“You’re popular all of a sudden,” Cia said after the fourth beep in a row, and her tone tried and convicted him for a crime he’d not been aware of committing.

“It’s just people congratulating us.”

And he was done with that. Lana’s name popping up on the screen, after all this time, had unburied disillusionment he’d rather not dwell on.

He hit the phone’s off button and dropped it in his pocket, then left the car in the driveway instead of pulling into the garage so it would be easier for Cia to get out.

His efforts to untangle Cia’s hang-ups last night had failed. Tonight, he’d try a different approach. “Have dinner with me. To celebrate.”

Before he could move, she popped the door and got out. He followed her up the drive and plowed through Amber’s fancy flowerbed to beat her to the porch.

“Celebrate what?” she asked, annoyance leaking from her pores. “I was thinking about soaking for an hour or two in a hot bath and going to bed early, actually.”

Before she could storm through the entryway, Lucas stopped her with a firm hand on her prickly little shoulder. “Wait.”

With an impatient sigh, she turned. “What?”

“Just because you’ve got your marriage license doesn’t mean we’re going to walk through this door and never speak again. You realize this, don’t you?” He searched her face, determined to find some glimmer of agreement. “This is the beginning, not the end. We’ve been faking being a happily engaged couple. Now we have to fake being a happily married couple. No, we don’t have to put on a performance right now, when no one’s around. But to do it in public, trust me, darlin’, when I say it will be miles easier if you’re not at my throat in private.”

Her tight face flashed through a dozen different emotions and finally picked resignation. “Yeah. I know. I owe you an apology. It’s been a rough day.”

For both of them. “Because you didn’t want to get married?”

She shrank a little, as if she couldn’t support the heavy weight settling across her shoulders. As if she might shatter into a million shards of razor-sharp glass if he touched her. So he didn’t.

But he wanted to, to see if he could soften her up, like during the five seconds he’d had her pliant and breathless in his arms and so off guard she’d actually kissed him back.

“I’ve been prepared to be married ever since I came up with the idea.” Misery pulled at her full mouth. “It’s just...I didn’t have any idea how hard it would be to get married without my father walking me down the aisle. Me. Who was never going to get married in the first place. Isn’t that ridiculous?”

One tear burst loose, trailing down her delicate cheekbone, and he had to do something.

“Hey now,” he said, and wrapped his arms around her quivering shoulders, drawing her in close. She let him, which meant she must be really upset. Prickly Cia usually made an appearance when she was uncomfortable about whatever was going on inside her. “That’s okay to cry about. Cry all you want. Then I’ll get you drunk and take advantage of you, so you forget all about it.”

She snorted out a half laugh, and it rumbled pleasantly against his chest. There was something amazing about being able to comfort a woman so insistent on not needing it. He’d grown really fond of soothing away that prickliness.

“I could use a glass of wine,” she admitted.

“I have exactly the thing. Come inside.” He drew back and smiled when some snap crept back into her watery eyes. “You can drink it while you watch me cook.”

“You cook?” That dried up her waterworks in a hurry. “With an oven?”

“Sure enough. I can even turn it on by myself.” As he led the way into the kitchen, a squawk cut him off. “Oh, good. Your wedding present is here.”

Cia raised her brows at the large cage sitting on the island in the middle of the kitchen. “That’s a bird.”

“Yep. An African gray parrot.” He shed his suit jacket and draped it over a chair in the breakfast nook.

“You’re giving me a bird? As a wedding present?”

“Not any bird. African grays live up to fifty years, so you’ll have company as you live all by your lonesome the rest of your life. And they talk. I figure anyone who likes to argue as much as you do needed a pet who can argue back. I named her Fergie.” He shrugged. “Because you like hip-hop.”

Speechless, Cia stared at the man she had married, whom she clearly did not know at all, and tried to make some sort of sound.

“I didn’t get you anything,” she managed to say.

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