymoon and now my house feels obscenely quiet. And I met this guy. . . .”
Elizabeth slowly put down the pizza.
Meghann looked at her best friend, feeling a sudden wave of helplessness. Softly, she dared to say, “There’s something wrong with me, Birdie. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and my cheeks are wet. I don’t even know why I’m crying.”
“Are you lonely yet?”
“What do you mean, yet?”
“Come on, Meg. We’ve been friends for more than twenty years. I remember when you were a quiet, way-too-young freshman at the UW. One of those genius kids who everyone believes will either kill themselves or cure cancer. You used to cry every night back then. My bed was next to yours on the sleeping porch, remember? It broke my heart, how quietly you cried.”
“Is that why you started walking to class with me?”
“I wanted to take care of you—it’s what we Southern women do, don’t you know? I waited years for you to tell me why you cried.”
“When did I stop? Crying, I mean.”
“Junior year. By then, it was too late to ask. When you married Eric, I thought—I hoped—you’d finally be happy.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“I’ve waited for you to meet someone else, try again.”
Meghann poured two more straight shots. Downing hers, she leaned back against the railing. Cool night air ruffled the fine hairs around her face. The sound of traffic drifted toward her. “I have . . . met someone.”
“What’s his name?”
“Joe. I don’t even know his last name. How pathetic is that?”
“I thought you liked sex with strangers.”
Meghann heard how hard Elizabeth was trying not to sound judgmental. “I like being in control and waking up alone and having my life exactly the way I want it.”
“So what’s the problem?”
Meghann felt that wave again, the feeling of being sucked under a heavy current. “Being in control . . . and waking up alone and having my life exactly the way I want it.”
“So this Joe made you feel something.”
“I assume you haven’t seen him since you realized that.”
“Am I so obvious?”
Elizabeth laughed. “Just a little. This Joe scared you, so you ran. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“You’re a bitch, how’s that?”
“A bitch who’s right-on.”
“Yeah. That kind of bitch. The worst kind.”
“Do you remember my birthday last year?”
“Everything up until the third martini. After that, it gets fuzzy.”
“I told you I didn’t know if I loved Jack anymore. You told me to stay with him. Mentioned something about me losing everything and him marrying the salad-bar girl from Hooters.”
Meghann rolled her eyes. “Another shining example of my humanity. You talk about love; I answer in settlement. I’m so proud.”
“The point is, I was dying in my marriage. All the lies I’d been telling myself for years had worn thin. Everything poked through and hurt me.”
“But it worked out. You and Jacko are like newlyweds again. It’s frankly disgusting.”
“Do you know how I fell back in love with him?”
“I did the thing that scared me the most.”
“You left him.”
“I had never lived alone, Meg. Never. I was so scared of not having Jack, I couldn’t breathe at first. But I did it—and you were there for me. That night you came down to the beach house, you literally saved my life.”
“You were always stronger than you thought.”
Elizabeth gave her a so-are-you look. “You have to quit being afraid of love. Maybe this Joe is the place to start.”
“He’s all wrong for me. I never sleep with men who have something to offer.”
“You don’t ‘sleep’ with men at all.”
“The bitch returns.”
“Why is he so wrong?”
“He’s a mechanic in a small town. He lives in the run-down cabin that comes with the job. He cuts his hair with a pocket knife. Take your choice. Oh, and though he’s not much on decoration, he has managed to fill his place with photos of the wife who divorced him.”
Elizabeth looked at her, saying nothing.
“Okay, so I don’t really care about that stuff. I mean the photos are creepy, but I don’t care about his job. And I sort of like Hayden. It’s a nice town, but . . .”
In Elizabeth’s gaze, Meghann saw a sad understanding; it comforted her. “I left town without a word. Not even a good-bye. You can’t turn that around easily.”
“You’ve never been one to go for the easy route.”
“Except for sex.”
“I never thought sex with strangers would be easy.”
“It isn’t,” Meg said quietly.
“So, call him. Pretend you had business that called you away.”
“I don’t know his number.”
“What about the garage?”
“Call him at work? I don’t know. That seems kind of personal.”
“I’m going to assume you gave this guy a bl*w j*b, but a phone call is too personal?”
Meghann laughed at that. She had to admit how weird it was. “I sound like a psycho.”
“Yes. Okay, Meghann. Here’s what we’re going to do. And I mean it. You and I are going to drive up to the Salish Lodge tomorrow, where I’ve scheduled some spa treatments for us. We will talk and drink and laugh and plan a strategy. Before you complain, let me tell you that I’ve already called Julie and told her you’d be out of the office. When I leave, you’re going to drop me off at the airport and then head north. You will not stop until you reach Joe’s front door. Am I understood?”
“I don’t know if I have the guts.”
“Do you want me to come with you? So help me, I will.”
“This is why they call you women steel magnolias.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Honey, you better believe it. You don’t evah want to tell a Southern girl that you won’t go after a good-looking man.”
“I love you, you know.”
Elizabeth reached for the pizza. “You just remember that phrase, Meg. Sooner or later, it’s going to come in handy again. Now, tell me about Claire’s wedding. I can’t believe she let you plan it.”
“THIS IS THE CLUB WHERE GARTH BROOKS WAS DISCOVERED.”
Claire smiled at Kent Ames, the grand Pooh-Bah of Down Home Records in Nashville, and his assistant, Ryan Turner. Each one of them had imparted this pearl of information to her three times in the past hour. She wasn’t sure if they had the memory of gnats or if they thought she was too stupid to understand their words the first time.