One shoe box with a broken lid. One lousy shoe box held together by a knotted length of graying elastic.
Byron saw the end of the thing beneath a pile of shirts he never wore. He’d probably have thrown them out years ago–only somewhere inside him where he tried never to look, hovered a warning not to go near that pile.
Ignoring the deluge of falling clothes, he pulled the box from a shelf in the walk-in closet, carried it to the bedroom, and dropped it on the bed.
It slipped to the floor. The elastic snapped.
The life of Byron and Lori Frazer spilled out.
Two years of loving scattered on a green and rust Chinese silk rug Lori never saw. Loving, and hoping, and praying, and daring to laugh–and losing. Thirteen years ago they’d lost the battle for a future together, and it hurt all over again, dammit, it hurt almost as much this morning as it had hurt then.
He went to twenty-foot-high windows overlooking a sheer drop to San Francisco Bay. Here, high up on the west side of Tiburon, he’d managed to find a kind of peace, a kind of insulation from the demands of his life that he’d rather leave either in his consulting rooms in the city, or at the TV station where he spent hours of every day.
Jim Wade, the private investigator who’d worked for him for years, had obviously followed Byron’s offhand invitation to finish his coffee–even though Byron had excused himself from their meeting to come up here. While Byron watched, Wade slowly emerged from the two story house and sauntered to his inconspicuous brown Honda.
An inconspicuous car for an inconspicuous man who made his living watching, while not being watched. And he was good at it. Jim Wade was the perfect, unremarkable face in any crowd.
He glanced toward a cloudless blue sky, and the water that shimmered beneath an early March sun. Blue, on blue, on blue. Shaded bowls of blue, their rims dissolving into each other. Bougainvillaea in colors of ripe oranges, red, and a luminous purple, billowed over white stucco walls edging the steep cliffs. The twisted limbs of stunted pines backed the wall and made jigsaw pieces of the horizon.
Wade threw a battered black briefcase and the jacket of his brown and beige striped seersucker suit into the Honda, climbed in, and drove away from the parking area at the back of the house.
Then he was gone.
Wade was gone, and Byron was left with no one but himself to make the decisions he’d hoped would never have to be made. Not that the fault for what had happened could be set at anyone’s feet but his own. And he could choose to walk away from responsibility. After all, he’d turned his back on responsibility once before and been able to convince himself that what he’d done was for the best–for all concerned. And it might have been, mightn’t it?
He returned to the side of the bed and went to his knees. He started gathering pieces of paper and photographs. Notes. Pressed flowers that crumbled at the slightest touch. A bracelet of colored yarn–faded now–and with Lori’s name, in turquoise-colored beads, woven into the strands. Cards, Lori’s, and even some of Byron’s, handmade. They’d had so little money, not that he could have felt for a store-bought card what he’d felt for each of Lori’s simple designs, or her words that could not have been for anyone but him. “I promise I’ll never slow you down. I’ll only be free if you’re free. Be free, Byron. Love you, Lori.”
He hadn’t wanted to be free, not free of Lori, the sweetest, most honest creature ever to be part of his life.
He had owed her so much, but he’d failed her. And when he’d failed her, he’d failed himself. He had turned her concern for him into an excuse to do what he’d wanted to do–to avoid anything that might tie him down.
Hell, he didn’t know anymore. He hadn’t known then, but after all he’d been doing what Lori told him to do–choosing freedom at a time when to do anything else would make his way not just hard, but near impossible.
Byron Frazer had betrayed his wife.
The box should have stayed where it was.
A picture taken in Golden Gate Park. Lori clowning by a tree trunk. An insubstantial girl, with long, fine blond hair blowing away from her face, a bright grin, and gray eyes screwed up against the sun. He’d been playing his guitar and she’d leaped up to dance. She’d twirled and laughed, twirled and laughed, and he abandoned the guitar for their old point-and-shoot camera. Her slender body and well-shaped legs showed in shadow through a thin, flower-strewn, gauze dress.
His hands shook.
“Byron! Byron, are you here?” The unmistakable voice of his agent, Celeste Daily, came from the foyer. Celeste had her own key and never hesitated to use it. “Byron, darling, it’s me, Celeste.”
He listened to her inevitable exceedingly high heels clip on the terra-cotta tiles that covered the ground floor. She would be checking each room for him.
Celeste, his agent, and the woman who thought she owned him.
Tucking the photo of Lori into his shirt pocket, he made a rapid pile of everything else, and crammed it into the box. Then he pushed the box under the bed.
Celeste was already climbing the stairs.
What the hell was he going to do?
“Byron Frazer? Come out, come out. Be warned, I’m comin’ in if you don’t come out.”
Some might be beguiled by her playfulness. Byron knew her too well.
The bedroom door stood open to a wide balcony that ran around the second floor. This room, decorated for him by the strangers he’d hired to make the house peaceful–his only instruction to them–echoed the cool greens and creams, and soft white used in the foyer that soared to open beams above the upper floor.
Tall, slender, elegant in putty colored silk, her blond hair curving smoothly to chin-level, Celeste appeared on the threshold. She looked at him, and frowned. “Byron? Honey, what gives? There’s a studio full of people twiddling their thumbs and waiting for you over there.” She looked at the phone by the bed, took obvious note of the unplugged chord.
He could lie, say he was sick, had unplugged the phone to get some rest, then overslept. Only this wasn’t a time for lies. He shifted his foot slightly and the toe of his right sneaker made contact with the shoe box.
No more lying, especially not to himself.
“For God’s sake, what is it?” Celeste jiggled the car keys she held in one hand. “Oh, there isn’t time now. We’ll talk about it while we drive. I met Rachel outside, by the way. She’s not a happy camper. She likes early morning visitors less than you do. Good housekeepers are hard to come by–you’d better smooth her feathers.”
“Rachel’s fine. She enjoys complaining.”
He didn’t have to deal with what Jim Wade had told him. For thirteen years he’d avoided doing anything–why start now? He crossed his arms and felt the photo in his pocket.
The coldness, the old coldness he’d learned to ignore, it spread beneath his skin. His scalp tightened and he felt himself growing distant. Celeste’s mouth moved. He watched, even shook his head a little and turned away as if dismissing her, but he couldn’t hear her clearly anymore.
He drew a deep, deep breath and closed his eyes, willing himself to be calm, to stop himself from moving away, moving inside himself. It was Byron the quitter who ran away. He wasn’t that man anymore. He wouldn’t run again. Would he?
“Why didn’t you come to the studio?” Celeste asked. “Or at least call and say you’d be late.”
He struggled to concentrate. People thought him rude, arrogant, when he turned his silence on them, but he literally withdrew, just as his mother had withdrawn from his father’s mental and physical battering. In the end she had gone so far away she’d never returned…
“We’re well ahead of schedule on the tapings,” he said.
“That doesn’t matter. You can’t leave that many people standing around doing nothing just because you decide to sleep in. That’s expensive. And it’s not your style. You can’t–”
“How do you know what my style is?” Much as he yearned to shout, he kept his voice steady. His father had been a screamer and Byron had learned to stuff down any urge to follow in good old dad’s footsteps. “You don’t know me, Celeste.”
Her large, violet-colored eyes grew hard. “If you say so. That’s a discussion that’ll have to wait. Right now I need you downstairs in my car. We’ve got some major opportunities lining up. You’re one hell of a success. I do know that about you. You’re thirty-four, and you’re already a media phenomenon. Dr. Byron Frazer, the country’s leading popular expert on the family–and every woman’s ideal man. Let’s go.”
“You go,” he said. “I’ve got some things to attend to. Be a love and go buy me time, hm?” He managed a smile. The instant softening in her perfect features brought him no pleasure. So he had a face and smile that had women eating out of his hands. Big deal. They wouldn’t want to come within miles if they knew what he really was. No woman worth knowing would want to.
“I just told you I’ve got things to do.”
“You bet you do. If we hurry we’ll at least make lunch. Buddy’s talking about product tie-ins.”
“We’ve already got product tie-ins.”
“Other than tapes and videos and books.”
Byron rubbed his eyes. “I’m not talking about this now.”
“Because of the detective?”
He grew still, then slowly dropped his hands. “What did you say?”
Celeste walked across his bedroom to the simple teak writing table by the windows. She skirted the table and sat atop deep green corduroy cushions on a long window seat. “Rachel was outside dead-heading some flowers. Your Mr. Wade was just leaving.”
“My Mr. Wade . . . How do you know his name?”
“He stopped and said goodbye to Rachel, and she said, “Good bye, Mr. Wade.” Then Rachel rolled her eyes at me and said, “Detectives wanting coffee almost before my eyes are open.” Celeste crossed one long leg over the other and didn’t attempt to stop her skirts from slipping up her thighs.
“What’s happened, Byron? Why would the police be here?”
“He’s not a policeman. He’s a private investigator–and my business with him is private.”
She raised her silver blond brows, got up, and bent over the writing table.
Damn, he’d forgotten about the papers Wade had brought and left spread out.
Celeste picked up a photograph and studied it. “Who’s this?”
“No one you know.” No one he knew–he’d made sure of that.
On that terrible day he was never going to forget, Lori had said, “Byron, promise me you’ll put this behind you if something goes wrong. Promise me you won’t let anything stop you from doing what you want to do.”
“This is what I want to do,” he told her.
“But if. . . if something doesn’t turn out the way we hope? You won’t be stupid, will you? You won’t give it all up. We both know that would never work. You wouldn’t be able to manage everything.”
“No, Lori, we don’t both know that. You think you do. But nothing’s going wrong.”
“Promise me, please,” Lori said. “You’re going to be a great psychologist. You’re going to help people like us. Like the people we were when we were kids.”
“I promise you I’m always going to try to do what’s right.”
But afterward he’d lost his nerve.
“Nice looking kid,” Celeste said, and tossed the photograph down again. “C’mon, open up to me. What’s going on.”
“Back off, Celeste.”
“We’ve been through too much together for me to shrivel up just because you sound pissed.”
“I’ve got to leave California for a while. Maybe quite a while.” That had been the last thing he’d intended to say. But that was the answer, that’s what he had to do–what was right. Finally. The pressure on his chest lightened. He’d made his decision. “Yeah, that’s it. I’m going away. We’ve got plenty in the can at the station. If necessary they can go to reruns.”
“That’s the craziest suggestion you’ve ever made.” She hurried around the table and came to him, grasped his biceps. “You’re tired, that’s all. Everything’s gone so fast and you haven’t had a real break in two years. Take a vacation. Go to Grand Cayman for a couple of weeks. You like it there.”
“I don’t like it there. I’m going to . . .” No, he would not tell her or anyone else where he was going. “I’m going to visit someone.”
She never backed off, never gave up.
“My son,” he told her, meeting her eyes while, inside, he began to move away again. The faint, familiar buzzing began at the center of his mind. The palms of his hands sweated–cold sweat.
Celeste dropped her hands. “Son? What son? You don’t have–you can’t have a son, for God’s sake. What are you saying to me?” Her voice rose to a thin shriek.
“I have a son,” he said, and this time the sound of it felt more real.
“No. Where is he? With his mother?”
“I’m not talking about Lori.”
“Oh, my, God.” Clapping her hands over her mouth, she tottered to the bed and sat down with a thump. “Lori? We’ve known each other for years. We’ve been more than business partners, Byron. But now there’s a son, and Lori?”
“I’ve told you I won’t talk about Lori. I’ve got a son who needs me.” A son who might or might not need him, but Byron intended to find out for sure.
“That’s him.” She nodded toward the table. “The blond kid with the dog. I don’t get it. How could you do this? Dr. Frazer can’t have a secret kid stashed away somewhere. Or a wife, or ex-wife, or whatever. Think what that could do to your credibility. If you’d been straight about it up front, we could have made sure there was never any mess to clean up.”
A mess to clean up? “Please go . . . Celeste, please give me some space. This isn’t something I can talk about with you. Not with anyone. I need–”
“Oh, Byron.” She surged to her feet and rushed to him, wrapped her arms around him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Forgive me, please. I don’t know . . . You shocked me and I’ve never been good at shocks. Why aren’t I saying what I should be saying. This is wonderful. You have a son and he’s beautiful. He must get the blond hair from his mother, but I bet he’s got your eyes. What a beautiful boy.”
“You can hardly see him in that picture. He’s too far away.” Wade had been warned never to intrude on Ian, to make certain the boy was never frightened.
“I don’t have to see him any clearer to know he’s wonderful. He’s your boy. He’d have to be wonderful. A green-eyed blond. He’ll soon be fighting off the girls. I want to meet him. I want to come with you.”
There was only one person he’d like with him when–if–he met Ian, and she wouldn’t be available. “No.” He stiffened and gently disentangled himself from her. Forcing a smile, he said, “But thank you. Cover for me here, will you? Family is what I’m supposed to be about. You can say–without lying–that I’ve got a family emergency.”
“That man–the investigator. He’s working for you.”
He bit back a retort. “Yes, yes he is.”
“He came with all that.” She waved toward the writing table. “About that boy. You’ve been having his mother watched, haven’t you? Because you want custody?”
“You watch too much television.” His voice was jocular, he made sure of that, but his pulse hammered at his temples. Somehow he had to satisfy Celeste’s curiosity and keep her out of his business. “Nothing like that. Custody? Get real. What would I do with a kid? I analyze ’em, I don’t live with ’em.”
She smiled at that, nervously at first, then more widely and with confidence. “So why do you have to go see him?”
Blurting out his intentions about that hadn’t been smart. “Just to check out that everything’s okay. His situation’s changed.” Changed? Every shred of security had been pulled away from him and he’d been shuttled off to some relative he’d never met.
“You keep tabs on him through a private investigator. Why?”
“I don’t have to go into all that with you, but it’s the way it had to be.” Because, when the chips were down and he’d officially turned his back on the boy, he’d been unable to put him out of his mind. Making certain Ian was safe and well-cared for had felt right–essential.
“You don’t have whatever rights a father’s supposed to have in cases like this?”
She had to leave. She had to stop asking questions he didn’t want to hear, much less think about.
Her eyes flickered away, then back again. Something had changed in the way she looked at him. Wary? Questioning? He could almost hear her wondering what else she didn’t know about him, just how much he’d hidden behind a false face he’d perfected for the world.
“Look,” he began, stepping cautiously, thinking his way through each word before he spoke, “this isn’t something I ever expected. I thought the issue had been put to bed years ago. It all happened when I was a kid–twenty-one. It wasn’t supposed to become an issue again.”
“Ugliness has a way of not staying dead.”
“There’s nothing ugly–” he made himself take a breath. Of course she thought he was keep a dirty little secret, a secret he was ashamed of. “I know what you’re trying to say. I’m being absolutely honest with you Celeste. We’ve been in business together a long time.” An idea came to him. “Maybe you’d feel better if we severed that now–at least until I’ve straightened all this out and I can come back minus the baggage again.”
“No, Byron!” She fluttered around him. “Let me pour you a drink.”
“It’s the middle of the morning.”
“I could use a brandy even if you couldn’t.”
“Help yourself. I’ve got plans to make.”
The heels of her cream leather pumps were of a gold metallic material. When she moved from the rug to the rosy-hued madrona floor, the heel tips made muffled thuds.
He wanted to take a closer look at the photos of Ian. Through the years he’d avoided having Wade take any shots. Without a visual image it was easier to remain detached.
Ian hadn’t needed him before–not really. He’d made sure he was well provided for, and safe. And from Wade’s regular observations and reports, the boy was happy enough.
Celeste opened a cabinet fronted with etched glass, selected a decanter and brandy bubble, and poured a healthy measure of Hennessey. She drank too much but she didn’t want Byron’s opinion or advice on that topic.
She wandered back, a calculated, hip-swinging wander, and arranged herself in his favorite dark green leather wingback chair. She used one heel to pull the ottoman close, and stacked her feet. Celeste’s legs were her most remarkable feature, not that the rest of her wasn’t remarkable.
“How old is . . . Ian?”
“You haven’t exactly been an active part of his life.”
He hadn’t been any part of his life. “No. It never worked out that way.”
“So why go rushing off now? Why not get through this season’s shooting and make leisurely plans to take some time off? It would be much simpler–”
“Simpler for whom? No, that won’t be possible.” The truth was that he only had Wade’s word for it that Ian was happy, and now, with this move, there was no assurance that life wasn’t very difficult for a thirteen-year-old uprooted from home and school during early adolescence.
Celeste swirled her brandy, sniffed, tipped up the glass until she could poke the very tip of her tongue into the liquor. She kept her eyes downcast, but the affectation was deliberately sexual. He regretted the brief, intimate interlude they’d shared. The cost had been too high, but it was over and would stay that way, no matter how hard Celeste tried to find her way back into his bed.
She rested her head back. “What’s she like?”
“He . . . Oh.” He spread his hand over the pocket with Lori’s picture inside. “A wonderful woman. That’s all I’m going to say. That, and we had a child. Then something happened, something too awful to be true–only it was true. I had to make a decision and it meant I gave up being part of my son’s life. As long as everything was fine with Ian, it was fine with me. Now I’m not sure he is fine, and everything’s changed.”
“You’re wonderful,” she told him, drinking more brandy. “You’ll forgive me for overreacting, I know you will. And I am coming with you. You need someone to look after your needs, too.”
“No, Goddammit!” So much for being the expert on controlling temper. “No, Celeste. A man has to do some things alone. But I promise you I’ll keep you in the picture–as much in the picture as you need to be to do a good job for our interests here. And I appreciate your concern.” He went to the open door and stood there, pointedly waiting.
Uncurling her legs, Celeste got up slowly. She walked toward him until she was close enough for him to see tiny beads of moisture on her brow. The lady was thoroughly unnerved.
“It’s about the woman, really, isn’t it? You want to see if it’s still as good as you remember.”
Even the thought sounded disgusting. “You . . . You wouldn’t understand someone like Lori. I don’t want you to mention her again. Not ever. Do we understand each other?”
Pressing her glass into his hands, she made a silent “Oh,” with peach-colored lips. “Forgive me. I didn’t know you were in love with a saint.”
Anger confused him. “Give my apologies,” he said formally. “I will contact you–but I’m not sure when. Until then, you can say what I’ve told you to say: I’ve been called away on a family emergency.”
She started to say something, but he turned his back on her and went to sit at the writing table. He touched nothing until he heard her footsteps on the stairs. She moved quickly and soon the front door slammed hard enough to rattle windowpanes. Defeat wasn’t a word Celeste liked to include in her vocabulary.
Byron picked up the photo and looked closely at Ian. For the first time he allowed himself to wish he could see the boy more clearly.
Ian was bent over with his face turned aside to accept licks on his neck from the big, black lab he embraced with both arms. A thick head of blond hair and a grin. A tan from what Byron could make out.
He pulled out Lori’s photo and set it on the table beside Ian’s.
And he brought a fist down so hard the impact made him flinch. They should all have been playing together with the dog, laughing together. And Byron and Lori Frazer should be holding each other while they watched their boy romp, secure in his parents’ love–their love for him, and for each other.
He closed his eyes and rested his forehead on his hands. He didn’t want to think, not about that hospital. He didn’t want to hear it’s sounds and smell it’s smells–or see what he had seen there.
Why couldn’t he forget?
“It’ll get better, Byron, son.”
He tried to evade the doctor. “I’m not your son. I’m nobody’s son, never was.” He took several steps along the hospital corridor but, his legs were too heavy.
“Look,” Dr. Harrison said, “this is a tough one. The toughest. My god, I want to help you. Right now you feel–”
Byron’s teeth chattered. “You don’t know how I feel.”
Rubber wheels squeaked on the green and white tiles. The doctor caught Byron’s elbow and steered him closer to one wall. An orderly in blue scrubs pushed a gurney past–to the closed door of the room Byron and Harrison had just left.
“No!” Byron yanked his arm free. “Oh, no. Not yet, please.”
“Byron, why don’t we take a walk.”
The orderly had stopped. “Are you talking to me, sir?” He looked uncertainly at Byron, then at Dr. Harrison.”
“Carry on,” Harrison said.
Before Byron’s stinging eyes, the corridor’s beige walls rippled sluggishly as if they were under water.
He looked at Harrison, and the man with the gurney. They were all under water here, and sinking deeper.
“God’s not finished with me yet,” he muttered.
Harrison came closer, jutting his chin and frowning, his eyes vast and popping behind thick-lensed glasses. “You need some air,” he said.
“Don’t tell me what I need.” Byron pointed to the room into which the orderly pushed his white-draped gurney. “She needs air. My wife needs air.”
“I want you to lie down,” Harrison said. “I’m going to give you a shot of something to make you feel better.”
“Stop telling me something can make me feel better.” Byron sidestepped to the opposite wall. He held out a hand to ward the man off.
Harrison shook his head and said, “Okay, okay. Coffee, then. I’ll get us both some coffee. Come with me.”
“She tried to laugh,” Byron said. Tears burned his throat. “She tried to laugh and she said she didn’t think she’d die today because God hadn’t finished with her yet.”
“Lori had spirit.”
“She was twenty years old.” He reached behind him to feel the cool wall.
“And you’re only twenty-one.” Harrison folded his arms and bowed his head. “Too damn young, both of you.”
“Those people don’t know her,” Byron said. Breath fought its way in and out of his lungs at the same time. “I don’t want”–he rubbed his eyes and tried to focus–“I don’t want strangers touching her.”
“I don’t want them seeing her like that. Putting their hands on her.” He made to go back the way he’d come, but Harrison stepped into his path. “I want to take care of her. Please. I can do it. Just tell me how and I’ll do it.”
“Hell,” Harrison said, almost to himself. “She’s . . . Lori’s at peace now, Byron. There isn’t any pain, now. Just peace.”
“She never weighed anything. I could carry her where she has to go, couldn’t I?”
“Sure I . . . could. I–” With a clicking sound, his throat closed. “I want to hold her–just one more time. Please.”
The doctor’s hands came down on his shoulders. “If I could change this, I would. Damn it to hell, there are never any right words. You can’t hold her now, Byron. Lori’s dead. You’ve got to find a way to let her go.”
“I want to die. I want to be dead, too.”
The banging open of the door jarred his teeth together. He saw the orderly backing from the room.
This time the white drape covered Lori on the gurney. Webbing straps had been buckled over her body.
Laughter welled in Byron’s chest. “They think”–he pointed–“They’re afraid she might run away. And they’re right! Lori can really run. Give her a blue sky and soft grass and she can run . . . and run.”
They wheeled her past.
“Watch her,” Byron called. He wiped the back of a hand over his mouth. “Watch her, you hear? She’s fast.”
A nurse came to stand in front of him. He remembered her face, but not her name. “Will you let me take you upstairs, Mr. Frazer?” She had a light voice. “That’s where you need to be. It’ll help.”
“No.” He shook his head, and shook and shook it. “I can’t Not now.”
“Yes, you can.” Her fingers closed around his left wrist. “I’ll take you. For Lori, Mr. Frazer. You told her you’d be all right. Remember?”
“She wasn’t supposed to die.” Abruptly, the tension drained away. He just wanted to lie down. “Leave me alone.”
“I don’t think that’s a great idea.” The nurse tucked her arm firmly beneath his. “Upstairs we go. There’s someone who needs you to hold him. It’s time you were properly introduced to your son.”
Beneath his face, Byron’s crossed hands were wet. Tears? How long had it been since he’d cried? Not since that afternoon in a San Francisco hospital watching his young wife’s body wheeled away?
Or had he last cried some weeks later, in the dark, in the bed they’d shared?
Yes, that had been it. And he’d turned his face to the wall and prayed he would one day believe what he’d told himself in a lawyer’s office, that he’d been selfless in relinquishing his tiny baby boy to a couple who would never have children of their own.
Now that grateful husband and wife were dead and once more the boy was moving on, moving on to more strangers.
But this time Byron would do what he’d promised Lori, he’d try to do whatever was right.
Perhaps then he could stop hating himself.