Oh my God.
“What is this?”
“We’re hugging,” Georgie whispered, her lips brushing his skin again. “That’s all.”
“Don’t do that. Don’t talk to me in that innocent voice. Not when all your sweetest parts are pressed up against me in that cock-tease dress.” Trying and failing to maintain an awareness of their surroundings, Travis angled his hips and listened to her breath stutter. “You’re turning me on and you’re very aware of it.”
“Am I?” Georgie leaned back just enough to study his mouth for one beat, two. “I’m trying to be authentic. Isn’t this how a girlfriend greets her boyfriend?”
A low thudding began and spread throughout Travis. In his heart, testicles. Hell, both. Simultaneously. They both hurt like a son of a bitch, so all Travis could manage was a gruff “How would I know?”
Georgie ran her hands up his shoulders, cupping the sides of his face. “I’m glad you’re here. I like having you around.”
With those words hanging in the air, Georgie shifted out of his hold and left the living room, sauntering into the dining room like a certified seductress. The pulse in Travis’s ears hammered nine times for every one of her steps, his hands bereft without the privilege of touching her. What in the ever-loving hell had just taken place? He’d been prepared for an uneasy dinner, considering her siblings wanted to lop his head off with an ax. Instead, she’d walked in here and completely thrown him off-balance.
As if in a trance, Travis joined Georgie in the dining room. As a young man, he’d always sat between Stephen and Morty, but the seat beside Georgie had been left open this time. They traded a look as he sat down, more of that sweet blush darkening her skin and making his tongue feel heavy. They should talk, shouldn’t they? Unfortunately, they weren’t alone for more than a couple seconds. Morty and Vivian came in shoulder to shoulder, bumping off each other like tethered planets, both of them trying to carry the platter holding a roast. Bethany slunk in and fell into her seat across from Georgie—but Travis was focused on Georgie and therefore saw only the look of concern she sent her older sister, followed by a bolstering smile. Something was up.
“All right.” Stephen stomped into the dining room and sat to the right of Morty, Kristin floating to the chair beside her husband and perching with a beaming grin. “Bethany, you called this dinner. What’s your gripe?”
“Who says there has to be a gripe?” Vivian protested from the opposite head of the table, wineglass poised in midair. “Can we not exchange pleasantries first? Your sister wore a dress, Stephen—tell her she looks nice.”
Georgie hid her face behind a napkin. “Oh God. Mom.”
Stephen sighed. “You look nice, Georgie. Yellow suits you.”
“Well, it’s no clown suit . . .” Morty started, laughing at his own sarcasm.
The rosy glow faded from Georgie’s cheeks and Travis frowned. Before he could say something in her defense—what, he didn’t know—Stephen spoke up again. “Is it this women’s club that’s got you dressing up? Or him?”
“It’s not a women’s club.” Bethany drilled her brother with a look. “We don’t meet to do makeovers, you moron. We’re not twelve.”
“I’m just saying, Georgie, you were fine in the overalls and the . . .” Stephen wiggled his fingers above his head, making reference to Georgie’s missing messy bun. “Seems like someone should like you for yourself, not how you look.”
Travis fixed Stephen with a look. “I liked her in the overalls just fine.”
Several beats passed. “Why am I not in this club?” Vivian said brightly, breaking the tension. “Am I too old?”
Morty cut into the roast with gusto, sawing off slivers of meat. “You’re not too old. You’re too happy.”
Bethany centered herself with a long breath. “We’re not doing makeovers and we’re not throwing darts at pictures of male genitalia—”
Vivian laugh-snorted. “Bethany Castle.”
“Actually, I just signed up me, Rosie, and Georgie for a Tough Mudder.”
“Ooh, what’s that?” Kristin piped up. “I want to go.”
Stephen grunted and started the passing of the side dishes. “Explain.”
Bethany sat up straighter. “It’s a five-mile run, including an obstacle course. A team-building exercise. In the mud.”
Georgie paled. “We barely made it through Zumba, you complete lunatic.”
“Eh, we’ll be fine.” Bethany lifted her wineglass. “Next Friday in Bethpage. You’re all welcome to come and cheer us on.”
“I’ll be there,” Travis said automatically. If Georgie was going to run five miles and jump over walls in the summer heat, she could get hurt. Or dehydrated. Thinking about it almost turned his appetite. When he glanced up from spooning potatoes onto his plate, he found Stephen and Morty glowering at him. “What? She could twist an ankle or . . .” The room fell silent, knives and forks ceasing their clacking against plates. Jesus. Pull it together, man. He passed the bowl in his hand and dug into the now massive mountain of potatoes that he’d apparently been piling on for a full minute. “You never know what kind of a medical setup they have at these things,” he finished gruffly.
“You’re not doing it,” Stephen grunted at Kristin, before softening his tone. “Please.”
Kristin firmed her chin. “We’ll see.”
“Discord,” Morty droned. “Bethany, your club is creating discord.”
“It’s not just her club,” Georgie said. “We started it together.”
“You’re going to follow what your older siblings do, though. It’s up to them to set a good example for the youngest.”
“She’s twenty-three,” Bethany pointed out. “If this were Victorian England, she would be classified as an old maid.”
Georgie’s laugh lacked its usual sparkle. “You could have left that part out.”
Travis was caught between bites, listening to the conversation unfold around him. It had been years since he’d been in the midst of the Castle banter, but their dismissive attitude toward Georgie was more meaningful to him now that he knew how it affected her. She had changed. Grown up. Why the hell didn’t they notice?
Frowning, Travis stabbed his fork back into his potatoes.
“Now that all the delicacies have been passed and plated . . .” Bethany cleared her throat. “Let’s talk about the reason we’re all here. I want to preface this by saying no one is going to like it. Just strap in—we’ll get through it.”
Georgie set down her fork and crossed her legs, drawing Travis’s attention. The yellow hem of her dress crept up, almost to her hip, the muscle of her thigh flexing . . . and his mouth went dry. But her body language said she was preparing for battle on her sister’s behalf and that realization let loose a stream of chemicals into his bloodstream. Georgie getting ready for an argument put him on alert, because they’d become teammates. Hadn’t they?
“Is this about heading up your own flip?” Stephen drawled.
“What?” Morty bowed his head. “God give me strength.”
“I’ve asked Stephen several times for a chance to run my own renovation, start to finish, and he has declined. So I’ve decided to purchase my own property and proceed outside the confines of Brick & Morty.”
The utter betrayal on Morty’s face was hard to witness. He slowly set down his fork and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands on the table.
“You stage, Bethany,” Vivian said softly. “You chose that role yourself.”
“I know I did, but now I want to try more.”
“Maybe it was a mistake, leaving the business to my children,” Morty said. “Is that what you’re saying? I’ve only been retired a handful of years and already you’re dismantling the company.”
“Bethany wants a more active role. That’s the opposite of dismantling, Dad. That’s—”
Morty held up a hand. “Let the adults talk, Georgie.”
Travis’s fist slammed on the table so fast, everyone jumped. He hadn’t planned it. But anger went ripping through him so fast, his hand moved on its own. That single action hadn’t taken the air out of his ire, either. Not even a speck. “I have a lot of respect for you, Mr. Castle. More respect than I have for my own father. But I can’t sit here and listen to you treat Georgie like her voice doesn’t count for something. You’re better than that. And she’s damn sure too important to be cut off or spoken to like a child.”
Everyone had a different reaction to his outburst. Stephen stared at him, surprised and thoughtful. Bethany appeared ready to cheer, Morty properly chastised. But Travis couldn’t get his damn eyes off Georgie long enough to acknowledge much of it. He got even angrier, actually, because this girl who’d forced him to climb out of his hole all those weeks ago looked so grateful when she should have expected someone to come to her defense. She deserved that and more.