Epilogue – Six Months Later
I know it. There’s no way that award is going anywhere else.” Harley grins as she links her arm through mine, and we walk toward our table.
The men stand as we approach, and Reed pulls the chair next to him out for Harley. She smiles at him. The last time we were all together like this at a big function, she took delight in instigating the events that led to his date throwing her drink in his face. And now she’s smiling, no, make that smiling and giggling at something he whispers in her ear as she sits down.
I definitely need to find out what’s going on there.
I turn and gaze into intense blue eyes focused on me.
“We’ve only been gone a little while.” I laugh, warmth blooming in my chest as Griffin wraps an arm around my waist and pulls me to him.
“Too fucking long,” he murmurs, his eyes glinting as he flexes his fingers against my lower back, the edge of his pinky lightly grazing the top of my ass.
I smirk at him. “You’re thinking about it again, aren’t you?”
He leans forward, his lips grazing my ear as his scent surrounds me. “I’m always thinking about it when you’re involved.”
I laugh again and lean into him, shimmying a little, so my long silk dress flows over my bare skin.
“Sweetheart.” Griffin’s voice takes on a warning tone. “If anyone in this room looks at your perfect ass, which I know is bare under that fucking sexy dress“—his eyes roam down over the red fabric appreciatively—”then I’m going to have to remove their eyeballs from their skulls. Don’t make me get blood on my tux.”
“Spoilsport.” I press a kiss to his lips. “It’s your fault, anyway. Don’t soak my panties as we’re about to leave if you don’t like the consequences.”
His eyes darken as he dips his lips to my ear, his voice husky. “Not going to happen. That cunt? I can’t get enough. It’s my daily vitamin.”
His expression is serious. The only small giveaway that he’s amused is a slight curl at the corner of his mouth.
“It’s a multivitamin, meaning multiple times a day.”
“Oh.” I nod, my smile stretching. “That explains it, then. For a minute, I thought you’d been overdosing.”
Griffin tilts his head to the side, a dark-haired vision in his black tuxedo. “No. In fact, I think I may be deficient. I’ve been getting these cramps.”
He strokes the base of my back, sliding his hand a touch lower and sending goosebumps racing up my spine.
“Yes. Enormous ones. In this one muscle. The fucking thing is tense all the time.”
I laugh again, placing my hand against his chest as I gaze into his eyes. His dark brows rise in question.
He’s been amazing ever since we came back to New York together. Every day, more and more of the funnier, lighter Griffin sneaks out. It’s the side I see when we are away at the beach house or on his boat. Where he feels relaxed and free.
But small parts of that Griffin have started emerging when he’s in Mr. Parker mode, when he’s suited up and running his empire like a dark-haired ruthless God.
And I love each one that finds its way out into the light.
He smiles more, he makes jokes—sometimes. He looks happy. There’s a change in him that everyone has noticed. And The Songbird is thriving as a result.
He’s no longer looking over his shoulder, suspecting everyone, not trusting any of his staff enough to relax and let them do their jobs without breathing down their necks.
We both have.
“We’d better give you another dose when we get home, then,” I say.
“You better.” He smirks, before kissing me.
We sit down at the table. The others are all having their own conversations—Harley, Reed, Will, and Mr. Van Cleef and Arpels—who is lovely, and called Fraser, and thankfully still doesn’t know that I almost lost one of his ridiculously expensive diamond necklaces. Suze has brought someone with her, a guy who has hung off her every word all evening, and then there’s Earl and Mrs. Earl, Diana.
Everyone is here at the Met for the Annual New York Business Excellence Awards. They’re prestigious and old school. I’m surprised Griffin is as calm as he is. Harley said that during the run-up, he usually starts marching around The Songbird like they’re on a military maneuver, uptight and serious, fretting over how many awards The Songbird will pick up.
They win every year.
Best hotel in New York. Best location. Most romantic honeymoon suite.
They clean up.
But this year, he’s also got his eye on another award.
The one for best hotel spa.
It’s been doing so well. The man he brought in from Boston to run it, Daniel, has been doing an outstanding job. I glance over to the table next to us where he’s sat and catch his eye. He widens his eyes, giving me a mock ‘oh shit’ face, and I smile and shake my head. He doesn’t need to be nervous. I told him earlier, his achievements speak for themselves far more than any shiny glass award ever could.
But he wasn’t in one hundred percent agreement. He strives for perfection, just like Griffin. No wonder they get on so well.
“Right, ladies and gentlemen. Well, isn’t this exciting? Another year.”
The room breaks into applause as the mic is turned up and all eyes turn to the front of the room. I turn to Griffin, who has his arm wrapped around the back of my chair and he gives me a panty-melting smile—if I were wearing any.
He’s been acting extra attentive today. I mean, he’s always intense and possessive, and all those things that I shouldn’t love, being an independent woman, but yet, I can’t seem to get enough of. But today? Today he’s been watching me and smiling at me when he thinks I don’t notice. I swear he’s plotting something, although Harley swore earlier when I asked her that I had nothing to worry about. Yet, she also seems extra smiley tonight. I mean, she’s even laughing at Reed’s jokes.
Something is definitely amiss.
I turn my attention back to the stage where Josanna Frederick is standing, looking incredible in a black beaded evening gown. Vogue always covers this event. It makes up their special summer issue, and Josanna has been presenting the awards for the last few years.
Everything with the reaction and her hospital visit is all in the past now. Once she heard about Emily’s treatment and all the investment into mental health charities and wildlife conservation that The Songbird has been involved in—all set up by Griffin—she extended an olive branch, and they’ve even met multiple times since for business. I’m sure he even said he was meeting with her earlier today.
Griffin’s thumb lands on my shoulder, stroking my bare skin as Josanna introduces the awards and talks about life in New York and the elections, which will be happening in the next few months.
After a scandal that’s been kept under wraps so far, the current mayor is terminating his position early, and so an entirely new election campaign has begun. Hence why Reed only returned to California for a short while and then changed his plans from running for Mayor of LA, to snagging the Mayor of New York title. Griffin is loving having him around, even if he claims that he’s a giant pain in the ass most days.
Over the next hour, The Songbird scoops up award after award. Griffin makes a speech, standing up on stage looking delicious in his tuxedo, and more than a couple of women glance my way with envy in their eyes.
Daniel jumps out of his seat so hard that it flies backward, tipping onto the floor, when they win Best Spa. His delight is infectious, and draws extra loud cheers and whistles from our table as he goes to collect it.
I look over at Harley and smile as the final award winner leaves the stage. She beams at me. In fact, Reed, Earl, Suze, Will… everyone is grinning at me.
I turn to Griffin and lower my voice, leaning close to his ear. “What’s going on?”
“What do you mean?”
His eyes are creased at the corners, and they’re glittering.
“You’re not telling me something! What is it?” I laugh nervously, glancing around the table again, and at all the eyes that are on me.
He leans forward and brushes his lips against my temple, pressing a soft kiss there. “Show’s not over, Sweetheart. Turn back around.”
I narrow my eyes at him as he inclines his head toward Josanna, who is talking about an extra award that has been introduced for the first time this year.
“This is extremely exciting. Especially for myself, as I am a vigorous advocate for women achieving recognition in business. We live in a changing world, and for many years, it was a man’s world. And sometimes, it still is. But women are strong. We are capable. We are fearless. We are brave. And we will not be quiet anymore. Women are holding more top positions in business, in politics, in running our own companies than ever before. And this year’s new award is to highlight just that. So, it is with great pleasure I present the award for Manhattan’s Businesswoman of the Year.”
I glance back at Griffin, who’s watching me closely. His dark brows lift over his crystal eyes and penetrate deep into me as Josanna talks about a new company this woman has set up; a supply company that sources ingredients ethically for salons and spas, and produces award-winning products, which have amassed cult status and multiple celebrity followers.
My lips part and I stare back into Griffin’s eyes as tingles run up my spine.
“And so, I would like to invite the founder of Phoenix, Maria Taylor, to please come up and accept her award.”
Harley whoops, and our table erupts into a raucous applause. Then the rest of the guests join in. It echoes around the giant space, off the walls and ceilings, thundering around us. But it’s muffled, like I’m not quite in the same room.
I’m locked in one the color of diamonds.
He leans forward, placing his hands over mine in my lap.
“Sweetheart?” His brow quips in amusement as his perfect, sinful lips curl into a smile.
“You knew about this?”
“Maybe.” His smile grows. “Now go. Everyone’s waiting.”
I glance around the room at the other guests clapping and smiling in my direction, and then I stand on shaky legs.
I look back at Griffin.
He leans back in his chair and brings his hands together, joining in with the applause. “You’ve more than earned this, Sweetheart.”
I look into his eyes and the tiny lingering doubts leave.
And I turn and walk.
“I think I did pretty well for my first time in full control.” I grin at Griffin as I slide my key into the lock on the beach house door, the small shell with the blue center dangling from my key ring, my other hand holding my award.
“I think you did exceptionally well.” He sweeps my hair to the side and dusts his lips down over my neck as his hand slides down to my ass. “I don’t know what was sexier tonight. Watching you win that award“—he taps it with the fingers of his free hand—”or watching you fly the helicopter in this dress, knowing your cunt’s bare underneath.” He snakes the hand on my ass around to my front and cups me through the thin fabric.
I laugh, leaning back against his chest.
“And I don’t know what’s a bigger thrill, winning this award, or piloting that beast.”
I look over to the sleek black helicopter set down away from the house. Griffin organized flying lessons for me when I came back to New York. He told me he wanted me to feel the rush of flying, and being in control in the sky, as long as I promised to land back into his arms.
He’s a romantic when he wants to be.
“You want to take another beast for a ride?” His fingers cup me tighter as a growl vibrates up through his chest against my back.
And the rest of the time… he’s…
“Mr. Parker?” I tease as he snakes one hand up round my neck, pressing his hard cock against my ass as he gives my throat a gentle squeeze. I sink back against his muscular chest, loving everything about when he takes command of my body.
“Fuck, Sweetheart. Call me Mr. Parker in that voice again and I’ll take you right here against the door,” he rasps, angling my jaw toward him. “Do you want that?”
I bite back my moan as his tongue darts out and licks along my jaw and up the side of my face to my ear, setting my legs trembling with uncontained arousal.
“I said, do you want that?” His fingers flex against my throat as he growls, pinning me in place.
Heat pools between my legs as my breathing quickens. I nod, tilting my head to look back at him.
His eyes blaze into mine.
It’s a sight that never dims, never fails to take my breath away.
The way he looks at me… the way he’s always looked at me.
He is beautiful.
Heart, body, and soul.
This man is everything.
I lick my lips, wetting them, smiling as the action causes a muscle to tick in his jaw. My heart is hammering in my chest as I look back at him, his pupils dilating as he hears my words.
“Yes… Mr. Parker.”
Griffin pulls me over the sand toward the shore.
“I thought you wanted to get an early night?” I grin as I allow him to lead me barefoot over the soft sand.
“That was before.”
My feet sink as we walk, and I falter a little. Griffin’s hand tightens around mine instinctively, and he steadies me. “Before what?”
“Before the front door of the beach house became my favorite place.” He smirks back at me and I laugh.
“I thought the kitchen table was your favorite place?”
He cocks a dark brow as if in thought.
“And the shower.”
He opens his mouth.
“And that spot on the stairs where the sunrise first lands in the mornings?”
His eyes glitter as he smiles at me.
“Fine. The entire fucking house is my favorite. Every floorboard, carpet fiber, inch of tile, wall, you name it, where you’ve been mine, okay? Every single one. All my favorite.”
I bite my lip as he turns back around and continues to lead me to the water’s edge. A contented sigh leaves my lips as the water laps around my feet, immersing them in a cool pool with each swell of the tide.
“It’s a beautiful night.” I tip my head back and look at the sky.
You can see the stars here. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the stars in Manhattan. But here, where the sky is so clear, they dazzle like gemstones on a deep midnight blue quilt.
“It sure is.”
Griffin has tilted his head back to the sky, one hand still wrapped around mine, holding it snugly inside his. Protecting it.
He looks calm, happy. I love coming out here with him and seeing him like this. Things have been hard for him—the lies, the betrayal, finding out it was all Em, losing me, finding me again—but when he’s out here, all trace of that is gone, like a distant memory.
He looks younger, like a man in his thirties should, his jaw smooth, all tension gone. And his eyes are bright, with a smile that actually meets them.
He looks incredible.
“I’m so glad we came here tonight.” I let go of his hand and slide underneath his arm, holding him around the waist as he inclines his head toward me and kisses the top of my head.
We were going to go back to the apartment after the gala tonight, because we are due to visit Emily tomorrow. She’s been discharged now and is continuing her therapy at home, from her parents’ house. They wanted her to move in with them for a while and it seems to have been the best thing for her. Griffin said he sees her growing closer to her dad each time he visits. Which he does. A lot.
I don’t go often. Emily is his friend. I’m not sure I ever really knew her. Not the real her, who Griffin grew up with. Maybe I will in time, as she finds herself again.
“It’s fine. We have time, Sweetheart. We can fly back in the morning.” He tightens his arm around me. “I wanted us to be here for this.”
“For what?” I turn to look at him and he catches me in his piercing gaze.
“For—” He turns to face me, one hand going inside his jacket pocket.
A shadow appears overhead, and as it passes, Griffin jumps, grabbing at his neck.
“What the fuck?” He swings around in the direction of the seagull that’s cawing as it sails past us. “Ugh.” He raises his hand and pulls something dark and thick off the back of his neck.
“The fucker dropped it on me! Ugh!” He peels the dark clump of seaweed off his neck and throws it into the water, where it lands on the surface with a dull splat. “What’s it even doing out in the dark? Shouldn’t it be roosting or whatever the fuck it is they do?” He stares after it, scrubbing at his neck, his nose wrinkling. “God, I stink!”
I lean toward him, plucking an errant slimy green strand from his shoulder as I try to hold my laugh in.
“Oh, I don’t know. If anyone can pull off salty slime and fish pee, then it’s you.”
“Sweetheart,” he growls, looking at me darkly.
I bite my grin back. “I should call you the bird whisperer.”
“Not funny,” he huffs, straightening himself up and reaching into his jacket again.
“He’s coming back.” I point at the seagull, which has turned and is slowly gliding along the air back in our direction.
Griffin’s eyes go wide and his jaw ticks. “He better not be.”
I point behind him, and he turns.
“Get outta here!” he yells, attracting the bird’s attention more and causing it to fly closer to us.
Griffin waves his arms in the air, ducking as the bird swoops over his head and lands a couple of meters out on top of the water, where it bobs happily, beady eyes trained in our direction.
“Fuck, you made me drop it, you little bastard!” Griffin hisses as he bends down and retrieves something from the water, shaking it dry as he mutters under his breath.
He looks at me, and then back at the bird who is watching us.
“You’re going to be our fucking audience now, is that it? Jesus Christ,” Griffin tuts as he turns his attention back to me.
I roll my lips together, my shoulders shaking with a silent laugh.
“Don’t.” His lips finally curl into a trace of a smile as I grin at him.
“It is a little funny.”
“Not even the slightest bit.” He shakes his head, looking down at his hand.
“Okay.” I press my lips together again, but my eyes must give away the giggle I’m trying to hold in.
It vanishes the second Griffin drops to one knee on the sand in front of me.
‘Don’t say anything. Not yet. Not until you’ve heard what I have to say.’He takes my hand and squeezes his eyes shut, kissing my fingers. When he opens them again, they burn into mine.
‘Maria, I love you. You know I love you. I tell you every single day. But I want you to feel it. I want you to feel it and understand just how much you coming back to New York six months ago means to me. I will hate a part of myself for the rest of my life for what I put us through. For the gamble I took. I chose wrong, Sweetheart. I dealt the wrong hand, and I lost.”
My chest tightens at his choice of words.
His voice is heavy with emotion as he holds my gaze.
“I gambled. I played it safe and only listened to my fear. Instead of believing and trusting my gut. I will never be so stupid again.”
“I know,” I whisper, my throat growing tight as I look at him on the ground by my feet.
He has done everything and more since I came back to New York. To start fresh. To make me feel secure and loved, and trusted. He wanted to loan me the money to start my new company, Phoenix. It seemed fitting to have a bird name, especially one that rises from the ashes and is reborn.
Just like us.
Him and me.
Reborn into something even greater, even more beautiful, even stronger than before.
I didn’t take it. He knew I wouldn’t, and that I would want to do it myself, but he tried anyway. He will always try. But he doesn’t get his own way all the time. A fact he is starting to accept.
“I want you to be mine forever, Sweetheart.”
“No.” His eyes search mine as he holds up what’s inside his hand. “I want to say it in front of our family and our friends. I want everyone in the world to know and be witness to it. To the fact that you agree to be mine, and in return, I agree to be yours and to love you with everything I have. For eternity.”
He flips open the small wet box and inside is a perfect single stone.
A bright blue one.
“Hold out your hand.”
He places the large diamond in my palm and closes my fingers around it.
“When you’re ready. When you truly trust me again, then Fraser will take this and put it on a band for you, any design you want. A circle of trust, worn on this finger.”
He dips his head and kisses my wedding finger.
I look at him, and then slowly uncurl my fingers. The perfect sea-blue diamond sits there, like a droplet of the ocean shimmering in my palm.
The color of his eyes.
A little circle of trust.
“When you’ve forgiven me. When you’ve really forgiven what I put us through, then put this back in my hand. And I will do the rest.”
I pull him to his feet, clutching the diamond in one hand as I hold the side of his face with the other, dusting my fingers over the dark five o’clock shadow that’s settled along his jaw.
“I forgave you before we came back to New York. I wouldn’t have come otherwise.”
And I mean it.
I forgave him before I even walked into that meeting in the hotel. I forgave him when I was reading Harley’s letters and hearing about everything he did.
For me. For Emily. For everyone.
Maybe I even forgave him before that. Because I knew. Despite his ruthless, sometimes harsh exterior, Griffin Parker is a good man.
He has a good soul. And when he loves you, you feel invincible.
Cherished, protected, worshipped.
And that’s what matters.
He loves me. And I love him.
That’s what I told my nana after the hotel. That we have love, and that everything else will be worked out. That when your soul burns so bright for another, that it has to work out. Nothing else matters. She looked at me like I’d just spoken the closing words to one of her favorite books, pulling me into the tightest embrace as the emotions caught up with us both. We stayed there for a long time. Knowing that this new chapter for me, meant the end of one spent with her in England. It’s bittersweet as I miss her so much being so far away, but she’s already flown over twice since I left, bringing a case full of books for Harley with her.
“I forgave you a long time ago,” I say again.
Griffin’s jaw softens and his eyes shed another tiny glimmer of guilt that lives there in them.
It’s there every day, but it’s shrinking. With every kiss, every I love you, every love making session in the morning, every epic, wild all-consuming time we devour one another.
And my love for him grows, filling the gaps it leaves.
One day, our love for one another will have filled them all.
“No, Sweetheart. I need to earn it. I need to know you trust me again.” The weight inside him pours out in his words.
My beautiful man has gotten it wrong.
“I do trust you.” I stroke his cheek as I speak softly. “I never stopped trusting you. You bailed me out at the police station. You gave Earl money to help us gather evidence. Those aren’t the actions of someone who doesn’t deserve another chance. I never stopped trusting you. You stopped trusting yourself.”
“I broke us, Maria. You said it yourself in England.” He searches my eyes, and more than anything, I wish I could take the last ghost of his guilt away, pluck it out of his body, throw it in the ocean and watch the tide carry it away.
“But we aren’t broken anymore.” I smile at him. “Some of the strongest things are those that are tested. They bend and sway. But then they’re rebuilt on new foundations and are stronger than ever.”
He looks at me, holding me tightly against his chest.
“That’s us. Stronger than ever.”
“Yes,” I breathe against his lips as I rise on my toes and kiss him. “That’s us. Our pasts are both stormy in places. But we don’t give up. We use the air and we let it carry us, like we’re flying.”
“Flying?” He smiles at me and sends warmth blossoming through my body.
“Yes. Like a bird.” I grin at him and then look sideways at the seagull that’s still watching us intently.
“Like a…” His eyes follow mine, and he stiffens in my arms. “Cover your eyes, pervert!” he calls out, muttering under his breath as the bird ignores him and continues bobbing.
“Why does he need to—?”
“Because“—he pulls me closer to him, his large fingers flexing against my back—”he’s a nosy little fucker, and you’re for my eyes only.”
“Okay.” I giggle, leaning into his possessive embrace where I’m more at home than ever before in my life. “Okay,” I whisper again, dusting my lips against his.
“Fuck.” He sighs against my mouth, screwing his eyes tightly shut as he lifts his hands to my face, holding me in place so he can kiss me in the way that sends flutters through my body and has my heart beating hard against my ribs.
I kiss him back, losing all sense of time, until I have to pull back to breathe. I pant, drawing in much-needed air.
“I love you so much.” He reaches for me again, kissing the breath out of me once more. “I will worship you. I swear on my life, you’ll never question my love for you. You are everything to me,” he growls softly as his lips travel from my lips, across my jaw and down my neck, drawing a gasp from my lips.
“Your lighthouse?” I murmur as his lips reach my collarbone and dance their way along my skin.
“Fuck yes, Sweetheart.” His hot lips continue their path over my skin. “You. Are. All. Mine.”
“No.” I place my hand against his chest until he draws back his lips and lifts his eyes to mine. They shine like crystals in the moonlight.
I take his hand and place mine over it, uncurling my fingers and letting go.
His eyes drop.
Drop to the bright blue diamond shining in his palm.
Shining with possibilities.
For our future.
I take a deep breath and look into his beautiful eyes, which light up as he realizes what I’ve just agreed to.
To a lifetime with him.
And everything that means.
I lean forward, inhaling.
Tropical air after a storm.
I may be his lighthouse, but he’s this—my air. We’ve weathered one storm together. And I know we can survive the next.
Because life isn’t always a smooth flight, or even plain sailing.
But with him, every single wave, bump, riptide, whatever the hell it can be called, is worth it.
We are worth it.
Me and him.
My lips press against his, and I speak into his mouth, letting my words rush down into his body, toward his heart.
“No, Griff. It’s not just me who is yours.”
His arms tighten around me as he breathes me in, and his heart beats against my chest.
“Now, it’s you who is mine, too.”