Chapter Twenty Three

It was the afternoon of the second day since Chevy had agreed to marry Rhys, and the both of them were sitting at the kitchen table completing the few tasks they had left before the wedding. Rhys had taken the day off, and Bidelia was watching Alice to give them some time alone. Chevy had her suspicions that Biddy was secretly still trying to spark romance between them, even though they were getting married.

But perhaps she sensed the same thing Chevy did; though Rhys seemed more open, there was still something holding him back. He smiled and joked and even flirted a little, yet something in his eyes told Chevy he was hesitant. And it scared her. Did he think he had to be this man in order to keep her around? Did he not realize how strong her feelings were, for him and for Alice?

Then again, even she had not delved into her true feelings for him yet. After Jonathan, she was a little afraid to show how she felt. Especially to a man who still mourned his dead wife. She was not going to let herself think about the consequences if he never truly returned her feelings. Yes, he had told her he liked her, but "like" and "love" were two very different things.

Mentally shaking herself, Chevy tried to put her mind to the tasks at hand. It had been a mistake to think that- after telling Biddy of Rhys's proposal and her acceptance- Chevy and Rhys could get away with a wedding at the courthouse. It was a practical idea, if a little disappointing for Chevy, and could have taken care of two things at once: Chevy's permission to stay in Ireland, and the ceremony of marriage.

But after Biddy found out that Chevy and Rhys were going to get married, she would have none of their plan. No matter how many times they argued its practicality, she would not listen. Rhys may have had the experience already, she said, but he had no right to cheat Chevy out of a real wedding, and it would be a proper one. Church, white dress, cake, and all. The entire village would be invited, no doubt, and the wedding had been put off two weeks. Just enough time for Biddy and her old cronies to put together a haphazard ceremony.

Chevy was not looking forward to calling her mother- Elaina would be miffed that she'd known nothing about Rhys, and would berate her daughter for saying nothing of the matter. Not that there had really been much to say. It was all still new and odd, to be engaged. To know that she was soon going to marry the man she currently sat across from at the dining room table, who was fiddling with a pen and glaring at the sheet of paper, from whom she had very little hope of ever receiving more than friendship.

Tapping her fingers against the keys of her cell-phone, Chevy studied Rhys as he mulled over the very short list of guests. He was deliberating something in his head; she could see it in the furrow of his brow and the way he kept time against the table with his pen. She could have smiled at the scowl on his face, if she wasn't so trepidatious about calling her mother. It was something she should have done two days ago, when she'd finally decided to marry Rhys.

The thought sent a tight, nervous knot into her stomach. Marriage, to a man she'd known for a little less than three months, who had only just begun to really notice her, who needed fixing in a way that made Chevy need to stay, whose daughter so desperately needed motherly love. She was creating a new life here, a new dream, a new family...

"Do you have family?" she asked suddenly, partly to delay having to call her mother, and partly because she didn't know. It surprised her that she'd never thought to ask before.

Rhys looked up. "I was just thinking about them." A half-smile played across his lips. "About whether I want to invite them or not."

Chevy shrugged a little. "Why wouldn't you? Would they not come?"

He sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Well… my da and I had an argument that's never been reconciled, and… I haven't spoken to my sister in years. Haven't really spoken to any of them since Rose's death."

Tilting her head a little, Chevy pointed out, "Maybe it's about time you did speak to them…? Seeing as how you- we… are getting married." She stumbled over the words. A tight little snake of nervousness wound around her heart at the words. "They might want to know."

"Oh, they'd find out one way or another," Rhys put the pen on the table and crossed his arms. "Paddy informs them of any news."

"So they'd know about me, then?" Chevy felt the nerves squeeze harder. What if they thought she was butting in where she didn't belong?

Rhys nodded. "Probably." He frowned a little. "Do your pare- does your mother know about us yet?" He knew she had been putting off the phone-call, and he'd been continually urging her to contact her family.

She shook her head. "I haven't… no."

He shot her a look. "You should. Your mother ought to know what's going on in your life. And she might want to come."

Raising her eyebrow, Chevy returned his look with a pointed one of her own. "What, I have to call my family, but you can get away with leaving yours in the dark? I don't think so." She tried to smile, but it ended in a shaky breath and another wave of nerves. "I'll make a deal with you: you call your family right now, and I'll call mine."

He scowled at her and opened his mouth, and she stopped him.

"It's only fair," she said. "I don't really want to call my mother, but I have to. She has a right to know what's going on in my life. And your family…" Taking a deep breath, she shook her head. "Rhys, I don't mean to butt in where I shouldn't, but it's been three years." He tensed a little at her reprimand, but she continued. "Maybe this… this marriage can be a new start. For all of us."

His gaze momentarily flashed with an emotion Chevy didn't recognize, and he nodded, "Deal." He rose from the table to reach for his phone, and Chevy rested her thumb on the speed-dial.

"I'm… going to go into the living-room," she said suddenly, scooting back her chair. From the expression on Rhys's face, she could tell that he would probably need as much privacy as she felt she wanted. It was going to be an awkward conversation for both of them.

Walking into the living room, Chevy drifted to one of the windows and stared at the gray sky. What was she going to say? Elaina would be furious at her for becoming engaged to a man outside of the states, so far away from home. Especially with the drama of Lydia being pregnant and Aidan's general flippancy, and her father's death. Adding one more worry to her mother's load was not something Chevy looked forward to doing.

And Elaina would worry, no matter how safe Chevy was.

Bucking up her courage, Chevy hit the speed dial and lifted the phone to her ear. She half-hoped that the machine would pick it up and she could leave a message. The other half of her reminded her how tacky it would be to leave a message that she was engaged. And how cowardly it was.

Elaina picked up after the third ring. "Chevy?" She sounded as flighty as ever.

"Hi, mama." Chevy picked at the paint on the side of the window. She could hear Rhys in the kitchen behind her, and felt a small sort of satisfaction that he had to go through this same conversation with his parents.

"Oh, my dear, you don't know how good it is to hear your voice! Lydia has been absolutely impossible these last few days! And Aidan… I don't know what to do about your brother. When are you going to come home?" Elaina still held on to the hope that Chevy would return to the states.

Swallowing, Chevy closed her eyes and swiftly prayed for the right words. "Mama, I have…some news."

Elaina groaned. "Please don't tell me you're pregnant, too!"

The exclamation broke through Chevy's nervousness, and she laughed. "No, no. I'm not pregnant."

"Good. I thought for a moment that that Scotsman of yours might have changed your mind about your morals." Elaina sniffed a little.

"Irish, mama. He's Irish, and he's got morals as well, which might surprise you." Chevy leaned her forehead against the window glass and smiled.

"Well, whatever." Elaina clicked her tongue. "They're all the same over there. But darling, can you tell me your news later? I mean, it's not anything bad, I take it. You don't sound upset. It's just that I'm just about to hop over to Georgia's for a chat, and then I've got to take Lydia in for her first prenatal appointment."

A few raindrops hit the windowpanes. It was tempting to tell her mother yes, but Chevy resisted. "Mama… I just… um… I'm getting married."

Everything grew utterly and completely still on the other end. Not even Elaina's breath registered over the phone. And then- "What?! Marriage? To who? You are pregnant, aren't you! He's lured you into a life of sin and now you're going to marry him? I can' believe you would-"

"Mama! I'm not pregnant!" Chevy interrupted, but Elaina carried on.

"So soon after your father's death, you're just going to abandon me here with your siblings? How could you, Chevy? I need you here!" Elaina gave a very indignant sigh. There was no sadness in her voice at the mention of her husband's death. Just anger that Chevy had no plans to come home.

"He needs me, mama, and his daughter," Chevy said quietly. "And I-"

Elaina cut her off. "How could you leave me so abruptly after Max's death? I'm here all alone with no one to comfort me, and now you've run off to another country and you're never coming back? You never did love me as much as you loved your father." This time, the scoff had turned to a whine.

Biting her lip to hold back the retort, Chevy ignored her mother's statements. "I want you to come to the wedding. It's the Saturday after next."

"That's less than two weeks away!" Elaina burst out. "I can't! I've got too much to do! Your father's affairs must be closed up, and I've got to box up all of his things and send them off to charity. How could you expect me to hop up and run to you at a time like this? It's impossible!"

Had her mother healed already? It shocked Chevy that Elaina could mention sending Maxwell's belongings to charity so soon after his death, and not have a note of grief in her voice. "Okay," she said softly. The thought of her father's death was starting to overwhelm her emotions.

"Is that all you have to say?" Elaina cleared her throat. She was obviously miffed.

"Yes," Chevy answered. "That was all."

"Well. I hope you rethink this ridiculous notion of marriage. You really ought to come home," Elaina insisted.

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Chevy shook her head. "I am home, mama." The realization hit her harder than anything else.

"I have to go," Elaina said abruptly.

Chevy did not respond. She was hoping that her mother would soften, but at her silence, the phone clicked, and the dial tone droned in her ear. It wasn't the first time Elaina had been upset with her and hung up without saying goodbye, but it was the worst of them all. Chevy was left to stare out the window, not only knowing that her mother was angry with her, but realizing one glaringly obvious and painful fact: her father was not alive to walk her down the aisle.

It was not something she had thought about before today, and now she could think of nothing else.

She had dreamed of the perfect wedding for so long. Since childhood she'd imagined the day when she'd walk down the aisle on her daddy's arm, being given away to a man she loved and who loved her. She'd envisioned her father tearing up as he handed her off, making sure she really loved the man she married, making sure that the man she married really loved her. Maxwell would have done everything in his power to be sure his daughter would be happy with her choice.

But none of those things were going to happen. She wasn't going to marry a man who loved her. She wasn't going to experience the joy of introducing him to her family. And her father was dead.

Chevy turned to the couch and sank into its cushions, staring at the phone in her hands. Surprisingly, she didn't feel like crying. Her chest throbbed, and her head swam with disconnected thoughts, but it was the sort of pain that went beyond tears. It resided deep within her heart, oppressive, unshakeable, and grim.

She heard Rhys say goodbye in the other room, and she didn't move. What if she had yet another emotional breakdown? It felt like she'd been crying so much lately, and she wanted to be done with the drama and the tears.

"Well, my parents are overjoyed." He sounded slightly overwhelmed as he collapsed into the couch next to her. "Mother insists that I bring you over before the wedding so that they can all meet you, and da… well… he's just glad I'm speaking to him again." He cleared his throat. "I should have made that call years ago."

Chevy nodded a little. "Probably…" She was still focusing on her phone.

"And your family?" he prompted her, leaning forward to see her face. "Oh." He rested his arms on his knees and studied her. "It didn't go well, did it?" The understanding in his voice relieved Chevy's sadness slightly.

She didn't look at him. "My mother thinks that I'm irresponsible, selfish, and impossible." Swallowing away the tears that tried to rise, she put down the phone and finally met Rhys's eyes. "And that the only reason I'm marrying you is that I must be pregnant." As the words passed her lips, she suddenly found the situation funny. It was just like Elaina to overreact in such a way.

"Does she?" Rhys raised an eyebrow.

Chevy nodded. "And she thinks you're Scottish." A giggle rose up.

"What has that to do with anything?" Rhys frowned.

"I don't know." Chevy shrugged and bit her lip. "My mother's never been very good with geography."

Rhys smiled a little. "Do you think she'll come 'round?"

Sighing, Chevy shrugged again. "I don't… I don't know. She might change her mind, or she might stay miffed for weeks. She insists that she has too much to do to fly here. Lydia's prenatal appointments, boxing up…" she trailed off, emotions rising again. Who would walk her down the aisle?

Rhys understood her sadness without her saying a word to indicate the tear that escaped. Gently, he put an arm around her and leaned back on the couch, bringing her with him. It was a comfortable position; her head against his shoulder, his cheek on her forehead, her left arm tucked between them. Almost absentmindedly, he started to toy with the fingers of her left hand, and his heel began to tap against the floor.

"What is your family like?" Chevy broke the silence, both curious and needing to get her thoughts off of her mother's indignation and father's death.

He took a deep breath. "Oh… normal. My father is like me, of course. Handsome." There was humor in his tone. "My mother… wants to adopt everyone. My sister- she's a year younger than I am- has three children and one on the way. She's married to a mechanic- he's a good man. He takes care of her."

"Is that all the family you have?" Chevy closed her eyes and tried not to think.

Rhys shifted a little. "I suppose. I have a few aunts and uncles and cousins, but I don't speak to them much."

The partial embrace and the way he was playing with her fingers struck Chevy with the realization that they really were a couple. She felt a blush rise. Was this part of his act, or did he really feel so comfortable with her? "Why not?"

"My parents are both youngest children, and didn't get married 'till later in life." He leaned his head back on the couch. "So my sister and I are much younger than the cousins. I suppose we just… never grew close to them."

"That's so different from my family," Chevy commented. "Everyone is involved in everyone else's life. And they're all a mess."

"Well." Rhys squeezed her fingers and then let them go. "I'm the only one that's a mess in my family."

The statement made Chevy smile, and she leaned away to look at him. "I guess I just can't get away from the drama, can I?"

"We'll do our best to limit it to accidents in the kitchen, yeah?" He returned her smile.

The use of "we" and "our" deepened Chevy's blush. He might not have been actively using the words to indicate them as a couple, but it still affected her. The thought that in less than two weeks she would legally belong to him, and he to her, was a little bit flustering.

"What's this, then?" He brushed her cheek lightly and smirked. "It's been a long time since I made a girl blush. Rose never did, you know."

Chevy put both hands over her red cheeks and sighed in mock-despair. "I turn red enough for the both of us." She groaned.

Rhys's amusement grew. "It's nice."

She scowled a little. "It's annoying."

"It's nice," he reiterated firmly, quirking his head.

With such a smile playing around his lips, and the light of admiration in his eyes, Chevy was ready to change the subject before she turned into a melted tomato. "It's time for supper."

She tried to stand, but he prevented her, keeping a strong hold on her hand as she moved away. "What, are you uncomfortable with my compliments?" He was mischievously grinning.

"I'm hungry," she replied in the most level tone she could conjure.

He eyed her skin. "Your neck is turning red."

"It happens." Chevy rubbed her throat self-consciously, and impatiently tugged away from him. "When is Alice going to get home?"

He shrugged. "Oh, I'll be fetching her around five, I think. If you want her to stay at Biddy's longer, I can call-"

"No!" Chevy interrupted, then bit her lip. "I just…want to have supper prepared by the time she gets here."

"You're a bad liar," he told her. "You just want her to come home so I won't ravish you." He winked, utterly incorrigible. "And make all the rumors true."

Chevy gave a final pull and managed to extract herself from Rhys's grasp. His words were humorous, but they reminded Chevy of the woman at the grocery store. She started to back away. "I should probably stay with Paddy and Bidelia until we're married."

"Why?" Rhys stood, and Chevy fleetingly wondered how he managed to fill such a large room with his presence. Even in the open space of the living-room, she felt trapped.

"Because… the rumors-" She hit the wall and realized that in her backing up, she'd misjudged where the doorway was.

Rhys closed in. "The rumors will mill whether you move out for a week or not."

"I know, but-"

"And they will probably mill long after we're married." He had her completely closed in, one arm blocking the escape route to the kitchen, the other side of her blocked by the entertainment center. The mischief was still in his eyes, and combined with the knowing smile on his lips, it was devastating.

The flood of wishes that came on at his look surprised and scared Chevy more than she'd thought possible. If she loved him, why did the interaction frighten her? She didn't have time to think about it. He was an immovable wall on all sides of her, and he was drilling all thoughts out of her head with his close proximity.

"You look like a deer in the headlights." He cupped her cheek. "A very red one." His smile had softened from mischievous to slightly amused.

Chevy laughed nervously and lowered her gaze. But staring at the buttons of his shirt didn't help much. It seemed that her entire body was determined to turn to jell-o. Bright pink jell-o. She felt like she had regressed to being a swooning teenaged girl. It was disconcerting, uncomfortable, and exactly what she'd always dreamed of feeling for a man.

He lifted her chin and dipped his head to look into her eyes. Chevy could barely breathe at the meeting of their gazes, and she felt sure that he could hear the thundering of her heart. Slowly and deliberately, he leaned closer and said, "you said something about dinner?"

The spark of mischief flared up in his expression, and Chevy could have hit him. Disappointment curled through her when he dropped his arms and let her slip into the kitchen; she was glad he'd let her go first, for she wasn't sure she could control the letdown enough to keep it from her countenance. Part of her was annoyed that she reacted so easily to him, the other part annoyed that he had deliberately toyed with her. He meant no harm by it, she knew, but from that moment she realized he didn't know the extent of her feelings for him.

Taking a deep breath, Chevy started supper, and Rhys left to pick up Alice. She wanted to be calm and collected by the time he got back, to hide the flustered confusion she felt, and to forget the unnerving effect of his proximity. But her absentminded circle around the kitchen floor told her that she would not be regaining her cool head any time soon.

Opening the refrigerator door and staring into its depths, Chevy wondered: was she really ready for marriage?

And, more importantly, was he?