TWO TO TANGLE PREVIEW: New Year’s Brunch

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Delilah

I switched my gaze between them, marveled at how they put up with each other, and swallowed my blueberry pancake.

?Griffin and I knew each other from work,? I began. ?I was an executive assistant at a company acquired by his. When we brought the two companies together, they reduced the administrative staff and gave me a few execs to support. And??

?And he was your superior?? Eniola popped in. The silk draping on her hat teetered with disapproval.

?Never,? Griffin laughed and draped an arm on the back of my chair. ?But she did work for me and a couple of other executives. That?s only how we met.?

?Our relationship was strictly professional, and I left in October,? I added.

?I called her in December about helping with another business I?m starting,? he said.

Heat scratched my cheeks as if I were being attacked by a tiger with fire for claws. I couldn?t say that we?d slept together before even having a proper date and that we?d been together for, shit, only a week. The fire tiger made its way down my torso and began gnawing at my clenched stomach. I put my fork down and drank some ice water, then continued with a tailored version of the story.

?We started talking and realized that we were interested in each other, so I invited him over for Christmas dinner, and??

Sienna Joy eased forward. She clapped her hands and then flashed them jazz style in a flight of drama. ?And you?ve been inseparable ever since, instantly knowing you?re meant to be together.?

?Sort of. Griffin had to go back home to North Carolina for a family emergency, but we?ve talked and?I don?t know.? I chuckled and shrugged.

?You?d be surprised how much you can connect over the phone,? Griffin remarked. Mock romanticism?saucered?his eyes, and he grinned at me with bemusement. ?Hasn?t that been a surprise, Delilah??

I fiddled with the stiff corner of the faux linen napkin draped on my lap. ?Very unexpected,? I said and coughed.

?Is there some kind of story there?? Terrence asked. The level of suspicion in his voice was more surprising than Griffin?s mischievous comments.

Maybe Terrence?s negative attitude had something to do with Carter.?That?s?the story with some holes in it, but Griffin hadn?t wanted to talk about it now. Later.

?No. We?ve just grown closer with all he?s gone through this week,? I replied.

?I find it odd that you?re so quick to start carrying on with your boss,? my ex-mother-in-law said. ?And he?s so young.?

?Grandma!? Katerina exclaimed.

?I?m sorry. It?s none of my business, but I?m not sure why I?m having to endure a family event with some young man you?ve only been dating for a week who looks at you like the two of you might?? Eniola’s finger pointing morphed a backward wave of her hand before she pressed it to the triple swag of pearls on her abundant bosom. I watched her fingertips carefully, but amazingly, she didn?t quite clutch them.

I paused to breathe in the courage to say what I needed to with diplomacy. I no longer had to kowtow to the woman. I maintained a respectful manner with her because she was older and my daughter?s grandmother, but she wasn?t anything to me anymore. I didn?t need her approval, and given all her rules and regulations, I didn?t want it either. It might have taken twenty years to get to this point, but I wasn?t going to backslide now.

?Mother Johnston, Griffin isn?t that much younger than I am. He?s a grown man, and we didn?t do anything inappropriate. I don?t work for him or anyone. I?m single, and I can see?whomever?I want. I guess, like Sienna Joy, I belong to myself.?

She gave me a supportive chin nod but stayed silent. Eniola?s hat started waggling again.

?Others may not be, but I?am?old-fashioned. In my day, you didn?t throw away twenty years of marriage and start dating women who give?rub?on people for a living or men who run off from their families and don?t speak to their fathers,? the older woman continued.

Is that what they?d heard about Griffin? Was that from Carter? I?d never met him, so I had no idea how close he was to Terrence or to Griffin?s family, but it seemed he was talking an awful lot about things that weren?t his business. No wonder Griffin reacted the way he had when Terrence mentioned him.

Griffin?s reddening jaw flexed. ?Ah, that?s the ?story? you heard, huh? Well, my family dynamics are more complicated than that and, truly, none of anyone?s business.?

Terrence cut in, suddenly embarrassed. ?I?m sorry I mentioned anything that Carter said to me. You were right earlier, man. I?m too old to be gossiping like middle schooler.?

But Eniola wasn?t ready to let the conversation go. ?How we know it doesn?t change what we heard. You can’t be serious about this, this, this,? she glared at Delilah and flailed, ?lightweight, entitled boy over a decade your junior. I thought you?d managed to outrun your troubled upbringing and avoid living up to that horrid name. What kind of example does that set for Katerina? No wonder she?s being so impulsive.?

Her lips pinched as she finished, and her church-lady hat slowly stilled over her face, which shone with the fire of a disapproving pastor castigating the sinners in his midst.

A familiar mix of shame and indignation trapped the breath in my chest.

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No, I didn?t know who my father was. Yes, my mother was an addict who dumped me with my grandparents to set herself free of me as much as to give me a stable life. But my grandparents raised me well and worked hard to set me up to live a life to make them proud. I had done that. My mother?s shame or my father?s?whoever he was?wasn?t mine. Or Katerina?s. My daughter could do whatever she wanted as long as it made her happy. So could I. I?d say all of that to this woman with her judging eyes, but I didn?t want to?again. Instead, Katerina and my ex stumbled through their objections.

?Gigi, that?s not fair,? Kat exclaimed as her father spoke.

?Mama, you know how I feel about your bringing up Delilah?s history??

Griffin?s voice, steady and low, interrupted my ex. ?What history does Delilah have to be ashamed of? She is a smart, kind, upstanding person. I?ve known her for two years, and I know she takes her responsibilities and her vows seriously. When I started working with her, there wasn?t a single person?not one?who didn?t sing her praises. She?d been there for two decades. Everyone respects her and loves her and has missed her work ethic and intelligence and open-heartedness since she?s been gone. It?s who she is. I won?t let you smear her over outdated ideas about her birth or over her name, which, for the record, is perfectly beautiful.?

Griffin released his grip on the side of the table and took my hand. Everyone at the table was aghast?and?silent, so he continued.

?Divorces happen, and I think it?s a testament to both Delilah and Terrence that you can all stay cordial and have family time for Katerina?s sake while still allowing each other to move on with your lives.?

Terrence nodded and stared down his stalwart mother. ?I know you don?t approve of our divorce or of Sienna Joy.? He stopped to squeeze his girlfriend?s hand. ?Or Griffin, I suppose. But we?re here as a family and that matters. Do you want to run off poor Adrian before he and Katerina can even say, ?I do???

?Poor Adrian? jumped at the mention of his name, but he managed a limp smile. ?I?m not going anywhere.?

It was a tiny statement, but one that cemented my opinion of my future son-in-law. If he could survive the judgmental, self-righteous outbursts of his wife?s ?Gigi,? then he was well-prepared to be a member of the Johnston family.

The conversation pivoted away from my shameful name or alleged past, and Griffin leaned over.

?Was I too much? I didn?t want to go too far. She?s elderly, and this isn?t my family,? he said.

I abandoned my restraint and kissed him. The soft touch of his lips on mine dispersed decades of tension. Sanitizing light from the window poured in, glowing around him.

?You were not too much. No one?not even Terrence?has ever defended me like that to her.? I had to force the words out past the emotional lump growing in my throat.

?It probably helps that she isn?t my mother,? Griffin whispered

?No. It helps that you have more spine than he does.?

?It probably helps that she isn?t my mother,? he repeated with a chuckle.

?Probably.?

And I laughed with him, reveling in the joy of having him on my side.

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