My Darling Bride: Chapter 3

GRAHAM

Another day crossed off in my odyssey across the desert. I exhale heavily as déjà vu pricks at me.

I’ve missed something, somewhere.

Was it the encounter with Emmy?

My head circles back to the bruises on her throat, dark spots on either side that looked suspiciously like fingerprints. Sure, she sensed my awareness of them and popped the collar on her shirt, but I saw. Once the initial shock of how we’d “met” had worn off and I focused on her, I sensed the fragileness she held together beneath her bravado. I grimace. Kinda like me.

I almost knocked on her door to see if she wanted to come to dinner but decided I needed to be alone to figure out what’s next on this trip.

The two things I know for sure are this: I’ve seen enough roadkill armadillos to last a lifetime, and this place is lonely as fuck.

Yes, I came out here to be able to drive my car in the desert, but the real idea came from a dream where I saw an endless highway in a barren wasteland. It’s my theory that the images I saw while being “dead” on the field come when I’m asleep, or maybe it’s just my subconscious conjuring up random ideas to compensate for the frustration I feel for not being able to recall them.

Except for that iguana on the motel sign. My intuition said, This, this.

I jerked the wheel and pulled in.

Pain ripples inside my head, and I massage my temples, willing the ache to disappear. I fumble in the pocket of my jeans and tug out my meds and pop one in my mouth. I pick up my coffee and take a hasty sip.

My diagnosis is postconcussive syndrome—headaches and dizziness, two things a football player does not need. It’s not uncommon for players to have them, and they usually resolve in a few months, but mine still linger.

I’m inside the Roller Diner across the street from the motel. Patsy Cline sings from the jukebox. Above me, ceiling fans turn slowly, creating a soft whir over the clang of plates and silverware. The place smells like grease and coffee. I came in and picked out the darkest part of the restaurant to sit.

“Here you go, our special today,” the waitress says in a sugary voice as she places down my honey chicken, rice, and egg rolls.

“Great.” I barely read the menu.

“Can I get you anything else? More water? Coffee?” Her hand goes to her hip, calling attention to a curved body that fills out her pink uniform. She’s attractive, with dark hair and red lips.

“I’m good.”

She smiles, lingering.

I raise a brow.

“I almost forgot your fortune cookie.” She takes it off her tray and places it down, then gazes at me expectantly.

Mom loved fortune cookies and horoscopes, and I never pass one up for her. It’s almost as if she’s talking to me through them. I crack it open and pull out the tiny piece of paper. I never was one to wait until the end of the meal.

Come out of the dark and embrace the sunshine. I blink away the sting of emotion that pricks my eyelids. It sounds exactly like something she’d say. I’ve been in the dark ever since my tackle on the field.

The waitress still hasn’t walked away. She giggles, and I glance up. “Um, are you Graham Harlan, the tight end for the Pythons? See, the fry cook said you were, but I said, ‘What on earth would he be doing in Old Town?’ He bet me five bucks it was you. Are you him?”

Normally, I am not the most recognizable player on the team. That’s reserved for quarterbacks and wide receivers, but the entire team has been on the TV since the Super Bowl. I’ve picked up some rabid fans, a lot of them female, plus more requests for interviews, and while that’s great for the franchise, I’m not one to share publicly about my life.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I mutter.

Her eyes widen. “Wow! We never get famous people in here. Thank God your team won, right? I mean, after—”

I pick up my chopsticks. “Do you mind—”

She sits down. “Can I ask you a question?”

“No.”

“Is it true you died?”

My jaw tics.

Yes, my heart stopped beating. I wasn’t breathing. The used a defibrillator to bring me back. I was in the hospital for a week while they monitored me. My symptoms on the field represented what a “clinical death” can look like. Most experts say that after four minutes of no oxygen to the brain, your cells begin to die as parts of your brain expire: first the temporal lobe, where memories are stored.

I was out for under two minutes.

I’m about to tell her to mind her business when my phone rings.

“May I have some privacy?” I say to her.

“Oh. Sure, yeah. It was worth losing the bet just to meet you. We’ll talk later. I get off at ten.” She winks as she slides a piece of paper across the table with her number written on it. She flounces away, and I crumple the note.

“Hey,” I say to Brody.

“Hallelujah, my big brother is alive! Tell me all the things. Did you figure out your dream?”

I laugh as I picture him in his apartment in Manhattan. He’s probably on his balcony, sipping on a martini and taking in the views of Central Park. I bet he’s wearing slacks and a tweed blazer. His socks will be color coordinated. At twenty-seven, he’s three years younger than me and a replica of our mother with his sandy-blond hair and smile. He inherited her fun and spontaneity, while I got our father’s dark looks.

“I’ve seen coyotes, roadrunners, snakes, and a tarantula as big as my hand. You’d be shitting your pants.”

“Gross. But did you figure out your chat with God when you were dead? I’m picturing His Holiness as Queen Elizabeth in pearls and a powder blue suit.”

“Your God is a British monarch?”

“Isn’t yours?”

I chuckle. “I did find an interesting motel called the Golden Iguana. I’ve stayed in better tents.”

My head tumbles back to the motel. I consider telling him about Emmy. My lips quirk. She ran into my arms like a long-lost girlfriend, and damn her acting was good. I’d been fighting a dizzy spell from the stairwell, and when she launched herself at me, I’d been stunned and a little confused, then angry. I’d assumed she was someone who recognized me and wanted to meet me.

He pulls me back to the present. “How’s the head?”

“Fine.”

He lets out a gusty exhale. “The desert sun has to be killing you. I’m sorry, G.”

I tap my fingers against the side of the coffee cup. “There was a woman. She pulled me into her room.”

“Now we’re talking! Roarrr!”

“Nothing happened.”

So delicious! Was she hot? Blonde, nice tits?”

Yes. “I didn’t notice.”

“But you felt a tingle in your pants?”

“Jesus. No, Brody.”

“You lie. In case you want to know, I’m twerking in happiness on the balcony right now.”

“She wasn’t my type.”

Yet . . .

My fingers drum the table, thoughts drifting to her heart-shaped face and big green eyes. Her ass in that bikini was luscious. And she’d smelled like sun-kissed skin and vanilla.

Doesn’t matter.

The last thing I need is a hookup.

I can barely take care of myself.

He sighs, clearly disappointed. “At least get some pics of the iguana. Maybe make a vision board. Remember when I made a board for us to move to California?”

“Hmm, you had the Hollywood sign, plus a bunch of hot guys.”

“That’s when Mom figured out I was gay.”

“She hung it in the foyer like it was a Picasso.”

He hums under his breath. “I miss her.”

Same. My hand tightens around the cell, and my throat clogs with banked emotion. Regret pierces me. I adored my mother. She was taken too soon in a skiing accident when I was fifteen, but the pain of losing her never diminishes.

I change the subject. “How’s Cas? Has he found a spot for the gym?” Cas is an ex-MMA fighter and Brody’s spouse.

There’s silence on the other end, and I frown. “Hey. What’s wrong?”

He groans, frustration evident. “We got turned down for the loan. We applied at three different banks and got the same answer. We don’t have the equity.”

“How much do you need?”

“At least two million in assets. We have the apartment, but it’s already mortgaged against loans for the initial business. I have some of Mom’s art pieces and jewelry, but it’s not worth two million, plus I can’t imagine selling things she adored. It’s all I have left of her.”

I frown as I draw circles on the wood table. Brody and Cas want to open a luxury gym that specializes in working with athletes. Cas can pull in his MMA friends, and Brody was a damn good tennis player in his early years before he gave it up to teach. At the moment, they’re co-oping a warehouse, but with their client growth, they need a new space with all the bells and whistles.

I pulled in twenty million last year. I’ve got my fingers in Manhattan real estate. “Let me give you the money.”

“No. You bought us the co-op spot plus some of the equipment. I can’t let you. You may not be as set as you think. What if you can’t . . .” His voice stops.

“Can’t play again?” My stomach pitches. Just the idea of not being able to play makes me feel soulless. Empty and dark. I wasn’t good enough to get into an Ivy League law school like my father wanted, but I’m a damn good football player. It’s all I have. I have more than plenty to retire on, but I get it. Brody and Cas are proud. They want to do this themselves.

“What about Dad?” I ask, knowing the answer.

Brody’s voice lowers. “No. We’ll keep saving. Maybe we’ll be ready in five years.”

The waitress sashays by and gives me a sly smile, nothing like the sweet one Emmy wore when I told her bye at her door.

I look away, my head tumbling with ideas. “Wait . . . maybe we could get the money another way, money that should be rightfully yours anyway.”

He scoffs. “Don’t say it.”

“I’m almost thirty. I could get married, get my inheritance, and hand it over to you.”

Our father’s mother arranged an inheritance for the grandchildren before she died. There’s three of us, all males. When we turn thirty, we receive ten million. The only caveat is we have to marry a woman, and the language is very clear.

At age thirty, a grandson (with a wife) will receive the inheritance. Once the youngest brother reaches forty, any brother who isn’t married to a woman will have his inheritance split.

“You don’t even have a girlfriend,” he tells me.

“I know plenty of women.”

“Models and wannabe actresses? No way. I’ll get married for a day.”

“Hmm, but you won’t be thirty for three more years, and you’re already married to Cas.”

He exhales an emotional breath. “Which I wouldn’t change. I love him. He’s my rock.”

“Grandmother didn’t even consider that our father might have a daughter someday,” I say. “And she was homophobic. I’m sorry.”

“She was mean as hell. I still shiver when I think about her razor eyes.”

“Yeah. Same.” Conservative and prickly, she had iron-white hair and a vicious gaze that scrutinized everything you did. I recall formal family dinners where I wasn’t allowed to speak. Brody and I were required to wear jackets to dinner, even as young kids. Heaven forbid we’d use the salad fork to eat the entrée. She had a way of clicking her tongue or scoffing that made you want to crawl away and hide.

She died my first year in college and already knew that Brody was gay.

“We were never her favorite grandsons. That was reserved for Holden, the precious firstborn,” he mutters.

I grunt. Holden is our half brother, five years older than me and our father’s son with his first wife. After Dad’s marriage fell apart, he married our mother, the younger and prettier wife.

That woman is a gold digger, Grandmother would say about our mother, just loud enough that we could hear.

He continues. “We could contest the will, but Holden will drag it out in court, and then there’ll be attorney fees. I can’t risk that. Teaching pays shit, even at a private Manhattan school.”

I change the subject. “Back to this marriage . . . I can find someone.”

“Phone an ex-girlfriend, huh?”

I ignore him, mostly talking to myself as my head swirls. “Just a business arrangement. Get married, get the money, get a divorce.”

There’s a long pause. “G? You’re scaring me.”

“Maybe I need to do something scary.” My life is at a crossroads. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. The universe kicked me in the teeth when my mom died; then it pounded me in the kidneys when I got the concussion. I can’t get Mom back, I can’t fix my head injury, but I can help Brody.

“I know it’s not something we like to think about, but what if I’d died on the field that day? Holden would have gotten my share of the inheritance, not you. That scares me. Hell, it makes me angry all over again at the will.” I pause. “Mom would approve of this. She’d want me to help you.”

He sputters: “Come on. She’d hate it! She’d want you to marry someone you cared about, not get involved in some arrangement.”

“Listen to me—ten million dollars. All. Yours. Think of what you can do with that kind of money. You could add saunas and hot tubs. You could hire a nurse for your staff. You could do the nature elements you and Cas wanted, like water features or even a damn tree in the middle of the place.”

He doesn’t say anything, but I can feel him thinking.

“If you don’t take this chance, then Holden will get part of it when you turn forty. Do you want him laughing his ass off as he gets your inheritance?” The mere idea of our half brother getting any part of what should be ours makes my hands clench.

“No.” His breath hitches. “G? Maybe . . .”

I rap my knuckles on the table. “I’m doing this. You deserve your share.”

“Oh my God? Oh my God!” He lets out a shaky breath.

“Wait, are you crying?”

He sniffs, blubbering. “No. You are. Okay, okay, let me think. If you do this, who will you ask?”

My brows lower. This needs to be a nonromantic arrangement. Strict rules. My former girlfriends won’t work. I’ve parted amicably with them, but it’s been months since I dated anyone. I don’t have female friends.

“Just as I suspected—you’re running headfirst into something without considering the consequences,” he murmurs. “It’s like that time when we were kids and you convinced me to go camping in Central Park. Just us and a box of Nilla Wafers. No plan on where to sleep or go to the bathroom.”

I scoff. “Can’t you let it go?”

“I had to shit in the woods, G, and a dog chased me and bit my ass, so no, I won’t forget it. I’m traumatized every time I see anything brown and furry. You forgot my sleeping bag. You forgot water. I hate Central Park, and it’s your fault.”

“It was a chipmunk! No teeth. It might have gummed you.”

“Don’t care. I’m a delicate creature who needs two-ply toilet paper and a pillow for my pretty head. Without vermin.”

“You came with me. I didn’t make you.”

“You said it was an adventure! You knew I’d follow my big brother into the woods!” He chuckles, then sighs. “For real, if you do this marriage thing, I insist on helping you pick the girl.”

“Why?”

“You have terrible taste in women. Divina. Hello, cheating bitch.”

My heart jerks at her name, my hands clenching around the phone at the rush of anger inside me.

“You need someone sweet,” he continues.

“We need someone discreet. Someone who can pretend to be in love with me. We’ll need to convince the family.”

“I’ve got it!” he calls out. “Our drama teacher, Wynona, is a knockout and isn’t dating anyone.”

Witchy Wynona? “Isn’t she the one with the cats and that mole on her chin?” I ask.

“Only three.”

“Moles?”

“Graham!”

I grin. I love getting him riled up.

“She only has three cats, and they’re trained to poop in the toilet. I have videos. I’ll send them to you,” he says.

“Don’t. She’s got facial hair that shouldn’t be there, like in her mole. And she’s got a crush on me. At our Christmas party last year, I walked into my bedroom, and she was touching my bed.”

“She was tipsy!” he huffs.

“Let me be clearer—she was stroking my duvet. Pretty sure she was moaning my name. A minute later, I might have caught her masturbating.”

“She’s a drama teacher. She gets a pass.”

“Yeah. Pass on Wynona.”

“Okay. There’s a trainer at our gym,” he says. “Her name is Cinder. Very pretty.”

“Met her and no.”

“You’re being picky about a fake wife.”

I lean in and eat some of the chicken. “It needs to be someone I can at least get along with if we’re living in the same apartment.” For some reason, I have a vague image of a woman in my kitchen. She hums as she cooks, her hips swaying to the music in her head as I watch from the stool at the island. A waterfall of blonde hair spills down her back, teasing the bare skin between her cropped shirt and cutoff shorts. She tosses a look at me from over her shoulders, and her eyes are—

I chuckle at the absurdity, shutting down that little daydream. A woman hasn’t made me dinner in years. Usually we order in or go out.

“Okay, so what’s her incentive? Why marry you?” he asks.

“You act like I’m ugly.”

He snorts. “You’re moody.”

“True. Movie stars and celebrities, they date and marry people for various reasons. This is no different. We just need to cover all the loopholes legally.” I make a mental note to call my lawyer.

“Wait! There’s a girl at A Likely Story Bookstore, you know the one off Fifth Avenue?”

“No.”

“She also works at the bar across from our apartment. Surely you’ve been inside.”

I’ve seen Marcelle’s Martini Bar, but if I’m drinking, it’s at the Baller, a private membership place for athletes. “Never been. Any moles?”

“Shut it. She’s perfect. And fun. You need fun.” He hums. “Jeez, what’s her name? It starts with an E . . . Esme? No, wait, I’ve got it—Emmaline Darling. Isn’t that adorable?”

“So adorable,” I say dryly. Brody collects friends like lint, and if I give him time, he’ll name at least fifty women. “All right. I’ll peek in the bar.”

A squeal comes from him, and I hear Cas in the background ask, “What the hell is going on?”

“Just planning the wedding of the year!” Brody calls back, and I grimace.

“Civil ceremony.”

“Whatever. I’ll change your mind. Oh my God, I love you, G! I’m dancing again!”

I smile at his exuberance and remember Mom doing one of her “happy dances” with us when something good happened. It usually involved her twirling us around in circles.

He keeps chatting, mostly to Cas, as he relays what the plan is. It’s going to take at least another fifteen minutes to get off the phone.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see something yellow moving at the motel.

What the hell? Somebody is taking off with my car,” I shout as my hand instinctively checks my pocket for the key fob.

Not there. Shit. Did I leave it in the room?

“Wait! What? Are you sure it’s yours?”

“There aren’t any Lamborghinis here but mine,” I say grimly.

My car pulls out onto the highway and accelerates away.

It’s practically brand new. I had it on special order for two years, and it only arrived a month ago.

“Maybe it’s part of the queen’s plan!”

“Later, bro.” I click off and jerk up from the table, drop a hundred on the table to cover the cost of my food plus tip, and race out the door. Breathing heavily, I run into the empty road and watch the red taillights disappear. Cursing, I dial 911.

“911, what’s your emergency?” asks the operator.

“Someone stole my car from the Golden Iguana in Old Town. It’s headed east—”

She cuts me off. “Is anyone in the vehicle, sir?”

“What? No! I mean, yes, someone is driving it, but—”

“Sir, to your knowledge, is anyone’s life in danger? Is there a child in the car or another loved one?”

“It was stolen,” I call out.

“I’ll transfer you to our auto-theft division,” she says without any change in her tone at my anger.

I reach the stairs of the motel and climb to my room while soft jazz plays on the phone.

I fumble for the key and go inside to see if anything else was taken. My duffel bag is still on the bed. My Rolex is on the desk. My clothes are in the closet. Nothing seems to be missing.

I see a folded piece of paper near the door and yank it up.

My jaw tightens when I finish reading it. I toss it on the bed and glare daggers at it.

Un-fucking-believable!

The girl I thought needed protecting is a thieving minx. I curse as I scrub my face, my palms digging into my eyes as I rub them. Was Emmy’s entire story a lie, just an opportunity to get me in her room? Hell, maybe Clint was in on it.

I pace around the room, my jaw tensing as I remember how she’d looked at me with those innocent eyes, desperate for help. I let my guard down. I believed her story.

But she wasn’t what she seemed.

Nope.

People disappoint you. Lie to you.

My father when he cheated on Mom and walked away from us.

Divina when she dumped me for my half brother, Holden. Five years with her, and she betrayed me. My throat tightens with emotion as my teeth clench to hold it in. The most bitter part of my memory of her is that when I proposed to her, she said yes. Little did I know she was already fucking my brother.

The music abruptly ends on the other line.

“This is Officer Tolbert. How may I help you?”

“My car was stolen,” I tell him. “And it’s headed to the Tucson airport.”

I fill him in with more details. No, I don’t know her last name, but they can check with the motel. No, nothing else was stolen. And, yes, I’m sure I didn’t give her permission, even though I left my keys in her room—which was an accident.

I’m still bristling as I slam my room door to go downstairs and wait for the police. I halt when I see a man banging on Emmy’s door. There’s a pretty petite brunette with him, her expression tense as she wrings her hands, then tugs at his sleeve to pull him away from the door.

“She isn’t here,” she tells him. “Let it go. Maybe we can make the end of the rehearsal party.”

“Her phone said she was here,” he snaps.

“Maybe she found the app and deleted it,” the girl says.

He turns to me. Dark kohl underlines his eyes, and his bottom lip is pierced. Brown hair falls into his face, and he shoves it back. “Hey, you there, wait a minute.” He juts his chin out. “Did you see the girl who’s staying in this room? Emmy?”

I open my mouth to tell him she’ll soon be in jail but stop. “Kian? Kian Adams?”

He frowns and lowers his head, scanning me. “Yeah. Who the fuck are you?”

A short laugh comes from my chest. I’ve let my hair grow into an unruly mess during the off season, and my jawline is covered in scruff, but surely I’m not that unrecognizable.

Built like a truck, he’s a defensive player for our rival New York team, the Hawks. In his position, he’s the guy who wants to tackle the tight end—me.

He’s a few years younger than me and was a real talent when he was first drafted, but not so much lately. You have to be an idiot to get a DUI. Every player in the NFL has access to a driver twenty-four seven, provided by the league. All it takes is a phone call. The Hawks’ PR said he was benched for an injury, but the gossip is it’s more about his personal issues.

I step into the light, and his eyes widen. “Graham Harlan. Shit. Sorry.” He tucks his annoyance away and flashes a quick smile. “What are you doing here?”

“Passing through. You?” I glance at Emmy’s door.

He tucks his hands in his jeans. “Looking for my girl. Have you seen her?”

His girl? I keep my face impassive as realization dawns. She mentioned she was through with the guy she’d been seeing. She might have even said Kian’s name.

I take in the scratches on the tops of his fingers, others on his cheek and under his eye. He’s the one who choked her, and she must have defended herself.

Rage rises like a wave inside me, but I keep my tone steady. “Nope. You guys have a tiff?”

“No. We get along great.” He assesses me, eyes hardening. “It’s funny that her room is next to yours.”

“Small world.”

“Very small.”

“Minuscule,” I drawl.

“Uh-huh. I mean, we’re in the middle of nowhere. What are the odds.” He opens the flashlight on his cell phone and roves his gaze over the parking lot, scanning the lobby area, then the pool. It’s lit up but empty. He rechecks the parking lot, shining a light into the interior of the vehicles. He comes back to me, eyes narrowed. “She hiding in your room?”

I smile. Dangerously. My hands tighten as I speak slowly, enunciating my words slowly. “You’re . . . welcome . . . to . . . check.”

He rolls his neck. “Nah, nah, just messing with you. I believe you. She likes to play games with me, is all. If you see her, tell her I came by, and she needs to call me.”

“Sure. Hope to see you on the field soon.”

“You’re coming back? After what happened? I mean, I hear your head is messed up.”

“I hear you drink too much.”

His jaw tics as he glares at me. “Yeah, looks like we both need to straighten our shit out.”

Stuffing down my anger, I whip around and head downstairs. As I’m leaving, I hear him pounding on the door again, his voice pleading with her to come out.

I reach the clerk at the desk. Grinning, he’s looking down as he counts out several hundred-dollar bills.

I see how it is.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out Kian paid the clerk to get her room number.

I move closer. “The girl in Room 307. What’s her last name?”

Just noticing me, he sputters as he tucks the wad of money into his pocket. He clears his throat, face reddening. “Sir, I can’t give out that information.”

“But you gave out her room number for that money in your hand?”

His mouth opens and closes like a fish’s.

I lean in over the counter until our faces are close. My words are soft as I grip the counter. “Name. Now. Or I’ll come behind that desk and make you regret it.”

He goes white and practically jumps at his computer, eyeing me as he types away. “Um, it’s Emmaline Darling. Do you want her home address?”

I nod, and he scribbles it down and hands it to me.

“My car was stolen from your parking lot. Did you see anything?”

He frowns. “I saw a girl running. She had blonde hair.”

I glance out the window, a part of me hoping my car will magically appear. I see that Kian has sat down outside Emmy’s door, while the girl paces back and forth in front of him. It looks as if he doesn’t plan on going anywhere for a while.

I smirk. Sorry, Kian. She’s in my ride.

“When the cops show up, put us in an empty room on the first floor. I don’t want anyone knowing my business.”

“Yes, sir.”

I glance down at the paper he gave me, and her name jumps out at me. Emmaline Darling. I heard the clerk say it, but it didn’t click until now with what my brother said.

Jeez, what’s her name? It starts with an E . . . Esme? No, wait, I’ve got it—Emmaline Darling.

Emmaline. Emmy. Of course.

I dial Brody, who answers on the first ring. “What’s up with your car?”

“Forget that. What was the name of the girl you mentioned, the one I need to meet?”

“Emmaline Darling. Pretty. Nice boobs—not a D cup, but who needs mountains when you can have gentle rolling hills—and long legs. Will look fantastic in Vera Wang.”

“She stole my car.”

He gasps. “What? No way. That’s a crazy coincidence. Impossible. Plus, she’s a sweetie.”

“And a thief.”

He sputters: “Are you sure?”

“I have her name right in front of me.”

A groan of disappointment comes from him. “But I already had a Pinterest board going for her—”

I cut him off as I pace, chopping the air with my hands. “She’s the one. She’s my fake wife.”

“What? How? Wait, is she the one who pulled you into her room? Did you have sex with her? Are you still in the ‘pussy glow’?”

“Hardly. What matters is she owes me.”

“Um, not seeing it. She’s a thief. Why would—”

“Let me handle it. I gotta go. Bye.”

“Graham, wait—”

I hang up and watch the cops pull up.

Gotcha, Miss Darling.

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