It was no secret in Lowesville that Ryan Jones hated Emma Marks and was fully capable of murdering her in cold blood if she ever crossed him again. Which was why, according to everyone, it was just as well that she'd left town soon after the events that had spiraled out of control and resulted in the destruction of the bond that had brought Ryan and Emma through so many hard, trying years. No one was quite sure where she'd gone, but they knew that even the sound of her name had that cold light shooting into Ryan's eyes.
The man was scary enough without that frightening look on his face.
Though no one entirely knew why Ryan and Emma's epic, Bonny and Clyde-esque love had dissolved and turned into a deep well of hatred and enmity, they only knew that it had, and that a person was better off not asking Ryan what had gone wrong after seven years of defending and loving each other, much to the envy of others in town.
All anyone knew was that, after Ryan's beloved sister had ended up in the hospital after a brutal assault, Emma had left town, and Ryan had taken up with pretty Liza Carlisle and her two children. Despite having what seemed like a pretty good shot at a picture-perfect life, anyone with eyes could see that something had frozen within Ryan, though no one really attempted to thaw it.
Only Ryan's best friend, Jack, had any idea what had happened, which was why he knew he was putting his life on the line when he brought up Emma nearly three years after she'd left Lowesville.
Helping himself to a bottle of beer from the cooler in Ryan's workshop, he leaned against a worktable, watching Ryan sand and smooth down the wooden board that was to be a side of the bed he was building for the bedroom he and Liza shared. Ryan's deep green eyes were focused on the job at hand, a pair of goggles he no longer needed sitting atop his head of sun-kissed brown hair. He was tall, leanly muscled, and carried an air of danger and authority around him, even now in the carpentry space he used as a hobby when he wasn't busy with the lucrative—and not always legal—import-export business he ran.
"You know," Jack began casually, "you could always just buy the bed. It's not like you're short on funds these days, Jones. Hell, you're rolling in the green stuff."
Ryan barely flicked a glance over at his closest friend. "Liza said she wanted a piece that I'd made, so she's going to get it."
Jack rolled his eyes. "Right. Liza gets what Liza wants. How could I forget? How's that going for you these days?"
The short, pithy response made Jack grin in response. "Well, it's good to see that you haven't lost your spine in your successful, family man career."
Ryan resisted the urge to roll his eyes and set aside the plank of wood. Dusting off his hands, he nipped the bottle out of Jack's hands and finished off what was left in there. At Jack's annoyed yelp, he grinned. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was my beer, you were annoying me by yammering in my ear, so you paid for it. Get another one."
Jack didn't bother grumbling and turned to grab another bottle out of the cooler. "So," he began, "I guess you haven't heard the news yet, huh?"
Pausing as he swept the sawdust on the floor of his workshop, Ryan frowned at him. "You know I hate gossip, Morgan. I mean, really. What the fuck is the point in it? I'm sure I'll care when it affects me."
"Well, I hate to break it to you, but this bit of news might just do that." Jack braced himself against the wall and met his friend's eyes. "I heard from my sister that Emma Marks is moving into the apartment next to hers. She's back in town, and, from what I hear, she's back for good."
Ryan's knuckles whitened on the handle of the broom as he ordered his mind to calmly and emotionlessly process the news and forget about it. Emma was old news, and, for all he cared, she may as well be dead. Even as he placidly shrugged it aside and turned back to sweeping, he tried not to think about where she'd gone, what she'd done, and why she'd come back.
But, of course, he did, and he cursed himself for still caring about the woman who'd watched as his sister had nearly been beaten to death.
Emma set down the last of the five measly boxes she'd packed for the move and turned in a wide circle to take a good look at the good-sized apartment she planned on renting for the foreseeable future. Her shoulder-length dark brown hair stuck to the back of her neck, and she wiped sweat off her forehead and the back of her neck with a bandanna.
Blowing her bangs out of her eyes, she walked into the bedroom and nearly resisted the urge to sigh as she ran a hand over the double bed she'd gotten out of storage. It was the same double bed that Ryan Jones had built for her in the first apartment they'd shared when they'd been nineteen. It was the bed where their first and only child had been conceived.
Because it still brought tears to her eyes to think of the little boy who'd barely had a chance to live before nature had determined that he wouldn't, she got to work with unpacking her boxes and putting everything away.
She'd never really been an organized soul, but setting things to rights in her new home would give her some measure of peace she wasn't sure she'd ever found in the past three years since she'd left Lowesville. Since she'd left Ryan.
It still hurt to think of him, but she knew that it always would. He would always be the love of her life, even after he'd threatened to kill her if she ever went near him or his family ever again. Considering that he'd always told her she was his family, his coldly delivered statement had nearly destroyed her.
Heartbroken and past the end of her rope, she'd left town with just the clothes on her back.
She was back now, she reminded herself, and Lowesville—and Ryan—would just have to deal with that.
"Not that they ever particularly liked me around here," she muttered to herself as she stacked a set of four bowls in one of her tiny kitchen cabinets.
After all, she'd been in Lowesville since she was twelve and the foster family she'd lived with had moved there. Soon after the move, though, her foster parents had decided that they couldn't afford to keep her, so they'd sent her to the orphanage in town. For the next five years, she'd been in and out of the orphanage and had been bounced from foster family to foster family. None of them had wanted to put up with her, and she knew that she hadn't made it easy on any of them. She'd been a tough kid to deal with as she'd rebelled in a new way every day. She'd hated the world and had done her best to keep everyone at a distance.
It hadn't been until her senior year at Lowesville High that she'd finally found a place where she fit. In September of that year, Martin Harris had taken her in and given her the father she'd never known. Though he'd been in his late sixties, he'd often told her that he'd recognized himself in her, in that rebellious stance she took. He had applied just the right amount of pressure, authority, and affection, and she'd caved.
It didn't take her long to straighten herself out, and she'd been on the straight and narrow—no more shoplifting or petty burglaries for her—when she'd met Ryan Jones. Sure, she'd known who he was. As the golden eldest son of the wealthy Jones family of Lowesville, it had been hard to ignore his presence, especially since he'd been followed by the horde of bimbos Emma had always despised.
Of course, no one had known that Ryan secretly smuggled illegal and contraband products for an Italian don—until Emma found him out.
Having been paired with him for a major project in their senior year English class—much to the chagrin and envy of all the other girls in the class—Emma and Ryan had found that they were kindred spirits. Neither had really cared to know the other, until Emma had been in the right spot at the right time and had helped Ryan escape from a gunman trying to kill him. From that moment on, there hadn't been a single thing about each other that they didn't know.
They'd stuck together for years, first as friends, then, later as lovers. They'd moved in together when they were nineteen, and Ryan had asked her to marry him when they were twenty-four, just after the discovery of her pregnancy. But, after the loss of their son, things had never gone back to the way they'd been, despite the love that still burned brightly between them. Ryan had immersed himself in expanding his then-fledgling business, leaving Emma to drown in a despairing depression, full of doubts as to whether Ryan still loved her.
They'd fought often, but the final straw had certainly been when Emma had, during a bout of deep depression, seen Jillian, Ryan's sister, being assaulted by one of Ryan's old enemies. She'd later confessed to Ryan that she hadn't done anything to stop it, and Ryan had brutally showed her the door.
"I went," Emma said aloud now in the quiet of her apartment, "but I'm back now, and I'm doing what I need to do. With or without Ryan Jones. Bastard."
Changing into a clean pair of dark slacks and a rose-colored blouse, she pulled on a light jacket for May in northern Michigan was still fairly cool. Then, after checking that she had everything she needed in her purse, she left her apartment and headed for the Lowesville cemetery.
The grass was green and manicured around the gravestones, but Emma didn't notice anything but the slightly weathered granite marker that lay over her son's grave. Her heart heavy, she knelt and set the bunch of daisies she carried on the gravestone.
"Hi, baby," she whispered shakily. "Hi, Connor. It's Mommy." Tears clouded her vision, and she brushed them aside, tracing the letters of his name. "I'm so sorry that I was gone for so long. I know it wasn't fair to you, but I promise that I thought about you all the time." She bit her lip and looked around the still, quiet cemetery. A light breeze ruffled her hair, and she sighed. "It's hard, so hard to be back here. It's hard to see the places that I loved, that I spent with your father."
The thought of Ryan made her fingers clench convulsively at the grass. "It hurts to think of him, just as much as it hurts to think of you. I wish, every day, that I had both of you with me, but I don't." She pressed a hand to her lips to hold back a sob. "God, I told myself that I wouldn't cry for him, and here I am, sweetie. Here I am, my darling baby boy, and I'm crying over your father." Her fingers brushed lightly over the stone again, and she resisted the urge to rest her head against it. "I miss everything the way it used to be, like when we were so happy and looking forward to you joining us."
There were dark clouds gathering on the horizon and quickly spreading towards town, but Emma took no notice of them. Nor did she realize that she wasn't alone.
"I'm not entirely sure why I came back to Lowesville, not when it hasn't exactly loved me. And I know for a fact that your father will probably shoot me on sight when he sees me, but I guess this place…it's home. I missed it these past three years, and I think I'm finally strong enough to take what comes at me." Even Ryan Jones, she thought silently. When the wind whipped her hair, she looked up to find the sky darkening and sighed. "Well, Connor. I guess I should probably get going. I have one more stop to make, but I promise I'll be back soon. I miss you, and I love you so much." She rested her hand atop the stone for a moment before standing and brushing off the grass clinging to her pants. "I'll see you soon, my love."
When she turned, her heart stuttered as her feet froze to the ground and her brown eyes locked with impassive green ones. Emotion swirled through her in a mass so overwhelming that she didn't know what to do or say as she stared up at Ryan, who stood still a few yards away.
Ryan could see her internal struggle between stay or go. She'd never been good at hiding her emotions, not the way he was. He supposed it was one of the reasons why she'd stopped asking him for support after Connor's death. He'd been unable to show her that he'd hurt just as badly as she had—but that was in the past, he reminded himself. This was now, and Emma Marks was standing in front of him again.
The sight of her tiny figure had been a shock to his system, even though he'd known she was back ever since Jack had brought it up over a week ago. But still, his eyes raked over, hungrily devouring the sight of the woman he knew, deep down, was the love of his life—no matter how he'd wished she wasn't. She'd always been thin, but she seemed even thinner now, her large eyes full of emotion. He could tell that she'd been crying, and he caught a glimpse of their son's gravestone behind her.
Though he'd told his heart to remain hardened against her, it softened because even he couldn't hold out against the pain he knew they shared over their mutual loss. He'd always known that Connor would have been the sum of them and the best of them—somehow, with those qualities, he'd been too good for this world.
The loss still stirred a fierce ache in his heart, and that ache made him want to sweep her against him and hold on. Just hold on.
Instead, he stood calmly and waited to see which of them would make the first move. Long moments passed, and it became obvious that, though she'd left Lowesville in a weakened state, she was back and raring with strength. Ryan saw the instant the fire came back into her eyes, and he nearly smiled. She'd often had just that expression when she'd leveled a gun at one of his rivals and sworn to defend him to the end.
Good for her. It was good to see that she hadn't lost that passion.
One brow arched over those expressive eyes of hers, but Emma continued to watch him silently.
When the first drop of rain fell on his nose, he flicked a glance up at the sky, which gave Emma the opening she needed. She slipped around him and started off down the path out of the cemetery. At the entrance, she glanced back and found him kneeling by their son's grave.
Sighing, she shook her head and continued on to her car.
The last thing Ryan knew he needed was a bitching and moaning Liza. Every day, he could swear she had a new thing to complain about, and he was really starting to wish he'd never hooked up with her in the first place. If he really thought about why he'd done it in the first place, he could remember needing someone, anyone, and she'd been first in line.
They had dated each other for over a year in high school, before Emma had come into his life, and it had seemed like an okay idea for him to get back together with her again after Emma had left.
Three years later, he wasn't quite so sure. Yes, he loved her two daughters and considered them practically his. Of course, as he wasn't planning on marrying their mother—ever—he knew they would never really be his, and that was okay with him. Unfortunately, the lack of marriage was not and had never been "okay" for Liza, who never quit dropping hints about it.
Being fairly adept at evading, Ryan never let himself get caught up and fall into the trap of letting her trick him into saying yes or promising her marriage. So far, she'd been trying for three years to catch him in some sort of a trap, and he'd managed to avoid all of them.
Their relationship was a bit sick if he really thought about it, so he tried not to think too hard about it. If he did, he knew he'd find that the only reason he was still with her was because of his need for a steady, solid base. After Emma had saved him from certain death in their senior year of high school, his horrified parents had given him an ultimatum: it was either the esteemed family name and the sizable inheritance that went with it or it was the life of a con man that he seemed to be creating for himself.
Ryan had taken the con man role and Emma and begun carving out a life of his own. For seven years, Emma had been his base, but, once she'd left, he'd needed someone. Liza had fit the role for the most part.
Unfortunately, she would never, ever be Emma. At the end of the day, no matter how he tried to change it, Ryan knew that it was only ever Emma that would really fill the void in him.
Most days, he tried not to think on it, and it had been easier when she'd been gone. Now that she was back…
"Ryan!" Liza's voice called out from the kitchen when he stepped into the house they shared. "That better be you! Where the hell have you been?"
Ryan rolled his eyes and made a face for the benefit of four year old Alice and three year old Annie, Liza's daughters, and smiled when they giggled in response.
"You're in trouble," Alice said in a tiny sing-song voice. She squealed when Ryan picked her up and tickled her playfully.
"When am I not in trouble?" he wondered half-jokingly as he tucked the little girl onto his hip before hoisting her sister on his other side. "What's your mom mad about today?"
Annie shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes, doing a dead-on impression of him that Ryan appreciated. "I don't know. Can you make her not mad?"
"Only if you help me," he whispered dramatically. "Otherwise, I think she'll kill me."
"Off with his head," Alice announced with a flourish of the doll she held in one hand.
Ryan chuckled, feeling the sadness that always stayed with him after a visit to Connor's grave lift. "Bloodthirsty, aren't you?"
"Gee, I wonder where they get that from?" a voice inquired sarcastically from the doorway to the kitchen. Ryan turned to find Liza leaning against it in paint-splattered sweats, her dirty blonde hair piled on her head. Her gray eyes narrowed as she studied him. "Where the hell were you? What took you so long?"
"Work," he replied shortly. His expression read, "I don't answer to you," and Liza's mouth tightened for a moment before she managed a small smile.
"Well, I guess I'll just go set the table. If you could get the girls washed up…" she trailed off with one last look at him before she went back into the kitchen.
Ryan pressed his lips to Alice and Annie's foreheads. "What do you say, girls? Ready for dinner?"
"It's about time," Annie told him in an impression that was a dead-wringer for her mother's.
He grinned and tweaked her nose, thankful that the two girls kept him from losing his mind with their mother. "We've got a comedian on our hands," he told Alice, making her giggle.
Skillfully juggling them in his arms, he carted them off to the bathroom, hoping that tonight wouldn't be as turbulent as each evening with Liza was starting to become. What, he wondered, had happened to that relatively peaceful existence he'd always strived for? And why was he prolonging the end of this obviously pointless relationship?
Nearly two months had passed since that day in the cemetery, and Emma had managed to slide right back into Lowesville goings-on without much effort. Things hadn't changed quite as much as she'd thought they might have.
Sure, she'd felt slightly more than just a pang when she'd heard that Ryan had been living with Liza ever since she'd left town, but she'd tried not to let it bother her too much. After all, it was his life, not hers, and it no longer affected her. If Ryan wanted to be with the clingy blonde who'd been trying for years to steal him away from Emma, then so be it.
Emma wasn't about to tell anyone that the pairing of Ryan and Liza burned her right down to the core.
As for herself, Emma had returned to her old job at the Lowesville news affiliate and was working as a fact-checker and copy writer. She enjoyed the job, and she was glad that the people she'd worked with in the past had taken her back with open arms and zero questions. She couldn't have been more grateful for such unconditional support and knew that she was lucky. Especially since others in town weren't quite so easy to take her back.
Everywhere she went, she'd run into people she'd angered in the past, not the least of which were Ryan's parents. They'd always hated her because they'd considered her part of the reason why they'd lost their son all those years ago. When they'd heard of her, albeit passive, part in Jillian's assault, they'd been even more furious. Emma wasn't sure why they'd never said anything about it or brought charges against her since then.
As she ducked into the well-known local coffee shop, Au Café, after work one night to buy one of her favorite chocolate chip muffins, she ran into Jillian Jones at the register.
The two women gaped at each other for a moment before Jillian recovered first. "Hello, Emma." She offered a smile, and, surprised, Emma smiled back slightly.
"Hi, Jillian. Uh, how are you?" Emma resisted the urge to fidget. "How are things?" She tried not look at the scar on Jillian's jaw—a result of that awful assault.
Jillian brushed back her dark blonde curls, her green eyes, so like Ryan's, warm. "I'm doing really well. I'm actually getting married in a month, so I'm doing extremely well." She smiled down at the glamorous ring on her left hand before glancing back up at Emma. "I'd heard you were back in town, and I'm surprised it's taken us this long to run into each other."
"Uh, yeah, I guess." Emma wasn't sure what to say. After all, this was the woman she'd failed to help, the one who had once been a close friend and now was no more than a stranger. "Congratulations on the wedding. I'm sure you'll be a beautiful bride."
Neither woman noticed how the other people in the coffee shop were watching them closely. Everyone knew the history between them and were half-expecting a big blowout.
Jillian placed a hand on Emma's arm lightly, surprising them both. "Why don't we go for a walk? I'd like to talk to you—without so many eavesdroppers," she added quietly.
Emma nodded. After receiving her order, the two women stepped outside and began to meander down the sidewalk. It took a few minutes before Emma spoke. "I need to apologize, Jillian."
"No, you don't," Jillian replied firmly, causing Emma to stop and stare at her, stunned.
"Are you kidding me? If I had acted quickly, I could have prevented you from ending up in the hospital near death," she reminded her old friend. "It's my fault that you needed all those surgeries and were in the hospital for so long. I don't know how I can ever make it up to you."
Jillian shook her head. "No, really, Emma, you don't have to apologize. I know, I've always known, that you were sorry about what had happened. Was I furious with you when I heard?" She shrugged casually. "Sure, of course, I was. But then, when I thought about it, I realized that I couldn't really blame you. Besides, you've taken care of punishing yourself all on your own."
Emma's brows lifted high. "Jillian, whatever you've been smoking, pass it this way, please." When Jillian grinned, Emma shook her head. "No, I really don't understand how you can be so forgiving. Ryan and your parents probably still hate me for what happened, so I really don't know how you have gotten over it."
"Would it have made a difference if I still hated you for it?" Jillian sighed. "Come on, Emma. We were friends, and I knew that it was so out of character for you to see me in such a situation and not try to do something about it. When I thought about it, I remembered that you'd been on those heavy antidepressants."
Emma said nothing as she, too, remembered the drugs that had made her feel as though she were in another world, removed from everything.
"How could I blame you when I knew that you were hurting as well?" Jillian shook her head and looked out at the setting sun on the horizon. "And then, you left, and I know that leaving couldn't have been easy on you, especially not after what Ryan threatened you with."
This time, Emma nearly fell off the sidewalk in surprise. "Jesus, he told you about that?"
"I've never been more ashamed and appalled by him," Jillian told her, her voice taking on a tinge of annoyance. "It was just ridiculous. How could he say something like that to you when he loved you? It made me so angry. It still does," she added, glancing over at Emma who said nothing. "I have to admit, I was surprised when I heard you were coming back. After everything that happened, I don't know why you'd want to come back."
Emma ran a hand through her hair, trying to wrap her mind around Jillian's revelations. "Lowesville is home, no matter how unwelcome people here try to make me feel," she replied quietly. "I know Ryan hates me, and that's so hard to live with, but I have to. And I didn't want to be away from where Connor's buried, so I had to come back."
Jillian nodded in understanding and opened her mouth to say something when a sharp-looking redhead bumped into Emma with a thud.
"Sorry," the redhead offered as she cast a calculating look over at Emma before meeting Jillian's eyes with a mocking gleam. "Wasn't watching where I was going."
Emma was too busy to notice the way the other two women glared at each other. She knelt to pick up her bag and the container for the muffins. "It's okay," she answered easily. "No big deal. It happens, right?" She glanced up in time to catch the redhead roll her eyes at Jillian and watched Jillian turn red. "What's going on?"
"Not a thing," the redhead replied before looking at Emma again. "Really, I'm sorry. I wasn't paying attention. Hope you're okay."
"Yeah, sure." Emma's words sent the redhead on her way, but not without one last cutting look at Jillian. When she was gone, Emma lifted a brow. "What was that?"
Jillian smoothed her hair back and shook her head. "She's something warped. Allie Wilson's the mistress of Ryan's latest business rival. Tony DiMatto would love to rip Ryan's heart out of his chest just so he can run his business out of Lowesville." She sighed. "Anyway, Ryan's got it under control, so I wouldn't worry about it. It's just annoying to run into her around town because she is such a bitch." Glancing at her watch, she winced. "Listen, I have to go, but it was really good to see you. Call me sometime?"
Emma smiled and nodded. "Yeah. Thanks…for everything. Seriously, Jillian. Thank you. It means a lot to know that you aren't against me, even though you're the one who suffered most for something I could have prevented."
"Oh, stop it," Jillian told her firmly. "It's in the past. I don't want to hear about it anymore." She caught Emma up in a brief hug. "I'll see you soon! Bye, Emma!"
Shaking her head in disbelief, Emma watched her go and couldn't help but smile a little. Maybe things were going to be all right after all.
"I found one of DiMatto's men following the latest shipment to the border," Jack reported to Ryan two days later. "I can't believe old Tony's got the balls to spy on you. He's up to something. I can feel it."
Ryan felt it, too, but he didn't say anything. Instead, he continued to pass the stress ball back and forth from hand to hand as he thought. "Tell security to tighten up on their way to and from the border," he said after a few moments. "I want two men posted outside this office, my house, and yours as well. There's no telling if he'll come after us personally, but we should be prepared."
Jack nodded in agreement. "What about your parents and Jillian? You don't think DiMatto might make them targets?"
Considering it, Ryan shrugged. "There's been no evidence to prove that he cares a single bit about that part of my family. Besides, they've already got their own security detail, so I'm not really worried about them. I just don't want Annie or Alice hurt."
Ryan shrugged again. "Yeah, and Liza."
Jack smothered the grin threatening to break out on his face at the tone of Ryan's voice. "Well, well, well. Are we getting tired of the unofficial ball and chain?"
"Shut up, Jack."
"I'm just saying, she's no prize compared to…" Wincing, Jack trailed off and waited for Ryan's response.
There was a long silence before Ryan spoke. "I saw her, you know. She must have just moved back in, and we ran into each other near Connor's grave."
"Obviously, you didn't kill her," Jack pointed out carefully. "So things must not have gone so badly."
"We didn't say anything to each other." Ryan stood and, skirting around his desk, stood by the large bay window in his office, gazing out over Lowesville.
Jack knew he needed to tread carefully. "How did she seem?"
There was a prolonged silence again. Then, "Stronger. The way she was before we lost Connor. She's still bad at hiding emotion, so I knew she'd been crying." Ryan shook his head, ridding himself of the image of her. When he turned to Jack, it was obvious that he was done with the topic. "Make sure security around Wednesday night's shipment is doubled. Have three men waiting at the border for surveillance and another three following behind. If there are anymore spies, I want them found then brought to me for interrogation."
"You're the boss," Jack replied easily before leaving to go do Ryan's bidding.