“Don’t you make a beautiful bride, Your Grace.”
She smiled at the genuine compliment. “Have you met my mother, Gloria? Gloria, this is the dowager duchess, Aileen Stewart.” Bella hoped she had gotten their introductions correct.
“Yes. We met briefly after your father and I arrived.” Bella’s mother rose to give Aileen a quick hug as well. “Thank you for inviting us into your home.”
“Oh.” Aileen waved a hand in the air, clearly unsure what to make of all the hugging. Bella’s heart went out to her even more, and next time, she’d ask before hugging Liam’s mom. “I never liked this place. Then again, I was nae a proper enough duchess, like yer daughter will be.”
“I don’t know about that. I have really big shoes to fill, Your Grace,” Bella said, instantly recognizing Aileen as one of those people who thought everyone was better than her. She wasn’t the new duchess yet, and although she didn’t care for the title in the way that someone who grew up with those things, she would be sure to give Aileen the respect she deserved, which included referring to her as Your Grace.
“That’s exactly while ye do it up proper.” Aileen took a breath. “It’s time.”
Bella stood, and then followed her mom, and soon-to-be mother-in-law, outside to the chapel, where her dad waited and yet another familiar face stood at the altar.
“Adam’s here,” she said, bewildered and grateful that yet another family member had come.
At twenty-seven, Adam was the oldest of the Lawson brothers. There were eight of them, and she didn’t know how Aunt Dinah and Uncle Joe could keep any of them out of the trouble they naturally strove to find while running wild in the small town of Jessamine.
Of course, Bella loved her cousins, and she was glad Adam was here. “Did Liam arrange for him to come with y’all?”
Her mother nodded as a lone violin began to play. “He did. He took care of everything. Look.”
There were pink petals scattered on the stone floor, and hundreds of lit candles had been placed around the chapel. To her surprise, the pews weren’t empty. In fact, they were mostly filled with people she didn’t recognize. But they all wore smiles as they stood.
“I don’t know what to think,” she whispered to her mother.
Her mother’s hand covered hers and squeezed. “I think this is the start of a long and blessed marriage.”
Bella nodded. Maybe her mother was right. She prayed her mother was right.
“My sister informed Adam that while he might be the one officiating that he was required to take pictures,” her dad whispered, and she stifled a giggle. He handed her a purple bouquet of calla lilies. “From the groom.”
She sighed in pleasure. He’d remembered what she had told him.
“Such a thoughtful man, Bella,” her mom murmured, taking her arm.
Her dad took his place on the other side. “Ready, pumpkin?”
Bella caught sight of Liam at the altar. He looked handsome in a black tux. Yet, he also looked resigned. Serious. And yes, this was a serious occasion, but shouldn’t he look happy? Shouldn’t he look at her with new eyes, because he’d never seen her like this?
She realized that none of that should be happening, because this was a marriage of convenience for both of them.
Her breath hitched, her heart slammed against her chest, and her mind whirled. She could leave, with her family. She could leave with them right now, and board a plane back home tomorrow. The only thing she would have to do is figure out a custody/visitation agreement with Liam.
Oh gosh, she was going to have a panic attack right in the beginning of her wedding, and no one had a clue. She tried to breathe, but the veil got in the way. She started sweating, and her head felt light. Her entire body felt light, and only her parents, holding on to her arms on either side of her, were keeping her grounded.
Suddenly, she could feel her legs again, and the room spun. She blinked and ordered her body to turn, but her feet wouldn’t obey. They kept right on walking with the rest of her body.
And everyone was smiling. So many smiles. So many faces. She didn’t know any of them, not a single one. Their faces merged together, then separated.
She blinked again and took another deep breath.
Liam smiled at her, while lifting her veil. Finally, she could breathe again. “You’re a vision, Bella.” Then he leaned into her and whispered, “I know you’re scared and I know this isn’t how you imagined your wedding, but remember my vows, lass.” Then he straightened and took her hand in his, squeezing slightly.
Tension flowed out of her, and she felt her body deflate, but instead of leaving her helpless, it made her stronger. Look at everything Liam did for you, to make this day special. The chapel decorations, the guests, her beautiful flowers, and most of all, her family.
She gave him a lopsided smile. “I’m not scared, not anymore,” she said for his ears alone. “As soon as you took my hand, I felt better. Your touch, Liam, was all I needed.”
The look he gave her was hot enough to melt the candles sans flames.
“Guess we better get started, so the two of you can get on with the honeymoon,” Adam said.
Bella made a face at her cousin, trying not to be embarrassed in front of a bunch of strangers. “Seriously, Adam. They teach you that at seminary school?”
“He has a point, love. I’m very anxious for the honeymoon,” Liam said smoothly, his thumb caressing her fluttering pulse. Lord, the man made her hot. “Aren’t you?”
“You know I am,” she all but shouted, and then wanted to die when the guests laughed. Including her parents. Geez, wouldn’t someone take pity on her?
“Then what’s the problem?” Adam asked, opening the Bible.
“I, uh…” She looked back at her parents, who were standing off to one side, waiting to say their one line. “Can you do something?”
Her mother grinned. “Stop teasing, Adam, and begin.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
Bella faced her cousin, shooting him an I’m-going-to-hurt-you-if-you-do-that-again look. Hadn’t he and his brothers taught her how to fight with the best of them?
Adam cleared his throat. “Dearly Beloved.”
Liam captured her chin in his hand and gently turned her to him. “Eyes on me, love.”
“I won’t run away,” she assured him, though minutes ago, she had been contemplating just that.