Chapter 1: Chapter I
"Handsome, clever, rich, and with a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence."
"I tried to call you three times this morning," Julia said. At best, Julia's impatience was thinly veiled. After three missed calls, she didn't bother veiling it at all.
Grace rolled her shoulders back, imagining that her spine was accordion-like, unfolding and realigning. "I've been in the fields all morning."
"Great. La abeja, like always."
Grace rolled her eyes at the nickname, but Julia wasn't there to see. "It's harvest season."
"It's harvest season half the year. You have the run of the place—isn't it time you put your feet up on the desk?"
"I am at my desk." Grace ran a hand over the beveled mahogany. Square, white-framed windows looked westwards—the workers were moving, ant-like, down the rows. Beyond that line of brush-yellow hills, the ocean would be glittering in the noon sun.
Until a year ago, it had been her father's view.
Julia huffed a little, then railed onwards. "You've almost made me forget why I was calling."
"Why are you calling?"
"Trying to get ahead of the local gossip from a hundred miles away. Noel Taylor is moving back to Santa Cruz."
Grace swallowed. "Why?"
"He got married. Is getting married. I don't know—Ike never tells me anything useful."
Grace said, "Good for him." Her left shoulder still felt knotted and tense.
"So…" Julia dragged out the word as only a sister could. "That means Emmett is coming back to Highbury."
Grace had spent the past decade repeatedly telling Julia that she had no intention of admiring, dating, or more to the point, marrying Emmett Woodhouse, without effect. She didn't bother repeating herself. "I think he would have anyway.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But he texted Ike this morning.”
Grace said, “Mrs. Woodhouse will be happy."
"Will you be happy?"
"Of course." Grace stood up, rubbed her neck, smiled a smile that Julia couldn't see. "We all miss him. Highbury isn't the same without Emmett."
Nothing was the same without Emmett.
"Hmm," Julia murmured. She sounded satisfied. "Well, Ike and I are going to Phoenix to see Mom and Dad next weekend, but I'm sure we'll make it up at some point, all family-reunion like."
"You know how I love parties," Grace interposed dryly. "How's my nephew?"
"He cries a lot."
"He's a baby."
"Kiss him for me," Grace said, and sighed. "I should go. This bookkeeping isn't going to do itself."
Julia let her go. And Grace tried to let something else go, but she couldn't, quite. The house felt very empty and quiet around her—outside she could hear the irrigators, the trucks, the low chatter, but the rooms around were brightly, impersonally tomb-like.
She whistled for Paco; he came padding down the hallway with his tongue lolling. Grace scratched between his ears.
"Emmett," she said, to see if Paco would remember. "Emmett." His ears twitched, but it was too hot for him to do much of anything. He flopped down at her feet and bellowed out a contented sigh.
Grace leaned back in her chair.
Yes, Emmett. Back from four years of school in Connecticut, with precious few holidays in between. If there was anyone Anna Woodhouse trusted to look after her most beloved son—Ike had been born first, then played second fiddle all his life—it was Noel Taylor, aspiring philosopher and known entity.
Noel Taylor was pleasant enough. A little weak in the chin, though, and it showed in his character. Grace had always thought him unequal to the task of managing Emmett, especially at college.
Emmett's chin was decidedly stubborn.
"I suppose it's lucky that Noel didn’t get it in his head to leave Connecticut any earlier,” she said aloud to Paco. "Because then Emmett would have been left alone, and that would never do."
She had seen Emmett several times in those years. But in the last two, he hadn't been home at all when she was in Highbury. The last time she'd seen him was at Ike and Julia's wedding, a June before last.
Sibling to sibling. She, maid of honor—he, best man. Of course. Ike would never consider asking anyone else.
Emmett loved his brother as the sun might favor a lesser star, which was to say that he thought of him very little. Then again, Emmett thought very little of anyone but Emmett. Grace had known that since she was six. He had been an intolerable four-year-old, and yet she had never been parted from him for more than a day until he went away.
He had looked older at the wedding. All of twenty, but with the beginnings of surer angles in his face, dark brows above green eyes, sandy hair much sleeker than it had been in tousled childhood.
They had danced, and Grace had not known what it had meant. Then Emmett said goodnight, and made some joke about her truly being his sister now, after all these years, and—sister, that was all that stayed after he had gone.
Emmett went back to study in New England and two months later, Grace's parents announced that they were retiring to Arizona. Tired of the strawberry empire. Tired of what little winter northern California had to offer.
Caballero Fields had been Knightley Fields two years ago—an Anglicization of their name that Grace had never understood. When her father handed over the keys to the kingdom, she told him she was done with pretending. He had knit his brow and talked about marketability, but he had still gone to Phoenix and left her in command.
Command she had, and did, and would. Grace put aside thoughts of Emmett Woodhouse—sisterly thoughts or not—and went back out to the fields.
Rosa Martinez greeted her with a wave and handed her an extra basket. "I thought you were doing the books," she said, in careful English.
Grace switched to Spanish, knowing it was easier. "Julia called," she explained. "The books couldn't measure up after that."
Rosa laughed—Julia was well-known to the workers who had been with the Fields for years—and they fell into a rhythm of picking and talking. Busy though they were, the flood of tourists wouldn't start for a bit. Highbury was still something of a hidden gem.
"Mr. Emmett is coming back," Rosa said, starting a new row. Grace wondered how everyone knew.
"Yes," she said. "The town can run again, with the prince returned. I'll tell the mayor."
"He probably knows," Rosa pointed out, and they both laughed.
Yet the bookkeeping, as promised, did not do itself. Grace leaned over her laptop screen, bleary-eyed in the gray of darkness. She had one of those sun-headaches—had one almost every day. They all did.
She was twenty-four, she was queen of all she surveyed—if what she surveyed were the western fields. But Grace had never cared much about title.
She cared about people, and the harvest, and she cared for—
Well, of course she cared for Emmett.
She wondered off-handedly why she hadn't just texted him more. She didn't like to text; it was the old soul in her—but somehow she'd allowed the distance to rob her of the companionship of her best friend. It just seemed silly, now.
Paco curled up on the floor beside her bed and Grace watched the curtains billow in the breeze. Tomorrow would be another day in Highbury—and so would the day after that.
“You can never go away again.”
Emmett threw an arm around his mother’s shoulders and laughed. “Why would I? I’m college educated, now—and it turns out I didn’t care that much about it.”
“Didn’t care about it?” Her brow creased with worry.
“Well…” Emmett decided it wouldn’t be particularly kind to her ruffled nerves to completely dismiss the usefulness of four years of Ivy League. “It was an interesting experiment.”
“You didn’t need to go to school to learn art,” Mom said, leaning her head against his shoulder. “You knew everything about it already. And the winters must be so cold there.”
“I lost every fingertip to frostbite,” Emmett agreed cheerfully. “Made it impossible to sketch anymore. But here I am again—no, Mom, I was kidding…fingertips and all—and I think Highbury really is better than any other place in the world.”
“It needs you.” She broke away from him and bustled around. “You must be starving.”
“Yup.” But he cast his gaze restlessly around the room. Same old room, long and hall-like, windows facing west, too many sofas. Three, in fact. “Have you seen much of Grace lately?”
“We hardly see her at all anymore,” Mom fretted, which Emmett imagined meant that Grace came about once or twice a day. “She’s so busy. Working in the fields. When her father ran Knightley Fields, he didn’t waste his time doing the picking.”
He wanted to see Grace, very badly indeed. But Emmett knew better than to ever look desperate over anything. He flung himself on the nearest sofa and shut his eyes, cat-like.
He’d driven rather leisurely around Highbury before he’d returned exactly home—had to. Mom wouldn’t want him out of her sight for another week at least. It was a relief to see that nearly nothing had changed.
But Noel would be married.
Emmett was terribly selfish, with good reason—he had a rather remarkable self to look after. He liked his friends close, his enemies managed, and to have Noel forging off on his own, after he’d been like a right-hand man the past four years in Connecticut—
But, well. There was some comfort even in parting. Emmett smiled; he had done his part, and done it well.
“You look happy,” Mom was saying. “But a little flushed.”
He opened his eyes, she was looking down at him, very intently.
“I’m not getting sick, Mom. Promise.” Better head that off at the pass. “So, the Caballeros left Grace alone with the farm? Why?”
“They were tired. Moved to Arizona.” Mom grimaced. “So hot there, you know. Can’t be good for their health.” She fanned herself demonstratively. “And not much thought given to their old friends—who knows when they’ll be back. I hear they handed everything over to Grace. And you know she’s always been so good and wise, but that is a little much for twenty-four.”
“She is twenty-four, isn’t she?” Emmett stared meditatively at the long mirror hanging opposite him. He waggled his eyebrows at his own reflection.
“Hmm.” Grace always seemed ageless. She was older than him, of course—but was that sixteen to his fourteen, or twenty-one to his still adolescent nineteen? Or farther back—eight to six, or six to four?
He stood up. Did it matter? “Ask her over for dinner,” he said.
“She probably won’t come.”
Emmett disregarded this. He pulled his phone out of his pocket. Yes, Grace’s number was here though he never called it—why hadn’t he called her?
No point in thinking of that now. He dialed.
Grace didn’t pick up. Her voicemail message was calm and deliberate. He realized it had been a while since he’d even heard her voice.
“Grace, it’s Em. I’m back. Come to dinner. We’re having—” he paused and gave Mom a questioning glance—“Salmon? Salmon. You know. Healthy-like.”
When he hung up, he shut his eyes again. He was tired, after all.
“Should I have come to your graduation?”
“No—no. I didn’t walk, remember? Waste of time.”
He hadn’t walked because he didn’t want her—want anyone—to feel that they had to fly across the country to him. He didn’t want to see who and how many assembled, to learn whether anyone would really have come or not.
Selfishness was a family trait.
Chapter 2: Chapter II
“Pray do not make any more matches.”
His voice had been a little deeper. Grace had not called him back.
Dinner? She had dinner with Mrs. Woodhouse as often as she could—Mrs. Woodhouse liked the company, needed someone to complain to of many imaginary ailments—and Grace had known their house so long it seemed impossible to let it go.
She had let Emmett go—they all had, maybe, but now he was back again.
Grace walked the half-mile to Hartfield and knocked lightly on the glass-paned door.
Emmett answered—all six feet of him—and she saw at a glance, he was a boy no longer. The very traces of boy remained, but he was more in command of his limbs, even of the wicked, winking dimples of his grin.
Grace could say nothing but his name—he crossed the hall and wrapped her in a tight hug.
“I’ve missed you,” he was saying. Had his shoulders always been so broad? No, they had not. “There was no one to tell me what a dipshit I was being—at appropriate intervals, of course.”
Grace slapped him lightly on the arm. He stepped back, and whatever spell he had had over her fell mercifully away. She only had to avoid looking too long into his eyes.
Now she could grin frankly back at him, just as she ought. “Language!” This, with a nod inside. Mrs. Woodhouse was particular.
“Oh, my mom can’t hear,” Emmett assured her with a lazy wave of his hand. His hands were the same as they had always been—an artist’s fingers, clever and scarred.
“Can I…see any of your portfolio?”
He had spent four years studying art. She had to ask.
“Gave it to Noel. Wedding present. Not a very good one, but he seemed to like it.” He moved restlessly whenever he spoke, leading her down the same old hallway, moving little knickknacks of his mother’s an inch to left or right of their appointed places. “I’m glad I don’t have it, actually. You would have been ruthless.”
“Well, yes,” Grace agreed. “You know I never flatter you.”
“It is a wonder,” he mused, sweeping ahead of her into the living room, “That you’ll come here at all, visiting such a petulant, wretched—”
“I am very wretched these days,” Mrs. Woodhouse sighed, coming in behind them.
Emmett’s expression of abject horror made Grace hide a smile. “I meant me, of course! Never you, Mom. Grace thinks the world of you. Why she hangs around me at all—no idea. God himself hasn’t her patience.” All of this, and dimples!
Grace said mildly, “I only asked to see his portfolio.”
“And no one can,” Emmett all but crowed.
“You shouldn’t have given it to Noel,” rebuked Mrs. Woodhouse. She sunk gloomily into one of the ubiquitous sofas. “And now he’s getting married?”
“Be happy for him, mother-mine!” Emmett was shouting from two rooms away; he had bounded off quite suddenly. The explanation for his disappearance manifested itself a moment later when he returned, carrying his mother’s reading glasses, her book, and a glass of water. He delivered them to her with a wink in Grace’s direction, as if to say, see, I haven’t forgotten how to look after her. Which, Grace felt it only fair to herself to acknowledge, she would never have accused him of.
Emmett took the chair at his mother’s side and said earnestly—Emmett could be strikingly earnest—“It’s certainly an old-fashioned institution, but the best thing for Noel. And I have to say, it couldn’t have happened without me.”
“Oh?” Grace said, arching a brow more by reflex than reproach. “You take credit for Noel’s wedding?”
Emmett didn’t answer—dinner was ready, and he whisked them off to the dining room. Over salmon, he returned to the subject as though they had never left it.
“Do I take credit for Noel marrying Ashley Weston? Absolutely.” His eyes dared her—though to do what, she could never be quite sure, which was why she always parried the look with firm composure.
Mrs. Woodhouse clucked her tongue over her frisée, distressed. “Emmett. Think of his family—who wants a wedding to worry over?”
“Mom”—coaxingly—“I was thinking of him! He’s had a thing for Ashley forever. Ran off to the other side of the country with me like that would fix it. But I knew what he needed.”
“It sounds like Noel figured himself out, and you chanced on a coincidental thought.” Grace finished the last bite of salmon—it was delicious, the Woodhouses had an amazing personal chef—and set down her fork.
Emmett tilted his head. “There it is,” he said. “Your inexorable judgment. Well. Grace’s grave looks aside, I think I may have found my calling.”
“As an artist?” Mrs. Woodhouse frowned, confused.
“Of sorts.” Emmett’s eyes danced. “It turns out that I was meant to tell other people what to do with their lives. And where better to do it than in Highbury? I can’t wait to set this place to rights.”
“Darling—” protested his mother.
“Don’t be silly, Em,” said Grace. The old nickname slipped out as easily as it ever had. “Isn’t professional matchmaker a window you’ve missed by oh, say, a hundred and fifty years at least?”
He laughed. “I’m only half-serious, but I know I’m all joke to you, Grace. I just mean, art can’t do much for my mind most days…I’m in need of a project. Noel was such a satisfying one. Marriage doesn’t haven’t to be the outcome. Just some sort of—improvement.”
“I would have hoped,” Grace said, “That your art would be project enough.”
“In the summer?” Emmett yawned. “No, I have to do something that brings me into the world.”
“I hope,” Mrs. Woodhouse said, “That it wasn’t all for nothing…all these years…” She stood up fitfully, pushing back her chair.
Emmett was at her side, clasping her hand. “Not at all. It was good fun. And I’ll always sketch for you.”
That was enough for Mrs. Woodhouse—she returned to her book and her goodbye to Grace was absent—she didn’t even warn about the dangers of getting chilled.
Grace left a little dazed. Hartfield house was set on a hilltop overlooking Highbury—you could practically see the ocean from it. At night, lights lined the walkway like fallen stars. She heard Emmett clatter down the front steps behind her.
“Yes?” They had said goodnight very pleasantly. She wasn’t angry. It was just—he was tall and lean and grown in that dusky half-light—there was more ease and lean strength where he had been lanky all through his insolent teens.
But—was he changed? Grace felt the two years between them stretch out to a vast abyss, perhaps the widest yet.
“I would go after the scribbling, you know,” he said. Irreverent as always—but serious for once, too. “If only—if only you say I’m good enough.”
Grace sighed and eyed him resolutely. He was beautiful, really, and oddly, magnetically brilliant—and he knew it. Knowledge such as that would dim the grandeur of brighter lights than his.
“You have potential,” she said. She had said it many times before.
“Damn it,” he said, scuffing at the dirt. If he was being contrary, or if he was truly disappointed, Grace couldn’t really tell.
“I haven’t seen any of you of your new work,” she reminded him, in a slightly softened tone.
“I gave it all way.” A touch of desperation there, perhaps.
“Right.” A moth veered drunkenly across her line of vision, flitting from glow to glow. “Emmett…why does it have to be me?”
“Because you’re always so goddamn blunt and depressing.”
Grace laughed a little. Then she shivered. It was chilly tonight after all. “Goodnight, Em,” she said. “You should go in. I don’t know what it’s like in New England, but your mother worries about night air.”
“I never get sick.” He seemed like he was going to stand there forever, a challenge and a demand.
But Grace had to leave sometime, so she did.
A new project wouldn’t find itself tonight. Emmett contented himself with tearing his old workroom to pieces, trying to find something that had more than just potential. Here was an old sketch of Grace—but it wasn’t really Grace, because only one of the eyes had caught that look.
Grace was always fair without reason—never indulging in a flight of whimsy. It made her intriguing and predictable at the same time. Grace did not care to listen to the whole of his story—that even before he was really friends with Noel, he’d seen the way Noel was around Ashley. Or the way he, Emmett, had known that Ashley liked Noel better than she let on. A break to Connecticut might have seemed like a finalizing move to some, but Emmett had known better. With careful coaxing, careful curation, one might say—Noel had been persuaded to try his luck. The rest was history.
He thought of burning the sketches. Then he laughed over the melodrama of the very thought of it, and went to bed.
Mom was in one of her very sociable moods the next day. Which meant, basically, that she had her favorite one home again and wanted to show him off. Emmett pretended to mind, but he really didn’t. It was time Highbury remembered their own.
He only truly minded when she mentioned that Arthur Bates was coming for lunch.
“Why?” Emmett demanded irritably, over the breakfast table.
“Arthur is one of our oldest friends,” Mom said. Not exactly reprimanding him, but as close as she ever got. “He’s just gotten over a bad bout of bronchitis, and he was thrilled to hear you were back in town.”
“Where else would I be?” Emmett flicked at his napkin.
“Nowhere, of course. You’ve never minded visiting with Arthur before…”
That was extraordinarily untrue, but he didn’t bother correcting her. Emmett realized, all of a sudden, that he had left behind the parties and the camaraderie (such as it was) of people his own age. He was too fastidious for some of the drunken revelry that had engaged most of his class year at school, but he liked to be celebrated. And celebration, to be truly satisfactory, had to be performed by the proper sort of people.
Stodgy, middle-aged former apple farmers, recently recovered from bronchitis, need not apply.
He glared into middle distance and wondered if what they needed was a cat. After all, Grace had had Paco for years—sometimes you needed an adoring companion to silently accede your every decision.
Cats weren’t known for their adoration. Scratch that idea.
He tolerated Arthur Bates’ droning over lunch, dull though it was. Arthur Bates was solid, sixty, balding and pouchy-eyed. Emmett could have pitied him, but Bates never shut up long enough to entice pity.
Mom didn’t mind, though. Never had. She hadn’t the same exacting taste in company as her younger son had—she had, after all, produced Ike. It was almost fortunate, Emmett thought bleakly, that she was such a hypochondriac. Absent these occasional bursts of sociability, she mostly kept to a narrow schedule out of fear of germs.
Did he miss Highbury? His glowing, adrenalin-rushed promises the night before seemed ridiculous now.
“My nephew Jake will be visiting me soon,” Arthur Bates was saying. “You remember, Emmett? Jake Fairfax?”
Yes, Emmett remembered Jake. Hated him, in fact. Much, much too serious. Some people thought him talented, which was even worse.
Still, manners were manners. Emmett screwed on a smile. “Great. What’s he been doing?”
“Scholarship for music. Really, really wonderful. He works so hard to cover his living expenses, and I wish I could do more…”
Arthur Bates was very poor. Yes, Emmett had heard this before. He stifled a sigh. Imagined how Grace would look very grim at the moment, if she could see him. Damn it. He needed to go visit Grace again. Teasing her, being lectured—it was much more interesting than this. Again, had he been wrong to rush back to Highbury, as though it would still hold enough for someone of his energies?
Arthur Bates was leaving. Emmett put all possible thoughts out of his head of Jake Fairfax and people who worked their way in the world, and drove out to the beach.
It was too cold to go in the water. Not that he would have; he disliked sand. He wandered the shore and tried to collect himself. Nothing about college—classes, girls, drinking games—had particularly engaged him. It just…wasn’t enough to hold him down. He’d had much more fun debating philosophy with Noel, plotting the next step with Ashley…
There was such a thing as emotional intelligence, if you believed that crap—and there must also be something less emotional, more calculated, wherein one had a talent for managing other people’s lives better than their own.
At first, he’d said it just to piss Grace off, just to bring a bit of color to her cheeks…she’d looked so tired. But the point above points was, of course…he had to find something to do. Had to find some talent.
Or convince people he had one at all.
A project indeed.
Chapter 3: Chapter III
“The real good will of a mind delighted by its own ideas.”
Julia and Ike delayed their visit. Grace wasn't surprised—Julia lived and talked at a mile a minute, Ike was along for the ride, and they'd make it up here eventually.
Julia and Emmett got on well enough, but Julia hated her mother-in-law.
"Just another reason you have to marry into that family, chica. Take some of the pressure of me."
Grace had chuckled. Didn't Julia know? That was all Grace ever did.
That first week after, the world seemed a little like a dream—technicolor and familiar, but with everything shifted two inches over. The status quo on a wobble; every moment a faintly uncertain thing if you spent too much time thinking about it.
But Grace didn't have much time. She was in the fields morning to noon, tried to nap after lunch, and then up to the moonlit hours with business. She liked the mornings best, under the sun. She had been a child among these strawberry rows, feet striking warm dirt, berries like bursting jewels in her hands, in her mouth.
She reminisced sometimes with the longtime workers, but had something closer to a real friendship with Rosa. The Martinez family had been at Caballero Farms every summer since Grace was sixteen. Sickness, health, immigration hold-ups—they'd worked through it all.
Of late, Rosa had been a bit distracted. Grace narrowed her eyes at her, and stopped when she finished a row.
Rosa started, blushed, and bent over her baskets again. "Nothing. But Grace…do you mind speaking English more? I'd like to get better."
Grace filed away the incident but said nothing more on the subject of Rosa's occasional dreamy stares. She started a conversation about the latest L.A. gossip in cheerful English, and the morning passed on.
A visitor at noon distracted her, anyway.
She had been a little worried that the dinner at Hartfield had left Emmett in a State. She had been—well, she had been herself, but something had changed and whether it was unimportant or startlingly infinite, she couldn't be sure. He was older now, but not very much wiser.
Yet two days later, here he was, briskly sauntering up the gravel drive to the farmhouse.
Grace stood on the front steps and watched him, shading her eyes with a red-stained hand. It was a stiff and hot out—the air crackled like dead leaves. Forest fire weather, Grace always thought, no matter what time of year.
“Caballero Farms,” Emmett observed, rocking back on his heels and eyeing the sign on the house. He was dressed as casually as he ever was, which meant everything was still tailored to the inch. The flash of a watch on his lean, tanned wrist was a blinding silver glint in the spilling sun.
“I changed the name back to ours,” Grace said. “Ruffled some feathers.”
“What kind of feathers?”
“The kind that like the brown people in the fields, not in business,” Grace returned flatly. She pushed a tangled lock of hair, damp with sweat, off her neck.
“Screw them,” Emmett said emphatically. “Hell, why is all that so backward in this town?” He shook his head as though it personally offended him. “This whole damn state practically bleeds blue.”
“Well, all that is pretty backward in this entire country.” Grace led the way to the house. “I’m trying to do my part, considering that I’m rich, educated, and don’t have enough of an accent to get much more trouble than being called ‘an exotic beauty’ by doughy middle-aged businessmen.”
“Who said that?” Emmett’s green eyes darkened to something decidedly stormy.
They had ended up in the kitchen. Grace stopped pouring lemonade and turned to smile at him. “Emmett! You don’t need to defend my honor!”
He stared at her for half a second, unreadable. Then, jauntily, he leaned against the counter’s edge. “Pity. I’m itching for a duel.”
She handed him a glass, and sipped at her own, savoring the tang. “Alright, Hamilton. Drink up—and then I’m very sorry but I have to kick you out. Unless, of course, you want to help pick. We can always use an extra pair of hands. The baskets don't fill themselves.”
Emmett drained his glass. “I’d rather die, quite honestly.”
“Just what I thought.” Impulsively—as impulsive as she ever was—Grace reached out and gripped his shoulder. It was…firm. “It’s good to have you back.”
His eyes widened a little—with disbelief, or longing, or something closer to pain--
But he smiled it all away too soon for her to tell. “Good? Grace, don’t bring faint praise to the altar of greatness. I’ve come back to be this town’s savior, remember? To dazzle it with parties and real social opportunities, and maybe to solve a crisis of soul. Or five.”
She rolled her eyes. "I'm more concerned you'll stir up some crises for the purpose of solving them. You know what they say about idle hands."
"Does anyone say that anything about them anymore?" Emmett, as usual, was fond of italics. You could practically hear them, slashed and affronted.
Grace set her glass in the stone sink. "You know, there's more things to do around here other than strawberry picking. You could get a job. Anybody—"
Emmett cut her off with a grimace pulling at his mouth. Emmett had a rather annoyingly nice mouth, but he contorted it to dramatic effect. "A job? God, what would people think." It wasn't even a question.
"That you were responsible. A man of the people."
"Ugh. Girl at college, had a dad who was into marketing—offered to hook me up."
Grace almost said, why didn't you go for it? But what came out instead was, "Were there lots of girls at college?"
He was watching her. A little flicker in his eyes. Then, "There were some. Nothing serious."
Grace felt her cheeks warming up. One of those strange heat surges that came when your body was trying to work out too many hours of the sun, probably. She turned away. "I think a job might be just the thing for you. I'm not saying go be a cashier at Walmart, I'm just saying—"
"I'm rich," Emmett said. "I'm supposed to be philanthropic, not revel in the miseries of a common man."
"Fine," Grace retorted. A touch of irritation had crept into her tone, and she didn't like it. It felt like irritation more at herself than at Emmett. "Have it your way."
"I always have my way," he said, teasingly, and then he was gone—a flash and a frustration.
The books were hard to focus on that day. Grace kept pinching the bridge of her nose. There were some. Nothing serious. What did that mean? Grace hadn't had time for boys in college. She'd been too busy studying agrobusiness and marketing, and helping Julia refrain from various homicides. She hadn't--
Why the hell was she still thinking about that? Emmett was a terrible flirt, always had been, though he was rather neurotically fastidious about being touched. Still, she could imagine him overcoming that, imagine him leaning over some giggling girl, could imagine the heat in his eyes, his mouth--
Grace swore more emphatically, shuffled her papers, and forced herself to shudder the image away.
Lucas Goddard ran a bank that would have been insignificant had it not been for the loyal, long-time patronage of the Woodhouses and Caballeros. As it was, he was another of Mrs. Woodhouse's favored guests.
For the past few months, he had had the difficult task of training one Harry Smith, in the (ordinarily quite teachable) role of teller. Harry had moved out West with dreams of breaking into some sort of management position in Hollywood. Or acting, if nothing else worked out.
Highbury had been a mistake on the map.
As fate or God or the butterfly effect would have it, Harry came to dinner with Lucas Goddard at Hartfield one night, whereat Emmett also learned all of the foregoing information.
Lucas Goddard was a talker.
Over dinner—and in front of Harry—Goddard went on. Harry was no teller, much less an accountant. As for acting? Everyone knew how impossible it was to break into the entertainment industry unless you had friends in the highest places.
It was notably awkward. Harry, however, was unruffled. Further, Emmett could see what Goddard couldn't--that Harry was handsome, in a blue-eyed, angelic kind of way—and eager to please. Which meant someday he could do very well in Hollywood.
Emmett really needed more friends in high places.
"You're Emmett Woodhouse?" had been the first adoring words out of Harry's mouth, and just like that, Emmett had a project.
Harry was from Minnesota. He had no reliable family, no reasonable plan—nothing but charm and earnestness.
Emmett offered to show him around town.
"I've been here for a year," Harry said, a little blankly. He was, it must be admitted, a little blank.
Emmett grinned. "A year without me as friend and advocate. Believe me, it makes a difference."
"He seemed like a pleasant boy," Mom said after dinner. When they were alone again—Emmett folded up in an armchair, a book half-falling from his hands. Mom, burrowing into a sweater because there had been a slight temperature drop.
"Yeah, he was cool." He wasn't Noel, that was for sure. He was more like the endless stream of "friends" at college, who had recognized the natural leader in Emmett's natural swagger, and followed him.
For a time.
He knew, casually and certainly, that he'd never see any of them again.
"You should have friends."
"I do!" Emmett protested, as though he hadn't been musing on the absence of such a fact a moment before. "Noel...Grace..." He hoped she wouldn't ask for more evidence; it could get desperate.
And so, from the beginning, he told himself: he needed Harry too. Not quite so much as Harry needed him, but then, of course Harry needed someone, anyone to tell him to stop swallowing half the consonants in his words, to not hold his fork that way. It was just common human decency.
Emmett was more than common, which was all the better for Harry.
In the summer weeks that followed, Harry practically haunted Hartfield. Emmett despaired of teaching him anything really useful, but appreciated just how much he had missed having someone hanging on his every word. Noel had been a more interesting conversationalist, sure, but he was still on his ridiculously long honeymoon.
And Mom, for all her fascination with her younger son, wasn't much of a listener.
On one subject Harry was oddly furtive. Emmett had decided that finding Harry a girl was the next natural step to success—it had worked for Noel, hadn't it?—but Harry just turned red and told him, as boldly as he dared, to forget it.
Not likely. Emmett smirked wisely. "There's a girl already, isn't there?"
"Not really. Not one I'd...I don't know." They were driving through the countryside—enough time had passed since Emmett last went hiking, and he'd forgotten how dull he usually found it—and Harry shifted uneasily in the passenger seat. "Not really."
"Well." Emmett let that particular angle of the subject drop momentarily. "We'll figure something out. Noel and Ashley are throwing a housewarming thing next week. I'll make sure you get invited."
Harry's eyes widened. "You can do that?"
Emmett tilted his head. "Please. I can do anything."
Chapter 4: Chapter IV
“A young farmer is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity.”
“Are you Grace Knightley?”
“I am.” Her father would have been relieved; this stranger at the gates had caught Grace in a rare instance of business attire. To be sure, for Grace, that meant a simple, bright dresses and flat shoes, but at least she wasn’t wearing her dusty work clothes. “Can I help you?”
“I’m so sorry.” The stranger pushed her hair—a little too auburn for authenticity—over her shoulder and squinted in the flat oppression of the sun. She must not be from California, Grace thought. She was too pale. Even Emmett, whose cheeks had been constellated with freckles all through childhood, had finally gotten tan—just in time to leave for New England. But the stranger was speaking again. “I’m Marnie. Marnie Elton. I just moved here from Hollywood.”
“Born and raised?” Grace inquired, very mildly indeed. It was the closest she ever came to sarcasm.
“No, I was…I was actually from Pennsylvania. Wanted my big break into acting. Emma Stone-style. I even tried for the hair.”
She looked around thirty. Older than Emma Stone, at least. But Grace was used to Hollywood hopes; Julia had had a phase. She ought to be more sympathetic—wasn’t that her thing? But she was a little withdrawn. Maybe she was tired. It had been a week—a month—of long nights.
“Highbury is a very nice community, if you like it out here.”
“I do!” Marnie was enthusiastic on that point. “I’m wondering if I shouldn’t pursue more of a writing career. Journalism…I’m not sure yet. I need to get my bearings, you know. Anyway, I read a great piece about your work. On Slate?”
“Oh, yes.” Grace nodded. “I remember that.” She wasn’t usually one for notoriety, so the memory was something of a cringe.
“Changing the name from Knightley to Caballero? You have some cojones, girl. The return to your Latina roots…”
You can say Mexican, Grace thought, but she didn’t say it aloud. She picked her battles, and like most well-meaning people, this Marnie wasn’t framing it as a battle. No; Grace was being flattered. She wasn’t fond of flattery, but she was used to being pleasant in the face of ulterior motives. “Thank you. It was important to me.”
How important, she couldn’t say. How many questions—what’s deported, Papa?—and how many answers had time given her? Giving her family name the permanence it deserved after running this farm for two generations was the least she could do.
“It’s impressive, and I had hoped to do some agritourism research out here in between you know, film roles or something—not that that worked out. I went to college for journalism—feature writing. This is something of my backup plan. Have to admit.”
“California is cursed by a perennial Gold Rush dream, I guess,” Grace agreed, with a calm smile.
“Hmm. Nice metaphor. But you have to admit, you’ve found your own gold mine,” Marnie sighed, with a vague gesture towards the fields.
“Well—no,” Grace answered, slowly. “I’ve never called it gold.”
Marnie stared at her, nonplussed for a moment, but she recovered herself quickly. “You’re an inspiration. I’m going to—what’s the saying, hoe my own row? And it’s nice to have met you as the first person in this community.”
Grace nodded slowly. “That’s…that’s kind of you. Thank you.”
“How many live in Highbury?”
“Maybe two hundred? We’re a tiny town. The U-Pick people are the most traffic we get.”
“U-Pick?” Marnie’s brow rumpled in confusion.
“Strawberries. You know, where people bring their kids, and…” It was weird, trying to explain your whole life in the face of a blank stare, but Grace did it rather frequently.
“Sounds like an adorable date idea.” Marni ran a finger across her lower lip, almost meditatively. “Speaking of dates, you seem like the kind of girl who knows some, uh, real baes.”
“Pardon me?” Grace asked, with intentional blankness.
“Like, eligible bachelors, you know? It’s summer! Or almost. Two months away? I can never remember.” She fluttered her hands. “I’m coming off a huge disappointment here. A girl needs some fun.”
Grace had on her company manners. She said, as kindly as she could, “I’m happy to advise on any social joys that Highbury has to offer, but I’m too busy for the dating game.”
She supposed it was fitting that Emmett arrived at that very moment. Not just arrived, exactly. He sauntered. He was dressed rather insufferably, in a collared shirt that was—snug. Grace suppressed the urge to roll her eyes; if she’d been given to such immature expressions, she would have exerted herself much earlier in this particular conversation.
“Grace!” Emmett exclaimed. He was wearing sunglasses, but she could imagine his eyes dancing all the same. “You have a customer?”
Grace said, “This is Marnie Elton. She’s new in town,” and then wondered why her ribcage seemed to be contract.
Emmett lowered his sunglasses and set them back in place in a swift movement, and extended a hand with a smile that was ultimately charming. “Emmett Woodhouse. Are you a strawberry farmer too, Miss Elton?”
Marnie actually giggled. “No, no. I’m an aspiring actress…well, aspired.”
“Now an expiring actress? I’ve been there too.” Emmett sighed dramatically. “It’s great to meet you. Although, I’m afraid I’m sloppy seconds by default—Grace is the real gem of our town.”
“I can see that,” Marnie slipped a smile in Grace’s direction, but Grace thought it was fairly apparent that Marnie’s interest was now trained at her eye-level—that was, at Emmett’s chest. “You are all very lucky.”
“And now you’re lucky too! You’re here. We’re a great community, we only eat strawberries and seafood, you know, things that Victorian people were allergic too. It’s really wonderful.” He waved a hand. “You’re probably petrified about how you’re going to meet people among these little stucco gingerbread houses, right?”
“I like stucco!”
“You lie so well.” He ruffled his hair. Did he know what he was doing? Grace tightened her jaw, and smoothed out her skirt. She felt absent from the conversation, but Emmett drew her back in. “Grace, you know Noel’s having some sort of housewarming party next week, right? Shortest honeymoon ever, what a drag. Anyway, you’re invited—I’m in charge of the guestlist—and—” he turned to Marnie—“Now so are you. Voilà. Social life.” He snapped his fingers demonstratively.
Marnie was practically drooling. Grace felt that grating sensation between her ribs again. Marnie said, “Grace, I want to interview you sometime!” and then looked adoringly back at Emmett. “I’m driving back to town,” she said. “Where are you going?”
Emmett scratched the back of his head. “Wasn’t really going anywhere,” he said. Then he seemed to make a decision. “But I’ll go into town with you. Show you around, if you want. I’ll be back later, Grace.”
Marnie waved like a butterfly, flit, color, gone.
Grace stood still, feeling the earth move beneath her.
Wasn’t really going anywhere.
No, dumbass. You were coming here.
She pushed the thought away as Marnie’s jeep, parked on the shoulder of the road, spun off in a cloud of dust. Emmett was always keen for new interests. It seemed he’d found one.
“Why didn’t you go to Hollywood?”
She was very eager. He had seen that at a glance. It would be excellently suited to certain purposes, but trying to be eager with Grace was a losing proposition. Of course, there was no way Marnie could have known that. He hid a smile, and said vaguely, “Oh—I’m more of the sketchy art type…drawing, painting, scribbling lines that have no meaning.”
He grinned now, more for his own benefit than hers. “I promise, it’s colder up here, but not altogether dismal.” At least, he hoped it wasn’t. He hadn’t come back for dismal.
“I went to school for journalism,” she confided. “And now…”
Now, he didn’t know what journalism had to do with Highbury. But she was clearly friendly, and lonely, and Emmett, as always, had a plan. That very morning Harry had alarmed him spectacularly.
"We need to find you a girlfriend," Emmett had announced, with a speculative glance. "Highbury has enough perennial bachelors, namely, one. Namely, me."
"You're single?" Harry's eyes had all but popped out of his head.
Emmett’s self-superiority was always expertly conveyed in a glance. "Don't think I haven't had my chances. I'm just...I have no real interest." Which wasn’t to say that there hadn’t been girls at college—there had—or that there hadn’t been little glass chips in a all-too-glassy heart. There had. But it wasn’t part of the plan.
"What about Grace?"
He had paused, at that, and laughed. Whether pause or laugh meant more, he hadn't bothered deciding. "What about her?"
"You talk about her so much. I was sure you were dating."
"Nope, just siblings." Which was the company line, and technically true ever since Ike and Julia made their tumultuous match. Emmett had thrown himself off the garden bench, turned the conversation back to its original point. “The project here is you.”
Harry had turned scarlet. Emmett had said, unblinking, “So there’s someone already.”
Not a surprise, exactly. Harry was handsome. Pleasant. Not particularly bright, so, pretty easy to lead. But “someone” wasn’t supposed to be Rosa Martinez.
It had all spilled out then. He’d gotten terribly lost when he first came to Highbury, trying to find his way to the bank—“I’m awful at directions”—until Rosa Martinez pointed him in the right direction and somehow invited him to a family dinner in one breath. He’d been inseparable from the whole clan of them ever since. There were two brothers, apparently. Teenagers, but Harry liked them a lot. They had driven down to Santa Cruz for a weekend at the beach. It had been great fun. He saw them all the time—this was emphasized repeatedly. Harry tended to repeat things. “Well, until now,” Harry had admitted. “Haven’t seen so much of ‘em since we started hanging out. Which is—which is great! It’s cool, man. But they’re really the best. Just the nicest people ever.”
Emmett was sure that the Martinezes were pleasant. Solid workers, at least. And, well—he’d give them the same due he’d give himself. People were ambitious, whatever Grace said about goodhearted intentions.
For Emmett, that meant he liked to run the world of his choosing. For someone like Rosa Martinez…well, she probably wouldn’t mind a green-card marriage, or whatever it was called.
Of course, it had nothing to do with race. It wasn’t about class, either—this was America, dammit, and Emmett wasn’t so high and mighty as to pretend that his own position in society was broadly recognized by many outside of Highbury. Grace would preach, if she heard these thoughts aloud, but the point was, Harry Smith was moving up in the world, and Rosa Martinez spent dawn till dusk picking strawberries.
All of which was to the point that this bright-haired Hollywood hopeful, with her tooth-paste grin and sweet laugh, was the answer to Emmett’s prayers. Not that those prayers were directed to any deity in particular—Emmett’s gods were confined to the tangible sphere.
He chattered along as Marnie Elton drove (very slowly) to Highbury. It was a fine, bright day out—not too hot, for once. He liked the stiff breezes; wind was always mischievously kind to his hair, and did wonders if you were in the habit of stoic gazing, which he was (though never for very long, since it got boring).
Marnie dropped him off at Hartfield, by his request. He had spent the past fifteen minutes telling her about Harry, and all his charms, and now her eyes were quite alight.
To be fair, she was looking at his house. That might have contributed.
“Not too shabby, is it?”
“Not too shabby at all.” She grinned up at him, and Emmett thought again, how well she and Harry would get on.
Emmett, as always, had a plan.
Chapter 5: Chapter V
“You are so much used to live alone, that you do not know the value of a companion.”
Noel Taylor and Ashley Weston-Taylor returned to Highbury in style—in style, because the Woodhouses threw their welcome-back party.
It was a striking concession from Mrs. Woodhouse, though Grace was not wholly surprised. Emmett was extraordinarily persuasive, and Mrs. Woodhouse had always had a special fondness for Noel. Mrs. Woodhouse had a special fondness for anyone who ultimately worshiped her son.
Grace had never disliked Noel, only his opinions. He seemed happy with Ashley. Then again, she’d never seen Noel unhappy. He just…existed.
Ashley Weston had a loud laugh and kind eyes. Grace had always liked her. Grace liked most people. That was half the trouble. Living with them was the other half.
Paco was mournful when he watched her leave. She was wearing earrings, of all things! She had tamed her hair and cleaned the soil from her hands and wondered too many times if Emmett would say anything about how she looked.
It was not that she was—no. It was never that. It was simply that everyone seemed to be a planet in orbit around him, and Grace always wondered how she was holding up as a peripheral galaxy.
There. There was a flight of fancy that would please him.
Hartfield House was flooded with light and laughter. Emmett was somehow managing to hold a glass of champagne like a cigarette as he held court over the assembled young and young-ish crowd of Highbury. He was kicking his heels lightly against the railing of the porch. Effortlessly, or at least it looked that way—but he’d never scuff a flake of Hartfield paint.
Grace switched the bottle of wine from her right hand to her left, hoping it hadn’t left her fingers too cold if she had to shake hands with anyone. Emmett, of course, hugged her, shaking off his adoring throng. He smelled a little like alcohol and a little like cologne, and Grace forced herself not to dig her nails into his shoulders.
“You look so regal,” Emmett said.
“I’m wearing a sundress.”
“The sun queen.”
“OK.” Grace ducked away from him and went inside to greet Mrs. Woodhouse. There was a buzz in her ears.
Mrs. Woodhouse was pretending to be languid, though Grace could tell that she was in her element. “I wish you’d brought some of those strawberries, dear,” she sighed. “Everything here is so unhealthy. I told the boys not to—but they insisted on cake. Cake! The wedding is already over. Why do we have to revisit all of it again?”
“I think people are taking pretty small slices,” Grace reassured her. “And you know Emmett never likes much cake anyway.”
“No-o…just the icing.”
Well, she couldn’t exactly lie about his sweet-tooth to his mother. “I’ll keep an eye on things, Mrs. Woodhouse.”
“Would you? So kind…” But Mrs. Woodhouse’s attention as swiftly diverted, since Arthur Bates had arrived. He sat down beside her to effuse about her role as hostess, and no doubt to fill her in on the happenings in the town since…Wednesday, or what have you, and Grace drifted away.
Her name was called a moment later. It wasn’t Emmett’s voice—Emmett was entertaining an audience of interchangeable faces, centered around Marnie Elton and Harry Smith.
“Hello, Noel,” Grace said. She hugged him. “Congratulations.”
“Not miffed about the destination wedding? I’m sorry you couldn’t come.”
“I was sorry to miss it, but you shouldn’t apologize to me! It looked beautiful, from the pictures, and Emmett filled me in.”
“It’s such a change.” Noel shook his head, almost in disbelief. “Four years of wild times—well, his times were wild, but only as they should be.”
“Hmm.” Grace’s eyebrows flicked a little, and she turned her glass in her hand.
“Ah. I forgot who I was speaking to.” Noel was too pleasant to be wry, but he came close.
“I’m—we are glad to have him back in Highbury,” Grace said, wondering if it had been worth it to correct the pronoun. “I just hope he that he can do something valuable with his time, Noel. You know that’s all I ever want.”
Someone bolder might have said, is it? But Noel only chuckled. “Don’t start in on Emmett.”
“He has so much potential,” Grace said, turning the cool bowl of her wineglass in her hand. “I know you and I both know that. He’s just—never been tested. He was such a bright kid. He’s only grown brighter, but…he never seeks out the kinds of people and pastimes that would—”
“So, he had some free rein,” Noel conceded, with a shrug. “Need I remind you? Kid lost his dad when he was ten.”
Grace had been twelve, then. Of course she remembered. Before—the gray months flying by. And after—well, after was all the same. Emmett never spoke about his father. “Noel, it’s been a few years since we had a proper talk,” she said. “Not forever. I haven’t forgotten the family history.”
He shifted uncomfortably, and she felt a pang.
“I’m sorry,” she said, more warmly. “It really isn’t up to me to be spoiling your party with my worries. Don’t—”
Noel put an arm around her. “Grace. Please. As if I would ever be angry with you except as Emmett’s friend.”
He dashed off in the crowd, and Grace was left with a little taste of bitterness on her tongue at those final words.
“Are you and Noel fighting?” Emmett said, close by her ear, and appearing almost out of nowhere. He propped an elbow lightly on her shoulder and grinned crookedly. “He just got married, Grace. Give him a break.”
“You know we only argue about you.” She removed his elbow from her shoulder. She felt sorry; she hadn’t meant to get into it with Noel at his reception. What had prompted her? Oh yes, perhaps it was Emmett’s two latest satellites—Marnie, who seemed slightly too scheming, and Harry, who had never dreamt up a scheme in his life.
“That’s the wonder of it.” Emmett smirked. “Tell me everything. What’s my latest fault?”
“I’m not here to lecture,” Grace said. “I’m just…” She didn’t know how to put it into words, how empty it was watching Harry copy Emmett’s every move and mood. How it stung to see Marnie Elton circling vulture-like—
Perhaps that was unkind.
“You’re always here to lecture,” Emmett observed. He reached up and knotted those clever fingers in his tie, tugging it loose. He was all lines and angles and temptation, always had been.
Grace curved her fingers around the edge of the rail. “Maybe I’m too tired tonight.”
She could have sworn he looked disappointed.
“Emmett!” Harry darted towards them, followed closely by Marnie. Emmett seemed pleased by that, though Grace couldn’t quite put it together yet. What was going on? Emmett had never been one to flirt at anyone in particular. How could this frayed-at-the-edges—but that was unkind. Grace smoothed a hand over her skirt, sipped her drink, and let Harry and Marnie take him away.
She couldn’t do anything about Marnie. She hadn’t the right. But Harry—what she had wanted to say to Noel, quite simply, was this: is Harry your equal? Noel had barely kept up with Emmett, and Harry was no Noel. Emmett needed challenge in friendship, but he never sought it out.
To be sure, he had her—but he had always had her.
He never had to ask.
Grace seemed troubled. That prickled his brain for a bit, but then he ruffled his hair in a demonstrative gestures and had another glass of champagne.
Harry bounded up to him, with a plate laden with cake. "Emmett, Marnie's looking for you."
"What happened to keeping her entertained?" He plucked the plate out of Harry's hands and deposited it on a side table. "You don't need that."
Harry eyed it regretfully but followed along willingly enough. Marnie was nibbling on a strawberry, careful of her lipstick. Emmett tried to remember what color lipstick Grace had been wearing. He didn't think she'd been wearing any.
"This party is beautiful," she said. "Like something out…Vanity Fair."
"Mag or novel?" Emmett asked. "Spoiler alert: I only read one."
Marnie laughed, high and tinkly. "And here I thought you were a great reader, with all those books in your house."
"That was the plan." Emmett smirked. "Didn't quite work out. I'm always meaning to read more." He'd been meaning to read more since he was twelve, but it never exactly happened. "I've read the first chapter—maybe even two—of almost every classic novel you can name."
"Classic lit is dull," Marnie agreed eagerly. "I feel like you're the kind of guy who…speaks more to art, I guess."
"Well so everyone else felt, too," Emmett said, grinning. A moment ago she had been so sure he was a reader, but he didn't bother pointing that out. "But the trouble is, everything bores me after a while. Classic or not."
Marnie swept her lashes down, then up, and rubbed her arms, changing the subject. "Mmm, it's chilly."
Emmett saw an opportunity. He tipped his head at Harry, trying to signal him with an eyebrow and a nod, but Harry was not exactly subtle. Emmett gave up. "Harry, give her your jacket." Not smooth, but it got the job done.
Harry stared at him for another half second and then complied.
Marnie hugged the jacket around herself, and said, looking at Emmett, "That's so thoughtful."
Point to Harry, Emmett thought, and was satisfied with himself.
He extracted himself as soon as possible so that they could talk alone and wandered back inside, to where the happy couple was making their rounds.
"You having a good time?" Noel asked, topping off his glass.
Emmett quirked a brow. "It's your party." Of course, he was proud of it—it was positively picturesque here, with golden warmth and tinkling glass within, and smoky, breeze-sketched darkness without. But it was for Noel. "Are you?"
"Of course." Noel's eyes tracked around the room until they landed on Grace, who was listening to Lucas Goddard with her usual inscrutable patience. "Grace is worried about you."
"Grace is always worried about me," Emmett said, not dissatisfied with the prospect of this comforting constant. "What is it now?"
As ever, Noel conceded to his curiosity. "I imagine it has something to do with your newfound friends."
"Harry's solid as a rock. What's the matter with him?"
"She didn't say that, exactly…she's just talking about your potential." Noel shook his head. "I shouldn't have bothered you about it."
"It's no bother," Emmett said. He wasn't going to say it to Noel, but the past four years had had something of…well, a hollowness, without Grace. Apparently he thrived on her perpetual disapproval. He didn't investigate the thought further. "Your beloved is coming over. I'll leave you two lovebirds alone and check on Mom."
Mom was having a grand old time, though she would have denied it. For someone who hated socializing due to all the germs—she did enjoy the occasional chance to play queen for an evening.
He was her prince. He understood.
"Emmett, you haven't had any cake, have you?" she demanded, in an agonized tone.
"Just the icing," he murmured, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "No, Mom—really. I've had chicken salad and cucumber sandwiches."
"I had my doubts about that chicken."
"I made sure everything was inspected beforehand." He sat down beside her. "Mom, what do you think of Harry?"
Mom said, "He's a very sweet boy."
"Mm. Yeah. He seems like a good kid." The good kid was actually two years older than he was, Emmett had discovered, but age was hardly a determinant of wisdom.
"He isn't anything to you, of course."
"Of course not. I'm better than everyone," Emmett returned, smiling winsomely. Mom beamed at him.
"Yes, you are."
"Speaking of people I've outshone, when is Ike coming? I want to see him before I get tired of the notion."
Mom sighed deeply, picking at her apple slices. No fine buffet spread for her. "I keep telling him to come down, but you know the baby is so often sick—"
Ike and Julia had one of the healthiest babies in existence. Emmett patted her hand. "Don't worry about it. I'll call him or text him or whatever." Through the window to the porch, he caught sight of Harry, talking on his phone. What had happened to Marnie?
Emmett sprang up. "I'll be back, Mom."
When Harry saw him he murmured, "I have to go," and tucked his phone in his pocket. Even in the blue light of evening, Emmett could see that he was blushing.
"Who was that?" Emmett inquired, with intentional innocence.
"Sorry…I shouldn't have been, uh, talking a-at a party, I just, she was only free now—"
Harry stared at the ground. The flush was all the way up to his hairline. Emmett almost felt sorry for him.
"Rosa Martinez," he said, so Harry didn't have to.
"Yeah," Harry mumbled.
Emmett calculated. "Harry," he said, coaxingly, "You can talk to whoever you want."
A beat. "Yes," Emmett said, clapping an arm around him and leading him back into the house. "Dude, I'm just trying to introduce you to more people. You lived here what—a year?—before I came back, and you know like one family. So I'm just expanding your social circle. And I'm sure Rosa is very…nice. I mean, I may have met her already, a few times, but I don't really remember." He let that sink in, then added, in a kindly way, "Look around. These can be your people."
Harry let out a puff of breath. "I just—I don't think I fit in."
"Did you see how Marnie was standing so close to you? How she thought it was so nice that you gave her your jacket? That's not an accident, man. Chicks dig you. And there's a lot in this world. Hell, even in this town, small though it is."
"Like Grace," Harry said.
Emmett shifted, grimaced for effect. "Grace is kind of too perfect," he said, though he made sure she wasn't in hearing distance when he said it. "You can't ask everyone to measure up to Grace. But—hey, take Marnie. She's hot. Fun. Interested in you."
"You think so?"
"I know so. I'm an expert at reading body language." Emmett filched a strawberry from the buffet table and bit into it, winking at Marnie across the room as he did so. She waved excitedly. He turned back to Harry, making a show of nonchalance. "See? She keeps looking over here."
Harry smiled. He had a slow smile, but it was a nice one. Definitely the kind of smile girls would want to tease out of him. "Wow. How do you…know all this?"
"Instinct. But not everyone has instinct. You just have to acquire the right skills."
Harry was piling his plate again. Emmett took it from him and put it down again. "Here. Go bring Marnie some strawberries."
Harry said, "I still don't get why you're single, dude."
Grace was leaving. Emmett watched her kiss his mother goodbye, watched her shake hands with Arthur Bates and move towards the door, her dress swinging around her.
He shrugged in Harry's direction, suddenly distracted. "It's what makes me so interesting," he said.
Chapter 6: Chapter VI
"Almost too gallant to be in love…but I suppose there may be a hundred different ways of being in love."
"I'm sorry, Miss Caballero. You're busy."
Grace practically had to run after her. "Rosa! What's going on?"
Rosa stopped in the hall. Paco paraded around her, excited to have a visitor.
"You don’t have to call me 'Miss.' You know that." Grace switched to Spanish, hoping it would be more comfortable. "Why don't you come into the office?"
Rosa swallowed hard and followed her in. Grace didn't sit at the desk; she pulled up two of the low-back chairs.
"So," she said. "It's your day off. You shouldn’t be thinking about strawberries, except to eat them."
Rosa twisted the curly end of her braid around her fingers. "It's not about work."
"Oh?" Grace wondered what had happened, that would bring Rosa here alone. She was visiting the Martinezes that evening for dinner—was it something too serious to wait until then?
"I'm being stupid. I just…I didn't know who else to talk to. The boys don't—"
"Hmm." Grace propped her chin on her hands. "Is this the reason you've been trying to brush up on English? There's a guy, right?" Normally, she liked to stay quiet when people spoke, but Rosa was clearly nervous and it was important to put her at ease.
Rosa nodded. "I knew you'd know. Yes, there's a guy. I met him last summer, and he's friends with my brothers, and he's friends with me…or at least I thought that's all we were, but lately…I don't know. I really like him. And I think he likes me."
"That's pretty great, isn't it?" Not that she, of course, would know.
Rosa was toying with a frayed thread at the edge of her shorts. "I think he's too good for me."
Grace shook her head. "Rosa, I promise you: if anything, it's the other way around."
That got a little smile out of Rosa. She sighed, and said, "I wouldn't have come to you, except, he asked me out. Like a real date. Not just a movie with my brothers. He asked me to dinner."
"Are you going to go?"
"Yes. But—I don't know. I don't have anything—" Rosa stopped herself, and drew herself up. "I'm not sure if it's worth it."
She doesn't have anything to wear. Grace let that rest for a moment. "If you really like him, and he likes you, there's nothing wrong with a date. You've known him for a while. You trust him? He's not just a pretty face?"
"No, no!" Rosa was blushing. "I mean, he is cute…but he's so kind."
"Do I get to know his name?" Grace queried.
"Harry. Harry Smith."
Grace controlled her expression. "Harry Smith?"
"You know him, right? He's friends with Mr. Emmett."
Is he ever. "Yes, I've met him. He seems…" He seemed a little vacant, but other than thinking him very unequal to a friendship with Emmett, Grace didn't have much opinion on him. "You said he's kind?"
"So kind. He comes and reads to my grandma. You know her eyes are bad. He has dinner with us and once he tried to cook but—" Rosa smiled fondly at the memory. "He can't cook at all. He hasn't visited so much, since he started…well, since he became friends with Mr. Emmett, and I thought maybe it was over but he called me last night and asked me to dinner." She frowned, and Grace realized that Rosa was watching her face closely. "Do you think it's not good?"
Grace shook her head. "Believe me, Rosa, any worry you see on my face has to do with Emmett, not Harry. It sounds like you know him a lot better than I do. Did you say yes?"
"I said maybe." Rosa sighed. Her jaw tightened a little and Grace recognized it as pride, as not wanting to say more.
"I think we're the same size," she said, very casually. "I don't go on very many dates—none at all, really. And I was silly enough to buy a dress that would be perfect for a dinner. If you want it, it's yours."
Rosa stared down. "I couldn't, mis—I mean, I just couldn't. Thank you."
"It would be doing me a favor," Grace said, keeping her voice calm. "Every day I have to stare at it in my closet, reminding me that I'm all alone in the world." She sighed very dramatically, hoping it would lighten Rosa's mood.
"What…what color is it?"
"Red. Perfect for you. Red for Rosa."
Rosa chewed her lip. Then she said. "Do you think it's OK to text him? I told him I would let him know today."
"Yeah, that should be fine." Grace stood up. "Do you want to see it first? If you don't like it, you don't have to take it."
She knew Rosa wouldn't be wholly convinced until she tried it on. When she did, Grace knew I was all over.
"Let me know if you want some shoes, too," she said, folding up the dress to wrap in a garment bag.
"I have sandals," Rosa said. Her whole face was aglow. "I can't thank you en—"
"Oh, but you have!" Grace assured her. "Remember what I said? Think of me crying myself to sleep over being single. It will be a little easier now."
Rosa said, "You're not really…"
"I'm teasing," Grace said. "I'm content with being on my own. There's always work to do. But sometimes it is good to give away a dream that isn't meant to be ours."
Rosa nodded. She was practically hugging the dress when she went away, and Grace settled back to her Saturday morning bookkeeping with a smile on her face.
Of course, it had been an act. The dress had been a pretty one, but she hadn't bought it for any date. Grace had no interest in romance—not since her parents moved away, leaving her with an empire of responsibility. For all Julia's prodding, there just wasn't the time.
And she never cried herself to sleep.
Emmett's plan was proceeding better than expected. Harry was at Hartfield almost evening, and Marnie was increasingly finding excuses to turn up with him. Since moving to Highbury, she had apparently managed to do some freelance journalism—for what publications, Emmett did not know—and declared Harry her best guide. Emmett wondered why she didn't use the excuse to find more alone time with Harry; for some reason she preferred to come to Hartfield house. But maybe she liked having a third person around.
Some people lacked his inherent confidence.
All in all, it wasn't scintillating company, but it was almost enough for summer. When he wasn’t working, Harry was up for anything; Marnie was never far behind, and now that Noel and Ashley were back in town there were trips to the beach, hikes, and long, lazy weekends spent doing nothing much.
At those times, he told himself that his fears of isolation were abated; and then reminded himself that he had no such thing as fears.
"Do you still draw?" Harry asked, on the Saturday after the party. They were talking about their interests; or they had been. Emmett had had considerably more interests than Harry, although he had thrown them all aside in disgust for one reason or another.
"Not really." Emmett yawned. "College beat it out of me, I guess." But ennui did not deny talent. He added lightly, "I still have all my old stuff."
Harry responded without further cue. "Can I see it?"
"I guess. None of it's very good."
Which might or might not have been true, but there was no harm in letting other people form their own opinions. Harry's opinion was overwhelmingly favorable, and the study distracted him from his phone, over which he had been smiling rather secretively.
"These are amazing," he said reverently, flipping through the half-finished sketches. "You're a regular…Picasso."
"God, I hope not. Guernica is like having the flu in visual form."
Harry looked vague, but he followed up with, "Are these all of people you know?"
"Yes. I didn't—" Emmett almost said that he didn't know many people, thus the pool was a limited one, but that must never be true. "I only drew portraits of my close friends and family," he amended. "So there's a lot of the same people." He picked up (arguably) the finest one; a painting of Julia, half-finished. "This was the last one I did, outside of college. It was supposed to be a wedding present, but Ike thought it wasn't pretty enough. I got pissed and gave him a watch instead."
"What? It was a Cartier."
"Oh," Harry stumbled over his words, "Of course. I didn't mean—that sounds perfect."
"I hope he regrets it, but my brother frets. He doesn't dwell on anything." Emmett threw the picture aside. "Anyway, maybe I had a hand for it at one point…"
"…you're a genius!"
"…but I never went anywhere with it. Artist's fickleness, I suppose."
"I wish you'd draw something now," Harry said rapturously. "These are so legit, man. It would be incredible to watch you."
Emmett mused on this. Out the window, he could see Marnie coming up the driveway, carrying something. "Hey, I could draw you. You have a nice profile."
"I do?" Harry said. "Um, OK." He looked a little embarrassed.
"Dude, I'm an artist. I'm not into you." Emmett chuckled. "Also, Marnie's here. This will be perfect."
"In a minute, yeah." Sure enough, the doorbell chimed.
Emmett answered the door, sketchpad in hand.
"I don't mean to bother you," Marnie said, though of course she did. "I just…well, I wanted to bring over a bottle of wine to thank you for such a lovely party the other day. I…" Her voice trailed away when she saw Harry in the hallway.
"I was just about to do a sketch of Harry," Emmett said. "Want to watch? I'm no Bob Ross—I just don't have the hair for it—but I'll try to make it interesting."
Marnie needed no further prompting. She set the bottle on an end table and they all went into the sunroom. It had the best natural light, facing west, and there was a window seat.
"Sit there," Emmett commanded. "Marnie, you have to make sure he stays still."
Marnie took her task seriously. Perhaps a little too seriously; as Emmett sketched, she was constantly checking on his progress. Perhaps she still felt self-conscious about her enthusiasm for Harry, and was trying to spread it around to draw attention away from her feelings. Whatever it was, her endless compliments were more intentional than Harry's, and Emmett found them somewhat grating.
But through the hours of late afternoon, he couldn't help but congratulate himself on his own perception. Harry might be a little less than bright, and Marnie might be somewhat tiring, but Harry would never be tired by her. They would be perfect together. Grace might mock the role of matchmaker—or if not quite mock, as Grace would never stoop so low, at least criticize—but there was something inherently satisfying in watching people fit together.
"Alright, my hand's cramping," he said at last. "This is as good as it's getting today."
Harry was almost unable to string a sentence together. "Wow," he said. "It looks like me."
"It's not terrible," Emmett admitted. He was happy to deprecate himself; it always left more room for other people's praise.
Marnie clasped her hands together. Oh, she was terribly transparent, Emmett thought amusedly. Showing up with a bottle of wine on the pretense of a brief thank you and then staying for three hours. Nice. "This should be framed when you finish," she said. "It's truly remarkable. I've never seen anything like it." She paused, nibbling at her lower lip, and then said, "But I'm sure it's no fun holding still for that long, Harry. I could—I don't know. Read to you, or something, tomorrow."
Emmett answered before Harry could. "That would be excellent," he said. "No classic literature, please God. But the greatest excerpts of People magazine won't go amiss."
"Are you drawing again?"
Emmett spun around; Grace was standing in the doorway. She had a book in her hand, and it was classic literature. Anna Karenina, in fact.
"Just a little," he said. "Harry's very patient."
Grace's smile seemed to bloom over her face. "I'm so glad," she said, coming forward. "Hello, Harry. Hello, Marnie. Sorry to interrupt—I just came to return your Mom's book, Em."
He tried to look like nothing in the entire world mattered. "What do you think?"
"Hmm." Grace narrowed her eyes a little, studying the drawing. "You've made his nose too long."
Emmett had, but would not admit it. "Are you saying Harry has a short nose?"
Grace lifted an eyebrow at him, and said calmly, "Well, shorter than that."
"Every feature is perfect," Marnie said sharply. "That is exactly Harry's nose. It's as close as a photograph."
Both of Grace's eyebrows went up this time, but she did not snap back. "I'm glad you like it," she said. Somehow, because it was Grace, she didn't sound condescending when she very well could have. "Emmett knows I'm very sparing with my praise."
"And therefore you never spare me," Emmett said, with a laugh. "Are you staying for dinner? These two are."
"We are?" Harry asked, and Emmett rolled his eyes.
"It was assumed."
"I shouldn't," Grace said. "I'm actually having dinner with the Martinezes." She said the name distinctly. Harry turned beet-red. Emmett wondered if Grace knew, and how, and if she was making a point, but he wasn't going to let it become one.
"No problem," he said easily. "I won't keep you, then."
A little flicker of something passed over Grace's face, but he couldn't make it out. And that was probably why he'd never successfully sketched her likeness.
Chapter 7: Chapter VII
"It is not a state to be safely entered into without doubtful feelings, with half a heart."
Caballero Farms, aside from its seasonal tourism, shipped most of its produce out to national suppliers. But Grace had always been fond of her mother's inclination to sell cartons of berries, and kept it up. She manned the stand herself, and it offered good summer jobs to the local teenagers, especially those who were daunted by field work.
She was reading under the counter on a Friday afternoon, when a shadow fell over her. She looked up.
Harry shifted from one foot to another, but his smile was less awkward than his stance. "Hello, Grace. I came to buy some berries."
Grace tilted her head. "You look nice."
"I have a date." He ducked his head. "With Rosa? She works here, you know."
"I do know." Grace smiled back. He was a little less vacant than usual, she thought. Maybe the energy of Emmett's companionship had done him some good. "Rosa is a good friend of mine and a wonderful employee. She deserves a nice time."
"She—she's great," Harry said. "I thought…do you think it would be weird if I bought her some strawberries? I thought it would be fun, but maybe she's sick of 'em, after spending all day…"
Grace stood up and picked up one of the prettier baskets. She had artfully arranged some of the choicest specimens in it less than an hour ago. "I don't think it's weird at all. It's a nice gesture. Just don't eat them all before dinner, or you'll be full."
Harry nodded seriously. "Of course."
Grace waved a hand over his proffered money. "On the house. Where are you taking her? I've seen the dress she's wearing. It's very cute."
Harry turned as red as the dress in question. "I was going to take her a little ways out of town…do you know El Loco's?"
"I mean yes, I know it," Grace said, laughing a little. "It's pretty authentic. I think she'll really like it. Have a nice time."
Harry beamed. "Thank you so much," he said. "I really appreciate it, Grace."
He had improved. Well, she'd had her doubts at first, and as long as Emmett and his self-styled Midas touch were involved, she would continue to be apprehensive. But Harry seemed sweet, and while he wouldn't do for her, she saw no reason why Rosa shouldn't be happy.
"Don't you think it's a sign?" Julia demanded that night, on the phone.
"Don't I think what's a sign?" Grace asked, around her toothbrush.
"Emmett's protégé and your protégé getting together. Is everyone going to hook up before the two of you do?"
"Shut up. Also, Rosa isn't my protégé. She's my employee, and my friend. Harry is…Emmett's project. Hopefully he's too goodhearted and simple for it to end badly."
"You said he's a nice boy. And you're always hard on Emmett."
"Not too hard."
Julia laughed. "I didn’t say that. Emmett's a complete ass most of the time. He totally deserves all the coals you rake him over."
"Wow, melodramatic." Grace sat down on the edge of her bed and pushed the towel on her head back up into place. She never wrapped her wet hair as expertly as Julia did. "OK, so, how's baby?"
"He is still crying a lot. But he smiles at me."
She could hear the satisfaction in Julia's voice. "I can't wait to see him again."
"Is that your hint to visit?"
"You have your Woodhouse, I have mine. It's nice having you around to put them both in place."
"Aha!" Julia's voice snapped triumphantly. "You called him yours."
"I never said he wasn't mine," Grace said quietly. "I'm just not going to marry him."
"Whatever," Julia said. Grace could hear her eyeroll. "The little monster's crying again. At least he's a cute little monster."
Grace stared at the ceiling after Julia hung up. Hopefully Rosa and Harry were having a good time…hopefully Emmett was doing something productive, for once. She had been glad to see him sketch again. Despite his half-promises to his mother, it would have been a waste. He had talent. He only lacked motivation.
So why was she always so reluctant to compliment him? Would it really do any harm, to shower him with compliments like the rest of them did?
It was no use asking the question, even. She had always known it would.
Paco padded in and leapt up beside her, turning round three times as though he was still a delicate puppy, not a lug of a dog. Grace reached up and patted his head. "I am a fool," she said aloud, to Paco, or to the moonlight, or to someone else who couldn't hear. "But only by myself."
It came to Emmett's attention that Mr. Goddard was of two minds about the friendship that had sprung up between Hartfield House and Harry. On the one hand, it was good for Harry to have any kind of association with the richest family in several counties; on the other, Harry was more distracted at work than ever.
"I wish I could quit being a bank teller," he said. "I'd rather bag groceries."
"Don't say that," Emmett said, in a panic at the thought of any friend of his being involved in such menial labor. Bank work, anywhere below the executive level, was bad enough.
"Or," Harry proposed, still a bit gloomy, "I wish I could be like you, and not have to work at all."
"Then you would have the boring business of being rich," said Emmett, who had never thought it a boring business at all. It wasn't money, that left people alone. It was—well, it was just the way the world ran on.
"Anyway," Harry admitted, "I do have to work. Otherwise I won't be able to…" and then he trailed off, as he often did, with a dreamy look in his eyes which Emmett distrusted.
After several days of Harry's patience, Marnie's tinny reading, and Emmett's fickle erasures, the sketch was finished and framed. Marnie had a friend who did that sort of thing. Everyone admired it—Mrs. Woodhouse adored it—except for Grace, who would only say that Harry had done a good job of sitting for it.
During the weeks, Harry's work shifts still left Emmett without much to do during the day. Grace was working; Noel was working; he thought of visiting Ike and Julia, and then tossed the idea aside. He didn't want to seem desperate. Then, too, there was plenty to do each evening. He just had to get through the days.
Excitement came soon enough, however—and not entirely unexpectedly.
Harry practically burst the front door one Saturday morning. He'd been mysteriously "unavailable" the night before, and Emmett had been annoyed over it. Now, it seemed, an explanation was in the offing.
"I need to talk to you," Harry said. "I went out on a date with Rosa Martinez last night, I took her to dinner, and then we drove—we just drove. And then I—I—I kissed her. I didn't know why, I just did. And now…now she's sent me this." He waved his phone.
Emmett said, with what he considered to be admirable calm, "What is this?"
"She told me she's in love with me."
It was incredibly frustrating, Emmett discovered, when other people wouldn't do what they should with their lives. He could see it all clearly; really, it was spelled out in Christmas lights for anyone with two grams of sense. But Harry was naïve, for all that he was Grace's age.
Emmett thought fast. "Oh, shit," he said, sympathetically. "Well, you can be a man about it and let her down gently. There's a way to word anything."
Harry stopped short, almost dropping his phone. "You think I should tell her I'm…not interested?"
Emmet's eyebrows shot up. "Hold up. I would never—no, no. I would never tell you how to feel. Go with your gut, dude. I guess I just assumed…never mind."
Harry sat down heavily on one of the sofas. "Wow," he said. "I…I don't know…"
"You mean you want to date her," Emmett said. "Till death do us part, and all that. If that's what you really want, that's completely cool. I guess that's an easier text to write, at least."
Harry stared at the ground and said nothing.
Emmett sat down beside him and said, as kindly as he could, "Hey, we're guys. Our emotions are simple to nonexistent. So—I'm just of the mind that if a guy really likes a girl, he's not going to feel uncertain about it. It just sort of is. I guess I misread you showing up here. I assumed you wouldn't need a second opinion if you were into her."
"I always need a second opinion," Harry said, and sighed. "Do you…do you want to read it? I don't know what to do now."
Emmett took his phone and read the text. It was long. God, why didn't people just write letters anymore? At least pen and paper had a certain elegance. But he could admit to himself that he was surprised. Her English was good. She didn't seem super clingy; just sincere.
"It's a nice sentiment," he said at last. "I don't see you two—headed in the same direction, but she certainly seems like a nice girl." Which indeed, he had already thought and acknowledged.
"She is." Harry buried his face in his hands.
Emmett patted him lightly on the shoulder—he hated touching people, unless it was Mom, or Grace—and said, "If she is the nicest girl you can think of…the one you find yourself spending the most time with…"
"Well there's also Marnie," Harry said. He sounded defeated. "I'm so freaking confused now. I thought I liked Rosa—and I do. Her family's great, and she's so sweet, and I have a great time when I'm with her, and she's beautiful…"
"This has to be your decision," Emmett told him, quite firmly. "It isn't the rest of my life."
"The rest of my life?"
"She's Catholic, right?" Emmett said. "I mean, from what I know of her…background and everything, she's not going to be a one-date type of commitment."
"Oh," Harry said. "Well, we've been friends for a year, and I do really like her…" He sat in silence for a few moments, rolling his phone between his hands.
Emmett said nothing. Most people wouldn't understand what he was doing now; but it was kind to be cruel, at the moment. It was for Harry's own good.
Finally, Harry heaved a sigh. "I think…I think I should let her go," he said. "I think maybe she and I don't want the same things."
Emmett thought of asking, are you sure?, and then thought better of it.
"You made the right decision," he said, emphatically.
The furrow disappeared from Harry's forehead. "You really think so?"
"I didn't want to influence you," Emmett said gravely, "But I think you're in the right. It wouldn't be fair to either of you, to keep this going. Especially not now."
God, he could be so dense. Emmett liked him, but he could be dense. "Marnie," he said. "Marnie is totally head-over-heels for you, dude. You really want to blow that shot?"
"I keep thinking that she likes you, though," Harry said.
"Me? Please. She's just using the convenience of you having a friend to have it be less awkward. Trust me, dude."
Harry nodded, but he still looked a bit dejected.
"Let's go out for drinks," Emmett said. "Seriously, it's something to celebrate. I didn't exactly want to say this, but…well, it would be kind of awkward for us to all hang out if you started dating someone who works for Grace. It's kind of like a conflict of interest, you know?"
Harry didn't exactly look like he knew, but the words had an effect on him. "I wouldn't want to—I wouldn't want to screw up our friendship," he said. "I never thought—I didn't mean—"
Emmett put up a hand. "It's a moot point now. A non-issue." He snatched up his keys. "Hey, I'll even be designated driver. You can get as smashed as you want."
Harry moved to follow him out the door, then hesitated. "I think I should reply to her text," he mumbled.
Emmett pursed his lips. Yes, he supposed, that was a necessary gesture.
"What should I say?" Harry asked.
"That has to come from you. I don't want you to feel like this is anything other than your own words."
"OK." Harry looked utterly lost.
Emmett turned on his heel and sauntered back towards him. "OK, I'm not going to put words in your mouth, but look. You just want to say that you're sorry if you've given the wrong impression, but you're not interested in moving things any further. And that you wish her the best, and she's a great person."
"Um." Harry paused. "Can you…repeat that? Just a little slower? I don’t type very fast."
And what else was there to do but exactly that?
Chapter 8: Chapter VIII
"Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do."
Grace went to Mass on Sundays. “Insufferably Catholic,” Emmett had always said, with derisive interest. The Woodhouses were not religious, except in the usual vague Protestant way of rich white people.
The Caballeros, to the contrary, had always been aggressively spiritual, but since her parents’ relocation to Arizona Grace had done what she had always wished and gone to the Mission church twenty miles from Highbury—near the coast—where the Mass was said in Spanish.
When she drove back into town, she stopped to visit Arthur Bates.
Arthur Bates lived alone with his father in an apartment with two rooms, because Arthur wouldn’t take charity.
The Bateses were a Highbury fixture. When Grace was seven—nine—twelve—her mother and she would visit them on Thursday afternoons. They would play card games. Her mother would bring pastries and Arthur made coffee. Grace remembered the kindness of both men very fondly—that was before Mr. Bates’s dementia had worsened—and she had much more patience with Arthur’s ramblings than other people (Emmett) did.
To be sure, Arthur was always and mostly preoccupied with the latest updates from his nephew Jake. Jake was an accomplished (and poor) musician, and was very rarely in California, a fact which intrigued some people and bored most, through no fault of Jake's own.
“But he will be visiting soon,” Arthur assured Grace. She drank coffee from a chipped mug and nodded, while Mr. Bates handed her playing cards one after the other.
“We’ll all enjoy seeing him,” Grace said. It had been five years or so since she had last seen Jake, but they’d been kids together. She had always considered him a friend.
Emmett hated him, inexplicably and ruthlessly.
“Jake won’t be the only visitor, you know.” Arthur poured her more coffee. It was more bitter than it used to be, but Grace choked it down. “Ashley Weston—well, Ashley Taylor now, I suppose. Her half-sister might finally be coming west to see her, now that she’s married.”
“Francesca Church?” Francesca Church was something of a local legend, less talked-over than Jake, and therefore better liked. Likewise, however, she was always going to visit, and never actually did.
“It was such a pity, when the Westons split up,” Arthur said. This was the way Arthur gossiped—all repetition and no malice. “And Angela took her maiden name back, and took her daughter with her. She was Gary’s second wife, you know. Poor Ashley was never more than a step-daughter to her. But still a pity. For a while it seemed they would make it work.”
Grace knew the story. “Francesca and Ashley have kept in touch, though, I think.”
“Yes. Ashley is such a dear, generous girl. She flies out almost every year, and Francesca must be finished with college by now. She didn’t to the wedding, but Ashley told me it wasn’t her fault. Still, Ashley has done so much to keep up a connection. I think it would be nice of Francesca to return the favor. She was a very nice little girl.”
“I don’t really remember her,” Grace admitted.
“A dear little thing. It’s such a pity.” Arthur sighed.
“That’s sometimes how family works,” Grace observed. “People leave.” Mr. Bates handed her an ace of spades.
“No, I think you’re right.” Arthur shook his head, a little sadly. “People go, and then they stay away…” He stopped short. “Oh, Grace, I didn’t mean—”
“I’m all grown up,” she assured him, with a smile. “I wasn’t abandoned, I promise you. If the farm wasn’t doing so well, I might be able to visit them more, but that’s a burden I’m lucky to bear.”
“You’re so good-humored. So patient. We are lucky to have you in Highbury, Grace—oh, Father, no. Don’t dip your cards in the coffee.”
Father sputtered petulantly and shuffled the cards together.
"You know who I ran into at the bank the other day?" Arthur asked, cleaning his glasses on the edge of his cuff.
"Who?" Grace was not one for guessing.
Well, she could have guessed that. "Harry's a sweet boy," she said. Harry was her age, but didn't seem so—she couldn't think of him as anything other than a boy.
"He listened to my ramblings very nicely," Arthur reflected. "I think of all our friends are getting to see a little more of him, now that Emmett has befriended him."
"Yes, we are." Grace knew better than anyone what Emmett's return had and hadn't changed. She rose and put a hand gently on Mr. Bates' shoulder. “I shouldn’t stay much longer,” she said. “Thank you, as always, Arthur. I’ll bring you some strawberries next Sunday.”
“You’re too generous.” He replaced his glasses and pushed them up the bridge of his nose. “How can I return the favor?”
“It’s nothing.” And it was, truly. “You know how I enjoy my visits.”
“But they’ve gotten a little less frequent,” Arthur said, as she started down the warped stairs. He was smiling warmly at her. “Now that Emmett is back in town.”
Grace felt her cheeks heat up, and there was no reason for it. “Emmett keeps his own social circle, you know. Just like you were saying, with Harry.”
“Social circles aren’t the same as you, Grace. Ah, well. I’ve said too much.” Arthur waved one of his knobby hands. “Forget the nonsense of a silly old man.”
Grace said goodbye, and stepped out into the June breeze. It was a warm day out. No doubt Emmett wouldn’t even be home. But no, she was forgetting—he liked his Sunday mornings with his mother. Or at least he had.
It wasn’t what Arthur was hinting it. It wasn’t anything like that at all. But things were beginning to settle down again, in Grace’s heart and mind, and she always believed in acting on a generous instinct. She had changed her mind about Harry Smith.
It was only fair to tell Emmett so.
All in all, it had come off as well as he could have hoped. Harry had been desolate, but no mood was particularly lasting with Harry. It had taken only a cursory amount of Emmett's considerable charm to take his mind of Rosa Martinez and bolster it up with promises of the glorious weeks of summer still ahead, and more importantly, Marnie's ever-more-certain interest. In a twenty-four hour span, Harry was almost cheerful again.
Emmett counted that a success.
He spent Sunday without Harry or Marnie, however. Normally he and Mom had breakfast together—or they used to, anyway. But since he'd come back, he'd mostly just had Sunday mornings to himself. Maybe people assumed he was busy. If people assumed that, he had to let them.
The sight of Grace walking up the driveway to Hartfield House, though—that was welcome. She was in one of her church dresses—floral print, short sleeves, her hair pinned up. She looked beautiful in the sunlight. He was an artist; he got to think things like that.
"Here to return a book to my mom?" he asked, when she came up the porch steps. He wished there was something to lean against.
"I came to see you."
He felt something rise up in his chest. He said, "I'm so honored."
"Be serious," Grace said, but she was smiling. "I came here to tell you something pleasant, and you don't want me to change my mind about that, do you?"
He didn't. "Fire away."
She sat down next to him on the front step. "It's about Harry."
He didn't know how close Marnie and Grace were—he didn't think they were especially close—but he couldn't help hoping that somehow, magically, Marnie had made a move with Harry, Grace knew about it, and he, Emmett could do more than count it a success: he could glorify it as one.
Grace laced her fingers together, and gave him no such satisfaction. "I think he's really coming into his own," she said. "And I think you're helping him."
Emmett bit his lip to hide his smile. "I would hope so. He's a good kid."
Grace seemed ready to call him on the fact that Harry was, in fact, older than he was. But she didn't. "Yes, well. I think he's more confident than he was a month ago. That's good."
"Confidence requires practice...for most people." Emmett leaned his elbows against the step above him, and shot her a teasing glance. Whether those glances (of which there were many) affected Grace was another matter. He could never tell. It was frustrating. Sometimes she looked like she was blushing, but her eyes were always steady.
Grace said, "I think that confidence is paying off." She was smiling again. He told himself he'd have to take another shot at painting that smile, and then reminded himself that she wouldn't approve of it if he did.
"What do you mean?" Maybe this--
"Do you know Rosa Martinez?"
Not where he'd thought this was going. "Isn't she one of that family that works for you?"
"The Martinezes are long-time employees, yes. Rosa is a good friend of mine. And Harry and she are dating."
"Oh, Grace," Emmett said lightly. "You shouldn’t try to keep up with gossip. That's old news."
She wasn't visibly flustered by this. She smoothed her skirt over her knees, and said, "Oh, OK. I guess I'm not surprised that you already know." She squinted a little—the sun was high in the sky, with little cloud-cover—and added, "I think they'll be great together."
Emmett decided to break the news. Grace was brilliant, of course, but on matters like these—well, she never dated. Of course she was a little dense. "Yeah," he said, "I...don't think that's on the table."
She was startled. "What's going on? Did Harry say something to you? Is he changing his mind?"
Emmett summoned up an elaborate grimace. "Changed his mind, I'm afraid. It's all over. First time wasn't anything of a charm."
She was silent for a long time. She dropped her eyes and stared at the ground, and Emmett felt like looking away, but he couldn't, exactly. Then Grace said, in a much colder tone,
"What the hell did you do?"
Grace stood up, and folded her arms over her chest. It was like she'd sucked all the afternoon heat out of the air. "I said what the hell did you do, Emmett?"
He stood up too. He wasn't going to have to look up at her, not at a time like this. He was a lot taller than she was. Advantages were advantages. "Harry made his choice," he returned. Dammit, where was his eloquence and charm.
"Let me guess," Grace said. "Harry asked you for advice, and you shot him down."
"Come on, Grace. She's a—a temporary migrant worker. Is that really—just practically speaking—a good match?'
It was the wrong thing to say.
“Don’t,” Grace said. He’d never seen her like this. She was pale. “Don’t you dare try to pull that bigoted shit with me.”
"I don't think it's bigoted to recognize that Harry's kind of a simple guy, and maybe yeah, maybe he needs a little goddamn guidance so he doesn't end up in a green card marriage with the first chick who was nice to him!"
Grace scoffed. "Are you kidding me? A green card marriage? You know that the Martinezes are here legally, right? And if they were not, what difference does that make? Do you think Rosa doesn’t deserve to be happy, to be in love, because she’s an immigrant? Because she’s a worker? Because she has to care for her extended family?”
Emmett stood his ground, even though it felt like the ground was shifting under his feet. "I didn't say that."
"You didn't have to." She was shaking all over, but somehow, her voice was deadly calm.
"Harry has bigger dreams than Highbury. Is it so terrible that I want him to find someone who understands those dreams?"
A strange expression passed through Grace's eyes. It was almost like relief. "You can't be talking about Marnie."
"So what if I am?"
Grace shook her head. "Do you...do you really not know? Never mind." She seemed to recollect herself. "You do realize that Harry isn't going to go anywhere in Hollywood, right? I've heard that pipedream before. He's a nice enough guy, cute, whatever. But you're going to stand here and look me in the eye and tell me that you think Rosa Martinez isn't worth his time?" She blew out a breath. "Rosa Martinez is vastly superior to Harry. She has a steady job. She's smart. She's a hard worker. She juggles a lot of responsibilities."
"Funny," said Emmett, who didn't think it was funny at all. He was dead certain that he was right, of course, but that didn't mean this didn't suck. He felt sick. Grace, however, couldn't be allowed to see that. "Funny, that just a second ago, you were singing his praises."
"I was coming to tell you that I had been wrong for judging his intelligence. Now?" She threw up her hands. "I'm not so sure."
"It sounds like you take issue with my intelligence, more than anything." He'd folded his arms over his chest, too, mirroring her. He hadn't meant to, but there you were.
Grace laughed. It wasn't her usual laugh. He hated it. "Oh, Emmett. It's not your goddamn intelligence I'm criticizing. Hell, you'd be better off stupid. If you were an idiot, you wouldn't screw shit up as badly as you do."
He reeled, and the ground he'd been standing on was gone now, it was all gone, and yet he had to stay here. He forced himself to smile. It was, maybe, the hardest thing he'd ever done. "All this, because I gave my friend some advice?"
Grace's shoulders slumped. "No," she said. Her tone was softer, but it hurt just as much. "All this, because you shut your eyes to what was around you. All this, because you're privileged enough to do that in the first place."
He'd done the right thing. The right thing, and she had no right to say this to him, to cut him off at the knees, to--
"I can't do this," Grace said, and turned. She was walking away, she was leaving, and he had to do something, dammit, couldn't just stand there without knowing what she'd meant. What couldn't she do? No, no, God, not like this--
But he was frozen. No words, no charm, no easy smile. He'd done the right thing.
Watching her leave, it didn't matter.
Chapter 9: Chapter IX
"...sorry, but could not repent."
Three missed calls from Julia. Grace tapped out a reply: Sorry. Swamped.
A new alert blinked a second later. Anything I should know about it?
Grace leaned back against her pillow. Her hair was a mess; it kept getting caught in her mouth. She pushed it away, frustrated. I didn't say that...you didn't have to...I can't do this.
She wrote back, Just stuff with the farm. You'd hate it.
She'd cried. It was only fair; Rosa was probably crying somewhere. People cried when their hearts were broken. This wasn't about Grace's heart, though. It couldn't be.
But you let yourself miss him, when he was away.
Well, yeah. He's like a brother to you.
Except that that didn't fit at all, and she couldn't deal with making it fit.
The rest of the day had been a wash, which was, in itself, unacceptable. Sunday afternoons were needed for housecleaning and looking after Paco, planning out the week ahead. And Grace had spent it lying on her bed, tears leaking out of her eyes.
Monday, she treated better, even if it didn’t return the favor. She had gone four years without—
Yeah. Four years. She didn't need anything else now.
Of course, it was hard enough, seeing Rosa, red-eyed and quieter than usual. Grace tamped down her anger into something that more readily looked like sympathy, and did her best to be kind. But the magic spell was broken. Grace had played older sister, the role she'd always tried for, and had failed. Rosa wasn't going to trust her so easily again.
It was his fault. She'd spent a lifetime shouldering responsibility, but that didn't mean she couldn't lay blame when it was a matter of truth.
Grace watched two weeks go by. They were very much, to an outside eye, like any two weeks out of her ordinary summer. Mornings in the fields, afternoons in the office. Evenings, with sometimes only one glance at the sky to see how the moon was hanging.
Not seeing Emmett was easier than she'd expected; he never came around, and except for church and business meetings, she barely left the farm. Whether that was what she wanted—but Grace left that off the table. It was never about what she wanted.
Emmett was fire, and Grace knew, you could swipe your fingertips through a flame quickly without getting burned, but you couldn't hold them there.
When her parents moved, her father said he'd call every week, see how things were going. That promise had not been forthcoming.
"You seem to be doing just fine," he marveled, when Grace called him, sometime in that endless two weeks.
She clenched the phone a little tighter. "Yeah," she said. "You taught me well."
"It's good to know I've left it in good hands."
But you left. "I'll make you proud."
"How is the name-change treating you?"
She should have known he'd still be hung up over that. "I think people are really responding to it, Dad. Remember the article?"
"Hmph. Yes." He paused. "Your mom's calling me—we have dinner plans. We both miss you, little one."
Little one. Grace's mouth twisted a little. "Love you too."
She took Paco for a long drive that night. It was the end of June. The closer to the water, the more the weather was bearable—but the days in the fields were long and hot and heavy.
Grace wasn't used to going to the beach alone. Grace wasn't used to going to the beach. She had memories of sunbathing with Julia—well, Julia sunbathed. Grace liked roaming the shore, picking shells with Emmett, racing into the water with Emmett—
Dammit. She'd come here to get away from him.
But he was all around, even she was angry with him.
Paco was well-trained enough not to need a leash. He loped along beside her as she wandered by the edge of the water, keeping a wide distance from the breakers. The foam could nip at her feet.
"He's an idiot," she said, to Paco, or to the water—or maybe to nobody at all.
She knelt. The sand was everything at once—soft, yielding, but gritty against her knees. She never did this; she never just let herself be tired.
There was this one time, when he was fifteen and she was seventeen, that he told her his greatest fear.
Hand sweeping, one of his spastic-yet-graceful motions—"I don't want to be like them."
"Them?" She thought he might mean, everyone else. In a way, he kind of did.
"Mom. Ike. Everybody who's just…stuck."
And Grace had said, "Emmett, you're never going to be like them." Because even at his worst, he was so much brighter, spangle-bright. Bright like pain.
He had relaxed a little, but the lines on his forehead hadn't. "But if I was…who would even know?"
"I would," Grace had said, and then she'd done something tremendously stupid: she'd reached out and taken his hand. "I'd tell you."
He'd looked at her, then, as if he actually believed her. As if he was going to do something to change. As if—but the next day, he was back to blowing off his classes, sweet-talking his way into better grades, and generally not giving a damn about anything.
Grace always fell for it.
Not this time.
She stood up. She was older now—they both were—and they were set in their ways. Emmett at fifteen had been wasting his time; Emmett at twenty-two was wasting other people's lives.
Grace tilted her head. Paco was getting his paws wet, then darting back to her side. The sun was setting. Maybe she was being a little bit dramatic—but she very rarely was, so if this was a momentary lapse, she figured she was entitled to it.
Two weeks. Two weeks, since they'd spoken a word.
He'd been on her mind. But that didn't mean he had any right to her life, her approval—
—or her heart.
Two weeks was surprisingly torturous. He’d really thought that Grace would get over it.
But she didn’t, and Emmett couldn’t afford to let himself miss her. Thus, the torture.
“Where are you going?” Mom asked tremulously, when he came downstairs with his luggage, on the afternoon of the fifteenth day.
“I have a board meeting,” Emmett said. Which was always apropos of nothing to Mom. “For the Foundation?”
“But I thought…”
“Ike and I have been talking about it for a while,” Emmett said, meaning that Ike had meekly asked if Emmett might not like to take the reins of the family’s charitable activity. And Emmett had wanted to. He’d always dreamed of taking charge, following in Dad’s—
Never mind. He smiled, rolled the leather handle of his bag under his fingers. “It’s twice a year. I’m taking Harry with me—he might as well visit L.A. sometime, and he has a couple vacation days saved up. Amazingly.”
“But it’s so sudden.”
It was a little sudden. Emmett should have given her more warning. She didn’t want him to go, but Grace didn’t want him at all…He was going. Responsibilities, distractions, call it what you would.
“I’ll be back tomorrow night. Promise. And I’ll call?” He wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be like this, if he was being too involved, or not a good enough son, or both at once. “I just—it’s important to me.”
She sighed deeply, but her voice was a little steadier. “Tomorrow night?”
He’d been gone for four years—how had she managed, then? He’d called her often, helped her figure out email—but she had managed. And she’d never visited him. She said she couldn’t bear the thought of getting on a plane.
He tried to explain it a bit to Harry on the flight to L.A.; not out of real emotion, just out of a desire to fill the space.
Harry just looked at him rather owlishly. “I don’t know my mom.”
“What?” Emmett was taken aback.
“She sort of…bailed. My dad checks in every once in a while.”
“How’d you—” Emmett started ask a question, figured it was impolite, and stopped. Had he really failed, in the past month and a half, to learn anything real about Harry? Grace’s face appeared in his mind, with a knowing expression. He sighed, but he didn’t exactly send the image away.
Harry didn’t seem offended. “I just lived with my grandparents. It was fine.”
Emmett had walked into it, and for a second, he was half-worried that Harry would ask about Dad—and Emmett would have to say something, because he had asked, and he could feel his chest tightening sharply—
But Harry asked no such thing. He turned the conversation back to the work the Woodhouse family did with their foundation, and Emmett was struck, suddenly, by the fact that Harry might occasionally have tact.
Grace had thought well of him. Had. Had.
If you were an idiot, you wouldn’t screw shit up as badly as you do.
His mouth was dry.
It was easier at the board meeting. Ike had never had much skill for handling the sharks, and Emmett hadn’t much experience, but he had natural talent. There was no point in denying facts.
He left Harry to wander around the city for the day—Harry had a vague idea of auditioning for something, as though that was either feasible or likely—and Emmett spent two hours being utterly businesslike, and resolving his prepared inquiries to his satisfaction. He wondered for a moment if Ike would be proud, and then wondered if Ike was knowledgeable about their charitable work to understand at all.
It wasn’t just the business, he mused, checking his watch for Harry’s arrival time. Charity made sense to him. He supposed it made him a good person, but it didn’t exactly feel that way. He didn’t do it for that, though Grace probably wouldn’t believe him and she was the only one whose opinion mattered.
Dammit, there was Grace’s face again, like a restless ghost.
He checked his watch again; paced, felt a little too unknown under the glow of the lights all around. Where the hell was Harry? Lost, no doubt. They needed to check in at their hotel, at some point. He sighed and dialed his phone.
“I’m—we’re—I’m at a restaurant,” Harry was saying eagerly, when he picked up.
Harry gave him the address.
Well, he could go for some food. Not-for-profits made for hungry work. “I’ll meet you there in fifteen,” Emmett said. He was too superior, always, to ask—but what Harry had meant by slipping “I” and “we” together?
Although, he might have guessed. When he found the place, there, sipping martinis at the bar, was Marnie.
“I happened to be in town,” she said, with a scarlet smile. “And then I ran into Harry…”
It was a big city, a long way from Highbury, but Emmett loved being right. He didn’t call her bluff for its contrivance. “Wonderful,” he said, with a return grin. Take that, Grace. She followed him all the way down the state.
Without Grace there to concede defeat, however, it was somehow less satisfying.
Marnie was full of stories about her day of L.A. The stories were substantially similar, and all without notable flourish, but Harry hung on every word, and that was enough to entertain Emmett. Finally, he yawned. “I think I’d better go check in at the hotel,” he said, “But I’d never drag anyone with me when the night’s still young. You two have another round. I’ll text you the details, Harry.”
He was halfway across the floor, reveling in the perfection of this plan—there was dim lighting, an ambiance—it was the perfect place for Harry to forget his heart had ever been broken or even cracked over Rosa Martineza, and—
Marnie had him by the elbow. He didn’t like to be touched. People were always forgetting that. “What?”
“You shouldn’t leave.”
God, why were she and Harry both so dense? They both liked each other; they didn’t need the third wheel anymore. Frankly, at this point they should just be grateful that someone of his social abilities had deigned to be the third wheel at all. He forced a smile. For Emmett, smiles were an easy thing. “Marnie, it’s going to be fine.”
“I just really think…I just—we both—” She was chewing at her lip.
She was still touching him. Save it for Harry. “I’m really exhausted, but Harry’s new here, and—well, you’re quite familiar with the scene, you know? I’d so appreciate it if you’d look after him.” Was that what she needed to hear.
“You’re such a good friend to him,” she said, blushing rosily. Blushing, no doubt, at the prospect of having the perfect excuse to spend the evening with her one-and-only. Emmett hid a more genuine smile this time.
“I try,” he said. “Impromptu dinners and all.”
And with that he got away, back across town to the hotel, and at last into a bed that was extraordinarily comfortable but didn’t feel like his own. He had missed California all the time he was in New England, if only for its familiarity. But now he didn’t know if it was the West that he’d missed, or something else.
Perhaps it was only Highbury.
Perhaps it was only—
Chapter 10: Chapter X
"… hoped they might now become friends again."
The worst thing about empathy was that it was unreachable without experience.
More to the point: Grace wasn’t familiar with the concept of breakups. Wistfulness, sure. A strange twist in her chest, definitely.
There had been that tall history major in college, with the blue eyes and the gleaming smile—but that was a crush. She’d been too focused on her business degree, she’d held off for…well, for something, and he dated her marketing TA for two months and turned out to be kind of a jerk.
Grace didn’t have a litany of after-party tears, of late-night roommate confidences, of boyfriends in sweaters who came to visit on the weekends and then broke the hearts they had won. She was too busy, and now she was too responsible, and again, she was holding off.
She reminded herself, practically, that it wasn’t any use wishing hypothetical pain and experience on herself just to help Rosa out of a rough patch of Emmett’s making. But it didn’t help, seeing Rosa’s hunched shoulders and downcast eyes, day in and day out. It had been almost three weeks, and Rosa wasn’t perking up.
Grace took it into her own hands. Even that felt a little less than selfless—maybe that was why she was trying to borrow pain from a past that didn’t exist—because Julia and Ike’s Fourth-of-July visit was looming over her.
Julia and Ike meant Emmett.
He hadn’t called. But that meant nothing; he hadn’t called through four years of college, and apparently he believed that still meant he got to miss her.
Rosa was leaving for the day when Grace found her, so that she could say her piece. She had chosen not to say anything in the fields. The sun had been too bright, and there were other workers around.
Rosa stiffened. She didn’t turn, and then she did, but her eyes were fixed on the ground.
This sucked. And Grace could lay blame, or she could just do what was right.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Rosa blinked quickly. “What?”
“I said I’m sorry.” Maybe she should have said this when they were out in the field, where the world was open wide around them. Here, between the house and the stand and the road, Rosa just looked like she wanted to run.
And Grace wasn’t familiar with the concept of breakups, so she wouldn’t be able to run with her.
“Nothing—it wasn’t your fault.” Rosa was almost stuttering.
“I shouldn’t have pushed you,” Grace said. “I was excited for you. You’re my friend. But I didn’t take—I didn’t read the situation right, and I made promises that weren’t mine to keep.”
Rosa was looking at her now, and she shook her head firmly. “That’s not it at all.”
“You have a lot on your plate. I got caught up in being excited, and I let myself—” She almost said live vicariously through you, but she didn’t know if that was exactly what she meant, so she stopped.
Rosa scraped at her elbow with her blunt fingernails. “No,” she said again. “You were—I don’t know what happened, but you were nothing but helpful. And our date was…it was great. I’m just—I’m just having a hard time. Abuela is sick…the kids are driving me crazy, and Harry…” Rosa shrugged. She looked exhausted.
“What can I do?”
The guarded look went up again. “It’s OK. I’m handling—”
“I’ll bring dinner over tomorrow,” Grace said firmly. It was the least she could do. She remembered her mom doing that, keeping track of the workers’ family lives, and adding in a little help here and there and everywhere. With both her parents gone, it was like having two full-time jobs.
She told herself to stop being melodramatic. Rosa had real problems. Problems that weren’t all about filling the spaces around golden boys with paperwork and other sundry distractions.
At present, Rosa nodded, like that was alright. She said, “Emmett didn’t like it, did he? Me and Harry.”
It was the first time she hadn’t called him Mr. Emmett. Which, honorifics be damned. “Yeah,” Grace said. “He’s an absolute prick, if you were wondering.”
For some reason, that made Rosa smile, really smile, for the first time since the fateful text message. “OK.”
Grace watched her drive away, in that station wagon that had to be at least two decades old, and ran a hand through her hair. Rosa’s last look had been a little too knowing.
All of a sudden Grace was back at Julia’s wedding, and she was dancing with the golden boy in question—always in question—and it was like something was fighting its way out of her chest. Hope. Not for them, but for him. Hope that he was going to be something more. It always hurt her most, when she thought he could be something more.
Stop moping. She had a dinner to make, and quickly. She had a bunch of emails to answer, and tomorrow would be too busy to fit in any cooking.
What did she have time for? Lasagna? Enchiladas? Grandma Martinez was an excellent cook; Grace didn’t want to be subjected to her criticism.
She went with the enchiladas, because her sauce was, as Emmett had once said, the shit.
Grace looked down at Paco, who was eagerly waiting for a sample. “I am never feeding him my damn enchiladas again,” she said.
Marnie should have been too boring to be a conundrum. And in a way, she was.
Emmett hated wasting brain space on her vagaries, but then again, he had a plan in place, and he needed to know his targets. Admittedly, he did not know what to make of her. It was just plain odd that someone who was so eager to be involved in everything could be so unwilling to take initiative with her own romantic interests.
If it hadn't been for his continuing certainty (all the more solidified by Grace's opposition, if only for the principle of the thing) that she was a great match for Harry, he would have avoided her.
There was the boring part—Marnie was dull.
Granted, Emmett had particular standards about that—most people would find Harry dull—but with Marnie it was more of a varnish than anything else. Everything she did and said seemed part of some larger scheme, but unless it was a scheme about Harry, Emmett couldn't care about it.
She lacked sincerity. That was it.
For someone very inclined to be evasive and capricious himself, he liked sincerity in other people.
After the "coincidental" meeting in L.A., she renewed her Hollywood hopes: albeit, hopes that operated in a slightly different vein.
"I think I've found my calling as a gossip columnist," she announced one day, flat on the grass, with her elbows crooked, phone in hand. She had been opining about the New York Times not two days earlier, but Emmett let that go with only an inward jibe.
"Wow," Harry said. They were on the front lawn of Hartfield, and Harry was trying to whistle on a piece of grass. Emmett had mastered the skill at the age of eight and had not pursued it since. He sipped Perrier and wondered if Grace was out in the fields this morning. The sun was hot.
"Like," Marnie said, with a sideways glance, "Listen to this blind item. He's the one playing hard to get, but that doesn't mean he isn't playing. Always has a trusted friend by his side…you can bank on that. With his wits, he's got a bright future ahead of him, so does she—it's the match they both want, but who's going to give in first?"
She wasn't looking at her phone. Emmett narrowed his eyes. "Show me that."
She squealed and jerked it out of his reach. "No!"
Just as he'd suspected. Harry was staring at him, blank, and Emmett decided he'd better push this later. He raised an eyebrow at Marnie, for the time being. "So that's what you want to do?"
She sucked in her lower lip. "Exactly that."
Still all blank on Harry's front. Emmett sighed. "You two want something to drink?"
"Oh, no." Marnie rose from where she'd been practically sprawled on the grass, and dusted off her knees. "I have an interview, so I’ve got to get back to my apartment and change.”
They’d never been to her apartment, despite repeated requests. Emmett wasn’t much one for visiting; he preferred to entertain. "For Hollywood Life?"
"Nah, just this administrative assistant job, at the Augusta Realty thing." She rolled her eyes. "Good enough for the time being, I guess."
"A—are you coming to the Fourth of July party?" Harry asked, lumbering up to follow her to her car.
Emmett stayed where he was.
"At Noel and Ashley's?" Marnie smiled. It was a secretive smile, but it was meant to be, so it lacked something in charm. "Sure thing. You'll be there, right?"
Harry nodded. Emmett could see that he was blushing furiously.
Emmett drained his drink and tilted his head back as Marnie spun off down the driveway. "Nice going."
God, Harry was a little thick sometimes. Emmett smiled affectionately. "You didn't really buy that 'blind item' did you?"
"That was a little weird." Harry slumped down in the chair beside him.
"A little weird?" Emmett tossed a glare in his direction, with the requisite hair flip that such expressions required. "She made it up, dude. It was about you."
Harry's eyes widened. "Are you sure?"
"Playing hard to get? You two have been circling each other for weeks. A bright future ahead of you? You both share dreams of stardom. And the best part? 'Always has a trusted friend…you can bank on that? Bank?"
"I work at a bank." Harry's face cleared a little.
Emmett tapped the edge of his bottle approvingly. "Exactly."
"But if the friend works at the bank, isn't it about you?" Harry clenched his hands over his knees, suddenly panicked. "Wait, does Marnie like you now?"
It was exceedingly juvenile, how this whole thing leaned sometimes. Emmett adopted a reassuring tone. "No way, man. She does not. The bank thing was obviously about you."
"Oh, OK. Wow. That was…clever."
If you liked that sort of thing. But Emmett was satisfied; if Marnie was in love enough to think Harry had prodigious wits, they were onto something.
Maybe the beach party that Noel and Ashley were planning would seal the deal.
In terms of sealing the deal, he had another worry on his mind, though he would not submit it the realm of Harry's (or anyone else's) consideration.
It was high past time that he and Grace made amends. They hadn't spoken since the middle of June. The holiday was next week—all partying aside, Ike and Julia were finally coming to visit. That meant that they would be thrown together. Emmett wasn't afraid of very many things, but the somehow, the idea of having Grace stonewall him in front of everyone was particularly unbearable. Damn it all, when had Grace been one to hold a grudge? She'd been pissed at him when he blew off getting valedictorian—he hadn't wanted to give the speech, so he'd purposely failed a test. It had been a precise exercise; he'd dropped to third in the class. It had been done by choice, he'd always argued, so what did it matter?
But Grace had been angry.
Well, maybe angry wasn't the word. He hadn't seen Grace really angry until two and a half weeks ago, when she'd almost sneered.
He was biting his lips. His mind had drifted away from the Harry-Marnie situation, from the sparkle of sunlight—well, from everything, really.
For someone who did only what he wanted to, it wasn't fair that the very thought of Grace's feelings was enough to control him. She shouldn't have that much power.
But he didn't know how to take it away from her.
Chapter 11: Chapter XI
If you need to, please review the trigger warning in the end notes. It is non-specific but is sort of a "spoiler."
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Quite forgotten in the expectation of a pleasant party.”
“See?” Julia communicated much with a raised eyebrow. “Already likes Tía Grace more than his own mother.”
“That’s not true,” Grace murmured, but she couldn’t keep from widening her eyes in response to Eddie’s blank stare. He gurgled, and Grace smiled. “Can I get a smile back? There it is!”
Julia huffed out a sigh, and Grace tucked her smile away. “Come on, now.”
“I’m just stressed. And fat.” Julia flattened herself dramatically on Grace’s sofa. “And she’s going to be whining…and Emmett is going to be smarmy and sometimes I just can’t deal with the smarm, you know?”
“He isn’t smarmy. He’s—just a show-off.”
“There’s a difference, huh?”
Grace didn’t dignify that with a response, just bounced Eddie against her chest and said, “The earlier we get there, the earlier you can leave.”
“You know that’s not true.” But another thought seemed to propel Julia upright. “You’re coming, right? You haven’t had some lover’s quarrel with—”
“I’m coming.” Grace turned away, so that Julia wouldn’t start reading her face. Julia was not to know that Emmett had texted her an evening ago, saying something about Ike and Julia and family dinner, and Mom missing her. Mom.
She’d thought of writing back, this is the first time you’ve ever texted me, but thought better of it. She’d only responded that, of course she would. Someone had to be the adult, and that was never going to be Emmett.
So here she was, having half-vowed never to speak to him again, ironing a blouse. She had missed Julia, of course—but sometimes it was hard to only have the pieces of an old life returned. Julia and Ike were not the same as Julia coming home in her college days, when the family was all together and—
You’re being sentimental, Grace reproached herself. She put the iron away, and buttoned up her blouse, warm and crisp against her skin. Downstairs, Ike was jingling the keys in his hand.
“Yeah.” He stared at her. “You walk?”
“It’s so close,” she started to say, but she finished with, “It’s fine.” Of course. They had a baby. A baby who was currently fussing because he wanted his mother to pick him up, though Julia was putting the finishing touches on her lipstick and being distracted.
But in a moment she was a mother again, and Grace reflected that there was a good deal more affection underlying Julia’s freneticism than she let on.
Walking to Hartfield house was nothing. Driving there—this drive, at least—was unbearably long. Grace twisted a thread escaping from the knee of one of her trouser legs and repressed a sigh.
“Are you feeling well?” Ike asked, glancing at her in the rearview mirror. He was nothing like Emmett, but they were still related. There were occasional resemblances. “You look kind of washed-out.”
“I’m fine. Slight headache.” She raised a hand quickly, to stave off any recommendations. “I took some ibuprofen though, I promise.”
Julia narrowed her eyes, but said nothing. Ike was satisfied, but rambled on about headaches for a moment longer. And then they were there, and Emmett was lounging on the porch, and somehow it would have been easier not to see him at all until they were inside.
Grace got out of the car and lifted Eddie out of his car-seat. Julia took him, and Grace had nothing to do with her hands.
Greetings were exchanged. Ike and Emmett did that half-hug, half-Heimlich that passed for affection between brothers. Julia handed him the baby, and said, “He whines a lot. You two will get along.”
The whole time, Emmett was looking at Grace, and Grace said nothing.
Then Julia piped up again. “Oh my god. You two match.”
Grace had never come closer to disowning Julia than at that moment. It was terribly true. For some reason, Grace had gone with dark-wash jeans and a white blouse, and Emmett was wearing basically the same thing, guy-version. His shirt was a lot tighter than hers, but that was to be expected.
Emmett’s eyebrows went up. He looked satisfied. “Totally,” he said.
Grace composed herself. “Should we go in and see your Mom?”
Dinner was an ordeal. It always was, and she didn’t know what to say to Emmett, so they couldn’t talk amongst themselves and tune Julia and Ike out like they normally did.
Ike and his mother got along well, but their entire conversation was always devoted to one-upping each other with ailments and miniscule worries. This pattern in turn brought out the worst in Julia, and if she wasn’t stopped, she was inclined to indulge in a running commentary that was…less than flattering.
But in the spaces left by her own silence, by not seeking out Emmett’s attention, Grace found herself appreciating his own efforts on his mother’s behalf. When Julia prodded, he deflected, without as much return fire as he was sometimes wont to give.
Yes, Emmett loved his mother. Selfish, maybe—but all the Woodhouses were, in their own way. And Emmett’s selfishness was probably more thoughtlessness than anything else.
All of a sudden—between two bites of steak—Grace knew that she missed him.
Dammit, she really missed him.
So when his eyes caught hers in a fraction of a second, with a question there she couldn’t quite make out, she smiled at him. And later, when Ike and Julia were engaged in a surprisingly civil discussion with Mrs. Woodhouse about Noel and Ashley’s wedding, Grace and Emmett were left alone with the baby.
Emmett was very taken with his nephew. He bounced him up and down and made elaborate faces, and Grace’s smile was harder and harder to keep at bay. Whatever Emmett was, he could be endlessly charming.
“Isn’t he a darling?” she said, tweaking one of Eddie’s small fingers.
“He’s perfect,” Emmett said. There was something like awe in his tone. Sideways, he dashed off a glance at Grace. “At least that’s something on which we can always agree.”
She could tell that he was trying to be casual about it. “Yes,” she said. “It’s wonderful to share a love for someone, especially a child.”
“I think we should make up,” Emmett blurted. Emmett, king of repartee, blurting.
Grace let out a breath. “I would like that too,” she said.
Emmett stopped jogging his arms. Eddie made a small whimper at the change of pace. Emmett said, “I still think I did right, I just…I can’t stand it, Grace. I can’t stand it.”
“I appreciate the honesty,” she said, and she meant it.
She could have sworn his whole body relaxed. At least, he looked less like a string pulled too tight. “Is…is Rosa really cut up about it?”
“She’s suffering,” Grace said simply.
“I’m sorry. Truly, about that. I’m sorry that anyone was hurt.”
Grace pressed her lips together. It wasn’t enough, not nearly enough, and yet—
“Life is so shitty when you’re mad at me,” he said, desolately. And Emmett was never just one thing at any given time, but Grace couldn’t help but think that he believed every word he said.
She took a step forward. They were a matched set tonight, and maybe that was fate. “Do you want to shake hands?”
He beamed, dimples in full effect. “Hell yeah.”
It was Emmett’s idea to spend Fourth of July at the beach. Because it was his idea, he actually put effort into persuading Mom that it was a Feasible Plan, and as a consequence, she agreed. Rather enthusiastically, in fact.
(Then everything went to hell.)
(Not all at once; there was an order of hellishness, just as Dante had prophesied.)
Harry came down with some sort of horrible stomach flu the night before the party. Emmett waffled between being a sympathetic friend and knowing full well that puke didn’t mix with festivities of any kind. In the end, Harry made it easy for him.
“I can’t go, dude,” he croaked, when Emmett called him.
“We rented the house for the whole day…you could rest…” He was cut off by the sound of retching. “No, you’re probably right.”
“Is Marnie still going?”
“I don’t know. She’s going to be so disappointed, though.”
Except—she wasn’t. She showed up in a sundress with a bikini strap peeking out, and was only upset about Harry’s absence for maybe two minutes.
“Oh, that sucks!”
Emmett lowered his voice. They were all getting ready to go—Ashley and Noel and the Woodhouse-Caballero clan—and Julia was standing close by. “Marnie,” Emmett said. “We would completely understand if, you know…you don’t want to—”
“Not come?” Marnie practically squeaked in indignation. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”
Not even for the guy you’ve been chasing for close on two months? People were really weird sometimes. “But Harry—”
“I feel so bad for him,” Marnie said, with more drama in emphasis than in actual emotion. She pressed a sudden hand to Emmett’s arm. “You’re not sick though, right?”
“Not that I know of.” He stepped away, mostly because he didn’t like to be touched, and also because for a tiny space of a moment, he’d had an uncomfortable realization. Not a true realization, just…an idea.
“Remind me who this chick is again?” Julia demanded, coming up beside him. Marnie was chatting with Noel.
“Marnie. She’s new in town; just waiting for her chance to date my friend Harry. The one who’s sick.”
Julia’s eyebrows went skyward. “I don’t know who the hell Harry is, but he’s not the one her sights are set on today.”
“What do you mean?” And damn it, she’d better not be confirming that sneaking suspicion…
She was. “Bro, seriously? She’s been checking you out more than a Walmart cashier.”
Emmett rolled his eyes. “That’s a godawful attempt at humor.”
“It’s an analogy.”
“Grace doesn’t do analogies, one of the many reasons I prefer her to you.”
“Ask Grace about Marnie, then,” Julia said, with a wicked grin. She shifted Eddie to her other hip, so that there was a baby-barrier between her and Emmett’s steely glare. “She’ll give it to you straight.”
As if Emmett would ask Grace.
The first few hours at the beach were fine. It was warm; they went wading (or swimming, in Marnie’s case), and even Mom agreed that the sun was “very bright.” The house was a fine one—one of Emmett’s high-school friends had used it for his graduation party, and the location had been memorable enough—and there was good food and drink. Woodhouses didn’t skimp.
Noel and Ashley had invited a few of their own friends. There was nobody for whom Emmett cared particularly, but Noel was enough on his own. So was Grace, but she was being a bit reserved (as she often was in company) and staying with Julia and her nephew.
After dinner, they hung out on the wraparound porch with the compliments of the catered bar. Emmett sipped at a margarita, and thought that he might paint the whisper of waves still visible in the dusk if he ever got around to it. Ashley and Noel sat down beside him. “You know,” Ashley said, “I had a long chat with Francesca the other night.”
Emmett had no present plans for relationships—casual, permanent, or anywhere in-between—but he wasn’t going to deny how attractive elusiveness, as a quality, could be. He’d been hearing rumors about Francesca Church for years, and how she was always going to come and visit her half-sister, and never did.
“I didn’t miss a visit, did I?”
“No…” Ashley sighed. “But now I’m married. She was super bummed that she had to miss the wedding. I really think she’d going to come this time. Probably next month. And who knows? Maybe she’ll like it here.” She winked in Emmett’s direction, and then one of her friends—a bridesmaid, Emmett recalled—pulled her away.
“That was about me, wasn’t it?” Emmett asked, all innocence. Noel laughed.
“Come on, dude. It would be the best possible outcome for me and Ashley. You and I are practically related already, and she’d give anything to give her sister a permanent tie here.”
Emmett shrugged. “I do love a mystery.”
No further conversation could be had on the subject, because Marnie suddenly appeared between them.
“There’s a storm coming up,” she announced, waving her martini ruefully. “We’re all sticking indoors for now.” She had tied some filmy coverup over her suit. Harry would have been drooling, Emmett was sure. It was a pity Harry wasn’t here, for more reasons than one.
One such reason was that Marnie had no intention, it seemed, of leaving Emmett alone. Due to his administrative approach all summer, he’d had almost no chance to catch up with Noel alone since Noel’s wedding. Now, in a blur of people competing for attention, he’d finally gotten Noel to himself, and here was Marnie, screwing it up again. He did his best to find a balance between politeness and staring daggers.
It was no use. Marnie wasn’t good at reading a room. She sat closer and closer to Emmett whenever she could come up with the slightest excuse to move. It was obvious. Emmett hated when things were obvious.
At last he set his drink down and dashed off to the bathroom. He washed his face and stared in the mirror and wondered what the point of this day was, now that they were going to get stormed out of a pleasant evening. It had all seemed well and good when the weather was fine, when Harry was coming, and Marnie hadn’t been such a hanger-on. But maybe Marnie always had been—
He was accosted from both sides when he came back out. Marnie, coming from the kitchen, handed him his drink. Mom bustled in from the porch.
“Emmett, I think there’s a tsunami coming.” She clutched at his arm. “We never should have come here, hon. What was I thinking?”
He drained his drink, set it down, and guided Mom to the main room. “We’ll head out soon,” he said, putting aside his nascent hopes of midnight walks along the beach. With whom would he take such a walk, anyway? “It’s just a thunderstorm.” It was also just his luck. “Hey, Ike? Ready to head out?”
Ike, when informed of the storm, was equally panicked. They were all being horrifically loud about it—one of Ashley and Noel’s friends had a phobia of thunder, or something. Normally, Emmett would have stuck around to make sure Mom calmed down, but all the noise was stabbing him right between the eyes. He got out of the room and headed upstairs. There was a covered porch up here, he was pretty sure. Somewhere to get some air, that fresh wild breeze that always came with a storm—that would just do it.
He didn’t make it to the porch. Too much salt in the margarita, or something—his head was aching, and everything looked a little weird. Where was Noel? He could have sworn he was talking to him a second ago—
Marnie loomed beside him, proportions oddly clownish before she collapsed back to her usual size. Emmett blinked, hard, and the world steadied a bit.
“Are you OK?”
“Not really.” The words felt cottony in his mouth.
“Let’s get you somewhere you can sit down.” She pushed open a door—it was one of the guest rooms. Emmett couldn’t remember if they were supposed to be up here or not. Where were they, again?
“I paid for this place,” he mumbled. Marnie steered him to the bed, and he sat down.
She sat down beside him. Awfully close. “Let’s just stay here for a minute.”
“Weird.” Emmett rubbed a hand over his forehead. “I feel weird.” Then he went stiff. Her hand was on his chest. He felt a chill, and realized that it was her fingers against his skin: she was undoing the buttons on his shirt.
“I’ve wanted you since the first moment I saw you,” Marnie breathed, and he blinked really hard this time. She was too close, he hated this, God, why had he gotten so drunk? He’d had one drink, what was happening? What was she saying?
“Shh…” she pressed a hand to his lips and pushed him back. The ceiling swam overhead. He felt her weight on his chest, and his mouth stung with salt, and he sat up. “What are you doing?” she whispered.
That worked, for a moment. She pulled back, confused. Emmett strung his tattered thoughts together. Marnie sat back, but her fingers were still tangled in his shirt. “What about Harry?”
“You like him.” It took pretty much all he had to say those words. “You…Harry…why are you—”
“I don’t like Harry, you idiot. I like you.” And she was holding him down again, and he knew he should be able to stop her, but it was like he couldn’t get his hands to do what they were supposed to. The were just heavy and useless, and Marnie had him by the shoulders and her mouth was wetly pressed to his—
Something in him woke up enough, at that. He shoved her away, hard, and she fell off the bed, sprawling on the floor.
“What the hell, Emmett?”
“Get out,” he said. “Just—get out.”
Marnie’s face was red. Or maybe it was her hair, reflecting on her face? He couldn’t tell; his head felt like it was running its own internal fireworks display. But she got up and went out without another word.
He was shaking. His hands were shaking and he could still feel her on him, even though he knew that she was gone.
He lay back on the bed for a while, trying to get everything to come together. Standing up was hell; he slumped and fell heavily to his knees.
There was a knock on the door.
Shit. It was Grace. The last person who should ever—he forced himself to his feet again.
She opened the door. Her eyebrows went up; even in whatever hell of a state he was in, Grace’s face was perfectly clear. He didn’t know what she was looking at, and then he remembered, in a compartment of memory that seemed to float by him, visible enough to poke at, that he looked kind of half-dressed at the moment.
“Sorry about—I—” He fumbled for the buttons. They kept getting away from him. Grace pressed her lips into a hard line, stepped forward, and did them up for him.
“I’ll take you home,” she said. “Everyone else left already.”
Holy—he’d lost track of time. (What was time?) “But you didn’t.”
“They were freaking out about the storm. Ike remembered right as they were going that no one knew where you were. I told them I’d find you.”
He moved to follow her out the door, but his feet wouldn’t seem to stay in line with each other. Grace heaved out a sigh, and said, “Christ, Emmett,” under her breath. Grace didn’t usually swear a lot. He might not remember much, but he remembered that.
She was staring straight ahead, but she looped his arm over her shoulders and they made it downstairs somehow. The house was empty. He’d paid for it, but the day was over. They’d all left him.
Everyone but Grace, and Grace was saying nothing at all.
Outside, the wind was billowing and gusting and there was a battalion of raindrops waiting to drench them. They made it to the car and Grace turned on her fog lights. The waves were still crashing against the shore. The waves, at least, kept going.
Grace stayed silent while they drove. Emmett thought of making conversation, but his tongue felt briny and thick. It wasn’t worth it. And anyway, a glance revealed that she still had that hard line in her jaw. It got him right in between every rib, somehow.
He shut his eyes against her disappointment and pressed his cheek against the window. It was cold—refreshing, really. The way the rain pattered against the glass was a comfort. Something to get him through, all the miles back to Highbury—but before that thought was even fully formed, his stomach rebelled.
“Pull over,” he burst out, and Grace shot him a quick look as she did.
He practically fell out the door, into a conveniently located puddle, and was puking before he even hit the ground.
Vaguely, somewhere around the third or fourth thought bubble that he could practically see above his head, was the realization that this was rock bottom. He’d been an occasional idiot in college, but he’d never been literally spilling his guts, hands and knees and asphalt and a goddamn thunderstorm, while Grace Caballero looked on as stoic and cold as marble, even in the pouring rain.
She helped him up. He dribbled vomit on her shoes. Saying sorry didn’t really seem worthwhile, at this point, so he clamped his mouth shut.
Grace’s hair was plastered against her cheeks. Her eyes were hard and dark but it was late out, he told himself. How could he really know what she was thinking?
His hands were still shaking. He couldn’t exactly feel them shaking, but he could see that they were.
For a long time, it seemed that Grace was going to stonewall him all the way home. At long last, when they were on Hartfield road, she said, “Why do you do it?”
Emmett ran the edge of his tongue over his lips. “Do what?”
Her shoulders slumped. Were her hands shaking too? No, they were perfectly steady on the wheel. “Never mind.”
Triggers: Attempted, non-graphic sexual assault.
Chapter 12: Chapter XII
“It was rather too late in the day to set about being simple-minded and ignorant.”
Grace was cleaning her attic.
“Why are you so terrible?” Julia asked, poking her head in. “It’s hot, and stuffy, and awful up here.”
“I’ll be down, I just—”
“We’re leaving tomorrow. You’ve been checked out all day, and now you’re just straight-up absent. Why are you being a brat on our last night?”
Grace rocked back on her heels. She had showered twice since last night, but in the dense heat, her hair was Medusa-like, slithering down her neck with sweat. It was after ten, but Julia and Ike were always staying up late watching television. She should be with them, as hostess. “You’re right,” she said, with a sigh. “I’m sorry.”
She followed Julia out of the attic, but Julia blocked her in the hall. “What did our favorite frat-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold do now?”
“Emmett wasn’t really in a frat.”
“He totally was. Shocker.” Julia cocked her head, one earring brushing her shoulder. “Which of your rose-tinted hopes did he screw up this time?”
Grace pushed away the memory of Emmett, stumbling against the hood of her car, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, unable to look her in the eye.
“He was a disaster last night. You saw.”
“He seemed a little green right before we left, but he wasn’t a disaster,” Julia said, with that annoying certainty that had ruffled Grace’s stoicism since their teenage days. “Too much sun?”
“He got shitfaced,” Grace returned, stoically. “So much for the attentive host.”
“Stop being such a bitch, Grace! He had one drink. We literally talked about this. I heard one of Ashley’s dumb friends—Lila? Went to high-school with her, hated her—offer him something and he said he wasn’t in the mood. I swear he was not drunk when we were all heading out…and didn’t you drive him home, like, half an hour later?”
Grace rubbed at a streak of dust on her hand. “I…are you sure?”
“Yeah. He moped around looking at you—don’t interrupt—and talking with Noel. Kind of lost without Harry, if you ask me. Guys are such babies.” Julia rolled her eyes. “Speaking of baby, he’s starting up again. Oh, my god, child. Mama’s coming!” She stalked off down the hall.
Grace swallowed hard.
She told Ike she was going for a walk. He raised his eyebrows and said nothing, which, screw Ike. How did Julia even put up with him?
Whoa. Why are you being so irritable?
Maybe because she’d barely slept the night before. Maybe because she’d shaken Emmett’s hand two days ago and felt her good will thrown back in her face last night. Maybe because she always seemed to want the most from Emmett right before he disappointed her again.
But what if—
There was no explanation she would like. Grace half-walked, half-jogged to Hartfield, and tapped on the front door, praying to every saint she knew that Mrs. Woodhouse wouldn’t hear. She supposed she could have thrown gravel at Emmett’s window; it was the sort of thing he would do, if given the chance, but this was too…serious.
A light flicked on; the door opened. All six-feet-two-inches of him, silhouetted in gold, stood before her.
“You could have called,” Emmett said. His hair was falling over his forehead. He was wearing sweatpants slung low on his hips, and a t-shirt with the tag sticking out of the collar. His face still looked a little gray; there were dark circles under his eyes. So much less—perfect than usual.
Grace’s fingers itched to fix that tag. She restrained herself. “I wanted to see you in person.”
“OK.” There was something a little lacking; was it his levity? The spark in his eyes? But oh, when was she ever one to seek out a spark?
Grace laced her fingers together and tried to keep her voice perfectly level. “What happened last night?”
He lowered his head, not looking at her, and ran a hand over the back of his neck. “You really going to make me relive it? Vomiting on your shoes?”
“You didn’t have too much to drink. Julia told me.”
He went still, elbow still crooked behind his head. His eyes flicked up towards hers.
“Emmett, tell me what happened.”
He moved his hands to his pockets. He looked uncomfortable, awkward, even. And to her knowledge, Emmett had never been awkward. Last night he hadn’t been himself; that didn’t count.
“You were right,” he said, after a moment’s pause.
He cleared his throat. “About Marnie.”
A little cold fear crooked a finger between Grace’s ribs. “What about Marnie?” Marnie at the party had been Marnie as always—fawning over Emmett, laughing too loud, and then…well, Grace hadn’t seen much of her, towards the end.
“She wasn’t interested in Harry. Apparently…” He paused, and his mouth twisted wryly. “Apparently her interest tended in quite another direction.”
Grace chewed her lip. She remembered, last night, when she was collecting drinks on the porch, as the storm was coming up—
“Oh, that glass is Emmett’s—I’ll take it—”
The finger of fear tugged hard. “Emmett…did Marnie—”
He shook his head, like he didn’t want to keep talking about it. “I’m fine, Grace. Just—a little hungover. Still.”
Grace closed the distance between him, and set her hands on his shoulders without thinking twice about it. She thought he trembled a little, under her touch. “Did she hurt you?”
A flush spread over his face, from his cheekbones to his ears. “Seriously? She’s like a foot shorter than me.”
“Did she hurt you?”
Emmett’s teeth worried his lower lip. “It didn’t go anywhere.”
No, not anywhere...just Emmett, shaken, in a bedroom, without any reason for being there. Emmett, huddled in her car. Emmett, vomiting on the roadside in the rain, listening to her silence, thinking that she was ashamed of him—
Grace saw him wince, and realized that her fingers were digging into his shoulders. She let him go. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “What can I do? Should I—can I kill her?”
He smiled. It started at one corner of his mouth and spread slyly over his features. “Oh, Grace,” he said, and his eyes did glint but his voice sounded tired—“Is this what it takes to provoke you to violence?”
She folded her arms, trying to compose herself. She was furious, but there wasn’t any use in showing it. She had already said too much. “I exaggerated. But really, Emmett. What she did was—it was horribly wrong, and I can’t believe…I should have known…”
“Why would you have known? I was blind to everything, but nobody expects a spiked drink at a friendly party.” He tipped his chin back, throat pale in the moonlight, and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m an idiot. It’s alright, Grace. I’m getting used to the idea, lately.”
She wanted to throw her arms around him. He needed a sister, didn’t he? Or maybe he needed something else. She kept her arms tight against her chest. “I’ve been really harsh with you, lately,” she said. “And I’m sorry. I should know better than to think that everyone suffers the same way.”
Emmett said, very lightly, “I’m not suffering.”
It was late. A secret time of night, when people said things too quickly to forget. “I’m sorry,” Grace repeated, almost numbly. She turned—he caught her wrist.
The next instant, he was hugging her, arms linked round her, hands pressing her shoulder blades. Her face was pressed against his chest, warm through his thin t-shirt. Grace tightened her arms in response. Emmett rested his forehead on her shoulder.
They stayed like that, for a long moment. Then Emmett pulled back, and he was his old self again. “Lucky,” he said. “I’m damn lucky to have—a sister like you.”
Sister. It was always the word she used herself, but it never seemed to be what she wanted when it was on his lips.
Grace felt the small but permanent weight of it, like a pebble falling, from her heart down to her feet.
There were a hundred ways to be wrong. Sometimes, you were all of them at once.
Emmett woke up late the next day, and wished he could keep sleeping. The only comforting thought was the memory of Grace’s eyes, softer than he’d even hoped for, and the warmth of Grace’s arms around him.
Ike and Julia and Eddie were heading home. They stopped by Hartfield house to say goodbye. Ike and Mom traded their respective terrors over the thunderstorm at the beach.
Emmett turned to Julia, and asked, low, “Why’d you talk to Grace about me?”
Julia quirked a brow, and he knew he wasn’t getting a straight answer. “Did you know that you’re an idiot?”
“Go away, Julia.”
She hugged him briefly and let him press a kiss to the downy top of Eddie’s head. “I am going away. Lucky for you, Grace isn’t.”
He could only answer that with a simple goodbye.
Grace’s visit might have set one part of his soul at easy, but it left another, more presently painful task ahead of him. He had to set things straight with Harry. And that would sting, all the more sharply for how much it was Emmett’s own fault. Harry would never have drummed up any hopes; Harry would never have put himself forward—Harry had even suggested, on occasion, that Marnie’s pursuit had a different quarry.
But Emmett was blind to it all, because Emmett never wanted things to be obvious.
He visited Harry’s apartment, germs and all, later that afternoon. If he caught some terrible strain of stomach flu, it was just penance for his sins. He should ask Grace, sometime, what the worst kind of sin was.
“Hey man,” Harry said. “How was the party?”
Emmett wouldn’t relive the half-hour that followed for anything.
The worst part was that Harry wasn’t angry at him. No, Harry was just hurt, without placing any blame—Emmett had left out the particulars of the incident itself, because those were to be known only by him, and Marnie, and Grace to whatever extent she’d intuited.
Harry was hurt, because someone he trusted had built up his every hope and then the truth had brought them crashing down.
Emmett drove. He drove until he didn’t know where he was anymore, and then he sat with his hands on the wheel, staring straight ahead.
His grand plan for the summer had combusted, and the debris had found its way to more lives than his own.
He had been a fool. Because only a fool wouldn’t have seen through Marnie, from the very first moment they met, and only a fool would have thought that she wasn’t going to try to pull something when the opportunity presented itself, and only a fool—
He was only a fool.
Grace had known. And he still couldn’t be certain that Rosa and Harry were right for each other, but he could admit that he was the farthest thing from any kind of authority. It was a wonder that Grace forgave him ever, or at all.
Only a few months ago, Harry hadn’t even known him—and Harry had been better off. Emmett wished, for the first time, that he could be more like Harry, instead of the other way around. Not with such…occasional vacancy, of course. Even in the depths of self-flagellation, he couldn’t wish for that. But there was something very right about aspiring to be more like the person whose happiness had been wronged by one’s own arrogance and blindness. Harry was genuine, fair, and patient.
Most importantly, he didn’t screw with other people’s lives.
The hateful thing was that Emmett probably had more in common with Marnie than he did with Harry—calculation, self-promotion, all the same kinds of ugliness that had led to last night. He tried to shake off the odds and ends of memories and focus on his own faults, independent of hers. The sooner Marnie was forgotten, the better.
The sooner Emmett changed his ways, the better still.
A hundred ways to be wrong.
Emmett tapped the wheel, and said aloud, “I’m never going to advise anyone, ever again.”
And as he was as violently remorseful as he had previously been violently confident, he was sure that he meant it.
Chapter 13: Chapter XIII
"There is one thing, which a man can always do, if he chooses, and that is, his duty; not by maneuvering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution."
"You've started painting again."
"Well…yes," Emmett said, brushing at a paint-smear on his index finger. "Just here and there. Even brilliance gets bored."
"Especially bored, I would say." Grace fell into step beside him. It was Saturday; she was running errands and apparently Emmett was too. Highbury was quiet, in late July—the strawberry rush was over. And Grace could acknowledge, without undue vanity, that strawberries were the chief element of Highbury's appeal.
"This has been a long summer," Emmett observed. He had a sheaf of envelopes in his hand—they'd met outside the post office—and he kept fanning them in and out. Nervous energy, always.
"Only because you're not gallivanting around Europe."
"You might have, again." Grace paused. "You might have—well, you didn't have to come back here at all."
"But Mom would die." He said that confidently, like it was something he needed.
They were walking side by side. In an older time, Grace thought, she would have taken his arm. Goodness. You shouldn't have left Masterpiece Theatre on last night.
Emmett stopped short before a café and turned to her with an expectant expression.
"Let's have coffee."
"Thank you," Grace said, "But I've already had a cup today."
He scoffed at this. "A cup? You work harder than anyone I know, and you're really going to pretend that it's all done on a solitary, sensible cup of coffee? Let me guess, you take it without sugar."
"You know that I do."
"Don't make me beg," Emmett said, and mimed getting down on knee.
Something in Grace's chest felt weird. She rolled her eyes instead of questioning it. "Fine, I'll come in and have another coffee."
Emmett beamed. "Excellent. We'll sit in that window and people-watch."
Grace let him open the door for her, but she firmly protested his plan. "I'm not going to judge pedestrians with you, Em."
He cocked his head. "Is that how they fit the work ethic into people? They take all the fun out first?"
Grace refused to be ruffled. She ordered her coffee and sat down at the table, crossing her ankles. It was a cute little place—the chairs were woven out of honey-colored wicker, and the table had a mosaic inlay, which she examined appreciatively.
Emmett bought something tall and opulent and ridiculous, smothered by a snowcap of whipped cream. Then he propped his chin on his hand and stared at her.
"What are you doing?"
"Well if we can't people-watch, I'll just have to person-watch. And you're my person."
Grace refused to blush. "Tell me about what you're painting, silly boy."
"You," he answered lightly. "If I could only get the eyes right."
That did make her blush—but it was surprise, only surprise, nothing more. "You've tried painting me?"
"Try being the operative word." He ran his tongue over his upper lip, capturing a dot of whipped cream.
"What's wrong with my eyes?"
His eyes were suddenly fixed on hers, inscrutable and unshakeable all at once. "Nothing."
Grace finished her coffee and leaned against the curve of her chair. The conversation was getting a little too personal, or the café was a little too warm, or something. She turned to the window, seeking relief. "Oh, look! There's Arthur."
"Ha!" Emmett snapped his fingers. "You are people-watching!"
Grace shot him a look. "I just noticed our friend."
"Your friend, maybe. He drives me up a wall."
"He's very kind." She knew Emmett wasn't fond of Arthur Bates, and it always annoyed her. She shouldn't have mentioned him at all.
"Kindness is not one of my favorite virtues,' Emmett said archly. "It tells you so little about a person. So many dull, unlikable people are kind. Most often it's a platitude meant to indicate that someone is neither attractive, interesting, nor witty."
"That," Grace said, with chilly calm, "Is one of the most awful things you've ever said."
He wilted. It was likely all for show. "Don't be mad. I'm not even halfway through this drink yet."
"That abomination, you mean?"
He reached across the table and grabbed her hand. "Grace! Don't desert me to the fires of hell before my time."
"Don't be rude, then."
"I promise I'll be the picture of politeness next time Arthur comes to dinner, alright?"
"It doesn't count unless you mean it."
"If that were true, the world would fall to pieces."
Grace shrugged, conscious that Emmett's hand was still covering hers, warm and large and paint-splattered. "Perhaps it has," she said, and took her hand away.
"New topic," he said, seemingly satisfied that she wasn't going to abandon him just yet. "I was at Noel and Ashley's last night. Francesca was supposed to come next week, but she's cancelled again."
"I'm not surprised," Grace said. "It doesn't reflect well on Francesca, though."
"Why?" Emmett demanded, getting that devil's advocate gleam in his eye. "It's her fault that her mom moved her halfway across the country?"
"Please," Grace said. "That was ages ago. No, it's her fault that she keeps promising her sister that she's going to visit, and never does. Ashley has flown out there a bunch of times, you know she has. And Francesca hasn't returned the favor even once. Not even for the wedding."
"Maybe it's a delicate topic."
"Maybe she's a self-centered young person who doesn't appreciate her sister's affection."
"Way harsh," Emmett said, with a lift of his eyebrows. "You know very well how complicated these things can be. If her mom is on bad terms with Ashley's dad, still, maybe she doesn’t want Francesca traveling out west."
"But Francesca can travel to Hawaii for vacation, as we learned from her sister." Grace returned him eyebrow for eyebrow. "I am sure Noel speaks more to you than me about it, but when he did speak to me he seemed unhappy that Ashley keeps getting her hopes up, all for nothing."
"Isn't deferred gratification the best? You used to lecture me about it. Ashley will probably be all the happier when Francesca finally does visit, from all this anticipation."
"I know you're just arguing with me for the sake of it," Grace said, turning her coffee cup on its saucer. "I hope she does come, and soon, so Ashley can be happy."
Emmett leaned back in his chair and gazed prospectively at the ceiling. "After her many years as a legend, it would be interesting to meet her. She'll talk strawberries with you, be kind to Arthur, find the way to Noel's heart instantly, and of course, people-watch with me."
"I will not be easily charmed by someone who makes charming people their goal," Grace said. Maybe she was a little stubborn on that point, but considering what was across the table from her, she figured it was warranted. "If she is friendly and intelligent, I'll enjoy her company. I think it's more likely that she is pampered, self-centered, and self-impressed. In any event, I won't lionize someone for any reason. Her current track record hasn't done much to change my mind."
"Lionize," Emmett repeated. "Nice word. Nobody's said it for approximately eighty years, of course, but still."
Grace glanced at her watch. "I should go," she said. "Please tell your mother I said hello."
Grace and her unpaintable eyes remained an enigma. Emmett had been teasing her—he was positively disposed to the elusive Francesca, but not so much that he couldn't see the other side of things—but he'd been surprised by how much Grace pushed back.
Grace was generally—no, not just generally, always—the one to give people the benefit of the doubt. Hell, she even put up with Arthur Bates' rambling! It was odd, then, that her patience was worn so thin before even meeting Francesca Church.
Grace's patience, which had even been bestowed on Marnie, for a time.
Emmett though of Marnie as little as he could these days. To Grace, he never spoke of her—he'd shown far too much of something to Grace, and he didn't want to revisit the feeling. It was an embarrassment, sure. A reckoning for his own judgment, maybe. But it could go no further. The memory of that night was better locked away forever, or at least until it became irrelevant.
Marnie had gone away. She'd taken a job with Augusta Realty, and it had taken her out of town for training. Maybe she would stay away.
Emmett certainly hoped so.
But what Emmett's hopes could not achieve, seemingly, was Harry's silence on the subject. Harry, in all the grief of a heart broken twice in a month, talked of nothing but Marnie.
It grated, but Emmett figured it was his rightful penance.
Grace had left the café like a shot. Emmett felt a pang that he had chased her away with his relentless defense of Francesca, but reminded himself that Grace kept a busy schedule even on weekends. She'd have found an excuse to leave him before long, regardless of what he said.
He had three new texts from Harry. Marnie's name was mentioned twice.
Had Emmett heard from her? Had she said when she was coming back?
He shut off his phone, left a tip on the table, and stepped out into the sunshine.
And dammit, he'd picked the wrong moment, because Arthur Bates was headed straight at him.
And Grace was right, Arthur Bates was kind, with his threadbare clothes and spotty glasses and perennial dinner invitations from families far better off than he was. He was treated well by the town because he'd grown up with Emmett's mother and a handful of Goddards and the Coles of the Cole & Hammon law firm—and he was boring as all hell.
Emmett had, no doubt, run through this same progression of thought before. And that was the thing about Arthur. He made even other people'sthoughts repetitive and dull.
"Emmett! Emmett Woodhouse? I know you're past the age where you grow anymore, but my lord, you are tall. Tall as your father was, I'm sure. How are you, son?"
Emmett fixed on a smile so polite that even Grace could not have taken issue with it.
It doesn't count unless you mean it.
"Good to see you, Arthur. Going in for a coffee?" Please, God, go in and get a coffee so that I can escape.
Arthur blinked in the direction of the café. "Coffee? Oh, no, no. I drink more tea these days to be quite honest with you. Tea sits better in my old stomach, to be quite honest with you. I used to be quite the coffee-drinker in my younger days, I'll tell you that. Quite the coffee drinker."
Holy hell, he spoke so slowly. Emmett's grin was getting stiff. How did Grace do it? She visited the Bates every Sunday, had for years. At least, she'd been doing it since before he left for college, and knowing Grace, she'd been doing it ever since.
"You're all on your own today," Arthur observed, after he had exhausted the subject of hot beverages (and Emmett, by extension). "No Harry? No Marnie?"
"Harry's around somewhere," Emmett said. And before he had to answer for Marnie's whereabouts, he added quickly, "Heard from Jake lately?"
"Didn't you hear?"
No, of course I didn't, because I try to avoid you at all costs. "Hear what?"
"Jake's between jobs at the moment. Just finished a tour with an orchestra, and he's between jobs. I don't doubt he'll get something really grand. Really grand. But he's going to be staying with me and Father for a while. Music is very taxing, and you know he's always worked himself so hard."
"Jake is coming here," Emmett said, with all the manufactured enthusiasm he could muster. It was precious little, but it would have to do. "How…exciting."
"I'm delighted. Truly delighted. And you boys will be reunited! I'm fortunate—very fortunate—to share this town with so many childhood friends. But you know, not everyone does. Not everyone has that chance. So I'm sure you'll both be so glad…so very glad…to see each other again."
"I'm sure," Emmett said, through his teeth.
"I think I have one of his letters here—" Arthur hunted around in his pocket.
Emmett could bear it no longer. "I wouldn't keep you," he said. "I've got a meeting…at the—bank, Arthur. I'll tell my mom about Jake, though. She'll be…thrilled."
Thank God those spotted spectacles apparently dimmed Arthur's ability to perceive thinly veiled desperation. "A busy young man!" he exclaimed, waving a hand. "Some other time, Emmett. Some other time."
"Not if I can help it," Emmett muttered, when he was a good distance away. So much for politeness. All the kindness in the world wasn't enough to make conversation of such a glacial pace at all palatable. Grace could have her inexplicable prejudice against Francesca Church; Emmett could have his grating, insurmountable resentments against Arthur Bates and all his people.
Which, speaking of, screw Jake Fairfax.
Emmett had never liked Jake.
Jake was very talented, very reserved, and very well-respected. Something about the combination was loathsome—and no, Grace, it couldn’t be explained. Nor should Emmett have to explain it. To each their own, right?
Emmett drove home in a sour mood, and vowed to paint Grace's eyes successfully.
Grace's eyes did not cooperate.
Chapter 14: Chapter XIV
"It was a dislike so little just—every imputed fault was so magnified by fancy."
"No, Mama. I'm not switching over the business…we're just doing what you always wanted, selling baked goods. No, I can't do them all myself. That wouldn’t be feasible, and you know the health codes are something fierce." Grace rubbed the back of her neck and formed each word slowly and deliberately. It took more effort, because most of her fights and petulance throughout her life—and yes, she could be occasionally petulant—had been in Spanish. English always pulled her down like a brick. "No. I wouldn't entrust the baking to the Coles. I'm contracting with a bakery. Just had Mr. Cole draw up the contract." She glanced across the street and squinted in the sunlight, trying to get a good look at the man standing in front of the music store, with his back turned. "Can I call you back, Mama? Love you."
In a few quick strides, she had crossed the street, and exclaimed, with as much exuberance as she ever allowed herself, "Jake?"
He turned. She knew she had recognized the slim set of his shoulders—broader, now, in a checked cotton shirt; the same close-cropped curls and graceful neck. When he turned, he looked very serious for a moment, and then he smiled.
"It's been what, six years?"
"Almost." He'd always been handsome, in Grace's opinion, but he'd definitely come into his own since he'd left to head out East. Of course, it was only natural: sixteen and twenty-two were a world of difference, unless you were Emmett, who had hit puberty like a home-run. "Did Uncle Arthur tell you I was coming?"
"Yeah, yeah he did." Grace tossed off an affectionate shrug. "He keeps me in the loop."
Jake smiled wryly. "I bet."
Without thinking twice, she tugged at his arm. She was being almost bubbly, and she knew it, but she was just—glad. Glad to have an old friend returned. A simple and straight-forward kind of return. "Can I take you to lunch? Or are you running some kind of important errand?"
"Just poking about. I told Uncle Arthur I'd pick up some milk, but I've gotten a little turned around."
"I'll turn you right again," Grace promised. "You'll have the lay of the place in no time. So, you just finished a tour with the Campbell orchestra, right?"
He ducked his head affirmatively. "Right."
"I'd love to hear about it."
"Sure." Jake was smiling again, but Grace thought he looked tired. Of course. He'd probably flown in the night before. Before she could reassure him that he didn't need to do anything on her account, at the moment, he added, "Uncle Arthur tells me you've taken over Knightley farms. Is that true?"
Grace nodded, sighing a little. "Yes, it is. The parents decided to retire. Can't say I blame them." And it wasn't blame, exactly. Not blame.
Jake's dark eyes scanned her face thoughtfully. "That must be hard for you."
"It's been pretty stressful, I won't lie. And we have different visions, you know? So they don't always give me advice that I can use." Like Mom, fussing over the bakery, which Grace had been so sure she'd love.
"Like changing the name to Caballero?"
"I approve," Jake said. "Chips at that old white paint a little, right?"
Grace chuckled. This was something they'd always shared—stuck in the wrong part of Cali, as they were wont to joke. "Have you heard from your Dad at all?"
"He got some gigs. He's in NYC. We got dinner a couple times."
A couple times, in six years? Grace knew better than to offer sympathy; Jake wouldn’t want it. But still—she pressed her lips together.
Twenty-three years ago, Arthur Bates' sister Nora had run off with an L.A. jazz musician. A black jazz musician, Highbury gossip made sure to add, which of course, to the minds of some, made it worse. Alan Fairfax had passed his talent to his son, but hadn't left much else. Neither had Nora; after Alan moved on, she left Jake with Arthur and had pursued an acting career. It hadn't gone anywhere.
Nora didn't really come back.
Grace knew that Jake—at least, sixteen-year-old Jake—didn't talk to his mom. But his dad was an occasional figure of influence, if only for their shared bond of music. Dinner, a couple times. Six years.
"I'm sure he's proud of you."
"Maybe." Jake paused in front of a familiar red and white shop-front. "Ah. Supermarket. Milk."
Grace put a hand on his arm as they passed through the automatic doors. "I'm thrilled to see you, Jake, but I know you must be pretty exhausted. I don't mean to make it worse by pestering you with questions."
His eyes crinkled softly at the corners. "I'm never too tried to catch up with you. You're the least tiring person I know."
And maybe she was overthinking things, forgetting that not every man of her acquaintance talked at a million miles an hour. As it turned out,that was an unfortunately prophetic thought, because it prompted the appearance of the most tiring person anyone ever knew.
"Oh my God," Emmett practically drawled, "Jacob Fairfax."
What Emmett was doing in a supermarket was beyond Grace; the Woodhouses had their groceries delivered.
"Emmett," Jake said, with a smile that reached polite and not a millimeter farther.
They shook hands.
The subsequent silence was unbearable. "What are you doing here, Emmett?" Grace asked, with an eyebrow lifted to show it was a serious question.
"I stop by every now and then to see if they've finally started carrying caviar," Emmett returned, slyly. It was, of course, no answer at all. "How are things, Jake?"
"Pretty well, thank you."
Emmett circled them like a prowling cat. "You just finished with the Campbell orchestra, right? You must know David Campbell."
"He's a friend."
Grace had no idea who David Campbell was.
"Hell of a guy. Saw him at a gala last year, up in Boston. So you must have met Lindsey Dixon?"
Lindsey Dixon was an actress. Grace knew that much.
A little muscle in Jake's jaw twitched. If Grace saw it, Emmett definitely saw it, since he seemed to be watching for it. "Yes."
"Lindsey Dixon and David Campbell are engaged," Emmett mentioned, aside, to Grace. "How lovely for you to know both halves of the happy couple. Are you going to be best man?'
What the hell was Emmett doing? There was an obnoxiously predatory gleam in his eye.
Jake said, very stiffly, "I don't think so. I'm sorry, but I really have to run—Uncle Arthur was expecting me back. Good to see you, Grace. Emmett." He strode off briskly, without looking back.
Grace wheeled on Emmett. "What the hell was that?"
Emmett rocked back on his heels and his eyes twinkled down at her. "You look cute today, Grace. New dress?"
She ignored the flattery. "Answer my question."
He yawned lazily, reminding Grace of one of those stupid, oafish lions who sunned themselves while the females did all the work. Only Emmett wasn't oafish, even at his worst. "I'm just turning a new leaf over, trying to be friendly."
"You've clearly pissed him off. In record time, even for you."
Emmett widened his eyes innocently. "Shame on you, Grace." He plucked a bag of potato chips off the shelf. "Have to dash too, I'm afraid—Harry and I are going hiking."
She watched him leave, puzzled and annoyed. She knew perfectly well that Emmett had never liked Jake, but considering that there had been no real reason for it, she had let herself hope…well, that Emmett would get over it and start behaving with even a marginal increase in maturity.
"I don't know," Harry offered tentatively, munching on a chip. "He sounds like a pretty nice guy."
"He could practically be made of cardboard, for all the personality he has," Emmett opined bitterly. The memory of Grace's easy, respectful smile, directed at Jake, was still a freshly gaping wound. What did it take? Learn how to tinkle your way through a few, OK, admittedly brilliant and complicated compositions and Grace Caballero crowned you the Sun King?
"Have you known him for a while?"
"Yes, I got to suffer through his grade-school years and beyond. He's always been a sanctimonious little shit. I even gave up piano lessons because of him."
Because everyone said he was better. "Hated putting up with him at concerts." Emmett switched lanes, his thumb tapping the wheel in a staccato rhythm. "But get this. OK, so, he's been touring his way around with the Campbell orchestra. Heard of it?"
Of course you haven't. "It's mildly famous. Whatever. Anyway, he's tight with David Campbell, who's the son. I've hung out with him a few times. Nice dude. A little blank. Not good-looking. But still. Chill. So Jake is friends with this guy, and guess who David's engaged to?"
Harry had no guesses.
"Lindsey Dixon. Heard of her?"
"Oh, yeah. She's in—"
"Just about every movie ever. Right. So they're engaged. There was a blind item—"
"Marnie used to read blind items," Harry said wistfully. They were on the highway.
Damn it. "Stay focused, bro. There was a blind item about an actress and a musician in a high-profile orchestra potentially breaking off their engagement because she'd fallen for one of his friends, also in the orchestra."
"OK." Harry's brows drew together.
At this point, Emmett had gotten used to doing the heavy-lifting. "When I ran into Arthur Bates the other day, he told me Jake had finished up with the orchestra. But then when Arthur came to dinner a few nights later—believe me, the horror is very real—he told my mom that he wasn't sure why Jake was leaving, it had all been so sudden. He said Jake wouldn't say much about it. And then I had this epiphany." He glanced at Harry, and continued, since he must: "What if the blind item is about Lindsey and David, and the friend who came between them was Jake?"
"Wow," Harry breathed. "Dude, you're so wicked smart. Like, all the time."
Emmett smirked. "Nothing more than a little deduction. But when I saw him today, I tested my theory. And holy smokes, did he look like a guilty man."
Harry shaded his eyes from the sun, and asked, after a moment, "But why does it matter?"
The proverbial wind was momentarily taken from Emmett's sails. "What do you mean?"
"Is it…like, is it important? Why he left?"
Of course it was. It was important because Jake didn't deserve the way Grace admired him, had always admired him, and people didn't get to play the perfect card without consequences. "I'm not going to send it in to Us Weekly, or anything. I'm just noting it for the record."
"Oh, OK." Harry turned suddenly towards the window. "Wow, look at that cool bird! Do you think it's an eagle?"
"No idea," Emmett said. His birding skills were not the issue (given the proper context, they were impeccable); the issue was that he'd thought Harry would be more appreciative of his observations. It was a pity—truly, a pity—that he didn't have a more equal and interested confidant.
A memory, unwelcome, hurled itself forward: Grace, fourteen, and Jake, twelve—same age as Emmett, the parallel he could never shake—sitting side by side on the piano bench. Grace had her hand on his.
Jake was teaching her how to play.
Emmett had been standing in the doorway, and Emmett had been, worst of all fates, unnoticed.
Even now, the question arose: where was the same appreciation for his art?
Oh, too far. Don't be pathetic. He never allowed himself to be pathetic. At least, he hoped not.
He made light conversation with Harry as they drove into the hills. Hiking would take his mind off this, off Jake, off Grace—just some clean, bright, crystal air. Fragrant trees and summer sun and no such thing as competition.
Chapter 15: Chapter XV
“What arises from discretion must be honored.”
“He never used to do this, you know.”
“Leave. He’s gotten so…responsible since he got home from college.”
Grace ignored the obvious contradiction—hadn’t Mrs. Woodhouse survived four years with minimal contact?—and nodded with as much sympathy as she could muster. “I think, though, that Emmett finds it very fulfilling to continue with the family charity.”
“Of course my husband cared about it very much. It used to annoy me then, too. I’ve never liked to be left alone, Grace.” She sighed deeply. “And your parents left too. Do you know I got a letter the other day? A letter, as though we were living fifty years ago!”
“What did she say?”
“That I should visit them.” Mrs. Woodhouse did share her son’s flair for dramatic inflection. “Imagine! Me getting on a plane.”
Emmett couldn’t. Apparently college on the east coast wasn’t enough for that. Sometimes Grace half-wondered if he’d been testing his mother’s devotion, by going so far way. The results could not have been to his satisfaction, but he seemed cheerful.
“As long as I can help it, there will be a Caballero at our farm.”
Mrs. Woodhouse smiled. It was Emmett’s smile—or his was hers—and it melted Grace just like it always did. “You’re coming tomorrow night, right?”
Grace winced. Mrs. Woodhouse’s tone implied something important, and Grace couldn’t quite recall—“Please remind me,” she said, apologetically.
“Oh, it’s Arthur’s birthday. Would you believe? He’s sixty. Sixty. I’m hosting it here…just like we always do…”
Emmett would not enjoy that. Grace did not say so. “Of course I’ll come.” She almost said, I have no social life, but that would melodramatic, and also, unkind. Her social life consisted largely of visiting the Woodhouses.
“I thought of inviting that Marnie girl that Emmett and Harry were so taken with, but she’s off the map! I haven’t seen her in ages.”
Grace swallowed the last of her tea. She set her cup and down and said, as firmly as she could, “That’s alright. I know that Mr. Bates would enjoy the company of old friends much more.”
Mrs. Woodhouse tilted her head, and then she nodded. She had a gossamer scarf spread over her knees like a lap blanket, and she adjusted it slightly. In winter, it would be a heavy cashmere, Grace knew. But Mrs. Woodhouse’s enjoyment of her own delicate health would not be contained by the fickle nature of seasons. “Yes. And it will give Emmett an opportunity to catch up with Jake. He has not had a moment to spend with him yet, from what I can tell, even though it's been week! He’s been busy as anything. Painting, and driving south for meetings—he said he’s thinking about investing.”
“Wisely, I hope.”
“Emmett is always very wise.”
“But you’ll never convince Grace of that.”
Grace turned. She always controlled her motions; hated when people flailed around or jumped. Being startled gave too much power to other people. In not so many words: only her spine stiffened.
Emmett was in blue and white, too much like a clear day for Grace’s comfort. Crisp button-down, sleeves cuffed to the elbow. She wondered, offhandedly, if he still swore by GQ.
“Hon, you’re back!” Mrs. Woodhouse threw aside the scarf and ran to hug him. “We weren’t expecting you.”
“How were your meetings?” Grace asked.
Emmett yawned theatrically. “Dull as unvarnished paint.”
“Did you see a lot of old barns on your way, to yield such a metaphor?”
“Nah. Just was saving it up for something good.”
“No more meetings, darling.” Mrs. Woodhouse pressed a hand to his cheek as he walked her back to her chair. He even stooped to pick up the abandoned scarf.
“I’ll get out of your way,” Grace said. “Mrs. Woodhouse, thank you, as always, for the tea. I’ll bring you over a strawberry pie one of these days.”
She said goodnight and walked out. Emmett followed her. Should she care? He always seemed to trace her steps. Likely, it meant nothing.
“Grace, can I talk to you?” He was golden under the porchlights. Knew how to find his lighting, no surprise there.
She felt every word on her skin. Turned, and smiled, with perfect calm. “Of course. Everything OK?”
“It’s—actually about the, uh, meeting. Meetings, that I had. I know you’ve been interested in, uh…” It was very unlike Emmett to stutter. He recovered himself with a flourish of his eyebrows. “I was wondering if you were still considering the bakery addition to Caballero Farms. I know that you mentioned it again recently.”
Grace traced the edge of her sandal over the gravel. They’d stood out here, twice now that sprang to mind—the first time she’d seen him when he got home, and then the night when she’d found out about Marnie—“My mom always dreamed about it, but now she’s concerned that it will be too much.”
“I was wondering if you’d be interested in—well, I’d like to help you get off the ground with it.” He waved a hand. No paint smudges today; but of course not. He’d been doing business. “Not that you need it. I just—I’ve always wanted to…”
Grace laced her fingers together. It was true, the transition had been a little tight, financially. She hadn’t talked about it with—well, with anyone, really. She didn’t want her parents to chalk it up to the marketing switch, to her “risky” name-change. How could Emmett have known? Had he just—intuited it? Guessed that her work was taxing her more than it ever had?
But no, that could not be it. After all, Emmett had last seen her working, really, at nineteen and twenty. She’d known almost nothing then.
In this introspection, she had forgotten that his eyes were on her. When she glanced up again to meet his gaze, his eyes were almost—soft.
He smirked immediately. “So?”
“I’ll let you know,” she said. “I—I really appreciate this, actually. So, I’ll definitely be in touch.”
Emmett rocked back on his heels. He was wearing wingtips. Of course. “OK. United at last.”
“Like, Ike and Julia are married. And you and I will be in business together. Symmetry.” His hands demonstrated, pantomiming a shower of sparks. It made no sense at all.
“Symmetry?” Grace quirked an eyebrow. Then she looked closer; he’d gotten some color in his cheeks, or something. But wait, were his ears red too? She reached up. “Did you get sunburn on your ears?”
His fingers closed around her wrist. “Grace. You know how much I hate attention being drawn to my ears.”
A laugh blossomed warmly in Grace’s chest. “Because they’re elf ears?”
He made an indignant sound. “Hey. They’re a little pointed. But even my slightest imperfection is enough to draw your sharpest criticism.”
Something must have changed in her face; he dropped her wrist. The moment was over.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Grace said, a little hurriedly.
“Oh, right. It’s Arthur’s birthday.” Emmett began a grimace and then stopped it in his tracks. “A joyous occasion. I’ll see you then.” He turned and bounded into the house, leaving her a bit confused.
But Emmett, trying for charity where the Bates clan was concerned? She’d take it.
It was September, and Jake Fairfax had yet say more than twenty words at any given meeting.
It was not the sort of project which ordinarily would have appealed to Emmett, but, needs must, or whatever those nonsensical chestnuts of wisdom were. The point was, Grace and Jake Fairfax were practically inseparable, which was irritating, and Emmett in the minority felt very much like Emmett in a lapse of reason.
His plan—which was not a plot, thank you very much, as there was neither contrivance nor malice—was to be pleasant to Jake Fairfaix. For once, with no strings attached.
A difficult enough task for anyone, surely.
Anyone but Grace, a sneaking voice whispered. He chased the voice way with a few harsh strokes of charcoal. Grace in charcoal was subtly softer than any other Grace—Grace in oil paints was positively lurid in its unlikeness—and now he had ruined it in his impatience.
Emmett raked his fingers through his hair. Realized that he had left charcoal there. Shouted downstairs that he was taking a shower before the guests arrived; realized that he was in the large, lonely, familiar house of his own life.
No one could hear him.
He toweled off his hair and set to work. Hair took a lot of work, on canvas and off. And his needed to be flawless.
Flawless it was, when Arthur and Jake arrived. Jake had a bottle of wine. It was surprisingly good. Lindsey Dixon, as a possible donor, popped impishly into Emmett’s head, but he let the thought circle there without weaponizing it.
“Thank you for inviting us,” Jake said. If he smiled, it was merely a mechanical exercise of his lips. Emmett knew a good deal about faking a smile; it was possible to do better. Much better.
Arthur was babbling, of course. It was his birthday, so Emmett forced his patience fifteen seconds longer than he ordinarily would. The house was praised, as though Arthur had not been there a thousand times before. They were thanked for dinner, for their thoughtfulness, and since they had not yet had dinner and Emmett was rarely thoughtful, that grated too.
Grace showing up was a mercy.
Dinner was bearable—in parts. The parts, specifically, in which Arthur was eating, not talking. Emmett, under the guise of attentive host, did his best to draw Jake out.
It could not be done. Jake would smile at Grace and answer her questions; he would not smile at Emmett, and though he answered Emmett’s questions, too, every answer revealed very little.
“Has Highbury changed a lot?”
“Where do you think you’ll tour next?”
“It depends—I have to find a new opportunity.”
You must be one hell of an interview. Emmett racked his brains for something insightful but not provoking, and was distracted by Arthur saying, “It was such a surprise. She’s only been gone what, a month? Two?”
“I do believe it’s nearly two. But an engagement?” Mom was shaking her head dolefully.
“Who’s engaged?” Emmett asked, taking a sip of wine.
“Marnie Elton!” Arthur was all too happy to be repeating himself. “You know she took up a job with Augusta Realty? Well, August Hawkins is the son and heir apparent, if you know what I mean. He is sure to take over the business when his father retires. And August Hawkins, so I heard just yesterday, is engaged to Marnie Elton! So sudden, but so sweet, I’m sure. Marnie always seemed like a very nice young woman. Very nice and very eager. Eager to be friendly…”
Emmett could feel Grace looking at him. Think of Harry; Harry will be very sorry. He could not think of himself—that would mean too much. He drained his glass and put on his best smile. “Congratulations will be in order, if we ever see her again.” He lifted his eyebrows. “Which is not likely.”
Grace was still looking at him. When he finally met her gaze, she was biting her lip, and her eyes were full of sympathy. Emmett could feel it burning on him. He turned back to Jake.
“You planning on springing an engagement on us, too?” And damn it all, he’d meant not to pry about Lindsey Dixon. But desperate times—no, he would not be desperate. News of Marnie had no power to make him desperate, even by repulsion. It was too late, of course; Jake was answering with as much cardstock in his tone as ever.
“Life on the road is very busy, I'm afraid.”
“Oh, how intriguing,” Mom said. She’d overheard. What she saw in Jake was beyond Emmett, but it must be very much for her to speak approvingly of travel. “Would you play for us?”
Emmett’s wine soured on his tongue. And no, he wasn’t being dramatic. It just probably hadn’t been very good quality after all. Just what this evening needed, Jake Fairfax being brilliant.
Jake shook his head. “I don’t want to monopolize Uncle Arthur’s—”
“Nothing would make me happier!” Arthur exclaimed. He was already clapping. Emmett suppressed a shudder. “You know,” Arthur added, in a stage whisper, “I feel terribly that we don’t have a piano for him at the apartment. I said we might be able to find a keyboard. A keyboard, I was sure, would be better than nothing. It might not be as good as a piano—I am sure it wouldn’t—but still, better than nothing. But Jake would hear of it. Simply wouldn’t hear of the expense.”
They left the table and moved into the living room. The Woodhouses had a piano—the same on which Emmett had once quit lessons. He remembered the last key he’d struck; the F sharp above middle C. It had seemed significant at the time—it seemed foolish now.
Jake sat down at the piano. For the barest hint of a moment, his face changed as he spread his fingers over the keys. He looked, Emmett thought, almost human.
Then too, listening and trying to appreciate it was not terribly difficult, from an objective standpoint. Jake was brilliant. It was captivating. It was beautiful, a tastefully chosen piece. It was art, alright? It was—
Emmett looked at Grace. Grace’s face looked like sunshine had fallen over it, and her eyes were on Jake.
Jake Fairfax was, Emmett decided, the worst man alive.
He decided this for no reason whatsoever. The point was that it was Arthur’s party, not Jake’s, and it was damnably pretentious to try for calm and reserved and yet somehow end up with an entire freaking audience. What the hell? First he had to hear of Marnie’s gold-digging ways, brought to fruition, and now he had to suffer through this humiliation?
He made no further efforts throughout the evening, as to winning Jake over. More troubling, still, was that he did not need to—Grace was made more vivacious by the topic of music newly played, and talked energetically about it. When was Grace ever energetic? And why was she trying to draw him into the conversation? Was it pity?
Pity, for Emmett Woodhouse?
The Bates left together—old Mr. Bates had been quiet and sleepy throughout dinner, and Arthur said in many, many words that they should get him home. Grace stood in the front hall, buttoning up her cardigan. It was the color of a pink rose.
“It’s been so nice having Jake back in town,” Grace said. “It reminds me of when we were kids.”
Emmett ran a hand over his hair, ruining it. “Because he hasn’t changed at all?”
Grace frowned. “He’s definitely changed, Emmett. We all have. I just meant that I enjoyed the company of our familiar circle.”
“I don’t know if anyone could call it company—unless we’re talking the corporate kind. He’s so stiff, Grace. Surely you can see that? It’s like, you’ve gotten through one layer of cardboard and there’s another. Corrugated to the soul.”
“Wow,” Grace said. “I had kind of thought that you were getting along better. I’m disappointed.”
“I’m disappointed that you’re surprised,” Emmett said. His project for the evening had failed; even that retort came out flatter than he might have hoped.
Grace’s certainly had stung—why couldn’t his do the same?
“Came intending to be acquainted…and acquainted they soon must be.”
Grace became aware of three things at once: first, that her head ached; second, that her neck ached even more; and finally, that Rosa Martinez was earnestly calling her name.
There was no readily apparent catastrophe. She had fallen asleep at her desk, her arms stretched out before her and her forehead resting in the crook of her elbow. Likely, she had drooled on the service contracts she’d been reading.
Chagrinned, she ran a hand across her eyes. “Rosa, I’m so sorry. What time is it?”
“It’s after nine.” Rosa was all but wringing her hands.
“In the morning?” Grace demanded—stupidly, of course, but one was always stupid in the first moments after waking. “Oh, goodness. I never went to bed last night. I’m so sorry.”
Rosa was disconcerted. “You keep saying that. You shouldn’t be sorry—” The hand-wringing started up again. “There’s a man downstairs and he says he has to see you.”
If it had been Emmett, Rosa would have said so. Grace trailed her fingertips over her sternum. How could every bone ache? “A man?”
Rosa shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s wearing a suit.”
Grace stood up, winced at the pinching sensation in her neck, and moved briskly to the bathroom. What had gotten into her, working after coming home from a late night out? Dinner last night had been perfectly enjoyable, and she had told herself a thousand times that she was occasionally permitted a night off.
Yet here she was, breaking her own rules of balance.
Her stomach lurched with the combination of hunger and nausea resulting from all the wrong sleep cycles. Directing Rosa to tell the mysterious visitor that she’d be down in a moment, she brushed her teeth, washed her face, and changed her blouse.
Whether her visitor had grown more or less patient during his wait was difficult to tell. He couldn’t have been much older than her, but he was clearly trying to look it—a heavy brow, overly styled hair, and a three-piece suit. At nine in the morning. In Highbury, California. Grace stood still and smiled pleasantly.
He could explain himself first.
“I’m here to buy this place,” he said, before she was even halfway down the stairs—the Caballero’s front hall had a balconied stairway and a cathedral ceiling—and Grace saw that he was grinning as broadly as his offer.
She controlled her reaction. Practice, after all, made perfect—and growing up with Julia as her sister? Julia lived to provoke.
So, come to think of it, did Emmett.
“I beg your pardon?”
They were face-to-face now. “Name, August Hawkins. Aspiration, Jeff Bezos.”
August Hawkins. Augusta Realty.
Grace had already been standing straight; that was good business, you stood tall and never lost your cool. But she added a little steel to her spine. “Jeff Bezos isn’t known for his strawberry farms.”
“Then the market is open.” He had planted his feet almost absurdly far apart.
Grace lifted her eyebrows. “You seem to know who I am,” she said. She knew who he was, too, but she wasn’t about to grant him the benefit of that knowledge. “However”—dame para un refresco, but no, she wasn’t going to say that either—“I think you have some wires crossed. Caballero Farms isn’t for sale.”
“But if only it was!” August exclaimed. He turned his back on her, quite abruptly, and paced about. “I’ve heard great things—great things—and drove up myself this morning. Have to have it. My brother-in-law”—and here he wheeled back around, as though eager to confide—“grows oranges.”
“I’m glad for him,” said Grace, with a return of the polite smile.
August waved a hand. “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. I want this place, Ms. Caballero. May I call you Gracia?”
“No, thank you.”
“Simply Grace, then. I wasn’t sure if you preferred the ethnic version.”
“My name is just Grace, but I appreciate your…thoughtfulness.” Grace waited for him to complete another prowling circle and then added, “What brings you to Highbury?”
“We do a lot of business here. Augusta Realty?” He snapped his fingers demonstratively. “Heard of it?”
A very little bit of Emmett’s characteristic devilishness snuck into Grace’s head. She pursed her lips. “Maybe? It isn’t ringing a bell.’
That stopped him in his tracks. “How unfortunate. Well. We sold Kim Kardashian’s personal assistant her home.” He paused, then amended. “Well, she later became Kim Kardashian’s personal assistant. Anyway, you’re the talk of the town, Grace.”
“Best strawberries around.”
“That’s kind of you.”
He narrowed his eyes, which were too light for his skin-tone. He was very tan. Fake-tan, Grace realized. And she wasn’t one to care about people’s appearances, very much, but she supposed it made sense to be a bit extra-observant of random intruders bent on buying the floorboards out from under her. “Do you know the Woodhouse family?”
Grace’s smile tightened. “They’re close family friends.”
He frowned. “Really? From what my fiancée—Marnie Elton, surely you know her, she come from this area—said that the son…Ernest? Emmett? Whatever. She said he was a human disaster. Proud, unreliable, and very reckless with money.”
Stand tall, and never lose your cool. “She must be thinking of someone else.” Grace kept her voice even. “Emmett is not like that at all.”
“You’re asking me to discredit the word of my fiancée?”
“Well.” Grace shrugged. “My word is the word of the person you hope to do business with.” Someday, Marnie Elton would wish she’d never come to Highbury. Someday—calm down, and don’t be an idiot.
August’s overly tan face contorted with glee. His hair, firmly gelled into place, remained unmoved. “Are you—agreeing to the sale?”
“No,” Grace said, and permitted herself a small, dismissive laugh. “No, Mr. Hawkins. I am not.”
He shook a finger at her, straining the buttons on his vest a little. Bespoke or not, he needed to go up a size. “Highbury hasn’t seen the last of me,” he said. “I’ve got a meeting in Santa Cruz, or I’d stay around and heckle you some more. Rain-check, Grace. Rain-check.”
“My answer will always be the same, I can promise you.” She took his offered hand and shook it in one firm motion. “But speaking of meetings, Mr. Hawkins—next time, please schedule one with me before visiting. I’m sure we’re both extraordinarily busy people.”
He grinned again. “I like you,” he said. “Your word over my Marnie’s? Hell, I’ll take it. I’ll be back.”
“Not to be harsh, but can you…well, don’t think it would help if you at least tried to forget her?”
Harry buried his face in hands. The drama of the gesture might have made more of an impression on Emmett had he not already witnessed it a dozen times or more since the unfortunate aftermath of the Marnie fiasco. Then, too, Emmett had repeated the same question quite as many times.
It was all becoming predictable.
“It’s like she still lives here,” Harry said. “Every time I think she’s out of my head… I mean, dude, now she’s engaged?”
If Emmett had been a protagonist in a Greek myth—or, quite honestly, a lesser deity, which seemed more fitting—he would have been cursed. He would have screwed something up, and gotten himself cursed.
Hopefully by Zeus or Hades; go big or go home.
“I’m really sorry, man. But…I think that this is a sign to move on.”
Harry blinked desolately. “To what?”
And that was exactly the trouble. Harry had spent August and September in an unhappy match of internal ping-pong. Occasionally he’d run into a Martinez, and devise some scheme of texting Rosa again—but then somebody in Highbury would mention Marnie, or any other name that began with ‘M’, and everything started over again.
As for Emmett, he had wasted his resources once. He didn’t want a rekindling between Harry and Rosa—he had been right about that—but he wanted Harry to free himself from the phantom clutches of Marnie, too. And that, he could admit, was a little selfishly motivated.
Emmett could have gone the rest of his life never hearing her name spoken again.
“So what? She’s engaged. She really—” He hated struggling for words. It wasn’t supposed to happen to him. “She’s obviously not who we thought she was.”
“But so beautiful. And funny. And smart…”
“OK.” Emmett wanted to punch something. When was the last time he’d really gone to town on a punching bag? Probably some teenage angst, right around the fifteenth of November—nope. He shut that off. Anniversaries were not his area. Not now, not ever.
The alarm on Harry’s phone pinged. Harry sighed again, explosively, and stood up, setting his mug down. “I should go. I have a shift at the bank.”
Emmett was almost grateful, and then felt ashamed for allowing the very thought of it. He deserved it—every grating moment of Harry’s lovelorn Marnie adoration. He had authored it into being. It was his lot, now, to watch it decay back to dust. He propped his chin on his hand and people-watched, free of Grace’s judgment of his judgment.
And why was he thinking of Grace?
Right. Last time he’d been here, she had too.
Of course, the last time he’d seen Grace—
He shuddered the idea of Jake Fairfax away and pulled out his phone to text Noel. You free for dinner?
Actually yes. Have a surprise for you.
Excellent. Again, he was reminded how devastating Noel’s marriage had been on his social life. That was how the Marnie trouble had started in the first place. Before he got married, Noel had been always available—hell, he’d even gone to grad school at the same place Emmett went to college—
Emmett hated change.
Then he thought of Jake Fairfax and Grace again, and their inexplicable and odious and long-lasting friendship, and decided that he hated when things stayed the same, too, dredged up out of the past.
In this (admittedly) fickle mood, he ventured out into the autumn sunshine again. It was not the autumn of the East Coast—September in California meant crackling air and the scent of smoke, unless it was a lucky year. Emmett turned his back to the west and looked out. Of course, in the middle of Highbury, “looking out” meant he could see a patch of blue sky between the post office and the convenience store.
The next moment, he was almost bowled over.
“I’m so sorry!”
A first glance convinced Emmett, at least, that there was no need for apology. The newcomer had an armful of shopping bags. The sun was on her hair and Emmett couldn’t tell which was more golden. Not that that was relevant to anything of course, except that he was an artist. He noticed that sort of thing.
“I ran into you because you were staring into middle distance and I was staring nowhere by the ground,” she said, sounding rueful. She stooped to pick up a bag of rolls, but he snagged it first and handed it to her. “Thanks. Last time my sister sends me shopping, I’ll bet.”
“That’s how I’d play it too,” Emmett agreed. He was fairly certain that his hair looked good. Again, just for the aesthetics. None of this was particularly relevant. “At least, failing miserably at my assigned tasks always worked well on my older brother.”
“Failing miserably? I’m allowed to deprecate myself. Didn’t say you were.” But her eyes were snapping with amusement. They were very blue. “We should introduce ourselves first.”
“Of course.” Emmett held up his hands in an apologetic gesture. “I’m Emmett. Emmett Woodhouse.”
She smiled. An interesting smile; a little crooked. Tilted at the corner like she was made for laughing. Emmett smiled back—his most charming one, that he only reserved for his worst enemies and people who fascinated him. “Oh,” she said. “I’m so glad that that’s who you are.”
He shook his head. “Why?”
“Because I’ve heard all about you and I needed you to live up to the legend.” She set down her shopping bags—rolls be damned, apparently, and held out her hand. “I’m Francesca Church.”
"dame para un refresco" is Mexican slang (to my knowledge) that means "give me enough for a soda/at least buy me a soda" which is used when someone has a small debt to you and you're hinting you'd like to be paid back. I used it here as if Grace wanted to say it mockingly at August's presumptuous offer, with no indication of why she should consider selling.
Chapter 17: Chapter XVII
“It was but an effusion of lively spirits.”
The bread had not risen well.
Grace huffed a sigh of frustration, and ran a hand through her hair, belatedly realizing that she was streaking it with flour.
This was why she needed a professional bakery for a partner; she could not manage it alone, or even oversee it.
This particular failed loaf—and there were very many that had not failed, but it was sometimes hard to remember them—had been for her latest dinner with the Martinez family. She could not bring this bread; their abuela would cluck her tongue in inexorable judgment. Grace believed herself to be her own mistress, but Rosa’s abuela was, simply put, a force.
What to do? If it were Julia or Mom—well, Mom would never have made the mistake in the first place, and Julia would just bring wine. But Grace had brought wine before, and she was tired of feeling pretentious.
She would bring strawberries, then. (As though Rosa and all of them were not sick of strawberries.)
Paco’s sympathetic eyes were no help with her current plight. She frowned at him. “No perfect solution, Taco-Paco.”
It was just one of those days where the house felt empty.
Grace was not sentimental, only occasionally lonely. Practically speaking, sometimes it would be hard not to look around and think, quite plainly, there, that was her father’s favorite chair, and there had been Julia’s reading nook before she left for college, and here, there, and everywhere was where Mama had been.
She dusted off her hands and went downstairs. Remembered the flour streak playing Bride-of-Frankenstein in her hair, and went back upstairs.
“I know,” she told Paco. “I’m not making any sense.”
In half an hour, there was a bushel of strawberries packed and ready to go, and she was wearing fresh jeans. She was just texting Rosa from the driveway, jingling her keys in one hand, when the sound of a car startled her.
“So, where do I buy the strawberries?”
Grace slid her phone into her pocket, and took the stranger in. She saw blue eyes in the kind of fine-boned face that had probably never had a moment’s struggle with baby-fat. Or acne, come to think of it.
“We’re not open at the moment,” Grace said, “But I’m happy to tell you our hours.”
The girl—she must have been around Grace’s age, and try as she might, Grace still referred to people of her own age as girls—shook her head quickly, with a sweet, crooked grin. “I’m so sorry. I just—I’m Francesca Church, and you must be Grace Caballero.”
It was necessary to acknowledge one’s own lack of charity. Admittedly, Grace’s first reaction was one of slight judgment. She had her own issues with Francesca’s legendary specter, and most of them had to do with the fact that Francesca wasn’t the kind to stay.
And oh, Grace knew something of staying.
Charity, though. Charity required a firm handshake and a smile. “Pleased to meet you,” Grace said.
“You must think I’m very weird, showing up here. But I’m the adventurous type.” And she was. That could be seen with a glance. Some people were sincere and some people were very good at portraying who they were or wanted to be. Marnie, Grace remembered, had failed at that.
Francesca was not Marnie. And now she was explaining herself. “Ashley sent me on a sort of scavenger hunt—well, I’ve been sending myself, looking around at all the places she’s told me about. You guys have a lovely town here. It feels so good to be home. And of course I’ve already met King Emmett.” She smiled fondly, and Grace didn’t know if it was fair for someone to be so fond, so soon, but who was she to argue? “Love him. He’s hilarious.”
Grace could not imagine saying love like that, so casually and easily that it might have meant nothing or everything.
“Emmett’s great,” she said, because it seemed wrong to dim the warmth of Francesca’s smile. “He and your brother-in-law—Noel—lived out east for a while Emmett was going to college. But not in your area, I guess?”
“No, I never met them. But I heard about them. Ashley was always out, you know. Thought it was to see me, but actually, it she had an ulterior motive.” Her eyes twinkled. “I’m totally kidding. Ashley is the most selfless person on the planet.”
“She’s wonderful.” For some reason Grace felt like she’d already said the word wonderful in the conversation, like she was just repeating herself. Grace Caballero, little brown strawberry girl. Plain and flat-footed and not adventurous at all.
Put away thoughts like that. Grace stood straighter.
“I really won’t stay. I can tell you’re about to go out. But Ashley has said so much about you and I would love to get to know you better. For, like, context—I’m here for three weeks. Crazy, right? I’m in between jobs, because I’m a Millennial, but I promise I have something lined up.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“Nothing like you. You run this place? That’s fantastic.” She sounded wistful.
But that’s a Rolex on your wrist. And again, why this sudden push-pull of judgment? Even Emmett had all but pointed it out.
“I do have to go to dinner at the moment,” Grace said. She didn’t have a crooked grin, but she smiled with all the warmth she could muster. “But please tell Ashley that you’re welcome here as soon as is convenient.”
“And we’ll have you there, too! I may have persuaded Ashley to throw a party.” Francesca grinned again, and her mouth was a very charming one, even if asking her half-sister for parties after years of no returns was a bold move.
Grace watched her get into Noel’s car and drive way. Grace herself spent the drive to the Martinezes without even the radio to distract her.
When Emmett had come home—months ago—there had been a tectonic shift. Marnie and her machinations had brought another, and now—now this.
Francesca Church, in the flesh. Golden hair. Pale, flawless skin—no tan. Not yet, and maybe not ever—it didn’t seem that three weeks could make every kind of mark. But Grace couldn’t help but see her, in the silly flash of a terribly vivid moment, shoulder to shoulder with Emmett.
They’d make a perfect movie-star couple.
Only, Grace reminded herself, Emmett has never been in love.
Emmett has never been in love.
The thought did not comfort her. She shook her head at herself. It shouldn’t have, anyway.
There was something to be said for being satisfied.
Emmett had been hearing of the wonders of Francesca Church for years, increasingly as Noel and Ashley moved into each other’s orbits. Certainly, Noel had been (and might still be) a bit more skeptical; he had been bothered on Ashley’s behalf that Francesca did not reciprocate appropriate sisterly efforts. Despite countering Grace’s every argument on the subject, Emmett did think that putting off a visit more than five times was…weird, at the least.
But Noel was patient, and Ashley had taken no offense, and Francesca’s charms had been detailed at length, which kept people interested and raised expectations.
Emmett was an artist.
Even after—everything—he counted himself as having a discerning eye.
In other words: the expectations had been met.
Before a week was out, after that fateful encounter on the sidewalk, Francesca and Noel and Ashley had been to dinner twice at Hartfield. Mom didn’t mind; of course Mom didn’t mind. She had always been very fond of Noel, and had been very grieved by his marriage. She was always more than usually pleased when he came back to Hartfield again, even though Emmett had to make a particular point of skirting around comments about, “the good old days” when Noel was twenty-two and a single man.
The second dinner was even better than the first. Ashley was as giddy as she’d always been, turned up by a factor of ten. Noel, however, seemed to have gotten over any awkwardness he’d been feeling about the long-awaited visit finally happening, and was beaming. Emmett liked to see that. Noel, he could say, without reservation, deserved better than Emmett did. It was a good thing when he actually had his deserved happiness handed to him.
It was enjoyable, too, to be surrounded by people who didn’t delve into the restless ghosts of a misspent summer. There was no talk of Marnie or blind items or fireworks and thunderstorms. Francesca drew the center of attention, of course, but not in a way that made Emmett feel cheated. How different she was from Jake Fairfax!
The key difference, of course, was probably halfway between the blue of her eyes and the gold of her hair, but Emmett made a rule of never answering internal questions that he didn’t feel like answering.
“To be home again, though. That’s really something,” Francesca was saying. She turned to Ashley, and her whole face was alight. “I still have that picture of us at the beach. I bring with me everywhere. I was…three, I think?”
“Yes,” Ashley said, with an answering smile. Ashley really did seem deliriously happy, with Noel on one side and her sister on the other. “You were three, and you were not afraid at all! When I was little you couldn’t get me to dip my toes in, even. I was so terrified. But you used to run out and I’d have to catch you by the little frilly skirt of your swimsuit. Couldn’t have you getting dragged under by the undertow.”
“Jake Fairfax, and now Francesca,” Noel observed, amid the laughter that followed. “I, for one, am very happy that there are so many homecomings.”
“Jake Fairfax?” Francesca asked, with a casually tilted brow.
“Oh,” Emmett said, remembering not to be juvenile at the absolute last moment (which was the only time he ever remembered that, if at all). “You know Jake?”
“I think I met him once in passing? Name sounds familiar.” She grimaced. To an artist, she had a tantalizing mouth. It looked good doing anything. “He was a musician, right? I try to patronize the arts.”
“We should go see Arthur, and Jake, while you’re here!” Noel said, and Ashley agreed. “I’ll ask them to dinner!”
Francesca lifted a sculpted shoulder. “No need on my account. I’m sure we’ll cross paths.”
Again, Emmett was tempted to suggest that she might not wish to. Mercifully (he thought), he let the conversation turn, and had real entertainment in hearing Francesca tease Noel a bit. She followed it by genuine compliments for Ashley’s choice of husband.
Her compliments didn’t sound at all like Marnie’s. That was a mark in her favor.
To be fair to Grace—and that smacked of some satisfaction in itself, because Grace was always going around being fair to people and Emmett didn’t like her cornering the market—Emmett was watching Francesca carefully.
Not everyone dealt with family stuff the same way. He had boxed half of it away into the realm of the unspeakable, then vowed up and down to stay with Mom, only to leave, cold turkey, for four years of college. And because it was family stuff, who was to say if he was right or wrong or anything, about any part of it?
It would have been one thing, if he decided, watching the light from the chandelier pour off Francesca’s sleek, shimmering hair, if she’d been dismissive of Ashley. But she hung on Ashley’s every word. And it wasn’t that Emmett didn’t like Ashley—he did—but anyone with a discerning eye could have told you that Francesca was ten times wittier and more interesting. But she didn’t monopolize the conversation. She seemed enraptured by Ashley’s honeymoon stories and plans for kitchen remodeling, only interjecting her wit to praise.
Did he want her?
To be fair to himself (he worked on that more often than being fair to Grace, but who wouldn’t?), he’d totally had his chances in college. He’d taken some of them too. But it was always a rollercoaster inhale, the first moment of possibility. And Emmett would never tell anyone, but he was afraid of heights.
Chapter 18: Chapter XVIII
“There was one person…not so leniently disposed.”
August Hawkins had not reappeared. Still, Grace found herself on the lookout for him. And not only for him; for Marnie, too. For anyone and everyone who seemed bent on tearing up the fibers of Highbury.
It was only natural that she have more interest in protecting serenity in Highbury than anyone else. After all, she was trapped here for life.
Not trapped. It isn’t about being trapped.
She slipped in an earring. She had a meeting in Sacramento later in the morning, but the roundtrip was a grueling one—about three hours each way. A year ago, it would have been her father who had a meeting in Sacramento, but all that had changed. When it came to his role as shareholder in various investing corporations, he had made Grace his proxy.
She could see him in her mind’s eye, brow creased, sweeping an arm across the edge of everything. This is all yours.
Not trapped. Belonging.
Maybe, Grace decided, she was being a little obsessive. Worrying over August and Marnie and people of that ilk wouldn’t do any good. The truth was simply that, since the arrival of Francesca Church, the social life of the town had moved on without her. It was just as she wished it—she was busy—but that didn’t mean that silence filled itself.
The meeting and its aftermath were worse than the drive down. Grace was intercepted by a few of her father’s old friends on the way out. What had passed for jibes with him felt uncomfortably close to condescension here.
“I never did know what he saw in strawberries—there’s no farm-worker in my blood—but I can admit that I was wrong. At least, I was. Maybe we’re not such a couple of crazy gringos after all, huh? How has it been?”
“We’ve had a solid year,” Grace answered, keeping her voice calm. This man’s name was something like Todd. She’d forgotten, even though it was her duty to remember.
“The rebranding was your idea, wasn’t it?” A sympathetic glance.
Grace restrained herself. “Yes, I thought we should return to our roots.”
“Do you think that’s been responsible for your down-turn in profits?” Todd Owen. That was his name.
“I don’t, actually. I’ve received positive customer feedback about it.” Grace could feel her pulse racing a little faster, thrumming in her ears. “It was nice to see you, Mr. Owen.”
She wanted to go home. She wanted to go back to college. Only, college had been in California for her. Commuting.
Maybe an apartment. Small, clean. A daybed and a window seat and something that didn’t seem too endlessly spacious. She wanted—
But Grace never got what she wanted, so what was the goddamn point?
Deep breaths. This isn’t the time to throw a tantrum.
Instead of going home, she stopped by the Bates’ on her way back through Highbury. It was a direct attack against her inner turmoil—a refusal to give in to the (silly, in hindsight) belief that the world was moving on without her.
“Grace!” Jake seemed genuinely pleased to see her. He had a pretty great smile, for those who got to really see it. Grace thought herself privileged to be one of those few.
“I had a meeting for work, and I thought it would be nice to see some friendly faces after the all the bureaucracy and racially charged small-talk.”
“That bad, huh?” The Bates’ living room was crammed close to their kitchen—there was a counter as divider, but it wasn’t much—and Jake rummaged around in the refrigerator for iced tea. There was no sign of Arthur or his father. Grace let herself admit, internally, that she wasn’t exactly sorry to only see Jake.
“Uncle Arthur and Grandpa are at a doctor’s appointment. Did you have a visit planned?”
Grace sipped. Herbal, a touch of honey. Just as she liked it. “No, honestly I just barged in because…” Jake just blinked, listening. He didn’t feel the need to one-up everything everyone said; he just let the silence stay where it was. “Sometimes I struggle with filling my dad’s shoes.”
A second after she said it, she hoped she hadn’t spoken out of turn. After all, Jake’s dad hadn’t even much bothered leaving shoes to fill.
Jake didn’t seem too bothered. He said, “Maybe that’s not what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Grace tapped a thumbnail against the curve of her glass. “Maybe.”
Downstairs, the doorbell rang. Jake stiffened a little. It made Grace feel a pang of something akin to distance. Had she misread him? Did he dislike visitors so much, in this town that was too long ago in his history to be home?
She hadn’t time to ponder. The visitors were, of all people, Emmett Woodhouse and Francesca Church.
Strange, that Grace should think of them like that: two entities, two names each. But Emmett was always accruing more presence than he ought, and something had changed in the air around him with Francesca here. They were a duo, and Grace hated it.
“I came to give Arthur a bottle of wine,” Emmett was saying breezily to Jake. As though they didn’t despise each other. Grace waited, very still, as their footsteps creaked up the stairs. “I should have called.”
“It’s fine.” Jake, Grace had to admit, wasn’t very good at sounding fine. She stood up when they came in. Emmett’s face clouded when he saw her—and it was not like Emmett to look stormy, not at all, much less on account of her appearance. It passed, and he smiled with precise yet easy brightness. “Grace! I didn’t know you still made social calls!”
She was suddenly conscious of her heels and pencil skirt because Emmett was looking at her. Did he notice her makeup? Did it matter? Why the hell did it always matter?
“I had a meeting in Sacramento today,” she returned calmly, nodding her greeting to Francesca. “I decided to stop in on my way home.”
Emmett’s face didn’t seem to like that very much either. She had not time to puzzle him out today. Why should he care at all? What was going on?
Francesca drew her attention anyway. She wasn’t leaning on anything, but she looked as though she was. As though the whole world leaned for her, some sort of yearning gravitational tilt in her direction. Most people just stood around; Francesca beckoned.
“So you’re Jake Fairfax!” she exclaimed. “I knew who the Bates were, of course. But I have to admit, Highbury gets better every time I meet someone who’s, I don’t know, relatively close to my age?” She shook Jake’s hand by practically seizing it.
Jake was literally gritting his teeth. He said nothing, not even the requisite nice to meet you, and his eyes were burning—and all of a sudden it occurred to Grace that Jake Fairfax wasn’t OK. Not just like, reserved and stoic—actively suffering. All the pieces made sense, when strung together. The screwed-up family situation and the tensions of poverty and the pressures of his career—it wasn’t ending well for him, which was maybe why he’d ended one particular path.
Why didn’t you put it together? He came here to escape.
Maybe because this is the last place I would think anyone would come to—
Her eyes flicked to Emmett, who was leaning now, almost insolently, but with one hand shaking ever-so-slightly and his eyes a little too hard.
One disaster at a time.
Francesca had helped herself to some tea. It wasn’t exactly a faux pas, but Grace was irritated all the same. She was exchanging some sort of eyelash-Morse-code with Emmett, and Emmett, restless as always, gestured at the bottle of wine again. “We’ll be going,” he said. “But let Arthur know it’s a birthday gift.”
Jake nodded, once. Francesca’s eyes swept over the whole room—the dingy kitchen and the faded living room chairs, the awkward keyboard propped on crooked plastic legs. Grace looked for pity in her eyes, but found something more distasteful: flat curiosity.
“It was so nice to meet you, Jake,” Francesca said, in as beguiling a tone as she said everything.
Their footsteps echoed down into the lower hall; their voices floated out into the street. Grace thought of staying, but realized it would only do her any good. Jake was a little ashen, and he swiped a hand over his forehead.
She had thought herself his friend, and she was—only not good enough of a friend to read this room and find the other side of meaning. “Thanks so much for entertaining me,” she murmured. “Please tell your uncle and grandfather I said hello.”
He tried for a smile. She recognized the effort because it was quite the same as the one she’d pasted on her face a dozen times today. Her heels were pinching her feet and the world felt uneven.
“See you around,” he said.
She figured it meant that she should keep her distance.
“I guess I don’t know this town.”
“It’s not that,” Emmett assured her. He took the corner up to Hartfield a little fast; he always did. Francesca didn’t mind. It was always Grace who had criticized his driving, though, to be fair, the last time Grace had driven with him he’d probably been seventeen.
(Grace had taught him how to drive.)
“I like the people here,” Francesca said, a little more contentedly. She had one hand dangling against the center console; it was almost brushing his leg. “I know I’m only staying here another week—has it gone by so quickly? But I hope they’ll like me.”
Emmett swallowed down something that he wouldn’t, couldn’t allow to be a lump in his throat. “Do you plan on coming back?”
She blinked at him slowly, lashes fanning up and down. “There’s a lot of reasons to.”
He carried the warmth of that long, slow glance like a drop of honey on the tongue—so sweet as to be a little heavy, when time had changed its flavor. In the short time she’d been here—and really, had it been short or forever?—there had been all kind of laughs exchanged and bartered. They were Emmett’s best currency, after all.
The next day was two things at once: Ashley’s birthday, and Francesca’s sudden disappearance.
“It’s no matter,” Ashley said, with her usual brightness, when Emmett stopped by. “She had a hankering to go shopping in San Fran.”
Noel said nothing.
Emmett shifted from one foot to the other. He had come here invited by Noel, under the pretense of wishing Ashley well, and really, to see Francesca. All plans were now cast in awkward uncertainty. “Birthday presents for you?”
Ashley’s hands fluttered like birds. “Oh, that would so sweet! I’m sure that’s what it is—I mean, I don’t want to assume. She’s not here for very long, and I just want her to be happy! I thought we’d go there together this weekend, but maybe—maybe she’ll still want to.”
Noel put his arm around her and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I’m sure she will.” But Emmett had known Noel long enough—had been the cause, direct or indirect, of trouble often enough—to see the creases of displeasure carving their way into Noel’s forehead.
“Why don’t you both come to dinner tonight?” he asked. “Unless—” And there it was, that sneaking hairline fracture of knowledge—a very simple knowledge, really. Someday, everyone was going to leave—“Well, just come. Mom will love to see you, and it’s not too late to order up something fairly fantastic from our…oh, what’s the Victorian turn-of-phrase. Our larder.” He screwed one of his best grins into place effortlessly and waited.
Noel looked questioningly at Ashley. Ashley didn’t take long to side; she loved to be doing, and, Emmett guessed, hated to dwell on anything that could be disappointing.
Mom feigned a headache at first, but was quickly coaxed round to the idea of company. Then she was gradually full of questions: where was Francesca? Driving to San Francisco, alone? She would surely get lost. That city was full of hills, anyway: it would make anyone sick to be wandering through it for the whole day. What was that girl thinking? She was very pretty and sweet, but not as clever as she’d seemed, to do a thing like that.
“Mom! She’s fine. She’s a grown-up. My age.” He pressed a kiss to her cheek.
“Oh, no, Emmett darling. You’re never grown up.”
Grace chose that moment, of course to arrive.
“You’re having guests?” she said, seeing that the table was set for more than two. “I’ll leave, Mrs. W.—I just stopped by for our evening tea.”
“Stay,” Emmett said. “Stay, Grace.”
Her eyebrows flitted halfway up and stayed there. “Alright.”
“It’s Noel and Ashley. Ashley’s birthday.”
“Right—I would have thought she had plans with her sister?”
“Francesca has gone away to San Francisco.” Mom sighed. “Young people are always jet-setting.”
Just as Emmett had feared, Grace’s mouth set in a firm line, and her eyebrows went down again. “Oh. Well. It’s very kind of you to do something for Ashley.”
She was turning her back. He hated that; the finality of her movements and her principles, combining into one.
“Don’t be judgy,” he said, coming up beside her. In profile, he was reminded of this one time when they had climbed out onto the roof of her house. Fourth of July. He was nine. The parents were downstairs being boring, but he hadn’t wanted to miss the fireworks—
To him, Grace in profile would always be backlit by white moonlight.
Now she turned back again, squaring off, shaking her head ever-so-slightly. “I’m not being judgmental, Emmett. I’m just not going to pretend to be impressed when I’m not.”
“Is this about there being a new queen in town?” He waggled his brows at her. “Can’t handle competition for the throne?”
“Don’t be silly.” Which was the trouble, really; Emmett was always silly. Why didn’t she know that yet? “I feel sorry for Ashley. It’s hard to have a thoughtless sibling.”
He winked. “This is about Julia.”
She flexed her fingers in and out of fists, but her voice was level. “It’s not about anything else than wishing that maturity was—”
He gave a little sigh, and realized that he should let the conversation end. “A more common theme in your acquaintance?” Before she could answer, he had heard the sound of Noel at the door, and hurried to answer it.
Chapter 19: Chapter XIX
“I do not know whether it ought to be so, but certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly.—It depends upon the character of those who handle it.”
Britt Cole’s invitation arrived the day after Ashley’s birthday dinner. Grace turned it over in her hand, and when she set it down on the kitchen counter, sparkles winked from her fingertips. Britt had always been fond of glitter. She had eloped to Las Vegas, for heaven’s sake. Now, returning triumphantly to Highbury—to her parents’ home at least, since she and her new husband would be living in Spokane, Washington—she wanted an equally shimmering party.
Grace did not begrudge her the party.
Julia, calling ten minutes later, did. “How like Britt Cole to send out invitations for a huge party, on a Thursday night, a week in advance. Who does she expect to come?”
“I can go.” Grace shrugged as though Julia were there to see her. “It’s not a big deal.”
“She always was so oblivious. But her parents are pretty well-off. It’ll be reasonably good,” Julia mused. “I’m surprised you even picked up the phone.”
“I take breaks, occasionally. Just had a meeting with another contractor. I may have found a bakery, finally.”
Julia groaned. “Ugh. Don’t talk me about all that. Contractors.” She shuddered.
Grace was about to say, you asked, but then she remembered that Julia really hadn’t. “I won’t bore you with the details. I can reply for both of us, if you want.”
“No way. I can answer my own invitation. Dammit, it’s getting glitter, like, everywhere. Clashing with my minimalist aesthetic.”
Julia had never been a minimalist. “Alright, then.” Grace smiled, knowing that Julia could not see and be offended. “I’m sure you’ll be missed.”
“Probably. I dated her older brother for a minute in high school and he’s never gotten over me.”
Grace thought of relating all this to Emmett, humorously, later in the day, but found her task slightly complicated by the fact that Emmett hadn’t yet received an invitation.
“I’m sure the mail just…got delayed, or they sent them out in batches,” Grace said, but she was never very good at the polite lie. More probable to her mind was that Emmett’s frequent and studied snobbery towards the Coles—he considered them uncouth, or whatever slightly more modern word best described the natural result of his own intellectual boredom and impish self-righteousness—had finally come home to roost.
She expected Emmett to have a strenuous litany of excuses. Harry had come and gone, mentioning his invitation, and Emmett’s knee was shaking like a metronome but he wouldn’t say anything.
“Too many people getting married,” was Mrs. Woodhouse’s sole comment, and then she went back to questioning whether doctors these days really knew anything about arthritis.
Ordinarily, Emmett would have diverted her. Ordinarily, Grace would have let herself question again why still, businesswoman that she was, independent force that she had to be, she always ended up across the Woodhouse table, watching Emmett careen through his passionate orbit.
It must be a great deal of work, being Icarus and the sun all at once.
Grace changed the subject. “I think I’ve narrowed down the bakery to a couple different potential vendors.”
His knee stopped shaking. “Really? What are you thinking?”
“There’s this place that has kind of a fusion feel. Pastry fusion, right? Not something you hear every day. But they do a lot of traditional Mexican baking along with the American classics.”
He cocked his head. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
Mrs. Woodhouse had grown bored and wandered off, her shawl trailing behind her. Grace felt somehow safer in speaking of her goals with only the green of Emmett’s eyes to keep track of.
“What I want is to feel like I’m running a good business that takes care of people,” Grace said. “I know, that’s hopelessly idealized.”
Emmett smiled. “I don’t think you’re ever hopeless or overly idealized. It’s not in your nature. You’re practical and competent and…” he trailed off. Grace found herself wishing for a more glamorous compliment, but then, was it really her place to wish for compliments?
“Thanks.” She smoothed her skirt over her knees. “I’ll let you know…I mean, if you’re still interested.”
“In investing?” He sounded eager. “Absolutely. Send me the specs, or whatever. Better yet, send me samples.” His phone pinged, following that, and reading it, he frowned.
“Is something wrong?” The words were out of Grace’s mouth before she realized it might be prying.
Emmett seemed to ruminate for a long moment before saying anything. “No, no. Francesca just had a question.”
Francesca. Grace felt that coil of coldness settle between her ribs and hated that it had become a familiar, definable feeling.
Emmett’s invitation arrived the next day. Complete with an apology—Britt’s parents hadn’t been sure how to accommodate Mrs. Woodhouse, thus the delay.
“That ought to be easy,” Grace said. They were in her kitchen. Emmett had sauntered over, pleased as punch, to share the news of the invitation—and Grace had said nothing deprecating like, I thought you said you’d never visit the Coles again as long as you live. “Won’t she just not want to go?”
“Exactly.” Emmett was sitting on her counter, swinging his legs. Now that she thought of it, whenever he came to the Farms, he always ended up in the kitchen. She wasn’t sure why. It was as though he didn’t dare venture much through the other rooms, though he’d known those same rooms since childhood.
But no, it couldn’t be that. Surely Emmett would dare to do anything.
He went on. “I think I’m going to ask Lucas Goddard to come for dinner and keep her company. She was really worried about me being out late.” He smiled fondly. Grace was once again struck by the curious disparity of Mrs. Woodhouse’s complacency when Emmett had seemed irretrievably gone, at school, and her clinginess when he was actually in proximity.
It wasn’t her place to judge. Grace turned back to putting away her dishes. If they were going to be in the kitchen, she might as well get something done.
“What are you going to wear?” He was bouncing one heel against the lower cabinet. She should scold him, but she didn’t.
What is Francesca going to wear? Grace bit her lip. “I don’t know.”
“How are you going to do your hair?”
She set down a plate with more force than was necessary. “Emmett! I don’t know yet!”
He waved a hand. “OK, OK, just making conversation. Girls like talking about this stuff.” His eyebrows danced accusingly.
“I have a lot of responsibilities.”
“Don’t I know it. Hey, come here.”
“Emmett, I have not been taking orders from you since—oh, ever?” She propped a hand on one hip. What was with him today? And why was this an achingly warm sort of scene—him ensconced in the center of her domestic life?
“What do you want?” But she took a step closer. He had asked about what she was going to wear. Maybe he had noticed how she looked the other day, if that mattered. Grace was human; it was nice to be appreciated.
“I want to try something with your hair,” he said. All serious artist-face, or something. Grace’s heart pounded in her chest.
“Yeah. Your hair is really cool. It’s thick and long and—anyway. Francesca was teaching me how to French-braid hers the other day. I want to try it in yours.”
Francesca. Of course. But all the same—“You have five minutes,” Grace said, very calmly, as though she wasn’t being very silly indeed.
Emmett slipped off the counter eagerly. “Here, sit down.”
Grace did. She folded her hands in her lap. Then she flattened them against her knees. There were three plates left on the counter—
Emmett’s fingers grazed the nape of her neck. “Holy sh—dude, you have a lot of hairpins.”
“I have a lot of Mexican hair.” Grace spoke through her teeth; it seemed the only way.
“I’m not criticizing,” he said softly. He had dexterous fingers. The hairpins seemed to give him no trouble; he was raking through her hair, separating tendrils, ghosting against the tip of her ear or the back of her neck with a touch here and there.
She felt it all—every light tug and twist, the graze of his nails against her skin. She could have stayed there forever, quite possibly, but in Grace’s experience, mere possibility was too far from reality to ever be rightly judged.
“Finished,” Emmett announced. He sounded dissatisfied. “I did a bad job of it.”
“That’s alright,” Grace said, shaking herself from her reverie. “I mean—”
He spun her chair around and crouched down in front of her, and then, quite suddenly, his arms were linked behind her neck and he was pulling her hair free from the braid again. “This would look good,” he mused, twisting her hair around his hands and holding it up. “Something sort of vintage-y. Very Downton Abbey. But obviously, Donuealla Abbey or something.”
Grace shook her head tensely. “That isn’t a real name.”
The moment passed; he let go of her hair abruptly and let it tumble to her shoulders, stood up and surveyed her, tilting his head to one side. “Not as easy as I thought,” he said.
“It’s complicated,” Grace answered. Desperately, she wondered if she was speaking to artist or to man.
Artist would be infinitely safer.
“Where have you been all day?” Francesca demanded, pressing a warm, cherry-scented kiss to his cheek. “Ashley and Noel are all but ready to kick me out. I get so restless.”
He doubted that Ashley and Noel would be so blunt, but took it as an opportunity to ask: “Is that why you jetted off to L.A. the other day?”
Francesca favored him with a sidelong glance. “That was complete batshit, wasn’t it? But I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It was so fun, and freeing, to do something like that without telling anyone.”
She wasn’t as foolish and reprehensible as Grace made her out to be; she couldn’t be. Boorish, selfish people refused to acknowledge when they’d done something flighty or irresponsible. Francesca had made an allowance for herself, and acknowledged that it was, in her own words, batshit.
See? Emmett demanded mentally, of Grace’s image. You were wrong.
Of course, Harry liked Francesca a good deal too, though Harry’s opinion didn’t count for anything that wasn’t confined to a strict, simple parameter. He had immediately decided that Emmett and Francesca were meant to be.
“You two look so perfect together,” he said, the day of Britt’s party. “And if you’re not going to…”
“Not going to what?” Emmett demanded. He was mentally going through his tie collection, and trying to decide if he wanted to wear a tie, anyway, to a fete in celebration of Vegas.
“Going to get together with someone around here.”
Emmett scoffed. “Not likely.” No tie, but a pocket square, in one of his crisp white shirts. That would be sharp. “You almost ready to go?”
“Yeah,” Harry said. “I wonder if Marnie will be there.” And he sighed, as he always did, implosively.
To Emmett, implosion was without point. “Probably not, dude. I haven’t seen her around.”
And, mercifully, he himself was too distracted to look for her. The party was annoyingly glitzy, just as Britt had intended. Britt herself was wearing earrings shaped like miniature disco balls. Francesca, slinky in a silver, backless sheath, smiled at Emmett when Britt had floated away.
“I almost bought those myself.”
Emmett settled his hands at her hips. Music was starting for dancing, and strangely enough, it was a slow dance. So much for Vegas, yet he couldn’t really mind. “No, you didn’t.”
He spent the evening in her arms as much as possible. Dancing, propped up at the buffet with her braceleted wrist slung over his shoulders. Emmett did not think that this was love, whatever Harry said. But it was certainly an artist’s appreciation of beauty becoming pleasingly human; one could simultaneously wish to paint and kiss the slope of Francesca’s long neck, or her graceful, careless hands.
And considering how closely she moved when they danced, she felt something for him too.
He smiled a few inches from her lips. “Lipstick like that would leave a mark.”
Her eyebrows lifted in seeming innocence. “Good heavens, Mr. Woodhouse. On what?”
He suggested blandly, "A cocktail napkin. Paper only, please—think of the laundry.”
She laughed. And then she pressed her lips against his cheek—not as his mouth, as she might have easily, perilously done—and said, “You taste like just the right amount of cologne.”
Emmett knew, objectively, that it was a ridiculous party. Harry was in his element, charmed by shine over substance. Britt was reliving her prom queen hopes (she hadn’t actually been prom queen). Mr. and Mrs. Cole were holding court, such as it was. But Emmett was not sorry to have come. This—this power, of having the most beautiful girl in the room wrapped around him, was flat-out enjoyable.
His eyes met Grace’s across the room.
There was the faintest tear in the fabric of the universe; some people would have called it a pause.
But Grace, still and a little paler than usual—maybe that was just the lights—only smiled.
“I need—” Emmett stepped back. “Sorry to interrupt this. I need another drink.”
“Sure!” Francesca was all breeziness, all the time. “I’ll go dance with Harry, and make his little night.”
“You’re a gem.”
“As long as it’s a diamond, honey.” She swept away.
Grace hadn’t moved.
“Hi,” Emmett said. “Thought you might have changed your mind and not come.”
“I accepted the invitation,” Grace said, like it should be obvious. She was wearing a simple dress. Navy blue. It showed off her collarbones. Emmett would know; he’d tried to paint them before, without success. Grace’s collarbones were just as stubborn as the rest of her.
“Well,” he said. “Uh…do you want a drink? I came to get a drink.”
Her eyes shifted slowly across the dancefloor. The dancefloor, of course, being the open-floor-plan space of the Coles’ house, on an ordinary day. “You looked like you were having fun.”
His hand drifted towards his cheek, where Francesca had marked him. “Yeah. Yeah, I am.”
Grace’s mouth twitched down at one corner. “Here,” she said, all competence. “Let me.” She reached up, hand steady—why should he even notice that her hand was steady?—and dragged her thumb outwards from the edge of his lip. “Got it.”
Emmett felt weirdly self-conscious. To stop himself from echoing her movement with his own fingertips, he cast about for something to say. “Oh…you did the thing with your hair.”
She shrugged. “Tried, anyway. Rosa helped.”
“It looks—” he stopped just short of beautiful, as so many things did. “Nice.”
Grace’s eyes went down, up, down, a flurry of lashes and something he didn’t quite catch. “Thanks.” She turned, pointed towards the drink table, commanding him. “I think you were on an errand, right? She’ll want you back again soon.”
Yes, Emmett supposed she would. Hadn’t that been his whole plan?
It was a ridiculous party.
Chapter 20: Chapter XX
“No, I have never had such an idea, and I cannot adopt it now.”
On Saturday afternoons, long ago, Julia and she would drive down in to Highbury and go grocery-shopping. It started when Julia got her drivers’ license, and in hindsight, it was arguably part of their parents’ initial process of inching towards retirement.
They never bought strawberries.
Julia, of course, had hated grocery shopping. Grace remembered rubbing papery onion skins between her fingers, tapping melons, lifting the rough-edged lids of egg cartons, all while Julia rested her elbows on the push-bar of the cart and complained.
Grace missed those trips.
Now, alone, she thought of humming to herself as she lifted a head of lettuce. Maybe the first bars of an old Van Morrison song that had been rattling in her ears all day—something to fill the silence. But the only silence here, really, was what she had brought with her. All around, above the whir of the cooling system and the chatter of cashiers, there was sound. There was the postman’s wife with their twin toddlers, babbling happily—there was old Mr. Gerardo, hands full of pomegranates—
That was what she wanted. Grace put aside her silence and chose a few, pressing against their dull purple hides with the pad of her thumb.
The fruit stalls were beautiful, their multi-hued armies marching row by row. She wondered offhandedly if Emmett had ever tried to paint them. But maybe he didn’t like still lifes, or anything still at all, and maybe she didn’t have an artist’s eye.
Grace set her pomegranates into the upper shelf of her cart and turned.
Francesca had no cart. She had a carton of organic soy milk on one hand and her hair was halfway between a curl and a wave, languid and silken.
“Hi,” Grace said. Politeness demanded a smile. As for anything beyond that, Grace surveyed her options of expression—landed on pathetic, drab, ordinary, and refused to acknowledge them.
“I’m trying to be a local for a little while,” Francesca explained, as if she was divulging a delicious secret, only for her and Grace to share. “Not sure how it’s working out, because I can’t find anything in this place, but we’ll see.”
Grace didn’t forget things. She wasn’t going to forget Francesca’s pointed nails grazing the nape of Emmett’s neck, her hips slanted against his, their wicked, golden grins tilted in unison.
That’s just the way people dance.
Mantras were only as effective as they were true.
“You still have another week, right?”
“Yeah. Might go back early. Don’t know yet.” Francesca said it so lightly, Grace thought, like she didn’t hold a sister’s happiness in those pearly-nailed hands.
“Oh,” was Grace’s vague contribution.
“Then again”—and here was a touch less of lightness—“Maybe I’ve found something to stay for. What do you think. He’s pretty cute, huh?”
Pain blossomed in Grace’s throat and chest, but she just lifted up another pomegranate and set it carefully beside her purse. “I’m sure you’ll do what you think is best.”
Francesca shrugged, but somehow it almost looked as if her shoulders stooped a little. “We’ll see. See you around, Miss Caballero.” She strode off, and Grace watched her go.
Maybe being a free spirit wasn’t the same as being free.
Hijo de puta, she sighed, shoving her cart away from the produce section altogether. Why are you bothering with sympathy?
The thought buzzed around her mind like a bothersome gnat all the way to the checkout line. Once there, hemmed in by glossy magazines proclaiming the come-back of this and that celebrity, she nearly crashed into Jake Fairfax.
He was carrying a carton of soy milk. Grace’s brow wrinkled.
“Hey, Grace.” He seemed tense.
“Uncle Arthur likes it.” He waggled the carton in his hand. Her eyes must have fallen on it.
“Yeah, I’m more of a true dairy person myself,” she said, unloading her groceries. An elderly woman with age-spotted hands was lifting boxes of cereal slowly onto the conveyer ahead of them.
Jake was trapped. He said nothing. Then his hand flexed.
“Homecoming is hard,” Grace said softly, like they weren’t standing together under the cheerful, impersonal fluorescents. Then, too, she said it like she knew anything about homecoming, like she had ever dared to go away. “I hope you’re not putting too much on yourself, Jake. We’re glad to see you. That’s all it needs to be.”
He nodded tightly, and smiled as an afterthought. Like most afterthoughts, it was incomplete. What he said next was unexpected. “You should come by and visit. Uncle Arthur likes to see you. I don’t want you to feel—” He waved a hand that said, like you can’t come when I’m around, fairly clearly.
“I will,” Grace said. Jake was next up. It took a minute, maybe less, for the cashier to ring him up.
When she made it out into the parking lot, she shifted the bags, three on each arm, and fumbled for her keys as the circulation in her hands seemed to drop, screaming, after only about five seconds. The day was split open like a ripe fruit, mingling sunlight with sweat.
Her mouth watered. Never go shopping when you’re hungry.
She avoided any additional impulse shopping stops on the way home, however, and sliced some cheese for herself to nibble alongside the pomegranate as she padded barefoot across the floors she had swept the night before.
The fruit looked like living gems. She loved it.
She thought of Persephone, a princess going down into eternal darkness.
As to Persephone, of course, Grace had never been able to relate. She was more drawn to myths about gods who lived and walked above mountaintops, dazzling mere mortals with their light.
She thought of trying to start a new book, but she had six unfinished on her Kindle already. Her eyes always seemed to drop shut when she lay on her side at night. She stretched her neck and finished her snack and decided that a little paperwork wouldn’t hurt.
Is this how it’s going to be forever? You need a vacation.
I live in strawberry country. This is where people go to take time off.
She penciled in another figure and massaged her temples.
It’s your life. You get to mourn it a little, every once in a while.
Grace took another deep breath.
A day spent with Noel and Ashley (and more to the present point, Francesca) was wholly enjoyable. Emmett admired Ashley’s new kitten, much as he disliked the way its sandy fur dusted over his impeccable jeans, and bantered to his heart’s content.
Francesca had ducked out for an errand for a bit, and he napped a little. It was Noel’s house; basically a second home. Or a third home, if he counted Grace’s.
Maybe Emmett was a collector of homes.
The sound of Francesca’s car got him up again, awake and alert. She came in and scratched the kitten between the ears, and set something down on the kitchen counter while Noel stepped out to re-park the car.
Francesca was, self-avowedly, terrible at parking.
“What’s that?” Emmett demanded.
“See?” Her smile was like a dare. “This is why I wouldn’t you let come with me. You would have judged me while I made my very important soy milk selection, and then I wouldn’t have been able to buy it all.”
He shuddered. “It is abysmal.”
“Whatever.” But she blew him a kiss as she opened the refrigerator, so it wasn’t all for nothing.
A little while passed. Emmett was stretched on the couch with one knee crooked up, but he moved aside so Francesca could sit down beside him. (The trick was, of course, only moving when she’d made a beeline for him. That was the game.)
Noel and Ashley were sharing the big chair across from them, just as soon as Noel had hung up the car keys.
“I stopped by to see Arthur Bates this morning,” Noel said.
“Ugh, why?” Emmett yawned. Grace wasn’t present to call him out on such insolence.
Francesca flicked him lightly on the cheek. “Wow, you really do have a medical condition that requires you to be an asshole for at least five minutes a day, don’t you?”
“But you love it,” Emmett snarked back. He said love just to see how it sounded.
Francesca blinked lazily, close enough that her breath ghosted against his cheek. “Everyone loves it.”
He watched the knowing glance slide between Noel and Ashley, and pretended he hadn’t.
Francesca pushed herself up off the couch after a moment’s pause, but she put her hand on his shoulder to do it, her palm pressing hard against him. “I’m going to make an iced latte. Em, you want one?”
“Not with soy milk.” Out of faint compunction, Emmett turned back to Noel. “You were saying something, right?”
“Yeah. I was at Arthur’s. Jake Fairfax got a piano.”
Emmett lifted his eyebrows. “What?”
“An upright grand. Small-ish, but beautiful. No idea how they fit it up those stairs. Got delivered yesterday, Arthur was saying.”
Emmett drummed his fingers on his chin, iced lattes forgotten. “Wait, so you’re saying someone got him one?”
Noel chuckled. “That’s just the thing, though. Arthur was thrilled about it, of course, so he told me everything. It’s a mystery. They don’t know who sent it.”
Emmett, admittedly—though he didn’t bother admitting it, so perhaps he didn’t deserve the adverb—was a gossipmonger. “A mysterious admirer!” he exclaimed, for of course that must be the answer.
Ashley plucked affectionately at Noel’s sleeve. “Don’t be silly, boys. It’s probably from his father.”
Emmett flinched a little. “Nah,” he said, like he was a person who didn’t flinch. He grinned, struck with a sudden thought. “Lindsey Dixon. Shit. That’s got to be it.” He practically chortled.
“Come on,” Ashley said. “Does he even know her?”
“Campbell orchestra? You bet he knows her. Better than knows her.”
Francesca had come back in, bearing two ice-crowned glasses. “What are we talking about?”
“Someone got Jake Fairfax a mystery piano.” Emmett amended the statement after a moment, “Well, the someone is a mystery, not the piano. Same eighty-eight whites and blacks, I presume.”
“And you think it’s Lindsey Dixon?” Francesca’s face was almost uncertain, and then her eyes sparkled. “Naughty.”
He sipped his drink and held her gaze over the rim of the glass. “I can be.”
Even Noel rolled his eyes at that. “I had a better theory, actually, than your gossip rag crap.”
Emmett set his drink down (on a coaster, of course), and clamped his hands on his knees. “Go for it, my man. Amaze me.” Francesca sank down beside him again, pressed warmly along the lines of shoulder to knee.
Emmett hated how a single word could suck all the air out of a room. He huffed out a laugh, even though laughter used oxygen and as established, there was little enough of that left. “What?”
“My theory,” Noel said, calmly rather than cannily, “Is that Grace and Jake have a thing going. I mean, think about it? They’re both like, kind of lowkey. Thoughtful. And she’s got the business acumen and he’s got talent. She could save him.”
“Grace isn’t going to save Jake Fairfax.” Emmett’s inflection was indignant. “Grace isn’t getting married, Noel. She doesn’t date people. And she’s extremely frugal. She’d never buy someone a piano.”
Noel was staring at him. They all were.
Emmett had lost himself. He picked his way back down to earth as one might climb down a ladder, which was to say: ungracefully. “I’m just saying,” he drawled, with a (failed) attempt at suavity, “I’ve got to think of our shared nephew here. Julia has already insisted that he inherit the Farms one day. I can’t agree to a theory of Grace squandering all their hard-earned business away on pianos! Surely you wouldn’t want that.”
Noel bit his lip like he was trying not to laugh. “Surely not.”
Still, it did no good. He left Noel and Ashley’s after dinner, and in the soft air of night he threw caution to the wind that spun through his windows and pulled into Caballero Farms just after eight-thirty.
He pounded on the door. “Grace!”
He was halfway through the second round of knocking when he realized that firstly, he had nothing to say, and secondly, that she was going to be pissed by someone knocking on her door like that.
The door opened. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw.
Grace’s hair was spun up in a towel, and she was wearing a bathrobe.
He wouldn’t have expected Grace to own a bathrobe.
Most strikingly, her entire face was covered in a sheet mask.
“Emmett, what in all hell is going on? Is it your mom?”
He pursed his lips, feeling abominably foolish. “Um…nope. Just—came by to—uh—” He scratched the back of his head demonstratively, then flicked a curious finger in the direction of her general ensemble. “You do sheet masks?”
“I’m sure you do,” Grace said, shoulders relaxing a little. Right. She’d thought this was an emergency. “But no, not generally. Julia sent me some, and she’s been haranguing me…Emmett, what is going on?”
“Do you have a date?” God, one of these days he was going to stab himself right through the temple with a red-hot poker. Just end it all, painfully and dramatically.
Grace’s mouth dropped a little. She looked ghoulish with the mask on, but also—he watched a droplet of water trail down the exposed line of her throat and slip under the edge of her robe.
“Emmett, are you drunk?”
He shook his head slowly.
He rolled his eyes, doing his best Valley Girl impression of disgust. “No, Grace. I’m not high. I’m just…” There was no explanation.
Grace sighed and waved a hand. “Come in, you lughead.”
“What did you just call me?”
“First thing that came to mind,” she said, over her shoulder. She walked down the hall to the bathroom and shut the door behind her.
Emmett hadn’t been in the big cathedral-ceiling room for a while. He rocked back on his heels. They used to play hide-and-seek in here. Ike was terrible at it. Julia wasn’t.
Grace came back without the mask. “Are you OK? I seriously thought that there was someone injured. Otherwise I would not have opened the door like this.”
“You weren’t like, in your underwear or anything,” he said, to be comforting.
She misunderstood him. “I’m wearing underwear, Emmett!”
A silence fell. He almost drove his teeth through his lip and stared at the floor.
“Did someone tell you that I was going on a date?” Grace tightened the sash on her robe, and sat down on the couch. He sat several cushions away.
No. Yes. I don’t know why I’m here. He recovered himself. “No, I just—yeah, someone said something, I guess, but it’s not important what—and I was just…I was pissed that you hadn’t told me.”
“So you thought that the best alternative was breaking down my door and demanding to know my plans?” Grace’s voice was a little chilly. Or at best, school-teacherish. “Em, seriously? I’d tell you if I had something important going on, just like…well, just like I’d tell Julia.” Her toes were still poking out of the hem of the robe, even though she’d drawn her knees up. They had dark red polish on them. “But no, there isn’t anybody in my life right now.”
“But there could be someone? Eventually?” He sounded waspish, and he knew it. He had handled this entire day terribly, from beginning to strangely-tattered-end.
Grace stared at him, wide-eyed, steady. “Would you rather I die alone?”
He stood up. “I didn’t say that.”
She stood up too. “If something’s bothering you…you can tell me.”
Nothing was. That was the problem. He’d just—shown up here. “I’m fine,” he said. “Just probably twenty-plus years of untreated ADHD at work, or something.”
“OK,” Grace ducked her head, and a lock of damp hair slipped out, clinging to her neck.
“You were about to go to bed,” Emmett said. He had done something more vulgar and obtrusive than all the people he criticized. He had barged in to someone’s—yes, a close friend, but that didn’t matter—intimate life with all the sensitivity of a toddler or a raging bull. The two had more in common than one would like to think. “I’m so sorry.”
Grace rubbed her shoulder under her robe. “It’s really fine. I just—I was startled.”
He wasn’t going to sleep tonight. Never did, after a particularly embarrassing episode of being himself, when he had to come to renewed terms with the fact that he was a A-grade screw-up. “Good night, Grace.”
She followed him out to the door. “Good night, Emmett,” she said. Her voice wasn’t chilly anymore, but he didn’t stay to figure out what, exactly, it was.
Chapter 21: Chapter XXI
“But really, I am half ashamed, and wish I had never taken up the idea.”
“You can’t be serious.”
Julia couldn’t see her, through the phone, so Grace could have allowed herself a wince. But she steeled her resolve and her gaze, fixed as it was on the guileless Paco. “I asked if Dan was still single.”
“I mean, yeah, as far as I know. I just can’t believe that you’re—”
“Bringing up a joke you made two years ago?”
“Asking me to set you up a date.”
“I need to get out more.”
“Is he screwing someone?”
Grace felt herself flush hotly, a full-faced blush. “Who? What?”
Grace ground her teeth. This was exactly why she knew better than to come to Julia for advice, and yet—here she was, and not for the first time. “Julia, I don’t know the details of Emmett’s personal life. Furthermore, it’s irrelevant.”
“Well that’s a load of mierda.”
“Can you just—ask Dan if he’s still interested?”
Dan O’Ryan. Pale Irish type, friendly and known. Grace listened to the silence of Julia’s consideration—silence being, of course, an unusual state for Julia—and finally heard a little sigh. “Fine. You just want me to tell him you’d like to get dinner?”
It felt like jumping off of a cliff, but Grace was not much one for any kind of leap, so she was likely exaggerating the sensation. “Yes. I’m free tonight, if he is.”
She stretched out on the sofa in shameful indolence after Julia hung up. Emmett had himself to thank for this development, she mused, and then discarded the notion disgustedly.
No, you’re doing this yourself. For yourself.
She was bored, and lonely, and it was time to do something that challenged her. Work burdened her; it didn’t challenge her.
The bright autumn felt interminably long. Francesca had not left yet, at least, not to Grace’s knowledge. And that was a tangle of a problem. She wanted Francesca to leave, but the reason was rather unkind. She just—didn’t like Francesca. It was with reason, but wasn’t that always the excuse for a lack of charity?
Grace shut her eyes. It wasn’t fair to wish Francesca away, if only for Emmett’s sake. There must be something there, by now. Enough to hurt him, if it should end.
Julia’s return text was affirmative. Dan would meet her in Santa Cruz at six-thirty. Julia promised she’d framed it as a meeting between old friends, though she’d hinted at something more.
Grace readied herself with all the resolve and conviction that accompanied armoring oneself for battle. The sheath dress and low heels might as well have clanked with chainmail.
Silly, silly. Grace twisted the curling iron again, tugging a little too hard. Her thoughts had circled back to the inevitable again. Francesca wasn’t…malicious. But Francesca was the kind of girl who would enjoy having a heart to pinch between her fingers.
Who wouldn’t? suggested an internal voice, cynical enough that it could only be Julia.
Grace arrived in Santa Cruz early, and wandered about before returning to the café where they’d agreed to meet. Dan was more broad-shouldered than she remembered.
“Grace!” He shook her hand, folding it in both of his. “It’s been ages.”
It had been, in fact, since her college graduation. But for some reason, Julia had been the one to stay in touch with the O’Ryans, even though Grace had been the same class year as Dan, and a year above Maggie.
“I’m going to come clean.” He had a straight-toothed grin. “Julia told me that you took over the business from your parents, and that you really needed a break.”
It was the one thing Grace always hated admitting, which provided sufficient explanation for the wince in her smile. “Yes,” she said, because she had chosen this. “I needed a break.”
“How about Italian?”
There was a corner place, smoky in light rather than in air, with tucked-away tables and a long bar. It was crowded, but Dan seemed to know the owner. He lifted a hand and a women with a slick ponytail nodded and gestured.
They sat by the window. He pulled the chair out for her, and Grace was reminded that this was technically a date. It felt unromantic. Then again, that was at least half her fault. She was not romantic by nature and this felt like more of a tête-a-tête, just this side of business casual, than anything…charged with meaning.
Dan was an accountant. He didn’t talk much about his work, though Grace wouldn’t have minded—she did most of her own bookkeeping. They talked about movies and the warm weather and Julia and Ike.
“What’s Ike’s younger brother doing? Emmett? That kid was…something else.”
Grace tilted her head. “He’s an artist,” she said, a little coldly. “He’s very talented.”
Dan nodded, and the conversation turned.
Grace bowed out before the twilight could fall too murkily, too suggestively, and said that she had an errand to run. They hugged, and he kissed her cheek.
She swiped absently at the spot with her hand when he was out of sight. She ought to text Julia and tell her that it had gone well, but it…hadn’t. It hadn’t gone badly either, though, so what was wrong with her? She felt numb.
No explanation could justify why she picked up a bottle of Mrs. Woodhouse’s favorite wine from a shop and ended up at the Woodhouses’ almost as late as Emmett had visited her.
They were playing chess together and Emmett was letting his mother win. It was a grace he accorded to few; he was generally a very sore loser. Watching them before they saw her—housekeeping had let her in—she was stiffened with a pang of not belonging, as though Dan O’Ryan’s kiss on her cheek had marked her apart from an older life.
As if a kiss could do that!
“Grace!” Emmett exclaimed, and all was right again.
He walked her out, leaving his mother still contentedly examining the wine.
Grace meant to say, “I went on a date today,” but the words didn’t come. And Emmett looked strangely calm along the lines of his shoulders and the smile playing at the corners of his mouth—it must have been a good day.
“Your mom seemed pretty chipper,” she said. There was a breeze blowing up along the driveway, and she breathed it in.
“Yeah. She found some of my old paintings, and was happy.” Emmett laughed softly. “They were terrible, honestly.” He wheeled on her suddenly, all demand and intensity. “Do you think I should go to law school?”
Grace stared at him. The idea had never entered her head. “No, I think you’d hate it. Why?”
“Oh, good. Ike’s college roommate just made partner at his firm.” He scratched the back of his neck, suddenly seeming irritated. “Why does Julia tell me these things?”
A tightness formed in Grace’s chest, at what else Julia might have told him, if they’d talked. But no, she reassured herself—no, Julia wanted Emmett with Grace, which was silly, but which would also prevent her from trying to cause trouble between them. Even as friends.
Only as friends.
“Julia says a lot of crap. She once said she thought I shouldn’t have given up ballet.”
Emmett frowned. “I don’t remember you doing ballet.”
Grace felt that warm rush of feeling that had been strangely absent all day. “You were a baby, silly. I only did it when I was four or five.”
“Huh.” He nibbled his lower lip. “Maybe…I should paint you as a ballerina. Giselle, instead of Grace.”
Grace flushed. “Like I said, Julia says a lot of crap. It wouldn’t suit me at all.”
His eyes stayed on her for longer than she could understand. “I don’t know about that.”
Grace put her purse into her car and stood by the open door. “Thanks for letting me drop in, as always.”
“Of course,” Emmett said, hands in his pockets. The line of his shoulders was a little less easy than it had been moments before. “Hey, Grace?”
“You know…well, you know how I asked you, the other night, if…well, you said you’d tell me, if anything important happened. In your life. Like, if you met someone. Would you—would you want me to do the same? I mean, if I…”
Grace’s tongue was heavy in her mouth. She said, “Emmett, you never have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”
“But I—would you want me to?”
No, she wouldn’t. Wouldn’t want to think—to know—of his hands and lips on Francesca, wouldn’t want to hear that Emmett loved someone. It would change things too strangely, that was all.
She wouldn’t, couldn’t say why.
“The other side of the coin,” Grace said, very calmly, “Is that you can always tell me things when you want to. I’ll always listen.”
It wasn’t the answer to his question, but he nodded all the same. “Alright. Good night, Grace.”
She didn’t breathe again until she was driving away.
All things considered, Grace had taken a certain ill-conceived evening visit well in stride.
Then again, Grace was known for taking things in stride.
Emmett liked to fold up past concerns and lock them away somewhere soon forgotten. Armed, therefore, with the knowledge that Grace would never lie, he decided to never worry again that she liked or loved Jake Fairfax.
She’d tell him if she did.
He went to dinner at Noel and Ashley’s with a light heart, a day or so later, on Francesca’s invitation.
Jake was there.
A slap in the face, really, though Arthur was technically more irritating.
“I’m sorry I didn’t warn you,” Francesca said in his ear. “I needed your…support.”
“Thank you for choosing me,” he retorted flippantly, half under his breath. “At least there’s no piano here.”
Francesca laughed. “Speaking of your Lindsey Dixon theory, I saw her face on a tabloid this morning. Think it must kill poor Jake to even go to the grocery store?”
“Probably.” Emmett cast a glance at Jake, who was talking stiffly with Noel. God, did the kid ever relax?
He’s not a kid any more than you are, Grace said in his head. Actually, he’s far superior to you in maturity.
He flicked the voice away.
“Maybe the piano’s made of linden wood,” Francesca suggested. Her eyes glinted with laughter. “That would be appropriate.” She turned, nodding in Jake’s direction. “I’m going to go over there and ask him all about it, emphasis included.”
“Don’t do it!” Emmett set a hand on her elbow, a little frantic. “Don’t—he’s definitely not the kind to take a joke.”
“I don’t know.” Francesca pressed her lips together speculatively. “I’d like to see him blush.”
Emmett moved his hand from her elbow to her waist, very casually. “I think you like to make everyone blush.”
She pushed him gently away, fingernails scraping lightly against his wrist, making his skin tingle. “Blush all you like,” she said. “This will only take a minute.”
He watched her cross the room and didn’t follow. He didn’t want to be obvious, even if by nature he was always the most obvious person in any given room. Francesca talked to Jake with her back turned, which was unhelpful, and she was blocking Emmett’s view of Jake’s face, more unhelpfully still.
They talked too long for mere jibes. Emmett turned away. The room was strangely uneven, all of a moment. He wished that Grace was there. She was good to talk to in the in-between moments.
He imagined her steady eyes, daring him to pretend that he had phrased that right.
But it wasn’t an insult. It wasn’t.
He had no way of telling if Francesca had been successful in making Jake blush—she avoided the subject later in the evening, and Jake was as cold and taciturn as ever. Emmett wondered why Noel and Ashley had even invited the Bates clan over at all. They weren’t much for company.
He feigned a headache and bowed out early, an hour after dinner or so. He was tired. Yes, even Emmett got tired.
Francesca ran after him when he headed for his car. “Hey, you!”
He slowed his step so she could catch up to him, spin around in front of him, and tilt her chin a little daringly.
In the fading light, she was still golden.. “We’re going to San Fran tomorrow. Come with us.”
“Me and Ashley. It’s my last weekend, you know. We’re going to get a hotel and have a grand old time. You in?”
He nodded. Emmett never (well, rarely) said no to adventures. And his heartrate hiked up a little, prompted by the idea that this might be more than just a weekend excursion. Ashley certainly approved of…whatever this was…and it would be the perfect opportunity for—
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m in.” He should love her by now, because a few weeks must be enough for the shallows of human affection as he knew it
But Francesca arrived early the next morning, and something had changed in her face. Emmett let her in the front door and she paced the hallway. “Is your mom around?”
“She’s still sleeping.”
She shifted from one heeled boot to the other. “I’ll be quiet then.”
Emmett, when he had to be, could be ten steps ahead. At the moment, he had maybe two or three on her. “No San Francisco, huh?”
Francesca stared at the ground. He’d never seen her like this. She lifted her chin at last, though the movement was bereft of daring, and took a step towards him. “No. Sorry.” Then she took one of his hands in both of hers. They were close—close enough that Emmett could have kissed her, if he’d wanted to. He—
—did not know if he wanted to.
“I booked my flight home for later today,” Francesca said. “Turns out my mom couldn’t wait.”
“Is she alright?”
She looked at him as if for the first time. “I don’t think she ever really is.”
Emmett was silent because he understood.
“I’m sorry about—well, a trip would have been fun. But I think…Emmett, there’s something I want to tell you. I’ve been playing games this whole time. You can tell, can’t you?”
Emmett was a master of games. Had to be. There wasn’t any other explanation for his purpose. “Yes.”
Francesca exhaled a deep, shuddering breath. “Cool. I still…I shouldn’t saying this, I’m going to screw up everything—”
He lifted a hand to her cheek, grazing his thumb just below her temple. Waited to feel something. “You won’t.”
Was this the moment to kiss her? To seal with lips what a hundred looks had almost said, in the past few weeks?
Ashley was walking through the front door.
Francesca leapt back. Her lips were open, full of the unspoken words that Emmett felt fairly sure he could guess for himself.
Ashley came in. “Hey, Emmett. I’m so sorry about—well, she’ll be back, won’t you, hon?” She glanced at her watch. Even in adversity, Ashley was cheerful. “Sorry to rush, but Francesca, we should be going—just in case there’s traffic.”
Emmett raised a hand, a silent goodbye. He was tongue-tied, or something even quieter than that. A total stillness of heart and head.
Francesca shut her eyes. If he had had a reason to believe it, he would have thought she looked ashamed. But that made no sense at all, so Emmett folded the look up and locked it away to be forgotten.
Chapter 22: Chapter XXII
“I do not find myself making any use of the word sacrifice.”
Early October was the height of planting season. Grace was in the fields from dawn until mid-afternoon, when she left for a shower, a meal, and bookkeeping. A voice that might equally have been Julia or Emmett told her that a nap would be better still, but she pushed the voice away.
She had planned a visit to her parents for Columbus Day weekend—much as Grace was loath to celebrate the man—but it seemed she would have to postpone. She pinched the bridge of her nose and yawned achingly.
Highbury had shifted in shades of color to something a little softer and safer than before. Grace called it autumn, the same as everyone else did, and thought of Francesca’s absence when she breathed easier.
“She’s coming back as soon as she can,” Ashley assured everyone who asked, and a few who didn’t. “She loved it here.”
And Grace, steady and pleasant, replied without fail, when it was her turn to do so, that she was glad Francesca had enjoyed her stay.
Jake Fairfax stayed, whether he was enjoying himself or not. He was close-lipped and pale and afflicted by headaches more than ever. Grace worried over him from an uncomfortable social distance that made her feel rather powerless to do anything for him. She visited Arthur left out of respect for Jake’s privacy in the small Bates’ apartment, but on one occasion she dropped a mention that the town library was woefully understaffed.
The next time she saw Jake, he was shelving books.
Grace bit back her smile and said nothing, hoping that she’d helped.
She said nothing about it to Emmett—he himself was rather touchy on the subject of jobs, even though she knew he did a good deal of thankless work for his family’s charity interests. He was surprisingly quiet about that. Emmett liked praise more than anyone Grace knew, but even she had to admit that he liked it in specific measures, on specific bases.
And yes, only from specific people.
The dash of color in Highbury’s aesthetic, which Grace herself had not missed, was restored by the forewarned arrival of August Hawkins and his fiancée. If Grace had not lost sleep over the departure of Francesca Church, she ground her teeth at the return of Marnie.
Marnie and August snatched up a white elephant on the nicest street in Highbury. The house was lovely but had been historically riddled with all sorts of interior flaws. Either August was far from the real estate guru he claimed to be, or he had avocational ambitions.
“She was a nice girl,” Mrs. Woodhouse said, on a Saturday evening when Grace was making an overdue visit. Emmett was not at home. “Very nice. A little—well, you know. I am tired so easily. I wonder that Emmett even puts up with me.”
“Emmett loves you so much,” Grace reminded her earnestly, though she couldn’t extend any eagerness to the discussion of Marnie. “We all do, Mrs. W.”
“Now you,” Mrs. Woodhouse said, smiling. Her smile called Ike to mind much more than Emmett; Emmett looked like his father. Like his father had looked, of course. “You’re more than nice, Grace. You’re good. That’s a harder trick to pull off.”
Grace never knew what to do in the face of compliments. She ducked her head in thanks.
“They bought that big house…and living together before they are married? Seems a little—well, I’m not going to judge. Times change.”
Times might change. August Hawkins didn’t.
The next day, in the supermarket parking lot: “Grace, right?”
She wheeled around, careful to keep her grip on her groceries.
Marnie’s arm was tucked in his. Grace felt the heat of anger rise up in her cheeks, and reminded herself to breathe. Marnie had changed her hair from auburn to brunette. The watch on her wrist was new, too.
“Hello, August. Marnie. I hope you’re settling in well?”
August pouted heavily. “Not as well as we could be, by a damn sight!”
Grace gave no encouragement to this not wholly unexpected direction.
“You know what I want. Your strawberry kingdom.”
“She’s obsessed with it, though,” Marnie trilled. She rolled her eyes in Grace’s direction, as though they were sharing a secret. “I keep telling him, girl. You will not give it up. Not after you’ve gotten media coverage and are having a great year, right? I mean, I assume you are. I don’t know anything about strawberry farming. I know you tried to explain it to me, like, a million times.”
“Surely not a million,” Grace said quietly. “Well, August, I hope that you’ve found Highbury has more to offer than strawberries, all the same.” She opened the hatch of her car and put the bags in two by two.
They were hovering. Grace disliked hovering.
“You need to come to our housewarming party,” August blurted. He was wearing such heavy cologne that Grace could smell it even in the open air.
Marnie joggled his elbow. “Babe, that is no way to give out invitations! We’ll mail them. It will be cute.”
“She’s on the list though, right?”
Grace shut the hatch.
“Of course, babe!”
Grace wrapped her right hand around her left elbow—it seemed a sight more polite than folding her arms over her chest—and said, with her best boardroom smile, “I’m afraid I have to get going, but thank you both for saying hello.”
She muttered a few vivid phrases in English and Spanish on the drive home. A housewarming party indeed! Would they expect gifts, even after August had made clear to anyone he met that he was rolling smoothly along, thanks to his family’s successful tri-county business? Would they—
Stop it. Grace glanced severely at herself in the rearview. She disliked Marnie for good reason, and she disliked August because he was boorish and entitled. But the existence of such facts did not mean that she should waste the rest of a necessarily productive day in stewing over their slights to kin and county. Offhandedly, she found herself remembering how she had almost vowed to Emmett that she would find a way to make Marnie pay, someday—
But what right had she, Grace, to exact vengeance? And on Emmett’s behalf?
Emmett had spent the weeks since Francesca’s departure as occupied yet indolent, cheerful yet petulant, as he ever was. But there had been a little spring to his step, a depth to his looks, as though he was turning something over and over in his mind. That something was undoubtedly Francesca and whatever was between them.
Emmett had found direction in his sometimes-aimless life. Of that, Grace was sure.
And even Marnie and August and their ugly attempts at social graces were unlikely to change that.
Emmett had always harbored an interest in finding out what it felt like to be in love, and having decided that he was in love with Francesca, set about further investigations.
The results were baffling. An all-over tingling sensation must be just the thing—but it passed. A mild kind of obsession—thinking about her frequently if not constantly—seemed too lackluster to have earned quite so many sonnets and sonatas in the course of the recorded world.
He liked to think of her; he liked to hear about her from Ashley and Noel; he liked to get her occasional texts, most of which were jokes and puns and nothing more.
He tried painting the feeling—tried painting her—and was finished too quickly with an acrylic piece that…entirely did her justice. It was just so: there was Francesca, captured on canvas.
Emmett turned the brush between his fingers and wondered if there was any satisfaction in a question that didn’t have to wait for an answer.
He imagined a future where Francesca came into his life again, threw her arms around him and professed her undying love. They were entertaining fantasies. They all concluded one way: Emmett kissed her, probably, and then told her that it wasn’t meant to be.
It always wasn’t meant to be.
So. New hypothesis. He wasn’t in love with her. And that was alright too, because how was he supposed to leave Mom and go back to the East Coast? Mom would hate that, wouldn’t she? And then, too, he liked to call every day his own and do exactly how he pleased, and he liked wandering over to Grace’s whenever he felt like it, and surely there was no girlfriend in the world who would put up with that—
Anyway, he wasn’t in love.
He was rather bored after that. Grace was in the middle of the planting season and that made him feel woefully inadequate because he had no competing duties of his own. He threw himself into the managing the family charities as best he could, but it wasn’t quite enough. He brought up the law school idea again, internally, but didn’t even bother consulting with Ike. Julia would hear of it, and mock him, and he hated lawyers, always had.
Harry’s company filled the gap, a bit. He had been working a few less hours at the bank—they had a couple new hires—and he was happy to make the trek to Hartfield.
Maybe Harry should date Francesca. She was much cleverer, but most people were cleverer than Harry—it wasn’t Harry’s fault. Harry was good, and kind, and that was what actually mattered.
Emmett was a selfish bastard, and in the rare, sharply tapered moment, he knew that everyone deserved better than that.
The idea of pairing Francesca with Harry seemed a noble one until he reminded himself that he had damn well sworn off matchmaking, thank-you-very-much, and it wasn’t the time to slide back into it. He didn’t mention it to Harry at dinner that night.
Then again, Harry was preoccupied with something else. Had been all day.
“They’ve moved in together.”
Everyone knew about it. August Hawkins and Marnie, descending in triumph to Highbury, of all places. Emmett had returned to Hartfield, not exactly in triumph, he wasn’t that pretentious, and also, it was his home. Marnie had barely dipped a toe in it. And now she was throwing a housewarming party?
Some people had too much nerve.
He snapped his attention back to Harry, who was staring glumly at his plate. Mom was lying down because she thought she had a cold coming on, so it was just the two of them.
Emmett popped open another beer. “Dude. You know you’re like…way too good for her, right? We’ve been over this.”
“When I think of her coming back here and not thinking of me…” Harry shook his head. “It’s like my chest is filled with lead.”
Damn, what kind of dreadful beat poetry had Harry been reading lately? Emmett raised his eyebrows in alarm. “You might want to see a doctor about that.”
“About what?” Harry stared at him. “Oh, no. It was just a meta—metaphor.”
“I’m teasing you,” Emmett hastened to assure him. “But you really shouldn’t be taking this to heart so much. There’s a girl out there who’s right for you, I promise.”
“I just wish I hadn’t met her,” Harry sighed. “Now I have to know that whoever the right girl is, it isn’t her.”
Emmett chewed his lip. This wasn’t the first conversation of the day—or even of the hour—about Marnie. And yes, perhaps this was just another emblem of his own insurmountable selfishness, but it was also that he didn’t want to see Harry keep getting hurt. “Look,” he said. “You don’t owe me anything. You really don’t. But you’ve got to let go of this. And if you can’t—I mean, all I can think every time you mention her, is how I failed you as a friend, leading you on because I didn’t see what was really going on. Just reminds me I’m a crap friend, I guess.”
It was for Harry’s benefit. Harry wouldn’t do anything for himself. But he’d do anything for Emmett, which was a rather beautiful and terrible thing.
Indeed, Harry’s jaw dropped. “You—what? No! Never! Seriously, man. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. I’m not kidding. I don’t know—”
Emmett waved a hand. “It’s not about that, Harry, really it’s not. I just want you to be happy and I hate to think of the times I’ve been the one to keep that from happening.”
Harry nodded. His face was red with embarrassment. All of a sudden it occurred to Emmett that it was Harry’s simplicity that made him good—Harry had no need to justify his actions because they never stemmed from complicated motives.
Emmett felt envy, and then nothing at all. He smiled, and raised his beer. Harry’s expression cleared, and he lifted his own.
“To moving on.”
“They were sneering and negligent.”
“You want to come clean?”
Grace put her phone on speaker and set it on the counter. She was chopping jalapenos to add to a fresh salsa—a risk, yes, since the Martinez’s abuela ordinarily had full purview of salsa-making—and waited a beat before answering.
“Come clean about what?”
Julia sounded irate. “Sneaky little—this is the thanks I get? I set you up on the first date you’ve had in probably five years, saving you from the life of an overworked old maid, and this is what you have to say? Nada? You’re gonna play it like this?”
Grace almost pinched the bridge of her nose, before remembering that that would be the equivalent of pepper-spraying herself. Literally. She eviscerated another hapless jalapeno. “Jules, it wasn’t like that it. I went out with Dan, and it was fine. We had a nice dinner. But there wasn’t a spark—it just didn’t stay with me, I guess. I didn’t think to say anything.”
“If you’d marry Emmett, all this crap would be finished. He’d loosen you right up.”
Grace ignored whatever innuendo her sister was plotting. “Considering that I see him almost every single day, and am as uptight as I ever was, I don’t see how that plan is going to change things.”
Whatever barbed retort Julia was about to make, Grace jumped to interrupt. “And speaking of Emmett, he’s walking up my driveway right now so, maybe raincheck on the lecture?”
“Go ahead, girl.” Julia was all but cackling. “Get it!’
Grace hung up without another reply.
She was not going to rush to the door, so she called out, “It’s open, Em!” when he got close enough.
He stalked in, pouting magnificently. His hair was a little ruffled.
“You walked here? In those shoes?”
“Grace, I’m in crisis, I couldn’t exactly worry about shoes.”
“Hmm. That would be a first.” Grace scraped the seeds and stems into the metal bowl she used for veggie scraps.
He quirked an irritable brow. “I came here for your sympathy, Grace. You were never known for your sarcasm—don’t start now.”
“Don’t insult my sarcasm,” she said. But she scrubbed her hands off and sat down in one of the kitchen chairs, gesturing to another. “What’s wrong?”
Emmett slumped down, but with his usual cat-like grace, so that Grace had to remind herself not to stare at the casual sprawl of his long legs. “Mom just ruined my freaking life, but I can’t tell her about it or she’d feel bad.”
“Did she sign you up for a job?”
“Damn it, Grace! Hit me where it hurts!” He sighed dramatically.
Grace bit her lip. She hadn’t realized until now that that was a sore spot. Or maybe she had, but without recognizing the extent. She shouldn’t let Julia’s snark rub off on her. “Sorry. What did your mom do?”
“She RSVP’ed to the party from hell.” Emmett hung his head, pushing his hair off his forehead. He usually kept it contained to a genteel swoop, but he must have been rushing this morning because it was ruffled and almost curly. “A real Dante’s inferno, Grace. Probably we’ll enter the first circle with a soup course or some crappy hors-d’oeuvres. You know, those little…bacon-wrapped crab bites? But the bacon’s the texture of chewing gum? It’s vile.”
Grace was silent, thinking. Her eyes flickered to the basket of mail she kept on top of the refrigerator. “Do you mean…” she hesitated to say the names, but she had to. “Marnie and August’s housewarming party?”
“You too? Or should I say, et tu?” He mimed being stabbed.
“If Caesar was one-half the drama queen you are, it’s no wonder someone took a knife to him.” But she smiled as she said it, and strangely enough, it made Emmett laugh too.
“You sound like Julia when you get sassy. Is it the peppers? Adding a little spice to Miss Caballero?”
“No, that’s just—I’m having dinner with the Martinezes tonight.” She held his gaze until he dropped his eyes first. Good. Grace forgave, but she didn’t forget. “Em, I wasn’t complicit in getting you invited to that party, and I wouldn’t have told you to go. Why does your mom want to?”
“She’s old-fashioned that way. Well, she’s thinks it’s kind of a crock that they’re living together, but, you know. She told me we had to go and welcome them. And she already told them we were coming.” He sighed again. “She seems excited about it, too, thinks I’m…friends with them.” In any other context, Grace would have chalked his accompanying shudder up to further theatrics, but with Marnie—
“I wasn’t planning on going,” Grace said, slowly. “But…I’ll come and keep you company. If you want.”
He leaned across the table and grinned. It was half little-boy glee and half something that wasn’t boyish at all, and that made Grace curl her fingers tightly against her palms. “Oh, Grace. Why do you think I ruined a perfectly good pair of Oxfords to come here?”
Abuela Martinez agreed with Emmett’s dire assessment of the housewarming, divergent as the two of them might be in other respects. “Living together before they are married? Ahh!” She threw up her hands. “What is there to be warmed about that?”
“It’s just a welcome party,” Grace said. “They don’t know many people here, that’s true. But perhaps they’re planning the wedding here and want to put down roots.” It was hard to speak well, or even neutrally, of Marnie. “They are engaged, you know.”
Abuela clucked her tongue at this, unconvinced. “Las palabras se las lleva el viento.” She tapped her ring finger. “Call me when he puts two here. Two rings.”
“Abuela told me this morning that she wouldn’t go to the party even if she was invited,” Rosa said, when she walked Grace out to her car after dinner. “Like we would ever be invited to that kind of party. I think August Hawkins would rather sell our trailer out from under us and revoke our green cards.” She paused, toying with her dark braid, which was turned inkier by the half-light of dusk. “People are saying he wants to…”
“Buy the Fields?” Grace nodded. “He wants to. I wouldn’t ever do that, Rosa. You know that, right? The Fields belong to all of us.”
Rosa smiled. “That’s a relief. Your salsa was good, by the way. Abuela snuck seconds. Did you see?”
“If I say I did, you’ll have to kill me, right?” Grace laughed softly. “I’m sorry I haven’t been over as much lately.”
“You don’t have to tell me!” Rosa threw up her hands. The family resemblance was sharp but fleeting. “Planting season keeps us all tied down.”
Grace opened her card door, and Rosa looked like she was turning to go back in, but at the last second she turned back again, switching to English. “I bet Harry’s going to the party, right?”
Grace wasn’t sure how much use Marnie had for Harry, outside of using him to get to Emmett. But that wasn’t really what Rosa was asking. “I don’t know,” she said. “He’s doing OK, Rosa. Are you?”
Rosa glanced down. “I’m fine. It’s silly to miss him.”
“I’m not going to say it’s silly.” Grace spoke quietly, carefully. “If hearts are silly things, Rosa, we’re all to blame.”
Rosa bobbed her head in agreement. “Good night, Grace. Gracias.”
Emmett had not yet met August Hawkins. Though curiosity came as naturally to him as breathing, he had not been aching for opportunity.
“I hear he’s like, really hot, and smart, and successful. Probably wears a Rolex…”
“He may wear a Rolex, Harry, but he probably talks about it, too, which ruins the effect.” Emmett clapped Harry on the shoulder. Mom, unexpectedly eager, had gone inside ahead of them and was already mingling. She could be sociable when she wanted to be. “Please, keep it together, man. August Hawkins is—just a dude. Who sells property. Which is the most boring business. You’re all up in people’s lives, sure, but it’s limited to like, the tiling in their bathroom. Very bleak.”
The house which Marnie and her fiancé had settled in was ablaze with light. They seriously had some kind of fairy-lights-on-steroids situation happening. Strands of them were looped over every banister.
“Wow.” Harry gaped up at them.
“Blinding,” Emmett drawled.
An intentionally imposing figure planted itself in their way. “You must be Emmett Woodhouse.”
He disliked August Hawkins at once. And yes, it was premeditated, but most solid dislikes were. It was the way of the world. Emmett smiled, in his best and most superior fashion, and avoided saying, And you are? by only a very narrow margin. “Thanks for the invitation. You have a lovely home.”
“Ah, but it’s not a home yet, is it? That’s what this party is for. To ensconce ourselves in the neighborhood. Do you know, by chance, the Sucklings?”
“Like the pig?” Harry had spoken. Emmett had thought it, but that wasn’t the same thing at all.
August looked aghast. “Excuse me?”
“This is Harry. Protégé of Lucas Goddard,” Emmett said smoothly, before Harry could say anymore about suckling pigs.
August’s heavy lip curled. “Harry. Heard of you too.”
“Well, we all have reputations that proceed us,” Emmett said, glancing summarily at the gleaming Rolex on August’s wrist. “You must love Highbury, to buy a house here on such short notice.”
“I have my eye on greater things,” August announced grandly. He glanced across the wide room—it was a front hall, of sorts, and very drafty in the winter, Emmett was sure. “Where’s my wifey-to-be? She’ll want to say hello.”
Harry stiffened next to Emmett and Emmett took advantage of August’s momentary distraction to hurry away. Grace was in a corner, nibbling on some biscotti. She looked very pretty, but Emmett wasn’t going to say so in front of Harry.
“How is it?”
Grace grimaced. “Stale.”
“Isn’t that the point of biscotti? Just kidding.”
Harry had perked up at the mention of food. For the moment, Marnie was out of sight and mind. “I’ll go get us some grub,” he said, obviously forgetting Emmett’s hatred of that word. Emmett let it pass.
Emmett folded his arms over his chest. “So, this August guy is a colossal prick.”
Grace tugged at his elbow. “They don’t matter.”
He was conscious of her hand on his arm. “I thought you were the kind one, Grace.”
“Kindness isn’t about—”
“There she is.” August had come up beside them. Emmett would have killed him, if such a thing could be done with a glare and a foulard pocket square. (It couldn’t. He’d tried.) “Grace, have you noticed that your name sounds so much like the Spanish word for thank you? I should just call you Gracias. You bless us all.” He swanned away with a toothpaste grin; Lucas Goddard had caught his eye, and bankers were bankers.
“Emmett,” Grace said, low. “Please control yourself.”
“He just insulted you. I’m going to strangle him with my shoelace.”
“He doesn’t know he’s being insulting.” She patted his shoulder. “Except to you. He definitely is insulting you. But you do know why guys do that, right?”
He had insulted Jake Fairfax many times. He hoped she didn’t know why; he wasn’t sure why himself. “Why?” This, through gritted teeth.
“Because they’re insecure.”
“Insecure?” He tried for nonchalant.
“Yeah. They feel lesser around someone, and they make up for it with a lot of immature posturing.” Grace shrugged. “Old news. The point is, August feels threatened by you. And he should.”
Emmett felt like he would be the one out of air if she didn’t keep talking, keep telling him things he didn’t know about himself. “You think so?” Nonchalance was harder when oxygen felt very dear.
“Of course.” Grace suddenly wasn’t meeting his eyes. “You’re ten times the man he is.”
Emmett opened his mouth and shut it again. Harry stepped in between them with a plate of chocolate colored strawberries and two flutes of sparkling something balanced precariously in his hands. “Hungry?”
“Strawberries. Huh.” Grace took one and smirked. “I wonder if they’re mine.”
“Marnie looks really pretty,” Harry said, in an undertone. “I guess she must be really happy.”
Emmett scanned the room. Mom was talking to Arthur. Well, that could last forever. “If she can be happy, with that chump.”
“You think he’s a chump?” Harry asked. “He was…pretty nice. I mean, he seems to know a lot about the world.”
“About his world, at least,” Emmett said regally. He wondered, offhandedly, what Jake Fairfax would think of August. The thought that Jake Fairfax might see him as quite the same breed as Emmett was vexing in the extreme, but Jake Fairfax was home, pleading the cause to be one of his endless headaches.
At least Marnie had kept her distance from them, so far.
August guffawed loudly and raised a glass. “To our Highbury!” he shouted, and drank heartily, though the uniformity of the toast was somewhat scattered.
Emmett narrowed his eyes. His Highbury indeed! It was all madness, and he had a feeling this was far from the last circle of Hell.
Las palabras se las lleva el viento = basically means "actions speak louder than words"
Chapter 24: Chapter XXIV
“I love an open temper.”
The Hawkins-Elton contingency settled eagerly into Highbury life; more effectively, certainly, than Grace would have wished.
Social webs were thorny things. You never really knew how they were strung together until someone—or two someones, in the present case—charged in and tattered them to shreds.
Social climbers, Grace thought, more than once. She tried to chase the thought away for its lack of charity, but not for any lack of truth.
Having failed to establish an alliance between Augusta Realty and Caballero Fields—however that would even have worked—August seemed to be scouting the town for new prospects. He wined and dined Lucas Goddard and the Coles and settled, at last, on Jake Fairfax.
“Poor Jake,” Emmett observed wryly, over dinner with Noel and Ashley.
Grace shot him a look. “Jake’s an adult. He can make his own decisions.” She herself had rather complex feelings about the burgeoning Jake-and-August friendship, but she wasn’t going to voice them to the present company.
It was Arthur’s doing, of course. Not out of any self-interest, of course—merely out of his inability to go more than half an hour without singing his nephew’s praises, and detailing his every glamorous accomplishment. Grace had a soft spot for Arthur—he’d been a knowledgeable apple farmer before his business went bust—but she wished he would be more discreet.
Still, last time she’d seen Jake—having coffee with a voluble August, who had declared himself a musical force—he hadn’t seemed as abjectly miserable and gray-faced as he’d been earlier in the fall.
“I never minded Marnie,” Ashley said, scooping a frond of springy greens onto her plate. “And August is really enthusiastic about the community here.” She reached over and squeezed Noel’s hand. “I like how people want to come here, you know? Instead of leaving.”
Grace caught Emmett’s gaze as it flickered towards her. Was he thinking of her parents? She was.
“I’m afraid Emmett won’t share your sunny outlook, hon,” Noel said, smiling. “But Em, better Jake than you, right? Maybe opposites attract after all.”
“I’m fortunate to have missed his favor,” Emmett answered darkly, spearing his steak with energy. “Though I would have expected the high-and-mighty taste of Jake Fairfax to be a bit more readily offended.”
“He’s very patient,” Grace put in, feeling that it was her duty to stand up for Jake. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s able to see something…” She paused. It wasn’t her duty or her desire to stand up for August. “I’m sure he’s able to handle himself well, even with difficult people.”
Emmett was frowning. He set his fork down. “Well, we know how highly you think of Jake Fairfax.”
A silence fell. Ashley’s brow creased, but Noel looked like this was a conversation he’d had before.
Grace felt her face getting hot with confusion. But that was all it was—confusion, not some deeper sentiment. She didn’t have anything to hide—what was Emmett getting at? “I do think highly of Jake,” she answered calmly. “He’s a great guy.”
Emmett leaned back, all faux-nonchalance, but she could feel the tension practically radiating off him. “Sure that good opinion isn’t going to sneak up and surprise you someday?”
“Emmett,” Noel murmured. Being Noel, it was far from truly forceful.
Grace tilted her head. It was November. She had always tried to be more patient with Emmett in November. “I’m not interested in Jake Fairfax, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
Emmett drained his wineglass, avoiding her direct gaze. It was as though, having dashed off such a challenge, he did not know what to say next.
“I won’t be surprised by my feelings for anyone,” Grace said. She met their eyes each in turn—Noel and Ashley, who looked a bit sheepish, and Emmett, who looked strangely caught between cynicism and desperation. What had come over him? She felt the need to explain a little further. “I’ve been friends with Jake for years, you know that. I’m sorry to see him isolated. I wish we could welcome him more into our circle, but that doesn’t seem to be what he wants.”
Emmett murmured, “I wasn’t saying…”
“But you were wondering,” Grace said. She was suddenly stung, and self-conscious, for reasons that couldn’t be named or even extricated from one another. Hadn’t they made a pact to share such important details with each other? Or, if not a pact, just an agreement to be open?
There was something about Jake Fairfax that always struck a deep nerve with Emmett.
“He’s just so…perfect, like you,” Ashley interjected. Not helping, if the spark in Emmett’s eyes was to be judged.
“Nobody’s perfect,” Grace said. She would not sip her wine; she wouldn’t betray a dry throat like that. “Not even Jake Fairfax. He has flaws.”
Emmett had practically yelped it. Grace stared at him in brief amazement, and searched her mind for a charitable answer that would nonetheless deflect—whatever the hell this all was. “He’s too reserved for me. He turns everything inward. I...am more drawn to outgoing people. People whose souls I can see more easily.” She looked sharply at Noel. “What are you smiling at?”
“Nothing,” he said, and changed the subject as abruptly as if he hadn’t let this last one linger for quite some time.
Not that Emmett seemed to care; Emmett, for one, seemed dazed for the remainder of the meal.
Ordinarily, Grace would have been almost angry with him. It wasn’t fair, to try to paint any sympathy with Jake in a romantic light. Just because Emmett was silly didn’t mean that the general narrative should be. But Emmett was always going to be Emmett, climbing every possible cliff just to leap off the edge.
And it was November, after all.
Just when he believed he’d found the proper knack of things, of being a reasonable human and not yappy little mongrel of a soul—
He ran his fingers through his hair and tugged. His mind was all in pieces because it was November already. November again. And he was back in Highbury, this time, and Mom had taken to sleeping late and staring out the window, pale and quiet.
All of which had been reason enough for him to try and rejuvenate his social life, having dinner with Ashley and Noel and coaxing Grace to come along.
And then, of course, as Grace did, she had to make everything a moral challenge. She had to stand up for the insufferable Jake, again.
Why could Grace not leave Jake and August together to rot in their respective—and very distinctive—horrors?
But no, Grace had to sympathize and support. Jake had to be praised, even when he was doing something as colossally idiotic as agreeing to spend one moment more than necessary in the company of August Hawkins.
Emmett, in the honesty of his own mind, could not attribute the same nobility to his own inquiry. Sure, yes. It was important for Grace to be made aware—among friends—that people might start talking soon.
People weren’t. Grace was discreet. Grace was a faithful friend to everyone. So maybe it was all in Emmett’s head. And again, Emmett’s head and mind and maybe even heart were all in disarray.
More so than usual.
You know she isn’t in love with Jake. She would have told you. She promised.
He’d been over it. He had. Until he dredged it up again like a hapless fool.
He couldn’t paint; his hands were shaking. November fifteenth was six days away.
“What is it?”
She looked like she’d been reading, but she dropped the book dramatically when he came in. She wouldn’t want to hear what he wanted to tell her. He didn’t want to hear it himself, but when you were chained to dates and places and everything superficial like that, like he was—
It had to be said.
“I’m going away for a long weekend,” he said. “I’m leaving Friday, and I won’t be back till late Sunday. Maybe Monday.”
She rounded her mouth in shock and just gaped at him for a moment. “Wh-why? On this weekend? Baby, I don’t…that just…are you going to tell me that the Foundation is having business meetings? Right at this time?”
He dug his hands into his pockets and steadied his breathing. “No, Mom. They have a fundraiser. It’s a memorial.”
Mom turned her head sharply towards the window again. She was trembling, but he didn’t believe it. That was the worst part. “I can’t believe you want to go,” she said, almost sharply. It was unlike her to speak sharply to him.
It was unlike him to bring this up at all. He wondered if Grace remembered, if it had made her hold back whatever torrent of judgment he had undoubtedly deserved at dinner last night. “Ike used to go.” The words sounded faint and faraway, though he didn’t think he was speaking any differently than he normally did. “Since I’ve taken over, I should go.”
Mom looked back at him. “That’s why you went east, isn’t it? You were just tired of being here with me, and remembering him, and so you didn’t go to Stanford like he always wanted you to. And now you’re going to go to a memorial gala? And shake hands with people who tell you that you look just like him? You do, you know.”
He had gone to college all the way across the country to test two theories: whether leaving was what he wanted, and whether anyone would miss him when he was gone.
Four years had failed to answer either question.
“I’m going to L.A.,” he said. It was the only subject that he treated in such a business-like matter with her. “Do you want anyone to come and stay with you?”
She reached for him, and he wrapped her hands in his, relenting a little. “It’s alright,” she said. “I’ll be alright.”
He’d call Noel to check in on her all the same. She’d appreciate that. He smiled up at her, the bright smile she loved, no matter how unhappy they were or pretended to be. “It’s settled,” he said. “And I’ll be back. I’ll plan the menu with Elyse, and I’ll be back. Always.”
He wandered his attic studio, staring into Grace’s eyes a dozen times from a dozen different angles. The second part of this plan—this duty—was much less certain.
He was going. He just didn’t know yet if he could make a go of it alone.
Emmett thought about all the ways he’d been an ass and an idiot, and prayed that Grace’s cool and structured memory had been uncharacteristically merciful to him, all these years.
All these years? You screwed everything up again just last night. Remember?
He hadn’t thought this out well, poking her like that, right before he wanted to ask her. And in front of Noel and Ashley! Grace was a private person…he’d practically exposed her to the world.
Well, not the world—but what if she saw it that way?
There was no time for further self-flagellation. He dialed her number.
“Hey, Emmett. What’s up?”
He had gone so long, when he was in school, without talking to her. He had let that distance grow like he didn’t need this. Again, he was an idiot and an ass, and something much lonelier still. “Grace, hi.”
“Hi.” She sounded like she was smiling. One of those elusive Grace-smiles, teasing at the corners but very soft in the eyes.
“I’m sorry. I was the worst.”
She couldn’t see his eyeroll, but it was an epic one. “You’re going to pretend you don’t know? Last night. I shouldn’t have…assumed anything. Or asked.”
“I’m not angry,” Grace said. “But thank you for your apology.”
“Do you just think that apologies are good for me?”
“Absolutely.” Her voice was wholly sincere.
Damn it. She was always so…direct. “OK, well. Having…cast myself at your feet, begging forgiveness and all that shit—”
“You want a favor, don’t you?” He heard the sound of running water, the clatter of dishes. Imagined Grace in a t-shirt and jeans, with Paco leaning heavily against her leg, hands deep in soapsuds. It was an image colored by warmth.
“Yes. But it’s—” He was going to say that it wasn’t a stupid, petty favor. But maybe it was. Maybe he wasn’t capable of anything superior that. Hell, why did his self-esteem have to be such a rollercoaster? At least it’s the best ride at any amusement park. So, there’s that. “I have a fundraiser, this weekend. For…the Foundation. It’s a gala, actually. In L.A.”
“Oh.” He wondered if she’d put two and two together, regarding the date. “So you want me to check in on your mom?”
Emmett clenched the phone so hard he was almost sure he could feel the screen cracking. “No, actually. I wanted to know if you’d come with me.”
Chapter 25: Chapter XXV
“Time will generally lessen the interest of every attachment not within the daily circle—but that is not the change I had in view for you.”
He’d shown up at her house, crisp and flat-ironed as always, but with a crease in his forehead that wasn’t always there.
“Can I explain?”
“I already said yes,” Grace had answered, pouring two glasses of iced tea all the same.
“I have to go. I took over from Ike.” Like she didn’t know. Like he hadn’t done his duties to his family name, more diligently and more quietly than he did almost anything else.
Keeping silent on this, Grace had nodded, sipped. “Of course.” She’d watched his finger follow a beaded drop of condensation sliding down the smooth edge of his glass. Emmett was always moving, even when he made her world stand still.
“You won’t ask,” he’d said at last. “About—you won’t ask. That’s why I wanted you to come.”
Grace had permitted herself a liberty she didn’t, very often. She had reached out and covered his hand with hers.
So yes, she had agreed, and now the days were ticking on and Emmett’s freneticism had taken a more cheerful, typical turn. “We can stop by Ike and Julia’s on the way,” he suggested eagerly, on Thursday, over the phone. “They’re at the halfway mark. Spend Friday night with them. Would you like that?”
Grace would like to see Julia, although she was less keen on being seen by Julia, in the company of Emmett. She blushed at the prospect of it, but fortunately Emmett couldn’t see her face. “Yes, that sounds nice.” He’d caught her, he really had. Always, she put these things off—the things that were for her. Her dreams, her longings. The simple wish, above any other, to go home. It was a harder thing to do when everyone still thought that you were home.
“Fantastic. I’ll text Ike. He’ll be delighted. He’s always delighted by anything I do.”
Grace smiled at this utterly unnecessary addendum. “That’s settled, then.”
“The gala is Saturday,” Emmett continued, speaking quickly. It was strange to think that she’d spent four years barely hearing his voice. Not…staying connected, for whatever reason. It wasn’t because she hadn’t cared. It was never that. “You’re sure—I mean, I could go to that alo—”
She didn’t even let him finish that thought. This was why Grace had put aside the bookkeeping and gone over every detail with her senior-most employees. Emmett needed someone to be with him when he had to hear his father’s name and memory brought up time and time and time again. Emmett needed her. “I’m happy to,” she said. “Although, I don’t have anything to wear.”
For the first time, Emmett paused for a good long moment. Finally: “What about that white dress? That you wore to the party Mom and I had for Noel?”
How, how could he remember so rightly and wrongly at the same time? “Emmett, that’s a sundress.”
“Oh. I’ll buy you something. If you want.”
“No…I’ll find something. I was being silly. I still have my bridesmaid’s dress from Julia’s wedding, if it fits.” She wondered if he would think it was too plain. Of course, a moment ago, he’d thought a sundress perfectly appropriate.
“You’ll look perfect.” Emmett tossed the words off airily, and then moved on as if they hadn’t mattered at all. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow afternoon. Will that be enough time to get your books in order?”
Grace bit her lip, tugging at the smile that kept appearing. “My books are always in order.”
She had never been on a proper road-trip before, as a grown-up. There was something cinematic about it, but Grace was not inclined to describe things in fanciful terms, so the poetry of it all had to be contained to the way the golden dust spun up under the wheels of Emmett’s car when he drove up to her doorstep on Friday afternoon.
Grace had packed one suitcase. The bridesmaid’s dress folded in the bottom, and other simple and sensible clothes laid carefully on top.
Emmett had three suitcases and a briefcase.
“Did you bring your entire wardrobe?” she inquired, and his eyebrows lifted above his mirrored sunglasses.
“Have you even seen the extent of my wardrobe, Grace?”
“A long time ago,” she said, and this time she let herself smile when he could see her. He grinned back and they drove away. It didn’t feel like leaving anything behind.
He talked while he drove. All about Harry’s latest adventures at the bank—which Grace imagined were more entertaining coming from Emmett than from the original source—and how his Mom had discovered WebMD and was probably going to diagnose herself with the bubonic plague one of these days. He said it fondly.
He said nothing about his father.
Alan Woodhouse had been tall and kind and handsome, fifteen years older than his wife and far, far richer. She’d gotten used to the wealth and he had been happy to let her. Grace had understood this, even at twelve.
Also when Grace was twelve, Alan Woodhouse was diagnosed with brain cancer. Three months later, he was gone.
Emmett had changed, and changed back again. Sometimes Grace thought it was more telling, when someone hid behind the act of remaining staunchly, savagely the same.
She stole a glance at him in profile. The sun was setting. The light fanned around his fine-boned features and his hair in an incandescent glow.
“Am I talking too much?”
There were times, like now, when she saw him relax and realized that she hadn’t noticed the preceding tension. “You were so quiet.”
“I am a quiet person,” Grace observed. She smoothed the pad of her thumb across the gloss of her nails, freshly polished in anticipation of Julia’s eagle-eye.
“You know,” Emmett said, “They say that opposites attr—that people always enjoy what is different from them, and so quiet people must like talkative people. But if I were a quiet person—which I know I am not—I think I’d hate anyone who just couldn’t shut the hell up.” He paused, overcome by what Grace assumed was rare self-awareness. “Ugh. Maybe that’s what Jake’s problem is.”
Grace chose not to address that facet of the issue. “I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I mean, it’s impossible to separate ourselves completely from what we already are. You love the spotlight, so even when you try to imagine yourself…not that way, it’s still creeping in.”
He glanced at her over the top of his sunglasses. “You would run into a similar problem if you tried to imagine yourself foolish.”
“I’ll take the labyrinthine compliment,” Grace murmured, and that made Emmett laugh.
“I’m sorry,” he said, after a moment.
“Sorry?” Grace’s breath caught in her throat for no reason.
There was something steadying about the sight of Emmett’s tanned hand resting on the wheel. He cleared his throat. “For not staying in touch when I was away.”
Grace tucked her lower lip between her teeth. When she answered, she had to blink away a little sting in her eyes. “It was my fault just as much.”
“Nothing,” said Emmett, with perfect conviction, “is ever your fault.”
“That can’t be true.”
“Can’t it?” He grinned, which meant that she couldn’t really tell if he was serious. “We live in improbable times. And I’m an artist, after all. We strive for ultimate perfection.”
“Art isn’t about perfection,” Grace argued, momentarily diverted. “Art is about the soul.” She realized, belatedly, that she was not the artist, and would have thought it unfair for Emmett to correct her on the finer details of strawberry planting. But Emmett seemed enthused, not offended.
“Really?” He tapped the wheel with two fingers. “Fascinating. Oh, Grace. I lack all depth, you see. A bit of talent can’t make up for that. I have to outsource my depth.”
“Naturally.” She couldn’t see his eyes, so, again, gravity had to be left to tone alone. “You’re the deepest person I know.”
They arrived in Bakersfield—where Ike and Julia lived—at eight o’clock, which was an hour after Emmett had apparently insulted Grace by telling her that she was the deepest person he knew.
She had been silent for a few minutes, looking at her lap, and then she had resumed pleasant conversation. He had been momentarily mortified and then recovered.
In Emmett’s experience, Grace was easily offended—but she matched that sensitivity with poised good manners in the wake of any perceived slight. Again, evidence of the perfection she objected to.
“You picked the worst time to come,” was Julia’s greeting, but her dark eyes snapped between them as if she was well pleased to see them after all. “We’re remodeling the guest bedroom, so someone is going to have to take the couch.”
Her glance implied that Emmett should take it. He was insulted, because he had been about to offer—but that was Julia. Always beating him to the punch. He smiled gallantly at her with his lips and daggered her with his eyes. She returned the favor, but pulled him into a hug all the same.
“Robin’s egg blue,” Ike interjected mildly. “For the bedroom.” They were always remodeling something, which must be more to Julia’s credit than Ike’s. Ike would have lived in the same five-mile radius all his life, commiserating over imagined troubles with Mom, if he’d had his way.
But Ike wasn’t insistent. That was Mom’s province, and Emmett’s.
“Thank you so much for having us,” Grace was saying, while Emmett’s thoughts ran amok. “How’s Eddie doing?”
“Crawling.” Julia sighed profoundly. “Crawling everywhere.”
“I can’t wait to see him,” Emmett said, surprising himself a little, though it was no secret that he loved his nephew. “I’d also love dinner.”
“Straight to the point as always,” Julia retorted, rolling her eyes.
“Come in,” Ike said. “We’ve got some great steaks.”
That meant someone else had grilled them. Emmett shouldered Grace’s bag and took one of his own as well.
He hadn’t come here often. He had still been in college when Ike and Julia moved to Bakersfield, just after the wedding. In the recent months, he’d made his trips to L.A. by plane. Emmett was not fond of new places; he had been terribly homesick the first few months of college, though even Noel hadn’t really known the extent of it.
Grace turned her head and smiled encouragingly. He felt his ears grow hot, wondering how she possibly could have known what he was thinking.
A moment later, he decided that he had read too much into her expression.
“So,” Grace said, over dinner, “Is this a new recipe?”
“Ask the chef,” Julia answered. “Who went home already, so…sorry. Ask her tomorrow. Ike’s idea, not mine. She’s good at it, I guess. A bit too talkative.”
“Can there only be one?” Emmett said, and Julia glared at him.
“Oh, go on with that. I dare you.” As if in revenge, she turned to Grace. “And what are you two up to this weekend?”
Emmett felt that further explanation beyond a business trip would make him drop through the floor. Ike looked at him quickly, but that was all.
Grace stepped in. There was something going on between her and Julia, but Emmett was damned if he could figure it out. “I needed a break,” she said. “And it worked out well, this weekend.”
Ah. There it was. Grace could shut people down when she needed to. Emmett was almost abjectly grateful.
Julia dropped that angle of the subject. “I hear there’s a gala,” she said, sipping her wine. Eddie prodded his carrot mash with a fat finger beside her. Emmett wondered how he’d like the steak, but he assumed that steak was a no-go for babies.
Grace would know. He wasn’t going to ask her in front of Julia.
“Yes,” Grace answered her sister, calmly spreading butter on a piece of bread.
“What are you wearing?” Julia’s eyes sparkled.
Grace finished buttering the bread without saying any more. Emmett could have kicked himself; he really should have bought her something. He should have known—Grace never spent much money on herself. She was too frugal.
“My bridesmaid’s dress from your wedding,” Grace said at last, meeting her sister’s gaze. When Grace glared, it was kind of…electrifying. “I thought you’d approve, since, you know, it’s your taste.”
Julia rolled her eyes dramatically. “Girl, no. That is the worst idea I’ve ever heard of. Em, are you for real? You’re going roll up in Tom Ford or something and have her wearing David’s Bridal?”
“Damn,” Emmett quipped. “I can’t believe you went to David’s Bridal.”
Julia ignored him. “Grace, you cannot. I have something that doesn’t fit me anymore, not with the baby fat.”
“You don’t have baby fat,” Ike put in dutifully.
“You know that I do,” Julia shot back grimly, and then returned to heckling Grace. “It’s dazzling. You’ll look amazing.” She winked, significantly, and Grace looked suddenly, deeply embarrassed.
Emmett was having more difficulty than usual understanding Grace tonight.
After dinner, they sat on the patio (recently remodeled, as Julia proudly showed them), and drank more wine. Emmett balanced Eddie on his lap, one hand behind his back, and made faces at him. Eddie enjoyed this.
So, seemingly, did Grace. She kept looking at them, almost furtively, and Emmett caught her eyes once and smiled.
She smiled back.
Julia crossed one leg over the other and let Ike hold her hand. “Mom thinks you’re never visiting them again.”
Emmett saw Grace’s shoulders tighten a little. “I’m going to spend Christmas with them.”
Julia shrugged. “Just passing on the worries. I know it’s crap. What would they do if you weren’t running their business? Although I guess it’s your business now.”
“I guess so.” Grace pushed her hair behind her ear. Emmett, still dazed from the realization that Grace wouldn’t be in Highbury for Christmas, reminded himself that he’d made it through four Christmases without her and could do so once again.
Before they went to bed, Julia dragged a reluctant Grace away to go closet-shopping and Ike and Emmett faced each other in the kitchen. Emmett was still holding Eddie, who was drooling sleepily on his shoulder. For Eddie, Emmett would allow such an imposition.
Ike’s forehead crinkled. “You going to be OK?”
He’d been expecting this. Ike had been surprisingly quiet throughout the evening, and Emmett should be grateful, but he was always snappish around this particular issue instead. “I’ve been keeping it together pretty well, haven’t I?”
“I mean tomorrow. With people…talking.”
Emmett said nothing.
“About Dad,” Ike supplied, because he was dense like that.
“Obviously,” Emmett snapped. Damn it. He’d meant to not do the snapping thing, and here he was, doing it always. “I’ll be fine. It was a long time ago.” That had never made a difference, and both he and Ike knew it.
“We don’t miss him like you do,” Ike said, shaking his head. “Me and Mom. Was that the problem?”
It was, and it wasn’t. Emmett pressed his lips against Eddie’s downy head so he wouldn’t have to answer immediately, or ever.
“He’d be an old man now,” Ike sighed. It was like the dam was open and this was exactly why it had been a risk, coming here at all. Emmett could feel his patience thinning by the minute. Where the hell was Grace? “It still feels like yesterday—”
“Can you stop? Please?” The ‘please’ was added only with an effort.
Ike pressed his lips together and nodded. Grace and Julia chose that moment to rejoin them. Julia took Eddie out of Emmett’s arms.
“Someone’s tired,” she said, rocking him. “Say goodnight to your aunt and uncle!”
Somehow that made it sound like they were married. Emmett might have teased Grace about it, except that he was still pissed off at Ike.
At least Ike had had the good sense to get a comfortable couch. He lay there, later that night, with one arm thrown over his eyes. Why had he wanted to stop here at all, and give Ike the opportunity to be awkward and…supportive? Driving through this area wasn’t great at this time of year anyway, what with the bouts of tule fog. They’d been lucky to have such a clear trip down.
But why did he always throw himself into the places that he didn’t want to be?
Grace would call it a test of character development, or something. He tossed and turned, and fell asleep at last.
When he opened his eyes, it was still shadowy and dark, but a footstep had awoken him. He saw Grace, in a loose t-shirt and shorts, with a glass of water in hand. She had stopped at the foot of the couch. The window behind him shed enough light on her face to show a sort of softness he didn’t believe he’d seen there before.
When she saw that he was awake, she jumped. “I’m sorry!” she whispered. The water sloshed in her glass. “I was thirsty. I didn’t meant to wake you up.”
His lips parted. They were dry. He could use a glass of water himself, but that would be silly to say, because, being Grace, she’d go get it for him. He didn’t want to make her go back to the kitchen. “It’s OK. I’m a light sleeper.” That was only sometimes true.
“OK.” She smiled. He searched hard for that secret softness, but she had hidden it well away. “Goodnight, Em.”
Chapter 26: Chapter XXVI
“What I said just now, meant nothing.”
Grace had expected Emmett to sleep in. He had talked of an early start, of course, but Emmett talked of lots of things. She was surprised, then, to find him drinking coffee and reading Vogue, at half-past seven.
“Good morning, Grace.” He smiled beatifically, shifting to a lean of greater nonchalance against the edge of the countertop. “It was this or the New York Times, which, frankly, is boring as shit.”
“I’ll make sure to save my old Cosmos for you,” Julia interjected, stomping in. Julia, at least, had not become a morning person since her departure from Highbury.
“Can I help make breakfast?” Grace asked. It might help the mood if she could make herself useful. Julia’s kitchen was nothing like the one they’d known at home; Grace had a feeling that the steak-chef of the night before was a common occurrence, and everything was accordingly organized for a stranger’s touch.
“Yeah, there’s eggs and yogurt and all that stuff.” Julia waved a dismissive hand.
“Nicole Kidman should go back to being a redhead,” Emmett mused. “Blonde washes her out.”
Julia glowered at him. “What time are you leaving? Not you, Grace. I’ll miss you.”
“Eight,” Emmett said, with a perfunctory glance at his watch. “We’ll have lunch in L.A.”
The we seemed to work a change on Julia. It was a change with which Grace was all too familiar. She felt her cheeks getting hot. It was—for the best that Emmett had not been privy to the after-dinner conversation between the sisters.
“About time you had a honeymoon,” Julia had said, grinning slyly. “Why didn’t you invite me to the wedding?”
Julia would never be serious about serious matters. At least, not aloud. Grace toasted some bread and listened to Emmett parry fashion opinions with Julia.
“Pink?” She’d stared disbelievingly at the dress Julia had held up in front of her. “I don’t…do pink.”
Julia had lifted the maddening shoulder of older-sisterhood. “Surprise him.”
Eddie woke up to join in the goodbyes, smiling near-toothlessly. Grace kissed his round head and hugged Ike. When she said goodbye to Julia, Julia whispered, “Don’t forget to kiss him. On the mouth.”
Grace pushed her away.
“Did you have a good time?” Emmett asked, as they drove away. He had his sunglasses pushed up on his forehead for the moment, so Grace could see his eyes. He looked concerned, but he was smiling.
There were freckles across the bridge of his nose. She had always known this, but she always noticed all the same. “I did.” She wasn’t going to complain. Julia’s prying had been…foreseeable. “Thanks for suggesting this. I don’t get to see them a lot.”
He nodded. “Do you think Eddie looks like me?”
Grace bit her lip. “Um…well, he is your nephew. I mean, I think he looks more like Julia, but I’m biased.”
“Fair. He’s not my child.” Emmett sighed. “I’d like a legacy, though, you know?”
“To carry on your good looks?” It was out before she could help herself.
Emmett’s lips twitched into a grin she couldn’t quite read. “Well. That. But also…it would be nice to have little people running around who thought you were perfect, wouldn’t it?”
He was so—naïve. Grace tilted her head back. The sun was beginning to glare, but Emmett had yet to lower his sunglasses. “I’m afraid that children generally don’t think their parents are perfect, Em. Quite the opposite.”
“I did.” It wasn’t sharp, but it was pointed. Grace sucked in a breath. She had assumed too much, and forgotten the rest.
Of course Emmett had thought his father was perfect. And no one could say when that would have changed, because there hadn’t been time for a change.
“But in general,” he amended, his tone light and carefree once more, “I think you’re right.”
It had been a long time since Grace had been to L.A. Emmett, however, was undaunted—he checked them into their hotel while Grace tried not estimate the cost of the surrounding grandeur, and presented the suite of rooms to her with boyish glee. “I thought this would be easier than just having rooms next to each other,” he explained, gesturing around the two-bedroom suite. “Is it alright?”
“It’s beautiful.” Grace took in gilt and ivory and tried not to think about Julia’s honeymoon comment. “Thanks so much.”
He shot her a quizzical glance. “You keep thanking me. You don’t have to.”
“I don’t know what else to say.”
“Well.” Emmett’s ears were a little red. “It’s really fine. I don’t mind at all. You’re the one doing me the favor.”
She repeated that to herself like a mantra that evening, when she had shut herself in her bedroom and unwound the dress Julia had lent her from the garment bag. The dress shimmered in dusty rose, and it was ten times less sensible than anything Grace had worn since she was—sixteen?
(And even then. At sixteen she had been gawky and owlish and not at all prone to wearing pink.)
Emmett had had meetings running through dinner in the hotel’s conference rooms, and Grace had assured him (and assured him again) that she would meet him downstairs at eight-thirty, when the gala itself started. At nine, there would be a memorial for Alan Woodhouse.
He hadn’t even mentioned his father since that brief, almost-moment in the car.
Grace slipped into the dress. It fit well, zipping up with only a couple contortions. She and Julia were similar in size—still were, for all Julia’s postpartum complaints. The only worrying thing was that the dress had a sweetheart neckline—not too revealing, but more dramatic than the simple designs Grace usually wore.
Damn it all, this sparkled.
She pulled her hair back; she slipped in pearl earrings; she added the barest touch of blush to her cheeks.
In heels, she felt too tall.
You’re not here for you.
Grace started down the stairs.
It was—of course—one of those sweeping staircases, with a carved balustrade and a fan of lushly carpeted steps. Grace wasn’t a cold-hearted pragmatist. She’d seen the movies. But she reminded herself that the girls in movies didn’t look like her, and suited their glittering gowns much better than she suited hers.
There was an elegant throng gathered at the bottom of the stairs, trickling out of the ballroom, but Grace could always find Emmett in any crowd.
He was waiting for her.
She waved. He started towards her, and stopped.
“Grace, I…” It was unlike him to stand, lips parted, as if he had been turned to stone. But warm stone; he took her hand and slipped it around his arm, and Grace reminded herself yet again that she was here to support him. To stand by his side.
In one of the long, ballroom mirrors, she saw herself, a little pale above the flowing glow of the gown. She saw…just Grace, dressed up a little more than usual. Emmett had looked like he was seeing something else—someone else.
She just couldn’t be certain that it was her.
He didn’t know why, but he could never seem to get used to Grace. One moment she surprised him by leaving her work and coming with him at all, and the next—
He’d never seen Grace like this.
Or maybe he had, and that was the source of all his current trouble.
She looked beautiful. That was fair to say. He was an artist—he stopped, remembering that he had used the same argument for Francesca.
(When Emmett was sixteen, and Grace started college, he had decided that he wanted to kiss her. And then he just—didn’t. It was better that way. It would have been the most terrible mistake of his life, and he had never regretted his last-minute cowardice.)
He wasn’t—he wasn’t even going to think about romance, that was foolish. It was something else. The magic and wonder of Grace, who was so much more than he was, in all the ways that mattered.
“Are you OK?”
He blinked down at the rose-colored sequins, but Grace’s eyes were as calm and steady as ever.
“You were being quiet.” She spoke in an undertone, so that only he could hear. “I just wanted to make sure all of this wasn’t getting to you.”
It all came rushing back. He lifted his head and faced the framed portrait that he’d passed by half-a-dozen times today, all without looking at it closely.
His dad looked exactly like he remembered.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m fine.”
“I’ll stay with you,” she murmured. “Just let me know what you need.”
He snagged a couple flutes of champagne off a passing tray. “Here. Take the edge off.”
She sipped; he drained it. He saw one of her eyebrows go up. “It’s just one glass.”
But the evening became a blur anyway. He didn’t want to hold her arm too tightly; she might push him away. They ate and drank and after people had said a good deal about his father and the family charity, it was his turn to stand up.
He wasn’t drunk. He just felt that way; light-headed and distant, somewhere in a green summer that had been the very last.
He found Grace’s gaze in the crowd.
Thank God that Grace’s eyes were always the same.
“My father was born wealthy,” Emmett heard his own voice say. It was as though Grace was drawing it out of him. No one else was there at all. “He recognized what a tremendous privilege that was, and he worked tirelessly to share some of that privilege with others. He started our foundation to provide for the less fortunate, with an especial focus on fine arts education. This year, our annual gala has fallen on the anniversary…” He was sure his voice would sputter out like a doused flame, but it didn’t, and that was somehow worse. “The anniversary of his death. I’m even more privileged than he was, because I knew him as a father as well as a leader. He left a legacy, and I’m honored to carry that on in a particular way this evening. Please—enjoy yourselves. That’s how he would have wanted it.”
Something in him staggered on the way back to his seat, but it wasn’t his step; he moved smoothly, as though it had all meant nothing.
Grace’s hand closed around his. Emmett sat down beside her. She was smiling, but everything was fuzzy at the edges. He wondered, in a clenched fist of panic, if there were tears in his eyes.
“That was so beautiful, Emmett.”
“Was it?” He would have crawled out of his own skin if he could. “I’m just glad it’s over.”
The string quartet was playing. It might have been wasps buzzing, for all Emmett noticed. But Grace stood up.
“Let’s dance,” she said. “That way you only have to look at me.”
The idea seemed better than any other; it would keep at bay the swarm of handshakes and decades-late condolences that would flood in otherwise.
Emmett stood up and followed her out to the floor. A tray of drinks passed by, but he’d wait on that, for the moment.
She must be wearing very high heels; usually, she had to lean much farther back to look him in the eye. Then again, they weren’t often this close.
“This is a waltz,” he said.
Grace’s lips curved. “I know.”
He settled his hand at her waist. A pulse jumped against his wrist. It could have been his or hers. He found himself fascinated by it.
She smelled like roses. He stumbled out, “You look gorgeous,” and regretted that immediately. These words, this night—it all just kept coming. “I’ve never seen you wear this color.”
Her cheeks were the color of her dress. “I don’t usually wear pink.”
“It makes you look…well, you always look perfect.” He’d called her perfect on the drive down, too. He was running out of words to tell Grace that she was better than he could ever be. “But this is really something.”
She smiled, but her eyes were pained. “Em, you don’t have to stay this whole time, do you?” She squeezed his shoulder. “You’re shaking.”
He bit down on the inside of his mouth. “Just nerves.” It wasn’t. “I need another drink.”
Grace shook her head quickly. “No, you don’t.”
Maybe she didn’t understand, not completely. It wasn’t like anyone did. He tried for a deep breath. The tray was coming around again. Before she could protest further, he downed another drink. It was something stronger than champagne. “Like I said. Takes the edge right off.”
Grace said nothing.
More blurring. In between, Grace made him sit down. And later, after he was fairly sure she had forced a glass out of his hand, they went up to their rooms. They took the elevator, not the stairs. That staircase couldn’t belong to him, not like this. He was aware of that very clearly, even if he was aware of nothing else.
Grace helped him out of his jacket. She had taken off her heels at the door of their suite and she was, again, so much shorter than him.
“Yes, Emmett, you’re very tall,” she agreed flatly, and he realized that he’d said it aloud.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I made a fool of myself.” It sounded right in his head; he thought it came out a bit slurred.
“Nobody saw.” Grace sounded firm, even though she wasn’t looking at him. “I made sure.”
She handed him a glass of water and he drank it. She slipped out the knot of his bowtie and hung up his jacket.
Emmett watched her, sagged against the doorway of his room, and felt the ache of years hitch its way up through his ribs. He was just drunk enough that he was pretty sure he’d forget this in the morning. Or at least, he could pretend that he had. “Grace,” he asked, “Are we supposed to be in love?”