There was silence for a full minute, as the girls and suited men looked at the black-and-white sketch. Brad inwardly groaned, hating that he had involved anyone other than himself in this process. Then Olivia beamed, gripping Becca’s arm and smiling brightly at Brad. Becca gave a little squeal and hugged Olivia, and then the closest jewelry associate enthusiastically.

“It’s perfect,” Olivia said, walking to Brad and giving him a strong hug. “She will love it.”

Brad turned his gaze to the manager. “I have faith in you. Make it happen.” He stood, slapping the pale man on the shoulder and heading for the door. The man nervously followed him, speaking quickly and waving his hands frantically.

“Mr. De Luca, I don’t really feel comfortable guaranteeing—”

“Mr. Thompson, you have the stones, and the tools. I will be happy to pay whatever is needed for you to call in the staff necessary to create the ring. Olivia or Becca, do you know her size?”

The brunette looked up, startled. “Um, sort of. I know she’s worn one of my rings before. You can measure my finger.” A female employee materialized and beelined for Olivia, reaching for her left hand.

Brad glanced at his watch and pulled out his wallet. “I have to go. Ladies, it was a pleasure. I greatly appreciate your help. Mr. Thompson, I will expect the ring delivered once it is ready. Please call my cell and we can coordinate a meeting location then.” He pulled a black credit card from his wallet and passed it to the man. “Go ahead and authorize this for whatever you need. I’ll stop by tomorrow and complete any paperwork that you will require.”

He nodded to the group and headed to the door, feeling very satisfied with himself.

* * *

BRAD HAD LEFT the house, saying he needed to meet Clarke to sign the new partnership documents, but had promised me a late dinner at Cypress. I had never been there, but I assumed if Brad was taking me, it was probably a white-tablecloths type of place. I grabbed my black dress and hunted through Brad’s closet until I found an iron. The best thing about the dress was it went perfectly with my new shoes, and matching them was all I cared about anyway.

I soaked in Brad’s jetted tub, dimming the bathroom lights and turning up his thermostat. I had found some bubble bath in a decorative basket in the guest bathroom, and poured the entire bottle into the tub. I was a little unsure if you could use bubble bath in a tub like this one, with three different kinds of jets and more buttons and handles than anyone would ever need. My concern was quickly validated by the huge mountain of bubbles that formed within minutes, pouring out of the tub on all sides. I spent the first five minutes of the bubble brigade with a bucket I found in the air conditioner closet, scooping and dumping the bubbles into the shower. After five minutes, with more bubbles billowing out of every available jet port, I gave up scooping, and turned off the jets, settling for a normal, plain-Jane soak with a mountain of freesia-scented bubbles everywhere.

Even without the jets, it was a great bath. The tub was huge, big enough to accommodate Brad, though I couldn’t picture him surrounded by light purple bubbles. I closed my eyes in the near darkness, letting the hot water penetrate my core. I looked forward to tonight, to seeing Brad, to wearing my new shoes and later on, to having his hands on my body.

It was surreal to dress for an event, to be excited, when you know you should be panicking. Surreal to put faith in a man that everyone thought would cause me harm. Granted, “everyone” didn’t know the full story. Then again, I didn’t even know the full story. I wouldn’t for quite a while. It would take years of lunches, midnight chats, holidays, family gatherings, cuddles and fights. Years. And I didn’t know if Brad was a “years” type of guy.

I did know that I had professed my love, and he had said nothing. The blowup, the moment when his face had shaken and his voice had wavered, that had told me more than anything. In that loss of control, I had seen vulnerability, love. I recognized it, but he—he was a long way from it.

* * *

ON THE WAY HOME from Lorenzi, Brad stopped at a flower stand set up in the back of a Ford truck. A tarp provided some cover, and buckets of flowers occupied three parking spots of an old Exxon gas station. He ducked under the tarp, coming face-to-face with an ancient, hunchbacked man who was missing a few teeth. Brad reviewed the limited selection, and picked out almost all of the orchids and lilies, having the man wrap them together in cream tissue paper and plastic. Giving the man three twenties, he ducked back into the car a few minutes later. Setting the flowers on the seat, he pulled out his phone and called his assistant.

“It’s Sunday night.” Rebecca’s voice was clipped, and in the background he could hear the loud chatter of a bar.

“Exactly. You should be home, heading to bed early, so that you can give me a hundred and ten percent tomorrow.”

“You should know by now that I never give a hundred and ten percent.”

“Good point.” Rebecca was his secret weapon, hidden from the public eye; she was a three-hundred-pound powerhouse that H.R. had felt comfortable entrusting to him. She was a late sleeper, and rarely in the office before noon, but she made up for it by working late, being available on weekends and handling his odd requests without a blink of the eye. The woman was efficient to the point of being lazy. She handled tasks in half the time of others, so always seemed to be idle. But the best, and most valuable trait she had was calling him on his bullshit and standing up to him when needed.

“I need your help tonight.”

“That’s a shocker. Look, tonight’s not good. I put a lot of effort into looking hot tonight. And there’s this guy, he’s a little guy, but I’m fairly certain he’s packing where it counts, and—”

“Rebecca! I don’t want to know about your social life. I’m asking you to please pass up on the toothpick you are about to sexually molest, and be available tonight.”

A big sigh loudly sounded through the phone. “W-H-A-T could you possibly need? I’m not calling any hookers for your horny ass.”

“I need a nine-thirty reservation at Cypress.”

“That’s going to be impossible. Too short notice, and you know they only have, like, five of the tables you like.”

“That’s why I’m calling you and not trying to do it myself.”

His stroke to her ego worked, and after a moment of silence, she sighed again. “And?”

“Lorenzi is making a custom ring for me. I need you to coordinate with the manager and go over there and stay on their ass. I have got to have that ring by ten tonight, ideally sooner.”

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