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TRYING TO BE a good father was rather like trying to
sing in key, Nick thought as he watched his twelve-year-old daughter pick suspiciously at her tandoori chicken. You could be close enough that almost anyone might recognize the tune, but no one was ever going to mistake you for Frank Sinatra. And, inevitably, you managed to strike a note that simply fell flat.
"I thought you'd like Indian food," Nick said, trying not to sound reproachful. Their table was next to the window. Outside, the wet street reflected a string of red taillights and the neon sign from the cinema marquee. A waiter in black trousers and a white cotton jacket hovered nearby.
Bella set down her fork. She wore a yellow jumper that she'd coaxed Nick into buying on their last outing, and her hair was pulled back into a tight plait that came halfway down her back. "Did you ask me first?"
"Well, no, but—"
"Because if you had, I could have told you that Mummy already tried to make me like it, and I couldn't stand it then and I still don't like it."
"Perhaps you should have said something before I ordered," Nick suggested. "Even as we walked into the restaurant, perhaps." Disappointment and a sense of failure made him feel churlish.
Bella seemed unaffected by his mood, her eyes—the same light green as her mother's—conveyed her disdain. Set against the olive complexion she'd inherited from him, the impact was striking. He'd look at her and envy anyone with even a modicum of artistic talent. In his head, he could wield a paintbrush in a way that captured the subtle nuance of expression, the play of light across her face. In reality, he couldn't even take a decent snapshot.
"But you enjoyed the art exhibit?" he asked. Please tell me I'm doing something right. Last week he'd read an article about a support group for divorced fathers. They met Monday nights in a church hall about a ten-minute walk from his North London flat. He might have made it a point to stop in, but he was leaving town—leaving the country, in fact. By the next meeting, he'd be in California, gathering material for the Truman biography that he was now under contract to write. The exhibit he'd taken his daughter to see had been a Truman retrospective.
"God forbid you'd waste a Saturday afternoon with your daughter doing something nonproductive," Bella's mother, Avril, had remarked.
He banished his ex-wife from his thoughts. "The girl in the picture was the same age as you when—"
"Her father painted it," Bella filled in. "And her name was Daisy."
"Sorry," Nick said. "I forgot I'd already told you."
"About a hundred and fifty times."
"I've told you about two hundred and fifty times not to exaggerate," Nick said, straight-faced. "And her name is Daisy."
Bella looked at him. "She's still alive and kicking," he said. "So her name is Daisy."
"Well, it's a very old-fashioned name," Bella said, as though that justified using the past tense. "It's like a name from a fairy story.... Or of somebody's dotty old auntie."
"Actually, she's probably just a year or two younger than me." He drank some water, and set his glass down. "Which I suppose in your books makes her an old crone."
The glimmer of a smile broke across his daughter's face. He watched her fight it. He'd angered her and, as far as she was concerned, done nothing to warrant her forgiveness. She desperately wanted to go to Laguna with him even though he and her mother, for once in agreement, had explained all the reasons why it wasn't feasible. Nick suspected that she still thought he'd ultimately relent.
Having given up any pretense of eating her chicken, she was now watching him intently as if for a clue to his final decision.
"Stop it," he said. "I know exactly what you're doing and it's not working."
Her eyes widened. "What am I doing?"
"You're trying to make me feel guilty."
"No one can make you feel guilty." Her voice sounded eerily like her mother's. "Only you can do that."
He regarded her with something close to wonder. How could a child almost a quarter his age sound so much like the parent? Still, she had a point. Of all the emotions he felt as a father, guilt was uppermost— he constantly berated himself for not spending enough time with her, for putting his work first, for not always being attentive when he was with her. Ironic, considering he'd been taken with Truman's portrait as much for what it suggested about the man as a father as for his skills as an artist.
For a while he'd been almost obsessed with Truman, attributing to the artist all the fatherly qualities he himself seemed to lack. And then one of the ex-wives, now dead, had written a memoir portraying Truman as a bitter, angst-ridden man who practiced the piano incessantly in case his talent as a visual artist should abandon him, who obsessively hoarded everything from toilet paper rolls and fingernail clippings to cans of food. A man who was apparently incapable of conceding he was wrong about anything.
Truman's second wife, Amalia, a one-time Portuguese fado singer, had offered a completely different perspective when Nick had reached her by phone. "Franky," as she called Truman, had all but walked on water. Amalia had appeared on the scene when Daisy was about ten; Nick had found a picture of the three of them in the archives of the weekly Laguna Beach newspaper over a wedding announcement.
The identity of Daisy's mother was still something of a mystery but one he expected to resolve once he got to the States.
"Daddy?" Bella treated him to her most soulful look. "Please?"
"Bella, I am going to Laguna to work," Nick said.
"I'll be out interviewing people and, when I'm not doing that, I'll be writing. There would be nothing for you to do."
"I could watch television and go to the beach."
"And the little matter of school?"
"I'll catch up when I come back. It's only six weeks."
"We've gone over this so—"
"I hate this chicken." She glared at him. "I hate this place."
In a flash, she was up out of the booth, dragging the edge of the cloth in her haste to leave. Silverware and a water glass clattered to the floor. Nick quickly made apologies and paid the bill before going after her.
"Well, Nick, I'm sorry for stating the obvious—" his ex-wife said when he dropped a sullen and un-communicative Bella off later that night "—but it was your choice to write about an artist who lived halfway across the world. I don't suppose it occurred to you there might be subjects here in England...just a little closer to home?"
ON HIS FIRST DAY in Laguna, even before he'd unpacked his files and computer, he walked into the village and spent a great deal of money on two cotton dresses, a skirt and three shirts that the shop assistant said would be perfect for a twelve-year-old girl.
IN THE SMALL WAITING ROOM off the emergency department, Daisy Fowler tried to slow her breathing.
Amalia would be fine.
Daisy breathed deeply, sending healing thoughts to Amalia, who had just been wheeled off on a gurney, her head split open and her face the color of parchment.
Slow, deep breaths.
Amalia had called her last week, giddy with excitement. Someone was going to write Frank's life story. Daisy had also received a letter from the biographer. Same letter, very different reactions. They'd had a huge fight, and Amalia hadn't spoken to her since.
An hour ago, she'd got a call from the hospital that Amalia had fallen from her dune buggy and was in the emergency room.
There had also been a fight the night the house burned down with her father in it. "I hate you," she'd screamed.
"Lighten up, Daisy," her friend Kit was always telling her. "You're too hard on yourself. You're not responsible for other people's behaviors."
Like maybe her sixty-five-year old stepmother driving a dune buggy. Inebriated.
Deep breaths. Daisy closed her eyes and tried to meditate. She was learning the technique from a book she'd picked up last week, How to Forgive. The author, Baba Rama Das, pictured on the front cover, had dark, mesmerizing eyes that seemed to follow her around the room. No matter where she set the book, she'd somehow catch a glimpse of him. Yesterday, she'd felt guilty for watching Dr. Phil instead of meditating about forgiveness.
Forgiveness creates peace of mind, Baba said. It also helps heal emotional wounds and leads to new, more gratifying relationships. Hey, sign me up, she'd thought.
Suddenly, she felt frantic to talk to her daughter. Emmy had stomped off to catch the school bus that morning, mad over something or other. Her usual mood these days. Daisy couldn't recall the last time she and Emmy had actually talked. Really talked. A heart-to-heart kind of talk like the kind Kit regularly had with her daughter. Lately, it seemed all she and Emmy did was fight.
Still, just hearing Emmy's voice would make her feel better, more in control. She reached into her purse for the cell phone. As she punched in the number, she noticed the sign on the wall. A picture of a cell phone with a red line drawn through it. She ignored it. The answering machine came on.
"Hi sweetie," she said. "I'm at the hospital with Amalia. She had some kind of accident with the dune buggy—"
"Mom?" Emmy had picked up the phone. "What's wrong? Is she okay?"
"She's in surgery right now. She was driving up the dirt road to the highway, God knows why. I've told her enough times—"
"Just tell me."
"Well, she hit her head, which isn't good, but she's going to be okay. She will be okay. She'll be fine."
"Tell her I love her," Emmy said.
"I will." Daisy's nose stung with tears. "I love you too, sweetie."
Emmy had already disconnected. The cell phone rang before she had time to put it away. "Hello, is this Daisy Fowler?"
"Nick Wynne. We spoke on the phone a few weeks ago...about the biography I'm writing on your father."
For a moment Daisy couldn't think of what to say. Go away came to mind. "This is a bad time," she finally managed. "I really can't talk right now." It was the same tone of voice she used on telephone solicitors. Rude and impatient, letting them know they'd intruded on her privacy. "
"I'd intended to call you in a day or so," Nick said.
"But I was supposed to meet your stepmother at noon, and it's now half past one and I wondered if you might know—"
"She's in the emergency room," Daisy said.
"Which is why I can't talk."
"Oh, no." A pause. "Not serious, I hope?"
"I'm waiting to find out."
"Well, look, I don't want to pester you when you obviously have other things on your mind, but I'll be here in Laguna for the next few weeks so perhaps you could give me a ring when—"
"Sure," Daisy said.
"Shall I give you my number, or—"
"Go ahead." Whatever else Nicholas Wynne said, she didn't hear. The doctor had just walked into the room.