But he knew.
He knew. Some boundaries remained.
"I don’t think so, Thea."
"What do you mean, you ‘don’t think so’?" She sounded harsh, as if she hadn’t been denied something in a long time.
"There she is!" someone cried out as the crowd pushed toward them.
As Thea went to greet her fans, Jack got the hell out of there.
Because if he stayed, he’d finish that Scotch, and then drink another and another, and sooner or later, he’d forget the reasons not to go to Thea’s suite.
The newest art gallery in Echo Beach was on the corner of First and Main. A scrolled ironwork sign above the door read: ECLECTICA.
Only a few weeks ago, the Flying High Kite Shop had inhabited this space, but the new owners had obviously gone all out in refurbishing the site. Espresso-colored shingles covered the exterior; freshly planted flower boxes graced the area beneath the front window.
That window was blank now, covered from end to end by a sheet of black paper. A small sign was tacked to the glass. It read: no peeking. we’re doing the window display and you’re going to love it.
Elizabeth glanced down at the piece of paper Daniel had given her. This was the place.
Just go see her, he’d said over coffee; she’s new in town and could use a little help.
Elizabeth had wanted to decline, but when Daniel looked at her with those incredibly blue eyes, she’d automatically nodded.
Now, she wished she’d been firmer. Most of the so-called art galleries in Echo Beach carried knickknacks–coasters made out of polished driftwood . . . Christmas ornaments made of that ugly Mount St. Helens ash that looked like a jumbled swirl of chocolate and vanilla ice cream . . . crocheted doilies . . . dried sand dollars in brown mesh netting, that sort of thing. She stayed away from most of them.
Still, a promise was a promise.
She opened the door and went inside. At her entrance, a bell tinkled overhead and a bird squawked loudly.
There was no answer. She looked around.
To her left was a table filled with stunning wood sculptures. Most of them were women–nudes–from neck to hips. The wood was unbelievably rich and beautiful, the color of well-aged red wine, polished to silken perfection. She couldn’t help touching one of the statues; her finger glided down a delicately curved shoulder.
On the next table was an exhibit of black-and-white photography. Each print was extravagantly matted in black suede and framed in gold. The photographer had masterfully captured the spirit of the coast in a series of strikingly original shots: a beach at low tide on a windy day . . . a misty, ethereal image of the lighthouse called Terrible Tilly . . . a haunting, nighttime picture of Haystack Rock, rising out of the surf like some ancient monolith.
On the back wall were several paintings. Enough, but not too many. There was a watercolor collage of open umbrellas. A multimedia abstract work that suggested a spinnaker puffed out with wind. The largest piece was a spectacular oil painting of Orca Point.
"Amazing," Elizabeth said softly to herself.
"It is, isn’t it?"
Elizabeth spun around. With the suddenness of the movement, her hip hit a table; beach glass necklaces clinked together.
A woman stepped out from behind a hanging tapestry. She was at least six feet tall, and nearly as wide as she was tall. Her hair was a bird’s nest of brown frizz that hung to her waist. She had on a dress that could have doubled as a sackcloth and fell to her feet, which were bare except for the silver butterfly ring on her left big toe. A plunging neckline revealed br**sts that quivered when she walked. A huge white bird was perched on her right shoulder.
She stepped closer, smiling. "I’m Large Marge." She grinned. "I picked up the nickname at a commune in the Bay Area. I never could figure out how a petite, retiring gal like me got saddled with a nickname like that, but there you have it." She frowned dramatically. "Saddled was a poor word choice. I forbid you to run with it."
"I’ll rein myself in."
Large Marge laughed heartily. The movement almost tossed her br**sts into midair.
Elizabeth offered her hand. "I’m Elizabeth Shore. Daniel Boudreaux asked me to stop by and see you."
Marge grabbed Elizabeth’s hand and pumped it hard. "He told me about you. I’m glad you stopped by. I wanted to talk to you about the Stormy Weather Arts Festival."
"It’s a big deal around here."
"That’s what Danny tells me, though it’s hard to imagine an arts walk in this weather. I’ve never seen so much rain."
"We locals barely notice it, and the tourists find out too late. I’d be happy to help you organize your gallery’s event, if that’s what you’re interested in. I know who’s who around here."
"Organization skills I got. Local artists are scarce as hen’s teeth. It seems that all the good ones are already taken." She studied Elizabeth. "Danny boy tells me your work might be worth exhibiting."
Elizabeth laughed. "Yeah, right."
Marge said softly, "He told me you’d be scared."
Elizabeth’s smile faded. She took a step back. She didn’t mean to, and when she realized what she’d done, she stopped. "I just started painting again, after years away from it."
Marge’s gaze moved pointedly to Elizabeth’s wedding ring. "Raisin’ kids, huh?"
"Yes." She smiled, though it felt grim, that smile, almost a grimace.
"Are you any good?"
"I was." It was as confident as she could be.
Marge made a clicking sound, then snorted and slammed her hands on her fleshy hips. "Danny’s take is good enough for me. I’d like to show your work for the festival."
Elizabeth didn’t know what the right answer was. "What if it’s no good?"
"Then it won’t sell. Or maybe it’ll sell anyway. Hell, honey, it’s art. Anything can happen. You want a guarantee, get a bank job. What’s the point of painting if no one ever sees it?"
"I suppose I could think about it."
Marge glanced at the wall clock. "I’ll give you three minutes."
"Come on . . ."
Marge took a step closer. "I know you, Elizabeth. Hell, I’ve been you. I spent ten years trying to fit my full-sized personality into a compact marriage. If you don’t give me an answer right now, I’ll never hear from you again."
Elizabeth felt exposed by that observation. And empowered. She didn’t need psychic abilities to hear Meghann’s voice in her head: Damn it, Birdie, don’t you dare hesitate. "How many pieces would you need?"
"Five. Is that possible?"
Elizabeth had no idea, but she knew she had to try. For once. "They won’t sell, you know."
"I’m sure we’ve both survived worse than that. Come on, Elizabeth, say you’ll do it."
Marge grinned. "I love confidence in a woman." She smacked Elizabeth on the back so hard she stumbled sideways. "Are you still here? You ought to be home painting. Now, git."
In the past five days, Jack had been in six cities, and every moment in each of those cities had been a blitz. He’d interviewed Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Shawn Kemp, and Brian Bosworth.
When the interviews were finished, he spent another three days in the editing room, working the narration and music into the one-hour special he’d titled: Breakable Gods.
He’d loved every minute of it.
"You and Sally did a hell of a job," Tom Jinaro said, leaning back in his chair. "You were right to hire her. She’s a pistol."
"Thanks." Jack had been confident coming into this meeting. He knew his special was a virtuoso blend of news and entertainment. He’d dared to expose himself emotionally on camera, just enough to humanize the story. He’d admitted how difficult it had been to be forgotten by a city that had once adored him. Alex and Ken had been honest, too, admitting how much it had hurt to be vilified by their former fans. Brian talked convincingly about being forgotten.
Tom leaned forward again. "I’ve been in this business a long time. I’ve seen people come and go–mostly go. But you’re the real deal. I’ve never seen anyone shoot up the ladder quicker. I had Mark produce your special because he’s the best we have. Honestly, I didn’t think you were ready for this sort of thing, but he tells me you were as good as anyone he’s ever worked with."
"Thanks," Jack said again.
"So, what do you want?"
"It’s a simple question. What do you want? The Fox NFL Sunday show? Your own interview hour? A book deal? What?"
"You know what I was doing three months ago, Tom? Begging for a job on a low-rent regional sports show–and I didn’t get it." He let that image sink in. "You hired me when I was in the gutter, professionally. You took a chance on me; believe me, I won’t forget that."
Tom smiled tiredly. "You’ll mean to remember it, but after a while, you’ll start racking up offers, and then you’ll think about your age, and your agent will tell you to make hay while the sun shines. It’s how the game is played." He leaned forward. "What I’m going to tell you now can’t leave this room. If it does, I’ll know it was you."
"What is it?"
"One of the guys is quitting NFL Sunday. One of the big four. I can’t tell you which one. But we’re looking at you to fill that slot for next year."
The only show bigger was Monday Night Football.
Jack drew in a sharp breath, savoring the moment.
"Thanks." It was all he could say. Any more and he might start laughing.
"It’s not for sure." Tom grinned. "But it’s damn close to that. So, let me give you some advice, man to man. You had a bad-boy image in the NFL and it doesn’t look to me like you’ve changed. I hear you practically live at Kel’s pub."
Jack started to disagree, but Tom stopped him with a laugh.
"Save the denials for your curiously absent wife. I don’t care what you do offscreen as long as it doesn’t hurt our ratings. But you know what it’s like when the tabloids turn on you. Opportunities can vanish in an instant. Stay away from drugs and DUIs and underage women."
"Don’t worry. Nothing is going to derail me this time. I’m older and wiser."
"Glad to hear it. Now, get going. Talk to Steve in postproduction. I want you and Mark to redub the music. The opening score sounds like the music they played at my aunt Rose’s funeral. And there’s a bad cut on the Randy Johnson segment."
"Thanks. When do you think we can air it?"
"Sweeps week. I’ll set up with Marion to run a series of promo spots. We’ll want to shoot them ASAP."
Jack left the office and went straight to the editing room, where he and Mark Lackoft spent the next ten hours examining and refining every split second of footage. By the time he was finished, Breakable Gods was worthy of a damned award.
Although he was exhausted and starving, he couldn’t remember when he’d felt so good. He left the office and walked home, strutting like Tony Manero. He could practically hear "Stayin’ Alive" playing in his head.
"Hey, Billy!" he called out to the doorman as he strode through the lobby and rode the elevator to his floor.
He opened his door and walked into the apartment. He almost yelled, Birdie, I’m home, but stopped himself just in time.