As he'd told me once, he had been the recipient of many I love yous over the years, but he'd never believed them because they hadn't been backed up with truth, trust, and honesty.


The words meant little to him, which was why he refused to say them to me.


I tried not to let him see how it hurt me that he wouldn't say them.


I figured that was an adjustment I'd have to make to be with him.


"Good morning, Eva."


I glanced up from my desk and found Mark standing by my cubicle.


His slightly crooked smile was always a winner.


"Hey.


I'm ready to roll when you are."


"Coffee first.


You up for a refill?" Grabbing my empty mug off my desk, I stood.


"You bet."


We headed toward the break room.


"You look like you got a tan," Mark said, glancing over at me.


"Yeah, I did a little sun lounging over the weekend.


It was good to be lazy and do nothing.


Actually, that's probably one of my favorite things to do, period."


"I'm envious.


Steven can't sit still for too long.


He always wants to drag me somewhere for something."


"My roommate's the same way.


It's exhausting how he runs around."


"Oh, before I forget."


He gestured for me to enter the break room first.


"Shawna wants you to get in touch.


She's got concert tickets for some new rock band.


I think she wants to see if you'd want them."


I thought of the attractive red- haired waitress I'd met the week before.


She was Steven's sister, and Steven was Mark's longtime partner.


The two men had met in college and had been together ever since.


I really liked Steven.


I was pretty sure I'd really like Shawna, too.


"Are you okay with me reaching out to her?" I had to ask, because she was - for all intents and purposes -  Mark's sister-in-law and Mark was my boss."Of course.


Don't worry.


It won't be weird."


"All right."


I smiled and hoped to add another girlfriend to my new life in New York.


"Thanks."


"Thank me with a cup of coffee," he said, pulling out a mug from the cupboard and handing it to me.


"You make it taste better than I do."


I shot him a look.


"My dad uses that line."


"Must be true, then."


"Must be a standard guy finagle," I shot back.


"How do you and Steven divvy up coffee making?" "We don't."


He grinned.


"There's a Starbucks on the corner by our place."


"I'm sure there's a way to call that cheating, but I haven't had enough caffeine to think of it yet."


I passed over his filled mug to him.


"Which probably means I shouldn't share the idea that just came to me."


"Go for it.


If it really sucks, I can hold it against you forever."


"Gee.


Thanks."


I held my mug between both hands.


"Would it work to market the blueberry coffee like tea instead? You know, the coffee in a chintz teacup and saucer with maybe a scone and some clotted cream in the background? Give it a high-end, midafternoon snack sort of treatment? Throw in a fabulously handsome Englishman to sip it with?" Mark's lips pursed as he thought about it.


"I think I like it.


Let's go run it by the creatives."


* * *


"Why didn't you tell me you were going to Las Vegas?" I sighed inwardly at the high note of irritated anxiety in my mother's voice and adjusted my grip on my desk phone receiver.


I'd barely returned my butt to my chair when the phone had rung.


I suspected if I checked my voice mail, I'd find a message or two from her.


When she got worked up about something, she couldn't let it go.


"Hi, Mom.


I'm sorry.


I planned on calling you at lunch and catching up."


"I love Vegas."


"You do?" I thought she hated anything remotely related to gambling.


"I didn't know that."


"You would've if you'd asked."


There was a hurt note in my mother's breathy voice that made me wince.


"I'm sorry, Mom," I said again, having learned as a child that repeated apologies went a long way with her.


"I needed to spend some downtime with Cary.


We can talk about a future trip to Vegas, though, if you'd like to go sometime."


"Wouldn't that be fun? I'd like to do fun things with you, Eva."


"I'd like that, too."


My eyes went to the picture of my mother and Stanton.


She was a beautiful woman, one who radiated a vulnerable sensuality to which men responded helplessly.


The vulnerability was real  - my mom was fragile in many ways  - but she was a man-eater, too.


Men didn't take advantage of my mom; she walked all over them.


"Do you have plans for lunch? I could make a reservation and come get you."


"Can I bring a co-worker?" Megumi had hit me up with a lunch invitation when I'd come in, promising to regale me with the tale of her blind date."Oh, I'd love to meet the people you work with!" My mouth curved with genuine affection.


My mom drove me nuts a lot, but at the end of the day, her biggest fault was that she loved me too much.


Combined with her neurosis, it was a maddening flaw, but one motivated by the best of intentions.


"Okay.


Pick us up at noon.


And remember, we only get an hour, so it'll have to be close by and quick."


"I'll take care of it.


I'm excited! See you soon."


* * *


Megumi and my mother took to each other right away.


I recognized the familiar starry-eyed look on Megumi's face when they met, because I'd seen it so often over the years.


Monica Stanton was a stunning woman, the kind of classic beauty you couldn't help but stare at because you couldn't believe anyone could be that perfect.


Plus, the royal purple hue of the wingback she'd elected to sit in was an amazing backdrop for her golden hair and blue eyes.For her part, my mom was delighted by Megumi's fashion sense.


While my wardrobe choices leaned more toward traditional and ready-to- wear, Megumi favored unique combinations and color, much like the decor of the trendy cafe near Rockefeller Center my mom had taken us to.


The place reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, with its gilt and jewel- toned velvets used on uniquely shaped furniture.


The chaise Megumi was perched on had an exaggerated curved back, while my mother's wingback had gargoyles for feet.


"I'm still trying to figure out what's wrong with him," Megumi went on.


"I was looking, let me tell you.


I mean a guy that great shouldn't be slumming it with blind dates."


"Hardly slumming it," my mom protested.


"I'm sure he's wondering how he lucked out with you."


"Thanks!" Megumi grinned at me.


"He was seriously hot.


Not Gideon Cross hot, but hot all the same."


"How is Gideon, by the way?" I didn't take my mom's question lightly.


She was aware that Gideon knew about the abuse I'd suffered as a child, and she'd taken the news hard.


It was her greatest shame that she hadn't known what was going on under her own roof, and her guilt was enormous, as well as entirely undeserved.


She hadn't known because I'd hidden it.


Nathan had made me fear what he'd do if I ever told anyone.


Still, my mother was anxious about Gideon's knowing.


I hoped that she'd soon come to realize that Gideon didn't hold it against her any more than I did.


"He's working hard," I answered.


"You know how it is.


I've taken up a lot of his time since we hooked up, and I think he's paying for it now."


"You're worth it."


I took a large gulp of my water when I felt the nearly overwhelming urge to tell her that my dad was coming to visit.


She'd be an ally in convincing him of Gideon's affection for me, but that was a selfish reason to say anything.


I had no idea how she would react to Victor's being in New York, but it was highly possible she'd be distressed, and that would make everyone's life hell.


Whatever her reasons, she preferred to have no contact with him whatsoever.


I couldn't ignore how she'd managed to avoid seeing or talking to him since I'd become old enough to communicate with him directly.


"I saw a picture of Cary on the side of a bus yesterday," she said.


"Really?" I sat up straighter.


"Where?" "On Broadway.


A jeans ad, I think it was."


"I saw one, too," Megumi said.


"Not that I paid any attention to what he was wearing.


That man is fine."


The conversation made me smile.


My mother was adept at admiring men.


It was one of the many reasons they adored her - she made them feel good.


Megumi was more than her match in the guy-appreciation department.


"He's been getting recognized on the street," I said, glad that in this case we were talking about an ad and not a tabloid candid with me.


The gossips thought it was so juicy that Gideon Cross's girlfriend lived with a sexy male model.


"Of course," my mom said, with a slight note of chastisement.


"You didn't doubt he would eventually?" "I'd hoped," I qualified.


"For his sake.


It's a sad fact that male models don't make as much or work as often as the women do."


Although I'd expected Cary would break through somehow.


Emotionally, he couldn't afford not to.


He'd learned to put so much value on his looks that I didn't think he could allow himself to fail.

***

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