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Christmas and weddings. Put them together and it would be enough to send most people into a weak-kneed swoon. All that sugar-sweet sentiment wrapped up in one sparkly package—what could be better, right?
Personally I could think of a whole heap of things I’d rather face: a week without coffee. Root canal therapy. No working oven for a month.
No wait. What was I saying? There’d be nothing worse ever than having no working oven for even a minute and the baker in me almost had apoplexy at the thought. But the terror that thought incited did cut through my panic fog and jerk me back to the issue at hand…
Christmas and weddings.
And the fusion of both into one frothy bauble of tinsel and tiaras. Here’s the thing: The fact that neither the holidays nor weddings rated high on my happy memories list wasn’t Cindy McGleish’s fault—which was one reason I’d not only accepted her invitation, but also agreed to be a bridesmaid at her Christmas wedding.
The other reason was what I heard in her voice when she’d called to ask. She’d sounded, well, desperate—and maybe a bit scared. Desperate and scared?
At what is supposed to be the happiest time of your life?
I’d tossed that thought around for the entire trip from Airlie Falls, my home in Texas, to Colorado. To Pine Lake Lodge to be precise, the vaulted-ceilinged, snow-covered, Christmas-card-perfect chalet that currently housed the assembled wedding party, but I’d arrived just as unsettled as I’d been when I’d begun the journey. Admittedly, not all of that unease was due to Cindy, and my heart squeezed as the other reason, the one I’d been trying not to think about, pushed itself onto center stage. Jonah. The man I adored more than life itself… I wondered what he was thinking right then. Was he already missing me as much as I was missing him?
No, no, no… This week was going to be difficult enough. Torturing myself wasn’t going to help. I just had to get through the next seven days.
Hoping it would help, I moved those thoughts of Jonah and home firmly to the left and focused on my base for the next few days. The lodge itself was much grander than I’d expected; a soaring juxtaposition of styles that somehow melded into something quite beautiful. The modern gleaming cathedral window reaching high into the clouds and dominating the façade settled happily into walls of rough-hewn logs, golden with age, which spoke of pioneer days. At the moment the whole building seemed to rise up and float on mounded snowdrifts so blindingly white I had to momentarily close my eyes in an attempt to adjust to the sight. Strings of colored lights edged every window and outlined the sharp angles of the roofline. In the bright of day, they struggled to lead, simply complementing the huge red bows, wreaths, and pine-bough garlands that graced windows and doors, but even I had to admit that once the sun faded it must be a spectacular sight when those lights became the focus.
I heaved in a deep breath. This place was unadulterated and unapologetically Christmas, and I felt a stirring respect for that. And it didn’t end there. As I arrived at the entrance to the great room a short while later, my concern for Cindy was once more—momentarily—pushed into second place as I absorbed the scene before me. Accepting a Coke from a hovering waiter, I took in the soaring ceilings, elegant Christmas trees, tall, snow-crusted windows, and huge roaring fires that graced each end of the space. From the speaker system, Elvis was softly lamenting his upcoming blue Christmas. It was like walking onto a Hallmark movie set. Surreal.
Until, that is, you added the clumps of people—the select number, including myself who’d been invited to a week of pre-wedding festivities; people who clustered in awkward groupings, and seemed to be swallowed up by the massive room. I wasn’t psychic, but I was picking up a strong impression that not everybody was comfortable being here. Odd. But it was there… There in the way most seemed to be overcompensating—listening too attentively, laughing too loudly.
“Daisy, isn’t it?”
Jerked out of my thoughts, I jumped as I turned to the woman at my elbow. How had she gotten so close without me knowing? That unnerved me even more. She was tall, rail-thin, and coifed and polished to within an inch of her life.
“Um… It’s Rosie, ma’am. I’m Rosie Hart. I’m one of the—ah—bridesmaids.”
“Rosie?” The tone indicated that I should check my details because surely she was correct and I was wrong; surely I was Daisy. But I wasn’t, and when I made no move to acquiesce, she tossed back her head—perhaps with surprise, certainly with arrogance. It was her hair, though, that captured my attention—every strand of those auburn waves swung in unison with the action, which she followed with a careless shrug. There was elegance there, but more than that there was money. Lots of it. “Well, Rosie, Daisy—whoever you are—I hope you found your room to your liking? Cindy insisted you have a room near hers. Are you settled?”
Not yet, but I nodded.
“Good. I’m Selina Holt Delgado McGleish Cartwright. Cindy’s mother.” One eyelid dropped to half-mast—it was a good trick, probably the Boxtoxed equivalent of an eyebrow raise—as she studied me. “Rather olive-skinned, aren’t you? And you’re quite petite…” It was like I wasn’t there. Her tone was speculative. “You’re in the crimson sheath… I do hope you sent correct measurements for your gown; it’s very fitted. Do you retain water?” The last was uttered as she stared pointedly at my Coke. Could she even tell from there that it was full strength and not the diet variety? A second later that thought disappeared when she pinched me! Pinched me!
Who does that? Rubbing my arm, I stared, unable to respond. However, while I mentally stumbled and tripped over her last words, Miz Holt Delgado McGleish Cartwright—didn’t she get tired having to spout that mouthful all the time?—remained oblivious and simply began speaking again. Not conversation. No, this was more of a cross between a lecture and an interrogation. “Hmmm… Do watch your salt intake this week, dear. And why have we never met? Cindy tells me you two were quite close in college?”
Still intrigued by that perfectly behaved hair I subconsciously tugged at my own unruly dark curls, and contemplated my answer. Selina was right to question Cindy’s and my relationship because the truth was we were never all that close in college. We ‘kind of’ hung with the same group but it was a very loose connection. Still, I covered for the girl I was worried about by fudging the facts and hopefully not betraying my own concern. “Oh, you know what it’s like these days; electronic relationships have surpassed physical ones. We’re all so busy!”
I blinked. Was that genuine interest?
She continued, lifting a half-empty wineglass to her lips as she spoke. The delicate crystal twinkled in the shards of blinding sunlight streaming in from outside. “So, what is it that keeps you so busy, Rosie? Cindy mentioned something about a successful business?”
“My bakery business?” I should have felt relief. Normally this was a topic I could talk about for hours, but the question took me straight back to the way I’d left things between my boyfriend, Jonah, and myself and prompted an immediate tightening in my chest. “It… it’s growing. I called the business From the Hart, and we have several businesses we supply now, as well as the market stall, of course.”
At my response a frown tried very hard to mar the perfect lines of that Boxtoxed face, but it was there in her eyes—and she was unable, or maybe unwilling, to disguise the look of distaste that lingered. “A market stall?”
They were the last words she spoke to me. Almost via remote control she quickly hailed someone else and glided away to the nearest group. Obviously I didn’t live up to expectation and I cheekily wondered what she’d have said if I admitted I also dabbled in the solving of murder and mysteries. I suspected I’d have either have been paraded as some kind of parlor trick or shown the door.
I stifled a giggle, refusing to be put off by a society matron, mother of my friend or not, and made my way farther into the room. A drinks and snacks table had been set up on one side under the tall windows and I headed for that. At merely one o’clock in the afternoon, and having had very little food, I again avoided the wines and spirits, topped up my Coke, grabbed a cheese puff and let its creamy goodness melt against my tongue.
“I’m surprised an encounter with Lady Selina didn’t send you straight to the scotch bottle. Or at least a good heady wine.”
Swallowing, I turned to my new companion and smiled, but chose not to answer. Until I knew who everybody was and where they fitted, I figured I should keep my opinions to myself. Instead I held out a hand. “Hi, I’m Rosie Hart. Bridesmaid.” Even as the words left my lips, I wondered how many times I’d be saying that over the next day or so. Probably to every new person I met—which apart from Cindy would be everyone.
He was tall and had a nice face under that shock of orange-red hair. The Christmas sweater with Rudolph woven into the pattern, complete with a plastic blinking nose, stretched across broad shoulders. His answering smile was warm and I decided that until I had reason to think otherwise, he seemed to be an okay guy. There was something solid about him, and call it intuition, but I also had a feeling Jonah would like him too, and again, I wished he was here with me. Oh…And Midge… Yes! A little bubble of excitement jiggled inside me. I was always on the lookout for the right man for my best friend and housemate—people in love seem to have an annoying habit of trying to fix up their friends; at least that’s what she always growls at me, usually accompanied by a back off. Still this time…
“Phil Kingsley,” he said. “Groomsman. Maybe we’ll be paired up?”
Or just maybe there’d be another pairing involving someone else entirely. Maybe if indeed he measured up we could persuade him to visit Airlie Falls sometime? Needing to press back thoughts of organizing this poor man’s life—and risk scaring him off—when he’d barely met me, I offered a careless shrug. “Who knows?”
Taking a sip of my drink, I watched him refill his whiskey glass before we turned to move away from the table. As I did my glance rolled over the other guests. “Are there others here at the lodge or are we wedding people the only ones?”
“Just us. Our lovely bride’s mother and stepfather have rented the whole place for the next five or six days—right up to the wedding. Of course, only the wedding party and a few close relatives are here for this.” He waved his arm to encompass the room. “Then we’ll all be transported down the mountain for what will, no doubt, be the wedding of the year. All the other guests will meet up with us down there.”
I wasn’t deaf to the slight bitterness in Phil’s tone but I didn’t want to prod what might be a sore point, so for the moment I pushed that to the side. “Ahhh so the actual wedding isn’t here? Makes sense. It’s lovely but pretty isolated and I admit I wondered how everybody else would get up here. Especially if we have any heavy snow. It took me almost as long to get up the mountain as it did to get to Colorado from Texas!” He nodded and swallowed down a hefty gulp of whiskey. Given how much Phil knew about the wedding I figured his connection to the groom must have been much close than mine to the bride, so I took the opportunity to have more of my curiosity sated. “Why are we all here anyway? I mean, it’s generous of the family, but…”
“It was the wedding planner’s idea.” He leaned in very close. “Probably added a nice chunk to his already outrageous fee.” He pulled back. “But whatever the real reason, the one he gave was that since the bride and groom came from different states and so many people would supposedly be strangers to each other it would make for a more cohesive wedding if the wedding party and immediate family had time to get to know each other in a relaxed atmosphere.”
I guess I couldn’t argue with that. Even if it was a ploy to line the pockets of the planner, the idea had merit. And who knew? Maybe this wedding would be better than the others I’d been to. Perhaps it was my sigh, or heaven forbid, surely I hadn’t spoken out loud because he side-eyed me, eyebrows raised.
“Did I—” I couldn’t even ask and momentarily I closed my eyes—a ridiculous ploy because that was never going to erase the image of me falling into my own vat of murky skepticism. Not exactly a classy move to diss weddings at the one you’re involved in. “I’m sorry. It’s just that weddings aren’t really my thing.”
Thankfully he was grinning when he responded, “Such cynicism in one so young.”
His tone made me laugh and I relaxed. “Trust me. I still bear the scars from past experiences.” The question in his eyes nudged me on, and tossing wisdom over my shoulder, I explained. “I’ve been bridesmaid at two previous weddings. I was honored the first time, until I realized I was nothing more than a stage prop chosen because, like the other eleven bridesmaids, I was the right height and dark-haired—the perfect foil for the ice-blonde bride. She couldn’t even remember my name on the day. She married some guy with money and it certainly was a spectacle. Made all the papers and one of the glossy magazines.”
“Tell me you didn’t fall for it a second time?” His laughter was better than sympathy and I appreciated it.
Glumly I nodded. “Almost the same scenario.” Disbelief carried on his responding chuckle. “In my defense I thought the first had been some kind of weird anomaly. That second time I don’t know if the bride knew my name or not because she didn’t speak to me all day.”
“Well, maybe Cindy—and Dell’s—wedding will be the one that breaks the curse.” Those few words wiped away all his previous amusement and the sudden change surprised me. I was pondering how to respond but he hadn’t finished. “So here we are. All banging around a near-empty lodge for the next six days.” He raised his glass adding, “To weddings, the good, the bad—and the senseless.”
The toast was delivered softly but that didn’t hide the bitter tone that again underscored his words, and again intrigued me. “So, if you’re a groomsman then you’re a friend of Dell’s? I haven’t met him yet.”
His brow furrowed. “Dell Hueller? You haven’t missed much,” he muttered. His expression was grim and after another gulp of the amber liquid he swirled in the glass, he resumed his normal speaking voice to add, “And, no, to answer your question I’m no friend of the groom. In fact I only just met him myself today. Although…” He shook his head as though to clear it and went on. “I work with Cindy…” His voice faded yet again but after a moment he collected himself and continued. “Apparently the attendants Hueller had organized pulled out, and so a few of us who were Cindy’s invited guests were asked to step up at the last minute.”
I knew there were five bridesmaids and now my curiosity was really piqued. “All five attendants canceled? Isn’t that odd?”
“Well, that’s the funny thing. Hueller has no family or friends coming at all. So, in some ways, the planner’s idea to have us all become best buds was rather irrelevant.”
“What? Dell will have no family at his own wedding?”
As I said that, shame rocketed through me. When and if I married, I’d have no family at my wedding either. That was because apart from parents who had been absent for most of my life as they traipsed around the world joining one protest meeting after another—a pastime that was much more important than raising their daughter—I had no other living relatives. Was Dell in a similar situation?
However, if Phil had heard my blurted question I saw no evidence. He’d shrugged—probably to acknowledge I’d spoken—but his attention was caught somewhere else and while his mouth opened to speak, no sound came out. I followed his line of vision and sucked in a breath. Cindy. His gaze was fixed on Cindy. And fixed was the word. Looking up I watched him carefully and without even seeing it, I knew the moment she’d turned to us, because his face lit up.
Oh my Lord… This man… Cindy’s colleague… He was in love with her? Did he know? Stupid question. More relevant was, did she know?
Watching Phil was painful. All his emotions were there on display. Did he know he was so transparent? It was a relief to look away and be immediately embraced by a squealing Cindy.
“You’re here!” The noise almost burst my eardrums. “Happy Poinsettia Day! I left word that I wanted to be told the minute you got here! Are you unpacked? Are you ready for a week of fun?”
I leaned back and looked at her. She was taller than me—but when you’re five feet four, so were most people. I stared hard up into her face but I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. Certainly there were her classically even features, wide blue eyes rimmed with thick black lashes—all framed by a cloud of blonde hair shot with gold where the sun caught it. I’d expected that. We might not have seen each other face-to-face for years but the occasional times we’d connected on social media had assured me that Cindy was as gently and conventionally beautiful as she’d always been. But now it was like I was looking past that to the woman beyond. But what exactly was I looking at? Was I seeing bleakness there in those beautiful blue eyes? Or was I imagining it? I’d convinced myself she was in some kind of trouble or was worried about something—but the truth was that it might all be my imagination.
By burying her face in my hair, we lost eye contact, but I heard her laugh. “We have so much to catch up on! Later, right? At this moment I need to introduce you to these crazy people.”
Her breath hitched. With her mouth right near my ear there was no way I could miss it. “Of course! He’s the most important crazy person!”
There it was. It was just a flash, an impression gleaned from the slight quiver in her voice but I sensed it again. Worry? Was that it? Or… fear? It wasn’t much but it convinced me I hadn’t been imagining things. Cindy McGleish was worried about something. Of course it could just be wedding nerves, but my instincts were telling me it was more. Something like relief slithered through me. I’d been right to come. Right to follow my instincts.
But what would it cost me?
My chest tightened again.
A sigh shuddered up from somewhere deep and shaky. Couples fight occasionally. I got that. But, my boyfriend, Jonah, and I weren’t really fighters. Not in that sense. We occasionally got passionate over divided issues, and frequently got passionate in other—more pleasurable—ways but we didn’t really fight. We’d always been able to talk through problems or disagreements. But yesterday we’d had out first serious fight and walking out right then, even though this trip had been planned for weeks, felt a lot like running away.
Sensing the presence of someone else, I pulled away from Cindy’s embrace and back into the moment. Now wasn’t the time to dwell on my problems. There’d be time for that later—through the long night to come, for example, where I predicted those problems would keep me from any sleep or rest.
“Dell! Darling!” Cindy threw herself into the arms of a stunningly handsome man who was gazing down at his bride-to-be with eyes that twinkled with mischief and a smile meant just for her. It was such a perfect tableau that once more I doubted my instincts. Surely there could be nothing wrong here?
Dell’s smile seemed to have Cindy transfixed and it was the part sigh, part growl from my left that snapped her back to the present. Phil… Was there anything more soul-destroying than unrequited love? I’d just met the man, so squeezing his arm or offering any kind of physical support would be totally inappropriate, but it didn’t stop me feeling sympathy for him.
When Cindy turned back to me her face was flushed and her eyes—? My thoughts stalled. Were they tears resting on her lower lashes? Maybe happy tears? “Rosie, I want you to meet the man who swept me off my feet—Dellvin Cleveland Adams Hueller.” She giggled. “But we just call him Dell.” Turning back to her man she said, “And this is Rosie Hart! Remember? I told you all about her.”
When Dell turned to me I understood how he’d successfully mesmerized Cindy. He was a man who gave his full attention, making you feel you were the only person in the room. The limpid black eyes that captured you… The dark hair, curly and short, which formed a natural peak that was very European… Tanned complexion complemented by the cream cable-knit sweater under the exquisitely cut, dark jacket that fitted snugly over impressive shoulders. His smile was dazzling—wide and welcoming. His handshake firm but not overpowering.
The man was perfect. A perfect specimen of manhood.
There was no denying that.
But nor could I deny the sense of déjà vu that curled its way through my body. I’d met a man just like this only a couple of months ago. A man who was now dead. And I instinctively hadn’t trusted him either.
I forced a smile and berated myself. This man couldn’t help how God made him, nor the gene pool that had helped along the way—and he wasn’t Dwayne Morris, the man who had calculatingly set out to defraud his elderly so-called aunts. Just because there were physical similarities didn’t mean I could assume they were similar personalities.
Hoping I hadn’t betrayed any of my thoughts I stretched my right hand toward him. “Great to meet you, Dell.”
But if I’d inadvertently made him feel uncomfortable, he was showing no signs. Instead of shaking my hand in the traditional manner, his left hand came up to clasp mine, gently swinging it back and forth in a gesture that was much more intimate. “Ahh, yes! The famous Rosie Hart! I’ve heard all about your college pranks—you gals were outrageous! And about those amazing snacks you used to whip up to keep them all from starving. I have to say I wish there’d been someone like you in my dorm when I was in college!”
We all laughed—as was the polite thing to do, and though I felt Cindy’s eyes on me, I avoided making contact.
Because if I looked at her, I worried I’d give myself away and the questions scampering around in my brain might somehow slip out or at least offer a hint of my concerns. Or perhaps I’d blurt out the truth. The truth being that I had never once been involved in a prank with Cindy McGleish. And I had never baked for her.
What was going on?
I found myself watching Cindy more intently, searching for clues; listening more carefully as she spoke. “Oh, Dell!” she said, grabbing her fiancé’s wrist. “Look! This,” she explained as she fiddled with the catch of a very expensive-looking gold watch, “is my early wedding present to him, but the catch keeps slipping open.”
“Hmmm, I’ll get it seen to straight after the wedding.” Raising his eyes, Dell directed the rest of his words to me. “She even got it engraved, except…” His eyes danced. “Except she put the wrong date for our wedding. She was one day early!”
Cindy blushed and despite his gently teasing tone she was obviously embarrassed. I’d even go so far as to say she seemed distressed by her mistake, but surely it could be rectified? Was it really such a big deal?
The prickling of unease I’d felt from the moment I laid eyes on Cindy was growing into an uncomfortable itch and I was now more anxious than ever to get some time alone with her. Hopefully that would come soon and until then I’d be keeping my eyes and ears open.
However, in the meantime Dell still had me caught in his gaze. For Cindy’s sake I hoped I was hiding just how uncomfortable that was making me feel, and I mentally shuffled closer to Phil Kingsley. If my guess was correct, Dell was a man who liked to play it very cool; a man who liked to control every situation, just as he was right then. “So, are you excited about our fancy dress party tomorrow night?”
This time I didn’t try to hide my true response: bewildered embarrassment. How had I missed that? “Fancy dress? But I didn’t—”
“You didn’t bring a costume? Oh, dear…” Shaking his head, Dell made that clicking noise with his tongue that adults use on naughty children—which did nothing to stem the flow of heat creeping up from my toes and infusing my face.
“I’m so sor—”
Laughter halted my apology. “Rosie, stop. He’s teasing you.” Obviously recovered from the wrong-date debacle, Cindy aimed a playful punch at her fiancé’s shoulder. “You weren’t supposed to bring a costume. We’ve supplied them all—Christmas-themed. It’s going to be such fun. And so festive, don’t you think? I’ve chosen each person’s costume specifically.”
I forced a smile. “Oh. Lovely. And I’ll be wearing?”
Her laughter tinkled over me again. “Oh—that’s part of the surprise. You won’t know until they’re delivered to your rooms. Too much fun, right?”
Too much was the operative term but Dell saved me from answering. “Except for me. I’m coming as Santa Claus! My beloved has honored me by allowing me to be the epitome of Christmas! Isn’t she wonderful?”
“You have to stop telling everybody that!” Cindy’s admonishment was hardly that. “I’ve heard you telling everybody you speak to and it’s supposed to be a surprise!”
Dell tucked her in closer. “I’m proud that you chose me as Santa. What can I say?”
As Cindy crooned beside me, from the corner of my eye I saw Phil shift from foot to foot. Like a man anxious to make a getaway. The movement caught Dell’s attention as well. “So, Kingsley. Enjoying yourself? Not getting confused over which girls are already taken are you?”
Ouch. I felt that jab and I wasn’t even the target. And aha. So, Dell was aware of Phil’s infatuation? Feeling for him, I turned and saw that, typical of people with his coloring, Phil’s face had flushed beet red, clashing with the orangey hue of his hair.
His answer, though, was blocked by Cindy who again playfully swatted her fiancé. “Don’t pick on Phil. He’s lovely and he’d never do anything indiscreet.” She turned to her colleague with a bright, knowing smile and a saucy wink, reaching out to playfully stroke his shirtfront. “I ought to know, I spend most of every day with him.”
What? Shock cannoned through me, jolting my entire focus to Cindy and I searched her face for some kind of clarity. Was she deliberately provoking Dell? Why? Was she testing his devotion? Or once more was I reading too much into that little scene?
No. My first instinct had been correct. It took merely a glance at both men to confirm that if she’d truly been trying to provoke a response she’d succeeded. Phil’s face was burning and the incredulous look he aimed at Cindy told me he was as shocked as I was. On the other side of me, Dell’s eyes had me wanting to move closer to the fire at the end of the room. I swear if I’d put my hand between him and Phil I’d have felt the ice shards spearing across from fiancé to colleague. But if Cindy was happy—or unhappy—with the outcome she showed no sign of it. And that confused me more.
It was a relief when a waiter appeared to announce lunch service and waved people toward what I assumed was a dining room. As others began shuffling forward I reached for Cindy, feeling some insane urge to keep her safe. It was Dell who first broke from the silent battle he’d engaged in with Phil. He stomped away with no thought for his fiancée.
After a muttered apology to us, Phil charged off in the opposite direction, so I pressed Cindy forward and we tagged onto the lazy line wandering toward the room indicated by the waiter. Cindy wasn’t getting off the hook though. “What was that about?” I hissed.
She shrugged. “Which bit?”
I swallowed back my frustration with a sigh. “All of it, I guess, but for starters why did you just create that friction between Phil and Dell?”
Her answering gaze was bleak. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” I repeated. “What were you thinking?”
She swept a hand across her brow, disturbing a hank of fine fair hair that fell forward across her eyes to hang like a soft, filmy curtain. “I truly don’t know.” She suddenly gripped my arm. Hard. “Oh, Rosie… I’m so worried. So frightened. Maybe I just needed to prove to myself that Dell…”
I gently pulled her back, letting two stragglers pass us. They were deep in conversation and hadn’t noticed their guest of honor had allowed them to pass her. “Cindy, what’s going on? Over the phone you insisted it was only wedding nerves I could hear in your voice but it was more, wasn’t it? And it’s why I’m here, right?” I frowned and swept a hand through the air. “We never played pranks or baked together in college. So, I’m figuring I’m here for a different reason than just a college bud who’s been asked to be a wedding attendant.”
She lowered her head, only to raise it again immediately to check that no one was in hearing range. “Okay… I um, I heard about your … your… You know! Your detective stuff. How you solved those murders and everything.”
“I had a feeling,” I muttered, half to myself, praying she was being overdramatic and that no one had already mysteriously died. Or was about to… She either didn’t notice or didn’t acknowledge the shudder that skittered through me at that thought.
“It was through Bethanne Core,” she continued. “When she had the baby I sent her a gift, and she called to thank me and we got talking. She said how you two had caught up when you went out to her family’s security firm and she told me about all the stuff you were doing…”
A waiter passed by carrying a huge tureen of soup. It smelled incredible and my stomach rumbled. That lone cheese puff was calling out for reinforcements. A second waiter followed with a covered dish that reeked of Christmas spices, and I almost passed out. “Okay, so I get that part, but why did you think you needed me?”
“Well, I don’t really know. Maybe I don’t…”
She sighed. “It’s true. Maybe I don’t need you in that capacity. It’s… it’s just this feeling. Like something’s not right. Things have happened…”
The aroma of that soup was still wafting and it was diluting my patience. “Like what?”
This time she drew in a deep breath—and she held it for so long I started to worry she’d be the one to pass out. In other circumstances I’d have considered pinching her (I’d been a breath-holder as a small child and I still had the pinch marks to prove it), but I personally felt there’d already been too much pinching at this wedding party. Thankfully she exhaled and the words tumbled out in a rush. “It’s Dell. He’s been acting really weird. Secretive. I think—I know—there’s something wrong and I’m frightened. I half expected he might have been going to call off the wedding.”
I raised an eyebrow. Hence the ploy to get him to declare his devotion. “And yet he’s here. And he seems happy about it.”
“I know.” There should have been joy in that answer but instead there was desolation.
“That’s the thing,” she answered. “In public he’s just the same but in private he’s aloof and removed. Like he’s worried. I’ve tried talking to him about it but he just brushes me off. Says there’s nothing wrong and it’s all in my imagination. But there’s other stuff…”
I preceded my answer with a shrug, heading for the obvious first. “Perhaps he’s just been preoccupied with work. What does he do?”
“He’s a wealth counselor.”
“A what? Is that like an investment broker?”
“I guess so. Dell says there’s more to it than that; that he’s not just some run-of-the-mill money man,” she explained. “It keeps him very busy. We rarely even get to spend any time together because if he’s not in his office in Wilmington, he’s traveling to see clients.”
I hated the ribbon of concern that curled its way through me as she spoke. I knew they’d only been dating for less than a year and I couldn’t help but wonder how well she knew this man she was marrying. Still, with the wedding just days away, I wasn’t sure it was my place to throw a wrench into the works.
Slipping my arm through hers I began edging her toward the dining room, closer to the food, batting away the images of Hansel and Gretel following their noses instead of a trail of crumbs. “Honey, I think he’s right. It sounds like he has a busy job and maybe he’s just been distracted. Maybe he’s been trying to get some things tidied away before the wedding.” Hope surged within her—it was there in her eyes, even if just for a brief moment, and I stopped to give her a hug. “Look, I’ll keep my eyes open. That’s what you wanted me here for, right?” At that her face colored, but I held up a hand to ward off her denials. “It’s okay. Truly. If I’m honest it’s part of the reason I said yes—because I was worried about you.”
She stood staring at me, her face wreathed in concern and embarrassment.
Squeezing her hand I smiled. “Cindy, this is the most wonderful time of your life so far, and I think you should stop worrying and start enjoying it!”
The smile she returned wasn’t one to rival the sun, but technically it was a smile and that was better than the alternative. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s time to have some fun! Let’s start with lunch; I’m starving.”
The last six words were a balm to my tortured digestive system. The ones before that? Not so much. The shadows that lingered behind her eyes were proof that her concerns ran deep. Mentally I crossed my fingers; all I could do was hope I was right—that Dell had just been distracted by work, and that all my earlier misgivings were totally unfounded. This was her wedding time; she was surrounded by those who loved her and whom she loved in return. I wanted it to be smooth, harmonious, and joyful and for her to bask in all that love.
I didn’t think it was much to ask really.
And then we walked into lunch.
And I was really glad there was plenty of flatware because we’d need it. The old expression you could have cut the tension in the air with a knife had never been more appropriate.
End of Excerpt