I found Ellie sitting alone, chatting casually with the bartender. When she spotted me she hopped up from her stool. “Oh, good, you’re here!” She slung her purse over her shoulder.
“Are we getting a drink?” I noticed the distinct lack of beverages in front of her.
“I’ve arranged for us to have a tour of the hotel. This place is supposed to be really cool.”
I groaned. “I don’t want a tour. I just want to sit like a lump.” Getting myself dressed and out the door was a big enough adventure. Now I just wanted the drink I’d been promised.
“It’ll be fun. Stop whining,” she commanded, picking up her coat from the stool beside her and draping it over her arm.
“Let’s just get a drink and go home. Put on pajamas and order Chinese food,” I begged.
“No, come on. It’ll just be a quick tour.”
Knowing that arguing with a determined-looking Ellie was pointless, I dutifully followed her to the elevators.
She pressed the button for the top floor and grinned widely. She was being quiet. Too quiet, and something about her odd behavior was setting off warning bells inside my head. I couldn’t take another setup, and I would have no problem telling her no and leaving if that’s what this was. I wasn’t ready to date—now, or maybe ever. My life post-Ben was still in a tailspin. She just needed to accept that.
When the elevators doors opened I expected to find a hotel employee there, and maybe a group of tourists for the supposed tour, but the hallway was quiet and empty. I followed Ellie across the hall to a set of French doors. She knocked once and the door was pulled open. My brother Porter stood there, smiling back at me.
“Porter!” I squealed and threw myself into his arms.
“Hey, sis,” he greeted me, his southern drawl more pronounced than mine.
“What are you doing here?” I slugged his shoulder. How dare he come to New York and not tell me. He opened the door wider and I spotted my parents standing in the beautiful living room behind him. “Mom? Dad?” I crossed the threshold, now thoroughly baffled, and gave them both hugs. I blinked back a rush of tears as emotions roared through me.
“Hi honey,” my mom said, planting a kiss on my forehead.
“What’s going on?” My eyes danced around the lavishly decorated hotel suite. A large, bushy evergreen adorned with twinkling lights and red-and-gold ribbon stood in the corner and filled the room with the lovely scent of crisp pine needles. A glass cart held a combination of crystal decanters and stemware. The coffee table was lined with various appetizers and finger foods.
“We’re here to celebrate Christmas in New York with you, honey,” my mom said, smoothing my curls back from my face. My dad, Ellie, and Porter stood in the center of the living room, watching my confused expression.
“I don’t understand . . .” My eyes scanned the room, following my mom’s softening gaze.
He stood tall and devastatingly handsome, dressed in a shirt and tie in the dining alcove just off the living space.
“Hi,” he said simply.
Had he arranged this whole thing? Flown my parents and brother here? Rented this lavish room? Filled it with a live Christmas tree and delectable foods? Coerced Ellie into dragging me up here? My heart stuttered in my chest. It was too much. He was too much. Knowing that he was here, fighting for me, trying to prove his love for me, filled me with longing. Silent tears rolled down my cheeks as I drank him in.
Ben crossed the room in three long strides, drawing me into his arms. His embrace lifted my feet clear off the floor and held me against him. He crushed me against his chest like he was never going to let me go. I hung there suspended in the air, big ugly tears streaming down my cheeks. I couldn’t control the emotions warring inside me, so I didn’t even try. I had no idea what his gesture meant or where we’d go from here. All I knew is that I’d never felt more loved and cherished, and he hadn’t even said a single word yet. He’d spoken to me through his actions—what I’d wanted from him all along. He’d brought me my family, he’d brought me Christmas, knowing how important family traditions were to me. It choked me up and made my heart ache.
After several long moments of just holding me silently and letting me cry, Ben set me on my feet.
“Can we talk?” he asked softly.
I was all too aware of the roomful of people surrounding us, collectively holding their breath, waiting to see what I’d do. I caught my lower lip between my teeth and thought about what to say. How did I tell the man I was desperately in love with no? That I couldn’t have my heart broken again? I swallowed the dryness in my throat. How did I explain how completely he’d broken me? That I’d considered getting on antidepressants just to get over him? It probably wasn’t a good sign that my heart, mind, and body still wanted him, as much as I might try to deny it.
I turned to face our spectators. “This may get kind of loud, so if you’re squeamish, leave now.” When my gaze returned to Ben he was smiling crookedly.
“This way.” He took my hand and led me down the suite’s hall. We passed several doors on our way to the end of the hall. Lord, how many bedrooms did this suite have? Closing us inside a lavish bedroom with a queen-sized bed, writing desk, and chaise lounge, Ben caged me in against the wall, one hand splayed across my hip, one tilting my mouth up to meet his. His kiss was possessive, evocative, and hard. He was kissing me as though it was our last. The thought filled me with remorse. My brain screamed at me. I couldn’t lose him, but I needed to tell him what was on my mind before I lost myself completely to his kiss.
I pushed hard against his chest to break the connection and drew a shaky gulp of air.
Ben’s knuckles stroked my jaw. “You okay, baby?”
I pushed his hand away. “Don’t baby me.”
“What? You warned them this could get loud . . . I thought you wanted . . .” His brow knitted in confusion.
Oh my God. He thought I wanted sex? Ha! “Yes, loud because I’d be yelling at you.”
Yeah. Oh. “Ben . . .” I ran my fingers through my hair, trying to calm myself. “Bringing my family here . . . planning this surprise is incredible, but it doesn’t fix things between us.”
His face fell.
“Don’t you dare let me find out things that big about your life on the Internet.”
He nodded sheepishly. “I’m so sorry. I’ll spend the rest of forever making it up to you, if you just let me.”