Read an Excerpt
Kiss the Bride
By Wilde, Lori
Forever Copyright © 2012 Wilde, Lori
All right reserved.
There Goes The Bride
The summer issue of Society Bride declared the marriage of Houston’s hottest bachelor, Dr. Evan Van Zandt, to his childhood sweetheart, oil heiress Delaney Cartwright, a classic friends-to-lovers fairy tale.
Texas Monthly, in its trendy yet folksy way, decreed their union the high-society equivalent of beef barbecue and mustard potato salad. Delaney and Evan simply belonged together.
A sentimental write-up in the Houston Chronicle dubbed their romance a heartwarming Lone Star love story.
Delaney’s mother, Honey Montgomery Cartwright, pronounced them the perfect couple. Lavish praise indeed from a Philadelphia blue blood with impossibly high standards.
Her father grumbled, “This thing’s costing us more than her liberal arts degree from Rice,” as he wrote out a very large check to cover the nuptials.
And her long-deceased sister Skylar, who occasionally popped up in Delaney’s dreams to offer unsolicited advice, whispered with unbridled glee that the ceremony was a glorious train wreck just waiting to happen and she insisted on front-row seating.
Skylar, being dead, could of course sit anywhere she chose. Everyone else had to cram into the River Oaks Methodist Church.
The cherrywood pews overflowed with five hundred invited guests, plus a dozen members of the press and a sprinkling of enterprising wedding crashers. The laboring air-conditioning system was no match for the double punch of a too-thick crowd and sweltering one-hundred-degree heat.
“Who gets married in Houston during August?” Delaney heard a woman murmur.
“I’m getting a heat rash in these panty hose,” another woman replied.
Feeling chastised, Delaney ducked her head. She stood just outside the open door of the chapel waiting for the wedding march to commence, her arm looped through her father’s.
“I heard it was originally supposed to be a Christmas ceremony, but the bride postponed it twice,” the first woman said. “Do you suppose we could have a runaway situation?”
“Hmm, now that would make an interesting spread in tomorrow’s society pages.”
At that comment, her father tightened his grip. No turning back now, his clench said.
Delaney’s hopes sank. Her mind spun. A coyote would gnaw her paw off.
The bridesmaids reached their places. Her best friend, Tish, wedding videographer extraordinaire, was filming madly. Every gaze in the place was glued to Delaney.
Everything was perfect. It was a true celebrity-style wedding, just as her mother had planned. The purple orchids, accented with white roses, were on lavish display—in bouquets and boutonnieres, in vases and corsages. Her size-four, ten-thousand-dollar Vera Wang wedding dress fit like a fantasy. The flower girl was cute. The two-year-old ring bearer even cuter. And both children were on exemplary behavior. Delaney’s antique wedding veil fetchingly framed her face, even though her scalp had been tingling weirdly ever since she put it on.
This was it.
Her big day.
The seven-piece orchestra struck the first notes of the wedding march. Dum, dum, de-dum.
Delaney took a deep breath and glanced down the long aisle festooned with white rose petals to where Evan stood at the altar. He looked stunningly handsome in his long-tailed tux, love shining in his trusting blue eyes.
Her father started forward.
But Delaney’s beaded white Jimmy Choo stilettos stayed rooted to the spot. No, no, this was all wrong. It was a big mistake. She had to call it off before she embarrassed everyone. Where was her cell phone?
“Delaney Lynn Cartwright,” her father growled under his breath. “Don’t make me drag you.”
A hard throb of distress surged through her temples. What have you done? What have you done? What have you done?
She forced herself to move forward. Her gaze searched for the exits. There were two on either side of the altar, and of course, the one directly behind her.
But Daddy wasn’t letting go.
Closer, closer, almost there.
Evan made eye contact, smiled sweetly.
Guilt whirled like a demon tornado in the pit of her stomach. She dragged in a ragged breath.
Her husband-to-be held out his palm. Her father put her hand in Evan’s.
Delaney’s gaze shifted from one corner exit to the other. Too late. It was too late to call this off. What time was it anyway?
“Dearly beloved,” the portly minister began, but that’s as far as he got.
A clattering erupted from behind the exit door on the left.
And then there he loomed. Dressed head to toe in black. Wearing a ski mask. Standing out like crude oil in a cotton field.
Thrilled, chilled, shamefaced, and greatly relieved, Delaney held her breath.
The intruder charged the altar.
The congregation inhaled a simultaneous gasp.
The minister blinked, looked confused.
“Back away from the bride,” the dark stranger growled and waved a pistol at Evan.
Excitement burst like tiny exploding bubbles inside her head. Prop gun, Delaney thought. Nice touch.
Evan stared at the masked intruder, but did not move. Apparently he had not yet realized what was transpiring.
“Move it.” The interloper pointed his weapon directly at Evan’s head. “Hands up.”
Finally, her groom got the message. He dropped Delaney’s hand, raised his arms over his head, and took a step back.
“Don’t anyone try anything cute,” the man commanded at the same moment he wrapped the crook of his elbow around Delaney’s neck and pressed the revolver to her temple. The cold nose of it felt deadly against her skin.
Fear catapulted into her throat, diluting the excitement. Delaney dropped her bouquet. It was a prop gun, wasn’t it?
The crowd shot to its collective feet as the stranger dragged her toward the exit from whence he’d appeared.
“Follow us and the bride gets it,” he shouted dramatically just before the exit door slammed closed behind them.
“You’re choking me,” Delaney gasped. “You can let go now.”
He ignored her and just kept dragging her by the neck toward the white delivery van parked at the back of the rectory.
A bolt of raw panic shot through her veins. What was going on here? She dug her freshly manicured fingernails into his thick arm and tried to pry herself free.
He stuck his gun in his waistband, pulled a pair of handcuffs from his back pocket, and one-handedly slapped them around her wrists.
“What is this?” she squeaked.
He did not speak. He wrenched open the back door of the van just as the congregation came spilling out of the rectory and into the street. He tossed her onto the floor, slammed the door, and ran around to the driver’s side.
Delaney lay facedown, her knees and elbows stinging from carpet burn. She couldn’t see a thing, but she heard anxious shouts and the sound of fists pounding the side of the vehicle.
The engine revved and the van shot forward, knocking her over onto her side.
“What’s going on?” She struggled to sit. The veil fell across her face. She pushed it away with her cuffed hands and peered into the front of the van. “What’s with all the rough stuff?”
He didn’t answer.
She cleared her throat. Perhaps he hadn’t heard her. “Nice execution,” she said. “Loved the toy gun, but the handcuffs are a definite overkill.”
He hit the street doing at least fifty and she tipped over again.
Her heart flipped up into her tightly constricted throat. She dragged in a ragged swallow of air. This guy was playing his role to the hilt.
When they made it to the freeway entrance ramp, he ripped off the ski mask, threw it in the seat beside him, and then turned to look back at Delaney.
Alarm rocketed through her. Saliva evaporated from her mouth. Something had gone very, very wrong.
Because the man who’d just taken her hostage was not the kidnapper she’d hired.
Two Months Earlier
Glasses up, girls. A toast to the bride-to-be,” bubbled Tish Gallagher. She smiled at Delaney, tucked a dark auburn corkscrew curl behind one ear studded with multiple piercings, and raised her drink. “May your marriage be filled with magic.”
Delaney Cartwright and her three best friends were celebrating the final fitting of the bridesmaids’ dresses by dining at Diaz, Houston’s trendiest new restaurant hot spot. They’d already slurped down a couple of margarita-martinis apiece and noshed their way through blue corn tortilla chips dipped in piquant salsa and fire-grilled shrimp enchiladas laced with Manchego cheese and Spanish onions.
Everyone was feeling frivolous.
All except for Delaney.
Tequila made her edgy, but it was what her friends were drinking, so she’d joined in.
“Third time’s the charm.” Jillian Samuels winked and lifted her glass.
Her friend was referring to the fact Delaney had postponed the wedding twice. No matter how many times she explained to people that she’d delayed the ceremony because she was trying to get her fledgling house-staging business on solid ground, everyone assumed it was because she’d gotten cold feet.
But that wasn’t the reason at all.
Well, okay, maybe there was a tiny element of an icy pinkie toe or two, but mostly Delaney didn’t want to end up like her mother. With nothing to do but have kids and meddle in their lives.
“To the most perfect wedding ever.” Die-hard romantic Rachael Harper sighed dreamily, her martini glass joining the others in the air. “You’ve got the perfect dress, the perfect church, and the most perfect man.”
On paper, it was true. Rich, good-looking, affable. Dr. Evan Van Zandt was kind, generous, and thoughtful. Her family loved Evan, and he adored them.
The only thing not perfect in the whole scenario is me, Delaney thought and anxiously reached up to finger the bridge of her nose.
Rhinoplasty might have ironed out the hump, bestowing her with a flawless nose, but it hadn’t straightened out her insecurities. She felt like a fake. No matter how many people raved about how gorgeous she was, Delaney didn’t believe it.
The emotional repercussions of being a chubby, bucktoothed, nearsighted girl with a witchy nose resonated deep within. Never mind the weight-loss programs, intensive exercise sessions, braces, veneers, elocution lessons, LASIK, and liposuction. Inside, she still felt the same.
“To happily-ever-after,” Tish said. “Come on, up with your glass, Del.”
“To happily-ever-after,” Delaney echoed and dutifully clinked glasses with her friends.
Remember, it’s just like Mother taught you. Perceiving, behaving, becoming. Perceive yourself as happy and you’ll behave as if you’re happy and then you’ll become happy.
Happy, happy, happy.
Tish lowered her drink and narrowed her eyes at Delaney. “What’s wrong? Don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet again, because I’m counting on your wedding paying off my Macy’s card.”
She might be teasing in that devil-may-care way of hers, but it was impossible to slip anything past Tish. Her street-savvy friend had come up the hard way, but she’d never let poverty stop her. After years of struggling, she was finally gaining the reputation she deserved as one of the best wedding videographers in the business. Delaney was so proud of her.
“Nothing, nothing. I’m fine.”
“You lie. Everything’s not fine. Spill it.”
“Honestly. Just pre-wedding jitters.”
Tish didn’t let up. “What’s wrong? Is your mother driving you around the bend with her everything’s-gotta-be-perfect-or-my-high-society-world-will-implode routine?”
Delaney cracked a half smile. People joked about Bridezilla, but no one ever mentioned that Mother-of-Bridezilla could make Bridezilla look like Bambi on Valium. “There is that.”
“But it’s not all. What else?” Tish pushed the empty salsa bowl aside, leaned forward, propped her elbows on the table, and rested her chin on her interlaced fingers. Jillian and Rachael were also studying her curiously.
She shrugged. “No relationship is perfect. I’m sure I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.”
“You let us be the judge of that. Go on, we’re listening.” Tish waved a hand.
Talking about her romantic life made Delaney uncomfortable. Unlike her friends, she didn’t enjoy freely swapping stories about her sexual adventures.
Um, could it be because you’ve never had any sexual adventures?
Besides, if she told them the truth, she couldn’t keep pretending everything was fine. And yet, staying connected to those she loved was the most important thing in the world to her. If she couldn’t share her fears with her friends, how could they remain close?
“Well?” Tish arched an eyebrow.
Delaney blew out her breath, trying to think of a delicate way to phrase it. “Things with Evan are…”
“Are what?” Jillian prompted when she took too long to continue.
Jillian was a dynamic young lawyer with exotic ebony hair, almond-shaped eyes, a body built for sin, and a Mensa IQ. She snared every man she’d ever set her sights on, but then dumped them just as easily as she collected them.
“Well, you know.” Delaney shrugged.
“No, we don’t. That’s why we’re asking.”
“Okay, here goes. Not to complain or anything, but ever since Evan suggested we abstain from making love until our wedding night, I haven’t been able to think about anything but sex. And now he’s leaving for Guatemala next Monday with a volunteer surgical team to perform surgery on sick kids, and he’ll be gone for six weeks.”
“What?” Tish exclaimed. “You guys aren’t having sex?”
“Evan thought it would make our wedding night special if we waited,” Delaney explained.
“How long has this been going on?” Jillian asked.
Embarrassed to admit the truth, Delaney dropped her gaze. She wished she hadn’t even brought it up. Evan was a saint. He was giving generously of himself to others, and here she was selfishly whining about their lack of a sex life.
She gulped and murmured, “Six months.”
“Six months!” Tish exploded. “You’re engaged, and you haven’t had sex in six months?”
“I think it’s romantic.” Kindergarten teacher Rachael was a green-eyed blonde with delicate porcelain skin and a poetic heart. Her favorite color was springtime pink, and she favored flowing floral-print dresses. In the candlelight, through the haze of a couple of margarita-martinis, Rachael looked as if she’d stepped out of a Monet. “And very sweet.”
“You think everything is romantic,” Jillian pointed out.
“Oh,” Delaney said quickly, “don’t get me wrong. I was all for the idea.”
“Why?” Jillian looked at her as if she’d said she was for a worldwide ban on chocolate.
Delaney shrugged. She wasn’t all that into chocolate either. “Because honestly, our sex life wasn’t so hot before and I thought maybe Evan was right, that time without physical intimacy would help us appreciate each other more. But now I’m thinking it was a dumb idea. What we really need are some techniques for spicing up our love life, not celibacy.”
Her friends all started talking at once, each offering their version of how to rev up her romance with Evan before he left on his trip to Guatemala.
“Surprise him with floating candles in a hot bath,” Rachael suggested. “Mood music. Massage oils.”
“No, no, that’s not the way to go,” Jillian said. “Sexy outfits are what you need. Stilettos, thongs, a leather bustier.”
“Make love outside,” Tish chimed in. “Or in the laundry room or in the backseat of your car. Pick someplace you’ve never made love before.”
“Sex toys,” Jillian threw in.
“Write him X-rated poetry.” Rachael giggled. “Mail him a naughty poem every day while he’s out of town. He’ll be crazed for you by the time he gets back.”
None of this sounded like the Holy Grail of sexual experiences that her friends seemed to suggest, but Delaney was willing to give their ideas a shot. Anything to prove to herself that this impending marriage wasn’t a big mistake.
“Wait a minute.” Tish snapped her fingers. “I’ve got the perfect scenario. Kidnap Evan from his office during his lunch hour tomorrow. Do something really daring, something that feels mysterious and taboo.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jill joined in. “I can see it now. Delaney calls Evan and then tells him to meet her in the parking lot outside his office for a luncheon date. She dresses up in something super sexy, but throws a coat over her outfit and…”
“It’s June,” Rachael pointed out.
“Okay, a raincoat then.”
“And,” Tish said, “Delaney hides behind the door and when Evan comes outside she throws a tarp over his head, puts a dildo to his back—you know, like it’s a gun—and tells him if he doesn’t do everything she demands then she’s going to blow him away.”
“She forces him into her car,” Jillian continued, “and takes him off to a secluded spot and has her way with him.”
“Or,” Rachael added, “she could take him to a really nice hotel where they have a big spa tub and flowers and candles and room service.”
Tish fanned herself. “Whew, I’m getting hot and bothered just thinking about it.”
Actually, Delaney thought, it wasn’t a bad idea.
Longing to find something to accelerate her low-voltage sex life, she mulled over their suggestions. What if she did kidnap Evan from his office and take him to a secluded spot and seduce him? It might just be the catalyst they needed, and it would make for a great send-off so that he didn’t forget her while he was in the wilds of Guatemala.
Be realistic. This is straitlaced Evan you’re talking about.
Delaney shook her head. “Evan would never go for it. He’s too dignified for stuff like that.”
“Which is precisely why you take him hostage. Don’t give him a choice. Bring handcuffs or duct tape or zip ties.” Jillian pantomimed binding her hands.
“You never know,” Tish said. “Evan could very well surprise you. He might be thinking you’re the one who’s too dignified, and you’ll both find out you’re horny as rabbits.”
“Tish!” Rachael exclaimed.
Tish grinned impishly. “I’m just saying.”
“You know,” Jillian said, “there’s a sex toy store in the shopping center across the street. Why don’t we go check it out? Find a dildo Delaney could use as a pretend gun.”
“Excellent idea.” Tish flagged down their waiter and asked for the check.
A dark sinking feeling settled inside Delaney. Blabbing about her fears may have drawn her closer to her friends, but she couldn’t help thinking that in the midst of their plans, she’d once again lost sight of herself and what it was that she really wanted.
And apparently she was now off to buy sex toys.
Five minutes later Delaney found herself being hustled across the busy thoroughfare. By the time they reached the shopping center, all four of them were breathless and laughing from dodging traffic. The sex toy place was located in the far corner of the strip mall, its neon sign flashing out a vibrant red—Ooh-La-La.
They trooped past a jewelry store with engagement rings prominently positioned in the showcase. Delaney glanced down at her own four-carat marquis-cut diamond set in an elegant platinum band. Funny, try as she might, she couldn’t remember how she’d felt the day Evan had slipped it on her finger. She must have been happy. Why wouldn’t she be happy? She just couldn’t remember being happy.
There was a party supply warehouse, then a discount shoe barn and a lingerie shop. Inset in the small space between the lingerie shop and Ooh-La-La was a consignment store specializing in wedding attire.
Delaney shouldn’t even have glanced in the window. Her mother was such a snob she’d have a hissy fit if Delaney dared to buy anything from a consignment store, but an enigmatic force she could not explain whispered, Go on, take a peek.
Cupping her hands around her eyes, she pressed her face against the glass for a better look inside the darkened store. And then, just like that, she found what she hadn’t even known she was searching for.
The wedding veil to end all wedding veils.
It was encased in glass and mounted on the wall over the checkout counter. For reasons she could not comprehend, Delaney felt as if she were standing on the threshold of something monumental.
She could not say what compelled her. She already had a perfectly beautiful wedding veil from Bergdorf Goodman’s that her mother had picked out for her on their last foray into Manhattan, but she felt compelled. There was simply no other word for it.
Her friends kept walking, but Delaney stayed anchored to the spot. Transfixed. Unable to take her eyes off the veil. It was a white, floor-length mantilla style, and so delicate it looked as if it had been created for a fairy princess.
I’m the answer you’ve been searching after, the veil seemed to whisper. The magic that’s missing.
For the first time since she’d agreed to marry Evan, something involving the approaching nuptials truly excited her.
The veil was absolutely perfect.
Delaney’s fingers itched to stroke the intricate lace, but the store looked closed. The lights were dimmed. She couldn’t see anyone inside, yet her hand was already pushing against the door handle.
Drawn by the sight of the wedding veil waiting just a few feet away, she stepped over the threshold.
“Delaney? Where did you go?”
Distantly, she heard her friends calling to her, but she did not turn around. She just kept moving, pulled inexplicably toward the veil. She reached out a finger and stroked the glass case.
Up close it was even more compelling. The delicate lace pattern formed a myriad of butterflies sewn with thread so fine it was almost invisible.
“May I help you?”
Startled, Delaney jumped and tore her gaze from the veil to meet the eyes of a soft-voiced, black-haired woman in her early forties. The shopkeeper wore a gauzy, purple crinkle skirt and a lavender sleeveless knit blouse. She studied her quietly.
Delaney felt a subtle but distinct atmospheric change. The room grew slightly cooler, damper, and she experienced a strange but familiar sense of connection. “Have we met?”
“Claire Kelley,” the woman said with the faint hint of an Irish brogue. Her handshake was firm, self-assured.
Claire raised an eyebrow. Delaney knew that look. The woman recognized the Cartwright name, but to her surprise, Claire did not ask her if she was one of those oil money Cartwrights the way most people did.
“Tell me about the veil,” Delaney said.
“You have a very discerning eye. It’s a floor-length mantilla style made of rose point lace, created with a very fine needle. Rose point is considered the most delicate and precious of all laces.”
“May I see it?”
The woman hesitated and then said firmly, “I’m afraid it’s not for sale, Ms. Cartwright.”
Delaney’s father, the consummate oilman, had taught her that everything was for sale for the right price. “If I may just examine the design up close, I’d like to have one just like it commissioned for my wedding.”
“That’s impossible. It’s one of a kind.”
She couldn’t say why this was suddenly so important, but need settled like a lead weight in her stomach. She curled her fingernails into her palms. “Please, I must see it.”
Outside on the street she could still hear her friends calling to her, but they sounded so very far away—on another planet, in another dimension, far outside her realm of concern.
Reluctantly, Claire took a key from her skirt pocket and ticked the lock open. She removed the veil from the case and arranged it with great care on the counter in front of them.
The majesty of it hit Delaney like a softly exploding eggshell. For one incredible instant she felt as if she were floating. She forgot to breathe. She could not breathe. Did not want or need to breathe. Terrified that if she dared inhale, the veil would evaporate.
A second passed, then two, then three.
At last, she was forced to draw in a deep, shuddering sigh of oxygen.
“Butterfly wings,” she whispered.
The design was constructed of tiny roses grouped to form the butterflies. The veil was so white, so beautiful—almost phosphorescent. At any moment she expected it to fly right out the door.
Isn’t it amazing, she thought, to live in a world where there is such a work of artistic beauty.
Delaney blinked, blinded by the dazzle and the image of herself wearing the veil as she walked down the aisle to meet her groom. The image swept in and out before her eyes as if she were in a slow, dreamy faint. She stared at the veil, seeing her future wedding, seeing the man she was about to marry.
But it wasn’t Evan.
In his place stood a hard-jawed man with piercing dark eyes and a world-weary expression. He looked like a guardian, a soldier, a warrior. He exuded a strong, masculine quality. For the first time in her life, she had an overwhelming urge to kiss a man she knew absolutely nothing about. And she sensed, without doubt, he would taste like caffeine—strong, brisk, and intense.
A hard shiver ran through her.
She hitched in another breath. Her vision cleared and she was aware that while only an instant had passed, a vast expanse of time had swayed before her. A chasm into an unknowable dimension.
Claire was watching her, concern reflected in her pale blue eyes, yet there was also warmth and a steady quietness that reassured Delaney.
Whatever you see, it’s okay.
The shopkeeper did not speak the words, but Delaney heard them as clearly as if she’d shouted.
Like a magnet to metal, the veil tugged at something deep within her. Her body pulsed with buoyancy and desire. She shut her eyes and found the alluring pattern burned into the back of her eyelids.
“This veil is very special.” Claire’s voice grew sentimental and her mouth softened. “It’s over three hundred years old.”
An illicit thrill shot through her at the possibility. Delaney’s eyes flew open. “Impossible. It’s snow white. A veil that old would yellow with age.”
A slight, knowing smile lifted the corners of Claire’s mouth. “It’s rumored to be magic.”
“There’s a legend.”
Delaney adored history and ancient lore and had a secret longing to believe in magic, to have faith in something beyond the five senses. She leaned in closer, her eyes swallowing the veil.
“A legend?” she whispered.
“Here you are!” Tish barged through the door, Jillian and Rachael following in her wake.
The interruption, like a knuckle scraped against a cheese grater, irritated her, but she loved her friends, so Delaney tamped down her annoyance and forced a smile.
“What’s up?” Tish asked, coming to stand at her elbow.
“Shh,” Delaney said. “Claire was about to tell me the story of the veil.”
“Oh.” Tish blinked, seeing it for the first time. Delaney heard her sharp intake of breath. “Wow, that’s some veil.”
Jillian peered over Tish’s shoulder. “It’s brilliant.”
“Strangely mesmerizing.” Rachael tilted her head to study it in the muted lighting.
“Go on with the story,” Delaney pleaded.
“We want to hear it too,” Tish said.
The shopkeeper eyed them all, and then she cleared her throat. “Once upon a time, in long-ago Ireland, there lived a beautiful young witch named Morag who possessed a great talent for tatting lace.” Claire’s lyrical voice held them spellbound. “People came from far and wide to buy the lovely wedding veils she created.”
“I can see why,” Delaney murmured, lightly fingering the veil.
“But there were other women in the community who were envious of Morag’s beauty and talent. These women made up a lie and told the magistrate that Morag was casting spells on the men of the village.”
“Jealous bitches,” Jillian said.
Claire arrowed Jillian a chiding glance.
“The magistrate,” she continued after Jillian got the hint and shut up, “was engaged to a woman that he admired, but did not love. He arrested Morag, but found himself falling madly in love with her. Convinced that she must have cast a spell upon him as well, he moved to have her tried for practicing witchcraft. If found guilty, she would be burned at the stake.”
“Oh, no.” Rachael brought her fingers to her lips.
“It’s just a myth,” Tish said, but Delaney could tell that her friend, who pretended to have tough skin to hide a tender heart, was as enraptured with the story as the rest of them.
“But in the end, the magistrate could not resist the power of true love. On the eve before Morag was to stand trial, he kidnapped her from the jail in the dead of night and spirited her away to America, giving up everything for her love. To prove that she had not cast a spell over him, Morag promised never to use magic again. As her final act of witchcraft, she made one last wedding veil, investing it with the power to grant the deepest wish of the wearer’s soul. She wore the veil on her own wedding day, wishing for true and lasting love. Morag and the magistrate were blessed with many children and much happiness. They lived to be a ripe old age and died in each other’s arms.”
“Ah.” Rachael sighed. “That’s so sweet. I was afraid they were going to burn her at the stake.”
Tish snorted and rolled her eyes.
“Humph,” Jillian said. “I don’t think it’s fair that she had to give up the very thing that defined her just for the love of a man.”
“The magistrate gave up his job for her,” Delaney pointed out. “And he was exiled from his homeland.”
“Morag was exiled too.” Tish narrowed her eyes at the veil as if she didn’t trust it.
“You must remember,” Claire said, “this was three hundred years ago. Things were much different then. And the magistrate wasn’t just any man, but her soul mate. There’s a very big difference. You can love all manner of people, in all manner of ways, but we each have only one soul mate who not only completes us, but challenges us to grow beyond our fears.”
Was it true? Delaney wondered. Was there really such a thing as a soul mate?
Whether it’s true or not, muttered a saucy voice in the back of her head that sounded a whole lot like her sister, Skylar, one thing’s for sure. Evan Van Zandt is definitely not your soul mate. You’re too much alike. Peas in a pod. No challenge. No emotional growth going on in that relationship.
Delaney nibbled her bottom lip, disturbed by the thought. Maybe Evan wasn’t her soul mate, but he was kind and good and honest. As children they’d played in the sandbox together.
Evan was the one person who had told her she was pretty when she was chubby and bucktoothed and nearsighted and had a hump in her nose. Both of their families heartily approved of the marriage, and she did love him. Maybe not with a magic-wedding-veil-soul-mate-for-all-eternity kind of love, but she did love him. So what if there was no red-hot chemistry? In Delaney’s estimation sex was way overrated anyway.
Too bad you don’t have a magistrate to kidnap you and take you away with him.
It’s my fault, Delaney thought, not Evan’s. She hadn’t tried hard enough to make their sex life something special and then she’d gone and agreed to the celibacy thing and now he was going off to Guatemala to heal crippled children.
She pushed the troubling thoughts away and leaned down to examine the veil more closely. Poetry in lace. It spoke to her in a singsong of the ages. It might not be rational or practical or even sane, but she could feel an enchanted force flowing through the air.
Goose bumps spread over her arms. What if there was some truth to the legend? What if she wore the veil on her wedding day and wished that her sexual feelings for Evan would grow stronger, richer, deeper, and truer? Would it happen?
A compulsion quite unlike anything she had ever felt before gripped her. The feeling was much greater than an itch or a whim. It gnawed at her. No matter how much it might cost, she had to have this veil. Weird as it sounded, Delaney just knew that if she had the veil she would get the happily-ever-after she so desperately desired.
But what about her mother? How could Delaney begin to explain this to Honey and convince her to let her wear this veil on her wedding day?
You can figure out how to deal with her later. Just get your hands on it.
There it was again. The undisciplined voice that sounded like Skylar. A voice boldly inciting her to do things she wouldn’t ordinarily dare.
“I’ll give you a thousand dollars for the veil,” she blurted, surprised at her feelings of desperation.
Claire shook her head. “I’m sorry, but it’s not for sale.”
“Three thousand,” Delaney said firmly, acting as if there was no way the woman could refuse. Three grand was probably twice what this little consignment store netted in a month.
“It’s not a matter of money.”
“Five thousand.” Enough haggling. She was determined to possess the veil.
“You would spend that much for a wedding veil?” Claire’s eyes widened.
“Her grandmother left her a two-million-dollar trust fund and she just turned twenty-five,” Tish interjected. “She can spend as much as she wants.”
“No.” Claire shook her head.
“If it’s not the money,” Delaney asked, “what is it?”
The shopkeeper took a deep breath and looked as if she wished they would all just go away and leave her alone. “There are complications.”
“Complications?” Delaney frowned. “What kind of complications are we talking about?”
“Um… well… throughout the years the veil has… er… backfired,” Claire stammered.
“Backfired? What does that mean?”
“There’ve been a few incidents.”
“Whenever people hear about the legend, they feel compelled to wish upon the veil.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
Claire nervously moistened her lips. “Nothing in and of itself. The problem occurs when people wish for one thing and what their hearts really want is another thing completely. Because you see, when you wish on the veil, you get whatever your soul most deeply hungers for. It’s just that some people aren’t ready to face what’s truly in their hearts and souls.”
“Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it,” Jillian said.
“Exactly.” Claire nodded.
“But this wedding veil is absolutely perfect,” Delaney said, feeling wildly out of control, but unable to reel herself in. “I have to have it. Would seventy-five hundred dollars convince you?”
A long silence stretched across the room. All five of them were staring at the wedding veil.
“You really are desperately needin’ a bit of magic in your life, aren’t you,” Claire Kelley murmured, her Irish brogue more noticeable now.
Delaney looked from the wedding veil to Claire and saw understanding in the shopkeeper’s eyes. Eerily, it seemed as if the woman comprehended all of Delaney’s doubts and fears concerning her impending marriage.
“Yes.” Far more than you can ever know. Delaney raised her hands in supplication. “Please, sell me the veil.”
“I cannot sell it to you.”
An emotion she could not name, but that tasted a bit like grief, took hold of her. Why was possessing this particular wedding veil so important? There was no rational explanation for it, but an odd feeling clutched deep within her. The yearning was almost unbearable.
“Ten thousand.” She felt like an acolyte begging a Zen master for enlightenment.
Claire sucked in her breath and looked around the shabby little shop. “You really want it that badly?”
Delaney nodded, too emotionally twisted up inside to speak.
“All right.” Claire let out her breath in an audible whoosh. Her reluctance was palpable. “You may have it.”
She felt as if someone had lifted a chunk of granite off her heart.
Delaney’s breath came out on a squeak of pure joy. “Really?”
“Yes, but only under one condition,” Claire cautioned.
“You must swear that you will never, under any circumstances, wish upon the veil.”
“I’ll sign a waiver, a contract, whatever it takes. My friend Jillian is a lawyer; she can bear witness.”
“Delaney.” Jillian made a clucking noise. “Are you sure you want to do this? Ten thousand is a lot of money for a wedding veil.”
Defiantly she met Jillian’s eyes. “I want it, okay? Just back me up here.”
Something in her face must have telegraphed her seriousness. Delaney rarely took a stand on anything, hardly ever expressed an opinion or even a strong desire, but because of this, whenever she did take a stand, people usually listened.
Jillian held up her palms and took a step back. “Hey, if it’s what you want, I say go for it.”
“Thank you.” She turned back to Claire and reached inside her Prada handbag for her checkbook. “I promise never to wish on the veil. Now may I have it?”
Claire stuck out her hand to seal the deal. “Done.”
And that was the moment Delaney realized that although she’d managed to find the special magic she’d been aching to believe in, she had just made a solemn vow never to use it.
That night, Delaney dreamed of her sister.
Skylar had been dead for seventeen years, but she popped up in Delaney’s dreams with surprising regularity. Although she couldn’t say why her sister still played such a prominent role in her sleeping life.
Maybe it was because Skylar’s passing had left her an only child. Afterward, her mother had tied the apron strings so tightly Delaney felt as if all the personality had been strangled out of her. Maybe dreaming of her outrageous sister was an avenue into her own subconscious. A way to express the feelings she’d learned to suppress.
Tonight, for some inexplicable reason, her sister wore roller skates, purple short-shorts, and a silver-sequined top hat. Other than the bizarre outfit, she looked exactly as she’d looked the last time Delaney had seen her—blond, beautiful, and sweet sixteen.
Skylar perched on the curvy footboard of Delaney’s sleigh bed, enthusiastically chewing a persimmon.
“Who eats persimmons?” Delaney asked.
“Of course you do.”
“Persimmons are like me. Unique. If you were a fruit, Laney, you’d be an apple. Dependable, granted, but boring as hell.”
“Watch what you’re doing. You’re dripping juice all over my new Ralph Lauren comforter.”
Skylar rolled her eyes. “See? What’d I tell you? Boring. Go ahead and bitch all you want; you can’t fool me. I know what you’ve been up to.”
“I haven’t been up to anything except protecting my expensive bedding from a persimmon-sucking ghost.”
“Low blow, baby sis. But I am glad to see you’re showing some spunk. Bravo,” Skylar said. “However, insults aren’t going to distract me from what you’re hiding under the bed.”
It was true. Delaney didn’t want her sister poking fun at the wedding veil.
“Come on, pull it out. I know it’s there. You might as well let me see it.”
She sighed, knowing Skylar would pester her until she either showed her the veil or she woke up. “It’s no big deal, just a wedding veil.”
“Hmm, the plot thickens,” Skylar mused. “What are you going to do about the veil that you’ve already got hanging in your closet? Remember that one? The veil Mother picked out for you.”
“You’re just trying to start trouble.”
“But of course. Everybody knows stirring up trouble is what I do best.” Skylar polished off the persimmon and chucked the remains in the trash can.
“I didn’t know ghosts could eat,” Delaney said, trying to deflect Skylar’s attention.
“Technically, I’m not a ghost. Rather, I’m a figment of your dream imagination. You could send me packing if you really wanted to, but honestly your life would be pretty damn dull without me. So quit arguing and produce the veil.” Skylar made “gimme” motions with her fingers.
Delaney flipped her head over the side of the bed and grappled underneath the bed skirt until she found the sack. She slipped it out, sat up, and cautiously handed her the sack. “Be careful with it.”
Skylar peeked inside and whistled. “Holy shit, that’s an awesome veil.”
“I know.” Her sister’s approval meant a lot. Delaney felt eight years old again, full of wistful longing to be glamorous and grown-up. Hanging around Skylar’s vanity, watching her apply makeup and change outfits as she got ready for a date.
“And I see that you found the veil at a consignment shop.”
“Mom’s never going to let you wear it.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“You could fight her on this. Oops, oh, wait, I forgot. You’re so into being the perfect daughter, you could never buck the flawless Honey Montgomery Cartwright.”
“No need to get unpleasant.” Delaney snatched the wedding veil away from Skylar and folded it back into the sack.
“Ah, perfect little princess. Lucky for me I died when I did. I would never have heard the end of how perfect you are, and how perfect I am not.”
Skylar’s comment shot her full of anger. Delaney remembered the raw horror and agonizing grief she’d experienced over her sister’s death. Nostrils flaring, hands knotted into fists, she faced off with her. “No, it was not lucky! It was terrible the way you died.”
“Okay, sorry. Chill.”
“I won’t chill. The way Mother and Daddy were afterward was awful. Losing you was the worst thing that ever happened to this family. I had to be perfect because you got your silly self killed, sneaking off to a KISS concert, drinking with your friends, and then getting smashed up in a car crash. If you hadn’t been so damn rebellious, you’d still be alive and I wouldn’t have ended up spending my whole life making amends for something you did. I had to have chaperoned dates until I was nineteen. Mother wouldn’t even allow me to go to sleepaway camp, much less a rock concert. She refused to let me get my driver’s license until I was twenty-one. And it was your entire fault.”
“Ooh, where’s all this emotion coming from?” Skylar applauded. “I approve. Usually, you’re so pent-up.”
“I don’t want your approval.”
“Why not?” Skylar crossed her legs and the wheels of her skates left dirty marks on the sheets.
Delaney cringed. “Watch the linens, will you?”
“What? Scared you’ll become like me? Scared Mommy won’t love you anymore if you do?”
That’s exactly what she was scared of, but Delaney couldn’t tell her sister that. “I am going to wear this veil on my wedding day. Wait and see.”
“Sure you are,” Skylar scoffed.
“Nah.” Skylar pushed the top hat back off her forehead and assessed Delaney with a pensive stare. “You’ll cave and our mother will get her way yet again.”
Delaney clutched the sack to her chest, knowing her sister was right. If she responded true to form and accepted her mother’s edicts for what constituted the perfect wedding, she would not be wearing the consignment shop veil.
“I have an idea on how to handle Mother.” Skylar smirked. “If you’ve got the balls for it.”
“There’s no need to be crude.” Delaney pressed her lips together. “What’s your idea?”
“Why don’t you sew a designer label on the veil, put it in an expensive box, and tell Mom someone very high up on the blue-blood food chain sent it to you. Like one of our Philadelphia relatives we’ve never met.”
Delaney gasped. “But I can’t do that. It’s underhanded and sneaky.”
“I knew you didn’t have the balls for it. Night, Chicken Little.” Skylar swung her legs off the bed, the wheels of her skates making a clacking noise as she stood. “See ya in your dreams.”
“Wait, don’t go.”
Skylar paused. “Yeah?”
“Do you really think your plan would work?”
“Guaranteed.” She winked.
Delaney worried her bottom lip. She wasn’t a liar, but she wanted so badly to wear the veil at her wedding.
“I’ll tell you something else,” Skylar added.
“I was hanging out tonight, eavesdropping on your dinner conversation with your friends, and I think they’re right.”
“Seducing Evan. Making him your sex hostage. Sounds totally hot. Go for it. Maybe it’ll be the jump start you two need.”
“Your glowing endorsement is all the more reason not to do it.” Delaney glowered.
“You sound just like her, you know.” Skylar wrinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue.
“Just like whom?”
“Who do you think?”
Skylar was right. She did sound just like their mother. Judgmental, inflexible, overly concerned with appearances. And that was the last thing Delaney wanted.
She dragged a hand through her hair. “This is horrible! How can I stop from becoming like her?”
“Do the most outrageous thing you can think to do. Kidnap Evan from his office, take him to the woods, and have your way with him. I triple dog dare you.”
“Fine,” Delaney said. “If that’s what it takes to prove to you I’m not like Mother, I’ll do it.”
Skylar snorted. “Seeing is believing, pipsqueak.”
Following that snarky comment, Delaney woke up.
Detective Dominic Vinetti watched Dr. Evan Van Zandt stride into the exam room, frowning at the chart in his hand and shaking his head. A bullet of dread ricocheted through the ventricles of Nick’s heart at the serious expression on the other man’s face.
“I’ve received the results of your follow-up tests,” Van Zandt said, “and I’m sorry, Nick, but the outcome isn’t as favorable as we had hoped.”
Sweat broke across Nick’s brow. He fisted his hands and swallowed hard. In this stupid paper gown he was nearly naked and felt too damn exposed. He scowled past his anxiety and mouthed toughly, “Whaddya mean?”
“It’s been eight weeks since the injury and while your leg is improved, you’re still healing at a much slower rate than I anticipated. I’m afraid I can’t yet allow you to return to work.”
Fear swamped him. Anxiety soup. Followed on its heels by a thick, rolling wave of despair. Son of a bitch. He could not spend one more hour watching bad television. Could not play one more video game or surf the net one more time or he’d lose his frickin’ mind.
“I gotta go back to work, Doc. I’ll take a desk job. Sit on my butt, no chasing suspects. I promise.” He held up his palm as if he were taking an oath on the witness stand.
Van Zandt fidgeted with his tie, then flipped up the tail of his lab coat and took a seat on the rolling stool. He had the butter-soft face of a man who’d lived an easy life. “I can’t in good conscience sign the release form.”
Nick pressed his palms together, supplicating. “I’m going nuts, here. Please don’t make me beg.”
“Have you been doing your exercises?”
“Regular as a nun to mass.”
Van Zandt threw back his head and brayed loudly at Nick’s comment. “Well, at least you still have your sense of humor.”
Irritation dug into Nick’s gut. The guy laughed like a freaking barnyard donkey. “Yeah, lucky me. Ha, ha.”
“Have you been taking your antibiotics?” Van Zandt asked.
“Morning, noon, and night.”
“What about the pain pills?”
“Not so much.”
“When was the last time you took one?”
“I never got the prescription filled when I left the hospital,” he admitted.
Nick shook his head.
“There’s no need to be macho. If you’re hurting, take the Vicodin. Pain inhibits healing.”
“Pills make me feel dulled.”
“Take them anyway.”
“I’ve seen a lot of people get addicted to those things.”
“You’re too strong-minded to get addicted.”
“You have no idea how bored I am.”
“Let’s listen to your lungs.” Van Zandt took a stethoscope out of his pocket. He placed the earpieces in his ears and pressed the bell of the stethoscope against Nick’s back. The damn thing felt as if he’d just pulled it out of the freezer. “Deep breath.”
“Have you been eating a healthy diet?”
“I have a slice of pizza now and again, but otherwise I’m doing the whole rabbit food thing and staying away from beer like you said the last time I was here.”
“Good, good.” Van Zandt nodded.
“Why am I not healing? You really think it’s just because I haven’t been taking the pain pills?”
“Could be. How’s your stress level?”
“I told you, I’m going stir-crazy with nothing to do.”
“Anything else going on?” Van Zandt finished listening to his lungs and came around the examination table to lay the stethoscope against Nick’s heart.
“You mean beside the fact my grandfather died two days after I got wounded on the job? And my income has been cut by a third while I’m on disability? And oh, yes, my ex-wife, who left me on our honeymoon last year, just sent me a wedding invitation. Guess what? She’s three months pregnant, marrying a famous stand-up comedian, and moving to Martha’s Vineyard.”
Nick didn’t like discussing his private business, especially that bit about Amber, but he was playing the sympathy card, hoping Van Zandt would feel sorry enough for him that he’d sign that release form.
“Really?” Van Zandt looked surprised and dropped his stethoscope back into the pocket of his lab coat.
“Yeah, my life’s a regular soap opera. You’ve heard it on TV, maybe read it in the tabloids. I’m the schmuck who got cuckolded by Gary Feldstein.” It occurred to Nick that he felt as empty inside as those new plastic specimen cups lining the shelf over the sink.
He’d closed himself off emotionally and he was dead numb. Talking about it was like poking your arm with a needle after it had been submerged in ice-cold water for a long time—you’d already lost all the feeling, it was the perfect time for more pain, before the arm woke up and started throbbing like hell.
“Ouch,” Van Zandt said.
“Tell me about it. See why I have to get back to work? My mind’s a mess. I need the distraction.”
“I see why you’re not healing. Excess stress takes a tremendous toll on our bodies. I’m getting married myself in August, so I do understand the anxiety involved. Although I can’t imagine what it must be like to get dumped on your honeymoon.” Van Zandt tried to appear empathetic, but only succeeded in looking constipated.
“I would say congratulations, Doc, but I’m sorta soured on the whole subject of marriage.”
“Word to the wise. Watch your back.”
“I appreciate the warning, but I can assure you my fiancée isn’t like that.”
“Yeah,” Nick muttered. “That’s what I thought.”
“My fiancée and I have known each other since we were children. She’s sweet-tempered, quiet, and modest. I’ve never met anyone so easy to get along with.”
“Well, you know what they say about the quiet ones.”
“I have no cause for concern.”
The son of a bitch looked so damn smug. Like he had the world by the balls. As if he was so sure that something like that could never happen to him.
“Whatever you say.” Nick shrugged. “Now that you understand where my tension is coming from, will you sign the form and put me back to work?”
Van Zandt’s smile was kind, but firm. “Nice try, but no. Now let’s have a look at that leg.”
He pulled back the paper sheet to study Nick’s injury, his fingers gently probing the knee. The wound was surprisingly tender, the scars still pink and fresh-looking. The kneecap was slightly puffy. Nick sucked in his breath at Van Zandt’s poking.
“It shouldn’t be this tender two months post-op.” Van Zandt shook his head. “And you’ve still got a lot of swelling. You’re going to have to baby it more. Take your pain pills. I know you’re an intense guy, but for God’s sake, man, try to find a way to relax.”
Nick sighed. Dammit all. “How much longer?”
“I’m headed to Guatemala with a surgical team, and I’ll be out of the country for six weeks,” Van Zandt said. “We’ll have Maryanne schedule you for an appointment the day after I get back.”
“Six more weeks!”
“I know it seems like a long time, but it’s what your body requires. If I allow you to go back to work too soon, you could have a relapse that would end your career as an undercover detective.” Van Zandt scribbled something on a prescription pad, tore off the top sheet, and handed it to him. “This is the name of a good massage therapist. She’ll teach you some relaxation techniques to get you through your recovery. In the meantime, try to find a low-key hobby to keep your mind busy.”
Massage therapy? Relaxation techniques? Hobbies? What a load of crap. He needed his job back. It was the only thing that grounded him when the world was shifting beneath his feet.
“If you require anything more while I’m out of town, Dr. Bullock will be standing in for me.”
Hmm, Nick thought. Maybe he could talk this Bullock character into signing his release form.
“And don’t think Dr. Bullock will send you back to work,” Van Zandt said. “I’m making a notation in your chart.”
Ass wipe. “You know me too well.”
“Go ahead and get dressed. You can leave through the doctors’ entrance on the south side of the building. It’s closer to the parking lot so you won’t have so far to walk.”
“Thanks,” Nick forced himself to say.
Before he left the room, Van Zandt rested a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “It’s going to be all right if you do what I tell you. I promise. But if you don’t…” He didn’t finish his sentence. The warning was implicit.
Easy for him to say. He had a killer job and two good legs and a fiancée who loved him.
“Yeah.” Nick nodded.
He’d come to his appointment with the expectation that he’d be returning to work on Monday. He was leaving with the realization he was stuck with himself for six more weeks, or risk losing his career forever.
Fuck it all. He felt like he’d just received a roundhouse kick to the head.
The sleek architecture of the Medical Arts Center in northwest Houston where Evan leased office space exuded a clean, faultless charm achieved only by brand-new buildings.
Feeling like an extra from The Rocky Horror Picture Show trying to sneak into the Oval Office for an audience with the president, Delaney paced the sidewalk outside the doctors’ entrance.
The black, thigh-high, vamp boots Jillian had loaned her pinched her toes, and the pink raincoat covering her skimpy black bustier, garters, and fishnet stockings rustled noisily. A modest-sized dildo, which Tish had insisted she buy when they’d finally made it over to the sex toy store, rested in her raincoat pocket.
With both hands she carried a small, lightweight tarp pilfered from her father’s barbecue grill. She had come fully prepared to carry out this sexy hostage-taking fantasy.
But doubt was making mincemeat of her already shaky self-confidence. Nervously, she nibbled her bottom lip, and then realized she was mangling her lipstick and forced herself to stop.
Remind me again why you’re doing this?
To improve sex with Evan.
Is that really the reason?
Okay, if she was being truly honest with herself, she had to admit it was a last-ditch effort. Before she hitched her life to Evan’s forever, she wanted to know if the possibility of sexual electricity even existed between them.
And if it doesn’t?
Delaney shook her head. Tish and Jillian and Rachael and even her dead sister, Skylar, felt certain that taking Evan hostage for an afternoon of unexpected sexual delight was exactly the thing their relationship needed.
But what if they were wrong? What if Evan hated this surprise seduction? What if he refused to play along? Or worse yet, what if he did play along, but the seduction did nothing to spice up their sex life?
She checked her watch. Twelve-oh-five.
Where was he?
She’d phoned Evan early that morning and invited him to lunch. He’d promised to meet her in the parking lot outside of his office at noon.
He’s a doctor, his time isn’t his own. Patience, patience. He’ll be here.
Good advice, except the waiting was ramping up her nerves and making her palms sweaty. Quickly she peeked through the darkly tinted back door to see if she could spot Evan in the hallway.
Ooh, ooh, there he was, head down, ambling toward the exit.
Excitement spun through her. Pulse pounding, she jumped behind the door.
This is it.
She raised the tarp up in front of her, ready to toss it over his head when he came through the door.
Several seconds passed.
Where was he? What was taking so long?
Just as she was about to take another peek, the door swung open.
A thrill, unlike anything she’d ever felt, took swift possession of her. Delaney pitched the tarp down over his head, whipped the dildo from the pocket of her raincoat, and then pressed the tip of it against his spine.
“This is a gun,” she growled in a movie moll voice. “Do as I say, or you’re gonna get a bullet in your back.”
In her imagination Evan’s knees would quake. He would raise his hands over his head, beg her not to kill him, and then promise to do whatever she demanded. She was floored by the realization that having that kind of power turned her on.
But that was not what happened.
One minute she was teetering on her stiletto boots and the next minute she was lying flat on her back, pinned to the cool green lawn and peering up at the bristling stranger who was staring down at her. His hands were wrapped around her wrists and his knees were between her legs.
Everything had gone wrong. Her blood pumped crazily. Oh, God, oh, no, it couldn’t be.
A bizarre sensation of déjà vu crushed her. This was crazy, insane, impossible.
Thunderstruck, she blinked, unable to believe what she was seeing. Instead of snaring her fiancé, she had bagged the man from that weird vision she’d had while she was in Claire Kelley’s shop when she’d first touched the wedding veil. The hard-jawed warrior. The man she’d seen herself marrying.
You’re imagining things. This can’t be the same guy you saw.
But it was.
Same uncompromising chin, same dark mysterious eyes, same irresistible pull of attraction.
The barbecue grill tarp lay on the sidewalk beside them. Her raincoat hung open, revealing her scanty boudoir attire, and she was still holding that damnable dildo clutched in her fist.
Shame burned a red-hot blush up Delaney’s neck, a rampaging forest fire of embarrassing heat consuming her entire face.
His gaze raked over her.
She watched him sizing up the situation with a look that told her he’d seen it all and done even more. Nothing surprised this guy.
Like her fiancé, he was dark-haired and had a similar build—slightly taller than average height, broad shoulders, narrow hips—but the resemblance stopped there. Evan’s eyes were blue, but this guy’s eyes were so brown they seemed black.
Like coffee. Or cocoa beans.
She sensed he was a man who felt everything intensely, and he didn’t need much of a reason to fight. Or to make love. He was a man who dared. A man who took risks.
And he was the man from her vision.
Something in his face spoke to her. He would be fiercely loyal and protective, making his woman feel special and cared for. And, illogically, she wanted to be that woman.
His eyes kept drilling into hers as if on some level he recognized her too.
Silly? Fanciful? Or something metaphysical?
Delaney’s chest tightened. It was as if every muscle in her body had converged around her heart and they were squeezing in rhythmic, synchronized contractions. Suddenly there didn’t seem to be enough oxygen in the entire world to pacify her hungry lungs. She was breathless and struggling hard to regain some small shred of self-control.
Then again, he appeared to be doing some struggling of his own. Actually, he looked… flattened. As if she were a tornado and he was a trailer park.
His pupils constricted and he moistened his lips. His pelvis was pressed flush against her thigh and Delaney realized, to her total mortification, that he was halfway aroused.
“Is this the gun you were planning on shooting me with?” He wrenched the dildo from her hand and sent her a sardonic smirk. “ ’Cause it looks like it’s already gone off half cocked.”
Oh, God, kill me now. “I thought… I thought… you were someone else.”
He arched an eyebrow and took another look at her body, this one long and lingering. His eyes darkened from coffee-colored to inky black as he carefully cataloged the lacy details of her bustier.
Goose bumps dotted her skin at his appreciative stare. Her breasts prickled, her nipples tightened, and her throat closed off.
And Delaney was terrified he would notice how her body was betraying her desire.
She felt trapped, and the thought sent a shiver through her that she couldn’t dismiss as being chilled. It was June in Houston. Hot, humid, sticky. Plus, she was startlingly aware that her thin plastic raincoat was molded tightly against her curves.
So was the good-looking stranger.
What had she gotten herself into? His lips hovered above hers, and she made the deadly mistake of staring at his mouth.
Anticipation raced her heart.
Perturbed by both his mocking and her stupidity for listening to her friends and dressing up like this, she splayed her palms against his chest and pushed. “Get off me, you big oaf.”
Usually, she wouldn’t have been so rude, but this was not a normal circumstance, and the roguish expression on his face was just begging for a bad-mannered comment.
“You’re freakin’ gorgeous,” he murmured. “What gives? You shouldn’t have to throw a tarp over a guy to get him to go out with you.”
“Off!” She tried to sound tough and bitchy, but she wasn’t good at tough and bitchy, and she came off sounding more scared than anything else.
“Yes, ma’am.” He rolled to one side.
“And give me that back.” She sat up and snatched the dildo from his hand.
He laughed then, a rich, melodious sound rolling over her like a spring breeze, and she almost liked him for it.
Then a shocking thought occurred. What if Evan came out of the clinic and caught her like this? Sitting half naked on the ground like some deranged Victoria’s Secret model. The notion was enough to propel her to her feet. Quickly she belted her raincoat closed and jammed the lurid sex toy back inside her pocket. She had to get out of here. Her mission of seduction had failed miserably.
Well, it wasn’t a totally failed seduction; the oddly familiar stranger was looking at her as if he wanted to eat her for dessert. Unfortunately, she’d managed to arouse the wrong man.
Breathing heavily, Delaney snatched up the tarp and spun on her high-heeled boots, striding for the sanctuary of her car.
“Hey, lady,” the guy called after her.
She wanted to keep walking, but years of good breeding wouldn’t allow her to ignore him. Frustrated, she turned and snapped, “What is it?”
He stretched out a hand. “Could you help me up here? Seeing as how you’re the reason I ended up on my butt in the grass.”
For the first time she noticed the brace strapped to his right leg. He was impaired.
Guilt flooded her. She slapped three fingertips across her lips. “Oh, my, I’m so sorry.”
“ ’S’all right.”
“How did you do that, you know, with an injured leg?” she asked, hurrying back toward him.
“Flip me onto my back.”
“I’ll never tell.” His smile was pure wickedness.
Delaney felt something start to unwind inside her. Something she could not name, but it had been bound up tight for a very long time. Her breath escaped her lungs, rushing out over her lips. She stepped closer. She was looming over him, but it felt as if he were the one dominating her personal space and not the other way around.
How was that possible?
Clutching the tarp to her chest with one hand, she put out her other hand to help him up.
He took it.
His palm was hard and calloused, his grip strong. Her skin burned. Dumbfounded, she felt herself dissolving. Becoming something else, someone else. Her jaw dropped open. No words came out. What was there to say?
“Give me a tug.” His fingers closed more tightly around her hand.
She yanked him to his feet and then he was standing right in front of her. Eye level.
He wasn’t but a couple of inches taller than her own five-foot-nine height. Barely but distinctly, he leaned in toward her. Close enough for his black T-shirt emblazed with the Harley motorcycle logo to brush the sleeve of her raincoat. And for Delaney to feel the heat of his breath on her cheek.
A thermal wave of energy hit her and she battled the urge to push her body against his. The sensation was so compelling, Delaney realized that if she didn’t move away right this instant, this very macho male was going to kiss her.
Defensively crossing her arms over the tarp and holding it close to her chest, she turned. Moving as quickly as she could in the damnable stilettos, she raced for her silver Acura.
Fingers trembling, she fumbled the keys from her pocket, jabbed them in the lock, wrenched the door open, and tumbled inside.
Consumed by remorse, she squeezed her eyes closed. Her breath came in heavy, irregular gasps.
What if Evan had seen them?
Where was Evan? Her eyes flew open, her gaze tracking to the digital clock in the dash. Twelve-twenty.
She tossed the tarp in the backseat, then took her cell phone from the console and flipped it open. She started to punch in Evan’s number, but then saw she had one missed call. She entered the code to hear her messages.
It was her fiancé.
“I’m sorry to do this to you, Laney,” Evan’s recorded voice said. “But I’ve got an emergency at the hospital. Rain check?”
Delaney looked down at her pink raincoat and then stared up at the cloudless sky. It might be sunny and hot, but she couldn’t shake the feeling there was one hell of a thunderstorm heading her way.
Two days had passed and for some bizarre reason, Nick couldn’t stop thinking about the sexy vixen who had ambushed him outside the orthopedic clinic.
Whenever he closed his eyes, he could see how she’d looked walking away from him, rolling and swaying, as if she were gliding on an ocean wave. Serene, calm, untouched by external circumstances. He wished he’d had hours to watch her, study her—okay, all right, ogle her.
Her light brown shoulder-length hair, streaked with enticing blond strands, had been styled in a straight sleek style that underscored her cool-as-a-cucumber aloofness. She wasn’t voluptuous like the women he usually dated, like his ex-wife, Amber. Yet in spite of her athletic figure, she had sufficient curves. He’d gotten a pretty good look at what she’d been hiding underneath that raincoat.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Something about her compelled him in a way no one woman had in a very long time, and it shook him. He thought he’d washed his hands of all that romantic junk.
She looked like a woman who had a lot to say, but never got to say it. Nick found himself wishing he could be the one to hear what was inside her head, learn the secrets she kept closed up behind those sphinxlike lips.
What was it about this particular woman that got to him? Was it her unflappable calmness that made him ache to rumple her? Maybe it was her wide, slightly crooked mouth that seemed out of sync with the rest of her? That mouth was the most interesting part of her beauty, precisely because it didn’t fit.
Or perhaps it was her eyes—sharp, smart, and green as an oasis. Looking into the depths of her made him feel like a traveler lost in an enchanted forest. Of course, it could have just been the sizzling underwear peeping from behind the raincoat and her unexpected willingness for adventuresome sex play.
A shudder passed through Nick. Whatever the cause, the woman was F-I-N-E, fine.
He’d been damn tempted to ask for her phone number, but it was clear from the huge rock on her ring finger she was deeply involved with someone else. And to Nick’s way of thinking, there was nothing more off-limits than a woman who was spoken for. Too bad. A little sexual healing would have been a very nice way to pass his recovery time until Dr. Van Zandt got back from Guatemala.
Yeah, right, like you would ever have a chance with her even if she wasn’t engaged. She’s filet mignon, and you’re a hot dog.
Determined to burn her off his brain, Nick decided a workout was in order.
He ambled out to his pickup truck, favoring his achy knee, and drove over to Gold’s Gym. Strenuous cardio was out of the question, but he could do upper-body strength training, and Doc Van Zandt had endorsed swimming.
After twenty minutes in the lap pool, Nick emerged winded, with water trickling down his bare chest and abdomen. He dried off with a thin white cotton towel, his heart punching hard against his rib cage, his lungs burning. Fatigue weighted him, but his thoughts were still locked on his mystery woman. He kept picturing her on his bed, in that girly pink raincoat, knowing full well that she was wearing next to nothing underneath.
What was the inexplicable pull? Where had it come from, this continual, aching need that had dogged him for two long, agonizing days?
He hit the weight machines. Working out his triceps, his biceps, his pecs. He pushed himself until his arms quivered, desperate to sublimate his sexual desires with exhaustion. But this time, instead of easing his mental torture, exercise seemed to have fueled it. He was doubly aware of his body, of his physical needs.
Face facts, Vinetti, you can’t have her. The woman is already spoken for. Maybe that was why he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Because she was strictly off-limits. Dammit. What the hell was so special about this one?
His cell phone rang.
Relieved to finally have something else to focus on, Nick snatched up the cell phone from his gym bag and punched the talk button. “ ’Lo?”
“Nicky, it’s your nana.”
Immediately the muscles at his shoulder blades tensed and his grip tightened around the phone. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes, yes. I just needed to talk to you about something.”
“What’s up?” Sweat ran down his forehead and he swiped it away with his gym towel.
“I’m ready to go through your grandfather’s personal effects. Could you drop by tomorrow afternoon, say three-thirtyish, and help me start packing things up?”
It wasn’t that he had anything else to do tomorrow. Nor was it that he minded in the least helping his grandmother. He’d move heaven and earth for her. What he hated was the thought of saying good-bye to his grandfather once and for all.
Nick had been just seven years old when his father, his two younger brothers, Richie and Johnny, and his sister, Gina, had moved in with Nana and Grampa in their three-story Victorian on Galveston Island. Over the course of the last year, everything in Nick’s life had changed. His bride had left him on their honeymoon. His knee had gotten mangled, forcing him off the job he loved for weeks, and his grandfather had passed away. He simply wasn’t prepared to handle any more changes.
“Are you sure now is the right time?” he said. “It’s only been two months.”
“It’s time,” she said. “It’s got to be done.”
“There’s no reason we can’t wait a while longer.”
“Yes, there is, Nicky. I’m selling the house,” she said, her firm tone telling him she’d brook no argument.
Nick couldn’t have been more stunned if she’d reached through the phone and punched him squarely in the gut. “Nana, no, absolutely not. You can’t sell the house.”
“I can’t talk about this now. There’s someone at the front door. We’ll finish this discussion when you come over tomorrow afternoon.” And with that, she hung up on him.
The dial tone mocked his ear.
Nana had hung up on him!
Feeling as if he’d just gone fifteen pulverizing rounds with a heavyweight boxing champ, Nick slipped his cell phone back into his gym bag.
All right then, if that’s the way it was going to be, he’d look at the upside. At least he had something to do besides fantasize about the woman in the raincoat and fret over his knee—confront his grandmother and convince her she couldn’t sell the only real home he’d ever known.
On Sunday evening, Delaney got her rain check.
Evan took her to La Maison Vert, the only five-star French restaurant in Houston. He wore a tux. She had on a little black cocktail dress. The decor was elegant, the service impeccable. And the pan-seared, pecan-encrusted mahimahi bathed in a rich buttery caper sauce was definitely worth the three additional hours on the treadmill the extra calories were going to cost her.
It should have been a magical evening.
Instead, Evan talked nonstop about his work, spoiling the romantic mood. Any other time, Delaney wouldn’t have minded. Evan was passionate about his job and she was a good listener, but tonight she found herself wishing that he were half as passionate about her as he was about medicine.
She’d still planned on seducing him, but extreme embarrassment—following what had happened outside Evan’s office—caused her to give up on the hostage-taking fantasy and go for something a little lower key. She had reserved a room at the Hyatt and worn a dress that showed lots of cleavage with sexy underwear underneath, and she’d ordered oysters on the half shell for an appetizer.
But Evan hadn’t wanted any.
Glumly, she’d sucked down the delicacies alone while her husband-to-be extolled the virtues of a new hip replacement procedure. Delaney zoned out on the details. She didn’t know how to tell him he was boring her to tears.
This is how the meals are going to go for the rest of your life. Skylar’s voice rang in her head.
Now that was a depressing thought.
It’s okay, she reassured herself. She had her work too, and she loved it. Evan probably got just as bored listening to her talk about All the World’s a Stage as much as his shoptalk bored her. Except she never really talked about her job with him.
She’d gotten into the business of staging houses quite by accident. She had received her master’s degree in liberal arts and was trying to decide what to do with it when Tish, who’d been struggling to make a big mortgage payment after her divorce, asked Delaney to help her fix up her house so she could sell it.
She had given her friend’s place a complete makeover, and it sold the following week at ten thousand more than the asking price—and that was after the house had been on the market for over a year. Delaney had found her niche, and on the plus side, it was also a career her mother endorsed.
Excited by the headiness of that first success, she’d borrowed money from her father and started All the World’s a Stage last summer. But while the business was breaking even, it was only because of her mother’s friends. To date, besides Tish, only one other of her clients had not come from the pool of people who regularly kissed up to Honey Montgomery Cartwright.
But Delaney was eager to change all that. She was determined to succeed on her own, without her mother’s help.
She ordered another glass of wine to loosen her up enough to proceed with her plans for seduction. Evan was leaving for Guatemala tomorrow morning. If she couldn’t coax him into bed tonight, she wouldn’t have another chance before their wedding.
She assessed him through the glow of a pricey zinfandel. He was classically handsome—flawless to a fault, perfectly symmetrical features, manicured fingernails, complexion like a baby’s, every hair combed smoothly into place.
And Delaney couldn’t help comparing him to the rugged guy she’d tarped outside Evan’s office.
Now there was a man. Ha-cha-cha.
Immediately her mind conjured up a picture of him. Beard stubbling his firm jaw, calluses on his hands, tanned skin, unruly hair curling around his collar. He put her in mind of Gerard Butler, the rugged British actor who’d played the phantom of the opera in the recent film version of the famous musical. It was one of her favorite movies. He possessed the same hauntingly mesmerizing quality of extreme masculinity that Mr. Butler did.
Her heart thumped faster just thinking about him.
He was everything she had never wanted. Bold, brash, cocky. And yet, again and again, over the course of the last couple of days, her mind had been drawn to thoughts of him.
He’s a fantasy; forget him. Your future is sitting right in front of you.
But those biceps. Those piercing dark brown eyes. She sighed.
She squinted at Evan in the candlelight and tried to get worked up, but an undertow of anxiety tugged at her thoughts. He was a very good-looking man. Why couldn’t she get stoked over him the way she did over this stranger? What was wrong with her?
“And by then,” Evan was saying, “we’ll be ready to have kids, and then you can give up your business and stay home.”
“What?” Delaney blinked, realizing she’d spaced out. “What did you say?”
Evan repeated what he’d said.
“I’m not giving up my business. I love my business. What made you think I would give up my business?”
“We don’t need the money, and our children will require your undivided attention.”
“What about your undivided attention? Don’t kids need a dad as much as a mom? Why don’t you give up your job?”
He laughed, the braying sound affecting her like fingernails on a chalkboard. When had the sound of his laugh first started to irritate her? She’d never really noticed before what an unattractive sound it was.
“Okay, point taken,” he said. “You can keep the business as a sideline and we’ll hire a part-time nanny.”
“Oh, thanks so much for your permission.”
“You’re mad?” Evan looked bewildered. “Why are you mad?”
“Nothing. I’m not mad.” She held up her palms. He didn’t even realize he’d been patronizing her. “Never mind.”
“No, no, let’s talk this through.”
His calm rationality was getting on her nerves. Which was weird. His steady sensibility was one of the things Delaney liked most about him.
Thankfully, her cell phone picked that moment to ring.
Evan gave her a gently chiding look. “You left your cell phone on? This is our last dinner together for six weeks.”
“You leave your cell phone on whenever we go out,” Delaney said, feeling a little defensive as she searched in her clutch purse for the slim flip phone.
“I’m a doctor; there could be emergencies,” he said. “You stage houses for a living.” There it was again, that slightly condescending tone in his voice.
She found the phone and checked the caller ID. It was from Trudie Klausman, the one client who had not come to her from her mother’s sphere of social influence. “Excuse me, Evan, I need to take this.”
Delaney put her napkin on the table, pushed back her chair, and hurried to an out-of-the-way alcove to take the call.
“Trudie,” she greeted her caller. “How are you?”
“Fine, just fine.”
“How’s the new condo?”
“Wonderful, I love it. There’s so much to do here, so many activities, and lots of handsome widowers to chase after in my golf cart.”
“That’s great to hear.”
“Listen,” Trudie said, “I’ve got a friend who’s looking to sell her house.”
“Really.” A smile flitted across her lips. At last, a referral that had nothing to do with her mother.
“My friend lives on Galveston Island in an old Victorian. It’s a beautiful place, but needs work. Her husband died a couple of months ago and she’s really lonely.”
“That’s sad,” Delaney said. “I’m so sorry to hear it.”
“It’s been rough on her. They were married fifty-two years, and Leo was the love of her life.”
Delaney made a noise of sympathy. “Tragic.”
“Well,” Trudie said, “they did get fifty-two wonderful years together. Most of us aren’t so lucky. Anyway, a condo came open here at Orchid Villa right across the courtyard from my place. But she can’t afford the condo until she sells her house. The condo won’t last long. You know how quickly the properties are going around here, so she needs to sell the house as soon as possible. Can you drop by tomorrow afternoon and give her your expert opinion?”
“Trudie,” Delaney said, “I’d be happy to do what I can for your friend.”
“Can you come around three? Got a pen so I can give you the address?”
“Three would be perfect. Hang on, I’ve got my BlackBerry right here.” She dug the device from her purse and powered it on. “Go ahead.”
“Her name is Lucia Vinetti.” As Trudie gave her the address, Delaney felt her excitement growing. She hadn’t had a project in a couple of weeks, and she was eager to work and get her mind off the wedding plans.
In the course of a two-minute conversation, Delaney had completely forgotten about seducing Evan. If she couldn’t find the magic that was missing from her life through love, then she would do it through her work. Now, all she could think about was making sure Lucia Vinetti’s house sold quickly and for the most amount of money possible.
And opening up a whole new aspect of her career.
Lucia Vinetti and her friend Trudie Klausman strolled through her garden in the gathering twilight, admiring the flowering bougainvilleas, inhaling the scent of red honeysuckle growing up the fence.
“I hope I’m doing the right thing. Messing with fate can be a risky proposition,” Lucia Vinetti said as she pulled a small bottle of lavender lotion from the pocket of her apron and rubbed a dab of it into her hands.
She’d led such a wonderful life, she’d never really minded growing old. But these wrinkly brown spots on her hands, Mother Teresa, how she hated them. When Leo was alive, he would laugh about her vanity, kiss her hands, and tell her she was in luck, because brown was his favorite color. Remembering her husband, Lucia smiled while at the same time her heart welled with sadness. She was going to miss this place so much, the garden in particular where she and Leo had worked side by side, coaxing things to grow.
“I’m telling ya, Luce, Delaney is the one for your Nicky,” her best friend Trudie said.
“But playing matchmaker? I’m not sure it’s prudent to interfere in other people’s love lives.”
Even at seventy-five Trudie still dressed like the Las Vegas showgirl she used to be. Garish colors, styles made for women a third of her age, outrageous props. Tonight she had a lime green feather boa tossed around her neck. But Lucia never judged Trudie for her eccentric clothes. She might be outrageous, but she was the truest friend Lucia had ever had.
“The minute I met this girl, I knew she was the one for your grandson.” Trudie sounded so certain. “But just to be sure, I did her astrological chart. The stars never lie. She and Nick are destined to be together.”
“But you said she’s engaged to marry another man.” Lucia kept rubbing her hands long after the lotion had been absorbed. Nervous habit, but then playing around with fate was something to be nervous about. “That isn’t a good sign. Nick’s already been cut to the quick by one fickle female; the last thing I want is to see my grandson get hurt again.”
“You were engaged to someone else when you met Leo,” Trudie reminded her.
Lucia thought of Frank Tigerelli, the wealthy man her family had wanted her to marry. He’d ended up going to prison in some real estate scam. Thank God for her Leo. He’d saved her from making the gravest mistake of her life.
“If something goes wrong and Nicky gets hurt, I’ll never forgive myself,” Lucia said.
“We’re just putting them together and letting nature take its course,” Trudie assured her. “If they meet and the whammy doesn’t strike, no harm, no foul.”
Lucia nodded and took a deep breath. Her grandson needed something to jar him out of his doldrums.
“Will you tell me the story again about how you knew Leo was the one?” Trudie asked, absentmindedly twirling her boa. “I love that story. Look at me. I had to go through three husbands before I got it right, and then Artie up and dies on me. Men.”
Lucia smiled. “Our first meeting was such a cliché, I don’t get why it fascinates you so.”
“You know why. Tell the story.”
The truth was Lucia loved telling the story as much as Trudie loved hearing it. “I had just turned eighteen. A friend and I had been invited to a party thrown by a man in our office where we both worked as secretaries. The party turned out to be very dull. I looked at a clock on the wall and it was only nine-ten. I wanted so badly to leave, but my girlfriend who’d given me a ride didn’t want to go. She’d found a fellow to flirt with.”
“Not much of a party girl, were you?”
“No.” Lucia smiled. “I seriously doubt that you and I would have been friends if we’d met back then.”
“Probably not,” Trudie agreed. “So then what happened next?”
“I was about to call my father to come get me, when Leo walked into the room. And then it hits me. A bolt from the blue. The whammy.”
“What did the whammy feel like?”
“My heart started pounding and I wanted desperately to run away, but at the same time I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Nor he me. He comes toward me and the crowd parts like the Red Sea. I’m barely breathing.”
Trudie sighed happily.
“Leo introduces himself and we start talking and talking and talking. The room gets less crowded and quieter. We find a seat and keep talking. My friend shows up and wants to leave. Leo tells me he’ll give me a ride home so I tell my friend to go on without me. Finally we’re the only ones left at the party. Even the host went to bed. I looked at the clock and it says nine-fifteen. I’m starting to think I’m caught in some weird waking dream and then I realize the clock has stopped. It stopped the minute I saw Leo.” Lucia’s voice broke and tears sprang to her eyes.
“Aw, Luce, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have prodded you to tell that story,” Trudie fretted. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“It’s all right.” Lucia swiped at her eyes. “Even though it hurts, I like remembering Leo.”
“See, don’t you want that kind of love for Nick?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then let go of your fears and put your trust in the magic that stopped that clock the minute you and Leo met. If Delaney Cartwright is Nick’s soul mate, they’ll know it.”
“And if she isn’t?”
Trudie shrugged. “She’s still a whiz at staging houses.”
James Robert, what is this?”
Jim Bob Cartwright glanced up from the Houston Chronicle Sunday crossword puzzle he was working to help him fall asleep and saw his wife, Honey, standing in the doorway, holding something out in front of her as if it were going to give her a disease. Jim Bob pushed his reading glasses up on his forehead to see what she was talking about.
“Looks like a wedding veil.”
“Exactly.” Honey’s lips were pressed together in a tight, disapproving line. If she hadn’t just had a round of Botox, Jim Bob had no doubt she would have been frowning.
He slid his glasses back down on his nose. “What’s a ten-letter word for flawless?”
“Perfection,” she said. “I found it under Delaney’s bed.”
“No, the wedding veil. Perfection is a ten-letter word for flawless.”
“So is Honey Leigh.” He smiled at her.
“I doubt that’s what the makers of your crossword puzzle had in mind,” she said dryly. “Delaney bought this at a consignment shop. If she thinks I’m going to let her wear this shabby thing at her wedding, she’s going to have to think again.”
“I think it looks nice,” he said.
“You would,” Honey grumbled and set the veil down on the edge of the bed. “It’s from a consignment shop.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s tacky. It’s been on other women’s heads.” Honey shuddered.
“What were you doing snooping in her room?”
“I wasn’t snooping,” she said defensively.
“If you must know, I went to turn down her covers so she could slip right into bed when she gets home from her date with Evan. I expect they’ll be out late since this is the last night they’ll have together for six weeks. I saw the corner of the veil sticking out from underneath her bed and pulled it out for a look. What perplexes me is why she would want to wear a used veil. I’ve raised her better than that.”
“You’re too hard on her,” he said, but thought, Who are you, Martha Stewart? “Cut her some slack.”
“We’ve had this discussion a million times.”
“And you always win.”
“That’s right, and don’t make me say why.”
Their eldest daughter’s name hung in the air between them, painful as a third-degree burn. Jim Bob blinked and stared hard at the crossword puzzle.
He couldn’t say for sure when his marriage had started to unravel; certainly Skylar’s death had been a pivotal turning point. But if he were being honest, Jim Bob would admit the marriage had been fraying long before then, and he had no real idea why. He still loved Honey, deep down inside, but they hadn’t been close in a very long time.
In fact, when he thought back on their life together, he wondered if they’d ever really been emotionally intimate. Honey was always on guard, worried about presenting a glossy image of the impeccable wife, hostess, mother, or what have you. It felt like she was a consummate actress who’d perfected a role in a long-running play, and she was determined to get rave reviews each and every night.
And she expected him to play the perfect leading man, although she never hesitated to let him know how he failed to live up to the role.
He supposed her insistence on living what she called the “proper way” came from being a blue blood with a pedigree she could trace back to European royalty. While his family, before his great-grandfather had struck oil back in the 1920s, had been nothing but dirt-poor farmers. For reasons he couldn’t fathom, foolish things like not allowing Delaney to wear a used wedding veil mattered greatly to his wife.
With a clarity undiminished by the passing years, Jim Bob remembered the first time he laid eyes on Honey. He’d been attending a summer seminar at the University of Pennsylvania, and he’d seen her striding purposefully across campus as if she knew exactly who she was and where she was going and she wasn’t about to let anything or anyone stand in her way.
That strong sense of purpose was what had initially attracted him to her. She possessed a special something that he lacked—a driving force that pushed her to continually better herself. He admired the quality, but honestly did not fully understand it. Honey was a doer, whereas Jim Bob was just happy to be along for the ride. In that regard, Delaney had taken after him.
Growing up the youngest of the three Cartwright brothers, with a larger-than-life father, Jim Bob had gotten lost in the shuffle of his legendary family. He was laid-back and easygoing. Loved having a good time and believed that life took care of itself, that you really shouldn’t have to work so hard at it. Unlike Honey, who discounted anything that came easily.
His family had loved Honey from the minute they’d met her. Both because her blue-blood status gave respectable cache to their oil field money and because they believed she was exactly what Jim Bob needed to give him some direction in life.
They were right on both counts.
Honey had taken to his family like, well, a duck to water. Her own mother had died shortly after they’d met and she had no other immediate family. She’d told Jim Bob she didn’t get along with her distant relatives, since they’d forsaken her during her mother’s long illness. Medical bills had drained most of the fortune her father had made in textiles. Even her family home had been mortgaged to the hilt. They’d never been back to Philadelphia, and none of Honey’s relatives ever called or came to visit.
But her high-society cache and Honey’s unerring sense of direction hadn’t brought Jim Bob the happiness he’d thought their marriage was supposed to provide. His children had been the only things that had given him real joy.
And then Skylar had been killed.
Honey blamed him wholly, completely. Blamed his permissiveness and what she called his screwed-up priorities. Putting fun ahead of safety. And he couldn’t fault her for it. He’d actually pleaded Skylar’s case for less restriction, convincing Honey to untie the apron strings and let Skylar go to that damnable rock concert. Jim Bob never regretted any decision more.
When Honey had told him he would get absolutely no say in raising Delaney, he’d stepped out of the picture as far as discipline was concerned. Even when he didn’t agree with something his wife was doing, like putting Delaney on a strict diet, or pressuring her into plastic surgery, or egging her on to marry Evan, he’d kept his mouth shut. Jim Bob’s ideas on child rearing had gotten his oldest daughter killed. What in the hell did he know? He couldn’t buck Honey on anything.
Jim Bob peered over the top of his newspaper. Honey was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at the wedding veil as if it were a poisonous viper. She was so damn determined this wedding had to meet some impossibly high standard she’d set up in her own mind. It was costing him a fortune, but the money wasn’t what bothered Jim Bob. He worried that Delaney was getting married simply to please her mother.
Not that he disliked his future son-in-law. Evan Van Zandt was a good guy and came from a very respectable family. Delaney could do far worse. It was just that, because of Honey’s overprotectiveness, Delaney had never really experienced life. Evan was the only man she’d ever dated. She’d never lived on her own, nor was she well traveled. She hadn’t even worked at anything other than this little business venture she’d started, except teaching undergrads when she was working on her master’s degree.
If it weren’t for Honey pressuring her friends into using All the World’s a Stage when they sold their houses, he doubted Delaney could keep the business afloat without tapping into the trust fund his mother had set up for her. Jim Bob couldn’t help feeling that his daughter deserved so much more out of life.
But how could he advise Delaney on marriage when his own was in such rocky shape?
Where had things gotten so messed up?
He looked at Honey. A sweep of blond hair had fallen across her cheek, and his heart wadded in his chest. The past was gone, and he felt the future ebbing away like hourglass sand. God, he’d screwed things up so badly.
“I’ve let you down,” he said to Honey.
“Excuse me?” She looked up, assessing him with cool green eyes that revealed nothing. The same inscrutable eyes Delaney had inherited.
“Over the years, I haven’t been the kind of husband you deserved.”
She stared at him for a long moment then said, in the oddest tone of voice, “I got exactly what I deserved.”
“You didn’t deserve an alcoholic.”
“James Robert, you’ve been sober for fifteen years. It’s all in the past. Forget about it.”
“I’ll never be able to forget it. Or what I did to you and Delaney,” he said. “I haven’t really made full amends.”
“Yes, you have.”
“If I’d truly made amends then why haven’t you forgiven me? I’m so sorry I hurt you, Honey. So very sorry.”
“You’re forgiven. Now can we stop talking about this, please?”
“You should have divorced me.”
“I’m going to keep this veil,” she said, getting up and crossing the room to put the veil in her closet. “If Delaney wants it back, she’s going to have to ask me for it.”
It irritated him that she pretended to forgive him when he knew she hadn’t. She punished him every day. Like she was doing now. By not allowing him to say what he needed to say. By dismissing his apology as inconsequential.
“I want things to be better between us,” Jim Bob said. “Like they used to be when we were first married. Remember?”
“Let’s go to sleep, James Robert. It’s late.”
“Stop changing the subject. I don’t want to talk about wedding veils. I want to talk about us. How we’re going to spend the rest of our lives once Delaney is married and off on her own and she’s no longer the glue holding us together.”
Honey looked at him with those calm green eyes that revealed nothing about what she was really feeling. “I don’t know what you intend to do, but I’m planning on living my life exactly as I have been.”
“Filling it up with what? Charity events and Pilates and spa dates with your friends?”
“Where do I fit into your plans?”
“What is it that you want from me?”
I want you to love me the way you used to! He wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake some feeling into her. But you couldn’t force people to feel something for you if they didn’t.
His chest constricted. “What happened, Honey? What happened to the girl I married? The one who had big dreams and an even bigger heart? The one who used to laugh at my jokes and let her hair down once in a while? The one who told me we were a team and as long as we were together, nothing could break us?”
She reached across the bed and stroked his cheek with her index finger, the unexpected tenderness in her eyes cutting straight to his heart. “Delaney’s grown now. We’re in our mid-fifties. What’s past is past. I can’t be something I no longer am, and I can’t bring Skylar back. Now please, can we just go to bed?”
He wanted to shout. He wanted to throw something against the wall. Anything to get her attention.
But he did not.
Jim Bob put the crossword puzzle aside, turned out the light, and slid down in bed. He reached for Honey and pulled her into his embrace. She did not resist, but she held her body so stiffly against him, he could take no comfort in her arms.
She was an ice queen. Beautiful, but untouchable. Impossible to know even after thirty-four years of marriage.
There was no getting through to her. He’d been trying for years. She had her idea of the way things were supposed to be, and Honey refused to budge. The terrible thing was, much as he still loved her, Jim Bob didn’t know if he could live with that anymore.
Divorce was an ugly word, but he was almost ready to say it.
When Honey had finally fallen asleep, Jim Bob got up, went to the closet, took out the wedding veil, and put it back underneath his daughter’s bed.
Someone in this family damn well deserved to hold on to their dreams.
On Monday, after seeing Evan off at the airport, Delaney guided her silver Acura south toward Galveston Island to meet Lucia Vinetti. Her mind wandered during the fifty-minute drive and for some inexplicable reason, she found herself thinking about the man she’d thrown the tarp over outside Evan’s office. The man from her mysterious vision.
Why did she keep thinking about him?
She liked well-groomed, well-bred men. Not scruffy, tough guys who stared at her as if they could see every thought that passed through her head.
Even now, just recalling the way his dark eyes had stared at her caused Delaney’s body to tingle.
She shivered. She didn’t like feeling this way. It upset her equilibrium. And she had spent her life putting on a calm face. Passive nonresistance had taken her this far in life, and she was sticking with it.
Forget the guy. He’s just an illusion. An image of masculine perfection you’ve conjured in your own mind. Focus on the job at hand. This is what you want. Your own base of clients and referrals, so you can prove to your mother that you don’t need her interfering in your life.
Although it was just a small step, this new project represented the freedom she’d longed for, but had just been too afraid to reach out and grab. Winning this contract was a huge deal for her, and she wasn’t going to let the memory of some studly guy she’d briefly brushed up against distract her from her goal.
She longed to make her business something special. Something that was hers alone, but until now she’d been floating along, just letting her mother make things happen for her. Taking the path of least resistance. It was her pattern.
Delaney crossed the bridge onto Galveston Island and traveled the main thoroughfare. At the next red light, she consulted her notes for the correct address. Lucia’s place was several blocks north of the beach.
When she turned onto Seawall Boulevard, the sight of the Gulf of Mexico made her smile. Her mother hated Galveston, with its scandalous island history and touristy atmosphere, precisely the two things Delaney loved most about the town.
She found the adorable old Victorian residence without any problem. The lawn, while trimmed short, was not landscaped with any particular design in mind. A hedge here, a flower bed there, a clump of coconut-bearing palm trees thrown in.
The house was painted an outdated color of canary yellow and trimmed in powder blue. Wind chimes dangled from the porch and pink flamingos decorated the yard. Whimsical, kitschy, and cute, but definitely not for the more upscale clientele willing to pay top dollar for an island retreat. Delaney took out her notebook and jotted: work on curb appeal.
She parked in the driveway beside a white ten-year-old American-made sedan and hurried up the sidewalk. Before she even had a chance to knock, the door was thrown open, revealing Trudie Klausman dressed in a pink Bermuda shorts set and a bright red fedora and beside her stood a kind-faced woman in her early seventies. She wore a floral-print housedress covered with a well-worn, faded blue gingham apron.
The sight of the woman conjured images in Delaney’s mind of chocolate chip cookies and pastries made from scratch with loving hands. Lucia looked like the grandmother Delaney had always longed for, but never had. Her mother’s mother had died before Honey had even married her father. And her father’s mother had been infirm with a debilitating illness, living the remainder of her years in a private care facility. Delaney had never known her grandmother when she’d been spry and healthy.
“It’s so good to see you,” Trudie said. “This is my friend Lucia. Lucia, meet Delaney Cartwright.”
She held out her hand to Lucia, but the elderly woman ignored her outstretched palm and instead enveloped her in an embrace that smelled like vanilla extract and lavender soap. “Welcome to my home, Delaney. It’s so nice to meet you. Trudie’s told me so many wonderful things about you.”
A glow of warmth at the woman’s friendliness stole through her. After meeting Lucia, she wanted the job more than ever. “Thank you, Mrs. Vinetti. I’m honored that you’re considering hiring All the World’s a Stage.”
“Please, call me Lucia.”
“Lucia it is.” Delaney smiled.
“Come inside,” Lucia invited. “I can’t wait to see what you think of the house.”
In true Victorian fashion the rooms were small, but plentiful. While the house was exceptionally clean, and the woodwork phenomenal, it was a little worse for the wear. Fifty-two years of family living jam-packed the house with knickknacks and photographs and keepsakes.
It looked as if Lucia never threw anything away, and apparently a lot of people had given her many things over the years she felt obligated to display. Her homey style, while wonderful for living in, was too jumbled for enticing buyers. Nothing was cohesive. Not design or color schemes. Not furniture style or window treatments. If Lucia were to show the house in its present state, potential buyers would see it as overcrowded, old-fashioned, and out of step.
Delaney, however, loved it.
Lucia’s house presented her first real decorating challenge. Her mother’s friends and acquaintances were the kind of women who redecorated every few years. They were well aware of trends and fashions. Staging their homes for sale had usually consisted of little more than rearranging furniture for the best layout or bringing bits of nature indoors to create a breezy feel or simply giving the place a good cleaning.
“Trudie tells me you’re engaged to be married,” Lucia said.
“Yes, August fourth.”
“That’s wonderful.” Lucia beamed. “How did you and your fiancé meet?”
“We’ve known each other since we were small children. Before that really. Our mothers met in Lamaze class.”
“So you don’t really have a story about how you two first laid eyes on each other?” Trudie asked.
Excerpted from Kiss the Bride by Wilde, Lori Copyright © 2012 by Wilde, Lori. Excerpted by permission.
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