“So does that mean you’re rich?”
“Yes. I told you I was when we met.”
“You’ve told me a lot of things but I’ve assumed most all of it lies.”
“A lot of it has been, but it’s all part of our game, baby.”
“And now our game has changed.”
Yes. Indeed, it has. In more than one way.
I’m rubbing my hand over the satin gown covering Laurelyn’s belly and I feel the metal piercing through her navel. I really want to push her gown up and kiss her there, but I don’t. She’s not comfortable being intimate in my parents’ house and has already told me no once tonight. I don’t want an encore or a reminder of our earlier quarrel.
Since we aren’t pretending anymore, I might as well warn her about Margaret McLachlan and what she’s up to. “My mum wants you here so she can work on you.”
“She wants me to have a wife, and you’re the closest thing she’s seen. Ever.”
“Oh.” I’m not sure if her surprise is at Mum’s intentions or because I bring it up. “I guess she didn’t get the memo about our agreement.”
“She’d shit if she knew what I’d been up to.”
“But didn’t you tell her I was leaving permanently next month?”
Permanently. What a shitty word. I hate it as much as no. “She knows but doesn’t care. She’s determined.”
“Maybe we should roll with it. You know, make her happy.”
Hmm. It isn’t a terrible idea and getting her to back off for a while would be nice. “I’ll do it if you’re sure you’re up for it.”
“Puh-lease, like you and I don’t know how to pretend.”
Of course, I wake before Miss Sleeping Beauty. She’s so peaceful, I want to let her sleep longer. Besides, she’ll need her rest for what’s ahead of her today. Margaret McLachlan can be exhausting.
I’m wearing sleep pants only, so I put on a T-shirt before going downstairs. I’m the first one up, as always. I’m even awake before baby Mila.
I make a cup of coffee, but opt to wait on breakfast until Chloe’s up. I’m certain she’ll have some new dish she wants to try out on us.
I fetch the newspaper and sit at the bar. I start at the back—because it’s my routine—and resist the temptation to thumb through for the photo I’m certain will be there. I turn the page a second time and there it is, just as I knew it would be. We made the news, baby.
We’re in the “My Sydney” section. Laurelyn is beautiful in the photo, even if it’s only newspaper quality. I scan the small caption beneath and laugh. “Multimillionaire bachelor Jack McLachlan at the Sydney Opera House with mystery woman.”
Mystery woman. She’s definitely that. I really can’t believe anyone cares about this kind of shit. Except Audrey. She thinks she successfully sent Laurelyn on her way, so she’s going to flip out if she sees this. It might be wise to have Jim tail her for a few days so I know her whereabouts. I’ll need to call him later today.
I hear someone come into the kitchen and I know it’s Mum without looking. She’s the only other early riser in the family. “Good morning.”
She waits for her cup of coffee to finish brewing. “Have a good night?”
Damn, I think the old girl is asking if I had a naughty with Laurelyn last night? I lower the newspaper and glance at her over the top. “I slept fine.”
This is too bloody much. “She’s still sleeping.”
She’s not done, not even close. “I thought I heard something come from your bedroom last night—like maybe you raising your voice to Laurelyn.” She’s giving me that look, the same one she gave me the night of my birthday party when she thought I left a sick Laurelyn home alone. It tells me I better not have screwed this up with her.
I’m in a shitload of trouble. I feel like a toddler about to be disciplined. I lift the paper up so I don’t have to look at her and return to reading. “Don’t worry. We’re fine.”
That’s all I give her because that’s all she needs to know.
“Jack Henry, you shouldn’t have shouted at that sweet girl like that. I didn’t teach you to disrespect women like that.”
I couldn’t argue with her because she was right. I hate that I yelled at Laurelyn. “I knew it was wrong the minute it came out of my mouth. I told her how sorry I was and she forgave me. We’re fine, so stop worrying.”
“Women hold grudges. She might have told you that you were forgiven last night, but now she’s had time to think on it. You’ll be lucky if she speaks to you today.”
I hope Laurelyn gets up soon, but judging on the time, it will be another couple of hours. “She doesn’t play games like other women. If she says she forgives me, then I’m confident she does. You’ll see when she gets up.”
Luck is on my side. Laurelyn gets up early. I’m still reading the paper when she comes into the kitchen. She walks up behind me and puts her hands on my shoulders. I peer at her over my shoulder. “Good morning, love.” Is she going to think the endearment is too much?
She leans around and kisses the side of my face. “Good morning, darling.” No, she’s good with it. My mum is all detective-eyed, analyzing Laurelyn’s interaction with me following the lovers’ spat.
She sits on the stool next to me at the bar. “I wasn’t expecting you up so early.”
“I couldn’t sleep after I woke and you weren’t there.” Oh, she’s laying it on thick for dear ol’ Mum.
I turn to the social page to show Laurelyn our picture since I don’t have to keep her in the dark anymore. “Look, we made the news. You’re a mystery woman.”
She leans over my shoulder for a better view. “Hmm, at least it’s a good picture and I’m not making some kind of goofy face.” She bumps my shoulder with hers. “Which was a real possibility since I wasn’t expecting a total stranger to shove a camera in my face.”
I sense Mum’s scrutiny. “This is new for Laurelyn. We don’t attract this kind of attention in Wagga Wagga.”
“Yes, I’m sure you’ve enjoyed being innominate in a small town. I know how you love your privacy.” She has no idea. Laurelyn’s eyes meet mine and we smile at our private joke.
Dad does well, so he is discharged home and we spend the next two days with my family. Laurelyn and I play the part of being in love for my mum, at times making a game of it to see who can be more convincing. It’s fun and I’m surprised by how natural it comes for me. Sometimes it’s unintentional and I wonder if it comes as easy for her.
It’s her second day with my family and she has already found a comfortable place among them. She and Chloe are almost the same age and have a lot in common, but she connects most with Emma. I think it’s because she plays with the girls and they have taken a special liking to her, which is unusual. Mila doesn’t like anyone. Especially me.
She’s on the floor with the girls and I see the way my mum watches her. Her natural ease with my brother’s children doesn’t escape her attention.
My mum is sitting next to me on the couch. “I don’t know how she won Mila over. That kid doesn’t like anyone.” I think I could be a little jealous. “She likes Laurelyn better than me and I’m her uncle.”
“Laurelyn’s mother material. Mila senses that about her.” We watch them play a few more minutes and Mum leans over to whisper in my ear. “If you don’t do something about it, she’s going to make a wonderful mother for some other man’s children.”
I’ve watched the way my family has interacted with her for two days and realize my mistake. I shouldn’t have brought her here. They’re all falling in love with her.
We’re driving back to Avalon and I’m thinking how I’ve enjoyed the last three days with Jack Henry’s family. We’ve spent the last seventy-two hours pretending to be head over heels in love. It was so easy to play the part, I have to ask myself if I was pretending at all.
I’m curious to see if we revert back to our former selves now that we’re away from his family or if we’ll continue our romantic façade. I’m too afraid to ask because the answer—either one—scares me.
He reaches for my hand and rubs his thumb across the top of my hand. “You’re quiet.”
I can’t tell him what I’m thinking. He would freak out. I think. “You have a great family. I’m glad I got to meet them.”
“They think you’re pretty great too. Especially Mum. She was in heaven seeing us together.” He squeezes my hand. “Thank you for helping me make her happy.”
“My pleasure.” And it was my absolute pleasure.
I go to sleep in the car and it’s late when we get to the vineyard. Mrs. Porcelli is already gone for the evening, but we find she has left us a welcome-home dinner on the stove. I’ve never minded cooking or cleaning, but I must admit that walking in to find a home-cooked meal after a five-hour drive is a definite perk of living with Jack Henry.
He brings our bags in from the car and drops them in the laundry room before he joins me in the kitchen. I lift the top of the casserole dish to see what we have. Hmm, maybe it’s some kind of chicken casserole? “Smells good. Are you ready for dinner now?”
I feel him behind me and his hands are creeping under my cotton dress. “I’m ready for dessert now.”
Mmm … I love me some him.
He goes straight for the kill, sliding his hand down the front of my panties. “Jack Henry, we just walked through the door.” I check the clock on the stove. It’s only a quarter past five. What if Mrs. Porcelli is still hanging around?