Authors: Laura Florand
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
To Melinda Utendorf and Maria Jerinic
who said, “Have you ever thought about telling Mack Corey’s story?”
(and started me thinking)
And to Mia
who, when she heard that
was the #1 short on Amazon, got huge eyes and said: “Mommy, you should write more of those! What about
(Next on her list of brainstorming are
, but, alas, no inspiration for those has struck yet.)
May you have twice fifty years of love, strength, and happiness, sweetheart.
Her isolation itched at him. Mack wanted to reach out and break it, like one of those damn sugar sculptures over on the bridal table, break the translucent pieces of that isolation, say,
Hey, did you notice all this world here you’re missing?
He and Anne Winters had been friends—vacation house neighbors, beach walking partners—for close to twenty years, and yet she stood apart at his daughter’s wedding reception, a flute of champagne in one hand, cool and distant as a queen surveying her realm.
Granted, the East Hampton beach house pretty much was her realm for the moment. Anne Winters had laid her stamp over the Corey property, turning Mack’s youngest daughter’s wedding into something so exquisite and protected that it made him want nothing so much as to kiss Anne’s hand.
Thank you for giving Jaime this, me this. This moment when we can believe nothing bad will ever touch her.
And unlike his damn French sons-in-law, he was not a hand-kisser.
He was, however, a man who had never had any qualms about treading on someone else’s kingdom, taking it over, making it his. He’d gotten into such a habit of respecting Anne’s, though. His most trusted ally.
As any man who ruled the world knew, trusted allies were few and far between, and a
trusted ally—well, you didn’t mess with that. You were glad you had it and tried to make sure it trusted you back.
When it was attacked, you defended it, and if your defense failed—
His fist clenched by his side. Yeah, damn God. And damn the whole vicious world, for how helpless all his power had been to protect those he wanted to shield.
But that wasn’t a thought for this wedding. Anne Winters had smoothed that all away, left them a space of perfect flowers, perfect tables, clever and elegant decorations, where everything was entirely beautiful. His new son-in-law’s chef friends—if Dom Richard even had friends, whatever he wanted to call them—had poured into the kitchens as they got restless the day before, resulting in a rivalry to produce an ever-better tribute to the bridal couple that had been pretty damn funny and helped transform everyone’s nerves into good cheer.
Even Mack’s, there for a while.
There were now tables filled with their exotic and fantastical confections and chocolate sculptures on either side of the bride’s head table, which had completely disturbed Anne’s arrangements of classic American-style wedding cakes. Driving her crazy, of course, but she had handled it smoothly.
For them. For Jaime’s sake. For his own sake, really.
He knew it was for their sake, for his, and yet there Anne stood, alone over there by an arch of pale roses, all slim elegance, with that new elf-queen cut of hers, a perfectly coiffed cap of frost blond hair, in that pale sheath dress with its delicate, shimmering hint of twilight blue. She’d only been out of prison three months—just long enough to take over Jaime’s wedding and make sure it came off perfectly—and pleasure still kicked through him so intensely it was erotic to see her unbeaten, unbowed, a queen.
She was as elegant and slim and luminescent as that flute of champagne she held while she watched his oldest daughter Cade give the speech that choked herself and Jaime up and, God, him. He’d thought for a long time there that he had failed at raising two daughters who got along, but apparently that had just been teenagers. They loved each other somewhere deeper and richer than their rivalry.
Shit, Cade had been the first one to reach Jaime when she—
, let’s not think about that now.
Think about this beautiful wedding. Think about my newest damn son-in-law.
He walked over to Anne, and his skin settled on him like it fit again. He’d started noticing that a long time ago—how much those beach walks beside her early in the morning settled his skin. Those six months she’d been in prison, he’d only been able to get his skin to calm down again on visiting days, even though he’d wanted, every single visit, to punch his fists against the acrylic glass that separated them until the damn unbreakable thing shattered.
She looked over at him as he reached her and gave him that friendly, cool, don’t-touch-me smile of hers. Shit, it got to him when she went on auto-pilot like that and included him in that smile.
“It looks beautiful,” he told her, because she liked that kind of thing—courtesy. The entire foundation on which their twenty-year friendship had been constructed was just that—neighborly courtesy.
Her smile was fainter this time, still cool and distant but less a performance, more real. “Thank you. But you should be hugging Cade or something. The photographers will want to catch pictures of the bride’s father in sweet moments with his daughters.”
He shrugged. “Let them catch me talking to my date instead.”
She gave him a wry look at being called his date, but he thought he’d been pretty clear about it, when he said,
You’ve got to be my date for this thing. I can’t do it alone.
That last wedding, Cade’s in France last year, with all Sylvain’s family stealing every atom of attention to them with their extravagant antics and skits on the bridal couple, had been—kind of crappy. To be alone that was. The wedding itself had been fun, really, and having already met his
future French chocolatier son-in-law by then, he was more reconciled to Sylvain. But he’d missed his wife so damn bad. Having her there to see it, the way she would have beamed and gotten all misty-eyed, and…
Having Anne with him was a much better choice than doing that kind of thing alone. The friend who had kept him centered for the past fifteen years. Ever since Julie died, really. Or maybe he should say the past thirteen years, because for those first couple of years after the car accident, he sure as hell hadn’t counted as centered, no matter how many elegant variations on comfort food Anne carried over in their exquisite packaging, in her version of caring.
She was persistent at it, caring. She wasn’t
at it. She couldn’t hug or emote like Julie had. But she kept at it. He still got elaborately packaged handmade hot chocolate mixes, complete with homemade filigree snowflake marshmallows, at Christmas, along with a perfect little card in Anne’s perfect handwriting with some joke about making sure he got real chocolate. Him, the head of the largest chocolate manufacturer in the world, damn it. Just so that when he drank her stuff, he’d have that kick of amused annoyance to give it flavor.
“The last time I got caught on camera talking to you, I ended up in prison for insider trading,” she said dryly.
He grunted, fresh fury rising up. It was only the five hundredth time she had made that damn joke, but she did it on purpose, some old wound she had to poke to make sure she could still treat it as funny. The memory of beating and beating at the justice system that had caught her in its clutches, that wanted to make an example of her no matter what arguments of bribery or blackmail or menace or reason he could marshal. The fucking witch-hunt. All the power in the world, and he couldn’t keep the woman who had kept him sane the past fifteen years out of prison. She couldn’t keep
out of prison. Between them, they’d made empires worth multiple billions, and they still didn’t have enough power.
“You have a repetitive sense of humor,” he complained.
She bit back a grin, an expression that always gave him a shaft of pleasure. She wasn’t, by nature, a grinner. “So you say.”
He pulled her into his side with a loop of his arm, a sudden and confusing pressure of her much smaller body against his, and grinned toward the camera flash that went off. “Don’t sell any shares in Corey Chocolate tomorrow,” he told her as he released her.
“Fuck you,” she said mildly, brushing her clothes into order as she stepped back. Ripples ran through his body from the contact. He was more than a decade past the point where he felt guilty toward Julie about all the ways he could imagine shaking Anne Winters out of her cool composure, but he still felt kind of guilty toward
And yet just right now he wanted to poke that guilt and rile it up. Give it something to feel guilty about. “Aww, you looked cute in orange.” He grinned at her.
. She’d looked like a Lady Godiva who didn’t need the damn hair. She’d walked into that visiting room in those damn orange pajamas every time the same way she’d walked into the courtroom in those high-heeled pumps and those perfect skirts and with that
cool tilt of her chin. The one that had not endeared her to the jury at all. And she’d crossed her legs and thought
straight at them when she realized it, too.
She gave him that same cool,
look right now. But her mouth curved wryly.
Humor. Sometimes it was the only way you could bump fists with someone across a whole dump truck load of shit.
“Pay attention to your daughters,” she told him. “Cade spent a lot of time on this slideshow for her sister.”
All the lights in the gardens dimmed, all at once, to allow the images to show on the white screen set up on the far side of the dance floor and all the flower-decked tables around it.
Mack turned his head as the first image flashed—Jaime as a newborn, so small he used to hold her in one hand, oh fuck. And then all grinning and chubby-cheeked and freckled and smeared with chocolate at one of their production facilities. There was one with Julie, helping her learn how to walk, Jaime’s little one-year-old round face just as proud as punch in herself, and Julie beaming, her red head bent to Jaime’s baby-pale red-gold hair. His throat clogged.
There were both his little girls, peeking out of some giant resin dinosaur egg in a museum, when they were, what, two and five? So freaking innocent, so sweet. The way they used to pile up on him in the morning. He used to get up extra early, try to sneak in some work while Julie and the girls were sleeping, so he could take his time over breakfast with them all, so he could get home a little early and not work again until after they went to bed. It had succeeded—poorly, at that age. They seemed to have a radar for when he woke up, and no matter how early it was, five minutes later, there would be some small, sleep-mussed head poking in through his office door. Then the run, run across the still-dark office that kind of scared them, even though he had learned to keep nightlights along the hall, and the little body burying itself in his arms, snuggling up. Falling back to sleep
at that angle where he couldn’t actually use his arms and get any work done, but—he’d liked it too much to give it up.
More photos with Julie. There she was fixing Jaime’s hair. Holding the hands of both girls in their extra-fancy sparkly dresses as they tried to wear their mother’s heels. Julie’s old charm bracelet showed on her wrist, the one with the precious stones for him and for each of their girls, the one she’d worn right up until the day she died. Mack had given it to Jaime for her “something old”.
Cade had tried to bring in, through photos, all those things Julie would have liked to do with her daughter at her wedding—fix hair, help with her pretty dress, smile proudly and tenderly as Jaime set off on her next phase in life.
Photos with him. Lots with him, lifting them up in the air, twirling them around, playing with them in the waves here. Christ, had he really looked that young when they were babies? He was just a kid himself, and already thinking he could run the world? Never lacked for nerve, had he?
A beautiful family photo, one of the many that decorated their house, he and Julie each with an arm around each other, the other arm cradling the girls into the shelter of their happy family.
A newspaper headline from that time Jaime had gotten arrested at a G8 summit, a freckle-faced nineteen-year-old. God almighty, that girl had been a handful. Some photos of her with a bouncy red-gold ponytail on cocoa farms, a delicate photographic balancing act on Cade’s part, to honor that phase of her life without letting it lead them too close to another transformative event in Jaime’s life, one that Mack still couldn’t think about without his breath shortening, his body caving, as if fists were pounding his lungs. Without his own fists clenching and punching until they broke things.
He glanced at Dom, the big, rough, black-haired Parisian chocolatier Jaime had chosen for herself. Not exactly his dream son-in-law, but Mack had to give him credit—the man would take care of her. He would fight for her. Fight
for her, the bastard. Not that many men willing to fight
Dom would do his damn best by her.