Deleted scenes for
WHERE THERE’S A WILL
“You have no idea how hard this was to figure out. Like, mission-impossible hard. This project was so hard it deserves theme music.”
“Celia.” Coe glanced over his shoulder as a customer pushed through the door of Pauline’s Praline Sweet Shoppe to browse through the glass case displays of goodies. When he saw it wasn’t Miranda, he relaxed. Not that he was expecting her to show up at Pauline’s—her plans for the day were to oversee the demolition and carting away of the trailer of doom. She had some wild hair up her ass about “gentrifying” Garden Court, and she wanted to start with the land that eyesore of a trailer sat on. Personally he couldn’t imagine doing anything with Garden Court except putting a fence around the entire area and hanging up a “Condemned” sign, but his Miranda had ideas.
And when she had ideas, they sank some serious, big-ass roots.
As much as he admired that super-powered stubborn streak of hers, it had been one tough nut to crack. Thankfully she’d loved him long before he’d fucked up and thrown her out of his life. After he’d discovered she still had his name on her back, he’d begun to suspect her feelings were also still there, clinging just as determinedly as her anger. Hell, the anger was there because she loved him. Lucy had been right about that, and that made him the luckiest son of a bitch around. His Miranda loved as ferociously and passionately as she held a grudge, and that kind of flat-out, balls-to-the-wall kind of love trumped everything. He knew that now.
He knew it, because that was how he loved her.
Celia glanced nervously back toward the kitchen area and the closed office door before ducking behind the counter. “I was a little worried Lucy or Pauline would notice I kept my purse up at the front with me today. Usually I tuck it away in the mudroom, but no one noticed I snuck it under here. I had no clue what I was going to say if either one had noticed—probably something like I had to have it close by in case I needed a tampon or whatever.” Then she blushed scarlet and practically buried her whole head in the depths of her purse. “Um, I forgot who I was talking to. Forget I said anything.”
“Not a problem.”
“Anyway, like I was saying, I totally didn’t get caught. I guess my sneaky ninja skills are more fierce than I thought. Here we go.” She straightened while yanking what she was looking for out of her purse. “Ta-da!”
“Ninjas don’t yell ta-da, Cel.”
“I didn’t yell it,” she began, then apparently realized he wasn’t in the mood for a debate on traditional ninja catchphrases when he snatched the folded piece of paper out of her hand. But as he began to unfold it, she sucked in a quick breath. “Wait.”
He glanced up. “What?”
“If you don’t like it, I can do it again. Seriously. I mean, I like it, it turned out better than I thought it would. But it’s okay if you don’t like it. Really.”
Coe’s preoccupation evaporated in the face of the unexpected—Celia’s insecurity. The kid was usually such a ball of never-ending enthusiasm that he almost didn’t recognize her. “I came to you with this project because you’ve got a scary amount of talent that’s going to waste behind this counter, and it only gets let out when you paint murals on Pauline’s windows. If I don’t like what you’ve come up with, it won’t be because it’s not good. It’ll be because I wasn’t clear on what I wanted.”
Some of the tension left her shoulders. “You don’t know that.”
“I know creative talent, kid. You think I haven’t noticed that when it comes to your art, you do it like it’s easier than breathing? Why do you think I came to you and no one else?”
He heard her swallow when he began to unfold it. “Uh—”
“Shut up already and relax.” Out of the corner of her eye he watched her hands bunch into fists.
Then he saw nothing at all but the paper in front of him.
“Believe it or not, that ‘i’ was the most difficult part to deal with.” Vaguely he heard Celia babble on, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the design. “I mean, that floating dot was a real bitch to deal with—”
“Mouth, young lady,” he muttered absently, even as he began to smile.
“Seriously? You getting after me for bad language? Wow.” Belatedly he felt her eyes on him as he refolded the paper. “So, is it okay? I decided not to do double outlines on the lettering because it made my eyeballs think everything was blurry, so—”
“Celia.” This time he grinned at her while he tucked the paper into his back pocket. “It’s perfect.” Like Miranda. Well, no. She wasn’t perfect. Far from it, actually. But that was cool, because he wasn’t either. She was simply perfect for him, just as he would do his damnedest to make sure that he was perfect for her.
Which was exactly why he’d sought Celia out.
At his words, the uncertain teen made a sparkly comeback. “It turned out pretty okay, in my humble opinion. And you can resize it without losing too much sharpness, as long as you don’t want it the size of King Kong’s booty.”
“I don’t even know what size that would be.” The customer that had come in took position directly behind Coe and cleared her throat. He stopped himself from rolling his eyes—Celia didn’t have the same restraint—and stepped out of the way. “We need to talk payment.”
Celia gave the customer a distracted smile. “Crap, I didn’t even think about that.”
Typical artist. “I know you’ve been saving up for that boat of a Caddy old Patricia Weems is trying to unload from her stock,” he said, trying not to sneer. Celia’s eyes lit up at the mention of a car that the manufacturers discontinued long ago because it didn’t fucking work. Sure, cylinder deactivation worked now, thanks to onboard computers, but the car Celia had her innocent heart set on had rolled off the assembly line a decade before she was even born. He had to keep the kid from throwing her hard-earned money away on that piece of shit. “I guess you’re really set on buying that clunker?”
“How about we bargain? A future free tune-up for the work I did?”
Tune-ups would be the least of her worries if she threw away her savings, and that fucking bitch Weems knew it. “I’ve still got my first car parked behind the garage in the carport area,” he heard himself blurt out without his brain’s permission.
Celia’s liquid black eyes rounded in surprise… and interest. “Oh?”
“That’s right, I do.” His mouth wasn’t done surprising him, apparently, because it kept right on going. “A 1985 two-door Camaro IROC, original yellow and black paint, redone interior and sound system, v-8 under the hood, new tires and shocks, and she still purrs like a cream-fed kitten even though she’s got over a hundred-thousand miles on her. That particular model’s listed as one of the top-ten best cars manufactured in the world for that year, which it was, plus it’s got a little modification of my very own in it that’ll cut your fuel bill in half.” After he’d gone to all the trouble of retrieving his old homework assignment from Mr. Osweiler, Coe had remembered that the original valve he’d perfected was sitting right there on his damn property, no more than twenty frigging feet from the garage’s back door.
He’d never tell Miranda about that. Not because he thought she’d insist they go to the nearest probate judge, but because he was done with watching her hurt. The less she thought about that goddamn valve—and the pain it had unleashed in her life for fucking years—the better.
It was time to let it all go. And that, he knew was the real reason he was finally ready to part with his first ride.
Celia barely spared the customer a glance when the woman asked for a carrot cake. “Sounds great, Coe, but way out of my price range.”
“Whatever you’ve got saved right now—plus the work you did for me—should more than pay for it.” It wouldn’t, but someone had to look out for sparkly teenagers desperate for their first taste of grown-up freedom. Looked like today was the day he got tagged to be that someone.
She tilted her head like she couldn’t believe her ears. “Um…”
“Plus I’ll throw in free tune-ups and oil changes for the life of the car because I don’t want anyone else touching my baby.” What the hell. If he was going to lose his mind, he might as well go all the way.
The throat-clearing customer suddenly planted herself right in front of him, practically quivering with pushy determination. “You know, I would be very interested in—”
“Sold.” Celia danced in place, and all he could do was shake his head. “Sorry, ma’am. Today, all you get is carrot cake. I’m that one who’s going to be zooming down the streets in a sweet, sweet ride.”
“I’d better warn the sheriff,” Coe decided with another shake of his head.
Coe’s car wasn’t in the driveway when she pulled up in front of his house. Their house, or so Coe kept insisting whenever she slipped and referred to it as being solely his. Over the past couple weeks as she’d settled in, it had begun to feel more like home, a fact she loved. At the moment, however, it was definitely feeling like his house, considering what she’d brought home without discussing it with him first. But since that sense wasn’t going to get any better with her just sitting there, she figured she might as well take him at his word and plow on with full speed ahead.
As soon as she stepped inside, she was greeted by the tangy scent of the meatballs in marinara sauce that she’d started in the small crockpot she’d brought back from the moving-out trip she and Coe had made to Dallas. Geraldine had been waiting, ready to pounce on Coe the moment Miranda had made introductions. Luckily she’d given him a heads-up about all the wonderful eccentricities of her friend, so he barely even blinked when she asked him if he knew anything about kegel exercises. He just asked for more information, and possibly any helpful instruction she might have.
Later, as they moved boxes into a small trailer hitched to the back of his car, Geraldine informed her that she was one lucky woman.
That was sweet, but she didn’t need Geraldine to tell her that.
She already knew.
The sun had long since gone down, the rigatoni was cooked and the garlic bread she had warming in the oven was in danger of drying out when she heard the key rattle in the door. She put down the phone she’d been in the process of dialing and met Coe just as he was dropping his keys into the bowl in the entryway.
“There you are,” she said, and the moment his dark eyes met hers she lit up with a smile. That was what it felt like; lighting up. From the inside out, she lit with happiness and a total sense of everything being right with the world. Now she was home. “I was getting worried. You okay?”
“Yeah, babe.” His face had that sweetly soft look she’d been catching there more and more as he bent for a quick kiss. “Sorry I’m late. I had something to do in San Antonio, and traffic on I-35 was a bitch. In the future, remind me to avoid it during rush hour.”
“You got it.” His kiss tasted like more, so she went in for seconds and was thrilled when he took it nice and deep, the sweep of his tongue promising good things to come. When he finally straightened, heat played along her skin and she was tingling in all the right places. “So. You hungry?”
“Talk about a loaded question.” With a low laugh, he slung an arm around her shoulders and guided her toward the kitchen. “Let’s go ahead and have dinner, which smells great, by the way. Then… I’m collecting on the dessert you owe me.”
He’d more than already collected on that particular debt, but she wasn’t about to remind him of that. She liked dessert, too. “My man’s got a sweet tooth that just won’t quit.”
“Ooh.” He grinned at her as he plucked a couple of plates out of the cabinet. Real plates, not the paper ones he’d had lying around for the few times he’d managed to make something edible during his hardcore bachelor life. “Say that again.”
“Say what, sweetheart?”
“Your man.” Handing her the plates, he came to stand behind her. His head dropped so that his mouth was at her ear while one hand cupped her ass, and the other curled around her hip to dip in under the waistband of her jeans. “Say it all hot and possessive-like so I know you mean it.”
“My man. My beautiful, sexy man.” She leaned her head back on his shoulder and rubbed her backside into his touch. “All mine, and don’t you forget it.”
“I never could, babe. Your name’s tattooed on my heart.”
She laughed and didn’t waste another second getting the food on the table—a table that Coe had told her he’d often used as an at-home workbench for things like carburetors and transmission systems.
Until she’d come along, he’d never eaten there.
In fact, sit-down meals were an event he was still getting used to, but she knew he enjoyed them. So much so that he’d fallen into the habit of calling her from work to find out what they were having for dinner that night. It was cute, the little things that made him happy—well-balanced, home-cooked meals instead of something that came out of a takeout box or carton. Teaching her how to play his favorite video games, which she enjoyed, thanks to her competitive nature. Grocery shopping with her and sneaking junk food into the basket when he thought she wasn’t looking. Falling asleep with her curled into his body because she made the best “hugging pillow” he’d ever had. When he’d told her he couldn’t figure out how he’d managed to have a single decent night’s sleep without her to hold onto all these years, she’d nearly cried.
They belonged together. As they settled into a life that wasn’t his or hers, but theirs, she knew it with an ever-solidifying certainty. They belonged together.
Once the dishes were done, she half-expected to settle in with him for a quick check on the garage’s new website like they did every night before more fun activities began. But Coe was on his feet when she snapped the light off in the kitchen, and he took that action as a signal to close the distance between them.
“Let me guess,” she drawled as he pulled her toward the bedroom. “It’s time for dessert?”
“Hope you saved room for it, babe.”
Her laugh was breathless until she remembered the small surprise she’d stored away in the bedroom. “We’ve never discussed your views on Christmas, have we?”
“Not that I recall.”
“Do you celebrate it?”
“With a Christmas kook like Lucy around, I’ve never had any other choice.”
His lack of enthusiasm made her heart plummet. “So you don’t like it?”
“I didn’t say that, babe. It was always just another day for me, that’s all. No presents, no tree, no church service. I’ve personally been pissed off at Santa since I was about three because he never once showed his fat ass in Garden Court.”
She bit her lip and wondered if Esme’s grandkids, Charlie and Sadie, believed in Santa. “Every childhood should have some magic in it.”
He dropped her hand to reach for the door knob. “What was that?”
“Every life should have some magic in it,” she amended, and curled her fingers over his powerful biceps when he would have crossed the threshold. “I haven’t celebrated Christmas in any significant way in years, Coe. But…I want to this year.”
“That’s cool with me.” He tucked her under his arm, one hand sliding from her rib cage down to once again cup her bum. “I’ve been wondering if you celebrated any kind of holiday, but I didn’t want to be a pain in the ass about it. I’m happy to go at whatever pace you want, so if you say we’re doing Christmas, then we’re damn well doing Christmas.” He gave her butt cheek a squeeze. “You’re going to have to give me a list of what you want. And then you’re going to have to give me a crash course on how wrap shit up.”
The tension whooshed out of her with her laughter, and she reached over to turn on the bedroom’s overhead light. “I’ll be happy to, but first we need a tree for presents to go under, so… I got one today.” She nodded toward the bureau.
Clearly surprised, Coe followed the gesture, then entered into the room when he caught sight of it. She followed in his wake, breathing in the unmistakable scent of pine as they stopped before a small unadorned tree set in a pot festively wrapped in red foil.
“Um.” Coe picked up the sapling in one big hand. “I know you haven’t celebrated Christmas in a while, so I’m thinking maybe you’ve forgotten what a traditional tree looks like.”
“It’s a baby tree.”
“Miranda, this is a dinky little shrub with aspirations. Maybe a deck of cards could fit under here, but that’s about it.”
“It’s our first Christmas together,” she said determinedly. “That tree represents us, because like it, we’re just starting out. We’re going to plant this little tree, and we’re going to watch it take root and grow stronger every day, because that’s exactly what my love does for you.”
“Same goes.” As he looked at the wannabe-tree his face softened in a way she loved, before he put it down and turned to take her into his arms. “Okay, it’s a tree. Now you have to think of really small things that can fit under it.”
“The only thing I want is a nice big hole dug up in the front yard so we can plant it on Christmas day. I’ve got a spot already picked out for it.”
“Of course you do.” With a head-shaking grin, he began to walk her backward toward the bed. “You know what else might fit under that thing besides a deck of cards?"
She gave it some thought. "Spark plugs?"
"I was thinking about something even smaller than that. Like a ring."
The air evaporated from her lungs while everything else inside her took flight. She would have thought she was having an out-of-body experience if his arms weren't holding her to him so firmly. "A ring?"
"Yeah. I mean, I don't know shit about that kind of thing, so I'm probably going to need some input from you. If it were up to me, I'd buy my princess a rock so huge it'd weigh your left side down until you'd be knuckle-dragging that puppy everywhere you went. Or maybe I should just go for something that has all the precious stones in the world in one great big messy setting--"
"How about we pick it out together?" Miranda grinned, amazed that the word princess no longer fazed her. "In fact, I'd love it if we picked out something for you, too. A wedding set would fit under our baby tree just fine, don't you think?"
"Absolutely." He slid a hand into her hair as if he couldn't get enough of the feel of it, and he smiled in obvious enjoyment at the way it tumbled through his fingers. "What else do you want for Christmas?”
“I already got the best present my life has ever been graced with.” Her hands caught at his belt buckle even as he shifted his attention to the buttons of her blouse. “I have you. I don’t need anything else.”
“Babe.” His voice was satisfyingly rough a moment before he crushed her against him, only to back off slightly when she felt his body stiffen in an imperceptible flinch. “Ow.”
Alarmed, her gaze flew to him. “What?”
“Nothing. I just forgot I have to be careful not to aggravate my chest.”
Alarm ballooned into near-panic. “Chest? What’s wrong with your chest?”
“Let me see. Did you hurt yourself lifting something heavy? Should I call Payton? Where does it hurt?” It took less than five seconds for her to peel his shirt off, and she stared at the stark, square bandage decorating his chest in horror. “Baby, what did you do to yourself?”
“Funny you should put it like that.” Grinning in a way that was totally inappropriate for how seriously freaked out she was—how he could look like he was enjoying her reaction was beyond her—he cupped her head in both his hands and bent to kiss her. “I deliberately did do this to myself. Wanna see?”
“Of course.” More baffled than worried now, she waited for him to pull the bandage off with one quick tug. The skin it had hidden was red and faintly shining with the last vestiges of some kind of ointment…
And it was also tattooed.
“You got a tattoo?” The moment she said it, she rolled her eyes. Leave it to her to state the obvious. Next she’d inform him that water was wet and the sun was hot.
“Yeah, I got a tattoo. It’s why I was in San Antonio this afternoon.” He put his hands on his hips and offered up a perfect view of Bitterthorn’s most spectacular chest. “So? What do you think?”
“It’s great.” Though she never imagined Coe getting a cute, stylized red and black heart about three inches across, right in the center of his chest. Especially when it looked like the red and black scrollwork in the heart’s interior looked like spelled out something…
Vaguely she heard her breath catch as realization slammed into her. The red scrollwork outlined in black wasn’t just random decoration. They were letters in fluid script. And those letters spelled…
“That’s my name.” With her throat tightening on the breath that was suddenly panting out of her, she looked up in an awestruck love so deep it made her eyes sting with swimming warmth. “Oh… Coe.”
“It’s even your handwriting, just like the last time. I made a copy of your signature and gave it to Celia to figure out how to smoosh it all together in the form of a heart. I think she did a great job.”
She nodded, because speaking was almost impossible. How could she talk when so much emotion filled her, she half-feared she’d explode? “S-she did.”
“Does that mean you like it?” Uncharacteristically tentative, he caught her hand in his and held it as if he feared she might break if he exerted too much pressure. “You gotta help me out here, babe. You look like you’re about to puke, so I can’t tell if you like it or not.”
That snapped her out of her dazed emotional state like nothing else. With a happy laugh that sounded like a sob, she launched herself into his arms, taking care to not apply pressure to his new tat even as she wound her arms around his neck. “I’m not about to puke, I’m trying not to cry.”
“That still doesn’t tell me if you like it.”
“I love it, Coe. My sweet Coe.” And he was sweet, incredibly so. He’d known how devastated she was that he hadn’t kept her name on his arm. Though she’d gotten over it once she understood why he’d done it, she’d always had a suspicion that Coe himself hadn’t forgiven his action of erasing her. It was as though that erasure had become a hated symbol of his lack of faith in her, and the few times they’d touched on the topic, the hint of self-directed bitterness in his tone hadn’t escaped her.
Now her name was back—a different design and placement, but the meaning behind it was the same, she was certain of it. With this one beautiful gesture, he was vowing to have her in his life until the end of his days. And by making the shape of a heart from the letters in her name, she knew he was telling her that his love for her would last forever too.
For a man who had never been given a chance to express the emotion known as love, he sure was making up for lost time.
“I need you to know something.” With unshed happy tears making it hard for her to see his face, she nevertheless framed it between her hands so she could look right into his beautiful dark eyes. “I know you love me because I believe in you, Coe. Completely. Without reservation. You don’t have to mark your body with my name, or do a huge fix on my car, or buy me new tires, or a bazillion bottles of milk to prove it.”
She felt him jerk beneath her hands. “Shit. You knew about all that?”
“Esme finally managed to open my eyes,” She nodded, then smiled as the beard-roughened skin beneath her palms heated. Oh, heaven help her, he was blushing. Did he have any idea how irresistible it was when a tough guy like him blushed? “That being said, I need for you to know how much each and every gesture means to me, because they come from the most important place in this whole world—your heart. I’m so lucky to be the woman your heart has chosen to love, and I know it, Coe. I swear to you that I will do everything I can to return that love a thousand different ways, from letting you sleep an extra ten minutes on days when I know you need it, to making you all your favorite junk food when you’re watching football every Sunday, to just listening when you want to vent about how stupid people can be with their cars. With everything I do, I want to show you how much I love you.”
“You do that just by being here with me.” With a gentle savagery he hefted her up, wrapped her legs around his waist and headed for the bed. “I’m no longer alone on my little island. That’s everything, Miranda. You’re everything. That’s why I had to put you right over my heart. I put you there because I know I don’t have a fucking thing in this world if I don’t have you--the woman who owns my heart.”
Just when she’d thought she’d won the battle with the tears, he said those words and sent them spilling. As he settled them back against the pillows, they seeped from the corners of her eyes as she smiled up at him. “I know what a treasure it is,” she whispered, arching up until her lips moved with each word against his. “I promise I’ll take good care of it, just as I know you’ll take good care of mine.”
“Always, babe.” Happiness and never-ending love burned through his look, underscored with an almost palpable desire as he went about getting rid of the clothes that separated them. “Always.”