“What do you mean you fucked up?” Vicki leaned across the table, lowering her voice.
Claire fidgeted in her chair. Why she had started this conversion, she would never know. Could she backtrack?
“It’s nothing, really.” She focused on the menu. “What are you having?”
“Not sure yet. Claire, there’s something you’re dying to tell me, so what is it?”
“It’s nothing, Vicki.”
She narrowed her gaze. “You’re lying, I can tell. Does it have to do with the trip?”
It has everything to do with the trip. “Yes, it does.”
“You want to talk about it?”
Claire shook her head and glanced down at the tablecloth. “I’m not sure.” She flicked a snag in the fabric. “I’m not sure you’d believe me if I told you.”
Vicki leaned closer. “Try me.”
“The place is nearly deserted, Claire. No one is going to hear you, now what is it?”
She reached for her water glass. “I cheated on Rick.”
“His name is Jack. We—” she was about to say “made love” but thought better of it, “had sex.”
Vicki leaned back and gazed at her in disbelief. “Generally you have sex when you cheat on someone. Where? I mean, while you were at the beach?”
She nodded again.
“What’s his last name?”
His last name? “I—I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” A slow smile spread across Vicki’s face. “You don’t know? You slept with him and you don’t even know his last name? Claire, I didn’t think you had it in you. I hope you used protection.”
Claire stared at her friend and stifled a momentary panic. She hadn’t used protection. But why was Vicki smiling? “Well, don’t get hysterical over it.”
“I think it’s great. You’ve been wishy-washy about Rick for a while. Now you know.”
“Not wishy-washy. Just…” Well, how did she feel about Rick? “I don’t know anything. Not really.”
“Have you seen him since?”
Claire paused. “No. It’s… It’s complicated. I’m not sure it really happened. It was, sort of, surreal. Sometimes I even wonder if I’m making it all up. I have been thinking I may need to see a shrink. Vicki, it’s like he was a ghost or something.”
Vicki’s eyebrows shot up. “A ghost.” It wasn’t a question.
“Or something. I can’t explain it, Vick.”
Her friend studied her for a moment longer. “How was it?” Her lip curled up.
“The sex. How was it?”
A slow smile spread across Claire’s face. “Oh God. Like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”
Vicki smiled. “Even with Rick?”
“Especially with Rick.”
“And it doesn’t stop.”
Vicki stared at her. “What? What doesn’t stop? The sex?”
Claire smiled. “The orgasms,” she whispered. “I still have them sometimes. Like, at night when I dream. It’s like I am reliving it.”
“Damn.” Vicki’s mouth fell open.
Claire shrugged and they giggled, and then Claire felt a whole lot better. Vicki was good medicine.
After a moment, she turned serious again and blurted out, “I think…” Then, with more conviction, “I’m going to break it off with him.”
It took Vicki a minute. “Rick? Because of this one fling? Are you sure you want to do that?”
“It’s not just this one thing.”
“Do you think there’s a chance with this man...or ghost...or orgasm-giver?”
Claire smiled at her friend’s choice of words. “That’s just the thing, Vicki, I’m not sure if he’s a man or a ghost or a figment of my imagination. It was all so mystical, so magical. He was like an image coming to me, and yes, he was almost ghostlike—but then again, not. And when it was all over, I wasn’t even sure if it was real, or if it was a dream.” Her gaze dropped to her clasped hands.
“Until I found this on my finger.”
Claire held out her left hand for Vicki to see. Her friend took the proffered hand, staring at the gold band around her third finger. She touched the ring softly, almost reverently, and then her gaze moved back to Claire.
“Holy crap. You have to go back.”
Claire closed her eyes for a moment and sighed. “I know.”
“This is special, Claire, I can feel it. Don’t miss out. You have to do this.”
“Fly by the seat of my pants?”
“Ride the wave, girl. It might be the big one you’ve been waiting for.”
Claire glanced at her watch. Late again. Oh, he would have a good excuse. Rick always did. Lately, anyway. Six months ago he would have been on time, like clockwork. Or fifteen minutes early.
Rick was due to arrive back in
Cincinnati two hours
earlier. A quick business trip had lured him out of town several days ago. Or
was it three? Five? Really, she couldn’t say, nor did she care. She only wanted
the ordeal to be finished.
It was time.
She’d gone over the speech in her head repeatedly the past few days. So much so, she could think of little else except getting on with living. If that were possible. These days, it seemed she existed in some
or Twilight Zone. Nothing
fit, or made sense. It felt like thick cellophane had shrink-wrapped her brain. Never-Never
The lock jimmied behind her and Claire jumped. He was back.
Keep it short and to the point. Be blunt. Get it over. Then you can move on.
Rick burst through the door, his face animated. His long, blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. His blue eyes sparkled. And his clothes, the faded denims, the T-shirt—never before had he dressed so casually. This was not the Rick she knew.
“Claire! Thank God you are home. We have to talk.” Out of breath, he rushed across the room and gathered her into his arms. He planted a light kiss on the top of her head. She tried to scavenge a grin and then separated herself from him.
“What is it, Rick?”
He paced his short, stocky frame back and forth across the room. “It’s the wildest thing. You remember Chuck DeHart? From college? You know, the Texas Troubadour?”
Claire nodded. One of Rick’s fraternity brothers. She hadn’t cared too much for Chuck the first time she’d met him and didn’t think she’d care much for him now. Back then, he’d smelled of Captain Morgan and had this sneer that made her uncomfortable. She had despised all their fraternal pet names for each other and still hadn’t figured out why the called Rick ‘The Pirate.’
“Well, we’ve been spending time together recently. In fact, he came into town last week while you were gone. We’re going to meet up for dinner tonight.”
“You and Chuck?”
“No, sweetheart. The three of us.”
Oh, yes. That’s exactly how I want to spend my evening.
“He’s got a business proposition for us.”
Business proposition? For us? Nope. Don’t think so.
Claire cleared her throat. “Rick, look. We do need to talk, but not about business. There’s something else we need to discuss.”
“I know, I know,” he continued to pace, “the honeymoon details. But that’s the beauty. It’s all connected. You will not believe this.” He stopped pacing and fixed his gaze on Claire. “I didn’t want to get into this now, but after the honeymoon, Chuck and I are going into business. We’ll be based in St. Thomas. More details at dinner. He’s only here until morning then he’s heading back to the Caribbean. Gotta be tonight. We’ve been working on this deal for a few weeks. Put on something slinky and let’s go. We’re meeting him in forty-five minutes.” He turned away.
Something slinky? She grasped his arm. “What do you mean based in St. Thomas?”
Turning back, he faced her, grinning. “That’s one of the beauties of this deal, Claire. St. Thomas has a stellar real estate market and you can make millions.”
She shook her head. “I’m not moving to St. Thomas, Rick. My work, my life, is here.”
He paused, studying her face, then broke into a smile again. Leaning in, he said, “Darling, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Let’s make our millions and then we can decide where to settle for the rest of our lives.”
“No.” Claire stood solid and pinned him with her gaze. Obviously, Rick’s business trip had nothing to do with Adams, Stone, and McCullough Accounting Services. That knowledge only clinched what she knew she had to do.
Rick glared back at her. “What?”
Claire blinked. “I’m not interested in business deals right now, Rick. Or moving to the Caribbean. And why haven’t you told me you were considering opening a business?”
“You’re not much interested in anything right now, are you Claire?” he shot back. “You don’t want me to touch you. You don’t want to go out.”
So he had noticed.
“And you don’t seem to be much interested in your business life right now, either,” she said. “What’s with you? What’s with the clothes and the hair and the attitude change? Are you going through a premature mid-life crisis or what? And is that my gold hoop earring in your ear? My God!” She reached for his earlobe. When had he pierced his ear?
Rick jerked away. “Mid-life crisis, hell! I’m just tired of playing by the rules, Claire. I want a little adventure in my life. I want the brass ring. In fact, I want a lot more than that.”
She shook her head. “You’re acting strange, Rick.”
“Strange? Me strange? Ever since you got back from your vacation, you’ve been in a daze.” Giving pause for a second, he glared at her.
She took a deep breath and grasped his hand in an attempt to calm him down. “Rick, look. Let’s just talk. I don’t think this is going to work.”
“What? What is not going to work? Dinner? My new business? Honeymoon?”
The climate in the room shifted from frenzied to stone still. Rick glowered, his stern gaze connecting with hers and holding. Claire took a half step backward.
“You are kidding.”
She tried to keep her voice calm, low. “No, Rick. I’m not kidding.
“Wedding or marriage.”
“Well, both. No wedding, no marriage.”
She wasn’t sure that he did.
What could she say to that? I’ve taken a lover? I think he’s a ghost? I am not sure who you are anymore?
“I had time to think at the beach. I want children. I’m not sure you are up for that.”
His eyes grew wide as his gaze played over her face. “That’s it? You want kids?”
“Yes.” She’d known it the moment Vicki had said she was pregnant. It was the one thing she could say. She wasn’t ready to say I don’t love you.
“That’s a non-negotiable. You agreed.”
“I said at the time I was okay with it.”
“And you are not now?”
“And you are fucking springing this on me now?”
“Better now than in a few weeks, after we are married.”
He stood before her in disbelief, his chest lifting and falling. “I am not going to be saddled with kids, Claire. It is not in my plan. And I don’t want you saddled with kids either. Not with how we are going to be living in the future.”
How we will live in the future? What did that mean? “So there you go. This will not work, Rick.”
“Not unless I have you neutered.”
The words cut deep. So deep, in fact, Claire’s intake of breath was sharp and almost hurt. Neutered? “I am not a dog!”
“No, but you are my bitch.”
She was appalled. What the hell? “Get. Out. Get out, Rick! And don’t come back.”
He sneered and chuckled, and then like a spoiled child, rushed for the door. He turned and laughed as his hand hit the knob. “This is far from over, Claire. The sooner you realize that, the better.”
He slammed the door on his way out.
Crossing the bridge from the mainland to the islands, Claire felt a giddy sense of relief. In the end, the decision was easy. Within a week, things fell into place with her mother, having hired a live-in housekeeper/caregiver for day-to-day support. And she’d taken the necessary steps to leave Cincinnati, and her life there with Rick, behind.
Now, standing in the dark, searching the moonlit beach, she waited. He had not come. She grimaced at the irony of it all. The night breezes whipped around her body, her satin gown flowed about her. Her toes dug deep into the warm sand.
Where was he? Where was Jack?
Claire sank into the dune facing the ocean, refusing to let the tears come. She had given up everything. All of it. For him. For Jack. Vicki now held the keys to her business, and when there was a buyer, it would be gone. She’d let the lease go on her apartment. She’d drawn every available penny out of her savings and soaked a good portion of it in renting the light keeper’s cottage for an entire year. Most of her possessions were in storage at her mother’s farm, or sold. Her last connection to life, and work, in Ohio rested in the cell phone she had flung into the sound as she crossed over from the mainland.
No way for Rick to contact her. She breathed a sigh of relief.
She was here. On the island. Finally.
The ocean beat a steady cadence against the shore, keeping time with the rhythmic beat of her lonely heart.
Yes, she was here.
And for what? For a man, an image of a love she’d thought she’d never have? If it ever existed at all?
Crazy, Claire. You are going crazy.
But he will come. He had to come to prove her sane.
To prove that all of this wasn’t for nothing.
She had promised herself hours ago that if he didn’t come, she wouldn’t cry, but she did anyway. Tears flowed silently down her cheeks. Not for what she’d given up, or for what she’d driven away. And not for what she’d left behind, but because of what she’d not yet had. Because of what she craved, desired and longed for. And the possibility that it would never be.
She rose. Dusting particles of sand from the back of her gown, she turned and faced the cottage, suddenly glad she’d had the insight to rent it for the year. If Jack didn’t come to her, she wouldn’t go back to
She would stay here.
Her only regret was that she had left her mother. She would have packed all her belongings and moved her to the islands, as well, but her mother would never have agreed to that. She was perfectly content living out the rest of her days in solitude on the
Ohio farm, as
generations before her had done. Not to mention her recent illness that had
weakened her physical body—but, thank goodness, not her spirit. Her mother was
the only person she knew who seemed to have life in perspective. She’d bid her
daughter farewell with a kiss on the cheek and the promise she would visit in
The bond Claire shared with her mother was strong. Very strong. But the pull she felt to return to the islands was stronger. She knew she had to return, and her mother hadn’t resisted. She had simply nodded as if she’d anticipated her daughter’s actions.
As if she has already known.
Hell, she practically pushed her out the door.
It was difficult to shake the uneasy feeling that her mother understood, and had so readily accepted, something Claire could barely understand herself.
She sighed, letting breath ease out of her throat slowly, calming her. Pushing away the black, like Vicki, her psychic friend and confidant, had taught her. Get rid of the negative, bring in the light.
A soft hand rested on her shoulder.
Had he returned? Jack?
Eyes closed, she listened for his heartbeat, waited for the warmth of his breath against her neck. Paused for the hush of his voice. It had to be him. She fell back in time to that night when she had surrendered to the power of her lover’s kiss. Of his tender and warm embrace that entranced her soul and took it captive. He had met her here and had laid claim to her body and soul. Had he come back for her now, to make her his own, forever?
Please God, let it be him.
Turning, she reined in her anticipation, but as her gaze settled on the man’s face, backlit, somewhat, by the porch light behind them, she gasped and jerked back.
Deep in the recesses of his brain, Hannah called to him, and like the lure of a siren’s song, the stone summoned.
As though his body had no free will, Jack rose from his sleep and returned to the magical rock. Another blue moon storm had come and gone, leaving the night black, but he made his way to his destination without hesitation.
There it was. Glowing, luring, waiting.
His body filled with sensation. Anticipation.
In the same manner as before, he lifted his right foot and placed it on the center of the stone. At the slightest touch, he felt the lightning-like current pass through his foot and travel up his leg. Then his left foot joined his right, and in a flash, he was swirled, transported, and plunged into a dark void.
He would bring his Hannah home.
Her soul called to him. He could hear it, feel it, and—
And she was there. High above him. His heart froze with terror as he realized she was not alone. In danger.
His world spun.
He called to her. “Hannah!”
The charged atmosphere in the structure exploded. The lighthouse rumbled and shook with an eerie essence followed by sparks of light rotating three-sixty inside the thing. In an instant, the deafening noise vanished, breaking away into an uncanny silence….
Arms outstretched, he willed her to him. “Trust me.”
And she fell.
Fell into his arms. For all of those days, months, when he had cursed the very fact he had not been able to save his sweet Hannah before, he was now redeemed.
He caught her. Saved her. Pulled her into his arms and breathed deep of her scent.
She was his. At last.
And by God, he was taking her home.