Bethany Harris dropped her hand-carry items onto the green tweed residence hotel couch, bumping her thigh on the hard blond frame. That’ll bruise. She flipped the roller suitcase onto the cushion beside them. Half of it was stuffed with three copies of her unpublished manuscript, working title Dare to be Loved. Time enough to unpack all that later today, right now all she wanted was to get these minions of strapped hell off her screaming feet and nap for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe tonight she’d feel like strolling across town to the convention’s opening night reception. But not in these shoes.
She stepped out of her traveling skirt and unbuttoned the soft cotton off-white blouse she only wore on planes. The trip hadn’t been too bad—Seattle to San Francisco—but the plane had been delayed two hours, and the noise and traffic and anxiety had noodled her.
A red light blinked on the telephone. Now what the hell. Messages already?
It couldn’t be Zeke. Unless he’d changed his mind? They’d decided to “go their separate ways” (her phrase) and “take a little time off” (his phrase) yesterday morning. Good job, Zeke! Nothing like a break-up from an easy-does-it mollycoddler the day before an all-important San Francisco romance novel convention to stifle the confidence of a yet-to-be-published envelope stuffer on the other side of forty, hoping for a break and praying for an answer. She pushed the message button.
“You Have…Eighteen Messages,” the impersonal voice announced. Eighteen! Let’s see. A couple could be from the conference people, notifying her she’d made it onto an editor’s list for a face-to-face appraisal. A couple might be from the residence hotel, warning her that her credit card had declined the increased charge from extending her stay to a week. Or they might all be from Zeke. He might have tracked her down, gone on the internet for the convention address, bought a ticket, and called and called and called to tell her not to go anywhere, he was on his way. She pushed the button for the messages.
“Message…One. Emily, this is mom. We didn’t hear back from you this afternoon. Are you still planning to get home tomorrow morning? Call us back.” Bethany pressed the button to delete the message. Emily’d had someone waiting for her at home, someone who wanted to make sure she was coming. Emily’d had a mom.
“Message…Two. This message is for Emily Darrock. Miss Darrock, this is Dr. Omley’s office. We have the results of your test. The doctor would like to speak with you. Please call us back and make an appointment at your earliest convenience. Thank you.”
“Message…Three. Hi Emily. It’s Erin. We’re almost ready, Jake just showed up, we’ll pick you up around eight, ok? See you then! Last night to party!” Bethany deleted the message with its background laughter and hooting. She’d never been that young, that carefree. That happy.
“Message…Four. Hi, honey. Still haven’t heard from you. Can’t wait to see you, punkin. Call us back tonight. Love you, hon.”
Bethany’s father had left when she was less than a year old, and her mother died when Bethany was four, so she’d never known the whole concerned-parent thing. She’d been raised by a dutiful maternal aunt who’d never approved of her sister and who’d never approved of her sister’s choices, especially men, and who’d never approved of Bethany. Bethany had left home for college at the age of seventeen, sent a few holiday cards for the first few years, and then lost touch when the cards had been returned addressee unknown. Since then, only a string of men and one or two sometime friends had been her intermittent family. But she could recognize family love when she heard it on the phone, even—or especially—when it was meant for somebody else.
“Message…Five. Hi Emily. It’s Erin again. We just came straight to the bar to make sure we got a table, so Jake says he can walk over and get you if you want. Call me back on my cell and let us know.”
“Message…Six. Hello? Emily?” A man’s voice. “I’m downstairs, are you there? I’m right outside, come down and let me in, ok? I want to talk to you.”
That was a message she wouldn’t get from Zeke.
“Message…Seven. Hey, Emily. We’re all still here, Jake says let him know if you want him to come get you. Guess you might be coming by yourself? See you soon!”
“Message…Eight. Hey Emily. We’re still here, so at least call me, ok? If you don’t call back I’ll just assume you’re not coming? Are you busy or something? Call me!”
“Message…Nine. Hi Hon. It’s mom again. Guess you got an early start, so you might not even get this message. Hope we’ll be seeing you soon, hon. You should be here any time. Love you, punkin.” Bethany pressed the delete button. She sat on the desk chair and stared at the phone. Surely Emily had made it home by now. A knock on the door interrupted her imaginings.
A rain-wet young man couldn’t hide his disappointment when Bethany opened the door. “Yes? Can I help you?” This wasn’t the first time the sight of her had disappointed a man, but most of the time they’d been more in control of their expressions. This man’s face actually fell.
“Ummm. Hi.” He smoothed his dripping hair and stood a little straighter. “Is Emily around?”
“Who are you? Did you call?” Bethany couldn’t recognize his voice.
“Ummm, yeah. I called last night. Who are you? Is Emily here?” He peeked over her shoulder.
“Well, I don’t know. I just moved in this afternoon, so I guess she’s gone. Sorry.” Bethany shut the door.
“Wait.” He knocked again. “Excuse me. Miss? Did she leave a note for me or anything?”
Bethany opened the door. “I didn’t see one, but they cleaned the room. You could ask at the desk, I suppose. Or the maid.” She waited.
He looked up and down the hall. “No one was at the desk. That’s how I got in.”
“No one saw you come in? What about last night?”
“I didn’t come in last night. I called from outside and she came down to talk to me. Who are you?”
“I told you. I’m just somebody staying in the room. Did she go anywhere after you talked? Or did she just come back upstairs?”
“She just came back upstairs. I was supposed to come back and meet her this morning but the bus I was on got hijacked and I just now made it. They wouldn’t let us leave or make calls or anything. So I just got here.” He shivered a little. “I ran, and someone was leaving so I caught the door.” His expression shrugged for him. He was good with his face.
“Your bus got hijacked?” Now there was a stretch. Maybe she could use that in her next book. Assuming she ever wrote another book. Maybe she’d just accept the fact that she’d be stuffing envelopes for the rest of her life. Alone. “Well, I guess you can come in while I check for a note, but I’m pretty sure they would have thrown it away anyway.” She stepped back to let him in. “Sit down.” She waved at the couch. “Here.” She piled one carry-on bag on top of the other. “You want a towel?”
“No. That’s ok.” He sat gingerly between two piles of luggage. So much baggage she’d had to check some of it through. Her baggage always found her. She was never lucky enough to lose any of it.
“Well, I’m just finishing these messages,” she told him. “Who knows, maybe there’s one on there for you.”
Voice mail messages and emails had been the currency of all her romances and their break-ups. After their face-to-face, she’d hoped that Zeke would call. Saying let’s take a break to somebody’s face just didn’t feel final.
“Message…Ten. Hon? It’s mom. Are you still there? You should have been here over an hour ago. I just thought I’d try again in case you decided to stay a little longer because of the doctor. Hope you’re ok, honey. Can’t wait to see you.”
“What’s your name?” Bethany asked. He stared at the ceiling, concentrating on the disembodied voice, a babylike frown on his transparent face.
“Al. Did she say anything about the doctor?”
Bethany hit the save button. She should have been saving them all this time. Why was this man in her room? Where was the desk attendant when he walked in? He wasn’t Jake? Or was he Jake, and lying about it? “Al?” she asked. “Not Jake?” She watched his face, ready to hit him with an Aha! look of her own. She was no amateur with expressions, either. Her best were sorrow, longsuffering, and surprise, although too many people had interpreted them as self-pity, impatience, and confusion.
“Jake? Who’s Jake?” He stood. “Who’s Jake? Not that guy from the bar the other night? Was he here?”
“No, of course not. Sit down, please.” Bethany stood and moved the chair between them. She glanced at the door. She could make it. She could make it. She should have called Zeke. She should have let him know that she knew she put too much on him, that his understanding could be stretched only so far, that wanting him to be mother, father, brother, sister, family, and friend all at once all the time while she kept him at arm’s length was just too much to ask. Of all the regret in her life, not calling Zeke was the freshest and deepest. She gripped the chair.
Al slumped back among the luggage. He buried that expressive face in his workingman’s hands. They reminded her of Zeke. She pressed the button to play.
“Message…Eleven. This message is for Emily Darrock. Miss Darrock, this is Dr. Omley’s office. As per the request you made during this morning’s visit, we have forwarded your records to Dr. Burkey in Amsdale Center in Seattle, and our file here has been closed. Good luck, and congratulations.”
That was weird. Bethany knew Amsdale Center. She’d gone there once to try out a doctor, but it hadn’t worked. She didn’t think it was Dr. Burkey, but she couldn’t really remember.
“Message…Twelve. Hello? Hello? Is anybody there? This is the previous occupant of that room. Is anyone there?”
“That’s her! It’s Emily!” Al sprang up and reached for the phone. “Emily? Emily?” he looked at Bethany. “She’s not there.”
“Of course not. It’s a message, not a call. Move over, we’ll play the next message. There’s still a couple more.”
“Message…Thirteen. Hello? Hello? This is Emily Darrock. I was in that room until I checked out early this morning, and somebody was supposed to come meet me but I wasn’t there because I had to go to the doctor.” Bethany and Al locked widened eyes, brows raised, slight smiles, their faces two question marks framing either side of the phone. “If you could, please tell him I’m on my way home to Seattle and he should call me there later today. Or tomorrow. Or come up to Seattle.” In the pause, Al and Bethany broke into smiles. “And please tell him I love him and I can’t wait to see him. Thank you.”
Al jumped up and kicked the air. Bethany hadn’t realized how long his legs were. They made her think of Zeke. Everything made her think of Zeke. And the happiness she felt for Al and Emily, and the rich full hope for their splendid future, made her think of him most of all.
“Gotta go, then! On my way to Seattle!” Al covered her in a wet hug. “Thank you! I’m gone!” And he was gone.
Might as well delete the rest of the messages. Only a couple left. After the last one, what was there to say? If Emily had changed her mind or lost faith in Al or met with an accident, Bethany didn’t want to know. But she was a writer, after all, and she needed to know how this romance story would end.
“Message…Fourteen. Hello? Bethany? Are you there? It’s Zeke.” Bethany froze. “Bethany? Is this the right room?”
Bethany hit the button to replay the message. “Message…Fourteen. Hello? Bethany? Are you there? It’s Zeke.” It was true. It was Zeke. He was calling her. “Bethany? Is this the right room?” She saved the message.
“Message…Fifteen. Bethany? Are you there? The schedule said your plane should have landed by now. Please answer. I’m going to call one more time, and if you don’t answer I’ll just know you don’t want to talk. I’ll call back.”
Of all the bad luck she’d ever had, she’d never thought that a hijacked bus and delayed air flight would figure into such a bad day. On top of the rain. And a boy named Al. And a man named Zeke. She pressed the button to play.
“Message…Sixteen. Bethany? Bethany?”
She had always been sorry that she hadn’t made more effort to visit her Aunt Bess after she’d left. Dropping no more than a line only once or twice a year had been Bethany’s idea. Bess had sent checks and tried to call, but Bethany had told herself that Bess had done it out of duty and not out of love. Images of Aunt Bess escorting her to the dentist and buying her school clothes and making out checks for writing classes had all been drowned in the pictures of herself as a four-year-old orphan, scared and lonely and unloved. Aunt Bess had comforted her and become her family and loved her. And Bethany had not allowed herself to be loved.
“Message…Seventeen.” Silence. And then a soft click.
Bethany grabbed the phone and dialed Zeke’s number. It rang over to his voice mail. She hung up. Here was a hard lesson well learned. Another regret, but this one for Aunt Bess as well as for Zeke. This one for Bethany.
“Message…Eighteen. Bethany, it’s Zeke. I’m coming to San Francisco. I’ll see you when I get there. We can work this out.” Bethany hit the save button and waited for another knock on the door.