The Perfect Homecoming (Pine River) (21 page)

BOOK: The Perfect Homecoming (Pine River)
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Emma moved back to the laundry.

“Just curious,” Leo said when she had started to fold towels once more. “When Jackson went out to LA to tell you about Grant dying, did he maybe happen to leave a tie behind? Purple with green spots? Because I really dug that tie, and he could never seem to find it once he came back.”

“Shut up, Leo,” Emma said, smiling.

She left later that afternoon when Leo asked to be taken to his room for a nap. He had to sleep with a breathing machine now, and she put that on him, and sat at the window, watching the elm tree sway against a cobalt-blue sky, dislodging thick, wet clumps of snow with each breeze.

When she was certain he was asleep, she stepped out onto the porch and inhaled deeply. The day was crisp but brilliant with light. She jogged down the steps and caught sight of Bob Kendrick salting the wheelchair ramp to keep it from icing over.

He glanced at his watch. “Leaving?” he asked, presumably because it was three thirty in the afternoon, a little earlier than her normal afternoon departure of four or five.

“Leo is napping,” she said.

“You got him into bed okay?”

Emma nodded.

“Breathing machine is on?”

“Of course.”

Bob looked at the house. “Boy is having trouble breathing and yet I’ve got to take him to this goddamn football game.”

“I’m not crazy about it either,” Emma agreed. “But I understand his desire. He can’t exist just for the sake of existing, right? There has to be some pleasure in life.”

“You think I don’t get that?” Bob asked, not unkindly. “I’d do anything to give that boy what he wants. But I don’t want to hasten
. . .”
He clenched his jaw and shook his head, and shifted his gaze away from Emma.

How difficult this must be for Bob Kendrick. Emma walked down the steps and put her hand on Bob’s arm. He wouldn’t look at her. He was looking away, toward the mountains, the crinkles in the corners of his eyes indicating a hard squint into the sunlight. “I wish more of it was in our control,” she said. “I wish I could make it better for you somehow.”

He glanced at her sidelong. “Yeah,” he said roughly. “Okay, well, I got work to do.” He stepped away and Emma’s hand fell to her side. Bob began to shake salt out of a big container over the ramp. She wondered why he would be so concerned about salting the ramp, because it wasn’t as if Leo would be going out tonight. But then it dawned her. If there were an emergency, if Bob had to carry his son to a hospital
. . .

“Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said.

“Yep,” Bob responded tightly.

Emma didn’t think twice about going by the park this afternoon. She knew the kids would be out, and she could see the snow flying before she turned into the park entrance. She smiled at the sight of them on the playground hurling snowballs at each other. Today, two other children had joined her little brood. It appeared that they had divided into teams.

Emma parked in the lot, maneuvering through the big patches of snow. She emerged carefully from the car. She donned some mittens, and began to walk across the park to her bench. The snow crunched under her boots as she walked, and the bench was covered in snow. She brushed it off and sat, wincing a little at the wet cold the snow had left behind. Just as she settled in, Quinn hit one of the boys in the side of the head with a snowball, which resulted in a shrieking wail. Emma stood up; she heard a door bang open and a moment later, the kids’ mother was hurrying across the street.

“What’d you do?”
she shouted as she rushed toward them.

Emma watched in fascination as the children gathered around the mom while she tilted the boy’s head back and examined the point of contact.

In the next moment, she was loudly ushering all the children back across the street. Two of them went obediently, but behind the mother’s back, Quinn and Brynn tried to snuff snow down each other’s shirts. That ended when the mother whirled around and smacked Quinn.

The strike startled Emma.
“Hey,”
she muttered as the mother and her kids went into the house. Quinn held her hand to the cheek her mother had slapped. That most definitely did not mesh with Emma’s fantasy family.

“Because it’s only a fantasy,” she muttered to herself. She glanced at her watch. It was four o’clock. It was cold out, and she thought of going home. But now, in the silence of the park setting, she kept hearing her conversation with Leo.

You’re not unlovable.

Maybe he was right. Maybe in some universe, Emma was not as despicable and disgusting as she felt. Was that possible? Was she kidding herself? And really, what was the point of even wondering? She had screwed it all up with Cooper. She’d been playing with a bit of fantasy there, too, she realized, and folded her arms tightly across herself. But the reality was that she’d taken the medal, she’d been caught, and she’d made a fool of herself in front of Cooper. There was no hiding it, no pretending it hadn’t happened. There was no way Leo could help her whitewash it—the damage had been done. She’d just have to renew her determination to stop acting out.

If only it were that easy. If only she could just tell herself not to do it anymore and then not
do
it.

She heard the sound of snow under someone’s foot and stood up. Probably the teen girls, she thought, and hitched her purse over her shoulder. But when she turned around, it was not teen girls striding toward her, it was Cooper Jessup.

Emma was surprised to see him and, truthfully, a little happy. But as Cooper marched toward her, she realized that he did not look happy to see her—he looked very unhappy. And then she realized where he was—in her park, her private park, at her secret bench. How did he know she was here? Emma glanced around, half expecting an entire audience to leap out and accuse her of stalking children. She took an unconscious step backward. “Cooper? What are you doing?” she asked uncertainly as he strode around the bench to where she was standing.

“Looking for you,” he said coldly. “I just have one question, Emma. What the hell is the matter with you?”

“Huh?” His presence, his question, confused her. Did he mean watching the kids? Did he think she was doing something weird here?

“You’re the worst,” he said hotly. “The absolute
worst
.”

He
did
think she was being weird about the kids, and her hackles rose. “And? So? What the hell is it to
you
what I am?”

“What the hell is it to
me
?”

“What, do you know them?” she exclaimed, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the little house across the street. “Did you meet them while you were running around town with Luke?” That had to be it—he’d met someone who had complained about her watching the kids. The teenage girls! Emma would bet her diamond necklace that Tashi, whoever she was, had said something about her.

“Meet
who
?” Cooper demanded. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I just come to watch them play, and the last time I checked, that’s not a crime!”

Cooper blinked. “I’m not talking about watching kids play,” he said, his voice full of anger. “I’m talking about
this
.” He pulled something from his coat pocket and held it out to her. She recognized the box that contained Carl’s medal.

Emma stared at the box, then pressed her fingers to her temples and tried to understand what was happening. She’d just confessed to watching kids she didn’t know, and he was talking about that damn medal
again
? “Okay! You
have
it! You can take it! Go! Fly back to Carl and deliver it on a silver tray for all I care!”

Cooper’s expression darkened. “Did you buy it in town? Did you steal it from someone? Because I sure as hell can’t figure out where you might have come across it.”

“What are you talking about?” she cried. “That is Carl’s fucking medal you wanted so badly!”

“Nope, no, it’s not, Emma,” he said, clearly exasperated with her. “Carl’s medal is
blue.
This one is
red
.”

Emma felt a surge of physical panic that almost choked her. How could she have made such a careless mistake? She reached for the box, certain he was mistaken, but Cooper jerked it out of her reach. “Uh-uh. Not until you tell me what’s going on here. Starting with who does
this
medal belong to?”

She wasn’t about to tell him that she’d taken it from a colonel she’d met in Santa Barbara one night. CEM had staged a wedding for the daughter of a very wealthy Chinese businessman, and the colonel had been at the bar of her hotel when Emma had wandered in, very late, exhausted from the day’s events. The colonel had taken one look at Emma and had sidled over, a smug smile on his face, so sure of himself and his powers of attraction. Turned out, he was what one would call “highly decorated,” with so many medals and insignia and ribbons that he’d laughed at how he could no longer keep track of them all.

Cooper was waiting for her answer. “It’s mine,” she said, staring at the box.

“Yours?” Cooper repeated hotly. “Just where did you get it? Did you do a stint in the armed forces? Did you have a soldier boyfriend?
How
, Emma? How did you get it?”

“That
. . .
that is none of your business,” she said, her voice shaking. She hoped her heart didn’t give out, pounding as hard as it was in her chest. “Look, I gave you the wrong medal.”

He snorted disdainfully. “Yeah, I kind of figured that out. I want Carl’s medal, and if you don’t want to be charged with theft, you’d better give it to me.”

Nausea rolled through Emma. She held out her palm to him. “He’s not going to charge me with stealing.”

“Like hell he won’t,” Cooper said angrily. “Did you know his mother-in-law’s wedding ring was under the medal in that box, or did you just luck into it?”

Emma’s wildly beating heart stopped beating so suddenly she couldn’t get a breath.
What
diamond ring? She never took anything of value!

“You actually look surprised. Yes, Emma, a four-carat diamond ring. If he doesn’t get it back, he’s pressing charges.”

She was going to be sick. A
diamond
?

She deserved anything Carl did to her. She deserved to be arrested and thrown in jail. She’d just never believed it would
happen.
“I have
his medal,” she said angrily. “I’ll get it. But give that one back.”

“No way,” Cooper said, and Emma watched the box disappear into his pocket. “Give me Carl’s medal first.”

“I’ll get it—”


We’ll
get it.”

“It’s up at the ranch!”

Cooper gestured grandly for her to come around the bench and walk to the car.

There was no way out of this. Cooper was clearly determined and wasn’t letting her out of his sight.
“Fine,”
she said, and started for her car.

She walked at a clip, reaching the car before him, and put her hand on the driver’s side handle to open it. But before she could, Cooper slammed his hand against the door and held it shut. He was standing very close to her, practically holding her against the car, and glared down at her with eyes so hot with anger they reminded her of smoke. “
I’ll
drive.”

“You can’t just commandeer my car!”

“I’m not commandeering your car, I am commandeering
you.
Give me the keys.”

He wasn’t kidding.
“No,”
she said, alarmed and angry at once.

“I’m serious, Emma. You’ve played me enough. I’m done with the games. Give me the goddamn keys.”

He looked
so serious, so angry! He looked as if he could strangle her right there and was working to restrain himself from doing just that. Emma reluctantly pulled her keys from her purse. She shoved them against his chest, forcing him to drop his hand from the car to catch them. But he was quick; he grabbed the keys and her elbow at the same time, and marched her around to the passenger side before she knew what was happening. He practically stuffed her inside the car, and a moment later, he was in the driver’s seat, hitting the gas as he backed out, causing her tires to squeal.

“Hey!”
she cried out with alarm. “Slow down! There’s snow on the road.”

“If you’re going to own a car like this, maybe you should learn to drive it,” he said gruffly, and sped onto the road.

Emma braced herself against the dash. “You know this is totally illegal, right? What you’re doing is called
abduction
.”

“Call Sam,” he said with a shrug. “I’m more than happy to let him sort it out.”

“Bastard,” she said angrily. “Why are you in such a big hurry, anyway?” she demanded nervously as he maneuvered her car around the main drag and onto a seldom-used road that ran along the rail tracks and bypassed town.

“Because I’d like to get on with my life, Emma. I’d like to finish this job and leave the crazy behind—meaning you. And on top of that, I don’t trust you.”

“I never said you should,” she snapped, and folded up into a tight ball, her legs crossed, her arms crossed, and sank into her seat. “I never asked for you at all.”

He said nothing to that, but she could see the bulge in his jaw from the clench of his teeth.

They hardly spoke on the way up to the ranch, Cooper driving so recklessly that Emma’s breath was snatched from her at every turn. They bounced down the road to the house, and he slowed considerably as he pulled into the drive. He hadn’t even stopped when Emma thrust the door open and bounded out, slipping and sliding on a patch of icy snow in her haste, and righting herself by grabbing onto the open car door. She ran through the dogs that had eagerly emerged to greet her, pushing their snouts out of her way and hoping they would close in on Cooper and slow him down.

BOOK: The Perfect Homecoming (Pine River)
3.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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