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She should have realized her perfect little sister would one day grow up to be the perfect little newly wedded wife, with the perfect house in the country, the perfect brand-new car in the driveway. It was all so
"Perfect," she whispered to herself. Megan Rose curled her fingers around the steering wheel, the split leather duct-taped together and sticky beneath her palms.
Growing up, she and Jenn had rarely seen eye to eye on things, mostly because Jenn was a thinker and Megan was a doer and doers generally acted first and thought things through later, thereby regularly ticking the thinkers off.
Megan sagged in the seat and went over the speech in her head, the one she'd spent the past eight hours practicing, when all she longed to do was leave. And why not? Hell hadn't frozen over and yet here she was in Beauty, Tennessee, begging her goody-two-shoes little sister for help. This would never work.
Unbidden, she glanced beside her at a portion of the accumulated remainder of her life. Packed in a small, single suitcase and duffel, her clothes were piled in the passenger seat, the trunk full of boxes. Behind her, a pillow and blanket were tossed haphazardly aside.
Unbuckling her seat belt, she stretched to reach the pillow and blanket and shoved them into the leg space behind her seat. There. Everyone traveling long distances had a pillow in the car, didn't they? She coughed weakly, dread colliding with fear and a boatload of you-should've-known-betters along the way.
Jenn's gonna slam that glossy black door in your face.
If so, then Megan would deal with it. She owed Jenn an apology and, once that was done, if Jenn still didn't forgive her,well, whatever. Megan would move on to Plan B.
Plan B being?
She stared at the entry, at the pumpkins lining the steps, the scarecrow winking at her with its freaky little face. Witch, jack-o'-lantern and ghost window clings filled the windows around the door, but the old-fashioned wrought-iron light fixtures flanking each side of the structure gave it the Jenn-like cuteness that grated on Megan's last nerve. Couldn't her baby sister have one flaw? Did everything have to be so Martha-Freaking-Stewart perfect all the time?
The only ugly thing on the property presently was her nightmare on wheels. She should've parked down the street and walked to the house. But it wasn't too late. Jenn didn't know Megan was outside. She'd been sitting here a couple minutes staring at the electric candles in the windows and the door bedecked with a glorious fall wreath, and no one inside the two-story home was aware of her presence cluttering up the pristine driveway. And since Jenn hadn't seen her
Scrambling, Megan turned the key to make her getaway and swore when the car coughed, sputtered and rattled like a chain-smoker but didn't start. Come on, leave me an ounce of pride.
Megan lowered her forehead to the steering wheel. She'd coasted into town on fumes, and $3.23 wasn't going to get much in the way of gas, food or shelter. She needed a place to stay and, like it or not, Jenn's was the last place on earth. The last place Megan wanted to be, the last place she was welcome.
The last place Sean will look for you. He won't come here. He'd never come here, not when he knows how Jenn feels about you.
A self-deprecating smile pulled at her lips. The saying was truepaybacks were hell. Pride was a sin and this was her punishment. "You're eatin' crow, Megs. Better grab the salt."
Inhaling and coughing as a result, she ignored the tightness in her chest and the fatigue that made her want to curl up in a ball and pushed upright, climbing out of the car before she could wimp out. Just play it easy. You're here for a visit, here to apologize. That's not a lie. Jenn doesn't have to know all the nasty details.
She winced at the blinding sun shining down from the cloud-spotted sky. The late-September day was bright and beautiful, a balmy seventy-four degrees. But she didn't feel the warmth. Another cough racked her as she straightened her shoulders, smoothed her features and attempted to psych herself up for the confrontation to come.
"Je veux partir! Je veux aller à la maison!"
Megan blinked at the rapid-fire French. That wasn't something often heard in Small Town, U.S.A. She couldn't tell if it was coming from Jenn's or a neighbor's, but the high, shrill voice of the kid indicated he wanted to leave and he wanted to do it now.
Join the club, kid.
"Simon, no. Simon!"
Dave's shout from Alvin and the Chipmunks sounded in her head. Wrong character since Alvin was the one always getting yelled at, but the memory was there all the same. If anything, she was Alvin and JennJenn was Simon, a brainiac always showing off how smart he was and saying "I told you so."
She's going to say it. You know she's going to.
Megan ignored the harping voice in her head and marched her aching body up the walk to the steps, fighting the urge to kick one of the pumpkins off its perch. Distracted, she tripped and nearly fell, her grip on the iron railing the only thing that kept her from making an even bigger fool of herself than showing up on Jenn's doorstep like the beggar she now was.
How could a matter of days change so many things? Since leaving Sean she'd lived pretty much paycheck to paycheck, but after leaving California
You didn't have to take off last time. That guy asking about you was probably just a coincidence.
Maybe. But her instincts screamed that there were no coincidences and she wasn't willing to take the risk.
By the time Megan reached the door, her legs trembled. What would Jenn do? Say? Would she invite her in or tell her to F-off?
Biting her lip, Megan forced her hand up and knocked twice. Just breathe, say you're sorry, and see what happens. Besides, sweet Jenn doesn't use that kind of language. If anything, she'll be polite when she tells you to get lost.
Her pulse pounded in her ears, and she gripped the railing in her fist. She stood here on this stupid landing like a door-to-door salesman. No choice, remember?
Megan eyed the new Honda parked in front of the garage. It had to be Jenn's. The last time she'd talked to her father he'd told her that Jenn's husband was the tall, dark and brooding type. No way would a guy like that drive the cute little Civic. A pearly white, it had a pair of miniature flip-flops dangling from the rearview mirror and screamed happy bride.
So don't screw it up for her. Leave her alone. Take one of the sleazeball sex offers if you have to. What do you have to lose? Respect? Dignity? You lost those when you crawled through the mud at Sean's feet.
"Je veux partir! Je veux aller à la maison!"
Now that definitely sounded as if it came from the back of the house.
Megan carefully retraced her steps, defiantly nudging a pumpkin off its post on the way down and pretending she didn't notice it fall into the mulch with a dull thump. Back at her Buick, she fought the urge to climb in and take off, and then remembered she couldn't go anywhere because the ugly thing wouldn't start. Didn't that just suck.
Megan walked alongside the garage to the back of the house and, sure enough, there was Jenn. Her sister stood beneath a tree staring up at leaves hinting at a cheerful shade of orange-red.
Jenn looked exactly the same. She still had that beautiful, Marilyn Monroe hourglass shape with full breasts and curvy hips, whereas Megan had learned Victoria's true secret before she'd hit puberty.
That's why scarecrows freak you out. You look like them.
Megan waited for Jenn to notice her, but Jenn's attention was focused entirely up in the tree. What was she looking at? Megan squinted and finally spotted severely thin, short black legs dangling above Jenn's head, just out of reach.
"Simon, sweetheart, I'm sorry. I don't understand you. I know you want Ethan, but he had to go to the hospital. You know, the hospital? He'll be back soon. Now, please, come down."
"Je veux aller à la maison."
"Simon, come down. You're going to get hurt." Jenn pointed to the ground and waited expectantly.
Perfect, patient Jenn. The kid looked comfortable enough in the tree. Simon's blindingly white, black-and-red Nike Shox were paired with equally clean khaki-colored shorts and a bright green T-shirt with an emblem over the pocket. The clothes hung on the boy, not fitting his too-thin frame and birdlike legs.
Megan moved closer and got a look at the kid's face. Poor thing. His cheeks were streaked with tears and the boy shook nearly as much as she did at facing Jenn, which was funny considering Jenn was about as scary as Thumper.
So why are you so freaked out?
Because Jenn was Jenn, perfect in every way. Megan would bet her baby sis had never had to sleep in her car or forgo meals because of life's little backhanded jokes.
"Je ne veux pas rester ici. Je veux Dr. Ethan!"
"He wants to go home, to Dr. Ethan."
Jenn whirled around so fast she stumbled before she caught herself by placing a hand against the trunk of the tree. The breeze picked up and the fallen leaves rustled around them, the clouds overhead moving to cover the sun in a perfectly timed moment so highly dramatic any director would've been moved to tears and screaming for his Oscar.
To Megan, it just confirmed what she'd learned years ago. God had a quirky sense of humor. And given her behavior of times past, she'd learned she was usually on the receiving end of it.
Just trying to change your ways, Megan. You can't fault Him for that. How many times had her mother said that to her in her oh-so-prim voice?
Megan watched as Jenn's expression changed from startled and flushed to one of utter disbelief. Jenn's mouth flattened into a tight ridge, her face turning as pale as the sheets fluttering behind her on the clothesline.
"You've got to be kidding me." O-kay. Megan dug deep and managed a smile. "Trick or treat."
Jenn blinked at her a couple times in obvious disbelief. "What are you doing here? And what on earth happened to your hair?"
Megan smoothed a hand over her recently dyed brown locks. She hoped the change in hair color might buy her some time since Sean and his investigatorsshould her suspicions be correctwould be looking for a blond. She took a tentative step closer. "I came to see you," she said, lifting her hand toward her hair. "And I felt the need for a change."
She couldn't hold Jenn's gaze for long so she locked sights with the kid up in the tree. Cute. Young, maybe five or six years old, and definitely too thin, but cute. He watched them with interest, his sniffling cries momentarily halted in the face of the distraction and the drama playing out before him.
The kid was upset but not overly so. Just making a fuss. He looked more tired than anything, his long, thick lashes falling low over the most gorgeous caramel-honey-colored eyes she'd ever seen. What a heartbreaker. "Elle a peur que tu te fasses mal, Simon. S'il te plaît, descends delà."
"What did you tell him?"
Jenn could be so suspicious. Then again, how many times had Megan given her baby sis reason to be? "I told him you were going to make him eat worms if he didn't mind you."
Jenn gasped. "Megan!"
Megan rubbed her pounding head. "I'm kidding. I said you're afraid he'll get hurt, and that he should come down."
"Je veux aller chez rnoi. Je ne I'aime pas ici."
"He wants to go home. He doesn't like it here."
Jenn turned back to the boy. She held up her arms and coaxed him with a come-here waggle of her fingers. "I know you want to go home, honey. And you will. Soon. Come down. Please?"
The kid stubbornly shook his head and Jenn dropped her arms with a put-out sigh. Megan had a hard time hiding a smirk. She liked this kid. Trying not to cough, she asked, "Want me to try?"
"Fine. See what you can do. But just remember he's five, not twenty-five."
Megan widened her eyes and ignored the stabs of pain shooting through her head as a result. Jeez, her head hurt, her chest had an elephant sitting on it and Jenn worried about her doing something to the kid? "What, no sex jokes or come-ons?"
Megan wrapped her arms over her front in an attempt to keep warm. The sun had peeked back out from behind the clouds, but wasn't heating her up.