A December Bride (A Year of Weddings Novella)

BOOK: A December Bride (A Year of Weddings Novella)
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A December Bride

A Y
EAR
OF
W
EDDINGS
N
OVELLA

DENISE HUNTER

Acknowledgments

I
’m so grateful for the fabulous team at HarperCollins Christian Fiction, led by publisher Daisy Hutton: Ansley Boatman, Katie Bond, Amanda Bostic, Sue Brower, Ruthie Dean, Laura Dickerson, Jodi Hughes, Ami McConnell, Becky Monds, Becky Philpot, Kerri Potts, and Kristen Vasgaard. Thank you for giving me the honor of launching this novella series.

Thanks especially to my editor, Ami McConnell. Woman, you are a wonder! I’m constantly astounded by your gift of insight. I don’t know of a more talented line editor than LB Norton. You make me look much better than I am!

Author Colleen Coble is my first reader. Thank you, friend! I wouldn’t want to do this writing thing without my buds and fellow authors, Colleen Coble, Diann Hunt, and Kristin Billerbeck. Love you, girls!

I’m grateful to my agent, Karen Solem, who is able to
somehow make sense of the legal garble of contracts and, even more amazing, help me understand it.

To my family: Kevin, Justin, Chad, and Trevor. You make life an adventure! Love you all!

Lastly, thank you, friend, for letting me share this story with you. If you enjoy
A December Bride
, be sure and check out
Barefoot Summer
to read Madison and Beckett’s story!

I’ve enjoyed connecting with readers like you through my Facebook page. Visit my website at the link
www.DeniseHunterBooks.com
or just drop me a note at
[email protected]
. I’d love to hear from you!

One

L
ayla O’Reilly squeezed into a corner of the bustling kitchen of Cappy’s Pizzeria and leaned into the receiver.

“No, no, no. You cannot cancel on me now. The wedding’s in five hours.
Five hours
, Cooper.” She wound the spiral cord around her fist, a sweat breaking out on her forehead.

“Layla, I—”

“Don’t even tell me you have to work. I asked you over a month ago. You said you got the night off.”

“If you’d just let me talk. I have
strep
, Layla. I’m contagious. I have to be on an antibiotic for at least twenty-four hours before—”

“I’ll risk it.” She didn’t care if he had malaria. She was going to this wedding, and she was going with a date. Nothing said
See, I’ve moved on
like an attractive man draped on your arm.

“I feel like trash. I have a 102-degree fever and barbed wire in my throat.”

Layla took a deep breath, the familiar aromas of garlic and oregano filling her nose. She couldn’t believe this was happening. “Now that you mention it, you don’t sound so good.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know tonight’s a big deal.”

She closed her eyes. “It’s not your fault. The strep or the wedding.” She banged the receiver against her temple once, twice, three times. “I’ll bring you chicken soup tomorrow.”

“My sister’s already on it; don’t worry about it. What are you going to do about tonight?”

“I don’t know.”

“Just don’t go. You don’t need them.”

“My whole family will be there.”

“This isn’t about your family and you know it,” he said. “This is about you having something to prove.”

She knotted her fist around the cord. Nothing stung as long and hard as betrayal. “Shut it, Cooper.”

“You know I’m right.”

Olivia passed with a tray, nodding her head toward the back. Layla followed the direction of her nod. Cappy’s bald head gleamed under the kitchen lights. He gave Layla a pointed look.

“I have to go. I’m in the middle of lunch rush.”

She took two orders, working on automatic as her mind filtered through the possibilities. She had to find someone and quick. On her break she made a few calls. No luck.

Think, Layla.

She tidied her long brown ponytail before exiting the
break room. She had two and a half more hours of work, one hour to get ready, and a half-hour drive to Louisville. Feeling desperate, she scanned Cappy’s. The new busboy, David, wasn’t bad looking, and he was always smiling at her. She hadn’t encouraged him because he was four years younger, but no one would know. Besides, desperate times and all that.

A few minutes later she walked away from David even more depressed. He was scheduled till closing. Worse, her invitation had encouraged him.

“You okay?” Olivia asked as she passed.

“Yeah, fine.”

“Well, order’s up for table four, and a family was just seated at five.”

“Thanks.” Layla grabbed the order from the heat lamp—a personal Whole Shebang—and headed toward four, her mind in overdrive.

She was tableside before she saw him. Seth Murphy recognized her at the same time. He pocketed his iPhone without taking his blue eyes off her.

“Layla,” he said in that deep voice of his.

She tipped her chin up, set the pizza down, and didn’t bother serving the first slice. “Murphy.”

What was he doing here? At her station? Not that he had any way of knowing that. “Don’t you have a wedding to be at?” She clamped her lips shut before anything else leaked out.

He checked his watch, a casual number with a big face and lots of dials. “Few hours.” He opened his mouth again, then wisely shut it.

She spun around to table five before he could ask her the same. She felt Murphy’s eyes on her back as she took the order, making heat flood the back of her neck. She didn’t run into him much—didn’t exactly travel in the same circles. But when she did, it was awkward. No one knew better than Murphy how badly Jack had hurt her. And no one, save Jack and Jessica, was more responsible.

She brought table five their drinks and delivered the bill to a couple squeezed into one side of a two-seater booth. She briefly considered ignoring Murphy’s empty glass, but her conscience kicked in.

A minute later she set down a fresh Mountain Dew and ripped the bill from the tab. Normally she didn’t leave it this early, but Murphy wasn’t her normal customer. It was hard to be close to him again. To stay angry at him.

“Can I get you anything else?”

He leaned back against the red vinyl booth. The light from the overhead pendant washed over his features in a flattering way. He’d always reminded her of Ryan Gosling, especially when he wasn’t wearing that infernal Murphy’s Hardware cap.

He opened his mouth and shut it again. She was so tired of being tiptoed around. By him. By everyone.

She pulled herself to her full five feet six and tossed her ponytail over her shoulder. “Go ahead.”

He blinked. “What?”

“Go ahead and ask.”

His gaze dropped to the half-eaten slice on his plate. He hadn’t shaved yet. The five o’clock shadow only made him more handsome. “Layla …”

“Yes, I’m going to the wedding. Yes, I’m over him. And yes, I’m happy for my cousin. That about cover it?”

His eyes drifted to hers again. It was all she could do to hold his gaze. He had a way of looking at her that made her feel like he was seeing all the way inside. She hadn’t seen that gaze since the summer they painted sets at the community theater. She’d liked it then. Now, not so much.

“I’m glad,” he said. “You deserve …” He struggled to fill in the blank.

She didn’t need his take on that anyway. She slapped the bill facedown. “Have a nice afternoon, Murphy.”

Her heart was beating too fast as she spun away. Her legs trembled as she made her way to the kitchen. If seeing Murphy had this effect, what would tonight be like? Seeing Jack and Jessica exchanging vows, kissing, dancing?

She didn’t have time to worry about her feelings. She still needed a date, and the clock was ticking. She’d exhausted her contact list. She scanned the restaurant again as she carried out an order. A group of guys she didn’t know had gathered around the pool table in the back room. Married couples and families filled the restaurant. She scanned the kitchen again. Three males. David, Cappy, and a man old enough to be her grandfather.

Come on, God, a little help here.

Her eyes fell on Murphy as she set down a medium pepperoni at the next table and began serving slices.

No. Absolutely not. For reasons too numerous to mention.

She gave a mechanical smile to the couple and went for more refills. Maybe he was single. And yes, attractive. But
he was also a friend of Jack’s. She was surprised he wasn’t in the wedding, but then Jessica had probably insisted that Jack choose her brothers.

She looked out the tinted window to the snowy landscape. Fat snowflakes drifted to the white carpet. It was beautiful, she had to admit. Perfect day for a winter wedding. If things had gone differently, it might have been
her
day.

A loud slurp drew her eyes to Murphy’s table. He set his empty cup down and took another bite of his pizza.

Fine. One more refill.

A minute later she set the drink on Murphy’s table and turned to go.

“Layla …” He touched her arm. “Wait.”

His touch sent a jolt of something through her. His fingers still rested lightly there. She turned, raising her brows.

“Do you … need a ride? To the wedding? The roads are getting bad.”

She stared into his eyes. He had a way of catching her completely off guard. Always had. Even back when they’d been friends, back before she and Jack had gotten together.

“I mean—you probably have a date …”

“I did. Two hours ago. Cooper came down with strep.”

He scratched his neck. “I’m going alone, so …”

“Oh.”

Was this the answer? Was God sending her the most unlikely of lifelines?

And the real question: was she really that desperate?

Sadly, she knew the answer to that one.

“So,” he said.

She shifted her weight. “Yeah, thanks. A ride would be great.”

Something flickered in his eyes, but it was gone before she could guess what it was.

“Pick you up at five thirty?”

“Sure.” Layla turned away before she could reconsider. Before she could wonder why her knees were knocking too hard to hold her upright.

Showing up at her ex-fiancé’s wedding with Murphy was infinitely better than showing up alone. Wasn’t it?

Two

S
eth inched forward in the receiving line, glancing covertly at Layla. Her generous lips were set into a brittle smile, her moss-green eyes flashed with some emotion. She hadn’t so much as flinched during the ceremony. Maybe she really was over Jack.

When they moved forward again, she stepped closer to him, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow. He pulled her into his side, his heart shooting warning signals to his brain.
This has nothing to do with you.

Layla had hardly looked at him since they’d left Chapel Springs except to shoot him disdainful looks. He couldn’t seem to say anything right. Even when he’d complimented her appearance—and he’d meant every word—she’d twisted his words.

They moved forward. Jack was now just inches away. Jack, his former best friend. They were still friends, but it wasn’t the same. Jack had changed as he’d moved up in
the world. The old Jack never would’ve treated a woman so callously.

“Murphy.” Jack reached out for a one-arm hug. “Thanks for coming, man.”

“Congratulations, you two.”

The groom’s eyes drifted to Layla, widening slightly at the sight of her on Seth’s arm. He recovered quickly, leaning in for a shoulder hug. “Layla. Thank you for coming.”

As Layla pulled away from Jack, her hand tightened to a death grip on Seth’s arm.

“Layla!” Jessica greeted her cousin with a plastic smile and leaned in for a kiss that didn’t quite meet Layla’s cheek.

“Jess. Congratulations.” There was no sign of anxiety in her even tone. “You look lovely.”

“Thank you! It took
forever
to find this dress.” Her eyes swept down Layla and back up again. “Oh my gosh. I used to have a dress just like that. Mom finally gave it to Goodwill, but I just loved it.”

Seth inched away, tugging Layla with him. “We should move on. We’ll catch you at the reception.”

As soon as they rounded the corner, Layla pulled away. Her shoulders set, she walked stiffly, her heels clicking on the hallway tile. There was no sign of distress on her face, save her clenched jaw.

“You’re doing great,” he said.

She shot him a look as they exited the church and remained quiet on the ride to the reception, which was being held at an elegant hall a few miles away.

After finding a table, Layla made the rounds with her family. Seth had offered to go with her, but got only a hard
look in return. There was no question she blamed him for all this. But he’d never meant for it to happen. Would never have hurt Layla intentionally.

It had started when he’d intercepted a call from Jessica, whose car had broken down on the highway. How could he possibly have known when he sent Jack after her where it would lead? And in the coming weeks, when Jack had mentioned Jessica in passing, he’d thought nothing of it. In retrospect Seth could see he’d been a little slow on the uptake. And Layla blamed him for not warning her. Or maybe she blamed him for getting the ball rolling. Probably both.

He watched her now, peeling away from her great-aunts. Even with the fake smile, she was the most beautiful woman in the room, with her long dark hair, flawless skin, and wide green eyes. She was long-legged, with curves in all the right places. But that wasn’t why she’d dug so deeply under his skin. No, it was her feisty spirit that drew him most. The way her eyes sparked with emotion. The way she stood up for herself and those she cared about. Layla was flat-out amazing.

And Jessica knew it too. That’s why she jabbed at her cousin every chance she got. That comment in the receiving line had made him want to shake the spoiled woman. Watching Layla now, he had a feeling things hadn’t gone any better with her aunts.

She was finishing what appeared to be a pleasant conversation with her dad; her brother, Beckett; and Beckett’s fiancée, Madison. A moment later Layla passed by him, stopping at the open bar several feet away.

“Mr. Malcolm, good to see you,” she said.

Stanley Malcolm extended his hand. “You too, ah …”

“Layla O’Reilly. I stopped into your office awhile back.”

“Right, right. Nice to see you again.”

Layla had recently started staging homes for sale. Seth had heard good things about her decorating skills, but she was still part-time at Cappy’s, so he wondered if she was struggling to get her business off the ground.

Layla’s body language exuded confidence as she spoke with Stanley. Good for her. Malcolm Realty specialized in the high-end historical homes in their region. Stanley could put her enterprise on the map. Layla handed him a business card, and he stuck it in the pocket of his suit coat.

Daniel Dawson, the very young mayor of Chapel Springs, approached them, extending his hand to Stanley. The broker turned from Layla to give Daniel his full attention.

Layla’s smile fell away. Her hands floundered in the air a moment.

“Hello, Seth.” Marsha Marquart appeared in front of him, blocking his view.

He stood and shook her hand. “Mrs. Marquart, good to see you.”

“You haven’t forgotten about Silent Night, have you?”

“Of course not.” In a weak moment this summer she’d talked him into participating in the annual tour of homes the weekend before Christmas.

“I can’t wait to see what you come up with.” She patted his shoulder. “Have a lovely evening.”

As she walked away, he wished for the dozenth time he’d turned her down. Decorating his old house was going to bite. He possessed exactly one boxful of Christmas decorations and zero decorating skills.

A commotion sounded at the front of room as the bride and groom made their entry. Layla returned to the table as the couple began their first dance. She said little to Seth through the toasts and dinner, chatting mostly with the others at the table. Beckett and Madison sat at Layla’s other side, keeping her engaged.

As soon as the orchestra struck up a tune, Madison dragged Beckett onto the dance floor. Layla continued picking at her food. A curly wisp of hair had come loose from her updo, kissing the side of her face. Seth longed to brush it behind her ear, to feel the silky smoothness of her skin under the pad of his thumb. He clenched his fist before he followed through and got his hand smacked away.

He could only imagine what she was feeling. This must be the longest night of her life. “We can leave anytime you want.”

She set her fork down. “We have to stay until they cut the cake.”

Must be some kind of rule. The band struck up a new tune. An old Frank Sinatra song. More couples headed to the floor.

“Would you like to dance?”

She arched a delicate brow. “With you?”

He reached for his drink. “I’ll take that as a no.”

“Feel free to ask someone else, Murphy.”

He wasn’t leaving her now, even if he wanted to dance with someone else—and he didn’t. Jack and Jessica were making the rounds, only one table away now. He could tell Layla had noticed by the way she punished the napkin in her lap.

“You can call me Seth, you know.”

She shrugged.

“You used to.” She used to do other things with him too. Like laugh and touch and make small talk.

“Jack always called you Murphy. I got used to it.”

The other two couples slid away from their table to join the growing throng on the dance floor.

“So your house is in the Tour of Homes?” Layla asked a moment later.

“How’d you—”

“I overheard your conversation with Marsha.”

“Ah. Yes, unfortunately, I succumbed to the pressure.”

“Why unfortunately?”

He gave her a wry smile. “I’m pretty clueless when it comes to decorating. I don’t even have—” An idea occurred. A pretty brilliant one. “You wouldn’t be interested in helping me out …”

Her lips turned down. Her eyes dimmed as she turned away.

“I could pay you—”

“Hey, cuz!” Jessica sidled up beside them.

The four of them reconnected, their greetings as artificially sweetened as a can of Diet Coke.

“So are you guys, ah, together?” Jack asked.

Jessica swatted his shoulder. “Oh, honey, I’m sure they’re not actually
together.
Layla’s not his type.”

Her implication was clear. Seth would never date a low-life like Layla. Never mind that her groom had.

Seth reached for Layla’s hand, closing it around her clenched fist. “Actually, we are.”

“You don’t mean dating …” The disbelief on Jessica’s face made Seth want to shake her again.

His gaze toggled to Layla. “Yes, dating.”

Jessica gave an unladylike snort and looked at Seth like he was missing a screw. “Seriously?”

“Jessica …” That was Jack’s lame attempt to rein in his bride.

Layla’s nose flared and her eyes flashed. Her lips parted.

Seth knew that look. “Engaged, actually.”

Layla’s head spun toward him.

“Just recently,” Seth said, leaning in conspiratorially. “We haven’t told anyone yet.”

A moment of silence was punctuated by the pain of Layla’s nails digging into his palm.

Jessica scowled, her eyes toggling between them and resting on Seth. “You are not engaged.”

“Wow.” A genuine grin spread across Jack’s face. “Just … wow. Congratulations, guys. What a … wow.”

“Jack, stop it,” Jessica said. “There’s no way he’s marrying
Layla.

The way she said Layla’s name brought Seth an inch off his chair.

Jessica’s eyes narrowed. “When?” Her tone challenged.

“Christmas Eve.” Pain radiated from his palm.

“That’s so great,” Jack said. “Wow.”

Jessica’s maid of honor approached and said something in her ear before walking away.

“Duty calls,” Jessica said, looking between them with a frown marring her perfectly made-up face. Then she seemed to shake it off. “It’s cake-cutting time, baby.” She planted a kiss on Jack’s lips and gave Layla a syrupy smile. “We’ll chat later, cuz.”

Layla jerked her hand from Murphy’s. “What. Have you. Done.”

Murphy took a swig of his drink. His face gave nothing away. Maybe his eyes would, but he wouldn’t look at her. And no wonder. He’d just announced their engagement to her ex-fiancé and the cousin he’d betrayed her with.

“Murphy.”

He set his drink down. A shadow flickered across his clean-shaven jaw. He ran his hand over his face. Finally his eyes drifted to hers. “I couldn’t help it.”

“You couldn’t
help
it?”

“She was being awful. And you were about to go off on her, don’t tell me you weren’t.”

“So you told them we’re
engaged
?”

He flinched. “I didn’t mean for it to go that far.”

“Well it did!”

“She didn’t believe it.”

“Well
he
did!” Hadn’t Murphy seen Jack’s big ol’ smile? Heard the hearty congratulations? She’d never seen him so relieved.

“It’ll … blow over.”

Layla stared at him, speechless. Something like this did not “blow over.”

“Stop looking at me like that.”

“Like you’re crazy?” Layla drew a deep breath. Exhaled. She was vaguely aware of the activity around the cake table. Words being said into a mike. Laughter.

“Look,” Murphy said. “It was an impulse. I’m sorry.”

“You gave them a wedding date. A wedding date that’s less than four weeks away.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll fix it.”

“How?”

“I’ll talk to him. I’ll pull him aside when he’s done up there. Explain.”

“Explain that you felt sorry for me and were trying to make me look less pathetic?”

His eyes softened. “Nobody thinks that. I’ll tell him the truth. That Jessica set me off with her … cosmetically engineered nose stuck up in the air like it always is.”

“I don’t think that’s going to help.” She took a sip of her drink. “Though I’d like to see Jack’s face when you say it.”

He looked at her, those blue eyes like a direct laser. “I’ll fix it, Layla. You have my word.”

“… and that’s why we’d like to make one more toast this evening,” Jack was saying into the mike.

Layla halfheartedly turned her attention to the front of the room and the elaborate cake the bride and groom had just fed each other.

Jack held up his glass, his eyes honing in on Layla and Murphy.

Layla stopped breathing. A niggle of dread wormed up her spine and settled heavily in her throat.

“To my good friends, Murphy and Layla. Happy engagement, you two. We’re very happy for both of you.”

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