“She’s probably tired. . . .”
“She deserves an explanation.”
He turned and moved to the elegant stone table that hugged the wall, staring at his own reflection in a gilt-framed mirror. “Natalie’s angry with me,” he said softly. “When she was in London, I didn’t call her. I sent flowers every week. A girl loves to get flowers, that’s what Suz . . .” He realized what he was going to say and clamped his mouth shut.
“Suzannah was wrong,” Annie said tiredly, reading his thoughts. “A seventeen-year-old girl needs a lot more than flowers from her father’s secretary every Friday.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “Without you, I was . . . lost with Natalie. I kept thinking I should call, and then a deposition or a court date would come up, and I’d forget. I’ll make it all up to her, though, even tonight.”
He turned back to Annie. Now she was on her feet. She stood a few feet away, her arms crossed. In a pair of ratty sweats and a UW sweatshirt that had seen better days, she looked more like a runaway teen than his wife. “I’ll get her a laptop.”
“She’ll be leaving for school on Sunday. We won’t see her again until spring break, and soon . . . we won’t be seeing much of her at all. She’ll find her own place in the world and she won’t be coming home to us as much.”
Us. He tried to take courage from that single, simple word, but he couldn’t quite manage it. “So, what do I say to her?”
“I don’t know.”
“Of course you do. You always—”
“No more. If you’re going to forge a relationship with your daughter, it’s up to you. No more Cliffs Notes on the situation from me.”
“Who’s her boyfriend, Blake?”
“She doesn’t have one.”
“Really? That will come as something of a surprise to Brian. And what does she want to study in school?”
It was hard to think with her looking at him that way. “Law, like me. She wants to be a partner in the firm some day.”
“Really? When did you last discuss it?”
“Last year?” It came out as a question, and at her look, he knew it was wrong. “Two years ago?”
She kept throwing that word at him like a dart. He felt like a man reaching for a lifeline that was just beyond his grasp. At last he gave up trying to lie and told the truth. “I don’t know.”
Annie’s face softened at the admission. “You have to talk to her, Blake. But mostly you have to listen.” She gave him a smile that was as sad as it was familiar. “And we both know you’re listening-impaired.”
“Okay. I’ll go talk to her.”
He said the words, softly and in exactly the right tone of voice, but they both knew the truth. They’d had this same discussion a hundred times before, with Annie begging him to spend time with Natalie.
They both knew he’d never quite get around to doing it.
On the last day of January, Terri showed up bright and early, holding a bottle of Moët & Chandon and a bag of croissants. “When a woman turns forty,” she said brightly, “she should begin drinking early in the day. And before you start whining about nursing and alcohol in the breast milk, let me reassure you that the champagne is for me and the croissants are for you.”
They sat together on the big wooden deck. The hot tub bubbled gently beside them.
“So,” Terri said, sipping her champagne. “You look like shit, you know.”
“Thanks a lot. I hope you’ll come by to celebrate my fiftieth birthday—when I really need cheering up.”
“You’re not sleeping.”
Annie winced. It was true. She hadn’t slept well in weeks. “Katie’s been fighting a cold.”
“Ah,” Terri said knowingly, “so Katie’s the problem.”
“No . . . not really, Dr. Freud.” Annie glanced out at the glittering surface of the sea, watching the white-tipped waves lick gently at the sand. She didn’t have to close her eyes to see another place, a place where winters were real. There, nature would have reclaimed its rain forest. The tourists would be long gone, driven away by the swift and sudden darkness that came with winter. There would be alpine mountainsides where the snow was five feet deep, where tiny purple flowers would still bloom amid the whiteness, against all the laws of nature. Deep in the woods, where the land had never been damaged by human hands, the trees would seem to draw closer together, creating a curtain of black tinged only occasionally with the faintest hint of green. In the middle of the day, it would be dark, and not even the brightest winter sun would make it to the cold, frosted forest floor. Anyone crazy enough, or desperate enough, to venture into that gray and black wilderness this time of year would be lost forever.
Annie longed to see it now, to feel the crisp winter air on her cheeks. She wanted to bundle up in layers and layers of clothing and lie in the snow, to make angels with her arms and legs while she watched her breath puff into the silver air.
“Why do you stay with him?”
Annie sighed. She had known the question was coming; she’d expected it every day since the fiasco of Natalie’s birthday party. It was the same thing she asked herself at night, as she lay in her bed, beside her husband, unable to sleep.
She thought so often about Natalie, grown now and on her own, and Katie, with so many years before her. At those times, achingly lonely, she would stare into the darkness of her own life, searching for some dim reflection of herself. And when she looked back, she saw a skinny, brown-haired girl who’d done what was expected of her, always.
She missed the woman she’d become on the shores of Mystic Lake, the one who dared to dream of her own bookstore, and learned to wager her heart on a game as risky as love. She missed Nick and Izzy and the family they’d quilted together from the scraps of their separate lives.
It was the kind of family Annie had always dreamed of . . . the kind of family Katie deserved. . . .
Did you know I have no memories of Dad?
Terri touched her shoulder. “Annie? You’re crying. . . .”
She’d been holding it in for too long, pretending that everything was okay, pretending that everyone mattered but her. She couldn’t hold it in anymore.
“I matter,” she said quietly.
“Well, praise God,” Terri whispered and pulled Annie into her arms. Annie let herself be held and rocked by her best friend.
“I can’t live this way anymore.”
“Of course you can’t.”
Annie eased back, shakily pushing the grown-out hair away from her eyes. “I don’t want some day to hear Katie tell me that she has no memories of her dad, either.”
“And what about you, Annie?”
“I deserve more than this . . . Blake and I don’t share anything anymore. Not even the miracle of our two children.”
It was the truth she’d been avoiding all these months. Their love was gone, simply gone, extinguished as cleanly as candlelight, with the sooty scent of smoke the only reminder that it had ever burned at all. She couldn’t even remember those days, long ago, when they had been in love.
She couldn’t help grieving for the loss of that fire, and she was as much to blame as he. She’d spent a lifetime in the shadows, too afraid of failure or abandonment to reach for even the light of a single candle. Their marriage was what they together had created—and that was the saddest truth of all.
Blake wasn’t happy, either. Of that she had no doubt. He wasn’t ready to let go of Annie quite yet, but the Annie he wanted was Annalise Bourne Colwater, the woman she’d become after years and years of living in a rut of their combined creation.
He wanted back what couldn’t be had.
Faint strains of music came from the bedroom speakers. Blake stood in front of the baby’s bassinet, staring down at the tiny infant swaddled in pink.
He reached into his pocket and withdrew a slim black velvet box. His finger traced the soft fabric as he remembered a dozen gifts he’d given Annie in the past, presents on Christmas mornings, on anniversaries, on birthdays.
Always, he’d given her what he thought she should have. Like her wedding ring. On their tenth anniversary he’d bought her the three-carat diamond solitaire, not because she wanted it—Annie was perfectly happy with the gold band they’d bought when it was all they could afford—but because it made Blake look good. Everyone who saw his wife’s ring knew that Blake was a successful, wealthy man.
He’d never given her what she needed, what she wanted. He’d never given her himself.
At the sound of her voice, soft and tentative, he turned around. She stood in the open archway, wearing a beautiful blue silk robe he’d given her years ago, and she looked incredibly lovely.
“We need to talk,” she said.
Steeling himself, he moved toward her. “I know.”
She stared up at him, and for a second, all he wanted to do was hold her so tightly that she could never leave him again. But he’d learned that holding too tightly was as harmful as never reaching out at all. “I have something for you. A birthday present.” He held the box out to her. It lay in his palm like a black wound.
Tentatively, still staring up at him, she took the box and opened it. On a bed of ice-blue silk lay a glittering gold bracelet. The name Annie was engraved across the top.
“Oh, Blake,” she whispered, biting down on her lower lip.
“Turn it over,” he said.
She eased the bracelet from the box, and he saw that her hands were trembling as she turned it over and read the inscription on the underside.
I will always love you.
She looked up at him, her eyes moist. “It’s not going to work, Blake. It’s too late.”
“I know,” he whispered, hearing the unmanly catch in his voice and not caring. Maybe if he’d cared less about things like that in the past, he wouldn’t be standing here, saying good-bye to the only woman who’d ever truly loved him. “I wish . . .” He didn’t even know what he wished for. That she had been different? That he had? That they’d seen this truth a long time ago?
“Me, too,” she answered.
“Will you . . . remember the words on that bracelet?”
“Oh, Blake, I don’t need a bracelet to remember how much I loved you. You were my life for more than twenty years. Whenever I look back, I’ll think of you.” Tears streaked in silvery lines down her cheeks. “What about Katie?”
“I’ll support her, of course. . . .”
He could tell that she was hurt by his answer. “I don’t mean money.”
He moved toward her, touched her cheek. He knew what she wanted from him right now, but it wasn’t really in his power to give. It never had been, that was part of their problem. He wouldn’t be there for Katie, any more than he’d been there for Natalie. Suddenly, he grieved for all of it. For the good times and the bad, for the roads not taken and the lives that had carelessly grown apart. Sadly, he gazed down at her. “Do you want me to lie to you?”