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Authors: Sandra Steffen

The Wedding Gift

BOOK: The Wedding Gift
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He looked at her, and she knew. He was going to kiss her.

He tipped her head back with one finger and brought his mouth to hers. The instant their lips touched, the kiss spun into a roller-coaster ride of sensation.

She'd expected his kiss to be polished and calculated, a process to get from point A to point C. There was no point A. There was only a mating of lips and air and instinct.

When it was over, she held perfectly still. Her breath seemed to have solidified in her throat. She hadn't been kissed in a long time. And never quite like this.

“I shouldn't have come here.”

“I disagree.”

“I should go home.”

“It's only five days, Madeline. If you leave, you'll never know what would have happened during those five days.”

She wondered how it would feel to be so sure of something. She used to be that sure. That felt like another woman's life.

Dear Reader,

Writing this letter to you started me thinking about letters—letters, not e-mails or text messages. Letters like those our grandmothers wrote to our grandpas, mothers to daughters, and old college roommates to each other. They were lyrical and poignant, awaited, savored and treasured.

They were gifts from one heart to another. My newest book,
The Wedding Gift,
has something in common with those old-fashioned letters, for this story is a gift from my heart to yours.

I'm so pleased to be part of Silhouette's lineup of wedding stories this month, for our youngest and oldest sons were married recently, nine months apart. All four of our sons are married now, and each wedding is a poignant memory and each daughter-in-law a wonderful addition to our family. The babies are arriving, too—oh my, what blessings they are! I promise I won't bring out their pictures, but don't be surprised when babies are featured in my upcoming books.

But first things first: I hope you enjoy, no, I hope you savor
The Wedding Gift.
May reading it speak to your heart the way writing it spoke to mine.

Until next time and always,

Sandra

THE WEDDING GIFT
SANDRA STEFFEN

Books by Sandra Steffen

Silhouette Special Edition

The Wedding Gift
#2050

Not Before Marriage!
#1061

Silhouette Romance

Child of Her Dreams
#1005

*
Bachelor Daddy
#1028

*
Bachelor at the Wedding
#1045

*
Expectant Bachelor
#1056

Lullaby and Goodnight
#1074

A Father for Always
#1138

For Better, For Baby
#1163

†
Luke's Would-Be Bride
#1230

†
Wyatt's Most Wanted Wife
#1241

†
Clayton's Made-Over Mrs.
#1253

†
Nick's Long-Awaited Honeymoon
#1290

The Bounty Hunter's Bride
#1306

†
Burke's Christmas Surprise
#1337

†
Wes Stryker's Wrangled Wife
#1362

†
McKenna's Bartered Bride
#1398

†
Sky's Pride and Joy
#1486

†
Quinn's Complete Seduction
#1517

The Wolf's Surrender
#1630

Silhouette Desire

Gift Wrapped Dad
#972

Silhouette Books

36 Hours

Marriage by Contract

Fortunes of Texas

Lone Star Wedding

The Coltons

The Trophy Wife

Delivered by Christmas

“A Christmas to Treasure”

Harlequin Next

Life Happens
#10

Ex's and Oh's
#29

Slightly Psychic
#72

SANDRA STEFFEN

has always been a storyteller. She began nurturing this hidden talent by concocting adventures for her brothers and sisters, even though the boys were more interested in her ability to hit a baseball over the barn—an automatic homerun. She didn't begin her pursuit of publication until she was a young wife and mother of four sons. Since her thrilling debut as a published author in 1992, more than thirty-five of her novels have graced bookshelves across the country.

This winner of a RITA
®
Award, a Wish Award and a National Readers' Choice Award enjoys traveling with her husband. Usually their destinations are settings for her upcoming books. They are empty nesters these days. Who knew it could be so much fun? Please visit her at www.sandrasteffen.com.

For the newlyweds
Greg and Maggie
and
Mike and Amber

Acknowledgment

A special thanks to Barb DePue for sharing incredibly detailed information and unforgettable descriptions of her husband Bruce's heart transplant. The Internet is nice, but there's nothing like a long talk with an old friend.

Chapter One

M
adeline Sullivan tiptoed from her attic apartment by the light of the waning moon. She crept down two flights of stairs and across floorboards so old they normally creaked beneath the weight of dust bunnies, yet she didn't awaken any of the inn's guests. Her car started on the first try and she didn't see another pair of headlights until she'd reached the first orchard west of town. From there she drove north to the river, then west and north again all the way to Lake Michigan.

The weather cooperated and the traffic was manageable. Even the faded no-trespassing sign marking
the narrow lane she was searching for practically jumped out at her at first glance.

It was almost too easy.

Easy was fine. Easy was wonderful. Really.

She didn't need the accompaniment of distant thunder or the reassurance of rainbows. What she needed was waiting at the top of a knoll near the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

At least she hoped it was.

Her heart
did
race as she turned onto the lane, but that was just her better judgment rearing its timid little head. Determinedly gripping the steering wheel with both hands, she followed the winding path to the top of the hill overlooking the enormous sand dunes for which the shore had been named. Beyond the dunes the choppy waters of Lake Michigan disappeared into a solid wall of clouds. The sky had been low and gray all week, a welcome sight in the scorching heat of summer, but on this day in early spring, the clouds were an annoying affront to the promise of fair weather.

Madeline wasn't looking for promises. She was looking for a man named Riley Merrick.

Rolling to a stop where dune grass still brittle from the harsh winter concealed most of her car, she settled back to wait. If her sources were accurate, Merrick was the architect overseeing the construction of an extravagant vacation home a quarter mile away.
There was no sign of him, though. She watched for several minutes before reaching for her cell phone to let her best friend back home know she'd arrived safely.

As usual, Summer Matthews started talking the moment she put her phone to her ear. “Since this isn't a collect call, I assume you haven't been arrested for stalking Riley Merrick. Yet.”

“Most people begin conversations with hello, Summer. Besides, I'm not stalking him.”

“I suppose you're not peering through binoculars right now, either.”

Being careful not to let the binoculars clank against her cell phone, Madeline hummed something noncommittal. She was a terrible liar, but even if she'd been good at it, she wouldn't have lied to Summer.

“If you'd called five minutes sooner,” Summer said, “your brothers could have participated in the conversation.”

Summer was the owner of the Old Stone Inn in Orchard Hill. Once a stop on a well-traveled stage line, the old building was now a popular bed-and-breakfast inn. It sat on a hill overlooking the small city of Orchard Hill to the east and the river and the surrounding apple orchards to the north and west. The resident innkeeper, Summer was known to
everyone back home as the keeper of secrets. She was also the best friend Madeline had ever had.

“The boys came to the inn?” Madeline asked.

“After lunch. All three of them. All at once,” Summer said drolly.

Oh, dear. All three Sullivan men all at once intimidated most people. Madeline's conscience chafed. She wished she could have done this without sneaking, but if her brothers had known she was planning this today, they would have tried to stop her, or worse, insisted upon coming with her. God love them, but they would smother her if she let them.

“What did you tell them?” she asked.

“First I reminded them that you're a grown woman. Marsh took it the hardest. You should have seen the look on his face when I broke the news that you're twenty-five. I informed Reed that seeking proof that Riley Merrick is alive and well isn't unreasonable and I made Noah promise not to follow you by land, by sky or by sea. I didn't have the heart to tell any of them I advised you to have your way with the first gorgeous man you laid eyes on.”

It was such ludicrous advice Madeline couldn't help smiling. “I'm overlooking a construction site, Summer. Think about what you're suggesting.”

Of everyone Madeline loved, Summer understood her best. She would have gladly helped Madeline
find a way to shed her old life, to sprout wings or start over where no one knew her, the way Summer had. But she wasn't like Summer. Marsh, Reed and Noah had done nothing wrong except love their younger sister, and perhaps try too hard to fill their parents' shoes after they died when she was twelve.

Madeline knew how worried everyone was about her, but her friends, family and coworkers couldn't fix what was wrong with her life. The only person who could make things better was Madeline herself.

And maybe Riley Merrick.

“Have you seen him yet?”

Summer's voice summoned Madeline back to the situation at hand. Studying the view through the field glasses again, she said, “There've been a few vehicles in and out of the gate and a small crew is climbing around on some scaffolding right now. I don't think he's with them.”

“He's probably short, fat and bald, you know.”

“He isn't short, fat or bald,” Madeline said absently as she searched the faces of two new arrivals in the distance.

“How do you know?” Summer asked.

“I Googled him.”

There was a moment of silence before Summer said, “So what does he look like?”

“Early thirties, with dark, unruly hair, deep-set
eyes, a stubborn chin and a stance that has attitude written all over it.”

“He sounds dreamy.”

“Don't start, Summer. I mean it.”

“I'm just having a little fun. It's been a long time since you've had any fun. Maybe it's been long enough.”

Summer had spoken gently, the way everyone in Madeline's life did these days, and yet the words found their way into her chest like an echo returning from a distant canyon.

“What will you do after you've seen him?” Summer asked. “Will you try to talk to him?”

“I don't think so. I mean, what would I say? ‘Excuse me. You don't know me, but I just drove a hundred and eighty miles because I need to believe in the notion that something good can come from even the saddest tragedies. You see, that heart beating in your chest used to be my late fiancé's.' Can you imagine how it would feel to hear
that
out of the blue? I didn't come here to upset him.”

“I know,” Summer said. “It isn't asking too much though, to know he's alive and flourishing.”

“Thanks, Summer. You're the best.”

Madeline stared into the clouds in the distance for a long time after the call ended, her mind blessedly blank. Eventually the low rumble of an approaching
car brought her from her trance. After raising the binoculars to her eyes, she saw a silver Porsche pull into the lane leading to the construction site. The driver parked on the crest of the next hill and got out. Wearing a brown bomber jacket and khakis, he turned, giving her a momentary glimpse of dark, unruly hair and deep-set eyes.

Riley Merrick.
His name escaped on a whisper and brought with it a hitch in her breathing.

He left his car well away from the bulldozer lumbering back and forth at the foot of the hill, and walked the rest of the way to the site. He moved like a long-distance runner, strong and focused and seemingly oblivious to the cold wind in his face.

With his arrival, the area came alive. Generators were started and men in tool belts climbed up scaffolding and ladders, spreading out at the top like ants at a picnic.

Madeline settled back in her seat and took a deep breath. There. She'd done it. She'd witnessed for herself that Riley was alive, and yes, apparently flourishing. Now she could spend the rest of her vacation anywhere, satisfied in her newfound knowledge.

There was only one tiny little problem with that. She didn't feel satisfied. She felt—

She jerked her head around and fumbled for the
binoculars. Someone was climbing the scaffolding in the distance, someone as lithe and agile as a long-distance runner, someone wearing a brown bomber and khakis.

The field glasses bounced off the passenger seat and thudded to the floor. Seconds later she was starting her car. Tires churning up sand, she raced down the hill, around the bend and through the gates at the construction site. In an instant she was out of the car, running against the wind.

 

The blueprints in Riley's hands flapped in the wind as he watched the crane lift a roof truss high over the heads of the crew bracing to secure it into place. This summer house was going to be a beauty. From its conception he'd envisioned a buxom lady, with her turret windows, soaring vaulted ceilings and pitched roof. The clients, an eccentric movie-producing husband-and-wife duo from L.A. wanted a showplace, and Riley was just the architect to ensure they got exactly what they wanted.

The lakeside lady would boast stone quarried in Michigan's upper peninsula and incredible arched leaded windows that winked in just the right light. Inside, she'd have every decadent luxury—a gourmet kitchen, heated stone and Brazilian cherry floors, steam showers and a spa fit for royalty. She'd
be a big-boned gal, six thousand square feet on one floor with another fourteen hundred in the nearby guesthouse. By the average person's standards, that was a lot of square footage for a vacation home. It seemed the wealthier people were, the more room they needed to get away from each other. Riley grew up in a house twice this size.

From the corner of his eye, he saw his project foreman sauntering toward him. “Phone's for you,” Kipp Dawson said.

“The clients?” Riley asked. When Kipp shook his head, Riley tensed, for only his mother could elicit a grimace of this magnitude from a man as tough and rangy as Kipp. “Take a message,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Do I look like a secretary to you?” But Kipp punched a button on his phone and said, “He'll call you later, Chloe,” then promptly broke the connection.

Upon meeting them, people were often surprised by Kipp and Riley's friendship, for Riley had had a privileged upbringing and Kipp had been left with any relative not quick enough to barricade the door. When Kipp was fourteen his mother had dropped him at the Merrick estate, claiming Riley's father was Kipp's old man, too. Since Jay Merrick had been good at two things—making money and siring sons, it was cer
tainly possible. In those days before DNA testing, it had taken private investigators nearly a year to prove it wasn't true. By then the boys were close and Riley's mother told Kipp he was welcome to stay. She never let either of them forget her good deed.

Riley knew his mother was worried about him but he didn't appreciate her meddling. Kipp tolerated it much better. Of course, he had her up on a pedestal, right where she wanted to be. “Sooner or later you're going to have to talk to her,” he said.

Riley mumbled something that meant the subject was closed, but the truth was, he knew what his mother wanted. He'd been dodging her calls all week.

He and Kipp stood side by side while the crew struggled to heave the next truss into place. At this rate they'd never get them all secured before that storm blew ashore.

“Where is everyone?” Riley asked.

“Billie's sick, Art's still out with that bum knee of his and the Trevino brothers didn't show up again,” Kipp said as he lit a cigarette.

“Feel like making yourself useful?” Riley asked.

Kipp hadn't leaned on a razor in a while. The whisker stubble didn't conceal his eagerness as he ground the cigarette into the sand. “Your mother's gonna have my boys in a sling. I'm right behind you.”

They donned safety vests and climbed up. The moment Riley took his place with the crew, an age-old thrill went through him, the kind of thrill that inspired men to shout from distant mountaintops, to dance around ceremonial campfires and to raise a flag on the moon.

The view was breathtaking in every direction. A car was speeding down one of the narrow lanes wending through the nearby hills. Out on the lake an iron ore tanker plodded due south. A small barge chugged away from it, giving it a wide berth. In the distance the sun turned the clouds into a sieve, sprinkling light like holy water across the surface of Lake Michigan.

Riley had climbed mountains and skied down them, flown airplanes and parachuted out of them. Speed was good. High altitudes were better. It wasn't that the world made sense off the ground. Off the ground, it didn't have to make sense. Up here, it didn't matter that he'd contracted a rare virus that should have killed him and would have if not for modern medicine. Up here he didn't feel as if he'd been walking in another man's shoes for the past eighteen months.

Every man in the crew watched the crane lift the next truss into the air. Everyone braced as it was lowered toward them. Every one of them saw it lurch on a sudden gust of wind then slam into Riley's chest.

Riley felt the impact, heard the rush of air leaving his lungs. He fell twenty feet in an instant and snapped to the end of the cable attached to his safety vest with a force that knocked the remaining wind out of him.

“Pete, Sean!” the foreman yelled. “Get that rafter nailed down. Hold on, boss!”

Cinched tight in his harness twenty feet off the ground, Riley wasn't going anywhere. He was aware of more discussion overhead, but the next voice he concentrated on came from halfway down the wall.

“Riley. Over here.”

Kipp was perched at the edge of the scaffolding. His left arm was wrapped around a two-by-eight runner as he tossed Riley a rope and drew him to solid footing. Once safely on the scaffolding, Riley unhooked his harness and released it. He had little choice but to withstand the quick once-over Kipp gave him with a gaze that saw everything. The fact that he didn't shrug it off and go back to work wasn't lost on anybody, least of all on Riley himself. Shakier than he cared to admit, he carefully climbed the rest of the way to the ground.

BOOK: The Wedding Gift
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