Home for a Soldier
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by Tatiana March
Description: Grace Clements is unemployed, lonely and broke. When she agrees to marry Rory Sullivan before he ships out to Iraq, she expects nothing but a Las Vegas wedding, a key to his New York apartment, and a divorce two years later. Instead, she gets a three-day honeymoon and a heart full of dreams of what could be... if he loved her. Ten years ago, Rory Sullivan lost someone he loved. He gave up a life of wealth and privilege and joined the army. Hiding behind a wall of isolation, he avoids all emotional ties - until injury sends him home to recuperate. Home to Grace, whose quiet dignity and gentle concern break through his defenses. As Rory fights his feelings, his gruff resistance drives Grace away. But even when he believes she has betrayed him, he can no longer forget her. Can he make peace with his past in order to win back his wife?
eBook Publisher: Resplendence Publishing, LLC, 2010 2010
eBookwise Release Date: April 2010
109 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [219 KB]
Reading time: 135-189 min.
Grace Clements stared at her sister's radiant face.
"I'm getting married," Debbie gushed. "Married." She lingered over the word, as if sharing a miracle.
"Of course you're getting married." Grace grabbed the sleeve of Debbie's parka and yanked her sister across the threshold before slamming the door on the howling January wind that heralded another New Jersey snowstorm. "You told me all about it at Christmas, remember? I tried to persuade you not to go ahead with it, but as usual, you ignored me."
"No, no. You don't understand." Debbie shook her head so hard the jaunty wool cap perched atop her dark curls tumbled off. "I'm getting married to Doug. He proposed on New Year's Eve."
Grace crouched to retrieve Debbie's hat. "What about this other guy?" she asked as she slowly straightened. Her fingers curled tight around the damp wool. She already knew what would come next, and her heart beat in heavy thuds that reverberated all the way down to her stomach.
"Well, I was hoping that you..." Debbie's words trailed off. Her mouth pulled into a pout that hovered between speculation and embarrassment.
Grace sighed. It was always the same. Debbie got herself into trouble, and good old big sister would have to rescue her. "No," she said with emphasis. "Count me out."
"But, Gracie." Debbie's voice rose with the enthusiasm of a spoiled child who'd grown into a beautiful woman and always got her way. "Who else am I going to find at such short notice? The wedding's supposed to be on Saturday."
"I'm not marrying a stranger. Find somebody else."
"Grace, think. All he wants is a wife, so that when he's sent to Iraq for two years, he can keep his rent-controlled apartment. He pays less than a quarter of market rent, but he can't sublet or leave the place empty. The only way he gets to hold on to the apartment is by marrying and letting his wife live there until he gets back."
Grace drew a deep breath. Stale cooking odors wafted out from the kitchen and filled her nostrils. She glanced around the hallway. Two mountain bikes had streaked the narrow passage with mud, and a jumble of shoes and sneakers littered the floor. Out of the six people sharing the ramshackle house in Jersey City, five showed no respect for order or cleanliness.
"Just think," Debbie carried on, attacking Grace's hesitation. "You could live in a nice apartment, rent-free for two years. You could start saving for another deposit to buy your own place."
"Rent-free?" Grace asked, and mentally shoved aside the legal, practical and moral problems the arrangement would create. She had no boyfriend, no job. She needed something to cling to, a hope for a brighter future. The dream of buying her own home sprang to life underneath the ashes of failure where she'd buried it six months ago.
"Yes," Debbie said. "If he marries before he takes up the post, he's entitled to a family allowance on top of his overseas pay. He's agreed to pay the rent."
"Which is more, the rent or the family allowance?" Grace asked.
Debbie fidgeted with the edge of her sleeve. "The allowance is much more. I tried to get him to share, but he'll only go as far as paying the rent."
"Here's the score." Grace jutted out her chin in a stubborn gesture that everyone in the family knew marked her last word on a subject. "Tell this guy I'll step in and marry him, but he needs to improve the terms. I'm not going to get involved in a fake marriage and end up a divorcee without proper compensation. I want the family allowance."
She paused for effect. "After all, that's what the allowance is for. To support his wife while he is away."
"I'll tell him." Debbie's brow furrowed. "What if he says no?"
Grace shrugged. "He's welcome to pick someone else. I wish him good luck in finding a woman he can trust. Someone who won't double-cross him by claiming alimony when he gets back from Iraq and it's time to file for a divorce."
"I'll tell him." Debbie shifted uncertainly on her feet. "If he says yes, do you promise to fly out to Vegas on Friday and marry him on Saturday?"
Grace huffed. "I just said I would. When I have ever broken my word?"
"Never," Debbie muttered.
Grace noticed Debbie's discomfort and hardened her heart. Her little sister was flighty and unreliable, and it shouldn't be wrong to occasionally remind her of the fact, even though Grace always ended up feeling guilty over her harsh words.
"What's this guy's name anyway?" she asked on a resigned sigh.
"Rory. Rory Sullivan."
Grace nodded. Rory Sullivan. She tasted the name on her tongue, her gaze drifting over her sister's pretty features. It might be a marriage in name only, but apprehension filled her as she wondered what Rory Sullivan would think when instead of Debbie with her feminine curves and airhead ways, he encountered a woman who at five foot eleven towered over many men. A woman who would never fill the bodice of a dress, who cut her own hair, and who remained clueless about make-up. Who until six months ago had earned her living as a statistician for an insurance company, and who regarded solving simultaneous equations as a form of entertainment.
Grace shoved her hands through her bluntly chopped tresses. Why worry she might not be Rory Sullivan's dream woman? Their interaction would be limited to a wedding and a divorce, and twenty-four monthly payments in between.
"Are you sure this guy can be trusted?" She frowned at Debbie. "He won't land me with a stack of unpaid bills, or expect me to look after his colony of pet hamsters, or turn up on the doorstep demanding his conjugal rights?"
Debbie smiled and nodded as she drew her gloves back on, getting ready to leave. "Don't worry, Gracie. Doug's known him for years. He swears Rory Sullivan is a fine, upstanding citizen."
"All right." Grace shifted her shoulders in an uneasy shrug. "If he meets my terms, you can give him my name and email address. He needs to pay for the plane ticket. I'm broke."
"I already gave him your details." Debbie pretended to be struggling with her gloves, but at least she had the decency to blush. "He has loads of frequent flyer miles. He'll book you an e-ticket and email it to you."
When the door slammed shut after Debbie, Grace stood still. How had it happened? Despite her determination not to get involved, once again she'd been landed with Debbie's mess.
* * * *
The crowd at McCarran Airport jostled toward Baggage Claim. Businessmen with briefcases cut through the throng of holidaymakers. Bachelor parties, dressed in matching T-shirts with rude slogans printed on the front made their way forward in rowdy groups.
Grace slipped the printout from the pocket of her baggy jeans and struggled to unfold it with one hand, while lugging her overnight case with the other. She slowed her pace, dragging her sneakers against the floor as she fumbled for her glasses in another pocket and perched them on her nose. She'd removed her contacts on the plane because the dry air bothered her eyes.
Re: Wedding on Saturday. Little White Wedding Chapel booked for 7 p.m. Tickets to follow. American Airlines out of Newark. I'll meet you in the arrivals area on Friday afternoon. Rory Sullivan.
Her jaw clenched. What was she doing, marrying a stranger? A man so unfamiliar to her that he had signed their only communication with his full name? She had no idea of how to even identify him, since she hadn't had the foresight to ask for a photograph.
Past security, a commotion on the left drew her attention. A group of ruffians milled at the back of the waiting crowd, yelling and whistling. She veered to the right to avoid the trouble, but the stream of people pushed her toward the exit, past the idiots making the racket.
Her feet froze to the floor and her stomach turned to ice.
Surrounded by a bunch of jerks wearing jeans and shorts and T-shirts in various colors, but in a universal state of disrepair, a big man swayed on his feet, so drunk that two of his buddies had to prop him up. An unbuttoned white cotton shirt spilled out of his jeans, the tails flapping wide. Over his broad chest, a cardboard sign hung suspended on a string.
Decorated with two red hearts, it spelled out
* * * *
Grace squeezed her eyes shut. Before she recovered enough to sneak past the idiots and catch the next flight back to Newark, her stunned expression must have given her away, because like a swarm of locusts, the ragtag army descended on her. One grabbed the overnight case from her hand. Another yanked the tote bag from her shoulder. A third shoved her at the hoodlum towering in the center, who effortlessly scooped her into his arms.
The air left her lungs with a whoosh as she slammed against his solid chest. His arms curled like a cage around her. The world tilted and spun. With rowdy yells of victory, the entire platoon trooped to the exit.
Grace stared at the face that hovered above hers. The man had turned to talk to someone behind him, so she could see little but the curve of a high cheekbone and a sliver of tanned skin. Faded to gold at the top, his coppery hair hung too long for army regulations. He stumbled, almost fell, but several of his buddies rushed up to steady him.
"Let me down," Grace cried. "You can barely stand up, let alone carry me."
The coppery giant lowered his gaze to her, and her heart must have stopped beating. There was no other explanation to the kick that crashed inside her ribcage. Instead of the blue or green she would have expected, Rory Sullivan's eyes were so dark the pupils appeared to blend seamlessly with the iris, and the heat in his gaze seared her skin.
"You little blackmailing bitch," he slurred. "I'll let you down when I'm good and ready."
A surge of anger jolted Grace from the trance she'd tumbled into. She clenched her hands into fists and pounded at his shoulders. "I'm not little, and I didn't blackmail you. I made you a take-it-or-leave-it offer." She struggled against his hold, trying to break free. "Let me down."
The arms around her tightened, until she felt like a cardboard box caught in a compactor. "Settle down," Rory grunted. "Mosquitoes bite harder than you hit. You'll hurt your hands"
Grace tucked her fists under her chin. How had he guessed? The force of the blows smarted on her fingers. It had been like pounding at a rock. She sank in the cradle of Rory's arms, trying to reduce the jolts and bounces of his uneven gait, while at the same time avoiding the sharp edges of the cardboard sign with her name on it.
As she glanced around, Grace spotted an amused teenager in a miniskirt using her cell phone to take a photograph of their motley procession. She turned to hide her face against Rory's chest, so she wouldn't be recognized if the photo ended up on someone's internet blog.
A big mistake. A heady mix of sweat and male teased her nostrils, and the crisp hairs that peppered Rory's skin tickled her cheek. She could barely resist the temptation to lean forward, part her lips and press a kiss on his taut muscles to discover what he tasted like.
Then the world lurched again, and the ground rose to meet her feet as Rory swung her down. Dazed, Grace clung to his arm in an effort to remain upright. In front of her, two more men in jeans and tattered T-shirts screeched up in a pair of identical olive green jeeps.
"In you go," Rory drawled. He picked her up, tossed her on the back seat, and climbed in to sit beside the driver. The rest of the entourage scrambled aboard, like ants conquering a hill. The last stragglers stood up at the back, their feet wedged between Grace and the two drunken louts who bracketed her like a pair of bookends.
To a chorus of riotous cheers, the jeeps took off.
Grace leaned forward and dug her fingers into the shoulder of the man at the wheel. "Excuse me, how many is this vehicle registered for?" she shouted.
The black crew cut tilted toward her. "Whaddaya say, sugar?"
"I'm sure it's illegal to carry so many people in this vehicle!"
"Illegal?" He glanced at her through the rear view mirror and shrugged his shoulders. "Al and Tyrone!" he yelled. "I'm gonna pull over. You need to get out."
"Why?" yelled the man standing on her right, who banged her ribs with his knee.
"What the fuck?" shouted the man to her left, whose sneaker smeared dirt on her thigh.
"The bride thinks her transport is too crowded. You can take a cab," the man at the wheel yelled and started to slow down.
Muttered curses and hostile glances bombarded her. Grace shrank back in the seat. "They. Can. Stay." She choked out the words through clenched teeth. Shouts of approval whipped in the air around her, but they didn't ease her sense of impending doom.
With a growl of frustration, she closed her eyes. Maybe when she opened them again, she'd wake up in her own bed, instead of this nightmare.
* * * *
The alcoholic haze inside Rory's head soared to new heights as the jeeps rattled from the airport toward town. It felt as if he had just lost something, something important, something he couldn't do without.
"Did I drop something?" he grunted to Joe beside him. "It feels like I'm missing something."
Joe roared with laughter. "Your bride, you dumbass. You didn't lose her. She's on the back seat."
In a careless swing that nearly sent him toppling over, Rory whirled around. There, on the back seat. A tall slim girl, with a serious face, framed by straight sandy hair in a blunt cut that skimmed her shoulders. Her brows drew together, and her pretty mouth clamped into an angry line as she glared at him.
The sensations flooded back. Just a moment ago, he'd cradled her in his arms. Her tight little body had squirmed against his as she tried to beat him with her dainty fists. One corner of his mouth kicked up in a smile. It had felt good, holding her. What a pity she seemed the sort of female who didn't need a man to carry her, but preferred to march through life on her own two feet.
"Grace," he muttered. "Grace Clements."
"That's right. Should be easy to remember." She pointed to his front.
"What?" He dipped his chin to follow the direction of her finger. A cardboard sign bounced against his bare chest, flapping in the breeze that swept through the jeep. As he deciphered the upside-down name and saw the pair of red hearts that flanked the text, a shout of laughter burst from his throat. He turned back to grin over his shoulder.
Grace looked as if she wanted to throttle him.
Rory forced his mind to focus. "It is customary to have a sign when meeting an unknown person at the airport." He pronounced each word carefully, managing not to mangle them.
"Unknown person." She let out a dismissive snort and rolled her eyes. "That just about sums it up."
Looking backward in the vehicle took a toll on his sense of balance, and Rory faced forward to conquer the nausea. His stomach had barely settled down when Joe steered to an orderly stop outside the Court House.
"Why are we stopping?" Rory slurred.
"Marriage license." Joe jumped out, and discreetly made sure Rory didn't fall on his face when scaling down from the jeep.
Thank God for Joe and Karim and the rest of his buddies, Rory thought as he scrambled to the ground. They would ensure he wouldn't screw up, behave like an asshole and frighten Grace away.
As he glanced over his shoulder, he saw Al and Tyrone helping her down. Instinctively, his eyes flicked to check the position of their hands on her. Grace might be a stranger, but soon she would be his wife, and proprietary instincts roared to life in his muddled mind.
"You need to fill in a form and sign it," he heard Joe tell Grace after they made their disorderly way inside. Everyone had piled out of the jeeps and followed, as if worried about missing something of great interest.
"I know," Grace replied. "Where's my tote bag?"
Karim strode forward and handed her a large putty-colored canvas bag. After thanking him politely, she bent to dig inside and pulled out a sheet of paper encased in a protective plastic folder.
"Here's my form. I printed it from the Internet and filled it in before I left home."
"Give it to me." Joe snatched the plastic folder from her hand.
Grace emitted a startled cry and glanced around her with such a forlorn expression Rory feared she would burst into sobs. But instead, her face drew into a sullen pout.
"Where's your form?" She turned her attention to him. "The marriage license must be issued twenty-four hours before the wedding. If you are too drunk to fill in your details, we can't get married tomorrow."
He observed the color that flared on her cheeks and the misty look in her eyes that hinted at unshed tears. The rigid set of her shoulders told him she was angry or frightened or both. Shame filled him over the chaotic welcome they had given her, as well as his own amusement at her distress.
"It's okay," he told her softly, meaning more than just the form for the marriage license. "I've filled in one too." He patted his clothing, finally found the crumpled sheet in the back pocket of his jeans, slipped it out and handed it to Joe.
"Wait." Grace reached into her shapeless green jacket and retrieved the metal-rimmed glasses she'd worn at the airport. After propping them on her nose, she dug in her tote bag once more and produced another plastic folder. "I've drawn up a simple agreement for us to sign."
"An agreement?" Rory drawled.
"Yes." An earnest expression eased the tension on her face. "Something to list the obligations of both parties, and make sure there are no misunderstandings."
Anger penetrated his drunken haze. "What obligations?"
"Well." She fingered the edge of the plastic folder in a manner which revealed that she sensed his displeasure but wasn't willing to back down. "You'll pay the rent, and give me the family allowance. And you won't try to get access to the apartment without prior written notice. And--"
"Grace," he cut in. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
"What?" She jerked her gaze to him, and then quickly reached up to swipe the glasses from her nose.
"That we're getting married. Not forming a business partnership, or starting a company."
She fiddled with her glasses, folding the frame closed and open. "I regard this as a business transaction."
He ran his gaze from the top of her shiny hair to the scuffed toes of her sneakers, and something in his loins stirred in disagreement. Uncomfortable, and in one instant feeling relatively sober, Rory shifted on his feet to hide his physical reaction.
"No, Grace. This is a marriage," he told her. "A marriage is a union between two people based on mutual trust. You have promised to marry me tomorrow and divorce me when I ask you to. I have promised to let you live in my apartment and pass on to you any financial benefits I gain from my married status."
He paused, studied her, saw the resigned acceptance in her eyes. Without that slight flicker of defeat, Rory wondered if he would have dared to make his ultimatum. "If you're not willing to trust the promise I've made you, I'll release you from yours."
In silence, Grace gave him a single nod.
"There's a trashcan. He pointed to a corner. That's where your agreement belongs."
"No." She shielded the plastic folder protectively against her breasts. "I want to shred it. You must always shred documents with personal information on them."
"Boys." He nodded to Tyrone, who gently forced Grace to release her grip on the folder. After pulling out the printed sheets, Tyrone handed them out, and Rory waited while five soldiers filled the room with muffled sounds of tearing paper as they performed the role of a human shredder for the benefit of his bride.
"Is that good enough?" he asked when the tiny scraps of paper had been buried in the trashcan.
Grace offered him another wordless nod.
"Okay." Rory ushered her down the hall. "Let's go and get a marriage license."
His mouth curved with amusement at Grace's stricken expression when her form left the shelter of its pristine plastic folder to be joined with his crumpled one.
And yet, satisfaction soared inside him, mixing with the drunken bafflement of what had taken hold of him. Grace trusted his promise. She would marry him. From tomorrow, they would be joined by the laws of God and man.
* * * *
Grace clung to the seatback in front of her as the jeeps roared up to a building with a low central section flanked by two soaring towers. A row of white flags with Hotel Palazzo in gold letters flapped from poles along the circular driveway, where they pulled to a stop between a gushing fountain and the canopied entrance lined with marble columns that gleamed in the sun.
Rory leaped out from the front seat. Relieved, Grace decided he appeared a little steadier on his feet. Before she understood his intention, he reached up to her, wound one arm around her waist, and hoisted her down. The length of her body molded against his. The sun that had bothered her during the drive faded in comparison to the heat that enveloped her now.
Someone tossed out her bags. Helpless, Grace swayed with the motion as Rory craned forward and snagged the handle of the overnight case without easing his grip around her midriff. Her canvas tote sailed through the air. With a cry of alarm, Grace lunged forward. Rory's arm dug like a steel barrier into her abdomen as she reached out to catch the bundle before it landed on the pavement and spilled the contents for the world to see.
When Grace straightened, the tote safely in her grasp, Rory hauled her to his side. A contrary sensation of being protected and under threat at the same time flooded her. She ceased struggling in his hold, disconcerted by the sparks of awareness that his masculine shape ignited inside her.
"See you tomorrow, buddy," shouted the crew cut behind the wheel.
"Be gentle with the bride," yelled someone else.
After a few more rowdy cries, the band of brothers took off in their jeeps. His arm crushing her close, Rory led the way toward the entrance and Grace followed, unresisting as the force of attraction clouded her senses. She appeared to have no control over her physical reaction to him. Her skin tingled, and a breathless excitement fluttered in her stomach. Instinctively, her body leaned into his. As the doors slid open, Rory pulled her inside. He continued through the crowded lobby and bundled her into an empty elevator.
"I need to check in," Grace protested.
During the drive from the Marriage Bureau to the hotel, she had limited herself to grunted monosyllables. Rory's friends had surrounded her like a team of bodyguards, as if they suspected she'd escape if offered half a chance.
Grace gritted her teeth. She might have, if she hadn't given her word. This was not what she had agreed to. She had arranged to marry a disciplined soldier, not a deranged lout high on testosterone, drunk as a goldfish in a bowl of vodka.
"I've already checked you in." Rory released her long enough to jab his finger on the button numbered fourteen, then instantly hauled her to his side again. The elevator doors slid to block the exit. Grace shuddered. Was this how convicts felt when the jailhouse gates clanked shut behind them?
"Are you cold?" The pressure of Rory's arm eased and Grace knew he was looking down at her.
No. Petrified. "The air conditioning is too high," she told him.
"We can turn up the heat when we get to the room," he replied and gathered her closer.
Grace drew a sharp breath as she fought the panic that the double meaning and Rory's nearness ignited inside her. "We'll have to go back down first. You can't have checked me in. You didn't have my ID."
"They only need one ID per room."
"Per room?" she echoed, glancing up in alarm.
Rory contemplated her with a lopsided smile. "Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan. You didn't expect separate rooms, did you?"
"I'm not marrying you until tomorrow, and you wouldn't be the first man to be jilted at the altar." Grace rammed her elbow into his ribs and clawed at the solid arm that circled her waist.
The elevator came to a smooth halt, but there was nothing smooth in how Rory Sullivan grabbed her wrist, yanked her out, and hauled her along the corridor. He didn't utter a single word as he stopped outside the third door on the right, dumped her case on the floor, and inserted a plastic keycard in the lock. He thrust her into the room and bent to sling her case inside. Then he followed her in and slammed the door behind them.
"Let's get this clear." He lowered his face to hers. "Your sister has already dropped me in the shit once. I'm not going to let it happen a second time."
Grace held her breath and stared into the dark eyes beneath the russet brows before allowing her gaze to drift lower. Although Rory's hair glinted with red hues, his skin glowed with a deep tan, and not a single freckle marred the smooth expanse. The wide cheekbones and straight nose gave him an arrogant look, and his full mouth added a sensual edge that caused a nervous twist in Grace's stomach.
"And how exactly are you going to prevent me from escaping?" she asked, but her voice lacked the defiance she aimed for.
Rory crossed the room to a duffel bag on the floor by the mahogany desk and returned swinging a pair of handcuffs. He caught her right hand and carefully fastened one of the steel bracelets around her wrist. Then he ushered her toward the window, toppled her into a chair next to the small circular table, and clipped the other cuff around a table leg.
"That should do it," he said and retreated to the door.
"Wait!" Grace cried.
He looked at her over his shoulder.
"What if I have to ... go to the bathroom?"
Rory stalked back and unlocked the handcuff from the table leg. "Bathroom." He pointed at the door to the left of the entrance. "If you're not out in three minutes, I'll come and get you, no matter what state you're in."
Grace gasped and bolted into the bathroom, paying no attention to the splendor in green marble. Perching on the toilet seat, she pinched her eyes shut, barely able to manage the simple bodily function of emptying her bladder as she counted the seconds ticking by.
What had she done?
And how could she stop the nightmare from escalating?
The classically handsome face of Rory Sullivan formed against the back of her eyelids, and in a blinding flash of insight, the added benefits of the arrangement dawned on Grace.
She was a wallflower. Had always been. During their teenage years, her lack of admirers compared to those of her sister Debbie had been a constant source of embarrassment. All her life, she had felt like an outsider in social gatherings where men and women congregated to find a mate.
Rory Sullivan would give her feminine prestige beyond anything a new wardrobe or hairstyle could achieve. She would get some photographs. For the next two years, she could produce them at opportune moments. This is my husband. Being married to such a fine specimen of masculinity could be worn like a badge of honor.
With a sigh of relief, Grace pulled up her baggy jeans. It would be foolish to escape. The advantages of the situation were on her side, including the not inconsiderable financial benefits. As she washed her hands, she drew a few calming breaths and practiced an innocent smile in the triple mirror.
How hard could it be to keep one dumb soldier under control?
* * * *
"I'll be back by seven," Rory told her as he clipped the handcuff to the table leg once more. He drew the curtains to block out the light, strode to the flat screen television on the desk facing the bed, and swiveled the panel toward Grace.
She watched in silence as he returned to drop the remote control in her lap, then glanced at his watch. "You can charge a movie to the room. Do you want me to bring you something to eat?"
"A cheeseburger. With Swiss cheese. Ketchup and pickles, but no mustard or lettuce. And a whole-wheat bun if they have one. And if you can't get Swiss cheese, then--"
Rory raised his palms to silence her. "I'll get you a cheeseburger. If it's not what you want, you don't have to eat it." He bent to test the handcuffs, struggling to keep his balance as he straightened. "I'll put the Do Not Disturb sign on the door."
He swept his gaze around the room. Satisfied, he moved the telephone further from her reach. "I'm sorry about this, but I can't take any chances. If you let me down, I don't have the time to find someone else."
Grace shifted her shoulders in a resigned gesture. "Make sure you're back by seven," she called out to Rory as he exited the room.
When he was gone, Grace waited a few minutes. Then she pushed back the chair, dropped to her knees, and lowered the handcuff along the table leg. She crawled under the circular table and arched her back against the top, inching it up until she could slip the handcuff free. She edged out backward and stood, massaging her tender wrist.
Men. Either this particular specimen was stupid or too inebriated to think clearly. Grace inspected the room. The bed, as vast and white as the polar ice cap, had a green stripe of satin stretched across the foot, to coordinate with the green leaf pattern on the walls.
She flicked through a stack of promotional literature on the circular table and inspected the contents of the mini bar. After checking the price list, she took out a club soda and gulped it down. Instead of discarding the empty bottle in the trash under the desk, she left it in clear view on top of the cabinet that housed the mini bar. She might as well give Rory something to puzzle about when he returned.
Next, she transferred her overnight case from the floor into the wardrobe. After a moment of hesitation, she picked up the phone and dialed Debbie's number in New Jersey. Her sister wasn't in, but Grace left a message. A grin tugged at her mouth as she lowered the receiver. Figure that one out when you pay the room charges.
Satisfied, she stretched out on the bed, switched on the television, and tuned in to an economic review on Bloomberg. While the man on the screen lectured on about the recession, Grace drifted off to sleep.
* * * *
Rory planted his thumb over the down-arrow to call the elevator and held it there to keep his balance. Beneath him, the swirls in the dark green carpet seemed to undulate in a manner that caused turbulence inside his stomach.
Why the hell had he allowed the boys to pour all that whisky into him after the training session on the makeshift assault course set out in the Nevada desert? He should have known better than to start drinking at midday. Sobriety was like a religion to him, a guiding light he'd sworn to follow.
When the elevator arrived, Rory drew a deep breath and stepped inside. A middle-aged couple shrank into a corner and eyed him with a suspicious look. He stole a glance at the mirror, saw his shirt flap open outside the jeans.
Trying to keep the action unobtrusive, using the distraction when the elevator stopped to let in a family with a bawling toddler, he buttoned up the shirt and tucked the tails in his waistband. What must Grace think of him? He hadn't even had time for a shower, and sweat and dust itched on his skin. A small wonder she hadn't had a fit of hysterics and fled to the nearest police station, asking for protection. But no, she had simply jutted up her chin and accepted responsibility for a bargain struck.
And his response had been to handcuff her to a table. Guilt clenched inside him, sending his stomach into another roil of protest. Poor Grace. She must be frightened and bored and lonely up in the hotel room. He really should have stayed with her, but the feeling of being hemmed in had sent him into a tactical retreat.
Not that he had anywhere to go. The boys had returned to their lodgings, and he was too drunk and disheveled to make an appearance at the offices of Colossus Security. He glanced at his watch. Almost five. The best use of the next two hours would be to sit somewhere quiet and consume a gallon of black coffee.
And get a cheeseburger. He mustn't forget. Whole-wheat bun and no lettuce. That's the least he could do. Get Grace exactly what she wanted.
"Cheeseburger, whole wheat bun," Rory muttered as the elevator reached the lobby and he made his way to the dimly lit bar.
He had barely settled down and received a cup of the thickest and blackest coffee the bartender could manage when a brunette wearing a revealing dress settled on the bar stool next to him.
"Hi there," she drawled. "Is this seat taken?'
"No." He turned back to his coffee and downed a scalding mouthful.
"You a soldier?"
"Hairstyle grown out of a crew-cut and military bearing."
"I used to be in the Army." He didn't look at her face, not until he felt a feathery scrape of a fingernail on the back of his hand. Then he glanced over, saw the heavy makeup and the come-hither pout.
Why did women slap that stuff on their faces? An image formed in his mind. Grace didn't. She didn't need to. Her glowing skin and sparkling eyes did a lot more to a man than a jar full of muck.
"Are you alone?" the woman asked.
"I was until you sat there."
Her shrill laughter grated on his nerves. He hadn't heard Grace laugh, but he bet her laughter was dark and throaty, the kind that sent a shiver down a man's spine.
"You could buy me a drink," the brunette suggested.
"I'd be happy to, if you need a drink and can't afford one."
This time, her laughter didn't sound so bright, but she waved over the bartender and ordered a Sea Breeze.
"Could I have a pen and paper?" Rory asked the bartender.
The young man with dark eyes and a movie star smile reached beneath the counter and laid out a small square notepad and a promotional pen. Before Rory had time to pick them up, the brunette reached over, and with a playful gesture confiscated both.
"I used to be a secretary. I can take dictation." In a coquettish move, she pushed her chest forward and poised the pen in the air above the pad.
"Cheeseburger," Rory grunted. "Whole wheat bun."
The brunette raised her eyebrows.
"And lettuce." He took another sip of coffee. Damn. Or was it no lettuce.
"Are you going to have an early dinner?" The woman tore the top sheet off the pad and handed it to him.
"No." Rory snagged the note. "I'm getting married tomorrow. The cheeseburger is for my wife." He nodded at the bartender for the check and when it arrived, he added a generous tip and scrawled his name and room number at the bottom.
As he got up and slouched off to find somewhere more peaceful for his next cup of coffee, Rory stuffed the note in his pocket. Damn it. Was it with lettuce or no lettuce? The best thing might be to buy one of each, just in case.
He wanted it to be just right for Grace.
* * * *
The lock rattled. Grace jolted awake with a surge of panic that instantly banished every trace of sleep. She jumped up from the bed and crawled under the table by the window. Maintaining an illusion of captivity might be an advantage. She barely managed to fit the table leg through the handcuff before the door flung open and a trail of heavy footsteps thudded across the room.
Peeking through the strands of hair that spilled over her eyes, Grace watched Rory come to a halt beside her. "I dropped the remote," she muttered, and added weight to her claim by waving the remote control she'd been clutching while she slept.
Rory's brow furrowed as he surveyed the room. His gaze lingered on the rumpled bedding but swept past the empty soda bottle on top of the cabinet in the entrance. He thrust a brown paper bag at her. "Here's your cheeseburger."
"I can't eat with one hand."
He dropped the paper bag on the table and waited for Grace to scramble up and sit on the chair. The scowl on his face deepened as he watched her slide the handcuff along the table leg. With a shake his head, as if to dismiss things he couldn't explain, he fished a small key from the hip pocket of his jeans and proceeded to unlock the cuff from the table.
Grace attacked the paper bag, ignoring the trailing steel ring that clunked against the tabletop with every move. "This isn't whole-wheat," she pointed out as she uncovered the cheeseburger. "And there's lettuce inside."
"They didn't have whole-wheat. I asked. And they don't make them without lettuce." Rory gave a tired shrug. "You don't have to eat it, if you don't want to."
Grace inhaled the savory smell of the contents, the pangs of hunger retreating as anxiety knotted up in her stomach. "I'll save it for breakfast," she decided. "With the time difference, I'll wake up early." She wrapped up the food, bolted to her feet, and crossed the room to deposit the parcel in the mini bar.
"You'd eat a cold cheeseburger for breakfast?" Rory asked.
"Why not?" she countered, glancing back at him as she crouched in front of the cabinet.
His shoulders shifted. "You seemed kind of ... picky."
"I'm picky, but I'm adaptable." Grace raked her gaze up and down his body in a look of disdain she hoped wouldn't be too difficult to interpret. "I make do with what I've got, rather than wish for something better."
"I see." Rory stiffened beneath the white shirt. "I'll try not to impose on your goodwill too much."
Grace sighed. What was wrong with her? Why did she feel such a compulsion to needle the poor guy? They had struck a bargain, and Rory was justified to worry she'd be like Debbie, dashing off when she changed her mind. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth as she admitted what her problem was. Rory Sullivan sent her female hormones into a frenzy of longing, and she was acting bitchy for her own protection.
"Let's just get this marriage thing done." Grace straightened and yanked the wardrobe doors open to retrieve her suitcase. "I'll have a shower and get ready for bed. It's almost midnight East Coast time."
"Past your bedtime?" He sent her a smirk.
"That's right." Grace unzipped her case. She extracted a toiletry bag and a pair of white cotton pajamas with giraffes printed on them. "I'm the kind of girl who goes to bed by ten and says her evening prayers every night before turning out the light."
She extended her handcuffed arm at him. "Will you take these off, so I won't hurt myself with the dangling bit when I take a shower?"
Her nerves rioted when Rory stepped up to her. With a surprising gentleness, he adjusted the steel circle on her arm before removing the handcuffs. "I'm sorry," he murmured as he examined the abrasions on her wrist. "You've scraped your skin."
The feel of his thumb rubbing against the pulse point on the inside of her wrist made Grace's throat slam shut. Tension coiled inside her. Low in her abdomen, excitement threaded along nerves she'd almost forgotten, sending rays of sensual pleasure streaking all over her skin.
"It's all right," she muttered. She snatched her arm away and escaped into the bathroom, locking the door behind her.
The mousy image in the mirror stared back at her. Was she out of her mind? She was about to enter into a platonic marriage to a man whose moral values had to be more distant from hers than Mars was from Jupiter, but who made every cell in her body pulse with awareness and need.
With a resigned sigh, Grace set about taking care of her bedtime chores. She only had herself to blame for allowing Debbie to talk her into the crazy arrangement.
* * * *
Twenty minutes later, Grace tiptoed out of the bathroom. She would have liked to hide there until she could be sure that Rory had gone to sleep, but worry that he might want to use the facilities chased her out. Slowly, dragging out the chore, she arranged her folded clothes and her toiletry bag in the suitcase before returning it into the wardrobe.
"What's with the giraffes?"
Her eyes flicked toward the bed where Rory sprawled against the pillows, his bare feet crossed at the ankles. Drinking Coke from a can and scrolling through the channels on the television, he appeared completely at ease. He had pulled the shirt out of the waistband of his jeans and undone the buttons again.
Grace felt her mouth go dry as her gaze lingered on the bronzed skin, sprinkled with coppery hairs that tapered to a line over his ridged abdomen.
"I always sleep in pajamas," she explained, trying to keep her voice even. "I get cold otherwise."
"I meant, why giraffes?"
She glanced down the cotton fabric as she drifted closer to the bed. "Debbie gave me these for Christmas. She says I remind her of a giraffe. Tall and clumsy."
Roy took one final sip and discarded the empty can on the nightstand with a careless clunk. "Why do you think giraffes are tall and clumsy?" he asked. "Why not graceful and exotic?"
Grace shifted her shoulders, too tense to even think of a reply. How was she supposed to get into bed with Rory lying on top of the covers? How was she supposed to sleep in the same room with him? How was she supposed to sleep on the same planet with a half-naked Rory Sullivan?
"Have you ever seen a giraffe?" Rory asked. "I mean, out in the wild, where they have enough space to roam?"
Grace shook her head in silence.
"They are the most amazing creatures you've ever seen." He raised his hand and made an undulating motion in the air. "They stride along so smoothly, it looks like slow motion." He met her gaze, his eyes dark and serious. "Giraffes are graceful, not clumsy."
A lump rose in her throat, and Grace scolded herself for being such a sucker for a few kind words, but she couldn't stop the fine shaking that seized her hands. She tugged frantically at the edge of the bedding and slipped in between the cool sheets. She wanted to ask Rory where he was going to sleep, but she was too afraid of hearing the answer.
"I'm sorry about this." Rory reached over and curled his fingers over her forearm. He lifted the handcuffs from beside him, where they'd lain hidden in the folds of the bedding. He clipped one steel ring around her wrist and searched for somewhere to clip the other. The bed had no posts. He stood up, circled to the other side, and pulled her arm down to attach the handcuff to the leg of the nightstand.
"You don't need to do this," Grace protested. "I promise not to run off."
Rory raked his eyes over her. "I can't take the risk. There's too much at stake."
"A cheap apartment?"
"It's more than that." He straightened, looking pained. "My grandparents had the lease before me. There are ... memories."
Grace studied him, puzzled by the strained tone. "What kind of memories?"
Rory's face grew shuttered. "It's personal." A shiver racked his body, and he made a visible effort to ease his grim expression. "It's ancient history. Another lifetime." He returned to his side and stretched out on top of the covers again.
Grace tried to settle down, but the pull of the cuff twisted her shoulder and sent cramps shooting up and down her arm. "I'm not comfortable," she complained.
"You'll get used to it in a few minutes."
"What if there's a fire?"
"I'll unlock you."
"What if there isn't time? Or you forget about me? Or you don't wake up?"
"Then you'll die," Rory grunted, impatience evident in his voice.
"I didn't agree to die, only to get married."
With a sigh, Rory flung his feet down and stalked around the bed once more. He removed the cuff from the nightstand, and returned to stretch out on top of the covers. "Give me your left hand," he ordered.
Grace stared at the muscular body sprawled on her right. She rolled onto her side and extended her left arm with the cuff dangling from it. Rory clipped the opposite end to his left wrist. "There. If there's a fire, you'll have to wake me up."
"I can't sleep chained to you."
"Why not?" He picked up the remote control and began to surf the channels.
"What's the problem?" Rory appeared to be engrossed in the images that flashed up on the screen, but the corners of his mouth tugged up, and Grace realized he was baiting her on purpose.
"I'm not used to sleeping in the same bed with a man."
"Are you afraid of what I might do?" He turned to her, heat blazing in his eyes. "Or are you afraid of what you might do?"
Grace inhaled a shaky breath. "You know the meaning of the word 'no', don't you?" She glowered at him, but beneath the bravado, an odd sense of being adrift in dangerous waters buffeted her.
Rory lifted his free hand and placed his index finger across her lips, as if telling her to be quiet. "Any man who knows what they're doing can easily turn a no into a yes."
"You're flattering yourself," Grace whispered, trying to hold on to her courage, although her pulse pounded in her ears like the sound of a warning bell.
"Give me three minutes and I'll prove it to you." Rory traced his fingertip around her mouth. "Three little minutes."
A breathless trembling took hold of Grace, and her eyes drifted shut. All her senses focused on that light touch that made her lips throb, made her want to feel his finger inside her mouth, close her teeth over it. Excitement surged inside her, reaching all the way down to where heat pooled between her legs.
With effort, Grace lifted her heavy lids and forced her mind to focus. She could control her body, wouldn't be so easily conquered, however attractive the man.
"And if at the end of three minutes I tell you 'no', will you promise that you'll release me and sleep on the floor?"
"That's a deal." Rory said with a confident smirk. "Stand up."
Grace scooted back and slid down on her side of the bed. Rory followed her across the covers like a languid predator. A sigh of relief eased her tension. She knew what would take place next. An embarrassing tussle with Rory groping at her breasts and fumbling between her legs. That's what men always did, and nothing turned her off faster than their greedy pawing.
Rory swung her around, so that he stood behind her, their left wrists chained together. "Ready," he said, his voice low and soft. "Three minutes starts--now."
At first, Grace felt no movement at all. Then Rory's fingertips traveled up and down her right arm, pushing the sleeve of her pajamas out of the way. With gentle sweeps, he stroked her skin, over and over again, lingering in the sensitive fold inside her elbow. His feathery touch was like an electric current that charged every nerve in her body, magnifying the glorious sensations that streaked through her.
A whimper of pleasure escaped her lips, but Rory didn't react to the sound. Instead, he raised his left hand. Moving slowly, to allow her time to follow his motion when the handcuffs tightened, he swept aside the curtain of hair that brushed her shoulders, and pressed a kiss on her neck. Fire sparked from the point of contact and rippled through her.
His left hand caressed her throat, feeling its way over the soft skin, exploring the hollow between her collarbones where a pulse thrummed, while his right hand continued to stroke her arm. Grace's left arm, cuffed to Rory's, was forced to follow his movements. As her fingers brushed past her breast, another strand of pleasure radiated from the tightened peak.
Rory trailed soft kisses on the side of her neck, spreading warmth, stoking the need inside her. His mouth inched up to the sensitive curve beneath her ear then edged along the line of her jaw. As Grace turned her head toward Rory, his lips met the corner of her mouth.
She breathed in his scent, the musky mix of man and dust and sweat. Her neck hurt from the effort of trying to reach him, to feel his lips fully on hers, but he evaded her attempts to deepen the kiss.
With a small sound of impatience, she leaned back, until her body pressed against his. As she felt his muscles tense, she emitted a muffled moan of protest, thinking he intended to pull away, but instead he circled his left arm around her waist and anchored her close. She could feel the heavy thud of his heart beneath her shoulder blade.
Rory switched his trailing fingertips from her arm to her stomach, where they crept under the hem of her pajama top and began a lazy exploration of her midriff. Circling, teasing, his hand drifted higher, until he reached the underside of her breasts. The edge of his fingers brushed the curve of her bosom and Grace drew an urgent breath, almost sobbing as the heat inside her grew so scorching it threatened to blaze out of control.
"I'd like to touch your breasts now?" Rory whispered into her ear. "Will you let me?"
"Yes," she whispered back. All the resolutions to keep her distance smoldered in ashes, burned by his delicate touch.
Rory withdrew his hand and took half a step back. "That's my point," he said in a rough voice. "I could turn every 'no' into a 'yes', all the way until you thrash beneath me on that mattress."
Their bodies bumped as he swiveled her to face the rumpled bedding. Grace felt his muscles against her, hard and taut, like a spring coiled tight enough to snap.
"Now that I've earned the right to sleep on the bed, can we settle down?" He urged her forward. "Do you want to sleep behind me, with your arm around me, or in front of me, with my arm around you?"
Grace blinked. Shame misted her eyes. She wanted to run and hide in the bathroom, but with the wretched handcuffs, she was going nowhere. How could she have acted so wantonly, allowing Rory to seduce her? It wasn't even that he'd managed to break her resistance. She had no resistance against the physical attraction that radiated from him like ultraviolet from the sun.
Sleep behind him? In front of him? She finally understood why Rory had clipped their wrists together on the same side, instead of the more obvious his left to her right. The impossibility of the choice rattled around her brain, until Rory took an impatient step into her. He wrapped his cuffed arm around her waist, flung the covers aside, and tumbled upon the bed, pulling her down with him.
His forearm across her waist clutched her to his chest, and despite her humiliation, Grace reveled in the sense of safety that flooded her as Rory's powerful frame curved in a protective cocoon around her.
"Sleep tight, little bride," he whispered into her ear. "I'll keep my clothes on, so you don't need to worry."
"Thank you," Grace muttered. She tugged at the bedding to spread it more securely around them.
Slow waves of arousal continued to roll inside her, and she tried to focus on some difficult mathematical equation to bring her unruly passions under control. Behind her, she could feel Rory, his erection butting against her bottom, and she consoled herself with the knowledge that he suffered his share of the frustration of unfulfilled desire.
"Shall I turn out the lights?" she asked after a while.
"Aren't you going to say your prayers?"
"Stop making fun of me."
His arm tightened around her. "I wasn't making fun of you. I wanted to hear you say your prayers."
"I say them in my mind. Not out loud."
"Would you say them out loud for me tonight?"
"As long as you promise not to laugh. It's a prayer I made up myself. I was eight years old."
"I won't laugh."
Grace reached for the switch on the wall, pitching the room into darkness. She waited a moment in silence. When Rory didn't say anything, she drew a long breath, and then murmured out her prayer.
"Our Lord in Heaven, I thank you for today. Please make the sun shine tomorrow, but if the fields need rain, I understand. Please keep the world safe. Give the hungry something to eat. Help the lonely find a friend. Heal the sick, and make bad people better. I'd like a nice wedding tomorrow, and you should watch over Rory after he goes away."
She paused and then added, "The final sentence varies every day, depending on what's going on in my life."
"Thank you, Grace." Rory's voice came on a soft rustle beneath her ear, and then she felt his lips on her skin. "Good night."
* * * *
Grace awoke to glorious warmth that wrapped around her, making her feel as if tropical sun bathed her skin. She sank back against the muscular contours that sheltered her and stretched out her arms for a mighty yawn. The rattle of metal and a sharp tug on her wrist yanked her back to reality.
"What the--" a sleepy voice growled behind her and a firm grip tightened around her waist.
With a cry of alarm, Grace jolted forward. She had little experience of spending an entire night next to a man, but she understood what it was that nestled between her buttocks.
"What time is it?" She peered at the digital alarm on the nightstand.
"How the hell should I know," Rory grumbled. "It's dark as a tomb and my head's killing me."
Grace reached out with her free hand. The bedside lamp flooded the room with light as she flicked the switch.
"Turn off the fucking light," Rory growled. The arm across her midriff threatened to cut her in half. "My head's killing me."
"You already said that." Grace shook her wrist to rattle the cuffs. "Unlock me. I need to go to the bathroom."
"For fuck's sake." His hold around her shifted, and Grace rocked up and down over his body as he flipped her to his other side.
Rory fumbled over the mattress. "I can't find the goddamn key."
Panic seized Grace at the implication of remaining chained to him. "What did you do with it?"
"I don't know. I must have dropped it on the bed."
Rising on one elbow, Grace fumbled in the sheets around her but found nothing. Anxiety stabbed a sharp pressure at her bladder. "I need to go to the bathroom," she whimpered. "I can't wait."
Rory muttered another curse. He scooted forward behind her, his groin grinding into her rear. He pushed her along, until he could swing his legs over the edge of the bed. Tightening his arm around her, he stood up and lifted her with him. His arm across her waist felt like the safety barrier on a fairground ride as he hauled her into the bathroom, her feet dangling inches above the floor.
"There," he grunted, dropping her to her feet beside the toilet, after having briefly stopped outside the door to snap on the light.
"I can't," she wailed. "Not when I'm chained to you."
"You can't what?" He scowled at her. Stubble shadowed his jaw, and red veins rimmed his dark eyes. "You lack the manual dexterity to yank down your panties with one hand, or you're too prudish to pee with me standing next to you?"
"The latter." Grace gritted her teeth. "I can't pee with you there, watching and listening."
"In which case, I'm curious to see how you resolve the situation." His attention strayed to the three-sided mirror that lined the alcove around the washbasin. He winced at his reflection. "Christ. I look like something the cat dragged in."
"Serves you right," Grace muttered. It didn't escape her notice that even in his misery Rory managed to look devastating, but her mind was too preoccupied for the sensual pull to play havoc on her mental equilibrium.
Rory glanced down at her. "How can you look fresh as dew?" He consulted his watch. "It's goddamn five o'clock in the morning."
"Nine o'clock East Coast time," Grace informed him. "And I wasn't drunk out of my skull yesterday."
Rory squeezed his eyes shut. A pained grimace flickered over his features. "The boys were down on R&R. They wanted to give me a bachelor party, and I couldn't say no. I don't normally drink, which is why I got so wrecked." He swayed on his feet and cracked his eyes open. "Are you going to pee or not? I want to get back to bed."
"Close your eyes," Grace ordered.
"Why? My back's turned. I can't see you."
"You can see me in the mirror."
Rory's reflection sent her a sly wink, but he obediently closed his eyes.
"You'll peek," Grace complained.
A smile eased his waxen features. "What are you going to do about it?"
"This." She reached for the small white towel suspended on a rail at the edge of the green marble counter and flung it over his head. "Sing," she demanded.
"If you sing, you can't listen."
The towel moved as Rory shook his head. Grace imagined him rolling his eyes. "Do it," she ordered. "Sing."
When the low murmur of a baritone floated out from beneath the towel, Grace hurried to slide down her pajama bottoms and panties and take care of her needs. Halfway through the act she realized she was listening to the same verse repeated over and over again. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. She stood up and yanked her clothing to order, incensed that the man had the audacity to mock her.
"I'm done." She bit out the words.
"My turn." Rory lifted his free hand to pull down the towel and reversed their positions. "Can you put this back on the rack?" He handed the white bundle of fabric to her.
"Don't you want me to cover my head?"
He smiled. "Honey, you're welcome to inspect my equipment any time."
Grace closed her eyes. "Please. Just get on with it."
She stood and listened, her body rigid with embarrassment. Halfway through the endless sound of spray, she sneaked her eyes open. The effort was wasted, since the mirror only gave her a view of Rory's back. The rumpled white shirt hung over the jeans that clung to his lean hips, not leaving even a sliver of bare skin exposed. Heat surged to her cheeks at how Rory would laugh if he caught her peeking, and she quickly pinched her eyes shut again.
"All done," he declared, although a short silence, followed by the rustle of a zipper, had already conveyed the fact to her.
He flushed the toilet. Grace blinked her eyes open and met his gaze through the mirror. "I want to wash my hands," she told him.
"We'll have to do it together." He snuggled behind her at the basin, his feet braced outside hers, arms reaching past her sides, his body spooned around hers.
Grace felt as if her free will was suddenly suspended. She observed Rory's hands as he lifted the chrome lever to turn on the water. He picked up the bar of soap from the white china dish on the counter and rubbed his fingers over the slippery surface until a thick coat of lather had formed. Then he replaced the soap and began to glide his hands over hers.
The slow sensuous mating of their fingers under the warm spray of water sent a shudder through Grace. Without thinking, she leaned back against his chest. She felt him at the juncture of her thighs, knew that he must have bent his knees in order to drop down in height so his returning erection fit more snugly against her buttocks. Despite the deliberateness of the act, she didn't pull away.
"Anything else I can do for you?" he murmured into her ear.
Grace swallowed. Even in her inexperience, she recognized the invitation in the husky tone. After what she had perceived as a rejection last night, it pitched her into a state of confusion.
"I'd like to brush my teeth," she told him on a whisper of uncertainty.
"Sure, honey. Is that yours?" He pointed at the toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste she'd left in the plastic tumbler by the basin.
Words deserted Grace as she watched Rory through the mirror, his big body dwarfing hers, making her feel fragile and feminine. She gave him a silent nod. He reached past her for the toothbrush and toothpaste, handed the brush to her, and unclipped the paste to smear a dollop over the bristles.
All inhibitions deserted Grace as she brushed her teeth. Rory's arm circled her, his free hand smoothing back her hair, his eyes searching hers in the mirror.
"My turn," he said when she finished rinsing, and they swapped places.
He retrieved his own toothbrush from the clutter on the marble counter. Instead of picking up the sample-sized toothpaste, he used hers. Grace had to peek around his broad shoulders to catch his reflection. A strange sense of possession gripped her at the intimacy of sharing such personal chores. The unbuttoned shirt left Rory's chest bare, and she could see the muscles leaping beneath the golden skin. She knew that if she stood closer, she could press her breasts against his broad back.
"Ready for bed now?" He arched his brows at her in the mirror.
Grace nodded, not quite sure of what she was consenting to, but willing to follow his lead. He moved to stand behind her. His arm tightened around her waist again, and he lifted her up, her toes barely brushing the carpet as he carried her. She sagged into him, tipping her head onto his shoulder, breathing in the peppermint smell that lingered in the air between them.
Rory yanked the covers aside, spotted the tiny key on the sheet, and pointed it out to her. "Pick that up and put it on the nightstand," he instructed.
Grace obeyed, half wishing that she could lose the key again, requiring him to spend the next day with her.
Rory toppled on the bed, his forearm locked across her middle, hauling her with him. She thudded into his chest, and he anchored her in place until she stilled. Then he raised their cuffed hands, forcing her to follow his movements as he arranged the bedding over them.
"Are you hungry?" he asked. "Do you want your cheeseburger? Or do you want to order something from room service?"
"I'll wait." Grace tensed with anticipation as she expected that Rory would complete the emotional possession he had set in motion in the bathroom with a physical one. He must be aware that every 'no' had been turned into a 'yes' in those few electrified minutes when his soapy hands had lingered over hers, their eyes locked in the mirror, his body curved around hers.
But instead, he told her to turn out the light and clutched her to his chest as he settled down to continue his interrupted sleep.
Grace sighed. What was happening to her? She was highly selective about sex and only willing to sleep with a man as part of a committed relationship. So, why was she struggling to keep her panties on in the presence of Rory Sullivan?
* * * *
Rory awoke with the instant awareness a soldier develops after living in war zones. Something tugged at his wrist. Remaining still, he maintained his even breathing and opened one eye a fraction. Grace was kneeling on the mattress beside him, strands of hair hanging in her eyes, her mouth puckered in concentration as she struggled to unlock the handcuffs.
Disappointment flared in his gut. She'd sneak out on him. He had judged her arrow-straight, had assumed that if she changed her mind about marrying him, she'd confront him with the news, but it appeared that he'd been wrong. She intended to fade into the early morning light without a word.
His muscles tightened, ready to pounce before she escaped, but regret held him back. He really had thought Grace was something special. Innocent and awkward, yet full of spunk. He ached to make her like him, seek his protection. Trust him. That was why he hadn't touched her during the night, despite the clear signals of her consent.
He had decided to wait, until he knew that she wanted him with her conscious mind as well as her aroused body. That she wouldn't wake up regretting what she had done.
Needs battled inside Rory. Something deep and basic wanted to reach out and grab Grace before she got away. Something finer yearned to know that she had the opportunity to leave, but chose to stay. Beyond all else, an instinct for self preservation told him that life would be simpler if she left, even if it meant losing his apartment and the memories it contained.
It would be wiser not to go ahead with the marriage.
The cuff on Grace's wrist sprung open with a click. Her eyes flickered over him. Gingerly, stealthily, she crept back on her hands and knees until she could slide down from the bed. She tiptoed to the entrance, switched on the light that cast shadows into the room. Rory heard a door creak open, then close with a thud.
Despite his terse mood, he suppressed a smile. Grace had no appreciation of the alert senses of a trained soldier if she thought he could sleep through the noise that echoed around the room.
She reappeared carrying her suitcase. With a worried glance in his direction, she set the case down on the floor and unzipped it. After a quick rummage inside, she shook out a pair of fawn cotton pants and a pink and white striped jersey top. Her eyes flickered to him once more, and she lifted out a pair of white panties and a padded bra.
Rory held his breath. Holy shit. She was going to undress, right there, in his line of vision. His cock stiffened. He knew he ought to stop her, but he couldn't. The need to find out if she would leave or stay required him to spy on her.
Any excuse would do.
He'd pay for his voyeurism with physical agony, as his jeans would painfully restrain his growing erection but he would have to remain still, feigning sleep.
Grace stood up, crossed her arms in front of her, and lifted the pajama top over her head. Her small breasts jutted out firm and high, rosy tipped, the skin so pale that Rory knew it would be possible to trace the blue veins beneath. His hands clenched into fists at the thought of doing just that with his fingertips.
In swift moves, Grace looped the bra around her body. She fastened the hooks in front of her, spun the garment around, and slipped the straps up her arms. With a jolt of surprise, Rory realized that in the last ten years he'd never watched a woman dress, only undress, losing interest as soon as his hunger was sated.
Grace bent to push the pajama bottoms and panties down her legs in one smooth sweep. As she stood up, wearing nothing but a white bra, cold sweat drenched him. She was finely made, tall and slender, her shoulders tapering down to a narrow waist and flaring out again in gently rounded hips. A triangle of brown curls, a few shades darker than her hair, shadowed the apex of her thighs. With a nimble step, she balanced on one foot, and slipped the pair of white panties up her legs.
Rory continued to watch while Grace covered her body with clothing. Then she folded up her giraffe pajamas and discarded panties, packed them neatly in the case, and carried the case back to the wardrobe in the entrance.
She returned with her tote bag and the small brown parcel she'd stashed away in the mini bar last night. Carefully, trying not to rustle the paper, she unpacked the leftover cheeseburger and proceeded to eat with careful bites, sitting where she'd been chained to the table the day before. It took her a good few minutes to eat the food he'd have dispatched in less than thirty seconds.
After she finished, Grace folded the wrapper and threw it in the trash beneath the desk behind her. Then she took out a book from her tote and settled down to read. Relief eased Rory's tense muscles.
Grace wasn't preparing to escape.
She wasn't leaving him.
* * * *
Despite his fatigue, sleep wouldn't return. Every few minutes, Rory peered at Grace through half-closed lids. She sat with her head bent, her brows furrowed in concentration. Sometimes she would flick back a few pages and read them again, so he assumed the book was some kind of study manual.
The curiosity to know what went through her mind as she waited for him to wake up occupied his thoughts. After almost an hour, Rory gave up on sleep and decided it was time for him to stir on the bed and flutter his eyes open.
"Good morning," Grace said as soon as she noticed the movement. "I'd like to make a plan for the day."
"Can I wake up first?"
"My brain isn't."
"Some other parts of you never seem to sleep." Her eyes drifted down to his straining jeans.
"All the better to keep you on your toes, Goldilocks."
"I think you're confusing The Three Bears and The Big Bad Wolf."
"Can I hog the bathroom?" Rory wriggled his hips to ease the pressure in his groin, surprised that Grace appeared at ease with sexy banter. "I want to shower and shave."
"Are you going out?"
He expelled a sigh, yanked up a pillow to prop against the headboard, and leaned back. Planning was required, whether he wanted it or not. "Yeah," he drawled. "I need to take care of a few errands."
"Are you going to handcuff me to the table again?"
"Do I need to?"
"No." Grace inserted a metal clip to mark the page and closed her book. "I promise to go ahead with the marriage, and I always keep my promises. You can call Doug to verify."
Rory arched his brows. "Doug would vouch for you?"
Grace nodded, leveling a curious pair of clear eyes at him. "Why Debbie? I mean, why did you ask my sister to marry you, knowing that she was dating a friend of yours?"
"Well--" Rory shifted his shoulders to get more comfortable against the pillow. "It made sense to pick an attached woman, and if I married someone who was dating one of my buddies, with their permission of course, I didn't have to worry that the guy would go ape-shit over the arrangement."
"Why?" Her eyes drilled into him. "Why did it make sense to pick an attached woman?"
Rory pursed his mouth as he considered. He sensed trouble in Grace's jutting jaw, but he wasn't one to back down from a challenge. "An unattached woman might get ideas. Think she can stretch it out at the end of the two years when I get back from Iraq. An attached woman is safer. I don't want some bunny-boiler on my tail."
Ignoring Grace's angry glare, Rory flung his hands up in defeat. "Hell, how was I to know that the thought of Debbie marrying someone else would spur Doug into action and he'd take the plunge himself."
"A bunny-boiler?" Grace repeated, her voice dangerously low.
"Yeah. You know, like the woman in that movie who gets her claws into a man and doesn't want to let go."
"I see." Grace folded her hands in her lap. "You can rest assured that your freedom isn't in danger. I promise to never expect anything more from you than a fake marriage, and if you have any furry pets, they'll be completely safe."
Rory said nothing. He could sense a bomb of feminine outrage ticking beneath Grace's calm exterior, and he didn't want to accidentally trigger the detonator.
"I'm calling Doug now," she told him. "He'll put your mind to rest."
"There's no need," Rory muttered, but Grace had already picked up the telephone on the desk. He pointed to the cell phone next to his keys and a few scattered coins. "Use mine. I've got loads of free minutes left."
She obeyed his instructions, but didn't look at him as she dialed. "Debbie? It's Grace ... I'm fine ... is Doug there ... can you put me on the speaker so he can hear. I'll put you on speaker too, so Rory can hear."
"Yo, Gracie!" Doug came on the line. "What's up?"
"Can you tell your friend that I keep my promises?"
"Why? Is there a problem?" Doug sounded alarmed, and Rory imagined a worried frown on his face.
"No. No problem. Apart from the fact that Rory feels compelled to handcuff me to a table in case I escape before the wedding. And he's worried that I might decide I'm on to a good thing and cling to him at the end of the two years. I've promised to marry him tonight and to divorce him when he gets home. Can you tell him that I always keep my promises?"
Doug started to laugh, but Debbie shushed him and came on the line. "Rory, Grace always keeps her promises. Always. She isn't like me at all. She is Miss Reliable. I remember once when she was around twelve and we--"
"Debbie, let Doug talk," Grace cut in.
"Well, there was the time when Grace promised to bring over some takeout." Doug paused. "Her car wouldn't start, so she walked three miles from her place to Debbie's."
"It was snowing," Debbie shouted in the background.
"And yeah, she said she'd get me a ticket to the playoffs for my birthday, but the guy who'd promised her one let her down, so she bought one from a scalper instead."
"She had to do a month of overtime to pay for that," Debbie piped in.
Rory listened with amusement as Doug appeared to be warming up. "Okay, and once she promised that she'd come out to a concert with me because Debbie can't stand country and western, and this cute guy she'd been lusting after for ages asked her out, but she blew him off because she'd promised to go out with me, and--"
"That's enough," Grace interrupted. A pink flush covered her cheeks at the mention of the guy she'd been lusting after.
Suddenly Rory found himself annoyed with the entire conversation, although he couldn't quite pinpoint the reason for his irritation. He waited in silence as Grace exchanged a few more words with her sister and ended the call.
"Satisfied?" she asked, whirling to him.
Rory stared at her. Her eyes sparkled with determination, and a pulse throbbed at her throat. An urge seized him to leap to his feet, haul her close, and kiss the hell out of her. He shook his head, as if the action would clear his confused thoughts. He rolled off the far side of the bed and trudged into the bathroom, with an odd feeling that his life was about to careen out of control.
* * * *
Grace glanced at her watch and turned a page in the hotel services directory. She couldn't go to the gym because she hadn't packed workout clothes or a bathing suit. She had no money for shopping, and she disapproved of gambling. A statistician by profession, she was only too aware of how the odds favored the casinos.
She had already steamed out her dress. Rory would probably wear jeans, but she preferred to be married in white. The only suitable dress she owned was a silk sheath from Saks. She'd bought the garment in a consignment store, assuming it was a nightgown, but Debbie had explained that the slinky number was eveningwear. It would have to do, because buying a new outfit for the occasion was beyond her means.
An advertisement for the beauty salon caught her attention. She'd hurried the last time she cut her hair, and the left side hung a little longer, with a slope that never seemed quite right. Slamming the binder shut, Grace bounced up and reached for her tote bag. If she didn't go out, Rory might as well have left her chained to the table leg.
As she entered the lobby, the din of the slot machines echoed from the casino floor. Grace peeked into the vast space, where gamblers fed coins into slots with a concentration bordering on trance. The lack of windows and the stark light dulled any sense of time, creating a nocturnal atmosphere in the middle of the day.
With a bemused shake of her head, Grace spun on her sneakers and set out to find the hair salon.
"Do you have any appointments available today?" she asked the buxom dark girl in a pink shirtwaist dress who occupied the front desk.
The girl looked up, her kohl-rimmed eyes skimming over Grace. "We have all afternoon. A wedding party cancelled their bookings. The bride has chicken pox."
"Oh?" Grace blinked. Guilt niggled inside her at the discovery that another woman's misfortune would be her gain. "I'd like a trim, please. Straight and shoulder length. The same as now, but a little shorter."
The girl guided her to a willowy redhead dressed in a white smock and pants. After tossing away the remnants of the apple she'd been eating, the stylist introduced herself as Monica and settled Grace into a shampoo station.
"Are you on vacation?" Monica asked as she turned on the water and adjusted the temperature.
"No. Actually..." Grace paused, but wedding nerves blew the lid from her usual reserve. "I'm getting married. To a soldier. He's shipping out to Iraq on Monday."
"Goodness." The girl massaged shampoo into her hair, making Grace feel as if she were a melon tested for ripeness. "Then you'll only have Sunday for your honeymoon."
"That's right," Grace murmured, unwilling to reveal that she was flying home on Sunday and there would be no honeymoon. She shifted, trying to get her neck more comfortable against the hard edge of the basin. A tension crept down her limbs at the thought of the impending ceremony that would legally bind her to a stranger.
"You have nice hair. Very good condition," Monica said as she rinsed through the soapy suds. "The color could do with a lift, though." She teased a few strands apart. "Highlights here would do the trick."
Grace sighed. "I'm afraid a trim is all I can afford right now."
The girl nodded. When she finished with the shampoo and conditioner, she led Grace to a chair in front of a mirror and vanished into the back. Grace waited. The bright lights and slicked-down hair gave her a pinched look. A moment later, a middle-aged woman in a black business suit walked over. She introduced herself as the manager, and offered Grace complimentary highlights, due to the fact that she was marrying a soldier on active duty.
An hour later, Grace stared at herself in the mirror. Golden streaks glinted in the soft waves that bounced around her face. Monica, responsible for the miracle, inspected Grace, her coral lips in a thoughtful pout. "You look a little pale. Are you planning to do your own make-up?"
"Make-up?" Grace wrinkled her nose. "I'm not really on friendly terms with make-up. Whatever I try ends up looking terrible. Panda eyes and tangerine skin."
"Give me a second." Monica marched to the telephone at the front desk, spoke a few words to the receptionist, and punched in a number.
She returned a moment later, appearing pleased with herself.
"Trudi, the make-up artist who does the showgirls isn't busy this afternoon. She'll do your make-up if you drop by. I'll explain how to get backstage." The girl smiled at Grace through the mirror. "Your new husband will never forget how you look tonight."
When Grace left the laughing and chattering showgirls two hours later, she felt tipsy from three glasses of champagne. Her tote bag rattled with make-up, given to her during the impromptu wedding shower the dancers had thrown for her, and underneath the jars and compacts nestled a black lace bustier, a garter belt, and a pair of silk stockings, left over from a show no longer in production.
Grace giggled as she admired her reflection in the mirrored elevator. What had the girl at the beauty shop said? Her new husband would never forget how she looked tonight?
Heck, he wouldn't even recognize her.
* * * *
Rory inserted the plastic keycard in the lock. He flexed his knuckles before he pushed the door open, although the throbbing in his hands had already eased. His lips twisted into a grim smile. Whatever had possessed him to fly off the handle like that, getting into a brawl with Al and Tyrone over a few derogatory words about his bride? Was it just a means to relieve the tension, or had some odd streak of gallantry somehow sneaked into his blood?
"Grace," he called out, so she would hear his voice and know who had entered. He sauntered through--and froze in his tracks.
The room was just as he had left it, the bed on the right, the desk on the left, and the circular table and two chairs by the window, but in the middle stood a shimmering creature in white.
Bare shoulders rose from a dress that draped over the contours of a slender body. An enormous pair of clear eyes shone at him from a flushed face, surrounded by a cloud of glossy hair that reminded him of sunny spring days. The mirage performed a slow twirl, letting him see her back, bare except for two narrow straps that crossed over her shoulder blades. In the front, the dress dipped between her breasts. Two small points marked where her nipples beaded against the thin fabric.
"Jesus," Rory muttered. He felt faint, and realized he'd forgotten to breathe.
A flurry of emotions roared through his head. Awe. Pride. Ownership. Hunger. Lust. Yearning. Jealousy. Fear. Suddenly, two years in Iraq seemed a terrible idea. Rage flared inside him at any man who'd try to steal her away. He fisted his right hand and rubbed the fingers of his left hand over the scraped knuckles. Thank heavens his face remained unmarked, so he wouldn't ruin the wedding with an ugly bruised look.
"It's all right if you want to wear jeans," Grace told him, nodding at his casual appearance. "I wanted to wear white. In case I never get married again."
You won't. Not to anyone else. A strange voice screamed the words inside his head. He tried to shake them off, but they refused to be silenced.
"Are you all right?" Grace took a step toward him. "Have you hurt your hand?" She captured his fingers between hers and inspected his injuries, her touch delicate over the stinging skin.
"It's nothing." He pulled his hand away. "I'll wear a suit. I'll take a shower first." He turned and stalked into the bathroom. His body shook from top to toe, and he seemed to have lost the ability to speak in sentences of more than five words.
Rory braced his arms against the marble counter and stared into the mirror, but he didn't see himself. He saw the glowing face of another young woman, her long dark hair blowing in the wind.
He had loved her, had nearly broken when he lost her. The emotions Grace stirred up inside him tore the scab from the old wounds, exposing the raw pain beneath.
With a determined shove, Rory jerked his body away from the mirror and forced himself to get ready for the wedding. He'd shower and dress, and then he'd go out and marry the girl who stood on the other side of the door in her shimmering white gown.
* * * *
The nervous anticipation that had gathered inside Grace all day ratcheted up another notch while she watched Rory dress in his evening clothes. White shirt, black suit, a black bowtie with crimson flecks.
Appearing terse, he barely spoke while he got ready, except to tell her that he had turned down the courtesy limo, and they would travel in the jeeps.
After collecting his wallet and cell phone from the desk and slipping them in the inside pocket of his jacket, he paused in front of the mirror to rake his fingers through his hair. Then he unlocked the door and motioned her to follow.
In silence, they waited for the elevator.
If only I'd drunk more champagne.
Grace bit her lip, made an effort to draw calming breaths. The cheerful glow of her impromptu wedding shower faded, replaced by a feeling of hurtling at alarming speed toward an unknown destination.
She stole a look at Rory, felt her chest tighten at the handsome picture he made in his formal clothing. "I didn't expect you to have a suit if you were here on R&R," she said to break the tension.
"I'm not here on R&R. I came down for a business meeting." He slanted a puzzled glance at her. "Didn't Doug tell you? I'm not in the military any more. I came out three months ago."
"No. He didn't." Grace contemplated Rory with an uncertain frown. "So, why are you going to Iraq if you're no longer in the Army?"
The elevator arrived. Rory took her hand and didn't speak until they were inside. "I've signed on with a private security company. If I were still in the Army, the apartment wouldn't be a problem. They make an exception for military personnel."
Grace stared at him, a tight knot of doubt forming inside her. She was marrying Rory Sullivan, and she knew less about him than she would have known about a job applicant after having read their résumé.
She had to be out of her mind.
* * * *
Rory led Grace across the crowded lobby, his fingers laced through hers. An impulse he didn't quite understand made him turn toward the corridor of upscale stores instead of the main exit.
"We're thirty minutes early," he told her. "Let's walk this way."
He inspected the shop windows as they proceeded through the arcade drenched in sunlight through the domed glass roof. Unable to keep up with his determined strides, Grace trailed behind him, her white satin pumps clipping against the marble floor.
Rory slowed his pace, came to a halt outside a jewelry store. "Let's get wedding rings."
"Wedding rings?" Grace stared at him, her eyes wide with disbelief, as if he had suggested they rob the store. "Why?" she asked.
Rory gave a shrug of irritation. He'd be damned if he knew why. It just suddenly seemed to be a good idea to acquire some external token that Grace belonged to him. She would wear his ring. Not negotiable.
"It will help convince the neighbors," he told her. "The people who pay market rent resent the hell out of those who have rent controlled apartments. They'll rat on anyone who tries to sublet illegally."
Grace shifted her elegant shoulders, left bare by the gown. A gang of thugs in biker jackets slouched by. Their hungry gazes roamed her length, appearing mesmerized by the way the white silk hugged the contours of her body when she moved. Rory's hands clenched into fists. She ought to have worn a wrap over her dress. He released a sigh, aware that he was being unreasonable. The way Grace looked tonight she'd need to be bundled into a blanket to keep men from staring.
He hauled her into the store where a slim clerk with blond hair glanced at their clothing and directed them to the display of wedding rings. "You choose," Rory said to Grace.
She surveyed the trays of rings, her face furrowed in concentration. "Plain. No pattern. Not too wide." Grace rattled out her requirements with the same firmness she'd delivered her instructions for a cheeseburger. She selected three pairs of rings and tried them on in turn. Rather than ask Rory for his opinion, she reached for his hand and slipped one of the larger rings on his finger. She held his hand in both of hers and inspected the effect, rubbing his skin, twisting the ring around.
The feel of the gold circle digging into his flesh sent a wave of panic through Rory, like a virus multiplying in his veins. Marriage. He'd never before been buffeted by such contrary emotions--exhilaration and terror at the same time.
"This one, I think." Grace glanced up at him, and Rory felt himself drowning.
"Your eyes," he mumbled. "What color are they?"
"My eyes?" She removed the ring from his finger. "That's a strange question, considering you're looking at me."
"Every time I look, they're different. First, I thought they were blue. Then I thought they were green. Now they look grey."
"They're somewhere in between. They pick up the shade from what I'm wearing." Grace examined the price tag, whispered the amount to him under her breath. "Is that all right?" she asked. "You'll have to pay for both. I'm broke. Or course, I'll give it back to you when we get divorced."
Suppressing his irritation at her comment about the temporary nature of their marriage, Rory nodded to the blond youth who measured their fingers and replaced the display trays under the glass counter. After locking the cabinet, the clerk strolled away to fetch the rings in the right size.
"What color do you think your eyes are?" Rory asked Grace.
"It says blue on my passport, so they must be blue."
"Blue." He nodded slowly.
When the young man returned, they tried on the rings again to make sure of the size.
"Can you go ahead and see if they boys are waiting at the entrance?" Rory suggested. "We're late. Tell them I'll be along as soon as I've settled up here."
"We're late?" Grace gasped in horror. "I hate being late," she muttered as she whirled about and rushed out in her high heels, her teetering steps almost like the graceful gait of a giraffe.
Rory smiled after her, his amusement mixing with doubt over the sanity of allowing her to traverse the mall by herself in that flimsy gown. He turned back to the clerk. Before he handed over his credit card, he selected a pair of sapphire and diamond earrings. They cost every penny he'd made selling his car, but he didn't care. He might die in Iraq, and what good would savings do if he never returned?
* * * *
Grace stood opposite the fountain, craning her neck to survey the cars pulling in and out of the circular drive. A pair of jeeps filled with a band of rowdy soldiers would be impossible to miss, but she inspected each passing vehicle anyway. She shuddered at the possibility of being late to her own wedding.
Unreliability was not an attractive quality, and if they missed their seven o'clock appointment at the Little White Wedding Chapel, they might have to make another reservation and return later. The possibility of not ending the day as Mrs. Rory Sullivan caused a hollow dip in her stomach.
Something warm touched her bare back. With a cry of fright, Grace leaped around, crashing into Rory's arms.
"The boys not here yet?" he asked, steadying her.
His hands were empty, but the dent in the line of his jacket over his chest reassured Grace that the wedding rings were in his breast pocket. The broad set of his shoulders and his sculpted features made her pulse spike, just as they had when she'd watched him getting dressed in his immaculate evening clothes.
"No, they're not here," she told him. "Are we late?"
Rory glanced at his watch. "If they don't come in the next five minutes, we'll take a cab."
As soon as he finished speaking, a convoy of jeeps rolled up, this time at a more leisurely pace. The number of vehicles had increased to three. Grace's tense frown melted into a smile of relief. No ripped jeans and dirty T-shirts, no drunken louts. The men must have gone shopping together, since everyone was dressed in identical khaki chinos and green polo shirts.
Overcoming her usual reserve, Grace called out a greeting as soon as the jeeps had lined up beside the fountain. She made a sweeping gesture to indicate the matching attire of the group. "You look wonderful."
She continued to beam at them, but no one replied. They kept staring at her, their mouths agape, a look of stunned disbelief stamped on their faces.
When Grace whirled to seek reassurance from Rory, someone shouted, "Sullivan, you lucky son-of-a-bitch."
It was as if the words broke a spell of silence. Bedlam erupted around her, with whistles and yells and stomping feet that rattled the jeeps.
"Sugar, what did you do to the girl we picked up at the airport?"
"Turn this way, angel. Let me see the rest of you."
"Do you have a sister?"
"Sullivan, you bastard. You don't deserve her."
Laughter bubbled up inside Grace, and a blush of pleasure radiated from every inch of her exposed skin. She crossed over to the first jeep in the convoy, where two solders occupied the front seat, and the rear seat awaited empty.
"I'd lift you up, I'm worried about damaging your dress," Rory told her, his arms half-raised to her.
She sent him a smile over her shoulder and offered him her hand instead. He curled his fingers around hers, supporting her as she hiked up her gown. Grace folded one slim leg through the slit on the left, and scaled up the long step into the vehicle.
On the front seat, the soldier with the coal-black crew cut who had made fun of her on the way from the airport ogled at her leg and pretended to fall into a dead faint. Beside him, a swarthy young man Grace didn't remember from before nodded at her.
"I'm Karim." He pointed at the soldier slumped next to him. "And this is Joe."
"Joe and Karim will be the witnesses," Rory explained. "Is that all right with you?" He directed a concerned look at her. "I've told the others to wait outside rather than come into the chapel. It's quicker and they can keep an eye on the jeeps. And if there's no parking, they can drop us off at the curb and pick us up again, since we'll all be going on together."
Grace nodded, unable to speak as emotion choked her chest. Instinct told her what errands Rory had spent the day taking care of. When she said her prayers last night, she had asked for a nice wedding. He had gone out to make sure she got one.
"Thank you," she whispered, reaching over to squeeze his hand. "Thank you for arranging everything."
He clasped his fingers around hers. "It's the least I could do. You deserve a nice wedding." He appeared to hesitate. "There isn't much I can offer you, but I'll try to give you anything you want tonight."
* * * *
After a drive along the crowded Strip, the jeeps dropped them off outside the wedding chapel. A white picket fence surrounded the artificial lawn where another wedding party stood posing for photographs. Joe and Karim jumped out, and one of the other soldiers took Joe's place at the wheel. Grace hurried ahead into the low building, where a harassed-looking woman with a clipboard met her with an impatient glare.
"Clements and Sullivan?" the woman yelled.
"Yes," Rory replied, catching up to Grace.
"You're late. The chapel is ready. This way. You need your marriage license. Do you have two witnesses?"
"Yes," Grace blurted. Her breath rushed in and out of a tightened chest. She wanted to go to the bathroom, but there was no time. Joe and Karim and Rory jostled around her, blocking all escape routes.
"Oh my God," she muttered as a hazy cloud of disbelief enveloped her. "I'm getting married."
"It's not too late," the woman advised her as they reached the chapel entrance. "You don't have to go ahead with it if you don't want to, but you won't get back your deposit." She stood aside and waved them through.
"It's all right." Rory curled his hand around Grace's elbow and steered her down the narrow aisle between the white pews barely wide enough for two. The flowers and the crimson seat cushions, and the pair of marble statues flanking the altar blurred in her vision. She stole a glance at the man beside her, and the smile in his eyes banished her fears.
"Don't worry, Grace," he told her, and caught her shoulders, to keep her from crashing into the altar as she failed to come to a stop.
A tiny squeal of alarm rose on her lips, but the gentle pressure of his fingers on her bare skin flooded her with warmth. All at once, Grace knew how a bride felt on her wedding day.
Full of hope. Floating on dreams.
With a sigh of longing, Grace banished the romantic thoughts, focusing her mind on the practical nature of her marriage.
In front of her, the preacher cleared his throat. He was a tall man, dressed in a dark suit, and his pale face and graying hair gave Grace the impression that he spent his entire life in the chapel, marrying couples, never being allowed outside. She watched Rory unfold the marriage license and hand it over.
"Do you have your vows?" asked the preacher.
"Vows?" Grace echoed.
"What you'll say to each other. Some couples prefer to compose their own vows, but we also provide printed cards for a selection of the most popular vows."
"I'd like to have the basic one," Grace said. "The one that starts I take thee."
The preacher bent to extract a pair of cards from behind the altar and handed one to each of them.
"Could I just take a moment to read this?" Grace asked. "I mean, you should never sign anything without reading it first, so I can't just read this out, without knowing what it says." She flicked a panicked glance at Rory, who stood at ease beside her.
"Of course," the preacher said. "But please hurry. The next couple will be here soon."
Grace lowered her eyes to the printed card and scanned the text. She jerked her attention to Rory. "I can't say this," she told him in a frantic whisper. "I can't promise to marry you until death do us part."
"Don't say it then." Rory turned to the preacher. "Do you have another card with a vow which is a little ... less permanent?"
"Perhaps you might like to reschedule," the preacher suggested. "Think it over before you go any further. Marriage is meant to be a lifetime commitment."
Grace lifted up the card and indicated the last line. "Could we just say 'until further notice' here, instead of 'until death do us part'?"
The preacher looked baffled, but agreed to her suggestion. Grace glanced behind her, where Joe and Karim heaved with suppressed laughter in the front pews. The building appeared to shrink around her, making her worry that�