Just With You

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CHAPTER 3

STELLA

Pouring myself a cup of coffee, I lean my hip against my kitchen counter and let out a deep sigh. I didn’t have to be in the office until nine, so I’d hoped to sleep until at least seven or so. But no, some Nashville cop named Jace Miller made sure I was up at the crack of dawn.

Tossing my long brown hair over my shoulder, I take my coffee with me into the bedroom so I can get dressed. Because I’ll be attending a court case around noon, I decide on a black pencil skirt and a hunter green blouse. Pairing it with my favorite black heels, I stop by the bathroom to throw on some makeup. Tossing a few waves into my hair, I’m good to go. Grabbing some extra coffee for the road, I head out of my apartment and down to the parking lot where my trusty Honda is parked.

After the short drive to my office, I walk inside, enjoying the slight breeze blowing. I’m just setting my purse and briefcase down when my cell phone starts ringing. Half expecting it to be that cop again, I’m surprised to find my older brother calling me.

“Mason, hey. A little early for you to be calling, isn’t it?”

“Oh, so funny, Stella. You kill me. Nah, I’m on my way to the gym, but Jules wanted me to ask if you wanted to come by for dinner tonight?”

Shouldering my phone, I smile, flipping the locks on my briefcase.

“You don’t need to use my ten-year-old niece as bait to get me to dinner. I’m there, Mase. What were you planning to order?”

His loud laugh booms out of the phone. This will always be the running joke. My brother could burn ice cream, and he’s forever ordering out for dinner.

“I was thinking the new Chinese place in town.”

“How about I come over after work? I’ll text you a list of groceries, and as long as you have a glass of wine waiting for me, I’ll cook us all dinner.”

“You’re the best.”

“Love you, Mase. Give my best girl a kiss, and I’ll talk to you in a bit.”

Ending the call, I rifle through my folders, looking for the case files I need for today. While doing that, I decide to make chicken alfredo and a garden salad for dinner, so I send everything I’ll need in a text to my brother. Leaning back in my desk chair, I find myself thinking back to when I graduated college, my brother there with an infant Jules in his arms.

“I told you that you were gonna make something of yourself, Stella. I wish Mom and Dad were here to see it, but they’d be so proud of you.”

Tears burn my eyes as I stand on tiptoes to wrap my arms around Mason’s neck, laughing when my baby niece reaches out to yank on a lock of my hair.

“They’d be proud of you too, Mase. I wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t for you.”

“Love you, punk. Now let’s go celebrate. I got a sitter for Jules tonight so I can take my baby sister out to dinner.”

Beaming at him, I give him a kiss on the cheek and bend down to pick up my diploma. I link my arm with his, and we stroll from the lawn where graduation was held, heading toward the procession of graduates and their family. Mason is my only family, but on a day like today, I couldn’t feel more loved or surrounded.

Mason and I are five years apart. At thirty-seven, he resembles our dad so much that it almost hurts to look at him sometimes, but he’s every bit my hero. He was nineteen when our parents were killed in the house fire that burned down our childhood home. It’s been almost twenty years, and yet I still remember him picking me up from my friend’s sleepover, his eyes red and sad.

I wasn’t surprised to see him, as he was often the one picking me up and taking me places. He was my best friend—still is. He drove me to his dorm room, the same college I would eventually graduate from, so he could break the news. I didn’t believe him at first, until finally he had to yell at me to knock it off. We both broke down together, and from then on, it was just the two of us. He dropped out of college to work full time. I got a part-time job when I was fifteen to help, but after a month he made me quit and focus on school.

Months after the fire, we ended up getting our parents’ life insurance payouts, and Mason filed a lawsuit against the electricians who had worked on our house. The company Dad had hired to rewire the basement had decided to cut some corners, resulting in the fire. Mason put all the money in a fund for my college education, and with the remaining he bought us a small house on a huge plot of land. We spent the next ten years fixing it up and learning how to survive without our parents. Both Mom and Dad were the only children in their families, with no grandparents around. We were all alone, but Mason made sure we were okay.

Because I was still a minor and Mase was barely an adult, they wanted to put me into foster care, but he worked his ass off proving he could take care of me. To this day, I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around everything he’s done for me. He taught me to drive a car, and he pretended not to be angry when I got busted having sex with my college-age boyfriend. He just made sure to tell me he loved me, then drove me to the doctor to get put on birth control.

It’s been Mason and Stella against the world for eighteen years.

And I love him more than anything.

I decided to become a social worker because I know that not every kid out there has the parents we did or a Mason in their corner. I wanted to fight for the kids who didn’t have anyone. It’s my job to take care of them, and I love every part of it.

Finding the files that I need, I pull them out so I can go over everything before I’m due at the courthouse. I’m halfway through them when I realize I never called Jace Miller back.

Scrolling through my call logs, I find his number and select it, pressing my phone to my ear. It rings several times before going to voicemail. I wait for the beep and then leave him a short message, letting him know that I won’t be available until around five this evening. Then I get back to work and focus on the task at hand.

Arriving at Mason’s house, I don’t bother knocking and head straight inside. The television has some movie playing, and I hear laughter from the kitchen.

“Anyone home?” I call out, kicking my heels off at the door.

“Auntie Stella!” Jules screeches, and in a flurry of brown hair and long legs, I’m grabbed in the tightest hug ever. Laughing, I hug her back just as tight and hold her out in front of me.

“Let me look at my favorite girl. I swear, you’ve grown a foot since I last saw you!”

“I saw you last week, Auntie.”

Laughing, I drape my arm over her shoulder and walk with her into the kitchen. Mason is standing at the island, leaning back against it with his hands in his pockets. Letting go of Jules, I stride over to him and find myself engulfed in a bear hug.

“You look beautiful, Stell.”

“You don’t look so bad yourself,” I quip, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

“How was work?” he asks, turning around to grab the bottle of wine he already opened and pouring me a glass. I accept it gratefully and take a sip.

“It was good. They ended up asking me to testify in a child abuse and custody case, so it was tough. But the little boy’s aunt agreed to take him home with her, so it was a win in the end. How about you guys? How was the showing today?”

Mason is a real estate agent, and he’s become one of the top-selling agents in our area. He’s done so well for himself, and he is the best dad ever to Jules. He was only with Jules’s mom for a couple months after she was born, but they split amicably. They share custody, and while I don’t see her very often, she’s nice enough when I do.

“Went good. The buyers offered less than what the seller wanted at first, but with some bargaining, we got the sale finalized.”

“Congrats, Mase. Proud of you.”

He just smiles at me as he takes a pull from his bottle of beer.

Stepping around him, I head for the shopping bags on the counter and pull everything out. I’m just reaching for a kitchen knife when my cell starts chirping from my bag. Excusing myself for a second, I grab it and find it’s Jace Miller calling me. Crap. Looking at my watch, I see it’s five thirty. I completely forgot about him.

“Hello?”

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