Authors: Linda Conrad
The doctor hesitated a moment and studied Annie. “Nick blames himself for her death. He's given up yachting.”
Oh dear. Now that really was just too sad to contemplate. Besides losing his wife, he also felt guilty enough about her drowning to give up his love of sailing. Annie felt the melancholy creeping over her once more. Poor, cheerless lost soul.
A lump formed in her chest and worked its way up into her throat. She'd been selfish, worrying about marrying a man who didn't love her. He was noble and hurt and, well, she would have to stop thinking of her own problems and start trying to make his life better.
“Maybe I can help him get over his fear of water,” she told the doctor. That was only one small thing she intended to do to help him.
Doctor Gamble tilted his head and smiled. “You know, I think maybe you might just be the one to do that.”
Nick was driving his Jeep on their way back to the main house. “You're awfully quiet,” he said to her after ten long minutes of utter silence. “Are you unhappy about the wedding plans?”
The sky was overcast, and whenever the ocean came into view, tiny whitecaps frothed the water as if it were the top of a newly poured glass of beer. Annie had been daydreaming about finding a way to break the evil spell Nick was under.
Maybe that's why she'd found her way to this island in the first place. She could've been sent here by some magic in order to bring him back into the world.
Nick took her hand. “Are you okay with getting married by the magistrate the day after tomorrow? Would you rather fly to the States and find a priest to marry us?”
“What? No. Thanks for asking, Nick, but a priest would want us to go through classes and preparations. Being married the day after tomorrow will be better.”
He pulled the Jeep in beside the pool house and turned to face her. “Annie, I'm sorry this wedding won't be like the ones you've always dreamed about. But I want to make it as special as I can on such short notice. Will you let me try?”
Lifting her hand to his mouth, he turned it over and
tenderly kissed her palm. As he did, he lifted his eyesâthose twinkling, smiling bluesâto check her reaction.
And boy was she reacting. Tiny tingles shot all over her body, just as if she'd been dropped whole into the same frothy beer glass that was foaming up the ocean.
In the next moment, Nick's look turned sweet instead of hot. “You and my mother can take care of your wedding outfit. I'll do everything else.” He released her hand and grinned. “Just plan on meeting me back at the magistrate's office at 10:00 a.m. the day after tomorrow, okay?”
She nodded, struck dumb by his beautiful, sincere expression.
“Good.” He turned to open the door, but thought of something else and turned back to her. “You will be moving back into the main house after the wedding. Back to my bed. Won't you?”
“If that's what you want, Nick.” Even though she said those words and had agreed, the nagging thought that they were rushing into something began to swim in her head.
He stilled and frowned at her. “I want you to want it as well. I intend for our marriage to be a real one.”
“Do you?” She had never wanted anything more in her life. But she had a queasy feeling that it wouldn't be that simple. “Then I'll be glad to move back to your bed.”
If there was one good thing they had together, it was sex.
As far as the rest of their lives wentâ¦wellâ¦they would just have to see how strong this spell was compared to how badly she wanted to break it.
The next two days went by in a blur for Nick. He couldn't remember when he'd had such fun. Planning
a quickie wedding didn't take much effort. But planning for a reception and honeymoon that was designed especially for Annie took a lot of thought and then some fast action.
His mother had helped with a few of the ideas, but he'd molded them to fit Annie's personality. He'd contacted people he hadn't even thought of in years. People who seemed genuinely pleased to help.
And he found ways to spend more money in two days than he'd spent in the past two years. Grinning to himself, he'd decided it had been a pure pleasure. It made him wonder why he hadn't thought to have this kind of fun before now?
The answer hit him dead center between the eyes, and dropped like a anchor straight to his heart. Christina.
She had never cared about money or the things it could buy. Their marriage ceremony had certainly been a huge, overinflated and expensive production. But it hadn't been planned by either one of them. Their parents had made all the arrangements.
During the years they were married, Christina never cared about material things and had even seemed rather bored when receiving gifts. At the time, Nick thought he admired her for rejecting her parents' devotion to money and the things it could buy.
But looking back, he remembered that never being able to give her anything had created a terrible frustration inside of him. There was nothing he could ever have done to make her happy.
In fact, the only time he remembered seeing Christina smile was when he agreed that she could come
here to the island to live and build her research center. It had finally been something he could truly give her.
But she'd meant to live here permanentlyâwithout him. When at last he'd figured out her real intention, he came to the island to confront her and demand she find something else that she would enjoy doingâwith him.
A cold sweat of guilt suddenly broke over Nick, leaving him blinded by the demons of memories. Everything he'd ever found pleasure in had been tainted by his selfishness toward Christina.
Sailing. The ocean. His work in Alsaca.
Now, instead of honoring her memory the way he'd intended, soberly and quietly, he was actually enjoying himself and spending money in a way that Christina would not have approved. He gulped down the ache that lodged itself in his chest and squared his shoulders.
His child was on the way, he reminded himself sternly. And a woman, who was very much alive, needed him to be strong. In a few short hours he and Annie would be married.
Though they would be marrying without love, Nick was determined that their relationship would not only be filled with honor, the same way his parents' marriage was, but would also be built around respect and trust. Whenever he looked into Annie's eyes, he was sure that he could trust her.
If he could just manage to control his own selfish desires, Annie would never have to suggest that they separate to find happiness. Their relationship would last.
He would just have to put all the black memories of his failure with Christina into a corner of his mind.
Then he could pull them out to inspect in some future quiet moment when it was much more appropriate. And remind himself of the error of his ways.
nnie's knees were shaking as she stood with Nick's mother in the anteroom of the three-room single-story building that served as the island's courthouse, magistrate's office and jail. It was going to take more than a magic spell to get her through this ceremony in one piece.
Where were all the leprechauns and elves with their magic when you needed them the most?
She still had a few minutes left to back out of the deal. But for the past hour, Elizabeth had not been far from her side, and had been keeping a firm hand on her shoulder. Annie couldn't bear to see the older woman be disappointed.
Nick's mother had been so kind, helping her choose this princess-style dress from a store in St. Thomas. It wasn't all that fancy, made out of a sheer cotton and not
cut from silk or satin. But it was long, down to her ankles, and was the most gorgeous swirling shades of amethyst and evergreen Annie had ever seen.
She felt like a real storybook heroine in this dress. And not at all like a woman who was about to be sentenced to live a long, dreary life without love.
Running away was out of the question. Annie had to keep reminding herself that she was still on an island with nowhere to run.
Just then, she heard a flute begin to play. The music was an otherworldly sound and gave her chills. But within minutes the melancholy sounds were joined by other instruments and the beat turned noisily happy instead of quietly sad.
The music itself seemed so out place in this tiny austere office space that Annie nearly giggled as the pace picked up. A grin spread out over her face and she wondered for a second if she was dreaming.
“That's an Irish jig,” she exclaimed, turning to Elizabeth for confirmation.
“Yes, he's trying hard to please you,” Nick's mother replied with a bittersweet smile. “You may have to give him a little time to come around, sweetheart. His guilt is still fresh and stays quite near the surface. It drives him to be a bit too pushy. But he does care for you.”
Time, Annie thought with chagrin. She'd never been known for her patience.
But the idea that he had gone out of his way to find a musician to play special tunes just for her, managed to calm her nerves. The panic was stashed aside for the time being.
“I care for him too, Elizabeth,” she said quietly. “As
a matter of fact, I love Nick very much and probably fell for him from the first moment I met him. He can have all the time he needs. The rest of my life if necessary.”
The words had come spilling out, but she realized she'd meant them from the bottom of her heart. Annie had been trying to pretend that his not loving her didn't matter. That because she was getting married away from her family in a quickie ceremony, a quickie divorce would be a logical way out if necessary. But now she knew it wasn't true.
It all mattered. Because Nick mattered. Too much.
Nick's mother hugged her tightly. “Thank heaven,” she whispered in her ear. “He deserves to be loved like that. But he won't make it easy to love him. His first tendency always is to control the situation and people around him. Just like his father.”
Annie leaned back and smiled at her. “Don't worry. That won't change the way I feel.”
“Then take a little motherly advice, dear.” Elizabeth's eyes were filling with tears but they were also twinkling with happiness. “Don't let him know he has your love just yet. Make him work for it. Drag him kicking and screaming into the freedom of love, chasing you.”
The music's tempo changed and the door to the larger courtroom opened. Nick stood there, holding his hand out to her.
“Are you ready?” he asked solemnly. He looked so handsome in his white tuxedo jacket that she nearly broke down and wept.
They hadn't seen each other in two days, but at the
moment it felt more like a lifetime. He had just stepped out of her dreams, looking exactly like the Prince Charming she'd always wished would come sweep her off her feet.
Annie quickly turned and kissed his mother's cheek. “Thank you, Elizabeth. Thank you for everything.”
Then she took Nick's hand. “Yes, I'm ready.”
Nick managed to get through his vows and held his breath waiting until Annie said hers. He'd asked the magistrate to make the ceremony a little more formal than usual, hoping to please Annie and make it seem more real for her.
He could feel the sweat beading on his forehead and hoped she wouldn't notice his shaky hands when he put the ring on her finger. Everything had to be just right. Nick knew this wasn't the best way to begin a marriage, but he'd be damned if some little detail would go wrong and make her regret that she'd agreed to become his wife.
Looking down at Annie's sweet face, he tried to focus on what was going on around them. “Huh?”
“The ring, son,” the magistrate said with a smile.
“Oh, right.” This one was easy.
He'd made a quick trip to the family jeweler in Miami yesterday, but couldn't manage to find anything that looked even remotely like it would belong on Annie's finger. In desperation, he'd gone to his mother for advice. She came up with the perfect solution.
Reaching into his pocket while keeping watch on Annie's expression, he withdrew his great-aunt Lu
cille's three-carat emerald ring and placed it on her finger. Later he would tell Annie that the moment he'd seen it again he had been positive it should be hers.
As a boy, he'd always found peace whenever he and his mother went to visit Lucille. She was kind and generous and he could hide away from his father's strict rules while he was in her house.
He remembered admiring her ring one day and was amazed when his mother told him Lucille had left it to him to give to his wife. The colors in the gem matched exactly the colors in Annie's eyes.
Annie gasped as she got a good look at the ring on her finger. And when she lifted her eyes to his, he saw something that made him feel much better about this whole wedding.
Annie was happyâtruly happy about marrying him. It was as clear as the bright sunshine there in her eyes and it gave him a faint ray of hope that everything would eventually turn out okay. That they could make a life and a home without love.
After a few more words were said, it was time to kiss the bride. This was the part he'd been looking forward to for daysâweeksânow.
He reached out and slowly drew her to him. She was as soft as a cloud in his arms. Her breast pressed against his chest and his whole body tightened. Inappropriately.
After giving her a quick, hot kiss, he stepped back. This was not the time or place. Not with his mother, the magistrate and the entire research team in attendance. But Annie blinked her eyes and swayed toward him.
Afraid that she might collapse right here, he took her elbow, pulling her close. “You all right?” he whispered.
“What? Oh, yes. Just a little dizzy.” She smiled at him and his own knees wobbled.
“She hasn't eaten much today,” his mother said from behind him.
Nick turned to the magistrate. “We're married, right?”
He returned his attention to Annie. “Then your carriage awaits, madame.” Waving his arm with a wide flourish he led her out into the bright daylight.
“Oh, Nick, what have you done?” Annie said with a sigh when she saw his Jeep waiting at the door.
Sweeping her up in his arms, he lifted her into the back passenger seat of the completely made-over vehicle. A couple of the island's carpenters had spent the last two days building an old-fashioned carriage over the frame of his old Jeep. There weren't any horses on the island. But other than that small difference, the thing would've passed for something right out of one of her fairy-tale books.
Rob Bellamy drove them through the streets of the village on the way up to the main house. Nick hadn't planned it, but many of the islanders came out to stand by the side of the road and wave as they went by. It seemed to make Annie happy to wave back.
“I feel just like Cinderella,” she laughed.
He reached over and took her hand. “You are much more beautiful than any princess in a book.”
Her smile faded and she eased her hand from his grasp. “Why didn't your father come to the wedding, Nick? Wasn't there enough time for him to get here? We could've waited an extra day or two for him.”
“I didn't invite him,” he told her in a voice that sounded rougher than he'd meant. “And since you didn't invite your family, either, I think we're even.”
She turned her head and silently stared out the window.
“It'll be just a few more minutes without food,” he said, trying to coax her out of her silence. “I don't want you fainting in the middle of your wedding reception.”
“We're having a reception?”
“Well, it won't be a huge party. But the chef has been secretly cooking up some pretty exotic dishes for the buffet. I think he wants to impress you.”
Annie smiled, but it didn't go all the way to her eyes. “I'm already impressed by him. He's terrifically talented. You're lucky to have him.”
And he was beyond lucky to have her as well, he thought. But he didn't know how to tell her that.
“A reception will be wonderful, and it's almost as much a surprise as this carriage was,” she told him. “But you didn't need to go to so much trouble. This was just supposed to be a fast, shotgun wedding.”
“A shotgun wedding? What's that?”
She laughed and the sound stirred his blood again. “That's an old American saying for a wedding where the bride is already pregnant. It's a kind of joke about her father holding a gun to the groom's head to be sure he doesn't run out on the bride before they can make it legal.”
Instead of making him laugh, the idea sobered him. “I don't see that as humorous,” he told her. “There should be nothing funny about doing your duty.”
“Oh for heaven's sake,” she said with a chuckle.
“Lighten up. We're married. You've done your duty and your honor is intact.”
He didn't want her first thought to be about responsibility when she remembered this wedding, and he was sorry the subject had come up.
Trying to change it, he said, “I'm glad you liked the carriage idea and the reception should be pleasant enough.”
He really hoped the party would be quick, moving them on their way to a surprise honeymoon trip. He couldn't wait to get his hands on Annie once again. To sink into her warmth and slide into her open arms.
“But wait until you find out about your next surprise,” he continued with a smile. “That'll be the best one yet.”
“Another surprise? It couldn't be as nice as this ring was. Nothing could top that.” She held her hand out and waggled her fingers with a wide grin on her face.
Oh, yeah, he thought, fighting back the sudden yearning to kiss her senseless. Having her back in his arms was definitely going to be the best part of the whole damn day.
The food was truly fabulous, but she'd been too keyed up to do more than just taste it. Apparently, every single man, woman and child on the island had needed to drop in to pay their respects and wish the happy couple a good life. Her face was numb from smiling at everyone.
Annie was more than a little relieved when the crowds finally dispersed and she could kick off her shoes. But then it suddenly occurred to her that she didn't know what to expect next.
Would she and Nick just settle in and be at home? She'd packed a small bag, enough to get by for tonight and tomorrow. But maybe Nick would want her to move the rest of her things into his quarters right away.
Beyond that, what else would he expect? This was their wedding night, after all.
Too embarrassed to ask him his plans, Annie sank into one of the armchairs in the dining and reception room and waited. In the back of her mind, that same low warning that Nick was pushing too hard and leaving her out of the decision making came back to taunt her.
She looked around at the rich furnishings and the expensive artwork and began to worry that this marriage didn't have a chance in hell of lasting past their child's birth. They were from such different backgrounds.
“I have asked a servant to pack a few of your things for the trip, Annie. I hope you don't mind, but I knew you wouldn't have time.” Nick's mother had slipped beside her while she'd been daydreaming.
“Trip?” Had she missed an entire conversation?
Elizabeth slid an arm around her shoulders. “Don't tell me Nicholas hasn't told you about your honeymoon trip yet?”
“Honeymoon?” Annie felt like a parroting child, not quite able to keep up with the grown ups' conversation.
Elizabeth frowned and hugged her close. “You are much too sweet and accepting, dear. If that son of mine ever ends up offending you or doing something else equally stupid, I swearâ¦”
“I'll be fine,” Annie protested. “I'm not some young innocent who needs protecting. I deliberately took a job that moved me a thousand miles from home so that I
could prove I can take care of myself. I'm a lot stronger and tougher than my family ever gave me credit for.”
She looked up into her new mother-in-law's concerned eyes. “I can hold my own with your son, too.” Patting Elizabeth's arm, Annie smiled up at her. “I love him, but I will never be anyone's doormat. Please, don't worry.”
Elizabeth's eyes filled with tears. “His father and Iâ¦” She shook her head and swallowed back a sob. “You and I need to have a long talk. But not tonight. Tonight is for celebrating.”
Nick appeared in the doorway from the kitchen. “The pilot is ready to leave when you are, Annie.” Then he turned to his mother. “I had Annie's suitcases stowed on the plane. Is there anything else that we need to do before we go?”
Elizabeth straightened and folded her arms over her chest. “You need to start talking to your wife before you make all the decisions for her. In fact, you might want to ask her now if she even wishes to accompany you on this trip. I'm not sure
would if I were her.”