"Jess, you have to marry me," Devin Rehkopf announced to her across the round table in the basement of the Rehkopf family home, pointing his half-smoked cigar at her. Jess lifted a confused eyebrow as she took her seat and placed her full bottle of beer on the table. She sat down slowly, confused by the flippant way he flicked his ashes and plugged the cigar back into the side of his mouth. His tone was somewhat bossy. He might as well have been giving a command like Jess, it's your turn to deal, or Jess, get me another beer. Well, it wasn't his style. He had never once bossed her around before.
"Did I miss something while I was in the bathroom?" she asked. She glanced at the faces around the table. Devin, Stephanie and Leo were all staring at her and trying to hide smiles. Leo snorted a suppressed laugh. There was a joke in the works, and she was not in on it.
"Stephanie lost you. Kings over Queens," Leo explained, nodding his chin toward the cards lying on top of the poker pot in the center of the table. Devin, apparently held three kings, while Stephanie had three lowly little queens.
"Devin bet Mama's engagement ring, and I bet you," Stephanie explained with a flit of her fingers. "I lost, so now you have to marry him." Of course she did, because that how it worked on Rehkopf Family Poker Night.
"I thought we decided not to bet the other players?" Jess defended herself, spotting the tiny white gold band with the big white rock hidden halfway under the King of Hearts. She took a long draw off her beer and pondered the situation. She was sure she had established that rule at the very beginning of the evening. "Besides, you lost me two weeks ago. I'm not yours to bet." She clearly remembered that game. Devin had bet a gift card to a local restaurant chain, and Stephanie had bet Jess. That's how Jess had ended up dating the man. Jess suspected an elaborate set-up.
"That was two six-packs ago. The rules are all a little fuzzy now," Stephanie explained. She grinned crookedly at Jess under heavy eyelids.
This was the first time Stephanie'd had alcohol in her system since before she discovered she was pregnant with her now newborn son, Lucas, who was sleeping upstairs in his portable bassinet.
"You are such a light-weight," Jess accused her. Stephanie just grinned even wider and hiccupped.
"I win either way," she explained. "Now that you're going to marry my brother, we can be real sisters." She pulled her fists to her face and giggled behind them. "I'm so happy. Now both of Lucas's godparents will be together."
How convenient. Stephanie did everything by committee, it seemed. Now that she was a happily married woman with a beautiful child, she thought everybody else in her life should have the same fate. Jess made a face at her best friend and began to gather cards together.
"You're crazy," she laughed nervously. "I'm not marrying anyone." She tapped the cards against the table to straighten them, and began to shuffle, ignoring the snickers coming from Leo's side of the table.
"You have to, Jess. It's the law!" Devin insisted. His voice boomed, but his gray eyes twinkled at her against the poor lighting drifting down on them from the hanging lamp. "And I'm a lawyer, so don't try to argue with me. I know the law." He was grinning as he plucked the diamond ring out of the pile of odd trinkets and grabbed her left hand. Jess shrieked and pulled her hand away. She jumped up from the table, but Devin had anticipated it, and was already on his feet.
"I'm not marrying you, Devin!" she yelled as she ran up the basement stairs. His strong hands grabbed her feet and made her lose her balance. She landed face down on the stairs, catching herself with her forearms, and he lay across her body, holding her there. Thank goodness the stairs were padded, or else she'd have bruises on her arms. She laughed and squealed into his ear as he tickled her.
Devin struggled with her, and finally, after a few worthy grunts, clutched her left hand. He peeled her closed fist open and forced his deceased mother's ring onto her finger.
"We are getting married whether you want to or not, Jess Harper!" He laughed as he flipped her over to face him.
"We've only been on three dates!" Jess reminded him at the top of her voice. She wiggled and giggled, trying to break free, but he held her securely in place underneath him. "We haven't even slept together!"
"I've known you for five years, woman! I'm tired of waiting." He planted a quick kiss over her lips. "We'll go down to the Justice of Peace tomorrow and seal the deal," he blurted. Her eyes widened, but she didn't have a chance to protest. He covered her mouth with his and kissed her deeply. She returned the kiss and welcomed the weight of his body against hers. He might be a pushy brute, but he was a damn good kisser.
Stephanie and Leos' "Awww"s could barely be heard over the blood rushing in Jess's ears.
What she did hear clearly was the sound of a baby's cry through the baby monitor. Every person's head turned in unison to see the little white speaker box light up with bubbly red warning lights. Lucas was awake. Jess used it as an excuse to get away from her increasingly awkward situation.
"I'll get him," she volunteered. She slid from underneath Devin and rushed up the stairs. She couldn't seem to get her feet to move quickly enough up the padded steps. Layers of polyurethane foam covered nearly every surface in the basement. Mr. and Mrs. Rehkopf had demanded that Devin soundproof the basement when he was seventeen, because Devin had, at one time, aspired to be the drummer of a rock-n-roll band. The foam had never been removed later on, because now that he was grown, Devin liked to host a lot of poker parties. Mr. Rehkopf, however, liked a good night's sleep.
Once she was in the den where Stephanie had set up a make-shift nursery for the night, Jess tended to the baby and exhaled.
"Hello, Lucas Leonardo Bustamante," she sang to him as she checked his diaper. She stroked his full head of dark hair and cherished the quiet "waah waah" of his newborn cry while thinking about the way Devin had insisted she accept that ring. She had seen something in his eyes just before he kissed her- a look that said this little ruse was no joking matter. He was serious. The ring was on her finger, and Jess realized that she might actually find herself standing in front of the JP at ten o'clock in the morning in flip-flops and a sundress. She wondered briefly if Stephanie had anything more appropriate she could borrow.
She finished changing the baby's diaper and lifted him to her shoulder. He grumbled and clumsily bounced his head along her shoulder, searching with his mouth for something to latch onto. When he didn't find it, he began to express his frustration a bit more audibly. Jess moved to the kitchen to find a bottle.
As she was warming a bottle in the microwave, Devin sneaked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. He kissed the top of his nephew's head over the back of Jess's shoulder, and she smiled at the thought that they could one day be standing like that with their own child.
The only thing was, she didn't love Devin Rehkopf-at least not yet. She was sure she could learn to love him over time, but as it stood, she was merely in deep like with the man. Could she commit herself to a marriage that may or may not turn into love?
"What are you thinking about?" Devin asked against her ear after a few moments of silence. She liked the way his warm breath tickled her earlobe. She smiled. She could definitely get used to the gentle way he touched her, and she enjoyed his spontaneous bouts of fun wrestling, like the scene on the stairs. She'd never be bored with Devin Rehkopf. In her mind she said the name, Jess Rehkopf, and she didn't mind the way it sounded.
She shifted the baby with one hand and used the other to plop the bottle into his mouth. She turned in Devin's arms and looked up into his face.