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Darby Jameson’s stomach flip-flopped like crazy as she walked up the beautifully paved sandstone walkway toward the men standing in the retro bandstand-style gazebo, all so darned handsome in their matching tuxedos.
Purple wisteria and a multitude of other flowers echoed colour back from everywhere she looked. The wisteria hung over the gazebo, giving it an ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere.
Darby walked slowly, but not so slowly as to feel uncomfortable. The bride would be in view any second, but for the moment she and Amy, the other bridesmaid, had the audience’s full attention. The tiny three-year-old flower girl tossed random handfuls of rose petals all over the place, making the guests laugh. She kept trying to hold hands with her twin brother who was focused with absolute attention on the little pillow he held between his hands, two glistening platinum wedding rings sitting atop it, tied with a teeny white satin bow.
The children reached the steps of the gazebo and exclamations sighed through the guests.
Darby grinned; she couldn’t help it. Her gaze caught Ryan’s up ahead in the gazebo, best man for her brother. Gabe, the groom, looked transfixed as he caught sight of his future wife. Ryan’s grin matched her own. He winked at her and turned his attention to the bride behind her.
Darby’s stomach somersaulted at that simple little wink. It meant nothing, not really, but it still had the power to make her heart dance and stomach betray her with flocks of butterflies.
The little boy held up the pillow with solemn intensity. Ryan reached down to the little fellow and untied the rings and slipped them into his pocket.
Darby took her place up front and faced the vision coming up the makeshift aisle.
Even though she had helped Emma get ready, Darby’s heart constricted at the sight of her walking up the aisle. A simple off-the-shoulder dress graced Emma’s curvy frame. In the most beautiful champagne gold, it fitted to her figure then flared a little at her waist into a slightly fuller skirt.
Invisible boning of the lining corset, and full-length drawstring ties ending at the small of her back, completed the dress.
The bride’s glorious hair fell in soft waves down her back, unbound, a tiny braid from each temple being pinned back to keep it out of her face.
Darby sighed wistfully. Emma was the epitome of a beautiful bride. She could’ve graced any number of magazine covers and been right at home on them.
Vogue came to mind.
Darby chuckled. Emma would hate that. She was the most unassuming person Darby had ever met and hated being at the centre of attention.
Well, she’d have to suck it up today.
The entire congregation seemed just as smitten with Emma as Darby herself was.
It was as if every single person held their breath as Emma walked past. Faint pink highlighted her cheekbones, her unease at being the centre of attention obvious to Darby. She glanced at Gabe and grinned.
Her brother’s gaze was pinned to his bride-to-be. Absolute adoration shone from his face.
Any doubts anyone may have harboured about his feelings for her were shattered by his expression. The man adored her; it was as simple as that.
An incredibly intense yearning speared Darby, a physical ache deep in her gut.
Would anyone ever look at her like that?
Usually she was pretty upbeat. She never dwelled on things that were out of reach. She was simply too practical for that.
But that—that look, that feeling of being cherished—that was what she wanted.
She snuck a look at Ryan then glanced away just as quickly. There was no use even thinking of going there. He’d never been interested in the past, so there was no reason to think that he would be interested in the future.
One day. Maybe one day she’d have her chance.
Emma reached them and Darby took her bouquet. They all faced the priest and waited for him to begin the ceremony.
Darby couldn’t help the wide grin that had been a permanent fixture on her face the last few weeks.
Ryan flipped her backward in a low dip, totally at odds with the fast beat of the music.
Darby’s laughter disappeared amongst the loud music, swallowed by the noise and general hubbub of the conversation surrounding them.
He pulled her close. She threw her arms around his neck as he swung her off in the other direction across the dance floor.
They stopped at the bar on the other side of the room. Darby struggled to get air deep into her lungs. Ryan grabbed two glasses of cold water and handed her one. His own amusement spilled from his face as he watched her fanning herself to cool down.
“I don’t think I’ve danced so much in my life. You’re gonna kill me.”
Darby glanced at her watch. “It’s only eleven. You’re a bit of a slacker if you can’t keep up.”
“I can keep up all right.” A cheeky grin had her shaking her head.
“You really don’t have to act the fun-time playboy with me. You seem to forget that I’ve known you since I can remember. Flirting with me is a bit pointless, don’t you think?”
Ryan shrugged, his suit jacket having long been relegated to hanging over the back of his chair at the bridal table. Wide shoulders and the smooth planes of his chest stretched the slim-fitted, formal shirt. Darby averted her eyes, too tempted, worried she might do something stupid in front of everyone at her brother’s wedding.
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” He gave her the once-over, a slight smile tilting his wide mouth. He raised an eyebrow. “Who wouldn’t want to have a hot chick on their arm at the wedding of the year?”
Darby shook her head in exasperation. “I don’t know so much about the wedding of the year, but I will take hot chick. Do you have any idea how long it took to get ready?”
Ryan faced her fully. “I’d like to say not long, because you always look good, but I’m guessing from that comment that it took a damn long time.”
The heat in Darby’s cheeks intensified, and it had nothing to do with their spin around the dance floor. She decided to ignore the part where he said she always looked good and went with sarcasm instead.
“Yeah, because being covered in baker’s flour every day is so damn sexy. Can’t you see? I have men dripping from my fingertips. They simply can’t wait to take me out.”
Ryan went to reply, only to be interrupted by the MC calling for everyone to stand as Gabe and Emma headed for the door.
Ryan wolf-whistled as everyone clapped and cheered as the bride and groom passed them. Gabe grabbed her in a tight hug and kissed her cheek.
“Make sure you have a damn good time tonight, Darb.”
He got to Ryan and threw his arm around his neck, pulling him close. “Thanks, man. I couldn’t have done this without you.”
Ryan grinned at his best friend. Darby’s attention was taken by Emma giving her a quick hug, a low thank you being whispered in her ear.
“Any time, dude,” Ryan replied.
“I mean it. You’re the closest thing I have to a brother.”
Ryan’s loud laughter pulled Darby’s attention back. “I think Simon and Max might have something to say about that.”
Gabe laughed and stepped back. He winked at Ryan. “Just behave yourself, hey? Don’t go breakin’ any hearts tonight.”
Ryan’s face tightened and a strange look clouded his eyes momentarily. He shoved at Gabe’s shoulder, pushing him toward the door. “Get outta here. Emma’s waiting for you.”
Ryan rubbed a hand over his face as the door closed behind them. He turned to Darby.
“You know what? I think I might hit the road too.”
Darby looked outside. The cloudy day had given way to a drizzly night, droplets combining to streak down the wide windows. Even though it was late summer, being so far up in the mountains made it cold when it rained.
“Dad brought my car for me. I can give you a lift if you like?”
Ryan nodded. “Yeah, that sounds like a plan. I don’t feel like getting wet today. Are you parked around back?”
“Sure am. Meet you out there at the car in a minute.”
She hurried over to grab her wrap from the coatroom. On the way back she stopped behind her mother, who was speaking with one of her friends from the local CWA, and tapped her shoulder.
Mary turned to look at her daughter, one eyebrow raised. “Going so soon?”
Darby laughed. “Yes, considering I’m the one who drew the short straw to open the bakery in the morning.” She leaned up and kissed her on her cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow sometime.”
Darby looked around as she headed out the back door. The crowd had thinned significantly since Gabe and Emma had left. A few stragglers were left dancing on the parquetry dance floor. Catering staff were cleaning up, towers of glasses and plates stacked precariously in their hands.
Darby walked through the narrow hallway near the kitchen and yanked open the smaller back door. She dug her keys out of her small clutch and headed toward her car, where a relaxed-looking Ryan leaned against it.
He smiled her way, the smile of someone you’d known forever, someone you could trust.
Her stomach tangled in a knot just looking at him. She really had to get over this nonsense. Yes, Ryan was good-looking—very good-looking—but it wasn’t just that. Even though he was a complete tart, he was a good man. You knew what you were getting into with him. He was very clear about it from the beginning, no matter who it was he dated.
No entanglements, no permanency.
He never dated more than one person at a time, and never cheated, but that those dates never lasted more than a few weeks at best.
His friends meant the world to him. He’d do anything for you if you were in his inner circle, a group that was quite small.
He and Gabe had been friends since before she could remember, their mothers having been friends themselves. She’d been included by default at first, until she’d gone from being Gabe’s annoying twin sister to friend in her own right.
Fast forward almost thirty years and here she was—a single woman with a massive crush on her brother’s best friend.
“Oh, how cliché, Darby,” she muttered to herself as she smiled at the man in question and blipped the car door so he could get in.
She dumped her wrap and clutch over the driver’s seat and into the back, then grasped the flowing skirts of her bridesmaid dress and settled herself behind the wheel.
Ryan nodded at her dress. “I’d have offered to drive since you’re enveloped in that mass of material, but I know you’d say no.”
Darby laughed and gunned the engine. “And you’d be right.” She patted the steering wheel. “You don’t like anyone else driving you, do you Boy?”
Ryan shook his head in mock disgust, his grin betraying him. “You couldn’t even be bothered with a real name, just Boy. That’s plain sad, Darb.”
She shrugged. “He likes his name. Who am I to contradict him?”
Ryan leaned back and closed his eyes. “True enough. It was a good night, don’t you think?”
Darby indicated and checked the empty street, then pulled out onto the main road out of town. The little car beetled over the wide bridge and on through the forest on the other side of the lake, huge trees looming either side of the highway enhanced in the moonless night by her bright headlights.
At least it was too late for most kangaroos. They were worst around dusk and dawn, particularly through this section, happily nibbling at the freshly mowed grass on the roadsides.
“Yes. I can’t believe the whole ceremony went off without a hitch! Isn’t it an unspoken law or something that at least one thing has to go wrong?”
Ryan chuckled, his eyes still closed. His face was lit in surreal green from the dash lights. “I was waiting for it. I’m glad nothing did, though. And I even managed to not lose the rings.”
Darby glanced at him again. He’d opened his sexy hazel eyes to look at her, his hair all messed up and his shirt now open at the neck, his bow tie hanging undone either side of his chest. She looked away quickly, pretending to be focusing on the road, when in reality all she could think was that this would be one of the rare chances she’d get to study his face in detail, unobserved.
“Your mum went home early,” she said, to take her mind away from ideas best left buried.
“Yeah. She’s not really the night-owl type. She had a good time though. That’s all that’s important.”
“And also why you were stuck without a lift.”
Ryan’s grin widened. “Exactly. This being part of the wedding party is a terrible burden, you know. No autonomy. Tied to what someone else wants, when they want. No transport of my own, being forced to ride in a limo. It’s all terribly exhausting.”
Darby turned the corner onto Ryan’s road. His driveway wasn’t far from the turn-off.
“It must be awful being in such demand. I mean, if you weren’t so pretty you’d have far more time to yourself.”
Ryan’s laugh sent goosebumps racing over her exposed arms.
Oh for pity’s sake! Stop it.
“Pipe down, Darb. Go home, you’re drunk.”
Her laughter joined his. He hated it when she called him pretty, so she did it as often as possible to annoy him. “I’ll have you know I didn’t have anything barring the toast bubbles.”
Darby glanced at the first house they passed. Julie’s place, Ryan’s mother. The lovely new Queenslander-style home was only a few years old, and pitch dark. She continued slowly past so as not to make any unnecessary noise. She rounded a bend in the driveway and noticed a light through the tree branches, a few hundred metres ahead.
Darby pulled up the car on the gravel drive in the bright area thrown by his porch light. She glanced his way.
He nodded at this house. “You don’t look all that tired. Wanna come in for a coffee?”
“Sure. Why not?”
She almost laughed out loud. That line coming from anyone else at this time of night would make her wonder if it were an invitation to bed.
Coming from Ryan?
No way in hell.
She shoved the disappointment deep and plastered a bright smile on her face. Why couldn’t she have a crush on someone who might actually return the favour?
“You said the magic word—coffee!”
He hurried around to her door while she turned off the engine and unclicked her belt, opening it in a flourish and holding out a hand to help her up.
She followed him into the house and dropped her keys and phone on the hall table, just like she’d done since the day she’d first got her licence. Bill, Ryan’s kelpie, looked up from his bed near the table, thumped his tail a couple of times in welcome, then laid his head back on his paws, eyes closing. She scruffed his neck and entered the kitchen.
Ryan sent her a strange smile from where he stood in front of his fancy coffee machine.
“So, how would you like it?”
End of Excerpt