“I’m starting to get into it. In this crazy world filled with billions of people, we managed to find each other. As Cary would say, we should celebrate that.”
We talked about first dances and seating arrangements as Angus maneuvered us through the traffic that seemed to always clog Midtown. Looking past Mark out the window, I watched a cab come to a stop at the light beside us. The passenger in the back pinched a phone between her shoulder and ear, lips moving a mile a minute and hands furiously flipping through a notebook. Behind her, on the corner, a hot dog cart vendor did brisk business with a waiting line of five people.
When we finally arrived and I stepped out onto the sidewalk I knew right where we were. “Hey!”
Tucked below street level, the Mexican restaurant was one we’d been to before. And it just so happened to employ a server I was very fond of.
Mark laughed. “You quit so suddenly Shawna didn’t have time to request the day off.”
“Aww, man.” My chest felt tight. It was starting to feel like an ending I wasn’t ready for.
“Come on.” He caught me by the elbow and directed me inside, where I quickly spotted the table that held a party of familiar faces and Mylar balloons that said GREAT JOB and BEST WISHES and CONGRATS.
“Wow.” My eyes burned with a sudden wash of tears.
Megumi and Will sat with Steven at a table set for six. Shawna stood behind her brother’s chair, their bright red hair impossible to miss.
“Eva!” they shouted in chorus, drawing the attention of everyone in the room.
“Oh my God,” I breathed, my heart breaking more than a little. I was suddenly filled with sadness and doubt, faced with what I was giving up, even if only in one way. “You guys are so not getting rid of me!”
“Of course not.” Shawna came over and gave me a hug, her slim arms strong and fierce around me. “We’ve got a bachelorette blowout to plan!”
“Woot!” Megumi wrapped me in a hug the second Shawna stepped back.
“Maybe we could skip that tradition,” interjected a warm, deep voice behind me.
Turning in surprise, I faced Gideon. He stood beside Mark with a single, perfect red rose in hand.
Mark flashed a big smile. “He touched base earlier to see if we were doing anything and said he wanted to come.”
I smiled through my tears. I wasn’t losing my friends, and I was gaining so much more. Gideon was always there when I needed him, even before I realized he was the integral piece that was missing.
“I dare you to try their diablo salsa,” I challenged, holding my hand out for my rose.
His lips curved faintly with a subtle smile, the one that did me in every time—and every other woman in the room, too, I couldn’t help but notice. But the look in his eyes, the understanding and support for what I was feeling … That was all mine.
“It’s your party, angel mine.”
The two-story house that sprawled along the coastline glowed with golden warmth spilling from every window. Lights embedded in the curving driveway glittered like a bed of stars in the gloaming, while hydrangea bushes the size of small cars burst with petals around the edges of the wide lawn.
“Isn’t it pretty?” Eva asked, her back to me as she knelt on the black leather bench seat and stared out the window.
“Stunning,” I replied, although I was referring to her. She was vibrating with excitement and a childlike delight. I took that in, needing to understand it and the cause. Her happiness was vital to me. It was the wellspring of my own contentment, the weight that balanced my equilibrium and kept me steady.
She glanced over her shoulder at me as Angus slowed the limo to a halt by the front steps. “Are you checking out my butt?”
My gaze dropped to her ass, cupped so perfectly by the shorts she’d changed into after work. “Now that you mention it …”
She plopped down onto the seat with a huff of laughter. “There’s no help for you, you know that?”
“Yes, I knew there was no cure the first time you kissed me.”
“I’m pretty sure you kissed me.”
I held back a smile. “Is that the way it went?”
Her gaze narrowed. “You better be joking. That moment should be seared into your brain.”
Reaching over, I ran my hand down her bare thigh. “Is it seared into yours?” I murmured, pleased by the thought.
“Hey, now,” Cary interrupted, pulling his ear buds out. “Don’t forget I’m sitting right here.”
Eva’s roommate had been unobtrusively watching a movie on his tablet during the nearly two-hour drive through evening traffic, but I could never forget he was there. Cary Taylor was a fixture in my wife’s life and I accepted it, even if I didn’t like it. While I believed he loved Eva, I also believed he made bad choices that put her in tough situations and even posed a risk.
Angus opened the door. Eva was out and running up the steps before I put my tablet away. Monica opened the front door just as her daughter hit the top landing.
Surprised by my wife’s enthusiasm, considering she barely tolerated her mother most of the time, I stared after her curiously.
Cary laughed as he gathered his things and shoved them into a small messenger bag. “One whiff. That’s all it takes.”
“Monica usually bakes these crazy good cookies with peanut butter cups. Eva’s making sure she stashes some before I get in there and eat ’em all.”
Making a mental note to get that recipe, I looked back toward the two women on the porch, catching them exchanging air kisses before they both turned to look my way. At that moment, with Monica dressed in capris and a casual shirt, the similarities between them were striking.
Cary hopped out and took the steps two at a time, barreling directly into Monica’s open-armed embrace and lifting her off her feet. Their laughter rang out through the gathering dusk.
I heard Angus speak to me from where he stood by the open door. “You can’t spend the weekend in the limo, lad.”
Amused, I left my tablet on the seat and stepped out.
He grinned. “It’ll be good for you to have family.”
I set my hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “I already have one.”
For years, Angus had been all I’d had. And he’d been enough.
“Come on, slowpoke!” Eva came back to me, grabbing my hand and dragging me up the steps after her.
“Gideon.” Monica’s smile was wide and warm.
“Monica.” I held out my hand and was startled to be hugged tightly instead.
“I’d tell you to call me Mom,” she said, pulling back. “But I’m afraid I’d feel old.”
Awkwardness morphed into a prickling that ran down my spine. It struck me then that I’d miscalculated to a wide degree.
Marriage to Eva made her mine. It also made me hers, and connected me to her loved ones in a very personal way.
Monica and I had known each other for a while, our paths crossing occasionally because of the various children’s charities we both supported. We’d established particular parameters for our interactions, just as every association followed known protocols.
Abruptly, that was all blown to hell.
I found myself glancing back at Angus, at a loss. Apparently my predicament was entertaining, since he gave me a wink and left me to my own devices. He rounded the trunk to greet Benjamin Clancy, who waited by the driver’s-side door of the limo.
“The garage is over there,” Monica said, pointing at the two-story building across the road that was a small replica of the main house. “Clancy will make sure your driver gets settled and your bags are brought in.”
Eva tugged on my hand and led me inside. Cary had guessed right. I was inundated with the smell of buttery vanilla. Not candles. Cookies. The homey and comforting scent made me itch to turn around and step back outside.
I wasn’t prepared. I’d come as a guest, Eva’s plus-one. To be a son-in-law, a true member of the family, was a possibility I hadn’t anticipated.
“I love this house,” Eva said, taking me through the archway that framed the opening to the living room.
I saw what I expected. An upscale beach house with white-slipcovered seating and nautical-themed accessories.
“Don’t you love the espresso hardwood floors?” she asked. “I would’ve gone with bleached oak, but that’s so predictable, right? And the green, orange, and yellow accent colors over the usual blue? Makes me want to go rogue when we get back to the Outer Banks.”
She had no idea how much I wanted to get back there now. There at least I’d have more than a second to myself before I had to deal with a houseful of brand-new relatives.
The expansive living area flowed directly into the open kitchen, where Stanton, Martin, Lacey, and Cary all gathered around a large kitchen island with seating for six. The entire space shared the view of the water afforded by a row of sliding glass panels that opened onto a wide veranda.
“Hey!” Eva protested. “You better save me some cookies!”
Stanton grinned and approached us. Dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, he looked like a younger version of the man I knew from our dealings in New York. He’d shed the corporate vibe along with his suit, and I felt like I faced a stranger.