And Charlie Makes Three: Chapter 1
The parking lot of Camp Tipai-Ipai looked like an advertisement for Detroit's line of new 1953 family sedans. Smiling children tumbled out of large shiny cars, the girls shrieking and calling to each other while the boys imitated their fathers by shaking hands and slapping each other heartily on the back. Proud fathers stood back in groups of three and four, pointing to each other's vehicles, while mothers in stiff-skirted sundresses and gay straw summer hats bustled and fussed among their broods.
Anne Reynolds sat in her '46 Ford sedan, her thirteen-year-old son Jay gently snoring in the backseat, and watched as her fifteen-year-old son slammed his way out of her ex-husband's brand new Cadillac. With Shane out of the car, Frank's pretty young missus and their darling baby girl made the perfect family for this increasingly perfect decade, all bright and shiny and new.
Shane wrenched open the front passenger side door and flung himself inside.
"Gurthumphuh?" Jay muttered.
"Where's Charlie?" Shane stared straight ahead, so tense his hands were shaking.
"Something came up." Anne turned to face him, knowing from heartbreaking experience there was nothing she could do to sooth him.
Shane snorted. "Of course, something always comes up," he muttered, his tone somehow both dismissive and scathing. It was the first time Shane had ever used that tone when talking about Charlie. He usually reserved it for his father.
"How's your sister?" Anne glanced back to where the boys' half-sister was in the process of tangling a spitty teething cookie in her mother's blonde curls.
"Cried all the way here," Shane snapped, even as the side of his mouth kicked up at his sister's antics.
"And how's Pat?" Anne nodded toward the young woman attempting to get the cookie out of her hair without destroying her carefully arranged hairdo.
"Shit." There went the limited amount of time Frank spent with the boys.
Anne slapped her hand over her mouth when she realized she had said that out loud.
Shane twisted around and punched his brother on the thigh. "Let's go." He grabbed for the door handle.
Anne hauled him back into her arms for a quick, fierce hug, kissed the top of his head, and then let him go. Jay leaned forward over the seat, allowing her to smooth his rumpled blonde hair before giving her a smacking kiss on the cheek and following his brother out into the bright afternoon sunlight.
Anne got out of the car and watched as they joined the growing crowd of teenagers assembled in front of a series of faded green buses that would take them the rest of the way to camp. They would spend the next month by the ocean, swimming, sailing, and getting up to all kinds of mischief Anne figured she didn't really need to know the specifics of.
"I expect more than a couple of soggy postcard from you two this year!" she yelled.
Jay turned and waved before both boys disappeared in the crowd.
After crawling across the vast front seat of her up-until-a-few-minutes-ago trusty '46 Ford sedan, Anne shouldered open the passenger side door and stepped out into a narrow band of deep green grass that separated the road from the beach. The grass abutted a jumble of giant, sharp rocks whose purpose Anne could only think was to keep ocean creatures from washing onto the highway during a freakishly high tide. Anne slammed the door so hard that the entire car shook, no small feat since the thing was practically the size of a tank. Drove like one, too. Add in the three-shades-of-gray paint job, and there was no mystery why her kids had named it Sherman.
"You couldn't have waited fifteen more miles to break down," Anne said, pointing at the windshield as she walked around the car's bulbous nose. She thought about kicking it but her white ballet flats were no match for the indestructible wonder that was Sherman. She tried to get the hood open, but all she got for her trouble were dirty hands and a smear of grease across the front of her light blue seersucker sundress. Sniffing once, she dragged the back of her wrist over the fresh tears streaming down her face. "And you know what an awful couple of days it's been."
Anne had a habit of talking out her concerns while driving, and Sherman was an excellent listener. For a car.
She turned and leaned against the center of the hood, hoping her position directly in front of her car would alert her fellow motorists that she hadn't pulled over to enjoy the view. Sure, the view was stunning, what with the majestic cliffs rising up on one side of the road and the Pacific Ocean sparkling under a bright and cheery summer sun on the other.
"Nothing but blue sky." Anne crossed her arms over her chest. She hated feeling miserable in good weather. It just seemed to make her feel worse, as if the rest of the world had no sympathy for what she was going through. With a mood like this, sleet would have been appreciated, or at least some drizzling rain. Or fog, preferably the thick stuff that twisted and swirled and made a person nervous even when they were safe and warm indoors. Unfortunately, it was August in Southern California, so sleet and fog were highly unlikely.
Forgetting about the grease on her hands, Anne rubbed her forehead. It was on the third pass that she remembered her hands were filthy. Normally she would have laughed at herself for having done something so silly. But not today. After what had happened between her and Charlie last night it felt as if there would be nothing to laugh about for quite some time. Telling someone you loved them and then having them stare at you as if you had just told them they had a week to live sort of bled the humor out of life. Anne had spent the time between that moment and this feeling as if she had a blanket wrapped around her head. Everything seemed muffled and indistinct. Luckily Jay had slept most of the way up to camp, and Shane had been so angry about having to spend extra time with his father that neither of them had noticed that their mother wasn't doing too well.
Poor Shane. Frank refused to see that the last thing Shane needed was extra time with the family his father had left him for. Frank was a brilliant lawyer but when it came to being a father, he was clueless.
"And he's having more children," Anne muttered. Of course, if he had stayed with her there would have been zero chance of that. Maybe that was why he had turned to Pat. Anne derailed that train of thought before it could get going. She no longer wasted her time wondering why Frank had left her. Understanding the why of it would never change the fact he had deserted her and the boys for a woman young enough to be his daughter.
The sound of a car coming around a bend in the road a few hundred feet away brought Anne's head up. Half a dozen cars had already passed her by, most of their drivers smirking as they went, which she thought was uncalled for. So Sherman was a heap. It wasn't her fault she couldn't afford anything better.
"Ah, what a difference a divorce makes." Anne pushed off the hood and walked around to lean into Sherman's back passenger side window to fetch a sweater. The sun was warm but the breeze coming in off the ocean was downright chilly. Anne dug around, absently tossing aside three baseball bats, two rain coats and a bent aluminum tent pole until finally coming up with a wrinkled, tan cardigan sweater. She held it up to her nose and sniffed. Yes, it was clean.
When she straightened, there was a man standing by Sherman's hood, a motorcycle she hadn't heard arrive shining in the sun behind him. Anne bit back a startled shriek, not wanting to scare off the only Good Samaritan left in Southern California.
"Want me to take a look?" The man gestured to Sherman.
Anne looked him up and down. He appeared to be about thirty, give or take a few years either way, tall and long-limbed with shoulder-length hair so black it flashed blue here and there in the sunlight. His fitted black motorcycle jacket accentuated the difference between his broad shoulders and narrow waist. Aviator sunglasses hid his eyes but the rest of his face was handsome enough to make her wish she didn't have grease smeared across both her dress and her forehead.
Good lord, what a magnificent specimen.
What had he just asked her?
"Right. If it wouldn't be too much trouble." Anne schooled her features into what she hoped was a concerned expression. If he bent over, she silently vowed to keep her eyes trained above his waist.
He stepped up to Sherman, somehow managed to get the hood up, and had a look around. He grunted, adjusted something, sighed, and then let the hood drop with a bang.
"Sherman's dead, isn't he?" Anne wrung her hands. She and Sherman hadn't always had an easy time of it. His steering was such that parallel parking was out of the question, and he was ugly as all get out, but he'd always managed to get her where she was going.
Not this time.
"If you mean this car," the man said, "then yes, Sherman's dead."
"Poor Sherman." She patted his hood.
The man raised one eyebrow.
Anne crossed her arms over her chest. "What? He was very loyal."
"He stranded you."
"No one's perfect."
The man slid his dark glasses back onto his face, obviously done discussing her sentiments regarding Sherman's demise. "Can I give you a ride into town?"
Anne hated the idea of being rude to the only person that had stopped for her, but the very thought of getting on the back of a motorcycle made her nerves jump.
A police cruiser chose that moment to turn the bend and Anne barely managed to keep from clapping her hands. The young officer was on his way from one disaster to another, and he only had enough time to stick his head out the window and holler, "You folks need a tow?" When Anne nodded, the officer took a minute to assess Sherman's bulk from behind the wheel of his sleek new cruiser.
"Better bring the big truck," he said to whoever was on the other end of his radio.
Anne laughed at that.
"You get this thing from Army surplus or something?" the officer joked as he leaned one elbow on the ledge of his open window.
Anne tried sending the officer a repressive look but he just grinned, so young and handsome he practically gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight.
"Lou said it'll be about fifteen, twenty minutes." The officer winked at her before driving off. Anne smiled at the back of his car as it disappeared around the bend in the road.
"I can't remember ever being that young," Anne murmured.
"You can't be that much older than him," the man said.
Anne took a page from Shane's conversational handbook and snorted. "While that's a very chivalrous thing for you to say, I turned thirty-five just yesterday."
"Man wasn't a day over twenty-five. What's ten years difference?"
"Guess it depends on what you've been doing with those ten years." Anne settled onto the edge of Sherman's equally vast backseat. When the man followed and peered inside, Anne realized there was no real reason for him to stay. Despite his hooligan's motorcycle jacket and long hair, he was probably too well-mannered to leave her here by herself.
Pshaw, if he only knew how many men have felt just fine leaving me all on my own.
"Thank you so much for stopping to help." She shaded her eyes against the sunlight streaming over his shoulder. "As you heard, Lou will be here--"
"In fifteen to twenty minutes." The man crossed his arms over his chest.
Anne nodded, allowing the subject to drop. She'd spent enough time around men to know when one had made up his mind about something. This man was staying until the tow truck got there.
So, chivalry isn't dead. It's just taken up residence in unexpected places.
After using an old shirt of Charlie's she'd found wadded up under the front seat to get the worst of the grease off her hands and forehead, Anne unearthed a wicker picnic basket and set it on the seat next to her. "I'm hungry. Let's have a sandwich. There's even some iced tea if you're thirsty."
When the man hesitated, Anne determinedly held up two sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. "Bologna or salami?"
"What's in the tin foil?" He leaned over to peer into the hamper.
Anne winced. He would ask. "You don't want that. It's sardines, pickles and mustard."
"That's an insult to food the world over. Why would you make such a thing?"
"Charlie," Anne said, as if that explained it. Of course, if the man knew Charlie, that would have been explanation enough.
The love of my life.
"My ex-husband's old golf buddy." Anne poked through the food she'd packed before she'd admitted to herself that Charlie wasn't coming with her today. "There's an apple, a couple of cookies my son somehow missed...."
"The apple's fine, thanks."
Anne handed it over and watched as he took a bite. He had nice teeth, white and strong. When the tip of his tongue came out to swipe a drop of juice off his full lower lip, Anne's toes curled. She went back to digging through the basket, glancing over at him out of the corner of her eye as she wondered at her reaction. Overtly handsome men weren't to her taste and her heart still ached underneath it all, but there was something about him, something more than the fact he was remarkably attractive, that called to her.
He turned to lean against Sherman's side, gazing out at the ocean as he slowly worked his way through the apple. Anne picked up one of the two non-revolting sandwiches before getting out of the car to lean next to him. The late afternoon sunlight felt good on her face as she slowly ate her sandwich. His silence was restful, so different from Charlie's increasingly manic energy. Lately it seemed he'd been in constant motion, always doing something, talking, smoking, fixing something around her house.
Anne balled up the wax paper and tossed it over her shoulder, where it joined the general flotsam on Sherman's floor. Cleaning out that backseat would take hours. Thanks to Charlie's reaction to her impromptu little speech last night, the state of Sherman's interior was the least of her worries. She sighed.
"What's his name?" the man next to her asked.
"Who?" Anne asked, looking around.
"The man that has you sighing."
Anne felt the sting of a blush on her cheeks. "I'm just tired."
"Ma'am, if there is anything in this world I know, it is the sound of a woman breaking her heart over a man."
Anne opened her mouth to deny what he'd said, but he wasn't looking at her. His gaze was fastened on the horizon as he slowly took the last of the apple off the core. For some reason, the sight of him working on that apple made blood rush to the surface of her skin.
"What's your name?"
"Trey," He tossed the apple core into the grass before glancing over at her.
"Anne," she said, realizing she hadn't introduced herself either. "Reynolds."
Trey nodded before returning his attention to the ocean.
"There's really no one," Anne lied into the lingering silence.
"Then who's Charlie?"
"I already told you."
Trey slowly shook his head. "No one makes a sandwich that awful for someone they don't care about."
Anne ran her thumbnail along her bottom lip, the gesture a last vestige of her childhood habit of biting her nails. Trey looked over, his gaze snagging on her mouth. Anne dropped her hand. His gaze met hers. Instead of unnerving her, his look was soothing, rather like his earlier silence.
"Come on, you can tell me," he said, his voice low and gentle. "Maybe I can help."
Anne shook her head. "There's nothing you, or anyone, can do."
"So there is someone."
Anne smiled in spite of herself. "Yes. There's Charlie. Charlie Atwood."
Trey turned back to the ocean. Anne mimicked him, staring out at the vast expanse of water tumbling around under that cloudless blue sky.
"Go on and give me the short version." Trey crossed his arms over his chest.
Anne realized she suddenly wanted to tell someone about her and Charlie. Who better than a stranger that would be gone from her life in less than half an hour? And who knew, maybe telling someone would help her see the truth of what had been going on between her and Charlie all these years.
Good heavens, but where to begin?
"Four years ago," Anne said, smoothing her hands down the skirt of her dress, "after his wife divorced him for being a perpetually drunk and philandering bastard--"
Trey barked out a laugh. "Are those his words or yours?"
"Exactly his, and he won't stand anyone saying any different. Perpetually drunk and philandering bastard," Anne said those last words in a sing-song. "A few months after his divorce, Charlie moved out to Pasadena from Detroit. He and my husband met during a local charity golf event and really hit it off. They got into the habit of playing a few rounds of golf every week at the club and, of course, the round isn't officially over until you've had a few drinks and reviewed, in excruciating detail, exactly what you just finished doing."
Anne laughed at Trey's genuinely confused expression. "I know, a crashing bore, but people love it. The problems began when a few drinks turned into four and then six and then suddenly there were rumors that women were involved. At first I didn't believe it. Charlie had a terrible reputation coming out of Detroit, so I figured Frank was just getting painted with the same brush. I left Frank alone, thinking eventually the shine would wear off and life would go back to the way it had been before Charlie showed up. But it didn't. It only got worse. Finally I just couldn't take it anymore so I tracked Charlie down to tell him what I thought of him corrupting a happily married man. I still remember Charlie asking me to explain to him exactly why a happily married man went out messing around every night. There wasn't a thing I could say. A couple months later Frank announced that his law partner's daughter was pregnant and that he was the father. I agreed to give Frank his divorce, and then it seemed that Charlie showed up the next day. Said he'd lost a bet and had to mow my lawn. Since no one else was offering to help I thought, 'Why not? Some of this is his fault.' And he's been around ever since."
Trey slanted her a look. "Bet that caused a lot of talk."
"When people would ask why he was always hanging around my house, Charlie would say I'd gotten him in the divorce settlement along with the dog and a stack of old magazines."
"What reason did Charlie give you for staying?"
"None. At first I was so overwhelmed I didn't care why he was there, I was just glad that someone remembered we existed. My husband's new wife was the daughter of a very prominent legal family. People felt bad for me but most of our friends were in the law in one way or another, and they couldn't afford to be seen as taking my side."
"So they left you, too."
Anne nodded, remembering those lonely, wrenching weeks after Frank had packed up and left her to fend for herself and two bewildered, heartbroken boys. "I can't tell you how many hours I wasted trying to figure out why Frank left, and if there was anything more I could have done to prevent it. It was a massive waste of time and energy because no one ever told me the whole truth of what happened. Oh, people loved to tell me it wasn't anything to do with me but that just made it worse. It's a terrible thing to feel that you had nothing to do with something that completely up-ended your entire life, and that by the end you were nothing but a bystander in your own marriage. I think Charlie blames himself, not that he'd ever tell me."
"How long has Charlie been around?"
Trey whistled. "That's a lot of guilt."
"Well, you'll be glad to know that Charlie is over the worst of it. He hightailed it out of my life." Anne checked the delicate watch strapped to her wrist. "Roughly fifteen hours ago."
"Wait, what?" Trey abruptly pushed off the side of the car to face her. "You mean he's not joining you?"
Luckily, Lou showed up with the tow truck and Trey had to go move his motorcycle, sparing Anne from having to finish the rest of the story. Talking about Charlie hadn't helped. It had only reminded her of what he had looked like standing out in her overgrown front yard trying to start her cantankerous old lawn mower. He'd tried charm and finesse and was about to go get a hammer when Shane went out to help with Jay trailing behind. Both boys had probably been more trouble than they'd been worth, but Charlie had let them help. Anne had been so happy to see her two boys back out in the sunlight she'd instantly and forever forgiven Charlie any part he had played in destroying her marriage.
She wasn't so sure how long it would take her to forgive him for breaking her heart, but that wasn't a question she could answer today.
Once Lou got Sherman attached to the back of the biggest tow truck Anne had ever seen, he gestured for her to climb into the cab alongside a decrepit Siberian husky. There was enough dog hair on the seat to make an entire other dog, and the window was coated with drool.
She turned to where Trey was waiting next to his motorcycle, a smile playing around the edges of his mouth. He knew she hadn't wanted to take a ride from him, and now he was enjoying watching her squirm.
The dog barked, drool flew, and Anne stepped forward to accept Trey's outstretched hand.