Bed of roses, p.20

Bed of Roses, page 20

 part  #2 of  Bride Quartet Series


Bed of Roses

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  SHE SPENT A HAPPY HOUR PUTTING AWAY GROCERIES, ARRANGING the sunflowers she'd brought from her stock for his kitchen counter, then prepping the planters. She'd been right, she thought, about how perfect they'd be flanking the door. Deep, bold spots of color, she decided as she tucked red salvia behind purple heliotrope. The combination of plants she'd chosen would give him color and bloom all season, and be even showier when the lobelia spilled and the sweet alys sum foamed over the lip.

  A nice welcome home, she thought, every time he walked up the stairs. And, she thought with a little smile, a living reminder of the woman who'd laid out that welcome. Sitting back on her heels, she studied the result. "Gorgeous, if I do say so myself. "

  After stacking the empty pots and cell packs, she shifted to duplicate the arrangement in the second urn. She wondered if he had a watering can, then decided probably not. She should've thought of that, but they'd make do until he got one. Happy to have her hands in dirt, she hummed along with the radio she'd switched on. His front entrance planters needed more zip, she mused as she worked. She'd try to pick up a few more things in the next week or so.

  When she'd finished, she swept up the spilled dirt, then carried the plastic trays and pots, her gardening tools down to her car. Brushing off her hands she looked up to admire the work. Flowers, she'd always thought, were an essential element of home. Now he had them. And, she'd always believed, flowers planted with love bloomed more beautifully. If true, these would be spectacular right up to the first hard frost.

  When she checked the time, she dashed back up the stairs. She needed to wash up and start on dinner, especially since she'd decided to add an appetizer to the menu. D IRTY, SWEATY, AND STILL PISSED OFF DUE TO THE DISAPPEARING plumber and a rookie building inspector with an attitude, Jack turned toward the rear of his offices. He wanted a shower, a beer, maybe a handful of aspirin. If the general contractor wasn't going to fire the asshole plumber - who also happened to be his brother-in-law - then he could explain the delay to the client. And he could take on the building inspector who decided to throw his weight around because a doorway was a damn seven-eighths of an inch off.

  Okay, maybe the aspirin, the shower, then the drink.

  Maybe that would smooth out a day that had begun with a call at six A. M. from a client with a tape measure who'd gone ballistic because the framing for his service bar came in at five feet eight inches instead of six feet.

  Not that he blamed the client. He'd felt ballistic himself. Six feet on the plans meant six feet on the job, not whatever the sub decided would do.

  And, Jack thought as he tried to roll the worst of the tension out of his shoulders, the day had just gone downhill from there. If he was going to put in a twelve-hour day, at least he wanted to finish up feeling he'd accomplished something instead of just riding around the goddamn county putting out fires. He made the last turn, telling himself to be grateful he was home, where, since the office was now closed, nobody - please God - was going to ask him to fix anything, negotiate anything, or argue about anything. When he spotted Emma's car he struggled to think past the headache. Had he mixed things up? Had they planned to meet in town, go from there?

  No, no, dinner, maybe a movie - which he'd intended to switch to carry-out, possibly a DVD, and that after he'd had a chance to cool off and settle down. Except he'd forgotten to call her about that as he'd been hip-deep in crises and complaints.

  But if she was in town somewhere, he could just . . .

  His mind switched gears as he noticed his back door open to the screen, and the pots of flowers beside it. He sat where he was a moment, then tossed his sunglasses on the dash. When he stepped out of the truck, he heard the music pouring through the screen door.

  Where the hell did the plants come from? he wondered as fresh irritation banged against an already full-blown headache. And why the hell was his door open?

  He wanted air-conditioning, a cool shower, and five damn minutes to shake off the worst of the day. Now he had flowers he'd have to remember to water, music blasting, and somebody who'd require attention and conversation in his house.

  He trudged up the steps, scowled at the plants, pushed through the screen door. And there she was, singing along with the radio - which was blasting through his aching head, cooking something on his stove when he'd set his system on take-out pizza, and his spare keys sat on the counter beside a vase of enormous sunflowers that made his eyes throb. She shook the frying pan with one hand, reached for a glass of wine with the other - then saw him.

  "Oh!" She laughed when her hand jerked on the handle of the pan. "I didn't hear you. "

  "Not surprising, as you're entertaining the neighborhood with . . . Jesus, is that ABBA?"

  "What? Oh, the music. It is loud. " She gave the pan another shake before adjusting the heat under it. With an easy side step, she picked up the remote, lowered the volume on the stereo. "Cooking music. I thought I'd surprise you with a ready-made meal. These scallops just need another minute. The sauce is already done, so you can have a little something right away. How about a glass of wine?"

  "No. Thanks. " He reached over her head into the cabinet for a bottle of aspirin.

  "Hard day. " In sympathy, she rubbed a hand down his arm as he fought open the bottle. "Michelle told me. Why don't you sit down for a minute, get your bearings?"

  "I'm filthy. I need a shower. "

  "Well, you're right about that. " She rose on her toes to brush a light kiss on his lips. "I'll get you some ice water. "

  "I can get it. " He moved past her to the refrigerator. "Michelle gave you the key?"

  "She said you were stuck out on a job, and having a bad day. I had the food out in the car, so . . . " She shook the pan again, turned off the flame. "I've got a flank steak marinating. Red meat ought to help your headache. You can just clean up and relax. Or I can hold dinner awhile if you want to stretch out until you feel better. "

  "What is all this, Emma?" Even at the lower volume, the music scraped against his nerves. He grabbed the remote, turned it off. "Did you haul those pots up here?"

  "Chip did the heavy work. I had the best time picking out the urns, the plants. " She sprinkled the scallops with a mixture of cilantro, garlic, and lime, poured on the sauce she'd prepared. "They really pop against the house, don't they? I wanted to do something to thank you for New York, and when inspiration hit, I juggled a few things and hit the road. "

  She set the empty bowl in the sink, turned. Her smile faded. "And I miscalculated, didn't I?"

  "It's been a lousy day, that's all. "

  "Which I've added to, clearly. "

  "Yes. No. " He pressed his fingers to the drill trying to bore through his temple. "It's been a bad day. I just need to smooth out some. You should've called if you wanted to . . . do this. "

  Without thinking, out of sheer habit, he picked up the spare keys and shoved them in his pocket. He might as well have slapped her.

  "Don't worry, Jack, I didn't hang anything of mine in a closet, put anything in a drawer. My toothbrush is still in my bag. "

  "What the hell are you talking about?"

  "My trespassing only went as far as the kitchen, and it won't happen again. I didn't run out and make a copy of your precious keys, and I hope you won't give Michelle any grief for giving them to me. "

  "Give me a small break, Emma. "

  "Give you a break? Do you have any idea how humiliating it was to have to tell her I didn't have a key?

  To know we've been sleeping together since April and I can't be trusted. "

  "It has nothing to do with trust. I just never - "

  "Bullshit, Jack. Just bullshit. Every time I stay here - which is very rare because it's your space, I have to make sure I don't leave so much as a stray hairpin behind because, dear God, what's next? An actual hairbrush? A shirt? Before you know it I'll actually feel welcome here. "

  "You are welcome here. Don't be ridiculous.
I don't want to fight with you. "

  "Too bad, because I want to fight with you. You're irritated because I'm here, because I invaded your space, made myself at home. And that tells me I'm wasting my time, I'm wasting my feelings, because I deserve better than that. "

  "Look, Emma, all this just caught me at a bad time. "

  "It's not the time, Jack, not just the time. It's always. You don't let me in here because that's too close to a commitment for you. "

  "Jesus, Emma, I am committed. There's no one else. There hasn't been anyone else since I touched you. "

  "It's not about someone else. It's about you and me. It's about wanting me, but only on your terms, on your - your blueprint," she said waving her hands in the air. "As long as we stick to that, no problem. But that's not going to work for me anymore. It's not going to work when I can't pick up a quart of milk for you or leave a damn lipstick on your bathroom counter. Or give you some damn plants without pissing you off. "

  "Milk? What milk? Jesus Christ, I don't know what you're talking about. "

  "It's not going to work when cooking you a fucking meal is like a criminal act. " She snatched up the plate of scallops, tossed it into the sink with a crash of stoneware.

  "Okay, that's enough. "

  "No, it isn't enough. " She whirled, shoved him back with both hands as tears of anger and heartbreak clouded her eyes, thickened her voice. "And I'm not going to settle for what isn't enough. I'm in love with you, and I want you to love me. I want a life with you. Marriage and babies and a future . So this?

  This isn't enough, not nearly. It turns out you were right, Jack. Absolutely right. Give them an inch, they'll take a mile. "

  "What? How? Wait. "

  "But don't worry, no need to run for the hills. I'm responsible for my own feelings, my own needs, my own choices. And I'm done here. I'm done with this. "

  "Hold it. " He wondered his head didn't explode. Maybe it already had. "Wait a damn minute so I can think. "

  "Time's up, thinking's over. Don't touch me now," she warned when he started toward her. "Don't even think about putting a hand on me. You had your chance. I'd have given you everything I had. If you'd needed more, I'd have found it, and given you that. It's the way I love. It's the only way I know how. But I can't give where it's not wanted and valued. Where I'm not. "

  "Be pissed off. " He snapped it out. "Break dishes. But don't stand there and tell me I don't want you, don't value you. "

  "Not the way I want or need. And trying not to want, Jack? Trying not to love you the only way I know how to love? It's breaking my heart. " She grabbed her bag. "Stay away from me. "

  He slapped a hand on the screen door to stop her. "I want you to sit down. You're not the only one with things to say. "

  "I don't care what you want. I'm done caring. I said stay away from me. "

  She looked up at him then. It wasn't temper or heat in her eyes. Those he would've ignored until they'd burned this out. But he had no power against her pain.

  "Emma. Please. "

  She only shook her head, and, pushing past him, ran to her car. S HE DIDN'T KNOW HOW SHE MANAGED TO DAM THE TEARS. SHE only knew she couldn't see through them and she had to get home. She needed home. Her hands wanted to shake so she gripped the wheel tighter. Every breath hurt. How was that possible? How could the simple act of drawing breath burn? She heard herself moan, and pressed her lips together to hold back the next. It sounded like a wounded animal.

  She wouldn't let herself feel that. Not now. Not yet.

  Ignoring the cheerful ringtones of her phone, she kept her eyes focused on the road. The dam collapsed; the tears broke through when she turned into the drive. She swiped at them, a fast, impatient hand until she'd navigated along the curve, parked.

  Now the trembling came, so that she shook as she stumbled from the car, up the walk. She made it inside, safe, home, before the first sob took her.

  "Emma?" Parker's voice carried down the stairs. "What are you doing back so early? I thought you were - "

  Through the flood of tears, Emma saw Parker rush down the stairs. "Parker. "

  Then there were arms around her, strong and tight. "Oh, Emma. Oh, baby. Come on now, come with me. "

  "What's all this commotion? What's . . . Is she hurt?" Like Parker, Mrs. Grady hurried forward.

  "Not that way. I'm going to take her upstairs. Can you call Mac?"

  "I'll see to it. There now, lamb. " Mrs. Grady stroked a hand down Emma's hair. "You're home now. We'll take care of everything. Go on with Parker. "

  "I can't stop. I can't make it stop. "

  "You don't have to stop. " With an arm around Emma's waist, Parker led her upstairs. "Cry all you want, as long as you need. We'll go up to the parlor. To our place. "

  As they started up to the third floor, Laurel bolted down. Saying nothing, she simply wrapped an arm around Emma from the other side.

  "How could I be so stupid?"

  "You weren't," Parker murmured. "You aren't. "

  "I'll get her some water," Laurel said, and Parker nodded as she led Emma to the couch.

  "It hurts, so much. So much. How can anyone stand it?"

  "I don't know. "

  When they sat, Emma curled up, laid her head in Parker's lap.

  "I had to get home. I just had to get home. "

  "You're home now. " Laurel sat on the floor, pushed tissues into Emma's hand. Burying her face in them, Emma sobbed out the pain and grief throbbing in her chest, twisting in her belly. Raw sobs scorched her throat until there were none left. Still, tears spilled down her cheeks.

  "It feels like some horrible illness. " She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. "Like I may never be well again. "

  "Drink a little water. It'll help. " Parker eased her up. "And these aspirin. "

  "It's like a terrible flu. " Emma sipped water, took a breath, then swallowed the aspirin Parker handed her. "The kind where even when it's over, you're weak and sick and helpless. "

  "There's tea and soup. " Like Laurel, Mac sat on the floor. "Mrs. G brought it up. "

  "Not yet. Thanks. Not yet. "

  "This wasn't just a fight," Laurel said.

  "No. Not just a fight. " Exhausted, she rested her head on Parker's shoulder. "Is it worse, do you think, since it's my own fault?"

  "Don't you dare blame yourself. " Laurel squeezed Emma's leg. "Don't you dare. "

  "I'm not letting him off the hook, believe me. But I got myself into it. And tonight, especially tonight, I worked myself up to wanting - expecting," she corrected, "things that weren't going to happen. I know him, and still I jumped off the cliff. "

  "Can you tell us what happened?" Mac asked her.

  "Yeah. "

  "Take a little tea first. " Laurel held out the cup.

  After one sip, Emma blew out a breath. "There's whiskey in here. "

  "Mrs. G said to drink it. It'll help. "

  "Tastes like medicine. And I guess it is. " Emma took another sip. "I crossed his lines, I guess you could say. I don't find those lines acceptable. So we're done. We have to be done because I can't feel this way. "

  "What are the lines?" Parker asked.

  "He doesn't make room. " Emma shook her head. "I wanted to do something for him. Part of it was certainly for me, but I wanted to do something special. So I went by the nursery," she began.

  When she finished the tea, the ache throbbed behind a thin cushion. "I had this moment, when I had to tell Michelle I didn't have a key. Part of me stepped back, said: Stop. "

  "What the hell for?" Laurel demanded.

  "And that's what the rest of me said. We were together, a couple. And under that, good friends. What could be wrong with going into his place to surprise him with dinner? But I knew. That other part of me knew. Maybe it was a test. I don't know. I don't care. And maybe it was worse - the buildup, the crash - because I'd run into Rachel Monning at the bookstore. Do you remember her, Par
ker? I babysat her. "

  "Yes, vaguely. "

  "She's getting married. "

  "You babysat for her?" Laurel held up her hands. "They're letting twelve-year-olds get married?"

  "She's in college. Graduating next year, followed by her wedding. Which she wants here, by the way. And when I got over the genuine shock, all I could think was, I want that. I want what this girl I babysat has. Damn it, I want what I see on her face. All that joy, that confidence, that eagerness to start a life with the man I love. Why shouldn't I want that? Why aren't I entitled to that? Wanting marriage is as legitimate as not wanting it. "

  "Preaching to the choir," Mac reminded her.

  "Well, I do want it. I want the promise and the work and the children and all of it. All of it. I know I want the fairy tale, too. Dancing in the moonlit garden, but that's just . . . Well, it's like a bouquet or a beautiful cake. It's a symbol. I want what it symbolizes. He doesn't. " She leaned back, closed her eyes a moment.

  "Neither of us is wrong. We just don't want the same thing. "

  "Did he say that? That he doesn't want what you want?"

  "He was angry to find me in his house," she said to Parker. "Not even angry. Worse. Annoyed. I'd been presumptuous. "

  "Oh, for God's sake," Mac muttered.

  "Well, I had presumed. I presumed he'd be pleased to see me, to have me willing to fuss over him a bit after he'd had a long, hard day. I had my copy of Truly, Madly, Deeply with me. We joked about doing a double feature so he could see why I loved it, and we'd pair it up with Die Hard . "

  "Alan Rickman. " Laurel nodded.

  "Exactly. I had sunflowers, and the planters - God they're really beautiful - and I'd nearly finished making the appetizer when he came in. I just bubbled along for a while. Let me get you some wine, why don't you relax? God! What a moron. Then it got through, loud and clear. He . . . picked up the spare keys, and put them in his pocket. "

  "That's cold," Laurel said with quiet fury. "That's fucking cold. "

  "His keys," Emma stated. "His right. So I told him what I thought, what I felt, and that I was finished trying not to want and not to feel. I told him I was in love with him. And all he could really say to that is to give him a minute to think. "

  "There's your moron. "

  Emma nearly managed a smile at Mac's disgusted tone. "I got the 'caught him off guard, wasn't expecting. ' Even the 'caught me at a bad time. ' "

  "Oh my God. "

  "That was before I told him I was in love with him, but it doesn't matter. So I ended it, and I walked out. It hurts. I think it's going to hurt a really long time. "

  "He called," Mac told her.

  "I don't want to talk to him. "

  "Figured that. He wanted to make sure you were here, that you got home. I'm not taking his side, believe me, but he sounded pretty shaken up. "

  "I don't care. I don't want to care. If I forgive him now, if I go back - settle for what he can give me - I'll lose myself. I have to get over him first. " She curled up again. "I just need to get over him. I don't want to see him or talk to him until I do. Or at least until I feel stronger. "

  "Then you won't. I'm going to reschedule your consults for tomorrow. "

  "Oh, Parker - "

  "You need a day off. "

  "To wallow?"

  "Yes. Now you need a long, hot bath, and we're going to heat up that soup. Then after your second cry - there will be another. "

  "Yeah. " Emma sighed. "There will. "

  "After that, we're going to tuck you into bed. You're going to sleep until you wake up. "

  "I'm still going to be in love with him when I wake up. "

  "Yes," Parker agreed.

  "And it's still going to hurt. "

  "Yes. "

  "But I'll be a little bit stronger. "

  "You will. "

  "I'll fix the bath. I have a formula. " Mac rose, then leaned over and kissed Emma's cheek. "We're all here. "

  "I'll take care of the soup, and I'll ask Mrs. Grady to make a batch of her fabulous french fries. I know it's a cliche. " Laurel gave Emma's leg another squeeze. "But it's a cliche for a reason. "

  "Thanks. " She closed her eyes, reached for Parker's hand when they were alone. "I knew you'd be here. "

  "Always. "

  "Oh, God. Parker. Oh, God, here comes the second one now. "

  "It's okay," Parker soothed, and rubbed Emma's back as she wept. "It's okay. "

  W HILE EMMA WEPT, JACK KNOCKED ON DEL'S DOOR. HE HAD TO do something or he'd drive over to Emma's. If she hadn't made it clear he wasn't wanted - and she had - Mac had made it double.

  Del pulled open the door. "What's up? Jesus, Jack, you look like shit. "

  "It goes with how I feel. "

  Del's brow creased. "Oh man, if you're coming over here to cry in your beer over a fight with Emma - "

  "It wasn't a fight. Not . . . just a fight. "

  Del took a harder look, stepped back. "Let's have a beer. "

  Jack shut the door behind him, then noticed Del's jacket and tie. "You're going out?"

  "I was heading that way in a while. Get the beer. I have to make a call. "

  "I should say it's no big deal, it can wait. But I'm not going to. "

  "Get the beer. I'll be out in a minute. "

  Jack got two beers and went out on the back deck. But instead of sitting he walked to the rail and stared out at the dark. He tried to remember if he'd ever felt this bad before. He decided other than waking up in the hospital with a concussion, a broken arm, and a couple of cracked ribs after a car wreck, the answer was no.

  And even then, the seriously bad had been only physical.

  No, he thought, he remembered feeling like this before, nearly exactly like this. Sick and baffled and confused. When his parents had sat him down, so civilized, to tell him they were getting a divorce. You're not to blame, they'd told him. We still love you, and always will. But . . . In that moment his world had turned upside down. So why was this worse somehow? Why was it worse to realize that Emma could and would walk away from him? Could and would, he thought, because he'd made her feel less when he should have done everything in his power to make her feel more . He heard the door open. "Thanks," he said as Del came out. "Really. "

  "I should say it's no big deal, but I'm not going to. "

  Jack managed a weak laugh. "God, Del, I fucked up. I fucked it up and I'm not even sure exactly how.

  But what I know is I hurt her. I really hurt her, so you're welcome to kick my ass as promised. But you'll have to wait until I'm finished doing it. "

  "I can wait. "

  "She said she's in love with me. "

  Del took a pull on his beer. "You're not an idiot, Jack. Are you going to stand there and tell me you didn't know?"

  "Not completely, or altogether. It's all just happened, and . . . No, I'm not an idiot, and I knew we were heading toward something. That. But then there's this leap, and I'm flat-footed. Can't keep up, can't figure out how to deal with it, or what to say, and she's so hurt, so hurt and pissed off she won't give me a chance. She hardly ever gets mad. You know how she is. She hardly ever blows, and when she does, you don't have a prayer. "

  "Why did she blow?"

  He went back for the beer, but still didn't sit. "I had a pisser of a day, Del. I'm talking the kind of day that makes hell look like Disney World. I'm filthy and pissed off and have a motherfucker of a stress headache. I pull up, and she's there. In the house. "

  "I didn't know you gave her a key. Major step for you, Cooke. "

  "I didn't. I hadn't. She got it from Michelle. "

  "Uh-oh. Infiltrated the front lines, did she?"

  Jack stopped, stared. "Is that how I am? Come on. "

  "It's exactly how you are, with women. "

  "And that makes me, what, a monster, a psycho?"

  Del hitched a hip onto the deck rail. "No, a little phobic, maybe. So?"
  "So, I'm filthy and my mood matches it, and she's there. She's made these pots for the deck. What are you laughing at?"

  "Just imagining your shock and dismay. "

  "Well, Jesus, she's cooking, and there's flowers, and the music's blasting, and my head's screaming. God, if I could rewind it, I would. I would. I'd never hurt her. "

  "I know. "

  "She's hurt and pissed because . . . I'm being a prick. No question, but instead of having a fight, maybe yelling at each other for a while, clearing the air, it turns. " Because the headache wanted to bully its way back, Jack rubbed the cold bottle over his temple. "It turns and dives south. It's how I don't trust her, and she's not welcome in my house. How she's not going to settle. She's in love with me, and she wants

  . . . "

  "What does she want?"

  "What do you think? Marriage, kids, the whole ball. I'm trying to keep up, trying to keep my head from just blasting off my shoulders and think , but she won't give me time. She won't let me deal with what she just said. She's done with me, with us. I broke her heart. She cried. She's crying. "

  Her face flashed back into his mind until he was sick with regret. "I just want her to sit down, to wait a minute, and sit down. Just until I can get my breath, until I can think. She won't. She told me to stay away from her. I'd rather she'd shot me than look at me the way she did when she told me to stay away from her. "

  "Is that it?" Del asked after a moment.

  "That's not enough?"

  "I asked you once before, and you didn't answer. I'll ask you again. Yes or no this time. Are you in love with her?"

  "Okay. " He took a long drink of beer. "Yes. I guess it took an ass-kicking to shake it out of me, but yes. I'm in love with her. But - "

  "Do you want to fix it?"

  "I just said I was in love with her. Why wouldn't I want to fix it?"

  "You want to know how?"

  "Goddamn it, Del. " He drank again. "Yes, since you're so fucking smart. How do I fix it?"

  "Crawl. "

  Jack blew out a breath. "I can do that. "

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