My dad and sister were being themselves, but my mother was purposefully baiting me. She was not happy I invited Bailey, and she’d made her feelings known in a text exchange we’d had this morning. She felt it was inappropriate from the start that I’d bring my assistant. I disagreed with her, which she didn’t like, and told her to have a place setting for Bailey, or I wouldn’t come.

Of course, her not having a place setting when we arrived was the first strike against my mother, an embarrassingly obvious message Bailey wasn’t welcome. I should have walked out the door right then.

“Declan,” Bailey murmurs. I jolt, looking down at her. She nods toward the window, and I see that we’ve arrived at the hotel. I had been so deep in my brooding I hadn’t realized it.

The driver opens the door for us. I step out, turning to offer my hand to Bailey. She takes it, a repeat of how we had arrived at my parents’ home, except now the lines of tension on her face are deeper. I hate it.

I usher her into the hotel, straight to the elevator, and up to the family suite. Once we’re inside, I move to the wet bar and open a bottle of red, pouring us each a glass as Bailey goes to the couch. She looks tired.

I know I am.

I head over to sit on the couch with enough room to angle toward her. She accepts the glass of wine, and then does something that, for some silly reason, charms the fuck out of me.

She kicks off her heels, pulls her legs up onto the couch, and draws them underneath her. Angling toward me, she drapes an arm casually over the sofa. Holding her glass out, she murmurs, “Cheers.”

I smile. “Cheers.”

We both take a sip, staring at each other over the rims of the glasses. When I lower mine, I say, “I’m sorry about what happened. How my family treated you. It was inexcusable.”

“It’s fine—”

“No, it’s not,” I cut in. “I shouldn’t have brought you there. I knew that might happen. Or at least, I knew they’d be their rude and arrogant selves. I didn’t realize they’d be so focused, though. I thought they might abide by some common decency.”

Bailey gives a wan smile. “Your family is… interesting.”

“My family is a bunch of assholes,” I mutter. “I’ve been called that a time or two myself, so I know the title is appropriate.”

Bailey giggles, and I’m glad to see she’s taking this with a bit of humor. “You’re not an asshole.”

“So magnanimous,” I reply dryly, shaking my head.

Now I get a full-throated laugh, and fuck… it’s sexy. It’s why I’m in no way offended when she admits, “Okay, I thought you were an asshole when I first met you.”

“I could tell.” I swirl my wine in my glass with the memory of her cleaning my suite. Who would have thought we’d be where we are today?

Bailey gives a tiny cough, causing my gaze to move up to her face. She winces slightly as she asks, “Was that… um… a typical dinner?”

“You mean the formality?” I ask with a wry smile. “Or the multitude of servants who would wipe your ass if you demanded it? Or maybe the fact no one in my family seems to like each other?”

“All of it,” she replies with a grin.

“Sadly,” I muse, taking a sip. “That was pretty typical. Horrible conversation because everyone is trying to toot their own horn. Parents not engaged with their kids because, let’s face it… they don’t give a crap. That’s what it was like growing up a Blackwood, so you can see why I didn’t mind going away to boarding school.”

Her eyes fill with pained sadness, and I give a hard shake of my head.

“No,” I instruct with a wag of my finger. “You are not allowed to feel sorry for me.”

“But it’s awful,” she murmurs.

“It was normal.” She blinks in surprise because my tone conveys I don’t have any bitterness. “I didn’t know—don’t know—any different. If there’s something better out there, it’s beyond me.”

“Really?” she asks.

“It was normal,” I assure her.

“Doesn’t feel normal now, does it? It’s why we left.”

I’m the one who reels in surprise at that proclamation. And she’s absolutely right… it didn’t feel healthy at all. It felt oppressive. Plus, the tension bothered me, whereas before, I could always let it roll off my back.

I smile with a feeling of tenderness I don’t quite understand. “Nothing’s been normal since I met you, Miss Robbins.”

She snickers, then takes a small sip of her wine. When she swallows, she points out, “You used to call me Miss Robbins to put distance between us. Remind me of my place. But now it’s just kind of sexy when you do it.”

This time, a deep laugh tears free of me, and I like the way it feels. She’s absolutely right about that. Now when I call her Miss Robbins, it is in no way done as a means to keep my distance.

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