Chapter Thirty-Five


Tyler didn't panic when he saw the second Missed Call notice on his phone, nor did he panic when he realized Nicole hadn't left a voice message as she'd done the first time when asking for his laptop password.

He especially didn't panic when he tried to return said phone call and she didn't answer.

He didn't.

Really.

Yes, he did. He also spent the drive back to the hotel imagining a thousand diabolical reasons for why she wasn't answering; she was in a car accident and Ethan was in the hospital, someone broke into their hotel room, they decided to take the stairs instead of the elevator to their hotel suite and Nicole took a bad tumble.

Not that any of those were statistically likely, as Ryan was kind enough to remind him. Over and over and over again.

"I'm telling you, Ty," Ryan said as he handed his keys to the valet. "She just forgot to take it off vibrate. Nothing is wrong."

"A great many things are wrong at the moment, not the least of which involves a budding Vote of No Confidence being brought against me for shoddy leadership in a crisis."

"All right," Ryan conceded. "That's fair. But this isn't wrong. Nicole and Ethan are fine. Besides, didn't Ken say he was stopping by? If something happened, he would have called you."

"Ah, Mr. Vaughn!"

Ryan and Tyler turned in tandem as a squat, husky, balding man in a dark suit hurried over to them. He stopped short, wheezing slightly, and mopped his shiny brow with a pristine, white handkerchief.

"Forgive me," he huffed, holding up a pleading hand as he doubled over trying to catch his breath. "I apologize, I had to run from the back office when I learned of your arrival. "

Tyler shot Ryan a questioning glance, and the redhead shrugged. That hardly helped, and Tyler felt his heart pickup speed in his chest. He swallowed down the panic and gave the man a cordial nod.

"No trouble at all. Can I help you?"

"No, sir," the main said as he straightened with a deep breath before smiling. "I simply wished to inform you that your room transfer was made without difficulty and to settle the small matter of the fire damage."

"Room transfer?" Ryan asked as Tyler's eyes bulged.

"Fire damage?"

The squat man—a hotel manager?—took a step back, his eyes wide, and mopped his brow again.

"Ah, yes sir. Your fiancée made the arrangements, I believe. She indicated that you were in agreement? Is that not—"

Tyler grabbed the man's shoulders and nearly shook him. "Which room!"

"605!" the man squeaked, his expression terrified. Tyler released him and sprinted for the stairs; the elevator was too slow.

"Tyler!" Ryan called, but Tyler ignored him; throwing open the stairwell door and sprinting his way to the sixth floor. His legs burned from the effort, but not so much that he felt the need to stop. Tyler worked on the twelfth floor of his company high-rise, and unless he was in a hurry, he always took the stairs. He slammed into the door leading to the sixth floor and startled the maid working coming out of room 621. She screamed, and her neatly folded towels went flying, but Tyler wasn't in the right state of mind to stop and help her; though he did feel a pang of guilt as he edged around her cart and raced down the hall.

619, 617, 615, Tyler counted the doors as he went. He needn't have bothered; the door to 605 was open.

"Ethan!" Tyler veered into the open door and grabbed the frame to stop himself from falling over. The suite was crowded with strangers, mostly maids and bellhops who milled in and out of the kitchen with boxes of food and bottles of juice, but Tyler barely glanced over them before his eyes settled on the center of the room: Ethan at the coffee table with a dozen colored pencils while Finding Nemo played for what was likely the fifth time on the television. The little boy lit up at Tyler's sudden appearance and he scrambled away from the table, scattering pencils as he went.

"Daddy!" Ethan exclaimed and Tyler scooped him up before Ethan could grab his legs. He looked the boy over, scanning his face, arms, fingers, legs, but nothing seemed out of place and no injuries stood out. But what about internally? Tyler hiked the toddler up and pressed an ear to Ethan's chest. No wheezing. With a relieved sigh, Tyler clutched Ethan to his chest and buried his face against the boy's neck.

"Daddy," Ethan whined as he wriggled and pushed. "You're squishing me."

"Sorry," Tyler said, loosening his hold just enough for Ethan to breathe more easily. Clearly not satisfied by his father's minimal concession, Ethan continued pushing.

"I made a picture!" Ethan declared, tugging on Tyler's suitcoat until he looked up.

"Oh yeah?" Tyler asked as he willed his arms and legs to firm up and stop shaking; Ethan was fine.

"Yeah! Nickels said it's really good!"

Another jolt shot through him and Tyler gasped, his eyes darting about the room again. He found Nicole seated on the edge of the couch, her right hand held in Ken's as he sat across from her on the coffee table, and Tyler blinked. Ken had half of a long gauze bandaged wrapped around Nicole's upturned hand.

"What happened?" Tyler set Ethan on his feet and the boy hurried over to his half of the coffee table where a scattering of multi-colored drawings lay haphazardly stacked. He picked his fallen pencils off the floor and Tyler carefully stepped over his hunched form to reach Nicole's side. He went down on one knee beside her but stopped himself before touching her half bandaged hand. He glanced up at her, one eyebrow quirked, but she wasn't looking at him.

"Nicole?"

"It's not bad," Nicole mumbled, her thick bangs obscuring her eyes, though Tyler could still make out the dusting of red across her cheeks and nose. Was she angry or embarrassed? Had she been crying? "It's just a minor burn brought on by my obfuscating stupidity."

"What happened?" Tyler repeated, anger welling up over the relief in his gut. "One of the managers said there was a fire."

"What?" Nicole's head shot up, her eyes wide. "No! No, no, no, no, no! Stars above, Tyler, I would have told you if there was a fire! It was just a little smoke; I forgot about the bread in the oven because of the soup, and we were calling housekeeping, but the smoke alarm went off, and we opened the windows. There was absolutely no fire."

More relief doused the fire in his belly before more anger stoked it. Tyler gritted his teeth. "Smoke is bad enough! Ethan's asthma—!"

"I'm not an idiot," Nicole snapped, she jerked her hand from Ken's—Tyler had forgotten about him—and finished winding the bandage with uncaring speed. "I got him out of the suite as soon as the smoke started and made sure he was settled while Ken shut off the alarm and pulled the bread out of the oven."

She waved her bandaged hand at Ken who stayed uncharacteristically quiet. The end of her gauze bandage came untucked and Nicole muttered darkly as she re-tucked it. It refused to stay.

"Stop that," Tyler said, taking her hand. He unwound the lumpy wrapping job and Ken quickly moved so Tyler could take a seat on the coffee table. "What happened to your hand?"

Nicole refused to look at him as he reworked her bandage. "I grabbed the soup pot without a hot-pad."

"And promptly dropped it," Ken added from his relaxed lean against the living room wall. Tyler glanced over at his friend, who had apparently made himself comfortable as his suit coat and tie were missing and he had both shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. "Which was my fault."

"It was not!" Nicole snapped. She tried to jerk her hand from Tyler's, but he held on. "I can do it myself!"

"Injuring or bandaging?" Ken asked. "Because you seem to do one better than the other."

Nicole looked up, her brown eyes blazing, but Ken just grinned and winked. "There's that pretty face."

Nicole's blush deepened as she scowled. Tyler fought off a frown and tugged her hand closer. She winced, and he reluctantly loosened his hold on her wrist. They weren't flirting. And even if they were, Tyler reminded himself, it was none of his business. She wasn't his, they weren't together, it was all pretend.

Unfortunately, the reminder didn't stop him from wanting to pull her into his arms and kiss her senseless while Ken watched. When had Tyler become so possessive? Had he been that way with Louisa? He honestly couldn't remember, and that bothered him.

"Why were you making bread anyway?" Tyler demanded as he tied her bandage just a little too tight. He adjusted it before Nicole could, feeling guilty for his anger but too angry to accommodate his guilt. Nicole tugged her hand free, and Tyler let go. She flexed her bandaged fingers and winced when her palm opened too far.

"Because you're a health nut who doesn't believe in buying pre-packaged foods."

Tyler's brow furrowed dangerously. "I had bread in the fridge."

Nicole rolled her eyes. "I know that now—I just watched a bunch of over annoyed worker-bees transport everything from the old room to this one—but it would have been nice to know four hours ago when I first started cooking!"

"You didn't even think to look?" Tyler pinched the bridge of his nose. "How stupid can you be?"

"Stupid?" Nicole shrieked. "I'll have you know that I'm a 4.0 student from kindergarten through college!"

"Who apparently has the commonsense of a housefly in the dark!"

"Excuse me?"

"My son could have died!"

"I would never let that happen."

They were nose to nose now, though Tyler hand to duck and Nicole went up on her toes, as they glared daggers into each other's eyes. Why was she so frustrating? And passionate? And alluring? Her brown eyes flashed with anger and conviction and the angry flush on her cheeks had deepened to mimic the color of a heady red wine. Tyler took her face in his hands, determined to kiss the angry scowl from her lips.

"What in the world is going on?" Ryan demanded from the doorway, and Tyler jerked back; releasing Nicole's face and shaking out his hands as if her scorching blush had burned his skin.

Ken sighed and put away his phone. "You have the worst timing, Ryan."

Ryan frowned at Ken. "Were you recording their fight?"

"Please," Ken said with an absent wave. "That was hardly a fight."

Tyler suddenly realized that Ethan was huddled in Ryan's arms, his face buried in his uncle's neck as he pressed his hands to his ears. He was trembling.

"Oh!" Nicole exclaimed as she raced across the room to rub soothing circles across Ethan's back. She leaned in close and cooed at him, coaxing and reassuring, until Ethan glanced at her with one watery, blue eye.

"Are you and Daddy gonna hate each other?"

"No, of course not," Nicole said, her voice low and soothing. "We're just upset because we were scared. Grown-ups always get angry when they get scared."

Ethan scowled. "That's dumb."

"Yes it is, and I am very sorry we upset you." Nicole kissed his forehead and reached for him. Ethan hesitated, but a nod from Ryan coaxed him into Nicole's outstretched arms. Tyler stepped up behind them and stroked the tears from Ethan's face.

"I'm sorry too," Tyler said, cupping Ethan's chin. "And I don't hate Nicole."

"Good," Ethan declared. "Because I love her."

A small smile cracked Tyler's penitent face. "I know you do."

Ethan sighed happily and snuggled into Nicole's embrace. Tyler met her eyes over his son's downy head.

Sorry, her brown eyes said, and he shook his head.

My fault.

Nicole cracked a smile. Mine too.

Tyler quirked an eyebrow. So we're good?

Nicole pressed her lips to Ethan's temple, her eyes never leaving Tyler's, and she nodded.

We're good.


Kaliea: Welcome back! Hopefully, you all had a lovely February! Personally, mine was exhausting, but that's better than being boring, I suppose. This chapter marks an interesting turn in the story as Tyler will begin to realize their 'relationship' is not as Not Real as he thinks it is. Of course, that realization will come with plenty of problems on its own. Especially when Ken starts to make some realizations of his own...

Anyway, thanks for reading, and don't forget to review!