AN: Hey guys! I'm really sorry to do this to everyone who's been following and reviewing and cheering me on in my nanowrimo adventure, but I've made a decision to take this story down for editing. Since it's not November any more, I can't really justify putting up rushed chapters that I don't believe are my best, and further, some things have come up in my personal life that mean I wouldn't be able to update regularly even if I left this up for now.
Fear not! I don't plan on it taking too long to finish and edit this story, whereupon I can put it back on this site for you all to read, with nice long chapters and fully developed characters. I'm leaving the first chapter (what used to be the first two chapters) up here as a promise that I will finish. It should only be a couple of months.
Thank you to everyone who has been reading, and I will work as quickly as possible to present you the finished and edited story. As a side note, I might post some one-shots or other stories for people to read while they wait for me to get back to this. Everyone who left me a review is awesome and deserves a lifetime supply of cookies.
Enjoy the holidays!
"I can't get married."
She supposed the day of her wedding was a pretty bad time to have a revelation. It was as though a fog had lifted from her thoughts, one that had been lingering there for quite some time. She had been more than willing to linger in the space where the world wasn't quite real, where her mother hadn't passed away in that car accident, one where she couldn't feel how utterly alone she was. She played the mechanical role that was required of her by her distant father and keen stepmother, happy for a distraction, willing to let them direct her life.
Too bad it had culminated in a wedding.
The bride before her looked pale and wide-eyed. The wedding dress was familiar; there were vague memories of going to dress shops and picking it out. Blue was Connor's favorite color, so someone had said, so her 'something blue' was liberally applied in the sash around her waist and in the jewels at her neck. They'd been a gift as well, no doubt. Too big for her taste. Her fingers were clenched in the fabric of her skirt, eyes slightly wide. She did not look like a happy young bride about to walk down the aisle into the arms of a man she loved. Lia lifted her fingers and brushed against the mirror's surface, confused. How could this be her?
For a moment, her heart stopped, then started again, more quickly. It was though a light had been switched on, and only now did she realize the ramifications of the months of planning and prepping and conversations that she hadn't paid much attention to. Yes, she liked blue and silver together, she'd said when asked. No, you're right, a DJ is too informal, she'd agreed. Never really paying attention. Never believing the world could be going on while she was trapped in her grief.
Hadn't anyone else cared that she couldn't see herself getting married without her mother at her side?
And yet, she was here, the morning of the wedding that had been planned around her, standing in a dress she barely recognized in a color scheme didn't even like. And there was no way she was going to go through with his.
She looked around, but no one was paying her any attention. Unfortunately, that wasn't surprising. It felt as though a fog had been lifted from her, but that didn't mean anyone else was privy to her epiphany.
"Excuse me," she said to the room at large, and her bridesmaids paused, looking almost surprised that she had spoken. That's right, she hadn't been doing much talking lately. Why hadn't anyone noticed how wrong she'd been feeling?
She looked for a friendly face, but most of the women in the room she barely knew or had no great attachment to. Where were her friends? God, she hadn't spoken to them in months! She felt faint, suddenly realizing exactly how much she'd let pass by her lately. The dull ache of grief still rested in her chest but for the first time since the funeral, she could actually think past it.
She swayed, putting an arm out to catch herself on the wall. The world seemed to be spinning and there were cries of alarm. Someone ushered her to a seat as she looked around dazedly. How had she gotten herself into this mess? She couldn't stand Connor; she didn't want to marry him. How had this happened all so quickly?
People were fluttering around her, but she ignored them, burying her face in her hands and taking deep breaths. Think, Lia, think. This had all started after the funeral- at the thought, there was a pang, but she pressed on- when Connor and her father started having private meetings all the time. Connor had always been a part of her father's business a part she'd always going out of her way to avoid.
Then the proposal had happened, after a few dates and family dinners. She'd known Connor before everything, vaguely, but he'd never seemed that interested in her. She remembered her father nodding at her over the table and giving her agreement when Connor had gotten down on one knee. She could feel the heavy diamond on her finger and she lifted her head to stare at it.
Well. She was getting married. To the man who was practically her father's business partner. And another revelation clicked into place: this was a business deal and her father was using her as a bargaining chip.
She may be depressed and withdrawn, she thought, frowning heavily, but she wasn't stupid. She wasn't going ahead with this. Relief swamped her, grateful that she'd come to her senses before the wedding actually took place.
Thank you, Mom, she thought to herself, a sense of calm filling her. Her mother was watching out for her, and she'd be all right. She could straighten this out, she just needed to focus
Finally, she looked up. Someone was bringing her father in, and she was confused at first before remembering than she'd nearly fainted and someone had probably become concerned and sent for the man. He was frowning at her, as though she was five years old again and had interrupted an important business meeting.
She tamped back the wave of frustration at the look he was giving her, knowing she wasn't exactly in a stable emotional state. She was still struggling to come to terms with everything that was happening around her. Why had it been so long since she'd paid attention to anything that was happening?
She looked at him, really looked at him for the first time in a long time. His hair was grayer than her mental picture of him, and he looked a little thinner. She remembered Tanya telling him he needed to lose a few pounds before the wedding so he wouldn't embarrass himself. Apparently, he'd taken her advice, as he always did. He was also dressed to the nines, though that wasn't unusual, prepared to walk his daughter down the aisle. His cell phone was also glued to his palm. Good to know things hadn't changed that much.
"Lia, dear, what's going on?" he asked in that fatherly way that he used when there were others in the room. Tanya was behind him, peering suspiciously at her, and she suddenly felt uneasy. Still, she remained determined. It was time she spoke up for herself.
"Father, we have to call off this wedding," she said firmly, folding her hands in her lap. There was a gasp from behind her, but she ignored it and continued. "I can't marry Connor." After a beat, she corrected herself. "I won't."
Her father gaped at her as though she'd grown a second head. Then, of all things, he laughed, patting her shoulder. "Is that all?" he asked, chuckling. "You brought me in here for a case of the wedding jitters?" he asked Tanya, who tittered on cue but still managed to glare daggers at Natalia.
Lia's brow furrowed. He wasn't taking her seriously at all. "What? No, that's not it at all," she tried to say, but Tanya spoke over her.
"All brides are this way, Charles, don't worry about." She turned to her stepdaughter. "We'll sort it all out and you'll feel much better when it's over with," she told Natalia with a sickeningly sweet smile. And her father nodded and easily left the room without a second glance.
Well, that hadn't quite gone as she'd expected.
"Wait," Lia protested faintly, but one of the bridesmaids was already moving forward, wielding a makeup brush in her hand.
"You've smudged your makeup dear," Tanya said with forced sweetness, eyeing Lia in distaste. Lia knew that this wedding was important to her father and stepmother, and she knew immediately that Tanya was no going to make this easy.
"It's not nerves," she protested, pushing the bridesmaid's hand away. Who was she anyway? Her father's secretary, maybe? "I won't get married," she said, getting a little more desperate now. She needed these people to pay attention.
"Of course you will," Tanya snapped, starting to look frustrated now. "We've been planning this for months now. You can't just back out now. There are press waiting outside and all of your father's friends in the congregation."
"Press?" Natalia asked weakly, blinking. That caught her up short.
"Yes, press," Tanya said, trying to sound sweet again. "Your father and Connor are very important men, you know."
"Mother," came a voice from the door, a whiny, self-important voice that made Natalia grimace. Of course, her stepsister would be here too. "What is taking so long? The boys are getting worried." Sandi stood in the doorway, as impeccable as ever. The deep blue dress of the maid of honor suited her perfectly, enhancing her curves and coloring. Her hair was perfectly coiffed, her full lips pursed in distaste. Natalia sighed heavily. Of all the people she would have had for her maid of honor, she would not have picked Sandi. She was gorgeous, sexy, and an absolute bitch. Where were her real friends?
"Lia is giving us some trouble," Tanya said, as though speaking of a toddler or a cat. Sandi sighed.
"She's saying she doesn't want to have the wedding."
"What?" Sandi snapped, eyes narrowing on Lia. Lia took a deep breath. "You can't let her ruin this. We need this merger." Tanya shushed her, and Lia frowned. Merger?
"Merger?" she asked aloud, tired of being ignored.
"Don't worry about that," Tanya said firmly. "Sandi... misspoke. Come now, Lia, stop being so foolish. Your father will be heartbroken-"
"My father will be fine. I'm 22 not 2, and I am not saying this because of wedding jitters," she said, uneasily. "I don't want to get married." Tanya sighed in exasperation. "Where are my friends?" she added, looking around. "Where's Jordan?" Surely she'd at least requested that her best friend would be here. Tanya pursed her lips.
"We decided weeks ago that Sandi was more suitable for maid of honor," she reminded her thinly, sending someone off to retrieve the bouquet before Lia could stop her. "Don't you remember?"
"Mother, the veil is here," Sandi announced, carefully bringing it over. Lia ducked away when they tried to pin it on her.
"Stop this, you stupid girl," Tanya snapped. "I don't know what's gotten into you, but you will not spoil this wedding," she said, sounding a little shrill. The bridesmaids, Lia noticed, carefully ignored them, and, she realized with a sinking feeling, why shouldn't they? She'd been ignoring everyone else for the last months. The fact that she hadn't even fought to have her best friend here in some way made her feel even worse, and she started to feel faint again, not used to letting herself feel this much stress. Wouldn't it just be easier to go back to the way she'd been before? It was just a wedding, it didn't matter. She didn't have to focus on it and nothing would hurt.
She nearly slipped back into that fog, afraid and upset and so very tired when a deep, controlled voice came from the doorway. "What the hell is going on?"
The bridesmaids all tittered in surprise, but no one dared to try and usher him out. Tanya gave him a too-bright smile, and Sandi immediately tried to turn her charms on him, putting a hand on his broad chest and trying to catch his eyes. Unfortunately, he was staring right over her head to Lia, dark gaze dangerous and strangely cold, and something about the look on his face made her extremely nervous. Nervous enough to maintain focus.
"Connor," she said faintly, watching her husband-to-be. "Nice of you to join us." Tanya looked triumphant for a second, as though she thought Lia was about to drop the whole thing.
"What is going on in here?" he repeated, folding his arms, and she nearly lost her composure under the weight of his stare. He'd always been intimidating, but the fact that she was expected to be marrying this man who was practically a stranger, who commanded an entire room with a glance, who always got his way, made her feel queasy. She cut off her stepmother, taking a deep breath. She straightened her shoulders and met his gaze, speaking clearly and firmly.
"We're calling this wedding off. I am not getting married."
Everyone in the room fell silent, glancing between the bridegroom and the bride. Connor's expression did not change at all, which made Lia extremely nervous. She mentally berated herself. She was not a nervous person. In fact, she relied so little on her emotions usually that she knew people thought she was frigid and unfriendly, and she'd come to accept that. It meant she could always rely on her logic and her reason. Now, however, they seemed to have fled her as Connor Reagan's gaze bored into her own. Her stomach clenched, and she vaguely wondered when the last time was that she'd eaten. Last night, at the rehearsal dinner?
"Leave us." Connor's command was curt, and there was no arguing with him. All the other women immediately filed out of the room, and Lia tried not to feel unnerved. It wasn't like he could do anything to change her mind. There was no love lost between them. They hardly knew each other, after all. Even assuming the last many months hadn't been as much of a blur for him as it had for her, they weren't friends or lovers. They were barely even acquaintances.
She eyed him as he stood in the doorway. She'd met him few times before the funeral. She'd only seen him occasionally, and had never spoken to him. She hadn't even known his name until after she'd moved in with her father. Sandi had spent much more time with him than Lia herself ever had. In fact, for an engaged couple, they'd spent little time together. She hardly knew anything about him, and even if he'd told her, she hadn't been paying attention. So many things were a blur that she still needed to work through, and she was starting to get sick to her stomach now that the fog was not there to keep her grief and other emotions at bay.
She wondered again how she'd gotten herself into this mess, and then he stepped forward and her train of thought derailed.
"What, exactly, brought this about?" Connor asked, voice controlled and even. She couldn't tell what he was thinking. That was what made him an excellent businessman, everyone said. One stare from Mr. Reagan and you were signing your life away to him.
She hesitated to answer, not sure how to explain that she'd suddenly come to her senses. It made even less sense to try and explain that she was pretty sure she had a guardian angel looking out for her, who had prodded her into awareness minutes before her own wedding ceremony. "I-I just... realized... that I can't do this," she said, mentally cursing how stupid she sounded.
He smirked at her then, a legitimate smirk. A look that said he didn't take her seriously at all. The same look that people had been giving her for months that she'd been ignoring, and suddenly it made her angry. She was not a child! "I'm not marrying you," she snapped irritably. "It's not a joke."
"No, it's certainly not," he agreed easily, almost mockingly. She resisted the urge to scowl, still keeping in mind that he was an important business associate of her father's and she had to be polite.
Of course. That was it. A business associate. That's what this whole wedding was about anyway, wasn't it? They were using her. The secret meetings, the hushed discussions, how eager her father was for this union when only last year it was as though she didn't exist to him. That made her angrier. "We are cancelling this wedding," she said firmly. "I am not a pawn or a bargaining tool for my father to use to buy you out," she said, folding her arms. "I won't go through with this farce of a wedding."
Any amusement on his face had been wiped away at her boldly spoken words, his expression cold again. It was eerie how inhuman he looked like that. Connor was a big man, tall and broad and stereotypical. In fact, if she hadn't been the daughter of a business tycoon, he probably would never have given her a second glance had he passed her in the street. She was nothing special to look at, after all. "Why now?" he demanded, glaring at her. "We've been planning this wedding for months, Natalia," he said. She grimaced at her full name.
"You've been planning this for months," she corrected. "I had nothing to do with it."
"I am not to blame for your laziness," he said flatly, and she barely refrained from flinching. Laziness? "You wanted everyone else to handle everything for you," he said flatly. "And it was handled. So what is the problem?" Her head spun a little. How had he gotten that impression? Well, the logical part of her brain noted, and she was delighted to hear it again even if it didn't always bring good news, you certainly didn't make an effort to contribute.
She took a deep breath, frowning at him. "Look, you don't like me, and I don't like you," she said flatly. Something flashed through his eyes but he was quiet, waiting for her to finish. "So there's no point in getting married."
He actually rolled his eyes at her. "I know that this is complicated for you to understand," he said slowly, and she bristled at his tone, "But there are a lot of important people waiting for this wedding to happen, and you aren't going to derail it on some whim of yours. Did you just decide today that you could find a better offer? I have plenty of money, little princess," he said snidely. She blinked at him, slow to comprehend. "Your... lifestyle is not in danger." Now she openly gaped at him, wanting to slap him.
"You know nothing about me, you- you asshole!" she said. He smirked again. She was beginning to hate that smirk. How had she missed how horrible he was? Even through her stupor she should have realized that.
"What's there to know?" he asked, folding his arms. "Daddy's little girl, accustomed to certain standards, lets everyone do the work for her. Not to mention your other... shortcomings." Lia winced, shocked that the man she was expected to marry could be so crude. She wasn't as beautiful as her stepsister, and she could stand to lose some weight probably, but that was crossing the line. She refused to let it hurt her, however, instead using it to feed her anger.
"You are an ass," she said succinctly. "And I will not marry you." In a flash, he was gripping her chin, and she froze, eyes wide. His grip wasn't painful, but it was firm, and he forced her to meet his dark gaze. His nearness had the unfortunate affect of making it very difficult to breathe.
"Do you really think this marriage is your father supplementing me?" he demanded quietly, eyes flinty. "It's your family that needs the help. Your father's company is going downhill, and this merger is going to save his hide. Adopting me into his family just secures his own financial safety and well, I'm frankly tired of the press following me around for interviews with a rich bachelor. So unless you want to be kicked out of that nice mansion your father's about to lose, you should cooperate, Natalia," he said lowly.
She shoved him off and stepped back, mind whirling with the new information. This was for her father's benefit, not Connor's? She hadn't known there was any trouble with her father's company. What was going on here? This was going downhill incredibly swiftly.
"I... don't understand..." Connor waved a dismissive hand.
"Yes, I know," he said patronizingly. "Business details are difficult for your pretty little head to follow." And just like that, she was angry again, the threat of the fog being burned away by her fury.
"You arrogant pig," she sputtered. He was pulling all these assumptions about her out of the air. She barely ever spoke to him; how could he possibly know any of this. How dare he! She marched for the door, furious, but he snagged her arm and easily dragged her back. Right against his chest, actually.
The sudden move made her a little dizzy, and she blinked up at him stupidly. Something had changed in his face and his eyes were unreadable. Slowly, the hand that wasn't gripping her arm reached for her cheek, gently caressing her skin. She knew she blushed, knew and hated it, because she was cursed with an incredibly easy flush, like her mother. The thought grounded her a little, but what he did next shattered her concentration.
Very gently, he tilted up her chin and slanted his mouth over hers. Immediately, she tried to pull away, but he held her there for a long moment, studying her face when he pulled away. Her thoughts scattered, she tried to collect herself, distracted by the heat of his chest against her, by the scrutiny he was eyeing her with. It was not her first kiss or her first kiss with Connor, but affection between them had been close to non-existent and she didn't remember it ever affecting her like that. She blinked up at him, eyes wide.
He gave her a smirk again, knowingly touching her bottom lip. "Would marrying me be so bad?" he murmured, and she suddenly fiercely hated herself for letting him do that to her and letting it affect her at all. She did not appreciate being taken advantage of and she did not understand why she was so flustered about it.
Well, actually she did. Emotional things did not always make sense to her. She struggled with anything in the empathetic range and preferred things that made sense. Physical attraction was not one of those things, but her offish demeanor usually kept that problem at bay for her, not to mention her less-than-perfect physique. Apparently months of walking around in a senseless daze had taken that defense away from her.
"I think I'll be able to satisfy your needs, little princess," Connor chuckled, and it slowly dawned at her. He thought he could convince her by seducing her? Hell no! She pulled out of his grip and stumbled away from him.
"Do not touch me again," she spat, resisting the urge to childishly wipe her hand across lips that still tingled. The gentler expression vanished from Connor's face, and she realized it had been another act and felt all the more foolish.
"Stop being so difficult," he growled, but she was done listening, heart and head pounding. She was not going to argue with him anymore, it was getting her nowhere. So instead, she quickly stepped around him and darted out the door, veil half-pinned to her hair and dress bunched in her hands as she kicked off her shoes and hurried down the hall, ignoring the sound of Connor swearing and following her.
If her father, stepmother, and own fiancé wouldn't listen to her, the reporters that were supposedly outside certainly would.