Two and a half months pass by in a blur after losing both Nigel and Tanner. I’m in a hole of deep self-pity, thinking about how those I love leave. First my mom, Holly moving to LA, Nigel, and now Tanner. I don’t know how I even function, but somehow, I do. I’ve re-read his letter so many times since he left. He knows me so much better than I gave him credit for. He knew I would be the most hurt over losing the connection to my mom I have when I’m with Nell. He’d written that letter long before coming over that day we lost Nigel. Long before I told him that’s how I felt. He’d already planned to leave for Vegas. Maybe if I’d said something different, it would have changed his mind?
But I didn’t.
I was too angry and hurt to do anything other than push him away.
Drew brought over Tanner’s coffee machine, saying he’d want me to have it. I didn’t ask how Tanner is, despite wanting to. Drew, being Drew, though, left no detail out when he told me how miserable he is. How he’s in Vegas, the “Adult Disney World”, yet barely leaves his hotel apartment unless it’s for work. I don’t know whether this makes me feel better or worse. I hate the idea of him being unhappy, but I’m also relieved to know that he hasn’t moved on with someone else already.
I volunteered to work Christmas. So many of my colleagues hate to be away at that time of year, so they bit my hand off when I offered days off in exchange for a flight. I can’t say Christmas in Lagos, Nigeria was the most festive one I’ve ever had, but the other crew members were fun, and it kept my mind off Tanner and what he was doing.
The only problem with picking up extra flights is that now I have two weeks off as my flying hours were getting high, almost the top of the limit of how many we can do in a rolling year. It means I’ve spent some time with Nell, which has been lovely. She’s careful not to mention Tanner too much, but he’s her son, and he’s also in a lot of her stories and photos from when she knew my mom. Besides, I don’t want her to feel uncomfortable around me, so I ask after him sometimes. She always looks hopeful when I do. But it’s a wasted hope. How can I ever go back on what I said to him, even if I wanted to? I let him think I don’t love him—as though all our time together meant nothing. Yet here I am, acting like he was the cruel one for lying to me. Surely that makes me a hypocrite.
I sigh, leaning back into the sofa cushions as I cradle my mug. Even my favorite drink doesn’t taste the same now. Everything is just so much… less without Tanner. I look around the living room. Megan’s at work, and Matt is off in Hawaii with Stefan. Without Nigel here, the house is silent.
I hate it.
My phone buzzes on the coffee table as a call comes through.
“Jay?” I answer quickly. “Is everything okay? Holly—”
“She’s in labor,” he pants down the phone. His voice is a mix of excitement and pure panic.
“She’s what?” I cry.
“The doula is on her way. Holly’s getting into the birthing pool. She said I had to call and tell you!” His deep voice is out of breath. It sounds like he’s running around fetching things. I can hear Holly in the background telling him to relax, that they’ve got ages to go yet. That she sounds so calm and can still talk helps to slow my racing heart.
“I’m on my way!” I shout, prodding the end call on my phone sharply. I call Megan to tell her. She’s caught up in meetings at work but insists I should go without her, and she will catch up in a couple of days if she can. I hang up from her call and dial staff travel to book a seat on this afternoon’s LA flight. I grin as I rush around the house, throwing things into my case.
My best friend is having a baby!
“She’s absolutely perfect,” I say to Holly and Jay as I look down at the tiny bundle in my arms. “Your mommy did good,” I coo, leaning down to her soft baby skin and inhaling her newborn scent. Her eyes are closed, and she’s dreaming once again, her eyelids fluttering as her tiny breaths come out in puffs.
“She sure did,” Jay says, wrapping his arm around Holly and beaming at her. “You were amazing,” he says to Holly, kissing her as she tilts her head up toward him. His blue eyes sparkle as he gazes at her.
I swallow the lump in my throat at their complete and obvious love for one another.
Matt and Stefan gather around me and stare at the new member of our gang. They made it here before I did, cutting their trip to Hawaii short to get back.
“Can I hold her again?” Matt asks, dancing from foot to foot. “Me, me, Uncle Matt,” he calls over my shoulder, pulling a funny face.
“She can’t understand you yet,” Stefan says, wrapping an arm around Matt, completely under Summer’s spell, just like the rest of us.
“Little, Summer Robyn Anderson,” I say in a sing-song voice. “You’re going to have all the boys chasing you, maybe the girls too.” I smile.
“She will not. No dating until she’s thirty.” Jay frowns, straightening up.
“Relax, Daddy.” Holly giggles, stroking Jay’s arm.
He softens at her words, and his eyes mist up. “I can’t believe I’m a daddy.”
“Better get used to it,” I say as Summer’s eyes peek open, and she looks at me, trying her best to focus.
“You are the most precious baby I have ever known,” I whisper softly.
“I think she’s hungry again, mama,” I say to Holly, watching Summer’s little fists come to her mouth as she roots around, looking for milk.
I hand her to Holly, and Matt lets out a disappointed-sounding sigh.
“You’re going to be tall like daddy, aren’t you?” Holly says as she nestles Summer in her arms and lifts her top, relaxing back into the sofa as she feeds her.
Matt stares at Holly breastfeeding. “That’s incredible.” His eyes are wide.
“Didn’t they teach you about that at school?” I smirk, knocking his shoulder playfully.
He bats me off. “Ha ha, so funny, Rach. I just mean it’s amazing how the human body can provide everything that Summer needs.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Stefan agrees as we all fall quiet again and listen to Summer’s contented little snuffles as she works on getting baby drunk on milk.
Matt turns to me. “I’m glad you’re getting back to yourself. I almost missed having you make fun of me.”
“Only almost?” I fire back.
He gives me a wink before taking Stefan’s hand. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, we need to finish unpacking.” They hug and kiss Jay and Holly, blowing extra kisses to Summer, who’s still busy feeding in Holly’s arms.
Once they’ve left, I sink down next to Holly as Jay heads off to get us all a drink. Holly’s drinking more water than I’ve ever seen anyone consume. Breastfeeding makes her constantly thirsty.
“How are you really doing, Rach?” she asks.
The kindness in her voice draws a long sigh from my lips.
“Honestly? Shit.” I mouth, “sorry,” as I look down at Summer. “I was fine before I met him, Holly. I did what I wanted or who I wanted. I was happy.”
“Were you, though?” Holly takes one hand and gently lays it over mine, effectively stopping my wrist from getting any redder. I didn’t even realize I was scratching it.
“I didn’t know I wasn’t.” I shrug, rubbing my hands across my eyes. I turn to look into her green eyes. “You’re my best friend, Holly. You’re literally one of the only people I trust in the world.” She squeezes my hand in response. “Do you think I’ve made a mistake?” I whisper, searching her eyes as though they hold all the answers.
“I think you already know the answer to that yourself, Rach.” Her voice is gentle.
“Fu… Fudge.” I sigh, glancing down at Summer again. She’s smiling in her sleep, her lips twitching up in one corner and exposing her gums as though being tugged by a tiny string. I smile at her little face. “Holly, she’s just so perfect. I must get a picture of that face.” I pull my phone out and take a photo before turning the screen to show Holly.
“Aw, that’s a good one,” Holly says, before smiling down at Summer.
I go to turn the screen off, but my camera roll flashes up instead. My breath catches in my throat as I see the photo of Tanner with Nigel asleep on his chest. Holly looks at it over my shoulder before speaking.
“You’ve spent your entire life being strong, Rach. Being in love doesn’t make a person weak. Opening your heart up to someone and being vulnerable—that’s one of the bravest things you can do.”
I watch her closely as she smiles at me, her beautiful daughter in her arms—the ultimate creation of her and Jay’s love. My stomach lurches.
I will never have this.
If I always keep people out of my heart, I will always end up alone. Where’s the strength in that? My eyes sting. I’ve had it all wrong this whole time.
“You know, Vegas is only an hour’s flight.” Holly nudges me as if reading my thoughts.
The sun is shining as I step out of the taxi and onto the Las Vegas strip. It’s not hot, but it’s a world away from the frost back home. The giant hotel I’m standing next to reaches up to the sky. It looks a lot different from when Matt and I were last here, months ago. The fencing with the design posters on is gone. The hotel still hasn’t re-opened yet, but it doesn’t look far from being finished.
I walk up to the giant, black glass doors, which reflect my pale face back at me, and take a deep breath.
I wrap my hand around the large chrome handle that runs down the length of the door, and it opens effortlessly, allowing me entry. Inside is a hive of activity. Music blares from somewhere as people walk around carrying equipment. It looks like they’re just doing the finishing touches. As with a lot of the hotels in Vegas, I’ve walked straight into the casino. The temptation to be pulled into the glamourous world of roulette and poker hits you the moment you enter. I look around at the re-model Tanner’s company has done. It’s incredible. Dark glass, mirrors, and velvet make it feel sensual. It’s impossible to tell whether it’s day or night outside. Exactly what hotels here aim for. They want you to be so immersed in your surroundings that you lose track of time spent here. That’s why you hardly ever see clocks in the casinos. In here is a fantasy world, where time doesn’t exist. At least, that’s what they want you to think when you’re spending money.
“Can I help you?” A young woman in a suit approaches, looking at me through her designer frames. She’s immaculately presented with her blonde hair tied up into a chic bun that looks like it took hours and a million hairpins to achieve. Her manicured nails wrap around her clipboard as she waits for my answer.
“I’m looking for Tanner Grayson. My name’s Rachel Jones… he will want to see me,” I add as I feel her cool gaze assessing me. She stares at my tight, ripped jeans and slouchy blouse that’s slid off one shoulder. I hold her gaze, and after a long pause, she smiles at me.
“Of course. Follow me.” She turns and leads me down a side hallway past a sign saying Conference Center. “Mr. Grayson has his office set up here for the time being. I’ll just let him know you’re here.”
“There’s no need, Suzanne, thank you.”
My eyes widen at the deep, gravelly voice, and every hair on my body feels like it’s standing to attention. Suzanne’s eyes narrow as she looks at me one more time before stalking off back down the hallway.
“Your assistant seems friendly,” I say as I turn towards him.
His dark eyes are like lasers on mine the moment I turn. I swallow down the lump in my throat, my mouth suddenly dry.
His hair is a little longer, and he’s got a new suit on, a deep blue with an emerald tie. He looks harder. The amber flecks in his eyes glow like they’re on fire, but his lips are set in a grim line.
“She’s not my assistant. She works for the hotel.”
We stare at each other, neither wanting to volunteer to break the silence. I straighten my back. He’s not going to make this easy for me.
“Tan.” I raise my eyes to his gaze, and I swear he flinches at the sound of me saying his name, his eyes pinching at the corners.
“I haven’t heard from you in almost three months, Rachel. What are you doing here?” He crosses his arms over his chest as he looks at me. The motion disrupts the air around him enough that I smell his familiar, spicy scent. It pulls me back to a memory of him with his arms wrapped around me, comforting me when Nigel died.
I take a deep breath to steady my uncharacteristic nerves. “I came for you.”
He raises one perfect, dark eyebrow, his face not giving anything away. “Really? You came here for me?” He leans against the doorframe to his office, making no attempt to move any closer to me or invite me in to sit down.
I thought his grey suit was my favorite, but this… fuck, he looks so dark, brooding, and sexy in this blue one, even if he is being so cold.
“I thought you’d be happy to see me.”
“Did you?” he asks. His eyes drop down my body and back up again. “Well, now I’ve seen you.” He stares at me, challenging me.
My throat burns and constricts.
“Fuck you,” I whisper as my cheeks burn.
I know I deserve his coldness. I hardly expected a welcoming party, but still. I didn’t come here to have him throw it back in my face. I turn to leave; this was a stupid idea.
“Rach, wait.” He sighs, uncrossing his arms and pushing his hands into his trouser pockets instead. “Tell me why you’re here.”
I look into his eyes and see the way they brighten under my gaze. I need to say what I came here to. He needs to hear this. After everything between us, I need to be honest now.
“I’ve missed you, Tan.” My voice comes out shaky. “I never realized just how much meeting you changed me. You showed me a different life, possibilities I had never even considered.” I stare into his eyes, searching for a giveaway to what he’s thinking. He’s looking at me with such intensity but says nothing. “I know I’m hard to love,” I continue, “I don’t make it easy.” My voice sounds like it belongs to someone else. I feel like I’m on show standing here alone under a spotlight, as I wait for his reaction.
With what feels like excruciating slowness, the corner of his mouth lifts, and his eyes sparkle as though he agrees with my statement. The sight of it makes me want to jump into his arms and crush my lips against his. “I couldn’t do it if I was the one standing where you are,” I add.
He looks at me for a long time, his eyes caressing over my face in gentle sweeps. “You can do anything you set your mind to, Rach. It’s one of the reasons I love you.”
I stare at him.
“Do you?” My heart’s beating so hard in my chest, I feel faint. I might pass out on this new, ridiculously extravagant carpet he’s installed.
“Do I what? Love you?” He draws his hands from his pockets. My eyes fall to them, and I look at his long, talented fingers, recalling the way they felt against my skin the first time we really made love to one another in New York. The first time I ever made love with anyone. And if Tanner won’t give me another chance, he will also be the last person I ever make love with. I know in my heart that he’s it for me. No one else could stand a hope in hell of coming close.
He moves towards me, closing the distance between us, so he’s just inches away. I swallow down the rising flutters from my stomach and nod, looking up to his face.
His eyes hold mine. “I will never stop,” he says, his voice almost a whisper.
Although he may be trying, he can’t hide all the hurt I’ve put him through by denying my feelings for him. It’s in his eyes, behind the amber flecks I love so much. He wears it like a scar, hidden in their depths.
“I’m sorry I hurt you, Tan.”
He sucks in a breath and frowns. “I’m sorry I lied, Rach. I will regret it forever.”
I reach up and place a hand against his chest, elated that he doesn’t move away. “I’m more trouble than I’m worth. I let you think I didn’t feel the way I do about you.”
“I don’t agree,” he says, leaning closer.
“I never asked you to fall in love with me,” I say as my eyes blur.
“It was never up for discussion, Rach.”
I stare back at him as my tears fall. This beautiful man, his big heart. How could I have been so stupid to throw away something so precious?
All because I’m afraid.
“I’m in love with you,” I confess through my tears. “I was in love with you three months ago. I just wasn’t brave enough to admit it. It was easier to be angry and pretend that was the real reason I was pushing you away.”
Tanner places his hands on either side of my face, wiping the hot tears on my cheeks away with his thumbs. “These last three months have been hell, Rach. You do not know how much I’ve missed you… you and your snarkiness.” He smiles. “I know you don’t need to be taken care of. You don’t need me, Rachel. But God, do I want to be there for you.” His voice breaks as he rests his forehead against mine. “I want to support you, laugh with you, love you, grow old with you.” He sighs. “If this is going to work, you have to let me in. Don’t just open the door for me, Rach. Tear down the fucking walls altogether. I love you, Rachel. I want to marry you one day.”
“Okay,” I whisper.
Tanner’s brow creases. “Okay?”
“Yes!” I nod my head as I wrap my arms around his neck, my pulse racing. The rest of my life is waiting for me, and it’s time I started living it.
Tanner looks confused. I gaze into his eyes, losing myself in them as I stand on my tiptoes and dust my lips over his. Their warmth against mine sends a tingle all the way to my toes. He smells sweet and fresh, like he’s just eaten an apple.
“Yes, I’ll marry you,” I murmur as I press the lightest of kisses to his lips.
His eyes widen before he blinks, appearing to do a double take. Suddenly he barks out a laugh as he catches on. I know he didn’t mean right now, but I’m done with being in denial. I don’t do things by halves. He should know that by now.
He takes a deep breath, his eyes glowing. “Are you asking—?” I silence him with a finger to his lips.
“No, but you just did, and my answer is yes. I love you so much, Tanner Grayson.” I smile at him.
The floor falls away from under me as I’m lifted off my feet and wrapped in warm, powerful arms. “You’re the most complicated, infuriating woman.” Tanner laughs, his eyes still wide in disbelief as his mouth turns into a huge grin.
“And you’re still a smug wanker.” I giggle as I run my hands through his hair, my tears turning to happy ones.
“Too fucking right, I am! I’ve got the sexiest fiancée in existence.” He beams. “Are you sure about this—?”
I cut him off with a kiss.
He hasn’t got the sexiest fiancé.
I melt into him as we pull each other closer, remembering what the other feels like, savoring being together again. Kissing away the hurt and pain. Kissing hello to new beginnings and to love. The salt from my tears mixes with our tongues. I’ve missed this. I’ve missed him so much.
He breaks our kiss, panting as he holds me up tight against him. His eyes glittering as his eyebrows shoot up. “You need a ring.”
“I need you more,” I groan, wrapping my arms around his neck, trying to pull him back to me. My body has gone into overdrive being back close to him. I want to feel his skin against mine more than anything.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this—” he kisses me again. “But later. I’m making it official before you change your mind.”
“I won’t ever change my mind.” I kiss him again, running my fingers through the hair at the back of his head.
“Well,”… kiss…. “I’m taking”… kiss “no”… kiss… “chances”… kiss. He grins, putting my feet back down on the floor and bending down on one knee.
“Rachel Jones, I’m on one knee, so it’s definitely official.” He looks up at me. “Will you marry me?”
I look down at this handsome man—his dark hair and deep brown eyes with their fiery amber flecks—gazing up at me with adoration and love.
“Yes, a million times yes, I’ve already told you!” I pull him to his feet so I can wrap my arms around him again. I look at him, at my future, staring back at me through his eyes.
The sight takes my breath away.
After all the years I’ve spent hiding from love, it’s now blindingly obvious.
Tanner Grayson is my beautiful destination.
It really was him—all along.