The breeze off San Diego Bay ruffled the hem of Adelaide Sinclair’s borrowed white dress. She stood at the wedding arbor in the County Administration Center’s Waterfront Park, holding a single yellow rose, her pulse racing faster than an F/A-18 taking off from Miramar.
Don’t lock your knees.
Passing out during the lunchtime ceremony would be a total wedding faux pas. Not what she needed when she already felt like a complete fraud, fake, liar. Her stomach churned, trying to wash away the guilt.
Clicks sounded—photographs being taken by her friend Emily Rodgers. The digital images weren’t fun shots to be shared via Instagram, but pictures to place in a fancy white album, a remembrance of the wedding day.
Air rushed from Addie’s lungs. Breathe. But less and less oxygen seemed to go into her lungs. Uh-oh.
Do. Not. Lose. It.
Nick Cahill, a close friend since kindergarten, stood next to her. The wind blew the ends of his wavy light brown hair, making him look like a model. He wore black trousers, a slightly wrinkled white dress shirt and a black bowtie. He looked so handsome and groom-like. Well, of course he did, given he was the groom.
He’d been her best bud until middle school, an intermittent crush through high school and her platonic male BFF since then. She never thought she’d be adding her groom to the list.
Addie’s forehead throbbed. Her heart ached. A lump burned in her throat.
I can’t believe this is happening.
Once upon a time, like most little girls, she’d dreamed of marrying her own Prince Charming. She’d imagined a wedding ceremony on the beach at the Del—the Hotel del Coronado—within walking distance from her grandmother’s house where Addie had grown up, hearing waves rolling to shore and seabirds overhead during the ceremony, feeling hot sand beneath her feet and surrounded by loved ones.
But dreams, like life, didn’t always turn out as one planned. She hadn’t finished college. She hadn’t found true love. She hadn’t been able to keep her grandmother alive any longer. The weight of the past four months pressed down on her shoulders and her eyes stung.
Instead of getting married on the beach, she stood in the city park by her friend Nick’s side, listening to noise from the traffic on busy Harbor Drive and a siren somewhere off in the distance. Emily was their sole guest, spending her lunch hour being both a witness to the civil marriage ceremony and the wedding photographer. There wouldn’t be a reception. No first dance, no tiered wedding cake, no bouquet toss, no champagne toast. The only pictures would be the ones Emily took with her new digital SLR camera.
Not that Addie had much of a choice.
With no money, no job and no place to live, Nick’s plan to be married in-name-only for the next five years so he could keep his job, and she could get back on her feet sounded like a gift from heaven. But after exchanging vows and rings with a man who didn’t know the meaning of the word commitment, the desire to be marrying her Prince Charming grew stronger by the second.
Stop. Addie should be . . . grateful. G-R-A-T-E-F-U-L.
Nick’s suit of armor might be tarnished, but he was her white knight today, her hero, rescuing Addie like he was still a Special Forces soldier, only without his Green Beret. A good thing her heart knew not to fall for a heartbreaker like him. The women Nick dated were endangered species that vanished quickly. As his friend, she’d remained a part of his life much longer, twenty-two years and counting. One day, she would find her Mr. Right and marry for real. Until then she needed to . . . chill.
So what if she was putting her dreams of having a family on hold for another five years? That would make finding true love more special.
A smile tugged on her tight lips despite the chaos in her life and her swirling emotions. Thanks to Nick’s generous offer, she would no longer have to sleep on Emily’s couch or spend the day at the library using free computers to apply for jobs or search vending machines for spare change to fill her empty wallet.
His no-sex, married in-name-only proposal had saved her after being attacked by her family of vultures hell-bent on selling her late grandmother’s Coronado cottage—a tiny, teardown perched on a million-dollar piece of property. A house promised to Addie after being Grammy’s caregiver for the past nine years. Too bad promises weren’t worth as much as a piece of Grammy’s cottage pie.
Her grandmother’s wishes had been ignored by Addie’s aunt and mother, neither who visited over the years or contributed to Grammy’s care or attended the funeral. Addie had consulted an estate lawyer about challenging the will, but the slim chance of winning wasn’t worth the expense. Not fair, but then again, life wasn’t.
“You may kiss the bride.”
The Commissioner of Civil Marriage’s words rattled around Addie’s brain.
Kiss. The. Bride.
Addie’s stomach plummeted to the tips of her sparkly silver knock-off Toms, her something new purchased for the wedding. How could she have forgotten the kissing part?
She balled her hands, wishing her one true love stood next to her instead of her best bud. If only this ceremony involved two people exchanging meaningful vows with intent, not a sham with a divorce date decided upon.
Something sharp poked into her left palm. A thorn on the stem of the single yellow rose she held. Yellow—the color of friendship.
Nick was her friend. They’d never kissed beyond a peck on the cheek. Her girlfriends who’d dated him had told Addie that his kisses curled their toes. Her toes hadn’t done anything but crack in years.
He cleared his throat.
“You may kiss the bride,” the commissioner repeated, as if she hadn’t heard him the first time.
But she had.
Anticipation and curiosity surged.
In Cancun after high school graduation, she’d thought he wanted to kiss her. She’d stood on hot sand on a beautiful beach in Mexico, the faint scent of a bottle of Corona on his warm breath, listening to him say he’d enlisted in the army and would be heading to basic training when they returned to San Diego. Oh, how she’d wanted to kiss him, but in typical Nick fashion, he’d backed away and pretended the moment never happened. She’d decided, then and there, to stop crushing and daydreaming about him. Nick would never be anything but her friend. Not even after they said “I do.”
“Come on, Addie. It’s no big deal,” Nick whispered, as if talking about grabbing hot wings and beer after a Padre’s baseball game. “Let’s get this over with.”
Her gaze met his killer baby blues. She inhaled slowly, knowing he was right. Why was she hesitating? She would finally get that kiss she’d wanted. Well, sort of. The kiss like their marriage wouldn’t be real. Addie lifted her chin.
Nick lowered his mouth. His lips touched the left half of her lips and part of her cheek.
For a nanosecond.
He drew back, his eyes darkening for a moment, before returning to their normal color.
Okay, that had been . . . nothing much. Disappointing. No toe curling. Not even a tingle.
Marriage in name only, Addie reminded herself. They’d agreed to a plan and set boundaries. Two friends cohabitating and sharing the benefits of marriage, except the emotional and physical bonds. Not having a reaction to the kiss was good, right? She rubbed the spot of blood away from where the thorn had poked her skin.
“I pronounce you husband and wife,” the Commissioner announced with a relieved smile. “Congratulations. Let’s pose for a quick picture. I have another appointment. I’ll take your marriage license into the office so your wedding can be registered. Certified copies will be available in a week.”
They turned so the wedding arbor was behind them. Nick struck a pose like this was a prom picture, not one from their wedding. Then again, these photographs had been Emily’s idea. The album, too. Neither Addie nor Nick would ever thumb through the pages reminiscing about their wedding day.
“Smile.” Emily snapped at least ten more pictures. “I’ll put the best ones in the album so you can show your future children.”
Addie’s insides trembled. She hoped her outsides weren’t shaking, too. Pretending in front of her friend was hard. She hated lying. “Thanks.”
Emily adjusted the lens on her camera. “Let me take a picture of your wedding rings.”
Addie placed her hand next to Nick’s.
Emily’s forehead creased. “Why aren’t you wearing your grandmother’s ring?”
Addie’s heart panged. Her grandmother had given her the ring, a priceless, thoughtful birthday gift last year. “I sold the engagement ring to cover funeral expenses, remember?”
“Addie wanted matching gold bands like her grandparents wore,” Nick added. “Take the picture.”
“I appreciate you being here, photographing the wedding and loaning me this beautiful dress,” Addie said.
“Least I can do.” Emily aimed the camera at them again. “Even when I dated Nick in high school, I had a feeling the two of you would get married someday. Everyone thought that.”
“Why would you think we’d end up together?” The excitement in her friend’s voice made Addie feel worse about the wedding charade. “Just because we were best friends didn’t mean something romantic was going on.”
He slid his arm around Addie’s waist, his six-foot-tall frame casting a long shadow. He gave her a half-hug, something he’d done for as long as she remembered. “Why wouldn’t we get married? If you remember, I proposed years ago.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Addie said. “But let me refresh your memory with two pertinent details. We were five and in kindergarten. I’m sure there’s a statute of limitations on marriage proposals.”
Emily laughed. “A man who knew what he wanted even back then.”
To date as many girls as possible. Most of them her friends. Addie shook the thought from her head.
“I sure did,” Nick said. “I always knew Addie and I were meant to be.”
The words slipped so easily from his mouth she almost believed them, but this was nothing more than a performance. If Emily thought Nick and Addie were marrying for love, so would the rest of their friends. But all this made her wonder what she’d gotten herself into. Regret and guilt coated her mouth like a cough syrup. She swallowed, but knew the taste would linger a long time. “That’s news to me because I remember your exact words back in kindergarten. You said we’d get married after we were old and fat and no one else wanted us. Not exactly the most romantic proposal.”
Nor had she ever believed his words would come true.
Nick winked. “But memorable.”
“Unforgettable.” Addie looked up at him with a smile. He always made her feel better. “I’ll give you credit for that.”
Emily took another picture, then lowered the camera. “Seriously, you guys are the cutest couple.”
Fake couple. Addie’s smile faltered.
“Yes, we are.” He pulled Addie closer. “Mr. and Mrs. Cahill, a.k.a. the cutest couple ever. We need matching T-shirts made for the honeymoon.”
His playful tone should have brought back her smile. He knew Addie was keeping her name, but heat rushed up her neck anyway. “T-shirts aren’t necessary. We each won a brand new vacation wardrobe along with the honeymoon.”
Emily shimmied her shoulders. “You are going to have the most amazing trip.”
“Thanks to you.” Addie couldn’t believe Emily’s excitement. You’d think she was the bride. Then again, maybe she wanted her couch back and to be roommate-free. “I can’t believe you entered us into a honeymoon contest, and we won an all-expenses-paid, ten-day-long, tropical getaway.”
Anticipation for the trip, Addie’s first vacation in years, had kept her going while dealing with her family and moving her few belongings into Nick’s guest bedroom where she’d be living.
“My pleasure.” Emily curtsied. “You will love Starfish Island. I saw the brochures. It’s beautiful and romantic. Perfect for the two of you.”
Maybe, except once Nick and Addie arrived on the private island resort in the South Pacific, beyond taking a few promo photographs and sharing a bure, the Fijian name for the thatched-roofed cottage, they planned to go their separate ways.
“Yeah, thanks.” Nick dropped his hand from her shoulder. “I was going through the travel documents you gave me. A few pages seem to be missing.”
“Really?” Emily fiddled with her camera strap. “I gave you everything I received from the travel company.”
“Some sort of release was mentioned, but the information wasn’t in the package.”
“I’m sure you have everything.” She dropped a lens cap, then swiped the piece of black plastic from the pavement. “I’ll check when I get home from work and text if I find anything, okay?”
“Thanks,” Nick said. “Seemed a little strange.”
“I know my phone is in here somewhere.” Emily dug through her bag. A package of tissue nearly fell out. She removed her mobile phone, glancing at the screen. “Would you look at the time? My lunch break is almost over. I need to get back to work. Pronto.”
Addie touched her friend’s shoulder. “Wait. Your dress.”
“Keep it. Looks better on you, than me.” Emily took two steps back. Her gaze traveled from Addie to Nick. “Have a great time in Fiji. Send me a postcard.”
With that, Emily disappeared out of the park.
Addie looked at the empty spot where her friend had last stood. “She’s in a hurry.”
“Short lunch break,” Nick said. “Might have a project due. Advertising is a high pressure business.”
“Maybe.” Emily dropping things and rummaging through her purse wasn’t normal behavior for the ultra-organized, always-put-together ad executive. Nothing was out of place in Emily’s apartment or life. Her spice rack and items in the refrigerator were alphabetized and put in order with expiration dates noted. “But she was acting . . . odd.”
“Don’t worry about Emily. She’s always has everything under control.” With his hand at the small of Addie’s back, Nick led her to the street where his truck was parked at a metered spot on the curb. “Come on.”
Typical Nick. Always in a hurry pushing her along when she’d rather hang back. He’d done the same thing during second grade recess every day to make sure they claimed the monkey bars before anyone else. She’d appreciated him bringing her along, and here they were again . . .
Some things never changed, even if their marital status had. Guess she should update her Facebook profile. It’s complicated might be better than married, but that wouldn’t be acceptable to Nick’s boss, who was thrilled his most valuable employee was settling down. Kind of silly if you asked Addie. A wedding ring on Nick’s finger might appease male clients, but a gold band would not make Nick any less attractive to said clients’ wives. But if he kept his dream job and made his boss happy, who was Addie to bring up reality?
A bus dropped off passengers at the corner. A horn honked. Icky smelling exhaust from a passing cement truck made Addie crinkle her nose.
Nick glanced at the gold band on his left-hand ring finger. “I expected being married to feel different, but it’s only been a couple of minutes.”
She looked at her matching wedding band, shiny beneath the afternoon sun. The pleasant summer weather didn’t match her mood at all. “I feel like a Miss, not a Mrs.”
“Well, you’ve got five years to get used to the title.”
That suddenly seemed like a long time to play house. Dating while caring for her grandmother had been impossible. She’d tried a few times over the years. But given up. Still she believed in love, the forever kind that would last a lifetime. Someday she would find that. Someday . . .
He touched her arm. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, just . . .” In spite of her doubts, Addie hoped Nick understood the depth of her gratitude. A week ago, she’d forgotten her key to Emily’s apartment and fallen asleep on the welcome mat leaning against the front door, waiting for her friend to return from a date. “Thanks for everything. I owe you big time.”
“Thank you.” He flashed her a charming smile that sent female hearts aflutter, brought women to their knees at bars and clubs, and convinced Addie to accept his marriage-of-convenience proposal. Not that saying yes took much convincing. Desperation had a way of making a person see the brighter side to any option, including marrying her closest guy friend. “Without legal proof I was a one woman guy, my boss would ship me off to some boring assignment guarding a building or I’d be looking for a new job.”
“I’d be homeless.”
He winked. “You win.”
“We both win and get a free honeymoon out of the deal.” Though the rock in her stomach felt more like dread than relief at the moment.
“True that.” He opened the truck’s passenger door. “Here’s to having fun and being each other’s good luck charm from now on.”
“I like the sound of that.” She hoped his words came true. For years her luck had been bad. Not anyone’s fault, just the way her life had turned out. She was ready for things to be different. “Where to now?”
“Home so we can finish packing our overnight bags.”
Addie climbed up into her seat, careful with the dress. “I still can’t believe we won a honeymoon. We’ll have to buy Emily a nice souvenir.”
Nick walked around the front of the truck and climbed inside. “She’s gone out of her way for us.”
“That’s because she thinks we’re . . .” Addie couldn’t say the words in love. “A cute couple.”
“Yeah.” He fastened his seatbelt. “But we can’t tell her or anyone the truth. Our friends have to believe we’re married for real. My boss, too. I love my job. Six figures to babysit clients in exotic locales is too easy a gig to lose because of a jealous husband.”
The gorgeous, young wife of a client had become infatuated with her handsome bodyguard. The man threatened to take his private security needs elsewhere unless Nick was reassigned. With the man’s connections, other clients voiced similar concerns leading to Nick’s assignments becoming limited. His boss had joked how much easier life would be if Nick were married, but the underlying ultimatum was unmistakable.
So what did the not-interested-in-settling-down bodyguard bachelor do? Propose to Addie. His friend. A sex-less, in name only marriage solved both their problems. In theory at least.
“Did you happen to give the client any reason to be jealous?” she asked.
“No way. I take my job seriously. No messing around. Strictly professional.”
She had no reason not to believe him. Nick had never lied to her. But that meant she knew many of his secrets. “Until you’re off duty.”
He stuck his key in the ignition. “I’m only human, babe.”
“I know.” She was a one-man woman who wanted the happily ever after, pinning her heart on a guy like him would be a disaster. “And you can’t help yourself for being a chick magnet.”
His cheeks reddened. The charming blush reminded her of the boy he’d once been, the boy she’d once loved, her childhood friend. “A cross I must bear.”
She fastened her seat belt, thinking about the cocktail waitress he’d last dated. They’d gone out for two weeks, a new record for him. “I pity any woman who falls in love with you.”
He started the engine. “Funny words coming from the new Mrs. Cahill.”
“In name only, dude. I would never want to be married to you for real.” She knew too much about his dating habits. “No offense.”
“None taken.” He turned on his blinker. “I’ve never wanted to be married for real.”
She remembered when he’d become engaged to a woman named Carrie who’d told him she was pregnant while he was deployed in Afghanistan. Nick, who wanted to do the right thing and be a better dad than his had been, proposed via Skype and sent her his paychecks, only to return home to find a pregnant fiancée, but one who wasn’t far along enough for the baby to be his. She’d been lying and cheating on him the entire time.
Nick never mentioned Carrie, but Addie knew the breakup affected him. He’d left the military when his contract expired instead of reenlisting. His dates never went beyond casual, even back in high school, but they seemed to be more temporary and physical now. But the hookups seemed to satisfy him.
“At least we know where we stand,” Addie said.
He nodded. “There’s no one else I trust enough to marry like this. Things are going to be okay. This will work.”
Addie crossed her fingers. She sure hoped so. Being homeless sucked.
End of Excerpt