A Rose By Any Other Name

A Rose by Any Other Name

 A short story for fans of The Dogfather Series

Dogfather Series—Book 8.5, if you’re keeping track.

This story takes place after the holiday novella, Bark! The Herald Angels Sing. (Dogfather Book 8) Please be warned that if you have not read that book, this story contains some spoilers! 

 

 

Molly…Bancroft.

Why didn’t that sound so right? Why did the name she was about to take as her own stutter in her brain and trip up her tongue?

Molly fluttered her lids, squinting into the soft rays of morning light that peeked through the blinds. Not any morning light, either. The light of the morning of her wedding day.

On a sigh, she closed them again and tried to imagine all the possible iterations of her new name of Molly Bancroft.

Dr. Bancroft, DVM

Molly Harper Bancroft

Molly Kilcannon Bancroft

Dr. Molly Harper Kilcannon Bancroft

No. They were all wrong. She was and would always be Molly Kilcannon.

Until late this afternoon, when she would walk down the aisle at St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church and marry a man who made her feel whole, happy, exhilarated, hopeful, sexy, alive, and joyous. Oh yes. Marrying Trace Bancroft would be the most right thing Molly would ever do.

But…the name.

When she and Trace had talked about changing her name from Kilcannon to Bancroft, the decision seemed like a no-brainer. Even Pru couldn’t wait to become Prudence Anne Bancroft. Why didn’t losing the “Kilcannon” on her name bother Pru?

Maybe because she was fourteen, and Molly had been a Kilcannon for almost thirty-five years and rarely even used her middle name of Harper, even though it was her mother’s maiden name. She was just Molly Kilcannon.

Or Molls, if her father was talking. Mom, if Pru was.  Dr. Molly, if it was the two-legged parent of a four-legged patient. And Irish, if the endearment came from the mouth of the man she would be married to in…

Molly lifted her phone to check the time.

Nine hours. In nine hours, she would cease to be Molly Kilcannon.

She let out a little moan that hung somewhere between the deepest joy she could imagine, the most excitement she could contain, and abject fear. She had no idea who Molly Bancroft was, and suddenly a white-hot adrenaline rush of terror washed over her whole body.

Would changing her name change her?

Turning, she looked at the sleeping face of the person next to her and couldn’t help smiling. When Molly and her daughter had decided they’d spend the night before the wedding right here in her childhood home of Waterford Farm, she’d known Pru would cuddle up and sleep next to her. One last mother-daughter sleepover before Molly became…

Molly Bancroft.

Another moan escaped her lips, loud enough to wake Pru, who’d never eased into a morning in her life. True to form, she popped straight up, threw back her long black hair, and let out a gasp.

“Mom! It’s your wedding day.”

Molly laughed and tried to tug her back down. “It sure is, kiddo.”

“There’s so much to do today. But don’t worry, I have a list.” She tossed off the covers and started to climb out, but Molly grabbed her arm.

“Wait.”

“Can’t.” She managed to scramble out of bed, searching for the socks she always shed in the middle of the night. “We have to rally the troops, make sure the flowers are on the way, double-check that sleigh, and oh, all the dogs have to get ready with their little bow ties, and that means—”

“I think I might change my mind.”

Pru whipped around, her hazel eyes flashing in horror. “What?

“About changing my name.”

“Oh.” She almost melted with relief, giving Molly a jolt of joy for how much her daughter wanted this marriage. “Well, it’s up to you, just like you told me it was my choice.”

“And you’re sure you want to change your name to Prudence Bancroft?”

“Of course,” she answered without a nanosecond of hesitation. “Trace is my father, and soon, he’ll be your husband, and if you guys are both Bancrofts, then I am, too.”

“But don’t you feel attached to the name Kilcannon?”

“Are you kidding?” Pru coughed a dry laugh and plopped back on the bed. “I’m a Kilcannon down to my very last strand of DNA. But I’m also a Bancroft in that same DNA. Cool how it works that way, isn’t it?” she asked with a grin.

“Utterly.”

Pru was quiet for a moment, searching Molly’s face, serious again. “Honestly, Mom, maybe if you were marrying someone who would be my stepfather, I might not be all about the name change. But Trace is my biological father, and I want his name.”

Was that why it was so easy for her?

“I just want someone to tell me what’s the right thing to do.” Molly dropped back on the pillow and exhaled. “I tell you, it is moments like this that I miss my mother the most.”

“Oh, I can’t imagine how much you miss Grannie Annie today.” Genuine sympathy softened Pru’s voice. “I would curl up in a ball and cry forever if anything ever happened to you.”

Impulsively, Pru leaned over and wrapped Molly in a hug, a little whimper in her throat as if the very thought of losing each other made her strong, organized, and focused daughter suddenly as weak as a kitten.

“Why don’t you talk to her?”  Pru inched back to look Molly in the eyes. “Go visit her grave, Mom. That always makes you feel better.”

“Will she answer my question about my name?”

“You won’t know until you ask. Plus…” Pru pointed to Molly’s still-flat stomach. “Have you told her you somehow managed to get pregnant by Trace again without getting married? Grannie Annie will be scandalized.”

Molly laughed and shook her head. “Where did you come from, Prudence?”

She lifted a brow. “Same place as Baby Bancroft down there.”

Molly sighed and put her hand on Pru’s cheek. “I honestly don’t know how I would get through life without you, sweet girl.”

Pru smiled and angled her head into Molly’s hand. “Well, I know I couldn’t get through without you. Don’t intend to.”

“You could be jealous of Trace, but you never have been.”

“I wasn’t thrilled in the beginning, if you recall.”

Molly laughed softly. “Understandable when a sexy ex-con shows up with a sick dog…and turns out to be your biological father.”

“And such a good father,” Pru added, making Molly’s heart swell. “He’s always so interested in hearing about school and my friends and never makes me feel like a kid. He cares about me, Mom. Even if he wasn’t my real dad, I’d be glad you’re marrying him. The fact that he is? Icing on the cake.” Her eyes widened, and she snapped her fingers. “Speaking of cake, we have to triple-check that Linda May Dunlap got up at three a.m. to bake the cake. What if she slept in? I know you have that crackerjack wedding planner, but I feel the need…the need for making sure everything is done right.”

Molly cracked up again, knowing better than to get in the way when General Pru was on a mission. “You do that,” Molly said, easing out of bed. “I’m going to take your advice after all.”

“And change your name?”

“Take a walk to see my mother. Do you want to come with me, or is that not on your to-do list?”

Pru shook her head slowly. “It’s not about my list. I think you should go alone, Mom. Then you’ll hear her loud and clear.”

Once more, Molly’s whole being filled with love for this angel God had sent to her in the most unexpected way. She gave her a tight squeeze, then headed off to get dressed, slip on her boots, and sneak out the kitchen door before the household rose for her wedding day.

***

The snow that had fallen for most of the previous week crunched under Molly’s boots as she rounded the back pen and kennels of Waterford Farm. The early-morning dog barks echoed over the rolling hills as the eastern sky sparked with sunrise and a bright blue sky.

A perfect day to marry the man she loved. A perfect day to become Molly Bancroft.

She stumbled on a rock jutting up from the snow-covered path.

The question stayed on her heart as she walked to where a hill rose up and the pines cleared. At the top, she reached the wooden bench where Kilcannons had sat for years to contemplate the beauty of the hills and gaze down to the valley below. There, near the perimeter road that rimmed the hundred acres of Waterford Farm, were three stones marking the gravesites of beloved family members.

Not only was Annie Kilcannon there, but so was Grandpa Seamus and, next to him, wee Liam Kilcannon, her father’s brother who died as a child. Grandpa Seamus had built this bench with his own hands so Gramma Finnie would have a place to sit and talk to her son. And then Gramma used the bench to talk to her husband, gone nearly fifteen years now.

When Molly’s mother died suddenly four years ago, her father started frequenting the place the family called “the bench.” All of the Kilcannon kids showed up on a regular basis, or even drove around to easily reach the site, and sat next to their mother’s grave.

Today, Molly chose to stay at the top of the hill, looking down at the graves.

“We miss you, Mom,” Molly whispered as she perched on the edge of the bench. “Especially today.” Damn it, her voice already cracked. “I’m getting married this afternoon, but…” She looked up at the blindingly blue sky and smiled. “You know that.”

A soft breeze lifted Molly’s hair, and she felt as though she could hear Mom sigh and laugh at the pure joy of the moment. Even without her, there was joy. Because that was what her mother would want. Mom’s life goal had been to see her children content, as she so often proclaimed by saying, You’re only as happy as your least-happy child.

“So, Annie Harper,” Molly whispered into the wind, “was there ever a moment that you didn’t think you’d be you once you became Annie Kilcannon? How did changing your name change you?”

She sat in the silence for a moment, then closed her eyes and pictured her mother’s sweet face, with eyes the same greenish brown as Molly’s and Pru’s, and her easy smile, with just a hint of dimples. She’d brush back a lock of auburn hair and straighten her narrow but strong shoulders, pinning her gaze on Molly the way she had when she was going to make a pronouncement.

Things were different forty years ago.

Yes, she’d start with perspective and wisdom. She always launched a deep conversation that way. Then what?

She’d stroke Molly’s hair and slip a strand behind her ear, probably without saying a word. Because she was a toucher and always knew how to comfort with her hands and arms.

“Should I do it, Mom? Will I regret changing my name? Will it change me?”

Once again, Molly closed her eyes and imagined that great lady taking a moment to consider the right response. It wouldn’t be canned, either. She’d customized her advice for each of her six children, understanding that they had six different personalities and needed six different types of direction.

You already have changed, Molly. But not because your last name is different. Love changes you. It makes you whole and strong and deeply satisfied. Aren’t you?

Yes, she was.

Molly exhaled, knowing those words might have come from her own head, but it was her mother’s guidance that planted them there. So it counted as good Annie Kilcannon advice, and it made Molly feel better.

“I just wish I could see you,” she whispered. “I wish you could be here for my wedding, to meet Trace and kiss me for luck on the way down the aisle.”

I am here. Always, in your heart.

Easy to say, not always easy to believe. But Molly let the words settle on her like a warm blanket until her fingers grew chilled and her cheeks started to burn. Then she rose and blew a kiss into the wind and turned to go home.

As she did, she heard the rumble of an engine coming from the valley, then it stopped, followed by the slamming of a car door. A minute later, she saw a man rounding the trees and walking toward the gravesite at the bottom of the hill.

She squinted at the figure, easily recognizing her oldest brother, Liam. A chill danced up her spine as she thought about what might motivate him to stop by their mother’s grave on Molly’s wedding day.

Without hesitation, she started to walk toward him, watching him touch Mom’s gravestone, and step back with his arms crossed at his mighty chest. She made it halfway down the hill before he turned. After a flicker of surprise, he beamed at her.

“What are you doing out here, little sister?”

She laughed lightly at the term of endearment he rarely used but that always touched her. “Probably the same thing you are.” She trotted over the snow and finally reached him, extending her arms for a hug. “Missing our mom.”

He gave her an easy embrace, then leaned back, surprising her with a little glint in his dark eyes that might have been the cold…or might have been a tear.

“She should be here today,” he said softly. “She should be here to see her oldest daughter get married.”

“She’s missed so many weddings these past two years,” Molly said. “To think that not a one of us had someone in our lives when she died, and now we’re all married or about to be.”

“Thank the man they call the Dogfather.”

With a nod, Molly acknowledged their father’s unparalleled ability to orchestrate a romance, or six. “Well, she’s here in spirit, Liam. I feel her.”

He exhaled and put an arm around her, turning them both to face the gravestone. “She’d love Trace,” he said. “He’s a good man, and he worships you and Pru.”

So that was how Mom was going to talk to her—through Liam. That worked. “Good to know.”

“If you came to get her approval, I can already tell you she’d give it.”

Molly tilted her head to lean it on her brother’s broad shoulder. “Thank you, dear brother. I appreciate that. And to be honest, I came to get her opinion on changing my name.”

He gave a soft snort. “Really?”

“Really.” Stepping back, she looked up at him. “Andi changed hers when she married you.”

“Of course she did.”

“Not everyone does anymore, you know.”

“I know, but she wanted to be a Kilcannon. Who doesn’t?”

Molly lifted her brows. “See? I want to be a Kilcannon. And a Bancroft.”

“So hyphenate. That’s what Andi does for her architecture business.”

“For her business,” Molly replied. “For life, she’s Andi Kilcannon. I’ve heard her introduce herself like that dozens of times, with so much pride and joy in her voice.”

He gave an easy smile, which was as rare as sunshine in the winter and just as warm. “That’s ’cause she’s married to me, not because of her last name.”

She gazed up at this solid, strong, unwavering man who had the same heart as her father and never wasted a word.

“You’re right,” she agreed, giving him another hug. “So, do you hear Mom talk to you when you come here?”

He inched back and gave her a look like she was crazy. “No. Do you?”

“Sometimes.”

He rolled his eyes. “What did she tell you about the name thing?”

“That love goes deeper than the name.”

“Smart woman, that Annie Kilcannon.” He exhaled a cold puff of air and glanced at the gravestone. “I just wish she had a chance to know Andi and our kids. Fiona really looks like her, don’t you think?”

Fiona looked like a tiny, pudgy, precious six-month-old, but Molly nodded. “She would have adored them all,” she agreed. “She was a spectacular grandmother to Pru.”

“And you’re a spectacular aunt to Fi,” he assured her. “No matter what your last name is.”  Then he frowned, looking hard at her. “Uh, did you forget you’re getting married today?”

Laughing, she shook her head. “No, but don’t worry. General Pru’s in charge of the schedule, and I had her permission to come here. But I should get back.”

“Come on,” he said, inching her closer. “I’ll drive you.”

She still didn’t have an answer, but comforted by her mother and brother, she headed back to the house to see what would unfold on her wedding day.

***

The morning slipped into a busy afternoon.  The caterers arrived to transform the main rooms for a reception for about seventy-five people that would fill the giant farmhouse with friends, family, and healthy pours of Jameson’s. Cassie St. Croix, the “official” wedding planner, zipped in and out to supervise the setup and coordinate every tiny detail. After a casual lunch, the stylist showed up to start hair and makeup for the bridesmaids, but Molly was definitely not ready for that yet.

So Andi, Liam’s wife, and Darcy, Molly’s younger sister, volunteered to be styled first, heading upstairs to Gramma Finnie’s suite, where Pru had set up Bridal Central as a dressing and gathering room.

Molly was still thinking about her prospective name change while gingerly rinsing out a teacup in the kitchen sink, careful not to chip one of her rarely painted fingernails. Looking out the window, she caught sight of an ancient truck that looked like it had been driven a thousand miles in the snow and mud. When it stopped and a bearded, gray-haired man climbed out, she couldn’t help smiling.

“Pru? Gramma Finnie?” Molly called.

Pru came in from the dining room, where she’d been watching the caterers more closely than the wedding planner was. “Mom, are you seriously doing dishes with those nails on your wedding day?”

Molly shook off the water and laughed. “Look who’s here.”

“Cutter!” Her face lit up just as Gramma Finnie came in, wearing the same expression.

“Well, sweet St. Patrick.” She crossed her arms and shook her white-haired head. “I never really expected him to show. He’d better have Blue.”

“Queenie,” Pru corrected. That was what the man they’d met a week ago on Christmas Eve, when they’d found and saved his pregnant dog, called Queenie, even though Gramma had named the dog Blue.

“She’s Blue today,” Gramma replied, snagging her jacket from a hook near the door. “Something Blue and something borrowed.” She passed Molly and patted her cheek on the way out the door. “For our beautiful bride and her spectacular wedding party of canines.”

Pru grabbed Molly’s arm and tugged her toward the door. “Come on, Mom, let’s go see her.”

Following them out, Molly peered first at Bill Cutter—who had seriously cleaned up his act, from straggly, scary mountain dweller to kind of a dapper gentleman in a dark suit—then at the stunning black and white border collie who bounded out of the truck and ran straight for them.

A tough delivery and at-home surgery had not slowed that girl down one bit.

“Queenie!” Cutter called, the command halting the dog just before she mowed down Gramma with love.

Gramma laughed as she greeted the dog she’d talked about endlessly for the past week. “There’s my pretty lass.” Bending over, she rubbed Queenie’s head, then looked up as Cutter came closer. “And look at you, lad. I hope this means you listened to me and plan to stay for the wedding.”

His face darkened with a slight flush, reminding Molly that they’d learned Bill Cutter suffered from social anxiety, which made this visit all the more sweet and meaningful.

“’Course,” he said. “After the way you angels saved this girl and the whole family stayed and sang Christmas carols at my cabin?” He gave his head a shake and then angled it toward the truck. “But I have another reason for coming, not just to deliver Queenie as part of the wedding party.”

“Yes?” Gramma asked, glancing at Pru with hope in her eyes.

“What is it?” Pru came closer, her expression as bright and expectant as her great-grandmother’s. “How are the pups?”

Molly stifled a smile because she knew exactly where this was going.

“All good, but…” Cutter heaved a sigh. “I’m afraid I can’t take care of four more dogs.”

Yep. Going there.

“We can!” Pru and Gramma said in unison.

“Whoa, whoa.” Molly took a few steps closer. “You mean Waterford can. Pru, we have Meatball, and Gramma…” Her voice trailed off as she looked at her grandmother’s face. She’d been about to say Gramma Finnie wasn’t up to having her own dog, but instantly knewthat would be the wrong response. No, the older woman had never looked happier. They could find homes for three of these dogs, and Gramma could certainly keep one.

“Remember the puppy that gave my Queenie so much trouble?” Cutter asked.

“Oh, I remember him,” Gramma said, tsking. “A mighty stubborn little lad.”

“Not so little and he’s the spitting image of Queenie.” He gave a slow smile. “Except his eyes match. Both as blue as the sky. So I’m calling him Blue.”

Gramma gasped a little. “Is he here?”

“They all are,” he said. “They can’t be far from Queenie for long, and you said you could let her stay in the kennels.”  He finally looked around, taking in the buildings and landscape of Waterford Farm. After a moment, he let out a soft whistle. “Wow. This place is heaven.”

“Closest thing,” Gramma said, marching to his truck.

He nodded, then glanced at Molly, getting closer to muster up some courage to talk. “May I keep them here with Queenie?” he asked. “I mean, beyond today. Until they’re ready to be adopted and then get her home.”

“We’ll find homes for these precious ones.” Gramma was already holding a small black and white bundle. “Won’t we, little bit of Blue?”

Behind her, Pru was coaxing another into her arms. “Gramma, I think this is the one you named Borrowed!”

Molly had to laugh, suspecting the adventure they’d gone on last week would have lasting consequences.

“I know we have space,” Molly assured Cutter. “Why don’t you head back to the kennels and find my brother Liam? My other brothers should be here any minute, too, and they can answer all the questions about adoptions, training, and setting Queenie up in one of our special kennels just for dogs and their newborns. We have some handling protocols to ensure their health and safety.”

His whole face lit up with a smile that seemed to come from his heart. “That would be wonderful, Dr. Kilcannon.”

Dr. Kilcannon.  

For a moment, Molly looked at him, focusing on the sound of that name. She’d worked hard to be Dr. Kilcannon. As a young, single mother living with her parents and struggling to get through the veterinary program, all she’d wanted to be was Dr. Kilcannon—just like Dad.

“We’re happy to help you, Cutter.” She remembered hearing that the man never, ever went around people, and the groomer in Holly Hills had told Pru he suffered from agoraphobia. Maybe he could benefit from a little Waterford time, too. “In fact, it would be nice if you could swing by every day and help ease Queenie and her pups into the transition.”

His eyes widened.

“Only if you want to,” she added.

His smile was slow, crooked, and genuine. “I would,” he said gruffly, looking away as if the extended eye contact was too much. “Miss Finola actually said the same thing to me.”

Miss Finola? Molly hid her smile. “My grandmother has a generous heart and makes everyone feel welcome here.” She patted his arm and led him back to Pru and Gramma, who were still cooing over the pups.

***

Molly headed back to the house, still mulling the feeling she’d gotten when she was called Dr. Kilcannon, and paused at the sound of more vehicles pulling into the long driveway, this time honking and with flashing lights.

The boys were back.

“I heard there’s a wedding happening!” Molly’s older brother Shane stuck his head out of the driver’s side of his truck, his smile infectious and easy.

“What are you doing out in the dog pens on your wedding day, Molly?” Aidan, her younger brother, called from the truck bed, where he and Beck were perched with their boxer, Ruff, between them.

“Because she let the dogs out,” Shane yelled out the window. “And into her wedding party.”

Right behind Shane, Garrett honked the horn of his bright yellow Jeep with his wife, Jessie, and their beloved Lola between them, the whole level of chaos and anticipation rising with every new arrival.

Molly longed for Trace to be here now, but they’d agreed that they wouldn’t see each other again until she stepped into the church this afternoon…to become Molly Not Kilcannon Anymore.

She shook her head, covering it with a smile, but longing for the worry to disappear, and fast. Like, before the wedding.

She headed to where they parked, hugging Chloe and Shane when they got out and greeting Aidan and Beck with more embraces and jokes. When Garrett and Jessie climbed out of the Jeep, Molly put her hands on her cheeks at the sight of Jessie’s growing belly, now halfway through her pregnancy.

“Here comes the pregnant bridesmaid,” Jessie joked. “Thank God that dress is forgiving.”

“You look amazing, Jess.” Molly threw her arms around her sister-in-law.

“Molly,” she whispered into her embrace. “You’re getting married!”

“And you’re having a baby. Remember how we used to talk about this future?” Molly added an extra hug for Jessie, the childhood girlfriend who’d spent so many days and nights at Waterford. And now, she was a Kilcannon, too.

An unexpected twinge of jealousy squeezed as tight as Jessie’s arms.

Jessie leaned back, her jade-green eyes scanning Molly’s face as Lola added a snuggle to say hello. “You’re happy about that, right?” Jessie asked. Of course her best friend could sniff out any hint that something was wrong.

Not sure how to answer, Molly reached down to pet Lola just as Ruff, the rambunctious boxer, leaped from the back of the truck to greet Molly with happy licks.

“Only second-guessing this hairbrained idea to have dogs in the wedding party.” She sputtered from the tongue-in-face action.

“Ruff. Sit.” Aidan snapped his fingers at the boxer, who instantly obeyed. “He’ll be fine, Molly,” he promised his sister. “He’s just excited. And a little nervous. We all are.”

Lola muscled in on the family action, barking three times to profess her love.

“You’ll all be amazing,” Molly said. “My only regret is that I’ll be in the back of the church when you all walk down the aisle with your pups.”

They talked about the rest of the day, who was getting ready at Waterford, who was going to hang with Trace, and how the events would unfold. While they did, Molly could feel Jessie’s gaze on her.

“Are you sure you’re okay, hon?” her friend whispered when the group started to break up.

With one shuddering breath, she knew she had to confess to Jessie. “I’m scared.”

“It’s a big step, but—”

“To change my name,” she added.

Jessie didn’t even look surprised. “It’s especially tough if you’ve established yourself in your field, as you have.” A respected journalist and now a memoir writer, Jessie certainly understood that. But she was Jessie Kilcannon now.

“I could keep Kilcannon professionally, but…” Molly’s voice trailed off as she raked her curls back. “For some reason, it’s torturing me today. Right after the ceremony, we have to sign marriage papers. I have to pick a name, Jess, and I have about three hours to decide.”

“And have your hair and makeup done, dress, and get to the church,” Jessie reminded her. “Can we talk about it over mimosas and false eyelashes?”

“Sure.” She turned to see Gramma Finnie and Pru coming out of the kennels, practically dancing, so Chloe and Beck headed over to them. “My maid and matron of honor got sidetracked …” Molly glanced to where her three brothers unloaded dress bags of tuxedoes from Shane’s truck. “Why don’t you go snag Gramma and Pru and get Chloe and Beck and meet me up in Gramma’s suite? Andi and Darcy are already up there.”

“Good call. See what your brothers think.”

She beamed at her friend. “You know me so well.”

“Well enough to know you don’t take a decision like this lightly.” She added a kiss on Molly’s cheek. “We’ll see you up there. Come on, Lola. You’re with the girls.”

Molly headed straight to her brothers for some critical advice.

“Gotta ask you guys something,” Molly said, hooking an arm through Shane’s and Garrett’s and looking up at Aidan. “How would you have felt if Jessie or Chloe had kept their maiden name when you got married, or if Beck keeps hers when you guys tie the knot?”

“Fine,” Garrett said without hesitation. “I left it entirely up to Jessie. She’s her own woman.”

“But you like that she has our name.”

“I do,” he said honestly. “But it wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker, that’s for sure.”

“Beck and I haven’t talked about it,” Aidan said. “But it’s her decision, and I’m good with what she wants.”

Molly gave a look to Shane, expecting a quip or joke, and maybe a little more cockiness than from his brothers. “And you, Shane? Would you have been hurt if Chloe kept Somerset?”

“I’d have been hurt if Chloe hadn’t married me and made me the happiest man on earth.”

His honesty, and the depth of his emotion, caught her by surprise. “Shane, who knew you were so romantic?”

“Nothing romantic about it,” he admitted as he switched the tuxedo hanger from one hand to the other. “It’s a fact. Chloe’s the strongest, most amazing woman I know. I’m a thousand times better for her. I don’t give a hoot what name she uses, as long as she’s next to me for the rest of my life.”

Wow. She looked at Garrett, totally expecting an eye roll at the change in their once-arrogant brother. Garrett shrugged, as if Shane’s pronouncement was not news to him.  “Same, sister,” he said to her. “We have great women in our lives. And you have a good man, so you should just call yourself whatever you want, as long as you stick together through thick and thin.”

“You all three sound like Dad.”

They laughed, and Shane put his arm around her. “High compliment, Molly. Thank you. But I would think about one thing that gets complicated.”

“What’s that?”

“Kids. They have parents with two different names. And you already have Pru.”

“She’s changing hers. Trace is her biological father, and she wants his name.”

Shane gave a smile. “Man, I hope my kid loves me that much.”

“Your…” She caught a quick, almost imperceptible look between the men and instantly knew what it meant.

“Shane!”

“Shhh.” He wrapped his arms around her. “Don’t want to steal your thunder today. But these guys know.”

Her squeal couldn’t be contained. “Are you serious?”

With a squeeze, he twirled her with ease. “Gonna be a daddy. Can you believe it?”

When he let her feet touch the ground, she reached out to bring all three of them closer to whisper, “And I’m gonna be a mommy again.”

That made them all hoot so loud that Ruff pretty much lost it, then Liam came out of the kennels with his son, Christian, and their beloved German shepherd, Jag, so full-blown chaos reigned.

Molly just stood back and took it all in. This was what it meant to be a Kilcannon, and some things were never meant to change. Or were they?

***

Two hours later, Molly still didn’t have an answer—although every one of her bridesmaids tried to give her advice. The best came from Gramma Finnie, of course, who always had an Irish proverb at the ready.

Already dressed in her fine red silk, like Pru, she listened to the chatter, rocking in her chair, watching a professional style Molly’s hair into a long, wild mane that would spill out from the hood of her cape.  Then Gramma stood, ambled over to Molly, and inched down so they were face-to-face.

“If you wrote your name in the clouds, the wind would take it away.”

Molly smiled at her, waiting for the rest.

“And if you wrote your name in the sand, the ocean would wash it away.”

“What should I do, Gramma?”

“Write your name on his heart, where it will be forever.”

The ladies in the room oohed and aahed over that, but Molly took Gramma’s hand. “I’m going to do that, Gramma, I promise.”

“Then it doesn’t matter what you call yourself, lass. Do what feels right.”

Molly put the problem aside while her sisters, daughter, and grandmother helped her slide into a dreamy, creamy simple satin dress with a portrait collar that bared her shoulders and long sleeves trimmed in Irish lace.

The dress felt heavy and elegant and…real.

“Take a look,” Jessie whispered, turning her to the cheval mirror that had been in Gramma Finnie’s bedroom for as long as Molly could remember. Along with everyone else, she sucked in a breath, and then her eyes blurred.

“Mascara and lashes!” Darcy reminded her, waving her hands as if she could dry her sister’s tears of joy.

“The makeup artist said we all got waterproof,” Molly said. “And it’s a good thing, Darce, ’cause I feel some waterworks happening.”

Darcy beamed, her gorgeous smile and bright blue eyes enhanced by the shimmery makeup and the elegance of her sleek, black column dress. “Happy tears, Molly.”

“Joyous.”

Darcy inched a little closer. “Let me know what you decide about the name. Because I’m facing the same thing next year. Darcy Ranier doesn’t sound right.”

Molly lifted a dubious brow. “I keep hoping the answer will be crystal clear when it comes time to sign the marriage license after the wedding.”

“What did Mom say?” Darcy asked in total seriousness.

“Love goes deeper than a name.”

“Oh.” Darcy exhaled a sad sigh. “I miss her so much.”

For a moment, the sisters didn’t say a word, but looked deep into each other’s eyes, their bond so strong and permanent, it was like a ribbon tied them together forever. Molly reached her hand out and grazed Darcy’s cheek with her knuckles. “She’s here in spirit.”

They both swallowed at the same time, neither wanting to cry just yet.

“Attention, ladies!” At the door, Cassie St. Croix stood in a dove-gray suit, tablet in one hand, cell phone in the other. She’d been wonderfully understanding about giving Pru some real responsibility and a wide berth today, but now that it was time to hit the church, Cassie was calling the shots, and Pru seemed good with that.

“The sleigh has arrived,” Cassie announced, getting an instant cheer from the women in the room. “The groomsmen and many dogs have left to collect the groom and take him to the church. You ladies, along with the father of the bride and the ring bearer, are all going in the sleigh, and I’ll be behind with these two.” She pointed over her shoulder to the photographer and videographer who’d been floating in and out of the suite with their cameras for the past two hours.

Molly put her hand over her mouth, careful not to smear her glossy lips. “Oh boy. This is happening.”

“Not without this, it isn’t.” They all turned to Pru, who stood next to Gramma Finnie. Pru held the heavy satin and faux-fur-trimmed cape that Molly had had specially made to wear to and from the church.

But it was the gold pin that Gramma Finnie held that captured every eye in the room. The horseshoe, with one shamrock intact and the other buried somewhere in the earth of Ireland, had so much love and history, it was nearly sacred.

“We’re bringing something borrowed and blue in the form of a special dog in your canine-themed wedding, lass, and most everything else you have is new. But this is old and will bring you the luck of the Irish.”

Like they’d choreographed the moment, the women surrounded Molly while Pru lifted the cape onto Molly’s shoulders with the grace of a lady-in-waiting preparing a queen. Beck adjusted the draping that fell to the floor. Jessie tied the ribbon at her neck. Andi lifted the hood. Chloe reached in and fixed her hair. And then Gramma Finnie stepped forward, lifting one lapel of the cape.

Molly knew what she was going to say. Everyone did. Gramma Finnie had given her blessing over every bride in this family, and just in the last year or so, there’d been three. Now it was Molly’s turn to hear the words as they were written in the Kilcannon family Bible that they’d taken to the church last night for the rehearsal.

“May God bless you and keep you,” Gramma whispered as she slid the pin into place.

“May you see your children’s children…” Pru added, holding her gaze with one so serious and sincere that Molly could practically hear her heart crack.

Chloe, Jessie, and Beck stepped closer. “Poor in misfortune and rich in blessings,” they said in unison.

Gramma glanced around, and they all finished together. “And may you know nothing but happiness from this day forward.”

They all cheered and hugged and blinked back tears, finally making their way down two flights of stairs and outside where a sleigh with three separate cars sparkled with white lights, led by a glorious black horse.

Next to it, Daniel Kilcannon stood in a striking tuxedo, a soft gray wool coat draped over his arm, a silky white scarf hanging around his neck. With his bright blue eyes and silver hair, her father looked as handsome and happy as if he were the groom himself.

Molly stopped on the stairs of the porch and looked at him, something slipping in her chest. He needs this, too, she thought. He needs to be this happy again. He was only sixty and full of nothing but love. Wouldn’t Mom want him to be as thrilled about the rest of his life as Molly was right now?

She stole a glance to her left, catching Darcy’s eye, and could see her sister was thinking the same thing.

“He’s next,” Molly said under her breath.

“You bet,” Darcy agreed.

Molly stepped off the porch, arms extended to her father, who reached her in a few long strides.

“Daddy.” It felt right to call him that today.

“Molls.” And, of course, he’d use the name he’d called her since she was a baby.

He took her hands and lifted them, taking her in. “You are a carbon copy of your mother, but somehow one of a kind.”

“Thanks.”

He inched her closer to kiss her cheek and whisper, “I love you, Molly Kilcannon.”

Oh. There it was again. The name and that twinge of…uncertainty. Did her name matter that much? Of course not. Nothing mattered but this crystal-cold Saturday afternoon when she was about to climb into a horse-drawn sleigh and head to church to marry the man she loved.

***

At one minute to four o’clock, Molly stood alone in the bridal chamber at the back of St. Gabriel the Archangel. The ride, the arrival, the last few minutes of preparation had passed in a blur. She’d just kissed the bridesmaids goodbye as they lined up with their partners and dogs to start the most beautiful processional she could imagine.

It must have started, because she could hear the applause, laughter, oohs and awws…and that had to be Ruff letting out a few noisy howls.

At the altar, Trace Bancroft would be waiting with his “best dog,” Meatball, although Shane was also standing up as his best man, since the two had become such close friends over the past year.

And Molly was so, so ready to be Trace’s wife…just not ready to change her name.

Swallowing the thought, she closed her eyes, said one final, quiet prayer for peace about the decision and gratitude for the life ahead, then looked up to see her father standing in the doorway.

“You ready, Molls?”

She nodded. “So ready.”

He crooked his arm for her. “Here we go,” he said. “Kilcannon number four down the aisle.”

She laughed. “Another Dogfather success story.”

He just smiled at her, his eyes glistening again. “This one might be my favorite, but I’ve loved each romance in this family.”

“You need one of your own.”

He opened his mouth to argue, then shut it and his eyes. “I’m not quite ready yet, honey.”

Not quite. So there was hope. Molly let it drop as she tucked her hand into his arm. “You know, if Mom were still alive, I think I would have had you both walk me down the aisle.”

“Then pretend she’s on the other side. And I will, too.”

They gave each other a quick kiss on the cheek to seal the secret just as Cassie came rushing around the corner, holding the stunning bouquet of red roses for Molly to carry.

“Dogs and couples are down the aisle. Maid, matron, and dog with two different-colored eyes are about to walk. Are you ready, Miss Molly Kilcannon?”

Molly blinked at her, the name like a literal sucker punch. “Is that…it? The last time, ever?”

Cassie’s dark brows drew together in confusion. “The last time for…”

Molly looked up at her father and instantly knew that he understood what was bothering her. “What should I do, Dad?”

He searched her face. “You don’t have to, you know. It’s your choice, always your choice.”

But Cassie sucked in a sharp, noisy breath. “What?

“Don’t I? Do I?” Molly studied the ruby-red flowers, turning the grip in her damp palms. “Should I, or shouldn’t I? It’s such a massive change.”

“Molly!” Cassie slapped a hand on her own chest so hard it sounded like she’d smacked stone. “You need to be sure, honey. I’ve stopped weddings this late before, but I thought you…”

But Molly ignored her, looking up at her father, who had to have the answer. He always had the answer to everything. He always knew what was right and what was wrong.

“I just don’t know what to do,” she whispered as a low-grade panic built. “It doesn’t feel right, but I don’t want to let Trace down. He’s expecting me to do it.”

Cassie snorted softly. “Along with seventy-five people, six dogs, one priest, and two photographers. But like I said, not too late.”

Molly didn’t move her imploring gaze from her father’s face. “What should I do?”

“You go out there, Molly, and you look that man in the eyes, and you decide…what’s right for the rest of your life.”

She caught the gleam in his eyes, the spark of humor she knew so well, and the fact that he was having a little fun with the almost hyperventilating wedding planner. “So I’ll just know when I walk down the aisle?” Molly asked.

“Or when it’s over.”

“No, no.” Cassie stepped forward. “Don’t wait until it’s over. It gets complicated.”

Finally, Molly turned and beamed at Cassie. “I always listen to my father. He’s never wrong. I’m ready now. I’ll know when I know.”

The other woman just stared at her. “Hope that’s…soon.” She swallowed and walked toward the double doors, tapping something on her phone.

Molly and her father shared a secret smile and silent laugh, but then he reached down to the bouquet and plucked one single red petal, holding it to her nose.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” He let the petal flutter to the ground just as the doors opened and the first few familiar notes of the Bridal Chorus filled the church. Molly let out a steadying breath, drinking in the moment of finally taking this walk on her father’s arm to that sweet, traditional, well-known song.

As she stepped into the church, Molly gasped softly at the sight of a thousand flickering candles, a filled sanctuary, and the sight of her bridesmaids and Trace’s groomsmen lined up in the front, each with perfectly behaved dogs between them.

Molly and Dad stopped for a second, then glanced at each other, both biting back smiles.

“Your mother would love this,” he whispered.

“I know.” She clutched his arm a little tighter as they started up the aisle, and after she took three steps, she saw Trace.

And almost fainted at the sight.

Trace Bancroft stood like a soldier at attention, one hand on the head of the dog whose life she’d once saved. Meatball sat as regally as the other dogs, proudly sporting a white bow tie to mark his position of honor.

But Molly couldn’t look at the dogs or the bridesmaids or even her own daughter.

She simply couldn’t look away from Trace. His expression was serious—bordering on solemn—but she knew him well enough to know that was just the face of a man who had been dealt so many bad cards that he half expected his good fortune to disappear at any minute.

A man who’d spent almost fourteen years in jail for manslaughter because he’d saved a woman from being raped.

A man who had a daughter he hadn’t known about and had been willing to give her up to make her happy.

A man who had come to Bitter Bark broken and alone and now thrived as a member of this family.

A man who loved Molly Kilcannon with a passion she hadn’t even thought was possible.

A man she wanted to stand beside as a partner, lover, and wife until the day she took her last breath…and even into eternity.

His dark eyes glinted as he pinned them on her, and his strong jaw went slack as if he was overcome by awe. She saw his sizable chest rise and fall with a shuddering breath of disbelief and watched his hand add some pressure to Meatball’s head, and she could practically hear his low whisper as he said something like, “Look at her, Meatman. She’s ours.”

At the thought, a smile tipped her lips, and the second he saw it, one lifted his mouth, too. His grin grew wider and bolder and happier with each step she took. The music faded, the people disappeared, the moment froze, and time stood still as she stared at the man she would call my husband forever.

Somehow, she floated to the front of the church, forgetting everyone and everything but this magical, perfect, time-standing-still moment.

When they reached the altar, Trace took a few steps closer, letting Shane take over his hold on Meatball. Dad turned to him, and the two men faced each other, silent for a moment.

Then her father lifted her hand and put it into Trace’s.

“You, sir,” Dad whispered, “are the luckiest man in the world.”

“I know it,” he said, his eyes on her father. Each man put a hand to the other man’s shoulder. “And I will never, ever take that honor for granted.”

They hugged briefly, then Dad stepped back, and Molly looked up at Trace, her pulse pounding noisily in her head.

He put a hand on her cheek, instantly calming her. “You’re the most beautiful woman in the world, Irish.”

Irish. Did it matter what her last name was when she would wake every morning to the man who called her Irish?

She glanced to her left to hand her bouquet to Pru, who gave her a reassuring wink. Pru…the child conceived in the back of a van on a snowy night nearly a decade and a half ago. Would anyone have dreamed that foolish, wild, impetuous teenage passion would bring them here to this moment?

No. She glanced up at the cross behind Father John and said one more prayer, thanking God for His perfect timing.

Then the priest started to speak, and as the prayers were said and songs were sung and the psalms were read from the Kilcannon family Bible, Molly felt herself slip closer and closer to Trace…cleaved, as the good book said, with the two of them becoming one flesh.

The vows were easy and perfect. She meant every word and watched Trace’s lips as he promised to love, honor, respect, and cherish her. She locked gazes with him as they gave each other wedding rings, and he turned the Claddagh ring that her mother had worn. She held his callused hand and treasured his kind heart and closed her eyes to remember that they already had two children, and their life together was only beginning.

And then Father John pronounced them husband and wife and gave them permission to kiss.

Molly inched forward, holding his gaze, lost in the soul she could see in his eyes, then angled her head for the kiss. He took her face in his hands, holding it tenderly, both of them breathless at the meaning of the moment.

“I love you, Irish,” he whispered right before he placed his lips on hers. He tasted like the tears that he’d shed while making his vows with soft lips that spoke kind words. As they kissed, she could hear the applause and laughter and joy in the room, but all she could feel was the promise sealed by this sacred moment.

When they parted, Father John cleared his throat, mirth in his eyes at the length and feeling he’d just witnessed. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “allow me to introduce…”

Molly braced for the first time she’d hear her new name.

“Mr. and Mrs.—”

Trace held his hand up. “One second, Father.”

The priest went silent, and Molly blinked in surprise, but Trace turned to where Pru stood and reached out his hand. “We are not two,” he said, loud enough for the entire church to hear. “And every vow I just made to this woman, I make to our daughter. Pru?”

Molly’s eyes filled, and Pru’s did the same as she stood frozen by emotion and surprise.

“Be introduced with us?” Trace asked.

“Of course!” She shoved the bouquet into Darcy’s hands and practically flew up the steps to resounding applause and laughter. Trace and Molly situated her right between them. Then Trace nodded to Father John, who was beaming.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he repeated, “the Bancroft family!”

And that felt more than right as the entire congregation stood and a whole bunch of dogs started barking so loud the sound bounced off the stone walls of the church.

After they shared one more kiss, the Wedding March erupted from the organ. Pru gave them both a kiss and scrambled to her rehearsed position, waiting for Dad and Gramma Finnie to start the procession back down the aisle.

As they finally followed, Molly clung to Trace, and he couldn’t stop looking at her.

“I can’t put into words how much I love you,” he said under his breath.

“Then we’re even,” she replied.

“And married.” He slowed his step and turned to her. “Molly Kilcannon, you are my wife.”

Molly Kilcannon.

She blinked back a tear. “My name is…”

“Into the rectory, you two.” Cassie appeared next to Molly, phone at her ear. “Photogs are setting up, line is forming, but there is one more piece of official business. You have to sign the marriage certificate.”

Still holding each other, they let Cassie guide them through the side door a few feet away, where Father John, Gramma Finnie, Pru, and Shane had gathered as witnesses. After a few hugs, kisses, and high fives, Trace put his arm around Molly.

“Let’s make this official,” he said as he led her to the table.

“I feel official already,” she told him.  “Officially the happiest woman on earth.”

In front of them, the photographer snapped the kiss they shared as all the witnesses gathered around, throwing out teasing comments and congratulations.

“You are married in the eyes of God,” Father John said, handing Trace a pen. “Now let’s finalize it with the state of North Carolina. Sign the names you will be using after the marriage.”

“My pleasure, Father.” He took the pen, leaned over the table, and signed his name with a flourish. Then he straightened and handed the pen to Molly. “Your turn, Irish.”

Irish.

She leaned over the table, blinked once, put her pen on the page…and signed.

“Oh wow.” Trace read the name with a little surprise in his voice.

She looked up at him, smiling through her tears. “From this day forward,” she whispered.

“Until death do us part.” He lowered his head, kissed her mouth, and right then, she knew exactly who she was and who she’d always be.

“That sure looks good on paper,” he murmured into the kiss.

“And feels right in my heart.”

And that, she knew, was exactly the advice everyone had given Molly Bancroft all day long.

 

 

 

And they lived happily ever after….