Karen sighed and realized her husband was right; this wasn’t her usual style. Still, what happened between Scott and Chrissie bothered her for some reason, bothered her a lot, and she felt a mother’s urge to fix things, to repair the situation. Maybe she was being fanciful, but Karen saw in Chrissie the same kind of pain she herself had once felt.
“If Scott and Chrissie are meant to be together,” Matt said, relaxing against the back of his chair, “then it’ll happen without any interference from us.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
“I can’t help myself,” she protested. “I’ve seen the look that comes over Chrissie’s face when anyone mentions Scott’s name. And the same is true of Scott. I know what it’s like to love someone so much that the hurt only seems to get worse. When we got divorced, it just about killed me.”
“Me, too,” Matt said quietly, his gaze sobering.
“We were both stubborn and afraid and in such pain.” Those weren’t times Karen ever wanted to relive. Pregnant and alone in California, afraid to tell Matt about the baby, afraid not to.
“And both of us so damn much in love.”
“Not that it helped us communicate any better.” They’d been defensive and bitter. In those days it’d been impossible to talk without their discussions erupting into arguments.
Matt reached across the table and squeezed her hand. “The part about me loving you hasn’t changed. All these years together proves it.”
On rare occasions, her husband could actually be romantic. And it was more meaningful because Karen knew it was genuine, heart-deep, and never a mere gesture.
“So you want to help Scott get back together with Chrissie?” he asked in a satisfied tone.
“If we can,” she said. “But we can’t tell anyone.” Whatever they did would have to be on the sly. Maybe a private conversation between Matt and Scott? Or a little confidential “girls’ talk”? They’d have to figure out the best approach.
“It’ll be our secret,” Matt agreed.
They emptied their leftover coffee into the sink and then, with a quick kiss, went about their busy days.
CHRISSIE ARRIVED at Scott’s “surprise party” early Friday evening. His mother opened the door, and Chrissie instantly lowered her gaze, feeling dreadful that she’d been the one to spoil the surprise. Almost immediately following her second run-in with Scott, Chrissie had called Abbey and confessed her faux pas. As always, Abbey had been gracious and immediately forgiven her mistake.
“Chrissie, would you stop?” Abbey said now, leading her into the large family home. “A surprise party was a ridiculous idea, anyway. I’m glad Scott knows, because it took away the pressure. Come inside and make yourself comfortable.”
Chrissie didn’t think that was possible. If not for Susan, she’d have found a convenient excuse to miss this party. Susan, however, wouldn’t have let her live it down.
Neither would Scott.
She’d say one thing about Scott O’Halloran—he was determined. That morning, when she got to work, she’d found a lovely bouquet of roses. Not just any roses, but red ones—a dozen perfectly formed buds. The card had read simply Scott.
Chrissie suspected he’d purchased them in Fairbanks the day before. Not that she was about to let a few beautiful roses sway her decision—although they must have cost him the earth.
It would take more than flowers. A lot more! As soon as the thought went through her mind, Chrissie tensed. No. She refused to even consider any kind of reconciliation. She refused to give Scott the power—or the opportunity—to hurt her again. He wasn’t going to find himself back in her good graces. No, sir! She’d be civil, but that was it. He was part of her past, not her future, and she fully intended to keep it that way.
With a quick detour to exchange hugs with Christian and Mariah O’Halloran, Chrissie headed straight for Susan, who was in the kitchen fussing with a variety of hors d’oeuvres. She slid them, hot from the oven, onto large ceramic platters. “Chrissie!” she cried when she saw her. “I knew you’d come.”
Grumbling, Chrissie reached for a green olive and munched on that, rather than argue. There was no point in explaining that she was here only under protest.
“Have you seen Scott?” Susan asked.
“No.” As much as possible, Chrissie planned to spend the night avoiding him—which was exactly what he’d accused her of. Too bad, she told herself firmly. She had no choice. Anyway, his opinion of her behavior was irrelevant.
“He’s the guest of honor, you know.”
Chrissie tossed her friend a dirty look and Susan laughed good-naturedly. Susan was pregnant and although the apron barely fit around her extended belly, she looked beautiful and healthy—and very happy. Ron was in the family room, chatting with friends. Chrissie caught a glimpse of him as he glanced at his wife. A pang of envy shot through her at the love, the adoration, she saw in his eyes.
“Let me take those mushrooms out for you,” Chrissie offered, and Susan handed her the oven mitts. Staying busy was the key, she decided. Standing around making idle chatter, wondering where Scott was—and how to stay out of his vicinity—would quickly drive her insane. She had to ignore the fact that he was somewhere in this crowded room…and probably watching her.
Picking up the large platter required two hands. A moment later, she was walking into the family room, balancing it carefully, when without warning Scott appeared directly in front of her.
Chrissie couldn’t think of a thing to say. Not a single thing. She stood there, doing an excellent imitation of an ice sculpture—cold and unmoving.
“Did you like the roses?” he asked.
“They were very nice.” She kept her voice expressionless.
“Thoughtful, too, don’t you think?” He turned toward his sister and winked.
Obviously the flowers had been Susan’s idea. Chrissie should have known her friend had put him up to this.
She purposely hardened her heart and stared at him, her composure intact. “I’m afraid you wasted your money.” Then she sidestepped him and marched into the other room, her tray of mushrooms aloft.
This wasn’t the first time Scott had sought her out at a party; the last occasion had been five years earlier, following her college graduation. He’d managed to pull her aside and hand her a batch of lies about missing her and wanting her back in his life. At the time she’d been so much in love with him she’d cherished every word. The memory chilled her blood. She’d been gullible and naive, but she wasn’t now.
The O’Halloran home was crowded, and Chrissie wove her way in and out, smiling, chatting, offering hors d’oeuvres to the guests while Abbey welcomed late arrivals. These included Chrissie’s dad, Mitch Harris, and her stepmother, Bethany. She paused, still holding her tray, and kissed both of them in greeting. She and Bethany chatted for a few minutes as Mitch moved toward Sawyer, then Chrissie resumed her duties. It might have been her imagination, but she sensed that everyone was watching her. She had the definite suspicion that all the interest she was generating had nothing to do with the crab-stuffed mushroom caps.
She was about to return to the kitchen when Scott sneaked up behind her. “We were going to have a talk, remember?”
“No, I don’t remember! I didn’t agree to that,” she informed him stiffly. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing to discuss.”
“I want to clear the air,” Scott persisted.
“The air’s as clear as it’s going to get.” She edged away.
Scott followed. “Not from where I’m standing.”
He was making this awfully hard. Chrissie could feel herself weakening; she couldn’t allow that to happen.
“Could I have everyone’s attention?” Sawyer called as he stepped into the center of the room. He held a bottle of champagne in one hand and a flute glass in the other. Anna, Ryan and several others appeared with champagne bottles and trays of glasses, pouring drinks for all the guests.
“We’ll continue this conversation later,” Scott said in a low voice.
“I told you before—there’s nothing to discuss,” Chrissie insisted, her voice carrying farther than she would have liked. Several people turned to look in their direction.
“Our son is home to stay,” Abbey said, tears of happiness brightening her eyes.
Sawyer slipped his arm around Abbey’s waist. “And he’s now a full partner in Midnight Sons.” He raised his champagne glass. “I’d like to propose a toast. To Scott. Welcome home, son.”
“Hear, hear!” Matt Caldwell yelled, and his words echoed around the room as glasses were lifted in Scott’s honor.
“Speech, speech,” Ryan, Scott’s seventeen-year-old half brother, shouted.
Scott groaned, but his objections were quickly overruled when his family and friends took up the cry. He moved closer to his parents and grabbed Ryan by the shoulders, squeezing hard. “Thanks a lot, little brother,” he muttered.
Everyone laughed. Scott looked a bit uncomfortable and needed a moment to gather his thoughts. “I’d like to thank everyone for this wonderful surprise party,” he began.
The entire room erupted into laughter, and several people grinned at Chrissie. If it hadn’t been in poor taste, she would have left right then and there. Scott had knowingly set out to embarrass her. She fumed and said nothing, refusing to acknowledge his statement.
“If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that we all make mistakes, say and do things we later regret. I’ve certainly committed my share of those, and will probably be guilty of more before my life is over.”
“As will we all,” Mitch Harris inserted. Bethany stood beside him, smiling; she sought out her stepdaughter, who tried to look away.
From across the room her father’s eyes connected with Chrissie’s, too, as though to remind her that he was willing to let matters rest between him and Scott—and so should she. Chrissie broke eye contact.
“As most of you know,” Scott continued, “I had something of a…rebellious youth.”
Sheriff Harris saluted the comment with a raised champagne glass, and a few guests chuckled.
“I said and did things that caused grief for those I love. I know I’ve hurt my family, but despite everything, they never lost faith in me.”
“Not once,” Sawyer said in agreement.
“My family and friends have put up with a great deal,” Scott added, and glanced toward Chrissie. Almost immediately he turned back to his parents. “It’s good to be home, Mom and Dad.”
A chorus of “Welcome Home,” followed from everyone in the room, and again, the family and friends of Scott O’Halloran toasted his return.
There was a surge of chatter then, and Chrissie went to the kitchen to assemble another platter of hors d’oeuvres. Susan came in shortly afterward and stared at Chrissie, obviously waiting for her to say something.