Authors: Donna Alward
“Not really. I know your parents wanted you and Pam around for the holiday. I’m really sorry about your mom.”
Something flickered in his eyes at the mention of his mother, but he cleared it away quickly. “Yes, well, I really should have come to see her sooner. No real reason for me to stay away, is there?”
Jess wanted to shudder at the thought of him moving back to Jewell Cove. She’d come a long way but having him live in the same small community would be torture.
“Except a promise you made,” Rick pointed out, his voice hard. “It’s extenuating circumstances right now.”
Mike’s gaze flickered to Rick. “Jesus, Rick Sullivan. I didn’t even notice you there.”
Pompous ass, Jess thought, keeping her hand firmly in Rick’s.
“You always did have tunnel vision,” Rick replied calmly. “Now why don’t you get what you came for and go back home? I’m sure your family is waiting.”
Mike’s eyes hardened. “Oh, Jess and I have some catching up to do.”
“Not in this lifetime,” Jess answered. “Stay away from me, Mike.”
He turned his smile on her again. “Now, Jess, is that any way to treat an old friend?”
“You are not an old friend,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
His expression turned sharp. “That’s a bit harsh considering all we shared.” He reached out to touch her hand, but Rick pivoted a little and stopped Mike’s hand with his own.
Mike looked down at Rick’s prosthetic on his forearm and chuckled. “Really, Rick?”
“Let’s just go,” Jess whispered furiously. “Please, Rick.”
To her relief Rick let go of Mike’s arm, though he shifted a little so that his body shielded her from any contact with Mike. “What do you want?” Rick asked, looking Mike in the eye. “Are you trying to intimidate her? Scare her? What is it? Because she’s not alone this time, Mike. You think Josh messed you up? That’s a shadow compared to what I’ll do if you so much as touch her.”
“Christ, Rick. Don’t get yourself worked up. I was just saying hello.”
“No, you weren’t. You were playing games. And it stops right here.”
Mike, to Jess’s relief, backed up a step. But he wasn’t done. He addressed Jess once more. “You know, my staying away was based on you keeping your mouth shut and not spreading damned lies about me. Who’ve you been talking to, Jessy? All of Jewell Cove or just lover boy Rick?”
“Back off, Mike.” Jess lifted her chin and issued the order with more force than she’d realized she possessed.
Rick let go of her hand and she instantly missed the security of his touch. He took one small step closer to Mike. He didn’t threaten, but then he didn’t have to. His body language said it all.
Mike put his hands up, palms out in a supplicating gesture. “Jeez, easy there, tiger. You’re awfully protective.”
A quick glance around told Jess that their little conversation in the parking lot hadn’t gone unnoticed. The day clerk was watching them intently from his window. The poor guy was probably scared they’d start a brawl in the parking lot on his watch and on Thanksgiving no less.
“Go home, Mike.” Jess’s voice came out stronger than she expected.
Mike raised an eyebrow. “Really, Jess? You and this gimp? You can’t be serious.” He started laughing.
Jess couldn’t quite believe how well Rick was holding his temper. He’d always been a bit of a hothead. And he had a tendency to act first and repent later. But right now, despite the tension she knew he was feeling, he was solid as a stone, putting himself between her and Mike and refusing to rise to the bait. Even when he was called a gimp to his face.
“He’s more of a man than you’ll ever be. I know you’re in town to see your mother and that’s fine, but leave me the hell alone.”
“It’s a free country. You never know where I’ll show up.”
Those words marked Rick’s tolerance point. He reached past the zipper of Mike’s jacket to the shirt underneath and gripped it in his hand, twisting so that Mike’s chin went up, stretching him so it looked like he had a chicken neck.
“You. Will. Not. Touch. Her. You will not show up at her place. If you see her in town, you’ll cross to the other side of the street, do you hear me? And if you so much as look at her or utter one word it won’t be just me you have to deal with. It’ll be Josh, and Tom, and Bryce.”
All the charm and confidence fled from Mike’s face as it reddened with anger. “Don’t dictate to me, little man. All it’ll take is one phone call to the police and I’ll have you up for uttering threats.”
Rick gave the collar a shake. “It’s not a threat, it’s a promise. And go ahead. Call the police. Bryce is the chief now. Let’s see how he reacts when he finds out you smacked his cousin around, huh?”
He let go of Mike’s collar and took a step back, still half-blocking Jess’s body with his own.
Mike shook his shoulders in an attempt to undo the twisting that Rick had exerted on his clothing. He looked over Rick’s shoulder, staring at Jess.
“Get gone,” Rick suggested. “While you still can.”
A cruel smile crept up Mike’s face. “Don’t worry,” he said, backing up. “She’s all yours. You can have the bitch. She was never much good in bed anyway, so you’ll be a perfect match, Gimpy.”
Jess was sure that all the blood drained out of her head. She saw gray dots behind her eyes for a few seconds and felt herself weave from light-headedness. But it only lasted a moment because the next thing she knew Rick had pulled back his right arm and let it go again, his fist connecting with Mike’s nose.
Blood spurted as Mike doubled over, one hand resting on his knee while the other cradled his wounded face.
Rick turned around briefly and Jess saw barely suppressed rage on his face. “Go inside and get the ice cream,” he ordered.
Her feet wouldn’t move. She was frightened
intimidated, but most of all she didn’t want this to escalate into something bigger. Rick was a big man and Mike—well, she knew firsthand that Mike could throw a wicked punch. The last thing on her mind was her sister’s dessert. She was way more concerned about a fistfight in the middle of the G & S parking lot.
“Jess. Now. Go inside.” His voice was hard and commanding. “Mike and I have a few things to get straight.”
She met his gaze and for once she didn’t argue with him. She hurried into the store, grabbed the first carton of vanilla ice cream she saw, and paid for it without ever looking at the cashier.
“Are you all right?” a soft teenage voice asked her from behind the counter. “Do I need to call someone for you?”
She shook her head wildly. “No, it’s fine, really.” She peered through the door and saw Mike stalking off to his car again and her body relaxed a fraction. “It’s all good now. Sorry for the disturbance.”
“Receipt in the bag okay?”
It was such a mundane, ordinary question that Jess barely registered it. “Oh, yes, fine,” she stammered, distracted, then grabbed the bag and went back outside.
Rick was waiting for her. “Let’s go,” he said shortly, and stalked off toward the sidewalk.
“Wait up!” She hurried after him, totally freaked out about what had just happened. In her mind she’d wondered what it would be like to see Mike. If he’d changed, if she’d be afraid, what he’d say. If he’d ignore their past or if he’d be hostile and aggressive.
Now her body trembled wondering how it would have gone down if she’d walked to the store by herself. It was back to this now. Being afraid to be alone. And boy, did that piss her off.
He hesitated, long enough for her to catch up with him again. “Sorry,” he said, his voice tight. “I’m a little keyed up. I didn’t realize how fast I was going.”
She reached for his hand and then drew hers back as she felt wetness on her fingertips. The punch to Mike’s face had ripped his knuckles, making them bleed. “Stop,” she pleaded. “Let me look at your hand. Rick…”
“You can look at it once we’re at Sarah’s. The ice cream is melting.” He started walking again, not much slower than before.
It was a cool November day and it was a ten-minute walk at best. The ice cream would be fine. But Jess could tell that Rick wasn’t. He was agitated, full of adrenaline. Not much wonder. He’d held his cool remarkably well at first. And even when he’d stepped in, he hadn’t lost it the way Josh had that first night.
She couldn’t escape the look of Mike’s mocking face as he’d said, “You never know where I’ll show up.” He was a master of intimidation. If he wanted Jess to be looking over her shoulder, this was the perfect way. The rest of the words she didn’t care about. The insults didn’t matter. But the fear … that was his objective. And until she stopped being afraid, he would always win.
“Wait. Rick, goddammit. Wait just a minute, okay?”
She stopped, put her hands on her knees, and felt the shakes start, the aftermath of the adrenaline rush. Her breath came in short gasps and she dropped the grocery bag on the ground. It was over and she was fine. She knew that. She just needed a minute for her body to get the memo and steady out.
She heard Rick swear and then his arm came around her. “I’m sorry, Jess. I’m so wound up I don’t know what to do with myself. Take deep breaths. Maybe we both need a few minutes to get ourselves together, huh?”
She focused on breathing and let him pull her into his embrace, working on slowing her heart rate. “You gonna be all right?” he asked roughly.
Jess nodded against his shoulder. “Yeah. Delayed reaction I guess. What you did back there…”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to … I mean, I know you’ve got to be sensitive to violence, but I swear he knew how to push my buttons and…” He cursed again, and she smiled.
“It’s okay. I could see how hard you were trying.”
Rick pulled back a little and looked down into her eyes. There’d been so many emotions today but right now she looked into Rick Sullivan’s face and felt as safe and loved as she’d ever been. He pushed a bit of hair back from her face with his hurt hand. “What makes people like that, do you think?” he asked. “The Greers are normal people. I can’t imagine Mike learned that at home.”
Jess shrugged. His hand felt so good along the side of her face and she reached up and covered it with her own. “I don’t know. I wondered if he had changed, you know? Sometimes I wondered if some things had really happened or if I imagined it. But it did and he hasn’t changed and…” She shivered all over, then took a deep breath and pushed out of his arms a little, determined to be stronger. To not give Mike one more ounce of power over her.
She met Rick’s gaze. “What did you say to him? When I went inside?”
His thumb touched the corner of her mouth and he kissed her, a soft, brief kiss that was tender and healing.
“I told him that I’d already seen hell, and I’d go back there in a heartbeat if it meant protecting you from the likes of him.”
* * *
Sarah was on them the moment they went back inside the house. “What in the world took you so long? We’ve been waiting for ages!”
Jess’s temper flared. “Give it a rest, will you?” She barely had the door shut and someone was in her face. The afternoon had been stressful enough without family getting on her back about something as trivial as dessert. “Here, take your ice cream.”
Sarah’s face registered hurt and Jess felt sorry and yet there were so many emotions swirling around inside her that she wasn’t quite capable of dealing with Sarah’s feelings, too. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath as Sarah did an about-face and went to the kitchen before Jess could apologize.
“Are you going to be okay?” Rick’s voice was low and concerned. “Do you want to go?”
“I just need a minute. I forgot how chaotic it is when the whole family is together.”
“They care about you.”
She opened her eyes. “I know they do. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to me.” He smiled down at her. “I get it, more than you can imagine.”
Jess looked up at him and felt so thankful for him. Rick never pushed. He just accepted and supported. How could that be when he had his own issues? Issues he didn’t talk about, she realized. He knew more of her secrets than she knew of his. Perhaps that was why he was so accepting of her refusal to spill her guts.
Right now she was just grateful he was with her. She walked into his embrace, wrapping her arms around him and snuggling close for a few seconds. “Thanks,” she said, pulling back. “I just needed that for a few moments.”
“Anytime.” He moved his hand off her ribs and winced.
“Damn!” Jess grabbed his hand and examined his knuckles. “I forgot about your hand. Let’s get it cleaned up and get some ice.”
Rick didn’t protest; there was blood drying on his knuckles and the joints were slightly swollen. Jess led him into the kitchen, while the curious eyes of Sarah, Meggie, and Barb followed them. From the shouting coming from the den, Jess figured there’d just been a touchdown. Wordlessly she turned on the cold water and stuck Rick’s hand underneath the spray, washing off the blood.
“What happened?” Meggie was the first to break the silence and come over while the other two women stopped slicing the pie and watched. “Rick, what did you do to yourself?”
“Could you get a bag of ice, please, Mom?” Jess looked up at her mother calmly. Even though she didn’t want to tell the truth, she was starting to realize there might not be a way around it. Just not right this minute, though. She blinked away a few tears as she gently brushed Rick’s knuckles. This was his painting hand, she realized. She looked up at him. “Do you think anything’s broken?”
He shook his head. “Just bruised, I think.” He flexed his fingers a few times. “It all works. Just hurts like the devil.”
Sarah stepped forward. “There’s an ice pack in the freezer. That works better than a bag.” She opened the freezer drawer and took out a blue pouch. “This’ll wrap right around it.” She frowned. “I’ll get Josh. He should have a look at it, make sure you didn’t break anything.”
“Thanks,” Jess said, much calmer now. She took the ice pack, grabbed a dish towel, and wrapped the whole thing around Rick’s hand. “How does that feel?” she asked him.
“Better,” he said.
“Hey, didn’t someone say we were finally having pie? What’s the holdup?” Josh came out of the den before Sarah had a chance to fetch him, grumbling the whole way until he saw Rick standing with his hand wrapped up. “What’d you do to your hand?”