THE NIGHT WAS an endless darkness of sobbing that didn’t concluded until the sun rose the next morning and Violet was forced to get the kids ready for Joel’s wedding.
She dragged her exhausted body away from the couch to face the day...she couldn’t go anywhere near her bed, the sheets or the smell.
It was ironic that Ryder had briefly related her bed to belonging to Joel, but she hadn’t ever felt that way about her bed. But now, after two weeks of Ryder being in her life, and in that bed, he’d stolen the comfort it had once given her and replaced it with piercing memories of his touch, his kiss, his low, sexy chuckle that made even her insides smile.
Eliza dropped the kids off early Saturday morning and they raced down the hall to shower.
Violet had prepared a kettle of tea after taking a long shower and soaking her face under a cold washcloth. She’d thought the puffiness under her eyes and the angry words passed between them the night before would pull her mother in for an entire day of reliving their regretful, pathetic, so-called lives. Of course, with the Eliza twist, always able to make a con look like a pro. However, after shutting the door her mother said, “I can’t stay long. I have an appointment.”
Violet didn’t even ask for what. She didn’t care. “I’m sorry about last night,” Violet said immediately.
“I don’t blame you.” “It’s alright if you do. I blame myself every day.”
“I’m sorry I said those things about Corbin. I know you were protecting him. Momma, we all know you were protecting him and us the best you knew how. I didn’t mean those things. I just...”
Her mother slanted a look at the fishing gear that Violet had asked one of the guys in the sports division to dig out for her and drop off at her suite. Violet was going to be honest, she wasn’t exactly sure what everything he’d dropped off was for...but the basics were there: a fishing pole and a hook.
Ryder would know exactly what everything was for. A defeated sigh worked up her chest, but she didn’t let it out. This was for the best. He was better off without her.
“What’s all this for?” Eliza asked. “Is Parker skipping the wedding and going fishing?”
Violet shook her head. “No, it’s for me.”
“You fish?” Could her mother sound anymore shocked? Then her face lit up. “With Ryder?” The hope in her voice was unmistakeable. “Did you phone him or did he phone you?”
Violet shook her head as she turned and started toward the kitchen.
Eliza followed her and slipped onto a stool beside her. “Sweetheart, you should go talk to Ryder.” “I don’t want to hurt him anymore than I already have.”
“You will hurt him more if you stay away. Violet you’ve dreamed about finding love your entire life. A love nothing like mine and your father’s and I wished it upon you. For years, watching the loveless marriage between you and Joel tore my heart. Your responsibility toward your children was incredible. Your respect, your determination, is stronger than mine ever was. You are stronger than I ever was.”
Her mother was misinterpreting the meaning of strength. “I cheated the first day of my marriage. That’s anything but strong. It’s weak.”
“Joel wasn’t a peach, Violet. Did you read the file?”
Violet shook her head. She didn’t care what that file said. In the end what did it change? Nothing. Ryder was better off without her and Joel had a sex tape...the end...done...
Eliza touched her daughter’s hand. “I think you should have. Joel was broke. You didn’t run into him by chance or out of your need to rebel against your father. Joel found you. I doubt that he meant for you to get pregnant or start a family with you, but life doesn’t always turn out the way we planned.”
Violet couldn’t argue with that.
“Joel went bankrupt after his parents died and instead of admitting it, he befriended you and weaseled his way into the lives of the people we trust and he offered an investment into his business. One in which your dad also invested his money.”
Violet had never heard anything about a business Joel owned. “What was it?” she asked.
“There was no business. There was no turnover. There was a huge debt and jail time in his future.”
What? When? How had Violet never heard of this before now?
“Your father was about appearance, we know that better than anyone else. So when you announced you were pregnant with Joel’s baby, he went to work to save his reputation.” Violet would never forget. Bastard child. She shuttered. “He paid off Joel’s investors and just like you, Joel was forced into the marriage. He’s not a bad person Violet, but he’s done bad things. Right now, what he is doing to you is wrong. Right now, I stand behind you and you should stand up to him. I should have stopped your wedding.”
“Momma, it’s not your fault.”
“It wasn’t my resolution either. What are you going to do about it now?”
Now? Violet looked at the foyer, where the pole leaned against the closet door. “I’m going fishing.”
Eliza frowned. “Violet...”
“Mom, I said my peace yesterday and I stand by my decision. Ryder is better off without me.”
“I think that should be his decision. He should have all the facts and decide what he wants to do.” Violet shook her head. “That’s what I thought you were going to say.” Eliza sounded sad, but it was Violet’s decision. “I have to go. I have a meeting,” she said like she’d forgotten.
Eliza hugged and kissed her daughter, before slipping off the chair. Eliza cupped her face and pulled her forehead to her lips. “My child, you are stubborn,” she said. As if Violet had a choice.
RYDER LOOKED UP as he heard the rumble of tires rolling over the driveway. He hoped it was Violet. He wanted her to trust him and find her way back to him so they could address the current situation together.
Instead, Eliza stepped out of the car with grace and sophistication, just like her daughter would. Ryder didn’t need Eliza to tell him what he’d already discovered: Joel had committed fraud. His phone call to Eliza that morning had confirmed it. Joel had been pulling an investment scam involving Ryder and Donald. Eliza confirmed the money Joel received to help him pay off the millions he’d stolen was from Robert Caliendo.
Ryder was prepared to race over to Violet’s and give her the leverage they needed to put an end to Joel’s blackmailing. But Ryder had demanded an answer to the question he was still in the dark about: Joel’s blackmailing information on Violet.
Eliza insisted they meet in person. So here they were, and Ryder had never felt so impatient in his entire life.
“Eliza,” he greeted, taking her elbow in his hand and kissing her cheek.
He didn’t continue the formalities. Envisioning Violet’s pain and sadness equaling his own was killing him. “What does Joel have over Violet?”
Eliza smiled and chuckled at him. Ryder wasn’t sure what was humorous. Her daughter was being blackmailed by Joel and every second that ticked by was another second of pain she had to endure. “You are Donald Carlex’s son, through and through. That man was no pushover, nor was he a fool. I suspected with the tip I gave you, that you would be able to find what we needed to confront Joel.”
“Eliza, with all due respect, I don’t want to waste any more valuable time. I want the information that puts Joel away for life.”
Her smile fell. “Foolish boy.”
Ryder squared his shoulders and crossed his hands over his chest. He was no fool. Eliza shook her head and her kind and concerned smile returned.
“Oh boy, put away the big guns, I’m not here for a show.” Ryder almost laughed at the woman. Almost. “You cannot turn Joel into the authorities, Ryder. He’s Parker and Sophia’s father and although his choices were bad−”
“Illegal,” Ryder said.
Eliza drew in a deep breath before continuing. “Yes, illegal, but this choice isn’t yours to make.”
“Then tell me what is going on between Violet and Joel, so I can go talk to Violet and we can figure this out together.”
“Can we go inside?”
Inside? His patience was wearing thin, but he invited the calm and collected woman into the house. They sat on the wicker sofas in the back sun room. A gorgeous glass edition Donald had built for Kathleen to frequent during the winter months and gaze at her gardens, even if they had been completely covered in snow. Ryder poured them some ice water, and downed his in one gulp to quench his dry throat. The suspense was going to be the end of him.
“I’m going to start from the beginning.” As Eliza began the story of Violet and Robert’s relationship, Ryder wanted to tell her that Violet had already shared this difficult part in her life with him and that their time was running short sitting here doing it all over again. Within hours, Joel would be married and their window of opportunity to talk with him privately would be gone. But Ryder remained quiet, seeing Eliza’s need to tell her side. She was a beautiful older lady, but her past brought out the fine lines across her face and bore sorrow into her usually brilliant eyes.
Hearing Violet’s version of her life had been heartbreaking, but listening to Eliza open up her perspective of her daughters hard trials, was worse. Ryder found himself lost in her words. Violet had kept so much of her life from him. Ryder found each new fact squeezing his heart more. Robert was a mean son of a bitch, more than people knew, unless you were one of the poor bastards on his bad side.
“Violet is my third oldest child and of all my children, she was the most independent. Since her first steps, she turned away help, determined to take them on her own. But she was there for all her siblings. Her heart is big and when she was young, it was free. She strived for perfection, but she laughed her way there. Her independence is partially responsible for her stubbornness. I had hoped that she wouldn’t need proof from a file to stand up to Joel. I had hoped that she could find it in herself to trust you after so many have made it almost impossible for her to do so.” So had he. “However, this morning I was greeted with a tear-stained daughter who didn’t want to talk about it.”
Tear-stained? Damn it. Why was he still here?
“That brings us to her wedding and the two of you in the silver ballroom.”
Ryder had heard enough. “Violet told me about that night. I’m sorry I was drunk and I got her drunk. It wasn’t my intention.”
Eliza’s patience evaporated and she rushed the next words out. “Violet wasn’t honest with you about her wedding. I wish it was her that would have told you, but it’s not. It’s me. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t want to, but here I am, sitting with you, about to shock the shit out of you and if you could just remain quiet until I’m finished that would be helpful.” Her frustrated tone and fierce words quieted Ryder and she continued“I found you and Violet that night, like drunken teenagers.” What a low part of his life. “I found you both on the window bench.” If only she knew what they had done on that window bench only a week ago. “You were wrapped under a tablecloth which I assumed you pulled from a table.” Ryder was pretty sure red rose to his face, as he was envisioning Violet naked and wrapped in the tablecloth. “You were both naked.”
Ryder’s attention snapped back to the now.
Huh? Both of them naked? Ten years ago? Had he misheard her?
“Joel has the two of you on video.”
What was this lady talking about?
“You and my daughter have a sex tape that Joel is holding over her head. Joel is blackmailing Violet. If she continues to see you, he will release the tape, which in turn will result in Parker and Sophia suffering.”
A sex tape?
If Eliza hadn’t sat there confident with her words, Ryder would have been convinced he’d misheard the entire conversation. Only, Eliza’s stare told him he’d heard it correctly: A sex tape.
Ryder recalled the night he spent with Violet in the silver ballroom, only a week ago, and she’d told him she was trying to refresh his memory. Violet had been trying to jog their sexual encounter in that silver ballroom ten years ago. It hadn’t worked and they’d ended up creating a new memory. He didn’t remember a single detail of the first time. Ryder flushed with embarrassment. First embarrassed that she knew of a past that Ryder didn’t even know and second, that he’d taken advantage of her distressed daughter in one of her darkest times.
“Eliza, I am so sorry.”
Eliza touched his hand. “Don’t apologize to me. That night, through Violet’s fears and pain, you gave her a light of hope. She didn’t see it, but I did. So I want to thank you. When her life was at her lowest point, and broken beyond what I thought could be repaired, when no one was there to stand up for her, not even me...” Guilt formed tears in Eliza’s sapphire blue eyes. “...that night, you pushed her back onto her feet. She might have lost her trust in people, but she gained trust in herself and she fought Robert and Joel every inch of their choice to deceive her. And from the hasty, disarranged departure of the two of you, from the lobby bathroom before the Bensen meeting, I believe that was the moment you gave her another push in the right direction of trust.”
“How do you know about that?”
“A mother’s eyes are everywhere.” Eliza winked at him. It was no doubt security tapes or maybe she’d even seen them leaving.
“That is kind of creepy, stalkerish behavior,” he teased.
Eliza shrugged it off. “I’m a Caliendo. Would you expect any less?” He supposed not. “Do you see what you have to do?” He had to blackmail Joel. Ryder nodded.
“Go get that sex tape and leave Joel with the threat of jail time.”
Ryder was going to do a whole lot more than that.
RYDER DIDN’T HAVE to knock on the door and wait for Joel to answer it, or give him the opportunity to ignore it and cower away from him like the chicken shit he was. He swiped the key card Eliza had given him and waltzed straight into Joel’s room catching him lip locked with a bridesmaid...not Missy. Some things would never change. The entangled couple pulled apart at the interruption. Ryder immediately recognized the bridesmaid wiping the pink lipstick evidence away from her lips: Bottom Feeder. Oh, how the name suited her.
When Joel saw Ryder, the fear of being caught with another woman on his wedding day, dropped from his eyes and he smirked at Ryder. His two black eyes contrasted deeply against his skin.
Joel snarled at Bottom Feeder, “Get out.”
Her fear didn’t evaporate so easily and guilt crept across her face as she looked at Ryder. “You’re not going to tell Missy, are you?”
He wasn’t sure yet. His top priority at this moment was Violet. Maybe after he dealt with Joel, he would take the time to contemplate whether to stick his nose into this business or not. Either way, Missy was a sweetheart. A kind soul, who didn’t deserve the likes of Joel Bensen. He would destroy her life, her future, her heart and soul...just like he’d done to Violet. Wasn’t that Ryder’s answer right there? Another time.
“No, he won’t,” Joel snickered, thinking he still had the upper hand in the whole situation. How the tables have turned and as soon as Bottom Feeder exited, you are in for an attitude adjustment.
Ryder looked at Bottom Feeder feeling sad that she’d also been sucked into Joel’s messy world. “You should tell Missy what’s going on. Not because you are a good friend, because obviously, you’re not. But because Missy is a good person. Think ahead. She doesn’t deserve the pain this asshole is going to cause her.”
Out of the side of his eye, Ryder saw him shrugging on his suit jacket, then doing a close up in the mirror to wipe the pink evidence on his face and neck away. Smug bastard. Bottom Feeder looked like she registered what Ryder said. As she left, Ryder thought maybe she would even tell Missy.
“She’s not going to say a word. We’ve been doing this for months. I’ve got her in the palm of my hand. Are you here to stand up as my best man? Not let some Ice Queen come between us.”
Ryder didn’t need any more fluid to ignite his fire, but Joel gave it to him anyway. His first instinct was to punch him right across the jaw...maybe twice...maybe more. Make him pay for the hell he’s put Violet through and for the hell he was attempting to drag Ryder into with her. However, he decided to play it out a bit. Slowly and painfully. Give him a little at a time, until he entirely knew what was going on and the Ryder held all the cards.
“I couldn’t figure out what you had on Violet,” Ryder began. “To make her turn on me like that.”
Joel shrugged. “That’s because I have nothing. Violet does whatever she wants...and whoever she wants. There’s no controlling her.”
It sounded to Ryder, like Joel was referring to himself. Ryder walked around the room slowly for dramatics, running his hand across Joel’s laptop, sitting open on the dresser, then moving to the window and peering out the closed curtains. “Then I got to thinking about our past together and I remembered that business of yours that you started. A little over ten years ago.” Ryder turned to Joel and watched his face shift at the mention of his fake business. Pleased with his reaction, Ryder said, “You remember the one with the high turnover. I made a little fortune in only one year.” Ryder looked back out the window at the beautiful summer day that promised guests the leisure of relaxing by the pools and swimming in the beach. “It makes me wonder why that business came to such an abrupt stop when you were clearly investing in the right outlets, turning an incredible profit, and obviously giving you the means to get yourself off of my couch.”
When Ryder turned to Joel, he was finished playing games. Ryder sent him a look that told Joel that he was fully aware of his fraudulent activities all those years ago. Joel’s face drew solemn as his eyes narrowed in on Ryder. “Did you run to Eliza? With your tail between your legs like the pussy you’ve always been?”
His words didn’t even bother Ryder, because Joel was no longer his friend or a man he even respected. “Here’s how this is going to play out. I have all your extracurricular activities...or illegal pastime...all saved, documented and ready to send to the authorities if you even think about releasing the tape of me and Violet.”
Ryder walked slowly toward Joel, cornering him against the wall, threatening that if he ever conflicted another ounce of pain in Violet’s direction...if he even looked at her wrong...Ryder promised that he wouldn’t get off with only two black eyes. When Ryder felt confident that Joel comprehended the seriousness of his threats, he walked away. Ryder snapped up Joel’s laptop from the dresser and shut it before tucking it under his arm.
“I assume you likely have the tape on more than one electronic device. Delete it. Off every single on.” He held the laptop up. “I will send this back when I am finished with it.” Or maybe he wouldn’t.
Ryder wanted to give him another punch, deck him again and inflict physical pain, but he restrained and walked away.
“YOU STILL DON’T have the hang of this.”
Violet stiffened as Ryder’s voice glided across the river, like a warm breeze touching her skin and settling her anxiety. How was only his voice able to seep through all her barriers and touch the parts of her that she hid?
Against her better judgement, Violet looked up to find him standing at the edge of his idling boat, staring at her with that gorgeous smirk. Even dressed down in his white shorts and t-shirt, he was more beautiful than any man she’d known. Inside and out.
Violet swallowed hard, not daring to look down at her dirt stained dress and mud smeared toes. The struggle through the bush wearing sandals had been awful. Her hair was tattered and she’d bunched the sweaty locks into a partial ponytail slash bun mess that she hadn’t cared about until Ryder was looking at her. And her face. Oh, she could scream. His face shone with radiance. She could see he hadn’t shed the tears that kept her awake all night and the color that had drained from his face the night before had reversed.
Where had he come from? How had she not heard his boat approach? Lost in her own thoughts of losing the only man she loved...him had taken her attention from the boats that passed. What was he doing here? How did he find her? What did he want?
Violet didn’t answer Ryder and tugged on her pole again. Stupid line. Stupid pole. Stupid fishing.
What a terrible idea!
Ryder manoeuvred the boat beside the dock and through the rope over. He secured the boat, and then turned to her. It wasn’t his good looks that were stealing her breath, it was his love in his eyes when he looked at her and in his gentle touch.
Violet hastily turned her attention back to her fishing. None of it mattered, because no matter how many times he tried to fix it, he couldn’t. No one could.
“I thought fishing was supposed to be relaxing,” she snarled, partially at him, mostly at the pole in her hands. She yanked on the pole again and the damn thing would not budge. What did she do wrong? What hadn’t she done wrong? Why had she thought fishing was a good idea?
“You’re snagged.” Ryder came up beside her with confidence she was lacking. He took the pole. She wouldn’t have let him if his hands hadn’t slid over top of hers and lit up insides.
Violet all but jumped away watching Ryder who smoothly un-snagged her line and reeled in her hook full of seaweed.
Stupid fishing. Amazing man.
He turned to face her and Violet wanted to cry. She wanted to run into his embrace and forget Joel and his blackmail. That jerk had been lying to Violet since the moment they met. Everything was a lie. Everything. The only two good things she got out of that man were her kids and their reputations were the reason she didn’t tell Joel to let it go viral. Her feet stayed grounded on the dirt that dusted the bare skin around her flip flops.
“Ryder, what are you doing here?”
“I came to see you.”
I am a mess. Can’t you see that? “I thought I made it clear where we stood.”
His smile fell.
He stepped closer. “You made it crystal clear. While leaving out important information regarding your decision.”
Suddenly it hit her. Joel’s wedding. “Why aren’t you at the wedding? It started an hour ago.”
“I will not stand beside a man who tries to blackmail the woman I love.”
Violet’s speeding, thudding heart didn’t leave room to register the blackmail part until he held his hand toward her holding 2 thumb drives. “What are those?” she asked.
“One is the evidence Joel used to blackmail you.” Their sex tape. Ryder knew? But how? Had he watched it too? Violet blushed, she was sure of it. “The second one is Joel’s illegal activity. He defrauded money from me and my father, among other people. Your father helped him pay his debt and it is all here on this thumb drive.”
“How do you know?”
"In case he ever tries to blackmail you again.”
“You talked to Joel?”
“I talked and he listened and if he doesn’t want to end up in jail, then he will never let that video go. He will never bother you again and if he does, you will tell me. Do you understand? No more hiding things from each other.”
Tears pooled in her eyes. When had she become such a cry baby?
“I wanted to talk to you, Violet.” He touched her face and rubbed away the tears that spilled down her cheek. “I wanted to do this together.”
Violet covered his hand that touched her face with hers. “I couldn’t...”
“Can’t you see that you could have? There is always another way? You have to have faith in us, in me.”
“I trust you.” She had never trusted anyone more than she did him. From the first day, he had been upfront and straight with her. It was Violet who harboured lies and secrets...like her dad.
“I don’t like sneaking around behind your back, even to blackmail Joel and look like a hero. I won’t do it again.”
Violet grinned. After her night of misery, the rise of her lips almost hurt. “You think you look like a hero?” She teased, because yes, this man was her hero. He didn’t know that he'd pulled her out of a life she’d been hiding behind and gave her courage to stand up for herself and not her image. But she would tell him.
“That’s what your mom said.”
“My mom?” That was how Ryder had discovered the truth about her fathers’ involvement with Joel, with her mother’s help. Her so-called urgent meeting.
“Eliza wanted me to swoop in, rescue you from the tower and prove my love to you as your Prince Charming. But, I don’t want you to solely rely on me and only trust in me. I will be by your side for the rest of our lives, but I want you to know that there are so many people in your life that love you and want to help you. Not just me. All you have to do is put your trust in them. In me.”
“I didn’t kiss Joel first.”
“On my wedding night, I kissed you first.” Ryder cupped her face with both hands. “I guess it’s my turn next.” Ryder covered her mouth with his. He was delicious, warm and his tongue had a loving touch. Ryder pulled away. “I love you Violet. I am ready to sail off into the sunset with you as we begin the rest of our happily ever after. If that’s what you want.”
She moved her arms between them so she could touch the sides of his face. “I gave up on my happily ever after a long time ago. I never thought I would find a man who makes me feel the way you do and that I love as much as I love you. Ryder, yes I want to sail into the sunset with you and start the rest of our lives together. But, it’s not only me.”
“I know and if it wasn’t for your children, Joel would be in jail right now.”
“It’s not who he is. It’s just what he’s done.”
“You never have to defend Joel to me. You are going to have a struggle making sure that Parker and Sophia don’t end up hurt by Joel. I don’t want you to worry about me in the equation unless it’s for your support.”
“Be warned, my children are part of my package and their not always sweet angels.”
He laughed. “Yes. That boy of yours seems to have a lot of you in him. He’s stubborn as all hell.”
She lightly pinched his chest. He kissed her again. “Your mother has agreed to keep the kids for a few nights.” She smiled. “I really want to feel how comfortable a yacht bed is.”
He caught her lips in a kiss. “You won’t ever want to leave,” he promised.
The gorgeous grin on his face melted her heart and as he said her full name there was no condescension, only love for her.