Amelia wore her favorite little black dress from her shopping spree with Charlie’s money. It was simple, yet elegant, and she wore her grandma’s pearls with it. She felt like Jackie Kennedy, walking up to the door of the house on Joe’s arm. He had loosened up a little bit since she’d started working for him, even if his smiles were still rare.
The house was gorgeous. Massive on the outside, the inside was tastefully decorated in soft golds and reds, exuding money as if it would start falling from the ceiling at any moment. Furniture had been moved out to make room for hundreds of people who spilled into rooms that were surely formal living and dining areas.
Joe shook the hand of a man and woman at the door greeting guests.
“Joe Beckett!” The woman leaned in to kiss him on both cheeks, a habit affected by the European from generations of habit, or the rich, from decades of self teaching. “Doyle, Joe is the one who acquired that lovely cherub in the outer courtyard for me. And he’s going to get me more pieces. Remember?”
Doyle grunted as he held his hand out, but he was staring at Amelia. Her skin prickled under his gaze, as he reached for her.
“And who is this lovely creature?” She had let him clasp her hand in his, and he was kissing the knuckles, his grip loose and cold. His lips left a glossy patch on her hand, and she resented it. She didn’t like his lips on hers.
“This is my assistant, Amelia. I thought your lovely wife may want to meet the woman who does all the grunt work at my office. Without her, I may not be able to get everything done in a timely manner.”
The wife gushed. “Oh my! Well, help yourselves to anything. And if you need something special to drink, just ask Edward. He’s floating around here somewhere.”
Amelia might. She wondered what sort of non-alcoholic options were available, but wasn’t about to search out some guy named Edward. Surely, they had club soda.
As they made their way into the room, Amelia realized how tense Joe had been. His arm relaxed under her hand and she squeezed, acknowledging his relaxation. She could only wish she felt the same. Her own stomach was twisting uncomfortably.
He leaned down and whispered in her ear. “Just pretend it’s all yours.” Was she tense? Acting weird?
She pasted a smile on her face, and replied, “I can’t. I would never paint the walls this color.” He barked out a laugh, and patted her hand, leading her to the end of the room, where they could watch people.
For what, she had no idea, but if she knew anything about her boss, it was that he was careful. He wasn’t the type to run the world from a stage. He was a behind the curtain kind of guy, like Charlie, pulling levers and drawing strings to manipulate things to his desires.
It was as if she manifested him out of thin air. As soon as she thought it, Charlie came in the door, shaking hands with the couple greeting guests. Doyle must have said something to him, because his head swung toward her immediately, and his eyes locked on hers.
All of the air suddenly evaporated from the room, and no one else existed. The chatter around them dimmed to a muffled buzz, and everything in Amelia’s peripheral vision faded away.
Her stomach’s twisting intensified, as she fell into the abyss of Charlie’s eyes. She’d never seen him look so surprised, and then angry, as his eyes shifted to Joe, next to her, then her hand on his arm.
But that wasn’t all. As Amelia drank him in, an elegant, manicured hand stroked his chest. The hand was connected to a leggy super model, and Amelia’s heart exploded into a million pieces. He had his arm around her waist, like he’d done with Amelia on several occasions.
She knew what the woman was. And she knew if she hadn’t left him, that would be Amelia stroking Charlie’s chest like she owned him. But it still didn’t help.
“You didn’t tell me Charlie would be here,” she whispered out of the side of her mouth to Joe.
“I didn’t know it would matter.”
She suddenly felt sick. She wasn’t ready to talk to him. It was something she knew she had to do, but this wasn’t the right place, and certainly not the right time.
“I’m going to go find a restroom. I’ll be right back.” She muttered before making short work of getting the hell out of the same room.
There was a long hallway off the living area, doors open to showcase more rooms with walls covered in artwork. Finally, she found a closed door next to the kitchen, and she let herself in. It was a butler’s pantry. Something she’d heard about, but never seen. It had a stocked bar, shelves of crackers and snacks, a telephone with buttons that presumably answered every room in the house, and a video screen of the outside entrance. There was a comfortable chair in the corner.
She felt like she’d invaded someone’s inner sanctuary. Most likely Edward.
Did they make him stay in here all the time? A little boring, but the comfortable chair told her he spent a considerably amount of time in here.
Amelia didn’t waste time focusing on that. Opening the small refrigerator, she found an ice tray and grabbed a handful of ice to put on the back of her neck. Leaning over the sink, she took in great lungfulls of air, willing her stomach to settle.
She had to know she’d run across him at some point. He worked with Joe. Or Joe worked with him. Whatever. But they were associates of some sort, and she was a smart girl. They apparently ran in the same circles, and she would see him.
Amelia just hadn’t been expecting it to be tonight. So soon.
She laughed at herself. It wasn’t soon. She was just a chicken shit.
Things would never be right between them again. Baby or no baby. He would go home and fuck his date for the evening, and she would go home to Gram.
She exhaled a breath, finally feeling more composed and straightened herself. This room was bigger than she realized at first, probably as large as her own kitchen, which only made her wonder how big the real kitchen was.
Then someone else came inside the room with her. She spun around to see Doyle standing against the door, a slimy smile on his face.
“I see Mr. Delmonico sweetened the terms of our deal.” His eyes crawled down her body as he leered at her, taking a step toward her. There were so many things she could say, should say, but the look in his eyes stole her words. She was suddenly more scared than she’d ever been in her life.
Charlie had shook Doyle’s hand absently, as his wife spoke to his date about drinks and some guy named Edward. But he couldn’t stop looking at Amelia.
She was gorgeous tonight. She glowed, even if she did look a little green at the sight of him. Her eyes, dark brown pools of the darkest chocolate, her pale skin, her ebony hair. She was fucking exquisite. And she had a death grip on Joe.
As soon as she left the room, Charlie strode over to Joe.
“Why did you bring her here?” This place would taint her. Doyle lived here, propped his feet up here, fucked his wife here. If Doyle were as horrible a person as these guys thought he was, why would he bring someone as innocent and good as Amelia into the lion’s den?
“I needed a date.” Joe’s shrug infuriated him.
“You should have rented one, like I did.” Charlie jerked his chin at Annabelle, who was making her way over to them. She casually twined her arm through Charlie’s, and he shrugged her off. “Where did she go?” He demanded. His intention was to get her out of here, but the way she looked, he’d have a hard time keeping his hands off her.
He could pass Annabelle off to Joe, and then take Amelia home. It was a long enough drive, maybe he could talk to her on the way.
Yeah, he needed to talk to her.
“Said she needed to go to the bathroom. I’m her boss, not her keeper,” Joe said, his shoulders stiffening under his expensive suit. It was a nice suit. Charlie had one just like it at home.
Charlie had done what he needed to do. He’d given Doyle his best fuck off vibe, let him know he knew where he lived by showing up at his wife’s party uninvited, and now he could go.
But he wasn’t leaving without Amelia. The need to see her hadn’t been so strong until he’d seen her.
That didn’t mean he’d managed to get her out of his head. Nope. She was always there, but like a curtain that shrouded everything. She was a filter to his life, once giving it color, but now that she was gone, the color was dampened.
He wanted her back, but knew he didn’t deserve her. At any rate, when he’d told Joe to give her a job, this wasn’t what he’d meant. She was supposed to sign for shit, not attend parties.
He looked at Annabelle. “Change of plans. You’re his date tonight.” Then he went to find Amelia. Looking around the room, there was a hallway that looked like it might have a bathroom. As he walked, he found a closed door next to an open doorway too the kitchen.
When Charlie opened the door, he saw more than he’d anticipated, and the Amelia filter that dampened all the colors suddenly blinded him with a red haze of anger.
Doyle had her bent over some sink with one hand in her hair, while the other hand worked his trouser fastening.
With a growl, he leaped at the man pinning him to the floor. Doyle hadn’t seen him coming and shock filled his face.
“You get off her.” Charlie struggled to not yell, as he wrapped his hands around Doyle’s neck, straddling his body with his legs.
His friends’ carefully laid plans flew out the window as he squeezed, relishing the purple color of Doyle’s face as he tried in vain to get a breath.
Then, a soft had fell to his shoulder. Amelia. Her screams as he beat the shit out of her ex came into his head, her begging him to stop, pleading with him. And he’d ignored her then.
He would kill this man, right here and right now, just for fucking touching her. But what he was about to do to her?
Death was too fucking good.
Yeah, he’d ignored her with Cameron, and he’d lost her then. If he ignored her again, there was no hope for getting her back.
Not that there was, anyway, but it would be gone like ash in the wind if he didn’t get a handle on things.
He stood, legs shaky, as he spat on Doyle. Still furious, his voice held his barely contained rage.
“You ever touch her again, and I will kill you. No choices. No games. You will die.”
Then, he took Amelia’s soft hand in his and led her out of the house. It didn’t take long for Luther to pull the car up, but in that few minutes, Charlie held her in his arms, his mouth on the top of her head, reminding himself of her scent, why he had to let her go.
“Miss Flores, so glad to see you again.” Luther’s voice was loud in the night, and Charlie welcomed the sense of normalcy in his suddenly topsy turvy night. He’d expected to see Doyle, tell him there would be no blackmail, and make his way out with some threats. Joe was supposed to be there to do more of the same, but he’d brought fucking Amelia and things had changed.
Because that’s what she did. She changed everything.
They got in the car, and Amelia immediately crawled over to his side of the back seat, seeking out his comfort. God dammit, that man had almost had his way with her.
He could see why all the other guys hated him so much. Charlie suddenly had a vested interest in Doyle’s downfall.
“I can’t change.” He heard the words in the silence of the car, and felt her body as she shifted to look up at him. But he couldn’t look back at those eyes that saw so much. He continued looking at the back of Luther’s head, his eyes focused on the road completely, but he knew his friend was listening intently. No worries. He wasn’t going to tell her anything Luther didn’t already know.
“My parents died or some shit when I was young, and the loving state system took me in. Foster parents are awful. Some of them mean well, they want to mold children and teach them and make an impact on them. I’ve had eight or nine sets of foster parents, and the first ones were the only ones like that. The rest of them taught me everything I needed to know to be successful in the life I have now. They taught me that there are always ways to make money, there are always people who have less power than you, and there are bonds that tie people together, whether advertently, like Luther here, or inadvertently, like Doyle.” He jerked his chin toward the direction they’d just come from. “And that the past is just that. The past. A memory. You don’t have to hold on to it and make it change you. You can just make it something that happened to you and move on.”
The next words got stuck on his tongue, choking him. He needed to tell her that she was like Luther to him. A piece of his past he clung to like life. She was more than a memory, she was inside him. But he didn’t. Instead, he gripped her to his body, feeling her lush curves melt into him.
She was fucking perfect.
Her finger traced his chin, and her mouth moved against his chest. Luther, who was watching in the rear-view mirror, widened his eyes.
He looked down at her. “What?”
She’d said something, and he’d missed it. Luther had it though, and the knowledge that Luther knew something about this woman that he didn’t peeved him. He needed her to repeat it.
Charlie’s insides plummeted, leaving him breathless. Then they swelled, bigger than a fucking elephant. A humming started up in his ears, and Amelia’s scent invaded him. Suddenly, there was nothing but the two of them, alone, together, in this car. The sounds of the tires over the highway made a rhythmic thumping noise, but he was aware of the two of them only.
His thoughts raced around in his head, but they would only settle on one thing: A picture of Amelia, fat with his child.
Minutes passed in silence, and Charlie struggled to find the right words. He couldn’t. Instead, he found her hand, clutching his sleeve tightly, and twined his fingers with hers, raising it to kiss the knuckles.
She was making him a father.
That should be fucking terrifying. But it wasn’t.
“I was on birth control.” He knew that. He’d seen her take the pills, seen the odd little package on the bathroom countertop in Cayman.
“I know.” This should change everything. She should be taking her in his lap and kissing her, letting her know he would be there for them.
But it didn’t. It couldn’t. He wasn’t father material, not any more than some guy who got a monthly check to care of disadvantaged kids that weren’t his.
But it was Amelia having his child.
“I don’t want anything from you. I just thought you would want to know.” Her voice was quiet in the interior of the car, and he wished Luther would fucking drive faster.
“I know.” He was a broken record, but he didn’t think she was a gold-digger or anything. There was no way Amelia was trying to trap him into fatherhood for the child support. She wasn’t that kind of woman.
When Luther finally pulled up in front of Amelia’s house, Charlie got out with her. Leaning down, he told Luther to grab a hotel for the night, and then he followed Amelia up the steps.
She went inside and did her nightly ritual of checking on Gram, who was sleeping, and telling the nurse goodbye. Then she turned to Charlie.
“You want some water? I don’t really have anything else.” She shrugged, not having questioned his choice to spend the night with her. He shook his head.
She led the way onto the back porch, small, like everything else at this house, and sat in a rocking chair, waving him into the other one. She flipped a switch nearby, and the yard burst into dim lights around. He took in the sight, and sighed.
She had created a flower garden out here. It was tiny, but in the light, he could see little bursts of flowers everywhere.
She had created this beauty. Like she would create a life.
They had created a life.
“It’s a lot to take in, I know. We weren’t together that long, and in that short amount of time, we made a new life. It’s crazy how that works.”
All of the emotion in her voice tugged at something inside him.
“I didn’t get to finish. In the car.” He started, determined to tell her everything about him. “Luther is a piece of my past, one that I can’t shake, but he was all. The only other one that I kept in touch with. The only piece of my past that still matters to me. Until you.”
She was staring at him now. “You have done something to me, Amelia, something I can’t explain. And even before the baby, I knew I would never be able to forget you. I have no idea what sort of a person I can be for you, what sort of father to this baby I can be.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Part of me wants to hate you, because that would be so much easier, but like everything else about you, there is nothing easy about you. I can’t hate you. I can’t put you in my past. I can’t forget you. And I can’t excise you from my life completely. When you told me you loved me, I realized that I love you too.” She inhaled a sharp breath, but didn’t speak. “I never wanted to. Never wanted another person in my life I had to think about, certainly not before I considered myself.” Her heard the formality of his words, and knew it was a defense mechanism. “But loving you did something to me. Changed me a little. Or at least, made me want to change for you. But I can’t. All that with Cameron,” the bastard’s name still tasted sour. “All that made me realize I can’t change, and be what you need me to be.”
He was rejecting her again. He’d been fighting her from the beginning, in his own way. Scaring her with sex, beating her ex, trying to push her away. But the more he talked, the more she realized he wanted her just as badly as she wanted him.
He loved her too. She’d heard those words, and discounted the rest.
“So just to clarify, you’re telling me what I want? What I need?” Her voice rose toward the end, and she swallowed to shush herself. She didn’t want to wake Gram.
He nodded, his eyes never leaving hers. “When I found you tonight, something snapped.”
“But you reigned it in.” She’d seen his posture change as soon as she touched him.
He sighed, more of a groan, but didn’t contradict her. “Okay, what do you want? The ball’s in your court. Tell me what you want and need.”
She shook her head at this stupid man who had all the power and didn’t even realize it.
“I want you, Charlie. You’re not a bad man. You just do things that others wouldn’t, but you do it for a purpose that’s beyond you. I love that. You were protecting me with Cameron, and tonight, you were protecting me from that man. I know that you would do anything to protect your child.”
“So what does that mean?”
“It means I love you. The good and the bad. I want to have this child with you. I want to live with you and raise a family.” She hadn’t thought out the logistics, because she hadn’t allowed herself to think that far ahead, but she knew that she wanted Charlie in her life, however he would be.
“You want a picket fence and a dog? I’m not that guy, Amelia.” His frustration was showing and she held up her hand.
“I didn’t say that. I don’t want a picket fence, although with a baby, I think some redecorating may be in order.”
“What about Gram?”
She shrugged. “I don’t have all the answers. But together, we can come up with them.” She bit her lip and waited for a response from him. He’d taken a long time to talk tonight, spending an eon thinking about what he said before he said it. It had made her crazy in the car, and she kept interrupting his thoughts with things she’d wanted to say. But now that she knew he wanted her too, loved her even, she was getting frustrated herself. “You don’t have to be with me, but I want you in this baby’s life, if you’ll have us. I don’t think you want to toss us to the side, no matter what you tell yourself I need.”