He went to the bed and sat beside her, gazing down into her beautiful green eyes. “I love you, Annie. I know we can work all this out if we’re . . . together.”
“We are together.”
“Where’s your wedding ring?”
She cocked her head toward the mahogany highboy. “In my jewelry box.”
He got up and went to the highboy, carefully opening the hand-painted box that held all the treasures he’d given her over the years. There, among the black velvet rolls, was the three-carat diamond he’d given her on their tenth wedding anniversary. Beside it was the plain gold band they’d originally bought. He picked up the two rings and returned to the bed, sitting down beside his wife.
He stared down at the fiery diamond. “Remember that vacation we took, years ago, at the Del Coronado Hotel? Natalie wasn’t more than a year old—”
“Six months,” she said softly.
He looked at her. “We brought that big old blue and red blanket—the one I had on my bed in college—and laid it out on the beach. We were the only people out there, just the three of us.”
Annie almost smiled. “We went swimming, even though it was freezing cold.”
“You were holding Natalie, with the waves splashing across your thighs. Your lips were practically blue and your skin was nothing but goose bumps, but you were laughing, and I remember how much I loved you. My heart hurt every time I looked at you.”
She looked down at her hands, folded on her lap. “That was a long time ago.”
“I found a sand dollar, remember? I handed it to you with our baby wobbling on the blanket between us, rocking her little butt back and forth. I think she was trying to learn to crawl.”
Annie closed her eyes, and he wondered what she was thinking. Could she remember the rest of that day? How often he’d touched her . . . or when he’d leaned over and grazed the back of her neck with a kiss. Hey, Godiva, he’d whispered. They rent horses down the road. . . .
And her laughing answer, Babies can’t ride.
“When did we stop having fun together, Annie? When?” He was seducing her with their memories, and he could see that it was working; he could see it in the way she stared at her hands intently, in the sheen of moisture that filled her eyes.
Slowly, he reached down and placed the two rings back on her finger. “Forgive me, Annie,” he said quietly.
She looked up. A tear streaked down her cheek and dropped onto her nightgown, leaving a gray-wet blotch. “I want to.”
“Let me sleep with you tonight. . . .”
She sighed. It was a long time before she answered, time enough for him to feel hope sliding away. “Yes,” she said at last.
He told himself that nothing mattered but the answer. He ignored the uncertainty in her voice and the tears in her eyes and the way she wouldn’t quite look at him. It would all be okay again after they slept together. Finally, the bits of their broken lives would fuse together again.
He wanted to crush her against him, but he forced himself to move slowly. He got up, went into the closet, and changed into his pajamas. Then, very slowly, he went to the bed and peeled back the coverlet, slipping beneath the cool, white cotton sheets.
It was soothing to hold her again, like easing into a favorite pair of slippers after a long day at the office. He kissed her lightly, and as always, she was quiet and undemanding in her response. Finally, he turned over—the regular beginning of their nightly ritual. After a long moment, she snuggled up behind him.
Her body spooned against his, her belly pressed into his back. It was the way they’d always slept, only this time she didn’t curl her arms around him.
They lay there, touching but not touching in the bed that had held their passion for so many years. She didn’t speak, other than to say good night, and he couldn’t think of anything else.
It was a long time before he fell asleep.
Natalie set a big metal bowl full of popcorn at the foot of Annie’s bed, then she climbed up and snuggled close to her mom. It was Friday afternoon: girls’ day. Annie and Natalie and Terri had spent every Friday together since Annie returned home. They laughed and talked and played cribbage and watched movies.
“I left the front door open for Terri,” Natalie said, pulling the bowl of popcorn onto her lap.
Annie grinned. “You know what your dad would say. He thinks criminals spend all day in the rosebushes, just waiting for us to leave the door open.”
Natalie laughed. They talked about this and that and everything. Their conversation followed the river of their years, flowing from one topic to the next. They laughed about antics that were as old as Natalie and as new as yesterday. Through it all, Annie was amazed at Natalie’s maturity; the teenager who had gone off to London had come home a young woman. It seemed light years ago that Natalie had rebelled, that she’d shorn her hair and dyed it platinum and pierced her earlobes with three holes.
“How come Dad never talks about the baby?”
The question came out of the blue, smacking Annie hard. She tried not to compare Nick and Blake, but it was impossible at a moment like this. Nick would have been with Annie every step of the way, sharing in the miracle, watching her belly swell. She would have clung to his hand during the amniocentesis, letting his jokes distract her from the needle . . . and she would have laughed with him later, when they found out it was a girl, skipping through name books and spinning dreams. . . .
She sighed. “Your dad is uncomfortable with pregnancy; he always has been. Lots of men are like that. He’ll be better after the baby is born.”
“Get real, Mom. Dad’s good at doing his own thing. I mean, you guys are supposedly getting over your ‘bad patch,’ but he’s never here. He still works seventy hours a week, he still plays basketball on Tuesday nights, and he still goes out for drinks with the boys every Friday night. When are you guys working out your problems? During Letterman?”
Annie gave her a sad smile. “When you get older, you’ll understand. There’s a certain . . . comfort in the familiar.”
Natalie stared at her. “I have almost no memories of Dad—did you know that? All I remember about him are a few hurried good-bye kisses and the sound of a slamming door. When I hear a car engine start or a garage door close, I think of my dad.” She turned to Annie. “What about after this summer . . . when I’m gone?”
Annie shivered, though the room was warm. She looked away from Natalie, unable to bear the sad certainty in her daughter’s eyes. “When you’re gone, I’ll be worried about potty training and what to do with the Baccarat on the living room table. I’ll consider plastic surgery to pull my br**sts back up from my navel. You know, the usual stuff.”
“And you’ll be lonely.”
Annie wanted to deny it. She wanted to be grown up and a good parent and say just the right thing that would alleviate Natalie’s worry. But for once, no parental lies came to her. “Maybe a little. Life can be like that, Nana. We don’t always get what we want.”
Natalie glanced down at her own hands. “When I was little, you told me that life did give you what you wanted, if you were willing to fight for it and believe in it. You told me that every cloud had a silver lining.”
“Those were a mother’s words to a little girl. These are a mother’s words to a nearly grown woman.”
Natalie looked at her, long and hard. Then she turned away.
Annie felt suddenly distant from her daughter. She was reminded of four years ago, when Natalie had turned into someone else. It had seemed that overnight, their tastes had diverged: whatever Annie liked, Natalie hated. Christmas that year had been a tense, horrible affair, with Natalie dully opening each carefully wrapped package and then muttering a caustic gee thanks. “Nana? What is it?”
Slowly, Natalie turned to face Annie. “You don’t have to be this way, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
Natalie shook her head and looked away. “Never mind.”
Understanding dawned slowly, and with it, pain. It all fell into place: Natalie’s desire to study biochemisty at Stanford, her sudden trip to London, her unwillingness to date the same boy for more than a few months. Behind it all was a sad message: I don’t want to be like you, Mom. I don’t want to be dependent on a man for everything.
“I see,” Annie said.
Natalie turned to her at last, and this time there were tears in her eyes. “What do you see?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does. What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking you don’t want to grow up to be like your old mom, and . . . as much as that hurts, it makes me proud. I want you to count on yourself in life. I guess, in the end, it’s all we have.”
Natalie sighed. “You never would have said that before he broke your heart.”
“I think I’ve grown up a little bit lately. Life isn’t all sunny days and blue skies.”
“But you always taught me to look for the silver lining to every cloud. Are you doing that, Mom? Are you looking to be happy?”
“Of course I am,” she answered quickly, but they both knew it was a lie. Annie couldn’t meet her daughter’s penetrating gaze. “I’m glad you don’t want to be like me, Nana.”
Sadness suffused Natalie’s face. “I don’t want to have a marriage like yours, and I don’t understand why you stay with him—I never have. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to be like you. There are only two people in the world who don’t respect you . . . as far as I know, anyway.”
She looked at Natalie, shaking her head slightly, as if she could stop her daughter’s words.
“Just two,” Natalie said. A single tear streaked down her cheek and she impatiently brushed it away. “Dad . . . and you.”
You. Annie felt a sudden urge to disappear, to simply melt into the expensive bed linens and vanish. She knew that Natalie was waiting for her to say something, but she didn’t know what was the right answer. She felt as if she were the child, and Natalie the mother, and as the child, she’d let her parent down.
She opened her mouth to say something—she had no idea what—when suddenly Terri charged into the bedroom like a multicolored bull, her body draped in layers of red and gold lamé.
She came to a breathless stop beside the bed. Planting her fists on her meaty hips, she surveyed the bowl of popcorn. “So, where’s my popcorn? I mean, that’s enough for two skinny chicks like you, but we real women like our popcorn to come in bowls that could double as lifeboats. And I certainly want it coated in butter.”
Natalie grinned. “Hey, Terri.”
Terri smiled back, her heavily mascaraed lashes almost obscuring her twinkling eyes. “Hiya, princess.”
“I’ll go make another batch of popcorn.”
“You do that, sweetie,” Terri said, uncoiling the gold turban from her head.
When Natalie scurried from the room, Terri sat down on the end of the bed and leaned back against the footboard, sighing. “Christ, what a day. Sorry I’m late.”