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I remembered to smile and started toward their large round table situated near the center of the room, making my way carefully over the hardwood floors, trying to ignore the stares I garnered as the focus of Gideon’s dark gaze.

My hand shook a little as reached for his arm. “I apologize for being late.”

He slid his arm around me and brushed his lips over my temple. His fingers flexed into my waist with near-painful pressure and I pulled back.

He looked at me with such heated intensity and ferocious love that my pulse skipped. Pleasure rushed through me. I knew that look, understood I’d given him a little buzz he was struggling to process. It was nice to know I could still do that. It made me want to try my hardest to find just the right dress to walk down the aisle in.

I looked at everyone at the table. “Hello.”

Gideon pulled his gaze away from my face. “It’s my pleasure to introduce you to my wife, Eva.”

Startled, I turned wide eyes toward him. The world thought we were only engaged. I hadn’t realized he was making the fact that we were married known.

The heat in his gaze softened to warm amusement. “These are the board members of the Crossroads Foundation.”

Shock turned into love and gratitude so fast, I swayed with it. He held me up, as he always did, in all ways. At a time when I was likely to feel a little adrift, he was giving me something else.

He introduced everyone to me, then pulled out my seat for me. Lunch passed in a whirl of excellent food and intense conversation. I was happy to hear that my idea for adding Crossroads to Gideon’s bio on his website had ramped up traffic to the foundation’s site, and that my suggested overhauls to the Crossroads site—now in place—had increased applications for assistance.

And I loved how close Gideon sat to me, holding my hand beneath the table.

When they asked me for input, I shook my head. “I’m not qualified to offer anything valuable at this point. You’re all doing an amazing job.”

Cindy Bello, the CEO, gave me a big smile. “Thank you, Eva.”

“I would like to sit in on board meetings as an observer and get up to speed. If I can’t contribute ideas, I hope to find another way to lend a hand.”

“Now that you mention it,” Lynn Feng, the VP of operations, began, “many of our recipients want to acknowledge and thank Crossroads for its support. They hold luncheons or dinners, which also act as fund-raisers. They would love to have Gideon accept on behalf of the foundation, but his schedule precludes that most of the time.”

I leaned briefly into Gideon’s shoulder. “You want me to nudge him some more for you.”

“Actually,” she smiled, “Gideon suggested that you might step in and handle those. We’re talking about you representing the foundation in person.”

I blinked at her. “You’re kidding.”

“Not at all.”

My gaze turned to Gideon. He tilted his head in acknowledgment.

I tried to wrap my brain around the idea. “I’m not much of a consolation prize.”

“Eva.” Gideon conveyed a wealth of disapproval in that one word.

“I’m not being modest,” I countered. “Why would anyone want to hear me speak? You’re accomplished, brilliant, and a wonderful orator. I could listen to you give a speech all day. Your name sells tickets. Offering me up instead just creates … an obligation. That’s not helpful.”

“Are you done?” he asked smoothly.

I narrowed my eyes at him.

“Look at the people in your life and how you’ve helped them.” Like me. He didn’t say it, but he didn’t have to. “If you put your mind to it, you could deliver a powerful message.”

“If I can add,” Lynn interjected, “when Gideon can’t make it, one of us goes instead.” She gestured at the rest of the board members. “Having a member of the Cross family personally attend would be wonderful. No one would be disappointed.”

The Cross family. That had me sucking in a sharp breath. I didn’t know if Geoffrey Cross had left any other family members behind. What was indisputable was that Gideon was the most visible reminder of his infamous father.

My husband didn’t remember the man who was known as a fraudster and coward. What he remembered was a father who had loved and nurtured him. Gideon worked so hard and had achieved so much, driven by the need to change what people associated with the Cross name.

Now I had the name, too. One day in the future, we would have children who carried it. I had the same responsibility as Gideon to make our surname something our kids would be proud of.

I looked at Gideon.

He held my gaze, unwavering and focused. “Two places at once,” he murmured.

My heart felt like it was squeezed inside my chest. This was more than I’d expected, sooner than I had expected it. Gideon had gone straight to something personal, something intimate and essential to who he was. Something that meant a great deal to me, as well, and that I could put my own stamp on.

He had been waging the war to clear the stain on his name all alone, as he’d had to fight all of his battles. That he trusted me to join him in this, of all things, was a declaration of love as wonderful to me as the ring on my finger.

My grip on his hand tightened. I tried to show him, with just a look, how touched I was. He lifted our joined hands to his lips, his gaze saying the same thing back to me. I love you.

Our server came by to clear our plates.

“We’ll talk about it,” he said aloud. Then he looked at the others. “I hate to cut this short, but I have an afternoon meeting coming up. I could be generous and leave Eva with you, but I won’t.”

Smiles and laughter went around the table.

He looked at me. “Ready?”

“Give me a minute,” I murmured, looking forward to the opportunity to kiss him the way I needed to.

From the glimmer in his eyes, I suspected he knew exactly what I was thinking.

Lynn and Cindy both pushed to their feet and came along to the ladies’ room.

As we made our way through the restaurant, I looked for Arnoldo but didn’t see him. That didn’t surprise me, considering his commitments with the Food Network and other appearances. As much as I wanted to try to repair that relationship, I knew time would tell. Eventually, Arnoldo would see how much I loved my husband, that protecting him and being everything to him was the center of my life.

Gideon and I challenged each other. We pushed each other to change and grow. Sometimes, we hurt each other to accomplish something or make a point, which worried Dr. Petersen but somehow was working for us. We could forgive each other for anything except betrayal.

It was inevitable that others, especially those close to us, would look at us from the outside and wonder how and why it worked, and whether it should. They couldn’t understand—and I didn’t blame them because I was only just starting to really grasp it myself—that we pushed ourselves harder than we ever pushed each other. Because we wanted to be the best possible versions of ourselves, to be strong enough to be what the other needed.

I used the restroom, then washed my hands, taking a moment to look in the mirror when I was done and fluff my hair. I wasn’t sure how Mario had done it, but he’d given me a cut that gained more body the more I touched it.

I caught Cindy’s smile in the mirror and felt a little self-conscious. Then she pulled out a tube of bright red lipstick and I relaxed.

“Eva. I almost didn’t recognize you. I love what you’ve done with your hair.”

Through the mirror, I looked for the person speaking to me. For a split second, I thought it was Corinne and my heart rate kicked up. Then I homed in on the face.

“Hello.” Turning, I faced Ryan Landon’s wife. When I’d first met Angela, she had worn her hair in an artful chignon, which disguised the length of her hair. With it down, the long black strands hung in a straight curtain that reached the middle of her back. She was tall and slender, her eyes a muted blue-gray. Her face was longer than Corinne’s and her features a bit less perfect, but she was still a knockout.

Her gaze assessed me so casually from head to toe I couldn’t swear that was what she had done. Nice trick. I hadn’t mastered it. It dawned on me that I would be constantly scrutinized by more than just the media as I took my place in the city’s new elite. I wasn’t ready. My mother’s debutante training and rules weren’t going to help me, that was for damn sure.

Angela smiled and took the sink next to me. “It’s good to see you.”

“You, too.” Now that I was armed with the knowledge of Landon’s vendetta against Gideon, I was on alert. But I wasn’t trying to land her husband’s account anymore. We were equals. Well, almost. My husband was younger, richer, and hotter. And she knew it.

Cindy and Lynn finished up and started moving toward the exit. I fell into step with them.

“I was wondering—” Angela began.

I paused and looked at her inquisitively. Giving us privacy, the other gals left.

“—if you’ll be attending the Grey Isles show this week? Your close friend—the one who’s living with you—he’s the face of their latest campaign, isn’t he?”