Panic filled me as I weaved through the throng of people. I’d slept in, was dangerously close to missing my flight. I dodged weary travelers, tripped over luggage (and the owners) sitting on the floor under corridor windows. Luckily, my best friend had offered to bring my luggage; all I had was my overstuffed carry-on and my purse, both of which were slamming painfully against my hips as I scrambled through the terminal.
“Ma’am, you need to get in line for security.” A guard stopped me as I was about to pass through the final hurdle.
“But – but –” I studied his stern face, panting. “I’ve passed through –”
“Line up starts there.” He pointed at the end of an incredibly long line. My heart sank. I’d never get through in time.
“Please? I’m late. I’m getting married, I can’t miss my flight.” The tears I forced for sympathy blurred my vision as I grabbed hold of his blue shirt front. I saw no trace of compassion in his eyes.
“Guess if it was that important to ya, ya’d have been on time. Now get in line.”
Head down, I approached the line. “Anyone willing to let a desperate woman cut in front?”
Each face I passed looked away when we made eye contact. Desperation and need to get through before my plane took off called for desperate measures. “I’ll pay twenty bucks, twenty bucks for a spot in line. I’m getting married, I need to get on my plane.”
One woman looked thoughtful but her man shook his head, seizing her arm and moving so close to the people ahead of them I hoped they got slapped with a restraining order. “Fifty! I’ll pay fifty, just please, help a desperate bride-to-be out.”
I spun in a half circle, spotted a tall man waving. Giddy relief filled me as I made a beeline to him, sticking my tongue out at the couple as I went.
Grumblings and mutterings flowed like a wave down the long line. Any other time, I’d be ashamed. Not today. “Thanks. Can I e-transfer you? I don’t know how much cash I’ve got.”
“And how many more bribes you’ll have to pay?” The man, in his mid-thirties, grinned. “I’m Finn.”
I took his large hand and shook. “I’m Tal. Actually, my name is Tallulah, but for obvious reasons I prefer Tal.”
Something flickered in his incredible eyes (were they blue? Green? Captivating, anyhow), and I noticed he tried to hide a smirk. I had no idea why I’d blurted my name like that. Tallulah was reserved for official government forms and banking details. “Yeah, I know. My dad got to name me. My mom was drugged up because of complications and so high when he got her to sign I should be glad he didn’t add lollipop as my middle name. That’s what my mom was craving while she was high. She agreed to sign anything as long as Dad gave her lollipops.”
I wanted to kick myself for babbling, but something about him unnerved me. We moved ahead, getting closer to the final security check. I hoped it was the last one at least. I had minutes…
“What is your middle name?” Finn shifted so I was ahead of him.
“Oh. We don’t know each other well enough.” My cheeks warmed as I blushed.
“I’ll waive the fifty bucks if you tell me.”
Since my bank account was perilously close to double digits, I caved. “Marigold.”
Finn snorted, covered his mouth. “I’m sorry.”
“Was it worth fifty bucks?” I grinned, putting my bag and my purse on the counter as we shuffled closer. I freed my passport and ticket.
“Tallulah Marigold. I feel like I owe you money now.” Finn shook his head again.
“That’s why I’m anxious to get married. My last name is Ingalls, my married name will stop me from being TMI.”
“TMI? Ah, Too Much Information. Gotcha.” Finn recovered while I went to the miserable looking security people. My bags went through as I went to the metal detectors.
“One sec.” The large woman behind the desk hit buttons on her keyboard, frowning. “Errol, open the bag.”
“There’s nothing –” I broke off as Errol opened my carry-on. The cranky woman gestured at the wedding gift still wrapped in the bag.
“Open it. Might be a gun.”
“But…no! No gun! It’s a wedding gift from my coworkers.” I had no idea what the girls at work got me, but I had a feeling I didn’t want it opened in the middle of the airport with a thousand people craning their necks to see what the hold up was. I’d almost left it at home but drunk me packed it for something to do on the plane.
Errol ripped the flowery wrapping paper off the rectangular box. The miserable witch chuckled as Errol showed her the contents of the plain brown box. “What? What is it?”
The hag shook her head, rolling her eyes. “I’m sure you don’t know.”
I stared at the phallic device Errol had taken out of the box to show me, confusion warring with dawning horror. “Oh. My. God. No! Seriously? Is that –?”
I heard the laughter first, then the whispers. Like the complaints when I’d cut in line, only now there were titters, giggles, and cat calls. “Throw it out. I don’t want it.”
“You sure? Says it’s state of the art, heavy duty, top of the line pleasure.” Errol read from the large cardboard tag dangling from the base before stuffing it back in the box. I moaned, shaking my head frantically as Errol tried to put the cursed thing back in my bag.
“No, please. Sell it, donate it, take it home to your wife. Give it to –” I stared at the crusty woman across from me, saw the warning in her eyes. If anyone needed a dose of pleasure…I thought better of my suggestion. “Your, uh, next single woman passing through. I’m getting married, can we hurry this up?”
My face was so hot it burned and I was shaking. I could still hear Finn’s chuckles beside me but I refused to look at him. The witch had a heart after all; with barely a smile, she waved me through. The metal detectors didn’t go off (yay!). I grabbed my toyless bag and my purse, glanced at the overhead signs and jogged toward my boarding area.
I made a wrong turn, back tracked. My heart raced and sweat beaded my brow. Every time I spied a plane taxiing down the runway, I was sure it was mine. Resigned, I decided to find my gate and confirm what I knew in my heart already. Then I’d see if I could get a refund, find another airline with another flight later. I staggered into the waiting area I should’ve been in long before. The area was packed but I scanned the crowd as I tried to think what to do next. My jaw dropped when I recognized Joy’s shaggy brown mop of hair, her wire framed glasses, as she stared at her phone. I darted around people, not looking above shoulder height in case I saw anyone from the security check.
“Is there a delay? Shouldn’t you have at least boarded by now? Or were you being a good friend, not going because I wasn’t there?” Joy moved her bag from the chair beside her without looking up. I flopped gratefully (but not gracefully) beside her.
Joy, my best friend of twenty-seven years, raised an eyebrow as she finally looked at me. “What are you talking about? Delay? I got here early, haven’t heard anything about a delay.”
“Were you listening to your audio book and missed the boarding call?” I didn’t see her blasted headphones but why else was she still sitting here? I pulled my phone out and showed Joy the time. “I slept in. We missed the plane.”
Joy frowned as she glanced at her own phone. “You idiot.”
I bristled at her tone. “What?”
“Did you change your time settings last night? I knew I shouldn’t have left you, you were already buzzing.”
“No I wasn’t.” I squared my shoulders defiantly even as the memory crept in. Plastered by the end of the night, I’d decided to be proactive and change my time so I wouldn’t have to when I got to Alberta.
“You set your time two hours ahead.” Joy grabbed my phone and started tapping the screen. “First of all, he’s two hours behind. And second, your phone will update as we cross time zones.”
I groaned. “Karen and I tried to figure it out, like if it was eleven for Hank and not me, it’d be one for him, or whatever the logic was. Okay, fine. I was drunk.”
Joy tossed me my phone. “I reset your settings.”
I leaned against my seat, the hangover I’d woken up with kicking in (the adrenaline rush seeing the time had postponed the worst of it as I’d leapt into action). I dozed until Joy elbowed me.
“Get off me, you’re drooling on my shoulder.”
I wiped my mouth and stretched, feeling slightly better. The waiting area was even more crowded, and the drone of voices from excited travelers were like little hammers hitting my skull. I winced when I spied the couple I’d tried to bribe to let me through. “At least I didn’t pay.”
Joy looked up from her phone. “Hmm?”
I explained, as plainly as I could, the adventure of the morning (omitting the part about the gift).
“How much were you supposed to pay?”
“I offered fifty, but I got off easy. Just told him my name.” I snickered.
“You scarred some hillbilly hick from the prairies?” Joy shook her head, grinning.
“Hank doesn’t live in the prairies, dummy.” I grinned at Joy, waggling my eyebrows as I pictured Finn. “The guy definitely wasn’t a hick, and for all I know he was going to Texas.”
“Alberta is part of the prairies, and it’s Canada’s Texas.” Joy rolled her eyes at me. “That’s why I agreed to come with you. I love Alberta. And fine, not a hillbilly. Oil worker maybe.”
“Hank’s not a farmer. He’s a cattle guy. Rancher? And the guy in line was too put together to be a hick farmer or oil worker.” I shrugged, thinking of Finn’s button down shirt and expensive running shoes. “Hank might be a bit hick, for now anyhow. I figure we’ll try the cow thing, then come back here to civilization and he can get a real job. Plus, there’s cows here. He can have a hobby farm.”
Joy put her phone in her pocket, staring at me with that look she used to give me when I argued with the teacher. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Of course I am. You know why Hank wanted to marry me. I agreed, because, well…John.” I was about to launch into a tirade about why Ontario was so much better than Alberta, about my reasons for this crazy wedding, when our flight was announced. “Saved by the bell – rather, boarding call.”
Joy picked up her carry-on bag and purse, still staring at me. I slung my purse over my right shoulder, my carry-on over my left, and we followed the rest of the sheep to the boarding gate. The couple smirked when they saw me but didn’t say anything. I wasn’t in the mood to explain more to Joy. She was already ticking me off.
“Thanks again for bringing my luggage. Did you have any trouble getting through?” I asked after a few minutes of uncomfortable silence.
“No.” Joy kept her gaze on her phone.
I replayed our conversation in my head, wondering what had set her off. Hank was a rancher, I hadn’t realized Alberta was part of the prairies but I’d conceded when she obviously knew more than me. Someone kept clearing their throat and giving little coughs behind me but I refused to turn around because I had a sinking feeling they’d witnessed the whole fiasco earlier.
When we didn’t appear to be moving anytime soon, I huffed out an impatient breath. “Why’d they announce it if we’re just supposed to stand here?”
Joy harrumphed but didn’t say anything else. Deciding to make a last ditch effort to fix things before enduring a four hour flight in angry silence, I sighed. “What’s wrong?”
Joy cricked her neck when she whipped her head around to stare at me. Massaging her neck, she glowered. “You know how I feel about all this. The only thing I support you on is going there to meet Hank. I can’t believe you committed to marrying him simply because he needs a wife, but you did — and now you’re saying you plan to manipulate him into giving everything up to move here?”
I ran my fingers through my hair, smoothing out the tangles. “We’ve been through this a million times. Hank needs a wife, yes, and he’s okay looking. John’s dead, and you said it yourself – I’m still here. I’m ready, finally, to move on.”
“You were ready to move on long before John –” Joy’s face was set in the usual annoyance John’s name evoked, but to her credit, she struggled to compose herself. “Anyhow, that’s neither here nor there. Hank’s what concerns me. You seem to think you’ll supply the wife end of the deal but then you want to change him completely. You saw what he said, raising cattle is in his blood. What are you going to do if there’s no attraction? You swore you cared about him, but honestly? I don’t believe you. I think you’re just lazy –”
“Lazy?” My mouth opened and closed in disbelief.
“Yes, lazy. You want the husband but lack the ambition to actually go out and look for one.”
I pulled my ticket from the side pocket of my purse as we finally started to move ahead. “I’ve been talking to Hank for months.”
“Online. Not even video chats, just emails.” Joy rolled her eyes as she extracted her ticket. “You don’t know if you’ve got any, what’s your word? Chemistry?”
Fury flashed, hot and bright. “You make no sense. None. When I first met John, I told you we were meant to be, the chemistry was intense. You’re the one who said chemistry isn’t all there is to a relationship. Asked me if I could talk to him, be friends with him, because that’s what was most important.”
“Exactly!” Joy’s voice rose several octaves and the couple from the security line turned around nervously. “You had chemistry, but nothing else, and look where that got you. And I never said chemistry wasn’t important, but you needed more than just –”
“Is there a problem here?” A flight attendant wrung his hands nervously as his beady eyes darted from Joy’s miserable face to mine.
“No, no problem. I’m sorry,” Joy apologized, pink spots shining high on her cheeks. I noticed she was apologizing to him, not me.
“Can you get her suitcase? She won’t be flying with us today.” I brushed past Joy to hand my ticket to another attendant.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible.” Beady-eye guy continued wringing his hands.
I snatched my ticket from the woman who was eyeing me nervously. “Fine. Never mind.”
I stormed across the weird tunnel leading out of the airport and into the plane, my stomping causing vibrations. I glared at the ticket in my hand, looking for my seat number.
“Halfway down the row, in the middle.” Yet another flight attendant, this one model pretty and annoyingly happy, gestured when she glanced down at my ticket.
I’d never been on a plane before. Movies and TV shows made them seem bigger somehow, or else this was a smaller plane. I regretted switching airlines to make sure Joy and I got seats together. I struggled to put my bag in the overhead bin and took great pleasure when I realized how much more difficult it would be for Joy, who was two inches shorter. I’d selected the window seat for Joy in a fit of generosity since she was coming with me and would be returning alone. In a snit, I took the window.
I tucked my purse under my seat, and stared mutinously out the window while waiting for Joy, sneaking peeks every minute or two to see if she boarded. Maybe she’d decided to go home? My initial reaction was spitefully glad, but as I watched more strangers enter, I started to regret our fight. Was Joy right? Was I being stupid? Lazy? She had no idea how hard it was to trust a man, to look at him and wonder if he spoke truths or lies. How could she throw John in my face? I supposed Hank could’ve been writing lies, but somehow, I didn’t think so. He’d been honest about the women he spoke to, about his intentions and reasons for them. More honest than he probably should’ve been, and definitely more honest than I’d been. Joy just didn’t get it. I quickly averted my gaze from the entrance when I heard Joy’s voice, stared out the window with a determined nonchalance.
“Thanks again.” Joy, probably simpering to the flight attendant to ingratiate herself to get better service. I hated that about Joy. Her whole honey catching mosquitoes or whatever her saying was. Who wanted to catch bugs anyhow?
Up and down the aisle people were putting their bags into overhead bins. I kept staring out the window, waiting for Joy to sit so I could ignore her better.
“Excuse me, but I think you’re in my seat.”
I jerked my head up. Finn was staring at me, his greenish-bluish eyes twinkling. “Hardly.”
Joy’s head popped up over the seat ahead of me. “I’m supposed to have the window seat.”
My face burned for what felt like the hundredth time. “You’re supposed to be sitting here, yes.”
“I switched.” Joy disappeared behind the seat again and I was tempted to kick it.
Finn sat next to me. “I’m good with the aisle.”
I folded my arms over my chest, taking deep breaths and holding them, exhaling like I’d been taught for inner peace. The top of Joy’s head in front of me was blocking the calm. “Why’d you switch with her?”
Joy popped up again. “Because he’s a gentleman, and because he was scared I’d slap you silly.”
Joy ducked down again before she could see the finger gesture I flipped her. “Defending me? Or protecting her? Because at this point it’s a coin-flip who’d give the better beating.”
Finn leaned close. “After the morning you’ve had, my money’s on you, Tallulah.”
I clenched my jaw as I stared out the window. My mind worked overtime second guessing everything I’d ever done, but especially the last few months. I was about to get married. To a man I’d only seen pictures of. When Finn nudged me, I scowled at him until I realized he was only trying to tell me to put my seatbelt on.
My fingers tightened on the arm rest as the plane started to roll. “I changed my mind. I want off. Can you move so I can get up?”
Finn put his hand over mine, squeezing. “Sorry, it’s a little late for that.”
A voice came over the intercom, I couldn’t understand anything said. “Words, words, words. More words. Words in French.”
“What? What’d they say?” My panic mounted as the intercom clicked off. “Are we going to crash?”
Finn, to his credit, didn’t laugh aloud even though I saw laughter in his eyes. “No, we’re just lining up for take-off.”
The plane stopped rolling. “I can get off now?”
“Uh, no. You’ve never flown before, have you?”
My tummy lurched when the plane moved. “No, but I have been up the CN Tower.”
“This is, er, a little different.” Finn’s sparkling eyes were glued to my face. “Just watch me, not out there. You’ll be fine.”
I did as he said until I felt the plane picking up speed. I tore my gaze from his, watching out the window as the pavement fell away. I guess we left it but I didn’t feel like we’d gone up. “It’s like the ground dropped.”
“Once we’re at full altitude you won’t really notice we’re moving.” Finn patted my hand before releasing it. I wished he’d put it back.
The buildings were below us, becoming tiny pin pricks that faded away as we soared higher, into fluffy clouds. “So, what, we just sit here for four hours?”
Finn sighed, closing the book he’d just opened (I recognized the mystery, had even recommended it to Hank). “I think they put on a movie.”
“What movie? A comedy?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never flown this airline before.” Finn looked resigned to his fate. I knew I was the annoying nervous flyer, but just now I didn’t care. He could blame Joy, it was his fault for swapping seats anyhow.
“What’s your middle name? And is your full name something weird, like Phineas?” I latched on to the thought; it was only fair, he knew mine.
Finn grinned. “Nothing as fancy as yours, I assure you. I’m Finn Alexander Ryan. I’m thirty-four years old, I work in education, never been married but came close once. I had a dog but he died a year ago and I haven’t had the time or energy to get another. I have an aversion to cows, but I like to eat beef.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What did Joy tell you about me?”
Finn snickered. “Nothing about your life. I was sitting behind you in the waiting area, then in line behind you for boarding.”
“That was you coughing?”
“Yeah, I was trying to get your attention. So, why don’t you talk it through? If you don’t mind me saying so, you kinda sounded like you needed to talk to someone unbiased.”
“You don’t want to hear the boring details of my life.” Out of nowhere, I felt tears burn my eyes. “Read the book, it’s much better than my story.”
Finn glanced at the paperback on his thigh. “Nah. I can read anytime. We’ve got four hours to kill.”
I should’ve been nicer to Joy, then I wouldn’t be tempted to talk. “Fine, but just remember, you asked for it.”
Finn nodded, patting my hand. The plane lurched and I gripped his fingers. “It’s just turbulence, it’s okay.”
“All the same,” I smiled apologetically as I kept his hand hostage. “Okay, where to start? John? When I met Joy in kindergarten?”
“Junior or Senior?” Finn grinned.
“Just kindergarten. Where we lived, they didn’t do the whole junior and senior. You started when you were five. We were on the same bus, sat together the first day, and were best friends by the time we came home. Been best friends ever since.”
“Okay, that’s Joy covered. Who’s John?”
I cringed. “My biggest mistake. My first and only love.”
Finn looked like he wanted to say something, but when he kept quiet, I opened the floodgates. “We met when I was twenty-six. Made all my exes seem irrelevant somehow. He was good-looking, charismatic. Kind of like you.”
“I get the feeling I shouldn’t take that as a compliment.” Finn laughed, but his hand twitched in mine.
“No, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by that. Just that you’ve been good to me, you’ve got personality, I kinda feel like I connect to you –” I stopped talking and bit my lip, feeling flustered. “Just scratch that part. Where was I? Oh yeah, so he was this great guy, I fell hard and fast.He told me all these things, how he was a freelance photographer, showed me pictures he’d taken from exotic places.”
“Sounds like a great guy so far,” Finn commented when I paused to gather my thoughts.
I gave a derisive snort. “Doesn’t he? By the time I was head over heels, the gold-plating around him started to tarnish. He’d asked me to marry him, but a year later was still refusing to discuss dates. He’d disappear for weeks, tell me he had to work.”
I glanced at Finn, saw his attention still focused on me. What was it about this guy that had me rambling? “He’d stay at my place when he was in town. Joy started to ask questions that I couldn’t answer.”
“Like what?” Finn reclined his seat slightly but kept his hand in mine.
“Why didn’t I ever go to his place? How could he afford to fly all over the place yet never showed me his published work.” I laughed bitterly. “All thoughts I’d been having but hadn’t asked because John didn’t like to be questioned.”
“And you put up with that?” Finn’s eyebrows rose, disappeared beneath the fringe of dark hair.
I glanced out the window into the bright blue sky. When I reclined my seat to match Finn’s, I shrugged. “I guess, in hindsight, I was starting to suspect something was very wrong. He never liked to be asked anything, but instead of changing the subject, he started to get angry, which only made me push harder. The first time he lost it, he put his fist through the wall in my apartment.”
Finn’s hand gripped mine tighter. “That the only thing he punched?”
I peeked at the back of Joy’s seat, saw the headband from headphones over the her head. “At first, yes.”
“What does that mean?” Finn gripped the armrest on the aisle side so hard his knuckles turned white. He shook his head before the stewardess pushing a drink trolly even opened her mouth.
“Let’s just say once he started to unravel, he came apart fast. All at once, I became a stastic, a victim of domestic violence. And with the violence came the truth of who and what he was. He’d been dealing drugs for years. He couldn’t keep up the act anymore, he’d started using what he’d sold to countless other addicts.” I felt such shame, such humiliation. “I didn’t see it, didn’t know. How stupid and foolish, huh?”
“No. When you love someone, you forgive things. Sounds like he was very good at lying, cheating, manipulating.” Finn, tension radiating from him, loosened his grip on my hand immediately when he saw me wince at his tight hold.
“He was the best.” I laughed at the lack of humour in the words.
“Obviously you broke up with him.” Finn’s jaw clenched and unclenched, I felt his anger, but unlike with John, I didn’t recoil because instinctively I knew the rage wasn’t at me, but for me.
“You’d think, wouldn’t you? I stayed. Tried to help him, tried to get him clean.” I tried to pull my hand away, but now it was Finn holding on tight. “He’d fly into rages, hit me sometimes, apologize always.”
“Your friends didn’t try to intervene? Your family?”
“Everyone was busy with life. I was happy for them, didn’t want to be a burden. Made excuses why I couldn’t meet. My parents winter in Florida, live in a trailer every summer. Busy snowbirds, home and away. We’d talk on the phone, but that was normal. Joy was the only one who noticed.”
“What did she do?”
“She tried everything she could. Didn’t I know better, wasn’t I worth more? What kind of friend was I, letting her down all the time because of John? All angles.”
“We eventually drifted apart. What could she do, really? One day, I reached out. I was done. I packed up whatever I had left of value. Joy picked me up and I went to stay with her.”
“Why do I feel like there’s more?” Finn stroked the back of my hand with his thumb.
“I wish that was it. But one day, John met me at work, asked if we could talk. Asked me for help.” I tried to smile but couldn’t. “I fell for his lies. Always had. Saw glimpses of the John I’d fallen for. I went with him, got in some decrepit van. We sat in the back, talking. I saw him take something so I tried to leave but the doors wouldn’t open. He popped more pills, snorted something, screaming at me to shut up, stop crying. He hit me, grabbed my purse, took my money. That’s when I found out how completely he’d played me. He was laughing at my gullibility. The pictures he took? Stock photos from some free site. When he’d go away on shoots? Nah, he was hooking up with one of his many other girlfriends. Never brought me home because he had a wife and kid. I was breaking, and he just laughed in my face. Then, when I thought he was going to really hurt me, he stopped. This weird look came into his eyes, and he lay down on the bench seat like he’d passed out.”
“He hadn’t?” Finn spoke softly, his free hand reaching out to wipe my tears.
“I just left him there. Grabbed my purse, my money, crawled over him and fled. I called 911 when I was far enough away, thinking police would arrest him, that maybe if he went to jail he’d get help. I hadn’t loved him in a long time, but I did care about him. That night, at Joy’s, I saw the news. A man had been found dead of an overdose. What if I’d called sooner?”
Finn put his hands on my cheeks, leaning across the seat to stare into my eyes. “It’s not your fault.”
I nodded, closing my eyes. “I know. Logically…the science and facts are that he was dead before he hit the bench seat. But the heart? It doesn’t listen to facts, to police or coroner reports.”
“I’m sorry.” Finn’s simple words went deep.
Finn and I sat in silence for a long time. I had no concept of time, of anything except trying to get my head out of the past. The ache, the guilt, still lived inside no matter how much time passed. Finn bent down, putting his book away and digging around inside the laptop bag he’d brought. I went back to staring out the window, figuring he had work to do.
“I, uh, brought you this.”
I glanced down at the brown box Finn held out. I stared, stunned. After the emotional barfing I’d done, I erupted into a fit of giggles that hurt my side and had the passengers around us staring. “That’s not mine.”
Finn stuffed the box back into his bag. “I beg to differ. Errol sends his regards, wishes you luck with it.”
I slapped his arm, still giggling. “How’d you do that? I just ripped my soul to pieces, and in one fell swoop you put me back together.”
Finn blew on his knuckles, dusted them off on his shoulder. “It’s a talent. Besides, I told you I work in education. I’m a high school teacher, and when you’ve had to deal with hysterical teenagers caught up in love triangles, well, your story seems a bit boring.”
I pulled my phone free, read the time. “We’ve only been here two hours? Feels like longer.”
“Twilight zone.” Finn hummed the notes from the TV show. “We’re in Alberta, silly. Four hours become two with the time change.”
Instead of feeling relief, dread filled my belly. “We’re landing soon?”
Finn nodded, checking his watch. “About fifteen minutes. Why don’t you sound happy?”
I peeked over the seat, saw Joy was asleep with her head resting on a pillow propped by the window. “Truth? Until about a half hour after we met, I was headed here without really thinking.”
Finn frowned, staring at me with those beautiful eyes. “You’re coming here to get married, aren’t you?”
All my convictions, to myself and everyone else, about how I was doing the right thing seemed to have been left on the ground at Pearson airport. “Oh, God. I’m marrying a man I’ve never met.”
“But you love him, right? I overheard you telling Joy about the emails. You must’ve fallen in love with the guy who wrote them.”
I put my head between my knees, trying to breathe. I felt Finn rubbing my back at the same time he reached over me to grab a paper bag from the mesh pocket on the back of Joy’s seat. “Here, breathe into this.”
I sat up, pinned Finn’s arm behind me. I breathed into the bag until I felt better. “Thanks.”
“Looks like my work here isn’t done after all.” Finn winked, extricating his arm from behind me and holding my hand again.
“I’m in trouble. Big trouble.” I put the bag to my face again and breathed a few more times.
“I promised him – Hank. He’s been looking for a wife for a year now. His parents are retiring, giving their kids this huge ranch they run, but only the kids that are married and want the ranch. Hank’s older brother is the only one of the seven of them with a spouse. Hank and his brother are the only ones who want the ranch, his other brothers and sisters only want money, don’t have any interest in working the land. Hank’s got until the end of the year to be married or his married brother’s name is the only one on the title, and his parents give the six others a cash payout.”
Finn shrugged. “I get his angle, what do you get out of it?”
“Promise you won’t judge?” I studied him for a second then laughed. “Never mind. After what you’ve seen today, you’ll be glad to never see me again. Nothing else I say can make me seem worse.”
Finn studied me the way I’d studied him. “I might’ve thought you a bit, er, scattered this morning at the airport, but I figured frantic bride-to-be and forgave that. After what you shared with me? There’s nothing but awe and respect here.”
“Uh huh. You’re well versed in nice things to say to hysterical females. Guess that’s why you’re a high school teacher.”
“Don’t put yourself down. You survived, and you got out. Not many do. But you still had enough heart to try to help. That’s commendable.”
“Certifiable. That’s the correct word. Look at me, a college drop out correcting a high school teacher. That used to drive Joy nuts, when I’d argue with the teacher, or correct them.”
“That’s what makes you an excellent school secretary, being good at standing up to teachers.” Finn grinned. “Now tell me what’s in it for you, getting married.”
I paused. “How’d you –”
“What?” Finn frowned.
Deciding I must’ve said what I did when I was trying to explain the gift at the security desk, I let it go. “In a nutshell?It’s about having a husband without risk.”
“What does that mean?” Finn’s perplexed tone and the funny way he squinted made me smile.
“I started trolling dating sites with my friends, as a joke. Not to make fun of desperate people but to make fun of the narcissists. So many self-absorbed people who had profiles that screamed idiot. Like one guy, he actually wrote that any woman he selected should feel honoured that he found her worthy of him.”
The intercom interrupted. “We’ll be landing in a few moments, folks, The temperature is a comfortable fifteen degrees, and the wind is low. Fasten your seatbelts, thank you for flying with us, and enjoy the wonderful city of Calgary.”
I didn’t do well with French so I tuned the rest out.
“We’re pressed for time.” Finn finished buckling his seatbelt and automatically reached for my hand. “Jump to Hank.”
“One of our friends decided to join. She’d had no luck finding a guy, and was getting desperate. Joy and I encouraged her, but then she’d talk about the losers she met, how they all seemed to want to hook up casually. She mentioned this one, that seemed promising except he was in Alberta.”
“Hank?” Finn guessed.
“Yep. She gave me his email address when she decided to pass because she wasn’t interested in moving. I started out talking to him about why he was looking for a fast marriage. By then, I’d pretty much decided that if I wanted to get married, I’d have to be like those guys who mail-order brides, only I’d be mail-ordering a man.” I felt my cheeks warm but took a deep breath. “Then this guy, this rancher, started going on about his passion for the ranch, confiding that he just didn’t have time to date, all that stuff. And I started thinking, ‘hey, Alberta is a million miles from the bad memories’. We had some stuff in common, too, which was another selling point. At least I’d like him enough. Always seemed to know what to write to cheer me up when I was blue. He’s not much of a talker, doesn’t like the phone, so we mostly communicated via emails. It’s weird though, sometimes he was chatty, funny, other times business-like.”
“Did you tell him about John?”
“Kinda. I just told him that I was with a guy for a couple of years, but he passed away and I wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. Figured I’d either tell him or I wouldn’t, I’d decide once we were married.”
“What about love?” Finn stared at me so intently I had to blink and look away.
“Love never entered into the conversation. We were both in this for our own reasons. Him to get half of the ranch he loves, me to avoid falling in love with another frog masquerading as a prince.” I realized how cold that sounded. “Sometimes, in some of his longer letters, I’d think ‘I could really fall for him’. He’s a busy guy, maybe in person, in time, I’d see the guy who wrote the chattier messages, fall for him.”
“And you quit your job? To live here?”
I swallowed hard, feeling even hotter under the collar. “Um, well. Not exactly.”
“Tallulah Marigold Ingalls, did you lie to your fiancé?” Finn, eyes wide, stared at me incredulously.
“I’ll tell you the truth if you promise never to call me that again. Hank doesn’t even know about the Marigold.” I laughed, squeezing his hand. “I’m on a week’s vacation. I’m going to tell Hank that I couldn’t just quit, that I have to go back until at least the Christmas holidays. I’m hoping that I can get a leave of absence for a year, come back. Convince Hank that Ontario is the place he wants to be. Even if he wants a farm, we can figure that out, I can commute.”
“This guy is counting on you to be his wife so he can keep his ranch. You really think he’ll say sure, let’s give Ontario a shot?”
“Now you sound like Joy. I swear, she should marry Hank. She’s the one who calls Alberta Canada’s Texas. She reads all these romance novels about Texas ranchers, but I know she’s thinking Alberta when she reads them.”
“I do so.” Joy’s voice drifted back to us and I laughed. “How much did you hear?”
“The Canada’s Texas stuff. All true, by the way.” Joy tried to peek over her seat but with the seatbelt on she couldn’t manage it. “We’re landing. I’m so excited. I was just listening to an audio book and now you have to know I’ll be staying with you next year for the Calgary Stampede. Maybe I’ll find me my own rancher.”
I winked at Finn and felt a swoop in my belly. At first, I thought it was because he winked back, but then I realized we were preparing to land. I clutched his hand tight as I watched the ground getting closer.
“What if the wheels don’t come out?” I squealed, leaning over to see better.
“We’re fine, you’re fine.” Finn chuckled beside me. “You’ll be fine, probably. Maybe.”
I shot him a dirty look but then the plane bounced and I bit my lip. I realized we were on the ground, and slowing down. “How long does it take to drive here? I’m thinking if I’m going to be a commuter wife, I’m going to have to get a better car.”
Finn laughed but made no comment. When the plane stopped, I unbuckled my seatbelt before the light went off. “I’m so cramped from sitting, I need to stand up.”
“Won’t be long.” Finn pulled his laptop bag free.
“How do you know?” I grabbed my purse.
“I do this flight fairly often.” Finn shrugged.
Before I could ask what kinid of business a high school teacher could possibly have in Calgary, we got clearance to leave the plane. As much as I wanted to stretch my legs, I wasn’t excited to face what lay ahead. “I’m not ready.”
“Come on,” Joy called, getting her carry on down.
Finn grabbed his bag and mine, tossed mine onto the seat he’d just vacated. “Let’s go. We’re holding up the line.”
Joy nodded. “We have to go get our luggage, you’ve still got a few minutes to be the stereotypical bride with cold feet.”
Finn slung my bag over his shoulder with his and I followed them off the plane. Each step felt incredible physically, but made my nerves skitter.
We went to the baggage claim just as the suitcases shot down the chute. Joy was closest, so she grabbed mine and waited patiently for hers. I watched Finn as he reached between Joy and I to grab his.
“Murphy?” I felt something akin to dread wash over me as I blinked up at Finn.
Finn pulled me out of the way of the passengers still waiting for their bags. “What’s that?”
“Your tag, it says Murphy. But you said your last name was Ryan.”
“No I didn’t. My middle names are Alexander Ryan.” Finn seemed resigned, but before I could ask more questions, Joy bounced over to us with her suitcase.
Deciding Murphy was a common name, I followed Joy. As we neared the main doors, I tugged on my bag he still had. “You probably have somewhere to be.”
Finn kept my bag on his shoulder as he wheeled his suitcase beside me. When I stopped walking, Joy kept going but Finn stopped, too. “Come on, we’re going to be in the way.”
“Tal, let’s go!” Joy shouted from the doors. “I think that’s Hank. Come on!”
Finn wheeled his suitcase to join Joy. He had my bag, and my best friend, but I suddenly wanted to turn around and get back on the plane. “What the –?”
Joy abandoned her suitcase and came over to grab mine. “God, he’s a real rancher. He’s got cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat. Come see! You are so lucky.”
Lucky wasn’t exactly the word I’d use. Livid, maybe. “Did you know Finn’s last name was Murphy?”
Joy blinked, still tugging me along. “What? Come on.”
Hoping I was wrong, I finally stopped dragging my heels. I kept darting glances at Finn, but he wasn’t looking at me. We went through the door, and sure enough, I spotted Hank. The pictures hadn’t done him justice, he was rugged, handsome, and pure rancher. And I felt nothing. He had a luggage cart and was leaning on the handle with one boot on the lower shelf.
Awkward didn’t describe the feeling. I smiled at the man, but he might as well have been a stranger. Wait, he was a stranger. A stranger destined to be my husband. I opened my mouth, but no words came out.
“I see you met already?” Hank clapped a hand on Finn’s shoulder, and all my suspicions were confirmed in a red haze of rage.
“Excuse us, would you? I need a moment with your lovely brother.” I grit my teeth and tried to smile at Hank but feared I must’ve looked rabid or violent, or both. The words didn’t come close to describing how I felt as I gripped Finn’s arm and yanked. When we were in a quiet corner, I glared at Finn. “Murphy. You’re the city-slicker brother.”
Finn perched on the edge of a window ledge. “Busted.”
“You knew the whole time who I was?” Fury warred with humiliation, humiliation was winning, but coming up from the rear was devastation.
Finn hung his head. “I saw you, frantically trying to get through security and I recognized you from the pictures you sent Hank. Then you confirmed it with Tallulah.”
Betrayal reared its ugly head. “So you planned this whole thing? To sit with me and get the whole sordid story of my life out of me? Did Hank tell you to?”
Finn ran his hands through his hair, shaking his head. “I wanted to tell you. Then I overheard you talking to your friend, figured I’d bide my time. Then you and Joy fought, and I saw my chance to sit with you. I had every intention of telling you.”
“Right. Hard to find a minute on a four hour flight to say ‘by the way, I’m going to be your brother-in-law’.” I snorted, feeling dangerously close to losing my head completely.
“By the time you’d finished telling me about what a jerk John was, what you’d been through, I –” Finn blew out a breath. “When you said I reminded you of him –”
“Little did I know you were as manipulative as him.” I finished the sentence for him.
Finn grabbed my hand as I started to back away. “You might as well hear the whole thing.”
I pulled my hand free. “Whole thing?”
“Hank, he’s not much of a talker. On the phone, or on the computer. He prefers face-to-face.”
I clutched my belly as I bent over, dangerously close to throwing up the bit of water I’d drank that morning. Finn had waved the pretty stewardess off whenever she’d brought the cart around; now I wished I’d had multiple drinks so I could spew them on his fancy running shoes. “No.”
“Some of the emails were Hank. But as you got chattier, he asked me to step in. Not because he didn’t care, but because he didn’t know what to say.”
I stood up straight, staring into his eyes. “I should’ve known. How come I didn’t figure it out?”
Finn came to stand in front of me, putting his hands on my shoulders. Shock kept me from slugging him. “I’m sorry.”
I couldn’t help it, I burst into laughter. “Right.”
Finn’s concerned gaze never left my face. “I wasn’t going to come. I was going to make excuses, that I couldn’t take time off during the school year. Not really an excuse, you know that, working for the board yourself. I’m flying back on Monday, like Joy. I can’t wait to leave, Joy wants to stay but thinks she’ll be in the way. That’s what we were talking about.”
“I bet you can take the same plane back today.”
“I will, if that’s what you want. But hear me out, please? I know I don’t deserve it, but just listen.”
I stared at him as my thoughts raced. Part of me wanted to walk away just to defy him, the other part wanted, demanded, to understand. I glanced over at Joy and Hank. They were laughing at something and seemed happy enough. “Fine. Talk.”
“At first, I agreed to handle the chattier messages because I was curious. Who marries a stranger? I even wondered if you were some sort of gold digger since Hank’s going to be part owner of one of Alberta’s best ranches.”
“I never knew until he, or was it you, mentioned money after the marriage arrangements had already been made.”
“Believe me, I didn’t take long to see that you weren’t interested in money. I knew something had happened, something had you jumping at the opportunity to marry Hank. You made it sound like your boyfriend died, that you lost him tragically and were struggling with the loss.”
“Maybe I did, maybe I wanted it to be true. Much better to have loved and lost them in an accident than the ugly truth.”
“Yeah, well, by the time you’d made your plans with Hank – and yes, those were from him – I’d realized I probably shouldn’t come for the wedding.”
“Why, because you’d slip up and I’d find out?” I snorted, rolling my eyes. “You were right.”
“No. I didn’t want to come because a part of me was falling in love with you. You laugh at yourself, you make me laugh at myself. Or laugh at Hank, I guess. But it was getting so hard to keep emailing you because I wanted to say ‘forget the flight, meet me for coffee instead’.”
Not believing him, I shrugged. “Yet here you are.”
“Yet here I am. I’m not proud of it, but I had to see you. Had to know if the feelings you stirred up were just because it’s easier to feel when someone’s faceless. But then you were frantic, begging for help, and I realized – nope, it’s you.”
“I’d read your emails, then look at Hank’s picture, so confused. I didn’t feel anything when I looked at the picture, so figured the feelings were just reactions to words typed out and put no faith in feeling.”
“But you were still going to marry him.”
“Partly because I’d hoped that the email feelings would merge with the man when we met.” I bit my lip. “But from the moment you flagged me down, I felt more for you than I did for the man in the pictures.”
Finn’s troubled eyes brightened. “You felt it too?”
I heard Joy’s laughter, heard Hank’s responding bark. “So what if I do…did? I’m marrying your brother, that’s what I came here to do. I’m not marrying him then being a cliché, the woman who cheats on her husband with his brother.” I snorted out a laugh. “That’s not who I am.”
“It’s not who I am either.”
“Good, so we agree? We’ll forget this nonsense and you’ll be there for your brother when he marries me? He told me you were always his favourite.”
Finn looked sheepish. “I wrote that. Hank’s got no favourites unless they’re cows.”
I turned my attention to Hank. “He seems to be enjoying himself with Joy.”
“I’ve never seen him so animated. Kinda weird.” Finn shrugged. “But I don’t think I’ll be at the church. Maybe I’ll slip in for the reception, slap him on the shoulder and slip out again.”
Joy glanced over at us and I saw her stricken expression when she caught us watching them. I pondered her reaction, confusion and delight colliding. “She’s smitten.”
“What?” Finn blinked down at me.
“She’s attracted to Hank.”
Finn gaped at me. “I was just thinking the same about Hank.”
“I’ve got a confession of my own. Joy was one of the women Hank was talking to. I guess you know how he’d keep me updated on who he was talking to? I figured out Joy was one of them, talking to Hank behind my back. I kinda told Hank that she was a lush. He knew her as CowboyFan123. Joy just wanted the romantic side, never mentioned anything about Hank to me, and I was ticked she’d tried to weasel her way in and steal him. That’s part of why I begged her to come – partly to get her to finally confess she’d tried to poach him, and partly because I thought maybe she’d meet a better cowboy at the wedding so I could stop feeling guilty for saying she was a drunk. Wanted her to meet someone who’d make her smile the way she is right now.”
Finn’s eyes lit up. “Joy’s CowboyFan? Hank used to talk about her. Never asked me to do his emailing with her. I wondered why she’d disappeared from the list of contacts before they even exchanged pictures. Hank hates drunks since one of his ranch hands was killed by a drunk driver. Is Joy a drinker?”
“She had one glass of wine last night and left in a cab, the most I’ve seen her drink since we were teens. I’m a lush compared to her, and last night was my first night out drinking since before John.”
“So what are you going to do?”
I considered for a second, then smiled at Finn. “Watch.”
I sidled up to Joy and leaned in close. “Hey, CowboyFan.”
Joy’s smile slid slightly, but she didn’t bat an eyelash. “Don’t worry, I’m not poaching.”
“I wish you would.” I spoke through my smile, quiet enough only she could hear. Hank and Finn were slapping each other’s backs, and I wondered if Finn was whispering to Hank.
Joy grabbed my hand and whirled us around. “What are you mumbling?”
“I know about you and Hank. And I give you my blessing.”
Joy shook her head. “It was a stupid fight, tensions were high. We said stupid stuff, no biggie.”
I leaned in close. “I’m mad as heck at Finn, but he’s the brother I’m interested in. Turns out we’ve been emailing for months, only I thought I was talking to Hank.”
“You never said how you felt about Hank, that’s what ticked me off the most. You should be marrying him because you’re in love, not because you don’t want to fall in love with anyone. He deserves that.”
“Did you just hear the words I said? I think I am in love. Just not with Hank.”
Joy’s eyes widened. “No, you can’t do this to him.”
I took a deep breath and dove into the pile of manure I’d made. “I told Hank I knew CowboyFan123, and that she was a lush. I knew he’d cut you from the running because he hates drunks.”
Joy’s temper flared and I took a step back in case she decided to swing. “I am not a lush.”
The few people loitering around us turned to look. So did Hank and Finn. “Part of me was mad that you were trying to poach, knowing what I was up to but keeping your communications secret. I’m sorry that I didn’t realize how you felt about him, if I had, I’d have told him the truth. But you never said a word, and kept encouraging me.”
“He doesn’t know I’m CowboyFan123, does he?” Joy bit her lip, her cheeks pink. “You’re supposed to marry him tomorrow, you told me he desperately needs a wife by December. You can’t ruin his life now.”
“Don’t you worry about him, okay?” I shot her a sly grin as I took a deep breath and prepared to raise my voice. “CowboyFan123, your secret’s safe with me. I’ll never tell Hank I lied to him about you.”
I’d been watching Hank with Finn, watched how Hank’s eyes kept returning to Joy, not me. His brow creased as I made my little announcement. “What? Finn, did you hear what she said?”
The electric jolt I felt as I approached Hank had nothing to do with him and everything to do with Finn putting his arm around me. I glanced at Joy, took a deep breath as I dove deeper into the stink.
“Hank, I’m sorry. I lied. Joy here? I found out she’d been talking to you and I was mad that she wasn’t telling me about you while I was telling her everything. So, er, I lied to you.” I took a deep breath, clutching Finn’s hand for courage. “Joy’s not a lush. And I think she didn’t tell me about talking to you because she felt guilty, but at the same time was falling for you. She’s rode my butt for weeks about how you deserve someone who wants what you want, someone who puts your needs at least equal to theirs. She didn’t talk to me the whole trip here because I’d said I’d convince you to give up the ranch and move to Ontario.”
Hank finally looked at me fully. “I’d never move to Ontario.”
“Joy wouldn’t want you to.” I turned my attention to Joy. “You said it yourself, you want to live here. Want a rancher of your own.”
Joy’s face was redder than I’d ever seen it. She wouldn’t look at Hank. “Shut up.”
I reached for Hank’s hand with one hand as I grabbed Joy’s with my other. “How long do you think it’ll take to decide if you want to get married to each other? Hank, I think, is an easy guess, but Joy? You might need some time. Only it’s September, so you kinda gotta figure that out in four months.”
I released their hands, smiling to myself when I saw their fingers clasp. “Joy can work from anywhere, so I guess I’ll take her ticket and fly back instead. Leave you two to talk.”
I snatched the papers hanging out of Joy’s bag, found her return flight ticket. “You guys go on, get out of here. I’ll take Joy’s hotel room.”
I wheeled my suitcase away from the three of them, feeling sad and happy. Angry, as Finn caught up to me. “You don’t want your bag?”
I snatched my carry-on. “See you around.”
“Want a ride? I’m staying at the same motel as you, and I rented a car.”
I faltered. The plan had been for me to get Hank to drop Joy off on our way to the ranch. I had no idea where the motel was. “How’d you know…never mind, I told you when you were pretending to be Hank. Why’d you rent a motel room? Your parents have their own house on the property.”
“I didn’t want to be around you and Hank anymore than I had to. Plus, I was hoping to get a chance to talk to Joy, find out if I should just forget you or try to steal you from my big brother.”
I stopped walking and the people approaching had to manoeuvre around us. “You what?”
Finn sighed. “Now I don’t have to steal you, just woo you.”
Butterflies tried to take flight in my belly, but my stomach growled. I stared into Finn’s eyes, thinking. “Fine. But start wooing with lunch. I’m starving.”
“Let’s get the car so we can ditch the baggage. Then I’ll take you for the best hamburgers in the world.”
I squinted before nodding. “Fine. Where’re these burgers?”
“About half an hour or so from here. At my mom’s. I’ll call, let her know we’re on our way, tell her I’m bringing her future daughter-in-law.”
I stopped in my tracks outside the rental place. “Not marrying Hank, remember?”
Finn held the door, winking at me. “Ah, but I’m still her son. She just wants us all married, she really won’t care which one of her kids you hook up with.”
“Not even if I go for Mary or Lydia?”
Finn shrugged. “Probably not. But you’re not their type. They like more boring partners, like accountants. They’re both engaged, but refuse to get married until at least January because of the stupid ‘have to get married by December 31st‘ thing. Always were rebels.”
“But you’re taking me home to meet your mom, want me to marry you? Does that mean you want the ranch too?”
“Did you hear me say that? I couldn’t even type that when I was pretending to be Hank. I hated the ranch. Hated the smell most of all. I’m happy in Ontario.”
I watched as Finn filled out forms and showed his license, paid for the rental car. I had no idea what my future held, but for the first time in years, I felt genuine hope.
When Finn came back to me, I put my hand out to stop him from grabbing his suitcase. “If you ever lie to me again, hide things from me, I’ll feed you to the cows.”
Finn nodded, gave me a soft, sweet kiss. All my senses went into overdrive. My heart sighed. When he pulled away, his twinkling eyes met mine. “Deal. But you should know something. If you want to feed me to any farm animals if I hurt you – and I won’t, which is why I’m telling you this – you need a pig farm. Cows don’t eat people.”
I let him take my suitcase as I followed him out to the parking lot. “Pigs, huh? Well, so long as you don’t lie to me, I won’t have to make friends with any pig farmers.”
Finn put our bags in the trunk of the rental car. When he closed the lid, he pulled me into his arms. “I think I love you.”
“I think I love you, too. And the best part? I’d accepted being Tallulah Marigold Murphy. Now I won’t have to worry about a different name.”
Finn laughed until his lips met mine, then all thought fled, and only feelings remained. Good, sweet, genuine feelings, of hope, of tomorrow, of love and life.