Played by Him (New Pleasures Book 2)
I was twelve years old the last time I’d had a big Thanksgiving. Dad’s accident had happened at the end of summer, and he hadn’t been ready for guests by the time the holidays rolled around. It’d been a good thing we hadn’t tried since he’d gotten angry in the middle of the meal and started throwing things. At least the memory of the last real Thanksgiving we’d had together was untarnished.
Neither Anton nor I had ever been up to making a Thanksgiving meal, emotionally or in practicality. We’d made our own tradition where we’d gone to this little diner a couple blocks from the loft. It’d been owned by a family of Jehovah Witnesses, so they kept it open over the holidays for people like them who didn’t celebrate holidays, and people like my uncle and me who didn’t have anywhere else to go.
After Anton’s death, I hadn’t wanted to celebrate anything. Moving here, I’d hoped I’d be able to find some quiet sort of acceptance to having holidays myself, find traditions that didn’t hurt as much as the ones I’d left behind.
I’d never imagined that I’d be spending Thanksgiving in a mansion with my boyfriend, my new friend, her husband, kids, and the rest of their family. It didn’t seem possible.
Now, if I could only get the butterflies in my stomach to believe that this was a good thing, I’d be set.
“You look like you’re going to pass out,” Jalen said as we walked up to the front door. “That, or throw up.”
“I’m okay.” I wasn’t sure if I was trying to convince him or myself.
He chuckled. “I might believe you if you weren’t cutting off the blood supply in my arm.”
I flushed as I loosened my grip on his arm. “Sorry.”
He shook his head and patted my hand. “Don’t worry. If we were going to meet my parents, I’d say you had every right to be nervous, but you know the Archers. They’re good people.”
I gave him what I hoped was a reassured smile. It wasn’t Jenna or Rylan who had me worried. It was Rylan’s sister and his best friend. I hoped they both would understand that I wasn’t trying to force my way into their family. More than that, it was the kids who had me worried. I’d never spent much time around kids, and this seemed like a crash course kind of thing that never ended well.
Then again, I supposed it was better that Rylan and Jenna learn now rather than later that they should never ask me to babysit.
“Relax,” Jalen whispered as he knocked on the door.
“I’ll get right on that,” I muttered.
The door opened before I could say anything else. A tall, slender young woman with short, dark hair beamed up at us. “Hi! You must be Rona and Jalen. I’m Suzette. Come on in.”
“We brought wine,” Jalen said as he followed me inside.
“That makes you my favorite new person.” Suzette winked at him, then at me. “Don’t worry, I know he’s taken. I just might want to steal him to take my brother’s place when Ry’s being an ass. Like he’s being now.”
“Language, Suz,” Jenna called from the kitchen.
“It’s not like Diana and I haven’t heard the word ass before.” Jeremiah was leaning against the fridge with a sullen expression on his face.
“Language,” Rylan said firmly. “Just because you know it doesn’t mean you have to use it.”
Jeremiah sighed and rolled his eyes, but even I could see how much he admired Rylan. I could only imagine how much work my friends had put into building trust with their children. As much as I knew Jenna’s past had influenced her decision to keep working with Agent Matthews, I knew that she saw her work from a mother’s perspective now. She was fighting to protect her children and other children…and she was fighting to hurt the people who’d hurt her kids, and other people’s kids.
I pushed aside the maudlin thoughts and smiled. This wasn’t work time. This was family time, and that was something I hadn’t had in so very long.
“Aunt Suzette!” Diana barreled into the brunette’s legs. “I need you to fix my hair. Uncle Zeke made a mess of it.”
Suzette laughed as she touched the little girl’s lop-sided puffballs of hair. “Yes, he did.”
As we entered the kitchen, a tall, handsome man sauntered in from the other side. “I warned her that I’m all thumbs when it comes to hair.” He smiled at us and reached around Jenna to grab a carrot off a tray. “She should’ve waited for Alan to get here.”
“What time does his parents’ flight leave?” Rylan asked.
“Five forty-five,” Zeke said. “He texted me a couple minutes ago to say he’s on his way.”
“Zeke, this is Rona Quick and Jalen Larsen.” Jenna smacked Zeke’s hand when he tried to steal another carrot. “Don’t spoil your appetite.”
“You know that will never happen,” Rylan said.
“Good point,” Jenna said. “Zeke, why don’t you and Jeremiah finish setting the table?”
Before Jeremiah could complain, Zeke nudged his shoulder and gestured to the vegetable tray. To my surprise, the kid picked it up and followed Zeke into the dining room.
“Zeke and Rylan earned his trust pretty quickly,” Jenna said quietly. “When it comes to men, he goes by first impressions. He tends to be more skeptical of women, always watching for them to turn on him. Diana wants to trust, but she’s still waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
I nodded, understanding what she wasn’t saying. I’d never do anything to intentionally cause distrust, but I needed to be extra careful around the kids. Even if we never became close, they needed to see I was trustworthy.
At that moment, I realized what I wanted to do with Burkart Investigations. Tomorrow, I’d take a closer look at the books to see where things stood financially and if my idea was even feasible. I needed to hire a receptionist who could keep the office open while I was in the field, and then I needed to find an investigator who’d be able to take on the everyday cases of infidelity and lost pets, that sort of thing.
Once I didn’t have to deal with the majority of the paperwork and simple cases, I’d be able to focus most of my time on criminals. I’d work the cases Jenna hired me for, of course, but I’d find other scumbags who needed to be put away. Anonymous tips worked as long as they stayed anonymous. I’d look into pro bono cases too. Ones like Theo and Meka who didn’t have someone like Jalen to pay for an investigator.
I’d catch the cases that fell through the cracks.
“You okay?” Jalen asked, his question interrupting my thought process.
I nodded and smiled. “I’m good. It’s been a while since I’ve been around this many people on a holiday. Takes some getting used to.”
He reached down and squeezed my hand. “If it gets to be too much, just say the word, and we’ll go. You know Jenna and Rylan will understand.”
I appreciated the gesture, but I wasn’t going to take him up on his offer. As conflicted as my emotions were, I genuinely wanted to be there. My relationship with Adare had softened me up, and the closer I grew to Jalen and Jenna, and even Rylan, the more I wanted to be a part of a family.
I’d missed this more than I’d let myself acknowledge.
I moved over to the stove where Rylan was mixing a stick of butter into a bowl of mashed potatoes. “How can I help?”