“Oh, come off it, Mom. I love you and I know you love me, you and Dad both. In your own ways, you’re just trying to make sure I’m happy and taken care of. But I AM happy, much happier than I ever have been, and that’s because of Leah. I love her, she loves me, and that’s the way it’s gonna be. When you decide to stop showing off your money and status, stop pushing Victoria Jones on me, and act like the real human beings I know you and Dad can be, then we’ll be back. Until then?” He paused and then shrugged his shoulders. “I’m done.”

He didn’t say anything else then, just turned on his heel and tugged me with him towards the foyer.

“Ian Thomas Mitchell, how dare you speak to your mother like that!” she sputtered. “We’ve stood beside you when you’ve desecrated your body with all of those…those…things all over yourself. We put you through school, let you follow your dream to start your own construction company, even though your father wanted you to go into investments with him. We just want what’s best for you, and we don’t want you to have to work yourself to death in the process. And the whole thing with Victoria, well, you’ve been close friends for your whole lives, and it’s just been assumed that you’d end up together. She’s heartbroken that you refuse to go out with her any longer, especially now that Leah’s in the picture.”

She turned to me and her smile, though catty, was slightly less hackle-raising than usual. “Leah, I do apologize that we’ve made you uncomfortable. I’m sure you’re a lovely girl and all, it’s simply just a matter of differences. You understand, yes?”

I opened my mouth to reply, even though I was at a loss for words since she’d pretty much just told me I wasn’t good enough (in not so many words), but didn’t have to say a thing.

“And once again, Mother, you’ve just reaffirmed my decision. I hope that you and Dad will eventually come to your senses and get your noses out of the air.” He leaned in and kissed her cheek gently and swiftly. “Goodbye, Mother.”

And that was that. My heart ached for him, because he’d just essentially written his parents off because they were so…so…stuck up. There’s no other word for it. And I was the reason he did it.

For the first time ever in our relationship, I was second-guessing it. What kind of person would I be to allow myself to come between Ian and his family?

“Stop it.”

I blinked and turned my head to look at Ian. I’d been staring out the window, watching the scenery pass by as he drove us home.

“Stop what?” I asked, carefully.

“Stop overthinking what just happened. It’s not your fault.”

“But, Ian-”

“I’m not built like them, Leah. I’ve known it since I was young. You know it, too, and I hope you realize that I would never stand by and let someone continue to belittle you. And that’s what they’ve done since they met you. It’s been over a year, Leah. I let it go on for too long, and for that, I’m sorry.”

I sighed. “I know you’re not like that, Ian. I’ve told you before, I’m not sure how you turned out like you did being raised by them. But they’re your parents.”

He shrugged. “And you’re the woman I love. You’re the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. They’ll come around eventually. If not? We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

We didn’t speak again until we got home, though he did reach over and take my hand, holding it for the rest of the drive. My cell rang as we got inside. I reached into my purse to grab it as Ian headed down the hall toward the bedroom.

“Hello?” I asked, answering without looking at the display.

“What are you doing?” Chloe asked me.

“Just got home from Ian’s parents’ house,” I told her.

“Oh. How’d that go?” she asked, and I could hear the sarcasm in her voice. She already knew the score on that front.

“Meh. About as well as you’d expect. Only this time? Let’s just say, I don’t think we’ll be going back there anytime soon.”

“That bad?” she asked, and I could tell she was wincing, even through the phone.

“The usual snark and then shit about Ian finally retiring to work investments with his dad. And don’t even get me started on the looks I got about what I was wearing.”

“What did you wear?” she asked me.

I sighed before I replied, “My pink sundress with my white wedges.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Chloe shrieked indignantly.

I nodded, even though she couldn’t see me. “I wish I was. But you’d think I’d shown up in a garbage bag the way they all looked at me.”

“But that dress is adorable and you look hot in it!” She growled and I couldn’t help but laugh at her.

“Thank you, sunshine,” I said, deliberately using Brandon’s pet name for her.

“Hey!” Brandon’s voice came through the phone in the distance. “That’s my name for her!”

“Chloe! Do you have me on speaker phone?”

“Uh…yeah. Sorry.” She giggled. “I actually had a reason for calling you, and that’s why it was on speaker. I just got sidetracked when you started talking about Ian’s parents.”

“What’s up?”

“Wait a sec, though. Was Skanktoria there?” Chloe asked.

I laughed as I heard Brandon in the background again. “Chloe! That’s mean,” he said.

“But it’s true, Brandon, and you know it. She is a skank, the way she throws herself at Ian whenever she’s around. Granted, she’s not been around lately, but still. You saw her the last time, practically naked in his lap down at Griff’s.”

She wasn’t lying. A couple of months ago, we’d all be down at Griff’s for a night out. It was packed, which wasn’t unusual for the place, especially because they had a live band that night, but we’d been dancing when Ian was grabbed from behind. When he’d gotten untangled, he’d turned to see it was a very scantily clad Victoria, and she’d been sloshed out of her mind. It wasn’t a fun night.

I cut in, stopping Chloe from arguing Brandon to death. “Yeah, she was there, and she didn’t waste any time getting her octopus arms around Ian. And of course, then his mom had to go on and on about how they were meant to be together or whatever, blah blah blah.” I rolled my eyes, even though she couldn’t see me.

“So, same ol’ same ol’, that’s what you’re saying, right?” Chloe asked me, laughing.

“You got it.”

“Hmm. Anyway, that’s not what I was calling for. I have an idea that I think you’re gonna want in on. It’s something that we haven’t done in a long time, and it’s overdue in my opinion.”

“What?” I asked, completely intrigued.

All she said in reply was, “Down & Dirty,” before I’d chimed in.

“I’m in!”

Chapter 5

I waved as the last child stepped onto his bus, and then turned to go back inside to straighten up my classroom and gather things up before I headed home. On the way, I stopped by Gerry’s cage and topped up his food and water, then sat at my desk to go over the next day’s lesson and to check my supply list for the activities I had planned.

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