I thought it was really cute the guys all called her Tink. It was short for Tinker Bell because she was so small and blond. Even if her personality was more shark than woodland sprite, the nickname fit.
Cora lifted a shoulder and let it fall. “I dunno. I’m still kind of in shock.”
Rowdy laughed. “Oh, come on. We all know Rome’s an old-fashioned guy at heart. Of course he was gonna make an honest woman out of you and ask you to marry him.”
She held her hand out in front of her and turned it so that the light from outside shimmered and glinted of the jewels. She really did look like a hip and trendy version of a Disney character.
“He didn’t ask me.” Both of her eyebrows shot up and a sardonic grin pulled at her mouth. “He told me.”
That made Rowdy laugh and I just gaped at her. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“Nope. He took me out to dinner, which was really nice since we haven’t really had a ton of alone time together since Remy was born. We went back home and I thought my dad and the baby were still going to be there but Rome asked Dad to take her for the night.” She blinked rapidly and wrinkled her nose. I think she was about to cry before she reined it in. “He also asked my dad for permission, which is so crazy. Rome never asks anyone for anything, ever.” She put a hand to her chest and sighed. “He got down on one knee and told me he didn’t care if we lived in the rental forever or if we lived in a tent in the woods as long as we were together forever. Then he told me I was going to marry him, that I didn’t have a choice.” She flashed the ring at me. “Then he put this on me and told me I’m never allowed to take it off.”
I didn’t think that sounded very romantic but apparently it had been because it was the only time I could remember ever seeing Cora look so dreamy eyed.
“Well, congratulations.” I was really happy for her. She was a very cool chick and had a beautiful family. It was a nice change of pace to the early-morning horror that had been just outside my door.
“I was engaged a million years ago and it was a shit show. It all feels different when it’s the right person. Like it just settles into your bones and you just know it’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Rowdy’s fingers tightened on the back of my neck and I looked up at him by tilting my head back a little. His sky-blue eyes were glowing in his face.
“Well, tell the big guy we’re all happy for the two of you and you do realize this means Rule is going to be in charge of Rome’s bachelor party when the time comes, right?”
She opened her mouth and then snapped it shut with her teeth clicking together. She narrowed her eyes at Rowdy. “Over my dead body.”
She turned on her combat-booted heel and headed back up the stairs. Rowdy let go of his hold on me and propped his hip on the edge of the desk. He changed the subject to the one I was trying to actively avoid thinking about.
“I think you should pack up Poppy and come stay at my apartment for a few days while the cops try and find that Oliver guy to serve him with the restraining order.”
Since my sister’s estranged husband wasn’t from the area and we couldn’t figure out how he had located Poppy, finding him was a much more difficult task than it should have been. And really a restraining order wasn’t any kind of guaranteed protection. Royal had been brutally clear with Poppy when she explained that all it did was enable the police to arrest Oliver for violating the order, but he could very well walk right through it if he was as intent on getting to her as he seemed to be.
I propped an elbow on the edge of the desk and looked up at him through my lashes. “Yeah. That would probably make her feel a little better about things.” I sighed. “It would probably make me feel better about things as well.”
He reached out and tugged lightly on the ends of my hair. “They’ll find him.”
“How do you think he even knew where to look for her, where I lived?”
“I dunno. Maybe he searched for you on the Internet. All he would have to do is search Google and you pop up as the manager of the shops here. I’m not sure how he narrowed it down to what apartment complex you live in, though. Do you think Poppy might have told someone she was staying with you?”
There was subtext there I didn’t want to hear even though it was loud and clear. I sighed and moved to rest my forehead against the hard muscle of his thigh.
“You think she talked to one of my parents, don’t you?”
He put his hand on the back of my head and massaged my scalp. “Walking away for you was different. You never cared what they thought, never wanted to fit into the mold that they had crafted for you. Poppy wasn’t like that. She valued your dad’s opinion. She wanted to please him and have him love her unconditionally. That’s a hard habit to break free from.”
I lifted my head up and stood so that I was right next to him. If we were anywhere but at work I probably would have jumped him and kissed him all over.
“Can you watch the front for me for just a second? I want to go upstairs and talk to her really quick.”
He nodded and crossed his arms over his chest. “Take it easy on her. I know it’s been a long time and a lot of miles for you, but try and remember what living under his thumb and under his roof was like.”
I couldn’t resist the urge to run my fingertips over the way his bicep flexed enticingly as I moved around him and made my way upstairs. The door to Cora’s office was open and she was on the phone at her desk. Poppy was standing in front of one of the fun-house mirrors making faces at herself, which made me laugh out loud and had her turning around to glare at me.
“What? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do in them? I don’t know how anyone is going to use them when they try on clothes. They make your reflection crazy and totally unflattering.”
“There are normal mirrors in the dressing rooms. These are just for fun.”
She made her way over to me and took a seat on the vintage velour lounger that was now right in the middle of the room. It was covered in purple velvet and just as wacky and gaudy as the rest of the decor of the shop. It was a nice place for boyfriends and husbands to sit down while their ladies shopped.
“This place is so cool, Salem. I see so much of you in it. This really is the perfect place and the perfect job for you.”
“It’s going to be even better when the guys find time to add art to the collection, and I’m still working on Rowdy to convince the gang to make a sexy calendar.”
She laughed at that even though I was dead serious about it. Those boys would have them flying off the shelves if I could just get them to agree to it. I knew it was a long shot but I still really liked the idea.
I reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “I want to ask you something and I want you to be honest with me, Poppy. Did you tell Mom or Dad you were here in Denver with me? I just want to know how Oliver would’ve found out exactly where my apartment was. Denver is a pretty big city. It’s not just like he stumbled upon it out of luck.”
I saw her pale under her caramel-colored complexion. Her honey-colored gaze got wide and I saw her bottom lip start to quiver. I squeezed her shoulder in comfort and pulled her forward into a one-armed hug.
“Poppy, it’s fine. I just wanted to know. I want to keep you safe.”
“I called Mom to let her know I was okay. It was one thing for Dad to justify Oliver hurting me, but I figured there was no way a mother could condone that happening to her child. I told her I was staying with you and that I would be back soon to get the rest of my stuff and that I was going to file for divorce.” She gulped and pulled away from me so that she could shove her hands through her hair. “Mom told me to come home. She said everything can be worked out if I have enough faith and that I should trust God and look into counseling.. She told me she was disappointed in me and that Dad was devastated by my betrayal.” She laughed so sharply I was surprised it didn’t draw blood when she spit it out. “My betrayal. Can you believe that?” Well, of course I could. That was why I had left, but she kept talking, so I didn’t get the opportunity to tell her that. “I didn’t tell her where you apartment was, though. I would never do that to you. I know if you wanted them to know where you lived, you would’ve have told them yourself.”
“I know. I feel like I should have known better. The idea that Oliver might have been watching you, could have followed you home from work or something, makes my skin hurt. I know he’s dangerous and I can’t believe I would so recklessly put you in harm’s way after you took me in without question.”
The idea that her husband might have followed me to find out where I lived had never occurred to me but it made my skin crawl. That was definitely unnerving.
“It’s hard when you realize the people that love you the most actually care about you the least. Dad has always been way more focused on the church and his image than he was on what was happening under his own roof. He thought control and dominance was a substitute for love and understanding.” I rolled my eyes at her. “And Mom just follows his lead. There was never room in that house for us to be anything but their little, perfect dolls. We weren’t supposed to individuate, and when we did”—I shrugged—“they just couldn’t handle it. You need to tell yourself over and over again that none of this is your fault.”
“I feel like it all is, though.”
I hugged her again, realizing my sister was going to eventually need some professional help when all of this died down. She had been in the mix of my dad’s machinations and in an abusive relationship far too long for my love and support to be enough to get her head around everything.
“Rowdy wants us to come stay at his place until we know for sure Oliver has been served with the protection order. Royal said when they find him the police will try and convince him the best course of action is to just head back to Texas, but until that happens we’ll camp out at the bachelor pad.”
She grumbled something under her breath and got to her feet in front of me so that she could pace back and forth in front of me in an agitated matter.
“You and Rowdy should be hanging out and enjoying spending time together. It took you a lifetime to finally get together and here I am right in the middle of it once again.”
Not too long ago the idea of her being between him and me would have had me freezing Rowdy out and pushing him away again. The fear that what he used to feel for her would somehow overwhelm what he now felt for me was gone. I could see it when he looked at me now. I felt it in every touch and saw it in every rakish smile he threw my way. When he loved, he loved wholly, completely, and forever. I knew it deep down in my bones, just like Cora had said. What was between us was just right, it had always been. We both needed time to grow up and let it find its way to a solid and healthy place so we could both enjoy it.
“You aren’t in the middle of us, you are surrounded by us because we both care a lot about you and don’t want you to be hurt anymore. We’ve both been protecting you from afar for years. Now we are a united front and God help anyone that tries to get through us.” I lifted up my eyebrows and gave her a hard look. “Mom and Dad included.”
She squeezed her eyes shut and pushed the heel of her hands into them. “I’m just so tired of it all, Salem.”
Who could blame her? I looked up as Cora came out of the office. She had a permanent smile on her face and really, with that pretty ring and the even prettier man that had given it to her, she had every reason to be lit up from the inside out with joy.
“I don’t mean to pry.” Of course she did. It was Cora’s lot in life to be smack-dab in the middle of whatever drama was going on in the Marked world, so I just rolled my eyes at her and got to my feet. “But you both look exhausted and my dad still has my kid, so I don’t need to be home until later. Why don’t you go on and head over to Rowdy’s so you can rest for the remainder of the day?” Her pierced eyebrow danced upward, making her look like a mischievous fairy. “I’ll watch the front and shut down the shop when the last client leaves.”