As soon as I’ve managed to set aside the encounter with Preston, I enter my office. As usual, my father has the television turned to the local news station, my entrance to the building playing on a loop. However, he’s no longer sitting at the desk—which is now mine—opting for a slow pace in front of the windows.

I expect him to launch into a lecture about the past, Addison and me, public perception. Et cetera. Things I don’t give a damn about. Especially not when she’s making me so happy, I barely know what to do with myself.

The fact that I’m not going to suffer any bullshit must be showing in my eyes, because my father’s weathered face breaks into a smile. Making me even more suspicious.

“Good news. There was an opening on tonight’s Fastball panel and they want you.” He waves a hand at the television. “We’ll ask them not to discuss this in too much detail, but your actions of the last twenty-four hours have definitely caused a stir. Like it or not, gossip and scandal boost ratings.”

The sinking disappointment that I might not be able to cook dinner for Addison is only responsible for half of my irritation. “My actions? Look, I admit throwing the mattress out of the window wasn’t my finest judgment call. Apart from that, I collected my girlfriend and drove her home.”

“Your scantily clad girlfriend, Elijah. The daughter of a home wrecker.”

Those words drive a fist into my solar plexus. “You need to leave.”

“Not my words.” He points to the window. “Theirs.”

“Who?”

“The Tea.”

There’s no humor in my laugh. It’s resentful. Toward anyone who wants to taint the best thing in my life. “That’s a gossip website. It’s not even worth mentioning.”

“A gossip website with a million readers.” He massages the center of his forehead with a sigh. “Elijah, I actually do like her. She’s…nothing like I expected. Throwing large objects out of my window is something your mother might have inspired me to do, once upon a time.” His mouth flattens. “But I want to retire knowing your success is guaranteed. They want a family at the wheel they can look up to. You look at Addison and see one thing, while they see the sins of her mother. Or a gold digger.” He takes a folded newspaper off my desk and holds it up—and there’s Addison from last night, dancing. With Lydia. A huge, beautiful smile on her face. “Hell, they see what the newspapers print. Addison out dancing and drinking in a cheap dress.”

If I could go back in time, I would never mention the stupid pink bra. I would just suffer in silence while she wore that damn thing, even if it killed me. “You have the nerve to throw the word cheap around, when you’re letting some exploitive, low-rent website do your thinking for you?” I move around the desk and take the newspaper from his hands, scanning the first few lines. Slowly, I start to relax, the morning’s lightness returning in waves. “This story isn’t negative. They…love her. She’s, ‘dancing to the beat of her own drum and shaking up Charleston’s stuffy upper crust. Our love-struck mayor-elect never knew what hit him. Getaway Girl for the win.’”

“Give me some credit, son. I’ve been doing this a while.” He stabs the desk with a finger. “What seems like positive spin today is exactly what they’ll hate her for tomorrow. And in case you forgot, the stuffy upper crust are your donors. They take these headlines as an insult and you condone them by dating her.”

“This is the last time I’m going to say this, so listen very carefully. I do not care what the public thinks of my relationship. We make each other happy. If there’s a donor or a website or an entire goddamn public who takes it upon themselves to judge her, so be it. It won’t change my judgment. And if you can’t see she’s incredible—if you can’t evolve with me and stop living solely for public approval—then get the fuck out.”

My veins are flowing with heat and I’m about ready to flip the desk we’re facing off across. This isn’t some fight an adolescent has with his dad. This is a man telling another man what the hell is up. It’s a line in the sand and if he crosses it again, I’m done. It’s a fact.

Finally, my father circles the desk and sits down in one of the guest seats, gesturing for me to take one behind the desk. “One of the panelists on Fastball likes to lean hard on education issues. You should have your ducks in a row.” He rolls his tongue around his mouth. “We could work on some talking points, if you’re done tearing me up one side and down the other.”

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