Samantha felt every jagged piece of rock on the bottoms of her feet as she walked, first down the long drive, then out onto the dirt access road to the ranch. Sudden wisps of the last cool breezes of late morning dawdled in the hair that fell around her face. The sun was already high in the cloudless azure sky. Some birds kept up their morning zeal in distant trees across the property. The horses had been let out into the meadow, and Prince found her as he always did and trotted along the fence as she walked the drive. He stopped and gave a whinny when she reached the road; he could have followed her along it as well for a few hundred yards, but instead he just stopped and looked after her. Since their arrival two days ago, they’d all played at a routine that would never be quite the same. Samantha knew that at this hour, her father would be in the barn or repairing a fence, or anything to keep himself going. Her mother would be in her studio, painting every thought, or just sitting. And Corey…had not come out of Keith’s room since they’d arrived. He let Georgie bring him food, and Samantha stood by in case he decided he needed her.
When she wasn’t helping Georgie with the memorial, or preparing a meal for them, she escaped to the barn. The only horse who remained from days gone by was Prince. Midnight had died peacefully in the meadow one morning, and the collection of rescues and boarders had varied over the years. Prince always stirred when she came, no matter how long she had been away. She always managed to get back to the ranch a couple of times a month, except for her occasional jaunt to Europe. The fact that she was too upsetto even speak quietly to him as she usually did bothered her, but she hoped the apples she brought him for treats and the strokes she gave him on his nose let him know that she still loved him.
None of them spoke except when they had to. Everything seemed stuck, clotted, clogged. Samantha knew, if the rest of them didn’t, that they were all waiting for Jack, the last brother, to come home. Without him, they could not fully grieve, could not really move forward. And he was almost there.
After avoiding her fatigue for as long as she could, Samantha had finally gone to her old room. She tossed and turned in a sea of her own tumultuous thoughts of Keith and Corey until she finally fell into a fitful sleep in the pre-dawn hours. Evidently, her last thought before sleep found her had been of Jack, because instead of the recurring nightmare of that horrible night six years ago, Samantha dreamt of one of the happiest times they’d shared: the first time they made love.
A few short hours later, Samantha heard herself sigh, and she awakened with tears gliding down her cheeks. She lay just as she’d fallen asleep, with her face toward the window, eyes on the sky. It was the best dream she’d had in months, and only left her feeling emptier than ever. There was no believing that they could ever bring that dream to life again, but at least Jack would be there soon. To see him again would never be enough, but she still needed him more than ever.
It was the day. Georgie had told her on the drive from LA that they could expect him Wednesday, and later she fretted that he was arriving in the morning—on the red-eye, just as she’d advised him not to do.
It had already been nearly ten o’clock when Samantha woke up from that wonderful, horrible dream. He’d landed at seven if there had been no delays, so she got out of bed, and without putting on a robe or even shoes, she walked downstairs and out the front door. She passed Prince in the pasture and turned out of the drive onto the main road.
She knew the gravel on the drive had cut into her feet, but she felt nothing. She looked ahead without seeing. Jack was coming—she had to meet him. She’d walk all the way to Vegas if she had to. She had no idea if he was still one hour away, or one minute away. She only knew that she couldn’t wait any longer. She couldn’t hold back her anger at Keith or her sorrow that he’d lost his battle with addiction. She couldn’t deny her desperation to reach Corey and take back the years she’d missed with him. Jack was the only onewith whom she could let go, and she needed him.
Samantha didn’t know exactly how long or how far she’d walked. The September sun was still warm and she felt sweat beading at her temples as late morning edged closer to midday. She was aware that at least one car passed her and honked a horn. Probably someone from town, she thought. Then out of the ripples of heat on the road emerged an SUV. But she couldn’t pay attention to that. She had to keep walking until she met Jack. The SUV flew by her and swerved so as not to clip her. There was no horn, but Samantha stopped when she heard the sound of screeching brakes as the SUV skidded into the gravel along the shoulder of the road. She looked over her shoulder and was about to turn back and resume walking when she saw Jack jump out of the vehicle. His hair was longer now, almost past his collar in the back. He began to run toward her as he ripped his sunglasses from his face.
“Samantha? What the fuck are you doing out here?”
“Jack! ” She catapulted herself toward him, and reached him before he’d gotten to the back of the truck. She hurled herself into his arms so hard that he fell into the side of the truck, holding on to her.
Her breath caught for an instant before a long sob escaped. She stood on her toes on top of Jack’s tennis shoes. She wasn’t going to fall, because he held her so close that not even a breeze could have passed between them.
“Shhh. It’s okay. I’m here.”
Samantha took huge breaths between hard, broken sobs. Her grief and anger tumbled out as she clung to him. She cried for Keith, for the brother they’d both lost. And she cried with relief that he was finally there, holding her. She shuddered against him as his hands alternately cupped the back of her head and rubbed the length of her back. Feeling his touch, his arms around her, was a balm for her soul and she never wanted it to end. She didn’t know how long they stood there before he finally, gently pulled back from her.
She looked up at him. God, she must be a mess. But he just wiped her tears away with his thumbs as he held her face in his hands. It had been too long since she looked, really looked into those silver steel eyes of his. He looked down at her with utter concern.
“You could have been hit out here.”
“I know.” Samantha’s voice threatened to break again. “I knew you were on your way, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I haven’t been able to cry, th-there’s just been this…this stone sitting on my heart for the last two days. I can’t let myself think what Maman and Daddy are going through, and Corey, he’s just shut down, God knows how much he’s been damaged by finding Keith…God, Keith…he’s just…gone, and itfeels like you’re all that’s left, Jack.” A fresh stream of tears began to flow down her face, and he pulled her close again, so that her forehead rested on his chest.
“And I’m here now, baby. We’re gonna get through this, all of us together, OK?”
She nodded against his chest, but couldn’t hold back a new wave of sobs that overtook her and racked her body again. Jack made no move to stop her or pull away from her. He just held her. And held her. It must have been another half an hour easily before he finally spoke again.
“We’d better get you back to the ranch,” he murmured against her hair. “Georgie must be worried. And I need to get there too—I need to be home with all of you.” He kissed her lingeringly on her forehead and then led her by the hand around to the passenger side of the SUV.
“Dammit, Samantha, you don’t have any shoes on. You could have gotten a nail or broken glass in your feet.” He helped her inside, then reached into the glove box for some Kleenex.
She was still blowing her nose with all her might when he climbed in behind the driver’s seat next to her. He smiled sadly at her. “You’ve been holding a lot back, haven’t you, honey?”
“What about you? Here I am falling apart, not even thinking how you must feel.”
“Not much more than a little tired right now. Truthfully, I’m too goddamned angry with Keith to cry for him right now. Your parents tried so hard to help him, I tried, you tried—we all tried like hell, but it boiled down to him and he just couldn’t manage it. But I’ll deal with that in time. Being here to help the family is what matters. And seeing you…” He almost whispered the last bit as he reached over and stroked her face with the backs of his fingers. “I haven’t needed anything but to see you.”
Samantha wanted to crawl across the seat and bury herself in his arms again. But instead she looked down at her soiled Kleenex, and Jack started the SUV and pulled out onto the road again. He reached into the console between them and pulled out his cell phone. After a few seconds, his call connected, and he put it on speaker.
“Almost home, Georgie. I found our girl along the way.”
Georgie sighed and gave a curse in French. “I knew it. Well, thank God you’re here.”
Prince was waiting right where Samantha had left him inside the fence at the mouth of the drive.
“I’ll get out here and ride him back up to the barn.”
“No shoes, riding bareback. Still a wild one.”
“See you up at the house.”
She felt him watch her as she climbed the fence in her nightshirt and mounted Prince where he stood. He was old now, but he quickened his step whenever she rode him, and they took a steady loping gait toward the barn.
A new pair of German shepherds, Cesar and Cleopatra, had replaced old Major. They had both jumpedand begun their affectionate assault on Jack when he saw Lorne approaching from the barn with a wave. Suddenly, the screen door on the front porch swung open and Georgie ran out. She scolded the dogs, just like she’d done Major that first Sunday he’d visited the ranch. Only this time, she looked tired, and her eyes were reddened by recent tears.
“Cesar! Cleo! Vien ici!” Her command was halfhearted and only resulted in the beasts remaining at Jack’s feet and wagging their tails. Georgie pushed past them, and he swung her up into a bear hug.
“My third son…you’re here.” She sniffled a little as he put her down, but she held her tears in check. Jack felt certain she’d been crying plenty in the arms of her husband for the last two days.
“Yeah, I’m here, Mom. And so glad to be home.”
“Jack.” He looked over Georgie’s head to see Lorne approaching. Georgie stepped out of Jack’s embrace to make room for her husband.
“Lorne…Dad.” There was nothing else to say, and Lorne gripped Jack by the back of the neck and pulled him in hard for a hug. After a several back slaps, they let each other go.
“Corey?” Jack inquired. Georgie just sighed; she seemed unable to speak.
“Hasn’t come out of Keith’s room except to use the bathroom. Georgie and Samantha bring him food.”
“He won’t talk,” Georgie whispered. She was on the verge of tears again. “I don’t know what’s going on,how he feels…” Lorne pulled her to him and addressed Jack over the top of her head.
“We’re all hanging somewhere between exhaustion, anger, and utter devastation. I know Corey is going to need help. The best we can do is just to be here and wait for him to start the grieving process in his own way. I think once we get through the service tomorrow and the frenzy abates, he might feel like talking.”
“Don’t worry, Georgie,” Jack reassured as he rubbed her shoulder while Lorne held her. “I’ll keep close watch. We’ll all be here when he needs us.” Secretly he hoped that were true. Corey had to be in a kind of pain they couldn’t imagine. Grieving the loss of a brother with whom he’d never really been able to have a good relationship coupled with having found that brother dead had to be devastating. Jack just hoped the kid wasn’t suicidal, or homicidal, or any number of horrible things that could stem from a trauma like the one he’d just been through.
“Come on inside, now,” said Georgie as she pulled away from Lorne. “You must be hungry.”
Dinner was a quiet affair. Corey had eaten in his own room and watched a DVD on his computer. Georgie put some Count Basie on the sound system. It helped drown out the silence, and no one felt obligated to carry on a conversation if they didn’t want to. What a contrast from the first steak dinner he’deaten with them that first Sunday, and from almost every other meal he’d eaten at that table. The food was just as fantastic as it always had been, but Keith’s absence almost made it taste bitter. Even after he’d left home, and all the times he’d been in rehab, there was always hope. He always came back, because he’d still been alive.
At the end of the meal, Jack and Lorne insisted on doing the dishes, and sent Georgie up to bed. Corey brought his dishes down and even chatted with them awhile before returning to his room. Samantha slipped out on cue to commune with her horses. They all had the things that would comfort them. For two cents, Jack would have let Corey finish the dishes with Lorne, and gone out to the barn to be with Samantha. Somehow being near her, being here for her, helped settle his own turmoil. But he didn’t want to disturb her now, not to mention he didn’t think he could face being in the barn with her just yet, even if she didn’t come up to the loft with him. Instead, he decided to head to the living room and check his email on his laptop once the dishes were finished. Lorne followed Georgie up to bed, and for a while he was left alone.
When Samantha came in, she didn’t stop in the living room to see him. Whether she was just too tired, or too afraid of what existed between them to be alone with him, he didn’t know. He turned on ESPN; he’d had a couple of emails from McCoy and wanted to at least see what they’d be arguing about on Sunday, if he wasn’t going to be there to join in. They’d gotten Pete Murray to co-host in his absence. It had been even easier than he’d thought it would be—the kid’s agent was on the phone to the network before end of day on Monday. Jack guessed the guy was smart enough to piece together that Jack’s friendship with Keith might warrant his absence, and took the initiative to call before the network could dream up another stand-in for Jack.
After another hour or so of football highlights, Jack decided to sweep the house before he finally headed out to the barn. Nobody would ask twice if he decided to sleep in Keith’s old room now that Corey had vacated it, or even there on the sofa in the living room. But his loft in the barn had always been where he lived, and nothing was going to change that, especially not with the memory of the first time they’d made love.
He sighed, and stood before turning off the television. He left his laptop where it lay, and crept upstairs. He saw a soft blue light under Corey’s door, but it was quiet. The kid had probably fallen asleep in the middle of another DVD. There was no light under Lorne and Georgie’s door. They had each other, and as awful as losing a child was, they would pull through.
Jack took a breath, and stopped at the end of the hall. The door to Keith’s old room was cracked. It was hardly still his. Georgie had made it into a guest room not long after Keith had moved out. But it would always be Keith’s old room. And Georgie wasn’t the type to lock it up now. That wasn’t how she dealt with things. All would be open, including doors, for everyone to process this in the best way they knew how.
He pushed the door all the way open, and flipped the light switch as he walked in. He felt himself inhale sharply. He had forgotten how much Georgie had changed the room, and also at how much of a tribute it was to him. She’d chosen a light grey for the walls, and a brand new suite of furniture, including a bed, dresser, and desk, had been installed. That was all the same, but she’d added back things of his over the years, too. Three of his old guitars hung on one wall like art pieces, along with some of his gold records, and photos of him with his various Grammys. The shelf above the desk held some of his old personal belongings, like school awards, yearbooks, novels, and photos.
Jack drew near the shelf. His heart pounded as he picked up the photo on the bottom right. It was of the three of them, him, Keith, and Samantha, whom they’d lovingly wedged in between them. It had been taken the day they’d brought Keith home from rehab for the third time. Georgie had snapped it right after they’d gotten out of Keith’s old pickup truck. They’d walked arm in arm up the porch steps.
They’d been on top of the world. Keith actually had them all believing he’d beaten his demons at last. Jack was on fire with the Jets—he huffed to himself when he thought about how invincible he’d believed himself to be. And Samantha…she was riding high herself, attending college and modeling at the same time. One paid for the other, and she was determined to keep up the modeling so she could become a photographer one day. It was a little crazy, but it made sense to her, and here she was now, an award-winning photographer who’d managed to almost bury her former career as a model. God, he wanted to know what had happened. Even though things had turned out the way she wanted them to, something was amiss, and not even Lorne and Georgie seemed to know what it was––and even if they did, they weren’t sharing.
But he hadn’t really been able to focus on Samantha at the time. Because less than a year after that photograph was taken, after the night he’d made love to her, both of their worlds had tumbled out of control.
The weeks following that were a blur. He remembered all of them visiting him in the hospital. He’d felt badly for Georgie and Lorne; here they had one son on the brink of an overdose half the time, and now another, one they’d adopted, had gone and ruined his career. Samantha hadn’t come. She was in Europe at the time, probably Paris. He’d called her, though, and told her not to worry about him.
Eventually he’d gone to the ranch to continue his physical therapy and figure out what to do next. When he arrived, Samantha was there too, with news of her own—that she’d left modeling, for good. It had enraged him at the time. How could she choose to leave her success behind like that, when he’d had his ripped out from under him? She kept saying over and over that she’d always wanted to be a photographer full time, and now she was finally in a position to do that. He knew she wasn’t lying about photography, and yet, something wasn’t right.
She stayed for a while, and Jack stayed longer. They were both hurting, but she refused to let him in as far as what was going on with her, and he admitted he was no better. While his downfall had happened on national television for all to see, he thought he was protecting her by shutting her out. Neither was letting the other one in, even though they’d both come home to heal. It was the most distant he’d felt ever felt from her.
Miles and his agent finally helped him transition into the world of post-career endorsements and charity work. Within a short time after his return to New York, he found his way to Game Day, thanks to McCoy. After that, things moved back to normal for the most part, until her first gallery show in New York…he’d gotten her back only to lose her again and that hurt a hundred times worse than the first time.
He placed the photo gingerly back on the shelf, and left the room. He still needed to check on Samantha before he turned in for the night.
Jack found her curled up on her old bed with the bedside lamp still on. She was breathing softly, and her expression was peaceful. For that he was grateful. He crept quietly across the room, intending to cover her up and turn the lamp off. But when he reached for the blanket at the foot of her bed, she stirred.
“Jack?” She looked at him and smiled through her sleepy blue eyes.
“Hi, sweetheart. I didn’t mean to wake you. I was just checking on you—I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“I’m all right. Or at least I will be, now that you’re here.”
He leaned down to kiss her, and that was all he could allow himself to do right now. But when he tried to straighten again, she clutched his arm.
“Don’t go. Please.”
“I’m not asking you to make love to me again. Please just hold me, Jack. When you found me on the road today I could finally let go…you comfort me the way no one else can. I need you…please?”
He couldn’t refuse her even if he’d really wanted to, which he didn’t. And he would have made love to her again right there in her old bed too. But that wasn’t what either of them needed at that moment, not really. But he did need to be near her, and vice versa. And that was something he could give them both.
He lay down next to her, and turned the lamp off and pulled the blanket over both of them. She sighed and pulled his arms tighter around her. God it felt right to hold her. He hadn’t wanted to let go of her out on the road that morning, and he didn’t want to let go now.
“Don’t let go,” she whispered, echoing his thoughts.
“I won’t, baby,” he whispered back. He felt her relax against him, and only when he heard the rhythm of deep sleep in her breath did he succumb to the same beautiful relaxation and allow himself to drift off. He slept then, with his heart full of equal parts love and sadness, and his arms full of her warmth.