Relief flooded him, however, and he had to laugh at his own stupidity. Diamond smuggling.
"Yeah, I guess so," Cab said, his laughter subsiding into silent chuckles. "I did check her out, by the way. Clean as a whistle, as far as I can tell."
"Great." Rob tried to breathe normally again. He hoped no one else felt the need to get revenge for his past practical jokes any time soon, or he was going to have a heart attack.
"I’m shaking," Claire said as she checked her image in the full-length mirror again.
Morgan patted her arm. The beautiful bride was indeed shaking like a leaf. "You’ll be fine."
"What if I’m not? What if I trip, or laugh when the minister’s talking?"
"I was like this before my wedding," Autumn said, fluffing out Claire’s veil. "The minute you walk down those stairs and out the door, you’ll settle down."
"I think I’m going to be sick."
Claire did look pale, Morgan thought. Pale, but stunning. She’d surprised everyone when she showed them the dress she’d bought from Ellie’s Bridals. Morgan had guessed Claire would choose a severe, unornamented sheath dress, to suit her sleek, black bob and no-nonsense fashion style. Instead, she bought a gown out of a fairy tale. Cream colored satin, a corset-boned bodice, long underskirt and an overlay of fabric pulled back into a generous bustle and train. With her imperial features and her dark hair swept back into a sophisticated updo, she could have stepped off the pages of a magazine.
"You won’t be sick," Autumn said with authority. "What’s nine times nine?"
"Eighty-one. Why are you asking…?"
"Six times eight."
"Three times ten."
Claire started to laugh. "Multiplication tables? That’s how you want me to conquer my nerves?"
"It works, doesn’t it? It’s how my Mom got me through getting shots when I was little."
Claire looked surprised. Morgan knew she was thinking of Teresa Leeds’ cold personality.
"I know," Autumn sighed. "These days Mom would tell me to suck it up."
"She’s pretty serious," Claire agreed.
"She didn’t used to be. Anyway, you look beautiful, and the ceremony should start any minute. Let’s get to the top of the stairs." She took one look at Claire’s face and began to quiz her again. "Five times eleven."
"Fifty-five," Claire said as they left the room.
Morgan checked her own reflection one last time. As maid of honor, she’d need to get out there in a second. She and Autumn both wore light coral strapless bridesmaid dresses with flowing, floor length skirts and crisscrossed bodices. Plain, yet elegant enough to stand beside Claire.
"Morgan," Autumn called.
She hurried from the room and took her place at the beginning of the procession. They met Ethan at the bottom of the stairs, and he took Claire’s arm. Since Claire’s parents were both dead, Ethan would give her away. Rob was to be Jamie’s best man, with Cab his second groomsman.
"Ready?" Ethan asked Claire. Morgan smiled to see the look that passed between her half-brother and sister.
"I think so."
"I’m really happy for you," Ethan said, and dropped a kiss on the top of her head. Claire blinked back tears, and Morgan’s eyes were damp, too. How wonderful for Ethan and Claire that their marriages kept them close to home and among friends. And now she and Rob were trying to make a go of it, too.
As the processional music swelled, she stepped to the doorway and out onto the front lawn of the Big House. Their path was strewn with rose petals and as she made her way between the rows of chairs set up on the lawn for the guests, Morgan heard the gasp from the assembled friends and relatives that signified they’d caught sight of Claire for the first time.
"Oh, isn’t she beautiful," she heard a woman say.
She wanted to be that beautiful at her wedding. If all went well she would be making her way down the aisle in about a month. Soon she would belong here as much as Autumn, Claire, Ethan and Rob did.
As she took her place near the altar, she met Rob’s gaze and smiled. His answering look promised another night of passion ahead of them when they were finally alone again. She knew he had to be frustrated they still hadn’t consummated their relationship, but they were intimate often, and they’d both expressed how much fun they would have on their wedding night.
Rob cocked an eyebrow and her face warmed. She hoped he hadn’t somehow read her mind.
She had a feeling he had.
* * * * *
Rob knew he should be admiring the bride, but he couldn’t keep his eyes off of Morgan. In her coral dress, she looked like a Grecian goddess, so feminine, so lovely. It was all he could do not to cross the aisle and take her into his arms.
He hoped he looked half as good in this damned suit. Twice in seven days he’d had to dress up. He hoped this wasn’t a harbinger of things to come. A glance at Jamie told him his friend was dumbstruck by the vision his bride presented walking toward him. Good. That’s what a wedding should be. That’s what his would be like with Morgan.
Minus the suit.
He spotted his father in the crowd and looked away fast. He’d woken this morning to find Holt waiting for him in a chair on the front porch.
"You ready to get back to work?" were the first words out of his mouth.
Work? "Uh…not until after the wedding," Rob said.
"There’re chores to do."
"I’m supposed to head right over to the Cruz ranch, help get everything set up. I need to square things away with Jamie, too. I’m his best man."
His father stood up. "Fine. Take another day off. But I expect your help with evening chores tonight, and first thing tomorrow you get right back to work like usual. You’ve already made your brothers shoulder your burden for far too long. I expect you to do your share. I’ll post a list of chores in the barn."
Realization dawned over Rob and he’d rubbed a hand over his face, the bristles of his unshaven face scraping his skin. "Dad, I promised Morgan I’d help her start a business. I planned to spend the time between now and the wedding working a job to save up for that. I wasn’t expecting to do chores here, as well."
"Ah, I see." Holt put his hands on his hips. "But you did expect room and board and laundry service, didn’t you?"
"I expected my family would welcome me home," Rob said carefully.
"You expected a free ride, as usual. Well, you’re not getting one. You want to live here, you’ll work, too. Any extra jobs you want to take on can be in your own time."