Chapter One

 

“You’re mad. Beyond crazy, sis,” Jasmine said with a groan. “You know that, right?”

Kendal regarded her five-years-older sister’s reflection in the mirror. “Yes. So you’ve told me, many times over.”

“And do you listen? Like ever? No.” Jasmine, a shorter, rounder version of her, swatted Kendal on her arm. “You dig your heels in as usual and jump in with both feet. Considering the rest of your crazy ideas, this is the one that’ll break your heart. How can you even consider going through with it? Mom and Dad are acting all cheery for you, but deep down they think you’re insane to marry your boss. What can you possibly have in common with this woman?”

Kendal returned her focus to her own reflection. This woman looked nothing like herself. Or at least mirror-Kendal was very alien in contrast to how she usually presented herself to the world. Instead of her strict, black business suits for work or jeans and T-shirts in her spare time, she saw a young woman with impeccable makeup dressed in light-gray slacks and a flowing, white, embroidered caftan. An amethyst necklace hung around her neck, and matching earrings completed the outfit and set off her dark skin. Only her hair was the same, short and curly. She looked down at her hands. Soon a wedding band would glimmer next to her engagement ring on her finger, showing the world she was a married woman.

“Well,” Jasmine gestured with her usual drama, “I’ve done my duty as far as Mom’s concerned. She and I completely agree for once. You’re throwing away your career and your life. Holly McAllister is using you, and you’ve suddenly turned into this pushover wimp—”

“Stop it.” Kendal rounded on her sister. “I’ve had enough. It’s fucking amazing how you and Mom can’t even let up on my wedding day. No matter what you say, I’m walking into this marriage with my eyes open. I never should have confided in you two, but I foolishly thought you’d understand.”

Kendal wasn’t deluding herself. Her boss of two years, Holly McAllister, needed an American spouse, and Kendal was it. If Holly didn’t marry, she’d be deported and not be admitted back into the US for the foreseeable future. Everything Holly had worked for at the firm would be for nothing, and she would lose her job as the Boston branch CEO. What Jasmine and her mom didn’t understand was how detrimental this was to Kendal’s career also. Would a new CEO choose to employ the previous one’s assistant? Most likely not.

“All right, all right. I just have to remember you’re an adult and to back off, but it’s not easy. You’re my kid sister.” Jasmine sighed and took Kendal’s hands in hers. “Now listen to me. You look beautiful. Holly is one lucky woman. If you have second thoughts...”

“I know. I know.” Forbidden tendrils of restrained panic wriggled through her system, but she refused to give in. She was marrying the woman she’d fallen for more than a year ago, even though she knew her attraction might lead to certain heartache. How could she refuse to help Holly stay in the US? Holly had built a life here, and she stood to lose so much if she was deported. Immigration had interviewed them both extensively, and it hadn’t been hard to talk about falling in love. Not for her at least. Holly, of course, had to aim for an Oscar statuette while proclaiming her undying love for Kendal.

The hardest questions had to have been how a successful CEO could suddenly feel this way about her assistant. The pesky lady from immigration had looked Kendal up and down with a disdainful expression on her face. She hadn’t said it out loud, but to Kendal it was clear she wanted to add “her black assistant” as well. It was hardly the first time she’d run into badly hidden racism and prejudice. The way Holly had instantly taken Kendal’s hand and kissed it proved she’d heard the tone in the immigration lady’s voice as well.

“We have known each other almost two years,” Holly said, her melodious Scottish brogue brimming with affection. “It’s one of those things, you know, when you look at someone you meet every day and go, ‘Oh, my God. She’s the one.’”

“I’m sure I don’t know that, Ms. McAllister.” The immigration lady made a prudish face. “I look into facts and dates. Not arbitrary emotions.”

Blinking, Kendal could hardly contain herself. “Falling in love, no matter how it happens, has to be an integral part of marriage, doesn’t it? Or it should be.”

“Of course.” The interview went on with more mundane questions, but Holly’s words had kept echoing in her mind ever since. Now she gazed around the hotel room and thought of her bride-to-be sitting in a similar room with her sister and sister-in-law from Scotland tending to her. Kendal had no idea what Holly would wear at the ceremony. All she knew was the basic colors, as they didn’t want their outfits to clash.

A knock on the door broke her out of her reverie.

“Come in,” Kendal called out. She smiled broadly when her father poked his head in.

“Hey, kiddo, are you just about ready?” Harrison Moore winked at her.

“I’m getting there. I have a few things to add to my caftan, so I’d say, half an hour or so?”

“Got it. The generalissimo is making me check on all the details,” her father said. “I wonder why we needed to hire a wedding planner when your mother has to check on every single detail three times.”

“That was Holly’s idea. She didn’t want me to have to take time off work.”

“Being the boss to the very last minute, eh?” Kendal’s father grinned.

“Something like that.” Kendal returned the smile, but at the same time she wondered if the fact that Holly indeed was her boss would be indicative of what their marriage could become. Why did she even concern herself with that? They had to stay married for three years at least, or immigration would start making trouble for Holly again. Then they were free to live their lives as they saw fit.

This was the heartbreaking part. Kendal knew the terms, but she feared she would still harbor hope as time went on that Holly would one day wake up and realize they shared a true, loving relationship. But that wouldn’t happen, so Kendal told herself she needed to be selfless and settle for friendship and mutual respect. Some people didn’t even get that.

She attached the pin Holly had given her when they became engaged. The gift had been completely unexpected, and she loved the miniature hummingbird. She in turn had given Holly a gold chain and been amazed at how happy her gesture had seemed to make Holly. Kendal was not as well off as Holly so that was all she could afford.

Adding a statement necklace to frame the amethysts, Kendal scrutinized her reflection. She would have to do. As the future Mrs. Kendal Moore McAllister, she would act her part to save her boss’s job and life here in America. Not even the outspoken and blunt Jasmine had dared ask Kendal what her compensation was for doing this. Kendal was grateful, as the answer was pretty pathetic even in her own mind. Kendal was going along with the whole idea for purely selfish reasons. This arrangement meant being closer to Holly, even if it was a sham. And though she slammed down the tiniest hope imaginable, a miniscule voice in her head claimed she hoped their close proximity could perhaps mean that Holly would get a chance to see other sides of Kendal.

“Kendal?” Dad’s voice interrupted her thoughts again. “All set?”

“Yes. I’m ready.” Kendal took her small bouquet of pink roses, lilies, and orchids and straightened her back. As she clasped her father’s arm and clenched her fingers around it, she tried to get her equilibrium back. Thinking and hoping that Holly would one day see her as a potential love interest wasn’t just pathetic—it was delusional.


 

Chapter Two

 

Holly McAllister stood alone in her hotel room. Her sister and sister-in-law had fussed over her until she was ready to shoot them. Instead, she asked them to give her some time to gather her thoughts. The way Ariane and Debra had gone “aw” and winked at each other had induced nausea. They clearly thought she wanted to moon over her bride and her future with Kendal before it was time to go downstairs.

Instead, Holly sat on the vanity chair and closed her eyes. How the hell had she allowed this insanity to go so far? Born from Scottish nobility, she’d left Edinburgh for the US and thrived first in Providence and, later, East Quay. She’d worked long hours to secure the British company she helped establish on the East Coast. When she learned of the series of mistakes regarding her visa she saw her career, no, her entire life disintegrate before her. Deportation would make returning to the US impossible for the foreseeable future. A friend gave her the frank advice to marry someone. Anyone. Holly was sure her friend meant the idea to be mostly tongue-in-cheek, but after a while it seemed the only option.

The fact she was gay made it even harder to come up with a spouse-to-be. One day she’d heard someone mention that her trusted assistant Kendal, the woman she owed a lot of her success to, was indeed of the lesbian persuasion. Holly cringed at how businesslike she’d been when she called Kendal into her office and asked her to help. Her poor assistant had looked utterly dumbfounded and, for a moment, almost hurt, but had calmly asked for more details and then some time to think about the possibility. Two days later she’d calmly agreed to marry Holly and remain married for at least three years. When Holly had offered to pay Kendal, the beautiful African-American woman’s eyes had grown impossibly darker, and she’d bluntly told her if she brought up the subject of money regarding this matter one more time, the marriage was off.

Holly shook her head and adjusted her bolero. Made from the softest and downiest white angora yarn, it caressed her shoulders. The champagne-colored shantung dress reached to just below her knees. Matching pumps perfected the outfit, as did the bouquet of carnations and orchids.

Unlike Kendal, Holly would walk down the aisle alone. Her ailing father had to abstain from flying, according to doctor’s orders, which he loathed. As for her mother, she was no doubt bossing everyone around in the Princess Hall on the second floor, where the wedding would take place. Holly had hoped to have a quick ceremony at some justice of the peace, but when she saw the vulnerable look in Kendal’s eyes, she thought better of it. The young woman had sacrificed a good portion of her life to help Holly—she deserved a proper wedding. Now when all the states in the US recognized gay marriage, she’d let Kendal decide where they should marry. She should’ve known Kendal would choose her hometown, where they both lived and worked. Before Holly knew what was happening, the entire office was invited, as were both their families. The last time Kendal had told her how many they’d invited, they had a hundred and twenty guests. Kendal had also recommended they register for gifts, which Holly thought was taking it too far, but Kendal only had to breathe the word “believability” for her to give in.

However, Holly did go to New York, to Tiffany’s, and bought a hummingbird pin for Kendal. They’d decided to use simple gold bands for engagement and wedding rings, and giving Kendal the hummingbird the day they exchanged engagement rings had produced yet another unexpected reaction. Kendal had cradled the pin for several moments, an odd little gesture of protectiveness, as if she truly believed it might fly away or that Holly would change her mind and take it back.

“I’m glad you like it,” Holly said and motioned at the lapel of Kendal’s smart black business suit. “It’ll go well with your work attire as well.”

“I’ll never take it off.” Kendal moved as if to attach it, but then handed it to Holly. “Can you put it on, please?”

“Sure.” Suddenly trembling a bit and feeling out of breath, Holly managed to fasten the hummingbird to Kendal’s lapel. “There. I have good taste, I think.” She meant the pin, but her eyes got stuck looking into Kendal’s nearly black eyes. Her new fiancée was a stunning woman. Tall, and even more so with the lethal heels she used at the office, she managed to look willowy and curvaceous at the same time.

“I think so too. As, I believe, have I.” Kendal smiled. “I mean, just look who I’m about to marry.”

Holly guffawed. “Please. I’m more than ten years your senior and nothing but a boring corporate cog in a very big system. You’re the catch. Don’t think I don’t know that.”

Kendal gaped. “Seriously? You’re always the smartest person in the room and the one with the best judgment, but this time you dropped the ball. I’m not going to jump into a self-deprecating game of who’s the better catch, but that said, it’s not me, the lowly assistant.”

Holly still wasn’t used to Kendal speaking to her as an equal. After being Holly’s assistant for more than two years, Kendal had so far kept her distance and adhered to the company’s office rules. Only when they were working overtime alone in the office did Kendal agree to use Holly’s first name.

Holly stood and walked over to the table where a waiter had arranged for champagne and some fruit. She knew better than to pour yet another glass, but she needed something sweet. Dark chocolate and some slices of pear beckoned her. Just as she swallowed the third piece of delicious Belgian chocolate, she heard a knock on the door.

It couldn’t be Kendal, as she was quite superstitious, it turned out, and had insisted they shouldn’t lay eyes on each other until they stood before the altar. Holly would go up the aisle first, and then Kendal would be escorted by her father, but only halfway. Kendal had her own ideas, but the idea of her father giving her away as if she were a woman sold to the highest bidder didn’t sit well with Holly. Perhaps it was extra important for Kendal to show her independence, as this was an arranged marriage.

When someone opened the door, Holly blinked. It was Jasmine, Kendal’s older sister. Holly had never felt any good vibes from the exuberant, feisty woman, and the way Jasmine regarded her now could only mean trouble.

“Hello. What can I do for you?” Holly wasn’t so keen on letting her future sister-in-law into her space but did so anyway.

“You can talk some sense into my foolish sister’s head before this charade goes too far.” Jasmine spoke amicably, but her slanted dark eyes didn’t waver. “This is bound to blow up in both your faces.”

“And why would you think so?” Straightening her back, Holly assumed the regal pose she used when facing the president and the chairman of the board of her company. “Surely your sister is an adult, and our marriage concerns only the two of us—”

“That’s where you’re wrong. My sister’s happiness, or lack thereof, is my business because we’re family. When you break her heart, and that’s just a matter of time as I see it, my mother and I will be the ones picking up the pieces.”

“Why would I break the heart of the woman who saves my future? She deserves everything under the sun, and I’ll make sure I give her anything she wants while we’re together.” Holly had felt Jasmine’s and Mrs. Moore’s animosity from day one, but Mr. Moore had been more benevolent.

“That’s what I meant. While you’re together…with the emphasis on ‘while.’” Jasmine sighed. “Listen. You’re a fantastic person, and Kendal has only had good things to say about how working crazy hours for you will be brilliant on her resume. If you weren’t bamboozling my sister, I’d like you just fine.”

“Why, thank you.” Holly heard her tone grow more acerbic with each word. “I know Kendal is sacrificing a lot by helping me, and I’ve asked myself, and her, many times what her motives are and if she’s sure. We have a good working relationship, but…” Holly sighed and sat down at the small table. She ought to don her work persona and put Jasmine in her place, but truthfully, she was tired of being on a collision course with so many people.

“Are you all right? You’re pale.” Jasmine sounded kinder as she pulled up a chair and sat down beside her.

“I’m fine.” The automatic nature of her own response didn’t surprise Holly. This had always been her mantra. She was fine. No matter how much pressure she was under, she was always, always fine.

“I doubt it. This can’t be what you really want either.” Jasmine twirled a white silk ribbon between her fingers. “I mean, in my eyes Kendal is a true catch, but both of you need to take a breath and think one more time. You need to marry for love, not for a green card or citizenship.”

Holly knew Kendal’s immediate family was aware of the true circumstances. That had been one of Kendal’s terms before she agreed to this charade. She’d also told Holly that her family trusted her to make her own decisions. Holly, on the other hand, hadn’t told her family a thing. For all they knew, Kendal was the love of her life. The words hit her like a fist below her ribs, and Holly whimpered before she could reel herself in.

“Are you really okay? You’re white as a ghost.” Jasmine looked startled. Carefully she touched Holly’s shoulder. “Want me to get you some water?”

“No. Thank you. I’m f—”

“Fine. Yes. You keep saying that, but you’re trembling, and you look anything but. If you walk down the aisle looking like this, people might think Kendal got you pregnant or something.”

Holly guffawed and gave a laugh bordering on hysterical. “Oh, God. Crazy comments are a family trait, I see.”

“Sure is. Our Aunt Corinne is the worst. She adds her own special brand of humor when you least expect it, and often when it’s entirely inappropriate as well. If you’re lucky she’ll be among the ones giving dinner speeches.”

“Great.” Smiling genuinely now, Holly felt somewhat more composed. “So you’re not going to strong-arm me into calling off the wedding?” She scanned Jasmine’s expression.

“I was. Honestly, I was coming to persuade you to release Kendal from the promise she gave you. I even thought I’d offer to hide you from immigration in my basement.” Jasmine winked. “But Kendal is a grown woman, with her own mind and her own life to lead. I think you’re making a mistake, both of you, but that’s my opinion, and I’m not the one getting married today.”

Oddly enough, Jasmine’s understanding words made Holly realize she couldn’t go through with the wedding. Now she had to find Kendal and absolve her of her promise.

“Thank you for coming to talk to me. You know what? You’re right. I should’ve realized long before today just how selfish I’m being. I can’t tie a young woman down in a loveless marriage, even for only three years. That many years of wasted time for someone her age is a long, long time. Time when she might find the woman who’s totally right for her. Is she still in her room?”

“What?” Jasmine jumped up. “You’re going to call it off anyway? Now? Just like that?”

“Wasn’t that what you wanted, Jasmine?” Holly stood calmly. “From day one you and your mother have been against this arrangement, and I would’ve assumed you’d regard my seeing the light as ‘better late than never.’”

“I—I do. I mean, I…I thought I would.” Jasmine’s voice was weaker now. “Oh, damn. What the hell did I say this time that I haven’t been saying for these last few months? I’ve argued with both of you, but you haven’t listened. And now, in the eleventh hour, you decide to?”

“You came to try one last time, in the eleventh hour, as you put it. Why would you do that if you didn’t think there’d be an off-chance that I’d listen?” Holly knew she was now in CEO mode, during which she usually hammered in her reasoning, tested her opponents’ arguments by using them on themselves.

“I—I—” Jasmine raised her hand as if to shove it through her hair but clearly realized she’d ruin her stunning hairdo. “She’s going to kill me. She’ll know it was me.”

“What do you mean? She as in Kendal?”

“She as in Kendal. And she as in our mother.”

“I would imagine Kendal will be relieved once she realizes she’s regained her freedom.” Holly glanced in the mirror. She looked entirely calm and together on the outside, which was what mattered. But on the inside, her emotions spun as if tossed into a blender, and her stomach clenched around a feeling of devastation she couldn’t allow to surface. “As for your mother,” she told Jasmine, “I can’t guarantee she won’t eviscerate you—and me. I’m going now, but if you need a few moments to gather your strength, you can just remember to lock the door behind you when you leave.”

Holly stepped into the corridor and began walking to the elevator. The Moore family and friends were staying one floor down. Kendal’s room was directly below her own. It should be easy to locate. She entered the elevator, and as the doors closed, the imaginary blender in Holly’s stomach came to a halt. Suddenly the feelings sorted themselves out into neat compartments, and she couldn’t hide her motivation for her decision to call off the wedding.

How could she marry Kendal and subject the woman she loved so hopelessly to a marriage of convenience? And, for purely selfish reasons, it would be agony to live a lie for three long years. She loved Kendal Moore, but that fact had to remain a secret.