Breathe. Emily had to remind herself of that basic life system every few seconds. If she’d had more guts, she would’ve gotten up and walked out ten minutes into the movie when the guy shot a hole through someone’s head. After an hour and a half of trying to anticipate and deflect the death scenes, her nerves were permanently frayed. She’d seen enough blood and hate for a lifetime. How Jeremy thought this was anything but horrible to watch, she had no idea.
“Oh, please Holy Spirit,” she prayed without making a sound as her eyelids fell to close out the horror streaming at her from the screen, “Please let this be over already. I can’t take any more.”
“Oh, man. Did you see that?” Jeremy munched on the popcorn, a big, stupid grin spread on his face.
Emily ducked her forehead into her fingers. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…” She sang without singing, fighting to find something else to concentrate on.
Like a bomb exploding, the volume increased until the sound was ricocheting off the walls. It wrapped around her, suffocating the breath from her lungs. Only a couple other times in her life could she remember wanting so badly to be somewhere else. That thought pulled other worse ones with it, and she beat them back with her eyelids and breathing.
“God, please! I’m asking here.” She shifted in her seat, wishing with everything she had that the exit routes to either side of her weren’t blocked by legs and people. “Five, ten, fifteen, twenty…” The numbers flashed by. Three times to a hundred, and she made herself slow them down. “Five. Breathe. Ten. Breathe. Fifteen…”
And then, her absolutely grateful spirit nearly burst forth with a Hallelujah when the credits mercifully started rolling. She had always liked the credits for some strange reason. Seldom did she leave before they were over, but this time the second Jeremy stood, she was right on his heels, her purse slung over her shoulder.
Three teenage boys just behind them were recounting the action, and desperate to get away from them, she shadowed Jeremy to the point that she almost stepped on his sneaker. Obviously thinking the move was something other than a frantic attempt to get out, Jeremy reached down between them and took her hand. With an unmistakable air of self-satisfaction, he smiled back at her. “That was good, huh?”
What she said, she didn’t really know. In fact, for all her understanding she wasn’t totally sure she even acknowledged his question. Get out was the only thing her brain could concentrate on. Down the steps. Down the steps. Wait. Breathe. She closed her eyes to keep her galloping angst in check.
When they were finally on the ground floor, she turned like an escaping convict for the door. It was all she could do to keep herself from pushing through the crowd. Once she made it to the lobby walkway, her breathing slowed, and she took one long breath to steady herself.
Jeremy hadn’t let go of her hand, and she wasn’t at all sure that was a good thing. What was she thinking going out with him again? It was clear this would never work. They were like night and day, dark and light, up and down. And there seemed no meeting point in between.
She followed him to the car, hoping he felt how pathetically awful this whole date idea had been. At least then she wouldn’t have to be the one to put those words into the gap between them. At his car, she climbed in. Mercifully he let her go so he could get in on the other side.
“You want to grab something to eat on the way back?” he asked, looking over at her before starting the car.
How he could even ask that was beyond her. She wound her arms over her stomach and fought to smile as she shook her head. “I’d better get home.”
“Oh, okay.” Disappointed. He actually sounded disappointed.
Why? The question worked through her overtired brain. He couldn’t be hungry, and there was no way he wanted to prolong this disaster. Her gaze slid out to the lights flashing by her window. If she could just get home, get to her room, and find a way to erase this whole fiasco from her memory, everything would be fine.
Jeremy glanced over at her. For someone who said the movie was good, she sure wasn’t talking much. In fact, she wasn’t talking at all. Truth be told, he wasn’t all that impressed with the movie—too much gore for him. But what did he know? He wasn’t an official movie critic. “I wonder what Eric and Becca are doing tonight.”
She never looked his direction. “They were going to his folks’ place. It was his dad’s birthday.”
That surprised Jeremy. He hadn’t thought to ask Eric what they were doing, and Eric had never mentioned their plans. “I’m glad that’s working out with them. Eric is sure a lot happier.”
Emily seemed to shrug although it was difficult to tell with her arms all wrapped over themselves like that. “Becca too, but it was sure rough for awhile.”
“Oh, yeah? So you knew Becca last year then?” he asked, grateful for something resembling conversation.
“Some. Mostly moral support I guess.”
He glanced at her. “How’s that? Moral support for what?”
She huddled closer to the door, and her words were directed more at the floorboard than at him. “Eric, Holly, that whole mess with Gus… She just had a rough time.”
Jeremy’s gaze traveled to her for real as interest overtook him. “But you knew her before then, right? I mean you guys have been friends a long time.”
“No.” She shook her head, and he couldn’t help but think how young and innocent she looked. “Not really.”
“Really? That surprises me. You guys seem so tight with the whole religion thing.” He hated to bring that topic up, but it was like it followed her no matter how much he tried to ignore it.
“That’s kind of how we met. She came to a Bible Study one night. I don’t think she meant to come back, but…”
Carefully he turned onto the street in front of her dorm. “But…?”
Her thoughts took a moment more to find the air. “I think she needed something to hold onto, and God’s a pretty good place to start if you’re looking for something to hold onto. At least He was for me.”
Jeremy pulled the car into the parking place but didn’t kill the engine. Now he really wished they had gone to get a bite after the movie. Sitting here in front of her dorm felt much too close to her leaving. “So, you really believe all that God stuff then, huh?”
“Yeah, I do.” She didn’t sound like a preacher, more like a scared little kid in bad need of back up with a bully. “He’s been there for me even when I didn’t think anyone else was.”
For some reason Jeremy couldn’t quite understand, the way she said it made him want to hit someone. His gaze slid to her. “Here at school?”
The sniff was barely loud enough to hear and the shake of her head was even less obvious. “It was a long time ago.” She smiled a tight, everything’s-fine-now smile. “Water under the bridge and all that.”
Before he could think what else to say, she reached for her door handle and jumped out. Now her smile was brighter, but it looked so fake that it raked ache over Jeremy’s heart. “Well, I had fun. Thanks.”
She started to shut the door, but sanity kicked in at that moment. He wasn’t going to make her walk herself in this time. “Oh, just a second.” Her hesitation gave him just enough time to shut off the car, grab the keys, and jump out. The autumn chill had set in, and pulling his leather jacket closer around him, he met her on the walk.
Those arms, they seemed permanently attached to her front.
“Oh, man, I bet you’re freezing.”
“I’m fine.” She turned her steps up the walk even as her gaze fell to the side.
Above all else, Jeremy wanted to put her at ease. Why that was so hard, he couldn’t quite understand, but it was like whatever he did was destined to be wrong. “How’re classes?”
“You’re graduating… when?” he asked as he put his hands in his pockets.
Her shoulders were wound all the way over her. “Next December if I take summer classes.”
“Oh. So, you’ll be here through the summer too?”
“You like school better than home then too, huh?” He laughed at his own joke, but she glanced at him with incomprehension and a hint of disgust.
“No.” The syllable sounded like she was putting him back in his place. “Actually, if you have to know, I’m trying to get through in three and a half years so I can get back home.”
“Three… really?” His own five stretched before him. “Wow. That’s impressive.”
They made it to the doors, and he opened one for her as she showed no signs of slowing down. Not that he could blame her. She really had to be cold in that top that hugged her like a second skin. However, it wasn’t until they got to the stairs that she stopped. She turned only halfway to him, seemingly ready to flee up the stairs if need be. “I had fun.”
That was hard to believe that considering she wouldn’t even look at him. He tried to smile at her, to get a look into her eyes. “Yeah, me too. Maybe we can do it again sometime.”
For the first time in he wasn’t sure how long her gaze jerked up to his, and in her eyes he saw only terror. She backed a half step from him as her gaze fell. “Yeah. We’ll have to.” With that she stepped up the first two stairs. Her hand wrapped over the banister. “I’ll see you Tuesday.”
“Yeah.” What choice did he have but to agree? “Take care.”
“You too.” She turned and practically ran up the stairs.
Not moving, Jeremy watched her, knowing, hearing so much in what she wasn’t saying. He wondered if Becca knew the real story, and for one single second he thought about asking her, but then he shook his head. For one thing, Becca probably wouldn’t tell him. It wasn’t like they were buddy-buddy or anything. After his boneheaded move at Avalon the last semester, it was a wonder Becca was even talking to him anymore. Still, he wanted to ask if for no other reason than to put his heart at ease that there was nothing to be concerned about, that the guardedness that clung to Emily was nothing more than his imagination.
With a push on the banister, he started for the door. It was his imagination. Emily was too sweet for anything bad to have happened to her. She was too sweet…
“So, what are you doing for Thanksgiving?” Eric asked Jeremy across the lunch table three and a half weeks later.
Although Jeremy had wanted ever since she’d disappeared up the steps to ask her out again, he hadn’t come up the courage or the excuse. “Oh, you know. Hang out at the apartment. Watch some football.” He glanced over at Emily who was busy with her ham sandwich and fries. It was as if she could be present and not at the same time, and for the life of him, he couldn’t figure that out.
Eric nodded and flipped his last chip into his mouth. “So, are you going home, Em?”
Instantly she looked caught in the headlights of an on-coming semi. As her gaze fell, she shook her head with the merest movement. “Too expensive.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Eric said. He dusted off his hands and then sat back gazing across the table at them thoughtfully. “You guys should come over then. Mom always has ten times more food than we can eat, and with Becca bugging on me…”
Becca hit him. “I’m not bugging. I told you. You can come to my house.”
Eric picked up his chin. “Yeah. There’s a good idea.” He let the statement hang for a moment. “Not.” He swung his attention back to the other two at the table. “So, what do you say? Thanksgiving at my place?”
Wishing he could smack Eric into the next Christmas, Jeremy glanced over at Emily who was shrinking closer to the table with each passing second. “I don’t know. What do you say, Em? You game?”
She tried to smile at him, but it looked both forced and pain-filled. “I’d hate to impose.”
“What impose?” Eric asked. “You can keep me sane while Becca’s two hundred miles away.”
It was clear she wanted to say no. What Jeremy couldn’t quite tell was why she didn’t. “Well, okay. I guess so.”
“Cool.” Eric turned his attention to Jeremy. “How about you?”
Jeremy smiled at the thought. “I guess I can make do with less than a 54 inch screen. I’m in.”
As Emily got ready to go to Eric’s parents’ house the next Thursday, she thought about Jeremy’s comment again. How he could be so arrogant and materialistic she couldn’t understand. Here was Eric, offering them a haven for Thanksgiving. People didn’t do that for just anybody. And what did Jeremy say? “I can make do with less than 54 inches.”
What was that? Did every single thing come down to money with him? Yes, she decided as she put her silver concho belt on and examined herself in the mirror above the sink, it did. Everything about him was focused on impressing everybody else, or one-upping them, she wasn’t quite sure which it was. Why Eric even put up with Jeremy was a mystery. Eric was a nice, decent guy. Jeremy on the other hand…
She checked the clock. Just after eleven. She’d have to hurry if she wanted to catch the bus. It wasn’t the best plan, but it was better than walking in the first cold snap of the year. The snow swirling to the asphalt outside caught her attention as she grabbed her sheepskin jacket, her keys, and her purse. The last thing she wanted to do was to be late when they were being so nice to her. On the way out the door she picked up the white box of blueberry scones she’d picked up at the grocery store on her way back from Mass earlier.
Store bought pastries. It was sad, but she didn’t have the money, the time, the resources, or the equipment to do any better. She just hoped Eric’s parents were like Eric and not Jeremy. At this point, that was her only prayer.
“Did Em tell you if she was coming or not?” Eric asked as he sidled closer to Jeremy, ducking behind his cup of eggnog to ask the question.
Jeremy’s heart jerked with the mention of her name, but he shrugged as if it meant nothing to him if she came or not. “I thought she was. Why?”
“Well.” Eric glanced at the clock on the mantel. “It’s almost one, and Mom’s going to want to eat pretty soon. Do you think we should wait?”
Again Jeremy shrugged only this time his heart lurched with concern. Beyond the sidelights of the door across the room, he glimpsed the wind-propelled snow, which seemed to be coming down sideways instead of vertical. “I don’t know. I think if she was coming, she would’ve been here by now. She didn’t call?”
Eric’s dad, Adam, stepped from the dining room. “What do you think, Eric? We’re ready unless you want to wait.”
The concern in Eric’s gaze was hard to miss as he looked at Jeremy. “I guess we should go ahead. I don’t think she’s coming.”
With another quick, worried glance out the front sidelights to the thick blanket of swirling snow beyond, Jeremy turned to follow Eric. He wished he could make a detour through the kitchen and call her. However, there were two major problems with that. The first was that he didn’t know her phone number. The second was that doing so would be obvious, and if anything, he was trying not to be obvious.
Around the large mahogany table, the family gathered—Eric’s parents, Ryan and Desiree, Jeremy, Eric, and one chair that was conspicuously empty between them.
“Shouldn’t we say grace?” Eric asked as the others began to dig in to the feast.
“Oh, of course,” Teres, Eric’s mom, said in surprise which was covered quickly with pride. “Why don’t you lead us, Eric?”
Jeremy’s mind bumped into how sure the prayer sounded coming from his friend. They didn’t talk about Eric’s conversion. It was too easy not to, but it was clear from each word that life had changed drastically for Eric the moment Rebecca had come into his life. In a weird way, Jeremy was happy for his friend. True, it was a road he, Jeremy, would never take, but at least it made Eric happy.
“Amens” sounded around the table, and Jeremy mumbled something too. The clinking and clanking of serving spoons on china had just commenced when the doorbell rang. Jeremy’s gaze jumped to Eric.
Eric stood. “Maybe that’s Em.”
She should’ve just gone home, Emily thought as she stood on the doorstep shifting from foot-to-foot in an all-but hopeless attempt to not freeze to death. Just as she reached for the doorbell again, her hand shaking from the cold, the door swung open. Although she knew the picture she made was bad standing there, hair soaked with snow, face rosy-cold, and shivering, the horrified look that went through Eric’s eyes was much worse.
“Emily! What in the world!”
Impressing anybody with calm and cool plummeted into who cares the second Jeremy heard Eric at the front door. Dropping his spoon to the table, he leaped from the chair and raced to the living room. He entered the living room just as Eric pulled Emily into the door and shut it soundly behind her.
“Emily, what happened?” Fear and concern slammed into Jeremy the second he saw her—nothing on her head other than hair and flakes of snow, black boots caked with snow, and her face looking like she’d just survived the Iditarod. He strode through the room to her without thinking about obvious or anything else.
“I’m fine. Really,” Emily said, waving a hand that was deep red and lined with bright blue veins. “I just didn’t know how far it was from the bus stop.”
“The bus stop?” Eric shook his head in incomprehension. “You didn’t drive?”
Emily laughed as she held out a small box to Eric who took it without seeing it. “I don’t have a car.” She unbuttoned her coat, which had a thick layer of snow trailing across both shoulders. It drifted to the floor around her as she shrugged out of the sheepskin. “I’m really sorry I’m late. I didn’t realize how long it would take to get here.”
It was everything Jeremy could do to keep moving through the shock, but he stepped over to her and helped her out of the coat. “Why didn’t you say something, I could’ve come and gotten you?” Once the coat was off, Jeremy realized how nicely she was dressed, and other than the boots, nothing about her outfit said braving-a-snow-storm warm.
She shrugged and stuck her hands, which were now bright red into the pockets of her simple black pants. “I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal.”
Movement and noise from the other side of the room dragged their attention from her.
“Hello,” Teres said, obviously concerned and trying to decide what to do.
“Oh, hello, Mrs. Barnett.” Emily shrunk into the protectiveness of her shoulders which arched over her frame. She pulled her bottom lip in and looked as if she was questioning why she thought this was a good idea.
Jeremy watched her from the coat rack five feet away, wishing with everything in him that he could put his arms around her for warmth and for support. She was fascinating in a completely you-would-miss-it-if-you-weren’t-looking kind of way.
“Please, come join us,” Teres said. “Would you like a blanket? You look half-frozen.”
Emily raked her fingers through her hair that still glistened with unmelted snowflakes. Then she planted her arms around her middle in her completely Emily way, and nodded, clearly fighting a shiver.
“Eric, get her a blanket,” Teres commanded.
Without question Eric went to the closet next to Jeremy who hadn’t moved and brought the box and a red and black flannel blanket to Emily. Jealousy or something very much like it twisted through Jeremy as he watched Eric wrap her in the blanket and hug her to him. She looked up at Eric, and Jeremy’s gut twisted.
“Oh. Thanks,” Emily said to Eric, and then she seemed to remember something. She took the box from Eric and simultaneously walking, holding onto the box, and corralling the blanket, she stepped over to Teres. “I brought these. I hope they aren’t soggy.”
Why he had ever thought moving was important, Jeremy wondered as he watched her. It seemed so trivial at that moment.
Teres opened the box and smiled brightly. “Scones. How thoughtful.”
“They’re blueberry,” Emily said, huddling into her new flannel shell.
“They’re wonderful,” Teres said. “Come on, dinner’s getting cold.”
Emily nodded and followed Teres. Eric turned for the dining room as well. He’d taken four steps before he realized Jeremy still hadn’t moved. “Hey, you coming?”
The trance clung to him even as he fought to shake out of it. “Oh, yeah.”
Emily wondered why she ever thought this was a good idea as she sat down at to the warmth of the table spread with food and concerned faces.
“Emily!” Desi said, her eyes going wide when she saw her. “Why didn’t you tell us you needed a ride? We could’ve come and gotten you.”
“Yeah,” Ryan said as he passed the food dish by dish around to her. “It would’ve been right on our way. We thought Eric or Jeremy would get you.”
She wished everyone would forget about her ordeal even as her skin began to return to normal temperature, stinging every inch of her in the process. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“Not that bad? The closest bus stop is like ten blocks away,” Eric said, sitting down next to her, forgetting even about eating in his concern for her.
“Yeah. I kind of noticed that.” She wound a strand of wet hair over her ear. It made her shiver. “It really wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t missed my connection and had to sit at Addison and Parker for thirty minutes.”
Eric groaned as he closed his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me? Rebecca is going to so shoot me!”
Emily tried to huddle into her blanket and away from his concern. “Really it wasn’t that bad. It only snowed the last twenty minutes of that time, and there was a little awning I got under.” If she had heard how bad this was sounding to everyone else, she probably wouldn’t have continued, but she wanted them to stop looking at her like a martyr. “The guy waiting with me was homeless, so how could I complain? I had some place to go. He didn’t.”
“He was homeless?” Jeremy asked, and Emily turned to him, not quite understanding the tone in his voice.
“Yeah. He was headed to the shelter downtown if he could find some bus money.” She scooped a small spoonful of dressing and put it on her plate, wondering if the old man with the torn coat and the mismatched shoes had made it to his destination. “I paid his fare, so it worked out. That’s probably why I missed the connection, so he’d have a way to get downtown.”
It was only then that Emily noticed no one else at the table was moving. They sat staring at her. Heat inched up her neck. “What?”
Desi smiled at her. “You’re amazing. That’s all.”
She wanted to ask why, but Teres broke the silence by asking for the turkey to be passed. Quietly, eyes cast on her plate, Emily ate. It was a wonderful meal. Now that she was out of the cold and not being torn apart by the wind, she was even more grateful for her life. Sure, she would like the chance to call her folks, and the dull ache of homesickness was ever-present. However, looking around the Barnett table at these very nice people and as the homeless man drifted again through her thoughts, how could she be anything other than grateful? She was indeed blessed.
Jeremy tucked in the back of his T-shirt in and examined himself in the mirror over the sink as he washed his hands. There was nothing outstanding about his attire today, and now he regretted that. In her outfit, Emily could easily have shown up for church and not looked out of place. He, on the other hand, looked more ready for a frat party. Faded blue jeans and dark navy button-down shirt over the white T-shirt. It wasn’t exactly Thanksgiving-impressive.
Shaking his head because he could do nothing to correct the error, he exited the little bathroom and immediately noticed Emily at the end of the hallway, gazing at the large bookshelf that stood there. “Anything interesting?” he asked, stepping up behind her.
She spun around, her eyes wide and shaken. “Oh, Jeremy! Good grief. I didn’t hear you there.”
He chomped a little harder on the gum in his mouth as he grinned. “I noticed.” He lifted his chin to the books. “You a bookworm?”
Her gaze returned to the shelf although her attention didn’t exactly follow it all the way because she kept glancing over at him. She put the arm closest to him around herself as if to put distance between them. “I just like looking at what people read. It can tell so much about them, you know?”
Shortly, he snorted. “I never noticed.”
Something went through her gaze, but she didn’t say it. “Well, like this one. For Better… Forever It’s about marriage, and there’s lots of Grisham and Clancy. Some Mandino. Let’s see. I’ve read that one, and this one, and oh, this one is really good.” She pointed to several of the smaller volumes in an array of colors. “And this one is crazy good.” Her finger alighted on The Christ Commission.
“What’s it about?” Jeremy reached for it and pulled it out to peruse the back cover.
“Some guy is trying to prove Christ never really existed, and he goes back in time to a few years after the resurrection to interview some of the people in Jerusalem. The whole thing is good, but the end is… Wow.”
He was trying to listen and read at the same time. “Why’s that?”
A moment and then another she didn’t say anything. “I can’t tell you. That’d ruin it.”
Put off by the statement, he replaced the little book. “Not if I don’t plan on reading it, it wouldn’t.”
She smirked at him for a moment. “Yeah, I guess so.” However, she still didn’t offer the information.
Jeremy continued to look over the books although he really wasn’t all that interested in them. “You know you could’ve called me to bring you today. It wouldn’t have killed me to come and get you.”
Her gaze fell from the books to the carpet at their feet, and he heard the soft exhale. “The bus really wasn’t that bad.”
That swept his nonchalance with it. “No, Em. You’re not hearing me.” He turned to her in frustration. “We’re friends, right? I don’t mind helping you out. I really don’t. But I don’t know you need help unless you ask.”
She shrugged, but her shoulders never really dropped. “I didn’t want to bother you. Besides, you would’ve had to make a special trip…”
This time frustration took over his tone. “Look. I don’t know what it is with you and this ‘I’m not important enough to worry about’ thing, but it’s not true, okay? I care, and if I can help, I want to.”
A cloud slid across her features, and her face slipped into sadness. He knew he had just been given a glimpse into the real Emily. “What? What is it?”
She smiled bravely, shaking the hair back off her forehead. “Nothing.” However, her gaze betrayed her and fell back between them.
Concern for whatever was bothering her sank into him. “Hey.” Careful as he wasn’t at all sure how she would react, he put his hands on the sides of her arms. He tilted his head to be able to see into her eyes. “You can tell me. What is it?”
When she looked up at him, the twisted anguish in her eyes slammed into him. She wound her bottom lip into her mouth, fighting not to cry.
“Oh, hey. Come here.” Gently he pulled her into his arms, and she let him although her one arm stayed between them. He could tell she was crying although she made no sound at all. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head. “It’s dumb.”
A sniff and a sob. Then she pulled back, wiping her eyes. His gaze drilled into her as he fought to read her mind.
“My calling card ran out last week.” Now both arms were tucked around her, and her gaze was glued to the floor.
“O-kay,” he said, watching her and trying to figure out the depth of what she wasn’t telling him.
The single, tear-filled glance up ripped through him. She tipped her head to the side. “I wanted to call home today, but I… can’t.” Emotion crashed through her voice as the last word cracked.
“Because of the calling card?” Perplexed, Jeremy watched her nod. “Why don’t you just put more minutes on it?”
“It was supposed to last me the whole semester,” she said softly. “I didn’t tell them it was out.”
“Them? Your parents?”
She nodded, seeming to shrink right before his eyes. He wanted to understand, but she wasn’t making that at all easy.
“Why not? Why don’t you just tell them you need more minutes?”
Ache etched across her face, but she snatched it back with a ragged inhale. “They barely had the money for what they gave me. I can’t ask for more.” Her fingers hooked into her belt loops as she pulled herself together and shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be fine. It’s just with Eric’s family all here and everything. It just got to me that I can’t even call home.” She shook her head and sniffed. “I told you, it was dumb.”
Jeremy’s mind was reeling. He’d spent the whole day and not once had he thought to call either of his parents—neither of which he was entirely sure even noticed. Yet, here she was ripped up and bleeding emotionally, and until this moment he hadn’t even noticed. “Tell you what.” He reached over and took first her fingers and then her hand from around her. With his other hand, he flipped out the little silver cell phone that went with him everywhere. “Why don’t you use mine?”
Carefully he placed it into her hand and then closed her fingers over it. The tears were still in her eyes although they were no longer on the surface when she looked up at him. “Oh, no. I can’t do that.”
His smile lit his soul from the inside out. “Unlimited minutes.” His gaze pierced into hers as he pleaded with her to accept the gift. “It’s yours as long as you want.”
Although her spirit jumped at the understanding that she could in fact make the call that had been looping through her mind all afternoon, Emily wasn’t at all sure that was the only reason it was jumping. Something about the sincere concern in his deep brown eyes made her breath stop. And that was nothing compared with the electrical snap that went through her with his touch.
“Please, Emily. Let me help.”
She nodded for no other reason than nothing else about her could move.
His smile went through his eyes before it drifted onto his lips. “Great.” He turned with her hand still in his. “There’s a room down here. It’s Eric’s room, or it used to be before college. They don’t use it for much anymore.” He led her down the hall and opened a door off to the left. “I think Teres scrapbooks or sews in it or something now.”
It was as if no part of her could mount anything resembling a protest. He led her into the room which was cooler than the rest of the house, presumably for having been closed off. The white and light blue wallpaper even seemed cool. On the other side of the room was a bay window with a small bench inset into it.
“It’s kind of cold in here,” Jeremy said after snapping on the light. “Do you want a blanket?”
Emily perched on the little seat, staying well away from the twin beds standing guard on the other wall. “No, this is fine. Great. Perfect.”
“Perfect? Wow.” He chomped a bit harder on the gum as he grinned. “You’re tough to please.”
She smiled at him as her heart burst with happiness. “Always.”
He started out of the room and had almost closed the door when suddenly he swung it open again. “Tell Colorado hi for me.”
She laughed. “I will.” And when he shut the door for real, she had to force the breath through the fullness of her heart. Jeremy Stratton. He was a dichotomy in personality that she might never figure out, but at that moment, she’d never been more grateful for anyone.
“Emily didn’t leave yet, did she?” Teres asked nearly an hour later as the clock wound downward to 5:30. “The snow’s really starting to come down hard again.”
“No,” Jeremy said as he sat on the couch watching the end of the Cowboy-Viking game, which he hadn’t seen more than a play of in an hour. “She’s calling her mom and dad upstairs.” He felt the puzzled gazes travel to him. “I lent her my cell. I think she was homesick.”
Teres pressed her lips together in sympathy. “It’s got to be hard being so far away from family this time of the year.”
“Yeah.” Jeremy shifted under the pillow he was holding. “She was kind of bummed.”
“Well, I’m going to start tacos for anyone interested,” Teres said, and everyone groaned.
“It’s a good thing this day only comes around once a year,” Adam, Eric’s dad, said as he resettled himself in his easy chair. “That step-climber is going to be begging for mercy Monday morning.”
Eric laughed. “As if it isn’t already.”
“Oh, yeah?” Adam narrowed his eyebrows as if he was mad. “Well, it looks like those freshman fifteen have turned into the senior twenty over there.”
“Hey, now. That was uncalled for.” Eric fired a pillow at his father who caught it without effort.
“The truth hurts, huh, big bro?” Ryan asked from the little loveseat where he sat cuddled with Desiree.
Eric pointed a warning finger at him. “You stay out of this.”
Ryan put both hands in the air. “Just stating the obvious.”
With that, Desiree pushed up off his chest and stood. She readjusted the bottom of her shirt as she swung her golden hair over her shoulder. “I think I’m going to go help Teres.”
“Chicken,” Ryan chided.
She bent down and swiped his lips with hers. “Smart. It’s called being smart.”
“But you’ll miss the end of the game,” Jeremy said, pointing at the screen as he tried desperately not to let his heart fall into the hole it was inching toward. The feeling of being alone in a room full of people who weren’t was worse even than being alone with no one there.
“Oh, well, let me know how it goes.” Desiree backed through the door leading from the living room to the kitchen.
Jeremy couldn’t help but think his only out in the situation had just abandoned him, but then his gaze snagged on the figure slowly descending the stairs at the back of the room. As nuts as that sounded, he couldn’t help but think how beautiful she was. His heart snagged with the thought. He felt it all the way through him with every graceful move she made—right down to the hesitant motion she made to push the strand of hair over her ear.
“How’s Colorado?” Eric asked from his seat in the wing-backed chair next to the couch where Jeremy sat when Emily made the final step.
“Great.” She stepped gingerly through the room and over to the couch where she discreetly handed Jeremy the phone back. He took it, gazing up at her as the trance took hold of him again. “They’re getting snow too.” Once the phone was stored in its case at his hip, Jeremy noticed how uncomfortable Emily looked standing there. Carefully he reached up and slipped his fingers through hers.
For a moment she looked surprised, but then she allowed him to pull her down to his side.
“I guess you ski a lot then, huh?” Adam asked, expertly not noticing the seating arrangement.
“Not really,” Emily turned to him and leaned forward so that Jeremy was gazing at her hair. But even that had its advantages. “We don’t live very close to the resorts. We’re a couple hours away—especially when it’s snowing.”
“Where do you live exactly?” Eric asked, and Emily spun her head the other direction, looking like a puppet on a string.
“Never heard of it.”
She laughed, and the sound danced across Jeremy’s heart. She looked almost… happy, not scared and shy and caved in like usual. There was a glow about her that wasn’t exactly describable or explainable, but he saw it nonetheless.
“I’m not surprised,” she said in that soft, feminine voice that seemed to trill from her like a hummingbird. “It’s so small. Nobody’s heard of it.”
“What do your folks do there?” Adam asked.
Her gaze jumped to him. “My dad’s the foreman of a ranch. My mom cleans houses.”
“A ranch foreman?” Ryan asked. “So, he’s a cowboy?”
“Kind of. They run cattle on the grassland. He manages the other hands and pretty much runs the show.”
“So, horses and hats and the whole deal?” Eric asked, clearly intrigued.
Emily laughed. “Yeah, they even play Gene Autry music while they ride out to rope the doggies.”
“Doggies?” Eric asked as his face fell in incomprehension. “They rope dogs?”
She put her head all the way back and laughed out loud. Jeremy wasn’t at all sure what was so funny.
“I was kidding, Eric.”
“Oh.” Eric lifted his chin as if he completely understood now although it was obvious that he didn’t.
“Tacos are ready,” Teres said as she suddenly stood in the doorway.
“Oh, great. I thought we were going to starve there for a minute,” Adam said, pulling himself up from the recliner with great effort.
Eric exhaled as he stood. “Didn’t we just do this like an hour ago?”
“I think so,” Ryan said, following his brother to the door.
“You know your mother,” Adam said as he trailed his sons. “You will never be without something to eat in her house.”
Emily stood but didn’t follow them immediately. Instead she waited for Jeremy to stand, and then like a soft breath she reached out and put her hand on his arm to stop him. He turned to her as the door between them and the kitchen swung closed, and then they were alone.
She brushed her fingers through the edge of her near-black hair. “I wanted to say thanks. I really appreciate what you did… letting me call home and everything.”
Happiness and pride exploded from his heart. “I’m glad I could help.”
The world froze around them, and the insane thought of kissing her flowed through him. The pull of her on his soul was intoxicating, overwhelming. His gaze slid from her eyes to her lips, and it was as if everything other than the intense wanting to put his arms around her disappeared. The second before the signals in his heart made it all the way to his body, her gaze plummeted from his, and she wrapped her arms around herself. “We’d better get in there. They’ll be wondering where we are.”
He tried to smile, but it didn’t make it that far. “Yeah. We’d better.”
“So, who won the game, Jeremy?” Desi asked as they once again sat around the dining room table only this time instead of turkey and dressing, there was taco meat and guacamole.
“The game?” he asked, sounding strange, and Emily chanced a glance at him sitting next to her.
Just that glance was enough to send her heart into irregular rhythms. As stupid as that sounded, she had wanted him to kiss her in the living room. Of course, that was never going to happen, but still…
“Oh, the Cowboys.” Suddenly he sounded off-balance, as if someone had asked him to solve the time-space continuum conundrum. “Umm…”
“The Cowboys,” Eric said, swooping in on the conversation from the other side of her. “Isn’t that right, Em?”
The question caught her off-guard, and she swung her attention to him, nearly sending her careening off the chair. “Oh, I guess so. I wasn’t really watching.”
Eric laughed at her. “No, silly. The Cowboys…” He elbowed her as if whatever he was trying to tell her was hilarious.
“Oh, yeah.” She bobbed her head up and down as if she understood perfectly. “It was a great game.” She had no idea what they were talking about, but that didn’t seem to matter to anyone else in the room. In self-defense lest she look like a complete idiot, she turned her attention to the other side of the table. “So, Desi, where are you from?”
It was a save such that she’d never made in her life, and as the conversation swung away from her, Emily breathed a sigh of relief. At least if the others were talking, she didn’t have to. That, in and of itself, was a good thing.
“Yeah, I can,” Emily heard Jeremy say to Eric four hours later as she stood putting on her coat, wondering if the buses were even still running by this point.
“Eric is going to hang out here,” Jeremy said, walking over to her, “so I’ll take you home.”
“Oh, you don’t have to.” She pulled her hair from under the coat as she wished she had thought to bring her gloves or a hat or a sweater for that matter, but who knew the half-inch snowfall predicted would turn into a blizzard?
“I wasn’t asking,” Jeremy said as he swung his coat over his shoulders and dug into his pockets for his black leather gloves. “Becca would never let me hear the end of it if I made you walk again. Not to even mention Eric.” Jeremy seemed all business now. There was nothing of the warm, close feeling from him she’d had earlier. “You stay here. I’ll go warm up the car.”
With everything she had, Emily wanted to protest. It was out of his way. He didn’t have to. She could just take the bus. But causing a scene arguing about it didn’t sound like the best option so she shut her mouth and capitulated. Jeremy strode to and out of the door as Eric walked into the room and right up to her.
“I’m so glad you came, Em.” He pulled her into a hug that she wasn’t fully prepared for. She wound her hand up from his waist and over the back of his shoulder, arching her face to keep it from being buried in his red flannel shirt.
“It was fun.”
After a tighter squeeze, he backed up and looked at her with a solemn gaze. “And don’t ever scare me like that again. You got it?”
It took her a moment to realize what he was talking about. “It really wasn’t…”
“That big a deal,” he finished for her even as his hands stayed on the tops of her arms. “I know. You said that. Maybe it wasn’t to you, but it was to us, okay?”
She nodded sheepishly as her gaze dropped between them. Something in her wanted to accept his generosity and concern, but the majority of her was screaming she didn’t deserve any of it. He let his arms drop as his attention snapped to the noise at the door.
Jeremy burst back through the front door, hopping and blowing on his gloves, which presumably did no good. “The car’s warming up. It should be ready when you are.”
“Thanks again, Eric,” Emily said, smiling at him. She hugged him quickly but only sideways this time as his parents stepped in from the kitchen.
“We’re leaving I guess,” Jeremy said. He stepped over to them and held out his gloved hand. “Thanks for having us.”
Us? It was the second time someone had said “us” in the past couple minutes, and those references tripped through Emily’s mind, snagging as they dodged and weaved through her understanding. “Yes, thanks,” she managed to say. “It was all wonderful.”
“Well, you’re welcome any time,” Teres said as she stepped backward under Adam’s waiting arm. “Call us when you get back so we know you made it.”
“I will,” Jeremy said. He walked over to where Emily stood. She shifted from foot-to-foot over how familial this all felt. His gaze traced over her, and it sent heat seeping up her cheeks. “You ready?”
Had there been any way out of it, she would’ve taken it. But there wasn’t so she nodded and with one more wave, she followed him out into the snowscape beyond. Slipping down the sidewalk which had grown much slicker during her time inside, Emily made her way to the little silver car which was barely recognizable save for the hood and windshield which Jeremy had obviously uncovered. She dove into the front seat and rubbed her hands together, grateful for the warmth of the heater blowing full blast.
“Man, it’s like an ice rink out there,” Jeremy said when he was safely in his side with the door shut.
“Skating anyone?” She smiled at him, her heart leading her voice as if being with him was simple. Some times it so was, and some times it so was not.
“No kidding.” Carefully he backed out of the driveway and into the street. However, when he put it in drive, the tires spun on the pavement. “Boy, slick is an understatement.” He gripped the steering wheel tighter. “Come on, baby. Don’t let me down now.”
Concern threaded through her. “Is it safe… to drive, I mean?” Of course, she could think of no other good options, but still she wanted some assurance that they weren’t going to end up as road kill before dawn.
He put the car in drive and started forward. “It’s going to be a slow ride, but yeah, I think we can make it.”
The car fishtailed slightly as the anti-lock brakes ratcheted down the speed when Jeremy got to the corner. Emily gasped slightly but pulled it back for his sake. Just then the cell phone on his belt loop beeped to life.
“Oh, great.” He guided the car around the corner carefully as the phone beeped again. He whipped it out and flipped it opened to see the read-out. “Mom.” He glanced up, clearly frazzled.
“Here.” Without thinking through the ramifications, Emily took the phone from him. Grateful for her impromptu education course with his cell phone earlier in the day, she hit the talk button. “Hello?”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Proper. It was the first word that came to mind when Emily heard the voice. “I must have the wrong…”
“No. No. This is the right one. Jeremy’s just driving, and it’s kind of icy. He didn’t want to have a wreck talking to you.” Emily shot a smile his direction. His glance at her was only that.
“Oh. So Boston got snow then?” his mother asked.
“Yes, at least a foot from what I can tell.” It was stacked everywhere she realized as she gazed out beyond the windshield. “It started coming down a little this morning, but about noon it really started hard. We’re pretty much covered up now.”
“Oh. And you said there’s ice?”
Emily checked the speedometer on the dashboard crammed with gizmos and gadgets. “Well, right now we’re going a whole five miles an hour if that tells you anything.”
The other side of the conversation paused for a moment. “I’m sorry. Who am I talking to again?”
“Oh, this is Emily. Emily Vasquez. I’m Jeremy’s friend. We went over to Eric’s house for Thanksgiving. Jeremy’s giving me a ride back to the dorms.”
“Oh. Well, that’s nice of him.”
The smile Emily glanced over at him said she agreed. “That’s what I thought.”
“Well, listen. Tell Jeremy I’ll call him later. I just wanted to wish him a Happy Thanksgiving.”
Emily’s gaze snagged on his silhouette so that she had to yank it back to her to be able to carry on a sensible conversation. “Yeah, okay. I’ll tell him.”
“Thank you, Emily. You have a good Thanksgiving as well.”
“I will. You, too, Mrs. Stratton.” They said their good-byes and hung up as Jeremy carefully applied the brakes to stop at a red light. Emily handed his phone back. “That was your mom. She said Happy Thanksgiving.”
Jeremy took the phone without really seeing it. “So she remembered I’m alive, huh?”
Quizzically, Emily bent her head to look at him. “What does that mean?”
He glanced at her as if he hadn’t realized she was in the car. The light turned green, and his attention went back to driving. “Oh, you know.” He adjusted the heat. “It’s 10:30, and that’s the first parent I’ve heard from today. Did she say where she was?”
Worry for the tone in his voice raked through her. “I didn’t ask. Why?”
Once more he fiddled with the heat knobs. “Probably New York. She’s probably at some fancy party, smoozing. Never too festive an occasion to miss networking.” He sounded so bitter and hurt.
Emily wanted to ask, but she wasn’t sure she should. Finally her concern took over her sanity. “Does she do that a lot… your mom? Smooze I mean?”
“My mom is the queen of smoozing.” His face went hard. “At least she was until…”
“Until…?” Emily turned in the seat toward him. It was easier to watch him that way.
His gaze snapped to her but bounced back to the road. “The divorce. I guess it was good she’d networked so much. She had a great lawyer.” Sarcasm dripped from the statement. “She got the condo in New York and the beach house in North Carolina. All Dad got was the townhouse in Denver.”
The inventory trailed through Emily. “They had three houses?”
“And two timeshares. They also had an apartment in London, but they let that go a couple years ago. I guess Dad couldn’t pay for that and Amber’s upkeep.”
Her head was spinning with the life he was describing. “Who’s Amber?”
“Dad’s mistress,” he said as if it was the most normal thing in the world. “’Course we didn’t know that until April, but I guess that’s not something you tell your wife and kid.”
Emily fought not to let her eyes widen in horror. “Wow. I bet that was a shock. Finding out about your dad’s affair and then them getting a divorce back-to-back like that.” She let her thoughts wind through the scenario, trying to figure out how he could make it sound like it was no big deal. “I think I’d fall apart.”
He shrugged as he pulled into the turning lane. “What did I expect, right?”
That slammed her side of the conversation to a stop. “What do you mean—what did you expect?”
“Well, all of their friends were divorced and remarried and divorced and remarried again. It’s what you do when you’re an upwardly-social climbing couple these days.”
To Emily, this was a horror story. Skepticism traced through her. “Really? Then I guess I don’t want to be in an upwardly-social climbing couple then.”
His look was questioning, but the light changed, and his attention went back to the road. “Isn’t that why you’re going to college? To get a good job so you can make a lot of money and really be something?”
Slowly her right arm slipped up to her waist. “No, not really. Should I be?”
“I thought that’s why everybody went to college. You don’t want to be some dumb hired hand, do you?”
Her gaze fell from his face as her thoughts rammed into her father and then another face she had spent the last eight years trying to forget. Resentment for all the Jeremys of the world bled into her, unseen prior to that moment. “Being a hired hand isn’t the end of the world, you know. My dad’s been one for…”
“Oh, gosh, Em.” Jeremy’s gaze jumped to her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that like it sounded.”
“We weren’t rich. We never were,” she said slowly, holding her words in check although she wanted to scream them. “But my parents taught me about hard work and honesty, being there for each other and sticking things out together even when it isn’t easy.”
He turned up the street to her dorm, and although it took a moment for his words to come, when they did, she heard the sincerity. “Well, then I guess you’re the lucky one. My parents taught me to always make it look good on the outside no matter how bad it stinks on the inside.”
The depth of his words and the hurt which permeated them jerked her from her self-righteous rage. She looked over at him. “They really let you down, huh?”
It was clear he was fighting the emotions as he pulled into a parking spot and put the car into park, wrenching the gearshift between them. “Like I said, I should’ve seen it coming. They were never in the same room for ten minutes. I thought that was because they were busy. But I guess it was more than busy.”
“It must’ve been really tough though… when you found out.”
He snorted. “There’s the understatement of the century. I didn’t take it very well.” He twisted his head so he was talking to the door handle on his side. “I went out. I got drunk, and by the next morning my fiancée was my ex, my best friend was no longer speaking to me, and my parents were the former Mr. and Mrs. Stratton. I lost everything in 12 hours.” Balling his hand into a fist, he hit the armrest softly. “That’s got to be some kind of record somewhere.”
She was fighting to understand everything he was telling her. “Eric?”
The look he turned on her was pure anguish although he smiled softly. Then he laid his head back on the headrest. “He was furious for what I said to Rebecca.”
Emily could almost be mad at Eric and Rebecca for the hurt etched on Jeremy’s face. “Which was?”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head as he stared up at the ceiling. “Something stupid that’s for sure. I was so mad at her for the whole Eric thing, and I was being a total jerk about everything.”
“The whole Eric thing?” This was getting more confusing the longer they went.
Jeremy’s head fell to the side so he was looking at her. The white flag of surrender waved in his eyes as if it really didn’t matter what he told her after the admissions he’d already made. “She had him going to church and Bible Study and a lot of junk I just don’t get into.”
“Oh.” That was like a punch because now she understood more than just the part about Eric.
“I know. Pretty crappy, huh?”
However, as much as she wanted to trash him, she couldn’t. She shook her head. “Pretty human, I’d say. You’d been hurt, so you hurt someone else.” Her mind drifted through the story, and every turn made her ache all the more. She debated whether to ask the next question. “So, that’s what happened with you and Gwen then?”
He exhaled and pursed his lips. “Pretty much. She came over the next day and got on my case about me being a jerk and hurting everyone. I yelled at her, said a bunch of stuff I probably shouldn’t have, and then she took off. It was over. Just like that.” Hollow. It was how he sounded as if he was recounting a story he had no stake in whatsoever.
“Did she know…?” Emily didn’t finish the question. She was too intent on how completely beaten down he looked.
He glanced at her. “About my parents?”
She nodded, and his gaze went back to the ceiling of the car as his hand came up to wind and catch the back of the headrest.
“No. Nobody knew.”
His hurt wound through her heart. “Why not?”
“Because I didn’t want to tell anyone. I didn’t want them to know. I didn’t want it to be true.” He pulled in a breath that took two tries to get in. “I still don’t.”
Compassion for him wrapped around her as his face crumpled over the ache. Gently she reached over to him and put her hand on his back. “It’s okay, you know? You don’t have to be Superman and act like this is a breeze.”
The longer he fought it, the more the ache took over his expression. “Sometimes it hurts so bad I think I won’t make it to the next minute.”
“And sometimes you wonder why you can’t just curl up and die.”
In surprise he looked over at her.
“What? You think you’re the only one who’s ever been hurt?” she asked. There was no indictment in the question, only honesty.
His cell phone bleeped to life, and in frustration, he reached down and pulled it out. A flip and a beep, and he had it to his ear. “Hello?”
Emily retreated to her side and sat watching him silently as his story twined through her. It made way too much sense.
“Oh, yeah. Sorry.” Jeremy glanced at her. He sniffed softly as he sat up in the seat. “I wasn’t quite home yet, but I was going to call you when I got there. Yeah, it’s bad. Slick. Yeah. Really slick.”
Questioningly, Emily stared at him.
Eric, he mouthed as he turned to her, and she lifted her chin in understanding.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” he said. “No, don’t worry about it. Go on to bed, and tell your parents thanks.”
“Yeah. Okay. See, ya, bro. ‘Bye.” Jeremy hit the off button. “Jeez, we haven’t been talking that long, have we?” He hit the recall button on the dash and 12:05 shone back at them.
“Oh, my gosh. I didn’t realize it was so late,” Emily said in surprise as she quickly prepared to make her exit. “I’m sorry I kept you.”
He smiled at her. “I’m not. Thanks, Em. It was nice to talk.”
She knew what he meant. “I’d better go. You drive careful going home. Okay?”
With that she hopped out, and Jeremy found himself once again watching her walk-skate up the sidewalk to her dorm… alone. He shook his head at his own stupidity. No wonder she didn’t want to be with him. What girl wanted to be with a self-centered jerk whose life was falling apart around him? Surrendering to the rotten thoughts on-loop in his brain, he waited until she was inside and then backed out and headed for home. Not only had he messed up the first half of his life, he had no idea how to right the ship he now found himself on so that he wouldn’t keep making the same mistake over and over again. “Way to go, Jere. Great going there, bud. She’s really going to want to hang around with you now.”
Then again, he couldn’t blame her. He didn’t even want to hang around with himself. As he pulled onto the street and headed slowly to his apartment, his phone beeped. He reached down, turned it on, and answered. “Hello?”
“Jeremy. Oh, good. I’m glad I caught you.”
He fought not to sigh too loudly. “Hi, Mom. I heard you called.”
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2006