I love when characters get into each other’s heads, don’t you? In this scene from A PRIDE OF BROTHERS: RICK, Abby Laine is digging deep into Rick’s motives. Her questions prove a little too spot on for his comfort. Enjoy~
“She definitely had some angels on her shoulders today,” she said after taking a sip. “I wish her son could be at the hospital with her. I’m so worried about him. About what his father could be doing to him.”
Rick’s stomach clenched. “Do you think he’d hurt the kid?”
“He has in the past. That’s what finally prompted Lila to leave. For a reason I will never understand, she tolerated being hit by her husband, but the moment he laid a hand on their child, she knew she had to leave. Why she bore being abused is beyond me.”
“Maybe as an adult, she figured she could take it. Not so her kid.”
Abby shook her head as she stirred the contents of the wok. “You can hit me but not my child? That’s convoluted thinking and shows how little we’ve really evolved as a society. Unfortunately, I see too many instances like this in my practice. Women, who for whatever reason, are convinced they deserve to be treated abominably, that a marriage license gives their husbands the right to hit them. The legal right.” She shook her head again. As she stirred the chicken around the wok, it popped and sizzled over the heated oil.
A flash of himself at eight, his parents’ screaming voices above him, pushed to the front of his mind. The resounding thwack of the back of his father’s hand striking his mother’s cheek was as loud and terrifying to hear in his head now as it had been then. Rick took a deep breath and shoved the memory back down.
He took a large swig of the water. “Any calls from your cop buddy? Updates?”
“I checked when I was getting changed. Nothing.” She sighed and then tossed two wrappers into the now- boiling pot of water. “In a minute, everything will be ready,” she said. “The rice needs to set.”
“That’s rice? It’s the wrong color.”
“You’ve never seen brown rice before?”
“Seen it. Had it. Just didn’t know it came in wrappers.”
This time she didn’t try to hide her grin. “If you tell Kandy, I’ll deny it until my dying breath.”
“Tell her what?”
With another subtle eye roll, Abby said, “That I take shortcuts. If Kandy was making this meal, the rice would have soaked in warm water for an hour, then would have been cooked in a rice steamer for another. I don’t have two spare hours. This”—she pointed to the pot—“is quick rice. Something I don’t think my darling chef sister has ever prepared. You know Kandy. She never uses commercial products. Everything is fresh, raw, and unprocessed.”
“Truth. And don’t forget delicious.”
“To use your word, truth. But cooking is what she lives for. I cook so I won’t starve, and most of the time I’m in a time crunch. So”—she waved a hand— “shortcuts.”
“As long as it tastes good and I didn’t have to make it, I don’t care how long it took to prepare.”
“Which is why takeout was invented for people like you. Here we go. All set.”
She spooned the chicken mixture onto a serving plate and, using tongs, pulled the rice from the pot, sliced the sides open, and poured the grains into a bowl.
“Take these to the table.” She handed him the food. “I’ll get plates and utensils.”
Once they were settled, Rick dug in.
After eating in silence for a few moments, he said, “This is good. Really good.”
Abby laughed. “Surprised, are you?”
“Impressed. This tastes like our favorite chef- lebrity made it.”
“She hates being called that, you know.”
“And still…” He lifted a hand.
“God. You’re such a pain.” He could see the humor skirting in her eyes.
“You’ve called me that before. Several times over the years, including on Kandy’s wedding day.”
The moment he said it he knew her mind traveled back to the same memory of the day as his did: their kiss. Her beautiful blue eyes widened, then narrowed, a thin worry line creasing the spot between her sculpted brows. The little flush of heat pinking her cheeks was the same color as her fuzzy socks.
Who knew she was so easy to tease? And why did it give him such a kick to see the nervous little shake of her head when he did?
“You were being an exceptional pain in the butt that day. If I remember correctly you called us minions. Not exactly a flattering phrase, Bannerman.”
He leaned back in the chair and took a chug from the water bottle. “Just calling it like I saw it. What description would you have preferred?”
“Attendants is the appropriate term. Bridal attendants. Calling us minions made us seem like mindless…lemmings.”
He laughed out loud. “From where I was standing, that’s exactly what you all were, although I wouldn’t call you mindless. You were all dressed identically, did everything together as a unit, and were at Kandy’s beck and call. She said jump, you all asked how high.”
“That’s what we were supposed to do. Our job was to make sure Kandy’s day ran smoothly, with no worries. Haven’t you ever been in a wedding party?”
“Nope. I’ve been lucky to miss that experience so far.”
Her mouth pursed around her fork. “Do you even have friends?” she asked after swallowing.
“ ’Course I have friends. What kind of a question is that?”
“Aside from Josh.”
“You don’t give off a ‘let’s get together and have a beer’ vibe, you know.”
Intrigued, he asked, “Really? What kind of vibe do I give off?” When she didn’t respond, he pressed. “Come on, Abigail. You can’t leave me hanging.”
“Right there.” She aimed her fork at him as if it were a spear. “Perfect example. You know I hate being called Abigail. I’ve lost count of the hundreds of times I’ve told you and you still do it, knowing it pisses me off. And”—she cut him off before he could speak— “your usual response is to lift your hands and say ‘and still’ when you’re called on it. Who does that? What kind of person persistently and purposefully annoys people?”
“So you’re saying I’m intentionally annoying?”
“Persistently, so. Yes. Makes the lawyer in me wonder why.”
Just the lawyer?
“Any answers come to mind?”
“Care to share?” She placed her fork down next to her plate and regarded him across the table. “You really want to hear this? Because if you know anything about me, you know I’m truthful. I don’t hold back.”
Oh, he was sure she didn’t. And wouldn’t. Her tenacity was one of the things he’d first been drawn to. That and her fabulous ass.
“I’m a big boy,” he said with a grin. “I can take it.
She took a sip of water first, her eyes trained on him the entire time. “Okay. If you really want to hear this.”
He waved his hand for her to continue.
“I think you use your cocky, aren’t-I-simply-too- witty attitude to keep people at a distance. You’re guarded. Emotionally. Like you don’t want to get close to anyone. You don’t want people diving in too deep, digging under the surface to see the real you. You don’t allow people to get to know you. Really know you.”
Because she came a little too close for comfort, Rick reached for his water.
“You never talk about yourself. Ever. Every time I’ve been in your presence at any function, barbecue, whatever”—she swiped a hand in the air—“you’re always the one asking questions. Probing. Being nosy. But when you’re asked a question, a personal one, you deflect and redirect.”
It was true. He never talked about himself. The army shrink he’d been forced to see had told him point blank he was fearful of rejection, afraid if people knew the real him, they’d run for the hills or in the opposite direction and want nothing to do with him. She hadn’t been too far off the mark.
“Did you ever think it’s because I feel people are more interesting than I am?”
“I’m calling bullshit, Bannerman.”
Again, because it was true, he had no real response. She cocked her head and pierced him with what he was now and forever going to call her lawyer death stare. “I don’t know anything personal about you,” she said. “We met four years ago, have been together dozens of times over the years, yet until today I didn’t even know where you lived. If it weren’t for Gemma, I wouldn’t know you’d been in the army.”
“You’ve discussed me with your sister?” Why did knowing that give him such a rush of delicious pleasure?
Abby waved a hand in the air again. “She mentioned it one night after she’d done some photography work for you on a surveillance job. About how you were much better suited to the boring wait- around-for-something-to-happen of surveillance work than she’d ever be because you were—her word— stealthy. It was probably because you’d been a sniper in the army, she said.”
Rick shook his head. He’d forgotten he’d told Abby’s younger sister about his army stint. It came out one day, unbidden, when he’d taken her target shooting at the practice range.
“I would never have known if she hadn’t told me. I didn’t even think to ask if you’ve got a gun with you.”
After a few moments, he nodded. “It’s in my duffle. But don’t worry. I don’t need the gun to protect you.”
“Duh. The gun business aside, you’re partners with my brothers-in-law, but I don’t know if you’ve ever been married or divorced. If you have any kids. Living parents. It’s as if you don’t want people to know anything about you. To know you. Or to like you. Almost as if you go out of your way to make sure they don’t.”
This conversation was getting entirely too close for comfort. He wished he’d never pressed her into explaining.
From the corner of his gaze, he saw the cat hobbling into the room, beelining for her mother. He reached a hand down as she skittered by and grazed her fluffy back. Moonlight stopped, turned, and moved as his fingers trailed across her back again. When she did it a third time, Rick smirked across the table.
“Well, your cat likes me, so I can’t be all bad.” He reached over and single-handedly pulled the animal up to his lap, surprised she was so light. From the girth of hair on her, he figured she’d be heavy. “You really are a furball, aren’t you?” The rub of his finger across her neck had the cat running like a motorized propeller again.
He glanced across the table. “What’s the look for?”
She immediately blanked her face, grabbed up the last bits of her chicken with her fork, and shoved it through her lips.
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Until next time ~ Peg