Bed of roses, p.15

Bed of Roses, page 15

 part  #2 of  Bride Quartet Series

 

Bed of Roses


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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  THE MEXICAN AND AMERICAN FLAGS FLEW THEIR PROUD colors as Emma's Mexican mother and Yankee father combined cultures to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Every year the expansive grounds offered games, from lawn bowling and badminton to moon bounces and waterslides. Friends, relatives, and neighbors played and competed while others crowded at picnic tables, diving into platters of pork and chicken, warm tortillas, bowls of red beans or chilis, guacamole or salsa hot enough to scorch the throat.

  There were gallons of lemonade, Negra Modelo, Corona, tequila, and frosty margaritas to put out the fire.

  Whenever he'd managed to drop by on the fifth of May, Jack had always been amazed at the number of people the Grants managed to feed. And the choices of fajitas and burgers, black beans and rice or potato salad. Flan or apple pie.

  He supposed the food was just a symbol of how completely Phillip and Lucia blended. He sipped his beer and watched some of the guests dance to the trio of guitars and marimbas. Beside him, Del took a pull on his own beer. "Hell of a party. "

  "They pull out all the stops. "

  "So, is it weird being here this year with the hosts' baby girl?"

  Jack started to deny it as a matter of principle. But hell, it was Del. "Little bit. But so far, nobody's called for the rope. "

  "It's still early. "

  "Brown, you're a comfort to me. Is it my imagination or are there about twice as many kids as there were last year? Year before," he remembered. "I couldn't make it last year. "

  "Might be. I don't think they're all related. I heard Celia's pregnant again though. "

  "Yeah, Emma mentioned it. You're here stag?"

  "Yeah. " Del smiled slowly. "You never know, do you? Check out the blonde in the blue dress. Those are some nice pins she's got. "

  "Yeah. I always thought Laurel had great legs. "

  Del choked on his beer. "That's not . . . Oh," he managed when she turned, laughed, and he got a better look. "Not used to seeing her in a dress, I guess. " Very deliberately he turned in the opposite direction.

  "Anyway, there are a bevy of sultry brunettes, cool blondes, and a sprinkle of hot redheads. Many of whom are unattached. But I guess the days of scoping the field are over for you. "

  "I'm dating, not blind or dead. " The idea put an itch between Jack's shoulder blades.

  "Where is Em?"

  "She went to help somebody with something food related.

  We're not joined at the hip. "

  Del lifted an eyebrow. "Okay. "

  "I have friends, she has friends, and some of them happen to be mutual. We don't have to walk in step at a party. "

  "Right. " Del took another contemplative sip of his beer.

  "So . . . would the guy she's currently kissing on the mouth be her friend, your friend, or a mutual?"

  Jack swung around, caught the end of the kiss between Emma and some Nordic god type. She laughed, and her hands gestured expressively before she grabbed one of Thor's and pulled him over to a group of people.

  "Looks like he's not one of yours," Del commented.

  "Why don't you . . . " He cut off the suggestion he had in mind as Lucia stopped in front of them. "You two should be eating instead of just standing here looking handsome. "

  "I'm considering all options," Del told her. "There are big decisions to be made, all the way down to apple pie or flan. "

  "There's also strawberry shortcake and empanadas. "

  "You see? Not to be taken lightly. "

  "You should sample each, then decide. Look here!" She beamed smiles and threw out her hands as Mac and Carter walked to them. "Mackensie, you made it. "

  "Sorry we're so late. The shoot ran a little longer than I hoped. " She kissed Lucia's cheek.

  "You're here, that's what counts. And you!" Lucia threw her arms around Carter for a hug. Carter lifted her an inch off the grass in a gesture of long-term affection.

  "It's been years since you came for Cinco de Mayo. "

  Carter grinned. "It's bigger. "

  "Because there are more of us. Your mama and papa are here, with Diane's children. Sherry and Nick are here, too," she said, speaking of his younger sister. "Diane and Sam should be here soon. Mac, your future mother in-law tells me the wedding plans are going well. "

  "They're clicking along. "

  "Let me see your ring again. Ah!" She twinkled a smile at Carter after examining the diamond on Mac's hand. "Very nicely done. Come, Celia hasn't seen it yet. Carter," she called as she pulled Mac away,

  "get food, get drink. "

  Instead, Carter stood where he was. "I haven't been back for one of these in . . . it must be ten years. I'd forgotten. It's like a carnival. "

  "The best in the county," Del commented. "The Grants either know or are related to everybody. Including, it seems, our mechanic and poker buddy. Hey, Mal. "

  "Hey. " In dark shades, worn jeans, and a black T-shirt, he strolled over. He carried two beers by the neck. "Want one, Maverick?" he said to Carter.

  "Sure. I didn't realize you knew the Grants. "

  "They've been bringing their cars in for service or repair for the last six, eight months. Before you know it, you're telling Lucia your life story, eating her corn bread and wishing she'd dump her husband and run off with you to Maui. "

  "Ain't that the truth," Jack said.

  "She said I should come by after work, backyard deal for Cinco de Mayo. I figure a cookout, maybe on the fancy side, considering, some Mexican beer, tortillas. " He shook his head. "Is anybody not here?"

  "I think they covered everybody. "

  "Sorry that took so long. " Emma hurried up, a margarita in her hand. "There were circumstances. "

  "Yeah, I saw one of them. "

  After giving Jack a puzzled smile, she turned to Malcolm. "Hi, I'm Emmaline. "

  "You're the Cobalt. "

  "I . . . " Her eyes widened, then filled with contrition. "Yes. You must be Malcolm. "

  "Mal. " He gave her a long, head-to-toe scoping out. "You know, it's a good thing you look like your mother, who I hope to marry. Otherwise I'd replay the ass-kicking I gave your partner when I thought she was you. "

  "And I'd deserve it. Even though I learned my lesson, and I'm being much more conscientious. You did a great job. You have serious skills. I wonder if you'd have time to service my van if I bring it in next week. "

  "You don't just look like her, do you?"

  Emma smiled as she sipped the margarita. "You need a plate," she told him, "and a great deal of food. "

  "Why don't you show me where - " Mal cut himself off when he caught the warning in Jack's eyes, and the casual and proprietary stroke of his hand down Emma's hair. "Right. Maybe I'll just go graze awhile. "

  "I'll do the same," Carter decided.

  Del's lips quirked. "Looks like I'm empty. " He jiggled the beer bottle. "Em, who's the long brunette?

  Pink top, skinny jeans?"

  "Ah . . . Paige. Paige Haviller. "

  "Single?"

  "Yes. "

  "See you later. "

  "He should've asked me if she had any brains," Emma said as Del strolled away. "He'll be bored in thirty minutes or less. "

  "Depends on what they're doing for thirty minutes. "

  She laughed up at him. "I suppose it does. " She slipped a hand into his to squeeze. "It's a good day, isn't it?"

  "I can never figure out how they pull this off. "

  "They work for weeks, and hire a platoon to help set up the games and activities. And Parker helps coordinate. Speaking of which, I - "

  "Who was the guy?"

  "The guy? There are a lot of them. Give me some hints. "

  "The one you were kissing a little while ago. "

  "Bigger hint. "

  That crawled into his spleen. "The one who looked like the prince of Denmark. "

  "The prince of . . . Oh, you must mean Marshall. One of the circumstances why
I was so long getting back. "

  "So I saw. "

  She cocked her head, and the faintest frown line formed between her eyebrows. "He was late getting here. With his wife and their new baby boy. After he came out to get me, I went in to fuss over the baby for a while. Problem?"

  "No. " Idiot. "Del was yanking my chain, and I walked into it. And the mixed metaphor. Let's rewind. Speaking of which?"

  "We dated a little, a few years ago, Marshall and I. I introduced him to his wife. We did their wedding about eighteen months ago. "

  "Got it. Apologies. "

  She smiled a little. "He didn't grab my ass like a certain crazy artist grabbed yours. "

  "His loss. "

  "Why don't we mingle, be sociable?"

  "Good idea. "

  "Oh," she said as they started to walk, "speaking of which, I had a thought. Since I have several errands in town tomorrow, if I stayed at your place tonight, I'd be in town. Parker rode in with me, as we both needed to get here early to help, but she can ride back with Laurel. It would save me from going back and forth. "

  "Stay at my place?"

  She lifted her brows, and the eyes under them went cool. "I could bunk on the couch if you don't want company. "

  "No. I just assumed you'd need to get home after this. You usually start pretty early in the morning. "

  "Tomorrow I'm starting in town, not quite as early. But if it's a problem - "

  "No. " He stopped, turning her so they faced each other. "It's fine. It's good. But don't you need some things - for tomorrow?"

  "I put some things in my car when I had the thought. "

  "Then we're set. " He leaned down to kiss her.

  "Looks like you need another beer. "

  Then jerked back at her father's voice.

  Phillip smiled. Casually, from the looks of it, Jack thought. Unless you were the one who'd just made arrangements to sleep with his daughter.

  "Negra Modelo, right?" Phillip offered one.

  "Yeah, thanks. Great party, as always. "

  "My favorite of the year. " Phillip laid an arm around Emma's shoulders. Casually, affectionately. Territorially. "We started the tradition the spring Lucia was pregnant with Matthew. Friends, family, children. Now our children are grown and making families of their own. "

  "You're feeling sentimental," Emma said, and tipping her face up, brushed her lips over his jaw.

  "I still see you running on the lawn with your friends, trying so hard to win prizes at ring toss, or to break one of the pinatas. Like your mother, you bring the color and the life. "

  "Papa. "

  Phillip shifted his gaze, directly into Jack's. "It's a lucky man who's offered that color and life. And a wise one who values it. "

  "Papa," she repeated, but in a warning tone now.

  "A man only gets so many treasures," he said, and tapped her on the nose with his finger. "I'm going to check the grill. I don't trust your brothers or your uncles for long. Jack," he added with a nod before he walked away.

  "Sorry. He can't help it. "

  "It's okay. Did I sweat through my shirt?"

  Laughing, she hooked an arm around Jack's waist. "No. Why don't we go show those kids how to break a pinata?"

  L ATER, THEY FLOPPED DOWN ON THE GRASS TO WATCH SOME OF the teenagers in an impromptu game of soccer. Parker joined them, slipping off her sandals, smoothing down the skirt of her sundress.

  "Night soccer," Jack commented. "Not your usual. "

  "Do you play?" Emma asked him.

  "Not my game. Give me a bat, a football, a hoop. But I like to watch. "

  "You like to watch anything where a ball's involved. " Mac dropped down beside them, tugged Carter down with her. "Ate much too much. It just kept being there. "

  "Oh, that's just pitiful," Emma muttered when the ball was intercepted. "Does he think it has eyes, radar?"

  "You like soccer?"

  She glanced at Jack. "Girls' Varsity at the Academy. All-State. "

  "Seriously?"

  "Cocaptains," she added, wagging her thumb between herself and Parker.

  "They were vicious. " Laurel knelt on the grass beside Parker. "Mac and I would go to the games, and pity the opposition. Go on. " She elbowed Parker. "Go on out and kick some ass. "

  "Hmm. Want to?" Emma asked Parker.

  "Em, it's been a decade. "

  Emma boosted up to her knees so she could slap her hands on her hips. "Are you saying we're too old to take those losers and weak feet? Are you saying you have lost - your - edge?"

  "Oh, hell. One goal. "

  "Let's score. "

  Like Parker, she slipped out of her sandals.

  Fascinated, Jack watched the two women in their pretty spring dresses approach the field. There was discussion, some hoots, a few catcalls.

  "What's up?" Mal sauntered over to study the two groups.

  "Emma and Parker are going to kick some soccer ass," Laurel told him.

  "No kidding? This ought to be interesting. "

  They took position on the grass in the floodlights, with Emma and Parker's team set to receive. The women glanced at each other, then Emma held up three fingers, then two. Parker laughed, shrugged. The ball sailed through the air. Emma two-fisted it to Parker, who took it on the bounce, and dodged her way through three opponents with a blur of footwork that had the earlier catcalls turning to cheers. She pivoted, feinted, then bulleted the ball cross-field to where Emma sprang to receive. She scored with a blurring banana kick that left the goalie openmouthed.

  In unison, she and Parker shot up both arms and screamed.

  "They always did that," Mac told the group. "No modesty at all. Go Robins!"

  "Girls' soccer team," Carter explained. "State bird. "

  When Parker started to leave the field, Emma grabbed her arm. Jack heard her say, "One more. "

  Parker shook her head; Emma persisted. Parker gripped her skirt, held it out, and whatever Emma said in response made her former cocaptain laugh.

  They took defense against an opposing team who had considerably more respect now. They fought, blocking, rejecting, pushing their opponents back.

  Jack's grin spread when Emma shoulder tackled an opponent. And looked gorgeous doing it, he realized - and just a little fierce. A fresh wave of lust curled in his belly as she charged the player in possession. Her slide tackle - Jesus, just look at her! - had the teenager off balance with his instep pass. On alert, Parker leaped at the next hard, high kick, skirts flying as she sprang and executed a dead-on header.

  "Well, well," Mal murmured.

  "Interception!" Laurel cried out when Emma trapped the ball. "Woo!"

  Emma avoided her opponents' attempts to regain the ball with a quick cut back. She bicycle kicked the ball back to Parker, who shot it between the goalie's legs.

  Hands up, a scream, and Parker slung an arm around Emma's shoulders.

  "Done?"

  "Oh, so very done. " Emma sucked in a breath. "No longer seventeen, but still. Felt righteous. "

  "Let's leave winners. " They held up joined hands, bowed to applause, then deserted the field.

  "Baby," Jack said as he grabbed Emma's hand to pull her back down to the grass, "you're a killer. "

  "Oh yeah. " And she reached out for the bottle of water Mac offered. Before she could drink, her mouth was busy with Jack's.

  The kiss earned more applause.

  "I'm a slave," he murmured against her lips, "to a woman who can pull off an accurate bicycle kick. "

  "Really?" She scraped her teeth lightly over his bottom lip. "You ought to see my instep drive. "

  "Anytime. Anywhere. "

  At the edge of the field, Mal cut across Parker's path, offered one of the two beers he held. "Want?"

  "No. Thanks. "

  Moving around him, she pulled a bottle of water out of one of the ice tubs.

  "What gym do you use,
Legs?"

  She opened the bottle. "My own. "

  "Figures. You've got some moves. Play anything else?"

  She took a slow sip of water. "Piano. "

  As she strolled away, he watched her over a lazy pull of his beer. L ATER, LAUREL SAT ON THE GRANTS' FRONT PORCH STEPS, elbows braced behind her, eyes half closed. The quiet rolled over her, as did the smell of the grass, the front garden. The spring stars showered down.

  She heard the footsteps, kept her eyes closed. And hoped whatever guest was leaving would keep moving, and let her keep her solitude.

  "Are you all right?"

  No such luck, she thought, and opened her eyes to look at Del. "Yeah. I'm just sitting here. "

  "So I see. "

  He sat beside her.

  "I said my bye-byes. Parker's still inside - or outside - doing the Parker check to make sure nothing else has to be done. I had too much tequila to care if something else has to be done. "

  He gave her a closer study. "I'll drive you home. "

  "I gave my keys to Parker. She's driving both of us home. No rescue required, sir. "

  "Okay. So I heard the Robins made a comeback earlier. Sorry I missed it. "

  "They ruled, as ever. I guess you were otherwise occupied. " She looked behind her, side to side, movements exaggerated. "Alone, Delaney? With all these pickings today? Can't believe the Robins scored and you're not gonna. "

  "I didn't come to score. "

  She made a pffft sound and gave him a shove.

  His lips quirked into a reluctant smile. "Honey, you're toasted. "

  "Yes, I am. I'm gonna be so pissed off at me tomorrow, but right now? Feels good. Can't remember the last time I had too much tequila, or too much anything. Coulda scored. "

  "Sorry?"

  "And I don't mean soccer. " Cracking herself up, she shoved him again. "Very cute guy named . . . something made the play. But I'm in a sexual morit . . . morat . . . Wait. Sexual mor-a-tori-um," she said, enunciating each syllable.

  Still smiling, he tucked her sunny swing of hair behind her ear. "Are you?"

  "Yes, I am. I am toasted and I am in the thing I just said and don't want to have to say again. " She shook back the hair he'd just smoothed, gave him a tipsy smile. "Not planning on making a play, are you?"

  His smile dropped away. "No. "

  She pffft 'd again, leaned back, then flicked her hand several times in dismissal. "Move along. "

  "I'll just sit here until Parker comes out. "

  "Mr. Brown, Delaney Brown, do you ever get tired of saving people?"

  "I'm not saving you. I'm just sitting here. "

  Yeah, she thought, just sitting. On a beautiful spring night, under a shower of stars, with the scent of the first roses sweetening the air.

  E MMA PARKED HER CAR BEHIND JACK'S, RETRIEVED HER OVERSIZED purse. She got out, popped the trunk, then smiled as he reached in to retrieve her overnight case.

  "No comments about what the hell's in this thing?"

  "Actually, I thought it would be a lot heavier. "

  "I restrained myself. I never asked what time you have to get started tomorrow. "

  "About eight. Not too early. "

  She linked her hand with his, added a playful swing of arms. "I'll repay your hospitality and fix breakfast. If you have anything to fix. "

  "I probably do. " They walked up the steps to the back door of the apartment above his office.

  "It makes it easy, doesn't it, to live where you work? Though I sometimes think we end up working more than we would if we had more defined lines. I love this building. It's got character. "

  "I fell for it," he told her as he unlocked the door.

  "It suits you. The character and tradition on the outside, the clean lines and balanced flow of space inside," she added as she stepped into his kitchen.

  "Speaking of clean lines and flow, I'm still trying to find words over the soccer exhibition. "

  "That impulse is probably going to have my quads crying tomorrow. "

  "I think your quads can take it. Have I told you I have a weakness for women in sports?"

  She walked with him through the apartment to the bedroom. "You didn't have to. I know you have a weakness for women and a weakness for sports. "

  "Put them together, and I'm gone. "

  "And a slave to the female bicycle kick. " She lifted to her toes, pecked his lips with hers. "You should've seen me in my soccer uniform. "

  "Do you still have it?"

  She laughed, and setting her overnight on the bed, unzipped it. "As a matter of fact. "

  "In there?"

  "Afraid not. But I do have this . . . " She pulled out something very sheer, very short, very black. "If you're interested. "

  "I think this is going down as a perfect day. "

  I N THE MORNING, SHE FIXED FRENCH TOAST, AND DID SOMETHING crispy and mildly sweet to an apple she'd cut into slices.

  "This is great. Flower artist, soccer champ, kitchen wizard. "

  "I am many things. " She sat across from him in the alcove he used for dining. She thought the space needed flowers, something bold and bright in a copper vase. "And you're now out of eggs, and very low on milk. I'm actually doing some marketing today if you want me to pick some up, or anything else. "

  She saw the hitch, the hesitation before he spoke.

  "No, that's okay. I need to make a run later in the week. How're the quads?"

  "Fine. " She ordered herself not to make an issue out of his reluctance to have her pick up a damn carton of eggs for him. "I guess the bastard elliptical is doing its job. How do you keep in shape?"

  "I use the gym three or four times a week, play basketball, that sort of thing. "

  She sent him a slitted-eye, accusatory stare. "I bet you like it. The gym. "

  "Yeah, I do. "

  "So does Parker. I think you're both sick. "

  "Keeping in shape is sick?"

  "No, liking what goes into keeping in shape is sick. I get doing it, but it should be considered a chore, a duty, a necessary evil. Like brussels sprouts. "

  Amusement warmed his eyes. "Brussels sprouts are evil?"

  "Of course they are. Everyone knows this, even if they won't admit it. They're little green balls of evil. Just like squats are a form of torture designed by people who don't need to do squats in the first place. Bastards. "

  "I find your philosophy on fitness and nutrition fascinating. "

  "Honesty can be fascinating. " She savored the last sip of her coffee. "At least when summer hits I can use the pool. That's sensible, and it's fun. Well, I should go up and shower since I slaved away over a hot stove while you had yours. I'll make it quick so I don't hold you up. " She glanced back at the clock on that hot stove. "Really quick. "

  "Ah . . . listen, you don't have to rush. You can just lock up the back when you leave. "

  Pleased, she smiled. "Then I'll have another cup of coffee first. "

  It allowed her to linger a little, over the coffee, then over the shower. Wrapped in a towel, she slicked cream over her skin, then opened the moisturizer for her face. As she started on her makeup, she saw Jack step in, saw in the mirror the way his gaze skimmed over the scatter of her tubes and pots on the bathroom counter. He barely missed a beat, but there was no mistaking the unease in his eyes - and no denying the hurt in her heart.

  "I gotta go. " The brush of his hand down her damp hair was sweet, as was the kiss. "See you later?"

  "Sure. "

  Alone, she finished her makeup, her hair. She dressed, and she packed. When she was done she went back into the bathroom, viciously scrubbed the sink, the counter until she was sure she'd left no trace of her or her things in his space.

  "No need to panic, Jack," she mumbled. "All clear. All yours. "

  On the way out, she stopped and left a note on his kitchen board. Jack - forgot I'm booked tonight. We'll catch up later. Emma She needed
a break.

  She tested the back door to make sure it locked behind her, carried her case down to her car. Once she got behind the wheel, she flipped open her phone and called Parker.

  "Hey, Emma, I'm on the other line with - "

  "I'll be quick. Can we have a girl night tonight?"

  "What's wrong?"

  "Nothing. Really. I just need girl night. "

  "In or out?"

  "In. I don't want to go out. "

  "I'll take care of it. "

  "Thanks. I'll be home in a couple of hours. "

  Emma closed the phone.

  Friends, she thought. Girlfriends. They never let you down.

 
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