09/22/2017

EXCERPT: The Clover Chapel

Read the Prologue from The Clover Chapel, book two in the Jamison Valley series. This is Nick and Emmeline’s story.

PROLOGUE

“I am not a spoiled brat!”

The man sitting next to me huffed. “You’re sitting in the corner glaring at the rest of us. You haven’t said a word until now. Every time someone mentions doing something fun, you roll your eyes. Yeah. You’re a spoiled brat.”

He was right. I was glaring at everyone and hadn’t said a word for over an hour and I may have rolled my eyes a time or two. I definitely had at the mention of going to a male stripper show.

But this weekend was not going at all as I had planned and, thus, my grumpy mood.

“I am not a brat. I’m just not having any fun.”

My friends and I had planned this big spring break trip to Las Vegas to celebrate my birthday tomorrow and our upcoming graduation from Yale. Since all of our previous spring breaks had been spent studying or doing internships, we had decided that for our last, something adventurous and crazy was long overdue.

I was supposed to be having an amazing time with my girlfriends, making memories that would last a lifetime.

Instead, I was miserable.

The last thing I wanted was to be sitting in our stretch limo, crammed into the back corner because now there were four guys crowded in with us.

My friends, unlike me, were overjoyed to be hanging with this group of strangers. Steffie was sandwiched between two of the men, both of whom were staring at the ample cleavage pouring out of her barely there silver dress. Marian and Alice were hanging off the bad boy, a man wearing a sleeveless shirt to showcase his enormous muscles and plethora of tattoos.

That left me in the corner, next to a guy who clearly had no issue insulting a stranger.

“It’s your own fault if you’re not having fun,” he rumbled. “Your friends aren’t afraid to have a good time. It’s not like it’s hard to find. We’re in Vegas.”

“I’m aware of our location.”

He was right again. The girls were genuinely having a good time, making the most of this night in Sin City, letting themselves go wild. Why couldn’t I? Sad and defeated, I slumped further into the seat.

“This was supposed to be our last adventure,” I said. “A crazy weekend together that we’d remember for the rest of our lives. This trip was for us to spend time with each other, but last night, they all found different guys to hook up with and ditched me. And since I didn’t want to have a one-night stand or get plastered by myself at some skeezy bar, I watched TV in our hotel room.”

“If you want to have a crazy night, you’re going to have to fucking relax. You’re uptight.”

“I am n—” I started, ready to defend myself again, but stopped. Instead, I turned to the window and muttered the truth. “I know.”

I expected him to ignore me now and leave me in my corner alone, eventually trying to steal Marian’s or Alice’s attentions away from his bulky friend. So when he wrapped his arm around the back of my shoulders and turned me away from the window, I gasped, surprised both by his touch and his closeness.

And then I froze.

When the men had climbed into the limo, I’d been so busy glaring at Steffie for inviting them along that I hadn’t really looked at him. And because he’d sat next to me, I’d only glimpsed his profile.

Wow, had I missed out. He was striking.

The vision made my heart pound so hard, its rhythm echoed through my whole body. His hazel eyes were framed with thick, dark lashes. His jaw was covered with a short, dark brown beard. I bet it was soft and would tickle if he kissed the side of my neck—or other places.

His nose was straight with a small bump at the bridge. His hair was shaggy and overly long, but the messy look didn’t make him look sloppy. It was sexy and carefree. He didn’t give a shit if his hair was a mess.

I gripped the hem of my dress to keep my hands from reaching up and threading my fingers through the thick strands. Then I forced myself to inhale. His gorgeous face alone had made me dizzy. He was by far the most handsome man in his group, which was saying something because my friends were not fawning over the other guys for no reason.

“I can help with that,” he said, his mouth turning up at one side in a crooked grin that made my belly dip.

“What?” I was so taken by his magnificent features, I’d forgotten what I’d said.

At my question, his mouth widened into a full-blown smile. Beneath his full lips were perfectly straight, white teeth. I wanted to kiss that mouth. I’d never kissed a man with such a beautiful smile before.

“If you keep looking at my mouth, I’m going to kiss you,” he said.

I studied his lips as he formed the words, unable to pull my eyes away from his mouth. I wanted that. I wanted him to kiss me so badly, my body started trembling. The attraction I felt for him was the strongest, most intense feeling I’d ever had.

“Not yet,” he whispered.

I tore my gaze from his mouth and looked into his beautiful eyes. Rimmed with a circle of dark gray, the centers were sage green flecked with golden brown. Even in the muted limousine light, the colors were vibrant and bold.

“Do you still want an adventure?”

I blinked a couple of times, forcing myself out of my trance. “Yes,” I whispered, surprised at both my answer and that I was actually able to get the word out.

His smile got bigger. “I can do that.”

He might be a stranger, but I felt safe by his side. No matter what we did tonight, it would be amazing just because it was with him.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Emmeline Austin.”

“Emmy. I’m Nick Slater.”

***

“Have you ever been on a roller coaster?” Nick asked as the limo sped away from the curb.

“Once, when I was younger. It scared me though and I didn’t like it.” I hadn’t been scared of the heights, but the insane speed and violent spins had brought me near to tears.

“Roller coaster it is then.”

“Did you not just hear me tell you that it scared me?”

“Sure.” He shrugged. “But this is an adventure. And any adventure worth having is a little scary.”

“How about drinks instead? Or we could catch a show?”

He grabbed my hand. “Come on, Emmy. We’re going for a ride.”

I didn’t miss his cheesy innuendo so I gave him my best eye roll while trudging along behind him.

With a hard tug, he pulled me to his side. Never letting go of my hand, we walked side by side along the crowded sidewalk. My small hand fit in his large grip perfectly and my fingers naturally laced through his.

“Up there. That’s our ride,” he said, raising our linked hands to point out the Stratosphere hotel.

I looked way, way up. A roller coaster car circled the top of the skyscraper. “No. No way. Roller coasters that start at ground level are scary enough. I don’t need to experience one thirty stories up.”

“I dare you to do it.”

“A dare? We’re not in middle school, Nick.”

He stopped walking and stepped right into my space, his minty breath hit my cheek. “A dare’s a dare, Emmy. No matter how old you are. You can tell a lot about a person by their reaction to a dare.”

A flush of warmth spread through my cheeks at his intimate tone and closeness. My heart started to race again. His vibrant eyes were looking down at me with such intensity, my worries and reservations all disappeared. As long as I could look into those eyes, everything would be okay.

***

“Fun?” Nick asked, helping me out of the roller coaster car.

“Yes.” The second the ride had ended, a huge smile had broken across my face.

“Good. Up next we’re going to a strip club.”

“Absolutely not. I have no desire to watch you ogle perfectly plasticized, naked women as they dance around in front of you.”

A crooked grin stretched across his mouth. “Dare you.”

“Oh for the love . . .” I muttered and stomped past him, dragging him along behind me. “Let’s go.”

Nick took the lead when we hit the sidewalk and maneuvered us to our show. I was so happy to be with him, still on a high from the roller coaster, I blanked out the world around us and stuck tightly to his side. When we got close, he asked me to close my eyes and to trust him.

“Okay. Open your eyes, Emmy,” he said against my ear, sending a shiver down my neck.

The smile on my face vanished when I opened my eyes. Somehow he had managed to shield me from the casino signs because, had I seen where he was taking me, I would have vehemently protested.

“What?” My feet refused to step further into the room. We had just walked through the doors to Thunder From Down Under. “I thought you said we were going to a strip club.”

“We are. You just assumed I meant female strippers.”

“I am not watching greased-up men dressed like the Village People gyrate on stage.”

“Too late. Show starts in three minutes. Let’s grab a quick drink and then go to our seats,” he said, dragging me to the bar.

Nick lifted his chin, summoning the female bartender, who ignored the masses of women surrounding us and came directly to him. She was probably glad to have a break from the estrogen and serve the one and only man at this ridiculous show. It didn’t hurt that Nick was smoking hot.

“Four lemon drops. Two shots of Jack straight up,” Nick ordered. One minute later, all six shots were lined up in front of us.

“Here you go, Emmy. Get to it.” He pointed to the lemon drops.

“I can’t take four shots! I’ll puke!” That comment got me strange looks from the horde of women close by.

“Hurry up,” he said, drumming his fingers on the bar. “You’re going to want those.”

“What about you?”

He answered by taking the whiskey shots and throwing them back, one right after the other.

If I didn’t “get to it,” he would just dare me again, so I reluctantly picked up one glass and set the sugar-covered rim on my lips.

After a fortifying breath, I tipped my head back and let the sweet liquid roll straight down my throat, burning all the way to my belly. I grimaced but managed to repeat the process with the other three shots.

“I didn’t even have to dare you that time. You’re relaxing, Emmy.” Nick grinned, leading me away from the bar and to our VIP section seats.

I sank into a moderately cushioned, straight-backed chair, then leaned over to whisper in Nick’s ear. “No judgment if you are, maybe I’ve been misreading things between us, but is this your way of telling me that you’re gay?”

He threw his head back and laughed into the air above us. His laugh was amazing. Rich. Deep. Honest.

And long.

He kept at it until the show started and his sound was masked by the thumping music and the audience’s catcalls. When he finally stopped laughing, he turned and placed both hands on my jaw. His large hands framed my face completely.

I stared at his mouth, waiting to see what he was going to say, but instead of speaking, he licked his lips, sending tingles straight to my center. Then his mouth came crashing down on mine, his soft lips taking over, coaxing my mouth open so he could dip his tongue inside for a taste.

Before I could kiss him back, he pulled back an inch.

“Does that answer your question?” His hands were still framing my face but I managed a nod. He leaned in and kissed the tip of my nose before turning back to the stage.

I stared, unblinking, at his profile, only seeing the show peripherally. A half-naked man had just stripped off his shirt and was parading around in a fireman’s hat and baggy pants.

I barely heard the screams when the stripper started unbuttoning his pants. The beat of my own heart and the rush of blood in my ears were deafening. I was in shock. The way Nick’s lips had moved on mine and the gentle caress of his tongue had been like no other kiss I’d ever had.

So preoccupied, I jumped when a hand landed on the back of my chair. I turned to see what was happening a millisecond before a man’s arm pulled me from my seat and out of the VIP section.

“Have fun!” Nick called before I was whisked up on stage by a stripper dressed as a police officer.

“No way!” I shouted, pulling away from the fake cop. My feet were pointed toward the exit, but I didn’t get two steps into my escape before the nearly naked fireman and the now-shirtless police officer pushed me down into a chair, center stage.

I sat, mortified, as both of them started shaking their manly bits in my face and dry humping my legs. The laughter and the shouts from the audience rang loudly in my ears as my face turned violently red. And above all of the female noise was Nick’s booming male laugh.

Squinting through the bright stage lights, I searched for him in the audience. I lost sight when a third stripper joined the show, this one dressed in a cowboy hat and brown briefs printed with horseshoes.

Nick had been right. I had needed those four shots.

After an eternity, I was released from that torturous chair but I didn’t go back to Nick. I marched straight to the now-deserted bar, where I promptly ordered another two shots.

“You did good, Emmy,” Nick said when he reached my side. “But I think that’s enough crazy for a while. Feel like gambling?”

“If that means we get to leave here, then absolutely, yes.”

He bent down and placed a short, sweet kiss on my forehead. “Let’s go.”

Hand in hand, we walked out of my first and, hopefully, only male strip show to continue our Vegas adventure.

The desert night air had cooled but it was still warm enough that walking in my little black dress was comfortable. I’d bought this dress special for the trip, hoping it would be sexy enough that I wouldn’t look like a librarian compared to Steffie’s wardrobe of slinky dresses and midriff-baring halter tops. It had capped sleeves and a plunging neckline that framed what little cleavage I had. Its short and tight fit gave my petite frame the illusion of curves.

Most of the men around us were dressed in full suits. Just the type of men my father would have expected to see me walking with. If he saw me now, strolling along with Nick, his face would give me that look of disapproval I was all too familiar with.

Nick was dressed in a solid black T-shirt that was strung tightly across his broad chest. When he crossed his arms, it cinched around his large biceps, displaying all the contours of his chiseled frame. He wore a pair of faded jeans that sat perfectly on his hips and muscled thighs. Not to mention the wondrous things they did for his ass.

He looked better than any of the suit-clad men we passed.

Wanting to know more about my handsome new acquaintance, I asked, “Where do you live?”

“Colorado.”

“Oh.” I frowned. Colorado and Connecticut were on opposite sides of the country.

“What are you studying?” he asked.

“Marketing and public relations.”

“That’s what you want to do?”

Taking a deep breath, I told him something that only Steffie knew. “No. But my father is expecting me to go work for his political fundraising company. I hate it, actually. It feels like I’m learning how to be fake and talk people out of their money. I always wanted to be a teacher. I really love kids, but that just isn’t a possibility for me.”

“Life’s short, Emmy. Do what makes you happy.”

My father’s acceptance would make me happy and the only way I’d get it was by obeying his wishes.

Not wanting to dive into that depressing topic, I changed the subject. “What about you, Nick? Do you do something that makes you happy?”

His body tensed and he took a moment before answering. “Kind of.” His tone was final and there would be no further explanation.

The rest of our walk to the casino was in silence, but Nick never once let go of my hand. The more we walked, the firmer his grip became, and by the time we sat down at a blackjack table, both of us had shrugged off our moods and were back to smiling and laughing. Three hundred dollars later, I had a vague sense of the rules and could add “very, very bad at blackjack” to my resume.

Gambling turned into more drinking and then more strolling along the strip. We came to a stop in front of Treasure Island, where Nick and I watched renegade pirates battle each other amidst pyrotechnic explosions.

Standing in the middle of the crowd, Nick wrapped both his arms around me, pulling me securely into his chest. My hands held onto his muscled forearms. Even though we’d shared a kiss, this felt more intimate. It wasn’t as electric as when our lips had touched, but with our bodies resting against each other, I felt a connection to Nick I never wanted to cut.

We fit together perfectly. His big body cradled my small frame, like his arms were made to be wrapped around me and only me.

My cheeks ached from smiling. Nick had made me laugh more in one night than I could remember doing in years. Maybe ever.

And we still had the rest of the night together.

The thought gave me butterflies. For once, I didn’t have to act a certain way or behave according to my family’s set standards. I could just have a good time with the handsome man standing behind me. No rules. No stress. No expectations.

Being with Nick made me feel free. His confidence and easy grace were contagious. I could just be myself. Do whatever I wanted. Say whatever I wanted. This Emmeline was relaxed. Happy.

“Let’s get married,” Nick whispered into my ear.

“What?” I gasped, turning to look up at him with wide eyes. Where had that come from?

“Let’s get married. You said you wanted crazy. Nothing is crazier than two people who just met getting hitched in Las Vegas.”

“We can’t get married!”

His vibrant eyes gleamed as his mouth formed a smug, crooked grin. “I dare you.”

***

“You don’t need to buy me that ring. It’s too much money,” I said.

I turned my eyes to the jewelry. Sitting on a velvet cloth was a two-carat diamond. A ring of smaller diamonds haloed it, and an array of smaller, rectangular diamonds shot out from the sides like sunbeams. The edging formed a Gatsby hexagon set in rose gold.

It was exquisite.

It was expensive. Too expensive.

I didn’t know about Nick’s financial situation and would never put him in a position to overspend.

“Too much money?” he parroted. “Says the girl staying in the Bellagio penthouse suite who rides around in a private limo and just dropped five grand on a hunk of metal for me.”

“I don’t need anything fancy, Nick.”

Framing my jaw with his large hands, he leaned down and kissed the tip of my nose. “Buying you the ring that makes your face light up like the sun is something I want to do. I’d do just about anything to see that look on your face every day. I’m not broke, Emmy. I can buy that ring. But even if I was poor, I’d find a way to get it.”

Wow, that felt good.

My face split into a beaming smile. It didn’t last long because Nick leaned down and captured my mouth. Right in the middle of the jewelry store, our tongues tangled together in a deep kiss. My hands explored the defined ridges of his chest while his arms banded around my lower back and pulled my hips tightly into his.

When he finally broke away, I was breathless and my heart was thundering out of my chest. His hardness had rubbed up against my hip and I was on fire. Swaying sideways on wobbling knees, I clung to Nick’s shirt to keep from falling.

I wanted a kiss like that every day for the rest of my life.

A throat clearing broke our happy bubble. Nick turned to the clerk but kept an arm around my waist to steady me on my feet. He took the ring from the clerk’s hand and slowly slid it onto my finger. Tingles spread from my hand through my arm when it was positioned perfectly against my knuckle.

I admired the jewels and how perfectly they looked on my finger. How perfectly my hand looked in Nick’s.

Gazing up into his vibrant eyes, I knew Nick was the only man for me. I had found the one. Fate, something I hadn’t believed in until tonight, had brought us together. We’d only been with each other for hours but I was undeniably in love.

“When are you two getting married?” the clerk asked.

“Tonight,” Nick said, not taking his eyes from mine.

“Oh, congratulations! Which chapel did you choose?” she asked.

“We haven’t picked one yet.”

“Well, if I may offer a recommendation . . .”

One hour later, Nick helped me climb out of a town car in front of The Clover Chapel.

“Wow.” My eyes raked over the charming, square building.

The white stucco walls were dotted with intricate, stained glass windows made of blues and greens. A small steeple at the peak of the roof held a brass bell. Vines with small, white flowers climbed over the walls, covering the stucco.

The clerk had not been wrong. It was incredible.

I felt Nick’s heat at my side and my fingers naturally found his. I rushed to pull him inside, barely containing my excitement to see the chapel’s interior.

The air evaporated from my lungs the instant we crossed through the pale wooden doors with a tiny four-leafed clover tacked to the top of its frame. The beauty of this chapel was beyond any of my wildest dreams.

Through an arched opening directly in front of us was a short aisle lined with small, wooden pews. At its end was a pergola threaded with greenery, glittering twigs, fairy lights and white magnolia flowers. Hanging white wisteria blooms filled the open ceiling.

We had just walked into a garden wonderland. Someone had reached into my mind and created the setting for my dream wedding.

Magic.

“Hello! Welcome to The Clover Chapel,” the receptionist said. “How can I help you?”

“We’d like to get married tonight,” Nick said.

“Congratulations! Clover will be so excited.” She flipped open a three-ring binder to show us their wedding packages. When we made our choice, she left to find the officiant, Clover herself.

“Are you going to regret this?” Nick asked, pulling me into his arms. His question was sincere. He wouldn’t hold this against me if I chose to call a quit to this dare.

But this wasn’t a crazy adventure for me anymore. It was real.

We were real.

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t wearing a designer couture gown and my hair wasn’t in an elaborate updo. I had no desire to spend a fortune on my wedding. I hated the pretentious and over-the-top fiascos my engaged friends were all planning. All I wanted was to marry a man who was the only one for me.

Nick was that man.

I didn’t know all of the mundane details of his life or his past. I’d learn those in time. For now, I knew what was important. Nick was kind, generous and affectionate. He looked at me like I was the only woman in the world.

“No, I won’t regret getting married. Will you?” I hoped with everything I had that his answer was no.

“Abso-fucking-lutely not.”

My breath hitched and I fought to swallow past the lump in my throat. Never in my life had that ridiculous saying sounded so wonderful.

“We’re ready for you,” the receptionist said, popping her head out into the entryway.

Nick held out an elbow and I looped my arm through his before he escorted me down the aisle. Step by step, we strolled together to Clover standing under the arch.

Ten minutes later, we were husband and wife. We had repeated traditional vows, promising to love and cherish one another until death parted us.

With permission to kiss his bride, a smile spread across Nick’s face as he hoisted me up into his arms.

“Hi, Wife.”

“Hi, Husband.”

The light in his eyes was dancing. I imagined that mine looked much the same.

I dropped my lips to his for a kiss that I would never forget. The moment our lips touched, the world around us melted away.

There was only us.

Leaving the chapel, we barely spoke as the receptionist handed us our marriage certificate and wedding photos. The smiles on our faces were so wide they couldn’t be broken for words. Never in my life had I been so deliriously happy.

“Do you believe in fate?” I asked Nick as we rode back to the Bellagio.

“Yeah.”

“Are we going to make this work?” I whispered.

“Fuck yes we are.”

Any lingering anxiety in my stomach vanished. “How?”

“We just are. We belong to each other. Tomorrow, we’ll figure it all out. Tonight, let’s just be us.”

“Okay. Let’s just be us,” I said, thanking all the angels in the heavens that I was lucky enough to have him as mine.

***

“Nick?” I called through the sitting room of the hotel suite.

I’d just woken up alone, and after searching the bedroom and bathroom, I’d walked out to the common area, hoping to find him with coffee. The shots from last night had given me a mild headache and I needed caffeine.

He wasn’t on either sofa or in the kitchenette. I turned back toward the bedroom for some clothes but stopped when a shiny object on the foyer table caught my eye.

The closer I got to the table, the heavier my steps fell on the polished marble floor. I knew that shiny object. It was the platinum band I had placed on Nick’s finger at The Clover Chapel last night.

I reached out and let my fingertips brush the cool metal. Sliding it to the side, I read the one-word note underneath.

Sorry

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