“We needed to get this—whatever it is—out of our systems,” she said, her gaze drifting beyond him to where the setting sun cast an orangey glow over the grape trees. “And we did. Things are normal now, right? We’re still friends. And we can move on. That’s what you wanted—what I want.”
Taken aback, he unfolded his arms slowly. That age-old saying filled his head. Be careful what you wish for… But it wasn’t what he wished for. He had no intentions of getting what he wanted and moving on. Better yet, what the hell was happening? What did she think?
“What are you guys doing out here?” Mitch called from the door. “Everyone is waiting for you two to start eating, and you know how Dad gets. He’s about to eat the tablecloth.”
Blinking rapidly, Maddie laughed as she twisted toward her brother. “We were just watching the sunset, but we’re heading in now.”
Stunned, Chase watched her walk up to her brother, hugging him tightly before she disappeared back into the lodge. He stood there, incapable of moving or even processing what had just happened. Why was he so shocked? It was what he’d offered—what he’d initially wanted…initially being the key word.
Fuck. That was all he could think.
“You doing okay, man?” Mitch asked, striding away from the door. He stopped in front of Chase, eyes narrowed. “You’re not looking too good.”
Chase blinked. “Yeah, I’m…I’m fine.”
“You sure?” Mitch’s gaze turned shrewd. “You’re looking a lot like Madison has been.”
Chase stiffened. Denials formed on the tip of his tongue but nothing came out.
Several moments passed and then Mitch cracked a half smile. “Look, I hate seeing you like this. You’ve always been there for me growing up. Remember when Jimmy Decker stole my bike?”
Chase laughed at the unexpected memory. “Yeah, I do.”
Mitch grinned. “You stole it back but replaced it with one that had the hand brakes cut. When Jimmy went down the hill…” He trailed off with a laugh. “You’re the kind of friend who would—”
“Help bury the body, I know.” He laughed. “By the way, that brake cutting was really Chad’s idea.”
“Doesn’t surprised me, but seriously, man, you’re a good dude. I don’t know what’s really going on between you and my sister—and don’t tell me nothing is, because I have eyes and I know both of you.”
“And I don’t know what you’re thinking,” Mitch continued. “I’m not sure I want to, but you’re a good guy, Chase. And my sister has always been in love with you.”
Chase’s gut clenched. My sister has always been in love with you. Right up until a few seconds ago when she explained last night had meant nothing more than scratching an itch. Just like he’d suggested in the first place… He thought of the roses wilting in the trashcan. Fuck. How he’d planned to christen that updated cabin…
He cleared his throat, surprised to find his voice so hoarse. “Nothing…nothing is going on with us.”
“Bull,” Mitch said. “I don’t have any problems with you going after her. So if you are waiting on my permission, then you have it as long as you do right by her.” His eyes met Chase’s. “You get what I’m saying?”
“I do.” Chase’s voice cracked.
Mitch clasped him on the shoulder. “Now, come on. It’s time to eat, celebrate, be merry, and all that shit.”
He felt his head nod, but he’d gone numb, completely cold. The irony of everything was a giant F-U. The obstacles that had always held him back from claiming what he wanted were now removed, and it meant nothing.
Pain that felt so very real sliced him in the chest. He took a breath, but it felt like he wasn’t breathing at all. His legs were moving, but he wasn’t feeling them.
Be careful what you wish for…
He should’ve, because he got it, and it settled in his stomach like a ten-pound weight.
Lissa looked absolutely stunning in her wedding gown. Strapless with a heart-shaped bodice, it was corseted around the waist and slim through the hips, and it floated around her legs like a spring rose blossoming. A fine layer of pearls had been added to the delicate chiffon overlay.
It was a beautiful dress for a beautiful woman, and if Madison ever got married one day, she wanted a dress like this: fresh but also classic.
Madison straightened the last pearl in Lissa’s hair and smiled. “You look amazing.”
“Thank you.” Lissa hugged her and then cast a fond look at their mothers. Both of them were clutching tissues like they were going out of style. “Do you think they’ll make it through this?”
“I hope so.” Madison grinned, stepping back so that Lissa had a few moments with the one of the bridesmaids.
Retreating to the window in the room off from the reception hall, she watched the guests file up the pathway. Outside, Chad and Chandler hovered with a couple of friends from college.
Chase was nowhere to be seen.
Since she had said what needed to be said, he’d kept his distance from her. Which was what she had wanted, but her chest ached, and she was still so very hungry to just be around him.
When Chase had come in after she’d left him on the deck, he had said nothing to her. Didn’t even try to approach her once, and after the rehearsal dinner, he’d disappeared with his brother. Obviously he had heard what he needed to and now could rest assured. They were still friends. Everything was normal. The night of passion they shared was already a thing of the past. It was over.
Well, it would be over when she met with her superintendent.
Shaking herself out of her thoughts, she focused on what was going on around her. Mitch and Lissa deserved for her to be here with them, fully here and not just a shell of herself sulking over her own love life.
When it came time to prepare for the bridal march, she was nervous for Lissa and her brother, anxious over seeing Chase, and praying she didn’t trip on the hem of her dress.
Out in the hallway, she spotted his broad shoulders. Taking a deep, fortifying breath, she manned up and went to his side, just like the other bridesmaids with their escorts.
As the soft melody played from the white-rose-decorated reception hall, she tapped him on his shoulder. He turned, his expression impassive, eyes a steely blue.
“You ready?” she asked, smiling until her cheeks hurt. She wasn’t going to do anything that ruined this wedding.
“Of course.” He offered his arm, and as she tried not to be affected by how the coldness in his voice stung her, she wrapped her arm around his. A moment passed and he said, “You look beautiful, Maddie.”
A pleasant flush swept across her cheeks and down her throat, almost mirroring the crimson Grecian-style dress. Her heart tripped over itself. She glanced at him and their eyes met for a fraction of a second before she tilted her head to the side, letting the stream of hair shield her face.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “You look great, too.”
He took the compliment in the usual Chase fashion and nodded. Awkward silence stretched out between them and it seemed unbelievable that it had ever been any other way. To be honest, Madison wasn’t sure why Chase was giving her the cold shoulder. He was the one who wanted their night to be a one-night stand. He was the one who’d left. All she did was try and salvage a bit of her pride and tell him she agreed. What the heck more did he want from her?
Heart heavy, she lifted her chin as she heard the cue of the music. Before them, each couple entered the hall, smiling. And then it was their turn. From deep inside, she found the happiness and affection she felt for her brother and Lissa. The smile that spread across her face was genuine, even though her heart was breaking inside.
Because after this weekend, she really wouldn’t see Chase everywhere like before. A door would be opening this weekend for some while a door would be closing for her.
Each row was full of family and friends. Standing-room only, she realized, overjoyed to know that so many people loved her brother and Lissa. It did wonders for the melancholy that was threatening to rise up and swallow her whole.
The arm around hers tensed halfway down the aisle, and she glanced at Chase. His gaze was questioning and concerned.
But her smile remained throughout the romantic ceremony. Her brother was incredibly cute, turning into this clumsy, near–emotional wreck as he held Lissa’s hand and repeated the words that would bind them together, through sickness and health. And when tears filled her eyes, threatening to ruin all the hard work on her mascara and eyeliner, it was because of how truly in love Lissa and her brother were. Her heart swelled and ached at the same time.
The way they kept gazing at each other throughout the ceremony stole her breath and when it came to that moment, when the words You may now kiss the bride were spoken, she realized that was what true love looked like.
Clutching the small white rose bouquet in her hands, she sniffed back tears.
Guests shot to their feet and cheered. Tears fell freely, and Madison choked on a small laugh as Mitch swept his arm around the waist of his new wife, dipped her low, and kissed her in a way a sister should never see her brother kissing.
As Lissa and Mitch parted, laughing and smiling at each other, Madison’s eyes met Chase’s. There was a world of secrets in his gaze, a world that had and always would be locked to her. She’d had the briefest, sweetest taste, and she would savor it.
Silverware clinked, nearly muted by the laughter and hum of conversation from the main table and the smaller round ones surrounding it.
Chase laughed at something Chad said as he scanned the rows of smiling faces. His eyes stopped on one in particular.
Damn, she looked absolutely beautiful. The crimson gown accented her alabaster skin and dark hair, not to mention it clung in all the places that had his blood racing to a certain part of his anatomy. Not that it had stopped racing to that place since he’d first laid eyes on Maddie this weekend.
God, he wanted to take her away, some place private. His fingers burned to skim the heart-shaped neckline. Watch the peaks of her breasts tighten under his gaze, feel the slight tremble as his hand slipped under the gown.
Chase shifted in his seat as he watched her from behind hooded eyes.
A small, tight-lipped smile crossed her delicate features and her eyes seemed to dance under the low lights and candlelight, but he knew something was up with her. He just wished he could figure out where it’d all gone wrong. He could have sworn when he’d gotten up that morning they were both finally on the same page.
Acid gnawed at his belly like no tomorrow. He tried to convince himself that it was an ulcer. Hell, an ulcer would be better than what really had his insides churning and spinning on themselves.
All night, Chase had tossed and turned like he’d drunk a bucket of coffee. Maddie’s words lingered with him long after they’d been said. He replayed them over and over again, analyzing them like an obsessive teenage girl. That’s what he’d been lowered to. Damn.