I never would. I’d search for a lifetime, if that was what it took, for any hint that the footage survived somewhere outside of my control. “Thank you.”
Hanging up, I left my office and headed home to Eva.
“YOU’RE really good with those,” Ireland said, eyeing Eva as she lifted a chopstickful of kung pao chicken from its white box to her mouth. “I never got the hang of ’em.”
“Here, try holding them like this.”
I watched my wife adjust my sister’s grip on the slender sticks, her blond head a bright contrast against Ireland’s black hair. Sitting on the floor at my feet, they both wore shorts and tank tops, their tanned legs stretched out beneath the coffee table, one long and lean, the other petite and voluptuous.
I was more of an observer than a participant, sitting on the couch behind them and envying their easy rapport even while I was grateful for it.
It was all so surreal. I hadn’t ever imagined a night like that, a quiet evening at home with . . . family. I didn’t know how to contribute or even if I could. What could I say? How should I feel?
Besides awed. And thankful. So very thankful for my amazing wife, who brought so much to my life.
Not long ago, on a similar Saturday night, I would have been at a highly publicized social function or event, focusing on business unless or until a woman’s keen interest spurred a need to f**k. Whether I returned to the penthouse by myself or ended up at the hotel with a one-night stand, I’d be alone. And since I hardly remembered what it felt like to belong anywhere, to anyone, I didn’t know what I was missing.
“Ha! Look at that,” Ireland crowed, holding up a tiny bit of orange chicken, which she promptly ate. “Made it to my mouth.”
I swallowed the wine in my glass in a single gulp, wanting to say something. My mind raced with options, all of which sounded insincere and contrived. In the end what came out was, “The chopsticks have a large target. Ups your chances.”
Ireland turned her head toward me, revealing the same blue eyes I saw in the mirror every day. They were much less guarded, far more innocent, and bright with laughter and adoration. “Did you just call me a big mouth?”
Unable to resist, I ran my hand over the crown of her head, touching the silky soft strands of her hair. Those, too, were like mine and yet not. “Not my words,” I said.
“Not in so many words,” she corrected, leaning briefly into my touch before turning back to Eva.
Eva glanced up at me, offering an encouraging smile. She knew I drew strength from her, and she gave it unconditionally.
My throat tight, I rose from the couch and grabbed Eva’s empty wineglass. Ireland’s glass of soda was still half full, so I left it and headed to the kitchen, trying to regain enough equanimity to make it through the rest of the evening.
“Channing Tatum is so hot,” Ireland said, her voice traveling from the living room. “Don’t you think?”
I frowned. My baby sister’s idle question triggered uncomfortable thoughts of her dating. She had to have started a few years ago—she was seventeen. I knew it was unrealistic to want her to stay away from boys. I knew it was my fault that I’d missed so much of her childhood. But the thought of her having to deal with younger versions of men like me and Manuel and Cary roused an unfamiliar defensive reaction.
“He’s very good-looking,” Eva agreed.
Possessiveness rose to join the mix. My gaze narrowed on the two glasses in front of me as I refilled them.
“He’s this year’s Sexiest Man Alive,” Ireland said. “Look at those biceps.”
“Ah, now on that, I have to totally disagree. Gideon is way sexier.”
My mouth curved.
“You’re such a goner,” my sister teased. “Your pupils turn into little hearts when you think about Gideon. It’s so cute.”
Ireland’s musical laugh floated through the air. “Don’t worry. He’s goofy over you, too. And he’s been on every Sexiest Man Alive list for ages. I never hear the end of it from my friends.”
“Gah. Don’t tell me stuff like that. I’m jealous by nature.”
Laughing inwardly, I dropped the empty bottle into the recycling bin.
“So is Gideon. He’s going to flip out when you start hitting the Hottest Women Alive lists. No way to avoid it now that everyone’s heard of you.”
“Whatever,” Eva scoffed. “They’d have to Photoshop fifteen pounds off my ass and thighs to sell that.”
“Um, have you seen Kim Kardashian? Or Jennifer Lopez?”
I paused on the threshold of the living room, taking in the picture Ireland and Eva made over the rim of my glass. An ache bloomed in my chest. I wanted to freeze the moment, protect it, keep it safe forever.
Ireland looked up and spotted me, then rolled her eyes. “What did I tell you?” she said. “Goofy.”
SITTING back in my chair, I sipped coffee and studied the spreadsheet on my monitor. I rolled my shoulders back, trying to loosen the kink in my neck.
“Dude. What the hell? It’s three in the morning.”
I looked up to find Ireland standing in the doorway to my home office. “Your point?”
“Why are you working so late?”
“Why are you Skyping so late?” I countered, having heard her laughter and occasionally raised voice over the last hour or so since I’d left Eva sleeping.
“Whatev,” she muttered, coming in and dropping into one of the chairs in front of my desk. She slouched, her shoulders even with the chair back and her legs sprawled out in front of her. “Can’t sleep?”
“No.” She didn’t know how literally true that was. With Ireland sleeping in Eva’s bed and Eva sleeping in mine, I couldn’t risk going to sleep myself. There was only so much I could expect Eva to take, only so many times I could frighten her before it destroyed the love she felt for me.
“Christopher texted me a bit ago,” she said. “Guess Dad’s staying at a hotel.”
My brows rose.
She nodded, her face forlorn. “It’s bad, Gideon. They haven’t spent a night apart ever. At least that I can remember.”
I didn’t know what to say. Our mother had been calling me all day, leaving messages on my voice mail and ringing the penthouse so often I’d been forced to disconnect the main receiver so that none of the phones would ring. I hated that my mother was struggling, but I had to protect my time with Ireland and Eva.
It felt heartless to focus on myself, but I’d already lost my family twice before—once when my father died and again after Hugh. I couldn’t afford to lose any more. I didn’t think I could survive it a third time, not with Eva in my life.
“I just wish I knew what caused the fight,” she said. “I mean as long as they didn’t cheat on each other, they should be able to get through it, right?”
Exhaling roughly, I straightened. “I’m not the person to ask about relationships. I have no idea how they work. I’m just stumbling my way through, praying not to f**k things up, and grateful that Eva is so forgiving.”
“You really love her.”
I followed her gaze to the collage of photos on the wall. It hurt sometimes, looking at those pictures of my wife. I wanted to recapture and relive every moment. I wanted to hoard every second I’d ever had with her. I hated that time slipped away so quickly and I couldn’t bank it for the uncertain future.
“Yes,” I murmured. I’d forgive Eva anything. There was nothing she could do or say that would break us apart, because I couldn’t live without her.
“I’m happy for you, Gideon.” Ireland smiled when I looked at her.
“Thank you.” The worry in her eyes lingered and sparked restlessness. I wanted to fix the problems troubling her, but I didn’t know how.
“Could you talk to Mom?” she suggested. “Not now, of course. But tomorrow? Maybe you can find out what’s going on?”
I hesitated a moment, knowing a conversation with our mother was certain to be unproductive. “I’ll try.”
Ireland studied her nails. “You don’t like Mom very much, do you?”
Weighing my answer carefully, I said, “We have a fundamental difference of opinion.”
“Yeah. I get it. It’s like she’s got this weird form of OCD that applies to her family. Everyone has to be a particular way or at least pretend to be. She’s so worried about what people think. I saw an old movie the other day that reminded me of her. Ordinary People. Ever seen it?”
“No, can’t say I have.”
“You should watch it. It has Kiefer Sutherland’s dad in it and some other people. It’s sad, but it’s a good story.”
“I’ll look it up.” Feeling the need to explain our mother, I tried my best. “What she dealt with after my father died . . . It was brutal. She’s insulated herself since then, I think.”
“My friend’s mother says Mom used to be different before. You know, when she was married to your dad.”
I set my cooled coffee aside. “I do remember her differently.”
“That’s subjective. She was more . . . spontaneous. Carefree.”
Ireland rubbed at her mouth with her fingertips. “Do you think it broke her? Losing your dad?”
My chest tightened. “It changed her,” I said quietly. “I’m not sure how much.”
“Ugh.” She sat up, visibly shaking off her melancholy. “You going to be awake awhile?”
“Probably all night.”
“Wanna watch that movie with me?”
The suggestion surprised me. And pleased me. “Depends. You can’t tell me what happens. No spoilers.”
She shot me a look. “I already told you it’s sad. If you want happily ever after, she’s sleeping down the hall.”
That made me smile. Standing, I rounded my desk. “You find the movie, I’ll grab the soda.”
“A beer would be good.”
“Not on my watch.”
She pushed to her feet with a grin. “Okay, fine. Wine, then.”
“Ask me again in a few years.”
“You’ll have kids by then. It won’t be as fun.”
I paused, hit by anxiety sharp enough to mist my skin with sweat. The thought of having a baby with Eva both thrilled and terrified me. It wasn’t safe for my wife to live with me. How could it ever be safe for a child?
Ireland laughed. “Holy f**k, you should see your face! A classic case of playboy panic. Didn’t they tell you? First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.”
“If you don’t shut up, I’m sending you to bed.”
She laughed harder and linked her arm with mine. “You’re a riot. Seriously. I’m just messing with you. Don’t flip out on me. I’ve got enough family members doing that.”
I willed my heart to stop pounding so damn hard.
“Maybe you should have a drink,” she suggested.
“I think I will,” I muttered.
“I’m going to give major props to Eva for getting a ring out of you. Did you have a panic attack when you proposed, too?”
“Stop talking, Ireland.”
Leaning her head against my shoulder, she giggled and led me out of my office.
THE sun had been up for over two hours by the time I returned to bed. I stripped silently, my gaze roaming over the delectable bump under the covers that was my wife.
Eva was curled in a ball, mostly hidden except for the bright strands of hair splayed over the pillow. My mind filled in the blanks, knowing she was na**d between the sheets.
Mine. All mine.