I was sitting on a barstool in Rome’s house.
After four years abroad, managing the new—well, not so new now—European division of Ash’s multibillion dollar company, it felt strange.
To be in the States.
To be in Rome’s house.
To be sitting here and feeling my heart do that flutter again.
The one that had always been present with this man, the one I’d desperately ignored. Because that was what I did. Because I only tackled tasks I could control and…I would never be able to control this man.
Spreadsheets. Planning meetings. Handling tricky clients and frustrating manufacturing delays and even leaky freaking roofs—those I could manage.
The complication of relationships?
Not so much.
Of course, that was before I’d begun working for a Hutchins.
There was only so much a girl could do to avoid being swept up into their lives. They were just so nice and welcoming and…pushy.
Pushy was written into the Hutchins’ genetic code.
“Beer?” Ro asked, the slight rasp in his voice making me shiver.
I’d dreamed about that voice, dreamed about it so often I felt the question tickle up between my thighs, press against my clit, and—
Cheeks hot, I glanced up, met deep brown eyes. Ro had the best eyes—the color of dark chocolate with flecks of gold in those depths.
They were warm too.
Like that chocolate river in Willy Wonka.
Only not a river. And not dangerous.
A hot tub of melted chocolate…that wouldn’t murder me.
He leaned back against the island next to me, two bottles of beer in one hand, the other lifting and cupping my jaw, tilting my head back so I got lost in those pools of liquidy, delicious chocolate. “You good?”
My cheeks flamed. “I’m good,” I said quickly. “Just jet lagged and a little spacey.” I leaned back slightly, enough for him to get the hint and release my jaw. Which, thankfully, he got, dropping his hand, and offering me one of the beers from his other.
I took it. “Thanks,” I murmured, taking a sip.
A flash of a smile, but it wasn’t bone deep, wasn’t the mischievous Rome Smile I’d come to know.
Worry immediately began to churn in my gut.
“Is it Jack?” I asked softly, that sip of beer I’d taken sitting heavy in my stomach.
He’d been lifting his bottle toward his mouth but my question had him freezing. “What?”
“Is something wrong with Jack?” I asked. “Is that what put the look on your face?”
That beer dropped, foam sloshing up over the rim, sliding down the side…and turning that churning in my stomach into full-on hundred-foot waves.
I hopped up, grabbed a paper towel, took the bottle, and wiped the sides. Then bent and swiped at the floor, cleaning up the drops that had made it that far. “Now,” I said quietly. “What’s going on?”
“What look on my face?” he asked, seemingly a question behind.
“The one that says you’ve been gut-punched when you were least expecting it.”
He sucked in a breath, set the beer on the counter, and turned away from me.
Hundred-foot waves and a hurricane bearing down on us.
I moved around him, getting close enough to study his eyes.
He didn’t make me work for it. “Jack’s fine. Physically,” he whispered. “Emotionally, though, he’s a mess.” Ro’s head came up and he tried for his smile again, but I could tell it was total bullshit. Something his next words confirmed. “I tore him from everything he knew and brought him to a different country, inserted him into a new family.” Ro shoved a hand through his hair, gaze going over my head. “I can’t blame him for being pissed and hurt and scared, even after a year.”
Rome’s baby mama had pulled a disappearing act on him eight years before, and he’d found out he had a son just four years ago, after she died and Jack’s custody fell into question.
Because Ro’s name wasn’t on the birth certificate and the person who’d mentioned it to Rome—an old friend of his and his fiancée that wasn’t to be—the battle to just get a DNA test was rough, not to mention getting Jack here.
To the States.
How did I know this?
Even from my perch in Europe, I’d made many a phone call to lawyers and doctors and therapists, working my magic.
I was good at getting shit done.
I’d vowed that Jack wouldn’t be left behind, that Rome wouldn’t be left wondering.
And now…I wondered if that had been the wrong thing to do.
I’d always dreamed of a family and the thought of a three-year-old alone in the world, without people like the Hutchinses to take his back…
I’d been motivated to make sure he had a place where he felt at home.
Because I knew what it was like to not have that.
“But Ash said he’s fitting right in with the family,” I whispered.
Ro’s mouth kicked up. “He loves my family. Asks to spend time with them regularly.” A sigh. “It’s ~me~ that he has a problem with.”
“Yeah,” he murmured, clearly reading that off my face.
I tucked away old wounds, focused on what I could do now, what I could fix now.
That was what I did.
“What’s going on?” I asked, passing him back his beer.
“Besides the whole being-ripped-from-his-family thing?”
That was a doozy.
“Yeah,” I said.
“He doesn’t like that I have a bedtime for him.” Ro sipped his beer then plunked it back onto the counter, counting off on his fingers. “Doesn’t like that I make him finish his homework before he can go to soccer practice. Doesn’t like that I make him introduce me to his friends’ parents before he can play at their houses. He doesn’t like”—Ro dropped his hand, went for his beer again—“me,” he said on a sigh.
This wasn’t good.
It was very not good, and I needed to find a way to fix it.
For the little boy I’d never met in person, who’d I’d merely exchanged greetings and waves with over FaceTime. For the little boy who was innocent and deserved to understand his place in this world. For Ro who I—
I jerked, being the one who risked spilling my beer this time, and turned…
To see Jack standing in the doorway.
He was the spitting image of Rome. And seriously, watch out world. When Jack got older, he was going to be just as much of a heartbreaker as his dad was.
“You’re not Mel,” he pointed out, apparently not remembering my cool FaceTime waving abilities.
I supposed that wasn’t unusual.
I’d made it an art form to exist in the background.
My lips tipped up. “No,” I said. “Unfortunately, I’m not nearly as cool as Mel.”
The little boy with golden-flecked brown eyes studied me for several long moments. Maybe seeing if I was being facetious, gauging my sincerity.
Either way, he seemed to judge and find me acceptable, moving closer and asking, “Who are you, anyway?”
Ro made a sound like he was going to interject—maybe because it wasn’t the most polite of questions—but I figured that with things being so tense already, we didn’t need to get into a confrontation about a semi-polite question.
Instead, I set down my beer, hopped to my feet, and walked over to Jack, sticking out my hand for him to shake. “I’m Maddie.”
His head cocked to the side, those golden-brown eyes sliding over my shoulder and growing unfocused, as though he was trying to place my name. Then they flashed back to mine and held. “Ash’s Maddie?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
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