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The wedding may be off, but the honeymoon is on…
Merilee Fallon has been planning her wedding to Matt Townsend since she was seven, and now the big day is only two days away. But suddenly she has an unexpectedly serious case of cold feet. So she shocks both Matt and herself—and calls off the wedding.
They may not get their happily ever after, but both Merilee and Matt agree they shouldn’t let their non-refundable honeymoon go to waste. So they take the Mexican Riviera cruise—as friends. It’s Merilee’s chance to be adventurous, and maybe even put her newfound freedom to the test. But she’s about to discover that sometimes there’s nothing more arousing than first love—especially on a cruise ship where there are no rules and anything goes…
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Absorbed in the slide show of images of me and my fiancé, Matt, in the digital photo frame on my desk, I took a moment to register the growl of a throaty car engine outside my open bedroom window. One glance and—“Oh my God!” I leaped to my feet. The yellow MGB convertible cruising to a stop was my sister Jenna’s. Which meant that the hottie with windblown brown hair in the driver’s seat was her man, come to make things right with her.
I flew out of my room and almost crashed into Jenna in the hall. My sister, now twenty-nine, had always been the gorgeous one in the family—in a totally natural way she took for granted. Nothing, not even the male-driven angst she’d been through in the past couple of days, could change that. Her blue sundress was perfect with her tanned skin, her hair tumbled in sunny curls over her shoulders, and even the shadows around her eyes brought out their dramatic greenish- blue.
“Jenna! That’s your car!” And in it, fingers crossed, the cure for those mauve shadows. I’d always loved her—even despite her gorgeousness, her flakiness, and my issues with my sisters in general—but in the past days we’d grown closer and I really, really wanted things to work out for her.
“What?” She shook her head, frowning in puzzlement. “No, my car’s in California. What are you talking about, Merilee?”
When her old MGB had broken down last week just as she’d started her journey home from Santa Cruz to Vancouver, she’d left it at a repair shop and hitched a ride with the man who’d turned her life upside down. And yes, the car outside was definitely hers, which meant this had to be the guy—the stranger she’d fallen for, broken up with, and been angsting over. “Look!” I grabbed her hand and dragged her over to the window.
Her ocean-colored eyes went wide, wider, and wider still as she stared out. “What?” She sounded utterly stunned.
“It’s Mark, it’s Mark! It is, isn’t it?” He hadn’t flown to Indonesia to start his marine biology project; he’d gone down to California to pick up her car. He’d come for her—a windblown knight in a butter-yellow MGB—and he was going to make everything all right. It was like the happy, tear-jerker ending of every romantic movie.
Finally, emotion flooded her face: hope, and a joy so powerful that . . . that I felt the sour tang of jealousy in my mouth. I was the one getting married in two days. I was the one who was supposed to feel on top of the world.
Ack! What was wrong with me these days?
Jenna dashed out my bedroom door and I ran after her, shoving aside my stupid, petty, irrational doubts and recapturing my excitement for her. In the hall, I yelled, “Theresa, Kat!”
Theresa opened her bedroom door. My oldest sister looked all fresh and pretty in shorts and an avocado-colored top that made green flecks dance in her hazel eyes. Frowning, she held up her cell phone. “What is it? I’m talking to Damien.”
At least she’d only been talking to her boyfriend, who was on a book tour in the States, and not having phone sex, which from what she said occupied an awful lot of their time. I still couldn’t get over the change in my uptight professor sister since she’d hooked up with Damien. She’d always intimidated the hell out of me, but now she’d softened and was easier to relate to. Love had worked magic. Love and phone sex.
“Jenna’s Mark is here,” I answered, loud enough for Kat to hear, too, in her bedroom where she’d holed up with her hottie from Montreal. Ms. Sociability, the girl who had a million friends but the worst luck when it came to love, had finally found herself a winner.
Theresa’s face lit up. “Seriously?” Into the phone she said, “Have to go, talk to you later, love you.” She tossed the phone onto her bed, then faced me again, brow pinching. “That man better not hurt Jenna again.”
Kat’s bedroom door opened a crack and she stuck her head out, reddish-brown curls in disarray. “Mark’s here? Really?”
“Outside, in Jenna’s MGB.” I turned to Theresa. “He won’t hurt her.” I crossed my fingers, hoping it was true. Yeah, maybe I was a teeny bit envious, but my sister—all my sisters—deserved happiness. “He’s come to apologize. I’m sure of it.”
Theresa’s frown slid into a smile. “It is our summer for happy endings, isn’t it? All of us Fallon girls.”
Her, with her new love, Damien, the thriller writer she’d met on the plane from Sydney. Kat, with the sexy photographer who’d won her heart on the train ride from Montreal. And me of course, marrying the boy I’d loved forever. Which was exciting. Of course, it was. Along with kind of scary. And confusing. Which it shouldn’t have been. . . .
This wasn’t the time to worry about it. Mark had come for Jenna, and I didn’t want to miss a moment.
Kat said, “Gotta pull some clothes on.”
So that’s why she’d only opened the door a crack. “Ew! TMI.” It was squirmy enough to hear her gush and rave about Kama Sutra sex with the fabulous Naveen, much less know exactly when and where—like right now, across the hall—it was going on.
“Don’t let anything happen without me,” she called as she slammed the door.
Theresa and I darted down the hall and pounded down the staircase, then raced out the open front door of the family home. Halfway between the MGB and the steps, Jenna stood with her guy. His arms were around her shoulders and hers around his waist.
As Theresa and I went over, Kat and Nav hurried up behind us. Mom’s Mercedes pulled up and she climbed out and walked briskly toward us in her business suit. For once, my lawyer mom who had to control the world didn’t jump in with questions. She was so smart she’d have sized up the situation in a nanosecond.
As we all moved closer to Jenna, I figured Mark had to know we were serving notice that if he messed with her, he’d have us to answer to. Within the family, we might snipe and nag and bitch, but when it came to outsiders, we protected our own.
I sized the guy up: a rangy, well-muscled bod shown off by cargo shorts and a black tank, angular features, a tan that made his sky-blue eyes even more dramatic. Even rumpled and windblown, he was a total hottie. Was I disloyal to Matt, to think that? Of course, my fiancé was handsome, but he didn’t have Mark’s intense, utterly masculine vibe.
Mark’s piercing blue eyes took in our presence. Then he gazed down at Jenna and, oh yeah, I was watching a romantic movie. He shut us out as if we didn’t exist, and focused entirely on her with a passionate intensity that gave me shivers. What would it be like to have a man look at me that way? My guy was loving and considerate, but . . .
I brushed the thought away and listened.
Mark told Jenna he’d postponed his trip to Indonesia where he was scheduled to head a coral reef restoration project and had instead taken a red-eye down to California so he could bring her much-loved car back to her—because to her, that car symbolized freedom.
I nodded. Yeah, Jenna’d always been all about freedom.
Then he said, “I was wrong. I shouldn’t have asked you to change. I fell in love with you just the way you are. You’re a wonderful person.”
A silent “Aw” rose in my throat. He was romancing her so absolutely perfectly. Again, I wondered what that would be like. My Matt and I had been together since we were seven. He’d never had to romance me, never had to do something grand and dramatic to win me, because love had always been there.
I’d always thought words like radiant and glowing belonged in ads, not real life. My sister’s face proved me wrong.
Vaguely, I was aware of Dad driving up and coming over to join us, but I was utterly caught up in what Jenna was telling her lover. When she said she’d just asked a travel agent to book her a flight to Bali for right after my wedding, I barely suppressed a gasp. She said she had been afraid of commitment, but now she was ready to build a future with Mark.
It was her own grand, romantic gesture. Did he have any idea how huge this was for her?
Maybe so. The way he touched her cheek was so tender it brought tears to my eyes. “You mean you’d give up all the variety for one man, one cause?” he asked huskily.
“We’ll create our own variety. Side by side, as partners. That’ll be all the excitement I can handle.”
“And it’ll be more excitement and more joy than I’d ever hoped for.”
“You and me both.”
Excitement. Joy. Yes, I saw those emotions on their faces, along with tenderness and passion. I’d seen the same feelings shared by Theresa and her Damien, and Kat and Nav. Intense, sexy, and romantic.
When was the last time Matt and I had looked at each other that way? Or had we ever? Tenderness, yes, but passion? Excitement? Pure, blazing joy? All week, seeing my sisters come home one by one from all over the world, bursting with the excitement of new, passionate love affairs, I’d felt . . . what?
Kind of flat. Maybe even unhappy, a little depressed. Off. In the week before my own wedding, the wedding I’d dreamed of since I was a little girl, when I should have been brimming with excitement, I’d felt empty. Left out. Like everyone else was having all the fun.
That was childish. In this family, I should know I’d never be the center of attention, and just stop wanting it.
Except . . . was that really all it was? Or did it go deeper? Was it about Matt and me? Though I was eleven years younger than Theresa, eight years younger than Jenna, I felt—okay, I felt settled. Settled into a comfortable relationship that never ignited the kind of sparks I now saw flying between Jenna and Mark as they kissed like they were merging their souls.
Well, shit. Comfortable, rather than exciting. Settled, at the ripe old age of twenty-one. This was bad. Definitely bad. For fourteen years I’d told myself I was the Fallon sister who’d found her soul mate, the perfect love, and now . . .
Pre-wedding jitters. Everyone has them.
Then why was my heart racing and why, even as I joined my family in clapping and cheering for Jenna and Mark, did I feel left out and envious? I was the one getting married, and rather than looking forward to my beautiful white wedding, I was wanting what my sisters had.
My heart lodged in my throat, beating so hard it threatened to choke me. I tried to swallow as Jenna and her guy eased an inch or two apart. “We belong together,” he said with absolute conviction.
“We do. I’ve been falling for you since . . . oh, probably since the moment you ordered strawberry pie.”
“I’ve been falling for you since I first looked into your eyes.”
It was one of those aw, isn’t that sweet? moments, but instead of enjoying it, my brain was spinning. That was how it had been for Matt and me, recognizing from the beginning that we were soul mates: M&M. Except we’d been seven. Children, not adults. We’d grown up together. He’d been at our house so often, Mom and Dad said it was almost like having a son. I’d never dated anyone but him. We’d fumbled through learning about sex together. And the sex was great. Tender and affectionate and really . . . comfortable.
I put a hand to my chest, over my racing heart, and pressed down, trying to calm it. What a bitch I was, being disloyal to Matt, my best friend, the one person in the world who’d always been there for me. Always put me first.
But . . . why did he never look at me with passionate intensity? Why did I never feel sparks flying, like he couldn’t wait to be alone with me and strip my clothes off? Did he really, really love me or was it just comfortable being with me?
Oh, shit, I couldn’t seem to draw air into my lungs. Was I going to pass out?
As per usual, no one was paying me the slightest notice. Things with my family had improved in the past week, but I would never be the center of attention in a family where everyone else was, in their own way, larger than life.
I could have fainted dead away and no one would have noticed. They were all, “You’ll stay for dinner”; “I’ve been on the road for the last two days without a shower or change of clothes”; “I’m sure Jenna will help you find the shower.” Blah, blah, and they’d be having sex in that shower, too, and everyone knew it.
Hot sex. Steamy hot sex. Not comfortable sex. Matt and I had been lovers for five years now, and never once had we made out in the shower. What did that mean?
Yesterday, I’d visited Gran. I’d always loved her so much, and it broke my heart that now she had Alzheimer’s and mostly was pretty out of it. Still, somehow that had freed me to pour out all the stupid, toxic shit I’d been feeling since my sisters arrived home: the crazy jealousy, the uncertainty, the fear that my future wasn’t going to be the blissful one I’d always dreamed of.
She had stared out the window the whole time I talked, not saying a word. When I kissed her and said I had to go, she caught my hand and said, “Every woman deserves passion. Have you found yours?”
Did she even know it was me? Was this one of her lucid moments, or was she just rambling?
I’d told myself that Matt, marriage to Matt, was my passion. But now . . . why was I almost hyperventilating? What did this all mean? Ack! I was supposed to be getting married!
I managed to take a shallow breath and said, with certainty, “I have to see Matt.” I didn’t have a clue to what I was going to say, but I could tell him anything, couldn’t I? We’d figure this out together, like we sorted out every other problem in our lives. Surely, he’d know why I had this strange ache in my chest.
Jenna, who was leading Mark inside, showed no sign of having heard. Mom and Dad had their heads together discussing Mark, and so did Kat and Nav. Theresa glanced at her watch, probably wondering if she could catch Damien again. Nope, I might as well not have been there.
I went to grab my keys, not bothering to change out of my old shorts and tee.
Not a soul was in sight when I started up the hand-medown Toyota Dad had passed on to me when I was sixteen. The car almost steered itself toward Matt’s house, a route I’d used to bike when I was younger. “The beaten path,” his mom called it. And that reminded me, Adele would be there. A nurse, she worked some pretty weird shifts, but she and Matt had agreed to spend one mom-son night at home in the busy week before the wedding. She was great, a loving, hardworking single mom, but right now I couldn’t face her.
I pulled over to dial Matt on my cell. The phone rang, then rang again. “Damn it, Matt, where are you? I need you.” It rang again, then once more, and finally he answered.
“You’re there.” I exhaled in relief. “Are you with your mom?”
“Hey, M. No, she just got home from work. She’s having a shower, then we’ll get dinner going.”
“I’m on my way over. Need to talk to you. Meet me at your place?” When Matt and I were eighteen, we’d helped his mom convert their two-car garage into a tiny apartment for him.
“Sure. What’s up?”
“Uh . . . Jenna’s guy, the one she met hitchhiking from California, showed up.”
“Hey, that’s cool. And so . . .”
“I need to talk to you.”
“Are you okay? You’ve been acting kind of strange the past few days.”
He’d noticed. I shouldn’t be surprised; it went with that soul mate thing. “Just meet me, okay?”
Ten minutes later, when I drove down the back alley, I saw a car in the Townsend driveway—a sporty black convertible that definitely didn’t belong to Matt or Adele. The top was up, drops of water glistened on the black paint, and a guy in shorts, flip-flops, and nothing else was leaning over it, rubbing the car’s body with a cloth.
A hot guy. Momentarily distracted from my worries, I appreciated the view: great butt, muscles flexing under the lightly tanned skin of a buff back, water drops glistening on strong arms and legs. Wow. If this was a car commercial, women would sure be buying.
Curious to find out who he was, I pulled up behind the Miata.
The guy turned, smiled, grabbed a gray T-shirt, and pulled it over his head, and I realized it was Matt.
My Matt. The center of my life for the last fourteen years.
I blinked. That image of the hot car-commercial guy had been weird, almost like a hallucination. This was the old familiar Matt coming toward me as I stepped out of my car— casual in baggy cargo shorts and a loose, faded University of British Columbia tee, his dirty-blond hair showing a few summer-gold streaks. My girlfriends said he was hot, that he looked like a younger, lighter-haired Bradley Cooper. Sure, he was good looking, but to me he wasn’t movie star handsome; he was just good old Matt, the boy I’d grown up with.
“Merilee?” He tilted his head quizzically. His blue eyes, the shade of well-washed denim—yeah, they were kind of the color of Bradley Cooper’s—were warm with concern as he tugged me into a hug. “Are you all right?”
His arms had always given me shelter. When my family ignored me, or I was pissed off at my sisters, or when I was suffering the pain that had finally been diagnosed as endometriosis, he’d been the one to comfort and support me.
Yet, now, maybe for the first time ever, I didn’t feel at home in his arms. Or perhaps I was tired of feeling at home and wanted something more. I pushed away from him, not knowing how to say what I needed to. I sensed that once I started, things between us would change forever.
Stalling, I said, “What are you doing with the car?”
“It was supposed to be a surprise. It’s Leon’s brother’s and he loaned it to me. I’m washing and polishing it. Then some of our friends are going to do the whole ‘Just Married’ thing with it, so we can drive it from the wedding.”
Just Married. Not long ago, it had sounded like the best thing in the whole world, but now . . . “M, what are we doing?” The words burst out of my mouth. “Is this the right thing?”
“Doing?” He frowned, processing, then said, “You don’t mean . . . getting married?”
His eyes widened. “You’re kidding, right? I mean, I know you’ve been having some, uh, pre-wedding nerves, but that’s normal, isn’t it?”
“I guess.” Everyone said so, but what I felt seemed stronger. Maybe I was wrong, though. This was why we needed to talk. “I don’t know. Are you feeling any, you know, nerves? Doubts?”
He shrugged. “Not really. I mean, we’re young like everyone keeps telling us, but I want to marry you. We’ve always wanted that. Moving up the date from next year—”
“Should we have?” I broke in. Maybe the timing was wrong. “We always said we’d get married after we got our B.A.’s.” And right before starting the year-long program to get our education degrees. Then I was going to teach middle- grade kids, and he’d teach high school.
That was something else we’d been planning for years. We really were settled.
“But then you were diagnosed,” he said.
Matt had nagged me into asking a doctor about what my sisters and mom had for years blown off as being normal menstrual cramps. I’d had surgery for endometriosis a couple of months ago. The diagnosis had made Matt and I rethink things. We’d always wanted kids and never once imagined I might face infertility at the age of twenty-one.
“Yeah.” I nodded, mentally retracing the steps that had led us to move up the wedding. “Then you saw that last- minute deal on the cruise.” A Mexican Riviera cruise—a perfect honeymoon and pure R&R. After the surgery, recuperation, and being crazy busy catching up on missed course work and exams, I was desperate to lie back and do nothing.
“It all came together,” he said, “as if it was meant to be.”
That was how it had felt. Yes, I remembered. But now . . . I squeezed my lips together, then parted them and heard myself say, “But maybe it wasn’t meant to be.”
He frowned. “What are you saying?”
Words poured out, giving voice to all the doubts and fears I’d been trying to ignore all week. “Maybe we shouldn’t do it. Get married. Not now.” Oh, God, was I totally crazy? I’d loved Matt since grade two.
“Jeez, Merilee, you’re talking crazy. We’ve loved each other since we were seven.”
It was spooky how he so often read my mind, or our minds were on the same track. I didn’t even have the privacy of my own thoughts. “I know that!” I snapped. “Do you think I don’t know that? I still love you, M, but . . .”
His hands gripped my shoulders, hard. “Calm down, you’re not making any sense.”
“I can’t calm down. I don’t want to calm down. This is important.” He had to see that. Maybe once I explained, he’d make everything right. He’d say something, sweep me off my feet, show me he really, really, totally and utterly loved me, and that we could be just as exciting and passionate as my sisters and their guys. He’d do that thing—that grand romantic thing like Jenna’s man had just done—that would show me I was crazy to have second thoughts.
Fingers biting into me, pinning me down, he stared into my eyes. “How can you have cold feet about getting married Saturday, when we’ve been talking about getting married all our lives?”
“I don’t know!” I wriggled my shoulders until he dropped his hands, then I took a step back, away from him. “Maybe because we’ve been talking about it all our lives.” He was still talking, not doing anything. “Maybe because I’ve known you all my life.” And because of that, I should know better than to hope for a dramatic, romantic gesture.
He shook his head, looking frustrated and pissed off. “I don’t get it. You always said we’re soul mates. We’re M&M. A couple.”
“I’m not sure this is the right time.” The more he tried to persuade me, the more sense he made, the less right the whole thing felt. Instincts counted just as much as logic, and what my instincts craved was not a bunch of rational discussion.
“Everything’s booked.” He snapped out the words. “Theresa made that project plan and you and your sisters have put everything together in under two weeks. Location, minister, reception, food, music. We’ve had the damned stag and stagette.”
He was right, and at first I’d been thrilled to bits about the wedding, but now I felt trapped. “Stop being so logical.” Even that silly stagette had given me doubts, as I’d been showered with sexy, kinky gifts I couldn’t imagine us ever using.
He strode a couple of paces away from me. I heard him take a deep breath, then he turned around and faced me, his expression one of strained patience. “What do you want, Merilee?”
I blinked. What did I want? What had I been hoping for when I came here? Did I want him to fight for me? To sweep me up in his arms and . . . do what? To find that perfect romantic thing, the way Damien had when he asked Theresa to stay over in Honolulu with him. The way Nav had, playing stranger on the train with Kat. The way Mark had, flying down to California to bring Jenna’s car to her.
I didn’t want settled. I didn’t want comfortable. I wanted what my sisters had: a grand, romantic, larger than life love. Was there any hope Matt could give it to me?
Stunned, Matt Townsend stared at the girl he knew better than anyone else in the world, and felt as if he didn’t know her at all. Had she lost her freaking mind?
He struggled to hold on to his patience. After all the initial excitement about announcing the wedding, she’d grown increasingly moody. He’d figured it was the sister effect as her older sisters—the three-pack, as the family called them— had returned to Vancouver one by one. The Fallon girls pushed each other’s buttons, and it was especially bad for Merilee, the unplanned baby who’d come along eight years after Jenna. Rebecca and James Fallon and the three-pack hadn’t rearranged their lives to make room for the newcomer.
That had always annoyed Matt. Merilee was such a sweet person, but her family was so self-absorbed they barely noticed her. He did, though. He noticed, he valued, he loved her. He looked after her.
And now he was pissed off with her. She was talking crazy, and couldn’t even say what she wanted. “Merilee?” he prompted, struggling to keep his voice even. “You don’t want to call off the wedding, right?” When he put it that bluntly, she’d come to her senses. She wasn’t going to dump him flat on his ass two days before their wedding.
“I think”—she sniffled and swiped a hand across eyes the blue of a spring morning—“that maybe I do.” Tears began to roll.
Her tears usually made him want to cradle her in his arms and make everything better. This time he just gaped at her. She hadn’t really said that, had she? “Are you nuts?”
“Oh, Matt,” she wailed, “try to understand.”
“Understand?” Anger and hurt rose in him, and his voice along with them. “Shit, Merilee, what the hell’s going on?” Trying to regain control—he was not, would never be, a guy like his dad who lost his temper—he paced jerkily across the alley, then turned to stare at her. He’d done everything for this girl, focused his life on her for fourteen years. She was not betraying and abandoning him. “Two weeks ago, you said getting married was your dream come true.”
“It was.” She stared back at him, eyes huge and drenched with tears. Her shoulders were rounded inside one of his old T-shirts and she looked small and forlorn. Her dark honey- blond hair lay in gleaming curls on her shoulders, incongruously bouncy, as if it hadn’t gotten the message that she was miserable.
He had, and he was feeling pretty damned crappy. Except he still couldn’t really believe it. “It was,” he said harshly, “and now it isn’t. What’s changed?”
“My sisters came home,” she said, so softly he could barely hear.
“Your family’s trying to talk you out of getting married?” Shit. He’d always thought the Fallons liked him. He’d been at family dinners for the past week, and everyone had been friendly. They’d even been getting along better with each other, too. And now they’d stabbed him in the back.
“No.” She shook her head. “No, it’s not that. Oh, M, I don’t know how to say this.”
Insulted, he said, “You can tell me anything. You know that.”
She took a deep breath, then words flew out on the exhale. “I feel middle-aged.”
Relief sent him rushing over to grip her shoulders comfortingly. Now it all made sense. “Sweetheart, you’re worn out.” When her surgery was scheduled, they’d discussed her skipping a semester at university, but she’d wanted to catch up on her courses and exams so they’d graduate together next year. Besides, once they were on their honeymoon, she’d have a week of total rest.
She closed her eyes for a long moment, then opened them and gazed up at him. “I am tired, but that’s not what I meant. We’re so, you know, settled and comfortable as a couple.”
“Settled and comfortable?” Those didn’t sound like bad things, except for the tone of her voice.
“I mean, we’re all stable and b-boring”—she ducked her head, again not meeting his eyes—“and there’s no spark or excitement or p-passion.”
His hands jerked off her shoulders as if she’d scalded him. She thought he was boring? That their love life sucked? Well, just shit! His hands clenched, unclenched, clenched again. Yeah, he wasn’t the most exciting guy in the world. How could he be when his mom had told him, at the age of six, that he had to be the man of the house—then at age seven he’d begun protecting Merilee as well?
Through an effort of will, he straightened his clenched fingers. A good man didn’t give in to anger. He didn’t beat up on women; he protected them. Matt was not a temperamental, irresponsible, violent man like his father, the man who had finally—thank God—abandoned him and his mom when he was six.
Matt had thought his maturity and consideration were qualities Merilee loved. Jesus, she’d said so. He’d never had a clue she was unhappy. He wanted to yell at her, to shake her, but he fought to keep his temper in check.
She gazed up, cheeks flushing. “I didn’t tell you all the things I got at the stagette.”
“What?” Startled out of his anger, he stared at her. She’d gone from dropping that bomb to talking about the stagette? Who was this girl?