Authors: Mary McNear
Buster nodded. “Look, Caroline, I know you're doing the right thing. You always do the right thing. It's just .Â .Â .” His voice trailed off.
“Just what?” Caroline prompted.
“It's just that I'm jealous, I guess,” he said, a little sheepishly.
,” Caroline said, with a rush of affection. “You have nothing to be jealous about. You know that.”
“I do know that,” he said. “But I remember what you told me about himâhow charming he is; how persuasive he can be; how he swept you off your feet and made you do all these crazy things.”
“You mean, like ever going out on a date with him in the first place?” Caroline asked wryly.
crazy. No doubt about it. But that was over twenty years ago. I like to think I've grown up
since then. And as for Jack, well, that's not what Jack wants either. I don't know why he's back here, but it's not because of me. Trust me. He was as unhappy in that marriage as I was. And Buster? Even in the very unlikely event that he did want us to get back together again? Well, I have you now.” She leaned over and kissed him on the lips. He was surprised. When she was at Pearl's, Caroline was usually all business. But today, she thought, taking her time with the kiss, she needed to make a point.
She pulled away. “Better?” she teased.
“Much,” he said, smiling.
“Good. Now, you should get going. I happen to know you're due at the driving range soon,” she reminded him. After dating Buster for three years, Caroline knew his schedule like the back of her hand. On Tuesday afternoons, weather permitting, Buster went to the driving range outside of town and hit exactly one hundred golf balls. After thirty years in the military, the man thrived on routine.
“Okay, I'll go,” he said, a little reluctantly, sliding off his stool. “But I still don't like it.” And then he was gone, and Caroline was left alone with her anxiety. She thought, fleetingly, about checking her appearance in the mirror in her office, then dismissed the thought.
This is not a date
, she reminded herself.
This is a .Â .Â
. But as she was mulling over
, exactly, it was, she heard the tinkle of little bells, and Jack Keegan walked through the door.
“Hello, Caroline,” he said, smiling a little uncertainly. And Caroline was surprised to see that he was as nervous as she was. She didn't remember Jack ever being nervous before, even when he
have been nervous. Like the time she'd brought him home to meet her disapproving parents, or the time, after their marriage, he'd tried to explain to her how meeting a friend for a beer had somehow turned into a three-day game of poker.
“Hello, Jack,” she said coolly, screwing the lid back on a now full saltshaker. But then she remembered her promise to herself to be civil to him, to be, if not friendly, then at least polite. Because she was afraid if she let her anger seep out, even a little, she'd end up drowning in it.
“Would you like something to drink, Jack?” she asked him now. “An iced tea? A lemonade?”
“Actually, if you've still got some, I'd love a cup of coffee,” he said, coming up to the counter and standing, disconcertingly, where Buster had stood only moments before.
“Coffee is the only thing we never run out of here,” Caroline said, reaching behind her for a clean cup. “Why don't you choose a table and I'll join you in a minute,” she added.
He nodded and went to sit down at a table while Caroline poured him a cup of coffee, adding plenty of half-and-half, and poured herself a glass of iced tea with a lemon wedge. Then she carried them over to the table, set them down, and sat down across from him.
“Thanks,” he said with a smile. Not the slow smile she'd thought about in the bathtub last night, but a quick, easy smile that touched his blue eyes and reminded her again of what a good-looking man he still was.
, she thought with annoyance, sipping her iced tea. She watched while he took a sip of his coffee, then said, with surprise, “You remember how I like it.”
“I remember how
likes it, Jack,” she said, staring back at him impassively. “It's my business to remember.”
“Of course it is,” he agreed, unfazed. “And if there's one thing you know how to do, Caroline, it's run a business.”
She thought of her most recent bank statement, which would seem to dispute this assertion, but to Jack she said simply, “Let's skip the compliments, all right? I didn't ask you to come here so that we could exchange pleasantries, Jack.”
“No?” he asked innocently.
“No,” she repeated, crossing her arms over her chest. “So let's cut to the chase, all right?”
“All right,” he said, leaning back in his chair, his dark blue eyes resting on her.
“What are you doing here, Jack? In Butternut?”
“I told you. I'm living here.”
“At Wayland's old cabin?”
“And you say Wayland left it to you?”
But she was skeptical. “I didn't know you and Wayland had stayed in touch, Jack. I mean, when was the last time you even saw him?”
A shadow crossed his face. “I went to visit him in the hospital in Duluth when he .Â .Â . when he was sick. Really sick, toward the end.”
Caroline nodded somberly. “He had cancer, didn't he?”
“Liver cancer,” Jack said. “Terminal cancer's never good, obviously,” he said, quietly. “But this .Â .Â . this seemed especially bad, somehow.”
Caroline sighed. Poor Wayland. He'd been a sweet, though ineffectual man. And unlike Jack .Â .Â . well, unlike Jack, all the good times had finally caught up with him.
“Anyway,” Jack said. “Wayland didn't say anything about a will when I visited him in the hospital. Honestly, I would have been surprised to know he even
a will. But then, about a year ago, I got a call from his lawyer. I didn't know he had one of those, either. Anyway, it wasn't until this summer that I was able to move back up here and, you know, actually live in it.”
“You can't be serious, Jack.”
“About living in that .Â .Â .
,” she said, because
suddenly seemed to be too kind a word. “I mean, is it even habitable?”
“Depends on your definition of the word. But it's
to be, by the time I get through with it. I've never done anything quite like this before, but I figure, what the hell. I know my way around a tool belt.”
, Jack? I think a
might be more apt, don't you?”
There was that little shoulder lift again. If he was intimidated by what lay ahead, he wasn't saying so.
“Okay, so you're going to fix up that cabin. But with what money, Jack? And what are you going to live on while you do it?”
“I've saved some money over the past couple of years, working at the refinery.”
She'd taken a sip of her iced tea, and now she practically choked on it. “Oh please, Jack,” she said, trying not to laugh. “You've never saved a penny in your life.”
Not if you could sink it into a card game instead
But Jack didn't argue the point. He only lifted his shoulders a little, as if to say,
“All right then,” she said challengingly, “what do you do when you're done with the cabin? Sell it to some unlucky soul?”
“Or I stay,” Jack said casually. “Put down roots in this fine community.”
“This fine community that you've always
, Jack,” Caroline pointed out. “Or have you forgotten?”
But he sidestepped the question and said, with his infuriating nonchalance, “Towns change, Caroline. So do people.”
“Trust me, Jack, this town hasn't changed.”
“Then maybe I have,” he said, his dark blue eyes suddenly serious.
“That's what your daughter thinks,” Caroline said. “But I know better. And, Jack, I give you two weeks here; a month, tops.”
“We'll see,” he said, sipping his coffee again. “But in the meantime, I'm looking forward to spending the summer here.”
“And seeing my daughter?” Caroline asked.
Jack hesitated. “Yes, Caroline. And seeing
. That sounded strange. That sounded .Â .Â .
. It had been years since Caroline had thought of Daisy as anything other than
daughter. She squeezed her lemon wedge, angrily, into her glass of tea and tried to organize her thoughts. Because what she was going to say next was the real reason she'd asked him to come here todayâand the real reason, too, she hadn't been able to sleep last night. So she chose her words carefully now, or as carefully as she could when you considered how furious she was.
“Look, Jack, I don't know why, after all this time, you've resurfaced in Daisy's life. And I don't know why she has developed such a touching faith in you either. But I don't share that faith, Jack. I know how this is going to end. And it's going to end badly.”
“You can't know how this is going to end, Caroline. None of us knows that.” And there was that shadow, again, crossing so quickly over his face she wondered if it had been there at all.
“Look,” she said, changing tack. “I can't tell you what to do, Jack; I never could. Just don't .Â .Â . don't hurt her, okay?”
He nodded slowly, his blue eyes serious. “I have no intention of hurting her, Caroline; at least not any more than I already have. And don't think I don't know how much I've already hurt her,” he added. “I'm not an idiot, Caroline. And even if I were one, Daisy spelled it out for me the first time I saw her again.”
“She did?” Caroline asked, surprised. Since she'd found out about these meetings, Daisy had volunteered very little information about them, and Caroline hadn't wanted to pry. But the truth was, she was curious, damned curious.
Jack nodded. “She was so angry that morning I met her for coffee,” he said, “in this little dive coffeehouse near the university, that it put the fear of God in me. She told me she hadn't known until the last minute whether she'd come and meet me or not. She said that I was a sorry excuse for a father, and that if I thought I could just walk back into her life again after all these years, I was dead wrong. She told me, too, that the two of you had done just fine without me the whole time she was growing up, and if you hadn't needed me then, there was no reason you needed me now.” With an admiring smile, he added, “There was more, but that was the gist of it.”
“Daisy said all that?” Caroline asked, wonderingly. She'd never even guessed at the depth of Daisy's anger toward Jack. But, then again, she hadn't wanted Daisy to guess at the anger
felt toward him either.
“She said all that and more,” Jack said. “Much more. That was when I realized how articulate she was. It didn't surprise me, later, when she told me she'd been on the debate team in high school.”
“What did you do, Jack, while she was saying all this to you?” Caroline asked, genuinely curious.
He shrugged. “I sat there and listened to her. What else could I do? Every word she said was true. I couldn't argue with her, so I just tried to take it like a man.”
Caroline squeezed her already pulverized lemon wedge into her iced tea again and tried to imagine Jack sitting there and taking it. But she couldn't. The Jack she remembered had hated being on the receiving end of a lecture. He'd hated it so much that as soon as he'd felt one coming on, he was out the door.
“Anyway,” he continued, “things got better between us, eventually. The third or fourth time I met her, we had an actual conversation. It was good, Carolineâreally goodâjust talking to her. She was less angry, and I was less nervous. But I was still awed by her.”
He nodded. “Awed by the person she'd become. And humbled, too, by the knowledge that I couldn't take any credit for her becoming that person.”
Caroline felt confused. Because the Jack she'd known had had many qualities, some of them even good qualities, but humility? Humility had never been one of them.
“But you know what, Caroline?” he continued now. “
might not be able to take credit for the person Daisy has become, but you can. And you should. Because you've raised one hell of a daughter.”
“I .Â .Â . need to get a refill on my tea,” she said abruptly, feeling disconcerted by the direction the conversation had taken. And by seeing a side of Jack that felt wholly unfamiliar to her. She stood up. “Would you, would you like more coffee?” she asked.
“No, thank you,” he said, chuckling. “And you still can't take a compliment, can you, Caroline?”
But she ignored that question, took her glass to the counter, refilled it, and brought it back to the table. The forty-five seconds it took her to do this was crucial, because it allowed her to collect herself, refocus herself.
“Okay, let's assume, for the time being anyway, that you're going to stay in Butternut, Jack,” she said. “If that's the case, then we need to establish some ground rules.”
“Ground rules, huh?” he repeated, a smile playing around his lips. He was back, the old Jack. “That sounds serious, Caroline.”
serious. Because long after you've decided your little experiment here has failed,
still have to live here and work here. So I'd appreciate if you'd take this seriously, Jack.”
“All right,” he said, “I will, Caroline. In fact, just tell me what the rules are, and I'll follow them.”