Ignoring the dread that flowed through him with each step, Pierce followed his sister across the expanse of emerald green lawn that separated her house from the main mansion. He took deep breaths, inhaling the familiar and cherished scent of the water that lay just beyond the edge of the estate. His great-grandfather had built the mansion on prime property, picking ten acres of land adjacent to the Long Island Sound. Pierce let the sound and smell of the water wash over him as he willed himself to relax. Not every family gathering had to turn into a skirmish. Maybe today would be one of the calmer get-togethers.
He could hope, anyway. Between his father and his eldest brother, there never seemed to be a lack of sparks to light the always quietly simmering keg.
Before he knew it, he and Tess were crossing the wide stone patio, being greeted by the members of his family. As Tess had predicted, they were all shocked to see him. Charles’s children had grown and actually seemed excited he was there. He hugged his two nephews and niece briefly as they chattered at him.
But he knew what his father and brothers were thinking, as they stood there in their collared polo shirts and khaki shorts, looking like a collection from a J.Crew catalog. They were looking him over in his thin white T-shirt that revealed the many tattoos on his arms, the sporty mesh shorts that revealed more tats on his legs, and thinking that he was a colossal fuckup— as Charles Harrison II had always said he was. Thinking about how that summer he’d been embroiled in a trashy tabloid scandal over in England, a scandal big enough that it’d made its way across the ocean to the States, tarnishing the Harrison name and legacy. He saw the disdain in his father’s gray eyes as he shook Pierce’s hand with the same cool hello he always granted him. He felt the disapproval radiating from his oldest brother, Charles III, as they gave each other a quick, awkward hug.
Dane, however, had been ecstatic to see him. He hugged him tightly, slapping him on the back, going on about what a great surprise this was and how glad he was to see him. Pierce just smiled back. He had to give his middle brother credit; in recent years, Dane had tried to have some kind of relationship with him. It was Pierce who’d always held Dane at arm’s length.
Now, as Pierce looked at Dane—charming and gregarious as ever—he seemed to be radiating with light. Pierce had never seen him so vibrant, and guessed Tess had been right about why by the way Dane proudly introduced him to Julia Shay.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” Julia said as she shook his hand. “I’ve wanted to for some time.” Pierce couldn’t help but be wowed by her. She was stunning. Curvy as hell, fiery red hair, beautiful face, hazel eyes that shone with intelligence. Strong and sharp. A presence. Pierce bet she gave Dane a run for his money. Together they were powerful, that was clear.
“Heard you two just got back from a long trip,” Pierce said, shoving his hands into the pockets of his shorts. He could feel his father’s eyes boring into his back, but Pierce refused to turn around and give him the satisfaction of engaging in verbal warfare.
“We did indeed,” Dane said, a broad smile lighting up his face. He slipped an arm around Julia’s waist to pull her into his side. “Ah! Right on cue.” He waved over the butler who had appeared with a silver tray covered with flutes of champagne and thanked him. “Everyone grab one. We have news to share.”
“I knew you were up to something,” Charles II griped good-naturedly.
Charles III glanced over at where his three children now sat on an outdoor sofa, each of them completely wrapped up in their electronic handheld games. Seeing they were situated, he took a glass from the tray and said to Dane, “You’re glowing. Let me guess: You’re pregnant, little brother.”
Dane barked out a laugh as Julia snorted. “Nope. Try again.”
“You got engaged on your trip,” Tess proclaimed. “Right?” She raised her glass to them.
“You’re close,” Dane conceded, glancing at Julia. She smiled back at him.
Pierce stared. He’d never seen Dane like this with a woman: utterly, hopelessly smitten. Pierce and Dane shared one trait: They attracted women easily and went through a lot of them. Truth was, Pierce was more of a player than his older brother—Dane prided himself on the fact that even though he never settled down, he treated women like gold and stayed with some of them for weeks before ending things amicably. But they were both resolutely single and enjoyed playing the field. So seeing him so obviously gaga for a woman had Pierce truly gobsmacked.
“Well?” their father demanded. “Spill it!”
“We were on this fabulous cruise,” Dane began, “enjoying the trip of a lifetime in true paradise . . . and yes, I asked Julia to marry me.”
“I knew it!” Tess cried. She turned to Pierce, eyes bright. “I told you so!”
“Wait, Tesstastic, wait,” Dane said. A new grin curved his mouth as he looked at Julia, who met his gaze with a warm grin of her own. Still looking into her eyes, he continued, “We were already out there in paradise . . . we knew we wanted to be together . . . so, well, we eloped.” He turned his head to take in the looks on his family’s faces as he revealed, “We got married last Sunday. An intimate ceremony on the island of Santorini, on a hilltop overlooking the sea. Just us. It was perfect.”
Julia nodded and blushed a bit. “It really was.”
“Wait, wait!” Tess said in excitement, and leaned in to grab Julia’s left hand. A tremendous diamond ring and matching diamond wedding band sparkled on her finger. “OH! Oh my goodness! How did I not see that before?”
“I was kind of hiding my hand behind my back,” Julia admitted with a chuckle.
Charles II’s eyes dashed from Dane to Julia and back again. “You eloped?”
“This is wonderful!” Tess squeaked, throwing herself at Dane. Careful not to spill her champagne, she hugged him tightly, rocking back and forth as she said, “I’m so happy for you! Both of you! Oh my God!”
Charles III stuttered out an awed laugh as he went to Julia. “Welcome to the family, sister-in-law,” he said as he enfolded her in a careful hug.
Pierce watched, feeling awkward. He’d only just met this woman. And now she was family. Part of their dysfunctional, high-profile family. God help her.
He glanced over at his father, who seemed both perplexed and annoyed. Any discomfort for Charles II was like candy to Pierce. Smiling, he went to Julia as his brother released her and gave her a light, quick hug. “Welcome to the clan, Julia. I wish you luck. We’re a tough bunch.”
“Do you always have to be so negative about this family?” Charles II growled at his back. “Ignore him,” Pierce whispered to Julia. “I usually do.” He pulled back and winked at her before moving to Dane. “Congratulations, bro.”
“Thank you!” Dane pulled Pierce into an embrace, clapping him on the back. “I’m so glad you’re here and I got to tell you in person! Great timing on your part. I know I’ve been away, but I had no idea you were coming.”
“Nobody did,” Pierce admitted. “Was a spur-of-the-moment thing. Just got into New York a few hours ago.”
“He’ll be staying with me while he’s here,” Tess said. She raised her glass and said, “A toast! To the newlyweds! Dane, Julia, we wish you all the luck, love, and happiness in the world. All good things, because you both deserve them.”
“Here, here,” Charles III said, smiling.
All six raised their glasses and clinked them together lightly before sipping. The simmering mixture of excitement and slight tension wasn’t lost on Pierce. It was an interesting moment. He smirked to himself. At least he wouldn’t be bored his first day back.
“Got them to open a bottle of the Krug, I see,” the patriarch said after one taste.
“Of course. Nothing but the best for my bride,” Dane said, and leaned down to drop a kiss on Julia’s mouth.
“I want to hear every detail,” Tess demanded.
“Let’s all sit down then, and we’ll tell you,” Dane said.
“And show you some pictures,” Julia added, beaming.
“You have pictures?” Tess squealed, practically bouncing. “Oh good!”
Pierce chuckled at his sister’s exuberance.
“Can I talk to you for just a minute?” Charles II speared Dane with a look.
“Not now, Dad,” Dane said. In a move of obvious dismissal, he turned his back on the patriarch and escorted Julia over to the long table. “Let’s all just sit and enjoy,” he said over his shoulder, “and I’ll tell you all about the trip.”
“Whatever you’re thinking of saying to him,” Tess whispered hotly to their father, “don’t. Please, Dad, don’t ruin this moment for them.”
“I have the right to know if she signed a prenup,” Charles II hissed.
“Not now,” Charles III hissed back at the same time that Tess said, “Dad! No!”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Pierce growled. “How is that any of your business, old man?”
Charles II turned on his youngest with a harsh glare. “Anything regarding Harrison money is my business. And guarding it has become a standard. First it was your faithless mother. Then his tramp of an ex-wife.” He flicked his chin in Charles III’s direction.
“Shut your mouth,” Charles III snapped, his eyes flickering to his children and back again. “My kids are sitting ten feet away, and that’s their mother you’re talking about.”
“So what? She’s worthless and they know it,” Charles II went on. “She hasn’t seen them in how long? And now, if this marriage doesn’t work out—”
“Shut up,” Pierce bit out, taking a step toward his father. “Just shut up. They’re happy. You step on this moment, Dane will never forgive you. And neither will the rest of us.”
“Don’t tell me what to do, boy,” the patriarch snarled. They locked gazes, tense hostility radiating from them both. “You think I care what you think of me? You?”
“I know you don’t,” Pierce growled back. “But you care about Tess and your other sons, so maybe you should think about them for once instead of yourself.”
“Wonderful.” Tess stepped between them. She tried to keep her voice down as she said, “Pierce has been home for all of an hour, and you’re already at each other’s throats. Stop. Right now. Tonight is for Dane and Julia, and for celebrating. Hold off your animosity for one evening, okay?”
“She’s right,” Charles III added. He looked at his father and said sternly, “Dad? Not. Now.” Then he looked at his brother and added, “For once, I agree with you. But stand down, all right?”
Pierce flicked a glance at him, gave a curt nod, and stepped back. The old familiar anger coursed through him, hot and bubbling, but he swallowed it.
“Fine.” Charles II eyed his three grown children circling him, barely reining in his irritation. “Let’s all go toast the happy couple and hear about how they cared so much about our family that they denied us the pleasure of seeing them get married.”
“It’s not about you or us!” Pierce cried in disgust.
“It’s his life!”
“I can hear you all,” Dane said dryly from a few feet away, where he and Julia sat at the long glass table. “And so can my wife.” She stared off into the distance, not wanting to make eye contact with the squabbling relatives. “So why don’t you just stop and come sit down? I’m not letting anything bring us down tonight. Not even another skirmish in the ongoing Harrison Family Wars.”
Tess went over to Dane and Julia, offering apologies, while Pierce and his father stared each other down.
“Cut the shit, gentlemen,” Charles III murmured, stern and cool as he looked from one to the other from behind his black-rimmed glasses. “For Dane.”
Charles II snorted again and lifted his glass to his lips, looking away as if Pierce were a piece of garbage.
Fuck you, old man, Pierce thought. I made a good life for myself, in spite of you.
One he’d created for himself, through dedication, hard work, determination, and natural ability. One he’d created with very little help, financial or emotional. Pierce had spent most of his youth fighting to prove he was worthy. Eventually, he stopped fighting and simply left. But even if he’d left England in a cloud of controversy, what the hell had he been thinking, coming back here?
Pierce shot back the rest of his champagne in one long gulp, put the glass on the table, and looked over at his two nephews and his niece. Charles’s kids were all under nine years old, and looked surly and bored.
“Any of you like soccer?”
Ava and the older boy, Thomas, both looked up and nodded.
“Find a ball. Let’s go kick it around,” Pierce said. “We’ll play a little while the grownups have their talk.”
“I don’t think—” Charles III started to say.
“There’s one in the playroom,” said the youngest, five-year-old Myles. He carelessly dropped his iPad mini onto the sofa and jumped up. “I’ll go get it!”
Five minutes later, Pierce was out on the lawn, kicking a soccer ball around with the kids. It was the best thing for him to do just then, and he was grateful for it. Family powwows had never been his thing, much less sharing space with his father for more than five minutes.
Jennifer Gracen hails from Long Island, New York, where she lives with her two young sons. After spending her youth writing in private and singing in public, she now only sings in her car and has fully embraced her lifelong passion for writing. She loves to write contemporary romance and romantic women’s fiction for readers who yearn for better days, authentic characters, and satisfying endings. When she isn’t taking care of her kids, doing freelance copy editing/proofreading, reading, or talking to friends on Twitter and Facebook, Jennifer writes. She’s shocked her family hasn’t yet staged an intervention for her addiction to social media. But the concerts she gives in her car and the dance parties she has in her kitchen are rumored to be fabulous.