Blood pumps between my fingers and trickles over my knuckles; it's slower now. I press the towel hard to stop the flow, but it's sodden and useless. I imagine I can push the blood back into her body. The ambulance is taking too long. There's no sound. Her skin is bleached of color. Her stilled eyelashes fan out over her cheeks. I'm bewildered by blood like this: I've seen minor cuts. A scraped knee. A crimson dot or a slash, blotted easily. This is a salty red ocean. I pray the wound is sealing up under my hands. Cooling blood soaks my legs where I kneel. Everything shines wet and red. It's like being inside my own heart.
I can't feel the throb of her pulse anymore; only my own, roaring in my ears. I don't dare move my hands to check my watch. It's been too long. My fingers begin to stick together.
In the distance the sirens wail. At last.
Marrying a stranger was hardly the worst thing I'd ever done.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, they say, though I hadn't a clue how on earth that would apply to a legal marriage and a wedding ring that's too cheap to pawn and too nice to throw away.
I woke up with a stiff neck in the thin white light of morning in a parking lot. Muscles screamed as I un-wedged my head from the crevasse between the passenger side window and the headrest of a Ford sedan that smelled like two thousand miles of cigarette smoke and Febreze. Some worrisome brown substance stained the front of my jeans and cheap pink scoop-neck top. Only one flip-flop remained on my feet.
On my left hand, a too-big gold ring with a tiny stone of some kind slid toward my knuckle.
My head throbbed and my vision twirled and twisted. This must be a hangover. I hadn't had one since I was a teenager, because I'd always been careful not to get drunk for fear of what could happen. I tried to swallow but came up short of saliva, and groaning with every millimeter, turned my head to glance at the driver's side. The intake of breath hurt my head.
A man sprawled there asleep, his khaki pants and Vineyard Vines T-shirt rumpled and stained to match mine. He had messy chestnut hair with gold streaks. A straight nose over well-formed lips. A fit body. No noticeable tattoos or ridiculous jewelry. Something about him screamed To the Manor Born—maybe the khakis. They belonged on a boat deck or a golf course or something. He snored, his breath fanning fumes of alcohol that churned my stomach. He wore a gold ring on his left hand as well.
Oh, my God. What had I done? What had we done?
What had I said?
For a horrible throbbing heartbeat, I couldn't come up with his name.
Cooper. It clunked into place. His name was Cooper, though I had no idea what his last name was.
I poked him. He grunted and shifted in his seat. Yep, I remembered right. His voice was low and rumbly and did things to me. Had we . . . ?
"Hey," I said, poking him harder. His upper arm was solid.
"Whassgoinon?" he muttered, backhanding his mouth and nose like a child. Apparently I wasn't the only one with a hangover, because his eyes squinted tight in pain. They opened, revealing green-brown irises in a sea of red.
"I think you'll see what's going on when you wake up." I pushed on his shoulder again, holding up my hand to show off the ring.
He sat up, blinking against the daylight and what had to be a whopper of a headache, and took in the situation. "Oh, holy God." He looked at me, eyes full of remorse and—to my surprise—kindness. He stretched out his own hand where the matching gold ring told the tale. "Did we get married?"
"I think we did." I pointed to the small white fake chapel in front of us, deserted at this hour.
"Do you remember it?" he asked in his musical drawl of an accent, carefully trying not to give offense.
"No." A few hazy memories assaulted me, but not enough to put together a picture. Another couple kissing passionately in the hotel lobby. A flash of skin. A sense of terrible fear and longing and then a ride in the night with the windows all open, my hair blowing. None of it made sense. Fear—of myself and the lost time—stood the hair on the back of my neck on end. "You?"
"No." He glanced, wincing, into the backseat, handing me my missing flip-flop and pulling a sheaf of paper forward. I leaned in to look as he flipped through. A fancy-looking marriage certificate with bad calligraphy, suitable for framing. A brochure for the chapel, with an inflated price list for wedding attire, a photographer, and hair and makeup. An instruction sheet for the licensing place. Another sheet explaining that our real marriage certificate would be mailed to us.
"Edward Cooper Middleton. The Fifth. Your last name is Middleton," I said, to have something to say to cover the memory jolt of my first communion at age six. I wore a white dress that resembled a bride's. I'd dreamed of my future wedding, then, but that dream had been dead for over fifteen years.
"It is," he said. "No relation to the princess, though. I get that a lot. I go by Cooper. Edward—Ted—is my dad. You're Molly Todd."
"Molly Middleton, now, I guess," I said, choking back a gasp of disbelief. This man was my husband. Husband. And I didn't know him at all. If I had to be honest, though, he should probably be more worried that he didn't know me.
Much more worried.
I'd met him—what?—three or four days before. I'd been fired from my job six hours earlier and had curled up in the hotel bathroom crying, wondering what in the hell I'd do next. Whatever it was would almost certainly involve ramen for dinner and defaulting on some bill or another. I should have spent the time calculating how I could continue to pay for my month-to-month lease, how to save money on groceries, and where I could find another job quick.
Instead I cried, and a kind woman named Nikki turned from the sink where she was washing her hands to listen. When she heard the part about the ramen, she invited me to join her and her husband and their friends at the buffet for dinner. I wiped my tears away with a cheap brown paper towel, asked her not to mention what I'd told her, and followed her.
At the table were two other women, three husbands, and one single man named Cooper who'd all come to Vegas from South Carolina for a Clemson University reunion of sorts. In an instant, I understood why Nikki had thought I might fit in—she made up some story on the spot and pointed me straight to the chair next to Cooper. They were having a good meal and a good time and the longing for both overwhelmed me. If Cooper hadn't looked up at that moment of weakness and caught my eye and smiled, I might have been able to walk away.
But he did—-and when he waved me over, I went. I turned off my desperation long enough to let myself enjoy it. It had been a long time since I'd spent an hour with someone attractive who thought I was attractive, too.
Cooper paid for my dinner, and I let him.
My conscience had fought me over that: it jabbed and whispered that, deep down, the things I'd done in my life barred me from simple pleasures like this.
The friends—all Clemson grads in their early thirties, except one woman who took a lot of ribbing for having gone to the rival University of South Carolina—welcomed me into their group and did everything but physically shove me at the single Cooper, who'd been divorced some years before. They were easy to talk to and laughed and teased each other and bought lots and lots of drinks. I joined their pack and we all stayed pretty well drunk as skunks, going from casino to buffet to bar to hotel to casino, for three days. I slept on the sofa in someone's hotel suite.
They were kind. None of them knew who I was. What I was.
I didn't remember what happened last night. My memories grew hazier as the weekend went on. I hadn't drunk alcohol in so long that my tolerance had dropped to nothing. In high school, I'd been known for saying too much when I drank. I prayed I'd grown out of that. I couldn't afford to say too much anymore. There were things I had to keep secret.
"You have red hair," Cooper said now, trying to stretch his lanky frame in the seat of the small car. "Last night, I remember your hair. Something about your hair, anyway." He trailed off.
"It's too dark to be red," I said, self-conscious now.
"Okay. Auburn, then. It's pretty."
"Thank you," I said, prim as a nun. Prim had no place here: the stranger I'd married probably knew the curtains matched the carpet. Um. In a manner of speaking.
"Oh, holy God," he said again. "We've really screwed up now, haven't we?" He leaned back against the glass of the driver's side window, throwing sunlight onto his sculpted cheekbone. At least I'd picked a good-looking stranger.
I liked that he didn't blame me, though most likely he should. I guaranteed I had more to gain through this marriage than he did. Even if I didn't remember how we decided to first get a license and then arrive at this extra-sleazy chapel, I doubted I'd objected to it. The memory of the longing returned.
"It's probably my fault. I do impulsive things sometimes." Not true. I hardly ever did impulsive things, and that's what worried me the most. "I'm sorry. What do you want to do now?" I asked.
"First things first. Let's hit a gas station and get some water and some hardcore breakfast to sop up all this alcohol. My head is killing me. Yours can't be much better."
Cooper reached out a hand and squeezed mine.
* * *
Later that night, we sat side by side at the airport gate, surrounded by Cooper's luggage and my tiny duffel bag. I didn't own much, and it hadn't pained me to terminate my lease this afternoon and save myself the upcoming rent. While we packed and cleaned up in his hotel room, he texted his friends some explanation I never saw and bought us both plane tickets to Charleston.
I'd chosen more wisely than I'd realized. Cooper didn't ask any questions—or not the right ones, anyway—and said he couldn't let me stay alone in Vegas until we got all this straightened out. He assumed I was on vacation, like he was, and that I wouldn't need to be anywhere until the Monday after Thanksgiving, now a week away. Nikki had kept her word and never told the others about how I'd lost my job, or what it was. He didn't know I didn't need to be anywhere at all.
It seemed crazy that I'd pick up and go with this stranger-husband across the country, but somehow, I trusted him. I trusted him at a basic bone-deep level, and I'd never trusted anyone before. Instincts had been one of the few things in life I could count on. I tried not to question the strong ones.
We were on our way to his home in some small town in South Carolina I'd never heard of, where we'd see if annulments were a real thing. I'd never even been to South Carolina.
Six hours of flight, a layover in Charlotte, and an hour of driving from Charleston ought to give me a chance to figure out first who I'd married, and then to figure out what to do from there. I felt bad that Cooper had paid for my plane ticket, but he said he'd take care of it. I certainly couldn't afford it—it cost more than a month's rent on the apartment I no longer had. I glanced at his phone as he read articles on the internet: the latest model iPhone. Leather luggage. Nice watch. He hadn't had to borrow money for the plane ticket.
"Listen," I said, as he spoke at the same time. I let him go first. I'd prefer if he did most of the talking.
"Molly," he said. "I know this is deeply awkward and bizarre. I wanted you to know—I'm not a psycho criminal. I'm a regular guy with a good job and a normal family and a place to live. I'm sure you're worried for your safety and I want to make sure you know you'll be safe with me, until we get this mess all straight. If it makes you feel better, you could call my sister before we get on the plane."
I had to force myself to keep up my tough-girl face. Tears welled and I blinked them back. Nobody had ever said anything to me as thoughtful as that. So far, I'd been safer with Cooper than I'd ever been before. "Thanks. I trust you. If you'd wanted to kill me, I guess you'd have done it by now."
"And I also want you to know," he continued, his hands open and loose on his lap. "I'm not an alcoholic. I haven't gotten drunk like that since college. I don't normally behave like that. I swear I'm a responsible adult. When I'm with those guys, it's like we're all twenty-two, not thirty-four. You'd never know it to look at them, but Craig is a banker in Columbia. High up on the pay scale, too. Jon's a high school teacher and football coach in Beaufort, and Jeremy works for a drug company. The corporate kind. We were all close in college and then they met the ladies and well . . ." he said, trailing off. "We are actually grownups."
I chuckled, trying to calm my emotions and stop my brain from worrying about the next step and the step after that. They'd been great. If they'd noticed my inexperience with any kind of party, they hadn't commented, not even when I made the mistake of letting my amazement show the first time I tasted a mixed drink. After that I remembered to cover my lack of sophistication. I didn't think they'd been aware I had no knowledge of ordinary fun that was normal for regular people.
Cooper echoed my laugh. "Yeah, I can see how you might think Jeremy was running a pot farm the way he carried on here. Without the ladies, we'd have been even dumber. Reliving the days when we all still had hair and no gut."
While I waited for some kind of response to occur to me, I took the opportunity to study him. If his hair had thinned in the last decade, then there'd been way too much of it before. It was thick and came in many colors from dark brown to light caramel, and I had a dim memory of maybe having rubbed my hands through it.
My eyes drifted downward. "Umm. How skinny were you? Because now, you're . . . that's not much of a gut."
The flush lit up his beautiful skin once again. "Uh, I run. I play basketball when I can find guys to play with. And in college I was too skinny."
An overwhelming urge to run my hands up his flat torso to his shoulders shocked me out of nowhere. I sat on my hands.
"What about you?" Cooper asked. "What do you do to stay in such amazing shape?"
I glanced down. The boobs. He must be talking about the boobs. 36D, noticeable on a relatively thin frame. They'd never done a single good thing for me since the day they'd made their unwelcome appearance at age twelve. "Oh, I eat regular meals and no snacks. I walk whenever I get a chance, too. I got lucky, I guess. With my metabolism."
"Whatever it is, it's working."
Heat shot through me. He met my eyes. The contact held and simmered. For a wild second I thought he might kiss me. He swallowed and looked away.
Better that way. It would be better if I didn't get any further emotionally entangled with someone who'd use all the legal efficiency money could buy to remove me from his life within the next few days. This couldn't last. Even if I'd married him on purpose in a fit of alcoholic idiocy, I knew that much. These days were a gift. A little time to try to figure out a life plan. At age thirty-three, better late than never.
"Cooper, I—" I bit my lip. He didn't need to know my history. There'd be no point in telling him and taking us from awkward to awful. "What's the name of the town you live in again?"
"McClellanville. It's about forty-five minutes north of Charleston. In the Lowcountry, on the marsh."
"How long do you think it will take to get this straightened out?"
He put away his phone to give me his full attention. The worst of the hangover had disappeared. His skin tone had returned to a healthy tan and his eyes had cleared of the red. "Well, now, this is Thanksgiving week. I doubt we can get in to see a lawyer tomorrow, and then it's almost the holiday. I'd say we've got to stay married at least a week. Or more, depending on what they say when we do talk to them."
"Oh. Should I stay in a hotel?" I asked, terrified he'd say yes. I didn't have much money for a hotel. "You don't have a girlfriend or something, do you?"
"Nope. No girlfriend right now. I do live at my family's house with my dad and sister and her little girl, though. She and her husband split up about six months ago and she's back home. We've got room, in any case. House is old, but it's plenty big. More than enough bedrooms. You can stay with us."
I pictured our entrance. We'd walk in. Cooper would say, "Hello, Father. This is Molly. I married her during a three-day drunk. I don't know the first thing about her."
"What will you tell your family?"
He sat back, long legs stretched out in front of him, and laughed. "If it were just me, I'd tell the truth. Caroline'll think it's funny. Dad'll try to take control of the situation no matter what."
"What do you mean, 'take control'?"
He rubbed the tip of his nose. "Oh, Dad is one of those guys who has to be in charge of every situation. You know. If he thought we got married drunk, he'd want to ask a million questions to find out whether you took leave of your senses as a child or only recently, and whether I need to check in somewhere to dry out."
"Oh." A million questions sounded bad.
"It's nothing. Dad's just like that. You can't let him bother you. I'll leave it up to you, though. What do you want to tell them?"
"I have no idea. I shouldn't care what they think, but I'd hate to have your father think I'm an alcoholic gold digger. Or a nutcase."
"He'll probably think you're terrible anyway, but not for that. Do my ears deceive me or is that a Northern accent?"
Heat rose up my chest into my cheeks. "I'm from Michigan. Does that count?"
"Yup. That's what I thought. Somewhere Midwest. North of the Mason-Dixon line. Dad's got a few old-fashioned Southern prejudices."
"Great. So he'll hate me the instant I say hello. Before we even explain."
"Tell you what. If you're up for it, we can pretend that we weren't drunk. We can pretend we had some kind of love-at-first-sight situation and got married stone cold sober. Let him think what he wants. Then we work on the annulment all quiet-like and I tell him what happened after. You'll be gone and you'll never have to see him again. How's that?" He ran his hands through his hair. It fell back into place in perfect waves.
I stared at him, unable to make sense of someone so easy-going. "Cooper, why?" I cleared my throat, the words escaping me. "Why would you do this for a total stranger? The plane ticket? Taking me home to meet your family?"
His brows met in confusion, then his gaze dropped sheepishly. "Well, as you say, you're a stranger, but you're also my wife, for the moment at least, and you seem kind of . . . lost, maybe. Like not enough people have taken good care of you in your life. It won't hurt me a bit to do that a few days until we get all this mess straight, and like I said, the annulment will be easier if we can go to the lawyer together and just get it done."
I was so overwhelmed with the generosity of this plan—his kindness—it delayed the realization that it would seriously complicate the sleeping arrangements at his family's house. Which took my mind to another unanswered question. "Um. Last night. Do you know if we . . ."
"Did we have sex, do you know?" I forced out the words, unable to meet his eyes. I didn't think we had before last night. The first couple of nights, we'd crashed along with his friends in whatever hotel room we fell down in. Nikki had shared her suitcase. "I mean, I wouldn't be upset . . . you know, if . . ." Son of a bitch. I made it more and more awkward every word I spoke.
"Uh. I don't remember," he said, rubbing his temples. "I honestly don't. When I packed up my hotel room, I didn't see . . . anything that would make me think we did," he said, delicately. "Though that doesn't mean we didn't. Because I would have wanted to." Now it was his turn not to meet my eyes.
"So," he said, uncomfortable now. "Do you have family you need to call?"
I'd need to tread carefully here. "Um. My dad was never in the picture. My mom died when I was a teenager, and my grandma died six years ago. I never had any brothers and sisters."
"I'm sorry," he said. I glanced up. He meant it.
"It's all a long time ago."
"What do you do for a living?" he asked, showing off his skill at the basic manners I lacked.
I did not lack skill at lying, however, and this lie I'd practiced. I'd told it to several people I met in Las Vegas during my time there. No one would understand my real job. "I'm an interior decorator."
"Oh, that must be interesting. Annoying as hell, too. People who can afford help with interiors are usually pretty demanding."
"Are you one of those people?"
He colored and spread his hands flat on his thighs. "I guess I am. Or my dad is, anyway. That's the second blunt question you've asked in five minutes."
"Yeah. I do that, I guess. Does it bother you?" Bluntness was good cover: people never think blunt talkers are hiding anything.
Sometimes they are.
"No, not exactly. I'll get used to it." He leaned his elbows on his knees. "I'm a Realtor."
"Oh." I couldn't think of the first thing to ask about that.
He studied his fingernails as I desperately scrabbled for anything to say.
"Welcome to American Airlines Flight 355 to Charlotte. We'll begin boarding with our first class shortly."
I'd lost my train of thought. "Thank you. For what you said. For taking me home." For so much else I can't say.
"Ha!" he said, his low-pitched laughter rumbling. "Don't thank me until you meet my family."
"No, it's amazing what you're doing. Everything. Nobody . . ." I owed him more. I owed him some of the truth. "I-I'd been having kind of a tough time when I met you. I lost my job recently. I came to Vegas to try to forget things. To be somewhere new. I don't think I've ever been that drunk before. I've certainly never married someone before."
He absorbed that, taking it in stride. "Well, good. No need to apply for extra vacation time after all. You don't have a boyfriend who's going to turn up at my door, shotgun in hand, do you?"
"No. No boyfriend."
"You know I was married before. Got a divorce after Lynette left and stayed gone for a year. I never heard from her again. My lawyer had to put a notice in the paper. She never responded."
"I don't honestly know. We'd been married two years. I thought we were happy enough. Dad used to give her a hard time about being a Yankee—she was from Virginia, so it was his joke—and occasionally we argued about me spending too much time at work or hunting, but that's it. She was a first grade teacher. Not the kind you'd think would be impulsive, but one day she was gone. Took a bag and left. A plane ticket to Charlotte showed up on our joint charge card. Then nothing else. She must have cut up the card."
"Did you look in Charlotte?"
"Charlotte is a major airline hub for flights all over everywhere. She could have flown on anywhere. My dad hired a private investigator and he never found anything."
"No contact with her parents?"
"Nope. She only had a dad. He was in a nursing home with Alzheimer's by the time he was fifty. That part was odd. When I checked there, they said they'd call if she ever visited him again. They never called."
"That is odd. Are you okay?" I asked, searching his face, finding that I cared whether he was hurt by this, and worried that I cared.
"Yeah, now I am. I was torn up about it at first, no question. But it was five years ago now. I hope she's happy somewhere. And look. I've moved on. I'm remarried." He laughed.
Something inside me lifted knowing he was the sort of person who could already find the humor in it, less than twenty-four hours later. If I had to be married to a stranger, at least he was a kind stranger.
"Now boarding, American Airlines Flight 355 with service to Charlotte. All rows."
"Are you ready?" Cooper asked, shouldering the carry-ons and extending a free hand to me.
I took it.
THE DARKEST FLOWER:
LYING BENEATH THE OAKS: