Authors: Leah Atwood
Madison paced the length of her living room, her stomach twisted into an array of knots tied around jumping beans. Who knew a birthday party for her niece, who turned four today, could be so nerve-wracking.
This was the big day. She’d officially introduce Archer as her boyfriend to her family. She’d inadvertently switched dates around when she initially sent Archer the information on the different upcoming events, which meant he couldn’t make the vow renewal last weekend but could come to Elise’s party.
For all their talk about telling the truth, they still lived a lie. Sure, in the two weeks since they’d had
conversation, they’d been completely honest with each other, but to the outside world… that was a different story. His family thought they were blissful newlyweds. Her family had no idea they were married.
The deception didn’t sit well with either of them, but they couldn’t find a peaceful way out of their lies without hurting anyone, especially Gran. In the three weeks since Archer and Madison married, Gran’s health had experienced a significant rebound. What would happen if they told the truth now?
Anna’s reaction was iffy. She took the news of them dating better than Madison had expected, but Anna also believed engagements should be at least a year. And if her parents found out Archer was actually her husband? They’d probably get into an argument and find a way to blame it on each other.
Lord, please let my parents get along today. Elise deserves to have a special day without Mom and Dad ruining it, and I don’t want Archer to witness their turmoil. Not yet, at least.
Archer’s Mustang pulled into the driveway. She’d learned to tell the sound of the truck and car apart. Giving the skirt of her sundress a smoothing pat, she ran down the stairs, and then adjusted her bolero before opening the door.
Dressed in his standard jeans, but up-scaling his normal T-shirt to a polo, Archer stepped out of his car and grinned when their gazes met. He rushed to her, greeted her with a kiss. His eyes briefly roamed over her. “That dress looks great on you.”
“Thank you.” She reached for the wrapped present, positioned on an occasional table by the door. “Ready?”
She quirked a brow. “Sort of?”
“I’m meeting your parents for the first time.” He winked, letting her know he wasn’t that bothered by the upcoming introductions.
“All I’m going to say is that I can’t be held responsible for anything they say or do.”
“They can’t be that bad.”
“You don’t know them.”
And I’d love it if we could keep it that way.
“That’s the point of meeting them.” He escorted her to the car, holding her elbow.
“You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not.” When she sighed, a curl fell and tickled her nose. She tucked it behind her ear. “They fight over anything and everything.”
Archer opened her door. “Nothing they say or do will change how I feel about you.”
“I know, but it’s embarrassing.”
“You’re forgetting my parents essentially abandoned me. If your parents get into an argument, it’s not going to faze me.” He shut the door and circled to his side.
“Do you know how to get to Anna’s from here?”
An impish grin turned one corner of his mouth. “I run a wrecker service and have lived here my whole life. I think I can find my way.”
“Okay, okay.” She shot him a faux scowl. “I won’t be nice anymore.”
“I appreciate the thought.” His hand squeezed hers before they took off for the party.
Madison spotted her parents’ car parked next to Paul’s. Of course she knew they’d be there, but had hoped to have a little peace before their arrival. A low growl tumbled from her. She switched her attention to the decorations outside. It was impossible to be irritable while looking at brightly colored balloons and a tiara-shaped banner announcing Elise’s birthday.
“It’s going to be all right.” Archer gave her a reassuring smile before exiting the car.
Not waiting for him to come to her side, she slid out and met him in front of the vehicle. “As much as I hope today’s calm, I fully expect to give you a big
I told you so
when we leave.”
“For everyone’s sake, I hope you’re wrong.”
She adjusted the present under one arm and rolled her shoulders to relieve the tensions. “Something is seriously wrong when I’m this stressed out over an afternoon with my parents.”
Archer squeezed her shoulders, rubbed circles into them for a brief massage. “Any way I can help, let me know.”
Leaning back, she relished the feel of his fingers working her tense muscles. “Just your presence helps.”
Unfortunately, they couldn’t stand out front all day. Archer rang the doorbell.
Anna met them with a harried smile. “Welcome. Good to see you again, Archer.”
He craned his neck. “No dates for Madison hiding in there?”
“No, I learned my lesson.” Her hand extended as an olive branch. “Had I known about you, I never would have invited Gian.”
“I’m only giving you a hard time.” Archer shook Anna’s hand.
“Come in and meet Paul.” The hostess in Anna shone through. “He’s looking forward to meeting you.”
“How are Mom and Dad acting?” Madison whispered in Anna’s ear as they walked through the marble tiled foyer.
Anna grimaced. “How do you think? Paul already had to tell them once to be quiet because they upset Elise.”
“Can’t they just get along for two hours?”
“Apparently not.” Anna leaned in close. “Archer’s quite the handsome man. His presence last time surprised me too much to get a good look at him.”
Madison laughed. “No arguments from me on that account.”
Archer cleared his throat. “When a man hears his name followed by laughter, he gets a little paranoid.”
One look at his amused smirk told her he’d heard every word. Heat dotted her cheeks, but the embarrassment soon faded. Who cared if he’d heard? He knew she found him attractive—that was no secret.
Smiling coyly, she looped an arm through his. “Methinks you’re fishing for a compliment.”
He shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
Paul came out of the kitchen and looked straight at Archer with a knowing grin. “Need a rescue from my wife and sister-in-law?”
“Too late for that,” Archer quipped.
A full belly laugh came from Paul. “The Nichols women are known for sucking you in quick.” He stuck out a hand. “Paul Winters.”
“Archer Reeves. Nice to meet you.”
“Sorry I didn’t get to meet you when you were here last.” Paul shot a pointed glance to Anna. “I warned her over and over that her meddling would cause trouble one day.”
“No harm done.” Archer cast a wink Madison’s way. Only they knew the good which that day had brought.
“Care to join me outside? Elise requested hot dogs for her birthday lunch, so I’m on grill duty.”
“Sure, as long as Madison doesn’t mind.” He looked her way again.
“Go ahead. I’ll help Anna in here.” Relief settled over her as she watched Archer and Paul leave the house, laughing and joking. She’d never known Paul to be intentionally exclusive, but the invitation to the grill was a good sign. She wanted her family, including her brother-in-law who was a brother figure to her, to not only accept, but like, Archer. So far, so good.
She set Elise’s gift on the table for now. “What do you need help with?”
Anna handed her a grocery bag full of plastic packages. “Can you unwrap these straws? All the kids will get one to take home.”
“Sure.” She took the bag and opened the first one. The novelty straw was a thick, reusable purple plastic, and at the top, a small removable tiara, perfect for a doll. “Where are Mom and Dad?”
“Outside with Elise and the puppy.” Anna removed a tray of cut vegetables from the refrigerator. “It’s getting worse between them. Sometimes I wonder why they ever married.”
“Did you ever second-guess getting married because of Mom and Dad?”
A frown marred Anna’s face and her hands stilled on the counter. “At times. The first time Paul and I had an argument while dating, I broke up with him, convinced, we’d end up like Mom and Dad.”
“Sean told me I look for any flaw as an excuse to end the relationship.”
She swatted her sister with an empty straw wrapper. “Way to be on my side.”
“I’m only speaking the truth in love.” Anna continued lining food on the counter.
“How did you move past your hang ups?” The itch to run from Archer hadn’t surfaced yet, and that surprised her. Even though the relationship was new, it held more depth and meaning than with any other boyfriend she’d had. That should have scared her, but it didn’t. Still, she had a bothersome worry that old habits would return.
“A lot of it was prayer, and Paul’s patience. I think when you find the right person, they won’t run when you try to push them away.” She sat on a stool opposite Madison. “After that first fight with Paul, he came back. He knew how our parents are and put the pieces together.”
“Do you still struggle, now that you’ve been married six years?”
“Yes. Keeping the joy in our marriage is a conscious choice Paul and I make every day. I don’t have to end up like Mom and Dad.” Her smile turned bittersweet. “In some ways, living through Mom and Dad’s marriage has made mine stronger because I don’t want to love Paul that way.”
“I never thought about it that way.” Madison went to the window, her gaze searching out Archer.
Anna joined her at her observation point. “You’re not thinking about marriage to Archer already, are you? You just met him.”
If you only knew.
“He’s different. I like him. A lot.”
“There’s no reason to rush.”
The doorbell rang.
Saved by the bell
Anna flashed a we’ll-talk-later look before answering the door.
“Yes, yes we will,” Madison whispered after Anna left the room.
She grabbed the present and went outside, then set the gift on the designated table. Elise played in the yard with Nana, as she called Madison’s mom. They kicked a purple soccer ball back and forth. She continued watching them for a few minutes, enjoying the rare smile on her mother’s face.
As guests arrived, she found herself pulled into conversations, catching up with acquaintances she rarely saw. She kept an eye on Archer, hoping to spend time with him soon, but every time she saw him, he was deep in conversation with someone new. For a person who had insecurities about his position, he didn’t seem affected by them today. People gravitated toward him, and he didn’t even know it.
Forty-five minutes into the party, she excused herself from a conversation with Paul’s mother and sidled up to Archer.
Crazy how much I miss him when he’s only ten feet away
“Want to grab a plate?” She pointed to the dwindling piles of food. “Anna’s going to bring out the cake soon, then do gifts.”
“That reminds me, I have a present for her in the car.” He smiled sheepishly, claiming another piece of her heart. “Tanya helped me choose something.”
“You didn’t have to do that. I put both our names on the one I bought.”
“I wanted to.” He touched her arm lightly. “I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll go with you.” The way people drifted to him, an hour was liable to pass before he made his way back to her. Besides, most of the guests didn’t venture off the deck, despite the large backyard. She could use some room to breathe.
“Your family’s nice,” Archer said as they walked through the kitchen. “Very welcoming.”
“Anna has the gift of hospitality. She really felt bad after the Gian incident.” She snuck a peek at his expression, happy to see no angst from him at the mention of the disastrous set-up.
“Everything happens for a reason.” A smile blinked on his mouth before he dipped his head to kiss her. “You’re the reason for that one.”
She snuggled into him. “Or you, in my case.”
The color of his eyes deepened as he stared into hers. “I’m sorry for judging you and your family, and for giving in to my fears.”
A man who openly apologizes?
There had to be a serious flaw in him somewhere, but she still hadn’t found it. Nothing about Archer caused her to believe their relationship couldn’t continue. Maybe it was true that love’s blind.
Love? Already? It didn’t seem possible, but…
Loud voices coming from the formal living room interrupted their private moment.
“No, no, no.” She clutched Archer’s arm. “This isn’t happening.”
“The howling and screeching you hear is coming from my parents.” Dread and mortification topped her emotions.
“It doesn’t sound that bad.”
“Just wait.” She fixed a cold stare toward the room’s direction, like a wreck she couldn’t stop watching.
“We should go outside.” He shifted his balance, like he wasn’t comfortable in the current setting.