Bed of roses, p.12

Bed of Roses, page 12

 part  #2 of  Bride Quartet Series


Bed of Roses

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  AT THE END OF THE NIGHT, WITH HER COOLER FILLED WITH bouquets, centerpieces, and arrangements for the rest of the weekend - and the full knowledge she'd have to be up by six to complete more - Emma made it as far as the sofa before she dropped.

  "You're actually going to do all of this again tomorrow," Jack said. "Twice. "

  "Mmm-hmm. "

  "And one more time on Sunday. "

  "Uh-huh. I need to get in a solid two hours on Sunday's, in the morning before dressing the first event. But the team can finish up the rest of Sunday's while I'm dealing with Saturday's. Both Saturday's. "

  "I've helped out a few times, but never actually . . . It's every weekend?"

  "It slows down some in the winter. " She snuggled in a little, toed off her shoes. "April through June are the prime months, with another big jump in September and October. But basically? Yes, every weekend. "

  "I took a look at your cooler when you were working. You definitely need that second one. "

  "I really do. When we started, none of us imagined we'd get this big. No, that's wrong. Parker did. " It made her smile to think of it. "Parker always did. I just figured I'd be able to make a living wage doing what I liked. " Relaxing inch by inch, she curled aching toes. "I never thought we'd get to a point where we're all juggling events and duties, clients, subs. It's amazing. "

  "You could use more help. "

  "Probably. It's the same for you, really, isn't it?" When he lifted her feet onto his lap, rubbed those cramped toes and tired arches, her eyes drifted shut. "I remember when you started your firm. It was basically you. Now you have staff, associates. If you're not working on drawings, you're on-site or meeting with clients. When it's your company, it's a whole lot different from punching time. "

  She opened her eyes again, met his gaze. "And every time you hire somebody - even when it's the best thing, the right thing, to do for yourself and your business - it feels like giving just a little bit of it away. "

  "I had myself talked in and talked out of hiring Chip a dozen times, just for that reason. The same with Janis, then Michelle. Now I've taken on a summer intern. "

  "That's great. God, doesn't that make us the older generation? That's hard to deal with. "

  "He's twenty-one. Just. I felt ancient when I interviewed him. What time do you have to start tomorrow?"

  "Let me think . . . Six, I guess. Six thirty maybe. "

  "I should let you get some sleep. " In an absent gesture, he ran a hand up and down her calf. "You're pretty tied up for the weekend. If you're up for it, we could go out Monday. "

  "Out? Like out there?" She waved a hand in the air. "Where there are places where people bring you food, and possibly entertainment?"

  He smiled. "Dinner and a movie sound good?"

  "Dinner and a movie? It sounds like whole buckets of good. "

  "Then I'll grab a bucket and pick you up Monday, about six thirty?"

  "It works for me. Really works. I have a question. " She stretched luxuriously as she sat up. "You stuck around here until after midnight, and now you're going to go home so I can get some sleep?"

  "You put in a long one. " He gave her calf a quick squeeze. "You must be tired. "

  "Not that tired," she said, and, grabbing a fistful of his shirt, pulled him down with her. M ONDAY EVENING, LAUREL WALKED HER CONSULT CLIENTS TO the door. September's bride and groom took away a container holding a variety of cake samples. But she knew they'd decided on the Italian cream cake. Just as she knew the bride was leaning toward her Royal Fantasy design, and the groom her Mosaic Splendor.

  The bride would win, she had no doubt, but it was nice to have a man take a genuine interest in the details.

  Plus she'd talk the bride into having a groom's cake in a mosaic design that complemented the wedding cake.

  Everybody wins, she thought.

  "Just let me know when you make up your minds, and don't worry about changing those minds. There's plenty of time. " She kept the easy smile on her face, the breezy manner intact even when she saw Del coming up the walk.

  He projected successful lawyer, she thought, in his perfectly cut suit, his perfect briefcase, his handsome shoes.

  "Parker's in her office," she told him. "I think she's clear. "

  "Okay. " He came in, shut the door. "Hey," he said when she started up the stairs. "Are you not speaking to me?"

  She flicked a glance back at him. "I just did. "

  "Barely. I'm the one who should be pissed off here. You don't have anything to be snotty about. "

  "I'm being snotty?" She paused, waited for him to join her on the stairs.

  "I don't expect my friends and family to lie to me, or lie by omission. And when they do - "

  She poked a finger, hard, into his shoulder, then held it up. "Number one, I didn't know you didn't know. Neither did Parker or Mac or Carter. Or Emma, for that matter. So that's between you and Jack. Second," she continued, poking him again when he started to speak. "I agree with you. "

  "If you'd take a minute to . . . You agree with me?"

  "Yes, I do. And in your place I'd have been hurt and pissed off. Jack should have told you he and Emma were involved. "

  "Well, okay. Thanks - or sorry. Whichever you prefer. "

  "However. "

  "Shit. "

  "However," she repeated. "You might want to ask yourself why your best friend didn't tell you. And you might want to look back at the way you handled the other night, how you came across as a tight-ass having a sulk. "

  "Wait a damn minute. "

  "That's the way I see it, just as I see - even if I don't agree - why Jack didn't tell you. You'd have gone all Delaney Brown on him. "

  "Just what does that mean?"

  "If you don't know, telling you won't make any difference. "

  He grabbed her hand to stop her as she moved on. "That's such a cop-out. "

  "Fine. Delaney Brown disapproves. Delaney Brown knows best. Delaney Brown will manipulate and maneuver until he positions you where he wants - for your own good. "

  "That's cold, Laurel. "

  She sighed, softened. "No, it's not. Not really. Because you really do have the best interest of your friends and family at heart. You're just always so damn sure, Del, that you know what that is. "

  "Are you going to stand there and tell me you think what's going on with Emma and Jack is the best thing, for either of them?"

  "I don't know. " She lifted her hands, palms up. "I don't pretend to know. All I know is that, for the moment, they're enjoying each other. "

  "It doesn't even weird you out? It doesn't make you feel as if you've stepped into an alternate reality?"

  She had to laugh. "Not exactly. It's a little - "

  "It's like - what if I suddenly put moves on you? I just decide, hey, I'd like to have sex with Laurel. "

  The soft hardened; the laughter died. "You're such an idiot. "

  "What? What? " he demanded as she stormed away up the stairs. "It is an alternate reality," he muttered, and climbed the rest of the way to his sister's office.

  She sat at her desk, where he'd expected to find her, talking on her headset as she worked at the computer. "That's just exactly right. I knew I could count on you. They'll need two hundred and fifty. You can deliver them to me, here, and I'll take it from there. Thank you, so much. You, too. Bye. "

  She pulled off the headset. "I just ordered two hundred and fifty rubber duckies. "


  "The client wants them swimming in the pool on her wedding day. " She sat back, sipped from her bottle of water, and gave him a long, sympathetic look. "How are you doing?"

  "I've been better, I've been worse. Laurel just agreed Jack was an asshole for not telling me, but apparently that's my fault because I'm Delaney Brown. Do I manipulate people?"

  She studied him carefully. "Is that a trick question?"

  "Damn it. " He dumped his bri
efcase on the desk then walked to her coffee setup.

  "Okay, serious question. Yes, of course you do. So do I. We're problem solvers, and good at finding solutions and answers. When we do, we do what we can to move people toward those solutions and answers. "

  He turned back to her, scanning her face. "Do I manipulate you, Parks?"

  "Del, if you hadn't manipulated me, to some extent, regarding the estate, how you intended to set it up after Mom and Dad died, I wouldn't have just ordered two hundred and fifty rubber duckies. I wouldn't have the business. None of us would. "

  "That's not the kind of thing I mean. "

  "Would you, have you ever pushed me into doing something I didn't want to do - genuinely didn't want - and did you push because it was what you wanted? No. I'm sorry you found out about Jack and Emma the way you did. But I think the situation's a little strange for all of us. None of us saw it coming. I don't think Jack and Emma saw it coming. "

  "I can't get used to it. " He sat, sipped his coffee. "By the time I do, it'll probably be over anyway. "

  "Aren't you the romantic?"

  He shrugged. "Jack's never been serious about a woman. He's not a dog - exactly - but he's not the long haul guy either. He wouldn't hurt her on purpose. He's not made like that. But . . . "

  "Maybe you should have a little more faith in your two friends. " She sat back, swiveling side-to-side in the chair. "I think things happen between people for a reason. Otherwise I couldn't do what I do every day. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't, but there's always a reason. "

  "Under that you're telling me to stop being such a hard-ass, and just be a friend. "

  "Yes. " She smiled at him. "That's my answer, my solution, and where I'm trying to manipulate you. How am I doing?"

  "Pretty well. I guess I should stop by and see Emma. "

  "It would be nice. "

  "Let's go over these papers first. " He opened his briefcase.

  Twenty minutes later, he gave a quick knuckle rap on Em-ma's door, then pushed it open. "Em?"

  He heard the music, or what he thought of as her work music - harps and flutes - so walked back to her work area. She sat at the counter, arranging little pink rosebuds in a white basket.

  "Em. "

  She jumped, swung around. "Scared me. I didn't hear you. "

  "Because I'm interrupting. "

  "Just getting a head start on some arrangements for a baby shower this week. Del. " She got up. "How mad at me are you?"

  "Zero. Less than zero. " He found himself ashamed she would think otherwise. "I'm at about seven out of ten with Jack, but that's an improvement. "

  "I should point out that when Jack's sleeping with me I'm also sleeping with him. "

  "Maybe we could just find a code word for that. Like you and Jack are writing a novel together, or doing lab work. "

  "Are you mad because we're doing lab work, or because we didn't tell you?"

  "He didn't tell me. Anyway, it's mixed. I'm trying to come to terms with the lab work, and I'm pissed he didn't tell me you and he were . . . "

  "Lining up the test tubes? Labeling the petri dishes?"

  Frowning, he slid his hands into his pockets. "I don't like the lab work code after all. I just want you to be okay, and happy. "

  "I am okay. I am happy. Even though I know the two of you punched each other over it. Actually, maybe that makes me happier. It's always flattering to have guys punch each other in the face over me. "

  "It was an impulse of the moment. "

  She stepped to him, reached up so she could frame his face, and brushed her lips over his. "Try not to do it again. It involves two of my favorite faces. Let's go sit out on the back patio, drink some lemonade, and be friends. "

  "Okay. "

  W HILE THEY DID, JACK TOOK A SEAT IN MAC'S STUDIO AND unrolled the plans for the proposed addition.

  "It's the same design I e-mailed you, but with more detail, and the couple of changes you wanted. "

  "Look, Carter! You have your own room. "

  He danced his fingers over Mac's bright cap of hair. "I was kind of hoping we'd still share one. "

  Mac laughed, leaned closer to the plans. "Just look at my dressing room. Well, client dressing room. And God, I love the patio space we'll get. Want a beer, Jack?"

  "No, thanks. Got anything soft?"

  "Sure. Diet. "

  "Crap. Water. "

  When she went into the kitchen, Jack pointed out details to Carter. "These built-ins will give you plenty of shelves for books, or whatever you want. For files, for supplies. "

  "What's this? A fireplace?"

  "One of Mac's changes. She said every professor worth his PhD should have a fireplace in his study. It's a small gas log unit. It'll also provide an additional heat source for the room. "

  Carter glanced over as Mac came back with a bottle of water and two beers. "You got me a fireplace. "

  "I did. It must be love. " She kissed him lightly, then bent to pick up their three-legged cat, Triad. It must be, Jack thought when she sat and the cat curled in her lap. While they discussed details, choices of materials, he wondered what it was like to feel that connection with and that certainty about another person.

  No doubt in their minds, he mused, that this was the one. The one to make a home with, build a future with, maybe have kids with. Share a cat with.

  How did they know? Or at least believe enough to risk it?

  It was, for him, one of life's great mysteries.

  "When can we start?" Mac demanded.

  "I'll submit for permit tomorrow. Do you have a contractor in mind?"

  "Um . . . the company we used on the initial remodel was good. Are they still available?"

  "I ran it by him. I can contact him tomorrow, ask him to submit a bid. "

  "You're the man, Jack. " Mac gave him a friendly punch in the arm. "Do you want to stay for dinner?

  We're making pasta. I can call and see if Emma's interested. "

  "Thanks, but we're going out. "

  "Aw. "

  "Stop. " But he shook his head and laughed.

  "I can't help it if I find it adorable that my pals are getting all cozy. "

  "We're going to grab some dinner and catch a flick. "

  "Aw. "

  He laughed again. "I'm getting out of here. See you on Poker Night, Carter. Prepare to lose. "

  "I could just hand you the money now, save time. "

  "Tempting, but I prefer the satisfaction of skinning you at the table. I'll get you that bid," he added as he headed for the door. "You keep that copy of the plans. "

  He heard Mac's "uh-oh" an instant before he spotted Del.

  They stopped, about five feet apart.

  "Wait!" Mac called out. "If you're going to punch each other again, I want my camera. "

  "I'll shut her up," Carter promised.

  "Hey! Wait! I was serious," she managed before Carter dragged her back inside. Jack jammed his hands into his pockets. "This is just fucking stupid. "

  "Maybe. Probably. "

  "Look, we punched each other, we each said our piece. We had a beer. According to the rules, that should about cover it. "

  "We didn't take in a sporting event. "

  Jack felt some of the tension in his shoulders ease. That was more like Del. "Can we do that tomorrow?

  I've got a date. "

  "What happened to bros before hos?"

  A smile spread amiably over Jack's face. "Did you just call Emma a ho?"

  Del's mouth opened and closed before he dragged a hand through his hair. "You see the complications here? I just called Emma a ho because I wasn't thinking of Emma as Emma, and I was being a smart-ass. "

  "Yeah, well, I know that. Otherwise I'd've had to punch you in the face again. The Yankees have a home game tomorrow night. "

  "You drive. "

  "Uh-uh. We get Carlos. I spring for the car service. You
spring for the tip and the beer. We split the dogs. "

  "All right. " Del considered a moment. "Would you punch me in the face over her?"

  "I already did. "

  "That wasn't about her. "

  Point taken, Jack thought. "I don't know. "

  "That's a good answer," Del decided. "I'll see you tomor row. "

  S INCE DINNER - BISTRO FARE - AND A MOVIE - ACTION FLICK - worked so well, they made a second official Monday night date. Full schedules prevented any appreciable time together between, but they managed what they termed a friendly booty call and a few teasing e-mails. Emma wasn't sure if their current relationship led off with sex or friendship, but it felt as if both of them were trying to find a happy balance between the two.

  She was nearly finished dressing for the evening when Parker came in and called up the stairs.

  "Be right down. I've got the flowers you wanted in the back, in a holding vase. Though I still don't see why you have to go watch people make wedding favors. "

  "The MOB wants me to stop by, give it all the once-over. So I stop by, give it all the once-over. It shouldn't take that much time. "

  "I'd have saved you some of that time and dropped them by, but I got hung up with my last consult of the day. " Emma dashed downstairs, stopped, did a runway turn. "How do I look?"

  "Gorgeous. One expects no less. "

  Emma laughed. "The hair up works, right? Just a little messy and ready to tumble. "

  "It works. So does the dress. That deep red really suits you. And let me add, the workouts are paying off. "

  "Yeah, I hate that part because it means I have to keep it up. Wrap or sweater?" she asked, holding a choice in either hand.

  "Where are you going?"

  "Art opening. Local artist, modern. "

  "The wrap's more arty, and aren't you clever?"

  "Am I?"

  "Most people will be in black, so that red dress is going to pop. You could give lessons. "

  "If you're going to dress up, might as well get noticed, right? How about the shoes?"

  Parker considered the peep-toe spikes with their sexy ankle straps. "Killers. Nobody with a Y

  chromosome is going to look at the paintings. "

  "I've only got one Y chromosome in mind. "

  "You look happy, Emma. "

  "It's hard not to, because I am. I'm involved with an interesting man who makes me laugh and makes me tingle, one who actually listens to what I have to say, and who knows me well enough I can be myself without any of the filters. And the same goes for him. I know he's fun, funny, smart, not afraid to work, values his friends, is obsessed with sports. And . . . well, all the things you just know when you've been around someone for a dozen years the way we have. "

  She led the way to her work area. "Some people might think that takes the discovery or the excitement out of things, but it doesn't. There's always something new, and there's the stability of real understanding. I can be comfortable and excited around him at the same time.

  "I went with the pink tulips and the mini iris. It's cheerful, female, springy. "

  "Yes, it's perfect. " Parker waited while Emma took them out of the vase, adjusted the sheer white ribbon.

  "I could add some lisianthus if you want it fuller. "

  "No, it's great. Just right. Emma," Parker began as her friend coned the arrangement in clear, glossy paper, "do either of you know you're in love with him?"

  "What? No. I never said . . . Of course, I love Jack. We all love Jack. "

  "We all didn't put on a red dress and sexy shoes to spend the evening with him. "

  "Oh, well that's just . . . I'm going out. "

  "It's not just that. Em, you're going out with Jack. You're sleeping with Jack. Which is what I figured was what, more or less. But I listened to you just now, I watched your face just now. And, honey, I know you. You're in love. "

  "Why do you have to say that?" Distress covered Emma's face. "It's just the sort of thing that's going to mess with my head, and make everything all sticky and awkward. "

  Brow lifted, Parker angled her head. "Since when have you thought of being in love as sticky and awkward?"

  "Since Jack. I'm okay with the way things are now. I'm better than okay. I'm in an exciting relationship with an exciting man and I don't . . . I don't expect it to be anything else. Because that's not Jack. He isn't the kind who thinks about what we'll be doing five years from now. Or five weeks from now. It's . . . just now. "

  "You know, it's odd that you and Del, who are closer to him than anyone, both have such little confidence in him. "

  "It's not that. It's just that in this particular area, Jack's not looking for . . . permanent. "

  "What about you?"

  "I'm going to enjoy the moment. " She said it with a decisive nod. "I'm not going to be in love with him, because we both know what'll happen if I am. I'll start romanticizing it, and him, and us, and wishing he'd . . . "

  She trailed off, pressed a hand to her belly. "Parker, I know what it's like to have someone feel that way about me, when I don't feel that way. It's just as awful for the one who's not in love as it is for the one who is. "

  She shook her head. "No, I'm not going there. We've only been seeing each other like this for a little while. I'm not going there. "

  "All right. " To soothe, Parker stroked a hand over Emma's shoulder. "If you're happy, I'm happy. "

  "I am. "

  "I'd better run. Thanks for putting these together. "

  "Never a problem. "

  "I'll see you tomorrow. Follow-up consult on the Seaman wedding. "

  "I've got it in my book. I know they want to walk around the gardens, see them now to project what they'll want in those areas next April. I'm going to dress a couple of the urns with Nikko blue hydrangeas I've been coaxing along in the greenhouse. They're lush, and should give a good show. I've got a couple other tricks up my sleeve, too," she added as she walked to the door with Parker.

  "You always do. Have a good time tonight. "

  "I will. "

  Emma closed the door, then just leaned back against it.

  She could fool herself, she admitted. She could certainly fool Jack. But she could never fool Parker. Of course she was in love with Jack. She'd probably been in love with Jack for years, and simply convinced herself it was lust. The lust had been bad enough, but love? Deadly. She knew exactly what she wanted from love - from the down into the bones, rooted in the heart, blooming through the body love. She wanted forever.

  She wanted the day after day, night after night, year after year, the home, the family, the fights, the support, the sex, the everything.

  She'd always known what she wanted in a partner, in a lover, in the father of her children. But why did it have to be Jack?

  Why, when she finally felt all the things she'd waited all of her life to feel, did it have to be for a man she knew so well? Well enough to understand he was someone who wanted his own space, his own direction, who considered marriage a gamble with long odds?

  She knew all those things about him, and still she'd fallen.

  If he knew, he'd be . . . appalled? she wondered. No, that was probably too strong. Concerned, sorry - which was worse. He'd be kind, and he'd pull the plug gently. And that was mortifying.

  There was no reason he had to know. It was only a problem if she let it be a problem. So, no problem, she decided.

  She was as skilled at handling men as she was at handling flowers. They'd go on just as they were, and if it got to a point where it caused her pain instead of pleasure, she'd be the one to pull the plug. Then she'd get over it.

  She pushed away from the door to wander into the kitchen for a glass of water. Her throat felt dry and a little raw.

  She'd get over him, she assured herself. What was the point in worrying about that now when they were still together?

  Or . . . she could make him fall in love with her.
If she knew how to keep a man from falling for her - or nudge him into falling out if he thought he was falling in - why couldn't she make one fall in?

  "Wait, I'm confusing myself. "

  She took a breath, took a sip.

  "If I make him fall in love with me, is it real? God, this is too much to think about. I'm going out to an opening. That's it, that's all. "

  The knock on the door brought relief. Now she could stop thinking, stop worrying all this to pieces. They'd go out. They'd enjoy each other. Whatever happened next, happened.

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