Frankie Sicari is roused from sleep late one night by a key rattling in the front door lock. It’s her ex-husband, Charley Blackwell: a man she hasn’t seen for nearly a quarter of a century. What’s baffling is that Charley seems to think they are still married, and has no recollection of his current wife, Hannah.
When medical tests reveal shocking findings, Frankie finds herself reluctantly caring for the man who left her twenty years earlier, while Hannah is relegated to the sidelines. How can Frankie forgive the man who abandoned her when she needed him most? And how can Hannah cope with the impending death of the man she’s loved for the past twenty years – especially now she is faced with the shattering truth that he has never stopped loving his first wife, Frankie?
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Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. June, 2016
Francesca Sicari started up from sleep, disoriented. Her cell phone was ringing.
The TV flickered a rerun of Two and a Half Men, casting just enough silver-blue light across the coffee table to reveal the remnants of her take-out supper, her MacBook and her Canon camera. No sign of her iPhone.
Nothing new there. Frankie misplaced her phone a lot. Usually because she held her camera in both hands, and she was more interested in what she saw through the lens than anything that might appear on the display of a mobile device.
She followed the sound of her ringtone – 'Whooooo are you? Woowoo, woo-woo!' – which indicated the caller was not in her contact list. She should probably let it go to voicemail, but anyone calling in the middle of the night must have a good reason. Or a bad one.
Frankie hurried into the kitchen, thrilled to see her phone plugged into the wall where it belonged, though she had no memory of doing so.
She'd come home from work, set her kung pao on the counter and become fascinated with the way the setting sun turned the cut glass vase on her farmhouse dining room table the shade of blood.
She'd spent the next hour photographing the vase with various props – a green pepper, a white tennis shoe, a yellow begonia yanked out of the garden – as the colors shifted from red, to orange, to fuchsia, gold and finally blue-gray.
Then she'd warmed up her ice-cold supper and taken it, along with the camera and her computer, into the living room. Setting everything on the restored wooden trunk that served as a coffee table, she'd uploaded the pictures she'd taken that day of the Basilica of St Josaphat on the south side of Milwaukee and started editing. Several hours later, she'd closed her burning eyes 'just for a minute'. Next thing she knew, the phone was ringing.
That ringtone was getting on her last nerve. She'd have to change it.
Frankie snatched up the phone. 'Hello?'
She knew that voice. Considering she'd met the woman once and talked to her on the phone never, Frankie wasn't sure why.
'Is Charley there?'
Frankie had divorced Charley Blackwell twenty-four years ago. He'd married Hannah soon afterward. Considering he'd been boffing her, that made sense. Or as much sense as anything had made back when Frankie had discovered the love of her life loved someone else.
'Why would he be here?'
'He was supposed to fly in from Africa tonight. When he didn't show, I tracked him there.'
Frankie tightened her lips over the words how do you like it? Not productive.
'By "there" you mean Milwaukee?'
'Yes.' Hannah's voice was clipped, but she sounded more scared than pissed. Why?
'How'd you get any info out of the airlines?'
Frankie had always had a heck of a time hunting down Charley when he didn't show. With TSA and privacy laws, she couldn't imagine it had gotten any easier.
'He was shooting for National Geographic. They made the reservation so they were able to pull some strings.'
Funny. They hadn't been all that willing to pull strings for Frankie.
'Maybe he got another assignment,' Frankie said.
'In Milwaukee?' Hannah didn't exactly sneer the word, but she might as well have.
'I know it isn't the Congo, but we do have worthwhile images to photograph.'
For instance, the Basilica, which was modeled after St Peter's in Rome and had one of the largest copper domes in the world. The structure was exquisite, as were many other local churches, such as the Greek Orthodox church designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Frankie planned to go there tomorrow.
But Charley was a photojournalist. One of the few left in an era where everyone had a camera on their cell phone and speed trumped technique. That he was still employed at sixty-three was a testament to how good Charley was at his job.
In the last couple of decades since they'd called it quits he'd become even more famous. If Frankie took one of his more well-known pictures on to the street and showed it to the first person who passed by, she'd bet a hundred dollars Joe Public would recognize it.
Charley had begun his career as a combat photographer in Vietnam. He'd been drafted shortly out of high school, then re-upped for a second tour. Once the troops had been withdrawn following the Paris Accords, he'd stayed on, which meant he'd been there at the end, and the photos he'd taken of the fall of Saigon had landed him a job with Associated Press. From there he had moved to Time magazine, then National Geographic, eventually becoming a freelance photographer so he could pick and choose the best jobs from each of them.
'Charley wouldn't fly off on another assignment without letting me know,' Hannah said.
Interesting. He'd done that often enough to Frankie. She wondered how long it had taken Hannah to train the asshole out of him.
'You still seem to have lost him.'
'Be that as it may,' Hannah said, and Frankie laughed.
Hannah didn't seem the 'be that as it may' type. But what did Frankie know? As previously mentioned, she'd met her once. The circumstances had shown neither of them in their best light. How could they, considering?
Hannah had been a kid, which had only contributed to the unpleasantness. Not only because she had no idea how to handle the situation, but because her age had made the situation even more of a ... well, situation. She hadn't been too young – as in pedophile young – but she'd been young enough to really piss Frankie off.
Charley had asked her if he'd fallen in love with a woman his own age, would that have been better? Frankie had punched him in the mouth. She still had the scar from his front tooth on her middle finger. She recalled holding that finger up, dripping blood, waving goodbye with it as Hannah fussed over his soon-to-be-capped front teeth.
Ah, good times.
'What is so goddamn funny?' Hannah asked.
'Nothing.' Frankie didn't plan to share anything more with Hannah than she already had.
The woman on the other end of the line bore little resemblance to the Hannah Frankie held in her head. Soft voiced, a bit meek, not Charley's type at all. Of course Frankie had been as wrong about Charley's type as she'd obviously been about Hannah herself. Tonight Hannah sounded anything but meek; tonight Hannah sounded a bit ball-busty.
'If he shows up there would you call me?'
'Why would he show up here?'
'Why does Charley do anything?'
Once Frankie had thought she understood Charley Blackwell better than she understood anyone, even herself. She'd been wrong. But she'd have thought, by now, that Hannah might. They'd been married longer than Frankie and Charley had.
'Are you two having problems?' Frankie asked.
'You'd like that, wouldn't you?'
Maybe twenty-four years ago – even fifteen – Frankie might have enjoyed hearing that Charley and Hannah were on the outs. She'd have called her BFF, Irene Pasternak, and chortled. But now?
'I couldn't care less.'
Hannah snorted, and irritation danced along Frankie's skin. While she didn't have any feelings about their marriage one way or another, apparently she still hated Hannah.
'If he shows up, I'll have him call. That work?' If anyone had told her back then that she'd be having this conversation – any conversation – with Hannah Blackwell – that there'd be a Hannah Blackwell – Frankie wouldn't have believed it. She almost didn't believe it now.
'I'm not sure,' Hannah said. 'You might have to —'
'You know, it's almost three in the morning here. I don't have the patience for you.'
'That makes two of us.' Hannah hung up.
'Wow,' Frankie said. 'That was fun.'
She set the phone on the counter, realized she was holding her camera in the other hand, and set that down too. It wasn't the first time she'd clutched the device like a security blanket.
She headed for the stairs, intent on her bed and a few hours of real sleep, her mind still on the weird phone call. Why would Hannah think Charley would come here? Why had she seemed jittery and a little scared?
Why would you think you know what the woman feels, thinks or even sounds like when she's any kind of way?
Frankie didn't know Hannah Blackwell at all. She didn't want to.
For years Frankie had thought of the woman as the twenty-three-year-old bimbo Charley had left her for. But Hannah was no longer twenty-three or a bimbo. She was the forty-seven-year-old owner/editor of You, a fashion magazine in a time when magazines were tanking and being over forty in fashion meant you were on your way down the other side of the mountain. She would probably lose her company soon. Frankie should feel sorry for her. But she didn't.
The front door rattled. Frankie paused with her foot on the first step leading to the second floor, listening for a wind gust that would explain said rattling, but the late spring night was still.
The knob turned right-left, right-left.
'Fancy? Open up.'
Frankie felt a chill so deep it made her dizzy. Only Charley had ever called her Fancy.
Though she'd just gotten off the phone with his wife, she still couldn't believe he was here.
And trying the door as if he expected it to open.
'My key doesn't work.'
'No shit.' She'd changed the locks the day after she'd seen him kissing her.
'I'm tired. I've been traveling forever.'
Frankie swirled her finger in the air – the universal sign for whoopde-doo.
'I can see your shadow on the floor.'
Sure enough, she'd moved closer and the light from the TV outlined her silhouette on the reclaimed wood of the entry hall, her shadow clearly visible through the frosted glass windowpane to the side of the door.
Frankie stepped back. She didn't want to let him in. She didn't have to. This was her house and it was the middle of the night.
'I forgot to call again, didn't I?'
The hair on her arms prickled. Something was very wrong. Charley hadn't forgotten to call in twenty-four years. That's what divorce meant. He no longer had to call; she no longer had to care when he didn't.
'Come on, baby. Let me in.'
An odd sound escaped. It would have been a sob if she hadn't cried herself sick over the man long ago. It almost sounded like a laugh, but nothing was funny about this. Even though it must be a joke.
It just had to be.
'Fancy, come on.'
Charley sounded exactly as he had all those years ago whenever he'd come home late, forgotten to call, or left for some godforsaken corner of the earth without telling her.
And none of that had ever mattered. She'd known the man she was marrying; she'd understood his passion, his conviction, his need to record how he saw the world through a camera. She'd shared that passion, but where Frankie saw light and color, contrast and composition – the way the world came together – Charley saw how the world came apart.
They said it was his gift; Frankie had always thought it more of a curse. Charley's view of life had been pretty damn dark. She'd spent a lot of her time lightening him up. Dragging him into the sun after he'd spent weeks in the rain. And if it insisted on raining, then she'd dragged him out anyway and convinced him to dance. There was nothing like dancing in the rain to make even the most jaded soul laugh.
The distant sound of Charley's laughter died. What the hell was wrong with her? Zoning off, thinking about her lying, cheating ex-husband's laughter and smiling like a fool.
Her smile faded as she shivered at the tone – desperation laced with terror. The last time she'd heard him speak like that ...
Frankie opened the door.
Charley walked right inside. His duffel hit the ground. He set his camera bag next to it more gently. The twin thuds brought back the past with dizzying clarity. How many times had she stood in this hallway and heard those exact same sounds?
More than she could count – but not for a long, long time. Back when her breasts didn't need a super bra to keep them from meeting her waist and her ass didn't kiss her thighs with every step.
'I know I should have called, but I didn't want to wake you.' He shut the door, turning with a smile as his arms opened wide. His head tilted.
His hair, no longer dark, but neither was hers, remained thick and curly despite his age. His eyes shone blue against his perpetual tan, maintained by a hundred dusty, sunny countries. The only signs of his age were more lines on his face and a slight stoop to his slim shoulders. He was still tall, thin and handsome.
'I guess I woke you anyway. Sorry, baby.'
Frankie's mouth hung open. She snapped it shut, then crossed her arms over her chest. She'd interrupted her editing long enough to remove the bra that left marks on her shoulders and ribs to put on a very old tank top and equally old pajama bottoms. Not that this man hadn't seen it all. But he hadn't seen it the way it was now, and she didn't want him to.
Another perk of divorce.
'This isn't funny,' Frankie said.
Charley dropped his arms, clueing into the fact that she wasn't going to walk into them anytime soon. 'Why would it be funny?'
He appeared honestly confused. Charley was many things – smart, talented, expansive – but a great actor wasn't one of them. He was genuine in a way few people were. Which was probably why he was so good at his job. He could talk to anyone – from a Maasai warrior to the newly elected President of the United States – and his sincerity charmed them. Charley truly wanted to connect with his subjects – and who wasn't charmed by legitimate interest? With his incredible ability to record someone's essence through the lens of his camera, he told stories without words.
When Charley Blackwell looked at you, you felt special. When he took your picture, you became immortal. People trusted Charley. They loved him. Frankie had.
When he broke her heart, he broke it forever. Sure, she'd survived. Didn't we all? But she was never again the woman she'd been before she'd lost him.
Frankie's hands seemed empty without her camera. She felt more naked without it than without her bra. With a camera, Frankie could distance anyone just by bringing the viewfinder to her eye.
It also made a great weapon. Just ask Charley. He'd saved himself in countless dicey situations by bashing someone on the head with his Nikon. Right now, she really wanted to bash him.
'What the fuck are you doing here, Charley?'
'I live here.'
He sounded so certain that she pinched herself to see if, maybe, this was a dream. It was strange enough.
Her fingernails left half-moon marks in her arm; the pinch pinched. She didn't wake up.
'You don't live here any more.'
He laughed – the big, booming Charley laugh she'd fallen in love with. 'Did you toss my clothes on the lawn again?'
'I only did that once.' Of course the time he'd really deserved it, the time he'd admitted to boinking an editorial assistant – worse, to loving an editorial assistant – she'd been too devastated to do anything but curl into a ball and cry.
'Seemed like more.'
Frankie made a soft sound of amusement and his smile deepened. He grabbed her hand before she could stop him. 'Let's go to bed. I'm beat.' He started up the stairs, tugging her along.
She hung back. 'What is wrong with you?'
Because there was something wrong. Very.
'Nothing that twelve hours in the sack with you won't cure.'
Frankie shook her head to try and make the weird buzzing in her ears stop.
Charley took it as a 'no', which it also was. 'Still working? OK.'
He continued up the stairs, his hiking boots silent on the new plush carpet, but instead of going into what had once been their bedroom on the left, he turned into the room on the right. He immediately came out. For the first time since he'd walked through her door, uncertainty flickered across his face. 'What's going on?'
'You tell me.'
He glanced into the room again, then back. 'Where's Lisa?'
Gooseflesh broke out everywhere on Frankie's body. She tried to breathe, but the air she drew into her lungs tasted like fire, burned like it too. Maybe there was a fire, because her eyes suddenly watered as if smoke billowed all around.
Why would he ask that? How could he ask that?
Their daughter was dead.
'Did you let Lisa stay at a friend's? You knew I was coming home and that I'd want to see her.'
Frankie stood in the foyer, gaping like a kamikaze goldfish that had flipped from the bowl and on to the floor. She could not draw in enough air.
'Fancy? You OK?'
Neither of them was OK, but one of them was less OK than the other. Right now, as black dots began to dance in front of her eyes, Frankie wasn't sure which one that was.
Footsteps pounded down the stairs. Charley smacked her – hard – in the center of her back. She gasped and began to breathe again.
Charley pulled Frankie into his arms. She was so loopy she let him.
He smelled exactly the same beneath that gamey, too-long-in-a-plane smell. Since Frankie had met him he'd used a shower gel that brought to mind fresh herbs just sprouted in a sunny garden. Every time she caught a whiff of basil, Frankie thought of Charley. Right after the divorce, she'd been unable to prepare any of her mother's Italian recipes. The instant Frankie smelled those herbs she'd felt sick. It had been years before she could stomach bruschetta again, and it had once been her favorite.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Just Once"
Copyright © 2018 Lori Handeland.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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