Corrie sipped her iced tea, barely tasting the sweet drink as she waited for Nathan to arrive. He'd asked her to join him for lunch at the club, the third time in as many days, and she'd grudgingly agreed. She had no desire to spend one single minute with the man, but being seen with him was working to her advantage. The ladies of Stonebriar thrived on gossip, so word of the rekindled DeSaunt/Wilmore romance was spreading like wildfire throughout the upscale community. Corrie imagined that by now at least a dozen of the old biddies had gone out of their way to pass that juicy piece of information onto her mother and older brother.
A shudder of repulsion rippled through her at the thought of the harassing duo. At least she hadn't had to deal with them since breaking up with Justin. After she'd left his place, she'd gone straight to the guesthouse, packed up her things and moved in with Caroline. Though the two had left multiple messages on her cell phone, neither had made an effort to physically track her down. For now, at least, they seemed content with the fact that she'd been seen out and about with her ex.
Corrie knew it was proof that she was living up to her end of the deal and she hoped it would in turn would force her family to live up to theirs. By renewing her relationship with Nathan, they had no reason to hate Justin. They would back off, allowing his life to return to normal. There would be no more attacks on his business, no more threats against his family's well being. It would be just as it had been before she'd selfishly dared to push for something more than friendship with a Caldwell.
A tightness clutched at her chest as she thought about Justin. He'd been the center of her universe for so very long, how was she going to survive without him? Even when he'd tried to distance himself from her in the past, she'd always known that he'd come back around. It had never been permanent. But this was. It was truly over for them.
And to add to her misery, one of the hardest parts was still to come. It had only been four days, four long and miserable days since she'd last seen him, but Corrie was already having a difficult time imagining what it was going to be like when they finally ran into each other. And they would eventually. She just prayed that when the time came, she'd be strong enough to deal with it. Especially if he'd moved on to another woman by then.
Her hand began to tremble at the disturbing image. She set her drink down and quickly tossed in an extra prayer that when they did see each other, Justin would be alone. She knew a man like him would have no problem finding a woman willing to share his life, not to mention his bed. She just didn't want to have to deal with that anytime soon. In fact, never seemed like a reasonable time frame.
A pair of large hands clamped onto her shoulders, the long fingers gently squeezing, and Corrie nearly jumped out of her seat. Remembering her 'date' with Nathan she put on her game face, hoping the bland smile she was forcing herself to wear would be enough to conceal her less than enthusiastic attitude.
The hands fell away and she was surprised to see her younger brother Kyle slip into the chair beside her. "Hi, sis. What a nice surprise to see you here." A warm smile lit up his handsome face.
Touched by his sincerity, Corrie relaxed a little and returned the sentiment. "I was just thinking the very same thing."
Over the past four years, her time with Kyle had been limited to his brief trips home from college during the holidays. Though they had never been extremely close, he was the one person in the family that she felt any sort of connection with and she'd missed his presence. Unlike Richard, Kyle had actually shown some support when she'd stood up to their parents, even trying on a few occasions to do so himself. But sadly, where she'd forged ahead, he'd always backed down.
"You hate this place. So why are you here?" he asked as he grabbed her untouched water glass and took a sip. "Looking, I might add, like you'd rather be anywhere else in the world."
Astonished at his bluntness, Corrie let down her guard and gave an honest reply. "Because I would rather be anywhere else."
Other than a slight lifting of one pale eyebrow, Kyle showed little reaction to her admission. Still, there was always the chance their mother had sent him to the club to validate the gossip, so she hurried to add, "I'm meeting Nathan for lunch."
This time his brow shot all the way up. "Really? So it's true then."
The sudden spark of interest was disappointing. He was there to snoop on their mother's behalf. "Yes, it's true. Nathan and I are back together. But why take my word for it? Stick around a little longer and see for yourself." Corrie knew she should have stopped there, but she couldn't. "Then you can run home and tell Mother every sordid little detail. I'm sure that will make her day. In fact, you may even temporarily bump Richard out of the top spot in her heart." She grimaced, and added, "Or rather, the spot where her heart should be."
Kyle stared at her for a moment, his expression unreadable, then he threw back his head and laughed. Not a weak snicker or light chuckle, but a hearty, boisterous belly laugh that had heads turning. Corrie glanced around the room, noting the glares they were receiving. The club members were looking annoyed with Kyle's sudden outburst. They probably considered it an inappropriate display of emotion. Under normal circumstances, that would have had her laughing as loud as Kyle, but at the moment things were hardly normal. She actually needed these snobs on her side in order to assure that her mother and Richard would remain cooperative.
Turning her attention back to her brother, she rested an elbow on the table, propped her chin in the palm of her hand and spoke in a soft voice that she hoped would quiet him down. "And what exactly do you find amusing enough to attract everyone's unwelcome attention?"
It seemed to work. With a sober restraint, Kyle sat forward, but Corrie could still see humor in his pale blue eyes. "First of all, screw everyone here! And second, you had me worried for a minute. I thought I'd lost you."
She had to admit, he just did. Though she'd noticed a subtle difference in his demeanor since graduating from college, this devil-may-care attitude he was exhibiting was a first. As was his open display of defiance toward the DeSaunt way of life. Though intriguing, it had her confused. "Okay, I admit it. At this moment I am feeling pretty lost."
He nodded. "I figured as much. Look, I know we've never been close," That statement earned him a somewhat contemptuous snort, but he didn't appear to be daunted. "but then, we weren't exactly raised by loving, doting parents, were we?"
Another shocking comment. Wasn't her baby brother just full of surprises today? "No, we weren't. One thing nobody could ever accuse us of being is a tight-knit family. You haven't forgotten our motto, have you? 'Every man for himself.' It seems to be the way we like it."
"Not all of us." He reached over and tenderly took one of her hands in his. "You've never liked it. You've always wanted us to be closer. Even as a kid, you tried so hard to pull everyone together, to make us a family. I saw that, Corrie, and I admired it, but I just wasn't as strong as you back then. I never stood up for you, or with you. Well, I'm not that scared little kid anymore. I'd like to apologize," Seeing the effect of his words etched clearly upon her face, he gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. "And I'd like to offer you my help."
Caution took over. No matter how tempting it was to believe in Kyle's sincerity, there was a lot of past to overcome. "You want to help? Help with what?"
"With putting an end to all the bad things that have been happening to you lately. I may not have seen much of you this past week, but I know what's been going on. I had a long and very interesting conversation with Dad yesterday and he brought me up-to-date."
A conversation about her? Surely nothing good could come out of that! "Oh really? And what exactly did you and Dad have to say about me?"
Kyle frowned. "You're thinking the worst and I can't say I blame you, but in all honesty, Corrie, Dad and I aren't the ones to worry about." He leaned in closer, his gaze solemn as he spoke. "Look, I know you think that Dad doesn't care. I used to feel the exact same way. But he and I have been working closely together for the past few months and I'm actually getting to know him. I've learned a lot about him, Cor. Not just as a father, but as a person. He may not be the sentimental type, or the type of dad who loves to dole out praise, but he does want what's best for us."
That was a hard pill to swallow. Their father wanted what was best for them? The man who was never around, never spent time with his children because he was too busy working? Yeah, right.
She laughed, the grim tone ringing of the cynicism she felt. "You really expect me to believe that, Kyle? Just last week the man had me fired from my job!"
He shook his head vigorously, sending a lock of blond hair spilling recklessly across his forehead. He reached up and shoved into back into place. "No, Corrie. Dad told me he had nothing to do with that."
"Just because he claims to be innocent, doesn't mean he truly is," she answered angrily.
"You're right, it doesn't. But I find it hard to believe that after letting you take the job in the first place and then work there for several years that Dad would deem it necessary to teach you a lesson by having you fired now. Come on, Corrie. Be honest here. It doesn't add up."
Corrie had to admit that her brother was right, it didn't add up. In fact, their father had pointed that very thing out to her last week when she'd stopped by his office. It was the one thing that she couldn't explain; the one thing that had her questioning her father's guilt.
Kyle continued. "Sure, Dad had wanted you to work for our company, but when you chose to go elsewhere he accepted it. Hell, he admires you for it. He told me that you're just like he was at your age - stubborn, independent and determined to make a name for yourself rather than rely on the family name. He's proud of you, Corrie. Proud of what you've accomplished. So you tell me, why would he try to destroy that by having you fired?"
As she listened to her brother, tears threatened and a lump formed at the base of her throat. Was it possible? Did their father truly care about them? Was he, as Kyle had said, actually proud of her for standing on her own two feet?
Corrie slumped back in her seat, unsure of how to handle this startling bit of news. She'd spent her entire life believing that nurturing parents and loving siblings were as far out of reach as the stars above, so for both to suddenly become a possibility was a lot to wrap her mind around.
Her watery eyes landed on her younger brother. "Dad said he was proud of me the other day, but I didn't believe him."
He smiled, and with another squeeze of her hand said, "I understand. I was exactly where you are not too long ago. It's a lot to take in. Just do me one favor. Give yourself a little time to sort through your emotions, then go and talk to Dad with an open mind. Can you do that, Corrie?"
Could she? It would mean taking a big risk. Kyle was not only asking her to open her mind, but to open her heart as well. It was a scary thought, but hadn't she longed for a family like Justin's her entire life? Even though that wasn't quite what Kyle was offering, it was as close as the DeSaunts could ever get, so wasn't that a risk worth taking?
Yes. Yes it was. Corrie drew in a breath and then told her brother, "Sure. I think I can do that."