Authors: Leah Atwood
Madison gritted her teeth. Today gave an entirely new meaning to April Fools’ Day. Two of her best accounts refused to renew their contracts, and worse yet, one had signed on with WEFH’s biggest competitor. Her head hurt, her ego bruised. She’d never had a work day this bad.
All she wanted to do was go home, run a hot bath, and soak until the day’s stress eased away. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t happen since she’d already committed herself to dinner at Anna’s house. She’d worked late, trying to salvage the accounts, to no avail, which pushed her late. There wouldn’t be time to run home and change. Anna was expecting her there in five minutes, and it was a fifteen-minute drive from the office to her house.
Tony poked his head into her office. “Go home, Madison. There’s nothing we can do until Monday.”
“I know.” She heaved a heavy sigh. “But I don’t understand why Taylor Gas left. Our rates have always beat out the competition, and we have the best reputation.”
“I’m not happy about it either, and we’ll figure out a solution, but not tonight.”
She turned off her computer and reached for her bag. “If I think of any ideas over the weekend, I’ll shoot you an email.”
“I’m sure you will.” He jerked his head toward the hallway and the other offices. “Everyone’s left already. Go ahead out, and I’ll lock up behind you.”
“Thanks, Tony.” Sliding her bag over her shoulder, she stood and walked out the door. “Have a good weekend.”
She left the building and called Anna to let her know she’d be late.
“How much longer will you be?” Eagerness infiltrated Anna’s tone.
“I’m leaving now, fifteen minutes max.” She waved bye to Tony as he walked to his car.
“Everything’s on the table, ready to go. I’m not telling you to speed, but if you go above the speed limit, I won’t tell.”
“Point taken.” Laughing, Madison unlocked her door and sat in the driver’s seat. “See you in a few minutes.”
After ending the call, she tossed her phone into her purse sitting on the passenger seat. Driving out of the parking lot, she heard the thumping noise. Something wasn’t right. She recognized that noise, had experienced it once before.
She stopped her car before navigating onto the road. Exiting the car, she looked at her tires on the driver’s side. Both were fine. She circled to the other side and saw the front passenger tire slumped to the ground, the black rubber puddling over the asphalt.
“Why, why, why.” She kicked the flat tire with the narrow tip of her shoe. “Do I even remember how to change a tire?”
When was the last time she’d had to? High school when her dad made her prove she could do it before she was allowed to take the test for her license? Her one and only other flat had happened in a parking lot while she was out with Sean, and he’d taken care of it for her.
Taking a deep breath, she popped the trunk, moved aside the present she’d ordered for her grandparents’ anniversary and lifted the flap for access to the spare. The donut wheel was there, but no tools to loosen the lug nuts. She searched all over, even squatted down and looked under the car. There was nothing, and without that, she couldn’t change the tire on her own.
She dug her phone from her purse. Calling Anna was a last resort. Neither she nor Paul were efficient at anything with vehicles, and she was the reason their dad enacted the knowledge of vehicles rule. Archer would help her, but that would mean seeing him. She still didn’t trust herself around him. Rather she didn’t trust her ever-increasing feelings for him.
Which left Sean. Relying on him didn’t feel right. She was a married woman. Temporary or not, she still carried a moral conviction to treat other friendships and relationships with that thought in mind. It was a confusing place to be.
Regardless, she needed help. She tapped on the phone icon, having every intention of calling Sean. Her finger, however, had a mind of its own.
Archer answered. “Hi Madison, everything okay?”
She couldn’t fault Archer’s concerned greeting. Their interactions since their marriage six days ago had consisted entirely of text messages. “I have a flat tire and no wrench to change it. Any chance you could help me?”
“I was on my way to see Gran, but Landon will be there. Where are you?”
“In the parking lot at work. Do you know where the station is?”
“Yes. Give me ten minutes and I’ll be there.”
She dreaded calling Anna and telling her she’d be even later. Taking the easy way out, she sent her a text, knowing her sister would check her phone when she didn’t show up.
Archer drove up in his truck eight minutes later. He jumped out, wearing a pair of faded jeans and a forest green T-shirt. A ball cap covered his hair.
“Thank you so much.” Throwing her arms around him, she greeted him with a hug, pleased when he reciprocated and lingered. Letting go, she backed away. “If I’d have known you were going to see Gran, I wouldn’t have bothered you.”
“She didn’t know I was coming. It’s Landon’s night, but I didn’t feel like being home alone.” His eyes darkened. “Besides, I wasn’t going to leave you stranded.”
“I could have called Sean.” At the look on Archer’s face, she instantly regretted bringing his name into the conversation.
His brows shot up, his face contorted into a scowl. “Call me first. I’m your husband.”
Was he jealous of Sean? She hadn’t taken him as that type. “Only on paper, and I did call you first. The only reason I would have called Sean was so I didn’t inconvenience you.”
“You could never be an inconvenience, Madison.” His features softened, and he lifted a finger to tuck a wisp of hair behind her ear. “I’m sorry if I acted all caveman a few seconds ago, but seriously, don’t hesitate to call. Especially with car problems.”
Must. Find. A. Distraction.
“I’m ready for the day to be over.”
“You have no idea. Work was horrendous. I was already late for dinner at Anna’s, and now the flat.” Her phone rang from the car. “Speaking of, that’s probably Anna.”
“Which tire is it? I’ll change it out so you can be on your way.”
He opened the metal tool box spanning the width of the truck bed. “Spare in the trunk?”
Nodding, she turned and grabbed her phone through the still-open door. It stopped ringing when she picked it up.
Missed call from Anna
flashed on screen. Reluctantly, she called her back.
“Where are you?” Anna screeched into the phone. “Why didn’t you call? I would have sent Paul.”
Her laugh erupted before she could squash her amusement. “At work, and you know Paul has many great qualities, but he can barely change a light bulb, let alone a tire.”
“I’ll grant you that, but still…. Do you need me to call anyone?”
“It’s under control. I should be on my way in a matter of minutes.” She paced, unconsciously moving to the opposite side of the car.
Her gaze focused on Archer as he adeptly changed the tire. The pitter patter of attraction became full-fledged footsteps. It wasn’t that he could change a tire—that was a common skill—but that he’d come without hesitation, didn’t treat her as an inconvenience as her father had to her mother so many times during their marriage.
“Earth to Madison, are you still there?” Anna’s voice cut into her musings.
“Yes, sorry. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Okay. I’ll see you soon. We’re all waiting.”
Sliding her phone into her pocket, she walked to Archer. “Do you see anything to cause it?”
He rolled the tire off the axle. “The tread is gone.” Pointing to a bald spot, he said, “Look here. You can see the bands coming through.”
“I guess there’s no patching that?”
“No. You’ll need a new one.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Me and these car problems lately.”
“I’m pretty sure I have the tire you need in stock. Can you come by tomorrow?”
“Yes. What time?”
“Does ten work?”
“How much will it cost?” Thank goodness it was the first of the month. Her paycheck hit her bank account last night, and she’d be able to eat the cost without dipping into savings.
She crossed her arms and scowled. “I can’t take it for free.”
“Considering what you’ve done for me, let me do this.” He grabbed the spare. “Plus, I should have noticed the wear when your car was in for the rear wheel.”
“I won’t win this argument, will I?”
Shaking his head, he smirked. “No.”
“If you won’t let me pay, at least join me tonight at Anna’s.”
“I can’t impose on your family.”
“It’s not an imposition. Anna makes enough to feed an army.”
And I want you to come
“How will you explain me?” Squatting down, he lifted the spare onto the axle.
“I’ll tell her you’re a friend who came to my rescue.”
And much more.
“And that’s the truth.”
He chuckled, then proceeded to screw back on the lug nuts. “You have a deal.”
A few minutes later, he completed the job. He stood up and brushed his greasy hands. Strode to the toolbox and withdrew an orange bottle. Tipping the jar, he poured a gooey substance into one of his palms and rubbed his hands vigorously. Withdrew a rag and wiped his hands.
“Do you want to follow me, or ride together?” she asked once he finished cleaning off the grease.
“I’ll follow. If it’s not too late, I’ll still head to the hospital after dinner.”
“If for any reason we get separated, Anna lives on Poplar Street, at the end of the cul-de-sac.”
He grabbed the wrench, put it in the toolbox and shut the lid. “I know exactly where that is. My buddy, Shep, from church did some work on their neighbor’s house.”
“Good. We should get going—Anna’s already flipping out because I’m so late.”
“That’s a sister for you.” An affectionate smile graced his face. “Tanya’s also known for doing that.”
They let the conversation fall.
Madison got in her car, but kept looking at Archer. She knew his stated reason for why he hadn’t married yet, at least not for love, but she wondered how many women had tried to win his heart. So far, she hadn’t found a reason to not like him, and she’d tried plenty. She kept hoping that if she could find a flaw, then it would put a stop to the growing attraction.
She drove to Anna’s, never losing Archer behind her. An unfamiliar car was parked behind Paul’s luxury sedan. A sleek, sports car with a foreign logo she didn’t recognize. Her gut churned with a bad feeling. The way this day had gone, nothing would surprise her. She left her car and met Archer, deciding not to mention the unknown vehicle. They’d find out soon enough.
He’d taken off his hat and combed his hair. She had the urge to reach for his hand, but she didn’t want to set Anna’s tongue to wagging any more than bringing him here would do. Besides, she and Archer didn’t have that type of relationship.
His shoulder brushed hers. “I don’t have a good feeling about this. Maybe I should go.”
“Don’t be silly.” Without thinking, she glanced back to the stranger’s car. Who was its owner?
The front door opened and Anna stepped out and down the steps of the front porch. Her eyes landed on Archer, and her brows shot up. Still looking at him, she addressed Madison. “Glad you finally made it. I didn’t realize you were bringing a guest.”
“This is Archer Reeves. He changed my tire for me, so I invited him to dinner as a way of saying thanks.” She didn’t miss Anna’s disapproving but curious frown. “I believe you’ve said he’s done great work on Paul’s car.”
Anna recovered quickly and became the charming hostess though taut muscles indicated a strain. “Of course. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Please come in.”
As she climbed the first step of the porch, a man appeared in the doorway. He wore perfectly pressed khakis, a pale pink polo short and Italian loafers that screamed wealth. Not a strand of thick black hair was out of place, and when he smiled, his brilliant white teeth sparkled against olive-toned skin.
Unnaturally so, if you ask me.
She sent Anna a questioning stare.
Ignoring Archer, whether intentionally or not seeing him somehow, the man approached her with too much confidence in his gait. He grasped her hand and brought it to his mouth, placed a kiss on it. “Good evening, Madison. The picture Anna showed doesn’t begin to do justice to your beauty.”
A disgusted shiver sent a tremble through her body. The man was much too forward, but she tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. She detected an accent, and perhaps his behavior was acceptable in his culture. Still… “Pardon me, but do I know you?”
“I see I’ve jumped ahead of myself. I thought Anna had told you—I’m your date for the night.”
She coughed. “Excuse me?”
Every muscle in Archer tensed. Anna’s sister had set her up on a blind date, and here he was, intruding on the evening. He should have followed his instincts and gone home the moment the bad vibe started. This incredibly awkward situation was the penalty for not listening to himself.
“May I have a word with you?” Anna grabbed Madison’s arm and yanked her inside, not giving her a choice.
To be a fly on that wall.
Gian looked at him, his eyes subtly widening as though he’d only then realized Archer was there. “Who are you?”
“Just the mechanic who fixed Madison’s tire.” Jealousy, to which he held no right, ran rampant. “She’s driving on a spare, so I wanted to make sure she arrived safely. Please remind her to drive very slowly on it.”
“I will.” Gian stared down his nose at him and retrieved his wallet. He handed Archer a twenty. “This is for your extra time and care.”
He pushed the money away. “Keep it. I was just doing my job.”
Gian shrugged, but returned the bill to his wallet. “Have a good evening.”
The dismissal rang loud and clear. No sense sticking around where he wasn’t wanted. “Same to you.” He tipped his chin and left.
As he drove away, crushing disappointment weighed him down. He’d never felt so belittled, not even on that horrid date from several years ago. The entire encounter highlighted the differences between him and Madison. From all appearances, her family had money. The neighborhood Anna lived in was the ritziest in all Maryville. All the vehicles in the driveway except his and Madison’s were luxury models from expensive makers.
And Gian. His obvious disdain for the working class made him feel lower than pond scum. Insecurity wasn’t typically an issue for him, except when it came to money. He didn’t mind that he wasn’t wealthy, and was proud of the work he did, but he hated when anyone made him feel less of a person because of his career. Just when he’d gotten over it with Madison, tonight’s fiasco occurred.
He shouldn’t have left without telling her bye, but he couldn’t stand to stick around and hear her half-hearted, piteous pleas to stay. Being the fifth wheel didn’t invoke much fun for him, and he’d rather spend the evening with Gran and Landon than sit by his wife during a dinner at which no one knew they were married and expected her to show interest toward another man.
A fake fiancé was the second dumbest idea he’d ever had. The first was entering a marriage of convenience. Four months was a long time to continue this sham marriage. He’d call Madison tomorrow and ask for the annulment now. He’d tell Gran she’d been called away on business and would be gone a minimum of a month. That would buy him time to think of something else to tell her.
As soon as the annulment was finalized, he wouldn’t have to see Madison again. The hollowness in his heart grew. The ache in his chest spoke too loudly to ignore. This wasn’t what he wanted, but it was for the best. They came from different worlds. He’d never be able to offer her all that Gian could. Not that he thought Gian deserved her—she was much too humble and kind hearted for an arrogant man like him.
In a funk, he drove home instead of to the hospital. Gran needed optimism and good cheer, and he didn’t think he’d be able to muster any tonight. If she’d been alone, he would have gone, but Landon was there.
He went inside to an empty house.
I should get a dog
. Too bad he wasn’t home often enough to take care of one. He tossed his keys on the counter and grabbed the box of leftover pizza from the refrigerator. Lifting a slice to his mouth, he took a bite. Cold pizza was his ultimate comfort food.
Three slices and a full stomach later he crushed the empty box and threw it in the dumpster outside. Needing mindless activity, he threw a load of laundry in the wash and escaped into the weight room. He was adding five pounds to the bar when the doorbell rang.
At the front door, he held an eye to the peephole. Madison? Why was she here? A fierce scowl sharpened the lines of her face.
He opened the door.
“You have a lot of nerve,” she spat.
“Good to see you too.” Sarcasm
have laced his tone. “Please, come in.”
She stood rooted to the doorstep, her fists clenched into balls. “You abandoned me, left me all alone to deal with that vile man.”
“You were hardly alone. Your sister, brother-in-law, and presumably niece were there.”
“Did you ever think that maybe I wanted my husband?” The decibel level of her screech could be heard by his neighbors.
He knew because he saw Mrs. Johnson across the street poke her head through the blinds, already on a cell phone, likely spreading the word that a young woman shouted outside his house.
Grabbing Madison’s arm, he pulled her inside and closed the door, shutting out their audience.
The glare she shot him wasn’t pretty. “I’m really getting sick of being yanked around today.”
“Sorry, but the neighbors were watching.” He dug his fingers into the rear of his neck. “Why are you here?”
“To find out why you abandoned me.”
“I wasn’t going to be a fifth wheel at your dinner party, and again, I didn’t abandon you. There were plenty of people there.”
“You weren’t the odd one out. Gian, the arrogant, pompous pig was.”
He cracked a smile. “No love match there?”
“None whatsoever.” She relaxed her scowl. “And I’m not looking for a romance. In case you forgot, we’re married. Even if only for your grandmother’s sake, I have a moral obligation to stay faithful.”
“About that…” He gestured toward the living room. “We should sit.”
Her eyes narrowed, one brow barely rose. “What’s going on?”
Taking her hand, he walked to the living room. His pulse pounded. He sat next to her on the loveseat, their knees touching. “I’ve given it some thought, and I think it would be best if we get the annulment now.”
Other than a tight line on her lips, her expression became unreadable. “What changed?”
“The lines are too blurry.” He scrubbed a hand over his forehead. “This was supposed to be a simple arrangement, and it’s become anything but that.”
She moved her head side to side in a slow motion. “The lines were blurred last week, and you were fine an hour ago. What happened tonight?”
“We’re from different lives.” He didn’t want to say more, expose his raw feelings more than he already had, but Madison’s eyes pressed him to explain. “You have a fancy job title, but I’m just a mechanic. Your family comes from money. Just look at your sister’s house. I’ll never be able to provide for you that way.”
A smile was the last reaction he’d expected from her. “So what you’re saying, is that you’ve thought of a real future for us?”
“How could I not?” His eyes met with the flecks of gold in hers. “If I were looking for a wife, you’re everything I would want. Beautiful, kind, humble, smart, generous, selfless.”
“If you believe those attributes about me, do you think I would care what you do for a living, or love you for what you could provide?” She stared at him, waiting.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“A man has his pride, wants to give the woman he cares for the best.” How else could he make her understand? He didn’t want to disappoint her with his meager lifestyle.
“If you’d let pride and a misguided sense of what I want come between us, then you’re not the man I thought you were.”
“Did you know Gian offered me twenty dollars, as a tip of sorts for bringing you there safely?” His fists curled. “Here I was, your guest for the evening, being treated like nothing more than medial help.”
Understanding lit her face. “I had no idea he did that. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. I’ll admit, it didn’t make me feel so great, but it also highlighted what we’d face if we pursued a real relationship.”
“None of that matters to me. I wish you could see that.”
His eyes opened to the truth. If Madison didn’t have a problem why should he? She’d known from the beginning what he did, and never once looked down on him. “I’m sorry. For being self-absorbed and judging you.”
She let out a relieved sigh. “Now that we’re passed that, let’s clear up a few issues. I don’t know where you got the impression that my family is wealthy. We’re middle class, always have been. My job, contrary to what you think, pays the bills with some extra. I can’t complain because my salary is decent, and I have great benefits, but it’s not the lucrative position you seem to think.” Her eyes never left his as she gave her speech. “I don’t even own my home. It’s a rental I got cheap through a family friend. As far as Anna, yes, she has money, but she married into it. And not all wealthy people are like Gian. Paul comes from old money and is one of the humblest men I’ve ever known. He would never look down on someone based on income or financial status.”
“Now I feel like the world’s biggest jerk.” He’d been an idiot. Almost let his pride ruin a great thing before it even started.
“Good. You should.” At the drop of his mouth, she nudged him and laughed. “I’m kidding, but seriously, I think that title is reserved for Gian.”
“I plead the fifth.” He flashed an innocent smile. “I’ve already gotten myself in enough trouble today.”
Sobering, Madison implored him with her eyes. “Where do we go from here? Is the annulment what you really want?”
“I want to date you and have a real relationship.” His hand linked with hers. “What I feel for you is too strong to run away from.”
“I feel that same way.” She leaned into him. “Does that mean we get the annulment and start over, or continue as is?”
“Maybe I spoke too soon about the annulment, but we can’t continue as is.” When her face fell, he rushed to finish his thought. “I want to go forward as a couple, not two strangers who happened to be married.”
“To be clear, we’re not moving forward as a married couple, but as a dating couple, right?”
“Yes, of course.” However, for the first time in his life, he could see himself settling down with someone. Time would tell, but his heart told him Madison was
“In that case, I have a confession.”
He arched a brow. “Haven’t we had enough of those today?”
“Just one more. It had to do with what happened after you left.”
Intrigued, he sat back so he could see her face clearly as she spoke. “What did happen? You obviously didn’t stay too long.”
“I was steamed at Anna, furious she’d trapped me into a blind date. We’ve argued about it before, and last time she promised she wouldn’t do it again.” Madison rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right.”
“What did you say to her?”
“That she had no right to do that and had created an awkward situation. She reminded me that I’d brought a guest without mentioning it, so I guess proper etiquette went out the window for both of us.”
“Next time I’ll follow my instinct and leave.”
“No. There won’t be a next time of her setting me up.” She tucked her chin to her chest. “I kind of told her you were my boyfriend.”
Both brows shot up, and he couldn’t stop a grin from forming. “Oh really?”
“I could take the easy way out, and say it was to get Anna off my back and make her feel worse, but that would be a lie.” Her eyes wouldn’t meet his.
He released her hand and crooked a finger under her chin, tilted it up until their eyes met. “We’ve done too much lying.”
“I prefer the truth,” she whispered, breathless.
“Then let me be your truth.” He rested his forehead against hers. “Let me be your boyfriend and make right the lie to Anna.”