As Peter echoes his brother’s sentiments, I turn my attention to the woman accompanying them and it hits me. “Kara?” I ask uncertainly. The one time I’d met Peter’s daughter she’d looked very similar to me with long, wavy blonde hair.
She steps forward, giving me a shy grin. Pointing to her hair she says, “I know I must look different. I…decided it was time for a change.”
“I really like it,” I say sincerely. If I’m honest, it was rather disconcerting knowing there was someone in the world who resembled me so much. I had been stunned the first time I met her in Lee’s office. Of course, since I look so much like Lee, it was only natural that Kara would resemble both her father and her uncle. “It’s great to see you again.” I make the introductions between those who haven’t met yet. Aidan’s eyes linger a bit longer on Kara and I find myself wishing he could find someone to care about—other than Cassie. From what Lucian has told me, she’s the only woman he’s ever loved and if the dark circles under his eyes are any indication, it’s beginning to wear heavily on him. I wonder if that is what Lucian has been so stressed about?
I hear an announcement for the graduating class to take their places so I give Lucian a quick kiss before telling everyone that I’ll see them afterward. It seems like hours before the last speech is given. Since my last name begins with an A, I’m one of the first on the stage when the diplomas are given out. I hear a small section of the audience cheering loudly and cut my eyes that way to see Aidan whooping loudly while Lucian claps, looking ecstatic. Max stands on the other side of Aidan looking resigned as if he had tried to quiet his friend but failed. My father, Peter, and Kara are also on their feet, smiling broadly. I find myself a little teary-eyed at this show of support. Even in my wildest dreams when I imagined making it through college, I would have never believed I’d have a family here to witness it. Most of them are here as a direct result of meeting and loving Lucian Quinn. Without him, I would have never met Max or Aidan. Lee wouldn’t have known he had a daughter had Lucian not been checking into my past, causing enough curiosity from the other man to look deeper into Lucian—thus finding me. Every beautiful moment in my life happened because, by some miracle, Lucian chose me, accepted me, and loves me. Something I never thought I’d have.
I remain in my seat as each of my classmates take the stage. When it’s Rose’s turn, I’m right there with our other friends, whistling and yelling. It hits me then that she never mentioned anything about her family earlier. Surely, they are here for her big day. When the service ends, the first question out of my mouth to her is, “Are your mother and father here?”
“They were here earlier this morning for their photo op,” she says dismissively.
“But what about the ceremony?” I ask, confused by her answer. I mean, I never expected my mother would attend—even if she wasn’t in jail—but I always thought Rose had fairly normal parents. Well, a bit gun-obsessed, but no one’s perfect.
She rolls her eyes and gives a sarcastic laugh. “My daddy got special permission for me to hold my diploma while they had a professional photographer take a lot of ‘happy, dedicated parent photos.’ They’ll have one of them put in our hometown newspaper and frame one to add to the other carefully posed pictures in our house.”
“Wouldn’t it have just been easier for them to attend than to go through all of that just to give the illusion that they did?” I don’t want to offend her, but it sounds crazy to me—and that’s saying something considering my own family.
Snorting, she says, “My parents don’t do well with crowds or the general population. Trust me, if they were here, my mother would constantly pump her hands full of hand sanitizer while my father pretended to be a good ol’ boy, inwardly cringing when forced to speak to anyone socially beneath him. He’s good; I’ll give him that. He can make you believe you’re the best of buddies, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. He doesn’t do friends; he does allies, until they’re no longer useful to him.”
This is the most she’s ever said about her parents and my heart breaks for my friend. I’m beginning to see why Rose has the sort of hang-ups she does. I have a feeling the considerable freedom I always thought she had was just a carefully crafted facade. A man like that doesn’t turn one of his possessions loose without knowing exactly where it is at all times. In my heart, I know my suspicions are true—we have more in common than I would have ever thought. Linking my arm through hers, I pull her to where Lucian is waiting. “You’re coming to Leo’s with us.” Lucian had asked me a few days ago what I wanted to do for my graduation and I told him dinner at Leo’s, of course. It’s our special place and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather celebrate my graduation with the people who mean the most to me.
“Neither of us deserves her, you know.” I incline my head, acknowledging the truth of Lee’s statement. I had rented out Leo’s for the evening, so it’s a cozy gathering of just friends and family. Debra and Martin had missed Lia’s graduation due to Debra’s last-minute emergency appendicitis. My aunt had come straight to Leo’s from work and was catching up with Aidan. The meal has been over for some time and I have moved to the outskirts of the room, just enjoying the scene before me. My eyes are drawn repeatedly to the woman I love. She is vibrant in her silky, blue dress as she laughs at something Rose is saying.