Lil stood at the edge of the bluff and snapped picture after picture. The sun was rising in all its glory over the trees surrounding Max’s house and she didn’t want to miss a moment of it.
Blues and reds melded into purples while roses and golds played with the clouds. All changing by the moment and she couldn’t let the opportunity for the perfect picture pass. This was the best possible portent for the day.
Strong hands grabbed her just as Thor let out a howl from a few yards away.
Max swung her into a hug. “Lil Shutterbug, I need you alive. You almost went over the damn bluff.”
“I knew where I was.”
Max rolled his eyes. “Of course you did. You were in the perfect spot for taking pictures of the sunrise and nothing else mattered.”
Then he kissed her nose and moved them both closer to the house. Thor stood by the flower bed. Her rescue Sasquatch never moved closer to the bluff than the flower beds. As they moved toward the house, Thor sighed and trudged along with them.
Lil held up her camera. “I want to capture every moment of this day. It’s going to be my favorite and I don’t want to risk forgetting any of it.”
“And I don’t want to risk losing you.” He stopped and cupped her face with a grin. “We’re getting married, today, Lil.”
She covered his hands with hers and reached up to kiss him. “I know. It’s going to be the best day ever.”
Thor set up another howl and they laughed into the kiss as a vehicle honked in the driveway. They moved that way to find her brothers piling out Gage’s truck.
Her oldest brother threw up his hands as he approached. “It’s wedding day. I don’t think you’re supposed to see each other. yet.”
Lil laughed. “Hey, Old Man. I woke up with his arms around me, so he’d be kind of hard to avoid. Unless I was blindfolded, of course—”
Her three brothers all cut her off and made faces as Max made a show of swinging her around and dipping her into a passionate kiss. Her heart was pounding and she wanted to jump Max right there. Brothers or no brothers.
But when they broke apart to breathe, hands separated them.
Jaz laughed. “Sorry, Lily. We’re stealing him away for a morning of fishing.”
Rayce slung his arm over Max’s shoulder. “Fishing. We promise not to drown him and we’ll have him back in time for the ceremony. Probably.”
The three of them laughed as they hustled Max to the truck and down the drive. She had just enough awareness to snap a few pics.
Thor lumbered his way to her side and leaned in. She dropped a hand to his head. “Well, there goes my plan to seduce him back to bed for a few hours. What do you think about pancakes with chocolate chips?”
Thor woofed his agreement and they headed inside. It wasn’t sex with her fiancé, but at least it was chocolate.
Max was ready for their afternoon wedding. Hell, he’d been ready at sunrise. Years ago.
Now, the clock was crawling and he needed to see Lil. But she’d been sequestered in the guest room with some of the women and they wouldn’t let him see her.
With a brief knock on his office door, his parents walked into the room. He’d been born lucky. These two were the best people he knew. Full of love and not afraid of a battle. Stalwart wasn’t a word he thought about often, but it fit them perfectly.
Mario, the gossip guru. Always on the lookout for news and spreading the good stuff. And helping behind the scenes to make the bad stuff better.
His mom, the steadiest person in the entire world. Unfailingly kind and observant. Spreading love with garlic and the occasional smack upside the head.
Antonia smiled and reached up to straighten his tie. His Lil had wanted dramatic black and white for the photos and he would do anything for her. Wearing a classic tux was an easy one.
Antonia pulled his head down to kiss his cheeks and he pulled her in for a long hug. “I love you, Mom. Thanks for always being there for me.”
She squeezed him tightly and he heard her sniff. “You’re a good boy, Maximo. And your Liliane is the perfect choice for you. You will give me beautiful grandbabies.”
Max laughed and kissed her cheek. “No rush on that one, Ma.”
Her eyes twinkled as she laughed. Antonia’s sparkle had to be one of the things that had drawn his dad to her all those years ago.
Mario laughed and tugged Max into a hug of his own. His eyes were mistier than his mom’s. Mario had never met an emotion he didn’t embrace. “Congratulations, my boy. Don’t know how you managed to snag that piece of sunshine, but I’m proud of you. You make sure to treat her like the princess she is.”
“I will, Pops. You taught me well.”
Mario boomed out a laugh and slapped him on the back. “I hope so.” Then he took Antonia’s hand and kissed it.
Just like Max had seen him do a million times before.
Another knock on the door had the LaChance brothers entering, this time all dressed up as well. Gage held up his phone before pocketing it in his suit pocket. “They’re waiting for us. You ready?”
“Finally. Let’s do this.”
Lil twirled in front of the mirror and grinned. The dress was as frothy and fun as she’d wanted. Old-fashioned glamour with just enough modern to make it perfect.
She hoped Max liked it. He’d have been perfectly content to get married in shorts and t-shirts, but she wanted to celebrate in style. Lil was finally free of the past and she was ready to jump into the future with the man she adored. If that wasn’t worth celebrating, she didn’t know what was.
Max had jumped aboard with the plans. No wonder she loved him.
His house on the bluff with its dramatic views was the best place for the wedding and Mother Nature had supplied the perfect weather.
Now all she wanted was to be married.
Kami and Becca laughed when she twirled again. “You’re going to make yourself dizzy.”
“Can’t help it. I’m marrying Max in a few minutes. I always knew this day would come.”
Her brothers’ wives looked amazing. They’d chosen dresses in their own styles that fit with the overall look and Lil couldn’t wait to capture them on film.
Then she laughed and realized she had no reason to wait. She grabbed her camera and snapped off a bunch of photos, capturing the female essence filling the room. While none of the three of them were typical girly-girls, they were completely and wonderfully female.
A knock sounded at the door, and her mom entered the room, followed by Antonia. Lil captured their joy with her camera as they walked in.
Then she was enveloped in hugs and best wishes.
She held the two women close to her. “I hope our marriage lives up to the example you’ve given us. I want us to be as wonderful as you both.”
Antonia squeezed her then leaned back. “You will, little one, you will. I’m so happy to have as an official daughter.” Then she kissed her cheek and moved back to give Lil a moment with her mom.
Jeannette squeezed her. “My baby’s getting married to the man she’s always loved. You two are so good together, Liliane. I’m so proud of you for how strong you are. How smart and courageous. You were always tagging along after those boys to prove yourself. And now you’ve got your greatest wish. I’m so happy for you.”
Kami tapped her shoulder. “Hey. No tears. You’re the one always telling people to suck it up at weddings, so suck it up!”
Laughing, Lil released her mom and took the tissue Becca offered to blot her eyes. “Thanks. Puffy eyes look terrible in pictures.”
Becca smiled. “I’m sure you could fix them in editing.”
Very true. “Let’s hope I don’t have to.”
Another knock on the door sounded. When Antonia checked, she smiled and opened the door wide for Lil’s dad.
He grinned at them all. “It’s time ladies.”
The others filed out while Remi came and took Lil by the shoulders. “My baby. So beautiful, just like your mama. You were in diapers last week. How did you grow up so fast?”
Then he kissed her on both cheeks and tugged her into a tight hug. “All right, baby girl. You ready?”
“Can’t wait, Dad. Let’s get me married.”
Max walked out of the house and into the yard with his parents on each side of him. Rayce had built them a pretty arch that matched Lil’s vision and then they’d covered it in vines and flowers.
White chairs had been spread out in an arc in front of the arch, leaving an aisle down the middle. An aisle covered with flower petals.
Thor lay near the aisle in his favorite pose. On his back with his legs in the air, tongue lolling to the side, all his bits exposed to the world. Snoring as if he’d swallowed a chainsaw.
He’d bet Lil had taken several pictures before anyone had arrived and he hoped she’d got a few of her goofy guard dog.
A small table had been set up near the back of the chairs. A guest book sat on the table and a sign requested people to sign in with a memory of Lil and Max.
Atop the sign sat a camera. Knowing his Lil’ Shutterbug, it was motion activated. He grinned at it and then pointed it out to his folks. Mario spun Antonia into a dance and then dipped her to give her a kiss.
Max clapped and then hugged them on either side of him to pose for another photo. He hoped the others had noticed it too.
Myla Esperanza-Banks was snapping pictures from another camera. It had taken some convincing, but Lil had finally realized she couldn’t be the only photographer.
As they walked down the aisle, his mom smiled at everyone and he and his dad answered greetings. It seemed like half the town was there. Maybe more.
Deputy Scott Anders stood at the arch. Their buddy had become an officiant a while back and he was quickly becoming the go-to officiant for their friends.
Max kissed his mom’s cheek and hugged both her and his dad then they took their seats. Scott shook his hand and grinned. “You ready?”
Max nodded and turned to look at the house, looking for his bride.
Of course he had to wait because she wasn’t the first one down aisle. Jaz escorted his mom. Gage and Becca. Rayce and Kami.
Finally, he spotted Remi’s head above the crowd. Lil wasn’t tall enough for him to see her before she rounded the crowd and appeared at the head of the aisle.
He’d bet there was another camera aimed directly at his face capturing the moment he saw her. He knew he wore a huge grin and he had to plant his feet into the grass to prevent himself from striding toward her to capture the joy he saw in a kiss.
Lil had always been gorgeous. Today, she nearly stopped his heart.
Black curls tumbled over her shoulders. She wore a dress that hugged her delicious body and made him think of the noir-genre moviestars of the forties and fifties. All glamour, all gorgeous.
Soon to be all his.
Lil tugged her dad to a halt and reached up to kiss his cheek for the camera posted at the top. Then she whispered in his ear, probably telling him about the photo op. Remi rolled his eyes then pretended to strangle her for the camera. Then the two of them linked arms and did a do-si-do.
The crowd had turned around to watch, probably alerted by Max’s laugh.
Then Lil curtsied, her dad bowed and then headed up the aisle. When they got to the front Remi swept his arm in a flourish. “She’s all yours.”
Max took Lil’s hands and brought them to his lips. “All mine. I like the sound of that.”
“Me too.” Lil bounced up and kissed him lightly, making Scott groan.
Scott shook his head with a grin. “Maybe I should petition the powers-who-be to change up the order of wedding ceremonies and start with a kiss.”
Max nodded. “Sounds like a good plan.”
Lil knew Scott was talking and she was taking most of it in, but she couldn’t take her eyes off Max. He’d always been her ideal man, the perfect combination of fun and serious. And sexy, so much sexy.
Now, her dream was coming true.
Scott broke into her thoughts. “Lil, would you like to speak first?”
She nodded and squeezed Max’s hands. “I like being first.” Her brothers and her parents laughed but she kept her eyes on the man she was about to marry.
“You’ve always been part of my life, of our family’s life. You were always one of the guys to me. One of the men I could count on to have my back, even when I drove you crazy.”
His grin dazzled her. “You still do.”
“And I always will.”
Max leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “Good.”
“I remember looking through the lens of my first camera and seeing things a little differently. Not only were you one of my best friends, but you were more. More than a brother. More than a friend. It took me a while to be brave enough to admit it out loud.”
Then emotion clogged her throat and she had to swallow deeply. Max squeezed her hands and rubbed his thumbs over her fingers with that deep patience of his.
“You’ve always given me strength. Your books gave me belief in myself when I needed it most. You showed me how to survive, how to fight back, how to stay steady, and then how to thrive. When I needed it most, you gave me a safe haven and a not-so-subtle prod to bring in my family.”
His smile was a little misty.
“You’re my everything Max. Always have been. Always will be. I love you and will love you forever.”
Max released her fingers and brought his hands up to cup her face. His kiss was soft and tender. And too brief.
“You, Lil’ Pest, are a hard act to follow.”
He kissed her again and took her hands. “I’m good at plotting, good at planning. I like having a goal and working toward it. About a decade ago, I started plotting my life’s goal. How to convince you to be my wife.”
He grinned at her. “I’ve loved you for a long time, Lil’ One. Your spirit is unbreakable. You’ve proven how strong you are and your capacity to love is infinite. You’d do anything for your family. You kept a difficult secret because you thought telling us about it would put those you love in jeopardy.”
He grinned and tapped her nose. “We think you were wrong, but you got through it on your own anyway.”
Her brothers muttered things like damn right. She resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at them. Barely.
Max pulled her attention back. “I’m so damn proud of what you’ve already accomplished in your life. You’re smart, strong, and so damn beautiful it hurts. Whatever you need it’s yours. I love you, Lil’ Annie. I promise to love you and cherish you forever.”
Then he kissed her for real. Lil wrapped her arms around his neck and he lifted her up and squeezed her tightly without breaking his hold.
Scott hadn’t said a word.
Max leaned back from the kiss and glared at the deputy who was grinning.
“Say it, Scott.”
“Are you sure? You don’t seem to like following the traditions.”
Max growled as Lil laughed.
Scott grinned again. “I now pronounce you husband and wife. Please kiss your bride.”
Max swung her in a circle and kissed the breath right out of her.
Lil hadn’t stopped smiling for hours. The wedding had been perfect and the party was just as fun. The glorious sunset had highlighted the day and the stars and moon lit up the evening. Her cameras were full of dozens and dozens of pictures they would cherish forever. She’d danced with everyone, although Max had snagged her for all the slow songs.
The first notes of her favorite song came on. Ekaterina’s debut song. Lil’s eyes instantly welled up and she swallowed hard.
Max was there in an instant. “What’s wrong? What is it?”
She shook her head and blinked back the tears. “It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“You’re not.” He wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Talk to me.”
“I am fine. Really. Do you know this song?”
Max frowned. “What?”
She managed a smile at that. “This song. It’s by Ekaterina. She’s my favourite singer. This is her debut song, Take the Next Step.”
Max continued to frown. “And it’s making you cry?”
Lil hugged him tightly. “My therapist told me to find art that made me feel strong, that helped build me up. I found lots to use. Your books. Photographs. Paintings. And this song. Listen.”
Max tugged her into a slow swaying dance as they listened to the lyrics. She leaned into him as his hands cruised over her, offering comfort.
“I used it whenever I fell back into the shame cycle. I know it’s silly to feel a connection to a singer I’ll never meet, but this song got me through a lot of tough days. I think Ekaterina would be a really good friend.”
Max’s husky voice whispered in her ear. “Sounds like she already is.”
She should have known he’d understand. They swayed as the song closed out and another one began. The beat changed, but still they swayed together.
Lil didn’t think she’d ever been so content, so happy, so ready for the future. Max’s arms around her were pretty much all she needed.
Although fewer onlookers and layers of clothes could improve things immensely. She wanted her husband all to herself.
Proving he was reading her thoughts again, Max tugged her into his body. “Can I get rid of them?”
Lil laughed. “It’s not going to be that easy. They’re having fun.”
Max kissed her slowly until her limbs trembled. “Watch me.”
Max raised his hand to his mouth and blew out a piercing whistle. The sound stopped all conversation to a halt and brought everyone’s eyes to them. Max didn’t look away from her as he called out. “Party’s over. I want my wife to myself. Go away.”
Everyone laughed, including Lil. How could she not love this man?
It took twenty minutes, but after a lot of hugs and laughter, the last taillights headed down the driveway, leaving them alone.
Max tugged her back into a dance and kept them swaying in the moonlight. Their families had cleaned up the necessities and had left only a couple of lanterns on the deck. She and Max were alone under the stars and the moonlight.
Max spun her out in their dance and then brought her in and dipped her. When she laughed, he tugged her up and into a kiss. Lil sighed into the kiss, and Max smiled.
When he’d reduced her bones to liquid with only his lips, he moved his mouth from hers to tease at her ear, her neck, and her shoulders. “This dress has been driving me crazy all day. You look like the best of the movie stars. Enough curves and lace to drive me bonkers. I’ve been picturing getting you out of it in many creative ways. I’ve also been imagining what you’re wearing under it and I’ve been wondering if there’s a way to drive you clear out of your mind while you’re still wearing it.”
Lil breathing grew more shallow with each word whispered along her skin.
“I want you here in the moonlight, in this sexy dress, Lil’ Fortini.”
That made her laugh. “Lil Fortini. We did it, Max. We’re married.”
“Damn straight. And we’re about to consummate that fact here under the stars.”
“I like the way you think, Mr. Fortini.”
Max danced her toward one of the benches that graced the lawn, all while using his mouth to make her boneless.
The bench faced the lake and he turned her to place her hands on the back of it. “Hang on, Lil’ Beauty.”
His fingers found the tiny buttons trailing down the back of her dress and he loosened them one by one, kissing her spine with every inch he exposed. When he realized she wasn’t wearing a bra, he growled his approval and moved his hands inside her dress and around to cup her breasts.
He toyed with her nipples and used his mouth on her neck and spine. Her legs trembled and he chuckled. “Stay strong, Lil’ One. We’re just getting started. We’ve got a lifetime together and I want to make sure we start it off perfectly.”
He opened more buttons and eased his hand down to the tiny panties she wore.
He growled again into her skin. “Killing me, Lil. I love you so damn much. Let’s see you fly for the first time as Mrs. Fortini. I promise you there are a million more times to come.”
His fingers dipped inside her and touched her in just the right way and Lil cried out as her body exploded. Max wrapped his other arm around her to keep her upright and helped her ease back down to earth.
It took her long minutes to drag in enough air to form words. “That’s a hell of a good start to a lifetime. Show me what else you’ve got.”
Laughing he whirled her around and lifted her to perch on the edge of the bench. His kiss was fire and lightning and all-consuming.
She pulled back and cupped his face. “I love you, Max. With everything I am.”
“Right back at you, Lil’ One. You’re my everything.” His grin lit up the night. “Now let’s get you screaming my name.”
And he did.