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“I feel ridiculous, Lettie.” Tori stood at the edge of the white linen tent with her phone pressed to her ear and her arm held tightly across her stomach. Sand shifted beneath her as she eased her weight from one bare foot to the other.
This was what she got for letting her best friend pick out her outfit. Had she known that she’d been getting all dressed up to spend hours on the beach, she would have foregone her strappy heels for a pair of flat sandals. As it was, she’d left her shoes in the trunk of her car along with the purse she hadn’t wanted to lug around all night.
Thank the Lord this dress had a pocket for her phone.
“It can’t be that bad.”
“I’m at a wedding for two people I’ve never met, thanks to you and Deb,” she whispered loudly. She could hardly hear herself over the blaring music, but the last thing she wanted was to draw even more attention. Fifteen feet away, a crowd of people in khaki shorts and colorful sundresses danced chaotically to “Uptown Funk.” “I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“How is that possible? You’re a wedding planner. You’ve been to a million of them.”
“True, but I’m also usually the one in charge.” She was used to running around in the background, giving whatever orders were needed to make things run smoothly. But this?
She’d never been an actual guest at a wedding before. At least not when she was alone and didn’t know anyone else there. And certainly not when she’d felt so uncomfortably exposed. One curious glance after another shifted to where she stood alone in the corner.
“It’s like I’ve got a giant neon sign over my head or something,” she muttered into the phone.
“What? I can barely hear you.”
Tori threw a tiny scowl at a nearby speaker. She scanned the dancers and small groups chatting around her and met several pairs of eyes. Each flicked away within half a second. Who knew how many more were watching her that she couldn’t see? “Why did you make me come here?”
“The father of the bride is the head of Bedland Shores’s small business bureau. And as the new owner of Planned to Perfection Weddings, it’s good business sense to get our name out there. It’s called networking. Please tell me you’ve been networking.”
“I did network, and it took all of ten minutes out of a four-hour event.” Those ten minutes had been a piece of cake. Tori had never had a problem talking business. It was after the business talk that she struggled. She wasn’t the type to win people over with a smile and some chitchat. That was all Lettie. Which was exactly why she’d asked her best friend to leave her job in public relations and come work for her, handling all the social media and marketing, in the first place. “Isn’t this supposed to be your job?”
“Plus,” Lettie went on, ignoring her question, “Deb and I thought this could be a good chance for you to have some fun. And not in a standing-off-in-a-corner-and-silently-sizing-up-the-competition kind of way.” Tori stared down at her sand-covered feet. After ten years, her friend knew her all too well. “Now I want you to hang up with me, get yourself a drink, smile at a few people, and flirt shamelessly with whatever guy decides to hit on you.”
“No buts, Torrance Schaefer. I know you’re nervous about the meeting with the Bedlands tomorrow morning. So tonight, you’re going to relax and have fun. Promise me.”
There was no point in arguing when Lettie pulled out the full name. “I promise I’ll try.”
“Do better than try. You work way too hard, and you deserve a night off. And that means absolutely no work talk. None. Understood?”
“Good. Now go have fun, and I’ll see you in the morning.” She could practically hear the triumphant grin in Lettie’s voice. “And don’t touch your hair too much or it’ll go flat. Call me if you need a ride home tonight or anything.”
“Will do. Bye.” Tori ended the call before stowing her phone away in the pocket of her sky-blue sundress.
Hang up, get a drink, smile. Socializing and networking may not be her forte, but checklists, at least, she could handle. Tori drew in a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and headed straight for the bar where the bartender appeared to be serving a variety of daiquiris.
Strawberry daiquiri in hand, and after managing a warm smile to the bartender that would make Lettie proud, Tori found one of the wooden support posts at the edge of the tent to hide beside.
A soft breeze rustled and rippled the sheer linen canopy over her head, currently lit with the warm orange glow of the setting sun. Round tables draped with turquoise and white tablecloths lined the edges of the tent, each bestowed with a centerpiece of breathtaking coral calla lilies. Coral had been deemed overdone at her old firm, but even she had to admit that it went beautifully with the turquoise and touches of gold at each place setting. The whole thing was on the small side, nothing compared to the wedding events she’d taken part in in Atlanta for the last ten years, but there was something kind of lovely about the more intimate gathering.
Between settling into her new home in Bedland Shores and getting a handle on the business and office space her mother had given her, she hadn’t had time to look into the town’s only other wedding planner. She knew the business’s name, Narrative Weddings, but aside from that, she knew nothing. One thing Tori was certain of: whoever the woman was, she had an eye for visual detail.
Tori drew her untouched daiquiri to her lips.
“I’d go easy on that if I were you.”
She stopped just shy of taking her first sip as a man peeked over at her from the other side of the wooden post next to her.
His lips curved in a crooked smile that went perfectly with khaki shorts and rolled-up shirt sleeves. His dark blond hair was thick with just enough curl to make it stick up oddly in places. If that grin weren’t enough to take her breath away, those broad shoulders and that square jaw sure did it.
He pushed a pair of dark-rimmed glasses up his nose, then leaned one shoulder against the beam, a poster boy for the fresh-out-of-bed look that matched the casual tone of the wedding perfectly. It was nothing like the classic, sophisticated ambiance Tori generally aimed for with the nuptial events she orchestrated in Atlanta, but there seemed to be a few perks to the more laidback approach. Case in point…
“S-sorry, what was that?”
His eyes glittered with a playful twinkle she suspected had little to do with the round paper lanterns just turning on overhead. “The drinks. I know the bartender, and he has a tendency to make them a little strong.”
“Is that so?” she asked, studying the innocent-looking pink drink in her hand.
He nodded toward the sea of dancing figures in the middle of the tent. “Just ask the groom over there.”
She searched the crowd, expecting to find the man she’d seen waiting with a sweaty forehead and shaking hands at the end of the aisle for his bride only hours ago. Sure enough, he stood in the middle of a dance circle, but any sign of his earlier nerves had vanished as he swung his hips haphazardly from side to side with complete abandon.
“Maybe he just got started a little early,” she offered. “You know, wedding day jitters.”
“Does the pastor usually get wedding day jitters too?”
Tori’s eye caught on the older man who’d elegantly officiated the ceremony, now flailing about on the ground as he attempted—and failed—to do the worm on the uneven sand floor.
She set her drink carefully on the table next to her. “Point taken.”
He chuckled, offering her his hand. “I’m Wyatt.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Tori.”
“You too.” Did he hold her hand for an extralong beat before releasing it, or was that just time slowing as her heart started racing? Geez, the way she reacted to him anyone would think she was already a few daiquiris in. She hardly recognized her own thoughts.
She took a small step back and mentally shook herself. “Are you close to the bride and groom?”
He shrugged. “We all grew up together, but I wouldn’t call us particularly close. I’m mostly here in a professional capacity.” He shoved both his hands into his pockets, the movement jostling an expensive camera she hadn’t noticed hanging around his neck.
“I see.” So he was the photographer hired to shoot the wedding? Made sense as to why he was hanging around at the edge with her instead of losing himself in the thick of it like the rest of the guests. If he turned out to be good, maybe she’d consider hiring him for some of her events. Though she usually had a strict rule about using only the best vendors and photographers, the ones who had the experience, not to mention the notoriety, to guarantee the smooth, perfect wedding her clients and their guests always expected.
Still, she might could make an exception for Mr. Handsome Dreamy Eyes here.
“What about you, Tori? Did you go to college with the bride and groom?”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because this is a small town where everybody knows everybody, and I do believe I would have noticed you before now if you were from around here.” Well, that explained all the staring and attention she’d been getting. Her neon sign theory hadn’t been so far off after all. “Did you all go to Valdosta State together?”
“I’m afraid not. I’ve actually never met either of them. It was my mother’s assistant’s invite.” Her assistant now, technically. “But she couldn’t make it, so I agreed to come in her place. My friend decided it would be good for our new business, seeing as we only just moved here.”
“Oh yeah? What’s your business?”
She’d already told her story a few times in the week she’d been in Bedland Shores. How she had worked for a company in Atlanta for the past ten years. That her mom had run Planned to Perfection quite successfully in the small coastal town for almost as long before deciding to step down and hand over everything she’d built to her only daughter.
Coming into a new town full of strangers wasn’t easy, and work had been Tori’s go-to whenever she felt unsure what to say. And yet, standing here with Wyatt as the sun set over them, work was the last thing she wanted to talk about. Or could talk about, come to think of it.
“Unfortunately, that same friend made me promise not to talk about work tonight under threat of injury. And Lettie tends to take promises very seriously.”
“I take it you’re the workaholic type?” he asked with what sounded like genuine curiosity as opposed to the tone of judgment she was used to.
“Something like that.”
Wyatt laughed, causing a fresh wave of warmth to spread through her chest. He stood tall and faced her. “Well, I’d certainly hate for you to sustain bodily injury because of me. So let’s make a deal. I promise not to ask you about work or your business, ultimately saving you from your friend’s unbearable wrath. If…”
His eyes twinkled again. “If you agree to get out of here with me right now.”
“Now?” Tori’s eyes fell on the camera hanging from his neck. “I thought you were here for a job. You can’t just leave early.”
“Why not? The hard part’s over, and I’ve got people who can handle the rest.”
That playful gleam in Wyatt’s eye was back in full force. Lettie did tell her to have fun tonight. But running off with a stranger in a town she didn’t know probably wasn’t what her friend had in mind. “What would we do exactly?”
His grin doubled as if he knew she’d already given in. “Well, with you being a newcomer to Bedland Shores, I feel it is my civic duty to show you around the town. Help you get to know your new home.”
“At seven o’clock at night?”
“There really is no time like the present.” He took a step closer. “Come on, what do you say?”
She bit her lip, her eyes searching his bright ones. This was probably a bad idea. She should be spending the rest of her night prepping for her morning meeting. But for the first time, her brain was battling against something even stronger, a bubble of excited energy in her chest and a strange desire in her gut to trust him, to see where this went.
“Okay. Let’s do it.”
“Perfect. Let me tell some people I’m done for the night, and then we’ll go.”
Wyatt disappeared, and Tori took the opportunity to steal a quick sip from the daiquiri she’d left on the table to try to settle her nerves.
She coughed against the rage of pure fire that licked down her throat. Holy crap, he wasn’t kidding! The glass hit the table with an unceremonious thunk. She scanned the tent for Wyatt, spotting him talking to a man with shoulder-length light-blond hair and a full sleeve tattoo in charge of the DJ booth. A friend of his?
Wyatt patted him on the shoulder and made his way back across the sandy dancefloor, his fancy camera now missing from around his neck. “You ready to go?” He offered her his hand, and she took it with only minor hesitation. The second their hands met, any doubts melted away.
“Then today is your lucky day,” he said as he gently led her from the tent.
He looked back over his shoulder. “Because I am a fantastic tour guide.”
End of Excerpt