“What about my cousin?”

“Good question.” If Brinley still wants to be Mrs. Julian Hallison, then maybe I need to fucking accept it and move on.

The only problem is that I don’t know how.

One second, my beer is in my hand, and the next it’s shattering on the floor and there’s a fist flying toward my jaw.

I block it without thinking and turn to see the glassy eyes of the man it’s connected to. Julian.

He smirks at the mess of broken glass and spilled beer at my feet. “Hey, Smithy,” he says, swaying on his feet, “you gonna let this bastard make a mess of your bar?”

Smithy slides off his stool. “Julian, you’re drunk. Cut it out.”

“I’ll call him a cab,” the redhead behind the bar says, pulling a phone from her pocket.

Julian’s eyes are bloodshot, and I wonder if getting this plowed is normal for him. “You think you’re hot shit since you have all this money. Think you can swoop in and just take her? Well, guess what—her parents will never accept you. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. They know who you really are.”

Smithy takes Julian by the forearm. “Come on, man. Let’s go cool off outside.”

“You don’t give a damn about anyone but yourself,” Julian says, sneering at me. He looks me over, not budging even as Smithy tugs him toward the door. “Now she thinks she can’t marry me. All because you’ve fucked with her head.”

My breath leaves me in a rush. She did it. She broke up with him.

I don’t realize I’m smiling until he swings at me with his free arm.

I dodge, and Smithy wraps Julian in a bear hug from behind, pinning his arms down at his sides.

“She can’t even remember that night.” Julian’s practically spitting his words. “I asked around. I know all about your past, and you haven’t fucking changed. You’re a thief who thinks he can take anything he wants. And now you think you can come back to town and steal my family.”

“Come on,” Smithy says. “Out you go.”

I’m barely aware of the people around me as I watch Smithy and a couple of other guys from the bar lead Julian outside.

Kace appears at my side. “Hey, Marston,” he says, but his attention’s on Smithy, who’s wrangling Julian into a cab on the other side of the window. “Let me buy you a drink. You earned it after that shit.”

I shake my head. “I have somewhere I need to be.”

Kace grins slowly. “Are you going to Brinley’s?”

I smack him on the shoulder and don’t bother to answer. “See you later.”

* * *


Marston: Can I come over? We need to talk.

I roll to my back on the couch and reread Marston’s text. It’s after eleven, so I’m pretty confident that whatever he wants to talk about doesn’t involve The Orchid.

Me: I don’t know if that’s a good idea. Julian was here earlier and things got ugly.

I wait ten minutes, and when he doesn’t reply, I unlock my phone to text him again.

The doorbell rings.

Because I’m a coward, I pull up the app for my home security system to see who it is. I’m not ready to face Julian right now. I’ve never seen him as angry as he was tonight, and while he was entitled to his feelings, his rage scared me.

The camera shows Marston, head bowed as he waits, and I smile despite myself and go to answer it.

When I open the door, his head snaps up and he looks me over with fierce intensity, and I realize my mistake. I’m in my pajamas. They aren’t the kind of thing I’d choose to wear if I knew Marston would be seeing me, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him. His gaze skims over my thin white tank top and settles on my black cotton shorts before coming back up. A classier woman would’ve thought to put on a bra before answering the door, but something about motherhood took all the class out of me and replaced it with an endless need for comfort. Judging by Marston’s flared nostrils and parted lips, he doesn’t mind at all.

He’s wearing the same dark gray shirt from work today, but he’s discarded his tie and rolled the sleeves up to his elbows, revealing the tattoo around his right wrist. He swapped his dress pants out for jeans at some point. His hair’s a little mussed and he’s breathing hard, as if he ran all the way here. Holy hell, he’s hot when he’s a little undone.

He scans me—top to bottom—once, twice, a third time. “You’re okay?”

The worry in his eyes makes my heart squeeze hard. “I’m fine.”

“Did he hurt you?”

Oh, shit. He thought I meant . . . “No, Marston. It wasn’t like that. I just mean it was upsetting. He left angry and hurt, but he’s never lifted a hand against me.” I swallow hard. “In fact, all these years, I’ve always been the one hurting him.”

Tags: Lexi Ryan Orchid Valley Romance
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