“We have what we have, Nicky. Let’s not ruin it by looking ahead. The future isn’t something I like to think about.”
His hand slid down her bare arm and settled possessively on her left hand. She knew that he was thinking about the ring she no longer wore—and about the tiny white tan line that remained to mark its place. When he finally looked at her, he was smiling again. “I’ll take whatever you have to give, and . . .”
It took him a long time to answer, so long that she thought he’d changed his mind. Then, in a quiet voice, he said, “And hope it’s enough.”
Every day brought them closer together. In the last week of May, summer threw its multicolored net across the rain forest. Entire days passed without a drop of rain. Temperatures hovered around the low seventies. It was an unseasonal heat wave, and everyone in Mystic treasured the newfound warmth. Kids dug out last year’s cutoffs and pulled their bicycles out of storage. Birds clustered on telephone wires and swooped down, chattering and cawing, in search of plump, juicy worms.
Annie spent less and less time at her father’s house, and more and more in Nick’s bed. She knew she was playing with fire, but she couldn’t help herself. She was like a teenager again, consumed by her first lover. Every time she looked at Nick—which was about every fifteen seconds— she remembered their lovemaking. She couldn’t believe how uninhibited she’d become.
During the day, they were careful not to touch each other, but the forced abstinence only increased their desire. All day, Annie waited for the night to begin, so that she could creep into his bed again.
Today they’d had a wonderful time at Lake Crescent. They’d played volleyball on the beach, and rented paddle-boats, and on the long ride home, they had sung along with the radio. At home, Annie made a big pot of spaghetti, and after dinner, they sat around the big kitchen table and worked on Izzy’s reading skills.
Later, when they went upstairs, they all climbed into Izzy’s bed for story time.
Annie refused to think about how right all of this felt, how much she was beginning to belong here. She reached behind Izzy’s head and touched Nick’s shoulder, squeezing so hard for a moment that he looked up at her. At first he smiled, then slowly, that smile fell, and she knew he was seeing it in her eyes, the sudden fear, the desire that was going to hurt them all.
She turned away, focused instead on the open book.
Nick had read only the first page when the sound of a ringing telephone interrupted them. “I’d better go answer that,” he said.
“We’ll wait for you, Daddy,” Izzy said, snuggling up to Annie.
Nick pressed the book into Izzy’s hands and hurried out of the room. He came back a few minutes later, looking solemn.
Annie felt a prickling of fear. She sat up straighter, leaning forward. “Nick?”
He eased back into the bed, on the other side of Izzy. “That was your teacher, Izzy-bear. She said they’re having a class party on Friday—and all the kids want you to come.”
Izzy looked scared. “Oh.”
Nick smiled at her, a soft, gentle smile that seemed to reach right into Annie’s heart. “She said something about cupcakes.”
Izzy frowned. “I do like cupcakes.”
“I know you do, Sunshine.” He pulled her against him with one strong arm. “There’s nothing wrong with being scared, Izzy. It happens to all of us. What’s wrong is if we don’t try things because we’re afraid. We can’t hide away from the things that scare us.”
Annie heard so much in his voice, all the remnants of the lessons he’d learned the hard way. She felt a warm rush of pride for him, and she wondered again how she was going to leave this man, how she was going to return to her cold, sterile life, where she would end up searching in mirrors once again for evidence of her own existence.
Izzy sighed. “I guess a party would be okay. Will you’n Annie take me?”
“Of course we will.”
“Okay.” She looked up, gave Nick a tentative smile. “Daddy, will you read me another story, Daddy?”
He grinned. Reaching down to the floor beside the bed, he produced another book. “I thought you might ask that.”
He read like an actor, using deep, bass monster voices and high-pitched little-boy roars. Izzy sat perfectly still, her adoring eyes focused on her daddy’s face. When he smiled, she smiled; when he frowned, she frowned.
As he turned a page, he glanced at Annie. Over the child’s dark head, their gazes locked. There was nothing sexual in his eyes at all; there was just the simple pleasure of a man reading his daughter a bedtime story. The way he looked, as if this moment were the culmination of his every hope and dream, tore a ragged bite from Annie’s heart and left her with the strangest urge to cry.
After story time was over, Nick went back to his room and waited. Twice, he poked his head out and looked down the hallway. Twice it was empty, save for the feeble glow of a few poorly placed wall lights.
He paced the tiny room, bumping his head on the slanted roof almost every time he turned to the right.
Then he heard a knock.
He surged to the door and yanked it open. Annie stood in the doorway, wearing an oversized T-shirt and a pair of navy-blue kneesocks.
They barely made it to the bed. Kissing, groping, laughing, they fell onto the pile of wrinkled sheets. The tired old mattress creaked and groaned beneath them.
Nick had never wanted a woman so badly in his life, and Annie seemed to share his urgency. He held her, stroked and fondled and caressed her. She rolled with him, kissing him with a greediness that left him breathless, pulling his tongue deep into her mouth. They did anything and everything, made love and slept and made love again.
When it was over, Nick lay exhausted on his bed, one arm flung out against the wall, the other curled protectively around Annie’s nak*d hip. She lay tucked against him, her bare leg thrown casually over his, her nipple pressed against his rib cage.
He could feel the aftermath of their lovemaking in the fine sheen of sweat that clung to her skin, smell it in the sweetness of the air. Her head was resting on the ball of his shoulder, her breath caressed his skin.
He was afraid suddenly that she would pull away now, draw out of his arms and scurry back to her father’s house, and that he’d be left with nothing but her lingering scent and the cold chill of her absence along his side. “Talk to me, Annie,” he said softly, stroking the velvety skin in the small of her back.
“That’s always dangerous,” she said with a laugh. “Most people who know me want me to shut up.”
“I’m not Blake.”
“Sorry.” She snuggled closer to him. One pale finger coiled in his chest hair, then absently caressed his skin. “You . . . bring out something in me. Something I wouldn’t have believed was there.”
“Oh yeah? What is it?”
She rolled half on top of him, her crotch settled intimately against his thigh. Her beautiful br**sts swung enticingly in front of his face, and it was damned hard to keep his concentration on her words. “I used to be . . . organized. Efficient. I fed everyone and dressed everyone and went shopping and made lists and kept appointments. Blake and I had sex, if we were lucky, on Friday nights at eleven forty-five, between Jay Leno’s first and second guests. It was always . . . nice sex, comfortable. It felt good and I had orgasms. But it wasn’t like it is with you. I never felt as if I were going to leap out of my skin.” She laughed, that broad, infectious laugh that seemed to come from someplace deep inside her. Kathy had never made him feel this way, as if the whole world was open to him and all he had to do was reach for his dreams.
Dreams. He closed his eyes. They came to him so often now, the dreams he’d long ago put aside. He remembered again how important a family had always been to him, how he’d imagined his life would chug along on a bright and easy road, crowded with laughing children all around him.
If he’d chosen Annie, all those years ago, maybe everything would have been different. . . .
“How come you and Kathy never had more children?” Annie asked suddenly.
Her question disconcerted Nick for a second, made him wonder if she could read his mind. “I always wanted to. Hell, I wanted six kids, but after Izzy, it was obvious that Kathy couldn’t handle any more. When Izzy was about two, I had a vasectomy.” He glanced down at her, cuddled so close to him. “How about you? You’re such a wonderful mother.”
It was a long time before she answered. “Adrian would have been fourteen this year. He was my son.”
“Annie . . .”
She didn’t look at him. “He came prematurely and only lived for four days. After that, we tried everything, but I couldn’t get pregnant again. Usually he’s just a little smile I get, or a tear that stings my eyes, but sometimes . . . it’s harder. I always wanted more children.”
He didn’t want to say he was sorry; he knew firsthand how plastic the words could sound, a Band-Aid on an arterial wound. Instead, he pulled her into his arms and held her as close as he could, so close he could feel her heartbeat against his skin.
He knew he was losing himself in the moment, in Annie, but right now he didn’t care. It was too late to be safe, too late to keep from loving her.
Jefferson R. Smithwood Elementary School sat on a grassy hill surrounded by hundred-year-old fir trees. A long cement walkway started at the double black doors and slid down to the parking lot, where cars were lined along a tall chain-link fence.
Nick stood close to the curb, with Izzy beside him. Annie stood on Izzy’s other side.
His little girl was scared, and it was up to him to make her feel confident; but he had no idea how to do that. Over Izzy’s dark head, he gave Annie a helpless look.
You can do it, she mouthed with a smile.
Swallowing hard, he bent to his knees and looked at Izzy. She tried to smile, but it was a quick, jerking little tilt of the mouth that didn’t reach her eyes. He reached out and plucked up the satiny yellow ribbon that hung at the bottom of her braid.
Her lower lip quivered. “They’ll make fun o’ me.”
“Then I’ll beat the sh—”
Annie squeezed his shoulder and Nick bit back the words. “They won’t make fun of you,” he said instead.
“I’m . . . different.”
He shook his head. “No. You’ve had some . . . sadness. And sometimes that makes a person go a little . . . crazy. But you’re going to be okay this time. I promise.”
“Will you be here to pick me up after the party?”
“Okay,” she said at last.
He smiled. “That’s my girl.”
Slowly, knees popping, he got back to his feet. He glanced at Annie, who was grinning at him, although her eyes were suspiciously moist.
Together, the three of them started up the cement sidewalk toward the school.
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” Annie said suddenly.
Nick almost burst out laughing. It was a ridiculous thing to do, but at that moment it felt exactly right. He joined in. “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”