Authors: Eileen Goudge
“You don’t have to wait on me,” she said somewhat sharply, not needing any reminders of who paid his salary. “Anyway, it’s late, I should be going.” She glanced at her watch, astonished to see that it was half-past midnight.
The whiskey must have gone to her head for she wobbled a little as she hauled herself to her feet, prompting Reggie to catch hold of her elbow, to steady her. Their eyes met again, and for a long moment they remained locked in that stance, neither of them moving. The top button of his short-sleeved shirt was undone, and she could see a pulse beating steadily in the hollow at the base of his throat. Then slowly, ever so slowly, he brought his hand to her cheek, letting it rest there a moment before bending his head to kiss her.
Emerson closed her eyes and gave in to the swirl of sensation brought on by the pressure of his lips against hers. They were soft and full, gentle yet insistent. In response, she wound her arms around his neck, tilting her head back and parting her lips as the kiss deepened.
“Jesus,” she breathed, when they finally came up for air.
“I’m afraid Jesus had very little to do with it.” Reggie gave a low, throaty chuckle.
In a shaky voice, she asked, “So what now?”
He drew her close, whispering into her hair, “That’s up to you.”
The thought of Marjorie loomed. If she let this go any further, there would be hell to pay. It might even push her mother into an early grave.
Can I live with that?
At the same time, she knew that if she were to give in to her mother yet again, she’d spend the rest of her life regretting it.
She couldn’t let that happen. She’d sacrificed too much as it was.
She took Reggie’s hand and led him over to the sofa, where they sank down, arms twined about each other. She brought his hand to her mouth, kissing its upturned palm, before guiding it to her breast. Slowly, he unbuttoned her blouse, each button a small seduction in itself. She moaned softly in her throat, sensations she hadn’t felt in a long, long time dancing like sparks beneath the shell of ice she’d built around herself, thawing it in warm trickles.
Lost in the rapture, she felt as if she were being rudely awakened from a dream when she heard Marjorie’s voice call peevishly from down the hall, “Reggie!
Where are you?”
They both leaped up, hastily rearranging their clothing. Emerson put a finger to her lips, signaling to Reggie to stay quiet—her mother didn’t have to know she was here. He nodded in understanding, giving her one last lingering look before turning away and stepping out of the room.
Emerson waited another minute, and when she was sure the coast was clear, she snatched up her high heels, holding them in one hand as she padded out into the hall.
The story of my life. Thirty-six years old and still tiptoeing around my mother,
she thought, disgusted with herself, as moments later she slipped out the front door, easing it shut behind her.
In the days to come, Emerson thought of little else but Reggie. Over and over, she mentally replayed their interlude, and in her imagination they didn’t stop at kissing. Fearful of where it would lead, she began restricting her visits to daylight hours. Not that it kept her from mooning over him like a lovesick teenager.
After a week, she’d had enough and resolved to settle it once and for all. She’d heard enough about Reggie’s classes at school to have some idea of his schedule, and one blustery day, when she was between appointments, she tracked him down at NYU. No way was she going to have this conversation where her mother might overhear.
She spotted him as he was strolling out of the lecture hall where his advanced biology class was held. He was with several other classmates, all of them talking animatedly among themselves. In his snug-fitting jeans and button-down shirt, amid the younger students with their shapeless clothing and untamed hair, sprouting iPod wires from their ears, he might have been one of the professors. But while they appeared to defer to him, they also seemed to accept him as one of their own. One in particular, a pretty, petite girl with big brown eyes and riotous black hair, was hanging on his every word, clearly fascinated…or perhaps enamored.
Emerson felt a dart of envy. At her mother’s, it was easy to fool herself into thinking it was just the two of them in their own little bubble apart from the rest of the world, but now she was reminded that Reggie had a life apart from her and Marjorie—one in which he was surrounded by fresh-faced young women unencumbered by all of her baggage.
He caught sight of her and broke into a grin, jogging over to where she stood. He looked surprised to see her, asking in his deep, melodic voice, “Is everything all right?”
“Fine,” she said. “Listen, do you have a minute?”
“My next class isn’t for another hour,” he said.
“I’m sorry to ambush you like this,” she said as they strolled in the direction of Washington Square. Amid the swirl of students barreling past with their backpacks, she was reminded of when she’d been a student at Princeton. It seemed like a hundred years ago.
“Any visit from you is a welcome one,” he assured her. There was nothing in his face to indicate anything other than delight.
“It’s just that I didn’t want to have this conversation at my mother’s,” she explained.
He darted her an odd look. “Is this about the other night?”
She came to an abrupt standstill, feeling herself warm under his solemn gaze. “Listen, I just wanted you to know, I…I don’t regret what happened. But I think we should cool it. For now. This isn’t such a good time.”
“Because of your mother?”
He nodded, and said softly, “I see.”
you?” she asked, pleading with him almost.
“I think so.”
“Believe me, this isn’t how I want it to be. It’s just…” Emerson gave a defeated sigh, her shoulders drooping. “She’s so sick and it would only upset her. Not that she doesn’t think highly of you,” she hastened to add. “It’s just that she…well, you know how it is.”
“It is your decision, of course,” he said, but in his sea-water eyes that contrasted so vividly with his dark skin, she read an entirely different message.
“It’s not, really. It’s just how it is,” she said weakly.
He shrugged again, as if the distinction were lost on him. “That is one way of looking at it.”
“What other way is there?”
“Perhaps you are giving her too much power.”
She thought of all the sacrifices she’d made for Marjorie, and knew that what he was saying was true. She had created a monster. One that would eventually devour her. At the same time she felt helpless to change it. A bit defensively, she replied, “I think I know my mother better than you do.”
“But does she know
Does she know what’s in your heart?”
Emerson fell silent. His words had pierced her to the core.
No, she doesn’t know me,
she answered silently. If Marjorie were privy to what was in her heart right now, she’d be horrified.
When they reached Washington Square, with its magnificent arch that graced the Fifth Avenue entrance, Emerson said, “I should get back to work.” Even so, she lingered, reluctant to leave him. “You’ll call me if you need anything?”
He got the message, that she would go on curtailing her evening visits, and nodded, wearing a grave look. “Of course.”
“When you see my mother, tell her…”
What? That she’s responsible for ruining my life?
“I’ll be by on Saturday.”
Emerson felt almost ill. There was a heaviness in her chest and her throat was tight, as if she were coming down with something. When Reggie drew her to him, not in a lover’s embrace, but as if she were a patient in need of ministering, she felt too weak to protest.
She made no move to pull away until the sound of a horn honking jolted her back into reality. But before she could step back, he inclined his head toward her, his mouth closing over hers in the gentlest of kisses. A kiss more volatile, in its own way, than if he’d thrown her to the ground in a fit of passion. For as she was hurrying away in search of a cab, she knew that if her mission in coming here today had been to nip this in the bud, she’d not only failed miserably but managed to become even more deeply enmeshed.
he morning meeting had begun with the managing producer, Jules Hanratty, taking them through the breaking news of the day—a car crash in Glendale that had resulted in at least one confirmed fatality, flooding in Covina and a wildfire in Simi Valley, a marine killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq. Business as usual, in other words.
If they didn’t inure themselves to the onslaught of bloodshed and mayhem that flowed in each day, Stevie knew, they’d end up burning out, or worse, getting an ulcer. So she sat blank-faced like everyone else, nibbling on a doughnut, as she listened to Jules fill them in on the gang shooting in Compton that had resulted in one death and two arrests.
Jules was wrapping it up when the news director, Jerry Fine, interjected, “What about the rash of carjackings in Huntington Park? We should do a story on that.” A former naval officer, with a square jaw and close-cropped gray hair, Jerry liked to boast that he ran a tight ship. Only Stevie knew what a pussycat he was underneath. “Give it to Lisa,” he said, referring to Lisa Blankenship, who was currently filling in as a coanchor for the five o’clock.
There was some discussion of the body that had been found in a Dumpster on Melrose, the victim of an apparent overdose, though homicide hadn’t been ruled out. “I have a call into the ME’s office,” said Liv Henry. “The toxin screens weren’t available last time I checked.” An elongated exclamation point of a woman capped with frizzy brown hair, she sat with one bony leg crossed over the other, her foot jiggling compulsively as she spoke. The joke in the newsroom was that Liv didn’t just drink coffee, she was on an IV drip.
They moved on to the flooding in Covina. “I think the story is storm fatigue. Sewers are screwed up. Water can’t drop to normal levels,” said Stan Lowry, who produced the weather segments. He took a bite out of his doughnut, sending a shower of crumbs down the front of his shirt.
Bubbly, blond Megan Johnstone, the lifestyles producer, suggested doing a piece on the gypsy look for her next fashion segment, and was given a sharp reminder by Liv not to use the word “gypsy”; it might cause offense.
Stevie, the lone reporter of the bunch, allowed to sit in on these meetings only because technically she was listed as the entertainment producer, was the last to put in her two cents. Throughout the meeting she’d been mulling over the ethical bind she was in. The only one who knew about her and Grant was Jerry, whom she’d sworn to secrecy. He was her “rabbi” at KNLA and understood the delicate nature of the position she was in; he was prepared to sit tight until the time was right for her to come forward. But Stevie couldn’t lose sight of the fact that right now there was no bigger story than Lauren Rose’s Lazarus-like rise from near death. Every day brought new tabloid headlines, with public interest showing no sign of waning. If Stevie didn’t act soon, one of the rival stations would get wind of her bombshell and beat KNLA to the punch.
And now there was an added wrinkle.
“Diane Sawyer’s got an exclusive with Lauren Rose,” she announced. She’d just gotten it from a pal in the ABC newsroom.
“I didn’t know she could even speak,” commented Megan.
“Apparently so,” said Stevie. Lauren’s doctors had been tight-lipped about her progress, so most of what was in the news was hearsay and speculation. “They’re taping it at the rehab center.”
“Diane wouldn’t be doing it if she didn’t have the goods,” interjected Jules.
“I wonder if the DA’s involved,” said Stan, idly brushing crumbs from the front of his shirt.
Stevie felt a little inner shudder at the thought. She kept her gaze on the tabletop in front of her, covered in a graffiti-like overlay of old coffee rings and cigarette burns, from the days when smoking was still allowed in the building. “Nobody knows anything yet,” she said, struggling to keep her voice neutral. “We shouldn’t jump to conclusions.”
“Come on, everyone knows the guy’s guilty as sin,” scoffed Casey Beltran, who ran the assignment desk. Meaning Grant, of course.
Heat climbed into Stevie’s cheeks. She couldn’t defend Grant without raising suspicion, so she said nothing. Also, there was still that tiny grain of doubt: What if he
She was grateful when Jerry intervened. “In case you haven’t heard, there’s such a thing as innocent until proven guilty in this country,” he said pointedly to Stan. “Let’s not forget the man was never even charged.”
“Only because the lone eyewitness in the case couldn’t communicate. Until now.” Liv looked up from jotting something on her legal pad, wearing an ominous look.
she has something to say, we’ll know soon enough. Until then, let’s keep speculation to a minimum,” Jerry shot back, darting Stevie a veiled look.
The meeting adjourned and minutes later Stevie was back in her pod, banging out copy for the piece she was doing on the multimillion-dollar business of marketing dead celebrities. But she couldn’t stop thinking about Grant and what the ABC interview might mean for him. The more she got to know him, the harder it was to imagine him as a menace to society. But there was no question that if he
intentionally gone after Lauren, he’d shot to kill. No one put a bullet through someone’s head with the idea of merely wounding the person.
If only she could talk to Ryan about it, this whole thing would be easier. He’d help her sort through the mixed emotions she was feeling and advise her on what to do. But she hadn’t seen or spoken to him in weeks, and if she were to phone him now, it would only make it that much harder. With the pain of missing him a constant ache, she didn’t need any reminding that he was no longer in her life.
She blinked back tears, pushing the thought of Ryan from her mind as she bent once more to her task. After she’d cut and filed her piece and done the noon broadcast, she was out the door. Her day had started at five
. and she was beat, but it wasn’t over yet. Earlier in the week she’d volunteered to help her mother paint her bedroom and she couldn’t back out at this late date, so instead of to the soft couch and stack of magazines that waited for her at home she headed to Nancy’s.
Half an hour later she was pulling into the driveway behind her mother’s old Ford pickup, piled with cartons of art supplies that Nancy hadn’t yet gotten around to unloading. Nancy was in the kitchen peeling a cucumber when Stevie walked in.
“Hi, honey. I thought we’d have some lunch first,” she said, looking up to smile at Stevie.
“You didn’t have to do that, Mom.” Stevie dropped a kiss on her mother’s check. It looked like she’d gone to a fair bit of trouble. There was a quiche cooling on the counter along with a loaf of freshly baked bread. “I could have picked up something on the way.”
“If you’re going to help me paint, the least I can do is feed you. Will you hand me that?” Nancy used the peeler in her hand to indicate the knife on the counter near Stevie. “I hope you’re hungry. I made enough to feed the entire neighborhood.”
“I’m sure the neighbors will appreciate it,” Stevie said dryly, knowing that whatever wasn’t eaten would be wrapped up and delivered to someone down the road. The close-knit community of potters, weavers, and glassblowers had become a surrogate family of sorts, and they depended on each other for everything from candles and batteries during power outages to, twice, battling flames to save each other’s houses when wildfires swept down from the surrounding hills.
“Why don’t you set the table while I finish making the salad. Everything else is ready.” Nancy waved distractedly toward the big oak table in the sunny dining nook. The table had been salvaged from an old garment factory that was being torn down, and Nancy had refinished it herself, leaving its dings and scars, which she said gave it character.
Stevie murmured in assent, but made no move toward the cupboard where the dishes were kept. Instead, she slid onto a bar stool and leaned forward to prop her elbows on the counter, watching her mother begin slicing the cucumber she’d peeled. This was what she remembered best about her childhood: hanging out in the kitchen with her mother after school. When Nancy wasn’t in her studio, she always had something cooking. In summer, she’d make things with the vegetables and fruit from her garden out in back. At any given moment there were half a dozen jars containing sprouts in various stages of growth on the sill. The air always smelled of something baking or ripening or bubbling on the stove.
The years they’d lived in the Valley, Stevie had had to contend with other kids at school who’d made fun of her “hippie” clothes and her “lesbo” friend. (Sukie Foster wasn’t a lesbian, but she’d sported a tattoo on one arm and dyed her hair a different color every week.) The only thing that had gotten her through those difficult years was having a safe place to retreat to at the end of each day. If Nancy had occasionally embarrassed her by showing up for parent-teacher conferences in clay-spattered overalls and rattling around town in their old VW Bug emblazoned with left-wing and pro-feminist stickers, her unconditional love and the haven she’d provided had more than made up for it.
Try as she might, Stevie couldn’t picture her mother as the aimless drifter she’d once been. “Tell me about the night you and Grant…um, you know,” Stevie found herself saying now. “I still don’t know the whole story.”
Nancy paused in the midst of her slicing, color rising in her cheeks. “There’s not much to tell.”
“You met at a concert, right?” Stevie prompted.
Nancy used the back of her wrist to brush aside a wisp of the curly reddish hair that was always trailing down in her eyes, hair once a rich auburn that had dulled to the color of old pennies. She was gazing sightlessly ahead, wearing a distant look. “They were playing the Fillmore that night, Astral Plane and Pink Floyd and some other bands you probably never heard of,” she began at last, in a soft, almost girlish voice. “My friend Phoebe knew some guy who traded us a pair of tickets for some hash.” She hesitated, darting Stevie a questioning look, as if to ask,
Are you sure you want to hear this?
“Go on,” Stevie urged.
“The place was mobbed when we got there. You could hardly move,” Nancy continued, almost as if talking to herself. “When Astral Plane started to play, everyone went wild. Grant…it was like he was on fire, burning up the stage. You couldn’t even see his hands, his fingers were flying so fast over those strings.” Her lips curved in a small, remembering smile. “That’s when he spotted me. I was right up front, just below the stage, and for a second our eyes met. At first, I thought maybe I’d imagined it, but after the set one of the roadies came over and asked if I wanted to go backstage and meet him.”
“What was he like?” Stevie asked, eager to know more.
Nancy brought her gaze back to Stevie, and the wild child she’d been faded into the calm, clean-scrubbed face of Stevie’s mother. “Nice, polite,” she said, with a shrug. “Just a guy from Omaha. Nothing like he was onstage. To be honest, I don’t know that I would have gone back to his hotel with him if he hadn’t been who he was.” She gave a rueful smile, reaching across the counter to briefly lay a hand against Stevie’s cheek. “But I’m glad I did because look what came out of it.”
“Yeah, a pain-in-the-ass daughter who can’t leave well enough alone,” Stevie quipped, her voice gruff with emotion.
“Speaking of which, are you making any headway?” Nancy asked, referring to the informal investigation Stevie had been conducting.
“I spoke with the maid,” she reported as she slid off the stool and headed over to the cupboard to grab some plates. She’d gotten the number from Keith. Luce Velasquez had been less than forthcoming at first, partly due to the fact that she didn’t speak English all that well, but she’d opened up some when Stevie tried communicating in her rusty high school Spanish. “She told me the same thing she told the police, that she heard the shot, but by the time she ran downstairs the gun was on the floor next to Lauren and Grant was half out of his mind with hysteria. Which means either he’s a really good actor or it happened just like he said. Frankly, at this point, I don’t know what to believe.”
“Is it so important that you know?” Nancy asked.
Stevie paused on her way to the table, turning to face her mother. “Whether or not my father’s capable of murdering someone? Yeah, it does matter. It matters a lot.”
Nancy regarded her thoughtfully, a mixture of emotions playing over her delicate-featured face, as if her brief foray into the past had stirred up more than just old memories.
“The truth isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be,” she said at last, with the air of someone who’d faced some hard truths of her own.
The night the Diane Sawyer interview finally aired on
Prime Time Live,
after a week of tantalizing promos, Stevie was so keyed up she could hardly sit still. The week before she’d tapped all her sources at the network, trying to get a bead on what might be in store. But ABC was buttoned down tighter than the Pentagon. There wasn’t so much as a drip, much less a leak. No one, maybe not even Diane herself, knew what Lauren was going to say.
The intro was agonizingly long, and Stevie fidgeted on the living room floor where she sat, the plate of food she’d earlier put in the oven to warm forgotten. Diane was her usual cool, studiedly empathetic self as she provided the back story for the three people on the planet who didn’t already know it. It was accompanied by grainy footage of Grant in concert with Astral Plane and of him being interviewed at a long-ago press conference. There were photos and video clips of Lauren Rose as well, growing up in Michigan and as an aspiring young actress, along with a clip from a sitcom pilot that had never aired, in which she’d had a bit part. It was followed by B-roll footage of Grant’s estate, shot from outside the gates, looking like a medieval fortress, high up on a hill partially screened by tall trees. Only Stevie and a handful of others were privy to what went on behind those gates, and at the moment she wasn’t too sure how much even she knew.
Diane talked about the mystery that had shrouded the near fatal shooting from the beginning. The only thing they knew for certain was that Grant and Lauren had at one time been romantically linked. The extent of which was unknown, but it was well established that she’d been an overnight visitor at the mansion on numerous occasions.