She smirked. “Dating you means dealing with all your past relationships.”

Lila Kate sighed. “I was trying to be more delicate.”

That made me laugh. “Shelby never considered me a relationship either. I promise.”

With a small lift of her shoulder she said, “I don’t imagine any girl did.”

Never had I wished I could go back and change shit. Until now. Lila Kate’s opinion of me wasn’t great. And what sucked most was it wasn’t even accurate. I was much worse than she thought.

“I’ll get a table and order a drink while you meet with your dad,” she told me as we neared the restaurant entrance.

“Okay. I won’t be long. I’ll let him know you’re waiting on me. That should make his fucking year.”

“Are you ready to tell your parents about this? Don’t you think we should wait until you’re sure?” The doubt in her voice and her words stung. Even now after the dramatic scene I’d made this morning, she was still being cautious. I deserved it.

I pulled her hand up to my chest and pressed a kiss to her fingers. “I’m not sure where I wasn’t clear this morning. But I am positive. There is no question in my mind. Is there in yours?” Because if she still didn’t know if she wanted to do this I might have to resort to drastic measures. Like kidnaping her and taking her off to a cabin in the mountains and making sure she was as addicted to me as I was her.

I sighed inwardly. The fact I’d just thought something like that meant I was sunk too deep.

“I’ve been sure since I was fourteen,” she replied.

I had started pushing her away even back then. When I knew we had something, but I’d hurt her in the end. So I hurt her in the beginning. I had a lot of years to make up for now.

I grabbed the back of her head and kissed her until she was clinging to me and our chests were rising and falling rapidly. “I love you,” I reminded her. Then I pressed one more kiss to her lips before turning toward my father’s office.

I hadn’t been this damn happy about being here, breathing air, and eating at this place in a long damn time. Since childhood at least.

I glanced back to make sure Lila Kate had gone into the dining room before knocking n my dad’s door.

For once I wasn’t dreading it. I opened the door, and Dad stood there leaning against the front of his desk with his arms crossed over his chest. A frown on his face and his eyes glaring in my direction.

“Explain to me what I just saw out there. Go slowly. Be thorough.”

“I’m not sure what you’re referring to,” was my lame response.

“Cruz, I’m not in the fucking mood.”

This was going to have to be dealt with sooner or later. I figured sooner would at least be getting it out of the way. “I’m in love with Lila Kate.”

Dad’s glare faded, and his eyebrows drew together as he studied me. “In love? Like only one woman in love?”

Jesus, he had a low opinion of me. “Is there another love? Because I always believed that if you were in love, it was with only one woman. Unless you’re in love with women in general.”

“You’re a smartass,” he said scowling again. “When did you decide you were in love with Lila Kate?”

Why did this matter? I wasn’t here to defend myself. I would have to do that with Grant. I shouldn’t have to do it with my father. “Does it matter?”

I gave me one sharp nod and continued to glare at me.

“When I thought I was going to lose her. That’s when.”

“Lose her? When did you have her?”

“I didn’t have her, but it was the idea that she could love someone else. Forget me. Move on. It was a slap in the face. One I needed.”

Dad stood up straight and groaned. “That’s not the answer I wanted to hear. You can’t just think you love her in order to keep her loving you. Then get bored and break her heart. That’s cruel son. Selfish. I taught you better than this.”

“I’ve loved her or a long time. Okay. I knew if I let myself I’d feel something special. But Lila Kate is . . . she’s important. I couldn’t hurt her. I was protecting her.”

I watched as he rubbed his forehead as if frustrated. This wasn’t his business. We weren’t kids who were just caught fucking in the backseat. “You wanted to meet with me about the Kipling franchise,” I reminded him.

He started to say something else and stopped. “Fine. You are both adults. If you want to do this, I can’t stop you. But Lila Kate isn’t like the women you typically spend time with. She’s fragile, sweet, unsure . . . I don’t want you to hurt her.”

I looked directly at my dad. “Nothing has ever been this serious in my life. I’ll kill anyone who hurts her.”

Dad sat there a moment then raised one of his eyebrows. “Well, son, I guess I lost that bet.”

He walked over to his side of the desk. “I told your mother you’d be a bachelor until you were at least forty. She bet me you’d fall in love before the year was over. She said she just had a feeling.”

Annoyed at both my parents, I stood up. “I can’t believe y’all were betting on that. I hope she just emptied your fucking pockets.”

Dad chuckled. “I won’t tell you what the wager was . . . you couldn’t handle it.”

THE OOLONG TEA I’d ordered was getting cold as I waited on Cruz. I’d taken a few sips but my thoughts were elsewhere, and I’d forgotten about it while I pondered this situation. I hadn’t been kidding when I had said that I would be dealing with a lot of “Shelbys.” It was just the way things were.

The problem was I immediately started comparing myself to her and finding my faults. She was taller, leggy, her hair was blonde and curly. She was confident. I couldn’t do this every time we came in contact with a female Cruz had slept with. That would eventually make me miserable. I had to build some confidence. I had to think about my good qualities and remember that Cruz had said he loved me.

I was almost positive he’d never said that to another woman. It wasn’t a Cruz-type behavior to proclaim love.

“Sorry it took so long,” Cruz’s voice startled me, causing me to jump a little. He grinned, obviously amused. As he sat down, he added, “You were in deep thought.”

That wiped out his smile. “About?”

He was as unsure as I was. That helped a little bit. I wasn’t the only one feeling vulnerable. “About everything. Nothing specific.”

He leaned forward and looked at me with a serious and intense expression. “Please don’t question this or me. Give me time. I can be all those things you think I can’t.”

I slid my hand over the table and covered his. “I know. That’s not what I was thinking about.”

He seemed relieved and his thumb wrapped around my finger. “Good.”

“Hello Lila Kate, Cruz,” the interruption was from Kelsey Torrent, the head of marketing for the Kerrington Club.

Cruz’s hand slipped away from mine abruptly, and he sat up straight in his chair. No one else would notice he’d done it so smoothly. But Kelsey’s interruption had startled him. She’d been working for the club for five years now. I didn’t know her that well.