Dream WeddingBy: Susan Mallery
“I WISH I was going to dream about the man I was going to marry,” Cassie said and grinned. “I know how excited you are about it.”
Chloe Bradley Wright looked at her sister. “Oh, yeah. Too excited for words.” She fingered the soft lace of the nightgown she held. “Do I have to do this?”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
If only that were true, Chloe thought with regret. But she did have to wear the stupid nightgown. It was her twenty-fifth birthday and time for her to participate in the family legend. Not that she believed in magic or happily-ever-after. As far as she was concerned, falling in love or caring about someone was a one-way ticket to heartache.
She opened her mouth to express her opinion, then pressed her lips tightly together. She might not be a believer, but her sister, Cassie, had more than enough faith for the both of them.
Chloe stared into the face that was nearly as familiar as her own. Cassie was adopted, but younger by only six months. The two girls had been together since Cassie was four weeks old and they were best friends. Chloe had shared her admittedly cynical opinion on more than one occasion, but Cassie’s belief in the legend had never wavered. Who was she to try and change her sister’s mind now? It was just for one night. What could it hurt?
“I’ll wear it,” she said, trying to sound gracious.
Cassie leaned forward and hugged her. “I knew you would,” she said and bounced off the bed. Her short, thick brown hair swung around her face. “I’ll go tell Aunt Charity. Won’t she be surprised?”
“Probably not,” Chloe muttered when she was alone. Aunt Charity had a sixth sense about these things. No doubt the older woman figured she already knew whom Chloe was going to dream about.
“I’m not going to dream about anyone,” she said aloud as she pulled her T-shirt over her head, then slipped out of her jeans. “It’s just a nightgown. It has no mystic powers. It’s now the twenty-first century, for heaven’s sake! No one believes that kind of thing.”
She unfastened her bra and tossed the garment onto the floor, then picked up the nightgown. The cotton was cool to her touch and she shivered involuntarily.
“It’s nothing,” she insisted. But she hesitated before pulling the soft fabric over her head. What if the legend was true? What if she was really going to dream about the man she was destined to love? What if—“What if people have been abducted by aliens lurking in cornfields?” she asked aloud.
“Oh, I don’t think those stories are true,” her aunt said as she entered the bedroom. Charity raised dark eyebrows. “So how much did Cassie have to twist your arm to get you to wear it tonight?”
Chloe shrugged as she smoothed the nightgown in place. “Not too much. I figure it’s an inevitable rite of passage for Bradley women, as inescapable as birthdays and taxes. I’m just sorry she’s going to be disappointed in the morning.”
“Yes,” Charity said as she moved to the bed and pulled back the covers. “It will be sad. Cassie is one of those rare types who is a true believer. There aren’t many left.”
Chloe had turned twenty-five that very day, but suddenly she felt like a ten-year-old with a favorite relative staring at a less than perfect report card, all the while telling her the low grades were fine, as long as she’d tried her best.
“You can’t tell me you believe in the legend,” Chloe said as she plopped down on the edge of her bed.
Charity settled next to her. The older woman was of average height with the Wright family’s dark eyes and hair. She had to be in her mid-fifties, but she could have easily passed for someone a dozen years younger.
“I’ve traveled all around the world,” Charity reminded her. “I’ve seen many amazing things. As for magic and legends?” She shrugged. “Who’s to say what’s real and what isn’t?”
Chloe snorted indelicately. “Give me a break. So you’re saying that this nightgown is several hundred years old and is magical?”
“You never know.”
Chloe fingered the soft cotton. “It’s in pretty good shape for an antique.”
“So am I, dear.” Charity patted her hand.
“You’re hardly an antique.” She drew in a deep breath. “It would be nice if it were all true, but I just can’t take that step of faith.”
“That’s the reporter in you.”
“Agreed. But someone in this family has to be practical. Between you and Cassie, you’ve always got your heads in the clouds.”
“I’m back,” Cassie announced as she bounded back in the room. She held something in her hand and before Chloe could figure out what it was, she tossed it in the air. Dozens of red, pink and cream rose petals drifted over Chloe, Aunt Charity and the bed.
“My contribution,” her sister said with a smile as she settled in the small wingback chair by the closet door.
Chloe pulled rose petals from her hair. Her irritation faded in the presence of such loving support. Who was she to fight against tradition?
“You win,” she said as she stood up.
Charity rose as well. “It’s best, dear. You’ll see.” She waited until Chloe climbed into bed, then tucked in the covers. “Sleep well.”
When she’d left, Cassie moved close and crouched down. “Dream of someone wonderful,” she instructed. “Rich and handsome and very loving.” Her wide dark eyes softened at the thought. “Someone who will want to be with you forever.”
“What a romantic,” Chloe teased. “I’ll do my best.”
Cassie straightened. “In the morning, I want details. Lots of them.”
“I promise. Oh, and thanks for the party. It was great.”
Her sister smiled. “My pleasure.” She walked out of the room and closed the door behind her.
Chloe leaned up on one elbow and clicked off the lamp, then settled onto the bed that had been hers since she’d turned thirteen. The room had been decorated several times, but except for three years in high school, she’d slept here her whole life. Everything about the room, the house and even the town was familiar to her. Yet tonight, it all felt different.
“Atmosphere,” she told herself softly. It was all the talk of magic and legends. Even a confirmed cynic like her was bound to be affected.
She pulled the covers up to her chin and closed her eyes. Memories from her twenty-fifth-birthday party drifted through her mind and made her smile. She’d wanted something small, friends and family only. Cassie and Aunt Charity had prepared dinner. The presents had been mostly gag gifts, which she preferred. Nothing sentimental for her.
She had a busy week planned at the magazine. She mentally listed all she had to do in the next few days.
As her mind relaxed and she started to get sleepy, thoughts of the legend intruded. According to family lore, several centuries ago a young woman had saved an old gypsy from certain death. In return the gypsy had given her a magic nightgown. If the women in her family—the Bradley family—wore this nightgown the night of their twenty-fifth birthday, they would dream of the man they were destined to marry. The union would be long and happy.
“Yeah, right,” Chloe muttered as she turned on her side. “He’ll probably come riding up on a white horse and sweep me away.”
She knew exactly what she was going to dream about—what she always dreamed about. Nothing. Her nights were as quiet and uneventful as an empty drawer and that was just how she liked them. The nightgown wasn’t magic. The legend wasn’t real. And she was suddenly very, very sleepy.
* * *
HE APPEARED OUT of the darkness, not on a white horse, but in a Jeep that roared up the side of the mountain.
“This isn’t happening,” Chloe told herself even as anticipation filled her. She clung to the side of the rocks as the wind whipped at her hair and made the hem of her nightgown snap like a sail.
“Nightgown?” She stared down at herself. Dear Lord, she was naked except for a thin layer of lacy cotton. What on earth?
“You’re dreaming,” she told herself. “That’s all. Just dreaming. Go with it and you’ll be fine.”
But the reassurance didn’t keep her heart from pounding as the Jeep drew closer. The man inside stopped it a scant two feet from her, then climbed out.
He was tall—substantially taller than her five feet nine inches—and lean. “At least he’s really good-looking,” Chloe said to herself. “I mean if I have to dream about some strange guy, I don’t want him to look like the king of the nerds or something.”
The man didn’t speak. Instead he walked over to her, ripped off his shirt, then pulled her hard against his gleaming chest.
“I like this,” she said, feeling the masculine length of his body pressing into hers.
“Hush, love. I am your destiny.”
“Uh-huh. And I’m a direct descendant of Queen Victoria.”
She stared into the greenest eyes she’d ever seen. The dream was amazingly real. She could feel the wind, the heat of the man’s body, his breath on her cheek. She swallowed. She even felt him pressing up against her. Wow! She had to get out more. Her subconscious was obviously way too bored with her life.
“I want you,” the man said.
“Then take me, big boy. I’m yours.”
He kissed her. Chloe stifled a shriek of both shock and pleasure. Talk about going for it. His mouth claimed hers in the most perfect, masterful way. She felt small and delicate and incredibly free. This was a dream, after all. She could say or do anything she wanted and no one would ever have to know.
She clutched his face and pulled back. “I have one request,” she said.
“Make it. I’ll do anything for you.”
“Great. Just don’t disappear on me until we’re finished, okay? I hate those sex dreams where I wake up about thirty seconds from the good part. It does not make for a restful night.”
Instead of answering, he swept her up in his arms and carried her into the cave. There a fire burned low. Their bed was soft, fresh, sweet-smelling straw. How nice of her brain to supply the details.
The stranger made love to her with a tender thoroughness that left her breathless and trembling. He touched and kissed every part of her. Much to her relief, she didn’t wake up before the good part. In fact the good part happened at least twice. He even made her scream once and she’d never been a screamer.
“Who are you?” she asked when they at last stretched out together. They were both slick with sweat and breathing hard. She traced his perfect body, her fingers lingering on a scar on his left forearm.
“So you said, but do you actually have a name, or should I just call you Mr. D.?”
He raised his head and stared at her. His gaze was so intense, she felt as if she could see down to the bottom of his soul. Whatever lurked there called to her. She wanted to respond, but didn’t know how. This was still a dream, right? It wasn’t real. But for that second, she desperately wanted it to be.
“You’ll know me,” he told her as the world around them faded to black.
She tried to grab on to him, but his hand slipped through hers. Before she could even cry out, he was gone and she was alone.
* * *
“HOW WAS it? Start at the beginning and talk very slowly.”
Chloe blinked at the bright light and realized it was morning. She glanced around in confusion, then saw she was back in her own room, in her familiar bed. Cassie bounced on the mattress next to her and grinned.
“So, who is he? Who did you dream about?”
Chloe sat up slowly. Her head was spinning and she couldn’t quite wake up. Maybe because she didn’t feel rested. It was almost as if she’d spent the night running around. Or making love with a handsome, mysterious stranger.
She pushed the last thought away. Nothing had happened. She’d had a couple of weird dreams. They were probably the result of too much chocolate cake and ice cream. They didn’t mean anything.
Cassie was still in the oversized T-shirt she regularly wore to bed. Her thick hair was mussed, her face flushed from sleep. “Do you mean to tell me you didn’t dream about anyone? Not even one guy?”
Chloe sat up and hugged her arms to her chest. Her body ached pleasantly and there was a definite dampness between her legs. Too weird, she told herself silently. But she did not believe in family legends. The dream had been a fluke, not a prophecy. She wasn’t going to encourage Cassie’s flights of fancy.
“I didn’t dream of anyone,” she said slowly, instantly picturing the handsome man who had swept her into that cave. It was all too embarrassing. What was she supposed to say? That the sex had been great, thank you very much? She couldn’t admit anything to anyone.
Cassie’s smile faded. “But I thought it was real.” She sounded as if someone had stolen her last hope.
Chloe grimaced. She had done exactly that. But she couldn’t tell the truth. She just couldn’t!
“I’m sorry,” she said and touched her sister’s arm. “It’s just a nightgown, kid. Like any other.”
“Okay. Aunt Charity warned me the legend might just be a story, but I didn’t want to believe her. I guess I’m going to have to.” Cassie looked as if she was going to say more, then untangled herself from the covers and stood up. “I’ll go start the coffee.”
When Chloe was alone, she collapsed back on the pillow. She felt strange inside. Off center somehow. Was it the dream?
“There is no legend,” she said aloud. “The dream was just my subconscious’s way of telling me it’s time to start dating. I’ll take the hint. Today in the office, I’ll look around for a likely candidate.”
But as she walked to the bathroom, instead of trying to figure out which eligible men would interest her, she found herself picturing him. She shivered…not in fear or irritation, but at the memory of what his touch had done to her.
A hot shower went a long way to restoring her spirits. As she toweled off, she checked her arms and the tops of her breasts. Nothing. Just her regular skin. She’d half expected to see the lingering marks from his lovemaking.
“I must remember to ask Aunt Charity if insanity runs in the family,” she said as she chose her clothes for the day.
Fifteen minutes later, her hair was dry and she was dressed. She headed for the kitchen and that healing first cup of coffee. As she reached for the coffeepot, Cassie flipped on the small television. They usually watched one of the morning shows while they ate breakfast.
Chloe had the pot in one hand and a mug in the other. Then a familiar voice filled the room and she froze.
“The gem exhibit is an exciting find,” he said. “But I can’t take full credit for bringing it to the university. It takes a very large committee to pull this kind of thing together.”
Goose bumps puckered up and down her arms. She set the coffeepot back on its burner so she wouldn’t drop it, and put the mug on the counter. Then, very slowly, she turned to face the television.
The camera focused on the perky hostess of the local morning show. Then the picture on the screen panned right. A man came into view. A handsome man. A man who, until sometime last night, she’d never seen before. But she knew him. She knew every inch of his body. She’d touched and tasted him, she knew his scent so well, she could have found him in the dark.
“Why do you think you’re always the one to make the great discoveries?” the woman asked.
The man smiled. Chloe felt her heart shudder in her chest, and she began to tingle all over. She might not want to remember, but her body wouldn’t let her forget.
The man smiled. “Just lucky, I guess.”
The hostess practically sighed. “Unfortunately we’re out of time. Just to remind our viewers, Arizona Smith will be lecturing at the university on his fabulous gem find. There are still tickets available, but they’re going fast. The gems themselves will be on display throughout the month. Mr. Smith, it’s been my pleasure having you here this morning.”
Chloe’s mouth twisted. The woman was practically cooing. So much for professionalism, she thought, refusing to acknowledge the white heat inside of her that some might call jealousy.
So her mystery man had a name. Arizona Smith. Which meant he was real. She thought about the nightgown, the Bradley family legend, the dream. Oh, Lord, it couldn’t be true. He was not her destiny. He couldn’t be. She didn’t want a destiny like that. She avoided relationships.
It doesn’t matter, she told herself fiercely. The man is in town for maybe a week. It’s not as if I’ll ever run into him.
“I’ve got to get to work early,” she told Cassie.
“Don’t you want your coffee?”
Chloe was already heading out the door. “I’ll grab some on the way,” she called over her shoulder, and made her escape to freedom.
* * *
ARIZONA SMITH WAS everywhere, Chloe thought with dismay as she sipped her coffee at the small diner across the street from her office. His picture had been plastered on three buses and on four different billboards she’d spotted on her way to work. Even now he was staring at her from the bench directly in front of her building—or at least his picture was. She couldn’t escape the man.
“Deep breaths,” she told herself. The trick was to keep breathing. And moving. If he couldn’t catch her, she would be safe.
It was too weird. All of it. Maybe she’d seen his picture over the past couple of days and not really noticed. Somehow it had gotten lodged in her brain and only surfaced last night. A perfectly plausible explanation.
If only the sex hadn’t been so good.
“I don’t believe in destiny,” she reminded herself again as she left the diner and made her way to the foyer of her building. The magazine office was on the second floor. She stopped by reception long enough to pick up her messages.
“Jerry wants to see you,” Paula, the receptionist-gofer called. “Something about a special assignment.”
“Great.” That was what she needed. Something challenging to take her mind off her temporary insanity.
She dropped her things at her desk, then headed for her editor’s office.
Bradley Today was a small but prestigious magazine that came out twice a month. Chloe had gotten a job there when she’d graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a degree in journalism. Eventually she planned to make her way to New York, where the big magazines were published, but for now she was gathering experience and building her clippings.
“You wanted to see me, boss?” she asked as she stepped through the open glass door.
“Yeah, sit.” Jerry waved to the seat opposite his desk.
It was only eight-thirty in the morning, but his long-sleeved shirt was already rumpled and his tie hung crooked. If the clothes hadn’t been different from the ones he’d worn the previous day, Chloe would have sworn he’d slept in them.
“It’s like this,” he said, then stuck one hand into the pile of folders on his desk. He pulled one out, looked at the label, shoved it back and grabbed another. “Nancy’s pregnant.”
Chloe nodded. Nancy was one of their most experienced writers. “She’s been that way for about seven months.”
“Tell me about it. Babies. Who needs ’em? Anyway, she says she’s too far along to be running around for me. She wants to write stuff that lets her stay in the office. Can you believe it?”
His outrage made Chloe smile. “Wow. How insensitive of her.”
“Exactly. Does she give me any warning? No-o-o. She calls me at home last night and drops the bomb. So now I pass it along to you. Good luck, kid.” With that, he tossed her the folder.
When she touched the stiff paper, Chloe felt the same shivery chill she’d experienced the previous night when she’d slipped on the nightgown. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck rose. She knew exactly what she was going to find inside that folder, and there was nothing she could do to change it. It was, she admitted, inevitable.
“He’s in town for about three weeks,” Jerry said. “Follow him around. Shouldn’t be hard. He wants this piece as much as we do. Decent publicity and all that garbage. Get to know the real man. Write me something brilliant and it just might be your ticket out.” Jerry looked at her. “A bigger publisher or maybe even a book deal. Do it right, kid. Breaks like this don’t come along very often. Now get out of here. I’m busy.”
With that Jerry picked up his ringing phone and probably forgot she’d ever been in the room.
Chloe gingerly took the folder and returned to her cubicle. She didn’t want to open it. Maybe if she waited long enough, it would go away. Wishful thinking, she thought, and drew in a deep breath. She flipped back the top cover and saw him. He was standing on the edge of a mountain, leaning against an outcropping of rock. She recognized the clothes, the place and the man. She knew that just around the corner was a cave and in the cave was a fire and a bed of straw.
“I don’t like this,” Chloe whispered. “It’s too strange.”
“I brought it,” Paula said as she walked into the tiny space and dumped a stack of folders onto the spare chair pressed up by Chloe’s desk.
“What is it?”
“Research. All the stuff Nancy had gathered on that Smith guy. She said to call her at home if you want any tips.” Paula’s gaze drifted to the photograph. “Wow, he’s good-looking. Just like that guy in the movies. You know—Indiana Jones. Although he doesn’t really look like Harrison Ford. He’s taller. Still, I wouldn’t shoo him away if he turned up in my bed.” She waved her fingers and left.
“Apparently I wouldn’t either,” Chloe said glumly. So much for escaping her destiny. In the space of twelve hours a strange man had invaded her subconscious and now her work. What was she supposed to do?
But Chloe already knew the answer to that. An assignment like the one Jerry had just handed her was one any junior writer would kill for. Talk about a stroke of luck.
Or destiny, a little voice whispered.
“I don’t believe in little voices either,” Chloe muttered, “So I’m going to get to work now.”
She spent the rest of the day reading through Nancy’s notes, clippings from other articles and some information she’d pulled from the Internet. By four-thirty her eyes hurt and she had a major headache. She still didn’t have a strategy for dealing with everything that had happened, but she needed to get one and fast. Her first meeting with Mr. Smith was in the morning at the university. Nancy had already set it up. He was taking her on a private tour of the gem exhibit.
She gathered up all the papers and stuffed them into her briefcase. Maybe she could work better at home.
Forty minutes later she pulled into the driveway of the Victorian mansion that had been in her family for generations. Safe at last, she thought as she climbed out. She walked up the steps and into the foyer.
“It’s me,” she called. Cassie’s car hadn’t been in the garage, but Aunt Charity’s had.
“We’re in the kitchen.”
Chloe made a face. Aunt Charity had spent much of her life traveling the world. She seemed to know someone from every possible corner of the globe, and at one time or another they all liked to visit. Who was it this time? A tribal elder from Africa or some obscure prince from the Middle East? She felt that familiar wave of resentment toward her aunt Charity for not being around when she’d needed her the most. But she filed those unpleasant thoughts away. She just wasn’t up to dwelling on that tonight. And she wasn’t in the mood to play hostess, either.
Still, she straightened her shoulders and forced herself to smile as she crossed the hallway and entered the kitchen. She already had her arm extended so she could shake hands with Charity’s mystery guest.
She came to a complete stop just inside the oversize room. Her jaw dropped. She told herself to close her mouth, but her body wasn’t paying attention.
He was as tall as she remembered. Lean, powerful and too good-looking by far. Not a tribal elder, or even a prince. No, he was much more dangerous. He was Arizona Smith—the man from her dream.