Page 27 of Hardline (Hacker 3)

Alli and I sat down on the large sectional across from Fiona. I admired the open space and light that filled it through a bay window at the front.

“I think we should toast. To the move.” Fiona tipped her glass to Alli. “And of course to Blake and Erica’s engagement.”

“Cheers,” we sang in unison.

I relaxed back, taking a sip. Maybe this is what I needed while Blake cooled off. A little champagne and girl time.

Alli wasted no time rummaging through her purse on the floor.

“Speaking of engagements.”

She pulled out a sizeable stack of wedding magazines adorned with colorful bookmarks. My eagerness for girl time came to a skidding halt.

“Obviously the most important thing is picking out your dress, Erica, but we need to decide on colors tonight, because it’s driving me nuts not knowing, and I’m selfish like that.”

I laughed softly. I hadn’t given it a single thought. At least not since middle school when pink and purple were on the top of every little girl’s list.

Fiona repositioned herself on the other side of Alli. “Oh, I love this one. But maybe in navy.” She pointed to one of the models.

Alli pursed her lips. “I don’t know. If we’re doing beachside, there might not be enough contrast. What about mauve, or something really bright, like fuchsia?”

Fiona laughed. “Making Blake and Heath wear pink vests and ties would be amazing.”

Alli joined her laughter. Before long their brainstorming had degraded to pink glittering cummerbunds and they were nearly falling off the couch with giggles. I was willing to give them the go ahead if it meant talking about anything else. Then I heard some clatter in the kitchen and remembered Catherine was prepping dinner for our whole group on her own. The men were still nowhere in sight.

“I’m going to go check on dinner. I’ll be back in a minute.”

I disappeared into the kitchen and found Catherine stirring something in a large steaming pot. Dinner smelled Italian and delicious. I was suddenly hungry though I hadn’t had much of an appetite today.

“Hey, honey. Can I get you something?”

“Oh, no. I’m fine. I was just wondering if you needed help with anything.”

Catherine smiled. “I think I’ve got it covered. Go hang out with the girls.”

I surveyed the large designer kitchen, wishing I could find a mess to clean. Anything to give me an excuse not to go for a few more minutes. Back to the bridesmaid’s den.

What the hell was wrong with me? Didn’t every woman on the planet want to get caught up in this whole process? How could I run a fashion start-up and lack the slightest interest in the finer details of what was shaping up to be a wedding far beyond anything I would have ever imagined? “Big white wedding” was being given new meaning with each passing moment as Alli and Fiona vied for confirmation of their opinions.

I bit my lip and searched my brain for an excuse to stay.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I nodded. I wouldn’t mind disappearing into the floor right now though. “I just needed a break I guess. They’re...”

She lifted the corner of her mouth, quiet understanding in her eyes. “Driving you nuts?”

I laughed. “Maybe a little.”

New peals of laughter echoed from the living room and we shared a knowing look.

“Alli accidentally let it slip about the engagement party. Thank you. You didn’t have to do that.”

“Oh! Nonsense. I want to. You have no idea how excited our family is about the news. They can’t wait to meet you. Honestly, they can’t wait to see Blake either. He can be a little reclusive when it comes to making appearances for extended family.”

“Well, thank you, again. I feel bad because I should probably be thinking of things like that. I should probably be doing a dozen things that haven’t even occurred to me lately.”

Everything was moving too fast. Work. Wedding plans. As if that weren’t enough, this clash with Blake was threatening to throw everything else completely off kilter.

“Blake’s a take charge kind of guy, but I don’t suppose he’s much help with wedding planning.”

I shook my head. “I guess not.”

I glanced around the room nervously, my gaze landing anywhere but her face. When she grew silent, I chanced a look. Her eyebrows wrinkled. She stepped closer and covered my hand with hers.

“Is everything okay between you two?” she asked gently. “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you don’t look like a girl who’s happily engaged at the moment.”

I swallowed over the knot in my throat. “It’s nothing to worry about.”

“Did he upset you?”

My heart twisted, and I squeezed my eyes closed. How could I begin to put into words what had happened between us these past few days? I simply nodded, unable to hide the hurt. “We upset each other. We were both wrong. And things have been tense. It’s been difficult to talk lately.”

I stared down, scuffing my toe against the slate tile floor. “Sometimes he’s just completely overwhelming. Maddening, really.”

She laughed softly. “I could have told you that. Try raising him.”

I gave her a weak smile. “I can’t imagine.”

“He’s a difficult young man. He always has been. He’s my son, and I will love him no matter what, but he’s about as stubborn as they come. But somehow I knew from the moment I met you that you were good for him. I pray every day that he’s good for you too. He’s changed, in so many good ways. I’ve never seen him as tender as he is with you, Erica. Something is different. It’s little things, but I see it.”

Tears burned in my eyes. Before I could say anything or find an excuse to leave, she pulled me to her. I hugged her back.

“Don’t give up on him,” she whispered. “If anyone can get through to him and break through those walls, it’s you.”

I pulled back slightly and brushed away the tears that had fallen. “I just wish I didn’t feel so far away from him right now.”

Blake’s voice carried through the apartment, mingled with Heath’s and his father’s. My heart leapt with sudden anticipation. He was here.

“Blake!” Catherine called out in the direction the living room, releasing me from her embrace.

I wiped my eyes again, hoping to hide any signs of my upset. A few seconds later, Blake had joined us. He held his ground a few steps inside the doorway, his hands unmoving in the pockets of his jeans. My heart stopped at how drop-dead gorgeous he could look with so little effort. All mine, I reassured myself, yet that’s not entirely how I felt lately. His green-eyed gaze passed between us, pausing on me. I looked away, wanting to hide my recent vulnerability, but I knew I’d given myself away the second he saw me.