Bed of roses, p.7

Bed of Roses, page 7

 part  #2 of  Bride Quartet Series


Bed of Roses

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  IN HIS OFFICE ON THE SECOND FLOOR OF THE OLD TOWNHOUSE he'd remodeled, Jack refined a concept on his computer. He considered the addition to Mac's studio after-hours work, and since neither she nor Carter were in any particular hurry, he could fiddle, reimagine, and revise the overall structure and every fussy detail.

  Now that Parker wanted a second concept to include additions on both the first and second floors, he needed to revisualize not only the details and design, but the entire flow. It was smarter, in his opinion, to do it all at once, even if it did mean scrapping his original concept. He toyed with lines and flow, the play of light as part of the increased space that would remain studio. With refitting the current powder room and storage and increasing the square footage of both, he could widen the bath, add a shower - something he thought they'd appreciate down the road - give Mac the client dressing area she wanted, and double her current storage space. Carter's study on the second floor . . .

  He sat back, guzzled some water, and tried to think like an English professor. What would his wants and needs be for work space? Efficiency, and a traditional bent - it being Carter. Built-ins along the wall for books. Make that two walls.

  Breakfronts, he decided, shifting in his own U-shaped work space to try a quick hand sketch. Cabinets beneath for holding office supplies, student files.

  Nothing slick, nothing sleek. Not Carter.

  Dark wood, he thought, an Old English look. But generous windows to match the rest of the building. Angle the roof to break up the lines. A couple of skylights. Frame out this wall to form an alcove. Add interest, create a sitting area.

  A place a guy could escape to when his wife was pissed at him, or when he just wanted an afternoon nap.

  Put an atrium door here, and add a terrace - small scale. Maybe a guy wanted a brandy and cigar. It could happen.

  He paused a moment, tuned back in to the game he had on the flat-screen to his left. While his thoughts brewed in the back of his mind, he watched the Phillies strike out the Red Sox in order. That sucked.

  He turned back to the drawing. And thought: Emma.

  Cursing, he tunneled a hand through his hair. He'd been doing a damn good job of not letting her in. He was good at compartmentalizing. Work, ball game, the occasional toggle over to check other scores. Emma was in another compartment, and that one was supposed to stay shut. He didn't want to think about her. It did no good to think about her. He'd made a mistake, obviously, but it wasn't earth-shattering. He'd kissed the girl, that's all. A hell of a kiss, he thought now. Still, just one of those things, just one of those moments. A few more days to let the reverberations die down, and things could get back to normal. She wasn't the type of woman to hold it against him.

  Besides, she'd been right there with him. He scowled, guzzled more water. Yeah, damn right she had. So what was she all bent out of shape about?

  They were grown ups; they'd kissed each other. End of story.

  If she was waiting for him to apologize, she could keep waiting. She'd just have to deal with it - and him. He and Del were tight, and he was friends, good friends, with the other members of the Quartet. Added to it, with the remodeling Parker was talking about, he'd be spending more time on the estate for the next several months.

  He dragged his hand through his hair again. Okay, that being the case, they'd both have to deal with it.

  "Hell. "

  He scrubbed his hands over his face, then ordered himself to push his brain back into work. Frowning, he studied the bare bones of his design. Then narrowed his eyes.

  "Wait a minute, wait a minute. "

  If he canted the whole thing, angled it, cantilevering the study, he'd create a back patio area, partially covered. It would give them the outdoor living space they lacked, privacy, a potential little garden area or shrubbery. Emma would have ideas on that.

  It would add interest to the shape and lines of the building, and increase usable space without significantly adding on to the cost of the build.

  "You're a genius, Cooke. "

  As he began to plot it out, someone knocked on the back door.

  Mind still on the drawing, he rose to walk through the main living area of his quarters over his firm. And assuming it was Del or one of his other friends - and hoping they brought their own beer - he opened the door that led into his kitchen.

  She stood in the glimmer of porch light and smelled like moonlit meadows.

  "Emma. "

  "I want to talk to you. " She breezed right by him, tossed her hair back, pivoted. "Are you alone?"

  "Ah . . . yeah. "

  "Good. What the hell is wrong with you?"

  "Give me a context. "

  "Don't try to be funny. I'm not in the mood for funny. You go flirty on me, jumping my car, rubbing my shoulders, eating my pasta, lending me your jacket, and then - "

  "I guess I could've just waved as I passed you on the side of the road. Or let you shiver until you turned blue. And I was hungry. "

  "It's all of a piece. " She snapped it out then strode through the kitchen into his wide hallway with her hands waving in the air. "And you conveniently left out the shoulder rubbing and the 'and then. ' "

  He saw no choice but to tag after her. "You looked stressed and knotted up. You were okay with it at the time. "

  Spinning around, she narrowed those brown velvet eyes. "And then?"

  "Okay, there was an 'and then. ' You were there, I was there, so 'and then. ' It's not like I jumped you or you tried to fight me off. We just . . . " Kissed suddenly sounded too important. "Locked lips for a minute. "

  "Locked lips. Are you twelve? You kissed me. "

  "We kissed each other. "

  "You started it. "

  He smiled. "Are you twelve?"

  She made a low hissing sound that had the back of his neck prickling. "You made the move, Jack. You brought me wine, you got all cozy on the stairs, rubbing my shoulders. You kissed me. "

  "Guilty, all counts. You kissed me right back. Then you went tearing off like I'd drawn blood. "

  "Parker beeped me. I was working . You poofed. And you've stayed poofed since. "

  "Poofed? I left. You ran off like the hounds of hell were on your heels, and Whitney irritates the shit out of me. So I left. And, strangely, I have a job - just like you - and I've spent the last week working. Not poofing. Jesus, I can't believe I said poofing. " He had to drag in a breath. "Look, let's sit down. "

  "I don't want to sit down. I'm too mad to sit down. You don't just do that then walk away. "

  Since she pointed an accusatory finger at him, he pointed right back. "You walked away. "

  "That's not what I mean, and you know it. Beeper, Parker, work. " She threw her hands in the air again.

  "I didn't go anywhere. I just left because the MBB decided she had to inspect the tossing bouquet before she'd deign to toss it, and insisted it had to be right then and there. She irritates the shit out of everyone, but I didn't just leave. "

  She gave him a little shove, palm to chest. "You did. It was rude. "

  "God. Are you going to scold me now? Wait, you already are. I kissed you. I confess. You have that mouth, and I wanted it - was pretty clear about that. " His eyes sparked, storm clouds full of thunder and electric light. "You didn't scream for help so I took it. Hang me. "

  "It's not about the kiss. It is, but it isn't. It's about the why and the after that and the what. "

  He stared at her. "What?"

  "Yes! I'm entitled to some sort of reasonable answer. "

  "Where, you forgot where, so I'll insert that one. Where is the reasonable question? Find it, and I'll do what I can with a reasonable answer. Thereto. "

  She smoldered. He hadn't known a woman could actually smolder. God, it was sexy.

  "If you can't discuss this like an adult, then - "

  "Screw it. "

  If he was going to be damned for i
t once, he might as well be damned for it twice. He grabbed her, jerking her forward and up to her toes. The sound she made might have been the beginning of what, or why, but before she could finish the word he plundered her mouth. He used his teeth, one quick, impatient bite, that had her lips parting in surprise or response. He wasn't in the mood to care which, not when his tongue found hers, not when the taste of her sizzled along his senses like a wire in the blood. His hands tangled in the wild glory of her hair, tugging so her head dipped back. Stop. She meant to say it. She meant to do it. But it was like being drenched in summer. In the heat and the wet. Every sensible thought melted away as her body leaped from temper to shock to fevered response.

  When he lifted his head, said her name, she only shook her head and dragged him back. For one wild moment his hands were everywhere, inciting, igniting, until she could barely get her breath.

  "Let me - " He fumbled with the buttons of her shirt.

  "Okay. " She'd let him do pretty much anything.

  When his hand covered her racing heart, she pulled him to the floor. Smooth flesh, hard muscle, and a mouth mad with hunger. She arched under him, rolled over him. Yanked his T-shirt up and away to scrape her teeth over his chest. With a groan, he dragged her back up to ravish her mouth, her throat, with a frenzied desperation that matched the rush of hers. Half mad, he flipped her onto her back, ready to rip her clothes away. Her elbow smacked the floor with a sound like a gunshot. Stars burst in front of her eyes.

  "Oh! God!"

  "What? Emma. Shit. Fuck. I'm sorry. Let me see. "

  "No. Wait. " Dazed, tingling, and not a little stupefied, she managed to sit up. "Funny bone. Ha-ha. Oh, God," she said again.

  "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Here. " He started to rub her forearm to help with the needles and pins he imagined were stabbing her, and struggling to steady his breathing, wheezed.

  "You're laughing. "

  "No. No. I'm too overcome with lust and passion to draw a clear breath. "

  "You're laughing. " She jabbed him in the chest with the index finger of her good arm.

  "No. I'm fighting manfully not to. " Which was, he mused, likely the first time he'd done so while sporting a massive hard-on. "Is it better? Any better?" he asked, and made the mistake of looking over, and into her eyes.

  The laugh sparkled in them, like gold over brown. He lost the fight, simply collapsed and gave in to the belly laugh. "Really sorry. "

  "Why? When you showed such exquisite finesse. "

  "Yeah, that's what they all say. You're the one who headed for the floor when I've got a perfectly good couch ten feet away, and a damn fine bed up those stairs. But no, you can't control yourself long enough to let me get us to a soft surface. "

  "Only a wimp requires a soft surface for sex. "

  He shifted his gaze over with a slow, hot smile. "I ain't no wimp, sister. " He sat up. "Let's try take two. "

  "Wait. " She slapped a hand on his chest. "Mmm, nice pecs, by the way. But wait. " Lifting her still tingling arm she pushed back her hair. "Jack, what are we doing?"

  "If I have to explain it, I'm doing it wrong. "

  "No, really. I mean . . . " She glanced down at her open shirt, and the lacy white bra perkily peeking out.

  "Look at us. Look at me. "

  "Believe me, I was. Am. Want to keep doing that. You have this seriously crazy body. I just want to - "

  "Yes, I get that. Back at you, but, Jack, we can't just . . . We got off the track here. "

  "Down the track, heading for home, from my viewpoint. Give me five minutes to mesh viewpoints. One. Give me one. "

  "It would probably take under thirty seconds. But no," she added when he grinned. "Really. We can't just do this, like this. Or at all. Maybe. " Everything inside her hitched and sparked and wanted .

  "I'm not sure. We need to think, muse, mull, maybe ponder and brood. Jack, we're friends. "

  "I'm feeling pretty damn friendly. "

  Her eyes went soft as she reached out to lay her hand on his cheek. "We're friends. "

  "We are. "

  "More, we have friends who are friends. So many connections. So as much as I'd like to say 'what the hell, let's try out that couch, then the bed and maybe take round three on the floor - ' "

  "Emmaline. " His eyes were deep, dark smoke. "You're killing me. "

  "Sex isn't a kiss on the back stairs. Even a really great kiss on the back stairs. So we have to think and so on before we decide. I refuse to not be friends with you, Jack, just because right now I really want you naked. You're important. "

  He heaved a sigh. "I wish you hadn't said that. You're important. You always have been. "

  "Then let's take a little time and think this through. " She eased back and began to button her shirt.

  "You don't know how sorry I am to see you do that. "

  "Yes, I do. About as sorry as I am to do it. Don't get up," she said, and got to her feet, picked up the purse she'd dropped when he'd grabbed her. "If it's any consolation, I'm going to have a miserable night thinking about what would've happened if we hadn't stopped to think. "

  "It isn't, because I'm going to have the same. "

  "Well. " She glanced back as she headed for the door. "You started it. "

  I N THE MORNING, AFTER THE PREDICTED MISERABLE NIGHT, Emma wanted the comfort of pals and Mrs. Grady's pancakes. She bargained with herself. She could have the pals, no question, but she could only have the pancakes if she first faced the dreaded home gym. She dragged on her gear and began the resented, caffeine-deprived trudge to the main house. On the way, she veered toward Mac's studio. She could see no good reason why her friend shouldn't suffer along with her.

  Without thinking she walked right in, angled toward the kitchen. There was Mac, in cotton boxers and a tank, leaning against the counter with a wide grin and a cup of coffee. And Carter opposite her, mirroring the pose and the grin, in his tweed jacket.

  She should've knocked, Emma thought instantly. She had to remember to start knocking now that Carter lived here, too.

  Mac glanced her way, lifted her cup in casual greeting. "Hey. "

  "Sorry. "

  "Are you out of coffee again?"

  "No, I - "

  "There's plenty," Carter told her. "I made a full pot. "

  Emma gave him a sorrowful look. "I don't know why you have to marry her instead of me. "

  The tips of his ears went a little pink, but he shrugged. "Well, maybe if things don't work out . . . "

  "He thinks he's cute," Mac said dryly. "And damn it, he's right. " She stepped over, gave his tie a tug. The kiss was light and sweet, to Emma's eye. The kind of morning kiss between lovers who knew there would be time, lots of time, for deeper, hotter kisses.

  She envied the light and sweet outrageously.

  "Go to school, Professor. Enlighten young minds. "

  "That's the plan. " He picked up his briefcase, brushed his hand over Mac's bright hair. "See you tonight. Bye, Emma. "

  "Bye. "

  He opened the door, glanced back, and rapped his elbow on the jamb. "Damn it," he muttered, and closed the door behind him.

  "He does that about every third time he . . . What's with you?" Mac demanded. "You went all blushy. "

  "Nothing. " But she caught herself rubbing her own elbow and remembering. "Nothing. I just stopped by on my way over to the torture chamber. I plan on begging Mrs. G for pancakes after I've suffered. "

  "Give me two minutes to change. "

  While Mac dashed upstairs, Emma paced. There had to be a simple, subtle, sensible way to explain to Mac what had happened with Jack. What was happening with Jack. To ask her for dispensation from the no-sleeping-with-friends'-exes rule.

  Mac and Jack were friends, so that had to be a point. And more, bigger, huge, was the fact that Mac was madly and totally in love with Carter. She was getting married, for God's sake. What kind of friend would hold another friend to th
e no-exes rule when she was getting married to Mr. Adorable?

  It was just selfish and narrow-minded and mean.

  "Let's go before I change my mind. " With a hoodie flopping open over a sports bra and bike pants, Mac jogged into the kitchen. "I can feel my bis and tris beefing up. Killer arms, you are mine!"

  "Why do you have to be that way?" Emma demanded.

  "Way? What?"

  "We've been friends since we were babies . I don't know why you'd be so hard-assed about this when you don't want him. "

  "Who? Carter? Yes, I do. You didn't have any coffee this morning, did you?"

  "If I have coffee, my brain wakes up enough to find reasons not to work out. And that's not the point. "

  "Okay. Why are you mad at me?"

  "I'm not mad at you. You're the one who's mad at me. "

  "Then say you're sorry and all's forgiven. " Mac opened the door and sailed out.

  "Why should I be sorry? I stopped. " Emma slammed the door behind them.

  "Stopped what?"

  "Stopped . . . " Groaning, she pressed her fingers to her eyes. "It's caffeine deprivation. My mind's blurring. I'm starting in the middle. Or maybe the end. "

  "I demand to know why I'm mad at you so I can put some effort into it. You bitch. "

  Emma sucked in a breath, held it. "I kissed Jack. Or he kissed me. He started it. And then he poofed, so I went over there to give him a piece of my mind, and he did it again. Then I did it again. Then we were rolling around on the floor and clothes were coming off until I rapped my elbow. Really hard. And it brought me back to my senses. So I stopped and you've got no reason to be mad. "

  Mac, who'd been gaping at Emma since the first sentence, just kept gaping. "What? What?" She banged her palm on one ear, shook her head as if to shake out water. "What?"

  "I'm not saying it all again. The point is I stopped, and I said I'm sorry. "

  "To Jack?"

  "No - well, yes - but to you. I'm telling you I'm sorry. "


  "For God's sake, Mac, the rule . "

  "Okay. " Mac stopped, fisted her hands on her hips and stared off into space. "No, I'm still confused. So let's try this. " She made exaggerated wiping gestures with both hands. "There's the board, and it's all cleaned off. Let's start fresh. You and Jack - wow - one minute to absorb . . . Done. You and Jack shared a big sloppy. "

  "It wasn't sloppy. He's an excellent kisser, as you very well know. "

  "I do?"

  "And I'm not sorry for that one. Not really, because it was completely out of the blue. All right, not completely, since I got the vibes when we were under the hood. "

  "Hood? What . . . Oh, the car. God, only someone who's known you forever could interpret half of what you're saying. "

  "But I wasn't expecting him to bring me a glass of wine while I was taking a quick break, just sitting on the back stairs, minding my own business. "

  "Wine, back stairs," Mac mumbled. "MBB. The wedding. "

  "Then he gave me a shoulder rub, so I should've known, but I was going. I was going back to the reception and then we were standing there and he kissed me. Then Parker beeped me, and I had to go, and I realized what I'd done. It's not really a betrayal, not really. You have Carter. "

  "What do I have to do with this?"

  "But I didn't sleep with him, and that's the fine point of it. "

  A bird winged by, singing like a mad thing. Without sparing it a glance, Emma slapped her hands on her hips and scowled. "The kissing came as a surprise, both times. And the rolling around was just in the heat of the moment. I stopped, so I didn't - technically - break the rule, but I'm apologizing anyway. "

  "I'll happily accept your apology if you'll just tell me what the hell I have to do with this!"

  "The ex rule. "

  "The . . . Oh, the EX rule. Still confused as to my . . . Wait. You think Jack and I were . . . You think I had sex with Jack? Jack Cooke?"

  "Of course, Jack Cooke. "

  "I never had sex with Jack. "

  Emma poked her. "Yes, you did. "

  Mac poked her back. "No, I didn't, and I ought to know who I did or didn't have sex with, and Jack and I never did the deed. We never even got close to doing the deed. I have not rolled around on the floor removing clothes with Jack. "

  "But . . . " Baffled, almost weak with it, Emma dropped her arms to her side. "But when he first started coming home with Del, for vacations and holidays during college, the two of you . . . "

  "Flirted. Period. Start and stop. We never hit the sheets, or the floor, or the wall, or any other surface together in any way approaching nakedness. Clear?"

  "I always thought . . . "

  Mac quirked her eyebrows. "You could've asked. "

  "No, because, damn it, I wanted to flirt with him, and you already were, so I couldn't, and I thought what I thought. And then when it was obvious you were just friends again, the rule went into effect. I thought. "

  "You've had a thing for Jack, all this time?"

  "On and off. I channeled it into other areas, or restrained it, due to the rule. But recently it's gotten more problematic, the channeling and the restraining. God. " Emma slapped her hands over her face. "I'm an idiot. "

  "You slut. " Face stern, Mac folded her arms over her chest. "You almost had sex with a man I never had sex with. What kind of friend are you?"

  Emma hung her head as her lips twitched. "I said I was sorry. "

  "I may forgive you, but only after you tell me all - coherently and in minute detail. " Grabbing Emma's arm, Mac jogged the rest of the way to the house. "Which means after coffee, which means after workout. "

  "We could skip the workout and go straight to coffee. "

  "No, I'm pumped to pump. " Mac led the way through the side door of the main house and toward the stairs. When they reached the third floor, Laurel and Parker came out of the gym. "Em kissed Jack and they almost had sex. "

  "What?" Two voices spoke in unison.

  "I can't talk about it now. I haven't had coffee. I can't talk about it until I do, and unless there are pancakes. " Snarling with dislike, Emma stalked to the elliptical.

  "Pancakes. I'll tell Mrs. G. " Laurel dashed away.

  "Jack? Jack Cooke?" Parker said.

  Mac flexed her arms and headed to the Bowflex. "That's what I said. "

  W HEN THEY SAT IN THE BREAKFAST NOOK, AND EMMA CLUTCHED her first cup of coffee, Mac raised a hand. "Let me tell the first part, because it'll be faster and you'll still have your normal complement of brain cells at the end. So, Emma had the hots for Jack, but thought Jack and I had a thing, including sex, in the way back, so sticking to the No-Ex Rule, she suffered in silence. "

  "I didn't suffer. "

  "I'm telling this part. Then during the MBB's reception, Jack did the 'oh, you're so stressed, let me rub your shoulders,' then laid a big wet one on her. Then Parker beeped her. "

  "That's what was wrong with you. Thanks, Mrs. G. " Parker smiled at Mrs. Grady and took one of the pancakes from the platter the housekeeper set on the table.

  "So last night, after waiting over a week, she went by his place to give him the what-for. One thing led to another, and they ended up rolling around on the floor naked. "

  "Half. It wasn't even half naked. It was maybe a quarter naked," Emma calculated. "At the most. "

  "This morning she apologized to me for nearly having sex with my imaginary ex. "

  "As well she should," Mrs. Grady put in. "No friend poaches another friend's man, even if she's kicked him to the curb. "

  "It just sort of happened," Emma began and hunched under Mrs. Grady's cool stare. "I said I was sorry, and I stopped before we actually . . . "

  "That's because you're a good girl with an honest heart. Eat some of that fruit now. It's fresh. Sex is better when you're eating healthy. "

  "Yes, ma'am. " Emma stabbed a little chunk of pineapple.

  "I don't
get why you ever thought Mac had been sleeping with Jack in the first place. " Laurel dumped syrup on her pancakes. "If she had, she'd have bragged about it and talked about it until we all wanted her dead. "

  "No, I wouldn't. "

  "In the way back you would have. "

  Mac considered. "Yes, that's true. In the way back I would have. I've evolved. "

  "How hot are the hots?" Parker wanted to know.

  "Extremely. He hit high prior to the back stairs. After, he set a record. "

  Nodding, Parker ate. "He's an exceptional kisser. "

  "He really is. He . . . How do you know?" When Parker just smiled, Emma's jaw dropped. "You? You and Jack? When? How?"

  "I think it's disgusting," Mac muttered. "Yet another best pal moving on my imaginary ex. "

  "Two kisses, my first year at Yale, after we ran into each other at a party and he walked me back to the dorm. It was nice. Very nice. But as exceptional a kisser as he is, it was too much like kissing my brother. And as exceptional a kisser as I am, I believe he felt it was too much like kissing his sister. And that's how we left it. I gather that wasn't an issue for you and Jack. "

  "We're nowhere in the vicinity of brother-or sisterhood. Why didn't you ever tell us you kissed Jack?"

  "I didn't realize we were supposed to report on every man we've ever kissed. But I could make a list. "

  Emma laughed. "I bet you could. Laurel? Any Jack incidents to report?"

  "I'm feeling very annoyed and deprived that I have none. Even imaginary. It seems like he could've hit on me at least once in all this time. The bastard. How about you, Mrs. G?"

  "A very nice one under the mistletoe a few Christmases back. But being the love them and leave them type, I let him off easy so as not to break his heart. "

  "I'd say Em plans to take him down, and take him down hard. " Mac arched her eyebrows. "And that he doesn't have a prayer against the awesome power of Emmaline. "

  "I don't know. I need to think. It's complicated. He's a friend. Our friend. And he's Del's best friend. Del's your brother," she said to Parker, "and the next thing to a brother to the rest of us. And we're all friends, and business partners. Del's our lawyer, and Jack helps out when we need him. Plus he's designing the remodeling. We have all these connections, and they're all tangled up. "

  "And nothing tangles up the tangles like sex," Mac put in.

  "Exactly. What if we end up having this thing, then the thing goes south. Then we're awkward with each other, and that makes the rest of us awkward with the rest of us. We have a kind of balance, don't we?

  Sex isn't worth upsetting the balance. "

  "You wouldn't be doing it right then," Mrs. Grady commented, and shook her head. "Youth thinks too damn much. I'm going to start the wash. "

  Emma sulked over her pancakes. "She thinks I'm being an idiot, but I just don't want anyone to get hurt. "

  "Then set the ground rules going in. What you each expect from each other, and how you'll handle any complications. "

  "What kind of ground rules?"

  Parker shrugged. "That's for you to decide, Em. "

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