The Perfect Homecoming (Pine River) (4 page)

BOOK: The Perfect Homecoming (Pine River)
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Cooper looked at the figure again. No way around it—that was a
lot
of money. “I have to talk to the guys.”

“Of course, sure you do. But maybe you could talk to them today?” Carl asked, looking as hopeful as a kid waiting to open presents on Christmas morning.

Cooper sighed. This was exactly the sort of thing he despised, the sort of “service” agency he feared TA was becoming. He looked at the figure again. “I’m not promising anything.”

“No, no, of course not,” Carl said anxiously.

“I’d have to do some digging around you know, to find out where she went.”

“Sure, of course.”

Cooper looked at Carl, debating. The man looked desperate. “I’ll be in touch.”

“Great, great,” Carl said. “But do you think you could be in touch sooner rather than later?”

Dammit, how did Cooper manage to get himself into these things?

TWO

Pine River, Colorado

The first thing Emma saw each morning when she awoke at Homecoming Ranch was the snowcapped mountain peaks. Sometimes, the clouds were so heavy they stacked right on top of the mountains like cotton candy. Sometimes, the sun would begin to peek out from behind the mountains and cast a gold halo around them. Whatever the view, it was so different from what she’d known all her life, so refreshingly crisp. So
new.

Emma had not expected to be so moved by it when she’d arrived on the doorstep of the ranch she’d inherited earlier in the year. Frankly, she’d never believed she’d spend any time here. Emma’s father had left the ranch to her and her two half sisters, Libby and Madeline. But Emma’s relationship with her biological father had not been good, and she’d convinced herself that she hadn’t wanted anything to do with the ranch or the sisters she’d scarcely known about.

But sometimes, things happen. Sometimes, the last place you want to be is the place you end up.

Emma hadn’t expected to stay more than a couple of weeks when she’d shown up a few weeks before Thanksgiving. She’d just needed a place to lay low, to think about things. She’d understood that she’d have to contend with Libby and Madeline, both of whom had been at the ranch since their father had died. Emma had guessed Madeline wouldn’t like her unannounced appearance, but that Libby would be cautiously hopeful of some sisterly bond. So Emma had planned to tell them the first day that she wasn’t staying, that she was just passing through.

But Emma never said that. Because when she was driving up that bumpy road to the ranch house, she’d felt a calm settle over her. The anxiety that had built up during the last weeks in LA began to ebb, and when Emma had stepped inside the house, into the warmth and the smell of something baking, she’d been as uncertain about what she was doing at Homecoming Ranch as she had been about quitting her job and leaving LA.

And then she’d discovered the mountains.

Of course she’d seen them, had driven through them a few times. But she hadn’t actually
felt
them until she was up here, at roughly eight thousand feet above sea level. She’d felt them that first week, felt their energy reverberating in her, waking her up.

Emma had been at Homecoming Ranch for a few weeks now.

The winter was turning out to be fairly mild, and most mornings were bright and crystal clear. It made Emma feel alive and in tune with nature. It made her feel real. She could almost hear practical Madeline:
I don’t understand. Of course you’re real.

Yeah, well, Madeline hadn’t come here from LA. In LA, Emma woke to the unnatural swish of the fronds on her neighbor’s plastic palm trees scattered around his pool. And then she went to work in an industry full of plastic people and manufactured lives. She was sick of staging lavish events for toddlers’ birthdays, Mommy’s divorce, and the inexplicably pointless but popular White Parties.

The sun was a little higher in the sky this morning, which meant Emma had overslept. She rolled to the edge of her bed and hung over the side, her blond hair spilling onto the floor as she reached underneath it. Against Libby’s advice, Emma had taken this room at the far end of the upstairs hall when she’d arrived. Libby said this room was too cold, that the heater didn’t work properly. She was right about that—the propane burner had only one speed: low.

Luke Kendrick—Madeline’s fiancé, whose family had once owned this ranch—said this room had been a nursery when his brother Leo was born, but as a toddler, Leo had tried to crawl out one of the three side-by-side windows that faced the mountaintops, and his mother had been so freaked out by it that she’d turned it into a study-slash-sewing room. Apparently, no one had ever studied or sewn anything here—the shelves were empty and there were no furnishings but the cast-iron twin bed.

Emma groped around under the bed until her fingers brushed the handle of her worn bag. She pulled it out and dragged it up onto the bed with her. She’d bought the bag for her seventeenth birthday, shelling out more than five hundred dollars, which she’d earned babysitting and washing cars, for the plush leather and multiple interior pockets.

She arranged herself cross-legged; the bed creaked beneath her weight. It was a wonder she managed to sleep at all on this thing—it was at least as lumpy as the gravy Libby had made at Thanksgiving. Gravy was a food Emma didn’t understand—it served no nutritional purpose and really didn’t add much flavor to anything. She hadn’t meant to start an argument with Libby about it, but Libby had asked her what she thought of the gravy, and Emma had stated her opinion about gravy in general and Libby’s in particular, and Libby had taken exception.

That was another thing Emma didn’t get—why did people ask questions when they didn’t really want to hear the answers?

That awful gravy was another reason Emma liked this room—in here, she couldn’t smell it, or any of the other nutritionally useless food Libby made. And the room was far from her half sisters, who had taken rooms across from each other at the top of the stairs. It was far from the living and dining area, where Libby and Madeline gathered with their men at night. It was far from Los Angeles, which Emma had left behind, maybe for good (she was still mulling that over, still meandering through the options for the next phase of her life), and it was far from the rest of her family, which consisted of her mother, her stepfather, and the fair-haired, most-favored daughter, Emma’s stepsister, Laura.

The bottom line was that Homecoming Ranch was far from everything Emma didn’t want in her life anymore and, bonus, it had a view of the mountains. Beautiful, majestic mountains, their peaks as old as the earth, their ability to withstand the force of the universe unconquerable.
She
wanted to be unconquerable.

She reached for one of the many blankets on her bed and wrapped it around her shoulders, then unzipped her bag and peered inside.

There wasn’t much to see. Some underwear and hair things. A blue silk tie. A small picture of a dog, a black Lab with the obligatory red bandana around his neck. An engraved pen—
15 years of service.
A gold cuff link, a marathon medal, and two military medals still in their boxes. Did ex-military really wear those things, or did they stick them in drawers? Two tie clips; one onyx, one silver.

Emma took the items out one by one, laying them out in a row. These were her reminders of who she was, of the Emma she’d left behind in LA. These things were little pieces of her now, embedded in her aura, all traded for the bits of her soul she’d left in their place. All of them equally important to her now, and yet none of them adding up to the whole her. There were still so many pieces of her that were missing, either permanently lost or as yet unformed. So many holes in her, so many tiny parts that were ill-fitting and odd. Emma had no illusions about that—she knew what she was, how awkwardly she’d been constructed, how off-kilter she lived her life. She’d always known that beneath the pretty façade was something that wasn’t quite right. Looks truly were deceiving.

She heard the sound of women laughing drifting up through the wooden floorboards and glanced at the clock on her bedside table. It was ten after eleven and she needed to get ready for work.

She had a part-time job helping with the care of Leo Kendrick, Luke’s brother. Well
. . .
perhaps
job
was too generous of a word. She had a part-time commitment. Yes, that was it. A commitment. She’d needed
something
to do when she’d decided to stick around, and Leo had captured her heart.

Leo was chair-bound, his body twisted with Motor Neuron Disease. His regular caretaker, a nurse, was out on maternity leave. Emma wasn’t a nurse by any stretch, and Leo’s father, Bob, had been very concerned about that when Emma had casually suggested that she take care of Leo until Marisol could come back to work. “Leo needs specialized care,” he’d said gruffly. “This ain’t happy hour.”

But Emma was fairly persuasive when she wanted to be and had talked her way into spending afternoons with Leo, sandwiched in between two temporary nurses with proper credentials who came to take care of the important things, like meds and feedings and cleanings. Emma was Leo’s companion, the one who watched TV with him and rolled him out onto the deck for a taste of the sun.

Emma put her things back in the small tote bag and zipped it up. She leaned over the bed once more and shoved it underneath, pushing it to the wall. And then she made a mental note to stop in at Tag’s Outfitters and get a lock for her bag.

She didn’t want anyone to ever see these pieces of her. They were her secret, her ugly little secret.

She showered and dressed in tights and boots, and a long, boxy sweater. She pulled her hair into a messy ponytail that looked more like art, a trick she’d learned from a famous hairdresser she’d slept with. At least he’d said he was famous. It was one night; she hadn’t bothered to check it out.

When she was ready, Emma picked up her handbag and made her way downstairs. The smell of coffee that had sat too long in a pot and fried butter assaulted her olfactory nerves as she descended, causing her to wrinkle her nose. She could hear her sisters’ voices, familiar to her, but not familiar. They were the voices of women she’d never really known, of women who had appeared in her life when their father had died, forced, along with her, into an uncomfortable little family trio. Emma had known Libby briefly when they were children. Madeline? She’d never heard her name until she learned of her father’s death.

This morning there was someone else, a third woman. When Emma walked into the kitchen, she saw Danielle Boxer. Dani owned the Grizzly Lodge and Café in Pine River and apparently had become a close friend of Madeline’s, judging by how many times she showed up at the ranch each week.

“There she is!” Dani said brightly. She wore her long gray hair piled on top of her head, and a white Guayabera shirt. Emma never saw Dani wear anything but those shirts.

“Here I am,” Emma said as she walked across the kitchen, then pushed back the yellowed curtains from the window above the sink and opened it to air out the room.

Madeline was sitting at the bar, Libby busy with something in a bowl. Dani was standing next to the bar, her weight all on one hip. Behind her, in the living room, the star that Libby had put on top of the Christmas tree was at a height that made it look as if Dani were wearing it jauntily on her head.

“What’s going on?” Emma asked as she walked back to the fridge and opened it, removing a small container of nonfat Greek yogurt. She ate the same thing every day when she got up: one seventy-calorie container of nonfat Greek yogurt.

“Oh, I just came out to say hi,” Dani said cheerfully. “I feel like I’ve got a new lease on life. I hired a kid—Jacob Saddler, you know him?”

Emma had met Jacob at the fundraising 5k run Libby had put together to help buy Leo a new van. Jacob was still young enough to stare at Emma as if she were a creature from another planet.

“He’s going to work the front desk a few days a week so I can get out! Let me tell you, when Mr. Boxer was alive, I didn’t put in these long hours. I had a
life.
I had a garden and my knitting club.” Dani sighed and put her hands on her back and dipped backward. “It’s taking a toll—my back is
killing
me.”

“Oh no,” Madeline said, looking up from a pile of papers she was reading. “Maybe you should see a doctor?”

“Goodness, I don’t have time for doctors,” Dani said, but she winced as she eased down onto a stool. “They’re just going to want to cut into me. No sir, I’m not going for that. Give me a better idea.”

“Lose some weight. That would definitely help,” Emma opined. She opened a drawer and picked up a spoon. But as she closed the drawer, she realized that her remark had been met with complete silence. She looked at the other women.

All three were staring at her; Dani seemed a little stunned.

“Emma,”
Madeline said low.

“What?” Emma dipped her spoon into the yogurt. “She said to give her a better idea. A doctor would say the same thing.”

“Then let the doctor say it,” Madeline muttered darkly.

“Oh, it’s all right,” Dani said, smiling again. “Emma’s right—I could stand to lose about twenty pounds.”

“I’d say more like forty,” Emma said, and licked her spoon. “I mean, if you want to help your back.”

“Oh my
God
,” Libby said to the open window.

“Dani, I am
so sorry
,” Madeline said, her blue eyes beseeching her friend.

Dani laughed, but it sounded a little strained. “I guess no one can ever say Emma doesn’t speak her mind,” Dani said briskly.

“No,” Libby said, and glared at Emma. “Definitely no one can say that.”

“What?” Emma asked, her spoon halting midair. “She asked!”

Libby shook her head, pushed her dark, curly hair from her face. It was a nervous gesture of hers, a memory that had come back to Emma after a few days of being around Libby. As girls, there had been a period of roughly eighteen months when Emma’s mother and father had reconciled and Emma and Libby had lived together. Funny, the things you remember abo
ut childhood. Emma couldn’t remember a single thing she and Libby did together, but remembered how nervous Libby would get when their father was around, and she’d push her curls from her face.

“Come on, I want to show you the picture of my wedding gown. It’s on the computer,” Madeline said. She stood up and gestured for Dani to go ahead of her into the adjoining room. She followed behind, and as she passed Emma, she glared at her beneath her dark bangs.

Emma finished her yogurt and turned toward the sink. That’s when she noticed Libby standing there, her arms folded, her head down. “May I ask you something?” Libby asked crisply. “Have you ever been tested for Asperger’s?”

Emma laughed with surprise, but in all honesty, she’d been asked that question before. “No. Have you?” She stepped around Libby to the sink.

BOOK: The Perfect Homecoming (Pine River)
9.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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