“I’m trying.” As if to prove it, she didn’t shrug off his arm.
“We’ll get there.”
Legs bumping, he guided her toward the kitchen, where he’d left every single box intact because God forbid he accidentally put the blender in the wrong spot.
Most of Amber’s touches had been removed, thrown haphazardly into the trash by a blank-faced Matthew, but a few remained, like the empty fruit bowl his sister-in-law had picked up at the farmers’ market.
Must have missed that one. During those weeks following the funeral, even he had been numb over Amber’s sudden death, and neither he nor Matthew had put a whole lot of effort into clearing the house.
Maybe, in some ways, his marriage to Cia would be a lot easier than one built on the promise of forever. At least he knew ahead of time it was ending and there would be no emotional investment to reconcile.
“Look how far we’ve come already,” he told her. “You’re not going to make cracks about my past relationships, and I’m not going to make plans for dinner without checking first. The rest will be a snap. You just have to pretend you love me as much as you love being a crusader. Easy, right?”
She snorted and some color returned to her cheeks.
Good. Hell’s bells, was she ever a difficult woman, but without him, she’d be lost. She had no idea how to fake a relationship. Her fire and compassion could only go so far, though he liked both more than he would have thought. If she ditched that prickly pear personality, she’d be something else. Thank the good Lord she hadn’t.
Otherwise, he’d be chomping at the bit to break the no-physical-relationship rule and that would be plain stupid. Like kissing her would have been stupid.
No complications. That was the best way to ensure he put Wheeler Family Partners back on the map. He and Cia were business partners, and her proposal challenged him to be something he’d never been before—the hero. She deserved his undivided attention to this deal.
But he had to admit he liked that she wasn’t all that comfortable having a man’s hands on her. Maybe he had some caveman in him after all.
* * *
Cia spent a few hours arranging the kitchen but had to get to the shelter before finishing. Okay, so she took off earlier than planned because there was too much Lucas in the house.
How could she sleep there tonight? Or the next night or the next?
This was it, the real thing.
She’d taken her bedroom furniture, clothes and a few other necessary items, then locked up her condo. She and Lucas now lived together. They’d attend Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler’s engagement dinner tomorrow night, and a blink after making the man’s acquaintance, she’d marry Lucas at the courthouse Monday afternoon.
Cia Wheeler. It wasn’t as if Lucas had made forty-seven other unreasonable demands. It was petty to keep being freaked about it.
So she spent a lot of her shift trying to get used to the name, practicing it aloud and writing it out several hundred times while she manned the check-in desk.
Dios, she’d turned into a love-struck teenager, covering an entire blank page with loopy script. Mrs. Lucas Wheeler. Cia Wheeler. Dulciana Alejandra de Coronado y Allende Wheeler. Like her full name hadn’t already been pretentious enough. Well, she wouldn’t be writing that anywhere except on the marriage certificate.
The evening vaporized, and the next set of volunteers arrived. Cia took her time saying goodbye to everyone and checked on Pamela Gonzalez twice to be sure she was getting along okay as her broken arm healed.
A couple of weeks ago, Cia had taken the E.R. nurse’s call and met Pamela at the hospital to counsel her on options; then she’d driven Pamela to the shelter personally.
Victims often arrived still bloodstained and broken, but Cia considered it a win to get them to a safe place they likely wouldn’t have known about without her assistance. It wasn’t as if the shelter could advertise an address or every abuser would be at the door, howling for his woman to be returned.
Pamela smiled and shooed Cia out of the room, insisting she liked her three roommates and would be fine. With nothing left to do, Cia headed for the new house she shared with her soon-to-be husband, braced for whatever he tossed out this time.
She found Lucas’s bedroom door shut as she passed the master suite on the way to her smaller bedroom.
She let out a rush of pent-up air. A glorious, blessed reprieve from “practicing” and that smile and those broad shoulders, which filled a T-shirt as if Lucas had those custom-made along with his suits. A reprieve by design or by default she didn’t know, and she didn’t care. Gratefully, she sank into bed and slept until morning.
By the time she emerged from her room, Lucas was already gone. She ate a quick breakfast in the quiet kitchen someone had lovingly appointed with warm colors, top-of-the-line appliances and rich tile.