Bride for Keeps

by

Nicole Helm

They all said it wouldn’t last….

Sierra McArthur never could have imagined they were right, but ever since her husband’s world was rocked by a family secret, it’s clear that their happily ever after isn’t to be. But one last night of passion with her husband creates a lasting consequence neither of them planned on….

Or is it?

Carter McArthur doesn’t want a divorce. But he doesn’t know how to fix all the mistakes he’s made in the wake of his family’s betrayal. But when a surprise pregnancy gives them one last chance at forever, Carter is determined to make her understand, she’s not his bride by accident. She’s his bride for keeps.

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Sierra looked at the calendar blindly. Five months to the day. Five months since that stupid, stupid meeting. And every month since on the fifth she looked at the calendar and hoped this month would change things.

But it had been five. More months than she cared to admit of acting like a petulant child. Yelling and drinking and embodying the kind of horrible sideshow the McArthurs were hideously embarrassed of. She would have made a major ass of herself at the rodeo in September if Jess and Lina hadn’t stepped in.

It had been satisfying. Sort of. Except Carter had withdrawn further and further, and she didn’t want that. No matter how scared she was that everyone was right—theirs was not a marriage meant to last—she still loved him. Withdrawn and distant, hurt by his actions, she still loved him.

So, on New Year’s Eve, a year after they’d first met, first kissed, she’d made herself a promise. No more tantrums. No more embarrassments. She’d do what Carter wanted, because maybe it was what he needed after finding out his life was built on a lie.

She’d become the perfect McArthur clone this year. She didn’t argue. She didn’t speak out of turn. She didn’t ask why he spent some nights with his parents, and she didn’t complain about his extensive hours at the hospital or with his father. She didn’t ask him for more, or tell him how much she missed him. She didn’t beg him to touch her, because God he hadn’t even tried to hold her hand in months. Months.

After all, what was worse? Hurting and having him or hurting and not having him?

For these few months of good behavior, the answer had been that not having him was worse—the pain of shrinking herself into something small and stifling seemed worth keeping him.

But this wasn’t keeping him, was it? Every day that ticked by she hurt more, and he got further away and…

She looked at the five on the neat little calendar he always kept hanging from a clip on the refrigerator. She’d been awful. She’d been good. Nothing had changed. Didn’t that tell her everything she needed to know?

Her behavior didn’t matter. She didn’t matter to him. Nothing she did would change what he did, and didn’t that mean she shouldn’t keep hoping for more? She wasn’t good enough for him. She’d known that anyway. So, didn’t that mean she had to end it?

Her thoughts revolved around that horrible word these days. End. Carter had never uttered the word divorce. He barely uttered any words, and likely McArthurs didn’t do divorce no matter how unsuitable the wives chosen were. After all, Dr. McArthur had married Carter’s mother even knowing she was pregnant by another man. Because pride and reputation were more important than anything else.

Carter was different than his father. Sierra knew that even now, but as the door squeaked open and she looked at the handsome, if drawn, man who still made her stomach swoop, she wondered if it mattered. If he ignored those parts of himself—the differences, the emphatic heart—it didn’t matter that they existed.

If he saw her the same way his parents did, none of this mattered, did it?

“Hi,” he offered stiffly as she simply stood in the doorway of the kitchen, staring at him. She felt like crying, but that was one of those emotional responses she’d promised herself to stop having in front of him.

She’d save that for later after he fell asleep. If he was even staying here. She’d cry herself to sleep either way.

How was this her life? How could she keep on like this? And yet…just like Carter didn’t speak the word divorce, she didn’t leave. She stayed and contorted, because she kept hoping she could do something to make him love her again.

But maybe that was impossible.

She couldn’t bear the thought, and she didn’t know how to tell him. That her heart was breaking. That she was miserable. Wasn’t it obvious? He was miserable too. But if she opened those floodgates, she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to stop and she’d lose him all the same. Afraid he’d confirm all her fears about herself.

She didn’t know the magic combination of words to make him stay without risking that, so she stayed silent.

“Hi,” she finally replied, her throat tight and her eyes burning with tears.

“I, uh, just stopped in to change. Dad asked me to stay over again. Mom’s…struggling.”

Sierra kept her mouth shut, though Mrs. McArthur’s martyrdom of Dr. McArthur’s illness was already old. MS was hardly a death sentence, that much Sierra had gleaned from reading up on the disease. It certainly didn’t foretell Mrs. McArthur’s own death. It made no sense she needed constant support from Carter.

And see—wasn’t that the thing? This would have come between them regardless of the real father thing. The secrets and the silences. Even if things had been good, Carter would always want to support his mother no matter what she was going through, and Sierra would think she was a dramatic jerk.

They were doomed, regardless of this particular incarnation of that doom.

Carter walked through the living room and toward the hall that led to their bedroom. Sierra followed, though she couldn’t explain why. Panic beat in her chest.

She was going to lose him.

She’d already lost him.

But he was here in their bedroom, shedding his suit jacket as he moved toward the closet.

“Did you need something?” he asked, sounding exhausted and desperate for her answer to be no.

You. I need you. But she didn’t know how to admit it in words. She’d lost all the words in practicing her silences. So, she stood there, desperation clawing at her in an all new way. Five months. Five months of no talking, no smiling, no kissing. Five months of nothing but shadows.

She wanted that irresistible light she’d seen in him when they’d first met, that amazing, inner warmth that had made her forget everything he was, and everything she was.

It had started with that. Warmth, light, and a kiss.

Maybe there was some way it’d bring him back. She shook as she crossed to him, and she couldn’t have explained why kissing her husband seemed like some revolutionary baring of her soul. Why she felt sick with hope when it would be easier to speak, to ask, to demand.

But words…words could be used as weapons, and she’d used her own as weapons enough. A kiss was the only thing she had that didn’t come with a million other pieces of baggage.

So, she walked right up to him, closer than they’d been in months. She touched his shoulder, watched as his eyebrows drew together as he glanced down at her hand there.

Then she did what she considered the bravest thing she’d ever done. She rose onto her toes and pressed her mouth to his. Firm, but gentle, her eyes screwed tightly closed to keep her courage up.

When she fell back to her heels and managed the courage to look up at him, he was standing exactly where he had been, his expression exactly what it had been when she’d touched his shoulder. Baffled.

“What was that for?”

But he didn’t say it accusingly, and there was no censure in his gaze. It was all confusion. She didn’t know what to say, so she did it again. Pressed her lips to his, let all of her love and worry pour into that gentle meeting of mouths.

He was still but not stiff, accepting but not responsive exactly, but this time before she could pull away, he touched her. The lightest brush of his fingertips down her shoulder, then the light pressure of his palm on the small of her back.

She shuddered, hope and relief infusing the moment, prompting her to stay here against him longer than she had with the first kiss.

Finally, his mouth moved against hers, a subtle adjustment so his bottom lip brushed her top one, the slightest flick of his tongue against the seam of her mouth.

She wanted to cry with relief, but instead she moved, pressing herself against him fully. Throwing herself into the kiss more wildly, more insistently, and in that moment it was as if something ignited between them. A desperate heat and need she wasn’t sure had ever been there even before all this mess.

She should dissect it, except she didn’t want to. She wanted to burn in it as his tongue swept into her mouth, as his arm banded her tighter to him. She wanted to forget everything and exist where kisses and attraction were simple. Elemental.

They didn’t talk. She had the fleeting thought they should, but then his hands moved under her shirt, smoothing up her abdomen to her breasts and she figured they could talk later. After all, what was more enjoyable? Exposing horrible emotional wounds or the way he devoured her mouth, a starving man desperate for her?

Her. He hadn’t stopped wanting her at least. And she wanted him. She tore at his clothes, and that seemed to set him off so that he was pulling hers off too.

It was different than it had ever been. Edgy and desperate. Maybe even a little angry. They’d always had good sex, but it had been happy, enthusiastic sex. This was something…darker.

She didn’t mind. Not at all. It made her feel powerful instead of weak, important and elemental instead of inconsequential and small.

They fell to the bed, panting and naked, a tangle of limbs. She crawled on top of him, and she guided him inside, watching as their bodies joined in one long, slick slide.

She gasped. It had been so long and she’d forgotten somehow in the weight of all this awfulness that it could feel good, feel right, to be joined with another person. With him. Even when things didn’t work, this worked. Sierra and Carter worked.

She moved against him, but she didn’t look at him. Fear tangled with all that pulsing want, and she was afraid if she looked at him it would feel like goodbye. It wasn’t an end. It was a hope. Skin to skin, heart to heart.

She had to believe in hope. They wouldn’t be here if he didn’t feel something for her.

He rolled her over, strong and in charge as ever, the complete opposite of what he’d been the past few months. This was Carter. Her Carter.

She reached up and touched his face, allowed herself to look into those blue eyes she loved so much. They were cloudy with desire, his mouth and jaw hard, and there was a moment where she wanted to say something important. Tell him she loved him and that she needed him. Something, anything. Cement them here where things made sense.

But he moved, ruthless and knowing, making words jumble in her head. The orgasm crashed over her in a rush, and he followed on a pained groan, deep inside of her.

He dropped his forehead to hers, something he’d always done in the aftermath. That intimate touch a sign. A promise.

They could fix this. They could. She sighed contentedly. They would. None of this would have happened if things were hopeless.

But when she woke up later in the dark, she was alone in their bed. Carter was gone. His coat. His shoes. Him.

He’d left without a goodbye—not long after she’d fallen asleep if she had to guess by the fact it was only three in the morning.

She lay there for she didn’t know how long, the heavy weight of the truth finally getting through all her fears, all her love, and all her hope.

They couldn’t fix this.

Carter stayed away for a week. It was cowardly. He knew it, and he also knew he should be disgusted with himself for the way he’d bungled things.

He shouldn’t have slept with her. Not now. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind. He hadn’t been able to fully…cope yet.

She deserved a man whose world wasn’t upturned by a family secret. A man who didn’t struggle to sleep and eat because he couldn’t fathom not being what he thought he was.

It was wrong to have given in until he could find a way to fix this dark fog that had enveloped him. He needed to be at his best for her. Strong and in control and the man she’d fallen in love with, not this strange…shell.

But fixing this feeling, emerging from this darkness was eluding him, and he didn’t know how much longer he could simply…exist. But what other options were there?

Like he had for five months, he came up completely and utterly empty. Him. The man who was supposed to be smart and able to diagnose most anything couldn’t find his own solution to his own problem.

“There you are.”

He glanced up at his sister as she strode into the hospital cafeteria. Half-sister. Lina only had a few months left of her residency here, and Carter didn’t think she had plans to stick around Marietta once that was over.

He wondered if Dad had figured that out with everything else going on. Or had Lina used the diagnosis and aftermath to hide her plans? Because their father would not be happy if she left.

Her dad. Not yours.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Lina demanded, fisting a hand on her hip. He’d never envied that edge of hers before, but here in this moment he did. He envied her certainty and her strength when it felt like all his had been sucked out when his father had delivered that blow.

You aren’t really a McArthur. Everything he’d spent thirty-some years trying to be. She was. Cole was. He wasn’t.

“Carter,” Lina repeated.

Carter pushed away his thoughts, looked down at his untouched dinner. “I’m…eating dinner.” Sort of.

“With your wife, you idiot. What the hell are you doing with Sierra?”

Carter didn’t look up from the cafeteria sandwich. “That isn’t any of your business.” Even the mention of Sierra made his brain shut down, leaving a numbness. His body and brain refusing to deal with the pain that ached there. A protective mechanism.

Lina huffed. “For someone who isn’t actually Dad’s blood relation, you sure do sound like him.”

He flicked a glance up at her, but that tiny glimmer of anger faded so fast he wasn’t even sure it was real beyond all the numbness.

“What is wrong with you?” she said. “That should piss you off. Sierra wanting to divorce you should scare the hell out of you.”

“She doesn’t want to divorce me,” Carter replied, without really thinking the words through. But, she couldn’t want…that. Things were bad, but she’d initiated that night last week. She wasn’t going to leave him.

She couldn’t.

“Carter. She’s been to a lawyer.”

“That isn’t true.” It couldn’t be. They’d… They’d slept together. Yes, it had been a mistake and yes, he’d walked away and stayed away for a week, but it meant she cared. She’d made vows. She was supposed to stick with him through thick and thin. That was how this worked.

“You need to talk to her, or you need to get professional help. Actually both.”

“Professional help?” He stared at his sister blindly.

“You’re depressed.”

“I’m not depressed. I’m…” Fine wasn’t the right word, but he couldn’t come up with an alternative that fit what he was feeling.

“Are you sleeping?”

“I—”

“No. Anyone can see that. Eating?”

“I eat.”

“Not enough. Are you enjoying your work, work that you’ve always enjoyed, or are you just going through the motions?”

“I…” He was sure her point was wrong, and yet he couldn’t find an adequate defense of how he was feeling, or his actions.

“You’re depressed, Carter. Talk to your wife, or talk to a therapist, or, like I said, both, but you have to talk to someone. You have to…do something. You can’t keep being this.” She made a hand motion that seemed to encompass his entire being.

Talk to someone? That didn’t change anything. His life was still upended, and talking only ever… He needed to handle this like his father did. Strong. Sure. Calm. Once it was handled, he’d be able to act. “I’m handling it.”

Lina shook her head and handed him an envelope. “Then why am I handing you divorce papers?”

Carter could only stare at the envelope.

“Sierra came here wanting to give them to you herself, but she… Anyway, she asked me to do it. And I agreed so I could try and talk some sense into you.”

“I’m having the worst year of my life and she wants to divorce me?” Divorce. It was hard to make his mouth even move to say that word, because that word conjured up images of a life without Sierra and…

Haven’t you been living a life without Sierra?

“Do you think about anyone but yourself?” Lina asked disgustedly, tossing the envelope next to his tray and onto the table. “Have you given even five seconds of thought to anyone who’s also affected by all this, or is it only about poor Carter?”

This time the spark of anger lit and stayed. “I have been busting my ass to take care of Mom. I have been—”

“Hiding,” Lina finished firmly, looking down at him with such contempt. His little sister who was forever trying to one-up him, and he hadn’t even had to try to make it impossible.

Except she’s his and you’re not.

“You’ve been an ass and a coward, and maybe some of that would be forgivable if you cared about anyone but yourself, but I guess I’ve been wrong all this time. You are just like Dad, biology or no. Nurture versus nature, right?”

And with that, his sister turned on a heel and stormed out of the cafeteria, leaving quite a few eyeballs trained on him.

A spectacle.

Not a McArthur.

Divorce.

Whatever anger had ignited at Lina’s accusation of selfishness evaporated in an instant. He looked at the envelope and tried to picture his life without Sierra in it. Even these past few months when everything had been an awful void, she’d been there. Some little sparkle of hope that a day might come when it didn’t feel like his whole life was falling in on him. She was his hope. The thing that kept all the going through the motions worth it.

At some point he’d wrap his brain around this. He’d feel normal again. Life would… It wouldn’t stay this way. It couldn’t. At some point it’d click again. They just had to be patient and wait for that to happen.

So, no. He refused to accept it. They were not getting divorced.

Now he just had to figure out how to make sure of it.

End of Excerpt