2 Years after Grandmama's Birthday
"This is going to be awesome."
From his position, riding shotgun in Dave Monahan's Ford Explorer, Brian Baxter couldn't summon the same enthusiasm as Evan Monahan. When they pulled up in front of the Port Aransas beach house his longtime girlfriend had rented for the long holiday weekend, he was fairly certain Ella Monahan would find the situation the exact opposite of awesome.
"Dec," Brian craned his neck around the seat back to glare at the eldest Monahan cousin, "d'ya think you could return my cell now? I promised Wally I'd check in."
"Wally's a good deputy. He can handle things while you're on vacation. Boy needs a bit of self-confidence and you checkin' in on him every five minutes isn't going to help," Declan said. "You just want to call Eleanor."
"Well, yes, I do. El's not a fan of surprises." Brian couldn't believe he was the one reminding her family of such a long-established fact. "I'm surprised you're going along with this, Dec. I thought you had more sense than Tweedledee, Tweedledum, and Tweedledumbass."
Declan turned his gaze to the passing scenery. A muscle in his square jaw twitched. "Aunt Glenna sounded concerned after her last phone conversation with Eleanor. Evan and Eric expressed the same concern. Eleanor has been away from the family for too long."
"Can you blame her?" Brian muttered, slouching in his seat.
"Yes," Dave responded, even though the question had been rhetorical.
"I hate you all."
Dave pulled the SUV in front of a large, lime green beach house. "Man, Ella wasn't kidding when she called it Kermit House."
Brian flung off the seatbelt and scrambled for the door handle. "Let me talk to her first. I need to explain how her crazy, overprotective family members kidnapped me and hijacked my vacation."
Leaving the others in the car, he jogged to the house. The front door was locked. He could hear country music drifting down from the second-story deck. He made it to the fifth step when a vision in a teal ruffled halter bikini top and matching side-tie bottoms appeared. Her long hair was pulled up in a high ponytail, dark sunglasses shielded the eyes he adored, and perspiration dotted her forehead. Just the sight of her was worth every second of the three hours he'd spent in a car with her male relatives.
"Hey there, Sheriff." She thundered down the stairs and flung herself into his arms. His hands spread across the warm, smooth skin across her back. She tucked her hands into the back pockets of his jeans. Her grip bordered on desperate, but he was too happy to see her to care. "Man, oh man, I've missed you."
"Missed you, too, sweet girl." As if pulled by a magnet, his lips met hers. Coarse salt coated his tongue when he swept it across her bottom lip. Her mouth opened on a tiny gasp; never one to pass up a golden opportunity, he dove in. She tasted of tequila and lime juice with the subtle, familiar hint of love.
Behind them, a car door opened. He reluctantly released her, gently pushed up her sunglasses. Her lips were swollen and her eyes were glazed. He wanted nothing more than to heft her over his shoulder and barricade the two of them in the house for the rest of the long weekend.
"Listen, Ellie, there's something…"
Gravel crunched under heavy footsteps. She blinked, and then her eyes went distant for a different reason. After a lifetime spent with the gifted Monahans, he recognized the expression. A wrinkle creased her forehead and her lips curved down in a frown. "Dave's here? And Evan? Eric?" Her eyebrows shot up. "Declan?"
"Mind your tone, Eleanor Grace," Declan said, posture relaxed but eyes cool.
Ella stiffened. She shoved Brian aside and marched down the remaining stairs. Brian had no choice but to follow in her wake. He hoped she gave her brothers and her cousins the ass-kicking they so richly deserved. A furious Ella was a beautiful sight to behold, and if he was very, very lucky he'd get a chance to help her blow off any remaining anger.
She jabbed a finger in Declan's chest. "You know, this is exactly why Brian and I didn't go to the Island. There's no privacy there. Is it so wrong that I want to spend my precious time off with my boyfriend without my family snooping around, dropping off brownies and towels, and staying for dinner?"
"It's good to see you, too, cuz," Dave drawled. "Not that I had planned on seeing so much of you."
Brian could see the moment Dave's eyes fell on the faded, jagged scar that curved around Ella's left hip. He'd seen it so often, traced it with his fingers and lips, that it no longer registered in his brain, but she was careful to keep it hidden from others. Especially Dave. For reasons Brian couldn't understand, the slightest mention of the kidnapping that had left Ella scarred mentally and physically was an exceptionally sore subject for Dave.
Dave's spine went ramrod straight. His face was stony. The blood drained from Ella's face. She swayed against Brian for a moment before recovering her composure. She nodded briskly at her brothers. "Evan. Eric. I'll skin you both later. Right now, I'm going to go inside, have another drink, put on some shorts, and scream. Unless you want to have to explain to Momma exactly why it is you can't sire children, I heartily suggest you remain out here."
She spun on her heel and stormed up the stairs. On the landing, she leaned forward, glared. She pointed a finger at Brian. "Not you. Up here. Now."
It might have been his imagination, but Brian could have sworn he heard the funeral march as he trudged up the stairs.
Brian followed Ella into a brightly lit bedroom decorated with a tropical theme. There were palm trees painted on the walls and tiki lights hanging from the ceiling. There was even a pink flamingo throw pillow on the sand-colored bedspread.
"Someone made one too many trips to Pier One," he said, perching on the edge of the bed.
Ella pulled open a wicker drawer and extracted a pair of white cotton shorts. "I had plans for this weekend. Big plans. Plans that might have required a little stretching beforehand. Plans that didn't include the four stooges downstairs."
"I didn't invite them. Hell, I didn't even say anything to them about this trip. One minute I'm loading my suitcase in the back of my truck and the next I'm riding shotgun in Dave's SUV. I'm still not ruling out being roofied."
"You're the cop. You have the badge and the gun. You could have shot them."
"You think I wasn't tempted? A road trip loses its appeal when you're fairly sure there's certain death waiting at the end of it. Unfortunately, I was the only one to realize that. Evan insisted on a Johnny Cash sing-a-long and then there were two stops for snacks. Eric and Dave had a contest to see who could spot the most windmills. I swear they have the maturity of six-year-olds."
Ella tied the drawstring on her shorts and collapsed onto the bed beside Brian. She tugged on his arm until he was sprawled next to her. She curled against his side. "It's my fault. I mentioned the trip to Amber. She can't keep anything to herself."
Brian stroked the soft, shadowed skin under her right eye with the pad of his thumb. "They're a bunch of lunkheads, but they're worried about you. I am, too. You're not sleeping."
"I never sleep."
"You've sounded so depressed on the phone it's nearly broken my heart, sweet girl. I can't imagine what it's done to Evan or Declan. Much as I hate to have them horn in on our time, I can't blame them for being worried."
"What're the odds they'll head back to Hargrove tonight?"
"There are two coolers squeezed in the back of that vehicle. I think they're in for the long haul."
"Dave and I are going to fight."
"Nothing new on that front, darling."
Ella groaned. She shifted so that she was draped across Brian's torso. His warm fingers went to work on the tense muscles at the base of her neck. "Let's never leave this room."
"Solid plan, but I don't think the others will go for it." He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "Besides, the plans I have for you, pretty girl, require refueling and frequent hydration."
His husky chuckle sent a shiver of anticipation down her spine. She burrowed her face in the crisp cotton of his t-shirt. He was so solid, so strong, so absolutely perfect, that she felt herself relax for the first time in two months. With Brian she didn't have to keep up her walls. She didn't have to push herself so hard to move past that scared eight-year-old.
"I love you," she murmured against his chest.
"Of course you do. Who else would put up with your family?"
While he worked his magic on her back, her mind drifted to her last few phone conversations with her mother and Amber. Ancient insecurities crept in. "I hear there's a new nurse at the ER. Pretty blonde with her eye on you."
"She moved in to Old Man McGarrity's place. Eric and I helped her haul boxes. She fixed fried chicken and grits to thank us." He untied the knot holding the top of her bikini together. "Don't tell my mother I said this, but those were the best damn grits I've ever had."
Tears pricked the corners of Ella's eyes. "My lips are sealed," she managed through a throat tight with sorrow. She tried to roll off Brian, but his firm hands kept her in place. "We need to talk."
"No good ever comes from a statement that starts with those words."
Her stomach twisted. It wasn't going to be easy. It was going to shatter her heart. Absolutely devastate her. But she had to let him go. They'd been an official "couple" since her sophomore year of high school, but they hadn't lived in the same 100-mile radius since college.
He was handsome, smart, funny, honorable, and, without a doubt, the best man she'd ever met. He'd agreed to wait until she was ready for a full-time relationship, until she'd put to bed all the ghosts that held her back, but it wasn't fair to keep him waiting for something that might never come to pass. He deserved a chance to find someone else, start a family. Be happy.
"I love you more than anything in this world," she said.
"Then why do you sound so sad?"
"Because it's time I stop being selfish. We've made a lot of promises over the years, but I'm not holding you to any of them. Not anymore. You don't have to feel obligated to turn down your pretty nurse with the amazing grits or anyone else who strikes your fancy."
The ball of sickness moved from her stomach to her throat. That had been easier than she expected. Far too easy. How long had Brian felt like he was with her out of duty rather than affection? Just how pretty was the new nurse? What was so special about grits?
With a twist of his shoulders, Brian rolled them so that he was hovering over Ella. His blue eyes were unreadable in the bright afternoon sunshine. His lips were compressed into a thin line of displeasure. "Is that what you think?"
Surprised at the anger in his tone, all Ella could do was blink.
"Do you think the only thing keeping me from sleeping with half the town is because of my loyalty to you? My obligation?"
"You're an honorable man."
"And you're the biggest idiot I've ever met. Do you think that we could, just for a second, entertain the thought that I am as madly, wholly in love with you as I have been my entire life?"
"I can't move back yet."
"I don't recall bringing up the subject."
"You worry about me too much."
"Part and parcel of loving someone. Are you saying you don't worry about me?"
"Every second of every day."
"Well, it's a little stupid to expect you're the only one allowed to worry, isn't it?" Brian squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. He lowered himself onto his elbows. The scent of coconut suntan lotion and the mango bodywash Ella loved teased his senses. "It's hard, I admit, and I miss you like crazy, but I don't regret loving you. Never have. Never will."
"I wish I wasn't so screwed up."
"And I wish there weren't four of your kin waiting on us downstairs because I have the craziest urge to kiss you until you can't think straight." Brian pressed a quick, warm kiss to the seam of her lips. "You can have all the time you need, sweet girl. I'll wait. Just know that the second, the second, you give me the green light, there's nothing on this earth that'll hold me back."
- Part Three -
Ella eased open the sliding glass door that separated the deck from the living room. The citronella candles on the round patio table and the stars overhead provided just enough light for her to make her way to the row of oversized lounge chairs. She used her knee to nudge a lounger against the one Declan occupied and then sprawled out on the cushion.
Long, tanned fingers dangled a fresh bottle of Saint Arnold beer in front of her face. The cap had already been removed. "Thanks, Dec."
"You get Evan settled?"
"Twin is face down in his bed. Bucket on the floor. Bottle of water and two aspirin on the nightstand. I'm glad I'm not sharing a bathroom with him tonight. He's going to be one sorry sack tomorrow."
Cigar smoke drifted on the balmy night breeze. The metal hinges of a chair squeaked. The shadows shifted and Eric's profile came in to view. "Baxter's down for the night. Damn fool thing he did challenging Evan and Dave to a drinking contest. He should know better. Especially when he can't hold his tequila worth shit. He wants to retain favorite brother-in-law status, he'll have to work on that."
"He's not your brother-in-law," Ella observed.
"Might as well be. Besides, Evan and I figure the two of you snuck off to Vegas for one of your weekends and got hitched."
"Mom would kill me."
"Yeah." Eric chuckled. "By the time she and Mrs. Baxter were done with y'all, there wouldn't be anything left for the rest of us."
A loud snore punctuated his statement. The lump near the railing shifted. Ella rolled her eyes and swallowed her sip of beer. "I thought you were putting Dave to bed, Dec."
"I'll get around to it."
"His back'll be killing him in the morning."
"He should have thought about that before he passed out on the ground," Declan said.
"I'm not sure he's been doing much thinking since dinner. He went through that tequila faster than a kid at a cotton candy stand." Eric stubbed out his cigar in the glass ashtray and carried his beer to where his cousin and sister were lounging. He shoved Ella's legs aside and claimed the open sliver of cushion beside her.
"I'm not sure any of you have been doing much thinking lately," Ella muttered. She'd always felt safe when surrounded by her family, only Brian made her feel safer, so it was hard to cling to her anger when squashed between her big brother and oldest cousin. "What in the hell were y'all thinking coming up here with Brian?"
"That you're worrying Mom and Grandmama Bea," was Eric's answer. "Poor Evan needs a Prozac every time you call. Dec wants to haul off and hit someone, and Dave's ready to hogtie you and drag you back home."
"Then don't call. Just leave me alone. I told you I was handling things."
"Not how this family works, Eleanor Grace." Declan set his empty beer on the deck and curved an arm around Ella's shoulders. He dragged her until she was firmly tucked under his shoulder. "We're willing to give you the space you need, but you have to make certain allowances. There's not a person here that doesn't adore you from the top of your stubborn head to the tips of your obstinate toes. Sometimes, a phone call isn't enough."
"Couldn't you have picked a different weekend to swoop in and check up on me?"
"You're a tricky girl to pin down. One might even think you were avoiding us."
Ella blew out a sigh. She passed her mostly-empty beer to Eric and wrapped both arms around Declan's waist. With her head on his chest, she could hear the steady thud of his heart. "I'm trying. I take a few steps, think I've finally conquered all my fears, and then I'll have a nightmare or a panic attack, and I'm back in that shed so scared I want to die."
"I'm sorry, El," Eric hooked his chin over her shoulder. "We want to haul you back into the family nest until you've healed your broken wing, and all you want to do is hide and lick your wounds."
"Pretty insightful there, big brother," she teased, "looks like you got something other than a pregnancy scare out of Sarah Collier."
Declan cleared his throat before Eric could retaliate. "If Amber was in a similar situation, you know you'd be singing a different tune."
"Worry does sound better in soprano." Ella contemplated her absent cousin for a moment. "How is Bear, by the way?"
"Still dating Doctor Dickweed," Delcan answered in a hard, cold tone that did not invite further questions.
"If you ever need help or an alibi, all you have to do is call."
Another loud snore pierced the stillness. Dave rolled over onto his back. One arm dangled between two porch railings. Ella shook her foot until her flip-flop fell on his chest. He grunted and rolled onto his side.
"David means well," Declan said, eyes darkening as he remembered the shouting match Dave and Ella had gotten into just before dinner. "I'll speak to him about his temper."
"Nah, that's okay."
"You know, Ellie-bellie, if Evan or I got on you the way Dave does, you'd have us strung up by our intestines," Eric said.
"'Course I would. Right in the middle of main street, too."
"So why does Dave get a free pass?"
Ella smiled wistfully. She reached back to pat Eric's hand. "Guilt's a terrible thing. It'll eat at you until there's nothing left. Combine that with fear and you've got a recipe for disaster. Dave and I'll work through it."
"Before or after you kill each other?"
"Dunno." Ella squirmed until she had an arm around her cousin and her chair-partner. "So, here's the plan, you four rent a boat for some fishing once Dave and Evan rejoin the land of the living. Stay out for as long as you want, and I'll conveniently forget that you interrupted my weekend of debauchery."
"And if we don't go along with your plan?"
"Then I'll tell Grandmama Bea and Mom that Bri and I eloped and y'all were out witnesses."