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Authors: Sherryl Woods

After Tex (27 page)

BOOK: After Tex
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“It's your fault, you know,” he accused.

“What is my fault?”

“You came in here with all your highfalutin talk and your fancy TV show and your big-shot friends and got my sweet Peggy all mixed up.”

“Your sweet Peggy is not mixed up. She is seeing
you clearly for the first time in a very long time,” Megan said. “Apparently she doesn't like what she sees.”

Johnny stared at her sullenly. “You got no right. We were happy till you came.”

“I didn't make her walk out on you, if that's what you're thinking. You did that all by your lonesome.”

“I want her back home where she belongs.”

“She belongs with someone who'll love her and respect her.”

Johnny actually managed to look shocked at the suggestion that she got anything less than that from him. “I love her,” he insisted. “Married her, didn't I? We've got a nice house, good kids. I give her just about anything she asks for. Doesn't that prove I love her?”

“You'd have to ask her if that's what really matters to her,” Megan said, belatedly concluding that this conversation ought to be between Peggy and her husband. “I'll go see if she wants to talk to you.”

Johnny covered his face with his hands and mumbled something Megan couldn't quite hear.

“What?” she asked.

“I said she won't want to talk. When she gets ticked off at me, she won't talk. That's how I know I'm in real trouble. It takes a whole lot to get Peggy to keep quiet.”

Megan could imagine. “Well, she'll talk to you now. I'll see to it.”

She didn't have to go far to find Peggy. She was sitting on the bottom step, dressed in her nightgown and robe, her knees drawn up to her chest. She gave Megan a weary smile.

“You're going to insist I go in there, aren't you?” she asked.

Megan nodded. “This is between you and Johnny.”

“But he's always been able to talk me into anything,” Peggy whispered, casting a worried look toward the living room. “I want this time to be different.”

“Then say no,” Megan said. “If that's what you really want, tell him you won't come back, not now, not ever again.”

Peggy gave her a rueful smile. “It sounds so easy when you say it.”

“Because he's not my husband and I was never in love with him. You two have a long history. It's hard to walk away from that, especially when the future seems so uncertain.”

Peggy stood up with obvious reluctance and started toward the living room. When she was close enough, Megan gave her hand a squeeze. “Just remember what it feels like every time you find out he's been with another woman.”

The reminder was enough to put fire in Peggy's eyes. She squared her shoulders and marched into the living room without another backward glance. Megan stood where she was long enough to hear Peggy's opening volley, a quiet, very firm declaration that it was over.

“This is Megan's fault,” Johnny shouted.

“Hush up, Johnny. Megan has nothing to do with it,” Peggy retorted, then lowered her voice.

Megan concluded that Peggy was going to do just fine. She wandered off to waylay Mrs. Gomez and
the coffee. She was going to need a whole lot of caffeine to get through the day on the little bit of sleep she'd gotten between Jake's late departure and Johnny's early arrival.

“Peggy is with her husband?” Mrs. Gomez asked. She seemed to be taking the fact that Peggy was here in the first place in stride.

“Yes.”

“Will she go back with him?”

“I don't know,” Megan said honestly as she accepted a cup of coffee from the housekeeper. She'd barely taken her first sip when Peter wandered into the kitchen, his expression shaken.

“How much did you hear?” she asked him.

“Enough to gather he is trying to win her back, though how he expects to do it with drunken promises is beyond me.”

Megan studied him intently. “Would it bother you if she decided to go home?”

“Of course it would. The man has treated her abominably.”

“That's not what I was asking, Peter.”

He took a long time stirring cream and sugar into his coffee, proof that he was more rattled than he wanted to let on. He took his coffee black.

“Now that you've killed a little time, how about answering me?” Megan prodded.

Peter took a sip of coffee instead, made a face at the taste, then took it to the sink and dumped it out. When he had fresh coffee in his cup, he finally met her gaze.

“I think it might bother me quite a lot,” he con
ceded. “I'm not sure I understand what's going on here. I don't react impulsively. I study things.”

“You analyze them to death,” Megan countered. “Not a bad trait when dealing with corporate books or the stock market, but a wasted effort when it comes to emotions. Some things you just have to accept at face value.”

“I've never even given a thought to being a father,” Peter said plaintively. “Peggy has three children. I feel as if I've been plunked into the middle of a bunch of alien creatures. What do I do with them?”

“Take them to the movies. Play ball with them. Do you think it's been easy for me to adjust to being Tess's parent? I was no more prepared than you are. If I can handle it, you can.”

He regarded her curiously. “Are you? Handling it, that is?”

“Some days better than others,” she admitted. “Sometimes I know exactly what is going on in her head and it breaks my heart, because once upon a time I was exactly where she is. Other times, I don't have a clue.”

Megan patted his cheek. “I'll tell you one thing, though, I'm determined to get the hang of it.”

“Because you have to.”

“No, because every now and then I see a bright and shining glimmer of what it could be like to be really good at it. Tess deserves that. So do Peggy's kids.”

Peter's expression turned glum again. “But they already have a dad, a real paragon to hear them tell it. He plays football and baseball with them. He's teaching them all about ranching. Hell, I couldn't
throw a pass if my life depended on it. As for ranching, the more distance there is between me and the sort of meat I eat for supper, the better I like it.”

“But Johnny's never taken them to the top of the Empire State Building or to see the Statue of Liberty. He's never taken them to a Broadway play or the opera. It's a trade-off, Peter. He'll bring certain things into their lives. You'll bring others. They'll be better off for having both of you.”

“You're assuming Peggy would pack up and leave here to come to New York.”

“Well, she does have a regular spot on my show now. If you're not enough, she has a career incentive.”

Peter gave her a wry look. “There's just one problem with that little scenario.”

“Which is?”

“As near as I can tell, you're not coming to New York anytime soon.” He regarded her quizzically. “Or am I wrong about that?”

“I can't,” she said automatically. “Not right now.”

“When?”

“I don't know,” she said with a sigh. “I honestly don't know.”

25

J
ake spent the morning in court. The judge, known for his preference to exceed sentencing guidelines and come down hard on perpetrators, was not feeling especially charitable toward Barbara Sue. He didn't like attempted murder, whatever the so-called justification for it.

“It was self-defense, your honor,” Jake explained, clinging to his patience by a thread. “Mrs. Perkins had reason to believe her daughter's well-being was in danger. The law is very clear on this.”

Judge Harry Corrigan gave him a sour look and cut him off. “A spanking would hardly put the child in mortal danger, Mr. Landers.”

“We aren't talking about a spanking,” Jake began, choosing his words carefully.

At that point Henrietta, who'd been sitting quietly in the first row, jumped to her feet. Obviously, she'd lost patience, too.

“Now see here, Harry,” she snapped acerbically, ignoring the hammering of the gavel. “If you'd get off that bench and your high horse and try living in the real world, you'd know what Jake is trying to tell you. The so-called victim in this case is a vicious brute. He's battered his wife for years and everyone
in town knows it. He was about to start on their daughter. Anyone with half an ounce of sense—”

“Stop that. Stop it at once,” Judge Corrigan bellowed. “I will not have my courtroom disrupted in this way, not even by a woman I respect as much as you, Henrietta.”

“Oh, settle down, you old fool,” Henrietta shouted back without flinching.

Jake had a feeling the old fool was reaching the end of his tether. A contempt-of-court ruling was on the horizon. He tried to hush Henrietta.

“Don't worry about me, Jake. Let him put me behind bars. I deserve to be there just about as much as this poor child he's got before him. I want you to think long and hard, Harry, before you make your ruling about either one of us. Since when do the courts or you think it's okay for a man to beat his wife? How would you feel if Barbara Sue were your daughter? If Sissy were your granddaughter? I'll tell you how. You'd use the damned shotgun yourself.”

The gavel smashed down so hard it was a wonder it didn't split the solid oak bench in two. Jake waited for an explosion of temper. The prosecutor seemed dazed by Henrietta's outburst. Judge Corrigan's face was a dangerously angry shade of red. It took several minutes for him to speak.

“Okay, Henrietta, you've had your say. Now I'll have mine. If you have any sense in that foolish old head of yours, you'll sit down and keep quiet until I'm through.”

With a huff of displeasure, Henrietta sat. The judge scowled at Jake. “You might as well sit, too. This
could take awhile and I want you to be comfortable so you'll listen closely to every word.”

Jake sat.

“I cannot and will not condone the method that Mrs. Perkins used to stop her husband,” the judge said as his color slowly returned to a more normal shade. “She should have called the sheriff.”

“And been dead by the time he got there,” Henrietta muttered.

“Silence!” Judge Corrigan bellowed, his complexion turning red again.

Henrietta glared at him without so much as a hint of contrition.

“Now, then, I do recognize that there were extenuating circumstances. Albeit inappropriately, Henrietta has made an eloquent and strong case. You should thank her, Mr. Landers. I will grant the prosecution's petition for a plea bargain.” He scowled at Barbara Sue. “You will be on probation for one year, Mrs. Perkins. I do not want to have any reason to regret my decision here today.”

“And the restraining order against Mr. Perkins?” Jake asked.

“Granted.” He slammed his gavel down again, rose and left the courtroom.

Barbara Sue covered her face with her hands and wept. Jake gathered Henrietta into his arms and swung her around.

“You were magnificent,” he said. “Though for a minute there I thought I was going to have to bail you out of jail.”

“That old man doesn't scare me. He's the same bully now he was when we were in grade school to
gether. Tried to get me to marry him once using the same approach. I turned him down flat.” She glanced past Jake. “I think somebody else is here who'd like to congratulate you.”

Jake turned and spotted Megan standing uncertainly in the aisle.

“I had no idea you were here.”

“You were fantastic,” she said.

“I barely got out ten words. It was Henrietta who saved the day.”

“The point is that Barbara Sue is free to go back home with her kids. You must feel incredible.”

He shrugged. “I'm glad I could help. Now all we have to do is make sure Lyle stays the heck away from her. Something tells me that will be easier said than done, even with Bryce staying on his case.”

“When is he due out of the hospital?” Megan asked.

“Sometime next week would be my guess. He'll probably stay with his mother till he's back on his feet again.”

“Yes, that is exactly where he will stay,” Mrs. Perkins said, cutting into the conversation. “And you will all regret the day that you tried to destroy my son's reputation without a fair hearing.” She glanced at Barbara Sue. “You are not worthy to clean my boy's shoes.”

Henrietta started to respond, but Jake touched her arm in silent warning. Instead, they just stood and watched as Emma Perkins whirled around and swept out of the courtroom in wave of indignation.

“She's the reason he turned out the way he did,” Henrietta said. “She's every bit as much of a bully
as Lyle ever thought of being. She spoiled him rotten on top of setting a bad example. It's little wonder he shows no respect for anyone and thinks women were put on this earth to do his bidding.”

“You made an enemy of her today,” Barbara Sue said to Henrietta. “She'll probably charge you an arm and a leg for any supplies you need for the diner from now on. I'm so sorry you were drawn into this. You've been trying so hard to help me and all I've done is make trouble for you.”

“I'm not worried about Emma Perkins,” Henrietta said dismissively. “I've been going to that new discount store out on the highway for months now. She's the one who's going to lose business when the story gets around about how she defended the way her son's been treating you.”

“Please,” Barbara Sue begged. “We can't let that get out. I don't want the kids to hear that kind of gossip about their daddy or their grandmother.”

“It's time you stopped protecting them,” Henrietta said sternly. “They're getting big enough to understand what's been going on in that house. Unless they know the whole truth, they're liable to start blaming you when their daddy doesn't come back home.”

“Henrietta's right,” Megan said, surprising Jake. “It's always better to know the truth. Kids sense most of it, anyway. I know I did. And for all these years, all they've seen is Lyle's bad example as a husband. They need to know that what he's been doing to you isn't acceptable.”

Barbara Sue nodded. “I know you're right, but right now, I just want to see my babies and hold them.”

“They'll be back at the diner the minute school's out,” Henrietta promised. “Janie will bring them by. And then all of you are moving in with me. No arguments. When things are more settled, you can decide what you want to do, but until then, you'll be at my house. It's been way too quiet and empty with my kids grown and gone. I'll be glad of the company.”

As the rest of them left the courthouse, Jake lingered. Megan waited for him.

“You did a good thing here today,” she told him.

He shrugged off the praise. “It reminded me of why I went into law. I'd lost track of that when I was in Chicago. I got disillusioned with protecting the bad guys, using technicalities to maneuver justice.”

“Do you like practicing law better than being a rancher?”

He grinned. “Still trying to talk me out of stealing Tex's ranch from you?”

“No, just asking an honest question. Which do you prefer, Jake?”

“I like them both.” He gazed into her eyes, then decided it was time to put his future on the line. “I want it all, Meggie, including you.”

 

Megan was still unnerved by Jake's declaration when she went back to work in the afternoon. They were finishing up their last taping, so they could get out of the Barkley home. As the commotion swirled around her, all she could think about were Jake's words:
I want it all, Meggie, including you.

So, there it was. She could no longer ignore what she'd been sensing for weeks now. He'd made his
intentions crystal clear and this time they included her. He wasn't going to be satisfied with proving something to the town. Taking Tex's ranch wouldn't do it, either. He wanted her. The only question was whether he viewed claiming her as just another triumph or whether he was in love with her. The word certainly hadn't crossed his lips.

And if it had? she asked herself as the afternoon wore on. How did she feel about Jake? The last few weeks had been revealing. Her old feelings for him hadn't died at all. If anything, they had grown stronger, now that she knew the man he'd become. His actions, his values, his caring had earned her respect and, yes, even her love.

But there was still the matter of going back to New York eventually. There wasn't a doubt in her mind that her career—her real future—was back there. The stopgap measures she had taken these last few weeks weren't the answer. She sighed heavily.

“Hey, where'd you go?” Peggy asked, regarding her worriedly. “Everything okay?”

“Just thinking.”

“About?”

“The future.”

“In other words, Jake,” Peggy corrected, grinning.

“I didn't say—”

“You didn't have to. With you, it's always been about Jake, the same way it was always about Johnny for me.”

“You've moved on,” Megan pointed out.

“I've moved out. I'm not so sure about moving on,” Peggy confessed in a voice that barely rose above a whisper.

Megan stared at her in shock. “What are you saying? I thought that was over and done with. I thought you were tired of him humiliating you. I thought you were at least a little bit interested in Peter.”

Peggy waved off the suggestion. “Peter's terrific. I owe him the world for making me feel like a woman again. He rode in here like a knight in shining armor, but the truth is, he's a dyed-in-the-wool city slicker and I'm definitely a country girl. It would never work.”

“If the show goes back to New York, you'd be a city slicker, too.”

“No. My heart's here,” she said firmly. “If you take the show back to New York, I won't be going with it.”

Megan stared at her in shock. “Has something happened that I missed?”

Peggy nodded, her cheeks turning pink. “Johnny came by again this morning.”

“Uh-oh. Did he bring roses? You always were a sucker for a bouquet of flowers.”

“He brought daisies, actually, but that wasn't what did it.”

“What did?”

“He told me he was sorry. He told me he missed me and the kids. And he said if I'd come home again, things would be different.”

“And you believed him? Peggy, how many times has he said this in the past?”

“Never,” she admitted. “Because I never walked out before, never even threatened to. Peter gave me the gumption to do it and I guess it scared the heck out of Johnny. He realized he really could lose me.
More important, he realized that it would really matter to him if he did.”

Megan was more skeptical. “Do you honestly think he'll stick to it once he's won and you're back home again?”

“I was a little uneasy about that myself at first.” Peggy grinned. “Which is why I told him I'd be staying on at your house for a while, if you'll have me. If he wants me back, he has to court me, starting with a candlelight dinner in Laramie tonight.”

Megan couldn't help smiling back at her. “How long are you going to make him jump through hoops?”

“Now, you see, that's where the good part comes in. I can drag this out for a very long time, unless of course you decide to kick me out of your place.”

“No, indeed. You're welcome to stay just as long as you want to. I've discovered I like having roomies.”

“Then I'd say it could take Johnny months—and a whole lot of posies—to get me back.”

Impulsively Megan gave her a hug. “I am so happy for you. I hope it works out this time.”

“It will,” Peggy said with confidence. “I think maybe we're both growing up, learning to communicate. Given the fact that we've both hit thirty this year, I think it's about time, don't you?”

Megan thought of her accountant and wondered if he was inside nursing a broken heart. “Does Peter know what you've decided?”

BOOK: After Tex
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