Return to Heartland: A Heartland Cove County Romance, страница 8
“That is quite amazing,” I say.
“Oh, and then there’s the Want Sum Dim Sum, made of pastry-style sponge dough, infused with bits of berries, three different kind, and topped with matching icing.” She shows me. The cupcake itself looks like a Dim Sum, the traditional kind with the twist top, only this is made of golden sponge cake and then coated in icing.
“That is so cool.”
“And then there’s the real favorite.” She holds up a dastardly-looking olive green cupcake, topped with equally dastardly-looking lime green icing, molded into the shape of bubbles and piled on top.
“What is it?” I almost afraid to ask.
“The Bubble Tea For Me!” She smiles brightly. “Made from green tea infused batter with real tapioca filling. It’s currently our biggest seller.”
“That is very smart,” I say, knowing how Bubble Tea is a huge hit in New York. I can’t imagine selling any of those here in Heartland Cove, but I have to give it to Tia, she knows the demographic.
“Oh, and of course, I made a Canada Day Special.” Oh, that’s right, it was Canada Day Weekend. She holds it up. “A poppy seed lemon muffin base with red and white, vanilla and sour cherry icing. It was a very big hit.”
“Uh-huh. It’s been selling like wild, ever since. I hope you don’t mind I didn’t take it off the menu.”
“Of, course, not, if it’s selling, don’t ever take it off.”
"I'm thinking of calling it A Little Taste of Canada. What do you think?"
"Sounds great to me." The cash goes off again, and the line shuffles up. "How are you managing all on your own?”
“Oh, I’m not on my own. I hope you don’t mind. I had to recruit help.” Tia steps aside and her mother waves from her post behind the cash register.
I wave back, somewhat stunned. “How often?”
“I’ve had to use her at least three times a week.”
“And you’re this steady all the way to close.”
It would figure the business would take off right when I go away. I wonder if that’s a sign.
“How much longer do you think you will be?”
“Oh, I don’t know, things are just heating up here.”
“Is everything okay?”
“No, not really. Will you be able to manage without me?”
“We’ll be fine.” She smiles and hugs her mother. “You just do what you need to do, and we’ll see you after. Family first, remember.”
It’s then I see Tia’s father bustling around the shop, boxing cupcakes and handing them out to customers. “Both of them?” I say.
Tia’s cheeks redden. “Just today.” I can tell she’s lying.
I crushed by a wave of superior guilt. “I’ll try to get back as soon as I can,” I say, knowing that soon is going to be impossible.
“Don’t worry. As you say, we’ve got this.” She beams. “I’d better go,” she adds, twisting her head around and back. “It’s only eight here. We’ve got an hour to close.”
“Okay. Take care.”
“Hug your Mom for me, will you?”
Tia blows a kiss, and I do the same and close the lid of my laptop.
I can’t wait to see next month’s income statement. We might finally be making it!
I pay the bill and leave the café, heading up the long windy road back to Heartland, arriving there just in time to enjoy the setting sun, Lund’s coffee in hand.
I abandon the car and push toward the bridge just as the sun is ripening. I couldn’t have better timing. A choir of crickets greets me. Cicadas hum in the trees. I’ve forgotten how beautiful those things sound.
My shoes crunch from the gravel parking lot ground up onto the weathered planks onto the bridge. My sandals slap the hollow boards bringing back memories of a familiar sound that sends chills running down my spine. The clomp of Annabelle’s hooves as she lumbered along, drawing carriages full of customers back and forth over the bridge each summer. I miss those days. I didn’t realize that until just now.
I stroll up the widow’s walk, on the rapids side of the bridge.
I’m not sure if I actually miss them, or just the idea of them. I seem to remember happily escaping from Heartland when I did.
The sun hangs low over the waters of the bay that sprawl out at the end of the river, turning the sky a glamorous shade of burnt crimson orange-yellow. Wow, how I have missed these sunsets. All vibrant and fiery colors. You can’t see a sunset for all the skyscrapers in New York. I mean you can, but not like this.
I bend in half, bringing my elbows to rest on the viewing rail about half-way down, and stare down at the turning rapids, threading their way through the jumble of smooth and ragged rocks, and more memories flood in. I spot the boulder I clung to, the one I was so terrified to let go of, when I was a kid, even though Dad was watching.
In my mind, I’m standing there again, life jacket on, about to jump in the water. Dad was trying to teach me how to safely pass through the rapids to the other side, in case I ever fell in.
I’m six, Dad’s forty-seven. He’s all smiles and white teeth. “Ready?” he says. I’m supposed to jump off the rock when he says ‘go.’ He’s going to catch me, and teach me how to ride the rapids, how to keep my head above the waterline and lay with my back on top of the water and float through the rapids. We’re doing this, so I'll always be safe. I'll know how to handle the river, so I'll never be afraid of it, so it'll never swallow me up like it has some children. So, if I do fall in—I’ll survive it.
It's a very important lesson, living this close to the river—this bottomless, rushing river.
Dad counts to three, and I’m supposed to jump. But I don’t. Instead, I freeze. I don’t jump, and he gets angry. So very angry. I hear him shouting. He lunges toward me, dunking under and rising back up, swinging the excess water from his hair. You’ll never get through life if you’re not brave enough to take a risk, he shouts! Life is all about risks. Now jump! He hollers. Jump, I said! When I still don’t, he shouts again. Do as I say, sailor!
So, I jump, a little off balance. I go under. Way under. And I can’t get on my back.
I nearly drowned that day. Took in half the river before Dad was able to pull me. Apparently, I was too small for the lifejacket to work correctly, the river too powerfully in its grip.
I never swam in the river again. Never went swimming in it, even as a teenager, long after I knew how. Even though it was tradition for kids in the Cove to jump off the bridge at the end of high school, I could never bring myself to do it.
It was just as Dad said—I was not a risk taker.
Dad died shortly after that. I hated the river for it. I hated everything about it. But mostly, I hated the fact that it had beaten me—weakened me, in the eyes of my father.
I breathe deep, basking in the brisk, fresh air of the country—devoid of gasoline emissions and bus diesel fuel—noting the smells of the fish-bake and fresh-caught lobster wafting up from the seashore, as I push away the tears I didn’t expect to come.
“Heard you were in town.” I whirl around at the sound of the voice, my heart startled by footsteps coming up behind me, quick on the bridge.
It’s dark enough now to make the figure look shadowy. The timed single-bulb lamplight that hovers above the bridge has only just come on, and it doesn’t cast wide.
The figure moves closer. He walks into low, shimmery light, and his face illuminates.
“Jebson?” My lips part, the word lingering on my tongue like the taste of spoiled milk. Great gobs what is he doing here?
“In the flesh,” he says, and grins that insatiable, straight-toothed grin of his. The thing that makes me fall hard for him in the first place. His eyes shine, and he gets that look—the one that would have melted my knees in high school. He throws his arms open, invitingly wide, and I feel myself wanting to fall into them. “Been a long time.” He t
I drop my gaze from his face, giving the rest of him a quick once-over. What’s with that evangelistic-preacher-guy suit? The Jebson Jefferies I knew would never have been caught dead in formal wear, let alone a shiny one.
I thought this was going to be hard, talking to him, being this close to him, again. Maybe not.
He moves in closer, staring at me, intently, and, Oh, there it is… My heart betrays me; my knees break into a slight wobble. That stare. That haughty stare. His eyes are dark and incredibly hot, a smoky, smoldering gray. Tiny warm, flickering, campfires of light that draw me in. Don’t step toward him, Becca. Don’t you dare. Why is he still able to shred my heart with one staggering look? How can I not be over him after all this time? Dabbit!
He reaches out, grasping me by the sides of my shoulders, surprising me, running hands up and down my arms as if warming them. “You look cold, Bec.”
He knows I’m not. He knows I’m shaking.
“Everything all right?”
I turn my eyes to the river to get away from him, trying to appear casual, disinterested, and pull away.
“Everything’s fine. Thanks for asking." I stare down at the water, avoiding any further lure of his come-hither gaze. Besides, I don't want him to notice I've been crying and think it's over him, or something stupid. I never cry over him.
“You’re looking good.” He goes for the compliment, sidling up next to me at the rail. His arm brushes my arm. His words flow like honey through my ears, though I don’t comprehend much of what he’s saying. Why are you letting him get to you like this, Bec? He’s a scumbag. The worst of the worst, remember? I slowly fight to gain back my composure. How can he still have such an effect on my psyche? It’s been almost eleven years since he dumped me on this bridge.
Maybe that’s the problem.
I let my anger from that night take over. “What do you want, Jeb?” I whirl around, interrupting him, canceling out the warm, tingly feeling that begins softening unspeakable parts of me.
I’ve grown so much since then. I don’t need him. I love my life. My manless life. It’s so much less complicated than life with him.
Jebson scowls, his face taking on a chippy edge. “Why do I always have to want something with you, Becca?” he says, his tone low, his voice cooing. He just can’t stop himself, can he? “Can’t a guy just wanna chat with his old girlfriend,” he inches closer, his hands rising up to thread through my hair, “without it turning into him wanting something?”
I strike him down at the wrists. “You act like I don’t know you, Jebson,” I say stiffly, keeping my eyes square on his. I think I’m mastering bad-assed and mean-mugged—and somehow wind up chest-to-chest with him. Before I can step back, he reaches out and reels me in, his arms slipping around my back. A swoony, kind of out-of-control rush comes over me. I lose my mind to the past.
Jebson stares into my eyes, and I can’t turn away. The smoke from the campfires in them has me enraptured. His lips move close to mine. “I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk again before you left town way back then—”
“We did talk Jebson. That’s why I left.” That’s it, Becca. Hang on, be firm.
He draws me closer until I’m snug to his body, his hands cradling the small of my back, sending shivers up my spine. “Do you know how many times I wanted to take back those words? How many nights I’ve thought of you?”
“How many nights you’ve thought of her, you mean?”
Without warning, his hands are at my neck, his mouth over mine, pulling me into a wild and ravishing kiss, pressing our bodies until they’re nearly one. He’s kissing me. Jebson’s kissing me, as passionately as he used to kiss me.
Stupidly, I close my eyes, my body submitting to his touch. It feels so good to be held, to be kissed. “Look…” He breathes. “I think we said a lot of things back then that we really didn’t mean; stuff I’m sure we’d love to take back if we could.” He’s whispering in that sweet, innocent, shy-guy—lying guy—way he perfected over the years we were together.
The sound clatters around in my head.
I pull back. “That’s where you’d be wrong, Jebson. You meant what you said; I know you did. And I meant what I said too.” I press my hands to his chest and lean away.
“Come on, Becca.” He tilts his head. “You know we were good together—”
“Good for who, Jebson? You?”
He furrows his brows. “Always the way with you, wasn’t it, Becca.” He lets me go. “Always looking for a fight.”
“I don’t think it was always me.”
“You wanna fight?” He reaches into his back pocket. “I’ll give you one.” He slaps an envelope into my palm.
“What is this?” I look down.
“The real reason I’m here.” I scowl. “What? You didn’t honestly think I was here to propose to you again.” He juts his chin toward me, his eyes dark, laughing.
Consider yourself officially served.” He turns and walks away.
I stare down at the envelope in my hands. “What? What’s in here?”
He spins on his heels, walking backward. “Back taxes,” he says. “Your family owes loads of ’em. To the tune of nine hundred fifty thousand dollars.” He glowers at me. “Give or take some change. Enough to bury both you and your mother alive in debt until the days you die.” The corners of his mouth twist up into a satisfied smile.
A million thoughts run rampant through my head, none of them making any sense. Mother’s always paid her taxes. What is he talking about?
“It’s too bad your mother didn’t take the deal I offered her. You wouldn’t be in this position right now. Then again”—he flips his gaze back toward where we just stood on the bridge— “like mother like daughter, right?” He laughs again.
“That’s why you came here tonight? Looking to strike up a deal—”
“Any sane person would in your position,” he sneers. “Think about it, Becca.” He backs away. “For the sake of yourself and your mother. Hey.” He stubs the plank beneath his foot. “Isn’t this the place? Seventh plank down. Or was it the eight?”
He’s mocking me. Making light of the stupid thing I said when we were just kids and kissed for the first time, and then again when we got engaged in the very same place. He’d make a big deal of it. Dragging me to the seventh plank before he got down on his knee. How dare he bring that up now. My heart shudders. What am I doing here? Why am I with him? Why did I let Jebson Jefferies kiss me? “You rotten, piece of—” I lunge toward him and punch my hands into his chest. He springs back, laughing all the way.
“What? Can’t a guy kiss his old girlfriend just for fun?” he says, and eleven years of hurt rises to the surface.
“Come on.” He swaggers closer. “Can’t tell me you weren’t feeling it.”
I swipe at him again, and he laughs like it’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened.
“I’m long over that,” I say firmly.
“Really? Cause it didn’t feel like it a minute ago.”
I do my best not to crumble as visions of the night we split up flood through my head. He and I standing in the low moonlight of the bridge, me sobbing as he tries to claim it was no big deal that I caught him in the upstairs closet with Wendy Higgins on the night of our engagement party.
“Get out of here!” I spit.
“Or what? You’re going to throw me off your property?” He thinks this is incredibly funny. “Oh, and,” he stumbles away, then turns back, “You might wanna have a little chat with your Mother’s boy-toy over there, about his part in all this.”
I jerk my eyes toward my old porch.
“Nice angle—his getting your Mother to play the incompetency card. Very effective.”
“It was a smart plan. It’s just that—I’m just smarter.” He swings open the door of his Lexus and drops in behind the driver’s seat. “See you in court, sweetheart.” He slams the door and breaks into a coy smile.
“You can’t do this!” I shout, running after him. “There’s no way—”
“Oh, there’s a way, all right.” He revs the engine and pulls away. “And you can bet I’ve found it.”
My mouth goes dry. My hands are shaking. I don’t understand what he’s saying. But I know that look—the privileged golden-boy Jefferies look.
“Your mother should have taken the deal, Becca,” he shouts out the open window as he drives away. “You need to talk to her!”
A cold flash of lightning expands inside me like napalm. My stomach twists into a stinging knot. “Over my dead body!” I yell chasing after his car. He shifts gears and the car screams away, drowning out my words.
Why is Jebson doing this?
How much has Mom not told me?
What did I ever see in that man?
Shaking, I peel open the envelope in my hands to find a summons to court, on behalf of my mother, as her guardian.
I melt back against the bridge, clutching my head. This can’t be happening. It can’t be true. I pace. Why wouldn’t Mom and Penny tell me? All these lies and secrecy—what else don’t I know?
Since when has this become an us?
Is this why Mom sold the house—or half of it? I jerk around.
Did Jebson take it from her? I stare. And what did he mean by ‘man-toy’? Who’s the man-toy?
I’m struck by reality of what that might mean. He didn’t mean… Mom’s not—I gulp. With Trent?
That’s not why he…? Omigawd, omigawd… I clap a hand over my mouth. Are they? Oh, no, please, they’re not, are they? Is that why he wouldn’t say? Why Aunt Penny wouldn’t say? Oh, no.
Mom and Trent living together? My inner voice lilts up.