“It’s not like that, Laurie.”

“It is like that, Mom. I’ve been his dirty little secret all these years. At least have the balls to be honest about it.” I don’t know the exact moment the tears start, but I can’t stop them once they begin. The more I try to hold them in, the harder they come. “He’s pretended I didn’t exist my whole life and the only reason he wants me now is because he has no other children left.”

I’m shocked to feel warm arms around me as Lachlan takes the phone from my hand. When did he get back? “I’m sorry. Laurelyn will have to call you back later.”

He hangs up on my mother and silences the ringer before he tosses the phone to the couch. He wraps his arms around me and I melt into him. He doesn’t ask what she’s said to upset me, but I think he has a good idea if he heard any part of our conversation.

This is another one of those moments like the morning I almost left him. He holds me and his embrace speaks without saying a word.

I’m pissed off because Laurelyn’s mother would call and upset her this way, especially on her birthday. This isn’t improving my opinion of her at all. She’s a selfish, immature woman.

I don’t understand her thought process behind her decision to tell Laurelyn this news about her father on her birthday. She knew it would upset her. Even I know that. I want to be a total caveman and slam the thing against the wall so Laurelyn’s mother can never call her on it again, but I can’t.

Maybe I don’t understand because it’s a mother/daughter thing, but something feels off to me about their relationship.

I rub circles on her back. “Do you want to talk about it?”

I feel her head oscillating from side to side, telling me no. I kiss the top of her head and pull her to the couch. I’m still in my suit so I take off my jacket and toss it across the chair. I sit on the couch and pat the cushion between my legs. “Come sit with me.”

She sits and leans against my chest. She’s wearing a black string bikini I’ve never seen and she smells like coconut and sweat from being in the sun. I’m twitching in my pants because she’s so close. I can’t help it. Whoa, settle down, boy … now’s not the right time.

Laurelyn can be difficult to read at times, but she’s hurting and I want to give her the support she deserves. She damn sure doesn’t get it from anyone else in her life. I think simply holding her is what she wants, so that’s what I do. I’m content to sit here with her for as long as she needs me.

We sit together like that for at least a half hour before she stops crying and says anything. She lifts her face to see me over her shoulder. “You came back early.”

“Of course I did. I want to be with the birthday girl on her special day.”

She reaches for my hand and laces her fingers through it. “I don’t think you know how good you are at this.”

I no longer have any idea what we we’re doing. I only know I like it. “I think you’re pretty good at this too. Whatever it is.”

She lifts the hand I used on Swinger Chris and inspects it. “Your hand looks a lot better. The swelling is down.”

“It’s fine. It barely hurts anymore.” She brings it to her lips. “Your kiss will make it all better in no time.”

She puts her finger on the leg of my daks and draws an imaginary infinity symbol. I remember another time when she did it. It was after our second date when I explained everything to her about what I wanted. She does it when she’s nervous.

He. I heard enough of the conversation to know she’s talking about her father, the sperm donor. That’s how I’ve come to think of him after hearing her call him that so many times. “How do you feel about that?”

“Why do you think that?”

“I have a memory from my childhood. It’s very vague, but I’m sure I remember meeting him when I was little. My mom dressed me in a navy sailor dress. It had this huge collar on it and she pulled my hair up in pigtails. I was adorable,” she laughs. “She took me to a place where ducks paddled around in this fountain. They fascinated me, but she wouldn’t let me stay to watch them. She took me to him. I know it was the sperm donor, even if I don’t remember his face. As far as I know, I never saw him again—except on television and in the music department at Walmart.”

“There have been times in my life when I was and I’d have given anything to see him, but it ain’t today. And it won’t be tomorrow.”

It’s late evening and Laurelyn is in the bathroom getting ready to go out for dinner. I’m sitting on the couch and hear the buzzing vibration of her phone, but it stops before I’m able to pick it up. I look at the screen and see a missed call from Blake Phillips. Who the hell is he?

He could be anyone. A relative. A friend. A boyfriend. I want to know, but I don’t dare ask because I’m afraid to know the answer.

Laurelyn comes into the living room and I slide her phone into my pocket. I don’t want her to know I saw the call from this man; tonight isn’t the right time to have this conversation.

She’s caught a lot of sun while we’ve been here and her skin is golden against her cream sundress. I’m happy to see her wearing her birthday gift, and I reach out to touch it where it rests against her neck. “This is perfect on you.”

She smiles as she reaches up to touch it. “It’s beautiful and I love it. Thank you again.”

I take her to an Italian restaurant where I’ve eaten before when in town on business. The food is great and it’s the last place I’d expect to be accosted by a set of sexual deviants. At least I hope. My fist isn’t ready to be used again quite so soon. I told Laurelyn it was fine, but I lied. It still hurts like hell.

“You’re unusually quiet. What’s going on in that head of yours, Mr. Henry?”

I’m thinking of things better left alone. I know she’s only been with one other man. Is it Blake Phillips? Not knowing is taunting me. Is he the one who hurt her? I can’t get him off my mind, so I decide there are other ways of asking about him without asking.

“I was thinking about how a beautiful woman like you must date a lot.”

She smiles and the candlelight illuminates her high cheekbones. “I do. I’ve had a date with an extremely handsome man almost every day for the past six weeks.”

She’s deflecting from the real question. “No, I mean before you came here.”

She shrugs as she looks down at her plate. “Not so much.”

Her head oscillates from side to side. “Not really.”

I don’t think she’s lying to me, but I find it hard to believe someone so desirable has never been in a relationship. “You’ve never had a boyfriend?”

She’s fidgeting in her seat. I’m making her uncomfortable, so there’s plenty she isn’t telling me. “I had something one time, but boyfriend doesn’t feel like the right word for what he was to me.”

“Was it serious?” Was it Blake Phillips?

She’s pushing her food around and I think I’ve upset her. Dammit. “I thought it was at the time, but we had a difference of opinion.”

“Oh.” Does that mean he left her? Does she still want him?

“What’s with all the questions?”

“Nothing. Just making conversation.” She’s being vague, which causes me to be suspicious. My gut tells me there’s much more to this story. She isn’t a woman who has had a single one-sided serious relationship, but I choose to drop it for now, leaving it open as a topic I may want to revisit. Looks like we both have secrets.

She’s sitting at the dining room table with her eyes closed when I bring in a cake with twenty-three flaming candles. “You can open your eyes.”

Her brow wrinkles. “You told me you were twenty-nine.”

“I was when we met.”

“You didn’t tell me,” she whispers and she looks hurt. I see her thumbing through her filed memories from two weeks ago. “It was when you went to your parents’ house, wasn’t it?”

“You mean the same way you told me today was your birthday?”

She laughs. “Right. I don’t guess I can be too upset with you since I did the exact same thing. I would’ve given you a gift if I’d known.”

I sit in the chair beside her and take her hands. “But, you did. Staying with me was the best gift you could’ve given me.”

I don’t think she knows what to say to that, so I make it easy for her. “Make a wish and blow out your candles before we catch the house on fire.”

She smiles and draws a deep breath before she leans forward to extinguish the twenty-three tiny flames.

I want all of her wishes to come true. Not just this one.

After Lachlan finishes his work at the Auckland vineyard, we return to Avalon and fall back into our routines. He works every day while I keep busy at the house, waiting for him to come home.

Wow. We have routines. How domestic is that? And I called Avalon home? That’s a minuscule detail that doesn’t evade my attention.

Harvest time for the vineyards is approaching, so Lachlan is working a lot more since our return from New Zealand. I spend time with Addison when she’s not wrapped up with Zac, but I’m still left with a lot of time to keep myself busy, so I do the only thing I can: I throw myself into writing music.