Strength by Amy Daws
Read below for the bonus Hayden and Vi epilogue (that may contain spoilers for those that haven’t read the Harris Brothers)
It’s 11:11…Let’s Get Married
Hayden ~ A Couple Years Later
Theo, Gareth, Camden, Tanner, Booker, and I walk into the nightclub situated in the resort we’re staying at for my destination wedding with Vi. This family holiday is an unusual one to say the least because we were at a wake this morning for Vi’s mum and we’re getting married tomorrow.
A wake and a wedding. What a combination.
But Vi’s family has been through a lot the past several weeks. Many old wounds were opened between the kids and their father. Wounds that never properly healed. This trip is their first real attempt at getting closure in their family.
I can understand that better than anyone.
And the fact that My Bunny has finally agreed to make our love relationship official means that I am here for her in any capacity she needs me. We’ve all managed to make it through the emotional wake this morning. Now, a night out to celebrate life is exactly what we need before we tie the knot tomorrow morning.
It’s been a crazy couple of years since I proposed to Vi in front of that cupcake shop she loves so much. We’ve had many ups and downs. Downs being her uneasiness about setting a wedding date for fear of things changing between us. Ups being the birth of our daughter, Adrienne.
The family has taken to calling her Rocky because the little fighter gave us all quite a scare when she was born. There was one moment when I thought I was going to lose both Vi and my daughter in one fell swoop.
It was the scariest moment of my life.
But, here I stand, a father, a soon-to-be husband, and a man who’s had way more than his fair share of second chances. Vi and I may not be able to have any more babies together after the trauma she suffered to her uterine wall, but our stunning, blonde, miracle toddler, who is two years old, has brought a joy into our lives I didn’t know was possible.
I’m so happy to be here in this moment that I’m overlooking the fact that I have agreed to a combined stag slash hen night.
As we walk further into the club, I pause, wondering why it’s nearly empty aside from our girls, whom I can see sitting upstairs.
I look curiously at Vi’s brothers. “Where is everyone?”
The four of them appear as though they are concealing their smiles, so I ask again. “Guys, where are the rest of the people?”
“Gareth did it,” Tanner bellows, covering his mouth like he just sent his brother down the river.
Gareth doesn’t say a word. He just eyes Tanner with a silent warning. I look at Gareth for confirmation and, with a shrug, he replies, “My relationship is new. What can I say? I’m a jealous bloke.”
The guys erupt into laughter as it dawns on me that Vi’s brother has rented out the entire club tonight just for our small group of people. It’s insane. It’s barbaric.
It’s bloody brilliant.
It seems Gareth and I share similar possessive qualities when it comes to the women we care about as he’s clearly out to protect his new girlfriend. I don’t know a lot about the two of them, but the fact that he’s brought her on this trip certainly says a lot.
In fact, it’s quite incredible to think back to when Vi and I got engaged. None of her brothers had anyone significant in their lives. Now, they all have someone they are keen to keep to themselves.
Aren’t we all adorable, barbaric arseholes.
I see Vi stand up to accept a drink from the waitress and my eyes take in her floor-length gown. She was still getting ready when I left to meet the guys. Had I known she looked like she does, I’m certain we would have never made it out of our bungalow.
The satin dress hugging her curves is red.
My favourite colour on Bunny.
I offer a silent thank you to Gareth for keeping the riffraff at bay for the evening because no one needs to see how beautiful my almost wife is tonight. Just me.
We make our way up the stairs to the VIP section and pause as we watch the girls huddle around the coffee table, passing around small items. Vi holds up a giant pink thing that lights up and begins spinning on the end. It looks very similar to…
“A dildo!” Theo roars with laughter, clapping me on the back like I’m some sorry sod who can’t keep my woman happy.
The girls turn to see us standing here, and they erupt into squeals as they take in our dropped jaws. Every single one of them is sitting over there fondling various sex toys. Apparently, the girls know how to have more fun than the guys because, before this, we were just eating burgers and chips.
Honestly, I’m not jealous of a sex toy. We like a bit of kink in the bedroom. I’m only jealous that Vi isn’t in my arms right this bloody second.
As if she can read my mind, she passes through the argument Tanner is having with his significant other in front of everyone and pounces me like a naughty bunny. She peppers my face with kisses and giggles so wonderfully, I’m growing hard from the sound alone.
“What are you doing here?” she asks as I place her back down on her feet with a smile.
“We came to crash your hen party.” My brows lift as I glance over to the item she left behind. “But it seems you have plenty to entertain you already.”
“Oh, stop,” she groans with a light shove. “You know the only excitement I need in the bedroom are these hands.”
She lifts my cuffed wrist up in between us and twines her fingers with mine. She kisses the tips of my fingers, and I shake my head at how easily I’m soothed when she is near.
“Are you the reason no one is in this club?” Vi asks, looking down at the empty dance floor. “Did you guys scare everyone away at the door?”
“Something like that,” I reply and dip my head to take her lips with mine. She tastes like orange juice and grenadine. I can tell by the way her body is swaying against mine, she’s feeling the effects of alcohol.
It’s good to see Vi let go once in a while. I’ve always feared she doesn’t drink because she’s afraid it will tempt me. Honestly, the only thing tempting me tonight is her in this dress.
I move my hands down the small of her back and palm her arse while murmuring against her lips, “You look fucking fantastic, Bunny.”
“Back at you, My Hayden,” she replies with a smile and kisses my jaw. “I really hope you’re here to dance with me.”
I chuckle and take her hand as we walk out onto the dance floor along with the rest of the party. I sweep her up into my arms and instantly feel transported back to the night we slow danced in her living room. Whether we’re at a club in West Africa, in our rooftop garden, or smack dab in front of our sitting room sofa, everything is better with Vi. And tomorrow, everything will be better until death do us part.
And I intend to live for a very long time.
“Hayden,” Vi says.
I lift my head from where it was nuzzling her neck. “Yes?” I whisper, brushing my nose with hers.
“I want to tell you something.” Her body grows tense in my arms as I pull back and see her brows knit together.
“What is it, Vi?” My nerves spike at her sudden change in demeanour. She’s been so distracted by her mum’s wake this morning, we haven’t really had a chance to talk about our big day tomorrow. I hope she’s not getting cold feet.
“Do you remember a few weeks back when I asked you if you would mind if I kept my family name instead of taking yours?”
I exhale heavily. “Vi, I told you. I don’t give a toss if you don’t take my name. As long as you take me as your husband.”
Her eyes well with tears that I don’t fully understand. She brushes her fingers over my lips and replies, “Your words are always so perfect.”
“Bunny,” I sooth, pulling back so I can cup her face in my hands. I lock eyes with hers and add, “I hate that this is still on your mind. You could have the last name Dinglehopper and I would still be just as happy and in love with you as I’ve always been.”
“Good,” she replies, her eyes leaking on the sides. “Because I wanted to tell you what name I’ll be taking tomorrow.”
I frown because I thought she already told me she was going to keep her name, which I understand. She is extremely close to her brothers and her family has a lot of pride that I respect completely.
Suddenly, she relaxes in my arms. Her expression morphs into a peaceful, proud sort of look as she says, “Tomorrow, I will gladly accept the title of Vilma Harris-Clarke, wife, mother…and forever yours.”
My heart thunders inside my chest at the divine serenity of her words. I didn’t think I cared if she took my name or not. I thought I meant the words I said to her because I’m so bloody happy she’s stopped dragging her feet about getting married. But hearing her name with mine overwhelms me beyond belief. Seeing the love, and devotion, and complete happiness all over her face has my heart soaring even higher than it has the entire time we’ve been together.
“Vi,” I croak, my own eyes shedding some tears. “What made you change your mind?”
“You, Hayden.” She grabs my cheeks to press her lips to mine. “You came on this crazy trip with me, you allowed our wedding to be overshadowed by a wake for my mum, and you’ve never once complained. My fears that getting married would change things between us are silly because this trip has proven we are rock solid together, My Hayden. You said once that I give you strength, but you must know that you give me strength every single day.”
I crush my lips to hers, unable to stop myself because everything she is saying is all I could ever want to hear the night before our wedding.
Our kiss tastes salty as tears slip from my eyes. I pull back and reply, “You are the love of my life, Vi Harris.”
She giggles. “And you are mine. But please, call me Mrs. Clarke from now on.”
I laugh and pick her up around the waist to spin her in circles in the middle of the nearly empty dance floor. “You’ve managed to make a happy man even happier, Mrs. Clarke,” I state and lower her to her feet.
“Good,” she replies, touching my lips. “Because you’ve made a happy woman even happier, Mr. Clarke. Now let’s party so we can go fuck like rude rabbits later!”
Daphney strums the song “500 Miles” on her guitar as I turn away from the ocean and look up the sandy aisle to the sight of Vi dressed in the most beautiful wedding dress that’s ever been created. Suddenly, my throat hurts, my body aches, and my heart swells so big that I feel it’s going to pop out of my chest. This woman is here. She’s really here. My forever.
I’m nowhere near worthy of her love, but fuck if I’m not going to take her as mine regardless.
Vi’s shoulders shake as she clutches Rocky to her chest. Vi grips her tightly for support because she is just as overcome as I am. Just when I think I can’t take another shred of this emotional moment, Rocky’s eyes find mine and she peals out, “Daddy,” as clear as the blue sky above us.
I’m so incredibly done.
I’ve endured some horrible things in my life. Said and done things I regret. Loved and lost. Chose to leave it all behind and give up. But somebody somewhere decided my time here on earth is meant for something more. Something bigger.
I look down at my watch and confirm that it’s only 11:00 and all my wishes have already come true.
“Go see your Uncle Hayden, Marisa,” Leslie says from her spot beside Vi as she releases my niece down the sandy aisle right toward me.
As Marisa toddles her chubby legs to me, it’s as if my past and my present are coming together. Uniting. It feels as though my old self is embracing my new self and telling him there was a reason for it all.
When Marisa spots me, she flings her pink flower petals on the ground and runs straight for me. I squat down and open my arms to encourage her just as she wipes out and takes a face full of sand.
She rights herself, spitting the grit out of her mouth and wiping it off her lips as she resumes her run toward me. I scoop her up into my arms, marvelling at how that little spill was a metaphor for my entire life.
She fell. She got back up. And she made it to the end.
My Marisa. My second heartbeat.
Theo takes her from me and I look back to see Vi’s father walking down the aisle with Rocky now in his arms. I frown when Vaughn pauses to lower her to the sand. He holds her fingers to walk, but he releases her after only a few steps. My stubborn daughter, who’s refused to walk for months, is taking her first bloody steps on a sandy beach on my wedding day.
This is all more than I deserve.
By the time Rocky reaches my arms, I’m crying. Full-on, in no way masculine, crying. I can’t believe I’m getting all these moments. All these moments in time that seem too precious to be real are stacking one on top of the other and smothering all the bad ones I tried to wish away in my past. It’s inconceivable.
I kiss Rocky a thousand kisses and pass her off to Vaughn as Gareth begins ushering my bride down the aisle. Flashes of the past we have shared swirl around me like a dream. Her dog knocking me over. Her male coworker kissing me on the lips. Cupcakes, kisses in the alley, walks in the dog park, adorable little foot stomps, bubble baths, movie theatres, rooftops, and red dresses. So many red dresses.
Arguments and tears. Pain and heartbreak. Making up.
Especially making up.
They were all ripples.
Ripples in time that cascaded into a life I never dreamed of having.
The ceremony begins with the pastor speaking. He keeps checking his watch because we both have our own vows to recite at 11:11. Not vows exactly. That’s not our style.
Today, we’re making wishes.
The pastor finally sees the time hit and, with a single nod, Vi begins. “My Hayden, you once said you would give all your wishes to me. Well, right now, I give all of them back to you. Because I trust your wishes. I trust your heart. And I trust your soul. I don’t need your wishes because I know that what’s in your heart is as dear, and as true, and as honest as what’s in mine. So at this time, I wish for you to have endless wishes, my husband. And for all those wishes to come true.”
My chin trembles with barely contained emotion, but I don’t have time to pull myself together. “My Vi, your vows are quite funny because today I was going to wish for no more wishes. Because looking at you, our daughter, my niece, and our family all here today witnessing this very special moment we’re sharing, I can say with a true heart that all my wishes have come true. Together we have overcome our pasts and have found strength in our present and our future. You changed my life, Bunny. Meeting you was like tossing a pebble into a pond and creating a tidal wave in the ocean.” My throat closes up as emotion overwhelms me, but I push through because this is our moment. This is our time. “And I intend to make a splash with you until we’re old and grey. I love you.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the pastor look down at his watch. A small part of me wonders if we kept our vows within the 11:11 minute, but the forever part of me doesn’t give a toss.
Because he’s just told me to kiss the bride.
I pull Vi to me and press my lips to hers, holding her heart against mine and letting the warmth of her embrace continue to give me strength. This is my second chance, and I won’t waste a moment of it.