Mass Market Paperback Reissue of "The Wedding Ring Promise"
Fourteen years ago – December 22
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and this company..."
Molly Anderson tuned out the minister's words and sighed impatiently. She wasn't interested in being gathered together or standing through what promised to be a long, boring ceremony. She didn't want to be here, and if the truth be told, her sister, the bride, didn't want her here, either. But their mother had insisted.
"Whatever will people think if little Molly isn't in the wedding?" her mother had asked. "Janet, make her one of your bridesmaids. You're going to have so many that she won't be in the way. If Molly is at the end of the line, she'll be up against the wall of the church. No one will even see her."
Molly raised her chin slightly. She knew she wasn't supposed to have heard that conversation. She hadn't really been eavesdropping. She'd just sorta been walking by the dining room. And it was her house, too, even if everyone seemed to forget that she lived there! She tightened her grip on her spray of ridiculous poinsettias. Poinsettias! Janet could've gone with red roses for her Christmas-themed wedding, but no, she had to choose poinsettias, which were already looking droopy, and the wedding had barely begun.
It didn't matter, she thought grimly. Janet hadn't wanted her to be in the wedding, and she, Molly, was only here because she'd been threatened with "severe punishment" if she didn't cooperate.
She shifted until she was able to lean against the wooden paneling of the church wall. The service continued. Molly watched without a whole lot of interest. This wasn't her idea of a romantic wedding at all. If nothing else, the bride and groom should be in love. But Janet was marrying Thomas because he was a successful lawyer and his family owned a huge law firm in San Francisco. Thomas was marrying Janet because she was beautiful. Janet got nearly everything because she was beautiful.
She made a stunning bride. Even Molly was willing to concede that. The silk-and-lace gown accentuated Janet's model-thin figure and sleek dark hair. She would look perfect in every picture. It wasn't fair, Molly thought as she tugged on the waist of her too-tight tea-length gown. Green, of course. Her least favorite color in the whole world.
The style didn't suit her at all. For one thing, it was too sophisticated. At fourteen she was the youngest of the bridesmaids. She was also the shortest. Janet's friends were tall and willowy, like Janet herself. Molly didn't consider five foot four short, but compared with the rest of the family, she was practically an elf. Just one more reason she didn't fit in the family with—
The skin at the back of her neck prickled. Molly straightened, then turned to glance over her shoulder. A shadow moved into view at the rear of the church, backlit by the soft lights on the tall Christmas tree in the foyer. The shadow became a man, and her breath caught in her throat. Dylan! He was here!
She'd wondered if he would show up to see Janet marry someone else. Was he tortured by the ceremony? Did he want to stalk up the center aisle and claim Janet as his own? Molly was torn. Although she would have loved the drama of the event, she didn't want dumb old Janet marrying anyone as wonderful as Dylan. He was too... everything.
Knowing that her mother was going to kill her and figuring it would be worth it, Molly slipped down the side aisle toward the rear of the church. She moved quietly, and as far as she could tell, no one noticed her departure. As she stepped into the foyer, she saw Dylan had already walked out into the afternoon.
"Dylan," she called as she hurried after him. When she reached the stairs leading down to the sidewalk, she skidded to a stop.
His black motorcycle was parked at the curb. There were compartments on either side and a bundle tied onto the area behind his seat. Realization dawned, and with it, a piercing pain in her chest.
"You're leaving." It wasn't a question.
He heard her and turned. "Hey, kid. What's up?"
She clutched her poinsettas and stared at him. "You're leaving," she repeated. "Why?"
He shrugged. "There's nothing for me here. Not anymore."
While the rest of the country battled blizzards, here the weather was perfect, the kind of day Southern California was known for. Bright blue sky, balmy temperature, a soft breeze. No doubt Janet had made arrangements for this weather well in advance. But all the loveliness of the day was nothing when compared with the beauty that was Dylan Black.
He was tall, just over six feet, with dark hair and eyes. His black leather jacket made his broad shoulders seem enormous. Jeans hugged his butt and thighs. He wore dark boots and an earring. Molly quivered just thinking about it all. He was her reason for living.
"You can't go," she said as she hurried down to stand next to him. "It's only three days till Christmas."
He gave her an easy smile, the one that made her forget to breathe.
Dylan had first entered her life two years earlier, when Janet had started dating him. For the most part Molly hadn't paid much attention to her sister's boyfriends. They'd all been boring. But Dylan was different. Her diary was a testament to his virtues—as she saw them, anyway. The boys her own age had become insignificant by comparison. He actually noticed her and spoke to her. He teased her about being smart, seemed interested in her classes, and he treated her like a real person. If that wasn't heavenly enough, he never made fun of her braces, her bad skin or her baby fat. For the past two years, Molly had been praying Dylan would see what a tool Janet was and notice her instead.
She'd gotten the first part of her wish. Janet and Dylan had broken up, but her sister had been the one to end the relationship...and Dylan hadn't turned to Molly for comfort.
"It's time for me to move on," he said now as he shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. "It's the way of the world, kid. But I'm gonna miss you."
"Really?" Her voice came out in a squeak.
"Sure. We're buddies." He gave her a sad smile that didn't reach his beautiful eyes.
Buddies? She bit back a sigh. Okay, she'd been hoping for more, but she could live with that.
"Where are you going to go?" she asked. "You're not going to be alone for Christmas, are you? I don't think I could stand that."
He shrugged. "Away from here. I thought I might try racing." He jerked his head toward his bike. "I'm pretty good on that thing."
"You're the best." She pressed her bouquet to her chest.
If only she could ask him to take her with him. Molly exhaled. She might have a crush on Dylan, but she wasn't stupid. He was good to her, but he just saw her as Janet's little sister. If only she had a way of making him stay.
"You can't go," she said, remembering something important "You promised me an adventure. With you. Remember? When I grow up."
This time the smile did reach his eyes. He stretched out his hand and touched her cheek. "Yeah, I remember. We're going away on my bike."
"Right. Well, I'm going to be grown up soon. If you're gone, how can I find you so we can take that trip? You wouldn't go back on your word, would you?"
"Come here," he said gruffly, and held out his arms.
In his worn leather jacket and scuffed boots, he looked like an outlaw. Molly had never been in love before, but she knew she would never feel this way about another man, ever.
She rushed toward him. He captured her and pulled her hard against him. The poinsettias were crushed between them, but she didn't care. Nothing mattered but being close to Dylan.
She'd been hugged before, but those had been boys and Dylan was very much a man. She tried to notice everything so she could remember it and think about it later. She had a bad feeling that he was going to leave her with little more than memories.
She laid her cheek against his shoulder and felt the cool smoothness of the leather. She inhaled the scent of him and absorbed the warmth of his body. He was strong and lean, and he held her as if she really mattered. Then he stepped back.
"I've gotta go," he said.
She nodded. "I understand. It's too hard to stay around here. You still love her."
One side of his mouth quirked up at the corner. "If this is love, it hurts like hell." He thought for a moment. "Tell you what, Molly. When you're all grown up and ready for that adventure, you come find me. Give me this. We'll go anywhere you want."
With that, he shoved his hand into his front pocket. When he pulled it out, he was holding a narrow, plain gold band. Molly sucked in a breath. It was, she knew, a wedding ring he must have bought for her sister.
"I didn't know," she whispered. The line "five golden rings" sang through her head, and she thought fervently that one ring would do. If only Dylan had bought it for her, and given it to her because he loved her as much as she loved him.
"There's nothing to know," he said. "I bought it, but then I never got around to asking her. Here, you take it. Bring me the ring when you're ready. Deal?"
He laid the ring in the palm of her hand. Molly closed her fingers around it and stared at him.
"Merry Christmas, kid," he said, then settled onto his motorcycle.
Molly stood there and watched him drive off. It didn't matter that Dylan had bought the ring for Janet, that he'd actually wanted to marry her sister. It really didn't matter that Janet had been stupid enough to break up with him before he could propose. Molly had the ring now. As soon as she was finished growing up, she was going to find him and go away with him. She was going to make him fall in love with her and they were going to live happily ever after. She had his promise. A wedding ring promise.
December 5th, fourteen years later.
"It's easier in the movies," Molly said as she leaned against the door frame and surveyed the mess that was her bedroom. In the movies or on television, when a character decided to escape from her life by packing up and leaving everything behind, there was an upswell of music, then the scene changed and she was on the road, or the plane or whatever. In real life, someone had to do the packing.
"As no one else seems to be volunteering, I guess that someone is me," Molly murmured.
She looked at the open suitcase on her bed, at the piles of clothing scattered around. There was a notepad on her dresser that listed the things she had to do before she could go. Stop the paper and the mail, check that her bills were paid. At least she didn't have a pet to worry about.
There was also the small issue of deciding where she wanted to go. Running away would be easier if she had a destination in mind. But right now, all she wanted was to get away—to leave and never come back. Unfortunately, that wasn't an option.
She crossed to the bed and picked up a sweater. It was early December in Southern California, which meant warm, sunny days and cool nights. She tossed the sweater into the suitcase. Jeans were necessary, but did she need a dress? A dress or even a skirt and blouse meant uncomfortable shoes, which were more than she wanted to deal with. Then there was the whole issue of the right purse and—
Molly swore under her breath. "None of this is important," she told herself. "Just go." She could feel the tears forming, tears that she'd promised herself she wouldn't be crying again. It wasn't supposed to keep hurting, but it did. If only she could forget. If only there were something she could do to fall asleep for the next couple of weeks until everything had been resolved.
She shook her head. It was going to take more than two weeks, she reminded herself. It could take months. So a year from now she would be fine, right?
She didn't have the answer. No one did. She sucked in a deep breath. She was strong and tough and she wasn't going to let the situation get her down. After squaring her shoulders, she crossed to her dresser and tugged out her lingerie drawer. She then returned to the bed and dumped the entire contents into her suitcase. If she couldn't decide what to take, she would take everything. That made life simpler.
She dropped the empty drawer onto the carpet and began quickly sorting through panties and bras. As she picked up a plain cotton sports bra, one of several she'd purchased recently, something caught her eye. A glint of light…a flash.
Molly fished around in the tangle of elastic and lace. As she pushed aside garments, the small object fell into a corner of the suitcase. She grabbed it and pulled it out.
For the first time in ten days, Molly smiled. She rubbed her thumb over the gold ring. Dylan's ring—the one he'd meant for her sister but had instead given her. It had been forever. Years. She sank onto the mattress. Whatever had happened to him? He'd ridden out of her life and disappeared, just like one of those western heroes she loved in the movies. Only instead of a trusty horse, Dylan had been astride his motorcycle.
That Christmas had been the loneliest of her life. Janet had been away on her honeymoon, leaving Molly alone with their parents, who had always been distant at best. She'd told Dylan that no one should be alone at Christmas, but she learned that year that you could be painfully lonely even when you weren't by yourself.
She wondered where he was today. Did he still possess the same magic? There was a time when being close to Dylan had been enough to make her world right. She'd thought he was the most handsome, perfect male on the planet. She remembered how unattractive she'd been then, with her bad skin and braces, and winced. But Dylan had always had time for her. He'd made her feel special, and she would never forget him.
She slid the ring onto the third finger of her right hand. No doubt he was still breaking hearts at an alarming rate. Or maybe he'd grown up, like the rest of them, and was just some middle-aged guy with a wife, two kids and a mortgage. She tried to picture him driving a sensible sedan, but her imagination failed her. In her mind, Dylan would always be young and handsome, a dangerous rebel in black leather and boots.
Leaving the ring in place on her finger, she returned to her packing. She was folding a sensible long-sleeved cotton shirt when the phone rang. She knew who it was before she answered.
"I'm fine," she said as she picked up the receiver and cradled it between her shoulder and her neck.
"I could have been a salesperson," Janet said. "Then you would have felt really foolish."
"Nope, there was a definite 'Janet' sound to the ring. I knew it was you." She tossed the shirt into the suitcase, then sank onto the floor. "Seriously, I'm fine."
Janet sighed. The sound carried clearly down the length of the state. Janet and her husband, Thomas, lived in northern California, in Mill Valley, near San Francisco. "I don't believe you, Molly. And I'm worried. I know you tell me not to be, but I can't help it. You're my sister and I love you."
Molly pulled her knees to her chest. "I appreciate that and I love you, too. I couldn't have gotten through this without you. But you've gotta trust me. I'm doing okay." It was a small lie that shouldn't count at all.
"I considered coming down and spending a week or so with you. Until…you know."
Molly thought about Janet staying in her small condo and fussing over her. Actually, the idea had merit. She and her sister hadn't gotten along while they were growing up—a situation, they'd come to realize, that had been encouraged by their mother. But once Janet had married and moved away, the sisters had discovered they had more in common than they'd first thought and over the past ten years or so they'd developed a close, loving bond.
"As appealing as that sounds," Molly said, "you've got three kids and I know my nieces would never forgive me if I took their mom away from them, especially over the holidays. And to be completely honest, you miss Thomas when you're not with him. By day three, you're a whining mass of helpless jelly. You'd get on my nerves."
Molly said it lightly, partially because it was true and partially because she was afraid she and Janet would do nothing but cry for the week. She needed a distraction more than she needed sympathy.
"Besides," she added, "I'm going away."
"You're right about the girls missing me, and how I get when I'm not with Thomas. Getting away is a good idea. Come see us. You know we'd love to have you. We missed you over Thanksgiving."
"I want to," Molly said slowly. Oh, how she wanted to. Her sister and brother-in-law would pamper her, and the girls would help her forget. Family was healing. But… "I need a complete change of scene. I haven't decided where I'm going, but I'll let you know when I get there."
"I don't know whether I should push you into coming here or let you do what you want."
"You bossed me around enough when we were kids, so I think you should give me a break now. Besides, I'll be there for your anniversary and for Christmas, like always. I just need to get away for a couple weeks first."
Janet sighed again. "Fair enough. I'll trust you to know what's best. I'm just so frustrated. I want to do something."
"Tell me about it." Molly tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. As she brought her hand down, she noticed the ring on her finger. "Janet, do you remember Dylan Black?"
Her sister laughed. "There's a change in subject. Of course. He's the bad boy from my past. Dark and dangerous and so completely wrong for me. Thank goodness Thomas came along and rescued me from myself. I haven't thought of him in years. Why do you ask?"
"When I was packing, I found the ring he gave me. The wedding ring he bought you. I still have it, and finding it made me think of him."
"Let me see. He was at the ten-year high school reunion, although that was nearly five years ago. He has a custom motorcycle design firm in Riverside. Black something, I can't remember. The rumors were, he was doing well for himself."
"Interesting," Molly said, and changed the subject. They talked for a few more minutes, then Molly again promised she would think seriously about joining Janet and her family up north. If she didn't do that, she would at least let them know where she was going to be.
After the phone call, it took her another half hour to finish packing. Then Molly moved the suitcase into the living room, sat on her sofa and stared at the bag. Now what? Where did she go? She wanted to escape from her life for a week or two, to be in a place where she could forget what had happened, while trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her future.
A cruise? A train trip to New York? Maybe she could go to Acapulco and stay drunk for a week. Of course, one margarita made her silly, while two knocked her on her butt for the rest of the evening, so staying drunk would be virtually impossible. She needed a plan.
Her gaze fell on the ring. She turned her hand to make the gold glimmer. Even after all this time, she could still remember the thrill of that moment, when Dylan had given her the ring. Of course, he hadn't meant it as a romantic gesture at all. It had been his way of letting her know that he hadn't forgotten his promise to her. That one day when she was grown up, the two of them would take off on an adventure. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
As Molly stared at the ring, an idea took hold. It was silly and foolish. She would be completely insane if she did it. After all, it had been ten years. He wouldn't even remember her, would he?
She rose to her feet. "It's a start," she whispered to herself. "A place to go in the morning." And she needed that more than anything. The rest of it didn't matter.
She would do this one crazy thing and visit Dylan Black, then she would go on from there. At least going to see him would give her journey a beginning. Maybe after that, she would head up north to stay with her sister. It didn't matter. All that she wanted was to run away so she could finally forget.
New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery returns with a classic story of destiny, desire and a little holiday magic!
In her youth, Molly Anderson couldn't help crushing on gorgeous bad boy Dylan Black—even though he only had eyes for her older sister. When things didn't work out between them, he said goodbye to Molly as well, vowing they'd have a great adventure when she grew up. Years later, dumped by her fiancé just before Christmas, she's finally ready to take Dylan up on his promise.
A guarded Dylan always had a weakness for Molly, and when she waltzes back into his life—grown-up and gorgeous—he's stunned. So why not whisk her away for some no-strings-attached fun?
Laughter-filled days and late-night kisses are changing Molly's life, for good. The only gift she truly wants now is Dylan's love, but when he discovers the secret she's been keeping, she may lose him again…this time forever.
COPYRIGHT © 2016-17 BY SUSAN MALLERY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. WEBSITE DESIGN & MAINTENANCE BY WEB CRAFTERS.
SUSAN MALLERY IS A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF CONTEMPORARY WOMEN'S FICTION AND ROMANCE NOVELS.