Tell Me No Lies (7 page)

He put his hand on my arm, pulling me close. “Let’s do another. I can show you some moves.” His body pressed against my side, sending a shudder of fear through me.

I tugged my arm but couldn’t break free. “I don’t want to dance. Please, leave me alone.” Around us everyone went blithely about their business, not glancing our way or noticing my dilemma, and I realized he could do anything he wanted to me in this crowd. I jabbed my elbow hard into his stomach.

His face grew dark. “Why, you little—”

Whatever he’d been going to say was cut off as Gage stepped between us. “Sorry for taking so long.”

Eddie glared at Gage, but Gage smiled blandly. “I’m Gage. Are you a friend of Tessa’s?” Gage put a possessive arm around me.

With another black look, Eddie stalked away.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You should choose your dance partners a little more carefully.”

So he’d seen me dancing. “What I need is to learn self-defense.”

He laughed. “That elbow thing was really good.”

“Is your sister okay?”

The smile faded. “She’s fine.”

“Why’d she call?” I wondered if he’d even tell me. Every time I asked a personal question, he somehow directed it back to me.

“She heard I was getting married.”

“What? From whom?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen anyone I know except Calvin since we got here, and he wouldn’t tell her.”

Guilt struck me. That left only the little old vultures—ladies. No doubt they’d spent the past few hours on the phone spreading gossip. Which meant his sister probably still lived in Kingman.

“We’d better get out of here.” Gage checked the time on his cell. “Not much time to get dressed.”

My stomach did a flip-flop that left me feeling queasy. “Right.”

“We should call a taxi.”

“Let’s walk instead. If we get tired, we’ll stop and call. It really wasn’t as far away as Calvin said.” When he hesitated, I added, “Please.”

“Okay.”

We strolled along the brightly lit boulevard. Music, laughter, people all around. The Las Vegas strip. We were two people in a crowd, enjoying the nightlife. Strangely, I didn’t want to share this moment with anyone else.

“I think we need to turn here,” Gage said.

As the lights and noise slowly died away, it happened. Running steps, a figure coming at us, the silver flash of a knife.

In a blur of limbs, Gage reacted. He stepped to the side, grabbed the attacker’s arm, and twisted it behind him. He pushed, forcing the man down onto the sidewalk, holding him there with a hand and a foot. It all happened so fast I barely had time to become scared.

“Looks like your friend from the club doesn’t want to take no for an answer.” Gage pulled the guy’s arm up farther and removed the switchblade from his hand, closing and pocketing it. “I’m going to let you up,” he said, “but I’m keeping your knife. If you don’t leave immediately, I’ll use it. I promise you that.”

Eddie grunted in pain. “Okay. I’ll go.”

Gage released him, but the minute Eddie was on his feet, he rushed Gage, murder in his eyes. In a blink, Gage slammed his fist into the taller man’s stomach, followed by another punch to the face. When he whipped out the switchblade, Eddie fled.

Gage watched to make sure he was gone before turning back to me. “You all right?”

I nodded.

“Shut your mouth, the flies are getting in.” He sounded amused.

I snapped my mouth shut, only to open it again. “Where’d you learn that?” A man who could fight like that could clearly do a lot of damage if he tried. He wouldn’t even need a poker.

“A bit in the army. I was there a year or two. But mostly in prison.” His smile was gone, and without it his face looked bleak and more youthful, unsure. Seeing my quickly blanked expression, he winked.

Stop with the joking!
I wanted to yell, but I didn’t feel I had the right. After all, he was the one doing me a favor.

“Well, it’s a good thing you did,” I said, purposely keeping my voice light. “He was a really bad dancer.”

Gage laughed. “Just when I think I have you pegged, you surprise me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. I had fun tonight—dancing, dinner. All of it.”

“So did I.” I put my hand in his, and he tightened his fingers over mine. I found myself wishing we didn’t have to go back to the hotel at all, that we could keep on walking and walking. Or maybe find a park and swing and watch the stars. The night would never, ever end. I would never have to remember that I was a woman betrayed, a woman marrying without love for reasons that didn’t seem so important anymore.

Lily, what should I do?

We kept on walking until we reached the hotel.

 

* * *

 

When Avery was finished with me, I looked like a real bride. My mother couldn’t have done any better with all her high-priced hairdressers and seamstresses. Avery had fixed my hair again because it’d come loose at the night club, but she didn’t pull it as tight. Curls softened my face, and in the light my hair looked almost blond instead of orange, which always put me in a good mood.

Downstairs a group of people loitered in the lobby. A few gave me admiring looks, and I felt so grateful that I almost invited them to the wedding. Fake friends were better than no friends. But Avery hustled me down the hall to the chapel, whose narrow double doors were wide open. Raised voices leaked out.

“I don’t want her to know anything. I know what I’m doing.”

“I could get in trouble.”

“You owe me. I don’t like it any more than you do, but I won’t see her hurt. I may not ever be able to tell her, but I care about her a great deal.”

The first voice was Gage’s and he was talking to Calvin, but they couldn’t possibly be discussing me. Nope. Not me. Because Gage couldn’t hurt me. I didn’t love him, and I wasn’t about to love anyone else, either. If I ever did get married for real, the man would have to prove himself beyond any doubt. Like that could ever happen. A man was a man after all. His entire gender was suspect.

Thanks to Julian.

Here I was all dressed up for a wedding, and my real fiancé wasn’t here. Funny how much it still hurt—like a fresh wound every time I thought about it.

“It wouldn’t take much more adjusting after,” Calvin said. “Just a few forms.”

“My name is sullied, and I won’t let that touch her.” Gage’s voice was devoid of expression now, except maybe a faint disgust.

Who were they talking about? Then I remembered the old women at the restaurant saying something about Gage once having a fiancée, the one who hadn’t spoken for a year after his supposed conviction. I felt relief that the conversation had nothing to do with me.

Avery was staring at my face with a frightened look as though she believed what we’d heard would make me change my mind about marrying Gage, but I had the paper he’d signed earlier, and I was going through with it. Lifting my chin, I smiled at Avery before sweeping into the room.

The conversation cut off, and I heard Gage draw in a swift breath. A real smile hovered on his lips, and his green eyes were brilliant. “You look—” He stopped and cleared his voice, which had gone hoarse. “You look amazing.”

No one had ever told me that before—especially not someone who was as drop-dead gorgeous as Gage was at that moment. The cut of the tux accentuated his broad shoulders and the squareness of his jaw. The black made him seem rich and mysterious.

“Do you have rings?” Calvin asked.

My eyes shot to Gage’s in consternation. “Ah, no, we haven’t had time.”

“No worries,” Calvin said. “We have these little bands we use in a pinch.” He proffered a small box filled with cheap gold-painted metal rings, a far cry from the lovely ring I’d left at home. “Each of you choose your size and then trade so you can put them on during the ceremony.”

Blindly, I did as he asked, passing the little band to Gage and taking his in return.

“Smile for the camera!” Avery had ducked behind a fancy digital camera standing on a tripod.

I smiled as Gage took my arm, a shiver sliding through me at his touch. This wasn’t going to be hard. I could handle it.

I was wrong.

Before I was ready, Calvin pulled out a book, rattled off a few words, and pronounced us man and wife. “You may kiss the bride.”

 I hadn’t thought that far ahead, and now I tried not to panic. To my relief, we exchanged a chaste little peck that had Calvin smirking at me like he knew a secret.

Blame it on the late hour, the magic of the show we’d seen, the adrenaline from the dance and the subsequent attack—whatever the reason, I gave it another shot. Gage started in surprise, but he kissed me back. His lips were firm and yet molded perfectly to mine, and his arms wrapped around me like a familiar blanket. He smelled of spice and something uniquely his own. Emotion arrowed through my chest, though I’d been determined never to feel anything for a man again.

This close, I could see a pattern of thin scars covering his left cheek, the largest disappearing into his hairline. I wondered how they’d come about—but I couldn’t wonder long because the kiss was taking most of my energy. My heart pounded so violently, I wondered if Avery could hear it across the room.

When at last we separated, I felt stunned. Is that what a kiss was supposed to feel like? If so, Julian and I weren’t very good at it.

In a daze, I let Gage lead me to the door, where Avery handed me a CD of the pictures.

Then it was over and we were back in my room. No family, no wedding celebration, no exchanges of real vows, no more earth-shattering kisses or whispered endearments. I took shallow breaths so I wouldn’t cry. This was not how it was supposed to be. I felt as if something inside me had died just when it had started to live.

“Well.” Gage glanced at the door to his adjoining room, and I wondered if he wanted to escape.

“I’ll call the attorney in the morning,” I said.

“They have Internet here. You can send pictures to him and your family, if you’d like.”

“Good idea. I’ll do it right now.” I’d send them to my mother, but not to Lily. I needed to decide how much I would tell her. She might worry herself into a miscarriage if I said I did it for her.

“Need help?” Gage asked.

My hands were shaking as I tugged my laptop from my backpack, so I let him put in the disk and bring up the pictures. Most were bad, but Avery had succeeded in taking a few exceptional ones.

“Do you care which pictures?”

I shook my head and then almost changed my mind when he chose one of us kissing. It was one of the better pictures; Avery had waited for exactly the right moment, and we looked as if we were in love.

He studied my face when we finished sending the e-mail. He opened his mouth to say something, but all that came out was, “Well.”

“Well,” I repeated. A sort of hysterical laughter bubbled up inside me as I thought of us staring at each other all night saying, “Well.”

“I guess we’d better change.” He strode to the adjoining door, yawning. “Let me know if you need anything.”

“Okay.”

The minute I was alone, the tears started to fall. I hugged myself and cried until I was afraid I would ruin the wedding dress. Still sobbing, I went into the bathroom, and when I’d finally managed to unzip and rid myself of the gown, I stood staring into the mirror, crying.

I hate you, Julian! I hate you!
I screamed in my head.
This is all your fault.
But in reality I hated myself. I’d been the one to trust him. I’d been the one to fall in so easily with what everyone had wanted for me.

What if now I’d made another huge mistake? Marriage wasn’t something to fool around with, especially with someone I didn’t know that well. What if he tore up our contract, and I disappeared in some remote place in the desert? How much money would he get then? I had no idea.

Oddly enough, the idea made me smile. Gage wouldn’t hurt me. I knew that much.

The fact remained that I’d looked forward to my wedding my entire life, and now I felt as if I’d lost something infinitely precious. The cheap ring still on my finger mocked me.

Too late now. Tomorrow, I’d be okay, but tonight I was going to throw myself on my bed and cry myself to sleep. Ripping the ring from my finger, I aimed toward the trash but stopped at the last moment, placing it instead on the sink. I might need it yet.

No sooner was I in bed than a knock came from Gage’s connecting door. “What?” I called, annoyed at the interruption in my pity fest.

“Can I come in?”

I knew my face was a red, blotchy mess, but it made little difference. I pulled on a pair of sweats and opened the door, leaving off the light in the hope that my grief wouldn’t be too noticeable.

Gage took one look at me and pushed his way into the room, flipping on the lights, but when he spoke, he didn’t mention my condition. “You said you were a night owl, so look what I found.” He held out a pack of cards, and I noticed he still wore his cheap band. “Wanna play?”

Suddenly I did. I nodded, squinting at him. “Prepare to lose.” My voice was low and unsteady, but maybe he didn’t notice.

“In your dreams.” He sat at the table and shuffled the cards like a pro. I was glad he’d looked away from my ruined face.

“I’ll be back.” I fled into the bathroom and gazed into the mirror. I looked worse than I’d thought, and I was glad Gage hadn’t made any snide comments. Not only was my face red and blotchy, it was smeared with mascara, and the false eye lashes were half off. Turning on the water, I began washing my face. I felt a lot better when I emerged.

Playing cards wasn’t exactly the way I had planned to spend my wedding night, but it beat crying alone in that huge bed—especially when I didn’t feel a bit tired. Besides, by tomorrow or the next week, I wouldn’t be married anymore. This would all be over as if it had never happened, and I would have the money my grandfather would have already given me if he hadn’t died.

“It’s your turn.” There was a gentleness in Gage’s expression, a kindness that took me by surprise though it somehow seemed natural on his rugged face.

My mind drifted to that fabulous kiss.

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