Sweetwater Springs Novel #5
Madison Kenedy feels like her world is in chaos. Her mother is a total shrew and hates Madi’s boyfriend, Lucas Daniels.
Luke is Madi’s rock and one of the best people she’s ever known. His family has practically adopted her, but Luke has been distant of late, always working, and she’s starting to think he’s lost interest in their plans to marry.
Should she end things before he dumps her?
Despite financial setbacks, Luke has been working for ages to buy wedding rings for Madi. He’s planning to propose at Christmas — then Madi breaks up with him.
But now the Vegas-style wedding venue at the city park gazebo, part of the second phase of Sweetwater Springs’s Holiday Extravaganza designed to save the town from financial ruin, offers Luke new hope.
Suddenly Luke has a way to give Madi her dream wedding, but can he convince her that marrying her was his intent all along, not a desperate gesture brought about because of her ultimatum? He may end up looking like an idiot in front of the whole town, but with the help of friends and community, he’s willing to risk it all for Madi.
Warning: Be aware that the holiday cheer in this book is invasive. You may experience the urge to buy gifts, put up a Christmas tree or sing carols. Those possible side effects are wholly the responsibility of the author. You’re welcome. You may also experience the urge to smack the characters upside the head but remember they’re young adults and still unused to adulting.
If only Luke would hurry up and propose, she would be out of her parents’ house and away from her mother’s constant nagging.
Madison Kenedy resisted the urge to plug her ears with her fingers as her mother scolded her while loading the dishwasher in a second-hand designer dress, the words spilling out like some actor reciting oft-practiced lines.
“You’re sticking with a guy going nowhere fast, Madison. For Pete’s sake, you’re a Kenedy and meant for greater things than being a poor man’s wife.”
No need to remind her mother that they weren’t related to the Kennedys of Maine, who excelled at public service, nor that the spelling wasn’t even the same. It had all been said, ad nauseum. Lucille Kenedy was convinced that some far-removed ancestor had changed the spelling because it fit her visions of grandeur that even Madison’s father, Charles (Chip) Porter Kenedy, III, and his lack of inheritance couldn’t shake.
Quietly, Madison left the kitchen and sprinted to the foyer, her neck taut with tension. Her long socks under jeans barely made a sigh on the polished-to-a-gleam tiled floor. She pulled on her red cowboy boots.
“By now, any reasonable person would’ve realized that mama’s boy, Luke Daniels was just stringing her along. Five years, Madison. Five years!”
Crap. The volume of her mother’s incessant complaints increased. She’d better hurry. Madison shrugged into her coat and slung on her little crossbody bag, so light it made quick getaways easier.
“It’s a long time to waste on a no-account like that.” The diatribe continued, her mother maligning Luke’s family next. The older sister with the bad reputation, that mousy younger sister afraid of her own shadow, the dad living off the government…
Madison grimaced as she turned the knob, knowing the front door would make the same creak as always while disengaging from the threshold. She exited quickly from the red brick ranch into the gloom of a winter evening that had but a sliver of moon showing.
Thank goodness for porchlights and streetlights. Some houses had already put their festive lights up for the holidays.
Vapor clouds puffed from her parted lips and her heart pounded as she pulled up her hood against a cold breeze. Still, she held her steps to a saunter down the sidewalk bisecting a sharply edged dormant lawn and prayed Luke would be on time.
He pulled alongside the curb as she reached the end of the sidewalk, his headlights slicing through the darkness between houses.
Behind her, the front door cracked open again.
Cringing, she ignored the harsh whisper, knowing she could claim the sound of Luke’s idling motor obliterated the sound. Madi waited as Luke hopped out and rounded his old pickup to open her door.
They didn’t always follow this ritual, but he’d made it a habit in front of her house.
He bussed her lips with a brief kiss and assisted her onto the bench seat, the scent of cooked food and grilled steaks wafting over her before he closed the door.
Her mother would see that Luke was a gentleman. She would see. Yes, she would, but she would keep her caustic, denigrating words to herself because Kenedys didn’t yell from the porch like backwoods yahoos. No ma’am. Kenedys had class. They comported themselves with dignity.
Except in the privacy of their home.
It was rare that Madison had occasion to savor Lucille Kenedy’s rules of conduct being used against her.
She avoided looking back at the house and the stabbing glare she could feel between her shoulders. Instead, she watched Luke’s too-long fair hair shining under the headlights as he rounded the truck to climb in. “Thanks for being on time.”
“She on a tear today?” He clicked his seatbelt, which reminded her to do the same.
“Why should today be any damn different? I’ll be so glad when we have our own place.” It wasn’t something that hadn’t been said a dozen times before, from both of them.
Today it felt different.
Lately, rather than dreaming with her when she made such remarks, Luke clammed up or said something like, “Yep” or “I hear ya.”
Today he squeezed her hand, released it to shift into drive, then pull away from the curb. “You’ll relax when we get home. We’re having beef stew and cornbread.”
Home. For real, his mom’s little house felt more like home than her own did. While it irked both of her parents, she stayed over at Luke’s more often than not.
“You didn’t bring your pack?”
She lifted a shoulder, heart racing and breathing still rapid from her exit. “Doesn’t matter. I have enough stuff at your place if I decide to stay over.”
“I thought that was the plan, Madi. Is something wrong?”
There hadn’t been a plan. Just a habit.
“Dammit, you know how her rants put me on edge. I need a few minutes to decompress, okay?” She bit off the words and folded her arms over her midsection.
She’d always felt at ease with Luke, no matter how many years she’d been schooled to fake a calm outer shell. With him, she could be herself. Her real self, not the one she’d been raised to portray.
With Luke she was simply Madi, and his family called her that as well.
The nickname had not gone over well at home, where her mom insisted that those were for common folks, not people of their place in society.
Like Sweetwater Springs had high society.
But being called Madi felt like freedom all the same.
“Okay. Sorry. I’ll hush. But put it away before we get to the house.”
Nodding, Madi released a long breath. She’d been too harsh. It wasn’t his fault her mother was a shrew. Even so, she would keep her increasing doubts about them to herself.
“Look, I’m sorry to dump on you after you’ve worked all day. I’ll put it away now. Talk to me. That’ll take my mind off other stuff. How was your shift at The Skinny Steer?”
“Same ‘ol, y’know? Though I did have a local celebrity come in for lunch. He and a friend sat right in front of my prep station.” He shot her a grin, brows raised. “A damn nice tip.”
“Good. Any juicy tidbits to share?” She wasn’t all that interested but needed the distraction, and while they gossiped to each other about things they overheard at work, they had a rule not to share beyond that unless it was already common knowledge.
“Maybe. It all relates to weddings. I heard the mayor and that realtor lady, Dixie DeLuca that we see ads for everywhere got married last night. Quick ceremony at his house with family. Speculation is that Dixie might be pregnant.”
“Seriously? Isn’t she kind of old for that?”
Luke lifted a shoulder. “I’m thinking she’s mid-thirties, so it could happen.”
“I guess time will tell, though I think it’s wishful thinking for the gossipers. They just want something juicy to keep them happy jawing about other people.”
“For sure. Hey, don’t you think it’s kind of unusual for two guys to be talking about a wedding? I mean, like the actual planning of it.”
“These days, who knows? Maybe the bride is too busy with her career to plan it and the guy knows what she wants.”
“Hmm.” His response was non-committal, but his squint and slightly canted chin told her he thought otherwise. “I think the author guy’s wife was supervising the wedding for J.T.”
Now he’d piqued her interest. “You’re talking about Sam Moreland? Was he one of the wedding guys?”
“Yeah. His name was on the tip of my tongue. And J.T. was with him.”
Luke did seasonal work for J.T. Baxter’s landscaping business, so she was familiar with the name, and everyone who didn’t live under a rock was familiar with Sam Moreland, his books, the movies made from them. “J.T.’s engaged to Cassandra Bing, so that would make Rosie, the florist, their planner. I’ve done her nails on occasion. What are they hatching?”
Her pulse and breathing were slowly returning to typical under the normalcy of their after-work chatter.
“I couldn’t catch it all. You know how it is. Snatches of this and that between filling orders and runs to the kitchen, but it sounded like a Christmas wedding in the park gazebo.”
“Huh. I guess that wouldn’t be so bad. Could be chilly, but the gazebo would look great with Christmas decorations. They should be going up soon, now that Thanksgiving is behind us.”
“Drove by there last night. They’re already up. Looks great. I guess with the Parade of Lights fast approaching, they’re working hard to get everything ready.”
She sighed, thinking about the argument her parents had had over ordering more decorations—all classy according to her mother—and the expense. In the end, her father had acquiesced but grumbled under his breath with the arrival of every new delivery box.
Luke’s voice, deep and full, broke into her thoughts. “I can see how that might be pretty cool. The holiday wedding, I mean. What do you think?”
“Sure. Maybe Cass will wear long sleeves, or even a white fur shrug with a red sash around her waist or carry a red and white bouquet. J.T. could wear a red tie and pocket square, or if it’s a tux, a red cummerbund, too. The bridesmaids could all dress in Christmas red. It could be really pretty and with all the fairy lights around the gazebo, would make great photos.”
“Right? That sounds really nice. You should be a wedding coordinator.”
Now that she was calmer, the familiar timbre of Luke’s voice washed over her, stirring intimate places to life. Sex had never been a problem with them. Waiting a whole six months back in high school until she’d felt ready had been excruciating, her body and mind warring with each other. Ever steady, Luke had been patient with her. Or at least as patient as a hormonal teen boy could be. “Hey, did you remember to get condoms?”
She could well imagine her mother’s rage over an unwed pregnancy situation. Madi shuddered.
He moved his work apron and tapped a small white paper sack. “Are you cold? I can adjust the heat.”
Madi stilled his hand with her palm over his fist, threaded her fingers through his when he spread them apart. “No. It’s fine. I just…it’s nothing. So…beef stew and cornbread, huh?”
At the last red light before they turned into his neighborhood, Luke waited for the turn arrow. He ventured a glance at Madi, caught her observing him. He waggled his brows. “Hey, sexy, what you thinkin’ about?”
She laughed and brushed a strand of light brown hair off her cheek, then looked away, shaking her head. “Don’t use that tone with me, William Lucas Daniels. Not when we’re so close to your mama’s house.”
“Anything for you, Madison Renee. I can find a secluded spot and pull over for a few minutes if you need me to. I’m always—”
“Ready. Yes, I know.” She shook her head again, her hair brushing over her shoulders, but she was unsuccessful in curbing her smile. “Insatiable.”
“I was going to say willing to help you relax, but ready works, too. The next turn, I could go left instead of right, back to the woods.” At least he’d gotten her to really laugh. That told him she’d overcome the tension she’d brought with her from her house.
He hated she had to endure that awful home life. He had to get those rings out of layaway, and soon. Even if they had to live with his mama for a while after they got married, she would be better off out of that toxic environment.
“Stop teasing me. Besides, we have a room and bed at your house. Why would we head to the woods?”
“We wouldn’t have to be quiet.”
She shook her head, her hair moving over her coat again with a slight swishing sound. “Your mama is slaving over the stove, waiting for us to come help.”
The light turned green and, with no one in the opposing lane, he eased into the turn. “The Crock Pot is doing most of the work. Besides, my mama could do this meal with one hand tied behind her back.”
“Should I have brought something?”
“No. I bought the groceries for it, or more accurately, gave her money toward groceries.”
“You’re so good to her. I love that about you.”
“A man who is good to his mama…” He left his words hanging and raised his brows.
“Yeah, yeah. …will be good to his wife.”
“There you go.”
She chuckled at his comeback, then they rode in silence for a few blocks.
“Luke.” Her voice had turned pensive. “Why have you been so…I don’t know. Distant, maybe? Quiet, for sure, especially lately. What’s wrong? Are we okay?”
He couldn’t answer her first question, because he wouldn’t lie to her, and telling the truth would spoil all his plans to propose. “Girl, between you, my sisters, and mama, I’m surrounded with yammering females. I’m lucky to get a word in edgewise.”
He heard the plea for him to get real but didn’t dare look into those sexy, dark eyes of hers or he might be tempted to confess everything. “I’m fine. We’re fine. If anything, I’m just tired, babe. I’ve been putting in a lot of hours between the Skinny Steer and Soo-ee Pit.”
“I know you have. You work too hard. You should quit the Soo-ee. I don’t understand why you still work there. The pay is so much less.”
“May not be a problem. Marv’s business is off, so I haven’t had many hours there lately.”
“Then just quit. You work too much. We hardly see each other. When was the last time we had a real date, hmm?”
He had been working more hours than usual, every extra shift he could pick up, so he could pay off the rings faster and propose at Christmas. There was no extra money for dates.
Luke had a plan for a proposal that would make Madi happy, but Sam and J.T. had talked about more than Rosie planning one wedding. She wanted J.T. and Cass to let her to turn their wedding venue into a Vegas-type wedding chapel after their wedding, though couples wouldn’t have to pay for the venue since it was already set up and ready. The details had made his pulse trip with hope.
And the way her eyes had lit up, Madi had liked the Christmas wedding idea.
“Hello?” Madi snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Where did you go?”
“I’m here. Just thinking.” Could he get the rings out a few days early, before his last paycheck, enough that he could propose and get her to agree to marry him right away? She would need a few days to pull things together, but in his mind, it was doable. He’d have to pick up another shift and fast.
“This is what I’m talking about. It’s like you clam up and go somewhere else in your head, Luke.”
“I’m here, babe. I promise.” He should talk to Rosie about the particulars. “I told you. I’m tired.”
He also needed to talk to Lauren Burrows, Madi’s best friend. She would know if this was just a harebrained scheme born of his desperation to be done with this in-between situation they were in, or if Madi would actually go for it. He could trust her to keep it a secret, and maybe even help him make a quick wedding happen.
“Are your sisters bringing dessert?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, plus whipped cream.” That was the norm since they both worked, too.
Having the wedding this way would take a huge weight off both of them because it would be much cheaper to pull off yet look nice like Madi wanted. All their friends and family could attend since it was in the park.
“That sounds good. I’m craving something sweet.”
“Yeah?” To him, his plan sounded perfect, but would Madi think so?
He knew a part of her was trying to show her mother that he was good enough. He wondered sometimes if she believed it. Nothing he could do about that. He was who he was, and his family was great, regardless of the gossip about his sisters.
He hated that one indiscretion and a cruel high school jock had ruined Monica’s reputation by naming her Moaning Monica as if she was a porn star. The rumors persisted of her sexual exploits, despite his older sister being nearly thirty and practically a recluse when she wasn’t working.
Ah, well, nothing he could do about that. Wait. Had Madi said craving? “Are you close to your period?”
Her periods were very regular.
“Oh. That could be. I’ll check my calendar app.”
She tapped a few times on her cell and sighed. “Yes, in two days. Yuck.”
He pulled into the side driveway at his mama’s house, a little ranch with gray siding and white trim. Their lawn, not nearly as pristine as the Kenedys’, was littered with fallen leaves and sweetgum balls they’d never gotten around to raking.
He released a harsh breath. The outside Christmas decorations would need to be put up soon. When the hell would he fit that in with all these extra shifts?
Madi preceded Luke through a jingling front door painted a dark red and bedecked outside with a Christmas wreath. A small ribbon of bells dangled over the knob inside. She shrugged out of her coat, hung it on the hall tree, and bent to remove her boots as Luke did the same.
“Is that you, Luke?” Kate Daniels called, her voice emanating from the direction of the kitchen. “Madi?”
“It’s us, Mama,” Luke answered, then turned toward Madi, the white bag in hand. “Hey, I’m gonna grab a quick shower. I reek of steakhouse.”
She gave him a quick hug, enjoying the warmth that stole into his gray eyes. “Smells like a working man and good food to me.”
He pulled a face and turned out of her embrace. “Whatever. I can’t stand myself.”
Madi smiled as she sniffed the air, redolent with the scents of the meal Luke had promised her. “Hey, Mama D, that stew smells delicious. Is it a new recipe?”
“You have a good nose. It is a new recipe. I’ve got my fingers crossed on this one.”
Madi halted beside Kate, who held a large cast-iron skillet full of raw cornbread.
“Oh, could you grab that oven door for me, hon?” Kate was an attractive woman, with short brown hair, hazel eyes, and an open, easy smile.
“Of course.” Madi opened it and stepped away to give Kate ample room. “Thanks for letting me crash your family supper. Again.”
Kate chuckled, closed the oven door, then stepped right up and gave her a hug. “Honey, you practically live here. You are family.”
Madi savored the hug to herself. It was Kate’s way, always a warm welcome for her from the first time Luke had brought her home.
Things were so different here. At first, she hadn’t believed it was real.
Over glasses of red wine, they chatted about Kate’s work as a labor and delivery nurse, Madi’s job as a nail tech—which her mother hated—and the new recipe.
Madi retrieved a stick of butter from the fridge and unwrapped it to soften for the cornbread. She laid a small butter knife across the little plate.
They usually had iced tea for supper or water, but several wine glasses sat out on the counter. “Are we using these tonight?”
“We are. Water glasses, too, of course, but we’re celebrating tonight.” She pointed to not one, but two bottles of red wine Madi hadn’t noticed.
“Nice. Okay, I’ll bite. What are we celebrating?”
Kate waggled her finger, her grin wide, eyes shining with excitement. “Oh, no. Not until we’re all seated at the table.”
“Ah, being mysterious, are we?”
“Who’s being mysterious?” Luke sauntered into the kitchen, smelling like heaven with a touch of sin, his hair still damp and curling at the ends.
Madi’s heart bumped at the sight of him.
“Your mama. She says we’re celebrating but won’t say what until everybody is seated.”
“Okay then. I guess it’s beer thirty until the wine is served. Madi?”
One corner of his mouth lifted, and his gaze gentled on her, making her hear his “You sure are, babe” in her head. He snagged a beer from the fridge and tilted it toward the front door. “I’d better go throw some sandbags in the truck. Sleet is in the forecast for the next two days.”
Kate and Madi made pained faces at each other, then Kate called after him, “Put on a cap so you don’t catch your death.”
Madi huffed out a long breath. “I guess that means a bunch of canceled appointments at work and a lot of sitting around waiting. I mean who’s going to—”
Female voices mixed with Luke’s deeper tone caused Madi to lose her concentration.
“Hey, Mama. Madi.” Nicki was the first to enter from the hallway. She hugged them both and kissed her mama’s cheek. “What were you saying?”
“Oh, just that I don’t know who would brave icy roads to get their nails done. Looks like my income will be curtailed for a couple of days.” As Madi spoke, Monica entered and performed the same greetings to each of them, though her hugs were one-handed.
“Hey, Monica.” Madi peeked into the cellophane top of the bakery box Monica held. “Ohmygod, is that a triple layer salted caramel cake?”
“With whipped cream,” Nicki sang out as she brandished not one, but two whipped cream cans aloft before adding them to the fridge door.
“As if it needed more sweetness.” Monica’s dry admission brought a round of laughter.
“Hey, it’s the holidays. No calories are allowed to stick.” Madi declared.
“Uh-huh. Keep telling yourself that, girlfriend. My advice? Keep up with our weekly workouts, just to hedge your bets.”
“I know, right?” The girls kept a decent selection of small workout equipment in their shared apartment, utilizing the dining room as a gym. She met with them to sweat out their frustrations at least once a week. “That cake should take care of my sweet cravings. Talk about carb overload.”
Monica’s gaze raked over her figure. “Cravings? Is there something you have to share?”
Nicki’s eyes rounded. “Are you…”
“Girls.” Kate’s voice demanded they back off.
Madi laughed. “Nooo. I’m not pregnant, just PMSing.”
“Ah,” the sisters voiced understanding in unison.
Madi could have sworn she heard Kate whisper ‘damn it’ as she turned to check the timer she’d set for the cornbread.
“Okay, kids, it’s almost time. Madi’s on drinks. Nicki, Monica, set the table and get out the cloth napkins tonight. It’s a special occasion.”
“What occasion?” Nicki was all round-eyed curiosity.
“Don’t bother,” Madi advised with a wave of her hand as the timer buzzed. “Her lips are sealed until we’re seated with full wine glasses.”
Luke re-entered accompanied by the now-familiar jingle. He soon appeared in the doorway. “Damnation, it’s getting colder out there by the minute. What’s my chore, Mama?”
“Go wash up. We’re almost ready to plate.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He headed off down the hall.
As Madi filled water glasses and placed them around the table, she soaked in the sounds and scents of a real, loving family. Oh, they weren’t perfect, but that was what made it so great. They were loud and messy and boisterous at times. There were occasional glimpses of sadness when Harlan, Luke’s dad was mentioned, as he rarely put in an appearance, but all in all, they were a great bunch of people.
She went back for the wine glasses, darting and weaving around Luke’s sisters as if they’d choreographed their movements. Movements often repeated over the years.
Five years, as her mother had reminded her. And she still wasn’t one of them. Not really.
With all of them here, it was cozy in the eat-in kitchen. But even if they had the large formal dining room her mother was so proud of, Madi doubted they’d use it much. It wouldn’t feel right here.
Thank goodness Luke had let her glimpse his home life early on in their relationship. She’d been hooked from day one and kept coming back like a junkie for a fix. After she’d seen how the Daniels lived, it made her see her home life in a whole new light.
At the age of seventeen, she’d swiftly come to realize that sniping and fighting with each other wasn’t the norm and that there was something sick in her mother’s behavior. Even in her father’s acceptance of the behavior, there was something not quite right. Over time, she’d disengaged from the verbal assaults at home, except when necessary to defend herself, and had found peace elsewhere, and for the most part, within herself. Peace and belonging here, at her second home.
Her chest seized with sudden fear. What if Luke never proposed and this was her future? Was she willing to settle for less than what they’d dreamed of together?