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“You believe he is not coming back?” Her voice is fragile.

Looking her straight in the eyes, I say, “I know he is not. And I don’t want him humiliating you or anyone anymore.”

She puts her head in her hands. I stop swinging.

“Mom?” Holy shit did she pass out?

She sits up on the swing and groans in distress.

“I’ll think about it. Talk to my lawyer. I’m taking him to the cleaners, just warning you.”

I shrug. “Doesn’t affect me one way or the other. I simply want it done.”

She doesn’t respond after that, her face looking lost. I gently rock us, the crickets and ducks making more noise than my mom and me.

“Tess?” Reed’s deep voice penetrates the silence.

“We’re in the gazebo,” I call out.

He walks up the steps, face full of worry. “I’ve been looking for you. My grandfather is waiting for us.” His eyes dart back and forth from my mom to me. “Everything okay?”

“Yes, Reed.” She sighs dramatically. “We’re having a mother-daughter moment. Or at least we were.”

He smirks, leaning over to give her a kiss on the cheek. “Still as entertaining as ever, Claire.” Straightening, he likely steals both our breaths with that smile.

“My grandfather is asking for Tess. We should think about…”

I can’t help but snort back a giggle. He is completely ridiculous. My mom is so self-absorbed she hasn’t even noticed his accent and he is laying it on thick.

“Shall we, my ladies?” He winks at my mom, holding out his arm.

“Reed!” I say.

He lifts an eyebrow. “Yes, my love?”

I jump out of the swing so fast it causes my mother to flop back against the wooden swing with a shriek.

“Sorry, Mom.” I lean over to steady her in the swing. “Have you seen Brance or Jax?”

“Brance is here?” My mom’s face is suddenly alive. Reed chuckles and helps her to her feet, patting her hand as we walk toward the music.

“Ah yes, Claire, the ever-loyal Brance has decided to make an appearance only for you.”

She chatters on happily. I start to wonder if all the booze has permanently messed with her brain. Or is she truly that sad and needy? Minutes ago, she was lost and despondent about my dad. Now she’s flirting and clinging to Reed like he’s her best friend. Turning the corner, I see Brance laughing with Jax and some man I have never seen.

“Look, Mom, there’s Brance.” I point at him, having absolutely no guilt since the traitor deserted me.

She gasps and saunters toward him. Confused, I watch her. “Tell me I will never be like that,” I say, frowning when she flings herself into Brance’s arms.

Reed cups my face. “I can guarantee that will never be you.”

“I worry that it’s like a hereditary thing. I mean, I think her mom was like her. I don’t remember her very well, but my dad said they were carbon copies.”

“Let’s dance, Kitten.” Reed takes my hand in his. Everything about him is strong and warm. He feels like the most magical security cloak. I cling to him as he leads us into the ballroom. It takes at least twenty minutes since we are forced to stop to make idle chitchat, but I don’t care. I’m with him and nothing else matters.

At last, he swings me in his arms. The old wood floor gleams as he swirls me around. I laugh out loud. Could I love him any more?

The orchestra has moved to the large balcony. Their exquisite instruments shine under the moonlight as the musicians play the famous “New York, New York” theme. Reed pulls me close, taking my hand and placing it right on his heart as we sway old-fashioned style. My head relaxes on his shoulder and I let him guide me. There are moments, split seconds in my life that I will never forget. The first moment my eyes found Reed’s at eight. My fifteenth birthday. Eating hot dogs in the rain, and this moment. The grand ballroom is packed with people, but I see only us. This is what Reed was saying about us having to be careful. I don’t know what exact action or word has triggered this strange enlightenment inside me. But it’s awake and I can’t ever let it go.

The instruments fill my senses. Lifting my head, I look at his handsome face.

“I love you. I truly love you.” My voice comes out raspy and fierce.

He grins. “I know.”

I laugh at his arrogance. His full lips brush mine. He twirls me, then pulls me into his warmth.

“You make me happy, Tess Rose Gallagher.”

My eyes sting with tears as he twirls me one more time. On the last note, he dips me. And I smile knowing he won’t let me fall.TESS

Present day – twenty-five years old

Santa Monica, CAI’m sitting in my living room, going over my checklist in my mind. Pudding, my Samoyed is at Logan and Brance’s house. My hair has been trimmed and styled. My makeup is perfect: smoky eyes, light blush, and nude lips along with matching nails. My Bottega Veneta luggage is next to me along with my phone and wine.