My Darling Bride: Chapter 10

EMMY

“Emmy, I’m sorry to interrupt, but your family is here and our shipment of dark roast hasn’t arrived and we need to clean since the maintenance person quit—what’s going on here?” Babs says as Graham rises to his feet and brushes his pants off.

Her eyes bug out. “Wait. D-did you just get engaged? Right here? Right now?”

“Um, yes?” I smile.

She has the reaction I expect. She drops the cupcake she was holding. Then her face crumples as if the entire world has imploded, her tears spilling over. She boo-hoos in full-on Babs style with her entire body.

“Y-you minx,” she says to me once she’s gotten a good breath and wiped her face. “Pretending you barely knew him, and all the while . . . congratulations!”

“Thank you,” I say dryly.

“I’m so happy to have you as part of our family!” she tells Graham as she rushes forward and tackles him in a bear hug. He staggers back as she plants a kiss on each of his cheeks, smearing them with pink.

His eyes meet mine over her shoulders, and I lift mine. Babs is just Babs.

She pops him on the arm. “You wily fox! You seemed so blasé earlier when you asked about Emmy, pretending like you didn’t know her. How long has this been going on? Wait. Is there a secret baby? Please say yes!”

“No,” I say with a groan, and she harrumphs in disappointment.

Meanwhile Graham has leaned back against the counter, all casual, smirking. The devil is smiling like he just won the lottery.

“So how did you two meet?” she asks, eyes lit up with delight.

“Now that’s a story. I’ll let Emmy tell you,” Graham drawls, and I send him a glare. Really? What’s the plan?

She grabs my hand and peers at the ring. “But first . . . I love diamonds. They symbolize love and commitment—”

It dawns on me what she said when she came in the door. I interrupt her. “Did you say Jane and Andrew are here?”

“Yep,” Babs says as she slips my ring off and tries it on her finger.

“Shit,” I mutter under my breath, just as Andrew and Jane sweep into the kitchen.

Here we go . . .

Londyn squeals when she sees me. “E, e, e, e!”

“Hello, my love,” I call out with my arms open as Jane waltzes toward me. She hands her over to me, and I tug her close as the world settles on its axis.

Andrew is staring at his phone as he goes for the pomegranate tea, pours himself a cup, grabs a croissant, then does a quick hop to sit on the counter. “Hey, Emmy, how was your day?” he murmurs absently without glancing at us.

“Oh, you know, this and that, the usual,” I reply.

Jane pulls out a bowl from the cabinet and mixes together some microwavable pasta baby food. “We thought we’d meet you here for dinner, since you said you had to work late. The stove isn’t working anyway.” She gives me one of her rare smiles. “Londyn saw the store from across the street and started chanting your name.”

“Good girl. She knows where I work.” I rub our noses together. “And she knows Magic is here somewhere.”

As if on cue, the black cat appears in the kitchen and pounces on a piece of crust Andrew drops for him. Londyn jabbers at him, and he watches her warily. They had a bit of a tussle last night when she yanked on his half tail. He hissed and ran straight to my bed and got under the covers.

Jane pauses enough to notice Graham, who’s currently talking to Babs a few feet away.

She cocks her head. “He looks familiar. Handsome. One of your book guys?” she asks.

“No.”

She shuts the door to the microwave and hits the power button. “And he is . . .”

I can’t make myself say the words. “He’s my . . .”

“Fiancé,” Graham murmurs as he eases next to me. He must have been listening.

Butterflies dance wildly in my stomach when he wraps an arm around my waist. A nervous laugh comes from me. “Oh wow, just like that, you told them, honey bunny. I see, well, um, okay, guys, this is Graham, and he just proposed to me. Isn’t that awesome?”

Crickets. The silence, the shock, is palpable.

“I think it’s wonderful!” Babs says.

I lean into him, gazing up with what I hope is a rapturous expression. Londyn, on the other side of me, looks at him with intensity. “Graham, this is Jane and Andrew, and the little one is Londyn, Jane’s daughter. Remember me telling you about them? My sister is a model, and Andrew goes to NYU.” Catch up. This is the Darling Family 101.

“Hi, it’s good to meet you. Emmy talks about you guys all the time,” Graham lies smoothly as Babs shows a shell-shocked Jane the ring—that she’s still wearing.

Andrew drops his pastry midbite on the floor and walks over to us as if in a daze. He blinks as he rakes his gaze over my fiancé. Then back to me. Then back to Graham.

There’s a comical look on his face. “Graham Harlan? What the fuck? You want to marry my sister?”

“I’m right here, and language,” I hiss.

“Fu, fu, fu,” Londyn squeals as she jumps up and down in my arms.

“See what you did,” I tell Andrew. “She knows when it’s a bad word.”

Andrew lets out a laugh, half amazement, half awe. “But . . .” He glances at me. “You’re marrying the best tight end in the country. He’s All-Pro. His team won the Super Bowl.”

“She’s lucky she found me. My little thief,” Graham says with a glint in his eyes.

I boop him on the nose. “Of your heart, honey bunny.”

Babs sighs, smiling. “Oh look, they’re so cute.”

Jane takes Londyn from me and makes a scoffing sound. “I didn’t know you were dating anyone.” The subtext is clear: You just broke up with Kian! What the fuck?

The microwave dings, saving me from a reply. Babs has already pulled out the high chair we keep in the kitchen, and Jane moves to get Londyn settled.

“Um, well, you see . . .” My voice is breathless. Sure, I acted my ass off at the Golden Iguana, but this is my family I’m lying to.

“We met in Vegas,” Graham finishes.

Andrew frowns. “But you went to Vegas because of Kian. You were going to a wedding.”

I say the first thing that comes to mind. “Right, of course, then everything happened, and thankfully Graham, er, saw me upset outside the Bellagio. We’d met previously, at some event Kian took me to, and he offered to give me a ride in his Lamborghini.”

“You said you took a taxi to Arizona,” Jane says.

“Hmm, well, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to talk about Graham because . . .” I trail off, and he finishes.

“Because it felt so new, almost too good to be true.”

Jane searches my face, as if looking for a lie. “So you went from one football player to another?”

“I like the way they look?”

Babs grins and gives me a high five. “Same, girl, same!”

Graham picks up the story. “She wanted to get out of town. I’d just gotten my car and wanted a road trip, so . . .”

“We drove to Arizona and stayed at a place called the Golden Iguana. The place was full of scorpions, wasn’t it, honey bunny?” I smile.

He shrugs. “You were so terrified. Poor thing.”

“Well. I killed one.”

He nods sagely, laughter in his eyes. “You’re very brave, darling.”

“Thank you, honey bunny. So are you,” I say adoringly.

“And?” Jane asks, looking at us. “What else?”

Graham smirks, then: “Well, Emmy was crazy about me from the get-go. Apparently, she’d had a huge crush on me for years. I could hardly drive for her wanting to kiss me. We got to the motel, and she sent me out to buy cherry—”

I elbow him as I force a chuckle. “What? Stop that. No need to go into detail. Basically, we went swimming, we checked out the bar, and there was a little gas station where we loaded up on champagne. Not exactly the Four Seasons.”

“This sounds like a Hallmark movie,” Babs says with her hand over her heart.

Jane snorts. “Why do you like those awful things?”

Babs sniffs. “Maybe they’re predictable, but I like happy endings.”

“Not everyone gets a happy ending in real life,” Jane replies.

“Well, Emmy and Graham are,” Babs retorts, clearly miffed that Jane isn’t buying into her happy-ending love affair. “Freddy and I had a wonderful marriage, and he was taken too soon. The same for your gran.”

Jane’s face tightens. Number one, this is a total shock to her, and number two, she’s been down on love ever since her boyfriend dumped her.

“Then there was the guy, remember, darling?” Graham says, ignoring Jane much better than I am. “Fake Clint, your little nickname for him. He tried to hit on you, and I was jealous, and then you got between us and yanked me into the room like a wild woman. I wouldn’t have hurt him too bad. I don’t want to go to prison, after all. What was that word you used? ‘Carnage’? Yes. You didn’t want me to create carnage.”

“You are the jealous type,” I reply sweetly.

“It sounds weird to me,” Jane says, her eyes darting from me to Graham. “Almost as if you’re making it up on the spot. Also, I don’t see how she’d had a crush on you for years when she doesn’t follow sports. Totally not her style.”

Graham blinks. “Believe it or not, truth is stranger than fiction. Someone stole my Lamborghini—”

“Which was fine, because you didn’t need that car,” I say, interrupting him. “It’s a gas guzzler and entirely too expensive. Do you know what other things you could do with that kind of money?”

Graham’s hand slides under my hair to the nape of my neck as he brushes his fingers over my skin. “Oh, but I didn’t care. I just love beautiful things.” He presses his nose to my hair. “Like you,” he whispers.

I swallow.

“So you were there when Kian tracked her phone to the motel?” Andrew asks Graham.

Graham turns to my brother. “Yes. I drove her to the airport.”

“But your car was stolen . . . ,” Andrew says.

I roll my eyes. “What he meant was he called an Uber and rode with me. I mean, it was the plan all along for me to fly home.”

Andrew seems to accept our story as he grasps Graham’s hand and pumps it, then proceeds to tell him how he was thrilled when Graham got traded to New York.

Jane feeds Londyn a bite of mac and cheese. Londyn, who’s been darting her eyes from one person to the next and is probably understanding all of it because she’s a little genius, grabs the spoon to do it herself, smearing pasta all over her face.

I laugh at her, and she grins and slaps the high chair.

But Jane isn’t distracted. “So basically, you reconnected in Vegas, then went to a random motel in the desert, had an argument with some man named Clint, and now you’re engaged? Sorry. It’s nice to meet you, Graham, but Emmy, this is not normal for you.”

Andrews makes a humming noise. “Emmy can be odd.”

“What? Give me an example,” I say. “And remember, I’ve seen you bite your own toenails as a toddler.”

“Gross,” Babs says as she makes a gagging noise. “I can find you a self-help book for that.”

“I don’t do it now!” He points at me. “Emmy only eats broccoli when it’s flat. You smash it with your fork until it’s like a pancake, then stick it in your mouth. Same for cauliflower and potatoes. It takes you an hour to eat.”

“They tickle the top of my mouth,” I say as I nudge my head at Jane. “Jane puts pepper on her ice cream.” I direct my eyes at Andrew. “I have a list of weird stuff you did as a kid, so shut it.”

“Like what?” he asks.

Jane smirks. “Oh, you’ve done it now, Tiny. Ma never forgets.”

“For one, you ate toilet paper like it was chocolate.”

“It was clean, at least,” he mutters.

“Two, you also ate Bubbles the goldfish. You put your little hand in the fishbowl and gulped him down before I could stop you.”

Jane gasps. “You told me Bubbles was different because he lost weight!”

I sigh. “No, I just bought a new fish for you, Jane.”

She shakes her head. “And you never told me?”

“Sorry. I replaced Bubbles every three months like clockwork because Andrew was addicted to eating raw fish. Shall I continue? There’s the time you stripped down and ran around naked in the children’s section of the store—”

He holds his hand up. “All right. I’ve heard enough. You are completely normal. Cross my heart.”

“Well, the broccoli doesn’t make her odd, but a sudden marriage does,” Jane retorts. “What event was it where you met Graham, the one where you were with Kian?”

Graham squeezes my fingers. “It was, um, a charity ball.”

Finally, he comes through with an original idea.

Jane snorts. “Kian at a charity ball. No way. The only person he cared about was himself.”

Graham deflects like a pro. “I understand you’re worried about your sister, especially after Kian, but I’d never hurt her . . .” He turns to me and tucks a piece of hair behind my hear. “She is too precious. Just when you least expect to find the woman of your dreams, there she is, right in front of you . . .”

Cheesy. I roll my eyes so only he can see them.

Jane’s lips tighten, her gaze darting to Graham and then me. “It would be nice if you’d let us in on these things, Emmy.”

“It was sudden, yes, I know,” I say, deciding to stick close to the truth. “I didn’t expect Graham to propose. Actually”—I sigh dramatically—“he asked me a few days ago at the bar. I told him I had to think about it. And I have. This is the best thing . . .” That could come out of this particular situation.

I hesitate to mention that he’s bought the store until we can figure out the details. I don’t want any more questions to arise.

Graham smiles as his eyes sweep the room with the look of someone who is a little on edge and preparing to exit. “It’s been great to meet you guys, but I have to go. I’m sure I’ll see you all soon.”

“Running off already?” Jane says. “Not surprised. Her guys never last long.”

“Don’t be so weird,” Andrew mutters at her.

“He’s a stranger,” Jane hisses under her breath, but we all hear her.

Graham and I keep walking as he escorts me to the door.

“Is there a date for this wedding?” Jane calls out behind us, her tone prickly.

He glances down at me. “As soon as possible. We’re thinking a week.”

I inhale a sharp breath as Jane puts her hands on her hips and shakes her head. “No freaking way. That’s . . . she doesn’t even have a dress. She hasn’t prepared anything. What’s the rush?”

I give her a reassuring smile. “It’ll be okay. Be right back,” I say with a wave as we leave the kitchen.

“A week?” I mutter as soon as we’re out the door and into the store. “Are you crazy?”

“Yes. Fast. Before you change your mind. Or I change mine. None of this makes me happy. And your sister is a pit bull.”

“She needs to be questioning this. I raised her well.”

Mina sees us coming out from the kitchen and rushes over. “I wondered where you two went. You’re both pale as paper. What’s up?”

Whoa. I’d completely forgotten about her.

“I asked Emmy to marry me, and she said yes.” He’s got the robot voice again.

“Oh! I-I didn’t know it was so serious. Congratulations!” She tries to hide her shock as she gives us hugs.

Eventually, after nodding my head and saying things I don’t mean or won’t recall later because all I can think about is a week, I tell them that I’ve got to finish closing the store.

First, I walk them outside and inhale the night air. People bustle past us on the busy sidewalk. Mina tells us she’s heading out to meet a friend for dinner, and it’s just me and Graham left on the street.

He scrubs his face, his eyes tired as he watches her leave. “That was harder than I thought. Good job in there. Are you okay?”

“No. I don’t like lying to my family. Things tend to come apart when people lie. It turns into a tangled mess.”

“I get that, but if one person suggests our marriage isn’t real, then the inheritance might not come through for Brody. My half brother, Holden, is a lawyer, and he’ll be suspicious. You can’t tell anyone, not even your brother and sister. Promise me?”

I nod.

“Eventually you’ll have to meet my family and prove to them that we’re in love—not something I’m looking forward to.” He tips my chin up. “How’s the nose?”

“It’s fine—wait, are those calla lilies?” I ask as I walk to a bouquet of about two dozen flowers leaning against the brick of the store beneath the window display. I pick them up, my fingers stroking the beautiful creamy-white trumpet-shaped petals. A yellow spike with tiny flowers is in the middle of the petals. The scent wafts, sweet and delicate, and memories of Gran wash over me. Out of all the lilies, she’d say, this one is the most fragrant, the most elegant, the hardest to find. She carried them at her wedding. She wanted them at her funeral. Mark, my grandfather, bought her a bouquet each month. He died before I was born, but she’d still bought lilies each month.

“Who do they belong to? Is there a card?”

I shuffle through the flowers, a cold feeling settling in my chest. “No, but Kian must have left them for me. He knows they were Gran’s favorite—and mine. Ugh.”

I hurl the bouquet to the ground, anger and fear mixing together, over Kian, over this fake marriage and lying to my family. Jane knows something is up, and I hate not telling her the truth.

Why did I steal that damn car?

“So much has happened, so fast . . .” My chest rises rapidly, and tears prick my eyelids. I’m supposed to avoid stress with my heart issues, but with everything going on, it feels impossible. “I’m sorry for being emotional, but . . .”

“Hey, Emmy . . .” Graham pulls me into his embrace, and I fall into him. It’s the sort of comfort I haven’t experienced in months. My worries slip away for a moment. Maybe because we’re in this predicament together.

Moments pass as my heart settles. I’m not sure how long we stay like that, but it feels as if I’ve been here before, my face tucked against his chest. His hand runs softly through my hair.

When we finally break apart, the warmth of his proximity lingers.

He gazes down at me, his eyes searching mine as his hand slides over the collar of my dress to the back of my head, where he palms my scalp. “Are you okay?”

I nod.

He tugs down my messy bun, his fingers trailing through my hair. “So beautiful,” he murmurs as he tips my face up. He fuses his lips to mine, tasting me with soft, hesitant brushes.

My hands curl around his waist, and his sensual mouth deepens the pressure. His tongue tangles with mine, stroking against it. I feel the warmth of his hand as it heats my nape, tightening. I hear the pounding of his chest. He kisses like a dream, and oh Jesus, his hand is trailing down, across my arms, to my elbows, to my hips. I smell and feel everything, the scent of his hair and skin, the scratch of his jawline. His fingers dig into me, tugging me closer and closer as his lips suck on my bottom one tenderly. My nipples harden, aching. His hands brush my ass, sparking heat between my legs. I melt into him.

Oh.

This feeling.

Heat.

Desire.

My fingers tangle in his hair, tugging him closer as the kiss intensifies. A rumbling, needy sound comes from his throat, one that urges me on.

Fire licks in my veins.

Suddenly, he pulls away, both of us breathing heavily as his forehead rests against mine. He brushes a thumb over my cheek, seeming to gather himself faster than I do.

“That was for your family,” he whispers in my ear. “They have their noses pressed to the windows, watching us.”

So that’s why he kissed me.

It stings. It shouldn’t. I’m a tough girl who’s had plenty of relationships that didn’t go anywhere, so this one shouldn’t be any different.

When I look into his face, he’s wearing a bored expression.

I swallow thickly, shoving away the desire still burning in my veins.

He tucks his hands in his slacks, hardness settling over his features as he glances at the flowers. “I’m going to take care of Kian.”

I stiffen. “What? No. Don’t do anything.”

He chews on that, his eyes dangerously mercurial as they flash. “Why not? Because you’re in love with him?”

“No. Because it’ll only cause more trouble. Graham—”

“He hasn’t let you go yet. And you thought someone was following you recently.”

“I’m overly paranoid since Vegas. It’s probably nothing.”

“You need to text me or call me if something happens.”

I shake my head. “Nothing is going to happen. Maybe he didn’t send these.”

His jaw tics, and he spears me with a look, one that says he isn’t backing down on this. “Your favorite flowers just magically appear at the bookstore. I don’t think so.”

“I don’t need a guard.”

He drags both hands through his hair. “I’m taking responsibility for you, Emmy. No one will hurt you.”

“You’re taking responsibility for me for a very short time. We’re pretend, remember? And it will end. We’ll end.”

His hands flex as he frowns, searching for something to say; then: “I think about him choking you, and I get very . . . angry. Those bruises were dark, and you must have been terrified. I saw the scratches on his hands, ones that you must have put there. God damn it. I regret not beating the shit out of him at the motel.” His nose flares. “What did you ever see in him?”

I look away, not sure how to explain me and Kian. Some of the best people I know have broken bits, and I’m usually drawn to them in some fashion, as a friend, as a lover. Perhaps it’s part of the reason I let things get too far with Kian. I sensed the danger in him, just boiling beneath the surface, and a side of me wanted to fix him. But some wounds run too deep. People have to pick up their pieces, slap them back on, and carry on, all by themselves. I’m not sure Kian can.

We’d been on a slippery slope for a while, and part of me knew we were over before I even went to Vegas. He and I had run our course. The phone tracking and the underwear only cemented my conviction; then he had to go and propose marriage to me to distract me, and when I didn’t agree, he lost his temper in a horrible way.

“Once he touched me, it was over. He knows about my parents. He knows I can’t go down that road with him. He’s been to my apartment, yes, when I first got back, but he hasn’t shown his face since.”

His eyes search mine, and he says gently, “I’m glad. And you’re strong, I can see that, a woman who’s capable of taking care of yourself, but I want to protect you. Let me.”

“Why?”

He gives me an exasperated look. “I don’t know. Because you’re going to be my wife.”

Not forever.

“Just don’t go looking for trouble, Graham. Violence isn’t worth it. Trust me, please. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it firsthand. It’s awful and ugly.”

He groans, understanding dawning on his face. “Of course. You’ve seen it up close. I get that, but I’ll never let him fucking touch you again, feel me? I have every right to protect you, and I will.”

I give him my cell number. He takes my phone and types in Brody’s, his, and some guy named Jasper’s numbers.

“One of us will be around if anything comes up with him,” he says. “Don’t hesitate to call.”

He tucks his hands in his pocket, changing directions. “We need to go public. I’m calling my publicist tonight, and they’ll arrange for an announcement on socials. We need a real date. I’m thinking Borelli’s on Wednesday. Are you free?”

I tell him yes, and he turns to go, then switches to face me, walking backward. “I hear you have a cat. Was he the one in the kitchen?”

I nod. “Magic. Or Stubs. Or Prince of Darkness. He answers to all three. Jane likes him because he’s a mouser. Andrew mostly ignores him. Londyn thinks he’s her new toy.”

“You’ll have to leave him behind when you move in with me.”

“Magic and I are a couple. He’s my man.”

“I’m your man,” he drawls.

I wave that aside. “When can I tell them about the store?”

“You’re the manager. Do it when you think it’s best.”

My heart flutters as the reality of it settles in. The store is staying. I’m staying. The best part is I’m totally in charge now. I can implement new ideas Terry wasn’t interested in. A thrill courses through me.

“I’ll make arrangements for the marriage and call you tomorrow,” he says, then turns back around and strides away.

I watch him walk away long after he’s disappeared, my mind swirling with who exactly Graham Harlan is. And what it’s going to be like to be married to him . . .

I glance back to the bookstore, and Jane still stands there, her arms crossed and a drawn expression on her face. Babs waves and points to my engagement ring, still on her finger. Andrew looks ecstatic and gives me a thumbs-up as he grins.

Right. I inhale a steady breath as I head back inside to finally close up.

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