Cia touched the necklace with the tips of her fingers. “Thank you.” A paltry sentiment compared to the emotion churning through her.
Fran smiled. “You’re welcome. At the risk of being tactless, I was crushed you didn’t want any family at the wedding. I’m more than happy to pitch in as mother of the bride, if that’s part of the issue. You must be missing yours.”
Before Cia’s face crumpled fully, Lucas materialized at her side and pulled her to her feet. “Mama. I told you Cia doesn’t want a big ceremony or any fuss. She doesn’t even like jewelry.”
Obviously he’d been listening to the conversation. As Fran sputtered, Cia retreated a few mortified steps and tried to be grateful for the intervention.
Her dry eyes burned. No big church wedding for her. No flower girls, chamber music or a delicate sleeveless ecru dress with a princess waist, trimmed in lace. All that signified the real deal, an ability to gift someone with her love and then trust the fates not to rip her happiness away with no warning.
Neither could she in good conscience develop any sort of relationship with Mrs. Wheeler. Better to hurt her now, rather than later.
With her heart in shredded little pieces, Cia unclasped the necklace. “Thank you, but I can’t wear this. It doesn’t go with a simple civil ceremony. I’m pretty busy at work for the foreseeable future, so lunch is out of the question.”
Fran’s expression smoothed out as she accepted the return of her box and necklace. “I overstepped. You have my apologies.”
“It’s fine, Mama. We should go,” Lucas said and nodded to the rest of his family, who watched her coolly.
Excellent. Now they all hated her. That’s what she should have been going for all night. Then when she and Lucas divorced, he could blame it all on her, and his family would welcome him back into the fold with sympathy and condolences. His mother would say she knew Cia wasn’t the right girl for him the moment she’d thrown his great-grandmother’s pearls back in her face.
Cia murmured her goodbyes and followed Lucas through the house and out into the starless night.
Once they were settled in their seats, he drove away, as slow as Christmas. But she didn’t care so much this time and burrowed into the soft leather, oddly reassured by the scent of pine trees curling around her.
“Thanks, Lucas,” she said, and her voice cracked. “For giving me the out with your mother. It was...”
“No problem,” he said, jumping in to fill the silence when she couldn’t go on. “It takes two to make marriage work, fake or otherwise. I’ll do damage control with Mama in the morning. And, darlin’, I must confess a real fondness to you calling me Lucas.”
His gaze connected with hers, arcing with heat, and the current zinged through the semidark, close quarters of the car. Goose bumps erupted across her skin and her pulse skittered.
All of a sudden, it was later.
Lucas spent the silent, tense ride home revamping his strategy.
Fragileness deepened Cia’s shadows, and it was enough to cool his jets. Nothing would have pleased him more than to walk into the house, back her up against the door and start that kiss over again, but this time, his hands would stroke over the hot curves of her body and she’d be naked in short order.
But she wasn’t like other women. She wasn’t in touch with her sexuality, and he had to live with her—and himself—for the next six months. While he’d like to sink straight into a simple seduction, he had to treat her differently, with no idea what that looked like.
Once they cleared the detached garage, he slid his hand into hers. “Thanks for going to dinner.”
Her fingers stiffened. She glanced at him, surprise evident. “You say that like I had a choice.”
“You did. With me, you always have a choice. We’re partners, not master and slave. So, I’m saying thank you for choosing to spend the evening with my family. It was difficult for you, and I appreciate it.”
Her gaze flitted over him, clearly looking for the punch line. “You’re welcome, then.”
He let go of her hand to open the door. “Now, I don’t know about you, but my parents’ house always makes me want to let loose a little. I’m half-afraid to move, in case I accidentally knock over one of Mama’s precious knickknacks.”
Cia smiled, just a little, but it was encouraging all the same. “It is easier to breathe in our house.”
Our house. She’d never called it that before, and he liked the sound of it. They were settling in with each other, finding a groove.
He followed her into the living room. “Let’s do something fun.”