by Cate Lord
Jessica Devlin isn’t looking for love. Heartbroken after being dumped by her unfaithful ex-fiancé, she’s determined to have a fabulous time during her vacation in England where she’ll be maid-of-honor at her cousin’s wedding. After working overtime as beauty editor of Orlando’s O Tart magazine, avoiding dating, and putting on ten pounds, Jess is ready to toss her past like an empty lipstick tube and party like a single gal.
But when she steps into the church on her cousin’s wedding day, she sees the one man who could sabotage her plan—James-Bond-gorgeous Nick Mondinello. She’s never forgotten the London marketing exec who held her in his arms after her beloved grandfather’s funeral two years ago. Ambitious, and lusted after by women everywhere, Nick is completely wrong for guarded, Plain Jane Jess.
Could Spy Man Nick ever fall for her? Nope. Not unless Jess is one lucky girl.
Title: Lucky Girl
Author: Cate Lord
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 268 pages
Launch Date: September 2011
ePub ISBN: 978-1-937044-20-6
Print ISBN: 978-1-937044-21-3
Praise for Lucky Girl:
“Fun, fast-paced, fabulous. Jess Devlin is an American Bridget Jones!”
- New York Times bestselling author Lori Wilde
“A fun and sassy read!”
- USA Today bestselling author Katherine Garbera
© 2011 Cate Lord
Early June, Present Day
“Hey, Jess. If these two lipsticks were gorgeous guys asking you out on a date, which one would you choose: Mauve Mitchell or Plum Paul?”
I dragged my gaze from my computer screen. As my concentration vanished, the hum of conversation in the open-plan office and clatter of the photocopier flooded into my thoughts. The insightful sentence forming in my mind that would have added soooo much to my half-written article on the latest waterproof mascaras… Gone. Argh!
“What?” I squinted up at redheaded Miranda, my closest friend among my colleagues at O Tart, the Orlando-based monthly beauty and fashion magazine. She leaned her hip against the side of my desk—not that slim, fit, work-out-at-the-gym-four-times-a week Miranda had what I’d call hips.
Not compared to mine, anyway.
In her purple-nailed fingers, Miranda held two small plastic bubbles of lipstick attached to information cards. I recognized the testers. They’d landed on my desk last week amidst the deluge of catalogs, invitations, and cosmetic samples I received as the magazine’s beauty editor.
I’d passed the shimmery mauve and dark plum testers on to Miranda because I’d already tried enough of that makeup line to write a review for an upcoming issue. And, as evidenced by her sparkly purple eye shadow, purple dress, and purple jewelry, Miranda worshiped purple.
Clearly sensing I hadn’t wrapped my brain around her question, she said, “If these two lipstick testers were smokin’ hot guys—”
A yawn broke past my lips.
“Oh, forget it,” Miranda said with a huff.
“I’m sorry, Mir—”
“No you’re not, Jessica Devlin.”
I raised my trembling hand in protest. Maybe I shouldn’t have downed that fourth humongous cup of coffee to help me stay awake. “I am sorry. Really.”
Miranda arched a plucked eyebrow—a gesture I recognized as a silent demand for an explanation. She was probably hoping I’d admit to a torrid late-night affair, that I’d divulge all the intimate details about the man who’d kept me busy way past my bedtime. That was so far from my reality, I could cry. The best I could offer her was a more heartfelt apology.
“Look, I didn’t get much sleep last night. I was up until three o’clock writing and scheduling posts for the beauty blog. It gets a lot of traffic, and I didn’t want it to be neglected while I’m on vacation.”
“Mmm,” Miranda said, in a faintly distracted tone.
“I still have two articles to finish before I leave today. I need to do laundry, and I haven’t started packing even though my flight to England is tomorrow afternoon. Oh! And,” I glanced at my watch, “I have a twelve o’clock appointment for the final fitting of my dress.”
“Is that all?” Miranda rolled her eyes, yet I saw a hint of sympathy in her gaze.
“No, actually. My mom’s meeting me at the dress shop. When I’m done, we’re going to lunch. It’s my last chance to see her before I leave. Anyway, after lunch, I’ll be right back here, butt in chair, until all my work is finished.” I raised an eyebrow at her. “Don’t let me forget my appointment. Promise?”
“Promise.” Miranda’s mouth curved into a sly smile. “As long as you bring me a souvenir from England.”
“Sure. I intended to, anyway.”
“Yay.” Her smile turned wistful then she sighed. “Lucky you. Leaving for two whole weeks of vacation. No phone calls, boring staff meetings, impossible deadlines…” She wrinkled her nose. “I’m so jealous.”
“Now you know how I felt when you deserted me last summer to get married and go on your honeymoon.”
Miranda shrugged. “That was different.”
“I’m not going to feel guilty.” I gave her a mock glare. “This is the first vacation I’ve had in over two years. I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.”
A deeply buried pain nudged my heart. I looked at my computer, where five new emails had popped into my inbox. Two years since I’d had time away from the office. That vacation, too, had been spent in England, but with my ex-fiancé, Stan.
Hell, I would have taken time off long before now, but after Stan and I had gotten engaged—almost fourteen months ago—I’d put all ideas of a vacation on hold. I’d hung onto my vacation time, so we could book the same weeks off for our nuptials and lusty honeymoon in the Bahamas.
And then, four months ago, he’d broken my heart.
Correction—crushed it to a bloody pulp, the two-timing bastard.
In the aftermath of his betrayal, I’d wanted to take time off work. But when I’d left the apartment Stan and I had shared, tears streaming down my face, I’d sworn that I was not going to waste one vacation day on the anguish he’d caused me.
After moving into a rental house that I decided to buy, there were more bills to pay, plus debts for my not-happening wedding. Now that I was finally in a position to take a vacation, I was going to make the most it.
“You okay?” Miranda asked.
I snapped my gaze back to her and forced a bright smile. “Just tired.” I glanced at my watch again. “Forty-two minutes until I need to head out.”
“Jess.” Her voice softened. “I mean, are you okay with going to your cousin’s wedding? I know you had, well, doubts.”
The hurt inside me wove deeper. “I did, but I plan to have a good time. A very good time, for a gal who’s twenty-nine and single.”
“Good. You deserve to have some fun. You know—”
A phone bleeped. The sound came from Miranda’s desk, a short distance away, next to another cluttered desk where a dark-haired intern leafed through a stack of files. Miranda thrust her finger at me. “I’ll be right back.” She hurried over and answered the phone.
I swiveled my chair to face my computer. I really should try to add a few more sentences to this article, which seemed to be taking forever. But as I stared at my monitor, waiting for inspiration to return, my gaze slid to the figurine beside my pen holder—an adorable, three-inch-high penguin dressed in a white shirt and tuxedo with tails, holding a bouquet of red roses. Plucky Penguin. A clever spy, and the main character of the old British TV cartoon, The Adventures of Plucky Penguin. Twenty-three episodes had aired before the show was canceled.
Smiling, I picked him up and ran my finger over the cool porcelain. Not a single chip—and I intended to keep him that way. How I loved this figurine and the others carefully wrapped and stowed in a box under my bed. Among them was Plucky Penguin’s sidekick, Chicky Dee, a perky female spy penguin with coiffed blonde hair.
Plucky Penguin might have flirted with every bird in sight, but Chicky Dee was the only one he loved. Mistress of ingenuity, she’d wiggled her way out of every nerve-racking situation using her nifty spy-girl gadgets, red-lipped smile, and sharp-as-a-broken-fingernail wits—and saved Plucky Penguin’s feather-covered ass more than once.
Grandpa George, father of my British-born dad, had introduced me to Plucky Penguin and the collectible figurines when I was twelve. After my parents divorced on terms even worse than nasty, Grandpa had become the most important person in my world. In my wild-child-teenager years, he’d been my foundation in an existence cracked by emptiness and hurt. I still treasured his letters, tucked away with the figurines.
He’d died of a heart attack two years ago, just shy of turning eighty. No way would I have missed his funeral, and Stan had flown with me to England so I could say my final good-byes. Anguish ran through me, and I tightened my hold on the figurine. I’d never forget the pain of my grandfather’s death.
The reason for the trip had been heartbreaking, yet it had given me the chance to reconnect with my English cousins. We’d gotten along great, and had kept in touch ever since.
Definitely a trip I’d always remember. Although, I really wish I could forget one part of it. The part that had happened at the pub the day after the funeral—one of the most mortifying moments of my entire life.
But there was no point worrying about it, or the gorgeous stranger who’d come to my rescue when Stan was busy guzzling beer. I’d never see that guy again.
If I ever did see him again… Oh, my God, I’d simply—
The speaker on my phone beeped, making me jump. “Jess,” Miranda said. “Want to get some coffee?”
I spun my chair toward her desk. “You are so lazy. You could walk the five steps over to my desk and ask me.”
She grinned. “Yeah, but you might say ‘no,’ and then I’d have to walk the five steps back.”
Judging by my shaky hands, I didn’t need one more drop of coffee. But another yawn tickled the back of my throat. “You know I’m going to say yes. I have to stay awake. And I have to get some work done, or I’ll never be able to go home tonight.”
We walked together to the small kitchen with cracked vinyl flooring, a beige refrigerator from the 1980s, a fifteen-year-old microwave, and a plastic table and four chairs.
Natalie, a slender, twenty-something blonde, stood in the kitchen. Formerly in Advertising, she’d transferred to the Editorial Department a few weeks ago. She’d just taken a chilled bottle of spring water and a grapefruit from the fridge.
“Hi, Natalie.” I crossed to the coffee maker, poured Miranda a cup, then filled one for myself.
I turned toward the doorway just as my gray-haired boss, Mr. Stevens, walked by. He wore his familiar slick, black suit with a white shirt. His brooding gaze met mine, and he came to an abrupt stop.
“Jess.” He leaned into the doorway. “Those articles. When will you have them to me?”
Ack! “I’ll email them to you by the end of the day. I’ve got graphics to run with the stories too.”
“And the blog posts?”
“Done, as promised. I have them scheduled to run while I’m away.”
“Good.” He smiled at Natalie, who sipped her water, then shifted his attention back to me. “This afternoon, I’d like you to give this lovely young lady here”—he tipped his head toward Natalie—“a quick rundown of your job. She’ll be covering for you while you’re away—opening your mail, answering your email, taking your phone calls.”
A weird chill ran through me. I fought the urge to cast Miranda a what-the-hell glance. “Mr. Stevens, I really don’t think that’s necessary. I thought we’d agreed—”
“Change of plans. Two weeks is a long time to have a staff member out of the office.” He straightened, tugging down his jacket sleeves. “Make sure you set an auto reply on your email with Natalie’s contact information. Okay?”
“Oh, and if I don’t see you before you leave tonight, have a good time in England.”
“Thanks.” God, it was hard not to scowl.
Stevens walked away, and I turned my gaze to Natalie. She smiled, her glossy, scarlet-painted mouth too perfect to be real. In fact, everything about her looked model perfect—straight teeth, tailored red suit, white blouse with silver buttons, and shiny black heels.
Thanks to Miss Beauty Pageant, I felt positively… inadequate.
“This afternoon, then,” she said. “What’s a good time for you, Jess? Shall we say—”
“Perfect. I’ll see you then.” She strolled out of the kitchen.
Miranda raised her eyebrows, as though about to launch into a hushed discussion about Natalie. I didn’t have time to talk. I had to get my work done. I was not going to give Stevens one reason to complain about my being away for two weeks—especially when, after eight years at O Tart, I was in line to become Managing Editor when the position opened.
I spun on my heel, headed back to my desk, set down my coffee, and dropped into my chair.
With a faint crackle of static, my monitor woke up.
“Waterproof mascara,” I said under my breath, focusing on the screen. “Come on, Jess. Write something brilliant.”
Just as the words finally began to flow, my cell phone trilled. I fished the phone from my purse and glanced at the number. Recognizing it—and the time displayed on the screen—I groaned.
“Appointment,” Miranda called from her desk.
“Hi, Mom,” I said into the phone. I closed my document, grabbed my purse, and dashed for the door. “Yes, I know. I’m on my way.”
“What do you think?” the seamstress asked.
I stood in front of the shop’s three-way mirror, under the glare of bright lights. She adjusted the drape of the shimmering, peach-colored gown that touched the carpeted floor and covered most of blowsy, unfit me.
Regardless of the alterations she’d made to the dress, this tight-bodiced, puffy-sleeved abomination didn’t suit me. I doubted it would look good on any twenty-first century gal with a bra size over 36C. It transformed me into a double D. Maybe even an E.
Whoa, mama. Just watch me strut into that English church, boobs first, displaying my busty bounty like a voluptuous, carved goddess on the prow of an old Viking ship.
Smoothing my hands down over my belly, I turned for a profile view. Gah! How had I let my stomach get so plump? Why, after Stan left me, had I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I craved it? Proof of all those reckless snack fests stared back at me.
“You are unhappy with the fit?” The woman sounded disappointed.
“No, you’ve done a great job.” I couldn’t bear to explain that my dissatisfaction had nothing to do with her skill, and everything to do with me.
She reached for a side seam, as if looking for a way to take the dress in another half-inch and thereby make me look slimmer. A sniffling sound came from behind me. My gown rustled as I turned to look at my mom, sitting on a chair beside a long rack of clothes to be altered. The bright lighting accentuated the gray in her honey-colored, shoulder-length bob.
She wiped her eyes then rummaged in her purse.
“Are you okay?” I asked, crossing to her. Although I loved my mother dearly, she could be a bit of a drama queen at times. However, she’d told me a few weeks ago she was going through menopause—although I’d already guessed—and that she couldn’t help her emotional outbursts.
Whatever the reason for her crying, I hated to see her in tears. It stirred up those painful memories of being twelve, and the months after my dad had left us. I’d stood outside her closed bedroom door in the middle of night, listening to her cry. How badly I’d wanted to help her, but hadn’t known what to do.
She flicked her hand at me. “I’m fine, honey. Make sure your dress is the way you want it.”
Her brisk tone told me she didn’t want to discuss what was bothering her. Not here, anyway. Later, at lunch, I’d likely be subjected to every last detail.
As I turned back toward the mirror, my gaze landed on the gauzy, beaded wedding dress lying on a nearby table. Suddenly, I knew why she was upset. If Stan hadn’t left me, she and I would still be at the seamstress’, only I wouldn’t be busting out of a maid-of-honor gown. I’d be wearing my wedding dress.
Pain cut into me. No. I would not allow myself to get all teary eyed, too.
I walked back to the mirror, welcoming the anger I saw in my eyes. Anger that had kept me going from the moment I’d found out Stan had screwed one of the receptionists from his office—in our bed, no less—while I was working late to meet a deadline. My wedding dreams had dissolved in a cloud of choking dust.
Even now, I heard his voice, as though he sat on my shoulder and taunted, “Could you blame me? You weren’t home. Besides, she’s a hell of a lot better in bed than you.”
As the hurtful words had poured from his mouth, my fingers had itched to get hold of Chicky Dee’s Instant-Ice Zapper gun, to pull the trigger and freeze his mouth along with every other unfaithful part of him—until I’d chosen to unfreeze him.
Which might have been never.
A tug on the back of my gown brought my focus back to the seamstress, cutting a loose thread from the hem. I shoved away all memories of Stan. I had a lot more important things to think about, like finishing my articles so I could finally take my vacation.
The seamstress stood.
“The dress is fine,” I said. “If you don’t mind, I’m on my lunch break. I need to get back to work as soon as possible.”
“Of course. I’ll get a garment bag for your gown while you get dressed.”
I started toward the fitting room, and Mom came up beside me. “You look very nice, Jess.”
No, I didn’t. But, being an ever-supportive mother, she offered me the encouragement she thought I needed. For that, I was grateful.
Her eyes looked dry now, and the familiar sparkle in them had returned. She guided me toward the fitting room in that no-nonsense, motherly way. “Let’s go to that Italian restaurant down the street for lunch. The one that makes that fabulous tiramisu.”
My stomach gurgled in appreciation. Tiramisu was one of my top five favorite desserts, as she well knew. It was also loaded with calories. I didn’t dare put on one more pound before my vacation.
“Mom, I can’t take a long lunch today. I have to—”
“I know, you need to get back to the office. You can’t skip lunch, though. That Stevens doesn’t expect you to work on an empty stomach, does he?”
God, I hate my boobs.
I frowned at my reflection in the gilt-framed mirror hanging above the sinks in the English church bathroom. The mirror looked oh so very elegant paired with the floral-print wallpaper. But then, there was me. I was no pretty English rose like each of my cousins, but a nondescript-looking American gal squeezed into a hideous maid-of-honor gown.
I’d secretly hoped for a miracle during the nine-hour plane flight from Orlando. Maybe, just maybe, I’d arrive in England a slimmer, prettier me. Maybe, just maybe, I’d have grown to adore my dress.
That miracle clearly wasn’t happening any time soon.
Trying not to listen to the peeing noise coming from the bathroom stall behind me, I silently pleaded for my cousin Charlotte to hurry up.
Sticking out my tongue at my reflection, I tugged at the peach silk stretched as tight as plastic wrap over my breasts. My boobs looked like two fat blobs straining against the silk. Thanks to the cool interior of the old stone church—brr, so different from hot, muggy Florida—my nipples made round bumps under the fabric like two olives stuck on top for decoration.
Jess, the giant peach, with bonus pitted olives.
Exhaling on a huff, I tugged again. The fabric refused to budge. Not even one teeny, forgiving pucker.
I swallowed a groan and tried to ignore the organ music floating in under the main bathroom door. In a few short minutes, I’d be walking up the aisle in Tilly’s fairy-tale wedding. The whole family knew the classic story of how she’d fallen in love with a rich hottie from London, whom she’d met in one of her university courses.
Hurt pierced somewhere in the vicinity of my heart, a stupid, senseless anguish over my own fairy-tale wedding that had never come to be. An icky feeling—like I’d swallowed a foot-long slug—slid down into my stomach.
Had I made the right decision to come to this wedding? It was kind of late to have regrets, but should I have been smart like Chicky Dee? She wouldn’t have had a single qualm about calling her English relatives the day of her scheduled flight to say, “You won’t believe what happened. I busted my ankle. How? Well, I was leaving the O Tart office yesterday when I saw a turtle plodding across the scorching hot parking lot. I dashed off the sidewalk to rescue it, and… snap. One broken ankle. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think I’m up to flying.” Yesss! The perfect excuse to have stayed home, ordered pizza every night, and overindulged in sitcom reruns.
No, Jessica Devlin, an annoying voice inside my head piped up. You agreed to be the maid of honor because Tilly is a wonderful cousin and she wanted you to be in her wedding party. Plus, you haven’t had a vacation in forever. You need to get a life.
Sheesh. Life was pretty sad, indeed, when I agreed with voices inside my head.
Studying my reflection again, I tweaked my blah brown hair, coiled up in a french twist with wispy strands curving down by my cheeks. Under my breath, I recited the mantra I’d invented on the long plane flight to England. “I, Jessica Devlin, will have a fan-damn-tasic vacation. I will not wallow in the smelly cow pies of the past.”
In those tedious hours of traveling, I’d assigned myself a mission—to become as resourceful as Chicky Dee. To use this vacation to explore beyond my humdrum comfort zone. I’d return home a revitalized, more confident Jess.
I smiled at myself in the mirror and did a slow, sassy wink just like Chicky Dee’s. At the reception later, I hoped to get a good British kiss—a “snog” as they called it this side of the pond—and any other sensual delights that might lead to.
I let the posh-sounding word roll over my tongue. “SSSnnnooogggg,” I said softly to the mirror before pursing my lips in a perfect Chicky Dee imitation. “SSSnnn—”
A loud gurgling noise erupted behind me.
The bolt on the door behind me clicked. My nineteen-year-old cousin, Charlotte, walked out of the stall, smoothing her dress.
She squinted her blue eyes at me. “Did you say something?”
Ack! “No.” I rubbed my lips together, pretending to blend the Estée Lauder lipstick Mom had given me out of a gift with purchase because she’d already gotten the shade.
Charlotte was still staring at me. “Are you sure you’re all right? You were squishing up your lips.”
Double ack! I shoved stray hair back behind my ear. “Just fixing my lipstick.”
She giggled. “It looked like you were going to kiss the mirror.”
I rolled my eyes, hoping my dramatics would put an end to my cousin’s musings. “Why would I do that?”
She shrugged, crossed to the sink, and switched on the hot and cold taps to wash her hands. How pretty she looked, her long blonde hair pinned up, her slim figure outlined by her peach dress. Like an angel from a Victorian painting. Even her name was elegant. I imagined my Aunt Cleo saying “Charlotte” in her posh accent—Shaaahhh-lotte—a verbal mélange of Arabian prince and onion.
Charlotte’s lips were tinted with sheer, apricot-colored lip gloss. With her fair coloring, she’d look dynamite in the lipstick sample I’d tested the other week, a claret red called Throb.
But judging by her virginal demeanor, I guessed Charlotte hadn’t throbbed a man yet, so maybe that wasn’t appropriate. Besides, the shade was better suited for slinky black velvet than peach silk.
“I’m so glad you could be here today,” Charlotte said, a lavender scent wafting up from her soapy hands. “It means a lot to Tilly.”
“I wouldn’t have missed her wedding. I’ve really looked forward to it.” Hell, I didn’t even blush. When had I learned to lie so easily?
I was becoming as wily as Stan, the Two-Timing Jerk.
No. Not quite. It was no lie I was a sucker for a good party with lots of gin. Or margaritas. Or piña coladas. Or—
Charlotte turned off the water. “At least you’ll have a break from your busy job.” She reached for a paper towel, then dried her hands.
“Yes. I had to get my articles for the August issue written before I left, though. My ‘Mascara Madness’ write-up—”
“Mascara! Oh, thanks. I knew I’d forgotten to fix something.” Charlotte squinted at her reflection and swiped at her lower lashes. Then, with a satisfied sigh, she stepped away from the mirror and smiled at me.
“What? Do I have lipstick all over my teeth?” I bared my pearly whites for the mirror.
“No, Cuz. I was just thinking now pretty you look.”
“Really?” I didn’t mean to sound so astonished.
Was I the only one who saw how boob-squishingly awful I looked in this gown? A tiny bubble of relief floated up inside me.
Then again, would sweet Charlotte really tell me if I looked hideous?
She blew out a shaky breath. “I’m nervous. Are you?”
“A bit.” As in, yeah, a whole lot.
“I’m so happy you came to England, Jess. It seems like forever since…” Her voice trailed off to awkward silence, but I knew what she’d planned to say—since you and Stan visited for Grandpa George’s funeral.
Another memory of the gorgeous stranger who’d comforted me all those years ago teased my thoughts. How dumb, to keep thinking about him. Honestly, what was the point? There had to be a one-in-a-gazillion chance I’d ever see him again. “There was no way I’d miss a favorite cousin’s wedding.”
“You’ll recognize a few blokes in the wedding party. I remember you met some of Tilly and Andrew’s friends last time you were here.”
“That’s right. Who—”
The main bathroom door flew open, and my Aunt Cleo—wife of my Uncle William and mother of Charlotte, Tilly, and my other cousin, Anna—hurried in. Plumpish and round faced, she looked elegant in her sage green chiffon.
Aunt Cleo was my dad’s sister. I saw a shadow of him in her smooth brow and generous mouth, but their resemblance stopped there. My dad didn’t have the courtesy to reschedule his two-month trip to South America with his latest bit of fluff, yet Aunt Cleo would never miss a young relative’s wedding. I had fully expected her to cross the pond for mine.
Peering into the mirror, she patted her blonde hair streaked with white-gray. “Is my hair all right?”
“Yes,” Charlotte and I said in unison.
“Be honest, you two. Has it gone frizzy again?”
“It’s perfect,” I said. Considering the gallon of hair spray I had spritzed on her updo earlier, it should stay put for a month.
“Thank you.” Her cultured, British-accented voice sounded close to panic overload. She glanced at me and Charlotte. “Tilly’s arrived. Come on.”
My stomach twisted. The big moment loomed.
Taking careful steps in my glitzy sandals with three-inch heels, I followed Charlotte out into the foyer. My uncle helped the ushers—all young, fit, and GQ handsome—to direct arriving guests. A little flower girl toyed with the fresh daisies in her basket tied with ribbons, while her mom tweaked her curly ringlets.
The church door stood open. Light spilled in, tingeing the old wood paneling and vases of peach roses with gold. I peered outside. A sleek white car was parked close by, the back door open. Tilly sat inside. Next to her was the third bridesmaid, a friend of Tilly’s named Valerie, who looked obscenely pretty in peach silk.
A huge bouquet of white and peach roses lay in Tilly’s lap. Her french-manicured hand curled like a flower into the veil gathered around her like a wispy cloud. She looked like a model out of the bridal magazines I’d bought months ago. I’d pored over them, tucking away ideas for my dream wedding, while Stan sprawled, beer in hand, in front of the TV watching football.
A sharply dressed photographer positioned himself close to Tilly and snapped pictures with a digital camera. “That’s it,” he murmured. “Tilt your head. Chin up a bit, love. Good. Now, if you and Valerie could smile for me…”
Sunshine streamed through the limo’s open door, softening Tilly’s flawless skin and making her ivory silk gown shimmer. The sequins decorating her train glittered like fairy dust.
She positively glowed, the light shining not only from the outside, but also from within. Tilly loved herself, despite her quirks and flaws. She adored the guy she was about to marry, and he cherished her.
Envy curled up within me like poison ivy.
Tilly glanced at the church door as if she felt my gaze. She smiled and waved to me.
I managed a wave back, trying to ignore the torment stabbing through me. It wasn’t my fault that I, being the oldest cousin, had always been expected to marry first.
It wasn’t my fault that at the ripe old age of twenty-nine, life had thrown a curve ball my way and knocked me on my butt without a man.
Without even a boyfriend, or the prospect of one.
I suddenly craved the cold, creamy, delicious depravity of Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch ice cream, a staple of my diet for the past several months. Okay, more than a staple—my culinary crutch. Mmm. Right now, I could snarf the whole carton in two minutes, flat. Why not add another pound to the extra ten around my belly and hips?
Knowing my rotten luck, I’d eat two gorgeous mouthfuls and drop the third on my dress. That unattractive, melted smear would be the perfect finishing touch for this nightmare gown.
“I, Jessica Devlin, am going to have a great vacation,” I said under my breath. “I will not wallow in the smelly cow pies of ex-fiancé dumpdom. I will return to Orlando a brand new Chicky Dee Jess.”
A burst of activity in the foyer caught my attention. Aunt Cleo hurried out of a side room carrying bouquets of peach and white roses tied with white ribbons. She handed one to Charlotte and my cousin Anna, whose spiky auburn hair and smart-girl glasses made her look way older than twenty-two.
Turning toward me, my aunt rushed over and pushed a slightly larger bouquet into my hands. “Here you are.” She patted my arm. “Smile, Jess.”
“I just hope I don’t mess up.” At that moment, more people stepped into the church and, in the flurry of “hellos,” she didn’t hear me.
I stared down at the pretty, perfect blooms. Oh God, I’d better not screw up. Maybe that’s why I felt so weird about this wedding. I was totally unprepared for today’s mission, in more ways than one.
My seventy-two-year-old Aunt Prim had picked me up at Gatwick airport—waited well over two hours for me, since my plane had landed late and my suitcase had taken forever to turn up. I’d stayed one night at her quaint London home, then we’d ended up in a six-hour traffic jam on our drive up to Hertfordshire last night. Aunt Prim had gripped the steering wheel and said “Bloody hell, we’ll never get there,” every thirty seconds. I’d had to pee sooo badly.
Aunt Prim had driven me straight to the wedding rehearsal and dinner, but I’d arrived very late. I didn’t even have a chance for a chin-wag with my aunt, uncle, and cousins to catch up on all their news. The groom and his buddies had already left for a rowdy night of pub-crawling. The priest had walked me back to the church and shown me what to do during the ceremony, but that wasn’t quite the same as a bona fide rehearsal.
Ugh. I did not want to embarrass Tilly on her day—the special day every woman dreamed of.
Oh, please, please, please. Let my bad luck vanish for the next twelve hours.
A high-pitched ringing noise filled my ears. Chicky Dee had never missed a step no matter how skinny her heels. I, however…
I suddenly imagined myself tripping and sailing into the air, my dress flying up around my face to reveal my white undies. With a loud, undignified shriek, I’d land facedown on the church aisle in a heap of ripped peach silk.
Wouldn’t that be lovely? Not!
I would not trip. I would not fall face first.
A boisterous rendition of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring started up inside the church. I glanced in. The pews were almost filled. I recognized Aunt Prim. She was impossible to miss, even from behind, her curly gray hair poking out from beneath her enormous white hat spattered with fuchsia, yellow, and pink flowers.
The groom, Andrew Castleton, a handsome guy with wavy blond hair, stood with his best man near the altar. Andrew clasped and unclasped his hands as if he couldn’t keep them still. Yup, I’d say he was nervous.
Anna and Charlotte moved to my side. When Andrew saw them, relief softened his features. He grinned, and I knew exactly what he was thinking: Tilly, the woman I love, is here.My cousins giggled and nodded.
My attention shifted to the best man. Mmm. Tall, broad-shouldered—
Oh. My. God!
My heart jolted like I’d just stuck my pinkie into an electrical outlet.
Nick Mondinello. The man my cousins had whispered about years ago. Sex God. Playboy. Heartbreaker.
He still looked like a younger version of Pierce Brosnan, the actor who’d starred in a couple of James Bond movies. Nick wore his dark hair shorter now and spiked with gel. He filled out his tailored gray suit very, very nicely.
Memories whooshed through my mind. The day after Grandpa George’s funeral. The Creaky Wicket Pub. The potted plant. Heat flooded my face, hotter than if I had yanked open an oven set to broil.
Aaahhh! How could my mind torture me at a time like this?
Nick glanced at me. Vines seemed to have snaked up from the carpet and locked around my ankles. The heels of my sandals felt rooted to the floor. The murmurs and music around me faded into a weird, twilight-zone buzz.
I forced my lips into a stiff, polite smile and adjusted my sweaty-handed hold on my bouquet. It would be just my luck to drop the pretty arrangement on the floor and turn it into a mangled hodgepodge.
Nick looked at someone on the other side of the church, and I exhaled noisily.
Then he looked at me again. He squinted, as though he was trying to place me. Maybe he was wondering why I was blushing so fiercely.
Severe sunburn. Hot flushes. Woman’s stuff.
I hadn’t blushed like this on my first date.
I held the roses tighter to my chest. Thank goodness the big bouquet would draw attention away from my boobs.
My face burned. Scorched, more like it. Embarrassing now, but not quite as mortifying as what I’d done two years ago.
Glancing away from Nick, I watched one of the ushers escort Aunt Cleo to a front pew, where she sat beside Aunt Prim.
I felt acutely alert, as if I was a taut spring, about to uncoil with a loud poing like a jack-in-the-box.
Was Nick still looking at me?
I struggled to quiet the desperate squeak rising in my throat. Maybe I was worrying for nothing. Maybe Nick didn’t even remember what had happened.
He’d been drinking that night. We all had. Some of us—specifically moi—a lot more than others.
I dared a glance. Nick nodded in response to something Andrew said. A smile curved Nick’s mouth.
Hushed voices along with the whisper of silk came from behind me. Valerie, Tilly, and my uncle had entered the church.
My belly squeezed tight. Any moment now, the ceremony would begin.
Dread shivered through me.
A countdown began ticking in my head.
Oh no. In the recessional, I would have to walk arm in arm with Nick. Help!
Butterflies swooped in my stomach. My hands felt coated in olive oil. The ushers led the last of the guests to their pews.
When the guys returned, the organist paused for a moment then struck up a vibrant march.
The “Wedding March.”
Ping. The moment of truth was upon me.
I hadn’t prayed in months. But as the ushers began a slow walk up the aisle, I prayed I didn’t trip, stumble, or make a fool of myself.
Not in front of Tilly and my relatives.
Not in front of gorgeous Nick Mondinello.
Anna, Charlotte, and Valerie lined up ahead of me to begin their graceful stroll up the aisle. As I drew a deep breath, Nick’s gaze locked with mine.
He was still smiling.
In that moment, I knew without the teeniest bit of doubt.