At first, Izzy’s voice was hesitant, but with each chorus it gained strength, until all three of them were singing at the top of their lungs as they strode up the sidewalk, up the steps, and right to the front door.
Nick pushed through the double black doors, and the three of them entered the quiet hallways of the elementary school. To the left there was a long Formica table, piled high with all the jackets and lunch boxes and sweaters that the children left behind.
Izzy stopped. “I wanna go in by myself,” she said quietly. “That way they won’t think I’m a baby.” She gave Nick and Annie one last, frightened look, then started down the hallway.
Nick fought the urge to run after her.
Annie slipped her hand in his. Nick sighed, watching his little girl walk down the hallway. He saw the hesitation in each of her footsteps and knew how hard she was trying to be brave. He knew how that felt, going forward when all you wanted to do was crawl into a warm darkness and hide. Finally, he had to look away. He’d never known it would be so damned hard to watch your child face fear.
“She’ll be fine,” Annie said. “Trust me.”
He looked at her, and at the soft certainty in her gaze, something in his chest felt swollen and tender. “I do, Annie,” he said softly. “I do.”
At the end of the hall, a door opened. A feminine voice said, “Izzy! We’ve missed you.” A bubble of applause floated through the open door. Izzy glanced back, gave Nick and Annie a huge grin, then raced into the classroom.
“Well, that certainly took my mind off Izzy,” Nick said, panting, when finally he could speak. He rolled off of Annie but kept an arm around her. Gathering her against him, he settled comfortably with his back against the wall and propped his sweaty cheek in his hand, gazing down at her.
She looked incredibly beautiful, with the sunlight from the half-open window on her face and her hair all spiky in a dozen different directions. Her breathing was shallow, and it reminded him with every tiny, wheezing sound that, for now at least, she was his. Beneath the flimsy cotton blanket, his hand found her breast and held it.
He wanted to lie with her for hours, talking about nothing and everything, sharing more than just their bodies. It was a dangerous desire, he knew, wanting more from Annie than the body she shared so willingly. No matter how hard he tried to forget it, he remembered that she was leaving June fifteenth—now less than three weeks away. She was going back to her real life.
He held her tightly, knowing he should just keep his mouth shut. But he couldn’t. “What was your marriage like?”
“From whose perspective? I thought it was nineteen great years with the only man I ever loved. Then one day he pulled our car into the driveway and said, ‘I love another woman; please don’t make me say it again.’ ” She released a laugh that was short and bitter. “Like I wanted to hear it twice.”
“Are you still in love with him?”
“In love? How would that be possible?” She sighed, and he felt the gentle swell and fall of her chest. “But love . . . ah, now that’s a harder thing. He is . . . was my best friend, my lover, my family for almost twenty years. How do you stop loving your family?”
“What . . . what if he wanted you back?”
“Blake’s not that kind of man. It would mean admitting that he’d been wrong in the first place. In all our years together, I’ve never once heard him say he was sorry. To anyone.”
He heard sorrow in the quietly spoken words.
She smiled weakly and looked away from him, staring beyond his shoulder to a spot on the wall.
He gathered her into his arms, turning her so that he could lose himself in the green of her eyes. “I remember a story you wrote in Senior English. It was about a dog who helped a lost boy find his home. I always thought you’d be a famous writer.”
“That was ‘Finding Joey.’ I can’t believe you remembered it.”
“It was a good story.”
She was silent for a long time, and when finally she spoke, her voice was thick. “I should have trusted myself, but Blake . . . he thought writing was a silly little hobby, and so I put it away. It’s not his fault, it’s mine. I gave in too easily. After that I tried everything—calligraphy, judo, painting, sculpting, floral arranging, interior design.” She snorted derisively. “No wonder Blake made fun of me. I was a poster child for a missing soul.”
“I can’t imagine that.”
“It’s true. I wrapped up my two unfinished novels in pretty pink boxes and tucked them under my lingerie chest. I let Blake’s acid comments about ‘Mom’s current hobby’ derail me. After a few years, I forgot I’d even had a dream in the first place. I became Mrs. Blake Colwater, and without him, I felt like nobody. Until now. You and Izzy gave me my self back.”
He touched her face. “No, Annie. You took it back yourself. Hell, you fought for it.”
She stared at him. “I lost myself once, Nick. I’m terrified of doing it again.”
There was no point in asking what she meant. He knew. Somehow, she’d seen the secret he was trying so hard to keep from her. He’d fallen in love with her, and they didn’t have much time together; that was the truth he’d understood at the outset, the truth that came from sleeping with a married woman, even if she was headed for divorce. She still had Natalie, and a whole life that didn’t include Nick. “Okay, Annie,” he said quietly. “Okay for now.”
But it wasn’t okay. He knew it, and now she was beginning to know it as well.
Annie stood on the porch of her father’s house, staring out at the sinuous silver ribbon of the salmon stream. Bright blue harebells danced nimbly through the high grass at the river’s edge. Somewhere, a woodpecker was drilling through a tree trunk; the ra-ta-ta-tat echoed through the forest.
She heard the door squeak open behind her, then the banging of the screen door.
“Okay, what’s going on, Annie Virginia?”
She knew by the quiet tone of his voice that it was the question he’d followed her out here to ask. “What do you mean?” She played dumb.
“You know what I mean. You blush like a teenager every time you say Nick’s name, and I’ve hardly seen you in the past two weeks. You’re doing a hell of a lot more than baby-sitting up there. Last night I heard you talking on the phone. You were telling Terri that Nick was just a friend. So, I guess I’m not the only one who has noticed.”
“It isn’t love,” she answered quietly, but even as she spoke the words, she wondered. When she was with Nick, she felt young, full to bursting with adrenaline. Dreams seemed tangible to her again, as close as tomorrow; it wasn’t how she’d felt in her marriage. Then, she’d thought dreams were the toys of childhood, to be put away when real life came to call.
“Are you doing it to get back at Blake?”
“No. For once, I’m not thinking about Blake or Natalie. I’m doing this for me.”
“Is that fair?”
She turned to him. “Why is it that only women have to be fair?”
“It’s Nick I’m thinking of. I’ve known that boy for a long time. Even as a kid, he had eyes that had seen a dozen miles of bad road. When he started dating Kathy, I thanked God it wasn’t you. But then he settled down and became the best cop this town has ever had. We all saw how he loved Kathy; and that little daughter of his was the apple of his eye. Then, that . . . thing happened with Kathy, and he . . . disintegrated. His hair turned that weird color, and every time I saw him, I remembered what had happened. It was like a physical badge of sorrow. No one blamed him, of course; but he blamed himself, you could tell. It was damned hard to watch.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“You’re a fighter, Annie, and—”
“Ha! Come on, Dad, I’m a doormat of the first order.”
“No. You never have seen yourself clearly. You’ve got a steel core inside you, Annie—you always did. And you see the world in positive terms. Your glass is always half full.”
“When Blake left me, I fell apart,” she reminded him.
“For what—a month?” He made a tsking sound. “That’s nothing. When your mom died, I didn’t hide out for a couple of weeks and then emerge stronger than I’d started.” He paused, shaking his head. “I’m not good at saying what I mean. What I’m trying to say, honey, is that you don’t understand despair or weakness, not really. You can’t get your mind wrapped around hopelessness.”
She stared out at the river. “I guess that’s true.”
“You’re still a married woman, and if you think Blake is really going to leave you for a bimbo, you’re crazy. He’ll be back. When he comes to his senses, Blake will come home to you.”
“I don’t feel married.”
“Yes, you do.”
She had no answer to that; it was true and it wasn’t. As much as she’d grown and changed in the last months, Hank was right: Annie did still feel married to Blake. She’d been his wife for almost twenty years . . . that kind of emotional commitment didn’t evaporate on account of a few hastily thrown words, even if those words were I want a divorce.
Hank came up beside her, touched her cheek. “You’re going to hurt Nick. And he’s not a man who rolls easily with life’s punches. I don’t mean to tell you what to do. I never have and I’m sure as hell not going to start now. But . . . this thing . . . it’s going to end badly, Annie. For all of you.”
The next night, long after the dinner dishes were washed and put away and Izzy had gone to bed, Annie sat in the rocker on the front porch. She watched a tiny black spider spin an iridescent web on a rhododendron bush. The scratchy creak-creak-creak of the rocker kept her company in the quiet. She knew she should go inside; Nick would be waiting for her upstairs. But it was so quiet and peaceful out here, and the lingering echo of her father’s words seemed softer and more distant when she was alone. When she actually went inside and looked into Nick’s blue, blue eyes, she knew her dad’s advice would return, louder and too insistent to ignore.
Nick and Izzy had already been hurt so badly. She didn’t want to do anything that would cause them more pain, and yet she knew, as certainly as she was sitting here, that she was going to do just that. She had another life in another town, another child that was going to need a mother as desperately as Izzy had only a few months ago. Her real life was out there, waiting for Annie, circling in the hot, smoggy air of Southern California, readying itself for the confrontation that was only a few short weeks away. It would test Annie, that reunion; test everything that she was and everything she’d decided up here that she wanted to be.
Behind her, the screen door creaked open. “Annie?”
She closed her eyes for a second, gathering strength. “Hey, Nick,” she said softly, staring down at the hands clasped in her lap.
The door banged shut and he came up beside her. Placing a hand gently on her shoulder, he crouched down. “What are you doing out here all by yourself?”