He was actually nervous. Beneath the Formica wood-grain table, he surreptitiously wiped his damp palms on his pants.
He glanced at his watch again—11:25—and wondered if Annie was going to show. It was a crazy thought and he dismissed it almost instantly. Annie was the most dependable person he’d ever known. If Annie said she’d be someplace, she’d be there. Late, maybe; harried, often. But she’d be there.
He snapped his head away from the window at the sound of her voice. She was standing beside the table with one hip cocked out and her arms crossed. She was wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and a sleeveless white turtle-neck, and her hair . . . it looked as if someone had hacked it off with a weed-eater.
“What did you do to your hair?”
“I think the answer is obvious.”
“Oh.” He frowned, disconcerted by the sight of her and by her answer. It was flip and unlike her. He’d imagined this moment—dreaded and looked forward to it in equal measure—for weeks. But whenever he’d imagined their meeting, it was with the old Annie, impeccably dressed, smiling wanly, a little nervous. This woman standing in front of him was someone he didn’t recognize. “Well, it’ll grow back.” Belatedly, he got to his feet. “It’s good to see you, Annie.”
The smile she gave him was reserved and didn’t reach her eyes. She sidled into the booth and sat across from him.
With a quick wave of his hand, he signaled a polyester-clad waitress, who hurried to the table. Blake looked at Annie. “Coffee?”
“No.” She drummed her fingernails on the table, and he noticed that she was wearing no polish and that her nails were blunt, almost bitten-off short. And on her left hand, in the place where his ring belonged, there was only a thin band of pale, untanned skin. She smiled up at the waitress. “I’ll have a Budweiser.”
He stared at her in shock. “You don’t drink beer.” It was a stupid thing to say, but he couldn’t think of anything else. All he could focus on was the ring she wasn’t wearing.
Another false smile. “Don’t I?”
The waitress nodded and left.
Annie turned her attention back to Blake. Her gaze swept him in a second, and he wondered what this new woman saw when she looked at the old Blake. He waited for her to say something, but she just sat there with her new haircut and her no makeup and her terrifyingly ring-less finger and stared at him.
“I thought we should talk . . .” he said—rather stupidly, he thought afterward.
Another silence fell, and into the quiet, the waitress came to the table. She placed a frosted mug of beer on a small, square napkin, and Annie gave her a bright smile. “Thanks, Sophie.”
“You bet, Miss Bourne.”
Miss Bourne? The address left him winded.
“So,” she said at last, sipping her beer. “How’s Suzannah?”
Blake winced at the coldness in her voice. He knew he had it coming, but still he hadn’t expected anger. Annie never got angry. “I’m not living with her anymore.”
“Yes. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
She stared at him across the rim of her glass. “Really?”
He wished he’d rehearsed this more, but he hadn’t expected her to make it so difficult. In his mind, it always went the same way: He swept into a room and she hesitated, then smiled and cried and told him how much she missed him. He opened his arms and she hurled herself at him . . . and that was that. They were back together.
He tried to gauge her emotions, but the eyes he knew so well were shuttered and unwelcoming. He tripped through the words uncharacteristically. “I made a mistake.” He slid his hand across the table.
“A mistake.” She drew her hand back.
He heard the censure in her voice and knew what she meant. It was a mistake to be late on your Visa payment; what he’d done was something else entirely. The way she looked at him, the soft, reserved sound of her voice—not Annie at all—punched a hole in his confidence, and he began to feel as if something vital were leaking away from him. “I want to come home, Annie,” he said softly, pleading with her in a way he’d never pleaded in his life. “I love you, Annalise. I know that now. I was a stupid, stupid fool. Can you forgive me?”
She sat there, staring at him, her mouth drawn in a tight, hard line.
In the silence, he felt a spark of hope ignite. He scooted around the vinyl booth and came up beside her, staring at her, knowing that all his heart and soul was in his eyes and hoping to hell that she still cared. Memories of their life together swelled inside him, refueled his confidence. He remembered a dozen times he’d hurt her, birthdays he’d missed, nights he hadn’t come home, dinners that had been ruined by his absence. She had always forgiven him; it was who she was. She couldn’t have changed that much.
She stared straight ahead, her eyes wary and filled with a pain he knew he’d put there. He gazed at her profile, willing her to look at him. If she did, if she looked at him for even a second, he’d see the answer in her eyes. “Annie?” He took her hand in his, and it was cold. “I love you, Annie,” he said again, his voice choked. “Look at me.”
Slowly, slowly, she turned, and he saw then that her eyes were flooded with tears. “You think you can say you’re sorry and it’s all over, Blake? Like it never happened?”
He clutched her hand, feeling the delicacy of her bones and the softness of her skin. “I’ll spend the rest of my life making it up to you.”
She closed her eyes for a second, and a tear streaked down her cheek. Then she opened her eyes and looked at him. “You did me a favor, Blake. The woman I was . . .” She drew her hand away from his and swiped the moisture from her cheek. “I let myself become a nothing. I’m not that woman anymore.”
“You’re still my Annie.”
“No. I’m my Annie.”
“Come back to me, Annie. Please. Give us another chance. You can’t throw it all—”
“Don’t you dare finish that sentence. I didn’t throw anything away. You did, with your selfishness and your lies and your wandering dick. And now you’ve figured out that little Suzannah wants to be your lover, not your wife and your mother and your doormat and you come running back to me. The woman who’ll take your shit with a smile and give you a safe place where nothing is expected of you and everything goes your way.”
He was stunned by her language and her vehemence. “Annie—”
“I’ve met someone.”
His mouth dropped open. “A man?”
“Yes, Blake. A man.”
He slid back over to his seat. He took a long gulp of his lukewarm coffee, trying to get over the shock of her statement. A man? Annie with another man?
The silver-haired man with the sad blue eyes.
Why was it that in the months they’d been apart, he had never considered such a thing? He’d always pictured her as quiet, dependable Annie, mothering everyone, smiling and laughing and trying her hand at some god-awful craft or another. He’d pictured her sewing and decorating and pining. Goddamn it—mostly, he’d pictured her pining away for him, inconsolable. He looked up at her. “Did you . . . sleep with him?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Blake.”
She had. Annie—his Annie, his wife—had slept with another man. Blake felt a surge of raw, animal anger, a fury he’d never known before in his life. He wanted to throw his head back and scream out his rage, but instead, he sat very still, his hands fisted in tight, painful blocks beneath the table. Now things were different, very different, and he had to proceed with the greatest caution.
“An affair,” he said quietly, wincing at the sound of the word and the images it brought to mind. Annie, writhing in pleasure, kissing another pair of lips, touching another man’s body. He pushed the horrible thoughts away. “I guess you did it to get back at me.”
She laughed. “Not everything revolves around you.”
“So . . .” What in the hell did you say at a time like this? He wanted to put his fist through a plate-glass window, and instead he had to sit here like a gentleman, pretending it didn’t hurt like hell, pretending she hadn’t just ripped his heart out and stomped on it. “I guess . . .” He shrugged. “I guess we can forgive each other.”
“I don’t want your forgiveness.”
He flinched. They were the same words he’d thrown at her a few months ago, and they hurt. Sweet Jesus, they hurt.
“I’m sorry, Annie,” he said quietly, looking up at her. For the first time, he truly understood what he’d done to her. In his arrogant selfishness, he hadn’t really thought about what he’d put her through. He’d sugar-coated his behavior in the vocabulary of the nineties: I need my space; there’s no reason to stay together if you’re not happy; you’ll be better o f without me; we’ve grown apart. And he’d believed all of it. Now, he saw his mistake. The words were meaningless excuses for a man who didn’t think the rules applied to him. He’d acted as if their marriage were an inconvenient encumbrance, an irritating lien on property you wanted to develop. The words that truly mattered—love, honor, and cherish, till death do us part—he’d slapped aside as if they meant nothing.
He felt the first wave of honest-to-God shame he’d ever experienced. “I never knew how it could hurt. But Annie, I love you—you can believe that. And I’m going to go on loving you for the rest of my life. No matter what you do or where you go or what you say, I’ll always be here, waiting for your forgiveness. Loving you.”
He saw a flash of pain in her eyes, and saw the way her mouth relaxed. For a heartbeat, she weakened, and like any great lawyer, he knew how to pounce on opportunity. He touched her cheek gently, forcing her to look at him. “You think I don’t really love you, that I’m just the same selfish prick I always was, and that I want you because you make my life easier . . . but that’s not it, Annie. You make my life complete.”
“Remember the old days? When we lived in that beach house in Laguna Niguel? I couldn’t wait to get home from work to see you. And you always met me at the door—remember that?—you’d yank the door open and throw yourself into my arms. And how about when Natalie was born, when I crawled into that narrow hospital bed with you and spent the night—until that bony old nurse came and threw me out? And how about that time on the beach, when you and I made sand castles at midnight and drank champagne and dreamed of the house we would someday own. You said you wanted a blue and white bedroom, and I said you could paint it purple if you wanted, as long as you promised to be in my bed forever. . . .”
She was crying now. “Don’t, Blake, please . . .”
“Don’t what? Don’t remind you of who we are and how long we’ve been together?” He pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped the tears from her face. “We’re a family. I should have seen that before, but I was blind and stupid and selfish, and I took so much for granted.” His voice fell to a throaty whisper and he stared at her through a blur of his own tears. “I love you, Annie. You have to believe me.”