Eva tugged on my hand and led me inside. Cary had guessed right. I was inundated with the smell of buttery vanilla. Not candles. Cookies. The homey and comforting scent made me itch to turn around and step back outside.
I wasn’t prepared. I’d come as a guest, Eva’s plus-one. To be a son-in-law, a true member of the family, was a possibility I hadn’t anticipated.
“I love this house,” Eva said, taking me through the archway that framed the opening to the living room.
I saw what I expected. An upscale beach house with white-slipcovered seating and nautical-themed accessories.
“Don’t you love the espresso hardwood floors?” she asked. “I would’ve gone with bleached oak, but that’s so predictable, right? And the green, orange, and yellow accent colors over the usual blue? Makes me want to go rogue when we get back to the Outer Banks.”
She had no idea how much I wanted to get back there now. There at least I’d have more than a second to myself before I had to deal with a houseful of brand-new relatives.
The expansive living area flowed directly into the open kitchen, where Stanton, Martin, Lacey, and Cary all gathered around a large kitchen island with seating for six. The entire space shared the view of the water afforded by a row of sliding glass panels that opened onto a wide veranda.
“Hey!” Eva protested. “You better save me some cookies!”
Stanton grinned and approached us. Dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, he looked like a younger version of the man I knew from our dealings in New York. He’d shed the corporate vibe along with his suit, and I felt like I faced a stranger.
“Eva.” Stanton kissed Eva’s cheek, then turned to me. “Gideon.”
Accustomed to being addressed by my last name, I wasn’t braced for the hug that followed.
“Congratulations,” he said, giving me a firm pat on the back before releasing me.
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.