Emily didn’t want to be with him. That much was clear. Jeremy wasn’t at all sure after the apartment scene if she wanted to be with anyone, but it was obvious she didn’t want to be with him. How much of that was her dreams and how much of that had to do with her always looking wary of every single situation in life he wasn’t at all sure. As the plane winged its way over the fields of grain beneath him, Jeremy forced his attention to more pressing matters.
He shifted in the seat, pulling his gray suit coat up from the back. He looked at his watch, sighed, and put his head back. Two hours and he would be sitting smack in the middle of the biggest meeting of his life. The junior accounts manager wasn’t at the top of his list for ultimate jobs, but it wasn’t bad either. In fact, many in his class would’ve traded their grandmother to get the shot he had this afternoon.
At the thought of why he even had this shot, he pulled on his jacket again. He hadn’t seen his father in nearly a year—not since just before he found out about the divorce. The thought of seeing him later today made Jeremy put his head back and close his eyes. It had been a year of pain and misery such that he never could have guessed. So much had changed, and yet so much inside him hadn’t. He still didn’t want this job, but he still didn’t know what he did want. Once again he was single, but this time he had no intention of getting back in the game.
Girls were good for only one thing—breaking his heart. That much was now a given. A hard shell of determination clamped over the pain. He would get this job, and he would be out of Boston forever by June. He thought about his friends, and he wasn’t even sure he would ever make the effort to see Eric or any of the others again after he walked across that stage. They weren’t really his friends—more just people he hung out with, and wherever he went from here, they surely would get separated and lose track. That’s what happened. Even families had a tough time staying together in the future he was staring through.
His thoughts drifted again to Emily as they always did. He shook his head. Somehow he had to get past how different life would have been if they could’ve made it work. Somehow, but at that moment, he wasn’t sure how he would ever accomplish that, and in truth, he wasn’t sure he really wanted to let go of that dream. It was the only thing keeping him in one piece.
“I just came to wish you a good trip,” Rebecca said as she followed Emily into her room. “I’m heading out, but I’ll see you when I get back?”
Emily dropped her suitcase to the floor and pulled the handle up. “Yep. I’m sure I’ll be here. Can’t stay away.” She walked to her friend. “Travel safely. I’ll be praying for you.”
“Right back at you.” Rebecca sighed. “And while you’re at it, keep Holly in your prayers. Okay?”
“Holly? Why? What’s up?”
“Oh, her mom wanted her to go out to California to meet this new rich tycoon guy she’s dating, but Holly’s not going—I think. I don’t know. She’s been in knots for a week. Holly doesn’t want to go, her mom is insisting. It’s a huge mess.”
“Ah, man. I hate to hear that.” Emily hated to hear that. “I’ll be sure to send some prayers her way.”
“Good.” Rebecca caught Emily in her sights. “You know, I’m really glad you’re not mad at us.”
The soft smile came from Emily’s heart. “I wasn’t mad. Just a little confused.”
“Yeah, well. I’ll be praying for that too.”
This smile was brighter. “Thanks. Prayers are always welcome.”
As stupid as it sounded, Jeremy wanted to call Emily so badly it was making his head ache. Over and over again, he shoved that thought away, but it always found its way back to him. He ditched his luggage at his dad’s apartment and headed into downtown Denver. Never had he ever wanted to do anything less. The traffic, although similar to Boston, held a fear he hadn’t remembered ever feeling. It was as if the whole of Denver was intent on swallowing him whole.
“It’s your imagination running away with you, Jeremy,” he told himself as he looked out the window of the cab into the gray, overhung sky. As he put his chin in his hand, all he could think was that he wished he’d had the guts to ask her to pray for him. At least then he wouldn’t feel so impossibly alone.
At the Skyway International Building, the cabbie pulled to the curb, and Jeremy got out. His gaze traveled up the story-upon-story of shiny windows. It was huge. He paid for his ride, and clutched the deep mahogany briefcase a little tighter for courage. “Oh, Holy Spirit help…” It was all he could think to say.
“Well, well, don’t you look all citified,” Michael said, giving Emily a hug when she got to the lobby area.
She hadn’t chosen her outfit with the understanding that she would be evaluated by a guy in dirty, faded, ripped jeans and a chewed up cowboy hat. “Hello to you too,” she said, returning the hug.
He stepped back to survey her and pulled down on his hat as he did so. “Whew! If I’d have known, I would have brought Audry, and we could’ve gone clubbing tonight.”
“Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s not that great.”
However, the appraisal of his gaze said otherwise. It was far from fashion plate perfect, but she probably did look better than normal in her black lace undershirt and suede no-sleeve jacket. The black jeans and brown suede flip-flops with the silver medallion on them didn’t exactly speak of herding cattle.
“Well, let’s get your stuff and jet. Audry’s supposed to be off work by six.”
Emily reachored her purse with a smile. As she watched him, her brother didn’t seem at all like the lanky, awkward kid she’d left. Every time she saw him, he looked more and more like a man. Strange how many things were so different every time she came back.
“Yes, Sir,” Jeremy said. “Here’s my resume.” He handed the paper across the desk. “As you can see, I’m well-qualified for the position. I’m on track to graduate Cum Laude, and my involvement in the Bank of America program for aspiring bankers last summer gave me added practical working knowledge of actual procedures and protocol.”
Mr. Ingram, the company’s human resources director, angled his fingers together as he stared at Jeremy. “And why is it that you want to work for Skyway International?”
To Jeremy, that was obvious. It was because his father had envisioned nothing less for his life since the time he was twelve; however, he could hardly use that as his reason. “Well, Sir. I have watched the employees and management of Skyway for a long time now. The company itself is solid, and the opportunities here are all-but unlimited. Plus, I have seen how well Skyway treats its employees, and that’s the kind of company I want to work for.”
It was true, all except for the Skyway being that kind of company part. Long stretches of his father being gone to Hong Kong, London, Houston, Boston, and Seattle drifted just beneath his consciousness. In truth, he wanted no part of the corporate life, but he couldn’t bring himself to so much as think those thoughts much less say them.
“I’ll be honest with you, Mr. Stratton,” Mr. Ingram said. “The fact that your father has such a stellar track record with the company will likely weigh heavily in your favor. I’m quite sure we can find some place for a young man of your character and work ethic to start in our company.” He nodded. “I’ll put your qualifications through the hopper and see what position you would be most useful to us.”
Jeremy had to force the smile because his gut was screaming at him to leave. “That’s wonderful, sir. Thank you very much.”
They stood, and Jeremy shook the older man’s hand. “I look forward to hearing from you.”
By the time he got back to the apartment, Jeremy felt like a dishrag. His nerves were fried, his sanity shot. He wondered what his father had planned for dinner or if he’d even thought about it. Was he supposed to wait or just go ahead? Would it be late, or would his father actually manage to show up before he was in bed? There really was no way to tell.
Fighting off the loneliness, he flopped onto the stately mahogany colored couch and tried to get comfortable. It wasn’t easy. He pressed the remote, and the doors of the entertainment center slid open to reveal the television. It covered half of one wall, which was bigger than two of his apartment’s walls put together. He tried to make this feel like it was supposed to—being on top, successful, having made it in the world.
But as hard as he tried to make it feel that way, the more he knew it just wasn’t.
At ten ‘til eight, the phone rang. He reached for it. By that point he would’ve been thrilled to talk with a telemarketer. “Hello?”
“Hey, bud. So I’m hearing some good things about your interview,” his father said over the phone lines. “Ingram seemed downright impressed.”
“Oh. That’s good.” Jeremy punched the volume down button. “I was wondering what’s up for dinner.”
“Oh, yeah. Hey, listen. I just got word we’ve got a snag in Seattle. Some auditor stuff came up, and I’m headed out. I hope you don’t mind.”
Jeremy’s heart plummeted through him. “You’re not coming?”
“You know I wish I could, bud, but you know how these things are. But maybe who knows? This might only take a couple days. I could be home by Tuesday, and we’ll go out and do something—just the three of us.”
The three of us? Jeremy’s heart sank further. “Yeah, Dad. Whatever.”
“Come on, Jeremy. Don’t be like that. I’ll be back as quick as I can.”
Jeremy didn’t bother to answer.
“Well, yeah.” His father sighed. “Just make like you’re home. Whatever you need should be in the frig. If it’s not, there’s a great little take out place on the corner. The number’s up on the side of the frig.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“Great. That’s what I like to hear. Well, listen. I’ve got to get. I’ve got a ton to do here before I get on that plane.”
“Yeah. Okay, Dad.”
After they signed off, Jeremy reached over for the remote and hit the off button. In one plunge, all sound and light disappeared from the room. The darkness around him crawled across him as he lay down on the couch. There really was no reason to keep pretending. There wasn’t a single shred of this life that he liked. He hated it all, and he knew at that moment that he always would.
“Em! You made it back!” Audry, in her Audry-like way, slung both arms around her friend and danced side to side. Then she stepped back and appraised her. “Wow. You look amazing.”
Emily tucked a strand of hair over her ear. “Thanks.”
Audry shook her head. “You should’ve saved that outfit for tomorrow night.”
“Why? What’s going on then?”
“Didn’t Michael tell you? Janine and Richard are finally getting hitched.”
It took her a minute to find the names in her head. “Janine from when we were sophomores Janine?”
“Yeah. Course, they’re only doing a little wedding, but a bunch of us were going to hit the dance. Janine said to bring whoever we could. The more the merrier.”
Whoever we could. For some reason those words raked across Emily’s heart, drudging up hurt as they went. She put her hands in her back pockets. “I’ll have to see.”
“Oh, come on. I hear Zack may be coming with Dracula again.”
There was an even better reason to stay away. Emily nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Jeremy didn’t bother to get up until almost noon. There was no reason to. He didn’t want to be living anyway—why do more of that than he had to? At the refrigerator, he reached in and got the milk, but one whiff told him that was a bad idea. He put it back.
It was weird. If he didn’t know better, he would’ve thought his father didn’t even live here. That’s when a thought occurred to him. If his father didn’t live here, maybe he was already living with Amber. The thought brought bile to Jeremy’s throat. Probably his father was there. In fact, maybe Seattle had just been his excuse. That way he didn’t have to face his son. That way he didn’t have to deal with it.
Ache coursed through Jeremy such that he could hardly breathe. His spirit felt like the squished bug on the bottom of someone’s shoe. He was in the way, a bother to everyone who had the great misfortune of knowing him. His gaze chanced on his cell phone lying on the counter, and a thought traced through him.
“No,” he said to the emptiness. “I’m not calling her. She doesn’t want to talk to me.”
But the hours and hours she had gotten him through when he was in North Carolina called to his weary spirit. It didn’t have to be a long call. Just kill a few minutes. Make sure she got to Remlin okay. They were friends after all. She had said that. They were friends. And friends called friends all the time. Right?
“Emily, it’s for you,” Derrick, Nathan’s twin, said as he tossed the phone onto her bed. She had begged off the ranch work in order to work on her paper. Once it was finished, then she would have no excuse, but for now she planned on using it as much as possible.
“Thanks,” she said. It was going to be Audry. Why it was so important that Emily go to this dance was beyond her. “Hello?”
In one breath she sat up. “Jeremy?” In the next breath concern smashed into her. “What’s wrong?”
He laughed softly. “Why do you always assume something’s wrong?”
“Because you always sound like someone died. What’s going on?”
“Oh, you know. Same song. Ninety-seventh verse.”
More concern swept through her at the utter desolation in his voice. She wound a strand of hair over her ear. “Why? What happened?”
“Same thing that always does.” He sounded as if he was fighting back tears. “I get here, and everyone bails.”
The city’s name thwacked into her. “I didn’t know you were going to Denver.”
“Yeah. It’s my dad’s holiday to have me, but as usual, he ditched me for bigger and better things.”
Anger snapped into her. “You’re there by yourself?”
“Until Tuesday or Wednesday. If whatever he’s doing in Seattle is finished by then, and if he doesn’t come up with something better to do, which of course he will.”
“So you’re alone for all of Spring Break?”
“Looks like it. Me and the TV. It’s great fun.” He was trying to sound okay with it and failing miserably.
Then through the concern slid a thought, but Emily shook her head. It was crazy. What would he want to do that for? More than that, why should she want him to?
“Well,” he said, “I was just calling to kill a few minutes. I guess I’ll see you when I get back.”
“Yeah.” She took a breath and closed her eyes. “Hey, listen, Jeremy. Umm, this is kind of crazy and all, and I’m sure you have tons better to do, but… Well, I was just wondering… I mean, it’s only a couple hours up here, and if you’re not doing anything tonight…”
“Tonight?” He sounded truly surprised.
“Yeah, well.” Her shoulders hunched over her body, and she grabbed her ankles with her hand. “Some friends…” She reached up and scratched at her hairline as nerves attacked her. “Well actually, my brother and his girlfriend are going to a dance up here tonight. It’s no big deal. Just a wedding for some kids we knew back in school.” She lost steam the further into the invitation she went. “But you’d probably think it was lame. I mean… it was just a thought.” She wasn’t even breathing anymore.
“You want me to come? To your parents’ house?” Sheer disbelief rang through his voice, and Emily regretted asking him.
“I know. It’s lame. I’m sure you’ve got lots of stuff to do there.”
“Yeah, me and the television.” He stopped for a long moment. “You know what? That sounds like fun.”
Surprise and fear pounced on her. “It does?”
“Yeah. In fact, that’s the best offer I’ve had in weeks.”
Emily’s heart was beating so loudly, she barely got through the directions. However, as bad as that was, it was no comparison for the moment he hung up saying he’d just grab some things and be there in a couple. A couple? What had she done? Horror slammed into her. Jeremy was coming. Here!
She leaped from the bed and scrambled into the living room, which was strewn with remnants of the family’s week. There was no way she was going to make this place look anything like what he was used to, but the racing of her heart said she had to try.
For added safety Jeremy bought a Colorado map on the way out of town. The little black SUV he’d rented for the trip hummed underneath him as he fiddled with the stereo that only had a radio. Surely there was something decent to listen to. He found a song that wasn’t wholly horrible and settled for that. Why had he not thought to bring his iPod? It was back at his dad’s in the suitcase. Oh, well. Too late now.
Turning onto the Interstate, he headed due west. The pit of his stomach alternated between excitement and fear. The fact that she had even suggested this trip was more than he ever could have asked for, and yet, he wasn’t sure he could handle a whole evening with her in which he had to pretend he was cool with the whole just being friends thing. Going to a wedding with a friend of the opposite sex was a set up for an inundation of innuendos and snide remarks. He didn’t want that for her, and he wasn’t sure he would be able to handle it himself.
Just as his nerves threatened to take a dive off the edge of the Interstate, he let out a quick breath. “Okay, Holy Spirit, You’re really going to have to help with this one because I have no idea what I’m doing here.”
The beauty of the mountains took over his consciousness then. The green of the coming spring danced around him in perfect relief to the azure sky. Puffy white clouds spoke of purity and peace. He didn’t remember seeing them in Denver. Maybe they were there. Maybe they weren’t. But he was glad they were here now. They settled him in a way nothing had in a very long time.
His spirit began to unwind, and as it did, slowly it took in more and more of the day. He reached down and turned up the music. A breath and he smiled. It didn’t matter that she didn’t want this to be permanent. For this one moment he would forget about the future and what it would hold and what it wouldn’t. For this one moment he would just enjoy the gift that he would get to be with her.
For this one moment, he would enjoy life—whatever it brought.
“Honey? Have you been cleaning?” Emily’s mother asked when she walked in the back door at two o’clock.
Emily raced out of the back and grabbed the last stack of her father’s Cattleman’s magazines. “Yeah. I hope you don’t mind.” She ran for the back, threw them on her father’s desk, shut the door, and raced back out. “I invited a friend of mine from school over. He’s going to be here any minute.”
She ran to the kitchen and stacked the dishes she had washed together.
The racing stopped long enough for Emily to plead with her mother even as she held the dishes. “Please, Mom. Please. Don’t embarrass me. He’s just a friend, and he was sitting in his father’s apartment in Denver bored and miserable.”
“Where are his parents?”
“Non-existent.” The word stunned her with its venom. She shook her head and put the dishes in the cabinet. “It’s a really long story, but he’s coming to go to the dance with us tonight just to have something to do.”
The sound of tires crunching up the gravel driveway echoed through Emily’s heart. Her head jerked in the direction of the sound. “Oh, my gosh! He’s here already! Oh, no.” Her gaze dropped to her unkempt appearance. “I’m not ready! I look like Lurch.”
“Emily, sweetheart, calm down.” Her mother extended a soothing hand. “You go get ready, and I’ll show him in.”
“O—okay. But really, Mom. Don’t embarrass me. Please.”
“I won’t.” Her mother led her into the hallway and pushed her in the direction of her room. “Now go.”
At her door, Emily stopped. “Oh, his name is Jeremy, and he’s a business major. Jeremy Stratton.”
“Emily! Would you go? I can do this.”
“Please, be nice to him, Mom. Please…”
The knock sounded on the front door, and Emily squealed. Her mother waved her away into her room. Emily stepped in but didn’t close the door totally. Instead, she left it open a crack so she could hear what was going on in the living room. The sound of his voice washed over her, and she squealed softly again. He was really here. Quietly she shut the door, and her gaze shot around the room. Jeremy Stratton was here! Now what?
“Hello, you must be Jeremy,” the tall lady with the deep olive skin said as she extended her hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said. He was having trouble taking it all in at once. The long covered porch, the sweeping vista of the field waving in green out front stretching to the mountains ringing it, the old ranch house, the stables just off to the left. There was so much, and it was all amazing.
“Please, come on in.” The lady stepped back, and Jeremy climbed the last step and walked into the house. It was literally nothing fancy. Old beige carpet that was worn in spots, an old grayish couch with the stuffing showing in the back cushion, a painting of trees and a sunset that looked 50 years old or better—there wasn’t a single thing that looked even close to modern. “Have a seat. Would you like some tea or lemonade?”
“Oh, uh. No thank you.” He sat down on the couch as if it might collapse from under him.
“So, I hear you’re from Denver.”
Jeremy’s attention swung from the large picture window framing the field beyond. “Oh, my dad is. I was just visiting.”
“Ah.” The lady raised her chin in understanding. She sat down in the recliner with the scratchy looking brown covering. “You’re a business major?”
He rubbed his hands together, wanting to be polite but really wondering where Emily was. “Yes, Ma’am. I graduate in May.”
“Oh, well… that’s wonderful.”
The bang of the backdoor brought Jeremy’s nerves right to the surface. Instantly the lady jumped to her feet. Jeremy too stood as the lady rushed out. There was a hushed conversation in the kitchen—something about getting rid of the salesman. Then the lady was back with a man twice as big as Jeremy and ten times dirtier than he had ever been in his life. He gulped his nerves down and extended his hand.
“Pedro, this is Jeremy, Emily’s friend from college,” the lady said.
“Mr. Vasquez,” Jeremy said, praying that was the right name, and he wouldn’t offend this man who looked like he might kick Jeremy back to Denver with his filthy cowboy boots for a wrong look at his daughter.
Just before Jeremy completely lost his last nerve, he heard a door down the hallway the other direction open. In self-defense he turned toward it, hoping it wasn’t another member of her family coming to size him up. However, the second he caught sight of her gliding gracefully down the hall, all the sizing up in the world was worth it.
One hand was stuck in the back pocket of her faded denim jeans. It brought her shoulder up in the customary shy way that sent his heart soaring. “Hey, you made it,” she said, and that soft, sweet voice unleashed the rest of him.
He could hold the smile in no longer. He was sure the whole room could hear his heart pounding. “Hey, Em. How’re you?” With everything in him, he wanted to reach out and take her hand, but he knew he shouldn’t. Instead he reached over and gave her a quick hug which she returned just enough. Then their arms dropped between them.
“So, how was the drive?” she asked, clearly straining for something normal as her glance went across his shoulder to her parents.
“Good. You give great directions. I had no trouble at all.” He turned slightly to include her parents in the conversation. “It’s really beautiful up here. The mountains and the lake on the way up. They’re amazing.”
“Little different than all those buildings you’re used to, huh?” Mr. Vasquez asked.
“I’ll say. I was just thinking on the way up, I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen the sky. Well, of course in the airplane on the way out, but I don’t know if that counts.”
Amazingly the others laughed, and Jeremy’s nerves unwound a notch.
“Well, I’d better get back out there before Curt notices I’m gone,” Mr. Vasquez said. He held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Jeremy.”
“You too, sir.”
On her husband’s heels, Mrs. Vasquez politely excused herself as well, and then they were alone.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Emily said, and Jeremy really liked the excitement in her voice. It gave him a hope he hadn’t felt in weeks. Together they sat on the couch. It was wonderful to see her so happy and carefree.
“Do you want something? Tea? Lemonade? Root beer?”
“Root beer?” he asked incredulously.
“I know, it’s lame.” She tugged on the bottom of her shirt. “But my brothers love the stuff, so we always have a little stash of it.”
As crazy as it sounded, he loved how she could pull off shy, nervous, and gorgeous at the same time. “No, I’m fine. Maybe later though.” He pulled his knee to the couch so he could turn and look at her. “So you were serious about this dance thing?”
“Yeah. It’s at nine.” She let her gaze fall to her hands. “But if you don’t want to go, I’ll understand. I mean, it’s not Fire & Ice or anything.”
The reference knocked into him, and he smiled softly. “Maybe that’s a good thing.”
The afternoon and early evening flew by. They ate dinner with her family and then got ready for the dance. Jeremy disappeared into her brothers’ room, and Emily raced through her own preparations in her room. She didn’t want him to have to spend more time alone with her family than absolutely necessary.
However, apparently he didn’t have make-up and mismatched shoes to deal with because by the time she got ready, he was again sitting in the living room only now Nathan had talked him into playing some X-Box game. The twins had gotten one for their combined birthday/Christmas present in December. That’s about all they did when they were at home now.
“Well, ready or not,” Emily said as she stood behind Jeremy watching him work the joystick. He turned, and in one breath the game was forgotten. On the screen his ship plunged through outer space and exploded in a brilliant orb of golden light.
“Wow.” Jeremy scrambled to his feet and adjusted the waist of his gray suit pants. “Very nice.”
She had opted to wear her black pants that flared a little at the bottom along with her emerald satin and black lace blouse. The dense black lace plunged from her neckline down the center of the shiny emerald material, cinching at all the right places. Even better her hair had cooperated for once in her life. She had put it up with a faux emerald and diamond clip at the top and let it trail down her shoulders on both sides.
“Wow, Em,” Nathan said from the floor. “You got a hot date or something?”
Searing heat scorched across her face, and her gaze fell to the floor. Across the room her mother walked in drying her hands with a dishcloth. One look and approval danced through her mother’s eyes.
“You kids have a good time. Tell Michael that he and Audry can come for lunch tomorrow. I set out a couple of chickens.”
“Fried chicken? You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t show up tonight,” Emily said with a laugh as she wrapped her arms around themselves. She’d never felt more intimidated just standing in her parents’ living room as she did at that moment.
It was as if Jeremy had lost the ability to think much less to move. He was fighting not to stare at her, yet that’s all he wanted to do. “Umm, do I need to bring my suit jacket?”
Her laugh lifted his heart. “Everybody else is going to be in jeans. I don’t think we have to get too formal.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, are you ready then?”
Emily nodded. Jeremy managed to get himself to take a step toward her, and the second he did, he knew this was going to be an all-out battle to keep himself from doing something stupid. She smelled like a garden of flowers. Oh, Holy Spirit, help.
It was strange how easy it was to be with Jeremy when she wasn’t freaking out about him getting too close or he wasn’t trying to act like Mr. Moneybags. It was just comfortable. He didn’t take her hand, and he only glanced at her when she pointed out the turns. However, her spirit soaked in every single second with him like a thirsty sponge.
When they got to the dance, the music was already playing and wedding guests dotted the parking lot of the little community hall. Weddings in Remlin weren’t the invitation only type. Mostly those with invitations went to the wedding itself, and everyone else showed up for the dance to wish the happy couple their best. It was weird by city standards, but it worked very well here.
Several of her high school friends called and waved to her as they walked toward the door, and she waved back.
“Do you know them?” Jeremy asked in a voice swathed in skepticism.
“We went to school together.”
“Oh.” At the door he stepped to the side for her to enter first then followed her in.
The lights over the dance floor were already off, and Emily caught sight of Janine in her long, white satin gown. The smile came unbidden. Her gaze further swept the area. “There’s Michael and Audry,” Emily said, pointing. Without really more direction than that, she started across the hall to their table.
“Well, it’s about time,” Audry said standing to give Emily a hug. “I figured you bringing a friend was some elaborate excuse so you could bail.” Then her gaze traipsed behind Emily to Jeremy. “But I see you were serious. Hi. I’m Audry.”
“Jeremy,” Jeremy said, extending his hand.
Michael stood behind Audry and presented his hand. “I’m Michael, Emily’s brother.”
The words sounded pointed in a way that Emily knew they didn’t have to.
“Jeremy Stratton.” He shook Michael’s hand solidly. Then he stepped back to her side. His gaze slid across the half a thousand guests milling about. “Big wedding.”
“Yeah,” Audry said as they sat. “I think between the two of them, they’re related to like three-quarters of the town.”
“Wow. Really?” Jeremy’s eyebrows arched. He looked out to them dancing. “They look happy.”
“Yeah, they do,” Audry said, but Emily caught the fact that she wasn’t looking at the bride and groom. As Jeremy’s gaze slid through the hall, Audry caught Emily’s. “He’s cute,” she mouthed, looking as serious as Emily had ever seen her.
“We’re friends,” Emily mouthed back.
Audry nodded in a knowing way that screeched across Emily’s heart. Subtlety had never been Audry’s strong suit. Worse, Michael looked like he could chew nails. This had been a very bad idea. She wished she hadn’t asked. But just then Jeremy turned to her, arched his arm over her chair, and smiled at her.
“This is fun.”
It made all the bad stuff disappear.
Audry and Michael were dancing. Although she had talked to her brother and her friend, Emily had been pretty quiet the whole night. It wasn’t so much a sad quiet more a contented quiet meant to keep things nice and friendly between them. However, Jeremy finally could stand it no longer. “You want to dance?”
The surprise in her eyes knifed through him. But she didn’t say no. She didn’t say anything. Instead she simply laid her hand in his and stood. On the way to the dance floor, she tugged her blouse down, and when she turned to step into his arms, she never even looked at him.
Through the DJ’s speakers poured a country beat, and Jeremy noticed everyone else doing a dance that had steps to it. “I don’t know how to do this.”
“It’s not hard,” she said, stepping back from him. “It’s just two steps forward and one back. Step. Step. Back. Step. Step. Back.”
He missed the back part. Frustration with his lack of coordination poured over him as he stepped back and away from her. “Sorry.”
However, neither sounding nor looking at all frustrated, she smiled. “It’s okay. Try it again.” She came to him and right into his arms. “Step. Step. Back. Step. Step. Back.”
It felt so unnatural, so different than the simple swaying motion he had gotten so used to in Boston. His gaze was on their feet, and he liked getting to look at her toes peeking out of the black strap sandals.
“Step. Step. Back. Step. Step. Back. See it’s not so hard.”
He still felt like the tin man, but she was beginning to feel like smooth butter in his arms. Around them couples swirled with much more grace than they were exhibiting, but strangely he didn’t feel their stares of disapproval like he thought he would. She was right about one thing. There were as many people in jeans and dress shirts as there were in suits. Even most of the girls wore jeans.
His attention slid back to the dancing, and his head bent with hers to watch their feet. Something about that made his heart swell. It was as if she was letting him into her life rather than trying to fit into his. He glanced up at her, and when she caught his gaze, he couldn’t stop the smile.
“Not too bad for a city boy,” she said teasingly.
“Why thank you, Ma’am.” He missed the first step forward and nearly tripped over his own two feet. It took a minute to fall into rhythm again. “I thought us city folks were supposed to be the ones with the complicated dances.”
“Just wait ‘til we get to waltz.” The amusement in her eyes dragged happiness right out of him.
“Uh-oh. Maybe we’d better quit while we’re ahead.” On their third pass around the floor, he was finding smooth at least enough to stop looking at their feet. “So did you dance a lot in high school?”
“Some,” she said, but the smile on her face fell when her gaze slid past him to the door just as that song ended. Immediately she let go of him and wrapped her arms around herself to head back to their table. “Thanks.” In slight confusion, he glanced in the direction she had as he followed her off the dance floor. He could see nothing out of the ordinary for here anyway. Just a bunch of cowboys in pressed jeans and multi-colored shirts.
Trying to figure out what had happened, he traced her steps back to where Michael and Audry stood.
“Joy of joys. Look who ventured out of his coffin,” Audry said with sarcasm saturating the statement. “Why can’t he do the rest of us a favor and stay in his lair? He’s such a jerk.”
Jeremy was looking the direction they all were, but still he couldn’t piece together who they were talking about.
“I should tell Dad he’s back,” Michael spat. “That’s information he definitely needs to know.”
“I’m sure the animals would like some warning too,” Audry said.
“Come on, guys,” Emily said, but it was clear the words were strangling her to speak. “We came here to have a good time.” However, she didn’t look like she was taking her own advice.
Jeremy’s mind fell into concentration. Whoever they were discussing was evidently not Mr. Popularity. “What’s up?” he asked in confusion, not understanding the pallor that had fallen over the festivities.
“Oh, it’s just Brock Wycliff,” Emily said. “His dad owns the ranch.” She brushed a strand of hair that had fallen from the clip. Without warning, she grabbed his hand. “Come on, let’s dance.”
When she was again in his arms, Jeremy concentrated on the steps for a half time around the floor so he wouldn’t mess up and send both of them crashing to the tile covered concrete. Finally he fell into the rhythm, and his attention went to other things. “So what’s up with this Wycliff guy anyway?”
In annoyance she glanced the direction they had been looking. With a small shake of her head, she dragged her gaze back to his chest. Her face looked like she’d eaten a rotten lemon. “He thinks he owns everything and everyone.” She spun them both as if she was the one leading.
His feet followed, but he had no idea how. “Because…?”
She sighed. “Well, his dad owns the ranch like I said, and Brock kind of thinks that means he can do whatever he wants. He brings friends up from Princeton, and they go hunting.”
There was more, but she didn’t continue.
“And that’s a bad thing?”
“Oh, hunting’s fine if you’re legal, but Brock really doesn’t care too much about little things like laws and fines. He just does whatever he wants, and nobody has the guts to say anything about it.”
Jeremy’s concern grew. “But Michael and Audry…”
Emily shook her head. “Everybody knows, but he’s got the money and the connections, so…”
Slowly pieces of his relationship with Emily began to fall into place in Jeremy’s head, and he didn’t like the picture they were forming. The song ended, and he thanked her. As they started for their standing place, he glanced back across the floor. “So which one is he anyway?”
Emily brushed the hair away. “The guy in the yellow. The one with everyone fawning all over him.” The way she said it made Jeremy think she would prefer to throw up over pointing Brock out.
Once they were back with the group, Jeremy surreptitiously let his gaze slide to the edge where the bright lights were on. It took little to see the arrogance and superiority the second he caught sight of Brock Wycliff. His blond hair was cut so short it spiked on its own. His eyes, barely slits, were filled with his understanding of his place in the world. Jeremy hated him from 30 yards away. As his gaze went back to Emily, he wondered how closely she had hated him.
With that thought he seemed to really see her for the first time that night. She was trying. He’d seen trying before—like the night of the concert and the night they had gone to the movies. Pieces of them being together slid into and over each other. The nervousness at nice restaurants stood in stark relief to the easy cheerfulness when they were just hanging out.
As he let his gaze trail back and forth between the two of them, he felt more than knew. The need to protect her drifted through him, and he stepped closer to her.
“So, Jeremy, what brings you all the way out here to the sticks?” Michael asked, and Jeremy heard the hard edge of the question.
He glanced at Emily, and then let his gaze fall. “Em was afraid I’d atrophy in front of my dad’s big screen.” The second it was out of his mouth, he hated himself. Heat slid down his neck. How many times had he pointed out how much money he had? How many times had she compared him to Brock and seen the parallels in perfect relief? His gaze slid across the room, and deep understanding plowed through him. No wonder.
Emily wished Brock Wycliff would drop off the planet. He had a way of messing up absolutely everything. Ever since he had shown up, being with Jeremy had gotten terribly difficult. He was quiet, and she could think of nothing to say. They were dancing again, and as stupidly naïve as it sounded, it was the only space she ever wanted to occupy again.
Their feet moved together, his sliding easily next to hers. Closing her eyes, she let the gentle pressure of his hand pull her closer than he had all night. Why did this feel so impossibly perfect sometimes? Her heart begged her to patch things up for real. Why was that so hard? He was a nice guy. Was giving him another chance such a bad idea?
His arms felt so secure. Warm and safe. And the way he held her was like being guided by a cloud. She breathed in his aftershave, and her heart cried for her to stop being an idiot about wanting to keep her distance. Never had she wanted anything or anyone like she wanted him at that moment.
Next to his side, Emily’s hand was wrapped in his. Tucked under his arm, she swayed in perfect time with him as every emotion he’d ever felt crashed through him. She felt so right here, so perfectly in place in his arms. Jeremy let his head rest on the side of hers as his eyes fell closed. Every breath brought her deeper into his soul. Hard had never seemed so far away.
As they swayed together, Jeremy could see no other option. He had used up the paltry amount of his own charms on her, and they had fallen absolutely flat. He knew she didn’t want him, and he knew she was better off without him and his arrogance—not to mention his empty future of slaving for a company he hated. But as clear as all that was, his heart just couldn’t take the possibility of her walking away again.
God, listen. I know I have no right to ask this. I know she deserves better than me, but You have to know how much I need her. I know I messed up. I know I don’t deserve a second chance, but please, God, if there’s any way to get her to give me just one more chance. I promise I won’t waste this one. Please…
The song ended, and in slow motion she drifted backward from him. Her eyes were soft and dreamy when she looked up at him. He smiled, but it hardly got that far.
“Thanks.” The word was hardly a whisper from his heart.
She nodded, and for the blink of a second he considered kissing her. More to it, his spirit considered kissing her because in truth his mind wasn’t really thinking all that clearly anymore. Her gaze fell, and she let her hand fall with it. Between them, her fingers wrapped through his. Disbelief crowded into his heart, and then joy burst through him.
He was smiling like an idiot by the time they got back to Michael and Audry. They were putting on coats getting ready to go.
“You guys leaving already?” Emily asked clearly reaching for normal.
“Yeah,” Audry said. “I’m helping my little sis move in the morning.”
“Oh, Mom invited you guys for lunch tomorrow. She’s making chicken.”
“Well, if Michael comes and helps, we could probably make it.” Audry looked at him.
“Why do I feel like I just got set up?” He laughed as he helped Audry with her coat. “Tell Mom we’ll be there about noon.”
“Cool,” Emily said as she gave Audry a hug. “Well, don’t get lost going home.”
“I could tell you the same thing.” She arched her eyebrows at her friend and then caught Jeremy in her sights. “It was nice to meet you, Jeremy.”
With that, the two of them disengaged from the group and left.
“They’re nice,” Jeremy said by way of making conversation. He missed her hand which had detached from his with the good-byes.
“Yeah.” Emily corkscrewed her face in concentration. “It’s weird. I never could’ve pictured them together, but they make a good couple.”
He glanced at her. Just like someone else I know. With only one arm across her middle, she let her other hand drop to his. He pulled her hand into his. How that could feel so incredible, he had no idea. He let out a long breath wanting the night to last forever.
“So,” she said softly. “You want to dance?”
“Like I’d pass up that offer.”
On the dance floor he didn’t so much as bother with formalities before pulling her close, and she put her head on his chest. It was the most right the world had ever felt.
When they got back to her parents’ house, the mountains were merely more of the darkness around them. Jeremy turned off the SUV in the driveway and sat in amazement as he gazed out at the panorama of stars dotting the night sky.
“I can’t believe how beautiful it is out here,” he whispered not wanting to break the trance. “It’s like nature for real.”
“You’ve never seen nature for real?”
“Not like this. I mean I’ve been skiing and things like that, but that doesn’t even compare. It’s just so… wow. Look at the stars. They’re incredible.”
He felt her gaze trace across his face. “Yeah, I know.”
It took only that much for him to forget all about the stars. He turned to look at her. “I’m glad I came.”
“So am I.”
His gaze fell as remembering knifed through him. “Are you sure? I figured you’d never wanted to see me again after the other night. I wasn’t even sure I should call. I was afraid you’d hang up on me.” It was honest, and it hurt more than he wanted to admit.
In a breath her gaze followed his into the darkness between them. “I know. I’m sorry about that. It was just… I don’t know. I guess I’m not meant for big fancy parties. I know you regretted asking me.”
Concern plowed over him. “I didn’t regret asking you. I just felt bad that you were having such a lousy time.” He felt her arms go across her more than he saw them, and that made him hate himself all the more.
“I’m just not good in those kinds of situations. I feel like everyone’s looking at me like, ‘What’re you doing here? Hey, who brought in the trash?’”
“Trash?” The word crashed on him like an anvil. “You’re not trash.” Intensity turned him to her. “Emily…”
“No. It’s okay. I’m not an idiot. I know what people think.”
This conversation was worrying him more and more the farther it went. “That’s not what I think. That’s not what Eric and Becca think either.”
She shook her head. “I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the others. You know. The suits.” Ache poured from her words in torrents. “I see how they look at me.” Her voice grew soft. “That’s why I keep telling myself that this thing with us will never work out because I just don’t fit into your world—no matter how hard I try. Even if I could afford to wear the stuff they wear or go the places they go, I still wouldn’t fit in. We’re just so different, and I can’t change that as much as I want to sometimes.”
Fury and frustration met in him. “Why would you try to change anything about yourself? You’re perfect just like you are. They’re the jerks.”
“Oh, yeah?” Her gaze found his. “Then why do you try so hard to impress them?”
Searing pain yanked his gaze down. He couldn’t deny it, so he didn’t try. Why did he try so hard to impress them? It was a good question, one he had no real answer for.
“You’re so different when you’re around them,” she said softly. “Like the other night. It was like you were embarrassed I was there.”
His gaze jumped to hers. “Embarrassed? I wasn’t embarrassed.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, it would’ve been nice to be introduced to some of them.” She shrugged. “I know they wouldn’t have cared anyway, but it still would’ve been nice.”
At first he started to protest, but then he reviewed the evening a bit closer, and utter disgust with himself bled into him. He pressed the heel of his thumb to his forehead. “Cripes, Em. I was a real jerk, huh? I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel like that.”
Her laugh was more a breath. “It’s okay. I know I’m not show-off trophy material.”
Jeremy could take it no longer. He spun on her. “What? Are you kidding me? You have more class and character than all of them put together. All they care about is cars and clothes and who they can use to get a leg up.” Suddenly his own values and behaviors were illuminated in a bright, glaring light in front of him, and he hated everything he saw. He put his head back on the headrest and cracked it back once for good measure. “Crud. I’m just like them, huh?” He closed his eyes, trying to shut his own life out. “Oh, man. How did I get here? How did I become everything I always said I hated?”
The interview and his future jumped into his mind. “And it’s like this stupid train I can’t stop too. It’s like I got on board when I was little, and now there’s no ripping up my ticket and getting off.” He sighed heavily. “I interviewed for my dad’s company yesterday.” He was now talking to the night sky beyond rather than to her. It was the only way he could get the words out. “Skyway International. The big time. Man, I hate that company.”
Confusion traced through her demeanor. “Then why did you apply there?”
He let his gaze slide to hers, and he let a goofy smile come to his face. “It’s what’s expected. Besides, what else am I going to do?” He dragged his gaze back outside. “Look at me. I’m the son of a high-powered finance lawyer and a corporate accountant. Success is kind of built into the model.”
“Yeah, but is that success? Really?” It was as if she was burning holes in him, holes that hurt to acknowledge. “Is it worth a broken family? Never seeing your kids? Not being there for them growing up?”
“I had everything a kid could ever want.”
For a long moment she said nothing. Then softly, she asked, “Everything?”
He closed his eyes against the pain slashing through him. The truth hurt more than he thought it would. “No. Not everything.” He shook his head slowly. “Just once I’d like him to say he’s proud of me. Just once I’d like to be first. Just once I’d like to feel like he doesn’t think I’m a complete disappointment.” Once the floodgates opened, closing them was impossible. “I really thought he’d be excited about me getting this job. You know? I really did. I thought that was going to be the thing he’d finally stop long enough to say, ‘Hey, congratulations, kid. You did good.’ I should’ve known better.”
“There’s always graduation.”
Jeremy let his head fall to the side to look at her as all the pain poured out. “He’ll be in Hong Kong. He already told me that six months ago. Of course I’m supposed to understand. Just like I understood about Mom at Christmas and my birthday and the divorce. Yeah. I understand all right.” He resumed looking out the front window. It was too hard to watch her as the words came. “I used to lay in bed at night and wonder what was so wrong with me. Why couldn’t he just come watch me play like the other kids’ dads did, you know? Why was he gone all the time? Even when he was home, he left before I got up, and most of the time I was in bed before he got home.
“He was in all the pictures, but part of me didn’t even feel like he was real. Like my dad was Superman or something. He was out saving the world, and whatever he was doing out there was way more important than me and my stupid life.”
With a snap, he clamped nonchalance over all of it. “No, it’s okay. Really. It shouldn’t even bother me anymore.”
“But it does.”
He couldn’t tell if that was a question or a statement. Slowly he nodded as knifing pain went through his chest. “Yeah, it does.”
She reached across the seat to him, and her arms came around him. The gearshift presented something of a problem, but she managed to cross it so by the end of her journey she was sitting half on it and half in his lap. He grabbed onto her, the hurt from the million little gashes in his soul flowed from him like he’d never let happen before. Everyone thought he was Superman, that nothing could touch him because he was rich and he had it made.
He had scholarships and a trust fund. He had good grades and jobs lined up in front of him. But all the success he’d managed to build felt like his kryptonite. It seared his soul, jerking every arrogant thing he’d ever done to the surface of his memory. And there were many. Too many. They were everywhere he looked. He buried his head into the softness of her shoulder and let himself feel everything he never had. After a few moments he sucked the hurt back inside him and shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
She was only inches away. Gently, she took his face in her hands and gazed into his eyes. “For what?”
There was a soft smile, and then as if they belonged nowhere else, her lips were on his. Their touch jolted something in Jeremy, something that said for once in his life he had let someone know the real him, and instead of running, incredibly she still cared. More than cared—she wanted to show him just how much. A moment and she pulled back.
All the editing he’d ever done to his thoughts before they found the air was history. “You must think I’m a class A jerk.”
The glint in her eye teased his spirit. “Class B maybe.” But she laughed. “No. You just don’t trust yourself to be you. You’re always trying to act like you’ve got it all figured out, like you have to impress everybody so they’ll like you, but that’s not the real you. The real you is a really cool guy that would be real easy for a girl to fall in love with.”
Interest sparked in him as he gazed into her deep, dark eyes. “Really? You got anybody in mind?”
“Oh, I don’t know. She’d have to be kind of geeky, the stay-at-home type who doesn’t like all those fancy parties and trying to impress everybody.”
“Hmm, sounds like somebody I know.” He leaned toward her but just as he got to her, she backed up right into the car horn. It blared loud enough to be heard in Denver traffic, but out here in the midst of the mountain vista, it was like a fog horn.
“Holy cow!” Emily jumped a foot, scrambling back to her seat, smoothing and fixing as she went. When she got to her seat, she stopped dead still. “Did you do that?”
“No. I think you did,” he whispered waiting for the guns to start blaring from the ranch house. He glanced over his shoulder. “You think they heard?”
Her eyes were wide. “How could they not?”
“Good point.” He glanced again. “Maybe I should go in with you. Tell them I’m sorry.”
“For making moves on their daughter?” she asked as the teasing glint in her eye returned.
“Me? I didn’t make any moves. You were the one who came over here.”
“Yeah, but what was I supposed to do with you sitting over there looking all cute and everything?”
The porch light snapped on behind them illuminating the area. Jeremy ducked as if he really was about to be shot.
“Oh, great. Now you’ve done it,” she said. “Daddy’s probably got his shotgun.”
Jeremy’s eyes went wide. “He’s got a shotgun?”
She laughed out right. “I was kidding. Come on, so they know we’re home.”
He scrambled out sincerely hoping there was no shotgun.
At the back of the SUV, she grabbed his hand. “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”
At the porch she didn’t even stop until they were in the house. “Hi, Mom. Sorry about that. Did we wake you?”
Her mother smiled as she took in the two of them standing there. “Oh, no. I’ve been up reading. Derrick had that baseball game out of town tonight. He’s still not home, and I haven’t heard from him. I just thought maybe someone was having trouble out there. I was just checking.”
There was a pause, and although he loved how her hand stayed in his, Jeremy knew it was time to go. “Well,” he said with a decided sigh. “I guess I’d better get back.”
Concern drifted through Emily’s gaze when she looked at him.
“You know,” her mother said, “it’s a two hour trip back to Denver, and it’s late. Why don’t you stay the night? You can have Michael’s bed in the boys’ room.”
Nerves that he hadn’t experienced in several hours pounced on him. “Oh, no, I couldn’t.”
“No. Now I insist. That drive is tricky when you know it and it’s bright daylight. I don’t want you out there all night. If you leave now, I’ll never get any sleep for all the praying I’ll have to do between you and Derrick.”
Jeremy looked at Emily, and her eyes said what her vote was. Finally he nodded. “Okay. I guess it wouldn’t hurt.”
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2006