Stripped Read online

Page 21

I’m suddenly aware of how I must look, how I must smell. I’m sure Louise can smell the sex on me, see it in the rat’s nest of my hair. I wish I’d had time to shower, but there’s nothing to be done now.

  “Grey, how are you sweetheart? Why, I haven’t seen you in an age! I thought y’all would never come back to see us! Don’t you look just beautiful, and my, oh my, who is this tall drink of water?” Louise chatters nonstop, her accent thick as sludge and twanging like a plucked guitar string. Then she really sees Dawson, and she recognizes him. “Oh. Oh. Oh my…but you’re—oh. ”

  She flaps her face with a hand, and her generous bosom heaves, eyes wide. She glances at me, and then her eyes widen even more, to saucers, as Dawson makes a show of wrapping his arm around my waist, low, nearly on my backside. I lean into him, rest my head against his chest, and it’s not a show. I need his proximity—I need to draw strength from him.

  Louise has recovered a bit of her equilibrium. “Is this really who I think it is?”

  I nod. “Louise Eldritch, this is Dawson Kellor. My boyfriend. ” I’ve never introduced anyone using those two words before. I go a little giddy.

  Louise laughs nervously as she shakes Dawson’s outstretched hand. “My lands, Grey! However did you meet him? He’s even more handsome in person than in his movies!”

  I frown. “Why, Louise, do you mean to tell me you’ve seen his movies? I wouldn’t have pegged you for those types of films. ”

  Louise blushes scarlet and waves her hand dismissively. “Well, you see, I…my Iris wanted to go see those movies that were so popular, you know the ones, about the magic and what-have-you. So of course I had to see them to make sure they were suitable for my daughter. I didn’t let her go see them, mind you. They were just too filled with needless violence and sexuality, and—well, no offense, Mr. Kellor, but we don’t hold stock in that kind of behavior. ”

  Dawson smiles evenly. “No offense taken, Mrs. Eldritch. I know some of my films aren’t for everyone. If I had a daughter, I certainly wouldn’t let her see much of my work until she was old enough to understand and be discerning. ”

  Louise nods seriously, and then turns to me. “So, Grey. What brings you back to town? I was under the impression that you’d relocated to Los Angeles more or less permanently. ”

  Which was Louise’s way of saying that she knew about my falling out with Daddy, and wanted the inside scoop.

  “Is Daddy in his office? I’d like to see him. ”

  “He is, you know he is. He’s just…well, I’ll let him tell you. ” The affable, genteel exterior fades, and I’m afforded a glimpse of the sharply intelligent, protective, and rather judgmental woman beneath. “Things haven’t been the same since you left, Grey. I must say. And your father…well…he’s changed. Your poor mama’s passing changed him, and not for the better. And when you left…. He hasn’t been well, you know. But I’ve said too much. It’s his story to tell. Come on, sweetheart. I’ll take you to him. ”

  Page 59


  She leads Dawson and me through the maze of hallways and interconnected offices to Daddy’s expansive corner office. His door is closed, and Louise knocks once, perfunctorily, and then opens it. She pushes through, and I follow behind. What I see shocks me.

  Daddy is sitting on the floor of his office, stacks of reference books piled around him between empty boxes. The built-in shelves are empty, and a carefully arranged pile of boxes sits in one corner, taped closed and labeled in Daddy’s neat script. He’s got four or five thick books on his lap, and he’s flipping through another, which he then sets aside on a smaller pile, picks up one from his lap, checks the spine, flips through it, and sets it in a different pile. He doesn’t hear us knock or enter. Music plays loudly from a small Bose iPod dock: “Hibernia” by Michael W. Smith. The distinctive and beautiful piano chorus with the orchestral backing washes over me, sinks into me. This was one of the few songs by him I actually liked, mainly because there weren’t any words.

  I watch Daddy flip through another thick reference book. He has changed. He’s thinner, much thinner. His hair is more silver than blond, and it’s thinning, and the bald circle at the top of his head has expanded significantly. He looks…old. And frail. Louise bends over near him and whispers in his ear. His head snaps up, and his eyes lock on me.

  I swallow hard at the welter of emotions I see in his gaze. I should have called. I should have checked on him. There’s so much between us, and I have no idea what he’ll say, how he’s going to react to my unexpected return.

  He struggles to his knees, and then to his feet. Louise catches his elbow and helps him, and I see something in the way they look at each other briefly, in the way she helps him to his feet. Louise is a widower, too, her husband having passed of a heart attack about three years before Mama died. I’m frozen in place as I put two and two together. Daddy brushes his hands down the front of his pressed Dockers, smoothing the creases, and then takes three hesitant steps toward me. He moves slowly, as if stiff.

  “Grey?” His voice is unchanged, still deep and powerful and stentorian. “You came back?”

  I glance at Dawson, who just smiles encouragingly at me. I look back to Daddy, and take a single step in his direction. We’re separated by a few feet still, but I can see his features working, his eyes taking me in, searching me. “I…I just, I wanted to—I mean—” I have no idea what to say. I hadn’t meant to come back.

  Daddy’s face crumples, and he rushes to me, wraps his arms around me, and holds me. He’s crying loudly. “I’m so sorry, Grey. I’m so sorry. I was so stubborn. I should have…I should have loved you. I never thought I’d see you again. I’m so sorry, Grey. ” He takes a step back and wipes his face with a hand. “Forgive me, Grey. ”

  I never, ever expected this from him. “I—of course, Daddy. ”

  He closes his eyes and slumps, stumbling into Louise’s side. She holds him up and pats his shoulder. “I never…I thought I’d lost you forever. I’ve missed you so much. ”

  I look past him at the stacks of books, the boxes, the desk cleared of papers and pens and the computer. “What’s going on? Why are you packing up the office? And—the house. You sold it?”

  Daddy straightens, and then moves around behind the desk, visibly strengthening and reassuming some of his old authority. He clicks off the Bose stereo, cutting off “Hibernia” as it begins a second play-through, and then he roots in a drawer, finds a key ring with a circular tag and one key. “Yes, I’m—I’ve retired. Doug is taking over as full-time executive pastor. I’ll still do a few sermons here and there, but…yes. As for the house…I moved out a few months ago, into a condo a few minutes from here. The house was…it was too hard to live there. It was too big, too empty. ” He looks down and rubs at the desk surface with a thumb. “There were too many memories. I saved all your things, though. Your belongings, along with what I didn’t bring to the condo, are in a storage unit a couple miles from the condo. This is the key. ” He hands the key to me, and I take it.

  Louise is still in the room, hovering in the door. “Are you okay, Erik?”

  He nods, and smiles tenderly at Louise. “Yes, I’m fine, d—don’t worry. ” It sounded to me like he was going to say “dear. ” He must see my questioning expression as I look from Daddy to Louise and back, wondering. He winces. “Louise and I…we’re—what I mean to say is, we—”

  I interrupt. “Daddy, that’s your business. ”

  “I just don’t want you to think I’ve—”

  “I’m not ready for that conversation. I’m just not. ”

  He nods. “Yes. I see. Perhaps you’re right. ” He glances past me to Dawson, who is leaning against the door with his phone in his hand, idly checking emails or something. “Who is this young man?”

  Dawson steps forward immediately, shoving the phone into his pocket and extending his hand. I see Daddy scrutinizing Dawson, and I see when recognition hits, seconds before Dawson introd