Marcus eyed her with suspicion. “Mom,” he started in warning.

“What?”

“How many blind dates have you set us up on?”

She glanced up at him, attempting at innocent. “Marcus Bennet, I can’t imagine what you might mean.”

“There was no nuance, Mother.”

The color rose in her cheeks. “Well, who could blame me for wanting to see my children in love and married? How else will I ever hold grandchildren? When will I weep at a wedding? Lucas ran off and married that girl, and I didn’t even get any pictures. Laney and Jett are thirty-one. Thirty-one! And I’m only getting older. Soon, I’ll be feeble and frail, and how will I hold babies then?” she rambled her consternation, face flushed and attention on dishing herself out casserole without thought until an insurmountable pile sat on her plate.

“Mom,” Laney warned. “Did you really?”

Kash smirked. “Hey, I’ll take a blind date. Last one she set me up on was with Charity Smith.”

He and I shared a knowing look. The only thing Charity was charitable with was in her pants.

“See?” Mom said, digging into her mound of casserole like it wasn’t outrageous in portion. “I’m being helpful. Thank you, Kassius. At least one of you is trying.”

“How many of us did you set up?” I asked, forearms on the table and brows together.

She shrugged, her face too benign. “Oh, I don’t know. All of you?”

The table erupted in noise, and Mom took a prim bite like she couldn’t hear us.

“Honestly, Mom,” Laney huffed, “it’s not like we can’t get our own dates.”

“I know you can,” she insisted, dabbing her lips with a napkin. “You have your apps and your matchmaking websites nowadays, but there’s something to be said for a good, old-fashioned setup, isn’t there? For instance, at garden club yesterday, Vera Archer said her daughter just moved back from San Francisco and needs some friends. Of course, I offered for Jett. Plus—”—she leaned in, smiling wickedly—“she’s filthy rich.”

Jett groaned.

Laney rolled her eyes. “Mother.”

“What?” she blustered. “I only want my children to be happy and healthy and find love. And if the person they fall in love with is rich, that couldn’t possibly hurt, could it?”

“Of course it couldn’t hurt,” Dad said, “beyond the bite of the hayfork you use to shovel them off to the marriage market.”

Mom swatted his arm. “Oh, I’m not shoveling … just giving them a little nudge. Isn’t that our job? Encourage them to fly out of the nest?”

“Fly or swan dive?” Marcus asked.

“Fly,” she insisted. “Your date is next Tuesday, by the way. With that sweet little Jenny Arnold. Do you remember her?”

Marcus’s face flattened. “I think she gave me a religious tract outside the bathroom in high school.”

Kash laughed. “She still does that. I saw her in Blanche’s Donuts last week, just hanging around outside the restroom door waiting to proselytize to poor, unsuspecting donut enthusiasts.”

“I’m not going,” Marcus stated in a tone that brooked no argument.

One Mom was deaf to. “Oh, you’ll go. Otherwise, you’ll have to tell her yourself, to her face.”

And just like that, she had him, check and mate. No way could he bear the look on poor Jenny Arnold’s face when he told her he’d rather eat a dirty boot than take her to dinner. Instead, he’d sit through an entire dinner, listening to her talk about her favorite Psalms while he thought of all the ways he could off himself with things within his reach.

I laughed at the thought, but the sound died in my throat.

She’d said she’d set all of us up.

“Mom,” I warned, “who’d you pair me with?”

She smiled, lips together to guard her secret. “I’m still firming yours up.”

I frowned, aversion sliding over me like a slug. There was only one girl I wanted to ask out, and her name rhymed with yes.

“I’m too busy with the store,” I insisted. “Give Kash my date.”

Kash shoveled a bite into his mouth, saying around it, “I’ll take it.”

But Mom tsked. “No, this one is special for Lucas. You can’t have her.”

My frown deepened, my attention inward as Laney climbed on her soapbox to rant about societal pressures to get married and how unfair it all was.

I’d find a way out of whatever date my mother devised. That was all there was to it.

I had other plans.

The vision of Tess in my arms arrested my thoughts. The almost imperceptible smattering of freckles on her nose and cheekbones and the unbelievable length of her eyelashes. The little details of her face that I hadn’t seen until she was close enough to kiss, like the burst of honey gold around her pupils, the color vivid and full of light against the deep brown of her eyes.

I liked Tess, and it had been a long, long time since I felt like this … like there was possibility. She was the kind of girl I could see myself with because who else could truly tame a Bennet but a girl like Tess? She wouldn’t give me an inch. And she believed I wasn’t the kind of man to be responsible.


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