Authors: Leah Atwood
James walked away without another word or giving them time to respond.
“What do you make of that?” Madison asked once James was out of earshot.
“I’m not sure.” The encounter unnerved him, for reasons not clear to him. “But I have to believe he was here for a reason.”
“Which would be?”
“I don’t know.” He crossed his arm, raised a hand to rub his jaw.
“Maybe we could do what he said?”
“Do what?” His head started to hurt, and he moved his hand to rub his temples.
“Get married,” she said nonchalantly as though she’d suggested a place to eat.
His hand froze. “Say that again?”
“Why not get married temporarily?”
Her shoulders trembled, and he realized she wasn’t as confident about the suggestion as she appeared. “Is it? Neither of us is in a relationship and no one but your family would need to know.”
Archer sunk into a seat, reeling at her unexpected suggestion. “That’s a bit extreme, don’t you think? What would you gain from this?”
“Nothing except a chance to right a wrong.” She sat two chairs away from him. “I like your grandmother, and I don’t want my big mouth to be the cause of any setbacks in her health.”
“A marriage in name only, correct? One in which we could get a quick annulment when it’s over?” Why was he even entertaining the idea? It went against all that he believed.
“Absolutely. Nothing would change, and we’d still have our two separate lives.”
The idea of marriage, even one of convenience, scared him. Yet, the more he thought about it, the more the idea had merit. “We’d have an agreement written beforehand, something akin to a pre-nup, but to protect each other.”
Madison’s brows shot to a V-shape, and she scowled. “I’m not after your money.”
“I never said you were.” He laughed and gave a derisive snort. “If you were, you’d be sorely disappointed.”
“Forget I even suggested it. It’s clear the idea was foolish.” Her foot hitting the ground to leave sent a quiet echo through the waiting room.
He shot out an arm to stop her. “Sit back down, please. It wasn’t foolish, but it is a rather dramatic solution and would require a lot of discussion. As far as the agreement, I said similar to a pre-nup. The truth is, you probably make more than I do, so it’s more for your protection. Also, we need stipulations for when we end the marriage, etcetera.”
Once again, she lowered herself into the seat. “You have a valid point, about the stipulations, and we don’t know each other well, so putting safeguards in place would be a wise idea.”
“We can get to know each other better. We’ve gotten along well during the time we’ve spent together.”
“True.” She folded her hands in her lap. “I feel like I’ve known you longer than a week.”
“Me too.” In a week’s time, he’d come to know her and was comfortable around her, no longer intimidated. “I’m still not sure I’m on board with the idea, but I’d like a day to think about it.”
“I’m insane. This is crazy. What was I thinking?”
Madison continued to mutter as she raced through her bedroom, gathering all she needed. White satin pumps, a wedding dress off the clearance rack of the bargain store, the marriage license and a small cosmetics bag.
In less than an hour, she would marry a man she’d known exactly two weeks. She’d heard of brides being nervous, but the anxiety pulsing through her put a new spin on that idea. In theory, nothing would change, except she couldn’t date until the marriage was annulled. Not dating wasn’t an issue since there wasn’t a line of men waiting to go out with her, but the entire ruse had snowballed into a deception of epic proportion that collected more lies as it careened down a steep hill.
She and Archer, acknowledging the marriage couldn’t continue indefinitely, had agreed that the paper union would last four months, at the longest. Neither of them was willing to say it would last until Gran’s death. Beyond the fact that it sounded cold and callous, there was always a chance Gran could recover. Madison secretly hoped for that. She’d only met the woman one time, but had instantly fallen in love with her kind heart, infectious smile and grace in the face of trials.
They’d mutually decided that Gran witnessing the wedding was the most important aspect. She’d never know if Madison and Archer had their marriage annulled at a later date, as long as they still made occasional appearances together at the hospital. They’d come up with a story to tell his siblings when the time came.
Choppy breaths took over as Madison locked her front door, then threw her bags in the car. She’d get dressed at the hospital, not taking any chances that someone she knew would see her in a wedding dress. As she drove to the hospital, she obsessed over every scenario that could go wrong.
Her family could find out. Gran could see the truth. Archer’s siblings, the only other people to know of the marriage, could find out it was one strictly of convenience and tell Gran. Archer could change the terms of the marriage and refuse to file for annulment, thus furthering complications. She could meet
, and miss her chance at true love because she was too involved in this ruse.
Why was she doing this? She hadn’t even told Sean. Part of her wondered if, subconsciously, she’d latched on to Archer as a replacement for him, which would be ridiculous, but Sean’s news of moving had hit her hard and left a void in her heart. In a moment of weakness, she’d committed herself to a matrimonial union.
There was time to back out, but she wouldn’t. The girl who struggled to believe in happy marriages was dedicated to seeing this through. Right or wrong, good or bad, she’d go along with Archer and make his Gran happy. It made no sense, but she couldn’t shake the rightness she felt in her heart.
In the back of her mind, the voice of her conscience reminded her she’d never prayed about it or sought God’s will. She quickly shushed it. If His answer was
, she didn’t want to hear it.
“Besides,” she said as she pulled into the hospital parking lot. “How can it be wrong to help the elderly?”
The silent voice started to project an answer in her mind, but she ignored it and found a parking spot at the rear of the lot.
“Great, more risk of someone seeing me.” She gathered her bags and stepped out from the car.
“Would you like a ride, Miss?” A man behind the wheel of a golf cart pulled up beside her. “It’s a free service offered by local veterans.”
She glanced at her loaded arms, then to the hospital entrance a football field length away. “Sure, I’d appreciate one.”
The man nodded to the rear. “Hop in the back.”
Following his directions, she sat directly behind him and laid down the bags on the empty space beside her. She darted her eyes from side to side, paranoid she’d see a familiar face. The golf cart moved at a snail’s pace toward the entrance, in direct contrast to the racing of her heart.
When the man brought the cart to a stop in front of the doors, Madison collected her belongings and handed the veteran a few dollars as a tip.
He raised his hands in refusal. “No, ma’am. I appreciate it, but we do this as a service, not asking anything in return.”
“Thank you.” The generous gesture momentarily granted reprieve to the dancing butterflies in her stomach. Acts of kindness had a way of doing that.
Unfortunately, when she walked into the hospital and was met with curious stares as people eyed the wedding dress she carried, every doubt she had magnified. She drew a long, calming breath and made her way to a small room off the chapel.
Archer had taken care of all the arrangements, both with a pastor and the hospital. The ceremony had to be quick—the hospital wouldn’t close off the chapel for more than a twenty-minute block.
She understood, wouldn’t want to keep anyone from the building when they needed it.
All right, my motives aren’t purely altruistic. The sooner this is over, the sooner my life can return to normal
. Was that possible? Her life had been in a tailspin since she met Archer, and despite the in-name-only marriage—more like on-paper-only because she wasn’t changing her name—the wedding would still have implications to her life.
No dating. Secrecy. Lies. The latter of the two plagued her as she knew they did Archer as well. But what could they do? They were in too deep.
As she approached the room, the door opened.
Archer walked out, dressed in a black suit with a white button-down shirt underneath. No tie. He rolled his shoulders, adjusted the buttoned jacket. He glanced up, surprise flickering in his eyes. “You’re early.”
He looked at his watch, his mouth forming an
“I lost track of time.” Pausing, he regarded her with a solemn expression. “Isn’t it bad luck to see the bride before the wedding?”
“I think we’re beyond superstitions.” She released a shaky giggle.
“There’s something I ought to tell you.” Wringing his hands, he also rocked on his heels.
Madison’s blood froze in anticipation. “What?”
“Gran had Landon retrieve her wedding ring from the safe deposit box.” He squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath before opening them. “She wants you to have it.”
Her hand went to her chest, but she forgot that she carried her dress in it and the clear plastic covering rubbed against her face. She stammered several times. “I can’t accept it.”
“If you don’t she’ll know this is a ruse, or she’ll be offended.”
“Then let her think less of me, but I won’t take an heirloom for a sham marriage.” She looked at the fake ring on her finger—that was bad enough. “Tell her it won’t go with my engagement ring.”
Not meeting her gaze, he muttered, “It does match. It’s a plain gold band.”
“Then why did she have it in a safe deposit box?”
“Not all value can be measured in monetary terms.” A scowl passed his face.
Great, now she’d insulted him. “I didn’t mean any offense. I’m stressed, nervous, and wondering what in the world I’ve gotten myself into.”
“Maybe I overreacted.” He raised his shoulders in an apologetic shrug. “Gran’s ring is special.” He reached into a pocket, withdrew the ring, and then handed it to her. “Look on the inside.”
After depositing her armful of wedding gear on a nearby chair, she accepted the piece of jewelry, and peered at the inner band. Held it closer to her eyes and squinted. “God has joined together.”
“Granddad surprised her with the engraving. If you look closely, you’ll see their initials also engraved.”
She examined it again and saw
J.R.R. & E.D.R.
“Jonathan Ryan Reeves and Edna Diane Reeves.” He took back the ring and secured it once again in his pocket. “Maybe God did bring us together for a bigger picture than we can see. I don’t know, but I do know Gran wants you to have the ring. We’re already in this deep…”
“If it’s that important, I’ll wear the ring, but when this is over, it goes back to your family, no questions asked.”
His intense stare wreaked havoc on her already heightened nerves. She let out an involuntary uneasy laugh. “I never had problems saying no until I met you.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I never proposed to anyone until I met you.” His comment, followed by a wink, broke up the nervous tension between them.
“That’s a relief. I’d worry if you made a habit of that.”
The light touch of his hand on her arm comforted her in an unexpected way.
“Come on, let’s get you set up in the room, and then I’ll get Gran. Landon and Tanya are with her now.”
“Your brother and sister are here?” She prayed her voice wasn’t as squeaky as it sounded to her. The confident woman within had taken a vacation.
“We talked about that, remember?” His finger curved around her arm, strengthening the contact between them in a gentle way.
She mentally ran through their previous conversations. A vague recollection moved forward, but with it, a moment of panic. “What will happen if they come to your house? They’ll know we’re not living under the same roof and put the pieces together.”
“They rarely come to my house. If we’re doing something with Tanya, we go to her house because of Lacy, and if it’s just me and Landon, I go to his place because it’s usually to watch a game and he has the better television.”
“I don’t even know what your house looks like, or where you live for that matter.” Her train of thought jumped around to keep from focusing on the soon-to-happen nuptials.
“Do you have plans after we’re done here?”
“No.” She didn’t mention she’d declined a dinner invitation from Anna, not trusting herself to keep the secret. Her sister wouldn’t understand, hadn’t even been comfortable with the fake fiancée act. One day she’d tell Anna, but it wouldn’t be today. Preferably a day far into the future when this was but nothing but a memory.
“Gran wants us to stay for lunch, but if you’re up for it, we can go back to my place afterward and I’ll show you around.” Releasing her arm, he stepped away. “It’s supposed to storm this afternoon, so it’s a good day for a movie.”
A slow smile formed. “I’d like that.”
“It’s a date.”
Archer scooped her dress and bags from the chair and carried them into the room. He eyed the back of the dress and the line of buttons. “I’ll send Tanya down to help you. I should have thought of that.”
She should have as well. It never occurred to her that she’d need another person in the room. “I’d appreciate that.”
“Your bouquet is on that console.” He pointed to the table under a window.
“I’m impressed that you pulled this together.” She strode to the bouquet and picked it up. Traditional red roses with sprigs of baby’s breath. “These are beautiful.”
Opening his mouth, Archer gazed at her with an indecipherable countenance. He closed his mouth without saying anything, then opened it again. “We’re running out of time. Tanya will be down shortly.” Pivoting abruptly, he headed out the door.
Confused at his change in demeanor, she shook it off as nerves and unzipped the clear garment bag. She scanned the room for a place to hang her dress and settled on the curtain rod. There were no mirrors in the room, so she had to use the tiny one on her compact to apply her makeup. She hadn’t finished blending in the blush when someone knocked.
Before answering the door, she finished her makeup at a record speed. She went to the door and pushed down on the handle to open it. A pretty brunette stood on the other side. Her deep gray eyes matched Archer’s.
She nodded. “You must be Tanya. It’s good to meet you.”
“Same. I couldn’t wait to introduce myself to the woman who convinced my brother to settle down.” Tanya pulled her into a brief embrace. “Gran is over-the-moon excited to see you and Archer marry.” She backed away with a frown. “Archer explained your family couldn’t make it on short notice, and I know this isn’t how any girl envisions her wedding, but my brothers and I appreciate that sacrifice you made to bring Gran joy.”
“When two people love each other, that’s all that matters, and they know the wedding venue won’t make a difference in the success of their marriage.” Manipulating her words as to not lie made her right temple hurt, but she couldn’t rub it in front of Tanya. She wouldn’t give Tanya any reason to doubt the legitimacy of the marriage.
“I can see why Archer fell in love with you.” Tanya smiled broadly, showing off sparkling white teeth. “I hope we’ll become friends. I’ve always wanted a sister, and now I’ll have one.”
Madison felt an immediate kinship to Tanya. Archer’s sister had one of those personalities that drew people to her. “I hope so, too.”
“Your dress is gorgeous.” Tanya took several steps toward the window, stopping a foot away to admire the gown.
“I’ll turn around, if you want to change. When you’re ready, let me know and I’ll button you up.” Tanya glanced around the room. “Do you have a train or veil you need help with?”
She shook her head. “No, only the dress. We wanted to keep it simple.”