"Oh…nothing," he says as we begin to stroll down the aisle but adds, "Miss McLachlan."
I've never done this before, so I'm nervous as hell about it. My parents, one of whom I barely know, are going to be here any minute to meet Jack Henry. My boyfriend. The man I love. The one throwing around words like always and future when he talks about us.
I want to throw up.
I'm terrified this isn't going to go well. He already doesn't like either of my parents and I don't blame him. What if he can't keep that dislike to himself and make nice? He's opinionated and outspoken. This could be a total disaster. But even if it is, I'll still love him. This I know without a shadow of a doubt.
I reach for the lasagna in the oven and touch my inner wrist to the top of the rack above as I'm taking it out. "Shit!" My body's reaction causes me to let go of the dish and jerk my arm back. Luckily, the dish of lasagna survives, but I've burned the piss out of my wrist.
I run to the sink and immediately run cold water over it to stop the burning process as Jack Henry streaks into the kitchen. "What happened?"
"Let me take a look." Ah, the doctor is back. How nice to see you, Dr. McLachlan. It's been a while. I pull my wrist from the cold water long enough for him to examine it. "It'll be fine. Where are your zipper bags? I'll make an ice pack for it."
"Cabinet to the right of the stove."
He bags up some ice cubes before wrapping them in a dishtowel and passing it to me. "I'll get the lasagna out. You hold that ice over your burn."
I sit at the table so I can be worthless. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. It's the least I can do after you've slaved in here all afternoon. Do you need me to do anything else?"
I glance at the clock. "It's almost six. Will you put the bread in the oven? I already have it on the pan."
"Anything for you, Miss McLachlan."
"You enjoy that, don't you?"
"What?" He says it so innocently, but he knows what I mean.
"I certainly do. It's good practice."
A knock sounds at the door and I'm instantly annoyed because I want to know what he means. I'm tempted to tell Jake and Jolene to hold up a minute because I need to get to the bottom of this. Of course I don't, but it's a topic I plan to revisit later when we're alone.
I get up to answer the door. "Here we go. Remember to be nice if you want your reward later."
"Yes, ma'am. Your caveman is going to make you proud."
I give him a quick kiss. "That's my sweet boy."
I stand in the living room and wait for the recipients of the World's Worst Parents award to come through the door. This is going to be hard as hell to get through without opening my mouth—I know things about Jolene Prescott's past that the rest of the world doesn't, including Jake Beckett. I only have one reason to look these people in their faces and not tell them they're assholes: Laurelyn.
As I stand there waiting, I realize Laurelyn has never shown me a picture of her mother. Without much thought, I always envisioned an older version of Laurelyn so when I see Jolene Prescott for the first time, she is nothing like I expected. She's a slim, attractive blond but looks nothing like Laurelyn. Her father, on the other hand, is a different story. Laurelyn is the spitting image of her father. I don't think a father and daughter could look more alike. He marked her well, which is ironic, considering he hasn't had anything to do with her for the last twenty-three years.
I can't let myself go there or I'll be telling these people off, so I shove the thought aside as Laurelyn introduces me to her parents for the first time. Polite introductions are made and we go into the dining room where Laurelyn has everything ready for dinner.
"You made lasagna. Jake, it's the best you'll ever have—better than any Italian restaurant. I don't know where she got her ability to cook, because it sure wasn't from me."
I know where she learned. While her mother was high and passed out, she was a little girl learning how to fend for herself.
Laurelyn looks at me and I'd almost think she could read my mind if I didn't know better. She taps the top of my foot with hers and gives me that look, the one that says, Stop it right now. God, how does this woman know me so well—like she can read my every thought just by the expression on my face?
I bite my tongue to prevent it from rattling off what I really think. "Yes, ma'am. She's an excellent cook."
Laurelyn tries her best to keep the conversation light, but Jolene manages to steer it toward the assault. There's nothing Laurelyn can do to stop it. "I want to know what happened with Blake Phillips. Why did he attack you again?"
Again? This wasn't the first time? Well, that's something we'll be discussing later.
"Blake came to see Randy about bringing us back to Nashville to record a single. He was in the room when I showed up for the post-show meeting. To say I was shocked would be the understatement of the century. We argued about recording the song and I left. I had no idea he followed me to my room and when I unlocked the door, he grabbed me from behind and forced me inside."
"What did he do to you, Laurie?"
I haven't heard these details and I don't really want to, but I'm left without a choice because her mum isn't going to be satisfied until she knows it all. "I bit his hand over my mouth so I could scream for help." She points to her face. "He backhanded me here. And then he went nuts when I told him I didn't want him."
"What do you mean he went nuts?"
Laurelyn looks at me and then back to her parents. "He tried to rape me, but Jack Henry stopped him."
Her mother gasps and covers her mouth with her hand. "Oh my God. I didn't know that's what you meant when you said he attacked you."
Her father pounds his fist on the table. "If I'd dealt with him after that stunt he pulled with you outside the studio, this wouldn't have happened."
"It's not your fault. I told you I didn't want you to make a big deal out of it because of his family. I had no idea he was that unstable, but I'm pressing charges and I took out a restraining order. He's not supposed to come near me, but don't worry. Jack Henry will be here with me."
"But for how long?" her mum asks.
I don't appreciate her tone and I suspect Laurelyn sees it on my face. "Three more weeks."
"Where does that leave the two of you if you're going back?" Jolene asks.
We look at one another and it's evident. Neither of us knows, so we don't answer.
The tension is thick. Jake attempts to cut through the discomfort. "What kind of work do you do, Jack?"
It's a safe topic. "I own several vineyards and I produce a variety of vino."
"Sounds like you must do well for yourself."
"I manage." I've never been one to boast about my wealth, except when I thought I could use it as a line for getting Laurelyn into my bed.
"Don't let him fool you with his modesty. His vineyards do quite well."
"Well enough that we don't have to worry about him being here because of the success you've achieved since you saw him last?" Damn! She just puts it out there, doesn't she?
"It's okay. I understand why that might raise suspicion with your parents. I'm not offended in the least." I'm not insulted by her concern. In fact, her worry makes me proud that for once, she might have her daughter's best interests at heart. However, it makes me mad as hell that she questions my love. "Laurelyn's father isn't the only multimillionaire sitting at this table, Miss Prescott. Although I'm very happy for Laurelyn and her success, I don't need one cent of her money."
"I had no idea you were so wealthy."
Of course Laurelyn didn't tell her. She wouldn't. "She didn't tell you because my money means nothing to her."
And that's only one of the many reasons I love her so much.
I survived dinner. Barely. And I kept my promise to Laurelyn, although I've never bit my tongue so many times in my life. I need a fucking tongue transplant after enduring two hours with Jolene Prescott, but I told myself the entire time that it was all for my girl. That was the only way I could get through it without telling that woman what a selfish and shitty mother she's been to a woman who deserves so much more.
She actually had the nerve to tell me that Laurelyn's career was here in the U.S. and not in Australia. She said it like I was a dumb-arse and didn't already realize that. I know America is where country music stars make it big. I don't need her to tell me that, so now I consider her insulting in addition to being selfish. But the icing on the cake was when she told me I'd ruin Laurelyn's life if I robbed her of all the opportunities she had in her future.
None of that is Jolene Prescott's decision to make. Even as badly as I want Laurelyn to choose me, it's not my decision. Only she can decide which path she wants to take in this life. And all I can do is pray that her mother doesn't get in her ear and persuade her that her life isn't with me.
When they're finally out the door, I fall onto the couch and rest my head on the back. I'm looking at the ceiling when Laurelyn sits next to me. "I'm sorry that was…what it was."
"Just so you know…that did not improve my opinion of your mum at all."
"It didn't do much for mine, either. I'm sorry she was such a bitch to you, but there's good news."
"Please, let me in on whatever it is. I need something good in my life after that."
She lowers herself to the floor between my knees and begins removing my shoes. "You have a reward coming for the stellar way you handled yourself tonight," she says as she slides my second shoe off. She removes my socks and flings them over her shoulder. She pops the button on my jeans and she's wearing a wicked grin as she slides the zipper down. "I think you need some room in these pants. They look a little tight."