He and Tessa had been friends back in the day, always running in the same circle, and now she was his father’s second shift nurse. She didn’t appear too inclined to talk with him in depth, except to tell him to move out of the way when she was changing his dad’s dressing or checking his father’s IV.
“You don’t need to be cooped up here with me for hours on end. Live a little before they send you back over there.” His father had turned on the History Channel and appeared to settle back against his pillow. He even waved his hand toward the door, not bothering to look Derek’s way. “Go. Catch up with some of your old friends or something. Drink a cold beer. For Christ’s sake, have two.”
“I have a nice change of clothes for you, Ben,” Helen said after having used her hip to open the hospital room door. Derek automatically stood and took the small duffle from his mother’s hand, also reaching for the to-go bag from The Hamburger Shack. It didn’t surprise him to catch sight of lettuce in one of the clear plastic containers. Maybe he should take his dad up on his offer to get out of the hospital for a bit. “Derek, did your father have a chance to tell you about Tessa?”
Derek never broke stride as he continued to cross the sterile floor, though that gut instinct hit him hard that he wasn’t going to like where this conversation was going. His mother always meant well, but she never left well enough alone, usually tinkering until the soup was ruined. It didn’t help that she’d been pushing the issue of him settling down and giving her grandchildren lately.
No wonder his father had wanted him out of the room. Subtlety just wasn’t one of his father’s best attributes, and therefore Derek also lacked the antenna required to pick up a hint.
“No, Dad didn’t mention anything,” Derek answered, setting the bag with his father’s clothes on the chair next to the side table. It didn’t go unnoticed that Ben was shaking his head at his wife, who feigned being too oblivious. Helen knew exactly what she was doing and she was proud of her straightforward manner. He needed to set the record straight. “Mom, you know that I’m only here for one more week on emergency leave. I hope you didn’t go and make any plans that I can’t keep. I have Marines in harm’s way over there and I’m responsible for them.”
Derek held the to-go containers hostage, not that it mattered to his dad. One of the nurses had followed Helen into the room with a tray of food in her hand. It didn’t smell any better than the ranch dressing in the bag he was holding.
“How are you doing, Mr. Spencer?”
“I’m ready to go home today. You need to tell the doctor that. There’s no reason to wait until tomorrow,” Ben grumbled, pressing the button on the remote control that maneuvered the top half of the bed upward. He ever so slowly rose it a little more, so that he could feed himself. “What have you got for me today, Jackie? It doesn’t look like a ribeye.”
Jackie went on to describe a wonderful dish of cuisine that must have been kidnapped and pureed before ending back up on the tray she’d just set down on the rolling table. She arranged it so that his father would have easy access to his food, even going so far as to pour him another cup of water and setting it down on its own round slot in the tray.
She flashed a smile Derek’s way—the knowing kind. It was a measure of pity dosed out for the condemned. He gritted his teeth at being the only person in the room who was currently in the dark about his mother’s forthcoming news.
“Derek, were you planning on attending your ten-year high school reunion?” Jackie asked, apparently taking pity on Derek and giving him some insight as to what his mother might have done. It only served to make him slightly nauseated and any hunger pains he might have had went by the wayside. He shot a look toward his father, who had covered his mouth with his hand. Was he laughing or gagging? “Tomorrow night is the reunion. Well, technically there have been activities throughout the week, but they decided on a masquerade ball as a main theme. It’s all the rage now, and it’s been the talk of the town for months.”
Jackie Bauer had graduated a couple of years after Derek, but she’d been a cheerleader and was most likely still friends with the same general group of people he’d hung out with back in the day. Granted, he’d played high school football, but he’d been way too busy working at his father’s butcher shop to go to anything other than the after-parties with his unattached buddies. He hadn’t been the social type and hadn’t changed much in ten years.
The men he’d spent time with recently were all Marines and they weren’t much for trendy themed balls. As a matter of fact, they only attended one ball each year, and that occurred on November 10th. No matter where he’d been on that date each year since his enlistment, they all had managed to gather together in far-flung places to celebrate their brotherhood.
“I think I’ll pass on the ten-year high school reunion,” Derek stated, hoping his mother had heard him clearly. “I’m here to visit with my family and make sure Dad gets the rest he needs before I go back to my brothers in the Corps.”
“That’s what your father and I wanted to tell you,” Helen gushed, as if she’d done Derek a favor. Ben nearly choked once again on his cherry Jell-O. Jackie took a step back, attempting to fade into the background as she crossed her arms and settled in to hear what gossip she could share with her friends. Her gaze was on his reaction, recording him as if he were on video. He didn’t recall her hanging out with Tessa back in the day, but maybe that had changed since they worked together in the same ward. He honestly didn’t want to hear what his mother may have cooked up, but there was no stopping her now that she’d gained momentum. “Tessa wasn’t going to attend either, but I suggested to her that she just had to go with you and keep you company since you didn’t have a date either. You’ve been with us every second of the day, making sure your father and I have everything we need. It’s time you go out, catch up with your old friends, and have some fun.”
Two weeks. That’s the standard period of emergency leave granted to Marines like Derek, who had received a red cross notification with occasion to take away from his post in Afghanistan. All he’d wanted to do was come home to square things away, ensure his father was in stable health, and then head back overseas to complete his mission. Focusing on his assignment was something he’d lived and breathed for the past ten years. His life had changed from what it was. He didn’t have time to go to reunions and he certainly didn’t need his mother to set him up on dates.
Ben coughed, most likely covering up the laugh he’d been holding back or attempting another thinly veiled alert which Derek would almost certainly fail to interpret properly. His dad reached for the water Jackie had poured him and took a drink. He’d had every opportunity to step in and stop his wife from launching this unthinkable disaster, but he’d let her get away with it anyway—probably for his own amusement. What had he always said over and over that kept the peace during their thirty-seven years of marriage? Yes, dear. Yes, it was appeasement, but that wasn’t the point. Sun Tzu said that you should only fight the battles that you needed to win.
“Mom, you’ll have to explain to Tessa that I didn’t come here to attend a reunion.” There was no way in hell that Derek could eat lunch now, especially a salad. He reached across the lower half of the bed and handed his mother back the bag of food from The Hamburger Shack. Maybe he should head over to The Grange after all. He certainly needed some fresh air and a beer, but the crushed look on his mother’s face gave him pause. Damn it. “You know what? I’ll talk to Tessa myself. I’ll explain my situation and how I want to spend time with you and Dad before I head back to my unit. I’m sure she’ll recognize this as a simple misunderstanding.”
“Mrs. Spencer,” Jackie said, putting a hand on Helen’s shoulder in comfort, “Tessa really didn’t want to go to the reunion anyway. You know that she’s been avoiding Bennett for the last three months.”
Derek caught himself just in time. He’d been about to ask who this Bennett was until the name rang a bell. Bennett Harris. Who else could Jackie been talking about?
Bennett was an unusual enough name that there could only be the one. He hadn’t gone to Catfish Creek High School all four years, either. He’d only attended his senior year, blending in with the crowd. The only reason Derek even remembered him was because he used to come into the butcher shop to pick up his mom’s order. He’d apparently made a name for himself locally, considering the large billboard sign right outside the city limits. Financial advisor of some sort, wasn’t it?
“Well, that takes care of that,” Derek advised, appreciating that Jackie had given both he and Tessa an excuse to back out of attending the reunion. He forced himself not to ask what issue Tessa had with Bennett, because it wasn’t any of his concern and he didn’t much care. He wasn’t a fan of idle gossip. In the Corps, they called it scuttlebutt. It wasn’t encouraged amongst the ranks. It was time for him to leave while he still had the advantage and the ability. “We wouldn’t want Tessa to endure spending an entire evening by being in the same room with someone she has issues with, whatever those may be. However, I am going to take you up on your offer regarding me catching up with some old friends. I’ll be back in around an hour. I just want something more substantial to eat. Maybe I’ll get that steak you were talking about, Dad.”
After having deflected his mother’s focus, Derek didn’t waste any time heading for the door. He breathed a sigh of relief when he stepped out into the busy hallway. It was always hectic this time of day, especially w
hen people took advantage of their lunch hour to visit friends and family. He immediately headed off down the corridor, not wanting to get stopped by Jackie should she be right behind him. He’d dealt with enough for the day. His father’s health was improving, his mother didn’t appear to be too worried, and things were returning to normal. He had more important things to be concerned with other than social events in Small Town, USA.
The next week would go by fast enough, considering Derek would be helping out around the butcher shop getting people and operations set into place until his father was back up on his feet in a couple of weeks. He didn’t mind in the slightest, but it was time to take a break, have a beer, and take stock. Afghanistan was a very dry place, and he was looking forward to his first cold taste of a refreshing American malt beverage, fresh from the tap.
The Grange was calling his name.
The Marriage Contract
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Katee Robert begins a smoking-hot new series about the O’Malley family—wealthy, powerful, dangerous, and seething with scandal.
The Marriage Contract
Teague O’Malley hates pretty much everything associated with his family’s name. And when his father orders him to marry Callista Sheridan to create a “business” alliance, Teague’s ready to tell his dad exactly where he can stuff his millions. But then Teague actually meets his new fiancée, sees the bruises on her neck and the fight still left in her big blue eyes, and he decides he will do everything in his power to protect her.
Everyone knows the O’Malleys have a dangerous reputation. But Callie wasn’t aware of just what that meant until she saw Teague, the embodiment of lethal grace and coiled power. His slightest touch sizzles through her. The closer they get, though, the more trouble they’re in. Because Callie’s keeping a dark secret—and what Teague doesn’t know could get him killed.