Kassius suddenly realized how ridiculous his car and driver were here. He glanced at Laney, hoping for some hint of how to proceed, but all he got was a similarly cold stare. Apparently both Henry women had a similar opinion of him at the moment.
Giving the elderly lady his best smile, he stuck out his hand. “You must be Yvonne Henry,” he said smoothly. “I can see where Laney gets her good looks.”
Mrs. Henry snorted, rolling her eyes. But she seemed to thaw out slightly. She started to reach out her hand. Then he made the mistake of adding, as he looked over the shabby house, “Didn’t my business manager contact you? You were supposed to have access to all the money you need.”
He heard Laney’s intake of breath, saw Yvonne Henry narrow her eyes, drawing herself up to her full four feet eleven inches.
“Laney,” she said coldly. “Please inform your boyfriend that we are not in habit of taking charity. Especially from strangers.”
Had he been rude to offer them unlimited money? For a moment he was bewildered, then he realized Yvonne had taken his words as a slight on their home’s appearance. Which he supposed it had been.
Yvonne Henry began watering the flowerpots on the porch. “Lunch is almost ready, but you’d best go introduce the man to your father first.”
“I can’t wait to taste your cooking,” Kassius said, trying to dig himself out of the hole. “Laney said you’re the best chef in the city. I haven’t been able to think of anything else!”
“My cooking is what you’re looking forward to? Not meeting us? Bless your heart.” She turned to her granddaughter. “Laney May?”
“Let’s go in,” she said quickly, tugging on his arm.
“Nice to meet you, ma’am,” he said politely and followed Laney into the house. When the screen door slammed behind him, he exhaled.
Laney was staring at him in disbelief. “You really aren’t good at this.”
“I think she likes me,” he said.
Her expression changed. She glanced around them, drawing closer. “Just be respectful, okay?”
“What are you talking about?”
“My dad didn’t like how you proposed to me, without asking his permission.”
“Are you kidding? Who actually does that anymore?”
“Look around you,” she bit out. “We’re not rich jet-setters who are too full of our own importance to bother with the old values. We still believe in family. In love and respect.”
Hmm. Kassius sensed criticism.
“So whatever you might think of me and my family,” she continued, “can you please keep it to yourself and just pretend to be a decent person?”
“Fine,” he bit out.
As Kassius followed her through the dark, shotgun-style one-story house, he noticed the damp walls and peeling wallpaper. He knew her father was in a wheelchair. Had there even been a ramp from the porch to the street? He wondered how her father managed to leave the house. If he did.
Kassius was going to be a father soon. He suddenly wondered how he’d feel if someone proposed marriage to his son or daughter on the other side of the world, without making the gesture of at least meeting the family first. Not good.
Pushing open a door, she led him into a dark bedroom. “Dad, I’m here!”
She clicked on a light, and Kassius realized the man had been sitting in the dark. The bedroom was tidy and scrupulously clean. But the furniture was old, and the walls covered with photos of Laney at every age, often with a pretty, laughing woman he took to be her mother. The woman who’d abandoned them when they needed her most. Pictures Clark Henry could no longer even see.
“What are you doing in here, Dad, in the dark?” Laney said affectionately. She looked down at open book in his lap. In Braille. “Good book?”
Clark’s unfocused gaze lit up in a smile. “Just waiting for you to get home! Come here, girl!”
Her face was tender as she went to him in the wheelchair and hugged him tight. “I missed you, Dad.”
“Oh, sweetheart, it’s been so long,” Clark Henry said, blinking fast as he hugged her tight. When she pulled away, he cleared his throat. “And you’re not alone.”
“Did you hear me?” Kassius said awkwardly, feeling like an intruder.
The man smiled, but his expression was tight. “I could smell you at ten paces. Cologne and car leather.”
Kassius gave himself a surreptitious sniff.
“Yes, Dad,” Laney said. “This is my fiancé. Kassius.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir.” Taking the older man’s hand, he shook it. He noticed Clark still wore his wedding ring.
“Nice firm grip,” her father said and abruptly withdrew his hand. “But as for the fiancé business, we’ll have to wait and see. I haven’t decided if I’m willing to give you away.”
“Dad, the wedding is tomorrow night!”
“If I don’t give you away, there will be no wedding. So let me ask your fella a few questions.” He glared in Kassius’s direction. “What makes you worthy of my daughter?”
“I’ll take good care of her, sir.”
Kassius hid a smile. “I own many houses around the world, two jets, with a personal net worth of—”
“I get it. You’re rich.” Her father snorted, waving an impatient hand. “My daughter already told me, and so did that guy who kept calling, wanting to shove your money down our throats. That’s not what I asked.”
“Sir?” Kassius said, feeling bewildered again.
“What I asked,” Clark Henry said, as if speaking to a not-so-bright child, “was how you are worthy of my daughter.”
That brought Kassius up short.
He looked down at the man who’d lost everything in an oil rig explosion, trying to provide for his family. Working as a roughneck was hard, dangerous, isolating work—which was why it was well paid. But after the accident, the drilling company had found a legal loophole to deny compensation. Clark Henry had lost his sight, his mobility, his wife. Now he had no ability to work or even leave the house. He’d literally lost the power to look out for his family.
Kassius took a deep breath. And gave the only answer he could.
“I’m not,” he said humbly. “But I intend to spend the rest of my life trying to make her happy. If you will please give me permission to marry your daughter.”
The man’s expression changed. He hadn’t expected that. Nor, by the dumbfounded look on her face, had Laney.
Then with a cough, Clark frowned again. “Fine. You’ll take care of her. But will you love her with all your heart? As my only child deserves to be loved?”
“Let the man answer me, Laney May.”
Kassius tried to think of what to say. Somehow he didn’t think that his usual speech about “I’m just not a sentimental man” would satisfy Clark Henry. But he also had too much respect for the man to lie to him. He began, “The thing is...”
“Guess what?” Laney broke in, giving Kassius a warning glance. “I have news, Dad. Big news! The hugest! You need to come out into the kitchen so I can tell you and Gran at once.”
“Good news?” her father said gruffly. “Or bad?”
“Definitely good.” Laney kissed the top of her father’s head. “But Gran will kill me if I don’t tell you both. You go first, Dad.”
Setting his jaw, her father pushed his wheelchair out of the bedroom, using his powerful arms to roll himself back down the long dark hallway. She started to follow him.
Kassius blocked her with his arm, putting his hand against the wall. He said in a low voice, “Thank you.”
She stared at him for a moment, her deep brown eyes sad. “I didn’t do it for you. I did it for them. They want so badly for me to be happy. They can never know you...”
She didn’t finish the sentence. She didn’t have to.
You don’t love me.
Pushing his arm away, she left the bedroom. He followed her to the kitchen, where her grandmother was stirring a big pot on the stove.
Kassius took an appreciative sniff. “That smells fantastic.”
“Oh, are you still here?” her grandmother replied, not bothering to look in his direction. Lifting her eyebrows, she glanced down at her son.
“I’ve decided to give the man a chance,” Clark said gruffly.
“Really.” She sounded skeptical. “Even after the way you were calling him a no-good—”
Clark coughed. “Laney said she has news.”
Her grandmother paused in stirring the pot. “News? What news?”
Kassius looked at Laney. Now she was on the spot, her cheeks were pink. Clearing her throat, she said in an overly cheerful voice, “Kassius and I got a wedding present a few days early. We found out we’re going to have a baby!”
Her grandmother’s spoon dropped. “A baby!”
Clark turned toward Kassius with a blind scowl. “Baby?”
Kassius came behind Laney, putting his arms around her. He felt her trembling, though she gave her family a big smile. “Yes, a baby. And we couldn’t be more delighted.”
“A great-grandchild!” Yvonne breathed with delight. Then a shadow crossed her face. “But we’ll never see the baby. You’ll be living so far from us. We’ll never see any of you.”