Josie had never created anything this important before. The size made it a challenge and it had to be absolutely right. When she slid her creation from the kiln and set it to cool, excitement bounced through her veins. It was her fourth try and it looked perfect. Finally.
A knock on the door had her whirling around. The threat from Adrian Nelson might be over, but it would be a long while before Josie took security for granted, even on a day like today.
“It’s us, Josie.”
Her heart kicked against her ribs. Not just from relief, but from gratitude. For the first time in her life, she had a group of female friends. The warm fuzzies she got from hearing It’s us would never ever get old.
Josie crossed to the cabin door and unbolted the locks. Tansy, Tessa, Bella, and Aisling trooped in, carrying garment bags and a couple of boxes.
Tessa smiled at her. “We had some of the guys drop us off in the canoes so we wouldn’t get sweaty bringing all the stuff to your cabin. No one wants that today.”
Josie knew Tessa’s injuries prevented her from walking long distances, especially without a smooth path. Flynn would have ensured she hadn’t had to walk anyway, but bringing the whole group made it even better.
Tansy looked at the kiln. “You were firing a project? Today?”
Josie shrugged and they all grinned. She covered the piece with a cloth. “It’s a surprise for Nico.”
Bella smiled. “That’s awesome. But you’ve probably lost track of time. It’s a good thing we came early. We’ve only got an hour.”
Josie laughed. “I’ve never taken an hour to get ready for anything.”
Tansy grinned. “But it’s not everyday you get married.”
That was very true. “I’ve never even been to a wedding before so I’m trusting you all to not lead me astray.”
It wasn’t long before the cabin was cleaned of her projects and the women were setting up a variety of decorations throughout. Wild flowers in jars and bottles. Lanterns to light the space when the sun went down.
The cabin now sported solar panels and electricity but the lanterns would make it more romantic. Although she only needed Nico for that.
Aisling took the table Josie normally used to house her paints and covered it with a white lacy cloth, candles, and flowers. “There’s some chocolate covered strawberries and fruit in the fridge. And some other snacks in case you need the fuel for the night.”
They were definitely going to need fuel. She had a lot of plans for her sexy fiancé.
For the next hour, they worked as a team to set up the outdoor space. Flowers everywhere. Tansy had found a batch of old light bulbs in the lodge’s basement. Instead of using anything that inefficient, she turned them into small flower vases. They strung them up from the trees along with small solar-powered lights.
Old jars and bottles holding more flowers and more lights were scattered around the space in front of the cabin. Rustic picnic tables and chairs were scattered around the space along with barrels filled with native flowers Josie had planted in the spring. From Tansy, she’d learned more about how importing flowers might mess up the local biome, so everything was natural to this area of Vermont and it was spectacular. If she ever needed inspiration or even a moment to think all she had to do was look out her cabin’s windows to all the flowers she’d planted. She was excited for the fall colors and even the winter vistas. Being surrounded by beauty was amazing.
Bella called out from where she’d placed pots of flowers along the dock. “Time to get ready everyone.”
And that sent a thrill through Josie. She was getting married.
Nico straightened his tie with a grin. He’d picked this one out with his fiancée in mind. It was bright splashes of color all blended together. Like the shirts she wore while she painted. Creativity constantly exploded from her.
He wore the charcoal grey suit she liked best. Same with the shoes. And shirt. He’d do anything in his power for Josie Ellis, the woman who owned his heart.
This wasn’t normal attire for the lodge, but they’d wanted to dress up and have a party. It wasn’t everyday a man got married.
He opened his door to head out and found his mom and dad approaching his room. Of course, his mom’s eyes misted with tears once she saw him. Lisa Rivera was a tough cookie when negotiating for her clients, but her heart was her guide.
Manny, the best dad a guy could have, immediately put his arm around his wife and tugged her into his side. “Looking good son.”
“You too, Dad. Mom, you’re gorgeous.”
She reached up to straighten his already straight tie and then patted his suit. “You’re a handsome devil, Nico. I’m so proud of the man you’ve become.”
He swallowed his own emotion and hugged her tightly. “Helps having the best role models on the planet. Thanks to you both for everything.”
His mom leaned back and grinned. “I remember at Sam and Tansy’s wedding that you were so sure this wouldn’t be for you. Ever.”
He rolled his eyes. “And I remember you being pretty sure I was wrong. Glad to say I was.”
Lisa laughed. “And now you two have each other and Josie has a family.”
He was a lucky man with such insightful parents. “Okay, let’s get moving before she decides she’s waited too long.”
His mom laughed again. “I’m pretty sure she’d wait for you forever.”
He hoped so, because he knew he’d do the same for her.
Downstairs, his buddies waited on the deck with the dogs bouncing around. Probably wondering why everyone looked so different in their fancy clothes.
Josie and the other women had been over at the cabin for hours and Nico needed to see her again. Since he’d been a kid, he’d used his grandmother’s ring as a touchstone. Now, it sat on Josie’s finger and she’d become his touchstone. He needed her. Wanted her with a passion he hadn’t known was possible.
As had become a tradition, Sam had a bottle and some shot glasses resting on the table. Laughing, his mom waved at them. “Enjoy your moment, boys. I’m going to wait on the dock.”
He looked around at the men standing with him. His dad. Joe and Sam, his best friends since they’d been kids. Graham, Mitch, Flynn, Troy, and Marcus. Some he’d worked with, others he’d got to know here at Midnight Lake.
Sam handed around the shots and lifted his glass. “To Nico. For teaching me what it meant to have a brother and to be a brother. Told you that you were burning out. Glad you finally listened to me and I’m glad to see you happy.”
Of course Sam had to get in the I told you so, but it made Nico laugh.
Mitch lifted his glass next. “Here’s to snagging the girl while sending the bad guy away for life.”
Troy. “I’m glad you’ve both come to Phail.” Everyone groaned. Troy never missed a chance to use his surname, and his town’s name, to entertain the group.
Marcus. “Whatever you need, we’re here for you.”
Graham. “Keep her happy. And if you need pointers in that department, you’re surrounded by experts.” That caused a collective laugh.
Flynn. “She’s got a big heart. Keep it safe.”
Manny. “You’ve found the perfect woman for you. Here’s to many years of love and laughter and enough grit to keep things interesting.”
Joe. “To my brother. Thanks for leaving me as the last man standing.”
Laughing, Nico held up his own glass. “Thanks everyone. My parents taught me that family doesn’t come in any one shape or size. I’m glad I’ve been so lucky in that department. Here’s to you all. My family. And to love. And to Josie.”
Josie peeked through the curtains to see the parade of canoes approaching the dock. Almost time.
Aisling reached in front of her and closed the curtain. “No peeking.”
Laughing, she stepped back and turned her back on the window. “Fine, but waiting is hard.” She was ready to get married. Ready to see Nico. Ready to start the next step of their lives together.
Ready to belong.
That was wonderful and overwhelming all at the same time.
Not only did she and Nico belong to each other, they belonged here, surrounded by amazing friends who’d become the family she’d always wanted.
The little girl she’d been wouldn’t have believed any of this was possible.
The cabin didn’t have much in terms of privacy. There was a tiny room in the back that was almost wall-to-wall bed. And not even a queen bed. But it was a soft surface for those times when she was so lost in her art she forgot to sleep. It was also big enough to make love in when the mood struck. And the mood would strike tonight. Her body was completely revved at the thought of Nico being hers. She couldn’t wait to get him alone.
They’d agreed to keep costs to a minimum for the wedding. Not because they couldn’t afford to splurge, but because they didn’t want it to be about money. It was about family.
So, Nico would wear one of his spiffy suits. The other women wore their favorite dresses and Josie slipped on the dress she’d found the last time she’d been thrifting back in Sacramento. Tears had filled her eyes when she’d seen it and she’d known it was waiting for her. Swirls of gauzy fabric and lace, all in shades of white and cream. Rows of beads hung along the front and back, reminding her of dresses flappers had once worn.
When she emerged from the tiny bedroom, her friends oohed and aahed over the dress. Aisling laughed. “Nico’s going to lose his damn mind.”
A knock at the cabin door had them all checking to make sure everyone was dressed and prepared. Tansy moved to the door to peek out the curtain. The woman might be tiny and she was wearing a dress, but anyone who thought they’d get the jump on her would be flat on their back before they’d made a move.
But it wasn’t a threat. Tansy smiled and held up her hand in one-minute gesture. Then she crossed to hug Josie. “You look beautiful and happy. I’m thrilled you and Nico found each other. He was so lost in his dark work, I wasn’t sure he’d ever find anyone who could break through the layers. I’m so glad you did. Welcome to the family.”
Josie’s eyes filled and she hugged Tansy back. “I never imagined having a family. I’m so lucky.”
The others hugged her as well then Tansy pointed at the door. “You have some visitors. We’re going to head out. Come outside when you’re ready.”
She didn’t have long to wonder because as soon as the four women left, Shane and Ang walked in with huge smiles. She squealed and hugged them both. “I can’t believe you came to Vermont.”
Shane shuddered dramatically before he released her from the hug. “I know. You’re in the middle of nowhere almost literally. There’s a two-mile hike to the lodge and we had to canoe to your cabin. Have you lost all control of your mind?”
She knew Shane was mostly joking, but there was an undercurrent of actual horror in his voice. The man was a confirmed urbanite.
She hugged him again. “It’s wonderful out here. Any time I feel the need for inspiration, all I need to do is look outside. Or listen to the wind and the waves. Or the birds. Smell the forest.”
With his own shudder, Ang grinned. “We might never understand why you like it out here, but we’re not going to complain about the results of your inspiration.”
Since the gallery showing, Josie had been bursting with creativity. And she was earning a nice steady income from her work.
Shane squeezed her hand. “We got an offer on your Every Woman statue. A buyer who wishes to remain anonymous wants to buy it and install it in one of the local parks. They’ve already got permission from the city for it. They’d like you to create a pedestal to support it. On the pedestal, they want you to inscribe the first name of all the women it represents. Including you.”
Wow. Josie’s heart tried to leap out of her chest. The price her friends had been asking for the statue was more than her first house. And someone wanted it and planned to display it where the women would be remembered.
Tears pricked at her eyes, and Ang pointed at his partner. “I told you we should have waited until after the wedding.”
Shane rolled his eyes. “It’s good news. She can handle it.”
Laughing, she wiped her eyes. “You’re right. I can handle it.” Making money wasn’t exactly a hardship. “Now, are you two going to walk me down the aisle or what?”
Nico watched the women exit the cabin and the gallery owners move in. Josie’s squeal of happiness had him grinning. It had been a good call to talk them into a visit for the wedding. He wondered if Shane would still agree when he found out about the composting toilet in the outhouse. He was sure the man would complain and make Josie laugh.
Roman had flown in with the two men and they’d all spent the previous night at the B&B in Phail. They’d come out to the lodge after Josie had left for the cabin, keeping the surprise intact.
Josie had become more comfortable with surprises, but he’d still given her a heads up that he had a good surprise in store for her. She hadn’t had enough good ones in her life and he intended to spend the rest of his life making up for that.
Roman slapped him on the shoulder. “Jackson sends his regrets. A situation came up he couldn’t get out of.”
Nico nodded, glad he’d left that world behind. As if reading his mind, Roman laughed. “You don’t have a single regret, do you?”
“Not a one.”
“I’m happy for you, Nico. Not everyone gets so lucky, but you’ve hit the jackpot.”
He really had.
Suddenly music piped through the speakers. Soft, jazzy, sexy. Exactly like Josie.
The crowd shifted, leaving him alone on the grass near the edge of the dock. Troy stood nearby at a small table. He had become an officiant for them and would perform the ceremony.
Nico’s parents and all their friends stood nearby and moved to each side, making a path for Josie.
She exited the cabin, arms looped with Shane and Ang. Her dress was soft and floaty and sexy. More than that, he couldn’t tell because he was captured completely by the joy lighting up her face.
He saw her glance at his suit and smile at his tie before her gaze locked on his. He was a lucky man.
“You certainly are my friend. Now, don’t drool and embarrass yourself.” Troy’s comment made him laugh and realize he’d spoken aloud, but he didn’t look away.
When they were close, he shook the hands of the men and then took Josie’s hands in his. Unable to stop there, he leaned down to kiss her.
Peripherally, he heard Flynn’s drawl. “Isn’t this the guy who always complained about us kissing our brides too early?”
Laughter filled the crowd as he slowly pulled back from the kiss.
Troy was grinning when he spoke. “You two are an interesting pair. You’ve both worked in careers that give you amazing insights into other people and you have incredible people skills, but it took you such a long time to see what the rest of us knew at Christmas.”
Nico rose his eyebrows at his friend. “What do you mean?”
Troy grinned. “After those few days before Christmas, everyone at the lodge knew we would wind up here, with the two of you together.”
Nico looked at Josie, who was as wide-eyed as he felt. “Seriously?”
Troy nodded. “Seriously. The two of you were striking sparks off each other from the moment you arrived. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if Roman knew this was coming long before the rest of us.”
They turned to find Roman grinning and nodding. Well, hell. So much for his ability to keep his emotions hidden from the world. But if it meant he’d ended up with Josie, he couldn’t bring himself to care.
When they got to the part of the ceremony for the vows, Troy turned to Josie. “Ladies first.”
Josie squeezed Nico’s hands and her smile was the only thing he needed. “Well, Special Agent Spiffy Suits, we did it.”
He grinned at her while everyone chuckled.
She released one of his hands to run it over his lapel, his boutonniere, and his tie. “You know me so well. This is my favourite spiffy suit and you’ve bought a new tie that reminds me of my paint palette.”
He smiled. “And your painting shirts.”
“I never believed a person could know another so well. I never believed in love or happy endings. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to trust anyone enough for me to show them the real me. But you’ve changed all of that for me. You’ve shown me that the world is full of so much good and so many possibilities. You’ve believed in me like no one else ever has.”
“You’re easy to believe in Josie, you’re amazing.”
She blinked away tears. “I love you so much, Nico. I love your inner strength and your unwavering desire to make the world a better and safer place, to take care of those around you.”
She touched his grandmother’s ring that she wore. “You gave me your touchstone along with your heart. I love wearing the reminder of your love and your connection to family.”
Josie looked at Tessa and she gave a small cloth to Josie. When she unwrapped it, he could see that it was two rings. “I’ve been working on these for a few days, and I think I finally got them right.” She lifted the smaller one and put it in his palm.
“This is made of bronze because bronze symbolizes strength and support. You are so strong and you’ve always supported everyone around you. I want you to know that you will always have my strength and support whenever you need it. It can’t replace your grandmother’s ring, but I hope it makes you smile when you touch it.”
Nico’s throat closed entirely and he swallowed hard. She’d made him a new touchstone. One that meant the world to him. She wasn’t done.
Josie picked up the other ring. “This one is silver and platinum. For intuition, longevity, and determination.” She took his hand and then looked into his eyes. “This ring symbolizes us and our future. You’re the very best man I know, Nico. I promise to love you forever.”
Nico had to swallow hard at her words. This amazing woman loved him. When she looked, up her misty eyes were full of that love. He lifted her hands to kiss them. “You’re a difficult act to follow, Josie.”
That made her smile and he heard a few chuckles from their friends.
“As apparently everyone knew, I was attracted to you the moment I saw you. You volunteered your time and your talent so many times despite the fact that it drained you emotionally. Your courage and inner strength are second to none.”
He squeezed her hands. “You have the biggest heart. You feel so deeply and those emotions spill into your art, making the world a far better place. I’ve never known such creativity and you impress the hell out of me on a daily basis.”
Another swallow. “I love you so much. As my parents could tell you, I was so damn sure I’d never risk falling in love. I had no plans to ever have a serious relationship. And then you breezed in and blew those plans apart. Loving you is the easiest thing in the world. You’re an incredible person, Josie. I love you more than I thought was possible. I will spend every day of my life making sure you know you are a priceless treasure.”
He swallowed again and pulled her ring out of his pocket. “I don’t have your talent, but Tansy assures me this is ethically sourced. I wanted something that sparkles as bright as you do, but that wasn’t possible. I hope you like it anyway.”
He’d had the ring made to blend with his grandmother’s ring, but with diamonds enhancing the design. Her gasp and smile told him he’d made a good choice.
Once the ring was on her finger, she threw her arms around his neck. He lifted her up and kissed her with all the love in his heart.
Over the cheering, he heard Troy pronounce them husband and wife.
Josie laughed as Manny Rivera twirled her toward the old canoe they’d set up as a bar. The canoe was filled with ice and held huge glass jars filled with water, iced tea and lemonade as well as beer, wine, and champagne bottles.
He filled a glass of water for each of them then clinked her glass with his. “Welcome to the family, Josie. We’re thrilled that you’re one of us now.
Would she ever be able to control the happy tears?
For the first time, she was a part of an us, several kinds of us actually. With Nico. The two of them were an us with the Midnight Lake family. And now she was an us with the Riveras.
It was overwhelming and amazing.
“Thank you. It means so much to me to be part of your family. I never dreamed such amazing people existed.”
Manny ignored the tears in her voice. Like his son, emotion didn’t scare him off. “We’re better because of each other. And you’ll help us be better again.”
Josie swallowed hard and blew out a breath. Since getting to know the Riveras, she often wondered what her life would have been like if she’d lucked into foster parents like them. But her life had brought her here and that meant she didn’t regret any of the choices she’d made or the changes that had been forced on her.
She wished her birth parents could know that she was thriving and so happy she could feel it spilling out of her skin.
Nico’s arms wrapped around her from behind and he leaned down to kiss her shoulder. “Is my dad making you cry? Want me to beat him up for you?”
She laughed. “They’re happy tears.”
Nico kissed her temple and squeezed her. Manny pointed at the dance area. “Your lady needs to dance, Nico.”
She grinned as Nico saluted his dad and took her hand to sway to the sexy song floating through the air. He held her to him and set one hand low on her back. He used his other hand to cradle hers to his chest.
She felt him kiss her hair and his fingers played with the skin exposed by the low dip in the back of the dress. Beads hung in rows back there and he played with them as well.
Around them, people laughed and danced and talked, but Josie tuned them all out. Instead she focused on the man holding her so gently.
His arousing scent. The texture of his spiffy suit. The silky tie. His muscles that were hidden behind the suit but that held her closely. The rustle of his clothes, the brush of his fingers.
She raised her head from his chest to look into his eyes. “I didn’t dream much as a kid. I didn’t think much about the future and what it might hold for me.”
His gaze softened and she knew he was wishing he could change her past. She reached up to brush her finger over the crease between his brows. “I don’t think that girl could have dreamed big enough. What we have is so much bigger and brighter than anything I would have been able to imagine. I don’t even know if I could have dreamed big enough a year ago. Until we came to Midnight Lake before Christmas, I’d only dreamed of my art. Now I have so much more than my art. I have it, I have you, I have this amazing home and the people who live here. And I have your family. It’s the best dream ever come to life.”
Nico’s eyes grew misty with her words and then his mouth crashed down on hers.
Nico knew he would never get enough of kissing this woman. Of touching her and watching her and talking with her about her day.
A large hand slapped him on the back and drew his attention from her to Sam standing at their side.
Sam grinned. “We’ve cleaned up everything that needs to be done tonight. No candles are burning, only the solar lights. I’ve got the crew down at the dock.”
Holy shit. He hadn’t noticed any of that happening. He turned to find Josie’s eyes wide as well. She smiled. “We should go and say thank you.”
Sam shook his head. “Nope. You’ve already thanked everyone. They all get it. And we all think you should keep dancing. Congrats again and we’ll see you tomorrow. Or whenever you surface. No one will come out to bug you. Good night.”
Nico turned to watch Sam jog down to the dock. The solar lights down there showed everyone piling into canoes. He and Josie waved and called out their thanks.
A chorus of voices called out congratulations and good night and have fun.
The current song finished and the next one started up. At Last by Etta James poured out of the speaker. Josie laughed and turned back to him. “At last, we’re alone.”
“At last, we’re married.”
“I’m never going to tire of hearing that. Married. To my favorite person in the universe.”
He spun her into a dance and heard the cheers from the water as the canoes headed back to the lodge. “Me too.”
They danced as the song slipped into the next and the next. He brushed his fingers over the skin of her back. “This sexy dress might be the death of me.”
Her laugh was husky. “I certainly hope not.”
He played with the beads dripping down the back. “I think we should keep it on as long as we can.”
She batted her eyes at him. “And what exactly do you mean by that, Mr. Rivera?”
He trailed kisses from her jaw to the pulse pounding in her neck. “I mean that I want to see how many times you can orgasm before we need to strip it off.”
He gathered up the material of the skirt and ran his hands along her thigh and to the panties she wore. The barely-there panties. “You trying to kill me, Josie?”
“Certainly not.” Her echo of her earlier words was filled with laughter and desire. “I plan to be seducing you in the moonlight for at least seven or eight more decades.”
He dipped his fingers inside, finding her wet and ready. He stroked in the way that made her crazy and felt her knees wobble as she gasped out his name.
He kept his fingers moving and clasped her to him to keep her upright. Her breathing shortened and she repeated his name like a chant. Like a prayer.
Feeling like a superhero, he watched her fly into her first orgasm of their married life.
Seven or eight decades of that just might be enough.
Thank you so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed this bonus scene to the Small Town Heroes (Midnight Security) Romantic Suspense series!
The next book in the series, Built Of Steel spotlights Lia and Joe.