The Long Road Home(7)

By: H.D. Thomson

After she watched them disappear into the building, she rummaged in her purse for her painkillers and tissues. She swallowed two pills and used a Kleenex to wipe the perspiration from her brow. Impatiently pulling at the material clinging to her back, she waited until she thought they were seated at a table. Then she grabbed her purse and closed the door. She scanned the restaurant’s glass doors and wall of windows for John and Vivian. Unable to find them, Clarisse took a deep breath and limped across the parking lot. Once in the lobby, she clenched her jaw and moved slowly and as gracefully as she could. She found them sitting at the back of the room. Not that far to walk, Clarisse convinced herself.

By the time she slid into a chair directly across from John and to the right of Vivian, a new film of perspiration clung to her brow. A silent groan of relief eased from her parted lips as her weight lifted from her leg. She was beginning to regret leaving her cane behind. Vanity was turning into a hellish experience.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” John’s gaze raked her face.

“Why, you’re as pale as a sheet.” A frown pleated Vivian’s brow. “Why don’t you have some water?” She flagged down a waiter. “Can you get her some water? The poor girl’s wilting.”

“I’m fine.” Clarisse forced a laugh. The sound seemed fake even to her ears.

“You don’t look fine,” Vivian persisted, reaching across the table and placing the back of her hand against Clarisse’s forehead. “Your skin’s hot and clammy. Are you sure you’re not coming down with something?”

Clarisse pulled back at the unexpected touch. “Seriously, there’s no reason to cause such a commotion.” Her stomach knotted at Vivian’s persistence. She wondered whether her behavior in some way hinted at the injury to her leg. “I’m not sick, just a little tired. I didn’t get much sleep last night. I waited until the last minute to pack.”

She reached for the glass of water the waiter placed in front of her. Ice cubes rattled. Clarisse steadied her trembling hand and brought the glass to her lips. She met John’s gaze over its rim and didn’t like how he was watching her. That impassive expression of his had always been a bad sign. It usually meant his mind was working the hardest.

“Vivian, why don’t you leave the poor woman alone?” Amusement softened his features. “I think she’s becoming alarmed at your nursing antics.”

Vivian sat back in her chair. “Sorry about that. I guess I tend to get a little carried away since I started taking a couple of classes at a medical college. I’ve been thinking of trying my hand at something else since modeling fizzled out for me.”

Clarisse drained the rest of her drink and put the glass on the table.

“Well, it looks like I was right.” Vivian beamed. “That water did the trick. You look better already. I’m going to freshen up. All this driving.”

The redhead wove through the tables, poised and turning many a male head. Her red hair flowed down around her, as vivid as the last rays of a sunset over the horizon before fading to dusk. Silence, awkward and heavy with tension, followed Vivian’s departure.

“She’s very beautiful,” Clarisse said.

“You sound envious.”

She turned startled eyes to John. “Do I?”

“You shouldn’t be. Hell, you know you’re just as beautiful as her or any other woman out there. As a model, you had something many didn’t. Elegance, sophistication. Just a touch of aloofness. It’s what set you apart. Why else would you have gotten paid top dollar?”

Yes, she had been in demand. She hated being reminded of what she once had. She rubbed her right thigh self-consciously. But that was years ago, and held no bearing now. “I see you haven’t changed. Still thinking about appearances. You always liked beautiful things around you. Including people.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

The question snapped her mouth closed. No, he hadn’t changed. Beauty meant everything to him. She could imagine the look of repugnance on his face if he ever saw her leg. She couldn’t handle that, not from John. And she swore she wouldn’t.