Bed of roses, p.17

Bed of Roses, page 17

 part  #2 of  Bride Quartet Series

 

Bed of Roses


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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

  POST-EVENT, THEY TOOK A MOMENT TO UNWIND IN THE FAMILY parlor. Appreciating every moment, Emma sipped her second glass of wine of the evening.

  "No visible hitches. " She rolled her shoulders, curled and uncurled her bare toes. "And that's what counts. I expect the wedding party will be telling stories of hangovers, spatting mothers, and baby alert for weeks. But that's the sort of thing that makes every wedding unique. "

  "I wouldn't have believed anyone could cry, almost without pause, for nearly six hours. " Laurel popped a couple of aspirin, chased them down with fizzy water. "You'd think it was her son's funeral instead of his wedding. "

  "I'm going to have to Photoshop the hell out of the MOG's photos. And even then . . . " Mac shrugged.

  "I think it's a brave bride who takes on a mother-in-law who literally howled during the I do's. "

  Tossing back her head, Mac gave a terrifyingly accurate rendition of Mrs. Carstair's wail.

  "My head," Laurel muttered. "My head. "

  From his perch on the arm of the sofa, Carter laughed at Mac even as he gave Laurel's shoulder a comforting pat. "I don't know about the rest of you, but that woman scared me. "

  "I think part of it was the upcoming grandchild. It's all just too much for her. "

  "Then somebody should've slipped her a Valium," Laurel said to Emma. "And I'm not really kidding. I kept waiting for her to throw herself on the wedding cake - like it was a pyre. "

  "Oh man, what a shot that would've been. " Mac sighed. "Regrets. "

  "Carter, Jack. " Parker lifted her bottle of water. "You were a huge help. If I'd known the MOG was a wailer, I'd have taken steps beforehand, but she was fine at rehearsal. Even bubbly. "

  "I bet someone slipped her drugs," Laurel said.

  "What sort of steps?" Jack wondered.

  "Oh, there are all sorts of tricks of the trade. " Parker's smile hinted at secrets. "I may not have been able to keep her from blubbering all during the ceremony, but I'd have kept her from upsetting the bride and groom during dressing. If Pete and Maggie hadn't kept their heads, we'd have had a disaster on our hands. Keeping the overly emotional types busy, giving them little assignments usually works. "

  "I know that's what kept me from crying," Jack told her.

  "We'll have to muddle through without the reserve troops tomorrow. " Mac gave Carter a friendly kick from her chair. "They're deserting us for the Yankees. "

  "And speaking of tomorrow, I'm going up to fall flat so I can get up for it. " Laurel rose. " 'Night, kids. "

  "There's our cue. Let's pack it in, Professor. God, my feet are killing me. "

  Carter turned his back, gestured to it. With a laugh, Mac boosted herself on. "Now this is love," she said, planting a noisy kiss on the top of his head. "Him for the offer, and me for trusting Professor Grace not to trip and drop me. See you tomorrow. Giddyup!"

  "God, they're cute. " Emma smiled after them. "Even Scary Linda can't dull their shine. "

  "She called Mac this morning," Parker told her.

  "Hell. "

  "Told Mac she'd changed her mind, and expected Mac and Carter to be at her wedding, in Italy, next week. The usual drama and guilt trip when Mac told her it wasn't possible for her to fly to Italy on such short notice. "

  "Mac didn't say anything about it to me. "

  "She didn't want to get into it with the event. Linda, of course, called just as Mac was getting her gear packed for the morning wedding. But the point is, you're right, she can't dull the shine. Before Carter, a call like that would've sent Mac into the blue. It wasn't pleasant, but she got through it, set it aside. "

  "The Power of Carter defeats the Power of Linda. I owe him a big kiss. "

  "I'll see him tomorrow if you want to give it to me," Jack suggested. She leaned over, gave him a prim peck.

  "Kinda stingy. "

  "He belongs to a friend. Okay, getting up, going home. "

  "Eight o'clock briefing," Parker reminded her.

  "Yeah, yeah. " She smothered a yawn. "How do you feel about piggybacks?" she asked Jack.

  "I like this way better. " In a deliberately dramatic move, he swept her up.

  "Wow. Me, too. 'Night, Parker. "

  "Good night. " And just a little wistfully, Parker watched Jack Rhett Butler Emma out of the parlor.

  "Great exit. " Delighted, Emma pressed her lips to Jack's cheek. "You don't have to carry me all the way back. "

  "You think I'm going to let Carter show me up? You know nothing about true competition. It's good to see Mac look so happy," he added. "I've been around a few times when Linda did a number on her. Tough to watch. "

  "I know. " Idly, Emma fluttered her fingers through Jack's sun-streaked hair. "She's the only person I actually and actively dislike. I used to try to find excuses for her, then I realized there just aren't any. "

  "She hit on me once. "

  Emma's head jerked up. "What? Mac's mother hit on you?"

  "Long time ago. Actually there was another time not all that long ago. So that makes two hits. First time I was still in college, spending a couple of weeks here during the summer break. We were all going to a party, and I said I'd swing by and pick up Mac. She didn't have a car back then. So her mother came to the door, and gave me the kind of once-over you don't generally get from mothers, then sort of backed me into a corner until Mac got down. It was . . . interesting, and yeah, scary. Scary Linda. Good name. "

  "What were you, twenty? She should be ashamed. Arrested. Something. Now I dislike her more. I didn't think it was possible. "

  "I survived. But if she tries it again, I'm counting on you to protect me. And a lot better than you did with Scary Kellye. "

  "One of these days I'm going to tell her what I think of her. Linda, not Kellye. And if she actually shows up at Mac's wedding and tries to pull something, I might get violent. "

  "Can I watch?"

  Emma laid her head back down on his shoulder. "I'm calling my mother tomorrow, just to tell her she's wonderful. " She kissed his cheek again. "And so are you. This is the first time I've ever been carried through the moonlight. "

  "Actually, it's overcast. "

  She smiled. "Not from where I'm sitting. "

  J ACK STUDIED HIS HOLE CARDS. POKER NIGHT HAD BEEN GOOD to him, so far, but the pair of deuces didn't look promising. He checked, waited while the bet walked around the table. When it got to Doctor Rod, he tossed in twenty-five. Beside him, Mal folded. Del tossed in his chips. Landscape Frank did the same. Lawyer Henry folded.

  Jack debated briefly, and coughed up the twenty-five.

  Del burned the top card, then turned over the flop. Ace of clubs, ten of diamonds, four of diamonds. Possible flush, possible straight. And he had a crap pair of deuces. He checked.

  Rod went another twenty-five.

  Carter folded, Del and Frank met the bet.

  Stupid, Jack thought, but he just had a feeling. Sometimes feelings were worth twenty-five. He added his chips to the pot.

  Del buried a card, turned the next up. Two of diamonds.

  Now that was interesting. Still, knowing how Rod played, he checked. Rod bet another twenty-five, with Del raising it twenty-five more. Frank folded. Jack thought about trip deuces. But he still had a feeling. He tossed in the fifty.

  "Glad it didn't scare you off. I'm looking to score here. Need to sweeten the pot. " Rod grinned. "I just got engaged. "

  Del glanced over. "Seriously? We're dropping like flies. "

  "Congratulations," Carter said.

  "Thanks. Raise it back fifty more. I figured, what the hell am I waiting for? So I took the jump. Shell's all about taking a look at your sister's place. Maybe you can get me the Poker Buddy discount. "

  "Not a chance. " Del counted out chips. "But I'll see your fifty. Seeing as it's probably the end of poker and cigars for you. "

  "Hell, Shell's not that way. Bet's to you
, Jack. "

  Pocket aces, probably. Rod never bluffed, or he sucked at it so wide you saw through it like a plate glass window. Pocket aces or a couple of pretty diamonds. Still . . .

  "I'll stick. Consider it an engagement present. "

  "Appreciate it. We're looking at next June. Shell wants the big splash. I figured, hey, we'll just fly down to some island over the winter, get some sun, get some surf, get married. But she wants the big deal. "

  "And so it begins," Mal said in funereal tones.

  "You're having the big deal, right, Carter?"

  "Mac's in the business. They do a great job. Make it really special. Personalized. "

  "Don't sweat it," Mal said to Rod. "You won't have any say in it anyway. Just learn to repeat 'sure, baby' whenever she asks if you like something, want something, will do something. "

  "A lot you know. You've never been there. "

  "Nearly was. I didn't say 'sure, baby' enough. " Mal examined the tip of his cigar. "Fortunately. "

  "I'm going to like being married. " Rod nudged his glasses back up his nose. "Settled in, settled down. I guess you're heading in that direction, Jack. "

  "What?"

  "You've been tight with the hot florist for a while now. Off the market. "

  Del clamped his cigar in his teeth. "Are we playing poker, or should we start talking about where Rod's going to register? Three players in for the river. "

  Del turned over the last card, but Jack was too busy staring at Rod to notice.

  "My bet. And I'm all in. "

  "That's interesting, Rod. " Expression bland, Del puffed on his cigar. "I'll cover it. How about it, Jack?

  You sticking or folding?"

  "What?"

  "Bet's to you, brother. "

  "Right. " Off the market? What did that mean ? He took a slow sip of beer, ordered himself to focus. And saw the river card was the deuce of hearts.

  "I'll call. "

  "I got myself three bullets. "

  "And a GSW," Del told him, flipping his cards over. "Because I've got two sparkling diamonds, just like the one you put on your sweetheart's finger. King high flush. "

  "Son of a bitch. I figured you for the tens. "

  "Figured wrong. Jack?"

  "What?"

  "Jesus, Jack, show your cards or toss them in. "

  "Sorry. " He shook himself back. "Real sorry about the GSW and the sparkles. But I've got these two little deuces, that add up to four of a kind. I believe that's my pot. "

  "You pulled a fourth deuce in the fucking river?" Rod shook his head. "You're one lucky bastard. "

  "Yeah. One lucky bastard. "

  A FTER THE GAME, WHEN JACK HAD THE WINNER'S SHARE OF everyone's fifty-dollar entry fee in his pocket, he lingered with Del on the back deck.

  "Since you're having another beer, you're figuring on flopping here?"

  "Thinking about it," Jack said.

  "You make the coffee in the morning. "

  "I've got an early meeting, so the coffee's going on about six. "

  "Fine. I've got a divorce deposition. Man, I hate it when a friend pressures me into handling a divorce. I hate fucking di vorce cases. "

  "What friend?"

  "You don't know her. We dated off and on some back in high school. She ended up marrying this guy, moving to New Haven about five years ago. Two kids. "

  With a shake of his head he took a short pull of his beer. "Now they've decided they can't stand the sight of each other, and she's moved back here, staying with her parents until she figures out what the hell she wants to do. He's pissed because she wants to live back here and it complicates visitation. " He tipped the bottle to the left. "She's pissed because she put her career on hold to take the Mommy Track. " Then tipped it to the right. "He didn't appreciate her enough, she didn't understand the pressure he was under. The usual. "

  "I thought you weren't going to handle any more divorces. "

  "A woman whose breasts you've once fondled comes into your office asking for help, it's tough to say no. "

  "That's true. It doesn't happen often in my line of work, but it's true. "

  Del shot him a smirk over another sip of beer. "Maybe I've just fondled more breasts than you have. "

  "We could have a contest. "

  "If you can remember all the breasts you've had in your hands, you haven't had enough of them. "

  Jack laughed, tipped back in his chair. "We should go to Vegas. "

  "For the breasts?"

  "For . . . Vegas. A couple of days at the casinos, followed by a titty bar. So, yes, breasts would be involved. Just hang out for a couple days. "

  "You hate Vegas. "

  "Hate's a strong word. No, better, we could go to St. Martin or St. Barts. Something. Play the tables, scope the beach. Go deep-sea fishing. "

  Del's eyebrows rose. "You want to fish? To my knowledge you've never so much as held a fishing rod. "

  "There's always a first time. "

  "Itchy feet?"

  "Just thinking about getting away for a few days. Summer's coming. I got locked in last winter with work, and had to cut the week at Vail down to three days. So we can make up for it. "

  "I could probably stretch a long weekend. "

  "Good. We'll do that. " Satisfied, Jack took another pull on his beer. "Weird about Rod. "

  "What?"

  "Getting engaged. It came out of the blue. "

  "He's been with Shelly a couple of years. Not so blue. "

  "He's never made any marriage noises," Jack insisted. "I didn't figure him for it. I mean, a guy like Carter, yeah. He's the type. Come home from work every night, put on the slippers. "

  "Slippers?"

  "You know what I mean. Come home, make a little dinner, pet the three-legged cat, watch some tube, maybe bang Mac if the mood's right. "

  "You know I try not to think about Mac and banging in the same sentence. "

  "Get up the next day, do it again," Jack continued in a tone that edged toward a rant. "Add a couple of kids along the way, maybe a one-eyed dog to go with the three-legged cat. Bang less because now you've got kids running around. Deep-sea fishing and titty bars are a thing of the past because now you've got nightmare trips to the mall and daycare and a freaking minivan and college funds. And Christ!"

  He threw up both hands. "Christ, now you're forty and coaching Little League and you've probably got a gut because who the hell has time to go to the gym when you've got to stop by the market and pick up bread and milk. Then you blink and you're fucking fifty and falling asleep in the Barcalounger watching reruns of Law and Order . "

  Del said nothing for a minute, just continued to study Jack's face. "That's an interesting roundup of the next twenty years of Carter's life. I hope they named one of the kids after me. "

  "That's the way it goes, isn't it?" What was this panic, this spurt of it rising up in his chest? He didn't want to think about it. "The good part is Mac won't be coming to you to file for divorce because it'll probably work for them. And she's not the type to freak out because he's heading out to Poker Night or hit him with the 'you never take me anywhere' routine. "

  "And Emma is?"

  "What? No. I'm not talking about Emma. "

  "No?"

  "No. " Jack took a deliberate breath, found himself mildly shocked by his own babble. "Things with Emma are fine. They're good. I'm just talking in general. "

  "And in general, marriage is Barcaloungers and minivans, and the end of life as we know it?"

  "Could be a La-Z-Boy and a station wagon. I think they're going to make a comeback. The point is, Mac and Carter will do okay with that. So . . . good for them. Not everybody can make it work. "

  "Depends on the dynamic, for one thing. "

  "Dynamics change. That's why you're doing a deposition tomorrow. " Calmer now, he shrugged. "People change, and the elements, circumstances, situation all evolve. "

  "
Yeah, they do. And the ones who want it enough keep working at it through the evolutions. "

  Puzzled, and unaccountably annoyed, he scowled at Del. "Suddenly you're a fan of marriage?"

  "I've never been an opponent. I come from a long line of married couples. I figure it takes a lot of guts or blind faith to go into it, and a lot of work and considerable flexibility to stay in it. Considering Mac and Carter, and their backgrounds, I'd say she's the guts, he's the blind faith. It's a good combination. "

  Del paused, considered his beer. "Are you in love with Emma?"

  Panic spurted again. He washed it back with beer. "I said this wasn't about her. Us. Any of that. "

  "And that's bullshit, Jack. We're sitting here having a last beer after a night where you came out on top and I hit near the bottom. Instead of ragging me, you're talking about marriage, and deep-sea fishing. Neither of which have ever been of particular interest to you. "

  "We're dropping like flies. You said it yourself. "

  "Sure I did. And we are. Tony's coming up on three, maybe it's four years now. Frank took the plunge last year, Rod's engaged. Add in Carter. I'm not involved with anyone in particular right now, and neither's Mal as far as I know. That leaves you, and Emma. Given that, it'd be surprising if Rod's little announcement didn't get your gears turning. "

  "Maybe I'm starting to wonder about her expectations, that's all. She's in the marriage business. "

  "No, she's in the wedding business. "

  "Okay, good point. She's from a big family. A big, tight, apparently happy family. And while weddings and marriages are different things, one leads to the other. One of her best friends since childhood is getting married. You know how those four are, Del. They're like a fist. The fingers may wiggle individually, but they come out of the same hand. Just like you said you and Mal are in the field, from what I can tell so are Laurel and Parker. But Mac? That shifts things. Now one of my poker buddies is going to be talking wedding plans with them. That shifts things. "

  He gestured with his beer. "If I'm thinking about it, it's a sure bet she is. "

  "You could do something radical and have an actual conversation with her about it. "

  "If you have a conversation about it, it takes you a step closer. "

  "Or it takes you a step back. Which way do you want to head, Jack?"

  "See, you're asking me. " To emphasize the point, Jack shot a finger at Del. "She sure as hell will. What am I supposed to say?"

  "Again, radical. How about the truth?"

  "I don't know the truth. " Okay, he thought, that's the source of the panic. "Why do you think I'm freaked out?"

  "I guess you have to figure it out. You never answered the lead question. Are you in love with her?"

  "How the hell does anybody know that? More, how do they know they're going to stay that way?"

  "Guts, blind faith. You've got it or you don't. But from where I'm sitting, brother, the only person putting pressure on you is you. " Crossing his ankles, Del polished off his beer. "Something to think about. "

  "I don't want to hurt her. I don't want to let her down. "

  Listen to yourself, Del thought. You're already sunk and don't know it. "I don't want to see that happen either," he said casually. "Because I'd hate having to kick your ass. "

  "What you'd hate is for me to kick yours if you tried. "

  There followed the more comfortable interlude of insults over the last beer. B ECAUSE HE WANTED TO KEEP A CLOSE EYE ON MAC'S ADDITION, Jack tried to swing by the job site every day. It gave him a spectator seat to The Life of Mac and Carter. Every morning he'd catch sight of them in the kitchen - one of them feeding the cat, the other pouring coffee. At some point, Carter would clear out with his laptop case, and Mac would get to work in the studio.

  If his swing-by came in the afternoon, he might see Carter walking back from the main house - but never, he noted, when Mac was with a client. The guy must have radar, Jack concluded. Occasionally one or both of them came out to check the progress, ask questions, offer him coffee or a cold drink, depending on the time of day he dropped by.

  The rhythm fascinated him enough that he stopped Carter one morning.

  "School's out, right?"

  "The summer of fun has begun. "

  "So I notice you head over to the big house most days. "

  "It's a little crowded in the studio right now. And noisy. " Carter glanced back toward the buzz of saws, the thwack of nail guns. "I teach teenagers, so I have a high tolerance for confusion, and still I don't know how she works with the noise. It doesn't seem to bother her. "

  "What the hell are you doing all day? Plotting pop quizzes for next fall?"

  "The beauty of the pop quiz is that it can be repeated endlessly through the years. I have files. "

  "Yeah, I bet. So?"

  "Actually, I'm using one of the guest rooms as a temporary study. It's quiet, and Mrs. Grady feeds me. "

  "You're studying?"

  Carter shifted his feet, a tell Jack recognized as mild to middling embarrassment. "I'm sort of working on a book. "

  "No shit?"

  "It may be shit. Parts of it probably are. But I thought I'd take the summer to find out. "

  "That's great. How do you know when she's cleared out - the clients? Does she call over, tell you it's safe to come home?"

  "She's trying to schedule clients in the morning, whenever she's doing a shoot here, and shifting most consults over to the main house while the construction's going on. I just check her book for the day, so I don't come back during a shoot, break the mood or her concentration. It's a pretty simple system. "

  "It seems to be working for you. "

  "Speaking of work, I didn't expect all this to move so fast. " Carter gestured toward the studio. "Every day there's something new. "

  "Weather holds and the inspections pass, it'll keep moving. It's a good crew. They should - Sorry," he said when his phone rang.

  "Go ahead. I'd better get started. "

  He pulled out his phone as Carter walked off. "Cooke. Yeah, I'm on the Brown site. " As he spoke, Jack moved away from the noise. "No, we can't just . . . If that's what they want we'll need to draw up the changes and get a revised permit. "

  He listened, continued to walk.

  His job visits also gave him a clear idea of Emma's basic routine. Clients came and went like clockwork in the beginning of the week. Midweek, she'd take deliveries. Boxes and boxes of flowers. She'd be working with them now, he thought. Early start, on her own. Tink or one of the others would probably come in later, do whatever they did.

  In the middle of the day, if she could manage it, she'd take a break and sit out on her patio. If he was on-site, he'd squeeze in the time to sit out with her awhile.

  How could a man resist Emma sitting in the sunlight?

  And there she was now, he realized. Not on the patio, but kneeling on the ground, her hair bundled under a hat while she turned dirt with a garden spade.

  "Tell them two to three weeks," he said, and she turned, tipped up the brim of her hat and smiled at him.

  "I'm heading out from here in a few minutes. I'll talk it over with the job boss. I'll be in the office in a couple hours. No problem. "

  He flipped the phone closed, scanned the flats of plants. "Don't you have enough flowers?"

  "Never. I wanted to plug in some more annuals here in front. It makes a nice show from the event areas. "

  He crouched, kissed her. "You make a nice show. I figured you'd be working inside. "

  "I couldn't resist, and this won't take long. I'll put in an extra hour at the end of the day if I need to. "

  "Busy after the end of the day?"

  She cocked her head, slanted him a killer look from under the brim of her hat. "That depends on the offer. "

  "How about we go into New York for dinner? Someplace where the waiters are snobs, the food's overpriced, and you look so beautiful I don't notic
e either. "

  "I'm definitely not busy at the end of the day. "

  "Good. I'll pick you up about seven. "

  "I'll be ready. And since you're here. " She wrapped her arms around his neck, and took his mouth in a deep, dreamy kiss. "That should hold you," she murmured.

  "Pack a bag. "

  "What?"

  "Pack what you need for overnight and we'll get a hotel suite in New York. Make a night of it. "

  "Really?" She did a quick dance in place. "Give me ten seconds and I'll pack right now. "

  "Then we're on. "

  "I have to be back early, but - "

  "So do I. " This time he kissed her, catching her face with his hands, drawing it out. "That should hold you

  . Seven," he said, and rose.

  Pleased with his idea and her reaction, he drew his phone out as he walked to his truck, and got his assistant busy making reservations.

 
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