Duets 2-In-1 (91) by Dawn Atkins released on Dec 25, 2002 is available now for purchase.
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Wedding for One/Tattoo for Two
By Dawn Atkins
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEight years ago
"Ouch. Jeez. When I said, 'Somebody pinch me,' I didn't mean to really do it," Mariah Monroe said.
"I'm just trying to do whatever you want on your special day," her mother Meredith said, fluffing the frothy wedding veil. "There! Perfect." She surveyed Mariah in the full-length mirror. "Now, aren't you glad we didn't go with that terrible fuchsia minidress?"
"It had lace," she said in her own defense.
"And fishnet. Please."
"Whatever." For once, though, Mariah agreed with her mother. This was better. She looked like she'd floated off the cover of Today's Bride, and she felt like a princess. Teardrop pearls extended on slender wires from her headpiece, exquisite sequin-dotted lace scallops made a graceful beeline to her cleavage, and yards and yards and yards of satin billowed to the toes of her white satin pumps.
She'd considered hand-painting the dress and creating a papier-mâché flower bouquet, but decided to go traditional for Nathan, who was such a straight-arrow guy. She still couldn't believe he'd chosen her. For the first time in her seventeen years, she felt like she fit in, instead of being kooky and contrary and just plain weird.
At the same time, she felt uneasy, as ifshe'd disappeared, been replaced by an actress - I'm not a bride, but I play one on TV - or a store mannequin, or a collectible doll ready for a display case. She ignored the feeling. This would all be worth it because in the end she'd have Nathan Goodman, who loved her, and they'd live happily ever after.
Abruptly, her mother stopped fussing with Mariah's curls, which she'd pomaded into submission a few minutes before, placed a hand on each of her daughter's temples and looked Mariah straight in her reflected eye. This was serious.
"You have nothing to be ashamed of, sweetie. Some of the best marriages start out with a Pop Tart already in the toaster."
"I'm your mother. You can tell me." Her hands dropped to squeeze Mariah's shoulders in sympathy.
A chill raced down Mariah's satin-bound spine all the way to her pink-polished toes. "What is it you think I have to tell you?"
The answer began to trickle into Mariah's brain at the same time the color drained from her face beneath the chichi makeup her mother had insisted on. In the mirror she looked like a ghost bride.
"Nathan will make a wonderful father. And he thinks you hung the sun."
Hung the moon, she wanted to correct. Instead she stuck to the terrible thing her mother was saying. "What are you talking about?"
"Honey," her mother said in a tone that said Mariah was stretching a joke past credulity, "I know you're pregnant."
"Where did you get that idea?" Mariah realized the answer before her mother gave it.
"That blue box on your dresser. I wasn't snooping - I know you hate me going in your room - but it said 'pregnancy test' really big, so I couldn't help but be curious."
"That was a joke I bought for Rhonda to freak out her boyfriend."
"Pregnancy is nothing to joke about, Mariah," her mother chided. Then she frowned. "Wait. You mean you're not pregnant?"
"Oh, dear." Meredith's brows lifted in alarm, then lowered. "Well, it'll still be okay."
Suddenly, Mariah realized a terrible possibility. "Did you tell Nathan?"
"Not exactly. He overheard me talking to your father in the factory, so -"
"Nathan thinks I'm pregnant? But we haven't even ... Why would he want to marry me? Oh, God." She covered her face with her hands, stricken with shock and humiliation. "That's why he said 'what's past is past. You don't have to explain a thing.' I thought he meant being with other guys, not that!"
"Honey, Nathan worships you. And he'll be good for you. He'll help you settle down and stop flitting from thing to thing."
Mariah jerked her face up to confront her mother, hating being reminded that this was how her mother saw her. "I'm not flitting. I'm being me." And Nathan had seemed okay with that, though she'd tried to act more mature around him. They'd only been dating a month when he'd told her he loved her and wanted to marry her - saying the words in a rush, as if they'd been wrenched from him. She'd believed him and said yes without pausing for air. Because she loved him, too. Desperately.
It had amazed her that Nathan had even wanted to date a crazy girl like her, let alone marry her. He'd come to Copper Corners with a brand-new business degree from the University of Arizona to take a job helping her father run Cactus Confections. He was serious, stable and responsible. The exact opposite of her. The fact that he loved her had seemed like a miracle.
But it hadn't been a miracle. It had been an act of mercy. He'd thought she was pregnant with another guy's baby - since they hadn't even slept together yet - and he was going to make an honest woman of her. He felt sorry for her. Oh, ick.
With that, her Cinderella story burst in her face like a six-piece bubble of Bazooka, leaving a sticky mess.
Well, she knew what she had to do. She couldn't go through with this sham and she couldn't let Nathan ruin his life just to be a hero.
"Tell Nathan to forget it," she told her mother. She lifted her thick skirt and ran for the door, fighting tears.
"What are you doing?" Meredith asked.
"The wedding's off, Mom. Tell everyone." She galloped down the stairs, then stopped at the landing and looked up. "Tell Nathan ..." What? That she wouldn't settle for a mercy marriage? That she couldn't bear to be the only one desperately in love? "That I changed my mind. I need my own life, not his."
"Don't run away, Mariah," her mother called to her from the landing. "For once in your life, stick to something."
With the deadly words ringing in her ears, Mariah lunged out the door, desperate to escape. Luckily, at that moment her best friend Nikki pulled up in her battered red Miata with the top down. Relief flooded her. Nikki would understand. They were soul sisters.
Mariah hiked up her dress and climbed into the convertible, not bothering with the door. Satin and lace puffed up to her chin, and flapped over Nikki.
"Phht!" Nikki spit out fluff. "What are you doing? I thought we were going to the church in your parents' car."
"Just drive, okay?" she said, as fat tears rolled through the Honey Luster powder her mother thought brought out the peach in her skin.
"Anywhere." Then she corrected herself. "Anywhere but the church."
Nikki shot her a puzzled look, then accelerated, throwing them both back in the seats.
Excerpted from Wedding for One/Tattoo for Two by Dawn Atkins Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.