Beach Lane

By: Sherryl Woods

As quiet and relaxed as they were, she’d grown to count on these evenings. Of course, that had probably been a mistake. It wasn’t as if they had any kind of commitment, for heaven’s sake. It was just dinner and conversation, night after night, for what seemed like forever.

Though she felt thoroughly foolish doing it, she swallowed her pride and walked into Sally’s at lunchtime to see if Mack was there with Will and Jake. The three of them had been claiming the same booth ever since Jake and Bree had split up years before. Will and Mack had done it to support their friend during the roughest period of his life. And the tradition had stuck. Only after lunch did Mack occasionally make the drive to Baltimore to put in an actual appearance at the newspaper office.

Since he did his interviews from home or in team locker rooms, then emailed his columns, going into the office was purely to remind people what he looked like, or so he claimed. Since the paper had plastered his face on billboards and bus benches, it seemed unlikely to Susie that there was a person in the region who wouldn’t recognize him, but Mack thought it was important to show up in person from time to time. She thought he enjoyed the interaction with his colleagues and the bustle of the newsroom more than he wanted to admit.

At Sally’s, she found Will and Jake in their usual spot, but Mack wasn’t with them. His absence alone was enough to give her another disquieting twinge. She slipped into the booth and studied them intently.

“Why do the two of you look hungover?” she asked bluntly. “Now that you’re married, I thought your carousing days were behind you.”

“Just a late night,” Will said with his usual circumspect caution.

“With Mack?” she inquired pointedly. She noted that Jake and Will were a little too careful to avoid each other’s gazes. “Okay, what’s going on with him? I know you know. Maybe you didn’t when I called to ask you, but you do now. I can see it in your faces. Heaven help either of you if you ever decide to play high-stakes poker. You couldn’t bluff worth beans.”

“Susie, anything I know, assuming I do know something, would be confidential,” Will said piously.

Susie rolled her eyes, then turned to Jake. “And you? Have you taken some oath of confidentiality, as well?”

Jake simply held up his hands. “No comment.”

She glowered at the pair of them. “This is ridiculous. I haven’t been able to reach him for two days now. It’s not like Mack to vanish without a word. Can you at least assure me he’s alive?”

“Of course he is,” Jake said. “I’m sure he’ll give you a call soon.” Though he sounded certain, his expression showed unmistakable skepticism.

“Of course he will,” Will added. Unfortunately, his upbeat tone sounded forced, as well.

“Has he started seeing someone else?” Susie asked, laying her worst fear right out there. These men might be Mack’s friends, but they were hers, too. It wasn’t as if they didn’t know how she felt about Mack. Maybe asking for reassurance made her sound pitiful, but she needed to know the truth. If it was time to move on, she’d rather hear it from them than from someone else.

“Absolutely not,” Will said with satisfying conviction. “Don’t let your imagination run away with you, Susie. Mack just needs a little time.”

“Time for what?” she wanted to know. It wasn’t as if Mack were prone to long periods of introspection. To the contrary, he generally talked everything to death, then moved forward or put it behind him. He wasn’t all that complicated, except when it came to figuring out how he felt about her. That seemed to elude him completely.

“Susie, just give him a little space,” Jake advised.

She frowned. “Time? Space? From me?”

“No,” Will said. “This has nothing to do with you.”

“It does if he’s shutting me out,” she said, then shook her head. Talking to these two was pointless. They’d apparently sworn some oath of silence, which they were unlikely to break no matter how many ways she asked all the questions they’d stirred up. “Never mind. I suppose he’ll fill me in whenever it’s convenient for him. I guess it was too much to hope that he’d consider me the kind of friend who’d want to support him if he’s in some kind of trouble.”

She stood up.

Will regarded her with alarm. “Susie, please, don’t get the wrong idea here. You know how Mack feels about you.”

She met Will’s concerned gaze. “No,” she said softly. “Actually, I don’t, and that’s precisely the problem.”

She walked away before either man could see the tears that were building in her eyes. Crying in front of them would be just too darned humiliating to bear.

“They were lying to me,” Susie told Shanna after she’d left Sally’s and walked to the bookstore down the block for moral support. “Right to my face.”

“I don’t think they were lying,” Shanna said reasonably. “I think they were following Mack’s wishes, as misguided as those might be. You put them on the spot, sweetie. What were they supposed to do? Betray their friend?”