She pushed off the railing and came closer, pointing at me with her manicured finger. “Don’t hey me, Erica. You are in huge freaking trouble. Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been about you? Who doesn’t call their best friend back for weeks at a time? I mean seriously—”
“Calm down, babe. She just got here.” Heath rested his arm over her shoulder and gave her a little squeeze.
I recoiled a bit, leaning back into Blake’s body, hoping he could somehow save me from the wrath of Alli. She was completely overreacting, not to mention killing the moment.
“Is there anything else you need to get off your chest? Now’s the time,” I said, only half-joking.
She twisted her lips into a half smile. “I love that skirt on you. I want it back.”
I laughed, and before I could say anything, she crossed over and pulled me into a hug. I hugged her back, realizing how much I’d missed her.
“Don’t you ever do that to me again.”
“Sorry.” My voice muffled quietly into her shoulder. I’d been keeping the truth from so many people for so long, sometimes I didn’t even know who I was anymore.
“Apology accepted.” She stepped back. “Now, do you want to explain to me what the hell is going on?”
I glanced up at Blake and back to her. “Let’s talk later, okay? I’m sure their parents aren’t interested in hearing about my drama.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Heath chimed in, his eyes wide. “Fair warning. You’ll be lucky if we can get through dinner without getting the third degree on why you and Blake aren’t together anymore.”
My eyes widened anxiously. This was looking more and more like an intervention that might end in tears and rehab for me too. No one could fully appreciate how fragile I’d been these past few weeks. I’d been worn down to the point where I seriously wondered if I was taking years off my life with the stress.
Blake kissed me on the cheek and whispered in my ear. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep them occupied. Just relax and have fun.”
Catherine joined us, with Fiona in tow. Fiona looked perfect in a teal striped top and short white shorts.
“Erica, I’m so glad you could come,” she squealed, giving me a tight hug.
My throat tightened with emotion. Too much hugging. I couldn’t handle all these people being so happy to have me close. Before I could overthink it, Catherine announced that dinner was ready. We all settled at the table outside on the other side of the deck. I sat between Alli and Blake, which was a relief.
“Erica, tell us about your family,” Catherine began as we started digging into the meal.
“Mom,” Blake snapped.
“What?” She shook her head, wide-eyed, and looked back to me.
“It’s okay. Um, my mother passed away from cancer when I was thirteen. My stepfather remarried while I was away at boarding school, so I don’t really have a lot of close family now.”
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry.”
I shrugged, not wanting to seem emotional or upset about it. Plus, I’d barely scratched the surface. “Thank you. It’s fine, though. I get to make my family wherever I go now.”
Alli grinned and leaned into me a little.
Greg finished a bite of salad. “Tell us about your business. Blake tells us that you’re part of a rare species of women in technology.”
I glanced over to Blake whose lips twisted into an annoyed grimace. Greg opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Heath cleared his throat.
“Sorry to interrupt you there, Dad, but we have an announcement.”
The blood drained from Catherine’s face. Alli rushed to speak.
“I’ve decided to move back to Boston.”
“Oh, wow.” Catherine laughed, putting her hand over her heart like she’d been moments from a heart attack.
My own heart experienced a burst of happiness at the news. I shifted in my seat to face her.
“Oh my God, are you serious?”
She nodded. “It’s official. Heath and I talked about it this week. I’ll be on the job hunt and moving as soon as I can.”
“That’s so wonderful,” Catherine said with a warm smile. Greg peppered Heath with suggestions about apartments in the city and I nudged Alli.
“I’m interviewing for marketing directors. You wouldn’t happen to be interested?”
She frowned and sat back. “Are you serious?”
“Actually, yeah. Things didn’t work out with Risa. I’ll fill you in on the details later, but suffice to say, we’re severing ties completely and irrevocably.”
“Wow. In that case, yes.”
“Really? Are you sure that’s what you’d want to do?”
“Are you kidding me? I’ve spent the past two months pulling twelve-hour days for prima donna designers. Coming back to Clozpin would be like being on a tropical vacation by comparison.”
“I thought you wanted a career in fashion though?”
She gave me a half-hearted smile. “I thought I did too. I guess sometimes you don’t realize what you have ’til it’s gone. I definitely got some perspective and learned a ton, but this move feels right in every way. Heath’s going to be happier here, his family’s here to support him, and you’re here. I couldn’t think of any better reasons to make the change.”
“You won’t hear any arguments from me. Obviously I’ve been dying to have you back since you left. And frankly, with what’s going down with Risa now, I feel like I’ll never be able to trust anyone in that position again who isn’t you.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out. We built this business. No one’s better suited to grow it.”
“Cheers to that.”
I breathed a sigh of relief as we left the bustling dinner with Blake’s family and escaped to the beach below. I left my sandals on the steps, and Blake and I walked barefoot along the shore as the sun began to set.
“Sorry. They’re completely crazy,” he mumbled.
“It’s okay. They’re really sweet actually.” A quiet happiness bubbled inside me at the unexpected turn this evening had taken. “This may sound strange, but why didn’t you introduce me to your parents before? You know, when things weren’t so messed up between us.”
“Like Heath said, they’re nosy and overwhelming. On one hand, I didn’t really want to share my time with you, and on the other hand, I knew that once I let them loose on you, it was all over.”