Authors: Shirlee McCoy
“Charlotte . . .” Max stepped between her and the door, his expression soft and easy, his eyes deep midnight blue. He shouldn't have been a nice guy. Not with his looks and his reputation, but she was starting to think he was one, and that could prove a very dangerous thing.
“It's late, Max. You need to get back to Zuzu.” She tried to get him moving, but he didn't seem eager to step out of the way.
“What are you running from, Charlotte?” he asked.
“I'm not running.”
“Could have fooled me.” He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, traced a line from there to her temple and the scar she'd had for so many years she'd almost forgotten how she'd gotten it.
But it was hard to forget something that haunted her dreams.
“You took a pretty hard hit,” Max murmured, following the scar with his finger. She could have stepped back, but she didn't. It felt so good to be touched, and it had been so long since anyone had bothered, that she let herself stay right where she was....
THE HOUSE ON MAIN STREET
THE COTTAGE ON THE CORNER
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
The worst day of the year.
The worst day of
Usually Charlotte Garrison spent it with a box of tissues and a bagful of mini Reese's. If she were feeling particularly sappy, she rented a romantic movie and watched it on her two-decades-old TV.
No need for that today.
She had a real live romance to watch.
Cade Cunningham and Tessa McKenzie's wedding was the most talked about event in Apple Valley, Washington, since Miriam and Daniel Riley had married over a hundred years before. The happy couple had asked Charlotte to make the wedding cake. If she hadn't loved them both so much, she'd have said no. But she did love them, and she hadn't been able to open her mouth and say what she should.
That was Charlotte's problem. One of her
problems. She loved the people in her life, and she'd do anything for them. As long as it wasn't illegal or immoral. Which . . . when it had come to her husband . . . had proven to be a problem.
“Do not even go there,” she murmured.
The nineteen-year-old kid working salad prep at the counter a few feet away smiled quizzically.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing.” She placed the last sugar flower on the five-tier cake. White on white to go along with the Victorian Christmas theme that Tessa had chosen for the wedding. The cake was beautiful, every flower sparkling with shimmery powder. Anemone for unfading love. Bluebells for constancy. Lavender for devotion. Violet for faithfulness.
Such fanciful Victorian ideas.
She'd have snorted, but Town Hall's oversized kitchen was nearly bursting at the seams with people preparing Tessa and Cade's catered buffet. The last thing she wanted to do was give any of them reason to talk about her.
Not that people weren't
Charlotte and Cade had dated shortly after she'd moved to Apple Valley. It had been a moment of weakness on her part. She'd been new to the area and wavering in her conviction that being single was the best thing a woman could ever do for herself. Cade had asked her to dinner. She'd said yes.
Two very nice dates later, they decided that they'd be better suited as friends than they would be as lovers. That had worked out well since Tessa had returned to Apple Valley to care for her nephew Alex a couple of months later. It had taken Cade all of two minutes to fall for his childhood friend. It had taken Tessa a little longer, but she'd eventually realized how inevitable their love was.
At least that's what the blue-haired ladies said when they met at the diner every Thursday morning. Charlotte heard their whispered gossip when she delivered muffins and Danishes. They loved to try to pull her into it, but she wasn't big on gossip.
Besides, while they were all talking about how perfect the couple was for each other, she was secretly worrying that things wouldn't work out and that her friends would be disappointed, hurt, betrayed.
She wanted a lot more than that for them. Tessa and Cade deserved their happiness. Personally, she'd had her shot at happily ever after. It had been more like a nightmare than a dream come true.
But that was another story for another time.
Tonight she was going to roll the cake out into the reception hall and hightail it back to her little house. She'd park herself on the love seat she'd bought from Tessa's antique store, read a book, eat Reese's, and wait for the twenty-seventh to turn into the twenty-eighth.
“That cake about done, doll?” Gertrude McKenzie walked into the kitchen, her bright orange hair curled to within an inch of its life. Forty minutes ago she'd walked Tessa down the aisle, her sturdy white shoes peeking out from beneath a floor-length pink skirt, her face softer than Charlotte had ever seen it. Now she looked ready to party, the Victorian-style gown she'd worn to the ceremony exchanged for a short fuchsia dress that hit just above her knobby knees. “'Cause the crowd has eaten every one of those fancy appetizers Rylie made, and we're about ready to move into the reception hall.”
“I just finished,” Charlotte replied, stepping aside so Gertrude could see the cake.
“Wow!” she said. “Just . . . wow! You've outdone yourself, Charlie.”
“Think they'll like it?”
“Like it?” Gertrude exclaimed. “They're going to love it! Come on, let's get it out there. Tessa is insisting on tossing the bouquet before we eat. You don't want to miss that.”
Actually she did.
The last thing she wanted to do was stand in a crowd of clawing, jostling women, all of them bent on being the next Mrs. Somebody. Been there. Done that. Had the heartache to prove it.
She rolled the cake into the reception hall. Tables had been set up, a fire stoked in the oversized fireplace. Still a month out from Christmas, but the place had been decorated with white Christmas lights and pine boughs. Each of the twenty tables had been set with ivory linens, white candles, and a single pink rose.
“Right over here, Charlie!” Event planner Martha Wright-Randolph called. Thirty, with a fake smile and perfectly highlighted hair, she'd married Henderson Randolph the year she'd turned twenty-five. He'd been ninety and, according to people who'd been in Apple Valley back then, had died trying to keep up with his young bride.
Martha had inherited a million dollars, a house, and forty acres just outside of town. Charlotte could have done a lot with an inheritance like that. Purchased a storefront, bought new baking equipment, put new windows in her house.
Martha had apparently spent her money on clothes, cars, and brand-new double Ds. Now she was on the hunt again. The sapphire-blue dress she'd squeezed her curves into was designed to let every man in the vicinity know it.
Charlotte pushed the cake to the spot Martha indicated.
“Perfect,” Martha cooed. “Just perfect.”
“This event will be the talk of the town for generations to come.” Martha cut her off. Apparently it wasn't Charlotte's cake she thought was perfect. “I can't believe that I've pulled it off.”
“You're a one-woman marvel, Martha,” Charlotte replied without even a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
Martha's eyes narrowed, her Botox-filled forehead nearly rupturing with the need to wrinkle into dozens of frown lines. “What's that supposed to mean?”
“Just that the reception hall looks lovely. The historical society did a great job decorating it last night.” Led by Cade's grandmother, Ida Cunningham, the committee had cleaned and polished the tables the local boys' club had brought in, set up the chairs, put out the decorations. They'd been there for hours while Charlotte worked in the kitchen.
As far as Charlotte knew, all Martha had done was stand in the corner barking orders.
She decided against pointing that out.
direction,” Martha huffed, her sleek chignon vibrating with the force of her indignation. “My design ideas. My sense of style.”
“It's lovely,” Charlotte conceded. Mostly because she didn't want to rile the woman up during Tessa and Cade's wedding.
“I'm glad we see things the same way.” Martha glanced at her gold watch. “I'd better get people moving in this direction. We're on a pretty tight schedule.”
Charlotte wasn't sure what schedule that was. Cade and Tessa were going on their official honeymoon during Tessa's nephew Alex's spring break. They
going away for a couple of nights, but they were driving. There was no limo waiting to take them to the airport, no flight to catch. The wedding reception would probably go on into the wee hours of the morning.
Charlotte would be sound asleep by then.
She hadn't been sleeping well the last few weeks. This time of year she never did. Too many memories. Some of them wonderful. Some of them not. All of them tainted by what Brett had done.
She grabbed her coat from the closet near the front door and slipped outside before any of the wedding guests made it into the reception hall. It was quiet there. Everyone who was anyone in the community was inside with the bride and groom. She'd parked at the far edge of the lot, her old station wagon squeezed in between a snazzy sports car and a Toyota sedan. She hurried to it, trying to swallow down the hard lump of sadness in her throat. It didn't matter how much she told herself he didn't deserve it, she always spent the anniversary of Brett's death on the verge of tears.
“Charlotte! Hold up!” someone shouted.
She kept right on going, because she knew the voice and had no intention of stopping to chat with Max Stanford. Not when she was so close to tears.
“I know you heard me,” he called. “And since you're not nearly as rude as I am, you may as well stop. If you don't, you'll spend the rest of the night feeling guilty for not doing it.”
She hesitated with her hand on the station wagon door.
Darn the man for being right.
rude, and she didn't make a habit of ignoring people.
There was a first time for everything, though, and this was going to be it.
She unlocked the station wagon and slid behind the wheel.
Max grabbed the door before she could close it, bending down so they were eye to eye. He had midnight-blue irises, thick golden lashes, and the kind of movie-star-handsome face that made women swoon.
“Maybe I was wrong about your capacity for rudeness, Charlotte,” he said dryly.
“What do you want, Max?” she asked. Not a date. He'd asked her out once. She'd said no. As irreverent as the man could be, he knew how to take no for an answer.
His dark blue gaze dropped from her face to the front of the dove gray sheath dress she'd bought for the occasion. “You.”
“Forget it.” She tried to yank the door from his grasp, but the man had more muscle than any human being had a right to.
“For the flower toss,” he continued, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He had a nice mouth. Firm full lips with a tiny scar at the left corner.
She looked away. “You mean the bouquet toss?”
“Whatever it is the bride does. Tessa asked me to get you.”
“Tell her I went home.”
“But you didn't,” he said reasonably, snagging her hand and tugging her out of the car. “You went to your car, and now you're going back inside to participate in the festivities.”
From the way he said the last word, Charlotte got the distinct impression that Max was as excited about the reception as she was.
“Sorry,” she said. “But I'm not. It's been a long day, and I'm ready to go home.”
“And disappoint Tessa on her big day? Would you really do that to a friend?” His thumb ran across her wrist as he spoke. An unconscious gesture, Charlotte knew, but it reminded her of things she'd rather forget. Things that could get a woman into a world of trouble if she let them.
She pulled away, wiped her palm on her skirt. “She won't even know I'm missing.”
“Then why'd she send me to find you?”
She couldn't think of an answer.
No matter how hard she tried.
And God knew she was trying.
“Fine,” she finally said. “If it means that much to Tessa, I'll go stand in the group of desperate single women and wait for the stupid flowers to be tossed.”
“You sound bitter.”
She ignored the comment as she walked back across the parking lot. She wasn't bitter, but at some point in her life, she was going to have to learn how to say no. Loudly and with feeling.
Unfortunately, sometime was not
time. For Tessa's sake, she was going to squeeze herself into the pack and pretend that she actually wanted to catch the bouquet.
She'd rather catch a basket of vipers.
But that was just her.
She jogged up the porch stairs, the sound of piano music drifting from inside. Alex Riley, she'd bet. Tessa's nephew had a gift for music. After his parents' deaths, he'd struggled to communicate, autism preventing him from connecting in typical ways. Music was his language, and he used it well. From the sound of the music, she'd say the wedding had made him happy.
She was glad, but she still didn't want to go back inside.
“You going to stand there all night?” Max asked, his breath ruffling the hair at her nape as he leaned past and opened the door. He nudged her forward, and half a dozen people swooped in. Martha in the lead.
“There you are! Tessa is absolutely refusing to toss the bouquet without you. If we don't hurry, the food will get cold. Come on.” She snagged her arm and dragged her toward the banquet room.
Tessa was there, resplendent in a vintage lace gown, her red hair pulled back, her face flushed with happiness. She saw Charlotte and smiled. “I see Max completed his mission.”
“I never had any doubt that he would,” Martha cooed, shooting the man in question what was probably supposed to be a beguiling smile.
“Thanks for your vote of confidence, Marti,” Max drawled, giving her a once-over that would have made Charlotte blush.
Martha preened. “How about you thank me with a dance?” she asked. “First, though, the bouquet toss.”
A cheer went up, dozens of happy women jockeying for position. Widows. Divorcees. Singles. Teens. Couples crowded around as Tessa positioned herself at the far end of the room, Cade a few feet away. He looked happy and content. Charlotte wanted so much for this to work for him and for Tessa. If she could have willed it to be so, she would have, but all she could do was hope and pray that they'd make a lifetime of beautiful memories together.
Cade must have felt Charlotte's gaze. He glanced her way and winked. She returned the gesture.
“No flirting with the groom,” Max murmured near her ear.