Enraged and uncertain what he planned to do, Casey started forward. Before he reached Dell, Sawyer caught his arm and drew him up short. "Take it easy, Case."
Emma covered her mouth with a shaking hand, crying while trying not to cry, held tight by her father's grip even as she attempted to inch away from him. She wouldn't look at any of them, her narrow shoulders hunched in embarrassmentand possibly pain.
Casey's heart hurt, and his temper roiled. Emma's pretty brown eyes, usually so warm and sexy, were downcast, circled by ruined makeup and swollen from her tears. There was a bruise on her cheek, just visible in the glow of the porch light.
Casey felt tight enough to break as a kind of animal outrage that he'd never before experienced struggled to break free. Every night he'd thought about seeing Emma again, and every night he'd talked himself out of it.
Not once had he considered that he'd see her like this.
His vision nearly blurred as he heard Emma sniff and watched her wipe her eyes with a shaking hand.
With unnecessary roughness, her father shoved her forward and she stumbled across the wide porch before righting herself and turning her back to Casey. Without a word, she held on to the railing, staring out at the moonlit yard. Her broken breathing was audible over the night sounds of wind and crickets and rustling leaves.
"Do you know what your damn son did?" Dell demanded.
Casey felt Sawyer look at him but he ignored the unasked questions and instead went to Emma, taking her arm and pulling her close. It didn't matter why she was here; he wanted to hold her, to tell her it'd be all right.
Drawn into herself, Emma sidled away from him, whispering a broken apology again and again. She hugged her arms around herself. Casey realized the night was cool, and while Dell wore a jacket, Emma wore only a T-shirt and jeans, as if she'd been pulled away without having time to grab her coat. Since he was shirtless, he couldn't offer her anything. He tried to think, to figure out what to do, but he couldn't get his brain to work. He felt glued to the spot, unable to take his gaze off her.
She needed his help.
Honey came to the same realization. "Why don't we all go inside and talk?"
Looking horrified by that proposition, Emma backed up. "No. That's not"
"Be quiet, girl!" Her father reached for her again, his anger and his intent obvious.
Casey stepped in front of him, bristling, coiled. "Don't even try it." No way in hell would he let Dell touch her again.
Face mottled with rage, her father shouted, "You think you get some say-so, boy? You think what you've done to her gives you that right?"
Without moving his gaze from the man in front of him, Casey said, "Honey, will you take Emma inside?"
Honey looked at her husband, who nodded. Casey hadn't had a single doubt what his father would do or say. Not once in his entire life had he ever had to question his father's support.
Never in his life had he been more grateful for it.
Again, Emma tried to back away, moving into the far shadows of the big porch. Casey snapped his gaze to hers, so attuned to her it seemed he felt her every shuddering breath. "Go inside, Emma."
She bit her lip, big tears spilling over her blotchy cheeks and clinging to her long lashes. Her mouth trembled. "Casey, I
"it's all right." He struggled to keep his voice soft, comforting, but it wasn't easynot while he could see the hurt in her eyes and feel her very real distress. "We'll talk in a little bit."
Speaking low and gentle, Honey put her arm around Emma, and reluctantly, Emma allowed herself to be led away. The front door closed quietly behind them.
With his daughter out of sight, Dell seemed more incensed than ever. He took two aggressive steps forward. "You'll do more than talk. You'll damn well marry her."
Casey gave him a cool look of disdain. That Dell could treat a female so callously made him sick to his stomach, but that he'd treat his own daughter that way brought out all Casey's protective instincts. More than anyone else he knew, Emma needed love and understanding. Yet, her own father was throwing her out, deliberately humiliating her.
"You brought her here," Casey growled. "You've delivered her to my doorstep, to me. What she or I do now is no concern of yours. Go home and leave us the hell alone."
Though Casey knew it would only complicate things more, he wanted to tear Dell apart. It wouldn't strain him at all. He was taller, stronger, with raw fury adding to his edge. He deliberately provoked Dell, and waited for his reaction.
It came in a lightning flash of curses and motion. The older man erupted, lunging forward. Smiling with intent, anxious for the confrontation, Casey braced himself.
Unfortunately, Sawyer caught Dell by his jacket collar before Casey could throw his first swing.
At well over six feet tall, solid with muscle, Sawyer wasn't a man to be messed with. He slammed Dell hard into the side of the house, and held him there with his forearm braced across his throat. He leaned close enough that their noses nearly touched.
"You come onto my property," Sawyer snarled, looking meaner than Casey had ever seen him look, "treating your only daughter like garbage and threatening my son?" He slammed Dell again, making his head smack back against the wood siding. "unless you want me to take you apart right now, which I'm more than willing to do, I suggest you get hold of your goddamn temper."
Dell's face turned red from Sawyer's choking hold, but he managed a weak nod. When Sawyer released him, he sagged down, gulping in air. It took him several moments, and Casey was glad that Emma had gone inside so she didn't hear her father's next words.
Wheezing, Dell eyed both Sawyer and Casey. "You're so worried about Emma, fine. She's yours." He spit as he talked, his face distorted with anger and pain. "You and your son are welcome to her, but don't think you can turn around and send her back home."
"To you?" Casey curled his lip. "Hell no."
Something in the man's eyes didn't make sense. The fury remained, no doubt about that. But Dell also looked
desperate. And a bit relieved. "You swear?"
He should have hit the son of a bitch at least once, Casey thought. He nodded, and forced the next words out from between clenched teeth. "You just make sure you stay the hell away from her."
Glaring one last time, Dell stepped around Sawyer and stomped down off the porch. At the edge of the grass, he stopped, his shoulders stiff, his back expanding with deep breaths, and for a long moment he hesitated. Casey narrowed his eyes, waiting. For Emma's sake, he half hoped her father had a change of heart, that he showed even an ounce of concern or compassion.
Dell looked over his shoulder at Casey. His mouth opened twice but no words were spoken. Finally he shook his head and went to his battered truck. He didn't glance back again. His headlights came on and he left the yard, squealing his tires and spewing gravel.
Casey stood there, breathing hard, his hands curled into fists, his whole body vibrating with tension. The enormity of the situation, of what he'd just taken on, nearly leveled him. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to think.
Jesus, what had he done?
Sawyer's hand slipped around the back of his neck, comforting, supportive. A heavy, uncomfortable beat of silence passed.
"What do you want to do first, Case?" Sawyer spoke in a nearly soundless murmur, his voice disappearing in the dark night. "Talk to me, or talk to Emma?"
Casey looked at his dad, a man he loved and respected more than anyone else on earth. He swallowed. "Emma."
Nodding, Sawyer turned them both around and headed for the door. Casey hoped a few answers came to him before the morning light began creeping over the lake. Because, at the moment, he had no idea what the hell was going on.
Emma heard the opening and the closing of the front door. She squeezed her eyes shut, horrified, ashamed, scared spitless.
And oddly relieved.
More tears leaked out, choking her, burning her cheeks and throat. What had she done? What choice had she been given?
Honey touched her arm in a motherly way. "Drink your hot chocolate. And Emma, everything will be okay. You'll see."
Shaking down deep in her soul, Emma wiped at her eyes. She felt like a child, and knew she looked more like a barroom whore. Her makeup had long since been ruined and her nose and eyes were red. Her hair was a wild mess and her T-shirt was dirty.
Though the Hudson household was cozy and warm, she still felt chilled from the inside out. In that moment, she wondered if she'd ever be warm again.
Hugging herself in self-conscious dismay, she wished she could just disappear. She didn't belong in this house with these nice respectable people. But disappearing wasn't an option. She'd gotten herself in this mess and now she had to face them all. She had to explain.
She owed Casey at least that much.
At that moment, barefoot and shirtless, Casey came around the corner into the kitchen. His muscled arms crossed over his chest as he stopped in front of the kitchen table where she sat. His light-brown eyes, filled with compassion and confusion, warmed to glittering amber as he looked her over.
Stomach churning in dread, Emma flicked her gaze away.
Casey's father, Sawyer, stood behind him. Honey sat beside her. She felt surrounded, circled by their concern and curiosity, hemmed in by their kindness.
The damn tears welled up again and she felt herself start to shudder. Oh, God, if she bawled like a baby now she'd never forgive herself.
His expression solemn, Casey held out his hand. "Let's me and you talk a little, Emma."
She stared at him through a haze of tears.
Sawyer frowned. "Casey."
"Just a few minutes, Dad. I promise."
Honey sent Sawyer a pointed look, then patted Emma's shoulder. "You can use the family room. Sawyer and I will make sandwiches and join you in just a few minutes."
Keeping her head bowed so she wouldn't have to make eye contact with anyone, Emma left her chair. She didn't want to take Casey's hand, and tried to walk around him, but he caught her and his fingers laced into hers. His hand was big and warm, strong and steady. Reassuring.
Normally, just being near him made her feel more secure. But not this time.
To her amazement, when he reached the family room, Casey sat down and tugged her into his lap. She couldn't remember anyone ever holding her like that before. Emma was so shocked she almost bolted upright, but Casey wrapped both arms around her and pulled her so tightly to him, her head just naturally went to his shoulder. Her shaking increased.
Very gently, Casey stroked one hand up and down her back. "Em? Tell me what's going on."
Despite her resolve, she clutched at him. "I'm so sorry, Casey. So, so sorry."
He pushed her hair away from her face, then reached for a box of tissues on the end table and held them in front of her. Emma blew her nose, but it didn't help. The tears kept coming and she couldn't make them stop. "I didn't mean to get you involved, I swear."
Calmly, as if she hadn't just turned his life upside down, he said, "Involved in what?"
That was the thing about Casey. He was always calm, always so mature and sure of himself that, without thinking, she'd used his name and now
Emma grabbed for three more tissues. This was where she had to be careful. "I told my parents that I'm pregnant."
Casey went very still. Silence hung heavy in the air, broken only by her gasping breaths and awful sniffling. Casey sat there, tall and proud and strong, while she fell apart like a deranged child.
In that moment, Emma hated herself.
His hand began stroking her again. "I take it they weren't too happy about it?"
She laughed, but the humor faded into a wail. "I couldn't think of what else to do."
"So you came to me?"
He didn't seem nearly as outraged as she had expected. But then Casey was so different from any other guy she knew, she didn't know what to expect from him. He had a good handle on everything, on his life, his temper, his future.
not what you think." This was even harder than she'd imagined. On the silent drive to his house, with her father fuming beside her, she'd tried to prepare herself, tried to make decisions. But this was the worst thing she'd ever done.
"No?" His thumb carefully smoothed over the bruise on her cheek.
God, she wished he'd say something more, maybe yell at her or throw her out. His calm destroyed what little control she'd been able to hold on to. "No." She shook her head and leaned away from the gentleness of his touch. It took one breath, then another, before she could speak convincingly. "I don't need or want anything from you, Case."
The intensity of his darkened gaze seeped into her and she tried to look away.
Gently, Casey brought her face back up to his. "Then why are you here, Em?"
"I just. " I had to escape. She drew a shaking breath and attempted to gather herself together. The last few hours had seemed endless, and the night was far from over. "I needed to get away and I couldn't think of anything else."
A rap on the door made her jerk, and she looked up to see Sawyer and Honey standing there, each carrying a tray. Sawyer held sandwiches and Honey held mugs of hot chocolate.
Emma started to groan. God, they were like Leave it to freakin' Beaver or something, so homey and together that nothing shook them for long, not even the neighborhood riffraff dropping in with a bombshell that should have disrupted the rest of their lives.
Envy formed a vise around her heart, but she knew she'd never belong to a family like theirs. They'd never want her.
Her own family didn't.
Sawyer's smile appeared strained but kind. "I think we should all do a little talking now."
He set the tray on the coffee table and settled into a chair. Honey did the same. They both seemed to ignore the fact that she'd ended up perched on Casey's lap, held in his strong arms. But the second Emma realized just how that would look, she shot to her feet. Before she could move too far away, Casey leaned forward and caught her wrist. Unlike her father's grip, his was gentle and warm.
Casey's hold offered comfort not restraint.
He came to his feet beside her, and she had the awful suspicion he wanted to provide a united front to his parents. He faced his father squarely, without an ounce of uncertainty or embarrassment. "Emma is pregnant."