THREE DAYS LATER
“Baby, you need to calm down.” Cassandra pats my chest, and I trap her hand against my body. “They’re going to love this place.”
I blow out a breath and look around the grand entryway with the double staircase and multicolored blown glass chandelier.
“I don’t doubt that they’ll think it’s fine—”
“Fine?” Cassandra scoffs. “This is a ten-thousand-square-foot mansion with a pool, a seven-burner stove, and a greenhouse. It’s more than fine. We’re gonna have to kick them out when we want them to leave.”
I tug her against my body with my free hand. “Yeah, but the reason you don’t have your old house anymore is probably going to bother them.”
My girl knows her touch helps my nerves, so she slides her hand up the front of my T-shirt, resting her palm against my skin and giving me her warmth.
True to his word, the day after we landed, Nero walked over to his neighbor’s house—neighbor being a relative term since the lots are several acres—and told them I’d pay double the market value for them to leave the furniture—minus any heirlooms or things of sentimental value—and be out in twenty-four hours.
They did. I paid. And now this home belongs to us. Which is great. But her parents are on their way over for dinner, and I feel like I’m going to throw up.
Cassandra’s phone rings.
She pulls it out of her pocket and puts it on speaker, her mom’s name on the screen.
“You lost?” Cassandra asks.
“I think we must be.” She says something to Mr. Cantrell. “That address you sent, was it correct?”
“This is Hans’s new house?” Mrs. Cantrell’s tone is understandably skeptical.
“Just tell Dad to pull up to the gate. They’ll let you in.”
In order to get them here, we told them it was just my house.
Plus, I have an important question I need to ask her dad before we tell them Cassandra lives here too.
Cassandra knows I’m asking. And she’s already told me she’ll say yes. But I’ve never had a chance to do any of the traditional dating things, so I want to do this.
When we can hear them talking to the property guards, Cassandra hangs up.
Sliding her phone back in her pocket, she lifts her hands to hold my face. “I love you, Hans. They will too.” She pulls me down and presses her lips to mine. “And they’ll forgive the rest.”
I swallow and kiss her once more, then pull the front door open.
Mr. Cantrell drives his Buick up the driveway and around the fountain in front of the house. He slows on the far side, near the garages, but I can see Mrs. Cantrell waving her hands around inside the car, and eventually, Mr. Cantrell circles the fountain again, stopping directly at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the gigantic house.
I keep my hand on Cassandra’s lower back as we walk down the steps to meet them.
Mrs. Cantrell climbs out of the car first and holds her hands up toward the house. “Holy shit!”
Cassandra cracks up next to me. “Mom!”
“Well, seriously, Cassandra.” She drops her hands to her hips. “You cannot just go from that cute little cul-de-sac to this and expect me to pretend that’s normal.”
I wince a little when she calls our old street cute.
Casandra has been taking their calls and texts the last few days like nothing was amiss. Her mom was extra attentive, making sure Cassandra was still okay after everything that happened in Mexico, so I’m sure she’ll insist on moving in for the next month when she finds out what else has happened.
We talked about it and agreed to tell them everything. Or at least the broad strokes. And if they ask us a question, we won’t lie. Cassandra is certain they won’t try to turn me in to the authorities, and I trust my Butterfly, so I’ll trust them.
Mrs. Cantrell turns to me after she hugs Cassandra. “The house is beautiful. And absurd.”
Some of my anxiousness fades. “It is both of those things.” I start to hold out my hand to Cassandra’s mom, but she just pushes it away and grabs me for a hug.
“I don’t know why you lived in that sad little house when you could afford this.” She pulls back and smiles at me. “But I’m glad you did.”
“Mom, you can’t go from calling it cute to sad.”
We both ignore Cassandra.
“I’m glad I did too.” My words feel so inadequate for how true they are.
Mrs. Cantrell hooks her arm in Cassandra’s. “Show me inside.” As they pass me and head up the steps, I hear Mrs. Cantrell say, “Your house is cute. His was sad.”
Both houses are equally destroyed now, but it’s still a fair description.
Mr. Cantrell stops before me, making no attempt to follow the ladies.
I’m significantly larger than he is, but I suddenly feel like I’m back in my teenaged body. Trying to stand straighter. Trying to prove I’m worthy.
I take a breath.
I’ve battled against so many odds.
I’ve fought for my life and survived.
I can do this too.
“I love your daughter,” I tell him. “Cassandra is… She’s my everything. And I’d like to ask you for her hand.”
Mr. Cantrell looks past me to the mansion at my back. “I wasn’t in communications in the army. I wasn’t even in the army.” He pauses, and my nerves spike. “I was with something else.”
I swallow. “Three-letter agency?”
He doesn’t confirm.
“I saw a lot of shit. Most of it had nothing to do with wars, but I saw a lot of dangerous men.” His eyes move back to meet mine. “They’re easy to recognize when you know what to look for.”
I fight my body’s instinct to move back and hold his gaze.
He dips his head like he’s making a decision. “I knew what you were the first time we met.”
His words feel like ice across my skin. “If you try to stop me—”
I cut myself off because I don’t know how to finish that sentence. I won’t ever give her up, but I’d never do anything to hurt the man who raised her.
“I still know some people. And that night when Cassie was stuck in Mexico, after her bus got hijacked and then miraculously saved… I had some images sent my way.”
I brace myself. Ready for the questions. Dreading his rejection of me.
But then he takes a step closer and reaches up to grip my shoulder.
“Thank you.” He fights to keep his composure. “I owe you my life. She—” He nods toward the house. “She is my life.”
Tightness grips my throat.
His love for her is what my parents had for Freya. And I watched it destroy them.
But his girl is still here. And he’s one of the parents that understands just how precious that is.
“I would do anything for her.” My voice cracks on the truth.
“I wouldn’t accept anything less.” The hand on my shoulder squeezes. “That girl is a handful. She needs someone dangerous to protect her. So yeah, son, you have my blessing. And that makes you family. Meaning you have my wife too. However you need us.”
Then I nod again.
Because fuck, it feels good to have a family.