Ripple of Secrets

By: Denise Grover Swank

A Rose Gardner Between the Numbers Novella



Between Thirty-Three and Thirty-Four



Part One





Chapter One




Joe





My parents’ house was the last place I wanted to be on Christmas Day.

Coming home for just the day had become a tradition after I started law school in Little Rock. It fulfilled my family obligation without forcing me to spend any more time with my parents than necessary. Even before my entire life fell apart back in September, I’d hoped to get out of going to my parents’ house for Christmas. Only I’d hoped to be spending Christmas with Rose, planning our wedding and our family, our life together. Now my future seemed as barren as the gray day outside my car.

As I drove through the open gate, I considered pulling around the circular drive and taking off, but I knew it was just a fantasy. Still, I was grateful to find the brick-paved drive surprisingly empty. My parents usually threw elaborate Christmas parties. They must have still been too humiliated by my state senate loss to host one this year. Especially one I would be attending.

I parked close to the front door, then gripped the steering wheel and took a deep breath as I stared at the massive brick and stone house. Thank God for my sheriff patrol shift later. I’d volunteered to fill in for one of the deputies with a family so he could spend the entire day with his kids. I would have pulled a double shift if I could have gotten away with it, but my father had made some vague threat about “that Fenton County tart” and I’d mumbled that I’d figure out a way to come.

Rose and I might not be together, but I would gladly spend the rest of my life keeping her safe, whether she knew it or not. It was my penance for failing her.

A lump filled my throat, catching me by surprise. My good days outnumbered my bad ones lately, but the holidays had been rough. I’d purposely tried to avoid Rose over the last week, a difficult task given the fact that we were now business partners. But that was no one’s fault but my own. My last-ditch effort to keep her in my life. While I’d gone into it knowing her initial outrage would soften, I’d hoped her resistance to taking me back would fade as well. But her relationship with Mason seemed stronger than ever, especially after Mason’s brush with death in the fire at that strip club Gems. It was all I could do to block out the mental image of the two of them celebrating Christmas at Rose’s farmhouse.

That was supposed to be me.

But it was time to suck it up and accept the situation. At least for now. I still held out hope. Things changed. The crash course of our relationship was proof enough of that. Rose had told me she wanted safe instead of risky for now. She had been talking about the business, of course, but the look in her eyes had given me hope that her words might hold a double meaning. I’d bide my time. Rose was worth waiting for.

I squared my shoulders and climbed out of the car, grateful the forecasted rain had held off and the sun was peeking through the clouds. It bolstered my resolve as I knocked on the front door and waited. My parents’ butler, Gerald, opened the door moments later, a grim look on his face.

“Cheer up, Gerald,” I said, brushing past him as I walked through the door. “It’s Christmas and my parents don’t seem to be having their usual boisterous party.”

Gerald’s only response was to close the door behind me. He’d worked for my parents for nearly twenty years and truth be told, I couldn’t remember Gerald ever looking happy. But then again, look where he worked.

The entryway was covered with Christmas decorations. Real evergreen garland was wrapped around the staircase railing, as well as an elaborate holiday arrangement on the mahogany credenza. The image was worthy of a magazine layout. In fact, it had probably been featured in one. My parents were known for their multiple holiday parties and my mother hired a decorator every year. It took the decorator days to make the house visually ready for Christmas. But no matter how perfect it looked, there was always something missing—something only I seemed to notice. Heart and love. The setting was as soulless as it was beautiful.

Just like the woman who claimed to be carrying my child.

My parents were already sitting in the living room. My mother was dressed to impress in a cream-colored suit that blended in strategically with the off-white sofa, sipping a mimosa from a champagne flute. Dad was in an overstuffed chair, drinking coffee while reading a newspaper.

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