A couple walked into the hotel, stealing my attention from my computer.
For the past month, every time the lobby doors opened, I held my breath. Tension crept into my shoulders, drawing them toward my ears.
Jasper, seated in the chair beside mine, reached over and covered my hand with his.
The tension ebbed. I released the air in my lungs.
The smile I gave the couple wasn’t as forced as my smiles from yesterday. Or the day before that. Or the day before that.
It had been over a month since the shooting. When I looked at the floor beneath this counter, I could still see Jasper’s blood. I could still hear the boom of guns firing. The terrified screams. The bullet holes in the wall behind me had been patched, but if I looked carefully enough, I could still find them.
But day by day, it was getting easier. Therapy had helped. That, and Jasper hadn’t left my side.
The day I’d decided it was time to come back to work, he’d come along. I’d assumed he’d leave once I was settled. Instead, he’d found his own chair, the matching partner to the one I’d sat on for years. It had been in the closet of my neglected office. He’d hauled it out and had been sitting in it ever since.
At times, he’d help with hotel work, like scheduling or payroll. Mostly, he read while I worked.
Who knew a man reading could be so sexy? Considering everything Jasper did was attractive, I shouldn’t have been surprised. This winter, if we had a string of quiet days, I hoped I could convince him to read aloud to me. But the reading would have to wait. At the moment, we were still swamped.
The shooting had rocked Quincy. It was something our small town wouldn’t soon forget.
I’d thought traffic at the hotel would slow down. That people would fear this lobby. The first week had been slower. There’d been some cancelations. But then it had ramped up like nothing had happened.
Plus we’d had an influx of local traffic, people who’d come in to gawk and see if they could spot the bullet holes. Those visits annoyed the shit out of me—and Jasper. But mostly, people would come in to give me their best and meet our local hero.
My handsome husband. The man who’d leapt in front of a bullet for his wife.
There weren’t many people in Quincy who didn’t know the name Jasper Vale. Not anymore. Much to his dismay, he was a celebrity now. Everywhere we went, he’d be approached.
Eventually, that spotlight would fade, but it would take time. Sitting at the desk certainly wasn’t helping him blend into the background. Yet he sat here all the same. Not just for my sake. But his too.
We were finding our way through this together.
The doors opened again, but with his hand over mine, I didn’t have the same knee-jerk reaction. Instead I looked up and smiled as my parents walked inside.
“Hey, guys.” I hopped off my chair, rounding the desk to hug Mom and Dad. “What are you up to today?”
“Errands.” Dad went to Jasper, clapping him on the shoulder. “I tried those stretch bands this morning. Worked great. My shoulder already feels better.”
Jasper dipped his chin. “Glad it worked.”
Apparently, Dad had tweaked his shoulder trying to lift an old tractor tire by himself. When he’d complained, Jasper had given him some elastic bands and shown him some stretches to do that might relieve the ache.
Of all the people in my family I’d thought would warm to Jasper first, Dad would have been my very last guess.
Then again, Jasper had taken a bullet for me. Dad would do just about anything, including faking an injury so he could have an excuse to spend time with his son-in-law. To get to know the man I loved.
“Do you have a minute to talk?” I asked. There was something I’d wanted to visit with them about all week. “Maybe we could get some lunch?”
“I could eat.” Dad patted his stomach.
“Me too.” My stomach had been growling for almost an hour. I blamed that on Jasper. We’d had a rushed breakfast because we’d gotten distracted by sex on the dining room table.
If our sex life had been invigorating before, now that we weren’t faking anything, we were insatiable. He teased that since he was here at the hotel instead of working out with Foster, it was my job to make sure he stayed in shape.
I took my job seriously.
“Let me just find someone to sit here for me,” I said, picking up the phone to call a housekeeper.
The minute the desk was covered, I took Jasper’s hand, the two of us following my parents into Knuckles.
The restaurant was bustling with activity. Knox was probably scrambling in the kitchen, working fast to feed the Friday lunch crowd. The hostess seated us at a booth in the back, one reserved solely for my family, and handed over the lunch menus.
“Should we eat first? Or talk?” Dad asked.
“Talk.” Hungry as I was, it was time to have this conversation. Maybe I should have been nervous, but this discussion had been a long time coming. And no matter the outcome, I’d have Jasper.
“What’s up?” Mom asked.
My parents shared a look. Dad’s grin faded as he leaned his forearms on the table. It was the serious posture he’d assume whenever he had bad news. “It’s been a hard summer.”
I nodded. “Yes, it has been.”
“Your mother and I would understand if you wanted to try something different. If you wanted to leave the hotel.”
After the shooting, I’d considered it. Especially those first few days back at work when I’d hated every second, forcing smiles and pretending like the world was only sunshine and rainbows. When I’d had to stare at the spot where a kid had died.
The kid who would have murdered me because I’d fired him from a part-time job.
The Eloise was . . . mine. Good and bad, this hotel was still my dream. And I wouldn’t let anyone steal that from me.
“I want the hotel.” I squared my shoulders, sitting taller. Beneath the table, Jasper’s hand squeezed my thigh. “I understand why you weren’t ready to give it to me a few years ago, but a lot has changed. We’re flourishing. I’ve proved myself time and time again. It’s time to take the next step. If you’re not ready for that or if you’ve changed your mind about giving it to me, then I’m going to step down as manager. Effective immediately.”
Mom and Dad sat back, both a little surprised. Even I was a little surprised. I couldn’t remember a time in recent years when I’d demanded anything from my parents. Certainly not a hotel.
But I’d spent the past few weeks thinking a lot about this situation. About my family. Mom and Dad hadn’t made Griffin or Knox jump through hoop after hoop to inherit their businesses. So I was done jumping to earn mine.
It would break my heart if they said no. But if that was their decision, I had a husband who’d help me glue the pieces together.
Dad relaxed, then grinned at Jasper.
Mom shifted, pulling out a folder from her purse. Then she unfolded the top flap, pulling out a stack of crisp, white papers. She smiled as she slid them across the table. “We’ve had these drawn up for a while, but with the shooting, we wanted to give you time.”
Wait. This was it? Already? I’d planned for this to get awkward and uncomfortable. Not to just . . . get a hotel.
“Read through the document,” Dad said. “Let us know if you have any questions. Our lawyer drafted it up, similar to how we transferred the ranch to Griffin. But if you want to hire your own attorney to review it, that will be fine. If you’re good with everything, we’ve already signed it. You just need to sign it too.”
I turned to Jasper.
He was smiling.
Mom and Dad slid out of the booth. “We’ll leave you two alone to talk.”
“What about lunch?” I asked.
Mom took Dad’s hand. “We’ll go bug Knox in the kitchen.”
“We’re proud of you,” Dad said before they walked away.
“Did that just happen?” I whispered to Jasper.
“I didn’t expect it today.” I looked at the papers. I skimmed the top sheet with a fingertip. Maybe part of me hadn’t expected it at all. “What if I fail?”
“You won’t.” His confidence was unwavering.
“What if I do?”
His hand cupped my cheek, forcing my gaze to his. “Do you think I’d let you fail?”
“No.” I leaned into his touch.
From the moment we’d started this adventure, standing beside that fountain, he’d been by my side. The ups and downs. The good and bad.
Husband and wife.
“I own a hotel.”
He chuckled. “You own a hotel.”
“Oh my God, I own a hotel. My hotel.”
Jasper tucked a lock of hair behind my ear. “Dream come true?”
Only because he was here. “And then some.”