Compromised in Paradise Epilogue
Copyright © 2017 by Samanthe Beck. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Powdery grains of sand still warm from the afternoon sun shifted under Arden’s toes as she balanced her weight.
“Stay nimble, like a cat,” a voice coached from the sidelines. Arden turned to Laurie Peterson, Chelsea’s maid of honor, and raised a brow. “You want to do this for me?”
The ballsy blonde started to nod, but just then her husband-to-be, Booker, sidled up and slid an arm around his fiancée. “Don’t even think about it, Lauralie. You’re barred from the bouquet toss.”
When Sheriff Booker spoke, Arden was inclined to listen, but apparently the lawman hadn’t fully tamed Laurie’s rebellious streak. She stared up into the handsome face of authority and gave him a challenging grin. “Says who?”
“Says this right here.” Without looking away from her, he unerringly tapped the blue diamond on her left ring finger. Then his brows lifted in his own version of a challenge. “Unless you want to give the rock back?”
“You could, like, hold it for me a couple minutes,” she suggested, switching to a seductive smile.
“Uh-uh. It took me ten years to get that ring on your finger. I’m not going to make it easy for you to take it off.”
Laurie gave a mock sigh of defeat and turned to Arden. “Sorry, honey. You’re on your own. Just remember, Chelsea favors her right hand. In a backward-facing, over-the-head toss, I think that’s your spot.” She lifted her chin to indicate a point a few feet forward on the sand.
Arden moved into position and then loosened her knees and hitched the skirt of her pale pink strapless bridesmaid’s dress up a few inches higher on her thighs. The earliest of the evening’s stars twinkled overhead, blending with the strings of lights forming the “roof” of the dance area and the flames from the tall glass torches burning at intervals to form a path along the shoreline.
“Use your height,” Booker called from behind her, over a smooth-voiced MC standing beside the bride at the front of the crowd, giving the hopefuls last-minute instructions. She nodded and straightened a notch. Good point. A lot of the single ladies were shorter than she. Her confidence inflated until a fit, thirtysomething redhead sent her the side eye. “Sorry, Legs, this one’s mine. I attended college on a volleyball scholarship. Get in my way, you’re going down.”
Shit. These girls were hard-core.
“Twenty bucks on the redhead,” someone said from behind her. Booker.
“Never bet against a St. Sebastian,” another voice warned. She sent her brother a smile for the vote of confidence and caught him holding up a twenty. “No pressure,” he added when he saw her looking.
“None at all,” her father interjected as he strolled up with her mother under his arm to join the group on the sidelines. “It’s only our family honor at stake.”
“My money’s on you, darling,” her mother called, and held up a twenty as she snuggled into her husband’s embrace.
Apparently miracles could happen. Over the last four months, with her father settled and stable in Maui, he and Sonja seemed to have rediscovered their…ahem…interest in each other—and their marriage. Best of all, they’d accomplished this without any buffering from her. Arden faced front to hide her grin of satisfaction and practiced her vertical jump.
“Where the hell is your date? Nick should be putting some skin in the game,” Rafe grumbled.
“Dr. Bancroft got tied up at the hospital,” she replied. “He’ll be here as soon as he can.” Maui Memorial’s newest attending physician didn’t always get to clock out exactly when his shift ended—especially not when he’d just taken time off to host his parents for a week. She could live with an occasional bump in their plans. He performed important work, and like his parents, she was proud of him. He was equally patient with her travel schedule. Between the two of them, they were balancing everything pretty well. At least, she thought they were. Far be it from her to rush the man, but she’d seen the expectant look in his parents’ eyes and recognized the same glimmer in her own. Maybe catching the bouquet would give him a hint? It couldn’t hurt.
The redhead planted her feet wide and accidentally stepped on Arden’s toe. Ouch. Correction, it could hurt. But she didn’t have time to think about the risks anymore because the MC was holding the mic, and Chelsea was doing a three-two-one countdown, and then…pandemonium. She saw the bouquet release, tracked the ribbon-wrapped bundle of pink-tinged plumeria as it flew her way, and then lost it in a tangle of grabbing hands and flying bodies.
She raised her arms and jumped. An elbow connected with her ribs, and somebody bumped into her from behind, and then something soft and solid landed in her outstretched hands.
She held it high, partly in triumph, and partly to keep it safe until the scrambling stopped. It only took a moment for the crowd of single ladies around her to realize the bouquet was no longer in play. They broke out in good-natured applause. She also heard some cheers from the onlookers, and a few grumbles as money changed hands.
Laughing, and a little more winded than she’d anticipated, she turned, and then froze as the crowd separated. Nick stood there, hands in his pockets, cuffs of his dark blue dress slacks rolled to his ankles, his bare feet in the sand. The look in his eyes robbed her of even more breath, and her face heated for reasons having nothing to do with chasing the bouquet. She brought the bundle of flowers to her nose and breathed in the sweet scent as he closed the distance between them.
“Sorry I’m late, Czarina.” His gaze dropped to the flowers and then raised back to her. “Did I miss anything significant?”
“I…ah…I caught the bouquet.” From the corner of her eye she noticed her family, including Chelsea now, as well as John and Evelyn Templeton, gathered together to one side, watching them.
His eyebrows lifted. “Is that significant?”
Men. She thwacked him in the chest with the flowers. “According to tradition, it means I’m going to be the next bride.”
“Oh. Well.” He stuck his hand in his pocket. “I wouldn’t want to buck tradition.”
Before she could begin to figure out what he meant by that, he pulled a small box from his pocket and dropped to one knee in front of her. With a flick of his finger, the lid opened to reveal a beautiful antique emerald-and-diamond cluster ring nestled in white silk. Torchlights flickered across the square-cut center stone. “Arden St. Sebastian, will you marry me?”
Somewhere in the crowd, someone whispered, “Damn. That bouquet worked fast.”
Arden looked from the ring to Nick. “I-it’s beautiful.”
“It was my grandmother’s. I asked my parents to bring it out with them when they visited. Obviously, they were happy to. I’ll grant you it’s not a typical engagement ring, but according to family lore, it’s a Russian emerald, mined from the mountains in Siberia.” He flashed her a quick grin. “What do you say, Czarina?”
She pressed a hand to the center of her chest. No hints necessary. He’d had this planned the whole time. True, he wasn’t a player anymore, but the man definitely still had game. Beneath her palm, joy rose like bubbles, creating a dangerous pressure. Maybe a laugh, or a sob—she wasn’t sure which—but then he raised his brows and sent her a cocky grin.
The sound ended up being a watery laugh. She clamped a hand over her mouth and blinked rapidly as a chorus of chuckles and sighs went up around her. A couple deep, unsteady breaths, and she risked an actual reply. “Tempting, but it’s going to take more than a cocky smile to close the deal. Or a spectacular ring. Buy me a drink and we’ll see.”
His smile lifted higher on one side. Wordlessly, he snapped his fingers. Onlookers stepped aside to let a white-vested bartender pass. Balanced on his circular tray perched a massive, neon-blue drink overflowing with umbrellas, fruit spears, and a rainbow of glow sticks.
Whoops and laughter rang out as the bartender delivered the drink to her. She took the ridiculous big thing and looked down at Nick through a haze of tearful happiness.
“Am I trying too hard?”
She laughed, then shook her head and sniffed. “No. I think I’m impressed.”
“Good. I was aiming to impress you.” He got to his feet and took her in his arms.
“Mission accomplished.” She tipped her head toward the drink. “Do I actually have to drink this?”
“Mine.” The redhead ran up and swept the daiquiri out of Arden’s hand. “Consolation prize.”
“—but you do have to answer my question,” Nick finished.
“Yes,” she whispered, and came up on her tiptoes to kiss him. “Yes, Dr. Nicholas Bancroft, I’ll marry you.”
He locked his arms around her waist and stole the kiss. Hijacked it. Gave her forever, in return, with the press of his lips, the heat of his mouth, and every strong, hard line of his body. When he raised his head, somehow she had the ring on her finger. Hoots and applause surrounded them. She brought her mouth to his ear and whispered, “We’ve just proven my father right. Geez. I’m never going to live it down.”
“Is this stressing you out?”
“No. Maybe. Okay, yes, a little.”
His grin turned wicked. “Don’t worry, Czarina.” His voice sent a shiver through her. “I know a soul-deep, hurts-so-good, cry-for-mercy cure for your stress. I’ll demonstrate later.”
“Promise?” In her peripheral vision, she saw her family closing in, her father in the lead. Before he reached them, Nick pulled her close for one last embrace.