Unlawfully Wedded – Brynn Paulin

“You should totally do it,” Vera said as I carried a tray of dishes back to the kitchen. “Do what?” Carrie responded even though Vera was talking to me. We were all waitresses at the Juniper Skies Diner, a little place off the beaten path but currently full of customers. “Sign up to be a mail-order bride. She’s too shy to actually date, even though she’s asked out at least ten times a shift. It would be a great way for her to meet a guy.” Vera pulled the paper from her pocket and showed our coworker. “I don’t get asked out ten times a shift.” It was barely a murmur as I stacked my plates in the sink for the washer. “Close enough,” Vera replied. Carrie tsked. “She’s too shy for that. Besides. This mail-order thing isn’t about meeting a guy. It’s marrying him sight unseen.

Way too risky for our little groundhog.” Ignoring them, and the name they called me because they claimed I was afraid of my own shadow, I headed back up front. A huge table had just come in and was in my section. Vera and Carrie could chat, but I needed my tips, and that meant giving excellent service. Pulling out my order pad, I scurried over to the table of eight men in dark well-cut suits. Ugh, eight men. Yeech. Hopefully, they weren’t covert gropers. I wasn’t sure I was up for that today. I was ten hours into an eight hour shift and about dead on my feet.

“Hi, I’m Mira. Can I get you something to drink?” I forced a smile, glancing around the group. “Yeah…a scotch on the rocks,” one of them blurted. The guy next to him smacked his shoulder. “He’ll have coffee.” He met my gaze with the most beautiful, brown eyes I’d ever seen. The guy was drop-dead gorgeous, with dark hair, olive-colored skin, and chiseled features. Though he was sitting, I could see he was tall and muscular…well-built and not bulky. Exactly the sort I’d once dreamed I might end up with. That was a fantasy, far, far away.

I sucked in a breath while he overtly studied me. “Coffee,” I acknowledged. He nodded, holding my gaze. “We’ll all have coffee and water.” I nodded back, jotted it on my pad then turned on the ball of my foot to head toward the beverage center. Somehow, it seemed as if his stare burned into me, following me the whole way. I didn’t dare look back, even as goosebumps lifted all over my body. Taking a deep breath as I turned the corner, I willed myself to get a grip and calm down. It was just my imagination, and I needed to get through their meal and get on my way. The manager had promised I could leave after this group.

First, coffee. Thankfully, I’d just brewed a batch in the giant carafe so I had enough for the order. I filled the mugs and waters and added small bowls of creamer to my tray just in case they needed them. Willing myself to stay calm, I headed back out then set the tray on an adjacent table. God forbid, I wobble and dump a combined sixteen cups and glasses on one of these expensively suited men. Not one of them murmured anything but the occasional thank you as I rounded the group, handing out beverages. I purposely finished with the man who had my insides careening around like the proverbial jumping beans. Unconsciously, I took a breath as I leaned over him, and his rich, dark scent filled my lungs. My eyes widened as I realized what I’d done, and I snapped upright. “Can I take your orders?” I pulled out my pad again and poised a pencil over it.

“Tesoro, we don’t have menus,” the man, who seemed to be their spokesperson, told me in a low, velvety voice that would have made me squirm if I didn’t will myself to be still. I glanced around the table, heat filling my cheeks. Fuck, fuck, fuck. There went my tip. And it wasn’t even my fault. The hostess should have handed them out. I blinked quickly to compose myself. “I-I’m so sorry. I’ll be right back.” Thankfully, after I’d delivered menus to the party, things went well.

Their food had come up promptly and everything was right. I felt the man’s eyes on me the whole while as I flitted around to my other tables. He and his party seemed to be in deep discussions, but somehow, he was always watching me, a soft smile on his lips, whenever I looked in that direction. I’d had creepers do this before while I’d worked. He didn’t strike me that way. He seemed more…protective. “Hey,” Vera said, catching me a few feet from their table. “I’m clocking out, but I wanted to give you this. It’s the mail-order bride thing.” She tucked the folded paper into the front of my apron then patted my shoulder as she walked past.

My brow furrowed as I watched her go. Nearly all of the girls at the diner made fun of me, though it was lowkey. Vera seemed…more grandmotherly. Most of the time, I wasn’t sure how to take her. Shaking my head, I headed back toward the large party to see if they wanted refills or dessert. The guy who’d been watching me all night appeared slightly angry now. Oh no! What did I do? Taking a deep breath, I smiled and checked with the table. “Did anyone save room for dessert or need a refill?” I was thankful my voice only trembled a little. What was it about him that did this to me? Something inside me craved the pleasure of pleasing him. That had never happened to me before tonight.

“No dessert,” he announced for everyone. “Just the check. To me.” “Okay. I’ll be right back.” Sad that he’d had such a huge mood swing, I headed to the computer to print their bill. What had I been expecting anyway? It wasn’t as if a man like him would notice a girl like me for more than the hour he was at the restaurant. Was I really this needy? The mail-order thing Vera proposed seemed even more attractive, now. Deep down, I wanted to belong to someone. To love him and have him love me.

To have a family. Resolved, I headed back to my big party. The guy I’d been halfway obsessing about all night came to his feet. “Tesoro,” he said, and I wondered what that meant. Whatever it was, it seemed special and made me feel shivery inside. Standing close, he slipped a folded note into my pants pocket much as Vera had with my apron. It was far more intimate, with the way the backs of his fingers brushed so close to my skin through the thin material. He stepped back, creating space between us that I both needed and hated. “Do not open that until you are at home. Do you understand?” I nodded.

“Don’t open it until later. Okay.” He took the bill from my limp fingers, smiled, nodded then stepped around me to the cashier up front. All of his party rose and started to gather their things. As they passed me to follow their leader, the strangest thing happened. Each one also nodded and murmured, “Principessa.” Some sort of thank you? Confused and dying to know what was in the note, I cleared the table, the last of the evening since all my other tables had left. “Girl, what kind of service did you give them?” My head shot up to look at Carrie as I headed toward the back with the dishes. “What do you mean? Just the normal.” She released a scoffing breath.

“Okay. Well then, you hit the jackpot of the year with that table. They left you a five-hundred dollar tip.” I staggered. That was more than I made in tips in a week. Usually, not even that much. Twenty minutes later, I was headed home, several hundred dollars richer than when I’d arrived at the diner. As soon as I was locked inside my apartment and had dropped my purse to the floor, I leaned against the inside of the front door and fished out the note. Opening it. I gasped.

My legs gave way, and I slid down the wood. Yes, he’d written me a message, but ten crisp one-hundred dollar bills were included. I stared at the cash then dropped it beside me to look at what he’d written. My Miracle, I heard your coworker speaking to you about being a mail-order bride. Any man would be blessed and grateful to have you as theirs. Should you decide to go this route, try out the agency below. You will find they’re quite reputable, with many five-star reviews. I will see you soon. D I glanced at the information he’d listed. Santori Match Agency.

Without even pondering, I headed for my computer. The money aside—I could barely contemplate it—something about him made me feel safe, and I couldn’t imagine that he’d steer me toward something dangerous. He’d been…protective of me today at the restaurant. When he’d handed me this tip—oh my god! A thousand dollars!—his eyes had seemed to look into my soul. My hands still tingled from his touch. And that was another thing that had never, ever happened to me.

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