Dear God! The child sitting next to Gray Sheridan was only a little younger than Ellie would have been!
Julianna Mason took a step backward, as if putting additional distance between herself and the little girl sitting by the airplane window would somehow shield her from pain. Nothing could shield her now, however, nothing less than a magical return to the moments before she had stepped into the next cabin of the DC-10 carrying her to Honolulu and seen Gray Sheridan relaxing beside the brown-haired, brown-eyed pixie.
Brown hair and brown eyes. What color would Ellie’s eyes have been? They had been blue at birth; Julianna knew that much. Blue eyes in an impossibly tiny face. Blue eyes that had seemed to grow dimmer and dimmer with each faltering heartbeat. Blue eyes that might someday have been the deep tarnished silver of her father’s. If Ellie had lived.
How long had it been since she had let herself think about her daughter? The time between memories could be measured in weeks now. Sometimes even a month went by. But then, just as she thought she was learning to forget, she would awaken in the middle of the night to Kauai rain tumbling over the eaves of her house, and for a moment she would believe she was back in Mississippi. And Ellie…
Julianna pulled her eyes from the little girl to the man sitting beside her. From their position in the two seats by the window, and from Gray’s relaxed posture and closed eyes, Julianna guessed that the little girl was his. She wasn’t surprised he had a child, but one this old? How long had he mourned Ellie’s death? Six months? Three?
Julianna was almost close enough to touch him, although she had learned a long time ago that touching Gray wasn’t possible. Not really. There was no way to get to the man under the classically handsome facade, a facade that was aging just as flawlessly as she would have expected. Gray was what, thirty-one now? Thirty-one to her twenty-eight, ages when a woman passes the first flush of youth and a man comes into his power.
Of course power was an easy word to associate with the Mississippi Sheridans. Julianna had no reason to doubt that Gray had become a powerful man. Power was something he would feel comfortable with. He had grown up with it, seen it nurtured and twisted and used to his family’s advantage. She imagined Gray had become a man much like his own father, one who could stroll down any sidewalk in his home state and know that any man he met would inch toward the street, if necessary, to make room for him.
Julianna couldn’t define the feelings those words evoked. She was seething with feelings, and there was no separating them. She only knew that she hurt. She had to get away before she made a fool of herself.
“Excuse me, miss.”
Julianna heard the flight attendant’s words. Without turning, she knew she was blocking the progress of the beverage cart. She had to move, and yet, for a moment, she couldn’t seem to make her body obey her brain’s command. She wanted one more look at the child whose eyes were examining her. One more look at the child who should have been hers.
Brown hair and brown eyes and a smile that would live in her dreams forever.
Julianna stepped to the other side of the aisle, away from Gray and his daughter, and started to turn to find her way back to her own seat.
“Are you from Hawaii?”
Julianna heard the clatter of the cart as it was rolled down the aisle away from her. The child’s question had been a quiet one. Julianna knew she could pretend she hadn’t heard. She could turn and be gone before the child could ask again. Gray hadn’t opened his eyes. He would never know she had stood an arm’s length away, envying him his daughter and hating him for letting her daughter die.
“Are you from Hawaii?” the little girl asked again, louder.
Julianna turned back. Gray’s eyes opened. She watched his expression, waiting for him to realize who she was. “Yes, I am.”
“Can you do the hula?”
Julianna willed herself to smile. “I don’t dance the hula, but I wish I did.”
“Do you surf?”
“No, but I snorkel.”
Gray was frowning now. Julianna could almost see his mind working. She had changed enormously in ten years. Gone were the short flyaway hair and the granny glasses. Gone were the painfully thin body and the three-sizes-too-large clothing she had overcompensated with. The woman before him was still slender, but her body was a woman’s, not a girl’s. Her dark hair fell in gleaming natural waves well past the middle of her back, and her skin was golden from hours in the sun. Wearing hand-dyed silk clothing that she had designed herself and three leis of island shells, she was a far cry from the teenager Gray had known.
But she would be surprised if he didn’t recognize her voice. He had always said it was the thing that had drawn him to her in the first place.
“I hope you enjoy your trip to the islands.” Impulsively, Julianna leaned past Gray and slipped off one of the leis. She dropped it over the little girl’s head. “Aloha.”
“Thanks!” The little girl tangled two fingers in the shells as if to make sure the present was real.
“You’re welcome.” Julianna turned to go and she realized her hands were shaking.
She started down the aisle, ignoring Gray’s summons.
But she wasn’t Julie Ann anymore, and she hadn’t been for ten years. Julie Ann had died on the day of the funeral for the only child she’d ever borne. Julianna didn’t answer to the name Julie Ann anymore. And she didn’t answer to Gray Sheridan. She would never answer to Gray Sheridan again.