Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Blue Dahlia, Page 2

Nora Roberts

Chapter One

  Southfield, Michigan

  September 2001

  She burned the cream sauce. Stella would always remember that small, irritating detail, as she would remember the roll and boom of thunder from the late-summer storm and the sound of her children squabbling in the living room.

  She would remember the harsh smell, the sudden scream of the smoke alarms, and the way she'd mechanically taken the pan off the burner and dumped it in the sink.

  She wasn't much of a cook, but she was - in general - a precise cook. For this welcome-home meal, she'd planned to prepare the chicken Alfredo, one of Kevin's favorites, from scratch and match it with a nice field greens salad and some fresh, crusty bread with pesto dipping sauce.

  In her tidy kitchen in her pretty suburban house she had all the ingredients lined up, her cookbook propped on its stand with the plastic protector over the pages.

  She wore a navy-blue bib apron over her fresh pants and shirt and had her mass of curling red hair bundled up on top of her head, out of her way.

  She was getting started later than she'd hoped, but work had been a madhouse all day. All the fall flowers at the garden center were on sale, and the warm weather brought customers out in droves.

  Not that she minded. She loved the work, absolutely loved her job as manager of the nursery. It felt good to be back in the thick of it, full-time now that Gavin was in school and Luke old enough for a play group. How in the world had her baby grown up enough for first grade?

  And before she knew it, Luke would be ready for kindergarten.

  She and Kevin should start getting a little more proactive about making that third child. Maybe tonight, she thought with a smile. When she got into that final and very personal stage of her welcome-home plans.

  As she measured ingredients, she heard the crash and wail from the next room. Glutton for punishment, she thought as she dropped what she was doing to rush in. Thinking about having another baby when the two she had were driving her crazy.

  She stepped into the room, and there they were. Her little angels. Gavin, sunny blond with the devil in his eyes, sat innocently bumping two Matchbox cars into each other while Luke, his bright red hair a dead ringer for hers, screamed over his scattered wooden blocks.

  She didn't have to witness the event to know. Luke had built; Gavin had destroyed.

  In their house it was the law of the land.

  "Gavin. Why?" She scooped up Luke, patted his back. "It's okay, baby. You can build another. "

  "My house! My house!"

  "It was an accident," Gavin claimed, and that wicked twinkle that made a bubble of laughter rise to her throat remained. "The car wrecked it. "

  "I bet the car did - after you aimed it at his house. Why can't you play nice? He wasn't bothering you. "

  "I was playing. He's just a baby. "

  "That's right. " And it was the look that came into her eyes that had Gavin dropping his. "And if you're going to be a baby, too, you can be a baby in your room. Alone. "

  "It was a stupid house. "

  "Nuh-uh! Mom. " Luke took Stella's face in both his hands, looked at her with those avid, swimming eyes. "It was good. "

  "You can build an even better one. Okay? Gavin, leave him alone. I'm not kidding. I'm busy in the kitchen, and Daddy's going to be home soon. Do you want to be punished for his welcome home?"

  "No. I can't do anything. "

  "That's too bad. It's really a shame you don't have any toys. " She set Luke down. "Build your house, Luke. Leave his blocks alone, Gavin. If I have to come in here again, you're not going to like it. "

  "I want to go outside!" Gavin mourned at her retreating back.

  "Well, it's raining, so you can't. We're all stuck in here, so behave. "

  Flustered, she went back to the cookbook, tried to clear her head. In an irritated move, she snapped on the kitchen TV. God, she missed Kevin. The boys had been cranky all afternoon, and she felt rushed and harried and overwhelmed. With Kevin out of town these last four days she'd been scrambling around like a maniac. Dealing with the house, the boys, her job, all the errands alone.

  Why was it that the household appliances waited, just waited, to go on strike when Kevin left town? Yesterday the washer had gone buns up, and just that morning the toaster oven had fried itself.

  They had such a nice rhythm when they were together, dividing up the chores, sharing the discipline and the pleasure in their sons. If he'd been home, he could have sat down to play with - and referee - the boys while she cooked.

  Or better, he'd have cooked and she'd have played with the boys.

  She missed the smell of him when he came up behind her to lean down and rub his cheek over hers. She missed curling up to him in bed at night, and the way they'd talk in the dark about their plans, or laugh at something the boys had done that day.

  For God's sake, you'd think the man had been gone four months instead of four days, she told herself.

  She listened with half an ear to Gavin trying to talk Luke into building a skyscraper that they could both wreck as she stirred her cream sauce and watched the wind swirl leaves outside the window.

  He wouldn't be traveling so much after he got his promotion. Soon, she reminded herself. He'd been working so hard, and he was right on the verge of it. The extra money would be handy, too, especially when they had another child - maybe a girl this time.

  With the promotion, and her working full-time again, they could afford to take the kids somewhere next summer. Disney World, maybe. They'd love that. Even if she were pregnant, they could manage it. She'd been squirreling away some money in the vacation fund - and the new-car fund.

  Having to buy a new washing machine was going to seriously damage the emergency fund, but they'd be all right.

  When she heard the boys laugh, her shoulders relaxed again. Really, life was good. It was perfect, just the way she'd always imagined it. She was married to a wonderful man, one she'd fallen for the minute she'd set eyes on him. Kevin Rothchild, with his slow, sweet smile.

  They had two beautiful sons, a pretty house in a good neighborhood, jobs they both loved, and plans for the future they both agreed on. And when they made love, bells still rang.

  Thinking of that, she imagined his reaction when, with the kids tucked in for the night, she slipped into the sexy new lingerie she'd splurged on in his absence.

  A little wine, a few candles, and . . .

  The next, bigger crash had her eyes rolling toward the ceiling. At least this time there were cheers instead of wails.

  "Mom! Mom!" Face alive with glee, Luke rushed in. "We wrecked the whole building. Can we have a cookie?"

  "Not this close to dinner. "

  "Please, please, please, pleasel"

  He was pulling on her pants now, doing his best to climb up her leg. Stella set the spoon down, nudged him away from the stove. "No cookies before dinner, Luke. "

  "We're starving. " Gavin piled in, slamming his cars together. "How come we can't eat something when we're hungry? Why do we have to eat the stupid fredo anyway?"

  "Because. " She'd always hated that answer as a child, but it seemed all-purpose to her now.

  "We're all eating together when your father gets home. " But she glanced out the window and worried that his plane would be delayed. "Here, you can split an apple. "

  She took one out of the bowl on the counter and grabbed a knife.

  "I don't like the peel," Gavin complained.

  "I don't have time to peel it. " She gave the sauce a couple of quick stirs. "The peel's good for you. " Wasn't it?

  "Can I have a drink? Can I have a drink, too?" Luke tugged and tugged. "I'm thirsty. "

  "God. Give me five minutes, will you? Five minutes. Go, go build something. Then you can have some apple slices and juice. "

  Thunder boomed, and Gavin responded to it by jumping up and down and shouting, "Earthquake!"

  "It's no
t an earthquake. "

  But his face was bright with excitement as he spun in circles, then ran from the room. "Earthquake! Earthquake!"

  Getting into the spirit, Luke ran after him, screaming.

  Stella pressed a hand to her pounding head. The noise was insane, but maybe it would keep them busy until she got the meal under control.

  She turned back to the stove, and heard, without much interest, the announcement for a news bulletin.

  It filtered through the headache, and she turned toward the set like an automaton.

  Commuter plane crash. En route to Detroit Metro from Lansing. Ten passengers on board.

  The spoon dropped out of her hand. The heart dropped out of her body.

  Kevin. Kevin.

  Her children screamed in delighted fear, and thunder rolled and burst overhead. In the kitchen, Stella slid to the floor as her world fractured.

  * * *

  They came to tell her Kevin was dead. Strangers at her door with solemn faces. She couldn't take it in, couldn't believe it. Though she'd known. She'd known the minute she heard the reporter's voice on her little kitchen television.

  Kevin couldn't be dead. He was young and healthy. He was coming home, and they were having chicken Alfredo for dinner.

  But she'd burned the sauce. The smoke had set off the alarms, and there was nothing but madness in her pretty house.

  She had to send her children to her neighbor's so it could be explained to her.

  But how could the impossible, the unthinkable ever be explained?

  A mistake. The storm, a strike of lightning, and everything changed forever. One instant of time, and the man she loved, the father of her children, no longer lived.

  Is there anyone you'd like to call?

  Who would she call but Kevin? He was her family, her friend, her life.

  They spoke of details that were like a buzz in her brain, of arrangements, of counseling. They were sorry for her loss.

  They were gone, and she was alone in the house she and Kevin had bought when she'd been pregnant with Luke. The house they'd saved for, and painted, and decorated together. The house with the gardens she'd designed herself.

  The storm was over, and it was quiet. Had it ever been so quiet? She could hear her own heartbeat, the hum of the heater as it kicked on, the drip of rain from the gutters.

  Then she could hear her own keening as she collapsed on the floor by her front door. Lying on her side, she gathered herself into a ball in defense, in denial. There weren't tears, not yet. They were massed into some kind of hard, hot knot inside her. The grief was so deep, tears couldn't reach it. She could only lie curled up there, with those wounded-animal sounds pouring out of her throat.

  It was dark when she pushed herself to her feet, swaying, light-headed and ill. Kevin. Somewhere in her brain his name still, over and over and over.

  She had to get her children, she had to bring her children home. She had to tell her babies.

  Oh, God. Oh, God, how could she tell them?

  She groped for the door, stepped out into the chilly dark, her mind blessedly blank. She left the door open at her back, walked down between the heavy-headed mums and asters, past the glossy green leaves of the azaleas she and Kevin had planted one blue spring day.

  She crossed the street like a blind woman, walking through puddles that soaked her shoes, over damp grass, toward her neighbor's porch light.

  What was her neighbor's name? Funny, she'd known her for four years. They carpooled, and sometimes shopped together. But she couldn't quite remember. . . .

  Oh, yes, of course. Diane. Diane and Adam Perkins, and their children, Jessie and Wyatt. Nice family, she thought dully. Nice, normal family. They'd had a barbecue together just a couple weeks ago. Kevin had grilled chicken.

  He loved to grill. They'd had some good wine, some good laughs, and the kids had played. Wyatt had fallen and scraped his knee.

  Of course she remembered.

  But she stood in front of the door not quite sure what she was doing there.

  Her children. Of course. She'd come for her children. She had to tell them___

  Don't think. She held herself hard, rocked, held in. Don't think yet. If you think, you'll break apart. A million pieces you can never put together again.

  Her babies needed her. Needed her now. Only had her now.

  She bore down on that hot, hard knot and rang the bell.

  She saw Diane as if she were looking at her through a thin sheen of water. Rippling, and not quite there. She heard her dimly. Felt the arms that came around her in support and sympathy.

  But your husband's alive, you see, Stella thought. Your life isn't over. Your world's the same as it was five minutes ago. So you can't know. You can't.

  When she felt herself begin to shake, she pulled back. "Not now, please. I can't now. I have to take the boys home. "

  "I can come with you. " There were tears on Diane's cheeks as she reached out, touched Stella's hair. "Would you like me to come, to stay with you?"

  "No. Not now. I need . . . the boys. "

  "I'll get them. Come inside, Stella. "

  But she only shook her head.

  "All right. They're in the family room. I'll bring them. Stella, if there's anything, anything at all. You've only to call. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. "

  She stood in the dark, looking in at the light, and waited.

  She heard the protests, the complaints, then the scrambling of feet. And there were her boys - Gavin with his father's sunny hair, Luke with his father's mouth.

  "We don't want to go yet," Gavin told her. "We're playing a game. Can't we finish?"

  "Not now. We have to go home now. "

  "But I'm winning. It's not fair, and - "

  "Gavin. We have to go. "

  "Is Daddy home?"

  She looked down at Luke, his happy, innocent face, and nearly broke. "No. " Reaching down, she picked him up, touched her lips to the mouth that was so like Kevin's. "Let's go home. "

  She took Gavin's hand and began the walk back to her empty house.

  "If Daddy was home, he'd let me finish. " Cranky tears smeared Gavin's voice. "I want Daddy. "

  "I know. I do too. "

  "Can we have a dog?" Luke wanted to know, and turned her face to his with his hands. "Can we ask Daddy? Can we have a dog like Jessie and Wyatt?"

  "We'll talk about it later. "

  "I want Daddy," Gavin said again, with a rising pitch in his voice.

  He knows, Stella thought. He knows something is wrong, something's terribly wrong. I have to do this. I have to do it now.

  "We need to sit down. " Carefully, very carefully, she closed the door behind her, carried Luke to the couch. She sat with him in her lap and laid her arm over Gavin's shoulder.

  "If I had a dog," Luke told her soberly, "I'd take care of him. When's Daddy coming?"

  "He can't come. "

  " 'Cause of the busy trip?"

  "He . . . " Help me. God, help me do this. "There was an accident. Daddy was in an accident. "

  "Like when the cars smash?" Luke asked, and Gavin said nothing, nothing at all as his eyes burned into her face.

  "It was a very bad accident. Daddy had to go to heaven. "

  "But he has to come home after. "

  "He can't. He can't come home anymore. He has to stay in heaven now. "

  "I don't want him there. " Gavin tried to wrench away, but she held him tightly. "I want him to come home now. "

  "I don't want him there either, baby. But he can't come back anymore, no matter how much we want it. "

  Luke's lips trembled. "Is he mad at us?"

  "No. No, no, no, baby. No. " She pressed her face to his hair as her stomach pitched and what was left of her heart throbbed like a wound. "He's not mad at us. He loves us. He'll always love us. "

  "He's dead. " There was fury in Gavin's voice, rage on his
face. Then it crumpled, and he was just a little boy, weeping in his mother's arms.

  She held them until they slept, then carried them to her bed so none of them would wake alone. As she had countless times before, she slipped off their shoes, tucked blankets around them.

  She left a light burning while she walked - it felt like floating - through the house, locking doors, checking windows. When she knew everything was safe, she closed herself into the bathroom. She ran a bath so hot the steam rose off the water and misted the room.

  Only when she slipped into the tub, submerged herself in the steaming water, did she allow that knot to snap. With her boys sleeping, and her body shivering in the hot water, she wept and wept and wept.

  * * *

  She got through it. A few friends suggested she might take a tranquilizer, but she didn't want to block the feelings. Nor did she want to have a muzzy head when she had her children to think of.

  She kept-it simple. Kevin would have wanted simple. She chose every detail - the music, the flowers, the photographs - of his memorial service. She selected a silver box for his ashes and planned to scatter them on the lake. He'd proposed to her on the lake, in a rented boat on a summer afternoon.

  She wore black for the service, a widow of thirty-one, with two young boys and a mortgage, and a heart so broken she wondered if she would feel pieces of it piercing her soul for the rest of her life.

  She kept her children close, and made appointments with a grief counselor for all of them.

  Details. She could handle the details. As long as there was something to do, something definite, she could hold on. She could be strong.

  Friends came, with their sympathy and covered dishes and teary eyes. She was grateful to them more for the distraction than the condolences. There was no condolence for her.

  Her father and his wife flew up from Memphis, and them she leaned on. She let Jolene, her father's wife, fuss over her, and soothe and cuddle the children, while her own mother complained about having to be in the same room as that woman.

  When the service was over, after the friends drifted away, after she clung to her father and Jolene before their flight home, she made herself take off the black dress.

  She shoved it into a bag to send to a shelter. She never wanted to see it again.

  Her mother stayed. Stella had asked her to stay a few days. Surely under such circumstances she was entitled to her mother. Whatever friction was, and always had been, between them was nothing compared with death.

  When she went into the kitchen, her mother was brewing coffee. Stella was so grateful not to have to think of such a minor task, she crossed over and kissed Carla's cheek.

  "Thanks. I'm so sick of tea. "

  "Every time I turned around that woman was making more damn tea. "

  "She was trying to help, and I'm not sure I could've handled coffee until now. "

  Carla turned. She was a slim woman with short blond hair. Over the years, she'd battled time with regular trips to the surgeon. Nips, tucks, lifts, injections had wiped away some of the years. And left her looking whittled and hard, Stella thought.

  She might pass for forty, but she'd never look happy about it.

  "You always take up for her. "

  "I'm not taking up for Jolene, Mom. " Wearily, Stella sat. No more details, she realized. No more something that has to be done.

  How would she get through the night?

  "I don't see why I had to tolerate her. "

  "I'm sorry you were uncomfortable. But she was very kind. She and Dad have been married for, what, twenty-five years or so now. You ought to be used to it. "

  "I don't like having her in my face, her and that twangy voice. Trailer trash. "

  Stella opened her mouth, closed it again. Jolene hadn't come from a trailer park and was certainly not trash. But what good would it do to say so? Or to remind her mother that she'd been the one who'd wanted a divorce, the one to leave the marriage. Just as it wouldn't do any good to point out that Carla had been married twice since.

  "Well, she's gone now. "

  "Good riddance. "

  Stella took a deep breath. No arguments, she thought, as her stomach clenched and unclenched like a fist. Too tired to argue.

  "The kids are sleeping. They're just worn out. Tomorrow . . . we'll just deal with tomorrow. I guess that's the way it's going to be. " She let her head fall back, closed her eyes. "I keep thinking this is a horrible dream, and I'll wake up any second. Kevin will be here. I don't. . . I can't imagine life without him. I can't stand to imagine it. "

  The tears started again. "Mom, I don't know what I'm going to do. "

  "Had insurance, didn't he?"

  Stella blinked, stared as Carla set a cup of coffee in front of her. "What?"

  "Life insurance. He was covered?"

  "Yes, but - "

  "You ought to talk to a lawyer about suing the airline. Better start thinking of practicalities. " She sat with her own coffee. "It's what you're best at, anyway. "

  "Mom" - she spoke slowly as if translating a strange foreign language - "Kevin's dead. "

  "I know that, Stella, and I'm sorry. " Reaching over, Carla gave Stella's hand a pat. "I dropped everything to come here and give you a hand, didn't I?"

  "Yes. " She had to remember that. Appreciate that.

  "It's a damn fucked-up world when a man of his age dies for no good reason. Useless waste. I'll never understand it. "

  "No. " Pulling a tissue out of her pocket, Stella rubbed the tears away. "Neither will I. "

  "I liked him. But the fact is, you're in a fix now. Bills, kids to support. Widowed with two growing boys. Not many men want to take on ready-made families, let me tell you. "

  "I don't want a man to take us on. God, Mom. "

  "You will," Carla said with a nod. 'Take my advice and make sure the next one's got money. Don't make my mistakes. You lost your husband, and that's hard. It's really hard. But women lose husbands every day. It's better to lose one this way than to go through a divorce. "

  The pain in Stella's stomach was too sharp for grief, too cold for rage. "Mom. We had Kevin's memorial service today. I have his ashes in a goddamn box in my bedroom. "

  "You want my help. " She waggled the spoon. "I'm trying to give it to you. You sue the pants off the airline, get yourself a solid nest egg. And don't hook yourself up with some loser like I always do. You don't think divorce is a hard knock, too? Haven't been through one, have you? Well, I have. Twice. And I might as well tell you it's coming up on three. I'm done with that stupid son of a bitch.

  You've got no idea what he's put me through. Not only is he an inconsiderate, loudmouthed asshole, but I think he's been cheating on me. "

  She pushed away from the table, rummaged around, then cut herself a piece of cake. "He thinks I'm going to tolerate that, he's mistaken. I'd just love to see his face when he gets served with the papers. Today. "

  "I'm sorry your third marriage isn't working out," Stella said stiffly. "But it's a little hard for me to be sympathetic, since both the third marriage and the third divorce were your choice. Kevin's dead. My husband is dead, and that sure as hell wasn't my choice. "

  "You think I want to go through this again? You think I want to come here to help you out, then have your father's bimbo shoved in my face?"

  "She's his wife, who has never been anything but decent to you and who has always treated me kindly. "

  'To your face. " Carla stuffed a bite of cake into her mouth. "You think you're the only one with problems? With heartache? You won't be so quick to shrug it off when you're pushing fifty and facing life alone. "

  "You're pushing fifty from the back end, Mom, and being alone is, again, your choice. "

  Temper turned Carla's eyes dark and sharp. "I don't appreciate that tone, Stella. I don't have to put up with it. "

  "No, you don't. You certainly don't. In fact, it would probably be best for bo
th of us if you left. Right now. This was a bad idea. I don't know what I was thinking. "

  "You want me gone, fine. " Carla shoved up from the table. "I'd just as soon get back to my own life. You never had any gratitude in you, and if you couldn't be on my back about something you weren't happy. Next time you want to cry on somebody's shoulder, call your country bumpkin stepmother. "

  "Oh, I will," Stella murmured as Carla sailed out of the room. "Believe me. "

  She rose to carry her cup to the sink, then gave in to the petty urge and smashed it. She wanted to break everything as she'd been broken. She wanted to wreak havoc on the world as it had been on her.

  Instead she stood gripping the edge of the sink and praying that her mother would pack and leave quickly. She wanted her out. Why had she ever thought she wanted her to stay? It was always the same between them. Abrasive, combative. No connection, no common ground.

  But God, she'd wanted that shoulder. Needed it so much, just for one night. Tomorrow she would do whatever came next. But she'd wanted to be held and stroked and comforted tonight.

  With trembling fingers she cleaned the broken shards out of the sink, wept over them a little as she poured them into the trash. Then she walked to the phone and called a cab for her mother.

  They didn't speak again, and Stella decided that was for the best. She closed the door, listened to the cab drive away.

  Alone now, she checked on her sons, tucked blankets over them, laid her lips gently on their heads.

  They were all she had now. And she was all they had.

  She would be a better mother. She swore it. More patient. She would never, never let them down. She would never walk away when they needed her.

  And when they needed her shoulder, by God, she would give it. No matter what. No matter when.

  "You're first for me," she whispered. "You'll always be first for me. "

  In her own room, she undressed again, then took Kevin's old flannel robe out of the closet. She wrapped herself in it, in the familiar, heartbreaking smell of him.

  Curling up on the bed, she hugged the robe close, shut her eyes, and prayed for morning. For what happened next.