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What the hell was he doing here?
Joelle stared at the man standing on her front porch and stifled the urge to scream, slam the door in his face or pretend she didn't know who he was.
She did know, of course. Thirty-seven years might have passed since she'd last seen Drew Fostershe was aware of exactly how long it had been, considering how drastically her life had changed that nightbut she recognized him immediately. His hair was a little sparser and grayer, his laugh lines deeper, his jaw softer. His well-cut pinstripe suit didn't hide the slight paunch that had sprouted above his belt, but despite carrying a few excess pounds, he appeared generally fit for a man only a few years away from his sixtieth birthday.
How had he found her? Why hadn't he called to give her some warning before he appeared on her doorstep? How could she get him to leave? He'd come close to destroying her life once, but she'd painstakingly rebuilt itand now here he was, perfectly capable of destroying it all over again. Fear gathered in her gut and squeezed.
"Joelle," he murmured, his gaze deep and intense. "God, you look great."
She clenched her dust rag so tightly her fingers began to go numb. She'd been cleaning the house, as she did every Saturday morning, and she hadn't bothered to put the rag down before answering the door. If only he'd arrived a few minutes later, the roar of the vacuum cleaner would have drowned out the doorbell and she'd never have realized he was there.
At her continuing silence, his smile faded."You don't remember me, do you?"
"Of course I do." She shook her head, then forced a smile.
"I'm just surprised.How did youI mean,what are you " She pressed her lips together to stop from stammering.
"It's a long story. May I come in?"
Back then, his voice had been as smooth and sweet as warm honey. It still was. Just like his warm, honey-sweet grin.
She didn't want him inside her house, but she couldn't think of a way to keep him out without leading him to assume she had something to hide. If he suspected her of hiding something, he'd be right.What had happened thirtyseven years ago, the decisions she'd made, the turn her life had takenhe mustn't find out. She couldn't let him.
But if she barred the door, he'd grow suspicious. Reluctantly she stepped back and allowed him to enter. If luck was with her, he'd tell her he just happened to be in Gray Hill, and someone at the gas station had mentioned her name and he'd thought he would stop by and say hello. They'd chat for a few minutes about old times and then he'd be on his way.
"You have a lovely place," he said, surveying the foyer before he peered through the arched doorway into the living room."Beautiful landscaping, too."
"Yes. Bobby" She cut herself off. If she talked about Bobby, she might start talking about their children, and she couldn't do that.
"Bobby D. Who would've thought you two would get married?" Drew smiled wistfully."He's a damn lucky guy. Is he around?"
"No, he's"Again she cut herself off. Bobby often spent Saturdays meeting with clients who weren't available during the week.But if she said he was working,Drew might assume he did some kind of labor that demanded weekend shifts. She wanted to assure Drew that Bobby's business was a success, that he had clients as far away as Hartford and Bridgeport and even across the state line in New York, that his sons were now working with him,that he and Joelle were no longer kids from the poor side of town. She wanted to shout that Bobby was more of a man than Drew could ever hope to be.
All she said was,"I'm afraid he's out right now."
Drew shrugged."Well, at least you're home." "Cleaning the house." She held up the dust rag in her hand and smiled faintly.The air smelled of lemon-scented furniture polish, and through the arched doorway into the living room the vacuum cleaner was visible, its electrical cord snaking across the rug to the socket near the bay window.
"I'm sorry for springing myself on you like this.I was afraid that if I called you, you might tell me not to come."
Good guess, she thought, then reminded herself that acting rude would rile his suspicions. If she could force herself to behave civilly, he'd be less likely to ask questions.
Everything had happened so long ago. Maybe he'd forgotten,or he no longer cared about the mistakes they'd made when they were teenagers. Maybe none of it mattered to him anymore.
"Would you like something to drink?" she asked."Coffee? Tea?" He was standing too close, and she backed up another couple of steps."Wine or beer?" she offered, even though it wasn't yet noon.
"Have you got anything stronger?" His voice was tinged with laughter, but she sensed that he was serious.
"No." Bobby preferred no hard liquor in the house, and she respected his wishes.
Nodding, she pivoted and headed down the hall to the kitchen, her footsteps muffled by the runner rug. She was barefootthe house was hot, despite the air-conditioning units Bobby had installedand she always worked herself into a sweat when she cleaned. Dressed in one of her son Danny's ratty old Colgate University T-shirts and a pair of denim cut-offs, with her hair pulled into a sloppy ponytail, she'd been warm until she'd opened her door and discovered Drew Foster on the other side. From that moment on, she'd felt chilled.
He followed her into the kitchen, where she tossed her rag onto the counter and busied herself scooping coffee beans into the grinder. She could feel him prowling around the room behind her.Was he assessing the quality of her appliances? Peeking through the window in the top of the back door,which opened onto the flagstone patio that Bobby had built? She refused to turn and watch her guest.She hated that he was here,hated that his presence made her hands tremble and her fingers fumble as she arranged a filter in the basket of the coffeemaker.
"You have grandchildren?"
His question jolted her. Flecks of brown powder spilled from the grinder's cup and scattered across the counter. No, she silently begged, don't ask me about my grandchildren.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw him standing in front of the refrigerator,admiring the crayon scribblings she'd fastened to the surface with magnets. He knew she was too old to have children drawing like toddlers. Obviously she had grandchildren. She couldn't lie about it.
"Yes," she said."How about you?"
"No."The word was hard and blunt.He softened it by adding,"You don't look old enough to have grandchildren.I mean it, Joelle.You look fantastic.You must be drinking from the fountain of youth."
His flattery made her scowl. "Do you work out?"
She emptied the grinder into the coffeemaker's basket and wiped away the grounds that had spilled. Drew was buttering her up for a reason, and sooner or later he'd tell her what it was. A long story, he'd warned. She hoped he'd tell her the abridged version and then disappear.
"The only workouts I do are dusting and vacuuming," she said, pulling the ceramic pitcher and sugar bowl from the cabinet above the sink.The sugar bowl was full, but she had to pour some milk into the pitcher. She wished he'd move away from the refrigerator so she could open it without standing too close to him. She also wished he'd stop staring at the primitive artwork Jeremy and Kristin had created.Those precious scribbles could ruin everything if the conversation drifted to questions about Jeremy and Kristin's mother.
Fortunately, Drew backed away as she approached the refrigerator."I gather you and Bobby have never gone back to Holmdell for high-school reunions," he said as she filled the pitcher.Hands shoved in his pockets,he leaned casually against the counter while the coffeemaker chugged and wafted a rich aroma into the air.
Joelle surprised herself by laughing."God, no." "I've managed to avoid them, too." "Do you still live there?" "New York City.We've got a weekend place out in Amagansett, on Long Island, but we call Manhattan home." He flashed her a grin."Manhattan and Connecticutwho would have thought you and I would wind up practically being neighbors?"
Joelle would hardly consider Manhattan and the hills of northwestern Connecticut the same neighborhood, although throughout the years she and Bobby had lived in Gray Hill.More and more NewYorkers had bought up the ramshackle old farmhouses and barns and turned them into weekend retreats.It was in part because of all those rich city folks that Bobby's business had flourished.They all wanted stone walls around their properties, brick patios with built-in hot tubs, elegant plantings and pools with waterfalls.They paid DiFranco Landscaping huge fees to tame the wild beauty of their surroundings.
"You said we," she noted."You have a wife?"
Drew held up his left hand to display his wedding ring.
"Helen. A wonderful woman.We just celebrated our thirtieth anniversary this year.You'd like her."
Joelle doubted that. Despite her history with Drew, she'd always known they were from two different worlds. His wife was undoubtedly from his world, not hers.
"So,what are you doing with yourself?"he asked,as if they were in fact trapped at a high-school reunion in the old West Side Motor Lodge down on Rockwood Turnpike, drinking stale punch and standing amid bouquets of helium balloons while a deejay played great hits of the sixties."Career? Hobbies? Volunteer work?"
"I'm a kindergarten teacher," she told him."Bobby owns a landscape-design business." Pride made her stand straighter. She and Bobby had done well for themselves, better than anyone in Holmdell, Ohio, would have predicted. Back then, folks had probably assumed Bobby would wind up a mean drunk like his father, tending the grounds of the town cemetery all day and drowning his sorrows at the Dog House Tavern all night.And Joelle well,people might have believed she'd had prospects, but only because she'd been dating Drew, a rich boy who lived in a mansion overlooking the ninth hole at Green Gates Country Club.
The coffeemaker announced the end of its brewing cycle with a raucous gurgle."We could sit in the living room," she suggested,"but I'd have to straighten things up in there"
"This is fine,"Drew said,pulling out a chair at the butcherblock kitchen table. He remained standing until she'd carried over two steaming mugs, waited for her to take her seat, then lowered himself onto the chair facing her.He dipped his head toward the cup and inhaled."Smells great."
He was stalling."Why are you here, Drew?" she asked. He stalled some more, stirring milk into his coffee, then lifting it, blowing on its surface and taking a sip. After swallowing, he sighed."Joelle." His voice had grown soft, his expression pensive."I'm here because I'm a desperate man."
She wasn't sure if he was serious. His statement was so melodramatic. Yet he didn't seem to be joking. His words hung in the air, unsettling her.
"I would never have gone to all this troublehired a private investigator to find you and then intruded into your life like thisif I could have figured out another way, but " He sighed again and set down his mug with a thud. "Helen and I have a son. Adam. He's the joy of our lives.You're a motherI don't have to explain what it means to have a child."
Her heart began to pound, sending shards of pain through her chest. Don't talk to me about my children. Don't. He had no right to barge into her life and tell her, of all people, what it meant to have a child. If she could think of an excuse, any excuse, to get him out of her house
"Adam is dying, Joelle," Drew said, his voice even more hushed."And I'm here because the only person who can save him is your daughter." He paused, his dark eyes meeting hers.
Bobby noticed the BMW with the New York plates parked out front and wondered who was visiting Joelle. Some new summer person, probably. The only rich New Yorkers they knew were the people buying up all the houses in the northwest hills and turning them into vacation homes.Thank God for those rich New Yorkers,too.Many of them paid him good money to landscape their property.
The guy he'd spent that morning with was a bond trader or something,one of those Wall Street professions that earned people ten times what they were worth. His wife was heavily into an English-country-manor fantasy.She'd already done up the house with floral wallpaper and frilly pillows on every damn surface, and now she wanted the backyard to look like an English garden, only with a free-form pool in the middle of it. Bobby had patiently explained that English gardens didn't generally include free-form pools and she ought to aim for a nice Connecticut garden, instead. He promised her lots of perennials and a gorgeous pool, and she'd seemed satisfied. The husband required stone walls so the place would look like fox-hunting country. Honest to God, why didn't they just go buy themselves a place outside London?
But they'd signed a whopping contract with DiFranco Landscaping. When Bobby was done with their property they'd be happy, and so would his company's bottom line.
He'd considered phoning Mike and Danny with the news that he'd landed the job, but decided that could wait until Monday. He had to remind himself that when it came to the business, they were his colleagues, not his sons. You didn't phone colleagues on a Saturday morning to talk shop, even if the news was good. Sons you could call anytime, but with business associates, Monday was soon enough.
He had to admit that having both his sons choose to join him in the company made work a thousand times more rewarding. He liked his business, liked the job's demands, liked the praise from satisfied customers, but he loved having Mike and Danny as partners.
You did well, Bobby D, he thought as he steered the truck up the winding driveway to the garage.
He'd done well with the house, too. Maybe it wasn't a palace, but it was spacious and comfortable and Joelle deserved no less.She'd had faith in him when he'd bought it,back when it was so shoddy a nasty blizzard would have knocked it flat, and one weekend at a time he'd rebuilt it.Claudia had helped, he recalled with a grin. Nothing like having a ten-year-old girl assisting."Can I get your hammer,Daddy?"she'd ask,hovering behind him. "Should I hold the tape measure?" Once she'd hit adolescence, she couldn't be bothered anymore, but during the first couple of years of renovations, while Joelle had had her hands full with one and then another baby, Claudia had been Bobby's loyal assistant.
He eased the pickup into the bay next to Joelle's little hybrid. He wasn't convinced her Prius saved them much in fuel costs, but she'd craved one, so what the hell.As he swung out of the cab,he checked the thick,treaded soles of his work boots. He and the bond trader had traipsed all over the guy's four-acre property,and they'd hit a few mucky areas. Bobby would leave his boots in the mudroom. He wasn't going to track dirt into the house when Joelle had spent the morning cleaning.
Inside, he heard the muffled sound of voices in conversation, Joelle's and a man's.Yanking off one boot, he called out, "Hey, Jo!"
The conversation came to an abrupt halt, punctuated by the clatter of chairs scraping on the kitchen floor."We're in here, Bobby," she said. She didn't have to tell him where here was.
The silence spooked him. He tugged off his other boot, then left the mudroom for the kitchen.