“We’ve missed you around here, honey. How’s things?” her mother asked, feigning nonchalance. She hadn’t been around for dinner in a while, mainly because she’d been working at her job and dashing back to the café to be sure all was well there too. With Erin on modified bed rest, she spent more time at her house or with Cope at his place.
But she’d missed her parents, even with all the drama. Things had gotten better, and she thought maybe she could invite Cope to dinner here and there. But first, she had to tell them more about him to make them feel better about the situation.
Her father whipped his head around, his gaze on her narrowing suspiciously. “That so?”
She girded herself against what she knew was her own past coming back to scare her parents even more. “His name is Andrew Copeland. You’ve met Cope at the café a time or two, remember, Mom? He’s tall, dark and ridiculously gorgeous. Co-owns a security consulting business with his brother and Todd Keenan.” Her mother did not understand the two men one woman thing, but she had said if that was Erin’s choice and they all knew the boundaries, it was none of her beeswax. If only some of Ben and Todd’s family members could feel the same.
“How old is he?” Her father had relaxed a little when she’d mentioned Cope owning his own business, but the age thing might be a big deal.
Her father scowled. “He’s like a decade older than you are? What’s he need with a woman so much younger?”
Her mother shook her head. “So exactly how long have you been dating this man?”
“I’ve known him for six years now, but we started dating a little over a month ago. I see him about four times a week when I can. He’s giving me self-defense training, so we do that three times a week.”
Her father’s anger melted a bit. “How do you feel about that?”
She shrugged. “I feel like I have some more control. Like if I was going to be attacked again, I could at least handle it better. Or something. I know it gives me some control over the fear.” It was the most she’d said about the attack and the fear she was left with in a long time.
“Handle it better? You were attacked in your own home by a man who kicked a door in and tried to beat you to death. You fended him off even with the burns. You handled him, Ella. You never quit. I’d say you handled it damned well.”
Her heart kicked in her chest at the way his voice broke at the end. “Do you really see it that way?” She sent him a watery smile.
Her father cocked his head at her. “Baby girl, do you think we’d see it any other way?”
“It’s just that, well, I know you’re disappointed in the choices I make.”
“We’d like you to be safer. And yes, I think you’d be safer here with us. But that doesn’t mean we don’t see you as the fighter you are. Daddy and I didn’t raise quitters.” Her mother’s matter-of-fact delivery made her feel better.
“Don’t you think we get it? We love you, Ella. You came into this world and we guided you up, watched you grow into an amazing woman. You needed to go out and live in a way that you spit in the eye of what happened to you. Every day, even when you’d sweat and try not to cry.” He shook his head at her. “You think we didn’t notice?”
“Just because we knew you had to pull away from us to prove to yourself you could do it, doesn’t mean we weren’t scared for you. Doesn’t mean we couldn’t see the toll on you. You’re my baby. It tore me up every single time I’d watch your hands shake when we got into a crowd. To see the dark circles under your eyes because you worked so hard at school and your job. Of course we wanted you here. Here is safe. We could protect you. So we wanted that. And I still want that. I can’t play cheerleader to some of the stuff you do, because I just can’t. But that doesn’t mean I don’t support you and respect the way you have risen above and found your way back to the Ella you were before he came along.”
She sighed, feeling better than she had in a long time for a host of reasons.
“I’m not going to be able to get back that far.” She shrugged. “That person is part of me, but so is who I was with Bill. No, no, he’s not Voldemort; we can say his name.” She paused, trying not to smile at how they had no freaking idea who Voldemort was. “The bad guy in the Harry Potter books. Anyway. I don’t want to forget it. I won’t be that cheerful, carefree person again, not totally. I can’t. What he did to me. What I allowed myself to become has changed me in ways I can’t get past. So I’ve learned to deal with them. To accept that I will always have a darkness inside, maybe a kernel of fear in my belly that will explode for no reason, hurtling me back years to a place when that fear was normal.” She realized this as she spoke. “I think I’ve finally realized and accepted that triumph. It means I react strongly when it happens because it is not a normal occurrence in my life anymore. I do not live in fear. I have my moments. I am not totally over it, and I don’t know that I can be.”
She sipped her tea, accepting totally the truth of what she’d just said. “Being with Andrew has helped me realize many things. I do have good judgment. I was worried I’d just have to give up on men forever as I had such terrible taste or what have you. But he is good and kind, and he gives me the space to be not quite whole and not quite normal. I don’t feel broken when I’m with him. Because those jagged edges are part of who I am. He sees them and accepts that they’re part of me.” She’d been pulling herself away to protect that part of her she needed to survive and get past the fear. It had been right there, though she’d never seen it. Apparently her mother saw it too.
Ella took her mother’s hands and squeezed. “I feel like if he can accept them, I can too.” As she said it, a knot, the low-lying knot in her gut that Andrew would wise up and leave her, was gone. He told her he loved her, and while she fiercely wanted to believe him, the doubt had remained, knotted with the fear. Until she’d spoken aloud the things she supposed her brain had been mulling over as the frenzy of the last few days with Erin out of the hospital had taken top priority. Once she’d said it aloud, the power of it had freed her from the fear.
“Those of us who love you never felt otherwise.” Her father patted her hand before grabbing a roll.
“Are you serious about him?” her mother asked, steering the conversation back. “What does he do at this security firm?”
“Yes, yes, I’m serious about him. I like him. I trust him. He values the things I do like family and friends. He owns this business with his brother and Todd, and they do all sorts of stuff from setting up security systems to bodyguards and personal security.”
“All right then, when do we get to meet him? All official and everything?” her mother asked.
“Can I invite him to dinner next week? I was thinking it would be a good time if you don’t have any other guests invited.”
“Yes. I’ll make a pot roast. He’s not a vegetarian?”
“Yum. He’ll love it.”
Her mother grinned. “Well, isn’t that nice? I’ll do a coconut cake too.”
“You’re the best mom I’ve ever had.” Coconut cake was her absolute favorite dessert ever, and her mother’s offer to make it meant she was pleased with the news about Ella dating. It felt good to have this rhythm with her parents again. She’d needed this connection. Had missed it desperately.
When she left, it was with a lightness of heart and a certainty she hadn’t had in a long time.
It was there, waiting in his mailbox. The envelope was deep blue this time, the ink metallic silver. A fountain pen? He smiled as he took it into the house.
Inside, she’d tucked three origami cranes. He held one in his palm, looking this way and that. The sharp, precise lines belied the whimsy and artistry.
He called her, knowing she’d be arriving home from work.
“I had no idea you knew origami. You’re a surprise to me sometimes, beautiful Ella.”
Her laughter was his reward. “I made them when I was in an interminable meeting day before yesterday. I hadn’t remembered I knew how until my hands remembered for me.”
“You busy tonight?” He needed to be with her. Loved the way it felt to hear her voice, to smell her on his hands, in his house, loved to walk around a corner and see her there, perched at the center island in his kitchen, sipping tea and reading through a client file.
“I will be for about an hour or so. I’m actually walking to Erin’s front door as we talk. I’m having tea and cookies with your mom, Elise and Erin. But since I don’t want to tax Erin too much, I’m only staying for an hour or less. This was our agreement, and you know how she can be.”
“You’re having tea with my mom?”
She paused and lowered her voice. “Is that a problem?”
“No.” He said it, and it was true. “I wanted you to spend more time with her. Get to know her better now that you’re my girlfriend.” He said it, and that was true too. He liked saying it out loud. “I just didn’t know. Caught me by surprise.”
“All right. How about I cook you dinner? You can come by in say, an hour and a half? You can stay over if you like.”
“I’ll see you then, and how about I bring something by so you can relax?” He knew Thursdays were a hellish day for her. She’d have done the morning shift at the café and then headed to her other job, broke for an hour with her advisor and then back to work.
He heard Ben in the background and smiled at Ella’s response to his brother. Light and teasing.
“I’m sorry. Ben came out to see if everything was all right. I’ll see you in a while then. And thank you.”
He said his good-bye and went off to shower and get ready to meet her at her place.
“That was your brother. He says hello and that you owe him a call.” Ella went inside as she spoke to Ben. She knew she had a goofy grin on; hell, who wouldn’t?
“How are things going between you two?” Ben leaned back against a side table, crossing his arms, and wow, a girl would have to be dead not to notice the way his biceps got all bulgy when he did that. And while she had nothing but love and admiration for what the three of them shared, Ella was not above checking out Todd’s butt or Ben’s biceps. She was human, after all.
“Good.” She blushed.
“That’s what he says. You two are good for each other. Come on through; Erin and my mom are in the living room with Elise.”
She grabbed his hand quickly. “How are you? Can I help with anything?”
He hugged her, kissing the top of her head. “We’re all fine. Erin is going stir crazy, but between you and the new manager, she doesn’t have to worry about the café at all. Everyone visits and calls. She’s writing songs again, so Adrian has been here a lot. The two of them bicker regularly, which keeps her sharp and entertained. Though, poor Adrian, he takes the brunt of her pissy moods when they work together.”
Ella laughed. “They have an old rhythm. It works for them. Plus he’s no pushover. I’m sure he appreciates the time with her anyway. You know where I am if you need me for anything, all right?”
“Yes. Thank you. I do know that. We know that.” His smile was crooked and reminded her a lot of his brother.
When they got to the living room, she dipped to kiss Erin’s cheeks. “Hiya. I brought a pie. My mom wanted me to tell you it’s low-fat and low-sugar. She says the blueberries are good for you.”
“Gimme.” Erin’s face lit up as she took the pie. “Please tell her I said thank you.”
“Hello, sweetheart.” Annalee smiled at her as she came into the room holding a tray with tea on it. Elise followed with another tray of cookies. “You know, I think it’s high time I got to meet your mother, don’t you?”
“Hello, Mrs. Copeland. It’s lovely to see you.” Ella knew she blushed, but it was still weird. She wanted Andrew’s mother to like her and think she was good enough for her son. “I’m sure my mom would love that. I’ll speak with her and get some dates and get back to you on it.”
“Oh that would be just fine. And I’m Annalee, please.”
Rennie bounded into the room and into Ella’s arms for a hug. “You’re here! Ella’s here, Momma!”
“I know, noodle. I told you she’d get here soon.” Elise winked at her daughter and then leaned in to kiss Ella’s cheek.
They sat and had tea. Rennie had some juice as she painted Erin’s toenails a pretty shade of red.
“I think Andrew will have the wainscoting ready in time for Thanksgiving. I truly don’t know where all his endless talent comes from. You must be so proud of how creative he is.”
The others looked to her, surprised. “Wainscoting?”
“In his house. Speaking of that, I know he was hoping on having the night before Thanksgiving dinner there, but since Erin’s going to need to stay closer to home, perhaps we can have a birthday party for him there? We can set Erin up on the chaise so she’s not up and around. It can be quieter than Thanksgiving, but I know he really wants to show all his work off. Now that he’s living there, it’s like he’s gone into overdrive. So much is getting done. It blows me away.”
“He’s living in the house in Ballard? Full-time?”
Ella looked at them and saw they did not know much about what Cope had been doing in his house. At first she’d been horrified, as if she’d told a secret, no matter how unintentionally. But as she sat there, the embarrassment faded into mild agitation that not a single one of these people knew a damned thing about Cope’s inner life.
“None of you knew? Really? He’s been living in the house full-time for weeks now. He’s an artist. Did you know that? He does these amazing sketches. The woodwork he does is beautiful but strong, like he is. He’s put his heart and soul into that house. He’s been doing it for two years.” She didn’t mention poetry. That felt intimate, a sensual secret she carried in her heart, a side of him no one else saw.
Ben sat down heavily. “I’ve picked him up there a few times in the last few weeks when we’ve had some consults first thing. I never went inside. I feel like an asshole.”
“No. Please don’t.” She swallowed hard; this was really far out of her comfort zone. But he was worth it, damn it. “I mentioned it because I thought you all knew. He knows you’re busy and preoccupied with Erin and the baby.” And other stuff, but she wasn’t going to bring that into the conversation. “He’s so talented with his hands.” She blushed furiously, nearly choking on the cookie she’d bitten nervously. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
Annalee patted her knee. “Ella, I do like you. Of all the girls Andrew has been around, not a one has seen that other side of him. Remind me to show you all the scrollwork he did for me in my sewing room. Put in chair railing and all sorts of things. He’s a sweet boy.”
Oh. She smiled at the other woman. The woman who understood that hidden part of Andrew too. Warmth flooded her. It meant more than she could really think about just then. Knowing that this woman appreciated the whole of Andrew Copeland.
“It’s been lonely for him.” Annalee stirred her tea absently. “He’s a very complicated boy. Wrote me poetry when he was growing up. Always a sunny day when you’re with Andrew. I suppose you saw right through that. The two of you are a lot alike. Which cheers me.” She looked back to Ben, who listened to the talk of his brother with avid interest. “I worry, you see. I assumed things all my life, all my life as a wife and mother. I assumed my family was strong enough to weather even the fiercest of storms.”
Annalee sighed, and Ella recognized the sound, the weight of duty, responsibility, pain and fear so very clearly.
“I definitely think a birthday party is a great idea,” Ben said.
“Good. I think it should be fun, though if he hates it, I’m blaming it all on Erin.” Ella grinned at her friend, who rolled her eyes.
“By the way, Ella. Our new part-timer has been working out great. I upped her hours. Which means you can now work more at your other job. Or maybe sleep more.”
Spend time with Andrew.
“Spend time with Cope.” Elise smiled serenely.
“He’s so handsome, Ella.” Rennie sipped her juice. “I never seen no boy looking cuter than he does. He gots that dimple that comes out when he smiles. His hair is so pretty.”
Elise sighed. “Lazy grammar girl. You haven’t seen any boy and he has a dimple. In other words, I totally agree that our Cope is cute.”
“You told Dad that Cope and Ella would make adorable babies. Are you making one now?” Rennie looked to Ella, who was quite sure she was beet red by that point.
“Nope.” She cleared her throat and caught sight of Annalee struggling not to laugh. “Making babies is serious business. I’ve known Andrew for many years now, but we haven’t been dating long enough for us to get that far in our thinking.”
“He looks at you like Dad looks at Mom.” Rennie said it like it was fact, and something inside her yearned for that to be true. “Also, just so you know, Irene is a great name for a baby. If Aunt Erin doesn’t use it on her baby, you and Cope can have it.”
Elise groaned in the background.
She nodded her head seriously at Rennie. “Thank you for that.”
When it was time to leave, Ben walked her to her car. Naturally she’d protested, but he just gave her the exact same look Cope did when she tried to argue with him.
“Don’t fuss. You’re family, Ella. And we take care of each other. You’re Andy’s girlfriend, and above that, you’re our friend.”
“No. Thank you, Ella. I guess I’d gotten so used to the laid-back thing my brother does that I just forget he’s deeper than most people assume. I feel like shit for that. He and I used to hang out a lot more, but since the pregnancy and with Erin being on bed rest, we’ve not been around each other as much as we should. Or I should say I haven’t been as connected to his life as I should. He’s been here for me at every turn. I can’t believe I didn’t know about the house. I mean, I’ve been inside it here and there. But I haven’t seen it since before Erin got pregnant.”
“I’m so out of my depth here, Ben. I don’t know what’s okay to share and not okay to share. I never had this with anyone before. I do think he’d like to hang out with you more often. But he understands your focus is on Erin right now. And that’s where it should be.”
Ben opened her door after he looked to be sure her backseat was clear. “Ella, you’re doing just fine. I hope I haven’t made you feel as if you’re caught in the middle. You genuinely care about Andy, and he obviously cares about you to expose a side of himself he so rarely shows anyone. Also, in case you haven’t noticed it yet, we’re a big, nosy bunch who have horrible boundaries with each other.” He grinned, and she saw so much of Andrew in him it was impossible not to smile back.
“I care about your brother a great deal. He’s very important to me. I want to sing his praises all the time, of course.” She snorted. “But I don’t want him to think I’m going around him.”
“My brother knows Erin and my mother. He knows you can’t stand against either of them. They have witchy ways when it comes to finding stuff out you never meant to reveal. “Anyway, please tell Andy I’ll see him at work tomorrow and that I asked about the house. I mean, I’ll ask about it tomorrow too, it’s stupid that I haven’t before. Just tell him I said hey. I’ll get back with you about the birthday party stuff.”
“Good. Call me if you guys need anything. Even if Erin just needs the company.”
Ben hugged her tight. “I’m so glad Andy finally got up the nerve to ask you out.” He grinned. “Go on now. Be safe and good night.”