My Darling Bride: Chapter 7

GRAHAM

Emmy Darling stares at me in shock, and I tear my gaze off her parted lips. Her chest rises rapidly as she grapples with my words. Just like at the motel, her delicate features make her look incredibly young and innocent. But she has a glint in her eyes, an inner fire, and she still smells of vanilla, the sweet scent lingering.

The story of her parents has gotten under my skin. I understand it. I know what it’s like to be hurt or forgotten by those who are supposed to love us. My father put me and Brody in an all-boys boarding school in Connecticut a week after my mother’s death. It cut me to the bone to lose the only home I’d ever known.

Pushing that aside, I roll my shoulders, trying to relax. I’m not myself because a lot is riding on this. It’s a lot of pressure to marry a stranger and do it in such a way as to not raise red flags to the rest of the family.

Brody is depending on me, and I’m going to deliver.

“Are you messing with me?” Her voice is soft, layered with hesitation.

“No.”

Her slender arms cross. “Is this a sex thing, where you keep me prisoner in a dungeon?”

I groan and press the tips of my fingers to the bridge of my nose. “Jesus, your imagination is off the charts, and no, I don’t force myself on women. I don’t want to marry, but I need a wife. We never have to have sex.”

“Are you gay?”

“If I were, I’d live it proud, like my brother and Cas.”

“But . . . why me?”

“Because you owe me. You’ll be motivated to be the best wife you can be, and apparently you’re a great actress. You fooled the asshole at the motel, and that’s what I need—someone to convince the world that we’re . . . in love.” It sounds lame out loud, and the truth is, I’m not sure why it has to be her. I exhale.

“Are you in the mafia?”

“No.”

“Do you want me to steal drugs or art or jewels?”

“Fuck no.”

“Do you plan to put me in some sick game where I get chased on an island by people who hunt humans for sport?”

“What? That’s . . . I don’t even know what that is. Wait, is that from one of your books?”

“Short story, ‘The Most Dangerous Game.’ A big-game hunter falls off a ship and gets stranded on an island run by a Russian aristocrat who’s been hunting humans as sport. The big-game guy, Rainsford, becomes his next human, very ironic, but back to you. What do you get out of marrying me? What are the benefits?”

I rub my temple. “A headache, probably.”

“So why do it?”

“I’ll get an inheritance if I’m married.”

“So it’s true. Rich people only want to be richer.”

I groan. “It’s for Brody, because he can’t claim his.” I hadn’t planned to admit that, but . . .

“Why not just give him the money yourself?”

“I tried. He’s proud. His inheritance won’t go to him because he’s married to Cas. It’s about conservative family politics.”

“Because he’s gay?”

“Yes. Brody came out right before our grandma died, so she left him out on purpose.”

She exhales. “That’s awful, but why would you want to get married just to help him?”

Because Brody needs justice.

Because I detest Holden.

And maybe because I met Emmy.

“He’s my brother. I take it you aren’t a fan of marriage?” My eyes drift over the curve of her cheeks, the way her pouty lips press together.

“I’m more of a bookish spinster type.”

A beautiful one. I take in the long wavy blonde hair, the arch of her golden brows, the high cheekbones.

I also see the shadows that play over her face, and a cold realization dawns on me.

Kian.

“I’m not . . . I’m not a cruel person. I wouldn’t hurt you like Kian.” I may have a temper on the field, but I’d never put hands on a woman. Another reason to marry her flits through my head. I could protect her from him.

“Were you following me today?”

I frown. “No.”

“Never mind,” she says as worry flits over her features. “It was just a feeling I had.”

“Was it Kian?”

“It was probably nothing. Just my paranoia.” She chews on her bottom lip. “Look, I don’t want to go to prison. But I also don’t like being put in a corner. This is very sudden, and I can’t just upend my life and get married. What would people think? What would we tell them?”

I wince that she thinks I’d actually send her to prison. Yes, the police came to the motel after I called, but once they arrived, I left her name out of it. Some part of me didn’t want to implicate her. Maybe it was the memory of the bruises on her throat. Maybe it was seeing Kian and realizing he was the one who’d put them there.

“It’ll be easy,” I reply. “We’ll get married for a few months, then get a divorce. We’ll never have to see each other again.”

She narrows her eyes, searching my face as if trying to figure me out. “The question is: Will you send me to prison if I don’t marry you?”

I exhale heavily.

She studies my face, seems to make up her mind about something, then pulls out her phone. “Go ahead, then—call the cops, have me locked up, let the scorpions eat me alive. Just remember that I didn’t wreck your beloved car; I only borrowed it—”

“Police would say felony theft.”

“—and left it at the airport. Yes, it was stupid and impulsive, but it wasn’t malicious.”

My jaw pops.

“I ran when I should have faced Kian, I know, but knowing it and doing it are two separate things. I’m sorry. Just know that you’d be sending a woman to jail who takes care of her siblings and a baby.”

Twenty seconds pass, the air crackling with tension.

“Don’t you think you owe me this, Emmy?” I glare at her. Of course I don’t want to call the cops.

Several tense moments pass as neither of us drops our gaze.

A small laugh comes from her as she tucks her phone away. “Did insurance cover your car’s damages?”

“Yes,” I say tightly.

“Thank God,” she says as she blows out a breath. “I have enough money problems as it is.”

I rake a hand through my hair, trying to find a way to convince her. “I could help with your money issues.”

“No thanks.”

“And Kian. If you marry me, he won’t be bothering you.”

She curls her lips at me. “I don’t know anything about you, other than you’re a football player. Where are you from? Are you a creep?”

I list them off on my fingers. “I played football in Seattle, then got traded to the Pythons. I’m a creep. Obviously. I’m asking a stranger to marry me.”

She huffs. “Don’t you want to get married for real someday?”

From deep inside me, an unexpected yearning hits me. I recall being on the field, dead, and seeing a woman showing me a beautiful life, of how I could be alive in a way I’d never experienced before. I remember the feeling of peace and tranquility. Of happiness.

She smirks when I don’t reply. “Guess you’re not a believer in the fairy tale, either, huh?”

“Nope. Which makes us perfect.” I pace around the sidewalk, shoving my hands in my pockets. I’m sure she’s seen how I clench them, and she probably thinks I’m ready to pounce on her. I’m not. I’m fucking nervous. More nervous than I should be. I never dreamed I’d ask a woman to marry me after Divina.

I grab a business card from my wallet and hand it over, avoiding our fingers brushing. “My number is there. You aren’t the only person I’m asking, so don’t take long. I’d like this handled by the end of the week. I also expect discretion. No one can know the details of what I’ve asked you—even if I marry someone else . . .” I let my words trail off as I raise an eyebrow.

She rubs the card between her fingers. “I have competition. Hilarious.”

The silence builds between us. My heart picks up. I expected her to say yes on the spot, but she’s got fire in her.

Which I admire.

I rub my jaw as unease trickles over me. I’m weirded out by what I’ve proposed, and I need to breathe some Emmy-free air.

“Don’t take too long to call me.” As I turn to leave, my hand brushes hers, and an electric thrill ghosts down my arm. I push it down and walk away.

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