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“I have to admit, he did a really great job. I’m not sure how he did it, but everything looks incredible. Definitely what I picture when I think of a wedding. And you…” His eyes, the same colour as his pale grey suit, softened. Then heat darkened them as they roamed her. “You look…radiant.”
He gently brushed his fingers over her immaculate curls, then her bare shoulders. She couldn’t help a small smile as she looked up at him. Her heartrate instantly doubled. Bending down, he gripped her waist and pulled her up onto him with a swish of her skirts. Her head fell into his shoulder as he touched her bare back, which he had never been able to do. He kissed her deeply as the world turned to stars and she hung on to him for dear life. The way his fingers trailed her spine made every part of her come alive.
“Mmm,” he breathed. “Now I see why you’re not supposed to see the bride on your wedding day. We’d never make it up the aisle.” He nibbled her neck, and her body arched. Pulling his head to hers, she let the passion of their lips bring them to the edge of agony. He was holding her so tightly that it would have hurt, if not for how good it felt. She felt possessed. Claimed.
“It’s times like these I really hate your no-sex thing,” she moaned as he nuzzled his lips against her jaw, in the way he knew she liked. His beard tickled her neck, and she wanted the sensation on her everywhere. “Ben…”
He drew back, gently cradling her face, and raised an eyebrow. “I mean…”
She laughed unstably. “We can’t. Not just for sex.”
“Okay.” He went back to kissing her fervently until she was a languid curve in his arms once again.
“It wouldn’t even be legally binding,” she panted. “There’s no way that little twerp could have gotten a marriage license without us knowing. Unless – mmm…unless he scammed the registry office somehow.” Lanie would be really impressed if he had managed to do that. Ben ran his hands along her arms, raising goosebumps. She shook her head. “Remember! The prenup!”
“I’m not arguing,” he purred against the hollow of her throat. Then he turned her so that her back was to his chest, and dipped his head to graze the back of her shoulders. “Just enjoying your body. To the extent that I can. Just contemplating whether I’ll have to wait another year before I can – ” He cut himself off, mouth frozen on her flesh.
She pushed him. “You’re teasing me! You’re trying to seduce me into marrying you.”
He roused himself. Grinning, he touched his forehead to hers. “Isn’t it working?”
“That’s not the point, and you know it.” She glared at him, chest heaving.
Kissing her hand, he sat back, his expression becoming more serious, and she was grateful for the space. “I don’t want to force you into anything you don’t want to do. I just know that I’m in love with you, and I really want to be with you. And apparently, your son wants that, too.” There was something odd about his expression.
“We haven’t even been on a proper date.”
“Didn’t that river picnic count?” Then he groaned. “That whole thing was Dre’s idea! He’s the one who told me to invite you.”
“No, that was just a casually orchestrated rendezvous in the middle of the day. We weren’t even dressed up.”
“Then I don’t think it gets much better than this. Great food. Music. Both of us looking like we stepped out of a magazine. Even if you don’t want to get married today, we can still enjoy ourselves.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to…but we literally can’t.”
A tender, sweet kiss. “Well, one day I want to be the kind of husband you dreamed of as a little girl, and provide everything you could ever desire. Even if I don’t hold a candle to you financially, I can give you all my love, and attention, and care. I can still buy you things. I can make sure you feel special. Treasured. I have no idea what you put in that scrapbook, but maybe you can help me learn what you want. I hope in the future you’ll give me the chance to spend the rest of my life getting to know you and Dre. There’s nothing I want more than to share everything with you, and be a real father to him. At some point.”
“Stepfathers are evil.”
He chuckled. “I don’t plan to be a stepfather, remember? I plan to really be his father. Not someone who ‘stepped’ into the picture and tolerates him. But as someone who loved him even before you and I started…whatever this is. And we already know that Dre likes me. He likes the two of us together. Exhibit A.” He touched the top of her gown, right at the border of her bodice. “Today, when I thought something had happened to him, I…I realized just how much I love him. I was scared to think about it until now. I don’t like the idea of being grafted into a family again. But the thing is, all my foster homes were always supposed to be temporary. I wished I could have a redo with Lilah and with the Santos family, who wanted to make it permanent, and I was too scared to let them love me. But I’m not doing that again.”
She stroked his cheeks, her heart so full of emotion for him that she could barely speak. “You deserve to have a family, Ben. You deserve everything you want in life.”
He put his forehead to hers, and took a breath. “Just a fun fact. Did you know…If there’s no line, it takes less than half an hour to get a marriage license? And I know there’s such thing as a postnup, and we can take our time with it, and make a really good plan that includes the three of us. I should probably make a will myself, while we’re at it. Got to protect my little nest egg.”
Her heart raced. What he was suggesting was…crazy. Ben and Dre were both crazy. And she was crazy for even considering it. What if he changed his mind about the postnup? What if he changed his mind about her? Dre? What if he really was a monster under all of this? She’d seen his dark side. She’d seen him lose his temper, and say hurtful things, and bring out that nastiness in herself that she could barely keep a white-knuckle grip on sometimes. A darkness within that even he didn’t know the extent of.
“What if you hurt us?” she whispered, barely audibly, unsure if she even wanted him to hear. “I’m not the person who made that scrapbook.”
“I know you’ve grown up, but I can still imagine that little girl part of you even now. A girl who just wants to be accepted, and loved, and cherished.”
“No, my love. I am captivated by all of the layers, all of the dimensions of you. You know you don’t need to be a warrior around me. I admire your vulnerability just as much as your strength.”
“I have no business getting married. I need to get back to the Towers…” But then she realized she couldn’t. Not anymore. Not after the bomb she’d dropped.
“Why can’t we do both? We already know that we work well together on missions.” She snorted, but he waved her off. “And like you said, we can’t take Dre anywhere too dangerous, but now you know that he’ll be safe with me or one of our friends here.”
She was quiet for a moment. “It’s just hard to believe that anyone would ever actually want to marry me. No one ever has before.”
“I find that hard to believe. I’m sure there’s at least a hundred guys out there who just couldn’t open their mouths, because they got tongue-tied by your beauty, intelligence, and power. I’m sure they’re in too much awe.”
“And you’re not?”
Unable to keep from touching her, he skimmed his lips over her shoulder and down her upper arm, that insidious tattoo that mapped out her sins. “Oh, you bet I am. You make me shake in my boots. I wasn’t sure I would survive the first week when I met you. But I’ve decided not to let my fear or sense of inadequacy stop me. Every fibre of my being wants to be with you, and if I don’t speak, I will basically explode.”
She could feel her resistance crumbling, her will bending toward his, her heart absorbing his words. She fought harder, not knowing why she didn’t just leave. Walk away. Then there would be nothing to argue about.
But maybe she wanted to be convinced. Now was the time to see what he would say; his answers had been satisfactory so far. And he didn’t seem to be forcing her. He wasn’t telling her that she should marry him. That if she didn’t, it was something bad, or that he would be done with her. He said that if she wanted, they could just go out and enjoy the party, and tell everyone that this was a big misunderstanding.
Of course, these last few weeks, ever since Ben came back from the hospital, she had been pondering this question. Mostly because he said he wouldn’t sleep with her. She had really tried to consider whether she could picture herself married to him. What kind of life they would have. How he would treat her. Was this a man she would want to marry?
He watched her, and though she was pretty sure she kept her face impassive, he still read her thoughts. “Haven’t I proven myself to you, Lanie? Surely, you must know how sincere I am. I know you’re worried about trusting me, about being trapped. But that’s the last thing I want for either of us. I believe we can grow together.”
“I don’t want to let you down.” She gazed at her lap.
He hugged her to him, and she returned the embrace, enjoying it, even if it was getting hot in here. “I’m sure we will continue to make each other angry. Disappoint and frighten each other. But you’ll never let me down, Lanie. I’ll remember why I married you. I’ll remember everything I love about you. We’ll let each other grow and change together, and stay strong.”
“I haven’t ever even considered marrying anyone but you. But I’m damaged goods. Our marriage will fall apart, somehow or another. Even ones with normal people do.”
“I love you, no matter what your past is. Just like you told me that you don’t care about mine. I’ll keep the promises, if we make them. I promise you right now that if you ever feel unsure about us, or if we’re in a fight, just say August 28th. If today ends up being the day we get married, anyway. That’s our safe word. Even if we’re angry with each other, we’ll stop, and remember, and try to come back at things from this place. Right here. I promise to always come back, to always cherish you. The only thing is whether you can promise the same.”
She thought about it. He seemed so sure, and her heart was putty in his hands. So was her soul. Her mind. Her literal body. Everything.
I owe you my whole, empty, meaningless life.
That night. Months and months ago. The whole reason she decided she couldn’t leave his side. Why she was so invested in making sure that he had everything he needed, and wanted, and that he got better. Even back then, she had felt this bond between them. Before then. Their souls were connected by the promise of his blood on her hands, and the life he would have so easily given up for her, and the way he played guitar with his eyes closed as a chubby teen. She gazed at him, nearly unable to contain her emotions.
“Plus,” he added cheekily, brushing her arms, and she tried to remember what they had been talking about, “if I ever do anything to hurt you or Dre, I know that you’ll hunt me down. I’m not about to mess with a lethal weapon.” He pulled her down, and they kissed again, hums and soft cries of frustration and desire and longing reverberating between them.
“There’s only one problem,” Lanie panted, pulling away. “There’s no one to marry us.”
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