It was clearly a dismissal, and Holly left the kitchen as quickly as she could.
“Wow.” Emma lurked against the wall outside the kitchen door. “What a bitch.”
“She's protective of her son.” God knows why she was defending the other woman. Holly nodded her head toward the top of the stairs. “How is she?”
“She's okay.” Emma gestured to the closed door of Portia's room. “It would help if she took the medication, but she won't because of her pregnancy.”
“Did you know?” Holly wasn't sure what difference it made, but it was suddenly important to hear Emma's response. “Did you know she was pregnant?”
“She never said a word.” Emma's gaze slid away from hers.
Anger surged through Holly. Emma was lying through her fucking teeth. And not even brave enough to look her in the eye while she did it. So quick to point the finger was Emma, and as quick to loudly proclaim her innocence. “But you suspected?”
“The cards saidâ”
“You knew, didn't you?” She dared Emma to tell the truth for once. To stop hiding behind her New Age jargon and be honest. “You knew she was pregnant before she left London. You knew all of it and you said nothing.”
“I didn't . . .”
Holly wanted to puke. She'd had it with Emma's lies and her convenient rearranging of the truth. “And you must have known about the men.”
“What men?” Emma flushed bright red.
The stupid girl knew all right. Holly didn't budge. She folded her arms over her chest and waited.
“She went out a lot, you know that,” Emma said. “She went alone because I don't like to go out. She seemed like she was having a good time. It's not my job to chaperone her.” Emma's gaze darted around frantically. Looking anywhere but at Holly.
Holly kept staring, compelling Emma to look at her. “And you never said anything to me about any of this?” Emma had her head jammed in the sand. It would take surgery to remove it.
“Why should I?” Emma shifted her feet. “You never asked where we were going or who we were going with.”
“I trusted you.” And didn't that make her as stupid as her sister? “I was trying to give you both some space.”
“It's not my fault.” Emma's eyes filled up like fish bowls and her lip quivered. “You can't make this my fault.”
“I'm not saying it's your fault she's pregnant.”
Emma wasn't a child. She was a grown woman of twenty-four, standing in front of her, crying tears aimed at drawing pity and feeling sorry for herself. This shit was getting old.
“It's nobody's fault Portia is bipolar, but we can't pretend everything is okay. You're the one closest to her. You're the one who would notice any deviation in her behavior. And you did notice, didn't you, Emma?” Holly took a step closer, and still Emma wouldn't look her in the eye. “You noticed and you said nothing. Why?”
“Maybe I'm tired of it all.” Emma glared at Holly reproachfully.
Holly wasn't going on that guilt trip.
“Maybe I'm sick of looking after Portia all the time. Always worrying about Portia, always watching Portia.” Emma heaved a large sniff and scrubbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands. “What about me?” She held her hands out to Holly like a supplicant. “I matter. I count. Not just Portia. I want to live my own life without having to worry about my sister all the time.”
It was bloody ironic. Holly threw back her head and laughed. “âThis is your life,'” she parroted back at her sister with relish. “Remember what you said to me?”
“You're being mean.” Emma's tears continued to flow.
“No, I'm not. We may not like it, but Portia's disorder affects all of us. We have to shoulder our share of the burden.”
“You're being so unfair,” Emma wailed.
She was being unfair? “None of this is fair.” Didn't Emma get it? Fair had bugger all to do with it. “To any of us. It just is.”
“You can't expect me to babysit Portia for the rest of my life.”
“Really?” Holly's anger vibrated through her until she almost hummed like a tuning fork. “Because it seems to me that's exactly what you expect me to do. You expect me to step in and take care of Portia
you. You two screw up and I get to fix it.”
“That's not true.” Emma's tears vaporized. “You take over everything and expect us to go along with it like good little girls. You treat us like children. Telling Portia and me what to do and whom to do it with. Lecturing away like you have the right to push us around.”
Holly opened her mouth and shut it again. She had to leave before she said or did something she would regret. She yanked open the door and stepped outside.
It was barely eight in the morning but building toward a scorching hot summer day. It hit her like a wall as the door swung shut on her heels. The heat bled out of the sidewalk in sticky waves clinging to her hair and skin.
She walked through humidity thick as butter. She had no particular destination in mind, letting her vague memories carry her forward. She'd lived so many different places they blurred. Not that she confused one with the other. More like she stopped taking particular note of one as different from the others.
Willow Park stood out. It was here the disease finally won its battle with Melissa. There weren't many happy memories connected with this place. Mostly the Partridge girls had hidden in their house and concealed the extent of what happened behind closed doors.
Melissa's death had been devastating, but Francis hadn't allowed it to change the daily routine of their lives much. By that time, Holly was already in charge, and the other girls automatically turned to her.
And now Emma wanted her own life. Emma didn't want to be stuck with the responsibility of Portia.
Oh, she understood that feeling all right. She knew what it was like to be young and dragged down by responsibility all the time. People rushed forward with their lives around you, and you were stuck.
Emma didn't know the half of it. She and Portia would never understand. The twins had been sheltered because she and Grace had made sure. Emma and Portia were older now, but the habit of protecting and guarding was as intrinsic to Holly as breathing. And she had sheltered them so well the twins were lost in a permanent adolescence.
She'd been mother and father to them. She'd made decisions for them, guided them, and indulged them. And she had got exactly what she had created.
How could she not have seen this coming? Was Portia's pregnancy a rebellion? Had Holly, however unwittingly, set it up this way?
Grace had been saying as much for years.
She stalked to the end of the block, determined to ignore the heat. Past a veterinarian clinic and a florist she vaguely remembered. Across the street there was a woman's clothing store. The sort that sold highly priced wisps to women who looked like Lucy, so they could make the most of the gifts nature had showered on them. She was sure the store was new. It was the sort of place Josh would shop.
A thick layer of sweat lined Holly's skin as she turned the corner away from the main street. If memory served, there was a park down here somewhere. Lindens, maples, oaks, and ash cast deep shade over the road but did nothing to cut the heat. It was like trying to walk through syrup, but Holly refused to slow her pace. She wished she'd brought a bottle of water, but this charge along the neighborhood wasn't exactly planned.
She needed to think, to clear her head, and she couldn't do that with other people constantly underfoot. Her sisters were one thing, a nagging but familiar worry. The situation with Josh was another thing altogether. It was impossible and getting more so. She should turn around, pack up her sisters, and go stay in a motel until her passport came through. It was the logical thing to do, and yet she hesitated.
She dressed it up to look like staying with Josh was more convenient and easier. Portia was better when she was kept stable,
blah, blah, blah
She didn't want to go. She liked him; she really, really liked him, and it wasn't getting any better as the days wore on. She wanted to trust the evidence he showed signs of a man looking for more than a sexual connection. He cared for her, he helped her, he made his own life difficult to help her. He'd even stood up to his mother on her behalf.
And still she hesitated, too scared to trust what she felt to be true and in too deep to do the logical thing and walk away. It was such a bloody mess.
Five blocks later the heat won, and Holly slowed down to a stroll. Her shirt stuck to her back and her hair hung heavy and sticky on her neck. She checked her pockets for something to use as a restraint. Nothing.
Holly grabbed a handful of hair and held it off her nape.
Emma did have a point. She was autocratic and dictatorial, and it had become a habit over the years. There was always so much to do and only her to do it. She had stopped asking for opinions and input some time ago.
It galled her to admit Grace might have called that one right as well. The twins had got totally used to having her run their lives for them. They sat back and let her do it, and she held the reins as tightly as she could.
Josh, on the other hand, didn't need her for anything. It was strange and unsettling. His life was fine without her at the helm. He didn't need her to bolster his flagging ego or keep him focused.
She had a calendar pinned to her fridge at home. Portia, Emma, and her own schedule neatly color-coded in careful columns. She also had Steven's life in a well-ordered column of its own, a bit like his mother.
Gross. She didn't need her two years of a psychology degree to unpick that one. No wonder their sex life was as tepid and inspiring as dishwater.
Josh treated her like a woman, a woman he desired and enjoyed. Yes, he had a tendency to want to rescue her, but he didn't lean on her. It was like she was playing a familiar board game by different rules.
She turned the corner. Thank the Lord, she hadn't forgotten.
The park sat at the confluence of six residential streets, an emerald-green oasis amid the houses. Ancient trees stretched their shading canopy over the small family groups clustered to enjoy the glorious summer day.
Small children clambered enthusiastically up and over the wooden castle and bridge of a central jungle gym. Where did they find the energy? A group of mothers satin the shade, taking a welcome respite from their turbocharged offspring.
Holly headed straight for a large concrete culvert that formed a small shallow pool and water fountain, perfect for soaking tired legs and hot feet. The hardier souls braved the full sun and leaped in and out of the bubbling sprays lined up like soldiers along the length of the culvert.
She eased onto her butt and slipped off her flip-flops. The icy water brought instant relief to her hot feet.
“Holly?” called a soft voice with a touch of cognac hanging on the end.
Holly squinted up against the sun.
In the glare, Lucy's rambunctious blond hair clustered around her head like a halo. She lowered herself slowly to sit beside Holly and handed her a bottle of water. “You look as if you need this.”
Lucy was an angel.
“What about you?” She didn't want to be responsible for the dehydration of a pregnant woman.
“I have another and mine's bigger.” Lucy produced a larger version from her capacious handbag, with a grin so mischievous Holly was forced to grin back. “Richard is a firm believer in the daily constitutional.” She indicated her walking shoes. “I come up here to look at the children.” Lucy twisted the cap off her bottle and drank deeply. “I look at the children and their mothers and wonder why the hell I ever thought I would be any good at it.”
“Really?” Holly turned to look at her. Lucy didn't seem the sort to have doubts about anything.
Lucy nodded and smiled. “I'm excited and terrified all at once. Thank God I have Richard to keep me on an even keel.”
“He seems very special,” Holly said.
“He's a keeper.” Lucy winked. “I see my shorts fit.”
Holly looked at the shorts and then at Lucy. She took a sip of her water. “Are we going to keep pretending the shorts are yours?”
She caught Lucy in the middle of a sip. Water exploded out of her mouth and nose.
It made Holly feel marginally better about the whole unmitigated gorgeous thing.
“No.” Lucy spluttered into a laugh. “I suppose we aren't.”
It was a sweet thing to do. “You have great taste.”
“No,” Lucy said, her green eyes wide. “No, I don't.”
“Oh.” She'd guessed Josh, the sneaky sod, was behind her transformation. It was kind of cute. Annoying, but caring. “I don't know whether to be grateful or kick his ass.”
“That's men for you.” Lucy toasted her with her water bottle. “So, what are you doing here?”
“Brooding.” Holly kicked her legs up. Water droplets slid down her shins.
“Hatched anything good?”
“Not so good, actually.” Holly pulled the corners of her mouth down. “I was pretty much beating myself up when you did me the favor of breaking up the fight.”
Lucy watched a toddler of two or three try to catch the water jets in his chubby fist. “Anything you want to talk about?”
“I don't do the whole talking thing.” Holly squirmed inside. She liked Lucy, but she didn't share.
Lucy smiled. “Okay.”
And Holly got the feeling it
okay. The comfortable silence worked the kinks out of her neck muscles. “I met Donna this morning.”