Authors: Mia Caldwell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #African American, #Women's Fiction, #Romance, #Multicultural, #New Adult & College, #Multicultural & Interracial
It was her second visit with Kevin in his new home, and she was further reassured she had made the right decision just by seeing how happy and relaxed he was, and how well he seemed to fit in with the others, though he didn’t go out of his way to make friendships or interact. It was nice just to see him working alongside other people without fear or freaking out at the noise or strangers. Kevin was thriving, and she knew he would be happy here for a long time to come.
Happiness. That was an elusive idea and a tantalizing thought. Could she be happy married to Connor? She hadn’t returned to his bed in the four days they had been back, and she hadn’t given him an answer yet. In fact, she was doing her best to avoid him and the situation, though it shamed her. She knew she should face the whole thing head-on and make a firm decision, but she couldn’t seem to break the mental paralysis.
She understood her own block, but she couldn’t seem to move past it enough to resolve it. It all came down to three little words, the three words Connor hadn’t spoken when he’d suggested they get married for real. Did he love her? Knowing she loved him didn’t mean that was enough to make a relationship last. He was clearly infatuated with her, and he respected and liked her.
They were friends, and they had a strong physical attraction, but without love, what kind of marriage could they really have? After the honeymoon phase was over, things were bound to disintegrate, and if or when he decided to return to his usual lifestyle of fast cars and even faster women, there was no way she could hover in the background and maintain the charade of a happy life. She definitely wouldn’t turn a blind eye to infidelity.
She needed all or nothing from him, but the only way to know how he felt was to ask him. If she didn’t cultivate some courage quickly, she would lose the opportunity before the big day arrived. She would just have to ask him tonight at the rehearsal dinner. She would ask him why he had proposed and find out what his vision of the future entailed.
If it meshed with hers, she was certain she already knew her answer. If he didn’t mention anything about love, she would have to say no. They couldn’t get married if they didn’t have the right reasons for making a marriage.
She left Kevin an hour later, making her way back to the city with ample time to dress for the rehearsal dinner, which she was dreading. She had scraped up a few names of people to invite, girlfriends who had been much closer before Granny died, and her world had encompassed Kevin, along with her job as Connor’s assistant. She hoped to regain closer friendships with them, but the bonds had not yet begun to regrow. It still felt awkward having them there, and the conversation was stilted when she sat down at the main table to join her hastily selected bridesmaids.
She knew they had been thunderstruck by the surprise requests to be in her wedding party, but she was thankful they had all complied with grace. She imagined pity prompted their generosity, but at least she didn’t look completely pathetic, as though she had no one in the world besides Kevin, though that was true.
And Connor. She’d had him at least once, and she could have him forever if they shared a similar mindset about the future. Her stomach jolted with nerves at the prospect of asking him, and she vowed she would do so before the evening was over.
He arrived a short time later with several members of the wedding party in tow. She barely hid a grimace of disgust when she saw Brenda had wormed her way in to the party as well, though the woman had no formal role in the wedding. Perhaps she was an usher or something? She had sort of lost track of Brenda’s machinations.
For all Angelina knew, maybe Brenda was supplanting her as the bride. She wanted to laugh at the idea, but a strange sense of dread filled her instead. Was it because she was dreading tomorrow’s wedding, or because she was afraid there was an element of truth to her speculation?
They were soon bustling with activity, moving under Carly’s direction through the various steps of the ceremony, walking through their roles and practicing. The celebrant wasn’t present, and he wouldn’t be until tomorrow, so Carly stood in for him.
Standing in front of the wedding coordinator with her hand held tightly in Connor’s, she experienced a jolt of almost…déjà vu, as though she had been there before. Of course she never had, but it felt unexpectedly right, like coming home, and edged her a step closer to saying yes to his proposal.
She laughed along with the rest of the party when Carly conducted an impromptu marriage ceremony, giggling particularly hard when she turned to Connor and asked, “Do you take Angelina in sickness and health, including the days she’s grumpy from PMS, or her nose is brighter than a reindeer’s from a cold?”
“Absolutely,” said Connor without an ounce of hesitation.
Carly turned to her next. “Will you still want him around when he’s lost all his hair and has a paunch, and the only thing he’s racing around is his mobility scooter?”
She giggled again at the mental image of Connor devolving to that level. It was mind-boggling to think about him being old, frail, or out of shape, though she knew there was the possibility existed. That prospect didn’t frighten her, and she answered with confidence when she said, “Of course.”
“Then by the power vested in me by no one ever, I unofficially pronounce you husband and wife, and you may kiss each other all you want. It’s just not legal until tomorrow.”
Connor, being Connor, swept her into his arms for a kiss that would have gone deep and carnal if she hadn’t forced herself to take a step back after the first few seconds.
“And after that step, the celebrant will announce you to the guests, and you’ll walk back down the aisle…” Carly herded them along the last steps of where they would proceed tomorrow before nodding her satisfaction and declaring it was time for dinner.
As the wedding party moved out of the room where they would hold the ceremony and back to the place where the reception would be tomorrow, that was set up for their dinner this evening, she grasped Connor’s hand and pulled him toward the back of the crowd. Once it was just the two of them in the room, she faced him squarely, still holding his hand. “Why did you propose?”
He frowned. “Because I want to marry you.”
She shook her head, frustrated. “But why? What kind of future do you see for us?”
“I don’t really know or care what kind of future we have as long as we’re together.” He lifted a hand to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear before caressing her neck with the same fingers. “As to why I proposed, I thought you knew, but I was afraid you would shy away if I said it so bluntly.”
Her lips felt numb when she licked them. “Said what? What do you feel?”
There wasn’t a hint of insincerity in his expression when he spoke a moment later, his gaze remained firmly fixed to hers. “I love you, Angelina. That’s the only reason I want to marry you. And I can’t wait until tomorrow to find out your answer.”
He patted her cheek very gently before he disengaged his hand from hers and walked out of the room, leaving her to follow a moment later when her legs remembered how to work. Even then, he still wasn’t pressing her for an answer. It was an unexpected turn of events, and she was surprised by his sensitivity and ability to wait for the answer he must surely be dying to hear.
When she took the seat beside him at the table, she already what her answer would be, and though she could have given it to him right then, there was a hint of excitement in the air, and a twinkle in his eyes that indicated he was almost enjoying the anticipation. Deciding to make him suffer a bit longer, though she already knew what she was going to do tomorrow, she flashed him an unreadable smile as she smoothed the napkin over her lap and immersed herself in the conversation going around the table.
It was a lovely night, and other than Brenda’s brooding presence, everything was perfect. Even the annoying woman couldn’t seem to puncture the bubble of happiness that had surrounded her, and she endured her presence with a gracious smile whenever she was forced to acknowledge her.
Angelina was just putting on the finishing touches to her makeup, having decided to tone down the makeup artists’ heavy hand after the other woman had departed, when the door to the dressing room opened, and Brenda stepped inside. She barely bit back a groan, having expected at least one more attempt at meddling from the other woman, but hopeful she would give in gracefully. Ha.
She braced herself as she turned to face her nemesis, giving Brenda a cool stare. “Traditionally, the pre-wedding preparation area is reserved for the people important to the bride, so why are you here?”
“I’m here to give you this.” Brenda marched across the dressing room, and Angelina snorted with disgust when she realized the other woman was wearing a frilly white dress. It wasn’t as long or as intricate as her own Vera Wang design, but it was tacky nonetheless. She should expect nothing less from Brenda, she decided. She was done being tolerant though. This had become her actual wedding day, the first day launching a new life with the man she loved, and she wasn’t going to be upstaged by Brenda.
Before she tackled the subject of the dress though, she indulged her curiosity when Brenda held out an envelope. She slid a fingernail underneath the flap and lifted it with one smooth motion before pulling out a sheaf of papers with a check attached. Her eyes widened at the number of zeros, and it was even more surprising to see her own name written on the “Pay To The Order Of” line. She arched a brow. “And what is this for? I’m certain it isn’t a wedding gift.”
Brenda sneered. “It’s for you to take the money and leave. Your settlement stipulated by the prenup couldn’t possibly be worth what I’m offering you to get out now and not have to bother with a messy divorce. Sign the document promising to leave, and then get out of the city and away from Connor. That’s all you have to do to keep that check. I never see you again, he never sees you again, and you have a big, fat check to deposit. We all live happily ever after.”
Angelina thought about making a grand display of her ire by ripping the check into tiny pieces, but she didn’t have the time for such a gesture. She also figured it would be handy to keep it around to show Connor just what a manipulative beast Brenda really was, because she couldn’t allow the woman to continue to interfere in their future, and she doubted a little thing like a wedding ring and a marriage license would deter Brenda from her pursuit. Only Connor could do that, and he was going to need a dose of reality in order to do so.
Carefully, she put the check and the documents back into the envelope and slipped them into the drawer of the vanity table, making a mental note to herself to move the items as soon as Brenda left, so they could be secured in a safer location where the other woman couldn’t retrieve them. Then she turned back to Brenda.
“That’s enough. If you’re going to maintain any kind of relationship with Connor, who regards you as a sister, you need to accept he and I are getting married and we’re a couple. If you can accept that, there will be a place for you in our lives.” Personally, she hoped it would get to the point where Brenda had to be barred completely, but she was willing to try to get along with the other woman if she actually made a genuine effort to compromise. That seemed unlikely.
Brenda’s mouth gaped open. “Are you telling me you’re not taking that money? It has to be at least twice what you’ll get from a prenup agreement.”
She shook her head. “We don’t actually have a prenuptial agreement, and if we did, I doubt we’d ever need it anyway. We love each other, and you need to accept that. Brenda.” She said it as gently as she could, finding the smallest trace of compassion for the other woman, who though clearly a bitch, seemed to genuinely care about Connor, albeit in a strange way.
Brenda’s lips tightened, and she waved her hands. “Fine, then return it.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’m going to keep it as proof of your troublemaking, and if you don’t rein it in, I’ll have to show Connor. In the meantime, I’d suggest you go change out of the white dress you’re wearing, because it’s tacky and rude as hell to wear white to someone else’s wedding. Close the door behind you.”
Brenda gaped at her like a fish out of water for a moment before she turned on her heel and stormed out with a slam of the door. When the other one woman was gone, she secured the check and documents in a new place and finished getting ready. When the music signaling it was time to walk down the aisle began a few moments later, she was composed and ready, stepping out of the room and walking down the aisle unaccompanied, other than by her bridesmaids.
Kevin wouldn’t have done well with the crowd, and there was no one else to give her away, but she refused to let the day be touched by sadness or longing for her dead father and grandmother. Right now, it was just her, but soon it would be her and Connor, and there would always be Kevin too, though he was finding his own path. That was how it should be, and she was happy he was gaining any degree of independence.
She could practically feel Connor’s relief when she stepped in sight, and she gave him a huge grin. Perhaps she should have found a way to signal him sooner, but she’d make it up to him later that night, on their honeymoon. She felt like she floated down the last few feet, and none of it seemed real until Connor’s hand anchored her against him as he pulled her tight to his side, and they turned to face the celebrant.
The ceremony seemed to zoom by, though bits and pieces stuck out clearly in her mind, and then they were kissing to seal their union. There were no funny words this time, since the celebrant had conducted the entire ritual with proper dignity and decorum before he announced them solemnly to those gathered. As they walked down the aisle together, heading for a brief stop in a side room to sign their marriage license before joining the others in the reception, he lowered his voice for only her ears to hear. “You had me worried there, Angelina.”
Her lips twitched. “Really? I never doubted the answer myself.”
He grinned at her. “You could have given me a hint.”
She chuckled as they stepped into the quiet room, accompanied solely by the celebrant and their two witnesses. “And you didn’t have to rush off yesterday after telling me you loved me. I’d say we’re even.”
He signed first before offering her the pen, and she signed her new name on the marriage license. Angelina trembled when he put his arm around her waist and bent down to press a kiss on her neck before whispering, “We’re starting out on even footing, but I have a feeling I’m going to have a difficult time keeping up with you.”
She laughed again as she stood up and put her arm around her new husband. “Are you kidding me? You’ve raced all around Europe and the US. I’m sure you can keep up with me just fine.”
“My racing days are done. There’s only one lap car I have any interest in following, and that’s you.”
She rolled her eyes. “I told the seamstress this dress made my butt look too big. I was right if you’re mistaking me for a lap car.”
He pulled her in tightly for a big kiss before they joined the others at the reception. “I love you, Angelina Blackwell.”
“I love you too, Connor Blackwell. More than i ever thought possible.”
Together, they entered the reception to a round of applause and were soon seated at the table. It didn’t take her long to realize Brenda’s seat was empty, and she frowned slightly as she bent over casually to ask Connor, “Where is your friend, Brenda?”
He looked briefly uncomfortable and tugged at his ascot for a moment before answering. “It was the strangest thing. I ran into her before the ceremony started, and I asked her why she was wearing white to our wedding, and she told me it was because she was prepared to stand in for you when you didn’t show. She laughed it off like a joke, but I don’t think it was. I made it clear to her that would never be necessary, and I suggested she go home and change. I guess she must’ve taken my advice.”
Interesting. She wondered if that had happened before or after Brenda had offered her the money to disappear, and then decided it didn’t matter. Either way, Connor had put Brenda in her place, and she had done the same to the other woman. Perhaps Brenda had found a streak of graciousness and had given in to the inevitable, deciding to excuse herself from witnessing the marriage to which she was so opposed.
Or maybe she was locked in her house plotting her next move.
It didn’t matter, because she had nothing to fear from Brenda or her machinations.
Connor was her husband, and he loved her, and she had no doubt about that. There was no way either one of them would allow anyone to come between them, and Brenda was no threat. Whether or not she’d accepted that yet, she would have to eventually.
In the meantime, she couldn’t deny a small surge of smugness that Connor had also commented on Brenda’s inappropriate choice to wear white to their wedding. She almost wished she could have seen the other woman’s face, though she had seen more than enough of her to last a lifetime, and she deliberately banished all thoughts of the woman from her wedding day and immersed herself in the joy surrounding them.