I don’t have too much time to worry about her appraisal, though, because Marco attacks me next, in a bear hug that I swear I can feel snapping a few vertebrae on my spine into place. “My future sister-in-law,” Marco exclaims as he sets me back on my feet. “Congratulations, you two. Xander, you didn’t warn me how gorgeous Melanie is.” He flashes his brother a wink, and I swear, my cheeks could start a small forest fire.

Patricia swats his arm. “Don’t embarrass her yet, you’ll scare her off. Come on, we’ve already ordered, but just a few little plates. Haven’t picked mains yet.”

With a sheepish smile, Xander gives me a half shrug and takes my hand, leading me toward the table we’ve reserved. A few little plates turn out to be a veritable army’s worth of appetizers, which trot out one after the next while we take our seats. Xander keeps a reassuring hand on my knee, for which I’m grateful. Without him, I don’t know if I could handle the nerves fluttering through my body.

Even in the gorgeous dress Xander bought me, not to mention the towering pair of heels and the glittery little clutch he insisted on buying to go with the outfit, I feel horribly out of place here. Like someone’s going to spot me at any moment and exclaim that there’s a poor woman in their midst, then have me escorted out by security.

It doesn’t help that Patricia keeps examining me with a narrowed eye. I wonder if she can tell that I painted by clumsy nude nails myself, or that my haircut cost $20 at the barbershop down the road from my house.

Her nails, I can’t help but notice, are perfect French manicures, complete with little sparkling diamond studs embedded in the pinkies. Her skin looks like it’s never seen sunlight a day in her life, and her perfectly curled hair falls down her back in ringlets despite the humidity.

“So, how did you two meet?” Patricia asks, with the air of one girlfriend asking the latest gossip from another. “Tell me everything, all the scandalous details.”

I laugh, and it comes out higher pitched than usual. I pray none of them notice. Under the table, Xander gently squeezes my thigh, just once, though whether it’s in warning or for reassurance, I can’t tell. “Oh, we actually met outside the city. In my hometown.” I dart a sideways glance at Xander. It’s easier to look at him than his siblings while I talk, so I do, trying my best to play the part of the besotted country girl struck dumb with love for this big city man.

It’s not hard. I’m already dangerously close to living that part. But I can’t think about that too closely right now.

“We fell in love out in the countryside,” I say, keeping my gaze fixed on Xander’s. “We just got engaged a week ago now, so it’s all still fairly fresh…” None of it, strictly, is really a lie. We just leave out the part where we also met only a week before that.

Still, the ring on my finger feels like it’s growing heavier with every word I speak. As if it’s one of those mood rings that will suddenly light up to reveal how I’m feeling. I wonder what color it would light up to indicate that I’m lying about everything.

Across the table, Marco chuckles. “We wondered what Xander was thinking, with all his sudden interest in farming and traveling around to these little country towns. I guess this explains it, huh Xan?” He winks, and Xander laughs.

I try to join in, but my voice feels too false and tinny. I clear my throat once, hard, and reach for the glass of champagne that Patricia poured me in order to whet my lips. When I do, I find her staring at me harder than ever now, and it turns my veins to ice.

But all she does is smile and nod. “Well, however you managed it,” she says, “I’m just glad Xander will finally be putting down roots. My brother would never admit it, but he’s just as much the settling type as the rest of us. I know this is something he’s wanted for a long time, and I’m sure you two will make one another very happy.” Her teeth flash impossibly white and straight when she smiles.

My stomach churns even worse now. I swallow a bigger gulp of champagne than I intend, and the bubbles sit uneasily in my belly.

I wonder if she’s right. If Xander really does want a real wife, a real family. But surely, if so, he wouldn’t be going through all the trouble of hiring and paying me? A man like him, as hot as he is and with as much money as he has, not to mention with all his charm and intellect… he’d be swimming in women if he wanted them. He could have anyone in the world.

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