Authors: Lisa Wingate
Tags: #FIC042040, #FIC027020, #FIC042000, #Women professional employees—Washington (D.C.)—Fiction, #Life change events—Fiction, #Ranch life—Texas—Fiction, #Land use—Fiction, #Political corruption—Fiction
“Come with us.”
At first I wasn't sure I heard the words correctly. “Huh?”
“Come with us,” he repeated, more emphatically this time, his eyes taking on a glow that pulled me in. “Come on, Mallory, think about it. We both know that weÂ .Â .Â . usÂ .Â .Â . the two of us and NickÂ .Â .Â . Something so right doesn't come along every day. I realize it's not the best timingâit's only been a month, but life isn't about waiting for perfect timing. If you're not careful, life happens while you're stuck in a holding pattern.”
My heart leapt, and fell, and leapt, and fell, the rebound a little less complete each time, like the bounce of a basketball slowly losing air. “Daniel, I don't even know where I'd live in a place like that, or where I'd get a job, orÂ .Â .Â .”
“Â .Â .Â .Â how I'd pay my bills orÂ .Â .Â .” Mentally, I cycled through the arguments. This was nuts. Even thinking about it was nuts.
“Live with us.” His gaze tangled with mine, his free hand rising, covering my fingers so that he had me in a double grip.
“You want me toÂ .Â .Â . move in with you guys?” It was one of the things I'd promised myself I would never do. Call me old-fashioned, and this was the twenty-first century, but I still had Grandma Louisa and her Southern wisdom about
cows and milk in the back of my mind. What kind of idiot would move across the country, give up her job, her family, and everything else to move in with a guy?
An idiot hopelessly in loveÂ .Â .Â . maybe? Or maybe not. My parents had raised me not to sacrifice my principles. It was a strange dichotomy, considering what my father did for a living. Lobbyists aren't known for principles.
Daniel laughed softly, his lips forming a lopsided grin. He lifted his chin, those gorgeous eyes sparkling, mesmerizing. “I'm asking you to marry me. I've been thinking about it since I left to get the map.”
I felt moisture on my hands, as if suddenly his skin had gone hot. “You decided thatÂ .Â .Â . while you were out
?” I stammered, shocked and incredulous, though I didn't want to be. Past pain leaves behind unfortunate slug trails of cynicism. Everyone who comes into your life afterward can't help stepping in them. I'd had a man ask me to marry him on a whim once before. In the aftermath, I knew we weren't meant for each other, and maybe I wasn't meant for marriage at all.
Groaning, Daniel let his head fall forward. “UghÂ .Â .Â . I'm really botching this.” I felt a little tremble in his hands, but there was a resoluteness in his jaw. “I love you, Mallory Hale. I have from the first time I met you. That may sound corny. Man, I know it sounds corny. I feel like I'm channeling some sappy made-for-cable movie here, but it's the truth. I can't help it. That's all I have to offer, Mal. A sappy-sounding line, Nick and me, stomach-flu germs from the day care, and a life that looks like it might be an adventure. I don't have a lot of money or a big house, and the week I met you was probably my first and last time to rub elbows with the political power brokers. I know it's not what you planned on. I know you're used to better.”
There is no one better,
I thought, but instead, I said, “Well, if there's adventure and the stomach flu involved, then count me in.”
Irreverent laughter spilled from his lips. “You know I'm serious here, right?”
I met his gaze, tumbled in, and saw the future. Not in the crisp clarity of photosâbecause I couldn't picture this over-the-rainbow life he was describing, or me in itâbut in shades of color. The soft grays of mornings, the muted rose and violet of sunsets, the stark, blinding yellows and whites of middays. I saw holidays and seasons and years. Growing up, growing outward, growing old. I didn't want to live one year, one season, one day without Daniel and Nick.
“I know you're serious,” I whispered. My heart traveled on the words. I felt like
His Irish Bride
. Amy Ashley was right about the St. Patrick's Day thing. She had to be. This was some kind of magic. “There
nobody better than you, Daniel Webster Everson. Nobody in the whole world. If you're going to Texas, then I guess I'mÂ .Â .Â .”
My throat tightened. I wasn't sure I could say it. By sheer force of will, I managed to croak, “Going to Texas, too.”
There. The deed was done, the promise made. A rush of emotions came at me, leaving me confused and uncertain. What did I do now? Call a moving company? Write a resignation letter for my job? Tell the Gymies good-bye, leaving Kaylyn with a blank check to buy endless romance novels? Try to sublet my apartment?
Call my mother?
OhhhÂ .Â .Â . my mother. I was supposed to go home to Maryland for Easter next week. I did
want to deliver this news in person. I didn't want to deliver this news on the phone, either. I didn't want to deliver this news. Period.
My mother would flip her lid so high, it would land
somewhere in Boston harbor. She'd have me committed. My father would hire private investigators to look into Daniel's background, or find an interventionist to deprogram me. I couldn't possibly make them understand this.
didn't fully understand it. I hadn't even told them about Daniel and Nick yet. And now I had to inform them that I planned to get married and move to Texas? Next month?
“You know what, forget I said anything.” Daniel broke into my thoughts. I realized that Nick had come over from the television to climb into his dad's lap. The
credits were rolling, the DVD getting ready to cycle back to the main menu. I'd watched it enough this weekend to know. “Forget I asked, okay?”
For half a second, I was relieved. I actually had the fleeting realization that, if I didn't get married and move to Texas, I wouldn't have to tell my mother. Then
Forget I asked
hit me like an unexpected right cross. He was having second thoughts? Already?
Daniel backpedaled. “I mean, don't forget I asked, but just pretend it didn't happen. When we're old and gray, and our grandkids ask how I popped the question, I don't want the story to be about a trip to the newsstand and egg drop soup with soda crackers. Let me rewind and do it right, okay? You only get to do it once.”
Nick, completely confused, partially dehydrated with his eyelids drooping, burrowed under his dad's chin. My chest swelled, filling with the sight of them until I thought it might break me open.
Old and gray, grandkids, only once.
This was it. This was it, and we both knew it. I wanted to tell him that the proposal was perfect just the way he'd said it. Instead, I blinked, giving him a blank look. “What? Did you say something? So how was your trip to the conference?”
Pointing a finger at me, he winked and grinned.
The next day, at the very hour I'd first met Daniel Webster Everson, in the very same spot just off the Capitol rotunda, Daniel and Nick showed up, spit shined in their Easter suits, carrying two dozen red roses. Each gave me a ring. Daniel's came in a burgundy velvet box from a jewelry store. Nick's came in the plastic bubble from a gumball machine. Both were equally precious, but even more amazing was the fact that Daniel had secured the help of the grouchy personal assistant in Congressman Faber's office. It confirmed my suspicion that he was, indeed, Superman. My Superman.
Cheers went up in the Capitol building at an hour of the morning normally quiet. Even the Gymies were there. Kaylyn and Josh had written a special video game segment just for Daniel and me. We watched it on Daniel's computer later that evening. Daniel's little cowboy figure chased mine through a maze, and when the two finally met, he lassoed his sweetheart and said “Yee-haw!” Nick thought it was awesome. By the time he was ready for bed, we'd watched the video game over and over and over.
After Nick was down for the count, Daniel and I made plans to go home to my parents' place together for Easter, to deliver the news in person. We'd decided that, given the short time frame and all the practical details of moving across country, a quick trip to a wedding chapel made the most sense.
Everything seemed to be clicking into placeÂ .Â .Â . until the parents actually got involved. After the initial attempts to talk sense into us, the dads threw up their hands and the moms began talking on the phone daily. Daniel and I were having a real wedding, whether we had time for it or not. My mother was particularly determined that I would be married by the Presbyterian minister who had performed my sisters' ceremonies. She pulled the minister out of retirement and forced my father to throw down big bucks for last-minute tuxedos,
flowers, music, wedding cake, a zillion yards of tulle, and rented candelabras at the little white church I'd attended since childhood, albeit mostly on special occasions and holidays.
Due to a surprise root canal a week before the wedding, and an inconvenient problem with the medications, I had practically nothing to do with the planning.
On an evening of gale-force May storms, with a small crowd of family looking on, I walked down the aisle in a white dress worn by my grandmother, mother, and all four of my sisters. Technically, I was homeless, and almost everything I owned was in a shipping container bound for the Texas ranch of a man of uncertain reputation.
My youngest niece panicked at the last minute and refused to walk the aisle with the basket of flower petals. Nick tugged her along and hammed it up with the ring pillow, stealing the show, but none of it mattered.
I was marrying the man I loved. I was becoming a mom. I was no longer a lone entity, but half of a whole, one third of a trio.
And all together, we were headed for Texas.
The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us.
(Left by Alice, Cindy, and Paula on their annual Binding Through Books getaway. No fellas, no kids, no worries, just sisters and stories.)
here's something incredibly weird about spending your wedding night in the playroom of your childhood. Your mind flashes back to games of Monopoly and Life and to teenage parties where kisses were stolen while the adults were in the kitchen refilling the punch bowl. You feel like you're doing something for which you'll be caught by your parents any moment. For some, this may lend an atmosphere of danger to the wedding night romance, but for me it was justÂ .Â .Â . embarrassing.
It really wasn't anyone's fault that the hotel had been flooded by a sewage backup. In actuality, we were lucky. It's better to find out about the sewer problem before you check into the honeymoon suite than after. It was late by then, and my mother made the command decision to boot some of my nieces out of the place we'd always lovingly referred to as the
âa little guest cottage that had served as the playhouse to beat all playhouses. Mostly, I remembered it as my older sisters' teenage party spot, where I was typically not welcome after about eight in the evening.
My mother, being ever resourceful, had enlisted my older nieces to give the rumpus room an emergency face-lift while Daniel, Nick, and I spent time in the parlor with Daniel's parents. The nieces carried in leftover wedding flowers, then strung up the white twinkle lights and the yards of filmy fabric that had decorated the sanctuary during the ceremony.
The twinkle lights glittered as Daniel and I entered the rumpus room, the glow illuminating haphazard organza drapes that hid shelves of old girl toys. Diaphanous curtains hung around the lumpy sofa bed, presumably to provide us with some privacy from Nick, who was supposed to be sleeping in a hotel room with Daniel's parents, but had been clinging to his dad all night, insecure about the flood of new people. Now he was dozing and waking on Daniel's shoulder, all worn out from a day that had started with cramming our remaining belongings into a small U-Haul trailer, and had ended here in the rumpus room. We were suddenly a family of threeâfive if you counted Barbie and Ken, whom my nieces (the smart alecks) had dressed in wedding attire and positioned in a passionate clutch on the bed of a well-worn Barbie Dream House.
After tucking Nick into the love seat at the other end of the room, where the wall heater hummed directly above his head, so, theoretically, he wouldn't hear anything, Daniel peeked under a mound of organza in the center of the room, which was hiding an ugly pink plastic slide that had belonged to one of my nieces. Giving it a confused look, he dropped the fabric and crossed the room to me. No doubt he was wondering why the playroom was shrouded in shimmery cloth and draped with twinkle lights.
“I think Mother was trying to make our new honeymoon suite a little more appealing,” I said, keeping my voice low and taking a glance at Nick. His little mouth was hanging open
already. He was out. It still felt odd, having ended up here in the rumpus room together. I understood it, of course, but it wasn't much of a wedding night, especially for two people who had waitedâwith growing difficulty, I might addâfor the wedding to actually happen. “Sorry,” I whispered, snickering and dropping my face into my hand. The day had been too weird for words, right down to the point where my father tripped on the train of my gown and pirouetted into the first pew after he officially gave me to my groom.
“I think the room's pretty appealing.” Daniel's voice was low and smooth, with a strong hint of
. When I glanced up, his eyes were smoldering, but he wasn't focused on me. He was checking out the Barbie Dream House. He'd noticed my nieces' work. “Wanna play with Barbie and Ken?”
I stifled a laugh with my hands, a hot flush traveling from one end of my body to the other.
“Twister?” Daniel's suggestion was throaty and playful. “Spin the Bottle?” Extricating a glass Coke bottle from the hidden toy shelves, he held it between two fingers, twisting it back and forth, one dark eyebrow fanning suggestively.
The heat on my skin intensified, boiling up from some smoldering place deep inside. “I will if you will.”
“Mmm,” he murmured, setting the bottle on Barbie's balcony. “I already am.” Slipping off his tuxedo vest, he draped it carefully over Barbie and Ken's bedroom, admonishing, “A little privacy, please,” before he crossed the last few steps between us and took me in his arms to make me his Irish bride for real.
We discovered that Barbie and Ken had nothing on usâthat when you're young and in love and you're finally together, lumpy sofa beds and goofy attempts at romantic decor, U-Hauls waiting outside the door, and tenuous future plans don't matter. You're in your own world, and there's no one
there but the two of you. Everything seems right, because the one thing that matters most, really is.
Sometime in the wee hours in the morning, I dreamed I was living in Barbie and Ken's dream houseÂ .Â .Â . on the African savanna, where tall amber grasses waved in an ever-present breeze.
I saw lions prowling in the distance.
Something shook the balcony, making the floor squeak and wiggle. “Donnn't,” I muttered, my mouth gluey and stiff. “I'm watch-ennnÂ .Â .Â . the l-lions.”
“What?” a voice answered. A man's voice. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I tried to shake it off.
“The li-unnns,” I heard myself murmur. “Biggg li-unnns.”
“Mallory?” The voice was pulling me away from the savanna. I wanted it to stop bothering me. It was important that I keep a lookout for the lions. “Mal?”
More shaking. My eyes opened to blurry twinkle lights and silky white walls, billowing slightly. Where was I? “WaitÂ .Â .Â . the li-unnnÂ .Â .Â .” Sometime between the words
, it became clear that the sentence made absolutely no sense.
Reality rushed over me, and I was a bride on my wedding night. In my mother's rumpus room, with a three-and-a-half-year-old silhouetted on the other side of the organza curtain, trying to find his way in. My brain leapt to full awareness, and both of us scrambled into our clothes.
“I've got him,” Daniel whispered, standing up and slipping through the curtain.
Before Daniel could round him up, Nick found a gap in the draperies on my side of the bed. For a moment, he was like a little mummy, trapped between two layers of fabric, and then he emerged, sucking on his thumb knuckle, his hair tousled in little flyaway curls, his eyes droopy and huge.
“Did you get scared?” I whispered, and he nodded.
Despite all the parenting booksâI had poured over a few in my crash course on step-parenthoodâI did not gently-yet-firmly guide him back to his own bed. Instead, I let Nick pull the covers aside and hook a knee over the mattress.
He was halfway in by the time Daniel tracked him down. Hands braced on his sweats, Daniel heaved a sigh, looking at the two of us, Nick with his soulful eyes and me just back from Barbie and Ken's house on the African savanna. “Sorry. It's just that he's in a strange place.” Daniel's disappointment was obvious as he made his way around the bed, clearly caught between the soft tug of parental devotion and the lure of further romance. A little hitchhiker in the middle of the mattress wasn't in the plan.
“Places don't get much stranger than this.” I rolled over and folded an elbow under my head, gazing at Daniel in the dim light as he slipped beneath the comforter again. His arm made a bridge over Nick, linking us, and I toyed with his fingers.
“Yeah, and then there are those lions.” In the glow of the lights, I saw his grin.
I quieted a laugh with the pillow. “I guess I didn't mention that I talk in my sleep.” One of the many things that isn't a problem until you try to share living space. I was worried about that, deep down, though I hadn't admitted it. I'd been on my own since leaving my parents' house for college. I wasn't sure how good I would be at accommodating the needs of two other people. After finally breaking my parents' stranglehold by taking a job in Tokyo following college graduation, I'd learned to relish my independence.
Daniel closed his eyes, as if he had none of the same concernsânot a thing troubling his mind to make him lie awake. “
you tell me.” He smiled another sleepy smile.
I closed my eyes and willed the lions to stay away. In terms of dream analysis, Kaylyn had informed me, predators symbolized deeply held fears. The sort that make us feel like the hunted rather than the hunters. I'd been dreaming of predators for over a week. Last night it was a full-grown bear trying to get into my car and eat the Clean Energy Bill. Tonight, lions outside Barbie and Ken's house.
Even though I'd never been good about prayersâhaving grown up in a household that was loosely religious in the old-world sense, prayers were more of a recitation offered before special meals, at family funerals, and at church services on holidaysâI offered up a silent plea.
Please help me give this everything I've got, and please let that be enough.Â .Â .Â .
Surely the Almighty could see the fear balled inside me, even on this most special of special days. Surely He knew that I'd looked at the large window in the bathroom of the church earlier that night and briefly contemplated how hard it might be to climb through it in a wedding gown. Panic really didn't describe that moment.
I continued my midnight prayer, offering up a laundry list of issues I thought God might want to address, or that at least probably merited notification. Sometime during the latter half, I drifted off to sleep, suddenly peaceful, the lions far away.
In the morning, I awoke to a kick in the gut. Letting out a sleepy “Ooof!” I jerked awake, the room whirling around me in a confusing swirl of sights, sounds, and thoughts.
Ouch, that hurt!
Did someone just hit me, or did I dream that?
Where am I?
What was that noise? There's someone in my bedroom! Call the police!
I jerked upright and the first thing I saw was a bare backâmuscled, manly, the dim light of morning falling over the skin, making it look softer than it was. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, poised to get up. The wedding night replayed in my mind as he looked over his shoulder. “You're awake,” he whispered.
“Somebody slugged me, I think.” Rubbing my ribs, I pretended to be in pain, then glanced at Nick, stretched out in a star shape in the middle of the bed. Careful not to disturb him, I bunched the pillows and rested against the back of the sofa.
Daniel grinned, a smile that was half sweet, half wicked. “Want me to kiss it and make it better?”
Desire heated my cheeks, the rumpus room around me making me feel like a bad girl about to be caught in a game of Truth or Dare. “You could try. But then I have a feeling we'd have a hard time beating the rush-hour traffic.” The plan was for the two of us to grab the few things we'd brought in with us and hit the road early. We had a long way to go, and since neither of us had any experience towing a trailer long distances, we suspected that our journey to Texas with what Daniel had dubbed
the gypsy wagon
, would be a slow one.
“You're so practical,” he teased, and I felt an odd little pinch. Insecurity nipped, taking out a little piece of flesh, making me wonder if Daniel was worried that he might have married a killjoyâsomeone not very spontaneous and exciting. Someone who was too worried about beating the morning traffic to live in the moment.
A dreamer, a vagabond like Daniel, who wasn't afraid to travel the Third World with a backpack and a bicycle, would get tired of a too-practical wife, and probably sooner rather than later. He'd be sorry he married me. He would realize that all of this was a mistake.
look for?” His question told me
immediately that he'd sensed sheer panic leaking into the room like radiation from a nuclear meltdown.
“Nothing.” I smiled, trying to cover up, but my heart was racing, the air escaping my throat in little puffs. My lost independence wrapped around me like a giant anaconda, slowly squeezing, sensing fresh meat.
I looked at Nick, so small, so innocent, his tawny curls falling over the pillow in a sun-bleached halo. The weight of responsibility pressed hard on my stomach.
You could ruin his life
When this doesn't work out, when you can't hack it, you'll break both of their hearts. You've never been able to keep a relationship together, even under the best of circumstances.
These are hardly the best of circumstances.
Daniel's hand found mine. He'd leaned across the bed, his arm again bridging Nick, linking the three of us. “No second thoughts?”