Page 83 of Coercion

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It’s Emerson’s real face.One of the oldest, most hidden ones.I saw his real sadness and fear and despair many more times before he shut them all away, but this one…

It’s guileless.That’s the only way I can think to describe it.There’s absolutely no pretense.No closed doors.

“Mom.”His palm moves up and down on Daphne’s arm in a particular rhythm.“I hope you didn’t forget the bread.”

Sinclair makes a choked sound and turns his face to the window.Thebread.She went to the store to get bread but didn’t come back.That’s what Emerson told me, but it’s not the real story.It can’t be, because—

Mom holds up the grocery bag, the handles held tight in her fist.“It was the strangest thing, Emmy.They were all out.It sent me on a wild goose chase.”

Emerson laughs out loud, and in three big steps he’s across the kitchen.She looks up at him, a twin open book, and I see where he got it from.

“You used to be so tall.”He touches her chin.Her cheek.“What happened to your hair?”

“I messed it up.”She laughs, tears streaking down her cheeks.“I don’t know how to fix it.”

Emerson takes her face in big hands.“Don’t worry.Daphne knows all about those things.”He turns, not letting go of Mom, and Daphne’s there at his side.“Daphne, this is my mom.Mom, this is Daphne, my wife.”

“It’s so good to meet you.”Daphne beams.“Emerson’s right.I do know a really lovely salon.”

Em leans down and whispers something into Mom’s ear.

“You’re kidding.”

He shakes his head, and then she’s crying even more, her arms pulling Emerson and Daphne in tight.She’s still crying when she releases them and crosses the kitchen to Sinclair, dropping the grocery bag on the island as she goes.He won’t look at her at first, but then she pulls on his elbow, saying something too soft to hear.Sin’s chin wobbles, hesitating for a few more seconds before he folds.He drapes himself over her and buries his face in her shoulder, his arms folded around her.

Bristol and the twins bump into me.Their arms are at my waist, and Bristol slides hers around my neck, careful as she can be.She kisses my cheek with tears in her eyes.

Mia takes in the rest of the kitchen.“Wow.”She nods to herself.“That must be some really special bread.”

* * *

Something wakesme up in the middle of the night.A sound, maybe.I tug on a hoodie over my T-shirt and pajama pants and go to investigate, half-asleep.

Upstairs, Mia is in the hallway in her nightgown, peering at all the doors.“Hey, Will?”She must be half-asleep, too.“I can’t remember which bedroom’s mine.”

“This one,” I whisper.She’s under the covers in her library bedroom and back asleep in seconds.

I pad back downstairs.Dinner lasted until everyone was exhausted, and then Mom went upstairs to one of Em’s guest bedrooms.He’s going to show her the cottage on the property across the street in the morning.

“Quiet,” he said.“You can have as much time by yourself as you want, but we’ll be close, so you can see us whenever.”He wouldn’t hear of her living anywhere else.

I’m not sure what makes me go to the window.It’s late as hell.I think my clock said two in the morning.The backyard has a moonlight glow to it.So does the ocean.Big swells roll toward the shore.A shadow on one of them catches my eye.

“Oh my fucking God.”

It’s not a shadow, it’s Emerson.

I go out the back door, cut across my yard, and hustle across night-chilled sand.Temperatures are dropping at night, and the breeze cuts through my hoodie.

I cross to his section of the beach and stand at the shore, wave remnants freezing my toes, and wave my arms over my head.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”I shout over the waves.“You can’t surf in the middle of the night.You’ll get yourself killed.Emerson.Em.”

The figure out on the waves pauses, then starts to paddle in.He catches the next wave and speeds toward the shore.It’s disgusting how good he is at surfing.He’s still some distance out when he dives off the board, disappearing under the surface.The board skims along without a rider.

What if he hit his head on a rock?I’m going to kill him.Rescue him from drowning, then kill him.Just when I think I’m going to have to wade into the damn ocean at two in the morning, Emerson pops up twenty feet from the shore.He catches the leash for his board and drags it behind him like a fallen kite, legs cutting through the water with small splashes.

“The hell are you thinking?”Em doesn’t answer.It’s hard to see his face with the moon behind him like this.He just keeps dragging the board, walking straight at me like he’s on a mission.“This is basic water safety, asshole.”