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|Publisher:||Pelican Book Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.55(d)|
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By Susan Diane Johnson
Pelican Ventures, LLCCopyright © 2013 Susan Diane Johnson
All rights reserved.
Ten months later
The blinking light on the answering machine flickered, fast, furious, needy for attention. An unwelcome emotion tore at Joe Kendall's gut. Ignore it. Just walk away.
He should leave the room. Leave the voice mail unheard. Pretend he hadn't seen the annoying red light. Then the message wouldn't impact his heart. But he couldn't leave.
An inexplicable desperate need filled him, a need to hear the voice that would fill the room when he pressed the button.
Lisa. She called everyday like clockwork, and Joe found himself alternately looking forward to and dreading the calls.
The answering machine was a blessing. He didn't have to speak to her yet could listen to the sweet sound of her voice without her knowing how it affected him.
Easing behind the huge oak desk beneath the windows at the far end of his office, he settled into the chair of butter-plush leather — a gift from Lisa when he'd been offered a junior partnership in the firm.
Before he could push the button to listen to the message, someone rapped on the door. His boss, Mike Lee, walked into the room without waiting for a response.
"Joe, we need to talk."
"Hey, Mike. What's up?" He tried to sound pleasant, even though the interruption irritated him.
Mike rubbed his hand over the top of his short, thinning hair. Something was wrong. Not only did Mike not usually burst into his office, his head wasn't usually beet-red.
"It's the other senior partners." Mike sighed and rubbed his scalp again then sat in one of the chairs in front of Joe's desk. "Joe, there's no easy way to say this. A few of them are calling for your resignation."
"What?" Joe straightened in his chair. This couldn't be happening. "But I'm a partner."
"I know. That's why they've agreed to give you another chance."
Relieved, Joe let his shoulders relax. "Thank you," he whispered.
"Don't get too comfortable. There's a stipulation."
Joe tensed again.
"They want you to take a leave of absence. You have the rest of the week to get your cases cleared up or reassigned. After that, you're on a mandatory leave of absence."
"Don't even try to talk your way around it. They won't consider anything less. It was the best I could do."
Joe rose from behind his desk and walked over to the window that faced Penn Cove. A few houses stood on the bluff across the water. One of those houses belonged to him and Lisa. If he lost his job, they'd lose the house. He couldn't let Lisa lose one more thing. He cleared his throat in order to hide his emotion. "For how long?"
Two weeks? Joe had no idea how to fill two weeks' worth of time. Not without work. It was the only thing that kept him going. Unsure what to say, he stared out the window. A boat with a faded red sail bobbed around in the choppy water.
"Joe, there's something else we need to talk about." Joe tensed at Mike's tone. "Friend to friend," Mike added quickly. "Why don't you sit back down?"
"I think I'll stand. Thanks." Joe continued to look out at the window.
"You should seriously consider filing for a divorce."
Joe turned around so fast he bumped into the potted fig and knocked several of the dry leaves loose. They fluttered to the ground and crunched into bits on the carpet beneath Joe's feet as he stepped toward Mike. "File for divorce? Are you for real?"
Mike stood and joined Joe at the window. He stared across the water as if looking at Joe and Lisa's house. "When was the last time you saw her?"
Joe blew out a heavy breath, not wanting to have this conversation. He clenched and unclenched his fists. "Don't, Mike," he warned in a low voice.
"Come on, Joe. I'm not trying to fight with you."
"It sure sounds like it. How would you like it if I made the same suggestion to you?"
"It's not the same thing. I go home to my wife every night." Mike stared at him, a challenge in his light blue eyes.
"Yeah, well, things are different for me, and you know it."
"What's it been? Three months?"
"Two," Joe answered, feeling ashamed. Why did Mike have to bring up this subject? "It really isn't your business."
"I feel like it is. You're my friend. You're my co-worker. I just went to bat for you in a room full of men who want you gone. You owe me."
"And I'm supposed to repay you by divorcing my wife?"
"No. Not to repay me. To let her go. You haven't seen her in two months. Before that, you were always mentally absent. You're wallowing in guilt so heavy you can't even see what you're doing to her."
"I know what I'm doing to her," Joe snapped. "Do you think this is easy for me?" The guilt swallowed him a little more each day. He certainly didn't need any reminders from Mike.
"You need to find closure, Joe."
"Closure? I'm so sick of you throwing that word in my face. What I need is —" My wife and my son. "Get out, Mike. Go home to your wife."
Mike nodded and clapped him on the shoulder in what was probably meant to be a show of support. Joe shrugged Mike's hand off and turned back to the window. "I said get out."
"Fine. But think about it. Until you find a way to deal with your grief, you're no good for Lisa, and you're no good for yourself." Mike started out the door but stopped and turned back for one last parting shot. "If you truly love her, which I'm beginning to doubt, you'd let her get on with her life, Joe. Give her a chance to find a little bit of happiness."
Fists clenched, Joe started toward the door but stopped as Mike closed it behind him. He struggled for self-control. Fighting with Mike wasn't worth losing his job. Still, what did Mike know about it? Joe loved Lisa more than anything. That's why he stayed away from her.
With a resigned sigh, he went back to his desk and pushed the button on the machine. Settling into his chair, he leaned back and listened.
"Hi, Joe. It's me." The soft gentle tones were Lisa's usual manner. Letting his eyes drift shut, he could picture her standing there, blue eyes sparkling with joy and excitement as they used to, her touch light on his arm.
"We haven't talked in a while." Her birthday. Two months almost to the day. He knew exactly how long it had been, just like he remembered every detail of his last-ditch effort to try and repair things.
"I know you're avoiding me, Joe. Please come home." If possible, her voice had softened even more. Lady-like, never demanding or whiny.
With a groan, he buried his face in his hands wishing he could go home, knowing he couldn't go there, couldn't face Lisa day after day, where he would be met with the hurt in her eyes — hurt he'd caused.
He'd hoped the specially planned birthday weekend would erase the deep sadness from her eyes. But it hadn't. If anything, it made things worse. For whatever reason, he didn't know. But he'd stayed away after that.
It was better this way, better for both of them.
"You have to be tired of sleeping in your office."
Though he'd never admit it to her or anyone else, he was. He had a persistent ache in his back and a crick in his neck from tossing and turning and trying to get comfortable on the small couch.
"Joe, I want you to take the trip."
The trip. Something deep in his gut froze, and his heart began to pound. This wasn't the first time Lisa mentioned the trip. But this time he actually considered it.
"It would be good for you. Get away. Relax your mind and your soul. Maybe ..." Joe could hear the hesitation in her voice and pictured her standing at the kitchen counter, phone pressed to her ear, staring out at the trees in the backyard. She would be watching for birds. She loved birds.
"Maybe it will help you deal with ... you know ... him." Her voice trailed off as if she couldn't bring herself to say his name. Just as Joe couldn't bear hearing it.
Cody. His son. Their son. Losing him altered his life in ways he'd never imagined possible. He couldn't imagine anything worse. Not even the breakdown of his marriage.
Something hot and unwelcome burned at the back of his eyes. He squeezed them tight and shook his head. Lisa actually believed going on a trip to Alaska, the trip originally intended as a family vacation for Cody's tenth birthday, would be good for him. Try as he might, he just didn't see how.
But right now he didn't have much choice. What else could he do? Unless he pulled himself together and found closure, he'd be out of a job. His law firm considered him a fast growing liability.
And once he cleared his desk and reassigned his cases, he'd have nowhere to stay. He'd been sleeping on the couch in the little den in his office. He could either go home to Lisa — not an option — or he could stay in a hotel for a couple of weeks then go back to work and say he'd found the oh-so-magical cure — closure.
The old Joe would never have considered lying. But this Joe would if lying were the only way he could return to work.
"I'm not saying you should forget Cody, or even that you shouldn't be sad. I'm sad, too." Joe heard the catch in Lisa's voice and pictured her face. The look he imagined broke his heart all over again.
"I'll probably be sad forever. So will you. But Joe, we should be doing this together."
No, he couldn't do it together. He didn't deserve to do anything with Lisa ever again. Heal, laugh, love. None of it.
Pain simultaneously tightened his throat and chest. He wished she would just forget about him. But she wouldn't. She was persistent, trying to wear him down. He was on the verge of giving in, and it scared him.
"Think about it, Joe."
Thinking hurt too much.
Being away from work, out there on a cruise ship, would give him too much opportunity to think. He didn't want to think. That's why he hid at work. He could forget about his personal life, lose himself in his cases. At least that's what he thought he'd been doing until Mike just set the record straight.
Joe found himself quickly coming to a decision he'd never imagined he'd make. This time instead of ignoring her message, he would answer it. But only because of this new situation Mike had forced on him.
If it would help Lisa in any way, he would do it. He would hide out on the cruise ship for a couple of weeks then go back to work and tell Mike the time away did him a lot of good. He'd do an exceptional job of convincing him. He had to. If he lost his job, he couldn't support Lisa. Losing her financial means was one more loss he wasn't willing to put her through.
He sighed in resignation then folded his arms on the desk and rested his head against them. He tried to take comfort in listening to Lisa on the answering machine.
"Joe?" Her voice softened even more, and Joe braced himself for what always came next.
"I love you." And then her final whispered plea. "Please, come home."
That was his cue to reach over and mute the answering machine before the mechanical voice could declare, "End of messages." He would rather Lisa's final words hang in the air, despite their effect on him.
Right now, he was especially vulnerable because she had the tickets in her possession and he'd have to call and ask for them. Somehow, he'd have to convince her to stay home. He certainly couldn't handle being cooped up with her for two weeks.
His hand trembled as he reached for the phone. Joe preferred to run away, hide — anything but talk to her. Conversing with her forced him to face the reality of the situation.
Their son, Cody, was gone. Forever. Never to be in their lives again.
Joe couldn't deal with the guilt.
* * *
The phone rang as Lisa started to pour a cup of hot water for her friend, Rose Gentry. After a quick glance at the caller ID, her hand trembled and she set the teakettle back on the stove.
"Lisa, it's me, Joe."
"I know." Not daring to hope what it might mean, she couldn't seem to raise her voice above whisper. It had been far too long since she'd heard his voice.
Hot tears burned the back of her eyes. Grateful to hear him now, she couldn't help but wish they could talk face-to-face. She'd take what she could get, though. Then a little whisper of fear brushed her heart. "Are you — is everything OK?"
"Yes." He hesitated just a bit. Then he cleared his throat. "Look, Lisa, I need to ask — do you still have the tickets for the cruise?"
Dare she even hope?
He spoke the words so fast she couldn't be entirely sure she heard correctly. Had Joe finally come around and realized what he'd been doing to himself? To her? To their marriage?
"Please, Lord," she whispered.
He'd heard her. Now he'd know how desperate she was to have him back. No, not just to have him back. To have him snap out of this dark cloud of despair and start living again. Not that she had really started living again either. She missed her son as much as Joe did, and certainly considered herself equally — no more — guilty over his death.
"Nothing," she said quickly. "Yes, of course, I have the tickets."
"Good. I need them. You weren't planning on using them, were you?"
The truth hit her like a punch to the gut. He didn't want her to go with him.
"No." Somehow, she managed to speak through the painful constriction of her throat. Her heart broke all over again. Could he be taking someone else? No. She knew Joe well enough. He might be hiding himself away from their marriage, but he would never cheat on her.
Slowly she sank onto the couch, cast Rose a woeful glance, and then shook her head. Rose gave Lisa a sympathetic look in return, with the emphasis on pathetic, which described Lisa to a T.
When would she quit hoping for Joe to come home?
To quit hoping would be to give up on Joe, and she'd never stop praying for him to cope with their loss. In the same way, she'd never stop praying for a chance to live that awful day over so she could do things differently. As long as she had breath, she would pray for those things.
Rose went over to the cupboard and rifled through an assortment of tea bags. She held up a black cherry one and waved it in Lisa's direction. Lisa nodded, and Rose filled the cup with steaming water.
"Lisa, I'm planning to take the cruise. But I really need to be alone. If you're sure you're not planning to go, I'll be by to get my ticket."
"Sure, Joe, of course. When do you want to come over? I'll make sure I'm here."
"That's just it, Lisa. I don't think we should see each other. Just leave the ticket on the porch under the planter, and I'll pick it up."
He didn't want to see her.
She thought back to that last weekend they'd spent together, her birthday, and swallowed hard. That weekend, she thought everything would be all right between them, but it wasn't. And his not wanting to see her was her reminder that it hadn't meant anything to him. She blinked back tears, not liking what his quick dismissal did to her heart.
"I'll put them in an envelope."
"Thanks." He was quiet, but she thought she heard a catch in his breath, as if he wanted to say something but changed his mind. Then she heard the soft click of the phone and knew he'd hung up.
"Bye, Joe," Lisa whispered anyway. She could have kicked herself for the watery sound in her voice. Having Rose as a witness made it even worse. Thank goodness, Joe hadn't heard it.
As they sipped their tea, Lisa relayed the conversation. Rose sat forward with interest and had just one thing to say. "Honey, you're going on that cruise."CHAPTER 2
Two Weeks Later
Saturday afternoon, Lisa and Rose stood on the sidewalk not far from the Seattle pier where the cruise ship Northern Lights rose out of the water and dwarfed everything in sight.
Nothing good ever came of lying.
Lisa looked up at the giant ship and gulped. It stood at least ten times the size of a Washington State ferry — until now, the largest boat she'd ever been on. Tiny lifeboats were placed at intervals across the side of the ship facing her. No doubt, the other side looked the same. Were there enough for the mass of people on the ship? Would they need them? An image from Titanic flashed through her mind, and her knees buckled.
"Easy," Rose said. "Are you all right?"
"I'm — I don't think I can do this." Her voice rose in pitch. She hated the way it sounded. Unsure. Insecure. Both were things she'd fought so hard to overcome.
This was crazy. She let her nerves take hold of her imagination and invent fear where there'd never been fear before. She raised one shoulder in a half-hearted gesture.
Excerpted from True North by Susan Diane Johnson. Copyright © 2013 Susan Diane Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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