Read the first 5 chapters of The Truest Home!

Written on 03/02/2018
Mel Storm INC

You don't have to wait! Read the first 5 chapters of The Truest Home right now. Be warned there are some spoilers for the first two books in the series. If you haven't read them yet, head here for excerpts and buy links!

Chapter 1

Liz Benjamin tried to smile as she walked down the petal-strewn aisle toward her father.

He beamed as she moved closer, his expression an unfamiliar mix of nervousness, euphoria, and even pride. This was his special day, and Liz wanted it to be perfect for him…

Even though he was marrying the Wicked Witch of West Anchorage.

As much as Liz despised her soon-to-be stepmother, Vanessa Price, she knew well enough that you couldn’t choose who your heart loved. She’d seen that lesson firsthand as her best friend—and now roommate—Scarlett Cole fell head over heels for the heir to the infamous Mitchell estate.

From her seat in the pew, Scarlett gave a thumbs up as Liz passed by on her long walk toward the front of the church. Her new fiancé Henry sat by her side, his fingers laced possessively through hers.

After a couple false starts, Henry had proven himself to be a good man. He had taught both Scarlett and Liz many lessons in their short friendship. For one thing, appearances could be deceiving. And, more importantly than that, a person isn’t necessarily destined to follow in his family’s footsteps.

Henry certainly hadn’t.

And that’s what Liz reminded herself often when it came to her new stepsisters, Victoria and Valeria, who would soon follow her down the aisle. Sure, their mother was the very caricature of an evil, money-grubbing politician, but that didn’t mean her daughters weren’t lovely people in their own right.

When the two families had first met, the two high school girls had kept mostly to themselves, rebuffing any attempt Liz made to hold a conversation. But that could be immaturity—or even shyness—just as much as it could be a cold nature.

Although…

No, Liz had to give them the benefit of the doubt—both for her own sanity and her father’s.

As far as she knew, he hadn’t gone on a single date since the death of her mother more than twenty-five years ago. Not until he’d met and fallen headlong for Vanessa.

Poor Liz had never gotten the chance to know her mother, who had sadly died in childbirth. It was the one thing she wished she could change about her life. Well, other than the way her father had punished himself by swearing off love for so many years.

He had once told Liz he didn’t deserve happiness, but hadn’t explained when she pressed him for answers. Her entire life it had been just the two of them, but now three more would be entering their family.

She needed to play nice for her father’s sake. Surely he must see something in Vanessa Price that Liz herself hadn’t spied yet. She couldn’t imagine her dear old dad choosing anyone with less than a pure heart to share his life.

But then again, maybe he had been tricked somehow, pulled into Vanessa’s black widow web.

Only what could she possibly have to gain by going after Ben Benjamin?

None of it made sense to Liz. Maybe one day when she finally fell in love for herself, things would start to make more sense. Maybe Vanessa would change, or maybe she already had without Liz’s realizing it.

A wedding was a day to be happy, yet the only emotion that filled Liz’s heart that day was fear. She still couldn’t decide whether she should be happy her father had finally found a partner or sad by just who that partner ended up being.

When all was said and done, would this truly be the happiest day of her father’s life?

Oh, how she hoped so. And that hope was what she would cling to in the absence of any more attractive option.

She looked up and smiled, finally having finished her long walk toward the front of the church and taking her place beside her father. She was his best man, though she wore a dress that matched her sisters' bridesmaids gowns.

Victoria and Valeria floated down the aisle next, arms linked, smiling proudly out at the sea of guests. Their perfect blonde ringlets seemed to shine and reflect the light from the many flashing cameras. Their pale blue, floor-length gowns added to the ethereal image they projected.

Liz looked nowhere near as gorgeous in her dress. The color clashed with her thick auburn hair. The low cut of the neckline showed off the freckles she’d prefer to hide and the cleavage which, quite frankly, didn’t really exist.

Her new stepsisters were more than ten years younger than her, yet their bra cups runneth over. God may have granted them beauty and money, but Liz knew she was the one who had truly been blessed, having a father like Ben Benjamin.

She had never wanted for anything growing up, and she didn’t want for anything now.

Just for him to be happy with the new path he’d chosen.

As the organist played the first few notes of the “Wedding March,” all eyes shifted toward the back of the church where Vanessa Price stood wearing layers and layers of white tulle, a wispy veil that reached straight to the floor, and even a tiara embedded with hundreds of tiny crystals.

Everyone watched the bride as she took smooth, delicate steps toward the altar, but Liz couldn’t stop looking at the tears that shone in her father’s eyes, the impossibly huge smile that somehow managed to grow even larger.

Happy.

He was finally happy.

And she wouldn’t let anyone take that away.

Chapter 2

Liz looked away as her father kissed his bride, making the union of the Benjamin and Price families official in the eyes of both God and the law.

She held her breath as the couple marched back down the aisle, hand in hand. And she didn’t laugh with the other guests when her father leaped up and attempted to click his heels together in glee.

After what felt like an eternity of nodding, smiling, and greeting the guests as they filed through the receiving line, a gleaming black limo came to collect the wedding party and drive them to the banquet hall for the reception.

The reception venue was decorated beautifully, like a scene straight out of a fairytale. A mirrored placemat, glass dish, and crystal goblet adorned each place setting. Even the silverware shone with added bedazzlements on their dainty handles.

An oblong, silver stage rose several feet above the floor with four throne-like chairs set around a thin table. Liz looked back to her father, but he didn’t notice her worried expression as he and his bride ascended to the stage and took the two middle seats. The waiting guests clapped and cheered, ready for the next portion of this evening’s spectacle.

Next, Valeria and Victoria took their seats on either side of the couple. Finally, her father noticed the missing chair and motioned for Liz to join them on the stage.

“Scooch, scooch,” he told Valeria so that they could squeeze in one more place between her and Liz’s father. It was an uncomfortably tight fit. Especially since the slight felt intentional. It was crazy to assume that her new stepmother would purposely exclude her, but how could a woman known for her expert organization skills miss something so obvious when planning her own wedding?

It wasn’t just the stage arrangement, either.

It was the dresses that clashed with Liz’s coloring and build, while perfectly complementing Victoria and Valeria’s. It was Vanessa’s insistence upon having the wedding on the same day as an important qualifying race for the Iditarod, meaning her new husband would have to be miss out on the officiating duties he so loved. And it was the fact that Liz’s shoes—the ones Vanessa had insisted match those of her girls—had been ordered a size too small.

The whole day was terribly uncomfortable for Liz, and yet…

Her father seemed so, so happy.

She smiled, nodded, did whatever she could to be supportive until, at last, the dinner portion of the evening had ended and the band announced the first dance.

Liz flew away from the stage as fast as her aching, pinched feet would carry her and straight over to table thirteen where her best friends, Scarlett and Lauren, sat with the special men in their lives.

“Everything’s so nice,” Lauren said with a placating smile.

“Yeah, too nice for her,” Scarlett grumbled. Her friend and new stepmother had practically come to blows over Vanessa’s interference at the library where Scarlett had once worked. Back then, Vanessa had used her strategic budget cuts to drive a wedge between Scarlett and her fiancé, Henry—a wedge that had almost kept them apart for good.

But love always finds a way, Liz reminded herself. Hopefully it would for her father and his new bride as well.

“Be nice.” Henry pulled Scarlett to his side and kissed her on the cheek. “I don’t like her much, either, but she’s Liz’s family now. Besides, I’m sure she was under an enormous amount of pressure from her constituents.”

“To be fair, she’s the one who chose politics in the first place, but sure. Whatever. I’ll be nice.” Scarlett shook her head and made a silly face, lightening the burden on Liz’s heart.

“You look… stressed,” Lauren’s husband, Shane, said. “Want me to grab you a drink?”

“Good idea. Thanks,” Liz answered, realizing just how much a glass of wine might help to quiet her nerves so she could maybe actually enjoy the rest of the evening.

Just then, the band front man announced an open dance floor and invited everyone to come and join the bride and groom for a fun, up-tempo number. Scarlett and Henry exchanged awkward glances, which made Liz wonder if they perhaps were thinking of the night they’d first met at the Miners and Trappers’ ball nearly two years ago.

Liz waved her hand at them. “Go. Go dance. All of you. I’ll get my own drink and join you in a bit.”

Lauren and Scarlett both gave her quick hugs, then led their partners across the hall and onto the dance floor.

Liz had never much been enamored of the idea of love growing up, but now she craved it in a way she hadn’t before. Her friends, her father, all the important people in her lives had somebody.

Liz, on the other hand, only had herself.

Well, until a stranger appeared at her side, seemingly out of nowhere. She assumed he was just pausing in his search for someone across the room, but no. He nodded at Liz as he closed the distance between them.

“Liz Benjamin?” he asked, extending his hand toward her. The way his green eyes fixed on her implied he knew exactly who she was, though Liz had never seen this man a day in her life until now.

“Yes? Can I help you?” She was too puzzled by his sudden appearance to remember her manners. She’d already been forcing them all night. Now, she was too tired to care any longer. And her feet hurt too much for her to so much as fake a smile.

The man didn’t seem to notice Liz’s foul mood, or perhaps he’d been expecting it. His smile remained glued in place as he delivered his next line. “I’m hoping so. My name’s Dorian Whitley, and I’m here covering the event for the Anchorage Daily News.”

“The event?” She frowned at him, wishing he would just go away. “Is my dad’s wedding some political thing now?”

“No, nothing like that. It’s for the society page. And I’m still waiting for you to say hello.” He chuckled and reached his hand toward her again, waiting until she finally took it in greeting.

“Yes, of course. Hello.” She shook his hand once, twice, a third time. Still he didn’t loosen his grip. Instead, he tugged her in closer to him.

His green eyes flashed. Liz wondered why the color reminded her of slime and serpents rather than emeralds or something pleasant. Was she projecting her bad mood onto everyone and everything she encountered, or was her subconscious picking up on something and trying to warn the rest of her?

Dorian smiled again. Smooth. Practiced. Like perhaps he was in a play. “I have some questions. Just little facts I was hoping you could verify for my piece. Mind if I ask you over a dance?”

Liz thought about this for a second. She didn’t want to dance, didn’t want to spend time with this peculiar man, didn’t want to be here at all.

But then again…

Dancing and playing merry could help her blend in better with the rest of the wedding guests. Surely that would make Vanessa happy. The puff piece Dorian planned to write would make her happy, too.

And if Vanessa was happy, Liz’s father would be happy.

“Sure, I guess,” Liz answered, trying to keep her voice light as she did. She did, however, insist upon one condition. “Mind if I leave my shoes here? My feet are killing me.”

Chapter 3

Liz sighed with relief as she slid the heels from her feet. The patent leather matched the pale blue of the bridesmaid dresses almost perfectly. The shoes were so shiny they almost appeared to be made of mirrored glass, much like the decorations strung about the hall.

Dorian offered his hand and led her to the dance floor. As far as men were concerned, he was certainly handsome enough. His brown hair lay close to his head in loose curls, the softness of which contrasted greatly with his strong jaw and angular nose. His eyes, which had been the first thing Liz noticed about him, were made up of several shades of green, each of varying intensity. Regardless of their color, Dorian’s eyes seemed to hold many unspoken words – questions, perhaps – for his column.

All things considered, Dorian did not fit Liz’s picture of a society reporter. Rather, he seemed like an ordinary guy who might be more comfortable in McDonald’s drive-thru than MacGregor’s four-star restaurant downtown. She glanced down and realized his shoes hadn’t been polished, then felt like a snob for even noticing such a thing.

Clearly, the society column must be a stepping stone for a young reporter like him. She should know better than to judge, seeing as she hated whenever anyone did it to her. And yet how could she not form an opinion when his words and motions seemed to contradict one another?

Liz cleared her throat as Dorian placed his hand at the small of her back and began to guide her in a dance. She would be nice, at least for one dance. After all, it wasn’t his fault her father had married Vanessa Price.

“So you write for the paper?” she asked conversationally. “What drew you to that?”

He smiled sharply, and she was taken aback by the suddenness of it, the forced nature of the gesture. His voice remained smooth, buttery. “Hey, I’ll be the one asking the questions here.”

She nodded. The sooner she gave him what he wanted, the sooner she would be free of him. “Okay. Shoot.”

“It’s a beautiful wedding,” he said the moment Liz had granted permission. His words rolled over one another as if each was pulling the next along. “Ben Benjamin is your father. Is that right?”

Liz nodded.

“And your mother wasn’t invited?” He hooked an eyebrow, waited. Both of which told Liz he already knew what her answer would be.

“My mother is dead.”

“Oh, sorry.” He frowned, but there was no sorrow in it. He’d known about her mother. What else did he know? And why had he bothered to learn these things about her?

She sighed and said what she was expected to whenever anyone brought up her mother. “It’s okay. It happened a long time ago. I never really knew her.”

Dorian’s smile returned, completely at odds with his words. “How did she die?”

“She died while having me,” Liz whispered. She didn’t like talking about her mother with strangers. Mostly because she didn’t have much to say once she revealed the cause of her death. Liz had never known her mom, and her dad didn’t speak of her often. He would probably discuss her even less now that Vanessa was part of their lives.

“And that was… What? In 1990?” He knew, he knew exactly what he wanted to ask—knew the correct date, too. So why was he faking it?

Her warning bells chimed loud and long like a grandfather clock counting out the stroke of midnight. Their dance had only just begun. She’d hold out until the end of the song, then she would say goodbye to this pesky man once and for all. Until then, she’d play her part as expected, but she refused to give anything away. “'94, but I don’t see what that has to do with the wedding.”

“You’re right. Sorry for prying.” He chuckled as if her suspicion amused him, or perhaps it was her naïveté he found so endearing. Whatever the case, she didn’t like him at all.

“It’s okay,” Liz said, even though it most definitely wasn’t. “Just ask the questions you need to know for your column.”

“Right, right.” He paused as if the slight change in script had completely thrown him off his game. “There are a lot of mirrors,” he commented, then pointed over to the nearest table as if somehow Liz hadn’t already noticed this for herself.

She grabbed hold of this innocuous change in topic and decided to milk it for all it was worth. The more they could talk about harmless things like Vanessa’s interior design preferences, the sooner the dance would end and she’d be free. “Vanessa loves mirrors. When she moved in, she brought at least half a dozen of them with her. She hung some where the walls were empty. Others, she put up in place of my dad’s paintings and photos.”

Dorian smirked, and she wondered if perhaps he didn’t like Vanessa very much either. “Just your typical vain politician, huh?”

“That would be off the record, please. And again, off topic.” Liz glared at him. If her words weren’t keeping Dorian in line, perhaps a warning glance would do the trick.

He stumbled over his speech as he rushed to change the topic once again. “The, uh… The food was good. Did you have the salmon?”

“No, I’m allergic to seafood.” Okay, so maybe he didn’t know everything about her. Maybe the first couple of details had simply been lucky guesses.

Dorian didn’t seem troubled or surprised by this information. “That’s unfortunate for somebody living in Alaska. Tell me, have you lived here your whole life?”

Again with the questions that had nothing to do with the wedding. She couldn’t tell what this man was trying to get at, and she didn’t like this dizzying dance of cat and mouse. It was time to call him on how inappropriate this all was. “Yes, but why does that matter? Are you trying to interview me, flirt with me, or interrogate me? Because right now I really can’t tell which it is.”

“Flirt with you?” He laughed a deep, throaty sound. She hated it. Hated him. “No, no. You’re really not my type. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize to me. You aren’t my type, either. Enough with the personal questions, okay? What more do you need to know for your article? How to spell names? Which flowers made up Vanessa’s bouquet?” He seemed to know enough about her to believe that he was too good for her, and she knew enough about him to know that she didn’t like him. Could this dance just end already?

He smiled as if delighting in her continued capture. “Sure, tell me that.”

“The flowers are roses, peonies, and dahlias.”

“Pretty flowers. Do they represent anything?”

“Yeah, love. I guess. Isn’t that the point of this whole big thing?” She gestured around the room as best she could without bumping into other guests on the dance floor.

“You tell me.” Dorian smirked at her, and she took a deep, steadying breath to keep from losing her cool. This exchange was growing more uncomfortable by the minute.

Liz shrugged and cast her eyes down toward Dorian’s unpolished shoes. “I’m not really much of an expert on things like that.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t much surprise me. What are you an expert at? Painting? Music? Horseback riding?” His eyes locked onto hers as he listed each potential hobby and seemed to widen around the word “horseback.”

Claims he’s not flirting and then asks questions like that? Liz thought, her anger growing as she recalled the haughty laugh Dorian had unleashed at the mere suggestion that he might be flirting.

“That is oddly specific and wholly inappropriate. I trust you got what you need for your article?” Liz flung her hands away from his shoulders, and the rest of her body followed as she turned away from the dance floor.

Dorian followed, too, that same self-satisfied smirk filling out his face. “Oh, I got plenty.”

“Good, then goodbye. I think this song is over anyway.”

She felt his eyes on her as she marched toward the restroom. How long would she need to stay hidden to avoid answering any more awkward questions from Dorian Whitley? And why had the vision of a large chestnut horse with a white spot on its nose flashed through her mind when he’d asked her that last question?

Liz had never ridden a horse a day in her life.

Yet somehow the image seemed so real.

Almost like a memory.

Whatever spell Dorian had cast on her during their dance was clearly the work of dark magic. Hopefully he would write his stupid article and then disappear from her world for good.

Chapter 4

“Is he gone yet?” Liz asked her friends when she exited the bathroom about fifteen minutes later.

“He is,” Scarlett confirmed. “But it was really weird…”

“Yeah, he kind of looked through your things first.” Lauren frowned as she made this revelation.

“My things?” Liz searched the room, her heart racing. Her instincts were dead-on. This guy was definitely up to something, and a big part of her was afraid to find out what that might be.

Scarlett placed a hand on Liz’s shoulder. Her voice came out soft and worried and not like Scarlett at all. “Yeah. Your pumps, purse, pashmina. All of that.”

Liz contemplated telling her friends about their strange encounter on the dance floor, but she didn’t want to worry them until she knew more. Besides, they had another problem to focus on right then. “I can’t believe this. What a creep! Did he take anything?”

Lauren shrugged and shot Scarlett a worried glance. “Shane scared him off before he had too much time to root around, but you may want to check. Just to be sure.”

Liz marched back to the table with her friends and, sure enough, her clutch had been left open when she was certain she had closed it. Nothing was missing. She made sure of that. But why? Why had this stranger taken such an interest in her? Why had he invaded her privacy so thoroughly? And why did she feel as if he were still here, watching her from the shadows?

“I saw you two arguing earlier,” Scarlett said, her eyes widening. “What was that about?”

“Not arguing,” Liz corrected. “But he was seriously overstepping some boundaries. Like he had the right to question my entire life just because he’s writing some puff piece on Vanessa. And then he insulted me.”

“Insulted you?” Lauren grimaced. She’d always been fiercely protective of her friends, and she and Liz had bonded last year over their shared love for Lolly Winston’s music.

“Yeah, when I called him out on being nosy, said he might be flirting. He laughed and said I wasn’t his type.” She tried to make light of it, but the rejection still hurt. Strange men who rifled through her things weren’t Liz’s type either, but still, nobody liked to be insulted. Especially on such a sensitive day already.

Scarlett’s face grew as red as her name. “Well, he’s not your type either!” she shouted.

Liz couldn’t disagree there. Although Dorian had been tolerably handsome, his personality and decorum left too much to be desired. “It’s almost like he knew something we didn’t know, and he thought he was better than us because of it.”

“Nobody—and I mean, nobody—is better than you, Lizzy,” Scarlett said, wrapping her in a hug.

“Yeah, forget that jerk and let’s go dance,” Lauren said as she stretched her arms around the both of them.

“Shane and I will stay here in case he comes back,” Henry offered after clearing his throat. “Go have fun, ladies.”

Liz reached for her purse. Even though she trusted the guys, she’d still feel safer if she had her things with her.

Scarlett followed suit, grabbing up the pashmina and draping it over Liz’s shoulders like a cape.

“I think I’ll leave the shoes,” Liz said with a laugh. “I’d actually be happy if someone decided to walk away with them.”

“That bad?” Scarlett asked, shaking her head.

“That bad,” Liz confirmed.

“What a passive aggressive monster,” Scarlett said with a sneer, grabbing Liz by the hand and tugging her toward the dance floor.

“Yeah, and there are, or were, at least two monsters here tonight, too.” She shivered as they crossed over the spot where she and Dorian had shared their tense dance.

Scarlett lifted her arms overhead and bumped her hip into Liz’s. “Enough with the monsters and witches. Let’s dance.”

Liz tried to lose herself in the music, but despite her general fitness, she had a hard time keeping up with her friends who regularly raced and ran sled dogs, making them the very definition of “in shape.”

“It really is a shame,” Lauren said after a while as the band prepared for their next song. “If you ask me, he was kind of cute.”

Scarlett scrunched up her face in disgust. “Ick, Lauren. Really?”

Their friend just shrugged. “I mean, you never know, right? Sure, he’s a creep now, but Shane wasn’t exactly Prince Charming when we met the first time. Or second. Or, umm, third.”

Liz laughed. She hadn’t known Lauren back then, but she’d heard plenty of stories, each more amusing than the last. Still, Shane had turned out to be a prince in disguise. Dorian could only be a monster.

She sighed and tried not to show how much the encounter still bothered her. “We may have danced at the ball, but Dorian is no prince, either. And I’m definitely not Cinderella.”

“Cinderella would have been so much cooler if she had your red hair,” Scarlett said, boinging one of Liz’s curls that had fallen loose despite copious amounts of hairspray.

“It’s really not fair, though,” Lauren said. “Seeing as you got the evil stepmother, but not the prince. Fairytales are supposed to be more balanced than that.”

“Fairytales?” Liz laughed. “I’m just trying to live a normal life here.”

Just then, almost as if on cue, Liz’s new stepmother, Vanessa, strode over to the group. Though she wore a practiced smile on her face, her body language suggested she was anything but happy.

And poor Liz seemed to be the object of her malcontent.

Vanessa grabbed her by the arm and pulled her in close as if to dance. Instead she squeezed her fingers hard around Liz’s soft flesh and hissed in her ear, “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

Liz gasped and tried to pull away, but Vanessa held tight. “Dancing with my friends.”

“Who was that man, then? Don’t think I don’t recognize the press. They were not invited for a reason.”

“He was writing a society piece and needed to know about the flowers that were in your bouquet and other details like that.”

Vanessa’s grip loosened. “Are you sure?”

Liz nodded, though she wasn’t sure at all.

The older woman let go, leaving little white and red marks on Liz’s skin where she had squeezed. “For your sake, I hope no family secrets make their way into this weekend’s papers.”

Liz found it funny that Vanessa only considered her a member of the family when their reputation was at stake, but said nothing as she watched Vanessa make her way back across the hall. Every few feet, she stopped to greet another guest, giving hugs, smiles, and kisses on cheeks.

Of course the woman was kinder to near strangers than to Liz. If she loved her father so much, shouldn’t she also love Liz? Or was that love missing for the both of them?

Liz couldn’t make sense of it, no matter how hard she had tried.

She needed to put Dorian Whitley clear out of her mind, too. She had bigger, more immediate problems to worry about, after all.

Chapter 5

Liz finally had her drink, but it didn’t help the way she had hoped. Throughout the evening, odd flashes lit up her mind. More than once, she thought she saw Dorian lurking in the far corner of the room, but every time she went to investigate, she found no one there.

She kept replaying their exchange, wondering why he would have asked the specific questions he did and why the mention of horseback riding had created such a vivid image in her mind’s eye. She fell hopelessly short of any answers.

Luckily, her friends kept her occupied. That is until, Lauren and Shane had to leave early to make the long drive back to their home in Puffin Ridge, and Henry and Scarlett decided to leave shortly after so that Henry could study for an upcoming exam for his med school program.

So Liz found herself alone, unprotected, vulnerable.

As the night pressed on, a few random guests asked her to dance. None, however, were so handsome or so infuriating as a certain Dorian Whitley. Still, she smiled, nodded, played the part. Appearances were of the utmost importance to Vanessa, which sadly meant they were important to Liz now, too. She’d gotten very good at pretending in the course of this one never-ending evening.

It wasn’t until her father asked her for a dance that she finally let her unease known.

“You look beautiful tonight, sweetie,” he said, swaying with her to the band’s cover of “Butterfly Kisses,” a song meant specifically for fathers and daughters.

“I don’t feel it,” she answered with a sigh.

His eyes searched hers, and she wished she could tell him everything without coming across spoiled or ungrateful. When he didn’t find the answer in her gaze, her father asked, “Is something the matter?”

“It’s just Vanessa. I don’t think she likes me very much.”

“Oh, Lizzy. That’s not true. If anything, she likes you too well.”

Liz scoffed. She couldn’t help it. “Well, she has a funny way of showing it.”

“You must understand where she’s coming from. For more than twenty-five years, it’s just been you and me against the world. It’s intimidating to come into that. I think she feels as if she will always come second, and no new bride wants to feel that way on her wedding day.”

“I guess…”

“She loves you because I love you. I know you two don’t have the best track record, but she’s trying, sweetie—and I know you are, too. That’s all I want for us. To be a family.” He pulled her close in a part hug, part dance. She felt his strong, steady heart, knew it had always beat for her. Now it was time to beat for someone else. It was all a part of growing up for her, moving on for him.

He squeezed her hand, and the edges of his eyes crinkled in a grin. He was a handsome man, her father. A good man. It was no wonder Vanessa Price had noticed. He took a slow, wistful breath and said, “Her girls never had that, you know. Their father left when they were both very young. Be good to them while we’re away. I know Vanessa is very worried.”

He tucked a stray auburn curl behind his daughter’s ear and sighed. “Just like it’s always been you and me, Lizzie, it’s always been the three of them.”

“And now it will be the four of you, and the one of me.” Liz wished she could take the words back, but they were already out there.

Her father didn’t look angry, sad, or shocked. He simply held her close and said, “You are always welcome back home, Lizzie. Always.”

She loved him so very much, and she hoped Vanessa did, too. His new stepdaughters as well.

“Are you happy, Dad?” She had to know, and she knew he would never lie to her when asked directly.

He hummed to the music for a few beats before answering. “Of course, I’m happy. I’m far happier than I deserve.”

His answer made her want to cry. “How could you say that when you’re the best person I know?”

Liz’s father chuckled softly and pulled her in closer to his chest. “Well, you don’t know too many people, but thank you. And for the record, you are still my favorite person in the world.”

They used to say this to each other when Liz was small, and the exchange comforted her now, proved that even if Vanessa was determined to put a wedge between Liz and her father, he would always keep them close. She batted her eyelashes as she always had and asked, “In the whole wide world?”

“A million times around,” he answered, pulling her hand up to give it a kiss.

Liz couldn’t deny that her world was changing, but as long as she had the man who had always anchored it for her, she would be okay.

No meddling stepmothers or probing journalists could take away what they had. This would always be theirs.

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