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Page 38

I reached out to shake Haven’s hand. She was delicately pretty, with dark winged brows. A Travis, unmistakably, although she was so much slighter and smaller than her towering brothers that she seemed to be a half-scale version. She was far along in her pregnancy, her ankles swollen and her stomach so heavy that it made me want to wince in sympathy.

“Avery,” she said, “it’s so nice to meet you. Thanks for doing this.”

“We had a lot of fun,” I said. “If there’s anything we can do to make the party more enjoyable, just tell me. Can I get you some lemonade? Ice water?”

“No, I’m fine.”

“She should be drinking something continuously,” Hardy said, coming to his wife’s side. “She’s dehydrated and retaining water.”

“At the same time?” I asked.

Haven smiled ruefully. “Apparently so. Who knew it was possible? We just came from my weekly checkup.” She leaned against Hardy, and her smile widened. “We also found out that we’re having a girl.”

Luke received this announcement with a look of disgust. “Awwww…”

Amid the general congratulations, I heard a familiar deep voice. “That’s good news – we need more girls in the family.” My heart kicked into a faster pace as Joe entered the room, lean and athletic in a pair of board shorts and a blue T-shirt.

He went straight to Haven, gathering her in a careful hug. Keeping her at his side, he reached out to shake Hardy’s hand. “Let’s just hope she has her mama’s looks.”

Hardy chuckled. “No one’s hoping for that more than me.” They prolonged the handshake for a couple of extra seconds, in the way of good friends.

Joe looked down at Haven affectionately. “How are you, sis?”

She looked up at him with chagrin. “When I’m not throwing up, I’m starving. I have aches and pains, mood swings and hair loss, and this past week I sent poor Hardy out for chicken nuggets at least a half-dozen times. Other than that, I’m great.”

“I don’t mind going out to get you the chicken nuggets,” Hardy told her. “The hard part is watching you eat them with grape jelly.”

Joe laughed and grimaced.

While Ella engaged the parents-to-be in a conversation about the doctor’s visit, Joe came to me and bent to kiss my forehead. The touch of his mouth, the soft rush of his breath, sent a ripple of excitement down my spine. After the long talks we’d had, I should have felt comfortable with him. Instead I was nervous and oddly shy.

“You been busy today?” he asked.

I nodded. “Since six.”

His fingers tangled gently with mine. “Can I help with something?”

Before I could reply, more of the family arrived. Gage, the oldest Travis sibling, was tall and athletic like his brothers, but his manner was quieter, composed, in comparison with their rough-and-tumble charm. His eyes were a striking pale gray, the light irises contained in darker rims.

Gage’s wife, Liberty, was an attractive brunette with a warm, open smile. She introduced me to her son, Matthew, a boy of about five or six, and his big sister, Carrington, a pretty blond girl in her early teens. Everyone was laughing and talking at once, at least a half-dozen conversations happening simultaneously.

Even without prior knowledge of the Travises, I would have perceived instantly that they were a close-knit bunch. You could see and feel it in the way they interacted, with the familiarity of people who knew one another’s schedules and habits. The genuine liking between them was unmistakable. These were not relationships that would be set aside lightly or taken for granted. Having never been part of such a group, or anything remotely similar, I was fascinated but leery. I wondered how you could become part of a family like that and not be subsumed.

I stood on my toes to murmur near Joe’s ear, “I have to carry some things out to the mini golf course.”

“I’ll come with you.”

Although I began to tug my hand free, Joe’s grip tightened. Amusement sparkled in his eyes as he murmured, “It’s okay.”

But I pulled away, reluctant to make any kind of demonstration in front of his family.

“Uncle Joe,” I heard Luke ask, “is that your girlfriend?”

I turned crimson, while someone choked back a laugh.

“Not yet,” Joe said easily, holding one of the French doors for me. “You have to work a little harder to get one of the good ones.” He accompanied me out to the patio and reached down for a bag of miniature golf clubs and a bucket of balls. “I’ll carry these,” he said. “You lead the way.”

As we walked across the patio and past the row of poolside cabanas, I debated inwardly about saying something to him, about giving his family the wrong impression. I didn’t want them to think there was anything going on between us other than friendship. However, this didn’t seem to be the right time or place to discuss it.

“Everything looks great,” Joe said, taking in the arcade dessert buffet, the band setting up near the house.

“Considering how little time we had, it’s not bad.”

“Everyone appreciates the effort you put into it.”

“I’m glad to help.” I paused. “Your family seems really close. Even a bit clannish.”

Joe considered that and shook his head. “I wouldn’t say we’re clannish. We all have outside friends and interests.” As we walked over a section of mowed green lawn, he said, “I’ll admit, we’ve seen a lot of each other since Dad died. We decided to start a charity foundation, with the four of us as the board of trustees. It’s taken some time to get it up and running.”

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