She gives me a look of disapproval and I know I’ve done all wrong. “And you left her alone while she’s sick?”

Shit. I didn’t think of that. “I’m paying Mrs. Porcelli to take care of her.”

Now, she’s really giving me her disapproval. “What kind of message does that send if you leave her when she’s sick, Jack Henry?”

I feel like a cur, although I’m guilty of nothing. Almost. “I didn’t think of that.”

“You boys never do, but it’s not from lack of me trying.” Mum stalks out of the foyer into the kitchen. She’s pissed off and I want her to know her lessons weren’t in vain. She’d be proud of how considerate I am with Laurelyn, but I can’t tell her, so I’m forced to endure her disapproval instead.

I go into the living room where my dad and brother are, hoping to find neutral ground among them. I have no doubt Mum is in the kitchen telling Chloe and Emma what I did. Soon I’ll have the whole adult female household against me. I’ll be lucky if my nieces, Celia and Mila, aren’t included in the pact.

Evan is sitting in the floor with his kids and laughs at me when I plop on the couch. “I heard Mum fussing at you all the way in here. What did you do?”

My brother points to his three-year-old. “Delicate ears, Jack, and little mouths repeat interesting words. You’ll understand what I mean one day.”

Yeah, when hell freezes over. “Mum is mad because I left Laurelyn while she’s sick.”

My dad is shaking his head. This is my mistake, but he’s the one who’ll have to hear about it when I’m gone. “I’m sorry, Dad.”

He sighs. “Jack, you don’t know how much she’s been looking forward to meeting this woman you’re dating. It’s all I’ve heard since Christmas and now all I’m going to hear is her carrying on about you screwing it up.”

“Dad, I can’t do anything about it now.”

“You can fix this by telling your mum you’ll bring her for a visit.”

I can’t lie to my mum again. “You know how things pick up this time of year. I might not be able to get away from the vineyard.”

“Don’t forget how well I know the business, son. You’re in charge and you have very capable staff. You can get away for a couple of days to bring that woman here to meet your mum.”

We hear a slamming cabinet in the living room. “Tell her now, Jack.”

Fuck! I don’t want my family interfering in my personal life. I get off the couch and walk into the enemy’s territory. Two new pairs of rebuking eyes, those of my sister and sister-in-law, cast upon me in support of my mum’s grievance. My sister flashes her signature hand gesture in the shape of an “L” in my direction as she mouths loser.

“Mum, I’m sorry. Will you forgive me if I bring Laurelyn for a visit? Maybe sometime next month, depending on how things are going at Avalon?”

She stops her physical abuse of the poor potatoes. “I will, but do try to bring her sooner if you can.”

She’s smiling because she’s hoodwinked and I’m a lying sack of shit. My false promise is a temporary fix for this situation. I’ll soon have to dupe my mum again, and I’m not looking forward to it.

The conversation at dinner is pleasant, much more so than it would have been had I not made nice with Mum, so I’m glad about that much. My dad is especially interested in hearing about the progress I’m making with my grafts. No one else gives a shit, but they assuage Dad by pretending to listen.

After dinner, I’m sitting in the living room watching Mila hold the coffee table for support and then she bravely removes her hand. She’s trying to decide if she wants to take a step and I think I’m about to witness her valiant attempt to walk. “Bro, I think your kid is about to take her first step.”

Evan’s standing in the doorway and his head is buried in his phone, as usual. “Did you hear me, Evan? Mila looks like she’s about to walk.”

He lifts his head for a quick peek at his daughter and is unimpressed. “She teases us like that all the time—acts likes she’s going to do it, then grabs back onto whatever’s in front of her.”

I don’t know. She seems pretty serious to me, but I see Evan isn’t interested. I wonder if I should call Emma to watch. I’m sure she’ll want to see her daughter’s first steps.

“What exactly have you been doing at Avalon, Jack?” Evan asks.

At dinner, I talked for ten minutes about the grafting and he didn’t listen to a damn thing I said. Now he asks me what I’m doing. What a dick. “I’m not explaining all of it again. You should’ve listened at dinner if you were interested.”

“No, bro. That’s not what I mean.” He’s holding my phone and it clicks in my mind what he’s talking about. He’s going through my pictures of Laurelyn—the nearly naked ones.

I dive off the couch and reach to take my phone from him, but he snatches it from my grasp. “Why the hell are you looking at the pictures on my phone?”

He’s leaning away from me so I can’t reach it, but he continues to scan Laurelyn’s pictures. “We have the same phone. I thought it was mine when I picked it up. I wanted to show Mum some pictures of the girls. Good thing I didn’t call her over to take a gander at these.”

“Give me my phone. Now!” I hiss through gritted teeth.

He twists the phone to see a picture from a different angle. “Damn, Jack, are you screwing her in this picture?”

“No!” I don’t know. Maybe. Depends on which picture he’s talking about.

I jerk it out of his hand and he has this look in his eyes. I think it’s admiration, but I can’t be sure. “You lucky bastard. Emma would never let me take pictures like that of her. Not even before she had the kids. And there’s no way she’d let me take a picture of her getting screwed. How did you talk her into letting you do that?”

I’m pissed off at my brother for invading my privacy—and Laurelyn’s—but I roll with it rather than start a fight. It wouldn’t go over well to beat his ass in front of his wife and kids. “Just lucky, I guess.”

I don’t want to talk about Laurelyn this way with him. She’s my secret—one I don’t want to share—and my family is showing way too much interest in her.

“Are you serious about this girl?”

Has my brother lost his mind? I give him my “are you fucking kidding me?” face while I laugh. “I’ve known her a month. What do you think?”

The little shit is laughing at me. “I think you don’t like it that I saw nudie pictures of your girl.”

That part I can’t deny. It makes me sick that he saw what was supposed to be for my eyes only. “She’s not naked.”

Emma comes into the living room and sees the glares passing between us. “What are you two fighting about?”

“Baby, my big brother was just showing me some pictures of his American girlfriend. Go ahead, Jack. Show Emma your girlfriend.”

The fucking traitor wants to sell me out? I’ll fix his ass so he doesn’t get any naughty all month. I thumb through the pics until I find one portraying us as the doting couple and hold it up for Emma. “Evan told me she’s a hot piece of ass and he’d do her. I can’t believe he’d say that about my girlfriend.”

Evan: score zero. Jack: score thirty. As in the number of days my little bro was going to be cock blocked. Hah! Take that you little fucker!

Emma stares him down. “Em, I didn’t say that.”

“Jack’s thirty years old. Am I supposed to just believe he made that up because he has nothing better to do?”

“Yes, he does shit like that to get me in trouble. He doesn’t have a wife so he finds it entertaining to mess with mine.”

Her eyes shoot daggers in his direction. “I’m not discussing this with you now, Evan.”

That’s right, little bro. While you’re not screwing your wife, you can spend the next month with your hand around your dick thinking about how to not fuck with me.

Emma reaches for my phone to take a better look at Laurelyn. “Jack, she’s beautiful. May I show Margaret?”

It’s probably safer for me to hold onto the phone so I can ensure there are no more peep shows. “I’ll show her when she’s finished in the kitchen.”

Emma isn’t going to let me get away without showing Mum pictures of Laurelyn, so I check the camera roll to see where the sexy ones start. The first twelve are all clear, but I’ll only show her the first ten to be safe.

Mum comes into the living room when she’s finished in the kitchen and Emma doesn’t let it slide. “Margaret, Jack has some pictures of his girlfriend on his phone.”

My mum is ecstatic. “Wait, I need my eyes.” She scurries to the kitchen and returns wearing reading glasses. She takes the phone from my hand and holds it where she can see it better. “Oh, Jack Henry. She’s a lovely girl. She’d have beautiful babies.”

Oh, hell. Here we go.

She thumbs to the second picture and it’s Laurelyn holding her Martin guitar. The third is her playing my piano at Avalon. “And she’s a musician. She’d teach your children to play instruments and sing.”

I can hear the wedding bells in my mum’s head.

The next several pictures are random candids Laurelyn doesn’t know I took. Some smiling, some solemn, but always beautiful.

Mrs. Porcelli kept me company after Lachlan left. She stayed and joined me for dinner, per my request, but now she is gone to her quarters for the evening and I’m alone in the house at night for the first time.