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Kaye Dacus

Stand-In Groom

Dedication

To my two most loyal readers, Mom and Mamie; and my hero, Daddy. Thanks for believing in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.

Acknowledgments

This book is the product of more than four years of work, and it would be impossible to acknowledge everyone who’s had a hand in it. Special recognition goes to my two grad school mentors, Leslie Davis Guccione and Barbara Miller, who shaped my writing and guided me through the revision process; and to my agent, Chip MacGregor, for working so hard and patiently to help me get it published.

Chapter 1

Nothing like running late to make a wonderful first impression.

Anne Hawthorne left a voice-mail message for her blind date, explaining her tardiness, then crossed her office to the gilt-framed mirror that reflected the view of Town Square through the front windows. At a buzzing jolt against her waist, she flinched, smearing her lipstick.

Great.

The vibrating cell phone chimed out a wedding march. A client. She reached for a tissue to repair her mouth while flipping the phone open with her left hand. “Happy Endings, Inc. This is Anne Hawthorne.”

“I can’t do it! I can’t marry him!” Third call today.

Why had she agreed to be set up on a date the Thursday of a wedding week? If it were just the regular weekly dinner with her cousins, she could skip out and get some work done. “Calm down,” she said to her client. “Take a deep breath. And another. Let it out slowly. Now, tell me what happened.”

Fifteen minutes later, still on the phone, she pulled her dark green Chrysler Sebring convertible into a parking space in front of Palermo’s Italian Grill. She sat in the car a few minutes—air conditioner running full blast—and listened to the rest of her client’s story.

When the girl paused to breathe, Anne leaped at her chance. “I completely understand your concern. But sweetie, you have to remember most men aren’t interested in the minute details of a wedding. Just because he doesn’t care if the roses are white variegated with pink or solid pink, don’t take that to mean he doesn’t love you anymore. Which ones do you like the best?”

“The variegated roses,” the bride-to-be sniffled into the phone.

Anne turned off the engine and got out of the car. The heat and humidity typical for the first day of June in central Louisiana wrapped her in a sweaty embrace. “Then get the flowers you like. He will be happy because you’re happy. Do you want me to call the florist in the morning?” One more change the day before the wedding. Saturday couldn’t come fast enough.

“Do you mind?”

“That’s what I’m here for.” She opened her planner and made a note at the top of the two-page spread for tomorrow. “Feeling better?”

“Yeah. Thanks, Miss Anne. I’ve got to call Jared and apologize.”

“See y’all tomorrow.” Anne made sure her phone was set to vibrate-only mode and entered the most popular new restaurant in Bonneterre. Maybe she should have left the planner in the car, but she would have felt naked, incomplete, without it.

The heavenly aroma of garlic, basil, and oregano mixed with the unmistakable yeasty scent of fresh bread and wafted on the cool air that blew in her face when she opened the door. Her salivary glands kicked into overdrive, and her stomach growled. She really needed to stop skipping lunch.

Winding through the crowd of patrons awaiting tables, Anne scanned faces for the man her cousin Jenn had been absolutely dying to set her up with for months. She’d made a point of watching the local news broadcast on Channel Six last night so she’d know what he looked like. Her right heel skidded on the slatelike tile and she wobbled, her foot sliding half out of the black mule. Anne hated shoes that didn’t stay on her feet of their own accord, but they were fashionable. She righted herself and arrived without further incident at the hostess station.

“Miss Anne!” A young woman in a white tuxedo shirt and black slacks came out from behind the high, dark wood stand and threw her arms around Anne’s waist.

She recognized the girl as a bridesmaid in a wedding she’d coordinated just a month or so ago. What was her name? “Hey, sweetie! It’s so good to see you. How are you?”

The bubbly brunette stepped back. “I’m great. I’ll be getting my degree in August, and I already have job offers from advertising agencies in Baton Rouge and Houston.”

Anne smiled, remembering the girl in a pewter, floor-length straight skirt with a corset-style bodice. The bride had let each of the girls choose which style top they were most comfortable in. Gray bridesmaids’ dresses. Purple and lavender florals and bunting. The Garrity-LaTrobe wedding. Six female attendants. Of course! “How exciting. Congratulations, Carrie.”

“Thanks. Are you meeting someone here?”

“I am, but I don’t see him. The reservation was for seven fifteen under my name.”

The girl ran her french-manicured acrylic nails down the waiting list and stopped at a crossed-out line. “Here you are. They were getting ready to reassign your table, so you got here just in time. Follow me, please.”

Walking through the packed restaurant behind the slender, petite young woman, Anne tried not to feel self- conscious. At nearly six feet tall and doing well to keep herself fitting into a size eighteen, she hated to imagine what others thought when they compared her to someone like this little hostess—five foot fourish with a waist so small she could probably wear Anne’s gold filigree anklet as a belt. When working, Anne rarely thought about her stature or size. In public, though, all the comments and teasing she’d received when she’d reached her full height at age thirteen rushed back into her memory. If only she’d had some athletic ability, she might have been popular and not fallen for a man who’d strung her along until he didn’t need her anymore.

“Here we are.” Carrie gave a bedimpled grin and bounced away.

“Thank you.” Anne chose the chair facing the entry and set her purse on the floor and her planner on the table. She glanced at her watch again. Seven thirty on the nose. Surely her date wouldn’t have given up waiting on her after only fifteen minutes.

“Still waiting on someone?” The young waiter—probably a student at the Bonneterre branch of the University of Louisiana— handed her a thick, faux leather–bound menu.

Not that I want to be. “Yes. He’s probably just running a little late.”

“Can I go ahead and get you something to drink while you wait?”

“Sprite with a cherry and twist of lime, please. Are Mr. and Mrs. Palermo here tonight?”

“Yes, ma’am, I believe the owners are here. Is anything wrong?” Worry etched the young face.

She gave him the reassuring smile she’d perfected over the years of working with nervous brides and frantic mothers of the bride. “No. I’d like to discuss planning a few events with them. But only if they have time. If they’re busy, I can come back early next week.”

His relief obvious, he grinned and nodded. “Yes, ma’am. And I’ll be right back with your cherry-lime Sprite.”

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