Los Angeles, California
Keith O’Connell was lying. Isaac Russell could tell.
Surprised, he slowly lowered his fork while studying his brother-in-law’s face. Keith wouldn’t meet Isaac’s eyes. He wouldn’t look at Elizabeth, either. And there were other signs. The way he hunched into himself and kept fidgeting with his hands, constantly moving through the stack of mail near the telephone as if he hadn’t whipped through it at least twice already. The slowness of his responses. Even the irritation in Keith’s bearing bothered Isaac because it indicated that he didn’t like being questioned.
And yet the subject was so innocuous….
“From the sounds of it, the accident was horrendous,” Elizabeth said, seemingly oblivious to her husband’s discomfort as she added another pancake to Isaac’s plate. “But you didn’t mention it.”
Isaac was already too full to eat any more, but he said nothing. He waited for Keith’s answer, hoping that he was somehow misinterpreting his brother-in-law’s body language. “What?” Keith finally glanced up as though he’d lost track of the conversation in his preoccupation with the mail. But it was obvious– at least to Isaac–that every word had registered.
“That forty-five-car pile-up in Sacramento,” Elizabeth responded conversationally. “You never said a word about it.”
“Oh…well, they had it mostly cleared away by the time I came through,” he said, his voice low and noncommittal.
Confusion registered in Elizabeth’s hazel eyes. Finally carrying her own plate to the table, she scowled at her husband. “But the paper said it took the better part of a day before they could even open the freeway. How was it that you got through? Traffic was stopped up for miles. I saw a picture.”
Another strained silence, then, “It happened before I got there, honey.”
Isaac was tempted to look away to avoid what he was seeing. If his sister was having problems in her marriage, he didn’t want to know it. He wanted to continue to believe she’d met the man of her dreams and would live happily ever after.
But he couldn’t ignore the warning signs. Elizabeth was his only sibling. He’d taken care of her through the dark years after their mother had died, when he was fourteen and she was eleven and they’d gone to live with their father and Luanna, the woman he’d married, and Luanna’s son, Marty, who was younger and far more spoiled than they’d been. Isaac was the one who’d hurt for her when the other girls made fun of her long, spindly legs and uncoordinated movements. He was the one who’d bought her tampons when she started her period and tried to explain how to use them. He was the one who’d gotten her a date for her sophomore homecoming dance. The following year, once she turned sixteen and lost that coltish look, he didn’t have to worry about twisting anyone’s arm to generate male interest. The boys were all standing in line by then. But that only meant he’d had to look out for her in a whole new way.
He’d always watched over her, and tried to protect the fragility engendered by their childhood.
“According to the article I read, it happened just before your plane landed,” Elizabeth said. “You must have driven right into it. It’s a miracle you weren’t hurt.”
Finally, Keith dropped the letters he’d been holding, but he kept his eyes averted while pulling on his overcoat and closing his briefcase. “I must have been too preoccupied to pay any attention,” he muttered. “You know how much stress I’ve been under.”
Keith’s response made Isaac even more uneasy. Typically, his brother-in-law came off as hardworking, sincere, honest guy. But today—
“The fog was so thick no one could see a thing, Keith,” Elizabeth said. “Eighteen people died. How is it that you–”
“I’m telling you it was the stress,” he interrupted. “And speaking of stress, I’ve got to go or I’ll miss my plane.”
He came forward to kiss her temple. She hesitated as though she’d stand up to give him a proper send off, but he didn’t allow her the chance. He was working his way around the table, saying good-bye to the children.
“Do you really have to leave so soon?” eight-year-old Mica asked.
“Every two weeks, babe. You know that.”
The misery that entered Mica’s brown eyes seemed magnified by the lenses of her glasses. “But the spelling bee is next Wednesday. I wanted you to come watch.”
Finally showing a response that felt authentic to Isaac, Keith mussed her hair, which was the same dark blond as his own. “I saw you beat your whole class, didn’t I?”
“It’s not over yet. Now I’m going up against the rest of the school.”
“I’m proud of you, honey. But you know how demanding my job is.”
“I hate your job,” she grumbled.
“His job is what puts food on this table, young lady,” Elizabeth said. Obviously, she was trying to teach Mica to give her father the proper respect–but Liz didn’t look any happier about Keith’s leaving than the children did. Isaac knew her husband’s long absences were hard on her.
“Mom will tape your spelling bee for me,” Keith told his daughter. “We’ll watch it together when I get back.”
Mica frowned over what was left of her breakfast and didn’t answer. But she allowed him to give her a quick squeeze. Then he moved on to his five-year-old son, who had golden hair and wide hazel eyes like his mother.
“What about my soccer game?” Christopher asked.
“I’ll catch the next one, buddy,” Keith said. “And we’ll go get ice cream again, okay?”
Chris brightened considerably. “Okay!”
“You took him out for ice cream?” Mica gasped, as though this was a great betrayal. “What about me?”
“You were at your friend’s house.”
“You could have brought me a cone.”
He winked at her. “You can come with us next time.”
The natural affection between Keith and his children made Isaac wonder if he’d jumped to the wrong conclusions a few moments earlier. Keith wasn’t the type to do anything that would hurt his family. So what would he have to lie about?
By the time his brother-in-law came around to shake his hand, Isaac had convinced himself he’d been imagining things. This was the man he’d been so happy to see his sister marry. It was Matt Dugan, the guy she used to date, who wouldn’t have treated her right.
“I guess you’ll be gone by the time I get back, huh?” Keith said.
Isaac nodded. “I’ve been here a week already. I need to head home and organize my notes.”
“On the forest elephants?”
Keith grinned and shook his head. “I don’t know how you Tarzan types do it, man. I’d go nuts camping out in the jungle for so long.”
“You wouldn’t if you loved it as much as I do.”
“Maybe not. You certainly make it look easy.”
“I’m single. I have only myself to worry about.” Isaac liked it that way. After taking care of Liz for so long, he was enjoying having the chance to focus solely on his work.
“Well, come see us again before you head back to Africa, okay?”
“I’ll try. A lot depends on whether or not I get the grant money.”
“It’ll come through eventually. It always does.”
Isaac had been lucky so far. “We’ll see.”
Scooping his keys off the counter, Keith headed to the living room. The front door banged shut. Then silence fell over the table–except for the sudden chime of the clock.
“I hate it when he has to go,” Mica said.
“Me, too,” Christopher grumbled.
Isaac checked Liz’s reaction and found her staring in her coffee cup.
“What’s up?” he asked.
Her sudden smile appeared forced. “Nothing. Why?”
“Are you still thinking about that accident in Sacramento?”
“Where’s Keith off to this time?”
“Phoenix. He goes there a lot. He’s training personnel on how to use the new business software he’s developed.”
“He must like what he does.”
She sighed. “So much he won’t put in for a change.”
“Is everything…” because Mica was watching, Isaac purposefully veered toward the generic, using only his tone to convey that he meant something deeper “…okay, Elizabeth?”
His sister’s delicately-arched eyebrows lifted. “Between me and Keith? Of course.”
“Positive.” She waved one finely sculpted hand in a dismissive gesture. “The constant traveling gets to me occasionally, that’s all. It’s hard to maintain a normal family life with him gone half the time.”
“Would you like me to stay here with the kids this week so you can fly to Phoenix and be alone with your husband?” Isaac was really anxious to get back to the university. Classes would be starting again soon. He had to get his syllabus prepared for Microbiology, which he’d be teaching spring semester, if the grant money didn’t come through before then.
But this was Elizabeth. He and his sister had grown up with the understanding that no matter what the world threw at them, they’d always have each other.
He thought she might need him now.
She tucked her long blond hair behind her ears, then took a sip of coffee. “No,” she said, her cup clinking against the saucer. “That’s sweet but, to be honest, I don’t think he’d want me there. He doesn’t like me to bother him while he’s working. We rarely hear from him when he’s gone.” She rubbed her temples as if battling a headache. “His company demands so much out of him. But he enjoys his work, so…what can I do?”
Isaac rubbed his knuckles thoughtfully against his jaw. “Are you sure he wouldn’t like you to join him? He’s been traveling for years. All that work has got to get old after a while.”
“Like your trips to the Congo get old for you?” she teased, her perfect teeth glinting at him as she smiled.
Isaac returned her smile, then sobered and reached out to touch her arm. “Liz?”
She took another sip of coffee before answering. “Hmm?”
“How do you think he missed that big accident in Sacramento?”
Her forehead crinkled as she considered the question. “I don’t know.” Although her plate was still nearly full, she pushed it away. “It’s possible I have the dates mixed up. He comes and goes so often.”
Despite her attempt to sound casual, her response didn’t ring any truer than Keith’s answers to the questions she’d asked him earlier.
“Do you really think so?” Isaac asked, afraid he was missing something important.
Another flicker of a smile—and an almost imperceptible glance at the children. “I do.”
* * *
It was still awkward. Even after twenty months.
Taking advantage of a moment when Lucky Hill was busy studying the menu, Rena O’Connell made a face at her brother to let him know she expected a more valiant effort from him. Then she curved her lips into a bright smile as the half-sister they hadn’t known about—until their father spilled the secret after Lucky had returned to town as a grown woman of twenty-four—looked up.
Unfortunately, encouraging Gabe did little good. He was too stubborn. When his granite-like expression didn’t soften, Reenie could tell he was making Lucky uncomfortable. Every few seconds, her eyes darted his way as if she was looking for some small sign of acceptance.
“So…should we rent something in Boise?” Reenie asked, trying to keep Lucky distracted by pressing forward with plans for their father’s 60th birthday party.
“I don’t think so,” she replied. “Boise’s over an hour away and won’t feel very intimate.”
“But Dad’s been in the state senate for…what? Twenty years? He’s got a lot of acquaintances and professional associates. We need some place big.”
Lucky tossed her curly, strawberry-blond hair over her shoulder. “Who says we have to invite all his professional associates? I vote we include only those people who are closest to him. Then we could have the party right here in Dundee.”
Again, Reenie noticed Gabe staring morosely at his food. “You have a point,” she mused. “We don’t want to turn this into another tedious political engagement. Lord knows Dad’s suffered through enough of those.”
“Exactly,” Lucky said and her gray-blue eyes darted Gabe’s way once again.
Reenie added another spoonful of sugar to her coffee, even though it was already too sweet. She needed something to do with her hands. “In that case, I guess our best option would be to have it at the Running Y Resort.”
Lucky’s response held a little too much enthusiasm. “That’s perfect. Don’t you think, Gabe?”
“Fine by me,” he muttered, but it was hardly the warm response Reenie knew Lucky had been hoping for. Their half-sister seemed to crave Gabe’s approval more than anyone else’s. She asked about him all the time. Whether or not things were going well for him and Hannah, his new wife. Whether or not he’d be at the family dinner on Sunday. (If Lucky was planning to attend, the answer was always no.) Whether or not he might come to dinner at her place if she were to invite him….
The smell of coffee filled the air the waitress stopped by with a steaming pot. Lucky leaned back to allow her better access to the table. Then, when the waitress walked away, she asked Gabe if he’d like more cream.
When he barely responded, Reenie wanted to kick him under the table. She would have, except she knew it wouldn’t do any good. He couldn’t feel it. The car accident that had ended his professional football career nearly four years ago had left him paralyzed from the waist down. He’d been in a wheelchair ever since.
Nothing to do but plunge ahead… She’d hoped to use Garth’s birthday to draw them all together, at last. Lucky had even left Sabrina, her one-year-old daughter, with her in-laws this morning so it could be just the three of them. But considering Gabe’s smoldering resentment, Reenie’s expectations were falling fast. At this point, she hoped only that they could survive this little get-together without Lucky heading home in tears.
“So how many should we invite?” Reenie asked.
“Gabe?” Lucky asked, immediately deferring to him.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. A hundred?”
Lucky cleared her throat. “A hundred is still quite a few,” she said, obviously trying hard to be tactful. “What about thirty or forty? We want it to be comfortable, not too crowded. I think it will be more meaningful to Dad that way.”
Although Reenie knew Lucky had been so focused on trying to state her preferences in a polite way that she probably hadn’t even noticed how she’d just addressed Garth, a muscle flexed in Gabe’s cheek when she called said “Dad.”
God, this was miserable. Reenie understood that Gabe was trying, or he wouldn’t have come today. She also understood that he was still struggling with the changes that had been forced upon him in recent years. But what had happened between their father and the most notorious prostitute in town wasn’t Lucky’s fault…. “I think thirty or forty is the way to go,” she said.
This time Lucky ignored her. “Gabe?”
Reenie watched her brother’s deep blue eyes, eyes that were almost a mirror image of her own, meet and clash with Lucky’s and curled her fingernails into her palms. “Never mind my…er…our surly brother,” she said quickly. Gabe’s eyebrows shot up at the “brother” part, but Reenie continued anyway. “It’s already two out of three, right?” She plastered another smile on her face.
“I’d like him to have some input,” Lucky said, her voice steady, frank. Instead of glancing away, like before, she glared at him.
Gabe clenched his jaw again, and the gap in the conversation stretched, filled only with the sound of clattering dishes coming from the kitchen and the murmur of voices all around them. Reenie would have piped up with something, but she knew it was unlikely either person would respond. They were in their own little world now. Lucky’s attitude indicated she’d finally had it with all the hope and the smiles and the kind words she’d used on him before.
“What is it you want from me?” Gabe asked at last.
“I’d like to know what you hold against me,” Lucky said. “What I’ve done to make you dislike me so much.”
Reenie swallowed hard, expecting the situation to blow up in her face—and was surprised when, initially, it was Gabe who backed off.
He jiggled the ice in his water glass. “Do whatever you want,” he said gruffly. “As far as I’m concerned, the two of you can plan the whole thing. I—”
“Forget the party,” Lucky interrupted, holding her chin at a challenging angle. “Why not answer my question?”
His scowl darkened. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
He started to wheel himself away, but Lucky stood and intercepted him, boldly placing a hand on his well-muscled arm. “No, I’ll leave. You stay and continue pouting about the fact that your father slept with my mother twenty-six years ago, since you can’t seem to get over it,” she said. “But I want you to know that I’ve finally realized something.” She grabbed her purse before turning her attention to him once again. “I was a fool for wanting you to like me. I was a fool for trying as hard as I have to convince you that I might make a good friend.” She gave him a bitter smile. “Screw you, Gabe. I don’t care if my husband loves you like a brother, if the father I’ve grown to respect worships the ground beneath your feet, if Reenie insists that you’re not the ogre you seem to be. The moment I come into the picture, you’re not the man everyone thinks you are, and I don’t want to be part of your life anymore,” she said. Then, head held high, she strode proudly to the exit.
Reenie heard the bell jingle over the door as Lucky left, but it was several seconds before she could let go of her breath. “Happy now?” she said at last.
Gabe was still staring after their half-sister, looking stunned. Finally, he blinked and focused on Reenie. “I didn’t do anything to her. I’ve never done anything to her.”
“That’s not true, Gabe. You’re withholding and you know it. All she wants is your acceptance. But you’ve turned your back on every overture she’s made.” Reenie slid around the vinyl seat. “As far as I’m concerned, you got what you deserve.”
“Where are you going?” he asked, obviously surprised that she’d desert him, too.
“Keith will be home today,” she said. “The girls and I have things to do.”