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“Eva.” Stanton kissed Eva’s cheek, then turned to me. “Gideon.”

Accustomed to being addressed by my last name, I wasn’t braced for the hug that followed.

“Congratulations,” he said, giving me a firm pat on the back before releasing me.

Irritation simmered. Where was the natural evolution? The gradual shifting from business colleague to social acquaintance. And from there, from friend to family?

I abruptly thought of Victor. He’d understood what my marriage meant in a way I hadn’t.

While I stood stiffly, Stanton smiled at my wife. “I think your mother stashed some cookies in the warming drawer for you.”

“Yes!” She rushed into the kitchen, leaving me with her stepfather.

My stepfather-in-law.

My gaze followed her. In doing so, I caught the wave Martin Stanton sent my way, and I acknowledged it with a nod. If he tried to hug me, he was going to get a fist in the face.

I’d once told him he could count on seeing me at family gatherings. It felt surreal now that it was actually happening. Like I was being punked.

Eva’s husky laugh carried across the room to me and drew my eye. She held her left hand out to the blonde standing by Martin, showing off the ring I’d given her when I made her my wife.

Monica joined Stanton and me, sliding into place at her husband’s side. Her youthful beauty aged him, drawing attention to the stark whiteness of his hair and the lines etching his face. It was evident, however, that Stanton didn’t care about the decades that separated him and his wife. He lit up when he looked at her, his faded blue eyes softening with affection.

I searched for something appropriate to say. In the end, all that came out was, “You have a beautiful home.”

“It didn’t look this good before Monica got her hands on it.” Stanton wrapped an arm around her slender waist. “Same can be said for me.”

“Richard.” Monica shook her head. “Can I give you a tour, Gideon?”

“Let’s give the man a drink first,” Stanton suggested, eyeing me. “He’s been in the car awhile.”

“Wine?” she offered.

“Maybe scotch,” Stanton said.

“Scotch would be great,” I replied, chagrined that my unease was apparently obvious.

I was out of my element, something I should be used to since meeting Eva, but she had been an anchor of sorts, even as she sent me reeling. As long as I held on to her, I could weather any storm. Or so I’d thought.

Looking for my wife, I turned and felt a rush of relief to find her coming toward me with a bounce in her step that had her ponytail swaying.

“Try this,” she ordered, lifting a cookie to my lips.

I opened my mouth but snapped my teeth shut a split second too soon, deliberately nipping her fingers.

“Ow.” She frowned, but the literal bite of pain had the intended effect of focusing her attention on me. The frown faded as understanding dimmed the light in her eyes. She saw me, saw what was happening inside me.

“Want to go outside?” she murmured.

“In a minute.” I jerked my chin toward the bar in the living room where Stanton was pouring my drink. I also caught her by the wrist, keeping her close.

It rankled, holding her back from the group. I didn’t want to be one of those men who smother the women who love them. But I needed time to adjust to all this. The usual distance I maintained from others, including Cary, wouldn’t be acceptable with Monica or Stanton. Not after seeing how much joy Eva took in being with those she considered family.

Family for her was a safe place. She was as relaxed and easy as I’d ever seen her. For me, gatherings like this sent up red flags.

I told myself to chill as Stanton returned with our drinks. But I didn’t let my guard down completely.

Martin came over and introduced his girlfriend, both of them offering congratulations. That went as expected, which soothed me a little, although not as much as the double scotch I polished off with one swallow.

“I’m going to show him the beach,” Eva said, taking the empty glass from me and setting it on an end table we passed on the way to the glass doors.

It was warmer outside than it was in the house, summer lingering this year to the very end. A strong salt-tinged breeze washed over us, whipping my hair across my face.

We walked to the edge of the lapping surf, her hand in mine.

“What’s going on?” she asked, facing me.

The concern in her voice had me bristling. “Did you know this was some sort of family celebration because we’re married?”

She recoiled from the snap in my tone. “I didn’t think about it like that. And Mom didn’t call it that, but I suppose it makes sense.”

“Not to me.” I turned my back to her and began walking into the wind, letting it blow my hair away from my heated face.

“Gideon!” Eva hurried after me. “Why are you mad?”

I rounded on her. “I wasn’t expecting this!”

“What?”

“The assimilation-into-the-family crap.”

She frowned. “Well, yeah. I told you they knew.”

“That shouldn’t change anything.”

“Uh … Why tell them, then? You wanted them to know, Gideon.” She stared at me when I didn’t say anything. “What did you think would happen?”

“I never expected to get married, Eva, so forgive me if I didn’t think about it.”

“Okay.” She held up both hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’m confused.”

And I didn’t know how to make things clear. “I can’t … I’m not ready for this.”

“Ready for what?”

I waved an impatient hand toward the house. “For that.”

“Can you be more specific?” she asked carefully.

“I … No.”

“Did I miss something in there?” Her voice held a sharp note of anger. “What did they say, Gideon?”

It took me a moment to understand that she was rising to my defense. That only goaded me further. “I came here to be with you. It just so happens you’re spending time with your family—”

“They’re your family, too.”

“I didn’t ask for that.”

I watched as understanding sifted across her face. When pity followed, my fists clenched at my sides. “Don’t look at me like that, Eva.”

“I don’t know what to say. Tell me what you need.”

I exhaled roughly. “More liquor.” Her mouth curved. “I’m sure you won’t be the first groom who feels the need to drink around his in-laws.”

“Can we not call them that, please?”

The faint smile faded. “What would that change? You can call them Mr. and Mrs. Stanton, but—”

“I’m not the one who’s confused about where I fit here.”

Her lips pursed. “I’m not sure I agree with that.”

“Two days ago, they would’ve shaken my hand and called me Cross. Now, it’s hugs and ‘call me Mom’ and smiles that expect something!”

“Actually, she told you not to call her Mom, but I get it. You’re their son by marriage and it’s freaking you out. Still, is it so terrible that they’re happy about it? Would you prefer it if they were like my dad?”

“Yes.” I knew how to deal with anger and disappointment.

Eva took a step back, her eyes dark and wide in the light of a waning moon.

“No,” I retracted, shoving a hand through my hair. I didn’t know how to deal with disappointing her. “Damn it. I don’t know.”

She stared at me for a long minute. I looked away, out over the water.

“Gideon …” She closed the gap she’d put between us. “Honestly, I get it. My mom’s been married three times. Every time it’s a new instant father figure that I—”

“I have a stepfather,” I interrupted tersely. “It’s not the same thing. No one gives a shit whether a stepparent likes you.”

“Is that what this is about?” She walked into me and hugged me tight. “They already like you.”

I gripped her close. “They don’t fucking know me.”

“They will. And they’re going to love you. You’re every parent’s dream.”

“Cut the bullshit, Eva.”

She shoved away from me, her temper flaring. “You know what? If you didn’t want any in-laws, you should’ve married an orphan.”

She marched back toward the house.

“Get back here,” I snapped.

She flipped her middle finger at me over her shoulder.

I caught her in three strides, grabbing her arm and spinning her back around. “We’re not done.”

“I am.” Eva pushed up onto her tiptoes to get in my face, which still left her tilting her head back to glare at me. “You’re the one who wanted to get married. If you’re having cold feet, it’s all on you.”

“Don’t make this my problem!” Fury sizzled through my blood, ratcheting up my frustration.

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