The telephone rang, and Veronica rolled over and looked at it. She contemplated letting the front desk take a message, but after three rings, she finally picked it up. She wasn’t going to get any sleep anyway.
“Veronica St. John,” she said on a sigh.
It was Joe.
Veronica sat up, hastily wiping the moisture from her face, as if he’d somehow be able to tell she’d been crying. She hadn’t expected the caller to be Joe. Not in a million years. Not after their dreadful conversation on the plane.
“Are you awake?” he asked.
“I am now,” she said.
“Oh, damn,” he said, concern tingeing his voice, “did I really wake you?”
“No, no,” she said. “I was just… No.”
“Well, I won’t take too much of your time,” Joe said. His husky voice sounded slightly stiff and unnatural. “I just wanted to tell you: If you get any flack about me giving away that ring of Tedric’s–”
“It’s all right,” Veronica said. “The Ambassador called and–”
“–I just wanted to let you know that I’ll pay for it,” Joe said. “I don’t know what I was thinking — giving away something that didn’t belong to me, but–”
“It’s all taken care of,” Veronica said.
“Your popularity rating is apparently through the roof,” Veronica said. “I think the Ustanzian Ambassador is considering having you knighted or perhaps made into a saint.”
Joe laughed. “I can see it now. Joe, the patron saint of celebrity impersonators.”
“Don’t you mean, the patron saint of dying children and struggling causes?” Veronica said softly. “You know, Joe, you never fail to surprise me.”
“That makes two of us,” he muttered.
“Nothing. I should go–”
“You really are softhearted aren’t you?” Veronica asked.
“Honey, I’m not soft anywhere.” She could almost see him bristle.
“I didn’t mean that as an insult,” she said.
“Look, I just have a problem with the way this country treats war veterans, all right?” he said. “I’m tired of seeing good men, soldiers and sailors who risked their lives fighting for this country being forced to live in the lousy gutter.”
Veronica pushed her hair from her face, suddenly understand-ing. This was personal. This had something to do with that old sailor Joe had known when he was a child. What was his name…? “Frank O’Riley,” she said, hardly realizing she’d spoken aloud.
Joe was silent for several long seconds. “Yeah,” he finally said. “Old man O’Riley went on a binge and lost his job. Got himself evicted. It damn near killed him to think of losing his garden, and he sobered up, but it was too late. No one helped him. He was a friggin’ war hero, and he was out on the street in the goddammed middle of the goddammed winter.”
“And because of that, he died,” Veronica guessed correctly.
“He caught pneumonia.” Joe’s voice was curiously flat, and she knew by his lack of inflection and emotion that Frank O’Riley’s death still hurt him deeply.
“I’m sorry,” Veronica murmured.
Joe was quiet again for a moment. Then he sighed. “What I don’t get,” he said, “is how the hell our armed forces can send our guys to fight a war without really preparing them. And if we are going to send out these…kids, then we shouldn’t be so damned surprised when they come home and fall apart. And then — and this is real genius — we try to sweep the pieces under the rug so no one will see. Nice move, huh?”
“Those are pretty tough words for someone who specializes in making war,” Veronica said.
“I’m not suggesting we demilitarize,” Joe said. “I think that would be a mistake. No, I just think the government should take responsibility for the veterans.”
“But if there were no wars, there’d be no veterans. If we spent money on diplomatic relations rather than guns and–”
“Right,” Joe said. “But there’re enough bad guys in the world that wouldn’t hesitate to step forward and kick some ass if our country couldn’t defend itself. I mean, sure we could hand out flowers and love beads, but we’d get back a round of machine gun fire in our gut. There are some mean sons of bitches out there, Ronnie, and they don’t want to play nice. We need to be as tough and as mean as they are.”
“And that’s where you come in,” Veronica said. “Mr. Tough and Mean. Ready to fight whatever war pops up.”
“I’m a fighter,” Joe said quietly. “I’ve been prepared for war my entire life.” He laughed softly, his voice suddenly so intimate and low in her ear. “It’s the other surprises in life that knock me over.”
“You are so utterly un-knock-overable.” Veronica wished the same were true of herself.
“You’re wrong,” Joe countered. “The past few days, I can barely remember what solid ground feels like.”
Veronica was quiet. She could hear Joe breathing on the other end of the phone line, three rooms down the hotel corridor. “Cindy?” she asked softly. He didn’t say a word. “I’m sorry,” she added. “I should have prepared you more for–”
“Not Cindy,” he said. “I mean, going to see that little girl in the hospice was tough, but… I was talking about…you.”
Veronica felt all of the air leave her lungs. “Me?” She couldn’t speak in more than a whisper.
“God, would you look at the time? I gotta go.”
“No, Ronnie, I don’t know why I said that. I’m just asking for trouble and–” He broke off, swearing softly.
“Do yourself a favor tonight, babe,” Joe said brusquely. “Stay the hell away from me, okay?”
© 1996 by Suzanne Brockmann