“You like it?” I glanced down at the cream-colored strapless dress I wore. Covered lace at the top met sheer layers of the skirt that fell just below my knees.
“Love it. Very bridal. But of course, I love you more.”
He caught me up to his body and leaned down for a kiss, gentle and filled with devotion. That awareness, the ever-present arc of energy, crackled between us. His lips brushed against mine almost reverently. I closed my eyes and sank into the embrace. He traced the seam of my lips with his tongue. I sighed and opened to him, welcoming the sweet taste of him.
His tongue lashed deeper, seeking and nibbling. I moaned softly, pressing myself up to my toes. He pulled away slightly, shaking his head.
“Let’s go before I decide to steal you away from here and make love to you instead.”
I wouldn’t argue one bit, if I hadn’t known his parents were expecting us and had already put so much time into planning the party.
“Alli spent at least twenty minutes on my makeup. She’d kill me. Not to mention your parents and everyone else.”
He paused. “Are you nervous?”
I shrugged. “Maybe a little. I won’t know most of the people.”
“You will soon. They’re mostly my parents’ friends from when I was growing up. They’ll love you.” He clasped our hands together, lacing our fingers. Chest to chest, we made no effort to move. I could stay this way, hiding away in his arms all day. As if the rest of the world didn’t exist.
“I love you, Blake. We say it all the time, but sometimes I wish I could show you more. Nothing seems to do the words justice.”
He lifted my hand and pressed his lips to the band that adorned my ring finger. “You do show me. Every day, by being with me. And if that’s not enough, you have the rest of our lives to prove it to me.”
I smiled warmly. “Sounds like a good plan.”
“Come on. Let’s go.”
Blake led me into the large open living area that joined with the Landons’ designer kitchen and an impressive dining area. The combined rooms looked out onto the ocean through a wall of windows. The already expansive room had begun to fill with mingling guests. Before I could think of introducing myself, Catherine ushered over the first group of friends. Recognition lit up Blake’s face, and I steeled myself for the first of what would be many introductions tonight.
Hours passed as we went from one group to the next. The members of Blake’s extended family were as sweet and lovable as the immediate. To them, Blake was still a young man, a boy even. I could see it in their eyes and the way they interacted with him so casually. No longer the intimidating, dominating man who fought tooth and nail for what he wanted, Blake joked and even reddened a few times as people shared stories of his youth.
I repeated the story of how we’d met in the Angelcom boardroom, reliving the moments. The attraction that charged our initial interest in each other had only grown since that time.
On the outside, Blake was perfection. Beautiful, wildly successful, rich beyond anything I could fathom, and he was charming to boot. So few people knew his heart, though. The darkness that lived there sometimes, and the passion that had deepened our bond. In the picture he painted of his youth, I saw a highly intelligent man searching for answers in our convoluted world. And in that seeking, he’d lost a friend.
Though he refused to talk about it with any depth, I knew he carried the weight of Cooper’s suicide with him. I’d guessed too that something had altered in him when it happened. A commitment to the control he so needed had been born. A fervent determination to never go through that kind of terrible experience again combined with the opportunity that Pope, his mentor, had given him to succeed with the software venture made control possible for him. He now had more control than any average person could ever hope to have.
I was lost in my own thoughts for a moment when Blake’s countenance turned stony. I followed the path of his gaze and stopped abruptly. Max stood casually next to the man I recognized from photos online to be his father, Michael. Dressed in khakis and a dark V-neck, Max carried his usual charming smile into the room. The two men were the same height and build, and Michael was no less attractive for being an older man. His skin was darkened by the sun, his hair white with the hint of blond that had faded out with age.
When Max’s gaze lit on us, he stilled a moment. Michael proceeded toward us. Without a word, he pulled Blake into a casual hug. The small gesture spoke to how their relationship went beyond the professional world. Max pivoted away and merged with another group of people in the party.
“It’s great to see you, Blake. And of course, many congratulations.”
When Michael pulled back, his eyes smiled. For a magnate, he possessed more warmth than I would have expected.
“I wasn’t convinced you’d ever get around to it, but I am very pleasantly surprised.”
His gaze slid over to me, with no less warmth or appreciation. “You must be the lovely Erica I’ve heard so much about. Catherine kept me on the phone for nearly an hour last week. I think she wanted to make sure I made the trip, but of course I would have anyway. I’m Michael, by the way.”
I shook his hand. “I’m so glad you did. It’s wonderful to finally meet you.”
Blake’s posture had relaxed only slightly. “You didn’t mention that Max was coming with you.”
Michael glanced back in the direction of the door where they’d entered. “To be honest, I didn’t know he would be. I let him know I’d be in town, and he already knew about the party, so I assumed your mother extended an invitation.”
Michael’s expression cooled slightly while Blake’s nostrils flared.
“Michael, Erica, if you would excuse me a moment, I’ll be right back.” His smile was tight, but the tone of his voice betrayed the anger that now simmered below the surface.
Michael sighed heavily. “I’ll die a happy man if that rivalry will settle itself one of these days. In the meantime, they’re taking years off my life.”
“I’m sure you’re not the only one who’d like to see it end.”
“Without a doubt. It’s unfortunate that two people with so much intelligence can devote so much time to trying to outdo each other.”
I couldn’t disagree entirely, yet I knew that of the two, Max was the aggressor. I bit my tongue though. Michael seemed mercifully in the dark about the finer details of Max’s tactics, or perhaps he simply ignored them. A man of his professional stature might not have much choice. He had empires to run while his son and protégé had it out over affairs that likely were not worth his time.