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“Okay,” Tanner agreed, way too quickly.

I shook my head. “No, Tanner. It’s not that easy. You have to take time to think about it. Just because it wouldn’t be a traditional marriage and on paper only doesn’t mean it won’t affect your life in some ways. You have to consider all that before you make a decision, and come to think of it, there really is no upside in all this for you, so you’d have to be crazy to agree to it.”

Tanner wagged his index finger in the air. “And this is why you were never on the debate team, Ray,” Tanner said. “You’re arguing the wrong side,” he added.

“I’m serious,” I said. “This is serious.”

Tanner smiled. “I know. And I know it doesn’t mean much but I really am sorry about King.” It was the first time Tanner had said his name.

“Thanks. I want to do this for him, but for me too. Maybe it’s selfish, but I want to keep a piece of him close to me.”

“And see, that right there is the very reason I accept your proposal,” Tanner said, “because I want to keep you close to me.”

“But it won’t be…”

Tanner raised a hand to stop me. “You don’t have to keep saying it. I totally get it. But I have terms.”

“What terms?” I asked.

Tanner crossed his ankle over his knee. “I will accept your proposal and agree to marry you on the condition that you have to try. Not at first, I know you’re still grieving, but eventually I want you to try and make what we have a real marriage. We’ll make an effort together. For us. For Sammy.” He reached out and grabbed my hand. “I promise, if you try and if after a year you still feel nothing for me, then I will back away as far as you want me to go.” “I…,” I started to argue. But then Sammy turned around and smiled up at me. I had been willing to whore myself out to a biker in exchange for protection, why was I so unwilling to give a little part of myself for the only family I had left?

“Okay,” I agreed. “But I need time, Tanner. I mean it. I don’t know when I’ll be ready,” I said.

Tanner kissed the back of my hand and went back over to the kitchen where he retrieved the ring box he’d showed me the day he took me and Sammy to the alligator park. “I guess this is yours again, then.” He didn’t try and get down on one knee. He didn’t try to put it on my finger for me. He just tossed me the box.

And it was the best thing he could have done, because just then, I had real hope that he really did understand why I was doing this. And because he understood how important getting Max was to me, I could try and understand how giving our marriage a real shot in the future was important to him.

I opened the box and stared down at the little diamond, “I guess it is.”

Chapter Seventeen

Doe

The morning of the party I went to the courthouse with Tanner and picked up the application to start the process to become Max’s adopted mother.

It was also the morning I became Mrs. Tanner Redmond.

And while I was dying inside, it was the thought of being there for Sammy and Max that kept me breathing. They were the ones propelling me forward, moving my feet, one in front of the other.

King was willing to do whatever it took to get his daughter back. He proved that when he was willing to let me go. Now it was my turn to do this for him.

Choosing something to wear to a wedding where I’d be the reluctant bride was a daunting task. I didn’t want to pretend the marriage was something it wasn’t. I skipped over the rows of knee-length sundresses, pausing for a moment at a white one with a halter top, but it was too ‘wedding,’ and this wasn’t a wedding.

It was just paperwork.

Business.

Family business.

I finally decided to pass on the dresses altogether and instead chose a pair of dark jeans and a fitted black V-neck.

I was doing this for King. I wasn’t ready to be a show pony led around by her halter. King would have liked my choice of outfit. And the senator may have succeeded in containing me, but I was never going to be tamed.

I wasn’t about to wear white and pretend to be an angel when I’d lived and fallen in love with the devil.

There was a wild part of me that flourished when I was with King. I liked who I was with him. I knew who I was with him. That part, the part that couldn’t be controlled, belonged to King, and no matter where I was or where he was or what either of us were doing, no one could ever take that from me.

At the courthouse I fully expected to sign some papers. Signature and stampings. That was it. But when Tanner and I had finished signing the license and the woman behind the desk handed us our IDs, she stood and slid her chair back against the linoleum floor. To my great surprise, and horror, she started to speak. “Do you Tanner Redmond take—”

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