Authors: Angel Payne,Victoria Blue
There’d been nothing wrong with the woman’s tone—except a full-blown case of maternal chastisement. Instantly, Talia’s shoulders sagged. Her gaze swung to the floor. Drake and I exchanged a tight look, filled with the same conclusion. This was something we’d never seen from our forthright, confident Tolly before. Only years’ worth of proper training could’ve done it. As in, a whole life’s worth.
“Mama, these are my colleagues, Mr. Drake Newland and Mr. Fletcher Ford.” She waved her hand toward each of us during the formality, seeming to appease her mother while making
five times more uncomfortable. As she spoke, several more adult women converged on the spot where we stood, curiosity painted across their faces.
Talia rolled her eyes and continued with the introductions. Sisters, sisters-in-law, a few aunts, even her grandmother. By the time she was through, I hoped we wouldn’t be tested on any name recalls—especially because so many of them sounded the same. Silver lining? Talia’s accent, so fucking sexy as she pronounced each one, made my slacks tight again. I’d have to keep that new discovery in mind for when Drake and I got her alone next.
“So, these are the men from your work? And from the hotel room in Las Vegas?”
I was tempted to swallow my tongue. Was damn sure Drake had already slam-dunked his. Still, he managed a damn impressive poker face as Mrs. Perizkova stared expectantly at us—not a feat I could come close to touching—while Talia stammered to answer. Her eyes had widened with the force of a new expression, though whether it was embarrassment or frustration, I couldn’t be sure.
“Mama!” she finally blurted. “I explained that to you how many times now?”
“Don’t be sassy with me, young lady.” It was clear where Talia had learned her ability for fierce glares. “You aren’t too old to be taken over my knee.”
my dick rose to full attention. Not one bit appropriate given the time, the place, or the company, but the thought of that perfectly shaped ass bent over for a few swats?
Drake’s cough shook me from my musings. The pained look on his face told me his imagination had just eased on down the same dirty road as mine. Luckily, Poker Face recovered more quickly. With a smooth-as-whiskey smile, he leaned forward. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am. Your daughter is an amazing asset to the team at Stone Global, especially with all of her new responsibilities. I was just speaking to the owner, Killian Stone, about a possible promotion.”
Talia glared at Drake. Yeah,
. Who the hell glared about a promotion?
Mrs. Perizkova provided the answer to that quickly enough. “Hmmph. ‘New responsibilities’. She already works too much for a woman. It’s no wonder she’s first in line to become the next family spinster.”
“It’s true, Natalia. And since these men are your bosses, someone needs to speak up for you, if you’re not going to do it for yourself.”
Talia put her face in her hands, physically shrinking once more. Watching the change in her was like getting wrapped in barbed wire. I refused to stand by and let it happen a second time, no matter how it affected the way her mother viewed me. I wasn’t here for Perizkova brownie points.
Instinctively, I tightened a hand on Talia’s shoulder until she raised her face for me. Only after ensuring her undivided focus did I finally speak.
“You are an amazing, talented, smart, and necessary part of our team. No one knows that better than Drake and me. Do not let
tell you otherwise. You singlehandedly organized an entire product line launch. SGC would never be enjoying its exposure and success without you.”
Before Tolly could voice a peep in response, I turned on her mother—the woman who should have been building her up, not tearing her down.
“Your daughter is in a league of her own among her peers, Mrs. Perizkova. If we were standing at SGC headquarters right now, I guarantee you I’d be backed by hundreds more voices. She has a promising future because of her insightfulness, awareness, and compassion. It would probably be best if you came to terms with that truth.” When Tolly fidgeted beneath my hold, I clamped my grip tighter. “More importantly, this is what she wants. She has too much to contribute to the world to be sitting on the sidelines repopulating the earth. Not that I have anything against children”—I tossed a weary look around at the little princess mobs still running about—“but she is young and just hitting her professional stride. I can only imagine her abilities if she had a little family support.”
Silence. Well, what could pass for it in this place.
Everyone, including Drake and Talia, just stared at me. Gawked? I couldn’t—and wouldn’t—debate the point. Right now, for Talia’s sake, I hoped I hadn’t gone too far overboard, and would be forgiven the outburst. I sure as hell wouldn’t be taking it back. No way could I bear witness as her own mother whittled her self-esteem. It hit way too close to home. I knew exactly what Talia was feeling inside. And I wouldn’t wish that feeling on my worst enemy, let alone the woman I loved.
What. The. Fuck
Yeah. I had.
I’d just admitted it. Granted, to myself—thank fuck for small miracles—but ohhh yeah, I’d definitely gone there. And, I realized with a start, would happily do so again if need be.
I loved her.
Yeah. I did.
“Is it time for cake now?”
Praise be for Anya
Everyone in the crowd immediately started fussing, happy to have the diversion rather than deal with the diatribe I’d just laid out. I still wasn’t a damn speck remorseful—until I turned toward Talia, and those huge brown eyes now brimming with tears.
My stomach flipped over on itself.
“Sorry.” I mouthed it, shrugging like a lame-ass.
She shook her head and dashed off, toward the little princess’ room, I assumed. Though I longed to follow her, I was stopped by a gentle tug on my sleeve.
“Mr. Ford, a word?” It was Grandmother Perizkova, leading the way to some privacy in the corner. I had no choice but to follow—yet was relieved to see Drake heading toward the restroom. Probably to clean up my disaster.
The old woman’s eyes narrowed, though her regard felt shockingly friendly. “You’re quite a young man, Fletcher Ford. I can see why my granddaughter is so smitten with you.” I must have looked shocked, so she went on. “Don’t worry, she hasn’t told us anything yet. I daresay she doesn’t even know it herself.” She lifted a conspiratorial grin. “But a woman as old as me? I’ve seen it all, Mr. Ford. And the lot of you are in love.”
Once more, my jaw fell. Still, I managed, “The…lot of us…?”
“Don’t play coy. You know what I mean, Fletcher. And I’ll bet you even know what I’m going to say about that, don’t you?”
“Not in the least.”
“I say…” She tugged me down toward her, making sure our gazes met. “Follow your heart. Clearly, she already has it in her hand.”
And with that, she lifted that Cleopatra smile once again—before turning on her heel and walking back to the party.
I could react with nothing but speechlessness for a few moments—before I, too, bolted into motion. On a determined pursuit of the two people who formed my component parts.
It was easy enough to find them. Drake and Talia were huddled together near the back exit of the store. My steps slowed as I watched them. They were a breathtaking sight, dark heads so similar in color, Tolly fitting so perfectly into the space beneath Drake’s jaw. I almost turned around, not sure if she’d want to see
face after the hammer I’d just thrown down into the party.
But then…her head jerked. I could damn near smell her awareness of me…sensing me near her, like she always seemed to…before she looked up. Her eyes glimmered. A warm, beautiful smile spread across her face.
I dared a few more steps closer. Had to clench back the rise of feeling as Drake swung his body out, opening their circle to include me.
A few more steps.
When I came within reaching distance, she wrapped her arms around my neck, pulling me in. It would’ve been rude not to hug her back, right? My arms felt so perfect around her tiny waist…so right. I pulled her tighter, all the way up against my body. Since my back was to the crowd, no one could see how intimate our embrace was.
“You’re…not mad?” I didn’t try to disguise the hopeful catch in my voice.
“No. Not even a little.” Her smile turned tremulous. “Mama needed to hear that.
needed to hear…” She sniffled as she trailed off.
I tucked her in tighter. “
Why are you crying, baby?”
“It’s just—I just—”
“What?” I brushed my lips along her hair line, yearning to do more. My whole body sure as hell begged for it too.
“I—I don’t know how to say it all.”
“Try,” I urged. “Please. I don’t ever want to hurt you, or embarrass you. Please tell us what’s going on in there.” I replaced my lips with a finger, tapping her lightly on the temple. She grabbed it, gathering up my whole hand, then lowering it over her heart. That did it for the corresponding part inside me. My ribs strained from the effort of keeping its thundering beats contained to my chest.
“It’s what’s going on inside here,” she explained. “It’s…in here.” She patted my hand on her chest. “I’m scared. And overjoyed. And—so many things all at the same time. It scares me and confuses me.”
Drake stepped in closer. If anyone was looking now, we definitely were not being discreet. I didn’t think I cared anymore.
“Sweet, beautiful girl. Every single thing Fletch said over there was the truth, plain and simple. You need to believe it and
need to believe it—and we’re here to help.”
She laughed softly. “Help, hmmm? Like locomotives plowing snow?”
Drake growled. “Maybe like trains…carrying passengers. We want to be with you while you grow, to help you believe how astounding and smart and dazzling you truly are. You need to surround yourself with people who will lift you up, baby—not hold you down. Do you get that? Do you see that was why Fletch got so worked up?”
“Yes,” she sighed. “I do. And I
, but they’re my family. It’s not that they don’t love me. It’s
they love me. My mother and grandmother—they’re old-fashioned. They were both brought up in another country, for heaven’s sake. They have completely different ideals when it comes to how success is measured, and…What?”
Her self-interruption came on the heels of my snicker. “Well,” the conversation I’d just had with Grandmother P replayed itself “you might be surprised, Tolly—at least when it comes to one of those things.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well…your grandmother just gave me a little ‘talkin’ to’.”
Her gaze bugged. “She did
I shrugged, even turning on the charm button a little. “She thinks you’re in love with us…
that we could make you happy.”
Drake joined my soft laughter. Talia jumped back as if burned. “No. She. Did. Not.”
“Yes. She. Just. Did.”
“Damn,” Drake murmured. “Grandma’s a dialed-in little lady.”
Talia shook her head, setting free a little cloud of sparkles. “That doesn’t make sense. Or maybe it does. We all think she’s been acting a little senile lately.” She finished by waving a hand, though flashed a watery smile as if already knowing her attempt at levity would be rebuffed.
“Talia.” Drake wiped the grin right off her face with his drill sergeant tone.
“I’m teasing. But I don’t want to talk about this anymore…please.” She clasped her hands, looking like a princess now grown into a queen. “Why don’t we go get a piece of cake?”
My gut growled. “What kind?”
Drake’s jaw firmed. “Cake is fine—but you
we’ll finish this later. After I have a nice piece of—”
“Don’t you dare finish that sentence, Mr. Newland.” Yep. The queen was ready to rumble. “There are children everywhere.”
He arched a brow. “Like I could forget?”
Again as if cued by a stage director, Anya twirled her way over to us. “Auntie Talia, aren’t you going to have cake? It’s a really big one, with pink and blue roses, and Aurora and Elsa, and rabbits and butterflies too.” She looked up at Drake and me too. “My mama said you two could have some, since you’re Auntie’s friends.”
“I would love a piece—of cake.” I slid Talia a sexy grin. “I
hope it’s chocolate.”
“How did you know?” Anya grinned and grabbed my hand—the one
occupied with stealing a fast feel of my woman’s delectable ass. Later, I’d blame Drake for starting the feel-up fest—which he had. “Well, part of it is,” the little girl went on. “And the icing is fluffy, not that yucky kind. I made sure Mama got the right kind this time. Last year, at my circus party? The goat from the petting zoo ate the cake!”
Anya towed us back to the heart-shaped table where the dessert was being carved. She talked nonstop until we reached the others, covering every subject from rude goats to her favorite crayon colors to an upcoming trip to visit the Magic Kingdom princesses in a few weeks. “Look!” she cried out at last, “I found them. They were over in the corner, hugging. Weren’t you, Auntie?”
“Anya, that’s enough.” Katrina—Anya’s mother and Talia’s sister—finally stepped forward to curb her enthusiasm. “Let’s serve the cake, and then we can open presents.”
The little girls chorused their wild approval of present opening. Apparently, the love of gifts started young in the XX genetic camp.
Fifteen sugar comas and at least thirty presents later, Kat declared the party a success. Drake and I, through a silent but mutual pact, had blended our way farther into the background during the gift opening—and thanked ourselves for it. We were treated to the pleasure of watching our girl interact with her family and the children. She was, in a word, amazing. Over the course of an hour, she captivated me in at least a hundred new ways. Always patient with the young ones, then as loving and gentle with her elders, she was everything a “true princess” should be.