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One Bossy Disaster: Chapter 24


Okay, so it’s probably pretty cheesy to say I’ve never been happier in my life.

There were always little pockets of happiness before. Moments I remember. Times I’ll never forget.

But with Shepherd, it’s different.

With him, all my smiles are condensed into one long beautiful moment.

Maybe because I’m an active participant in my own joy this time around.

Because this is the happiness I’ve chosen.

Every day I wake up and choose Shepherd Foster over and over again, and he’s standing by with a thousand reasons why.

He makes my breakfast in the morning while I make his coffee.

We go for power runs on the beach with Molly. She nibbles at his shoes if we leave her next to his feet for too long, and he always just has a kind word and the sweetest chuckle.

He even helps with her training, drilling her through command routines with a tug rope in his hand or a pile of smelly salmon treats in his pocket.

That’s definitely love.

I love my dog, but some of her snacks will send your gag reflex into overdrive.

Who knew stinky fish pellets could make a girl’s heart flip?

Every time I think I love him to my limit, I find out I’m flat-out wrong.

And my heart grows a little bigger, lost in the good times with my boyfriend and Molly, the dog runs and home-cooked dinners and three-hour ecstasies in bed that take me on a tour through every tier of heaven and send me gliding back home to his arms.

Holy hell.

My boyfriend.

I’m still getting used to that.

Once we wrap up all the police interviews and Adriana gets formally charged with the world’s creepiest mugshot, Shepherd surprises me with a trip to Hawaii.

My family’s place is in Kona on the Big Island, so it’s nice to bum around Maui instead. We go diving and snorkeling, then we enjoy a sunset picnic on top of Mount Haleakalā.

When I post snippets of my new life for my fans—which have exploded since the truth about our little near-disaster came out—I don’t hide anything.

I just wish Shepherd was a little less scowly when I drag him into a few shots.

What can I say, he’s man candy for my lady followers. I also don’t mind showing the whole world he’s mine.

I deserve one indulgence after everything we’ve been through.

And I get one more when Shepherd practically drags me onto the ferry to Lanai one day for a sunset dinner overlooking a beach bursting with sea turtles.

“They’ve been an important part of your life,” he explains, reaching over to gently finger my turtle necklace. “If I’ve got to share you with anything that has a shell, I’ll damn well make sure you’re spending time with both of us.”

“You’re jealous of my turtles? Really?”

One look at his gruff face leaves me in stitches.

And there’s a lot more laughing and a few more tears as we flop down on a hill with a blanket, watching the turtles lounging under the stars, and I share everything.

I tell him how the necklace was the only thing I had left of my mom, and when the original was stolen, my stepmom jumped in to find a replacement that was just as meaningful.

You can’t hold on to material symbols, no matter how rare or special they are.

That’s how I learned it’s the meaning behind them that lasts, the memories and feelings and soul.

And even if he doesn’t know it, he’s giving me a thousand more as I rest my head on his shoulder, watching the turtles move like beautiful black animated stones on the beach.

“Never thought I’d say it, but I’ve had my fill of turtles for one evening. Thank you again for… for everything. For loving me,” I whisper.

“Dess, you make it too easy.” Growling, he rolls until he’s on top of me, pressing me down into the sand under the blanket. “Since you’ve already got that necklace and you’ll put up a fight if I mark your neck, will you settle for a kiss?”

I answer with a smile, wrapping my hands around his neck and bringing his hungry lips to mine.

I’m just not sure if I’ll ever understand how I deserve so much love from a man overflowing with this much passion.

It’s not all fun and games and turtle picnics ending in honey-sweet kisses, though.

Honestly, the one thing that risks throwing a wrench in what we’ve built is the day when Shepherd meets my dad.

People know Cole Lancaster for his business record first and his stormy temperament second. In the coffee world, he’s somewhere between just king and king-sized jerk.

To me, he’s always been a softie who never gets tired of hearing me joke about the grey in his hair and the way he moons over Eliza.

But I’ve never brought a boy home before.

Certainly not a man who’s almost twice my age, and closer to Dad’s.

When I was a kid, he used to have conniption fits over the distant possibility that anyone would want to date me someday.

I’m not a flighty teenager anymore, but somehow his overprotective dad side still hasn’t gotten the message.

And even though Shepherd is ready to be perfectly diplomatic the second we walk through Dad’s door, I know he’s guarded in his own way while I’m drowning in nerves.

Hey, it’s not like I left everything to chance.

I gave Dad a heads-up about what to expect.

I mean, the fact that the rumors were kind of true and I’m really dating Shepherd now got this off to a rocky start from day one.

Not an excellent sign.

At least they made it through one phone call without breaking into a screaming match, though. I’d like to think that the whole saving my life thing bought Shepherd a crumb of goodwill—or at least a teeny-tiny chance to explain himself in front of a one-man firing squad.

I’m expecting Eliza to fling the door open with a sunny hug and a dozen questions, but it doesn’t happen.

It’s just Dad who bellows “come” the second he sees us step up to the door.

He’s waiting for us in the hall, arms folded in a white button-down with his sleeves rolled up.

For the longest second of my life, he raises his head and looks at us.

And looks.

Well, crap.

Maybe this meeting was doomed from the start, no matter how much Shepherd paid his good karma forward.

Still, he sticks out his hand and approaches my father, fearless and undaunted.

“Mr. Lancaster.”

“Foster,” Dad clips.

The way they shake hands looks more like two bears fighting over a salmon.

Dad never once looks away from Shepherd, his eyes flashing like gunmetal.

Oof, this is bad.

As far as Dad’s concerned, I’ll be his little girl until the day he dies. He’s an open-minded guy and not a complete Neanderthal, but I worry he’ll never get over the age gap.

It’s hard not to cringe, just imagining what kind of cradle-robbing sex fiend he imagines Shepherd to be.

A squeal from upstairs saves us just in time.

Eliza sails through the door with my little brother, Elijah, her airy perfume swirling around her. The wide smile on her face could tame a hurricane.

“Shepherd! The man of the hour,” she gushes.

The way Dad’s evil eye softens ever so slightly tells me that we just might survive this. Thank God for his wife.

If Eliza decided she’s giving Shepherd a fair shake, there’s no freaking way Dad will pull out a loaded shotgun.

He’ll never admit it, but he can never hold out against her, and it’s comically adorable.

Shepherd’s face relaxes into a smile as Eliza embraces him warmly.

I grab his hand, lacing my fingers through his. I squeeze like I’m hoping I can transfer every bit of goodwill in my bones.

“Something smells tasty,” I say, sniffing the air. “What did you make us this time, Eliza? New drink?”

“Let her show you. She’s only been fussing over it all week,” Dad grumps, leading us inside.

He leads us to the great room with a palace-worthy fireplace and mantle while Eliza disappears into the cave-sized kitchen.

I sit beside Shepherd and my knee knocks against his.

Dad notices the contact like an owl spotting a field mouse. I can practically feel his brain blowing a fuse at the mere thought that we ever do more than hold hands like Amish kids.

Nope, he doesn’t like that.

Or the rumors, the pictures.

Oh, God, has he seen the pictures?

I swallow, smothering the awkward cough.

“I heard Miss Cerva already accepted a plea deal,” Dad says, choosing each word carefully.

Shepherd nods. “Didn’t have much choice. I put my best guys on the case, but she threw herself on the mercy of the court. Still, don’t think she’ll get up to much trouble if she’s let out on parole in thirty years, totally bankrupt.”

“Not a bad outcome, especially for this judicial district. I looked at your legal team. Impressive credentials,” Dad admits.

Oh, boy, so he’s decided to be all business.

I guess that’s better than yelling.

Still, I roll my eyes.

If they’re going to talk status the whole time, we’re never getting anywhere.

“Yes, guys. The wicked witch is gone and even Meghan got a happy ending. She’s rebranded to show off her healing, talking through her problems and her experiences with therapy, hoping it’ll help other folks with abusive situations. I’m proud of her. But can we get off the big bad? Like, why don’t we talk about the fact that we’re dating?” I say brightly.

“Dating,” Dad spits.

His face tightens like a lion’s, trying to decide if that pesky hyena is worth the mauling.

I barely refrain from reminding him I’m a grown woman, totally capable of making my own decisions—and choosing who to date, with no shotgun approval from my father necessary.

“It’s good to finally meet you,” Shepherd says, still formal. Still wary.

When he said he knew it would go well and that he didn’t need my dad’s permission, I didn’t believe him.

This is way more intense than I expected. I’m practically sweating, even if I’m the one egging them on.

“It’s not good,” Dad growls.

My heart stops. I fight the urge to pinch my eyes shut, bracing for impact.

Oh, yup, here we go…

“You saved my daughter,” Dad says abruptly. “She told me everything that happened on the yacht. After I got past the urge to dismember Miss Cerva with my bare hands, and then Destiny herself for lying to me while she was trapped on a sinking ship, I decided I wanted you a little less dead, Foster. You saved her life.”

What what?

That’s—not what I expected.

My heart flutters hopefully.

“He did,” I manage. “Without Shepherd, I would’ve been fish food for sure.”

“I’m glad to hear you can tolerate me breathing, Mr. Lancaster. However, even if you planned to throw me off Mount Rainier one bloody chunk at a time, I’d have saved her anyway. There’s no way I’d ever let anything happen,” Shepherd says, glancing at me and squeezing my hand so tightly.

There’s a glimmer in his glacial-blue eyes like spring, and his mouth curls up very slightly.

It’s the kind of smile he only ever gives me.

Our secret smile, and I love it.

Dad just watches us, steely at first, but then his face slowly relaxes.

“We have that in common, I suppose,” he says. “Rescuing women from maniacs in the worst storms to hit Washington in the last fifty years.”

“Yes, sir.” Shepherd nods slowly. “I heard about your situation. Not an experience I’d ever recommend.”

“Wasn’t my favorite time,” Dad agrees.

“But we got through it, didn’t we?” It’s my turn to squeeze his hand.

His thumb traces over the back of my palm.

Even with all this tension, he makes me tingle.

God, I love him.

Love him.

Like, we’re not even at the six-months together mark, but in this small, tucked-away part of me, I already know this is forever.

A forever I could never experience with anyone else.

“Cole, let me be frank,” Shepherd says, going straight for the first name. Risky. “I don’t need your blessing to date your daughter, but I’d like it. I respect you for raising an angel who’s only thirty percent brat.”

I dart him a dirty look.

Dad’s eyes narrow and his lips thin.

Yeah, there’s no way he’s happy about this. I just hope he can respect another man who shoots straight.

Please be cool. Be reasonable. Be fair, I plead silently. Dad, don’t embarrass me.

“Damn. There’s no disputing the fact you saved my Destiny,” Dad says after the world’s longest silence. “Whatever, Shepherd, you get one chance. One. Don’t fuck it up and make me regret giving you a green light.”

Holy hell.

Another grim silence.

Shepherd weighs his words. I don’t know how to tell him that coming from Dad, this is basically the most generous thing ever.

Thankfully, he doesn’t need the memo.

“You won’t be disappointed, Cole. Thank you.”

“See that I’m not.” Dad’s eyes rake Shepherd again before he stands and extends a hand.

They shake hands again, and this time it’s a little less like two snapping bears.

Fortunately, Eliza walks back into this weird-ass manly ritual with a tray full of steaming coffee mugs, banishing the awkwardness.

“It’s sweet, it’s steamy, and it’s full of blueberry goodness straight from Alaska! Come try my latest creation,” she sings, pressing a mug into everyone’s hands.

Her eyes twinkle and she gives me a wink.

He’s hot, she mouths.

I have to agree.

Shepherd is a meteorite, scorching and fallen and brilliant, all blaze in body, mind, and soul.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever fully get used to how he loves me, though.

I’m still smiling into my first sip of the new blueberry brew. Eliza has a real 80-20 thing going on with her coffee creations, but this one’s an instant winner.

I can’t tell if it’s the sweetness of the drink that makes me so giddy or the fact that the two men in my life can finally make eye contact without looking like it’s pistols at dawn.

After another hour of polite coffee talk with them, we make our escape.

I rest my head on Shepherd’s arm as we walk the gardens stretching down to the water behind the house, hand in hand.

“That went well!”

“Did it? Sweetheart, you can’t ever cry again in front of Cole. Not even happy tears. He’ll put my head on the wall.”

I giggle. “Aw, he’s not so bad. He didn’t start brandishing his Navy knife or anything.”

“Not yet,” he says dryly.

“Shepherd, he gave you his freaking blessing. That’s massive.”

He glances down at the top of my head and studies me. “Is he always like this?”

“Wanting to skin my boyfriends alive? Yeah, pretty much. And you’re the first one I’ve ever brought home.”

Honestly, my other dates were only that. Never boyfriends.

Boyfriend, boyfriend, boyfriend.

The word feels equally alien and spectacular when I just want it to feel real.

Somehow, though, it also doesn’t quite feel permanent.

Will boyfriend always be enough to contain what he means to me?

This is so much more than a fickle high school relationship or a steady college guy with an expiration date.

It’s bound by real emotion, tears and tragedy and drama and even a little blood.

It’s like calling an old giant sequoia tree a shoot.

Still, I love how his hand tightens around mine, and his thumb does that thing again, caressing my skin.


The man makes me a human lightning rod, and he’s the only storm I’ll ever need.

I haven’t told him how much I like it, how much it makes my stomach swoop, but I’m sure he knows.

And I wouldn’t change anything about it for the world.

“It went well,” I repeat again, papering over the moment just in case he feels as weird about ‘boyfriend’ as I do. “Trust me. Give it a few months and you’ll be best friends.”

“You’re full of it.” Shepherd snorts. “He doesn’t even like me.”

I hold up a finger. “Doesn’t like you yet. But he doesn’t hate you. You have to do something really atrocious to lose Dad’s trust. Once you’re in, you’re in. Plus, I’m sure this is only a conversation you’ll ever need to have once. He basically said you’ve got the green light to go ahead and m—” I stop right there.

I wasn’t really about to say marry me, right?

Because that would be preposterous.

Totally. Bonkers.

We’re just easing into the reality of us with all its quirks and kisses and little spats over where to go for dinner. I should not be imagining myself in a white dress right now.

I should definitely not be imagining Shepherd in a tux, casting his eyes down like he’ll spend the rest of his natural life devouring me.

Oh, God.

He looks good enough to eat even in this goofy fantasy.

My phone chimes with an alert. I pull it out and see a link from Meghan with her latest video.

The therapy is helping her a ton, I think, and sharing her journey banishes the pain faster.

I wait until after dinner with the fam to play it while we’re on the way back to Shepherd’s place.

“Hey, guys, sorry for the radio silence,” Meghan says. She’s abandoned her usual sassy, bold look for soft pastel sweaters and a fresh face not plastered with makeup. Honestly, it makes her look younger and infinitely more real.

I smile at the screen.

We’ve kept trading messages over the past couple months. I think we’re moving past that phase where she keeps apologizing while I insist she doesn’t need to.

We’re slowly becoming real friends.

Shepherd scrubbed the drone pics from the web as much as he could, though they occasionally resurface. When they do, they’re no longer a scandal worth circulating.

Just half-dead rumors drained of their dark energy.

While I watch Meghan’s latest video, I wonder if this might be the thing that ends them once and for all. I know she’s been building up to this for a while, and she’s decided that today is the day.

“As some of you know, I’ve had a mountain of family drama,” Meghan says calmly. “I don’t want to rehash the deets—watch my other videos for that—but as bad as my mom was… I have some things to own up to.”

She pauses and clears her throat just as we pull into the driveway.

Shepherd stops the car and watches with me.

“First, I want to reiterate that all of the allegations I made against Destiny Lancaster and Shepherd Foster were completely false. Mom wrote the scripts and coached me on lines with her brand consultant, but I was the mouthpiece. I made them viral. I took the videos down the instant I came to my senses so I wouldn’t perpetuate those hurtful lies any longer, but you’ve probably heard of them and wondered. Maybe you read the news and put two and two together, but that isn’t enough. I told the whole world Destiny slept with Shepherd Foster, CEO of Home Shepherd, purely to get her Young Influencers position. That was toxic and inexcusable.”

My throat tightens at the way her eyes fill with tears.

She really means this, making amends.

All her apologies, her regrets, feel so sincere it makes my heart bleed.

Meghan stares at the camera. “I was manipulated into saying it, yes, but I never should have. My courage came too late, and the lies my mother made me spread hurt people. I’m deeply ashamed, and I won’t ever let it happen again.”

“Brave girl,” Shepherd growls sincerely, glancing at me with his usual intensity.

I nod.

“Have you reached out yet?” he asks.

“I will in a second. She just posted a few hours ago. I’ll comment on the video, too, when I can think of something to say. Just so everyone knows there are no hard feelings.”

As Meghan continues talking about her struggle, we head inside. Molly jumps up from a nap and licks my hand, and I walk over to the back door to let her out.

Outside, it’s blue as far as you can see, sky and water and crisp fall air mingling together.

One day, I’ll get back on Shepherd’s yacht and enjoy a closer look—this time without any worries about an untimely date with the crabs. He’s just had the ship repaired.

But not today.

Not yet.

“I also wanted to let you guys know something important…” Meghan continues. “After I finish sharing my Journey with Tea, I’ve made the hard decision to retire. The content will stay up.”

I actually gasp.

“I know, I know,” she goes on. “Maybe you think this is a huge mistake, but… I’ve realized it’s time to step back and reassess what’s really important to me. Destiny taught me that.” Her smile, despite the tear tracks down her face, is huge. “I’m going to take some time off and find myself outside the public eye. Maybe I’ll volunteer for a bird rescue or something since Mom never let me have a parrot. It’s something I’ve always wanted, and I know I still have a ton of work to do, but… this is my moment. My life. And I’d like to thank you for sharing so many moments with me, and I hope my final videos over the next few months will help bring everybody out there some peace. I owe you one, Dessy, for helping me give myself a second chance.”


She’s so sweet it breaks my heart.

Oh, and she’s not finished.

“By the way, guys, in case you don’t know, Destiny’s passion for wildlife conservation is legendary. She’s brave and feisty and so, so smart. Since she’s been a big part of inspiring me to get my crap together, go check out her stuff. It’s not all about the cute animals. Check her stuff out and take this opportunity to see what difference you can make in the world.”

I lean over, beaming at Shepherd. “You know, that gives me an idea to celebrate…”

He groans. “No. We’re not getting involved with birds. I already funded one big search effort, and you’re stuck with Molly and your otters.”

A slightly harassed man in a blazer and rumpled suit checks my mic, making sure it’s attached securely and ready.

Shepherd, beside me, wears one of his customary charcoal suits. Classy and gorgeous and decently intimidating.

“You can’t scowl at her the whole time,” I say.

“I don’t scowl in court.” His brows inch down even lower.

“C’mon, Captain McSnarly, that’s your favorite expression, and this is the court of public opinion.” I preen at him.

Miracle of miracles, he laughs.

“Please try to look friendly,” I tell him. “Be approachable.”

He snorts. “The fact you’re doubting my ability to do either of those things is insulting.”

“Nope, it’s realistic.” I adjust his tie, though it doesn’t need me to. He’s handsome and polished, as always. “I know you, mister.”

“Good. Then you’ll know I’m perfectly capable of being polite—when the occasion demands it.”


His version of polite is shooting death rays from his eyes.

Vanessa Dumas, of course, likely knows what to expect.

I imagine he was that version of polite with her once, too, back when they were together.

Not together, though.

Not really, I remind myself.

But when he took her places and behaved like they were more than friends, he probably had his professional mask clenched tight.

It’s an attractive mask, for sure, but there’s no way she mistook his professional façade for any sort of feelings. Or even the hint of attraction.

I know him too well by now.

Well enough to be here while we tie up the last loose end in a nice little bow.

I have to search his face for the softness I adore, somewhere behind the steely blue eyes and the hard, handsome face that’s chiseled by life.

Just for me, he cracks another almost-smile and his hand finds mine.

“Let’s get this over with. You ready?”

“On a scale of one to ten, how bad will it be?”

His grip on my fingers tighten.

Bad, then.

“We’ll live,” he says casually. “It’s a decent improvement over surviving a near drowning and convincing your dad I have a right to breathe in your presence.”

Liar. Now he’s just being sweet.

“Whatever happens, I’m here, Shepherd,” I whisper.

I’m not nervous.

We haven’t been hiding our relationship from the cameras or anyone, really.

I’ve deliberately put him in a ton of my stuff on Insta and TikTok.

Whenever anyone asks, we admit the truth, and we’ve been seen in public by people who like to talk plenty of times.

For Shepherd, he’s actually been out a lot. Another big change. His life doesn’t revolve around the office anymore.

So, why are my palms so sweaty I can barely cling to him?

“Sorry.” I look up at him and grimace.

“We don’t need to do this, Dess,” he whispers. “We can still back out.”

“No way! Hannah assured me it was the best way to put this to bed. So, yeah. Let’s get it done.”

The harassed guy holds up five fingers and gestures at us.

Five minutes until showtime.

A muscle tics in his jaw.

The reason we’re here isn’t to rub salt in the wound that is Vanessa Dumas’ failed attempts to get with Shepherd. Or even to trumpet our relationship to the entire world—though that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in practice.

No, the real reason we’re here is to prove her wrong.

To clear Shepherd’s name and make people understand what a decent human being he really is.

No freaking way I’d ever back away from that.

“How are you feeling?”

“Like the luckiest man on Earth.” He’s totally deadpan, looking at me with nothing except the barest flicker of amusement he tries to hide.


“We’ll have to hope they don’t get that on camera.”

I pinch his arm, but his teasing helps settle my jitters.

It’s certainly not my first time being in front of an audience. But given everything that’s happened, I know the stakes, and I want to get this right.

So we wait quietly, still holding hands, until we’re given the signal to move to the staging area where the red couches are waiting.

Vanessa already had her chance to deliver her side of the story—pretty much the same version she spat out months ago.

Shepherd used her for sex, promised her marriage, and dumped her.

And with our whole fiasco, she’s used it to cement her position, even as she’s fallen out of the spotlight.

Shepherd is the bad guy.

But not after today.

As we walk onto that stage, though, her eyes widen when she sees us holding hands.

I know right then we’ve got her.

She never expected us to be together. Not for real.

She thought the rumors were as flimsy as the lies she’s been parroting ever since Shepherd rejected her. And the fact that we’re still so clearly together obviously stings.


The host greets us with a wide smile. Cameras swing in our direction and I have to fight not to acknowledge them. Shepherd, typically, doesn’t bat an eye.

“Mr. Foster,” she says in her cheery mom voice. I swear, these morning human interest hosts all sound the same. “Miss Lancaster. I’m thrilled you could both make it.”

Applause rolls through the live audience.

I’m pretty sure someone screams my name and it’s hard not to be surprised.

Oof. The audience factor makes this a little more difficult, but I pin on my bravest grin.

Shepherd smiles pleasantly at the host, Tiffany. Her lipstick is such a vivid blood-red, it makes the other colors in this place seem faded by comparison.

“Call me Shepherd,” he says.

“Thanks so much for having us, Tiff.” I beam.

“Yes, yes, and won’t it be so good to hear your side of the story.” Her eyes flick between Shepherd and me. “Does this mean you’re dating?”

“We totally are,” I confirm.

Damn, that feels good.

Shepherd turns his smile on me and whatever cold nerves I had melt away.

Yep. I would sell my kidneys for this man.

Vanessa snorts so loudly it sounds more like a cough. I’m almost certain she’s hurt herself.

“Oh, whatevs. So phony. They’ll be over tomorrow,” she whispers, her sympathy as fake as her overdone hair extensions.

Shepherd turns to her. “Vanessa, can we talk?”

I can’t tell if that’s a smile or a silent snarl she throws back.

“Um, yeah. I wish you’d done that earlier. We could’ve avoided a big ugly mess.” Her eyes fill with the cheesiest tears. “Instead of you leaving me like—like you did…”

God, people eat this stuff up?

It’s bad acting at its finest. Like Z-level stuff.

“Enough is enough.” He sighs impatiently. “Look, we both know that what you’re doing isn’t fair to me and it isn’t fair to you either. Do you want to be remembered as the girl I didn’t want? Is that what you think will send your career into the stratosphere?”

Her mouth drops.

I don’t think she’s expecting a direct hit.

He turns and speaks to the camera now.

“Miss Dumas has claimed for months that I did the same thing to her as to Destiny Lancaster, but while Dess and I are together now, we never met before my assistant hired her as part of the Young Influencer program. Meghan Cerva has publicly retracted her allegations, on record.”

“Yes,” Tiff chimes in, pausing as the big screen next to us displays a bullet summary of the drama. “Quite a wild ride for our happy couple lately. But tell me, Shepherd, at the end of the day, we’re still left with a lot of uncertainty about your relationship with Vanessa, aren’t we? So much ‘he said, she said’ it could choke a horse.”

The audience jeers. A few people clap and laugh obnoxiously.


“You paid them off,” Vanessa snaps—but she sounds unsure.

Tiffany whips toward her and waves a hand. “Now, now. Shepherd and Destiny’s relationship really isn’t in question when there’s a pile of legal records and witness testimony to back it up. Adriana Cerva, as you’ll recall, is just beginning to serve her sentence.”

Vanessa’s face whitens behind the red.

“Back to your point, I want to come clean,” Shepherd cuts in. “Yes, Vanessa and I had an agreement once. I was tired of dating and being swarmed all the time after—” He pauses and inhales deeply. “After Serena.”

“Your ex-wife?” Tiff leans forward in her chair intently.

“Yes. Your viewers might not know she was killed suddenly. I surprised her in bed with her lover, we had words, and the guy pulled a gun on me.”

Loud murmurs roll through the audience until Tiffany quiets them down.

I look at Shepherd, my eyes big and pleading.

Stay strong. You’re doing amazing.

“What I’m trying to say is, Vanessa was a stand-in woman. A mistake I made so I didn’t have to face reality. It was a stupid idea. When she wanted more and I turned her down, she ran with stories about us being madly in love. And while she might’ve ran with those fables, I’m the one who tried to run away. All I did was flee from my past—until I met Destiny.”

His eyes meet mine.

I can’t bring myself to care that we’re on live TV.

I walk over, lean down, and kiss him deeply.

The audience goes absolutely ballistic. They’re still shouting and talking loudly as the show pauses for a commercial break.

Next, once we’re back on, Tiffany video calls a few people who met Vanessa while she was on Shepherd’s arm. We were practically buried in requests from people volunteering to corroborate the truth after they found out about Adriana.

And the two people Tiffany pulls up both say the same thing—there was never any indication that they were dating.

No ring.

No stolen kisses.

No secret smiles I know too well.

Tiffany finally turns to me, the smile on her face undaunted by Vanessa steadily deflating.

“Tell us your story,” she says. “How do you feel about these allegations?”

“Well, I know they aren’t true, for one. Anyone as work-focused as Shepherd doesn’t have time for a relationship. And trust me, he needs some serious persuading to relax.”

The easy laughter that follows is sudden.

I prod his leg. “But he’s very sweet about it. We didn’t plan this. It just sorta happened, like love always does.”

“How did you two get together?” Tiffany asks.

“Um. Otters?” And I tell them the story of our camping trip, taking Shepherd’s hand as I recount how we couldn’t stand each other until that weekend.

“But even then, we still had our doubts. We needed everything that happened with Adriana Cerva to see the truth.” I give Shepherd a soft smile. “Plus, he gets major points for loving my dog.”

“Well, what more can a man do?” Tiffany laughs. “So your relationship happened after the allegations?”

“I had a crush on him almost from the beginning,” I say. “Who wouldn’t? I think he took a little longer to come around, but in the end, he did.”

“So you pursued him?”

I cock my head as I look at Shepherd thoughtfully. “No. I think we both came together when the time was right.”

Tiffany turns to Shepherd. “And no ring this time?”

“Not yet,” he says after a moment. My heart races as he continues, “I’m here today because I’m ready to get on with my life, and I think, deep down, Miss Dumas is too. I’m willing to drop all defamation charges if she’ll agree to let this go.”

Tiffany turns back to her. “Vanessa? What do you say?”

The silence is deafening.

I think she knows she’s cooked. The evidence is crystal clear, and with Adriana going down and Meghan’s statement, she has even less of a leg to stand on with her lies.

She knows it and so does the world.

So does Tiffany, whose smile is steady and unrelenting.

The next question is going to be devastating.

“Is there any particular reason why you claimed Shepherd Foster pursued a sexual relationship with you? And if there isn’t, why not just take the olive branch?”

“I… I didn’t come here for this. The nerve of this man, cornering me like this after everything, after—I simply won’t be put on the spot!” Vanessa’s expression falls as she stands unsteadily.

I find Shepherd’s hand.

After so much misery, it should feel good to see her humiliated like this.

It actually doesn’t.

I feel sick.

Her hands ball into fists as she storms off stage, wiping at real tears. The cameras follow her.

It may be what she deserves.

But I don’t have that smug sense of satisfaction or victory I expected.

“Tiff, here’s her reason. People do stupid things when they’re hurt,” Shepherd says. His hand is so warm and steady around mine. “She had illusions about us falling in love, and I tried to talk her down. I don’t suppose she ever thought it would come to this. Don’t suppose she wanted it to, either.”

I nod. “It’s not something I hold against her.”

“Well, that’s that, folks. It’s all up to the lawyers now, but I think we know where this is going. I’m wishing you both the best, and thanks so much for joining us today to clear the air,” Tiffany says, looking between us like she doesn’t understand what just happened either.

I know I don’t.

Not until two days later, when Shepherd’s lawyer gets a note that says Vanessa is retracting her claims, effective immediately.

It feels like the end of the beginning as I drop my phone and leap into his arms the second he walks through the door.

The whole time we kiss, Molly wags her tail, thumping the nearby chair like our little celebration has its own rhythm.


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