Over the next week they talked every day. Emily had come to love the time she spent talking to Jeremy. But the other times of life weren’t so bad either. Manual labor had a way of making her forget everything other than what she was doing at the moment, and on the ranch there was always something to do. Herding cattle, checking calves, feeding the horses. The work felt good.
On Wednesday, three days after Christmas, she was busy cleaning out the horse stables, dreaming of Jeremy’s voice and his touch when the sound of the stable door squeaking open and male voices brought her to a bone-snapping stop. With one breath, panic invaded her spirit. Everything other than that moment vanished. Listening carefully, the pitchfork suspended above the floor in her hands, she picked up the inflection of the first voice, and terror drained through her. Brock.
Panic such that she hadn’t remembered she could feel coiled over her, enveloping her breath so quickly she thought she might pass out. However, this was too important to give in to that easy surrender. Fighting to keep her mind rational, Emily looked around and stealthily backed to the wall of the stall until she could slide into the narrow space between the support stud and the stall wall. Hidden, she watched and listened as the owners of the voices came right in front of the stall she occupied.
“Man, dude, that was awesome!” the second figure, clothed in dark army green and shorter than Brock by a good two inches said. “A ten-point, and it only took two kills to get it.”
“Yeah, well. I’ve seen better.” The arrogance in Brock’s voice and movement crawled through her. She could see just a sliver of him, but his swagger was impossible to miss. “Last year I scored two 20’s in one day.”
At the gun rack on the opposite wall of the stables, they stood, repositioning the rifles.
“Two? I thought you could only get one a year.”
Brock’s cold, detached laugh sent shivers through her. “Hey, man. Don’t you know by now that he who has the cash makes the rules? When I went to school, I found out pretty quick a lot of guys want the trophies, but they don’t want the work. So I supply the work, they supply the cash. Everybody’s happy.”
How could she ever have been so blind as to miss his complete disregard for everything other than himself? Even with his back to her, it was so obvious. Nauseatingly obvious. He might as well have had it tattooed to his forehead right under the spiked blonde hair.
“And no one turns you in? That’s awesome. How do you get away with it?”
Again Brock laughed, which yanked burning rage into the middle of her gut.
“Are you kidding? Dad owns half this town, and the other half? Well, let’s just say a little green grease and a few well placed elbows go a long way.”
“Cool. So, you think we can go out again before we go back? I’d love to try my luck getting something bigger.”
As if they were planning a picnic rather than illegal activity, Brock shrugged. “If it doesn’t work out this time around, there’s always Spring Break. That is if I don’t end up in Fort Lauderdale with the ladies.”
“Bikinis and beer? Now, there’s an idea I could get into.”
Thankfully they locked the gun cabinet and ambled out—both imagining out loud what Fort Lauderdale, babes in bikinis, and beer might actually be like. Even when she heard the squeak of the barn door closing, Emily didn’t move. She had said a special prayer every night since she’d been on the ranch that she wouldn’t run into Brock, but apparently she was going to have to pray harder.
Once again, in a pattern she had come to know to the bottom of her soul, they obviously hadn’t had the decency with this kill to bring in whatever they’d gotten. Swallowing hard, she could already hear her father’s fury over the gruesome find he was sure to make sooner or later. The KW Ranch was big, but it wasn’t that big.
Her thoughts tripped back to the first such find her father had made nearly five years before. That was two weeks after her own world had silently crashed down around her. At the time she hadn’t had enough sorrow left for the poor animals that Brock so needlessly discarded. But that find had tilted her family’s world to the brink of disaster just the same.
Knowing the memories would consume her if she let them, Emily solidified her vow to find this kill as soon as the sun came up the next morning, then defiantly she unwedged herself from her hiding space and began to pitchfork the old hay to the edge of the stall once again. Her body screamed to let it get out the screams of anger buried deeply in her core, but she wouldn’t give it that much leeway.
The creak of the stable door jarred her to a halt once more, but at the next sound she relaxed. She loved the cadence of those old cowboy boots. Even in chaos, they were reassuring.
“Well, Pumpkin, looks like you’ve lost some speed being gone so long,” her father teased when he got to the stall and leaned an arm over the half door to examine her progress.
“Ha. Ha. It’s not my fault I don’t get much hay pitching practice in Boston.” She increased her speed just the same.
The leather-tanned face under the graying edges of hair was framed with a cowboy hat so dirty, there was no telling what color it had been originally. “I thought I warned you about becoming citified.”
She shook her head, and her long, low pigtails brushed down the front of her denim jacket. “No worries there. I can’t wait to get back here. It’s all I’ve thought about since I’ve been gone.” Of course, thoughts of coming back had been recently replaced by… But she chopped that thought in half with a small smile. Casually she flicked the hair off her forehead. “Don’t you worry. I’ll be back before you know it, and this ranch will never be the same again.” Of that, she was perfectly sure.
By New Years Eve Jeremy had abandoned the beaches of North Carolina for the relative security of Boston. Sitting on his leather couch that had once seemed the solution to all his worries, he let the depression take him all the way down even as his friends partied around him. He might be here, but he didn’t have to be happy about it.
“Hey, Jeremy,” Desiree said, sitting down next to him, a cup of Sangria in her hand. Her gaze perused him. “Nice hair.”
“Thanks,” he said as his gaze fell to the cup of Coke in his hand. Over the holidays he’d given up on the moused and spiked look. With no one around to impress, it just took too much effort. Instead, he had surrendered the spikes in favor of simply brushing it forward. The highlights were still there from before, but he was even considering letting them grow out as well.
He hadn’t thought anyone would notice much less make a comment about it. He’d kind of assumed they were so wrapped up in their own worlds that they hadn’t so much as remembered him—at least that’s what he’d told himself because he hadn’t talked to any of them except Emily since they’d all left for the holidays. The thought of her dragged his spirit down further.
“So what’s new?” Desiree asked.
He pulled the melancholy around him like a blanket. “Not much.”
“Have you heard from Emily? Is she coming back soon?”
“The 14th –two days before school starts again.” It seemed like forever. He took a small drink to ward off the thoughts.
“Yeah, Rebecca and I were talking the other day,” Desi said, and it was clear they had become more like sisters-in-law already. “She said she tried to call out to Colorado, but Emily was working.”
Jeremy nodded desolately. “She does that a lot on the ranch.” Longing for her so thick it threatened to suffocate him lodged in his throat. “They were herding cattle the other day, and she nearly got caught in a stampede.” He would’ve paid anything to see her on a horse. Check that, he would’ve paid anything to see her.
“So what’s she doing for New Years?”
“Going out with some friends to a dance or something.” He shrugged as if it meant nothing, but with every fiber in him, he wished he was in Colorado rather than here, fighting to pretend that being without her wasn’t about to kill him.
“I don’t know, Aud. With you and Michael like you are, I’m going to feel like a third wheel,” Emily protested as Audry stood, hands planted on hips, in Emily’s small bedroom.
“Come on. You have to come. I haven’t gotten to spend five minutes with you since you got here,” Audry whined.
The thought of a phone call that might come through if she was gone wafted through Emily, and her heart thudded forward. She sat down at the little vanity and pulled a brush slowly through her long tresses. What she wouldn’t have given to be celebrating with them tonight.
“Come on, Em. It won’t kill you,” Audry said. “Besides you never know who you might meet there.”
The implication was clear but unnecessary. She’d already met him. There was no need to keep looking.
At midnight Eastern time, Jeremy could stand it no longer. As the others celebrated the New Year with kisses and hugs, he slipped off to his bedroom and sat down on the bed. Punching in the speed dial number that always brought a lift to his heart, he put the cell phone to his ear. A ring. Two.
“Vasquez residence,” the gruff older man’s voice ground across the lines.
Jeremy swallowed the fear. “Oh, hello. Mr. Vasquez? Is Emily there?”
“No, I’m sorry. Emily just left with her friends. Do you want me to have her call you tomorrow?”
“Oh.” Disappointment sank through Jeremy even as he tried to fight it off. “No, that’s okay. I’ll try back some other time.” When he beeped the cell phone off, Jeremy let himself flop back on the bed.
With friends. His thoughts spun through the ramifications of that phrase. Did that mean friends of the female persuasion, or was there some long lost boyfriend she hadn’t mentioned, or an old friend who might sweep her off her feet and remind her how insane she had been to leave him behind? The thoughts ripped through Jeremy’s heart. He had never, ever really prayed in his life, but at that moment it was the only thing he could think to do. “God, please keep her safe for me, and bring her back here as soon as possible.” He closed his eyes. “I need her, God. I really do.”
She shouldn’t have come. That much was obvious ten minutes into arriving. Emily had never really fit in here, save for the five weeks she tried at all costs to forget.
“Oh, great. Mr. Wonderful himself,” Audry said with sarcasm oozing through the statement as she tipped her glass to indicate the blond spiked hair over the muscular, toned body of none other than Brock Wycliff himself. The whisper of whiskers made him look older and much more dangerous. He had a way of squinting his dark eyes that made them seem like lasers intent on eliminating anything or anyone who got in his way. Emily’s fear shields flew up the second her gaze caught him. She spun back instantly in derision and fear.
“It’s too bad they don’t give extra points for being a jerk,” Audry said, tipping her cup to her lips. “Maybe he’d have already won and quit playing.”
Emily wanted to agree if for no other reason than to shake the panic clutching her. However, she had frozen in place the moment her gaze traced across him. He was now as always surrounded by an entire group of flunkies. They were like little robots, programmed to believe he was as wonderful as he thought he was. Yes, Brock. Oh, that’s so funny, Brock. Brock, come dance with me. She had heard it all from close proximity before, and now it made her sick to her stomach. She wound her arms around herself and turned back to Audry. “That would be a miracle.”
“Never fear, I am here,” Michael said, walking up behind Audry and wrapping his arms around her from the back as he bent his lips to the side of her ear.
“How did we ever get so lucky?” Audry asked, and Emily almost laughed at the sight they made. However, even her brother’s new fascination with her old friend wasn’t enough to drag her attention from across the room. She could feel Brock there, and it made breathing difficult.
“Look who had the guts to show up.” Audry nodded toward Brock, and Michael’s silliness disappeared.
“Jerk,” he spat. “Dad said they found another kill yesterday. A doe, and a buck with the head missing.”
Hate and anger flowed from Audry in torrents. “Strange isn’t it that when the frog is off at Princeton we don’t have any strange, unexplainable kills like that.”
“Unexplainable? Or untraceable?” Michael asked.
“I’ll bet ballistics run on a couple of guns would solve that mystery real fast,” Audry said.
Emily’s mind traced through all the evidence she had been carefully cataloging for five years. Tomorrow she would add a few more pieces to her collection. “Well, he may think he can get away with murder, but he’s not invincible.”
Instantly Michael turned concerned eyes on his sister. “Em, be smart about this. He could bury you if he wanted to.”
He already has, she thought. She shook her head but said nothing. Michael knew, and yet he didn’t. He couldn’t. She had never told anyone.
“Would you like to dance?” Although Emily had never seen this particular guy, the fact that he wasn’t who she was dreaming of dancing with dropped like an anvil into her heart.
She half turned to him. “Oh, I don’t…”
But he offered her his hand anyway. Between that and the shy, vulnerable look on his face, he looked as harmless as a newborn lamb. “Come on. I hate seeing pretty girls sitting in the corner alone.”
Heat slid up her cheeks, and Emily fidgeted with her nerves to get them to be reasonable. Seeing no good reason to turn him down other than he wasn’t who she wanted to be with, she slowly put her hand in his and let him lead her to the dance floor. His blonde-streaked hair was long in the front, brushing his eyelashes, and he wasn’t much taller than she. Emily pushed back from his embrace, keeping a good amount of distance between them, lest he get the idea that this was going to lead anywhere.
He pulled back to look at her. “I’m Zack by the way.”
“You from around here?” He bounced when he danced even though he was holding her for a slow dance. It was as if his knees were set on perpetual flex.
“Yeah.” She didn’t want to talk. She wanted to leave. Her gaze slid longingly to the door, but there it met up with Brock and a leggy brunette. In disgust Emily re-anchored it on her dance partner.
His head bounced with his dancing. “It’s my first time here. It’s really beautiful up here.”
Emily could tell he was winding in a direction she didn’t want to go, but she didn’t know how to stop him.
“Beautiful area. Beautiful people.” He leveled his gaze at her. “Beautiful girls.”
She ducked her head nearly into her elbow to get away from his stare. However, when she raised her gaze, his was still right there. He smiled.
“I’m from Princeton by the way,” he said with a nod as if that should impress her. “I’m here with Brock. Wycliff.” It was clear that was supposed to impress her as well. At that moment Zack stepped on her foot, and Emily jerked hers away and yelped in pain. He looked down in horror as nervousness invaded his movements. “Sorry. I guess I’m not very good at this kind of dancing.”
“It’s okay.” She was relieved because the end of the song faded into oblivion. “Well, thanks.” Her hand trailed out of his and into her back pocket. She turned and headed for the side.
“You know,” he said, angling his body into her path. “Some of us are going to drive to Silverthorne later if you want to come…”
Emily shook her head as she dug her hands into her pockets and hunched her shoulders into them. “Oh, no. I’m going home with my brother. He doesn’t like to stay out real late.”
Still Zack followed her. “We could take you home. Really. It wouldn’t be a big deal.”
Michael picked that moment to step up behind her. “Dance with me.”
She smiled at Michael, then looked at Zack. “I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah, later,” he said, staring at Michael in open antipathy.
On the dance floor, Michael took her in his arms and guided her gently around the dance floor. “Looks like you made a friend.”
Anger descended on her. “Depends on your definition. He’s here with Brock.”
Michael corkscrewed his face. “The devil has friends?”
“Apparently.” Gratefulness traced through her. “Thanks for rescuing me.”
“Hey,” Michael said. “That’s what big brothers are for.”
Unfortunately Michael could only be her shield for so long. It was nearing midnight-thirty when Emily once again found herself in the darkness against the wall, and Zack once again found her.
“Hey,” he said, leaning on the wall from his shoulder to his hip, his gaze and attention squarely on her.
“Hey.” Instinctively she pulled her arms up. She didn’t want to talk. She wanted to go home. However, things had changed drastically in Michael land while she had been gone, and he was in no hurry to leave whatsoever. In fact, slow dancing with Audry, he looked like he might never leave again. She sighed with the understanding that she was hopelessly trapped.
Zack bounced his head side to side. “So, Happy New Year.”
“Yeah, Happy New Year.” She shrank further into the wall, willing it to swallow her whole.
His gaze slid to the dancers. “Wanna dance again? I promise I won’t step on your toes this time.”
She wanted to say no. She really, really did. But he was cute, and she had never been very good at saying no. “Sure.”
It was barely seconds into the dance that Zack’s hand pressed her to him, and her whole being recoiled from the space she now occupied. She could smell the alcohol on him, and it roiled her stomach like a high, vertical drop on a roller coaster. She closed her eyes, fighting to get through this dance, to get to the next minute. Then she promised herself she would make some excuse—lame or not—to get away from him.
Unfortunately, excuses didn’t work, and by the time it was one o’clock and the dance was over, Emily’s hand had become super glued to Zack’s. It wasn’t fair, really. She hadn’t done anything to encourage him, but every time she tried to make a get-away, he trumped her protest. Worse, Audry kept making googly eyes at her as if Zack being her new companion was a good thing.
Of course it was clear that Michael hadn’t exactly told his date about Zack being Brock’s flunky. Somehow Emily thought that would’ve made a difference, but Zack didn’t give her the chance to let Audry in on that tidbit herself. Instead when they weren’t dancing, they were in the back talking. Although Brock was surrounded by good-looking girls, it was clear that Zack felt out of the loop, so he had found his own girl to parade around for the benefit of not looking so alone.
“I think Brock and Cindy are going over to Silverthorne for drinks,” Zack said as they exited the dance floor for the last time. “You interested?”
Utter panic snapped into her, and Emily shook her head. “I really need to be getting home.” However, instead of taking her back to her table, he led her right over into hemisphere that Brock now occupied. Had there been a rung lower than trash, she would’ve been placed there by one look from Brock. He eyed her from head-to-toe with a steel-hard gaze chocked full of intimidation and dismissal. Casually but with deliberate display, Brock put his arm around Cindy.
“Listen, babe. I’ve got a little business to settle before we take off,” Brock said to Cindy but loud enough for them all to hear. Cindy pouted her protest, but Brock yanked her to him and kissed her soundly. “Hey. I’ll be back. Just try not to miss me too much while I’m gone.”
Cindy giggled, and Emily fought not to throw up. Their little group watched him saunter away. It was clear he knew they were watching, so he milked the exit for all it was worth. When he was sufficiently out of earshot, Emily turned to Zack, wishing she could yank her hand free and run.
“I really do need to be getting home,” she said, praying he would take the hint.
However, when he looked at her, she knew he was doing his best to make her change her mind. “Ah, man. Do you have to? We could take you.”
“No. Really.” She bent her knees timidly and backed away from him as she saw Michael and Audry putting on their coats to go across the hall. She pointed that direction. “My ride’s leaving.” However, Zack didn’t let go of her hand.
“I could walk you to your car,” he said, stepping with her hopefully.
Their arms were stretched between them, and Emily felt the stares of her fellow revelers. Fearing she would regret it, she finally nodded. “Okay, but I’ve got to get my coat.”
Zack nodded and finally, mercifully, let her hand go. “I’ll meet you at the door.” He glanced back at Cindy. “Tell Brock I’ll be right back.”
Emily hurried to the other side where her coat lay forlornly over one of the chairs. She arched her arms into it, hoping it would keep out more than just the cold.
“Who’s loverboy?” Audry asked, ducking her head so Michael couldn’t hear. “He’s cute.”
“He’s driving me crazy.” Emily heaved a breath. “He wants to walk me to the car.”
Audry smiled surreptitiously. “Well, I’ll keep Michael busy, so you two can have some privacy.”
Emily wanted to protest, but before she got it out, Zack showed up coat on and happiness and nervousness oozing from him. Before anyone got any ideas about introductions, Emily grabbed his hand and dragged him away from them. The faster she got this over, the better.
She had been hoping for a blizzard when they got outside. That way she would’ve had an excuse to leave immediately. However, the flakes were drifting down peaceful and quiet. It would’ve been romantic had Jeremy been there, holding her hand instead of being wherever he was thousands of miles away. Without him, it was not. It was horrible in a completely off-center kind of way. Once again, Zack took her hand, and it occurred to Emily how even here holding his hand she didn’t feel the connection with him that she felt with Jeremy who wasn’t within shouting distance.
That thought traced through her mind but didn’t have time to take hold as Zack glanced at her with that hopeful look that made her alert system scream to life. Nerves attacked her, and she fought not to let them completely overwhelm her.
“So, are you going back to Boston when break’s over?” Zack asked, having pried her college choice out of her earlier.
“But you’re staying here until then, huh?”
“Yeah.” Why couldn’t she get her hand out of his? His felt like a paw, big and clumsy.
“That’s too bad. I’m heading back Wednesday, but hey, maybe we can get together when we get back to school. It’s not that far to Boston.”
Oh, could this nightmare get any worse? She shrank into her coat. “Well, I don’t know. I don’t really go out much.”
“It wouldn’t be much—just with me.” He flashed her a winning smile, and the thought traced through her that Zack was kind of cute. Had Zack shown up at a different time in her life. Maybe had there been no Jeremy… “It’d be fun. You’ll have to give me your number.” But there was a Jeremy, and she had absolutely no desire to be with anyone else. Even walking to the car took effort in a way that being with Jeremy just didn’t.
My number? I don’t think so. Michael and Audry were behind them and not walking nearly fast enough for Emily’s taste. “There’s our car.”
She felt the double-take Zack did of the car, a 15-year-old sedan that had been their parents’ before Michael left home. Like it was the Holy Grail, Emily set her course for it. God, please. I’m asking You, get me out of this!
When they got to the car, Zack ducked his head. “Well, I guess this is it.”
“Guess so,” she said, unnerved by the fact that Michael and Audry got into the car and shut the doors without so much as a word. Great! She turned to Zack wholly intent on making a quick exit.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you around,” Zack said, and then completely illogically, he leaned toward her and laid his lips on hers. Emily didn’t even have time to close her eyes, and when she tried to back up, her back hit the car with a thud which jolted through her entire being. Still, he followed her until she was wound over herself trying to back away from him. Feeling the kiss was the farthest thing from her mind. All her body was screaming at her was, Stop!
“Hey, Zack! You coming?” Brock called from across the parking lot, and mercifully, Zack broke the kiss to acknowledge the summons.
“Uh, yeah.” He let her hand go to slick back his hair. “Gotta go. I’ll call you.” And with that, he turned and walked off across the parking lot.
Her gaze followed him all the way to Brock’s scowling face. She was no longer breathing. In fact, she was pretty sure she had lost reality itself at some point. Numbness slid over her as she turned and slid into the car.
“Ooo,” Audry cooed. “Making time with the new guy. Must be nice.”
She said nothing. She couldn’t. There were no words to get into the depths she had fallen.
The buckets of grain sat on the far end of the stables. With chores for the day almost finished, Emily’s one and only goal was to get finished as fast as possible so she could get back to the house and call Jeremy. She’d been up at the crack of dawn to help her dad vaccinate the calves. The rest of the chores had been postponed until after that enormous task was complete so that it was now seven-thirty, and she was just getting to feeding the horses. This was normally Nathan’s job, but he had left with their dad to get more supplies as soon as the vaccinations were finished.
Fighting not to think, Emily yanked the buckets of grain off the floor. In fact, the whole day had been one long attempt at out-running the memories. Still, they hounded her. The two buckets of grain in hand, she was at the half-gate of one empty stall when she heard the squeak of the barn door. Horror and fear snapped over her. For one second she froze, and then survival kicked in. She ducked behind the gate, knowing it couldn’t be her father, and if it wasn’t him…
Bending so she couldn’t be seen, she heard the voices even over the pounding of her heart in her ears. However, this time she didn’t recognize only one voice. She knew both of them. She huddled closer to the floor as her thighs begged for mercy.
But she wouldn’t move. She couldn’t. Nausea swept over her. They couldn’t find her. If they did, death itself would be preferable to that encounter. Bending and praying, she willed her muscles to keep her from making even the slightest noise that would tip them off to her presence.
“So you know Emily then?” Zack asked as they replaced the rifles in the cabinet. The question wound around her and through her, tightening like a wrench.
“Yeah, I know her. Why?” Brock didn’t sound pleased nor particularly interested. Muffled sounds of the guns being stored reverberated through her consciousness.
“Awesome. I was kind of hoping you knew her number. I forgot to get it last night. We were kind of busy.”
Disgust dripped from Brock’s snort. “Yeah. I could tell.”
Emily was somewhere between hurling and decking them both. However, she couldn’t have moved if she’d have wanted to. Fear had stopped all of her movement in freeze frame mode.
“She’s great,” Zack continued. “I was thinking about asking her out for tomorrow night, take her into Denver or something nice.”
“Emily? Emily Vasquez? You’ve got to be kidding me.” Brock snorted. “Trust me on this one, bro. I wouldn’t get too worked up over Emily. Sure, she looks fine, but the return is not as great as the package implies. Know what I’m saying?”
Emily had stopped breathing, and even thinking was becoming a problem. Tears threatened, but she willed them back. Hate bled through her, and she forced herself to fight it as well.
“Really?” Zack asked incredulously. “I don’t know. She seemed into it last night.”
The condescension in Brock’s voice was maddening. “I’m telling you, man. She ain’t worth the time or effort it’ll take to bed her. You could get better at the Piranha Room and not spend half as much.”
The words hit like punches, and her knees buckled underneath her as her arms came around her to deflect the barbs.
“Oh, well,” Zack said. “If you say so.”
Word-by-word, the voices faded out until the squeak of the barn door left her completely alone once again. Cold enveloped her as she slid to the floor, collapsing into the support post of the gate. She leaned there, her shoulder on the hard wood, her arms wrapped tightly around her. Tears coursed out of her heart and down her face. How could he be so mean? How could he make her hurt any more than he already had?
The darkness of that night wound through her consciousness dragging utter helplessness with it. The pickup. The rain. Him. Even the smells raked through her consciousness with overwhelming power. The alcohol on his breath, the insistence of his hands, the knowing and yet not wanting to believe it could really be happening. She forced the air through the memories and into her lungs. Her futile screams from so long before knifed through her as more tears flowed out of the pain. How could she ever have been so naïve as to believe that he loved her? How could she have let him decide her worth? How could she not have seen what he really was from that very first moment?
How long she sat there, she didn’t know, but finally reality once again overtook the past. It was all she could do to pull herself to her feet. Once there, she wiped her eyes, sniffed back the tears and the pain, yanked up a bucket, and went back to living.
“Hey,” Jeremy said, feeling her with him although she was in fact still a couple thousand miles away.
“Hey.” She sounded tired. He could hear it over the lines.
“You been working again?”
“Some.” But there was no more.
“Your dad said you went out last night. Did you have fun?”
However, her reply was only silence, and worry dropped over him.
“Yeah?” Something in that simple syllable pulled concern into him.
He sat up on the bed and anchored himself to her voice. “What’s wrong?”
For a long moment there was no sound, and then she sighed. “I’m just missing Boston. That’s all.”
That concerned him more. “I thought you liked home.”
She sighed again. “I do, but… Well, let’s just say I’ve forgotten how it really was.”
“Mind explaining that?” He wanted to go to her right then, hold her, talk, comfort, be there, but he couldn’t and he knew it.
This sigh was filled with sadness and utter helplessness. “It’s a long story. Can we talk about something else?”
Once again, Jeremy heard the pain she wasn’t voicing, and he wanted to ask, but if he did and it was as bad as it sounded, he knew she would need someone with her to pick up the pieces. Whether there was anyone there who could do that wasn’t abundantly clear, so he chose to table the discussion—for now. “We had everybody over for New Years last night. We missed you.”
Sadness blanketed her tone. “Yeah. I missed you too.”
Home. It was Emily’s first thought when she finally managed to heave her two suitcases, duffle bag, and purse onto the floor of her dorm room. She pulled herself upright and brushed the long tendril of dark hair from her face. Strange how leaving Colorado hadn’t been nearly as hard as it had been the times before. This time, she felt like she was going toward something rather than leaving something behind. The phone rang, and she didn’t even close the door before rushing to pick it up. “Hello?”
“Hey! You made it.”
The smile that wrapped over her was so warm and joy-filled it lifted her heart even further. She sat down on the bed, pulling the cord with her. “I did.” How could just his voice make her feel like all was right with the world?
“Awesome. Listen, Rebecca’s coming over in awhile, why don’t you hook a ride?”
Excitement coursed through her as her gaze snapped to the door. There stood Rebecca, eyes dancing with enthusiasm and a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon.
“Looks like my ride’s already here,” Emily said, turning to the window to keep him to herself one more moment while breathing in the intoxicating feeling of being only thirty minutes from seeing him. “We’ll be there in a few.”
They signed off. She hung up, stood, and turned to her friend. “Just let me grab my things.”
By the time Emily was standing with Rebecca at the door to the guys’ apartment, she was so excited, she was practically hopping from foot to foot. She fought to keep herself from pounding down the door when it took more than seconds for it to open. Unfortunately it was Eric, not Jeremy, who opened it.
With the biggest smile ever, Eric looked only at Rebecca. “Hey, love of my life.” In seconds they were embracing, and Emily was left to hang back, twirling her lock of hair and wishing she could be invisible. Finally Eric turned his attention to her. “Hey, Em. It’s great to have you back.” With no more pretense, he guided Rebecca into the apartment, and Emily followed them. “Hey, Jere! Look who I found hanging out in the hallway.”
Movement at the top of the raised area overlooking the living room snagged Emily’s attention, and she blinked twice at the form who stepped out from the door. White shirt with long sleeves that were rolled to three-quarter, the fabric of the shirt, hinting at being see-through, faded blue jeans, and hair brushed not back and up but forward and down so that he looked like he could’ve been posing for a GQ layout, Jeremy stopped cold when he caught sight of her.
His smile was hesitant at first and then came full to his face. He said nothing as he came down the three small stairs into the living room and right to where she stood. “Hi.” Hope and fear met right in the middle of his tone and his soft brown eyes.
Emily knew she was staring, and in self-defense she pulled one arm up to her other. Her gaze traced to the floor. “Hi.”
No one said anything, and nothing moved for the longest moment of her life. Then ever-so-slowly his hands came up to her arms. Strong. They felt so strong and sure and secure that they tore the breath right up and out of her. Her gaze slid up to his, and the smile on his lips danced in his eyes too. He never said anything, just pulled her into his arms. She melted there as the time they’d spent apart washed over her consciousness. It had been far too long, and all the emotions she had held to herself for a month cascaded through her.
Her arm slipped under his and arched across to his opposite shoulder so that she could pull him closer. Closer even than he was pulling her. Had it been possible, she would have disappeared right into him. His hand brushed across her shoulder wrapping over her neck and ear as he gently slid her hair away from her face. “I missed you.”
Not wanting to but knowing she should, Emily backed up an inch and looked at him. “Me too.”
There was so much to tell him, so much she wished she could say, but she had no idea where even to start. It was then that Jeremy’s gaze jerked from her to the other two occupants of the room. Casually, he turned slinging one arm across her shoulders. She huddled into him wanting never to be anywhere else.
“So what’s the plan?” Jeremy asked. “Wild night out, or quiet night in?”
“How about a wild night in?” Eric retorted, and Rebecca smacked his chest. He looked down at her with a smirk. “What? This was your idea.”
She shook her head but leaned over to peck him on the cheek just the same. “Be careful. That could get you into trouble.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I like trouble.”
Jeremy laughed as he shook his head. “Truer words have never been spoken.” He looked down at Emily with a glint in his eyes. “Hey, I bought a deck of cards.”
She smiled up at him. “Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah, and I’ve been practicing.”
“Knowing you, you probably marked the deck,” Rebecca said.
Jeremy’s gaze traced away from Emily’s, but even his strong jawline tugged on her heart. “There’s only one way to find out.”
Fun. That was the only word to describe it, Jeremy thought as he pulled himself up from the coffee table at a lull in the action around midnight. They needed more chips. Tonight there was no haze of doing it right or being right or needing to be perfect hanging over him. He could just be himself, and completely illogically, that seemed to be all right.
In the kitchen he grabbed a new bag of chips and tore it open just as he sensed her presence enter the room. She glided behind him. He had noticed she had a way of drifting more than walking. It was as if her feet weren’t really touching the floor.
“We need more carrots,” she said, going to the sink and rinsing out the bowl. She shook it twice, and he felt every move she made. “I think we’re all going to turn into rabbits if we keep this up.” She opened the refrigerator to search for more.
“Bottom drawer on the left,” he said over his shoulder, but he stopped when he caught sight of her. Bent over with slim legs in jeans that weren’t top of the line but nice and that turquoise fitted, stretch top he had seen her in more than once. The sight made him smile.
At that moment she turned and caught him staring. “What?”
“Oh. Uh, nothing.” He spun back to the chips, but he ripped the bag a little too forcefully, and it tore down the middle. Chips scattered like volcanic ash. “Ugh. Oh, great!”
He heard her laugh as she brought the carrots to the bowl on the cabinet next to him. “That was smooth.” She chanced a glance at him that was at once teasing and shy.
“That’s one word for it.” He reached down to scoop chips off the floor.
“Par for the course.” He dumped a handful into the bowl. “Just like me. Could find a way to make a mess with a pencil and the strings of a mop.” More chips hit the bowl.
Her movement slowed as concern traced across her face. For one second he thought she was going to ask, but then she went back to the carrots. “So are you having fun? Tonight I mean.”
The anger and frustration with himself slid away. He raked the last of the chips from the cabinet into the bowl. The smile that drifted through him felt better than any one ever had. “Yeah, I am. Are you?”
Shyness seemed to swallow her whole. “On the floor playing spoons? It’s the most fun I’ve had in a month.”
A month. He caught the inference although he couldn’t quite believe she could mean it the way he took it. As he looked at her, it was impossible not to throw caution to the wind and sweep her into his arms, but she looked so innocently sweet his protective side saved her even from him. “What? Talking to me over Christmas wasn’t fun?”
The tug of her on his heart was unfathomable, and her smile yanked him another chainlink closer to her. “That was fun, but this is better.” She picked up the bowl of carrots. “We’d better get back. They’re going to think we took off to Alaska.”
He grabbed his own bowl to follow her. “Alaska, huh? That could be interesting.”
She shook her head as she surveyed him head-to-toe. “You don’t look like the frozen tundra type.”
He tilted his head teasingly. “I don’t know. It might not be so bad. At least I’d have you there to keep me warm.”
From every moment he’d spent with her, Jeremy knew the second he said it how she would react—ducking back into her turtle shell. However, she just rolled her eyes and smirked at him. “You’re getting as bad as Eric.”
Jeremy put his hand to his chest. “Oh, now that hurt.”
She shrugged innocently as she pushed through the door. “Hey, if you can’t stand the heat…” And with that, she left him standing, wondering how anyone could so thoroughly take his breath away and leave him only wanting more.
“Mine. Mine. Mine!” In panic Jeremy grabbed for the spoon as it slid across the coffee table, but he only succeeded in knocking it farther away. He jumped to his feet and went headlong across the wrought iron and glass table. Emily was frantically trying to grab it as well, but neither one got a good hold of it as it spun away from them both.
“Ahh!” she screamed as chips flew in all directions. Jeremy crunched them under his knees and then his chest as he came over the table. “I’ve got it.”
In the next second they both righted themselves, fighting and scrapping for control of the small silver object both of them held.
“Mine. Let it go. I had it first,” he said, trying to yank it from her, but Emily had the ladle end, and she wasn’t about to let go.
“In your dreams, buster.” She jerked it so hard, Jeremy almost crashed off the table onto her lap. The force of her yank coupled with his letting it go knocked her backward, and she went tumbling. She smacked into the couch with a head-jerking thwack. Jeremy picked up his hands, and when he looked, they were empty. Giddy, Emily jumped to her feet and did a short cabbage patch dance. “You wanted it. I got it. I beat you. Ha. Ha. H-ha. Ha!”
In utter defeat couched firmly in amusement, Jeremy watched her and let his hands fall to his chest as he lay back on the table spent. “You got lucky.”
She struck a diva-like pose. “Luck had nothing to do with it, babe. I’m good.”
From the other side of the table, Eric laughed. “Hey, Jere. You remember when Rebecca beat me at pool, and you said, ‘You got thrashed by a girl’?”
Jeremy let out a sigh, but he never moved. “Yeah?”
“Well, welcome to the club, buddy.”
Emily smiled down at him in sheer delight. “You want some help up?”
He looked at her skeptically. “Do you promise not to hurt me?”
She laughed. “Only if you’re good.” With that, she held her hand out to him, and he took it to pull himself upright.
“Oh, you’re toast, man,” Eric said as he watched them. “Get out the butter and jam. You are so toast.”
Emily wasn’t sure exactly why the whole evening had seemed so effortless. Maybe it had to do with the hours and hours they had spent on the phone. Maybe it was getting to see him again. Maybe it was the heart-stopping new look he had. She didn’t know, but for whatever reason, teasing him had suddenly become very fun. It was like he didn’t know how to take her, and keeping him just a little off-balance was a game she was enjoying to the hilt.
When Rebecca decided to call it quits at one in the morning, Emily knew it was time to go, but still she didn’t want to. This, whatever it was… being with him… It was like getting plugged into a light socket, and she wasn’t at all sure she would ever want to feel anything else again.
Eric took Rebecca to the door and out into the hallway. They closed the door behind them. Instead of following them, Jeremy discreetly wrapped his hand over Emily’s and tugged her over to the three stairs leading up from the living room. For a second she hesitated, but then she turned her feet and followed him to the steps where he sat down. She sat on the step just down from his. The crook of his knee supported her as she leaned back into it. His hand dangled off his knee behind her. It glided through her hair, nudging her to the edge of sleepiness.
She closed her eyes and let herself relax into rhythm of his touch. Moments drifted over themselves as they sat simply enjoying being together again.
“How do you do that?” he finally whispered, and she caught the shake of his head when she opened her eyes.
His gaze was steady and full of wonder. “Just sit there and make me feel like this.”
She couldn’t have looked away had she tried. “Like what?”
His gaze slid over her as if mesmerized. “Like you want to be with me.”
That sounded funny, and she let out a confused laugh. “I do want to be with you.”
His fingers in her hair sent her senses scattering. “Why?”
How he could even ask the question was beyond her. “Why not?”
Slowly wonderment, confusion, and then hope traced through his face. His gaze intensified to the point that it could’ve burned holes through her and then fell into sadness so deep she could see the tears behind it. “I don’t want to mess this up.”
Gently she let her head move side to side as her heart took in his gaze. “You won’t.”
The moment drifted to a stop around them, and for the next eternity the world seemed to not even be spinning anymore. Then ever-so-slowly he moved. His advance was so soft and so slow that Emily had time to will his lips all the way to hers. She willed him even past the small hesitation he made just before he got to her. However, the first touch of his soft lips swept her breath from her chest as if he had taken her by complete surprise. At her neck his fingers brushed under her hair and across her skin. Coupled with the feel of his lips on hers and being cradled by his body, it was like nothing she’d ever felt before. She was falling through space and time, and she didn’t even care.
He wasn’t pushing. He wasn’t demanding that she give him anything. Instead this felt like protection and security and love. Love. The word knocked the remaining air from her, and with her head swimming for lack of oxygen she pulled back from him. He didn’t pursue her, simply inched backward as his gaze slid through hers.
“I’ve got to go,” she said softly, wanting not to break the spell but knowing where this could lead if she didn’t. “I’ve got church in the morning.”
What reaction she had expected, she didn’t know, but whatever it was, it didn’t come. Instead he nodded slowly and smiled the softest smile she’d ever seen. “Then we’d better get you home.” With one more brush of her shoulder with his hand, Jeremy helped her to her feet, which was less-than-easy because he was under her.
Still when she was on her feet, Emily wished he hadn’t been so easy to convince. She brushed her jeans off self-consciously. On their way to the door, he took her hand again, and the warmth of his hand always snagged her attention. At the door she stopped and turned back to him.
“You be safe driving home,” he said, tilting his head to the side, his gaze soft and liquid.
Emily leaned back on the door, wanting only to find some excuse so she wouldn’t have to go. “Always.”
The hand that wasn’t holding hers slid past her temple to the door behind her as he bent toward her. Head-spinning desire cracked through her as his hand let go of hers to come up to the side of her face. In seconds the kiss was over, and she was left gasping for breath. With a shaky hand she reached for the door knob behind her. She nodded even as she blinked. “I’ve got to go.”
However, when she spun the knob, it was heavier than she had expected it to be. In the next second, Rebecca toppled into the room, and the four of them stood there awkwardly knowing full well what the others had been doing. Or at least sensing that the others knew what they had been doing.
“We’d better go,” Rebecca said, being the first to string together a coherent thought as she rubbed her bottom lip with her knuckle.
“Yeah,” Emily agreed. She snapped casual over all of the emotions and smiled at Jeremy. “Take care.”
He ran his hand over his head. “Yeah. You too. Good night.”
They made their way to the elevator amidst a hail of good nights. Once inside with the door safely closed, Emily heaved a breath and closed her eyes.
“So can I say I told you so now, or should I wait ‘til later?” Rebecca asked.
All Emily could do was smile.
“Ugh. I hate new semesters,” Emily said as she dragged herself and her backpack down the Science Building hallway. “New schedules. New classes. Like I have no idea where Lab 105 even is.”
“Oh, when’s lab?” Rebecca asked, walking as if this was easy.
“Right now.” Emily looked at her watch. “No. Make that five minutes ago.”
Concern fell over Rebecca’s face. “You’re not going to lunch?”
Emily shook her head even as she read the descending room numbers. “Can’t. Wildlife calls. But eat something for me. I don’t get out today until four.”
“Four? What are you crazy?”
“It was either that or have a lab today and one on Thursday. I figured killing myself on Tuesday was preferable to missing lunch on Thursdays too.”
“Jeremy’s going to be bummed.”
“Oh, here it is.” Emily turned to her friend. “Tell him I’ll call him tonight.”
The teacher stepped into the hallway to close the door, and Emily shrugged helplessly. Hugging her books to her, she left Rebecca standing in the hallway.
“Hey,” Jeremy said brightly when Rebecca stepped up to the table. “Where’s your sidekick?”
Rebecca accepted the kiss from Eric on her cheek. “Labs back-to-back until four.”
“Bummer,” Eric said.
Yeah. Jeremy retrained his disappointment on his sandwich. Bummer.
“I missed you today at lunch,” Jeremy said over the phone lines.
Emily was lying stomach down on her bed, books fanned out around her. Along with new schedules and new classes, there was always the nagging feeling at the beginning of every semester that maybe she couldn’t do it this time. Maybe these classes would be her Armageddon, and looking at the work ahead that wasn’t such a stretch to believe.
“Yeah, sorry about that. I should’ve just skipped. All he did was hand out the syllabus and go through it line by line like we couldn’t read for ourselves. Such a waste of time.”
“So how are classes?”
She sighed as overwhelm gnawed at the edges of her determination. “Seventeen hours. Five classes. Two labs.”
“Wow, you trying to kill yourself or what?”
“Get through.” The absurdity of that thought struck her. “So I can get back home.” She sat up on the bed and looked around the room. As much as she had always thought she hated this place, suddenly it didn’t seem so bad. She smiled at the old chair. Someday she would think back to this time, and she would miss that old chair.
“You don’t sound very excited about that.”
“Yeah.” The headboard caught her back as she flopped into it. She spun the cord on her wrist next to her ankle which was covered with soft pink socks. “I don’t know. It used to be so important to get back there, you know?”
For as long as she could remember, she had seen the future in bright colors—being back in Colorado, working on the ranch, following through with the only life she’d ever known. However, that picture had become hazy and indistinct as if a fog of uncertainty had somehow shrouded it with new possibilities. “Now. I don’t know. So many things have changed, and so many things… haven’t.” She put her elbow on her knee and let her head fall into the cradle of her hand.
The question twined through her. “Me I guess. I go back now, and everything’s so different. I’m so different. I don’t fit there like I used to. It’s… I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”
“They still treat you like they did, but you’re somebody else now.”
“Yeah,” she said not wholly sure how he could not only understand that but put it into words for her.
“It’s like when I was in North Carolina,” he said. “I used to think that was just normal—for parents to be gone for whole stretches. They used to leave me like that all the time in high school.” He snorted. “I had some great parties, let me tell you. But I always felt like something was missing. The next morning, after the party. It was like, ‘Well, here I am. Alone again.’ I hated it.”
“People back home… it’s like they expect me to be old Emily. I remember her, but I don’t remember how to be her anymore. I know that sounds weird.”
“No, it doesn’t. It sounds… right. It’s like when I came back, and it took me awhile to fall into the rhythm here. I didn’t feel like I really fit either place for awhile, and man, you wouldn’t believe how many people did a double-take when I first got back. It’s like I change one thing, and they all freak out on me, like I’m someone completely new.”
Emily smiled. “Yeah, I noticed your new look. What brought that on anyway?”
“Just tired of being who I was.”
Concern slid through her. “Who were you?”
“An arrogant jerk who nobody wanted to be around.”
She considered how best to protest. “I find that hard to believe. You were surrounded by people. Eric. Desi. Ryan…”
“Good tickets. Fast cars. The good life. That’s the only reason they keep me around.”
“Ah. $10,000 worth of stereo equipment.”
“Yeah.” The hurt screamed through the syllable.
“So you think they only keep you around for what you could buy them?”
“Why else would they want me around?”
It sounded so sincere that Emily had a hard time believing it was the joke she wanted it to be. “And what about me?”
“You.” He laughed.
“Yeah. Why do I hang around?”
This laugh was more self-conscious. “I don’t know. Why do you hang around?”
Caring for him so deep it was like a knife sliding through her cut right through her heart. “Maybe because you’re a nice guy when you’re not trying to convince everybody of that with your money.” She knew it was the truth, but she wasn’t at all sure how he would take the truth.
“And you’re not impressed with that?”
The syllable was soft but firm.
It took a moment for him to reply, and when he did, it was almost a whisper. “Why not?”
Her thoughts drifted back to Colorado. “Because money doesn’t make you worth hanging around. I’ve seen what money does to people up close and personal, and let me tell you, it’s not pretty.” Her gaze fell to her books and then to the clock. She sighed. “Listen, I really hate to cut this short, but I’ve got like five hours of studying staring back at me.”
“Oh, yeah, okay. Well, can I call you tomorrow night?”
She smiled. “You better.”
When Jeremy hung up, he sat on the bed letting the cell phone dangle from his hand between his knees. Emily. He shook his head and then let it flop to the wall behind him. She could read him like a neon billboard. She understood him in ways he wasn’t even sure he did.
He had missed her at lunch, and a soft smile of anticipation drifted through him when he thought about seeing her on Thursday. He couldn’t wait.
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2006