Thirteen years ago, Eli went on a summer trip with his mother and never came back. Now, existing in a new life as Jacob Somerville, he’s again running from fear and memories, only to end up where he started. As Jacob struggles to reconnect with his father and brothers, he realizes that his lover, Craig Zhao, was the only thing filling his empty heart and standing between him and ghosts of the past. It will take the power of love—from his family, from Craig, and from himself—for Jacob to see that his life truly is filled with the promise of what can be.
I was almost back to my truck, having gone into the convenience store attached to the gas station for water and caffeine, when I heard my name. And not Jacob or Jake, not the one I’d been using since I was seventeen, when they changed it, but the real one, the old one. I heard the one she gave me when I was born, the one I left home with when I was fifteen. On instinct, I turned. Had I given it even a second of thought, I might not have stopped. But it was done, the charade over, the second I looked over my shoulder.
Surveying the parking lot, I searched for a sign that would lead me to the voice. It only took a second to see the guy jogging toward me fast, and so I stood there, frozen, unable to move. Even after thirteen years, I would have recognized my brother anywhere. Watching him close in on me was surreal, and even though this had been my plan when I crossed the country, faced with the reality of the moment, I was ill prepared. He stopped five feet from me, his eyes huge, staring.
“Chase,” I finally said, and he exhaled sharply, moving until there was less than a foot between us.
He was mute.
“You look good,” I said, taking a step back.
My movement, the reflexive retreat, had not registered in his brain at all. He moved forward instantly until he was back in my personal space. “Eli,” he breathed, looking me up and down before he exhaled sharply and lunged.
I braced myself and he grabbed me tight, hugging me hard, his arms around my neck, holding me close. After several minutes, I hugged him back, the wave of panic receding, realizing he was not only happy but overwhelmed to see me. I was reeling as well, but for altogether different reasons.
“Jesus.” He inhaled my scent before he stepped back, hands rising fast to my face to hold it as he looked at me. “Where the helluva you been?”
I cleared my throat, easing away from his touch. “What’re you doing here?”
“I’m… I’m on my way home from dropping off a friend at the airport because he was staying with me for a—God, who the fuck cares? What’re you doing here?”
“I came to see you guys,” I told him. “I was passing through, so I thought I’d stop.”
“You thought you’d stop.” He squinted at me. “So were you gonna call?”
“Yeah.” I smiled at him. “Once I got here.”
“Jesus, Eli.” He couldn’t stop staring at me. “Where did you—”
“You guys moved,” I cut him off. “Or I guess Dad did. You and Lucas probably just moved out, huh?”
He nodded. “A long time ago.”
“I went by the old house.”
“Well, we’re not there anymore, but we’re still here in the area. We all live within driving distance of each other.”
Of course they did; why wouldn’t they? I, too, loved northern California. The Bay Area was one of my favorite places in the world. Why would anyone leave if they didn’t have to?
“Sorry,” I apologized automatically.
“Eli.” He sighed, unable, it seemed, to stop saying my name. “You need to come home with me to—to see Dad. You need to see Dad.”
And even though that had been my plan, to finally face down my demons, after thousands of miles to contemplate it, I couldn’t. “Actually, it turns out I can’t stop, but gimme your number and e-mail, and I’ll—”
“No!” he shouted, stepping in close again. He was my older brother, no longer taller than me but still bigger, stronger.
Strange to not be looking up at him anymore, but as we were both hovering around six-two, I was meeting his gaze with my own. But the height was as far as our similarities went, our mother, instead of our father, having stamped all my features. To Chase and my oldest brother, Lucas, Foster Hartline had passed broad shoulders, a wide chest, a chiseled profile, dark chestnut-brown hair, and striking cobalt-blue eyes. I was the youngest and made in the image of my mother, Jamie Hartline, so I was leaner, more swimmer than linebacker, with skin that turned gold in the sun, my hair dark blond and my eyes green.
“I wanna know what you’ve been doing for thirteen years.”
But I didn’t mark time like that. I had left home thirteen years ago, but my mother had died eleven years ago. I started thinking about loss from then. “Living, just like you,” I said, taking a step back, “but I—”
“No,” my brother said, grabbing hold of my elbow. “You need to come home with me to see Dad and Luke and meet Gillian and… I need you to stay where I can see you.”
But how could I do that? I couldn’t stay; that wasn’t me. I didn’t stay. “I really—”
“Eli.” Chase’s voice cracked on my name as his fingers tightened on my arm. “Just come and see everyone and… there’s food there, it’s Dad and Luke’s office party, and it’s being catered at the house, but it won’t be a late night, and Dad will want to––just come home with me.”
I felt the panic start to swell inside of me.
“C’mon, I have my car here. I can—”
“I’ll follow you.”
“Yeah,” I assured him. “I’ve got the Ford right there.”
Several beats of silence passed.
“Her pickup?” my brother finally asked me, startled.
He nodded, leaned in, and hugged me again. I squeezed him back tight, calming, suddenly touched that he wanted to talk to me so badly, spend some time together. This was my brother, after all.
“Please don’t disappear again,” he pleaded as he pulled back, staring at my face. “Christ, you look just like her.”
I nodded because I knew I was the spitting image of my mother.
“Your eyes are lighter and your hair is a little darker, but that’s it.”
“And her hair was curly, remember? She was forever trying to get it to straighten or do something else.”
“It was beautiful, always in her face,” he mused.
“Yeah,” I agreed, smiling at him.
He took a breath, and I saw his eyes redden, get watery, but he held the tears in check.
“I’ll be right behind you.”
He leaned in close to me, pulling his phone from the breast pocket of his wool suit jacket. “Gimme your number in case we get separated.”
He was taking no chances of losing me.
The drive to Marin was long but one that I remembered, having lived there until I was fifteen years old. As I followed the Audi, my mind drifted to the last time I had been there, but I was brought from my memories by my phone ringing.
“Hey,” I said softly, clearing my throat as I answered it.
“Where are you?” He yawned, his voice deep and husky, filled with gravel. He had obviously just woken up after having passed out, exhausted from being on a plane for the long trip over the Atlantic. “You were supposed to be here when I got home. I was looking forward to getting in bed with you.”
Craig Zhao had just gotten home from a two-week business trip to Berlin. Between the jet lag and the endless meetings, I was sure he was well beyond weary.
“You don’t need to be sorry. I probably gave you the wrong day that I was coming home. The time change really screwed me up, since it’s, like, tomorrow in Europe already.”
But I had known exactly when he was returning and had planned my exodus accordingly.
“Come home from wherever you are and make me dinner.”
“It’s too late for dinner,” I said softly.
“Dinner—breakfast, whatever.” He breathed out. “Just—where are you?”
“How was your trip?”
“Well, you would know if you had bothered to pick up your phone even once while I was gone.” He sighed deeply. “You know the point of owning a cell phone is for you to answer it.”
“Or return even one e-mail.”
“No, you’re not,” he chuckled softly. “But I’m home now, and I want to see you, and I’m starving, so hurry up.”
Even tired and sleepy, Craig could not shed being in charge, and so he demanded instead of asked. Normally, as the owner and CEO of one of the biggest up-and-coming software companies in the country, when he said “jump,” people asked “how high?” He had been forced to learn patience, humility, and tact with me.
“How did your meetings—”
“Even more than hungry, I’m horny… I need you.”
“Did you get the contracts signed that you—”
“Jacob, seriously.” His voice lowered and deepened, sultry with sleep, making my stomach twist into knots. “Forget the trip. I want the biscuits and gravy, and then I want you in bed with me for the rest of the weekend.”
I could not think of anything I wanted more.
“I missed you,” he sighed, almost whining. “Come home already.”
“I can’t do that.”
“I’m not there,” I said quickly, clearing my throat.
“Oh?” The smile filled his voice as he chuckled. “Well, where exactly are—”
“I’m in California,” I cut him off.
There was a long silence before he said, “I’m sorry, what?”
“Look,” I said quickly, “I’m not coming back, so you should—”
“Wait. I’m not under—”
“Yes, you are.”
“Where are you?”
“I moved out of your place, and all my stuff is in the back of my truck, so—”
But it had never been “our” place. Everything was his; nothing was mine. “Your place,” I said again. “It was your place, Craig.”
“Jake.” He was starting to sound worried. “What are you talking about?”
“I left Chicago, I’m gone, I’m already gone, so—”
“Jake,” he cut me off sharply, “just slow down and—”
“I don’t stick around, I told you that.”
“I don’t accept that.”
“Whether you do or not doesn’t change anything.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to tell me when you’re coming home.”
“I don’t—I don’t have a home, and I’m done with Chicago.”
There was a sharp exhalation from him. “How can you… you and Rick are partners.”
“Rick will be better off,” I told him, thinking of Richard Brewer, the man who had been my business partner at the salvage yard/demolition company we had started together. He was great with people and secured outside contracts by inspiring trust. I could see a job from the planning stage through execution to completion without losing focus. I blew things up, knocked them down, and handled the destruction end. Rick cleaned it up and took care of disposal and sales of what could be salvaged. We had been doing well, earning respect and a reputation for being honest, when I skipped out of town. I had signed my share of the business over to him when I left. At last count, I had missed eighteen calls from him in the week I had been gone. I had no idea why; I had been very considerate and lined up five guys who could easily take my place. All he had to do was hire one.
“Does he know that?”
“What?” I said, because my mind had been drifting.
“Does Rick know that he’s going to be better off without you?”
“Oh, yeah, he knows that.”
“Because you told him, or you just think he knows?”
“Let it go.”
“Wait… I don’t… you love Chicago, you love your partner and your partner’s wife and your place and… and you love me.” He stuttered out the last, as if he were unsure for the very first time.
“But I can’t stay there.” I exhaled, ignoring his last comment.
“Jake, how can you leave?”
This, on top of dealing with the tsunami of memories––my mother, my father, my brothers––could not happen. “Just… remember when you said that I was secretive and dis—”
“Jake, that was just… I was frustrated and… I just want to be close to you. I want you to let me in… that’s all I was trying to—”
“You deserve some—”
“Oh screw that, Jake! I’m not a saint. Don’t you dare try and pin whatever this is on me.”
I was stunned at his outburst. Typically the only time he ever lost control was in bed.
He cleared his throat. “Baby, you belong to me, with me. Don’t do this.”
“Your mother’s gonna be so happy. She hates me.”
There was a pause. “What are you… Jake, honey, nobody in their right mind could hate you, and my parents are both crazy about you. My father gets you more than me, you guys sit around and talk construction and football and I’m just lost, and my sisters, shit, they all think you’re funny and gorgeous, and my grandmother is in love with you.”
“And my mother thinks you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. She likes how you keep me in line and make me nice.”
“She does. She always says, ‘Jake taught you patience.’”
“Just—I gotta go.”
“Everybody loves you.”
If I argued, I’d sound like I was fishing. Sounding pathetic wasn’t on my to-do list.
“Jake, honey, let me talk to—”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Jake.” His voice cracked. “Tell me exactly where you are.”
“Your super has your keys.”
“He said he’d hold them until you got back.”
“I got all my stuff outta your place.”
“You did?” There were muffled noises, and I was just going to hang up, but how could I? “Oh”—a sharp intake of breath—“you did. I… your books are… I don’t want you to—”
“I gotta go,” I said quickly. “Take care.” I hung up before he could say another word and put the phone on vibrate so it wouldn’t ring if he called back. But why would he? Craig Zhao was a catch; he could do way better than me, and as soon as he started thinking about it, his pride would kick in and he’d want me to go directly to hell. It made sense.
I had stayed way too long in Chicago, getting to where I knew neighborhoods, had restaurants and stores I loved and hole-in-the-wall jazz clubs. There were people who kept tabs on me, worried when I didn’t show up regularly, who really liked me. My circle of friends got big, beyond just my business partner, and my personal network was solid. I had been making a life for myself, and before it got permanent, I had to get out of there. I had packed everything into my mother’s pickup and driven away in the middle of the night. I hadn’t looked back.
Taking a left off the freeway, I followed Chase through neighborhood after neighborhood, finally realizing after several more miles that my brother was slowing in front of me, turning in front of an enormous neo-Mediterranean home.
To say the place was huge was an understatement. There was the long circular driveway as you drove in, impressive landscaping that I could see even at seven at night because the grounds were well lit, the house itself with pillars out front, red roof tiles, carved wooden doors, and picture windows. It was breathtaking even though it was not at all somewhere I could ever see myself living.
Parking behind my brother, I saw the other cars in the driveway and realized that the house was filled with people. My brother had said that my father was having his annual company Christmas party, and since my old man ran a large law firm, it made sense that the place would be packed. As I got out, I breathed in cut grass and rain.
“Eli, is that you?”
I turned from the house and looked toward the street. There, standing at the edge of the lawn, was my father’s secretary, Caroline Dobbs. She had worked for him for over thirty years, his most trusted associate, and had been one of my favorite people when I was a child. Funny the people you forgot until you remembered. Like bystanders you never meant to hurt but who got caught in the crossfire anyway.
“Yes, ma’am,” I called over to her.
“Oh my goodness.” She beamed at me, holding out her arms. Her face—how beautiful it became, how infused with life and joy. Years were erased in heartbeats of time, and all because she was looking at me.
I bolted across the lawn to her.
She wrapped her arms around me, sighing deeply. “Oh, Eli, I never thought I’d see you again.”
I was held so tight; she buried her face in my chest until she leaned back and looked up into my face.
“And here you are, home for the holidays.” She sighed deeply. “Your father didn’t say a word to me.”
“Actually, he has no idea I’m here. I’m just here to say hi to him before I head out.”
Her brows furrowed. “Oh, honey, you think you’ll get away from that man twice?”
Easy, I thought as I smiled at her.
She caught her breath. “All your life I knew you were going to turn out beautiful, no way to help it with your folks, but Eli… you look just like her.”
I nodded. She was right. I looked just like my mother.
“Your brothers look like your father, but you, you got her honey-blond hair and her gorgeous pale-green eyes,” she sighed, looking at me. “And those long eyelashes.”
She put her hand on my cheek. “I was so sorry to hear that she passed.”
It sounded so gentle when she said it that way, not at all the violent horror that it had been.
“Why didn’t you come home after she died, honey? You were only seventeen.”
I leaned in and kissed her cheek.
“This is your way of telling me to shut up?” She chuckled, patting my cheek. “I get it.”
I squeezed the hand she slipped into mine.
“I hope to see you before you leave.”
I took a breath, making no promises, as she gave my shoulder a final squeeze and waved to whomever was standing behind me. Bracing myself, I turned around.
My oldest brother, Lucas Hartline, was standing beside Chase, waiting. It was a hard decision: get in the truck and just drive away, or stay and answer questions. Either choice I made started with crossing the lawn. That part I had to do.
He lifted a hand, a sign of peace, even as I saw the furrowed brows, the clenched jaw, and the forced stillness. Like I was some wild animal he didn’t want to startle or scare away.
I shivered in the wind.
I cut back across the lawn, but stopped at the pickup that had been old when my mother bought it to cross the country thirteen years ago. It was ancient now, the exterior beat to hell, but brand new under the hood. I kept my hand there as I looked at him. I wasn’t certain that I wanted to break contact with the truck, afraid that somehow if I did, I would lose my only means of escape. That it remained was a miracle in and of itself, only my job in high school distracting her from selling it. I gave her money to keep it safe, to prevent her from liquidating the only thing I had that I could point to and remember home. It was then, a reminder of my father and happier times, and now, embodied all that had been good about her.
She had screamed at me once, accusing me of loving the truck more than her. The money it would bring if we got rid of it would buy groceries, she said. But it was drugs she wanted, needed, and the truck would be gone with nothing to show for it. I had told her I’d buy it from her and so made payments that she never kept track of, never added up. In the end it didn’t matter, it became mine by default—a detail, once the plates were changed, that no one cared about except me.
“Hey,” Lucas said softly, coming closer, smiling, as he took a breath. “When Chase called, I… Jesus, c’mere.”
I moved quickly, and when I was close enough, he yanked me forward into his arms. The bear hug was unexpected and expected at the same time. He had always been demonstrative, but I didn’t want to assume he would just pick up where we left off when I was fifteen and he was eighteen.
“God, Eli.” He sucked in his breath.
I felt him tremble in my arms, my big strong brother, and I thumped his back hard before I pulled free to look into the dark cobalt eyes. “Good to see you, Lucas.”
“Lucas.” He grinned. “Nobody calls me that any…. How’re…. Christ, Eli, where the helluva you been for the last thirteen––fourteen fuckin’ years?”
I smiled widely. “It hasn’t been fourteen, it’s been thirteen, don’t exaggerate.”
“Can I come in before we start the inquisition?”
He just stared deep into my eyes before he stepped back and looked over the rest of me. “Goddamn… I cannot believe I am standing here looking at you. I hired a private detective to… where the hell were you?”
I pointed at the door. “Can I go in there?”
“Yes,” Chase snapped irritably, a hand between my shoulder blades, shoving me forward, hand fisted in the back of my fleece-lined denim jacket. “Come on.”
“Aren’t you gonna grab your bag or—”
“No, I’m not gonna stay,” I told him with a quick glance over my shoulder, Chase pushing me forward toward the huge carved wooden door. “I just came by to say hello. I hafta hit the road tonight.”
“No,” Lucas half yelled, and I would have looked at him, but Chase leaned forward to open the door and shoved me through it.
“Wow.” I chuckled as I stared up at the chandelier over my head and then down at the black and white marble under my feet. “Nice.”
“Eli,” Lucas gasped, grabbing my shoulder, turning me around to face him. “It’s Christmas, just stay, please.”
“I can’t,” I assured him. “I have—”
“Can we not do this right now?” Chase jumped in. “I really don’t wanna do this right this fuckin’ now!”
Both Lucas and I turned to look at him. His anger had flared so fast, like he was barely holding it together.
“You alright?” I needed to check.
He blew out a breath. “Yeah, I just… I want us all to go see Dad, okay? Let’s just do that.”
“Okay,” I soothed him, making my voice soft, coaxing. “Good plan.”
He took a settling breath and smiled at me. “You need to meet Gillian.”
My eyes flicked to his.
“You’ll like her. Everybody likes her.”
“Who is she?”
He cleared his throat. “She’s your stepmother.”
“Oh.” I nodded, smiling. “Okay. That makes sense, I guess.”
“This is gonna be weird,” Chase began, “but they’ve been married seven years.”
“Seven.” I absorbed the news.
“Is that the same truck?” Lucas interrupted us. “It just hit me ’cause I was looking at it and thinking… are you still driving her pickup?”
“Yessir, I am.” I sighed, my hand going to his shoulder.
“Jesus,” he breathed out.
They were both starved to talk about their mother, and that worried me, because what did that mean for me, the guy with all the answers?
“You still have her piece of crap truck?”
I cleared my throat. “It’s just the outside that’s shit. The inside’s good as new. I overhauled the engine two years ago.”
The way they were both looking at me with appreciation was humbling. I knew they were both imagining her in it. Imagining her the last time they had ever seen her.
It was just supposed to be a summer adventure. My mother was going to New York to hang out and take a much-needed break from being a socialite, from her marriage to a prominent Bay Area attorney, from her endless circle of obligations, from friends she didn’t trust and people who knew her only as an extension of my father. She just wanted to be Jamie Hartline, not Mrs. Foster Hartline. So she asked my father for a hiatus, a summer alone. She would spend three months in New York with her cousin Kara and just be. Maybe she would take some art classes, haunt museums and bookstores, and sit in jazz clubs at night. It was all she wanted, a break from her life.
My father had supported her need for space and air up until the point that she asked for her boys to go with her. And I knew he was torn. If he let us go, she would come back. If he didn’t… maybe she was gone. She had been so strange, so restless and edgy. He saw her need to run, but if we were with her, she would return. It was his safety net that he would get her back, his guarantee. She told him she needed company on her adventure, but he was hesitant, because at that point, he didn’t trust her.
In the end, though, he gave each of us, his sons, the choice to go or stay. We were old enough, Lucas eighteen, Chase seventeen, and me fifteen, he said at our family meeting in the living room, to make our own decisions. It was just for the summer, three months, twelve weeks, ninety days; in such a short time, we would be back.
I still remembered the day she and I left, her hand moving her hair out of her eyes as she drove, the tears in her eyes, the smile on her lips, the way she had reached for my hand and held it so tight. Over and over she thanked me for coming with her. I was her youngest son, her baby, and her relief at my company was enormous; she didn’t want to be alone. She promised me an adventure as we drove away.
“Sorry.” I forced a smile. “What’d you say?”
“I said Gillian’s kids—our stepbrother, sister. They’re here too.”
“Who actually lives here in the palace?” I asked Chase.
“Just Dad and Gillian.”
Two people lived in the mansion. “Huh.”
“I know. Weird, right?”
“Where do you live?”
“I live in the city up by the Presidio in Pacific Heights, and Luke lives in Sausalito.”
I looked at my brother. “I always loved Sausalito. Mom wanted to move there, remember?”
“It’s probably why I live there.” He gave me a bittersweet smile.
“C’mon.” Chase draped an arm around my neck. “Let’s find Dad.”
I walked beside him with Lucas flanking us, wishing I hadn’t left my baseball cap in the car. What I wouldn’t do for some cover.
“I can’t believe how much you look like her.”
His mother, my mother—he only remembered her as she had been when she left.
“Dad’s probably out by the pool.”
The living room, or whatever it was, was huge. Football games could have been held in it. Various people were there, sitting around, and some called out to Lucas or Chase, but my brothers ignored them, interested only in walking me toward the enormous open sliding glass doors that led out to the architectural wonder that was the patio.
The pool had a waterfall at one end and a sand entry at the other. Lanterns were currently floating in it, and there was enough room around the little piece of ocean to have a party, which, from the looks of things, seemed to be what was going on. It was being catered; the white-shirted, black-tied wait staff walked around with trays of food and glasses of wine.
“Jesus,” I chuckled, looking over at Lucas. “Can we say high-end? I think we can.”
“It’s our office party,” he assured me. “After this, it’s just the family—ours and Gillian’s.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that this house is worth what, three, four million?”
“Fancy,” I teased him, arching one eyebrow.
He caught his breath. “I missed that, the eyebrow thing.”
I laughed at him. “Yeah, well, what’re you gonna do?”
“There,” Chase said sharply. “Dad’s right there.”
It was a long walk around the pool, as huge as it was, over the stamped concrete, around people, with Lucas pushing me through the crowd, not stopping for anyone.
“Dad.” Chase, who was right beside me as well, called over to my father.
He was in a crowd, talking, laughing, and he turned with some effort, like he was in the middle of something good. But when his eyes slid from Chase to me, he jerked hard like he’d been electrocuted. Everyone standing with him looked to see what had startled him.
I lifted a hand as he took a faltering step, like his legs wouldn’t hold him up. I moved slowly forward, and he leaned away from the others, arms out, his face frozen in shock.
“Dad,” I said as I stepped close, and he grabbed my biceps before yanking me close, crushing me against him, holding me tight, his face buried in my shoulder.
“Eli,” Chase answered whoever had asked the question, even as my father let out a shaky breath and held tighter.
“Eli,” a woman gasped my name. “Oh my God.”
I was suddenly shoved out to arm’s length as my father took my face in his big hands, studying my features like he was memorizing every line. I noticed that he was shaking, but realized fast that it was actually me and not him.
“Eli.” His voice bottomed out.
He was still so strong, still so big; his hair was gray, but that was the only change in the man at all. When I had left at fifteen, it was dark chestnut brown, and now it was gray with streaks of white. His eyes were the same dark sapphire blue, and the way he was looking at me surprised me. I didn’t remember there ever being any softness. He looked as distinguished as I’d always imagined; my father was striking at any age.
“How are you, sir?” I asked gently.
He ignored the question, looking to Chase. “How?”
“Tonight, I stopped to get gas after I dropped Jimmy off at the airport, and”—he gestured at me—“there he—he can’t stay, though… he’s just here for dinner.”
How smart was my brother? The man was a genius. When my father turned back to look into my eyes, he wore an expression like I’d hit him.
“Oh no.” His voice was hoarse as he shook his head. “No, no, no. I need you to be here with me so we can talk. I need to know every—I will clear this house right now if that’s what you need—if everyone being here is too much… but Eli….” He coughed, his hands tightening instinctively on the sides of my neck. “You need to stay here with me.”
And I could. I could stay; I had nowhere in the world to be, but…. “I—”
“Eli.” He stepped in close to me, and I heard his breath catch. “It’s been thirteen years since I’ve seen your face. Let me look at you for a little while, alright? Please.”
I nodded. “I can stay the weekend if you want.”
“Yes.” He agreed, his eyes glinting, his smile huge. “That’s what I want… for a start.”
“Good, go get your things.”
That fast, I was being ordered around.
“Yessir.” I sighed, terrified of what the weekend would bring.
“Foster, can I meet… him?”
The woman standing beside my father was elegance personified, and even though I had never seen her in my life, she still seemed somehow familiar. After a moment I understood why. There were faint traces of my mother—the pale blonde hair, slight build, and subtle makeup. But her hair was piled up in a French twist, and my mother had always let her mane fall down her back in silky blonde waves.
“So this is Eli,” the woman said softly, and when I looked at her, she smiled warmly.
“Yes,” my father said quickly, but he didn’t let go of me. “Eli, this is my wife, Gillian. Gillian, this is my son Eli.”
She smiled at me, and I offered her my hand. “Nice to meet you,” I said quickly.
“And you,” she said, sighing as she took my hand and covered it with her other, enfolding it in her grasp. “Really, I’m just so pleased that you’re here. I always hoped to meet you.”
I nodded. “It’s my pleasure,” I assured her, easing my hand free, as my eyes flicked back to my father. “How’ve you been?” I asked gently, my eyes memorizing every feature, every line on his face. He looked so good, so solid, and I was relieved that not all things changed.
“Good.” He sighed. “I’ve been good.”
His hand went to the back of my neck as he turned sideways so I could see the people who had just joined us.
“Eli, I want you to meet Cate and David, Gillian’s children.”
“Hi.” I smiled at them.
Gillian’s “kids” were both older than I was. Cate was thirty-two and David was thirty to my own twenty-eight. They both shook my hand like I had just been released from a mental hospital or something. My eyes returned to my father. “Is there a place to put my—”
“Of course,” he said quickly. “Let me show you where—”
“Foster, your guests,” Gillian reminded him.
“I’ll take him. I don’t give a crap about the guests,” Chase told her, grabbing my arm, tugging me after him. “Let’s go get your stuff.”
After I soothed Gillian, touching her cheek as I walked by, I followed after my rude and oblivious brother, matching his stride as we walked back around the pool, back into the living room, and toward the front door.
“It’s big,” I told him.
“It’s shit,” he groaned, opening the front door for me. “It was Gillian’s idea, and I know Dad hates it, but whatever she wants, she gets.”
“She seemed nice.”
“She is nice, she’s perfect, and she loves him, so whatever.”
“That’s right; it ain’t like you’re gonna move back in with him for the rest of your life,” I teased him. “You gotta let the old man be happy.”
He took a breath and rounded on me, stopping so fast that I nearly walked into him.
“Jesus, what’s with you?” I snapped at him, taking a step back.
“Who gives a flying fuck about me, E? Where the helluva you been?”
I just stood there.
“I’m not gonna do this with you right now, you get that, right?”
Our eyes locked, and after a few seconds he nodded, so I could breathe.
“Okay.” I smiled at him. “Walk with me to get my stuff.”
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