Authors: Rachel Branton
Tags: #lds, #Christian, #karen kindgsbury, #Romantic Suspense, #ariana, #Romance, #Suspense, #a bid for love, #clean romance, #dee henderson
Not good. Definitely not good.
was still in bed asleep when Gage knocked on our adjoining door the next morning. “Go away,” I mumbled. Light came in from the curtained windows, but I solved that by smashing the pillow tightly over my head.
We’d played cards until he fell asleep at the table at around four, and I’d had to prod him awake enough to get him back to his room. Surely I couldn’t have been asleep more than a couple hours. What was he thinking?
I heard footsteps into the room. “Tessa?”
He dragged the pillow off my face, and I moaned, pulling the blanket over my eyes instead. What kind of person was he to wake me up so early? No wonder they’d put him in prison.
That thought made me wake up in a hurry. I tentatively opened one eye. “What do you want? What time is it anyway? Five? Six?”
“Ten,” he said dryly.
“Oh.” I opened the other eye. “Checkout’s probably at eleven, isn’t it?”
“Don’t worry, I arranged with Calvin to check out late. They’re used to honeymooners.”
I pulled up the blanket again to hide the flush that crawled over my face. For a blessed few hours I’d forgotten about the wedding fiasco.
“Look, I know you were planning on going to your sister’s, but I have a favor to ask.” His words came so hesitantly that I came out from under the blanket and sat up. I was still dressed in my sweats from the night before. In fact, I hadn’t even brought pajamas. My backpack wasn’t very big, and I’d figured Lily could lend me a pair when I got to her place.
Gage looked like he’d been up for hours. His face was freshly shaved, his hair combed back, and he had on a red button-up shirt that was snug across the chest. Though he was standing near the edge of the bed, I could smell soap and aftershave.
“What favor?” Then I had a thought. “I can’t give you more money.”
“It’s not about the money,” he grated.
“Excuse me. And I thought you were a morning person.”
He clenched his jaw briefly before forcing out, “I’m sorry. It’s just that my sister wants to meet you.”
“My sister wants to meet you,” he repeated. “She keeps calling and calling and calling. She’s rather persistent.”
“Didn’t you tell her it’s all fake?”
“What if the attorney asks her? We don’t know what we’re really up against legally at this point, do we? Besides, Mia wouldn’t approve of faking a marriage.”
“She’s not the only one.” Lily would be worse than upset if I told her.
“So I thought we’d go to Mia’s place in Kingman and stay a night. Let her see you. She has plenty of room, and her house is in a nice area. Peaceful. You’ll like it. Then I could take you to Lily’s in Phoenix, or get you a ride. I was able to take a few personal days off work, but I’ll have to get back soon. Mia won’t know we’re not going to Flagstaff together. She doesn’t visit me there. I usually go see her.” He rubbed his chin, and I wondered if he was thinking about his lost beard. “Sorry about the inconvenience. It would have been better if Mia hadn’t heard about this.”
“Uh, that might be my fault. Remember those ladies at the restaurant? Well, they didn’t want my autograph.”
“They were from Kingman. They recognized you.”
His brow furrowed. “What’d they say?”
Oh, no. I wasn’t going into that whole poker thing. If he didn’t know the exact rumor going around, I wasn’t going to be the one to enlightened him. “Nothing important, but I did mention we were getting married.”
He stared at me as if trying to read my mind, and I shifted uncomfortably.
“Sorry. I bet if you hadn’t shaved for the wedding, they wouldn’t have recognized you.”
“Probably not. My face is rather famous in Kingman.”
“I told you already. I served time.”
“You weren’t joking?”
He sighed, and the sadness in his expression hurt my heart. “Believe me, it’s not something I’d ever joke about. I’ve worked hard to put that all behind me, but some people won’t let it go.”
I was beginning to suspect he’d accidentally hurt someone in self-defense, and I wondered if he’d ever trust me enough to confide the details. Normally my mouth would ignore my brain and demand the whole story, but he was saved because I wasn’t yet fully awake.
“Please come to my sister’s with me,” he said. “We won’t see anyone else. I don’t have any friends there.”
He blinked at me. “Okay?”
“Yeah. I mean, why not. You did me a favor, so I’ll do you one. I haven’t talked to Lily yet, anyway. She doesn’t know anything except what my mother may have told her.” I reached over to the night stand and retrieved my phone, pressing the on button. “I’m sure she’s called and e-mailed, and texted, and Facebooked, and probably even Twittered.”
“She’s bored since she had to quit her job. Yep, I have thirty-five missed calls. More than half are probably from her.” My mother, Julian, Sadie, and even my father would make up the remainder.
“I see.” There was a smile on his lips again, and I was glad.
Tossing down the phone, I stood and walked over to him. “I like you without the beard.” The light was bright enough to see the scars on his cheek. “Bet it itches less.”
“You got that right.”
Though there was no change of tone, I sensed unhappiness in the words. Was he thinking of Kingman and everything he’d left behind? I wanted to ask about his fiancée, but the hard line of his mouth forbade me.
It’s none of my business,
I told myself.
“What will we tell your sister?” I asked.
“I think sticking as close to the truth as possible will be best. You know, we were together with Serenity, and you realized you couldn’t go through with your wedding, and one thing led to another, and here we are.”
Somehow I didn’t think it would be that easy in practice. “Okay, give me a few minutes, and I’ll be ready.”
Gage headed toward the door. “How about I get you breakfast while you dress? Don’t worry about looking fancy. Mia’s not big on fashion.”
I hadn’t been worried in the least until he’d said something. Did that mean he wanted me to look nice? Was there something he wasn’t telling me? Did he have some secret rivalry with his sister? Why didn’t men just spit it out?
I glared at the door after it had closed. Well, I wasn’t getting all dressed up—so there! I would have to wear my nice black pants because my comfortable jeans were dirty, and the blue top with the black pinstripes only because it matched the pants, not because it made my waist look smaller and my hair less orange.
After I changed, I called Mark Carson, the attorney, to talk about my inheritance. “I received your e-mail a few hours ago,” Mark said, sounding a little stiff. “Your mother called me as well. Needless to say, I was a little surprised that you, uh, changed course so abruptly.”
“Me, too,” I admitted. “But yesterday I realized Julian wasn’t the right man for me. Better before marriage than after, I always say.” The lump I’d felt in my stomach since the day before had turned bitter.
“Well, congratulations.” His voice warmed considerably. “Your husband is a lucky man. You make a nice couple, though I would never tell that to your mother.”
I laughed. Could it be this easy? “Thank you. What I need to know is how soon can I obtain my funds? I’d like to help my sister, and you know how my mother is. She’s not at all happy right now.”
“No, she isn’t, but it was your choice, wasn’t it? As for the trust fund, there are only a few formalities we have to go through. I’ll need copies of the marriage license and certificate and all relevant information. I can obtain all that on my own, which will take longer, or you can send me what you have.”
“No problem. I’ll send it right away. There isn’t a waiting period for the trust fund, is there?”
“Not unless someone contests the validity of the marriage, which is supposed to have been entered into in good faith. Your grandfather figured if you were old enough to get married, you’d be old enough to handle your own funds.”
That made me feel guilty, even though I would have come into the inheritance anyway if I married Julian tomorrow as planned. In my book, good faith could mean a lot of things. Thankfully, I wasn’t required to produce an heir.
“Great. I’ll send you what I have,” I told Mark. I hadn’t seen the marriage certificate, but Gage probably had it.
“You sure everything’s okay?”
I laughed. “Of course. I’m actually heading over to Gage’s sister’s house right now. Lot of catching up to do. She’s not happy about the eloping thing, but hopefully we won’t have to stay too long and can leave for our honeymoon.”
“Well, I’ll keep you apprised of how it’s going with the funds.”
“Thanks.” I hung up feeling happier than I had since Sadie had broken the news about Julian.
I’d almost repacked my few belongings when Gage came in with several Styrofoam take-out containers in a paper bag. “How do you feel about pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream?” He smiled as he hefted a drink container. “And hot chocolate.”
“My favorite!” I grabbed the containers, feeling ravenous. Truth was, I didn’t often get up in time to eat breakfast, but pancakes were always at the top of my list when I did.
He watched me dig into the food.
“Aren’t you having any?” I asked, my mouth full.
“I ate earlier.”
He grimaced. “Donuts, actually. But I remembered you saying you liked—” He broke off in mid sentence. “Calvin says to leave the borrowed dresses in the closet, and they’ll take care of them. Is there anything I can help you with?”
“I didn’t bring much, I’m afraid. I’d better get my funds soon or I might get awfully sick of these clothes.”
“Won’t your mother send your things?”
“I don’t know. I might have to appear on her doorstep during one of her parties so she’ll have to let me in for the sake of saving face. Though with the embarrassment I’ve caused her this weekend, even that might not work. I should have planned better.”
“You might be right about that.” His eyes lowered to my blouse, and I followed his gaze to see a large splotch of strawberries. I sighed and began to clean it up with the napkin, which promptly fell to pieces, leaving bits of paper on my blouse.
Gage busied himself grabbing my backpack and didn’t meet my gaze, but I could tell inside he was laughing. I peeked in the bathroom to make sure I hadn’t left anything. The cheap band glinted on the sink counter, and after hesitating a few seconds, I slipped it on.
My phone rang as I rejoined Gage, and I reached for it, instinctively checking the caller ID. Lily again. “I’ll meet you downstairs,” I told Gage, clicking the answer button. He nodded and left the room, not closing the door after him.
“Tessa!” Lily screamed in my ear. “What are you doing? Mom e-mailed me some pictures—which goes to show how crazy she is right now. She has never returned any of my e-mails since I left home. Did you really elope? I can’t believe it! I mean, you said you were having doubts about Julian, but who is this guy? Mom thinks he’s some stranger you picked up to get at your trust fund, which she’s blaming on me, by the way. If you can believe that. I—”
She rambled on, and I held the phone away from my ringing ear until the torrent of words ceased. “Yes, Lily, to all your questions, except Gage isn’t a stranger. I met him months and months ago while riding Serenity.”
“Oh, thank heaven! I couldn’t live with myself if you married someone just for me. That would be worse than marrying Julian. You look so happy in that picture where he’s kissing you. What a kiss! You can tell he’s totally gone on you. He’s got that dazed look. And he’s so hot. Makes Julian look like a prissy little school boy. I bet he loves the outdoors like you do. So where are you two going now?” She gasped. “Oh, you’re on your honeymoon. I’m so sorry! Are you in some fabulous place?”
I was holding the phone away from my ear again, but not so far that I couldn’t hear every word. Now what? Did I tell her the truth? An ache pulsed in my temples, and I rubbed the left one in an effort to alleviate the pain.
“Look, Lily. I’ll have to call you back later. We’re on our way somewhere right now. But I’ll come see you soon, okay? I’ll tell you everything.”
“You’d better. I’m bored to death sitting here, but that’s the only way I keep anything down. This baby had better appreciate all this sacrifice.”
When she talked like that, it made me wonder how our mother had made it through two entire pregnancies. I remembered her being in bed while expecting Lily, so maybe I’d been adopted.
“I really have to go, Lily.”
“Okay, okay, but I’m so happy for you! This guy looks like a keeper. And did I say he’s hot? Plus, maybe you can be yourself around him.”
“I love you, too,” I said and hung up, feeling worse than I had before the call.
The phone rang again, and I answered it quickly. “Lily, I told you I—”
“Is this true? Did you go and marry someone else? Tess, I don’t understand.” His use of my nickname made me feel faint. “Please, talk to me. Why are you doing this? Better yet, tell me where you are, and I’ll come and get you. Whatever it is you’ve done, I love you, and we can work it out.”
Whatever it was I had done? I would have laughed if it didn’t feel as though he were stabbing me in the heart.
“Talk to Sadie,” I said, having to force out each word. “She’s the one who told me.”
“I have talked to Sadie. Honey, you can’t believe her. She’s had it out for me since I didn’t want you to go to that concert with her in San Diego earlier this year. She’s jealous, that’s all. I promise you.”
My knees were feeling weak, so I sat abruptly in the chair behind me, nearly missing it altogether. I wanted to believe him. Tears squeezed from my eyes.
As if sensing my weakness, he rushed on. “Whatever Sadie imagined happened, it was in her own mind. Sure, women flirt with me, but there was never anything inappropriate. You have to believe me.”