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Bonus Epilogue

FROM ACROSS THE Barlows’ backyard, Cormac watched his bride. She was radiant in her gown, her dark hair gathered in a knot at the base of her neck, her lips etched in a smile. He couldn’t quite believe that she’d agreed to marry him.

Him, a man who’d kept himself apart, who’d pushed everyone away to avoid having to protect them. He’d been a special kind of fool, hadn’t he? It was Lucy who was the protector. She was the one who put her hands around his heart and kept it safe. She was the one who dragged him into the light and wrapped him in the armor of her love.

She protected him from loneliness, from isolation, from drudgery. She made life worth living, and she was all his.

It was a dream, too good to be true.

As if she could sense his attention, Lucy glanced away from her friends and met his gaze. The cool autumn breeze ruffled his hair as Lucy’s smile widened, and Cormac’s heart grew a few sizes. She was so beautiful. No one else even came close.

Cormac watched as Lucy said a few words to Camilla and the rest of the girls in her group, then picked up her skirt and walked across the backyard toward him. Fairy lights had been strung up across the Barlows’ backyard, and their reflection twinkled a million different ways in the beading of her gown. She stopped a foot away from him, which was too far. He closed the distance and wrapped his arms around his wife, touching his forehead to hers.

His soul let out a long sigh as he inhaled the scent of her. She was in his embrace, exactly where she belonged.

“How are you doing?” Lucy asked quietly, fingers drawing abstract shapes on the back of his neck.

“Not bad,” Cormac replied, which was a complete lie. He finally felt settled. He felt like he had a purpose. He was…content.

Contentedness had never been something Cormac sought in the past; he’d been too busy trying to protect and take care of the people he loved. At times, he’d been happy.

But there’d been something missing—until now.

Now, he understood that being content was like floating on a deep, still lake. It was feeling the sun’s rays on your face while your hands drifted through the water. It was peace.

He kissed Lucy, lips tasting hers in a gentle caress. It was the only way he could think of to tell her how he felt, to show her what she meant to him.

As they pulled away from each other, Lucy’s eyes shone. In her gaze, Cormac saw that she understood. She knew the depth of his feelings, knew that she’d hold his heart captive for the rest of his life.

“Let’s go home,” she said quietly, and Cormac had never heard any sweeter words.

Hand in hand, they said their goodbyes and made their way to his vehicle. Lucy gathered the riot of tulle into the car so that Cormac could close her door, throwing him an impish grin through the car window. He walked around the front of the car, waving at their parents who were standing on the stoop, and got inside.

They both sighed as he started the engine. Lucy put her hand on his thigh as he backed out of her parents’ driveway, and a comfortable silence enveloped them. Cormac put his hand on top of hers and brought her fingers up to his lips.

“I’ll get you a better ring,” he promised, touching the simple gold band they’d chosen that week. There’d been no time to get anything flashier.

“I love my ring,” Lucy protested.

“You don’t want a diamond?”

There was a short silence, and Lucy laughed. “Well. Maybe.”

He smiled at her. “You’ll get a diamond.”

He held her hand all the way home, until he had to let go to open the garage door to his building’s underground parking lot. They went down the ramp into the darkness and navigated to his reserved spot, and Cormac’s heart began to thump.

He’d organized a few things for their wedding night and enlisted Ruby’s help in setting it up. He hoped she’d done it the way he asked. He wanted Lucy to give him that smile, the one that lit her face up. He wanted her to know how special she was to him.

Maybe he should have organized a hotel. Something swankier. Something more worthy of her for their wedding night.

“Why do you look so worried all of a sudden?” Lucy asked.

He glanced at her and shook his head. “Nothing. Let’s go upstairs.”

“Wait.” Lucy pulled out her phone and turned it off. She glanced at Cormac and grinned. “Now yours.”

A bit of tension melted out of Cormac as he turned his own phone off. Nothing would interrupt them on their wedding night.

She shimmied out the door and took the mountain of white fabric with her. Adjusting her dress, she grinned at Cormac and let out a tinkling laugh. “This is why these kinds of dresses need fancy venues. They require so much space.”

Cormac opened his mouth to answer but was interrupted by a tiny, high-pitched noise, almost like a squeeze toy.

In an instant, his body was on high alert. Was someone down here? Were they finally going to find out who was behind the counterfeit cash scheme? They still hadn’t found the person responsible for buying the fake cash. What if someone was trying to lure them into danger?

Another squeak. A shoe on the floor? Something else?

Heart pounding, he turned toward the sound; it was coming from the door to the garbage room, where the building’s residents dropped their trash and recycling.

“Did you hear that?” Lucy asked.

“Stay here,” he commanded, voice harsh. Adrenaline dumped into his veins as he forced himself to keep his breathing steady. “Get in the car. You’ll be safer there.”

Lucy, of course, did not stay where she was, and she did not get in the car. She followed him to the door to the garbage disposal room and glanced around the side of his arm as he waited for the lights to flicker on.

Another squeak sounded. They both turned toward the sound, which was coming from the dumpsters. Keeping quiet, they crept toward the big bin, following the noise all the way around it.

“Oh,” Lucy cried softly, crouching down to the source of the sound.

Behind an empty cardboard box, a kitten squeaked in distress. It had patchy fur and looked malnourished. Cormac’s breath gusted out.

Lucy reached for the bedraggled creature, then hesitated. She glanced at Cormac, brows drawn. “What do we do? Is its mom around?”

“Maybe,” Cormac replied, studying the space. The cat didn’t look like a newborn; it was several weeks old, at least, although it was so skinny it was hard to tell for sure. “The rest of her litter should be here, unless she just had the one.”

“Or if this one is the runt,” Lucy added, “and it’s been left behind.”

Cormac pinched his lips.

Lucy’s dress brushed the concrete floor as she crouched, dirt clinging to its hem. She didn’t seem to notice. “Should we wait for momma cat to come back?”

Cormac grimaced, then nodded. “That’s probably wise. The best thing for this cat is to be with its mother.”

“If the mother is still around,” Lucy added.

“Let’s give it an hour,” Cormac said, straightening. “We’ll come back down here and if there’s no sign of the mother, we’ll take the cat, and start calling vets to see if anyone’s lost a kitten.”

Lucy sighed and stood. They walked to the garbage room entrance and glanced at the little ball of fur, both of them reluctant to leave.

They went upstairs in silence, where they were greeted by Princess Snowball winding around their feet. He refreshed her water bowl and tried to stop thinking about the kitten. Poor thing was hungry and cold down there, all alone. It hadn’t looked like the mother had been around in a while. He scratched Snowball behind the ears as he mulled it over, hesitating. Should they have grabbed the cat right away? Surely it would be better to keep it warm and fed up here?

Across the apartment, Lucy let out a gasp. She’d opened the bedroom door and saw the rose petals strewn over the bed, along with the unlit candles placed around the room.

Cormac froze. That was right—he’d had plans for tonight. Plans that hadn’t involved a scruffy young cat. Shaking his head, he joined Lucy in the bedroom, wrapping his arms around her stomach. Ruby had done exactly as he asked, and more. Candles waited to be lit all around the room, and soft red rose petals were sprinkled all over the crisp white bedding. She’d even twisted one of his towels into a swan shape and left a couple of mints on the pillows. Probably trying to be funny.

Lucy leaned back against him and let out a long sigh. “When did you do this?”

He kissed the side of Lucy’s neck. “Do you like it?”

She turned in his arms and tilted her head up. Her lips tasted like sweetness and magic. Cormac’s arms tightened around his wife’s waist, pulling her closer. She fit perfectly against him as he let out a sigh, and he began to back her up toward the bed.

When her legs hit the mattress, Lucy pulled away. Her hands curled into the lapels of his tuxedo jacket, and she stared at his throat. A wrinkle appeared between her brows.

Cormac used his curled finger to tilt her chin up. “You okay?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head, “I keep thinking about the cat.”

Cormac pulled her close, resting his chin on top of her head. “Yeah. Me too.”

“What if its mom doesn’t come back?”

He checked his watch. “Let’s give it an hour. We’ll go back down, and if the mother isn’t there, we’ll bring the kitten up.”

“Okay,” Lucy said. After a pause, she added, “Would you mind undoing my buttons?”

She turned and lifted her hair out of the way, and Cormac started working on the row of tiny buttons all the way down her spine. Throughout the day, from the moment he’d seen her in the dress, he’d imagined exactly this moment. The brush of his fingers against her warm, soft skin. The slow revealing of her spine. The soft curves that belonged only to him.

But he hadn’t anticipated the cat. He could tell by the set of her shoulders that Lucy wasn’t thinking about sex. She was glancing to the side, her gaze unfocused. Cormac unbuttoned her and helped her step out of her gown, sucking in a breath at the sight of her white lace undergarments.

But Lucy’s mind was elsewhere. She was already walking toward the dresser, her perfect butt framed by white panties. Without even a glance in Cormac’s direction, she pulled on one of his comfy hoodies and hid the lingerie she’d worn under her gown.

Turning, she arched her brows. “Will the kitty need special milk, or do you think it’s weaned? It was so small.”
Her legs were bare beneath the hoodie, and she looked even more delectable than she had in her gown. And she had no idea. Cormac blinked. “I’m not sure. We’ll have to see.”

Lucy nodded, pulling on a pair of pajama pants. Cormac stripped off his own tux, and they moved to the kitchen for a snack. Lucy kept glancing at the clock, and Cormac wasn’t much better.

This evening wasn’t going to plan, but Cormac couldn’t help it; he was worried about the cat.

Finally, the hour was up. Lucy slipped her feet into a pair of flip-flops and waited by the door as Cormac tied his shoes. He grabbed his keys, locked the door, and headed for the elevator.

Downstairs, there was no sign of the mother cat. The kitten’s noises were quieter, more distressed. It was cold down there. There was only one thing to do. Moving slowly, Cormac gathered the kitten in the towel they’d brought down, then hefted the little creature into his arms.

It had bright orange fur and a tiny pink nose. Its tail was so skinny as it curled around the cat’s small body, burrowing into the towel. Lucy looked at the bundle, using the tip of her finger to touch the kitten’s head. It meow-squeaked again, and then settled, trembling.

“Poor thing is terrified,” she said, eyes wide.

“And freezing,” Cormac answered. Heat burned the inside of his chest. His ribs felt tight. “Let’s go upstairs.”

They made it back up the elevator and deposited the bundle on the kitchen island. At his feet, Princess Snowball appeared. She wound around his ankles and sat down, clearly confused at the squeaking meows sounding from above. With two quick jumps, she was on top of the kitchen island.

Cormac was about to shoo her off—she wasn’t typically allowed on the counters—but Snowball wouldn’t be deterred. She inspected the little bundle, and within moments, began to groom the smaller cat with her tongue. The orange cat protested with fierce meows, which soon quieted down.

“They like each other,” Lucy said, winding her arm around Cormac’s waist.

“We really shouldn’t let them get close,” Cormac grumbled. “The little one could have parasites. Could make Princess Snowball sick.”

Snowball seemed to understand the threat of separation because she picked the kitten up by the scruff of the neck and carried it away as she leaped off the kitchen island, already fiercely protective.

Lucy glanced at Cormac, who gave her a flat stare. She laughed.

“My cat is a nightmare,” he grouched, not meaning a word.

Lucy laughed harder. They watched Snowball bring the kitten to the water bowl and soon learned that it was already weaned when it dug into the food in Princess Snowball’s bowl. A tightness in Cormac’s chest eased. At least he’d be able to feed it and keep it warm.

“I’m taking you both to the vet tomorrow,” Cormac told the two cats sternly, feeling ridiculous.

The cats ignored him, as usual.

“What should we name him?”

“Nothing,” Cormac grumbled, scowling at the two cats as they curled up in a pile of fur together, “because we’re not keeping him.”

“Maybe Sweet Potato,” Lucy said, proving that no women in Cormac’s life ever listened to a word he said.

“We’re not keeping the cat,” Cormac repeated, but Lucy was winding her fingers in his and tugging him to the bedroom.

Her eyes were full of witchy light, her lips curled in a smile. “You’re such a softie, Cormac. That’s one of the reasons I love you so much.”

Maybe the women in his life didn’t listen because they saw right through him. Cormac huffed, then caught Lucy around the waist and hauled her over his shoulder. She yelped, laughing. When he got into the bedroom, he kicked the door closed and tossed her onto the bed.

Rose petals scattered and candles remained unlit. Cormac shed his clothes, then worked on Lucy’s. He admired her white lace lingerie for a lot less time than he should have; he was in far too much of a hurry to get her naked.

They forgot about the cats for a while and lost themselves in each other—exactly where they were meant to be. It was a night of passion, tenderness, and overwhelming love. Cormac would remember it for the rest of his life.

The next morning, when they turned their phones back on and discovered all that they’d missed when they were offline—including the headlines in the local newspaper featuring a haggard-looking Scarlett and Archer—real life intruded again. But Cormac still took the time to thoroughly kiss his wife so she knew just how much she meant to him.

She was his, and he wasn’t going to let her go. Judging by the twinkle in her eyes when they pulled apart, Lucy was more than happy with that arrangement.

Death has paid a visit, and Scarlett and Archer are in the crosshairs.

By the time the murderer is found, Scarlett could lose it all: her friends, her business, her freedom…

and the man she’s fallen for.

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