The alarm clock screeched, and Caroline squeezed her eyelids more tightly. It couldn't be time to get up already. She uttered a low groan as she turned her head to read the insistent green electronic numbers glowing from the clock on the nightstand. Four o'clock. She had to get up. In half an hour Rodney would be waiting downstairs.
Caroline willed herself to throw back the light down blanket and sit up on the edge of the queen-size bed. She sighed as she reached out to switch on the lamp, knowing she had herself to blame. If she had finished her review before she left the office yesterday, she could have had another two, or even three, hours of sleep now. Better yet, she could have taped the review in the afternoon and not have had to go in at all this morning. As it was, she was barely leaving herself enough time to compose something worthy of airing on KEY to America. The nation's highly rated morning news broadcast, in the person of its fanatical executive producer, Linus Nazareth, demanded her best. But a heated conversation with Linus was the reason she had bolted from the Broadcast Center yesterday before writing her review. Caroline had figured it was better to leave then than to say something she would regret.
The warm spray of the shower, usually so soothing, felt like an assault on her pale skin at this ungodly hour. Caroline braced herself as she bowed her head under the needles of water. She applied shampoo with conditioner, quickly worked it through her dark brown hair, and rinsed. Grabbing one towel and wrapping it turban-style around her head, she took another and moved it up and down her body. She didn't wipe the steam from the mirror. If her eyes and face were swollen from the crying she'd done last night, she didn't want to know, but she could thank Linus for it. She was angry with herself now for having let him get to her like that. She didn't even respect the guy. Linus Nazareth possessed none of the characteristics she valued, with the possible exception of being bright. But sometimes Caroline wondered if he really was all that smart. Perhaps his roaring directives and brash manners were his way of masking his insecurities.
Enough time wasted on Linus Nazareth, Caroline thought. She gathered up her toiletries and deposited them in her travel kit, which she then placed in the open suitcase lying on the bedroom floor. Tonight I'll be with Nick. She folded the lace nightgown, Nick's favorite, and carefully laid it on top of the pile of clothing. She was zipping the suitcase closed when she remembered the sandals Meg wanted her to bring up. Caroline walked down the hallway to her stepdaughter's bedroom and went to the double closet. She spotted the soft leather sandals she and Nick had bought for Meg when they'd been in Capri on their honeymoon. As Caroline bent down to get the sandals from the floor, she noticed a ziplock bag. She picked it up and immediately knew what she was seeing through the clear plastic.
Marijuana and rolling papers.
Her body tensed as she stared at the bag in her hands. What should she do? Confront Meg? Tell Nick? Caroline had no idea what her response should be. Either choice could blow up in her face. But this was a big problem, one that wasn't going to go away.
Conscious of the time, Caroline put the bag back where she had found it. For now, the bottom of the closet was as good a place as any to leave it. She scooped up the sandals and closed the closet door.
She walked back to the master bedroom. Dressing in the violet-colored blouse and white skirt she had laid out last night before she crawled into bed, Caroline slipped on a pair of high-heeled sandals, pulled a comb through her wet hair, grabbed her shoulder bag, and hurried out of the apartment, rolling her suitcase behind her. When the elevator doors slid open on the first floor, she looked across the lobby to the heavy glass doors. The driver was waiting at the curb outside.
"Mornin'." The man smiled as he opened the rear door of the dark blue sedan.
"Nice to see you again, Rodney. It's been a while. Thanks," said Caroline, getting into the backseat as the chauffeur took her suitcase and stashed it in the trunk. Most days--the days she was better organized and less rushed--Caroline took a taxi to work; but in the very early morning hours, it was better, safer, and more reliable to arrange for the car service. As the sedan traveled down Central Park West, Caroline heard the buzzing inside her bag and fumbled around until she found her cell phone.
"Hey there, Sunshine. How's my girl?"
"Nick." Pleasure registered on Caroline's face as she leaned back against the faux leather seat. "What are you doing up?"
"I haven't gone to bed yet, my love. Remember, it's only one-thirty here."
"I couldn't forget for a second where you are, Nick, when I'm wishing you were here with me instead. But you didn't answer my question. What are you doing up?"
Caroline heard her husband sigh three thousand miles away. "The screenplay. The director wanted a change in that scene at the Laundromat, but I think I have it fixed now. It better be, anyway, because I'm not hanging around to do any more work on it. I'm determined to catch that flight out of LAX this afternoon. I can't wait to get there."
"Me, too." Caroline lowered her voice. "It seems like it's been forever."
"That's because it has been," Nick answered. "These three weeks have been an eternity. I miss you."
Caroline looked out the car window as the driver turned west on Sixty-third Street and then south on Columbus Avenue. "Well, when you've only been married for three months, three weeks is a long time. A fourth of our married life spent apart, Nick. What's wrong with that picture?"
"I know, I know," he said. "We are going to have to do something about that. But I couldn't get out of this trip, Sunshine. You said you understood."
"I do. But that doesn't mean I have to like it." Caroline watched as Lincoln Center passed by her window.
"Okay, it's settled. We both hate being apart." Nick laughed. "But it won't be long before I'm staring into those beautiful blue eyes of yours. And by the way, what are you doing up so early? I tried your cell thinking I'd leave a message before I turned in. I didn't expect you to answer."
"I've got a review in the second hour of the show, and I haven't even written it yet."
"Naughty girl. That doesn't sound like you. What happened?"
"At the last minute, Meg called from Warrenstown and asked if I could bring some things up when I came. That daughter of yours has very specific tastes, and I wanted to make sure I got her exactly what she wanted. It took some time." Caroline omitted telling Nick about the pot she'd found in his daughter's room. Nor did she mention the cutting criticism her boss had hurled her way yesterday. She knew she would tell him all about that when they were together. But she didn't want to get into a discussion about Linus over the phone.
"That was good of you, Caroline. I know how hard you're trying with Meg, and I so appreciate it, honey. She's bound to come around, sweetheart. But . . ." His voice trailed off.
"But I'm not her mother." Caroline finished the sentence for him. And I never will be, she thought as the sedan stopped across the street from the Broadcast Center.
Caroline knew that she could never take Meg's mother's place. She had lost her own mother at just about Meg's age from the same horrible disease. Caroline had started college with two parents and graduated an orphan. Pancreatic cancer took her mother when Caroline was a sophomore. A heart attack claimed her father eighteen months later. There still wasn't a day that went by that she didn't miss them. Caroline knew she always would.
So, in the months Caroline and Nick had dated and then married, she had understood the resentment Meg felt toward the woman who had taken her mother's place in her father's affections. She had been trying to be sensitive to Meg's emotions, excusing her moodiness and sarcasm, but she was becoming resentful herself. Dealing with a hostile stepchild was energy-sapping, and Caroline had found herself relieved when Meg left for Warrenstown for the summer. Now, having found the pot in Meg's closet, Caroline felt a new tension. It only compounded her anxiety about the possibility of losing her job.
Copyright © 2006 by Mary Jane Clark. All rights reserved.