After This Night (Seductive Nights #2)(15)

by Lauren Blakely

“I’ll say,” Chris chimed in, as he draped an arm around his wife and planted a sweet kiss on her cheek, earning a collective aww from the guests.

“But here we are, despite the stubbornness from my big sis, because she realized what a good thing she had in front of her, and that giving up her stubborn ways was worth it.” She locked eyes with Clay once more, and the lightness of the speech drained away, replaced instead by the deeper possibility of whether she could give up the things she held too tightly. She’d never truly considered it until that moment, but was there a chance she was being stubborn, too, by clutching her secrets and her shame in her hands? She’d always considered her troubles to be completely solo problems, but they were growing far less solitary given Charlie’s encroachment on her personal territory lately, from his heated asides about McKenna to sending his heavy with the runny nose to her salon that morning.

But she didn’t want to think about Skunk or any of them right now. She wouldn’t let them mar this day.

With a quick swallow, she soldiered on. “And, as anyone can see, they are perfect for each other, from their shared love of karaoke, to their steadfast belief that California is the only suitable place to live, to their affection for games, from Candyland all the way to Halo and Qbert. Because ultimately, isn’t that part and parcel of what makes a love last through the years? Common interests and passion, whether it’s for adventure,” she said, and now she was talking only to the man across the room, “or a good crime flick. Or even just the same, how shall we say, preferences,” she said, taking a beat to enjoy the way he fought back a naughty grin. “I like to think those little things are also big things. And Chris and McKenna have all of that. So, here’s to the bride and groom.” She held up her champagne glass.

As Chris’s brother began his toast seconds later, she threaded her way through the guests and clinked glasses with Clay. “Cheers.”

“That was a beautiful speech,” he said, his deep brown eyes searching hers.

“I meant every word.”

“Every word?” He raised an eyebrow as he took a drink.

“Every single one.”

* * *

After the first dance, McKenna tugged her friends to the floor when Jill belted out a karaoke version of Matchbox Twenty’s “Overjoyed.” Julia felt the soprano’s voice literally vibrate through the reception hall, her Broadway belt glittering with energy and strength as she wowed the crowd. “She’s totally going to win a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical, isn’t she?” Julia said to Clay, with chills on her arms as a result of Jill’s talent.

“Honestly, I don’t see how she can’t. She brings down the house every single night in Crash the Moon.”

Once Jill stepped off the stage, the music shifted back to the sound system and Billie Holiday’s jazzy voice warbled through the speakers. “My sister loves the old standards. Sinatra, Holiday, the King,” she said by way of explanation.

“As do I,” he said, taking her hand and leading her to the dance floor as “All or Nothing At All” piped overhead.

Clay’s hands found their way to her hips, settling in comfortably as she roped her arms around his neck, her fingertips brushing against his soft, thick hair. The song played as other couples danced, and they swayed past Jill and Davis, and Chris and McKenna. Julia kept her gaze on Clay, loving the intensity in his eyes. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said, because it felt so much better to be patently honest with him than to deny what she felt. She’d flopped back and forth between shooing her feelings out the door and acting upon them. She didn’t want the back and forth anymore.

“So am I.”

They twirled in lazy circles, as the words and music filled the room.

“All or nothing at all. Half a love never appealed to me. If your heart never could yield to me then I’d rather have nothing at all.”

The words pulsed around Julia like living, breathing creatures, then slipped into all the crevices of her hardened heart. They reminded her that halfway was the worst way. She’d tried so desperately to pack herself in ice, to feel nothing at all those nights at Charlie’s games, but instead she’d felt everything. She felt the shame of Dillon’s betrayal, the anger at being Charlie’s pawn, and the cruel distance she had kept with the man she was falling for. She’d always thought she was protecting her family and friends by keeping her own secrets, but the events of this morning outside the salon were a cold reminder that blindfolding them to her problems might not work forever. Whether she liked it or not, she might very well need help. Clay had offered to listen, to sort through things. She knew he couldn’t snap a finger and make her debt magically disappear, but maybe he could at least be there for her as she raced to meet Charlie’s moving target of a deadline.

“Clay,” she began nervously, and already she could hear the potholes in her own voice. She’d have an easier time speaking with marbles in her mouth than saying this.

“Yes?” he asked, tugging her closer, warming her skin with his body.

All or nothing at all. If it’s love there is no in-between.

Billie Holiday whispered in her ear, urging her on, reminding her to be strong. “You know when you asked me that night at my apartment what was going on?”

“Yes,” he said, like a gentle invitation for her to keep speaking. She could do this. She could tell him. After all, he’d flown all the way across the country. He’d opened his heart to her, taking chances left and right that she’d barely earned. He wanted her honesty more than anything else, and though she might scare him all the way back to New York when she told him, she also knew he wasn’t a man who trafficked in fear. This man could take on anyone.

“I’m ready to tell you,” she said, the words tumbling on top of each other, jostling to break free.

“Tell me,” he said, gripping her h*ps harder as his eyes widened. He stopped dancing, grasped her hand, and guided her outside of the reception hall.

Once outside, she shivered. The evening had settled in, bringing with it the California chill from the bay. He took off his suit jacket, and slipped it over her shoulders. The gesture emboldened her.

“You remember that guy who came up to me outside my apartment?” Her stomach nosedived as she began. “When I lied about who you were?”