When Kassius saw the location of their reception, he sucked in his breath. It was like seeing a ghost.
The mansion, set back from the street, looked exactly like his mother’s childhood home. It had the same type of old Spanish architecture, with covered wrought-iron balconies. His mother’s house had been built a hundred years later, two miles farther west, on St. Charles Avenue. He’d only seen it in photographs, before he’d had it destroyed.
A cold sweat broke out on his forehead, and his skin felt clammy beneath his tuxedo. He didn’t know why this mansion, and the thought of a different house, was affecting him. The Cash house was in the past. Dead and gone. He’d never even gone to see the empty lot—that was how little it meant to him. So why did he suddenly feel dizzy?
He felt his bride’s cool gaze on him as they walked past the wrought-iron gate, over a pretty path created by white rose petals and lit by white Chinese lanterns. He looked at her, and she instantly turned away to talk to a friend who’d come up beside her to squeal over her wedding dress, the beautiful ceremony, their future happiness.
And once they got inside the mansion, that was how the reception went, too. All night long, Laney offered bright smiles—fake! So fake!—to all of the people who loved her. For him alone—the one person on earth, it seemed, who did not love her—she offered coldness and a consistently averted gaze. As if she couldn’t even bear to look at him.
And the ink was barely dry on their wedding certificate. Not a good sign.
To Kassius, the evening stretched on like torture, with an elegant sit-down dinner in the colorful high-ceilinged ballroom shimmering with lights. Gritting his teeth, he ate his dinner, barely tasting the blackened catfish or jambalaya. A tearfully happy wedding toast was offered by Laney’s maid of honor, a childhood friend called Danielle Berly, now a married kindergarten teacher with two children. A much shorter, far less emotional toast was offered by his own best man, Ángel Velazquez.
He’d just held up his champagne flute and cried with a flourish, “Buena suerte!” Good luck. Which he obviously thought his old friend would need.
Kassius gritted his teeth and got through it. He smiled at all the right places and acted pleased when he and Laney cut the gorgeous six-tier wedding cake with its raspberry filling and white buttercream frosting with sugared flowers. He smiled for the photographer, leaning in toward his bride when she was refusing to touch him or look in his direction. When he took her out on the dance floor for their first dance together as a married couple, beneath the beaming smiles and oohs and aahs of her family and friends, he tried not to notice how she’d flinched when he’d touched her.
It didn’t promise a very good honeymoon.
All he could think about was how different this night was from the New Year’s Eve ball, when they’d first kissed and hadn’t been able to keep their hands off each other. This wedding night should have been beautiful, and it had been, but coldly so, like a distant star. But why? What had changed?
With a sick feeling in his gut, he knew exactly why. Because she’d reached out to him last night, and he’d pushed her away.
He was tired of being alone. And weary, so weary, of having no one completely on his side.
Finally, at midnight, he’d had enough. She’d been visibly reluctant to depart, but he’d insisted. He’d finally taken her hand and led her out of the elegant old mansion to the circular driveway where a vintage Cadillac now waited, bedecked with sashes and white flowers.
Laney’s footsteps slowed. “Where’s the limo?”
“I decided it was too much.”
“Really?” she drawled as the driver held open the back door. “Too much?”
Then she turned with a bright smile to wave at her family and friends who’d poured out of the mansion to bid them farewell. Kassius looked for Velazquez, but his friend was nowhere to be seen. He’d been such a hermit lately, Kassius was almost surprised the Spaniard had been willing to leave his half-million-acre Texas ranch to be his best man. Kassius certainly wasn’t going to give him a hard time about ducking out early, but it meant only his bride’s friends and family shouted and cheered after them as they departed, throwing white streamers at their car as they drove away.
Sitting beside his bride in the backseat, Kassius almost jumped when he heard loud bangs behind the car. Looking back, he saw rusty metal cans attached to the glossy bumper. He gave an incredulous snort. “I can’t believe Ms. Dumaine—”
“The wedding planner didn’t do those,” Laney informed him. “I heard Gran giggling about it with the ladies of her bridge club.”
The drive to the elegant hotel in the French Quarter where they were to have their honeymoon wasn’t supposed to take long. Normally it would take fifteen minutes, the wedding planner had told him. But with the huge influx of tourists celebrating the weekend before Mardi Gras, traffic was heavy. The drive took forever.
Or maybe it just felt that way to Kassius, with the awkward silence in the backseat, the two of them not touching. Laney still wouldn’t look at him and seemed more likely to strike up a conversation with the driver than the man she’d just pledged to honor and cherish.
Suddenly, he could stand it no longer. He leaned forward and spoke quietly to the driver, who nodded and changed the car’s route.
“Why are we turning around?” Laney asked in confusion. The first words she’d spoken to him in ten minutes.
“You’ll see,” he said grimly.
The car turned back onto the wide, well-tended avenue, divided by tracks, for the historic St. Charles streetcar line. On both sides of the avenue were oak trees and gracious mansions, many at least a hundred years old.
“Here,” he told the driver, and the man parked. Kassius abruptly got out.
It was past midnight now, and the street was quiet. This was a residential area, with a variety of architectural styles, from old Spanish to Greek Revival, Italianate to Colonial. Each mansion was evenly spaced with a large garden.
Except one house was missing, like a gap between teeth. He stood in front of the empty lot, stuffing his hands in his jacket pockets. Looking at a house he’d never seen.
Laney came up behind him. He heard the soft whisper of her skirts. “What are we doing here, Kassius?”
“You wanted to see the place I’m from?”
Wordlessly, he pointed at the barren plot of land, lit up by a pale trickle of moonlight, ghostly and empty between the other elegant homes.
She stood beside him, looking at the lonely plot of land, nothing but overgrown grass and a single cypress tree. “You were born here?”
He shook his head. “My mother was.” He looked at the empty lot. “This was her childhood home. She was the only child of the wealthy Cash family and ran off at nineteen to see the world rather than stay and marry the man they’d chosen for her.”
A car drove past them on the quiet road, its lights illuminating Laney’s big dark eyes.
“She fell in love with a Russian she met in Istanbul. She thought my father would marry her, but all he gave her was excuses. He floated in and out of our lives, promising he’d marry her soon, bringing us money and gifts. Until I turned eleven, and he disappeared completely.” His jaw set as he looked out at the sad cypress in the moonlight, hearing the plaintive cry of night birds soaring invisibly above. “Later that year, my mother got sick. If we’d had money for proper medical care, she might have survived. As it was...it took her five years to die. Alone.”
A lump rose in his throat. He didn’t like the rawness of telling this story. He’d never told it to anyone before.
“But she wasn’t alone,” Laney whispered. Her hand reached for his. “She had you.”
Kassius exhaled, almost shuddering with emotion. “When I was sixteen, as my mother lay dying, she wrote her parents and asked for help. She asked them to come see her, or at least to take me if she died. And they refused. They refused.”
He heard her gasp. He felt the warmth and softness of her hand as her fingers tightened protectively around his.
Turning away, he ground out, “This precious house meant everything to them. After they died, I bought it. Had it demolished.” He gave her a crooked smile. “You know this is the first time I’ve seen this street?”
She stared at him. Reaching up, she stroked his cheek. Her dark eyes were luminous with unshed tears. “Oh, Kassius.”
“That’s why I changed my name. I didn’t want my father’s name. Or my grandparents’. So I chose my own. I bought a new birth certificate, new papers. I started a new life.”
Standing on her tiptoes, Laney hugged him fiercely, and for a moment, he closed his eyes, accepting the comfort. He wasn’t accustomed to it.
She drew back, looking up at him in her wedding dress, moonlight frosting her dark hair beneath the long white veil. “I know what it feels like,” she said in a low voice. “To feel abandoned by family who is supposed to love you. That’s what left the hole in your heart.”
His voice was low and fierce. “Why don’t you have one, Laney? Why? How can you still love like you do?”
“Because...” She blinked fast, then shook her head. “Because I still love my mother. I miss her. I try to remember the good times. Doing otherwise would bring me only misery.”