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Sugar Plum Isabella Starling, Jenika Snow 2022/8/5 16:59:16

“You’re okay,” Bastian said. “See? You’re just fine.”

“You’re…” My bottom lip quivered. “You’re here.”

“Of course I’m here,” he told me firmly. “I went to your place first, and your dad told me where you were. It’s good you’re here. I have a little surprise for you, sugar plum.”

“You’re about to find out. But are you sure you’re okay now?” He touched my forearm. “Your breathing seems to have slowed down.”

“Yes, I’m fine,” I muttered. “I’m so sorry for that. It hasn’t happened since—”

“I know.” He squeezed my arm then to reassure me. “It’s okay, sugar plum. I was here to help. I watched your mom do it so many times I must’ve picked up some tricks.”

“Yeah, I guess.” I gave him a shaky smile.

“You look incredible, Holly.”

“Thank you.” I looked away. “What’s the surprise, then?”

“Just watch and see.” He stood up, motioning to the host of the evening, who rushed over with a microphone for Bastian. I watched him clear his throat and ascend the stairs leading up to the stage. He tapped the microphone and spoke a deep, throaty hello into it. Instantly, he had everyone’s attention. Bastian wasn’t a man anybody could ignore. He commanded respect. “Good evening, everyone, welcome to the charity gala.”

He waited for people to look at him, shooting me a comforting look just as Rosie and Sean slipped into their seats.

“Are you okay?” Rosie whispered.

I nodded, motioning to the stage. “Look who’s here.”

Her hand found mine and held on while we watched Bastian address us all.

“I’ve been invited to speak here today, as the foundation has been so kind to honor me,” Bastian spoke up. “I’m so proud to say we’ve established a new family program with the Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation. Each month, it will send three women with a terminal diagnosis on a vacation with their families. We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking there’s nothing we can do. There is something; we can stick together in the toughest times, and we can unite families. It was with that in mind that this foundation was established.”

Applause followed. My eyes filled with tears. Was I hearing this right?

“I was inspired by my dear friend and her family, Barbara and the rest of the Hallidays.” Bastian looked straight at me to go on. “As luck would have it, Barbara’s daughter, Holly, is here with us today. Holly, would you please stand up?”

A spotlight found me in the audience, and I smiled before rising to my feet. I was nervous, but the bright light was so blinding I could barely make out anyone but Bastian alone, so I focused on him.

“Holly, I’ve known you as a little girl, and I’ve known you as a woman,” Bastian went on. “I’ve loved you as both. And throughout the years, you have shown me you are truly your mother’s daughter. You have her kindness, her beauty, and her wisdom. There isn’t a day I don’t remember her and think of how proud she’d be of you, sugar plum.”

I laughed as a tear slid down my cheek. Thank you, I mouthed, touching my hand to my chest.

“I am happy to announce the Barbara Halliday Foundation!” Bastian raised a glass to the audience. “I watched Barbara Halliday spend her last days with her husband and daughter, and I’d never seen her happier. We want to commemorate those moments and give these families a beautiful memory.”

“To the Barbara Halliday Foundation.” The words rang out as I sat down and a man on stage congratulated Bastian. Rosie discreetly handed me a tissue, and I dabbed my eyes as the music came back on and Bastian came to sit next to me.

“Did you like it?” he asked, and I nodded.

“It was perfect. She would have loved it. She always wanted to see the world.”

He looked right into my eyes. “Holly, have you forgiven me?”

“For that night… I was foolish. You’d been drinking.”

“Bastian… no.” My hand found his. “I don’t regret what happened.”

“Then why…” His brows knitted together in worry. “Why have you been avoiding me, sugar plum?”

“Because I’m worried about my dad,” I whispered. “I’m worried he’ll be mad at us… or refuse to be my dad anymore. Or that you’d lose your best friend.”

“Holly. I’m not going to let that happen.”

“Promise?” My eyes found his and he nodded gravely.

“If anyone understands true love, it’s Aston. There’s a reason he’s my best friend, sugar plum.”

“So, what then?” I whispered. “What happens next?”

“What happens next—” He leaned over to whisper in my ear. “—is I take you to my house and we christen the New Year together. How do you like that idea, Holly?”

“It’s perfect.” I giggled, flushing.

“Then let’s go,” he said, gallantly offering me a hand and sweeping me off my feet. “I can’t wait to unwrap my last present.”

I sat with my legs clasped together in the passenger seat of Bastian’s car. He’d told me not to distract him. To sit there like a good girl and wait until we got home. I was struggling with it now, inches away from him. He was much harder to resist when he was close enough to touch.