This time it was Elizabeth. "Hey, honey. How was your flight?"
He leaned back into the stack of pillows and put his feet up on the bed. "You should see my suite, Birdie, you’d love it."
"A suite, huh? Pretty cool, Jack."
He frowned. Amazingly, even on this day of days, she managed to sound unimpressed, a little distant.
God, he was tired of this. Their relationship had become a sea of undercurrents and riptides with no shallow, placid water to be found. "Yeah, it’s great."
"The dining room is really shaping up. I can’t wait for you to see it."
The house again. Christ. You’d think it was a mansion in Bel Air instead of a redone summer cottage in the butt-crack of nowheresville. "That’s great."
"How long will you be there?"
"Two nights. The interview is tomorrow. I’ll be home late Wednesday."
"I’m jealous," she said.
She should be. She’d had every reason in the world to be here with him. If she’d really wanted to, she could have gotten one of her friends to watch the house.
His second line buzzed. "Just a second, honey. I’m getting another call." He put her on hold and answered line two. It was Sally, saying she’d meet him at the car in an hour. He felt a flash of guilt, as if he’d been caught doing something wrong. But that was crazy; it was simply dinner with a colleague.
"Great." He went back to line one. "Honey?" he said, "I’ve got to run. I’ve got dinner reservations."
"I’m proud of you, Jackson," she said softly.
That’s what he’d been waiting for–her pride in him–and he hadn’t even realized it. "I love you," he said, wanting to mean it with a ferocity that surprised him.
"I love you, too. I’ll call you tomorrow after the interview."
"Perfect. Bye, honey."
He hung up the phone and went into the bathroom. By the time he’d taken a shower and dried his hair, he’d finished one drink and poured another. He dressed quickly in a pair of gray slacks and a black Calvin Klein sweater. Then he stood at the window, sipping his drink until it was time to leave.
At seven-thirty, he went downstairs. The limousine was waiting for him. The uniformed driver got out and opened the passenger door. "Good evening, Mr. Shore."
Jack got into the car and settled back into the plush, dark seat. It was only a moment before the door opened again and Sally joined him.
She was stunningly beautiful in a plain black dress with a round collar and barely-there sleeves. Her hair–how was it that he’d never noticed how blond it was, almost white–hung straight down the middle of her back. When she sat down beside him, he couldn’t help noticing her legs . . . or the sexy, spike-heeled sandals that Elizabeth wouldn’t have worn in the middle of summer, let alone in the middle of winter.
"You look beautiful." He’d meant to say "nice." He tried to loosen his collar. It felt too tight suddenly. "Is the heat on?" he asked the driver.
She leaned toward him. "Here, let me."
He smelled her perfume, and the sweet, citrusy fragrance of her shampoo.
She unbuttoned the top button of his sweater. "There. Now you look a little more hip."
He looked down at her. All he could see were red lips. "I’m too old to be hip," he said, trying to put some distance between them. Years were a natural boundary.
"Henry Kissinger is old. You’re . . . experienced."
The shimmering heat of possibility suddenly swirled between them.
He looked at the driver. "Tagliacci Grill," he said. "We’ve got eight-o’clock reservations."
Elizabeth was exhausted. She’d spent the last twelve hours working on the dining room. Amazingly, the local hardware store had had a perfectly lovely set of French doors on sale. Someone had ordered them and declined acceptance.
The doors were exactly what Elizabeth wanted, and she got them at a discounted price. The only downside was that she’d had to increase the size of the opening by six inches, then frame the damn thing and figure out how to mount the doors. The whole back-breaking process had taken her hours to do.
Now her shoulders ached and her fingers were cramped up like an old man’s, but the new doors were in place. She set down her hammer and tool belt and made herself a cup of tea. Sipping it, she went out onto the porch.
A full moon hung overhead, huge and blue-white against a silvery sky. From this small, jutting lip of land, the stars seemed near enough to touch. It made Elizabeth feel small and safe; no more important in the great scheme of things than a blade of grass, but no less important, either.
She walked down the porch stairs and stepped out onto the mushy grass of her front yard.
She was about to go back inside when a sound caught her attention.
At first she thought it was the wind, moaning through the trees. But there was no wind. Turning slowly, she faced the ocean.
Far out to sea, moonlit waves radiated in broken rows away from the shoreline.
She heard it again. A plaintive, elegiac like sound that lingered long after the final note had run out. She knew what it was.
She crossed the front yard, ignoring the way her old work boots sank into the wet soil. She stopped at the edge of the cliff steps.
The rickety stairway snaked thirty feet straight down to a crescent of sand. Caution held her as firmly as any mother’s touch. It was dark and the stairs could be slippery, dangerous.
Then she saw them.
Killer whales, at least a dozen of them.
Their fins rose tall and straight out of the water. Each one seemed to cut the moonlight in half.
She held on to the splintery railing and hurried down.
It sounded again, haunting and mournful. A vibrato, humming that wasn’t of this world at all; it was a music borne of water, carried by the waves themselves. Out there, a whale breached up from the water and slammed down again; a second later, there was a great whooshing sound, and air and water sprayed up from one of the animal’s blowholes.
Elizabeth was mesmerized.
After they were gone, the sea erased all evidence of them. Moonlight shone down on the water as it had before. It would have been easy to wonder if they’d ever been there at all, or if she’d dreamed it.
She wished Jack were here. She would have turned to him, then let him take her in his arms. But he was faraway, with–
She’d forgotten to call him.
Forgotten. Worse yet, she hadn’t even watched the show. What in the hell was wrong with her?
She ran up the stairs and back into the house.
Nervous excuses cycled through her mind as she dialed the number: Sorry, honey, I was in a multicar accident. The Jaws of Life just set me free only minutes ago. I ran right to the phone booth.
I ate something that disagreed with me and lapsed into a coma.
The hotel operator directed the call to Jack’s room.
It rang. And rang.
"Get out of bed, Jack," she whispered desperately. She couldn’t screw up this badly. She had to talk to him tonight. He deserved that at the very least.
The voice mail kicked in. She left a message and hung up. For the next three hours, she called every fifteen minutes, but he never answered.
There was no way Jack could sleep through all those rings. Not even if he’d gotten drunk after the interview.
She knew him too well. Jack always answered the phone.
So, where was he?
Jack stole the show.
A few minutes into the interview, Larry had asked him a straightforward question–something like "Are today’s athletes good role models, Jack? Should they be?"
Jack had rehearsed his answer to that a dozen times. He’d known exactly what to say, but then, when he’d opened his mouth, he’d spoken from his heart instead.
"You know, Larry," he’d said, "I’m angry. We’ve taken nineteen-year-old kids and turned them into multimillion-dollar celebrities. We’ve absolved them of responsibility for everything except performing well in the arena. They drive drunk, we slap their wrist. They rape women, we say the women should have known better. They bite off their opponents’ body parts, for God’s sake, and a few years later, they’re back in the ring, earning millions. When I was in the NFL, the world opened up for me. All I had to do was play well. I was unfaithful to my wife and unavailable to my kids. And you know what? No one blamed me for any of it. Everyone talked about the pressures of being a star quarterback. But life is tough for everyone. It took me fifteen hard years, but I finally learned that I was nothing special. I could throw a ball. Big deal. We have to quit letting our celebrities and our athletes live by their own standard. We need to become a nation of good sports again."
"There are a lot of people who are going to like that answer," Larry had said. "And more than a few who won’t."
That was when Jack knew. He hadn’t ruined his career by being honest; he’d made it. Bad-boy athletes and team owners would hate him. Fans and parents would love him.
And nothing caused a media sensation like controversy.
By tomorrow, sound bites from his impassioned speech would be replayed from one end of the country to another.
After the show, he’d gone straight to his hotel to call Birdie. There had been no answer. Then he called his daughters. There, too, no answer.
Disappointed, he’d wandered down to the lobby bar and ordered a drink. A double Dewar’s on the rocks.
Now, an hour later, he was on his second round.
He drank it down, then stared at the empty glass. Weak light created myriad colors in the melting ice. He’d never been good at being alone, and it was worse at a moment like this. "You shouldn’t be alone tonight."
Jack looked up. Sally stood beside him, wearing a clingy blue dress that was held in place by two impossibly skinny shoulder straps. A glittery dark butterfly clip anchored the hair away from her face. Her cl**vage was milky white.
She smiled, and it took his breath away.
"Are you going to invite me to sit down?"
"Of course." His voice was thick and raspy. He cleared his throat. "I thought you were off to your aunt’s house tonight."
She laughed and sidled into the booth. "A few hours in suburbia is plenty for me. One more anecdote about little Charlie’s first tooth would have sent me screaming into a busy street. I mean it’s a tooth, for God’s sake. Everyone gets them. It’s not like he wrote a piano concerto."
Jack felt her leg against his. The heat of her body felt so good. He tried to remember the last time Elizabeth had looked at him as if she truly desired him; that memory would form his armor. But he couldn’t find it. Elizabeth hadn’t reached for him in bed in years. It was easy now to forget how hot their sex used to be. Some fires just went out and left you icy cold.
The waitress came by. Jack looked at Sally. "Margarita on the rocks, no salt, right?"
He downed his own drink and ordered another. He could practically hear the steel girders of his marriage vows weakening. It made a low, grinding noise that sounded like a man’s despair.
"You were phenomenal today," she said when they were alone again.
The waitress came, delivered the drinks and left. Somewhere, a jukebox started. "Time After Time" started to play.
"You’ll be a star after tonight."
Her words struck that soft, needy core deep inside him. He felt suddenly as if he were the young one and she had all the experience. He couldn’t help looking up.