Treasure on Lilac Lane: A Jewell Cove Novel (5 page)

BOOK: Treasure on Lilac Lane: A Jewell Cove Novel
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“That’s not really on my radar at the moment. Maybe down the road I’ll reconsider, but I doubt it.” He stopped at a stop sign, and looked over at her again. “Being in the Marines taught me to look at things by taking them down to the lowest denominator. To keep things clear and straightforward. And the truth is that she was my mother. No one else. And that’s all there is to it.”

And his declaration drove home the point that he was now all alone. She kept quiet, knowing the last thing he’d want was her pity.

“Well, no decision has to be made right away. It’s probably better not to rush this sort of thing. Make rash decisions and all that.”

He paused, and then blew out a big breath, relieving some of the tension that had marked their conversation. He winked at her. “Hey, haven’t you heard? Rash decisions are what I’m good at.”

Jess blushed and looked away, staring out the window. It was no secret that Rick had enlisted out of the blue on his twenty-first birthday, surprising the heck out of everyone. Roberta especially had been distressed as he was her only child. But she’d been proud, too. Proud of him for serving his country. As they all were. He’d come home on leave, dressed in his uniform, looking heroic and strong and invincible.

And then he’d come back after being discharged and rented a place, which wasn’t much more than a dump, instead of moving in with his mom. And proceeded to spend the majority of his disability pay at The Rusty Fern.

This was the closest she’d been to Rick since before he’d enlisted. She swallowed. The cab of the truck suddenly felt much smaller as Jess stole glances at Rick’s strong profile out of the corner of her eye. His jawline was firmer now, more masculine, and he’d grown into his features.

Jess’s gaze lingered on his lips. That feature, however, had remained the same. It had been graduation night. She’d been eighteen and had gone to a party at Fiddler’s Beach, just down the bay from where her cousin Tom’s cottage now sat. Rick had been there, two and a half years older, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt and looking dangerous. She’d met his gaze over the flickering light of the fire and something in her had stirred. That same stirring was happening now, only she was looking at the man he’d become. He was harder, tougher, and if possible, more handsome now than he’d been back then.

“Oh, let’s just call it part of your charm,” she replied. He’d deftly changed the subject, and she got the message that he was both done talking about himself and determined to lighten the mood.

“Of course, you never make rash decisions, do you, Jess?” He raised an eyebrow.

Her cheeks heated as she blushed. Thank God he couldn’t tell what she’d just been thinking. “Me? Well, I try not to.”

“That’s right. I can see that Treasures was a well-thought-out, smart business decision guaranteed to succeed. You’re very, very careful, aren’t you? My goodness, you’re just about perfect.” A dimple threatened to pop in his cheek.

“Hey,” she corrected him. “Starting up any business is a gamble, Rick. Besides, I never said I was perfect.” She was far from it.

“Oh, come on.” He chuckled as he began a laundry list of her attributes. “You can’t do any wrong in the Cove. Successful businesswoman, church committee member, volunteer for everything, can make crafts out of bottle caps and wire. Friend to all, a real go-to girl. You really should be in line for sainthood.”

She looked over and saw his lips twitch. Damn him for being so deliberately provoking and sexy as hell at the same time. “Hey, everyone has a skill,” she returned. He grinned at her and her breath caught. They weren’t … flirting, were they? How sad was it that she was so out of practice she couldn’t tell?

“I’m not so sure about that,” he said. “I sometimes think my only skill is screwing up.”

“I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean to get … um … wounded,” she answered.

“Doesn’t mean I didn’t screw up just because it was unintentional.”

Lordy, how right he was. Jess had made her share of mistakes. And they’d been doozies. No wonder she was extra cautious now. Her slew of errors had begun when she’d fallen for the wrong man, who’d turned her life into a place of addiction and violence, while showing a sweet-as-apple-pie face to the world. It hadn’t ended until a few years later … when she’d walked into the shelter looking for help.

“Take the next right,” she said quietly, pointing at a road sign.

“Did I say something wrong?” he asked, sparing her a glance. “You got real quiet all of a sudden.”

“Not at all,” she lied. But Rick could take a hint, too. They’d both halted conversation when the subject hit a little too close for comfort.

For the next few minutes she gave him directions to the shelter. The radio played softly in the background. There was so much about him she didn’t approve of, so it made very little sense that looking at him, being this close to him, was still enough to make her pulse speed up a little bit. Their chat today shouldn’t have changed anything—and yet somehow it did.

They were turning into the parking lot next to the shelter when Jess finally asked the question she’d wanted to ask for close to ten years. “Rick, why did you leave and join the Marines? What was so bad that you had to get out of Jewell Cove, leave your mom all alone?”

He considered his answer. “It wasn’t about getting out of town. We all know someone who was touched by nine-eleven. We all remember where we were that morning and the scenes from the news. You don’t forget something like that.”

Rick looked over at her. “I knew I wanted to do something important, though I wasn’t sure what. I wanted to serve my country, Jess. To stand up for what was right. The Marines allowed me to do that. It’s just that simple.”

He’d served. And paid a high price for that service. The knowledge hung between them, unspoken, as Rick parked, turned off the ignition, and got out of the truck.

She got out, too, and shut the door, suddenly feeling a little ashamed of herself. She’d never considered Rick’s service as anything but another example of him running away from responsibility, but he was right. The conversation was pretty heavy for an afternoon drive, so she tried to lighten the mood again. “Hey, if you’d hung around, maybe we would have … you know. I thought we were sort of heading that way.” She gave a light laugh.

There was a long moment where Rick stared at her, like he had words sitting on the tip of his tongue but wouldn’t speak them. Finally he shrugged. “Naw, I doubt it. We were kids. Anyway, by the time I had my first leave, you’d hooked up with Mike Greer. What ever happened to good old Mike, anyway?”

His words slashed open old wounds that lately never seemed to heal. Wasn’t it ironic that Rick, with his alcohol issues, was the first person to bring up Mike in years? Particularly since it was Rick’s actions that had made Jess think of Mike so often in the last few months.

“We broke up and he left town,” she said hoarsely. It wasn’t quite the truth, but it wasn’t exactly a lie, either. There was just a whole lot more to the story he didn’t know. That he’d never know. Josh was the only one who knew the truth behind Mike’s rapid departure from Jewell Cove. As far as Jess knew her brother had never breathed a word of what had happened that last night to anyone, and Mike had known better than to press charges against Josh. There’d been proof of Mike’s crimes all over her body.

Rick seemed distracted as he moved to the back of the truck, struggling to untie the tarp covering the truck bed. His prosthetic hand kept slipping on the cord. Cursing under his breath, Rick tried to secure the line while untying the knot. “What? Did he not manage to measure up to Saint Jess’s standards?” he asked in a snarky tone, a direct contrast to the lighter mood they’d established.

Jess reeled back in confusion. She couldn’t keep up with his mercurial mood changes. What he’d said before in jest, now hit her like a punch in the gut. “For goodness’ sake, Rick,” she snapped. “What is with you? When you asked me to come along today, I thought we were past all this juvenile sniping at each other.” In fact, there’d been moments in the truck she’d actually felt closer to him than she’d been in years. And then he came out with something that cut her to the quick.

“Me, too.” He shook his head, abandoned the tarp, and stepped closer, close enough that her heart started banging against her ribs and her breath came in shorter gasps. “God, I don’t know. I’m sorry. I was out of line. I just … I shouldn’t have said that. I was annoyed and frustrated and hate this damn hand. And I guess sometimes being around you … it reminds me what a screwup I am.” He sighed, softly saying, “I’ve never been good enough for you, huh?”

Did he even
want
to be good enough for her? She didn’t dare ask the question; she didn’t want to know the answer. The opportunity passed, too, as the shelter coordinator came out the side door and Jess and Rick stepped apart. Jess had known Catherine Jenkins for years. She smiled at Jess now, and offered a hand to Rick. “Thank you for coming, Mr. Sullivan. We appreciate your donation.”

Jess concentrated on slowing her breathing, unsure if the rapid rise of her pulse was the result of her irritation or something very different. Something unexpected. She hid her face as she moved to untie the tarp Rick had abandoned.

“Where should I put the boxes?” Rick asked. Jess cursed him in her head for having the ability to sound so normal when her emotions were still swinging wildly.

“I’m going to open our garage, and you can stack them there. We’ll go through them later.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Jess stepped forward, determined to act like nothing had happened. “I’ll help. Many hands make light work.”

Rick sent her a pointed stare … of course she’d said “hands,” plural. Funny how everyday sayings took on an extra meaning …

Catherine smiled. “Me, too. Why don’t I get in the back and move the boxes forward for you?”

With an agility unexpected of a woman of her age, Catherine climbed over the tailgate and dusted off her hands.

Rick let down the tailgate and reached for the first box. Jess grabbed one, too—she was used to hauling around supplies and inventory for the shop, so the weight was nothing at all. For a few minutes they worked, stacking the boxes in the spotless garage that housed Catherine’s car and the yard-care equipment. With a grinding sound of dust on cardboard, Catherine slid the last box over the bed of the truck into Rick’s waiting arms. He went off to the garage, leaving Catherine to hop down and Jess to wait.

“What’s his deal?” Catherine asked quietly.

“His mom just died.”

“And the hand?”

“You noticed,” Jess acknowledged quietly. “Courtesy of a firefight, from what I gather. Not that he talks about it.”

Catherine nodded. “He’s troubled, isn’t he?”

Jess’s heart clubbed. “Yeah, he is. And I should want to help him. Except he makes me angry and very, very defensive.”

“Oh, Jess.” Catherine smiled at her warmly. “You’ve been very cautious and smart since you were here.” She put her hand on Jess’s arm. “Maybe a little too careful? He can’t take his eyes off you.” Her gaze followed Rick as he put the box down on the concrete floor of the garage.

“Me? And Rick?” Jess laughed, though the idea of Rick not taking his eyes off her did funny, delicious things to her insides. “Not in a million years. He’s too unstable. We fight too much. I know that he’d never lay a hand on me.” She knew in her heart he wouldn’t. That wasn’t the problem. “But he’s got too many issues, Cath. I’d be crazy to take that on.” She didn’t mention the alcohol. Catherine sensed a troubled soul, but Jess refused to gossip.

“Well, you could be a good friend, then. He looks like he needs one.”

Rick came back, brushing his hand on his jeans. Jess knew she wasn’t being fair to him. As she’d told Catherine, intellectually she knew Rick was nothing at all like Mike, no matter how much he drank. But that didn’t matter, she couldn’t be around him. Not without worrying and wondering. Soon Rick would have more time on his hands when he was laid off for the winter. How was he going to fill his days?

“That about does it,” he said with a smile. The physical labor had seemed to help get rid of some of his frustration. His facial muscles were much more relaxed, and his voice had lost its hostile edge.

“Thanks so much,” Catherine said. “It’ll be like Christmas here later. Some of the women show up with only the clothes on their backs.”

Rick nodded soberly. “You’re doing a good thing,” he confirmed. “If I find more, are you interested?”

“Just call in advance so I can make sure I’m here to receive it. We do try to protect our residents’ privacy.”

“Of course.”

Catherine lifted a hand. “Jess, always a pleasure to see you.”

Jess nodded. “Call when you have your next fund-raiser. I’ll lend a hand or donate items, whatever.”

“You bet.”

Jess and Rick got back in the truck, cocooned by silence once more.

 

C
HAPTER
4

The drive back to Jewell Cove was quiet. Rick kept his hands on the wheel and Jess stared out the window. She wasn’t sure what to think. This afternoon with Rick was not what she’d call quiet or even restful, but even though their conversation had been serious, there’d been a moment where she’d seen a lighter side to him that she hadn’t seen in a long time. And what he’d said about never being good enough for her had her brain buzzing. She’d had a schoolgirl crush on him years ago. She hadn’t truly thought it had gone both ways.

She sighed. It didn’t change anything, though, did it? The Rick who was sitting beside her on the bench seat of his pickup wasn’t the same guy she’d known back then. He was harder, angrier … he tried to brush it off but it was clear he had demons.

And so did she.

He finally broke the silence. “You ready for this big wedding in a few weeks?”

Right. They’d been paired up, hadn’t they? Sole attendants to the bride and groom. “I guess. Abby’s got things well in hand. She’s very good at organization. Comes from working so long with five- and six-year-olds I suppose. Must be a bit like herding cats.”

His lips tipped up a little.

BOOK: Treasure on Lilac Lane: A Jewell Cove Novel
6.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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