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My smile faded.

“It’s said that actions speak louder than words,” he went on, “but we still need words. We need to speak and we need to be heard.”

I stared at him, my pulse inexplicably speeding up.

“Your wife is listening to you, Gideon. She believes you.” He leaned forward. “I’m listening and I believe you. So you’re talking again and getting a different response from the one you’ve conditioned yourself to expect. It opens things up, doesn’t it?”

“Opens me up, you mean.”

He nodded. “It does. To love and acceptance. To friendship. Trust. A whole new world, really.”

Reaching up, I rubbed the back of my neck. “What am I supposed to do with that?”

“More laughter is a good start.” Dr. Petersen sat back with a smile and picked up his tablet again. “We’ll figure out the rest.”

I entered the foyer of the penthouse to the sounds of both Nina Simone and Lucky, feeling good. The puppy barked from the other side of the front door, his claws scratching madly. Smiling despite myself, I turned the knob and crouched, catching the little wriggling body as he launched himself through the opening.

“Heard me coming, did you?” Standing, I cradled him against my chest and let him lick my jaw as I rubbed his back.

I entered the living room in time to watch my stepfather push to his feet from where he’d been sitting on the floor. He greeted me with a warm smile and even warmer eyes, before he dialed it back and schooled his expression into something … less.

“Hi,” he greeted me, closing the distance between us. He wore jeans and a polo shirt but had taken his shoes off, revealing white socks with red threading along the toes. His wavy hair, the color of a worn penny, was longer than I’d ever seen it, and a few days’ growth of stubble shadowed his jaw.

I didn’t move, my thoughts tumbling around themselves. For an instant, Chris had looked at me like Dr. Petersen did. Like Angus did.

Like my father did, in my dreams.

Unable to look at him, I took a second to set Lucky down and take a deep breath. When I straightened, I found Chris holding his hand out to me.

Feeling a familiar tingle of awareness, I looked beyond Chris’s shoulder and found Eva standing in the doorway to the kitchen. Her gaze met mine, soft and tender and full of love.

Something about him had changed radically. His easygoing greeting made me remember how it was between us years ago. There had been a time when Chris hadn’t been so formal with me. A time when he had looked at me with affection. He’d stopped because I told him to. He wasn’t my father. Would never be my father. I knew I was just the baggage that came along with him loving my mother. I didn’t need him to pretend that he gave a shit about me.

Instead, it seemed, he had pretended that he didn’t care.

I took his hand, then pulled him into a quick hold, slapping him firmly but gently across the shoulders before releasing him. He held on and I froze, my gaze darting to Eva.

She pretended to pour an imaginary drink for me, then retreated to get me a real one.

Chris let me go, stepping back and clearing his throat. His eyes behind his gold-framed spectacles were shiny and wet. “Casual Tuesday?” he asked gruffly, looking at my jeans and T-shirt. “You work too hard. Especially with such a cute dog and beautiful wife waiting at home for you.”

Your wife is listening to you, Gideon. She believes you. I’m listening and I believe you.

My stepfather believed me, too. And it was costing him. I could see the pain he was living with, recognized it from the times I’d felt that way myself. Separation from Eva felt almost like living death, and our relationship was still new. Chris had been married to my mother for over two decades.

“I had an appointment with my therapist,” I told him. The ordinary words sounded foreign to my ears, like something a mentally unstable person oversharing would say.

His throat worked on a hard swallow. “You’re seeing someone. That’s good, Gideon. I’m glad to hear that.”

Eva appeared with a glass of wine in her hand. She passed it to me, tipping her chin up to offer her mouth. I kissed her, holding my lips to hers for a long, sweet moment.

“Are you hungry?” she asked, when I let her go.

“Starved.”

“Come on, then.”

I checked her out as she preceded us into the kitchen, admiring the way her capris hugged her lush ass. She was barefoot, with her blond hair swinging softly around her shoulders. Aside from something glossy on her lips, she was barefaced and breathtaking.

She’d set us up to eat at the island, putting Chris and me on the side with bar stools, while she stood opposite us and ate standing up. She was so casual and relaxed, as was the atmosphere she had created.

Three pillar candles fragranced the air with something citrusy and spicy. Dinner was a seared steak salad, with Gorgonzola, sliced red onions, red and yellow sweet peppers, and a tangy vinaigrette. Crispy bread soaked in garlic butter stayed warm in a napkin-lined basket, while a decanted bottle of red wine waited to fill stemless glasses.

I watched her as she swayed to the music while she ate and chatted with Chris about the Outer Banks beach house. I remembered for a moment how the penthouse had been before she’d started moving in. It was where I lived, but I couldn’t say it was home. On some level, I must have known she was coming when I bought the place. It had waited for her, as I had, needing her to bring life into it.

“Your sister is coming with me to the dinner tomorrow night, Gideon,” Chris said. “She’s very excited.”

Eva frowned. “What dinner?”

His brows rose. “Your husband is being honored for his generosity.”

“Really?” Her eyes got big and she did a little hop. “Are you giving a speech?”

Amused, I said, “That’s usually expected, yes.”

“Yay!” She jumped and clapped like a cheerleader. “I love hearing you speak.”

For once, I thought I might even like doing it, considering that just the thought put a fuck-me gleam in her eyes.

“And I can’t wait to see Ireland,” she said. “Is it black tie?”

“Yes.”

“Double yay! You in a tux, giving a speech.” She rubbed her hands together.

Chris laughed. “Clearly, your wife is your biggest fan.”

She winked at him. “You better believe it.”

I savored my wine before swallowing. “Our social calendar should be synced to your phone, angel.”

Eva’s smile faded into a frown. “I don’t think it is.”

“I’ll take a look.”

Settling back in his chair, Chris held his glass close to his chest and sighed. “That was wonderful, Eva. Thank you.”

She waved that off. “It was salad. But I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

My gaze moved from her to my stepfather. I debated saying anything, stewed over it. Things were fine the way they were. Change sometimes fucked things up that were good before.

“We should do this more often.” The words were out of my mouth before I realized it.

He stared at me, then looked down into his glass. He cleared his throat. “I would like that, Gideon.” He glanced at me. “I’ll take you up on the offer whenever you like.”

I nodded. Sliding off my stool, I grabbed his plate and my own and carried them over to the sink.

Eva joined me, handing me her plate. Our gazes met and she smiled. Then she turned to Chris. “Let’s open another bottle of wine.”

“We’re ahead of schedule by two weeks. Barring any unforeseen events, we should be finished early.”

“Excellent.” Standing, I shook the project manager’s hand. “You’re doing good work, Leo.”

Opening the newest Crosswinds resort earlier than planned offered myriad benefits, not the least of which was combining the necessary final inspections with some playtime with my wife.

“Thank you, Mr. Cross.” He gathered up his materials and straightened. Leo Aigner was a stout man, with thinning blond hair and a big smile. A hard worker, he stuck rigidly to timelines and sped them up whenever he could. “Congratulations, by the way. I heard that you got married recently.”

“I did, yes. Thank you.”

I walked with him to the door of my office, then glanced at my watch when he left. Eva was coming to the Crossfire at noon to have lunch with Mark and his fiancé Steven. I wanted to catch her while she was close. I needed her opinion before I proceeded with a possibility I’d been entertaining all day.

“Mr. Cross.” Scott stood in the doorway, intercepting me on the way to my desk.

I shot him a questioning look.

“Deanna Johnson has been waiting at reception for half an hour. What would you like me to tell Cheryl?”

I thought of Eva. “Tell her to send Ms. Johnson in.”

While I waited, I texted my wife. Save me some time before you leave the Crossfire. I need to ask you something.

An in-person meeting? she texted back. Are you thinking about my butt and boobs again?

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