It threw him off balance—way off.
After a pause, Laney pressed him. “Why do I sense more to Vivi’s relationship with you and your family?”
Discomforted by her observation, David glanced off into the distance. How could he adequately condense almost thirteen years of knowing Vivi?
“Cat befriended her when she moved to our town. She’d lost her mother and brother to a fatal car accident when she was very young. She’d lived alone with her alcoholic father until after college. Needless to say, her home life wasn’t nurturing. My mother saw the toll it was taking on Vivi and stepped in as an unofficial surrogate. It’s not an overstatement to say she’s practically an adopted member of our family.”
While this version of Vivi’s history was accurate, it excluded any mention of her precise relationship with him. When he thought about that, he wasn’t sure how to define what they shared. He only knew he cherished it.
“Well, she’s lucky she had all of you.” Laney stabbed at her salmon and pushed it around her plate.
“Lucky” seemed like a perverted view of Vivi’s situation. David had met her father only a handful of times, none of which had been pleasant. Stories Vivi told him, and ones he’d heard when eavesdropping on conversations between his sister and mother, had filled in the rest of the equally bad details.
He’d often heard pity in Cat’s voice when she spoke of Vivi’s life. In contrast, he’d revered Vivi’s ability to maintain a sunny outlook and find joy in others’ good fortune. Despite the dearth of love in her own home, she maintained utter faith in the promise of love.
If only he could be more like her.
“You might want to consider apologizing.” Laney’s voice drifted through his thoughts. “She must’ve thought she was doing something nice.”
By the time David finished off the second bottle of wine, contrition weighed on him like a wet wool blanket. He’d totally overreacted. Worse, he’d struck out at someone dear to him. Someone he never wanted to hurt.
While Laney drove them home, he imagined his sister’s reaction to his earlier outburst. In fewer than twelve hours, he’d lost more control over his emotions than he had since the day of his fight with his father. It didn’t bode well for the remainder of his vacation.
Laney shut off the ignition and opened her door. He gulped a steadying breath before following her into the house.
“I’m going straight upstairs. Hopefully this will all blow over by breakfast.” She planted a cool kiss on his cheek and fled to their room, leaving him alone in the silent house.
Through the windows of the main living area, David saw Jackson and Hank lounging outside on the deck, encircled by cigar smoke. Vivi and Cat were conspicuously absent. Here we go.
Wrenching open the sliding door he stepped into the night air and shivered.
Jackson cast a cold glance at David just before blowing smoke toward him. “How was your dinner?”
“Not great.” David waited for the punch line.
“Ours was excellent.” Jackson produced an arrogant smile.
“Where’s Vivi?” He scanned the lawn below. “I need to apologize.”
“You think?” Jackson’s sneer emphasized his sarcastic delivery. “Find her in the morning.”
“Should I expect an eye gouging from Cat?” David crossed his arms in front of his chest to fend off Jackson’s next verbal assault.
“No. Vivi blamed her mood on a ‘call from her dad.’ ”
David winced. He hated the fact that Vivi falsely implicated her father to spare him Cat’s tongue-lashing.
“How’s she feeling now?” he asked.
“Probably a lot like a helpless kitten who’s been drop-kicked by an asshole.” Jackson shook his head and flicked the ash from his cigar. “Bro, I don’t know what bug crawled up inside you since Mom died, but get rid of it soon.”
Hank’s eyes widened while he puffed his own cigar.
David stared out over the ocean, its turbulent black water churning just like the acid in his stomach. “I’ll make it right,” he said without looking at Jackson, wondering exactly how he’d go about keeping that promise.
“That’ll be a neat trick.”
He glanced over to see Jackson glaring at him. He didn’t defend himself. He’d earned Jackson’s scorn. David mumbled his good nights and lumbered up the steps to his room.
By midnight, a wine-induced, guilt-riddled headache prompted him to go downstairs for a glass of water. He wandered outside onto the deck, to stand beneath the starless sky streaked with wide swaths of gray clouds.
In the expansive darkness, he recalled Vivi’s final letter, which he’d received around the first anniversary of his mom’s death. He couldn’t remember the scented note in its entirety, having memorized only an excerpt.
I miss you. No one hears from you these days. You’ve disappeared from all of our lives. I know your loss is tremendous, but I sense something more going on. Share it with me, please. Withdrawing from everyone who loves you will only make it worse. Your mother wouldn’t want that for you, or for the rest of us. Honor her by living, loving, and finding joy in your life. It’s all she ever wanted for you.
She’d included a small charcoal portrait she’d drawn of his mother. The imperfect image had perfectly captured his mother’s spirit and smile. In a weak moment that same day, he’d considered calling and confiding in her.
He’d refrained to spare her from ending up in a terrible position with his siblings. Her piss-poor poker face would make it impossible for her to keep the secret from them, too.
David gripped the railing. Despite yearning for vindication, he’d never betray his mother’s wish or be the one to crush his siblings’ beliefs about their father and family, even if it meant he’d continue to suffer alone.
But if his mother watched over him, she was disappointed tonight. His stomach pinched each time he pictured Vivi’s devastated expression from earlier this evening. He also owed her an apology for taking her friendship for granted while he’d been away.
He wondered if it mattered now. Hell, she didn’t seem to care about him anymore.
When his chin fell to his chest in defeat, he noticed something in the grass. Vivi lay in the yard with her hands behind her head, listening to her iPod with her eyes closed.