Authors: Leah Atwood
Centennial Park at night was a romantic place to be. A lighted fountain in the middle of the pond served as the focal point, the crown jewel of the park. Every fifty feet there sat a wrought-iron bench, alternately facing the pond and the outer perimeter of the park. Speakers seamlessly built into the landscape played instrumental jazz songs.
On one side of the pond were several play areas for children, four tennis courts and two basketball courts. There were also two baseball diamonds for impromptu games that were occasionally rented out to church and corporate leagues. During daylight hours, the area kept busy and teemed with life. At night, it quieted as the park’s atmosphere shifted gears.
When Madison had walked through several minutes ago with Archer on their way to the opposite end, she only spotted two other couples.
Groups, not couples
. Pretending would be so easy. Dinner had gone well, and they’d decided to walk around Centennial Park afterward. They’d used the excuse it would give their engagement story more legitimacy if they’d actually spent time there together, but Madison knew the truth— neither wanted the night to end.
They were on the side of the park now where families had cookouts by day and lovers strolled by night. Three miles of walking paths wove around pavilions and gazebos and were lined in part by the cherry trees.
Madison paused her stride and looked at Archer. “Where did you propose to me?”
He chuckled and scanned the landscape. “I’ll know when I see it.”
“It’s a shame you’re wasting this proposal on me?”
“What do you mean?” His head tilted and eyes squinted, waiting for an answer.
“If a man was ever to ask me to marry him for real, I couldn’t think of a better place. But since we’re using this as our story, I don’t think your future wife would appreciate if you proposed to her like this." She began walking again.
“But this is all pretend, a fictitious story we’ve created.” Archer lagged behind and quickened his step until he closed the gap.
“That won’t matter to your future wife. She’ll see it as recycling.”
“Women really think like that?” Confusion colored his voice.
“Many do, and I can’t say I blame them.” Inhaling, she breathed in the sweet scent of cherry blossoms. “Personally, if a man loves me enough to marry me and I loved him, I wouldn’t say no because of it, but I would wish he’d thought of something original.”
“Makes sense, and I’ll remember that in the future. Fortunately for me, marriage isn’t in my immediate future.” The flicker of a scowl crossed his lips.
His answer pulled her from the moment. For a man dedicated to family, she was surprised to hear his thoughts on marriage. “Why not?”
“At this point in my life, my focus is getting the shop established. I’ve done okay, but I can’t afford the distraction of a family yet.”
This walk was proving to be informative in ways she hadn’t imagined. Perhaps her initial assessment of Archer was off. “I don’t think a family should be considered a distraction.”
“That’s not how I meant it.” He sighed and pivoted to face her. “I’ve told you about my parents. They weren’t ready for children—I’m still not sure they are—but had them anyway. I do want to marry someday, but I want to give my all to a family. If I’m worrying about solidifying my business, I won’t be able to dedicate the time required to my family, and that’s not fair to them.”
Her dismay softened, and she understood where he came from. “That’s admirable, but when the right person comes along, I believe you’ll find a way to create a balance.”
He shrugged before turning forward again. “What about you? Why haven’t you married yet?”
“Never found the right person. I’ve been told I’m too picky.”
“I don’t know.” A need to confide in him pressed on her heart. “My parents fought constantly when I was a child, and they still do. When it comes down to it, I’m terrified of becoming like them, so maybe I am hyper critical.”
Beams of moonlight shone down on him, illuminating compassionate eyes. “Minor disagreements and flaws won’t always translate to an unhappy relationship. Marriage won’t make two imperfect people suddenly perfect, so there are bound to be arguments along the way, but it’s how we deal with them that make the difference.”
“Wise words, Mr. Reeves.”
“I owe them to Gran.” He gave her a sad smile. “Seems we each could use the other’s advice.”
A shiver passed through her. “It’s hard when you know what’s right, but can’t move beyond the years of screaming and shouting.”
“I understand all too well.” Archer pointed to the path ahead, which diverged into two separate paths. “Which way?”
“Left,” she answered, knowing it was the longer route of the two.
His smile told her he knew that as well. “I’m curious. You’ve mentioned Sean a lot. Is he a good friend, or one of those men in whom you found a flaw?”
She laughed. “Sean’s my best friend and we’ve always had a strictly platonic relationship. In fact, he met someone recently and is moving to New York to be closer to her.”
Archer took her hand and pulled her toward a gazebo. “So I don’t have to worry about any jealous men tracking me down at the upcoming parties or if they find out you’re my fake fiancée?”
“Not that I’m aware.”
“Good.” By now they stood in the gazebo. Archer dropped to one knee, his hand still on hers. “Madison Nichols, will you pretend to be engaged to me?”
“Yes, I will.” Though his act was all for show, she couldn’t help smiling.
He let go of her hand and pulled a ring from his pocket. “This is for you.”
Her eyes widened. “Isn’t this taking it too far? You shouldn’t have bought a ring.”
“It has to look legitimate, and don’t worry, it’s not a real diamond.”
“Don’t tell me you bought a fake ring for your fake fiancée.” She winked. “How dare you.”
His eyes flashed with humor, yet a longing hid in their depths. For a second time he took her hand and then slid the ring on her finger. “Fits like a glove.”
Wild drums beat in her heart, pounding harder with each lingering moment Archer left his hand on hers. If she had this reaction over a faux proposal, what would it be like if a man every truly asked her to marry him?
“I’m the happiest girl on earth,” she said in an exaggerated singsong voice.
Releasing her hand, Archer stood and chuckled. “I could vie for a broken record, but I honestly do appreciate what you’re doing for me.”
She hugged herself against a breeze. “It’s been fun so far. I’ve enjoyed tonight.”
“Plus, I’ve gotten new jewelry from the deal.” She had a strange reluctance to remove the ring although there was no reason to wear it until Saturday.
Archer scratched his brow, smiling wryly. “Just don’t try to pawn it or you’ll be sorely disappointed.”
“I’ll probably keep it as a reminder of our craziness. Unless you want it back,” she added quickly.
His hands flew up to resist the idea. “It’s yours to keep and do whatever with.”
They left the gazebo and continued along the path. The music to “At Last” drifting through the tree branches created a romantic backdrop, and Madison reminded herself this was all pretend. She wasn’t on a real date, and nothing existed between her and Archer except a verbal understanding to help each other.
Her head knew that as truth, but her heart told a different story. Until Archer she’d never experienced such a visceral reaction to a man. She should have been scared, told him then and there the agreement was off before they dove any deeper. But she didn’t, and she wouldn’t.
Another shiver sent tremors from her head to feet, and she rubbed her arms. “The wind is picking up,” she said to disguise the real reason her shoulders shook.
“There’s supposed to be a storm coming later—could be starting to blow in.” He looked to the sky, then her. “Are you cold?”
“A little bit.”
He moved closer to her and slid an arm around her shoulder, offering warmth from his body. “Is this okay?”
More than okay
. At a loss for words that wouldn’t embarrass her, she nodded.
“I can see clouds moving this way.” The last word hung in the air, with an implied note they should leave, but he didn’t want to.
“Can we get to the car in time?” Her fear of being caught in a lightning storm broke through her daydreams. As if to answer her question, a loud clap of thunder boomed in the distance. Unwittingly, she burrowed into the curve of Archer’s arm.
“This path circles back to the parking lot, so we’re actually a lot closer than it seems.”
She’d known that, but wasn’t thinking straight. Her mind was fuzzy with memories of their evening, and her fright at the approaching storm. Caught up in the moment with Archer, she hadn’t noticed its advance until he’d pointed out the clouds.
Two jagged bolts of lightning shot like daggers from the sky. Tearing away from Archer, she broke into a sprint, barely noticing that he kept up with her. Several minutes later she reached his car, breathing heavily from her impromptu run.
Archer jogged up to her. “Are you okay?”
Embarrassment colored her face when she realized what she’d done. “I hate storms, rather being outside during them.”
“I figured it was something like that.”
She pulled on the door handle, but it was locked. Her gaze drifted to where another bolt of lightning flashed. “Would you mind unlocking the door?”
In a matter of seconds, Archer had the door open for her, then closed it behind her once she sat.
Leaning against the headrest, she took a deep breath. And another. Flashbacks of sirens and a helicopter exploded in her mind. It had been years since she’d been caught outside in a storm, even if this one hadn’t quite made it to her yet. She was always so careful to check the weather before leaving, and this was why she lived in a house with a garage.
Callused fingers touched her arm. “You’re in the car now. You’re safe.”
The soothing voice brought her back to reality. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for.” His finger curled to grasp her arm. “But if you want to talk, I’m a good listener.”
“The reason for my storm phobia is no secret.” The gentle, caring touch he offered calmed her panicked state. “When I was seven, and my sister Anna was eight, we played Little League. One night during the fifth inning of a game, a freak storm came out of nowhere. At first everyone thought it was only rain, so we sat in the dugout waiting for it to pass.”
“What happened?” The prompt came after she’d gone silent for a minute.
“It started lightning, and the coaches called the game. On the way to her car, Jodie Michaels, one of my best friends, was struck by lightning.”
Archer’s startled eyes widened. “Did she…”
“The rain came down in sheets, making it impossible to drive, so all us kids had to witness the entire ordeal.” Twenty-two years later, the memory remained vivid in her mind. “First the ambulances came, then the helicopter. She was airlifted to the hospital but died the next day.”
“I’m so sorry.” His deepened voice demonstrated genuine compassion.
“It was terrible. Many of us dropped out for the rest of the season, and for months, I refused to leave the house if there was a single cloud in the sky. Mom or Dad would have to carry me out kicking and screaming.” She tried to stifle a sigh. “When it did storm, even if I was in the house, I’d flip out. Mom says I took a measuring tape and found the exact center of our house, and I’d sit in that spot until the storm passed.”
“That’s an extremely difficult ordeal for anyone to experience, let alone a child.”
“I’ve gotten better over the years. Now, I only get scared if I’m outside during a storm, but I take great lengths to avoid that.” She waved a hand to the rain beginning to pelt the windshield. “Tonight, I didn’t even think about checking the weather before I left, which is rare for me.”
“Too excited about your hot date?” With a wink, he let go of her arm.
“Sure,” she drawled.
If he only knew how true that was.
“You probably think I’m one of those people who can’t move beyond issues of my childhood, but really I’m not.”
“The thought never crossed my mind,” he said with a straight face. “I have my own, so I’m not one to judge.”
“I know, but I have the whole storm problem on top of my parental issue. Honestly, that’s about it as far as my hang-ups. I like to think I’m a fairly well-adjusted adult.”
Humor creased the corners of Archer’s eyes. “You don’t have to convince me.”
She laughed nervously, feeling vulnerable. “Then I’ll shut up before you change your mind.”
Archer paced the short length of the cement walkway in front of Madison’s house. Today was the big day, the reveal of his
to Gran. Would Gran buy Madison as his significant other? He sucked in a long breath and held it in his lungs for a second before slowly expelling it. His stomach turned every which way.
Where was Madison? She hadn’t changed her mind at the last minute, had she? They’d chatted on the phone last night, almost until midnight. He couldn’t believe she’d back out now. He gave her another minute, then rang the doorbell again.
His phone was still in his truck. He’d started back to the driveway to retrieve it and check for any messages from her when he heard the door creak. Turning around, he saw her holding open the storm door.
“I’m here.” A harried smiled greeted him. “I was in the basement cleaning up a water leak.”
“Did you fix it?” Relief struck to know she hadn’t been avoiding him, debating if she’d go through with the plan. “I can take a look at it.”
She twisted her lips before breaking into a self-deprecating laugh. “It’s fine now. The
was me dropping a gallon jug of water and the lid popping off.”
He didn’t try to hide his amusement. “Been there, done that, but with orange juice.”
“I’m not usually so clumsy, but I was rushing around this morning and doing too much at once. One thing led to another and well…”
Her rambling was cute, but he could tell her nerves were wound tight. “It’s fine, really.”
“Where are my manners? Come on in.” She stepped out of the doorway, allowing him a passage through. “I’ll be ready in five to ten minutes.”
Following Madison, he climbed the short flight of stairs. The kitchen was directly in front of him, the living room to his left. A logical assumption would conclude the bedrooms were down the hallway to his right.
“I don’t have any coffee made, but help yourself to anything in the fridge if you’re thirsty.”
“Thanks, but I’m fine.”
“Have a seat anywhere. I’ll be right out.” She hurried out of the room and down the hall.
Left alone, Archer eyed the common rooms, curious for any insight into Madison’s personality. All the appliances, including the countertops ones, were stainless steel. The kitchen walls were a soft gray, the cabinets a distressed turquoise. He’d noticed turquoise as a trendy color when he’d looked into redoing his kitchen last fall, but this room pulled it off in such a way it would be timeless. The entire effect was bold in an understated way.
The dining room continued the same theme, with a turquoise rug under a modern dining table. A china hutch stood in the corner and matched the cabinets. It reminded him of a piece he’d seen at a boutique Tanya had dragged him into. The store sold only handmade items of all varieties, ninety percent of which were dainty and feminine, but there were some reclaimed wood pieces of furniture he’d liked.
Madison returned. “I’m ready.”
His breath caught in his lungs when he saw her, a reaction not uncommon he was discovering. A thin line of hair was pinned in a twist on one side of her head and fiery red curls cascaded around it. She’d added a modest touch of makeup to her natural creamy complexion, light enough that it didn’t hide the splatter of freckles on her cheeks.
“You look beautiful.” He hadn’t meant to confess out loud, but her smile made it worth the admission.
She glanced down humbly, brushed a curl from her face. “Thank you.”
He cleared this throat. “We should leave. Landon had to miss his usual time slot, and I don’t want Gran to be lonely. Also, I didn’t tell Gran you were coming today in case you weren’t able to make it for whatever reason.”
“Do you think it’s wise to surprise her in her condition?” Madison furrowed her brow and waited for him to answer.
“Gran will be fine. She knows you’re coming at some point.”
Archer sat in a chair in Gran’s room, grinning with pride. Gran and Madison had hit it off immediately and hadn’t stopped chatting since he and Madison had arrived. Even though Madison wasn’t really his fiancée, Gran’s approval of her meant a great deal. In a roundabout way, it gave him confidence he could pick the right woman when the time came to settle down.
For the moment, he was all but forgotten as Gran grilled Madison without her realizing what was happening. Gran possessed the uncanny ability to uncover a lifetime of information over the course of casual conversation.
Their talk turned to his and Madison’s
and wedding. Archer tuned his ears more closely to their words, silently warned his heart to calm down. He started to pray Madison wouldn’t bungle their story, then stopped. Praying for a successful lie seemed sacrilegious and he couldn’t bring himself to finish the prayer.
“How did you and my grandson meet?” Gran gave him a reproving glance. “He’s been a tightwad with details. At times I’ve wondered if you actually existed.”
Madison coughed but recovered without any more faltering. “I ran my car off the road dodging a deer and went straight into a mud bog. Archer pulled me out, and the rest as they say, is history.”
Leaving the chair, Archer stood and placed a hand on Madison’s shoulder. He gave her what he hoped was an adoring gaze. “I knew from the moment I met her, she’d be the one.”
The look Madison cast upon him could earn her an Oscar. “It took a bit of convincing on my part, but by our second date, I had no doubt Archer was the man I wanted to marry.”
Next, Gran asked how he proposed, and Archer held his breath as Madison told the story, complete with loving inflection and dramatic pauses. He was grateful they’d taken the time to have a
Tuesday night. Their walk in the park—faux proposal included—added an air of authenticity to the story.
Gran squeezed his hand, and Madison’s with her other. “Meeting you has been a delight. I can’t wait to call you my granddaughter. A woman knows when another woman is the right one for her grandson to marry, and you, my dear, are an inspired choice. I feel it in my heart.”
Guilt pounded against Archer’s temples. He hoped Gran never discovered he’d lied to her. Somehow he’d find a way out of this web of deception without hurting her. How, he didn’t know.
“I’m honored.” Madison’s voice threatened to overflow with emotion.
Archer couldn’t help wondering if she’d become so involved with the story that she’d temporarily forgotten it was a farce. Nonetheless, he had to continue playing along. “I’m the one who’s honored.”
“Have you set a date yet?” Bittersweet hope laced Gran’s tone and tears shimmered in her eyes.
Madison met his gaze with eyes the color of glowing bronze before looking at Gran. “Actually, we wanted to surprise you with our news, but we thought we’d get married right here, in the hospital’s chapel next week so you can be there.”
Tears poured down Gran’s face. She released their hands and put her palms to her cheeks, catching several of the beaded drops. “Pay no mind to my tears. They’re the cries of a dying woman who will live to see one of her greatest wishes come true after all.”
Choked up, Archer fought the swell of emotions bombarding him. To hear Gran say she was dying slashed his heart. Only after he’d steadied himself enough to speak, did he realize what Madison had said, and panic shattered any calm he’d managed to retain hold of. He dared a glance at her, but she grinned happily at Gran.
What was she thinking?
A nurse came into that room to check Gran’s vitals.
Archer took the opportunity to escape and hopefully discover what had possessed Madison to make such an outrageous, unattainable claim. “We’re going to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. We’ll be right back.”
“Take your time.” Gran’s giddy smile never faded even as she was poked and prodded.
Clenching his teeth, Archer escorted Madison from the room. Instead of heading to the cafeteria, he took her to the small waiting room where they’d have more possibility of privacy.
“That went well, I think. Your grandmother is sweet.” Madison’s relaxed chatter caused him to wonder if she even realized what she’d said.
He didn’t respond until they were out of the hallway and away from any eavesdropping ears. “Sure it did.”
“Did I miss something?” Crinkles formed on her forehead, and she glanced around. “I thought we were getting coffee?”
“Why did you tell Gran we were getting married next week?” The vein on his neck bulged. He didn’t want to be angry when she’d only been doing him a favor, but she’d gotten them into quite a predicament. “Here, at the hospital, nonetheless.”
She narrowed her eyes and looked up—he knew the exact moment she realized what she’d said. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. “Oh no. What have I done? I got caught up in the moment, and Gran was so happy…”
“And now she’ll be crushed when I tell her there’s no wedding next week.” Closing his eyes, he sucked in a long breath before he said anything he would regret.
“I’m so sorry.” The pained expression on her face gave away her remorse. “Maybe we don’t have to tell her.”
He snorted. “Short of a wedding, how do you suggest not telling her?”
“Don’t get testy,” she shot back. “I said I was sorry, and I am, but we wouldn’t be discussing this at all if you hadn’t lied in the first place.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” He paced the length of the room twice.
“Let’s think. There has to be a solution.” She braced a hand on her hip as she thought. “I’ll call off the wedding. At least in that situation, she won’t know you only pretended to be engaged.”
“It’s not about that.” He released a long sigh. “All I wanted was to make Gran happy, and now she’s going to be more crushed than before, but I don’t see another way around it. I never should have lied to begin with.”
“Why don’t you both just get married and be done with it? You already argue like an old married couple,” a dour voice suggested.
Madison and Archer both jumped at the intrusion into their assumed private conversation. A man sat upward in a seat. His worn flannel jacket was rumpled, and snow white hair stuck out in all directions. Red-rimmed eyes suggested either he hadn’t slept in some time, or had recently shed tears. Maybe both.
“Wh—who are you?” Archer stuttered, stunned at the interloper. He didn’t recognize the man, and he’d been in the hospital enough times to recognize most visitors to the floor.
“Excuse my fiancé’s manners.” Madison nudged Archer. “We didn’t realize anyone was here.”
“That’s obvious, but don’t you mean fake fiancé?” The man showed yellowed teeth through a craggy smile.
Great, I’m not in the mood to deal with this right now.
He curbed his thoughts, realizing this man must be there for a reason. “Do you have a family member admitted? I haven’t seen you here before.”
The man stood and walked forward with a limp. “My brother. Made it through Korea and Vietnam, outlived two wives and beat cancer twice, only to be hit by a drunk driver this morning. In surgery now, but the doctors didn’t seem too optimistic.”
Compassion ebbed away the unmerited hard feelings toward the man. “I’m sorry to hear that, sir.”
Madison approached the man and touched his arm. “What is your name? And your brother’s?”
“James McKinley’s my name and my brother is John.”
“May we pray with you, Mr. McKinley,” Archer asked, following the conviction on his heart.
“I reckon I’d like that, though I need to get back downstairs soon. I came here because it was the first place I found without anyone around and drifted off as I prayed.” Gone was the cranky stranger, replaced by a man worried for a loved one. “Pray that his children make it on time. They’re on a flight from California, and my wife is waiting at the airport for them.”
Archer held out his hands, and the three formed a circle. Public prayers were never something he felt comfortable with, but in this case he’d make an exception for the sake of James McKinley. “Father, we come to you today, asking your intervention for John McKinley. We pray for his healing, and for the doctors performing his surgery. Bless their hands as your instruments of healing. We also ask for your grace in timing that John’s children will make it on time to the hospital. In your name, Amen.”
When he opened his eyes and lifted his head, he saw that Madison’s eyes were misty, and that James openly wept.
James released his hand to clutch his arm. “I’m sorry for my surliness earlier, but I know God placed both of you here for a reason. Thank you for taking the time to pray with me.”
“An apology is unnecessary, Mr. McKinley. I do wish the best for your brother.” Madison gave him a smile meant to calm and offer peace.
“Same for me.” Archer shook hands with him. “I’m here several times a week to see my grandmother. If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.”
“You’ve done enough.” James checked his watch. “I have to run—don’t want to risk missing the doctor. Before I go, I don’t know your story, but I can always tell when a couple has forever written on them. For whatever reasons, I surmised you’re not engaged yet, but don’t waste precious time waiting for the perfect moment. Every day is a gift, more special when spent with the one you love.”