“HERE THEY ARE, THE MOST stunning sisters in all of Jamaica.” Nathan waved from the corner of the luxurious lounge. Madison followed Chloe to their table, relieved that it was in a quiet corner where she could observe her surroundings. The subtle music of a pianist added to a sophisticated ambience in this indoor-outdoor area. Nathan grinned and pulled a plush chair out for his future bride. Madison claimed a seat of her own before Luke felt obliged to do likewise.
Luke chuckled and stood. “Can I order the ‘stunning sisters’ something to drink?”
“I’d love a piña colada.” Chloe slid her chair closer to her fiancé. “Nothing says tropical more than the combination of pineapple and coconut. It doesn’t get any better than that. How about you, Madi?”
“Sure. I’ll have the same.” She looked into Luke’s eyes and couldn’t help smiling. Those emerald eyes had a calming effect like nothing else—and after that little fiasco with the boat, she needed calming. “Thanks.”
She watched as Luke sauntered over to the ornate bar. Did he even want to order drinks at a bar, considering he was a missionary? How comfortable was he at a glitzy gathering like this? He looked great in his smart khaki pants and white collared shirt—his overall appearance fit in, but he’d probably feel more at home around a beach bonfire.
At that moment, Luke turned back, and their gazes connected. She gave a pathetic wave and panned the area with purpose. Hopefully, he would think she was taking in her surroundings and not watching him like a hawk.
Madison’s attention was drawn to the accomplished pianist, who was engrossed in playing a jazz number for the audience. A smile tugged at her lips. The piece he played had an unmistakable Jamaican lilt to it, as did every genre of music on the island. On previous visits, her family would always remark on it. The white grand piano stood out proudly from the surrounding mahogany furnishings, all oozing opulence. Crystal glassware, shiny marble floors, and intimate seating areas worked together to give an elegant, inviting atmosphere. Nathan had chosen well with this resort.
“This place is so perfect for a wedding.” Chloe sighed as she leaned her head against Nathan’s chest. The besotted couple held hands while they sat and admired the grandeur of the rippling ocean against the bejeweled night sky.
Tears welled in Madison’s eyes, blurring her vision. She blinked several times and focused on the long white candle on the table. Would she ever share sunsets and beach walks and full moons with someone who loved her unconditionally? How could she ever trust a man again after she had been fooled and the trusting element she once owned was ruthlessly ripped from her? I won’t be fooled again.
Madison coughed and got up from her chair. “I’m going to give Luke a hand.”
Chloe winked. “Good idea.”
Madison gave a big-sister glare and spun on her heel in search of Luke. En route to the bar, she wandered over to the windows. They weren’t actual windows, just wide glassless openings allowing the view of the ocean to dominate the room. She paused for a moment, enjoying the gentle breeze against her skin, and inhaled the magical scents of coconut, sea salt, and spice.
If only that fateful day had never happened. She missed the thrill of sailing—the way the wind whipped through her hair while the fine, salty spray of cool water chilled her as she sliced through the ocean…
“Stunning, isn’t it?” Luke’s voice caused her to jump. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Don’t mind me.” Madison broke into a nervous giggle. “I’m afraid I’m a wreck these days. And I was miles away.”
“Anywhere nice?” He handed her an umbrella-topped drink from a small tray holding all four glasses.
“Nice place, bad memory.”
Concern etched Luke’s face, and he looked down at his feet. “I didn’t mean to pry. Forgive me?”
“Nothing to forgive.” Madison took a sip of her drink and closed her eyes. If I’m going to start living again, I think I can start by striking up a civil conversation with a missionary. “I’m petrified of the ocean.” She looked up at his frown.
He set the tray on a table and leaned against the marble pillar alongside Madison. “That’s a shame. I have to admit, I’m quite the opposite. I love it. Even wish I had gills sometimes.” He smiled. “What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?”
She took a deep breath. “My family and I were in Barbados for my twelfth birthday. I was an absolute water baby growing up, but a freak windstorm transformed a fun-filled afternoon with my dad on a catamaran into a near-drowning experience for me.” She cringed at the quiver in her voice. She had to face these memories if she held any hope of getting past them.
“Wow, that’s terrifying—for both of you.”
“Yeah, I truly thought it was the end for me.” She looked out to see whether that second dock was visible. No, it was farther along the beach than she thought. She moved closer to the pillar for protection. Just in case. “The storm was wild, and I remember something hitting my head and then not being able to breathe underwater.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “Dad thought I had died, but when he managed to haul me back onto the boat, he did mouth-to-mouth and somehow revived me. It finished my sailing days forever, much to the chagrin of my family, and I’ve never been able to get over it.” She glanced back at the ocean. It had taken so much from her, yet she yearned for it. “Well, I thought I worked it all out and dealt with it until our parents’ plane went down into a lake…”
Luke groaned. “That’s devastating.” He paused for several heartbeats. “If you want any help while we’re here, I’d be happy to try to renew your confidence in the water. I’m patient, and I’d never push you further than your comfort level. Think about it. After the wedding tomorrow, I have no huge plans for the week.” He shrugged. “Just some thinking and planning.”
Madison’s cheeks burned. This was beyond embarrassing. A handsome hunk teaching a nervous Nellie how to not have a meltdown in the ocean. She would have to find some other plans. Fast. “Thanks. That’s kind. I don’t think I’m quite up for it, but I’ll let you know for sure.”
“No problem. We’re here for a week, surrounded by water—it might be the perfect opportunity.” He looked from Madison to the water and back to her again. “I see the way you look at the ocean, and I would hazard a guess you miss it.”
She chewed on her thumbnail. “Yeah, I do.” More than you can possibly imagine.
“Thought so. Hey, we’d better get these drinks to the happy couple before they get unhappy. Coming?”
“Sure.” Madison caught a hint of musky cologne when Luke walked away, and she couldn’t help but follow.
“Finally, dude.” Nathan took the glasses from Luke’s tray and handed one to Chloe. “Cheers, sweetheart.” They clinked drinks and giggled. “Can you believe you’re going to be Mrs. Alexander tomorrow?”
“I can’t wait.” Chloe turned to Madison and Luke with her glass raised. “Here’s to bright futures for us all.”
Madison nodded. “A bright future sounds wonderful about now. Cheers, everyone.” She settled into her chair and set her glass on the table. A fresh start, a clean slate, the past behind me—no more fear of water or of stalkers… Something felt off. She whipped her head around to the piano area. Was someone watching her? No, the pianist was quite alone.
Madison gulped and turned back to her sister and the boys. She needed a distraction. “What’s the order of events for tomorrow? I know the actual ceremony is at four in the afternoon, so that’s when we need to be at the arbor on the beach, right?”
Chloe’s eyes twinkled, and she put down her drink. “Yes, but we have all day to get ready. I have us ladies booked in for mani-pedis and hair appointments at midday, so I think we should relax in the morning. Maybe we’ll get some sun but not too much. I don’t want us looking like lobsters in the wedding photos. We can have coffee, look around the fabulous boutique in the lobby, and chill out.” Chloe was bouncing on the edge of her chair. “What are you boys going to do?”
“Can’t we come with you?” Nathan asked with wide eyes and a smirk, which earned him a slap on the arm.
“You must not—I repeat, not—see me before I walk down the petal-strewn aisle at four o’clock. It may be a sand aisle but it’s a tradition. Do you hear me?” Chloe stabbed her fiancé’s chest with her finger. “I’m serious.”
Luke placed his hand on Chloe’s tense arm. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep this one out of trouble. We’re scheduled for a round of golf in the morning, even though I’ve played about three times in my entire life. I think it’s my brother’s way of boosting his own ego.”
Nathan laughed and clapped Luke’s back. “Prepare to meet your doom.”
“Thanks, Luke. You’re the best future brother-in-law ever. And please keep him away from the spa area for the afternoon, okay?”
Madison stifled a chuckle. “So, what about after the ceremony? I know you have the private dinner organized for the four of us… ” It could be a really long week—but what did I expect? To be hanging out with my sister on her honeymoon? How needy am I?
“Nathan and I have the honeymoon suite booked, of course. That means you’ll have the room all to yourself. ”
“And it’ll stay tidy all week long.” Madison winked. Their hotel room currently looked like a tornado had hit. And it was all on Chloe’s side of the room. “And then I guess we won’t be seeing much of you two until we all fly home next Saturday?”
“Are you going to be okay? I hadn’t thought about you being bored.”
“Hey.” Madison squeezed Chloe’s hand. “Don’t be silly. This is your honeymoon. I’m in Jamaica with no work, a ton of books to read, and a fabulous resort to be pampered in. This is paradise. You know where I am if you need me, but you guys have to enjoy this week and not worry about me.”
“Or me.” Luke glanced at his brother. “Not that you were in the least concerned about my well-being.” He brandished a killer smile. “This is my vacation, too. I haven’t had a break in ages, and as much as I love the kids at the orphanage, I’m looking forward to relaxing with a few good books of my own and doing the resort thing.”
Nathan wiped his brow. “Phew. I was worried you were going to get all needy on me.”
Chloe’s face lit up. “Don’t forget I’ve booked for us all to climb the waterfalls together and see the dolphin show later in the week, too. I’ve always wanted to swim with dolphins. And then next Saturday we’ll fly back to Seattle together to party with our friends and family. But we’ll always treasure this week. Right, babe?”
“We’ll never forget it.”
A waiter dressed in a tux collected their glasses. “Can I bring anyone fresh drinks?”
Madison checked her watch. “I think we should call it a night, don’t you? Kind of a big day ahead.”
Luke thanked the waiter anyway and helped him clear their table.
Nathan kissed Chloe’s hand. “Hey, can you guys give my fiancée and me five minutes? It’s the last time we’ll see each other before we say ‘I do.’”
“Of course. We’ll meet you in the lobby. Take your time.” Madison collected her purse from the table and led the way from the piano bar across to the lobby, closely followed by Luke. She almost felt comfortable around him. Almost. She hid a grin as he guided her out of the path of someone who had consumed one too many piña coladas. Yes, he had that protective-yet-not-overbearing quality.
There were numerous seating areas to choose from, and Madison spotted an empty leather sofa, right next to a gigantic fountain. “There okay?” She pointed to the corner. Corners were good. She could view the area well, and no one could creep up from behind.
“Looks great to me.”
They settled on opposite ends, and Madison turned to face Luke. “Does this whole experience feel surreal to you?”
He took a moment before answering. “You mean your sweet little sister marrying my crazy little brother in tropical Jamaica—tomorrow? And after dating for six months?”
“Yes, that’s what I mean. It’s been such a whirlwind romance and Chloe’s so young. But the realtor and the interior designer—they are a perfect fit. It’s just that I barely feel like I know Nathan at all.”
“Don’t get me wrong—what I do know of him is great. He treats Chloe like a princess, and she deserves that. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a control freak, and I don’t like surprises. I guess it’s all a little breathtaking yet overwhelming.” She raised both hands, palms facing forward.
Was that a jagged fingernail? Yes, that one fingernail was broken. The clasp on her purse did it every time. Thank goodness they had manicures booked tomorrow. If only her broken life could be as easily fixed…
“A control freak, huh?”
She took a deep breath. “I’m sure you know my story from last year. Nathan must have warned you about my plethora of issues.”
Luke met her gaze and then melted her with those green eyes. “All I know is you were hurt and you found God. My brother isn’t big on details. I’m a good listener, though, if you want to talk.”
Madison sank back into the sofa and curled her feet under her.
Walls. I’ve got to break down these walls. He’s virtually family, after all.
“It’s kind of a long story, but I’ll give you the basics. When Mom and Dad died in the plane crash, I was wrecked. I felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. Chloe was still in college and I wanted to take care of her. We’ve always been so close. I had finished my studies and was planning on going to Spain, but all that changed. No way was I leaving my sister on her own, and there was nobody to share the burden with. Sam worked for our father’s company and came to my rescue. He swept me off my feet.”
“You were vulnerable.”
“I was naive and perfect prey. Sam told me what I wanted to hear, and before I knew it, we were engaged. He wanted to marry me straightaway, but I insisted on not rushing anything and waiting a year. For once, I think my caution served me well. When I think of what could have happened…” A shiver ran through her entire body.
“He wasn’t who you thought he was?” Luke leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees.
“No. He most definitely was not. He mentioned something regarding my bank account about a month before our wedding, and for some reason, it sent up red flags. I did some digging, and the truth began to unravel.” Madison blinked back tears and focused on Luke’s face. “He intended to marry me and then take off with my inheritance. It was a master plan, and he was willing to spend over a year waiting and scheming. Love wasn’t even on his radar; it was one hundred percent for financial gain. He had over ten million reasons to pretend to love me.” She bit her lip. “I had enough proof that he couldn’t even attempt to deny it.”
Luke’s eyes darkened. “Unbelievable. I’m so sorry. How did you get over it?”
She groaned. Would she ever get over it? “I’m still a work in progress, but I found a heavenly Father who loves me unconditionally, won’t ever let me down, and He saved me. I wish Chloe would take me seriously when I share my faith with her. She knows me better than anyone else on the planet, but she doesn’t seem to want to know the Lover of my soul.”
“I can relate to that. I’m Nathan’s brother, remember? Something we can both be praying about.”
“True. And then there’s my parents. I don’t know what they believed. It was never a topic of conversation in our home growing up. I’ll tell you about it sometime. I think I’ve overloaded you with enough for one evening, although you are a great listener. Sorry if I’ve overshared.”
“Not at all. Trust me—I do a ton of listening down in Mexico. I’m the resident agony aunt for all the kids as well as the workers.” A hint of pain flitted across his face and he shifted on the couch. “I believe God’s called me to be single, which gives me time for everyone else’s relationship issues.”
“Really?” The word came out more like a squeak. A sudden flood of disappointment at the reason for his singleness washed over her. Humor. Brush it off with humor. “Hmm, maybe singleness is the way to go. Sure would keep life simpler.”
Luke grew serious. “It’s not for everyone. Some people think I’m crazy, but I want to be fully committed to mission work, and right now, it’s easier on my own. I don’t have all the answers, and my life is far from perfect.” He sighed. “But I do promise to pray for my friends. And I’ll pray for you, too, if you’d like.”
He broke into a smile, and his dimples made him look young, almost shy.
“Sure. I’d like that.”
“Hey, you guys.” Chloe’s excited voice interrupted the moment. “Are we intruding on anything?” She opened her eyes extra wide.
Madison had lost track of time and of their surroundings. So much for being vigilant. “We were talking about God.” That would kill any meddling or interest on Chloe’s part. Would she and Nathan ever see the need for God in their lives?
Chloe planted her hands on her hips and shook her head. “That’s too bad. So, are you ready to head on up?”
“Absolutely. Let’s get our beauty sleep.” Madison stood just as a raucous peal of laughter erupted from their right. She spun around and caught the eye of someone. He didn’t look familiar, but he was staring right at her from where he stood next to a huge marble pillar. Madison’s body tensed. Their eyes locked and he raised his chin. What was with those eyes? A chill swept over her, and she glanced away. The next second, she felt compelled to look back. He was stocky, muscular. Could he be a bodyguard? His black dress shirt and pants were a stark contrast to his short, white-blond hair. Was she imagining this guy? No, he was there, all right—still staring, as stoic as the pillar he leaned against.
Madison took one step closer to Luke, her eyes fixed on the stranger. As she turned to ask Luke whether she was paranoid, her flip-flop caught on the underside of the sofa, causing her to lose all sense of balance. Madison collided with Luke’s broad chest and gasped.
He held her steady with strong arms. “Are you okay? You’re shaking like a leaf.”
“I’m so sorry.” Madison pulled away and straightened her dress. “I wasn’t paying attention and I tripped…”
His warm hand touched her shoulder, and he dropped his voice to a whisper. “Hey, no harm done, but are you sure everything’s all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
She took a deep breath. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” She looked back to the pillar, but it was empty. Of course it was…
“Madi?” Chloe wrapped an arm around her waist. “You’re pale. Something’s wrong. What is it?”
Tears surfaced. “I thought someone was watching me. That’s all.”
“Where?” Nathan rotated and scanned the lobby.
“He’s gone.” Madison rubbed her arms. “I’m okay. It’s my crazy imagination.” But it wasn’t. Not this time.
Chloe squeezed her in close. “Poor thing. You’re having a tough night.”
Luke stood right in front of her. “Can you tell us what he looked like? Maybe he’s still around here somewhere.”
“It was just for a few seconds, but I’m sure he was blond and stocky. He wore all black.” She shuddered. “It was his eyes that freaked me out. They penetrated right across the room and I felt the look right in here.” She pressed a hand against her stomach. “They were icy blue. I’ve never seen eyes like them.”
“Icy?” Nathan’s eyebrows rose.
“Creepy,” Chloe whispered. “But he’s gone now. He probably thought you were gorgeous. You get it all the time, sis. Try not to worry.”
“I’m sorry, you guys.” Madison shook her head. “I’m overreacting. I think I need a decent night’s sleep. Sorry to freak you out.”
“No problem.” Luke touched her arm. “You get frightened, give us a call. Right, Nathan?”
Nathan still glared around the lobby.
“Hello?” Chloe caught his attention.
“Yeah. Sure.” He grabbed her hand. “Let’s get out of here. Right now.”
Madison’s shoulders slumped. Great. My burly new brother-in-law is as paranoid as me. But why?
Want more? Find the book on Amazon.com!
More books by Laura Thomas:
The Orphan Beach (Coming February 18)