An audible gasp sounded in the room when he dipped his mouth to hers and gave her the sweetest kiss in the world. "I love you, Sarah." His deep voice resonated with boundless emotion. "I can't remember a time when I didn't love you--and I know there will never be a time when I won't. Your love is what has always been, and will always be, at the foundation of who I am--and who I want to be. Your devoted husband." He placed one hand over the slight swell of her stomach. "The best father in the whole wide world to our children." She covered his hand with hers as he said, "And your partner in all of the adventures we're going to have together." He drew her even closer, so close that Christie knew that despite the wedding guests watching them say their vows, he was seeing only his bride. "Past, present, future--you have my heart."
Christie didn't bother to hide her tears, not when everyone else in the room was dabbing at their eyes. Thankfully, she really had thought ahead and put pretty little boxes of tissues at the end of every row of seats. Boxes that were currently being passed back and forth as Calvin's ten-year-old sister, Jordan, reached into her basket of rose petals and threw them over her brother and new sister-in-law as they kissed and the crowd cheered.
The guests were mostly Summer Lake locals, with a few of Sarah's friends from the city having made the trip as well. Suzanne Sullivan was there with her boyfriend, Roman. Drake Sullivan was there with his girlfriend, Rosa. And Alec and Harry Sullivan were there too, along with their father, William. Christie always marveled at how even though so many of the Sullivans were famous or billionaires--or both--they made sure never to overshadow their friends. Instead, they always managed just to fit in with everyone else in the small town.
Just the way Christie so desperately longed to.
And as she watched the new bride and groom pull each other even closer to kiss again, Christie couldn't help but make a silent wish for her own happy ending one day. Even if all the signs pointed to it being the most impossible dream in the world...
Liam Kane heard the applause and cheers as he walked through the inn's front door. From the flower petals drifting out of the event room, he could easily guess it was a wedding.
It instantly struck him as strange. Why would Wesley schedule another wedding at the inn on the same weekend as his own? And how exactly did his brother plan to clean up this wedding party and still have time to set up for the rehearsal dinner tonight?
Liam had been planning to head straight upstairs to his suite to take a shower after his red-eye flight from China. It had been a crazy three weeks of constant flights, of hotel rooms he'd barely had time to check into before he was leaving for the next airport, the next meeting. But he hadn't been back to the lake in so long that curiosity had him dropping his bags behind the registration counter and walking toward the large room that overlooked the lake to see who was getting married.
As he stopped at a side door behind a large potted plant, he was stunned to realize that Sarah Bartow, to whom he was related through his grandmother, was wearing a wedding dress and holding hands with her old boyfriend, Calvin Vaughn.
As far as he knew, they'd broken up after graduating from high school. When had they gotten back together? And how come he'd had no idea they were getting married today? Admittedly, he hadn't done a great job of keeping up with his family, or the Summer Lake locals, over the past few years. But that didn't mean Sarah would deliberately leave him off the guest list, did it?
There must be a rational explanation why he hadn't known about the wedding. As Sarah and Calvin kissed to seal their vows and the crowd cheered, Liam could see that they really were in love. For now, at least. It was what happened later--ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road, once they had kids and were supposed to be a cohesive family unit who all looked out for each other--that he had no faith in. In fact, the only thing he knew for certain was that the people who got hurt when love failed weren't just the man and the woman who had once made vows to each other on their wedding day. No, the net was cast much wider than that.
Which was why, in nearly twenty years of dating, Liam had never wanted to get married, had never been even remotely tempted to get down on one knee and ask one woman to be his for eternity.
Normally, he never let rogue emotions get the better of him like this, so he pushed them back down deep as he scanned the occupants of the room. It had been a long time since he'd been back to town, but he recognized nearly everyone. The old football coach. The owner of the general store. Several people he'd gone to school with. The Sullivans he'd gotten to know during the summers when they'd come to the lake from the city to help their father, William, build his log cabin.
And then a flash of movement caught his gaze--and held it.
Golden hair was gliding like silk across a woman's shoulders as she moved from behind a tall elderly man. And when she turned toward Liam, his breath actually lodged in his chest. Her eyes were glittering with tears, her cheeks flushed. She was biting her lip, her hands covering her heart.
And she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
He'd never been drawn to a delicate woman like this, who looked like she could sprout fairy wings and fly away. He'd always carefully chosen the women who shared his bed, making sure they were realistic enough never to make the mistake of falling in love with him or thinking they could change him.
But there was no denying his elemental reaction to this woman.
The bride and groom were starting to make their way up the aisle and out of the room. He should head over with the rest of the crowd to offer his congratulations. But he couldn't tear his gaze from the woman who was not only taking his breath away, but who was making his heart beat faster too.
Her green dress was well tailored, but not at all flashy. The pearls at her earlobes and around her neck were elegant, but not intended to draw a man's eyes. Neither were her shoes, low-heeled and silver. He got the sense she wasn't the kind of woman who drew attention to herself.
Even though she had every ounce of his.
By now, everyone had followed Sarah and Calvin out of the room through the opposite door, but the woman hung behind, bending over to pick up stray flower petals strewn around her seat. Something jogged his brain, a prickle that was more than just awareness of a beautiful woman. A warning that he knew her from somewhere. But where?
She was picking up another handful of flower petals from the floor when she looked over and saw him standing at the side door. She was closer now, near enough that he could see just how delicate her features were, from her high cheekbones to her slightly pointed chin and the tiny indentations in each cheek as she smiled.
"Oh, hello." A bunch of the rose petals fell out of her hands and fluttered to the floor. She gave him a wry smile as she bent to pick them up again. "These smell good, but they're so messy."
Liam knew she was expecting him to say something, to tell her who he was or what he was doing standing there staring at her. But he hadn't yet found his voice.
She was the first woman ever to leave him speechless.
"With the wedding, I wasn't monitoring the front desk," she continued, her welcoming smile still in place. "Can I help you with something? Are you visiting a guest at the inn, perhaps?"
Finally, he told her, "I'm Liam Kane."
In an instant, her smile disappeared. Her mouth opened slightly and her cheeks grew flushed. She took a quick step backward and bumped into one of the covered folding chairs.
He waited for her gaze to drop to his scar and hold there, certain that must be the reason for her sudden, too-strong reaction. But her eyes never left his, never once raked over the mark that bisected the lower half of his left cheek from earlobe to chin.
"Oh my gosh. Of course you're Liam." She bit her lip, drawing his attention to its full, soft shape. Despite the conservative nature of her dress and shoes and jewelry, her lush mouth and the deep green of her eyes seemed to show a deeper truth about her. A sensuality she couldn't hide. Sensuality that wrapped aro
und him from nothing more than his name on her lips. "I knew something about you looked familiar. I should have realized it earlier, but the wedding must have scrambled my brain. Sarah was wondering why you didn't respond to her invitation, but you ended up making it after all!"
As she spoke, her big green eyes were stealing away his brain cells one at a time. It felt like a hammer was pounding inside his head. How did she know exactly who he was when he couldn't for the life of him think who she was?
"I've been on the road for the past month," he explained, "and I'm guessing that their wedding invitation must have been misplaced in my pile of unopened mail. I actually had no idea they were even getting married. I'm here for my brother Wesley's wedding."
Her eyes grew even bigger. And, if he wasn't mistaken, more than a little horrified. "You don't know what happened?"
The hammer pounded harder, joined by a warning bell inside his brain that told him something was definitely wrong. Hadn't he known it from the minute he'd walked into the inn and realized there was another wedding taking place?
Something bad must have happened to his younger brother, whom he'd always looked after when they were kids but hadn't been around to check on much over the past few years. "Like I said, I've been on the road continuously and my cell phone doesn't always work reliably in some of the countries I've been in. If Wesley tried to get hold of me through my staff, I certainly didn't hear about it." Concern for his brother had him putting his hands on her shoulders to make sure he had her full attention. "What happened? Where's Wesley?"
Her eyes were wide enough now that he couldn't help but memorize their exact color of green, like fresh growth on bare trees in spring. "I don't know where he is."
Suddenly, he could feel her tremble beneath his hands. What the hell was he doing manhandling her? "I shouldn't have grabbed you like that." He was lifting his hands off her when he finally realized why she looked familiar. He blamed the red-eye for it taking him this long to put two and two together. "You're Wesley's fiancee."
Wesley had sent a picture of her back when they'd announced their engagement, and Liam's secretary had laid it out on top of the rest of his business correspondence. He'd been late to a meeting and barely had time to look at the picture before it was filed away--and then he'd been in Asia when they'd had their engagement party, so he hadn't had a chance to meet his brother's fiancee before now. But from what he recalled, while she had seemed pretty in the picture, nothing about her had drawn any special notice.
He could hardly believe this woman before him was the one beside Wesley in the staged photo. Same hair, same eyes, same face, same features--but totally different. As if she'd somehow come into focus since that photo had been taken.