Authors: Leah Atwood
“There’s nothing wrong with that.” Turning her back to Madison, she continued to talk. “I always wanted an outdoor wedding on the beach.”
“Did you get it?” Madison brought the dress down and slipped it from the hanger.
“Oh, I’ve never been married.”
Insert foot into mouth.
“I’m sorry. When Archer said Lacy’s dad left you, I assumed… You know what, I’ll shut my mouth now.”
Tanya laughed, a genuine chuckle that held no detectable offense. “You’re fine. I don’t mind telling people my story. I got pregnant with Lacy my junior year of high school, had her Christmas break of my senior year. Her dad was a year older and more than happy to run off to college and have nothing to do with her.”
“What a scumbag.” She slipped into her dress, thankful she’d never been in a similar situation.
“Pretty much, but because of him, I have the greatest blessings in my life. By God’s grace, I graduated with my class, and found my way back to Him.” Tanya’s voice softened. “And I can’t imagine life without Lacy. She is my heart.”
“Is she here today?”
“No. Her lingering cold is mostly gone, enough to leave her with a babysitter, but not enough to risk Gran’s health and weakened immune system.”
“I hope she’s all better soon.” Slipping her arms through the wide shoulder straps, she cast an eye over the room in vain for a place to see her reflection. “I’m ready for your help now.”
Tanya’s gasp offered what the lack of a mirror didn’t. “You are gorgeous. Archer won’t know what hit him when he first sees you.”
Overwhelmed by reality setting in, Madison sucked in a breath and forced a smile. Perfectly content to let Tanya chatter as she fastened the buttons, she tried not to think too much about the situation. She’d gotten in over her head, but remained determined to see it through.
“You’re good to go,” Tanya announced, stepping in front of her. “Do you need my help with anything else?”
“No. Putting on my shoes is all that’s left.”
“Archer should be down any minute. The nurses were helping Gran into a wheelchair with the IV and monitors.” Tanya peeked her head out the door to look. “Here they come now.”
Madison clenched her hands against her abdomen. Nothing quelled the somersaults her stomach performed.
What am I doing, what am I doing?
The broken record played continuously.
“All brides get nervous. You’ll be fine once the ceremony starts.” Tanya’s smile, meant for reassurance, did little to calm her.
“I’m sure you’re right.” Craning her neck, she caught sight of Archer pushing Gran, flanked by nurses and two males.
The taller man, dressed in tan pants and a button down yellow shirt had to be Landon. All the siblings carried enough similarities in appearance to make the connection obvious. She assumed the second man, clothed in a three piece suit, was the pastor.
“Wait here a minute.” Tanya’s hand stilled on her arm. “I’ll make sure everyone’s situated then come get you.”
“Okay,” she mumbled feebly.
When the door opened several minutes later, she expected to see Tanya walk into the room. Instead, she saw Archer, and her heart betrayed her with flutters that had nothing to do with jitters.
His eyes fell on her and darkened with profound appreciation. “Beautiful.”
The throaty, mesmerized tone of his utterance magnified the waves of attraction.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Archer’s metallic eyes penetrated her with the force of a bullet. “Last chance to back out.”
She swallowed hard. “Not changing my mind now.”
Their gazes collided, locking on each other, speaking silent words she didn’t understand, but hidden in their depths was a promise that all would work out in the end. How, she didn’t know, but peace found her.
He claimed her hand, folded his fingers to her in a tantalizingly slow motion. The gesture seemed an invitation that whispered alluringly, “Come with me.”
An invitation she readily accepted as she left the room with Archer at her side, and walked into the small chapel with only ten benches arranged in two rows. She heard nothing but the beating of her own heart as they walked the twenty feet to meet the preacher. One hand clutched her bouquet, the other, Archer.
She recited vows in a blur, her mind too foggy to remember clearly what she’d promised. When she looked at Gran, she saw tears of joy flowing down her face, and in that instant, she knew unequivocally, she’d made the right decision.
“You may now kiss the bride.”
They hadn’t discussed it.
But now they had to kiss.
Archer blinked and recovered first. He pulled her to him while simultaneously taking a step forward. His head leaned down. Her lips tilted toward his. Their mouths met in what she’d expected to be a brief kiss, but after the point of contact, she couldn’t break away. Neither could he if the firmer pressure was any indication.
Losing herself in Archer’s kiss, the world around her melted away. All other thoughts faded to black as a feeling of completeness consumed her.
He wished he could take back his invitation to Madison. Not that he didn’t want to spend time with her, rather he didn’t trust himself in her presence. If anyone had ever told him he’d feel this uncomfortable around his wife on his wedding day, he’d have laughed, but then, he’d never expected to have a marriage of convenience.
Which shouldn’t have presented a problem, except that he liked Madison. The attraction grew every time he saw her, and when he’d set his eyes upon her for the first time in her wedding dress, his breath had left him. For that one moment in time, he’d lied to himself about their reasons for marrying. He’d allowed himself to believe things that weren’t true, and that was a dangerous road to travel, though not nearly as perilous as their kiss had been.
If he’d harbored doubts that Madison held any romantic notions toward him, those insecurities were crushed with a single, life-changing gesture. No one kissed like that without holding strong affections for the second party.
Even though their marriage would end in four months, their lives were entwined, for better or worse. Regardless of the annulment they’d seek, she’d always be his first wife and would have a special spot in his heart for what she had done.
However, getting any closer to each other would only cause more pain and heartache at the end of their marriage. It was the same argument he’d repeated from day one of their acquaintance, but he couldn’t seem to stop spending time with her, or agreeing to do so.
He pulled into his driveway, parked and glanced at Madison. She sat with her hands folded tightly in her lap, and she stared straight ahead. How they’d made it through lunch without setting off warning bells to his family, he wasn’t sure, but guessed it had something to do with the presence of others as a buffer.
Alone, Madison had clammed up, and he wasn’t much better. They’d dropped her car off at her house, and she’d run in to change. She’d returned in an ultra-casual outfit of yoga pants and a scoop neck shirt. A perfect outfit for lounging on the sofa for a rainy day to watch a movie. The clothes were a sharp contrast to the gown she’d worn only hours ago, but she was still radiant behind the taut and nervous planes of her face.
Thunder rolled in the distance. Madison’s shoulders tensed worse than they already were. A torrent of rain gushed from the sky, blinding out any outside view. He watched her tuck her bottom lip between her teeth and dart an anxious gaze from window to window.
“Sit tight a minute. I’ll be right back.” He pushed the button to open the garage, and pushed the truck door open against a flood of rain, but not before he saw the quizzical expression on Madison’s face.
He ran into the garage, soaked from the several-feet sprint. Singling out the key to the Mustang, he slipped behind the wheel and patted her dash. “Sorry to do this to you, but some things are more important.”
The downpour made backing out difficult, but he worked slowly and assuredly to not hit his truck in the process. He swallowed, envisioning golf ball sized hail coming down and destroying the Mustang’s body and paint job. She’d spent the last decade in a garage, carefully protected from the elements.
It’s just a car.
He parked behind his truck to give him a wide berth to maneuver the truck into the Mustang’s garage spot. As he returned to the truck, rain continued to pelt him and the cold precipitation seeped through his clothes.
“What are you doing?” Madison spoke for the first time since leaving her house.
“Switching around vehicles so you don’t have to be outside in the storm.”
“You don’t have to do that.” The evident relief on her face said otherwise.
“It’s not a big deal.” Shifting into gear, he glanced ahead, and then drove into the garage.
Madison looked over her shoulder, peering through the rivulets of raining carving a path down the rear window. “Your Mustang’s your baby. It means a lot to you.”
“She’ll be fine.”
. He inched forward, driving as close to the interior wall as possible. The small garage barely fit his truck.
“Regardless, thank you.”
He nodded an acknowledgement, turned the key, and hopped out. Madison stood outside the truck on the other side.
“Welcome to my garage, the first stop along your tour of Casa De Reeves.” Waving his arm in a wide swing, he gestured around the cramped area. “Fortunately, most of my tools can be stored at the shop, but I plan to build a three-car garage out back in the next few years.”
“Bringing your work home?”
“Nah, it’s not work if you enjoy it.” He opened the door and directed her to the kitchen. “What do you like to do outside of work?”
“That’s not a fair question. Your hobby is an extension of your work why can’t mine be?” She offered a smile and was quiet for a few seconds. “I like to paint—that’s my relaxation.”
“What do you paint?”
“Mostly landscapes and sunsets.”
“Can I see some of them one day?”
Watch it, Archer. Stop creating opportunities to be together
Someone would end up hurt if they weren’t careful.
“I’ve never shown anyone, not even Anna,” she hedged.
“That’s all right. If you ever change your mind, let me know.” He brought them back to the house tour. “This is the kitchen and breakfast nook.”
“Thanks. The previous owners had them custom made with pecan wood.” A shiver passed over him, reminding him of his drenched clothes. He ignored it, determined to tough it out until after he’d shown her the house. Rushing to change wouldn’t present a masculine image, even if it was foolish to stay wet. Pride was an uncomfortable attribute to possess. “I have the breakfast nook here, but there’s a formal dining room through that entry. The room’s empty for now because I always eat in here if I’m home.”
“How long have you lived here?” Her gaze shifted casually around the house.
“I bought the place a year ago, but have been so busy at the shop, I haven’t devoted the time I should to fixing up the house.”
“What are your plans? It looks great, as is, to me.”
Her validating words reached inside him and tugged at his heart. His home was modest, but it was his. “The bedrooms need updating. I want to replace the paneling with sheetrock and pull out most the carpet. The previous owners were in the process when they decided to sell, and because they hadn’t finished, I got a good deal on the house.”
“One of the bedrooms in my house has shag carpeting still.” She laughed. “Orange, at that, which is why it’s my painting room.”
He chuckled, falling for her even more. Why he’d ever been intimidated by her, he couldn’t remember. She might be a white-collar professional, but she was as down-to-earth as they came. Because of her, he was overcoming the wounds he’d allowed one inconsequential person to inflict. “Come see the living room. It’s my favorite room of the house.”
After he showed off the vaulted ceilings with exposed beams, he took her down the hallway. Of the three bedrooms, he only showed her the weight room. The second bedroom still had boxes he hadn’t unpacked and a spare bed he hadn’t assembled. He had the master bedroom, but giving her access to that room felt too personal.
“Thanks for showing me your house.” Madison loosely hugged herself and rubbed her arms.
“Do you still want to watch a movie? I understand if you don’t.” He offered the out, but hoped she couldn’t take it. Even knowing it wasn’t wise, he wanted to spend the afternoon, and maybe evening, with her.
“We can. Unless you don’t want to,” she added too quickly.
His mouth shifted into an amused smile. “Should we both admit that’s what we want?”
“Yes.” She released an uncertain sigh. “This is confusing. I don’t know how I’m supposed to act. You’re my husband, but not really, yet we both know something’s changed.”
“I know.” He couldn’t pinpoint when it shifted.
“It had to be the kiss.”
Surprised by her bluntness, he choked on his words and coughed. “The kiss?”
“Until then, it was easy to deny any attraction.” She confused him. For a woman who’d been nervous and skittish all day, she approached the kiss with a casual openness.
“Or it could have been the magic of the moment, wrapped up in the romance of a wedding.”
“Maybe we should try kissing again and see if it has the same effect.” Man, as soon as the words left his mouth, he regretted them. Almost.
“Here, in the house, away from anything romantic? You might be onto something.” She glanced down at her outfit. “It’s a far cry from the wedding dress, I’m sure the rain has made my hair a frizzy mess.”
“Not at all.” Maybe just a bit, but he wouldn’t say it out loud. She was still beautiful.
“How are we doing this?”
“Let’s pretend it’s a normal kiss, do what people do leading up to a kiss.” He might regret it a bit. What had he been thinking?
“This has to be the world’s least spontaneous, romantic gesture ever. How will we know when all the events leading up to it are plastic? It won’t give a reliable result.”
“On the contrary, if there are still sparks despite all the unfavorable conditions, then that means what we felt earlier was real, doesn’t it?”
“True.” Madison reached behind her head to tame her hair into a ponytail.
“No.” His arm jumped to stop her. “Leave it down for now. Please.”
She lowered her arms without a word.
He tugged her to him, wrapped his arm around her waist.
And she giggled.
Pulling away, she continued to laugh until tears rolled down her eyes. “I think I’m delirious—it’s really not that funny.”
“You’re still soaked.”
It seemed impossible to forget, but now that he was once again aware of the rain-laden clothes clinging to his body, he couldn’t wait to exchange them for a dry shirt and pants. “I’ll be right back.”
He excused himself to his bedroom, grabbed a shirt and jeans from the dresser. Taking them into the master bath, he stole a glimpse in the mirror. His hair stood at all angles. He changed his clothes and draped the wet ones over the shower curtain until he could throw them in the wash later. Before he left, he ran a comb through his hair.
When he returned to the living room, Madison stood at the mantel of the stone fireplace, studying the framed pictures. Tanya had placed them there—she’d decorated the common rooms for him.
His steps must have drawn Madison’s attention. She spun around. A haze hovered in her eyes, changing their color to the hue of a rich golden sunset.
He walked toward her with intentional slowness.
On his fourth step, she took a step toward him. And another. One more and they met by the sofa.
Reaching for her, he gathered a strand of her fire-branded hair and slid his fingers down, savoring the silky tresses. Her lips parted, asking for the kiss, and he wouldn’t deny her. Their lips met.
Sparks flew. Electrifying, light up the sky, sound over all the nations sparks.
They ripped away from each other at the same time.
“That can’t happen again,” Madison said, breathless.
“Too complicated,” he mumbled.
“And we don’t need that.” She sat on the loveseat, leaning over, catching her breath. “We need to lay ground rules.”
“Number one, no touching.” He still fought for breath.
“We’ll have to dance at some of the events, and your grandmother will expect us to show affection.” Sitting upright, she made eye contact with him. “But a peck on the cheek here and there while in her presence should suffice, don’t you think?”
He lowered himself to the sofa, taking the furthest sitting spot in the room from Madison. “Dancing and the occasional innocent kiss. Got it.”