Beau: Everyone better show up tonight.
Harvey: YES, SIR.
Beau: You can’t say that. Like, ever, Dad.
Harvey: Why not?
Harvey: … Sir?
Beau: You just can’t. It’s off the table now.
Jasper: REPORTING FOR DUTY, SIR.
Rhett: SEE YOU FOR DINNER, SIR.
Cade: WHY AM I RELATED TO SO MANY IDIOTS, SIR?
Beau: I hate you all. See you tonight.
“Everyone is coming?
“Yes.” I casually slick my hair back in the mirror like nothing in the world is wrong—because it’s not.
“Like, everyone?” Bailey hovers behind me, her hands tucked into the sleeves of the camel-colored sweater she’s wearing. She’s got one arm crossed over her stomach, the other brushing at the bottom of her chin in a steady rhythm.
“Of course. You told me to invite everyone.”
When I peek at her standing behind me, she’s worrying her lip between her bottom teeth and looking a little frantic.
“Right. Of course.”
She’s nervous and scans the bathroom, like there might be something to distract her from her thoughts.
The bathroom is small but freshly tiled by yours truly. White squares with little black diamonds at each corner. A claw-foot tub in the corner. A pedestal sink. This house on a cozy, tree-lined street is full of vintage, old-world charm.
As much as I love my house at the ranch, I have to confess … it felt less me since Bailey came into my life. The hard lines and echoey spaces felt cold. At odds with her there.
This house, though? Warm hardwoods and big windows that the light spills through. The oak trim around every wall reminds me of her tan skin in the summer. And the crystal doorknobs that adorn the French doors that lead into the dining room remind me of the way her eyes sparkle when she’s excited.
Nah, my house at the ranch is the old me.
This one? This is the new me. The me with her. And like I told her, it’s a great investment. Every investment I’ve made in this woman will always be.
I turn to her, trying to hide my smile. It’s become downright impossible not to look at Bailey without smiling. Even when she is a ball of stress. “Come here, sugar tits.”
Her eyes roll, and she lets out a beleaguered sigh, but she steps into me anyway. She keeps her arms where they are and drops her head right to my chest. “You need to come up with a better nickname.”
“Absolutely never.” Her forehead rolls back and forth against my chest as I wrap my arms around her. “Bailey, stop stressing.”
“I can’t. I don’t want them to hate me.”
That gives me pause. “Why would my family hate you?”
“I don’t know. You all are Chestnut Springs royalty. It’s like you’re with the banished pariah, and are choosing to live in exile with me over staying with your family.”
My chest shakes with silent laughter, and she slaps my shoulder. “It’s not funny! What if I change? What if we change and you’ve given everything up for me?”
I squeeze her tighter. “Bailey, Bailey, Bailey. You will change. You’re … ugh. Saying your age out loud makes me feel old.”
“You are old,” she quips, but I can hear the smile in her voice.
“You’re twenty-two. You start university in six weeks. Of course you’re going to change. Nobody stays the same at your age, and in my case, thank fucking god, cause you’d have hated twenty-two-year-old me.”
She laughs and I carry on. “And we’ll change. And we’ll have difficulties. Because that’s life. You don’t recognize the highs without the lows, sugar. I’ve changed too.” I grip her shoulders and nudge her away from me to look her in the eye. “That’s how I knew you were it. That’s how I know I’ll love you in every version of yourself, because we’re all constantly changing. Growing. Becoming.”
“I’ll register for a philosophy class if I want one, soldier,” she says, swiping at her big, glittering eyes.
“Bailey, shut up and listen to me.” She chuckles softly with another eye roll before giving me back her full attention. “You fill me with purpose. Lifting you up gives me a reason. Seeing you smile makes me feel whole. And I’m never going to apologize for that. We’re symbiotic, you and me. Without you, this version of me doesn’t exist. Without the next version of you, the next version of me doesn’t exist either. We’re going to grow together.”
“You’re fucking my makeup up, Eaton,” she murmurs dryly, wiping a stray tear off her face with the sleeve of her sweater.
I just smile. She needs to hear these things so badly, be reassured of them over and over. And I’m happy to do it. “You asked me who I wanted to be once, and it’s this. Me. Right here. Right now. With you.”
All she can manage is a nod and a sniffle. “Okay. I have no poetic response to that. Other than yes, please, sir.”
Now it’s my turn to roll my eyes.
Her hands land on my cheeks, and she rises on her tiptoes to kiss me. “I love you, soldier,” she whispers as she pulls away.
“You fuckin’ better.” I kiss her back now, lifting her against me and giving her a tight squeeze. The tension seeps out of her. And when I put her back down, we stare at each other. It’s been a wild couple of years in my life, but worth every hardship to be standing here looking down at this woman.
“Ready to host our first Eaton family dinner?” I ask.
She nods, appearing stronger already. “You ready to tell them you’re moving here permanently?”
I snap my feet together and give her my best salute.
It makes her laugh.
And that makes me feel whole.
The house is full. Bustling. Loud. Warm. Chatter fills the space with life. Long, dark, quiet days spent in a cave, thinking I’d never make it out, feel so far away they hardly seem real. Even in my childhood home, I felt like I was stuck in a cave. And now it’s like a trippy dream I once had.
The mind works in mysterious ways.
Bailey sits on one side of me, hand on my thigh, chatting away with Summer. But it’s Winter, to my right, who watches carefully. Her fiancé, Theo, holds their daughter, Vivi, on his lap, chatting with Harvey and Cordelia.
I barely hear the woman beside me when she murmurs, “I’m really happy for you, Beau.”
I lean over slightly toward Winter. “Is that a medical diagnosis?”
Her lips curve up, but her face remains mostly impassive. “No, I’m not your doctor. Just a friend who’s been worried about you.”
“I didn’t know we were friends.”
All she offers back is a cool shrug as she picks up her glass of wine and takes an unaffected sip. “Family, I guess. Kindred spirits? We’re not so different, you and me. I like to see us fucked-up people pull ourselves out of our own shit.”
“We probably need therapy,” I joke quietly.
Winter nods. “Not probably. Definitely.”
“You’re not nearly as mean as everyone made you out to be, ya know?” I lean over just enough to bump my shoulder against hers.
Her lips curve up as she takes another sip of her white wine. Then she bumps my shoulder back. “And you’re not nearly as dumb as everyone made you out to be.”
I snort. She is kind of mean, and yet I’m charmed. Theo turns to glance at us, and when his eyes catch on Winter, they soften. They warm.
I know how that look feels, but seeing it is something else entirely.
I turn back to Bailey, loving the way she thrives in this environment. My family has become hers. And hers has gone radio silent since she left town. Which is a good thing. Bless them for being the perfect combination of too dumb and too lazy to bother harassing her if it requires any effort on their part. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.
Stirred to action by that thought, I clank my knife against my glass. “Everyone shut up! I have an announcement to make.”
Winter scoffs beside me, but everyone else quiets down.
Except Rhett—leave it to him to make it into a fight. “This isn’t the military, bonehead. I don’t take orders from you.”
Summer groans and gazes up at the ceiling. “Why are you like this?”
“Should we take it outside like when we were kids, then?” I quirk a brow at my little brother. Shit disturber that he is.
Rhett laughs. “No chance. You’ll kick my ass with your James Bond shit. I’m wild, not stupid.”
Winter scoffs again, but just keeps drinking. I see Theo stifle a laugh behind his fist.
“Take Cade with you,” Willa whispers as loudly as possible to Rhett from across the table while bouncing a baby on her lap. “A tag team situation. And I’ll watch. Or referee. Whatever you call it, I don’t care. It’s hot when he gets mad, so I’m all in on this idea.”
“I’m on Uncle Beau’s team!” my nephew, Luke, announces.
I point at him. “Smart, kid.”
“At this rate, we’ll just be a bunch of skeletons sitting around the table by the time he makes his announcement,” Jasper says. “We’ll die never knowing what it is he meant to say because you all were planning a Royal Rumble in Bailey’s new house.” His eyes dance with amusement from across the table as he takes a swig of his shitty, cheap beer with a dog on the label.
“I hate you.”
Jasper grins at me, reaching to take Sloane’s hand. “Hate you too, bro.”
“Listen, I’ll be the first of us to turn into a skeleton,” Harvey pitches in. “Out with it.”
Silence descends, and Bailey goes tense beside me.
“So … this isn’t just Bailey’s house. It’s mine too. I’m moving here and starting a new job with the fire department.” I glance over at Cade. “Sorry, man, this is my two weeks’ notice.”
He just grunts. “That’s fine. You’re the worst employee I’ve ever had.”
I roll my eyes and forge ahead. “So I—we—won’t be living on the ranch anymore. We’ll come hang out sometimes, but this is home base now.”
Everyone is quiet. Watchful.
My dad speaks first. “That’s your announcement?”
My brows furrow. “Yeah.”
“That’s the stupidest announcement I’ve ever been fool enough to get excited about.”
Jasper wheezes a laugh and tries to cover it with his hand.
“No, listen. Winter announcing her baby’s secret paternity at a family dinner? That was an announcement.”
“Gotta win at something sometimes, I guess,” she mutters from beside me.
“Me telling you all that Cordelia and I are together? That’s an announcement.”
A table-wide intake of breath sounds out. Cordelia covers her face with her palm, but Harvey ignores it all.
“But you and your fiancée buy a house—a damn nice house—in the city, where she’s going to be spending the next, what? Seven years, at least? And you’re announcing this to us like it isn’t the most obvious thing in the world? Y’all are a bunch of attention seekers. Or dumb. I’m not sure. Either way, just wild.” He shakes his head.
Winter scoffs. Again.
Bailey leans in close and whispers, “I knew it.”
“Harvey,” Jasper starts, fingers rolling against the brown bottle in his hand. “Since you’re not an attention seeker … ” He can barely get the words out without losing it. “Care to elaborate on the ‘you and Cordelia’ bit?”
Harvey shifts in his seat.
“It just sorta happened, you know? She was all up in my space when she left her husband. And we, well, it’s been a long time since your mom, you guys. Thirty years, and I’ve never stopped loving her. And … ” He trails off, staring at Cordelia with a twinkle in his eye. One I’m glad to see because he really has been alone for a long time. Lonely for a long time. “Cordelia never stopped loving her, either. And we bonded over that, I guess. It feels like another lifetime, one that people are often too uncomfortable to bring up. But we can talk about it all. Laugh. Reminisce. I’m happy.”
She smiles at him, skin crinkling around her eyes as he folds a hand protectively over hers, right on top of the table. “Me too.”
“I’m so happy for you both!” Summer claps her hands together, looking genuinely excited. Everyone else follows suit, offering their congratulations and love.
“And quite frankly, if Sloane can marry her cousin, I figure I can—” Harvey starts up again, and I groan.
Jasper’s head drops, his palms pressing into his eye sockets while Sloane bursts out laughing, rubbing soothing circles on his back.
“Then I can be with Cordelia.”
“She’s not my cousin,” Jasper huffs through a laugh.
Harvey elbows him playfully. “Sure, sure. And Cordelia isn’t my sister-in-law.”
“Well, if we’re all laying things out on the table,” Sloane says. “Since Harvey brought up Jasper and me … ” She places a small black-and-white photo on the table. “I’m fourteen weeks.” She glances at Harvey, so happy that she’s fucking glowing. “Brought the sonogram so you can see there is indeed no tail.”
Everyone laughs, recalling my dad’s never-ending jokes about Sloane and Jasper having tail babies because they’re related—even though they aren’t.
After that, the table breaks out into happy chatter. More ribbing. More laughter.
Bailey turns to me, eyes bright, smile wide, cheeks rosy. “This is … this doesn’t feel like alone together. This just feels like together-together.”
With one hand, I grip her chin, watching her eyes dance between mine. I kiss her hard. My better half. My other half.
“That’s us, sugar. Together-together.”