"May I have a glass of wine?" Virginia leaned back in the chair on the hotel balcony and sighed.
"No you may not. You're only sixteen." June sipped her own aperitif and shook her head. "And you don't want to start too young – trust me."
Ignoring the pout of her young companion, June looked out over the town to where the fireworks glowed near the casino on the other side of the harbour. It was good to have reunited and bonded with her mother, even if the charges hadn't been cleared, but she was eager to head home to Orchid Island and see what progress there had been in her absence. Was the lighthouse nearly finished? Did the pond at the side of the garden need cleaning out. She was lost in her musing until Virginia spoke up again.
"Hmmm – yes?"
"Why didn't you marry Jack? Instead of Nicky?" Virginia sighed. "Why didn't you stay with him, if you loved him?"
"Love isn't everything, chick." June sipped her drink, wondering how much she should tell her niece. But stuff it. Virginia had seen death, saved her grandmother, made some astute observations and generally proved that she was of the same type as June. Which would have amused Claire. Claire always swore that once June was born, they broke the mould.
But maybe some careful advice from her Aunt would help Virginia not fall into the same traps as June had.
"No. I did care for Nicky. Very much. But you can love more than one person."
"What?" Virginia shook her head. "That's not what the songs say! Or the stories!"
"They're wrong." June laughed. "I mean, you loved your mother and father, and me. That's more than one person."
"But that's different."
"Not that different. Anyway, Nicky and I had a fight. He was spending more and more time at work. I was feeling as if I wasn't the important part of his life. And I asked him, and he packed his stuff and went to live in Lagos to be a doctor there. I hear he's very good." June sighed. There was plenty of time later for Virginia to find out the rest.
"But then why didn't you marry Jack?"
"Because … "
"Did you love him?"
"Oh I did. So much." The tears threatened to come if she kept going, but perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing. "So very, very much. Jack was a light in my life in a dark time. He made me laugh. He made me feel as if I was the most important person in the world. I loved him so much that I almost did marry him."
"But you didn't. Did he love someone else?"
"I don't understand." Virginia's voice rose a little. "Don't treat me like a child. Tell me."
"Do you remember," June continued, "when we were going to fly back from Cuba? And we found Jack …"
"On the verandah of that club. He was asleep."
"He was drunk." June shook her head. "Jack has a drinking problem. Something happened to him during the war, and it's hurt him more than he can stand. So he drinks to stop the hurting."
"Is it something a doctor can fix? We could ask him to come to New York, and find a good doctor."
"It's not that sort of hurting. It's … his head. Look, Virginia, do you remember how much you were hurting after Claire and Harry died? And how school didn't make sense and the whole world was bitter?"
Virginia nodded, tears in her own eyes. "I do. Sometimes, it still hurts. Or I remember something about Mother, then I get angry at her and at Sam and … is it like that?"
"It is." June put her glass down. "And alcohol is the way some people try and cope. I loved Jack. I still do, as a dear, dear friend. But I cannot bear to share him with his demons, his pain and the drink. There's something broken in Jack, and it took me a long time to realise, but if I had married him, it would have broken me as well. And that would destroy both of us."
The silence hung between the women for a while, as the fireworks finished and the lights started to go off around the town.
"I read a story where the man was mean to the woman, and she stayed with him because she loved him." Virginia shook her head. "That seemed very strange."
"Some people think that sacrificing yourself for someone else is a good thing, but I think it depends on the sacrifice." June laughed wryly. "If I had married Jack; and in doing so, lost myself, he never would have forgiven either of us. He told me he could change."
"And what did you say?"
"That when he has, he should ask me again. But I won't hang around waiting for him."
"Isn't that … doesn't that make your heart ache?"
"It does. But far better to do that than to be utterly miserable watching Jack destroy himself. He needs to make his own decisions."
Again, silence for a while. Then Virginia shifted in her chair.
"Growing up isn't as much fun as people think."
"True." June lifted her glass in salute. "But knowing that means you're halfway there."