Logan said, “Mason can’t. Someone might recognize the dumbass, but I can do it.”
“You know who you’re looking for?”
All joking aside, he gave a tight nod. “You sent me the files. I saw her picture, but I’ve got a feeling I’ll recognize your daughter anywhere. Their PI is normally good, so I’m sure they know who I am.”
“Yeah, about that.”
We both glanced at Mason.
He looked at me. “My dad knows Mallone. You say that you’d been noticing him for a while?”
“Mallone’s not known to be lazy. If I’m guessing, Mallone didn’t like something Royas was doing. He was letting you see him.”
Logan’s chin jerked up. “You mean, like we could flip him? He's that kind of PI?”
Mason slid his eyes to his brother. “I don’t think it’d hurt to try.” He glanced at me. “If you’re game?”
“Oh. I’m game. I’m all sorts of game.”
“I’ll make the appro—”
“Ooh, ooh! No. Let me.” Logan’s eyes were lit up.
“You sure?” Mason frowned, casting me a look.
“Yes. I’m so sure. I’ll be smooth about it. Don’t worry.”
Mason fully turned and looked at me.
When Logan used that phrase, we knew to worry.
He saw the look. “Come on. I’m not a kid anymore.”
“You were arrested for stealing flamingos from a neighbor’s lawn.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“That was last week.”
Logan’s eyes flicked upward. “I was rescuing those flamingos. And no charges were pressed.”
“Because you offered pro bono work to the guy whose lawn you were stealing them from.”
“I was doing him a favor.”
I frowned. “What’d you do with the flamingos…? No. I don’t want to know.” I glanced at the clock. She called ten minutes ago, saying an hour.
This was going to be the longest hour of my life.
Both guys must’ve sensed the shift in me because they eased back. Logan patted me on the shoulder. “You know about her. That was the biggest obstacle. It’ll work out.”
I was staring at the door.
“Yeah,” I muttered.
It had to.
I loved Nova from the first photograph I saw of her.
It’d been that quick.
I never thought about children growing up. Never considered if I wanted them or if I didn’t. Since I was little, my life had been all about dancing. I needed to move.
I loved the spontaneous, free movement.
Of course, that was not what ballet was.
Structure. Foundation. The body was regimented, pounded, trained, forced into a certain look, a certain motion. All to convey the opposite of what we were. We were fierce, but we needed to look slender. We were motivated, yet we were supposed to blend. Always blend until the moment we got to stand out. To bring gasps from those watching us. To make our bodies move in a way that books could make people feel, how a song could make someone cry. We did that by moving, by breaking free of what normal people could do and go beyond. Always beyond.
I was a principal dancer in a ballet production.
I was there where I wanted to be.
Dancing was my life.
Then a text was sent, and an image was attached.
Valerie was pregnant, had already given birth, and Nova’s picture was next.
Everything stopped at that instant.
As I said, I loved Nova the second I saw her. She was my niece.
All those years, all the history where there’d been strained visits, and I regretted everything. Everything.
I needed to be in Nova’s life.
I began lessening my load.
Visits started slow.
I went to see what Valerie needed, if anything.
I found out about Nico by accident. Not about him. I knew Valerie got married because I was a bridesmaid, but family can be around each other for events and not know a damn thing going on in their world. Nico was one of those “things.” And I knew she was getting a divorce, but I didn’t know the reason until that day.
I’d been changing Nova’s diaper when the phone rang.
I didn’t think about it. Who would? It was a phone call.
But I was carrying Nova back when I heard the first shrieks.
Chills went down my spine.
“You stay away from me! Stay away from Nova—” A break. She was sobbing. “She’s not yours, Nico! She’s Nate’s.”
Nova started crying at that moment, so I cradled her head and walked out, starting to rock her at the same time.
Valerie looked like she had lost thirty pounds in that instant. She was haggard, and I saw all the pain, all the exhaustion. The fear, too.
The fear—it was choking her.
She ended the call with no goodbye, nothing.
Then she just stood there.
I crossed the room. “Give me the phone.”
Her fingers were limp when I took it, and I blocked his phone number.
I pulled up her lawyer and handed her the phone back. “You need to file an order of protection against him. Is his name on the birth certificate?”
She shook her head, everything in her sagging. “I already have one.”
I froze. “What?”
She took a deep breath, looking me fully in the eyes. “I already have an order of protection against him. It’s for Nova and me.”
That had been the start.
She whispered to me later, “I’m so tired, Quince. I don’t have any more fight in me.”
A need rose in me, swiftly and promptly. I hugged her tight and whispered back, “Well, I do. I’m here. I’m here, Val.”
Remembering all of that, a tear fell down my cheek as I drove the car to the Corebar Hotel. I flicked it away as the valet came over, waiting as I grabbed everything for Nova and then bent down to pick her up from the seat.
A guy came forward when we stepped inside. I recognized him from Carl’s folder and also from the social pages.
Good looks ran in Nate’s entire friend group. Brown eyes, brown hair, a lean frame, and a pretty face, but it was the charisma that rolled off him that got me the most. I could feel a literal zap in the air.