The Keys to Jericho

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Chapter 35

Lying on my bed at Dad’s, staring at the ceiling, a soft knock on the door doesn’t do much to tear my attention away from the swirled pattern. When I don’t bother to answer, I hear the door creak open. “Are you decent?” Hadley whispers.

Glancing at the doorway, I see her covering her eyes, and I roll mine. “Yeah. Come in.”

“Why’re you in your room? I thought Rio and Dash were staying here tonight?”

“Rio is. He’s asleep on the rec. room couch.”

“No Dash?” It aggravates me to hear the disappointment in her tone.

“Dad dropped him at his apartment.” Hadley’s here, feeling beyond low, and Dash is extremely drunk. Not a good mix.

Hadley cautiously asks, “Did you guys have fun?”

Sitting up, I say, “Hang on. You were with Kat tonight. When?”

“After she surprised you at the club. Liberty and I were taking her out for drinks afterward, but...”

“How is she? She won’t answer my calls or texts. I’ve left messages…”

“Kat is upset. She wouldn’t go out with us. I was going to stay with her, but she told me to be with you.” That surprises me.

“Why?”

Hadley sheepishly smiles. “She wouldn’t say. Let her sleep on it. She’ll feel better.”

“Where is she? Her apartment? Her mom’s house?”

She moves closer to my bed. “Jared, leave her alone tonight. I’m sure she got your messages. Liberty’s with her.”

“Fuck.” Heaving a sigh and shoving my hand into the front of my hair, I ask, “Am I totally idiotic about this? Her brothers even believe me! They know I wasn’t drunk off my ass! Hell, I sent most of my shots to Pete! They also realized I wouldn’t have kissed some stripper!”

She sits down at the end of my bed. “Please say you’re telling the truth, Jared. Don’t be that prick who cheats on his girlfriend, especially over something stupid or because of a misunderstanding.”

I stare at her in silence for a few seconds. “I’m not. I swear. I realized it was her. I’m not…” I shake my head and sincerely as possible say, “Christ, Hadley. I wouldn’t cheat on Kat because I can’t commit to her or because I have deeper issues that have nothing to do with her. I wouldn’t run from this or try to solve my problems with a random fuck, either. I’d fight for her until it killed me, so I’m not that much of a prick.”

Hadley shakily sighs, looking down to the worn bedspread. When she doesn’t look up for some time, I touch her arm. “Hadley.”

She lifts her head and asks, “Did Dad talk to you?”

“About?”

“His… date?”

“Yeah. My mind has been fucked so much today. I don’t know what to think about him keeping her a secret for so long.”

“I just hope she’s good for him.”

“He seems to be happier than he used to be. I just didn’t attribute it to a person.”

“Neither did I. I wonder what she’s like.”

“Or hope who she isn’t like.”

Hadley says, “I barely remember her anymore. I don’t want to see Dad get hurt, but if he’s happy…”

“He says he is.” I sigh. “Quit changing the subject.”

“Stop pulling me into that subject.” She looks away from me again. “Jared, don’t ever make Kat feel like she’s not good enough for you. If you do, I’ll kick you in the balls with high heels.”

“She’s more than good enough for me. I don’t even want to imagine my life without her in it anymore.”

Hadley’s eyes gloss over as she wraps her arms around herself. “Good.” She looks back to the bedspread, and we’re quiet again.

After a minute, I scratch my jaw and tentatively say, “I’m sorry. I never said that.”

She shrugs and runs her fingers through her long hair. “No need to apologize.”

“Someone has to. You’re like a damn robot...”

Holy fuck.

She blandly replies, “Maybe because I’m still recovering from the hospital food.”

“I’m not joking, Hadley. What you just went through is fucking—”

“I can’t go there. Please. I can’t.”

“From my experience, it helps to talk to someone about what you’re feeling, fucked-up as that sounds, coming from me.”

She shifts her gaze to the wall. “Not now.”

“Ever?”

“I don’t know. Just…” She sighs and looks at me. “Just grab onto Kat and never let go. Love her with all your heart. Anything less is deplorable. Cherish her, Jared. She’s an extension of yourself. Treat her as such. When you’re on a family vacation in fifteen years, hold her hand as you look at the children you made together, even if she has scars from giving birth to them. Love her if she gains weight. Love her if she has gray hairs or wrinkles she’s trying to hide. Love her even more because she’s not perfect. But because she’s yours.”

Tears fall down Hadley’s cheeks, and I crawl over the bed to her. She brokenly says, “Don’t you dare let anything come between you. Nothing. Not your fears, your family, friends, enemies, job, or…” Covering her mouth with her purple-nailed hands, she dissolves into sobs. Reaching for her, I pull her to me, hugging her tighter than I ever have.

She clutches my shirt as she cries into it, and I whisper, “I’m here for you, Hadley. I’ll never let this happen to you again. I promise.”

“I don’t need a bodyguard. Just worry about Kat. She’ll be your… wife.” Her voice catches, and I swallow the choking tightness.

As evenly as possible, I say, “I can watch both of you. She would kick me in the balls with high heels if I didn’t look after you. Kat loves you… And so do I, Hadley.”

I feel her smile against my chest. “You sunk my battleship.”

I smile over the top of her head. “I’ll sink all those motherfuckers.”

She tearfully scolds, “Watch your mouth, little brother.”

Hearing a small laugh, I say, “Not a fucking chance, big sis.”

Little does she know, I’ll be the one who does the ball-kicking in steel-toed boots.

“How are you holding up?” Dad asks, straightening his purple tie as I lean onto the gazebo railing in the corner, trying to get two seconds away from people in my face.

“Not good. I either want to puke or puke.”

He smacks my arm. “Shake it off. Man up. You’re about to get married.”

“Oh, God,” I groan, clutching my stomach, seeing his smile growing wider.

“Like father, like son. It isn’t even funny.”

“If you ever get married again, I’ll enjoy watching you suffer.”

He shrugs and whispers, “My balls are bigger. Don’t be a pussy.”

“What the hell is up with you, Adam Franklin?”

Shrugging again, he offhandedly asks, “How come you’re wearing a tie instead of a bowtie?”

“Because bow ties are for pussies.” From the other side of the gazebo, Tony and Pete wave at me, and I stiffly nod in return, afraid if I move too fast, I’ll hurl.

Dad laughs and grabs my shoulder. “Get a grip. Marry the woman you love. Make me prouder than I already am of you.”

“Jesus, Dad. Shut up.” I peer around the gazebo, noticing my sister wearing her light purple bridesmaid dress. She’s hugging someone while standing with a small group of people, two of whom are Rio and Liberty. Rio and I ate breakfast together this morning, and we didn’t say a word. It was calming and says a lot about our friendship.

Dad says, “Thanks for letting me drive your car here. I’ll take good care of it while you’re gone. I need to get one of those.”

I frown. “Not.”

“I bet people would think I’m cooler than you.”

I scoff, “Like I give a shit what anyone thinks of me.” Just one person.

Someone says his name, and we both look. He waves over a blonde woman with a side braid and kisses her on the cheek. Turning to me, he says, “Nora, this is my son, Jared.”

She smiles, and it lights up her face. “You’re very handsome. The pictures I’ve seen of you don’t do you justice.”

I put my hand out. “I like you already.”

Taking my hand, Nora says, “It’s so nice to meet you. Your dad talks about you both all the time. I’ve wanted to meet you, but…”

Dad says, “My fault.”

I glance at him. More similarities. Christ.

Nora lets go of my hand and says, “You and your sister look so much alike.”

“That’s what I hear.”

“Hadley is sweet. I met her a little while ago.”

I say, “She can be tough when she needs to be.” She even surprised me.

Nora nods, peering at my dad, as he nods with her. “I’ve heard. She was downright kickass.”

I laugh. “I really like you.”

Dad says, “Hey, now. Find your own woman. I’m sure there’s one around here who’ll flirt with you.”

I scratch the back of my neck, peering around the gazebo as if Kat is mingling with the guests.

Dad grasps my shoulder. “She’s coming. Don’t worry.”

Nora says, “I saw her earlier. I remember when she was in first grade. Kat is breathtaking.” I know.

I urgently ask, “She’s here?”

She laughs as I again search the immediate area. “I think so. She’s certainly dressed for it.”

Howie walks up the stairs and comes over to me. “Hey there, Jared.” He shakes my hand, giving me a steady look as he laughs. “Nervous?”

“Uh…” I cover my fisted hand with the other and feel like I suddenly have a tic in every muscle of my body.

Dad laughs. “Immensely.” He clutches my shoulder again and asks, “You okay, bud?”

“No. Yeah. I don’t know.” I grip the railing, feeling like nothing I ever have before.

Howie says, “I can go home if you don’t want to do this…”

I whip my head to him, immediately determined. “No way.”

“Good. Then I think we’re ready to start.”

“She’s here?”

Howie nods over his shoulder. “I just saw a white limo pull up. I’m assuming Kat was in there. Why? You want them to leave?” They all laugh, but I don’t feel like joining as I crane my neck to catch a glimpse of her, but I can’t see through people. Instead, I restlessly shift on my feet and go to tug on my hat that isn’t there.

Nora says, “Don’t do that. You’ll mess up your hair, sweetie.” She reaches up to readjust what I did to my hair and then tugs at my light purple vest beneath my jacket, straightening it. She smiles at me. “You look great. Just calm down.”

I nod at her and return her smile, even if mine is slight. Looking outside the flowered gazebo, I see the patch of grass where Kat and I had our picnic. I see the benches that she danced on, pretending she was someone from that annoying movie and telling me this is where she wants to get married. Then, I see where I proposed to her, nearly losing her seconds later.

I take a deep breath, and Howie says, “Why don’t you take your place, and I’ll get everyone seated? You’ll see Kat with her father at the footbridge. Okay?”

I again nod because the motor skill for speech is gone, and I’m not sure if it’ll ever return.

Dash grabs my arm. “You ready to do this, Jericho?”

I use my nodding skill while Howie tells everyone to take their seats on the benches along the gazebo’s walls. Looking at the faces of people, most of them are a blur. I don’t even remember who all was on the guest list. Most of them are Kat’s family since half of mine don’t associate with us.

Dad says, “Dashiell, come on. We have to escort the ladies.”

With a sudden, blinding grin, Dash yips, “Oh! Yeah. Good luck!” There’s no doubt he’s excited to take this walk with Hadley. Though this is the only aisle he’ll ever walk with her. He hugs me, and I woodenly hug him back. I thought Dash’s desperate need to be loved was the polar opposite of me. I suppose he’s another one with whom I share surprising similarities. Fuck. Me.

I mumble, “Thanks.”

Catching my grandmother’s eye, she winks at me, which makes me smile before deeper panic spreads throughout my body. As everyone stares at me, I’m suddenly twitchier.

When the music starts, my breathing stops. Everyone swings their heads away from me. Following their gazes at the footbridge, two people step out from behind the side bushes and link arms before crossing the bridge together. Rio and Liberty. They’re both grinning, almost as if it’s their wedding day. I have to admit that they look happy.

He escorts her up the stairs to meet me in the middle of the gazebo, and they flank Howie and me on both sides.

I then look to see Dash offering his arm to Hadley. Practically laughing with joy as they link arms, they cross over, and he whispers in my sister’s ear, making her smile. When they go up the stairs, Dash grabs his side of Hadley’s dress, lifting it enough, so she doesn’t fall. His looking out for her forces me to smile.

Hadley reaches for my hand, squeezing me. I return the squeeze, and then she stands next to Liberty. Dash takes his place between Rio and me, leaving space for Dad.

Leaning over, Dash whispers, “Start your engine, Jericho.”

At first, I scowl but then break into a smile, seeing his eagerness. I’m getting married. Fucking unbelievable. In a good way.

Looking at the bridge, Brenda takes Dad’s arm, and they head for the gazebo. When they reach us, Dad steps in between Dash and me.

Massaging my shoulder, he asks, “You ready to become a husband?”

The anxiety hitting maximum capacity, I stiffly nod as I grip my hands together.

Dad says, “I lost the rings. Sorry.”

I instantly look at him. “What?”

He laughs. “Just seeing if you’re alive. Relax. Remember this moment and enjoy the day.”

The music changes and Howie asks everyone to stand.

My breathing returns, but I’m practically panting as my heart hammers in my chest. At the far end of the footbridge, Clayton steps into view, holding out his arm for Kat, who looks like nothing I could’ve imagined. She takes his arm, and they walk onto the bridge.

Even from here, I’m knocked breathless at the sight of her. She left her hair down, and her veil floats behind her like a cloud.

Vaguely, I notice my groomsmen’s comments, but all I can focus on is her.

When they climb the steps, I want to help her, but I know her dad is there to do that, and I let him since he’ll be giving me her hand.

Kat doesn’t look up at me until they reach the top of the stairs, and when she does, nobody else on Earth exists.

Clutching my shoulder, Dad whispers, “She’s beautiful. Breathe, Jared.”

As she walks closer, my eyes blur, and I whisper, “Oh, my God.”

Brenda mumbles a tearful, “Oh, Jared.”

I notice my wet cheeks, and I rub my hand over them, but I don’t take my eyes off her. The dress she’s wearing doesn’t have straps and is lacy with light purple lace woven into the white. Purple is her favorite color. It may as well be mine, too.

When Howie asks who gives her away, Clayton answers and puts Kat’s hand into mine, and we grasp onto each other tight as she moves to stand beside me.

I quickly smile at Clayton, who wipes his eyes and smiles back at me.

As Howie begins talking, I see Kat swiftly blinking away her tears, most likely coached not to touch her face. I wouldn’t care if she ruined her makeup. She did last night, and I still thought she was stunning.

When we finally look into each other’s eyes, she mouths, “You’re handsome.”

I mouth back, “You’re gorgeous.” Hearing sniffing behind her, I glance over to see all three of her bridesmaids dabbing at their cheeks.

Howie says, “I won’t make this ceremony long because Kat and Jared have waited over a decade to get to this place. Also, during my talks with them, I took notes and inserted some of them into the ceremony to make it more their own.”

Brenda mumbles, “Dear God. I won’t make it through this.”

Howie starts, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God, and in the presence of these witnesses, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is an honorable estate instituted of God. It is, therefore, not to be entered into unadvisedly, but reverently, discreetly, and in the fear of God. Into this holy estate, these two persons come now to be joined.”

Hearing those words and staring into each other’s teary eyes, every ounce of my anxiety melts. I’m right where I need to be. I finally got it right.

Howie asks, “Jared Adam Beckett, do you come before this gathering to proclaim your love and devotion for Katriona Elyse Merrick? Do you promise to affirm her, respect her, and care for her during times of joy and hardship? Do you commit yourself to share your feelings of happiness and sadness? Do you pledge to remain faithful to her?”

I look from Howie to Kat. “I do.”

He asks her the same, and with a smile, Kat answers, “I do.”

“Having freely and prayerfully chosen each other as partners for life, and in an expression of your total commitment to one another, I invite you to face each other and join both hands.”

Kat turns, giving her bouquet to her crying mother before turning back to me, taking my other hand. I repeat after Howie, “I, Jared, take you, Katriona Elyse Merrick, to be my wife from this day forward, to join with you and share all that is to come, both in times of light and times of darkness and to be the mother of my children. I promise to be faithful and vow to love you with all my heart and soul, till death shall part us.”

Kat repeats, “I, Katriona, take you, Jared Adam Beckett, to be my husband from this day forward, to join with you and share all that is to come, both in times of light and times of darkness and to be the father of my children. I promise to be faithful and vow to love you with all my heart and soul, till death shall part us.” Kat’s eyes well up again, making mine do the same.

Howie smiles. “The rings, please, Adam.” Dad hands them over, making a small clinking sound, and Howie says a blessing over them. Before handing me Kat’s ring, he says, “I understand Kat picked out these rings, and you’ve not seen them, but they hold a special meaning.” Taking Kat’s ring from him, I look at the gold band with a thinner band of silver running through it, which to me, resembles a road, and I smile.

Howie instructs, “Put the ring on her finger and repeat after me.”

Sliding it onto her bare ring finger, I say, “Katriona, take this ring as a symbol of our love and my faithfulness. This band symbolizes the road we’ve traveled and is one that will never end, as will never my love for you. Be it forever a reminder that we share something beautiful with our love, and how I chose you above all others. With it, I marry you, and give you my body, heart, and soul.”

Brenda quietly moans, “Sweet Jesus.”

From behind me, I hear all three of my groomsmen sniveling, which makes my eyes wetter.

Taking my ring from Howie, Kat puts it on my finger and repeats, “Jared, take this ring as a symbol of our love and my faithfulness. This band symbolizes the road we’ve traveled and is one that will never end, as will never my love for you. Be it forever a reminder that we share something beautiful with our love, and how I chose you above all others. With it, I marry you, and give you my body, heart, and soul.”

We look up from my hand at the same time and proudly grin at what we just did.

“Now that Katriona and Jared have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of rings, by the authority vested in me by the State of Maryland, I now pronounce them husband and wife. What God has joined, let no one put asunder.” Howie holds his hands out, grinning. “Jared, you may now kiss your bride!”

Without hesitation, I put my hands on her cheeks, wiping her tears with my thumbs. I lean down, skimming my lips over hers.

Kat says, “Like this.” Grabbing onto my wrists, she pauses. “I love you, Jared.”

My nose brushes over hers. “I love you, Kit Kat.”

When she pulls me to her, we eagerly kiss, and Howie cheerfully shouts, “I’m proud to introduce, Mr. and Mrs. Jared Beckett!”

Clapping and shouting from our wedding party and guests fills the gazebo. When we end our kiss, Howie congratulates us while Dad grabs me, squeezing the life out of me.

The music starts, and the three couples exit the opposite way they came into the gazebo, with Kat and me leaving last. When we reach the bottom of the stairs, I turn, picking her up to spin her around. With her veil sailing on the wind, Kat squeals, “Jared!”

Slowing to a stop, Kat leans down, her veil hovering above my face, and I whisper, “You’re finally my wife.”

“You’re finally my husband. I thought you didn’t want a label?”

“Baby, I own that one.”

Even though I hear people oohing and awing, as well as hearing camera clicks, I set her down and kiss her. However, our wedding party has other ideas.

Dash practically jumps between us. “Jericho and Merrick! You’re married!”

“You did it, Jare!”

Liberty shrieks, “Jared and Kat, congratulations!”

“Katydid and Jared! Oh, my God! I’m crying again!”

I notice Hadley standing off to the side, but I’m already being pulled in five different directions.

When the photographer has Kat and me stand on the bridge in different poses, it’s the kissing one that has Brenda weeping.

After we’ve taken all the pictures we want at the gazebo, we pile into the limo for the walking-distance drive to the reception since the limo is paid for, and the girls are wearing heels.

Kat puts her hand on my leg, trailing her fingernails over me, and I impulsively turn to kiss her.

Brenda says, “You two need to find a closet. Or we can have Clyde drive around while you consummate your marriage in here.”

Kat breaks our kiss. “Jeez, Mom. Thanks.”

She shrugs. “You know it sounds like a good suggestion. Right, Jared?” Fuck yeah, it does.

I nod and jerk my thumb to the door. “So, if everyone could hurry up and get out…”

Kat shrieks, “Jared!”

“What? I’m joking!”

From next to me, Rio says, “No, you’re not.”

I laugh. “You’re damn right, I’m not. Out.”

Kat pulls on my arm. “We’re not consummating our marriage in the back of this limo.”

Brenda says, “Poor Jared. Come on, Katydid. He has that look in his eye already.” Brenda asks me, “Isn’t your wife a hot piece of ass?”

Dad shakes his head, saying, “Wow.”

“Damn, Mother.”

Turning to Kat, I say, “Yes, she is.”

Brenda says, “Look at your husband! He needs you to rip down those rented pants and perform your wifely duties in this car!”

Kat asks, “Is there something to gag her with? My veil, maybe?”

Brenda winks at Kat. “Kinky.”

I ask Kat, “Could we get to the part where you’re taking off my pants?”

Brenda says to the driver, “Hey, Clyde, the bride and groom are desperately horny. Could you please drive them around until they’re spent? We need to make them official.”

“Mother!” I laugh, as do my groomsmen, even my dad. Kat insists, “We are official!”

Clyde says, “Sure thing! Just lower the window when you’re done.”

Kat bows her head. “Oh, my God. I can’t do that in here while we’re being waited on to finish!”

I smirk. “I have no problem with that.”

Kat mutters, “Or shame.”

“Yeah. None of that, either.”

Glancing over at my sister, who has been quiet with Dash sitting next to her, I watch her gazing out the window. Nodding at my dad, he looks at her and frowns.

The limo makes our stop, and Brenda says, “Go ahead, you two. No need to make it super-fast, but you still have pictures on the patio here to do before it rains, so watch the hair and makeup.”

Leaning onto Kat, I slide my hand up her ribs and whisper, “I want to fuck my hot wife right now.”

She lightly pants but whispers, “Not in here.” I didn’t expect her to cave.

Everyone exits before us, and when it’s our turn to make our appearance to the small crowd, I help her climb out, saying, “As soon as we get to the hotel.”

“Hotel?”

“I got us a room, baby. No one even knows where we’ll be, except for the limo driver.”

Her brown eyes light up. “Can we go there now?”

“Absolutely.” That was easy.

She frowns, glancing at the people gathered on the patio. “Let’s get this night over with.”

Following more pictures outside, especially the one inside a trellis together that makes Brenda bawl, we head inside to where we’re instantly announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr. and Mrs. Jared Beckett!”

The room erupts into applause, and we’re accosted by guests while the caterers set up dinner. For most of our rounds, Kat and I are separated, visiting people. We’re not reunited until dinner is served, and we’re seated at the long table at the end of the room. Even then, people continuously approach to take our picture or ask us questions. It’s fucking annoying.

Off to the side, I notice a picture of Kat’s grandmother on a small table with a candle burning next to it. That’s nice. She’d be proud of her granddaughter’s perseverance, as I am.

My dad is given the microphone, and he says, “As the best man, I want to say a few words about the groom, my son Jared. We’ve had our ups and downs, but I’ve never been prouder of him than I am today. Jared and Kat met in high school and became friends. Now that I look back, I see Jared had fallen in love. They parted ways when he graduated, not speaking until they met up recently by chance. They rediscovered each other and I, as well as a few others, were witnesses to that. It was beautiful magic. They desperately tried to hide it, but it was obvious. I’m glad they’ll never have to hide their love again. It’s truly something incredible.” He picks up his champagne glass. “Join me in toasting Jared and Kat on their marriage, and for a lifetime of happiness. To Jared and Kat.”

I stand to hug him. “Damn it. I love you, Dad.”

Dad chuckles, but I hear his tears. “I love you, too, bud. Congratulations.” He then walks behind me to kiss Kat on the cheek and hug her.

When dinner is over, the caterers work on cleaning up so we can have the dance floor. Brenda helps Kat take off her veil and do other shit. Afterward, we’re again kept apart by people who want our attention. We occasionally catch glimpses of each other, but I’m growing tired of the endless schmoozing and answering the same questions with a fake smile.

Lange sees me as I’m walking out of the restroom. I stop, and he offers his hand. Taking it, I say, “I’m not used to seeing you looking decent.”

“These weddings.” He laughs as he side-nods. “Congratulations, groom! Marrying the boss’s sister.” His laughter is contagious, and I again laugh.

I shove my hands into my pockets, still smiling. “He’s not my boss.”

“That’s right. Now she is.”

I roll my eyes. “Right.” That’s probably true. She does lead me around by my dick.

“I knew she liked you.”

“You did not.” I narrow my eyes, eager to know how the hell he knew when I didn’t.

“When she poisoned your coffee? Yep. That was love.” Jesus.

“I don’t want to know what she would’ve done if she hated me.”

He shrugs. “She wouldn’t have brought you coffee.”

I laugh. “I guess not.”

“It’s the little things, my friend. Keep your eyes peeled so you don’t miss them.” Laughing, he grabs my shoulder as he passes me. Words to live by, I suppose.

Seeing my sister talking to someone who isn’t Dash, I head over to her, feeling like I just finished my karaoke performance, trying not to get stopped by anyone.

Putting my arm around her, she looks up and smiles. “Hey, married man.”

“Hey.”

Hadley grabs onto the guy she’s talking to and says, “Jared, this is my friend Greg Rodwell. Dad invited him here without me knowing. Greg works with me. Everyone calls him Rod, though. Rod, this is my brother Jared, the groom.” Finn Wilder’s arch-nemesis. Extremely interesting.

Laughing, he says, “I guessed that, Hadders.” Offering his hand, he smiles. “Congratulations, Jared.”

Shaking his hand, I notice his Snoopy tie. “Thanks. So it’s Rod?”

He rolls his eyes. “Yeah. Everyone does call me that. Even the deaf and blind butcher who lives near me.”

Hadley giggles. “What the hell?”

Rod shrugs. “He retired after his last incident.”

I hesitantly ask, “Lose a finger?”

“No. When a lady asked to see his sausage, well, he showed her.” Hadley smacks his arm, and he laughs. “True story! He’s out on bail but enjoying retirement.”

Hadley tells me, “I told you Rod is crazy.”

Turning to Hadley, he asks, “You said that about me? Now I have to defend myself!”

I say, “You’re not the one who needs an explanation.”

Hadley glares at me, but Rod says, “Yeah. I’m looking for one, too.” Before Hadley can argue, Liberty steals her attention.

Nodding toward my sister, I say to Rod, “She looks like a fucking zombie.”

“I know. She makes Skeletor look like The Pillsbury Doughboy.”

“You think she’s refusing to eat? Throwing it up?”

“Since she’s still off work, I go to her apartment to eat lunch with her every day. She eats a yogurt. I offer her more food, but she won’t eat it.” Rod runs a hand through his dark, wavy hair and glances at my sister, who’s still talking to Liberty. “She’s wasting away, but apparently, he doesn’t give a shit.”

“I blame him for every goddamned thing. She won’t tell me where he is.”

“Wilder’s in Baltimore.”

I clamp my teeth together. “He’s not even far from here?”

“Yep. Some huge gig he couldn’t pass up.”

“He couldn’t give that up, but he risked my sister?”

“Guess not.”

I glare at my sister’s back. “I knew he’d screw her over.”

Rod says, “Don’t even get me started on that shit.”

“Yeah. That’s dangerous territory for me.” I shake my head and look at Hadley again. “I don’t like her being alone.”

“I’m with her. I’ve been sleeping on her couch.” He shrugs. “In case she needs anything.”

“I’ll be there after we get back from our honeymoon. You won’t have to watch her.”

“I want to. She’s my best friend.” And Finn Wilder hated that shit.

“Looks like Finn and I will have another chat soon.”

“Good luck. He’s denser than a lead coffin. I talked to him a few weeks ago. I thought he listened to me. That ass clown fed me a bunch of shit.”

“He needs a swift kick in the balls.”

“Fuck. Pick a number.”

The DJ announces it’s time to cut the cake, so I leave them to be with my new bride for a few minutes, but as usual, we’re inundated with pictures and attention. We’re urged to smash the cake into each other’s face, but the most I do is smear icing on her nose and lips before kissing her.

Soon after, we’re told it’s time for our first dance. Taking her hand, we dance to the song we chose as ours.

She smiles and says, “Hi, husband.”

“Hi, wife.”

Kat’s lower lip quivers. “I’m sorry about last night.”

I sigh and hold her closer. “Baby, I swear to God. I knew it was you. You can trust me, Kit Kat. I would never cheat on you. Drunk or sober.”

She sucks on her bottom lip before replying, “I know that. It was just… jitters. I was panicking, afraid you changed your mind and wanted to stay single.”

“Really? How’d that work out? I just vowed to you my body, heart, and soul. I’m yours. Only yours.”

“I’m yours.” She tips my head, resting our foreheads together. “This song is so us.”

I laugh. “In case you missed it when this song played in my car, I was trying to find a way to tell you I was in love with you. But I couldn’t admit it out loud. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure that’s what it was. Turns out, it was. If you only had listened to the lyrics. Damn mouse song.”

Her brown eyes glow as she giggles. “I really want to make out with you. But everyone is watching.”

“They’re looking at how fucking gorgeous you are. I wasn’t kidding in the limo. And this’s all nice, but I’m done with the pictures, the talking to people, and plastering so many smiles on my damn face.”

“We’ll be alone soon, but we might be too tired.”

“Is that a joke?”

Dash yells, “Stop talking and kiss your wife already, Jericho!”

I peer over at him and smirk before I kiss Kat. Among the shouting, I feel her humming in my mouth.

When the song ends, we have to dance other bullshit dances, but I do pull my grandmother onto the dance floor for the mother/son dance, to her surprise. She rolls her teary eyes and says, “You’re in my will already. Knock it off.”

“Just securing my spot.”

We then had to do the bouquet and garter thing, which was intrusive, lifting her dress in front of everyone. I yanked the thing off, tossed it, and was done with it. Not sexy at all.

Sometime later, when people fill the small dance floor, I grab a glass of champagne and watch my sister dancing with Rod to some song about riding a train. She looks very uninhibited, most likely drunk.

My jaw unhinges when she dances super-close to him while whipping her hair and arm into the air, making the choo-choo sound to the song. Jesus Christ. I want to bludgeon whoever requested this stupid-ass song.

With her back to him, they swivel their hips together to the cheers of the crowd gathering around them. She must have taken some pain medicine, but she’s also been drinking.

This isn’t the Hadley Beckett I ever thought existed. My sister is quiet and shy. Does cocky Finn even know this side of Hadley? Has he seen her dance like this with Rod?

With the way they’re grinding against each other, no wonder Finn was raging with jealousy.

Holy damn shit…

Maybe I don’t know everything. Is Hadley having a fling with Rod when I was blaming Finn for cheating on her? Does he know and…?

Oh, fuck…

Suddenly striking me who else may have an issue with this, I swing my gaze around the room, spotting Dash sitting at a table, watching her.

A slow song plays, and Hadley and Rod dance while Dash goes to the bar for another drink. I follow him.

As he swigs a beer, I put my hand on his shoulder. “What’s up, Calder?”

“Just having a good time,” he lamely answers before taking another drink.

He forlornly looks over at my sister, not even trying to hide it from me. I sigh. “They’re just friends.”

Dash shrugs. “Not that it matters.”

I cross my arms and watch him watching her. “Jesus, Calder.” Knowing the answer, I still ask, “Do you have real feelings for her? Or are you just trying to get on my nerves?”

Oddly quiet, he continues to stare at Hadley, not giving me an answer, but giving me one all the same. Fuck. Even though I want to keep them apart, there is a part of me that doesn’t want to deny my best friend of happiness. But I just can’t see him finding it with her. One of them will destroy the other in the end. And I’m caught in the goddamn middle.

The song ends, and Liberty carries over a tray of small, colorful cups, giggling. The DJ announces it’s time for the dollar dance.

“A what?”

Dash says, “People pay a dollar, take a Jell-O shot, and dance with you. You use the money for your honeymoon.”

I glare at Liberty, waving me over to the middle of the dance floor. “This was her idea, wasn’t it? Jesus Christ. When is this shit over?”

“You just married your soulmate, Jericho. Be grateful you’re sharing this shit with her. Seriously. Just go with it. It could be worse. You could be wondering whatever happened to Kat Merrick, missing her and in love with her from afar while she’s giving birth to her second child by another man.”

I roll my eyes. “I hate you, Calder.”

He slightly laughs but is morose again. “I’m glad you finally get it.” I also get that he’s practically living the life he just described. Poor bastard.

Before I say more, I’m summoned to the dance floor, and I unwillingly go since I know someone will drag me there, anyway. As I dance with a line of women while Kat dances with an endless line of men, we make efforts to catch each other’s gaze, and from the looks she’s giving me, she wants this to be over with, too.

My sister is my first customer. She instantly wraps her arms around me, pressing her cheek to my chest. I ask, “What the hell was that earlier?”

“What?”

“The Soul Train audition?”

When she doesn’t look at me, I tilt her chin and see the tears. “Hadley, why’re you crying?”

“I’m just so happy for you.”

“I know there’s more to it.”

“I’m not calling you on your honeymoon. Have fun with your wife.” She smiles slightly. “That’s weird to say.”

“I know, but I love it.”

Tears fill her eyes. “You should. Some men don’t want one.”

“Hadley.”

“Spend time with Kat. Love her with all your heart, Jared. Please.”

“I will.” I pull Hadley in for another hug, kissing her on the cheek. She pushes away from me, hurriedly leaving the dance floor.

Holy hell. Hadley’s spiraling. Is it because of Finn, or is it because she has a guilty conscience?

Shell squeals into my arms, hugging me. “Congratulations, Jared! Your wife is quite the student.”

I laugh. “Yeah. She is.”

“We had fun. Kat is a darling. She’s also a beauty and very flexible.”

“Stay away from my wife, Shell,” I partially joke.

She shakes the same bright blonde hair Calder has. They probably share the same brand of hairspray, too. “Oh, now. I’m not leaving you out. Kat is a very fortunate woman.”

“I’m pretty lucky myself.”

“Seriously. Have a happy life with her. You’ll make beautiful babies together.”

“Only because of her.”

Before ending our dance, she smiles and pinches my ass. “You have plenty to contribute.”

Laughing, I’m nearly knocked on my ass when Clayton is next in line. Instead of dancing with me, he drops a wadded bill into the bowl, skips the shot, and offers his hand to me. Shaking it, he says, “Take care of my baby girl.”

“I promise.”

Clayton steps aside, and Liberty puts a dollar into the bowl, takes a shot, and throws her arms around me. “You’re married!”

“I might have missed that memo.” I put a hand on her lower back while shoving my other hand into my pocket, feeling awkward with her this close to me. Although we’ve declared somewhat of a truce, I still could stab her in the throat with a fork.

“I’m so happy for you two! Kat and Jerry together forever. And I’m glad you’re going to be River’s best man. That makes him happy.”

“I wouldn’t let him down.”

“I’m in on your little secret. You’re a nicer guy than even you thought.”

I scoff, “Wrong, Libby.”

“We did work well together. You’re welcome, Jared.” Liberty nods behind me. “Is Hadley okay?”

I notice Hadley standing in a corner, covering her face. “Shit. Not really.”

“I know she’s still mad at Finn.”

“That’s a gross understatement.”

“He’s such a—”

“I can’t even go there. I’m already debating on visiting him tonight.”

“You can’t do that! It’s your wedding night!” Liberty steps back. “I’ll check on her. You have more dancing. Congratulations, Jared. Make Kat happy, or I’ll kick your ass.” Jesus. She kisses my cheek and leaves me for Nora.

“Congratulations, sweetie!”

“Thanks.”

She laughs. “You can’t wait to leave, can you?”

“Yesterday.”

“It’s been a fun night, though.”

“You might be doing all this some time. I mean, if you do marry my dad.”

She smiles. “He hasn’t asked, but maybe.”

“I’ll move his ass into gear.”

Nora laughs. “You do that. I’ll owe you.”

“You make him smile. That’s payment enough.”

She hugs me and allows the next woman to attack my personal space. Brenda.

“My God, Jared. Your wedding was perfect. The way you looked at Kat when you first saw her. Those vows. The pictures. Your father’s speech. Your first dance. Jesus. I’ve never cried so much in my life.” She smiles up at me, wiping more tears. “You really do love her. We all see that.”

“I do,” I say with a smirk.

“I bet you can’t wait to get out of here.”

“Yep. I’m tired.” I smirk and look away, suddenly feeling awkward with my mother-in-law. Holy hell.

“That’s a load of shit. You’ll perk up once you get your wife all to yourself.” I grin but don’t add any more fuel to her fire. “Where’re you staying tonight?”

I shake my head as my smile grows. “That’s our little secret.”

She pouts, “You two and your secrets. I need to know so I can pick up the tux and dress before you leave for the airport in the morning.”

“We’ll text you where we are in the morning.”

She sighs. “Okay. You take care of my Katydid. I don’t mean just in bed, either.”

I scowl at her. “I will.”

Brenda smiles. “You’re a good boy, Jared Beckett.”

I laugh. “Not that good.”

“And I’ve seen the satisfied look on my daughter’s face, so I’ll beg to differ.”

Leaving me gaping at her, Brenda steps aside, allowing me to be accosted by my three groomsmen. Everything About You starts, and they grab me into a damn group hug. They then push and pull on me, mouthing the words until I start singing about hating them. Even Dad and Duquesne are into it. The song is even more fitting now.

When the song is over, the three of them shout, “We love you, Jared!” I roll my eyes, and they force me into another group hug.

After that, the DJ plays Mercedes Boy. Kat and her three dance to it. The best part is when it’s over, and the DJ announces for Kat and me to take the dance floor for the last two songs of the night.

The lights dim again as take Kat’s hand, leading her to the middle of the floor. Her arms go around my neck, and I pull her close to me. We rub our noses together until, like magnets, our lips meet.

The DJ announces he has a song for us at the bride’s request. I make a face, hearing Cat and Mouse by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. “How nice, Kit Kat. It’s kind of a breakup song.”

“It’s a song about people being apart. We wrote the book on that subject.”

“We’re together now.”

“Forever.”

“How’d we get so fucking cheesy?”

“You are a mouse, right?”

“So funny. You and Libby are running away with Dash’s Tom and Jerry remark. That deserves another demerit, don’t you think?”

She giggles and traces her fingers along my jaw. “Oh, definitely.”

The last song, an oldie, ends the night, and we kiss for a good part of it.

The DJ congratulates us. Guests, once more, split us up, wanting our attention before they leave. Dad and Brenda do their best to keep them from overwhelming us too much by having the limo pull up out front. She informs us that our luggage is already loaded.

Before we leave, I look around for my sister but don’t see her. “Dad, where’s Hadley?”

“I haven’t seen her.”

Peering around the room again, I frown, seeing Rod looking around, too. “Oh, no.”

Dad looks at me. “What?”

“Where’s Dash?”

Rod comes over and asks, “Have either of you seen Hadley? She was with me, but then went to the restroom. When she took longer than my grandfather does after Thanksgiving dinner, I had Liberty check for her, but she wasn’t in there.”

Dad rubs his forehead. “Damn it. Maybe they’re sitting on a bench outside. I’ll find them. Just go on your honeymoon.”

Rod says, “I’ll check outside. I guess I’ll catch you in Richmond?”

I nod. “I’ll be there.”

“Ok. Congratulations, and don’t break the bed. That would suck.”

Shaking my head as Rod leaves, I tell Dad, “Call me when you find them.”

“I’ll take care of it. Shut up and go get laid.”

I laugh. “What the hell, Dad?”

He shrugs. “You’re not consummating your marriage tonight?”

“Jesus. You’ve been hanging around Brenda way too much.”

Dad grins. “She’s not my mother-in-law.”

“Holy fuck.”

Rio grabs me for a quick hug. “Call me when you get back.”

“I will. Thanks for everything.”

He grins, knowing I’m saying more. “Absolutely.”

“And remember, Duquesne, paybacks are a bitch.”

He sighs. “Shit. I know.” He bumps my fist. “See you, Jare.”

Arms go around my waist, and I look down to see a wedding ring that matches mine. “You ready, Sonic?”

Without answering her, I pick up her hand and lead her out of the hall. We step out into the rain, hurrying, but not because of the water.

Once we’re in the limo, and I give Clyde the address to our hotel, I put up the partition and cross back over to the other seat. Kat giggles. “I’m not having sex in this limo.”

I push my hand into the top of her dress, grabbing onto her tit as I kiss her neck. “No bra. Goddamn. Did I tell you how fucking beautiful you are?”

“Not in those words.”

“You are. And you’re all mine.”

As I stroke her nipple, she says, “Jared, stop. We’ll be there soon.”

“I’m just checking out my wife.”

Her hand slides up my thigh, over to my crotch, and we both moan as her hand meets my erection. She says, “I can’t wait to try out my husband.”

“I fucking love that.”

She whispers, “Did I tell you how fucking hot you are?”

“No. I think you need to tell me over and over.”

Noticing that we’re getting close to the hotel, I reluctantly sit up and fix her dress. Kat moves her hand away from me, but I grab it, winding our fingers together. We both look at her rings, now both of hers on her left ring finger. I say, “I love the ring you picked out.”

“See? I can do meaningful, too.”

The limo pulls into the hotel’s lot. Clyde unloads our luggage while we check-in at the main desk, receiving looks and congratulations on our way.

As we wheel our luggage to the elevator, Kat grabs my hand and says, “I still don’t know where we’re going. I just know it’s warm. At least I have the right type of clothes.”

“No matter where we’re going, you don’t need many.”

“I don’t even need a passport, apparently.”

“Nope. I didn’t want to spend hours on a plane when we’ve spent a year mostly apart. We can go somewhere relatively close and still enjoy ourselves.” I shrug. “It’s not like I’m letting you see the light of day much.”

She laughs, and when we reach the elevator, the doors open and a couple step aside, allowing us to take it by ourselves. “Thank you!” Kat shouts. Once the doors close, I lunge for her, but Kat darts away.

“Oh, no. You’re not getting me all hot and bothered in here. I’m already close to jumping you.”

“I could always hit the stop button.”

“Nope.”

“Where’s your sense of adventure? No limo? No elevator? No hallway, either?”

She smiles. “I’m adventurous but not on our wedding day. I want it to be more special than a quickie in a cramped space.”

“The limo and even this elevator are hardly cramped spaces.”

“There’s also a camera in here.”

“Yeah, well, that is the one glitch.” I smirk. “We could buy a copy and watch it on every anniversary.”

“Jared Beckett!”

“Is that a no?” She laughs, and I ask, “Do you know how hard it is not to be hard while you’re wearing that dress? You’re half-naked in it!”

Kat turns, trying to look at her back in the reflection of the elevator doors. “It’s just my back. It’s strapless.”

“It’s useless if you’re trying not to turn me on. That’s a done deal.”

“I didn’t see you with a hard-on during the ceremony or the reception.”

“Thank God! I was too busy answering the same damn questions: Where is the honeymoon? Are you living in Annapolis? When are you having kids? Why isn’t your mother here?”

“Really? People asked you about her?”

“And they were people in my family, too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Whatever. I also had to field questions about Hadley.”

“So did I.”

Sighing, I shake my head. “I’ll deal with her when we get back.”

The elevator reaches our floor, and I take Kat’s hand as we head to our room. Reaching our door, I dig the key out of my pocket and push the door open, allowing Kat to go in first.

She flips on lights and says, “This is nice.”

“It’s only for the night, and it’s not a honeymoon suite. I thought of this last minute.” I spin her around to work on her zipper.

“We can shower first if you want.”

“Nope. You’re glowing.” I kiss her neck as I slide down the zipper. “I want it all over me.”

Kat hums as I kiss her. “It’s probably glitter spray.”

I step away, pull back the blanket, and sit on the edge of the bed. Kat turns around, holding the top of her dress. I grin. “Ok, Roxanne. Finish your show.”

“I… Um…”

“No way. Shell had to show you a thing or two, so go ahead. Strip for me.”

“When we talked about flowers, she came up with the idea. I didn’t want to, but it turned out to be fun, and I thought it’d be cool to surprise you. I didn’t think…”

I tilt my head, roaming my eyes over her. “Stop talking, Kitty Kat. Clothes off.”

“I don’t have much to strip.”

“Perfect. I don’t have much patience.”

“What did you think when you figured out it was me?”

“I wanted to rip through those fishnets while you fucked me on that chair.”

She swallows. “Oh. How about we take turns?” She pulls on my hand, and I get up from the bed. “You first.”

Grinning, I take off my black jacket, tossing it onto a chair. She shakes her head. “Something else. You have more clothes on than me.” I take off my tie and swing it over my shoulder.

Kat takes off her starfish bracelet. Rolling my eyes, I remove my cufflinks. She pulls out her earrings and bites her smiling lip as she waits for me to go next.

I take off my vest, and she props her hand against the wall, removing her white high-heeled sandals, sighing when they drop to the floor.

Pulling my shirt out of my pants, I unbutton it, and she smiles as she watches. When my shirt is open, I slide it off and whisk it to the other side of the room. She says, “Undershirt goes with it.”

I shrug. “Only fair.” I yank it over my head and fling that, too. I then take off my watch and set it on the nightstand.

She makes the humming sound as she stares at my chest, finally pushing down on her dress, revealing her tits and lacy white underwear. Taking in the view, I whisper, “Oh, Kit Kat.” My eyes widen, and my hands instantly go to my belt buckle, and then my fly, skipping ahead.

Kat says, “It’s been so long, Jared. I want to see you naked.”

“You first.”

She shakes her head. “You’ll have to tear these off me.”

“Holy fuck.” I pull my shoes and socks off, shove down my pants but pause when I go for my underwear.

Kat stares at my hard-on, and impatiently asks, “What?”

“Why don’t you unwrap it yourself?”

Without hesitating, she dives for me, clawing at my waistband, but I pull her onto the bed and on top of me. Reaching up, I cover her tits, teasing her nipples with my thumbs, appreciating them. She moans. “Let’s cut the bullshit. I want my husband. Now.”

My right hand goes between her legs, over the lace, and I rub my fingers on the material. Using both hands, I pull on the lace, tearing it in half.

She pants, and I brush my fingers over her pussy, scraping her with my wedding ring, feeling how wet she is for me.

Kat groans. “Your ring. Fuck.”

Looking up at her as I rub my wedding ring against her skin, I say, “I own you. Your pussy is mine. If I want to look at it, I will. If I want to finger it, I will. If I want to eat it, I will. If I want to fuck it, I will.”

“All yours. Whatever you want. I just need you inside me.” Kat pulls down my waistband, revealing my naked eagerness for her. She looks at my ready cock. “Jared, you never cease to amaze me.”

She swiftly slides off my underwear, and when she straddles me again, she shifts forward and grabs my cock, pushing it against her, rubbing herself up and down it. She lightly grazes her rings against my shaft, making me loudly groan, “Goddamn, I love that.”

“I own you. Your cock is mine. If I want to look at it, I will. If I want to stroke it, I will. If I want to eat it, I will. If I want to fuck it, I will.”

I nod. “All yours. Whatever you want. I just need to be inside you.”

She leans down halfway, and I reach up, pulling her the rest of the way to my mouth. As our kiss deepens and our tongues lap at each other, I put my hands on her hips, and she pushes herself down onto me. Moaning as we slowly unite, I pant into her mouth, “You’re so fucking tight, Mrs. Beckett.”

“I love hearing you call me that.”

“I love calling you that.”

We move together, and it’s goddamn glorious. Like nothing I’ve ever felt or thought possible, even with the other times with Kat. It’s motherfucking life-changing. I’m all in with her, not only with sex. I gave her my heart the day we met. But today, I gave her my life.

Our movements, our groans, and the air conditioner’s humming fill the room as our feverish need for each other rocks the bed. Kissing over my chest, she says, “This time feels different. It must be the vows.”

Against her lips, I whisper, “It is different, baby. I love the way you feel. It’s like you can’t get enough of me.”

“I can’t. I won’t.”

I kiss her, guiding her at a steady speed. It sounds corny and fucked-up, but it does feel like a deeper connection. As I thrust into her, I truthfully say, “I love you, Katriona. So fucking much. Not just present.”

Kat pulls my left hand to her lips and kisses my ring. “I love you, Jared.” She closes her eyes, holds my hand tighter, and fucks me faster. Kat sets us ablaze and holding onto her, I groan as her pussy tightly grips my cock, right on the verge of her losing it, and when I force her hips to move quicker yet, she squeals, “Oh, God! Fuck, I’m coming!” Watching her tits bounce, I feel her hot cream, which causes me to explode with mine.

“Jesus Christ! You feel…” I eagerly come with disjointed groans while she keeps fucking my cock, again yelling as her pussy squeezes me more before I’m even done. I’ve never made a woman come simultaneously. Maybe it is the vows.

“Kat. Goddamn,” I stutter, relaxing as my head falls to the pillow. Panting over me, Kat puts her hands on both sides of my face and leans down to kiss me. “Wow, husband.”

Catching my breath, I say, “I’m speechless, wife.” I grin and brush her loose hair hanging over her face. “Two, huh?”

Kat grins, flushed. “I think I might want to do that again.”

“Oh, and you will. Again and again and—” Maybe a trifecta next time.

She kisses me, giggling, which makes me smile before I shove my tongue into her mouth.

My phone rings, and I jump awake, looking around the room for it. Remembering it’s still in my pants on the floor, I stretch to rummage through them until my phone falls onto the carpet. Seeing that it’s Brenda, I glance at the clock on the nightstand.

“Fuck!” As I answer my phone, I twist and say, “Kit Kat, get up. We’re late.” Turning to the phone, I join Brenda’s rant in progress.

“Why isn’t Kat answering her phone? You two are going to miss your flight!”

“Shit. We slept in.” I rub my eyes and reach over to shake Kat, but she’s still out.

Brenda asks, “Rough night?”

I gruffly clear my throat. “Uh…”

“Shut up, you stud. Get your wife out of bed and get your asses moving! No morning delight, either! You don’t have time! Join the Mile High Club! Which hotel are you staying at? I can make it before you leave.”

“I gotta get Kat up. I’ll text you the address.”

“Well, go!”

I hang up the phone, shaking my head, muttering, “Jesus. Crazy.”

Twisting, I rub Kat’s arm and sternly say, “Baby, get up. Now. We’re late. Come on. We’ll miss our flight.” When she still doesn’t move, I crawl closer. “Kit Kat, wake up.”

With no response, my gaze instantly goes to her T-shirt, looking for it to rise and fall as panic infiltrates me, but in my building anxiety, I notice nothing.

Shaking her harder, I yell, “Kat!”

When she still doesn’t answer, I throw down my phone and flip her onto her back, grabbing her face. “Kat! Wake up!” My eyes fly over her and putting both hands on her shoulders, I bounce her on the bed, but she’s lifeless. Leaning down, I try to feel her breath, but I can’t sit still long enough, for fear I’m wasting time, which is something I’m an expert at doing. “Don’t you fucking do this to me!”

Swinging my head around, losing my mind as I desperately try to cling to it and to my wife, I scoop up my phone from the bed.

With my trembling hand, I drop my phone, but when I again reach for it, Kat loudly gasps and grabs my arm.

Swerving back to her, I clutch her shoulder. “Kat!” She breathes fast, catching her breath like she just ran. “Are you okay?”

Blinking fast, she looks up at me, appearing confused as me. “Jared, you’re crying.” Her speech is slightly slurred. Kat touches my face, and I reach for her hand. My other hand goes into my hair as my gaze searchingly wanders over her.

“What the fuck just happened?”

“Oh, God.” Kat slowly sits up and shakes her head, still gasping for air. “It’s sleep paralysis. My doctor thinks it’s a result of my accident. It frequently happened for months afterward, but now, just every so often. I heard you yelling and felt you shaking me, but my motor muscles freeze. It’s like restarting a computer.”

“Why didn’t you fucking warn me about this? I thought you were dead!” I sniff and look away from her, unsteadily sighing in relief.

Kat forces me to look at her and wipes the tears from my face. She stutters, “I’m so sorry, baby. I didn’t mean to scare you. I haven’t had one of those episodes in over a year. I forgot, which is another long-term side effect.”

“Jesus Christ, Kat. Scared doesn’t describe what I just felt.” I run my hand through her hair. “I can’t fucking lose you again.”

“You won’t.” She wraps her arms around my neck, hugging me. “It’s just misfiring neurons, I think my doctor said.”

I hug her, burying my face in her neck. “Don’t ever do that to me again. Do you hear me?”

“I’ll try not to, but if it happens, you’ll know next time.”

“I mean the leaving me part.” Kat squeezes me tighter, and I unevenly sigh, not wanting to let go of her. “We have to get up. Your mom is coming to get our clothes.”

Pulling away from her, there’s a knock at our door. Still feeling the tremors coursing through me, I grab a pair of shorts from my suitcase. I look through the peephole, seeing Brenda, and I try to shake off what just happened as I put them on. Opening the door, she looks at me without my shirt. “Holy shitballs! Are you serious?”

“What?” I see her gawking at my chest, and I roll my eyes. “Come in.” I look over my shoulder, noticing the empty bed. “Kat’s in the bathroom, changing.”

“I don’t want to smell the sex in there.” I frown at her, which goes ignored. “Are you packed?” She storms into our room and looks around. “Oh. Well, it looks like you didn’t unpack much.”

Kat comes out of the bathroom dressed, but her hair still is everywhere, which is sexy. Brenda grins. “Oh, boy. You have that glow about you, Katydid.” I know she does.

She scowls. “Can you stop being weird?” Kat sighs. “I had an episode a few minutes ago.”

Brenda cringes. “Probably the stress of the past few weeks.”

Kat ruefully says, “I didn’t think to mention them to Jared.”

Brenda closes her eyes. “Oh, shit.”

I put my hands on my hips. “Yeah. Oh, shit. Scared the fuck out of me.”

“I bet.” She glances down at my hand. “You’re still wearing your wedding ring!”

I shoot her an incredulous look. “Huh?”

Kat rolls her eyes at me as she puts on her sandals. “Ignore her. I think she’s the one with misfiring neurons.”

When Kat turns to dig through her bag, I go up behind her, putting my arms around her waist. “I see that glow about you, too. You know it was good, baby.”

Brenda gasps. “Just make me feel worse about barging in on newlyweds! God!”

Kat elbows me. “Jared Beckett! Stop egging on her madness and mine!”

Brenda picks up my clothes from the floor. “What the hell? Did you two play strip poker or something? More awkwardness!”

“Mother!”

“I’m not stupid! I know what you two will be doing on your trip the whole time.”

I loudly sigh. “Oh, Kit Kat. She’s right. I’ll probably even knock you up.”

Kat spins around and slaps my arm. “Shut up and get dressed!” Turning her attention to her mother, she says, “Not happening. Get that glow off your face.”

Brenda tries not to smile, but shit, that’s not happening, either. “Since I’m here, I’ll give you a ride to the airport. Come on. You can see each other naked when you get to Florida.”

Kat shrieks, “Florida?”

I widen my eyes at Brenda, and she questioningly looks between Kat and me. Realizing what she did, Brenda covers her mouth. “Shit!”

Kat says, “I’ve never been to Florida! We’re going there?”

I roll my eyes but still smile. “Yeah…”

Kat squeals and hugs me as I shoot an exasperated look at her mother.

“She would’ve found out at the airport, anyway.” Brenda contritely smiles. “Sorry, though. Why’d you pick Florida when you could go anywhere?”

I release Kat and go to my suitcase, feeling like I’m disappointing my wife by not picking someplace exotic. “Kat mentioned she always wanted to go to a Florida beach.”

Kat giggles. “That’s exactly where I want to go! But as long as I’m with Jared, we could’ve stayed right here.”

Walking past her, I kiss her cheek. “Damn, I love you.”

Brenda squeals, picking up more clothes, and I shake my head as I go into the bathroom. If it weren’t for Kat’s mother, we would stay here. Fuck the plane tickets. It’s not like we’ll be on the beach much. I’ll make sure of that.

Shortly after arriving at the airport, I got a text from my dad saying Hadley was okay, but he wouldn’t give details. I tried calling Calder, but he didn’t answer, either, making me even more suspicious.

Walking over to the wall of windows, I see a plane landing in the distance, and I check my messages, seeing one from Rio. Get laid yet, whore?

I laugh out loud. “Prick.” More times in one night than you ever will at your pussy farm, doc. Pathetic. Where’s Dash?

Home, I guess. Don’t worry about him. Just so you know, when we’re next-door neighbors, I’ll kick your ass with Christmas lights.

That’s the only way you’d ever kick my ass. Later.

Walking over to me, Kat asks, “Your dad?”

“No. Duquesne.”

“Hear anything more about Hadley or Dash?” I shake my head, and she leans against my arm. “Leave it alone. Deal with them when we get back.”

“I know, but Hadley… She’s gone through a lot.”

Kat sighs and squeezes my arm. “She is an adult.”

“She’s still my sister. I feel responsible.”

“Why? Because of what happened between you and Blair? Did you tell her at our reception, and she took off because of that?”

I yank on my hat and restlessly look around us. “I haven’t told her.”

“Will you?”

I shrug. “I don’t know.”

They call our gate, and Brenda jumps up. “Go have fun! I want pictures!” She runs over, hugging us. “Not pictures of everything you’re doing! For Christ’s sake, I don’t need to see porn!”

“Mother!”

We head to our gate, and I’m relieved. Damn. How in the hell did that woman give birth to the love of my life?

Waiting for our rental car to pull up, I put my arm around Kat’s shoulders. “Wanna drive, baby?” She shakes her head. “Oh, come on, Kitty Kat. It’s only ten miles.”

“Nope.”

I lean down and whisper, “It’ll be a turn-on for me.”

She scoffs, “Uh-huh.”

A Dodge Charger pulls up the curb, and I grin. “Look. It’s even white, commemorating our wedding.” Kat rolls her eyes, and I laugh.

After loading the trunk, I nod to the driver’s side, propping my arm on the open door. “It’s an automatic, Kit Kat.”

She dramatically sighs. “Okay. Anything to turn on my man.”

“That’s me.” I grin, and she kisses me before sliding behind the wheel. When I close the passenger-side door, her hand goes to my leg as I pull up the directions on my phone. “Both hands on the wheel,” I warn.

“I’m not your student anymore.”

“You’re still a new driver.”

“But I like putting my hands on you.”

“Oh, and you will. All over me, but not now. Both hands. On the wheel. Both eyes. On the road.”

“And this is supposed to be a turn-on for you?”

Without looking away from my phone, I nod. “Now, drive.”

“Look how cute this place is!” Kat squeals when I push open the front door of the small beach house.

“That’s what I was going for,” I wryly say, setting down her suitcase.

Kat gazes at the four-poster, king-sized bed with a light blue bedspread. “Wow.”

I put my arms around her, resting my chin on her shoulder. “How about we try out the bed? You fucking turned me on, driving that car.”

Kat shrugs, moving my head. “Raincheck.”

“Seriously? I’m being blown off for that?” I wave to the window, and she gasps.

“The ocean is right there!”

“Well, Gulf of Mexico.”

She spins out of my arms and heads into the living room. Rolling my eyes, I smile as I follow her. As she gawks at the view from the sliding door of the kitchen, I read the welcome note on the counter.

Hearing the door open, I look up to see Kat stepping onto the small deck. As I follow, she tries to prop herself up on the thick railing. When she can’t, I shut the door and go over to her. Picking her up, I sit her on the railing, and I lift myself onto it to sit next to her. She straddles it, and I do the same, facing her.

I watch her brown hair floating in the breeze as she takes a deep breath. “The beach isn’t crowded.”

“It’s private, so only the other bungalows share it. I didn’t want a madhouse beach like Ocean City. I wanted us to be alone. We’ve had people in our faces ever since we got engaged. Even before that, wanting to know what we were doing together.”

Pulling hair off her face, she says, “You’re absolutely right. Thank you for this.”

Leaning in, I sweep more hair off her face. “Don’t thank me.”

Yanking my phone out of my pocket to check for messages, Kat grabs it. “Nope. No worries for us this trip. Just me and you.”

“I was only—”

“Checking on Hadley. She’s with your dad this week, and if either one needs to tell you anything, they will. This is our time. I have you all to myself, and I’m taking it. I’m a greedy bitch.”

“Good. Because it just so happens, I have a lot I want to give you.” I raise an eyebrow and drop my gaze to her tits, licking my lip.

Kat giggles. “Can we check out the beach first since we’ll be busy for a day or two?”

“A day or two? Baby, I plan on being inside you most of the week.” Putting my hand on her cheek, I kiss her, but she pulls away.

“Beach first. Ten minutes. Then we can go to bed.”

I roll my eyes with a grin. “All you want me for is my body.”

“And your driving skills. Let’s go.”

As she hops down, I gape at her. “Did you just reject me again?”

“Beach.”

She takes off her shoes and socks before heading down the steps on the side of the deck. I head back inside to grab a few things.

When I meet her down there, I sit on the white sand, watching her gazing out at the water. “Care to join me, or are you casting me aside, yet again?”

Looking over her shoulder, she giggles and shuffles through the sand to me. “What do you have?”

I reach into the beach bag. “Champagne.” I hand her a plastic champagne flute.

“This’s so sweet!”

“Well, the champagne was in the fridge for us. These plastic things, those were my idea.”

“You know, we can get arrested for alcohol on the beach.”

I peer around, seeing only a few people some ways from us. “No one’s here. Just us. They’d most likely warn us, anyway. We’re newlyweds for Christ’s sake! We’re sharing some champagne. It’s not like we’re fucking on the beach.” She laughs. Taking the bottle, I wrap a towel around it while I pop the cork, which promptly flies into the surf. “Well, shit.”

Nearly mimicking the seagulls overhead, Kat shrieks, “Sonic! Are you trying to get me drunk, so you can have your way with me?”

Pouring her a glass, I scoff, “I don’t need to get you drunk for that.”

“Um, no, you don’t.” She takes the plastic flute, and as I pour mine, she asks, “What should we toast to?”

I plunk the bottle into the sand and turn to her. “Us. How we made it back to each other.”

“We were high school sweethearts and didn’t even realize it.”

I smile. “Yeah, that’s exactly what we were.”

“I was madly in love with you, Sonic. I just thought it was a one-way street.”

I laugh and pull on my Colts hat. “Nope. Just a divided highway.”

Smiling, she raises her champagne flute. “To fate.”

“And clueless sweethearts finally getting their shit together.”

“Soulmates.”

“Do not tell Calder that.”

Kat giggles as we clink our plastic glasses and take a drink. She asks, “Did you know that Dash and I never went to see a movie together?”

“I thought you did?” She looks at me, and my blood runs cold, even on the hot beach. “Kat. Please say you and Dash didn’t…”

“No! That was never a possibility! Neither of us would’ve done that to you. He knew how much I loved you. Dash was one of our biggest cheerleaders. He wanted you and me together.”

Squinting from the sun, I frown. “He told me you went. What a prick.”

“No. I didn’t feel like it. I was sick over you.”

“I was sick, too. I couldn’t eat or sleep. All I wanted to do was get drunk and not think of you, especially you with him.”

“Why? You were jealous of Dash?”

“Yeah. I was.”

“It’s true? You really did like me?” She hides her grin by taking a sip of her champagne.

Like you? I was painfully in love with you, Kat. Even more so now, if you couldn’t tell. You almost killed me this morning.” I inhale a salty breath, thinking about how that could’ve played out differently.

“I thought maybe it wouldn’t happen again since it had been so long. I’m sorry. I love you, Jared.” Kat leans over the beach bag to kiss me. Holding my glass against my leg, I tilt to meet her lips.

Before we kiss, I say, “And I love you, Kit Kat.”

We kiss, but she abruptly pulls away and grins. “You know Dash predicted we’d be doing this, don’t you?”

“Drinking on a beach or the kissing on a beach?”

“All of it. He said we’d get married and laugh about everything on our honeymoon.”

“Thank God for Dash Calder.” I laugh and lift my glass. “Don’t tell him I said that shit.”

Kat pushes up on my Colts hat and leans in to kiss me, making the humming sound against my lips, which instantly goes to my dick. Pulling away too soon, she sits back, and I take a drink. “What’s next for us?”

I swallow my mouthful of champagne. “We start our life together. Whatever roads we take, we take together. Partners for life, right?”

Kat’s eyes glitter, and she nods. “For life. Are you ready for it?”

“I’m ready for anything with you.”

“Good. Because I’m ready to make love to my husband.”

Lifting my glass, I shrug at the waves crashing near our feet. “I’m not feeling it at the moment.” I’ve been feeling it since the day I met her.

Reaching over, she grabs my T-shirt. “Let’s cut the bullshit. You. Me. Bed. Now.”

“This ball-and-chain life is rough.”

Letting go of my shirt, her hand goes to my inner thigh as she smirks. “And you like it rough.”

Finishing off my drink, I stand and pick up the bottle, holding it in one hand with my glass while offering her my other hand. “Come on, Kit Kat. I need to make love to my wife.”

She grabs the beach bag and takes my hand. “Again and again…”

I tug her to me. “And that’s only the beginning.”

Kat kisses me. “Fuck yeah, it is, baby. Just the beginning.”

I awake to a hand fondling my dick, and I jump, automatically pushing it away before opening my eyes to the sunlight blinding me. The hand sneaks between my legs again, urging me to awaken. “Good morning. This is your wake-up call.”

As I grow hard from her suggestion, I cover her hand with mine and groggily ask, “Oh, yeah?”

“Uh-huh. Your wife wants you to fuck her. Hard.”

I force a yawn. “Again? Jesus.”

Kat nods against the back of my shoulder. “I plan to be on your cock most of this week.”

I shake my head as our hands bob up and down me. “You are a greedy bitch.” Her fingers drag my hand with hers, over my cock, and then down to my balls, making me groan.

She sighs. “Okay. If you don’t want to…”

Her hand disappears, and she rolls away, but I instantly roll over, grabbing her hip. “Oh, no, you don’t.”

Kat pushes on my hand. “Go back to sleep.”

Snatching her hand, I pull it behind her to my erection. “Look what you did to me. You need to take care of it.”

“Maybe later.” She giggles into her pillow and releasing her hand, I slide mine between her legs, pushing my fingers into her.

“I think you need a refill.”

She stutters, “Nope. I’m fine.”

Climbing on top of her, looking down at her back, I push my cock against her ass. “But I’m not. I want more of my wife.”

Flipping her hair to the side, she asks, “How’re you going to fuck me?”

Grabbing her left hand with mine, our rings clash, and the metallic reminder makes me smile. I push her legs apart with my knees and whisper, “Like this.”

“Because you own me?”

Leaning down, I say, “Because I’m obsessed with you, Mrs. Beckett.”

She whimpers, “I’m obsessed with you, too, Mr. Beckett. For life, Jared.”

“For life, Kit Kat.”

I always keep my fucking word.

I know she will, too.

Please don’t forget to leave a review!

Love it or hate it, thank you!

Don’t miss Hadley’s story in the Wild Sparks Series Book 1, Chasing the Wild Sparks.

About the Author

Ren Alexander lives outside Detroit, Michigan, with her husband, two daughters, and three cats. Originally from Wheeling, West Virginia, she took a creative writing course in college. She always dreamed of being a writer but never thought she could do it.

The Keys to Jericho is her fourth novel.

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Catch Hadley Beckett’s story in Ren’s Wild Sparks series, which takes place alongside The Keys to Jericho.

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Wild Sparks series:

Chasing the Wild Sparks

Daring the Wild Sparks

Igniting the Wild Sparks

Enduring the Wild Sparks

Beckoning the Wild Sparks

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The Keys to Jericho

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UNSCREWED

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UNHINGED

(Coming Soon)

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K.B. Worlds’ Everyday Heroes Series

Rebel Rook

(Coming March 2021)

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