The Perfect Homecoming (Pine River) (3 page)

BOOK: The Perfect Homecoming (Pine River)
12.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“I don’t get it either,” Cooper said, walking back to where she stood. “I can’t seem to wrap my head around one wife, much less four.”

“Exactly,” Emma said. “Our planner, Gage, kept pleading with the wives to agree and finally got them to a compromise on a sit-down barbeque. He pitched it as being an under-the-stars event. You know, out in the open to accommodate all those people.”

“Sounds reasonable.”


I
thought so,” Emma said. “But then the youngest wife? The cute eighteen-year-old with the curvy figure and no kids?” she said, sketching out a woman’s figure. “She told the old lech what she wanted and that was that. He told the other wives to stuff it, they were having a dance. And they did. But with four separate cakes.”

Cooper laughed roundly. “I’m sure
that
went over well.”

“It was
the
most uncomfortable party we’ve ever thrown, and I’ve been to more than a few. You couldn’t have bulldozed through the tension in that grand ballroom. Oh, and our great idea for putting it under the stars went the way of the dodo bird, too. I had to scramble to get a venue.” She smiled and sat down on top of a table. “What about you?” she asked, kicking off one shoe, and then the other.

“We’ve never done anything like a bat mitzvah, and after today, I can promise we never will,” he said. “TA does extreme sports, not this kind of thing
. . .” He paused and smiled lopsidedly. “Unless Reggie Applebaum asks.”

Emma tossed back her head with a bright laugh. “I guess we
all
do what Reggie Applebaum asks, right? So what is the most complicated event TA has ever staged?”

Cooper had to think about it. “The Costa Rica gig ranks right up there,” he said with a nod. “Rigging a zip lin
e just to push a bunch of out-of-shape guys down it is not my idea of a good time. But the most complicated?” He leaned up against the table where she sat, his arms folded across his chest, his hip against her thigh. “You know Marnie Banks McCain, right?”

“We’ve met.” Marnie Banks was a wedding planner in town.

“She planned the wedding of Olivia Dagwood and Vincent Vittorio.”

“So
she
got that gig!” Emma exclaimed. Olivia and Vincent had been the hottest stars on the planet a couple of years ago. Every wedding planner in town had wanted that event. “CEM threw all that we had and then some at that one. How long did that marriage last, anyway? A hot minute?”

“Not even,” Cooper said with a snort. “Olivia and Vincent wanted to be married where they’d filmed a movie, in the Rockies, of all places. They wanted to hike up to the place of a scene where they’d determined they had ‘fallen in love,

” he said, making invisible quotes with his fingers. “That location is not exactly accessible, which is where we came in. And that was how the wedding from hell came to be,” he said with a shake of his head.

He told Emma how a freak thunderstorm had knocked out the only bridge across a very steep ravine and had separated a group including the bride, groom, Cooper’s partner Eli McCain, and Marnie, from the rest of the wedding party.

It sounded like an unbelievable and ludicrous weekend, complete with a bickering bride and groom and the successful rigging of snow blowers to shoot sandwiches and apples across a ravine until the stranded party could be rescued. Emma laughed with delight as Cooper entertained her with a description of shooting peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches across the ravine. “You’re lying!” she accused Cooper, playfully shoving his shoulder. “No way that happened.”

“It happened,” Cooper assured her. “It will go down as one of the most bizarre weekends of TA’s corporate life.”

“Honestly, it amazes me that no one has been hurt in all the things I’ve heard TA does,” Emma said. “How do you keep from getting hurt?”

“Oh, I’ve been hurt,” he said with a laugh. “I guess I’ve got a secret weapon.”

“What’s that?”

Cooper dug into his pants pocket, then held out his hand and opened his palm.

Emma leaned over to look at it.

“Go ahead, pick it up.”

Emma took it from his palm and examined it. It was a charm of some sort, silver and small, about the size of a nickel. The charm was scarred, the engraved image worn. “St. Christopher?” she asked, squinting at it.

“Yep. My grandfather gave it to me when I was a kid. My brother had gotten into some trouble
. . .”
Cooper waved his hand. “My brother was
always
in trouble. We were little demons, always blowing things up, always rigging our rockets onto our bikes, that sort of thing. My grandfather was the superstitious type. He gave my brother and me each a St. Christopher medal and made us promise to carry it always so we’d be protected from harm.”

“And you’ve carried it all this time?” she asked skeptically.

“I sure have. I know, surprising, isn’t it? Can’t believe I haven’t lost it.”

“So
that’s
the secret to not dying on a TA outing,” she said dubiously as she handed it back to him.

He laughed. “I don’t really believe this medal protects me. But I like the sentiment behind it, and I’m not opposed to putting a little trust into the power of positive thinking.” He returned the charm to his pocket and looked at her. “What’s
your
secret?”

The question startled Emma, and for a moment, she feared that Cooper knew about her reputation, knew what she did.

“Your secret weapon for parties like this,” he clarified.

But it was too late—Emma’s confidence had been shaken. “Oh,” she said, and laughed nervously as she slid off the table. “I always wear pointy-toed shoes in case I need to kick some ass.”

Emma stuffed her feet back into her shoes. She turned around. Cooper was standing, too; she hadn’t realized how close she was to him. But there she was, only inches from him, so close she had to tilt her head back a little to see his face. His smile drew her in like a siren call. She could see the dark gray circle around his irises. She imagined she could feel his energy, all male, potent and strong. Good God, she wanted to touch him.

Don’t touch him!
“Isn’t someone waiting for you?” she asked.

“No.” His gaze slid to her mouth. “Is someone waiting for you?”

“No one that matters,” she answered honestly to his mouth.

Cooper’s smile softened. He made no move to touch her, but his gaze lazily wandered over her hair, her face, her body. “We should get out of this room. Why don’t we go grab a drink and listen to the drunks sing a few tunes?”

“A drink,” she repeated softly.

“Or two,” he said, “depending on how bad the karaoke is.”

The low spark in his eyes was distracting. It was sexy. It was trouble. “I’m not very good in big groups. I mean, as a participant.”

“Sounds like my brother. No one would believe he’s an introvert, either, but he is.”

What did he mean by that? He thought she was an introvert?
No, Cooper, it’s far more screwed up than that.

“You can take a break, can’t you?” Cooper asked. “Reggie has taken a very keen interest in the karaoke machine. This is your opportunity to butter him up, and we both know you should never pass up an opportunity to butter up Reggie,” he said with a bit of a smile.

The rush of guilt and disgust Emma felt was because she’d already buttered up Reggie. She drew the corner of her bottom lip in between her teeth and looked at his very sensual mouth. She would like nothing better than to get a drink with Cooper, to continue this innocuous conversation, to be easy. But Cooper wasn’t like the guys she usually had drinks with, and her belly was beginning to churn.

“Come on, it will be fun,” he said.

Emma couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so attracted, so
tempted.
But this attraction was impossible for her, for all the secret reasons that, for a brief moment, she had thought he knew. What did he really want, anyway? To be friends? Please, men never wanted to be friends. So what did he want? A grope in a back room? Probably. It was always that, always physical, wasn’t it? Men always wanted to touch her body, to push it, squeeze it, knead it.

Emma suddenly moved closer, so that her body touched his, daring him to do it, to put his hands on her.
Come on, show me what you want!
she silently shouted at him.
She tilted her head back and said, “Do you
want
me to come?”

Cooper looked confused. His brows dipped as he studied her, but still, he made no move to touch her. “I’d like you to come, yes,” he said, sounding uncertain.

His response was so different than what Emma expected that she didn’t know how to react. He’d just complicated things completely by proving he was
not
like other men. He’d passed up the opportunity to grope her, to kiss her, to fill his hands with her breasts, and Emma did the only thing she could think to do in that confusing moment—she turned away from him and started for the door. “Sorry,” she said, “but I have to work.”

She walked out of the kiddie lounge and left that gorgeous man standing there.

Emma didn’t see Cooper again until the end of the evening, when almost all the guests had gone home. By then, she was in Reggie’s limousine, his wife and daughter having been sent home in another limousine. Reggie smelled of bourbon and cigars and his hand was between Emma’s thighs. He was leaning toward her when something outside caught his attention, and he rolled down the window to yell at an underling. Cooper happened to be standing on the sidewalk, waiting for his car. His gaze caught Emma’s as Reggie rolled up the window.

“Fucking morons,” Reggie said, and slid his hand up, between Emma’s legs.

“Stop it,” she said, and pushed his hand away. She looked out the window and imagined Cooper’s eyes.

ONE

One Year Later

Los Angeles, California

The day Carl Freeman’s call for help came into Thrillseekers Anonymous—something to do with his very public, level-five, megadeath divorce—Cooper and his partners decided who would manage the request with corporate sophistication: Rock-paper-scissors. Eli McCain’s rock crushed Cooper Jessup’s scissors, and as a result, Cooper had to get on the 405 on a Friday afternoon and drive to Carl’s Wilshire Boulevard office.

It would be an understatement to say that Cooper was not a happy camper when he arrived at the low-slung, nondescript office building. First of all, he hated stuff like this. TA had done a lot of lucrative stunt work for Carl’s studio and they wanted to keep doing that work for him. Which meant that occasionally, they had to do things they weren’t exactly set up or eager to do. Cooper couldn’t imagine what Carl wanted, but “divorce” and “thrillseekers” did not seem to him to go together.

Second, Cooper hated to see a grown man cry, especially over a messy marriage.

Third, he was beginning to wonder where his life was going. He was thirty-eight years old and he’d just driven through some of the nation’s worst traffic to talk to this guy about that messy marriage. This was definitely not something Cooper had thought they were signing up to do when he and his best friends had established TA. But lately, this sort of thing seemed more the norm than the exception. And if this was the norm, Cooper wasn’t sure where it left him or TA.

Carl was on the phone when his secretary showed Cooper into his office. It was done up in industrial-chic décor; even the tinsel wrapped around an iron menorah was made of chain link. Carl’s desk was glass and chrome, his chair metal. He waved Cooper in and gestured for him to sit in a similar, but much smaller, chair. Cooper was a big guy, three inches over six feet, and that chair was too small for him. He remained standing.

“Okay, listen, I need to wrap this up. I’ve got someone in my office.” Carl paused, then laughed. “No, not her. But if you have her number . . .” More laughter, and Carl clicked off, tossed the phone down on the glass desktop without a care, and threw his arms wide. “Cooper! Long time no see,” he said, as if they were old friends instead of the mere acquaintances that they were.

“No kidding,” Cooper said, extending his hand. “I think it was
Avenger
—”

“So listen,” Carl said, his entire demeanor shifting abruptly. He began to pace around his expansive office, nervously running a hand over his balding head and either ignoring or missing Cooper’s extended hand. Carl was not what one would call handsome. He was short, a little overweight, and his eyes were fairly close together. But Carl was the kind of guy who exuded power. It was in the way he carried himself, the expensive suits, the priceless watches and fast cars. Cooper knew a dozen men just like him.

Carl gave a strange little laugh. “I honestly don’t even know where to begin,” he said, his eyes darting nervously to Cooper and back to the floor. “There’s a woman who has screwed me over. A blond, gorgeous woman.”

That description fit roughly half the women in Los Angeles.

“She’s a little strange,” Carl added. “Works at Cypress Event Management. I think she’s a VP there. You’ve worked with CEM, right?”

“Yes,” Cooper said.

“Emma Tyler is her name. Know her?”

Cooper blinked. Yeah, he knew Emma Tyler. Carl was right—she was blond and gorgeous, an Elizabeth Taylor of the modern era, tall and thin with expressive green eyes that held one’s gaze a fraction of a second longer than was necessary. She had lush lips, curves in the right places, and her smile was incendiary.

After that chance meeting at the bat mitzvah about a year ago, Cooper had noticed these things about Emma from a respectable distance. In spite of being incredibly attracted to her, he hadn’t pursued her after that night, because he was fairly certain he’d gotten the brush-off. Although, frankly, he was still a little uncertain what had happened at the Beverly Hilton.

And he’d started to date Jill after that event.

Emma was very attractive, but Cooper had heard enough things about her since that night to know she wasn’t his type. Her reputation around town was not good. This, Cooper knew because his partner Eli had married Marnie Banks, and Marnie had told Cooper that Emma was not a nice person. At first, Cooper wasn’t sure what Marnie meant. He thought Emma was friendly enough, if a little too matter-of-fact. If anything, he’d thought she was a loner, an observation he’d made to Marnie.

Marnie had snorted and rolled her eyes. “If that’s what you want to call it. But she has more than a few
friends.

Cooper looked at Carl now, trying to imagine what business he’d had with Emma. A party? A birthday or anniversary event for his wife that had gone south?

“Come on, come on, you know who she is,” Carl said impatiently. “She’s got legs up to here,” he said, gesturing at his thick neck. “Small tits. Long blond hair. And she has that look, like she doesn’t give a shit.”

And green eyes with heavy lashes, Carl forgot that. But Carl was right, Emma had a way of looking right through you . . . but not until after she’d looked directly at you, luring you in with a perfect, sultry smile. “Yeah,” he said, and ran his hand over his head, feeling doubly uncomfortable now. “I know who you’re talking about.”

“Well, she has screwed me over,” Carl said irritably. “I’ve got to get it cleared up or I’m dead. You have no idea.”

“Okay,” Cooper said uncertainly. If this was nothing but a lover’s spat, he didn’t know if he could keep himself from strangling Carl for making him get on the 405.

“Can you just
. . .
just sit, please,” Carl said. At Cooper’s hesitation, Carl said,
“Please.”

Cooper suppressed a groan and relented, fitting himself on that chair as best he could. He felt ridiculous, especially when Carl suddenly pulled a chair around, and sat directly in front of Cooper, so close that their knees were almost touching.

“I’ll be honest, Cooper,” Carl said low, as if they were sharing some desperate secret. “I’m in a lot of trouble. A
lot
. I need some help.”

“I think you might have the wrong idea about TA—”

“No, no, listen. I know you guys do some things that aren’t exactly adventures,” Carl said. “You did Olivia Dagwood’s wedding, you did that big birthday bash down in Costa Rica. And what about that security thing you did for Audrey LaRue?”

This was exactly Cooper’s worry—people had gotten the wrong impression of them. “Those were things we couldn’t get out of,” Cooper said quickly. “But TA doesn’t—”

“Here’s the thing,” Carl said, clearly an expert at cutting people off before they could say no. “I’m going through a divorce. A
bad
one. You know my wife, Alicia, right? Well, she’s coming after me with both guns blazing, going after everything I have. She even wants my
boat,
” he said, and his eyes took on a sheen of panic. “She rented a big house in Malibu that I have to pay for and she bought a new car, and she sends me credit card bills each month, and she’s just shopping, shopping,
shopping
.” He paused and scrubbed his forehead a moment. “So I was trying to work things out, you know? And I
had
her, Cooper, I had her!”

Cooper didn’t know how or where Carl had her, and he didn’t care. He was very uncomfortable hearing the details of his divorce. He preferred to get his news on these touchy Hollywood subjects like everyone else—directly from
TMZ
.

“She’s out for blood. I mean, you know how women get when they catch you with your pants down.”

No, Cooper didn’t know. He’d always been faithful in his relationships. His problem was an inability to stick around for the long haul, or, as Jill had said as she’d walked out on him,
You’re a fucking commitmentphobe
. But dammit, he was faithful.

“My attorney says, give her what she wants, because if you don’t, she’s going to drag your ass into court, and the judge isn’t going to view your behavior favorably,” Carl continued, rubbing his temples now.

“I don’t know what this has to do with TA—”

“And I did, I gave her everything. And we’re at an agreement, right? But one night, a little after Halloween, she calls up and tells me she wants this medal that belonged to her grandfather. Medal of Honor, Korean War. She gave it to
me
when her mother passed, but okay, I get it, and I’ll give it to her. I know exactly where it is and I say, ‘Sure, why don’t you come over. We can have dinner. Maybe we can patch things up, Alicia. You know, for the sake of the kids.


He leaned forward, his eyes on Cooper’s. “And she said,
‘Yes
, Carl, we can,

” he said, tapping his fist against Cooper’s knee. “She said, ‘I’m going to Vegas with the girls, and when I get back Sunday, I’ll come over to get it, and we can talk. I don’t want to drag this out. But I need that medal.


“So give her the medal,” Cooper said, confused by Carl’s story.

“Well, that’s the thing—I was going to. But then it was gone.”

“You lost it?”

“I didn’t
lose
it. I know exactly where it was. It was sitting on my dresser. It was there every day, every night until
. . .”
He sighed and fell back against his chair.

“Until?” Cooper asked, still not following.

“Until Emma Tyler. She was, you know,
over.
Just a weekend thing with her, no big deal. You know how she is—she gets around.”

No way,
Cooper thought. Carl Freeman? She was with
Carl
?

“Anyway, Emma takes off before I even wake up, and honestly? We didn’t do anything but fool around a little. She had her period or something, I don’t know, she wasn’t into it and seriously, a waste of my time. But we were in my room, and it wasn’t going anywhere, and I got bored and fell asleep. The next thing I know, Alicia is standing there and she’s holding up a pair of panties. And she is
pissed,
man. She said,
‘Just give me the fucking medal, Carl
.’ But it was gone.”

“Damn, Carl,” Cooper said. “How do you live with so much drama?”

“I know, right?” Carl said, almost tearfully. “So I’m looking, I’m looking, and I figure out what happened. I was straight with Alicia,” he said, throwing up his hands. “I tell her I’ve misplaced it, that I will ask my housekeeper, Tiffany, about it, but Tiffany was on vacation, would be gone through Thanksgiving, so I couldn’t ask her right then. And Alicia gets this weird look on her face, almost like she’s happy, and she says, ‘You know what else was in that medal box, you dumb fuck? My mother’s wedding ring. My mother’s four-carat
wedding ring
!


Carl threw his hands out wide and stared at Cooper. “Get it? Alicia put that ring under the medal on purpose! She was banking on me not finding that medal and the ring she hid under it. Now she’s going to take me to court. She’s going to throw out the settlement and go for the jugular. She’s
got
me, Cooper. Emma took that medal, and Alicia’s going to clean me out.”

“So . . . just call Emma and ask for it.”

“You think I didn’t do that right away? She denied it, and then she wouldn’t take my calls. So I sent one of my guys over there, and he comes back and it’s Thanksgiving, and she’s not there, and I figure, okay, she’ll be back after Thanksgiving. So I try again. She won’t pick up the phone. I send my guy there again and he tells me she took off.”

“Took off—”

“Like
. . . fled.

“Fled!” Cooper did his best not to laugh. “That doesn’t make any sense, Carl. Why would she—”

“She’s somewhere in Colorado. She told me she inherited a ranch or something, that’s all I know. I’m willing to pay, Cooper.”

“For what?”

“For what!” Carl said loudly, perturbed. “To find her! To go and get it, what do you think?”

“No,” Cooper said instantly. “We’re not private eyes.”

“You have no idea how important this is to me, Coop. It’s worth—literally—millions of dollars.”

Cooper didn’t care if it was worth the gross national product to Carl, he wasn’t getting in the middle of this. He tried to stand, but Carl put his hand on his shoulder. “I’m begging you.”

“Just get online and find another medal like it,” Cooper said impatiently. “Buy another ring.”

“Won’t work. The medal is engraved with his name. It’s a star with this blue ribbon. And the kicker is I don’t know what that ring looked like—I never saw it. Alicia would know instantly if it was a fake. Listen, Cooper, you guys know the mountains. I just need someone to go and confront Emma and bring back that damn medal and ring—the box, the whole box. Or I’m going to end up in court and lose my shirt. Alicia has been waiting for me to do something to give her the ammo she needs to take it all, you know?”

“No, I don’t know, Carl,” Cooper said, and stood up. “I can promise you that TA doesn’t want any part of the divorce business. I’m sorry—”

“No, no wait!” Carl said, and jumped up. “I’m not asking you to get in my business, I’m just asking you to go and get it back. Pay Emma if you have to, I don’t care. Just get it.”

“No thanks,” Cooper said, and started for the door. “Listen, Carl, I’m sorry—”

“Wait!”
Carl shouted. He hurried to his desk and grabbed a pen, then began to look for paper.

Cooper watched him, feeling sorry for him in a weird guy way. No man liked the idea of a pissed-off wife; women could be lethal when they wanted to be. But that didn’t mean he was going to let TA anywhere near this.

Carl whirled around, holding up a pink Post-it. “Just one weekend. That’s it.” He handed Cooper the Post-it with the figure he was willing to pay.

Cooper blinked with surprise. He glanced up at Carl. “That’s a lot of zeroes.”

“It’s nothing compared to what I stand to lose if this goes to court, and Alicia says her attorney is going to get it on the court calendar
this month
.”

BOOK: The Perfect Homecoming (Pine River)
12.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Dark Destiny (Principatus) by Couper, Lexxie
The Perfect Mistress by Alexander, Victoria
The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters
The Maclean Groom by Kathleen Harrington
Secrets of Surrender by Madeline Hunter
Ammie, Come Home by Barbara Michaels
A Girl Named Faithful Plum by Richard Bernstein