Welcome back to our Wednesday and Saturday serial installments! We are happy to continue to share The Glass Bottom Boat by Laura Thomas.
THE SUNSET WORE A STUNNING splash of gold, deep purple, and vibrant orange, which streaked across the enormous sky. Madison leaned back in her chair in the elegant beachfront restaurant and appreciated yet another beautiful image from the day. She offered a heartfelt prayer of thanks. Nothing catastrophic occurred, Chloe and Nathan enjoyed every single minute, and the newlyweds were now cheek to cheek on the dance floor as husband and wife.
“How are you holding up?”
Madison glanced at Luke and shrugged. “Pretty well, I think. I’m guessing our duties are almost over for the day.” She nodded toward the happy couple. “They’re in paradise, and that’s all that matters.”
Luke pursed his lips. “Talking of duties, I have something to confess. I feel kind of awkward about it, so I’m just going to come out and say it.”
Madison’s heart raced, and she leaned closer over the table, sensing he was somewhat embarrassed. “What is it?” she whispered. “You can tell me anything.”
Luke ducked his head. “I can’t dance.”
Madison’s mouth twitched. “You what? I couldn’t quite hear.” She kept a straight face. Was this strong, confident man admitting his inept dancing abilities? It was so sweet.
“I said I can’t dance, and I would ask you to, if I had the slightest idea which foot to place where, but I think I would smash those sparkly sandals of yours to dust. I’m so sorry.”
He looked up with puppy-dog eyes, and Madison burst out laughing.
He blushed and looked uncomfortable, but for some reason it was amusing to her. After all the insecurities and fears she had racing through her head, he was concerned that he couldn’t take her dancing. Really?
“I apologize.” She regained a measure of control. “I’m not laughing at your two left feet. I promise. You looked so worried, I thought it was some deep, dark secret I was going to be privy to.”
Luke ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. “Sorry it was such a boring confession.”
“No, I love boring—trust me. I need more drama in my life like a hole in the head right now. And I don’t think I have the energy to dance tonight anyway. It’s been such a long day.” Her feet throbbed, even after she shed her shoes under the table.
Luke turned to watch Chloe and Nathan. “Yeah, a long day but a good day. I’m happy for them.”
“Me too.” Madison sighed. Their decorated table for four was set in its own little candlelit area, swathed in billowing white silk, with flower petals strewn on the floor around them. The dinner had been divine and now she felt full and exhausted. But there was still something they needed to discuss.
“Luke, I don’t want to put a damper on the evening, but I know you wanted me to tell you about what happened earlier. I think it would make me feel better to unload, if you don’t mind.”
Luke shifted his chair closer to hers, where they enjoyed a good view of the dance floor in case Chloe or Nathan came back to the table. They waved and smiled when a new dance began. “Of course. Tell me what you remember. Anything at all about this guy.”
Madison shivered. “Well, like I said, I didn’t get a decent look after the wedding ceremony. I could sense someone there watching me.” She wound a ringlet around her finger while she spoke. “But there was more, earlier today—”
“Seriously?” Luke’s jaw dropped.
“You know when I went out running this morning?”
“Of course. You almost mowed me down. Was there someone in the lobby again?” He gritted his teeth.
Madison shook her head. “No, it was when I was right at the end of the beach. I stopped to stretch, and there was a guy.” My own personal creepy dude. “He stood there staring right at me, so I pretended not to be freaked out and ran back.”
“Was it the same guy? The one with the icy blue eyes?”
“I don’t know. He wore shades, so I have no clue about his eye color.” She bit her lip. “But that’s not all.”
Luke glanced over at the dance floor. “Tell me, please?”
“Okay. After lunch, when Chloe and I were at the spa, he was there again. But this time he was closer, and he probably thought I was sleeping because I had my sunglasses on, but I managed to see a tattoo on his left forearm. A snake or a dragon or something gross.”
He frowned. “What did he say?”
“Nothing. He took a photo and then disappeared. Still wore the shades.” Her voice cracked.
Luke poured Madison a glass of sparkling water from the decanter and put it in front of her. “He took a photo? What nerve. Did Chloe see anything? Was she there with you?”
She picked up the glass and took a sip. “Chloe was napping, thank goodness. I didn’t want to alarm her. Not today.”
“Right.” He shook his head. “Maybe we should mention it to the hotel security so they can be extra vigilant. Let’s go to the front desk and speak with someone when we’re finished here, okay?”
Madison shrugged. “Sure. But it sounds so lame. A guy with blond hair in dark clothes is watching me. They’ll think I’m crazy.”
“It’s what their security guys are here for. They may have received other complaints—you never know. And we should tell them about the distinct eye color and tattoo.” He drummed his fingers on the table for a moment. “Were you having any trouble like this back in Seattle before you left to come here?”
Madison looked out over the ocean and thought before answering. She didn’t want to sound unbalanced, but she had to be honest. No use in keeping up the walls if he wanted to help her.
“Not recently.” She tucked a few strands of hair behind her ear. “After the breakup with Sam about a year ago, I got a few phone calls where nobody would speak when I picked up. You know, the cliché heavy-breathing thing. It did scare me, but the calls stopped after a few weeks. It got my nerves on edge, though, because I kept thinking I was being followed in my car.”
“Did you report any of it? Did you tell anyone, even your sister?”
She groaned. “No. Chloe didn’t know about it, and I convinced myself I was reacting badly to the thing with Sam. I became engrossed in my teaching and offered extra classes whenever I could to keep myself occupied. Then Chloe and I spent Christmas in Hawaii, and after we came back home, everything settled down. There’s been nothing major for the past six months. On the odd occasion, I still felt like someone was following me, but I daresay that was me being paranoid. I wanted to move on and leave those fears behind.”
“Do you think it was your ex-fiancé?”
Madison shook her head. “No way. When I first uncovered his elaborate plan to marry me, take my money, and run, he was quite threatening at first and insisted I made a huge mistake.” She rubbed her arms as a chill swept through her. “But when he saw I had proof and was serious about him leaving for good, he begged me to keep it quiet and said he would leave the area and never contact me again.”
“And you believed him?” Luke raised a brow.
She shrugged. “Yes. I had to, for my own sanity and to move on. I know I should have reported him to the police, but I was more concerned with my broken heart. And I haven’t seen or heard from him or any of his friends since. That’s almost a year now.”
“Hmm. That must have hurt his pride, though.”
“I’m sure. But our breakup was not the first time I’ve been stalked. After my parents’ death, word leaked out about the inheritance and the size of our estate since Dad was well known in the business world. I had all sorts of crazies trying to meet with me to discuss finances, and then your average creeper sending love letters and marriage proposals to the new heiress. I got followed home from work a few times.” She shivered at the memory. “But that’s in the past. Chloe and I refused to move from the home we grew up in. We changed our phone numbers, installed extra security systems, stuff like that. Once all the legal proceedings were over, we were left alone. Unless you count Sam swooping in to take advantage of my weakness.”
Luke sat back in his chair. “You’ve dealt with a lot. I had no idea. I think you’re a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for.”
“Hmm, I’m not so sure.” A peal of familiar laughter caught Madison’s attention, and she waved at her sister. “But this is still the happy wedding day, and we should change the subject.”
“Okay. But I think we should make a stop at the front desk when we head inside. And I’d feel happier if you had my number on speed dial.” He reached down and pulled his phone from the pocket of his jacket draped behind him on the chair. “Can you put your number in for me?”
“Sure. I left my phone in my room.” She took his phone and punched in her number while suppressing a chuckle. That was quite the pickup line, if he was in the market for a date. Which he wasn’t.
“And please tell me even when you think something remotely suspicious is going down. Deal?”
Madison handed him the phone. “Deal.”
He checked the screen and hit reply. “Now you have me at your beck and call.”
“Safe and sound. Thanks.” Her shoulders relaxed. She looked around at the flower-laden dance floor, where couples swayed to the lilt of the music and no doubt also whispered sweet nothings. It was romantic but so quiet… “This resort is serene and stunning. But something’s missing.” She glanced at Luke. “Know what I mean?”
Luke tapped his chin and surveyed the beach, restaurant, and dancing area. “It’s too tranquil from what I’m used to. I know what I’m missing most of all.”
He was on the same wavelength as her. She knew it. “Kids?”
“Got it in one. I love the peaceful ambience—don’t get me wrong—but it’s strange not having the excited yells and bubbles of laughter all over the place. Were you thinking the same?”
Madison nodded. “Yes. I know I have my fair share of teenagers five days a week, but it seems odd to be at a beach with no squeals and crying babies. I’ve never been at an adults-only resort before.”
“You long for the sound of crying babies?” He raised his eyebrows.
Madison laughed. “I wouldn’t put it quite like that, but can I tell you a secret?”
“I’m the world’s best secret keeper.” He folded his arms on the table and lowered his voice. “Fire away.”
“I love babies so much, I signed up to do nursery duty in church every week. Like every single week. I know it’s excessive, but we have two services back to back, so I still get to hear the message and everything. I love being around the little ones. They’re so…nonjudgmental and trusting. With them, life is simple and the little things are special. And they smell so good.” She clasped her hands and sniffed the air.
Luke was quiet for several moments.
“Uh-oh. Now you must think I’m a crazy woman.”
“No, I happen to think it’s awesome. I’m a bit of a baby whisperer myself.”
“No way.” Was this guy for real? Could he check any more boxes in the “perfect husband material” questionnaire?
“Way. Babies intrigue me. I sometimes think I may have been a pediatrician if I hadn’t gone the missionary route. At the moment, we have a six-month-old baby at the orphanage—she’s an absolute darling.” His eyes lit up as he spoke. “Sophia has the biggest brown eyes you could imagine and I’m the only one who can make her smile.” He shrugged. “What can I say?”
“I thought you would enjoy kids because of what you do. But babies, eh? Interesting.” And also somewhat attractive in a man.
Luke focused on the lit candle between them. “One of the tougher things about being single and one of my major struggles, if I’m going to be honest. I love kids, and sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have my own flesh and blood running around.” He looked up at her. “Do you know what I mean?”
Madison nodded. A lump caught in her throat. If she couldn’t get past her fears, would there even be children in her future?
“And you’re going to think I’m being geeky here, but I even enjoy reading parenting books…”
Madison tapped her chin. “Let me guess—with the pretense it would help your work in the orphanage?”
“Hmm, I think you know me well already. In reality, I’m curious and want to know as much as possible about rearing children. I know how to make a macho impression, don’t I?” He grimaced.
“I think it’s sweet.” She pointed over to Chloe and Nathan. “We’d better start praying for a little niece or nephew, then, don’t you think?”
“Ah yes. The only problem will be when we fight over said baby.” Luke held up his fists and then dropped them. “I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that for a while.”
“True. Too bad, though.” How long would her sister wait to start a family? Their kids would most likely be blond and beautiful… “You know, Chloe thinks you and I would make the most amazing babies.”
Her face heated. Had she said that out loud? “Umm, forget I said anything. She was busy matchmaking—I don’t think she realizes you are strictly single. For the record, she thinks our offspring would be gorgeous with your green eyes and my chocolate-brown ringlets.” Stop talking, Madison. “Hysterical, right?”
Luke took a long swig of water. And swallowed hard.
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