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Authors: Georgia Bockoven

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Rachel came forward, zeroing in on Jessie. “Can we cut this pseudo reunion garbage and get to the reason you asked us here?” She made a point of looking at her elegant watch. “I’m due at a soccer game in a couple of hours.”

An incredibly effective put-down. Jessie was impressed. With a minimum of words, Rachel had dismissed the possibility that meeting her father and sisters for the first time held any real meaning. “It’s nothing complicated,” he said, suddenly incapable of telling them the real reason, of revealing his guilt, of asking for the forgiveness he so desperately needed. “I wanted to see you. And I wanted you to meet each other. I’m sorry Elizabeth didn’t come. Maybe next time.”

Ginger was the first to react. “You can’t be serious. Why would any of us want to put ourselves through this again?”

“Curiosity,” Jessie offered hopefully.

Rachel reached for her purse. “Count me out. I have as much family trouble as I can handle right now. And as for seeing you—I lived thirty-six years without the privilege. Nothing you’ve said or done today has made me think I missed anything.”

It was Christina’s turn. “You’re wrong,” she said softly. “You missed a lot. We all did.” She looked at Jessie, her heart on her sleeve, a catch in her voice. “I wish I could understand why you did what you did. Maybe it would make a difference. Maybe I’d be able to forgive you.”

She looked from Ginger to Rachel. “I won’t be back either. It’s not that I don’t care that you’re my sisters, just that I don’t think you care that I’m yours.” The corner of her mouth lifted in a half-smile. She settled her gaze on Rachel. “You say you already have enough family trouble. Well, I get enough of feeling like an outsider at home. I sure don’t need any more from the likes of you two.”

An overwhelming fatigue gripped Jessie. He knew it was his last chance to say something to alter the ugly outcome of their meeting, but the words wouldn’t come. He looked down at the bent and tattered photographs and understood that it was too late. He slipped them back inside his pocket and silently watched his daughters file out of the room, waiting for a backward glance from Christina that never came.

Chapter Ten
Lucy

Lucy stepped into the elevator and hit the button for the sixth floor. She’d followed Elizabeth to the parking garage, trying to talk her into changing her mind about seeing Jessie. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth had proved as stubborn as her father. Nothing Lucy could say, none of the appeals she’d made, had penetrated Elizabeth’s resolve.

Lucy wished she could convince herself that a couple of days would make a difference, that with a little time Elizabeth might have a change of heart and agree to another meeting, but there hadn’t been a hint that it was a possibility. Now the best she could hope for was that Jessie had had more success with the three who had stayed.

That hope died when the elevator doors swung open. Rachel didn’t wait for Lucy to exit, sliding past her as if she couldn’t get away fast enough. Ginger and Christina followed. Stepping out of the elevator, Lucy turned to look at them. None met her gaze.

“Thank you for coming,” Lucy said. “I know seeing you meant a lot to your father.” The door slid closed. She faced the wood-paneled doors, rooted to the moment.

After several seconds, the receptionist asked, “Are you all right, Ms. Hargreaves?”

Lucy had a smile in place when she turned to answer. “I’m fine, Margaret. This meeting was the only thing I had scheduled for today, so if you’d like to take off now, I can lock up when I leave.”

“Are you sure? I don’t mind waiting.”

“Thank you, but I’m sure.” Lucy unbuttoned her jacket as she walked down the hall. Despite being hand-tailored, the suit just didn’t fit right. Every time she wore it she swore she would never wear it again. Then, when she took it off, the little girl who had never owned anything that hadn’t come from a Sears catalog would rebel at getting rid of a perfectly good piece of clothing just because she didn’t like it. Invariably, the suit wound up in the closet instead of a bag for Goodwill.

Jessie liked to tease her about her frugalness, saying that if he’d hooked up with her in the beginning he would have saved himself three bankruptcies. When she countered that without him she would still be handling cases that belonged in small claims court, he impatiently dismissed her ride on his coattail as serendipity. Jessie had spotted her ability where others only saw her gender.

In fifteen years her firm had grown from an office in a strip mall to eight senior partners, twenty-five associates, and turn-away business. Financially, the firm would survive the loss of Jessie as a client. Privately, Lucy’s world would spin a little slower. Worst of all, her days would lose that spark of expectation that she would pick up the phone and hear Jessie’s voice challenging her with yet another complex partnership idea that she was convinced held more problems than potential.

She stopped outside the conference room, removed her glasses, and pressed the tips of her fingers to the bridge of her nose. She needed new glasses—but stopping to think about it now was a delaying tactic. She didn’t want to face Jessie, didn’t want to hear him try to convince her the meeting had gone better than it had, and most of all, she didn’t want to see the loss of anticipation that had animated him that past month.

Wishing she were anywhere but there, Lucy opened the door and went inside. Jessie sat with his back to her, turned toward the window. “Well, how did it go?” she asked.

“I hate to admit this, Lucy, but you may have been right.”

She moved to join him. “You knew the first time would be hard. We’ll give them a couple of—” She caught her breath when she saw him. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead. His eyes radiated pain. “What is it?” When he didn’t answer, she dropped to her knees to study him closer. “What’s going on?”

“I’m okay. Just give me a minute. It takes a while for the medicine—” He gasped and bit his lip as another wave of pain struck, this one nearly doubling him over.

“I’m calling an ambulance.”

“No—don’t do that. They’ll take me to the hospital and—” He gasped again and folded his arms across his chest. This time he did double over. “Damn, damn, damn,” he moaned. “Why today? Why now?”

Lucy ran for the phone and dialed 911. She fought to remain patient as the dispatcher asked what seemed an interminable number of questions. Finally, it occurred to her that the doors had to be unlocked for the paramedics. She hung up and ran down the hall, saw Margaret about to leave, shouted quick instructions, and returned to Jessie.

“They’re on their way,” she said.

“I’m not going to the hospital.”

“You need help, Jessie.”

“Call the doctor. He’ll know what to do.”

“It’s Saturday. You’re going to have to take whoever’s covering for him, and they’re going to want to see you in the hospital.”

“And the hospital is going to insist on admitting me. If I let that happen, they’re going to make me walk the fires of hell to get out. I’m not going through that again, Lucy.”

“Give me your doctor’s number. I’ll call him right now.” She waited as he struggled past the pain to reach inside his jacket. In all the years they had known each other, by mutual, unspoken consent, their physical contact had been limited to a handshake and then only in the beginning. There had been no hugs, no comforting hand on a shoulder, not even a casual touch to brush lint from a lapel. To do so would have opened a door to a place they knew they could not enter. Now, her heart breaking with the knowledge that it no longer mattered, Lucy gently reached inside Jessie’s jacket and removed his wallet.

Chapter Eleven
Jessie

“Feeling better?” The doctor stood at the foot of the bed and read the lab results attached to a metal clipboard. Sporting a week-old attempt at a mustache and dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he looked more like an undergraduate than a partner in the most respected oncology practice in the city.

“Good enough to get out of here.” Jessie didn’t just hate hospitals, he feared them. His idea of hell was a place with industrial colors and shiny floors and beds that crinkled when he moved. What could be worse punishment or more humiliation than ringing for help and having a disembodied voice come through a speaker on the wall and demand that he shout his need to go to the bathroom?

“I’m going to have you spend the night.”

“Sorry, doc, but that’s not going to happen.”

“I’ve substantially increased your medication, and you need to be monitored until we see how you handle it.”

“I’m dying, doc.” Jessie sat up and shifted his legs over the side of the bed. “What can be worse than that?”

“The way it happens,” the doctor answered bluntly.

Lucy moved from the head of the bed to stand beside Jessie. The green-and-orange-striped privacy curtain caught on her shoulder and slid along the overhead bar, making a sibilant, metallic sound. “He has a nurse at home who can watch for side effects,” she lied.

The doctor looked from her to Jessie. “I thought Dr. Morrison told me that you’d fired your nurse.”

Without missing a beat, Lucy answered for him. “I hired another one. Between the two of us and Mr. Reed’s housekeeper he will have whatever care you feel he needs in order for him to be released today. I’m assuming you’ll send written instructions?”

The doctor didn’t stand a chance. When inspired, Lucy could talk a leprechaun out of his pot of gold.

The doctor widened his stance and crossed his arms over his chest, hugging the clipboard. “You reached another stage today, likely the final one. If you have things that you’ve waited to do, I’d do them now.”

The irony that this was the day he’d chosen to start something, not end it, was not lost on Jessie. “Thank you for telling me.”

The doctor nodded. “If you’re sure this is what you want, I’ll get the paperwork started to get you out of here. I’m going to send some new prescriptions home with you. If these don’t work and you’re still having pain, Dr. Morrison will probably order a morphine pump.”

Jessie knew better than to ask, but couldn’t help himself. “How long?”

The doctor didn’t answer right away. Finally, reluctantly, he said, “I don’t like to make those kinds of predictions. They tend to become self-fulfilling.”

“Well, the hell of it is that I started something I probably shouldn’t have,” Jessie said. “Without another two or three months to set things right. . . .” Frustration sat on his chest like a weary elephant. “Let’s just say I’ve got some work to do. What I need from you is a time frame.”

“I can order another MRI. It would tell us how far the cancer has spread.”

“And what would that do?”

“Confirm what we already know. You haven’t been in remission these past months, you’ve been dying the way you lived. But sheer will and stubbornness can only take you so far against cancer.” He wiped his hand over his face. “You’ll be lucky if you can push this out another three or four weeks.”

Jessie nodded. “I appreciate your candor.” He glanced at Lucy, saw a tear slip down her cheek, and immediately wished he’d looked anywhere else. He gave her a wry smile. “Seems there’s something to be said for just stepping in front of a bus and having it done with.”

Chapter Twelve
Elizabeth

With each mile, Elizabeth lost a brick in her wall of self-control. She would never make it all the way to Fresno like this. Coffee. Something strong and black, or better yet, sickeningly sweet like a caramel macchiato with extra caramel and whipped cream—venti. A distraction. No matter how on edge she was, she would never break down in front of a Starbucks full of strangers.

She took the first Lodi exit and drove along the frontage road. By the time she found an empty parking lot in front of a Mexican restaurant her hands were shaking so badly she had trouble hanging on to the steering wheel. She tried to put her reaction off to fury—she couldn’t remember ever feeling as angry as she had when she discovered that the three women sitting with her in that lawyer’s office were her sisters—but that was too easy.

Here, alone, without anyone to question what she was feeling or why, without anyone to witness her pain, she could be honest. But it was hard. If she admitted how she felt she couldn’t hide behind the lies anymore.

After all this time, how could Jessie Reed still have the power to hurt her? She was almost fifty, and somewhere in her mind she was still his little girl, abandoned thirty-five years ago and abandoned all over again today.

What had she done that was so wrong? What sin had she committed that he couldn’t forgive? She’d studied pictures of herself at thirteen. Was she too skinny, her hair too straight, her teeth too big? Would he have stayed if she’d been smarter? If she’d been a better athlete? If she’d been a boy?

All these years she’d harbored a secret fantasy that he’d been kidnapped or imprisoned or lost on a desert island. She’d created a hundred reasons he’d never come to see her or called or answered her letters. The one time he’d tried, years too late, she’d almost been as angry that he’d destroyed her fantasy that he couldn’t come to her as she had that he’d stayed away so long.

And now she knew the truth. He’d replaced her.

A pain filled her chest that made each breath a conscious effort. A sob rose in her throat. She put her hand over her mouth, afraid of the sound that might come out.

Sam came out of the house as Elizabeth pulled into the driveway. He opened her door and gave her a quick kiss. “You’re home early,” he said. “I take it the meeting didn’t go well?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” She couldn’t. Not yet. Maybe never.

He put his arm around her shoulders. “Come on, Lizzy. It will do you good.”

She stepped away from him. “Since when do you know what’s good for me?”

“Whoa—where did that come from?”

“What if I hadn’t come home tonight? What would you have done?” God, what was wrong with her? Why was she trying to pick a fight with Sam? Even knowing what she was doing, she couldn’t stop. “Would you have bothered calling me or looking for me?”

He considered her question. “Probably not. I would have figured you were having a good time and that you’d be home when you were ready.”

“What if I were in a wreck?”

“The highway patrol would call.” He frowned. “What’s going on, Lizzy?”

“I hate it when you call me Lizzy.”

“I’ve always called you Lizzy.”

“And I’ve always hated it. It’s condescending.”

He threw his hands wide in frustration. “All right. From now on it’s Elizabeth. Now would you please tell me what in the hell is going on here?”

She moved to step past him. “Nothing’s going on.”

He blocked her way. “I don’t believe you.”

She couldn’t tell him. She didn’t want him to know how easily her father had replaced her, how unimportant she’d been to him when he’d been everything to her. She was ashamed, too ashamed to let Sam see how hurt she was. And in her shame she lashed out at the one person she knew would forgive her anything. “If I wanted to talk to you about this, I would.”

“All right—have it your way.”

“Thank you.” In a modifying tone, she added, “What time are we supposed to meet Jim and Karen for dinner?”

“When you didn’t call, I canceled.”

She’d been counting on the distraction. “Why don’t I see if they can still make it?”

He gave her a sheepish look. “I made other plans.”

“What plans?”

“Steve asked a bunch of guys over to watch the fight on pay-per-view. I told him I’d be there if you were going to be late.”

“You could have called me.”

“I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“What time are you leaving?”

“Six—but I could make it later. The fight doesn’t start until eight.”

“No—go.”

“What will you do?”

She had no idea, but he needed an answer before he could enjoy his night out. “I’m tired. I’ll probably take a bath and catch up on email.”

“There’s a message from Eric.” Sam led the way inside, waiting when Elizabeth stopped to put her purse in the closet. “Sounds as if he’s getting serious about that girl he told us about at Christmas.”

She wrote short personal notes to the kids two or three times a week and a longer update to all three on Mondays. She heard from Eric in fits and starts, and Michael only when he had a joke to pass on or when she called them after coming up with a plausible excuse. To their credit, the boys rarely cut her short and actually seemed to enjoy catching up. “What makes you think so?”

“They’re going to Mexico together over Memorial Day.”

“I wonder how Michael feels about that.” Elizabeth went into the kitchen and took a bottle of chardonnay out of the refrigerator.

“None for me,” Sam said. “I should be leaving soon. What did you mean about Michael? Why would he care?”

“Last I heard he and Eric were going hiking in Montana the end of May.”

Sam chuckled. “Then it’s serious, all right.” He reached for Elizabeth and pulled her to him. “So, how do you feel about being a mother-in-law?”

Sam was the most forgiving person she’d ever known. He simply didn’t know how to hold on to anger or to hold a grudge when he suffered the brunt of her frustration. “Eric’s too young to get married.”

“He’s older than you were.”

“It’s different now.”

“Which is exactly what our parents said.” Sam planted a kiss in the middle of her forehead. “The good thing is that it’s their problem, not ours. All we have to do is show up for the wedding.”

“And pick up the pieces when it falls apart.”

“Lighten up, Elizabeth. It’s just a trip to Mexico. Knowing Eric, it’s more likely a case of testosterone overload than undying love.” He kissed her again, this time on the lips waiting for a response before he let her go. “You know where I’ll be.”

“Wait—” She couldn’t let him leave. Not this way. “I’m sorry.” She put her hand to her mouth to hide her trembling lip. “I had no right to—”

“Fire away. Anytime. I can take it.” He came back and wrapped his arms around her. “Besides,” he said gently, “if not me, then who?”

She put her cheek on his shoulder. “I’m going to owe you big time for this one.”

“Hmmm, I like the sound of that. Are we talking German chocolate cake big time, or peanut butter cookies?” He gave her a salacious grin. “Or something even better?”

No matter how blue she felt, he could find a way to make her smile. She ached for a way to tell him how much his love meant to her, but there weren’t words that hadn’t become clichés, and he deserved more.

“Thank you.” She tilted her head back to look at him. “I promise I’ll handle this better from now on.”

He kissed her forehead, her nose, and then her lips. “You’re entitled to a couple of off days now and then. God knows you’ve put up with enough of them from me.”

She gave him one more kiss and let him go, her arm at his waist as she walked him to the door. When he was in the car and backing out of the driveway, she went inside and poured her wine. She glanced out the kitchen window and saw the car stopped at the end of the driveway. Sam was waiting to give her one last wave.

She returned his wave and sighed. She was as predictable as a family dog whose life revolved around the coming and going of everyone else. Her entire married life she’d organized her day around her family. When she left there was no one to see her off because it was her job to be there until they were gone. When she came home, no one was there to greet her because she never volunteered for anything that wouldn’t let her get home first.

At what point did predictability become tiresome?

She’d loved being a mother and had never, not for a moment, felt stifled or unfulfilled. She’d never envied women who had careers outside the home, had actually felt a secret smugness at all she experienced that they missed.

How had she failed to realize how empty her life would be when the kids were gone? Why hadn’t she done something to prepare herself?

She recorked the wine and started to put it back in the refrigerator, then decided to take it with her into the family room.

The blinds were drawn, which meant Sam had been watching television. She put the glass and bottle on coasters and opened the blinds, stopping to run her finger along several slats, checking for dust.

This was her favorite room, the one she’d designed the rest of the house around and decorated in tans and greens and burgundy. It was large because she’d wanted lots of room for the kids and their friends, and the ceiling had to be tall to accommodate the Christmas tree that never looked as big in the lot as it did when they brought it home. There was a fireplace to hang stockings—putting it in the corner and adding a raised hearth was an afterthought that had doubled the cost and lost them their original mason.

A wall of windows faced the pool that they’d put in four years after the house was built, an addition Elizabeth hadn’t agreed to until Stephanie was five and swimming on her own. A doorway led to the kitchen, another to a hall and the downstairs bathroom.

As she watched her children grow she imagined the day the house would be filled with yet another generation. What she hadn’t taken into consideration was the possibility her grandchildren would live hundreds, even thousands of miles away. She was too young to live the rest of her life waiting for holidays and vacations that might or might not bring the family together again and too old to change who she was and what she’d become. She wasn’t ready for the life she’d known to be over, and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it.

Seeking an escape from happy memories turned melancholy, Elizabeth took her glass and the bottle of wine outside. She settled into the Adirondack chair Sam had given her for her forty-fifth birthday and drank a toast to all the Saturdays that had gone before when she had not been there alone.

Elizabeth looked up from her book when she heard the garage door open. It was only ten-thirty. She hadn’t expected Sam home before midnight and had gone to bed without him. She adjusted the pillow at her back and called, “In here.”

He appeared in the doorway. “Not feeling well?”

She closed the book and put it on the nightstand. She’d been on the road over ten hours that day and felt like it had been twenty. “Just tired.”

He slid across the bed and put his head in her lap, his hand cupping her thigh. He stayed still as Elizabeth gently ran her fingernails over his shoulders and down his back, then he reached for her hand and turned over to face her. “You ready to talk?”

“About?”

“Your father.”

“Is that why you came home early?”

He grinned. “Would you believe me if I said yes?”

“Maybe.”

Now he laughed. “No you wouldn’t.”

“So, why did you come home?”

Serious again, he brought her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to her palm. “I thought you might need some company.”

After twenty-seven years he could still surprise her. She traced his lower lip with her fingertip. “I owe you an apology. I know I’ve been a bit of a bitch lately, and that you’ve taken the brunt of it, but things are going to get better. I did some thinking tonight and decided it’s time I made some changes.”

“In me?”

She was tempted to say yes, to give him a list of things she wanted him to do, just to tease him. But he might think she was still teasing when she finally told him the truth, and she wanted him to know she was serious. “Stop worrying. This doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

“Before you say anything, if you’re thinking you need to change because of me, don’t. I love you just the way you are. And I don’t care if that does sound like a song title. It’s true.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, giving herself time to think about what she was going to say. Saying out loud what she had planned made it official. Until then she could change her mind a hundred times without guilt or explanation. “I’m going to go back to school. And I’m going to get a degree in something useful this time. I don’t want a job, I want a career.”

“Whoa—where did that come from?” Sam rolled over and sat up.

“I think the idea has been floating around in my mind for a long time now. I just didn’t recognize it for what it was.”

He shook his head like a fighter after a hard blow. “And I thought you were going to tell me something about your father.”

“He’s part of it—in a way. I told you that if he left me in his will I wasn’t going to take his money. Now I am. I figure since he didn’t pay for my wedding, he can damn well pay for my education.”

“So, he does have money?”

“Yes—or at least that’s the way it looks. Of course, whatever is left is going to be split several ways, so it might not be much in the end.”

“I don’t understand.”

Finally, she told him about her day. When she was finished, Sam didn’t say anything for several seconds.

“Are you sure you did the right thing by not seeing him?”

“What do you mean by
right
?”

“Don’t get defensive. All I’m saying is that this was your chance to tell him all the things you’ve had bottled up all these years. Once he’s gone, so is the opportunity.”

“It doesn’t matter. He wouldn’t care.”

“How do you know?”

The pain was too fresh to keep from her voice. “I was one of four, Sam. If I really mattered to him, he would have wanted to see me by myself.”

BOOK: The Year Everything Changed
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