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Esperanza (Brides Dock On Portum Island!) #1

     When you’re evicted by two lovers, why not move to a mysterious island to become a mail order bride?

     Esperanza DeLuca is in a jam. Nancy, Esperanza’s roommate, decided to move in her husband.  The problem is that Nancy would rather be a newlywed without a third wheel hanging around. She gives Esperanza two weeks to move out and she’s even nice enough to pack her bags for her. Esperanza signs up for a dating site and is offered a home off the coast of Florida. The only catch, she has to marry her match right away. Will she find happiness in her abode? Or will new challenges send her packing … again?

Prologue

“Here is what I propose,” Cassandra Hall began as she started the PowerPoint presentation, her heart soaring when “Portum Island Mail Order Brides” filled the large screen that projected her presentation.

“As you know, the shield surrounding Portum Island prolongs our lifespan. But after some time, our women have become barren. Thus far, only sixty babies have been born in the last ten years. And of the sixty children, only ten have been women.” Another click of the mouse caused abysmal stats to fill the screen, organized in a bar chart. No one in the audience was surprised by the results; though a few of the council members at a table to the left of the auditorium seats held troubled expressions. “There have been no new arrivals since eighteen sixty.” Her fingers trembled as she progressed to the next slide, which displayed a labeled world map.

“There are now billions of people living on earth. I’m positive that some of them may be given access to our home,” Cassandra said, her heart pounding. Her suggestion was going to anger some of the less trusting of the inhabitants, but something had to give. Women on this island have become an endangered species.

“Our island only has a population of twenty thousand.” To drive her point home, Cassandra moved to the next slide. “There are many acres of undeveloped land.” Her people now saw a labeled map of Portum Island, which was kind of depressing. “I have a way of increasing our population. I call my business, Portum Mail Order Brides.” The next slide depicted one name, “The Matchmaker.”

“You may ask yourself, who will be the matchmakers? Well, I hope that I can be one of them, since I can leave the island without suffering pain. But here it is. I think that we should open a dating website. Women sign up, pay a fee, and are sent a kit. Inside the kit will be a vile for the DNA, a questionnaire, and a medical-history form. Of course, the medical-history forms could be filled out online. But I need the DNA sample to determine if the woman can pass through the barrier. Once it is determined that the woman will be allowed through the barrier, I will match her.” Cassandra switched over to the next slide, which displayed how the men of Portum Island could fill out applications for a mail order bride. Judging by the ecstatic faces of some of the younger men, Cassandra deduced that she would have a few takers. That would be great, since this was the perfect business venture for her or any other woman who wanted to participate. She knew that once she received permission from the council, she would have a lot of work to do. After she outlined everything, Cassandra left the room, leaving the borrowed laptop behind.

“Hell no!” Councilman Teriz yelled. “We can’t risk our security by allowing women to stroll onto our island.”

Asher Lawson pondered the issue for a moment. He stared at Councilman Teriz, who was always the voice of dissention. Then he peered at the men in the audience. Some of the younger faces held hopeful expressions. He himself was intrigued by the idea of having a wife. His only attempt at courting had gone so horribly wrong. There weren’t enough single women to go around.

“I think it’s a fine idea,” Councilman Taylor declared. “Within reason. Perhaps we should give Miss Hall a group of men to match. If all goes well, she can expand her business. Any takers?”

“I’m married,” Councilman Teriz loudly pointed out.

“Which is why this business doesn’t interest you. You were lucky enough to catch the attention of your wife,” Councilman Taylor argued.

“Luck had nothing to do with it. My Bethany was attracted to my winning personality,” Councilman Teriz snapped, which made Councilman Lawson want to laugh outright.

“Like I said, are there any takers?” Councilman Taylor demanded.

“Damn, I came too late,” Cassandra’s best friend, Lance, stated as he rushed up to her. “I was number two hundred five.” Only the first two hundred people could sit in on an audience with the council. Cassandra wasn’t surprised that her friend was late. After all, it was in his nature.

“I told you to come at ten,” Cassandra said as she shoved tendrils of her black hair away from her face. Lance tugged on his wrinkled shirt.

“I forgot to set an alarm,” he said, his blue eyes twinkling.

“You mean you kept on hitting snooze,” Cassandra corrected, her dark eyes holding annoyance. She really could have used the support of her only friend. She had returned to Portum Island six months ago, and felt so out of touch. She had just completed her master’s program in psychology, a major her father had felt was foolish. If he had his way, his daughter would have been a doctor or computer programmer. Lance had also decided to leave the island for his degree in computer science. They both had attended the same university, and looked out for one another.

Because the island’s barrier was so stubborn, certain people would feel extreme pain if they traveled through it, while others, like Cassandra, felt no effects. That meant that Lance had never visited his family during the holidays, and Cassandra had stayed back with him in solidarity. “How did you do?”

“Who knows? A few of the younger guys did seem interested in our business,” Cassandra nonchalantly said. Lance knew that this business venture was important for her. Since she hadn’t followed her father’s career plan, he refused to pay for her student loans. But things were different for Lance. His parents were the “Lance, you’re a man, figure it out” type. They had both decided that Cassandra should be the one to make the presentation, since Lance was allergic to being on time. She rolled her eyes at her friend, agitated by that fact. Cassandra hoped that Lance knew that she would be the kind of boss that expected punctuality. Before she could break that to her friend, the double doors opened, and Councilman Lawson exited, his thick, brown, shoulder-length hair swaying as he walked. His dark eyes were intent on Cassandra, which made her shift on her feet.

“The council has decided,” he said, a soft smile on his face. “Your business has been approved on one condition.”

“What would that be?” Cassandra asked, her heart in her throat. If they only gave her a conditional approval, she would have to work harder to prove herself. It wouldn’t be ideal, but Cassandra would do it.

“You have to match a list of men that the council will provide you first,” Councilmen Lawson said.

“Sir, I don’t think that—”

The man held up a hand, silencing Cassandra.

“I will be on the list. There is a lot that the council must consider. Expect the list of men tomorrow. If you happen to find a match for someone that isn’t on the list, let me know. We can work something out,” Councilman Lawson said, his wink reassuring Cassandra.

“Thank you, Councilman Lawson,” Cassandra said.

“Please, call me Asher,” the man said before strolling back through the double doors.

“This is going to be a challenge,” Lance complained, puzzled.

“It is,” Cassandra grumbled. “I guess the council isn’t confident in my idea. But we will show him that Portum Island will be better for it. Now come on, you have a website to launch.”

Chapter 1

“Looking to find love in a new location?” Esperanza read to herself. She rolled her eyes at the headline. She was looking for a date, not a scam that would cost her thousands of dollars. But something about that headline caused her to click on it. Why not? Maybe if she searched the website, she could bring up the scam in conversation. She was going to make nice with her roommate Nancy’s future mother-in-law in less than twelve hours. It blew to be a maid of honor, that was for sure. But what stank more was being a single maid of honor. Nancy wasn’t confident in Esperanza’s skills getting a date. But the sullen maid of honor couldn’t blame the bride for her doubts. At the age of twenty-two, Esperanza hadn’t gone on an actual date before. Since her main goal had been fending for herself. Her parents died years ago, dating was out of the question. Nancy had assured her that she could bring a plus-one. But Esperanza had a feeling that her plus-one would be a place holder for someone that Nancy had forgotten to invite. She would be damned if that happened. Her pride couldn’t take it. So, on a Friday night, she was looking through profiles for dating websites. Esperanza supposed that she could have dressed up real nice and gone to the bar or a club. But her oh so thoughtful roommate had borrowed her car, without asking. So now, Esperanza was cooped up in her apartment with nothing remotely interesting to do. Deciding that the website would be somewhat interesting, she began browsing it.

“For the price of $5.99, you can receive a matchmaking kit.” Hmm, would that be a good gag gift for the gift swap that she had to participate in, in a couple of months? Maybe. At least this would be killing two birds with one stone. Deciding that $5.99 was a reasonable price, she ordered the kit. After ordering the kit, Esperanza resumed her dating site search.

A loud bang startled Esperanza awake. She blinked, realizing that she had fallen asleep on her couch during her research. Where is my laptop? she asked herself. Her eyes landed on her abused computer, which had ended up on the floor. Sighing, she looked up at her roommate, whose eyes were streaming with tears. Oh no, here it went again.

“Nancy, what happened?” Esperanza asked through a yawn.

“Don’t just stand there, Essy, hug me,” she demanded. The nickname that Nancy had given her grated on her nerves. How hard was it to say Esperanza? But she knocked the irritation away, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to break a two-year habit. She focused on her roommate to determine the best plan of action. All Esperanza could see was the snot dripping from the distraught woman’s red nose. Groaning, she picked her laptop off the carpet, closed it, and placed it on the coffee table. Then she quickly grabbed the tissue box from the bathroom, deciding that Nancy would wipe her face before she hugged her. She handed Nancy a tissue and gently led her to the couch.

“What happened?” Esperanza asked, trying to force concern into her voice. All she had to do was wait two months, and she’d be free of the madness. Nancy would move into a house with her fiancé, Craig, and then Esperanza would be blissfully alone. The stars would align after Nancy got married.

“I had an argument with Margi.” Margi was her roommate’s soon-to-be mother-in-law.

“What did you guys fight about?” Esperanza asked, curious.

“I wanted a champagne fountain, and she said no. Can you believe it? Margi got Kim a chocolate fountain for her wedding, but won’t get me a champagne fountain. Why does she favor Kim over me?”

Kim was Craig’s sister-in-law. Esperanza couldn’t help but think that Margi only favored Kim because Kim was better at getting what she wanted. She eased people into ideas, while Nancy was the demanding type.

“I mean, seriously. I want the same quality wedding that Kim had. I won’t settle for less.”

Esperanza bit her lip, wondering what she was supposed to say to this. Then her agitation got the better of her, and she decided to speak her mind.

“Why don’t you just go to the courthouse? Then you wouldn’t owe anyone anything,” Esperanza suggested. Nancy sighed and blotted her eyes with a tissue.

“Of course, someone like you wouldn’t understand,” Nancy said.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Esperanza snapped.

“You never had a serious boyfriend before. You’ve been wasting your twenties away by focusing on your career,” she criticized.

Esperanza glanced down at her hands, feeling small. She hadn’t had much money growing up. Her parents had died in a car crash when she was a baby, and she had been raised by her flighty aunt. As soon as Esperanza had graduated high school, her aunt Claudia moved to Canada to be with the man she met online. That had forced Esperanza to grow up fast. She had been awarded $100,000 from the life insurance policy that her parents had. Of course, her shady aunt had begged Esperanza for a cut. Esperanza had given her $10,000 and said that that was all she was getting. After her grumpy aunt had abandoned her, she had decided to enroll in beauty school. She was now a beautician who also had a license to do manicures and pedicures. On weekdays she worked in a hair salon, and on weekends she worked at a nail shop. Her goal was to save up enough to start a business. She was reluctant to tap into her savings, which now totaled 60 grand. Esperanza was proud of what she had accomplished. At twenty-two, she wasn’t burdened by college debt.

“I have plenty of time to find a man,” Esperanza fired back.

“But you won’t, unless you lighten up. For goodness’ sakes, you’re still a virgin.” Esperanza wanted to argue that while teenagers were getting drunk and high, she had been forced to pull doubles at a diner to have money for clothes. This had been the first year that she could sit back and relax a bit.

Esperanza tried to remind herself that she would get into a relationship when she was good and ready. But the uncertainty still crept into her heart. It wasn’t like she was decrepit. But she did rub a lot of people the wrong way. She tried to force her bluntness down, like when her friend was crying about something trivial. But sometimes things just popped out of her mouth.

“We aren’t talking about me,” Esperanza reminded her friend.

“Why not talk about you? What have you been up to? I spent all week with Margi,” Nancy said.

“Work and books. I also found this dating—”

“That’s nice. So the same things, huh? Well, get some sleep. Don’t forget about Tomorrow. Oh, and wear the dress I helped you pick out. Margi is about things. I don’t want you to embarrass me.”

Before Esperanza could say a word, Nancy rushed into the hallway and into her bedroom. She closed the door behind her.

Esperanza groaned, realizing that her friend had left a mountain of tissues for her to clean up.

The next day, Esperanza woke up early. She dressed in a blue day dress and silver sandals. She allowed her black curls to hang loose, loving the look. She didn’t bother with makeup, not wanting to exacerbate her sensitive skin. She knew that Nancy would complain about her makeup-free face, but Esperanza thought that Nancy could stuff it. She snatched up her black purse and rushed out into the hallway. The scent of coffee filled the apartment. Esperanza was more of a tea drinker, but didn’t want to bother with making tea at that moment.

Her friend was leaning against the wall, sipping from a to-go thermos. She wore a hot-pink tight dress, strappy sandals, and an expensive silver necklace. Her brown hair was up in a high ponytail, and her makeup looked caked on.

“Morning, ready to go?” Esperanza asked.

Her roommate looked surprised by her presence. “Did you check your text messages?” Nancy asked, her tense expression making Esperanza frown.

“No, why?” she asked, knowing that the woman would say something annoying.

“Oh, well, lunch with Margi is canceled. You can go back to bed now,” she cheered.

“I took the day off for this,” Esperanza reminded her, trying not to let her frustration rise to the surface.

“I’m sure if you show up at the nail salon, they will be happy. Weekends are your busiest time.”

Yeah, don’t acknowledge that I had to trade with someone in order to get this day off, she thought to herself.

“Look, Nancy, I…”

A brisk knock interrupted the verbal smackdown that Esperanza was going to give her roommate. Nancy opened it without checking the peephole. She stepped aside, allowing Craig to enter. Craig was tall, with light brown hair, stubble, and a lanky build.

“Hi, Essy,” Craig greeted, his eyes filled with wariness.

“Hi,” Esperanza said, uncomfortable. She didn’t exactly hate Craig, but she didn’t like him, either.

Craig handed Esperanza a box that was addressed to her. “This was outside your door,” he said. “It’s addressed to you.”

“Did you order more clothes?” Nancy asked in a judgmental tone. “Seriously, Essy, I told you that you need me to go shopping with you. You have terrible taste!” Nancy lectured.

“Thanks, Craig,” Esperanza said, not bothering to address her roommate. She rushed back to her room, deciding that she would open the box in peace.

Esperanza stripped out of the dress and changed into yoga pants and a shirt. Then she decided to deal with her text messages first.

Nancy: Hey, just to let you know, brunch is off.

Nancy: You must pick up Liz from the airport tomorrow morning.

Esperanza let out an annoyed yell before tossing her cell phone onto her bed. Was Nancy for real? Two months, Esperanza. It will be okay. She decided to focus on the package she received. She saw that Portum Mail Order Brides was the sender. Hah, she was certain that this agency would send her a brochure of all the eligible bachelors that they had available. Maybe for the price of $50, she would be permitted to write a letter to a handsome hunk. She used her pocketknife to open the box and pulled out a letter.

Dear Esperanza,

My name is Cassandra Hall. I will be your matchmaking coordinator. Thank you for choosing the Portum Mail Order Bride Service. I have sent you a questionnaire to fill out, a medical history form, and a vile for your DNA sample. Please take a sample, enclose it in the vial, and mail it to our agency, along with the questionnaire and the medical history form. We will make your travel arrangements once we’ve matched you.

Cassandra Hall

“It isn’t like I have anything to lose,” Esperanza said before getting to work.

“Essy, it’s so great to see you!” Liz Sanders said as she hopped into the car. “Thank you for getting me.” Esperanza glanced at the clock on the dashboard of her Honda, panic nearly squeezing her chest. Her shift started at ten o’clock, and it was half past nine. The airport was half an hour from her home. She barely had enough time to make it to the nail salon.

“No problem, Liz. How was your flight?” Esperanza asked as she headed toward the highway.

“Long. You wouldn’t believe what happened. I was stuck in the middle seat, which wouldn’t have been so bad, but… Well, I was separating an arguing couple. I couldn’t get any sleep,” Liz explained through a yawn. Esperanza smiled at her. Liz was outgoing and talkative, but she had a good heart.

“Where are you staying?” Esperanza asked.

Liz frowned. “Oh, don’t tell me that Nancy didn’t talk to you about this,” she said. “I’m staying with you until I can find my own place.”Great! Everything just kept on piling up.

Chapter 2

Asher Lawson stared into his empty refrigerator and groaned. He had forgotten to pick up his shipment from the processing center. He slammed the fridge door closed and peered down at his watch. It was a quarter past three, which meant that he had twenty minutes to make a mile-long trek in the heat. Since the council’s goal was to reduce their carbon footprint, no one on Portum Island owned a car. Yes, there were trucks that transported large items. But if a citizen desired to get around, they either used a bicycle, a horse, or walked. Since Asher was merely picking up groceries, he decided to walk. His brother, Marcus, owned the processing center and could grab his groceries if need be. He walked into the living room, where his cart was leaning against the wall. He pushed the cart out his front door, down the stairs, and onto the sidewalk.

His home wasn’t extravagant. It was a one-story ranch-style home that had three bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and a dining area. It had nothing in the way of decorations. Asher didn’t care about that sort of thing. Maybe his mail order bride would take the time to decorate. Asher was still kicking himself for offering to be a guinea pig for Cassandra’s business. The only way that the rest of the council members were going to agree to her business was if someone volunteered to be the first man matched. Since the rest of the men were married, Asher figured that it fell on him.

As he pushed his cart down the sidewalk, he waved at a few neighbors who were riding their horses in the street. He supposed he should take his horse, Shadow, on an evening ride. The poor animal had been in the barn all day. Asher took a turn onto another street and saw a familiar mop of red hair up ahead. Oh crap. Please don’t turn around. Just walk straight ahead. Ignore me. It was as if Emma knew when he was in her vicinity. If it were possible, Asher would have moved across the island to avoid his ex. A year ago, she had taken his hopes, dreams, and most of his furniture. Her newest man was a penny-pincher who had a more lucrative means of income. Asher wasn’t sure why Emma had left him to begin with. Things were going fine, really. Okay, so she had complained a lot, sat on her ass and did nothing, and wanted to be pampered. Hell, Asher had hired a housekeeper to cook and clean for Emma. Mrs. Burns had also chosen to abandon him for another assignment. Asher would rather starve than deal with another one of those women from the housekeeping agency. That agency was much too expensive.

For a moment, Asher assumed that he was in the clear. But his relief must have been what alerted Emma. She spun to face him, her baby bump making pain stab through his chest. Emma had been with Asher for five years, until she decided that his best friend, Brad, was a better catch. Her green eyes lit up, and she ran to him. He tried to force an answering smile, but his facial muscles felt strained.

“Asher, what are you up to?” Emma asked, her gentle eyes making warmth fill his heart. But then anger replaced the warmth. This woman betrayed him in the worst way. She left him standing at the altar, in front of all of their friends and family, for an hour. He should hate her. But the anger couldn’t erase five years of history.

“Picking up some groceries,” he said. “You?”

“At the processing center?” she asked. Where else? That’s the only place someone could pick up supplies, Asher thought.

“Yes,” Asher said, his tone icy. It was amazing that Emma’s smile never faltered.

“Great! What do you think you’ll have for dinner?” she wondered. It was like Emma wanted to make sure that his dinners were less than desirable.

“A frozen pizza,” Asher responded, which made the woman wrinkle her nose.

“You should really take a cooking class. Eating all of those frozen foods cannot be good for you,” she lectured. Before Asher could remind Emma that had Mrs. Burns stuck around, he would have well-balanced meals, he heard pounding footsteps behind him. Asher turned around to see Cassandra frantically waving at him, her black hair flying about.

“Stop running,” Asher shouted. “I’ll wait for you.” He was close enough to the processing center that he could spare a few minutes.

Cassandra slowed down, the relief spreading across her face. The minute she approached, her smile made his heart rate speed up. “I found you a bride!” she triumphantly said, her brown eyes wide. “I found you a bride! Can you believe it?”

“What’s her name?” Asher asked, feeling equal parts excited and nervous.

“Esperanza DeLuca. She lives in New Jersey. She’s twenty-two and—”

“What’s going on?” Emma asked as she stepped to Asher’s side. She was so close that he could smell the vanilla-scented lotion that she favored.

“I’m starting a mail order bride service. And I have matched Asher with someone,” Cassandra said, her eyes filled with confusion.

“I see. Asher, are you sure that a mail order bride is a good idea?” Emma challenged.

“Of course it is,” Cassandra insisted. “There are not enough women to go around. What do you expect him to do?”

Emma ignored Cassandra’s words. “Asher, you can’t do that. You’re picky. What if this woman gets on your nerves?” she demanded. Picky? Emma thought that he was the picky one? Asher wanted to remind her that she would often have another meal cooked if what Mrs. Burns made didn’t suit her.

“Then some other citizen will take her,” Asher said. “Either way, Cassandra is right. There aren’t enough women around.”

Emma sighed. “Okay then, marry a stranger. I just didn’t take you for the desperate type,” she said.

“He isn’t desperate,” Cassandra protested. “Emma, are you an ex-girlfriend? I can tell by the way you’re looking at him. Do you think it’s healthy for you to interfere in his life like that? You are in a new relationship. Now you have to allow Asher to move on,” Cassandra lectured. Emma’s cheeks reddened and she rushed away.

“Really, Cassandra?” Asher asked, stunned.

“It was obvious that she didn’t want to see you with another woman. I don’t have to know about the history that you have. I just want to make sure that you are a hundred percent committed to starting a new relationship.”

“I am,” Asher said, knowing that it was true. He at least wanted to give Esperanza a try.

“Okay. Do you want to talk as we walk?” Cassandra asked.

“Sure,” he said. Asher pushed the cart while Cassandra walked beside him.

“What’s next?” Asher asked, curious.

“Well, I will call her to let her know that we found her a match. Then I will schedule a flight for her. Dana owns her own jet and will pilot it to New Jersey so that we can pick her up. We will then drop her off here, and you’ll meet her.”

“What does she look like?” Asher wanted to know.

Cassandra smirked. “Sorry, Asher, I match people based on personality. Looks are subjective, So I don’t make matches based on looks,” she said as the processing center loomed ahead of them.

“When do we have to get married?”

“When she arrives. I’ll advise her to pack a nice dress,” she said.

“You can’t be serious. I’ll be marrying a total stranger?” Asher asked, stunned.

“Of course. She is your mail order bride, after all. She needs the security,” she told Asher as they entered the processing center. The processing center was busy. There were twelve stations, and each one had someone waiting. Asher rolled his cart over to the closest one. A woman was getting a TV placed into her cart by a tall, strong man. As soon as she paid, she wheeled her cart out the door. Asher stepped up and smiled at his brother, Marcus, who was standing behind the counter. Marcus was his carbon copy, except for the fact that he had shorter hair and darker eyes.

“Hey man, you picking up a delivery?” his brother asked him.

“Yes,” Asher said, happy to see his younger brother.

“What about you, Cassandra?” Marcus asked.

“I’m all set. I just came for the walk,” Cassandra said.

His brother’s eyes lit up. “You found my brother a bride?” he asked as he typed something into the computer.

“Sure did,” Cassandra confirmed.

“If this works out, I want a bride next,” Marcus said, smirking.

The lady matchmaker peered at Asher in question. “What do you think, Asher? Can I add your brother to the list?” she asked him.

Marcus’s hopeful expression made the councilman groan. “Depends. Have you found brides for Kendrick, and Thomas?” he reluctantly asked. He did not want to stand in the way of Marcus being able to marry someone. But he was also hesitant to deal with the fall out from their parents.

“Sure did. Coincidentally, the three women are from the same state. I will inform them next,” Casandra said.

“You don’t mind adding Marcus to the list?” Asher asked.

She smiled at him. “Of course not,” she replied as Marcus handed him a slip to sign.

“So, I’m being added to this list before I meet your bride?” Marcus asked uncertainly.

“You either take the chance now, or don’t get a bride at all,” Asher warned.

“Fine by me. Cassandra, find me a good bride,” Marcus said.

“I will,” she told him. After signing the slip, he was told the total, and his debit card was swiped. After someone packed his groceries, which consisted of frozen food, beer, and cases of water, Asher bid his brother goodbye and followed Cassandra out of the processing center.

Chapter 3

“Love the trim,” Esperanza’s customer, Tessa, complimented. “I think I’ll give you a ninety-dollar tip.”

“Your father pissed you off again?” she asked as she began cleaning up her workstation.

“Oh yeah. He decided to marry Gayle,” Tessa explained. “It’s going to be a challenge to scare her off.” Tessa was a nineteen-year-old who was protective of her father, a wealthy businessman who had a penchant for dating women only a few years older than her. Tessa was insistent that all of them were gold diggers. Esperanza didn’t have an opinion on the situation one way or another. At least her stories were interesting.

“Well, I hope everything works out for you, Tessa,” Esperanza said as Tessa went to the register to pay. The beauty salon closed in ten minutes. Then, after her long day of work, Esperanza had to meet her two roommates for dinner. Liz was a cool person, but Esperanza never signed up to sharing a room with her. The woman snored so loudly that Esperanza awake. She was running on fumes, and didn’t think that she could go on much longer.

As soon as she finished cleaning, she took off her apron, grabbed her purse, shouted a goodbye to the other beauticians, and rushed out into the night. Esperanza stifled a yawn as she walked over to her Honda. A person was leaning against her car. Great! After a day of dealing with difficult customers, she had to put up with her roommate’s antics. She sighed and forced a smile for Nancy.

“Hey, Nancy, need a ride?” Esperanza asked.

“Obviously. I don’t need a haircut,” Nancy said as she fingered her newly highlighted hair. Esperanza ignored the pang of annoyance that filled her and repeated the mantra in her head. In less than two months, she will no longer be my roommate. Instead, she used her key fob to start and unlock her car, then plopped into the driver’s seat. As soon as Nancy was buckled up, Esperanza began heading to the diner.

“We aren’t going out to eat,” Nancy said. “I already ate.”

“Great! I guess I’ll hit a drive-through.” Seriously, it was a burger, fries, and milk shake kind of day.

“Can you drop me off first?” Nancy asked hopefully.

“Nope,” Esperanza said. She drove to the closest drive-through and ordered a double cheeseburger, large fries, and a chocolate shake. After paying for and receiving her food, Esperanza was on the way home.

“So,” Nancy said as she awkwardly held the bag of food. “Margi and Craig got into a fight.”

“What about?” Esperanza reluctantly asked.

“Because Margi feels that Craig and I have been disrespectful, she is no longer paying for our house. Well, the joke’s on her. Craig and I got married.”

“What?” Esperanza nearly shrieked. She had a terrible feeling about what was about to happen.

“I know. I’m married. And I hope that Margi knows that she can take all of the crap she paid for and shove it up her ass.”

“So, because you found out that you weren’t getting a house, you got married?” Esperanza asked. “You do realize that it doesn’t make any sense, right?”

“It does. Margi paid for an expensive wedding that I don’t want. And on that day, no bride or groom will be walking down the aisle,” she argued, her eyes filled with hatred.

“So, are you and Craig getting your own apartment?” Esperanza asked as she pulled into the parking lot of her apartment building.

“No. Craig is moving in with me,” Nancy said. “Well, I figured that you could move out.”

“I can move out?” Esperanza slowly asked. “Why would I do that if the apartment is right by where I work?”

“Because Craig and I are married. We need our privacy, and Liz hasn’t found a job yet. I can’t ask her to move out,” Nancy reasoned.

“You do realize that my name is also on the lease, right?” Esperanza coolly asked. Nancy shrugged.

“Do you want to live with a married couple?” Nancy hotly asked. So, this torture wasn’t going to end. Nancy was going to continue to inconvenience her life. Esperanza had a little nest egg to rely on. She could probably get another apartment. But she didn’t want to move.

“I can’t,” Esperanza said. “I can’t have a logical conversation with someone that’s a self-centered idiot.” Esperanza stormed out of her car and slammed the door. She had to admit it looked like now she would have to find a place. Between Liz’s snoring and the fact that she wasn’t crazy about Craig, Esperanza knew that she couldn’t stay there for much longer.

“Essy, I know that you’re angry, but… you forgot your food.” Moments later, Nancy was handing Esperanza her food and drink. “Look, Essy, I’m sorry. We’ll give you time to move out. Please don’t be mad at me.” Nancy began crying, which only aggravated Esperanza.

“Can you just unlock the door?” the fed-up woman asked. Nancy complied, letting them into the building.

The apartment was crowded. Liz was on the couch with her laptop, while Craig was sitting at their dinette. Esperanza plopped down beside Liz, not bothering to take off her shoes. She was starving.

“Essy, do you think you should be eating that?” Craig asked. “I thought you were on a diet.”

“Number one, it’s Esperanza. Number two, shut up.” Her lack of sleep was making her temper harder to keep on a leash.

“You can’t talk to me that way. Just remember, we’re doing you a favor by letting you crash here for a few weeks.”

“Like I told your wife, I am on the lease,” Esperanza said before continuing to eat her food. Liz and Nancy decided to watch a chick flick. Esperanza barely paid attention, the taste of her food and milk shake calming her down. After she was finished, she left the living room and entered the room that she shared with Liz.

“What the hell?” Esperanza shouted. Her eyes bounced around the room, the disbelief keeping her immobile for a moment. Then she pulled open her top drawer and wanted to curse when she found it empty. She shoved open her closet door and spotted nothing but hangers. She eyed the three suitcases stacked up in the corner and knew that her clothes had been packed. She opened the blue mini storage container and spotted all of her shoes shoved in. Nancy entered and closed the door behind her.

“See,” she said. “Craig wanted to make things easier for you. Since you are the one moving out, we figured that we could be the ones to pack.”

“Get out,” Esperanza screamed, and thankfully Nancy did what she was told. Feeling overwhelmed, Esperanza dug some clothes out of her suitcase and took a long hot shower. After changing into a tank top and shorts, Esperanza slipped into bed. Her phone rang, which surprised her. She fished it out of her purse and answered.

“Hello?” Esperanza asked.

“Esperanza DeLuca?” a woman asked.

“This is she,” Esperanza confirmed.

“I’m Cassandra Hall, your matchmaking coordinator. I called to tell you that we found you a match.” It took a second for her brain to catch up. A match? What match? But then she recalled mailing the paperwork and spit sample back to the mail order bride agency.

“You guys aren’t a scam?” Esperanza asked in disbelief.

“No,” Cassandra replied, sounding amused. “So, we found you a match. His name is Asher Lawson. He is twenty-six and is looking for a bride. He lives off the coast of Florida and will be willing to pay for your plane ticket, and any shipping costs for your items.” Esperanza glanced at her three suitcases which were piled by the door. She wasn’t exactly dancing on clouds in New Jersey. But it wasn’t like she truly wanted to pick up and move, either. But why not? It wasn’t like she owned her own salon. Her boss wouldn’t miss her. Dolly wanted to retire in six months. Staying in Jersey would make her feel just as uncertain. She would have to look for another job sooner or later. Nancy was so desperate to be rid of her that she actually had her things packed. At least Craig had neatly folded everything.

“I have three suitcases, a laptop, and a box full of shoes,” Esperanza listed.

“All of that should fit on the private jet we are sending you,” Cassandra confirmed.

“Wow, you guys have private jets too?” Esperanza asked in amazement.

“Of course. Would two weeks from Saturday give you enough time?” the match maker inquired.

“Sure,” Esperanza replied. “That would be perfect.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I’ll arrange for a car to pick you up at your apartment building,” Cassandra said.

“Thanks,” Esperanza said. After a few minutes, Cassandra confirmed that a private jet would be flying her to Florida in two weeks. Maybe it was the stress or the lack of sleep driving her decision, but Esperanza didn’t think that the plane could come soon enough.

Chapter 4

Two weeks later, Esperanza woke up at six o’clock a.m. Her ride to the airport was going to arrive in an hour. It was petty, but she hadn’t spoken much to Nancy. Nancy had no idea that she was leaving on that day. Liz was still snoring beside her, but the woman woke as soon as Esperanza began getting dressed.

“Where are you going so early?” Liz complained as she sat up.

“To the airport,” Esperanza replied. “I’m moving to Florida.” Liz’s green eyes went wide with surprise.

“What? Why didn’t you say anything?” Liz cried. “Do you need anything? How can I help? What are you going to do with your car? Do you need me to help you carry your bags? Why didn’t you tell me? I would have planned a goodbye dinner for you. I get that you’re fighting with Nancy. But I thought that you and I were friends. Seriously, Esperanza, I’m going to miss you. I was actually hoping that we would be roommates. I don’t plan on living here forever, either. I have a job interview next week. I guess you aren’t going to be an option for a roommate. Oh crap. I’m going to be stuck here, babysitting all of Nancy’s kids. I can’t. I just…”

Esperanza did the one thing that made sense. She snatched up Liz’s laptop, typed in the predictable password, and went on the mail order bride website.

“This is how I am going to Florida. Maybe you can be matched up with someone. Wouldn’t it be great to have a permanent roommate?” Esperanza asked.

“Oh my goodness,” Liz gasped as she took the laptop from Esperanza, who had managed to get dressed during Liz’s questioning session. “You can’t be serious! You’re going to be a mail order bride? Did you know that in the eighteen hundreds, this was one of the ways that men from the west found brides? The west wasn’t as developed back then. I know it’s hard to believe when you look at how populated our country is today. So you’re really going to do this? Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Esperanza said as she grabbed her toiletry bag. “I’ll be right back,” Esperanza said as she rushed to the bathroom. Naturally, it was already occupied. After a minute, Esperanza pounded on the door and yelled, “Hurry up.” Moments later, Nancy walked out of her room, dressed in a silky night gown.

“Where are you going so early?” she asked as she rubbed her eyes.

“To the airport. I’m moving to Florida,” Esperanza said.

Nancy’s eyes widened. “And you didn’t say anything?” her soon-to-be former roommate asked.

“I just did,” Esperanza said as Craig exited the bathroom, wearing nothing but boxers. Esperanza rolled her eyes and stomped past him. She brushed her teeth, washed her face, and put her raven curls up in a ponytail. Then she packed her toiletry bag into one of the larger suitcases and dragged it into the living room. Liz immediately dragged out the other one.

“Let me help you get this stuff outside,” Liz insisted. Esperanza wasn’t about to turn down the help. Instead, the two women rolled the three large suitcases and her box of shoes into the hallway. Nancy actually exited the apartment with the small carry-on which held her wedding dress, her laptop bag, and her purse.

“Will you keep in touch?” Nancy asked hopefully.

“Maybe,” Esperanza responded, not agreeing to anything.

“Okay then,” she said. “Let’s get this stuff outside.”

“Esperanza, it’s so nice to meet you,” a tall, beautiful woman with medium brown skin said as Esperanza stepped onto the private jet. Her eyes bounced around the interior, amazed at the luxurious leather seats that looked comfortable enough to sleep in. The town car that had picked her up from the apartment was cozy enough, and she had even nodded off for a bit. But she was hoping for a long, turbulence free flight. Well, everything seemed smooth thus far. Her cargo had been loaded, and the pilot, Dana, and her twin sister, Sam, had already entered the cockpit.

“I’m Cassandra Hall, your coordinator.” Esperanza studied the leather seats, trying to decide where she wanted to sit. Cassandra seemed friendly enough, but one never new.

“It’s nice to meet you, Cassandra,” Esperanza said as she shook the woman’s hand with the hand that wasn’t holding her carry-on bag.

“Is that your wedding dress?” the woman asked, her excited features relaxing Esperanza a bit.

“Yes,” Esperanza answered.

“We’re waiting for two more. I hope that won’t be a problem.”

“No, it won’t,” Esperanza said, before deciding that she was better off sitting beside Cassandra. Who knew what the other mail order brides would be like?

“So, are we having a triple wedding?” Esperanza asked.

“Of course not. It’s more like you’ll each get married one at a time,” she explained, as a short woman with long, greasy black hair walked onto the plane. She was rail thin, and wore a t-shirt and shorts were threadbare. Her face was sunken in and her eyes were filled with concern.

Cassandra stood and rushed over to the woman, who was also holding a carry-on bag. “Julia, it’s so nice to meet you,” Cassandra said. “I’m Cassandra, your mail order bride coordinator.” The thin girl was led to the seat across from Esperanza’s.

“Hi Julia, I’m Esperanza,” Esperanza greeted.

“Hi,” Julia said in a soft voice. “It’s really nice to meet you.” Before the two of them could even make conversation, the third arrival appeared. Tessa strolled onto the plane, her eyes filled with excitement.

“Esperanza, get out of here, you’re doing this mail order bride thing too?” Tessa asked, surprised. Cassandra quickly introduced herself, and Tessa chose to sit beside Julia. It didn’t take long for the group to secure their carry-ons and buckle in. Moments later, they were in the air.

“So, you and Tessa know each other?” Cassandra inquired, interested.

“Yes. She used to be one of my customers. I gave her a trim a couple of weeks ago.”

“I see,” Cassandra said.

“So, what part of Florida are we going to?” Tessa asked, excited.

“We’re going to an island off the coast of Florida,” Cassandra said. Her words were starting to worry Esperanza.

“I know, that’s what you told me last week. I just want to know what island we are going to,” Tessa said, insistent. Julia seemed uncomfortable with the pending confrontation. Esperanza’s suspicious nature was starting to come out.

“Hold up, what part of Florida are we going to?” Esperanza cautiously asked.

“We are landing on a private air strip in Key West,” Cassandra said. “Then we are taking a boat to Portum Island.”

” Portum Island?” Julia squeaked. “There is no such thing. It’s a mythical island that—”

“It is an island,” Cassandra protested. “Trust me, I grew up there. Wait until you see it for yourself.”

Esperanza wasn’t about to see anything. Nothing was keeping her from running off.

“Great!” Tessa squealed. “I can’t wait to see the island.” Right, Tessa was the adventurous type, and Julia didn’t appear to be a fighter. It looked like Esperanza was on her own.

Chapter 5

The jet landed on a private air strip a couple of hours later. The sun was out, and the humidity was starting to mess with her hair. Esperanza could feel the sweat clinging to her back. She couldn’t see a building in sight no matter which direction she looked in. That meant that she had to either see this thing through or run off. The bags were unloaded from the plane and were stuffed in the back of a van. The hesitant mail order bride would have taken the opportunity to run, but she had no cell service. So she hopped into the van and was sandwiched between Cassandra and Julia. As soon as the van began driving, she suddenly yawned.

“Man, I’m tired,” Esperanza grumbled. In the back of her mind, she knew that she couldn’t fall asleep. But the damned snoring had kept her up for most of the night.

Julia shot Esperanza a shy smile. “I’m always tired,” she softly said.

“Don’t worry ladies, once we arrive on the island, you will have an opportunity to shower and dress,” Cassandra assured them.

Esperanza spied a dock up ahead. She could make out a yacht in the distance. A figure was standing on the dock, and as the van grew closer, Esperanza noted the yacht. Esperanza hadn’t seen one man yet.

When the van parked, the group exited the van, and they scrambled to unload all of the luggage.

Esperanza wanted to escape. Really, that was what she would’ve done if it hadn’t been for the exhaustion she felt. Her worries and fears had kept her awake for the entire flight. Now her eyes felt like they had been rubbed with sandpaper. She followed everyone onto the deck of the yacht, figuring that she should catch a nap to gain her strength.

“Hi everyone,” a tall woman with short black hair, chocolate-brown skin, and ocean-blue eyes greeted. She looked like the exact replica of the pilot and her sister. “I’m Sadie, and this is my boat. PORTUM Island is only a half an hour away. Let’s go,” she said.

After all of the luggage was loaded onto the yacht, Tessa, Cassandra, Esperanza, and Julia sat on the deck. Sadie had packed the group lunches, which was thoughtful. Julia eagerly unwrapped one of the tuna sandwiches that she was given. Esperanza wasn’t hungry, so she just looked at the ocean as the yacht went into open sea.

“So, why aren’t there any men on the yacht?” Tessa bluntly asked.

“Portum Island is a real place. But the island is picky. Most people can’t even enter the island. That’s why when we created the mail order bride business, we included the DNA kit as a requirement. Unfortunately, the island rejects people. You’ll see what I mean in a moment.”

Yup, Cassandra was crazy. Esperanza wished that she could jump off the yacht and swim back to the dock. But she didn’t bother. She was in too deep to do anything about it.

“Get ready, you’ll feel electricity in a second.”

Moments later, the air grew warmer, and she felt static electricity brush against the skin. And then darkness surrounded the yacht. Julia and Tessa let out high-pitched screams while Esperanza was frightened into silence. The dark void only lasted for a moment. Then, the sun appeared again, and in the distance was an island. Esperanza rubbed her skin, stunned by what just occurred.

“What the hell?” Esperanza shouted. Julia began weeping, while Tessa was blinking rapidly.

“I told you girls you wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it,” Cassandra said as the yacht sailed toward a dock.

“Portum Island,” Esperanza whispered in amazement, the memory of the static electricity hitting her skin still in her mind. “I’m getting married on Portum Island.” Esperanza could not believe what she was seeing, even as the boat docked and a tall man with cropped black hair and tanned skin strolled over and tied the yacht to the cleats. After everyone was assured that the yacht was secured, Cassandra led the way onto the dock. Three carts were on the dock, each of which were labeled. Esperanza started loading her luggage onto the cart with her name on it.

“I should tell you, it’s illegal to own a car on Portum Island,” Cassandra warned. Esperanza wanted to groan at that part. She hated exercise with a passion. But that’s what she got for signing up to be a mail order bride right?

“I never had a car,” Julia softly said, while Tessa just rolled her eyes. As soon as the women completed the loading of the luggage, Cassandra directed Julia to follow Sadie, Tessa to follow Dana, and for Esperanza to follow her.

Esperanza pushed her cart as Cassandra walked in front of her. They walked down the path that led to the left. For a moment, it was nothing but trees on either side of them. But then, a town spilled out on the horizon. First, Esperanza saw businesses such as a movie theater, bowling alley, and something called a processing center. She gawked at the hitching posts that held horses, and the racks that held bicycles. As they turned onto a block, she saw someone riding a horse through the street.

“Where are we going?” Esperanza asked.

“To your new home. You will drop off your items, change into your wedding dress, and the preacher will marry the both of you.”

“Then can I take a nap?” Esperanza sarcastically asked.

“Of course,” Cassandra said.

It took a few blocks, but they finally stopped in front of a blue house that desperately needed a coat of paint. It looked to be a one-story that had a driveway that led to a backyard.

“Here we are. This is the house of Asher Lawson, your groom,” she said. Esperanza was hot, sweaty, and really hungry, so she couldn’t muster a smile. Before Cassandra could even knock, the door opened and a tall man with shoulder-length brown hair, olive skin, and chocolate-brown eyes rushed out. He wore a black suit that fit him nicely.

“Cassandra,” he said, his excitement warming Esperanza’s heart. “Is that her?” The excitement quickly turned into astonishment, which made Esperanza smirk. She knew that she was easy on the eyes, despite what Craig thought. She eyed her soon-to-be husband, and her heart raced. What the hell? He had kind eyes, but that wasn’t enough to marry someone. Before she could ask Cassandra if they could postpone the wedding, Asher descended the porch steps and snatched one of the suitcases from the cart. Cassandra snatched the other one, and an exhausted Esperanza snatched up the third. Asher led the way into the plain, boring house.

“I see you’re a fan of decorating,” Esperanza blurted out, which made Cassandra chuckle.

“I don’t see the sense in decorating,” he said as he led the women into a bedroom that had a king-size bed, a dresser, two nightstands, and a closet. At least the guy was nice enough to clear half of the closet out for her. But seriously?

“Um, could I maybe stay in a guest room until I get to know you?” Esperanza asked.

“I don’t have a guest room. The other two rooms are empty,” he confessed.

“You’re also not a fan of furnishing rooms, I see,” Esperanza commented.

Cassandra quickly exited the room, probably sensing the growing tension.

Asher sighed as he eyed the area. “Look, if you don’t want to share a bed, I’ll sleep on the couch,” he offered.

“No way, you’re too tall for the two-seater,” Esperanza said, before taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m just really cranky. I… Um… Well, I…”

“Let’s try starting over,” Asher insisted. “Why did you sign up to become a mail order bride?” he asked, sounding curious.

“I was desperate for a date. My roommate was getting married and… Well, she didn’t think I could find a date for the wedding. So it pissed me off.” Esperanza detailed the following events, including the snoring Liz, rude Craig, and her roommate’s insistence for her to leave. “I promise, I’m a lot nicer once I’ve gotten sleep. Why did you sign up?”

“Because I believe in Cassandra’s business. The council wouldn’t give her a business permit unless a council member signed up for a mail order bride. I myself liked the idea of being matched to someone. Portum Island doesn’t have a lot of women for me to choose from.”

“Why?” Esperanza asked.

“Because it would seem that out of the sixty births over the last ten years, only ten have been women,” he said, which made Esperanza’s mouth pop wide open. She was going to ask more questions, but then Cassandra entered, a smirk on her face.

“Sorry to interrupt, but the preacher will be here in fifteen minutes. Esperanza needs to get dressed,” Cassandra said.

Asher stood on his porch, eager to see what Esperanza was going to change into. She was quite the beauty, though the poor woman was a bit cranky. He couldn’t help but dislike her roommate Nancy. She did seem a bit overdramatic and selfish. Esperanza seemed to be a good conversationalist who liked adventure. She would do.

“Sorry I’m late,” a man with a wrinkled suit called as he ran up Asher’s driveway. “I just—”

“I gave you the wrong time,” Cassandra assured. “Lance, for once in your life you’re on time.”

Lance shrugged and eyed Asher. “Hi, I’m Lance Taylor, Cassandra’s partner. You must be Asher Lawson,” Lance said.

“I am,” Asher said as Reverend Moss—a short man with salt-and-pepper hair—began making his way to Asher’s house. As soon as he saw the preacher, excitement filled his gut. Soon, Esperanza would be his. Asher would have a wife to build a future with.

Chapter 6

Asher was standing on the driveway, facing the porch when his bride exited the house. She wore a white gown that revealed her bare shoulders. Her black curls were unbound. His fingers were eager to play with the curly strands. Her dress was long enough to cover her feet. But he couldn’t have cared if his woman was barefoot. Esperanza was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He glanced into her dark brown eyes as she descended the stairs, and was lost. She joined him, and then both turned to face the preacher. The wedding was short and sweet. Cassandra presented them with the rings that Asher had purchased. Esperanza’s surprised expression made him grin. He first slid an engagement ring on her finger before giving her a wedding band.

“You may kiss the bride,” the reverend said, and Asher’s mouth descended on hers. Her lips were soft and sweet. His body felt electrified at the contact. He wanted to deepen the kiss, to taste her mouth, but he didn’t want to scare her off. He pulled back, and smiled at the man that had married them. After shaking hands with him, the man rushed away, followed by an excited Lance.

“I’ll have to join them for the second wedding,” Cassandra said. “Congratulations to you both,” she said, before leaving with the cart that once carried his bride’s luggage.

“You look beautiful,” Asher told his bride, who smiled tiredly at him.

“You look handsome,” she said, before pressing a kiss to his cheek.

“What’s next?” he asked.

“A nap?” she asked hopefully, which made Asher chuckle.

“While you nap, I can make dinner,” he reluctantly offered. The last thing that he wanted to do was subject himself to one of those dreadful frozen meals. But the poor woman looked as if she would fall where she stood. Had marrying him kept her up all night, or was it really her roommate?

“What’s for dinner?” Esperanza inquired.

“Either frozen pizza or frozen chicken nuggets and tater tots,” he offered.

Esperanza yawned. “Surprise me,” she said.

On a whim, Asher lifted his bride into his arms and carried her over the threshold. She smiled up at him, her soft eyes warming his heart.

He carried his bride into the living room and gently put her down. She stifled yet another yawn before a shy expression filled her face. Asher didn’t much like that expression. They were man and wife, after all. He wanted her to feel comfortable around him.

“Can you please unzip the back of my dress?” she hesitantly asked. It was clear that she had felt uneasy about making the request.

“Sure,” Asher said, his body filling with anticipation. He knew that it was too soon to have a real wedding night. But he still wanted the sneak peek. Esperanza turned around, and he gently began sliding the zipper down, revealing her honey-brown skin. On a whim, he caressed her warm skin with a fingertip. Her intake of breath definitely fed his male ego. It was nice that someone responded to him in that way.

“Thank you,” Esperanza suddenly said. “I’m going to take my nap now.” Without another word, his lovely bride hurried into their bedroom and closed the door behind her. Asher grinned. He could tell by her reaction that she’d be a passionate woman.

Esperanza yawned and stretched, her body feeling well rested. She opened her eyes and blinked, adjusting to the sunlight. She sat up and glanced around the room. It would seem that her new husband was a slob. He left his jeans, boxers, and balled-up T-shirt on the floor. She sighed and thought that she could start the day by doing some cleaning.

Esperanza strolled into the kitchen and glanced around the room. The counter tops were clean, there were groceries on the table, and half of a covered pizza in the fridge. Her stomach rumbled. She must have slept the whole day away. Figures. Now she had a lot of catching up to do. She found a pizza cutter in one of the drawers along with a plate for the pizza. She then pulled the pizza from the fridge, took what she wanted, and placed the plate in the microwave. As the microwave was heating up her food, Esperanza began putting away the groceries. As she was eating the pizza, Asher strolled into the room. He smiled upon seeing her.

“You’re awake,” he said, excited by the prospect.

“Yup. I see that you went grocery shopping,” Esperanza noted.

“I was kind of hoping you would, uh, cook for me. Can you cook?” Asher asked hopefully.

“I can throw things together,” she replied as she finished her pizza.

“Are you feeling alright? You did sleep for eighteen hours.”

“You don’t snore,” Esperanza said honestly, which made Asher chuckle.

“If you want, I can take you around town,” he offered.

“Sure. You can start by telling me how things work on this island,” Esperanza said, before finishing off the pepperoni pizza.

“How things work?” Asher asked, confused.

Esperanza sighed. “Let’s make it easy. Where did you grow up?”

“Two miles from here. My parents own an ice cream shop. I worked there after school until I went to college.”

“What did you go for?” Esperanza asked.

“On this island, there isn’t a choice. Well, there is somewhat of a choice. The council will announce that there is a need for someone to go to school for something, then a list is posted. A student has to apply, and the most qualified attends college,” he reasoned, which appalled Esperanza. She wasn’t the academic type, but she felt for the people who dreamed to go to college.

“What if you changed your major?” Esperanza wondered.

“You can’t. No one would be crazy enough to,” Asher said, his expression telling Esperanza that if a student switched majors, there would be dire consequences.

“What other rules are there?” she demanded.

“We have a council of twenty-one members,” Asher revealed. “No member has the same degree. I’m one of the members.”

“So you tell people if they can go to college or not?” Esperanza challenged.

Asher quickly shook his head. “There hasn’t been a need for someone to get a degree for a couple of years. Something about this island makes the inhabitants live longer lives. We have a low retirement rate. The oldest person on the island is six hundred years old, and he appears to look middle-aged.”

Esperanza’s jaw dropped. He couldn’t be serious. Please, oh please, he couldn’t be serious.

“The reverend looked like he was middle-aged.” If her new husband was crazy, she’d have to turn tail and run.

“I’m telling the truth. Look, uh, I have proof. Want to go for ice cream?”

“What would going for ice cream do?” Esperanza challenged.

“You’ll meet my parents. If seeing them isn’t proof enough, then my mom can show you some family photos,” he said.

“Sounds good. Let me grab my purse.” Esperanza stood, washed her dish and stored it in the cabinet. Then she turned around to see Asher standing there. His eyes were intent on hers.

“You know, while you were sleeping, all I could think about was kissing you again,” he told her, his brown eyes darkening with passion.

Esperanza’s stomach flipped at the thought of kissing him again. “Yeah,” was all that she could say. She had never been in this kind of situation before.

Asher cupped her cheek and gently rested his lips on hers. The kiss was cautious, until she wrapped her arms around his neck. Then his tongue surged into her mouth, stirring the passion that he had ignited on their wedding day. His hands began trailing up and down her sides, which made her knees weak. Her temperature rose as his fingertips wandered under her shirt. When his hands traveled up her stomach, her kisses became more aggressive. The ringing of the doorbell interrupted their interlude. Asher groaned and pulled away from her.

“I guess we have a visitor. Maybe it’s my mom,” he figured. Esperanza, who was stunned by the overwhelming desire she felt, nodded.

Moments later, the door opened, and a pregnant redhead rushed in, a covered dish in her hands. She placed the dish on the table and grinned. “I made lasagna, and decided to save a piece for you,” she said.

Oh hell no. Esperanza understood the slight. Nancy would do that sort of thing.

“Emma, thanks for the food, but… uh, this is my wife, Esperanza,” he introduced. “Esperanza, this is Emma.”

“So I take it that this Emma isn’t your mom?” Esperanza asked, an unimpressed expression on her face. Yes, she didn’t know Asher very well, but she had to stake her claim.

Asher laughed. “No, that isn’t my mom. But we are actually on the way to see my mother, so uh…”

“I get it, your new bride has to meet your mother,” Emma said, her smile condescending. “Why wasn’t she at the wedding?” The friendly taunt annoyed Esperanza, but Asher didn’t miss a beat.

“She told me that she’ll throw us a party once it’s clear that we have fallen in love,” he explained.

“Well then, I’ll leave you to introduce her.” Before Esperanza could tell Emma never to come back, the woman left the house.

Asher sighed and glared at the lasagna. “She never brought me food before, even after she realized how hopeless I am in the kitchen,” he noted.

“Who is she to you?” Esperanza cautiously asked.

“My ex-fiancée. We haven’t been together for over a year. She married one of my childhood friends and—”

An ex-fiancée? This was a lot of baggage to deal with.

“And she wants you to stay single forever,” Esperanza deduced. “Got it.”

Asher shook his head. “She’s just a bit overbearing,” he warned. Asher straight up found Emma annoying, but thought that speaking ill of a pregnant woman wouldn’t earn points with his new bride. From what he observed, women stuck together, even when they hated each other.

“If what you say is true, she’ll be overbearing for eternity,” Esperanza grumbled, which made Asher laugh.

“I guess if you look at it that way,” he said.

“It’s the only way to look at it,” Esperanza fired back.

“Okay, Esperanza, enough with the stalling. We have to meet my mother.”

Her annoyance turned into curiosity. “Do I need to bake something or dress up nice?” Esperanza asked. “No. Trust me, your presence will be enough.” Thankfully, his bride was satisfied with the answer. She nodded and followed him out into the sunny day.

Chapter 7

Asher led Esperanza to the barn, her warm hand in his. She frowned at Shadow’s home.

“Why are we going to a barn?” his wife hesitantly asked.

“Because we’re riding my horse instead of walking,” he reasoned.

“No way,” she squeaked. “I’m not getting on a horse.”

“Esperanza, are you afraid of horses?” Asher asked, trying to hide his amusement.

“Damn straight,” she pronounced.

“Have you ever touched a horse?” Asher gently asked.

“No,” she said.

“So then how do you know that you’re afraid of horses?” His words seemed to rile her up. She glared at him, her dark eyes filling with fire. He chuckled before placing a tender kiss on her nose. Then he opened the barn door and led her to his horse. Asher dug a sugar cube from his pocket before opening the first stall. A black stallion was there, his friendly nature a relief. Asher had already brushed him for the day. He saddled the horse, and led it by the reins out into the warm sun.

Five minutes later and his bride still wasn’t cooperating. She glared at him.

“Why can’t we buy bikes?” she argued. “I at least have control of a bike.”

“So it’s about control,” Asher realized as he kissed her cheek. “Can you try this for me? If you hate it, then we can go buy bikes.” Of course Asher knew that once his bride gave Shadow a chance, she would love it.

“Fine,” Esperanza huffed. Asher smiled and helped her onto the horse. Then he leaped up into the saddle in front of her. She immediately wrapped her arms around him, which warmed him. He steered the horse down the drive and onto the street. Luckily there was no one on the street in his neighborhood. He guessed that seeing other people on horses would make Esperanza nervous.

“So, where is the bike shop?” Esperanza teased.

“Very funny,” Asher called. “By the way, if you want groceries, you have to put in an order on the town’s website. Then you will pick up the order at a processing center.”

“What if I want clothes?” Esperanza wanted to know.

“We have tailors,” he responded.

“Interesting. Do you think you can take me to see one? How much do they cost?”

“You don’t have to worry about prices. I’m not a rich man, but the council pays all right.”

“I have some money. I just need a job,” she said as the horse led them up a hill.

“What kind of work did you do back in New Jersey?” he asked.

“I worked in a hair salon.”

“Did you like what you did?” Asher wanted to know.

“It fed me. To be honest, I aimed to learn a trade that took the least amount of schooling, in order to pay bills. As soon as I graduated high school, my aunt hightailed it to Canada to marry her online boyfriend. I had to fend for myself.”

“How did you meet Nancy?” he asked his wife.

“That was my biggest mistake. For a while, I was on my own. My parents died in a crash, when I was a baby. I didn’t receive the money from their life insurance policy until I turned eighteen. I didn’t want to rely on that money, so I went to beauty school. After I was licensed, I got a job at a beauty salon. I also had a license to do nails, so worked at a nail salon as well. Nancy was one of my customers. We struck up a friendship. It started gradually. First, she began following me on Instagram, then, I friended her on Facebook, and it went on from there. Then she started dating Joseph. He was a tall, thin man with a bad temper. One time, he broke a few ribs, and she needed a place to stay. I took her in. It was supposed to be temporary. But one thing led to another, and we were sharing a place.”

“You’re a nice person,” Asher complimented, his heart aching with fondness.

“No, I’m a sucker,” Esperanza insisted. “I let myself get caught up in someone else’s drama. It was two years of letting Nancy come first. I let her push me around, and it was all because I didn’t want to fight with her. Fighting with Nancy is more annoying than going along with what she wants.” Asher nodded in understanding. That was how he handled Emma.

“Emma is a lot like that. After she decided to hook up with my friend, she tried to act like everything was normal. She would talk to me in the street. When I gave her the cold shoulder, she would complain to her husband. Her husband is a hothead, and well… We almost came to blows because he felt that I was disrespecting his woman.”

“Emma reminds me of Nancy. A person like that lives for the drama,” Esperanza insisted as they passed a cyclist on the road. The ice cream shop was up ahead, which made Asher sigh in relief. Esperanza would have proof that he wasn’t crazy.

As soon as they arrived, he carefully dismounted before helping Esperanza get to the ground. She stretched and smirked.

“Ugh. My butt hurts,” she grumbled.

“You can soak in the tub when we get home,” Asher offered as he tied the horse to the hitching post. Then he turned to face his beautiful wife. “What did you think of the horse?”

She shrugged. “The horse is fine, I guess. I still want a bike, though,” Esperanza insisted.

“Do you enjoy bike riding?” Asher wanted to know.

Esperanza’s sarcastic laugh made him arch a brow. “Hell no. But I can control a bike,” she explained.

Asher couldn’t help it. He leaned down and placed a kiss to her plump lips. It was meant to be a spur-of-the-moment tender kiss. But then Esperanza wrapped her arms around his neck and deepened the kiss. As soon as her tongue entered his mouth, the world disappeared. All that existed was the passionate woman that was currently devouring his mouth. Asher’s hands gripped Esperanza’s hips to prevent his hands from wandering. There kiss stopped altogether when a cat call rang in the air. They pulled back from one another and Asher glanced around to see his oldest friend, Kendrick Carter, standing there. Kendrick apparently attempted to cut his own hair again. It was terribly uneven, which caught Esperanza’s eyes.

“What happened to your hair?” she asked the man.

“I tried to cut it,” the tall, jovial man said. “Did I do a good job?”

“No. It’s so uneven. Why didn’t you go to the barber?” she wondered.

“Because I pissed him off. I beat him in a poker game and well… Let’s not talk about that. So, Asher, who’s the hair critic?”

“This is my wife, Esperanza,” Asher introduced with a smile. “Esperanza, this is my best friend, Kendrick.”

“Some best friend I am. You didn’t even invite me to the wedding,” Kendrick joked.

“I didn’t get an invite to yours either,” Asher playfully reminded his friend.

“Don’t feel bad, even his parents didn’t come. I think Cassandra wanted us to get hitched as quickly as possible,” Esperanza explained.

“Right, the mail order bride lady. So, Esperanza, do you have a sister?” Kendrick asked jokingly. “I swear my brother keeps coming over to try to steal my bride away.”

“No. I was an only child,” Esperanza said.

“Can you cut hair?” Kendrick asked hopefully.

“Yes. I used to work in a salon back in Jersey. I’d be happy to cut your hair, after giving Asher a trim,” she said.

“What’s wrong with my hair?” Asher protested. Esperanza shot him a You have to ask? expression.

“Asher, did you have a falling-out with the barber?” Esperanza wanted to know.

“Yeah, the barber stole his woman,” Kendrick snorted.

“Kendrick, do you have somewhere to be?” Asher hopefully asked.

“Yeah. I’m dying for some ice cream,” his friend said before strolling into the ice cream shop.

“So Emma’s husband is the only barber?” Esperanza asked, puzzled.

“No. But he is the one that lives closest to us. You’re really going to work on my hair?” Asher asked hopefully.

“Of course,” she said, before they headed into the shop.

Esperanza’s backside was aching, and her wariness was coming back again. The last thing she wanted to do was meet her new mother-in-law, especially with frizzy hair. She sighed in relief as the cold air of the ice cream shop hit her. Two customers were sitting at a round table, devouring ginormous ice cream cones. Kendrick, the guy with the terrible hair, was at the counter. There was a tall woman with a short bob standing behind the counter. Her ice-blue eyes landed on Asher and Esperanza with distaste.

“Asher, did your mother approve of your marriage?” she hissed.

“No. But she is happy that I won’t be alone,” he cautiously said. The female handed Ted an ice cream sundae before gesturing for Esperanza and Asher to come forward. They walked up to the counter and she let out a sigh.

“I don’t have much time to talk. The rush is about to start. But I’m Catherine Lawson,” she briskly said.

“I’m Esper—”

“I know,” Catherine said, irritated. “You were all my son could talk about.” Esperanza rubbed her forehead.

“So I take it that you don’t approve of me?” Esperanza asked hotly. She wanted to get the crap out of the way. The woman seemed taken aback by her words.

“Well, what am I supposed to think? Some woman agreed to be a mail order bride. It has been fifty years since I last left the island, but I’ve heard stories about the women that live in the human world,” she huffed.

“I’m sorry,” Esperanza began. “Did you just say that you haven’t left the island in fifty years?” Esperanza asked, astonished. The woman didn’t look a day over twenty-five.

“Yes, dear. The aging process is slow here. We don’t live forever, but it takes a long time for us to die.”

“How old are you?” Esperanza blurted out.

“Excuse me?” Catherine shouted in outrage.

“You heard me. How old are you?” Esperanza asked, figuring that she could satisfy her curiosity, since it wasn’t likely that the woman would like her.

“Let’s just say I’m over a hundred years old,” the woman offered.

“Right. I can’t believe this. I just—”

“Why don’t the both of you host your father and I for dinner tomorrow night?” his mother suddenly said. Esperanza arched a brow.

“Uh, Esperanza, would you like to cook dinner for my parents?” Asher asked. Before she could answer, her mother-in-law spoke.

“We’ll be there at seven. Make sure you don’t make a frozen dinner.” She shooed them out of the ice cream shop, but Esperanza wasn’t going back on that horse. She was too sore.

“I want an ice cream,” she said.

“Cone or sundae?” Catherine asked.

“Cone. I want…”

Catherine walked away and proceeded to make her an ice cream cone, even though Esperanza hadn’t told the woman what she wanted. Moments later, she handed Esperanza a normal-sized ice cream cone which held vanilla and a drizzle of hot fudge, her favorite.

“Come on, Esperanza, let’s get out of my mother’s hair,” Asher insisted with a grin. Was this man an idiot? She wasn’t too happy with him. Why hadn’t he told his mother to behave?

“Whatever,” Esperanza said as she strolled out the door. As soon as they arrived at their horse, Asher laughed. “Mom liked you.”

“Are you crazy?” Esperanza snapped.

“No. She really liked you. You won her over.” She decided to ignore her strange husband by taking a long lick of the ice cream cone. She reluctantly held it up to him, and he took a lick.

“She hated me. She looked at me like I was dirt,” Esperanza told her husband.

“She did it on purpose. My mother likes strength. When you stuck up for yourself, it earned her respect.” Esperanza couldn’t care less what this woman thought of her. She was grumpy, and that wasn’t okay. But she would cook for the woman. Asher didn’t deserve to be embarrassed. Her husband seemed like a person that could fall apart at any moment. She couldn’t imagine how he felt as he stood at the altar and waited for his love to meet him, only to discover that she wasn’t coming. Emma was self-centered and obviously wanted him to pine for her for eternity. Was that the kind of woman that Catherine admired? She so badly wanted to ask the question, but didn’t want to interrupt the tender moment that they were having. Instead, she allowed the warm breeze to caress her skin as she shared an ice cream cone with her husband.

Chapter8

Esperanza was grateful when she stepped foot into her new home. It needed a ton of work, and a good scrubbing. But first, she had to take care of dinner. She wasn’t about to eat more of that frozen pizza. Sighing, she opened the freezer and smiled when she spotted a frozen whole chicken. She’d make that for her cranky mother-in-law. But that night, she settled for pasta and meat sauce. She was way too sore to bother with anything else. After defrosting the ground beef, Esperanza poured water in one pot, and began making meat sauce in the other. Asher strolled into the house and plopped down at the kitchen table.

“So you can cook,” Asher excitedly said.

“I can, and I can cut hair as well. I will work on your hair tomorrow,” she announced.

“Why does my hair matter? I should just let it grow out,” Asher figured.

“My husband is not walking around with that kind of hair. People are going to assume that I’m not taking care of you,” Esperanza insisted as she began browning the meat.

“You can take care of me by feeding me,” Asher reasoned. Esperanza ignored her husband as she moved around the kitchen. It took little time for her to finish with the pasta. After serving up two steaming plates, she placed them at the table. She then grabbed silverware for both of them and two bottled waters.

“You know, you’re going to help me around the house,” Esperanza warned. “I do like to cook, but it’s important for you to pull your own weight.” Asher’s horrified expression made her laugh.

“You say this now. But you’ll quit once you see how much of a disaster I am in the kitchen.”

“How bad?” Esperanza asked as she took a bite.

“I once started a fire in my mother’s kitchen. The worst part is I’m not sure how I did it,” he admitted.

Esperanza let out a groan.

“Well, first I’d like to order a few things online. Then I want to shop for some new clothes for you. Some of your shirts look worn,” she noted.

“Emma’s brother-in-law is the closest tailor,” he warned, which made Esperanza grin.

“I’m sure she’d love to help you pick out clothes. I bet she has a binder full of designs just waiting for you,” Esperanza sarcastically responded, before taking a sip of her water.

“But her husband, Brad, would rather put a fist in my gut,” Asher warned. He seemed to enjoy her cooking, taking heaping mouthfuls. Esperanza couldn’t help but wonder if he was comparing his cooking to Emma’s. She knocked that thought out of her brain, not wanting to let the woman put doubts in her mind. The kisses that they had shared had been wonderful. His presence alone made her stomach feel like it was full of butterflies. She liked him and knew that they could be happy together.

“Thank you for that delicious meal,” Asher said as he got to his feet.

“No problem. Just remember, one day you’ll be making a delicious meal,” she teased, which made Asher shudder.

“Let’s learn how to cook in the home of my worst enemy,” he suggested. “I’m fond of this house.” He walked out of the room, not even bothering to put his plate in the sink. Yup, her handsome man really needed some training.

After Esperanza finished the dishes, she decided on a bath. After all, she was sore. She didn’t mind riding a horse. It was great, especially when she got to wrap her arms around him. But she wasn’t going to get one anytime soon. She strolled into the bathroom, and her jaw dropped.

“At least I’m good at this, right?” Asher said as he straightened. The bath looked inviting, with bubbles dancing on the surface. Incense had been lit, filling the air with the scent of eucalyptus.

“That’s sweet,” Esperanza said, her heart warming.

“It was sweet of you to make dinner,” he told her before gently kissing her forehead. He left the room, leaving Esperanza to her bath.

Asher stripped out of his clothes and changed into a T-shirt and shorts. His wife was nice to look at. Her kisses set his veins on fire. His wife held a lot of passion in her. He eyed the rumpled bed and wondered if they’d be consummating their marriage that night. He had a feeling that his wife wasn’t going to be up for that, though he wished it wasn’t true. But he’d be up for the challenge of wooing her.

She exited the bathroom, wrapped in the bathrobe that he had ordered for her online. Her suspicious expression made him sit up.

“What?” Asher asked.

“Who is the owner of the nightgown and bathrobe?” she challenged.

“You. I ordered those for you a couple of days ago. Cassandra told me what your clothing size was. Do you like them?” Asher asked hopefully.

Esperanza smiled. “Yes, I liked them. What now?” she asked.

“I have to shower, then head to bed. The council meets tomorrow at ten o’clock a.m., so we can have breakfast together,” he said.

“What will I do while you are at work?” Esperanza wanted to know.

“You could work on a business proposal. Haven’t you ever wanted to own a spa?”

“I don’t have the money to start a business,” she argued.

“That’s the best part about living on Portum Island: you will be given a grant to start your business. All you have to do is prove that there is a need for it,” he said.

“And where do I learn how to put together a proposal?” Esperanza cautiously asked.

“There are proposal seminars every Monday. You just have to show up.” Asher was hoping that if she ventured out, she could make friends.

“Are you trying to distract me so that I don’t go clothes shopping for you?” Esperanza joked.

“Not at all. Let me show you how to log in to our processing website,” he offered. After she retrieved her laptop, he spent time showing his wife all of the valuable websites. She was a quick learner. In no time she had selected groceries, knickknacks, and other household crap he had no interest in. After shopping to her heart’s content, Esperanza yawned.

“What a night,” she commented, lying down on her back. He was drawn to her lips. Asher couldn’t help it. He hovered over her, his eyes boring into hers. She let out a sharp intake of breath, letting him know that she was affected by him. Moments later, his mouth melded with hers.

Esperanza was consumed by her husband. His tongue ravaged her lips, her fingers were twisted into his hair. He pulled away to gently lift her nightgown over her head.

“Wait,” Esperanza said, her eyes wide. She hadn’t expected things to progress this far. But her body was on fire for her husband.

“What’s wrong, baby?” Asher asked, his eyes filled with softness.

“I’ve never done this before,” she admitted. His surprise quickly turned to determination.

“Do you want to?” Asher asked, his tone gentle.

“Yes,” Esperanza said, before his lips claimed hers again.

His lips trailed kisses down her throat as his hands began to explore. His caresses only encouraged her to explore. Before she knew it, he was naked, kneeling between her legs, his eyes on hers. Her nerves had long been chased away by his kisses. As he took what was his, there was a moment of discomfort, but that was swallowed by his gentle movements. His lips pressed kisses to her neck, and she followed suit. Her hands traveled up and down his back as they moved together. It wasn’t long until they were both sated.

While Esperanza was in the bathroom, her heart was racing. Yes, it felt like a good idea at the time. But what the hell was she thinking? What if she was terrible? What if he was comparing her to Emma? Could she outright ask him? Esperanza was unsure and didn’t want to rock the boat by talking. So she finished washing up and strolled back into the room that she shared with Asher. She snatched her nightgown off the floor and slipped into it, her skin chilled by the central air. Asher stood and took his own turn in the bathroom. That gave her enough time to slip into bed. As soon as Asher joined her, he pulled her into his arms.

“Good night, Esperanza,” he said. “Good night, Asher,” she responded. Asher’s even breathing told Esperanza that he was asleep. But for a while, Esperanza couldn’t sleep. Her mind wandered to Nancy. She kind of missed her roommate. At least Nancy had been familiar. Yes, she was exhausting to deal with and dramatic, but at least Nancy was someone that she knew. Yes, Asher was nice, although a bit unwilling to do housework and desperately needed a haircut. But he was also sweet. That bath had been exquisite, and he had taken care of her while they were making love. Besides that, he had wanted her to have a plan. Asher wanted her to find her own path. She wasn’t sure if they would have the deep love that her parents supposedly had, but Esperanza saw potential in her husband. With a smile on her face, she drifted off to sl

Chapter 9

The ringing of the doorbell woke Esperanza the next morning. She glanced at the alarm clock and groaned. It was only six thirty in the morning. Asher put a pillow over his face, clearly wanting to ignore the annoying sound.

“Ugh! This better not be your mother,” Esperanza said as she got out of bed. She wrapped her robe around herself and made her way to the door. She opened it to find her least favorite redhead was standing there, with a coffee in her grip.

“Is Asher awake? I was meeting Catherine for coffee, and remembered that he loved the cappuccinos at Lovestone Cafe.”

“You had coffee with Catherine?” Esperanza slowly asked, her tone cautious.

“Yes. Catherine and I are good friends. Anyway—”

“So you only brought one coffee?” Esperanza asked suspiciously.

“I didn’t know what you wanted,” Emma said with a shrug.

“He’s sleeping,” Esperanza said before snatching the coffee out of the woman’s hand. “I’ll give it to him.” Esperanza slammed the door in the woman’s face before chucking the coffee into the trash. Then she stomped back to bed, staring at her husband, who had managed to sit up.

“Who was that?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.

“Emma. She went to Lovestone Cafe with your mother and—”

Asher immediately began laughing. “The last time my mom saw Emma, she actually got into a fistfight with her. And another thing, mom drinks coffee at Lovestone Cafe every morning. Why would she lie to you like that?” Asher asked her.

“Because she wanted to make me jealous,” Esperanza figured.

“Why? You aren’t the biggest fan of my mother,” Asher said, his unruly hair framing his handsome face.

“I want you to go to the bathroom in five minutes.”

“Why?” Asher asked, seeming excited.

“I have to cut your hair,” Esperanza announced, which elicited a groan from her husband. She laughed as she fetched her supplies from one of the suitcases. Looking at her luggage reminded her that she needed to unpack.

For all Asher’s grumbling, he enjoyed the attentions of his new wife. She cut his hair, which was starting to get in his way. She did nice work, and he immediately knew that Ted would insist on a haircut. Hopefully Ted’s mail order bride would keep him busy.

After the haircut was done, Asher stripped and took a quick shower. By the time he was dressed in a short-sleeved button-down, khakis, and a pair of loafers, Esperanza had already made breakfast: pancakes, bacon, and eggs. He kissed her plump lips in thanks before sitting at the table.

“Coffee or orange juice?” Esperanza inquired.

“Orange juice, please. I’m not a huge coffee fan. I only bought some because I didn’t know if you were a fan.”

“Not really,” Esperanza confessed. “I’m more of a tea drinker.”

Asher sighed in relief. “I hate the smell of coffee. Emma loved coffee. I can tolerate cappuccino, which pleased her. But after we broke up, I didn’t bother with coffee anymore.” Asher was relieved that he didn’t have to deal with boring dates at the coffee house.

After the delicious breakfast, Asher stood and was about to head into work early, but Esperanza held up a hand.

“Put your plate in the sink and wash it,” she demanded.

“I could wash it later,” he pointed out.

“Or you can just wash your plate now,” Esperanza argued.

“Or I could just wash the dishes when there are more in the sink.”

Esperanza glared at him. “Your parents are coming over for dinner tonight. It would be easier on me if you wash your plate,” she said. Asher conceded the point, knowing that his wife would eventually get her way. He washed and dried his plate before leaving the house.

The proposal seminar was three blocks away from the home that she shared with Asher. By the time she entered the building where seminars were held, sweat was dripping down her back. She would have to get used to the heat. A woman with short black hair and skin the color of peanut butter sat behind the reception desk.

“Good morning,” she greeted, her dark eyes filling with a sparkle.

“Good morning. I’m Esperanza Lawson. I’m interested in the business-proposal seminar.” The woman nodded, her grin wide.

“Not too many women bother with that course. I hope your proposal gets accepted. I haven’t seen you before. Did you say your last name is Lawson?”

“Yes. I was a mail order bride,” Esperanza proudly proclaimed.

“So, Cassy’s business is taking off?” the woman inquired.

“Yes. Two other brides came on this island with me.”

“So cool. I might send for a mail order husband. I’m unimpressed with the men on this island,” the woman admitted. “By the way, I’m Shantell.” Esperanza had a feeling that the woman had too many suitors that wanted her just because she was a woman. Being outnumbered must have been tough.

“Hi, Shantell,” Esperanza said, grinning widely.

“So, Esperanza, what kind of business would you want to build?” she asked.

“A spa,” Esperanza said as Shantell pushed papers towards Esperanza. A pen was resting on top.

“Class starts in half an hour. It’s a three-hour seminar. Don’t worry, it’s a hands-on type of thing. You’ll have an application by the end. I hope that you’ll be able to open your spa. I will be your first customer.”

The seminar was held on the second floor of the building. She walked in and was nearly tackled by Tessa.

“Oh, thank goodness! I’m so happy to see you!”

Esperanza gently patted her back. “It’s nice to see you, Tessa. How have things been for you?” Esperanza asked.

“Oh man, I’m married to the most serious oaf on the planet,” she complained as she dragged Esperanza into the room that was filled with men. There were two rows of tables that could seat three each. The pair sat down in the back, beside a man that was in need of a shave. He wore a T-shirt and jeans, and looked displeased at the sight of them.

“Shouldn’t you guys be at home pampering yourselves?” the man huffed, seeming to be bitter. Esperanza noted the heartbreak in his dark eyes.

“That bad, huh?” she asked, before Tessa could cuss him out.

“What?” the man snapped.

“Your breakup. It was that bad?” Esperanza asked.

“She left me for the owner of a processing center,” he gruffly responded.

“So you decided to start a business to get back at her,” Tessa guessed.

“What kind of business do you want to start?” Esperanza asked, trying to keep the two of them from arguing.

“A barbershop,” he responded, which made Esperanza perk up.

“What about you, Tessa?” she asked.

Tessa shrugged. “A bar,” she responded.

“I want to start a spa,” she said, hope filling her chest. “What do you say the three of us go in together?” The last thing Esperanza wanted was to start a business all by herself.

The man eyed her with interest. “What is your skill set?” he asked her.

“Back in Jersey, I used to work in a salon on weekdays and a nail salon on weekends.”

“What about you?” the man asked Tessa.

“What are you, my interviewer? I don’t even know your name,” Tessa pointed out.

“I’m Kevin Taylor. I used to work with Brad Adams at his barbershop, until Stacy left me for Brad’s brother.”

“Are you referring to Emma’s brother-in-law?” Esperanza asked, disbelief in her voice.

“Yes. Stacy and Emma are sisters. Have you met Emma?”

“Oh, I’ve met Emma all right.”

Esperanza regaled her tentative business partners with Emma’s antics, which made Tessa roll her eyes.

“The big oaf wouldn’t have allowed that kind of behavior,” Tessa noted.

“Who’s the big oaf?” Esperanza asked, curious.

“Thomas Daily. Seriously, he’s so stuffy. It’s like he is allergic to having fun.”

“That’s because he’s fifty years old,” Kevin offered.

“Of course, only I would end up with the old geezer,” Tessa snorted.

“Who are you calling old? I’m seventy-five,” Kevin said, sounding offended.

Tessa rolled her eyes. “Seriously, this slow-aging thing is going to be something I have to get used to,” Tessa said as the instructor strolled into the room. Tessa let out an unladylike curse.

“It’s him,” she hissed. “That’s the big oaf.” Esperanza stared at the man with golden-brown skin, cropped black hair, and striking blue eyes. He didn’t look a day over twenty. He wore a suit and tie, which made Esperanza, who was wearing a light-colored dress, feel underdressed. He had a stack of papers in front of him. When he noted that Tessa was in the room, his exasperated look made Esperanza want to giggle.

“I’m Mr. Daily, and I will be your instructor for this class.” So he was the formal type. Yup, Esperanza could see how Tessa was having a hard time dealing with him. “If you don’t have what it takes to run a business, please leave now so that you don’t waste my time.”

Chapter 10

Asher strolled out of the administration building, his head aching. They had a boring, productive day. Most of the council members were over a hundred years old, so they looked down on someone as young as Asher. That meant that while they were getting drinks at a local pub, he was walking home to see his Esperanza. As he crossed the busy street, he saw Marcus up ahead. He jogged towards him, wanting to catch up with his brother.

“Marcus, wait up,” he called.

Marcus turned to see his brother. “Hey man, you went to the barbershop?” his brother asked in disbelief.

“Nope. Apparently, the wife knows how to cut hair.”

“She does it well, too. Do you think she would cut my hair?” Marcus asked.

“You could ask her during dinner,” he suggested as they headed to his house.

“Dinner?” his brother asked.

“Mom and Dad are coming to our house for dinner. I’m sure that Esperanza won’t mind if you come too.”

“You might want to send her a text,” Marcus suggested.

Asher pulled his phone from his pocket and noticed that it was dead. “It’s dead. But I’m sure that she will have room for one more,” Asher insisted.

Marcus nodded. “You don’t have to ask me twice. I love free food.”

When Asher walked into his home, followed by his brother, the smell of good food smacked him in the face. Esperanza was setting the table, a brow arched.

“Esperanza, this is my brother, Marcus,” Asher said.

“Hi, Marcus,” Esperanza greeted.

“Hi, Esperanza. I heard a lot of good things about you,” his charming brother said.

“Really?”

“Yup. You are apparently a good cook that can cut hair,” Marcus said, before slapping Asher on the back.

“Marcus, are you joining us for dinner?” she asked hopefully.

“Yes,” he responded. Her eyes lit up and she grabbed an extra plate. Before Asher could kiss his beautiful wife, the doorbell rang.

“Can you get that?” Esperanza asked.

“Sure,” Asher said before opening the door, to find his ex-fiancé standing in front of him.

“Wow, Brad does some great work. When Lidia told me that you had gotten a haircut, I didn’t believe that you went back to the barbershop. I’m sorry I missed you. I was so tired today.”

Asher rubbed the back of his neck, uncomfortable with the situation. “Emma, I didn’t go to the barbershop,” he said.

She scowled at him. “You went to another barber? I can’t believe—”

“Esperanza cut my hair,” he responded, which surprised Emma.

“Well, no wonder it looks kind of uneven. The next time you want a haircut, please go to a professional,” Emma huffed, before storming off. Asher closed the door and rubbed his face.

“Not my parents,” he announced, before sitting at the table.

Esperanza scowled at him. “Don’t you think you should talk to her about boundaries?” Esperanza demanded.

“He could, but then Brad and his other six brothers would beat him up,” Marcus said, which annoyed Asher. His brother made it sound like Asher was afraid of those guys.

“Oh,” Esperanza said. “Well, hopefully her baby will become too distracting for her to bother with you.” It took ten minutes for Asher’s parents to stroll in. His mother wore a black dress, while his father wore khakis and a button-down shirt.

“I see we’re going to eat something edible,” his mother observed.

“If you mean good, then yeah,” Marcus said with joy. Esperanza placed the platters of food on the table. Esperanza had made a whole chicken with stuffing and gravy, baby potatoes, broccoli, rice and beans, and a cake for dessert. His mother was pleased. Esperanza sat beside him, and Asher said grace before his mother demanded him to. Then the food was passed around.

“So, Esperanza, you still haven’t put Emma in her place yet?” the woman demanded.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Esperanza challenged.

“That woman sat at my table as if we were friends. She prattled on about how Asher was married to a stranger. Then she proceeded to tell me that she understands why I wasn’t at the wedding. How dare she approach me like that? It’s obvious that you don’t have a backbone,” her mother-in-law criticized.

Esperanza glared at the other woman. “That woman is annoying! No amount of me being rude is getting rid of her. You know, she showed up at six in the morning with Asher’s favorite coffee.”

“What did you do with it?” Asher’s father, Darrin, asked.

“Tossed it in the trash. Doesn’t she know that Asher hates coffee?” Esperanza huffed as she scooped some potatoes onto her plate.

“Asher, dear, I can go to the barbershop and talk to Emma if you’d like,” his mother offered, which made Asher groan.

“Mom, don’t. Emma will stop bothering us after her baby is born,” Asher said, certain that all the woman needed was a distraction.

“That’s how little you know about women,” his mother declared. Of course his mother would say something like that. Marcus seemed entertained by the conversation. He was laughing the entire time. Asher was eager to change the subject.

“Esperanza, how did the business-proposal seminar go?” Asher asked.

“It was great! I proposed to start a spa with Tessa Daily and Kevin Taylor,” she announced.

“The scruffy old man who likes to sing in the pub?” Marcus asked.

“He isn’t old,” Darrin argued. “I’m two hundred fifty years old.”

“How long have you guys been on this island?” Esperanza wanted to know.

“No one knows. All we know is that our ancestors’ DNA allowed us to step onto it,” Marcus said. “The oldest person on this island is eight hundred years old. Even he has no idea when it all began.”

“I can’t imagine being that old,” Esperanza commented.

“You will get that old,” Asher’s mother insisted. “And I think starting a spa is a wonderful idea. The closest spa is twenty miles away.”

“Kevin was interested in starting a spa?” Asher asked, curious.

“He wants to add a barbershop to the spa. He can’t go to the barbershop because his girlfriend left him for one of the owners,” she explained.

Catherine rolled her eyes. “I tell you, the Adams clan is trouble,” she huffed.

“How old are they?” Esperanza asked.

“Most of them are fifty and up. The one that Emma married was the youngest.”

“Esperanza, your delivery is coming tomorrow. I’ll drop it off for you after work, for a price,” Marcus said.

“What would that be?” Esperanza challenged.

“Food. If you cook, I’ll deliver the food for you,” he said.

“You never do it for me,” Asher’s mother whined, which made Asher chuckle.

“That’s because you told us that after we turned eighteen, we lost the privilege of a home-cooked meal,” Asher responded.

His mother rolled her eyes. “That’s because I hoped that you would learn how to cook,” she said.

“I knew they wouldn’t. My boys have the Lawson curse,” his father declared. Asher couldn’t help it. He shot Esperanza an I told you so look.

“What is the Lawson curse?” Esperanza asked suspiciously.

“We can’t cook,” Marcus confessed. “Don’t bother teaching us, unless you want your house to burn down,” Marcus warned.

“There is no such thing as a curse,” Esperanza protested.

“They do it on purpose,” his mother accused.

Asher laughed. “You think I nearly burned down your kitchen on purpose?” Asher challenged.

His mother rolled her eyes. “That was quite a mess,” she commented, and Asher nodded.

That night, Esperanza cleaned the kitchen while her husband finished up paperwork. She supposed that dinner wasn’t bad. Her poor husband had no idea what her plans were. She was determined to teach him how to cook. She couldn’t blame Catherine for her frustration. The Lawson men needed to be taught how to sustain themselves.

Esperanza’s night was filled with passion. She fell asleep easily, and woke up to find that she had something to look forward to. She was meeting with Kevin and Tessa to speak about their business angle. She wasn’t surprised to see Emma standing on her doorstep, a covered dish in hand. It looked like she would have to be firm with Emma, on a day where she had so much to do. She sighed, took the dish, and slammed the door in the woman’s face.

“Who was that?” Asher asked as he made his way to the table. Esperanza had made oatmeal for breakfast. She placed Emma’s covered dish on the table.

“Your ex,” Esperanza replied.

“Why is she cooking for me? I have you,” Asher reasoned.

“To get under my skin. Why else?” Esperanza asked.

“Is Emma getting under your skin?” Asher asked, a brow arched.

“What do you think?” she said as she made her way to the pot on the stove.

“Esperanza, stop,” Asher said, his tone firm.

She turned to face him, her eyes filled with fire. “What? I’m doing what you want, serving you meals,” she snapped. Asher gently cupped her face, his eyes soft. “You are here because I wanted a wife. I wanted a friend, a partner, a lover, company, and yes, a good cook. You are all of those things, and I’m happy to have you,” he said before kissing her softly on the lips. Her heart swelled at his genuine words, and she wrapped her arms around his neck. They shared a soft kiss before she served him a bowl of oatmeal. Esperanza vowed that he would be all of those things to her. He would be a partner, a good one who helped with house chores.

Chapter 11

The next evening, Marcus arrived with what Esperanza had ordered. He wheeled the cart into her kitchen so that she could unpack. Her brother-in-law sniffed excitedly.

“Do I smell fried chicken?” he asked hopefully.

“Mashed potatoes, biscuits, and an apple pie as well,” Esperanza listed. His rightfully suspicious expression made her laugh.

“And what do I have to do to earn my meal?” he asked, just as Asher strolled in through the door. Despite herself, Esperanza smiled at the sight of her husband. He looked agitated, but that didn’t stop her from what she was about to do.

“Hey, honey,” she greeted, before planting a tender kiss on his mouth. Asher wrapped her up into his arms, and pressed his forehead to hers.

“I had a long day,” he groaned.

“Yeah, and it looks like your day is about to get longer,” Marcus warned.

“How?” Asher asked as he released his wife.

“I need you to hang curtains and paintings for me,” Esperanza announced. “I made fried chicken.”

“Can’t we do it tomorrow?” Asher asked hopefully.

“No. Marcus is here too,” Esperanza cheerily said. She knew that she was being annoying, but she had to do something with this house. It had promise, but the walls were bare and the outside needed fresh paint. “Besides, Marcus will need to come back so that he can help us paint the house.”

Asher rubbed his face. “Fine, where do we start?” her husband reluctantly asked.

It took an hour for the house to be organized how his wife wanted it. Marcus and Asher hung either curtains or blinds, depending on the room. They also assisted Esperanza with hanging nature-themed paintings in the living room. She had a framed photo of them from their wedding day placed on the coffee table. Esperanza had also placed a rug in their bedroom. She had Marcus and Asher rearrange the furniture, so that it would look more appealing. He had to admit that when they were done, the house looked more lived in.

Esperanza grinned at the men as they sat down to dinner. She served them each a heaping plate of food. Asher took his first bite of the fried chicken and swore that it was worth the effort that he expended, although his bride didn’t have to bribe him. Yeah, sure, he was a procrastinator, but he would have helped her just to see the satisfied smile on her face.

“How was work today?” she asked him. Asher hated that he couldn’t talk much about the work he did. But he said all he could.

“Some of the councilmen like hearing the sound of their own voices,” he said, which made Marcus nod.

“Especially Councilman Jerkins,” he agreed.

“Why aren’t there any councilwomen?” Esperanza demanded.

“Have you met women on this island? Most of them prefer not to work. Believe me, we have tried to recruit women. But women aren’t like you,” Marcus said. “They would rather be pampered.”

“Really? Emma doesn’t seem that way,” Esperanza said, doubt in her eyes.

Asher chuckled. “When we were together, I did all of the work, and hired a cook to cook for us.”

“If she lived in this house, why wasn’t it decorated?” Esperanza asked, puzzled.

“Because Emma is a snake. She was upset that Asher refused to pay for an interior decorator, so when she left, she decided that all of the knickknacks she bought were all hers,” Marcus explained.

“Emma doesn’t like doing work? She seems to cook all of the time,” she said.

“I should have seen it then. But Emma doesn’t like putting in the effort unless something truly matters to her. My mother had to plan our wedding. The only thing that Emma cared about was her wedding dress,” Asher said.

“And she didn’t bother showing up?” Esperanza asked, disgust clear on her face.

“Brad Adams has more money. But he’s a frugal man,” Marcus noted.

“And I’m not frugal?” Asher hotly asked.

“You do save. You’re just more lax about spending your money. Don’t you remember the time Brad refused to buy new sneakers for five years?” Marcus asked.

“Those sneakers stank,” Asher said with a wince.

“Either way, I’m glad that Emma didn’t show up at the altar,” Esperanza said. “I never would have had the chance to marry you.”

Asher agreed. He didn’t like to compare women, but Esperanza had a good work ethic, was a passionate lover, and had a wonderful personality. For the first time in his life, Asher could truly accept that Emma leaving him at the altar was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Esperanza strolled into the kitchen, happy that it was the weekend. It had been exactly a week since she made the odd voyage to Portum Island, and so far, it had been interesting. Asher sat at the table, his eyes bright with excitement. They had already eaten lunch, so she couldn’t understand his expression.

“What?” Esperanza asked.

“I have a good idea,” Asher said as he stood.

“What would that be?” Esperanza wanted to know. She was always suspicious of anyone who started off a conversation with “I have a good idea.”

Her husband stood and retrieved a box that had been resting on the kitchen chair. He handed the box to Esperanza, who realized the he was handing her a shoebox. She opened the shoebox and discovered riding boots. She arched a brow at her husband, who had to be crazy.

“No,” Esperanza said.

“Oh, come on, babe. You have to try,” he pleaded.

“No,” Esperanza insisted.

“What if you want to go somewhere that’s too far to walk?” he challenged.

“Then I’ll ride the nice bike that my husband plans to buy me,” Esperanza said.

“Come on, babe, just try it,” Asher pleaded. “I want you to love Shadow as much as I do.”

“Okay,” Esperanza said. It was those damned eyes filled with pleading that made her do it.

Ten minutes later, Esperanza was wearing her new boots. She was sitting on the darn horse, her feet in the stirrups. Her husband had a hold of the reins. He was leading Shadow around the backyard, Esperanza’s only assignment to balance on the horse. Her husband taught her how to grip the horse with her thighs. After getting the hang of it, Esperanza supposed that it wasn’t so bad. She just hoped that her man wasn’t going to take her onto the street.

“Her are you feeling, Esperanza?” Asher asked, his tone soothing.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “You aren’t going to let go of the reins, are you?”

“No, babe, I won’t let go of the reins. I haven’t even taught you how to use them yet.”

“Okay, then, I think I’m fine,” Esperanza said. “By the way, thanks for the boots.”

“You’re welcome. So, how have your meetings with Tessa and Kevin been going?” he inquired. In truth, Tessa was under a lot of pressure. She supposed that she had something to prove. She wasn’t sure what kind of marriage the other woman had. But Esperanza was sure glad that Asher would support anything she did.

“It’s going well. Kevin knows a lot about Portum Island’s culture. It’s helping us with the language we want to use.”

“Good. You know, I’m acquainted with Thomas Daily. He’s a serious fellow, takes himself too seriously. But he is a nice man.”

“What is his job?” Esperanza asked.

“He aids people with starting up businesses. When he’s not doing that, he runs the seminars,” Asher explained.

“I think that Mr. Daily will be good for Tessa. She is a troublemaker,” Esperanza informed her husband.

“What do you mean?” he asked as they made another loop around the half-acre backyard.

“Her father comes from a lot of money. I’m not sure what his trade is. But I do know that Tessa, is overprotective of the man. That meant that she scared away all of the gold diggers. Her father loved pretty women. But from what Tessa says, he isn’t a looker. She figured that the shallow women were only into him because of his wallet. She mostly scared them off by pulling pranks. I’m talking elementary pranks like toads in purses, snakes in bed, poison ivy flowers, and extra-spicy food.”

“Extra-spicy food?” Asher asked.

“Yes. One time, she knew that this woman, I think her name was Bridget, was sensitive to spicy foods. Tessa offered to make Bridget and her father dinner. She order Thai food and picked the highest level of spice, which was a five. She mixed it in with what she cooked, and Bridget took a bite and nearly passed out.”

Asher laughed, which warmed Esperanza’s heart.

“I think Thomas needs someone like her in his life. Trust me. The guy really does need to lighten up.”

By the time Esperanza dismounted from the horse, she was sweaty. Asher showed her how to remove the bridle and brush the horse down. They fed the horse then went inside, where they both enjoyed a nice cold shower together.

Chapter 12

Three weeks later, Esperanza was standing in front of the council members. Tessa and Kevin were both in the front row. Asher glanced at her, a smile on his supportive face. She could do this. Wait, why in the hell did she agree to be the one to present? She smiled back at Asher, taking support from his proud gaze.

“Good morning, everyone, I’m Esperanza Lawson, and my business proposal is—” A buzzer sounded out of nowhere.

The man sitting at the head of the table stood. “Who has a question?” the dark-skinned man asked.

Esperanza was confused when a brunette that she hadn’t met before spoke. “It says on your slide that you are starting a spa? Are you retaliating against Emma Adams?” she challenged.

“No. I’m starting a spa because I’m familiar with most of what is done at a spa. Back in Jersey, I got a license for doing hair and nails.”

“But can you offer massages?” she challenged.

“My partner, Tessa, is a licensed massage therapist. Also—”

“What is Kevin’s purpose?” the woman hotly asked.

“Kevin is a barber and—”

“Exactly. Most spas don’t have barbers.”

“Why not?” Esperanza asked. “Men could get massages as well.”

“Enough,” the head councilman roared. “Let this young lady present her business.”

Esperanza’s presentation took two hours. It was only supposed to take twenty minutes, but everyone seemed to have a question for Esperanza. She did her best to answer everything. But come on? How was Esperanza supposed to know the volume of the building that she would need? Really? And the more she spoke, the more inept she felt. She had no idea why these people had something against a spa, but she didn’t care. She was ready to go home. As soon as the head councilman told her to exit, she strolled out of the room. Her anger was so powerful that she nearly broke down and cried. Kevin and Tessa joined her, their faces lined with outrage.

“Who were those people, Kevin?” Tessa demanded.

Kevin frowned. “Those people were all Emma Adam’s friends,” he answered.

“Oh really?” Esperanza snapped.

“Really. You are married to her ex-fiancée. Maybe she’s upset about that,” Kevin suggested.

Tessa rolled her eyes. “Dating Asher didn’t make him her property,” Tessa protested.

Then the door opened, and Asher came out, his eyes on the ground. “It would seem that some of the council members felt that your presentation wasn’t as detailed as they would have liked. They have requested for you to make your presentation in two weeks. The decision wasn’t unanimous. Most of us agreed—”

“This is all your fault,” Esperanza hissed. “If you just talked to Emma, none of this would have happened. For the last month she has been showing up, disrupting our lives, and you take the passive approach. Now it is going to cost me a job. I hope you’re happy,” Esperanza shouted. She was so angry; she couldn’t stop the tears from falling.

“Esperanza, I—”

“Don’t, Tessa. I can’t. I—” Esperanza bolted out of the administration building, not watching where she was going. She furiously swiped at her eyes, her tears soaking the front of her shirt. She crashed into someone, who firmly gripped her by the arms.

“Esperanza, calm down,” Asher pleaded. “I’m sorry. J—”

She wasn’t in the mood to deal with him. “I need space, Asher. Don’t talk to me.” Asher held her hand as they walked home. She cried, and he watched where they both were going. As soon as he led her into the house, she released his hand and ran into her room and slammed the door shut.

Asher felt like a tool. Of course Esperanza had been right yet again. Emma was trouble. But he wasn’t sure that talking to her would improve the situation. He tried doing it already. She never got the hint. Her baby was due in less than a month. He was confident that once the baby was born, she would forget about him. But now, he wasn’t sure that Esperanza would wait that long. She was hurt and discouraged. Her presentation had been long and dreadful. She wasn’t completely prepared, and his hands were tied. It wasn’t like he could tell her what everyone thought. Most of the councilmen wanted to push the proposal through. But Jerkins, the weasel, said no. Councilman Jerkins was best friends with Emma’s mother, and just wanted to be annoying.

What should he do about Esperanza? Would chocolate work? Would flowers work? Damn it all to hell, the last month had been so busy. It was a relief at that moment that she hadn’t known how terrible he really was. He decided to chip in on some of the cleaning. That would make her feel better, right?

After feeling sorry for herself for a couple of hours, Esperanza sat up in bed. Her eyes were burning, and her nose was red. She had to get past the disaster. She stood and decided on a nice bath. She left the bedroom, wearing the bathrobe and nightgown that her husband had purchased for her. She frowned at the scene. There were a few incense sticks set around a full bathtub that was full of bubbles. There was also a vase of red roses by the tub. Her agitation faded away at the thoughtful sight. She sighed and left the bathroom, her intention to thank her husband. She nearly screeched at the sight. Her husband was trying to move eggs around a frying pan. The eggs clearly still had eggshells in them.

“Stop. I have another idea,” Esperanza protested. Asher squawked and dropped the sauce spoon that he was using on the nice, clean floor. Esperanza sighed and turned off the stove. Then, she dumped out the food and scraped the frying pan clean. “Why are you trying to cook, when you don’t know how to?”

“I wanted to do something that would make you feel better, Esperanza. You were upset, and I wanted to make things better for you. Did you see the bath?”

“Yes. I’ll take it. Then I will give you your first cooking lesson,” she decided before storming off. After her long, relaxing soak, Esperanza was in a much better mood. She took the vase of flowers and placed them in the center of the table. Then she pulled the Crock-Pot out of the closet. She waltzed into the kitchen and washed the Crock-Pot before placing it in front of her husband.

“Here is your answer,” she announced. He gave her a frown.

“A pot with knobs?” he asked.

“A Crock-Pot. All you have to do is dump stuff in, set it to low, medium or high, and let it cook. Now wash your hands, I’m going to teach you how to make a stew.” Her husband looked afraid for a moment, which cracked her up. But then she put him to work.

Esperanza was smart. She bought stew meat, a vegetable broth, baby carrots, baby potatoes, onion powder, minced garlic, and a bay leaf. She made sure that her husband didn’t have to cut or chop a single thing. She observed him as he cooked. He made a bit of a mess when he poured the ingredients into the Crock-Pot, but she instructed him to clean as he went. An hour later, she had a house smelling like cooking stew. Yes, the stew would be done probably by midnight, but at least he made it.

While the stew was cooking, Esperanza made grilled cheese sandwiches and warmed-up canned soup. After they ate, her husband did the dishes, without argument. By then, she was exhausted. As Asher sat on the couch in front of the TV, Esperanza plopped down on his lap. She was ready to make up. Asher glanced at her in surprise.

“I thought you hated me,” he admitted, which nearly crushed Esperanza. Yeah, she was pissed, but she didn’t hate her husband. She cared deeply for him, which was why she had gotten so mad.

“I care about you, you know,” Esperanza told him. “I’m sorry for losing my temper, but I’m not sorry for what I said. You need to talk to her,” Esperanza insisted. “And don’t give me the crap about her having less time to be annoying when she has her child. Please just…. Asher, do you like her attention?”

Asher vehemently shook his head. “No. I think that she’s annoying,” he confessed.

She relaxed into his arms and buried her face into his chest. It was as his arms wrapped around her that she realized that she had overreacted because she was falling for him. She would be damned if some hussy who wouldn’t let go drove a wedge between them. By reacting that way in public, she actually gave the menace more ammunition.

Chapter 13

Esperanza eyed the horse and scowled at it. Asher had been given her riding lessons for over a month. She had taken Shadow for short rides alone. But she was always a bit apprehensive about it. She would get over it because she was craving some damned ice cream. Too bad she couldn’t call an Uber. Her husband, who had prepared a dish in the Crock-Pot for them for the last week, wasn’t home. The food all tasted good. But Esperanza wasn’t sure that she should ruin a good thing by introducing the stove into their lessons. Damn, did she want ice cream. Could she buy an ice cream maker?

Sighing, she fed Shadow a sugar cube before stepping on a stool so that she could saddle him. Her husband had taught her how to ride every weekend. Maybe if she fell off, her stubborn man would see a need for a bike.

She led the docile horse out of the barn and managed to mount him. Then she led the horse down the driveway.

It was smooth sailing, since she traveled at a careful pace. She wasn’t crazy enough to go faster. She waved at some of the familiar faces, which included Kendrick, who was Julia’s husband. As she rode, all she could do was daydream about ice cream.

She turned left, passing a gaggle of women who were walking and talking. Since some of them had silver in their hair, it was obvious that they were at least four hundred years old. Esperanza was still trying to wrap her mind around the fact that she was going to grow that old. It saddened her to think that she would outlive everyone that she knew. It wasn’t like she really wanted to see Nancy, but the woman had been a constant presence in her life for two years.

Shaking her head at the thought of her old friend, she saw the ice cream shop, which had a few horses tied up in front of it. She tied up her horse and rushed into the room. The sound of laughter made Esperanza stiffen. Her eyes landed on a familiar face, Emma’s. She was very pregnant, and devouring a sundae the size of Esperanza’s head. A brunette was sitting at the same table, sipping on a coke. Her temper flared at the sight of the woman. For over a month, that woman had visited Asher and Esperanza every day. Her husband was waiting for the woman to have the baby, but Esperanza couldn’t. She’d had enough. With her head held up high, Esperanza stormed up to the woman.

“Hi Emma,” she greeted, but the hussy ignored her. Her friend eyed Esperanza warily. “What, you don’t have something to say to me? That’s strange, since you have been visiting my house every morning.” Her eyes were hard with anger.

“Emma, what is she talking about?” the woman asked.

“What’s your name?” Esperanza asked the brunette.

“Diana. Who are you?” she asked.

“Esperanza. Your friend has been making my life miserable. Let him go, Emma,” Esperanza demanded. “Stop coming by in the morning with coffee, bagels, or whatever else you bring. Stop showing up in the evenings with slices of lasagna. Don’t dare sabotage my next presentation. Stay away from us. It isn’t my fault that you want Asher. I get why you would have regrets. But stay away from him.”

An arm wrapped around Esperanza, and she frowned. She glanced over at Darrin, who was smiling.

“Mrs. Adams, can I get you another Coke?” he asked.

“Mrs. Adams?” Esperanza asked, her eyes hard.

“That’s Brad’s mother, dear,” Darrin said as he led Esperanza to the counter.

“Oh. I…. She doesn’t look a day over twenty-five,” Esperanza said, defending herself. “And how did Emma get here? She’s so pregnant.” Darrin shot her an amused expression. “I think she walked,” he said.

“Hi, Esperanza, what kind of ice cream would you like?” Catherine asked, appearing amused.

Esperanza eyed the selection, her eyes lighting up. “I want a double brownie sundae with hot fudge and caramel syrup,” she said.

Catherine grinned, which made Esperanza frown. “Well, Darrin, I think our Esperanza is expecting.” She nodded, which made Esperanza shake her head.

“Not true. I don’t have morning sickness or…”

“It’s the chocolate, dear,” Darrin interrupted.

“I’ll go to a doctor to see if it’s true. Until then, no word to Asher,” she said. Catherine nodded, her eyes filled with happiness.

“Darrin, get the woman a seat. She’ll need to relax. And Darrin, don’t forget to get her a bottle of water,” she demanded.

Five minutes later, Esperanza was seated at a table by the counter, a huge brownie sundae and a bottled water in front of her. She was on her third bite when two people joined her at the table: Tessa and Julia. Julia was clean, her brown hair shiny, and her skin scrubbed of dirt. She wore shorts and a tank top. Her blue eyes were filled with uncertainty.

“Hi, girl, that sundae looks good,” Tessa said. “But I think it’s way too much chocolate for me.”

“Hi,” Esperanza greeted. “Julia, it’s nice to see you again.”

Julia played with a strand of her hair, her ring sparkling in the light. “Kendrick’s birthday is coming up,” she blurted out. “It’s, uh, a month away. Would the two of you bring your husbands? I’m thinking of having a dinner party.”

“Sure. Does Kendrick have parents?” Esperanza gently asked.

Julia shook her head. “They died in a boating accident when he was a teenager,” she quietly said.

“I’m sure Asher will want to come, since he is Kendrick’s best friend. Maybe you should also invite Marcus,” Esperanza suggested.

“The nice man from the processing center?” Julia asked, her eyes bright.

“Yes,” Esperanza said, after taking a huge bite.

“Yes, I—”

Emma strolled up to Esperanza’s table, her face flame red.

“Was that scene necessary? I—” Asher’s ex stopped speaking when she spotted the sundae. “That can’t be. You’re pregnant?”

Why did everyone insist on thinking that she had a bun in the oven? Yes, she had been asked to abstain from birth control, for a reason she didn’t understand. But… She couldn’t be pregnant. Esperanza wasn’t the motherly type. Was she?

“Really? How far along are you?” Tessa asked.

“I don’t know. I haven’t gone to the doctor’s office yet.”

“You don’t have to,” Emma said. “There is something about this island. It makes pregnant people crave chocolate. The natives’ pregnancies are easier, and the births aren’t as bad. So you and Asher have been sleeping together, then?” Emma demanded, tears filling her eyes.

“Hello, boundaries,” Tessa snapped as Julia gasped in shook.

“Listen, Emma, what do I have to do to get you to go away?” Esperanza snapped.

Emma sighed. “I can’t believe Asher decided to have a baby with you, a perfect stranger,” she cried before stomping off.

Esperanza still refused to believe that she was pregnant. She wanted scientific proof.

“If you are pregnant, you will make a lovely mom,” Julia softly said.

“Thank you,” Esperanza responded, her heart warming up to the quiet woman.

“You rode Shadow?” Asher asked as Esperanza led Shadow into the barn.

“I needed ice cream,” she explained. Asher chuckled and took the reins from his beautiful wife. As soon as he brushed the horse down and fed the horse, he joined her inside. The air was filled with the smell of the chili that he had made that morning. Esperanza had complemented his meal by making homemade corn bread. He found his wife at the Crock-Pot, putting some chili into a bowl.

“It smells good,” she complimented.

“What else did you do today?” Asher asked her.

She turned back and smiled at him. “I finally lost my temper. She was sitting there in the ice cream shop and I just… Look, I get it. You thought that having a baby would make Emma less annoying. But she is angry because we’re sleeping together. That proves that she isn’t over you,” Esperanza triumphantly said.

“Hold on. You discussed our sex life with my mother there?” Asher squeaked.

“Not exactly. I ordered this ginormous sundae, and Emma thought I was pregnant. I guess—”

As soon as Asher heard the words, his heart lightened. His Esperanza was pregnant?

“You’re pregnant?” he asked, his throat tight.

Esperanza cupped his face, her eyes gentle. “I don’t want to get your hopes up, Asher. I might be,” she softly told him. But he didn’t care about “might be.” He loved the idea about starting a family with the woman that he was falling for. He lifted her onto the table and gently kissed her lips.

“Let’s make sure that the ‘might be’ is a yes,” he suggested before he tugged off her shirt.

Afterwards, Esperanza sat on his lap while he fed her chili. She was so warm in his arms; he didn’t think that he could let go. The last month was an adjustment, but still, he had been lucky to have her.

After dinner, he carried a squealing woman into the living room.

“You know, you can put me down. I can walk,” she protested as he put her down on the couch. He turned on the TV and put on an action flick. She sighed and snuggled against him, her contentment making his heart clench.

The next morning, Esperanza heard the doorbell ring. Yup, maybe Asher was right. It was obvious that no amount of yelling at Emma would get rid of her. Sighing, she kissed her sleeping husband on the cheek before rolling out of bed. As soon as her feet hit the floor, Esperanza rushed out of the room and to the door. She ripped it open and squealed as a fist nearly hit her in the face. She was quick and managed to get out of the way. The man blinked then frowned.

“You’re not Asher,” the man said, his blond hair flopping into his face.

“Brad?” Esperanza asked, her temper nearly blowing over.

“Who are you?” Brad asked, appearing confused.

“Let me guess, your wife sent you because she is still upset that I might be pregnant,” she shouted. “Goodness, idiot, keep her on a leash.” Asher wrapped an arm around Esperanza, his glare connecting with Brad.

“Get out, Brad. Keep your woman on a leash. She’s been a menace,” her husband warned.

“I thought you said something hurtful to Emma,” Brad said, doubt filling his voice.

I said something hurtful to Emma. You can ask your mother about it. She was at the ice cream shop,” Esperanza explained.

“My mother? Wait, what ice cream shop?” Brad asked.

“My parents’ ice cream shop,” Asher said, sounding exhausted. Esperanza finally figured out a solution to her problem.

“Brad, why don’t you come in? I can make breakfast,” she offered. Asher looked uncertain, but he would follow her lead. They were partners.

Brad sat at the table, and it took no time for Esperanza to make scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon. She made some tea for her and Asher, and poured orange juice for Brad. Once everyone sat at the table, their food in front of them, she spoke.

“Here is how it started,” Esperanza began. She regaled her disillusioned husband of the annoying tale, being sure to explain every little thing. By the end of it, Brad’s face was bright red. Hopefully, he didn’t have an aneurism at her kitchen table.

Chapter 14

Esperanza’s presentation day snuck up on her. Like before, she stood in front of the councilmen, explaining the business that she’d like to start with her friends. Unlike the prior presentation, there were no interruptions. Since Brad was made aware of his wife’s attitude, he had decided to move across the island. His brother still ran the barbershop, but Emma wasn’t a part of things. Esperanza did not feel bad for the menace. She had been able to sleep in until nine o’clock for the last week.

After she finished her presentation, she caressed her stomach. One visit to the doctor confirmed that she was pregnant. Esperanza was thrilled to be a mom. She liked the idea of finally belonging somewhere. She was growing to love her husband, and knew that she had to tell him soon. When their eyes met, her heart swelled with emotions that were so overwhelming that tears sprang to her eyes.

“Mrs. Lawson, we will convene to vote on your proposal,” the head councilman said.

Esperanza walked out into the hallway, her tears coming down like a waterfall. She couldn’t stop them.

“Esperanza, you did well,” Kevin said as soon as he exited, followed by Tessa, who looked blurry.

“Yeah, girl! It was better than your first presentation,” she assured.

When her husband appeared, Esperanza jumped into his arms, burying her face into his neck. The scent of him made her cry even more. Asher held her close, his grip making her feel safe.

“I love you,” Esperanza said through her tears. “I freaking love you.”

“You’re sad because you love me?” Asher asked, sounding confused.

“No, you idiot. These are happy tears,” Esperanza explained.

“I love you too,” he said, his tone soft. “By the way, the council approved your business. You will be assigned someone to help you start it up,” he reported. Tessa squealed and Kevin hooted, but Esperanza clung to her man. She was emotional, and didn’t think that she could release him.

“We’re going to let you take care of the crazy pregnant lady,” Tessa suggested.

Her handsome husband carried Esperanza home. She didn’t stop crying until he placed her on the couch. She was relieved that the abundance of emotions were at bay. She rubbed her face, her senses returning.

“Oh my goodness, please don’t tell me I just cried in front of the council,” Esperanza said, horrified.

“You did,” Asher said, his gentle eyes warming her heart. “Everyone will understand. You’re pregnant.”

“You can’t just use the excuse of me being pregnant when I do something strange,” Esperanza shot back.

“Okay then,” Asher said. “I have a surprise for you.” Asher quickly exited the living room, his heavy footfalls filling the air.

Esperanza rubbed her belly, embarrassed by the scene she had made. “Great, you’re making me insane and you aren’t even born yet,” she told her unborn child. She wished that she could speed through the pregnancy, so that she could meet her child. As Asher was in the kitchen, her cell phone rang. Esperanza made her way to her bedroom, figuring that it would be Tessa checking on her. She snatched her cell off the counter and frowned. The name Nancy was flashing on the caller ID. Esperanza went back to the couch and plopped down before answering.

“Hello?” Esperanza asked, agitated.

“Essy, I’m so glad to hear from you,” she said.

“Why are you calling me, Nancy?” Esperanza knew that she sounded harsh, but she didn’t get rid of one toxic person to gain another.

“Well, Craig and I broke up. His mother gave him a choice, me or his trust fund. He chose his trust fund. Liz left. We got into a fight a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know where she is. I can’t afford the rent by myself, can you come help me?” Nancy asked. “Please, I’m sorry. You were right.”

“I’m sorry, Nancy, but I’m married and having a baby. I can’t come back,” Esperanza said.

“What? You got married and didn’t tell me?” Nancy cried.

“We weren’t speaking,” Esperanza said. “Look, Nancy, just go home. Your mother will take you in.”

“I don’t want to live with my mother,” Nancy cried. “She’s so annoying.”

“I’m sorry, Nancy. You can’t live with me and my husband,” Esperanza flatly said. “I’ve moved on. Nancy, I hope you have a nice life and make better decisions,” Esperanza said before hanging up. She felt a weight lift from her shoulders. She was free.

“That must have been Nancy,” Asher said.

“She needed me to be her roommate again,” Esperanza confessed.

Asher shot her a skeptical expression.

“When she packed your bags and forced you out? Some people have no shame,” he said. “Enough about her, I want to show you my surprise.”

Esperanza stood and followed him into the kitchen. He had a glorious-looking chocolate cake sitting on the table that read CONGRATULATIONS in bright letters.

“What if my proposal wasn’t put through?” Esperanza asked, touched by his efforts.

“I knew it was going to go through. Your idea was a great one,” her husband said, his belief in her surprising. “I’m convinced that you have good instincts. You are always right about everything.”

“No, I’m not,” Esperanza argued. “No one can be right about everything.” Asher, who was wearing a shirt that Esperanza had ordered for him online, gestured to the curtains hanging on the window.

“You were right about decorating the house,” he pointed out. “My haircut suits me, and what about the Crock-Pot?” Her husband removed the lid of the Crock-Pot and the smell of chicken filled the air.

“Chicken and dumplings, coming right up,” her husband announced. She appreciated his words, but come on, she couldn’t be right about everything. Esperanza knew that he was right as well.

“You were right about Brad. He is a hothead. Did you know that when he showed up at our house, he was planning on fighting you?” she asked her husband as he placed the plate on the table.

“How would you know that?” Asher challenged.

“He tossed a punch without seeing who it was. He aimed too high and missed me. B—”

Asher’s expression hardened. “I’ve got to go,” he coolly said.

“No, you’re going to stay with me so we can enjoy a nice dinner together. Then, you’ll cuddle with me while I do some shopping for the baby. You are not going to go on some ‘he tried to hit my woman so he must pay’ trip. You are going to calm down. Think about it, Asher, if you confront him, Emma may be back in our lives. Think about it. Do you want to go back to our doorbell ringing every day?”

Asher took a deep breath. “No. But that man almost hit you,” he argued.

Esperanza walked over to him and wrapped her arms around him. She squeezed, loving that he wanted to defend her. She stroked his back, and he relaxed as his arms wrapped around her.

Esperanza continued where she had left off. “You were right about your mother. I thought she hated me. Well, I’m not sure that we’ll be best friends, but she doesn’t hate the air I breathe,” Esperanza gently told him. “And Shadow isn’t so bad. But we’ll have to walk once I get bigger. I’m not riding on a horse when I’m nine months pregnant.”

Asher began playing with her curls as his heart rate steadied. “How about we eat our food, ditch the shopping, and watch a movie instead?” Asher asked, sounding hopeful.

“Yes to everything except for skipping the shopping,” she said. Asher pulled away from Esperanza before brushing a kiss to her forehead.

“You know I love you, right?” he asked her.

“Yes, Asher, I love you too,” Esperanza said, before sitting at the table.

On the next afternoon, the doorbell rang. Esperanza had been on her laptop, looking at different ways to design a nursery, when she had heard the bell. She placed her laptop on the coffee table and hesitantly walked up to the door. She slowly opened it to see Catherine standing on the other side. Her relieved expression made the other woman laugh.

“Who were you expecting, the grim reaper?” she asked.

“No, I thought it was Emma,” Esperanza admitted. A somewhat satisfied expression flashed across her mother-in-law’s face.

“Aren’t you going to invite me in so that I can tell you some gossip?” the woman asked, looking a bit put out.

“Come in,” Esperanza said as she stepped aside. As soon as the door closed, Catherine sat at the kitchen table. Esperanza pulled out the lemonade that she had made, and cut two generous slices of the cake that Asher had gotten her. After serving the snack, she sat across from her mother-in-law.

“So, what brings you here?” Esperanza wanted to know.

“Two things. Emma had her baby. It was a boy. And the second thing is that I wanted to see the dress you wore when you married Asher,” she said.

Esperanza pulled up a picture of her in the gown and showed it to her mother-in-law. Regret flashed across her face.

“I wished that I could have been there. But I didn’t think that you guys would last a day. You sure showed me. Anyway, I want the family to dress up and take professional wedding pictures. Would you wear your dress?” her mother-in-law asked.

Esperanza didn’t care one way or another. “Sure. Just text us the time and date, and we’ll be there,” she said. Her mother-in-law grinned before devouring her piece of cake.

Chapter 15

Esperanza felt like an overdressed idiot. She walked hand in hand with her husband down the street. They were heading to her mother-in-law’s home to take professional pictures. Her dress was a little snug in the stomach area, which was completely understandable. She knew that in a matter of time, she would be showing.

“Why couldn’t we do the pictures at our house?” Asher asked her.

“Don’t know. I’m just mad that I wasn’t smart enough to ask her where she wanted to take the pictures,” Esperanza commented. As they walked, a few people waved, yelled congratulations, and took pictures. Great! Her hair, which was up in a bun, would frizz, Esperanza was sure of it. But she didn’t dwell too much on the state of her hair. All she could think of was getting out of her dress.

“We’re finally here,” Asher announced as he led her up the driveway of a house that was on the beach. It was massive, with a wraparound porch, porch swing, and hitching posts in the front. Did they entertain enough for that? The smell of the ocean brought something to mind.

“Honey, you have to take me to the beach at some point,” she said, which made him groan.

“Babe, I hate the beach,” he complained.

“You can do it just for me,” Esperanza said, despite the fact that she wasn’t a fan of saltwater. Her intent wasn’t to swim. She thought that she could take selfies by the water to send to her aunt. But he didn’t have to know that.

“It will be fun. I can make fried chicken for dinner,” she offered as they walked hand in hand up the porch steps.

“Maybe you can enjoy the beach with my mother,” he suggested. Esperanza playfully glared at him as the door opened.

“Come in, guys,” Darrin, who was dressed in a suit, insisted. Was he also taking pictures with them? Esperanza shrugged as they followed Darrin into the foyer. He led them down the hallway through the spacious home. Then they exited onto the back porch, where a table had been set up. Esperanza blinked when she saw the other tables that were scattered around the beach, filled with well-dressed people. The centerpieces were a colorful bunch of flowers, placed in clear vases. There were a couple of tents, which probably held food. Everyone stood and yelled, “Surprise!” Asher looked as surprised as she did.

Catherine walked up the porch, a preacher following close behind her. “I thought to right a wrong, Esperanza. This is my gift to you, a celebration of your union,” she loudly proclaimed.

Esperanza grinned at her man; her heart filled with warmth.

“Thank you,” she said. The couple were led to a platform that had been erected, and under the arch that had been created, the reverend married them for a second time.

“You may kiss the bride,” the reverend said, and Asher kissed her in front of their friends and family. Everyone clapped and then Catherine proclaimed that food must be served. Then she smirked, her sparkling eyes landing on her.

“I have a surprise for you,” she told Esperanza.

“Apart from a wedding?” Asher asked, stunned.

“Asher, this surprise is mostly for Esperanza. Come on,” his mother said. Esperanza made her way down the stairs, being mindful not to step on her snug dress, and followed her mother-in-law to a tent. As soon as they entered, Esperanza’s eyes widened. Standing by the gift table was her aunt Claudia, who had tears in her eyes.

“Lena would have been so happy for you,” Claudia said before wrapping her arms around Esperanza. Esperanza was stunned. She didn’t know what to say to her aunt. What was she doing here? She got past the barrier? No one mentioned that the island could have visitors. But she pushed that aside and hugged her aunt, whom she hadn’t seen in four long years. Esperanza pulled away from her and stared at her.

“It’s been four years,” Esperanza commented. “We let so much time fly by.”

“I know. And I’m so sorry for that, honey. But now I’m here and… I’m just so happy for you. You look so happy.”

“Where’s Jim?” Esperanza asked, eying her aunt’s bare finger.

“Jim is at his table. My ring didn’t make it through the barrier. Cassandra told me that it happens sometimes with rings that are worn by too many people,” she said.

“So you are staying?” Esperanza asked.

“Of course. You are my only family. I’m sorry that I let time get away from us. I just figured that staying away was the best thing I could do for you,” she told Esperanza.

“Why?” Esperanza challenged.

“Look, Esperanza, today isn’t the day to talk about our baggage. Let’s just say that I have a new appreciation for life. And I’m monopolizing you. There is someone else who wants to talk to you,” Claudia said, before walking up to Asher and pulling him into a hug. Liz walked forward, a grin on her friendly face. She was holding hands with Marcus.

“No way,” Esperanza cackled.

“I know. I just got here today. Marcus and I figured that we could hold off on our wedding until sunset,” Liz said, her blue eyes holding weariness. Esperanza pulled the younger girl into her arms.

“Wow! I can’t believe you took my advice,” Esperanza said.

Liz squeezed her friend. “I am so happy for you,” Liz said.

“I can’t believe that you will be my sister-in-law,” Esperanza said, winking at Marcus. She was going to tell him later on that he needed earplugs. Liz was sweet, but her snores sounded like a freight train.

“So you’re going to get hitched at sunset, huh?” Esperanza asked, a grin on her face.

“Well, yeah. We don’t know each other, and—”

“Just get it over with after we eat. If you put it off, you might lose your nerve,” Esperanza warned before snagging Asher from her aunt.

“Hey, man, I sent for a mail order bride,” Marcus told him.

“This is Liz,” Esperanza told her husband. “She’s Nancy’s little sister.” Esperanza frowned when Liz winced, but she didn’t bother asking the woman what was wrong.

“Okay, guys, let’s eat,” her mother-in-law, who had been quiet, called out. “Then we’ll get those two married.”

The meal was delicious. Catherine served filet mignon, shrimp, chicken, salmon, mashed potatoes with gravy, mixed vegetables, corn bread, a garden salad, and fruit salad. After filling her plate with steak, mashed potatoes, corn bread, and vegetables, Esperanza and her husband sat at a table with Julia, Kendrick, Tessa, and Thomas.

“Congratulations!” Tessa shouted as she passed Esperanza a pitcher of lemonade.

“Thanks,” Esperanza said.

“Your parents put a lot into this,” Thomas informed them. “We had to convince Mr. Jerkins to let Mrs. Dallas onto the island.”

“Who?” Tessa asked.

“My aunt,” Esperanza filled in.

“You mean Claudia? Why can’t you just call her Claudia?” Tessa challenged.

“Why can’t I call her Mrs. Dallas?” Thomas shot back.

Kendrick rolled his eyes. “Why can’t you two stop fighting? Tessa, let Thomas be. He’s old school,” Kendrick said.

“Yeah, I know,” Tessa agreed.

“What a lovely event,” Julia said, a grin on her face. “All the food is wonderful.”

Esperanza couldn’t help but feel grateful that the woman had put on a few pounds.

“Did anyone meet Marcus’s mail order bride?” Tessa asked.

“The talker?” Thomas grumpily asked, which made Esperanza chuckle.

“Yeah, her,” Tessa said. “She can sure talk. But she is nice, though.”

“She is,” Esperanza put in.

“Can’t you do something else rather than gossip about other people?” Thomas huffed.

“Sure. We can talk about you, if you’d like,” Tessa taunted.

“What about me?” Thomas wanted to know.

“Well, we can talk about a variety of things. Your bedroom… Ouch!” Tessa squealed. “You pinched me.” Asher and Kendrick both shook their heads.

The rest of the evening went well. Asher and Esperanza were presented with a four-tier cake after dinner. They cut the cake and fed pieces to each other. Then everyone gathered around to see Marcus and Liz married. As Esperanza stood there, in front of the porch, nostalgia hit her. It wasn’t too long ago that she was standing on a porch, waiting to get married. Yes, this mail order bride thing was crazy. But it had worked out for her. She was married to her loving man, and had a family that accepted her.

epilog

Four years later…

Esperanza poured lemonade into a glass. She felt a tug on the hem of her sundress. She placed the glass on the table and glanced down. A beautiful little boy with dark eyes and unruly ringlets peered up at her.

“Up, mommy!” he instructed. Asher Winston Lawson Junior was a handful, just like his father. She sighed and scooped the toddler into her arms. Esperanza might as well enjoy the time when her boy was attached to her. She knew that one day, Junior would do anything to get away from her. He wrapped his chubby arms around her and clung to her. The front door opened, and a heavily pregnant Liz rushed in. Esperanza chuckled when she spotted the sundae in her grip.

“Catherine brought it by this morning. Man, it’s hot,” Liz said as she plopped down on the chair. Junior wiggled in Esperanza’s arms and she placed him down on the floor. He immediately went to greet his aunt Liz.

“I know. I feel like I ate more chocolate when I was pregnant with Mia,” Esperanza noted. Mia was six months old and cried throughout the night. Of course, when it was daytime, she was knocked out. Esperanza was tempted to wake her hellion up. When Asher entered the room, Junior squealed.

“Daddy,” he yelled, his little legs carrying him to Asher. Asher lifted his son into his arms.

“Hey Junior, want to help me grill?” Asher wanted to know.

“Yay,” Junior cheered. Asher carried his son out the back door. Esperanza rubbed her forehead.

“I have a feeling that Junior is going to get really dirty,” she groaned.

Liz laughed as she rubbed her stomach. “I know. Junior’s version of helping always involves him making a mess,” she said, fondness in her eyes.

“So when is baby Cassie coming?” Esperanza asked. Pregnancies on the island varied. Some people carried their babies for nine months, while other children came early.

“The doctor thinks that I’ll give birth in a couple of weeks,” she reported.

“Yeah! I can’t wait to be an aunt,” Esperanza told her sister-in-law.

“Yeah. You just can’t wait to have a baby that you can return,” Liz accused.

“So true,” Esperanza said as baby Mia began to cry.

The End

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