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Authors: T. L. Haddix

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BOOK: Cricket Cove
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Casual at first, almost as though they couldn’t believe they were acting as more than friends, the romance had built. They took things very slow, not rushing into anything. After all, they had all the time in the world, and they’d both been raised conservatively. There was no need to rush the fences, so to speak. But as time wore on, Amelia’s curiosity grew. She and Jimmy started exploring the physical side of their relationship, and that’s when things had gone south.

A few weeks after she turned nineteen, not long before Valentine’s Day, they’d been at his tiny apartment. They were both half naked, and Amelia felt certain they would go past the heavy making out they’d stopped at thus far. Her instincts had been warning her for weeks that something was wrong, that they weren’t a good fit, but she’d ignored them.

When she’d urged him to go further than they had before, he’d gotten angry with her.

“We need to stop,” he said, scrambling up from the couch. He straightened his jeans, fastening them back where she’d undone them. “Amelia, this isn’t right. We need to stop.”

Stunned, it had taken a minute for the words to penetrate. “Why do we need to stop? I don’t want to. Jimmy, I love you.”

He was shaking his head almost violently. “No, you don’t. Not the way you should. And I don’t love you.”

The words dropped into the space between them like lead. For what felt like forever, they stared at each other. Jimmy was the first to look away. He fumbled with his cigarettes and got one lit, inhaling deeply. “I’m sorry.”

“You—how long have you known?”

He had the grace to flush. “For a while now. And… I met someone. Three weeks ago. She’s different. She’s more… mature.”

All she wanted to do was get back into her bra and shirt and leave, but her arms moved so slowly she felt as though she were swimming in syrup. She cursed the bra and decided to forego it. She got the long-sleeved shirt over her head as she tried to catch her breath.

“You met someone.”

He nodded. “Cheryl. She works at the bank.”

“And she’s different.”

“Pip, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to happen, I swear to you. But we started talking and one thing led to another and… We’ve been seeing each other.”

Amelia felt like she’d been sucker punched. “You’ve been seeing each other. As in dating?”

He sighed. “And other things.”

She laughed bitterly. “You mean sex?”

His silence was her answer.

“You’ve been
fucking
some girl you met at the bank
while
you’ve been dating
me
. Were you ever going to tell me?”

“I just did.”

“Oh, well then. Okay. No harm, no foul.”

He groaned and angrily stabbed the cigarette into the ashtray. “That’s why I didn’t want to tell you. I knew you’d get overset and make a drama of the whole thing. You knew when we started this thing that it probably wasn’t permanent. She’s older. No offense, Pip, but you’re just a kid compared to her. That isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t what I want anymore.”

Amelia had heard enough. She got to her feet, praying her legs would support her. “Does Lori know?”

“Hell, no. She’d skin me alive. I’ll tell her about Cheryl after she gets used to the idea of you and me not being together.” He ran his hands over his hair, disheveling it even more than it had been. “If you could keep from telling her until I’ve had a chance to…”

“You can just go fuck yourself. Go to hell,” she hissed at him as she frantically slid her feet into her boots. “I hope Lori castrates you. Of course, given what I’ve learned here tonight, she’d have to have a fucking microscope to find your balls.”

She left and hadn’t seen Jimmy again for a few days. When he showed up at the farm two days before Valentine’s Day, Owen hadn’t wanted to let him in. Sarah had backed him down. Amelia had also not wanted him in the house, and she’d grabbed her coat.

“We can walk, and you can tell me whatever the hell it is you have to say.”

They went to the fence line and stood. Amelia waited stonily for him to speak.

He stuttered awkwardly as he started. “I should have handled things better the other night. I didn’t mean to hurt you like that.”

She stared at him, astonished. “Jimmy, what the hell did you expect would happen? I’d pat you on the back and shrug it off?”

“I should have told you about Cheryl weeks ago. I know that. I just… I do love you, Pip. You’re like another little sister to me. And we never should have started dating each other. You know that as well as I do.”

“But you didn’t tell me weeks ago. You were having sex with her, Jimmy. You were cheating on me, whether you ‘love’ me or not. I don’t know how to forgive that. I don’t want to. And at this point, I’m thinking that I probably made a lucky escape. If you’re the kind of spineless man who screws around on someone he’s known for so long, on someone he allegedly cares about? I’d be better off with a battery-operated boyfriend and a dog.”

“I just want to make things right between us,” he told her desperately. “How do I do that?”

Exasperated to the point where she was ready to hit him, she held her hands up and backed away. “You can’t. You need to go.”

“But Amelia, you’re my best friend. I need—”

“I don’t care what you need!” she shouted. “For once in my life, I don’t care what you want, I don’t care about making things right.
You
broke this, Jimmy. Not me. You’re the one who has to carry this weight. We were never friends. True friends don’t do what you did. Go find your girlfriend and cry on her shoulder. Mine’s closed.”

She stalked off, back into the house, and Owen had taken things from there. He’d gone out to the pasture and had a few words with Jimmy. Amelia learned later that he’d simply told the boy to go, to not come back without an invitation.

The phone call telling her that Jimmy had been killed came at eleven o’clock that evening. He’d been involved in a single-car, drunk-driving accident. After he’d left the farm he’d evidently gone to a seedy country bar where he’d proceeded to get plastered. No one had stopped him from driving, and he had wrapped his car around a tree not a mile from the bar.

A week after he was buried, Lori told her that Cheryl was pregnant with his child.

Amelia shut down. She stopped eating, lost interest in everything around her. It wasn’t that she’d lost the love of her life, but more that she’d been so deeply betrayed by someone she’d considered a friend. No one outside the two families had known about Cheryl, so Amelia also had to face the sympathy offered by people who hadn’t been aware of the breakup. A few times she’d spoken bluntly to tell them that while she appreciated the sentiment, Jimmy hadn’t been hers when he died.

The pity she’d faced after that revelation was worse than the sympathy, so she’d just stopped bothering to explain.

And the guilt… It had taken Archer and Emma a long time to convince her she wasn’t responsible for Jimmy’s poor decisions. That she wasn’t responsible for his death.

It took her years to be able to forgive him for the way he’d handled things. It wasn’t that he’d found someone else. She could have dealt with that. But he’d cheated on her, and he’d caused everyone more pain than was necessary by the way he’d handled things. Not only had he bungled things with her, he’d left an innocent child behind to grow up without a father.

She still ran into Cheryl occasionally in town. Her son was three and the spitting image of Jimmy.

Amelia also blamed him in part for his sister’s current predicament.

Lori had met Roger a couple of months after Jimmy’s death, when she’d still been reeling from the loss. He’d stepped in and courted her in a way that made him look like a knight in shining armor. They’d bonded over mutual loss—Roger had been orphaned a few years earlier.

If Jimmy hadn’t died, Amelia didn’t think Lori would have given Roger more than a passing glance. That was something else she was still unable to forgive him for.

The hell of it was, she knew now that Jimmy was right. She’d known it then, if she were being honest with herself—they never should have dated. She knew that she really had made a lucky escape. But knowing that didn’t ease the pain from his betrayal.

With Logan having been so nice to her face but then saying the things he’d said to Archer, the blow was like dealing with Jimmy’s duplicity all over again. Here was yet another man who was dishonest with her, telling her what she wanted to hear but believing something entirely different. And now he seemed so apologetic… she didn’t know what to think.

“What is it about me that makes it so hard for men to be honest with me? To respect me enough to tell me the truth, even if it hurts?” She sipped the wine and closed her eyes. “That’s one thing I have to say for Roger—he’s never hidden how he feels about me, not from me, at least.”

The irony that the man who represented the greatest danger to her physical well-being was the most honest man she was dealing with made her laugh through her tears.

She’d rewarmed the water three times before she was ready to get out. When she did, she didn’t bother getting into a gown but wrapped herself in the new fleece robe Rachel had gotten her for Christmas. She took her wine to the living room and started a fire in the fireplace. With the cushions from the couch piled up on the floor in front of the hearth, she sat and stared into the flames until they’d turned to glowing embers. Tears trickled down her cheeks from time to time, and she used tissues to wipe them away.

“I wish I could get rid of this misery as easily as these burn up,” she told the empty room as she wadded up a used tissue and tossed it on the embers where it promptly was incinerated.

She didn’t bother even getting up from the floor, just reached over to the couch and pulled a blanket down to cover up with. Too weary to bother with bed, she slept on the floor.

Chapter Fifteen

L
ogan couldn’t sleep. A cold front had moved in, causing the wounds in his shoulder and his hip to throb like a toothache. Rather than turn to the powerful prescription medication he’d been given, he fell back to his usual routine. He went to the twenty-four-hour diner a mile from his apartment and wrote letters.

Thanks to the cold front, which had brought the threat of dangerous ice along with it, school had been cancelled. He hadn’t fully started the new job, as the first day of the spring semester wasn’t scheduled to start for another week, but the pre-class work was ongoing.

He wrote Colin, penned quick notes to a few of his other Army buddies, and wrote a short letter to Sydney. Once those were done, he got up and refilled his coffee at the self-serve station in the middle of the restaurant. Outside, big, fat flakes of snow were starting to drift out of the sky.

Easing back into the booth, he stared at the blank page in front of him. The need to write a particular letter was riding him hard. He gave in with a sigh and picked up his pen.

December 29

Dear Amelia,

I don’t know why I’m writing this letter, as I’ll never send it. Maybe that’s why I can write it.

I’ve not even been here two months now, and all I can think about is you. No matter how much I try to distract myself, as soon as I’m not occupied with work, there you are. I’ve tried finding another woman, but I don’t want anyone else. I want you.

You’ve invaded my dreams and I don’t know how to get you out. Too often lately, the nights I can get to sleep I find myself chasing after you. I never seem to be able to catch you. It isn’t just a physical attraction, but every other way, as well. Getting involved with you would only complicate my life in ways I don’t want it to be complicated.

I swore years ago that I’d never let myself get attached to any woman emotionally. Not to the degree that I’d be in any danger of getting hurt if things went south with her. I have the feeling that if I were to let myself get close to you, I’d never be able to pull back far enough, fast enough. You make me want things I’ve spent most of my life avoiding. What I said to Archer that day in the barn, I didn’t really believe. I held those things up as a shield because without that shield, I don’t know what defenses I have against you.

You despise me now, even though we’ve declared a truce. I suppose that’s for the best, all things considered.

Yet still part of me wonders what it would be like to be with you. It would be a short relationship, as Archer would castrate me if I laid a finger on you. He’s terrified that I’ll hurt you more than I already have.

That doesn’t stop me from dreaming. You burn me alive in dreams. My temper is short because I’m not sleeping. Between the nightmares, the pain, and the wicked dreams of you, I almost feel like the walking wounded again.

And when I see you, you’ll move a certain way, laugh a certain way, and I’m flashing back to my dreams where you’re hot and naked around me. I have you in my bed, in my arms, and I’m touching you, tasting you, in ways that I’d give a million dollars to be able to do when I’m awake.

Logan had to stop writing. Just thinking about the dreams had him growing aroused. He folded the paper carefully, tucking it safely away into the back of his journal, and not a moment too soon.

One of the younger waitresses came by to check on him. “Need a top-off, hon?”

“No. I’m going to head out. Thanks for the table.”

“Anytime.” The way she looked him over as he stood and shrugged into his coat left no doubt in his mind that if he had wanted more than coffee, he could have gotten it. But the sad truth was he wasn’t interested. Not in her.

He would rather go home and dream of Amelia than take the woman up on her invitation. And he had no idea what to do about that.

Archer called the next day at lunch. “You have a minute?”

“Sure. What’s up?” Logan pushed the remnants of his sandwich aside.

“Do you have plans for dinner tonight? I need to talk to you about something.”

“Well, I was going to paint my toenails, but I guess that can wait. Everything okay?”

His brother’s pause was telling, as was the absence of a laugh. “It’s complicated. Can you be at the house around six?”

“Absolutely.”

Logan actually got there a little early. He pulled in right behind Archer, who was frowning as he got out of his truck. He waited for Logan to join him on the walk that ran beside the driveway. Logan didn’t waste time asking for answers.

“What’s wrong?”

“Rick came to see me today. Remember the problem Amelia had with the power disconnect?” Archer asked as he led the way to the front door.

“Yeah?”

“Well, that was apparently the tip of the iceberg. It’s a lot worse than we thought. Come on in. Em won’t be here for a little while still. She’s picking up Sydney. We have a few minutes, and I’d rather not tell her about this. Not just yet.” When Archer started upstairs, Logan rubbed a hand over his mouth but didn’t comment. “Come on. I have to get cleaned up. We can talk through the door.”

“Okay.” He hesitated at the foot of the stairs.

“What? I’m not going to strip in front of you.”

Logan shook his head and started climbing. “So tell me what happened. What did Rick say?”

“Pip got out from her literacy thing the other night at the library and found dead flowers in her car, along with a nasty note. Roger was parked down the street.” He pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it in the laundry bin. “She gave in and called Rick. From what he said, there have been several incidents she hasn’t told anyone about. There was a night when she got home and her porch light was off. He’d taken the bulb. He left gravel in a pile on the rug on the porch. He’s managed to get in her locked car twice now. Gave her four flats a few weeks ago. God knows what else.”

Logan paced to the window as Archer recited the list. With each occurrence, the tension across his shoulders built. He stared out across the street to the river that wound around the neighborhood, well below the road.

“And she hasn’t told anyone about this until now?”

“No. Which honestly isn’t surprising. Pip tries to protect people, you know that. I’ll be right back.” He grabbed clean clothes and went into the bathroom, shutting the door.

Logan heard the shower start up. The urge to leave, to find this Roger asshole, was riding him strong. To find him and then to tear him apart. It took all his patience to wait for Archer to come out of the bathroom, and even though he took less than five minutes, by the time the door opened Logan was pacing.

“So what the hell is Rick going to do? Arrest the son of a bitch?”

His vehemence took Archer aback. “He can’t. There’s no evidence.”

“What? You just said he left dead flowers in her car. With a note! How the hell isn’t there evidence?”

Archer’s gaze narrowed as he put clean socks on. “You’re overreacting a little bit, don’t you think?”

Logan just glared at him as he paced. “How is it you aren’t overreacting? Do you know how serious this is?”

“Yes, Logan, I know how serious this is,” Archer ground out. “That’s why I called you. I had hoped that with your background, you might have some insight as to how to help her.”

It took a concerted effort for him to calm down. “How can I help?”

Archer leaned forward and rested his arms on his knees. “I don’t know. Rick said she hadn’t told her folks about it yet. She promised she would this weekend if he hadn’t worked something out.”

“That won’t be pretty.”

“Oh, you are a master of understatement. I don’t know how I’m going to tell Emma,” Archer confessed. “And this explains why Pip let herself get so run-down. She hides a lot of the darker stuff. Emma says she has since she was a little girl.”

Logan knew there was usually a reason for that kind of behavior. “What happened to her when she was little?”

Archer studied his hands, picking at one of his fingernails. “What do you know about Sarah and Jack’s sister Kathy?”

“The one who’s in Georgia?”

“The same.”

Logan sifted through his memory. “She’s been there for a while. Eliza lived there with her, Emma and Ben went to school in the vicinity. She’s married, doesn’t have any kids.”

“She did have. More than thirty years ago, she had two. A little girl named Moira, and a baby boy. Randall Junior. Only, he wasn’t the son of Randall Senior. Who, by the way, was an abusive son of a bitch.” Archer sighed. “Anyhow, Kathy had decided she was leaving him. She was taking the kids and running away with the man she’d fallen in love with. This guy decided he needed to man up, and the day before they were supposed to leave, he confessed all to her husband.”

“Oh, shit.”

Archer nodded. “He took the man hostage, took him back to the house he shared with Kathy. Killed the kids, killed the lover. Not before he raped Kathy repeatedly in front of him, you understand. Then he killed himself. Left her alive to deal with the fallout.”

Logan felt sick to his stomach. He sat on the bed beside Archer and shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t imagine…” But he could. He flashed back to the day he’d found their father after he’d shot himself.

Archer continued. “So Kathy had issues, as you can probably imagine. She finally managed to move past some of it enough to remarry. But then when Pip was about six or eight years old, the family went to Georgia for their annual summer trek. And I guess Kathy rejected her pretty harshly. It left an impression on her. She never went back to Georgia with the family, went and stayed with Eli and his wife Amy in London instead. Emma said Pip didn’t want to cause Kathy any more grief. She reminded Kathy of Moira, and being near each other hurt them both.”

“Poor kid.”

“Yeah. Emma said it devastated her. Sarah and Owen weren’t overly fond of the idea of leaving her in Kentucky for three or four weeks every year, but she wouldn’t budge. Even that young, she didn’t give in and they had no choice but to leave her. That’s kind of what she does when she gets hurt—she just removes herself from the situation as much as she can and walls herself off until she’s dealt with it.”

Logan was well aware of that. “I know. So how do we protect her?”

“We could go beat the shit out of Roger.” The brothers exchanged a look, Archer hopeful and Logan incredulous. Archer sighed. “Or not.”

“If we do that, he’ll just take it out on his wife or Amelia, and we’ll end up in jail. No, we need to come up with something else. How well do you know this guy?”

Archer stood and walked toward the door. “Let’s head down and get food going. I know him well enough. He works maintenance for a bunch of property owners around town, landlords and the like.”

“Does he stay home or does he run the roads?” Logan asked as they reached the kitchen.

“Pip says it depends on if he’s going through a jealous spell or not. He sticks close when he’s jealous, not so much when he isn’t.” He handed Logan peppers and an onion from the fridge. “What are you thinking?”

“Maybe we should go out this evening. See if he’s home or what. If he’s following Amelia places, might be interesting to turn the tables, see what we can find out about him. You know where they live?”

“Yeah.”

The front door opened, and the sound of Sydney’s happy chatter filled the air.

Archer blew out a breath. “We’ll finish this discussion later.”

From the searching looks Emma gave them through dinner, Logan figured she knew something was going on, but with Sydney present, the conversation stayed benign.

As soon as Sydney went upstairs, though, Emma crossed her arms and stared Archer down. Logan was amused to see his baby brother squirm uncomfortably. At six- four, not much could make Archer squirm. Emma could do it with a glance.

“What?” he finally asked.

“What’s going on?”

He stood from the table with a sigh. “Can I promise to tell you all about it later?”

She walked over to him and curled her hands in his T-shirt, standing toe-to-toe with him. Eyes narrowed, she studied his face closely for a minute. “How much later?”

“Later tonight. As soon as I get home. Lo and I have to go out for a bit.”

“Out?”

It was Logan’s turn to get the piercing stare turned to him. He shrugged, feeling guilty even though they weren’t planning on doing anything wrong. “Out.”

“You aren’t planning on getting drunk, are you? Because I’m thinking about a certain incident a few months ago where my husband ended up having to use Gilly’s hangover cure. I’m not quite sure I like the idea of the two of you going out,” she told Logan. “You aren’t planning to take him to a bar, are you?”

Logan couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. A glance at Archer told him his brother would be no help, as he was grinning like a love-struck idiot. “Um, not planning on that, no. But I can’t rule it out.”

She shook her head and turned back to Archer. “You can’t go. I have plans for you later.”

Archer reached over and slapped Logan’s back when he choked, coffee having gone down the wrong way when he swallowed. “We might end up going to a bar, but I won’t be drinking. Neither will Logan. So I promise you, whatever you have in mind, I’ll be ready for it.”

“God, I don’t need to hear this,” Logan rasped. “I really don’t need to hear this.”

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