My Darling Bride: Chapter 17

EMMY

The last person on my schedule to interview leaves my office, and I groan as I pinch the bridge of my nose. Only one of the applicants today would be a good fit, and she can’t start for two more weeks.

The bookstore phone rings, and I pick it up. “Emmy Darling from A Likely Story Bookstore. May I help you?”

“Emmy! It’s been forever. How are you?”

“Great.” If I could just find more workers.

“It’s Angela from the Times. I thought you guys were closing; then I heard you weren’t. Good news. Does this mean you’ll have a new window for us soon? I’d love to see it and feature it in our summer roundup photos.”

Right, ugh. My anxiety shoots up. I’ve been so busy with Graham that I haven’t thought about the window lately. I need to get the new display up. “Hi, and yes, we’d be so thankful if you’d feature us. We put a lot of time and effort into our displays. We’ll have it ready by the second week of June. How does that sound?”

“Awesome. What time would be good to come by?”

I schedule a slot for her, and as I’m getting off the phone, a photo comes through on my cell. It’s Graham, replying to the text thread I’ve entitled Things We Should Know About Each Other. We’ve been texting on and off since our date, usually first thing in the morning and then in the evenings.

I squint at the pic he’s sent. It’s one from a college party where he’s standing on top of a bar inside a fraternity house as he holds up a trophy. A wide, broad grin is on his handsome face. His hair is short and spiky, his face young and free. He’s wearing Florida State gym shorts and no shirt. His chest is a work of art, an eight-pack glistening.

You were trashed, I send.

We’d just won the national championship over Alabama.

Did you have a serious college girlfriend?

No. I was too focused on football.

Hmm, Divina was his first serious relationship. It lasted for years. And then she cheated on him.

Send me a pic of you from the past, he sends.

I scroll through my pics and send one of me from a birthday dinner at the bookstore, after hours. Whoever took it, probably Babs or Terry, caught me in the middle of an eye roll as I attempted to blow out candles on a four-layer coconut cake Gran had baked. Andrew and Jane, ages twelve and thirteen, sit on either side of me, laughing, and Gran is behind me, a serene smile on her face.

I dig the pink streaks in your hair. See you soon, he replies.

Tucking my cell away, I finish my tea, then check my hair in the mirror. It’s up again, the length braided and twisted around a bun in the back. Little curly wisps dangle from the side. I reapply my red lipstick. I get on the PA system and ask for Jane to come to my office.

She waltzes in, and I smile nervously. “It’s time. Will you help me?” I ask as I nudge my head at the dress hanging from a sconce on the wall.

She nods, her face impassive as she helps me change out of my slacks and blouse and into a tea-length dress that Brody insisted I get yesterday. He and Cas showed up at the store yesterday at closing time. Jane and I went with them to a bridal store in Tribeca. The place was appointment only, but Brody said his family knew the designer, and he was able to get us one after hours.

We lounged on a couch and watched as models showcased tea-length bridal gowns. I chose a champagne-colored, figure-hugging slip dress. Small sparkling beads adorn the material. My favorite part is the corset bodice with silk ribbons that tie in the back. I balked at the cost, but Brody insisted Graham wanted me to have a new dress. After a few alterations that only took minutes, we left the boutique.

Jane zips up the back, then turns me around. “You ready?”

“This dress is entirely too much for a civil ceremony,” I murmur as I gaze at myself in the mirror and smooth down the fabric. It is the most beautiful dress I’ve ever seen.

“It’s perfect. Now, get out of here before I lock you in your office so you won’t marry him.”

“Babs would just let me out.”

She gives me a kiss on the cheek. “Good luck. I’m gonna go upstairs and straighten the shelves. Keep myself busy.”

The rotunda is full of customers when I walk out, but no one seems to notice I’m overly dressed. Books can do that to a person.

“Emmy?” says a familiar male voice. Sucking in a sharp breath, I look up from the messages I was reading on the manual typewriter in the rotunda.

What is he doing here?

Standing near the door, Kian wears joggers and a Nike shirt, as if he’s just come from the gym. His blue eyes laser in on mine. “Hey.”

“You can’t be here,” I hiss as I walk over. “I told you not to come near me. That includes the bookstore.”

“I would have called, but you blocked my number. I needed to talk to you.”

My heart jumps in my chest as I remember our fight, his choking me, me being terrified beyond reason. I recall the rushed way I packed, hands trembling, the intense adrenaline rushing through my veins.

My father may not have hurt me physically, but his abuse and my mother leaving left a wound on my soul. That hurt, that awful wound, has kept me from truly giving myself to anyone.

“You. Need. To. Leave,” Jane calls from the staircase as she rushes down the last few steps. Anger flashes from her eyes. Her voice has carried around the store, and a few customers openly stare at us.

I think she’s going to bump chests with him, so I put a hand on her shoulder to hold her back. “That’s enough,” I say under my breath.

“Come on, Emmy, please. Just give me a minute. Outside,” he adds. “It won’t take long.”

“Why?” I ask.

He exhales heavily. “I need to tell you about a visit I got yesterday. It’s important, or I wouldn’t have come.”

Okay, he has my interest.

“It’s about you and Graham.” He practically spits his name.

I exhale. “No tricks, Kian.”

He holds his hands up in a placating manner. “None. I’m sober. I haven’t had anything to drink for weeks.”

Ha. I’ve heard that before, but his eyes aren’t bloodshot, and he does seem calm. But appearances can be deceiving. My dad would be easy one minute, then turn into a monster the next.

“Are you seriously going to listen to him?” Jane asks, her tone incredulous.

Yes, I’m curious. Plus, a ton of people are outside, milling around on the sidewalk. It’s not like I’ll be alone with him. And if he knows anything real about me and Graham, then I need to know so I can protect Graham.

“I’m watching from the window,” she calls out as I follow him to the door, “and if he so much as looks at you wrong, I’m coming out with an axe.”

What’s scary is we do have an axe in the kitchen, next to the fire extinguisher. It’s not big, but it could do some damage.

Kian holds the door for me, and we exit the store. He takes a seat on a bench that faces the window and sends a wry wave to Jane, who simply glowers. I sit next to him and wait for that tingle of attraction, for the tug I used to feel, but there’s nothing but the bitter taste of regret.

He leans down and puts his elbows on his knees as a long exhale comes from his lips. “I really messed things up with you this time.”

“Yes.”

He gives me a glum look. “I put a tracker on your phone because I was fucking around on you.”

As I suspected. My intuition is rarely wrong. I grew up with mistrust and fear and learned early on to be hyperaware.

“I hurt you, then chased you across the desert to convince you to come back to me.”

“All true.”

A few beats of silence pass as he mulls over what to say next.

“I’m a real asshole, Emmy, and I’m sorry.”

Sincerity is in his tone, true, and I appreciate it, but . . . “Leaving bouquets of lilies won’t fix anything, Kian.”

Then his next words make me flinch.

“Missy admitted she called you and told you that I was coming to your motel. You must have been desperate to get away. You stole Graham Harlan’s car to escape me.” He cocks an eye at me, studying my reaction.

“Me? Hardly.” I blink innocently.

“Here’s the thing. This guy came around to my place and started asking questions about you and Graham. He claimed to be a reporter, but I know a PI when I see one. I saw your engagement post, by the way. Congrats. It’s created quite a stir in football world. ‘Kian Adams’s ex set to marry Graham Harlan.’ But whatever. I didn’t deserve you, and I fucked it up royally. Too much drinking. Too much money. Fame. I’ve hit some rough patches in my career, and I was lashing out.”

I tense. “There’s no excuse for what you did.”

His mouth twists.

“You’re responsible for your actions,” I add. “You caused harm. Don’t do it to someone else. Don’t hurt Missy.”

“Forget her. You look beautiful,” he says, his gaze caressing me.

My lips press together as I say nothing.

He inches closer. “Anyway, I thought you should know that this guy told me you stole Graham’s car. He also asked me about your parents. That’s why I came. I know how private you are and wanted to warn you.”

Graham mentioned that he didn’t file a report about me, just that his car was stolen, so the PI must have talked to the clerk at the front desk.

He makes a noise in his throat, a pained sound. “Tell me, Emmy, was it love at first sight—with Graham?”

I stare down at my beaded shoes. “Yes.”

I feel him glancing at the ring on my finger.

“We were just over, and I thought you’d be more upset or at least wait awhile before going out with someone. I’m hurt that he’s someone I know.” He hangs his head. “Did you plan on meeting him at the motel in the desert?”

I glance at Jane in the window. She’s holding the axe. Jesus.

The less I tell him, the better. “I never cheated on you, Kian. Sometimes it takes meeting the wrong person to find the right one.”

He stands to his feet as he drinks in my features. “Baby. That bullshit doesn’t sound like you. We had something good.”

I narrow my eyes. “We weren’t right for each other, or you wouldn’t have been tracking my phone. You would have had more respect for me. And you never would have choked me. Also, don’t leave flowers here. Don’t be following me down the street. We’re over. You know it. I know it. Graham knows it.”

“I still love you, baby. Don’t marry him,” he says fervently as he takes my hand. I jerk back at the zap of fear that dances up my spine. I guess it will always be there when I encounter him.

Jane exits the store, axe in hand. “Let her go, motherfucker.”

“I do love you. I really do!” He gives me one last longing look, then drops my hand and stalks away.

She slides in next to me, both of us watching his back as he turns the corner.

Jane sighs. “I’m mad at you right now for even talking to him.”

“Hopefully not enough to axe me?”

Her shoulders release the tension she was carrying. “Meh. I guess not. It is your wedding day, and I’d hate to get blood on that dress; plus, you did give me a steady job. I’m actually really hungry. How about a cookie before you tie yourself to Graham?”

“I’ll have to be careful in this dress.”

“Oatmeal raisin. Fresh from the oven.”

“Deal.” We link our arms together and walk back into the store.

“So,” she says as we head to the kitchen, “are you going to let him dip his stick tonight?”

“Excuse me?”

She smirks. “Technically, you aren’t really married until you consummate the union. Do you want me to draw you a diagram?”

“I know how sex works, smart-ass, but it’s a marriage of convenience.”

“Well, it was awfully convenient to let him finger-bang you, so . . .”

I glare at her. “That was different. It just happened. It won’t again.”

“Uh-huh.”

“What?”

She gives me a serious look as she sets down her cookie and takes my hands. “Taking care of us is who you are, and this is part of that—I get it, I do—but if he turns out to be a troll, just come back home.”

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