“We should have drowned you when you were born,” she spat at Wesley, jabbing a finger in the direction of his high chair. His face crumpled and I stood.
“Mom,” I whispered, “don’t say that. He’s—”
“A mistake,” she shot back. She threw back another shot of liquor and walked off, knocking a chair over on her exit.
I reached out and pulled Emma to me. Burying my face in her hair, I inhaled her scent as I wrapped my arms around her and stole a quick moment.
“Cash,” my mother chided, and I felt a sharp burn of pain as she twisted the skin on my inner bicep into a tight knot. “You haven’t seen me in weeks. Stop hanging all over Emma and come sit with me.” She beamed at Emma. “You don’t mind if I borrow him, dear, do you?”
“Hell no,” I said tightly.
Both of them flinched, but I didn’t care because the crew had parted around the end of the living room. Stumbling forward, his eyes wide and confused, was Wesley.
Out of the Ranch.
Away from his safe areas.
A stranger’s hand on his back, guiding him into the living room and in sight of the cameras. He looked over his shoulder, then at Emma’s father. He hadn’t found me yet, and probably didn’t even know I was here.
I grabbed my mother’s arm. “What is he doing here?” I gritted out. “You have to get him away from the cameras and this crew. You know better than to—”
“Missy!” His shriek pierced through the room, and I looked up in confusion, watching as he barreled forward, tripping over a side table, his arms outstretched, smile huge. I shoved past my mom and stopped, surprised when he launched at Emma, wrapping her in a bear hug that almost knocked her off her feet. She hugged him back. Without fear. With familiarity. With a smile. When her gaze darted nervously to me, I saw the deception drenched in every line of her delicate features.
“Missy?” I asked coldly, and this couldn’t be the helper that Wesley loved, the one who played with him and snuck him cupcakes. I stared at her and cursed myself for not asking more questions.
“Miss E,” she corrected quietly, her gaze not meeting mine, her arms still tight around him. She had been lying to me, and it was one thing to lie about a press release or a photo or a contract or a post. But Wesley was an entirely different and unforgivable thing.
“You didn’t tell me you’d introduced her to Wesley,” my mother scolded quietly, pulling me to the side. “Nice of you to give him more courtesy than me.”
I snapped my jaw shut and forced myself to look away from Emma before I ripped her away from my brother.
“Ca-Ca!” Wesley lumbered over, his smile wide, face flushed from exertion. “You are here!”
I squeezed his shoulder and forced a smile. “I missed you, bud.”
“I missed YOU, bud,” he shot back. Over his shoulder, from the other side of the room, Dana met my eyes and gave me a knowing smirk.
It was a slow-motion heartbreak. Wesley, tottering toward me, his short legs moving as quickly as he could, his face lit with surprise. Me, frozen, accepting his hug, squeezing him back, all while my brain sprinted in circles, on panic level 9. Cash’s face. Surprised. Confused. And then… the hardening. The set of features, like a face mask changing color and cracking into place. The worst was the look of resigned expectation. Like he had known something was going to happen. Like this was what he had been waiting for.
I let Wesley hug me and waited for the blowup—but it didn’t come. Cash said nothing to me, and the silence ripped out my throat and left me fighting for breath and unable to form my own defense.
Dana stepped in, orchestrating the train wreck with a well-placed seating arrangement, one that put Cash’s family on one sofa, mine on the other, us facing them across a glass table that was right at shin level and responsible for at least one bruise of mine.
I didn’t have the energy to fight it, to put on a show for the cameras, to do the normal Emma things I would do. Cross my legs. Tousle my hair. Deliver dry and witty dialogue in the uncomfortable pauses. Pauses like right now, where Dana was looking at her notepad, and my mom was staring at Jocelyn, and Cash had one arm around Wes, a murderous look on his face.
“So,” Dana chirped, setting her pen down on the pad. “Let’s start with a question for Wesley. Wesley, how do you know Emma?”
Cash’s gaze smoldered into me, and it wasn’t a good heat. I looked away, focusing on Wesley, who perked up at the sight of the mini-sandwiches that were artfully displayed in the center of the coffee table.