Flashing lights from several dozen sources and tinny electronic gaming music mixed with children screaming

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Flashing lights from several dozen sources and tinny electronic gaming music mixed with children screaming. This cacophony threatened to undo Ryker within two minutes of his arrival at one of his least favorite spots on the planet. Trisha better appreciate him being here. Not only was Chuck E. Cheese's a rat-tastic nightmare, it was well over an hour's drive from Moon Beach.

He nodded to Dan, who was busy securing a bunch of helium balloons to the back of a chair. "This is hell. And it's your fault I'm here, asshole."

Dan grinned. "It's not that bad. Besides, better you're in hell for two hours than I catch hell from Trisha."

"Not from where I stand."

"Aww, come on, you'll survive. Here comes Emmie now. She got a ride here with Iola, which means she's probably already experiencing whiplash. So be nice. Don't make this a repeat of Christmas please."

"We've been over this already. I had nothing to do with that!"

"Yeah, but still. Tread lightly."

"Emmie would hate it if she knew you just told me to walk on egg shells around her. That's kind of sexist, Dan -- thinking she's going to have an emotional meltdown just because I might act like a douche."

"I need to start recording you."

"So the whole world can know the genius that is Ryker James? Good idea!"

"You're an idiot. The whole world doesn't need to know that or MechJames will collapse and I'll lose my job. So, let's just shoot for you not being a dick at my kid's birthday party. That way, no one leaves in tears except for the children after their rightfully earned sugar crash, okay?"

"Why do you and Trisha always think you have to lecture me on good behavior?"

"I can't imagine. Now, turn around and act like a reasonable adult. Here she is."

He turned, but nothing about Emmie made him want to be reasonable. Ryker honestly hadn't a clue how he'd react to her physical presence. Still working up the nerve to go into Iola's when he knew she'd be there, he hadn't seen her since the Christmas incident a month ago. He expected her to look more pregnant, which of course, she did. But he didn't expect to still feel that same pull of attraction, undiminished despite the time and hard feelings that had transpired.

Emmie stood before him, an awkward, uncertain smile on her face. "Hi Ryker."

"Emmie." He took a step forward. "It's... good to see you. How've you been?"

"Good, really good. Just, working a lot. On stuff. And, yeah..." She looked around the restaurant. "This place is nuts. Guess I have to get used to kid events like this. Where's your sister?"

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