“Yep,” he said, without taking his eyes off his blank screen.
She came around the desk and stood behind him, staring at the blank screen along with him. “Dell—”
“Look,” he said. “I know you think you’re trying to help with the phone calls, the texts, the lunches you keep bringing by, but I want to be left alone.”
“Really? Because when I was hurting, you never left me alone. You badgered, bullied, and pretty much shoved me back to the life of the living.”
“I’m not you,” he said, closing his eyes.
The next sound he heard was that of his office door shutting quietly. He dropped his head to his desk, pounding it a few times because he was a complete asshole.
When the door opened again, he didn’t lift his head. “I’m sorry. I just want to be alone.”
“Got that loud and clear. And nice job on kicking the puppy, you asshole.”
Adam. He sighed. “I meant for you all to go away.”
“Aw, and here I wanted to join your pity party.”
Adam came around Dell’s desk and kicked Dell’s chair back from it. “You sent her away and now you’re punishing everyone that’s left. What the hell’s that?”
“I didn’t send her away. She left all on her own.”
“So ask her to come back.”
Dell shoved Adam away and stood up, stalking to the window.
“It’s unlike you to hole up and hide out.”
“Bullshit you’re not. How many women have you dated this year?”
Dell craned his neck and narrowed his eyes at his brother.
“Yeah,” Adam said. “I can’t count, either. You’ve never even looked back. But you’re looking back now. Why don’t you just man up, tell her how you feel, and work it out?”
“We’re not talking about this.”
“Okay. Except we are.” Adam took the desk chair and made himself comfortable, leaning back, folding his fingers together over his abs. “Because I’ve been voted to kick your ass into gear.”
“Look, she was needed back at home, so she went. It’s not that far. We’re going to visit.”
“And anyway, I should be relieved. It’s a forced slowingdown period, right? Things . . . they were getting a little out of hand.”
“Out of hand?” Adam repeated. “Is that what you kids call falling in love these days?”
Dell turned to face Adam, his ass resting against the window sill because his legs felt a little wobbly. “Who said anything about love?”
“Oh, that’s right. You only love four-legged furry creatures.”
“Aw, you’re repeating yourself again.” Adam stood. “Listen. What happened to us when we were kids, that was . . . f**ked up.”
Not wanting to hear this, or anything else for that matter, Dell gave Adam a push toward the door.
Adam took a step back but held his ground. “But we still managed to make something of ourselves.”
“That was all you, man. Brady and I kept our heads on straight because we had you to look after. And then later on when the both of us lost it, you kept your head on straight. You give everything you have to us, to this place, to the animals that come to you in it. So why can’t you give everything you have to the one woman who’s ever made you happy?”
“Look, I told you, we’ll be okay. I’ll see her whenever I’m in Chicago, and—”
“You’re in Chicago never.”
Dell gave Adam another push to the door.
“Good talk,” Adam said, just before Dell slammed the door in his face.
It took three days for Jade to get back to Chicago. The drive was easy enough, smooth weather, no car problems. Her phone rang steadily. Lilah, checking in with traffic reports, wanting Jade to know about the cow reportedly on the highway in Wyoming, and the detour in Nebraska, and that Lilah had already planned a Chicago trip.
Jade had hung up each time smiling.
Then tearing up.
She missed Lilah already.
Brady called, letting her know he’d changed her oil the night before she’d left and also put on new windshield wipers.
Adam called several times as well, asking about work and scheduling. Things they both knew that he already knew.
No pressure to come back, not from any of them. They wanted what was best for her.
They wanted her to be happy . . .
Dell didn’t call. She didn’t expect him to. But she picked up her phone often and thumbed to his contact info, then set her phone down.
Back in Chicago, she went straight to her town house. There were no surprises. Well, except that when she set Beans’s carrier down and opened the door, the cat didn’t want to come out.
Jade coaxed her with some treats, but after she ate them she went right back into her carrier with a low growl that Jade would have sworn said, This is not home.
Jade’s mother had sent people in to clean periodically and Sam had long ago adopted her few plants, so she shouldn’t have been surprised to find everything in order and in its place, smelling slightly of lemon cleaner.
It was bigger than she remembered. More open.
She’d spent her first day alone, not having told anyone she was back, but by day two Sam had sniffed her out.
He let himself in with his key and called to her from the front door. “Jade?” Before she could blink, he’d crossed the living room, hauled her off the couch and was hugging her. “Jesus, are you a sight for sore eyes.” Pulling back, he stared down into her face and smiled.
When she didn’t return it, his slowly faded. “You okay?”
“Of course,” she said. “Just tired from the drive.”
“How tired? Because your mother’s expecting you for dinner.”
“I know. I’ll go get that over with and then come back here and crash, I think. Catch up on some sleep. Three solid days of driving is pretty exhausting.”
“Is that all it is?” Sam asked quietly, still holding on to her. “Trip exhaustion?”
Pulling free, she moved around, running a finger on some of the pictures on the walls, pictures of her and her family over the years.
Old friends that had easily vanished from her life when she’d left here. There’d been a few token efforts to keep up, from both sides, but that had petered out with shocking ease.
Now she looked at the pictures and realized her real friends were seventeen hundred miles away in Sunshine, Idaho.
And possibly her heart.
Throat burning, she turned to face Sam, forcing a smile that totally crumpled when he just looked at her and said her name.
“I’m just really tired,” she whispered, and swiped angrily at the sole tear that escaped. “That’s all.”
And utterly belying these words, she burst into tears.
His face softened and he gathered her in, stroking her hair. “Oh, Jade. It’s going to be okay.”
She nodded and tried not to snot on his shirt, hoping he was right. That somehow it was going to be okay.
Sam drove to Jade’s parents’ house, which worked for Jade. She was too nervous. Unsettled.
She stirred when Sam got off the freeway two exits early.
“What are you doing?” Jade asked.
“Need to go by the center and pick up some files to read tonight.”
Panic slithered through Jade. “No.”
Sam slid a look at her, then did a double take, his easy smile fading into worry. “Jade.”
“I’m not doing this now.”
“They’re expecting you tomorrow, you know that, right? I thought it’d be easier for you if we went there now, tonight. When there’s no one there. You can walk through, get your bearings.”
Her pulse was up to stroke level and her palms were sweating. “I’m not going back for the first time at night.”
Again Sam sent her a questing, concerned look but he didn’t press. He simply executed a U-turn and got back on the freeway without another word.
“Thanks,” she said quietly.
“I just got you back.” He reached for her hand to give it a gentle squeeze. “I’m sure as hell not risking chasing you out of here.”
Ten minutes later, they pulled up to her family home, which was a large Colonial with a circular driveway lined with oak trees and strategically placed flowerpots to give a sedate but elegant glow of color.
Growing up, she’d run across the grass, picked flowers for the neighbors, and climbed the trees. Despite the place’s sophistication, it had been a warm, family home.
There were cars in the driveway, too many, which made her stomach jangle uncomfortably. Never in her life had a crowd bothered her, certainly not a crowd of what was sure to be people she knew and knew well, but as they got out of Sam’s car, she held on to the door a little too long.
Sam came around for her and took her hand. “Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.” But at the front door she hesitated again. It hadn’t been that long, she’d flown home for a long weekend for her father’s birthday. And then over Memorial Day for another quick trip when her cousin had had a baby.
“Jade,” Sam said softly.
“Give me a minute.” Or another year and a half.
But then the matter was taken out of her hands when the door whipped open and her mother stood there.
“Well goodness, darling. You’re standing out there like a delivery person waiting for a tip.” Lucinda Bennett had given up practicing medicine five years ago now to dedicate her time to Jade’s father, but she hadn’t given up a single concession to looking good. She was in a black Prada cocktail dress, her carefully maintained red hair twisted up out of her face. She was as beautiful as ever as she gestured for Sam to come in, giving him a hug that she had to reach up for since Sam was a foot taller than her.
Sam dutifully bent and kissed his aunt on the cheek, gently squeezed Jade’s shoulder, and moved into the house out of sight.
Lucinda took Jade’s hands into her own and held tight. “So you don’t escape.”
“What, you ran off once. I am not risking it again.” She looked Jade over. “Your hair’s getting long.”
“Yes.” Jade resisted patting at it self-consciously. “Mom, I—”
“And you haven’t been wearing sunscreen religiously like I taught you—you have a tan. Darling, your skin is your age meter.”
Jade let out a low laugh. “I know, Mom.”
“And what is that you’re wearing . . . jeans?”
Her mother’s eyes lifted to Jade’s and filled. “And the cashmere sweater I sent you for your birthday.” She tightened her grip on Jade’s hands. “Oh, baby. Are you really here?”
“Yeah, I’m really here.”
Lucinda pulled her in for a warm hug, then stepped back, searching her pockets for a tissue, which she used to dab precisely at her eyes. There was never an excuse for running mascara.
“Where’s Dad?” Jade asked.
“Right here, pumpkin.” William Bennett rolled into the foyer. Even in his motorized wheelchair, he still cut an imposing figure. He had straight shoulders and thick gray hair that gave an impression of great knowledge and power. He held out his arms and Jade crouched at his side and hugged him.
“Thought I was going to have to come get you myself,” he said with affection in his voice.
“I promised, didn’t I?” Jade said, some of her joy at seeing him diminished by the feel of him in her arms. Thinner. He’d lost weight.
A line appeared between his brows. “Honey, I don’t give a fig about a promise. I thought you were back because you wanted to be.”
“Of course she wants to be,” Lucinda said. “Chicago’s her home, we’re her family.”
William cupped Jade’s face and looked into her eyes. “You’re really okay?”
“I’m okay.” When he didn’t relax, just kept looking at her, into her, she sighed. “Do you want me to promise?”
“No more promises,” he said softly, for her ears alone. “Family isn’t solely about obligation.”
Jade didn’t have words for that, so she hugged him again.
“Stop making me cry,” Lucinda said behind them. “I don’t want to be blotchy for pictures.”
Jade’s stomach shifted. “Pictures?”
“We’re having a welcome-home party.”
“Well, when else?” Her mom pulled Jade through the foyer toward the grand living room. “I sent Sam for you to make sure you showed up.”
Oh, for the love of—
“Surprise!” yelled a bunch of voices as people popped up from the furniture and out of the woodwork—friends and family she hadn’t seen in far too long.
Jade’s gaze sought out a guilty-looking Sam’s.
Sorry, he mouthed. But before she could do anything—and killing him seemed to top her personal wish list—she was surrounded.
Dell was as good at denial as the next guy, but even he was going to need some good distractions to get through Jade’s being gone.
Turned out, he got plenty of distractions.
He was called into Belle Haven at five A.M. A fivemonth-old golden retriever had consumed a kitchen towel and gotten deathly ill.