“Hi, Dad.”

“Well, hello there, son,” Jim Maddox said in a gruff voice. “It’s about damn time you came home.”

“Liis,” Thomas said, “this is my dad, Jim Maddox.”

He was quite a bit shorter than Thomas, but he had the same sweetness in his eyes. Jim looked upon me with kindness and almost thirty years’ worth of practiced patience from raising five Maddox boys. His short and sparse silver hair was now multiple colors from the party lights.

Jim’s hooded eyes brightened with realization. “This is your girl, Thomas?”

Thomas kissed my cheek. “I keep telling her that, but she doesn’t believe me.”

Jim opened his arms wide. “Well, c’mere, cupcake! Nice to meet you!”

Jim didn’t shake my hand. He pulled me into a full-on hug and squeezed me tight. When he released me, Thomas hooked his arm around my shoulders, much more cheerful to be amid his family than I’d expected.

Thomas pulled me into his side. “Liis is a professor at the University of California, Dad. She’s brilliant.”

“Does she put up with your shit?” Jim asked, trying to speak over the music.

Thomas shook his head. “Not at all.”

Jim laughed out loud. “Then, she’s a keeper!”

“That’s what I keep telling him, but he doesn’t believe me,” I said, nudging Thomas with my elbow.

Jim laughed again. “Professor of what, sis?”

“Cultural studies,” I said, feeling a bit guilty for yelling at him.

Jim chuckled. “She must be brilliant. I haven’t a clue what in the Sam Hill that means!” He put his fist to his mouth and coughed.

“You want a water, Dad?”

Jim nodded. “Thank you, son.”

Thomas kissed my cheek and then left us alone to track down the water. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get used to his lips on my skin. I hoped I never would.

“How long have you worked for the college?” Jim asked.

“This is my first semester,” I said.

He nodded. “Is that a nice campus out there?”

“Yes.” I smiled.

“You like San Diego?” he asked.

“Love it. I lived in Chicago before. San Diego’s weather is preferable.”

“You’re from Illinois originally?” Jim asked, surprised.

“I am,” I said, trying to mouth the words precisely so that I wouldn’t have to yell so loud.

“Huh,” he said with a chuckle. “I sure wish Tommy lived closer. But he never really belonged here. I think he’s happier out there,” he said, nodding as if in agreement with himself. “How did you two meet?”

“I moved into his building,” I said, noticing a woman speaking to Thomas by the beverage table.

His hands were in his pockets, and he was staring at the floor. I could tell that he was being purposefully stoic.

Thomas nodded, and she nodded. Then, she threw her arms around him. I couldn’t see her face, but I could see his, and as he held her, his pain could be felt from where I stood.

The same deep ache from before burned in my chest, and my shoulders pulled in. I crossed my arms over my midsection to camouflage the involuntary motion.

“So, you and Thomas…this is new?” Jim asked.

“Relatively new,” I said, still staring at Thomas and the woman clinging to him.

Trenton was no longer dancing. He was watching them, too, almost exactly parallel from me.

“Is the woman with Thomas…is that Camille?”

Jim hesitated, but then he nodded. “Yes, she is.”

After a full minute, Thomas and Camille were still wrapped in each other’s arms.

Jim cleared his throat and spoke again, “Well, I’ve never seen my boy so happy as when he introduced me to you. Even if it is new, it’s in the present…unlike other things…that are in the past.”

I shot a small smile in Jim’s direction, and he pulled me to his side with a squeeze.

“If Tommy hasn’t told you that yet, he should.”

I nodded, trying to process the dozens of emotions swirling within me at the same time. Feeling such hurt was quite surprising for a girl who was happily married to her job. If I didn’t need Thomas, my heart didn’t know it.

Chapter Seventeen

THOMAS’S EYES POPPED OPEN, and he looked directly at me. He released Camille, and without telling her good-bye or even giving her a second look, he walked past her, sweeping up a bottle of water on his way to where Jim and I stood.

“Did you interrogate her sufficiently while I was gone, Dad?” Thomas asked.

“Not as well as you would have, I’m sure.” Jim turned to me. “Thomas should have been a detective.”

Despite the uncomfortable proximity to the truth, I held a smile.

Thomas had a strange expression as well, but his features smoothed. “Are you having a good time, honey?”

“Please tell me that was good-bye,” I said. I didn’t try to keep Jim from hearing. It was an honest request, one that I could ask and still keep our cover intact.

Thomas gently took me by the arm and brought me to an unoccupied corner of the room. “I didn’t know she was going to do that. I’m sorry.”

I felt my expression crumble. “I wish you could have seen that through my eyes and then hear you say she’s in the past with my ears.”

“She was apologizing, Liis. What was I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know…not look heartbroken?”

He stared at me, speechless.

I rolled my eyes and pulled on his hand. “C’mon, let’s get back to the party.”

He pulled away from me. “I am, Liis. I am heartbroken. What happened is fucking sad.”

“Great! Let’s go!” I said, my words dripping with false excitement and sarcasm.

I shouldered past him, but he grabbed my wrist and pulled me against him. He held my hand near his cheek and then turned to kiss my palm, closing his eyes.

“It’s sad because it’s over,” he said against my hand, his breath warm on my skin. He turned and looked down into my eyes. “It’s sad because I made a choice that has changed my relationship with my brother forever. I hurt her and Trenton and myself. The worst part is that I thought it was justified, but now, I’m afraid it was all for nothing.”