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 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?”