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Authors: Georgia Bockoven

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9

T
OM REACHED ACROSS THE TABLE AND ADJUSTED
Catherine’s collar. “That’s been bothering me since I got here. You must have been in a hurry when you left home this morning. You know what you need? A mirror by the back door so you can check how you look before you leave the house.”

“You’re right. I was in a hurry.” She’d slept through the alarm. If not for the garbage truck grinding its way through the neighborhood on its weekly pickup, she might still be in bed. “I wanted to see Lynda before they changed her dressings.”

“We have an appointment with Roger Chapman this afternoon. He’s squeezing us in as a personal favor to me and I don’t want to be late.”

“Who’s Roger Chapman?”

He made a frustrated sound and shook his head. “Catherine, you have to start paying more attention. I told you about him a couple of days ago. He’s the best litigator in the city. We’re damned lucky that he’s agreed to take Lynda’s case.”

Finally, everything clicked. “I told you I didn’t want to sue the Winslows, Tom. I don’t understand why you thought I’d changed my mind.”

“I figured if I gave you a couple of days, you’d come to your senses.”

“It was an accident, Tom.” Somehow she’d failed to get across to him how she felt. “How could I possibly sue anyone for an accident?”

“Grow up, Catherine. It happens all the time. It’s the way the world operates. Why do you think there are so many insurance companies?”

“Well, it’s not the way I operate.” She picked up her cup and took a sip of the now-cold coffee. Her stomach spasmed in protest. “I need something to eat.”

Tom stood. “I’ll get it for you. What do you want?”

She tried to remember what she’d last eaten that had gone down without forcing. “Toast—whole wheat.”

“Dry?”

“Jelly. Grape if they have it. And some milk.” He started to walk away. “Wait. Get me a doughnut. A maple bar. One with lots of frosting.”

He reacted as if she’d asked for hemlock. “Are you sure?”

“One doughnut isn’t going to hurt me, Tom.” She should have known better than to ask. Tom equated sweets with drugs—equally destructive addictions.

“At your age—at
our
age,” he quickly corrected, “every calorie counts.”

“Never mind.” He was a sentence away from becoming her broken shoelace on a frantic morning. “The toast is fine.”

He smiled, his good deed accomplished. “I’ll be right back.”

As usual this time of day, the atrium was filled with the sounds of children at play: laughter, shouts of triumph at a well-played game, groans at losing. Normal sounds. Deceiving sounds.

Here what was normal became an oddity a step away from the entrance. The laughing little girl riding her father’s shoulders seemed like little girls everywhere until you noticed she had no feet. With unimaginable determination, a boy in a wheelchair had learned to operate the controls without fingers. A tottering two-year-old wore flesh-colored pressure garments as if they were a playsuit.

Two weeks ago, Catherine could not have imagined herself a part of this world. She certainly couldn’t have conceived how easily she would adjust. She didn’t know whether to give herself credit for adaptability or to wonder about her lack of sensibility.

She’d changed so readily, at times she had trouble understanding how hard it was for Tom. When he expressed pity instead of joy at one of Lynda’s small triumphs, Catherine was torn between understanding, making excuses for him, and feeling angry.

“Here you go.” Tom took the toast and milk off the tray. “I’m sorry about the doughnut thing, Catherine. I didn’t express myself very well and I’m afraid I may have hurt your feelings.” He sat down
next to her and possessively put his hand on her thigh. “It’s just that every time I see your mother, it reminds me that you and Lynda have her genes. I know you don’t want to end up looking like her and I feel it’s up to me to help you any way I can.”

Her mother was sixty-two years old, swam every day, led treks in the mountains for the Nature Conservancy, helped rescue sick and stranded marine mammals every spring, and wore a size eighteen. “Did it ever occur to you that you might be a little hung up on this weight thing?”

“It’s been proven time and time again that the thinner you are, the longer you live. I want us to have a long, long life together.”

“So how you feel has nothing to do with fashion?” She was purposely picking a fight with him and had no idea why. Only that morning she’d been thinking how much she missed him, their intimate conversations, their shared laughter, the quiet moments, the touching, the tenderness. She needed the man who cleared the clouds with a smile, and longed for the one who could make her heart soar with a word.

“Of course it does. I’m a man. Any man who tells you he doesn’t care about a woman’s weight is lying.”

“What if I did turn out to be like my mother? Would you leave me?” Why was she doing this?

“You’re after something, Catherine. Why don’t you just come out with it?”

“What if I were the one who was burned, not Lynda?” The question surprised her as much as it did him.

“You want an honest answer?” he asked after taking time to think.

“Yes.”

“I don’t know.”

She couldn’t imagine a knife hurting more than his words. “I see,” she said softly.

“No, you don’t. You just think you do. There’s no way I could predict how I would feel about something like that and it wouldn’t be honest to pretend it wouldn’t matter. All you should care about is whether I would stick around long enough to make a real effort to get past my feelings.”

She started to say something when she looked up and saw Rick coming toward them. “We need to talk about this some more,” she said. “I don’t want Lynda knowing how you feel.”

“It’s not just me, Catherine. I’m not the one out of step here, you are. You’re not helping Lynda by protecting her.” He saw Rick and groaned. “Jesus, doesn’t that guy ever work?”

Rick had spotted Catherine and Tom as soon as he stepped off the elevator, but they were so intent on their conversation he’d hesitated interrupting them. Tom appeared defensive, his body language closed and guarded. Catherine looked the way she had since Rick first met her, exhausted, hanging on with her fingertips to her world gone mad.

When she looked up and saw him she sent a smile that touched a protective chord in Rick.

“I didn’t know you were here.” She moved to make room for him at the table. “Have you seen Lynda?”

“I just came from her room.” For an instant, he considered waiting to tell Catherine that Lynda
needed her. But it wasn’t a few minutes free of crisis she needed, it was days. “She asked me to find you.”

“Is she all right?”

“She will be as soon as she gets her shot. And she’s eating.” He wanted her to have something positive to think about on the way to Lynda’s room.

“How in the world did you manage that?”

“I told you the nurses would make her come around if you got out of there and let them do their work,” Tom said, looking to Rick for confirmation.

“Sorry, I don’t agree.” Rick had a feeling they weren’t words Tom was used to hearing. “Lynda needs all the support she can get, even if she acts a little unappreciative at times.”

His hair fell across his forehead, almost into his eyes, not exactly the professional image he tried to project when Tom was around. He reached up to comb it back with his fingers. If he didn’t get a haircut soon, he was going to have to glue it in place.

Catherine stared at his arm. “I didn’t know…”

He’d shown Lynda his scars to prove a point, one Catherine didn’t need. “It happened a long time ago,” he said. “And has nothing to do with what I do or why I’m here.”

“Just part of the job, I suppose,” Tom said dis-missively.

Rick wasn’t about to get into a pissing contest with Tom Adams. He didn’t like the man and hadn’t from the beginning, but Tom was an integral part of Lynda’s recovery. If Rick couldn’t neutralize his animosity, he couldn’t be an effective agent for Lynda or Catherine. “Not one we like to think about too much.”

Catherine stood. “Gene is supposed to be here in a few minutes,” she said to Rick. “Would you mind intercepting him and telling him where we’ve gone?”

“He doesn’t have to do that,” Tom interjected. “I’ll wait for Gene.”

Normally Rick took whatever path necessary to steer clear of family dynamics. Perversely, this time he waded into the middle. “Actually, I’ve been meaning to catch up with Gene anyway.”

Tom slipped his arm around Catherine in a blatantly possessive, if puzzling move. Rick almost laughed out loud.

“I’m not clear what your job is around here, but it’s nice to know you’re available for things like this,” Tom said.

Catherine folded into herself at Tom’s condescending statement. The look she gave Rick held a plea for understanding. “Will I see you later?”

Rick pointedly ignored Tom. “I’ll try to stop by tonight—around dinner.” He’d check with Lynda’s doctor to clear bringing her the crab cakes and put in a standing order at the restaurant until she’d had her fill.

“Thank you.” For a moment, her face lit up with a smile. Tom immediately turned her toward the elevator and she had to call over her shoulder, “For everything.”

“You’re welcome.”

Rick shook his head and stuffed his hands in his pockets. What in the hell did a woman like Catherine see in a man like Tom? He’d known women who’d traded their souls for wealth and
social position and were comfortable with the bargain. They were a type easily recognized. Nothing like Catherine. But then, what did he really know about her?

“Rick—,” Gene called. “I was hoping we’d run into each other before I had to leave.”

Rick shook Gene’s outstretched hand. “When are you taking off?”

“My flight leaves in the morning. I tried to get out of going, but the board insists they want me there for the final round of negotiation.”

“Catherine said you went into banking.”

“Long way from engineering, huh?” Gene sat in Catherine’s vacated chair. “Like everyone else, I went where the jobs were. How about you?”

“I was working in the state legislator’s office when I stopped by a firehouse to pick up a friend for a fishing trip. That one visit was all it took and I knew I’d found what I wanted to do.”

“And you still like it?”

Gene had phrased the question better than most, but Rick had been through the drill often enough with his old college buddies to know what he was really asking. How could someone who’d graduated with honors from USC be satisfied with a bluecollar job? Where was the mental challenge, the advancement? Bottom line: Where was the money?

He’d stopped trying to explain what he loved about being a firefighter a long time ago. It was one of those things that if someone had to ask, there was no way he would understand the answer.

“I love it,” Rick told him.

“Wish I could say that about my job. There are some days all I can think about is finding a way to retire early.”

Gene’s candid reply surprised Rick. “I take it you don’t get much time for fishing anymore.” In college he and Gene had been part of a group of guys that pooled their money two or three times a year to hire a boat to take them ocean fishing.

“I golf now, but it’s for the business contacts, not for recreation.”

“I have a buddy who runs a charter service out of Bodega Bay. I’ve never come home empty-handed when I’ve gone out with him. Give me a call when you get back and we’ll work something out.”

“How do I get in touch with you?”

He reached for his wallet and remembered he’d left it in the truck. “Catherine has my number.”

Gene seemed confused. “I thought Tom told me she’d changed her mind about working with your organization.”

“If she has, she hasn’t said anything to me about it. Which is odd, because I just arranged for her and Tom to attend a parents’ support meeting in Stockton next Wednesday. And she has an appointment to meet with the director of the association to see whether she wants Lynda to attend burn camp this summer.”

“Burn camp?”

“We bring in burned kids from all over the state for a week in the mountains. They get to be around other kids who have the same kinds of problems and face the same surgeries, but most of all they just get to be kids.”

“I’m glad to hear she’s considering it for Lynda. I was worried she was going to try to handle this on her own the way she’s done with everything else since her divorce.” Gene’s expression changed from open to angry. “Have you met Jack yet?”

“He was here and gone before I arrived.”

“The son of a bitch told Catherine that he had to leave town on business and I ran into him at the bank yesterday.”

“Jack is Lynda’s father?” He assumed as much but had been wrong about that kind of thing too many times to take anything for granted.

“Yeah—regrettably. He doesn’t deserve her any more than he deserved Catherine. Everything Jack does is for show. If Lynda were allowed flowers, he’d have every surface covered. He’ll spend money on her, but not time.”

Gene looked at his watch. “Speaking of time, I should be spending what I have left with Lynda.” He stood. “I’ll be in touch about that fishing trip. Maybe we can get Catherine and Lynda to come along.”

Rick noted he didn’t mention Tom and wondered whether it was a mental lapse or wishful thinking. He cleared the cups from the table, then went to the window to look at the Sacramento skyline, thinking that family dynamics were a lot like a city, filled with hidden surprises and dangerous alleys. At least cities came with maps. With Lynda and Catherine he was on his own.

10


A
RE YOU ALL RIGHT?”
C
ATHERINE ASKED
. “Of course I am,” Tom answered too quickly. “What makes you think I’m not?”

“We’ve been in the car a half hour and you haven’t spoken except to say yes or no to my questions.”

“I guess I’m all talked out. Or maybe I’m all listened out. I thought you said the meeting was only going to last an hour. Do you realize we were there over two?”

How could she not have noticed the way Tom had looked at his watch every five minutes? “There were so many new people this time. They just wanted to make sure we felt comfortable with each other. That takes time.”

“I have to be honest with you, Catherine. I’m not sure how many of these meetings I can sit through. When that woman started talking about how the doctors were going to attach her daughter’s new ears, it was everything I could do not to get up and walk out of there.”

“I admit it was a little hard to hear, but—”

“I don’t understand how subjecting ourselves to this kind of thing is supposed to help Lynda. What she needs is to get out of the hospital and go shopping. It’s going to be damn hard to find something that will hide those awful suits she’s supposed to wear. What is listening to a horror story about some stupid woman who let her kid play with matches supposed to do for us?”

“She didn’t
let
her son play with matches, Tom. He found them in a drawer.”

“If she would have put them someplace where he couldn’t get his hands on them, she would still have her cute little boy, not some kid the doctors have to try to reconstruct into something that doesn’t scare all the other kids on the playground.”

“That’s not fair.”

“And you can bet that’s exactly what that little boy is going to say to himself every day for the rest of his life.” He stiffened his arms and pressed himself back in the seat, his desire to be anywhere else, talking about anything else, as evident as the bugs hitting the windshield. “I’m sorry he was burned, and I’m sorry his mother has to deal with it, but that doesn’t mean I want to hear about it every month for the next year. I have better things, certainly more constructive things, to do with my time.” He relaxed his arms, but not his posture. “And so do you.”

She folded her arms across her chest and gazed at the rows of grapevines that appeared to open and close like fans in the hands of a frenetic dancer as
they passed outside her window. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about. I know you were only trying to be helpful when you told Lynda that you would buy her new clothes, but—”

“You should have seen her light up. I felt like Santa Claus on Christmas morning.”

“Did you actually tell her that you were buying her new clothes so that she could hide her pressure suit?”

“Of course I did.”

“I spend all my time telling her she’s perfect the way she is and you take it all away by telling her you’ll pay for new clothes so she can hide.”

“That’s a shitty thing to say, Catherine. You make it sound as if I’m ashamed of her.”

“That’s the impression you give, Tom. You’re a wonderful man, generous to a fault, but sometimes you say things without thinking them through. We have to be careful where Lynda is concerned. She’s already made up her mind that she isn’t pretty anymore. We have to convince her that she’s wrong, not do things that will reinforce those feelings.”

“Do you want me to lie to her?”

The question took Catherine’s breath away, leaving her agape. “Don’t you see? That’s exactly what I mean. I know you don’t think Lynda’s burns make a difference, but you make it sound as if you do.”

He didn’t say anything for a long time. “This is going to hurt you, and I’m sorry, but if you’re going to help Lynda, you have to face some facts about men and how they feel about women. Looks matter.
If you tell her they don’t and get her to believe you, you’re setting her up to get hurt over and over again. Let’s say she does find some oddball who really doesn’t care. What kind of guy do you think he’ll be? Not anyone of her class, certainly. Personally, I think she deserves more.”

“You can’t mean that.” He couldn’t. She searched her memory for the reasons she’d fallen in love with him, remembering his caring and tenderness, the way he’d accepted Lynda. Before Tom, the men she’d dated had made it plain they wanted nothing to do with being father to another man’s child.

He’d admitted this was the first crisis he’d ever faced. Until now, his life had been as unextraordi-nary as white bread, his decisions free of emotion. She had no right to expect him to get it right the first time.

“It isn’t just me; all men feel this way, whether they want to admit it or not. Think about it, Catherine. What man, or woman for that matter, wants to be seen with someone who draws attention to themselves because of their handicap? It might not be fair, it might not be right, but looks matter. If we can help Lynda hide what’s happened to her now, she’ll figure out the rest for herself when she’s older.”

“Did seeing Rick’s scars change your mind about him?”

Her question took a second to register. “You mean the fireman?” He laughed. “Nothing could make me change my mind about him. I deal with his

type all the time on construction sites. I know what to expect.”

“How long have we known each other?” she wondered aloud.

“What has that got to do with anything?”

“I’m confused—how could we have been together all this time and know so little about each other?”

“It’s a difference of opinion, Catherine, not world peace.”

She was encouraged that he saw his view as opinion, not fact. Opinion was easier to work with. “We’ve come full circle. Now you see why I think it’s critical for us to go to these meetings, even if they do make us uncomfortable. It’s important to find out what other people have gone through with their kids and how they handled it, so we don’t make the same mistakes.”

“I can see your mind is already made up. Since it doesn’t matter what I say or how I feel, there’s only one thing left for me to do—lay some ground rules. From now on, I won’t try to stop you from going to the meetings—just don’t ask me to go with you. And don’t talk to me about what went on when you get home. I don’t want to hear it,”

She waited a long time before answering him. “This isn’t going to work, Tom.”

He turned to her, unsure at first, and then with a look of utter relief. “Thank God. I’ve been thinking the same thing but didn’t want to be the one to bring it up—not with all you’ve been going through.”

Her stomach did a slow, acid-filled roll that made her throat burn. He couldn’t be suggesting what she thought he was. She had to have heard him wrong. Her heart raced as she considered the possibility. Finally, carefully, she asked, “What are you saying?”

“The same thing you are. I never understood that expression about it being an ill wind that blows no good until this happened. I hate to think that it took Lynda getting burned to make us see how basically different we are, but there it is. She’s saved us a lot of heartache down the road.”

Pride, pure and self-protective, kept Catherine from telling him that she’d been talking about doing things together in their relationship, not dissolving it. But that pride couldn’t keep her from saying, “This is it then? The engagement is off? You have no interest in seeing me or Lynda again?”

As if realizing he’d gone too far too fast, he began a new, slower dance. “All I’m saying is that we should give ourselves more time—back off a little. Give each other more space.”

“I thought that term went out in the eighties.”

“You see what I mean? You never would have talked to me like that before the accident.”

She couldn’t deny it. “It’s the stress.” Why was she defending herself?

“Stress doesn’t change you, it brings out who you really are.”

She thought about his comment. “Do you honestly believe that?”

“Yes, I do.” Attempting to offer her comfort, he put his hand on her thigh. He looked at her, this time long enough to see that he’d made a mistake. “Oh, my God. I got it wrong, didn’t I? You weren’t breaking up with me. I’m sorry, Catherine. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt you.”

She pushed his hand aside. “Your timing really stinks, Tom. How am I going to explain this to Lynda? She’s going to think it’s her fault.”

The pained look disappeared. “Did you hear what you just said?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Maybe that’s the real problem, Catherine. With you, Lynda always comes first. If you’d put me in that position once in a while, this might not have happened.”

“Trade places with Lynda, Tom, and I’d be happy to put you first.” Her fingers wrapped around the door handle. She’d give a year’s salary to be in town and free to get out of the car instead of stuck with him on an isolated section of freeway with nothing but farmland for miles on either side. She didn’t want him to see how much he’d hurt her…”If you’re right about stress bringing out someone’s true nature, then I guess that makes you a coward.”

“Just because I don’t like hospitals doesn’t make me a coward.”

“I’ve been so stupid. I made excuses for you. To everyone. So many times I actually started believing them myself.”

“Go ahead, blame me if it makes you feel better. I can take it.”

The words sounded rehearsed. “How long have you known you wanted out?”

He shifted position. “Why does it matter?”

“Because it’s important to me.” This was the man who had promised to love her forever, who listened to her hopes and dreams and vowed to make them come true. How could they have gone from that to this in less than six months? Was that the shelf life of his love?

Still he hesitated.

“Tell me.”

“You won’t understand.”

“What possible difference does that make?”

“I want us to stay friends.”

“Friends?
This isn’t high school, Tom.”

“There’s no way we can avoid running into each other. We go to the same parties, belong to the same club, know the same people.” His voice dropped to a pained whisper. “Why make this any more difficult than it has to be?”

“I introduced you to those friends.” Tom was new to the area when they met, recently transferred from Southern California and in need of social and business contacts. “You were accepted at those parties because of me.”

“Which is why I don’t want anyone to have to choose between us. They may have been your friends first, Catherine, but they get things from me now that you can’t give. I’m an important part of the business community now.”

Could he really be threatening her? Did he honestly believe the friends who had stayed with her
through her and Jack’s divorce would abandon her now? “You still haven’t answered me. How long have you known you wanted out?”

“Since the doctors told us that Lynda was going to be permanently scarred.” Catherine started to say something. He held up his hand to stop her. “Don’t bother. I know how terrible that sounds. And don’t think I haven’t agonized over it. I’ve hardly been able to think of anything else since it happened. But I know myself and I know how I feel about being around handicapped people. They make me uncomfortable. Sooner or later Lynda would figure it out and it would only make things worse.”

“So what you’re telling me is that you’re really doing this for Lynda. Is that it?” The son of a bitch could twist anything to make himself look better. Was she so blind—or had she been so desperate to have a man in her life again—that she hadn’t seen this trait before? How could she know this now and still feel as if her heart was breaking?

“I knew you wouldn’t understand. How could you?” He made it sound as if she were incapable of complex thought. “But before you condemn me too much, I want to say something in my own defense. You have an advantage with Lynda. She’s your own flesh and blood. It’s easier for you to make allowances about the way she looks. And you’re a woman. You have no idea what it’s like when important people judge you not for your own worth, but by the person at your side.”

The saddest part was that he believed what he was saying.

“Everywhere we went, every time we met someone new, I’d be put in the position of having to explain Lynda. Then I’d have to listen to men tell me they were sorry, when what they really meant was they were glad it wasn’t them.”

“You’re full of shit.” He could say what he wanted about her, but not Lynda. “I don’t know one other man who thinks the way you do.”

“Oh? Then why didn’t Jack stick around? Lynda is his own daughter and he was in and out of her hospital room even faster than I was.”

“Jack has never stuck around for anything.”

“It’s the way we are. I’m not saying it’s right, but you can no more change how men think about this kind of thing than you can change the number of days in a week. Stick a Victoria’s Secret catalog in front of any straight man—I don’t care who that man is—and he’s going to react the same way.”

“Not that it makes any difference, but what has any of that got to do with you and me?”

“I didn’t sign on for this kind of problem. When I asked you to marry me, I figured Lynda would be off to college in a couple of years and we’d be on our own. Now with her being burned, everything has changed.”

“But you still want to be friends.”

“When I said everything has changed, I didn’t mean how I feel about you. I still love you. I’m sure a part of me always will.”

“I can’t believe you just said that.”

“I didn’t just say it, I meant it.”

Afraid of what she would see in Tom’s eyes if she
chanced a look at him, she stared at the taillights on the Mustang they’d been following since leaving Stockton. She wanted to believe he’d turned into someone she wouldn’t recognize, someone he’d kept hidden from her. She’d believed in him. She’d trusted he would be a good father to the daughter she loved more than her own life. How could she have been so wrong? What was it about her and men? First Jack and now Tom.

Finally she looked at him. Her chest tightened; tears burned her eyes. Dear God, what was wrong with her?
I love this man.
Even after everything that had happened, everything he’d said to her, her feelings were in the present tense.

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