“Just another member of the family he’s taking from us,” said Clark sourly.
Standing on the worn linoleum of the tiny, dimly lit, spotlessly clean kitchen, Kassius heard himself say, “Laney and I would be happy to have you stay with us. My jets are at your disposal. We have plenty of extra rooms. Please come and stay as often as you like.”
Laney’s jaw dropped.
Yvonne gasped, turning towards Clark, who had a stunned expression.
“I take it back.” The elderly woman sniffed joyfully, wiping her eyes with her brightly colored apron. Coming up to Kassius, she stood on her tiptoes and enveloped both him and Laney in a hug. “Every bad thing I ever said. Because you’re not just good people, Kassius—you’re family!”
* * *
Later that night, Laney crept out of her childhood bedroom, with its pink ruffled comforter on her twin bed, foreign maps on the walls and overflowing bookshelves. Fresh from the shower, she was dressed in an old T-shirt and pajama pants as she sneaked down the hallway.
Engaged or not, pregnant or not, there were some rules that had to be followed in the Henry household, one of which was that an unmarried couple would never, ever be permitted to sleep in the same room. Even on the night before their wedding.
Too nervous to sleep, Laney had waited until her grandmother and father had gone to bed. Silently, she tiptoed down the long, dark hallway to the front room, where Kassius had been assigned to sleep on the sagging sofa.
Earlier that night, when her grandmother had handed him the pillow and blanket, Laney had half expected him to refuse and announce that he was off to a hotel. Instead, he’d just meekly said, “Thank you very much, ma’am.”
Laney bit her lip. It wasn’t the first time he’d surprised her today. She hadn’t expected him to treat her family so well. As if he respected them. As if he really cared about their opinion. She was grateful but bewildered. Where was the arrogant man who claimed to have no feelings?
The front room was dark and empty, the pillow and blanket left in a pile on the sofa. Hearing a creak on the porch, she pushed open the peeling screen door.
Kassius was sitting on the old porch swing, his handsome face distant as he looked out into the dark night.
“What are you doing out here?”
He blinked, as if coming back to himself, and she wondered what he’d been thinking about. For answer, he just moved over, giving her a spot on the wooden swing.
She took a deep breath of the fragrant, cooling night air. She could hear the wind against the trees, the distant hum of city traffic. She could smell his expensive, woodsy cologne, the scent of cypress trees and musk.
“Not able to sleep, either?” she said.
She didn’t want to ask if he was having wedding jitters like she was. “Is it the sofa?”
Kassius gave a wry smile. “It does have a hard spot right in the middle.”
“I used to jump on it as a kid,” she said apologetically. She bit her lip. “I feel guilty having a bed...”
“Don’t,” he cut her off. “I want you to have it. You need to be comfortable. How are you feeling?”
“Better. No nausea.” She gave him a shy smile. “It might be because I’m home. Eating my grandma’s cooking. I feel good. I feel...grateful.” She looked at him in the shadowy night. A breeze blew the branches of trees across the nearest streetlight, moving light and shadow across his handsome, angular face. “Thank you for what you did today.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“You made my family love you.”
He gave a low, cynical laugh. “By offering to give them use of my private jet? Or by not telling them the truth about my loveless heart?”
“You opened up your home to them. Home means family.”
Kassius looked at her. In the dark, lowering sky, the crescent moon was haunted by a swirl of frosted cloud.
“How do you do it, Laney?” His voice was low and intense. “After everything that happened to you, how do you keep your heart open?”
“What do you mean?” she said with an awkward laugh. “Is there any other way?”
“Your mother abandoned you.” His dark eyes seemed to burn through her. “She left your injured father and you and ran away with some boyfriend. It was monstrous...”
Laney sucked in her breath. “Don’t say that! She made some mistakes, yes, bad ones, but—”
“Mistakes?” he said incredulously. “Abandoning a sick partner and a young, innocent child? It’s beyond selfish. It was evil.” His hands had tightened into fists, and his jaw seemed tight enough to snap. “She deserved to be punished...”
“She was punished,” Laney said quietly. “She died. Of an overdose. Alone on a California beach, without my father or me around to help her and protect her from herself when she needed us most.”
Kassius stared at her, then blinked, as if recollecting himself. He took a deep breath.
“How do you do it?” he repeated. He gestured toward the house. “All of you. After everything you’ve gone through, how can you still have such hope, such belief in love? Your father has clearly never gotten over her. He still has her pictures on his wall, pictures he can no longer see. He still wears his wedding ring!”
“You can’t turn love on and off like a light when it’s convenient,” she said quietly. She stared down at the peeling finish on the wood porch. “I wish you could.”
“You mean, you wish you could,” Kassius said flatly. “Because you think you’re in love with me.”
Laney looked at him, astonished.
“But you’re wrong.” He shook his head. “You’re not in love with me. You don’t even know me.”
For a moment, she didn’t—couldn’t—answer. Then something about being here, in her own home in her own city, made her brave.
“There’s a lot I don’t know about you yet, that’s true,” she said quietly. “I don’t know where you were born. I don’t know your first language. I don’t know why you gave Mimi those diamonds in secret, or why, for a man who worked so hard to create his fortune, you’re willing to toss so much of it away on bad loans to her boss.”
Folding his arms, Kassius set his jaw, looking away.
“But there are some things I do know.” Laney tilted her head, looking at his silhouette in the moonlight. “I know you’ll always be honest with me, even if that means saying things I don’t want to hear. You’re willing to commit your life to me, if not your heart. You have somehow already made my family love you. You’re going to marry me tomorrow, and I know you will keep your vows to honor and cherish me. And I know above all that you will love our baby.”
His eyes widened, and he turned toward her. For a long moment, they stared at each other in the moonlit Louisiana night, the only sound the creak of the chains on the porch swing and the soft whisper of the night breeze through the cypress and palm trees.
“Let me in, Kassius.” Reaching out, she took his hand in her own. “Tell me your secret.”
He stared at her for a long moment. Then, pulling back his hand, he abruptly rose to his feet.
“It’s a busy day tomorrow. Get some rest.”
And he left her on the dark porch.
STANDING AT THE altar of the two-hundred-year-old Gothic church, lit by candlelight on a dark February night in the heart of New Orleans, Kassius looked at Laney, radiant in her white dress.
“I now pronounce you man and wife,” the minister intoned.
She looked like an angel, he thought. Her brown eyes glowed as she looked up at him. Her lips were full and pink, her dark hair pulled back beneath the long white veil. The wedding dress was vintage, with white lace sleeves and sweeping skirts.
The minister grinned. “You may now kiss the bride.”
At last. Cupping Laney’s cheek, Kassius lowered his head. He forgot about the hundred people watching from the pews and just kissed her. He felt her small body tremble. But her lips did not. She barely touched him before she pulled away. She was distant. Unreachable. Nothing like he’d expected from the warm, emotional woman he’d just married.
As Kassius drew back, suddenly he was the one who was trembling.
Around them, people were applauding and cheering from the pews, and a few threw rose petals as Kassius took Laney’s hand and led her back down the aisle, past her openly weeping grandmother in the fancy hat, and her father, who was still blinking back tears from the experience of escorting his daughter down the aisle.
The nave of the tiny, Gothic-style church was lavishly decorated with expensive flowers and candles. But the real heart of the ceremony had been the joy of the wedding guests, mostly Laney’s family and friends. He’d only invited one real friend, his best man, Spanish billionaire Ángel Velazquez. But that was the difference between them, wasn’t it? Kassius had acquaintances, people he met for business dinners or a hedonistic week of skiing in Gstaad. He had business allies and rivals, suck-ups and hangers-on, all of whom he hadn’t bothered to tell the wedding planner to invite.
While Laney had family. She had friends.
Newly wed, the two of them walked out of the stone church, and the wedding guests followed them out into the warm, dark, moist Louisiana night, a noisy, happy crowd, chattering, laughing, even bursting into song as they walked the short distance to the reception, being held at an antebellum mansion in the Garden District. The wedding planner, an accomplished woman, followed them with her headset, making sure everything was ready for their arrival.