Bed of Roses, page 21part #2 of Bride Quartet Series
HE STARTED CRAWLING IN THE MORNING. HE HAD THE SPEECH he'd edited, revised, and expanded most of the night in his head. The trick, as far as he could tell, would be getting her to listen to him.
She'd listen, he told himself as he turned into the Brown Estate. She was Emma. No one was more kind, more open-hearted, than Emma - and wasn't that only one of the dozens of reasons he loved her?
He'd been an idiot, but she'd forgive him. She had to forgive him because . . . she was Emma. Still his stomach clutched when he saw her car parked at the main house. She hadn't gone home. He wouldn't just be facing her, he thought with genuine, back-sweating fear, but all of them. The four of them, with Mrs. Grady for backup.
They'd roast his balls.
He deserved it, no question. But, dear God, did it have to be the four of them? Fucking A.
"Strap it on, Cooke," he muttered, and got out of the truck.
As he walked to the door, he wondered if the condemned walking the last mile experienced this same feeling of doom and dull terror.
"Get a grip, get a freaking grip. They can't kill you. "
Maim possibly, verbally assault most definitely. But they couldn't kill him. He started to open the door out of habit, then realized as a persona non grata he wasn't entitled. He rang the bell.
He thought he could get around Mrs. G. She liked him - really liked him. He could throw himself on her mercy, then . . .
Parker answered. No one, he thought, absolutely no one got around Parker Brown.
"Uh," he said.
"Hello, Jack. "
"I want - need - to see Emma. To apologize for . . . everything. If I could talk to her for a few minutes and - "
Such a small word, he thought, so coolly delivered. "Parker, I just want to - "
"No, Jack. She's sleeping. "
"I can come back, or wait, or - "
"Is that all you're going to say to me? Just no?"
"No," she said again without any hint of irony or humor. "It's not all we're going to say. "
Mac and Laurel stepped up behind her. As battle plans went, he had to admit it was superior. No choice but surrender.
"Whatever you're going to say, I deserve. You want me to say I was wrong? I was wrong. That I was an idiot? I was. That - "
"I was thinking more along the lines of selfish prick," Laurel commented.
"That, too. Maybe there were reasons, maybe there were circumstances, but they don't matter. Certainly not to you. "
"They really don't. " Mac eased forward a step. "Not when you hurt the best person we know. "
"I can't fix it, I can't make up for it if you don't let me talk to her. "
"She doesn't want to talk to you. She doesn't want to see you," Parker said. "Not now. I can't say I'm sorry you're hurting, too. I can see you are, but I can't say I'm sorry for it. Not now. Now, this is about Emma, not about you. She needs time, and she needs you to leave her alone. So that's what you're going to do. "
"For how long?"
"As long as it takes. "
"Parker, if you'd just listen - "
As he stared at her, Carter started down the hall from the kitchen. Carter shot him one brief, sympathetic look, then turned around and walked back again.
So much for male solidarity.
"You can't just close the door. "
"I can, and I will. But I'll give you something first, because I love you, Jack. "
"Oh God, Parker. " Why not just roast his balls? he thought. It couldn't be more painful.
"I love you. You're not just like a brother to me, you are a brother to me. To us. So, I'll give you something. I'll forgive you eventually. "
"I'm not on board with that," Laurel told him. "I have reservations. "
"I'll forgive you," Parker continued, "and we'll be friends again. But more importantly, Emma will forgive you. She'll find a way. Until she does, until she's ready, you're going to leave her alone. You're not going to call her, or contact her, or try to see her. We're not going to tell her you came here this morning, unless she asks. We won't lie to her. "
"You can't come here, Jack. " The slightest hint of sympathy eked into Mac's voice. "If there's any problem or question with the work on the studio, we'll handle it by phone. But you can't come here until Emma's okay with it. "
"How are you supposed to know when that is?" he demanded. "Is she just going to say, 'Hey, I'm okay if Jack comes around'?"
"We'll know," Laurel said simply.
"If you care about her, you'll give her all the time she needs. I need your word. "
He dragged a hand through his hair as Parker waited. "All right. You, all of you, know her better than anyone. You say this is what she needs, okay, it's what she needs. You've got my word I'll leave her alone until . . . until. "
"And, Jack," Parker added, "you'll take that time for yourself, too. Time to think about what you really want, really need. I want your word on one more thing. "
"Want me to sign in blood?"
"A promise will do. When she's ready, I'll call you. I'll do that for you - and for her - but only if you promise to come here and talk to me before you go to her. "
"All right. I promise. Can you just get in touch once in a while, let me know how she is? What she's - "
"No. Good-bye, Jack. " Parker closed the door, quietly, in his face. On the other side of the door, Mac heaved out a breath. "It's not being disloyal to say I have to feel a little bit sorry for him. I know what it's like to be a complete jerk about this kind of thing. Having someone love you and being an ass. "
Laurel nodded. "Yeah, you do. Take a minute to feel a little bit sorry for him. " She waited, glanced at her watch. "Done?"
"Yeah, pretty much. "
"I guess I'll take a minute, too, because the guy looked rough. " Laurel glanced toward the steps. "But she's had it rougher. We should go check on her. "
"I will. I think we need to stick to routine as much as we can," Parker added. "She'll only feel worse if things get too backed up, if it affects the business. So for now, we work - and if we do get backed up or hit snags, let's try to keep her out of it until she's steadier. "
"If we need an extra hand with anything, we can ask Carter. My guy is the best. "
"Do you ever get tired of bragging about that?" Laurel asked Mac.
Mac considered. "Really don't. " She slung an arm around Laurel's shoulders. "I guess that's why I feel a little bit for Jack, and a whole lot for Emma. Love can really screw you up before you figure out how to live with it. And once you do? You wonder how the hell you ever lived without it. I think I need to go give Carter a real kick-in-the-ass kiss. I'll check back in this afternoon," Mac added as she started toward the kitchen. "Call if she needs me sooner. "
" 'Love can really screw you up before you figure out how to live with it. ' " Laurel pursed her lips. "You know, we could put that on the web page. "
"It has a ring. "
"She's right about Carter. He's the best. But that man is not coming in my kitchen when I'm working. I don't want to have to hurt him, Parker. Let me know if Em needs another shoulder, or you need a soldier on the front line of the bride wars. "
With a nod, Parker started up the steps.
U PSTAIRS, EMMA ORDERED HERSELF TO GET OUT OF BED, TO stop lying there feeling sorry for herself. Instead, she hugged a pillow close and stared at the ceiling. Her friends had drawn the curtains over the windows so the room would stay dark and quiet. They'd tucked her in like an invalid, with extra pillows, a vase of freesia on the nightstand. They'd sat with her until she'd slept.
She should be ashamed, she told herself. Ashamed of being so needy, so weak. But she could only be grateful they'd been there, they'd understood what she'd needed. But now it was another day. She needed to move on, needed to deal with reality. Broken hearts healed. Maybe the cracks were always
For many, even the scars healed and they loved again.
But how many of those people had the one who'd broken their heart so entrenched in their life that they had to see him over and over again? For how many was that person like a thread that was so woven into the tapestry of their every day that to pull it out meant everything else unraveled?
She didn't have the option of shutting Jack outside the structure of her life. Of not seeing him again, or only seeing him at specified times.
That was why office romances were so fraught with pitfalls, she decided. When they went bad, you had to face the pain every day. Nine to five, five days a week. Or you quit, you transferred, moved to another city. You escaped so you could heal and go on.
Not an option for her because . . .
Jamaica. Adele's offer.
Not just another office, another city, but another country. A completely fresh start. She could continue to do the work she loved, but be a new person. No complicated relationships, no interwoven ties. No Jack to face whenever he dropped by the house, or whenever they happened to be in the market at the same time. Invited to the same party.
No looks of sympathy from the scores of people who'd know she had those cracks on her heart. She could do good work. All those tropical flowers. A perpetual spring and summer. A little house on the beach, maybe, where she could listen to the waves every night. Alone.
She shifted when she heard the door ease open.
"I'm awake. "
"Coffee. " Parker crossed to the bed, offered the cup and saucer. "I brought it just in case. "
"Thanks. Thanks, Parker. "
"How about some breakfast?" Moving briskly now, Parker walked over to open the drapes, let in the light.
"Just not hungry. "
"Okay. " Parker sat on the side of the bed, brushed the hair back from Emma's cheek. "Did you sleep?"
"I did, actually. I guess it was an escape route, and I took it. I feel sort of musty and dull now. And stupid. I'm not suffering from some fatal disease. I don't have broken bones or internal bleeding. No one died, for God's sake. And I can't even talk myself into getting out of bed. "
"It's been less than a day. "
"You're going to tell me to give myself time. It'll get better. "
"It will. Some people say divorce can be like death. I think that's true. And I think something like this, when the love is so big, so deep, it's the same. " Parker's eyes, warm and blue, radiated sympathy.
"There has to be grief. "
"Why can't I just be mad? Why can't I just be pissed off? The son of a bitch, the bastard, whatever. Can't I skip off the grief part and just hate him? We can all go out, get drunk, and trash him?"
"Not you, Emma. If I thought you could do it, if I thought it would help, we'd blow off the day, get drunk, and start the trashing right now. "
"You would. " Finding a smile, finally, Emma sat back against the pillows and studied her friend's face.
"You know what I was lying here in my ocean of self-pity thinking right before you came in?"
"That I should take Adele's offer. I could go to Jamaica, relocate, help her launch her business. I'd be good at it. I know how to set it up, handle the reins. Or at least find the right people to handle the various reins. It would be a fresh start for me, and I could make it work. I could make it shine. "
"You could. " Rising, Parker walked to the window again, adjusted the curtains. "It's a big decision to make, especially when you're in emotional upheaval. "
"I've been asking myself how, for God's sake, how can I deal with seeing Jack all the time? Here, in town, at events. He's invited to one of our events every month or so. We all know so many of the same people, our lives are so interlinked. Even when I get to the point where I can think about him, about us, without . . . "
She had to pause, dig for control. "Without wanting to cry, how can I handle all of that? I knew it could be this way, I knew it going in, but . . . "
"But. " Parker nodded, turned back.
"So I was lying here imagining taking the offer, starting fresh, building something new. The beach, the weather, a new challenge to focus on. I considered it for about five minutes. No, probably closer to three. This is home, this is family, this is you, this is us. This is me. So I'll have to figure out how to deal with it. "
"I can be really pissed off at him for bringing you to the point you'd have considered that for even three minutes. "
"But if I'd decided it was best for me, you'd have let me go. "
"I'd have tried to talk you out of it. I'd have done spreadsheets, bullet points, graphs, charts, and many, many lists. With a DVD. "
Tears spilled over again. "I love you so much, Parker. "
Parker sat again, wrapped her arms around Emma and held tight.
"I'm going to get up, take a shower, get dressed. I'm going to start figuring out how to deal with it. "
S HE GOT THROUGH THE DAY, AND THE NEXT. SHE BUILT ARRANGEMENTS, created bouquets, met with clients. She cried, and when her mother came by to be with her, she cried some more. But she dried the tears, and got through the day.
She dealt with crises, managed to handle her team's spoken and unspoken sympathy when they dressed an event. She watched brides carrying her flowers walk to the men they loved. She lived and worked, laughed and ate, walked and talked.
Even though there was a void inside her nothing seemed to fill, she forgave him.
She came into the midweek briefing a few minutes late. "Sorry. I wanted to wait for the delivery for Friday night's event. I've got Tiffany processing, but I wanted to check the callas. We'll be using a lot of Green Goddess and I wanted to check the tone with the orchids before she started. "
She went to the sideboard, chose a Diet Pepsi. "What did I miss?"
"Nothing yet. Actually, you can start," Parker told her. "Since Friday's our biggest event this week, and the flowers just arrived. Any problems?"
"With the flowers, no. Everything came in, and looks good. The bride wanted ultracontemporary, with a touch of funk. Green calla lilies, the cymbidiums - which are very cool in a yellow-green shade - with some white Eucharist lilies to pop the colors, in a hand-tied bouquet. Her ten, yes ten, attendants will carry three hand-tied Green Goddess callas. Small bouquet of Eucharist lilies, and a hair clip of orchids for the flower girl. Rather than corsages or tussy-mussies, the MOB and MOG will each carry a single orchid. Vases for all will be on the tables at dinner and reception. "
Emma scrolled down on her laptop. "We have the Green Goddess again for the entrance urns, with horsetail bamboo, the orchids, trails of hanging amaranthus and . . . "
She tipped the top of the computer down. "I need to step out of business mode for a few minutes. First just to say I love you, and I don't know what I'd have done without all of you the past week or so. You must've gotten sick of me moping and whining at first - "
"I did. " Laurel rose her hand, waved it, and made Emma laugh. "Actually, your moping is substandard and your whining needs considerable work. I hope you'll do better in the future. "
"I can only strive. Meanwhile, I'm done. I'm okay. I have to assume, since Jack hasn't dropped by, hasn't tried to call me, or e-mail or send up a smoke signal, you warned him off. "
"Yes," Parker confirmed, "we did. "
"Thanks for that, too. I needed the time and distance to work the whole thing out and, well, level off. Since I haven't seen a sign of Del either, I'm going to assume you asked him to steer clear for a while. "
"It seemed better all around," Mac said.
"You're probably right. But the fact is we're all friends. We're family. We've got to get back to being those things. So if you've worked out an all-clear signal, you can send it. Jack and I can clear the air, if it needs to be cle
"If you're sure you're ready. "
She nodded at Parker. "Yes, I'm sure. So, moving to the foyer," she began. J ACK SLID INTO A BOOTH AT COFFEE TALK. "THANKS FOR MEETING me, Carter. "
"I feel like a spy. Like a double agent. " Carter considered his green tea. "I kind of like it. "
"So, how's she doing? What's she doing? What's going on? Anything, Carter, just anything. It's been ten days. I can't talk to her, see her, text her, e-mail her. How long am I supposed to . . . " He trailed off, frowned. "Is that me?"
"Yeah, that's you. "
"Jesus Christ, I can't stand to be around myself. " He glanced up at the waitress. "Morphine. A double. "
"Ha-ha," she said.
"Try the tea," Carter suggested.
"I'm not quite that bad. Yet. Coffee, regular. How is she, Carter?"
"She's okay. There's a lot of work right now. June is . . . It's insane, actually. She's putting in a lot of hours. They all are. And she spends a lot of time at home. One of them usually goes over, at least for a while, in the evenings. Her mother came over, and I know that was pretty emotional. Mac told me. That's the double-agent part. Emma doesn't talk about any of this with me. I'm not the enemy, exactly, but . . . "
"I get it. I haven't gone by the bookstore either because I don't think Lucia wants to see me. I feel like I should be wearing a sign. "
Caught between annoyance and misery, Jack slumped back in his seat. "Del can't go over there either.
Parker decree. God, it's not like I cheated on her or smacked her around or . . . And yes, I'm trying to justify. How can I tell her I'm sorry if I can't talk to her?"
"You can practice what you're going to say when you can say it. "
"I've been doing a lot of that. Is it like this for you, Carter?"
"Actually, I'm allowed to talk to Mac. "
"I meant - "
"I know. Yes, it's like that. She's the light. Before, you can fumble around in the dark, or manage in the dim. You don't even know it's dim because that's the way it's always been. But then, she's the light. Everything changes. "
"If the light shuts off, or worse, if you're stupid enough to shut it off yourself, it's a hell of a lot darker than it was before. "
Carter shifted forward. "I think, to get the light back, you have to give her a reason. What you say is one part, but what you do, that's the big one. I think. "
Jack nodded, then pulled out his phone when it signaled. "It's Parker. Okay. Okay. Yeah?" he said when he answered. "Is she - What? Sorry. Okay. Thanks. Parker - Okay. I'll be there. "
He closed the phone. "They opened the door. I have to go, Carter. There are things I need to - "
"Go ahead. I'll get this. "
"Thanks. God, I feel a little sick. You could wish me a whole shitload of luck. "
"A whole shitload of luck, Jack. "
"I think I'll need it. " He shoved out, strode quickly to the door. Jack arrived at the main house at exactly the time Parker specified. He didn't want to piss her off. Twilight fell softly, sweet with the perfume of flowers. His palms were sweaty. For the second time in more years than he could count, he rang the bell. She answered. The gray suit, and the smooth roll of hair at the nape of her neck told him she hadn't changed from work mode. One look at her - so neat, so fresh, so lovely, made him realize how much he'd missed her.
"Hello, Parker. "
"Come in, Jack. "
"I wondered if I'd ever hear you say that again. "
"She's ready to talk to you, so I'm ready to let you talk to her. "
"Are you and I never going to be friends again?"
She looked at him, then cupped his face, kissed him lightly. "You look terrible. That goes in your favor. "
"Before I talk to Emma, I want to tell you, it would've killed me to lose you. You, Laurel, Mac. It would've killed me. "
This time she put her arms around him, let him hold on. "Family forgives. " She gave him a squeeze before stepping back.
"What choice do we have? I'm going to give you two options, Jack, and you'll pick when you go to Emma. The first. If you don't love her - "
"Parker, I - "
"No, you don't tell me. If you don't love her, if you can't give her what she needs and wants - not just for her, but for yourself - make it a clean break. She's already forgiven you, and she'll accept it. Don't promise her what you can't give or don't want. She'd never get over that, and you'll never be happy. Second option. If you love her, if you can give her what she needs and wants - not just for her, but for yourself - I can tell you what to do, what will make the difference. "
"Then tell me. "
S HE WORKED LATE AND ALONE, AS SHE DID MOST NIGHTS NOW. That would have to stop soon, Emma thought. She missed people, conversations, movement. She was nearly ready to step outside the safety zone again. Clear the air, she decided, say what she had to say, then get back to being Emma.
She missed Emma, too, she realized.
She took the finished work to the cooler, then came back to clean her station. The knock stopped her. She knew before she walked out it would be Jack. No one was more efficient than Parker.
He held an armload of bold red dahlias - and her heart twisted.
"Hello, Jack. "
"Emma. " He let out a breath. "Emma," he said again. "I realize it's shallow. Bringing flowers to clear the way, but - "
"They're beautiful. Thank you. Come on in. "
"There's so much I want to say. "
"I need to put these in water. " She turned, went into the kitchen for a vase, a jug of the food she kept mixed, her snips. "I understand there are things you want to say, but there are things I need to say first. "
"All right. "
She began to clip the stems under water. "First, I want to apologize. "
"Don't. " Temper licked around the edges of his tone. "Don't do that. "
"I'm going to apologize for the way I acted, for what I said. First, because when I got over myself I realized you were exhausted, upset, not feeling well, and I had - very deliberately - crossed a line. "
"I don't want a damn apology. "
"You're getting one, so deal with it. I was angry because you didn't give me what I wanted. " She arranged the flowers, stem by stem. "I should've respected your boundaries; I didn't. You were unkind, so that's on you, but I pushed. That's on me. But the biggest issue here is we promised each other we'd stay friends, and I didn't keep that promise. I broke my word, and I'm sorry. "
She looked at him now. "I'm so sorry for that, Jack. "
"Fine. Are you done?"
"Not quite. I'm still your friend. I just needed some time to get back to that. It's important to me that we're still friends. "
"Emma. " He started to lay his hand on hers on the counter, but she slid it away, fussed with the flowers.
"These really are beautiful. Where'd you get them?"
"Your wholesaler. I called and begged, and told them they were for you. "
She smiled, but kept her hand out of reach. "There. How can we not be friends when you'd think to do something like that? I don't want any hard feelings between us. We still care about each other. We'll just put the rest behind us. "
"That's what you want?"
"Yes, it's what I want. "
"Okay then. I guess we get to talk about what I want now. Let's take a walk. I want some air to start with. "
"Sure. " Proud of herself, she put away her snips, her jug.
The minute they stepped outside, she put her hands in her pockets. She could do this, she thought. She was doing it, and doing it well. But she couldn't if he touched her. She wasn't ready for that, not yet.
"That night," he began, "I was exhausted and pissed off, and all the rest. But you weren't wrong in the things you said. I didn't realize it, about myself. Not really. That I put those shields up or restrictions on. I've thought about that since, a
"They were your parents. Of course it bothered you. "
"I never got over the divorce. "
"Oh, Jack. "
"Another cliche, but there it is. I was a kid, and oblivious, then suddenly . . . They loved each other once, were happy. Then they didn't and they weren't. "
"It's never that easy, that cut and dried. "
"That's logic and reason. It's not what I felt. It's come home to me recently that they were able to behave civilly, able to make good, happy lives separately without waging war or making me a casualty. And I took that and turned it on its head. Don't make promises, don't build a future because feelings can change and they can end. "
"They can. You're not wrong, but - "
"But," he interrupted. "Let me say it. Let me say it to you. But if you can't trust yourself and your own feelings, and you can't take a chance on that, what's the damn point? It's a leap, and I figure if you take that leap, if you say this is it, you have to mean it. You'd better be sure because it's not just you. It's not just for now. You have to believe to make the leap. "
"You're right. I understand better now why things . . . Well, why. "
"Maybe we both do. I'm sorry I made you feel unwelcome. Sorry you now feel you crossed a line by trying to do something for me. Something I should've appreciated. Do appreciate," he corrected. "I've been watering the planters. "
"That's good. "
"You were . . . God, I've missed you so much. I can't think of all the things I've worked out to say, practiced saying. I can't think because I'm looking at you, Emma. You were right. I didn't value you enough. Give me another chance. Please, give me another chance. "
"Jack, we can't go back and - "
"Not back, forward. " He took her arm then, shifted so they were face-to-face. "Forward. Emma, have some pity. Give me another chance. I don't want anyone but you. I need your . . . light," he said remembering Carter's word. "I need your heart and your laugh. Your body, your brain. Don't shut me out, Emma. "
"Starting from here, when we both want - both need - different things . . . It wouldn't be right for either of us. I can't do it. "
When her eyes filled, he drew her in.
"Let me do it. Let me take the leap. Emma, because with you, I believe. With you, it's not just now. It's tomorrow and whatever comes with it. I love you. I love you. "
When the first tear spilled, he moved with her. "I love you. I'm so in love with you that I didn't see it. I couldn't see it because it's everything. You're everything. Stay with me, Emma, be with me. "
"I am with you. I want . . . What are you doing?"
"I'm dancing with you. " He brought the hand he held to his lips. "In the garden, in the moonlight. "
Her heart shuddered, swelled. And all the cracks filled. "Jack. "
"And I'm telling you I love you. I'm asking you to make a life with me. " He kissed her while they circled, swayed. "I'm asking you to give me what I need, what I want even though it took me too much time to figure it out. I'm asking you to marry me. "
"Marry me. " The leap was so easy, the landing smooth and right. "Live with me. Wake up with me, plant flowers for me that you'll probably have to remind me to water. We'll make plans, and change them as we go. We'll make a future. I'll give you everything I've got, and if you need more, I'll find it and give it to you. "
She heard her own words come back to her in the perfumed air, under the moonlight while the man she loved turned her in a waltz.
"I think you just did. You just gave me a dream. "
"Say yes. "
"How well do you know me?"
Smiling, she blinked away tears. "Pretty well. "
"Would I ask you to marry me if I wasn't sure?"
"No. No, you wouldn't. How well do you know me, Jack?"
"Pretty well. "
She brought her lips to his, lingered through the joy. "Then you know my answer. "
ON THE THIRD FLOOR TERRACE, THE THREE WOMEN STOOD watching, their arms around each other's waists. Behind them, Mrs. Grady sighed.
When Mac sniffled, Parker reached in her pocket for a pack of tissues. She handed one to Mac, to Laurel, to Mrs. Grady, then took one for herself.
"It's beautiful," Mac managed. "They're beautiful. Look at the light, the silver cast to the light, and the shadows of the flowers, the gleam of them, and the silhouette Emma and Jack make. "
"You're thinking in pictures. " Laurel wiped her eyes. "That's serious romance there. "
"Not just pictures. Moments. That's Emma's moment. Her blue butterfly. We probably shouldn't be watching. If they see us, it'll spoil it. "
"They can't see anything but each other. " Parker took Mac's hand, then Laurel's, and smiled when she felt Mrs. Grady's rest on her shoulder.
The moment was just as it should be.
So they watched as Emma danced in the soft June night, in the moonlight, in the garden, with the man she loved.
NORA ROBERTS SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Vision in WhiteThe Next AlwaysBorn in FireDance Upon the AirJewels of the SunThe WitnessKey of LightBlue Dahlia
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